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Almost Connecting: Al Schroeder Interviews B. Duffy

B. Duffy of Eight To One has chronicled the often bleak and yet often engrossing lives of people who want to connect to their feelings for each other - and yet somehow can't. However, he connected with us in an interview...

Okay. What does your title mean? Why Eight to One? Are we talking odds? Dimensions of paper? What?

Eight to One ran for a year in my college newspaper without a title and without a byline. The following fall my editor decided it would make sense for all the cartoons (there were three at the time) to be titled. I agreed with her. So one night I was sitting around with two friends of mine on the front porch of a dorm none of us lived in when one of my friends suggested I call it Eight to One. He had three meanings for the name: Eight minutes to one o'clock, which in college means it's time to go to class; The length of a day in college, where you wake up at eight in the morning and go to sleep at one in the morning (ideally); and as you guessed, having the odds against you. The runner-up was Han's Pipedream, which my other friend suggested, Han being the fellow who suggested I call it Eight to One. So I turned in my first strip that fall with the title "8 to 1" on top of it. When it got printed the following Friday, the editor decided to spell it "8:1." At first I was kinda pissed, but five minutes later I thought, "Actually, it looks kinda cool like that."

The old meanings mean less now that I'm out of college, but the best and most fitting explanation of the name comes from Chris Nititham of End of Things: "Losing the game of life. And it's a blowout."

I love your expressive black-and-white artwork, your character design - Charles looks exactly like the alienated, bleak, unable-to-express-his-emotions person he is. Who influenced you... artistically?

Easily the person who's influenced my drawing the most is my college drawing professor, Connie Wells. She's this tiny ball of energy, this tough, four foot tall, seventy five pound wire of a Texan who had no problems telling you what you're doing wrong and exactly how wrong you're doing it. She made a lot of students cry, and in more than one class some of the kids were talking about mutiny. I always loved her, though, because she made me work for every grade I got. Very good at drawing, too. I can understand what the other kids were saying, though, because she nagged incessantly to everyone about their tendencies and what you needed to work on in this high pitched Texas accent. For me, it was a tendency to draw too light. She beat on me for four years, telling me to get more athletic, more sure in my mark making, and finally I had these ugly dark drawings using black conte crayon, with wild marks all over the place. A lot of the technique doesn't translate well to ink, but the general aesthetic was greatly inspired by Connie, as was my sense of value range.

As for people whose work I admire, there are a few. Jhonen Vasquez was influential. The way he uses black and white really grabs you and sets a wonderful dark mood. He also has these unconventional panel designs that I obviously ripped off. Even if I've outgrown some of his stories, I still go back sometimes to see how he solves visual problems. R. Crumb taught me the magic and the tedium that is crosshatching. He has these amazing textures and a real sense of space that you just look at for hours completely in awe. Oftentimes while I'm working on a page I'll wish I'd never heard of Crumb, but the next day I'm always glad I put that much effort into the page.

Who influenced your storytelling style? (I know, I know, Daniel Clowes, especially his GHOST WORLD... who else?)

Actually, Clowes is really the only comic author that has had that much of an influence. Maybe Vasquez in earlier days, but not so much anymore. I'm not as avid a comic reader as I probably should be. My influences come from other places. Shakespeare, Salinger, Kesey, Daria, Cowboy Bebop.

This one might sound strange, but I learned a lot reading the film criticism of Roger Ebert. I've been reading him in the Chicago Sun Times for over ten years now. He's a great essayist and he has a way of seeing through the spectacle to find the subtleties of a film. His best reviews are when he goes on a tangent about art or life, going on about human nature and how people try their best to do what's right but often fail, completely forgetting he's talking about a particular movie. There are things that have been pounded into me in all that reading that I will likely never forget, like a plot is a lot more interesting when there's a character making it move, or how little throw away moments can reveal a lot about a person, or millions of other things that he's always harping about. I didn't even watch many of the movies I've read about, and I usually never intended to, but just the wealth of knowledge about how human beings worked that I got out of that reading is certainly more valuable than having something to talk about at cocktail parties. I got a lot out of high school English class, but I'd say that Roger Ebert is the primary influence of how I think of a story.

Lately I've been listening to National Public Radio a lot, especially a show called This American Life. It's basically an hour filled with a bunch of stories, mostly nonfiction but some fiction, that speak of the American experience. Obviously it's driven mostly by what people do and how they react to certain situations. It's fascinating how it goes into the specifics of each person's experience and speaks of situations that are so strange that you could never imagine going through them, but by doing this it shows how similar we all are, how we want a lot of the same things for ourselves and our loved ones. Basically I like to hear stories about people.

What should we know about you that you're willing to reveal? I know you're an art student, (or at least were recently) but past that...

Heh. Weird how I get this reputation of being a very private person who doesn't like to talk much.... don't know where it comes from.

I never know what's a relevant answer to such a question. Well, I actually graduated a couple years ago from Illinois Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college in central Illinois, with a degree in painting and drawing. I grew up the middle child of a Catholic family in a blue-collar suburb on the northwest side of Chicago. I now live in the city, trying to get an art career going.

Are these characters - Charles, Mary, Lori, etc. - based on real people? Is Charles, the artistic one, you? Who's your favorite character?

Heh heh. A good friend of mine is convinced that she's Mary. Which I guess isn't completely invalid, as she did shape Mary a good deal. No, I'm not Charles, and though we're similar in certain ways, we're definitely two different people. For instance, my head is not shaped like a football. It'd be pretty simple to say he's me, or that there's absolutely no relation, but in reality, it's more complex than that. I could probably name ten people that each of these characters are based off of. And I think that's really the only way to do it. We're greatly influenced by those around us, and when we're trying to get inside someone's head, it helps to have a firm idea of who that person is. In the end, they're all just me from a different perspective. Charles is me, but so is Mary. When I started college, I went in as an art and English double major. So when I came to this comic, I took these two characters and broke them into two versions of me. Charles being the more introverted and artistic one, Mary being more aggressive and literate. Lori showed up five years later as more of my straight-laced, optimistic side. Of course, there's only so far you can go basing characters off yourself, especially when you like to draw girls. So you throw in a few pieces of the people you know or characters from things you've read or seen, make some stuff up that seems to make sense. I basically try to get into that character's head, figure out where they're coming from and where they want to go, and the easiest way to do that is by thinking about what you'd do or what a friend of yours would do in a given situation.

I don't think anyone would be particularly surprised to learn Mary's my favorite. I think she's funny as hell. Smart as hell, too, without being really pretentious about it. She's the most wounded character in the comic, but she's probably the strongest. Despite what she's been through, she still gets up everyday and faces the world (well, on most days, anyway). She puts up this tough front and distances herself with her smart-ass comments and icy stare, but deep down she cares about the few people in her sphere and even human beings at large. She has an attitude that keeps others at bay, and some people would call that cowardly, but at least she takes a more realistic view of things, acknowledging the pain and suffering of life, instead of pretending it's not there. If she'd just lighten up a little, I think she'd be OK. But then I wouldn't have a comic.

What made you decide to do this as a webcomic? What is the best thing about doing it as a webcomic - and the worst thing?

The only reason Eight to One is on the web is because it's the easiest way to do it. It's cheap, I don't have to worry about distribution, I don't have to convince anyone else of it's worth before it goes out, and while I may not have a whole lot of readers, they are all over the world instead of concentrated in my neighborhood. The fact that I have readers in Serbia and in Malaysia is amazing to me. At the same time it can easily feel as if the only people who read my comic are other web-cartoonists. I guess if you're going into comics, you're gonna expect a narrow audience, but it seems a bit narrower on the web. The other thing is that there's this pressure to update on a set schedule, one page at a time, and that page needs to have some free-standing quality to it. Sometimes what I want to get across requires more than one page, and I feel that I have to have some sort of gag or profound statement on each page or I've failed. I oftentimes ignore that pressure, but it's still there.

Is music as important a part of your life as it is in your characters' lives? Who do you like to listen to?

Yeah, more of my money is wasted on CDs and concerts than just about anything else. I don't play an instrument myself but I've always believed that mega-corny line about rock n roll being able to save your life. Music has certainly gotten me through some rough periods when no one else was of any comfort. I'm often inspired by music, also. The other day I was in the car and a Depeche Mode song came on, and by the time it ended, I had a concept for a short comic with no dialogue. It wasn't the words so much as the sonics that really hit me, it was this sound that showed life honestly and unflinchingly, the pain standing right alongside the pleasure, that really struck me. Funny thing about it is that I'd heard the song a million times before and it only hit me in that way that one time. Music is like that. And now that I've revealed myself as being insufferably pretentious......

My music tastes are pretty apparent by the stuff they talk about in the comic. Punk, hip-hop, new wave, basically most of the stuff in the catch-all "alternative" genre. Some of it is fashionable-- Stars, Ted Leo, Common, The Arcade Fire etc. Some of it less so-- Coldplay, Pearl Jam, some others I'd rather not mention. And some of it's classic type stuff-- PJ Harvey, Wu-Tang Clan, The Ramones, New Order. Basically the kind of stuff that those seedy-looking people who hang out in record stores listen to.

Do you intend an overriding theme of Eight to One - drifting into alienation? Loneliness? The inability, despite the need, to connect? Or are these just random slices of life that resonate with you?

A little bit of both. I guess the idea is to follow these lives for a while, but they are lonely, wounded people, so inevitably it's going to be about all those things you've mentioned. The conflict is in how they deal with these issues, but I find it more interesting to go about it more like it happens in life. Yeah, you had a fight with your friend and you have to figure out what happened, how to fix it, and even if you want to fix it, but you still gotta go to work tomorrow and deal with the problems there. I try not to be so self-conscious with it, because that ends up bordering on after-school-special territory. And I guess that's just my style.

What are your plans for Eight to One? Would you like to publish this as a graphic novel someday? Do you have any sort of ending in mind, or just taking it as it comes?

You think someone would be interested in buying something like that? I don't know. I'd love to have Eight to One in book form. I don't really know how to make that sort of thing happen though. I've always been more of a creative mind than a business mind. So right now I'm just gonna keep putting out these pages and see what happens. As for the story, in a general sense I know what has to happen as far as a conclusion goes, but getting there is where all the questions come up. I'm ashamed to admit that I do very little scripting ahead of time, part of what makes me miss updates so often. But it ends up being a lot like life, where you do what you need to do at the time and hope it works out for the best. And if you find you've made a mistake, you try to put it behind you and deal with the consequences of that mistake. Probably not a great strategy for a comic, but it makes for an interesting process at the very least.

What are your other plans? Any more comics planned? Or do you have other projects you'd like to talk about?

I have other stories in my head that I need to put down on paper and see if they have any potential. I have this short story in my head about a guy who's really upset about people glossing over Thanksgiving in favor of Christmas. The guy's kind of a Crumbian antihero who really enjoys the pensive, introverted qualities to the autumn aesthetic, and is horrified when red and green dancing elves ringing golden bells march in a month early. There's this more serous thing that's longer involving a kid from Tennessee who decides to go to art school in a northern city. It'll have plenty of political and social commentary, but it'll of course chiefly be about how this guy navigates the socially polarized landscape of America, trying to find his place in the world. Right now, though, I'm thinking of doing a short series about a gun-toting hard-drinking nun and her misadventures with forty million dollars worth of drug money. You'll notice very little thematic similarity with Eight to One, and at this point that's what chiefly attracts me to the project. It'd be a work of complete absurdity, just something to blow off some steam that I don't have to take seriously at all. It'd also be nice to expand my horizons out of the territory that Clowes and Tomine have trodden upon so thoroughly. We'll see if I ever get up the guts to do it. Outside of that, I'm working on a ten-page comic with Jason Penckofer, who I've worked with before on two other short projects ("The Extraordinarily Unexceptional Life of Ernest Johnson," "Week") and a short Jenny Everywhere story with another friend of mine, who I made a feminist short film with back in college. The Jenny Everywhere story will hopefully run in a local magazine that's starting up called Skint, which is geared toward broke artists in the city. I also plan to get more serious about painting, and try to get into some shows.

Al Schroeder is a man of action! Mindmistress is a woman of action webcomics!