Nicholas Gurewitch of Perry Bible Fellowship on Marvel’s Strange Tales, the Impact of the Internet
If you've spent any time reading webcomics at all, you're probably familiar with Perry Bible Fellowship, a highly-lauded, whimsically twisted strip by Nicholas Gurewitch that ran online till early 2008, when it went on indefinite hiatus after winning Eisner, Ignatz and Web Cartoonist Choice Awards, not to mention the heart of the internet. Gurewitch has since been focusing on other projects, including film, animated shorts for the BBC, and several comics for Strange Tales, Marvel's anthology of superhero stories by indie creators, including one written by Gurewitch and drawn by Kate Beaton for Strange Tales II #3, out next Wednesday.
Gurewitch talked to ComicsAlliance about making comics for Marvel, why he took a step back from Perry Bible Fellowship, the occasionally pernicious impact of living on the internet, and why film is the medium that moves him the most right now.
ComicsAlliance: You've made a big shift away from working on a regular webcomic to a variety of other projects -- how has that changed your relationship with the internet?
Nicholas Gurewitch: I only have internet in my studio, so I get it in these bursts, and when I get to my studio I'll almost check it too much because I don't have it at home. It's weird.
CA: For some people, it can be difficult to do creative work if you get too caught up in the endless cycles of the internet and don't have as many experiences outside of it.
NG: I don't doubt that it's probably going to cause a drought of creative things in the coming years, being because the human body doesn't really respond to stories that are about the internet. And that lifestyle doesn't breed the ability to write stories that I guess harken back to our psychological history. Like running from tigers, and stuff like that. Spending time on the internet gives you experience on the internet. It doesn't give you experience with tigers.
CA: Do you feel like it's a healthier balance to have that division between work and the internet and the rest of your life?
NG: I basically love it when I'm at home and I forget about the internet. My brain starts working in totally different ways. But you fall all the way back in it as soon as you're in front of a computer.
CA: The internet's supposed to reflect life, in a certain way, but it really becomes something different, and rewards different things. It's easy to get overstimulated, and it's often more about being fast than about good, because in the short term speed is what gets rewarded.
NG: I'm afraid of this pattern.
CA: I've had moments where I feel like I don't have anything to say because I've told the internet everything and haven't had any new experiences or ideas.
NG: That's kind of an interesting state. Aaron Sorkin says he takes showers after every page of writing. He was complaining about not having that visceral ability to crumple up a sheet of paper. He takes showers, like, eighty-nine times a day to be on Earth for a few hours of out of his day.
CA: To feel something?
CA: Was that aspect of working on the internet why you moved away from Perry Bible Fellowship, wanting to stay a step back from that daily experience with the internet?
NG: It might have been a combination of wanting to distance myself from the internet and wanting to distance myself from the solitude of making comics. It can be a very quiet and lonely activity. I think the thing I do most lately that makes me feel alive is working with people on films. I'm working on a Western [movie] right now with a couple of my friends. It's kind of fantastical, and we're shooting on actual film stock. It's so much work and it's a headache in every way, but it also has this wonderfully tangible, material environment I can immerse myself in. We do a lot of hand-painted sets and a lot of model making. I get to see these things grow, with friends, which is kind of what I need right now.
CA: It seems like your ideas and your energy are focused more towards film, right now, and away from comics. Are you scripting the movies you're working on?
NG: Yeah, with friends. Two of them – Evan [Keogh] and Jordan [Morris] – are guys that I sometimes bounce Perry Bible Fellowship ideas off of and generate comics ideas with. The western is live action, but is done a way that would probably be easier if it were animation. I'm also doing BBC cartoons, and there's a few more in the pipeline, but the only thing I can promise the arrival of is the serial Western, which will have 11 or 12 episodes.
CA: There are some obvious connections and similarities between comics and movies, but film actually seems pretty different from what you used to do: the typically three-panel strip, ending in a gag. Film is a much longer form experience.
NG: I just love working with people and meeting people. Hopefully it's a medium where I'll be able to meet and work with more people. Although I did just collaborate with Kate Beaton on that Thor piece [for Strange Tales II]. I just had this idea, but I didn't want to draw it. And Kate Beaton's drawings are so funny, I asked her if she would do it. I had done a couple of other [comics in Strange Tales] when they contacted me years ago while I was doing [Perry Bible Fellowship], and I've been doing them periodically ever since, because they pay well. I didn't really have time to finish one of them, so [Marvel] agreed that it was a cool idea that I ask Kate.
CA: How familiar are you with the Marvel Universe and Marvel continuity?
NG: I would say I'm fairly familiar with it.
CA: What Marvel characters did you use for Strange Tales II?
NG: Thor and Hawkeye and Captain America in the one that I did with Kate Beaton for Strange Tales II #3]. And the one that I finished for the last issue features Galactus and Magneto. And before that, I did a Wolverine and a Hulk one.
CA: Is it the process of making a comic like this for Marvel different at all from your process for making a Perry Bible Fellowship strip?
NG: Not terribly different. But I really enjoyed not having to worry about fitting it into a certain parameter. It's kinda nice to be able to work from the top to the bottom of a page. It's really refreshing. I might try to do that if I have an idea I like; I won't restrict myself to the left to right format.
CA: Do you mean making more print comics, or trying out that sort of panel layout in an online comic?
NG: Probably both. I don't know if my website could handle it, but maybe I'll try a top to bottom strip at some point.
CA: That could be interesting online especially, since you have a potentially infinite vertical scroll to play with on a webpage if you want the comic to move like that, Scott McCloud style. It's not something that many people have experimented with.
NG: Yeah, you have the opportunity online to do that. I wonder if it'll get experimented with more. It's something that a lot of people have speculated about, but there's not a whole lot of implementation of that.
CA: Well, it's a lot easier to work with established formats than to invent a whole new way of doing something.
NG: Have you seen the comic strip The Oatmeal? He works pretty freely. He doesn't seem to have a parameter at all, from what I can tell. But he'll go top to bottom and just take up as much as he wants to. As much as it requires.
CA: You usually focused on three-panel strips in Perry Bible Fellowship, but I think you occasionally tried other layouts--
NG: There's actually some five-panelers in there. I think there are a good amount of four-panelers, but I think like once a year I would do a five-paneler by accident, when I just couldn't reel in the story on time, or on rhythm I should say.
CA: It's really interesting how form impacts the way people create. Set panel layouts almost seem like poetic forms to me, in terms of the restrictions they create and the way that they create the shape of the work.
NG: There's no equivalent of the sonnet in comics. There's no sixteen-panel set comic form with its own title. There's no haiku.
CA: Well, the three-panel strip is kind of the haiku. It's based around brevity, and you have get these ideas across very quickly and concisely. But if you think about it, the typical mainstream comic right now is 22 pages. So that's a form of sorts, which creators have learned to work in. And DC Comics recently decided to both cut their prices and lower the page count to 20 pages, so creators now have to tell the same basic stories, they just have to adjust to telling them in a slightly different space. Fitting it to a different form.
NG: I was talking to a guy at Universal Features Syndicate who handles a lot of the Sunday newspaper comics, and he said that newspapers are going to be dead in ten years. That's an equally wild thought.
CA: Do you see yourself still doing occasional Perry Bible Fellowship comics?
NG: I put one out kind of recently, about a month ago. I just had that one on my drafting table for too long. And then I just finished it one day.
CA: So basically your approach is just that if it happens it happens?
NG: Yeah, that might be one way of putting it. If it happens it happens. I don't not think about it. I wish I could say that there was some calculated reasoning. A lot of times I'll have an idea, but it just doesn't quite get me high. It'd have to be a really radical idea. I'm sure the new ideas are coming, but I'm kind of pursuing things that get me high right now.