New styles, artistic restrictions and constant experimentation are all hallmarks in writer and artist Jason Little’s work. Little’s style varies from project to project, from the playing card-influenced art of Jack’s Luck Runs Out to a pair of graphic novels with a young woman named Bee at their center—Shutterbug Follies and Motel Art Improvement Service. The Bee books don’t resemble Jack’s Luck Runs Out, and neither resembles his latest book, Borb, which blends a classic four-panel approach with a bleak story about an alcoholic homeless man.
Borb is an intentionally jarring read, especially with a style generally used for gags. But at its core, the graphic novel tells a story of a deeply damaged central character. Slowly, the individual pieces fit together into a powerful whole, with events occurring later in the book that cast earlier strips into sharp relief. Paste spoke with Little at his Brooklyn home for a wide-ranging conversation covering everything from Borb’s origin and process to his love of 3D comics.
Paste: In Borb, you’re telling a very particular story about a specific character, but you’re also using a classic four-panel newspaper strip approach to tell it. Did one or the other come first?
Little: They kind of came from separate places. I had an idea knocking around about doing some kind of story with a homeless guy. And I definitely wanted to play with the hobo archetype, as derived from early American strips, juxtaposed with gritty, contemporary horrifying realism. In fact, the early manifestations of it were going to be a hybrid, sort of like Foto Funnies with drawn comics.
The plan was to go into the subway and photograph actual situations, maybe even hire friends to be actors, so that it would be a real place with real situations. And then Borb would be drawn, and would be superimposed on that and would interact with the humans that way. I still would love to do a story like that, but it seemed really cumbersome, and so I got away from it.
Simultaneously, I’ve always wanted to do a daily, and have always loved daily American strips. I heard that Little Orphan Annie was completely canceled, and I thought, “I’ll do some Annie samples, and I’ll try to sell the syndicate on that.” And then I realized that I wouldn’t be doing my own thing, I’d be doing someone else’s thing, and I’m not going to do that. You can see that this hunger for what most cartoonists think is the Holy Grail of comics—getting a daily strip—is compelling to me. A couple of years ago, I realized that my work is too transgressive and too prickly to really go down with any traditional newspaper venue, and so I should just try to let go of that fantasy. Then I realized that I don’t need to work with the newspapers, because there’s the Internet. I can do it for the sake of doing it to make myself happy, and then put it on the web. So that’s what I did. And then I thought, “Oh yeah, the homeless guy idea—I’ll draw that and make it look like an old strip.”
Paste: You were talking earlier about the hobo archetype in early comics. What drew you to that?
Little: I think it’s the result of living in New York for so long. I’ve lived here since ’94, ’95. Growing up in a small town upstate, Binghamton, N.Y., there were a few street people, but there was no panhandling scene. So, coming to New York in the mid-‘90s, being overwhelmed by visible poverty, desperate folks and living with that for decades. I felt, at some point, kind of qualified to talk about it with some authority. Which feels a little presumptuous, but I just decided to go for it.
I thought, something must be done about this situation; someone has to make art about these desperate people. Could I do something like that? I’d done almost nothing that had anything that feels like deliberate social commentary to it. I felt like I wasn’t qualified, but then I decided that I really needed to rise to the occasion. So then I felt that I could combine that with my love for old strips, and it could be a thing.
There was also a guy who was camped out outside of the studio where I rent space, for two years or something like that. And watching him, seeing him every day, informed the character a lot.
Borb Art by Jason Little
Paste: Is that the guy who you refer to on the dedication page in the back of the book?
Paste: At the end of the book, you list organizations that help the homeless that people can get involved with. At the same time, your protagonist is so damaged by his physical condition and his addictions that it’s almost impossible for him to be helped. Where do you find the balance between the two to exist? Does the system not go far enough?
Little: I think I’m saying that the system doesn’t go far enough. I feel like the common attitude, and the attitude of government, is that creating infrastructure where nobody falls through the cracks is just not economically feasible. I think that’s sad. And I feel like there are governments in other countries where they don’t have an attitude like that. They don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks. I haven’t actually done any research, so I can’t cite—we have this idealized view of western European countries, Scandinavian countries, where they have a much more socialistic system, where they take care of their sad cases better than we do.
I feel like my character is a character who’s fallen through the cracks. In our system, it rewards people who are able to get their act together a little bit, and take advantage of services. But that’s got to be really hard if you don’t have a place to live and you’ve had a stroke and you have health problems and your addiction is making you a mess all the time. He needs somebody to take care of him, and that’s not happening. That’s the case with a lot of people.
Paste: You’re working within these four-panel strips, but there’s a larger structure as well. I’m thinking specifically of Borb’s interaction with the woman and child midway through, which takes on a whole other heartbreaking context by the end of the book. How much were you handling it on a strip-by-strip basis versus looking at it as a whole?
Little: I think the way it worked is, I knew that I wanted to have gags at the beginning, and I knew where he wanted to end up. At some point, I came up with a backstory, an origin story, for him, and I wanted to have that come back in at the end of the book. I had brainstormed a bunch of ideas for gags. I had one sheet of paper that was all one-word topics. Beaten up, pissed on, gonorrhea, breaks his leg; a litany of awful things that can happen to people. I went through that and I tried to keep going, to get as many of them in until I was running out of funny stuff.
At the same time, I was getting lots of support from some of my peers who said, “I really like this. This is really funny and really horrifying at the same time, and it makes me uncomfortable but I really love it.” And simultaneous with that, I was getting a lot of concern from family members who were like, “You’re going to get in trouble for doing this strip. You’re going to get hate mail. I don’t really know why you’re doing this.” So the peers were saying, “More jokes, keep this going as long as you can.” Family members were saying, “You’ve got to bring in more backstory on this character. Tell us why we should care about this guy.” I was trying to put that off as long as I could. Eventually, I started to run out of gags, and I decided that I really needed to let the story part kick in more. It was really interesting, interacting with an audience that way. They had a lot of influence on shaping the structure of it.
Paste: Does anything in the printed version differ from the version that existed online or in mini-books?
Little: Almost nothing. The only things that are different are (when) my editor came up with moments where he thought a borderless panel would add to the sense of stillness in a couple of places. I redrew a couple of hands that were too hastily drawn the first time around. That’s about it.
The only place where I made changes is that I did a slideshow that incorporates a quarter of it in the middle. It includes most of the backstory. For that, I reversed the order of the scene with the mother and child, and the scene with his girlfriend, so that it would be more linear. The slideshow functions like a motion picture, and doing it out of sequence made it confusing. I kind of like it that way, too. I’m on the fence—part of me wants, if there’s ever a second edition of it, to switch those scenes. But you seem to really get it, so maybe I shouldn’t.
Paste: Sometimes you’ll add captions to describe certain things—bedbugs, for instance. But it took me a little while to figure out why most of the signs appear in gibberish. There’s one scene where you show what a sign actually says. How do you maintain his perspective, where there is that lack of clarity?
Little: I want to make it confusing at first and then explain it, but I don’t ever know when I’m making it too hard on the reader. Or too easy.
Paste: Were you working on anything else at the same time as this?
Little: No. What had happened was, right after Motel Art Improvement Service came out, I had to make some money. Myla [Goldberg, Little’s wife] had been bringing in most of the income for most of the time that I was working on that book. So I immediately sent out all of these feelers for collaborative graphic novel projects with some of my friends, and then bailed on all of those, unfortunately. I got a job doing animation with Augenblick Studios. I worked for them for three years, off and on. I’d work for them for six months, take three months off. Sometimes it was as much as 70 hours per week. The first month of being on hiatus from them would be shot, I’d be recovering. And I was teaching the whole time I was doing that, too. The brief hiatus that I would have between animation stints was not enough for me to work up a head of steam to get a new project going.
After a certain point, I did a few months with them and then I stopped and said, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to go back, because my career’s not moving forward as a result.” I knew I wanted to do something that I could get off the ground fast, and could bring to a readership fast, so that they’d know that I’m still alive. And so Borb was the perfect thing for that.
I did that fast. That took all my energy, and I’ve been writing ever since. I have a script done, pretty much, for the next volume of the Bee series. And I just had a very good crit with Myla yesterday. She gave me a deep-tissue massage, so I feel invigorated. So I can start doing layout on that this week, next week. I’m pretty excited.
Borb Art by Jason Little
Paste: Is that generally how you work? Scripting something out ahead of time and then working on the layout?
Little: Yeah. I have to work it as a text pretty intensively. I wish I could do it faster, but it seems to take a really long time. It was the same thing with Motel Art—like, eight drafts of plot. I went right from plot to layouts with Motel Art, which was a mistake, I think. I felt like I didn’t work the dialogue enough. For the third book, which is called The Psilocybin Syllabus, I wrote a full script. I feel like that that’ll allow me to massage the dialogue really nicely—and three drafts of script after that, too.
You talked about working with self-imposed restrictions for your comic Jack’s Luck Runs Out. With Borb, it’s entirely black and white. Did that come from a similar place?
Little: I like parameters like that. With Borb, it was that it had to be inked as though it was 1925 or so. Black and white, four panel, you have to draw it every day. So there was a process constraint as well, for the sake of discipline and keeping the readers happy.
For the Bee stuff, the constraint was that I wanted it to look and feel like a European album as much as I could at the time. That’s still basically the mission for the third book. I feel, for as much as the Borb strips need to feel consistently drawn, I want the Bee forum to be a place where I can draw much more inconsistently and be more experimental and play with different media and stuff like that. The first two books are pretty consistent, but I kind of want the third one to be more far-out in that way: try some hand-colored stuff and some digital color, and mix the two. Collage, maybe, a little bit in there as well.
Paste: You’d spoken earlier about incorporating photographs into your comics. Do you have any other ideas of processes that you’d like to test out on future works?
Little: Yes. A lot of them are related to 3D comics. Just for the sake of your readers, let me make it clear that I’m talking about stereo images, the kind of comics that you look at through red and blue lenses, in contrast with computer-generated volumetric CGI images—Disney movies like Frozen, that kind of thing. That’s not the kind of 3D I’m talking about. I’m talking about taking a drawing and turning it into a stereogram.
Whenever I think about short stories where experimentation and form is pushed to the top of the agenda, I think about doing a comic story that’s got paper sculptures in it, like a pop-up or a diorama where there’s an illusion of depth because you’ve created paper sculpture. Or silhouettes. We think of silhouettes as being shadows, flat things. But I like the notion of a stereogram that’s composed of silhouettes, so that you can perceive distances and depth between the characters and their shadows. And I’d love to do stereo comics, 3D comics that involve photography and maybe the interaction of drawn characters with stereo photographs.
Maybe some of your readers will hear some of these ideas and do the comics and beat me to it. And then I won’t have to do them! I kind of like that sometimes. “Oh, great—someone already did this! Now I don’t have to do it.”
Paste: Has there been an example of that, of someone doing work in a style that you didn’t think was possible?
Little: I feel like I had a really good example of it, but I can’t think of it right now. I feel like there was a time when I used to guard my ideas more jealously. The older I get, the more I just want the idea to have a life of its own and be part of the culture. It gives me a sense of relief when somebody else does something cool like that.
Paste: Do you find that teaching has had any effect on writing and drawing comics as well?
Little: Definitely. It’s pretty important to me. And it’s kind of cool that it’s a day job where I get paid but I’m also really into it. I really like my students a lot. I’ve been doing it for about ten years, and so I feel like some of my students are ten years older than they were in college. They’re older, and so they feel more like peers. It’s nice to feel like I have a connection to younger cartoonists that way, to keep me from getting old and calcified.
That’s the people angle. In terms of personal growth, I think it’s done a lot for me. I think of myself as being someone who’d intrinsically introverted, and so the older I get, the more teaching years I have behind me, the easier it is to actually meet people and connect with them and talk freely. All of that human development, teaching is super-great for that.
The third aspect is that when you have to teach someone to do something, there’s an immense amount of pressure on the teacher to have their act together and be able to have command of that technique. It’s forced me to not be sloppy and to really make sure I know what I’m doing.
Do you feel like what you learned from working within restrictions on Borb will shape the next Bee book, or is each of them its own thing?
Little: I think it is shaping my vision for Bee. Since I only had a day to draw each strip, and I had to work hard to finish a strip a day. My tendency is to draw it with too much detail, and it becomes too slow, and then I miss the deadline. I drew it as small as I possibly could, because it turns out that if you have to fill a very tiny space with ink, it doesn’t take as long as filling a gigantic space with ink. And I also gave myself permission to keep beauty out of the equation, at least on the conscious level. So the subject matter is ugly, and so it’s okay if the drawing is kind of ugly, too. That allowed me to turn off the critical brain hemisphere, and let the creative brain hemisphere keep on working.
I would do a strip and I would try not to be critical of it while I was doing it so I wouldn’t get bogged down and have doubt. Looking back on it after it was finished, I thought, “Some of these drawings are really nice.” I feel like beauty is an inevitable process of it, now that I’m older and can actually draw pretty well. I’m going to do that a little more with Bee. It’s going to be a little bit trickier, because Bee is mostly about characters who have cuteness or sexiness to them. I need to tap into the same type of magic energy that allows me to turn off the critical brain and just work. I think it was a good shot in the arm for me in that way.
Borb Art by Jason Little
Paste: In the past, you’ve done art installations. Does that ever feed back into the more panel-based work that you do?
Little: It’s interesting. I haven’t had much in the way of active fantasies about gallery work in a long time, and when I do, they’re all related to 3D comics. It’s not so much that I come up with new ideas for a gallery context, but that I remember an old idea that I never realized: “Oh, maybe I could finally do that idea.” Some people have boundless energy, and they can do this and have a second career and have hobbies and a family and stuff like that. I just don’t have that much juice. In middle age, I think, stick to your strengths. So I’m focusing on: draw comics, teach, do 3D comics, cartoon slideshows. I’m letting the art installation thing shrivel up and die, and I think I’m kind of fine with that.
Also, it’s been my tendency in the past to kind of have the cart before the horse. “We should have this gallery show,” and then the voice of reason will say, “Dude, usually you draw a book and then it’s a hit and then somebody says, ‘Hey, can we do a gallery show related to that?’ And then you can have your little gallery show.” I’ve got to focus on drawing some good comics and trying to find an audience with them. That’ll be retirement: back to the gallery, if I’m lucky.