The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is happening this weekend, May 10th and 11th at the Toronto Reference Library. In celebration, here’s all you need to know about Joe Ollmann…
Joe Ollmann is a cartoonist based out of Hamilton who’s been making me virtually split my sides since the late ‘90s. My love of his artwork inspired me to get an Edward Gorey/Joe Ollmann duel tattoo. Joe has cartooned for the Hamilton Spectator, Exclaim! Magazine, and The Comics Journal. He has put out a multitude of bound mini-books under Wag Press, with each book containing a little hand drawn art piece. After Wag, he published five other books and is currently working on his sixth. Joe won the acclaimed Doug Wright award for Canadian comics and graphic novels in 2007 for This Will All End in Tears . His most recent graphic novel, Science Fiction, was also nominated for Doug Wright award this year.
Joe deftly meshes Charles Schulz, Edward Gorey, and Gary Larsen (Far Side) wit and characters. His quicker comics are simple line drawing ala Peanuts and Far Side, while Joe shows the other side of his talent by also doing intricately detailed work ala Gorey. The quicker comics tend to be the riotously funny ones, while the painstaking line drawings often are more serious, with quiet humour.
By articulating real life situations, adding humour to them, and drawing his characters with flaws, Joe seems to be able to crystallize the human species’ highs and lows. What first drew me to his work was the drawn characters – they seemed to come right from Toronto streets. Well, the adults did. The kids came from Far Side – buck-toothed Coke-bottle-glasses-wearing nerds who get upset very easily. When the stories proved hilarious and interesting to boot, I was hooked. After that, I became rather obsessive, trying to gather up every Joe Ollmann panel I could. (And I’m still missing Wag 1 & 2! Who wants to sell theirs? 😉 )
Not many people can say they’ve been able to interact with their favourite cartoonist for nearly two decades. Surely even less can say they have worked with their favourite cartoonist. In 2003 I self-published Lickin’ the Beaters, a vegan desserts cookbook, and Joe was one of the illustrators. But Joe’s like that. You can approach him at conventions and fairs just like he was your brother. Pretentiousness is not Joe’s bag, he’s always got a smile and a nice word for you.
Interspersed throughout the interview are some of my favourite Ollmann moments!
SM: What is the first thing you remember drawing? Describe in detail, if possible.
JO: I can remember drawing elaborate undersea battles with millions of sea divers drilling holes in boats and killing each other. I hate army stuff and always lecture my 8-year-old who also draws similar scenes so maybe it’s just something kids are drawn to?
SM: Was there any particular person or people in your life as an adolescent that encouraged you to do art? Someone who saw your potential and made you realize you really had talent?
JO: My high school art teacher, Mrs. Beausejour was the biggest and best influence and was the person who encouraged me more than anyone ever did at a really important time. She said I reminded her of William Blake and made me go to Toronto and see a Blake exhibit there; and introduced me to the illustrators of the New Yorker, classical music, opera, Goya and Albrecht Durer. She introduced me to pen and ink and technical pens; encouraged me to be better than the dumb hoodlum I was at the time. She also told me to stay away from the girls if I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t and so I am only a cartoonist.
SM: What do you enjoy more – the “quick” less intricate work of your shorter cartoons, or the highly detailed graphic novel and comics?
JO: I like doing both, though I feel like the short work is a distraction and time-waster from the longer book work which I feel like have more long term value? In the new weird, online world of comics, I gather that posting short comics regularly online “builds and audience” that will later “buy your comics.” I don’t know, I try not to over-think the marketing shit to direct what I’m doing too much, but you know, you need to at some level.
SM: One essence in your work that always spoke to me was the idea of both loving and hating humanity. Anything you want to say about that?
JO: Yeah, I guess behind every misanthrope is a disappointed optimist. I’m a failed socialist, I’ve given up on most ideology because people just fuck up everything. Then, there are people you meet, or acts of goodness, small or large that you experience, that make you almost believe again. I guess I am realistic about people and try and appreciate the goodness and allow myself not to be too cynical to see it when it does occur. And I guess I try and incorporate all of that into my work? I don’t know, mostly I think my work these days is vapid and doesn’t really connect with anything of import, like the older I get, the more trivial I get.
SM: At this point, are you able to live a comfortable life as an artist, or do you do other work to pay the bills?
JO: I’ve always had a full-time day job and just done this at night. I think very few cartoonists are able to survive on that alone. I don’t feel like I’m owed a living just doing cartooning, but it would be nice to have the art form valued enough that people were willing to pay a decent amount.
SM: Not many people actually know the process of doing comic art. Can you talk about that process in the order in which it happens?
JO: I would guess everyone does this stuff differently, especially since a lot of people are using Wacom tablets to draw. I am a cartoonist deep down in my soul and I value the history and the tradition and I am happy to be using the same damn simple tools that cartoonists used 150 years ago. I’m not against technology, and a lot of the people using tablets are getting results that are almost indiscernible from traditional ink and paper, I just prefer the simplicity and purity of it. Anyway, the way I work is I write a script and work on editing that to a point where I am happy with it. Then I break that down into pages and panels and do thumbnail mockups of what each page will look like. The thumbnails are very important, it’s basically storyboarding the “shots” for the final comic – the “camera angles,” the close-ups, long shots, etc. After that, it’s the slow, technical process of drawing. I draw in regular HB pencil on a semi-smooth Bristol. I ink the lettering and the panel borders and then ink the final art using various quill pens and india ink. Then I erase the underlying pencils and scan the art into Photoshop.
SM: What are your favourite tools to use as an artist?
JO: I love my quill pens, these are cheap little nibs that you can still buy at art supply stores for less than a buck and you put them in a pen holder, dip them in a cheap bottle of ink and go to town. I am always happy to find some new pen nib that is a revelation and works amazing and I feel like, “Where have you been all my life, little pen nib?”
SM: I noticed in your blog you were working on one of your new graphic novel pages and you got a nasty ink splotch on the last panel – is there anything you can do to fix that? Is that something where modern technically comes in handy – say, erasing it in Photoshop?
JO: Well, there’s the old white-out solution, just painting over the spills and doing touch-ups with white paint. I do that, but I also do a lot of clean up and fixing art and lettering after I scan the pages into Photoshop. Whichever works best.
SM: Can you talk a little about your use of technology? How it might have changed over the years and especially about how it might have enhanced your artistic abilities…
JO: I use technology limitedly, mostly at the end of the process for production. I do tend to add gray tones in Photoshop because it’s relatively easy, but in the new book I’m doing, I’m using a light table and paper overlays and doing the gray tones in ink-wash. So this new book will be even less dependent on technology until the assembly stage of the book.
SM: One of my favourite things you’ve done is the Abrasive Shorts for the Comedy Network. Please talk about that process and let people know where they might be able to see these (they are brilliantly funny!)
JO: They’re here. I hate hearing my voice recorded. I’m pretty sure they are dated and horrible. They were done in Flash a long time ago. Pretty embarrassing.
SM: I noticed, at least at one point, you were enjoying old radio dramas. What are your favourites? Did you grow up listening to these re-runs on the radio? Do you think you might enjoy them because it’s a way to interact with art using your ears rather than your eyes (which I’m sure are heavily taxed)?
JO: I listen to music, mostly without lyrics, or opera in languages I don’t understand, when I’m writing. 1960s jazz or that Tindersticks boxset of Claire Denis film soundtracks are what I’ve been listening to when I write. When I draw, as I said, it’s a much more technical or mechanical process, I’m free to be occupied listening and concentrating on something else. I love audio books, but yeah, I LOVE old radio plays. Any kind, really, but ghost stories and horror stories I am obsessed with and could listen to these all the time. BBC radio is still actively producing amazing radio drama, unlike the CBC which shut theirs down. CBC had a great series called Nightfall which was great, so scary. Luckily in the internet age a lot of this stuff is available online to listen to or buy from compilers. I could talk about radio drama for days!
SM: How did your new graphic novel of the life of William Buehler Seabrook come about? How did you even find out about him?
JO: I first read about him in a brief bio in a zombie compilation about twenty years ago. I was interested in the man and eventually read an excellent biography about him written by one of his wives, Marjorie Worthington. I see by my notes that I actively started researching Seabrook about 8 years ago. I’ve bought all his books and any books that mention him and I’ve traveled to one of his wives’ archives in Oregon. I traveled to South Carolina interviewing people who had known his last wife. It’s become a bit of an obsession and very different that the normal fiction I do. I’ll be kind of glad when it’s all done, but I do think it’s going to be a really interesting book. It takes place in Haiti, the Middle East, West Africa, New York and Paris in all different time periods and required a lot of research. The real challenge is to include facts, but to still make it more than a dull recitation of facts, which I hope I’ve done. It’s still clearly a book that has my stamp on it I guess, for better or worse.
SM: Your son Sam has obviously inherited your illustration talents. Do any of your daughters draw or make other kinds of art?
JO: My oldest daughter was always a great writer, but not much of a drawer, the middle daughter is a great writer and a talented artist as well, which I encourage, but without trying to be a stage mom, saying, “You should draw comics!”
SM: Looking for your webpage I accidentally typed in wag.net. The guy does caricatures for a living. What do you think of his art? Did that ever cross your mind to do caricatures for money?
JO: Oh god no, I’m terrible at caricatures.