Jeffrey Lewis on Comic Books, Art and Music
Logan Kaufman, Adventures Underground
Jeff Lewis was raised on New York City's Lower East Side by loving beatnik parents. Having no television in the tenement apartment, he became a comic book fanatic before
even learning how to read. Lewis began recording homemade cassettes in 1998 and selling them, packaged in small comic books, at his soon semi-monthly shows at The Fort, home of New York's infamous Antifolk scene. Lewis's younger brother Jack began playing electric bass and contributing to the shows and tapes. When other Fort performers the Moldy Peaches signed to Rough Trade Records in early 2001, they recommended Jeffrey's cassette recordings to label head Geoff Travis (the legendary "golden-eared" discoverer of the Smiths and the Strokes among others).
Rough Trade has since released three full-length Jeffrey Lewis CDs, garnering glowing press and an ever-growing devoted following for the idiosyncratic illustrator/songwriter. Lewis's shows can range between "lo-fi folk and sci-fi punk" as well as occasionally incorporating "low budget videos" (large ragged comic books displayed to accompany songs).
In 2002 Jeffrey and brother Jack became a "real" band, with various friends trading time in the drum seat. Jeffrey Lewis, with and without the band, has done barnstorming headline tours of England and Europe, and stints around the United States as well, sharing bills along the way with international acts big and small, including Cornershop, the Fall, Beth Orton, Frank Black, Daniel Johnston, Scout Niblett, the Mountain Goats, Radio4, Adam Green, Kimya Dawson, British Sea Power, the Fiery Furnaces, Thurston Moore, the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, Suicide, Devendra Banhart, The Cribs and others.
Logan Kaufman: How did comic books first enter your life?
Jeffrey Lewis: Supposedly some friend of the family gave me some comics when I was three or so and couldn't read yet, but they were read to me over and over, and somehow
I started wanting more. My mom just read them to me over and over until I could read them on my own. Comics are great for learning how to read!
Rom #7 is sort of the first comic I recall having real significance to me; for some reason Rom grabbed me a lot more than Superman or the Hulk or the usual popular stuff. I got Rom comics whenever I could. When I was a little bit older my babysitter Laurie got me into the black and white Elfquest comic magazine, so I was kind of into independant "underground" comics almost right from the beginning, and through picking up stuff at garage sales I also got into the English translations of Tintin comics from Belgium. So even from a pretty young age, I had a wider view of the comics world than if I was just into the mainstream superhero stuff, not that I didn't love that as well. And we never had a TV in the house the whole time I was growing up, so reading books and comics was my main form of entertainment.
Logan: Were you drawing from comics a lot then, or did that come later?
Jeffrey Lewis: Do you mean was I specifically copying or tracing drawings from comics as a way of learning how to draw? I suppose I did some of that, though I don't remember much specifically. I remember later doing a bunch of tracings in which I would make my own comic character by tracing the head of one character, the body of another, and the arms of another out of different comic books. Especially from the "Marvel Universe" series, which was like a dictionary of characters. That was fun -- probably when I was a little older, like ten or 12. I did the same thing with GI Joe toys, taking them apart and making composite characters. So anyway, yeah, tracing paper was definitely a part of my life. But I was doing a lot of other drawings outside of this.
Logan: What else were you drawing early on?
Jeffrey Lewis: Honestly, I'm not sure. I remember being really psyched to have learned how to properly draw the Batman bat logo when I was five, and I do recall some early drawings of Batman and Robin, a dragon, a drawing of my little brother, soldiers, random stuff, from about age four to age seven.
I remember drawing a stove and and being totally mystified as to how I had accidentally made it look 3D. I had drawn it in perspective by accident, and somehow couldn't grasp the concept at all. I guess I was just drawing lots of characters, like He-Man and Captain Carrot, but not with stories. Oh yeah, and Michael Jackson, too. I did a big drawing of Michael Jackson when I was about eight and made my parents hang it on the front door of the apartment to welcome all neighbors and visitors.
Logan: When did that all start coming together into a "comic book" style of artwork? I think a lot of kids learn to draw from comics or pen and ink children's art, but of course, not everybody takes it to that next step, or they move away from that style of art entirely.
Jeffrey Lewis: Yeah, I've wondered about this. I really can't remember the evolution to making real comics. I do remember a "comic" that I did in 4th grade as a class project, but it was not a comic with panels, it was just one drawing on each page, and the "story" was just some kind of superhero guy flying through a cave and almost getting crushed by descending spikes. It was more like storyboards for animation than a comic book, but it was quite a lot of drawings.
I was definitely doing real comic books by junior high. I was an early fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from when it was just an underground black and white comic, and I made my own comic series, Humanoid Atomic Samurai Squirrels that I drew about four big issues of when I was about 12. I never photocopied them, just showed the originals to people. And then after that I would draw super-violent comics of certain characters I had invented with names like Slaughterhouse and Massacre, I guess inspired partially by the "gritty" comics that were coming out around then, like the increasing violence of Wolverine and the X-Men comics in general, and the even more violent, though much smarter, Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen comics, which I was reading around age 13.
Usually my comics would involve my characters killing my teachers or just killing lots of random people. I also got into horror movies at the same age, 12 or 13, and the violence in my comics increased even more when I discovered the ultraviolent Japanese comics and animation stuff like Fist of the North Star. Basically every step of the way, from four years old up to teenage years and beyond, everytime I outgrew the comics I was reading (and had a chance to outgrow and escape the lifestyle!) I happened to stumble on something slightly more mature that kept my interest 'til the next phase came, and kept me inspired with new kinds of things to draw.
Logan: So basically, you'd have been expelled had you been in school today...
Jeffrey Lewis: Yeah, if I saw a kid drawing the kinds of things I was drawing I would have locked him away immediately! Although the comics were all pretty humorous, it wasn't really what you'd call "sadistic" despite what it sounds like, and for some odd psychological reason I never drew anything involving sex. In college I was asked to do some pornographic animation to be used in someone's film and it was really embarrassing and hard to do. All the sex neuroses always got sublimated into non-sexual ultraviolence in those adolescent comics.
Logan: When did that ultraviolence evolve to having a pink unicorn appear on the cover of Fuff #1?
Jeffrey Lewis: When I became a hippie around age 15, and began drawing peaceful, psychedelic comics starring new hero characters like Deadhead. I got into Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, and 60s Marvel stuff, Jim Starlin, and other psychedelic comics. I also drew a "Sandman meets Led Zeppelin" comic!
Logan: A lot of your shorter work now has a light humour quality with a fair share of puns. Where did your writing develop?
Jeffrey Lewis: It's just a fact that influences are separate from medium. My comics get influenced by music, my music is influenced by comics. Of course life experience figures in in a big way. It's all a jumble - there's probably an equal influence from Joyce's Ulysses as there is from Seinfeld, and from Evil Dead 2, and from Dr. Seuss, and from Basil Wolverton and Alan Moore and Dan Clowes comics, Virginia Woolf, etc. etc.
I don't really know where the pun thing comes from. Quite often these are thoughts I jot down that could end up in a song or in a comic book depending on how they match up with other ideas I'm working on.
Logan: What were your first comics that you were actually printing up?
Jeffrey Lewis: I was printing and selling comics that I made out of Grateful Dead song lyrics. I sold them at Grateful Dead concerts from 1993 - 95. I was working at the print shop at my college and could make free bad-quality photocopies. I started publishing various comic collections of work by me and anyone else I could get to contribute, and I'd sell them to people in Washington Square Park in New York, just approach people and ask if they wanted to buy a comic, I might make 20 bucks in a couple hours then I'd go spend it on records. I was about 19 at the time.
Logan: Were you hoping to make a living with comics at the time, or just happy to get money for music?
Jeffrey Lewis: I felt like I could have made a living at it in the sense that I was averaging about ten bucks an hour profit in sales, which is like having a regular job that one could live on, but of course this was sort of a fantasy in that it would have required that I be selling comics to people in the park all day long, multiple days a week, and I never would have had the sales gusto to last that long. It would have required some serious dedication. It was more fun to just say, "Hey, I need some bucks, better hit the park for a few hours."
Logan: After college and the free photocopies, did you still do comics the same way?
Jeffrey Lewis: Yeah, actually exactly the same way because I would go back to my college and try to make free photocopies for months and years after I graduated and was no longer working at the print shop...It worked for a little while but got harder and harder to scam free copies so I had to start paying for copies in the city. But by then I was playing music and thus was able to sell comics at open mics and at my shows so the economics evened out I suppose. Also the summer after I graduated college I drew my first full length comic book, a 40-page story, so that was the end of my having to publish compilations of other people's work along with mine. I started to just put together full comics of only my own work because I was doing a bit more. Not a huge amount, but enough for maybe one 50-page issue a year.
Logan: Have any alternative publishers shown any interest in collecting your work?
Jeffrey Lewis: No, but I send out stuff to the indie companies maybe once a year or once every 18 months just to remind them I exist, and hopefully at some point someone will take on the job of publishing and distributing them which'll theoretically save me some trouble. The biggest thing about being published would just be the validation in the eyes of the indie-comic buying public - all 12 of them!
Logan: When did you make the move to the standard format comic in Guff / Fuff?
Jeffrey Lewis: I had been printing increasing quantities of my comics in photocopied form, like I'd do a printing of 200 copies, then sell out over a few months and do another printing of 300, and when doing photocopied printings I still have to do all the folding and stapling etc. myself which is a big pain. And the covers were still black and white photocopies. To afford to do a color cover photocopy I had to print at least 1,000 copies, which was a lot for me. I would have to charge 5 dollars for a 20 page comic and make 1,000 copies to make it work out - I decided to include a CDR with the comic because that would be super cheap to manufacture but justify the cover price, so people feel like they are paying the extra money for the CDR but really the money is covering the cost of a color cover. Thus was born Guff #1, and of course I still had to do all the work of folding and stapling and putting CDRs in sandwich baggies and taping the baggies into the comics, for all 1,000 issues, and it cost me about 2,225 dollars to do, and I was scared about having to sell so many, and having the boxes clutter up my apartment, etc. But I actually sold them all in about a year, helped by the fact that I was doing more touring and able to sell them on tour, plus had Major Matt Mason's Olive Juice Music doing online sales for me, plus an indie comics distributor in the US moving a few copies into a handful of comic stores around the country. So then for the next issue I took the big leap out of the the photocopy world into actual comic printing, for which I had to do a minimum print run of TWO thousand, but it is SO much cheaper per issue (1,000 bucks buys 2,000 copies, rather than 2,000 bucks buying 1,000 copies as it was with photocopying!) PLUS the huge advantage of having all these "real" comics just shipped to my place, pre-assembled! No more folding and stapling! What joy! And the thrill of having real comics, which also happen to be much smaller and lighter and easer to carry on tour, cheaper to ship to stores, etc. SO, when I reprinted Guff #1 I did it in the new "real" format, 2,000 copies, with real CDs instead of CDRs. And I'm about to publish Fuff #4 (I changed the title from Guff because there's already a comic called Guff out there). So my apartment is full of boxes of comics but they're actually selling pretty well, especially with all this touring, so it's conceivable I might even have to reprint issue #2 within a year or so.
Logan: Did you fear people would buy the comic just for the CD?
Jeffrey Lewis: It sort of works both ways - someone who buys it in a comic store who has never heard any of the music I make will thus be introduced to it, and the reverse is what happens more often, someone sees me play a show and buys the comic, or buys it from the website because they heard that particular track live or on the radio and thus they get introduced to the comic book stuff. That CD that comes with Fuff #1 is kind of the perfect bait both ways, because it's my "History of Punk in NY 1950-1975" project, intrest in which has led to that comic spreading a lot further than it would have if it was just a comic. That's the secret plan - phase the comics into the lives of the music fans until I can just do comics full time!
Logan: Do you get a lot of positive feedback from the comics? I think they stand up quite well to anything out there right now...
Jeffrey Lewis: Not nearly as much as for the music, partially because so many more people are exposed to the music, via touring, radio, press and album sales; comics on the other hand get no press or radio play or touring etc, and with the current distributor I've got it ends up being perhaps a dozen stores nationwide stocking the comics on some shelf. But hopefully that'll keep building and even out a bit.
Logan: Has your comic work slowed down at all with the amount of touring you're doing? How do you juggle your time?
Jeffrey Lewis: The comic output has certainly slowed down, as has general art-production. I used to fill up three or four sketchbooks a year just drawing all the time and now I'm down to about one a year. I just don't have all the lonely time to draw and make comics that I used to! I'll have to figure out a better way to balance my time. I'm still managing to come out with one or two issues a year, but I'd love that to be doubled.
Logan: Isn't there a lot of down time or travel time on tours you could take advantage of, or is it all too hectic?
Jeffrey Lewis: If I could write or draw in a moving vehicle without getting headaches or carsickness I'd get a lot more done!
Logan: You have a sort of fusion of the comics and music going with your low-fi videos, when did you first do those?
Jeffrey Lewis: It started when somebody said they would pay me to illustrate their song lyrics. Of course like 95% of the time when somebody says they will hire you to do artwork it tends not to come about, and this job did not come about. But the idea stuck with me and I thought I should do this for one of my own songs so I could show the drawings while singing the song. I had a big pad of paper around the house for years which I didn't want to throw out because it would have been wasteful...But I did all my art in sketchbooks so this was the first time I had an opportunity to make use of the big paper. I spent an evening at Toby Goodshank's place watching some live Motorhead video he had rented and drawing the Chelsea Hotel "video". The next one I did was for the song "Gold", both of these are very long story songs and it was quite cumbersome to try to hold these big books on stage and flip through the pages. I learned to start picking shorter songs for "video" subjects, and also improving the art quite a bit, making the drawings a lot bolder and brighter to be seen better from a distance. Those early ones are pretty awful compared to the recent ones. I've got something like 14 of these now. And I've recently converted most of them to digital slideshow format, so for the recent couple tours I've been carrying around a bedsheet and a projector. It's not as charming as showing the ragged books themselves but for larger audiences it certainly makes the artwork much bigger and brighter and easier for more people to see.
Logan: Have you had other ideas for trying to move your interests together, or would you prefer they stayed independent in most respects?
Jeffrey Lewis: I'm always into coming up with different ways to combine the two things.
Logan: Issue #4 of Guff / Fuff is coming out soon, and you've said the series will be at least five issues long, which would obviously be only one more issue. Is that a possibility?
Jeffrey Lewis: It's just because the European Travel Diary comic book is 72 pages long and I had finished the whole thing before I embarked on the idea of doing a regular series. Thus it's been relatively easy to put together each issue - I just take ten or 12 pages of the European Travel Diary that I have sitting around unpublished, and I only need to come up with ten or 12 pages of other material to have an issue. But I think issue #5 will contain the final chapter of the Diary comic, so starting with issue #6 I'll have to actually draw a full 24 pages of material for each issue, double my current workload, and even as it is I've found it hard to do more than two issues a year! Hopefully I'll be up to the challenge. Actually I'm really looking forward to trying to have a comic of all-new material, not that it makes a difference to the reading public whether they are seeing something I drew last week or three years ago, but it would be a difference for me.
Logan: What are your ideas for Guff / Fuff #6? Would you start a new autobiographical series, or are you interested in doing some longer fiction pieces?
Jeffrey Lewis: Actually, upon recalculation I have enough European Travel Diary comic pages left that it will take two more issues to finish serializing it. Thus Fuff #7 will be the first issue of all-new material. OR, alternatively, I can start using the Fuff series as a means of reprinting all of my now out-of-print material, all the comics listed on my website that I no longer have copies of. Some of these contain stories that were never finished, such as the Babyshoes trilogy and the autobiographical comic of my semester studying in London. It would be nice to finish these comics eventually, and in order for people to be able to read the first couple chapters, which are now unavailable, I'd have to reprint them anyway, so maybe reprinting them in the pages of future Fuffs is not a bad idea. Except that it's kind of crummy for me to be spending all this time and money and storage space for the sake of comics I drew between 1998 and 2003 - I really should be concentrating on new stuff! As far as what the new stuff would be, probably more biography, like the Guggenheim story and my parents' stories, as well as more fiction.
Logan: You've said if you could do only one, it would be comics over music. Do you have a point or time in your mind where you might say "I've had a great run with music" and see what you could accomplish as a full time comic artist?
Jeffrey Lewis: The point at which the comics make me enough money to live off of! I'd probably still be writing songs, but I wouldn't have the financial need to be a "working musician," as far as regular touring and releasing albums. For instance maybe I would tour once every couple years, or even not at all, instead of the current three or so times a year, if I could count on the comics making up for the income - the ironic thing is that a lot of my touring income comes from the fact that I can sell my comics at my shows. If I could eventually build up the same kind of sales through retail stores that'd be really cool. But it's a lot harder - a comic will wait on a shelf for someone to come to it, whereas going on tour you bring the music and art to the people. Plus there is such a huger place in culture for music than there is for comics. The comic reading population is just a tiny fraction of the music listening population.
Interview Conducted by E-Mail, May of 2006
Copyright © 2006 Adventures Underground