Smash Pages Q&A: Joseph Remnant on ‘Cartoon Clouds’

The creator of ‘Blindspot’ and artist of Harvey Pekar’s ‘Cleveland’ discusses his first solo graphic novel from Fantagraphics, balancing his work as a storyboarding artist with his own projects, and more.

Like most comics fans I first got to know Joseph Remnant’s work from The Pekar Project. The web project featured the late great Pekar working with a number of artists and Remnant went on to draw Cleveland, a very personal graphic novel written by Pekar that was published after his death.

Remnant was making short work in his comic series Blindspot, in addition to recording music and working on various other projects, but Fantagraphics just released his first solo graphic novel, Cartoon Clouds. The book is about a group of students who have just graduated from art school, and are trying to find their own way and understand their feelings about art. Remnant admits that working on the project over the course of many years has meant that his own feelings about the characters and some of the issues he raises in the book have changed over time, though his linework is masterful throughout.

Where did Cartoon Clouds start?

I had false starts with different graphic novel ideas, writing things that were a little more conceptual. At a certain point I realized that for my first longform book it was going to be way easier to do with doing something that was more down to earth and related to experiences that I’ve had. The book is very fictional, but I set it in the city where I went to art school and I took pieces of people I knew and threw them into it.

So you were starting this or starting to think about this when you were still working on Blindspot?

I think I was working on Blindspot #3 around the same time as that. I did the first 35 pages or so and then had to take a year off of comics altogether to figure some stuff out. I got some interest from Fantagraphics and that’s when I really doubled down on it and got back to working. June 2015 is when Gary Groth offered to publish it so between then and whenever I finished it was when I did the bulk of the work.

Two years is a long chunk of time. If it started a few years before that, I’m sure it feels like forever.

It felt like forever. [laughs]

When we talked years ago when you were working on Blindspot, you seemed very conscious of understanding that you needed to build up the skills to have the kind of career in comics that you wanted.

I think it’s important for anybody to approach things that way, to work your way up to it. Learning how to construct a story, figuring out pacing. You have to find a way to inject it with something so you’re not just hearing someone talk at a coffee shop – although that can be interesting – but you have to give it meaning. It’s much easier to develop those skills in short pieces. When you’re doing a longer piece, you want each scene to have the feeling of a longer story. Each scene has to have its own purpose to be there. You learn a lot of this from watching TV and movies and you start realizing each scene has to be its own little mini-story.

You were thinking in those terms with Cartoon Clouds? That each character has to have their own story and arc, each scene has to have its own purpose?

Yeah. It’s hard to analyze these things while you’re making it. I feel like I got there as the book goes along. I feel fairly comfortable with the book after the first 40 pages. You don’t want a scene that’s here just for exposition or setting up something interesting that’s going to happen later. You don’t want a character just setting up some aspect of another part of the story. You have to find how to make this interesting by itself. Inject something that’s funny or interesting or that reveals something about this character while they’re setting it up.

That’s interesting because the opening scenes have these characters and they do feel different from the later scenes as the characters each go off in different directions.

There was a big gap in time between when I finished that part and then picked it back up. I think the beginning is more stream of consciousness. Scenes are much longer and later I figured out how to tighten scenes up and not waste any space. It becomes less wordy as it goes. Some of that is interesting looking at it now. It’s a little more rambling but I like that stuff, too. I don’t think everything has to be pared down to its essentials. I think people can take that too far and then it becomes boring. Can you tell that from reading?

I wouldn’t have guessed that was why. It felt like an organic part of the story, but there is a shift from the opening scenes to later in the book.

It was initially going to be about the main character and as I went along I got more interested in the other characters and wanted to make it more of an ensemble story. A lot of my favorite movies tend to be ensemble stories. It was interesting to end a scene with one character’s story and then on the next page you’re in another character’s story.

Focusing on the other characters as well opens up questions about art and artists and life. I mean I’m sure you’ve prepared for people asking how much of Seth is you.

It is me and it isn’t at the same time. The way I would describe it is that the story is pretty much fictional, but the character still feels like me in a major way. [laughs] That’s what I was thinking as I was making it. After it was printed, I sat down and read the physical book and I see myself in different aspects of different characters now. I was initially writing the character Kat as an annoying anti-hero in the story. I was feeding her lines that I thought were annoying, but reading it back, I like the character more now than I ever thought I would. She is one of the more interesting characters and I’m kind of relating to a lot of what she’s saying. The main character Seth I find kind of whiny and annoying sometimes. [laughs]

The third issue of Blindspot came out in 2013, has this been the big project for you since then?

I did a comic with JR, this French street artist who does these huge photographic murals. I did a 20-page comic for this book he did with Phaidon. Mostly this book took as long as it took. I was working pretty steadily on it for those years. In 2014 I pretty much took off comics because I had to figure out a way to live. I had to take a break and figure out, if I’m going to keep making art I need to figure some way to make it financially possible to do. My job at the time was on shaky ground so I quit and started trying to do commissioned drawings and I was building up a storyboarding portfolio. Eventually I got on with a storyboarding agency and now I’m doing storyboarding for commercials, mostly. It’s very part time. If you average it out over the year I probably do two or three days a week. It’s enough to get by and have the rest of my time to work on my own personal comics or art. It took a while to set that in place.

I know what you mean. There’s a point where you go from, I can live on nothing and I’m fine with that, to hitting a point where you go, no, actually.

You hit a crossroads and that’s the point where a lot of people end up quitting. They go, I’m sick of this, I want to buy a house, I want to have a kid, or, I just don’t want to live like a slob anymore. You have to make that decision, how am I going to go forward. I think it’s a breaking line for a lot of people. Everyone has to figure out how to go forward or leave it behind or whatever.

Your character of Pollard talks about this. How does he describe the reason to make art?

“If you can’t not make art.” There’s something in you that for whatever reason you’ve got to produce art. It’s not a laborious thing that you have to force yourself to do every day because you like the idea of being an artist. Some people are just artists.

Storyboarding tends to be good work for artists.

Most of the cartoonists I know who do it work in animation, and those tend to be staff jobs where they’re full time. I wanted to avoid getting stuck in a full-time art job. Some people can work full time animating a TV show and still produce comics, but my whole thing is so laborious and time-consuming that I really need something part-time to give myself enough open space to make the art that I want to make. There are people who make comics who can make three pages in a day. For me each page takes at least two days. I had to figure out a way to not be working all the time.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing something and letting it form in my brain slowly. Something a little more conceptual. Not really worth talking about at this point. At this point I’m envisioning it taking about seven years to finish, and I’m writing it in a way that it can be put out in pieces so I don’t have to disappear for seven years. I think it lends itself to that. The general idea is that it takes place in this fictional city, and it will be half drawings and paintings and half comics and pick up different stories of people throughout the book. I did a story for the Now anthology that Eric Reynolds is putting out. It’s in that style. And I’m working on some music.

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