Smash Pages Q&A: Jesse Lonergan

The creator of ‘Hedra’ talks about that project, the recently released ‘Planet Paradise,’ his webcomic ‘Prime’ and much more.

Over the years, Jesse Lonergan has written and drawn a number of comics, including three graphic novels (Flower and Fade, Joe and Azat, and All Star) which showed off expressive fluid style, a skill at dialogue and a masterful ability at wordless storytelling.

Lonergan gained a new audience when Image republished Hedra earlier this year. Originally self-published, the comic is the story of an interstellar journey and features a very different approach to storytelling and design than what readers saw in his earlier books. This month, NBM just published Willie Nelson: A Graphic History, for which Lonergan drew a chapter, and Lonergan’s new graphic novel Planet Paradise, was just released by Image.

We spoke recently about his work, why it changed a few years ago, the new book he’s serializing on his Patreon, and more.

It’s been great to see you getting attention for Hedra because it’s a such a great comic. I’m curious where it started because it’s a much more formalistic project than anything you’ve made before

I felt a complex mix of thoughts about All Star, but it didn’t get much attention. You interviewed me, but two months after it came out, it felt like it hadn’t come out. I did some reassessing about what I’m doing and what I’m interested in doing after that. When you’re creating something, you have the idea of an audience in your head. I had had this idea of the types of comics I liked and the types of comics I wanted to make, but it just wasn’t true anymore. I wanted to do stuff that was more experimental, a little weirder, more fun visually. I wanted to push myself artistically to be more actively involved in why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I think a lot of people will read Hedra and Planet Paradise and go, okay, this is very different from your earlier books.

And it is. Flower and Fade was the first book I got published and I made that when I was 25. I’m 41 now. I’m married. I think it’s weird if you’re in the same headspace you were in when you were 25. Flower and Fade, Joe and Azat, and All Star were fiction and they weren’t as autobiographical as people think they are. They’re reality based and I was drawing from what I knew, but they are not true stories in any sense of the word. They’re just realistic stories. I think for me that well is a little bit dry. I don’t know that I want to be doing as much experienced-based stuff now. I think other people can do it very well and can find the compelling stuff about being 35, but I find myself more interested in exploring more surreal and abstract ideas. Maybe in fifteen years I’ll go back?

I wouldn’t have guessed that any of them were autobio, but did a lot of people?

Yeah. With All Star, people assumed that I was a high school sports star. I really wasn’t. I’m from a small town in Vermont and I am over six feet tall, so I did play basketball. [laughs] My graduating class was 36. If you’re in a class of 36 and you’re over six feet tall, you’re on the basketball team! [laughs] So I had experience playing sports, but I never had the situation that the main character in the book did. People assumed that I did. Or with Flower and Fade people assumed it was about a specific relationship I had had. I think that might just be something of the immediacy of comics. Comics have this ability to sidestep our preconceived notions. Watching a movie we’re all set up for the tropes and it’s hard to trick people with a movie but with comics – especially indie comics where it’s one person doing the whole thing – readers see it with a more immediate feeling. Perhaps it’s the hand drawn aspect? Also, within indie comics there are a lot of autobio comics. I don’t know if it’s still the dominant form, but it was at one point.

I read your first three books and I remember two things struck me. One is that you’re very good with and interested in trying not to use words and letting the images tell the story and not being afraid to let the reader make their own judgement about what it means.

That’s definitely true.

That carries over into Hedra.

I always feel that words within comics should be used sparingly. Whenever something gets overly wordy I start asking, why is this a comic book? I don’t like telling people what to think. I am creating these stories and I have ideas about what is going on and what it means, but I don’t really want to tell people, you should like this character, or this character is in the wrong. I’m much more interested in the places where it’s unclear – because that’s what life is like! Anybody’s who’s had a close relationship has been in an argument where neither person is particularly wrong. Those are the conflicts I focused on in those first three books. When I think about Hedra it has this very visual element, but I don’t know that it has a villain. And as far as what it means, I want to leave that to interpretation. 

All your books are very internal. Even Hedra, which is about visuals. Each book is about an internal journey.

Yeah. The character has gone through something and is not the person they were at the beginning.

Having said that, and it struck me back then too, you’re very interested in making very different books. The idea of you making Hedra doesn’t really shock me because I would have assumed your next project would be different and the one after very different from that.

I get frustrated with myself, but I really don’t like doing the same thing again. The frustration comes from the fact that it feels like I’m always figuring it out. It would be great if I realized, you do it like this, and then just keep doing that. Then it won’t be five years between books. [laughs] But yeah, I’m always experimenting and trying to find different ways that are compelling to me.

Hedra ended up being this science fiction story, but I’m guessing you didn’t set out to make a science fiction story, but the story ended up being this.

I don’t know that I think that much in terms of genre. I might think of an idea and think, that’s a horror idea, but it’s not like I set out to make a horror comic. For better or worse, I let things take their own shape and see what comes out.

So what was the process for Hedra? Did it require you to work differently than you had before?

With the books I had made before, I had much more of a plan for what I was going to do. The narratives were pretty set before I started drawing finished pages. With Hedra it was more that the pages were very designed and I spent a lot of time working on the layouts. That aspect was really driving and shaping the narrative. As I was doing the first pages, I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. As the pages started adding up I started seeing, a classic exploration story will work with this style and this art. Then I started having more of an idea of where I was going and what I needed to fill in. It wasn’t written in a linear manner at all. The first page drawn was #14 or 15. Continuing forward from there and then going back and making the beginning and then adjusting the end. It was a messy process. [laughs] The visual element was the driving force of this book.

That’s interesting because there was this element of play to the storytelling.

Yeah it can be this backwards way of doing things. I need to get from A to B, but how to make getting there as interesting as possible. So there’s definitely a sort of sense of play in the way it was created, but I feel like some of the pages were a kind of game. At least for me. Hopefully for the reader, too! It’s potentially a very challenging book because it’s weird and experimental, but there’s this fun in unravelling it and figuring out the pages as opposed to, “This is dense and I can’t understand it.” 

I remember in two of the early pages as the ship is leaving the planet and crosses the two page spread, it was stunningly beautiful but I could see you thinking about designing the page around this narrative moment and then adding these elements and finding a way to fill the space and design those pages around that.

For me one of the big realizations was that when the panels get dense like that, you can have panels that don’t have a narrative function at all. You can kind of put whatever you want in those panels. In some panels you can’t, but in others, you can just have fun. It becomes a puzzle of what can you do with the panels that aren’t necessary. I feel like in terms of narrative, Hedra sets it up early on that not all the panels matter on a page. It allows you to go, if you look at this section, you get the idea, but if you look at these sections, you see there’s more to explore.

Mike Mignola is a master of that in Hellboy.

He’s got such a wonderful design sense. Doing that with the panels where you don’t need to pay attention to those panels. Where it’s just a flower. One of the other things I remember from looking at his stuff is the simplification that he does as characters get small. I think every artist’s struggle is not what to leave in, but what to leave out. As you’re drawing a very tiny one inch tall character, what do you draw so it still reads as that character. Mike Mignola will sometimes go, it’s a circle, and two lines for legs – but you know exactly who it is. He manages to get body language in there as well. He has this amazing ability to simplify, which I feel is something I still struggle with.

That’s a challenge when you have as many panels as you do in Hedra.

There are some pretty dense pages.

You seemed to have fun. It seems like it would be a headache to do but also really playful.

Oh yeah. I definitely enjoy it, and it makes making comics more fun. You know when you’re taught poetry in high school and it’s really boring and awful? You’re reading some famous poem and there’s some well-documented academic views on what the poem means. Your teacher is trying to get you to say what the poem means. After college I picked up a book of poetry and saw it’s really people playing with language. You could say it this way, but it’s more fun if you say it that way. That indirectness of poetry was so frustrating as a teenager, but that’s the fun of it. 

I love Tintin, and you could draw a comic that way, but you’re probably not going to draw it that way as well as it’s been drawn. You can have more fun in finding another way to get from here to there. With paneling I also found if you find a new way of breaking something familiar apart, you can make it feel new again. It was fun working on it and it’s encouraged me to have more fun working on other new stuff.

You have a new book out this month. What is Planet Paradise?

Planet Paradise is a science fiction story about a passenger spaceship going to a dream vacation planet, but something goes wrong and it crashes. The only people conscious are the captain and a tourist and it’s their struggle to survive and their struggle with each other. I feel like it’s in between stuff more like Joe and Azat and Flower and Fade and work like Hedra. It’s got high concept elements and visually it’s a little more off kilter, but it really is a character story about these two people.

Did you work on this like earlier books where you have the story plotted out before you sat down to draw?

I started carrying little notebooks with me and making comics in them with no plans. Just drawing in these 2” x 3” notebooks. In the few minutes I had before I started work or waiting around, I would draw these comics. One of the things I found was that the stories would come out a little weirder than if I planned them. I feel like something happens when I plan where I start editing too much and the ideas come out less interesting than if I don’t plan. I did a bunch of these little comics in these notebooks. Some are short and some are longer. Planet Paradise was one of the longer ones and I went back and revisited it. It was an idea I liked and I took that original version and added things and cut things and gave it a finished comic treatment. 

So it was a rough draft, essentially.

Basically. My rough draft was a comic. I think it’s a great way to work, but I am the only one I’ve ever met who works this way. It’s not an efficient way to work, but I like doing it. It is something that recently I haven’t been able to do because now I’m doing art full time and I’m at home all the time, so I don’t have these weird dead times in my day in the same way. I would go to work and get there fifteen minutes early so I would drink some coffee and draw. Now, I wake up and I’m at work. [laughs] So I haven’t done it as much recently.

But you’re enjoying that exercise of drawing and maybe it turns into something and maybe not.

I don’t know how other people work, but I feel like if I allow myself to think, it will get more complicated than it needs to be. I will come up with obstacle that will prevent me from doing the book. I remember I had an idea years ago about cloning and I made this list of books which I had to read before I started the story. But really that’s procrastination. For me, working in comic form in little sketchbooks cuts through that. It’s also confidence building because even with no plan, what comes out can be pretty good. I liked that little story. I like that way of working. As I’m the writer and artist, it works. It works for me. 

You have a Patreon. Do you want to say a little about the book you’re serializing there, Prime?

Prime stylistically is similar to Hedra. It’s not completely wordless, but there aren’t a lot of words in it. It’s a story of these primordial beings taking inspiration from epics like Gilgamesh or mythology of Greece. It’s a story following a hero coming into being and fighting battles. It’s similar to Hedra visually. The design component is driving it more than necessarily the character component.

Do you have an end in mind? Or is the story open-ended?

There’s definitely an end. Right now it’s looking like it’s going to be about 250 pages. It’s a life story. The first 50 pages are birth and the final chapter is death and in between are various conflicts. If I talk about them, I’ll reveal too much, but it has a classical structure to it. I think Hedra had a few mythological elements, but Prime is much more of a mythology-like story.

Is this what you want to keep doing, alternate between more formalistic projects and more narrative projects?

Yeah. I feel like with Hedra and that style, it’s a good beginning but there’s more that I want to explore – narratively and visually. But yes, I’m motivated more by what I want to work on. There are decisions I make that are more financial, but if I’m talking about my own stuff I go, this idea interests me and playing with these ideas intrigues me and that’s how I decide what to work on. I feel I’m lucky in that there have been publishers willing to publish me. I’m very lucky Image picked up Hedra. Because of that I’m in a nice place where I have this really weird wordless book with 35 panels per page and it did okay. It seems like if I have some other idea that’s weird, it’s more likely to be accepted by somebody.

Thanks for doing this, Jesse. I’m glad things going well.

It is. And I’m having fun drawing – most of the time. Yesterday I spent the entire morning working on finishing a page and as I was finishing it, I kept thinking, “I don’t like it.” And after I finished it, I thought, “I don’t like it.” Then I redid the page. So there’s that kind of frustration, but I don’t think I’m ever going to escape that. [laughs]

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