Smash Pages Q&A: Leslie Stein is ‘Present’

Over the course of five books, Leslie Stein has established herself as one of the great cartoonists of her generation. One reason is the way that her work defies characterization, avoids cliches and tropes, and instead forges its own idiosyncratic path. Some of her work can seem simplistic, but it’s quickly apparent that the choices Stein has made are complicated and thought out, and that the simple choices she’s made are effective and precise. She is a skilled artist, an inventive letterer and possesses an eye for color and composition that are like very few people in comics. Stein is also quite simply one of the funniest and most philosophical cartoonists working right now.

She’s an artist who is always experimenting, and her new book is no exception. Present, which came out from Drawn and Quarterly earlier this year, is her best work to date. The book collects many of the short comics that have been serialized in recent years on, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions.

This notion of being present, of being in the moment in almost this Buddhist sense, is important for an artist, I think. One element that runs throughout your work is these meditative moments in which Larry or you are present.

Yeah I think that’s been a theme in all my work, the little daily things that make life worth living are as equally important to me as overarching themes. To me they really are, especially aspects of the natural world like weather and animals. Which I mean, are not little things at all, but I’m not so human centric in my view of the world, so I think I view things kind of differently.

I also talk about the title in the introduction as having the dual meaning of being a gift. I used to make collaged comics out of construction paper in college and it was very tedious. I would fool myself into thinking I was making a card for a love one to get through the page without giving up.

We’ve seen you work in this style before in Bright Eyed at Midnight, which is different from your work in Eye of the Majestic Creature, how did you work out this idea of how you wanted the comics to look?

That worked itself out for me over the course of the year I did Bright-Eyed. I really had no preconceived notion of what the page would look like at the beginning. It just kind of naturally unfolded into a style over the course of a year. I think it’s very apparent in the book. I had no idea it would be a book when I started it, I just kinda had a freak out and started posting these little weird life snippets onto my tumblr, with the idea that no one would see them.

That book is more an art project, more like a painting with layers of experiences and moods relating to each other in different ways. Anyone who comes to it thinking they are  going to be having a “graphic novel” experience will probably be bummed out.

One reason I ask about the idea of the comic is that at first glance some pages might seem simple, but they are very complicated and you clearly put a lot of thought into the character designs and the use of colors, expressions, the text, but they’re also minimalist in a lot of ways, avoiding drawing lines when you don’t have to. In some sense is this a reaction to Eye and working in that style? Or do you just not like drawing chins and noses?

I like drawing noses and chins just fine, but I do not think they are necessary here. Also, there are layers of shapes in the minimal pencils and how the posture relates to the angles of the head and face, and how the hair is rendered that I believe fill in those gaps, but what do I know.

I’m always experimenting with coloring these, which I love doing.

Your first book Yeah It Is, was about composition and about color, and these comics play with some of those ideas in very different ways.

That comic was a series of collaged panels was made out of a multicultural construction paper pack I found at an art store years ago. I only had white, black, and five shades of brown and tan to work with. The line was in how I used scissors turning the page as I went. I still turn the page a lot to get the lines I want, using my hand as an anchor since I draw these small.

Can you walk through how you make a comic? What’s your writing and drawing process like?

I just carry around a notebook all the time and write snippets of little moments that seem or feel interesting to me. Then I combine them later into a complete story, which can sometimes take months if I don’t have two experiences that compliment each other. I probably look like such a weirdo, because while I’m walking around they play on a loop and an ending will come to me suddenly, and I’m like “Fuck, yes!” out loud all of a sudden.

So then I’ll write them into beats using stick figure type things, but super rough so I can be playful and add things while I’m on the actual page. I pencil super lightly and ink them with pen. So I have my beats set and then I freestyle the color. That’s the fun and most experimental part and I’m always trying to push forward and surprise myself.

You mentioned that you draw comics small. Just how big are your originals?

Each style I work with has its own size, which I think informs the each style. The diary comics are 8.5″ x 11″, Eye is 11″ x 17″. I just had a bunch of off-white card stock paper from Staples laying on the floor when I started drawing the diary comics in 2014. They hold the microns well and the watercolor dries super fast so I have to be quick.  I think the challenges of the paper and materials informed the style. I just tend to go along with how the materials are working together.

In Eye of the Majestic Creature, you’ve said all along that Larry is based on you and your experiences. Do you ever debate whether a story would make a good diary comic versus using it for a story with Larry?

I think that I view the Eye of the Majestic Creature stories as being more idiosyncratic than the diary comics, which I’m trying to make more broad in scope and dealing with, what I hope or assume to be relatable life issues. It’s all intuition mostly. Because the diary comics are really just short stories, I try to get to the point, but since Larry’s stories are longer I can meander more. So I guess in the future it will be based on my desire to meander.

I love your lettering, and this is a very nerdy comic book question, but you could talk a little about the lettering in these comics?

Thanks! I’m really happy when someone tells me that. I’m very interested in it as an art form. My style is hyper aggressive when I’m doing the titles, fast and violent. It’s more reserved and ebbs and flows with the dialogue, using color and she to emphasize the meanings of particular words. I letter last which is insane and forces me to be ultra creative with the spacing and such.

What is considered “good lettering” to others usually strikes me as precise to the point of being dull, and it leaves the dialogue with a flat tone, which is hard for me to relate to. Schulz’s lettering had such character. But I guess the most important is that I fits with ones style of art and that can be a tricky thing to innovate.

Tell me about the cover of Present.

Tracy Hurren, my editor at Drawn and Quarterly, came up with the idea! She’s the best.
I do these meditative drawing/paintings that are based on circles a lot, so I was super stoked when she suggested it. I think the die-cuts really make it a cool object.

You’ve been making these comics for Vice and what has that experience been like? Both in terms of having a regular gig but also just having an outlet and readers’ feedback so you’re not just putting out a book every couple years?

It’s been great. I think my next project will be long and unserializable (in terms of Vice content anyways) I’m trying to figure out how I can feasibly do that without the money coming in steadily. I guess I’ll have to work at the bar more. It’s a little depressing. I really like giving the readers a chance to appreciate these as little short stories that will hopefully just give a little boost to their day. It’s nice to get little comments showing that they are appreciated, which is somewhat new to me, having not really formatted my work for reading on the internet before Bright-Eyed at Midnight. The book collecting them has a through-line that I hope people get, since I worked on filling the gaps content wise after I knew Present would be published. So I tried to make that a different and unique experience from the strips themselves.

There’s still a number of Vice strips to be collected and you’ve had three books published in three years, do you know what is the next book is?

I don’t have any books in a queue, nope. Just gonna draw what’s in my head and see what happens there first. Someday I’d like to do another collection of diary comics, when the time is right.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been doing the vice strips when I can while I’ve been traveling promoting Present. I’m working on getting some rest.

Thanks, Leslie.

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