An Interview With Morgan Jeske

Morgan Jeske is an artist from Vancouver, his work vibrates on the page, and everything he takes on seems to grow by leaps and bounds from the last thing he did. Morgan has had two comics up on the Studygroup website as part of his ongoing  Disappearing Town project (part 1 is here and 2 here), and is illustrating the upcoming Image series Change with colors by Sloane Leong. It’s great to know the guy is so open and interested in how he deals with and understands the medium he’s working in. I’ve been speaking to Morgan online for a few years, and watching him level up over just a few short years ago to the artist he is today has been a blast. As was this interview.

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Sean Witzke: So when did comics start being present for you as something more than entertainment?

Morgan Jeske: I read them as a teen, stopped, then started again in high school. That was all big two stuff with only a passing interest, really. It’s only in the last 6 years that I’ve begun to actually study them, and only in the last 3 years have I started to try to make my own.

Up until about 5 years ago I was mainly focused on film, until I went to film school, oddly enough. Then I started drawing again. Now that I think of it, up until about 7 years ago the last period where I drew with any regularity was when I was a kid.

But that’s all kind of stock stuff. To put it into further perspective, I didn’t know about dudes like Moebius until 5 years ago. Like, I had seen a lot of his work throughout my life, and it must have registered on some level, but I didn’t know about him, y’know.

I discovered that I really love drawing and my final film ended up being a classical animation thing. When I went to film school I wanted to act as well as direct. This is before I really knew what that would mean to me as a person, like, what that actually requires of someone. I think I was just more fascinated by the process of acting, of building a character, etc. Making comics was in no way a step down from trying to make movies, but I realized that I could do a lot of the same work a director does via comics. There’s a lot of shared theory in terms of visuals, so my interest in one would benefit the other greatly.

Sean Witzke: So what led to that transition away from film? Was it the comics you were reading at the time or…?

Morgan Jeske: So, at the same time I was going through film school, I was reading a bunch of Miller 80’s stuff, all this Giraud work, and then I got to Pope. A big moment for me as far as my own style is concerned. More so at that time than it is now.

Akira was huge for me too. I came up watching the film and loving it. Then early in the oughts I bought the Manga, which I didn’t really know was the massive, sprawling work that it is. So that altered the way I looked at scope/scale in comics. All of my ideas after that couldn’t be anything less than 1000+ page masterpieces, heh.

Sean Witzke: Well, the difference is really that you are more in control of comics if you’re writing and drawing yourself, it’s so more immediate I would think.

Morgan Jeske: The immediacy, and also the ability to fuck up and not lose a whole bunch of people money.

Then, faced with all of that freedom, trying to figure out what making a story “just for me” actually means. What do I want to talk about? How do I tell stories? How do I synthesize effectively, not just wear my references on my sleeve as an escape hatch for criticism. Right now I’m trying to figure out what a story completely by me looks like. How do I do that without straining to appeal too much? On the flip side, how do I make it for me and not be completely insular.

Sean Witzke: You’ve mentioned Moebius, Pope, Miller, and Otomo – to steal a Marc Maron question – who are your guys? (Including those guys) In comics and film, whatever, who are you judging your stuff against?

Morgan Jeske: Well, for the better part of the last few years its been Pope in terms of my style. I’m not really interested in mimicking him, even though I am grabbing things here and there. The fluidity, and ease with which he makes marks is really something I admire, and try to replicate. His work is just really loose and confident. I could say the same about a bunch of dudes. Quitely is another guy I copied a lot. His lumpy figure work appeals to me. A little grotesque. It’s freeing for sure. As far as comics right now, I’d say anything Graham is doing. His stories have this casual flow to them. Direction without direction if that makes sense. The new stuff I’m working on is definitely being held up to Multiple Warheads in particular. I guess that answer is more about my style of work. There are a lot of guys I just admire. Mazzucchelli, Otomo, Moebius, Sienkiewicz. It’s a big list and I’m probably leaving out a bunch.

For film, one of the big ones is Soderbergh. I talk about him a lot, and I don’t love all of his films, but I do love his willingness to jump around genre and style. He’s the reason I wanted to go to film school actually. I think I saw Out Of Sight first. I don’t know, I think it was just an exposure to jump cuts and non-linear editing. I knew about those things, but I didn’t actually think about them until after his movies. The other thing about Soderbergh—and this could have happened via someone else, I just got to him first—was that from his movies I got sent in a bunch of different directions. From Out of Sight’s trunk scene you get to Network and Bonny & Clyde. From ‘The Limey’ to ‘Point Blank’ (via that vs. Lem Dobbs commentary track). Like that, on and on.

Then, listening to his commentary tracks and having a whole wealth of film history being opened up for me. There are lots of other directors that are huge for me, but Soderbergh in particular signaled a big turning point for me. Everything that I’m picking up from listening to them talk about their craft gets dumped back into whatever I’m doing.

Sean Witzke: I know that you’re big on process – and understanding other people’s process. What do you think you get out of knowing someone you respect’s process? Or just process in general. Is it beneficial as a learning tool or do you just find it reassuring?

Morgan Jeske: Watching someone else work, especially someone I admire, is really motivating. Beyond that it’s about learning different ways of doing a thing. “Oh, that’s how he gets those lines” Then I take that method and try it out. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but I’ve made my style go this way when it would normally do some other thing. Something lazier. I also learn so much about making work as well. Listening to commentary tracks I’ve learned more useful information about making stories than in a year of film school. To get even more granular, I’ll sometimes put on a Fincher track while I draw and the simple act of listening to someone who is expert at something talk about it, elevates what I’m doing.

I still don’t feel like I’ve settled into a style of my own. I’m pretty green though, so it’s okay. Best case, I’d like to be able to be different from project to project.

Sean Witzke: So can you talk about what Disappearing Town is, and where it comes from? Well, maybe not where it comes from – what you are aiming to do with it?

Morgan Jeske: I’d like it to be an umbrella title for a variety of stories. One massive world building exercise, but within that I can tell whatever kind of story I want, in any genre. I want it to be a project that spans the length of whatever career I end up having in this industry or any for that matter

But at its center is a dysfunctional family named after Jean Giraud. I guess that’s the core as far as reoccurring characters goes. Or the more previews answer: It’s a collection of irregularly released mini-series that tell the lost stories of Disappearing Town. It’s a good container for shifting interests and styles. I don’t think I’ve got the patience to work on a single story for an extended run. That requires a lot of love, and I’d like a container that has a secret trap door built into its structure.

Sean Witzke: Do you feel like that format, where it’s shifting from characters and genre/tone/setting, does that come a little from THB? Like I can think of a quite a few comics — and like the Antoine Doinel series or the Romero Living Dead films — where the idea of the series is as much a check-in with the author at that moment as it is a new installment

Morgan Jeske: Oh definitely. I’m not telling, or responding to certain types of stories like I was 5 years ago, so I’d like to build that into its DNA. Obviously a person (hopefully) grows and changes, gets more savvy. Hopefully what you’ll see with each installment is what I’m into at that time, without being too “hey I just saw this comic and here’s my obvious watered-down version of it”. I want to stress that I’m very weary of stepping into auto-bio territory. Obviously the stories will get some me on them, but I’m not going to be doing back-ups about why I made a choice etc.

Further to your question, I guess Casanova has had a huge influence on me as well in recent years. That irregular release schedule, compressed story about familial dysfunction. Jesus. But then I guess it’s just as much Anderson as it is Fraction re: Disappearing Town. Laid over a euro comics lo-fi sci fi back drop.

Sean Witzke: So narratively are how are you approaching Disappearing Town? Are you writing first or are you finding the story as you draw it?

Morgan Jeske: The first one I did was made up page by page without even thumb nailing. Which took twice as long as it should have because of it, given the simplicity of the thing. The second one, Polaroid, involved a lot more planning. I look at those two stories as demo tracks for what the book will become when I do some sort of official release. Except I’ve leaked them before the studio versions even exist. For the first 4-5 issue mini-series I’ll be planning it out a lot more. I like to make plans with escape hatches though, so I can draw into corners.

But yeah, the next story is being written right now. Before that I’m going to do another short 15 page story about a hitman for Study Group, hopefully in January. Assuming they’ll still have me.

Sean Witzke: How does it feel to be drawing other people’s scripts, right now? Are you taking it as a chance to do something purely as an art exercise? Soderbergh-ian problem solving?

Morgan Jeske: Exactly that. The way I’ve approached it is as a brief to be completed. It’s engaging, but it’s still ultimately comparable to freelance work. Since it’s not mine I can’t go all in. By the way, this is news to me as well. Without the container, or the imposed deadlines, I wouldn’t have drawn the 48+ pages that I’ve completed in the last few months. Working on Change has been a great experience. It’s my first officially released comic with a print publisher, so I’ve had a chance to see first hand how I deal with that pressure. It really shook me at first, and you’ll literally be able to see me progress with each issue. You just get better, pick up new tools, then take them back to the cave. But yeah, it’s definitely like the Fincher/Scott method. No way will I direct 2000 commercials though.

It also tells me that I want to do everything in my books. Or at least I’d like to try to.

I want to fail big, in front of as many people as possible. Learning in public. As much as I’d like to be one of those dudes that just comes out of nowhere and kills it, I’m not. But then I run into the self-destructive line of thinking, “why should someone pay to watch me maybe get better?”. I try not to be publicly hyper critical of my stuff. It often reads as false modesty, but occasionally some leaks out. It’s weird thinking about the span of one’s own body of work when they’re just starting anyway I guess. “It’s dark, and there are no other people up my own ass”.

Sean Witzke: Of course, but I think the way you want to go is the way that ends with more work done, right? Here’s an extremely broad question – do you feel like Disappearing Town is coming from you wanting to explore comics or wanting to use comics to tell stories?

Morgan Jeske: I think it’s a lot of both really. I’m learning as I go certainly, but a big part of that for me is figuring out what comics do that can’t be done elsewhere. That’s a stock answer I guess, but it’s very true for me. I’m learning how to do things that I’ve seen done really well by people whose work I like, but it really sinks in when I work it out on my own. I tried my hand at panel analysis on 100 Bullets a couple years ago for that same reason. But it sticks more for me in the doing. I don’t have the focus required for deep analysis anyway

In making them I’m learning what it is I love about them, if that makes sense. I struggle with getting at the source of my enjoyment of a piece of entertainment a lot of times, or I’m too lazy to do the requisite leg-work to figure it out. I’m getting better at it. Then taking that further and figuring out what the work you’re looking at is a part of. The larger context I guess. I’m not blowing smoke here, but when I started following a lot of blogs in the last four years I learned so much. About comics, film , music etc. I’ve become very dependent on curators basically.

Sean Witzke: So how are you developing pages right now?

Morgan Jeske: If I’m working of someone else’s words, they typically start with very quick thumbnail sketches in the margins. From there full on thumbnails. When I work digitally I’m inking right on top of the loose sketches. On the way from roughs to final panels, and staging will usually change quite a bit. I just need that initial track to riff on. When I’m doing my own stuff it’s all thumbnails with scratchy dialogue all over the page. Totally non-linear.

During both versions of the process, I flip through comics I like and steal as much as I can without being horribly obvious. This includes staging, character poses, individual lines, and other flourishes. Hopefully that all synthesizes by the time I get to the finished page. Sometimes it doesn’t, but I’m ok with that if it’s saying something that the original panel didn’t.

For my own comics, I do as many versions of the pages as I can, then cut and paste and move around multiple times. This might sound really obvious, but I enjoy editing way more than coming up with pages from scratch. So I try to give myself as much material to play with as I can before starting.

Sean Witzke: What’s the hardest part technically for you? For example – is it writing the dialog or placing word balloons, or something else?

Morgan Jeske: I work up dialogue the same way I do for pages: way too much. Cutting and making it better is easy (hah!) once I’m looking at the final layout. Word balloon placement starts pretty early and is part of overall composition. Although, since I’ve started working with someone who letters for real, I’m learning a lot about what you can and can’t get away with. The most difficult technical thing though is getting the physical acting for the characters down. Trying to tell the story that way first. I’m still not great at it, so that’s something I work on constantly. The other general technical thing is consistency. Not only from page to page but issue to issue. Some days that thing that you have goes away and it’s all fucking struggle.

Also, creating backgrounds and “sets” that feel like the characters are actually in them. I’m getting better at that too, but it’s often work. I made a joke to someone the other day that my comics look like they’re 80’s sci-fi on a budget. It’s like, “we couldn’t shoot the whole building because actor dude wanted a bigger trailer”

Sean Witzke: do you think that’s a problem with a lot of comics, that interacting with the environment is something that’s just ignored? I remember years ago reading a comic with a scene where characters were in a fire and it actually effected how the characters stood and acted. It felt exceptionally rare

Morgan Jeske: Yeah, I mean look, it’s definitely easier to throw down a few lines and imply ROOM. I’m looking back at recent pages and I’m guilty as fuck of doing that on occasion. Sometimes it’s because the deadline looms, or I’m lazy and I need to watch that movie I’ve seen 90 times again. It requires a lot more time—for me at least—to look at a scene and think, “maybe character A is looking down at a plant or something while in conversation” Then your art is saying something about that person (he’s nervous, guilty etc.) That kind of stuff I think can help cut down on a lot of needless dialogue too. All that said, it’s still something I’ve got to think about a lot. Of late the only comics I’ve been reading regularly are by people who are really fucking good at capturing the physicality of their characters. Graham on Warheads and Staples on Saga.

I think when you’re a younger illustrator, in terms of your experience, things like how characters interact with each other and their environments can get lost in trying to make everything look right i.e anatomy, physical relationship to one another. Things can end up looking stiff and without life. I’m speaking from my experience as a young illustrator, at least in terms of skill level.

Another thing I’m very aware of is the fact that my character work is stronger than my environments, so I’ve constantly got to work at making the them not feel like they’ve been dropped into a room like kindergarten cut ups. Environments as characters is probably a more succinct way to put it.

Sean Witzke: So your day job is also a creative one, right? How do you feel about that separation between it and the comics? Is there one?

Morgan Jeske: It depends on what the job happens to be at the time. I do mostly short freelance contracts that involve drawing in ways that I don’t normally do. Not having a 9-5 is sometimes more difficult than having that structure. That’s years of conditioning I guess. Drawing all day is great, but switching over to comics in the evening can sometimes involve hours of warm-up. For the last two weeks I’ve been doing rotoscope animation for a car commercial. I’m working without lines, starting and finishing with shapes made entiely from color. That’s a good tool to have, but getting back into pages after that is a weird double feature. I also sometimes edit comics for a small studio here in Vancouver. That’s more ideal in the sense that I’m looking at other people’s work all day and breaking pages at the conceptual level. I can then take all that pent up energy and hit pages harder.

The goal is obviously to sustain on comics alone, but I’m pretty sure that would have it own setbacks. I’d still be pretty useless creatively from 12pm-5pm.

Sean Witzke: so what’s the last thing that kicked your guts in, creatively? Maybe not something obvious or you haven’t talked about yet?

Morgan Jeske: You mean in terms of something I’m working on or something I’ve read?

Sean Witzke: Read or watched – like what was the last thing that made you have the “I need to re-examine what I do” reaction?

Morgan Jeske: Hmm, well that last movie I saw in the theater was Looper. It wasn’t a kick to the guts, but it’s definitely the best movie I’ve seen this year. Just really lean and well shot. Watching movies like that definitely make me reconsider getting too deep into comics. I still want to make some movies down the line. I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but Multiple Warheads is the best thing I’ve read in a long time. It’s got such a familiar and completely foreign vibe to it. And, it feels like something I could pick up randomly, with no context, and read. I felt the same way about King City actually. I came to it late and only read 4 or 5 non-consecutive issues, but it still made sense. Like I’d be ok with just reading one of these and not knowing what happens. That makes me question my own stuff a lot. How can I recreate that feeling? That seems to be very important to me.

Sean Witzke: Well, here’s the alternate question – when’s the last time you did something yourself that surprised you?

Morgan Jeske: That’s a good one, I don’t know. It’s not that surprising but I agreed to do a re-write of a script for my production designer friend. It’s something the director wants to shoot next July. So, that’ll be weird. I’ve never done anything like that, but I feel like I’m good at cutting the shit out of other people’s stuff. I feel like I’ll need to marathon a lot of movies before I start that though, just to get my brain thinking and working to different rhythms.

Sean Witzke: you’ve said that about movies and comics where you kind of immerse yourself in whatever you’re planning to work on, how do you think that helps you? Just to match tone/pacing/thought process? Something else?

Morgan Jeske: I feel like it works on an unconscious level. The movies or comics don’t really need to be in the same genre as what I’m working on, but the act of watching a bunch of good movies over and over—you pick stuff up beyond the surface stuff. You want to be that good, or attempt to get to the places that those good things got to. I don’t feel like i ever do, but you fill the well and it gives you a boost. It also makes you very aware of the gap between your own work and the stuff you really like. Then there are times when it’s to study specific scenes to steal from. I should try writing more critiques though, it seems like that helps a lot with the application of what you’re picking up

Sean Witzke: Given carte blanche and an unlimited time/budget – what are you working on? Are you holing up and working on your masterwork? Are you getting a film together? Are you hiring a shop full of assistants and cranking out an Akira style multi-volume epic? What’s ideal?

Morgan Jeske: The problem with this question starts with me. I’ve got the attention span of a (something with a short attention span) when it comes to projects. I’ve always got about three or four projects in production at any given time, in various stages of gestation I’m not answering the question! I’d work on Disappearing Town right now. It goes like this: the day gig would be all comics, cranking out a big arc for DT, then, in the evenings I’d work on a feature script idea that I’ve had bouncing around for awhile. The thing that’s great about that is that its story ties into DT in a “DNA strand” sort of way. A corner of the same world, but not in any way explicit about said connection. That’s what I’d do. The problem with getting a film production off the ground would be this: it’s an all of the time and money I have situation. I may only ever make one film, so it’s going to be everything when it happens. But yeah, right now: comics.

- Jeske/Witzke, November 2012.

All images provided by Morgan Jeske.

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