FRIGHT X MAGAZINE INTERVIEW.


This interview, from issue 12 of Fright X, was conducted in the summer of 1999 by Jonathan Lomma:

FXM: Jason Little, I am recording you on a tape. By law, I have to tell you that.

JL: Yes

FXM: You are Jason Little?

JL: That's me.

FXM: Is it all right that I'm taping you?

JL: Certainly.

FXM: Now, I've brought your comic book Jack's Luck Runs Out with me…when did you first become interested in cartooning?

JL: Well, every kid draws, for the most part. Some of them stop, but I continued to draw. And my father had Pogo reprints lying around the house. Those were an early influence. And also he had this huge Little Nemo collection from Nostalgia Press. And that, I thought, was amazing, and I had no idea how someone could create something like that. And I was a big Tintin reader as a kid. But then I sort of put those aside and took some cartooning classes in late elementary school. And that was exciting. I started working with bristol paper with dip pens and stuff like that. I had read superhero comics but then I discovered underground comics. And from there I pieced that back into the stuff I had read as a really young kid.

FXM: What's the difference between, say, an underground cartoon and a superhero cartoon?

JL: Well, let's see…I was reading Superman and Batman and Spiderman. But then I got into the Swamp Thing. And this comic had ever so slightly more adult content. And then I found this head shop that had a rack of underground comics in the back. They had Zap, and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Stuff about drugs and fucking and breaking the law. Serious adult content. Political satire. And so that was like really revelatory. Then I realized you didn't need superheroes, you could talk about other things.

FXM: If you didn't become a cartoonist what would you have done?

JL: Golly... I was actually a biology major my first year of college but then I got straight Cs. I thought, "you know, I could really do this," and then I looked at the major requirements and it said that I had to take chemistry. And I realized at that point that I couldn't really do it and that I would flunk out in a big way. So I figured I might as well go with the art major.

FXM: Can what you do be taught or can it only be honed?

JL: I think it all has to do with how smart you are. Or even if you're not smart, if you have vision. Or maybe it's all about practice. I dunno.

FXM: I've heard some artists say that what a cartoonist lacks in talent they can make up for with style.

JL: That depends on who the reader is. If there's no meat behind the work, writing-wise, then the style won't be able to buoy it. But it depends. I used to teach junior high school kids and my students would bring in Todd McFarlane stuff, Image Comics stuff and I would try to read it and the page layouts were really confusing and there wasn't much sense of visual storytelling. Basically each panel was like a little pin up, just like a pose. It didn't further the story in any explicit way. The dialogue was also completely unreadable. So I said to these kids, "it looks pretty, but how can you actually read this stuff?" And they said, "well we don't actually read it - we just look at the pictures." As if I had better get with the program! "You don't actually read the stuff?" And that was kind of a shocker.

FXM: And so, for many artists, the story is an excuse for them to put their art on a page rather than the story being the driving force.

JL: Right.

FXM: But couldn't some argue that it is a visual medium in the way that silent movies were. Starry Night and the Mona Lisa didn't need words...

JL: Mediocre story and dialogue can then lessen the quality of everything. A very delicate illusion must be maintained. I suppose some people, for example, enjoy going to big studio summer movies just to look at the special effects. I suppose that is a legitimate cinematic experience. But if you're interested in story and believable, complex characters, then that wouldn't be a satisfying experience.

FXM: Jack's Luck Runs Out. Your book. How did it evolve?

JL: What inspired me was some of Evan Dorkin's comics. He does Milk and Cheese and a book called Dork which is a collection of miscellaneous stories that don't fit in anywhere else. And he does this thing called "Fisher Price Theatre." You know those little Fisher Price toys. They're those little, sort of cylindrical characters --

FXM: Sure.

JL: And there used to be only four characters, I think. There was Dad, and the Tough Kid, and Mom, and the Dog. And what he would do was take a classic of literature and retell it on one page with only those four characters. So he did the Catcher in the Rye and the little tough kid was Holden Caufield. So I thought, limiting yourself seemed really interesting. It's sort of a stunt to limit yourself severely and then try to do something big with it. And I thought I would do something like that with the playing card faces. And the faces on this particular set are really compelling.

FXM: Describe your self-imposed limits.

JL: The first limitation was that I could only use the twelve faces on the playing cards. The second was that I could only use the colors that were on the playing cards. Later, I decided that to keep everything consistent I would keep the perspectives flat because contemporary playing cards are derived from medieval drawings, and I wanted to go with that kind of naive perspective so everything is in plan view, or elevation view, or drawn with orthagonals. Everything is flat. Things are either shown for the front, the back, or above.

FXM: It's almost staged.

JL: I like to call it a masked play because I can't show any emotions.

FXM: Like Japanese Noh theatre. Because you don't have your characters emoting and because you don't have crazy visuals, we, the reader, end up doing it for ourselves which renders it even more imaginative than had you forced it.

JL: You've got it, right there. That's exactly what my hope was.

FXM: Comparatively its like a Mamet film or a Pinter play.

JL: Right. Deadpan.

FXM: Mamet holds that so-called "production values" are an excuse to not tell a good story. This, by the way, is a really good story. I don't want to give away the end, but what happens to Jack reminds me of stuff I've read in Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. Is Jack a hero?

JL: I suppose so. He certainly goes through the classic trials of that type.

FXM: Will there be more of Jack?

JL: No. I don't think so. I designed it to be a stunt, and if it came off as a good story then that was kind of a coup. But I'd like to move on and do some other things.

FXM: What has the reaction been?

JL: Pretty positive. There were some people who wanted a tighter story.

FXM: Tighter? Than this?

JL: One guy wanted me to show the sequence where Jack is making all of the winnings and he wanted me to not show the sexy stuff so that it would be more of a surprise.

FXM: Who was this guy?

JL: A guy who wrote me a letter.

FXM: You dont know him?

JL: No. I have no idea.


FXM: Yet he felt obliged to give you some tips.

JL: It's kind of traditional in comics that the readers write in. There's always been that two-way communication. And its always exciting to receive unsolicited, aggressive critiques from people that you've never met before because when you get congratulatory letters that are just very positive its nice, because they're telling you what you had hoped to hear. But they're not really telling you anything new.

FXM: Who is Gary Shaheen?

JL: My cartooning teacher from my elementary school days.

FXM: Let me just mention, for our readers who don't yet have the book, that you've dedicated Jack's Luck Runs Out to him.

JL: He was a really good teacher and he inspired me and he told me to keep drawing.


FXM: But just looking at your work I'm sure that dozens must have said that.

JL: I enrolled in my class under my own desires and he took those desires and encouraged them.

FXM: You talked about stunts. We should mention for our readers that " Jack's Luck Runs Out" is only the first part of the book. There's another comic in here.

JL: "The Abduction Announcement."


FXM: Speaking of stunts, this is something I've never seen before in a comic book.

JL: The story is made up of eye-crossing stereograms. There are two columns of seemingly identical panels, except that one of them has been manipulated slightly such that when you cross your eyes and merge the two images it becomes 3D. Somehow, when I was a kid, I discovered that by looking at a tile floor, all made up of individual cells, with my eyes crossed I could make two tiles that are next to each other slip together and appear to be one tile. It was, I don't know, uh, cathartic.

FXM: Hm. Well. At least you know that about yourself. How was the 3D process done?

JL: Basically the original art is in the first column, which I color. And then, on the computer, I copy it and paste it next to the original so that I have two identical pieces. Then, in the right-hand panel, I take an element in the foreground, cut it out, pick it up and slide it a quarter of an inch to the right. So its relationship to the background differs from the original, in the left-hand column.

FXM: You're inducing the scientific phenomenon called parallax.

JL: Um, I guess so.

FXM: It's remarkable and even uncommon that the artwork of this 3D piece, "The Abduction Announcement," that follows "Jack's Luck Runs Out" is so completely different from the four color playing card art. It's so big and dynamic.

JL: It's cheating in a way, because the idea of "Jack" was to work in a limited mode without showing off, and still tell a good story. But then I slipped in "The Abduction Announcement" in the back, where I showed off pretty faces and color and perspective.

FXM: Do you have a creative process, a way you organize your creativity?

JL: I start with a plot summary, which in the case of Bee, is already fourteen pages long which is just little descriptions of scenes. Theoretically, each scene will come out to be a page, with a cliffhanger at the bottom.

FXM: Like the serials they used to play in the movies.

JL: Yes. Which is how Tintin worked,

FXM: This weekly strip you speak of, Bee, what is it about?

JL: It's about a girl named Bee who works as a photoprocessing technician in downtown New York City. And weird people bring photos in to be processed. For example, on one day of work she prints a roll of film from this sorority chick [points at page] who has taken homemade boudoir photographs of herself as a Valentine's Day present for her boyfriend, who's a frat rat. Later, the boyfriend brings in a roll of film where he's barged into the bathroom and taken a picture of her on the toilet. There's a motorcycle outlaw who has taken pictures of strippers at a biker party…you get the idea. Licentious images. Later on, a mortician brings in before and after photos of dead bodies. Bee certainly finds this intriguing. So she sneakily presses the doubles button every time an exciting roll comes in. At one point this handsome fellow brings in pictures of a dead woman in a tub full of blood. So Bee follows him home and starts taking pictures of him through his windows and basically gets involved in his sinister activities. So, basically, it's a mystery story.

FXM: Jason, what sets you apart, in your own mind, from other cartoonists?

JL: I like to think of myself as having made a commitment to a career of formal experimentation - taking the form in which the cartoon is presented and shaping that very specifically according to a plan, or a constraint. The classic example of a literary constraint is a novel by a Frenchman named Georges Perec called A Void. He wrote an entire novel without using the letter e -- which is even crazier in French than it is in English, apparently.

FXM: You're doing for art what he did with literature.

JL: I'm trying. And thankfully, there are other cartoonists doing that same sort of thing. I'm really excited about Scott McCloud's online comics at
www.ScottMcCloud.com. And I've recently learned that there is something of a secret society of formalist cartoonists in Europe, called Oubapo. Short for Ouvre de la Bande Desinee Potential, or Workshop for Potential Cartoon Strips. I've just sent them some of my work, but to become a member you have to be picked. And once you're in, it's impossible to quit. The only way to resign is to write a letter of resignation that is also a suicide note, and then kill yourself.

FXM: Let's hope it never comes to that! We want you to keep making comics.