The latest from Publishing Genius is Jarod Roselló’s The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found, our second full-length comic book (after Activities by John Dermot Woods) and the second book title to feature parentheses (after The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven by Mairéad Byrne).
Released last week, The Well-Dressed Bear is a book about a young bear who, in spite of his constantly mis-dialed phone, faces alienation and anxiety in a city that is increasingly becoming destroyed, and he’s increasingly threatened by his neighbors. You can read early reviews of the book at Enclave and The Small Press Book Review where the reviewer, Melissa Reddish, meaningfully finds parallels between Roselló’s comic and police mobs, Trayvon Martin, and the kind of stereotyping that Claudia Rankine explores in Citizen.
Jarod Roselló is a Cuban-American cartoonist who lives in Florida, where he also teaches creative writing. And since we began this interview, his second child was born. In fact, his book and his baby were practically born on the same day. Jarod talks about the relationship between drawing and parenting, as well as drawing and writing, and lots more. But let’s start at the beginning.
How did you start drawing and how’d you get into comics?
I started drawing the way we all do as kids. I just kept it going, at various levels of intensity, throughout my childhood and adolescence. I’ve always experienced a joy in drawing, and so desired to do more of it. I like dragging a pencil on the paper, I like the way the graphite feels. I also really like drawing from imagination, just letting creatures or objects manifest on the page. I didn’t really read comics as a kid. I had a few comic books and I read whatever was in the newspaper, but it wasn’t until I was about eighteen that I really started reading comics, and then my aimless drawing became focused and directed towards making comics. I started buying sketchbooks, carrying them around with me everywhere I went, and drawing every free second I had. My first year of college, I got a job at A&M Comics in Miami, and that kind of sealed my love of comics. I had been teaching myself the form of comics, but being a part of the community really helped me understand what comics was, or at least, what I could get out of it.
In comics, I found a discarded art form, one that operates at the margins of acceptable society and that tends to use what has been cast away as its content and material. There was something frightening and exciting about making comics, something very alluring about the decentralized nature of the practice. I think this fascination with underground comics culture comes through in The Well-Dressed Bear.
So, is The Well-Dressed Bear a graphic novel, would you say?
I’m going to answer this question, despite the fact that answering it will reveal me to be a comics snob. In the most basic, traditional sense, yes, The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found is a graphic novel, meaning it’s a fictional, book-length work of comics. There’s an understandable dispute with the term “novel,” in that it seems to suggest it should only apply to works of fiction. But “fiction” and “nonfiction” aren’t clearly demarcated genres in comics. While we have “fiction” comics and “nonfiction” comics, those terms haven’t been used historically or traditionally to categorize communities of practice. There’s no such thing as a “nonfiction cartoonist.” For that reason, I’m comfortable using the term broadly to apply to all long-form comics. More recently, “graphic novel” has gained some traction as a way of denoting level of seriousness or literary ambition, but I mostly hear this from people who want to read comics but maybe aren’t comfortable calling them “comics.” I don’t think I’ve ever used the term in conversation with another cartoonist, whatever that’s worth. Is The Well-Dressed Bear a graphic novel? Yes. But I would just say it’s a comic.
So with other cartoonists, do you just call it a book?
I usually just refer to it as a book or a comic. If it’s pamphlet or booklet size, I would call it either a mini-comic or a comic book. I think the trouble comes in that the term applies to both the medium (comics) and the objects made (comics). I can make comics and make comics, one refers to my participation in the art practice and the other refers to my production of actual printed/published material. I find graphic novel useful for marketing outside the comics community.
You teach creative writing at the college level. Do you find that comics are getting more cred in the academy these days?
I think so. I was hired in 2014 to teach comics courses primarily. I’ve also seen job postings over the last few years looking for people who also make “graphic narratives.” Literature departments have been teaching comics and graphic novels for a long time now, but it does seem that in the last decade—and especially the last five years—interest has really picked up. Part of this has to do with the success of certain comics (Fun Home, Persepolis) and the ease with which those comics fit into the literary landscape. It’s actually been really great being a cartoonist the last few years. People always seem very interested in what I do. We also live in an increasingly visual society that has begun to reward image-making. In fact, where it used to be an oddity, being able to make images is now something that sets one apart. Not a week goes by when I don’t receive an email from someone asking me to draw something for them. Culturally, image-making has become a more legitimate activity, and I think this has made its way to the academy. At University of South Florida, I have several graduate students who make comics or want to make comics. I teach an undergraduate course in comics that fills up quickly, despite the fact it’s only open to English majors. I think there’s a lot of interest and many different levels in what comics are and how and where they fit in. Ten years ago, I didn’t even tell people I made comics. And now, I have people coming to me all the time asking for resources so they can start making them, too.
Did you conceptualize all of The Well-Dressed Bear and storyboard it before you set about drawing the final images?
In cartooning, the writing happens in many different places, and constantly throughout the entire process. For this book, I started with a block of text that resembles an earlier draft of the narration in the book. The next step was to thumbnail the images, where another kind of writing takes place, but rather than in language, the writing takes place through sketching out the visual narrative.
Do you mean, like, as you draw you come up with the ideas? Or, how is this “writing through sketching” different than drawing? I’m trying to think about the way the brain works. Does your writing brain and your drawing brain work differently? Is this a question like, do you think differently in Spanish and English?
Yes, I think that’s exactly right. When you’re drawing you’re thinking differently. When I write, I’m thinking discursively, I’m thinking in a linear way, I’m thinking about cause and effect. When I’m drawing, I’m thinking divergently, I’m thinking about generating possibilities that move outward. And working in a cartoonish medium and a fragmented form encourages this. I’m also relying on my body (my arm especially) to make and suggest lines. When I draw, thinking becomes a much more embodied act than a cognitive or intellectual one. Not that I think writing circumvents the body, but I think it’s easy to conflate language with thought. Drawing requires your attention to the body, doesn’t allow you to ignore it as easily. This is partly why I think the body is such a prominent topic in comics.
So you’re writing by sketching out the visual narrative.
This is where the first round of revisions takes place. I wanted to create tension between the narratives, but also look for points of convergence, so based on the visual narrative, I revised the text narrative, then went back again and revised the visual narrative. I probably ended up with an extra 100 drawings of different versions of pages that got cut or replaced. After I have a draft of the book in thumbnail form, I pencil the pages. When I pencil, I try to draw slightly larger than print size (or close to what I imagine print size to be) so I can get a better sense of how the narrative gets read and received by the reader.
What are the technical aspects?
In comics, all kinds of things affect the reading: the visual composition of the panels, the placement of text, the length of text, the framing of images in a panel, perspectives used, and even the turning of the page. All of this is better experienced if the book is at print size or close to it. If the original drawings are little larger, then when I reduce the pages in the end, the line art tightens up a bit. The Well-Dressed Bear was originally drawn at 6”x9” and published at 5”x7”.
I’m really interested in the way you revise, because the work of drawing is such an investment.
During penciling, another round of revision takes place, both text and drawings get adjusted. What I’m trying to do with all these revisions is get the book ready to be inked. I don’t want to make any changes (if I can avoid it) after the book has been inked. I can erase a pencil, but it’s not so easy with ink. Except that when you ink, because you’re changing materials (from pencil to pen, graphite to ink) adjustments have to be made again. Ink sits differently on the page, so rather than trace my pencils, I use them as rough guides for inking, and I really just trust my hand and arm to make good marks and lines. I inked this entire book with the Platinum Carbon Desk Fountain Pen. It uses carbon ink, lays down a very thin, very smooth line. In many ways, it feels like a sketching pen because of how it places ink on the page. This sketchy feel encourages improvisation, so I try to go with that. After I inked all the pages, I scanned them all in, made small corrections on Photoshop and added the gray tone using a tablet. In a way, the process of cartooning embeds revision at every step.
You’ve been doing WDB comics for a long time. How’d you come up with this character?
It was my first year of graduate school—2007, I think—and I had just moved with my wife from Miami to Central Pennsylvania. I was happy to leave Miami, but I felt immediately displaced and also disembodied in a way. I moved from a predominantly Latino city to a predominantly white town where I found myself, for the first time ever, having to justify my latinidad—my latinoness. The first week in Pennsylvania, I was asked how a Latino kid could have a name like Jarod, how well I spoke Spanish (and did I know about the subjunctive?), and whether or not Cubans were mostly black. I suddenly felt as though I had relinquished ownership over my body and my identity, my cultural heritage, everything. I was deeply disturbed and I started to ask myself for the first time ever what it meant to be Latino. The Well-Dressed Bear was created in those first few months, a response to the sensations of displacement and disembodiment. He is a kind of monstrosity: part-human, part-bear. He doesn’t have a name (is he unnamable? unclassifiable? I don’t know …) and he struggles mostly with living between spaces. I think of him as a both a creature of a liminal space, but also as something that invokes or creates that threshold between cultural and historical spaces. And he also exists on a personal level as an individual with specific interests. He’s a struggling writer, he has a family he cares about, he loves animals. Drawing and writing stories about The Well-Dressed Bear has been a safe way for me to explore my own latinidad, my own identity, and start to make some decisions for myself about who I am, what I care about, and what I believe about the world.
What plans do you have for him?
The Well-Dressed Bear is currently appearing in an alternate-reality sequel to The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found in a webcomic called “Those Bears.” An installment of 6 or 7 pages appears every three weeks on Hobart (though it’s on hiatus right now until January). In that comic, he’s living with his sister in a city of mostly humans, he’s dealing with non-human bias, and trying to work on his novel about robots. At some point, the earth gets invaded by robots and he and his sister have to defend the earth. The comic hasn’t gotten that far, but that’s where it’s headed. It’s a webcomic, though, and I’m writing it as it gets published, so it could very easily change. After Those Bears is done, I have plans to do an Edward Gorey style chapter book with The Well-Dressed Bear that wraps up the trilogy. After that, I think I’m going to put him away for a while.
You’re about to become a dad. What’s it like releasing a book and, uh, a baby at the same time?
When I started writing this response, neither the baby nor the book had come out, but now both have. In addition to the new baby, I have a four year-old daughter, and I can’t properly put into words how wonderful being a parent has been for me. I’ve never really excelled at any one thing before. My wife refers to me as an untethered balloon, set loose in the sky, drifting along, pushed by unseen forces, but never quite landing anywhere. The day my daughter was born, I felt a noticeable shift: as though my floating was purposeful, moving in a meaningful direction. Similarly, when I started making comics, I felt like I had a form for my wandering, a concrete form to externalize a lot of what I was feeling. I won’t go into it here, but there’s something about working in the form of comic—working in a fragmented space with panels—that I found help propel me forward in a way that writing prose never did for me. I still write prose, but I use prose and language to make sense of confusion, and I use comics to confuse and disperse. For me, prose writing seeks convergence and comics divergence. Writing makes me feel powerful, drawing makes me feel free. Making comics and being a parent, together, have combined to give my life a shape it’s never had before. It’s hard to explain, but they feel very closely entwined for me. I also think I do a pretty good job at being a parent and a cartoonist, and it’s nice to keep doing the things you think you’re good at. In a way, both activities reward character traits of mine (distractedness, idiosyncracy, eccentricity, silliness, playfulness) that had always otherwise been liabilities. My days are spent drawing cartoon animals and playing rocket ship in cardboard boxes. What more could I ask for? I’m not sure I’m selling this well, but in the mess of human existence, both cartooning and parenting illuminate a path, they map of space of my own existence.
You’re starting a comics press called Bien Vestido Press. Nice tie-in with the name, by the way. What will that be about?
Bien Vestido Press is a small press for comics and zines—visual print media—made by Latina/o artists and writers. I’ve always enjoyed bookmaking and I’ve always had a hard time finding comics by Latina/o cartoonists. I thought if I started my own press, then I could at the very least create a space were Latina/o work would be showcased. I think it’s also encouraging if you’re a Latina/o cartoonist and trying to figure out where you fit in. Work by writers and artists of color has always resonated strongly with me, and I’ve never liked how much I have to seek out that work. There isn’t really a push for diversity in indie comics, not in a way I find meaningful. So Bien Vestido Press will publish handmade mini-comics on a risograph printer. It’s as DIY as it gets, which is also part of the aesthetic. Increasing accessibility means producing books that are affordable, that can be published quickly, and disseminated easily.
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