When Comics Return: A Chat With Shawn Belschwender
Shawn Belschwender honed his cartooning chops in D.C. in the '80s, beginning in George Washington University's student newspaper and then moving over to City Paper. Now he's back. Belschwender's Clowntime Comics stars his character Refrigerator Johnny; which is fondly remembered by many Washingtonians, and will not be appearing in the Post any time soon, at least in our version.
Washington City Paper: Can you describe your strip to attract a new reader who have never seen it?
Shawn Belschwender: There's a little guy at the center of it coping or not coping with the failures and frustrations of his life, or, often, entirely denying them to himself. He has a pal, with his own problems, offering guidance. They push forward, harboring a lot of delusions about themselves and their little world. Their pronouncements should delight you and maybe perturb you. If that's not too gross a statement. Clowntime Comics are supposed to be at least amusing.
WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?
SB: I was born in 1966 in New Jersey. I grew up in northern New Jersey, in West Milford Township.
When I was 12, I went to Saturday classes at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, in Dover, N.J. (which is not too far away from where I lived). Joe Kubert is best known for his work on Sgt. Rock for DC Comics. I was in the throes of Star Wars fandom at the time, so I was drawing Stormtroopers and Darth Vader and R2D2 and attempting a Chewbacca. Kubert once stood behind me and huffed something about one of my Stormtroopers. I can't remember what. This would have been 1978, so there were still a lot of authentic hippies in existence wearing unironic beards; the older guys in the real school were doing finely rendered Tarzans or Conan the Barbarian things in pen and ink. The school had a "library" that we weren't allowed to go in, because the "library" had a lot of Playboy magazines in it, which the hippies were using for reference. You know, as models for the buxom barbarian women. With the snake coiled around a sturdy thigh.
WCP: Who are your influences?
SB: My favorite cartoonists are Charles Schulz, Robert Crumb, and probably Edward Gorey (I've recently reread some Edward Gorey and saw that he probably influenced me more than I thought). The usual. I also loved Peter Bagge's Martini Baton series of strips, and was a Hate by Bagge and Eightball by Daniel Clowes reader. Life In Hell, Mark Newgarten— alternative and underground strips were my thing when I got older, but I was and am a Peanuts fan.
WCP: How long have you been doing it?
SB: I got Clowntime published in a different, longer, eight-panel form back in the fall of 2002, originally in the Orlando Weekly. It got picked up by a small related group of newspapers out of Connecticut—the Hartford Courant, the Valley Advocate, and I think two others (that group paid me one small flat fee). The Connecticut group stuck with me until the fall of 2008—I was missing a lot deadlines. In my defense, I was in the middle of a move, but I was also burnt out. I was only able to work on my cartoons on the weekends (still the case)—I worked a full-time job (this is also still the case). On and off, I've been doing cartoons since college, where I had a strip in the George Washington University Hatchet (our student paper) for three years. The six years I worked on Clowntime previously was when I worked out a lot of my motifs and came up with a lot of my characters.
WCP: How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?
SB: I print out my own custom blue-lined "boards" on Yupo, a polyprophylene "paper." I draw in blue pencil on that and ink over them with Staedtler Mars permanent ink felt-tip pens. They're slightly mushy and so not that precise, but firm enough—I am going for a very stark and simple look—I'm not looking for variation in line width. Then I scan the inked Yupo page and assemble the finished panels in Photoshop. I have libraries of digital character heads and props which I reuse—each head will be made up of Photoshop layers with different mouth types, and a movable pupil, etc. My panels are sort of assembled as "sets" in which elements of them can be moved around, and the figures stand in those sets. It's sort of like Colorforms, if anybody remembers those—where there was a scene printed waxed cardboard and you stuck these little plastic figures and props over the scene. I don't know if this saves me any time, but it does make it easier to switch out text—I am editing and rewriting my strips all the way through producing them, sometimes. I would love to one day draw everything directly into the computer, but those Wacom tablets are never comfortable—an iPad would be ideal, but you still can't draw will directly onto one, as far as I know. I still like the contact of pen and paper. Pen and Yupo. If I could do it all on computer, I could assembly my cartoons anywhere, with a lot less equipment (now I have to lug my laptop, a portable scanner, pens, pencils, paper, etc.)
WCP: What other type of cartooning or illustration do you do?
SB: I started out doing editorial illustrations for my college paper and did so for a variety of papers, mostly alternatives ones, for a couple of decades. Usually very cartoony stuff.
I had an internship at an advertising firm during my senior year in college—they hired me for a few small things which paid more money than I ever made for an editorial illustration. That firm filed for bankruptcy not long after I graduated and I was only paid a portion of what they finally owed me. I hated advertising illustration—it's utterly corrupt. I was told things like, "Could you make it look more like a Gary Larson?" when drawing a cartoon cow, for instance—a cow which was packing its bags because it was mortally afraid of the Marriott corporations' amazingly low deals on steak dinners. I had to fight those requests to blatantly rip off somebody's style as best I could. I never did very many of these advertising illos, maybe three or four. Years later my parents, who were living in upstate N.Y., saw that cow illustration in their local pennysaver, stolen by a resourceful paste-up artist for a restaurant ad. I was kind of flattered! That was a fairly common practice—I had done it myself at the New York Press, putting ads together in the production department. Usually you were just clipping the "free" clip art somebody else had clipped. But who knows? The whole thing made me feel disgusting.
My first job out of college, and the best job I ever had, was with the Washington City Paper, and it wasn't very long after I started (in production) that the art director, Mark Jenkins, and the editor, Jack Shafer, hired me to do illustrations. They (and my GWU Hatchet editors) gave me my real start. I was doing illustrations for Loose Lips at first but I begged off after awhile—I felt like a fraud doing political cartoons, particularly cartoons about local D.C. politics, which I was not following very closely. They weren't my thing. I did some illustration for New York Press, where I also worked in production. I was there when the very talented Michael Kupperman was doing a lot of illustrations for them; also Danny Hellman and a slew of others—it was a great venue for cartoonists. Kaz, Ben Katchor etc. were being published in the New York Press then. This was in the early- to mid-1990s. Mike Gentile was the art director.
I illustrated the syndicated column News of the Weird for decades, for both Washington City Paper and the Chicago Reader. Eventually Washington City Paper decided to stop paying for new illos and just ran the same illo every week. About three or four or five years ago I asked for a raise from the Reader, from the $30 per illo I was getting, got rejected, and stopped doing it. Papers were collapsing; there was no more money in them.
But I was never a very good illustrator. I never really liked doing them. There was even a period after my parents died when I could barely concentrate and I had to change my style to something way more loose, which I could dash out at one go, my mind was so shot; I could barely stand my limited style—and I'd never truly nailed one down, which you've gotta do. Mike Gentile at the New York Press stuck with me through this period—I have to thank him for that. I'd wanted to do cartoons instead, all along. But drawing for the News of the Weird was like taking a weekly class in drawing—the variety of objects and situations I had to draw was wide in range. Even if a lot of the situations involved very dumb criminals. I'm glad I did that for so long. I got decent at it, but never that great at it.
WCP: What do you think the future of comics will be?
SB: I'm not one to ask; I wouldn't presume to know. In the middle 1990s I did some limited animations for Blender, a CD-Rom "magazine"—remember those? It was a terrible experience. My cartoons were clunky, and then to animate them, you had to deliver the files to a programmer, who set them up in a program called Director; you had to leave all the timing of your gags that person; the timing, the syncing of the sound, etc. I had to record sounds! I just used my own voice sped up for the character's voice—for my main Clowntime guy. My thing was panned by a reviewer for Wired.
In early 2009 I tried to get a slightly cleaned up version of Clowntime syndicated as a daily, just as all dailies were dying hard. No dice. Then I entered that Washington Post competition for their next 'great' daily cartoonist and, to nobody's surprise, was not chosen. I wasn't even included in their round-up of honorable mentions! Thanks Garry Trudeau, et al.
I knew I was a long shot, but my thinking was, "Newspapers are going under. Maybe they are willing to try something new? Clowntime is not Cathy. Although they are not entirely dissimilar!" Yeah: I thought I was the future of cartoons! I thought wrong!
I have a lot more thoughts about where comics are now. When I sent the link to my Clowntime Comics site to a friend of mine, I joked, "Ask me how I feel about graphic novels!" (go there and and read my "ads" and you'll see what I'm talking about). I'm fairly cranky on the topic. I like short form comics, like the dailies...my feeling is, "Imagine if daily cartoons were any good at all: Wouldn't the world be wonderful?" Which is why I'm thrilled to be in the City Paper again—not just because it's where I started, but because they're giving our short strips a venue.
I see graphic novels as the rock opera of cartoons. Pretentious, bloated, intellectually bankrupt, and philosophically confused; terrible as art. Some graphic novels (the super-hero ones), like a lot of rock operas, value jack-off technical skill over coherence and literacy; both usually traffic in adolescent power fantasies. Calling your cartoons a "novel," like calling your suite of rock songs an opera, is to wish to cloak your work in an unearned mantle of respectability—novels, like opera, have or had a cachet with complete boobs: Automatically they think anything tagged a "novel" must be high art.
Not only is it unearned, but in my case it's unwanted.
Rock should not wish to become an art that's targeted at some complete clod's idea of an "adult," and neither should cartoons (Hey, I don't need "the man"'s seal of approval. Man!). The supposed "updating" of the idea of an "opera" or a "novel" by adding rock or drawings has failed. Also, these so-called "novels" are written by people who obviously don't read. Try one!
There are exceptions I have enjoyed, but usually in parts, at best. People seem to love them, though! I am aware that I am spitting into the wind. Would that be the correct cliché? Swimming against the tide, then. I just don't see graphic novels as vital (even though they may be "the future"). I see them as utterly dreadful as a reading experience. Even the alternative ones, which Harvey Pekar had a lot to answer for, do not escape my condemnation—why are we subjected to a full page of a single repeated drawing of a person with a word balloon over their head? Any not-so-hot novel without pictures is better than just about every "novel" with pictures. Pekar was kind of like a fourth-rate Bukowski—Bukowski without the fucking!—and I never liked Bukowski all that much.
If I'm going to get better, or if "comics" in general are going to get better, the real me and the amorphous concept of comics are going to need more of the kind of opportunities the Washington CP is giving us. The dailies are closed to us; they're apparently for children, the elderly, and the mentally enfeebled (with Doonesbury strictly for journalists, who are a comedically challenged bunch. Am I right?). We can all self-publish digitally—but how long can any of us continue if we're always doing it for free, or a tiny amount of money? Jandos Rothstein and the WCP are doing a great thing by giving us space to do what we want to do.
WCP: When you formerly were in the paper, you first did a comic strip, and then illustrations for columns—how did this come about?
SB: Jack Shafer, the editor of the City Paper when I worked there in production, offered me a strip. I ultimately did three different strips for the Washington City Paper before I had a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized (for depression. I'm fine now!): the first was a collage thing, almost—each week was some different topic. My first one starred a character called Little Leatherface, after the guy in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the topic was capital punishment (!) (I'm against it, btw! Hurray for me!). After that, my cartoons starred a picture of a kid I clipped out of the Weekly World News. I called him Timmy. Jack Shafer had to quash that shortly thereafter—I mean, you can't base a strip around a picture of an actual person walking around somewhere, much less a child. I was a weird, naive dude (still am?)! I think I didn't even believe in copyright law very much back then—what an ass I was! The third iteration was called Refrigerator Johnny and starred the guy who stars in Clowntime now. There were some different characters, like a buddy he had named "Hitpoints Charlie," who was a fantasy-role-playing-game enthusiast who'd had a lobotomy.
Years after my breakdown I had to just piece myself together and wasn't doing any strips.
WCP: If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?
SB: I would have never stopped doing cartoons. I gave it up for awhile when I was young and was briefly living at home (when I was 27). It's harder to stop and start again than to just keep doing cartoons. But I don't ever really think to much about that kind of thing. I don't have much of a "career" to change. How about "I wish I had a career in comics"?
WCP: What work are you best-known for?
SB: People seem to remember Refrigerator Johnny. I still get emails from people who remember my first go-around at the Washington City Paper.
WCP: What work are you most proud of?
SB: I'm most proud of my most recent Clowntime Comics, the four-panel strips. There was a point when I was still doing a longer version of Clowntime (about eight panels) that I felt I'd have to redo every one of them. Every single one of them seemed to need a nip, a tuck, an edit, a partial or full rewrite. There were good bits in a lot of them, but they all sort of got away from me. I like the tighter form. I like what I've got up on my website so far.
WCP: What would you like to do or work on in the future?
SB: I'd like to keep doing Clowntime and expand on my website—I'd like strips to link to other comics that link to other comics—sort of fill out a whole insane little online cartoon world. I enjoy doing the joke "ads" for my site and the "extras."
WCP: What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?
SB: It's hard to accept when you're on deadline, but sleep is the best cure. I tend to be able to solve a problem quickly the morning after I've struggled all day with it. Also, taking a walk. Get out of the house and take a walk. Bring some tiny pad—I'll sometimes be out around town standing on corners scribbling dick jokes into a tiny pad, in a dick-joke-writing fever. I tend to come up with ideas when I have nothing to write them down on, and I have to repeat them in my mind until I reach a piece of paper and a pad. I keep slightly bananas notebooks in which I jot down ideas and crackpot theories and musings; I have a stack of them from down through the years, and I'll comb through them for inspiration when I'm stuck.
WCP: Do you have any favorite things about D.C.?
SB: In college we used to get anybody who visited us drunk, then take them down to the Vietnam Memorial at night, and they would sob. I mean, we didn't mean for them to sob; that wasn't our intent. But we'd get drunk and tell them they had to see it (it was new then). Invariably, once they were down in the middle where the list of the dead rises above your head, they would sob. That's a great memorial!
I liked the way I could walk around the Northwest, where I lived, over on 15th and Swann; you could walk it easily and go meet friends—felt like living in a large neighborhood. We'd all meet up at Fox & Hounds at night. That kind of living goes away when you get older. I didn't appreciate it at the time all that much—that was just post-collegiate living. It was nice—I saw so much more of my friends back then.
I liked seeing bands at the 9:30 Club—that's near where the CP offices used to be. I once saw Public Enemy there, complete with Professor Griff and the S1Ws. I quite enjoyed the after-hours club I joined, briefly, where they'd lock you in after 2 a.m., and you could drink until 6 a.m. I only did that once or twice. But that was fun—that was somewhere over on 14th Street.
We used to drive out to Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton to comic book stores, or take the Metro to Alexandria (is that possible?) where there was one; I bought all my Weirdos when I lived in D.C.—I think I have them all—also most of my Hates and Eightballs and Chester Brown (Yummy Fur) cartoons. I forgot to mention how much I like Chester Brown's work. His version of the Gospels with his dark and angry Jesus—those I enjoyed. I only got into underground comics once I was in college; out in the woods of Jersey they were mostly unknown to me. I did a lot of catching up on cartoons with one of my buddies from GWU, who was a freak for everything from the 1960s—the music, the comics, the war.
I liked the Ethiopian restaurant(s) up in Adams Morgan. For a suburban kid, that was an exotic thing.
WCP: Least favorite?
SB: Well, the summers for one, which everybody says, but they are ungodly humid. There were a lot of drugs and violence at the time I was there (from 1984 to 1988 for college, then 1988 to 1992 fulltime, afterward). Guys played dice against the wall beneath the window of my 15th and Swann apartment; guys passed out drunk on the sidewalk; I found a shotgun shell in the dryer in the laundry room, and one day I came home to police tape around my entranceway: drug dealers on the second floor had been murdered and one had stumbled downstairs, past my first-floor bedroom and died in the street. I went inside and watched my own apartment being featured on the local news.
D.C. also shut down at night, mostly. K Street area cleared out on weekends. It was kind of dead. I hear that now, the 14th Street corridor has hopping nightlife; back then it was just scary.
Most of the food: There didn't seem to be anything decent. D.C. loves its mayonnaise. I really dislike mayonnaise. The default food seemed to be a not-very-good BBQ.