Illustrator Brian Biggs on Writer’s Block Remedies, Paying the Bills, and the Future of Publishing
Brian Biggs peaked too soon in his first career as a graphic novelist in the 1990s, before the current tsunami of critical approbation washed over the field, raising everyone's boat. "I never saw a penny from drawing comics," he says, and so he switched fields. Now, he's a Philadelphia-based children's book artist who'll visit D.C. on Saturday for the National Book Festival. He's also an amateur musician and serious bicyclist, and one should feel free to ask him probing questions about accordions at weddings. Before his book tour, he answered some questions for us.
WCP: What type of comic work or cartooning did you do? Why did you move to children's books?
I have a hard time describing what type of cartooning I did. I might say “I drew comics for adults” and they get the wrong idea. If I use the term “underground” they think of Robert Crumb and that kind of thing. “Alternative” comics sometimes works, but really I just drew comics that I wanted to draw. I didn’t know how else to do it. I wrote and drew stories I liked.
By summer 1998, I’d drawn two complete graphic novels and had them published by well-known publishers, and I’d had work in several well-known anthologies. I use the term “well-known” to distinguish from “photocopied at Kinko’s.” People talked about my work, it was reviewed in the Comics Journal, I was flown to comic conventions in Europe. But I never saw a penny from drawing comics, and about the time—the very night in fact—that I found out I was going to be a dad, in July 1998, I realized “I gotta do something else.”
At first, "something else" was illustrations for magazines and websites as well as CD-ROMs (remember CD-ROMs?). But around 2002, I saw some doors open to the hallways of Random House and books for kids became my thing. I miss telling my weirdo stories, but [my] kids wear shoes and are adequately fed.
How did you do it? Traditional pen and ink, a computer, or a combination?
I sketch with pencil and ink the work using a lightbox. The inked “original art” is then scanned and the color is added in Photoshop. The covers of my comics were painted traditionally, which was a joy, but with deadlines and the vagaries of the present-day editing process, digital color is much more feasible for me. I also like mechanical art processes like printmaking, and working in Photoshop can be a lot like that. So in the end, a combination.
When and where were you born?
I was born March 9, 1968 at St Vincent’s Hospital in Little Rock, Ark. I do not know if I was born in the morning, or afternoon, nor which room number.
Why are you in Philadelphia now?
When my son was born in 1999, my then-girlfriend and I decided we’d lost interest in San Francisco and its expensive habits. The building I lived in had been full of oddballs and artists when I moved into it six years earlier, but all of that had been replaced with people who were marketing managers at the Gap corporate offices. “Creatives.” She was from Trenton, N.J., and we wanted to be near family. We knew we couldn’t afford NYC, so we eloped in Las Vegas and came to Philadelphia in August 1999. At the time, it was a big adventure.
The marriage didn’t work out, but I have a teenage son and a daughter now who call themselves Philadelphians (my daughter is a native, in fact, having been born here) and who cried with joy when the Phillies won the World Series. Two years ago, I got married again to a Philly girl, and I’ve lived here twice as long as anywhere else in my life, so at some point, I suppose I’m a Philadelphian as well.
What was your training and/or education in drawing? Do you have fine art training?
I drew drew drew since I could hold a pencil. I took some art classes as a kid, which were good to get me out of my own head and see how others do things. I took a weird turn and majored in graphic design in college, which ended up being a really good idea. I thought I’d be an art director, since I had interest in printing, photography, writing, publishing, and especially typography. What I didn’t have interest in was meetings, delegating, and corporate bureaucracy, which is what a lot of art direction is.
The only fine art training I took part in was foundation-year stuff in college. Art history, art appreciation, and drawing/painting classes. I was a commercial-art guy through and through. It never really occurred to me to paint for the sake of painting. I wanted the audience, whatever the audience was.
Who are your influences?
All of them.
If you could, what in your career would you do over or change?
Not much. Sometimes I think the few years I was an art director/designer in Silicon Valley (Adobe, Trimble Navigation, Oracle) was a total waste of time. But, actually, it was anything but. The technology I was [steeped] in was exactly what I loved, and the the people I worked with became clients, opening all sorts of doors when I decided to go freelance in 1995. If anything, I wish I’d been less paranoid in my 20s about my “career” and more open to just trying stuff. Making a film. Screenprinting. Collaborating.
What work are you best known for?
Good question. I suspect it’ll be this book series with Jon Scieszka in about two weeks. It’s getting a tub of attention. Frank Einstein made the New York Times bestseller list for the Sept. 7 edition. I'm merely the illustrator, but they spelled my name correctly. I'm quite pleased. No one exactly recognizes me while I’m shopping at Target, but kids recognize Roscoe Riley a lot, and since Katherine Applegate won the Newbery two years ago for a different book, that series has done especially well. I run into adults who know Dear Julia and Frederick & Eloise more often than I’d think, which is always weird. People my age who were into comics in the '90s seem to have them in their shelves. “Dude, really, that’s you? Those weirdo comics? My kid loves Roscoe Riley!”
What work are you most proud of?
Well, I have to say Frederick & Eloise. It was the turning point of everything for me. Before I wrote and drew that story, I felt like I had no voice, nothing to say. It taught me to not wait for work I want to do, but to create the opportunity myself. I’d been completing assignments for four years, designing résumés, and was very ambitious and career-oriented. But a few months after graduating college, I found myself living in Paris on the floor of a friend with no way to get work and no real idea what to do next. I had no idea it would be published, let alone by Fantagraphics. I just needed to do it.
I think Dear Julia holds up well, and my transportation children’s book series, Everything Goes, will as well. But Fred has a special place in my heart. That sounds dumb.
What would you like to do or work on in the future?
I have a long list of book ideas that will keep me busy for quite some time. I’d like to do the work I’m doing, but worry less about sales and deadlines. I feel like I don’t give myself time, or the time is not provided by the publisher, to really dig into a story or the work. More exploring, more personal reflection in it. I take a lot of projects on because I’m about to have kids in college, I have bills to pay, and so on. It’ll be nice to be pickier in a few years.
I also want to make more images that are not related to books and projects at all. Collage, printmaking, and so on. For the last few years, when I’m done for the day with the paid work, I get the heck out of the studio and run home. It’s often just work.
What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?
Try really hard to let it play itself out. Take on other people’s projects and, related to the above question, try to spend more time making work with no reason behind it. Sketchbook monsters, stupid robots, silly people. Read a lot of science fiction and other interesting stories. Just think of other things. Run and bike a lot. Listen to music while walking the dog. Eventually images and sentences and ideas start creeping around again.
What do you think will be the future of your field?
Good question. Kids will always want stories, and parents will always want distractions for their kids. As much as I love love love printed books on paper, I try to think like a librarian and ask myself whether my work is about the content or the delivery system. That is, if books go away in favor of digital formats, will I still be able to find an audience and make a living? Unfortunately, more and more, even the content is being stripped down and written by lawyers and committees. But I think there will always be people who want iconoclastic and unique stories and pictures. I have skills that I can parlay into an income, and I don’t mind working in a crummy system to make that happen at times.
Why are you coming to D.C.?
To promote Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, the first book in a series written by Jon Scieszka and published by Abrams/Amulet. The National Book Festival invited me to give a little drawing presentation and sign some books, and I’m happy to do so.
What's your favorite thing about D.C.?
My crazy friend, Mike R., who takes me to punk-rock shows and buys the booze.
No really. Washington, D.C., is like New York. There are a million reasons to visit and every trip is something different. I’ve started long bicycle rides up the Potomac from Washington, I’ve hung out and visited museums, I’ve been to publishing conferences, I’ve stopped by on the way from Rhode Island to Florida just to see the sights. My favorite memory was just from last fall when I was in town for several school and bookstore visits. After the first day, I was exhausted from being so social for so many hours, and I was so so happy to go for a long run down Rock Creek Parkway and to the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge. It was just a perfect evening, and the Potomac is lovely.
I think your publisher picked up the tab last time. Least favorite?
Other than the Republicans?
Brian Biggs will speak at the National Book Festival tomorrow (Saturday, Aug. 30) from 2-2:30 p.m. and sign books from 3-4 p.m. at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.