Interview: Jesse Lonergan

Conducted by Derek Royal

JesseJesse Lonergan’s latest graphic novel, All Star, was released earlier this year from NBM Publishing. It’s his third book, and it stands as yet another demonstration of the artist’s growth. Lonergan established his artistic terrain in 2007’s Flower and Fade, and then went on to develop it further two years later in Joe and Azat. While the visual style among the three books may be different — the art in Flower and Fade is noticeably simpler than that found in his later works, and the episodic nature of Joe and Azat contrasts sharply from the more novelistic All Star — thematically they are of a kind. As Lonergan is quick to point out, his narrative forte is realism, particularly when it comes to character development and interpersonal relations. The worlds presented in his comics are clearly recognizable and could reflect the lives of almost any of his readers. Even if we were never high school athletes or traveled overseas with the Peace Corps, we can empathize with the kind of experiences his protagonists undergo. In this way, Lonergan’s comics resonate and become acute points of reflection.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse not long after the publication of All Star. We were introduced through his publicist — NBM had published all of his books so far — and then began an email correspondence beginning in late May. During his travels and in the midst of his projects, Jesse found the time to respond to me regularly and answer the many questions I had about his comics.

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Derek Royal: Your latest book, All Star, has that feeling that these events might have happen in your own life. Are you writing from experience here?

Jesse Lonergan: I grew up in a small town called Chelsea, in Vermont. It’s a little more than a thousand people. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized what a unique experience that was, and the initial spark for the book that became All Star was to capture the feel of my hometown. The setting and the types of people in the story are very much based on my experience, but the details of the narrative and the sequence of events are fictional.

DR: Were you into baseball as a player, as your protagonist Carl Carter is in the book? Or perhaps some other organized sport?

JL: I played baseball in little league, but not after. I played basketball all through high school, but I wasn’t a star. I was just kind of tall. I don’t really have the mentality that is needed to be really good at sports. To do well at sports, you really have to go all out. You really have to push yourself, and I think for me there was always that little something in my head that kept me from really letting go. I was always a little too self-conscious.

DR: I ask about your background in sports because you really do get into Carl’s head, giving us a deep glimpse into his ego and confidence, and then his later regrets. What were the challenges of slipping inside the skin of a high school all star and writing about an experience that you never shared?

AllStar1JL: That’s a great question. It wasn’t really something that I was conscious of while I was working on the book. My own creative process is still rather mysterious for me. Ideas come and they either feel right or they don’t. But I guess I just believe that in most cases people aren’t really that different from each other and we all share similar feelings. Even though I wasn’t a high school super star, I have experienced many things that Carl experiences in the story. I’ve had my bouts with ego and overconfidence, and I’ve certainly done a few things that I regret. So the challenge is getting myself to remember those moments and express them in a way the reader can feel.

DR: In fact, all of your books have that “shared experience” feel, realistic stories that capture life as it is lived and reveal events as we would recognize them. Do have any interests in more fantastical or genre-specific comics?

JL: When I first got into comics, the only ones that I was really into were comics that were based in some form of reality, and I was pretty disdainful of everything else. I was very much taken with the low-concept idea of narrative. The kind of stories where people would ask what it was about, and the only thing I could say was, “It’s about life!” As I’ve gotten older that’s changed, and now I find myself more interested in high-concept ideas. I find myself returning to the things I liked in childhood. I, like most kids, wasn’t so concerned with the human condition then. And the next big book that I’m planning to do is a reflection of that shift. It’s totally different from what I’ve done before. It’s about a faith healer who is wrongfully executed and gets revenge from beyond the grave. It should be fun.

DR: Getting back to All Star. What was your inspiration for writing about a high school all star? What is that book’s genesis?

JL: I guess the idea of the high school superstar really intrigues me because it’s such a short period of time, and it’s so early in life. It really is like being famous. Everybody knows you. Little kids look up to you. Adults who you don’t know, know you. But it’s such fleeting fame, and there is so much life after high school. The ideas sort of spread out from there. Talent vs. hard work. People who get second chances and people who don’t. Double standards. I kind of think of my mind as a rock tumbler, the ideas go in and they get spun around for awhile and come out smooth.

DR: In that last part of the book, when Carl is up to bat at the bottom of the ninth in the last game of the playoffs, I couldn’t help but think of “Casey at the Bat.” I’d guess that was one of those stones rolling around in the rock tumbler of your mind, as well?

JL: “Casey at the Bat” was certainly something I was aware of. There’s also The Natural, both the book and the movie, which are pretty different from each other, Roger Angell’s baseball writing, and the Ken Burns’s Baseball series. Another that was on my mind was Summer of ’98 by Mike Lupica, which was written before the steroid scandals and is pretty compelling as a result. People’s perceptions and attitudes have changed so much since it was written. That change of perception from the picturesque ideal to the not-so-pretty reality was something I was hoping to get at with All Star.

Also, when I was telling people my rough ideas for the book, a number of people said I should check out Friday Night Lights, just to make sure I wasn’t doing the same thing. And that show was amazing.

DR: I asked about Thayer’s famous poem because there’s almost a “Casey” feel at the end of All Star, although you tack in a different direction, and you do so with Carl’s brother Douglas.

JL: I don’t think I can talk about this without saying that Carl strikes out at the end. I’m not sure how far I see the Casey comparison goes. Casey is the star, and Carl is the star, but Casey strikes out pretty much because of hubris. He doesn’t even bother to swing at the first two pitches because they weren’t his style. I think Carl’s situation is a little bit more of complicated. At the opening of the book, baseball is something simple. It’s this game Carl plays and is quite good at. By the end, it’s become much more complicated, much more involved in the complexities of the real world. Baseball now has a duplicity to it. There’s a sense of obligation. Carl has to think about what it means to play baseball. So I think with Carl, that final swing and a miss has a fair amount of complexity to it, especially if the reader considers the possibility that Carl struck out on purpose.

In terms of Carl and Doug, one of my thoughts with All Star was that Carl would represent grace and Douglas would represent hard work. Carl is one of those people for whom sports come easily. He can run faster than anybody else, but it doesn’t really seem like he has to actually work to do it. He swings, and the bat just seems to be in the right place. It’s an easy swing, the ball just soars out of the park. Doug isn’t like that at all. You can see he’s really working for everything he gets. He can run fast, but you can tell he’s putting his all into it. It’s sort of a talent vs. effort dichotomy, and I think, in high school, talent can get you pretty far, but after that, hard work is what decides who’s successful. The end of All Star is kind of representative of that.

AllStar2DR: Another relationship that’s complicated in the book is that between Carl and his best friend, Esden. Did you intend to make that one bittersweet from the beginning, or did that interaction evolve as your story developed?

JL: I always knew where Carl and Esden would end up, but their friendship and their interactions were something that grew a lot while I was writing the book. Initially, I had intended for the focal relationship in the book to be the one between Carl and his brother Doug, but Esden just sort of took over.

DR: I can see that in the finished work, that there was some potential there for Carl’s relationship with Doug to take more of the center stage. This raises the question about your writing process: how solid of a storyline do you have in mind when you begin your books, and how much productive deviation or plot discovery usually happens along the way?

JL: I guess that depends on you where you believe the writing process begins and ends. I don’t like to hold onto things too tightly, and I always want to feel that I have the freedom to change something if I want to, but by the time I am producing finished pages the storyline and sequence of scenes is pretty locked down. By that point there isn’t much narrative discovery.

But on the other hand, I’m not much of a person for thumbnails or figuring out the way a page will look before I sit down and draw it. That all happens at the drawing board with the blank page, and I think those things are a big part of writing as well. There will be things that sounded good or read well in the script, but then when it comes to drawing a character saying it, it won’t feel right, and I’ll have to figure something else out. Or there will be scenes which I had thought would need to be five pages, and it turns out they need to be a panel. Or there will be a scene which I think needs to be five pages, I’ll draw the five pages and grind my teeth and struggle to get the pages to work, and then I’ll realize that the reason I struggled so much is because the scene is pointless and needs to be cut.

DR: Of the books you’ve done so far, which one developed into something farthest from your original concept?

JL: Probably Joe and Azat. It’s based on my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, so I thought at the beginning it would be much more factual. But this fictional story sprung up while I was working on it. The narrative became a necessity because the book was so episodic in nature.

JoeAzatDR: So you’re saying that when you were first conceiving Joe and Azat, you had something more journalistic in mind? Perhaps something similar to the comics of Joe Sacco?

JL: Not so much journalistic, but more autobiographical. I guess I envisioned something more similar to Guy Delisle’s books than to Joe Sacco’s. At the time, I was also a little in awe of Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson.

DR: What about Thompson’s travelogue captured your attention?

JL: It was just his art. It has the feeling of a quick sketch, but he is working at such a high level, so it has this combination and refinement and rawness that makes it very attractive to me.

DR: Do you like that episodic kind of storytelling, a narrative composed of various impressions and accounts?  I ask because your first two books have that feel.

JL: Yeah, it’s something I’m drawn to, and when I first started to get serious about comics it was what I focused on. For me it seems more realistic, more like life. I think it can be harder for a reader because there isn’t necessarily anything to pull you through the book.

DR: In fact, your first book, Flower and Fade, is very episodic in nature. It’s like looking through a photo album of a relationship, finding scattered moments that sequentially tell a story. Or like reading through a personal journal. Is that the effect you were going for in that work?

JL: The personal journal aspect, with the dated one-sentence chapter headings, was something that came about during the editing of the book. It was necessary to keep everything from blurring together. My intention with Flower and Fade was to build on the shorter comic work that I had been doing before. My goal with comics then was to really just capture a mood or a feeling, to basically do what a good pop song does really well. Narrative, conflict, and resolution were not a priority. It was much more about mood and tone, a perfect sequence of panels evoking an emotion. It was also very minimal. I didn’t want anything extra. With those ideals, the book really had to be episodic. A sequence of panels to define the feeling of a moment building to a sequence of minutes to capture the emotions of where I was at that point in my life.

DR: What was it like transitioning from that first book on to Joe and Azat, which, as you mentioned, started off as a very episodic narrative?

JL: There were three years between the two books, and two of those years were spent in Turkmenistan, so it felt a bit like starting over with such a long break.

FlowerFaceIn terms of how I approached the book, with Joe and Azat I had a hundred page limit — Flower and Fade is around two hundred pages — and I had to introduce Turkmenistan, which is a country that many people have difficulty finding on a map. These two things resulted in a lot of pragmatic decisions that affected the way the book turned out. There’s a lot more text because it’s just a more efficient way to get information across. There are more panels per page, which means smaller drawings. Smaller drawings meant switching from brushes to nib pens.

Each of those decisions affected the book and opened up different possibilities. With more text, I was able to play with how the narration and images were juxtaposed. Sometimes the image reinforces. Sometimes it contradicts. More text also allows for different kinds of transitions between panels. You can make bigger jumps. You can switch between the past and the future, between fantasy and reality, all in a single transition. I think the storytelling in Joe and Azat is much more complex and varied than in Flower and Fade.

I don’t know if that explains much about the episodic nature of the book, but it’s how I approached each episode.

DR: So just as you feel that your second book was more complex than your first, do you think that All Star is more narratively sophisticated than, and perhaps a big step up from, Joe and Azat?

JL: Yeah, that’s true. Joe and Azat was really a collection of short stories, while All Star is an extended piece. With All Star, I think I was able to get into the characters more and present more complex conflicts. I don’t think it’s a book that I could have done when I did Joe and Azat. I don’t think I could have held all the threads.

Also, I’m much more involved with a comics community now, which is important. Having others around working on similar things creates a flow of ideas, both direct and indirect. And I got a lot of feedback on All Star before it went to NBM. I found the people I trust for advice, and they all read it. And I printed mini-comics of about twenty pages each as I went along. A lot more eyes had seen the work, and I think that makes it stronger. With Joe and Azat, I was definitely working in a bit of a vacuum.

DR: What kind of comics community are you referring to? Is this something online? A group of creators and readers living around you?

JL: I’ve met a few folks online, but for me it’s much more people I’ve met locally and at conventions over the last few years. There’s a group called the Boston Comics Roundtable that gets together weekly, and I’ve made a lot of friends through them. You meet one person, they introduce you to someone else, the circle grows. There’s support and a flow of ideas.

DR: You’ve mentioned the different ways that each of your books have been conceived. Overall, how do you think your work has changed as you’ve developed as an artist?

JL: Do you mean in terms of drawing skill/visual artistry or overall as a creator?

DR: Overall, as an illustrator/creator/storyteller.

BatmanLongerganJL: Really my changes as an artist are similar to my changes as a person. It’s been ten years. I’m much more confident putting ink on paper and telling a story. I’m also much more open-minded. When I was younger, I really believed that there was only one way to draw a comic, my way, and I was quite adamant about it. I would be angered if I looked at a comic and saw some written sound effect. “Comics are a silent medium and to attempt to approximate the sound of a stick breaking is an act of foolishness! No sequence of letters does that sound justice! The reader knows what a stick breaking sounds like, simply draw a stick breaking, and the reader will understand!” I even wrote a manifesto, which, thankfully, has been lost.

I’ve left that attitude behind. There isn’t any right or wrong way to draw a comic. Any way that produces finished pages is a good way. I have my way, but it’s not set in stone, and if I feel like doing things differently, I’ll do things differently.

And that changes the way the work gets done. With Flower and Fade, I really think that was the only book that I was capable of creating at that time. It wasn’t the best I could do, it was all I could do. Now, there is more of a choice. I see more possibilities.

DR: I know that you just released All Star the other month, so that’s still fresh. But what about other projects that you might have underway? Can you share what you’re working on now and what your next book might be?

JL: There are two projects that I’m currently working on, both of which are a bit of a departure from what I’ve done before. The first, the one I referred to earlier, is a western about a faith healer seeking revenge from beyond the grave. That’s the next serious book. There have been some preliminary drawings, but mainly I’m still in the plotting phase. The second is an all-women-race-car comic that I’m drawing in my sketchbook. It was something I just started on a whim and has kind of taken over. I’d planned for eight pages, and now it’s at forty. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it. It might just exist as a mini-comic.

DR: Those sound a lot different from the more reality-based comics you’ve done before. How do you come up with your ideas of subject matter?

JL: I don’t have a system for ideas. An idea comes, and I work and play with it a little bit. I might decide to let it go, save it for later, or maybe it’ll become something I’m actively working on. I had the idea for the western before I started work on All Star, and I drew about twenty pages, but then I decided I wasn’t ready to get into it, but I feel more prepared now.

I guess with the next few books I have in mind, the visual element is really taking the lead, while in my previous books the visuals have really been in service of the narrative. With the race-car book, my only real motivation was to do something loose and free and fun to draw. It’s just a little something to keep my hands busy while I’m researching and plotting the western.

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DR: All of your books have been in black-and-white, so far. Since, as you say, the visuals are starting to take more of a lead in your work, do you see yourself working more in color?

JL: Maybe, but not necessarily. Coloring isn’t my strong suit, and a lot of the comics that I love are in black and white. Color can add another dimension, but if the art doesn’t need it, I find the color can actually take away from the artwork. With the projects that I have in mind for the immediate future, I don’t really have color in mind, and if I do it would be very simple, perhaps only using one color.

DR: What black-and-white comics do you particularly enjoy? You mentioned earlier that Craig Thompson is someone whose work you admire. Who are some of the other comics artists that stand out for you, or maybe even serve as your inspiration?

JL: The first indie comics that I discovered were in black and white. I loved Peter Bagge’s Hate, and I think it really lost something when it went to color. The first issues of Eightball I read were black and white. I think of those two comics as very defining in terms of what cool comics were for me.

Will Eisner is a big one, too. I’m not necessarily a fan of his stories, but his storytelling always just sucks me in. It’s so readable, and he’s doing so many things in terms of page layout and panel sequencing, and none of it with color. There’s a lot of manga that I think functions perfectly in black and white. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu blew me away.

I also love the Essential editions of John Romita’s 1960s Spider-Man. I know they were intended to be in color, but I actually prefer the way they look without it. Which isn’t to say I’m anti-color. I just see it as another tool. Sometimes you need that tool, and sometimes you don’t.

DR: It’s been a little over seven years since you published your first graphic novel. How do you envision your art and storytelling after another seven years?

JL: That’s a hard question to answer. I feel that my art and storytelling has changed a lot since Flower and Fade, but not necessarily in ways that I would have expected or predicted. At the moment, I feel like my work is getting a little more slick and a little more pop. Maybe in seven years, I’ll be done with that and ready to get a little more stripped down.

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Get your copies of Jesse Lonergan’s books, as well as other works mentioned in this interview:

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The Comics Alternative is a podcast and blog focused on the world of alternative, independent, and primarily non-superhero comics.

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