As seen live in our new zine, Banana ‘Bout Town comes……
Jesse Rimler is…
An Interview with Jesse Rimler
by Michelle Kicherer
“I THINK THE BEST THING IN ART IS TO TRY TO IMAGINE THAT THING YOU’D WANT TO SEE, THEN MAKE IT.”
Jesse Rimler is one of those feels-it-in-his-bones type of musicians, one of those clever-over-your-head type of writers, one of those how-does-he-do-that type of artists. And if you told him any of those praises he’d likely bow his head and say aw shucks I don’t know about that because despite all his talents he’s also a humble artist. Which is insane because his work is outstanding and he certainly deserves to be a pretentious douche about it. But hey, he doesn’t, and that’s all the more reason to love him.
Though he’s had his hand in all the aforementioned mediums, comic books is where he’s headed and where it looks like he’ll stay. We talk some behind-the-scenes on zine production, the politics of printing, and what got him to start making comics. His debut comic book arrives this year and we’re quite excited for its release. He also has his first art show opening on July 1, a series of portraits called “Portraits in Ink, Graphite and Crayon” at The Octopus Literary Salon in Downtown Oakland, CA. His work will be on display for eight weeks.
I interviewed Mr. Rimler in his studio, where between a massive stack of comics, a wide drafting table, record-lined walls and book-lined shelves, sits his bed, draped in a richly colored quilt. Rimler sat atop said quilt, legs crossed, looking at the ceiling. Moments into the interview he asks, “Mind if I sit here?”
Michelle Kicherer: Firstly, I’m a huge fan.
Jesse Rimler: Oh gee [looks away]
MK: It’s true! Seeing your comics or portraits, hearing your songs, it’s always such a refreshing moment.
JR: Go on.
[we both laugh]
JR: Well, thank you.
MK: So, anyway you’ve had your hands in all sorts of different work over the years—your undergrad was in Creative Writing, you were in a couple different bands—The Jitters, Kapowski, some lovely solo work—and at a certain point in the last couple years you decided to take a music break and focus more on drawing? And I wonder, too—what would you consider your main artistic drive, or are they all equal for you, just at different times?
JR: Well, my first interest was really drawing. Pretty specifically comics.
MK: When you were a kid?
JR: Yeah. I remember drawing a lot when I was little and then walking into a comic book store and having a pretty specific moment where I was really excited about the idea of comics, and also the idea that this was a world where there might be something really for me. I just remember being shown around by the person who ran the shop and him suggesting you might like this! You might like that! And finding a strange comic that was an adaptation of this 19th century play called “The Bat.” The lady said this is a prototype for “Batman” and I remember getting that and thinking it was so cool. It wasn’t even by Marvel or DC it was this weird underground comic. And Just something about being a part of this world of brightly colored things like, almost like going into a candy shop and someone saying I think you might like this kind of candy and knowing that hey you might like it but you might not like it but you can always just come back to the shop and try a different kind of candy.
MK: Yeah! That’s a pretty refreshing concept. There is something for you.
JR: Exactly. And it was this shop that started to influence me more than anything else at first—it was on my way to school—so comics were definitely my first artistic interest.
MK: Do you remember what the shop was?
JR: Oh man, I should remember the name. It was this shop (in San Francisco) on 26th and Geary, it’s no longer there. Almost exactly in between—and on my route—home from school. So…I went there a lot.
MK: So you kind of started with comics, then went to writing and music and back again or when did you morph? Does that even make sense?
JR: Ha, well. I’d say simultaneously when I started discovering and enjoying comics I discovered music. Not necessarily ever thinking I’d ever make music–that came quite a bit later. But in terms of writing I still don’t know if I ever want to write prose. That degree (of BA in Creative Writing) was one more of desperation, to be honest. Although I always liked writing–I was first a music major, then I switched to creative writing–I was getting pretty fully invested in music classes.
MK: Do you regret leaving the music major?
JR: No. And actually it was a very odd experience because I was not a trained musician at all. I just picked up playing piano by ear and by messing around and looking at cords and books and stuff, then I started taking these music classes at UCSD. And their program is very focused on avant-garde and classical, so though I’m kind of glad that I got exposed to that stuff because it was definitely interesting, it didn’t really make sense for me to be in that program because it kind of skipped all the steps—I should have been learning how to read music and playing an instrument instead of trying to learn how to write something that sounded like John Cage or something. It didn’t make any sense! It was certainly interesting, but it felt imposter syndrome, like I was standing by in these classes.
MK: Haha oh god, that sounds awful in a way.
JR: Yeah it was a bit rough. And I think people took pity on me…so I struggled through a few classes and then realized I needed to switch so, I started taking writing classes and switching to that area of study.
MK: Did you feel like writing was something you more easily fell into or could work at in a fulfilling way?
JR: Well writing was something that I had always been able to kind of do and that I enjoyed. And I liked reading. I don’t think I loved reading at that point in my life—I always loved reading comics—but at that point in my life I wasn’t reading a bunch of fiction. But I always liked reading about things, and there were certain stories I always loved. And I think I became a better writer because of that degree. But while I was on campus it was all kind of an act of desperation.
MK: So…if someone were to ask you, what you want to do and strive to be, would you consider yourself more of an illustrator, more than anything?
JR: I’d say what I want to do is draw comics. And there are all different names for that, it gets very confusing. I’d say cartoonist is what I’d like, what I’d like to be. It’s nice and low brow, not too fancy. And I like that.
MK: Okay, in our eyes you’re a cartoonist then.
JR: [makes exasperated expression] I also feel like I’m still in training—I have a lot to learn—so I’d not feel right calling myself a cartoonist. I’d never say like, hi, I’m a cartoonist ::hand shake:: But I think that song writer and cartoonist are both terms I identify with comfortably. They seem like noble craft-like jobs. I think of somebody kind of waking up and going to the keyboard or the drawing board—going to various boards—and making something. As opposed to, I’m a conceptual or visual artist.
MK: Yeah, I dig that. Your work has changed so much over the years, has morphed into different styles: you have portraits that are really realistic and detailed, you have watercolors and prints made from linocut or wood cut, you have cartoon style line drawings, and I think they’re all great I just think they’re all different. How do you view that progression and differences in styles? Do you see some comic you drew two years ago and gag at it and think you’ve come so far or do you just give it a tip of the hat and think okay, I can still do that, I’m not doing it now but it’s still up to my standards?
JR: I think that for anybody if you look at stuff that’s older, generally you’re like wow what was I thinking? But I do see what you’re saying. Because over the last year and a half or two, I’ve been focusing very seriously and very methodically on drawing and trying to learn new things, styles. Practicing, all the time. Which is—I’m sorry to say—not the way I’d handled it in the past.
MK: Do you think you have a style that is uniquely yours or that you’re striving toward?
JR: I’m still finding my style. So part of that involves experimenting and trying new styles and seeing what works for what project. You’ve given me projects before where I’m like okay, watercolor might work well for this because this element of the story, or hm this would be a good line drawing. And since you’re coming to me with a concept in mind and the idea that I can be counted on to produce something. So I use that as an opportunity to try different styles. At least at this period in my growth.
MK: One thing I wanted to ask about is your kind of bashful attitude toward your work. No matter how good it is, you seem to approach it as if it’s not really there yet, or it’s not very special, whereas it seems like your audiences eat it all up. People love it. What do you think about that, and how do you feel about having an art show—which is almost a declaration of It is good enough.
JR: Well, you know, I’ve always had a rather uncomfortable relationship with having my work on display. That’s not something I’ve ever sought. And maybe part of that is knowing that I am still a work in progress, I am still growing as an artist, still finding my style. And I know some cartoonists who have a style, and they don’t deviate a whole lot from it. They spend a whole career kind of mastering that style.
MK: Is there a certain style that really strikes you, that you’re inspired by?
I think my heroes are those cartoonists who do the most with the least…..Characters who can make you feel something instantly or make you laugh instantly, with total belief that there’s something living on the page–with just a few lines.
JR: I think my heroes are those cartoonists who do the most with the least. That concept always appeals to me, whether it be in music or drawing or cartooning or writing. Of course there are all kinds of examples of things that I like that are more maximalist but generally I just really admire that minimalist style. It’s quite difficult to master.
MK: Can you give us some examples of cartoonists whose work you consider minimalist, who you really admire? Your heroes.
JR: Charles Schulz, for example. A drawing of Lucy or Linus. Characters like that who can make you feel something instantly or make you laugh instantly, with total belief that there’s something living on the page–with just a few lines. But that being said, I do love experimenting with styles that are more lines, more complex, more variation because you can always go down from there. You can always simplify. So I don’t think if you were to say ‘could you draw another thing in this style’ I would say, ah I’ve moved beyond that simple style, I actually think that simpler things like “Nancy” or “Peanuts,” “Barnaby,” those are the hardest things to do. And I would hope I could do something in a style like I’ve experimented with in the past. And hopefully better.
MK: Who else would be someone that you’d say is an inspiration to you?
JR: Chester Brown has been on my mind a lot lately. He just put a new book and I just saw him speak at Pegasus Book in Berkeley. I think he’s one of the all time Greats. Have you ever seen his stuff?
MK: No, enlighten me.
[Rimler eyes a stack of comics next to his bed, sees a Brown comic on top then runs his finger down to a spine a couple books lower an pulls that one out, too]
JR: Chester Brown is a Canadian cartoonist. Like Joe Matt and Seth—who are actually all friends and have included each other in their work. Like many cartoonists, they draw autobiographical work and their fictional work often also includes an autobiographical element. Brown has done so many different things and I think the thru-line in it (and this can be a kind of problematic word) but I think there’s something pure about his drawings.
MK: I love the word Pure.
[we both nod silently]
JR: Yeah, so Chester Brown has been inspirational (to me) as an artist but also someone who is incredibly fearless in their subject matter. He has been able to draw very bold ideas in a very reserved and controlled, subtle way. For example, his latest book [shows me], which is incredible, is a book about depictions of prostitution in The Bible. And it’s the kind of nuts and bolts of cartooning that he can do is so inspiring while the issues that he’s probing are incredibly rich and complex and elemental, if that makes sense. He seems to be able to use cartooning to probe ideas that are incredibly personal that are not histrionic. They’re not all woe is me here is my terrible fate, or I’m so depressed, it’s more about real thinking and real consideration of the world. And he does it with this kind of spareness and total mastery of the form that—like Harold Gray (of the cartoon Annie) or Shulz—that kind of mastery plus that kind of intellectual honesty and courage.
[Mr. Rimler is now lying prone, under a blanket.]
MK: You were saying a lot of cartoonists’ work is autobiographical and I’m wondering how much of your stuff is autobiographical?
JR: Well part of the question, too, is ‘what is my stuff?’ But yeah some of it is explicitly autobiographical, based on things that have happened to me. I did a lot of it just for friends. Not really with the idea that I’d ever reprint them. But what I’m working on right now are comics that are not explicitly autobiographical—I’m not in them—but definitely have some autobiographical elements. I think you can’t get away with not doing that. Your life is bound to be reflected in your work.
MK: Of course.
JR: But that being said, no I’m not working on a comic where I’m a lead character or any of my friends are in it but I am working on something about things that are on my mind and reflect my interests and obsessions.
MK: So it’s a comic?
JR: Yeah I’m working on my first issue. It’s probably going to be a series of pretty short comics done in a classic zine size.
MK: Okay now this is a lay question! but what would you call a comic that isn’t a full on graphic novel, but that is a story. A graphic…story?
JR: I know, it’s a terrible term! I think that it’s almost a cliché to talk about how bad the term is, because every artist that I love is like oh I hate that term. But it’s just a handy (short hand) term. I’d say comics is the best term that I know of. Some people call it a graphic memoir or comic strip narrative but they’re not really satisfying. And there’s nothing really wrong with the term “comics” but I think people usually associate that word with the comic book—you know the 32 page, floppy comic that you’d buy at a drugstore at some point. And that was a “comic book.” And the assumption was, nothing of worth could be in a comic book, this was a low art—and I think that’s wrong, I think there was a lot of great stuff that was published in the past—but when there was more self-consciously artistic work like Maus or R. Crumb (Robert Crumb). And when some of these comics started being published and bound as collected works they weren’t called “novels” and there wasn’t really a term for them so somebody coined “graphic novel.” It’s an inaccurate term but it stuck.
MK: Interesting. Yeah I always felt like it didn’t fit—but those shorter comics that aren’t for kids, that term “comic” doesn’t do it justice or something (not to put anything negative on children’s comics, of course)
JK: Well it’s a funny form that was funny from the beginning. I think what happened, when they transitioned from the newspaper comic strips—which made sense: a comic strip or a comic serial, was almost an ideal form. These beautiful comics, “Gasoline Alley,” “Krazy Kat,” “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” were these beautiful but disposable things everyday, or every week, in your newspaper and they were just part of your life. You’d read the headlines and stories, the want ads or whatever, and you’d also read the comics and be engaged in the story (kind of like how Dickens would be printed in a serial form). But for whatever reason it transitioned to these little pamphlets that were just the comics.
MK: Do you have any interest in doing serialized comics?
JR: Yeah absolutely, I’d love to.
MK: So what will the format of the comic you’re working on look like?
JR: Well I’m quite interested in printing techniques and I’m planning on printing this one myself, experimenting with what works best. There’s a whole lot going on in printing.
MK: Do you think this type of format is becoming more popular? I feel like I’ve seen more zines out in the world lately, but maybe that’s because I work at a literary salon.
JK: Well I think kind of like how vinyl records are popular, there’s a little bit of a pushback from everything being digital and into the world of maybe making physical things that aren’t necessarily beholding to a large corporation. There’s a whole history of zines that comes from the ability to self publish by using a copy machine. There are limitations to a copy machine in terms of quality and clarity but it’s a fairly accessible means of printing.
MK: Where do you fit in? Do you think you’ll use photocopiers or?
JR: My goal is somewhere between. Looks good but it’s made by hand. It’s hard! It’s actually quite hard.
MK: And expensive.
JR: Absolutely! If you don’t have money to do offset printing—which is kind of the way things are printed if you want that high end—you have to figure out some other method. Offset printing is only really sensible if you’re making like 5,000 copies or something. Digital still looks okay, is a little more affordable; risograph is another option. Home printing laser jet ink printing. It’s an interesting time.
MK: What a time to be alive. So, a few years ago you made a zine called “Future Husband.” You delivered it to bookstores in the area and they were free?
JR: Yeah I dropped them off. I think they said “free or best offer.”
MK: I remember people loving that thing! They’re so funny, I’ve shared them with people. The world wants to see more.
JR: Woah. Thank you.
MK: You already said you’re working on a comic but…Will we ever see Future Husband again? What will your next comic be like?
JR: I don’t know about Future Husband but I think this upcoming comic book will have multiple stories, yeah. There will be a few stories taking place and a few one-offs, a one page deal. And my goal is to make it very short. Just because—since I’m doing it all myself, printing it myself—so I want to make sure if I make the inevitable errors and bad choices that I’m doing it with a small book, not with a big book.
MK: Small scale errors.
JR: Ha exactly. I’m trying to keep my ambition small but the quality and attention to detail high…But yeah Future Husband was really fun to do. I was pretty inspired by that guy George Myer (of Simpsons fame) and he did a comic, a zine, that he sent to his friends in the eighties, called “Army Man.” And a lot of it is available online but not all of it. And it almost became mythic in my mind because I couldn’t’ really read it but I read what was available. But he’s just an extremely funny guy, wrote for a lot of my favorite TV shows (he’s largely responsible for The Simpsons’ greatness, much like, how –as an interview with The Believer put it—“(Meyers) was to the Simpsons what Doug Kenney was to The National Lampoon, or what Michael O’Donoghue was to Saturday Night Live.” (link here) He was typing up stuff on a typewriter and pasting it onto a page, photocopying it.
MK: Oh man, they’re so good. Do you find yourself, on projects like Future Husband, that you do it all in a flurry and then once you’re done (or if you stop) you don’t want to do it again? That’s how I work on certain things and it can be a dangerous momentum.
JR: It’s happened, absolutely. I don’t really know why I started Future Husband. I don’t think I ever found myself completely comfortable with just the written word, which Future Husband largely was. I don’t know if I could have sustained it. I think everything in there was very inspired by like I said, George Meyer, and Jack Handy, Simon Rich, Woody Allen too—I’m just so into those kind of comic essays or that kind of genre that’s very short little comic ideas…humor writing I suppose. I guess I’m not as interested in it now as I was. The idea of writing that kind of stuff without a drawing attached to it just doesn’t interest me very much at this point in time.
MK: So speaking of other styles, projects, you’re doing an art show coming up, at The Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland. What is that project—what will be on display and what led you to making that collection?
JR: I have never shown my work in public and I even kind of bristle at the term “my work.” It seems kind of odd. I just think of myself as a cartoonist and I’m now kind of focused on doing what I want to do, which is to make my own comic. But the Salon asked me to show some things so I decided to make it an opportunity to generate new material and material that would be specifically meant to be seen on a wall. Which is new for me. And the thing that kept coming to mind was drawing portraits, because I just love drawing portraits of people I know and like and admire. I really enjoy doing these live portrait drawings of friends and so I immediately emailed this whole list of friends to come sit with me—one per week—for a couple hours every week. And I drew them, first at The Chapel of the Chimes (an Oakland mausoleum with beautiful rooms), then at my apartment. I’ve been trying to take it in a simple and uncluttered, uncomplicated way.
MK: What does that mean for you?
JR: Working in ink, for one. For a lot of these drawings—or some art in pencil. They’re all the same size. And just trying to draw and capture something about the person without going back and fussing over it. Just seeing what happens in them moment and then putting that on the wall as it is without a lot of corrections or second-guessing.
MK: Oh wow, so all of those pieces will be stuff that you drew on the spot and didn’t mess with afterwards?
JR: Pretty much, yeah. There might be one or two where I made some sort of error that I had to go back and fix but pretty much all of them have come out in the sit.
MK: That’s amazing. That’s a really exciting idea. So will every piece in the show be portrait, and they’ll all be black and white?
JR: That’s right. Some will be ink—pen and ink or brush and ink—and some are pencil (graphite). And just done holding your breath and hoping you don’t mess up.
MK: And why did you decide to do it that way? The here we go don’t mess up approach?
JR: Well, I wanted to add an element of tension. Everything else about it is pretty low tension: it’s my friends who I really love or enjoy being with, it’s in an comfortable place, so the fear—the motivating factor (besides that I have an art show coming up) is that I want to capture them in the moment.
I’m really inspired by David Hockney, his line drawings. I don’t think my drawings look very much like his line drawings (unfortunately…I wish I could draw like that). He has a series, which I believe he still does, that he was doing these line drawings of his friends using very thin line. That is, no under-drawing, just pen and ink directly on the page. And you can really see what he’s doing. There’s no way to hide it when you draw that way, it’s very exposed, very high-wire act of drawing that way. He said—and it really made me feel better—he had to start over many times, crumple them up and keep going. He found it one of the hardest ways to draw. You know, you can’t fix it! If the line is wrong the line is wrong. And sometimes a wrong line is fine, but pen and ink: it’s a high wire act.
MK: Can you explain more the different types of pens that you’ll be using? The difference between Hockney’s line drawings, for example, and stuff that involves shading or whatnot. If you’re just using one line, one bold line, you have to really choose which feature to draw, because every line is equally dark and equally displays what someone’s face looks like, for example.
JR: So there’s the concept of a contour drawing (Matisse) or comic strips are often contour drawings (just the lines around the edges) or there are drawings that include shadows. And I think that in doing this project, I’ve approached the drawings as one or the other. Which is certainly not uncommon, but there’s a real philosophical difference between the two, and I think that kind of plays out in terms of the difference between Western art and Eastern art. And if you look at a lot of Eastern art, including a lot of traditional Japanese art, Chinese, Persian, Indian art: there are no shadows—and in most Western art there are shadows. So it’s the difference between drawing this sort of ideal of the figure or that object as it is, versus the figure or object as it is specifically in that space. When you’re drawing something in space, you have to contend with shadow (or you can contend with shadow).
MK: Versus, as it is, no matter what environmental influences? How this object always is?
JR: Right. But even when I say that I feel like it raises new questions. If you were to put a figure in a room that is completely lighted, with no shadows (pure white behind it), that is still a figure in space, there are just no shadows. But generally you do have shadows, and shadows are what define form. You don’t need it. And I think that’s something that when you start to draw, you start to realize: you don’t actually need shadows to show form, because we know what the form of a face is so I can suggest form by giving you little hints with line. None of this is new it’s just something I had to confront when doing these (line) drawings. I thought okay well if I’m drawing this figure this quickly, what do I prioritize?
MK: Yeah when I sat for you, you timed out these sits in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 20 minute intervals. Why did you do it that way? Do you start with those short ones to kind of just get the lay of the land, familiarize yourself with your subject’s features?
JR: Yeah, also just to get your pen moving. A kind of warm up. Honestly the first few minutes of any drawing session you’re kind of warming up. Usually—at least for me—the first few minutes of any session I can’t just jump right into it. Unless I feel like I really need to get something down and have to do it on the spot. But generally speaking you have to do some warm up first.
MK: So why limit a portrait to 20 minutes, for example?
JR: Well there’s the physical limitation of your subject. If they’re just sitting, not moving, staring, there’s only so long you can put someone through that. You can’t force someone to stare for two hours straight. Professional models, they’ll take breaks, my friends did, too. But I think there is something to be said for a drawing like this that is meant to capture something about them. I’m working on my speed of pen—often the quicker you can capture something the more natural you can capture it if that makes sense.
MK: Versus going too slowly.
JR: Right, or versus going down the rabbit hole of pencil and erasure for example, erasing, starting over, re-doing. You can really just make it worse and not really capture the moment. There’s a certain pace to go at—and it takes time to get there, both in the moment and in working up to it after much practice—the pace that works best for you to capture something. Almost like how when you’re improvising on an instrument—you don’t want to be thinking about the notes you’re playing you want to just be making the notes. The less thinking you’re doing, the better. So if you’re drawing quickly, you’re probably not thinking very much. Which for the most part, is a good thing.
MK: Feeling it
MK: Well, we’re feeling your work. It looks great, the portrait series is beautiful and we’re looking forward to the forthcoming comic. Rimble comic?
JR: That’s right. Well thank you.
MK: Do you have any last words for us? Maybe advice or wisdom?
JR: I don’t know about wisdom but, I really think it’s important to practice drawing from life, even if your comics ultimately look like a Peanuts cartoon. Because I think, as I’ve said before, it’s easier to go down, to simplify. If you can really see something you can understand so much about how to create it in any form. And that is not something that you learn without real effort. Like really learn how to take in an image and to put it on a page and to compose a page in a way that’s pleasing to the eye.