Welcome to “Line By Line,” where we converse with the cartoonists and graphic novelists who are pushing their medium into exciting territory.
Insomnia, alcohol, rock’n’roll, loneliness, bartending, the toxicity of scented candles—they’re all dissected in Leslie Stein’s astounding “Bright-Eyed At Midnight,” a volume of watercolor comics published by Fantagraphics that traces a year in the artist’s life. Scott Indrisek asked the New York-based artist a few questions in advance of this weekend’s Comic Arts Brooklyn festival (she’ll be selling work on Saturday, and discussing her craft on Sunday).
“Bright-Eyed At Midnight” was made over the course of a year, with the idea being that you created a page a day. Was it hard to keep to that deadline, or was that sort of self-imposed rule what actually made the book possible?
It wasn’t hard at all. Actually I looked forward to making and posting them every day. The pages themselves took between one to three hours to do… at the beginning I was doing them one a day alongside my longer project “Eye of the Majestic Creature,” and then when I realized they were going to be in a book I decided to take my time with them and make them more nuanced, and put the other project on hold until the end of the year. If there was a day I couldn’t draw one I would draw two the next day, and sometimes I would draw a page and have more energy afterwards and make a painting… sometimes several. Once I drew 6 pages in a day; that was the most I did in a sitting. Before this project I tried to draw 5 hours a day routinely, so I was used to being at the drawing table all the time.
Given this day-by-day format, would it be wrong to view the book as a kind of diary? Or is there a necessary translation between Leslie Stein The Person and Leslie Stein The Cartoon?
Sure, it was a kind of diary. Diaries are full of meditation on past and future events, but I never felt I had any restrictions. If a painting conveyed my feeling in that moment you can see that as a rumination of sorts. I kind of liken it to a dream: there might be a narrative, but also a dream can be a color, or just a sound, and still be a dream.
I do use myself as a character at the same time. I always like making characters a bit naive, because it lends itself well to humor. I think she’s mostly the part of me that I can’t be everyday—if I was, I would suffer badly at the hands of fate. Sometimes you have to be tough, but it’s good to run away and enclose yourself in a place that’s safe, where you can find the person you want to be, if even just on paper.
Can you shed some light on your preferred method of depicting humans: Hair-and-eyes, in most cases? What’s enjoyable about this paring-down of the face?
It’s easier to convey emotion using the pared-down lines, and quick for people to read. I wasn’t penciling these so the gesture and immediacy of my hand is present and of course, in not penciling…well, I’m not a great renderer, so it would not have turned out great looking. And coloring these is my favorite part.
What would you say the best and worst parts of being a bartender are? Do you think you’d have dedicated yourself to art with the same zeal if you had instead been working in an office or some other setting that crushes the soul in a similar way?
I like and dislike bartending for exactly the same reasons. You’re there to meet the expectations of your patrons. Sometimes you meet people you love and want to know, sometimes exactly the opposite. I’ve had tons of different jobs and always dedicated myself to art with the same amount of zeal! I think I doubled down last year as a distraction from some of the negative aspects of my life at the time.
How did Jules Renard (and his journal) find its way into your book?
That came from my best friend Steve, who works as an acquisitions librarian and he has the gift of knowing what books to give to his friends. I just fell in love with it. The seven pages I drew using Renard’s diary quotes sum up my feelings about artmaking in a condensed way. They’re beautiful and thoughtful and funny and poignant all at once.
Who are some cartoonists or graphic novelists we really should be reading that we might not know about?
What’s the weirdest thing a fan has ever said to you about your work?
I’m extremely lucky in that I have a very small following but the feedback I get is extremely positive, loving, and thankful. I’ve sat next to cartoonists at conventions that are very popular and sell well, but I don’t see much emotional reaction between them and the people who are reading their work. I guess a couple times people have told me they are surprised by the way I look.
Do you have any interest in contemporary art, and by that I suppose I mean “art made recently and shown in galleries and museums, mostly hung against bare white walls”?
I do, but I don’t know that much about it. I was always drawn to comics because of their directness and accessibility. I like the fact that you can take them into your own space and spend time with them in a different way than looking at art on gallery walls. The painters I like that come to mind aren’t very contemporary. I’ve been looking at Arshile Gorky‘s work a lot this week. I’m also drawn to outsider or folk art and childrens’ art. I think that as a cartoonist, you are prone to rooting for the underdogs.
What’s one of your favorite (non-graphic) novels?
Stoner, by John Williams. Steve the librarian also gave me that book. Thank you, Steve.
You’re also a musician and you have a band, Prince Rupert’s Drops. What should we listen to while exploring Bright-Eyed At Midnight?
Light in the Attic put out a great spacey compilation called I Am The Center, which I listened to a lot making this book. Try the songs “Unicorns in Paradise” by Laraaji and “Blue Spirals” by Daniel Kobialka. If you want to listen to a Prince Rupert’s Drops record, I’d pick our first one, Run Slow.
For more from Leslie Stein, visit her website.