Colors, shapes and the spirit: interview with Jesse Jacobs

Colors, shapes and the spirit: interview with Jesse Jacobs
During Lucca Comics and Games 2019 we interviewed Jesse Jacobs, guest of Eris Edizioni and recently published by Hollow Press. With him we talked about his first steps in the comics’ world, his favorite techniques and the inspirations behind his works.

With two new publications coming out in 2019 (Crawl Space by Eris Edizioni and Baby in the Boneyard by Hollow Press), Jesse Jacobs was one of the most awaited guests of Lucca Comics and Games 2019. Hosted by Eris Edizioni, we had the opportunity to talk with him about his beginnings, his work and what inspired his psychedelic, spiritual, sophisticated stories.

Hi Jesse and thanks for your time. I would like to start talking about your beginning in the world of comics. When did you decide to start this career?
I think that like everybody, I was drawing as a kid. Most people stop at a certain point, but I never did. What made me start was the fact that I liked looking at things, I liked visual arts, from illustration on cereal boxes to comic books and cartoons. I would have probably tried to make a cartoon if that was accessible to me as a child, but animation is quite technical and requires a lot of specific tools. For comics you just need a pen and a paper, so I started like this and I kept doing it. I loved comic books, Archie comics in particular, but to be honest I did not like them any more than other stuff, I was attracted by many things and comics were the most accessible way for me to tell a story in a visual way.

The scene of Canadian comics is in a really creative ferment during the last years years. What are the reasons behind the explosion of Canadian comics and its talented artists?
There’s a lot of stuff going on at the moment, it is really an interesting time. There is a very strong community in the region, it’s all very encouraging. You realize that a lot of things are possible because others are trying, so you are trying new things as well. That’s what’s happening in Canada right now: there are tightly connected communities in Ontario, TCAF in Toronto, there’s a lot of support and a lot of people who wants to see other people succeed, which is a great thing for a community. Ultimately I think a big part of it is economics. Southern Ontario, in general, is a wealthy area and it’s much easier for young people to get into the arts when they come from middle/upper class families. God knows where I would be without my family, who gave me the privilege of attending art school and exploring my own path. Free healthcare is another reason. And there’s a large government framework in Ontario that supports art in general and comics arts in particular. For example the Ontario Arts Council offers comics grant that pay creators to do their work: comic artists are generally not making that much money, so receiving $12,000 it’s a huge support.

Are there authors, both contemporary and from the past, that influence your work?
Sure, I’ve been influenced by a ton of authors. I think it’s impossible not to be. When I began getting into indie comics I was obsessed with cartoonists like Anders Nilson and Marc Bell. All that stuff was so new to me back then, having grown up with mostly superhero comics. I think a lot of fiction writers have influenced my style as well. Films too.

North-American underground artists are known for their creativity and anticonformism, with regard to the content as well as to the form of comics. You are, for example, have always focused on books that are meticulously edited and printed. For example, you do a lot of screen printing: what drives you in this continuous search for new formats, what are the opportunities and the difficulties of choosing different printing technique?
I am open to many different techniques; I am really curious to experiment. For example, I have a new book coming out for Hollow Press, Baby in the Boneyard, which is printed on brown paper. Little things like that are interesting for me, to see how my work looks like in one specific context. I think that the way I work, detailed lines and solid colors, it lends itself better for spot printing or screen printing. I worked many years in a screen print studio doing a lot of color separation, file preparation, it was something really fascinating and it influenced my work as much as art school: I do not just think about drawing, but also about how it is going to be printed, how it is going to be colored and what are going to be the effects of different techniques.

Your works are characterized by a certain fascination towards bodies and nature in general, which is usually transfigured into something alien. The message that I get from your works is that nature is beautiful, even more that what we think, but also mysterious and we cannot always understand and appreciate it. Am I getting this message right?
The other questions were easier to answer! Talking about techniques and processes is easier than talking about why am I telling a story. Nature is beautiful and also terrible and gross. You said I transform nature into something alien, but actually I get inspiration from real things and then I draw them the only way I know how. But in the very end we are part of nature, nature is everything. Sometimes as humans we tend to separate ourselves from it, thinking we are something different, something sterile and detached from nature, myself included, because think it’s an easier way to process life in our current culture.

In Crawl Space your spiritual research is connect to the study of shapes and colors that are continously moving. Also the settings are usually transformed, colorful and always changing. Are comics a way for you to investigate this subjects and through them to investigate the world?
I am mostly interested in how comics can play around with time: two panels one next to the other can be a whole day passing or just one second passing, and I like that a lot. Shapes and colors are how we perceive reality, that’s all that there is on the surface, and we perceive them changing in time. Comics are great at representing this. It is difficult for me to really articulate why I do something: sometimes I just want to explore certain shapes moving around in a series of boxes. From there, stories reveal themselves to me.

Crawl Space and Safari Honeymoon are somehow connected: in the second one you explore an external reality, while in Crawl Space this exploration is mostly inwards.
Yes, Crawl Space explores an internal nature. Existence seems to be fundamentally divided into three parts: the external nature, the internal nature and then there’s nothing at all, like when you are sleeping and you are not dreaming. Crawl Space mostly focuses on the internal, with some nothingness creeping inside the story.

In Safari Honeymoon you talk about the human’s lack of understanding of nature, as well as of other human beings. Do you think these two concepts, the discussion about social issues and the discussion on the future of our planet are connected?
I think everything is connected, and when we talk about social issues we are also talking about ecological ones. Environmental concerns hurt the poor first, ultimately they affect everyone, but the poor are the first to suffer. When you psychically disconnect yourself from your environment, it’s easy to lose empathy for others.

All these themes are converging in By This Shall You Know Him, which is a story about gods that are playing and challenging each other, creating out world and our story. A sort of psychedelic, sci-fi genesis, but also a way to reflect on arts and creation. Where did you get the idea for this book?
This is a book that I did some time ago, I think it came out around 2012 and it feels like something really far away in time. It’s difficult to think about what I was thinking at that time, but most probably it was just me trying to figuring out how to realize a comic book story longer than just a few pages, trying to be critical with myself and my creation. This all merged with my constant reflection on spiritual concepts, but it is difficult to think about it. Sometimes it just seems that things around us have been created, but also that we are creating them.

And that’s what I felt reading your works, a reflection on creation and on the work of the artists, who are able to create worlds and influence our world.
Exactly, I feel so lucky to be an artist and a comic book creator. It seems to me that the universe/consciousness is a creative act. And creating art, for me, is a spiritual process. No matter if it’s a comic book, music or a movie, you take all these disparate elements and then you transform them into something. Your ephemeral idea becomes a material thing.

As we said, these works seem to be deeply connected, a way for you to explore new horizons, both spiritual as well as material. So where is Jesse Jacobs aiming in 2020, where is this research bringing you?
I have no idea. I’m working on a few projects at the moment. The inspiration will come from what I read, from what I see, from what I listen to, and it will all merge with my thoughts. I know a lot of people that are strict materialist, they do not believe in anything that’s not physical. But I feel sometimes that ideas don’t belong to us, but coming to me from somewhere else, if that makes sense. I think about the spiritual dimension of my life on a regular basis, I am always trying to learn new things, to understand how people think about religion and spirituality, and then I am always looking inwardly, because I think that’s the only way to really understand the world around us.

So there’s something you are working on right now…
I did this book for Hollow Press, Baby in the Boneyard, a short story of almost 30 pages. Probably it is already here, I was terribly late with that, I had some missteps along the way. The next step will be definitely something about the inner self, about that internal dimension we talked about before. I have a comic that I have been working on for quite some time, but right now I am also working on videogames, so it is taking some time. It’s been six months since I had a look at it, I looked at some pages right before coming to Italy and there are some things I have almost forgot, but most importantly I was still happy with what I did and there’s way more material than I remembered. So if I buckle down, I can finish it in couple of months, but let’s see how’s life evolving day after day.

Interview realized on the 31st October 2019 during Lucca Comics and Games

Born in Moncton but living in London, Ontario, the Canadian comic book artist Jesse Jacobs is one of the most appreciated indie author in the world. After his studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax he started producing his own comics and he received Gene Day Award for Canadian Comic Book Self-Publisher in 2009. His works have been published on magazines such as Best American Comics, Mad Magazine, The New York Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Pitchfork Review. In 2011 he published Even the giants for Adhouse and in 2012 fo Koyama Press By This Shall You Know Him. In 2015 Safari Honeymoon (Koyama Press) has been nominated for the prestigious Doug Wright Award for best comic book. In 2017 he published Crawl Space (in Italy published by Eris Edizioni) and in 2019 Baby in the Boneyard, released both in Italian and English by Hollow Press. Apart from comics, he has worked for Cartoon Networks on Adventure Time and he is working in the videogames industry. His original illustration and screen printings have been exhibited all around the world.

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