Artist Interview: Robert Gavila

At the MoCCA Festival last weekend, we met Robert Gavila, a local New York comics artist. Mr. Gavila was one of a handful of veteran self-publishing artists at the show, and has been showing at MoCCA for years. Also prominently displayed was a notice that he recently had his iPhone App, Wierman’s Family ASL 1, approved by Apple and placed for sale on the iTunes Store.

On top of being a cartoonist and programmer, Mr. Gavila has also done a lot of thinking about the current state of the comics publication and distribution, and had interesting things to say about what he expects in the future. We decided to track him down after the show, and he was kind enough to talk with us for the first in a series of artist interviews.

  • Looking over your biography, it strikes me that you are a man of varied interests. You’ve been a musician and a programmer as well as a comics artist. Do you see these other interests as bearing on your art? And if so, how?
  • Yes, I think the timing aspect of music is valuable. I read once that Aristotle thought that people should study music in order to be well educated.

    I find timing to be a major element in the pacing and the page turning experience of reading/writing/drawing a comic book.

    And the things I studied in college also have a bearing in my comic book work.

    As an accountant, I was appalled at the way auditing firms got away with giving good reviews to extremely unstable companies. I included those perspectives in my “Nisha” comic book.

    And, of course, being a guitar player for over 35 years, I appreciate good old every day “hand skills”, such as the proper execution of a line with an ink brush. I’m not an expert in that area, but I certainly can appreciate the skills of other artists.

  • Can you name some artists that you particularly appreciate the skills of, whether or not they are a direct influence on your own work?
  • Right off, at the top of my list is Mark Schultz.

    I love what Andy Hughes has done to expand what I call the “vocabulary of faces” in the books published by Image.
    But Mark Schultz… wow, I can just go on and on about his incredible work–all in black and white.

    When Mark started to really get to his peak in using the dry brush I almost couldn’t stand it anymore. I felt like I had to grab the nearest stranger standing around and tell him “Do you see that? That’s almost impossible to do, and he does it for a COMIC BOOK!”

    I wish I could see actual samples of the great Wallace Woods. I’d like to get a better idea of how much of that incredible work was done by a simple brush dipped in ink, and how much was created by applying white paint to refine the lines.

    And to this day I read and re-read Leonard Starr’s “Mary Perkins On Stage” reprints.

    I understand that there are difficulties in getting the original work to reprint, so the stuff we see coming out is not all putting Leonard Starr’s work in the best light, but it’s still incredible to see how consistent he was in drawing faces.

    I thought I was in love with Mary Perkins when I was 14 years old, I felt like I really knew what she looked like, almost like she was a real person. No generic faces for Mr. Starr.

    I’ll probably think of another ten artists later, but that’s my top list—oh, wait, I must add Gerhard, of Cerebus fame. I met Gerhard a few times, and I was also lucky to get drawing tips from his past partner, Dave Sim. Dave’s “Guide to Self Publishing” is an absolutely indespensible work. Every artist should read it. Dave’s new academic study of early comic artists, printed in “Glamourpuss” is also very valuable. But for me, Gerhard was extremely influential.

    In my Nisha comics, and my work drawing landscapes in Europe, I’ve been justifiably accused of channeling Gerhard.

  • It’s always good to hear someone else compare you to someone you consider an important influence.
  • Oh, yeah. I feel like I’m getting a gold star when that happens.

    Some people think that having your influences show too clearly is a bad thing.

    I was always a fan of better artists. As a musician, programmer, artist, writer, I am always marveling at the work of somebody a couple of steps above me. To be compared to the person I’m “sweating” (young persons speak there, I think) is like hearing “Hey, good job!”

  • In this same vein, I’m wondering about how you view your own creative process, especially as it relates to the work of your influences. That is, you’re obviously well-versed in the history of your medium, and I’m wondering how you would characterize your own departure from what has gone before. Given your influences, what do you see your art doing or adding to that continuum?
  • Aye, tough one.

    I suspect that I will naturally fail a little in everything I try, and by those failures, hopefully, add something to the immense body of work I see in the marketplace. I am way too humbled by the people who have their work hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to imagine that I can see what I am adding right now.

    So, what am I doing? I’m trying to get a story out.

    I am using pen and ink, some Photoshop, and a lot of hours committed to hanging over my projects to get a story out.

    And the purpose of my writing is to embed all the things I’ve read that got me angry or sad into something that might (I pray) move people.
    If I could do that as an inker, I’d be tickled pink. I’ll try, but… heck, about three years ago I went to the MET to see the DaVinci pen drawings. I was blown away!

    Then about two years ago I went to the Met to see the ink drawings of Van Gogh. I didn’t even know that such a body of work existed, but it just makes sense that it would. Again, I felt so unworthy to hold a brush or a Hunts point 102 nib.
    For me, the art side is where I struggle to get the comic realized and the writing is the driver. I love the art side, but I have to be realistic: adding something to the world of meaningful art? Ooooh… tough one.

  • Can you say something about your experience as an artist with a “day job”? How do you juggle the logistics of life and the drive toward making art?
  • That’s a good question, because when I’m really well into a book, that is the issue that makes my brain feel like it has a fever.

    It’s horrible how I can never carve out enough time to draw because I have a full time job.

    You’re 100% correct, that is the main problem I face in trying to pay the mortgage, help the children and grandchildren and be true to my desire and need to create: time.

    There’s no easy answer. I’ll just have to cut out going to the movies on Friday night.

  • Unless the movie’s something you can use as inspiration for your book, of course.
  • Ah, that’s my standby excuse.

  • You seem to have a very technical appreciation of your process, judging by the method you described above. Does this exacting use of technology dovetail with your interests in computer programming? And to what extent do you see the technological angle being a part of the artistic process, and to what extent is it simply supportive of the creative work?
  • Oh, yes, I’m guilty of being limited by and helped by being a technician.

    Yes, I did seem to automatically ‘meld’ with computer programming when I first discovered it, so I am a technically oriented guy.

    But the human spirit still works its way through all those layers. The careful study of technical aspects of an artform provides a platform for the leap of human imagination.

    My wife, who is an excellent watercolor painter, for years told me, “I never liked working with tracing paper. It seems to make whatever I initially drew go stale or ‘off’ somehow.” So I never tried to use tracing paper in my work.

    Then I met Dave Sim and Gerhard, who, by the year 2005, were heavily using tracing paper in their work.

    Dave recommended using tracing paper, but when I ran into Gerhard at the airport in Ohio and we talked about this, he emphatically told me, “It makes the process faster in the long run.”

    So, off to New York, and I run to Pearl Paint and I buy tons of carbon paper and tracing paper. And I discovered something: when I draw something–very roughly–and then turn the paper over to see if it needs correction (the main purpose of this technique), I find that I use the drawing underneath as a springboard to my imagination.

    Suddenly, I found, I wasn’t tracing the opposite side, I was using the rough sketch as inspiration.

    So, here a technical trick, but still it best served me as a tool to engage my interest, joy, and imagination. I would draw everything three times, transfer it over with carbon paper, and then refine it again.

    Crazy, right? But I felt like I went from a sucky artist to what Dave Sim later labeled “less sucky”. That is not easy praise to earn from Dave. He’s a very tough teacher.

    I learned guitar the same way: tons of scales, but then I would go into a night club with my band–and do you think I’m going to play scales for an audience? No way. I’d use my technical skills as a springboard for my spirit to try to scream out and sing with my guitar. Or something like that. Technique is not all bad.

  • I know that you’re a critic of the current way distribution of comics works in this country. And as you are also interested in computer technologies (as evidenced by your recent iPhone app) and the change they might bring to how the whole thing works. Do you care to comment on both the state of affairs as it currently is, and what hope you see for the future?
  • My favorite subject, after art: distribution.

    The current state of affairs is that, happily, this is the beginning of the end of Diamond Distributor’s stranglehold on the industry.

    The state of affairs, circa 2005 was horrendous. I’m not sure any comic book artist wants me to tell you their name insofar as being a supporter of my struggle over the past five years.

    Like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, who boycotted Taco Bell (and other fast food chains) in order to get support for their request for a pay raise of one penny for every 30 pound bucket of picked tomatos paid by the Pacific Tomato Growers, Six L’s Packing Company, and DiMare Fresh, I feel justified in boycotting the comic book retailers.

    I love the comic book shop owners in New York City. They have been super with me.

    They all took my hand-delivered comics and placed them on their shelves! Midtown Comics (hi, Fuller, I want to hear that podcast), Silver Age Comics (hi, Mark. I know, it’s been too long), Forbidden Planet–all of them have been very good with the independents.

    But I simply cannot let another penny go from my pocket to Diamond’s register.
    I have not entered a comic book shop for over three years.

    I’ll buy from Comicology or some other online service, but on an emotional level, I have so much RAGE at Diamond for refusing to carry my three books, that I simply cannot step into another comic book shop.

    Now, the present: Thank God (and Steve Jobs) for the iPad!

    Really, I think the iPad only had to be the Kindle-killer to make it as a must-have home commodity. It’s that and much, much more.

    Now, I would love to be able to upload my comics to an online store, like, say, iTunes, and find it offered for sale at a nice low price of, say, 99 cents, tops.
    I would love to know that my comic book could be read with a universal Comic Book reader that allows the reader to multi-touch the page and zoom in to see the detail.

    I would love to see video linked into hyper links on the page, maybe showing how the page was inked, or pencilled, in brief, or maybe offering other supportive material.

    I would love to see all of this and more and the iPad only needs the right reader and we’ll be there.

    The distribution channel is there: iTunes/iBooks. The technology is there: HTML/XML, etc. links and mult-touch API (you know, the stuff the programmers use to let you do something with the computer).

    I do not yet see all of that in an iReader. The iReader in the iPad (yes, I did pre-order one on the first day it was offered) does not let you do multi-touch expansion of a page–so far.

    And there’s still that question of “How the heck are we going to pipe out 25 megabyte pages to the customer without super high speed connectivity?”

    Yes, there are challenges. But I am ‘tickly excited’ about the iPad device, and I’ve been using this thing.

    Please, Apple, create the reader comic book fans want and let’s put an end to the Diamond-chain. By the way, Diamond routinely takes 70 percent of the take on a book. Apple gives us 70 percent and takes 30 percent.

    Okay, so maybe Diamond had to take the exclusionary policies they did to survive market conditions. But I don’t think it’s fair and I demand a better deal.

    Okay, that’s enough. I’ll probably need a good lawyer after this, but I’m sorry, that’s the reality I’ve had to deal with. Maybe my comic book sucks. Let’s say that’s the truth.

    Would it have hurt Diamond to post it in their Previews magazine?

    If I paid for an ad in their Previews magazine and no retailers ordered it, I might have said, “Gee, I really suck at this. I think I’ll quit it while I’m ahead.”

    Then you wouldn’t be reading my rants.

  • Just one more thing: When you look at the Duckrabbit logo, do you see a rabbit first, or a duck?
  • A duck. Now I have to go back and take another look! I didn’t know there was a rabbit in it. That’s cool.

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