Bob Schofield is a writer and artist. He first showed up on my radar when theNewerYork sent me a digital file of his book The Inevitable June, which I described as “the kind of thing that we need more of; not a gimmick or a hybrid, but something new.” I’m still not sure what the book is, but I dig it. Bob was kind enough to talk to me over a series of emails about his work. Read some of Bob’s work at his website. Read my review of The Inevitable June here. Read our discussion below.
Biblioklept: What is The Inevitable June?
Bob Schofield: The Inevitable June is a collection of 30 surreal short prose pieces, one for every day in June, intercut with black and white illustrations. The drawings don’t always correspond to the text, and there isn’t really much of a coherent “story” per se, but there is certainly momentum and direction. The book definitely goes somewhere, though I’m not sure where exactly that “somewhere” is.
I kind of just wanted to build a little world that mirrored my imagination. A kind of scale-model. So I wanted it to be a little cold and sad and spooky and, hopefully, also fun. Like some kind of weird, floppy theme park made of bound paper squares.
Biblioklept: How did you compose that “scale-model”? Did you have an outline from the outset?
Schofield: There were a few structural “rules” I came up with, and the rest I sort of made up as I went. Like I knew I’d have thirty pieces total, and they’d all be titled for successive days in June. It’s funny, a lot of the momentum in the book just comes from that progression of calendar days. I guess we’re just culturally wired to feel like we’re going somewhere when we see those days slide by. But in the book it’s all relatively arbitrary, and if you were to take the days away as titles, things would feel a lot more meandering.
My other big structural decision was to start every piece with “This morning,” which would become a kind of refrain throughout the book. I kind of thought of it a bit like a dinner bell, indicating one course of the meal was over, and we were moving on to the next.
Then as I was writing all the individual pieces, I’d cherry pick certain images and phrases I liked, and then be sure to repeat them later on. That way the reader’s brain would kind of light up as they recognized parts of a pattern, even though the pattern wasn’t really saying anything specific. I think that kind of thing is important when you don’t have a more familiar storytelling structure to rely on. You need to give the reader something to hold on to.
And for myself as writer, all these patterns and rules gave me just as much of an anchor. It meant I wasn’t just spinning off into some sort of insane, incomprehensible word soup. I’d always be aware that I’d have to wrap things up at some point, and move on to the next “day.”
Biblioklept: Your book The Last Days of Tokyo shares some of the anchoring features you mention—beginning each page with the phrase “On the last day of Tokyo,” for example, and the image of a salaryman fleeing in horror, his face an echo of Munch’s The Scream.
Schofield: Yeah, I was actually working on them at the same time, so they definitely share a lot of thematic DNA. In fact I started The Inevitable June first. It’s just that The Last Days of Tokyo ended up being a way shorter, simpler work, so I was able to put it online first.
It was a bit like a spinoff, in a way. I was working on IJ, so like real deep into this kind of sad-cartoon-apocalypse aesthetic, and the idea of Tokyo and giant monster movies seemed to flow pretty easily from that. Turned out it was a way richer vein than I expected. I realized there was enough there to support its own book, and didn’t want to compress it all down to just another day of June.
I wanted it to be very simple, like a children’s book. I liked the idea of Tokyo getting blown up over and over again, in increasingly weird/ridiculous ways. And the fact that I’m simply making small alterations to a template image somehow made it funnier to me. Like these poor innocent people are just suffering through bizarre variations of the same shit day in and day out, so that eventually even there horror becomes routine, and strangely banal. I don’t know man, I guess I’m just a sadist or something.
It’s funny you mention The Scream, by the way. I’d never thought of that. The template image is actually referencing the cover of Action Comics no.1.
For some reason that guy’s face in the bottom corner has always stuck with me. I’ve always found it sort of ghastly and apeish.
Biblioklept: I’m ashamed I didn’t catch the Superman reference! Did you grow up reading comics? Like superhero comics?
Schofield: Oh yeah, big time. As a kid I lived and breathed superheroes. Like I was pretty much imprinted from infancy by Christopher Reeve in Superman. And then Batman: The Animated Series came out when I was like six or seven, so that was huge. I was growing up in the 90’s, so the actual comics themselves were in kind of a weird place — Clone Saga, Death of Superman, all the Liefeld inspired art with like mullets and everyone’s covered in weird tiny pouches — but I got sucked into it pretty deeply for a while. I still have all sorts of useless DC and Marvel minutiae taking up tons of brain space and just like rotting there in the sun.
American comics culture skews so insanely toward superheroes — and it was even more so twenty years ago — that they’re pretty inescapable. You couldn’t really get into comics without going through some sort of superhero phase.
I’ve read enough interviews with cartoonists to see that there’s a traceable arc to things. It’s usually like, you start out as a kid with superheroes. Then you stop reading comics for a while as an adolescent because you’re a terrified hormonal time-bomb of social anxiety, and it’s “uncool.” But then as a teen you get back into it through like Watchmen and Sandman and all the Vertigo stuff, eventually moving on to indie comics. You discover Crumb and Love and Rockets and Fantagraphics stuff. Then you’re like, “Oh hey, maybe I can do this.” And you can, only you suck real hard. So that goes on for awhile, the sucking. But then you get better.
I think it usually plays out like that for most people. It did for me, only in my case there was also this whole webcomics thing happening too. The possibilities of the internet really lit my brain up.
Biblioklept: Stuff like Love and Rockets and Cerebus and the Vertigo line were huge for me too. When I was a kid, comics were really nerdy stuff still—even with Tim Burton’s Batman films being huge. It’s almost bewildering how mainstream these properties have become.
How do you think webcomics, particularly alt comics, have responded to the mainstreaming of DC/Marvel stuff?
Schofield: I’m not sure really. I feel like they’re mostly just doing their own thing. It feels like two entirely different worlds to me. I assume there’s probably a bit of trickle down thing happening, like a wider influx of people into mainstream stuff means the indie audience would probably get a boost too. So that’s good.
But I think after a certain point most cartoonists stop responding to superhero stuff. It’s just there and will always be there. Let it spin its wheels until the end of time. Who cares, it’s fine. Life’s too short to worry about it, and there’s a whole universe of cool shit to be making in the meantime.
Like yeah it’s a shame that a huge chunk of what we know as “comics” – this bizarre, beautiful language built of words and pictures, whose legacy is so rich it stretches back literally to the walls of the pyramids and prehistoric caves – seem to be preoccupied with nothing but telling and retelling the same story of two dudes in tights punching each other in the face. But whatever, that just means more unexplored territory for me!
Biblioklept: Can you describe when you first discovered webcomics? What artists or strips were important to you at the outset?
Schofield: I think it was maybe 2010 or 11? I mean I knew webcomics were a thing, but always sort of dismissed them as just the online equivalent of like four-panel newspaper gag strips. I had just finished playing Jonathan Blow’s game Braid, and was really impressed with David Hellman’s artwork. Very lush and painterly. I looked up more of his stuff, and found he had made a webcomic in like 2005-6 with writer Dale Beran called A Lesson Is Learned, But The Damage Is Irreversible.
It totally destroyed me. I’d simply never seen anything like that before. Not only was it pushing the formal boundaries of comics, but the tone completely clicked with my own sensibilities. It was surreal and absurdist and whimsical, but also really intelligent, with a somber, philosophical weight to everything that never once overshadowed the fun. Just brilliant.
And the fact that it was just these two random dudes throwing this stuff online made it all exponentially more exciting. That was my own “Hey, I could do this” moment. Suddenly I was looking at the internet in a whole new way. I realized you can sort of just go on there and do just about whatever you want. It’s your space. No one can stop you, or tell you no. You are Willy Wonka, and this is your chocolate factory. As long as the quality is there, an audience will follow. It’s a bit like the Wild West, but less snakebites.
Biblioklept: How do you make your comics? How do you draft, compose, and revise them? What tools and media do you use?
Schofield: I pencil by hand, then scan it into photoshop to make any adjustments, and do my inks on a cintiq tablet. Sometimes if I’m feeling lazy I’ll just draw directly in photoshop, which is not as precise, but sometimes scanning feels like a chore. Most of my stuff is black and white, so it’s easier. But if I start getting real into color stuff it’ll probably be done digitally too, at least at first.
When I was getting started I felt really intimidated by traditional tools, like I’d be entering an extended period trial and error as I went back and forth with like a million different pens, searching for all the right stuff. I guess I was just real green, and clinging to some illusory concept of perfection. Either way, it made me anxious. I didn’t want to worry about it, so I just got a cheap tablet online for like fifty bucks, and tried to figure everything out on my own. Once I got comfortable, and started feeling inhibited by my starter tablet, I upgraded to the cintiq.
This is pretty standard cartoonist stuff, but one area where I think I do things a little differently is in how I write my “scripts.”
I usually just make a big column of declarative sentences, and often the wording is highly figurative, and the action will be sort of vague and unclear. So basically a poem. I think this comes from my writing background. For me the “scripts” aren’t about dictating the actions I’m supposed to draw, but just reminding me what sensations I want to render into pictures. That’s why the scripts just come out as poems. They’re like emotional memos to myself.
I recently worked on a comics challenge with this group altcomix on tumblr. I was asked to provide a text, which they posted, and people had a month to translate that text into a one-page comic.
This was the text I supplied:
“It is nighttime. There are trees.
Trees filled with eyes, and dying men.
A kind of bird, hiding its face behind white gloves.
Something falls from a great height.
And puts a smile on the moon.”
And you can see the all the various interpretations here. We’re planning to do it again in a couple of months.
Biblioklept: You’ve done a lot of collaborative work like that, including writing a book of poems with Katherine Osborne. What’s the appeal for you in working with another writer or artist?
Schofield: It used to have zero appeal to me, but now I think it’s essential. At first I was really precious about my stuff, but I realize now that a lot of it was just my own insecurity. If I told myself the work was too important or personal for me to play well with others, then it’d save me from getting judged if the work turned out to be shit. But I became friends with people on tumblr and elsewhere on the internet, people I trusted, and I started to feel more confident about my work.
My first real collaboration was this comic/short fiction hybrid thing Elinor Abbott and I made called The Dream Journal of Elinor Abbott. She’d been posting some lucid dreams on her tumblr, and I thought they’d work well as comics. I was inspired by David B., probably my favorite cartoonist, and his book Nocturnal Conspiracies. So I made the comics, and in between each of them are these little musings on sleep and dreaming, all written by El. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
Katherine and I wrote a collection of poems called Miniature Couples by taking turns writing each word, like Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman in Nice Hat. Thanks.
I think my increase in collaborative output comes down to a shift in how I conceptualize what it is I’m really doing when I write and draw. When we’re young and we read books, or look at great works of art, it all seems very mysterious. Like you’re just a dumb kid in a lit class holding this brick-sized thing called Moby Dick, and it’s like, where did this come from? How could a human possibly have make this? You trick yourself into thinking it all came out of them in one perfect stream, like a magician pulling out one of those endless handkerchiefs, and you have no concept of all the work and drudgery and revision involved. And you mistakenly believe that if you’re going to make something of even a sliver of that quality, it needs to come out perfect.
But that’s stupid. And eventual you realize that. You let go of your perfectionist ideals, and focus more on the process, your craft. You think about that thing you really do when you sit down at your computer, or in front of a blank sheet of paper, and how you can do it as effectively as possible. When it’s about that, about putting your skills to the test, and not about puking up perfection, then everything becomes more fun. The pressure disappears. And so at that point, collaborating with someone just adds another layer of challenge, because they’re providing you with half the materials to work with. You aren’t just cooking in your own kitchen anymore.
I don’t know, I just find it all deeply satisfying. And somehow weirdly like, democratic, or at least more conducive to a certain “openness” that goes with being online. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here exactly, I just know it feels better than being all alone in the dark, toiling away on some Frankenstein of a book. But maybe that’s just where my personal inclinations lie, because I’ve always felt an affection for the Oulipo guys, and using weird rules and restrictions to push your creative limits, art as a form of play.
Biblioklept: You recently “performed” the book in a collaboration—how did that go? What did it look like?
Schofield: I think it went well. I’m not entirely sure, because I pretty much spent the entire time staring down at my iPad, scribbling away and trying not to blink. Then I looked up and the room was dark and it was over and people were clapping. So I guess that’s good. All the feedback I got was very positive. There’s a video of some of it on youtube, but I haven’t watched more than a couple minutes. I don’t like seeing myself onscreen.
The back story is Josh Raab, man-behind-curtain at theNewerYork, had this idea that I should sort of “draw” the book, while someone else read it. We both felt that your standard issue readings tend to be by-and-large pretty flat, boring, obligatory affairs. We wanted to mix things up. So we had a digital projector aimed at a big screen, and Faith Heyliger “performed” it while I did all the doodling.
I was incredibly nervous going into it. Like really, deeply anxious. But we all met up the day before the release, and had a practice run, which helped a lot. I cringe imagining what it would have been like if we hadn’t practiced. It helped to meet Faith, and get a feel for how she was going to read my words. That way I could sort of intuitively “tune” my drawings to fit her tempo. I had a kind of “set list” written down so I would know what poem was coming up next, and there were occasional musical interludes, Philip Glass I think. Sometimes I was drawing actual scenes from the book, sometimes I’d just sink into abstract line work, swooping arabesques and stuff like that. Having a sense of Faith’s rhythm helped me figure out when to switch from one to the other. Yeah, it was all just very intuitive. When Josh did the introduction he told the audience I’d be “dancing with my own words,” which I feel a little pretentious admitting, but it really does capture what we were trying to do up there.
Biblioklept: How did you hook up with Josh and theNewerYork? Did you always have a plan to publish The Inevitable June as a physical book?
Schofield: I always hoped it would be made into a physical book, but I wasn’t holding my breath. I had no idea what was going to happen. My “plan” was always just to keep moving forward, keep making stuff. Scream into the internet until someone paid attention.
I met Josh through Chuck Young, who runs theNewerYork’s EEL (Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature). We were Facebook friends, and sometime after I put out The Last Days of Tokyo he asked me if I’d be interested in making a short comic out of this idea he had about God farting the universe into existence. I couldn’t see any reason not to, so I did it. Then sometime in the fall of 2013 he got back in touch with me, asking if I’d be interested in making a book for theNewerYork, and if so I could pitch him stuff, and he’d pass it on to Josh.
The Inevitable June was really just a bonus, added to the mix later. I pitched some stuff and we settled on a project, and I guess Josh really liked The Inevitable June, because he said we should put that out too.
Biblioklept: I read The Inevitable June first on my iPhone, I think, and then on a laptop, and some tablets. All this before the printed copy. Do you think the medium changes the reading experience?
Schofield: I think it does, especially in something as image-centric as The Inevitable June. I’m pretty open to all platforms though. In fact, switching to iPad for most of my reading for the past year or so has made my life a lot less cluttered. So I’m not one of those like weird, teeth gnashing fanatics who shake their fists at the sky and yell about tablets.
But for some reason when there are images involved, I skew toward the physical objects. Especially considering some of theNewerYork’s more unorthodox layouts, where you’re occasionally turning the book on its side and whatnot. It makes that less cumbersome. Also I think the physical book gels a little better with my initial concept of making a scale-model world out of my imagination. I wanted a little world in a box, a sort of Joseph Cornell type thing, and that box is the book.
Biblioklept: I read The Inevitable June as a take on consciousness, on boxes, ways of seeing—leaving, entering, etc. There’s that image at the end of like an angel and a devil fighting, and the devil has a box on his head. Can you talk a little bit about that image?
Schofield: I knew I wanted the whole book to have a very loose birth to death arc, so the book would feel sort of self contained, and that as you approach the end you can feel it all winding down. Then June 30, the last piece, kind of hints that some sort of eternal recurrence is happening. That all of this has played out before, and will do so again, over and over. I wanted to throw that out there, so the book would be self-contained, but never a truly closed circle, if that makes any sense.
So I guess the grand arc is really more like birth to death to rebirth.
And the devil and angel just seemed to fit that idea really well. Something about eternal struggle, and all that. I like how they look a little goofy too, with the weird ‘flap flap’ comic sound effects. And there’s that silly box on the devil’s head, which touches on some of the images from earlier on. I just think it helped to both summarize some of the bigger ideas at work in the book, while also undercutting a lot of the pretension that usually goes hand-in-hand with those same big ideas.
Biblioklept: What are you working on now? What would you like to do next?
Schofield: Right now I’m working on the next book for theNewerYork. It’s about burning people falling from the sky, among other things. Also I’m starting work on an illustrated children’s book. Many years ago I sort of drunkenly promised my friend I’d write a children’s book and have his then newborn baby be the protagonist, so looks like I might actually make good on that one.
Biblioklept: In his review of The Inevitable June at HTML GIANT, Manuel Arturo Abreu wrote: “Schofield must think he’s so fucking clever.” Do you think you’re so fucking clever?
Schofield: Sometimes I really do. It’s terrible. But it never lasts too long, because then I stop myself and remember that I don’t know anything about anything. And that if the lights were to go out tomorrow, I’d be useless. One hundred percent zombie food.
So let’s just hope they don’t, so I can keep riding this perpetual wave of false confidence in my own intellect well into old age, and senility. Whoo!
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
Schofield: I don’t think I’ve ever done it intentionally, but I do have a fair amount of books that I’ve borrowed from other people, and there’s just no real way to return them anymore. Statute of limitations long passed. And I’ve lost plenty of books that way myself. But there’s always that funny moment when you see a someone else’s book lying on your shelf or something, and remember that it doesn’t actually belong to you, and there’s a moment of hesitation before the internal tide shifts, and you just kind of come to terms with it, shrug, absolve yourself of sin, and think “Whelp, guess that poor bastard won’t be seeing his copy of The Dharma Bums again anytime soon,” before swiftly returning to your life.