Interview: Nicholas Gurewitch on ‘Perry Bible Fellowship’
For longtime readers of Nicholas Gurewitch’s weekly, syndicated webcomic Perry Bible Fellowship, it didn’t come as much of a surprise when, late last year, the first print collection of the popular series became the fastest-selling graphic novel in the history of online bookseller Amazon.com.
What did come as a surprise, however, was the announcement that Gurewitch made a few months later.
"I feel I owe it to myself and the Perry Bible Fellowship not to turn a joyful diversion into a long career," wrote Gurewitch in a widely publicized mid-February message to the newspaper and magazine editors running his PBF strips.
Just a few months after The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories, made big news in the publishing world by selling more than $300,000 copies in pre-orders alone, Gurewitch made headlines once again by announcing that he would be cutting back on production of the strip — moving from a weekly schedule to a more manageable routine.
"I’m making this decision for a variety of reasons," he explained, "but mainly because I want to do other things besides be a cartoonist."
According to Gurewitch, the decision was made after realizing that the success of PBF had placed him at a series of creative, personal and professional crossroads, and there was no better time to begin walking a different path.
I spoke with Gurewitch recently about the decision to move Perry Bible Fellowship into "semi-retirement," what he’s doing with his time these days and the frustrating divide between creator’s intent and audience’s interpretation.
COMICMIX: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Nick. Now that you have a bit more free time, how are you spending it?
NICHOLAS GUREWITCH: I’m working on a few more books to come out through Dark Horse and I’m writing a feature-length movie script that I’ve wanted to write for years. That’s at the forefront of my mind right now. I’m really excited about it.
CMix: The books you’re working on, are they related to PBF or are they different projects entirely?
NG: One is a sequel or replacement for the Colonel Sweeto book. It’s a more expensive book that has more comics in it. The other would be a spin-off, if you wanted to call it that — it’s a continuation of one of the stories.
CMix: What story?
NG: It’s the one with the French title that looks like a woodcut. It’s about the Grim Reaper trying to dispose of a baby. He fails, and it’s kind of a sad moment that makes you think, because it’s sad that he didn’t kill a baby. But I’m trying to play with that irony a little more in this small book that I’m doing.
CMix: You mentioned a feature-length film project. Would that be the "Italian Candlemakers" project you’ve mentioned in the past?
NG: That? No, that was a short film that I had written a while ago. The script that I’m working on now, that I’m basically taking time off to focus on, is a feature. [The Italian Candlemakers] short was written along with volumes of other shorts that I haven’t had the opportunity to produce yet.
I write shorts all the time, pretty much as often as I write comics, but I rarely get an opportunity to produce them. So I’m basically building them up and searching out outlets for them. I was talking to a British TV company recently, and maybe some of my ideas will come to fruition through that venue. We’ll see.
CMix: So what does your feature-film project involve?
NG: Well, it’s very good, in my opinion. I hesitate to elaborate on it, but it deals with the adage that "all the world’s a stage."
CMix: You worked on an animated project with Comedy Central a while back. Is there any chance that the next step for PBF might lie in the direction of animation?
NG: There’s always a chance. I think the comics are designed to be comics, for the most part. But I recently saw a UK-based development team treat one of the comic strips I did and I was enormously impressed with it. It made me giggle. It was so fun.
They did a great adaptation of the strip “One More Day.” And for the first time in a long time, I saw a PBF adaptation from someone who really understood and could contribute to the point of the story because of how well they understood it.
CMix: It’s interesting that you say that, as I’ve noticed that you often seem a bit frustrated by the interpretation your strips occasionally receive. Do you feel as if people don’t quite "get" your intention with PBF much of the time?
NG: It’s funny that the intent or intended personality in a work can somehow be lost, but people are responding to something and they’re entitled to take whatever perspective they want on it. But I do find it funny that a lot of people think a comic is simply “fucked up” and has no thought put into it, when personally, whenever I enjoy one of my comics, I can see something I’ve been thinking about in the comic, or something on my mind or one of my friends’ minds. When I come up with a strip like that, it has a deep relevance beneath the simple gag that’s on paper. I always find the comics more deeply relevant than they seem to the naked eye.
CMix: I ask because, on more than one occasion, I’ve read interviews in which your strips are compared to "acid trips" or some type of bizarre psychological episodes… and it seems like this frustrated you.
NG: I always find it a bummer when people don’t look closer. But, you know what? They can see it how it is for them, which is something that’s good in any piece of art — when a reader can experience it in his own, personal way.
CMix: I guess it’s a credit to the work that people are reacting strongly in one way or another…
NG: Well, just the other day I received a message from someone who wrote that the "Billy the Bunny" strip was an excellent discourse on hate. And that made me feel really cool — that he had seen what I put into it. It pleased me that someone could take a deeper perspective on it.
I love it when art delivers a little message. Like Aesop’s work, I love it when art has a little rule or lesson that you can get from it.
CMix: You have an exhibition that just opened with Tony Millionaire. Are you looking forward to meeting him? I’ve heard he’s a decent guy…
NG: Well, he’s not going to be there, but I love Tony. His stuff is pretty madcap. From what I hear, he’s a good chap in real life, too. I hear he’s fond of being as crazy as his characters.
CMix: How has the absence of PBF in your regular schedule affected your creative output and your ability to move ideas from concept to production? Do you feel like there’s a void you need to fill?
NG: Not really. I would love to take time to produce something at a rate that’s comfortable. Actually, I keep having PBF ideas and I know I’ll get to them eventually, and I know they’ll be better because I’m not hurrying to get them out. I think the fact of the matter is, cartooning is an occupation that will pretty much destroy you and destroy every other aspect of your life if you chain yourself to it.
I think Chris Ware has said before that it’s one of those occupations that will keep you penned in the basement and that it naturally breeds miserable subject matter. Not only is it one of the few artforms that can be performed entirely in solitude, it usually deals with the visual stuff you couldn’t pull off in a theater or film production — because it’s too personal, or fetishistic, or outrageous to be made with others. And so people have to spend all this time in their own minds, wandering.
Maybe I’m making too much of this… I might just be tired of the solitude of comic-strip making.
CMix:Not at all. As someone who works from home quite a bit, I can sympathize to a degree — but I can’t imagine working alone in my home office every day, day after day. It can really grate on you…
NG: Yeah… I don’t want my brain to become antisocial or anything. After three years of doing this weekly and constantly saying, "No, I can’t go out tonight," I want to see what will happen if I give myself a little more sunlight and get out more.
CMix: When you announced that you were reducing your production schedule with PBF it seemed to come as a surprise to everyone involved — including the newspapers and other publishers who syndicate the series. Can you talk a bit about the reaction you received?
NG: I had a lot of messages from editors come back about the announcement. It was actually a very heartening experience to deliver the message to them and then hear back from editors who, up until that point, had pretty much just been receiving files. A lot of them came out and said, "This was my favorite one in the paper."
To hear from 20-30 people who were previously anonymous and who had nice things to say, that was really nice.
CMix: So there weren’t any angry publishers who thought you should’ve given them more notice? I mean, this was a really big surprise for everyone involved, I’d imagine…
NG: They weren’t cranky about it by any means, though. They supplied the obligatory "Gee, darn," and then proceeded to say, "Congratulations." It was pretty pleasant.
CMix: I’ve heard that you’re a big fan of Teddy Roosevelt, and you were reading one of his biographies recently. Any chance the former President will be making an appearance in an upcoming PBF strip or other projects?
NG: [Laughs] I took a few notes in the biography I was reading, about scenes that would go very well in a movie, but no sooner had I been thinking about it than I heard [Martin] Scorsese announce it as a project. I guess Leonardo DiCaprio is going to take a stab at doing Teddy.
CMix: Oh, no! Well, I guess there’s something to be said for great minds thinking alike and all…
NG: Maybe, yeah… That’s flattering to think of it that way.
CMix: So much has happened with your career recently. You’ve had a wildly successful book published, you’ve made drastic changes in your lifestyle and you’ve been the subject of wide-reaching coverage by mainstream media outlets. Can you take a step back and tell me how you feel about the whole experience?
NG: I have so many other things I want to do that it doesn’t feel like an achievement deep down. That’s the reason I want to move on. The things I really want to do and the things that excite me, I have yet to see and I have yet to experience.
CMix: Well, I hope you have the chance. Thanks for talking with me, Nick.
NG: Yeah, no problem. It was nice to chat!
You can always see the latest installments and archive of Perry Bible Fellowship at pbfcomics.com. The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories is published by Dark Horse Comics and is on sale now. "The Art of Nicholas Gurewitch and Tony Millionaire" exhibition opened April 3 at Floating World Comics in Portland, OR, and will feature an in-store appearance by Gurewitch on April 24.
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!