The National Post interviews R.O. BLECHMAN!

R.O. Blechman: Not your average wiggly things

The National Post    |    Mark Medley    |    October 28, 2009

When the cartoonist R.O. Blechman was 22 years old, he published one of the first-ever graphic novels, The Juggler of Our Lady. The book had found its way to the publishing house Henry Holt by way of an art director who was familiar with Blechman's work. But a couple of weeks ago, Blechman made a surprising discovery.

"[My] mother called the art director to say that ‘We always thought he would enter the family shoe business.' " His father owned a shoe factory. " ‘Do you think he has any chance to of pursuing a successful career doing that stuff?' "

"I had never known that my mother had actually been so upset that I might be an artist," says Blechman, 79, on the phone from his home in Ancram, N.Y. "Still, I can understand my mother's concern. She said, ‘Oh my God, this kid is going into a career that he's not really all that equipped for. The book was some kind of fluke.' "

It turns out his mother's worrying was for naught; over the past 50 years, Blechman has established himself as one of the most innovative and influential cartoonists and animators of the 20th century. Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly has recently issued Talking Lines, a career retrospective of sorts.

Blechman's art looks like it was drawn during an earthquake or while riding on the back of a galloping horse; especially early in his career, his comics consisted of crudely drawn panels, albeit with killer punchlines. Early in his career, he says, he often had the idea for a comic, but lacked "the equipment" to pull it off.

"I said to myself at some point in my career, ‘God, this stuff looks terrible - I better start drawing better,' " he says. "Now they're quite accomplished, because I've been at this stuff for so long.

"I never considered my illustration art - that's not for me to say."

Others will. Illustrator Seth, who will join Blechman for an onstage interview at the International Festival of Authors later this week, first came across Blechman's work in the 1980s, and "was immediately attracted to the simplicity and the beauty of the work.

"It's almost like Japanese brush art, or something. It comes down to a very subtle command of a few elements to make it work, and I think that's why Blechman's work is very interesting, and probably, in some ways, more rarefied than a lot of cartooning you see, because it really is a delicate balancing act. There's only like a tightrope and an umbrella involved - it's very easy for it to fall flat. That's why I find his work very appealing. He's never pulling out the big guns: You don't have three pages of story and then you turn the page and have a giant cityscape or something to blow you away. It's always like a tiny little rearrangement of a couple of pebbles in a sandbox ... The nature of his work is so ephemeral that people have to look to a little closer, or they have that response, ‘Oh, a few little wiggly things.' It's not the kind of work like somebody like Chris Ware, that's got a built-in wow factor."

Blechman, who was born and raised in New York, left his lifelong home for the country a few years ago. But rather than slow down, he's speeding up: This month sees the release of a second book, Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator, and next year he'll publish a book of paintings.

"Oh no, I could never retire. Impossible. My mind keeps spinning. To be frank with you, I find it hard to sleep at night because I keep thinking of ideas, and very often I just jot them down and the next morning I try to spin them out to see if they're worthwhile. No artist ever retires. No musician, writer, poet, novelist - you don't. As long as you have a mind, you can't stop thinking of things to do. Chronology is irrelevant: You can be a young fogey, you can be an old kid."


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