One of the more overlooked aspects of Fantagraphics’ history was its ’90s flirtation with publishing original graphic novels by young cartoonists who didn’t posses the serialization and audience-building advantages of their own ongoing comic-book series; this initiative produced work like Dave Cooper’s Suckle, Walt Holcombe’s The King Of Persia, Ho Che Anderson’s King, R. Sikoryak’s The Seduction of Mike, Rich Tommaso’s Clover Honey,
Ariel Bordeaux’s No Love Lost and Max Andersson’s Pixy, but only a few have had the stealth impact on later generations of cartoonists that Graham Chaffee’s The Big Wheels has enjoyed.
But Chaffee was something of a mystery – even Fanta staffers who were around when the company published Wheels and its short-story followup The Most Important Thing and Other Stories didn’t have much sense of who the hell this guy was and why/how he seemed to disappear as completely and suddenly as he first appeared. I’ve always been interested in artists of merit who seem to have walked away from their highest-profile medium, and Chaffee has resided near the top of my list of cartoonists I’ve wanted to track down for years.
Graham and I traded email in March, during which he generously provided us with most of the illustrations below. [Click for larger sizes and alt-text captions.] – MG
MILO GEORGE: Most of the biographical information available about you starts with you graduating from Pasadena Art Center College of Design in 1988 – where and when were you born?
GRAHAM CHAFFEE: I was born August 17, 1964, in Pasadena, CA. but largely raised in Austin, TX – moving back to California in 1980 or so. Been here since then, sometimes in Northern Cal, sometimes in Southern. Last migration was late ’94, when I started tattooing and moved to Los Angeles.
GEORGE: What was your major at the Art Center? What field did you hope to enter once you graduated?
CHAFFEE: I graduated from Art Center in ’88. I went in all about comics and came out all about painting. I was an illustration major and wanted to do book and magazine work.
When I got out, I moved to San Francisco and started hustling my portfolio around to all the magazines I could find in the area – mostly trade publications with the occasional Sunday magazine or theater program.
I was usually able to pay my bills, though it was a pretty hand-to-mouth existence. It was during this time, ’90 or ’91, that I started work on The Big Wheels, though I didn’t finish it until around ’93.
GEORGE: It seems like you came out of nowhere, more or less fully formed as a cartoonist with Wheels. Is it true that you mailed a package containing the whole book to Fantagraphics’ submissions slush pile?
CHAFFEE: I don’t remember if I sent all of it or just some of it. I did send a few short pieces as well, but they were not really worth anything and I sent them more to show my drawing and writing style than with any hope of seeing them in print.
GEORGE: Between graduation and the start of Wheels, were you drawing comics, but not publishing them as minis or submitting them to anthologies?
CHAFFEE: I did not draw any minis or any serious comics work before The Big Wheels; that was my first story. I did a page or two of superhero-type stuff – just fooling around – but Wheels was my first real effort.
I conceived it when I was still in school and drew up part of a draft. It was structurally different from the final incarnation – had four main characters: the cop, the child-killer, the businessman and the painter – and the story bounced around amongst them all. They are all still there, but in very, very abbreviated appearances – the girl painter, originally central to my story, wound up in one li’l inset panel on the last page.
GEORGE: How much of the plot/narrative did you have worked out before you started drawing it? Were you rewriting it on the fly, as you were drawing the pages?
CHAFFEE: The original, four-character version of Wheels I had pretty well plotted – this was the version that was ultimately scrapped. The one that eventually saw print was more haphazard as I recall. I think I had a basic timeline worked out, but the pacing, dialogue, etc. was done on a practically page-by-page basis – virtually no layouts, I think.
I did have some ground-rules, which I still follow, mostly: Every page has to subdivide into a 3×3 grid, the only exception being the occasional circular inset. No half-tones or crosshatching allowed; just black and white. Everything is inked with a brush, and no rulers allowed – although I use one to pencil the panel borders. Lettering was done with a crow quill, though now I use a li’l Sharpie. No narration boxes if I can help it and few, if any, thought balloons.
That’s about it. I feel these restrictions, this limited palette, help me maintain a consistent look and feel through a story – especially when I am taking a zillion years to finish one and worry that my drawing style will change from chapter to chapter.
GEORGE: So what inspired you to change gears from Wheels to the fable-like short stories in The Most Important Thing as your follow-up book?
CHAFFEE: I am not sure why The Most Important Thing is short stories – probably because I didn’t have anything solid enough to go 60 pages on its own. I had an idea or two, and wrote them out into little tales, but I didn’t have anything really solid. I think, the title story, about the animal messengers, was the first one I had in mind and the other stories came bit-by-bit over a period of weeks or months.
I had all these little stories and no real way to tie them together until I hit on the idea of using narrative structure to illustrate the different ways people connect with each other. So each story had a different structure: one story was about a random connection between two different women – the sort of connection we all make every time we get on a bus or whatever – the two story-lines run in separate columns until the connection is made at the end. Another story was about the connectedness of three generations of war vets and their shared memories of various wars get blended into one big old collage.
All the stories were about people connecting with each other in various ways, and I tried to make the physical structure of the stories reflect that. It was all very high concept: I had these little graphics of circles and things at the beginning of each story, and a weird li’l poem deal that a friend of mine wrote, to run between chapters – a lot of ridiculous artiness to try and justify what were, in fact, just some little stories. I’d certainly do it differently now.
GEORGE: You said that your schooling revolved around comics, illustration and painting – when did tattooing enter your life?
CHAFFEE: I became interested in learning to tattoo in ’92 or ’93. I had been getting tattooed since ’89 or so, and had met a couple of artists and read a little about the traditions and icons of the craft. A couple of art-school buddies, Rob and Chris Clayton, really encouraged me to get into it as an artist, and things just seemed to roll downhill from there. I talked to a few other people who knew some stuff and I experimented with hand-poke work on myself and a couple of other folks. Eventually, in the summer of ’94, I ordered a tattoo kit through the mail and really got into it; did a bunch of things on various friends.
I moved to Los Angeles in late ’94 and started looking for work – found a newish shop in Pasadena [Purple Panther Tattoos], and worked there for a year or so, and then moved to the shop in Hollywood where I still work – in fact I now own the shop, the original owner having retired.
GEORGE: What attracted you to tattooing, as an art and later as a living?
CHAFFEE: American tattooing has its roots in this awesome folk-art subculture – very little of that survives today, but the crudely drawn, mysterious, carnival-soaked imagery of the early 20th century is a big part of what I love about it. As for why I make a living at it: I dunno, it seemed like a good idea at the time and I can’t say I regret the decision. I own a mom & pop business that provides real, hand-made goods to regular people – it’s a direct transaction and very satisfying on that level.
GEORGE: How has being a professional tattoo artist changed your painting and cartooning?
CHAFFEE: Mainly by limiting how much of it I am able/willing to do! Tattooing takes a big bite out of my creative energy every week and I’m left with very little to spare for other activities. I have done a few paintings in the last couple years, and I am working on this talking-animal book – but it’s slow-going, with a lot of hiatuses.
I was afraid that my tattoo work would influence my cartooning or painting style, but it hasn’t done so, I find. My main worry was that the hyper-edited, painfully crafted work I do for tattooing would cramp the gestural flow of my comics work and/or the loose realism of my painting, but I’ve discovered that each discipline has its own rules and conditions and they don’t seem to overlap.
I cannot, for the life of me, draw an easy, loose, cartoony tattoo design; they are all very rigidly crafted and formal. With comics, it’s the opposite; I try to make it more structured and formal, but it keeps getting away from me and the loose, lazy style forces its way in! “Loose and lazy” is a relative term, of course; my stuff is way looser and less structured than, say, Charles Burns, but compared to Julie Doucet, I am a model of anal-retentive formality.
GEORGE: We haven’t touched on influences and peers. When you started art school and was focused on becoming a cartoonist, who and/or what were you looking at as inspiration? How have your influences changed over the years?
CHAFFEE: That’s a tough one; I can give a partial list, but my work is influenced by so many different people’s stuff. I think the Hernandez Bros. were a big deal for me in the early ’80s, and Will Eisner. Then I went through art school and acquired a ton of non-comics-related folks – insert the entire contents of Janson’s History of Art here – and then back to comics with Alex Toth and David Mazzucchelli, Jim Woodring and Art Spiegelman and, more than anyone else, Robert Crumb. So much has been written about Crumb already, let’s not annoy him with further praise – he moved to France to get away from guys like me!
Right now, I’m really big on Harold Gray. I also like Paul Pope’s stuff and James Sturm and that Norwegian fella, Jason.
GEORGE: I imagine that being a graphic novelist in the early ’90s – a largely pre-Internet time when the quarterly comic book/zine was still the main vehicle for publishing – would be pretty isolating. You mentioned Charles Burns and Julie Doucet – how connected were you to the ’90s alternative-comics scene? The cartoonist enclaves in L.A.?
CHAFFEE: I am nearly completely isolated from any comics scene, whatsoever – I might as well live in the woods! I have some artist friends, but they aren’t comics people.
GEORGE: A couple of Fanta staffers once told me that the last time they saw you was at San Diego in 1996 or 1997, and you had a detective short story that you were shopping around to the publishers/anthology editors in attendance. Is that accurate?
CHAFFEE: I have, somewhere, the first chapter of a stalled-out crime story called “Robin Ross” that Gary Groth had seen and expressed interest in seeing more of, but it died on the vine. It was massively derivative stuff anyhow – Hammett meets William Kennedy, that sort of thing – and not worth resurrecting. I may well have had it on me at the con, I don’t recall.
GEORGE: It’s thrilling to hear that you have a new book in the works. How’s it coming along?
CHAFFEE: Good Dog is plodding along – limping at times, since I often stop and forget to start again – and may possibly be finished this year. I’ve got around 30 pages done at this point; about half of the book. I should probably re-name it Good Sloth.
Visit www.gschaffeetattoos.com, gschaffeetattoos.tumblr.com and www.purplepanthertattoos.com for more.