PIZZA PIZZA: The Phil McAndrew Interview
I’ve been following Phil McAndrew’s career with interest for several years. I think he was still in art school in New York when I found his drawings on LiveJournal. His funny, comfortable illustrations were consistently one of the highlights of my LJ feed then. He’s only gotten better, adding a proficiency with watercolors to his artistic arsenal and refining his “voice.” I caught up with Phil to talk about drawing, pizza, the short story, Mad Magazine, the life of the freelance artist, and his upcoming comics collection. -ZSSTUDY GROUP: Though it looks like you might have abandoned your Feral Pizza webcomic effort, you spent a good amount of time there making single image comics. Obviously, you are still making a lot of similar images. What separates the images you labeled as “Feral Pizza” from the things you’re currently working on, which often seem to share a certain sensibility even when they don’t incorporate words, as most of the FP work did?
PHIL MCANDREW: Yeah, I haven’t updated the Feral Pizza website in a while. But I definitely plan to come back to it eventually. I’d like to make a big book full of silly Feral Pizza type stuff. Feral Pizza has sort of just been an umbrella title for lots of little odds and ends. A few of the things I’ve put up on the Feral Pizza website were actually rejected MAD Magazine submissions, a lot of them were just silly things I scribbled into sketchbooks that I really liked. For some of them I definitely just sat down and was very deliberately like “time to draw a Feral Pizza cartoon.” I love single panel cartoons. The format just appeals to me a lot. My parents had a few collections of The Far Side laying around our house and those were some of the first comics I can remember reading as a kid. Now I’m obsessed with Kliban and a lot of the old New Yorker cartoonists.
STUDY GROUP: Your short stories, released as individual mini-comics like Pearly Whites, Book Comic, and Are You Man Enough?, are generally charming little riffs on one particular idea at a time. Can you tell me about your writing process? We haven’t seen any new comics from you in a while, but I see your upcoming book with Grimalkin Press has 100 pages of unseen material! Have you just been saving up all your comics for the book, or is the unseen material even comics? So, basically I’m asking: WHERE THE COMICS AT?
PHIL MCANDREW: Ha! Yeah, for the most part I’ve been saving up all my recent comics for the book. The new material is going to be more short stories. I have a lot of fun with shorter projects, maybe just because they’re not quite as daunting as the thought of working on something super long that will take years and years to complete. Many of my favorite non-comic books are actually just short story collections.
STUDY GROUP: Do you think you might ever attempt a longer work, or are you most comfortable with the short story?
PHIL MCANDREW: When I was in college I had big dreams of being a graphic novelist and I do think I have a few graphic novel length stories in me, but right now I’m having fun writing shorter stuff. I’ve got a much longer story that I scripted out a few years ago but after a handful of false starts on the art I keep putting it aside to work on shorter things or projects that will actually pay the bills. I’m also working on scripting out a series of short children’s comics that, when completed, would ideally all go into one book together and sort of build on each other. Scripting stuff out before I draw anything is how I usually prefer to work. But I write slowly and I tend to agonize over every little sentence and I fill my scripts with detailed notes and things, which I guess is kind of opposite of how I draw.
STUDY GROUP: Your drawings almost always read “funny”. How important is humor and slapstick in your illustration?
PHIL MCANDREW: If I’m in total control of a project I do pretty much always try to make funny stuff. That’s just the sort of work I enjoy producing. I do take on illustration jobs that require me to dial the silly stuff back a bit, which I enjoy too. I like to think that I’m capable of tackling any sort of project, that I can bend myself in a variety of directions. But if a client comes to me looking for something funny I’m usually pretty thrilled.
STUDY GROUP: The warm, lived-in line you get is very reminiscent of Quentin Blake and Ronald Searle. Do you use a nib, or a brush? Do you ever go back and try to “dirty up” a drawing if you make it too slick?
PHIL MCANDREW: I almost always use a nib but I do go back and augment things with a brush from time to time. I usually don’t sit down and think “I’ve got to make this drawing really crazy and messy,” I just try not to be delicate with my lines. Sometimes with comics I’ll make rules to keep myself from being too precious with the art, like with Are You Man Enough? I drew the entire book standing up, which I do with most projects now, and I didn’t pencil anything out. It was all drawn directly in ink, which is how I’m also doing some of the new stuff that’s going into my book.
STUDY GROUP: You recently crossed the country to move to San Diego. What brought that on, and how are you finding it?
PHIL MCANDREW: At then end of 2010 my scientist girlfriend was offered a cool science job in San Diego. I figured I can draw pictures anywhere, so we began 2011 by cramming as much stuff as we could into the car and driving across the country from Syracuse, NY to San Diego, a place I’d never been before where I literally knew no one. But it’s been pretty cool! I still kind of feel like I’m just on vacation or something. Dr. Seuss lived in the San Diego area and now I can’t help but see the crazy hills and plants of the area in his drawings. Not long before we moved I was contacted by a particular television network and invited to pitch some ideas for a cartoon show, so being close to Los Angeles has made that process a heck of a lot easier.
STUDY GROUP: There’s not a huge comics scene there, from what I understand. Do you mainly just hang out with David King and eat pizza?
PHIL MCANDREW: The pizza situation in San Diego is not great compared to back in New York, but yeah, I get to hang out with David King all the time, which is nice. I didn’t really have any cartoonist pals to hang out with back in Syracuse so having another cartoonist nearby, even just one, is awesome. And I’m lucky that the one other cartoonist in town is a really, really great cartoonist. David and I actually just got the ball rolling with organizing some live comics reading events down here so maybe a tiny little comics scene will start sprout. We’re going to do one towards the end of April and then another in July during the insanity of San Diego Comic-Con.
STUDY GROUP: This year has seen you getting more and more exposure in the illustration world, and you even got published in Mad Magazine, which is a pretty huge goal for many cartoonists I know. At the same time, you’ve been very vocal about being super broke a lot and the difference between people’s perception of your success vs the reality of your day to day life. I know I’m constantly struggling to make ends meet, so I always sympathize with your posts on the subject. What’s more frustrating: eating ramen all the time or people assuming you’re a big shot just because you scored a couple high profile gigs?
PHIL MCANDREW: I don’t really care if people think I’m some kind of cartooning big shot, I guess. But it is a little frustrating and terrifying knowing that a lot of “big shot” cartoonists live their entire lives in poverty, which is something that I don’t think most people realize. I often think about the part in Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage where he visits Lewis Trondheim in France and describes his house as a palace and then wonders why it’s not like that for successful cartoonists in North America. Not that I think I should be living in a palace right now or anything, but it would be nice to not have a panic attack every time I look at my checking account balance. I love what I’m doing and that’s something that not a lot of people can truthfully say. I’m extremely thankful that I’ve been able to scrape by for a year now drawing pictures for a living. I just keep telling myself that things will continue to get better and the high profile jobs will become a little more regular if I stick with it and try to be as awesome as possible. I feel like a lot of doors opened for me in 2011 and I have high hopes that I’ll be able to actually enter some of those doors in 2012. But yeah, the reality is that I’m definitely still struggling. I typically only have four or five bucks to my name after paying rent and student loan bills every month. I basically have to start at zero at the beginning of each month and just hope that I can earn enough to continue living in an apartment and eating food. I simply try not to think about the fact that I have a bunch of cavities in my teeth that I can’t afford to have taken care of and that if I were to have some kind of unexpected injury or illness that needed medical attention I’d be 100% totally screwed. I realized the other day that our dog gets better medical care than I do. At least once a month I’ll spend a day on craigslist just staring at job listings and wondering if I should get a crappy job and give up freelancing. But I love making up stories and drawing too much. I’ve got too many things I want to draw and too many projects on my plate already. I don’t really have time for a day job.
STUDY GROUP: I enjoy your “how to” posts quite a bit. What motivates you to share your process? Do you think it’s important for professionals to share their tips?
PHIL MCANDREW: I don’t think artists should ever feel obligated to share their process with people. Some artists like to keep their methods shrouded in mystery, and that’s cool. But I love it when people do share their secrets. I’ve learned a lot by reading process posts from other people, on a previous computer I had a whole bookmark folder full of that stuff. And I find great joy in helping others by sharing what I’ve learned. I like spreading knowledge around. I see a lot of cartoonists and illustrators complaining on twitter about getting emails from kids in art school asking for advice or if they can do an interview for a class project. I get a lot of those emails too and I love them, I answer every single one. I’m working on a proposal right now for a book that would basically expand on some of the things I’ve written on my blog, particularly my Super Obvious Secrets That I Wish They’d Teach In Art School post. I’ve been thinking a lot about maybe trying to give talks to art students lately too, doing little presentations on my experiences, both good and bad, as a person who draws pictures for a living. I’m just not quite sure how to get into doing that sort of stuff. Maybe someone will read this and simply invite me to do something like that somewhere.
Visit http://www.philintheblanks.com/ for more.