Comics: Seymour Chwast — Driven to Draw

Famed artist-designer lays down his lines out of love for his craft.

By , Columnist

Seymour Chwast

Seymour Chwast's children's books, including the pictured 12 Circus Rings, only further cemented his reputation as a storyteller...and his legendary status among his peers and readers alike.

What keeps someone going long after winning almost every conceivable award and honor in their chosen field? Why does someone keep getting up and going to work years after many, if not all, of their peers have long since left the workaday world behind?

As Seymour Chwast, that living legend of art, design, and typography, so eloquently explains in this concluding half of our conversation, it sometimes comes down to the influence of that most powerful of all forces—sheer, unadulterated love.

D Comedy snake spread from amazon.jpg

I’ve got to ask why you’re doing graphic novels, and why do it now, at this point in your career? Is this something you really wanted to get out of your system?

Oh, yeah, it’s an area that I had been involved in.

The medium is sort of new, it’s been around for a while now, and I really like narrative art. I haven’t had a chance to do too much of it in the past, so this is fine, and I’m really having a great time, laying it out here.

It’s very different from doing a magazine illustration, having to relate to a particular piece of writing and having to interpret it as a drawing. In a way, I have a lot more freedom with the graphic novel form.

C Tales Three Furies page.jpg

Is it that kind of freedom, and that kind of challenge, is that one of the things that keeps you going as an artist?

Well, what keeps me going is my interest in doing what I’m doing. At times it gets a little boring, but I just keep on going until it gets interesting again. [Laughter]

Well, it is work, after all, however easy it is to forget that at times.

Uh, yeah! [Laughter] Yeah, I can put up with that. Because so much of it is gratifying, knowing that it all ends with a book that I may be happy with.

Divine comedy interior page a.jpg

How do you know when you’ve hit that mark? Is it a specific feeling? Is it something that just suddenly hits you, or is it something that slowly grows over time?

Well, you have to trust your instincts here, as with anything. Any sort of creative person, sometimes you’re not quite sure, and sometimes you leave it up to other people to tell you if it’s good or bad.

If I’m not satisfied with what I’m doing, I keep on doing it and make changes until I think, “Well, maybe this is okay.” And then I move on.

Right, because this is a job, this is commerce, so you have to keep that deadline in mind.

Yeah. Happily, [with these books] the deadline isn’t as bad as when I do a magazine illustration. I have a little more time to think about it, or make changes.

story of Sampson page from SC facebook page.jpg

Is drawing a comics page pretty much the same as drawing a magazine illustration for you, or does working on the graphic novels make you use a few new creative muscles?

No, it’s pretty much the same. I mean, I’ve worked in different styles, from painting to woodcut, and all sorts of things, but, no. It’s pretty much the conventional comic book style, but it’s not adventure comics. It tends to be humorous.

But I still use principles of design in what I’m doing, and that is important—for me to give these spreads some sort of form. And I have to pace the pages so that they don’t all look alike. Some graphic novels are…the designer divides the pages into six boxes, and that’s the way it is through the whole book. I don’t do it that way. I try to pace them so that each spread is more interesting and, sometimes, something of a surprise, all while I’m still trying to be true to the material.

I think your layouts, with their open and expansive feel, are particularly appropriate for this material.

Yeah? Well, with the way I work, and it’s easy to describe a character and what that character is, the style is not labored. So, doing things in a cartoon style, you know, little gestures here can explain an awful lot.

D Comedy sins spread from amazon.jpg

It’s really amazing how our imaginations just fill in all the details once we’re given a few lines as a guide.


How do you know that a particular book or project is going to be worth your time?

Well, at least I’ll be getting an advance. [Laughter] So, the publisher also takes responsibility and is supposed to know what’s going to sell.

True. But I’m also thinking, given the fact that we can only do so much in the time we’re allotted, so every creator has to ask themselves, consciously or otherwise, if each project is worth the time and effort it’s going to require to complete it, right?

Yeah, well, because it’s so labor-intensive, I’d hate to do a book that’s a real flop. I mean, it could be artistically okay, and nobody was interested in buying it, or the other way around, that’s always a possibility. But, you take chances, and the publisher takes some of the responsibility. So, they’re the ones who say, “Yes, do this book, don’t do the other book,” you know?

There are a few things that I still want to do that I’m looking forward to working on.

We bk cvr by Seymour Chwast.jpg

Well, I won’t press you for details on those right now. But I was curious, after everything you’ve done so successfully over the years, if you feel that there’s anything left for you to accomplish at this point in your career? I mean, obviously there’s work you still want to do, and these projects you’ve mentioned..

Well, I don’t think I’m breaking new ground with it. There’s not a hell of a lot that I can discover with what I’m doing, but that’s in the past.

Now, it becomes more craft, because the form is sort of limiting. You’re limited to a page count, and these books have been black and white, basically. So, I don’t know what new things will come along that will make me even more famous than I am now. Why bother? [Laughter]

Still, that leaves the question of what, beyond any fame or remuneration, do you get from making your art? I ask because to all appearances you’ve done and accomplished so much, you have nothing to prove at this point. So, I’ve got to ask: Is it the sheer joy of making your work that keeps you coming back to the drawing board every day?

I like to draw. That’s what does it.

Seymour Chwast self portrait a.jpg

It sounds like it’s literally part of who you are, in a very real sense.

Yeah, but I know I have to relate to…bcause I’m not a fine artist, while I do paint, it’s difficult to have it sort of coming out of the air. If I can relate to literary material, it makes it easier. I need that to work off of, and it’s what I do.

Is there a question you’ve always wanted to answer, or something you’ve always wanted to say, but no one’s asked you the question or given you a chance to say it?

Hmm, gee, you should have given me some time! [Laughter] I used to wonder why somebody didn’t ask me to do a full-length animated film, but now I don’t care, so it doesn’t matter.

Now, is that something that, if someone approached you with a serious offer, you’d consider it?

Well, I might still. I think the Dante’s Divine Comedy would make a terrific animated film, but, if Hollywood doesn’t think so, it’s okay.

Thumbnail image for Dante's Divine Comedy gn adaptation cvr from SC facebook page.jpg

Well, you said earlier that The Odyssey is the next book you’ll be adapting to graphic novel format. Any idea when that might be out?

That should be out next August or September [2012]; the books are being released a year apart.

Do you know what’s coming after that at this point?


All artwork by Seymour Chwast

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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