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Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

BAKER'S DOZEN for 09/02/2009
As Seen in Real Life

Brendan Burford on Syncopated, and the particular allure of nonfiction comics

One of the more interesting anthologies released this summer didn't offer even a glimpse of a metahuman battling a super-powered villain bent on world domination, nor any of the other fictional mainstays of a medium typically besotted with superhuman adventures. Instead, Syncopated is a book filled with tales focused upon more mundane, yet truly fascinating subjects.

Nestled between Nick Bertozzi's enlightening primer on how to properly cut, cure, bale and store hay which opens the collection, and Brendan Burford's closing profile of one of Greenwich Village's more notable chess hustlers, you'll find comics investigations of the history of the postcard, one man's abiding obsession for recording live jazz broadcasts, and an unnamed individual's chilling, dispassionate and deeply disquieting description of a series of interrogations at Guatanimo Bay. Each of these sequential essays, as well as the selections from two artists' sketchbooks which fill out the collection, is based upon an artist's understanding of a particular aspect of the real world. The final result is a reading experience that is as rich and varied as life itself.

The book's editor, the aforementioned Brendan Burford, recently spent a few moments answering some email questions regarding his reasons for creating the anthology, why this reality based genre, and the nonfiction essay in particular, has so effectively captured his attention, and how his day job as King Features' comics editor fits into the picture.

Bill Baker: When did you first encounter comics, and what about the medium fired your imagination? 

Brendan Burford: I can't recall not being aware of comics - they were always there. When I was very young, I remember little paperbacks of Pogo and Peanuts that my parents had around the house. I specifically remember a copy of The Gospel According to Peanuts - I remember being disappointed that this wonderful, enticing cover image was followed by a ton of pages of prose. There were comics in there, but they were buried amidst large swaths of prose. I also remember a Beetle Bailey belt that I had as early as before kindergarten - it had colorful Beetle comics all around it and a magnetic buckle. 

Anyway, my progression from newspaper funnies to cartoon humor books to superhero comics to underground comics (and so on, and so on) is probably not all that much unlike other American boys who find themselves immersed in comics. 

Baker: How about nonfiction comics? When did you first encounter those books, and what aspects of that genre lead to your interest in exploring that particular branch of the medium? 

Burford: I don't really have any influences as far as nonfiction comics. I do admire cartoonists like Joe Sacco and David Collier, but they aren't really influences. My love for nonfiction is more closely aligned with essayists like Joseph Mitchell and E.B. White and Joseph Liebling and John McNulty. 

Baker: Now, while this is the first widely available edition of Syncopated, if I understand things correctly, it's actually the fourth volume you've edited. How did this particular version of the series come about, what made you decide to release it under the Villard imprint, and how might it differ from previous renditions of the anthology? 

Burford: Yes, I self-published the books that preceded this newest one. It was actually good timing when Villard called to say they were interested in the books because I was beginning to wonder whether I had the energy to be the guy who printed, marketed and sold the books in addition to the being the guy who edited and contributed to the books. 

I'm glad I did all of the self-publishing, though - I learned a lot - but I'm also happy to have a publisher who can handle many aspects of this much better than I ever could. 

As far as the books themselves, the approach has remained nonfiction comics essays, but I think they've gotten progressively better, and this latest volume has some of the strongest work yet. 

Baker: Well, how did you choose the artists and the stories to include this time out, and how might that process changed since you began doing these collections? 

Burford: The cartoonists are all people whose work I feel fits the overall tone of the project. And they're all people whose work I enjoy. The selection process hasn't changed much, in that I simply go with people who feel like a natural fit. I've never taken submissions for the books, I've always hand-picked everyone for inclusion. 

Baker: Did you have any specific criteria that the work under consideration for inclusion in this collection might have had to meet, or was it more of a "follow your gut" kind of thing? And, again, has that always been the way you've chosen the tales to include? 

Burford: The criteria aren't specific, other than that they need to adhere to a nonfiction form of some sort. Some of the cartoonists have approached their contribution as a biography piece or a historical essay or a first person account. But the boundaries are flexible - there are two pieces that are drawing portfolios of places, scenes. The idea is to relate something true and well-researched in an illustrated form, and there are many ways to do that. 

Baker: Is there any chance that you'll be continuing doing the anthology with -or even without -Villard's help, and if so, will you be looking for new artists as contributors?

Burford: There's a chance, but the process hasn't begun. 

Baker: Aside from editing Syncopated, you also contributed a couple stories to it. How do you choose topics for your stories? Is this another "go with your gut"sort of thing, or is there a lot of thought involved in that decision? 

Burford: There's some thought in that I have a bunch of different stories I'd like to tell, and I need to make a decision based on which story will be the most successful. By that I mean I need to choose the one that will resonate with readers, will provide an interesting perspective or a compelling look at a subject. Also, some stories just aren't meant to be comics. 

Baker: And what about the story itself; do you start by creating an outline, or even a detailed script, before you beginning drawing, or do you just sit down and start working on the art and find your way through the story instinctively? 

Burford: I definitely need a solid script. Once I have a solid script, I will thumbnail the entire story to get a sense of visual flow and make sure it reflects the written version without deviating from the idea that it needs to be told visually. That said, I struggle greatly with drawing, and I think I need to work on making my comics look as though they took less effort. 

Baker: Are there any particular hurdles you personally have to deal with when creating a story?

Burford: I guess I covered this to a degree above, but I should also add that I'm constantly in search off methods to get a page constructed. I wish things were as easy for me as they seem to be for Jim Campbell, my collaborator on the Boris Rose story. In that case I sent him a typed script of all the captions, with very minimal stage direction. The results were a visual thing of beauty (Jim is so seriously good at drawing comics). In the case of my story about Richard Peterson, I actually drew each panel on its own piece of paper (following a smaller rough of the nine-panel grid of the whole page). I did this to reduce the daunting feeling of facing a large, empty page. 

Baker: In your day job, you work as a comics editor for King Features Syndicate. How did you find your way into that particular branch of the profession, and what particular satisfaction and frustrations does it offer? 

Burford: It was probably inevitable that I'd work in the comics business in some form or another, mostly because it's truly the only field that I can offer some level of expertise and still find enjoyment. I do enjoy my job, and I'm very fond of the people I work with. It's a rewarding place to be. 

Baker: Does the Kings Feature gig have any impact or influence on your comics work? Does it seem to give your enthusiasm to create comics yourself a boost or otherwise feed into your art? 

Burford: It has influenced me greatly - I have the opportunity to work with so many great cartoonists, many of whom I am very envious and whose work I admire. My job insists that I pay close attention to how the cartoonists go about their craft, and that observation has informed my understanding of the art form from day one, and continues to do so. 

Burford: What do you get from the editing - be it for King Features or for Syncopated - that you might not get from making comics? 

Burford: I have a great fondness for comics of all forms - my interests in different sorts of cartoonists and their different approaches to making comics runs deep. As an editor, I selfishly get to work with different cartoonists with different goals in mind, and this allows me to satisfy my wide range of interest in the art form beyond what I'm capable doing myself or through my own exploration. 

Baker: How about making comics? What does that do for you, as an individual and professional? 

Burford: I like the singular voice of comics. I realize there are many great examples of comics-making teams that are truly wonderful, but for the most part it's an individual effort. Comics are different from other visual storytelling mediums like movies in that respect, and I think that gives them a certain level of sincerity and authenticity. 

Baker: What do you hope that readers get from your work as an editor and comics creator?

Burford: I think comics are a viable visual art form and a viable storytelling art form, and I just want to make any contribution I can. 

Baker: What do you hope they get from Syncopated, specifically? Is it all about pure entertainment, or might you have a hope they get something a little more substantial from it? 

Burford: I hope that Syncopated is an accessible entry to comics for people who don't read comics. The stories are relatable and there really isn't any barrier to entry for someone seeing this book for the first time. And for those that are already comics readers, I hope they deem this new book as one worthy of their bookshelves. 

Baker: Anything else you'd like to add before I let you get back to work?  

Burford: Just want to thank you for the opportunity, Bill, and if you're in Brooklyn September 13th I think I'm on a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Book Festival - it's a wonderful outdoor festival held every year at Brooklyn Borough Hall. I'm pretty excited to be a part of it.


To learn more about Syncopated and all the other fine offerings from Villard, head over to that imprint's website: www.villard.com.

If you'd like to learn a little more about the history of the Syncopated anthologies, hit Brendan's blog at http://syncopatedjottings.blogspot.com.

Finally, go to http://brooklynbookfestival.org if you're interested in attending the Brooklyn Book Festival.

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