DOZEN for 09/02/2009
As Seen in Real Life
Burford on Syncopated, and the particular allure of nonfiction
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
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
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.
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?
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
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
Baker: Are there any particular hurdles you personally have to deal with when
creating a story?
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?
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.
do you get from the editing - be it for King Features or
for Syncopated - that you might not get from making
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
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
think comics are a viable visual art form and a viable storytelling
art form, and I just want to make any contribution I can.
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?
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.
else you'd like to add before I let you get back to work?
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.
learn more about Syncopated and all the other fine
offerings from Villard, head over to that imprint's website:
you'd like to learn a little more about the history of the
Syncopated anthologies, hit Brendan's blog at http://syncopatedjottings.blogspot.com.
go to http://brooklynbookfestival.org
if you're interested in attending the Brooklyn Book Festival.