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January 2, 2009

Behind the Scenes with Andrew Farago

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Do you remember your first comic book or graphic novel? If so, what was it?
The first comic books that I read were the ones that my older brothers owned, mostly featuring characters from TV and the movies, including Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk, and Star Wars. The first comic books that were actually mine were G.I. Joe #37 and Transformers #6, purchased for me by my mother when I was sick in bed during a warm spring day when I was in third grade. (And I can still go into the plots of those books and describe the covers in detail, along with what I had for lunch that day, and probably what I watched on TV that afternoon. Childhood memories are pretty potent stuff.)

As far as full-fledged graphic novels go, I read The Dark Knight Returns and a few other Batman books during the “Batmania” following the release of the 1989 movie. I discovered Art Spiegelman, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, and Harvey Pekar in the mid-1990s, during my college days.
 

What do you love about the graphic novel as a format for storytelling?
What’s not to love? It’s easier than ever to say that there’s “something for everybody” in comics and graphic novels. If you’re into romantic comedies, action-adventure, westerns, slice-of-life drama, fantasy, slapstick humor, goth culture, historical biographies…there’s a comic out there for you. The only people that really seem to have trouble getting into comics as a medium are people who don’t read much recreationally in the first place, which is another issue altogether.
 

Whose work do you admire?
Charles Schulz is at the very top of the list of my favorite cartoonists, and the rest of my favorites tend to be people with huge bodies of work dating back several decades. Harvey Kurtzman (and the original artists from Mad, during its comic book days), Carl Barks, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, Jack Cole, Gahan Wilson, Otto Binder & C.C. Beck, Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, Walt Kelly, E.C. Segar, Osamu Tezuka…and that’s probably leaving out another 20 favorites who started out in the 1970s or earlier.

I’ve probably got a good 30 or so contemporary artists whose work I follow really closely, too, but I’ll avoid listing them so that any of them who are reading this can assume that their work is on my favorites list.
 

Who do you read outside of the graphic novel format?
I’ve been reading humorous essay collections lately, including Kick Me by Paul Feig (creator of the short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks) and When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. I just reread Welcome to the Monkeyhouse by Kurt Vonnegut for the first time in about a decade, which is another collection of short stories. The short story/essay format’s convenient for my schedule, since most of my nonwork-related reading time comes on the train ride into work each morning and on the ride home in the evening, which gives me about 10-15 minutes at a clip.

I get most of my longer novel-reading done on airplane trips or while I’m on vacation. The most recent full novel that I read was Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, with whom I cocurated the Cartoon Art Museum’s current Gene Colan exhibition. So even that’s work-related, to an extent.

How many graphic novels do you read a month? How many of those are manga?
In a typical month, I’ll buy 20–30 comics in the periodical/monthly format, one or two collections of older comic book material, one or two comic strip collections, a few new graphic novels, and maybe two books relating to whatever upcoming exhibition I’m researching at the moment. If I go to a convention that month, then those numbers can go up quite a bit, since I usually get armfuls of books given to me as donations for the Cartoon Art Museum’s research library.

I’ve got a large stockpile of old comics at home, too, and pull things off my bookshelf all the time for rereading. I’m working my way through a stack of 1980s Marvel comics, Jules Feiffer’s Explainers from Fantagraphics, Jeff Parker’s Interman, and Alison Bechdel’s Essential Dykes to Watch Out For right now.
My wife’s a manga editor, so I generally read whatever she recommends, which averages out to two or three titles a month. Death Note, Black Jack, and just about any Tezuka stuff will get my attention. We recently picked up the first volume of the out-of-print comedy series Club 9 by Makoto Kobayashi, who’s better known for the cat-humor comic What’s Michael? It’s a really enjoyable series, and his art’s very fun to look at.
 

Which do you prefer and why: color or black and white?
Most of my all-time favorite comics are black and white, but the majority of the comic books that I grew up reading are full-color books. Really, it all depends on what best suits the artwork. Artists—the good ones, anyway—will approach a black-and-white comic differently than they would a project that’s going to be colored digitally, or with watercolors, or with spot color.
 

How did you first get involved in the field professionally?
I started out at the Cartoon Art Museum as a volunteer, in the summer of 2000, mostly handling the admissions desk, but I helped with the occasional exhibition installation. When they found out that I actually knew a lot about cartoons and comics, I was invited to offer some input into the exhibitions. When a full-time position opened up at the museum when it relocated to its current home in late 2001, I was hired on to install exhibitions, maintain the galleries, and assist the curator, Jenny Robb.

When Jenny took a job with Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library in 2004, I’d already curated several exhibitions by myself, so I took over as the Cartoon Art Museum’s curator at that point, in addition to most of my original duties. (Did I mention that we’ve got a very small staff?)

Along the way, I’ve done reviews and interviews for various print and online publications (The Comics Journal, The Comics Reporter, and Animation World Network among them), and I’ve even gotten to write a few Marvel comics with my wife, Shaenon K. Garrity.
 

What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people what you do?
The immediate response is almost always, “That must be so much FUN!” And I’ll admit that, yes, there are a lot of aspects of my job that are really fun, like getting to work with some of my favorite artists, traveling, getting to look at original cartoon artwork, and reading comic books while getting paid for it…
But there’s a LOT of work that goes into my job that most people don’t know about. Each exhibition requires loads of paperwork, planning, marketing, and scheduling, and I’ve got to assemble quality exhibitions on a shoestring budget, which is a big part of working in the nonprofit sector. I’m in the office at least 40 hours a week, and put in a lot of evening and weekend hours to keep up on everything.

Do you collect comics? What is the most valuable piece of art, graphic novel, or comic book in your collection?
I’ve been collecting comics since I was a kid, but I’m not sure what the most valuable comic in my collection is. I have a set of Spider-Man comics that runs from the early 1970s through the late 1990s, though, which contains a few books that would probably fetch decent dollar amounts if I ever sold them.

My wife and I have a pretty decent original art collection, considering that most of our pieces are either gifts from friends or not-terribly-expensive things that we’ve bought each other for birthdays and anniversaries. The artwork that we’ve got from Jack Kirby (Kamandi) and Jeff Smith (Bone) are probably our most valuable pieces.
 

Is there something you covet adding to your collection?
All the time. Despite all of the hard work that I was mentioning earlier, I get genuinely excited each time I put together a new exhibition, and I always spend some time before an exhibition opens just staring at artwork when it arrives at the museum. I’d probably need an apartment the size of the museum to hold all of the artwork that I’d like to have in my personal collection.