Un’esperienza mistica a fumetti. Intervista a Jesse Jacobs

Where can one find a comic artist inspired by Italo Calvino, the Garbage Pail Kids and Anders Nilsen? I found him; his name is Jesse Jacobs, and is one of the most surprising today’s artists. I sent some questions to Jesse, who lives in Canada by the Ontario Lake, to try to understand where his stories come from. I’m not sure I understood that, but I’m sure I’ve managed to gather some clues.

By This Shall You Know Him is your first book. When and how did the idea for this book came to you?

I should preface this interview by saying that BTSYKH was drawn over five years ago, and I have a terrible memory. I’m pretty sure, like most of my longer comics, it began in my head as a short thing. I think I drew that first part, the big bang scene with the dinosaurs, as a self contained story and it grew out of that. Most of my comics begin with a desire to draw certain things. I probably just wanted to draw some weird figures with patterns on them and the narrative came out of that. Creating a comic book is a lot work, and has the possibility of being very restrictive in terms of what you need to draw. I’m careful to make sure the project isn’t too confining. The story needs to have enough room to include fun drawings that make sense within the larger framework of the book. So with BTSYKH, the idea of having these characters that create strange patterns and objects was very freeing for me. If I felt like drawing a bunch of weird shapes I could just do that.

The story fits into the genre of “mythologies of creation”, a field rarely explored by comics. What books did you read in this matter?

I don’t think I read anything that would really be considered research. I’m often reading books about spirituality and religion, but I wasn’t trying to create something that was anything more than a weird, fun comic.

Your graphic style is strongly “cartoony”, while still being extremely precise and minimal at the same time. Which are the artists that inspired you the most in order to get to this synthesis? And what was the role that had your collaboration with Adventure Time on that path?

Growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s had a deep impact on my style. The gross aesthetics of Garbage Pail Kids, MadBalls, Wacky Packs, all the slime and skulls, everything was so artfully rendered. I’m not sure if you had that stuff in Italy? Basically, companies co-opted all the nasty, sick stuff kids were into, packaged it and sold it back to us. A lot of the artists who designed those products are now legendary cartoonists. Art Speigleman, Kim Deitch, and Bill Griffith all worked on Wacky Packages. I immediately connected with the gross aesthetic as a very young child. I was also obsessed with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, I had all the toys and everything. Gary Panter designed a lot of that show, and I still love his work. As I got older, I was into the shows and comics that a lot of cartoonists of my generation would have been into. Ren and Stimpy, Beavis and Butthead, etc.  My work with Adventure Time was really limited. I drew some characters and effects and objects, but I don’t think it had much of a role in my development. Currently, Some artists that I really love and have inspired my style are Pedro Friedeberg, Nicholas Roerich, Karl Wirsum, Pablo Amaringo, Augustin Lesage, Kiyoshi Yamashita. There are so many more but those ones come to mind.

In many parts of this story – and also in Safary Honeymoon – the geometries you draw on the background seems to become a characters themselves, they expand and make the reading experience purely aesthetic, almost mystic. Does this come from improvisation or is it based on a detailed script?

Very improvised. There are many parts of the comic that need to be planned. I know I’m going to be drawing the same characters over and over, and they’re going to need to be doing things to progress a story. I have fun drawing the same things, it’s meditative, but it can get a little tedious. To offset that repetition, I like to have fun with the backgrounds and creatures. It becomes more of an exercise in drawing. Very exploratory.

I’ve never used a detailed script. I work out the basic plot points in my head, and then work scene to scene. A lot of dialogue comes to me while I’m sketching, and I write it down in my sketchbook. I’ll end up with a collection of all these random ideas, dialogue, and drawings all mixed together. A lot of my process is going through my sketchbook and attempting to piece together a narrative. It’s not a perfect system but it’s freeing.

The world where your characters live your stories is animated by forces unknown of which man doesn’t know the origins; the entire universe is alive, pulsating, and extremely fertile. A personal question: do you save this cosmological vision to fiction or do you actual believe in a transcendent reality?

It’s difficult to talk about such things without sounding like a flake. I am definitely not a materialist. That level of certainty is unnerving to me. There is so much we don’t know about the nature of the universe, consciousness, etc. My life has a strong spiritual dimension.

Another recurring theme is the problem of killing animals for human, futile, purposes. This brings to another personal question: are you vegetarian?

That’s something I struggle with, and a question I often get asked. I do eat meat. There is an organic butcher by house, and the farm is nearby. I don’t know if that makes it any better, most likely it’s something I do to make myself feel less guilty. I used to be a delivery driver for a small organic food company, and regularly visited small farms. These places are much better than industrial processes, but ultimately, animals are still dying for my enjoyment of a few meals.

In my work I’m not trying to cast judgment on the killing of animals for meat, or anything like that, but rather just illustrating a process that is occurring. A lot of humans and non-human animals are carnivores, and it’s a complicated and weird natural system that I think about a lot.

To describe your style the adjectives often used are psychedelic or lysergic. Do you have experience with psicotrope substances? If so, what do you think of recent trend coming from the Silicon Valley of the microdosing used to stimulate creativity?

I’m always hesitant to talk about drug use, as I don’t want to glorify it. I’ve had a lot of friends deeply hurt through drug abuse (though LSD is a much different thing than cocaine or opiates). I also don’t want to be an artist whose work is characterized and indentified primarily by drugs. I’m not anti-drug, I think drugs have the potential to be a positive thing. I have had experiences with psychedelic drugs. Most of these experiences occurred when I was way too young and immature to process them in any meaningful way. I’ve had wonderful and terrifying experiences. I love the psychedelic aesthetic. I’ve always gravitated towards strange imagery with high levels of detail. I have early memories of looking at my father’s record collection and being blown away by the crazy artwork. I would spend long periods of time staring at Elton John’s Captain Fantastic.  My work is weird. And getting stoned is weird. I’ve met many artists who make the trippiest work but have never taken drugs in their life.  I heard a radio broadcast recently about micro dosing LSD to improve productivity/creativity. I don’t know what to think about it. I can’t judge it, if it’s working for some people they should keep doing it.

Reading your stories reminds me a lot of a scifi genre that works pretty well in cinema (from Interstellar to Arrival), but was started by precursors in literature, like Philip K Dick, Robert Sheckley, William Gibson and others. Do you like the genre and feel inspired by it?

I like science fiction. I like how scifi stories have such a strong emphasis on concept. Some of the best stories I’ve read didn’t have a whole lot of literary style, but were full of extremely interesting ideas. Ted Chiang’s stuff is great. I just read a short story by Ken Liu about the way different alien species make books. It was really neat. I was very inspired when I read Italo Calvino’s cosmicomics. That collection really influenced me.

Do you know about the theory of the Universe as a computer simulation programmed by a super intelligence outside our reality?

Yeah, I’ve listened to a few discussions on that topic. I’ve heard Nick Bostrom talk about it, and he’s an interesting guy. It seems like as valid of an explanation as any other, I guess. I love learning about alternative ideas, concepts that are outside the established model. I listen to a lot of esoteric lectures while I’m working. Last night I listened to a panel discussion about non-localized consciousness. It’s so refreshing to hear high-level scientists talk about how little we really know about the universe and consciousness. I love guys like Walter Russell, Bernardo Kastrup, and Robert Lanza. I know a lot of “serious” scientific thinkers hate that stuff, but it’s so interesting. Biocentrism, electric-universe theory, the hollow moon hypothesis, all those ideas are so inspiring.

Assumed that the Universe is a real place, name me some comic artists you enjoy reading…

I’ve been falling behind on my comics reading, I need to catch up. Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions was the first comic I really loved. I was into the usual guys before that, like Clowes and Crumb, but Big Questions really got to me. John Porcellino’s work is perfect. His work is so refined, the way he can distill such complex emotions into these short comics is incredible. I love Gabriella Giandelli’s work. I got to see an exhibit of hers a few years ago at Fumetto in Switzerland. It was beautiful. Other comic artists I like, off the top of my head, are Marc Bell, Ron Rege Jr, Mark Beyer, Gabrielle Bell.

What will be your next book to be published in Italy?

I have a short book coming out very soon from Hollow Press. It’s about a haunted house. I’m also in the process of collaborating with the Italian screen printer Strane Dizioni on a series of posters and a short hand printed/bound book, which will be released at the Ratata Festival in April. Then, I can already say that will a guest at the Treviso Comic Book Festival in September.

My book Crawl Space (Koyama Press) is debuting in the spring, but I don’t have an Italian edition lined up. Hopefully that can happen.