There’s no way around it: Sean Knickerbocker’s stories are bleak. Characters in his comics become trapped with people they’d rather not know in places they’d rather not be, weighed down with memories they’d just as soon throw in a burn pit. So, in all this darkness, what sticks out about his illustrations is just how unassuming they are. A direct descendent of the big-foot style of cartooning, Sean’s panels use soft, round lines to shape people and places. The contrast of cartoony characters against the story’s dark backdrop creates an incredible effect. It’s grim yet graceful, apocalyptic yet nostalgic, dark yet deadpan. Which makes each page uniquely Sean.
A native of the Buffalo, New York, area and graduate from the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, Sean grew up on The Simpsons and The Ren & Stimpy Show, but turned out all right anyway. He lives with his wife, poet Kate MacLam, and their cat, Velvet, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he works for the printing company Bookmobile. Besides writing and illustrating the Rustbelt series, Sean recently published his first full-length graphic novel, Killbuck. He was kind enough to talk to us about failures faced while writing and drawing a book.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Sean Knickerbocker: There was a period shortly after attending The Center for Cartoon Studies where I was kind of flailing around. One of the short stories I wrote for my thesis was really grim with subtle moments of humor throughout. And it really hit a nerve with people. I thought to myself, Yes! I’ve found my voice! After graduating, I kept writing stories that were melodramatic, or dark for the sake of being dark. It all culminated with this awful comic that took me over a year to put together. It was the most tedious artistic experience that I’ve ever had.
A few months after that, Ecotone asked me if I wanted to draw a comic for their next issue. It was a last minute deal, so I only had two weeks to make a four page comic from scratch. Around that time, I was thinking a lot about the struggle of growing up working class and trying to become a member of a creative community. I ended up writing a story about my frustrations and experiences with that. That comic was far from perfect, but I had felt like I was back on the right path.
I realized I’d been trying to emulate a mood for my comics, instead of a process. The short story I wrote for my thesis affected people because there was a little bit of truth in it. It was like I did a really nice still life drawing and then spent the next couple of years just tracing the same drawing over and over, expecting the drawing to become better with each new generation.
So how did you escape that trap of trying to recreate the same success over and over?
SK: I was writing and editing very conservatively, which is incredibly boring. I started writing and drawing very recklessly, and then I was editing myself a little more ruthlessly than I had in the past. I was really obsessed with trying to write a smart story. And nobody looks dumber than the guy in the room trying to act smarter than he actually is.
As your writing has evolved, has your drawing style changed to match the tone of your stories?
SK: I don’t really believe in changing my style of drawing to match the tone of a story. I think good cartooning is a series of simplified images that let context and juxtaposition inform the reader of the tone. There’s this rule in graphic design that says either show or tell your idea, but never do both.
Drawing has become more central to my writing, though. The very first thing I do when writing a new story is sketch out a sequence of actions or write down a couple pieces of dialogue that seem interesting. From that point, I’ll type up a draft of the story and then transcribe my script into a comic. I’ll go through several cycles of this process while I’m drawing the finished page. I may change the dialogue to have it fit better in a panel, or remove text all together. Once again, trying to show or tell the story, but never both.
Was that how Killbuck started too? If so, what did you draw or write that sparked it?
SK: For the most part, it did start that way. I knew I had a few beats that I wanted to hit. Those moments in the story were specific from early on. From there, I started writing and drawing the threads that connected those elements.
Killbuck has its dark moments, but there’s also a good dose of humor and, it seems, some nostalgia. Did you struggle at all to balance the tone when you were working on it?
SK: Haha, yes — that’s a constant struggle for me. It was especially tricky because these characters are all angsty, melodramatic teenagers. For them, an abusive home life is treated with the same gravity as awkwardly buying weed for the first time. I wanted to make sure that I treated those dark moments with the same level of deadpan as the humor.
I’ve always been attracted to that kind of storytelling. If you are showing a car crash, you don’t need extreme camera angles or dramatic dialogue to illustrate the seriousness of the moment — it’s a fucking car crash. Maybe that ties back into the making sure that I’m showing or telling the reader something, but not doing both.
As an artist, I imagine you’ve got to be working on a new project. Can you tell us a little about what it is and any struggles you’re having with it?
SK: I’ve been writing a story about this guy that becomes internet-famous by posting conservative op-ed videos on Facebook. I want to treat this character with empathy, and I don’t want him to just be a punching bag. But at the same time, I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to argue that his perspective is valid. A part of me also feels like it isn’t the right time to tell a story like this, but I’m really fascinated with this whole “alt-light” subculture. I’m going to continue working on this story, but I’m prepared to shelf the project if I’m unable to strike the right tone. Hey, you gotta try, though, right?