A Comic Artist Questions Himself
Tim: Can you describe Watershed Blues for readers who are unfamiliar with it?
Kitz: Watershed Blues is a mixed-media comic that ran in the Leveller for the last ten issues, from Issue 7.2 (Oct-Nov 2014) to 8.5 (Feb-March 2016).
Tim: What do you mean by mixed media? How did you create the art for the comic?
Kitz: I can’t draw, so I used photos – old historic photos, and ones I took myself. But I wanted the photos to look more cartoony, stylized, and analog. So I would print them out and outline everything in the photo black, using a brush. The idea was to ink the photos the same way a cartoonist would ink their pencil sketches. I was trying to ‘comic’ the photos or to ‘cartoon’ them, if that makes sense.
Tim: What was the comic about?
Kitz: It’s a series of meditations on the ecology of the Kitchissippi (AKA Ottawa River) watershed. There’s some history, but also a focus on the present-day city of Ottawa itself.
Tim: Serious stuff. In fact, it doesn’t have any of the things we tend to associate with comics. There’s photo-art but no drawings – and no superheroes or jokes, no dialogue, and no real story. Is Watershed Blues really a comic?
Kitz: I think it’s a comic, since it juxtaposes a series of images with text in an attempt to make an overall statement. But it’s all a big experiment, and it’s up to other people to decide if it works – and if it even counts as a ‘real comic’.
Tim: If it was an experiment, what were you trying to test?
Kitz: Having had a couple of collaborations go nowhere, I was trying to see if I could make comics alone, without working with an artist. I wanted to see if I could create satisfying art for words I’d written, despite having no real artistic talent.
Also, I wanted to make comics that weren’t story-based. Even in non-fiction comics, there’s still usually some sort of story. There’s a lot of biography and autobiography in indie comics for example – so it’s the story of someone’s life.
I didn’t want to do that. In my most pretentious moments, I would say I wanted to make a comic that was less like a story, and more like a song.
Tim: Can you unpack that a bit?
Kitz: It’s more straightforward than it sounds. Songs are a hybrid art; they combine music and words. Comics combine pictures and words. They’re both hybrid forms.
But while most comics have a story to them, a lot of songs don’t. Song lyrics tend to be more more impressionistic and poetic. Often they’re about what’s going on in someone’s head, what it feels like to be them. It’s much rarer to get a song with distinct plot, characters, and exposition – a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Of course there are exceptions – murder ballads and so on. But that’s not your average song lyric. I wanted to try making comics where the script was more like lyrics or a poem than a story.
Tim: So… it’s basically like a poem in comic form?
Kitz: Sure. I just like the comparison to music better, because songs are a kind of everyday poetry that almost about everyone consumes. But yes, you could say Watershed Blues was a trick to try to get people to actually read my poetry.
Tim: Do people need to be tricked?
Kitz: Probably. I love poetry, but it’s an austere art form. Few people read poetry – there are probably more people who write poetry than read it, which is a bit silly.
There’s a big difference between saying “here read this,” and handing someone a poem you’ve written and handing them a comic you made. One feels insufferable; the other, kind of cool. Or to put it another way, I’m pretentious enough to want people to read my poetry, but not confident enough to give it to them straight.
Tim: Okay, so I understand the ‘Watershed’ part of the title, but why ‘Blues’?
Kitz: Well, the comic is a sometimes-angry lament for all we’ve destroyed, but I wanted it to be more than that. To me, the blues involves complaining or crying out against something terrible, but somehow there’s also something triumphant about it. You triumph over your blues by singing them, maybe. That’s my white-boy read on it anyways.
Tim: How does that note of triumph come into your comic?
Kitz: I try to show that nature is still so resilient and prolific, so fertile and productive – in spite of everything. Though we’ve done irreparable damage – mass extinction and so on – life will go on, and flourish with or without us.
Tim: That’s sort of hopeful… I guess?!
Kitz: The hope for humanity is this: if we’d just ease up a minute, if we’d just stop standing on nature’s throat, she’d make a dead city into a living forest. That’s an example I keep returning to in the comic – the way urban weeds are the forest’s avant-garde. We just need to relax and get out of the way; life is very good at restoring and regenerating itself.
Tim: So the environment can save itself if we’d just get out of the way?
Kitz: Yeah, I think humans trying to ‘save the environment’ is a dead end. It shows how prideful we are – how lost we are, even, that we think of nature as an abstract ‘environment’ that we’re somehow separate from.
Tim: Trying to save the environment in general can also feel pretty hopeless.
Kitz: It’s disempowering. I can’t save the world. It’s not my responsibility. But I can protect the trees growing outside my door, and the ravine or stream I walk by. I can actually help improve the health of the soil beneath my feet. And in fact, I can do that while growing food for myself and my community.
That shows that it is possible to have a mutually beneficial relationship with nature. Another empowering example I’ve experienced – albeit by moving to the country and joining an ecovillage start-up – is the way I can heat my home by selectively cutting unhealthy or crowded trees for firewood. This enhances the overall health of a forest; you can even cut in such a way as to simulate and stimulate development towards an old-growth state.
Simple examples like growing a garden and cutting firewood show that it is possible to meet our needs while actually enhancing the natural world we live in – instead of destroying it, like the agriculture and logging industries do.
Despair is a rational response to the situation we find ourselves in – and an emotional response we shouldn’t shy away from. But it’s also in the interest of the powers that be to keep us feeling helpless.
Wherever we are, we can make a difference; we do have power on a local level.
Tim: And all those small local changes can add up, presumably.
Kitz: Well, that’s how nature works right? It takes a thousand rivers to make an ocean, a million raindrops to make a storm… All those cheesy metaphors are actually true.
I suspect things will only change when we start falling in love with the specific plants and animals that are our neighbours – when we start having a mutual and personal relationship with the specific land we live on and the waters that sustain us. First Nations people call these beings family, something that can seem cheesy to an urban punk, but it’s not. It’s deep. If we were willing to dive into it, we would see how deep it is.
In any case, that’s why it was important for me to write about the ecology of a particular place.
Tim: So did you want the comic to be educational? Political?
Kitz: Definitely, but only as a side effect. I didn’t want to be preachy, something I’m clearly failing at in this silly self-interview.
My primary goal was to just make the best comic I could. Take the best words I had – for whatever that’s worth – and combine them with images so that the effect, hopefully, was multiplied.
I mean, to make the script, I just pieced together the good bits from a bunch of poems I’d written over the course of a year or two. I tend to write bad diary-poems as a way to process my life. Most of it is dross, but the parts that stood out – the stuff that seemed the freshest, the stuff that moved me the most – went into Watershed Blues.
Basically, it affected me a lot when I started learning a bit about the land I’d grown up on – about its history, its people, its ecology. I was trying to process and make sense of it for myself in writing, and since I really had to dig to find some of this stuff, it felt natural to try and share it in an artistic way.
It seemed like the best and most artistic thing I had to share, at least at the moment.
Tim: That kind of knowledge is really underground.
Kitz: We can recognize hundreds of corporate logos, but not ten plants native to our area that could give us food. In school, we learn endlessly about wars fought in Europe but know nothing about the history of the place we live.
I grew up in Ottawa and I didn’t know this was Algonquin territory until university. And I didn’t learn that in the one elective course I took on the history of Canadian First Nations; I heard it at some activist fundraiser. We don’t talk about this stuff in our culture.
Tim: Why is that?
Kitz: I don’t know, we’re just in denial about our colonial present, I think. And colonial culture is incredibly generic. Most arts and entertainment – even the indie stuff – is designed so that someone could appreciate it no matter where they live. That way you maximize your potential audience and your potential sales.
Also, if people are part of some generic North American culture, it means they can travel wherever the jobs are. They can be interchangeable little lego pieces obeying the dictates of the so-called free market.
And then if they have no relationship to the land they live on, they won’t notice or care if it’s being destroyed.
I wanted to make a piece of art that was resolutely local, that was rooted where I live – something someone from Toronto or New York or LA couldn’t understand and would never give a shit about.
Tim: You said earlier the comic was an experiment. Was the experiment a success?
Kitz: Partially. Ideas are easy; execution is the challenge. Sometimes the art felt like a failure. I struggled to fit the images into the size limits of a newspaper comic, and some of them didn’t reproduce clearly when printed.
The panels I had with people in them worked out pretty good, I thought. But because of Watershed Blues’ subject matter, most of the pictures were landscapes of some kind – urban landscapes, forests, and so on. Well, now I see why no one draws landscapes in newspaper comics. I was naïve. You can do a detailed landscape in a book, but it won’t work in a small newspaper format. Landscapes are all about a wealth of detail, but cartooning is mostly about simplifying – catching the essence of things with a few lines.
Tim: Charlie Brown minimalism, you might say.
Kitz: Exactly. Part of the problem was I always wanted to print the comic as a book eventually. So when I first imagined the comic, it was with unlimited space in mind. Then a panel could take a whole page if I wanted. After the first few comics came out in the Leveller, I kept trying to pare the images down so they’d fit clearly in the newspaper, but didn’t succeed as much as I’d like.
Tim: Are you still planning on turning it into a book?
Kitz: Absolutely – if only for the satisfaction of holding a copy in my hands. And then I guess I could give a copy to my mom, and the three other people with a vague interest in it.
Tim: If there was genuine interest in the comic, you wouldn’t be interviewing yourself for this article, I imagine.
Kitz: Well, it’s better than the alternative. Who would want to read a big block of prose – some pretentious post-mortem essay masquerading as an artistic manifesto? The illusion of dialogue is a device to help make this more palatable.
Tim: You just know that most internet FAQs use questions written by the same person answering them.
Tim: At least we’re being honest. And real interviewers ask leading questions and play dumb for the benefit of the audience – something you’ve done admirable well, by the way.
Tim: Thanks. On the off chance someone’s made it to the end of this self-indulgent exercise and their interest is piqued… where can they read the whole series?
Well, it’s all up on the Leveller website (www.leveller.ca/read/). And by the time this goes to press, I’ll also have it posted to a site of mine (symmetryisoverrated.com). If I ever finish the book, it’ll end up there. And future comics too. I want to try to make single-panel comics that are nothing like what you see in the New Yorker, for example. They’ll be titled ‘Symmetry is Overrated’ or maybe ‘Razorblade Fortune Cookies’ – I haven’t quite decided.
Tim: Anything else you want to say?
Kitz: A big big ‘thank you’ to the Leveller for publishing this weird experiment for so long. And the friends and family who have been surprisingly encouraging.