This interview was conducted over the phone on March 14, 2013.
John Rovnak: We’ve seen Minimum Wage the comic book series. We’ve seen the collected editions. We’ve seen the material reworked into the Beg the Question graphic novel. Now you’ve teamed up with Image Comics to release Maximum Minimum Wage, which could be billed as the definitive edition of the Minimum Wage material….
Bob Fingerman: Yeah, you never know. I’ve already joked saying that it’s definitive for now. [laughs]
Rovnak: Well you’ve reworked or repackaged this material four times now. Bob Fingerman, who the hell do you think you are? [laughs]
Fingerman: [laughs] Yeah well, I’ve been kind of joking that I’m the low-budget George Lucas. I can’t keep my pea-pickin’ hands off this thing. I totally understand his compulsion. With other books of mine, it doesn’t seem to be as acute as with Minimum Wage. I guess maybe because I care about Minimum Wage more than certain other things because it’s a bit more personal. I really want to get it right. So each time, each iteration, each incarnation, is another attempt to improve on it. So even though I kind of promised myself, and promised my wife…. She said don’t redraw anything, and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll keep it to a minimum.’ But I ended up reworking probably like 50 pages. I just can’t stop myself.
Rovnak: So as somebody who has bought and read all of the publications and incarnations of Minimum Wage, can you give me your best sales pitch for the Maximum Minimum Wage? Why should I buy this book?
Fingerman: Well, I think it reads better. And I think the fact that it is large, makes a difference. I don’t ever like to think of myself as jumping on a bandwagon, and in fact it’s been since I decided to do this book larger, I have gotten a lot of large books recently. In fact, way too many for an apartment my size. [laughs] I think it’s great that all these publishers are doing oversized editions, and yeah they do take up a lot of space. But the reason they’re being done is if the artwork is kind of busy and detailed, as the art in Minimum Wage was, it just looks so much nicer larger. It reads better, you know? I think I actually made quite a few mistakes with Beg the Question. And one of the biggest mistakes, which I had my reasons for, was printing it smaller than it ran as a comic book. I desperately wanted respectability, so I made it look like a traditional prose novel as much as I could, at least on the outside. Which, like I say, was probably not the best approach. And with this I think one of the main philosophical changes with Maximum Minimum Wage it that I’ve embraced that Minimum Wage, and it only took me fifteen years, that it’s a comic. And it looks good big. It reads so much better. And unlike the previous collections, this one really does have everything you’d want. All the covers that were done for it when it was still running as a comic, they never got reprinted. There’s a nice juicy color section in this book. There’s a huge guest gallery. I consider myself extremely fortunate that over the years both the book and myself have earned a lot of goodwill in the business. So it was really nice that a lot of my fellow comic artists contributed to this thing. In addition to having some of the back covers and things that ran when it was originally coming out as a comic, by guys like Mike Mignola and Kevin Nowlan, there’s a ton of new pin-ups. With this new collection I’m hoping there will be people who have bought it before who will buy it again in this new format, but obviously I’m really hoping to reach a new audience. I think there are a lot of people out there who have never read it, and I’m thinking this is the edition that will catch their eye. But among the bonus material, there’s some really great stuff. I think the other thing that would be especially interesting to old readers is that I’ve also included the script for the never-drawn eleventh issue. I think that’ll be of interest to some people because it definitely indicates a change in tone a little bit. You can begin to see what way the wind is beginning to blow for the story.
Rovnak: Do you normally write full scripts for yourself?
Fingerman: Yes, that’s something I’ve always done. Whether I’m writing for somebody else, or writing for myself, I just always find it better to organize my thoughts if I write it all out. I always found it very intriguing when I learned of the “Marvel Method”. When you just write an outline and let the artist lay it all out, and then dialogue it later. That to me is kind of fascinating, and I can see certain upside to it, especially if you’re doing something that has a lot of action and you don’t want to put fetters on the artist. But if you’re doing the kind of work that I tend to do, which is very character based and dialogue driven, I think it’s a really good idea to have it all worked out before hand. I’m certain not the first to say this, but doing comics is sort of like doing movies, and I think in my case TV shows, on paper. I think I’m much more of a TV guy than a movie guy, for at least something like Minimum Wage, which was so episodic. But some directors believe in storyboarding, some don’t. I’m the kind who believes in storyboarding. I think the more prep you can do, the better the final product. That rule doesn’t apply to everything. Certain things are really fun to be spontaneous on.
Rovnak: You mentioned the goodwill you’ve received from fellow comic artists. You also seem to get quite a bit of goodwill from “non comic book comics” or comedians. How did those relationships develop?
Fingerman: Yeah, I’m trying to remember it myself, because it was very organic. By and large the kind of comedians who liked my work were already comic nerds, which helps hugely. [laughs] And I think, there was something about Minimum Wage that, I guess, spoke to them. I think the first comedian that I met and got friendly with was Dana Gould, who is a brilliant comedian. He’s one of those comedians who I always think, “Why isn’t he huge?” He’s so good. You know how there are those ‘artist’s artists’? I think he’s a ‘comedian’s comedian’, because I don’t think there’s anybody in the comedy world who doesn’t have huge respect for him. I think he should be a household name. I think he’s great! He’s the first one that I had met. And I met him because he was a fan of the book. Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics, I think, made the introduction. This would have been in San Diego. That’s another thing: All these West Coast comedians, they all make the southbound pilgrimage to San Diego Comicon that weekend. And as I said, so many of them are comic fans. And now that showbiz and the Comicon are so inextricably wound together, and so much more about showbiz than comics. But through Dana I met some of his friends, who it turned out also liked the comic. I’m not sure if he turned them onto it? That I don’t know. But through Dana, maybe even that same day, I met Patton Oswalt. This is going back to 1996, maybe? So Patton was a really fresh face in comedy at that point. So we got to know each other a bit, because they liked the same things I liked. We had things in common. I wish that I did know those guys better, because the few times I did socialize with them, it was great. There’s all kinds of common interests. It’s one of those things, you know? You meet a couple and the circle keeps broadening out. Through them I met some of the Mister Show guys, and of course I loved Mister Show. It kind of just kept building out. Through them I met Brian Posehn, And of course now Brian Posehn, besides still doing comedy, is writing comics. He’s co-writing the Deadpool series with Gerry Duggan. I think comedy and comic books have a tighter link than seems obvious, especially since by and large I’ve done humor comics. It’s always up to others to decide whether or not I’ve succeeded in being funny or not, but I take great pride in the fact that some of the comedians that I think are funny, like my work. That’s very flattering.
Rovnak: So there’s no underlying desire to be a stand up comedian yourself? I’ve met you in person before, and you’re incredibly funny, even outside the pages of Minimum Wage.
Fingerman: Thank you, but I’ve never wanted to be a stand up. I’m too shy for that, and I’m not that arrogant. There’s already so many good ones. I don’t need to be the guy who’s funny at the water cooler, who also thinks he’s funny on stage.
Rovnak: Are you a perfectionist? Having reworked Minimum Wage, do you have the desire to rework and update any of the other work from your career?
Fingerman: I’m more aware of any flaws in my own work than anyone else. I’m a very tough audience, and I definitely consider myself a perfectionist. I think that word can be misinterpreted. I think some people can say that they are perfectionists, and mean it very arrogantly or egotistically. For me it’s kind of the exact opposite. I’m a perfectionist, but I know I’ll never attain perfection. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to keep trying. That sort of explains the compulsive nature of going back and reworking art in Minimum Wage. It’s again, trying to attain the unattainable. [laughs] I’ll sound very pretentious for a minute, but that’s like me being Icarus on paper. I’m trying to fly close to the sun, but I’m never going to get there, but it doesn’t mean the effort isn’t worth making. For one thing, Minimum Wage is the longest comic I ever did. I don’t see ever doing this with any other works I’ve ever done. The other graphic novels I’ve done, those are the definitive editions. Something like Recess Pieces, that’s exactly what I wanted it to be. Does it mean that I think the art is perfect? No. There’s definitely things, that if I had nothing but time, I would tweak or change or whatever. But the other thing about art is that at a certain point you do have to leave it alone. For whatever reason, Minimum Wage is the one. You asked before if this edition is the definitive one. I hope at this point it is, because if I do more work with Minimum Wage I want it to be new work. I’ve really been considering resurrecting the series again, so I’d rather move forward than keep playing with what I’ve already done.
Rovnak: Would you recommend the process of reworking and updating works to other cartoonists?
Fingerman: In a way, yes. In a way, no. If it does just become OCD, then maybe not. But at the same time, if you think you’re putting out something that you could have done better, and you have the opportunity to and you don’t take it, then I think that’s kind of lame. Obviously I’m not the only one who has this compulsion. I know Gilbert Hernandez has definitely reworked huge chunks of his stuff for when it got collected in book form. I think when you’re doing something in serial form, like individual comic books, and you collect it, the comic books are the work in progress. The book is the final result. So I think that if you thought while you were doing it in serial form that maybe you let a few things slide, if you have the opportunity to get it right then I think that’s always the right thing to do. I think Jack Kerouac had that philosophy that editing is for cowards or whatever. I don’t remember. But he thought that whatever you put on paper the first time around was pure and true, and that you should never edit. I don’t agree. [laughs] I think somewhere between his philosophy and mine is probably the most rational. Because I do think that going in and tweaking it too often does become a bit nutty. So what am I saying? I’m saying I’m a bit nutty.
Rovnak: Why Comics? Why not television or film? Why not script out a treatment for a Minimum Wage sitcom?
Fingerman: Well I am. Believe me, I have plans for Minimum Wage, and I did when I was doing it. There was a brief window there where it looked like I might have been able to move forward in developing it. But the thing is, is the landscape was so different. Even talking about 1998, when I was talking to people about developing it, the entertainment landscape was so different. You know, basic cable only meant schlock. Now basic cable is the most fertile area. You’ve got all these incredible, brilliantly directed and acted series being done on basic cable, let alone premium. And premium cable has great stuff too. There wasn’t anything like streaming or Netflix or Hulu and so forth. I definitely have been talking about developing Minimum Wage for television or streaming or whatever. I really think it would be perfect. There was nothing really like it on TV when I was doing it, and now there kind of are some things that are like it, especially in tone. You know. if anything, my fear is that I’ll seem like a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ when I kind of got there first. But that again, doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. I look at things like Girls and Louie, which I even referenced in some of the copy I wrote for the book. Those shows for me in tone are very close to Minimum Wage. They’re sometimes funny, they’re sometimes dramatic, they’re very grounded in a certain urban lifestyle. Why comics? Because they were available to me.
Rovnak: Have you always had a ‘love affair’ with comics? Were you a comic geek growing up, or was it just a natural fit for you artistically and not so much about comics as it was a way to tell stories?
Fingerman: That’s really well worded, because the latter part of that is very true. I really wasn’t a comic geek when I was a kid at all. I barely read comic books, because I wasn’t into superheroes and that’s mostly what there was. I always loved the format and I loved that kind of storytelling in panels. And like most people who love humor, I loved Mad Magazine. I loved Plop. To me, Plop was the greatest thing in the world. But I’d read the occasional Spider-Man or Iron Man. They were, I think, the only superheroes I ever looked at. But I really didn’t get the whole concept of long ongoing stories. So for me, I’d read a random issue, it would end on a cliffhanger, which I would just probably read as a weak ending, and just didn’t keep up with it. I was much more attracted to humor stuff, and since nobody did graphic novels when I was a kid I probably would have been more attracted to some of the humor ones. But I read comics strips. So for me, it was more about my dad’s paperback collections of Pogo and Peanuts that whetted my appetite for the form. But honestly it wasn’t until my first exposure to Heavy Metal Magazine. That’s really what it was, in the year it actually started, 1977. I think I got exposed to maybe the third issue, because if I’m remembering right, Heavy Metal started in either April or May of 1977. Big year, you know, it was right around Star Wars. But I saw that magazine. It was actually another kid’s at my summer camp, and it absolutely blew my mind! As some people seeing Jack Kirby for the very first time altered their perception, seeing Moebius and Corben was as close to taking LSD as I’ve ever come. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. This was the most amazing brilliant art I’ve ever seen, and “Oh my god, it’s for adults!” Wow, there’s nudity. And there’s this, and there’s that. That for me was the pivotal moment that made me say, “I want to do comics, and I want to do this kind of comic.” And then to keep up with the sort of drug metaphor, which is weird for me because I’ve never done any drugs, Heavy Metal was the gateway drug for me to underground comix. I started reading Slow Death and R. Crumb’s stuff. Between Crumb, Slow Death and Heavy Metal, the die was cast.
Rovnak: How old would you have been in ’77?
Rovnak: Heavy Metal at age twelve would clearly make an impact.
Fingerman: I was just about to turn thirteen. So really the perfect age for Heavy Metal, especially if you’re an aspiring artist. And the thing is, my opinion has never changed. Moebius and Corben are still my top favorite artists. So I don’t think it’s so much that my taste hasn’t developed, it’s that I had good taste as a kid. [laughs]
Rovnak: How do you like to work? Do you have a ‘punch in, punch out’ sort of work ethic, or are you more of a slave to your muse?
Fingerman: Well it depends. If I’m working on a deadline, I have to ‘punch in, punch out’. Fortunately, I usually like what I’m doing. Some days when I’m not feeling it, it can be rough. Ultimately, working in comics, which are for public consumption, you’re making a product. But by the same token, you’re making a ‘creative’ product. I’m sure there are some people who if they’re not feeling it can still do it. There will be days when I’ll be sitting at the board and just know that I’m not doing good work, and at a certain point I just say, “I’ll work harder tomorrow. I’m walking away from this.” Just sitting there and getting frustrated isn’t going to make me do good work. But generally speaking, I enjoy what I do, so I never feel like, “Ugh, back the grind!” It’s usually, “Oh good: Time to draw!” Drawing is a pleasurable ritual.
Rovnak: How about your workspace? Do you have a studio in which you seclude yourself away in, or can you take an art board with you anywhere and draw on the go?
Fingerman: I’ll sketch sometimes outside. But not that often really, and not as often as I should. Generally speaking, my studio is in my apartment so my commute is effortless. [laughs] I like my workspace. It’s a little cluttered at the moment with too many oversized books, but I’ve got a very pleasant room in which I work and I’m happy in here. I find it comforting. I find it interesting: a lot of friends of mine who are comic artists, in the last few years, have started forming studios where they share space. On the one hand it’s practical because you can cram six to eight people in one large room and divide the rent up, it’s not bad I guess. Some people don’t have the luxury ,and it is a luxury, of having a nice workspace in their home. Other people like to separate their work life from their life-life, and I totally understand that, especially if you’re someone who is wired like me and you do have a compulsive nature. If your workspace is right around the corner from the living room, you might just end up going back there all the time and start picking at things. If your work is in a different space, then you’ll say, “Well I’m done for the day” and you leave. But on the other hand, working for me is such a solitary experience. I find it very interesting that people can not just work but thrive when there’s a group of people. To me that would be so distracting. Maybe I could get used to it, I don’t know. I used to joke that drawing comics is a shameful and dirty act, like masturbation, and it’s best left to be done alone. [laughs] And I mean that as a joke, but for me it is just something I just do alone.
Rovnak: Speaking of shame…. Did you ever find that reading comics was a shameful act?
Fingerman: [laughs] It all depends on the comic. I certainly threw away a few comics feeling like, “Oh if my mom finds this….” My mom is probably one of the least judgmental people I’ve known, but when you’re a kid, especially going through puberty and stuff, and bringing home underground comix that you know you’re not supposed to have. Those I didn’t feel ashamed of so much as I felt worried about. It’s that whole thing of, “I probably shouldn’t have this.”
Rovnak: I guess more of what I was asking was, did you ever get criticized for reading comics? I was picked on growing up because I was a into comics. To this day, I still can’t read a comic in public for fear of being bullied. Even though, today in the year 2013, comics are probably more widely respected then they’ve ever been. I’ll see other people doing it, and I’ll think, “Wow, good for them!” [laughs] I still prefer to retreat to the safety of my own home to enjoy comics.
Fingerman: It’s funny that you say that, because you’re right, it does occur to me that when I go to a comics shop and I buy some actual comic books, I never read them on the subway. [laughs] I never read them in public. Wow! What a horrible thing for a guy who draws comics to admit, but it’s true! I guess you’re right. Oh well… Dammit. I guess we just can’t get that off our backs. The funny thing is, that as a kid I didn’t feel that. Maybe because I didn’t read that many, but if I had an issue of Plop I didn’t care if I read that outdoors. It didn’t bother me. And I got picked on for so many other things, I don’t think comics would have made a difference. [laughs]
Rovnak: Maybe there needs to be a National Read Comics in Public Day, or something? Then we can all crawl out of our closets and no longer feel shame.
Fingerman: I think so. I think that’s a good idea. Comics Pride Day, and a Comics Pride Parade! How come we don’t have a pride parade? Because there’s no pride, that’s why. [laughs] We’ve stumbled across something very troubling. We really need to develop more pride.
Rovnak: There you go. This interview is the first step towards a brighter tomorrow for comics.
Fingerman: Exactly. A breakthrough moment. I can picture the speech already. “I have a dream! When someday my child can read a comic without shame.” [laughs]
Rovnak: So… Do you create any of your work digitally, or are you still slinging ink the old fashioned way?
Fingerman: At this point it’s a hybrid process. I still do all my all my drawing the old fashioned way, but I’ll do augmentation and finishing on the computer. In the case of Minimum Wage, that’s all hand drawn. There’s not a digital line in the whole thing, but all the grey tone was done digitally. And the retouching, since I did such a massive amount of reworking of stuff, if there was just a portion of a panel and I liked most of it except a head or a hand, I would draw in traditionally but I’d digitally composite it. For me, the computer is a great tool but I don’t ever see it substituting doing it the old fashioned way.
Rovnak: So a person could own a piece of Bob Fingerman original artwork? I find it disheartening to think of how much comic art is created digitally, and how much less original art there will be in the world.
Fingerman: This is news to me. There are actually comic artists who are creating complete finished comic pages entirely digitally?
Fingerman: That surprises me. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me at all. That’s interesting. I’ve certainly seen people do finished artwork using things like a Cintiq tablet, where it is just like drawing on paper, except that it’s digital paper. I guess it’s really no different, if anything it can give you a greater degree of control. In real traditional analog drawing, you can’t hit ‘undo’. You gotta reach for your whiteout or whatever.
Rovnak: It makes me feel really old. [laughs]
Fingerman: Yeah… The way I do comics is kind of a metaphor for my role in comics. I do them as a hybrid, and I have this sorta hybrid career. I’ve dabbled in mainstream, I’ve mostly done indie. I’ve written prose, I’ve mostly done comics. Everything’s sort of bridging a different world at any moment. All of the art I did for my book From The Ashes is traditional, because the book I drew entirely with colored pencil. But then the tone work was done digitally, and it was done digitally using real textures because I didn’t want it to look digital. When ‘digi-art’ looks digital, I don’t like it. It’s too antiseptic for me. But if you can trick my eye, so that I just look at it as art, great
Rovnak: How did your relationship with Image Comics begin?
Fingerman: Robert Kirkman, who in addition to being one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, is also now one of the biggest names in comics. He’s got this level of success that we can only all aspire towards. But he, back when he was first starting and first doing Battle Pope, and I think was still working in a warehouse as his day job, was sending me fan mail for Minimum Wage. So I contacted him, and I told him what I wanted to do with this new edition. And within a couple of hours he got back to me and said, “Yes! As a fan, I want this and I’m going to make it happen.” It really was that easy. He’s now in this position where he can make things like that happen. Which is great! It’s great for me: I won’t say it’s great for him. We’ll see how it works out for him. [laughs] Working with them has been really easy. It’s definitely a different kid of company, and a different process, but so far it’s been great. There’s some really nice people over there.
Rovnak: Any idea what the sales are shaping up to be, and how they compare to Beg the Question?
Fingerman: It’s still too early to say. I’m thinking though that when people actually see the book, this physical object, I think they’ll say, “Oh, I get it!” Because it really is, and I don’t want to sound like I’m just in salesman mode, but it’s significant different to see it big like this. I’m, in a way, surprised how radically different an experience it is reading it at a different size. So I think the book itself will be the most persuasive sales tool for the book. Unfortunately, the way business is done these days, most reviewers don’t get sent books anymore; they get sent PDFs. And while that’s certainly convenient, reading this book on your iPad is not going to give you the same sense as seeing the book. It’s tactile. This book is a big book. It lays flat. There’s something about it that feels nice and looks nice. I’m biased.
Rovnak: And it’s priced affordably too.
Fingerman: Yeah. When I was talking about this, my first worry was, “Oh god, this is probably going to be a $50 book!” Because besides being a creator, I’m a consumer. But it’s $34.95. So for a large book that’s almost 400 pages, I think that’s a pretty good deal.
Rovnak: You could afford that on minimum wage…. [laughs]
Fingerman: That’s what I hope. Especially if they raise it. [laughs]
Rovnak: Are there plans to do a digital release of the book?
Fingerman: I believe there are. I believe it has been prepared for the people who prefer to read their stuff on a tablet. I’m not going to judge them. [laughs] They’re consumers, too. That’s not how I roll. I’m traditional, so what do I know?
Rovnak: You’ve primarily carved out a niche as an ‘indie’ creator, and you have done your share of mainstream work. But it seems that you didn’t toil for years and years in the trenches of work-for-hire like a lot of cartoonists. What do you credit that to? Was that always part of the ‘Bob Fingerman Master Plan’, or was it just a case of being in the right place at the right time?
Fingerman: [laughs] I don’t think I’ve ever been in the right place at the right time. I always seem to be a little out of phase. In terms of doing what I do versus doing work-for-hire, I think it’s the only way it could have worked. I don’t think I ever had the affinity for the work-for-hire type gigs. And the few little attempts I made were disastrous. I was asked by both editors at Marvel and DC. This is going back to when I was doing Minimum Wage, and I felt very much like the character Barton Fink. Do you remember the film Barton Fink? They bring this guy, Barton Fink, who’s this playwright from New York out to L.A. to do what he does. And big producer has that line, “We want that Barton Fink feeling!” And of course they don’t want Barton Fink, they just want him to grind out stupid wrestling pictures. And kind of the same thing happened to me at Marvel and DC. And I think it’s funny that I have the same initials as Barton Fink. [laughs] I got that, “We want that Bob Fingerman feeling!” And I worked on developing things, and then ultimately when they got handed in it was like, “There’s too much Bob Fingerman feeling here!” So it’s not that I didn’t make an attempt at doing work-for-hire with mainstream properties, it just wasn’t in the cards
Rovnak: There’s too much ‘Bob Fingerman’ in your Bob Fingerman. [laughs]
Fingerman: Exactly. It’s a curse. [laughs] If only I could be less like me. But I think about that in all aspects of my life. There are those ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bracelets. There should be a ‘What Would Bob Do?’ bracelet, and I should always do the opposite. [laughs]
Interview © John Rovnak