Welcome to the Brave & Zany World of Pop Artist and Cartoonist JEM EATON!

Known and admired for works of graphic literature like A Sleepyhead Tale, Whotnot!, and A World of Trouble, published by preeminent comics publishers like Fantagraphics Books, Eaton is also a well-respected illustrator and painter, focusing the past few years on cartoon-influenced imagery, most especially his notoriously popular series of watercolor paintings, CARTOON JUMBLES, an ongoing collection that recently inspired one of the world’s foremost entertainment corporations to seek their legal injunction, a bid which happily failed, thanks to the gracious assistance of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

CARTOON JUMBLES feature irreverent pairings of cartoon icons, duos of fanciful measure like Andy Capp & Betty Boop, Beetle Bailey & Prince Valiant, Little Lulu & Wonder Woman, The Yellow Kid & Mr. Natural, and Mark Trail & Bullwinkle, all rendered in soft gouache tones and ink, on austere, pulp-hewn manila paper. Eaton’s other cartoon-based paintings offer abstract, neo-expressive and a generally psychedelic take on traditional comic book and animated film iconography.

This interview was conducted via email in September 2012.

John Rovnak: Can you explain to me the origins of the Cartoon Jumbles? What inspired the idea behind “jumbling” comic/cartoon characters? What was the first one?

Jem Eaton: I honestly cannot recall exactly what it was that inspired me to create the first Jumble, which was Superman and Bugs Bunny, a painting from early 2008 that currently hangs in the home of Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla. The general impetus that guides me through each and every one is my great affection for primary colors held within lush ink lines and the great economy of design that imbues the best of cartoon characters.

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Rovnak: Can you describe the “jumbling” process? Do some characters lend themselves to the process better than others? Are there guidelines or prerequisites a character must meet in order for you to “jumble” it?

Eaton: Any cartoon character is treatable, whether sourced from comic book, animated television/film, or product advertising. Those with defined black ink lines work best, as their shapes are more iconic and more readily recognizable and transferable. The “jumbling” process involves a period of mental examination, days or weeks, locating two diverse characters whom at first seem rather ridiculous together but actually have complimentary elements in their color/design palette or a certain overlapping of their psychological narrative; the latter often only fully discernible upon some inspection on the part of the viewer.

Rovnak: Have (or would) you ever turned down a request for a Jumble, based on the fact that the characters are too diverse or different?

Eaton: Never based on divergence. A strange diversity is often just what I am looking for in a commissioned Jumble. Being that the commissions are not drawn straight from my own sensibilities/predilections, they need to hit me in a special way to really get my creative engine going. I am often surprised at the results, making it a collaborative exercise in more than one respect. The commissions actually fine-tune my approach, so that when I next undertake a self-imagined Jumble I am more open and keen-minded about the whole activity. It helps greatly.

Rovnak: What type of person commissions a Jumble? Who do you find responds most to your work?

Eaton: Other than an obvious fondness for cartoon characters, I find those requesting Jumbles to be a very varied bunch, varied, but generally quite accomplished and interesting people in their respective fields. I’ve had requests from journalists, novelists, musicians, comics historians, science writers, animators, cartoonists, lawyers, professors, book designers, television producers, and publishers, to name a few. The affection for their chosen characters is clearly evident. I also have to believe they share some interest in owning original art, in displaying it in their homes, photos of which I sometimes receive in gratitude.

Rovnak: Have any artists whose style or characters you’ve mimicked in a Jumble responded to you? What were their thoughts?

Eaton: An interesting question. Many of my Jumble subjects were created by artists long ago deceased, of course, but of the contemporary lot I’ve had only positive responses. Craig McCraken, creator of The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends, was very kind and enthusiastic when he received the Jumble of Mojo Jojo and Eduardo he requested. To quote his kind response: “I just got the Mojuardo jumble the other day. WOW it’s freakily great!! He’d fit perfectly into either show. He’d totally work as a terrifying villain or a mutant imaginary friend. The more I stare at him the more I pick out the elements of the original designs. You did a really great job of interweaving the two. Thanks so much for doing this, it’s gonna hang in a place of honor next to my Jamie Hewlett Mojo.” I also recently heard from Rick Altergott concerning my Doofus/Dr. Strange Jumble. He was quite charmed and mentioned an upcoming visit to Steve Ditko’s NYC studio and the idea of taking Ditko a copy of the painting to see what his reaction might be. I eagerly await such a response, if it arises.

Rovnak: Your work shows an incredible sense of patience and balance, is this something you practice in your noncreative life as well?

Eaton: Ha. “Practice” might not be the word for it. More like “struggle”… To achieve… Every single day! Any control I can exercise in my art is its own reward, and a release from my utter lack of mastery over so many other aspects of my life. But aren’t we all in that quandary?

Rovnak: Would you appreciate seeing other cartoonists attempting their own Jumbles, or would you feel like they’re treading on your territory?

Eaton: I imagine a direct attempt at echoing what I do wouldn’t be too well received in the proprietary portion of my brain, as Jumbles are actually quite personal undertakings. There are other such mixings of popular characters out there, just not so extensive and singularly-purposed. A solo show of Jumbles that was held at Secret Headquarters Gallery in Los Angeles in 2009 resulted in more than one press notice referring to my art as “mash-ups”, a music-coined term I was then unfamiliar with. I remember mentally frowning at that. Cartoon Jumbles are about a lot more than the visual combining of their subjects. If they succeed on my terms, they are as much about how our greater culture and very existence find reflection in our cartoon archetypes. That might sound a bit highfalutin of me, sort of Robert Hughes meets Joseph Campbell, but I sincerely reach for it each time, whether I accomplish it or not, even with the commissioned pieces. I’ve actually created a fictional stand-in to exercise commentary on these loftier considerations, a comics scholar named Stanley Pulpe, who often supplies critical overviews on my Cartoon Jumbles page at Facebook. Pulpe is meant as a bit of a buffoon, a means to keep my airier thoughts grounded.

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Rovnak: You seem to be creating your own genre/movement; what are your hopes and desires for the Jumbles?

Eaton: Again, not to sound too self-important, but I really am on a mission to explore these characters that follow us through life, their glyph-like translation of our ever-mutating reality so evident in their stark outlines and almost calligraphic forms. We all have a relationship with them, whether we are aware of it or not. I’m sure there are individuals out there who have taken a fondness for a particular cartoon character through their lives, from childhood to adulthood, a certain companionship that well might be more potent, and lasting, than their relationships with actual people. Is that perhaps sad? Tragic even? Maybe. And maybe that unspoken pathos, one born of the point at which commercial culture supersedes a fractious family history, is the very thing I am plugging into. Then again, I am just jazzed at the prospect of mixing colors and costumes and symbols, iconic ink forms jumbling to a pleasant conclusion. I hope Cartoon Jumbles might touch upon all of these things in others and give them something of the perspective I take. I also hope to rekindle the rush of old memory when it comes to certain characters, for they are indeed imprinted upon our very psyches.

Rovnak: If you yourself were a cartoon character, what other character would you be jumbled with? What cartoon character best compliments you?

Eaton: My character would follow a lean, angular and dark-haired template, so a character of some great divergence from that I think would be the best Jumble partner. Perhaps the Shmoo? Or Bibendum (the Michelin Man)? I would be playing with contrast in such a Jumble, that’s for sure. There are two characters that best compliment me, in personality and physical composition: Jughead and Goofy.

Rovnak: Do you ever see a “jumbled” narrative in your future?

Eaton: That is something I haven’t yet even considered, but the prospects are pretty enticing, to say the least. I suppose it hasn’t come to mind for the simple fact that Jumbles, as objects of original art, avoid the legal complications that utilizing licensed properties in a narrative form might well encounter, especially if it were to be printed and sold as a comic book. There is a fine legal line in this respect, one I have dealt with in the recent past, when a particular large, international entertainment corporation sought to terminate my creation of any further Jumbles. Through the immeasurable help of friends at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund I was able to squash this legal attack, I am happy to say. I have had interest from more than one publisher to do an art book of Cartoon Jumbles. That idea is far more workable, in an ownership sense, as it would be presenting my Jumbles as original works of art, reproductions of which being the visual component of the publication. As I say, there is a fine line to tread here. If there was a clear way to follow through with a “Jumble Graphic Novel”, I would certainly entertain the idea, but I don’t see how it could be accomplished without crossing this line or watering down the essence of the Jumble recipe, something I have no interest in doing.

Rovnak: The combination of the pulp-hewn Manila paper, and the weight of your line work, reminds me of old school/classic tattoo flash art sheets, and/or newsprint comics. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

Eaton: Yes. I was hoping to replicate the look of old newsprint comic books especially, where a pure white color does not exist. I’ve also done quite a bit in mimicking old coloring book art this way. I find it very satisfying to recreate that burnished look of bygone printed matter, even more so now that we are dropping into an ever-increasingly inescapable age of virtual publication, paper’s aging less and less in question.

Rovnak: What modern day cartoonists do you most admire and why?

Eaton: I have to put Jaime Hernandez at the top of my list. His clean style and classic character design speaks directly to my interests, to say nothing of his great consistency and output. Pretty remarkable when you really start to think about it. Close behind is Gilbert Hernandez. His narrative powers are quite remarkable. There are others who achieve a lot graphically, but don’t quite match in storytelling prowess. A very different sort of cartoonist I’ve always admired is Ben Katchor, mostly for his uncanny ability to create a unique little world inside each panel. I also appreciate clean-line artists like Mike Allred and Jay Stephens, as well as the better practitioners of the Bruce Timm school of super hero drawing. And there are many I’m probably not aware of, but might enjoy, as I admit I don’t follow most modern comics with any great scrutiny.

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Rovnak: What modern day characters (in comics or pop culture in general) do you feel best exhibit the iconographic ink lines that you’re attracted to?

Eaton: There really aren’t any that readily come to mind, other than some of Craig McCraken’s characters in Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and The Powerpuff Girls, and perhaps Bender from Futurama, more for his purity of design than any attribute of line. Many of the best animated cartoons of the past twenty years, like The Simpsons, and The Ren and Stimpy Show, are peopled with characters whose design is rather uninspiring as a general rule. This extends to most children’s programming and comic books, Spongebob Squarepants and Dora The Explorer being two possible exceptions, in only that they have a clearly recognizable architecture, but neither inspires much adoration design-wise. Some gaming characters, like Mario and Sonic Hedgehog are decent, but don’t quite stand up to their pop cultural predecessors. In comic books, I would suggest Jim Woodring’s Frank, Kaz’s Creep Rat, and to a lesser extent Mike Allred’s Madman, but the iconic line of the golden era of cartooning is pretty much a thing of the past. Again, I do not keep up with everything that’s current, so there is bound to be a fine exception to this state-of-affairs that I’m unaware of.

Rovnak: Besides Jumbles, what else are you working on?

Eaton: I’ve recently finished an 888-page novel, Funny Sunday, which is essentially a graphic novel without pictures, one that reads like a revisionary Peyton Place, adapted to screenplay by Preston Sturges, based on storyboards by Robert Crumb (which, I suppose, makes it something of a narrative Jumble itself). In lieu of finding someone crazy enough to publish this work, I have been posting a page a day on Facebook. I am also working on a proposed 120-page graphic novel entitled The Emotionals. What that one is about I won’t even attempt to summarize, other than to say it is my goal to return a bit of the audacious inscrutability of underground comix to their modern alternative counterpart, a psychedelic spiking of the contemporary coffee culture narrative. I am also working on another novel, a second graphic story and numerous paintings and comic-based illustrations. Many of these can be viewed as regular postings at my Jeremy Eaton Facebook page.

Rovnak: Your deep love and respect for comics, its characters, and its great master creators is evident. It shows in your work and comes through in speaking with you, but what do you hate about comics?

Eaton: Hate? Hmm. I’m not sure if there actually is anything I don’t basically enjoy about the classic age of comics and cartoons, my nostalgia allowing for all the quirks and failings of cheaply-printed and produced media, an answer which leads me to declare that I am no fan of the modern desire for three-dimensionality in both comics and animation, especially in the heavily-rendered, digitally-colored comic books readers are offered today. I’ve had a couple of requests featuring current characters who exist without the iconographic ink lines that so define the cartoons of yesterday and find these irksome to work comfortably into a Jumble. They just don’t have that wonderful economy of design.

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Rovnak: Was there a defining moment in your youth that really connected you to comics and pop culture?

Eaton: I suppose it came with my first subscription to a comic book. I was born and raised in Great Britain and we received our weekly comics bundled into the Sunday newspaper, which my dad would pick up at the village news agent. This was the 1960s. These were usually twenty-page editions with newsprint covers and guts, a brand of newsprint a few notches lower than the sort I later discovered in American comics. I didn’t see a super hero comic until I came to the US, believe it or not. My comics featured adventure stories and humor stories, usually starring a snaggle-toothed young English troublemaker with an unaccounted for “super power” or magical friend of some sort. I loved these, like most kids, but it was only when I immigrated to America as a pre-teen that I saw Harvey Comics and Marvel Comics. Those two brands in particular imprinted themselves indelibly on my culturally overwhelmed little brain. I kind of “became American” through them, if such a thing is possible. Until that point, America was only exemplified in the few Disney films I’d seen. I had no idea what a hotbed of popular culture it was going to prove to be. I suppose I’m still overwhelmed by it all.

Rovnak: In browsing your collection of images, both on your Facebook page and the online gallery of the Comic Art Collective, I’ve now discovered your Neo-Expressionist series. Can you speak a little bit about this series and how you’re approaching it?

Eaton: Well, the “Neo-Expressives” are actually indebted to my answer in the previous question. It might be hard to fathom for most practicing cartoonists, but I didn’t cut my teeth by copying my favorite characters from comics when I was young. The few examples of such childhood exercises are rarities. I have also never been an obsessive doodler. I don’t keep sketchbooks, I don’t draw in public. My experiments of the past few years are chiefly my first attempts at illustrating many of these popular characters. This may well be what is giving me such impetus and satisfaction with Jumbles and auxiliary series like the Neo-Expressives, which stem from an objective study and subsequent dissection of the primary elements that form such cultural companions as Fred Flintstone and Dick Tracy. The symbolic imagery and essential color the Neos utilize is very exciting to me and may very well soon emigrate to large-scale canvas painting, a direction I feel ready to embrace.

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All images © 2012 Jem Eaton.

All characters portrayed in the paintings in this book are trademarked by their respective owners.

Interview © John Rovnak