When he’s not making magic on the keys in Wet Leather, J.A.K. is penning cartoons and comics for The New Yorker, graphic novels and more
Off the Record is a new interview series exploring the creative endeavors that our favorite artists are pursuing outside of their music, the results of which don’t end up ON a record, so… (get it?!).
For this installment, we’re psyched to feature Jason Katzenstein, who—beyond being the keyboard player for one of our major faves + first interviews, Wet Leather—draws cartoons for The New Yorker, is illustrator of the Camp Midnight graphic novels and has a book of comics coming out this summer.
This week, Jason put down his pen(cil?… we didn’t ask) for a moment to answer our questions via email and tell us about the comic creation process, finding cartoon inspiration and being the villain of one of his most popular pieces.
How did you get started on this path? Were you always…uh, drawn to drawing?
I really was always drawing and making comics. My parents were psyched about it! They encouraged me, signed me up for classes, bought me drawing books. They also did something that I only really appreciated in retrospect, which is that they always told me this could be my job. I kind of always took it for granted that I would be an illustrator, a comic book artist.
My first comic loves were MAD Magazine and Spider-Man, and I continue to love both. I’d read the same issues over and over again, and copy the panels.
You co-created the graphic novel Camp Midnight with Steven T. Seagle. How did it originate and what was the process like?
Our mutual friend, the incredibly talented Daryl Sabara, introduced me and Steve. Steve has a weekly writers group that meets at the Wii Spa in LA, which is where I was living at the time. Daryl’s part of that group and thought we’d get along. I’d read Steve’s book It’s a Bird… and was absolutely floored by it, so I was starstruck to meet him. He saw my work and pitched me on this idea he had a full treatment for. I loved it.
The early stages of Camp Midnight consisted of meeting each week in the group and talking through the world, and I’d design characters next to Steve, who’d say, make that one taller, make that scarier, etc. It was really fun to be working together in real time.
Steve wrote the script seven pages at a time, and I’d draw those pages while he was writing more. It was a new way of working for me, and I loved the dynamic of Steve writing things that responded to what I’d drawn. Or he’d say a facial expression in some panel and change dialogue to fit with the drawing.
As a cartoonist, where do you find your inspiration and get your ideas? What makes good cartoon material?
I really like to think of it as inspiration, because I feel less like I’m coming up with ideas than like I’m finding them. Every cartoon does this dance between the immediate shared set of associations we bring — ah yes, a desert island — and the cartoonist’s specific voice. I need to start with something true. What’s on my mind this week? What’s happening out in the world? From there I try and marry my specific experience to universal touchstones. Does being a freelancer feel like a bird in a nest? How so? And you go from there.
In your opinion, what’s the secret to a good cartoon?
If it’s a gag cartoon, make something that makes you laugh! Work on your drawing until it looks effortless to your reader.
Do you have a favorite piece of work?
My favorite is probably Quantum Breakup, because it’s ridiculous but also, I think, a little sad.
Is there one piece that comes to mind that’s been the most “liked” or popular?
The cartoon of mine that’s most frequently shared is “Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence.” I am the villain in that cartoon. I noticed how often I’d just confidently plow ahead with some idea of mine no matter who I was talking to, or what about, and that I was absolutely mostly guilty of doing this when talking to women. Like, what the fuck? I was drawing with a cartoonist friend and I wasn’t even sure it was worth pitching, but she liked it so I put it down on paper.
What projects are you working on now?
I have a book coming out June 30th!
It’s comics about my anxiety, and it’s called Everything Is an Emergency!
Which artists inspire you and who are your favorites now?
Kate Beaton is the funniest draw-er in the world! I’ve been looking at a lot of William Steig and trying to “loosen up” my style.
Do your art and music overlap or feed off each other in any way or are they totally separate pursuits?
Absolutely. Comedy has a rhythm, and both music and comedy feel really somatic to me. Also, making comics can be very quiet and solitary, so I do need to be cramped in a rehearsal space with my friends making loud music.
Feature image (provided by the artist): Lauren Roche