Jason Little’s idiosyncratic ingénue Bee returns in the hardcover graphic novel Motel Art Improvement Service this month from Dark Horse. Following up 2002’s Shutterbug Follies, Brooklyn cartoonist Jason Little is taking his signature spectacled character on the road – a cross-country bicycle trip to break out of the doldrums that have encompassed her life. But along the way she finds a misunderstood man running the front counter at a motel that takes her life on an unexpected turn.
Like Bee’s first book, Motel Art Improvement Service was originally serialized online at Little’s own website prior to print. Over the course of the five years it took Little to produce the book, he and his wife had two children and took the book from its original publisher to Dark Horse after a disagreement on the mature tone Bee’s new adventure took. Between that and moonlighting as an artist for the Comedy Central animated series Ugly Americans, Little has had a busy couple of years -- and with the growing list of new projects he’s talked about, it’s not slowing down anytime soon.
Newsarama: Jason, at the beginning of this, Bee sets out on a cross-country bike trip out of the state of New York. Have you ever done, or had the urge, to do a bike trip like Bee?
Jason Little: I had a friend who did, it seems to be emblematic of a personal journey of some kind. A clearing of the head, a finding of oneself. I never got around to it, but would still like to. Jack Cole did it when he was a teenager, on what was probably an egregiously heavy bike by today's standards.
Nrama: If and when you get on your bike and start of, would you tackle it the way Bee tackled her journey, or would it be different?
Little: Well, for one, I wouldn't have an agenda of meeting a lot of hot guys. Also, I imagine the experience of a woman alone on the road would be very different from a man. Bee is a highly visible target for predation.
Nrama: This is a more rollicking and journey-filled book than the first one; what led you to take Bee on the road?
Little: I initially wanted to borrow an idea that Hergé had never executed, setting an entire story inside an international airport. That conceit ended up getting mixed in with all the other ideas, and the airport ended up being a very minor element to the story.
Nrama: Just as her trip gets going, she ends up breaking down and spending some time at a rural roadside motel. Since Bee spends so much time there, can you tell us what was going through your head when you were designing how the motel would be?
Little: That hotel is an amalgam of a number of different motels that I researched. I think I looked at a lot of southwestern motels that had art deco or streamline moderne design. I cobbled it together from the best elements from each, and plopped it down in the middle of New Jersey.
Nrama: At the motel she meets the motel host, Cyrus – a slightly older man who's taken to "improving" the stock art in the rooms with more surreal elements he paints on it. How'd this idea come about, and have you ever thought of "improving" art with this novel form of graffiti?
Little: I cribbed this idea from my colleague Daupo, who paints transgressive content into framed thrift-store prints.
Nrama: How did Daupo’s art improvement strike you to crib it into Bee – so much that it became the title of Bee’s second volume? What does his work mean to you?
Little: Daupo is an old friend, an occasional collaborator, and a constant source of inspiration. He's an idea machine, and has a highly organized brain that can hold much more data in it, lucidly, at one time than mine can. One of these days we'll finish one of our comics projects. He and I worked closely together on the Comix Fluxture series at the Flux Factory (http://www.fluxfactory.org).
Nrama: As Bee and Cyrus get to know each other, this story delves deeper into adult waters with some sexual situations; I read that this got you in hot water with the original publisher Little, Brown & Co. Can you tell us about this coming-of-age for Bee in this book and what prompted you to take her there?
Little: I remember a friend of mine lost his virginity in college. After the act, he spilled the beans to the girl that it was his first time. She was surprised, because his technique seemed seasoned. He said he had done a lot of studying up on the subject. I put that line in Bee's voice and worked backwards and forwards from that point until it was part of the story.
Nrama: With the Bee stories you've done you developed a style akin to Herge's ligne claire but with more modern elements and darker tone. We've seen you employ some various styles in your work – but how did you go about defining what Bee's stories would – and wouldn't – look like?
Little: This is a particularly interesting question to me, because I found very quickly into Motel Art that I was chafing against the rules I had set for myself in terms of visual style. I ended up freaking out a little and took a break for a few months to draw this other comic called Vlak which is black and white and doesn't make use of ruled lines or constructed characters. I'm going to sell it as a minicomic at conventions this year. Anyway, the basic formula is ligne claire informed by Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, but I started to get frustrated by the flatness of the drawings, and wanted to do something to distinguish myself more from my influences, so I started adding more modeling. And then I started teaching a drawing class, and my own drawing started to improve as I began to practice what I preach.
Nrama: Much as you said you were chafing against the rules you set up, I also see you diverging more from the Herge influences from Bee’s earliest pages to the final pages of this. What do you think about how you’ve kind of worked through your Herge-phase and its become part of your ever-growing style?
Little: Nowadays I'm striving to pile on the influences, so as to make my personal soup as complicated as possible, so that one flavor doesn't dominate too much. Though, looking back on the later pages of Motel Art I really can't remember additional influences other than Hergé, Ware, and Clowes. Maybe Jaime Hernandez. I think I was mostly striving to make the drawings as three-dimensional as possible, in reaction to Ware's flatness.
While drawing the latter part of Motel Art I came heavily under the sway of Marc-Antoine Mathieu's comics, and began to process my lifelong obsession with Heinz Edelman's Yellow Submarine designs, but these influences are coming out more in Vlak.
Nrama: Like Shutterbug Follies before it, Motel Art Improvement Service was originally serialized online. How would you say that experienced had affected the story as compared to doing it in solitude and releasing it new to the world as one big chunk?
Little: I think the serialization forced me to complete it on something like a consistent schedule. In the future though, I want to thumbnail the whole book before I start penciling, so revision can be more logical and orderly.
Nrama: You started this book back in 2005, and since then you've welcomed in two daughters with your wife. How has becoming a father affected your cartooning work in general, and specifically with this book?
Little: Let's just say that having spent so much time with them in early childhood, I have a great relationship with my daughters, and that my relationship with my very patient readers has been strained to the limit. I'm grateful they're both in school now so I can get more studio time back.
Nrama: Do you think the book would have turned out different had you not been a father when you were finishing the book?
Little: Actually I think it would've come out pretty much the same, but much earlier.
Nrama: Lately you've rejoined the animation industry to work on the Comedy Central TV Series Ugly Americans. How has that experience and those unique skills colored your comics work?
Little: I like working in animation because it makes me think about animation, and I find myself watching more animation from the teens through the 30s. Animation and comics are so closely related, and yet so completely different, I find that thinking a lot about animation gives me formal ideas for comics that I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. I also have a big appetite for cartooning technology, and I've about tapped out the frontiers of comics, so have been studying animation technology instead.
Nrama: Getting back to comics, I've read you've got a number of ideas floating around as a follow-up to this. What's coming up in your immediate publishing future?
Little: I've written a preliminary draft of the next Bee book. This one is going to have to range more freely, formally speaking. I don't expect it will fit into the squat landscape format of the first two books. I'm going to release all constraints on style as well, so that I'm allowed to be more experimental on the page. Erotic literature in public libraries will figure heavily. And we will meet Bee's father.
And there's also Vlak, a picaresque in the Kafka mode, which is about a foppish Englishman taking a train between two Eastern European capitals in the early years of the second World War. The first self-published issue (of three) debuted at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival.
But first I have at least one 3d (anaglyph stereogram) comics project that is exploding out of me, that will not have Bee in it. The protagonist is an itinerant 14th century monk/scholar/draftsman.
Nrama: I can’t let you leave us in that much suspense – can tell us more about the 3d comics project?
Little: Sure, it's going to be called The Sphere, and in contrast to Bee it's going to deal with boyish pursuits. After having done two books with a feminist agenda, I'm giving myself the assignment of drawing a book without any women in it. This book concerns British rock music from the '70s, Christian monasticism, and the discovery of linear perspective in the 15th century.Will you take a bike trip with Bee?