Thomas Herpich (http://herpich.blogspot.com/) is a favorite among fans of indy comics for such surreal, expressive books as Cusp and Gongwanadon. He’s also known for writing and/or storyboarding many episodes of TV’s Adventure Time, including “Goliad,” “BMO Noire” and “Thank You,” which was in contention for an Oscar nomination as Best Animated Short.
This fall, Herpich returns to comics with White Clay, a magazine-sized collection of short stories from AdHouse Books involving everything from Kafka to cauldrons. We got up with Herpich to talk about his return to comics, the ideas behind his work, and more.Newsarama: Tom, what led to the White Clay collection coming together?
Thomas Herphich: Well, my first book Cusp was mostly made up of pieces that I'd done to fulfill art school assignments, so it was pretty much finished by the time it occurred to me to assemble it all into something and try to get it published.
Then with my second book, Gongwanadon, I set up a deadline with my publisher and started working on it from scratch, and it turned out to be a really, really miserable experience. Lots of procrastination and panic.
So then what ended up becoming White Clay started out as an experiment to see if I could put a book together with no deadlines, no commitments, just making stuff when I felt the urge. And it finally worked out, but it took about eight years to cobble together 32 pages, so I'll probably try something else next time.
Plus for most of the eight years I was pretty well convinced that I was never gonna finish the book, so that was no fun either.
Nrama: Tell us about some of the stories we'll find in White Clay.
Herpich: There's four main stories in the book, and three out of those four feature metaphors involving imprisoned doppelgangers. But that's mostly superficial; the stories are pretty different otherwise. Also two out of the four main stories feature characters transforming into plants, which I hadn't even noticed 'til just now.
Other than that, what a few of the pieces have in common is a sort of "usefulness"- useful for me, anyway. I sometimes think of it like I'm writing a sort of magic spell, where if I read the words and pictures in the right order, with a bit of faith, it'll snap me out of the sort of numb ennui that I'm apt to have slipped into without having noticed- or induce some other benefit like that; remind me of something important that I tend to forget.
And so I hope that they'll work like that on other people too, though I don't expect a lot of people to just jump on board. I make sure that they're as visually interesting and impressive as I can make them, so that if you're a little resistant to some of the textual content, you might still get won over by the drawings.
Nrama: What's the experience of working with AdHouse been like?Herpich: It's been great. Everything's going smoothly. The book was already 99% finished by the time I approached Chris (Pitzer) about it, so everything came together really fast.
Nrama: How do you feel White Clay relates to your previous collections, in terms of themes, ideas, or even just your growth as a writer and artist?
Herpich: I think all the books have ended up being very clear snapshots of the state of my mental development at the time that I've made them. They're all comprised of about a dozen pieces more or less allegorizing the most resonant questions and ideas from my internal life over the couple years preceding their creation.
Cusp has a really wide-eyed, try-anything intensity to it, though to my eyes now it's a bit overconfident in spots. Gongwanadon grapples a lot with the brain damage incurred at the onset of my late-blooming sex life, with art that's really intensely raw and expressionistic. White Clay is, visually, close to the opposite of that; very humble and studious.
Content wise- I thought a good title for this new one would've been "How to be Alone", but Jonathan Franzen thought of it first plus I wouldn't have thought of it anyway.
Looking at the three together I definitely see growth; I can do things now that I couldn't have then- but I also sometimes see a sort of rearrangement of stat points; minus 3 spontaneity, but plus 3 deliberation, all balanced out in the end.Nrama: Tell us a little about your artistic process -- how you create your comics and illustrations, and some of your biggest influences.
Herpich: I've always got a cloud of interesting little images and ideas in the back of my mind, culled from wherever; misheard song lyrics, important life lessons, etc., and every once in a while those will align with some kind of motivation and I'll get busy making a story. Like I said, I've had a pretty undisciplined approach to comic making for a while.
I don't have any real big comics influences I can point to. I do assimilate a lot of micro-influences though, I think. Little fragments of technique or voice; little solutions here and there. Flipping through White Clay I can see traces of Frank Thorne, Werner Herzog, Franquin, Tony Salmons, David Foster Wallace, Fernando de Felipe, lots of folks. Sometimes in something as small as the way I've drawn a hand or a rock or whatever.
I think probably the biggest debt I owe overall is to James McMullan, my figure drawing teacher/coach/philosopher for 3+ years at the School of Visual Arts. His approach to drawing was and is very very rigorous and thorough and pure, and even though I eventually have deviated a bit from his specific ideals, the stamp he left is deep.
Nrama: What have been some of the biggest challenges working on Adventure Time while doing your comics?Herpich: I guess the biggest "challenge" is that writing and storyboarding on AT seems to fulfill a lot of whatever compulsion it is that makes me draw comics. I did make about half of White Clay while I was storyboarding, so it's not impossible or anything, it just doesn't feel too urgent lately. I don't know, I'm also still basking in the relief of having finally finished White Clay- so that's probably part of it too.
Nrama: For that matter, what's it like doing a children's cartoon – even one as dense as AT – as opposed to the more mature themes of many of your comics?Herpich: It's a huge relief and I'm really grateful to have this outlet! I love being funny, and telling conventional stories, and learning about story structure and craft, and being loose and easygoing in my drawing, but for whatever reason I have a pretty hard time letting this stuff out in my own work. I almost need a "license" to do it, which is a bummer, but at least I've got that license.
So yeah, I'm really really proud of all the stuff we've done on the show, and it still amazes me how little of a filter there is between what we write and draw and what ends up on TV. Like I said, I actually enjoy a lot of what some people might consider the restrictions of writing for an all-ages audience, so there's not really any friction or head-butting or anything going on. There are always a couple jokes that you know would be funnier if you could say "f***" or "j**** c*****", for which there are no good substitutes, but it's no biggie.
Nrama: What was it like (almost) getting an Oscar nomination for "Thank You?"Herpich: I think almost winning would've felt pretty good, but almost getting nominated didn't feel like much. But as of a couple weeks ago me and Jesse Moynihan are up for an Emmy for an episode we boarded together called "Too Young". That felt really good, I gotta say.
I was actually pretty surprised at myself- usually I'm too-cool-for-school about that sort of thing, but I was really giddy and glowing for the whole day after I found out the nomination was a sure thing. Then the next day it was back to normal.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Herpich: I don't know… I keep dithering about pitching a show of my own- not sure how that's gonna shake out… I'll make another comic one of these days, for sure, but no time soon.
Actually what I'm definitely doing is going to North Carolina for a month to try to relax a bit while we're between seasons on Adventure Time. I'm hoping to get a little window of lucidity while I'm down there so I can start charting a new course for myself, or at least reaffirm the current course, I guess.
White Clay is available for pre-order with the Diamond Code AUG12 0752, and will first be available in September at the Small Press Expo. For more of Herpich’s work, check out www.herpich.blogspot.com.