A Portrait of the Cartoonist as a Young Philosopher: An Interview with Grant Snider




GRANT SNIDER’S first book, The Shape of Ideas: An Illustrated Exploration of Creativity, a compilation of cartoons from his website Incidental Comics, has just been published by Abrams ComicArts. “What do ideas look like? Where do they come from?” asks the jacket copy. Surprisingly, Snider’s beautifully composed cartoons have cogent answers to those questions — or if they don’t, he’s at least an urgent asker. He’s created something unique: a synthesis of comics, philosophy, and poetry: a thoughtful new way of packaging eternal ideas in cartoon boxes.

Snider grew up in Derby, Kansas, outside of Wichita, reading newspaper comics like Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side and drawing with his twin brother Gavin. “Our parents gave us an easel,” Gavin remembers. “Grant would have one side and I’d have the other. We’d tear a big roll of paper and stick it on there and get markers and create these imaginary worlds.” They drew pirates, asteroids, aliens, and Bigfoot, and used the drawings to tell stories to each other.

“I kept drawing past when most people stop,” Snider says, “but I didn’t start seriously cartooning until late in college at the University of Kansas.” Then, while he was in dental school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he won the Charles M. Schulz Award for college cartoonists, which came with a $10,000 prize and a trip to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. That caught the attention of the Kansas City Star, which started running his strip Delayed Karma.

In 2009, Snider launched Incidental Comics, which gave him the freedom to draw whatever he wanted. “When I first started putting it on the internet,” he says, “nobody was reading it, so it didn’t really matter.” Soon, however, thousands of people were reading it and finding new favorites every week. He began drawing smart, fanciful, hilarious literary cartoons for The New York Times Book Review as well.

I spoke to Grant Snider a few days after the publication of The Shape of Ideas.

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JEFFREY KINDLEY: You’ve described your work as “self-help for myself,” but another word for it might be “philosophical.” In creating “An Illustrated Exploration of Creativity,” you’re providing endless images for the mind’s activity — even one called “The Internal Decathlon.” I can’t think of anyone who’s done this before: ideational cartooning.

GRANT SNIDER: I love that term, “ideational cartooning.” It reflects the goal of much of my work: capturing my mental state in graphic form. I’m also trying (and sometimes failing) to find a closer connection between comics and poetry. Both contain condensed language, strong imagery, and ideally leave the reader with a new insight. Lately I’ve been obsessed with Billy Collins’s poems; I’ve tried to emulate his approach of following a line of thought wherever it takes him. He also has a lot of poetry about the writing process, which appeals to me as a writer, but also in the unusual connections he draws between writing and life.

That said, I try not to think of these things as I’m drawing each individual comic. I’ve found that having grand ambitions for my work (planning multiple comics on one theme or plotting the creative arc of my future projects) takes away from the discovery and exploration that should be present in each new piece. Maybe this is the reason I tend to work in small, short bursts of inspiration: I prefer to craft a single page that stands alone, rather than a comic essay or graphic novel. As a reader, I prefer the haiku to the long poem. My mind is impatient.

Many of the cartoonists you admire — Matt Groening, B. Kliban, Roz Chast, Tom Gauld, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes — have a somewhat jaundiced take on things, whereas your perspective is uniquely open and celebratory. Do you feel like an outsider in the world of cartooning?

No, I very much relate to the stereotypical cartoonist persona: grumbling, introverted, slightly misanthropic. It’s my default mode of seeing the world. Maybe it’s due to the lonely hours spent at the drawing table? The celebration that comes through in my drawings is me trying to transcend my normal way of looking at things.

And much of the celebration and joy in my comics follows panels of building frustration. Usually it’s frustration with the creative process. There’s one called “Hitting a Wall” where every introductory panel is some creative wall, and in the following panel I find a way over that wall, including charging at it on horseback and vaulting over it with a spear. In those moments of frustration, I’m always looking for the way out.

I want my comics to be motivational but honest. It’s a fine line; inspirational stuff can easily become sentimental. Sometimes I find the right balance, other times I don’t. Cynicism is easier than sincerity, but for me sincerity is more powerful.

It may come as a surprise to some that you’re an orthodontist in Wichita with a wife and three kids. People tend to imagine artists devoting themselves to their work 24/7. You have a brilliant cartoon, “Day Jobs of the Poets,” which features, among others, William Carlos Williams, pediatrician; Wallace Stevens, insurance executive; Robert Frost, failed agrarian; and T. S. Eliot, bank clerk. Why is it, do you think, that we expect artists to be above the workaday?

A lot of that stems from a misunderstanding about how art is made. People tend to think that inspiration, exploration, and elation are the majority of the creative process, that artists live in this magical land of ideas. But most of creative work is getting something down, being dissatisfied with it, reworking it, reworking it again, throwing it out, starting over, and continuing until some deadline arrives. Creative work, aside from those rare moments of pure inspiration, is real work. Taking time each day to put in the work and be at your drawing table: that’s how it gets done. If nothing happens, you still have to be there in the chair, otherwise absolutely nothing will get done. Those moments are hidden from the public eye; no one sees the hours at the drawing table waiting for ideas to come or reworking things. They see the finished product.

So you find time to work early in the morning or late at night?

It’s changed over the years. When I was in dental school, I’d spend all day every Saturday making comics. That was stressful for me, my wife, and anyone else who was unfortunate enough to be around me at that time.

When my daughter was born, I realized that approach wouldn’t work. Gradually, I turned myself into a morning person. Now I get up at 5:30 most weekdays, make coffee, and spend an hour or two at the drawing table before I leave for work. It’s not much time each day, but if I keep that schedule four to five days a week it turns into a huge chunk of time.

My early morning hours are free from distraction: there aren’t any emails to answer, I don’t have young kids asking me for food or demanding that I read them a book. Many days I want to hit the snooze button, but I remind myself that consistent hours and creative solitude are essential to me getting anything done.

You’re obviously very disciplined.

I try to be! I have an internal commitment to publish at least one new thing a week. When I don’t meet that goal, I feel slightly worthless. It’s unhealthy to tie self-esteem to creative output, but it’s part of my personality at this point. I’ve mostly met my goal since I began a weekly cartoon in 2009. Every week, I hope the pressure of facing the blank page will lift. It never does. There’s a comic in the book called “Creative Thinking.” It’s a repetition of panels of me sitting at my desk saying, “This time I know what I’m doing.” After five panels, the resolution is: “I still don’t know what I’m doing.”

Sometimes it seems the more comics I make, the more difficult it gets. With many new ideas I say, “I tried that already and it worked; I can’t repeat it now.” I have to find new approaches. Luckily, these are endless, but each time they must be discovered anew.

Your cartoons often refer to writers and artists — Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Georgia O’Keeffe, René Magritte, and many others — in playful, appreciative ways. Why are you drawn to make these kinds of allusions?

I had a moment of revelation early in high school. On a family vacation, we spent a day at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was completely blown away by their modern and contemporary collection. There was a giant Mao print by Andy Warhol, bizarre Salvador Dalí paintings, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks: I’d seen some in books, others were unlike anything I’d seen. Around that time I was also discovering writing. One of the first pieces of writing I did for myself was a reflection on that trip and my reaction to the art.

In a more practical sense: I’m always looking for a source of new words and pictures. My comics about modern art are fun because I can take images I’m fascinated by and interact with them. I’ve done this with Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, René Magritte’s portraits, Giorgio de Chirico’s cityscapes. My character can walk around and explore someone else’s visual world.

If I’m really into an author, their work will spill over into my comics as well. The most overt example is my “Murakami Bingo,” which appeared in The New York Times Book Review. After reading nearly all of Haruki Murakami’s fiction, I summarized his themes in a comic strip/bingo board. It got a great response from Murakami fans; I even got notes of appreciation from his agent and one of his translators.

You did a very funny cartoon called “Choose Your Own Memoir” for The New York Times Book Review in which the choices — old money/new money/no money; hard drugs/the circus/hard literature — were prompted, you said, by reading Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. You’re pretty sneakily hilarious in just about every panel you draw. You get great joy from kidding around, don’t you?

Oh yeah, absolutely. The physical process of creating comics can be tedious, so I try to find ways to lighten it up. I really appreciate it when readers pick out those small, hidden jokes.

I like to introduce an image, then put various twists in subsequent panels. If possible, I’ll return to the initial image at the end with some slight variation. I read humorist Dave Barry in the newspaper every week growing up, so his style is embedded somewhere in my subconscious. I loved how he’d make a small joke at the beginning of his piece, go off on various tangents, then bring the reader back to that initial joke, in the process making it seem much bigger.

Another technique I use is taken from picture books: I’ll draw a bird or cat in each panel, starting out as a bystander and getting unintentionally involved in the action. It gives the narrative another layer of interest. I want the reader’s eye to never be bored.

In a 2014 interview, you said:

I often feel that my work is not honest or personal enough. Though I’m sharing certain inner thoughts and feelings, I rarely touch on deeper, darker psychological themes, such as those tackled by great literature. I’ve never shared anything through my work that made me uncomfortable, though I hope someday I’ll have the artistic courage to do this.

Thoughts about this, three years on? Do you worry that, as in your “The Nature of Ambition,” “in the struggle for greatness, your work will become bigger! faster! more exotic! until you finally lose control”?

It’s difficult. I’ve gotten a bit more comfortable with vulnerability in my work. If you’re not willing to present to your readers any sort of vulnerability you’re not going to connect on a deep level. Only when a work is open and honest does it reflect truth. Still, I don’t want to focus on the dark side of myself, so it’s a challenge to portray that in my work.

Regarding ambition: I want to be able to put aside the reputation of the past work I’ve done, the prestige of the publication I’m submitting to, the worries over getting the next project published, the social media response I might get. I want only to focus on the page in front of me. This is nearly impossible to do, of course. But when I focus on exploring an idea and finding joy in the process itself, I make my best work.

The Shape of Ideas is a very schematic book: 10 chapters which comprise the components of genius. Within each chapter are alternative inspirational schema. You have an extraordinary impulse to compress and classify, fixing ideas on the page like butterflies in an album — and yet in the final pages you contemplate redacting everything, like a modern day Montaigne. “I think, therefore I overthink,” you say in “Cogito Ergo Sum.” “I think, therefore I regret.” “I rethink, therefore I write.” What are you thinking of writing next?

On the point of compression, my initial tendency is to make every comic stretch out to four or five pages. The result is unreadable. By editing, condensing, and classifying, I make something that is shareable in digital form and will fit on a printed page. It’s a very deliberate and structural process — basically a design challenge. It’s harder to regret and redact something that’s been distilled to its essence.

New work? I would love to do a book focused on writing, reading, and literature. Ideally it would look and feel similar to The Shape of Ideas. I think my editor, designer, and the rest of the team at Abrams did an outstanding job with the book!

I’d love to do a picture book as well, as it’s one of my favorite mediums. It’s not an easy process, however. I’m on year two or three now of false starts, revisions, and new attempts. But I’m dedicated to the craft, and I know it will come together at the right time. I’d love to one day create comics for grown-ups and picture books for children — or better yet, comics and picture books that are loved by both children and grown-ups alike.

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Jeffrey Kindley has written plays, movies, TV shows, children’s books, and a single book of poetry, The Under-Wood.


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