Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (or CXC) is a four day festival in Columbus, Ohio celebrating the work of cartoonists and providing chances to learn more about the medium. It’s mission is “to provide an international showcase for the best of cartoon art in all its forms, including comics, animation, editorial cartoons, newspaper strips, and beyond, in a city that is a growing center of importance to comics and cartooning. We also focus on helping the next generation of young cartooning talent develop thriving careers that invigorate the industry for years to come.” In the spirit of this mission, the Comics Beat has conducted a series of interviews with some of the phenomenal cartoonists in attendance at this year’s Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. We hope that these interviews will improve our understanding of these creators voices, techniques, interests and influences as well as provide a platform for comics enthusiasts to discover new artists and challenge their conceptions of comics.
In this CXC interview, we talked with Pranas T. Naujokaitis. Pranas is an illustrator, writer, and cartoonist based in Chicago. His minicomics Laffy Meal won a DINKy award in 2016 and was also nominated for an Ignatz in the “best minicomics” category. He’s also been working on a series called #Unpresidented, a webcomic on how he’s dealing with the election of Donald Trump from Election Day to the Woman’s March. He’s also done work on established properties such as Adventure Time and Regular Show. There’s a passion for making comics that’s palpable within his work and I’m glad we’ve had the chance to discuss his work, Laffy Meal, #Unpresidented, and his work on other properties.
Philippe Leblanc: For those readers who may not be familiar with you and your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
PTN: I’m a 31 year-old Chicago based cartoonist and I’m lucky enough to be able to be doing this full-time. And I’ve been doing this for a while now (last year was my ten-year anniversary of tabling at comic shows). I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist since the 5th grade, and I’ve been too stubborn to do anything else. So I’ve had my eyes on comics almost my whole life. I even went to art school for it, getting a degree in Sequential Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Right now my work is split between professional work (mostly licensed stuff like the Adventure Time Ice King miniseries and the Uncle Grandpa original graphic novels) and handcrafted minicomics with innovative packaging and screenprinted covers (like #unpresidented and the Ignatz nominated Laffy Meal). In the past I had an online journal comic and dabbled in children’s books.
PL: I want to start by talking about Laffy Meal. I thought the concept of five interconnected mini-comics in the style of a fast-food meal to be quite innovative. How did you come up with this idea and how did you approach making this comic?
PTN: I’ve got this sickness where I keep putting comics in places they shouldn’t be and playing around with packaging and doing it all by hand. Like, literally everything by hand. Screenprinted covers, diecuts, cutting, folding and gluing slipcases, etc. I’m so anal about that that I even bought a laser printer so I can print all the inside pages on my own. Some call it insanity, but I am who I am.
I’ve been making minicomics for over ten years now and they range in complexity. My first ones were simple fold and staple affairs that I printed for free at my school’s computer lab but over time they evolved. In school my buddy Jon Chad sort of started an arms race of sorts in the department with his mind-blowing minicomics. Like these things were amazing. He made a minicomic once that worked like a Jacob’s Ladder toy. And everyone in our little group of comic making friends kept trying to outdo each other and be more clever and inventive. And then I took a minicomics class, and it all just escalated from there. I developed a love of printmaking and papercraft and packaging and I just kept doing it.
When I come up with minicomic projects sometimes the story comes first and sometimes the packaging or “gimmick” comes first and I build the story out from there. But I try to have it so the packaging and the story inside always work together. Form follows function and all that. Like I don’t try to do gimmicks just for the sake of doing them. This isn’t the early 90s. The packaging of the comic should always work towards and try to enhance the story inside, not distract from it. I think Laffy Meal is a good example of what I strive for in my minicomic work.
The idea of a comic in the shape of a fast food meal in a bag came before the story. I actually already had a comic in a bag minicomic a few years before, Sack Lunch, but I wasn’t too happy with it and wanted to revisit the bag idea. So with the basic shape and packaging of Laffy Meal in place, I had to figure out what would be the story inside. I know it sounds backwards, but sometimes it just works out that way. So I kept reexamining what fast food meant to me. And I thought back to how much my family ate out at fast food places growing up. So it was going to be something with fast food and family. And I started building a story from there. So while this story isn’t autobiographical, I did mine my family for inspiration. Especially all the fighting. Heh, my mom is going to love reading that.
The idea to have each book be a different family’s member point of view of the meal, I just always loved stories that did stuff like that. Where you are given a little bit piece by piece and how at first it might be confusing and you’re only getting one side of a conversation or something but as you go on you get more and more of the story and it all comes together in the end. So I was excited to try my hand at something like that. It did take me over a year to finally break how it would all work.
One of the things I’m happy about is that there is no order to it. Part of the interactivity of this comic is that the reader decides the order. And some of the stories are lighthearted and happy. Others are really sad and depressing. So as more people get their hands on it I’m actually pretty curious to see how they reacted to the story based on what order they decided to read it in.
PL: You’ve been working on a series called #Unpresidented, a continuing series in which you react to the election of Donald Trump and the aftermath of that. You rarely touch on the man himself, but instead focus on the impact it has on your life. Why is that?
PTN: I really cut my teeth in comics doing autobio stuff and for years had an online journal comic inkdick which I started at the tail end of art school in 2008 or so (and crap, typing that out I suddenly feel very, very old). And even before that, the comics I did in high school and college were only slightly fictitious versions of my life. But I’ve got this weird love-hate relationship with doing journal/autobio comics. Like I did enjoy doing them but they took time and eventually became the only thing I was doing, which was never the plan. They were getting in the way of “real” comics, which I don’t say as a dig at autobio comics because I LOVE reading autobio stuff. But I never wanted it to became my main thing, so I hung it up. But then time would go by, I’d either be frustrated with what comics I was doing or was stuck in an artist rut or whatever, and come back to the autobio well to try doing it again, only to get frustrated again, quit again, and this whole thing repeated itself a few times over. So even though I don’t do journal comics as much anymore, it’s still in my blood and I’ll probably never escape it fully and have periods in my life where I make comics about myself. I can’t help it. Maybe I’ve got an egomaniac streak.
So cut to election night, when everything went to shit. I was in a deep, deep funk (as were most of us) that honestly I’m still not fully out of. At this point I hadn’t touched autobio comics for a long while. I was in the middle of putting together pitches and trying to figure out what my next big comic project would be. Had ideas for stuff dealing with paranormal investigators, kaiju monsters, funny talking animals. You know, fun stuff. But all that got put on hold because it all just felt so trivial. Like, why do a silly monster or animal comic when the world around you is burning?
And I got really depressed. Like, I already suffer from bad depression so this was just pouring gallons and gallons of gasoline on that fire. And I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d watch the news every waking hour. I’d rant endlessly on twitter (and I do see the irony of that, but to be fair I’m not the so-called leader of the free world). I got trapped in my own head. I was just in a bad spot and I couldn’t focus on or accomplish anything. It was really bad.
I then started jotting down my feelings on scrap pieces of paper, thinking maybe that would help. Those started turning into comic sketches. And eventually fully illustrated comic pages. I came back to autobio as a form of much needed therapy. Like I literally could not do any other comic work until I got these out of my system. And it took longer than I had hoped because in autobio comics you are re-living whatever feelings you had over and over as you draw, kind of like picking at a scab.
Now, I did these comics for me. I was being a selfish audience of one. This was MY therapy. And that’s how I always approached my journal/autobio work. And I’d be brutally honest in those comics, even if it made me look like the bad guy or if it ruined friendships. And I started putting a few of the #unpresidented comics online, because why not? And people really reacted well to them. I got so many comments on the first few telling me how that was exactly what they went through that night and the days afterwards. Like we had all been through this traumatic event together. So even though I did these for me, I’m really glad that they could help other people. It’s kind of great that I got to show other people that they aren’t alone in how they’ve been feeling or dealing with this new reality. I mean, I’m sad we live in the crappy reality where I had to make these comics, but I’m glad they helped, even if just in a small way. But that initial response encouraged me to get enough done to fill a minicomic with.
And about not focusing on the man himself, there are so many better cartoonists than I tackling him directly. I tried doing straight up political/editorial comics before, I’m not that great at it. So I’ll leave him to the professionals and stick with what I’m good at: myself.
PL: The anecdotes in #Unpresidented are deeply personal. One which I recall in particular was when you walk on the street and are blocking Trump Tower with your thumb, hoping it would be this easy to make his presence disappear. How do you decide which stories, or moments, make it into your comics?
PTN: Oh my god, there were so many potential comics that just didn’t make the cut for various reasons. Like I said, I just started jotting down my feelings and started crafting comics from those pages and pages of chicken scratch notes. Some I sketched out completely but they just didn’t feel like they fit (did a whole two page thing about how I almost cried watching Rogue One because of the diversity and message of hope when fighting an evil Empire) and some I had the basic ideas for but just couldn’t quite figure out how to tackle it (had an idea for one about being the son of a refugee in this current climate). Some I might return to (I’m actually trying to come up with a graphic novel idea about my refugee father), but I think I did an alright job picking which ones are in the minicomic. I think it does a good job of capturing the general sense of my emotions during that time, the constant rollercoaster of thoughts, the mix of dealing with the big overwhelming problems yet still trying to tackle the small everyday ones. And I like that I decided to end it with the Inauguration and Woman’s March. Seems like that was the end of the Nation’s great big mourning period. We had two and a half months to lick our wounds and come to terms with this, and the day of the Woman’s March is the day we all got to work.
PL: In addition to your own comics, you’ve also worked on a few bigger properties such as Adventure Time. How do you approach working on those comics when compared to your own work?
PTN: Well, I’m a huge fan of most of the licensed properties I’ve worked on, so that helps. Writing the Ice King miniseries was a blast. I got to channel my inner Ice King-ness (still not sure if that’s a good thing or not). Obviously the biggest thing is that these aren’t my characters. Like I care about them and want to do the best job that I can, but at the end of the day I’m just playing in somebody else’s sandbox. I’m playing with somebody else’s toys. So in some ways it’s super challenging, because you want to get the characters down right and then you have to get everything approved by the network bigwigs and all that every step of the way. And then with something huge like Adventure Time you want to please the massive fanbase who can get very passionate about these characters (and I get it, I’m a fan myself). But in other ways it’s also really freeing, because these are already established characters so half your job is already done. And you do get a built in audience so you’re going to get guaranteed eyeballs on the book and more easily get it into stores. And I’ve been super lucky with the properties I’ve worked on that the license owners tend to be laid back and let you sort of do your own thing while in their sandbox, as long as you respect the basic rules of said sandbox. I mean, in my experience, they are hiring you because they like your style as an artist or writer. If they wanted it to be a cookie cutter version of the show, they’d hire someone else. So it’s the Ice King, but with a slight Pranas flavor. And it’s cool reading what a lot of my cartoonist friends do on these properties. It’s just really fun to see everyone’s different interpretations.
And obviously down the road I want to be working with just my characters, my worlds, my stories, my sandbox. But I’m having fun with what I’m doing now and it’s paying the bills. There are a hell of a lot worse ways to make a living.
And I think I’ve found a good balance right now between this professional work (most of which is licensed stuff) and my handcrafted minicomics. If you come by my table at a show you’ll probably hear my say the line that ‘the licensed stuff pays the bills and the minicomics feed the soul.’ You need both those things in life, so I’m doing pretty okay I think.
PL: Do you have any new comics or material you’re bringing to CXC? If so, can you tell us a little bit more about them/it?
PTN: I will have my new minicomic Glow in the Dark that debuted at SPX earlier this month. It’s a simple fold and staple number but it has a glow-in-the-dark screenprinted cover. The story is about a kid fighting his fear of the dark by using glow-in-the-dark toys and stickers and those stars you stick up on the ceiling. So even though it’s something a little more simple than my usual minicomic output, the fact the cover actually glows relates to the story inside. Form follows function and all that. Honestly, I just can’t help myself. :P
PL: What do you want readers to take with them once they’ve finished reading your comics?
PTN: I want them to walk away with my genuineness. To walk away knowing that they read something that was done because I was fully passionate about it. I really believe as an artist you’ve got to be totally honest in your work. Even when working on something like the Uncle Grandpa graphic novels I was still trying to put that in there, a little nugget of me.
And when people read my minicomics, I want them to not just think about the comic inside (which I do hope they enjoy) but I want them to think about the object itself. Question what could these little books be? Could they be more than just folded and stapled paper? I want them to walk away feeling like they experienced something, even on a physical level. I want them to appreciate these little art objects.
And I think ultimately, especially with the more autobio type stuff, I want readers to personally connect and relate with my work and feel like they aren’t alone in this weird little thing we call life. It’s so easy to get trapped in your own head and feel alone sometimes. So I hope they could read about all my life and thoughts and feelings and not feel so alone. I mean in the end, that’s all we want. To connect with each other.
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.