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    Alumni Spotlight recognizes a chosen Kubert School alum showcasing their work and journey after The Kubert School.

    Talent from The Kubert School

    PROFILES    

    T. J. Kirsch

    Cartoonist, illustrator

    www.tjkirsch.com


    Interview
    by Michael Kraiger



     



    Interview by Michael Kraiger

     

    The Kubert School: Do you remember when you first noticed comics or comic books?


    T.J. Kirsch: I don't remember exactly, but it was probably a mix of Sunday comic strips like Garfield, or Superman or Archie comic books.


    TKS: Do you remember when you started drawing or perhaps drawing better (or more) than the other kids?


    T.J. Kirsch: Almost immediately in school I was singled out by other kids and teachers as having drawing ability. When you get to art school you realize everyone there has had the same experience. You weren't that special!


    TKS: What were some of your earliest artistic influences?


    T.J. Kirsch: I'd say vintage Disney cartoons, The Simpsons, DC Comics, MAD magazine, Archie, Life In Hell, Calvin and Hobbes, and Garfield. 


    TKS:  Is there an artist whose work at some point you realized you recognized and that it was a single person drawing it?


    T.J. Kirsch: I sought out Life In Hell when I was about nine, because Matt Groenings name was plastered all over the Simpsons' credits and merchandise. I loved art by Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway around the same time.


    TKS:  Who were some of your earliest artistic influences?


    T.J. Kirsch: Probably Matt Groening, Bill Watterson, Sergio Aragones, Jim Davis.


    TKS:  At what point did you realize that being an artist was a career choice you were moving towards?


    T.J. Kirsch: I always knew I'd be a professional artist of some kind, and I was encouraged to go that direction by a lot of teachers - and my parents, of course. I went on a field trip with school to the Norman Rockwell Museum when I was 10 or so, and made myself an ID badge that read 'professional illustrator,' which is embarrassing to think about.


    TKS: How did you learn about The Kubert School?


    T.J. Kirsch: I think it was the ads in various DC Comics. "Bart Sears went there! Look how good he is!"


    TKS:  Is there any particular class or lesson that stands out from your three years at the school?


    T.J. Kirsch: I retained many useful lessons from every class. One that always comes to mind is Sergio Cariello's 'no twin lines' lesson, referring to never having a mirror image of a line on either side of an arm or leg. The most important came from all three Kuberts though - If your storytelling isn't clear - if you can't tell what's going on in the page - you've already failed. Doesn't even matter how good or accomplished the drawing itself is.


    TKS: Did you ever doubt you'd made the right choice coming to the school?


    T.J. Kirsch: I had made a few false starts in my secondary education, but the Kubert School felt right - meeting other new students the first week, you learn that many of them didn't feel like they fit in at other types of schools as well. 


    I also knew myself enough to know I needed to be pushed. I needed to be challenged and given deadlines and a reason to be at my drawing desk for hours on end. Otherwise I'd slack off and not get any better.


    TKS:  What's the best trick or most valuable bit of advice you received while at the school?


    T.J. Kirsch: Many instructors instilled in us to just be a nice person, and be easy to work with. That can go a long way when looking for work after graduation. 


    TKS:  What was your first professional work after attending the school? How did it come about?


    T.J. Kirsch: I sent an art submission and a cover letter to Archie Comics. I got a phone call shortly after, and I ended up interning for their art department the summer after graduation. My future wife and I drove downstate to their offices and I interviewed and showed my portfolio. During that internship I did some illustrations for the relaunch of CRACKED magazine. They decided they wanted a different style for the assignment so that art was never published. I was given half of the promised payment as a "kill fee". 


    TKS: So what was your first published work?


    T.J. Kirsch: If I remember correctly it was a 2 page quick comic adaptation of Catcher In The Rye for a small indie anthology called Mysterious Visions. I think this was 2001, before I got to The Kubert School.


    TKS: How did you get involved with the independent comics that you're known for?


    T.J. Kirsch: I met Kevin Church, the writer of She Died In Terrebonne , at New York Comic Con in 2008 or 2009. He had read Uncle Sam Fights Back, the Oni Press comic I worked on, and we became friends. I think I was frustrated by not finding a follow-up project quick enough so Kevin and I decided to start Terrebonne as a web comic. I'd also done a piece of fan art for his web comic The Rack - and I loved his writing.


    I did many more art auditions for Oni Press for various projects, but didn't land another one until they needed an artist for Lost And Found: An Amy Devlin Mystery. I finished drawing that one in early 2013.


    TKS: How were you meeting or connecting your writers/collaborators?


    T.J. Kirsch: I met Jonathan Baylis, who writes the autobiographical comic So Buttons, through email while at the Kubert School. He posted an ad online looking for artists and he listed his favorite cartoonist influences, which were pretty similar to mine. I illustrated some strips for a comedy trade magazine which we later compiled into a comic. He decided he liked that format and he's stuck to it to this day. It's a very down to earth, Harvey Pekar influenced comic about modern life.


    I just illustrated another story for his new issue, which would be my 13th story I've drawn for him since that first one in 2005. Plus, he's become a great friend! As have a lot of my collaborators.


    I met Sam Costello at a local convention in Albany. We became friends and collaborators shortly thereafter. I'm currently working on my third comic with him.


    Blair Butler was a host on Attack Of The Show on G4TV - and she gave She Died In Terrebonne a very positive review which I'm still grateful for. We became friendly and she's also a fantastic writer. Her comic book Heart, which Image published, is one I'd recommend. We found a venue to collaborate when Steve Orlando, writer for numerous DC Comics titles, was putting together a trade paperback of his Image series Undertow. He generously let Blair and I work on a five-page story set in the Undertow universe. She of course turned in a great script for that and I was lucky to get to draw that. I met Steve locally in Albany and he continues to give me lots of great advice about writing and working in comics.


    TKS: Do you feel like you're part of a comic book creator community? 


    T.J. Kirsch: Sure. Especially now with social media you don't feel like you're that far away from friends. You're able to keep up with everyone's work and their families. But it's also great to see people every year at different conventions or other events. It becomes another family you belong to.


    TKS: Tell us about She Died In Terrebonne How did that come about? 


    T.J. Kirsch: I became pretty frustrated not only with not finding another project fast enough, but also the disconnect, given the length of time it takes traditional comics publishing to get material out there. Doing a web comic was great - the immediacy of the instant feedback from people - it's a really good feeling. Whereas, with a print comic at a traditional publishing house, it may not see print until a year or more after you’ve worked on it.


    TKS: Pride Of The Decent Man is something you've written as well as illustrated, what was the impetus for this work?


    T.J. Kirsch: I had wanted to write and draw my own graphic novel for a long time. Even before attending the Kubert School. All of my favorite comic creators are writer/artists. Now that I'm (a little) more mature and have experience with longer works, I was able to follow through with this one. 


    I was trying to figure out my next project, and I thought it was time to give it a shot. I'd done a mini comic called Turnpike - and people commented that there seemed to be a larger story there, beyond the little eight pager I created. So I expanded the story and connected the characters - and put together a short proposal with the first ten pages. NBM made an offer fairly quickly and then I had had to finish it! Right in the middle of working on it, though, my daughter was born! So it took probably a year longer than it would have otherwise.


    TKS: Are comics your primary source of income?


    T.J. Kirsch: I've had day jobs doing design work, and of course the Archie production job right after my internship there, but I've been strictly freelance for a few years. It's mostly comics, and sometimes an illustration gig will come along. I also have a very supportive wife with a steady income. That's how I have good health insurance and can pay for food. Otherwise I'd be struggling a lot more.


    TKS: Do you attend comic conventions?


    T.J. Kirsch: I love smaller independent comic art shows like SPX, which is where I've chosen to debut my new book. It's an incredibly inspiring gathering every year and the work I see there blows me away. 


    I like larger shows like New York Comic Con less, only because it's more of a spectacle, and the amount of people there is horrifying sometimes. I mean, you can't even walk a step without bumping into someone. That takes a lot of the enjoyment out of it.


    I do local conventions sometimes also - the benefit being there's no travel expenses to worry about, so your profit from selling is just that - profit.


    TKS: How important are they for you as a freelancer, and do you have any advice or perhaps horror stories?


    T.J. Kirsch: I'd say sometimes they are important when meeting editors or publishers, and getting some 'face time' in, but a lot of the time it's just so damn expensive to travel and exhibit, that time is sometimes better spent at the drawing table creating.


    I don't think I've ever gotten any freelance work from giving away business cards or postcards, either. That's usually wasted money.


    I don't have a horror stories per se, but I've spent some conventions selling next to nothing, which can be pretty discouraging - Especially when the person next to you is selling various bootleg comic-related knickknacks is pocketing hundreds of dollars or more. It depends on the type of show though. 


    TKS: What's your take of social media as far as promoting your projects or getting involved with a fan base?


    T.J. Kirsch: It's essential. You have to promote yourself. Otherwise, no one will know your project exists! There will be people who 'unfollow' you if you promote yourself too much, but chances are they wouldn't have liked or bought your work anyway. No big loss. There is a chance you can get freelance work on social media, though. Creators and editors put out calls on twitter, etc, looking for artists for various projects all the time. It's also a great way to find collaborators.


    TKS:  What can you tell me about your current job?


    T.J. Kirsch: I've been working as a freelancer for about 8 years. I just finished work on my first solo graphic novel, Pride Of The Decent Man coming out this fall from NBM Graphic Novels.


    TKS: What's a typical workday like for you?


    T.J. Kirsch: After my daughter wakes up, the day starts and everything that goes along with that. One of the grandparents will arrive to watch her and I close myself up in the office until lunchtime. Emails and business stuff happens first, followed by drawing or other art duties. I find I've been more productive now that I have less time to work during the day. Before the baby was born, I'd work after dinner until I couldn't anymore. It's a different world now.


    TKS: What are you working on now?


    T.J. Kirsch: I'm working on a nonfiction graphic novel proposal, along with a short comic story for my friend, collaborator, and autobiographical writer Jonathan Baylis. I actually illustrated my first comic story for him when I was third year Kubert student. 


    TKS: What's next?


    T.J. Kirsch: I'm planning promotional stops for my book when it comes out in the fall, and researching for my next graphic novel. 


    I'm also trying to get some Hollywood attention for one of my past works, She Died In Terrebonne, written by my friend Kevin Church. That's the book most people are aware of when it comes to my artwork. It's frequently cited by many comic websites as one of the best noir comics available. It's got everything - evocative landscapes, a distinctive Asian American lead character, murder, sex, intrigue! 


    TKS: Any bit of advice you'd give to a first-year student or someone considering coming to the school?


    T.J. Kirsch: Like with any school - you should do plenty of research beforehand. Go to an open house; come in person to do your interview. Talk to graduates and current students and factor all that information in before making a decision.


    To the first year students - be a sponge. Absorb all the information and art you can. Do your homework on time. Don't worry about having a 'style' because it's too early for most of you to settle on anything. Be open to all types of comics and art. Show your instructors respect and take what they say seriously - because they've been through it all. Listen to their professional experiences. Experiment with all types of media - digital, traditional, everything. Make mini comics.


    TKS: Anything you'd like to add about Joe Kubert?


    T.J. Kirsch: He's a legend and was a large presence at the school when I was there. I only wish I hadn't been too intimidated to seek him out more often. To take his class and get any kind of encouragement from him was a great gift.