Is Nicholas Gurewitch fulfilling a childhood dream? Photo by Jeff Marini
"This is the reason paper was invented. Give him your money now."
Marvel comic book writer Mark Millar joined the stampede which placed the first Perry Bible Fellowship collection into the top 500 on Amazon— before the book was even released.
25-year-old cartoonist Nicholas Gurewitch watched as the pre-order sales climbed past $300,000 for The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories. Close to 27,000 copies were sold even before the collection of comic strips had its official release in November and crashed into Amazon's top 250. "It bounces off and on Amazon's best-seller lists all the time," Gurewitch told me, jokingly searching for an explanation. "Nifty cover? I'm not sure."
In December the cartoonist's site warned that only 3,000 copies remained, and now copies are "in short supply," Nick says. (The book's first printing had some errors which required a second printing to fully meet the demand, and Gurewitch confirms that "We are indeed gearing up for a third printing.") Publisher's Weekly reports that his publisher, Dark Horse Comics, received their biggest order ever from Britian's Diamond distributor.
"I think people respond to a packaged volume of comics much more than they connect with a computer screen," Gurewitch speculates about the response. "Seeing it on someone's coffee table, or seeing it in someone's hands, or on a high shelf, can affect us in ways far more grand than seeing it bookmarked on someone's computer."
Nick's cover for The Trial of Colonel Sweeto
In our interview, Nick shared even more surprising news. He's been building to this moment for two decades — sort of.
NICHOLAS GUREWITCH: My mom says I was doing cartoonist things at the age of 2, though that's hard to believe. But I was definitely story-oriented. She actually had us making little books around the age of 5 — me and my siblings.
LOU CABRON: Drawings and words?
NG: Early on, it was mostly pictures. And she would bind them with string.
LC: That's adorable.
NG: I think the idea of making a book was a really fun thing that was ever-present in my mind. I undertook a few on my own once I found a stapler.
LC: What was in the books you drew as a kid?
NG: The same stuff I'm doing now, I'm pretty sure. Lots of monsters, lots of robots, lots of dinosaurs...
I don't think I've always wanted to be a cartoonist. I've always just been a cartoonist. I've always just been making little stories.
LC: Colonel Sweeto shows a magical candy land where the reigning monarch practices some vicious realpolitik. When I contacted you, I almost wondered if you lived in a far-away fantasy castle of your own.
NG: I wonder if most people have that impression. I love castles. I plan to live in one some day. It's not wrong that you have that impression.
I wish it were true.
LC: I was picturing lots of monsters, lots of robots, and lots of dinosaurs all scattered throughout the PBF empire.
NG: It's a pretty quaint empire. My buddy Evan handles all the t-shirt stuff, and I had a friend helping me out with the prints. (They take in a lot more money than you expect, though I haven't checked my records in a while.)
Evan was actually my roommate in college when I first started the comic, and he's been writing a lot of the comics lately. He came up with the idea for Commander Crisp, as well as the one with The Masculator.
A panel from "Commander Crisp"
Earlier on Evan would come up with one out of four comics, and he's been doing that lately too. And my buddy Jordan is always really good about knowing how I should amplify an idea and he's come up with ideas on his own. We're all kind of on the same wavelength collaborating, and it's extremely easy.
LC: A writer for The Daily Show, Sam Means, described your comic strip as being almost psychedelic.
"The Perry Bible Fellowship is what Bil Keane, Jim Davis, and the guy who draws Marmaduke would see if they closed their eyes and rubbed them with their fists. It's absurdist, comic fireworks, and I can't get enough of it."
NG: I don't want to make judgments about my artwork, but a lot of people seem to think that it's good, and I chalk this up to the amount of time that I spend concentrating on it and enjoying it myself. If I enjoy it myself a lot, people tend to enjoy it a lot.
LC: Is that the secret reason why you use so many different styles? The strip about Finneas the heroic dog was drawn with acrylic paint, while The Throbblefoot Aquarium switched to the black-and-white style of Edward Gorey.
NG: I might be attracted to giving people the kind of response that makes them write in. That's always nice. I'm not terribly lonely, but its wonderful to hear when somebody recognizes that you've done something very subtle.
I like touching people on those levels. So it only makes sense to make references to childhood heroes and artists that I appreciate.
LC: You also told the Boston Phoenix. "There's something wonderful, and soon-to-be mythic, about the printed page... I'll always prefer it."
NG: I just have a feeling comics drawn on a napkin in 100 years will be far more appreciated than comics made on a computer. Don't you get the impression that we're getting bombarded by images that are digital? People often go straight to the digital format, which is unfortunate. I just really appreciate seeing evidence of hard work!
LC: Each of your strips always manages to startle me. For example, Hey Goat starts in the winter, but ends after the spring thaw, implying that there's been a horrible avalanche. You even told one interviewer "there's a lot to be said for chaos where order is making things very, very boring."
NG: I think I just always felt that it might be an aspect of my personality, that I think chaotic situations often reveal something about a scene or a person or an object that a still life wouldn't. It really squeezes out the nature of the characters.
Plus, chaos is just eye-catching. It's a necessary aspect of comedy and drama that there be some conflict.
LC: Does that mean you were a frustrated artist in school? Did you feel high school stifled your creativity?
NG: Or the spirits of the students, or the thinking of students.
I was an editor of an underground newspaper that we distributed in high school. We ruffled a lot of feathers. I think I have an FBI record because of it.
LC: How do you get an FBI record for an underground newspaper? Are you sure?
NG: Someone tells me I do, for certain.
A local pastor had seen the work that we were doing in the paper, and he must've thought we were more than the basic renegade kids because he wrote a letter to the FBI. This is right after Columbine, and he thought our paper displayed many warning signs for troubled youth.
He was probably right about that. We certainly were troubled youth. I just don't think we were the type of troubled youth that would express ourselves with guns.
LC: Well, wait — what was in this newspaper?
NG: We had a section where we presented fictionalized accounts of our teachers fighting each other, and how those fights would go. We'd show a big picture of them, and then a "versus," and then another teacher. It was really entertaining if you had these people as teachers. Lots of blood, lots of violence. Lets hope they never end up online.
We actually published the pastor's letter in the following issue. We also did a word search, and we hid the word "clitoris". It was a point at which we lost a lot of our audience.
LC: So you regret it?
NG: It's the type of thing I look back on and see as funny in retrospect. I think I get paid to make clitoris jokes now.
But I really enjoy having flexed my mind to the full extent at that tender age, because I think it's really helped me maintain a momentum. College was a little bland, but I think that's why I ended up starting the comic strip — because I was so hooked on my experience with the paper.
I noticed that the comics page at the college newspaper would get a heck of a lot of attention. It only took about a semester when I realized that's where I should be putting my attention, and not the articles about the dining hall.
LC: You were "discovered" when you won a comic strip contest in the Baltimore City Paper. When you entered that contest, where did you think it would lead?
NG: The Perry Bible Fellowship debuted in the New York Press the same week that it won, so there were parallel blessings. I had no prediction about where it was going. I just knew I appreciated the extra money while I was at school!
It was running in two papers when I graduated in 2004, so I gave myself a few weeks to see if I could call what I was doing a job. I sent out samples to ten more papers and heard back from about three. I figured that was just as good as trying to get a temporary job in New York City, so I ended up just staying home and doing the comic and operating from a studio space that I rented near my house.
The initial proliferation of the samples was the only time I sent out samples. Since then most papers have just emailed me — because of the web site, I assume.
I think the story ends right about now. Because I've still been doing it...
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