Rabble: An Interview with Toronto Cartoonist Jason Kieffer

Rabble: An Interview with Toronto Cartoonist Jason Kieffer

Jason Kieffer is a cartoonist whose strips have appeared around Toronto in university papers and on blogto.com. He’s been publishing mini-comics for many years and he has a new book out titled The Rabble of Downtown, an artistic catalogue of street people Kieffer has met living in Toronto. For more background on Kieffer, here’s a recent article in the Toronto Star and another on blogto.com.

Visit Kieffer’s website at jasonkieffer.com

The Rabble of Downtown Toronto by Jason Kieffer

The Rabble of Downtown Toronto by Jason Kieffer

Dave Howard: How long have you lived in Toronto?

Jason Kieffer: Pretty much my whole life.

Howard: Did you grow up downtown?

Kieffer: Yeah, I grew up in Cabbagetown. I’m in Cabbagetown right now.

Howard:  Your new book, The Rabble of Downtown Toronto, catalogues street people you’ve seen in downtown Toronto. I suppose you’re quite familiar with them. I’ve seen in your past work your interest in homeless and mentally ill people who don’t fit in anywhere. What’s your interest in them?

Kieffer: Yeah, I don’t know. They’re a part of my life.

Howard: The landscape sort of?

Kieffer: Yeah, I’ve seen them for so long it’s just ingrained in me. They stand out for me, and I’ve sort of absorbed that.

Howard: Do you approach some of these street people yourself, or do you find that you don’t talk to them?

Kieffer: I talk to them, they talk to me. Some of the people in the book I’ve never talked to, others I’ve had long conversations with. Others I’ve just had brief encounters. So there’s a bit of dialogue going on. But there’s no more to it than, say, other people on the street. You know, people just suddenly talk to you. I think those interactions happen just as much with street characters or odd people as they do with mainstream people.

Howard: There’s a lot of people in the book.

Kieffer: There’s forty.

Howard: Is everyone there real, or is there anyone who might be a composite of a few people who you don’t quite remember but did know at one time in the past?

Kieffer: It’s all based on real stuff, but yes, some of them are a kind of combination of people. I wrote the whole thing based on memory, I didn’t take notes as I went or something like that. It’s based on my experience, sort of stream of consciousness. I’m sure there’s stuff in there that’s inaccurate or like, that I’ve kind of made up, but… whatever.

Howard: Well they say that autobiography is like that. Are you saying there might be places that you filled in here and there, but for the most part your intention is that you’re going to believe in your memory?

Kieffer:  I feel like I’m trying to represent things accurately even if some things feel like I don’t know if they were really true. But I feel like I’m going in the right direction, I’m going for accuracy.

Howard: One of the characters – Valentina, I think – she’s a landlady. How did you know that? Just based on what she said?

Kieffer: That was based on me seeing her for probably twenty years in the neighbourhood. But also, some of that information comes through a friend who has had lots of interactions with her, lots of stories.

Howard: So your interactions come from more than just from your own experiences, but from other people in the community?

Kieffer: Yeah. And people will be like “Oh, I know that guy, he did this the other day,” and that would be another thing I would add to my impression of someone, another story about them.

Howard: Dave Lapp has done his stories as an art teacher in Drop-In, and part of his intention is to expose us – the reader – to what he sees, which is often quite dark. I see these people in your book and I’m sure none of them are very happy people.

Kieffer: I feel like that the book puts these people in the reader’s face. Typically people walk down the street and they see someone who is acting crazy or screaming on the street corner or whatever, and they’ll turn away and avoid them and not want to have anything to do with any of it. But being laid out in the book, you’re forced to look at these people.

Howard: When did you start drawing, cartooning?

Kieffer: Around the end of high school. That would have been about eight years ago.

Howard: You had a popular strip at U of T didn’t you?

Kieffer: I did an autobiographical strip called “Downtown Toronto,” and it was about homeless street characters. It was in The Varsity. The one I did after that was for The Independent, called “Jason at University.” It was autobiographical, funny. I also did a lot of random stuff for The Gargoyle.

Howard: Have you had other strips in Toronto? I think you had one for blogto.com?

Kieffer: Yeah, I was running comics on there. Again, autobiographical. I also posted the first profiles of my book on blogTO, but the readers went insane, so I couldn’t do comics for them anymore.

Howard: Which do you prefer, the strip format of the longer story? Do you have a preference?

Kieffer:  I like the longer story. Shorter works are good, too, but the longer story is more satisfying.

Howard: I know that Joe Matt has been an influence in your cartooning. Why do you like Joe Matt?

Kieffer: I really like his sense of humour and his honesty. He has a dark sense of humour. I love that he can mix comedy and drama well, and not in a corny way. I really find the painful parts of his work funny. I really like all that sort of stuff.

Howard: Are there other cartoonists that you like or have influenced you?

Kieffer: There’s so many, but I started by reading Chester Brown and Seth. I liked those guys right away. That would have been the last year of high school. I think I found Chester and Seth’s and Chris Ware’s stuff first, and then I found Joe Matt’s. I still like all of their work.

Howard: Let me ask you a little bit about your family. Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Kieffer: I have two younger brothers.

Howard:  What about support in pursuing your dream of cartooning. Do you envision yourself living off your art one day? Are you now?

Kieffer:  Well, I’d like to. I have a job right now, but living off of cartooning is a goal. My parents are really supportive, they’ve always been in everything I do. They’re positive in whatever I want to pursue.

Howard: Is any of your family involved in the arts?

Kieffer: My grandfather was a painter.

Howard: Can you tell me his name? Is it possible I would find his work if I looked him up?

Kieffer: Maybe, I don’t know. Kemp Kieffer. He did landscapes in oils.

Howard: Just a few more questions. You’re in Cabbagetown, how about supplies? Where do you go for art supplies?

Kieffer: I usually go to Curry’s because it’s closest, at Yonge and College. Sometimes I go to Above Ground, that one’s really good. They have stuff that Curry’s doesn’t have. I go to Midoco too sometimes, when I’m up in the Annex.

Howard: How about books? Where do you get books in Toronto and how do you come by them? It’s expensive to buy books. Do you buy them?

Kieffer: I buy them. I go to The Beguiling. I’ve found some good ones at She Said BoomPeanuts collections, some good books at half price.

Howard: Are there other cartoonists you find yourself researching?

Kieffer: Not really, not right now. I’m liking Little Orphan Annie. I’m just getting into it. The art is amazing. I don’t know how he did that – one a day – that’s… nuts.

Howard:. Is there any advice or recommendations you’d make for other people who are, say, in high school and want to pursue the same thing you are?

Kieffer: (pause) You gotta do it. You have to crank it out and get it done. It gets better.

Howard: How about other cartoonists, are there other cartoonist friends that you hang out with?

Kieffer: Nick Mandaag and Ethan Rilly. Ethan’s in Montreal right now, but he’ll be back soon. I hang out with him. It’s mostly those two guys I talk comics with.

Howard: Thanks for talking with me.

Kieffer: Thanks. No problem. Over and out!