Canzine Preview: An Interview with Cartoonist Sherwin Tjia

Canzine Preview: An Interview with Cartoonist Sherwin Tjia

Illustration by Kimberley Whitchurch

Sherwin Tjia was born in Toronto, moved to Montréal to pursue an art degree, and has lived there ever since. He’s a poet, painter, illustrator, graphic novelist, author, event planner, all on top of having a pretty cool day job as a medical illustrator. He has illustrated several books published two compilations of the indie cult comic strip Pedigree Girls and the graphic novel The Hipless Boy.

In his less-than-copious spare time, Tjia dreams up charmingly alternative social events, which he hosts garbed in a fabulous LBD and heels. This weekend he will be appearing at Canzine to host three of his events: the Strip Spelling Bee, Crowd Karaoke, and Slow Dance Night.

Toronto artist Kimberley Whitchurch spoke with Tija earlier this week.

Kimberley Whitchurch: Pedigree Girls was completely subversive, crude, funny, and vulgar. Did you know girls like that in real life, or was it just your brain randomly at work? Or is this one of those, “I’d tell you but then I’d have to kill you” deals?

Sherwin Tija: I don’t think those kinds of sociopathic girls exist in real life. Maybe Karla Homolka. That comic was a lot of fun to write. Basically I was just trying to come up with jokes that I myself would find funny. Sometimes I read the newspaper and the comics section is just so tame. I mean, I understand why—someone’s eight-year old might pick it up. They can’t afford to offend anyone. I was just thinking about one strip where one girl says to the other: “Guess what? We teased Emily relentlessly last week and you know what she goes and does over the weekend? She hung herself!” There is a pause, and then the other girl replies, “What a loser.” And that was from like, six years ago. But with all the suicides these days from bullying, it’s not funny anymore.

KW: Friends who studied in Montréal report seeing people dressed up as the Pedigree Girls at Halloween. How cool is that, seriously?

ST: Yeah, I’d heard that. I was pleased by that. It’s a simple costume, but I’m glad people were touched enough by the strip to want to be them. And by touched, I mean of course, inappropriately.

KW: When you were studying for your MFA at Concordia, you were originally planning to be a painter. Were there any comics, artists, and graphic novels in particular that influenced your decision to move more in the direction of comic art instead of traditional fine art?

ST: I started attending the comix jams here in Montreal, and the people there kind of inspired me. Basically the way a comix jam works is that you show up with your pens, and there’s a pile of nice paper. You start a comic strip with one panel and then you put it back in the pile for someone else to continue. Or you might look through the pile and find one already started that you could continue with your own panel. It’s kind of group storytelling. Anyway, there were some people there who were actual comic artists, who were putting together stories and working on books. That sort of thing. And you know how it is when people are doing things around you—you start to think that maybe you can do something like it too. But I’d always read comics since I was young. Asterix & Obelix. Tintin. Archie. Calvin & Hobbes. Spider-Man.

One of the reasons I left painting though is because I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which was amazing. And it made me want to make things as amazing. But I never thought that painting could say enough. Painting says other things, but narrative is not its strong point. Evocation. Beauty. Verve. Atmosphere. That’s what painting is good at. And maybe also a lot of it is that I am a better drawer than painter.

KW: In Pedigree Girls, you use panels without text for comic pauses, and they really make the strips. In The Hipless Boy, it’s more like a series of quiet moments, where you often convey actions and emotions with the graphics alone. Can you talk about how you developed this style of storytelling?

ST: After a while I started noticing how leaving a panel empty for a pause was really useful in the Pedigree Girls strips. It’s like timing when telling a joke. Ultimately it’s about being responsive, and knowing how the joke is being told, and affecting the reader. It’s the same thing with The Hipless Boy. You want to give your reader room to breathe, and in comics it’s about pacing, and letting the reader just look sometimes, without any speech bubbles. Also, it makes my job easier, if I don’t have to write anything and figure out how to fit the art around the speech bubbles. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is adapt Kerouac’s On the Road into a graphic novel. But the twist would be that the whole thing would be told without words, which is counterintuitive, because On the Road is like, too many words. It’s written from the point of view of this guy with verbal diarrhea. But a road trip seems to me to be very quiet.

KW: The Hipless Boy started as a blog and became a graphic novel with stories from your own life. Why did you publish it under your nickname “Sully” instead of your real name?

ST: At the [Montréal] comix jams, when you finish a panel, you always sign it in the corner with your comics nickname. In my case, it’s after my dead cat, Sully. It’s kind of like your username when you’re on a message board. I just decided it would be nice to publish the book under that name, since it was the comix jams that inspired me to make comics in the first place.

KW: When your book The World is a Heartbreaker was shortlisted for the A. M. Klein Poetry Award in 2005, you went to the gala cross-dressed. What did that feel like, and how has it changed in the years since then?

ST: It’s fun to cross-dress! I felt that if I had a chance to win something and go on stage to receive it, that I would like to wear a beautiful dress. Dresses are just more lovely to me.

KW: Will we ever find out the true identity of your friend Minerva from The Hipless Boy, or will it have to be enough just knowing she really exists?

ST: Minerva is a composite of two friends of mine who I hung out with a lot when I was writing The Hipless Boy. But sometimes it’s better not to know too much. People tell me to read that book, Fast Food Nation. They tell me that afterwards, I won’t ever feel like eating a McDonald’s hamburger again. But sometimes I like McDonald’s combos. Often, my belly feels bad after, but on occasion, I’ll have it. I don’t want to ruin that for myself.

KW: What current projects do you have on the go or in the works?

ST: Right now I’m working on the illustrations for this book I have coming out next year. It’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style book from the point of view of a housecat called You Are a Cat! And all the illustrations are from the point of view of a cat, so you’re looking up a lot, and there’s a lot of large hands headed your way. And you have all the choices that a cat would have. But it’s not boring. I get the feeling that a lot of people think that the book is all about napping, and certainly there’s napping, but you can visit your girlfriend, play with the fuzzy mouse, or go hunting a bluebird. Also, you live with this family, and they have their own adventures.

I’m also working on this collection of writing fragments called The Little Cancer That Could. It’s not heartwarming. It’s about these two boys called Kirk and Spock. Those aren’t their real names—that’s just what they’re called in the book. That might change. Anyway, they’re two High School boys who hate everything and want everyone to die, including themselves. One day they’re given this assignment—to come up with 101 ways to change the world, but they turn it on its head and start coming up with 101 ways to destroy the world. They’re interested in a kind of creative terrorism. Like, they’ll go to a primary school and spraypaint “Santa Claus Doesn’t Really Exist” on the wall. They’re not killing people, but rather killing ideas, hope, a sense of safety.

I’m not sure why I want to write this book. They interest me, these two assholes. They want to be evil the way that some high school boys want to be evil, because it seems cool. Also, I actually have a list of 101 ways to destroy the world that I’d like to make use of. Some of my friends are surprised by this, because all they see are my lovely inspiring events. But ask anyone who has a lot of ideas—you get good ideas by having a lot of them, and not putting a filter on them. For every good idea I get, I have an evil idea too. I just tend to water the good ideas. Maybe this book is my way of watering the evil ones.

KW: You’re coming to Toronto this weekend for Canzine, and you’re hosting three of your famous quirky events. Tell us about that.

ST: So, like I said, I have a lot of weird ideas. On Friday night, I’m hosting a Strip Spelling Bee. Essentially it’s like strip poker, but it’s a spelling bee. Over three rounds, 15 people compete in front of a large audience. If you spell your word wrong, you have to striptease off a third of your clothing. It’s hilarious and hot. What I have discovered is that people suck at spelling when they are standing in their bra and underwear and I’ve got this very tense game-show music on in the background.

Saturday night is Slowdance Night. Basically, it’s all slow songs all night long. We have a small library of Designated Dancers for the shy. Their job is to find the wallflowers and bring them out onto the dancefloor. Every person also gets a dancecard, which has all the songs of the night listed so you can “book,” if you want to, a particular song with a particular person. I came up with this event because I didn’t want slowdancing to be just this thing that people did in Junior High, and occasionally at a wedding. The amazing thing about it is that once you start doing it, you get addicted to it. After the first dance, you start looking around and thinking, who else can I dance with? It’s a great way to get to know strangers.

Sunday Night is Crowd Karaoke. I started to do this because I love to sing, but I am very bad. But when you sing in a group, you all sound great. That’s the idea behind the night. It’s just like regular karaoke—there’s a song catalogue, and you can pick a song to add to the playlist, but there’s not microphone. We project the lyrics onto the wall and everyone sings together on the dancefloor. People tell me that it’s good for their soul to belt out these pop songs with other people. You get kind of high.

(Interview by Kimberley Whitchurch. Canzine happens on Sunday October 24 at the Great Hall, 1087 Queen Street West, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is $5 and includes a free copy of Broken Pencil‘s fall issue.)