MOME Interview 5: Andrice Arp
Sunday, 30 April 2006

This interview is reprinted in its entirety from MOME Vol. 5.

Andrice Arp was born in 1969 in Altadena, California, where she grew up in the '70s and '80s. Her mother was an artist — a sculptor, performance artist and, most recently, a novelist — and probably influenced her future vocation. Her father is an astronomer, whose profession apparently did not influence her quite as much. She was by no means a comics geek. She remembers reading beautiful childen's books when she was a little girl, as well as the work of Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, B. Kliban, and Tove Jannson's Moomintroll books. Later, she read Asterix and Krazy Kat.

Illustration by Andrice Arp
Jar Life, 2003

She was drawing as far back as she can remember, encouraged by her parents, but she didn't have a burning passion to become a cartoonist. It wasn't until she attended college and stumbled onto a volume of RAW in the early '90s that she recognized the artistic potential of the medium and became seriously interested in pursuing it herself.

She graduated from Cornell University in 1992, and proceeded to work as a graphic artist at a restaurant PR firm and then as a production artist for a packaging firm, which she continued to do on a freelance basis after leaving that job.

In 2001, she co-edited (with Howard John Arey, Joan Reilly, and Bishakh Som), designed, and self-published Hi-Horse Comics, which ran four issues, an anthology that featured her and several of her artist friends; she subsequently edited a book collection, Hi-Horse Omnibus, published by Alternative Comics.

Arp's uniqueness is manifested in both subject matter and technique: Thus far, most of her comics stories have been adaptations of ancient fables (predominantly from Japanese sources) and most of her stories have been painted rather than drawn in pen and ink. We discuss both of these aspects of her work in an interview that was conducted on May 1.

—Gary Groth

andrice arp: I first started reading RAW when I was [attending Cornell], which really inspired me. And I was doing these drawings in black pen at the same time, and I just realized that, you know, I like to read comics and I like to do these drawings — that I could just start drawing comics. And that was kind of like "duh," when I finally figured that out.

So what happened was after I got out of college — I think this was around '95 — I got this idea for a comic that I wanted to do and it was a two-page comic. But I just didn't have the skills to do exactly what I wanted to do with the comic. So I decided that I needed to take some classes and learn how to draw better, basically. So, I started taking classes at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco. I took a bunch of illustration classes and painting classes and things like that. And so then like five years later I finished that comic. That was kind of where I got started painting too.

gary groth: When you picked up RAW when you were at Cornell, was that really your introduction to what we might call art comics?

aa: Yeah, I think so. I remember looking at RAW before that. The first one that I had was the first of the small ones. I think it was Volume Two #1. And I remember looking at an earlier version of RAW in stores, and I didn't understand what it was. Like, maybe I just opened to the pages that weren't comics. But I was like, this is a magazine but what is it about, I don't get it. But then once I finally read it I was like, "Wow, this is great." And then, coincidentally, there were these people that were putting together a comics anthology at Cornell that I got involved with. And that happened all right around the same time.

gg: And what was the name of this anthology?

aa: It was called Strip!, with an exclamation point; very original.

gg: And how did you get involved in that? What did you do?

aa: Well, it was a collective. And we got money from some kind of student resources committee. And whoever wanted to be in it could basically be in it and we all put it together. You know, we were doing old fashion paste-ups. And we had a lot of meetings, although I'm not sure what they were about. I think it started in '89 or '90. I was in about six or seven issues, I think.

Illustration by Andrice Arp
Bunny Boat, 2005

gg: Now, are these contributions by you so embarrassing you don't want people to see them?

aa: Pretty much. [Groth laughs.] For the most part, although the turnip story that I did in Hi-Horse #2 - 4 was an expansion of this one page strip that I did in that book that was called Colonial Comics. It's still embarrassing, but not as much so as some of the other ones.

gg: After you discovered RAW, where'd you proceed from there? Did you start buying other comics, did you start immersing yourself in this world?

Illustration by Andrice Arp
Untitled, 2003

aa: I never really immersed myself until later. I think it was off and on. I think, pretty shortly after that, I discovered Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, and of course was pretty amazed by their stuff. But then also in high school I got really into Lynda Barry and Matt Groening and Zippy the Pinhead. So I guess I was reading some art comics before RAW.

gg: What was your cultural diet like in like high school and college? What were you into and what were you reading?

aa: Well, let's see. It was somewhat eclectic. A lot of the music I listened to in high school I probably don't want to admit to, like Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens. I liked some punk rock and in 10th grade for a while I went through sort of a weird metal phase where I was really into Dio [Groth laughs] and then I was really into the Cure in high school but that's kind of a random selection. I liked a lot of stuff that was just called "alternative" back then, when it actually was alternative, and now that word has a completely different meaning, at least for music. Elvis Costello was my favorite pretty consistently through high school. And then, let's see. I'm trying to remember what I was reading that I liked.

Ever since college, one of my favorite authors has been Edith Wharton. I've just been thinking about that lately, trying to figure out what it is about her that I like so much, but I guess I have to go back and read those books and figure it out. But I think, partly it's just her use of language and description.

gg: Maybe it's her mirth. [Laughter.] So, did you have an impulse to actually tell stories? Did you come at it more from the visual side, the side of making images or did you primarily want to tell stories?

aa: Well, I think now I definitely approach it more from the visual side. I guess that was always true, although when I was in high school and college I tried to write, stories and poetry, things like that, which are just so incredibly awkward and embarrassing. And that was one of the things that I discovered about doing comics, that it was a lot easier to just do something that was more spontaneous in a way, even though it ends up being more work — and less awkward. So, I think that I'm just more of a visual thinker. I've been wanting, for a while, to try to learn more about writing, try to learn as much as I can on my own, but I feel like I need some classes. [Laughter.] I'm definitely a classtaker. You know —

gg: Are you?

aa: Yeah, a lot of people in comics tend to be self-taught and maybe that's partly because there's not a lot of good alternative comics education in this country. But I try to take classes and fit them to my needs. That's what I did with the academy. I took the illustration classes and I learned a lot about doing actual illustration, but I was also trying to use it for my own creative development. And I think the fact that I was a little bit older when I was taking those classes was the best thing — I knew what I wanted out of it more.

Illustration by Andrice Arp
Diagram, 2003

gg: Do you think you're an analytical thinker? Do you break things down?

aa: Not really.

gg: Did you always sort of drift to alternative and non-mainstream modes of culture?

aa: Yeah, yeah, I think so.

gg: Was this because of your family environment, because of your mother's own predispositions?

aa: Yeah, I think so. And my dad too. My family is definitely not normal. [Laughs.]

gg: Ah, now we're getting somewhere.

aa: Well, you know, just in terms of sensibility.

gg: Do you have any siblings?

aa: Yeah, I have two older half-sisters who were 15 and 18 when I was born so it was more like having extra adults in my family. And then I have another half-sister who's 15 years younger than me, so growing up it was basically like being an only child. Sometimes even more so when all the focus is on you, when there's all these adults around you. My sisters were like extra parents.

gg: Could you tell me how you got involved in Hi-Horse and what your involvement exactly was? And where you were living at the time?

aa: I was living here, in San Francisco. I was considering moving to New York at the time. Actually, when Hi-Horse started I was semi-living in New York first. I was just there for two and a half months one summer, subletting for a friend. I was trying to decide if I wanted to move there. But when I came back here, inertia kind of set in and I never moved to New York. I asked two of the people — Howard [John Arey] and Bishakh [Som] — who were in the magazine Strip! with me in college. And then Joan, I went to high school with her.

Illustration by Andrice Arp
Untitled, 2005

gg: That'll be Joan Reilly?

aa: Yeah. I just liked the way she drew. I felt she had a really natural ease, and she hadn't really done comics before so I asked her to be in it. And then we had some meetings and put out the first issue.

gg: And what gave you the confidence to actually publish a comic? Did you distribute this in the comic stores and go through the whole distribution system?

aa: Yeah, yeah. Well, we went to APE in 2001 and the comic came out right in time for that and then kind of hooked up with Last Gasp there, and Cold Cut right afterwards. We did a lot of footwork going to stores ourselves, selling books.

gg: Hand-selling, yeah... Are you the one who found the printer and put it together? Were you the central organizing force?

aa: Yeah. I did all the production and I found the printer through a friend of mine, Kim Cooper, who does the 'zine Scram. It was a pretty good deal. But I'll be happy if I don't have to self-publish ever again.

gg: [Laughter.] It wasn't an enjoyable experience?

aa: Well, it was fine, but it's just so much time and so much work and you have to be on top of everything. You can't get lazy, like with the past few issues I kind of slacked off in terms of selling to stores and things like that. And you can't really do that if you're doing it all yourself.

gg: You put out four issues of Hi- Horse?

aa: Yeah. And then Alternative Comics published the Hi-Horse Omnibus.

gg: And was that experience a little easier for you than self-publishing?

aa: Yeah, definitely, because he's a pretty good promoter. He's really enthusiastic. That's not one of my strong points, especially when I'm trying to promote my own work.

gg: Virtually all the stories I've read by you are actually adaptations of earlier and often ancient stories. Let me ask you why you focus on adaptations of early works. Was the three-part story that ran in Hi-Horse an adaptation?

aa: No, that's not.

gg: It's drawn in what I take to be a 19th-century illustration style. So it gave me the impression it was an adaptation but it isn't.

aa: It was supposed to be more 18th century. You know, around the American Revolution. It was inspired by political cartoons that I saw from that time. I thought there was something really funny about them. Mostly that the language and the way that the — it sounds like a small thing but I'm kind of obsessed with it — the way that the word balloons come out of people's mouths. I'm not sure I really captured that that well but it looks a string is being pulled out of someone's body or something.

gg: Right, right, and you tried to duplicate the lettering as well.

aa: Yeah, yeah. The Ss that look like Fs, that was another thing that really made me say I have to do something like this.

gg: Three of the four stories you've done for Mome are adaptations from Japanese sources, and the story you contributed to Scheherazade is from the 1001 Nights. Do you have a special affinity for what looks like Japanese fables?

aa: Yeah, and I think that came partly from — my mom had these little rice-paper books that her parents had brought back from Japan that I used to look at a lot when I was little. And I forgot about those until recently, but I think that that was a big influence on me subconsciously for a while. But you'll probably notice that a lot of them have to do with the sea and being under the sea and I think that that partly came from when I was in fifth grade. I was living with my older sister, and she was doing graduate studies in Marine Biology and I spent a lot of time in her lab and I did a lot of drawings of marine life in tanks there, and I think that that kind of got into my brain permanently. My photography in college was inspired by that a lot too. I'm sure there are other reasons I'm fascinated with the sea too, but that's the one that I can pinpoint.

gg: And they almost all involve serpents of some sort.

aa: Yeah.

gg: As do many of your paintings.

aa: Yeah, I like being able to do new things with animals and creatures, so I think something like a dragon or a serpent is more open to interpretation than a rabbit or a goat or something. Although I try to do new interpretations of those too. It's fun, you know?

gg: What media do you use to paint your comics? I can't quite tell; is it gouache or...?

aa: Yeah, in the one that I just did [this issue], that's gouache. I did it all in pthalo blue and then there's a brownish black. Then the Scheherazade one is also gouache, just black and white. But then, the two in the first two volumes [of Mome] are ink and watercolor, and I had to do them on separate pieces of paper, so, there's basically no original art for those.

gg: You did the ink and the watercolor on separate pieces of paper?

aa: Yeah, because I wanted the ink to be — I didn't want the black lines to be halftoned so...

gg: Yeah, you wanted 100% black.

aa: Yeah.

gg: Huh, so you did the watercolor on essentially an overlay? Explain the technique behind that.

aa: I've been using the computer a lot lately. My printer will print onto watercolor paper, so after I inked the black parts, I scanned them and printed them out in really light blue, onto watercolor paper, and then I painted with a brownish- red wash. Then I scanned them in color, and removed one or two of the color channels, so the blue guidelines disappeared. And then I added a lot of gradients and things in the computer too to make them look like those Japanese woodblock prints.

gg: I thought the story that appears this issue, which I just read, was really gorgeous.

aa: Oh, thank you.

gg: And I thought your use of that particular blue is stunning. Did you use the same technique where you did the black on a separate overlay?

aa: No, this one, I just did all on one and so the black is going to end up being half-toned. But I think it's going to be OK.

gg: What are the different properties of watercolors versus gouache? Do you prefer one over the other? Does one give you different effects than the other?

aa: Yeah, they definitely give different effects. I like them both for different reasons, and then they're both frustrating for other reasons.

Watercolor is a lot easier to make smooth blends with; you can do that with gouache, but it's almost not a good idea because that's not what it's suited for. I think I have to plan things out more with gouache, it's less of an intuitive process. In that sense gouache can be faster because you don't have as much of an opportunity to mess with it. But I have been doing a lot of paintings recently in both, and that requires some planning too, because I have to do the watercolor first because you can't paint watercolor on top of gouache. And then some of those paintings I feel would be better if I did them in oil, and that's something I'm going to try explore a little bit someday when I have time.

Illustration by Andrice Arp
From 'Space Taxi'

gg: Do you prefer to paint your comics over pen and ink?

aa: I definitely prefer to paint them, but it does take longer. That's the trade off. But I think it's easier for me to see in shades of gray than in black and white. Getting the balance of the page right is a lot harder if you just have black and white and I don't like crosshatching. So, I feel like that's not available to me. [Laughs.]

gg: Traditionally, it seems to me, there's been a tension between painting and cartooning, that is, most of the painted comics I'm aware of over the last 20, 25 years don't work as comics. The painterly aspect almost rubs against the essence of cartooning so that each panel looks more like a frozen illustration than part of a continuity.

aa: Yeah.

gg: Your painted comics still retain the qualities of cartooning — the spontaneity, the elasticity — whereas painting can smother those very same qualities... you know what I mean?

aa: Yeah, yeah. Well, I'm glad you said that because I do think about it a lot and sometimes I feel like I'm failing at that, and that's mostly because the painting takes so long. I feel like it's possibly taking the life out of everything.

gg: Yeah, that would seem to be the danger. So, how do you think you avoid that particular trap?

aa: [Laughs.] Well, maybe it's just thinking about it and worrying about it a lot. [Groth laughs.] Like subconsciously it's gotten in there or something, I don't know.

gg: Take the last story you did or the story that's in this issue: Do you lay down all of the black lines first?

aa: No, in that one, the black lines were all at the end, they're on top of everything.

gg: OK, so you painted it without holding lines.

aa: Um, yeah, I did the same thing where, with the computer, I printed it out on Bristol and painted in the gouache. So then I had to actually paint to the edges of each shape. When I did the "Fisherman and the Genie" story I actually had a piece of tracing paper taped to the top, and I would paint large areas. And then I would go back with the tracing paper and transfer the marks onto the top of that paint over and over again and I think that that was more time consuming.

gg: Well the fact that you had 40 panels on a page was probably also time-consuming. [Arp laughs.] I was curious: on page three you have these two panels that are scalloped. And I couldn't quite figure out why. [Groth laughs.]

Illustration by Andrice Arp
From Typewriter 6

aa: OK, that's bad news that you couldn't figure out why. It's supposed to be the continuation of her thought balloon. So those two panels aren't actually happening.

gg: OK, well you can attribute that to my own obtuseness, not your obfuscatory storytelling.

aa: Well, we'll see.

gg: You must have an affinity for these fables. As far as I can tell you've virtually done no stories about modern, contemporary existence. [Laughs.] Why is that?

aa: Well, in my own work I always try to keep it out of any specific time. And even with those Japanese stories that happen supposedly at a particular time, I'm not trying to be historically accurate and I'm trying to keep it so that it's... ideally there would be no time at all that you could place it in. I'm not sure why I have an aversion to specific times and especially representing contemporary action, but I think it has to do with, well maybe I'm afraid to get into that because I don't think I would be good at it. But I guess it just doesn't appeal to me as much. And I try to keep people, the things that they're wearing to be really neutral and unspecific. I guess a lot of the comics that I read that I feel the most affinity with are like that.

gg: Such as?

aa: Um, well, let's see, do you know Dave Fremont?

gg: I don't.

aa: He's one of my favorite comic artists even though he hasn't done that much. He was in the Last Gasp anthology. And J. Bradley Johnson. I really like his... but you know they all have this sort of absurdist kind of sensibility that I relate to.

gg: Are you comfortable with contemporary life, expressing contemporary attitudes? I mean some cartoonists...

Illustration by Andrice Arp
From sketchbook

aa: Like Seth?

gg: Yeah — Seth is a great example — who have an aversion to modernity.

aa: Yeah, no I live in contemporary life and I don't have a problem with it. I mean I do have a problem with a lot of things in mass culture I guess. But not in... You know, I don't dress like I'm from a certain era, although my boyfriend would probably say that I'm obsessed with the '50s or '60s. [Laughter.] But that's just aesthetics and it's not like I'm a purist about anything. There are people who do comics and stories about contemporary life that I really like a lot, but it's not something that I feel drawn to do myself.

gg: [Laughter.] Let me skip back and ask you some questions about the Oki Islands story. This was based on a story you read?

aa: Yeah, I read it in a couple of different places.

gg: Was it told differently in the different places?

aa: Yeah, yeah.

gg: How do you go about adapting it?

aa: I go through about three or four drafts before I start the actual pencils. And so the first stages are really messy, and I try, like sometimes I'll be reading the story and one particular passage will inspire me and then I'll just write, I'll draw a couple boxes and write just that section. And I tend to do a lot of word balloons on a page with nothing else.

gg: I haven't read the original story, but it seems you must have taken a lot of liberties because there's a very modern spin to the dialogue, which I assume is a very deliberate choice.

aa: Yeah, well, that's part of what I was saying about trying to keep it out of any specific time. I try to mix in different languages from different periods of time and hopefully it's not going to come off as something where it's like "Oh, I'm making this funny by putting modern dialogue in an old story," you know. I'm trying to be a little more subtle than that. But yeah, I guess I'm also concerned about not keeping too close to any one version of the story, because I don't want to plagiarize.

gg: How do you see your comics and cartooning evolving, where do you see it going?

aa: Well, I definitely want to write some more of my own stories; there are a few that I've been working on that aren't really going anywhere. And I feel like part of why I'm doing so many adaptations is that I'm trying to learn from them. And there's one, when I was doing all the research for these stories, there was one character in particular from Japanese mythology that I really wanted to do a story about. But there's not really a story about him that's tell-able. You know, he just prances along or whatever, so at some point I was like "Oh, well I could make up my own story about him," so that's something that I would like to do. I'll see if that happens.

More books featuring Andrice Arp (click covers for complete product details)

Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 3 - Winter 2006 [Sold Out]
Mome Vol. 3 - Winter 2006 [Sold Out]
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 5 - Fall 2006
Mome Vol. 5 - Fall 2006
Price: $14.95

All books featuring Andrice Arp