We’ll be exhibiting at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco
and so will Andy Ristaino, painter/musician/comic creator and a long-time Hi-Fructose favorite. We think he’s the William S. Burroughs/Charlie Kaufman of alt. comix. Matt Holdaway interviews Ristaino, whose work will make your eyes ache until you beg for more.
Andy Ristaino, writer and illustrator of Life of a Fetus! and “The Baby Sitter” (published by Slave Labor Graphics) creates worlds of such vivid detail that the audience is forced to pause and focus. It isn’t just time and attention that Andy’s work asks of its readers. They must be willing to adopt and discard multiple realities and even create some of their own. The reward is a trip into a place only Andy could take you. This is truly a more is more approach to illustration. Ironically, the man who creates work that asks you to slow down is often creating at a feverish pace. I briefly got Andy down to hyper-speed to ask him a few questions.
MH-You grew up in the Massachusetts/New England area before relocating to San Francisco. Was it too conservative there for you?
AR- It was definitely more conservative than I was, but I didn’t think it was that bad. My parents are super liberal and most of my friends back home were too. After I got out of school, and before I moved out to San Francisco (in 99), I used to dress in really crazy clashing colors, huge bell bottoms, lots of stripes going every which way, plaids, everything as bright as possible. At the time I was one of the few people in Boston dressing that way, so I would be walking around or getting on the train and everybody would be staring at me (go figure). And you could really feel the eyes bearing into you. Maybe it was all in my head but it made me feel uncomfortable. Actually, I was just back there a few weeks ago and it still felt the same way. Maybe it’s just how people stare at everyone in Boston. Sometimes when I’d go to parties, people would often say “I have a friend just like you from Berkeley.” Or “I know someone like you from San Fran.” When I moved out here the crowd was a lot more supportive of the whole ‘costume’ sort of endeavor. But after a while of dressing crazy every day, I got really burnt out on the whole thing. Now I can’t even bring myself to dress up for Halloween.
MH-Your work appears to ignore many rules but also seems to be aware of the rules it is ignoring. Were you classically trained?
AR-I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to dig it. All throughout high school I drew as much as possible in my classes. There were also some private art lessons in there somewhere too. I went to school at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence majoring in illustration and animation which meant there was a lot of life drawing and painting courses. When I graduated RISD I worked in Water Town near Boston at a place called Olive Jar Animation for 3 years animating on commercials and other projects.
MH-Did you enjoy working in animation?
AR-For the most part I did. It was nice work and close to home. And working on commercials you get to animate in a variety of styles and methods. I even got to do some puppet animation. You learn stuff really quickly. But eventually the toll of working on commercials got to me. They are so manipulative in very subtle and unsubtle ways. Even if I liked how the project was turning out in the back of my head I still knew I was shilling stuff. I think that eventually caused me to hate doing it.
MH-Do you prefer to work within animation compared to print?
AR- While I love cartoons, and most of the work I do for money tends to be in animation, my goal has always been to be a comic artist full time. (I guess I’d be fine with my own cartoon, but the general focus is on comics). Basically what happens is no matter what I’m working on or where I am, I think about comics all the time, all day. I usually have like ten stories that I haven’t drawn yet chilling on the back burner, and four or five of which I’m working on off and on at all times. It’s pretty much what I spend all my time obsessing over.
MH-Do you have a large collection of comics?
AR-It grows and shrinks and grows and shrinks. I had about 10 long boxes at one time but I got rid of almost all of it. Now i have four short boxes of just the gems and a bookshelf of graphic novels. A few years ago I started going through back issues and dollar bins to find the weirdest home-made comics. The kind where somebody obviously went to Kinko’s and spent their own money to make it. Now the bulk of my collection is these weird oddball comics. You can tell at that level if someone is doing something like this, it is all for the blind love of comics. It is pure. Sometimes the art is horrible and the writing is even worse, but it’s horrendous in the most glorious way. I’d spend afternoons looking through the back issues at places like Al’s comics just trying to find the weirdest ones. I think one of the coolest things about these kinds of comics is that they are totally locally grown. You can find different comics depending on which state you’re looking en because the print runs are so small. Eventually I’m going to start a pod cast called the “The Dollar Bin” and just review obscure stuff. I already have a blog for it where I review these weird comics I found that I really like.”
MH-At which point did you start publishing?
AR-Well, self publishing, very early. I was drawing comics in elementary school. I had a comic I had been working on since eighth grade called “Night Blade: The Near-Sighted Ninja”. I created it after the Tick comic first came out. If you look at the book it is pretty obvious it took place in the Tick universe even though I didn’t mean it to be. It was all about ninjas and how useless they are. I worked on that up through my junior year in college and finished the first two issues. I made about fifty copies of issue one and sent it out to publishers. No one wanted it so I dropped that idea. On the side I had been drawing and developing alot of shorter stories with other characters. I figured I would take all of these stories and characters and throw them all together and connect the stories somehow and see how it turned out. That became the comic “Life of the Fetus”. I worked on Fetus my last year in college and while I was in Boston I did the first two and a half issues and Slave Labor picked it up. The first issue came out in 99. It was at that time I moved out to the bay area.
MH-How did this lead to your recent graphic novel “The Babysitter”?
AR-There was a character that was in the pitch for Fetus that didn’t appear in the actual series until issue six. Dan Vado (head honcho at SLG) felt that character was much more marketable than a book about a fetus, so he suggested I do a single issue one shot about her. I stated working on the story and it grew from one issue into a 3 issue miniseries. I tried to up the weirdness since it took place in Japan, and it ended up being the most complex thing I’ve drawn so far. We printed the collection super big to be an anti-manga and because the artwork was so detailed.
MH-I’m glad it is in the larger format. It gives the reader a better chance to see the complexities of your illustrations. Your work is very complex. Does this affect your actual output?
AR- If you follow the progression of my work from issue to issue, you can see things getting crazier and crazier. With the fetus book it started out being about simplicity and shapes and forms, but every issue the work just got more complex. When I started to work on the first issue of Babysitter I bumped up the complexity a few notches. I wanted Japan to feel more claustrophobic so I made the artwork more that way. I was alternating issues of Fetus and Babysitter so if you arrange them all according to when they were published you can see the progression from crazy to crazier to craziest and so on… There is a back and fourth that perpetuates until by the end it my body couldn’t take it any more. I started to break down. My hands were destroyed and my back was destroyed. I have two herniated discs from being hunched over drawing and I got carpal tunnel. For a while it was tough to even hold a pencil. It was really scary. I stopped working on stuff for a while. I had to figure out a new way to draw that didn’t hurt my hands. I’m actually currently finishing up one of the books I had to put on hold, issue 8 of Fetus which I had stopped working on in 2001 due to health problems. But mostly I’ve been spending these past few years trying to simplify my art so it’s not as time consuming or as damaging on my body. I did a story that appeared in Meathaus S.O.S. that was me trying to do a normal comic with simple story telling. But it seems like I still can’t seem to avoid drawing crowd scenes.
Currently “The Babysitter” graphic novel is available through Slave Labor Graphics. When not destroying his body for comics, he enjoys making weird noises in the band Shy Grape or playing Theremin with “Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound”. His strip “The Uncredibly” confabulated tales of Lucinda Ziggles appears in Nickelodeon Magazine. A new twenty-page full color comic called “Night of the Living Vidiots” will be in Pop Gun Volume 4 due out this winter. The long awaited issue of Life of a Fetus #8, currently in production will be printed in the upcoming collection “Escape from Dullsville” along with all the other issues of the comic and 40 more bonus pages published by Slave Labor Graphics. Check out what he’s working on currently on his blog. He also does something pretty amazing with post it notes that must be seen.