“Even the things you love can take so much work that sometimes they bring you to the breaking point. So you might as well be in the most comfortable place possible to put yourself up against those tests, or else you’re making it harder for yourself. So it’s simultaneously finding the path of least resistance, but also knowing that you’re going into a storm.”
In November, our spectacular comics editor, Paul Madonna, released his book Album to a jam-packed opening show and book launch at Electric Works. Paul also pens the weekly comic Small Potatoes for the Rumpus, as well as All Over Coffee for the San Francisco Chronicle. Paul and I sat down at his favorite coffee shop, Four Barrel, and talked about Album, about his discipline, process and career, about tearing up the back yard with his dad, and about being the first art intern at MAD magazine.
Paul Madonna: I like making series, for a couple reasons. One, the repetition of routine is very healthy because I can get a little crazy; I want to be making things all the time. And if I publish something every week, I don’t have to put every idea I have into one piece. It’s more like, here’s one idea: execute it, see it through, think about it, do it the best you can. And then there are going to be ten more ideas that come while you’re making that, because creativity works that way. Having two weekly published series, I have places to put those ideas. After almost six years of doing All Over Coffee, I’ve got a rhythm down, but it took me three years before I could do anything else but that strip. And then I was able to start developing things like Small Potatoes and other things and working on bigger projects. And so I thought, okay I like working in series, so instead of just doing one separate body of work, what if I come up with a different rhythm, instead of every week, what if I make it every year? And so I’m still setting up a series, a repetition, but it’s a completely different work flow.
Rumpus: What’s that workflow like? Because Album is very different. The size of the work is very different from, say, Small Potatoes.
Madonna: Well you saw the show, so you saw that some of those pieces are big. They’re like five feet by four feet.
Rumpus: Yes, so, the time that you’re putting into each individual piece is different, and also the time that you’re putting into the idea of this series. You’re committed to an idea for a longer period.
Madonna: Yeah. I see this as a ten-year project that’s going to take me about three years to really figure out. This is my first one. And I’m happy with it. But I feel like I can’t see it clearly yet. I feel like in some ways other people can’t see it clearly either. It’s made to be seen in the context of future Albums. But at the moment it’s being seen in the context of my other work, when it’s meant to be seen as a different series. Nobody knows what that is going to be yet. I just know intuitively that it’s going to be a series. When I made that decision, I made it because that’s what felt right. Like the creative decision to make a mark on a page. Something happens in you. It’s not intellectual first; it’s intellectual last. It comes from this intuitive place, from the inside out and not the outside in. In a way I just kind of threw my hands up: I’m going to make this thing; we’re going to push it out. And now it’s really about making another one. And comparing those two.
The thing about how that process works is that it’s more about the editing and time for judging the ideas. I’ve been able to get this way with All Over Coffee, too. Most pieces I publish each week have been around for months. This is a response to the beginning of the strip, when I was making them so quickly. I would just conceive a piece, finish it, and then the next day see it in the paper. That was when I was doing dailies four days a week. Not until I put the first collection together did I have a chance to go through all of those and do some minor tweaks, and I realized, oh, if I had had more time with all of these… So I set up a system for myself where I work on a lot of pieces at once. I’ll switch between them and keep working on a piece until it comes together, and then I’ll publish it. This way some pieces can take a year if they need to. The trick is to just make sure one is ready every week.
Rumpus: You collected toys for this project. What was it about those particular toys that meant something to you, or that really motivated this project?
Madonna: It was the aesthetic. I was responding in part to all the 20-year-olds in the Mission. To them, I’m an old guy. I’m only 37, and I don’t feel old, but I was 17 when they were born. The stuff that I grew up with is retro-hip to them. They didn’t actually experience it being alive. In the same way that I might have embraced 60s and 70s music when I was a teenager, and my parents were just like, “Oh yeah that stuff.” And that’s the nature of cycles. I realize I was drawn to these aesthetics because there is really a natural rhythm that just happens. When things are popular they fade away and they have a rebirth. And it’s just a constant cycle that’s happening in art and fashion and music. And if you’re tuned into it, you don’t have to like it or care about it to see its movement. And I think I was just naturally drawn to these things as cycles.
Rumpus: One thing that struck me about your opening show for Album—maybe moreso because my 6-year-old son was with me—was how large many of the original works are, and how similar that is to the perspective a child would have in relation to those toys. Did you have that visual perspective in your mind as you worked on these?
Madonna: Well, the one thing the book can’t do is show scale. And it was important for me to draw a lot of those pieces big. I just felt like the hand with the finger puppets would only be powerful if it were larger than life. It’s funny, when you talk about your son, because in a way those pieces are four times the size for him as they are for you or me, because he’s a quarter the size of us.
Rumpus: The other thing that I loved about this project was that you chose to include studies, or works in progress, in the book itself.
Madonna: Well, actually, each one of those is a final piece. I was responding from my time of being a painter, and never being happy with a painting. I would get close to a great painting then lose it trying to get it perfect. That happened with the balsa plane drawing in this book. I drew one and its composition was so simple and it just stood out so much on the page that I was like, Oh, this is done! But it wasn’t done. It was just a nice drawing on the page, which wasn’t enough. And something happened that is a really dangerous place to be, which is that I was afraid to screw it up. And as soon as that happens, you’ll never be happy with anywhere you take the piece. So as soon as I felt that way I knew it was a problem, and I had to put the piece away until I was comfortable with touching it again. Months went by until one night I realized I could just photograph it. And that’s where the whole idea of the unification of the book versus the show came from. This is what the book is about, because the book needed to have something that the original art couldn’t. And I decided: I’m going to keep doing this. I’m going to work on it until it’s done again, and then I’m going to document it, and then I’m going to work on it until it’s done again, and keep repeating. And so, in essence, I’m destroying finished pieces, just like I destroyed a lot of probably better paintings than the ones I ended up with way back when I pursued painting. And so by consciously saying this, I’m totally free. I get to say it’s done and then work on it again. And the weird thing is that it’s not every piece you can do that with. Some pieces are done and they’re just done. Rarely are you saying “It’s done, but, it could have something else.” It’s a very fine line to say how you can exist in both worlds. And I happened on it as opposed to trying to manufacture it. So I don’t want these pieces to be seen as studies or process pieces. I want them to be seen as individuals. It’s too bad they don’t all exist anymore, because they all live under one sheet of paper, but that’s the point, that’s what the book is for.
Rumpus: You’ve spoken about the portability of your materials when you were first doing your drawings. That you wanted to be able to draw anywhere you were, at any time, and have a notebook that you could take right out of your bag.
Madonna: And my tools still are portable. Though Album broke that a little bit because I worked on those big pieces, and I couldn’t work on those anywhere. That was studio work. Whereas, even Potatoes, I come here to make Potato projects. And I just work in a notebook. Sometimes I pre-script them, but other times I’m just making them up as I go. I like to come to cafes to do cartooning.
Rumpus: And do you have to finalize it in your studio?
Madonna: No, well, I’ll scan it, but I do all the work for Potatoes in cafes. In fact, to do the strip I have to get out of the studio. For some reason it’s a really public thing for me to make those cartoons. I love working in cafes because there’s so much energy. I come out to get inspired. I leave the studio to get inspired. And that’s sort of how I began All Over Coffee, was just being like, I’m tired of drawing from my head. I’m tired of sitting at my drawing table making up cartoons. I want to get out and I want to draw from life again. And doing that, I was going back to my teens, when I was first drawing from life. And the funny thing about doing Potatoes is I’m now getting back to those things that I was getting away from when making Coffee. It’s some cycle. For six years I’ve been drawing only from life and now I’m ready to start cartooning again. And I feel mature enough as a creator, disciplined enough, that I can do both. I couldn’t do both before. Because it’s hard sometimes to go back and forth between the two, they’re different mind-sets. And writing, too, that’s a different head-space. I write differently than I draw.
Rumpus: It sounds like you’re flexing different muscles as you go. And it seems to keep you energized overall as an artist.
Madonna: It’s like crop rotation; my fields need to get nutrients back in them. I move back and forth instead of planting and harvesting the same field. It’s creative crop rotation.
Rumpus: You said you were doing art since you were a child.
Madonna: For as long as I can remember.
Rumpus: Did you save a lot of your work?
Madonna: My mom saved a lot of stuff. Occasionally she’ll send me things. And I’m an avid record-keeper of all my work. I have every sketchbook I’ve ever made except for one that I lost while traveling across the country when I was 19. I have a bookshelf in my closet of all my sketchbooks from over the years, and I keep handy the ones that I’m still referencing now.
Rumpus: Were your parents artists?
Madonna: No. My mother had aspirations to be a writer but didn’t follow them. My great-grandmother painted but not until she was older, after her kids were grown, and I think her husband had died, did she start taking painting classes and discovered that she had a talent for it.
Rumpus: What were your parents like?
Madonna: My parents were 19 and 20 when they had me. They started their own business, I think even before my mother was old enough to drink. They had a pizza shop. They sold that and then got another pizza shop. Then they had a restaurant. And then they had a bar. And then from there my mother—she’s actually about to retire in a few months—she works in media buying, she buys TV ad time for products. And my father does real estate but what he does is he buys run-down buildings, fixes them up and rents them out or sells them. So I grew up in a business. They ran their own business—and I think this helped me a great deal. They didn’t have bosses. They didn’t wait for anybody to tell them what to do. They made decisions as young people. So, you know, they screwed up. There were hard times and there were good times. And they’d change their business or try a new business model. They worked every day. And my mom recently told me that we’d go in on a Saturday and say, “If we sell x number of pizzas we’re going to close down for the day.” And if that was at noon, then we went to the park or a movie.
Rumpus: Did your father’s building work influence your art?
Madonna: My father was really interested in building. And I believe working with him really helped my art career because he has vision, and I have vision. And I think that he helped develop that in me. When I was maybe 12 years old we moved out to the country, to this house that was dilapidated because the owner had died and it had fallen into disrepair. We would stand out in the yard and just look out into the landscape and my dad would say, “Alright we’re going to clear out these trees, and we’re going to dig this hill out, and we’re going to build this thing.” And we would just go to work. We never wrote anything down on paper. We would just start digging and pounding stakes in the ground. And we’d build a structure.
Rumpus: That’s so interesting, too, because it makes me think of you sitting outside and drawing for All Over Coffee. That moment has to be meaningful in a creative way, that you have to get out of the studio in order to create.
Madonna: And just sitting and looking, and then imagining in your brain and working it out and then using your hands to do it. I think there’s so much similarity between my father and I. He builds buildings; I draw them. I use my hands in a completely different way. He likes big things and big tools that are just getting bigger and bigger. I’m going smaller. I want to know the difference between this brush and that brush and these hairs on this brush and these pen points. And these are such tiny minuscule differences that I’m gauging. My studio is filled with different sheets of paper, covered in different inks from different brushes and pens, all mapped out like, “Okay, this pen and this ink does this type of affect on this paper.” There’s a science for me. I love that. I spend entire nights just mapping the difference that different materials will make. So it’s the same thing: it’s tools and building, except I like the little stuff.
Rumpus: You’re also, brick by brick, building the buildings as you’re drawing them.
Madonna: Oh yeah, you have to learn how to see them. And I think that, having built buildings, I know what is underneath them, too. And that teaches you how to see. Drawing from life is about seeing. And having ideas is about having vision. And then there’s follow through. There are so many acts of discipline you have to teach yourself. And learning how to cultivate ideas, how to understand how you think and process things and begin to record them, and how to develop them into usable ideas based on the tools you know how to use. I know that what I’ve learned is about twenty years’ worth of conscious working, which I’m not sure if it’s a long time or not, but that’s just how long it took me to learn the stuff I know now. And, of course, I’m not done.
Rumpus: And that’s a lot of skill to build. Like how to cultivate your ideas—that’s just a critical level of creative thinking that you don’t learn until you’ve had to sustain it.
Madonna: And some of it is the fire of taking something you love and making it a profession. I’ve had a weekly deadline for six years, and for two of those years it was four days a week. Then after two years of just a weekly I chose to take on another weekly. And the thing about those repetitive deadlines is that you don’t always feel it but you gotta go do it. And that can be your savior, really, having to drag yourself into work and get the fire going.
Rumpus: You went to college for art, right, and you studied painting?
Madonna: I entered to be a painter and by the beginning of my sophomore year I realized—well, I was going through my sketchbook because I had a painting critique coming up and I hadn’t worked on my paintings at all. I’d just been making tons of drawings, though. I was making work all the time, but no paintings. And I was just like, oh shit, I have to make it look like I’ve been painting for two weeks. So I flipped through my sketchbook and realized that all that was in there were writings and drawings. And I had this sort of epiphanous moment of: “Look, this is what you’re actually doing! Why don’t you just keep doing what you’re doing? You’re in art school! You’re doing something wacky! Why don’t you just go with the natural flow of it, instead of it should be this, and always butting heads with yourself?” And after that I switched from painting. I did double units in drawing and double units in painting my entire college career, so I was still really pursuing painting, but I was pursuing it from a different point of view. And I knew I wanted to make books at that point. It was this realization of what am I? I knew all my life that I wanted to be an artist. That I didn’t want to be, say, an engineer, or a mathematician. But once you’re in that realm you have to also continue to break it down, and it starts becoming as clear as knowing that you don’t want to be an engineer, knowing that you’d rather draw than paint.
Rumpus: But it’s also really cool that you managed to break it down in a way that you were willing to accept what you were. You were drawing and writing. But you also had a lot of talent in painting. And a lot of your stuff seems to exist at that intersection where, like with Small Potatoes, there is drawing and writing, but it’s also got that watercolor wash.
Madonna: I think of the Potatoes as calligraphy. I studied calligraphy when I was about 10 years old. And I think of it as making marks like that, where you can feel the hand in it, like calligraphy, where the characters are symbols for emotion.
Rumpus: You made this decision to accept what you were as an artist, but at the same time, I know that your objective with this collection, with Album, was to challenge yourself in new ways. Not just to do whatever feels good, but to take what’s working and push it open more and see what can come out. I think that’s part of what’s interesting to me about your work, that it’s kind of a forced evolution. Something’s working, but you’re still looking for more.
Madonna: I think the hard things are figuring out how you want to work. You’ve just got to keep breaking it down. I don’t think it means that you’ve got to say I am this and I’m only this. It’s more figuring out where your affinities are. What do you love? What are you going to have the least resistance in? Because there’s going to be resistance in everything, even in the things you love and that you’re great at. It always takes work. Even the things you love can take so much work that sometimes they bring you to the breaking point. So you might as well be in the most comfortable place possible to put yourself up against those tests, or else you’re making it harder for yourself. So it’s simultaneously finding the path of least resistance, but also knowing that you’re going into a storm.
Rumpus: Give yourself as many advantages as you can.
Madonna: Right, because there’s so many creative hurdles constantly. And it’s really easy, I think, when you find something that’s working to say, “Oh, I can do All Over Coffee or whatever for the rest of my life.” But whether it’s the stubbornness in me or the reactionary in me, once I get that rhythm, I’m like, “No, now I want to start something else.” And that’s where Album comes in. It’s setting up a situation where I can feel the newness of a body of work, explore it and shape it, but then I can leave it. I don’t have to keep making pieces in that vein because what the series is actually about is starting over, is about the exploration and shaping.
Rumpus: What was a perfect creative moment when you were working on the Album?
Madonna: The funny thing is, those are the moments that I’m always pushing to get. And so I have a fair amount of them. I’m not saying I have inspirational moments all the time, but the whole point is to get to that. And that’s discipline and just going to the studio constantly. The only way to make those happen are to be there and pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. Because it’s almost like an odds game. X number of hours will equal: boom. You push long enough, something’s going to break. And sometimes that’s you—because, you know, there are times when I end up just laying on the studio floor. But even then you know that’s still part of it. That you’ve got to go through those moments too.
Rumpus: Was there one creative moment in Album that was really memorable to you?
Madonna: There are two Creature from the Black Lagoon pieces. One really finished and one sketchy and random. Creature was one of the first pieces I made. I had done just a quick sketch of the creature on a side piece of paper to be able to test colors. Often I’ll make those marks on the drawing somewhere but because this one was meant to be so finished I didn’t want to put the color tests on the page. And so I didn’t think of the test paper as a work of art. It was just my sketch sheet. I often listen to audiobooks when working in the studio and the book I had on had all these great lines. I kept pausing it to write them down and so I scribbled them on that sketch sheet to remember them. And after a while, as I was making these color marks, the page just took on such beauty that I realized that in some ways it was more beautiful than the finished piece I was working on. The finished piece was delivering the idea and had the aesthetic that I wanted to create for setting up this character and this text. But yet this other piece reminded me of a gallery work. It just had this real organic, this unconsciousness to it. I was actually putting color marks in places that felt good to me aesthetically; I just didn’t realize I was making aesthetic choices. And as much as we strive—I strive—to be conscious of my process, there’s so much you have to let go of, too, and just follow yourself. And that’s what you want. You want to wake up from the moment and realize, wow, I’ve been doing something, and wow, it’s beautiful. And it was almost like I had to deceive myself.
Rumpus: How did that experience fit into the rest of your creative process with Album?
Madonna: In the course of making this book I considered doing that with certain pieces and not showing the finished one, because that was the one I was trying to over control, and I would show only the sketch page. But at that point I was so conscious of the idea that I couldn’t be unconscious with the sketch page. And so what I did is I used sketch pages for all the more controlled pieces and tried to be free with them. But once I was conscious of that it was hard to forget, hard to just make test marks, and so some of them were too stiff to be beautiful, so I didn’t print them. They truly were work sheets. It was the ones that were allowed to have unconscious flow that worked. The head game for me became “How can I not be aware of this thing that I was once unconscious of but now am? How can I simultaneously be aware and allow myself to be free with it?”
The great thing with Album, the thing that I set out to do, was that there were new habits of working that I got to step into. It was more complex than the other work that I’m doing, which is more linear, in a way. And especially with Coffee and even Potatoes now, I’ve developed certain ways of working. And those, of course, took time to develop. With Coffee there’s creativity and there are challenges still, but not in the same way there were when I first created it. It’s harder to have accidental moments in the same way as doing Album allowed. Maybe that’s my fault for not opening up to let them in. But I’ve published almost 500 Coffee pieces at this point. It has a solid form for me now and there are certain things I don’t want it to branch off into. Whereas the whole concept of Album was to give myself a container to have new explorations with every year. And in some ways, this first Album is still really similar to Coffee because I really went off on the aphorism type of work here, but with different subject matter. There are some story elements in it, but the base of it is all text and image, which is really what I really like to work with. With future Albums I’m sure I’ll pick up with some of the ideas I left off with this first one, but I’ll let myself run with them and break the rules that I thought I made for this one, create new rules then abandon those too, let it lead me to where it’s going to go. And whatever work I end up with is what I end up with. And that’s how the series will define itself.
Rumpus: You were the first art intern at MAD magazine. How did that happen?
Madonna: It’s a great story actually. I fell in love with MAD when I was like 8 years old or something. And I sent in—maybe when I was 12 or 13—some drawings I did. And they printed them in the letters section. And of course I was just like, “Wow! That’s awesome!”
Rumpus: Is MAD the first place you ever printed your art?
Madonna: Yeah, I think it was, when I was 12. So when I was in college I called MAD up and said, “Hey, I want to do an internship with you.” And they sent me this piece of paper that was like one quarter of an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper that had been photocopied a million time like a punk rock flyer. It had been xeroxed so many times that there were words you could barely read. I remember being confused thinking, this is their internship guideline? But the assignment was really simple. It just said, “To submit, take one idea and execute it three ways.” So I did three individual sheets of comics all based on the idea of how awkward it is to leave a social situation to go to the bathroom. And I did it from three points of view, each one in a different comic style, and sent it to them. Then a few weeks later they called me up and said, “Nobody’s ever sent us drawings before.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “This is a writing internship.” I was totally blown away. I had no idea, so I said, “Well, you should have written that on your little quarter sheet of paper.”
Rumpus: It was probably on there. You just couldn’t see it.
Madonna: Right! It was one of those blurry words. And they’re like, “But we love it. We think it’s great. We want to give it to you. But we decided, since nobody’s ever sent us drawings, we’re going to give the writing gig to someone else and create an art internship for you. We’ve never had that before, but you’re going to be our first.” So they gave the writing internship to somebody else, and gave me the art internship.
Rumpus: And how long were you there for?
Madonna: I was there for like five weeks. Not very long. But it was a really great experience. And one of the things I learned from MAD was that they thought of themselves as an editorial magazine. They didn’t have a lot of people on staff. They had art directors and editors. But everybody else was hired out. And they did all the writing first. I actually did page layouts where basically we would put all the dialogue in and send it to the artist. And the artist would literally have to fit the drawings around the text bubbles. It was just so the opposite of how I thought about doing things. But it really taught me about the magazine and layout and formats. It made me understand why they had been only doing a writing internship. But I think it was really good for them after how many decades of doing it, that they were like, “oh people don’t think about this as editorial.”
Rumpus: Do you still have the three panels that you first submitted?
Madonna: My best friend from college has them hanging up in his house.
Rumpus: We’ve got to print them on the Rumpus.
Madonna: Yeah, I should get them from him.
Rumpus: MAD probably has them in their archives.
Madonna: You would think, but…If you saw that place—literally I walked into MAD’s office and there were just piles of magazines all down the hallway. It was like the quintessential 8th grader’s bedroom. That cliché. Just a mess. One of the editors had a path through shit in his office to get to his desk, which was also piled with random stuff. One day an editor opened a bottle of wine at noon in the office and we all sat around getting drunk. But then there’d be nights where we’d stay until midnight finishing the issue.
Rumpus: Yeah, they always felt like they were made that way.
Madonna: At least, 15 years ago when I saw it, they were.
Rumpus: Over the course of your career, if your work was rejected, would you go back and do it differently or would you say no, this is what I do, and I’m going to keep trying until I find a place where it will be appreciated?
Madonna: It’s more the latter. I was making zines when I got out of college. I made a book about every three months. And I was sending them out trying to get them published, and nobody wanted them. There was one time when a publisher wrote back and said, “We like this one type of piece you did in here. If you’ll do an entire series based on that style of writing and drawing, we’ll give you a first issue.” And I just didn’t want to do it. Because the way I was working was about making different things in each book, comparing them together. And so I turned it down. And it just made perfect sense to me to turn that down. So, really, I think I’ve just been working until I found a place for whatever I was doing. I made All Over Coffee and sent it out to The Chronicle and they loved it. So I ran it there. I pushed it and pushed it until I got to a place where I could do it and something else. That took me three years. And after those three years I started developing other things. Like Potatoes. And who knows what will happen with Album. It might be just a weird project that I have to do all these other projects just to fund it every year.
Rumpus: But if it’s satisfying to you then it’s worth it.
Madonna: Right, and that’s the thing. I’m just going to keep making whatever I’m going to make. And I’m lucky because I have an audience right now. I was able to pack that gallery for a completely new project that nobody had any idea what it was, based on my other work. And so there is that little bit of fear too: I don’t want to lose my electoral vote. Like, “Oh, this is what he’s doing?” I had one person there that night ask me, “This is really great work but you’re not going to stop doing the cityscapes, right?” And that was one person out of the 300 or 400 who were there that night. And I was like, “No, I’m not going to stop doing that. I’m not abandoning that for this.” But I looked around and I saw people laughing and enjoying the new work. And I thought, this is good, it’s working.