“I’ve always approached the world as a pot luck,” the keynote speaker at this year’s MSU Comics Forum said. “Rib, grab, take, steal and put into my big stew.”
Since 2000, Bertozzi, 42, has become a top creator in the field with an ambitious run of projects, including a comic that unfolds like a road map, a biography of Harry Houdini and an upcoming 300-page epic on the founding of Israel.
“I keep my eyes open,” he said. “It’s a function of getting bored.”
In “The Salon,” published in 2007, he re-created the Paris apartment where Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Braque and other bohemian types invented modern art, squeezing turn-of-the-century Paris into a digest-sized den of purple panels stuffed with sex, booze, arguments and art supplies.
In contrast to the claustrophobic “Salon,” Bertozzi’s “Lewis and Clark” (published in 2011) sprawls across a larger format in wide panels that stretch from margin to shining margin. Barrier cliffs tower from the top to the bottom of the page, tents billow with flatulence and bugs wander into the margins.
“I wanted you to understand how annoying it is to haul a giant dugout canoe up a hill and be engulfed in mosquitoes,” Bertozzi said. “When I read stories, that’s the kind of small quotidian moment that makes it so much more real.”
An in-joke or two doesn’t hurt, either. When arch-rivals Matisse and Picasso get into a fight in “The Salon,” a surly Stein gives them both a slap, a la Moe Howard. (Bertozzi confirmed that it wasn’t my low-brow imagination. “You’re the first person to get that,” he said.)
Bertozzi describes himself as “pretty self-taught.” He was looking at comics before he could read them. When he was 4, his father read him “Tintin,” with its elegant, clean lines by French master Hergé, along with “Classics Illustrated” (“Moby Dick in 50 pages”) and — gasp — R. Crumb’s underground hippie anti-hero, “Mr. Natural.”
“He skipped over the naughty pages and wouldn’t read me the swear words,” he explained.
Biographies, history, fantasy and science fiction books seeded a tangle of interests that is still growing. There was a superhero phase — there always is with boys — but it was over by college.
While Bertozzi was studying Spanish at the University of Massachusetts, a new wave of comics crept back into his life. A friend gave him a copy of Daniel Clowes’ grim confessional comic “Eightball” and the seminal soap opera graphic series “Love and Rockets.” Here was real life in honest black and white, with no Spandex tights in sight.
“This was the vanguard of independent publishing in the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s,” Bertozzi said. “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Naturally, I started writing comics — really bad ones.”
His first not-bad one was “Boswash,” a story about Mexican immigrants the reader has to unfold like a state road map. The project won him a Xeric Award, a prestigious grant in the comics industry.
From there, he negotiated the treacherous hopscotch from self-publishing to small press work to critically praised books for St. Martin’s Press and First Second books, MacMillan’s graphic novel division. He has taught cartooning at the New York School of Visual Arts for 10 years.
At MSU, he’ll delve into his “primordial soup” of influences, unpack his bag of story-telling tricks and illustrate with “lots of pretty pictures,” including excerpts from works in progress. Readers might be surprised, for example, to find that the thick brush that lovingly limns Picasso’s bare butt in “The Salon” owes a lot to Mickey Mouse.
“What an incredible line, that huge, luscious, thick, perfect contour line Disney developed in the 1930s and 1940s that set the standard for what we think of as comic art,” Bertozzi said. “I’m attracted to it, but I don’t want to just emulate it. I want to take it and manipulate it.”
Bertozzi’s magnum opus comes out in April: “Jerusalem,” a 380-page epic on the building of Israel from 1940 to 1948, written by Boaz Yain. Needless to say, it called for months of research.
“I spent two days trying to find out whether judges in the Palestinian mandate wore wigs, as they did in Britain,” he said. “They do.”
Bertozzi is happy to see comics break out of the superhero mold, but in some ways, the medium’s coming of age has gone too far for his taste. He won’t be renting the DVD of “Tintin,” Steven Spielberg’s blasphemous motion-capture take on the beloved stories Bertozzi took in at his father’s knee.
“I’ll never see it, and I’m not going to allow my children to see it,” he said. “The most beautiful two-dimensional art, and they made it three-dimensional! The less said about that the better.”