Interview: Richard Short
Richard Short is a cartoonist based in London and the creator of Klaus, a surreal and melancholy comic starring the eponymous character and his friends, rivals and one absolutely lovely horse. Klaus wouldn't look out of place standing alongside comic strip anthropomorphic legends like Snoopy and Garfield, but he'd rather lay in the grass, staring off into nothing, pondering what it is to be. Short talks to CYA about Klaus, juggling art and work, the independent comics scene in England, literary influences and more.
Cool Yeah Alright: You've been drawing stories involving Klaus for more than half a decade at this point. When did Klaus first become a character in your head or on a sketch pad? Is he influenced by characters you read growing up or doodles you had when you were younger?
Richard Short: It’s almost a decade – Christ! I started about 8 years ago, maybe 9, when I had only been reading comics about for a couple of years and still living in Newcastle upon Tyne, in North-East England, where I knew no-one who made comics and very few who read them. I’d been drawing gig posters and doing illustrations, just for myself really, but the comics-urge was building up in me. I was belatedly training as a solicitor, driving around the North-East taking people’s Will instructions, and drawing a comic strip provided me with a sortof Walter Mitty parallel life. I don’t know where the characters came from, but I think it was a conscious effort to create a Peanuts-like strip – untethered from real-world concerns like jobs and money and family. When I was made redundant after qualifying as a solicitor, the last thing I did was to make two mini-comics of Klaus strips, which were published by Nobrow a few years later when I moved to London. Those strips are very rough; there’s not much thought gone into the design and the drawing. It’s strange that they ended-up in a hard-back book. A “rare mis-step for Nobrow” was one of my favourite reviews.
CYA: Has art always been present in your life? At what point did you ever think it could go beyond a hobby and become what it's been now?
RS: It’s still a hobby, just a very involving one. I’ve always drawn and it’s always been my main interest. I can remember at primary school, when I was about 8, a girl saying to me before a poster-drawing contest; “I hope you lose because winning has made you a fat-head”. I did lose and I thought it was a massive injustice. Also, around 8, I made a huge drawing all of the NFL mascots, from the Miami Dolphin to the Washington ‘Redskin’, and excitedly showed my uncle the result. He was surprisingly unmoved by my masterpiece and his only comment was “Why is the Giant the same size as all of the others? He’s not a giant then, is he?”. I don’t think I put anything else into the public realm until I was about 24.
CYA: While art hasn't necessarily taken a backseat to your other professional life, how would you say you've been able to juggle two vastly different careers? Do they influence each other in any way? How do they butt heads and make life more difficult sometimes?
RS: Trying to fit-in drawing and writing – and reading – with a full-time job can be difficult, and I can’t think of any positive way my day-job has influenced my comics, beyond providing me with a living, but I don’t see a better alternative. When I moved to London at 28 I thought I’d turn my back on law and become an artist, but I didn’t (and don’t) know how to earn money from drawing and I lived on about £30 a week for around 18 months. When I met my girlfriend, and we decided to move-in together, I went back to doing a law job. That was about 6 years ago. I do a lot of whining about not having any time but it’s been fine.
CYA: Where did Klaus' voice come from? Klaus, Otto and the other characters all have very unique voices and personalities that can be obvious after only a few panels. It would be cheap and easy to say there's some Schulz and Jannson influence, but I think that the surreal and bizarre set Klaus aside from most other comics on the shelf. Is it where you have thoughts and say 'Oh, that's very Klaus' or is more intentional - sitting and thinking hard on what these characters should see and how they think?
RS: It’s quite pathetic but I do say that, yes. If a good line comes to me I’ll usually think “That’s a Klaus/Otto/Ivor line” and I’ll probably picture that character acting out the line. My favourite anecdote about Schulz is when an interviewer asks him how his children are and he starts talking about what’s been happening to Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus. Apparently his wife started crying. What a nutcase. But that’s how I feel sometimes. When I’ve been drawing the strip a lot, the characters stay in my head during the day. When we lived in South Korea for 9 months, about 4 years ago, I didn’t draw comics the whole time. I felt guilty after about 7 or 8 months and started drawing Klaus on scraps of paper, bringing him back from the dead. Even when the last Klaus-reader stops reading I’ll probably still have to draw the characters. Back to the question, I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally tried to define a character – they tend to come together over time, like a sitcom actor growing into the part. Although Otto started as an exaggerated version of my friend Aris Roussinos, as I saw him in my mid-20s, and became a not-so-exaggerated version of me in my mid-30s.
CYA: The underground comics scene in England is truly firing on all cylinders from an outsider's view in the US. The two major outlets you've worked with - Nobrow and Breakdown - have put out some truly groundbreaking work. How would you say your relationship is not only with the people behind putting out your books, but other creators in your area? Has further pursuing your art helped you develop friendships and bonds with people you otherwise may have not crossed paths with?
RS: I met Joe Kessler (and Breakdown’s Simon Hacking and Tom Oldham) when I was doing the Nobrow book, as Joe worked with Nobrow at the time. Not long after I became friends with Antoine Cosse, who Joe went to university with, and when Breakdown started I met Zoe Taylor, Liam Cobb, Lando, Josephine Edwards, Alex Tucker - and Brie Moreno, who now lives in London. Sometimes we see Leon Sadler and Jon Chandler and I think Wai-Wai Pang might be putting something together for Breakdown. So yeah, there’s loads of great people doing work. It’s very different from 8 years ago when I lived in Newcastle and had no-one to chat alt-comics gossip with. Me and Joe have worked together on stuff quite a bit in the last few years and his influence is slowly creeping-in to my work. We’re working on a book together, an expanded collection of our ‘Windowklaus’ comics that we did for Lagon Revue, and hope to have something out this year.
CYA: Klaus has many nods to classic literary works, philosophers and poets. How keen are you in reaching back for inspiration in history for your comics work, or is this just part of your personality showing through in your comics? Has anyone ever told you that they learned about something new from your comic that you didn't expect?
RS: No, they never have, but I’m sure they think it all of the time. I know some readers have just read the use of ‘poetic’ language as high-flown or pretentious, or twee – the incongruity of cartoon animals saying sad/clever things. But I’d like to think those views are exceptions and I hope the dialogue fits the characters, and the situations, rather than jars. When I started doing the strips I was reading a lot of German(ic) literature; Wolfgang Koeppen, Hermann Broch, Wolfgang Borchert, Robert Walser, Klaus Mann .. so that influenced the names for a start, and bits of dialogue or ideas crept in. It’s not obviously fertile ground for comedy but Walser for one is very funny. Actually, I think early on I would steal wholesale – just take a quote and not even change it or try to flip it to make a joke. It did lead to some quite pretentious stuff. I hope it’s become slightly more sophisticated by now. I was re-reading CP Cavafy a few years ago and cringed every time I recognised a line as one I’d put in the mouth of a pigeon or duck. A few years ago I leaned heavily on Japanese writers – Tanizaki, Kawabata, Shiki - and most recently it’s been British poets; Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Jennings, Edward Thomas, RS Thomas, Edward Lear. Whatever I’m interested in at the time of writing makes its way in to the comics.
CYA: Klaus has been translated into many different languages all across Europe. How has it been communicating and collaborating with publishers and fans in different countries? Is there any place in particular that has stood out and blown your mind with their reception of the comic?
RS: The foreign-language editions of the books make me quite nervous, because usually everything is in my control and it’s just me and Joe Kessler putting them together. Thankfully both the French and Italian editions came out really well and both Oblomov Edizioni and Warum were very accommodating. Also, it’s obviously really exciting to have books out in French and Italian. I think Italy has been the most ‘mind-blowing’, as Klaus was on the cover of Linus a few years ago and that still seems quite surreal, given Linus’s history. I really love those early Linus covers, through the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, especially the Salvatore Gregorietti ones. It was strange sitting at my desk at work and Linus being delivered and seeing Klaus in the pages between Peanuts and, er, Dilbert. Also I went to Napoli Comicon with Oblomov at the end of April, which was another surreal experience; Lorenzo Mattotti and Milo Manara giving out awards in a concert hall.
CYA: For people who may be reading this overseas, are they any other creators in Europe that you think deserve more attention who may not have much presence in the US yet?
RS: think the comics-internet leaves few leaves unturned and telling comics readers outside Europe about any European comics artist seems a bit unnecessary. But two of my favourites are Leon Sadler and Alexis Beauclair and I hope their Breakdown books come out soon and do well in the US. Also I met Giorgio Carpinteri and Leila Marzocchi at Napoli in April and wasn’t familiar with either’s work. I don’t think either has been published in English so maybe they’ll also be unfamiliar to US readers too.
CYA: What's your favorite comic you've read so far in 2018?
RS: I’m probably the wrong person to answer this, as I’ve had my nose in my own work for most of this year. But ‘Vies paralleles’, the science fiction collection from Olivier Schrauwen, is amazing – it’s almost too good to look at. It’s hard going back to your own comics after a night with Schrauwen’s. Also, I’ve recommended Generous Bosom by Conor Stechschulte to loads of people, whether they’re deep into in comics or comics-adverse, and part 3 came out this year. Of old stuff I’ve read this year I’ve most-liked the Manga Museum volumes of Shigeru Sugiura, which Joe shelled-out on and which I’m now trying to trace on the musty-manga internet. It’s 6 (I think) volumes of prime Sugiura, with the early volumes in colour and it’s page upon page of mad, brilliant comics.
CYA: What's next on deck for Klaus? What's next on deck for you? Will Klaus Magazone No. 1 ever be reprinted?
RS: I’ve drawn about 130 new Klaus strips for the next book but I don’t know if that will be out this year. It’ll be a paperback with a barcode, for once, so I’m trying to make the book intelligible for non-Klaustafarians who may not have read 8 years’ worth of Klaus comics. A few years ago a Spanish publisher told me that he liked Klaus but after reading the books it “felt like a strip at the end of its run, not at the beginning”. I think it started-out that way. Otherwise there’s a 10-page two-colour Klaus story in 99U Magazine (in the US) in June this year. I’m also doing research for a story, maybe a comic, about the dying days of Roman Britain and the tribes around Hadrian’s Wall, but I haven’t worked out the medium, tone or story yet. And the book with Joe I mentioned earlier – fingers crossed. There’s no plan to reprint Klaus Magazine 1 – your best bet is to learn French or Italian and buy those editions. Otherwise there may be a Kollected Klaus in another decade’s time, when my hand is all shaky and I’m running out of literary quotes.
Richard Short's Klaus Magazine can be purchased from Breakdown Press, where issues two and three are still available. The original Klaus (released by Nobrow) as well as Klaus Magazine 1 are out of print. Short's Instagram, Klaus blog and Twitter are the best places to stay updated about new works. All images supplied courtesy of Richard Short.