Growing up, I often dreamed I would be the kind of high-minded intellectual badass who carries around a dog-eared copy of Baudelaire at all times. Instead, the work that I always find myself revisiting, that I come back to again and agains, is Nicholas Gurewitch’s comic strip The Perry Bible Fellowship. PBF began ten years ago when Gurewitch was studying film (his other main artistic pursuit) at Syracuse University, and it has since received wide praise for its motley of artistic styles (rarely do two strips share the same aesthetic) and its surreally morbid humor (think a cross between The Family Circus and Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty”). Baudelaire perfectly described the impulse behind PBF when he said that to be a genius is to be able to view the world, as an adult, through the eyes of a child. So Gurewitch, like Baudelaire, is a genius, but one of them is a lot funnier.
Nicholas Gurewitch: Can I work while I do the interview?
The Independent: What are you working on?
NG: Just doing some editing and some puppet-building.
NG: I’m building some horses.
Indy: What are the puppets for?
NG: They’re not really puppets… I guess they’re more just fake horses that will be puppeted to some degree. It’s more or less people just moving this thing Jabba the Hut style to make it look like it’s moving, but that is technically puppeting. They’re for a Western I’m shooting with my friends, Trails of Tarnation.
Indy: What exactly are you doing?
NG: We all write it, but I’m editing and filming it and I have a pretty large role in it, too. It probably will be my first feature film when it’s all done.
Indy: How does making a film compare to making a comic?
NG: It’s similar in many ways because when I’m working on a PBF [The Perry Bible Fellowship] there are constant opportunities to change an idea and to bring in a new idea to improve the composition or the colors or the layout or adding a detail. And with a film you just have that many more details that you can pay attention to and so you can, all along the way, be sculpting your work into something better so long as you continually assess it. I really love this about film.
Indy: When I think about the humor of PBF, it reminds me of the way old horror movies are often more funny than scary. I feel like I can usually trace the source of the humor in your comics to something that is morbid, but in an absurd way.
NG: I wouldn’t trust anyone to figure out why something’s funny, but I will say that laughing is the result of ingesting a lot of information and I think that someone dying or something happening really rapidly communicates a lot very quickly, especially a slasher film where you’ve got a person’s life ending in the blink of an eye: you’ve got a lot of information being relayed quickly and that can often be the thing that bubbles over someone’s senses into a laugh. I guess this is theoretical, the bubbling over of their senses.
Indy: You think that’s true for all comedy?
NG: Without a doubt.
Indy: But your comedy works in a specific way.
NG: Yeah sure, I guess it’s very different from a movie and it’s very different from a laugh that you might share with your friends. I think PBF lures people into a very isolated and specific expectation and then floods the corridors of that expectation rather roughly and immediately so as to create a laugh.
Indy: Why did you decide to do that in a webcomic? Why did you choose that form?
NG: I don’t think I did choose that form. I think I choose the form of a comic strip when I was at [Syracuse University] doing it for [student newspaper] The Daily Orange. I was putting it in some alternative weeklies that I knew of and there’s just a point where it comes times for everyone to have a website and so I put my newspaper comic strip online. Then you have people calling it a webcomic.
Indy: So it’s just a comic on the internet?
NG: I think we can answer this question if we look at the fact that if you put a restaurant’s menu online, it’s not a “webmenu.” It’s a menu, for god’s sakes.
Indy: One of the most distinctive features of PBF is the way you move through dozens of artistic styles with ease. Where does the style of each strip come from?
NG: I think it is birthed from the story. It comes from some quality vested in the story. If there’s not some immediate correlation between the subject-matter and a style I usually just try to dwell on the story or feel it out until I can figure out a presentation method that makes the joke sweeter.
Indy: Sweeter in like a sweet-old-lady kind of way?
NG: Sweeter in like a it-tastes-good-in-my-mouth kind of way. There are so many comics I have not completed because I just haven’t found the style that excites me for how to bring them to life.
Indy: Most webcomic artists never change their aesthetic. Why do you do it?
NG: Maybe I – this is a vain estimate – maybe I like to see the world from different perspectives. That’s my self-adoring answer. But the real reason probably isn’t that grand. It might just be that I’m a patient mimic.
Indy: So you said you’re a good mimic—
NG: [interrupting] Not a good one: a patient one. I guess patience is very mistakable for talent these days.
Indy: Are you thinking of anyone in particular?
NG: Myself. I think if you do anything patiently people mistake it for being genius when in reality it’s just the result of an unfathomable amount of patience, in my case.
Indy: I’d be interested to hear about the technical aspects of all this.
NG: Really? The technical side is such a bore. I draw my comics or I paint them or I do whatever I need to do with them on paper, and then I scan the paper.
Indy: I heard that you’re working on a graphic novel at the moment: that must be going slowly.
NG: I’ve got a couple in the works. I wouldn’t make any estimates as to when they’ll be done. They might just get done whenever they are done.
Indy: Are they coming from a dissatisfaction with the comic strip?
NG: I don’t think I’m tired of the short form. I just wanted to experiment with stringing together a longer story because it’s so much of what film-making is like. Film-makers just string together a longer story. I don’t think my body differentiates between the telling of one story and another. There’s not like a whole lot of thought or feeling that goes into making something besides my appreciation for what’s being told.
Indy: Do you want to try other genres? Who would be your ideal collaborator?
NG: Julie Taymor, maybe.
Indy: For a movie?
NG: Probably not a movie, maybe a play. I would get a kick out of meeting Quentin Tarantino. I probably wouldn’t want to work with him though.
Indy: Why’s that?
NG: He’s got strong ideas. So do I.
Indy: Are you pro- or anti-skub?
NG: Probably anti-. I don’t give a crap about it. Just get it off the shelves.
Indy: Is there anything that you’ve wanted to do that you haven’t been able to?
NG: In my life? Yeah, tons of things.
Indy: I meant in terms of comics.
NG: The one I’m working on right now I’ve been wanting to work on for several days, but I haven’t had time to do it. Time’s a big obstacle. If I had a whole other life I’d probably put that life to work making PBF comics, but there’s just so much else I want to do in this world.
Indy: Like what?
NG: You know, get love to grow. Find love and foster love. Raise a farm, raise a family.
Indy: Are those two separate things, the farm and the family?
NG: Maybe they are one, maybe they’re one thing together.