Twenty-four-year-old Nicholas Gurewitch has been creating his absurd, beautiful, and absurdly beautiful comic strip, The Perry Bible Fellowship, for five years. What began as a student project at Syracuse University now runs in over 20 newspapers and magazines and counting. Comedy Central has tapped him for some pilot script work, and Dark Horse Comics is set to print a hardback collection of his strips later this year.
Rather than spew a bunch of critical bullshit, we recommend you spend some time reviewing the archive, then come back and read the following interview, which was conducted by phone on April Fool's Day, 2006. If you haven't yet discovered the world of The Perry Bible Fellowship, it's time.
How long does it take to draw a strip?
Most of the time I spend between 50 and 60 hours on them. Twenty-four is the bare minimum. I'm just such a snail when it comes to drawing. For some reason I'm just obsessed with the composition of the drawing having to be integral to the flow of the joke. It seems like a bad composition can really funk up what you're trying to say. People are so demanding with how they ingest their comedy. You need to really be careful.
How do you develop concepts?
I've got a sketch pad that's full of probably at this point thousands of ideas. Probably 90 percent of them are entirely lame. When I look at them, I try to figure out why they're lame and counter that lameness with a new ingredient. I think that's how a lot of people make things. They figure out what is lacking for them and they try to counter that effect. Also, I've got some buddies that are really good about giving me subject material. They're really good about saying "do a comic on a pirate," and I'll be like "yeah, pirates are funny, actually."
Like pirates and robots or something.
Yeah. Yeah. Robots are a common thing. That might just be because I'm partial to them. I'm a big fan. Actually, I hate them, but I'm a big fan of what they connote.
Why do you hate them?
I don't really hate them. I'm just a little fearful of technology sometimes.
In like a Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines sort of way?
No, more like "our-ozone-and-climate-is-in-serious-fucking-danger-right-now," sort of way. The world is in such bad shape in so many ways and I have such a low tolerance for the crap that goes on when it comes to huge companies poisoning the earth and people becoming disenchanted with society through too much Internet and cell phones. I don't want to sound like a reactionary, though.
Looking through your comics, I can't really see a fear of technology theme.
There are robots, though. I don't think the robots do many good things in my comics. It's actually a good example. Look at robots, which are basically technology embodied. Much of the time they're doing things that have bad effects on people.
So the robots represent how technology is ruining society?
It sounds terribly unfunny, but yeah. I don't know if we can bring analysis into jokes. But aside from the comedy, [the robots] do do that, yeah.
How would you describe the world of Perry Bible Fellowship?
I think it's maybe similar to the world in which I live. Or the world in which I see myself living. Most of what starts out in that first frame is in the psyche of myself or most people. I mean, obviously little creatures don't talk to lumberjacks. Gophers can't talk. But most of that stuff's going on somewhere in someway, even if it's not a direct reality.
With a lot of them there seems to be embedded pop cultural touchstones. Like how "Master Yoshi" seems to refer back to Kung Fu movies. Or with "Zuthulu's Resurrection," the name is like something from H.P. Lovecraft, and the guy looks like (He-Man villain) Skeletor.
Yeah, I think he's pretty much based on Skeletor.
It seems like you're drawing from a collective pop culture memory bank.
I think you've got to start with something people already know. Then you need to go in a new direction or combine it with something else that people know. Like the "Prank Dragon" -- you can't tell that's the name of it because it's in Chinese -- but it's a combination of Chinese art and summer camp humor.
Are there recurring themes in the strip?
People say death comes up a lot, but that's not 100 percent of the time. In the comics, at least; it happens 100 percent of the time in real life. I remembered the other day that there was one thing that I think was in every single comic. It was cool to realize because I think it was the case. I haven't gone through the archive with this in mind. But I'm pretty sure almost every comic shows one person or thing having power over another person. That was weird because I didn't really anticipate that.
It seems that often things that seem vulnerable, like a child or a rabbit, become deadly.
Often you can play on that idea by having a Giganite destroy an underdog. But I like your use of the world "vulnerable." I think comedy usually comes when the reader is vulnerable. They have to submit to what's going on before they can really let themselves enjoy something. And you can only get their submission if you earn the reality that you're proposing. And you can do that by giving them something that they know. So vulnerable is a very good word. Even though you're using it to describe the little characters, I think. If they see those characters and the switch happens all goes well.
The audience needs to be vulnerable in order to get the joke?
That often goes along with having a character that has a very pointed personality or can derive a very pointed opinion from someone, like if it's a trembling puppy. You can get a very pointed opinion on that. And that can be played upon.
You're kind of eliciting the reader's sympathy for that character.
It all depends. It's all just about eliciting feelings and playing with those feelings, however recklessly.
Characters don't seem to reoccur over the course of the strip.
They do once in a while. I don't know if you remember those crazy-looking evil aliens. They're in there multiple times. The Transformers have a repeat strip. And every now and then I'll hide a character in a comic that appeared in a previous comic. We were talking about the lumberjack strip before. The last panel shows, in the background, a picture of a character that was in another comic. I've been doing that with a number of comics lately, just inserting a minor detail that's often in another comic. Often you can make a statement on another comic with just a detail.
I watched some of the movies on your site today. Are you still working on films now?
I'm writing some scripts for projects for Comedy Central and I've been working on personal scripts.
What are you doing with Comedy Central?
They want to do a TV show on the internet. I'm not sure when it's going to come out. I'm still waiting to hear from them.
Is that a Perry Bible thing?
I don't think it will contain the words Perry Bible in it. It's going to be based on something different entirely, not based on PBF characters. It'll be PBF humor, but I guess that's just my humor.
Will it be live action or animated?
If it takes off, it'll probably be a combination of both.
Someone told me that you named the strip after a real church or Bible study group.
Yeah. I almost resent that.
You resent that?
I don't resent it. I really enjoy the title of the comic. I feel bad thinking that they might be upset by it. I haven't heard from them and I'm curious to see what they think. If they're OK with it that would make me happy, but if they were upset about it, I'd be bummed. I really like the title. It's got a really nice, soft flow to it.
Where was the church?
It was from Maine. I'm not from anywhere close to Maine, I'm from New York. My buddy had a poster of that particular church's social event. I had seen the poster and we had giggled at it because it was very true of heart and amusing.
Very "true of heart"?
It was without shame and it was a very, very happy poster. It was this traveling singing family group called the Hyssongs performing at this Perry Bible Fellowship and we were very amused by it. They were all very proud. Something about that poster struck us.
Are there any cartoonists that were an influence on what you do?
I love Gary Larson and I really enjoy Calvin and Hobbes. In my youth I was exposed to Gahan Wilson. I think he does things for the New Yorker. I remembered the other day discovering his stuff on my Dad's shelf. He's done some crazy stuff. I think he inspired Gary Larson quite a bit. And I don't know if you've heard of Charles Addams.
Of course. What do you like about The Far Side?
I like the absurdity. I like it when he indicates an entire world of thought with some absurd little thing. Occasionally he'll provide some detail that just speaks volumes. And he harnesses absurdity in such a way that allows him to bring out those details. The way he draws is funny. It's empirical evidence of what he's thinking. You don't draw certain lines unless you fully believe in what you're drawing.
I can definitely see the drollness and absurdity of The Far Side in your strips and the whimsy and dreamlike nature of Calvin and Hobbes in your strips. But your artwork seems far more complex than both of those.
Maybe not Bill's stuff. He's done some dinosaur comics that blow mine away. Hyper-realistic imagery... His watercolors are breathtaking. I wouldn't want to compare myself to him just yet. Sometimes he delves into Calvin's imagination, and it's all aliens and dinosaurs. It's startlingly good.
I'm going to ask you some absurd questions. You can decline to answer them if you want.
I much prefer absurd questions. I've been doing a lot of interviews where they just ask the same questions. You've been actually great so far in avoiding the usuals.
What are "the usuals"?
What does PBF stand for, how many papers does it run in, where do you get your inspiration, is there a book coming out.
Is there a book coming out?
Yeah. From Dark Horse comics. It's a hardcover collection of pretty much all the strips.
When's it coming out?
Pretty much whenever I get it done. I just have to scan all of my old comics at a higher resolution so that they print OK. I might try hard in the next three months to wrap it up. But I'm really bad at predicting things. So maybe six months.
Do you think Master Yoshi and Wise Shitashi have ever met?
I have to think they exist in the same world. They must. They have such similar names. Even though they're not drawn in the same style, the Prank Dragon is probably in the same world, too.
If a falcon and a bear were fighting for dominion of a forest, who would strike first and who would ultimately win?
Oh, great question. The falcon strikes first because it flies and fights quicker. I think they're the second fastest animal. But I think if the falcon ever sunk its talons into the bear, if it ever had the boldness to do that I think it might be the end of him. The bear would get a bite on the bird and it would end poorly for the bird... Was that based on something?
No. I just thought about it this morning.