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Episode XII: "I happen to like both art and teeth"

Published 4/29/15
In this installment, I speak with cartoonist Grant Snider of Incidental Comics. Topics include how he got started, his career as an orthodontist, influences, his process, motivation, getting feedback, my philistine perspective on his progress, advice to other artists & more.

I’m here with Grant Snider, a cartoonist and, improbably, an orthodontist—more on that later.

If you know Grant, there’s a good chance you discovered him the way I did: on, among the trove of art porn, porn art, and allusions to failure and death. I’m usually on that site when I’m feeling unduly introspective, and it only makes me more so, until I see one of Grant’s cartoons. It’s like a buddy putting his arm on your shoulder and shaking you and showering you with the perspective that life is just life. 

One of true signs of great art is that it makes you feel like a child. Grant’s cartoons do that, recalling the experience of being read to from a picture books. Grant often makes lists—“The Elephants of Typography”, “The Nature of Ambition”, “Paths to Success”—and pairs each phrase against a wonderful illustration.

First things first. I believe you’re currently in Kansas. Let’s bridge the digital divide: would you kindly describe where you are and what you see?

I'm sitting in my backyard in Wichita. It's windy here and the beginning of Spring, so there are tree blossoms blowing all over the place.

And every few minutes an airplane flies overhead - Wichita calls itself the "Air Capital of The World."

That's definitely a confusing claim.

I'm not sure anyone else acknowledges Wichita as such.

How'd you get started drawing what you draw?

What I now call "Incidental Comics" began as a weekly strip for the Kansas City Star in 2009. I was out of college and in dental school and looking for a way to continue my cartooning pursuits.

Previously I drew political-ish cartoons and student themed stuff for the student newspaper at the University of Kansas.

Okay, let's just go ahead and get it off the list. You being an orthodontist is surprising. You draw about something I love, art, and for a living you do something I hate to think about, the business of teeth. Do your patients know about your drawings?

Only a few patients know about it, and I doubt many take the time to google and find out about it. I try to keep the teeth work and artwork parts of my life fairly separated. I happen to like both art and teeth.

Teeth seem to be the only topic you haven't made a cartoon about. Have you ever tried?

This was maybe my last attempt:

I drew some t-shirts for various student organizations in dental school. I'd also draw as a way of studying in my anatomy courses - including dental anatomy. 

Oh, these are fantastic. I'd probably feel more warm to my orthodontist if I knew he drew Plaque-Man. You draw about all type of art forms: poetry, fiction, design, music. Am I right to assume you dabble in all of these?

Yes! I think fiction and design are both crucial to creating comics. My early comics for the KC Star were music-themed. I was going to concerts nearly every week and played bass in my twin brother's band for about 10 days before I decided I'd better stick to drawing.

As for poetry, lately I've been obsessed with some decades-old collections of modern children's poetry I unearthed at the public library. I'm planning to exploit some of these poems and their perfection for my future comics.

So I've created comics inspired by Haruki Murakami, Billy Collins, and the Wu-Tang Clan over the years.

Do you have the Murakami on hand?

Here's the Murakami Bingo strip I did for the NY Times book review:

Awesome. Can't wait to check this out. Is each illustration inspired by something in particular, or do you sometimes have an idea simmering before you put pen to paper? Can you take me through the beginnings of your process?

My process is highly dependent on my sketchbooks. When I have an idea that's worth writing or sketching, that's where it goes. Then when the time comes to work on a new page, I refer to my sketchbook. If one particular idea jumps out at me, I then try to lay it out in comic strip form. It's at this point I often find what looked like such an amazing idea was just empty potential...

Other times what I jot in my sketchbook looks remarkably similar to the finished page.

What accounts for the difference? Or can that question only be answered in sketch form?

I'm not sure. Sometimes an idea just needs more time, and I'll revisit it months later and find the piece that was missing. Other times it works well as words but doesn't have strong enough images to go with it. 

One reason I like poetry (maybe more than comics) is its efficiency. It takes hours and hours with my current process to get something worth publishing. And when I read the work of say, Chris Ware, all I can think about is how long it took the cartoonist to produce what takes only seconds to read. With poetry, you provide the words and the reader comes up with the pictures.

That's an interesting point. I believe art becomes more pleasurable when, at the base level, it's very apparent how much work, both in time and talent, went into the piece. A cartoon displays that: everything is in its place. For me, the imagination comes when I pick my face up from the page (or screen), and then apply the concepts to my own life.

That's not a question, just me rambling. Anyway. It feels like you’re often making each cartoon for the viewer and only that viewer. When you’re illustrating and writing, does it feel like you’re doing it for yourself, for someone in particular, or for everyone?

I like that theory! 

To answer your question: when I'm illustrating and writing, I'm doing it above all for myself. If that highly personal motivation is not there, the works feels forced and I usually abandon it. Or if I finish it I'm not happy with the result when I look back. I also have a couple great first readers: my twin brother, Gavin, and my wife, Kayla. 

My twin brother and I have very similar interests and nearly the same brain, but he usually can tell me if something is actually good or not, where I'm too invested to really tell. My wife has a completely different perspective and set of interests so she can tell me if a person who doesn't share my exact perspective will appreciate what I've drawn.

Does Gavin also actively draw? Or write? You mentioned he was a musician.

He's an architectural designer who writes music and also draws on the side. But he doesn't draw comics!

You seem to be quite humble, both in your cartoons and talking to you now. So I’m going to ask a question I’m okay with you deflecting: do you think you’re getting better?

I'll answer that in a second, but first tell me what you think! I promise it won't crush my creative ego.

Haha. Honestly your work seems more finely honed. Normally I’d connect that word with a loss in an artist's work, but I don't think it's the case with you. My opinion is that you've better learned how to build the architecture of an illustration to allow maximum exploration when you attack each micro of it, if that makes sense.

Um..thanks? Just kidding. It's a tough question, because if I tell myself I'm not getting better, that's a recipe for writer's block and creative despair.

I didn't mean to imply I know a thing about your process by the way, or that I can judge the progression of your art.

Ha! No, actually I appreciate the sentiment! I do have times when I feel more inspired - I can look back at a certain month of comics and feel really good about it, and other times I'll remember what a struggle it was and be slightly disappointed with how something turned out. I think all people (creative people included) change over time, and that's reflected in their work. 

I don't want my drawings and subject matter to be exactly the same five years from now as they are today. Otherwise I'd be stuck as my twelve year old self, drawing out ideas for football cards instead of an almost-thirty-year-old making whimsical webcomics.

That's true. Part of any artist's self-respect is to not just play the hits.

Whether it gets better or not, that's not something I'm qualified to decide!

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give (sans illustration) to anyone pursuing the arts?

It's been said before and probably sounds trite, but get on a schedule! The only reason I'm still drawing comics and have achieved some level of success is that I've drawn and published at least one thing a week almost every week for the last seven years or so.

At the beginning I had to have some external motivation (a newspaper gig, someone paying me to do it, etc.) but now I feel like I've built up momentum to keep creating for a very long time. Art is kind of boring once I put it that way, right?

No, that's wonderful, super pragmatic advice. This might be a faux pas, but might there be a book in the works? In the future? If it means something, I’d buy it in a second for my future children. Seriously, I’d want any kid of mine to learn what it means to be creative from your cartoons.

It's been a goal of mine for a long time! Right now something is in the works with a publisher, but I think its still pretty far on the horizon (and nothing is close to being signed). (Hopefully I didn't jinx it either.)

You could show them this interview as proof you're great at talking to the media.

Ha! I do better typing than talking into a microphone. And feel free to forward this to any interested publishers.  

I will tag all of them in the Twitter post announcing this interview. We're almost at time Grant, so I'll ask for any concluding thoughts.

Publishers, get off of twitter and start reading book proposals from aspiring cartoonists! Thanks for talking with me Andrew, I enjoyed it!

Thanks for your words Grant.