‘Failure is real, and it’s much funnier than success’ – an interview with Grant Snider

Photo: Mark Woolcott Photography, 2013

 As a four-year-old, web cartoonist Grant Snider wanted to study dragons, dinosaurs and drawing, in that order. He still loves dragons and dinosaurs, but it is his drawings, sometimes whimsical, sometimes self-introspective, but always charming, that have endeared him to millions of fans worldwide. His weekly web-comic Incidental Comics explores puzzles of life, art, philosophy and parenting, through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. The following is part of an interview done for Reading Hour in April 2015.

Who are your major inspirations when it comes to drawing comics? Some favourites among the current crop?

My all-time favorites include Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Matt Groening (Life in Hell), and Roz Chast and Saul Steinberg (The New Yorker). Some of my favourite contemporary cartoonists are Tom Gauld and Lilli Carre.

Your comics cover art, music, design and typography; and you’re studying to be an orthodontist. How do you juggle these separate identities?

My job as an orthodontist helps keep me grounded in real life while supporting my family. It’s also a highly visual, very social profession that can be a lot of fun. Comics help me explore my numerous outside interests – art, music, literature, etc. It’s challenging, cerebral, and isolating work, but also hugely rewarding.

Who is your favourite superhero/comic-strip character?

Bongo the one-eared rabbit from Life in Hell. He’s a perfect representation of the anxieties, big questions, and small rebellions of childhood and beyond.

How do you see the field of online comics developing in the days to come? Do you see it becoming profitable?

The internet is a wonderful place to share work and has become my primary place of publication. There are certainly ways to build a profitable online comics enterprise – many cartoonists are achieving this – but it takes time and thinking outside the traditional ways of the publishing world. Ads and merchandise are a couple of ways web cartoonists currently make money. For me, it’s more important to focus on making great comics. Making great money off comics is a less important concern.

Much of your work is minimalistic in nature; you’ve done a brilliant strip on the essence of minimalism. Another strip, The Nature of Ambition, went viral and appeared in several top publications. How does your personal philosophy reflect in your work?

I often make strips with a philosophical or inspirational message. But I try to undermine an excess of positivity with a grounded sense of humour. I’m interested in self-improvement, but failure is real, and it’s much funnier than success.

Do you consider comics to be a form of high-art or low-art?

Both – just as a painting can be high or low art, comics is a medium with an unbelievably broad range of expression. Chris Ware’s comics are high art and literature. Even the greatest newspaper comics (Peanuts, Cul De Sac, etc.) could be labelled low art. The comics of Dan Clowes manage to be both high and low art at the same time. Still, I think it’s a distinction most cartoonists give no thought to whatsoever.

You have often cited Bill Watterson as one of your biggest inspirations. Mr. Watterson is always seen as someone who didn’t ‘sell out’ to corporates. Your views about merchandising comics…?

Watterson took a principled and well-reasoned stand in refusing to merchandise his creation. Conversely, Charles Schulz made a sizeable fortune licensing his Peanuts characters. Both had hugely successful and culturally important creations. So I think it’s possible to merchandise comics without diminishing their integrity, but I respect cartoonists who decide to retain complete control of their characters.

Looking back, how has your art changed over the years? And what role has it played in your life?

Since I began creating comics, my style has changed considerably. I use digital colour now, instead of working in black and white. I pay more attention to simplicity and clarity in individual panels, sometimes at the expense of expressiveness of line. I’ve tried to develop a voice that is more personal – sometimes this means I use less humor and more thoughtful exploration as my default perspective for writing. My writing and drawing has been a constant source of fascination and frustration. There is always a new project to complete and a new idea to pursue. I’ve tried to find a good balance between my art, my non-creative work (orthodontics), and my family life, but I constantly have to reevaluate this balance to make sure I’m not neglecting one part of my life.

Tell us a little about the process of going from idea to JPEG. How long does it typically take?

It starts with a quick sketch jotted in pen in one of my notebooks or whatever piece of paper is close by. If the idea strikes me when I return to it later, I then sketch it very roughly in my typical page format. If the writing and drawing are working, I go through multiple re-drawings and revisions to tighten the text and linework, until I have a final inked page. More often, it ends up being on several scraps of paper since I’m a deranged perfectionist. I then shade with marker, scan the drawing, and add colour and final revisions in Photoshop. This can take anywhere from a single exhausting day to most of a week – I find it more mentally healthy when I split up the task over several weekday mornings.

You have a twin with whom you apparently had drawing duels when you were growing up! Is he an artist too?

Yes! My twin brother is an architectural designer as well as an illustrator. His drawings of buildings and concert posters for his band are excellent. He’s also the unseen, uncredited editor on most of my work.

This one is for the readers: could you offer some tips on how to find creative inspiration?

My favourite places to find inspiration are illustrated books and art museums. I seek out any quiet place where I can retreat into my own thoughts. This is difficult – modern life tries its hardest to pull me in the opposite direction.

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