Picking the easy targets since 1993
Interview by CHRIS AUMAN
If you've ever wondered what became of those artists and writers who spent that decade in the DIY trenches, some, like Jef, kept developing their style, honing their skills and sharpening their chops and eventually became actual working artists who have reached wider audiences.
Take Jef's comic, Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters, for example. After Hypertruck, Jef developed this strip which did a decade-long run in the now defunct Nickelodeon Magazine (a great place for underground comics artists to work (Sam Henderson, Johnny Ryan, Terry Laban, etc). This eventually resulted in a Xeric Grant for Jef which led to the publishing of an anthology of Shark Hunters. Perseverance pays off, kids. And now for the Reglar Wiglar interview.
How do you pronounce your name? Let’s have it phonetically if you don't mind?
Check-eye. For some reason people often mispronounce it as Sajak, which doesn't really make sense at all, except to illustrate what a powerful force Wheel of Fortune has on us all.
I never would have guessed that's how it's pronounced. What’s the origin?
It actually means "wait" in Polish. What the Czekaj's are waiting for, I am not sure. Perhaps for someone to pronounce their name correctly.
That could be a long wait. Ok, so you have roots in the indie zine and comics scene of the nineties, but let’s go back further. When did you first start drawing comics?
My mom recently sent me a letter that she received from the principal of my school when I was in kindergarten. It was congratulating her because I had written and drawn a book called The Magic Bus. There was a lot of LSD in my elementary school. Of course, I wish my mom had saved the BOOK instead of the letter, but, alas. I also started writing a Superman parody called Stupidman at a very young age.
Although you may not have been aware of it, what do you think your influences were at that time?
I watched a lot of cartoons, so I'm guessing Loony Toons and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I was really into Catch that Pigeon. Also, Mad Magazine.
When did you first start reading Mad, what year and how old were you?
I was too young. I think Mad is only REALLY good when you are too young to really understand it. I remember loving "Spy vs. Spy" and Don Martin's strips, and being freaked out by the Mort Drucker movie parodies. I'm not sure why, but his art really creeps me out even to this day.
Did you also discover comics at this point?
I really wasn't into comic books at all as a child/young adult. I loved newspaper strips (Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, Far Side), but superhero comics were never really my thing and I didn't discover "underground" comics until college. My girlfriend's thesis had something to do with zines and underground comics, so suddenly she had a lot of Julie Doucet, and Hernandez Bros. comics, and issues of Rollerderby lying around.
My friends in high school were all into superhero comics. But I stayed away. Being that I already spent most of my time playing D&D and programming my Atari 800, I thought that reading comics would have been the final nail in the nerd coffin.
When did you publish your first indie comic?
Hmm, that's a good question. Maybe 1994? I am not very good at archiving things.
Was this something you did after being inspired by other indie comics or did you do the comic first and then discover there was an indie comics scene that already existed?
I definitely did it first and then realized that other people were making mini-comics. I had seen zines, but had no idea that other people were doing comics in zine form. It was awesome to find out that other people were doing the same thing as me. When I moved to Boston (actually Somerville, which is adjacent to Cambridge and Boston), I was happy to discover there was a vibrant mini-comics scene. That definitely inspired me.
Judging from the fact that you based a strip on R2-D2, you are obviously a Star Wars fan. Did you ever get any flak from Lucas or his minions about using the characters or were you just too underground for them to take notice?
Towards the end of the zine, I started actively courting trouble from Lucasfilm. I sent them an idea to license Star Wars condoms, and actually got back a very nice response. I published a photo of a man naked except for a stormtrooper mask. Ironically, I eventually started contributing to an official Star Wars kids magazine.
You also must have been a fan of the indie rock of the nineties as well. Was the comic a way to connect to both the music and the comic worlds?
I actually wasn't very interested in comics when I started R2D2 is an Indie Rocker. I was totally and only into music.
What were your favorite indie rock bands back in the day?
Superchunk, Pavement, Archers of Loaf, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, Helium, Feelies, Yo La Tengo, etc, etc, etc.
Do you still follow new music?
Yeah, I still listen to a ton of new music. I'm fairly certain that Boston has the best college radio in the country. I listen to HOURS of college radio per day: WMBR, WZBC, WHRB, WERS.
What do you listen to now?
As far as "new" indie rock bands, this week i've been listening to: No Age, Sleigh Bells, Thermals, Cotton Candy, Hallelujah the Hills, Dan Deacon, Future Islands, etc, etc.
Yes. That said, I think a simple Google search would solve this mystery for anyone interested.
When did you make the decision to focus on creating a comic that would reach a larger audience?
When I moved to Boston, I fell into a scene of New England underground cartoonists (Jordan Crane, Tom Devlin, Brian Ralph, Ron Rege Jr.). There was just a lot of comics energy here, most of it based around the great comic shop Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square. Seeing those people's comics made me really think about cartooning.
Anyway, I did some work (mostly packing boxes) for a Cambridge-based comic company called Highwater Books. We started going to comic conventions and at one of them I met Nickelodeon Magazine (RIP) editor Chris Duffy. He read my minicomic and suggested that I submit something to the magazine. And so I did. There wasn't really so much a decision made as there was an opportunity given.
Were comics for kids something that was always a part of that decision or did you have other ideas about you potential audience?
Once again, there wasn't really much deciding involved. I think I always had kids comics in me, I just needed an excuse for them to come out. If you read R2D2 is an Indie Rocker, it's basically a kids comic with curses.
Was Grandpa and Julie: Shark Hunters your first serious attempt at a pitch?
Yes, definitely. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and there was definitely an element of luck involved. My stuff in Nickelodeon Magazine was the first stuff I had EVER done in color. I remember sitting down in front of Photoshop and trying to figure it out by my deadline.
Hip and Hop Don’t Stop is your new jam. How did that come about?
I remember coming up with the basic idea of the book (Hip is a turtle that raps slowly; Hop is a rabbit that raps quickly) and thinking, wow, that's a very sellable idea. And I guess it was.
Does this mean you have forsaken rock for hip hop?
Certainly NOT. My true love remains indie rock. INDIE ROCKER 4 LIFE.
What's the next project for Jef Czekaj?
I have two books on the horizon. One is called Cat Secrets and is about cats trying to keep their secrets from humans (and mice). The other is called A Call for a New Alphabet and it's about the letter X getting sick of his place in the current alphabet and trying to overthrow the current alphabet. So, I guess it's a political drama.
I'm also (it's a strange coincidence that you should get in touch with me) working on a new issue of R2D2 is an Indie Rocker. I'm not sure why. I've been working so much on "commercial" stuff that I just wanted to crank something out that's basically just for me and my friends.
What’s some advice for the kids out there scribbling comics?
Keep scribbling. Don't "draw". Scribbling is where it's at.
Any good comics or comic artists we should be checking out?
Yikes. I, embarrasingly have definitely NOT been doing my comics homework. The only new cartoonist that I've recently come across is this guy named Dash Shaw. It's weird, I've never even looked him up on Google or anything, so I don't know anything about him. He wrote this giant book called Bottomless Belly Button that's awesome.
Oh, I'm also into this Japanese cartoonist named Yuichi Yokoyama who publishes these crazy, nearly wordless comics that barely have any plot. They're almost more like diagrams than they are comics. Anyway, that might not sound like a ringing endorsement but they're great—comics in its purest form.
Ok, last question. Are you gonna finish those crab cakes?
Why yes, yes I am.
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