While some creators may go in for the hairless look (as cultivated by Brian K. Vaughan and Grant Morrison) in the minds of many comic book fans beards and talent seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. While Alan Moore is clearly the standard of crazy beards implying good comics, other writers such as Warren Ellis, and more recently Jason Aaron, have cultivated their own facial hair.
Ignatz award winning Alec Longstreth, a teacher at the Center for Cartoon Studies, is one of the newest in the line of hairy comics creators. Two years ago he vowed not to cut his hair or beard until he finished his graphic novel Basewood. He’s broken down each chapter into precise percentages, and updates his Flickr account every time he completes a page. He’s currently 72.92% though Chapter 4 and has quite the impressive beard.
We asked Alec a few questions about his beard and his comics work.
Matthew: What were your reasons behind growing your hair?
Alec: I had been living in New York for about four years, and it was really hard to get work done because there was always so much cool stuff going on. So in 2008 I went up to White River Junction to be a fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies http://www.cartoonstudies.org/. On August 1st, 2008, I cut all my head hair off, and vowed to never cut it again until I finished my graphic novel, Basewood. I knew I still had a few years of work to do on the book, so the idea was that it would provide extra motivation to get the book done, but it was also an opportunity to grow my hair and beard REALLY long, which I had never done. After I finish pencilling or inking each page, I take a photo of my beard and place in it my Flickr account, so people can see how much work really goes into a graphic novel.
When it’s all finally over, I am planning on donating my hair to Locks of Love, who make wigs for child cancer patients, and maybe I’ll make some beard bookmarks or something with my beard? Don’t worry, I’ll laminate them to cut down on the gross factor.
M: Were you inspired by Alan Moore’s beard? Did you at any time think that “long hair + beard = better comics”?
A: The inspiration was actually this guy who cut his beard off when the United States invaded Iraq after 9/11. He vowed to not cut his beard off until we were out of there, and I kept seeing him pop up in the news, year after year on the anniversary of the invasion. I thought that a beard was a cool way to visualize time. A very slow clock. I have gotten a lot of Alan Moore comparisons at conventions! But I doubt that it has magically helped my cartooning.
M: Have you ever grown a beard before?
A: I have had a beard since I was about 20. My beard grows pretty fast, so shaving was always a pain in the neck (literally!). But I never grew it beyond a few inches in the winter. This is the longest it has ever been, or will ever be.
M: Did you ever think it would take this long to complete your comic?
A: Yeah, I’m working at 18″ x 24″, and there is a lot of detail and crosshatching in Basewood, so it is a very time-intensive comic. I’m very proud of how the finished pages look, but I will never work this way again. In the future I will draw smaller, with less crosshatching. In my opinion, Carl Barks is the gold standard of cartooning. Simple line work, spot blacks, not a lot of hatching. That’s what I want to emulate in my comics after this project is done.
M: How much longer do you have to go before you’ve finished your comic?
A: Basewood chapter four (of five) will be out by the end of this year, and then I’m hoping to have the last chapter done by fall of 2011. Chapters for this book have taken anywhere from nine months to TWO YEARS. So I’m hoping I can get this done and cut my hair, as soon as possible.
M: How have your friends and family reacted to you growing your hair?
A: Well, in the summer of 2009, a year after I started this project, my sister got married and my grandfather had his 90th birthday. Those were both big family events, and at that point my beard was already pretty unruly. My mother was very upset that I looked so unkempt in all these very formal family photos, and really urged me to cut my hair. I would say that for the most part my friends just think it’s funny, but it has been very strange seeing how people in general treat me differently because I have long hair.
M: Has it caused you any problems?
A: I definitely get a lot more “random” screenings at the airport now, and I have been teased by small children and made fun of by teenagers. Some guys even threw their fast food garbage at me as they drove by and yelled “Nice beard faggot!” But for every negative story like that, there is a story where some other dude with a huge beard will shake my hand or give me a wink or something, like we are in a secret club. “Beard love” my girlfriend calls it.
A: Yeah, I now teach at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and my students only know me as the crazy, hairy guy. Sometimes I will have a slide in one of my lectures with an old reference photo or something that has me pre-beard, and they can’t even recognize me. It’s just very strange, because under this hair, I still feel like the same person. It has been a very interesting social experiment. I’ll definitely draw a comic about it at some point.
M: Are you nervous about cutting it off at this point?
A: Nope! I can’t wait. It’s been fun and everything, but I am ready to have this over and done with. Also, I really want to finish my book, so the sooner the better, all around.
M: What is your comic Basewood about?
A: It’s an adventure story about this guy who wakes up in a strange land, and he can’t remember who he is or how he got there. He meets an old man (with a huge beard!) who lives in the woods, and pretty soon the protagonist is growing his OWN beard, while he tries to figure out his mysterious past. There are tree houses and dragons and flying machines and love and birth and death and all that kind of stuff. I guess some people might shelve it under Fantasy?
M: What other projects are you working on right now?
A: Well, I’m serializing Basewood in my minicomic Phase 7 and in-between chapters, I’m releasing issues of non-Basewood material. Short stories, auto-bio, whatever I want really. Phase 7 is my place to explore comics. I also teach two classes per semester at CCS, do a lot of illustration work on the side, and I recently did the colors for Aaron Renier‘s graphic novel Walker Bean, which was published by First Second. Aaron is hard at work on the second Walker Bean book, so I’ll start coloring that soon!