Your portrayal of your subjects is so keenly observed and beautifully detailed. But your depictions of yourself are more cartoony and caricatured. Why?
That’s not really intentional, to be honest. When I started drawing the Palestine comics, everything I drew was very cartoony; everything was exaggerated. That was the only way I knew how to draw. At some point I realized, this is serious material, I need to be as representational as I can be, which isn’t that great, but I just sort of left my own character behind. Now it would seem so self-conscious to make myself look completely realistic that I just can’t bring myself to do it. People have also said the more nondescript it is, the easier it is for people to put themselves in my shoes.
For some of the rather intense stories you tell, it’s also comic relief.
Especially in Palestine. That book was very episodic. So I was the character who was tying everything together, and I was depicting myself in a way that was true: inexperienced and more apt to be neurotic, a bit panicky, and bumbling. I don’t depict myself in that way now because I’m much cooler in those situations.
It seems your character moved on as well, from neurotic bumbling to a deeper self-questioning?
Yes. One thing I want to do is sort of demystify the whole process of gathering a story, or reporting. There is doubt, and there are misgivings about what you’re doing. And I think you’re constantly weighing those things in your head. You’re judging yourself. And you’re aware of the seams in the story, those parts that aren’t quite fitting together. More and more, I want to confront the reader with that thing. The best way to do it is through myself, rather than pontificate the problems of journalism.
You not only cite Dispatches, Michael Herr’s 1977 book about the war in Vietnam, and Hunter S. Thompson as influences, but also George Orwell, who is largely forgotten as a journalist.
He did a lot of journalism. The Road to Wigan Pier was an inspiration because [Orwell] took a bed where the miners were sleeping. He wanted to get a taste of it. It’s also inspiring that he continued writing even though he was really sick—basically until he died. He lived this sort of lonely existence at the very end when he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four on the island of Jura. It’s not really a question of romance, but it’s that sort of doggedness that I really appreciate.
It’s easy to see a kinship in your work with other cartoonists like Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb, but are there other artists, genres, or periods from which you’ve found inspiration?
I’ve always greatly admired the Flemish painters from the 16th and 17th centuries for their ability to capture life and, I think, for their ability to open a window on another world. You can recognize human beings doing things quite different than what you do in your life, but you just have this kinship with them. Their world is alive. I think especially of [Pieter] Bruegel the Elder. The solidness of the characters—they’re full of flesh somehow.