Fresh Meat: Comic Artist Ryan Alexander-Tanner
The guy who drew the guy on your bread would rather you didn’t ask about it anymore.
Editor’s note: Welcome to Fresh Meat, in which Portland comic Amy Miller interviews newcomers about their hopes and dreams and the foodstuffs from their native lands that Portland fails to prepare properly. This week Miller talks with comics artist Ryan Alexander-Tanner, who is originally from Oakland, Calif.
You might not be someone who reads comics, but you’ve seen Ryan Alexander-Tanner’s art. You just have. I imagine sometimes that being an illustrator with commercial success in a small town is like scoring films or selling knit caps at a farmer’s market: people are just walking around, interacting with something you made, with no idea where it actually came from but somehow comforted by the familiarity of it all.
A cursory image search of Ryan’s portraiture will turn up Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg, comedians in other weekly newspapers, David Byrne, and the iconic Dave’s Killer Bread logo.
Ryan is from Oakland, my hometown, but has had some time to settle into Portland. After a few months of doing this column, I was curious to see if someone with a few more PDX years under his belt would have any of the same compliments about the city. After enough time, does Portland just become you?
We chatted about what it’s like to have your work so closely tied to a public figure and the slippery slope of “selling out” (paying rent) as a comic artist.
Amy Miller: How do you structure your daily life as a creative person who makes a full-time living on your illustrations, while living in a pretty relaxed town?
Ryan Alexander-Tanner: It’s probably my biggest challenge as a professional creative-type guy. My working life is pretty feast or famine. I’m very project-based, so when I’m working on something with a deadline I get really focused. I’m often trying to think of methods to treat my own passion projects in the same way I treat paying work.
When I was in high school, I would draw all day. And drawing was a way of escaping from whatever bullshit I was dealing with. And now it’s my job. And now I avoid drawing. And that’s the saddest part.
But I believe that happens to some extent when your passion becomes your job. Like if your job was getting your dick sucked, you’d be like, aw, I’m just gonna watch a few more cat videos on Youtube before I get my dick sucked again. I didn’t see that coming and that’s been probably the biggest struggle of my career the last three or four years.
In terms of the effect of Portland, I will say that a certain amount of pressure can be healthy, productivity-wise. I was much more motivated by fear and poverty when I was younger and had less work under my belt and even though I’m much less stressed out these days and I eat a lot better, I kind of miss the drive that came with being terrified.
So maybe if I lived in a more hustle-and-bustle type of a city, I’d be working a little harder? It’s not impossible.
Doesn’t the commercial success take some of the magic out of the work though? I mean how much can you really love yogurt or bread?
Absolutely. So much of it. But I love yogurt. And bread. For the record: Dave’s Killer Bread is the best bread.
Is this how the other end of that scale develops—artists who refuse to let their art be driven by the desire for money or regular work? I’m sure you encounter these artists who are like “Man, I wanna change the world. I don’t want to taint the love for my art by getting paid for it.”
What even is an artist? You can never show your work to anyone and be a great artist. There’s a beauty to not caring about money. And I admire that but I also only wanna do one thing only, all the time. So much of my career has been about making that work.
What do you think sets you apart from the other member of the Portland comics community?
Everyone in the Portland comics community feels “set apart” to a degree. It’s not like you go to comic book school to get a degree and then you go down to the comic book office to get a job. Everyone’s story is really different and most people that find some sort of success with their work usually do it by finding a niche for themselves or a unique path. A few famous cartoonists advised me that there’s no money in comics and that you should only do it because you love it, but a career as an illustrator was actually a really nice lifestyle, and if you did both one hand would often wash the other. That totally became the guideline for the career I built for myself. It’s the best advice I ever got.
Do you think being from Oakland has changed how you approach things professionally or socially in Portland?
Living in diverse environments can help you realize that your particular story is not necessarily the best one for you to try to tell. A lot of my work has been focused on the life and experiences of other people or pieces of information that have some sort of practical or instructional quality.
You’re not very passive either, or generally seem to not give a fuck. Does that ever rub people the wrong way?
When I was younger, I was afraid of people and worried a lot about other people and about what they said about me. And I don’t really care about that anymore. Portland is just kind of a subtly bitchy place. The criticism is more like “so and so said to so and so that you’re like this.” No one says anything to your face, really.
Yes! Grapevine critics. I’d almost rather have my work panned to my face than hear in no fewer than three steps that someone is mildly disapproving of something I made or said.
Especially in comics, when I was trying to get into comics and be a part of this thing and find my people, I used to worry a lot about people being unfriendly or seeming unwelcoming. And one thing I’ve come to realize over time is that those people are probably just socially awkward. I’d say 9 times out of 10, if someone won’t talk to you, it’s because they don’t know how.
Portland does seem like sort of a safe haven for autism-spectrum folks.
Yeah, it can almost be harder for you to be an artistic person who can naturally talk to people. Because I think a lot of people are visual artists because they don’t know how to relate outside of that. There are people who are cartoonists who are not funny in real life but can make funny work and their tone is different on paper. Whereas I think that I’m a better communicator in person and that can be hard. People will have a weird attitude towards you sometimes if they see you as a person that’s not having a hard time. I just wear my hard time differently than a lot of people.
I’m a weirdo. But when you go into weirdo world—arts school and the arts scene—and people say, “Oh, you can talk to people so you must not be one of us.” I’m rejected by people I came to be a part of. And that was hard. It’s still hard. I’m weirder than the normal people but not as weird as the really weird people.
Do people often ask you about Dave Dahl’s personal business? How do you respond?
Dave Dahl has been a huge supporter of mine and a good friend and it’s a hell of a thing to see him go through a public meltdown and have people approach me like it’s a funny joke or a piece of gossip that we’re supposed to share a laugh over. I get that for a lot of people it’s like the Lucky Charms leprechaun got arrested or something because he’s the face of this brand but that’s not how I see him. For me a good friend is going through something really awful and everyone got a front row seat to the event so they could form their own opinion without really knowing anything about it. People have not been shy about sharing those opinions with me and there has not been one time that I appreciated hearing them.
What’s it like having your art so closely connected to a public figure? Do you feel like Portland's Shepard Fairey?
I’m really proud to have made a drawing that has become so iconic. It feels like I’ve made a significant contribution to something that’s a lot bigger than myself.
But I’ve made like a zillion drawings and it’s weird to see what has stuck and what hasn’t. At the time I made that drawing it was just this one thing I worked on and I had no idea what kind of lifespan it would have.
Dave isn’t the only public figure you've been connected to artistically. You also have a comic about Bill Ayers, founder of The Weather Underground, who’s in the news again recently for calling America a “terrorist nation.” Did people bother you about his controversy during the 2008 election?
One great irony of my career has been that cartooning is essentially about distilling a subject into its most simplified form, but I’ve seen several of the subjects I’ve given this treatment to represented in a much more one-dimensional form by the media. We as individuals barely have the capacity to understand everything about ourselves, and even less so to understand the people we’re closest to, and yet we’re entirely willing to form conclusive opinions about total strangers. Most often the debates that form around controversial figures, or any major issue, really, are framed to simplify circumstances that are vastly complex for the sake of creating an easy to swallow narrative and I think that this is a fundamentally unhealthy practice for us as a culture and a society.
It’s like how I’m presenting you right now, probably. So you've done portraits of me, too. And I’m probably gonna be famous soon. What's it like to be such an old friend of Portland’s favorite darling girl? Im killing it, right?
Being an old friend of yours is fraught with challenges. Why? It would take several lengthy columns to explain. It’s kind of odd because this wasn’t something you were doing before. I mean, you were always a funny person but, like, if your friend grows up to be a concert violinist they were definitely playing the violin earlier in life. I guess that comedy has a less clear trajectory than a lot of things. I hope to see you do big things in the very near future and I want you to know that I’ll be there when you do. I’ll always be there, to borrow money.