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Thursday, June 24, 2010

An Interview with R.O. Blechman



Talking Lines: The Graphic Stories of R.O. BlechmanDear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator.  These are landmark publications, both by R.O. Blechman, one of our greatest living animators and cartoonists.  If I seem like a super fangirl about this, it’s because I am.  Blechman’s work has influenced me in myriad and powerful ways.  His creations have equal capacity for love and folly.  His satire is equal parts devastating and compassionate.  He surpasses the angry and reaches the sublime, and while it appears effortless, R.O. Blechman works his magic because he cares so much about his craft.

Talking Lines was brought to us with love by Drawn and Quarterly, insanely well-designed by Tom Devlin.  The book itself presents like a Blechman cartoon, everything possible stripped away and then stripped away again and again, until only the necessary remains.  It’s part autobiography and part collector’s dream — disparate cartoons gathered from the four corners and combined with previously unpublished work.  The introduction by Seth is brief and peerless, and I won’t bother to attempt a duplication here.  Let’s just say that in Blechman’s hands, the much-maligned and neglected “human condition” is fully redeemed.  I’m into redemption.  I look for it everywhere.  And when you find it in Blechman, you need look no further.

You need to check your pulse before reading Dear James, because it will stimulate you and excite you, and possibly provoke you into doing your greatest work to date.  It is quite simply the best book on creativity ever written.  You’ll be so motivated, and feel so empowered, that you may begin working round the clock.  Maybe see your doctor first, just to be sure you’re healthy enough to withstand the sudden flow of creative juice.  You’d take your car to the mechanic before racing in the Grand Prix, right?

The opportunity to interview R.O. Blechman left me with priceless memories, not only because I chatted with this wonderful man, but because it provided an occasion to collaborate with one of my colleagues, J.J. Sedelmaier, a graduate of The Ink Tank.  Who better to introduce Blechman than a fellow animator?

J.J. writes:

R.O. Blechman is one of this planet’s artist/designer treasures. Few people have had as much influence on their chosen industry and been witness to the transformation of their craft due to their involvement as R.O. His career launched early with the success of “The Juggler of Our Lady” as a book and soon thereafter an animated motion picture – narrated by Boris Karloff no less!

During a period when animated/cartoon characters were relatively conventional and formulaic, his collaboration with animator/director John Hubley demonstrated that a simple graphic cartooning style with broken lines could be indeed be animated.  Up to this point, the consensus was if a line had a gap, the paint/color would seep out – where do you end the color if there’s no line to contain it?

What’s taken for granted in 2010 was revolutionary in the 1950’s!

To this day, Blechman continues to grow as a graphic design force.  He still pushes himself and questions convention with his deceptively clean and simple (never simplistic) ideas executed in their trademark clever and witty illustration style.  I’ve always seen him as an artist/writer/chemist.  He puts all the elements into his centrifugal brain and distills the idea, the design, and the execution, into only what’s absolutely necessary.  All the useless stuff separates from the essential.

You have to reflect on how rare it is (especially in the world of advertising) to see an artist’s point of view in such a pure form.

R.O. Blechman: Unique. Special. Totally human.

Thank you so much, J.J.!  And now, without further ado, let’s get to know this man.

ITCH: What was your first comic book?
R.O. Blechman: As a kid I hardly read comic books. My parents disapproved of them, so I had to go to my Uncle Charlie’s house where his four sons had a huge collection of them.

What are you reading right now?
I’m about to read Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost because a dear friend of mine highly recommended it– and I like almost all of Roth’s writing.

What is your guilty pleasure?  At least, the comics-related one!
None. My guilty pleasures are all culinary.

Who was the first cartoonist you met?
My Uncle Nat.  When he came to visit us my brother and I wouldn’t let him leave the house until he had drawn a bunch of cartoons. He might have become a professional artist– maybe a cartoonist– if he didn’t enter the family business (wholesale dry goods. The building still stands: 555 Broadway, now the home of Scholastic Books).

This is a cartoon by my Uncle Nat.  He’s flying his airplane, circa 1938, which he gave up when my Aunt said, “You have to give it up.  It’s either me or that airplane.”  He made the wrong choice.

Which dead cartoonist would you most like to meet?
My uncle. But we probably wouldn’t discuss cartooning. I suppose if I could meet a dead cartoonist it would be Saul Steinberg. I suspect that as a person he would be as extraordinary as his artwork.

What would you say?
Probably either the wrong things or nothing at all. I once met Robert Graves at an intimate dinner party, and didn’t say a word to him even though I was in the middle of reading one of his books (a great one–his memoir, Goodbye to All That).  I was once seated next to Al Hirschfeld at a dinner party, and I was tongue-tied throughout the meal.

What has been the highlight of your career to date?
My animated film, an adaptation of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.  I suppose a second would be my latest book, Talking Lines.  It’s a great survey of my printed stuff, and beautifully designed.

Please tell us a little about your latest project.
No, I’m superstitious.

Well, alright, I’ll mention that Sempé asked me to animate one of his books (we show at the same gallery in Munich). I’ve already done the storyboard and now it’s a question of funding the project.

Which comics character do you most identify with?
None.  I’ve never been much of a comics reader.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To persuade some billionaire to part with a few million to jumpstart one of my film projects.  Fat chance!

Dear reader, what we presented here today does not solve the mystery of how R.O. Blechman inspires such love, respect, and gratitude.  You’ll have to read his books to find that out!  But think about this: if I find his work life-changing, and I am neither an illustrator, cartoonist, nor animator, just imagine what his books can do for you!  After you get home from the bookstore, drop us a line and tell us what you think.


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2 Responses to “An Interview with R.O. Blechman”

  1. mahendra singh Says:

    Thanks for this really stimulating interview. What really pleased me most was that Mr Blechman thought his L’Histoire du Soldat was his masterpiece, I agree! I saw it on the tube when it came out & I was simply blown away; the depth of meanings all presented in such a fluid, seamless package. Very pure, very distilled and open at once. And very pretty to look at, don’t forget!

    I was in art school at the time and it really changed my thinking, thanks Mr Blechman!

  2. beth Says:

    What lovely words, Mahendra! I’m constantly amazed at the lovely ways people find to describe Mr. Blechman’s work. I really hope someone organizes a festschrift for him, and soon. I’d love to read that!

I.T.C.H is looking forward to your thoughts. Please, no flame. Thanks!