With a new graphic novel that is the result of several years serialization as a webcomic, cartoonist Jason Little is finally able to move onto the next step in his character Bee’s life—but he’s currently savoring her existence in the present. An amateur photo buff, Bee finds mystery wherever she goes.
His book Motel Art Improvement Service has just been released by Dark Horse. A sequel to Shutterbug Follies, Little looks in on Bee as she is about to take a cross country bike trip, but instead gets mixed up with artist-on-the-run Cyrus, who has made it his job to tinker with the paintings in hotel rooms in order to create art far from the galleries.
Little began work on the comic in 2002 and estimates he posted merely 10 pages by the end of 2003.
“The whole idea of the web thing was to give me a weekly deadline in the interest of having motivation to keep up with the work,” he said. “But then I started having children and became part-time house husband, part-time cartoonist, so that went out the window.”
Little worked on it whenever he could, with periods of rapid output alternating with relative quiet, he took a few years to finish the work. He says the webcomic format leant itself to the Hergé-style suspense structure that he was seeking—a cliffhanger or humorous moment guaranteed on the lower right corner of each segment. These have been reformatted for the book — split in two to fit the landscape format, and accentuating the rhythm for a story that Little actually had written out pretty completely prior to the long haul of serializing it online.
“I worked it as a plot for I think several months that whole summer of 2002 and into the fall, also,” Little said. “I think it went through seven drafts. I had this real ad hoc writers group thing going on with my friends where I would do a draft and I would show it to two trusted readers who would then read it and get back to me with comments. Between the seven drafts, 14 different people read the plot. It changed a lot over that whole process.”
Little got the idea for the plot from a friend and collaborator, Daupo, who did similar work to Cyrus’, though not in the site-specific situation of clandestinely hanging his work in hotel rooms.
“Daupo would buy these cheap faux paintings that you find at thrift stores — they’re prints, but they’re printed on textured cardboard so they look like canvas, and framed,” said Little. “They’re banal landscapes and still lifes and stuff like that, so he would buy these at thrift shops and then take them home and paint weird things into them, surrealist things or paradoxes or transgressive little moments. He didn’t go so far as to try and reinstate them in some specific location, he would just hang them in gallery shows.”
In earlier drafts, Cyrus was a printmaker instead of a painter—a tribute to his own artistic heritage that he later dropped because he found including the actual process too confusing to the story.
“Cyrus was using his van as a printing press, so he would put the paper and the plate between two blankets and pieces of plywood, and then he would run over it with his van, so that he wouldn’t be lugging around a two ton press wherever he went,” Little said. “That is something that my grandmother did. My grandmother was an artist and she figured out that she could just run over the plate with her van rather than having a printing press, and so that whole thing was going to be an homage to my grandmother, but it was confusing and really technical and then Daupo came along and started doing his thing and I thought that it would be more transparent and a little sexier to steal that idea from Daupo rather than pay homage to my grandmother.”
An urban biker, Little never took a cross country bike trip, but certainly fantasized about it, spurred on by the experience of a friend who had done the trip from New York to San Francisco, as Bee endeavors to do in the graphic novel.
“That came late in the process of coming up with the story,” Little said, “because it’s really just a device to get Bee out of the city and into an unfamiliar context, and then to give her the opportunity to get back on the road.”
Little looks to autobiography as he formulates his next venture into Bee’s life. One idea for a follow-up would have Bee working in a library, a plot that is built on his own experience as a librarian and his understanding of the way the space offers insights to its patrons and narratives from that dynamic.
“It’s an intensely voyeuristic space and an intensely intellectually stimulating space, “ he said, “so you’ve got the animal brain being stimulated and the intellectual brain being stimulated at the same time, and so there’s just so many great ideas for stories, I can pillage my memory for them.”
Little points to libraries as a pure nexus for public appearance and internal life — book choices offer windows into the soul and a librarian has access to that. Part of a librarian’s job entails keeping an eye on the patrons and there are nooks and crannies in a library that patrons believe are private corners. Like characters in a book, personal moments that are enacted without the understanding that someone is watching them unfold, and it’s this dynamic that informs both Little’s library years and his approach to storytelling and allowing his characters to reveal themselves.
“The architecture of a library is set up so there are sight lines where you can see far away into the stacks to make sure that nobody’s misbehaving back there,” said Little. “You’re supposed to be invisible, but you can also be visible at the same time.”
Though Little eagerly takes the opportunity to look at people in public and imagine internal lives for them, it’s with his characters that he demands the inner life come out prior to the story being written. After drawing characters, Little has interviewed them and had them fill out questionnaires in order to get to the meat of who they are. Little says that he likes to know what any given character’s mother’s religion is or who might be deceased in their family and how that impacted the character, even if it doesn’t make it onto the page, because life experience shapes personality.
“I had a Nerve profile for Bee for a while,” he said. “I found that of all the characters in that book, she was the weakest. Since Bee is the center of the story and I envisioned her being more of the Tintin character, more of a tabula rasa character where the reader can project his or her own attributes onto the character so that the reader can identify with the protagonist, so that I started to feel like I needed to give her more stuff, more attributes. I made up a fake email and registered her on Nerve and had her fill out the questionnaire for personal ads. That made her talk about what kind of books she’s into and music and what she likes and what she doesn’t like.”
This kind of process allows Little to mesh autobiography with individual character logic seamlessly, so much so that he is often asked how much of him is in the character of Bee, a question he finds hard to parse specifically, but has managed to find an acceptable answer for.
“It’s fairly easy to make her exterior be that of a cute girl that I would like to know or when I was younger I would like to date, but her interior life was more informed by my attributes,” he said.
Little enjoys writing across the gender barrier, though he realizes some writers struggle to do the same in a convincing way. Little subscribes to the notion that there aren’t many differences between men and women, and understanding basic human behavior is all you need to write the opposite sex, and that’s something he’s going to keep in mind as he forges ahead with the possibilities of more Bee stories.
“You can just be yourself and put the opposite gender skin on it and it’s probably going to be convincing,” Little said. “But maybe I’m just saying that because I’m kind of a girlie-man and I can get away with it because I cry and stuff like that. I don’t like to get in bar fights.”