Jeffrey Lewis – I Learned How To Read From Reading Comic Books

Jeffrey Lewis was in Ireland this week for a 5 date tour and Siobhán Kane caught up with him to talk not about music, but his other great love – comic books.

Jeffrey Lewis was in Ireland this week for a 5 date tour and Siobhán Kane caught up with him to talk not about music, but his other great love – comic books.

Jeffrey Lewis has always been an interesting music-maker, with his latest A Turn in the Dream Songs as one of his most accessible. He is still drawing on that wellspring of lo-fi conceits, the kind that saw him play regularly at New York’s Sidewalk Cafe in the nineties, mixing up a kind of self-deprecating wry lyricism, and eccentric delivery, hovering between everyday occurrences and the desire for more, and sometimes just hovering. All of this was evident on his first record 2001’s The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, 2003’s It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through, City and Eastern Songs (2005), or his loveletter to the band Crass – 12 Crass Songs (2007).

However, he has a twin passion – comic books, and it is something he has dedicated his life to, from writing his BA thesis on Watchmen (his lecture ‘The Dual Nature of Apocalypse in Watchmen’ was published in The Graphic Novel ed. Jan Baetens in 2001) collaborating with The Mountain Goats on their artwork for Heretic Pride in 2008, or evolving his own Fuff series, Lewis’ love and dissemination of the culture is playful and brilliant, and it is something he has incorporated into his live shows over the years, even going so far as to create some ‘Illustrated Histories’ of countries and historical events; so far we have had China, Korea, Communism and The French Revolution – we just need him to approach Easter 1916 for a fresh set of eyes, at a much needed time. Instead of talking to him about music, Siobhán Kane talks to him about comic books, ahead of his Dublin show.


Last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I heard the wonderful Alan Moore talk, in the hour he surveyed Dodgem Logic, and some of his other work, and there was a particularly interesting discussion about his dealings with film directors. He feels his work has been sullied by film directors, and he has said he will refuse permission from now on. What do you think about the transition from comic books to screen? Someone like Alan Moore is such a treasure, and it was quite shocking to hear some of his tales of people trying to be heavy-handed and shadowy with him, not only because he is the originator of the work, but also because he carries a Victorian cane.
Ha! I haven’t seen them all, but most comic book movies are not very good. I think film makers often think that they can improve a comic book if they add motion and sound and music and all of the things that movies can add, but they forget that you lose something very important, which is the feeling of the lines and the artwork. There’s so much emotion and atmosphere and unspeakable qualities and aspects to the experience of absorbing visual art, lines and shapes and other aspects of illustration, there’s so much character and personality that comes from the artist’s style, that when you lose that you really have a hard time replacing it just with sound and motion and music. Film makers exist in a world that is completely different from illustration, and I think they might not realise what an illustration or even a line or a pool of ink can mean emotionally, they are thinking about totally different things, so they don’t understand what they are losing and how hard they will have to work to replace it.

I think American Splendour was a very good way to try to turn a comic into a movie, an interesting mix of story and documentary, that is one of the best adaptations I have seen. Obviously Watchmen is one of the greatest comic books of all time and the film is far from being one of the greatest films of all time. But it was the best anybody’s done so far in attempting to adapt any of Alan Moore’s books to the screen, whatever that’s worth.

You studied in London around the time that From Hell came out, that must have been quite special, for a man obsessed with comic books. Did it impact you?
Early 1996, that was. It was very exciting to be away from America for the first time, though I was just in Ealing for a few months, so it wasn’t exactly the heart of London or the heart of anything, just the suburbs. I do recall various walks around the city, and I stumbled on a small comic book shop that was selling original comic book pages, including original art pages from V For Vendetta and Watchmen. They were only about 200 – 300 pounds per page at the time, which of course was way out of my budget, all I could do was stare at them, but I’m sure that now those pages must be worth a small fortune. I don’t think I’ve ever found that shop again in all the times I’ve been back to London, but I’m sure those pages are long, long gone in any case. And of course Alan Moore’s comics informed a lot of my impression of London, because this was indeed during the time when the From Hell series was still coming out, all that stuff concerning London history and architecture and city planning, so that was on my mind a lot during my times in London in 1996. Oddly, the east end of London seemed much grittier in 1996, probably because it was; you could walk around the neighborhood surrounding Brick Lane and Liverpool Street and get a real sense of the decay that might have been lingering since the time of Jack the Ripper. When I started touring in England regularly I would always return to Brick Lane any chance I got, but the transformation of that area since 1996 is startling, it’s one of the hippest parts of London now. Totally different atmosphere. But you could say the same for New York City, for Berlin, for many places on Earth. Manufacturing, poverty, labour, multi-ethnic working-class neighborhoods, these things have been moved ever-increasingly out of the sight-line of western cosmopolitan eyes.

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