An Interview with Doug Wright Awards Nominee Adam Bourret

Cover image for Bourret’s book I’m Crazy

[Reposting this in Oct 2019, originally published in April 2010 for books.torontoist.com]

By Dave Howard

Published: April 22, 2010

Toronto cartoonist Adam Bourret was recently nominated for a Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent. He also won the 2009 Best Comic award at Expozine, Montreal’s popular small-press fair. His graphic novel, I’m Crazy, documents his experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and his struggles as a gay man in a mostly straight world. Those struggles, as reported in a Torontoist story last year, became more than personal when a printing company refused to print copies of I’m Crazy, citing concerns for the company’s existing contracts with religious organizations that might object to the book’s content. Bourret persevered and got I’m Crazy printed elsewhere, and he’s been touring the book on and off for the past year. He will be appearing at TCAF on May 8th and 9th. He recently spoke with Torontoist’s comics columnist, Dave Howard.

Howard: Can I ask when you started writing I’m Crazy?

Bourret: Maybe in 2006? I would do one little vignette, and didn’t really know what I was going for, what I was doing with these vignettes. I just wanted to be doing something. And then I did more and it started coming together, and I started talking to Chester Brown about it and sort of formed into a story. It was very gradual.

Howard: As you were doing your autobiographical comics, were you interested in comics in general?

Bourret: Oh I’ve been reading comics since I was a little kid. I ran into Chester Brown’s work when I was in university and it really impressed me. I started thinking about what I could say about myself that would make a good autobiographical comic, so it was really cool to have Chester there because he gave me advice and told me what felt real, what didn’t feel real, if I was stretching it too far, being too dramatic. I was just so happy to be working with him, I just kept doing it, coming up with ideas together until I had a book.

Howard: When did you come in contact with Chester Brown?

Bourret: I met him through a really great program that happened at the Toronto Public Library. I was super jazzed. I met him when I was working on this really rambling, fictional comic book that… he really didn’t like. I was showing him pages of my comic, and he sort of took pity on me and my rambling story and he gave me his phone number. I quit that story shortly afterwards because it was going nowhere, and started showing him these little autobiographical things I was doing, and he really liked them, and that really started the dialogue.

Howard: Can I ask what books of Chester’s got you interested in comics in university?

Bourret: Completely at random I picked up a copy of his book I Never Liked You. I was living in St. Catherine’s at the time. Our comic book store was awesome, but it wasn’t like the Beguiling or The Silver Snail, it didn’t really have the selection you might find in a big city. So it was very random that I picked up this book. I remember reading it on the way to class, and being very moved by it.

Sample page from I’m Crazy

There’s one page where he goes to visit his mother in the hospital. There’s a part where you have to turn a page to see his mom in the bed, I found it just such a moving panel. I thought it was just amazing. It became my favourite book. And I made it an ambition of mine once I got out of university to do something like that. It really was… really special to meet him and share with him…without being too mushy.

Howard: Kudos to the Toronto Public Library for bringing him in.

Bourret: Yes. They have a rotation of authors, one every four months. And this was Chester’s turn. It helped me.

Howard: So I’m Crazy may not have come about had it not been for Chester’s help?

Bourret: Yeah. I think maybe I did it to impress him!

Howard: There you go! And why not? That’s very healthy.

Bourret: We’d sit there and have coffee together and I’d be like, “I love your comic books!” And then I’d think, “Oh, I sound like an idiot.” It was Chester who came up with the idea of making the book about Alistair and our relationship, so he really helped. When it was just vignettes and they really didn’t come together in a story–

Howard: It didn’t feel connected?

Bourret: Well, I guess they were connected thematically, but I was just planning on pumping them out and see what they turned into. It was Chester who said, “Well, you’ve got this boyfriend character and he wants to know your secret, why don’t you make the book about that?” And that really helped tie everything together, that’s what made it a book as opposed to a collection of shorts.

Howard: So of all the things to pick out of your life, when doing autobiographical work, you have to construct a narrative–pick things that will have a spine to it, is that it?

Bourret: Yes, yes. You really have to be choosy, especially when you’re dealing with something like depression–it’s so boring, you know? Being clinically depressed is so boring. Somebody asked me why I didn’t put everything in order, make the passage of time more realistic, and I said, “Most days, for weeks, I’d just lie around.” That’s not a fun story.

Howard: I was really moved by your story. And I really appreciated the way that you used the medium. I believe comics can most closely mimic, or allow us to describe, our own cognition, and I really appreciated how you used metaphor to describe nebulous ideas.

Bourret: It was easier than thought it would be. If you have something like imaginary characters, unless it’s Pan’s Labrynth, you just can’t really sell the idea. But when it’s all drawings, everything feels more organic, everything is a lot easier.

Howard: Is there something about the fact that it’s a still drawing instead of an animated, moving picture, that helps keep that moment suspended?

Bourret: I think it’s something to do with the history of comics and of the grotesque – the idea of political cartoons, and the idea of drawing something that’s just really weird.

Sample page from I’m Crazy.

You can lose yourself in an animated film, but with a comic you’re never quite unaware that it’s images and text. When you’re doing that transition from drawing to drawing, it just makes everything flow better. It gets rid of the problem of believability. No one has to believe that this actually happened to me, because it’s all drawings.

Howard: So you’re saying that, because it’s drawings, you think the reader doesn’t entirely believe the story? Or are you saying it’s an effective way for people to understand the blurred, lack of distinction between the inner and outer world?

Bourret: Yes that’s exactly what I’m saying, thank you! Back on point, I guess what I’m trying to say is, when it’s an entirely constructed world, it’s not like a film which has a physical basis in reality. The drawings make that transition from the conscious to the unconscious so much easier, and so much more palatable. For example, if it were a film, and I were walking along and a tree busted out of my body–well, it’s a much more natural thing to show in drawings. When you’re immersed in a comic book, it’s an entirely constructed world, by the cartoonist, and everything that happens in that world is part of that reality.

Howard: And somehow being drawn, as opposed to something that’s photo-realistic, allows you permission to have some elasticity around what is real.

Bourret: Exactly. Say I’m surprised at something and I really want to sell it, I can just draw those eyes as wide as I like. I can really stress things to really sell that point. That’s what I really love about comics, there’s no bounds around what you can do visually.

Howard: I really like the play with the narration at the top of panels and the images you show. I felt you struck a great balance with that.

Bourret: Well, it’s sort of all about juxtaposition isn’t it? Scott McCloud and the idea of how your words and image interact. And how in the next panel it’s going to change the interaction? It’s something that all cartoonists are working on, I guess.

Howard: I’m reminded of Mazzuchelli’s comics interpretation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass. I couldn’t draw a direct parallel to Mazzuchelli, but I can say that I think the balance between the narration and the image stuck out for me. Are there other comics have you read that you’ve liked and inspired you?

Bourret: Well, I would say Chester’s stuff. But in terms of reading and being inspired, I try to read as much I can. Right now I’m starting to read a lot of Tezuka, it’ll be a big Tezuka weekend coming up for me. I don’t really believe in sticking in one genre. I’ll read superhero stuff and newspaper cartoons and strips from the 1930s, whatever I can get my hands on. Even if I don’t particularly enjoy what I’m reading, I think it’s worth it just to see what other people are doing, and what you can recycle from it.

Howard: What kind of reaction have you got from I’m Crazy? I’m thinking about other people with OCD, or from organizations. Have you had any feedback?

Bourret: I get a lot of letters from teenagers. Also a lot of people in their early 20s to their 30s who have had recent experiences with OCD. It’s not just OCD. I get letters from people who are manic depressive, people who are suicidal, people who are racist. So I get kind of a mixed bag of other people’s problems. Which I think is kind of a fucked up way to say thank you. Every once in a while I’ll open up my inbox and there’ll be a personal note from somebody who I don’t know, but that’s what my comic is too, right? Telling all these embarrassing, kind of sad, pathetic things about myself? I’m surprised how many people are willing to take me up on it and respond in kind. And even in person, when I’m at shows, I get people coming up out of the blue and telling me about their personal life. So it’s always really awesome to hear from these people because it’s nice to know that, even at this level of near anonymity, you can reach people and still get that kind of emotional reaction. It’s really gratifying.

Howard: It sounds as if, as an artist, you are wicking out hidden things in society people don’t want to talk about.

Bourret: I think there’s really something about comics, especially autobiographical comics, that is about being misanthropic. I think it attracts that kind of story, it attracts those kind of people. And it’s a good medium to talk about secrets, and talk about depression and loneliness.

I’d like to mention the incident with the printer who refused to print my book. That story kind of got away from me. It went on torontoist and many other sites, and it was kind of exciting. I had just come out with the book and there was a quasi-scandal about it. I just want to say that, aside from the interaction with that one printer, I’ve never had, for the entire year I’ve been walking around schlepping this book a truly negative reaction from anybody. I’ve never really encountered any opposition at all. Which was definitely nice. The incident with the printer was scary, and lots of people said to me, “Don’t worry, we’ll rise up and try to stop these awful people who are trying to stop you,” but it really hasn’t been that way at all. Everyone’s been so nice. So I’d just like to null some of that stuff about being an “oppressed cartoonist.”  I feel far from oppressed. I feel really great.

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