Perry Bible Fellowship’s Nicholas Gurewitch on making comics for the internet’s golden age

One of the internet’s most beloved webcomics is back in The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack’s 10th anniversary edition, featuring a new foreword from Michael Cera, undiscovered comics and sketches, and strips that have been reformatted to read like they would on a phone screen. Nicholas Gurewitch’s book — a gorgeous collection of every PBF comic published between 2004 and 2007 — is a warm, nostalgic look back at the “internet’s golden age.” The book reflects the beauty of PBF, seamlessly matching hand-drawn artistry with subtle but devastating punchlines that reveal a heartbreaking truth about the world.

Since PBF, Gurewitch has shifted his focus to film and TV, and he published a Kickstarter book called Notes on a Case of Melancholia, Or: A Little Death that pays homage to Edward Gorey. The book and commissions promised to backers as rewards were delayed by a few years, due to the painstaking nature of making each page from individual scratchboards. (The documentary Notes on a Case of Nicholas Gurewitch, below, gives a good glimpse into why it took so long.) I spoke to Gurewitch about the Kickstarter process, how success can be like addiction, and the changing nature of webcomics in the age of Instagram.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Did you enjoy doing the Kickstarter?

Yeah, I signed on to it because I enjoyed the tactility [of the process], but I think I signed on for way too much.

How many pages was it?

It was 48, but I must have done like 200 slates.

Because you were redoing them?

I’m not proud of that experience.

So how did you feel about the overall experience?

I think Kickstarter to me was like a genie lamp. You get to make a wish, and your wish gets granted. But with such power comes complications. I found myself not burdened by the weight of expectations, but adjusting to expectations as they come about. And so I think I ended up in a scenario where I didn’t have a proper relationship with time.

One thing that’s probably missing from my life, ever since I’ve stopped doing the comic weekly, is deadlines. I sort of swore off deadlines because they seemed so hazardous to health. But in many ways, they’re helpful to mental health because you can be done with something. There’s so much power in the Kickstarter scenario because there’s so much trust, money, and time. If I were to do it again, I would just have to have some kind of stronger relationship with those things.

I tried to make myself feel a little better by thinking about George R.R. Martin. It sounds like time and expectation have crept into his process. I think it can be a confounding thing when you have that much power. Maybe creativity works in a way that relies on being powerless rather than being powerful.

You’re not the only person to have experienced this with Kickstarter. Projects get delayed all the time. I don’t feel like people might have been mad at you, unless you actually did get some angry emails.

I think when you enter into a relationship over the internet like that, there’s less of a sense of people waiting for you. But as I went through and started the delivery process and became acquainted with the names of everyone, I could see their name. I could look at photos of them, see their requests. I feel like I took a little more time than most people would to fulfill some of those special requests. I’m very proud of the commissions that I did for people. I guess I took that in mind when I was doing my job, to fulfill. I would tell myself that every day that I waited would be another uptick in quality, and I guess you can bargain with yourself that way.

How many commissions did you have to do?

I think it was 30 original drawings, but I had a great time doing it.

Now you can preorder the book on Amazon. Is that being released with a publisher?

Dark Horse. They agreed to do this book and [the Almanack] with the condition that we do another PBF collection before the end of the year.

Another collection on top of the Almanack?

Yeah, it’ll be the same size but with new material.

How’s that going?

It’s fun. I’ve convinced them to do the books on FSC paper, which is Forest Stewardship Council paper. It’s kind of harder to do because it costs more. But that was part of our negotiation. I also told them I would do the InDesign files, which is a lot of work, designing the book, but I find that fun. I learned how to do it for my Kickstarter book, and now I’m just accustomed to it. I laid out this whole book.

Why did you decide to publish a 10th anniversary edition?

It’s one of those things, like, I think they publish a new Harry Potter book every other year, but they need to do a new cover for it. It’s one of those money grabs. But it had been 10 years since the Almanack came out, so it was as good a reason as any to republish it.

I don’t know if the comics are still as good as they were because humor changes over the years.

I first discovered your comics on Something Awful. I was probably, like, 13.

That’s too young.

And I was like, “This is cool, edgy, internet.” But it was really original, like nothing I’ve ever seen on the internet before, and also really artistic at the same time.

Yeah, hopefully that enables artwork to outweigh its less considerate elements. If it’s thoughtful and considerate in one direction, maybe it can be inconsiderate in another. I’m not so sure about that. But I’ve heard people say that the comics objectify.

I see that sometimes. A lot of the ladies are drawn very boobily. But I feel like your body of work as a whole almost kind of exempts you from that.

There’s a lot of sex in your cartoons, and I know you used to draw comics for Playboy.

That’s probably pushed me a little bit.

Are any of those comics in here?

Playboy isn’t in here, but I was publishing in Maxim during the time I was making these, and it probably pushed things in that direction a little bit.

It’s funny how whatever publication you’re working with at the time can influence you and forces you to think about your output.

Yeah, and you think it might not matter if you have a corporate backer if you’re in politics. But at a certain level, it matters in politics, and it matters in art. Who’s paying your bills kind of pushes you in a certain direction.

On the topic of comics changing over the years, I found it interesting to see that it’s generally important for comics nowadays to be super specific. Like we need to know exactly what’s being said. The trend of labeling symbolic—

Are you talking about Shen?

Yeah, I really like his stuff.

He’s a cool guy! I feel like you guys would get along.

His ability to just boldly label something as something else is something I don’t think I can do. And it’s terrifically potent to be able to, like, label something, “my life.”

Image: Dark Horse Comics

So the comics in the Almanack are from 2004 to like 2008?

A lot of them in here are from 2001 to 2004 as well, the college comics, but I didn’t put them online until 2004.

As far as the internet’s concerned, these are like the 2004 to 2008 comics. But the fact is, I’d been doing them in college for quite some time as a newspaper comic.

Do you think labeling it as comics from that era is a strategy to get people nostalgic about the early internet days?

I did do that recently on a post. It’s easy to be nostalgic about those days.

Why did you feel the need to lay it out like you would see it on a phone?

We did a French edition of the Almanack a few years ago, and I really liked the way it looked. But there’s also the fact that it’s valuable to orient them this way as they’re seen on the internet because most phones scroll up and down.

But isn’t the point of a book the fact that it’s not on a screen, so you can lay it out however you want?

Right, I ultimately rationalized it because I was going to reformat them anyway to read online. So the book just collects them in that way.

After you stopped doing the comics regularly, it seemed like you were moving more toward film and TV.

I’ve been slow to move in that direction. But yeah, I’ve worked on a number of never-made TV shows. But moving in that direction has helped me develop the comic away from its earlier form.

Doing the 1,2,3,4 comic, they had the same exact structure every time. And since I’ve been doing them just for the internet, I found that my comics can sprawl and have so many more panels than normal, and do a lot of things that they used to not be able to do.

You joining Instagram was kind of a recent thing, right? Was there any kind of hesitation there?

I hadn’t had a smartphone until 2017.

What were you using before?

I had a little tiny thing. What do you call them? Tracfones? This [iPhone] is my 2017 purchase. It does the trick. I can post on Instagram.

Image: Dark Horse Comics

So after you got a smartphone, you joined Instagram. Do you think it’s helped with comics discovery at all?

It’s a little weird because I think I spurned Facebook at a time where it might have been extremely valuable for me to have Facebook, back in the mid-2000s. I think I was following some instinct, either to be cool or to just concentrate on doing my art, which was probably both stupid and smart.

I suppose I’m coming around to the idea that it’s really financially savvy to be able to connect with people through social media. But I do miss the days where you could have visitors to your website. The way you’d have visitors like back in the olden days, when someone would knock on the door and say, “Can I come in and enjoy what you have?” I take pride in the fact that I have a website that people can visit.

What do you think of the newer comics you see on Instagram?

I like the way webcomics are moving in some ways. I really like Nathan Pyle’s comic, and Alex Norris’ comic. They have a very similar color palette. I think I like this movement toward a gentler, sweeter, more forthright production. Maybe it’s the direction we’re going in because life is getting more scary. Sometimes I feel bad doing scary and sad comics nowadays because I’m like, “Holy shit, people probably get enough of this.”

I’m trying to think of your comics that are scary or sad, but none of them really leave me feeling bad. Maybe because the artwork is so beautifully done, it feels more just like a reflection of life.

I think you can say a lot of things if you manage to be presentable. Or in this case, pretty. Like if I make a comic really pretty, I can say something a little bit more savage.

It’s like a song with a really beautiful melody, but the lyrics are super dark and sad.

You can get away with it. And at a funeral, you can get away with being really mean to the person you’re eulogizing if you have a beautiful relationship with them. You can say the nastiest shit.

In your artist bio, it says you worked on “a number of never-televised TV shows.” Can you tell me a little bit about them?

A lot of them exist as scripts, and sometimes they get to the point where they are partially storyboarded or I’ve done rudimentary animatics. But I’m excited to do more in the production realm soon because I feel like that’s probably the way I need to evolve my ideas. A lot of PBF comics are dependent on really tiny, subtle details. And sometimes when I’m scripting, it’s not always easy to handle the details. So in the future, I’d like to be working with the details a little more. Every two years, I think I work on another TV show idea. And I think at exactly the same rate, networks realize that the idea is probably a little too weird.

Image: Dark Horse Comics

These are all animated shows, or are they live-action?

Animated, but I’d be happy to do anything live-action that I would do animated. It’d probably just take a little more work.

Were the shows related to PBF?

Some of them aren’t so related to PBF. I think that’s another one of my problems, sometimes the idea will just be off-the-wall, totally different.

Is that what networks want?

Yeah, I don’t really know what the people want. One of the ideas that we had some traction with Cartoon Network was called The Umbilicals. It was these fetuses inside the uteruses of their mothers who had, sort of, used the umbilical cord to drive them like mechs. So the moms would be the mechs. Yeah, it’s a pretty terrible idea.

No, it’s a great idea, but then what happened?

I think you can guess what happened.

So that was pitched as a whole series?

We basically just had a theme song and an intro figured out, for what would either be short-form or half-hour. But I’m kind of glad it never got produced because I don’t know how you sustain that for a whole half hour, despite the fact that we had written out scripts that claimed to do it. I don’t know if that was sustainable. In retrospect, it’s kind of embarrassing.

No, the idea is really good. But I just don’t know if that would have made for a long-running series with multiple episodes.

Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between what’s funny and what’s funny because you made it.

I think it’s really funny, but I think that maybe it would have worked really well as one YouTube video, which sounds kind of horrible to say. But I feel like that’s the general state of media and internet humor now. It’s like, you have one good joke that makes for a funny video on Twitter or TikTok.

That disregards the massive galactic arc that we had figured out for the story.

I’m really sorry.

But I think you’re right. I think you’re absolutely right.

But then again, maybe it’s really funny to put a lot of work into something that doesn’t deserve it. Like if you can make a masterpiece out of trash, it suddenly becomes marvelous to look at.

I think it kind of speaks to how poisoned my mind has become because of the internet. I would love to be able to write a long-running narrative with an arc, but I’ve been so conditioned that I only know how to write short, funny jokes for comics.

It’s interesting to consider that whenever you’re doing something successfully, you are training yourself to do things that way. You’re hypnotizing yourself to do things a specific way, every time you experience success.

I think addiction forms the same way. Because you take those same pathways to pleasure enough times, and you’ve wired yourself. I’m guessing that, in some cases, successful people try to avoid being too successful, lest they wire themselves too strictly. But I can’t confirm that.