Here at Field Guide Designs I enjoy featuring people who evoke a sense of adventure, art, and nostalgia. I honestly can’t think of a better candidate than author and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm who creates historical graphic novels. His recently completed project is Moonbound : Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight. I had the pleasure of creating a custom taxonomy to highlight this book release and showcase his beautiful illustration tools. Near the bottom of this interview there are details about his upcoming reading that coincides with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Enjoy!
Who is Jonathan Fetter-Vorm?
I write and draw comics, mostly true stories. I started when I was a kid, growing up in Bigfork, MT and learned how to do it professionally during a long sojourn on the coasts -- in San Francisco, where I trained as a letterpress printer, and in Brooklyn, where I created my first books. Recently my wife and I moved back to the Flathead Valley, where we live in Somers and raise our son.
Have you always drawn?
Yes, for as long as I can remember. And for almost as long, I remember making my drawings as if they were stories. In grade school one day a kid showed up with a roll of butcher paper and for a spell everything that we drew took place on one long scroll. I think that was the beginning of my sense that a drawing could work like a kind of writing.
Did you go to school for illustration?
I actually studied history in college. My only formal art education happened during a year when I dropped out of school to go study fresco painting in Florence, Italy. I spent long days painting on the walls of an old wine cellar, learning the ancient art from two Italian men whose names -- and this isn't a joke -- were Mario and Luigi. I've never had a chance to apply the specific skills that I learned that year, but all that time spent looking at Renaissance painters like Tintoretto and Michelangelo certainly inflected how I go about depicting stories.
How has your style developed?
Well, I started out drawing dragons almost exclusively, and while I've mostly given that up, I do still try to find ways to get some fantastic beasts smuggled into whichever project I'm working on. In terms of style, I used to think that the goal was photorealism, but the more that I draw, the more I appreciate the genius of cartooning -- of finding a way to communicate an idea or feeling in as few lines as possible.
What does the process look like for building an illustration rich book like Moonbound?
I have to start with a sense of wonder and ignorance and from there my process is really just a way of following my own curiosity. More pragmatically, when I'm doing a historical graphic book, I'll start by reading a dozen or so books to give myself a sense of the landscape, of what other authors have done. And from there it's a matter of digging through footnotes to find sources and tease out interesting details. Once I have a sense of the structure of a book, I'll write it as a sort of movie script, making notes to myself about what each panel should look like. Then, after the writing is done, I start drawing, first thumbnail sketches, then loose pencil drawings, and finally inked pages. The last and longest stage happens on the computer, tweaking the art and the words so that it reads as seamlessly (and as accurately) as possible. By the time I'm done it's hard to remember how it started, or how I thought that I could even do it all in the first place.
How does this book differ (in process) from your first two books?
For Moonbound I knew that I wanted to make it longer, denser, and more colorful than my previous books. At the same time, this book coincided with the birth of my son, which meant that my research would be more limited to whatever source material I could find online or page at the library. With previous projects I spent some time travelling and visiting the sites that factor into the history -- whether that's a nuclear test site or a Civil War battlefield. I didn't have that luxury with Moonbound, so instead I framed the story as an exploration of how cultures have dreamt about the moon. In a way this was more appropriate, since so much of the story of the Apollo Program is about our collective imagination.
What is your favorite part of the process?
Writing is by far the most unpleasant, but it's also the aspect that feels the most radical. Because I start with the writing, that's where I get this sense of creating something out of nothing. And then when it's time to draw I get to the true joy of this line of work. It's easy to sit down at my drawing desk and look up in surprise after 10 hours.
How do you choose your book subjects?
Sometimes a project falls into my lap -- with my first book, my editor essentially commissioned me. And other times it's more of a struggle. With Moonbound, I cast around for a long time trying (and failing) to find an idea worth committing years of my life to, and then one night as I was falling asleep I had a vision of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin sitting in their tiny lunar spacecraft and just looking at each other in silence. I was instantly enamored with that quiet, unheroic image of a story that we all think we know. And after digging around a little I realized that there was an angle to this story that hadn't been told before.
How long does it take to complete a project of this caliber?
Oofta. This one was fast, by my standards. It took me two and a half years to go from idea to finished book. With my previous projects that number was closer to 5 years.
What periods or events in history interest you the most, and why?
I'm drawn to the marquee moments in history that feel like they've been told ad nauseum -- events that have become a kind of fulcrum for the stories we tell about ourselves as a culture or a nation -- because within those grand narratives there are a million tiny stories that tend to get overlooked. I like the kind of history that exists on the margins of greatness.
What have you learned from Moonbound and your previous titles (artistically, or even interesting facts)?
Oh, there's too much. Every panel of every page is a discovery, especially when I'm doing a historical book. A lot of what I learn isn't really all that noticeable or flashy -- answers to questions like "how did someone dispose of garbage in 17th century Prague?" or "what would a Confederate soldier eat in the winter of 1864?" One perennially appropriate discovery (and one that I should have long since internalized) is that it's always a disaster when I try to draw a crowd of people or a nighttime rainstorm.
What is something that you learned in your research for this book that surprised you?
I was surprised to learn that there was a concerted effort in the late 1950s to demonstrate that women would make ideal astronauts. Thirteen women tested themselves on the same equipment as NASA's astronauts, and they proved in many cases to be better qualified than the men. But the powers that be at NASA hated the idea and killed the program. I like to think about how different our country would be now if our government had taken seriously the idea of sending women and people of color to the moon.
Do you listen to music when you draw? If so, what?
I have a habit of latching onto one album and listening to it on repeat while I work. Usually it's something that either resonates with what I'm trying to do artistically -- for Battle Lines, that album was The Monitor, by Titus Andronicus -- or else it's music that gets me into a certain mindset. For Moonbound, I listened to Gang of Youth's album Go Farther in Lightness maybe 450 times. I also like to listen to podcasts or audiobooks, especially when they're long, meandering fantasy stories like The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss or Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.
Early bird or night owl?
My favorite time to work is from 10pm til dawn, but that schedule makes me feel like a vampire and it's hard to maintain with a family.
Do you have a routine that you must follow to get the creativity flowing?
The best routine I've found is just "sit at your desk and work until something good happens"
If you could describe yourself as a fictional character or an animal, what would it be?
I used to pretend that I could be Leonardo DiCaprio's character Jack Dawson in Titanic. A life of adventure punctuated by drawing and trysts with forlorn heiresses. (Full disclosure: I watched that movie 4 times in theaters when it came out). But I always figured if that had been me in the movie, I definitely would have climbed onto that floating piece of wood and lived happily-ever-after with Rose. Nowadays though I tend to aspire to be whatever fictional character it is that has a nice quiet life with his family and gets to write books for the rest of his days. So I guess I'm a Bilbo Baggins?
Where can we purchase your books?
Check to see if your local comic book shop carries them, or else anywhere that books are sold. If you want a signed copy, you can order one on my website.
Do you have any readings coming up?
Funny you should ask! I'm hosting an event at Flathead Valley Community College on July 18th, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Check here for details.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue illustration as a career?
I got my first big break by luck when I ran into an editor who was looking for an artist, but that meeting wouldn't have amounted to much if I hadn't already put together a portfolio of stuff that I'd been drawing and writing in my spare time. If you want to make comics, the barriers to entry are easier to surmount than in more established artistic fields. I started by making zines and travelling around to conventions, and I know a lot of comics artists who've gotten their start doing webcomics. I think the hardest part is the transition from amateur to professional, ie: getting paid. For me that meant starting small, submitting to magazines and anthologies, then using those projects as opportunities to demonstrate to publishers that I could meet deadlines and take constructive feedback. In my experience, the work sort of snowballs, one project leads to another. But at the heart of it is cultivating the discipline to do the work, so that when someone comes looking, you have something to show.
Any parting words?
While I was working on Moonbound, there was an old Latin commonplace that kept popping up in my head: Ad astra per aspera, or "to the stars, through hardship." Maybe there's something to it.
Follow Jonathan Fetter-Vorm on Instagram
If you enjoyed this interview, please share it and leave a comment below.