Comics Just Might be Rocket Science… a Conversation with Visual Writer (aka Cartoonist) Jerzy Drozd

By Melissa Warner Published February 13, 2022

If you think you understand comics and/or graphic novels, you probably need to keep reading because you don’t know what you don’t know and it is really interesting! Cartoonist Jerzy Drozd, co-author and co-cartoonist with wife Anne Drozd of the graphic novel Rockets: Defying Gravity, one of the Science Comics series, has known since he was 11 years old that he wanted to draw comics and has been acting out stories since he was a small child.  He had even “worked out a deal” where his second grade teacher allowed him to put on puppet shows every Friday.  Now, well into adulthood, he stated “I feel like comics is my first language, [and] speaking American English is my second language.  I feel I can express my ideas more through drawing images than in words.” This declaration is an understatement of Mr. Drozd’s enthusiasm and passion for comics.  

According to Mr. Drozd, “a cartoonist is an artist, but one who specifically creates art with lines.” Another definition of a cartoonist is “a person who writes and draws at the same time.”  While words such as “cartoonist” and “comics author” are often used interchangeably, he sees a distinction between them.  ‘Comics author’ is not the same as a cartoonist, “as the word ‘author’ is often attributed to someone who writes primarily with words, so one might misunderstand ‘comics author’ as a person who writes comics scripts for an artist to draw.” When asked if being a cartoonist included just the artwork or included the words as well, he suggested to “think of it as writing visually, it’s words as well.”

Comics are likely not quite what you think they are.  According to Mr. Drozd, “a lot of cartoonists consider ‘comics’ the name of the medium itself.”  He illustrated by pointing out that “‘film’ can be a motion picture or it can be a television series; ‘film’ as in capturing people moving and images moving or on video.” Or consider ‘theater’ which is “live performance on a stage” that can also have many different forms.  “‘Comics’ means telling a story with images in sequence.”  He then cited comic theorist Scott McCloud’s longer definition of “comics”, which is: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”  

A “comic book is a short comics story,” and a “graphic novel is a long version” of a comic book.  Mr. Drozd finds that the term “graphic novel” is not always an appropriate label, such as for his Rockets book since it is nonfiction and not a novel.  Instead, Mr. Drozd would classify it as a comics documentary.  The term graphic novel originated out of, perhaps laughable today, comic book burning and “a moral panic about comics ruining the minds of young people” in the 1950s and 1960s.  Mr. Drozd provided a short explanation of how much comics were despised at that time and why.  He also noted that there had been court hearings about whether comics were “damaging” the youth.  “Graphic novel” came from author Will Eisner who created a military related instructional comic and knew he needed to use some term other than comics to change the public perception. 

Mr. Drozd “feels increasingly more and more that comic are being appreciated, made, and read by people who would not be described as comics people.” He points to the partnerships between prose authors and the comic medium “as a signal of comics being more widely embraced.  The fact that comics keep showing up in these banned book lists…when a book like Hey Kiddo [or Maus] gets threatened, that’s an acknowledgment of the power of the medium…30 years ago [comics were] considered junk literature…Now they’re so challenging that we have to keep them away from children!” 

Returning to the concept of comics as writing, Mr. Drozd explained that “the moment you put two images side by side, our brains automatically infer a relationship between those two things and that’s how comics work.” He refers to this as “inferencing” and is part of his curriculum.  A cartoonist is both an author and an artist, at the same time.  “Yes, we use color in our work, but we render images in lines which lends a certain kind of visual poetry to cartooning because the lines are not literal. A painting can be extremely representational, it can look like a real thing, whereas a cartoon can never look fully like a real thing, there’s always some level of abstraction happening.  Think about a word balloon with a smooth line or a bumpy line or a pointy line – it changes the sound of the balloon…A line is visual poetry in the sense that it’s not literal… [In cartoons or comics,] lines are real and unreal at the same time.”  Also, “whether we show something up close or far away, that’s a writing choice.”  Mr. Drozd noted, too, that panel size, color themes, closeness or proximity to the character (something Hitchcock excelled at), and viewpoint too are “all writing decisions.” He gave an example of a security camera in a convenience store that is being robbed.  Ordinarily, the viewpoint of the security camera is looking down at the scene and feels “informational.” However, if the viewpoint is on eye level or as if standing next to the robber, it feels much more personal or “emotional.” “If the cartoonist did it right you’re just experiencing those emotions [without realizing it or thinking about it].”

However, “one thing comics don’t do well is motion.”  He described the difficulty in drawing motion. You are “trying to create a sense that suggests or implies movement or motion even though there’s not.  Think about walking – there’s a part in the stride where essentially you’re just standing…[and] there’s a part where your [arms and legs are] further apart.  [When drawing, you] look for the parts where there’s more difference in the body language. That creates the sense of the motion.  Or even a person standing at a desk – try to capture the imbalance in the pose which feels more natural, feels like they are breathing…”  As the reader, you are filling in the “inhales and exhales of the characters as you move among the panels.” 

Yet, he “would suggest that in some cases comics are superior to film because the images are static and you can take your time to process that information.  Our eyes don’t really read right to left, top to bottom; they zig zag all over the place… [In comics, you can] look at an image three to four times – you have the luxury.  [Whereas] in films, the images come and you don’t have any control whether it comes back.  What we do when we read [comics] is super complex.”  

Mr. Drozd also did artwork in Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation into the Kennedy Assassination.  In this book, Lee Harvey Oswald is always and only depicted starkly, in black and white. When asked about this decision, he said that it started as an efficiency issue.  However, noting that “artists often do things intuitively,” when the writing author and other artist discussed it, they realized it was a “brilliant” idea.  Mr. Drozd explained, in illustrating the “writing choices” cartoonists might make, “the moment you color in Oswald, you’re saying you know what he was doing, you know what his motives were. The truth is none of us will ever know.  By making him pure black and white, we’re saying he’s an open question in the book.  Everything else is colored – it’s real and we understand it but he’s the one we don’t understand.” 

In discussing misconceptions of being a cartoonist, he reflected on the limited value placed upon art.  “We have some cultural baggage when it comes to what an artist is.”  We think a lot about the “starving artist.”  In the mind of Mr. Drozd, much of this is based upon ideas that art has little value and is “a frivolous endeavour for the side” versus what one might consider a “real” job.  He also pointed out that too often a “job” is discussed without any concept of one’s vocation.  In an ideal world, one’s job “should grip or compel you – you would do it even if they weren’t paying you.”  “Cartoonists make money in a lot of ways…The skills apply to a variety of creative careers and pursuits.”  

By the age of 15, Mr. Drozd had his life plan of being “the next Spiderman artist,” and being “best friends with Stan Lee.”  However, he also noted that young kids, even teens, have limited context to understand what any particular profession actually entails.  As for high school activities, “I did not understand contact sports at all.”  Football was “too aggressive.”  In basketball, “there was a whole lot of getting up in people’s faces and intimidating.”  He “loved” track and still runs.  The “idea of being alone with my thoughts while doing something purely physical for a while” appealed to him.  He was also a “theater kid,” and role played with friends.  He wishes that he had known in high school that “comics could have been more than what they were when I was growing up.  As much as I loved the superheroes, I was very slow in understanding that comics could tell more kinds of stories…I wish I would have had the perspective and understanding to know that you could tell your memoir or history report [with comics] and have more fun and be more communicative doing it.” 

Other projects include episodes of Boulder and Fleet, Adventurers for Hire which is a middle grade comic book.  “I like to explore in my fiction what is heroism and strength in a way that’s more nuanced and subtle and supportive of healthy interactions between kids rather than trying to promote the idea that manliness just means conquering your foes.”  He wants to explore “stories for young people that present the idea of action and adventure in a way that reexamines this idea of what it means to be a hero.  A hero is someone who helps people.  Well helping people can take a lot of forms, and it doesn’t necessarily mean punching that guy because he’s mean.  Maybe sometimes people who act the worst need our help the most – there’s an idea worth exploring!” 

His current work in progress, Baron von Bear, due out in 2023, is a book he has wanted to make for 20 years.  This character has “made little cameos” in most of his work in that time span.  He has been “fascinated by the idea of doing a spooky, sorcery kind of Dr. Strange/Gandalf kind of character but with the aesthetic of Hello Kitty.” “Through the lens of…fantasy adventure,” he is “exploring the journey towards a greater appreciation for the impact we make in the world, and the story of somebody who comes to terms” with that – for better or worse. One positive takeaway from Covid is that he has learned “to sit with myself a little bit more, and be a little bit more thoughtful about why I’m doing what I’m doing.” 

Mr. Drozd’s zeal in and comfort with comics are highlighted in his comment that “it feels like we might find a time in the next ten years where comics are as widely read as books.  And that would be pretty darn amazing!”