Interview: J.T. Yost! »
J.T. Yost is a cartoonist and portrait artist. His book Old Man Winter, which won the prestigious Xeric grant, features a mix of humorous and heartbreaking stories, animal rights-related and otherwise. Another, considerably lighter work of his is the minicomic “Tales of Good Ol’ Snoop Doggy Dogg,” a book filled predominantly with comics based on dreams Yost has had about everybody’s favorite stoner. The January/February issue of VegNews wisely includes Yost in their feature on vegan fiction writers (along with a plug for Vegansaurus! and a piece on Chicago by Laura! Everyone subscribe now because it’s on holiday sale & you need excellent last minute xmas gifts!), and we’re giving him some bonus spotlight time here!
How long have you been vegan?
I became a vegetarian after biting into a fried chicken drumstick at Mrs. Winner’s (a southern fried chicken chain) in 1990. Although I’d been eating meat without much thought for the duration of my life thus far, that day was different. I flashed back to a Bloom County comic I’d read in which Opus the penguin berates a KFC cashier for frying his brethren and serving them as food. At that moment, I made the connection that the crispy skin I was biting into used to belong to a living being. I was repulsed and never touched the stuff again.
Oh, wait, you asked how long I’ve been vegan. I went vegan in 1992.
Are you vegan for health, environmental, animal rights reasons, or a combination?
It started out purely for animal rights reasons. My parents were worried about my being vegetarian, so I did lots of research to make sure it was a healthy way to live. After reading John Robbins’ Diet For a New America which details animals’ treatment in factory farms as well as delving into the healthful benefits of a vegan diet, I decided to become a full-fledged card-carrying vegan (still haven’t received my card). Since then, most every book I’ve read that deals with health, environmental and/or animal rights in relation to veganism only further reinforces my decision.
How has being vegan influenced your comics?
It’s funny. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I used to draw these serialized comic strips. I remember one of the first ones I did dealt with a bunch of lab animals that had various deformities or psychological problems. That doesn’t sound very funny, does it? Anyhow, I’ve always had an affinity for animals, and they’ve always figured prominently in my work.
I was introduced to the work of my all-time favorite comic artist and greatest inspiration Chris Ware by a roommate in college. He caused that “Ah-ha!” moment in which I realized that comics did not have to be simply funny or entertaining. They could be powerful, subtle and emotionally resonant. I’m not a confrontational person, and although I’ve done my share of protests I’ve never felt comfortable getting the message out that way. Comics provide an ideal outlet for me.
Do you find people have a different reaction to reading a vegan message in comics format, as opposed to say, reading a leaflet, or watching a documentary?
Yes. For one thing, I think most people feel compelled to read a comic put in front of them, whereas a pamphlet with graphic photos may be off putting. I mean, those pamphlets can connect as well, but each person reacts differently to different types of media. Some of my comics have been used as vegan outreach, which is flattering.
My worry is that my vegan-themed comics tend to be heavy-handed. I’ve certainly been accused of that in reviews, and I have to agree. I’m trying to find a way to tone it down without watering it down or losing the message. I want the story to be compelling to everyone, not just those who already have an interest in animal welfare.
Why do you dream about Snoop Dogg so much?
I wish I knew so that I could dream about him even more! I always enjoy our virtual hanging out sessions. In fact, after I finished the comic you’re referring to, I had yet another dream about Snoop. I’ve had other celebrity guests in my dreams, but none have ever revisited me. I had to exorcise demons from Roseanne Barr’s four headboards (she had four beds). Dick Cheney tried to poison me. Tom Waits, MC Hammer, Henry Rollins, The Golden Girls, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Bill Cosby…they’ve all made appearances in my dreams.
Even though I don’t smoke weed, I think Snoop and I would get along well. I listen to The Chronic and Doggy Style fairly often. I only drink out of my Tha Doggfather glass even though Snoop’s face has been all but worn off. I guess he’s just in my consciousness.
Who are some of your favorite cartoonists, vegan/vegetarian or not?
Well, I can count the vegan cartoonists on one hand – Dan Piraro, Patrick McDonnell (not sure if he’s vegan, but he’s definitely an animal welfare activist), Berkley Breathed, [Ed.: past interviewee!] Jesse Reklaw and [another] one of your past interviewees Susie Cagle. I’m sure there are others, but those are the ones that come to mind.
There are too many amazing comic artists out there, so I’ll just list a handful. Ken Dahl’s Monsters was the best thing I’ve read this year.
There are the big hitters like James Kochalka, Jeffrey Brown, Seth, Ralph Steadman, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, Craig Thompson, Edward Gorey, R. Crumb, Joe Sacco, B. Kliban and of course Charles Schulz.
There are the relatively known up-and-comers like Jordan Crane, Brian Ralph, Julia Wertz, Renee French, Lewis Trondheim, Guy Delisle, Dupuy & Berberian, Aaron Renier, Scott Campbell, Nate Doyle and Laura Park.
Then there are people who should be widely known, but may not be like Tom Neely, Ben Snakepit, Graham Annable, John Pham, Kazimir Strzepek, Kevin Cannon, Michel Rabagliati, John Kerschbaum, Aaron Renier, Victor Kerlow, Adam Kidder, Sophia Wiedeman, L. Nichols, Nate Doyle, Matt Wiegle and James Turek.
I could go on and on…
What is your favorite animal?
You just witnessed my inability to pare down my favorites. I’ve always been a cat person, but I harbor not-so-secret aspirations to care for a giant hog as well. I’m not sure how that would work logistically in my small Brooklyn apartment. I’d also be in heaven working at a primate sanctuary.
You also paint pet portraits! Have you painted any particularly amazing/crazy animals?
Most of my oil portraits are pretty straightforward, although I did get to paint a lop-eared bunny wearing a pirate’s hat. I have more freedom with my anthropomorphic “peculiar”portraits. Heavy-metal cats, pugs as Antony & Cleopatra, a black lab dining on a buffet of toilet paper, socks and bras…stuff like that. The weirdest request was to depict a male dog with long flowing blond hair driving an air-boat through the swamp.
Do you have any cute pets of your own?
We currently have a Chihuahua and a cat who I’m guessing has some Maine Coon in her. Unfortunately, I had to put down my other cat, Linus, recently. He was the sweetest and most silly looking cat I’ve ever had. He was what they call a “pet-quality” Persian, which is a nice way of saying that he looked absolutely insane.
Favorite vegan food to make?
I don’t know that I have a “signature dish.” I like to constantly try new things. I suppose the dish I’ve been making the longest is something I lovingly call “bean gruel.” You sauté some garlic and onions until they caramelize, throw in some cumin and good salsa, mix in refried beans and whole black beans, fresh steamed corn off the cob, fresh cilantro and squeeze half a lemon into it just before removing from the stove. It’s good as a dip, over rice or spread between two flour tortillas and fry to make a Mexican pizza.
Favorite vegan dish at a restaurant/favorite vegan restaurant?
Red Bamboo in Manhattan is my favorite vegan restaurant. [Ed.: Bad news, then!] We had them cater our wedding (well, we picked up a bunch of food from them and brought it to the wedding). They specialize in soul food. For the best vegan desserts, you have to travel to Sticky Fingers Bakery in Washington D.C. They provided our wedding cake (and I drew their logo!). Luckily, the owners are good friends of mine, so they were coming to the wedding anyway (which cut down on delivery costs!).
Based on food options alone, which is your favorite comics show to travel to?
To tell the truth, I haven’t traveled too far for comic shows. This year I’ve sold at MoCCA in Manhattan, King Con here in Brooklyn and SPX in Maryland. Foodwise, I know what I’m in for at MoCCA and King Con. Luckily, there is a great Asian vegan restaurant right next to the conference center at SPX. I lived in Austin for a few years, and they now have a comic fest (“Staple,” I think). I’d love to go to that sometime to revisit all the great Mexican and vegan food I used to indulge in. If I could afford it, I’d fly out for APE and maybe you all could recommend some restaurants!
Any eating tips for traveling cartoonists?
I used to tour in various bands, and am therefore permanently burned out on Taco Bell and Subway, your two basic choices in highway dining. I have heard that you can now order a bean burrito (or taco) “fresco” at Taco Bell (no cheese, add salsa), which eliminates a lot of clunky explanation.
If you are able to avoid fast food, I don’t think it’s terribly hard to find vegetarian options anymore. When I first started out, people generally thought “vegan” was another planet or something. These days, most every restaurant offers at least one veggie option, and they don’t even look at you funny or spit in your food (that I know of).
Basically, you can always find something to eat at Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Middle Eastern and Mexican restaurants. American, French, and Italian restaurants can be a bit tougher.
Do you have one drawing tip to share?
Never accept wooden nickels, but always accept non-photo blue pencils.
Do you have a day job, or do you draw comics full-time?
None of my jobs pay well, so I “spread the wealth,” if you will. I received a grant to self-publish my first comic collection, so I now run a very tiny comic publishing company. I do traditional oil portraits of both pets and people, “peculiar” portraits in inks & watercolors, and a variety of hand-carved and painted block prints, mostly of dogs. I also do editorial illustration, logos, children’s book illustration, and holiday cards. One day a week I work at Utrecht Art Supply, and one day a week I work as an artist assistant to my father-in-law, Burton Silverman. In addition, I sometimes get freelance work doing storyboards.
What exciting upcoming projects can we look forward to?
Since I last spoke with you, I put out a 44 page mini-comic called “Losers Weepers #1.” It’s the first chapter in a series that creates a narrative based around some of my real-life finds (journals, notes, letters, etc.) from the streets. In vega- related news, I’m adapting Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse into a graphic novel. She was kind enough to supply me with a giant stack of affidavits and interviews with slaughterhouse workers that she used to write her incredibly powerful book.
Also, I don’t know if this counts as a “project,” but we’re having a little girl in the next few weeks (due date is 12/21)!
Any questions for Vegansaurus? Anything!
Who’s zooming whom? Asking Aretha Franklin constitutes cheating.
A: The fish jumped off the hook(?)!
* In light of our upcoming baby birth, I don’t have time to draw the Vegansaurus-themed sketch I’d planned (Vegansaurus patiently explaining to Barney the Dinosaur that children are not part of a vegan diet). With my apologies, please accept this page of primates that I drew at last month’s King Con.
We’ll take a raincheck on that sketch! We still want/need it! Thanks, J.T.!