Gary Leib Profile
posted: April 23, 2007
More than ever before, in the past year Gary Leib, 51, has managed to merge the lines he draws between music and animation and comics.

"When I was 16, I had a really bad motorcycle accident and I was in traction in the hospital for seven months, and then another nine months in a wheelchair and a cast. That was when I started drawing, because I couldn’t go anywhere and I couldn’t do anything. When I finally came back to school, I was kind of the artist of the school, and it stayed that way for the rest of my time in high school. I had an identity and I was in the art department, and drawing constantly.

"I think that growing up in Chicago gave me an unusual relationship to graphic art and comics, because the Art Institute of Chicago was featuring people like the Hairy Who and Peter Saul as contemporary artists and these guys were very influenced by comics and naive art. The high brow culture seemed to reflect this incredible influence of graphic art and commercial art.

"In fact, when I finally went to art school at RISD, it was a shock to learn that Minimalism was absolutely what was happening, and that putting a white saucer in a white room and doing 30 type-written pages about it was the cutting edge ... well, I felt like a total hick.

"Some of the guys who I hung out with at RISD had a bluegrass band, and I used to go see them all the time. The Talking Heads were doing this very sophisticated, urban thing at that time, and here were these guys in this kind of nihilistic bluegrass band, playing in some very dive-y bars in town and we all hung out and it was a riot. So, after I got out of school, we said, hey, we should just make a rock band. The fact that I didn’t play an instrument was a non-issue. I knew a lot of people who were really good musicians, and they all taught me. So I started practicing and we worked and worked on this band, called Rubber Rodeo, that was influenced by the idea of country music and humor.

"I didn’t know how long the band would last – it wound up being eight years; we got management, we got a major record deal, we were nominated for a Grammy in ’84; it just kept on coming. We toured overseas, we toured everywhere in America, we had lots of drama within the band and worked with famous producers, and it turned out to be a hell of a time. And I'm happy to say I'm still best friends with some of the guys.

"I was still drawing, but the idea of being a professional artist seemed like absolutely ridiculous. I thought the only way that you could really get paid for doing your artwork was to be an academic. The idea of coming down to New York and being a commercial artist didn’t really occur to me, and the idea of being a fine artist meant doing a level of conceptual art that didn’t interest me at all.

"Over time, the band started to become more of a straight rock outfit and it lost some of it's art schoolness, and I had less interest in it. My girlfriend at that time got a job teaching in Notre Dame University in South Bend Indiana and I wanted to stay with her, and I knew I wanted to do artwork again, so I said, 'I can’t live in South Bend, I’ll blow up, so let’s move to Chicago.' We moved to what was at that time a very funky West Side area of Chicago, called Wicker Park. And little did I know that Wicker Park was where so many cartoonists lived.

"It kind of formed organically, that we started a group on Thursday nights – me, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Archer Prewitt, Terry Leban, sometimes Jay Lynch, sometimes other people – and we’d go to this coffee house, Earwax, on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, and draw minis. It was totally ritualized: we’d go somewhere for dinner – we were the geeks who always ordered the same thing – and then we all went en mass over to the coffee house. When we walked in, we got our 'art supplies' – by art supplies, I mean the stack of fliers for different events that were at the front – and we'd draw all our stuff on the backs of those.

"It would start when we’d come up with a title that would make us all laugh, like at dinner we’d say, 'Irish Popeye', and we’d start laughing and then by the time we got to the coffee house, someone would sit down and draw the cover and hand it to the next person and then you had to either make up the story or respond to what the previous person did. We'd go panel by panel, person by person, but it wasn’t very strict. Sometimes we did it in a semi-exquisite corpse, where you finish someone else’s drawing, and sometimes we did exquisite corpses just to mix it up.

"This went on for two years. I remember vividly Dan saying back then, 'Some day we're never going to believe we did this.' And this is that day!

"Eventually, my relationship with my girlfriend ended, and I decided that I wanted to move to New York. I started out doing illustration work and, fortunately for me, I got some stuff published in the New Yorker and I started constantly doing stuff for the New York Press. I was in Monte Beauchamp's Blab, I was doing stuff for Screw, I was doing stuff for the New York Observer. And then I got into animation when a good friend of mine, John Andrews, who was the vice president of animation at MTV at that time, encouraged me to submit some of my comics work, and people there liked them. Anyways, I did a station ID for MTV, and that opened my eyes to how much animation was like the best parts of being in a band. In fact, animation is more like music than anything else I can think of: you're dealing with fluctuations of time, with a kind of rhythm, and with collaboration.

"In the dot com bubble, all of the companies that line Broadway needed somebody to do their animation, and this kept me busy for years. But in the end, between that and doing visual effects for films, eventually I just wanted to get back to drawing.

"Now I've come up with a way to draw animation that feels really great to me. What happened with me was, I had a daughter, I was making money at a certain thing that I was interested in only up to a point, and I realized that I would need a lot of protection to keep on working on films. I’d need a rep, and, as it was, I had an attorney all the time, because there's just so much legal stuff involved with doing work for hire on films. I had to make a decision: how many more employees did I want to get? And I realized I didn’t want the one I had. He was a great guy, but enough is enough! So this year, I could afford to take different kinds of jobs because I wasn’t paying his health insurance anymore, and now I'm a one-man show again. I’m still developing my workflow in terms of drawing and animating, but I’ve got one that I think is solid for me: I just want to draw."