We’ve all fallen in love with CLYW. Even if you don’t own one of their top-level throws, it’s pretty hard to deny that they are a solid and exciting brand putting amazing product into the hands of some of the best players in the world.
But while CLYW owner Chris Mikulin and his incredible team of players deserve all the praise in the world, there’s another member of the team who’s very much responsible for the quirky perfection of CLYW. From the scruffy might of Dirtbag Yeti to the house on the Cliff, the art we love so much had to start somewhere and it started in the pen of a guy named Jason Week.
Comic artist and illustrator Jason Week went from being excited about yoyos to being responsible for the art on YoYoExpert’s van, website, and trading cards, and then to designing amazing packaging and the unforgettable Dirtbag Yeti comics for CLYW. I spent a couple of days chatting with Jason and talking about his career, yoyos, dinosaurs, and a few other things that I won’t print until the statute of limitations runs out in 2027.
So I’m assuming that like most artists, you’ve been more or less drawing your entire life. When did you decide that you were really going to actively pursue your art?
Same old story, right? Everybody doing this has been doing it forever. But yeah, for me it was alway either going to be art, or paleontology. I was obsessed with both pretty much from birth. But art became the more logical choice, given the low probability of me attending college once I graduated high school. Drawing and comics became my priority at about 19, but I had NO clue how to really pursue them, so I bounced around doing mostly grocery jobs while I got better at it. Once I found out about The Center for Cartoon Studies when I was 28, that was pretty much it. I applied, got in, and it showed me how to actually try to do this for a living. There’s certainly a longer version of the story, but it’s always messy when you want to do something silly for a living.
Yeah, I can relate to that. I’ve been throwing stuff for a living for 18 years now. “Messy” pretty well covers it.
Can’t really talk about this without saying that it would never have happened if I wasn’t lucky enough to have met my amazing wife when I was 22. She’s an art teacher by training, so she knew exactly how to handle my particular strain of crazy.
An artist married an art teacher? That’s awesome!
I know, right? And she has a lot of experience with at-risk youth, so she was pretty much perfect for me since being a cartoonist basically makes me an at-risk adult. Ha ha! Right now she’s been teaching pre-school for a few years, and she’s fantastic at it.
So you’ve been drawing your whole life…at 22 you met the girl of your dreams and she’s an art teacher. At 28, you found out about the Center for Cartoon Studies and then everything went from there. What was your first paying gig as a professional artist?
You know Dogfish Head Brewery? I did a comic for them. It was packed with the 40 oz. they produced, “Liquor de Malt”. It was about how to best enjoy your 40. Each bottle came with a bag to hide it in, and my comic.
Oh, that’s amazing.
I got paid fifty bucks and a case of malt liquor. Which, at the time, was amazing. I was working at a liquor store, and we had a great relationship with the Dogfish Head Brewery owner, Sam Calgione. We sold tons of his beer. It’s still my all-time favorite brewery.
So when did you start Billy The Dunce?
I was 19 when I created the character, althought I’ve stopped and started it more times than I’m comfortable with. It’s sadly typical, though. The project you’re closest with is the one you can never get right. Hard not to hold it to some sort of unreachable standard. It’s like the carrot that keeps me pushing forward…I’d love to get the opportunity to really do it right. It was actually my thesis project for CCS, so I probably started the webcomic a bit too early.
The difference between the first comic (June 2009) and the most recent one is pretty significant. Are you able to go back and look at the early stuff, or do you just cringe at the thought of it?
I’m fond of it because of what it represents, but otherwise I’d be happy to never look at it again. I can’t really take the last comic I did, but that’s just how I am.
I’m the same way with my old yoyo videos. They’re funny, but at the same time I shudder every time I see myself in huge, baggy shorts and glasses with crappy hot rod flames on the sides.
Really, if you focus on growth as an endpoint, it’s hard not to look back and be dissatisfied. I’d probably be crying if i could see videos of myself from 2000. I think I had bleached blonde hair with too much brown root showing through. I probably looked like an English teacher trying to be cool.
Yeah, the fact that I started being a sort of minor public figure in 1996 leaves me with an uncomfortably accessible archive of every terrible fashion decision I’ve ever made.
I can’t even imagine. Occasionally my best friend brings out videos from when we were in high school, and just die inside to see who I was. I know it’s just how being a person works, but I’m not someone who can disassociate from that. Over-thinking things and anxiety are my bread and butter though. Typical comics guy.
So Billy The Dunce started as a weekly webcomic in 2009. How long had he been around before then?
In 1999, I drew an angry little guy in a dunce hat giving the finger to the eye of god, and it just kind of snowballed from there. I realize now that I had picked up the Dunce hat icon from reading Evan Dorkin’s comics. I was reading a lot of Dork at the time, and it really seeped into my subconscious. That and my undying love for Calvin & Hobbes set the template for it.
It’s funny you say that, because looking at the most recent comic it’s clear that you’re drawing Billy in the same woods that Calvin and Hobbes played in.
You mean the woods that I played in! I grew up out on a county highway in central Wisconsin, so I spent a lot of time out in the woods, and swimming’ in the cricks. It’s funny, I actually convinced my wife to make an overnight stop in Chagrin Falls, Ohio [home of C&H creator Bill Watterson] for our honeymoon road trip. It’s incredible how the woods out there are EXACTLY what they are in C&H.
It’s actually a little disconcerting at times….walking through Chagrin Falls as a C&H fan it’s easy to get disoriented because you keep feeling this wild sense of deja vu at the sight of everything.
No kidding. That back cover for…uh…Indispensible, maybe? With giant Calvin rampaging through the downtown with the popcorn shop in his hand. I love it! It was so great to see the popcorn shop for real. I actually bought my copy of the complete set from the Fireside Book Shop in town. I tend to romanticize these sorts of things.
Isn’t that part of an artist’s job? Romanticizing the world around you?
It’s certainly part of my job. I’ve alway been overly romantic about things. Which makes yo-yos an easy fit.
It’s all the promises of childhood, in your pocket.
And it’s so easy to fall into philosophical digression, too. Contemplating simplicity seems to lead to that sort of thing, and yoyos at their core are one of the simplest possible toys. And then there are the ramifications of a toy that always returns to you if you treat it right, and beats you down if you mess up. I’ve got a nice little scar just above my chin from an unruly Grind Machine. I still worry when I use it. To be fair, though, it was my unruly throw. Taught me to be more careful after a cruddy bind.
So when did you get interested in yoyos?
I’ve played with them since I was kid. I know I had Duncan Imperials and Butterflies around, but the first one I remember specifically getting was a light-up number – half red, and half blue. You had to load AA’s into it. I’ve played in waves my whole life. I’d get a new yoyo, throw it until the string broke and then forget that I loved yo-yoing until I saw another on the shelf and bought it.
So was it CLYW or YoYoExpert that you first hooked up with for doing yoyo illustration work?
YoYoExpert. I got my first book gig around October 2012, and I had just discovered the whole modern movement, so I decided to reward myself with an expensive new toy. I bought a OneDrop Code 1, but I was so ignorant that I kept thinking the bearing was responsive (instead of the fact that I over-lubed it and had a junky throw), so I sent it in to André and he was kind enough to treat me like I wasn’t a complete idiot. Customer service was so great that I told him I’d love to do a doodle or something as thanks. And that was pretty much that.
So from that doodle, Andre approached you to do what else for him? It seems like there’s been a significant amount of your work attached to YYE.
That doodle was the character he uses for some stuff on the website. That was the first thing. Here’s a little secret: it looks kind of like André.
I know. It’s subtle.
I guess I can almost kinda sorta maybe just barely see the teensiest bit of a resemblance to someone who might be mistaken for André in a dark alley.
Right. That’s intentional.
So how exciting was it to do the YoYoExpert van?
Honestly, it sort of snuck up on me. The only plan for those images was originally for the trading cards. I can’t remember at what point he said that he’d like to blow them up for the van, but I guess he must have liked them. After that I was more worried about my computer blowing up from how big I was working so that they wouldn’t get too pixelated on the van. I generally don’t like what Vector does to my work, so I have to work really big to compensate on projects like that. From a trading card size to a van sized graphic…it was REALLY crazy to see it in real life. Surreal. But as cool as it is having work on the van, doing those trading cards was kind of a dream come true for me, and any other kid who grew up loving anything you could put on a card besides sports. The legacy of trading card art is so fantastic, and I love that I got to give it a try.
So through working with André, Chris Mikulin noticed your work?
That was part of it. I think he clicked on my profile after I commented on something he posted on Facebook around the time that André had mentioned me to him. Put two and two together and again, I guess he liked what I did. I think he had it in his head to do a comic, and when he saw my work figured I’d be a good guy to give it a try.
It’s been an amazing collaboration so far. How much input does Chris have with the writing?
I more or less write them from the ground up. Sometimes Chris will have a vague idea and I’ll run with it, but mostly it’s me throwing scenarios and thumbnails his way, and he gives it the yay or nay. He knows when the characters are off.
Chris has such a strong and impeccable sense of his brand, it’s really impressive.
He does, and from my point of view (because I really can’t speak for Chris), it’s really natural and intuitive. He’s just got good taste, and he’s really open to spontaneity and possibility.
I think it speaks to your writing that you’ve been able to tap in to that, and create something that is uniquely yours, but still playing in someone else’s very specific world.
I think that’s actually one of Chris biggest strengths. He can put together a bunch of disparate artists, let them be who they are but still pull it together and make it all consistent within the CLYW style.
He’s a hell of a brand manager.
Absolutely. Before I knew anything at all about the modern scene, I’d troll around on YoYoExpert’s shop pages and I’d always be drawn to the CLYW stuff. I was pretty over the moon when he contacted me because based purely on visuals, that’s the company I would have loved to do work for. There’s a lot of amazing creativity in the yoyo world, but Chris has a great combination of polish and rawness. Just the right balance.
It’s a huge thing, to be invited to contribute so heavily to the visual fabric of someone else’s brand like this. You’re doing the comics, the box art, t-shirts…is it tempting to alter your style to try and fit CLYW, or have you found that the CLYW brand has sort of come to meet you?
I don’t really know what my style is, to tell you the truth. Style is like the holy grail of so many artists, especially cartoonists. I know there’s something built into the DNA of my drawing structure, but I try not to pay too much attention to it. When I do something for Chris, first and foremost I consider what appropriate for the project, and then try to match that idea in my head. Sometimes I’m dead on and Chris’s emails are basically just him saying AWESOME and I LOVE IT. And other times we really go back and forth and have to start over and over again to get it right.
I heard the box art for The Cliff was a tough one.
Yeah, but it was so worth the process! It started as a straight-up painting, even though it was in Photoshop. A big part of it was my fault – I upgraded my workstation, and I think my desire to push forward with all the new tools got the art a bit off track. Once we re-assessed and went with the regular lineart for a base to the image, it was relatively smooth sailing. The one thing I’ve noticed is the most consistent across the CLYW aesthetic is a feel really similar to wood cuts. Everytime I do something where I’m cutting away at big blocks of black, I know Chris is going to like it.
Have you ever experimented with actual wood or lino cuts?
Only very minimally in high school. But it’s pretty easy to approximate in photoshop. Once I print my sketches out and get out the brushes, I think it takes some of the chunkiness out of sketches, so it’s a bit less obvious.
So how’s your collection of CLYW yoyos looking?
Not bad. I’ve got quite a few Canvases, a Campfire and a Chief. I really love the Canvas. It’s an artist’s return-top, I think. I’ve got so many because Chris was generous enough to give me a full run of Prototypes from the Lost in the Arctic run, and I adore playing with them.
Do you have a Puffin yet?
No, but I’ve drawn quite a few. Did you know the males lose those big beaks when it isn’t mating season?
They shed them like a deer sheds it’s antlers.
I cannot imagine a world where my mouth fell off when it wasn’t sexy time.
The things you learn drawing yoyo boxes. I could get so much story out of Puffin losing his beak.
What’s next for the Dirtbag Yeti series?
I honestly have no idea. Chris has been on such a great run of new models, I’ve been fighting just keep up. I suppose now that the Cliff has been released, we should talk about the comic. It’s been a crazy year for Chris. Crazy year for me, too.
Aside from all the yoyo related work, what else have you been working on this past year?
I’ve been working a lot with Matt Caracappa – he did X-entertainment.com for years, but he started up a new site in June called Dinosaur Dracula, and I do all of his headers and assorted other small illustrations. We did a big fancy print for Halloween that turned out pretty nice.
And I’ve been plugging away at illustrating my first book gig, The Barftastic Life of Louie Burger. It’s more or less finished, but we have some pick up work to do for the cover. It’s for the 8-12 year old set. You ever read Judy Blume books when you were a kid? Same length and overall structure.
I love Judy Blume. I still have to talk myself out of dressing up as “Anita’s Anger” from Superfudge every Halloween.
I think this book has some really fun parallels with the Fudge books. It’s a great little book, really mean it. Met with the author for the first time recently, and we really hit it off. I don’t know if you have any friends in the industry but when you get hired to do a book like this the publisher handles all the art and design chores, so I never really talked to Jenny directly during the process. But it didn’t really matter that much, because it turns out we have a lot of common goals and it worked out really well. The publisher is really fantastic, too, and I loved working with the team I did. Helps that my designer, Andrew Arnold, is an alum of CCS. It’s easy to communicate when we both come from comics.
Is this kind of illustration something you’re hoping to do more of?
Ideally, I’d love to live a life doing books, comics and yoyo art. It’s a good balance. Comics are really hard on any artist because they’re so unforgiving and labor intensive. Illustration is like being unchained afterwards; it feels like sprinting compared to pushing a car. But I can’t believe that I’ve gotten where I am now at all. It’s surreal to be a working artist…I’m really, REALLY lucky to have guys like Chris and André that believe in my work enough to take a chance on me.
Oh, I don’t think it was much of a chance. Your skill really shows.
I hope so. I don’t take much for granted. The only gauge I have of my skill level is that fact that I’ve gotten good enough to learn that being defensive only makes a person a worse artist. Too much ego kills my skills.
Too much ego kills pretty much everything, except apparently Nike endorsements.
The best thing that ever happened to me as an artist was getting broken down and reassembled at school. Before that I was pretty much crap. The only thing I have to offer as an artist is the filter I apply to the work. Lots of people can draw. LOTS of people can do better work than I can. The only unique thing I have is my particular brew of experiences, and if that gets pumped out onto the page maybe it has something of value to it.
Isn’t that really true of pretty much everyone and everything?
Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.
You can find Jason’s work all over the place these days, but be sure to keep an eye on his website, DuncePress.com for the latest updates on his fantastic illustration work.