Whether it’s through his surreal, occasionally dark and frequently lol-out-loud hilarious comics and illustrations, his particularly self-effacing email manner, or the insouciant cigarette-holding hand that flashes up as you navigate his website, you can tell that Joakim Drescher is a very funny guy indeed.
The illustrator is behind some superbly baffling work that draws on a vast range of subjects and references. We’re seeing an ennui-laden winged creature inspired by Dante’s Inferno one minute, and a guy having sex with what appears to be a mermaid the next—even the hairy character caught in flagrante delicto by Drescher’s paintbrush seems to be aware of just how weird it all is. A particularly brilliant project is the Tabloid series, which draws on the lexicon of sensationalist real-life mags. One cover boasts a particularly tantalizing headline that begins, “MY YEAR OF HELL: I WAS KIDNAPPED BY REAL LIFE OOMPA LOOMPA AFRICAN PIRATES WHO FORCED ME TO EAT MY OWN SHIT WHILE LISTENING TO ENYA…”
Drescher’s style is gloriously analog, which reminded our Talking Heads-loving editorial team of the band’s Little Creatures album cover. The artwork was created by outsider artist Howard Finster, a retired preacher who took up art when, as he told it, God asked him to create 5,000 paintings to spread the gospel. It turns out the Finster/Drescher connection isn’t just one cooked up by people who love David Byrne a bit too much—“my dad really loves Howard Finster, so I was definitely exposed to his work,” Drescher tells me. “I am a bit obsessive, but pretty normal if considered in that company. I’ve absorbed a bunch of things and I try to get them out onto paper as fast as possible and not think too much about it. Simple as can be.”
Currently based in Copenhagen and soaking in the “free healthcare, grants for artists, free schooling, and soul-sucking brutal dark winters,” Drescher obtained his BA at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam before moving to California. “My mother is American and I have dual citizenship so I thought I would try out my American roots. Also after four years in rainy Amsterdam I was looking for warm weather,” he says. “I was naïve. I went there looking for the Bay Area of Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Skip Spence, et al. It was disappointing to say the least. Most of the artists from what I gathered had hightailed it out of there years ago. There was high rent, no places to live, obnoxious tech culture, and shitty wages—basically the recipe to not write novels like On the Road.
“I don’t doubt that there is a ‘scenius’ (the genius of a community working together, ideas in the ether—I borrowed that from Brian Eno) there and that artists find ways to make it work. But I couldn’t. I worked full time at an art store and still my cell-sized room in West Oakland was hardly affordable. Sheesh! But lots of good ‘material.’”
It’s certainly not new for Drescher to be nomadic, and his tales about life are almost as intriguing as his imagery. For one, his father is Henrik Drescher, who has published a number of children’s books (and continues to do so), as well as illustrating for the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone.
We spoke to Drescher junior about what it was like growing up with artist parents and their “dirty” French photography books, how great Pavement were, and why oftentimes the most technical he gets with his work is using a hairdryer on it.
You were born in Denmark and raised in Indonesia, New Zealand, and China: why did you travel so much growing up? How do you think it affected you as a person, and how do you think it impacted on the work you make?
Well, my dad was a well known artist/illustrator back in the 1980s in New York. I know it’s hard to believe for most illustrators or artists living and working now, but there was a lot of money in this type of work then, which gave our family some degree of financial stability. Both my parents are artists and I have two siblings, so I suppose the moving around had something to do with a mixture of restlessness and the desire to see and experience the world. We moved to New Zealand from Bali, Indonesia so my mother could become a midwife.
As a person, I think the moving around as a kid was hard socially, but wild and exciting. I didn’t really learn to read until I was around eight or nine in Indonesia, and didn’t have much other schooling until my teens. But I absorbed a lot of crazy, beautiful things.
As the son of two artists, did you have much choice about going into the arts?
Well… I could have been a stockbroker or a lawyer—some kids of artists, musicians, or poets take a good long look at their parents and run the other way career-wise. I was never forced to draw and never cared if I didn’t play my Chopin or reproduce Rembrandt etchings. My parents are both really interesting people and our home was filled with goodies like books and music. There are things I remember picking up when I was a pre-teen that I still aspire to.
Did you feel a pressure when you were younger to be “creative”?
If we are talking teens, I was a rake: I read a lot, but had a lot of bad habits. I was more interested in getting into trouble than making anything. My sister Sofia started drawing much earlier, and her work is beautiful. I started drawing seriously around the age of 16 or 17. My younger brother Emile is great too. So I suppose it’s a mixture of nature and nurture.
What sort of art and books were you surrounded by growing up?
[German children’s book] Struwwelpeter would be the first thing that springs to mind, a sort of cautionary tale for children which scared the shit out of me. Edward Gorey, Tomi Ungerer’s Fornicon sex drawings as well as his children’s books, Vladimir Radunsky, Tibor and Mira Kalman, RAW magazine, Jonathan Rosen’s Intestinal Fortitude, Spiegelman’s Maus, Robert Crumb, a large collection of “dirty” French turn-of-the-century nude photo books, Pixies, New York Dolls, Richard Hell’s Blank Generation, maybe some Mexican votive paintings here and there, some Indian miniatures. A lot of great stuff. And of course my dad as well as being a “serious” artist was, and still is, pumping out really fantastic children’s books that don’t insult children’s intelligence or wit.
Which particular works or artists do you think really resonated with you?
I would have to say that what really got me started was music. I wanted to draw the way the bands the Pixies and Pavement sounded. That was it for me.
Do you think any works you encountered in your formative years have had a direct impact on the sort of work you make now?
Absolutely. I’m still trying to impress my 14-year-old self. Hard critic.
How did you find studying at Gerrit Rietveld Academie? What sort of work were you making when you were at art school?
Art school isn’t for everybody. Gerrit Rietveld puts a strong emphasis on minimalism, contemporary art, and a lot of post-(post?)-modern theory. There was a lot of theory. I worked my ass off in art school, but never did anything I was told to do and fought and bickered with my teachers. I made drawings during the day, constructed handmade instruments and recorded music at night for a now-defunct music label which was set up by a friend. School was good for making friends, meeting other talented people, and using the facilities.
I love the textures and energy in your work that you get from using seemingly very analog processes—can you tell me a bit more about the way that you work and the tools you use?
Haha, yes, analog. I’m no rocket scientist, I’m basically a caveman so when it comes to tools, for me it’s the simpler the better. I let my hand do the work. I don’t know how to do fancy gradients on Photoshop, and I lay out my books with a Xerox machine and make dummies. When I’m working on a graphic novel, as I am now, I carry a blue bag with a hardback Moleskine, a bottle of white-out, and a Rapidograph that I’ve converted to give me two different sizes of pen on each side. I know how to make Ben-Day dots in Photoshop, and color layers for silkscreen or Riso printing, and that’s about it. I try to avoid the computer. When I’m working on color stuff, paintings for instance, I use Molotow graffiti pen ink refills because I work quickly and it has some sort of odorless chemical that makes the paint dry very fast. Sometimes I work with a hairdryer next to me.
The Love is Strange series gets pretty weird and racy. Where did the ideas come from for those images?
Dunno. Those drawings, I think, are my mother’s least favorite of mine, and she’s no prude. I’m not into cartoon porn. As I mentioned previously Tomi Ungerer made these fantastic sex drawings which for a while sabotaged his children’s book career. I’ve got a girlfriend. I’m not into gimp masks or anything especially kinky (I suppose most people say that) so I suppose the drawings are a sort of homage to better artists than me who have made erotica, as well as a fascination with the private lives of others. Voyeurism.
Tabloid had me pretty much crying with laughter. Can you tell me more about the role of humor in your work?
What’s that joke about the comedian telling his friends he’s going to become a comedian? “I told my friends I was going to be a comedian and they all laughed… Believe me, they’re not laughing now.”
Yes humor plays a part in my work, but the funniest thing I’ve ever made (according to my friends) is a book called Miserable Mildrid [sic] which just features an ugly dog-faced girl walking around with snippets of my diary about loneliness, isolation, and misanthropy in the speech bubbles. It’s schadenfreude.
Hell on Earth is what first led me to your work when I saw it in Motto in Berlin—can you tell me a bit more about that book?
That book is a sequel to a book I made earlier last year called Detective Camus and the Bermuda Triangle Affair, which is basically a ripoff of Tintin, and the pulp fiction detective stories of the ’50s. I was living in Berlin for two months and I drew pretty much all of it there, mostly in Neukölln cafés. My girl was working on her master’s thesis and I would sit with her and do that while she was writing her serious stuff.
The story wasn’t written out beforehand really; I draw directly onto paper with pens, using white-out occasionally. When I was 25 my dad was working on a book based on Dante’s Inferno. He suggested I do my own version. So I spent around a year drawing demons and grotesque imagery, people being tortured or disemboweled in fire and flames, that kind of stuff.
That was just after I was working on a psychedelic detective story graphic novel, which I spent four years on and made 300 pages but could never really make sense of or do anything with. So I siphoned a little of the unpublished graphic novel and a little of the demon stuff together and then worked out a storyline from that. It is also the first book I had help with. All of the manual labor was done by a sweating and cursing Hugo Rocci from Terry Bleu publishing in Amsterdam.