BYT Interviews: Tony Wolf, Creator of Autobiographical Comic ‘Greenpoint of View’
Megan | May 10, 2017 | 9:00AM |

Tony Wolf is a very, very busy guy; in addition to acting, singing, hosting…you name it, really…he decided to create an autobiographical comic book about the twenty years he’s lived in Greenpoint, which is fittingly titled ‘Greenpoint of View’. And it’s so good! He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project, his interest in drawing and comics, his favorite spots in Greenpoint and more, so internet-eavesdrop on our full email conversation below! You can also check out ‘Greenpoint of View’ right here, so definitely do it. HERE WE GO:

So first and foremost, which came first? Your interest in drawing or your interest in comic books/graphic novels? Or were they simultaneous?

Ever since I was about 3 years old, I’ve been drawing, near-obsessively.  I’ve just been beginning to go through a bunch of boxes of old childhood papers and artwork, and my parents saved many, many drawings.  My older brother was a very talented artist and I feel pretty certain that, in addition to the usual practice of kids just enjoying the process of drawing, I must have begun emulating him and that further fueled my interest in drawing.  I was also (as most kids would be) watching a lot of cartoons and such, and I would draw whatever cartoons I was into at the time.

When I was in elementary school, my mother would take me shopping, and I would be very bored by the mundane activity of having to accompany her on these kinds of errands – so she would buy me Archie Comics Digest and other comics in small paperback form for me to read to keep me occupied while she ran her errands.  This was my ‘gateway drug’ into comics, and I never stopped!

How and when did you decide you were going to make an autobiographical comic?

Starting around 7th grade, when I got really hardcore into comic books and comics collecting, I discovered the autobiographical comics of Harvey Pekar, who wrote a series of autobio comics called American Splendor (which was made into a film starring Paul Giamatti as Harvey – Giamatti’s first leading role, after being an indie character actor for a while).  Pekar’s comics blew my mind, and I was introduced to the genre of autobio comics.  I soon sought out more comics in that vein, discovering R. Crumb, Dean Haspiel, Joe Matt, and the work of many more creators.  It took many years for me to begin to dip my toe into creating my own autobio comics, although it was something I always thought about doing.

The ‘Greenpoint of View’ comics came about as a result of a real lull in my acting career, around 2014.  It had been a while since I’d had any auditions or booked any major acting or voice-over work, and I was growing frustrated (although never to the point of giving up).  One of my close friends, Michael Turney (a writer/ film director; also a former comic book illustrator and musician) had been pushing me to create my own projects.  He was always advising me:  “If you’re not getting the work you want as an actor, write and direct your own short film, as a vehicle for yourself – in the kind of role and with the kind of story you would want to play.”  I was an English Lit. major in college and viewed myself as a solid writer of essays, but didn’t feel very confident about my fiction writing, apart from Saturday Night Live-style short sketch comedy pieces I’d written that I was happy with (which exist as YouTube comedy videos, many of which were created with Mike Turney).

I figured “If I’m going to call in favors – lighting people, camera crews, sound editors, color correction, video editors, etc. – to make a short film that I wrote, starring me, it had better be a story that I am deeply excited about – that I really feel is worth telling.  Otherwise it’s a waste of everyone’s time and nothing more than a vanity project in the worst sense of the term.”  Making a short film is a lot of work!  All for free, basically – and I didn’t have the money to pay even 1/3 of all the people listed above with technical specialties.

So, after a few attempts at writing scripts which I felt were ok but I wasn’t burning with passion to make, Mike further nudged me and said “If you’re not going to make a short film, then make your own comic!  Give yourself a project.  Make art.”  And I thought, “Well, I’ve thought about writing & drawing my own comics for years now…”, but not since my teenage years (where I wrote & drew a 150-page superhero epic from 7th grade to 1st year of college) had I written and drawn my own comics.  I had done freelance artwork for friends who were writers, storyboards for filmmaker friends or friends in advertising, or done artwork as gifts for people now and then… but I hadn’t really put myself out there as an artist in any intense way in my entire adult life.  But I knew I could make comics, I love the visual language of comics storytelling, and I figured “Well, THIS project (unlike making a short film) would cost me $0, and I can do it alone in my room… I don’t need to call in favors and pester an editor to go through hundreds of hours of footage, I don’t need to beg a good cameraman to shoot my film, etc.”

There’s an old friend of mine who has achieved considerable success as a comic book writer & artist, who made a comic to inspire other writers & artists, where he said the following:  “The best thing about comics is it takes no money … you could make the best comic ever sitting on a dumpster with just pens & paper.”  And so I thought “Well, I think I can write essays pretty well… and I can essentially write & direct my own ‘movie’ by making my own comic book series for free!”

By Brandon Graham

I was itching to give myself a project; I was single and had too much time on my hands.  And I loved drawing, writing and comics in general.  So then the question was:  What do I write about?  I wasn’t very confident with my fiction writing abilities, and I never considered character or dialogue to be my strong suit as a writer.  So I decided to take the the autobio comics approach… if you don’t think you can write fiction, the truth is much easier.  🙂

Then it was a question of:  ok, well, what from my life is interesting enough that it might make for a good story?  And I’d read lots of “creative type has romantic problems / creative type has deep angst / creative type writes about their neuroses and being depressed etc.” autobio comics, which were often done in a kind of Woody Allen comedy style.  I thought “Eh, we’ve all seen enough of those.  What can I share that’s a bit more unique?”  My goal was to be a brutal editor on myself – taking the approach of “Okay, we all know our friends and family will be supportive of our creative projects… but I need to think about what a total stranger, an editor of a real magazine who doesn’t give a fuck about me… what would be engaging enough for THAT person?  I need to find a unique angle.”

I had just read a lot of Ed Piskor’s award-winning graphic novel series HIP-HOP FAMILY TREE, where he tells, in a kind of comics documentary style, the entire (very detailed) history of hip-hop as an art form.  It’s done with such love, such fun, and such style.  That made a big impression on me.  Then I read one of Harvey Pekar’s last works, published after his death – an autobio graphic novel illustrated by Joseph Remnant called HARVEY PEKAR’S CLEVELAND.  It’s done so beautifully, and it weaves together, seamlessly, the history of the city of Cleveland – Harvey’s beloved home town – and Harvey’s own life story.  I thought, “Ah-HA!  He does this amazing trick, in a very subtle of way, of telling you stories about his life, but viewed through the lens of the history of the city he lives in. I could do my version of that.”

Because, as I thought very hard about “What sections of my life might be engaging to a total stranger?”, one of the key topics I’d come up with was the fact that I’d lived 20+ years so far in the same apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  I tried to think of the stories that, when I told them at a cocktail party or something, always get a very strong positive response. One of these things was that people are shocked and fascinated when they hear of any young New Yorker living in the same apartment in the NYC / Brooklyn area for 20 years, especially an area like Greenpoint / Williamsburg which had seen such change and been the cradle of this new, vibrant, artistic, bohemian incarnation of “Brooklyn,” which has now practically become a brand.  I moved there in 1996 before the word “hipster”was being used AT ALL in modern society.  It was dead quiet when I lived there, filled with old Polish grannies and some very young Polish and Russian families.  Williamsburg was similarly quiet and eastern European.  People always wanted to hear lots of details about what Williamsburg & Greenpoint were like before the boom.  So I thought: That’s my angle.

I am very happy and thankful that someone did care enough to read my work, and it’s been featured in New York Magazine’s Bedford + Bowery, Gothamist, and an autobio story I did about being a teenage Batman comics fan in the late 80s was also featured in New York Magazine’s Vulture, which you can read for free, in full, here.

What materials did/do you use to work on the project? Do you draw on paper, or do you use a digital tablet? (Or both?)

I am very old school – I grew up in the late 70s / early 80s, and so I draw by hand, on paper.  I do all my lettering by hand.  I don’t own a scanner or know how to use Photoshop.   I do know that soon – maybe by the end of 2017 – I need to start learning how to use programs like Photoshop and Illustrator.  But again, money was a factor – I couldn’t afford a scanner or Photoshop, and deep down I felt badly about stealing a copy of Photoshop like most artists did.  To me it was like Napster – artists work hard to create their music and here we were, copying and getting all their songs for free.  So I draw on paper at home, using Micron pens mostly and other pens, regular pencils, a ruler, a protactor – like I said, old school.  I even use actual White-Out, ha.   Once in a while I’d need to make corrections to the original art that a paste-up or tape-over job on the physical page wouldn’t solve, and for that I’d go to a friend’s house who had a scanner & Photoshop and ask him to please help me and do me the favor of making the corrections with me on his computer.  Friends were very kind and patient with me – especially David Ostow, a New York Times-featured illustrator who recently made his debut as a New Yorker cartoonist.  David helped me format a bunch of pages and make Photoshop corrections recently on a 6-page very personal autobio comics story I did.  Dean Haspiel also let me scan a drawing on his scanner at his studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, back when I knew very few illustrators.

Do you feel like you have any specific influences in your drawing?

Lots of influences.  Mostly comics folk.  The art of John Byrne, Will Eisner, Joseph Remnant, Gary Dunn (he drew a lot of Harvey Pekar’s stories), Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, Andrew Loomis, Norman Rockwell.  You wouldn’t see any influences of the following artists in my work, but I love their stuff:   Drew Struzan, Frank Quitely, Phil Jimenez, Bill Sienkiewicz, David Marquez, Alex Maleev, Brandon Graham, Farel Dalrymple, Adrian Tomine, Tomer Hanuka, Daniel Clowes, Howard Porter, Paul Pope, Ryan Kelly.  The list goes on and on… Saul Bass, the movie titles graphic designer.  Fun trivia: Charlton Heston was an actor who also was an illustrator!  Google it and check out his work; it’s quite good!  Also:  Alison Bechdel (writer & artist of FUN HOME, now also a hit Broadway musical), Marjane Satrapi (writer & artist of PERSEPOLIS), Art Spiegleman (writer & artist of MAUS), Tom Beland (writer & artist of TRUE STORY SWEAR TO GOD, another autobio comic series).

Between acting, narrating, singing, hosting…(the list goes on I’m sure) you seem like you stay pretty busy. When do you do most of your drawing? Do you have any sort of creative routine?

I have a thankfully somewhat-flexible office job, and so I work 5 days a week, regular office hours… and therefore I get all my creative projects done either on nights & weekends, or I save up vacation days to notify my office well in advance when I have acting, voice-over, singing or other performing gigs when I’ll need to be out during weekday hours.  I’m a legal secretary at a corporate law firm, and the people there are great to work with and have been very kind & accommodating.

In terms of inspiration:  many of us know the name John Grisham.  Many of us know the name Scott Turow.  Both were (I believe) practicing lawyers who had dreams of being professional writers.  I read that either Grisham or Turow (or both?) would get up at 5 am every day, write for 2 1/2 hours, and then start getting ready at 7:30 am to start their weekday as an attorney.  I always was incredibly impressed by their discipline and determination.  I vowed that I would work hard to be that dedicated as I began doing comics in earnest, trying to make a professional go at it.  I reminded myself that we can always carve out 1-3 hours on a weeknight or a weekend afternoon, or on those weekend nights when we’re not going out.  I made sure to put in several blocks of 1, 2 or 3 hours a week, as much as I could, doing these comics.

I also had just turned 40 and I wasn’t having all that much professional success in my creative endeavors – I had done quite a decent amount of regional theater acting work and some national tours of shows, had done a bunch of voice-over work (including a big job for Microsoft, narrating 1000 hours of an app – but the app never went to market), and acted in some small TV commercials… and two close friends had died of cancer before they turned 40.  This galvanized me – plus my friend Mike Turney’s constant pushing me to make my own projects and take my destiny more into my own hands.  I thought “Hey, if I die next month, single and not a successful actor… at least I’ll have made this comic story.  At least I’ll have left a mark.”  I wasn’t depressed or morose – just frustrated.  I’d worked hard for 18+ years as an actor and voice-over actor, and didn’t have a ton to show for it.  I was never going to give up or stop – but I figured this would be a good time to begin making more use of whatever visual artistic abilities I had and start sharing and telling my own stories.  At the very least, it would be a labor of love – a project just for me.  Whether anyone in “the public” cared or not, I was now very inspired to tell these stories.  Greenpoint was also getting featured a lot in the media, and was the setting of the then-brand-new hit HBO show GIRLS – so I figured riding that wave of Greenpoint media buzz couldn’t hurt.  Maybe one of those theoretical “total strangers who’s a professional editor” just might find my stories interesting.

So I spent many weeknights and many weekend afternoons & evenings laying out, planning, writing, and drawing these comics.  I vividly remember drawing the Greenpoint / Williamsburg bar The Turkey’s Nest in great detail, having taken reference photos of the front of the building, and closeups of the logo of the bar on their sign.  I remember thinking “This is kind of insane.  I’m doing this as if anyone will care. I’m putting such detail into drawing the turkey on the Turkey’s Nest sign… I’m spending 2 hours drawing Enid’s bar.  Will anyone even read this??”  But it felt right to be doing it, so I kept on.  I had a lot of fun doing it.

When I first conceived of the ‘Greenpoint of View’ series (and it was Mike Turney who also heard my concept for it and suggested the title ‘Greenpoint of View’ – thanks Mike!  It’s a perfect title!), I instantly thought of about 12 anecdotes from my many years in the neighborhood that would make good stories.  Since I put about 8 hours into each page (that includes the hand-lettering), a 5 or 6-page story can take me about 5 months to do, since I have a full-time job.  I am currently about to finish the 4th Greenpoint story and have 10 more stories left.  I’m excited to tell them all – I just need more time!

You’re Greenpoint-based (or at least you were in the latest issue of your comic) and have been since 1996, so what are a few of your favorite places (restaurants, parks, stores, etc.) in the neighborhood that still exist?

McCarren Park – I’ve always loved it.  I love the restaurant Scalino G.P. and the owners are the best.  Great Italian food.  The newer restaurant Sauvage is fantastic.  Calexico is fun.  The Manhattan Inn used to be great, and a dance party would erupt in the main room after 10 pm most Saturday nights, around the big white grand piano … but in recent years, the management started to decline and the service there was terrible. It just went out of business some months ago.  I remember when The Manhattan Inn used to be a Polish sports bar.  Also, Enid’s and Matchless are terrific.  The No Name Bar is fun and has great atmosphere, but also just changed owners and is now called simply A BAR.  The Thai restaurant under my apartment, formerly called Erb Thai but now called Boon Thai, is quite good.  And I love the new deli, Frankel’s, where Bedford Avenue begins.  Five Leaves is good but usually too crowded.   The Triple Deck Diner on Manhattan Avenue & Norman Avenue is the best diner!  Peter Pan Donuts and Mo’s Donuts – both excellent.  Get your liquors at Polemost Liquors on Manhattan Avenue!  McGolrick Park is also very nice, and the French place on Franklin Avenue is real quality – Le Gamin.  Esme on Manhattan Avenue is fantastic.

And what are some of your favorite places to shop for comics in the city, apart from Midtown Comics?

Desert Island Comics in Williamsburg is great (by the Kellogg Diner).  Forbidden Planet in NYC by Union Square is top-notch… and the new comic book store in Crown Heights, Anyone Comics, is superb!

What’s your best comic book find to date? Anything you’ve searched for in vain?

For me, it’s less about hunting down what we geeks call “back issues” (any older comics) – I’ve found all of those by this point that I wanted to find.  New comics that have impressed me lately:  Loose Ends, Southern Bastards, Howard The Duck by Chip Zdarsky & Joe Quinones, also Power Man & Iron Fist by David Walker and Sanford Greene.  I almost always love the work of writer Grant Morrison.

Any advice for someone who wants to try their hand at making an autobiographical comic? (Or a comic in general?)

The great thing about comics, as mentioned above, is – you can always do it!  Make the time.  Put in the work.  Have fun, and know that you’re going to need to spend many hours writing and drawing.  With webcomics, you can make a comic, simple or crazily-detailed, and put it on a website just hours after you’ve completed it!  Then the whole world can look at it!  It’s crazy!  Find like-minded friends who also love drawing & storytelling – support each other.  Form an artists’ collective if you can, and if they are so inclined.  I lucked out in finding friends like Tom Gryphon and Dimitrios Fragiskatos, who took a chance on me, believed in my work and published my Greenpoint comics in physical form.  If they hadn’t printed my stories, I would have likely waited a year or two to print them, and odds are I would have ended up with a much crappier version of a printed book, done by Kinko’s or something like that.  They gave my work a great book design and quality printed final product, and I’m honored to collaborate with them to this day.

Finally, what are you working on now that you’re excited about?

I am about to debut the newest ‘Greenpoint of View’ story – a story that took place in 1996 about me fighting injustice!  Also, I’m very excited to debut a new 3-page comic about food, which will be colored by my friend, New Yorker cartoonist & writer Jeremy Nguyen (which also contains a guest appearance by the aforementioned David Ostow).  Both of these new stories will be debut in the next month or so.

Also, I just debuted a new 6-pg autobio story in the comics anthology Sweaty Palms – about creative types going through times of depression & anxiety.  There is a digital version available here and physical copies can be purchased here.

I just shot a co-star role in the first episode of the new NBC show Blacklist: Redemption (a spinoff of their hit series The Blacklist starring James Spader) and have been auditioning for other co-star roles on TV shows and movies shooting here in the NYC area.  I’ve been doing some voice-over work at gala events and fundraisers – a few years ago I did live voice-over announcements and introductions along with Larry King, at Robert DeNiro’s lifetime achievement award ceremony at the Friars Club at the Waldorf-Astoria.  I look forward to getting back to doing some singing projects as well.  And once the 4th Greenpoint of View story is done, I already have layouts done and am eager to begin the 5th Greenpoint of View comic.

Where can we find you online?

More updates are available at the News & Updates section of my website, and I post rather frequently on Twitter and Instagram.  My IMDB is here.

My main YouTube page can be found here, with my acting reel and voice-over reel.  I have a ‘secret’ YouTube page where I often do strange, Andy Kaufman type comedy & singing videos, and that secret I will reveal unto you now, o mysterious reader: it is here.

And here’s a review of ‘Greenpoint of View’ from a prominent comics journalism site, plus 3 ‘Greenpoint of View’ stories thus far can be read – for free – on the website for Anyone Comics.