A Conversation with Jerry Moriarty

The renowned comic strip artist Jerry Moriarty is not widely known, yet his work has recently been reissued in The Complete Jack Survives collection.

Buenaventura Press has reconfigured and brought back his groundbreaking work first published in RAW Books in the 1980s.

His style is a bold and unassuming blend of the essences of himself and his father, appearing in his drawings like a tune.

It is a kind of poetry, and one that has been remarkably timeless and emotive.

Moriarty stands out among painters for his unironic representation when it was unfashionable to do so. He delved into the narrative potential of painting with the realism of a wordsmith, creating characters and events that echoed his own memories of family, loss, and youth.

His pioneering comic-strip efforts in the 70s and 80s inspired a generation of cartoonists for their subtlety, introducing a solemn and timeless quality to a medium that typically features the flashy and outrageous.

In conclusion, his largely unseen body of work is unparalleled in its accessibility and humanity in the annals of painting and visual storytelling. His art is a window into the artist’s mind and our own recollections, which become more defined and elusive with time.

Moriarty, born in Binghamton, NY in 1938, graduated from the Pratt Institute in 1960, and has been a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York since the early ’60s. Despite this, he has had few art exhibitions.

He does not generally sell his artwork and leads a humble lifestyle, dedicated primarily to painting and drawing.

His most notable work is Jack Survives, and he has been working for some time on Sally’s Surprise, a combination of his paintings and cartoons, which is likely to be released next year.

Moriarty’s work reflects his level of thoughtfulness and unaffectedness; correspondingly, the reader might be understanding of the inquisitor’s meticulous and didactic queries. This interview happened electronically during July of 2009.

According to Chris Ware


CHRIS WARE: Is it hard for you not to view Jack as your dad, even though you emphasize he is not? Did inventing the made-up character of Jack make your father seem alive for you?

JERRY MORIARTY: I never had the chance to know my dad as a person since he died ten days before my fifteenth birthday. I have created and reconstructed him from my memory, but not as an obsession.

Occasionally, when I look at a Life magazine from my collection, a magazine he likely read, I think of us discussing Harry Truman or the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Jack Survives pages all originate from my life and only one is based on him.

Dad is in Jack as a quiet being who is able to manage Jack’s issues better than I am. I remember a friend phoning me a year into producing Jack Survives and he asked, “How’s Jack?” That stunned me.

Somebody who did not know my dad inquired, “How’s Jack?” It had replaced “How’s your painting?” It reminds me of the adage “You are never forgotten if someone says your name.” Yes, my father was brought to life.

He came from the same place from where ideas emerge and ideas are given life when you make art with them.

CW: Are you concerned that, through the continuous painting and drawing of your parents or substitutes for them, your recollections become less pristine and exact? Alternatively, does it help to bring back particulars that you had forgotten?

A photograph of Jerry Moriarty and Chris Ware is depicted, depicting the two of them in conversation.

JM: My art is a way for me to connect with my parents, and it enables me to revisit events in our shared history. It also creates opportunities for new experiences between my mom and dad.

When I was 8, copying Superman gave me a feeling of being close to the heroes of my imagination. Fifteen years ago, I painted a picture of my father in our living room on January 4, 1953; the next day, he had a heart attack and died at work.

As an artist, I understand that our works contain layers beneath the surface. This painting allowed me to go back in time and enter the scene from a third-dimensional perspective, looking down at my dad from 10 years in the future. Doing so was an incredibly powerful experience.

I have no idea if he was aware of me. In the end, depictions of my parents are not intended to bring back memories, or else they could be seen as sentimental reminders of a bygone era rather than reflections of me in the present. As someone once said, “Whenever a scribe is born in a family, the family is doomed.”

Question:Do you ever find yourself thinking about your stories, comics, or artwork during random moments in the day? Or do most of your ideas come while you’re actively creating?

Answer:When I’m looking to come up with new ideas, I start by jotting down as many as I can think of. Some of them usually turn out to be forgettable, but others tend to surprise me.

I move on to sketching out the best of the ideas on Xerox paper, usually about a dozen, and then take the eight best sketches to larger paper. After transferring the sketches to a heavy Bristol board, I paint the best ones in full color with acrylics.

Last, I work with oil on stretched canvas with the four best paintings. The process can be tedious, but it’s not redundant. Each stage utilizes a different medium and that, in turn, causes me to think of new ideas and keeps it an improvisational process.

I’m especially pleased when I see big changes in the process, which I take as proof that I’m getting “smart with art.” Out of all the mediums, oil paint is my favorite because I’m a romantic.

Even so, sometimes it doesn’t turn out to be the best version of the idea. It can also happen that I think I’m doing well but the oil painting reveals the idea itself to be bad. Skill can’t help with bad ideas.

CW: Why do you think that our society finds it peculiar when someone like Jack is labeled a “loner”?

JM asserted that loneliness and being a loner are not the same. Everyone has experienced loneliness, yet not everyone is a loner. Jack may be alone, but not a loner. The speaker is a loner and understands why others may find this strange.

To them, being solitary is total freedom. They stay up late and wake up late; however, they are always ready to work when “art guilt” sets in. Jack’s initial comic showed him coming home to an empty house, unaware that his family had left.

The author did not want any recurring characters to interfere with Jack’s personal conversations, as these were only expressed through dialogue balloons (except for once in the first panel). After that, Jack only spoke through thought balloons.

My dad was content with the small house he lived in with the family of four children, two adults, and one dog. Being the middle kid, I envied the privacy I didn’t have.

Every morning, there was much hustle and bustle to get everybody out for school and work. Mom stayed home, but was busy preparing lunch and breakfast (which wasn’t much of a sit-down meal). I was always the last to leave, after my siblings and father.

Sometimes I would look back at the now vacant house and covet my mom’s place, who was alone in the silent place all day. I often skipped school and hurled my pocket knife at a tree in a nearby yard until it was time to return.

It was a good thing I got into art, where unconventional people are accepted and it’s alright to be alone. At the end of her life, I went to Binghamton to visit my mom in the hospital.

She introduced me to the nurse as her son, an artist from New York City. The nurse replied promptly, “I thought one or the other.” We all laughed in unison.

CW: I recall that you told me that during your early adulthood, you spent a fair amount of time with your mother, seated around the kitchen table, listening to her tales of her youth as the daughter of a coal miner, and her meeting your father, etc. Do you remember these stories in detail, or just the feeling of conversing with your mum?

JM recalled that conversations of substance typically took place at the kitchen table with coffee and cigarettes, citing two different kitchens in particular. One was the kitchen in which he grew up, and the other was in his sister’s house, where his mother had a cozy apartment.

At the age of 74, JM recorded three hours of his mother sharing stories in that second kitchen. He traveled approximately 200 miles to record her in 1976, bringing along a boom box.

He shared that he was a night person like his mother, and as a teenager, he would ascend from the basement to the kitchen to talk over coffee and cigarettes. His mother never commented on his artwork, but his father encouraged him.

She did, however, provide practical support for his art, such as finding art classes for him and paying for him to attend art school, the first in their family to go to college.

It was not until recently, when JM painted a companion piece to ‘Dad Watching Me Paint’, that he realized his storytelling was likely influenced by his mother.

He recalled her joy when telling stories, and the way her face lit up and she would mouth the words when she heard her own voice. His mother had to drop out of school in the eighth grade due to narcolepsy, a condition which was not recognized in 1916.

She mistakenly believed her sleepiness to be a sign of laziness, though she was a bright and eager student who adored school. In 1922, she wrote and published an article in ‘Flapper’ magazine entitled ‘Why Girls Leave Home’, inspired by her own decision to leave home at 15.

Although she desired to be a writer, she instead became a mother of four and had to return to work at the age of fifty following her husband’s death. Despite this, she passed on the ‘oral tradition’ to her children.

The following is an account of a motherly anecdote that I recall without relying on any recordings:

When I was a youngster in Blossburg (Pennsylvania), there were no pets around; however, we did have two piglets named Nellie and Jimmy. Every year or so, they would be gone for a while and then return.

I remember when I was around ten years old, my dad was conversing with a butcher who traveled to the nearby coal mining towns and at that moment, Nellie and Jimmy were gone again.

That week, we had pork chops for supper. We had been eating Nellie and Jimmy the whole time.


CW: You have compared your artwork to your own offspring, and never sold any, instead choosing to keep them in your workspace. As a result, the majority of people have only seen them in reproductions. Is that the ideal way you would like them to be seen?

JM: Much of the art that has impacted my life has come from printed sources, such as magazines, comics, and paintings. In some cases, I found the originals of artworks that I had seen in books to be less impressive.

As I have mostly lived in a pre-digital world, the printing of the time couldn’t compete with the quality we have today. Yet, the ideas remain, just as a great movie can still be enjoyed on a small TV, and music can still be enjoyed in its digital form.

For me, it is best to experience art in its reproduced form, as it separates the concept from the physical object.

My art is usually seen through printed mediums, which is not a letdown; as a “paintoonist,” it is between the book and the wall.

The wall conveys the painting as an object, showcasing that it was crafted with care.

I take pride in my craftsmanship, for books have their own kind of magic that does not need a physical object.

My paintings, at four by five feet, are not huge, but have a tangible presence. I have no possessions of great value besides my artworks and this is by design. I’m intimidated by the art world, wealthy people, and culture in general, so I opt not to reach out to them.

Prints of my work could provide an answer to the obscurity of not showing in galleries. My hope is that people can appreciate my art, not just as a book but as something on a wall. However, it is unrealistic to sell my originals and expect a gallery to pay the rent.

The ideal situation would be to have my pictures displayed in a gallery that sells reproductions of my art.

CW: Regarding this, all your work, a unified collection, still resides in your studio. Is there an intent to document it?

JM discussed how archiving his work is like bookkeeping, and how he doesn’t seek out interest in his art, due to his ego and nature. He then discussed how he can be as relentless as a stage mother when he’s compelled to show it, and how he believes his art has a life beyond him.

As an example, he mentioned when he did a subway poster for SVA’s fiftieth anniversary and requested a retrospective at the SVA Museum, which was granted. He went on to say that, when necessary, he is proactive in taking care of business with his art, claiming pride in it.

CW: Is the feeling of heaviness and timelessness in your images something you sought intentionally or was it an element that naturally arose?

JM believes the distinction between painting and graphic art is in the way that each process approaches the white canvas. He embraces a painterly outlook that is not afraid of destroying the canvas, as it can be renewed with white paint.

Conversely, graphic art attempts to safeguard the white surface perpetually and to plan ahead. For JM, the process of creating art is a cycle of learning: beginning with the “dumbest” version of himself as an artist and gradually becoming “smarter” as the picture progresses.

The tangible weight of paint and the presence of this weight in his works have diminished in recent years; instead, he strives for the transparency of watercolors but with acrylic or oil paint.

Art evolves and develops in tandem with the artist’s life, as Picasso once said “You have to kill your father” – meaning, to eliminate one’s influences and venture away from the familiar to explore within.

CW: If your dad was able to view the series of images you created of yourself as an aged man painting in an underground room, with him looking over you, what do you think his opinion would be of your art now?

Answer:When I was a child, I used to have my “studio” in the cellar of our house, which was formerly a coal bin. It was equipped with a single light bulb, a foldable easel, and an old kitchen table. There was a gas furnace, my father’s workbench, and various stored items nearby.

Even though the cellar was dank, low, and smelly, I loved it as no one would come there unless it was necessary. On some occasions, my dad would come down after supper and observe me as I was painting, still wearing his shirt and tie from work.

In my paintings, I can recall those visits, as I have depicted myself as I am now, at seventy years of age, in a smaller version of myself as I was back then, as a ten-year-old.

I wanted to be realistic, not copying a photograph or inventing a ten-year-old boy as if I had hired someone to portray me.

This way, I appear ridiculous but truthful, which made me laugh out loud. I cannot say what my father would think if he knew I had become a real artist instead of an “art kid.”

CW: What caused you to want to start drawing comic strips? Was there something that inspired you to create them?

JM: I have a tendency to collect and the process of accumulating knowledge is what I enjoy. As a result of this, I’m not a spectator but a creator. In the past few years, I have gathered a lot of Hawaiian shirts.

I’m not really a social person so the only place where I can wear them is at the supermarket. Initially, I liked them little by little, but when I got an incredible one, I liked them a lot.

It was then that I realized how they allowed me to grasp the concept of abstracts as long as they were presented in the form of a shirt.

On the other hand, I don’t want anything too realistic on the shirts, like a photograph or a painted palm tree. As a result, my art has changed, showing the creative impact of my collection.

The first time I experienced the power of collecting was when I attended Comic-Cons in the 1970s and experienced the “comic high” when it worked. That’s when I transitioned from collector to creator during the late ’70s.

I was in complete admiration of some comic book artists and wanted to be able to reflect the fantasy power of art to bridge the gap between me and my heroes. It was during that time that I started Jack Survives.

Justin Green was one of my heroes with Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary and he was able to attempt to portray something seemingly impossible–to illustrate a psychological and emotional state in a real setting.

This was similar to what Edvard Munch and Philip Guston did at different stages of their lives. I’m not a complete list so I don’t need a full collection of anything; instead, every collection ends and a new one begins. I no longer collect comics as much.

CW: Was it always a key element of Jack Survives for you that the drawings and words that you had “whited out” still be visible as faint gray remains on the final comic page?

JM stated that he is willing to accept the “ghosts” of Jack as an artistic artifact of his thinking process, as long as they do not become a distraction.

His handwriting is visible in these “ghosts”, which is a testament to the anxiety threshold of his nervous system that often results in sudden brush strokes rather than calculated movements.

He also drew a comparison to playing solo saxophone, where he would sometimes hear the sound in his head before playing it, or make a sound and then hear it.

When the art is representational without references, JM revealed that he prefers to fly by the seat of his pants, as he enjoys the element of surprise.

A music critic famously remarked that “Jazz is the sound of surprise,” and an author observed that “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

I want the palimpsest and pentimento to stay in place since they are part of the reality in that particular image. Along with this, I have a deep-seated concern about becoming too professional.


CW: It is quite a challenge to paint a sequence of comprehensible visuals. How have you managed to make this work and become the only “paintoonist” in the world?

JM states that painting is like a dog’s nose or a cat’s eye and that it is a way to express their passions. When they were exposed to comics in the ’70s, they wanted to incorporate it into their painting, but they had to first learn the techniques of making comics.

It took them twenty years before they were able to translate the single-image painting into a comic. The idea of “time” and “movement” as being divided helped them to understand the power of comics and how to create a mural-like effect.

By utilizing simple panels, they are able to create a story sequence and make sure the paint does not alter the readability or clarity of the piece. At first, they were embarrassed to be called a “cartoonist” instead of a “painter”, but the reception of the work surprised them.

After five years of dedication to the comics world they were able to create something original and become a “paintoonist”.

The initial realization of one’s own understanding of morality is evidenced by shame.

Question:Could you tell me if it was one of your goals to take the naturally loud and strong comic-strip style and turn it into something that is tranquil, delicate, and poetic?

JM expressed that they didn’t aim to be poetic or delicate; they simply believed it was a feature of their persona. They declared to be a fan of smallness and simplicity, favoring string quartets to symphonies and jazz trios to big bands.

They commented that the more grandiose and noisy something is, the more people become overwhelmed by the sensory assault.

To them, the poetic state is achieved by leaving out certain elements so that the viewer can actively participate in the image and fill in the blanks with their own experience. An actor once said, “I don’t cry onstage because if I do, the audience won’t have to.”

Question:What does an ordinary day at work look like for you?

Answer:My day-to-day is typically the same: I’m living, working, and creating art in the same space. Every morning, my cat and I turn on the radio, then have a late breakfast while reading magazines and papers.

We watch People’s Court and after Jeopardy!, I play sax and record a track. After midnight, I might or might not start making art, and the “art guilt” builds up. I prepare a meal and watch a movie while I eat, and then I go to bed at seven in the morning.

When I get up, I’m usually looking at art projects that are now a week old, and I feel more “art guilt” as I plan to make art but might not.

CW: Do you have any songs that you like to listen to when you’re doing work? What genre or artist do you usually choose?

J.M. was once told that “all of the arts strive to reach the level of music”. Although they were unsure of the exact meaning of that statement, they could agree with its general sentiment.

Whenever they make art, they have to have music playing in the background – something that they have complete control over as opposed to just listening to the radio.

Artists are natural multitaskers, with their right brain responsible for creating art and the left brain providing critical feedback.

Listening to music helps to neutralize the left brain’s input as it is now occupied with judging the music or being in a state of bliss. J.M. spends a lot of time creating special eighty-minute CDs composed of solo saxophone players, sometimes accompanied by a cello or bass.

This allows the right brain to create art without interruption, until it takes a break for coffee and the left brain takes over to analyze what works and what doesn’t.

J.M. believes that artists are more likely to have a better understanding of music than writers or musicians have of art, due to the need to have an interesting musical backdrop while creating pictures.

They have been playing the alto and tenor saxophone since 1972 and are entirely self-taught, becoming better with each passing year.

Their favorite style is “free jazz” and improvisation, so much so that they are beginning to appreciate music that they wouldn’t have been able to listen to five years ago. Their own music is even more “out” than their art. Ultimately, they do aspire to reach the same level as their music.

CW: In the early 1980s, when you were creating the Jack pages, the art world didn’t necessarily appreciate artwork that depicted personal stories about parents and children. People considered drawings of people to be “illustration.” Was this artistic environment a hindrance, an inspiration, or neither for you?

JM reminisced on the early 80s art world, specifically the “neo-expressionists” on the Lower East Side, and his favorite artists from that time, Eric Fischl and Paula Rego. Both painted in a stylized way, with themes of sexual seduction.

In the 90s, JM was drawn to the work of Balthus and sought out more artists who painted similarly. He found that Fischl and Rego had shifted their work from the “frenzy” of their early-80s works to more “look at me, I can paint” styles.

JM himself began painting in large oils in the 90s after a 20-year break. He discussed how illustrators often get a bad rep in comparison to “fine art,” and stated his own opinion that the good 1 percent in illustration and the good 1 percent in comics could match that of painting.

He concluded with a story of when he was a magazine illustrator in the 60s and was given a story to illustrate that he referred to as the “illustrator’s challenge,” or “can you turn shit into gold?” He then pondered if he had succeeded in doing so.

Answer:I used to try to make my illustrations look as though I had created them without any kind of task. In the past, illustrators were so admired that they would appear in ads for high-end Scotch in their own person.

It is likely that illustrators looked down on cartoonists and painters looked down on both of them. Illustration is a form of art that one can stumble across while flicking through a magazine.

It can be a wonderful discovery of visual excellence or, like the majority of art, something that will quickly be dismissed. The next time you think of “just illustration”, take a moment to reconsider.

Before I took up painting, my prior artistic endeavor was illustration.

In the midbook introduction to Jack, I recall you saying that nothing bad could occur to him, however, I have noticed myself becoming emotional–sometimes even shedding a tear–at unexpected moments throughout my experience of reading your work.

I have also laughed. Is there something wrong with me, or is this an emotional response that you had intended to evoke?

JM expressed his gratitude that Chris opened up about how Jack had an emotional impact on him. He comprehended that being of a similar age to when Jack began his journey and having children of his own could have something to do with it.

He suggested that Chris’ buried grief over his father’s passing could explain some of his reaction. JM had intended to keep Jack’s naivety while avoiding him becoming a foolish individual.

Jack is neither related to me nor my father. There were times when I followed his lead and if I noticed him going off course, I would stop him. Still, not always. There is one Jack page which has always left me bemused as I didn’t detect the out of character moment.

At a bus stop, Jack took out a token and due to his clumsiness, all his items, like his wallet, keys and coins, fell through the grating. As he looked through the grating he said, “All my identity is down there, that’s sad.”

This is wrong because of his self-reflection and pity which is uncharacteristic. Therefore, I said, “Nothing sad could happen to him,” but I should have added, “that he knows.” I have been in awe of the “afterlife” of pictures since I became an artist. I create a picture and it is done.

If it is good, I get the reward right away. It can also become better six months later or could be a total failure. The “afterlife” of the picture is the real truth.

Sometimes the picture which was good instantly, is a “best of” picture which has all the components I know and is appreciated straight away.

It has no “afterlife”. I feel sorry for artists who sell their original art within a year of completing it as this is when my pictures begin to communicate with me.

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I am astounded by the sight of sunflowers

spinning in lush green meadows above the azure sea,

awed by their golden hush, despite the quiet murmur of the clocks from Recanati.

Do they bow to welcome nightfall, like an army

obeying the final regulations of a dying kingdom,

their wheels caught in one rut in front of the tiny specks

of stars and the flickering of fireflies,

and then droop like spent shooting stars with a soft thud

to the ground? In other parts of life, sunflowers

exist on their own, but in this coastal region

there can be entire fields of their transient magnificence

spread out like the robe of some Renaissance ruler,

their standards wilting, their golden crowns filling the emptiness;

they are poems we recite to ourselves, symbols

of our transient glory, a radiance we cannot ignore

which was known as heaven in Blake’s era, but not since.



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