NEW YORK — Jeffrey Lewis is sitting in a double-parked 1991 Nissan Pathfinder on South Eighth Street in Williamsburg on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s in low 80s as he’s flipping through pencil marked 11×17 pages.
In the car’s dusty interior, a black sketchbook and a small pouch of pens and pencils are on the back seat. A used scratch ticket is on the passenger side floor and coins and old receipts are scatted around the dashboard. The air conditioner is off but Lewis looks comfortable in his black Brooklyn Anti-Folk Festival t-shirt and blue Levis with worn out knees. A red number four pencil rests on his right ear, the tip poking out of his thinning shaggy brown hair.
The Pathfinder has been Lewis’ office recently, at least for a few hours on Tuesdays and Fridays when New Yorkers play a giant game of musical cars as the city’s streets are cleaned. The pages may be part of the eighth and latest issue of Fuff, Lewis’ self-published comic book series, but the 34-year-old artist and musician isn’t happy with them yet. Lewis has been working on the issue since last June and hopes to finish this summer.
"It could be done this week if I just hunkered down," he says.
Lewis has more pressing responsibilities: Working out transportation and housing issues before going on tour with his new group, The Bundles, on May 15 throughout the U.K., and with his brother Jack in Israel beginning May 22. By the end of the month, Lewis will be at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona, Spain.
The last nine years have been busy as Lewis transitioned from playing coffee houses and small venues to touring around the U.S. as an opener for acts like Dr. Dog, and as a headliner in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Music became a source of income for Lewis around 2001 when his first album came out on Rough Trade Records, and more gigs were booked.
In 2009, Lewis released his fourth album, "â€˜Em Are I," and he was asked to write a series of articles and a comic strip on songwriting for The New York Times. This year, he recorded a series of "illustrated songs" – tunes that Lewis sings while holding posters of related drawings — for the History Channel on topics like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Peloponnesian War.
Living on money saved from touring over the past four years, Lewis spent this spring in Williamsburg resting drawing before touring this summer.
"I’ve been doing more artwork and a bit less music," Lewis says, "and also I sort of feel like I’m in between albums in a weird way. I don’t really know what the next album is going to be."
Dates are scheduled. He just wants to get it done. And for that, he probably needs to go to Maine.
Lewis grew up in a Manhattan tenement apartment on East Ninth Street between First and Second avenues. His mother, Wendy, is an English teacher. Joe, his father, was a New York City firefighter until an injury in the early sixties. Lewis’ father receives a small pension check every month, Lewis says, and lives "a very hippy lifestyle." His father "always sort of had one little hustle or another," Lewis says, "anything to avoiding working full time."
Before Jeffrey and his brother Jack were born, the Lewis’ bought land about thirty miles north of Augusta, Maine where the family later spent a few months every summer sleeping in a trailer.
Jeffrey didn’t play sports. He sketched on the floor of his room and included drawings in school projects. Horror novels by John Bellairs were Lewis’ favorite books and he bought comics at magazine stands in Saint Mark’s Square. Marvel’s Rom issue seven was the first comic he really liked.
He played piano as a teenager, learning chords and basic theory, but was always more interested in drawing and comics. At the State University of New York at Purchase, Lewis’ thesis for his Literature major was a critical analysis of the comic, The Watchmen. For two years after graduating in 1997, Lewis traveled, began writing punk and garage-tinged folk songs, and finished his first professional comics.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, Lewis flips though a sketchbook. This is his 24th. The others sit on a shelf in his third floor Williamsburg apartment, where Lou Reed album covers and a poster of Rom are d©cor.
"I finally put them all in order and I realized how much I slowed down. In the past few years I’ve been filling up about one sketchbook a year, whereas before I started touring I was filling up about three sketchbooks a year," Lewis says.
Drawing does not get done on tour.
He can’t work in a car and needs to be alone to concentrate. Still, Lewis brings his current sketchbook every time he goes on the road. Each book begins with a drawing of Lewis and his favorite comic book character Rom, has a list of songs and a page marking when the book was started. The first page of the book he is holding now has Lewis and Rom surrounded by overwhelmingly cute dogs under a title drawn in the style of a 1950’s horror comic.
His work isn’t exactly mainstream fare. One comic is based on his father’s exaggerated story about a cross-country trip in a 1959 Plymouth Fury that was ripped apart by bears. Another was named, “Reflections on Tomorrow Thus a Yesterday Flower Shall Doom." Now he’s working on a coming-of-age story with adolescent superheroes experiencing the growing pains of everyday middle-schoolers. On one half-sketched page, Lewis shows a shy superhero boy that feels ostracized by his schoolmates, goes home and masturbates in the bathroom.
His comics are sold in a handful of stores around the U.S. Lewis says he rarely sees any money from retail sales. and the comics are sold at every show he plays. But the they not only take up more physical space in cars than CDs, comics make much less profit.
After looking over the 24 sketchbooks this spring, Lewis says he realized his drawing skills hit a peak in the late 1990s as his music career was beginning. To get over it, Lewis says, he will have to spend more time drawing.
He flips to pages where he recently copied panels from some of his favorite comics, like Eight Ball and The Watchmen.
"William Faulkner apparently would retype and retype the entire novel of The Great Gatsby just to know what it felt like to write a great novel. I thought that was a funny idea and, just for kind of a joke, I thought I would see what that would be like with comic book pages," he says.
At about 1:15 p.m., Lewis puts his key into the ignition.
"It’s about that time," he says. The engine whines. It won’t start. He glances at the dashboard and tries again. The ignition clicks and the Pathfinder is alive. After the car is parked in its usual place across the street, Lewis decides to walk down Broadway for pizza.
The used Pathfinder was purchased two years ago for touring the U.S. When home from tour, Lewis moves the car back and forth across the street twice a week and drives to Maine during the summer to concentrate on drawing. He’s put about 70,000 miles on the odometer.
He first went to Maine to work on his comics in 1997, just after college. After a few months, he finished the 40-page "Tao Jones," his first comic. He hated going there as a teenager. "I always just wanted to come back to New York immediately, but then once I realized that it was a really good spot for working on my comic books I started spending a lot more time up there," he says. Lewis built a small one-room cabin with no electricity and plumbing where he sleeps and works.
Before the Pathfinder, he would take a bus from Manhattan to Boston’s South Station, and hop another bus to Augusta. Then Lewis hitchhiked the thirty-mile stretch to his family’s property.
"I’m probably going to go when I get back from this next tour, but I haven’t gone for a whole summer for a long time, cause its just harder now that, you know, with tour stuff, if I have a girlfriend, or, you know, anything that just makes it impossible to disappear for three months or four months at a time," he says.
Each every trip is more or less the same. He packs a few shirts, pairs of socks and underwear, an acoustic guitar and his art supplies. Arriving at the cabin, Lewis cleans up, throws a few dead mice away, and gets to work.
He writes a script and outlines basic page layouts and then draws characters and scenes in his sketchbook. Once he knows the basic plot and panel flow, Lewis begins to sketch lightly on 11” x 17” card stock. Figures and backgrounds emerge in 3h and 4b pencil marks. He doesn’t know where it’s going yet.
As graphite is layered on, Lewis makes choices. Words and the page borders are the first elements to get painted with a size six watercolor brush. Each panel is finished with strokes of black Windsor & Newton ink and details in Micron pen. The finished page is scanned, converted into a .tiff file and sent electronically to a printer in Texas. Soon boxes arrive at his Williamsburg apartment with 3,000 copies.
Lewis is sitting in Sabrina’s Pizza Restaurant on Broadway. He’s serious about pizza. In a Times article, Lewis said the best "political" song he ever wrote was about price increases in New York pizza joints ("Sal’s Pizza Has Sold Out to the Yuppie Scum").
Customers sit at some of the tables, only casually glancing at Lewis at most. He is not Jeffrey Lewis the musician or comic book artist here. He’s just eating a regular slice of cheese.
"I always just wanted to do comics. That’s, like, what I feel I’ve wanted to do my whole life," Lewis says after he finished the slice, "Its just that very, very few people make any money at that, it’s a very esoteric form of entertainment to make a living at."
He never planned on making a living as a musician. Despite the pressures and dual roles he’s playing, Lewis says there is improvement in each comic he produces.
"I would like to think I’m not too old to actually to end up as a comic artist after all but you know at a certain point anybody who’s playing baseball sort of realizes, like, oh I’ll never make it to the major leagues, you know, I’m at such and such an age," Lewis says, pausing. "I don’t know if art is like that â€˜cause you really can get better and better at it the more you do it."