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Creator, Writer, Artist of Waterwise

by Richard Vasseur - (Posted: 6/6/2007)

Joel Orff

Richard: How would you describe "Waterwise"?

Joel Orff: Waterwise is the story of two people that grew up seeing each other every summer at their families’ cabins on a lake. Over the years they’ve developed different outlooks and are no longer friends. The book is about a chance meeting between them at the lake as adults, when both of them are going through very difficult periods in their life. Together they’re able to find a brief moment of happiness and solace before going back to face the real world. The story is told with pictures more than words. It’s very minimal and what the characters are thinking is often left up to the reader.

Richard: What are Jim and Emily like?

Joel: They’re kind of opposites. Jim is artistic and irresponsible, never planning for the next moment, often out of work. He hitchhikes to his cabin because he doesn’t have a car. Emily is very conservative and organized. She travels to her cabin with a rental wagon carrying all of her possessions because she’s just gone through a divorce and is on her way to a new state and new job. The theme of the story is how two people with totally different outlooks can still end up with the same problems, and how they’re able to help each other get past them.

Richard: Where did the idea for this story come from?

Joel: The original idea was that the book would be kind of a debate between the two characters, with each one trying to convince the other to change their outlook. I wanted to show the positive and negative sides of both perspectives, which would lead to them coming together. In the end it became less of a strict debate and more open ended, because the characters for me took on lives of their own, and weren’t defined just by their opinions. There’s a lot of me in Jim, and Emily is kind of a combination of several people I’ve known.

Richard: Why is "Waterwise" listed as mature?

Joel: There’s nothing too intense in it, just a brief nude scene - a drawing that Jim is making of his ex-girlfriend - and a little swearing.

Richard: What is the story of "Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll"?

Joel: ‘Great Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is a comic strip that I’ve been doing in alternative weeklies and on line for a number of years. People send in their true stories and I illustrate them. The stories are often, but not always, about music - sometimes they’re just a favorite memory. In 2003 Alternative Comics published the collection of them, and it’s currently featured weekly in the Pacific Sun in Marin, California (

Richard: Who are the main characters of this comic?

Joel: Every week the cast changes. Stories have featured cameos by well-known bands like U2 or Sonic Youth, but a lot of them are just about someone’s garage band or maybe a personal creative breakthrough. There are over 150 strips posted at my website:

Richard: What was the play about that you had produced?

Joel: It was called ‘The Audition’, and it came about this way: Every week I used to write up a half-dozen short scenes and bring them in to the meetings of a group called the Twin Cities Actors’ Forum in Minneapolis. They would use the scenes to practice cold-reads and improvisation. The group decided to stage what’s called a ‘showcase’, which is a chance for actors to present their different skills for theater and film professionals. They came up with the idea of a play about a film director auditioning actors for his new movie. My job was to write a script that would give 19 different actors the opportunity to present their abilities in comedy, drama, and improve. Every actor would have to get a chance to shine at each of these – it was a challenge to write. It was a great experience, though. We spent the summer rehearsing and put it on as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Richard: How do you go about getting published in books and magazines?

Joel: I haven’t really done any submitting to book publishers, I don’t think I’d be very good at it. Jeff Mason at Alternative Comics contacted me a few years ago and he’s published two books by me, with the third, ‘Thunderhead Underground Falls’ to come out this summer. Editions çà et là in Paris has published French translation versions of two of my books, and I have work featured in ‘Writing and Illustrating the Graphic Novel’ by Mike Chinn, and ‘How to Draw and Sell Digital Cartoons’ by Leo Hartas. In all of these cases the publishers approached me. I think that my web site was where most of them heard of me, so for other cartoonists I would recommend starting a web site or getting your work featured on other sites as a good way to get your work out there. I recently did send out submission packages to several alternative weeklies for my ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ comic and I’ve been getting a good response to that.

Richard: What future projects do you have planned?

Joel: My new book ‘Thunderhead Underground Falls’ is coming out from Alternative Comics soon. It’s about a young army reservist who goes on a spontaneous road trip with a friend on his last weekend home before shipping out for combat in the Middle East. I’m starting to take notes for my next graphic novel, which will be based on a feature-length screenplay I wrote that was a finalist for a screenwriting competition a couple of years ago. I’ve also done some illustration work. Here’s a T-shirt I did for Levon Helm Studios :

Richard: What about creating a comic book attracts you?

Joel: I like the complete control, and it just feels like a very natural fit for me as a medium. I’ve always drawn comics, since I was a kid. In my pre-teens I used to take newsprint that my dad brought home from our local small-town paper and cut it out and staple it into little books, which I’d draw comics in. I’ve tried other forms of writing, like plays and screenplays, but with comics I get closest to what I want to do. With a screenplay it’s great to just be able to write, “ a car drives up”, instead of having to draw it 20 times, but I’m not as satisfied with my screenplay writing yet.

Richard: What do you do when you’re not working on comics?

Joel: I’ve played in a few bands, and I enjoy going out to see my friends play at local places. I’ve done some short films and I’d like to put together a digital feature of one of my scripts with the actors and filmmakers that I know. That’s the kind of project that would require a complete focus for a couple of years though, and lately that’s been tough to arrange. I’d really like to travel more, too.

Richard: What comics did you read as a kid and do you read now?

Joel: As a kid I read every comic I could find. I still have a recurring dream that I’m in the ultimate comic book store. As a kid I read Marvel and DC, Classics Illustrated, Disney, everything. I think that Will Eisner had the biggest effect on me as a kid as far as what I’m trying to do now. I remember first reading about him in one of those big ‘Steranko History of Comics’ books, and then collecting the Warren magazine reprints. I still prefer those black and white Warren books to the actual full color reprints that have come out. These days I don’t buy a lot of comics, though I know that there’s a lot of fantastic work out there. I subscribe to John Porcellino’s King Cat zine - he’s a favorite and a big influence. I wish that someone would put out a collection of Bradley Johnson’s comics. I’ve only ever seen him in anthologies, except for this little zine I have that’s a collection of strips announcing shows for his band ‘Virgina Dare’.

Richard: How can someone contact you?

Joel: I have a web site: or just at my email address:

Richard: Any final words of wisdom?

Joel: One thing I’ve found over the years is that I’ll get involved in some project that doesn’t work out, but leads to something else that works out even better. Nothing ever goes exactly the way you think it will, which can often be for the best.

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