Local cartoonist started by printing comics in The Ontarion
Nathan Campagnaro is a local artist and musician known for his vibrant, gross, and funny concert posters — notably including the poster for last year’s Kazoo! Fest. He’s also well known around the music scene for his work as a drummer in rock groups Bleet and Badminton Racquet.
I wondered whether Campagnaro had ever taken his artistic talents to the comic strip medium, and was excited to discover that his first work as a cartoonist was published, over a decade ago, in these very pages. In 2004, Campagnaro began publishing a gag strip called Malenky in The Ontarion. He later followed Malenky with strips like Banana Farm and Space Pirates of the Infinite — both co-written with writer and craft beer critic Robin Leblanc — as well as other projects of varying length. Since then his focus has been on music and posters, although he recently released a zine of collaborative drawings with artist Nick Counter.
I sat down with Campagnaro to ask him about his early work for The Ontarion, designing posters, and playing music.
Will Wellington: When you started writing for The Ontarion, were you a university student?
Nathan Campagnaro: Nope. No, I didn’t go to school. I don’t have debt.
WW: So how did you get into writing for the paper?
NC: I used to read The Ontarion when I was in high school. There was a comic in there, a big influence actually, Mr. Gnu, by this guy Travis Dandro. It was fucking hilarious. I would read it all the time in high school and then it stopped, and then The Ontarion comics just plummeted [in quality].
WW: And you decided, “I want to try my hand at this.”
NC: I kind of actually did feel a little, not responsible, but like, “This is what I have to do, this is my role right now, to bring this back.” And I think I also took it originally as a very open door. It was like, “They’re probably not going to turn my comics away, so here I go.” And then I did that.
WW: When you were writing Malenky, did you start with a visual gag or a bit of wordplay or what?
NC: I think it was mostly wordplay or just some bizarre twist on something normal.
WW: The one that’s coming to mind right now is the one with the potato.
NC: Yeah! I think that’s my favourite comic I’ve ever written. And the first comic I’ve ever written! It all went downhill from there. I was like, “Man, I don’t know what I did, but that was funny!”
WW: It’s got a line of dialogue in it, but I feel like you could take out the dialogue and you’d still understand the whole gag. I could imagine it as a concert poster.
NC: What I was getting out of Malenky was kind of what I eventually started getting out of posters. That’s why a lot of them were single panels. I was just experimenting more than anything. Like I said, I didn’t go to school, so educating myself was important to me. I got to try all these different things. That’s what I like about posters. I can still kind of make them into one-off comics and refine my style. I try and bring some sort of deeper story, like you could look at the poster and there’s more to it going on within the image. Plus it also bridged music and art, which is still really important to me. It’s still something I’m trying to find — harmony. I got into music in an attempt to do that and I got into art in an attempt to do that too. And it’s still distilling.
When I’m doing a drawing, I don’t know if a lot of influence comes from other artists — a lot of it’s music. With Malenky that was a really big thing, putting on different music — and that was when I was really into Ween. That’s also what really got the diversity in the comics. Ween’s like that. Every song has a different aesthetic and they master it. That’s what I was trying to go for.
WW: Would you do a ton of different drafts for an image?
NC: No, I think I do that more now than I did then. It’s hard to remember how I did them back then. But I don’t remember doing a lot of drafts back then, whereas now I do a lot more. And I do them all tiny. Every poster draft I do is probably only about an inch big. I draw a little square or a bunch of them. Just to get the layout. I’m entirely self-taught, but my theory behind doing that is, “If it looks good, if you can read everything when it’s an inch big, when you blow it up big, even if people are scaling it down to a thumbnail, you’ll still be able to read the important parts.” It’s almost like looking at it from a block away.
WW: And where did Banana Farm come from?
NC: I took this little calendar in The Ontarion of when all the issues come out. I put those [dates] on my calendar. And I was like, “Alright, I’m going to make a story that fits in there. This is where it starts, this is where it’s going to end, this is where the climax will be roughly, and this is the story. Now I need to take sections of that story and make comics based on that to progress it, roughly.” That’s what the goal was.
WW: I get the feeling that, as a local comic artist and someone whose work is tied up in ephemeral things like concert posters, a lot of your work is just lost to time.
NC: Actually I stopped doing concert posters for a while because of that. It started really weighing down on me. It’s got a month’s shelf life and then it just vanishes. And then you’ve got to do it again before people forget that you ever did it.
WW: How does designing record covers compare to designing posters?
NC: It’s really fulfilling. It does immortalize your work in a way too, more so than concert posters. I’ve always wanted to hang records on my wall. There are a lot of record covers that I just love. They really mean something or really capture that album. That’s an art in itself.
Illustration by Nathan Campagnaro