Last time we spoke with Jeremy Nguyen, he had created a custom crayon for his newly released book of cartoons, Stranger Than Bushwick. The crayon’s color– Gentrify White— spoke to the wry satire found in his comics for Bushwick Daily. Volume three of Stranger Than Bushwick will debut this weekend at the MoCCA Arts Festival. It’s longer than the others, but will be “the last issue I publish for a long time while I move on to other projects,” according to the 27-year-old. That’s sure to disappoint his many local fans, but it’s hard to blame Jeremy for moving on. In January he started submitting cartoons to the New Yorker, a process that is notoriously selective. Incredibly, he sold his first one three weeks later, after pitching just 30 pieces. Since then, he has sold two more.
Don’t worry, Jeremy hasn’t moved to a Tribeca duplex just yet. I recently met him at a local Bushwick bar, where I found him sipping tea and chatting animatedly with the bartender. As always, he was bright and welcoming, and he spoke with unabashed honesty.
Jeremy’s artwork is whimsical, colorful, and cartoony, just realistic enough to depict recognizable archetypes of the city: the grumpy landlord, the starving artist, the handsome, heavily tattooed bartender. His comic strips are a combination of standup routine and BuzzFeed listicle. Of them, “Events in Bushwick that Combine Vices and Art,” starts off with Drink N’ Draw– where Jeremy is a regular— and then imagines Smoke ‘n’ Sculpt, Gamble ‘n’ Glassblow, Vape ‘n’ Varnish, Cockfight ‘n’ Cross stitch, and finally Fuck ‘n’ Foil, wherein a man has sex while sculpting a unicorn out of tinfoil for his partner.
The humor pokes fun at gentrified Bushwick, but that doesn’t mean it’s specific to the neighborhood. “Every emerging city is the same,” Jeremy writes on the back of his first volume of Stranger Than Bushwick. “There’s a Bushwick in Portland, Austin, Detroit, Oakland, Paris, Berlin, etc.”
Jeremy has lived in the neighborhood little more than five years, but in that time he has seen a lot of changes and has become more and more a part of the community fabric. “Sometimes I get teased because I’m not ‘New York enough,’” he says with a laugh that hides just a hint of annoyance. “Because I have a positive outlook.” Growing up in several locations around the country, he studied sequential art at Savannah College of Art and Design and moved to Bushwick in 2011 in pursuit of a stand-up comedy career.
“I’m from California, people can smell that on me,” he says, adjusting the electric-blue glasses that he says have become his signature. “I just fit better here in New York than I do in other places.”
After a few years Jeremy’s stand-up comedy dreams were replaced by more focus on his drawing and comic strips. In December, Jeremy quit his long time job at Comixology, the comic reading app, and ended his time writing comics for Bushwick Daily. He now devotes himself fully to freelance art.
Jeremy’s studio is covered in drawings. The first New Yorker issue to feature his cartoon is framed on the wall, alongside the original submission. It features two cavewomen sitting by a fire. One says to the other, “Remember when real men had masculine names like ‘oog and ‘bog’? Now they’re all named ‘florg’ and ‘scurg’.”
“I like to say I’m a maximalist,” Jeremy said as he showed me into the “office” of his railroad apartment. His canvas-backed writer’s chair and large sketch table were surrounded by the iron remains of a loft bed. On the sketch table sat three New Yorker cartoon hopefuls. In one, two witches are stirring a vat of potion. The caption reads: “Some people just want a cold-brew in the summer.”
Behind the drawing chair was another desk with some comedy books like The Daily Show (The Book), a joke book by Simon Rich, and the recent memoir of Bob Mankoff, longtime editor of the New Yorker cartoons. From a drawer, Jeremy pulled out a folder packed with old New Yorker submissions — the rejects. There were almost 100 of them, all neatly drawn and captioned, all unique and extremely funny but maybe too specific or too personal for the magazine.
Jeremy pulled a notebook out from his pocket. Among the hundreds of sketches that filled the pages was a doodle that eventually became a mural, “Where Breukeln At?“, for the Roger Smith Hotel. (It’ll be unveiled during a public party at the hotel’s bar on Thursday, March 30, from 6:30 to 8:30.) On another page was an early version of his first piece chosen by the New Yorker: the simple shape of two cavewomen sitting by a fire.
On a shelf, dozens of similar notebooks were lined up in a perfect row, evidence of the overwhelming amount of work Jeremy has done. “My Mom tells the story that when I was a kid, if I was crying, all she would have to do was give me a pen and I would quiet down,” Jeremy told me at one point.
Jeremy was born in Phoenix, Arizona and moved around a lot as a kid. Before he turned eight, his family moved to Portland, Oregon; Bangkok, Thailand; Austin, Texas; and finally Fremont, California. Maybe drawing gave Jeremy a place that was truly his “own.”
The child of two Vietnamese refugees, Jeremy told me a story about a recent trip he took to Vietnam. “It’s something a lot of Asians feel,” he said, “the desire to reconnect with your roots.”
He smiled a bit sheepishly and continued. “I thought I was this prideful Vietnamese person. But I did not like my time at all.”
Jeremy’s parents are now both flight attendants, but he doesn’t often take the opportunity to travel the world. “I’m so comfortable here in New York that I don’t need to go anywhere.”
We headed back out into the cold to walk to Vinyl Fantasy, the closest comic shop to Jeremy’s apartment. He delivers his own comics there every month. “They say my comics are their second-best seller after Saga,” Jeremy told me, referring to the contemporary comic megahit by Brian K. Vaughan.
Walking into Vinyl Fantasy, Jeremy was greeted by Ilana, the owner. Space was at a premium in the tiny shop but his series, Stranger Than Bushwick, was displayed prominently on the windowsill.
When we left the shop, Jeremy offered to walk me back to my train station. On the way to the Myrtle Avenue stop we dipped into a small arts festival at The Silent Barn. The venue was full of local artists selling their wares and Jeremy floated among the tables. As he shook hands with everyone he knew, it was hard to imagine anyone teasing him for being not New York enough.