Thursday, 18 June 2009

From Bergman to Bode - An Interview with Chris Wright

Chris Wright's Inkweed is without a doubt, one of the best books I've come across in recent times. Inkweed is the first collected volume of Chris Wright's comics and contains nine short stories, all produced between 2002 and 2007. It's the first I'd seen of Wright's work and I couldn't help but come away deeply impressed by the sheer depth and visual flair of his comics. I caught up with Inkweed creator Chris Wright to talk about Inkweed, comics, art and film.

Inkweed was released in 2008 by Sparkplug Comics. There’s a whole range of material in the book, going back as far back as 2002. Can I ask how the collaboration with Sparkplug came about?

I guess I first met Dylan back at my first Small Press Expo (SPX) in 2003 through a mutual friend by the name of David Youngblood. David and I had both gone to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and he edited a comics anthology at the time called Typewriter. He was good at networking and shmoozing, and knew a bunch of cool cartoonists out in Portland OR. He had also just put out a mini of my work called Legba, which featured mostly student work, college stuff, it’s where The Merciful Gift first appeared. He had done a hell of a job producing and distributing that, so Dylan and a handful of other people at SPX actually had some idea who I was when I got there. Dylan told me at the time that he really liked my work, but actually I don't remember talking to him a whole hell of a lot that first year. But then, I was also drinking pretty heavily.

So over the course of the next couple of years I'd see Dylan at SPX and we would hang out a bit, and eventually he sent me an email saying he would like to put a book of my work out. I think he'd been running Sparkplug for a few years at that point. I was definitely up for doing a book but I had no idea what it would consist of since I didn't feel like I had enough material that I could really stand behind for anything of any length. But I had just started a longish project, and I wasn't sure how much time it was going to take to finish it, and I didn't want the few people who knew my stuff to completely forget about it. Eventually I decided that it didn't matter whether I felt like I could stand behind the work or not, it represented me either way, where I was going, where I had been and so forth. I also figured that if I arranged the longer stories in chronological order that the reader could see the art improve first hand as the book progressed

I had also hoped that Dylan would be able to get the book out quickly, which turned out to be the case. I think I got my books in the mail about two weeks after sending the work to him. He was super easy to work with. I designed it and did the layouts. He had to do some hand holding but he was very nice about it. He really trusts his artists... Sometimes I think a little too much. I mean that with tongue in cheek of course!

When did you first become interested in comics? Are comics something you grew up with?

Comics were always sort of around when I was a young kid. Just random issues of Teen Titans, or Justice League, or The Blue Devil, or whatever. Thinking back on it I had kind of a peculiar relationship with those early comics because they were so out of context. They were just random issues plucked out of a series or a storyline. I had no idea who most of the characters where, even the heroes, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, I knew them, but then there was Metamorpho? What the hell was that about?

There was something very fragmented and mysterious about the way I experienced those stories which maybe still informs the way I think about comics. Here were these little pamphlets, and when you opened them they were just chock full of things that were batshit insane. Even the bad ones where just fascinating on a certain level. I remember one that had something to do with a planet of lion people and it was just completely violent and insane and bloody but all the blood was purple because I guess they weren't allowed to use red, but the purple just made it creepier... It was one of the DC team books. I remember my mom reading it to me and being somewhat disgusted. She didn't take it away though.

When I started getting older I became more your average fanboy. I was obsessed with Elf Quest in the fifth grade, which was eventually supplanted by Usagi Yojimbo which is probably what REALLY gave me the comics bug. Prior to that I had known only that I wanted to be an artist of some kind, something about Usagi told me it had to be comics. I met Stan Sakai a couple years ago at the Center for Cartoon Studies and I gushed all over him, and it was awkward. I haven't read that book in years but I still love the world he created and the way he draws.

I sort of bounced around comics for awhile just reading what struck my fancy, until a friend (if one can call him that) exposed me to Todd Mcfarlane’s Spider Man, and I was lost to all of that crap for a few years. I thought Image Comics was the coolest thing ever when it first got off the ground. Thinking back though I don't recall actually reading many of those comics, my hormone addled body was just turned on by all the hyper intense imagery.

The bridge for me was Vaughn Bode. His work still had all the fantasy escapist nonsense, and sexual imagery of the mainstream comics, but it seemed totally unbound. From there I got into Crumb, and the other undergrounders, and they sent me back to Herriman, and that is more or less where my real comics education began.

At what point did you decide you wanted to become a cartoonist?

I can't put my finger on it. I made little cartoon booklets when I was a kid, I guess I've always had an unexplainable predilection for graphic narrative. But then a lot of kids make little books, and do little projects, so I don't know. As I said Usagi really turned me on, and also Groo, and the Ninja Turtles (in the pre phenom days) and I think I started taking it a little more seriously around the time that I was invested in that kind of work. I was probably 14 or 15. By the time I got into the mainstream stuff it was a forgone conclusion that this was what I was going to do... by then I was taking it way too seriously.

Coming back to Inkweed, the book has a distinctly Victorian feel to it, and to my mind seems to share a similar aesthetic to the Gothic literature movement of the 1800s. Whilst perusing the pages of Inkweed, I couldn't help but think of authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Machen. Was it a conscious decision to write in a more 'classic' style? What influenced you to take this tact?

I don't know, I really haven't read much gothic literature. I'm not even sure that I'm all that interested in gothic literature, maybe I should be. I just like the look of the period.

Edward Gorey of course was an influence. I was enamored of the obsessiveness of his work. I think it may have been from him that I first got the idea that it was ok to be an artist and to be a little crazy. He just followed this very intense vision that was completely out of step with his time, and that was that. He followed his obsessions: ballet, pen nibs, and murder. I don’t think that Gorey has really affected the guts of my work though. I loved the way he drew those fantastic outfits, but I never had any interest in following his narrative approach. As I said mostly I just enjoy the general aesthetic of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Things seemed more tactile. Objects were more like objects.

The period films of Ingmar Bergman were incredibly important to me, particularly Fanny and Alexander. I think maybe a spell was cast when I saw that film. When I woke up the next morning there was a seed in my brain that's pretty much grown into the project I'm still a part of.

It's a period that's rife with opportunities for passionate explosion because there was so much repression. Maybe there's a built in dramatic tension in that idiom. If things are quiet, and people are dressed that way, and in a certain environment, something must be coming.

In addition to Gorey, are there any particular creators that you've been influenced by over the years?

I think my earliest spiritual ancestor (if it's not too presumptuous of me to claim him, which it is) is Herriman. The drawings are just gorgeous. They have that scratch but they also have a snap, I think the snap is often ignored, he was just a master penman. There is such a clear headed whimsy to Krazy Kat, the ideas and words never seem labored over though they are often beautiful. There is an elastic creativity to the work that never seems to have waned, the muse was always right there for him. That's the way it comes across anyway. And of course his page designs are remarkable, and incredible instructive.

God, then all the old guys, Segar is so great, Harold Gray, Sidney Smith, Roy Crane, Billy Debeck, Frank King, and so on. The Gumps is a pretty unreadable strip by today’s standards but there is something about that rough pen work that lets me stare at it for hours. You can actually hear the pen scraping the paper.

Crumb, of course has influenced just about everyone, he liberated the medium with S. Clay Wilson, and that handful of other greats. I don't think there is much of a trace of Crumb per se in the work I'm doing now but he is one of those guys who changed everything, so even if your work doesn’t resemble his, you still owe him something because he made your work possible in a broader sense.

I've become more and more obsessed with Kim Deitch who rarely fails to blow me away. I love Jim Woodrings quote "Deitch's work runs so thick with fun that it sometimes feels like terror." He just has an incredibly powerful imagination. The stories he dreams up, the character designs, the page designs, it’s all remarkable. If I'm ever stuck for ideas, especially with page design, I'll study Deitch for awhile. He is also a patron saint for cartoonists who are not gifted draftsmen (or women). He turned the clunkiness of his drawings into a virtue, maybe his limitations in that area even caused his imagination to flourish in order to compensate... Maybe it doesn’t work that way. Point is, he is amazing.

I also love the current crop of big time french “alternative” cartoonists. The L’association generation. Lewis Trondheim was a pretty obvious influence on me for awhile. Joann Sfar is so confident and prolific and great, and handsome that it makes me sick. He does whatever the fuck he wants and it makes me jealous. Who told him he was allowed to draw like that? The other French fellow who really just knocks me out is David B. Talk about a craftsman, and the way he consolidated all of his influences into that gorgeous style is just tremendous. You can see Japanese woodcuts, German expressionism, ethnographic art from all over the world. He stirs a pot in the voodoo muck. Also Christophe Blain ‘ain’t bad either.

Oh yeah, also the afore mentioned Jim Woodring. Another just incredibly powerful artist who seems to have half his body in the other world. He made me think that it was ok to channel the less rational parts of your consciousness into your work. That things can speak to the reader even if they don't make sense. His character designs are incredible, and his drawing skills are nearly unmatched. The penwork on the Frank stories is so lush and perfect that it contributes to the disquiet of the comics. Woodring is epochal... Something like the God of Abraham.

I realize that I'm not addressing the mechanics of these comics but that's sort of a whole other topic.

Oh yeah, also Aubrey Beardsley contributed pretty heavily to my sense of design.

Your character designs are incredibly striking. There's an almost patchwork like quality to them, mixing elements of the real and the fantastic. They put me in mind of the kind of bestial creations you might find in the margins of medieval manuscripts. How did you arrive at this particular style?

Again I'm afraid it's kind of hard to quantify... Put me on the couch. I think to some degree I can trace it back to my obsession with Vaughn Bode. I believe that some of his characters had stitches in their body parts. I was imitating his drawing style in my own fetal kind of way, and I suppose perhaps that is where it started. His male characters were weird and monstrous and inhuman, and I ran with that. I became famous in my circle of friends for being able to crank out all these weird looking characters really quickly. I'm not sure why the stitches and the patchwork became such a thing though. Maybe it has something to do with watching my mom sew as a kid... Or growing up with a very specific patchwork quilt that my dad made. Like I said, put me on the couch.

It's funny that you mentioned the creatures in the margins of medieval manuscripts because that kind of thing in fact has influenced the way I think about character design. African art, and African masks captured my imagination at a certain point, as did Greek graphic art (pottery etc...), and I am still blown away by the strange beauty of Mezoamerican art. The bizarre configurations of shapes, and the eccentric representations of objects, and animals demonstrate a power of imagination that in my very humble opinion is unmatched in the "primitive" world. And of course the codexes are sequential art.

My early exposure to old cartoons may have had some contribution as well. The unhinged slightly terrifying wildness of those early Betty Boop and Bimbo cartoons may have helped take the reigns off. The characters in those cartoons were always transforming. Maybe I was even influenced by my superhero period in wanting to give my characters masks to hide their real faces. I do think of my characters as human even though they are generally at best only humanoid. They represent human characteristics even if they are not human themselves.

I have also been influenced by the surrealist practice of automatic drawing. The artist would sit down, take pen in hand and let his or her impulses guide them in an effort to let the subconscious speak for itself. I'm not sure how well this worked out for them but it's the method I’ve taken to comparing my design process to. I came up with some of the weirder looking characters in the incidental drawings in Inkweed that way. I just started making shapes and tried to wrangle them into a character.

It has reduced to kind of a system. I have a certain number of tricks and employ them in different ways depending on the function of the character. Once in awhile I still surprise myself though. Lately actually I’ve been inspired by really early manga. Stuff from the forties and fifties, I can’t get my hands on a lot of it but it seems like there were graphic imaginations at work during that period that had a lot in common with the early American newspaper cartoonists. They were defining a medium, and didn’t really know what it was yet, so they could really try anything.

I’m trying to broaden my horizons a bit.

Whilst compiling Inkweek, was it difficult selecting material that would hang together well? Were you aiming for a common theme or an overall visual approach to the finished collection?

The three stories that are really the core of the book, The Merciful Gift, Tapestry, and The Urn, comprise what I call my “broken hearted old man trilogy.” I didn’t set out to create a trilogy but when I was looking through my archives it occurred to me that those stories do cover much the same ground. As I implied before though I had misgivings about the actual quality of the work, particularly the drawings, and particularly the drawings in the first two stories. But taken as a whole they represented something personal about my development so I figured why not.

I can’t say it was hard putting Inkweed together actually. Sometimes it was painful to have to face old work again. I’m not one of those artists who gets excited about how much he’s improved while looking at old stuff, I just get depressed. The actual selection process was pretty easy, some of the stuff was just too old or too vacant, some of it just flat out wasn’t up to par. In the end The Merciful Gift became the standard. I think it’s the oldest thing in the book, I still feel like it’s the first “mature” piece of work I did as an artist. Nothing I did before that was included.

In a certain sense the book really ends with Rags and Turpentine. Even though the protagonist is in the throes of erotic suffering, it’s kind of a light piece about artistic frustration, which I hoped would help to counter a little of the darkness in the other stories. After that story the book slides into a kind of coda. A series of drawings, and one pagers that are meant to both reiterate, and ease the reader out of the themes of the book. The coda culminates with that devastating quote from Aeschylus, and that is the final thought.

I wanted Inkweed to feel like something of a menagerie. It’s not a terribly long book but I hoped to create a certain density, give the reader a lot to chew on between the covers. After I decided that I had the core in my “trilogy”, it was just a matter of selecting shorter stories and drawings that I thought might play well off of each other. The longer stories are pretty somber, and I was hoping to offset some of that somberness with the wildness of the incidental drawings, and the weird humor and mythological content of the one pagers and short strips. I think mythology works really well in comics... I have a crackpot theory about that, but I’ll spare you for now.

As far at the book’s design goes, I had originally considered using Adobe Illustrator to create the title page, table of contents etc... thinking that the computery cleanliness might offset all of my scribbling in the rest of the book. I did a few experiments and sent one to my friend Eleanor (who is a great cartoonist) and she told me to do the whole thing by hand. She was right. I usually listen to her when it comes to things like that. Actually I think all that intro stuff is my favorite part of the book.

Many of Inkweed's stories deal with love, be it of the unrequited variety, or the tragic loss of a loved one, things rarely seem to end well for the collective cast of the book. Are there elements of Inkweed that reflect your own emotional state at the time of conception? Do you see your work as autobiographical in any way?

Full disclosure: I spent my entire college and graduate career in a flaming bog of unrequited love (over one woman). I won’t go into detail but yes, I think it's fair to say that it influenced the tone of my work.

It’s funny, when I was originally working on the story Tapestry I didn’t mean to make it seem like the old man was in love with the girl. I was going for something more nuanced. When a friend took it as patently obvious that he wanted her I got all huffy and offended. I wasn’t able to pull that story off the way I had intended. It wasn’t really SUPPOSED to be about unrequited love in the way it turned out to be but at the time I didn’t have the chops to do it the way I wanted. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was on about in the first place but it was an important lesson to me that we don’t always really know what our own projects are even about. Sometimes it takes other people to point it out for us. The challenge is to be cool with that.

I don’t know why my stories don’t end well. As I mentioned before Bergman was a big influence, and he is pretty much the king of things not ending well... in film at least. I’m not a goth type, I don’t walk around encouraging people to be depressed. I’m not proud of being melancholic, it just seems that when people live their lives at extremes, even when those extremes aren’t obvious that there is usually some kind of calamity waiting in the wings. Men and women who live their lives for discovery are constantly stepping up to a curtain that is constantly moving away from them, and they are bound to find themselves confounded when they are old and the curtain has still not been drawn.

Maybe I just like the narrative tone a bad ending strikes... On and on it goes, people live, people fuck up, people die, “so it goes.” The songwriter Townes Van Zandt was once asked by a french interviewer “Why are all your songs so sad?” and after trying to talk his way out of the obvious answer Townes looked at the guy and said “You don’t think life’s sad?”

Maybe I also just want to try to do serious work. There are enough young cutesy pseudo manga cartoonists out there. Enough kids out there drawing comics about riding their bikes around, and going over to their friends houses. There aren’t enough comics dealing with the real stuff. I think young cartoonists are afraid of it... or consider it passe compared to drawing comics about how fucking hip they are. There needs to be at once a divestment of ego and an investigation deeper into it. We need to push past the self congratulatory, self sycophantic, ironic construct that indie comics has become, and try to play with the big boys. I’m not satisfied to think of myself as a cartoonist, I want to know what Eugene O’Neill can teach me, or Arthur Miller, or Tarkovsky, or Chaucer, or Beckett. There are too many young cartoonists influenced only by comics and it’s a sad sort of cannibalism.

I don’t think that I only want to work in tragedy either, but the idea is to come up with something that is going to, god willing, have some kind of depth and mystery. It’s harder to make art that represents joy, not just pleasure but real happiness. Beethoven did it... It’s a short list.

Having said all that, I do realize that I use a pretty weird cartoony style as the vehicle for my ambition. I think Chris Ware said that for him it often feel’s like he is “trying to tell a serious story in a language of jokes.” Maybe comics can’t really address the big issues the way I want them to, but I figure we damn well better give it a shot.

So I guess my work is autobiographical in all those kinds of ways.

I was especially struck by your comic 'The Unmerciful Gift' and wanted to delve a little deeper into that particular story. I have to admit that I read it a number of times and found myself coming away with something different every time. It seems to deal with themes of creativity and expression, particularly the challenging nature of conveying genuine emotion in art. Whilst I found it difficult to formulate any one succinct interpretation of the story, I felt that you were driving at something almost otherworldly, something that exists beyond the scope of human perception. Creative vision itself seems to be portrayed as a force capable of inspiring both wonder and dread in equal measure.

Would you care to elaborate a little on the concepts you were attempting to convey?

That story actually sprang out of a prose piece I had been toying with a bit. It was supposed to be a kind of young adult fantasy story about this kid who travels across the dark spiritual underbelly of America with his painter grandmother. They’d encounter all the long forgotten totem gods, and voodoo hoodoo that has been overturned by the Christian tradition in America. I really only got a few pages into it before I started going into the grandmothers background and up popped the idea for a painter whose work had progressed to such a profound stage that it was rendered invisible to nearly everyone who looked at it. I liked the idea, by itself, outside the context of the larger story idea so I thought I’d try it as a comic.

I guess the motivation for the idea is actually pretty simple. I had recently been frustrated by various attempts at getting family members and friends interested in some of the works of art I really loved. It’s something that happens to everybody, you show somebody this really awesome thing, and they look at you with a blank stare. Even if they try you can tell it just doesn’t connect. I’m that way myself with opera actually, I try but it doesn’t click, I like it but I don’t have that deep connection to it that some people I know do.

It’s a story about the fundamental problem of being an artist. It’s the artists responsibility to take it to the hilt and consolidate all his or her powers into the chosen idiom. Sometimes the artist outruns the audience and has to ask “should I reign it in to remain communicative?” Is Restraint a virtue? Or should they push for a level of sophistication and refinement that restricts appreciation of the work to a very (or at least comparably) small audience?

Simon is an artist who was never satisfied with what he was doing. He worked and worked perfecting his craft, his concepts his conceptions of history, and human relationships until he snapped over into the realm of pure wisdom. The human race has problems with wisdom in case you hadn’t noticed. The prophets might as well have never sung. Those blank canvasses represent the human blindness to wisdom. Here is this man who has something they will never encounter again and its right the fuck in front of their noses and they can’t see it.

So Simon's tragedy is that now that he has accomplished his goal, it is invisible. He never wanted to be an obscure painter, he never wanted to confuse people or be self consciously difficult. He wanted to speak to people. Yeah I do think it’s true that the highest artistic aspiration can also bring desolation.... and not just when one fails.

At the same time, I didn’t want the story to read as a tedious allegory. I’m a big fan of ambiguity (especially when it has legs, I don’t think it’s quite legit to just throw any old thing out there and expect people to make sense out of it.) I do hope that I left enough breathing room in the thing to allow for elastic interpretations.

The sequence that ends the story was in a way inspired by The Seventh Seal (Bergman again..) I realized that there had been lots of depictions of death in film and literature, but I couldn’t recall one of birth. It was a cute idea that I am still pretty pleased about though sometimes I think maybe I should have saved it for a longer work... Maybe I’ll bring him back... or her, it, whatever. Bergman often interposes elements of the other worldly into his tales of human folly, particularly in the figure of death in The (aforementioned) Seventh Seal, and in the family of Jewish mystics in Fanny and Alexander. It’s easy to cross the median between the natural and the supernatural in film, and I think it may be equally so in comics. The trust that people have in images can be easily exploited. You can ask, “why is the artist presenting this thing in this way” and the answer comes “because he is, it is what he does.” I think it’s interesting to play with that faith. Not as a means of tricking the reader, but as a means of letting him or her in on something.

I don’t know if that answers your question or not, it’s been a long time since I really thought about that story, I hope it’s somewhat helpful.

In terms of your overall creative process, do you write full scripts before you begin illustrating, or do you opt for a more organic approach, letting the stories unfold as you work?

I don’t think I have ever written a full script. I sometimes do “thumbnails” of the first few pages (I put thumbnails in quotes just because usually they just consist of panel breakdowns and dialogue,) sometimes I just work on the page and see what comes out.

With the former method I do a few thumbnails to build a momentum which takes over as I start working on those thumbnails as finished pages. While I’m working on those, I write dialogue for the next pages in the margins so that it can gestate as I ink the pages I’ve already got figured out. With the latter method (as with the story The Snake) I just start working on the page because I feel like it. Maybe I have a rough idea, maybe not. Then the same kind of process takes over and I scribble ideas in the margins as I go. So yeah, on the whole it’s a pretty organic approach. It’s not really a method I recommend in a lot of ways. I think in some ways it’s probably beneficial to have your whole story hammered out before you start drawing, but I’m too impatient, I need to feel the pen scrape the paper. I am profoundly un-process oriented. I like to get straight to the thing itself.

What materials do you use when illustrating?

I pencil with a mechanical pencil, not those plastic bic things, but nothing special either. I ink with the old hunts 102 (and Higgins black magic) on Strathmore bristol 400 series. I’m pretty low tech when it comes to supplies. They don’t make the 102's like they used to... it’s a pretty shitty nib actually, but I’m so conditioned to using them that it would take a major readjustment if I had to change. My friends are all about the G nib right now... Maybe I should check it out. I keep hearing that the Japanese nibs are really well made.

You've already mentioned that you’ve been very inspired by the films of Ingmar Bergman. To what extent does film inform your work?

Bergman has been important to me. My personal film pantheon consists of four directors, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Bergman, and Kurosawa. There are of course lots of other great directors; the other day I say Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, which was just fucking great, and I love Diary of Country Priest by Bresson, but the four I keep coming back to are the ones who caused those shocks of recognition. I had experiences with all of them that shook me up in a very personal way. It’s hard to describe that kind of experience.

But I never felt influenced by those artists, or film in general from a technical point of view. I don’t have any interest in making my comics appear “filmic,” in fact if anything I think that the influence of film has crippled the development of comics as a graphic medium. In comics academia I was constantly hearing about camera placement. How best to set up a “shot” for prime emotional exploitation. Eventually I realized that there is no camera, there is no "shot", it’s all just lines on paper folks. When I realized that, things seemed to open up in my imagination. Old habits die hard though, I still haven’t done what I consider a purely graphic comic. I think it’s something that’s percolating in the back of my head.

So it’s more the example of the filmmaker as artist. The influence comes in the way that the artist thinks about his work, in the way he approaches it, how he solves problems, and uses his material to bound into unexpected areas. I do pay attention to pacing, and editing, the way that the dialogue relates to the editing, and the way the compositions relate to all of it. Since comics are all about juxtaposition, I think it’s best to think in those terms while watching films... The way that images follow one another... understanding of course that the consequences of any juxtaposition will be different based on the medium one is working in.

Recently, there’s been a veritable glut of 'comic book films', and whilst they’ve undoubtedly done much to raise the overall profile of comics, the quality of such films has been very poor.

There have been a few notable exceptions to the rule, I deeply enjoyed Persepolis and felt it served as a wonderful example of how things could be done right. Does the interaction between the two mediums hold any interest for you or would you rather the two did not mix?

Yeah Persepolis is really good, but it’s also important to remember that it didn’t come out of Hollywood. It was also Satrapi’s project and she seems to have been every bit as invested in the creation of the film as she was in the comic (Of the two I actually prefer the movie.) I think the comic book movie trend first began to trouble me with the release of the Road to Perdition movie. I’ve only seen the movie once, and actually liked it pretty well at the time, but I became aware that people might see that the project is based on a graphic novel, think “oh well, maybe I’ll check that out” go to Barnes and Noble, pick it up, find it as charmless as I do, and dismiss the whole medium.

If the dissemination of the term “graphic novel” is popularized in the culture because of Frank Miller, I don’t exactly see that as a step forward. I thought the Sin City movie was god awful, and 300 was just all out loathsome.

It’s the theoretical prestige of that term I suppose, “graphic novel”... Spider man, and Iron Man, and Elektra are comic books. Nobody expects more from a comic book, or from a comic book movie, than to be entertained. But when you see that credit in the movie theater “based on the graphic novel by...” The audience might be predisposed to believe that the source material must be an example of the very best the medium has to offer... It’s being made into a movie after all. However, if the credit read “based on the novel by” I don’t believe that any such assumption would be made unless you consider John Grisham, and Michael Chrichton true lights of the literary boulevard.

I think comics is still such a small and specialized medium, and industry, that all the work kind of gets lumped together. To the educated eye the notion that the Hernandez brothers have anything in common with Frank Miller, or that Brian Lee O’Malley has anything to do with Jim Woodring is crazy. To the uneducated eye, it’s all graphic novels, and all the same to them. I’ll draw the line at saying that comics are the victims of vicious bigotry... A good natured kind of bigotry maybe. And we have our Uncle Toms.

I think what I am trying to say is that people who wouldn’t know “art” if it bit them in the ass need to stop insisting that comics is an art form. Comics is not an art form, it is a medium. The art comes in with the soul of its purveyor, regardless of the form.

But I’m not answering your question. It’s pretty safe to say that I don’t really care one way or the other about the superhero movies, the fun ones are cool, the bad ones are tedious, but I don’t really think they affect the reputation of comics as a medium either way. The exception being Watchmen, which everybody seemed to take very seriously. It’s true that the comic book series was extremely dense, and that its self reflexive nature pointed towards a sophistication that was unfamiliar to most comics readers, but at the end of the day it’s still a story about a blue man who can turn giant and blow up the world. I have to admit that I still haven’t seen the movie. The fact that it’s another Zack Snyder comic book project doesn’t exactly thrill me.

I haven’t enjoyed either of the Zwigoff/Clowes collaborations either. Wasn’t impressed by Ghost World, and more or less outright hated Art School Confidential, which just hung itself on it’s own cynicism. It seems to be really hard to adapt good work into other media. Mahler said that he mostly used mediocre poetry in his choral compositions because otherwise, if he were adapting Goethe for instance, what could he possibly add. It’s true of contemporary song writing too. There are a number of country songs that I love very much, that I would never put up against “real” poetry based only on the lyrics. It’s the juxtaposition of the words and the music and the voice that create certain feelings.

Comics is very much like this. A master like Clowes can more or less estimate the reaction that a viewer will have given the way he arranges his images and his words, his compositions, and his rhythms. It’s all refined in a very specific context. When it’s taken out of that context the careful construct collapses. In other words the POINT of a comic is that it’s a comic. If a thing is of any value its very existence MUST be wrapped up with the medium it was created in. Can you imagine a film of Jimmy Corrigan that had anything to do with the artistry of Chris Ware?

Obviously this extends to other media as well, the point of a novel (a good one) is that it is a novel. I don’t know what Ridley Scott, for example, thinks he can accomplish by making a movie out of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, because everything about that book is in the prose. At the same time the Coen brothers were able to make a very good movie out of No Country For Old Men, for the very reason it’s one of McCarthy’s lesser novels. There are lots of examples in lots of different media.

Sadly so far the two options seem to be, bad adaptations of good comics, or good adaptations of bad comics. Does this mean that comics and movies should not interact? No, I think there is plenty of room for interaction, I just think the respective artists need to be responsible about it. Of course that’s nearly impossible in the Hollywood Studio system where the property is ripped away from the original creator, and sometimes from the director himself. Yes there is Persepolis, but it was co directed by the creator of the book in France so naturally it’s going to represent her “vision.”

Ultimately it’s a question of the competence of the artists involved, and of their self awareness and of their respect for other media, and for their own.

You're currently working on a new comic entitled Blacklung, which I understand involves pirates. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

I don’t want to go into it in too much detail but Blacklung is basically the story of a school teacher who is accidentally shanghaied aboard a pirate ship with a local gangster, who was deliberately shanghaied. And it’s about the Captain of the ship and his first and second mates, and the nature of sin, and the nature of the soul, and the nature of a mans life when his circumstances cut the guts out of his potential. Come to think of it, it’s about the nature of potential....... With a lot of violence.

Are there any creators or comics that have impressed you lately? Anyone you feel deserves more attention?

I’d say that all the greats I mentioned in that other answer all deserve greater attention, especially I think Jim Woodring. I don’t know what form that attention would take but he sure deserves it.

All my friends deserve more attention... Joey Weiser, Max C lotfelter, David Yoder, Douglas Frey, now I’ll get in trouble for forgetting people. There are a handful of people around The Center For Cartoon Studies in Vermont that are really amazing, Joe Lambert, Gabby Schulz, Brandon Elston, Dane Martin... I’ll probably get in trouble for that list too... There really is just SO much raw talent around. It can be really inspiring, but really Eleanor Davis and Drew Weing are the hot two. Drew does things with pen nibs that I just don’t understand and Eleanor just makes me want to kill myself. I mean it’s not like they aren’t already getting noticed, but uh... They’re really really good.

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything you'd like to add?

Thank you, I think I’ve already gone on at length for far too long.

Interview by Matthew Dick - May 2009.


Rob Clough said...

Great interview! Wright had a lot of interesting things to say. About the only thing I wish you had pressed him on a bit was this quote:

"There aren’t enough comics dealing with the real stuff. I think young cartoonists are afraid of it... or consider it passe compared to drawing comics about how fucking hip they are. There needs to be at once a divestment of ego and an investigation deeper into it. We need to push past the self congratulatory, self sycophantic, ironic construct that indie comics has become, and try to play with the big boys."

I wanted him to name names.

Matt @ Exquisite Things said...

Thanks for the kind words Rob. Really pleased how this one turned out. Hopefully it will encourage more people to check out Inkweek.

I understand Chris' sentiment about indie comics but I don't think he was out to 'name and shame'!

afdumin said...

Wonderful interview. I read it several days ago and have been thinking about it ever since, so I thought I'd better stop by again and thank you both for the pleasure.

Matt @ Exquisite Things said...

Cheers man, glad you enjoyed it. Just discovered Chris' new book is due to be published by D&Q next year. Can't wait!