Austin English is an avant-garde comic book artist living in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife, Clara Bessijelle, also an avant-garde comic book artist. They both make epic and important comics as well as operate a small publishing house called Domino dedicated to releasing more avant-garde styles as well as their own inimitable work. They print everything from minicomics out of a photocopier to glossy books with spines and Austin English’s beautiful lithographs. Austin English started publishing comics with the hugely influential comics publisher and comic book artist Dylan Williams, whose tragic death last year was a horrible shock to the independent comics community. English’s first book for Sparkplug was Christina and Charles, and this comic and the work he contributed to the Windy Corner anthologies were tricky little art experiments that gained him a lot of attention in the comic book world, largely because of the strangely childish coloured pencil style. Now comes the Basquiat-like expressiveness of his latest works like The Disgusting Room — in which a maturity and depth is matched to the glee and wonderment found in those early works. Click this sentence for a preview of The Disgusting Room, which is reproduced on newsprint like a paper and is very affordable. I find that after reading Austin English’s comics, my eyeballs are on the floor and I need to reel them back into my head. I sent Austin a whole bunch of questions over e-mail.
What kind of room and on what kind of surface did you first learn to draw?
When I was in 3rd grade, all my friends were doing some sort of drawing. We were all really into comic books or cartoons and there was something in the water for kids that age and in that era (I think this was 1993) about creating your own universe of characters. I remember coming home one night and wanting to draw more then I’d ever wanted to before—not to doodle or copy a picture from a Tintin album, but to draw a story. I started drawing a bunch of characters that night in our living room. My mom was talking on the phone and I was sitting in a chair. I think the surface was probably just a stack of paper on my lap.
After drawing a bunch of little characters I went into my room and tried to put these characters I had drawn into a story, which I had the most frustrating struggle with. I have basically been having that struggle with comics ever since! But it was that desire to tell a story with characters that felt like the beginning of actual drawing for me, because I felt so wrapped up in it. Before that I would just doodle or try to draw comic book characters from memory and eventually I would loose interest. But from that night on I don’t think I ever stopped trying to make comic stories in one way or another.
How soon after you started drawing did you start using paint and collage and other materials to make pictures?
With those drawings from 3rd grade, I drew in #2 pencil. I have sort of come full circle now, because I am working on a comic right now that is all in graphite. But not with a #2…I use this pencil I really like called a ‘Technalo’ made by a Swiss company called Caran d’Ache. I use a 3B most of the time.
In high school, when I wanted to make zines I realized I had to draw in ink so that I could photocopy it. I had seen the movie CRUMB so many times so I naturally thought a Rapidograph was the way to go. But after a while, as I started to get more and more serious about comics, I think my love for painting and experimental art in general became to strong to ignore. If comics were what I was going to devote myself to, I had to put all my different image making ambitions into them.
I was lucky enough to be pretty young and impressionable when Kramers Ergot #4 came out, so incorporating non traditional cartooning tools into comics seemed really natural to me. I started drawing most of my comics in colored pencil because I really liked the line weight you could get and it seemed like a natural way to add color to your work. I think in the years since Kramers #4 there has been a backing away from non-traditional approaches in comics, with people much younger than me working in really tight, non-painting styles. But as I fall deeper and deeper into loving to tell a story with images, I find myself wanting to add as many different approaches as possible—I used acrylic paint in Disgusting Room because it changed the way I drew figures—and if drawing a figure is like writing a sentence, I’m always trying to find new ways to vary the hardness of my sentences. There was a time when I wanted to make my characters act as incredibly blunt sentences and that’s when I began doing stone lithography.
Every now and then I force myself to sit down and write a story that will just be prose. I partly do this because I think it would be a good exercise, but mainly because my first lvoe is literature. But as I get deeper into writing anything, if I find it good and worthwhile, I can’t let it not be a comic. And I guess that is what happens with every art apart from comics—if I like what I’m doing, I can’t stop myself from cannibalizing it into comics storytelling. When I’m sitting down working on anew story, I feel all of my brain and hearty engaged into moving a character around the page, and putting them into landscapes and situations and complicating those landscapes/situations. The only art form I felt as engaged in was stone lithography, where I did some non-story related imagery. With that, I think the intensive, detail oriented process of producing the lithographs was enough complication that it felt like a story in and of itself-smoothing the stone, applying the ink, etc.
How have the homes and the cities and towns where you’ve lived informed or inspired your work?
I keep telling people that living in New York for 8 years wound me up with a lot of desire to make art work as strongly and wildly as I could manage. Then, moving to Sweden for two years allowed me to really follow through on that desire. When I moved to Sweden, I didn’t know many people, I feel like I made a lot of huge steps in my work people, I didn’t have a job right away and it was very cold. In my first 6 months there, I feel like I made so many advances in my art that I had been dying to make in New York. Now that I’m back in New York, I feel like there’s no turning back—those two years were invaluable because they changed my work habits so much.
But New York is responsible for the tone of my work. If there’s one thing I missed in Sweden, it’s the intensely aggressive and rude nature of New York. People live their private lives right in front of you here and that they do it very loudly and unapologetically. I don’t really agree with that way of living—I happen to think the way people live in Sweden is much healthier and more beautiful. Maybe as a more mature artist I can make work about that more sedate of living. But my stories are kind of like aggressive thrillers and New York does feed your imagination for that. The griminess of The New York Post and that flippant nature of almost everyone you deal with here is infectious. If you choose to not hate it you can have a good conversation with it, in your mind.
Were there people along the road who you believe helped you to make comics?
It’s impossible for me to overstate the importance of Dylan Williams in my life. Dylan passed away in September and I don’t think any of us who loved him can really beleive it. For months, almost every day I’ll think about something Dylan said to me, or something will happen that i want to tell Dylan about. It’s becoming more real to me that he’s gone but the amount of things I wish I could share with him on a daily basis keep piling up. He was that kind of friend—the one you could call anytime about anything and talk for hours with. Sometimes things—movies, friendships, a page of newly drawn comics that I felt good about—didn’t feel real until I told Dylan about them. My friend (and fellow cartoonist) Nate Doyle both keep grasping for words when we talk about Dylan—he was just too good a friend and mentor to lose. It’s impossible to communicate just how much he meant, because he did more for people he cared about and was more present and open in conversation and friendship than virtually any other person I know.
And so many people feel this way about Dylan. He was THERE in the fullest meaning of the word for all of us and I hope he knew how much it meant to us.
I met Dylan when I was around 16, at Al’s Comics in San Francisco. A couple months before we met, I had walked into Al’s and bought REPORTER #1, and loved it. There was a note written on the inside cover from Dylan to his readers, with a little drawing of an fashioned comics artist at a drawing table.
Immediately that drawing said so much about Dylan. Just this true love for comics that he always let you in on in small ways. That was a small, insert drawing but it had this real love for comics in it. I guess that is poetry, right? Something that communicates a feeling so strong that you can’t miss it. Dylan’s whole life towards comics was a bit like that.
So this time I walked into Al’s, and Al said ‘hey Austin, let me introduce you to the guy that draws Reporter.’ There was Dylan browsing through comics. It’s so fitting that the first memory of Dylan I have is him in a comic store. Dylan LOVED comics in the most beautiful way I’ve ever seen someone love something. He used to say, when I complained about working at Forbidden Planet sometimes (apologies to my great boss Jeff Ayers for admitting I ever had a moment of doubt about the job—it happened from time to time), that ‘selling comics is God’s work.’ There was an ample bit of humor in that but also a lot of real belief in the idea.
I had just started drawing comics when I met Dylan, and when we met in Al’s, Al handed Dylan a copy of one of my first mini comics (it was a comics biography of Thelonious Monk). Dylan , within a short amount of time, wrote me a warm letter about the comic–we’d talked for just a few minutes, but I think for Dylan, a teenager like myself making weird mini comics (if you aren’t keen on my crude drawing now, just imagine it at 16) was something that was, without question, to be encouraged.
I have always always just wanted to make art, but for most of my life, I thought I would do it pretty privately…sending out zines to friends and artists I admire, but never give into it as much as I wanted because I was too embarrassed of the oddness of my work to try to fully stand behind it. When Dylan wrote to me, out of the blue, to publish a book of my work (whatever work I wanted to make into a book was fine), I really never turned back. That commitment to my own work is really 100% from Dylan. And the thing is, Dylan had that effect of SO MANY people. I mean–today, I love drawing so so so much more than I did when I started because I’ve committed to it so much and forced myself to push my art as hard as I can. And that is a thrill, every day and it fills me (corny as it sounds but Dylan would appreciate the honesty here) with satisfaction. But I never would have been able to make it to this point without Dylan’s CONSTANT belief and encouragement. Dylan’s support was always unwavering and for long stretches of time he was the ONLY PERSON who seemed to have any remote interest in my work. And Dylan believed in treating people this way, respecting them in this way. He knew it was the right thing to do. I tried to tell him over and over again how much it meant to me, and I hope when he shrugged me off and said ‘yeah sure, ok’ that he really did hear what I was saying.
What sort of comics are out there today do you feel an affinity with but haven’t got much or any connection to?
One of my weaknesses is that if I see a comic I have affinity with, I can’t stop myself from at least writing to the person so that i DO have a connection with it. I’m trying to do that less and less, so that I can just enjoy some comics without relentlessly involving myself in some way. I have always admired everything German cartoonist Anke Feuchtenberger does, and I feel connected to her artistically—she embodies almost everything I aspire to in my work. Her comics are in one way purely comics—characters move through the page, leading us through a story. But in a more important way, her comics have something that so much of cartooning lacks: they are unashamedly serious and speak to our deeper emotions, which a lot of comics can never reconcile themselves to. Feuchtenberger also has this incredible drive to grow in her drawing…recent albums look radically different from other ones. I think, to a lot of cartoonists, ‘growing with your drawing’ means ‘refining your style.’ Frederic Coche, who I also feel an affinity towards but have no connection to, released this amazing new book that is minimal and painterly—a stark contrast from his earlier, meticulous etching comics. I found that incredibly inspiring and I know that it felt like a step forward in image making for him. So I really feel an affinity for cartoonists who with each book are pushing their image making into a direction that is away from what they’ve already settled into.
That affinity may simply be there because it’s a rare quality in cartooning. I also have a deep affinity for someone like Kim Deitch who has pushed what he does well so far and with so much passion that it becomes undeniably beautiful and technical in the most breathtaking way.
Have you exhibited your work in any kinds of galleries? Do you have friends more in that world than comics?
I support myself (although in a modest way since my rent and cost of living is incredibly low) in part by selling original art—pages from my comics. I have never shown in galleries, and the people that buy my work are art world people who stumble upon the books or see work online and contact me directly. Almost all of them express that they’d like my work more if I did non-comic imagery…i.e, static, non narrative work. These people seem to take appreciate my drawing more than the comics world so I always feel this flirtation to focus more on that world—the comics world often says some harsh things about he way I raw and at times it feels like a broken record of ‘is this even comics?’ But I love comics too much and when people buy my art and express their preference for me doing painting over comics, I tend to find that more distasteful than the comics world dismissing me.
A story is what generates alive and potent imagery for me. You can’t worry much about passing trends or desires in comics or the art world and you just have to work as hard as possible to put as much of yourself in your work as you can and hope that in the long term people will come to respect that. I like selling art and wish a gallery would take a chance on me but I think the way to do that is to just keep making art.
I wonder if you’ve ever encountered anyone or anything in your life you feel is opposed to your creative goals? How do you counter the prevailing nonsense of the world that doesn’t look to support creative goals?
Well, every day I’ll read something that drives me crazy, either from fellow artists or from bloggers or whatever. I think comics has a very weird relationship with growing up as a art form directly tied to commerce, due to being in the newspaper. I think with underground comics and stuff like Raw there has been this constant attrition against that but there is still this very real undercurrent of hostility towards people not following the ‘conventional standard.’ There seems to be this belief that comics need to make a strong body of ‘solid’ works, just skillful works before we get into any other nonsense.
But I think comics need to look beyond that. I see artists, when they’re just starting out, backing away from the conventional standard. Probably because they are blissfully unaware of a conventional standard. I wish that they were allowed to stay unaware. Unfortunately, what seems to happen a lot is after that initial burst of unique, eccentric creation, I see the standard being subtly imposed on these artists. I can’t count how many distinctive cartoonists I’ve seen ending up doing straightforward comics.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. I believe that if you admire an artist, you give them the benefit of the doubt and follow them where they want to go. But it still feels odd–after Kramers Ergot #4 there seemed to be this moment where the tried and true ways of making comics wouldn’t be held so dearly anymore. Now, especially in avant-garde circles, they seem to be in a place of high regard again. I love genre comics, I like some corporate comics. But I don’t think they’re models that need to be followed. In film, the Cahiers du Cinema crowd loved George Cukor… but they didn’t make movies like him. They admired Cukor for his originality, for making personal films. That’s what they took away–not his commitment to the studio system or some such ideal. I think that Harlan Ellison quote is apt in a way: “Comics people choose the wrong heroes.” I’d change it to say “comics people tend to take away dubious lessons from their heroes.”
What I tried to do with Windy Corner, as an editor–and what I’m now trying to do on a different scale with Domino Books–is find artists that I felt were making powerful art and who didn’t fit into the normal idea of what art comics are. Every single artist I work with–my secret hope is that they go further and further in their distinctive direction, pushing their aesthetic as hard as they can. I think, without this kind of advocacy, the pressures (external or internal) to make comics the ‘normal way’ can be strong. I know Dylan Williams’ [of Sparkplug] early support for my work has been indescribably important to me. I think without that support, I’d have made very different choices with my art. I’m thankful that, due largely to his and others faith in what I was doing, that I’m making what I’m making. I think I’m obligated to pay that support back to artists I feel strongly about.
Part of this is that, if I want comics to be a place where I can be free as an artist and make the kind fo comics that are important to me, maybe I can help create that place with DOMINO—by publishing work that I find challenging, thus making the terrain of comics more adaptable to challenging works. With each book from DOMINO, maybe someone who sees comics with the same open feeling that I have for them will do their own thing, and works like mine will start to feel more conventional.
How important is your family in your creative life?
My mom and dad are very supportive—my main has been an artist all her life, and when I was young she supported herself in part by selling paintings at cafe shows and through doing paintings for community gardens and stuff like that. She lives and breathes art and literature and so when i was young, books and paintings seemed like natural things to emulate. So everything I do, she’s very happy about—she raised children her entire life and always worked so I think she’s happy that one of her children followed in her footsteps to make a real stab at making art.
My dad is very different. When I was young he was highly involved in The United Farmworkers organization in California, working on union rights for migrant works. There is a strong undertone of anger about basic injustice in my work that seems apparent to me but maybe not so apparent to other people. But that is largely from my dad and I’m very grateful for that.
Clara Bessijelle, my wife, is responsible for a lot of the steps forward I’ve made in my work lately. We often draw together and seeing Clara works motivates me to work. Recently, I was working on this current story and I really wanted to abandon it, because it felt like a rehash of the drawing style I used for ‘Here I Am.’ Clara looked at the pages and forced me to look at them sie by side with ‘here I Am’…and of course they were completley different. Her faith in my work pulls me through a lot of moments where I’m about to abandon a piece i should really stick with.
Can you tell me a little about how you meet Clara and perhaps describe how your working process is similar and different? Do you guys have good eating habits? Is Brooklyn both affordable and healthy for a young artist couple?
I met Clara here in Brooklyn at a party at our house. She was visiting the USA for 9 days, as a guest of Buenaventura Press for a comics festival, and then going back. I’d never been to Europe before, never set foot out of the USA.
Clara’s process is very different. She spends months doing research, looking at photography books and making small notes—during this time she draws a lot of texture and faces that she may or may not end up using later. Once she has a very clear idea of what the story she’s working on is, she starts drawing pretty non stop and the story (which has been coming out very slowly up tot his point) takes shape very fast. Once she knows what she’s drawing, she draws for about 5 or 6 hours a day, knocking out pages with lots of detail at a really fast clip. But it’s the stage before that that is very painstakingly slow. But all the work she does in that period adds up to the whole—which is very different from me. I sit down and draw the story and whatever comes up during that time gets thrown in right away.
I think you can eat healthy in both places, but you have to plan it out way better in New York. You can rely on produce to be fresh all over Sweden, and fried food isn’t being shoved at you the minute you walk out the door. But Brooklyn is what you make of it, health wise.Sweden is a much nicer place than Brooklyn. As a diabetic, I don’t have health insurance here, but I got it in Sweden right away. Insulin is free there—it is $150 dollars a bottle here. Much calmer and fairer. No one every did anything wildly inconsiderate or erratic to me while I was over there, which I guess I expect at this point from fellow Americans. People are also very close to their families there, which I really appreciated. And in the summer you can stay in the countryside and grow vegetables. It is a kind, sensible society which I find increasingly admirable given how things are here. But….the USA has this X-factor about art. No one ever said very encouraging things to Clara about her art in Stockholm—even well wishers were tight lipped. Here, people that are enthusiastic about her work say it to her, and the overall energy about making work and pushing your art is impossible to miss. I think they are good extremes to go back and forth between.
We pay $200 a month in rent. I can’t imagine living here if we didn’t have that situation (it’s a big reason as to why I’m able to do DOMINO). I’m lucky because I have enough friends here that I was able to get that cheap room when it came up.
How important is music, movies, books, other media to your creative life?
Well, books are very important. When I was in Sweden, and finding English language books was hit or miss (I read a lot of Raymond Chandler while I was there because English versions of his work were just around), it was a bit of a crisis. Books are, to me, these tomes that people have poured their best qualities into (even if their best qualities are highly negative) and they’re waiting for you whenever you’re ready to converse with them. I like talking with friends and going to parties but I feel that books are a better space to express your more acute, sensitive, aggressive and real thoughts. As an artist I’m content with dipping into this world at my own speed and responding to it as best I can in my own work.
I feel the same about films when I go see them in the theater. In Sweden (or anywhere outside of New York I guess), watching a Bela Tarr movie at home was great but not as precious as my greatest moments with art tend to be. Recently in New York, Lincoln Center did a retrospective of Tarr’s movies, and seeing that work as it was meant to be seen—on a good screen where the rich black and white tones were overflowing—felt like a real exchange, like I was really feeling the work. Like anything, it’s always worth the effort to experience art int he right way if it means something to you.
Dylan Williams had this great quote: ‘Art isn’t bullshit and love isn’t bullshit.’ I struggle to add more than that.
So after seeing all of Bela Tarr’s work on the big screen, which of his films ended up being your favourite? For some reason I’m really hung up on The Man From London even though critics seem to dismiss it.
It’s hard to beat Satantango. I usually appreciate works that are tighter (i.e, novellas, pamphlet comics). But that film has no filler within it’s 8 hours. The stuff with the girl and her cat, that says so much about people that I struggle to say in my own work. And the dancing in the bar, the man repeating that story endlessly.
His work does this thing that so few other people can even approach: Damnation is about infidelity, almost high level melodrama. And then there’s that scene with the dancing in the bar, the whole village dancing together. So it has this conviction towards serious emotions but also undercuts it with beautiful casualness, with crude sloppy displays. The emotions of that guy in the lead in Damnation—you get to believe in them (they’re real) but also see them for how overblown they are. That is something I rarely see in art—deep emotion and its opposite, all valid and all reproachable at the same time. It’s how I see things too, but the skill to present it so well is a thrill to behold.
Would you be interested in further defining what it is about a publication like VICE that you feel does not click with the philosophy behind DOMINO?
Well, VICE, like anything, isn’t all bad. They can be funny and enjoyable—and they have hired some great cartoonists to do work that I enjoy. But they are essentially this lazy negative publication, with emphasis on the lazy bit (I enjoy creative negativity very much). Their attitudes on women and fashion are gross because of the boring fake edginess of it all and I do think those kind of attitudes are deading if you expose yourself to it too much.
I think art is important and should be beyond mediocrity like VICE. So many people in art communities are always like ‘fuck VICE’ but then very excited or work for them. I think there are always better ways to make a buck, and in the long term, rejecting a rag like VICE (which won’t love you over the years) is important for the health of your art. Small bits of promotion from something that you essentially do not respect and has the opposite goals of your idealistic art is good short term/bad long term. It weakens you and then forgets about you. There are better avenues to associate yourself with—something like Mothers News is pure and if you need to be into something hip, it’s hip.
VICE is one example, and an easy one. I think even something like The New York Times, even if they’re writing about you—they don’t really give a fuck. Why get excited over their tepid embrace? Making art should be beyond that—beyond superficial validation from aging media outlets. There are hungry, smarter, more passionate places that we should think of as more worthy sources of validation if validation means so much. Really, abandoning validation at all would be a good start! But that is much easier said then done, obviously. I think we have to start wanting writers to have a conversation with our work rather then being excited over a flashy soundbite. Because do you make art to sell 5 copies of your zine because of that soundbite? Will that even help you make the rent? Some people seem to be putting so much effort into getting that little indifferent pat on the head that youd think a lot was riding on it.
Where do you live and work now? Is there a comics community in your area that you participate in beyond publishing?
I live and work in this place called 282 Broadway which is actually a large living/studio space where lots of cartoonists live—over the years Lizz Hickey, Keith Jones, Jesse McManus, Victor Cayro, Becca Kacada, Jon Vermileya, Jeff Ladouceur, Clara Bessijelle and other artists have all lived here. There is a large downstairs area where I make my won art and run DOMINO from. If you look out the window, the JMZ subway line runs right outside our window and there are Brooklyn bodegas and donut shops all along our block. It’s a dream come true…
When I was in high school, the first real powerful experience I had with music was with Thelonious Monk records. I was never very happy in high school, and Monk’s music was really important to me. I listened to those records over and over again, because the emotion in them was palpable but also obscure enough that you could make it your own, if you needed it. I had just really discovered zines at this time—another source of comfort—and making a zine about Thelonious Monk seemed like some kind of answer to all my troubles. Working on those zines was instantly empowering—-I knew from then on, no matter what, I’d keep making these things in some form or another, because it felt very very right.
How would you describe the changes that have occurred in your comics since you started publishing?
Over the years, the characters I draw have grown in mass. The more I draw characters, the more I want them to feel strongly and firmly planted on the ground. I try to think of my figure drawing as statue making, my characters as solid pillars as your eye moves along the page of the story.
The characters weight, and the style I draw in, is very personal to me. My comic stories are often sparsely written in terms of text, with the true ‘writing’ being the construction of the figure. For me, the feeling of drawing governs the direction of the writing. The thicker a character appears on a page, the thicker—and more aggressive—the emotion they give off in the story. My storytelling mind begins to boil through the process of image making.
I recently completed a year of studying lithography at Kungliga Konsthögskolan (MEJAN) in Stockholm, Sweden. I applied to the program because I wanted to study lithography as a means to broaden my storytelling through learning a new process of image making. In my comics, I have used all types of materials: pens, pencils, inks, oil pants, acrylics, water colors, and even fabric all in a search for different ways to build up the ‘sculpture’ of my characters and drive the direction of my stories into new areas of emotion. Lithography held a very strong appeal to me for the weight it gave to the image. As I pushed harder and harder in my drawing to add mass and permanence to my characters, my art seemed to be crying out for lithography, where an image is so thick and strong that it is printed directly into a piece of heavy paper. Nibs and brushes couldn’t offer the hardness of a lithograph, and the stories I wanted to tell where ones with heavy characters driving the action.
I usually draw at night and, because I live with a lot of other artists, we often end up around the dinner table together at around 11pm, drawing. I have a hard time drawing in the morning—there are always things to do and get done and drawing usually happens when everything else is squared away. I used to work 4pm until midnight, come home at 1am and draw until 7am. I really miss that time, because that drawing felt like so much fun fun—drawing while the rest of New York was asleep and nothing could possibly happen to change the feeling of the night.
What kinds of pens and pencils and paper and materials do you like to use? Do you have any techniques you rely upon to create your images?
I go to New York Central Art Supply to buy this great paper called Stonehenge. it’s wonderful because its great for just drawing in graphite but it is also very strong paper, so you can add gobs of acrylic, oil pants, tons of ink and it’ll hold all of it very well. I use G Nibs, also form New York Central, for work in ink—for years people had told me to use a Hunt 102 nib, but I like G nibs because you can bear down on them really hard. Using a G feels closer to drawing then simply applying ink.
Do you make a lot of sketches before you start your finished pages?
I draw a lot of sketches but directly onto the page that will become the finished art. That way sometimes I can use the initial sketch—I go through a lot of erasing and rearranging of shapes and oftentimes an erased shape will form the basis for a pattern or texture.
I work a lot in a sketchbook but hardly ever to ‘work out ideas’ for stories. I don’t mind seeing the though process behind the drawing, even if it gets in the way of the strong illusion created by the storytelling. I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with that though.
So, here’s where I’ll post some of the sketchbook and script pages that you’ve been kind enough to share. This is some of the work you did on My Friend Perry. And what I’m curious to know is what is important for you to learn and discover at the early stages?
I’m not sure what you mean exactly. I know starting the story is the hardest thing. I start each story off by writing a loose outline about the story and the relationships of the characters. To me, the essential part of any story is characters interacting. So I figure out what kind of people I want to throw together.
But starting the first page is a struggle because I gain so much confidence as I go on because there’s a stack of finished pages next to me—I pile each page I’ve finished next to the age I’m working on. When there’s no finished page next to me when I do page 1, its hard to imagine that I have it in me to do it and hard to cast about for what kind of tone the story will have. It feels like a massive undertaking to commit to a certain tone. But one there are five pages laying about, I can feel myself falling into things.
Your sketches are pretty advanced, the pictures seem pretty much finished. What happens between sketch and final image? Is a story building in your mind as you draw the pencil sketches?
Well, I know how I want a finished image to make me feel. I know an image I love is one where I surprise myself or feel something outside of me within the drawing—something I don’t recognize from previous drawings. Sp if I have that in a sketch, which is rare, I want to leave that in. But my stories are precious to me while my sketchbooks are not. I want the best work in the stories, because that is like a continuing diary of my work. So i will labor endlessly to get something into each drawing in the stories that I know I’m proud of.
What kinds of pencils do you prefer on what kind of paper?
As i said above, I use Stonehenge paper most of the time for ink with pencil and color—but for work that’s just in graphite like I’m working on now, I use Fabriano sketchbook paper and this great pencil that I mentioned above, the Technalo from Caran d’Ache, 3B.
What do you need to know in the script and sketch stage of the process in order to feel you’re ready? How much of a script must you complete in order to feel like you can start to sketch? And how much sketch do you need to do for each frame before you set down a finished page?
I have to know at least what is happening on the page. I have to have some form of notes—sometimes that is notes written out in a sketchbook and sometimes that is just loose notes written down on the piece of paper I’m working on. But I need to have the story mapped out at least 2 or 3 pages in advance, the general idea of what each character will say. Sometimes even the way they are posed is important although most of the time I want the pose to be improvised.
I have done comics many different ways, but the process I worked out on The Disgusting Room, where I write out the outline and general relationships, and then write about 3 pages of very loose script as if I was giving actors in a play fresh lines without them knowing the end of the story exactly—that has really stuck. When I try to write the story as I’m drawing—come up with a story element entirely from improvised drawing—that has always been a disaster. I do believe in that though—I’d call that the ideal of cartooning. Maybe someday I’ll get there.
The style you’ve developed has a deceptively loose and wild look to it, which doesn’t look all that easy to achieve. What sort of vision guides your intentions when developing sketches towards finished pages?
Well I want the finished pages to have something of me in them, to reflect me pushing myself towards new image making as much as possible. I think of the story ages as permanent, my ‘flagship’ art and I want the best of what I have within me to be on those pages. For me a strong image is one I didnt know I had within me so that’s what I want to see on those pages.
This new story I was working on, I really felt like it was a bad rehash of previous styles. When Clara convinced me it looked really different, that really excited me and drove my ambition for it.
Is the script usually changing while you create the finished work? And are you sketching before as well as during the process of creating finished pages?
While the general idea of what’s happening in the page is reflected in the script, the exact dialogue is hardly ever in there. I sue to actually cut out word balloons at the very end and make up all the dialogue when the book was completed. I want to stop doing that because I think pasting that in really hurts the drawing. So now I’m trying to plan out spaces to place the dialogue. But the exact phrase, I rarely decide on that until the very end.
I often edit out entire sequences—but because I only write a few pages in advance, I rarely edit the story much before drawing it. If something doesnt work once its drawn, I take it out—but before drawing, the script is usually just a few hours old and I don’t hate it enough yet to axe it.
How important is improvisation in story development?
It’s important in the drawing because I’m trying to create drawings that feel fresh and that dictates the tone of the story, as I’ve explained above. But in terms of the writing I shy away from true improvisation. I guess part of me feels that the writing is something I know I want to refine more and it would feel like cheating to throw something unplanned out in the writing. The drawing I feel much more sure of and improvising with it is part of the kick–improvising to push myself further. The writing I feel like I have different goals for. There are more stark, blunt things I want to say in the writing that I want to articulate as clearly as possible, for now.
Can you recall any examples of how you decided the way to end your stories?
I want the stories to be like thrillers to some degree and to stop on a dime. I try to come down, as a statement, with no endorsement of the horrible things that the characters are doing/having done to them. I feel for the characters and some of them are good people. I want them to be in a place of danger at the end and have the reader know they might have the strength to fight their way out but who knows given the circumstance? And who knows whether the people trying to destroy them aren’t also good in a higher, more purely negative way? I want it to be exciting and maybe a little frightening on the last page.
I actually start out first thinking whether I want to do a long story or a short story. After a longer story, like The Disgusting Room, I wanted to do a shorter piece. I always have little scenarios shuffling around in my head, and its a question of knowing when I have the time and energy to do one of them justice—or if I want to work in a medium where I can carry it off. So actually the genesis of working on a story has to do with the format and length of what I want to do next, not vice versa.
One of the exciting things about your artwork, is the abstract characterization. The frames look like ab-ex paintings. And within it tour figures are unconventional, painterly, expressive, remind me of Basquiat, and living artists like Jason McLean, and Dana Schutz. In The Disgusting Room you have a set of three characters who are strange yet also easy to distinguish. Do you create character sheets to develop the look of each of your figures before you start to work?
No, not at all, which I often think is a failing of my work. At least for now, I pay little attention to how the character looks from panel to panel, offering only little consistencies like their hair style or shirt texture. I guess this is maddening for some readers—I remember reading Gary Panter comics and feeling like it was already ok to do this. To me it means more freedom in drawing…sometimes a character ive drawn 20 times can be an odd shape then in the next panel a more fleshed out body.
In some ways I guess this goes against the cardinal rules of comics. In a sense, cartooning should be pushing a consistently drawn character—or actor—through the story. I love this style of cartooning but I also like inventive drawing. I’m trying my best to tell stories clearly but also draw as inventively as I can and want.
What goes into your process of deciding what kind of material and subject matter you want to make comics about? Is a certain kind of poetic realism in your comics, and I wonder if you have any strong opinions on what is important as subject matter?
I’d narrow down what I’m interested in as being about how characters live alongside each other, how they share rooms or apartments. Every time I sit down to write a story, it often ends up being about that… I’ll try to write something broader in mind and it usually devolves into a story about people living side by side in close quarters.
I think most art that I have affection for is grounded in how characters treat each other. I’m a big admirer of Mervyn Peake, for instance. Now, for all the lush, imaginative writing as there is in Gormenghast–isn’t everyones favorite part how Fuschia interacts with Steerpike? Or Prunequallor and his sister? Gormenghast is grounded in these rich human exchanges–which I think augments the stranger elements to beautiful effect.
Something like El Topo is the same. These violent, absurd images coupled with all that wonderful stuff at the end–El Topo’s relationship to his son and the cave people. That end part is beautiful… who isn’t thrilled when they watch those bits? I think, combined with the absurd elements, works like that achieve this powerful authority.
There’s this bit at the end of Last Picture Show where Ruth Popper goes from shrill anger to really graceful compassion. I think that’s a valuable thing to express in art…comics never seem to show that gradation. I’ve always been moved by that in art and in people and I guess I’m always trying to do justice to it in my own art, through my own ham fisted methods.
Can you tell me a bit more about the comics you’ve published with Domino and how Domino works, and how you’ve learned to make it work?
I run DOMINO here in my drawing space at home. From Dylan, I learned a lot, especially to not look for validation from institutions that I think are hateful—so, I won’t send anything to VICE (to name one) because I don’t want to seek out publicity from something I’d rather wouldn’t exist. I want DOMINO to be an extension of my feelings and beliefs on art, so I try to treat it very carefully, approaching local businesses for services like mailers, stamps, shipping services, etc. I started DOMINO the minute I could—someone had bought a large amount of original art from me and instead of holding on to that money I immediately put it into DOMINO. I knew if I didnt start it then I never would. And that investment…I’m careful to never want it back. In the face of losing money on many small transactions that go into running DOMINO, I have to think of it as part and parcel of caring for these books and believing in them, and believing that they are worth double the time, effort and money I put into them. the comics world is low, low stakes economically and I think that is really good. That means people who put their all into it are doing it for very pure artistic reasons. Dylan said once that ‘selling comics is god’s work,’ in a joking but serious tone. I agree with hat more then I can say. Comics are privileged for their low economic status right now because the only reason to be doing this stuff is for the art. But you have to remind yourself of that as often as possible.
What are the main responsibilities that go into running Domino?
With DOMINO, I communicate with the printer, setting up PDFS and InDesign Files. I pick up the copies and then sell them from home. I contact stores myself, cold calling some of them. I process the orders myself from the website. I try to distribute the zines of people that contact me because i think that’s a first step for some artists thats important to encourage. And I seek out artists I admire who are self publishing to distribute their work too.
My favorite thing is to go to the post office with books from DOMINO, zines from Sweden, comics from Latvia, and from small corners of America and send them all out to people. That is something that brings me so much pleasure.
Our first book was DARK TOMATO with Sakura Maku. Sakura is about the same age as me and we’ve been making work at about the same speed and consistency over the years. Everything Sakura has done usually has a huge influence on my work—and so, when I started DOMINO I just felt this huge responsibility to support her art as if it was my own. I admire Sakuras work for its strong execution and the strange, intellectually potent world exists within that exacting execution. I think of Sakura primarily as a writer but one who uses everything comics has to offer to further her writing. There is this visual assault that accompanies Sakuras work when you first see it, but the more I look at it, the more it all feels in service of the writing, which is a tricky thing to do. Her text will be rendered on one page in this bouncy inviting way, and then shift to a fuzzy, almost hidden text that complicates the narrative. Sakura’s visual gestalt is such that this never feels like a put on. It feels like an elaborate game that’s rules are always shifting but that remain logical.
SPIDER MONEY by Jesse McManus is sort of a tribute to all kinds of comics—it has elements of childrens comics, horror manga, magic and adventure stories. I wrote a loose script of it for McManus to see what would hapen with his over the top style in a more reigned in mode. It has something about it that I really love: a seemingly simple narrative conceit that, once it sucks you in, pulls you through a very bumpy visual road. It looks pretty harmless page to page but within the panels there is tough terrain. I love how Jesse draws so much that I get a lot of pleasure just glancing at the cover.
What is upcoming on Domino?
Domino has a lot of books planned for the next 6 months. We will have FACE MAN by Clara Bessijelle and DIFFICULT LOVES by Molly Colleen O’Connell in March. Im starting work on an anthology that will feature Caroline Bren, Joanna Hellgren, Warren Craghead and EB Bethea. There is this artist called Jonathan Petersen that I love who will be doing a comic called Space Baskets that we will have in the summer. I also have a book of my own, The Life Problem, that I hope to put out very soon but I need to get the money in place.
Who are the cool printing press people to work with these days to achieve the right combination of affordability and good quality reproduction?
For DARK TOMATO, I used an Estonian printer called AS INGRI. They print this fantastic Finnish anthology called Kuti Kuti. They were great and if what you are doing is printing a black and white comic with a color cover, the costs are realtively low. I see kickstarter campaigns for similar projects and i feel like, if you ahev the desire to make something modest, you can moonlight a couple of nights a week and make a very beautiful book with the extra money you make.
I like prininting 24 pages comics beccause i feel like that is a perfect form for expression. it is like the novella of the comics world—just enough room to make a potent stement, and too few pages for any padding.
I’m now using a great printer in Long Island City (two subway stops away from my house) called LINCO. They print great stuff like Showpaper and Smoke Signals and tons of other independent comics that pop up on the east coast. They mostly print chinese restaurant menus and their press is always running. You go there to pick up your copies by subway and you’re in this abandoned wasteland of decaying industrial buildings with a lone, ultra bright blade runner esque video ad hanging above all of it. It’s a pleasure and a thrill to have stuff printed with Linco.
Do you attend the small press conferences and the artist publishers events like the big one that happened in Brooklyn or the events that happen at Motto in Berlin? Do you try to stay connected to the world of your comics or are you more focused on creating work?
As I’ve said a billion times now, I love comics. but I’m also very dissatisfied with them. DOMINO is an effort to pave the way for complicated work within comics, to make comics a more habitable place for the kind of work I care for. I do stay in a great deal of connection with everything that hapens in comics but I also feel a yearning to bring this work to other worlds of art, maybe ones that have fought the battles for experimental expression already that comics seem endlessly engaged in. I feel inklings of that battle beginning over in comics, like at the first Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest. But then at this recent one, I felt the creepings of love for artfully rendered genre at the doorstep (or really, in the living room already). I love artful genre but I wish it wasnt so all encompassing.
But no matter what, comics has so much energy right now and so much enthusiasm for making work that I never feel in any other arena of the arts. No mtter what, we are in phase where beautiful things are being created each year and I cant help but feel very carried away by that and wanting to contribute my two cents to all of it as hard and as seriously as I can.
Thank you, Austin!