Decadence Comics is a Euro / London, UK – based independent comic publisher that’s been going for about ten years now, specializing in a style of science-fiction comic that reminds me of the twists and turns in the short stories of France’s master, Moebius, and Japan’s Akira creator, Otomo Katsuhiro, and in a way, these comics also remind me of Canada’s Martin Vaughn-James‘s early-Seventies graphic novel The Cage, a surreal post-apocalypse published by Coach House Press in 1975 and never reprinted. A fluke connection, as I learn. There’s two main artists publishing with Decadence, Stathis Tsemberlidis and Lando. The comics are all printed / Xeroxed on quality paper and handbound with painter’s tape or spine-stapled. Worth a look. Affordable in bundles and fast delivery — shipping from overseas these days is faster than domestic, I find. Very unexpected stories, too, coolly detached POV, cruel twists, and funny ideas, with a wild intense concept of what science-fiction can portray for us. Future classics about the future. Out of curiosity, I asked them about the movie Prometheus, which seems to divide artists and sci-fi fans.
You can tell a Stathis comic by its controlled use of texture dots all over everything, skin, cement, every surface on every panel is meticulously textured with flakes of pollution, toxicity. His comics conflate outer space exploration with the inner life of the unconscious, alternate dimensions of consciousness, and so good, like grime music turned into comics.
Lando’s style is a sweet combination of gestural drawing and connect-the-dots style computer line drawings, and his stories revolve around lonely rebellious broken androids and vivid documentary-style narratives about lost-in-space military platoons — Lando’s stories flicker between images of another galaxy, and direct references to the Western invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and military alienation.
Both Lando and Stathis take direct aim at the matrix veil covering the Western world’s eyes, blind to our complete immersion in the lie of late-capitalism.
There is a brilliant Stathis comic called Upheaval where he conflates the rioter with the riot police in a psychic science-fiction narrative that makes a portal of the third eye. Stathis is also hellishly prolific for an artist whose every panel requires so much textural noise pollution and mottling — his stories trip between organic imagery, human forms, spacemen, vast landscapes and crystalline shapes acting as maps, portals, and vehicles for extra-planetary inner exploration. Mind lizards, devolution, acid baths are all signatures of Stathis’s comics.
Lando’s Untranslated series is a graffiti-style war between soldiers and aliens that look like emaciated anteaters. Lando’s comic series Island 3 looks prepped to become an epic graphic novel — it has all the existential dread one hopes to read from the best in literature and storytelling. Here is a fast-as-hell Q&A I did with Stathis and Lando via e-mail. The pictures are all care of the Decadence website.
What’s it like where you live?
S- I live between Copenhagen and Athens. Both are very interesting cities.
L- I currently live in the town where I grew up for the moment. Its a commuter town outside of London, mostly built in the last 30 to 40 years. There is a generic style of architecture on my housing estate and some of the surrounding ones which gives it a kinda failed utopia vibe which I still find inspiring.
How many comic artists would you say are working in your Decadence Comics scene?
L- Between 5-10 artists contribute to the anthology. Its just me and Stathis publishing our solo books.
When did you start Decadence and what inspired you to launch Decadence Comics?
S- It started in 2003 when Dave and me were studying animation. It was all these long conversations we had about politics and our common interest for sci-fi films and novels that inspired us to start putting out Decadence.
What’s your drawing studio look like and what’s your favorite tools to work with creating a
S- It a big messy desk with loads of objects lying around. I work with pencils and pens.
L- I sleep, draw, print, make comics, and sometimes make music all in one room so its a mess and in a constant state of flux. I draw on a large lightbox that I built, on cheap photocopy paper with Rotring pens.
Almost all of the comics you publish for Decadence are really coherent and consistent in style and voice and presentation. How long did it take for you drawing comics and coming up with ideas before you found this combination of goods that made you want to start publishing them?
L- My story in decadence #1 was pretty bad…I had always drawn comics but they had been long so I never managed to finish them beyond super rough story boards, or just producing a few pages to begin the story. The Decadence anthologies forced me to figure out much more simpler manageable ideas. There was the challenge of trying to do something in five or six pages. I also started to work in a cleaner line in issue two which I think made my work a lot more readable. I think it was the same for Stathis too as his drawing style was a lot more rough in the early issues, but he gradually started to formulate his clean but ‘noisy’ style.
When I look through the comics you’ve published, a recurring theme throughout them is a kind of science fiction awakening of the pineal gland, whether it is in the distant future, outer space, some other universe, or on top a balding man’s head — the third eye and the lizard brain seem to have a lot of significance to the story lines. Would you say that’s true, that the experience of your comics is partially a study of the deepest brainstem’s desires and identities? Why?
S- Consciousness and matter are entities that form the Cosmos. Brain is the product of billion of years of random transformations of the matter. The universe is finally conscious of its self. The study of the brain is a doorway for a better understanding of human beings and animals. If the lizard brain is the primitive centre that controls the basic survival instincts the opening of the third eye is a metaphor of enlightenment through the use of the frontal lobes which are the more recent revolutionized part of the brain. The balance between the duality of these manifestations might be the key to the survival of humanity. This is a very challenging realm that we both are investigating with our artwork.
A few questions about inspirations, do you listen to music when you draw?
S- Sometimes I listen to music while drawing
L- Yes quite often. Sometimes it can play an important part in the creative process and mindset.
Favorite foods and drinks to have by your side while making comics?
S- I don’t drink or eat while making comics
L- Usually have a coffee in the studio once a day with a muffin or whatever I can find.
Best comic books ever?
S- The Nikopol trilogy, Incal, Akira, Metabarons, Lone Sloane
L- Akira, Memories Otomo collection, Airtight Garage, Grey, Arzak, Memories of outter space.
Most impressive living artist?
S- David lynch, Alexadro Jodorowsky
Won’t miss an issue of what ongoing comic book?
S- Nothing in mind
L-The pulp anthology that serialised Akira in the 90’s but that shits over…
Favorite comic book argument with friends?
S- Never had one.
L- No, The Angouleme festival hates us so we never went other wise we would have definitely tried to see the guru.
Of all the storytellers, the way the comics Moebius made leap from idea to idea with such imagination, and the great twists he can pull off in the final panels, he seems to be a great precursor to what you’re doing. Would you agree?
S- Yes. Moebius and many other European comic artists from that time period expressed a far more complex way of storytelling.
L- It is truly amazing and inspiring what he did with comics. Metal Hurlant was a great format for artists to experiment with ideas in science fiction. But also a lot of the great Sci-fi writers came up writing short stories in pulp digests which also provided this sandbox outlet for ideas but in a different medium.
S- A cheap western propaganda about the fear of the unknown and the alien. The cross as a symbol of Christian faith overpowering the vanity of immortality, physical and mechanical. The monstrous other that carry’s weapons of mass destruction ready to destroy our beloved planet. Hollywood continues to reinforce with multi million dollar films the mirror that creates only reflections.
L- I didn’t bother going to see it
Curious if you ever heard of a graphic novel called The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James? It feels like some kind of strange precursor to your style, very obscure and almost forty years ago…? (below images are by Stathis, not Vaughn-James)
L- Same here. It looks way before its time.
What are some of your touchstone stories, favourite science fiction comics, best art you can’t forget or keep going back to learn from?
S- Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon, Ubik by Philip K.Dick, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem.
L- The Drought, and The Crystal world, as well as the Terminal beach short story collection by J G Ballard. Tarkovsky films Solaris and Stalker and Kubricks 2001 space oddessy
Do you script your comics and do thumbnail sketches and careful planning before you start a new story, or do you just begin by pencilling the panels and take it from there? Like, how much do you plan?
S- I don’t really plan much. I tend to be spontaneous with blending together sketches and drawings into some sort of a storyboard. I am pencilling the panels and finalizing the drawings by tracing them with a pen.
L- I doodle a lot of ideas…never in sketch pads but on large sheets of paper paper usually. Characters or a setting usually emerge and then some key moments. I will then usually try to thumbnail the first 2 or 3 pages, rarely any more then that before I start penciling and inking. I never write anything and it can be a chaotic and uncertain way of working, but this way the story and characters are more alive and real, Often I don’t know how the story is going to end till the last few pages.
Some of your comics, like Upheaval and Olympic Games seem to pull imagery from current events, like the riots and the 2012 games, and use these dramas to take readers in the realms of the unreal, questioning the authority and the dissenter — there’s style to these that would look good on a brick wall — do you wheat paste or look at your city’s graffiti or draw from photojournalism or personal experience?
S- I let my senses open to the world. I like to construct new ideas within my brain by using all this raw material that is out there. The city is a pool of inspiration, I try to keep this flow running without judgements or restrictions. My intuition does most of the job.
L- Real politics and news plays a very important part in my work, as well as my own reality and environment. I am not interested in creating and escapism, but rather try to make work that reflects the present times while looking towards a future or alternate reality.
Do you suspect NASA is about to find evidence of life on Mars?
S- I believe that life is everywhere within the cosmos. I am positive with the idea that there is some sort of microbe organisms living on Mars.
S- Never heard of it.
How would you describe the UK comic scene I mean, is there stuff coming out that you like and stuff you wish didn’t exist?
L- The UK has a very strong community and scene for comics that has evolved a lot in the last few years. Due to the lack of publishers for comics until recently the only option has been to self publish, so there is a very diverse range of comics. We have always been a bit oddball among UK scene and sometimes have found a more receptive audience in the zine and alternative press community.
Do you show your art in galleries or sell your pages?
S- Yes, we are occasionally having exhibitions in galleries and sell original artwork.
Some of your comic titles reference classic conspiracy theories, MK ULTRA, and HAARP, for example. I read the titles almost like fresh science-fiction tropes you’re creating for the Decadence universe, that pineal gland combination of mindfuck, thought control, and violence. What is the most convincing conspiracy theory you’ve come across so far in your research?
S- Rhetorical politics and Capitalist democracy is the most convincing conspiracy theory. The very few elites are managing to control the far more in numbers masses within a total unequal system of power distribution. The masses are accepting this condition for hundreds of years, makes the perfect conspiracy for me.
You’re making an animation based on one of your comics?
S- Actually my latest short sci-fi film called MOA192B is based on a comic story called Protoconscious. Here is the site of the film where u can find all the information about this project.
L- I have an unfinished 20 minute 2D animation that fits in with my Untranslated comics setting that I hope to one day make public.
S- At the moment I am working on a project called Human Body Transmutation and Fauna and I am planning to release all the drawings in a book. We are both collaborating on some ideas and storyboards for a future full length film.
L- We will be putting together the 10th Decadence issue soon, it will be 10 years since issue 1 next year. Im currently working on a story about space exploration and evolution to be in a new anthology being published in Sweden.
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!
Annie Koyama is the founder and publisher of Koyama Press, a Canadian print house specializing in fine art books, creatively autonomous comics, as well as limited run minicomics and ‘zines. All her books are surprisingly affordable, and each is printed with such care and attention, that the whole Koyama project seems truly generous and creative for the artists and the readership. A look through the backlist of Koyama titles shows us just where the state-of-the art is at — the whole spectrum of radical approaches to sequential art is presented. Here are some of the great voices and visions of our time, and both Koyama and her artists have consistently won prizes for the quality of their work. Artists like Keith Jones and Michael DeForge offer radical figuration and atomized apocalypses of the schizocapitalist variety. Cinematic visionaries like Tin Can Forest create shadowy, elegant paper landscapes to present timeless fables. I interviewed Annie Koyama over e-mail.
Was it an artist or an idea that inspired you to start Koyama Press?
After a life changing illness, I decided to try something different than what I’d done before (film). I found a few artists whose work I loved and funded a few small projects. That lead to the making of TRIO MAGNUS: Equally Superior, the first book. TRIO MAGNUS is Clayton Hanmer, Aaron Leighton and Steve Wilson.
How did you know how to start a small publishing house devoted to extraordinarily artistic comic books?
I had no idea but learned as I went along. I have a film background, not publishing.
What were some of the earliest titles you published?
Chris Hutsul’s comic A VERY KRAFTWERK SUMMER, Jon Vermilyea’s PRINCES OF TIME, Michael Comeau’s PARADE OF HUMANITY, Team Macho’s PRECIOUS GEMS were amongst the first books/zines published.
What size are you doing, how many copies will you make of a new comic in its first printing?
It depends on the artist and the book. The initial run could be anywhere from 500 to 2500.
What is your relationship to the manufacturing, do you oversee every aspect of the creation of a Koyama book?
I rely on the artist and sometimes get some production and design advice. I’d like the final book to be as close to what the artist envisions with as few constraints as possible.
How do you connect with an artist you want to publish?
I look at a lot of work online and most of the contact is online.
Ideally I’d like to have met the artist in person before the process begins but that’s not always the case. For example, right now I’m working with an artist who lives in Japan.
In 2011 I learned about Baba Yaga, the character from European fables, and have since found out about the comic you published about this fable. Can you tell me something about this book?
I also learned of Baba Yaga when I talked to Tin Can Forest aka Pat Shewchuk and Marek Colek about their book idea. They are filmmakers and their complimentary artwork styles are beautiful. They are working on their next book WAX CROSS which will debut in the spring.
You also publish Keith Jones and Michael DeForge. How would you describe this generation of comic artists and their interests in abstraction and anti-narrative sequential art?
I’m fascinated by the variety of art styles I’m seeing now. I see artists widely influenced by other cartoonists and pop culture but I think that in Keith and Michael’s cases the influences are not as readily evident to me. Because I like the so-called art comics I’m always interested in how artists mix it up. I still think you need a little narrative to make the work cohesive.
Generally files are emailed.
What are some of the most successful titles you’ve published?
In terms of sales, Michael DeForge’s LOSE series and SPOTTING DEER, BABA YAGA & THE WOLF, CAT RACKHAM LOSES IT by Steve Wolfhard, SPIRIT CITY TORONTO by Aaron Leighton.
Does it concern you a great deal when a comic doesn’t sell, or is that part of the risk?
Not really, I have such a diverse set of titles serving different interests that I don’t expect them to sell equally.
Does your website list all your titles or are there little zines and other small one-time comix that Koyama has done for conventions and art fairs and that kind of thing?
My site was recently redesigned by the talented folks at Squidface & The Meddler. All of the books and comics are up there with the exception of the zines I’ve published.
How connected is Koyama with the rest of the independent art book publishing world? Do you stay plugged in to the conventions and art fairs etc?
I try to keep up with the art book world but since there are fewer venues now to sell art books, I’ve shifted the balance to publishing more comics recently.
I still love art books and have just published Jeremy Kai’s photography book RIVERS FORGOTTEN about his underground explorations. I follow a lot of local artists and would like to get out to more gallery shows and fairs again.
Koyama Press exhibits at several book fairs and indie comics shows in Canada and internationally.
What are some of the best storefronts to find small press comics like Koyama?
This is only a partial list as I’m sure I’m omitting some good stores:
In Canada and the U.S.: The Beguiling, Strange Adventures, Librarie Drawn & Quarterly, Lucky’s, The Dragon, Quimby’s, Atomic Books, Meltdown Comics, Secret Headquarters, Bergen Street Comics, Desert Island, Big Brain Comics, Jim Hanley’s Universe, Dr. Comics & Mr. Games, DOMY, Copacetic Comics, Floating World, and Nucleus.
Internationally: Nobrow, Fatbottom Books, Neurotitan.
Where can you buy small press comix like Koyama online?
Some of the books are available directly from the artists on their sites, you can order from some retail stores like the Beguiling in Toronto, The Dragon in Guelph as well as from AdHouse Books http://www.adhousebooks.com/distro/distro.html and John Porcellino’s Spit and a Half http://spitandahalf.blogspot.com/.
Retailers can order from Tony Shenton http://shenton4sales.tumblr.com/,
Do you draw comics yourself?
In your daydreams, what artist would you love to have publish a comic with Koyama?
There are too many amazing artists to list whose work I’d like to publish and I often have to turn down work I’d love to take on if I had more time and funds. By publishing an anthology from time to time, I can include some of those on my wish list.
One of the most awesome graphic novels of the year was Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions.
Anyone familiar with the Alabama rap scene has heard Henny, he’s the stylish rhymeflipper next to Yelawolf and Pill on “I’m A Freek,” he’s worked alongside Jackie Chain, Bentley, G Mane, and with Slow Motion Soundz. On his own, Henny has created a trio called I.B.I. with his cohorts Ziploc Moe and Icey Mike Shawty. I think these must be three of the best rap names out there. And these guys are stoked rappers. Henny’s got some amazing mixtapes, including Black Superman and I Make Alabama Look Good. Kind of the best thing going, I.B.I. has released an independent record titled S.D.M. (Sex. Drugs. Money.) that’s a loud pack of great tunes, including ‘Passport’ and the single ‘Bandz.’ I really listen to these tracks a lot. Enough to write and ask if I could ask them some questions, as a fan. I really don’t know how to interview rappers. I am still am not sure how exactly what questions to ask, but I conducted this one over email, which was easier than when I interviewed Bun B over the phone. I think what happened is I sent the questions and Henny read them aloud in the studio and transcribed the answers. First, here’s their video:
Henny, you’ve been rapping with Yelawolf and Pill and other MCs for a
few years now — how did you click together with I.B.I.?
H: I.B.I was always a label I wanted to start while I was a member of the rap group Greedy Money. When the group split due to legal troubles and moving me and the remaining members decided to start up the group again but wit a new attitude and new approach and Icy Mike
Henny, how do you describe your group’s approach to lyricism and flow?
H: we just get in the studio and vibe…we’ver known each other for a while so the chemistry is there. All we need is some exotic weed and a hot beat
Icey Mike Shawty, when did you start rapping and when did you acquire
such a hype alias?
I.M.: I started rapping the day I was born. And I came up wit my alias to describe my persona. I’m icy cause I’m cold I’m mike cause that’s what’s on my government and I’m shawty cause that’s how I hustle
IMS, how did you know you wanted to make music as part of I.B.I.?
I.M.S.: Just the energy every time we be in a session together the chemistry was perfect
Ziploc Moe, with the unbelievable rap name and the nasty rasp — when did you start writing rhymes?
Z: Shit around the beginning of 2009
Ziploc aka Maury Gator, you have a serious, funny and unstoppable style. Describe for readers how you came to rock it so fucking hard:
Z: Aww man you know I just put my heart in everything I writeand I try not to be a one dimensional rapper. I got many styles wait til ya meet Mauri Gator
How does a track like “Bandz” get made — do you go to the studio
together with lyrics prepared or do you sit down and work it out while
the beat is getting made?
I.M.S.: I don’t even remember I rolled up and wrote my verse
Z: Klassik produced a funky track and God sent it to us
H: I don’t really remember but we just went in and did what the beat said do
Do tracks start from a chorus or hook and work out from there or off
the first 16 bars?
H: it don’t really matter to me
Z: sometimes we do the hook first or sometimes we do the verses
You just put out a really tight mixtape — did those tracks come out
of a big recording session, or do publish your tracks almost as fast
as you can make them?
Are there other members of I.B.I. behind-the-scenes besides the three
I.M.S.: Yeah ibi is a nation. We the faces
Z: We the faces. But we got members we aint even found yet
H: and don’t forget the in house production team. Klassik Keys, Joe Air, and Tech beats
Who are some of your favorite producers to work with?
Z: myself, Klassik Keys, Grade A
I.M.S.: Klassik Keys, Beat Champ, Joe Air, Lbo Keys, Dr Fangaz, Mellow Rich, & JB
H: Block Beataz, Grade A, JPlymp, Lbo keys, Klassik Keys, man I got a lot of em
What do you like to hear in the recipe of the sounds on the drumkit,
the speed, the samples, for I.B.I. to want to jump on a beat?
Z: I like a nice drum track. The synths gotta be there
I.M.S.: Tracks that speak to ya. Tracls that already got direction
H: just make a hot & timeless track and we on it.
I’ve been listening to Alabama rap for five or six years now, I guess,
especially the guys in Paper Route, Slow Motion, and Small Tyme Ballaz
— are you affiliated closely with any producers or labels in Alabama?
H: I’m affiliated wit a couple people from the Slo like Mali Boy, Kristmas, & Codie G. I got BGM fam shout out Eldorado Red. And my selma fam DBD
I.M.S.: yeah BSB, King South
What’s your take on the Alabama music scene? What was it like to grow
up there? Did you grow up going to shows by Last Mr Bigg when he was
just diamond-eye Bigg? Is Alabama on the map now in a way it wasn’t
when you were a kid?
H: Nah Bigg from Mobile we never grew up on him like that
IMS: but yeah we on in a major way now. Wit artist like Yela
Is there a place you go in town to drop a new track and see it play
out in the club?
IMS: the whole city. We plugged in wit the djs in the city. when we drop something the whole city know
Do you go to a lot of rap shows? Who have you seen live that you
thought put on a great show?
IMS: not being bias but Yelawolf. Even tho he reached new barriers he still displays that “still trying to get on” in each of his performances
H: yea Yela. Cyhi, Gside, & Malachi from the Dungeon Family his live show is remarkable
There’s something innovative in the countrified rhythm of the Alabama
scene, with all the different rappers and producers something connects
the sound, makes it homegrown. I don’t know if you can describe how
you like to represent your home in your sound or if that’s even
important to you?
IMS: its definetly important cuz our sound is a sound that aint been displayed yet. and its Alabama soul
Z: its very important wit us being from Alabama cause we the underdog
H: I like to rep my hometown just by telling true southern stories and if I do that right I know I did my job
Are there some local legends in the scene who inspired you growing up
to strike out on your own and become an artist and part of the music
Z: Rick rock, the commodores
IMS: Big Pimp, King South, Henny, & Leon Carmichael
H: PeeWeeDee, Icy, Killa Kat, man its too many to name for real. My city been packed wit talent for over 10 years now
Ziploc, I get the impression you have a thing for women’s shoes — do
you guys hope to grow I.B.I. into an accessories and apparel business?
Are there fashion items that you are each really focused on, lyrically
IMS: first off I been said fuck rap let’s sell clothes. Women buy more clothes than music
Z: yeah I love making women beautiful cause they the ones doin g all the shopping. But yeah in thf future we wanna do that we already selling shirts and hats
H: Big Krit, 9th Wonder, Sha Money
Z: Scott Storch & Dr. Dre
Who is a really under-rated rapper you feel deserves more attention?
H: Slimm Calhoun, Sean Paul (young bloods), my whole team
What is your favorite rap lyric — is there a lyric you listen to and
it reminds you to make your style loose and original?
H: I got too many to name
Z:I aint got no favorite I’m a chameleon to all genres
Can you quote a few lyrics from I.B.I. you want to make sure people
take a moment to listen carefully to?
H: all the verses from every song for real…but “Heaven Help Us” hook is a good one
& maybe you could explain why you chose those lyrics?
H: I say “Heaven Help Us” cause it just sums up the whole cd…Sex Drugs Money
Your lyrics make a lot of wordplay around money and earning good pay
— but there’s also this sense of independence and uncompromising
attitude in what you write…can you talk about what are some of the
dangerous pitfalls you hope to avoid in the business side of things,
and the creative side?
IBI: we don’t wanna not be consistent. Longevity is the key. And just staying out of the everyday troubles of the world like our previous legal problems
Speaking of: The crime life has always been a great source for
metaphor in rap, and all I.B.I. lyrics keep it very real, very fresh,
funny, hard as hell, and you drop tons of common 2011 slang as well as
plenty of your own personal touches to your lines — and what I want
to ask about is the music industry. Have you observed, and is true,
that the music industry is truly full of criminals?
IBI: most definitely. They say the rap game remind em of the crack game.
Alabama seems like a more peaceful place, at least there aren’t any
tragic stories in the news like what’s going on around Lil Boosie and
what’s always playing out with rappers elsewhere getting shit on by
police, and what seems like a very complicated thing Alabama seems
like it’s not a part of?
IBI: well we don’t have hip hop police but a lot of rappers from Bama have legal issues. More so because most if not all are from the streets
You guys all plan on releasing solo albums and then another group
album? When can we start hearing tracks from the solo albums?
H: well ICY’s got his solo coming first its called “Plug Luv” so you should start hearing songs from that soon. I’ve got 2 cds I’m working on now and I’ve got 2 online “Black Superman” & “I Make Alabama Look Good”. And Zip’s got “Liquor & Loud” coming soon. So be on the look out
Will we see you guys working with. other rappers on features for these
albums andleading up to the solo albums?
I.B.I: well we already got the song wit Yung Ralph “Demonstr8” bubbling but future features will include Kristmas, Bentley, King South, Attitude and a lot of other people from Alabama too many to name
What the hell happened to D4L that you can be sure to avoid? Damn,
what a tragedy. That whole show fell apart. Maybe it was just internal
struggles. You guys have a harder, more of a RUN/DMC vibe in that I
imagine your live shows are almost like rock shows. It’s a very
different vibe what you’re doing, even if a lot of the sex themes are
there in both.
H: well we got a homie that’s signed to D4L that’s from Montgomery Alabama named Jurrari. But D4L is still kickin they just got a deal wit G-Unit too I think…but yeah as with any family you gonna have disputes and setbacks you just gotta keep it moving Ànd stay prayed up ya know
Describe a day in the life of I.B.I.
H: just studio all day really
IMS: Loud…music loud weed loud
What’s your favorite music to listen to outside of rap? Do you listen
to any of that UK stuff or kwaito from South Africa or kuduro from
Angola or whatever?
IBI: we all listen to a lot of other genres from R&B to Reggae to Blues and even Jazz and Rock
Outside Juice and Scarface, what’s your favorite rap-related movie?
Z: Belly or Shottas
Who is the most famous rap video starlet today?
Z: Lola Luv
IMS: Amber Rose
Aren’t you making a video for every track? You guys look like
billionaire beasts on film.
H: yeah were trying to finish the year out by shooting a video to the whole cd as well as solo project vids
You see the Lil B Youtube grind and he’s blown up in a silly way — do
you think the video style is working for him? Would you keep up that
ridiculous tempo? I think people could handle it if you guys were
dropping tons of Youtubes but some of those 500 B tracks cause
migraines. I like his stuff.
H:yeah I think the consumers of today are more about visuals than anything so we do feel obligated to give them that “look” but we prolly won’t do it to the annoying level of Lil B but there will be a lot more videos and video blogs
What do you spend most of your money on besides your home and food?
Was there a time in your life when you were crazy like me and a lot of
your money went to buying music?
H: yeah most def bought a lot of music at one pooint wÉ all have really but now I just spend it on sneakers
Z: I take a lot of trips
IMS: Loud…you know Keshia Cole?
If you could put someone’s face on a new American dollar bill
currency, who would it be?
Have you guys ever thought of doing a track sampling Betty Davis
(Miles Davis’s hot as funk wife)?
H: bro we’d sample you if it sound good lol
Meg Wolitzer’s novels shouldn’t be spoiled. Even though nothing can spoil the fun of reading her books. Her writing has no expiry date that I can find. Timeless kind of prose, brilliant in many ways at once on every page. Still, I almost spoiled this interview by accidentally asking for an answer from Meg Wolitzer that would make her reveal what’s going to be one of the fun pleasures of reading to the end of her latest, The Uncoupling. So I edited that question out. If you’d like to know the ending, look elsewhere, others couldn’t resist. No biggie, like I said, it’s the reading of her flawless organic tell-all prose that’s the pleasure.
Meg Wolitzer lives in Manhattan, where she writes playful novels full of every imaginable kind of voice and flawed, wonderful characters. She observes them and disturbs them, she gives her characters public and private selves, and lets us see the contrast. She plays with shape and form and duration in her novels, using memory, media, real history, and intimate family details to spin wonderful, page-a-minute stories. The Uncoupling, her new novel, is not her first to consider the mating dance our first step into magic realism. The Ten-Year Lap, her novel from 2008, and before it, The Wife, The Position, and her first, Surrender, Dorothy, all discover real, vividly real scenarios and depictions of love and our relationships that would be absurd and impossible to consider were it not for great literature to invent a way.
How would you describe the way the action unfolds in your latest novel, The Uncoupling?
My novel involves a magic spell (I never thought I would use the words “my novel” and “magic spell,” in the same sentence), that is cast upon a suburban town, causing all the women to turn away from men in bed. The action, such as it is, unfolds subtly, in that it’s really a kind of inaction–a mass refusal. I follow the spell as it wafts through the town, and I go in and out of the bedrooms and psyches of the women and teenaged girls in question.
I wonder if in writing this novel you observed certain myths of the American sex life that your story was able to transgress or highlight?
I think there’s a truism in American culture that everyone wants sex all the time, and that to be healthy is to be strongly sexual. This began with Freud, I guess; if you were sexually repressed back then, you were seen as ill. But actually, I don’t think that sex is always the imperative in one’s life. There are vicissitudes, and I wanted to acknowledge that, at least metaphorically.
For a book about sex, there’s very little sex in The Uncoupling, because it’s about that aspect of life being taken away. But let’s see, in novels without magic spells or sex strikes, I like some of the sex scenes in… Jenette Winterson’s work, and in Jonathan Franzen’s.
Does theatre still have magical properties? — what parts of performance and rehearsal and line interpretation did you enjoy writing about?
I think all great literature–whether it’s meant to be only read, or read and performed, is highly powerful, and can change everything. That’s part of the premise of my book. There are lots of “spells” floating around out there in life, including the spell of art, which in some instances has lasted from ancient times all the way up until now.
Is there a play you’ve seen recently that made you wish you could have watched all the rehearsals?
[enough Time passes before publishing this interview that I can ask] What did you think of the play, now that you’ve seen it?
I actually found that I preferred reading the play, and I am not sure if it was this particular production, or simply the fact that the words fly around your head in Stoppard, and I as a writer can’t help but want to linger on them. Some of it was extraordinarily moving, of course. (For me, all you have to say is “Time passes,” and I am basically weeping.)
If you wrote a stageplay, what might it be about?
I actually am planning to write a musical with a musician friend. We are just starting to think what it will be. I have a fantasy about the ache of a play like “Our Town,” but with zesty music.
Are you interested in actors?
Sure. They are often much more beautiful than writers! Also, the actors I have met seem open to lots of different kinds of writing, and their interpretations of character are sometimes startling and not “fixed.”
This is a writing question and it turned into a long whopper: Your novels are lively relationships, and there are main characters, and through them we meet so many different people, secondary characters, and hear their stories told in so many different styles. The characters’ dialogue, the newspaper clippings. and announcements, letters, interviews, and all laid out in this fine, smooth order — what is your technique for developing these numerous voices, all appearing in and out of narrative and scenes and chapters, what effort to find that pace you like and the fluidity and continuity?
A while ago I had an insight (well, I think it was an insight) that the whole concept of “backstory,” or “flashback” was fallacious. Most of our lives are back-story, aren’t they? I am sitting here typing, but I am also thinking about something that happened to me this morning, and something that happened to me in my childhood. It goes back as much as it goes forward, and I think ordering parts of a novel for “momentum” can be a mistake, and goes against the grain of fiction. The ordering that I do more closely resembles free-associations. Only later, during, say, a second draft, will I go in and heighten momentum on purpose.
At what point in the writing process do your characters get named?
They get named very, very early; then their names sometimes get changed very late. But one of the pleasures for me (as I am sure is true for all writers) is the naming. We know when a name is right, though sometimes we can’t explain why. I like the way the unconscious works during the picking of names, leading the writer toward certain qualities in a character that a name either amplifies, or desperately tries to hide.
Do you toy over how major events play out or basically write them as they come to you, revise, and move on?
I barrel through as they come to me. Later, looking them over, I am often appalled, and so I revise.
Are you able to talk a bit more about how you like to develop and reveal aspects of your characters?
I never really picture the characters, but instead I just let them kind of appear as the ideas in a story deepen. Once the ideas solidify, I try to enrich the characters; I never want them to just “be” there like people idly sitting in a park. I want them to have some kind of dynamic role, even if I don’t initially know what it is.
What’s a story got to do under your typing fingers to make you feel awake to its potential?
The writing has to excite me, thrill me, make me want to rip through it. I love that crazy, sick, overstimulated feeling you get when you’re writing well.
Do you think a person can see themselves as well as we can see the actions of characters in novels?
No, I think we are all blind to ourselves for most of our lives.
Are people in it together or inherently more selfish?
In life? We are frightened of dying and need solace all the time. Selfish, definitely, but human, which makes it all understandable.
Do you write short stories?
Not usually. I tend to like the big bag of a novel.
What’s an important film for you?
“The Lady Vanishes,” by Alfred Hitchcock. Funny, frightening, moving, beautiful, and old now, very old.
Do you go see any foreign films in the movie theatres?
Yes, once in a while, although more and more my movie-watching takes place at home.
Who is a really great auteur type filmmaker you can’t get enough of?
What’s some of your favorite short stories?
Alice Munro’s “Child’s Play.” Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” James Joyce’s “Clay.” “Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”
Who writes the wildest short stories?
Mary Robison is pretty wild. James Joyce is too.
Do you hang out at many of the interesting-sounding literary or other NYC events that the rest of the world’s agape over when they read NYer etc, must it all balance with hunkering down over the keys, writing?
Most of my friends are writers, so I guess when we get together it’s a writers’ thing, in a way. We do go to readings and lectures in NYC, certainly. As far as whether the world would be agape… Does the world want to sit around and eat cheese with writers and talk about books? Maybe in, oh, 1982 it did, but I don’t think it does to that degree anymore. All the writers I know are nervous about the future of books and writing, but everyone balances the cheese-eating and even reading-going with serious productivity. We don’t know what will happen, but we just keep doing what we know how to do. What else is there?
What’s a remarkable novel you’ve read recently?
Here’s a great one: Old Filth, by Jane Gardam. It’s masterful! (See, I even used an exclamation point. I felt the need to exclaim over this one…)
by Lee | Filed under Q&A
Ben Marcus is an American author living in New York City, with two books, The Age of Wire & String and Notable American Women, as well as two minibooks, The Father Costume (a collaboration with artist Matthew Ritchie), and recently, The Moors. He will publish a new novel, The Flame Alphabet, next year with Knopf. His short fiction and editorial has appeared in Conjunctions, The Believer, McSweeney’s, Tin House, &c. and besides an important selection for Conjunctions in a folio titled Sticks & Stones, Marcus wrote an influential essay in 2005 for Harper’s Magazine titled,
in which Marcus heartily chides those who might agree with his cheeky title and “defends experimental fiction against critics, Jonathan Franzen in particular, who disparage it.” It seems American culture is very concerned with the “value” of fiction. I’ve always agreed with Marcus that experimental fiction has no more or less value than any other kind. Social realism has its value stitched right into its face like a baseball. Experimental fiction has something more like the value of a campfire.
This email was conducted by e-mail.
Q The reason I felt prompted to ask you some questions was the publication of your new work, The Moors. I was itching to read some new fiction from you. It always feels like it’s been a while, because the work you publish between book projects is so compact. How did this mini-book come about?
It was first published in Tin House, and then Madras Press asked if they could issue it as a small book, with proceeds, several million dollars, no doubt, going to charity. I chose the library in Brooklin, Maine, where I live in the summer. An amazing library run by terrific people.
Q What other recent writing have you published that I might have missed?
Q The Moors is about a fraught interaction between employees in a section of an office so creepy and ‘misconceived architecturally’ that all it’s good for is stashing a coffee cart. What attracted you examine the reveries compacted in this awkward moment?
I wanted to write as close into a character as I could. It started that way. A man crippled by the smallest social encounter. Not just crippled, destroyed. I wanted to listen in on his thoughts and find the story’s conflict inside his head.
Q Some people thrive in office environments while others suffer, and architecture and sociability have so much to play in this success. Do you hope the kind of strenuous inner life your main character has offers him an escape from office life or is his language and fretting a symptom of the deep office doldrums?
I don’t see much of an escape for him. His inner life is just so assaultive and not nurturing at all. And then there’s his situation at home, which you only learn of at the end.
Q Which great architect created the cruelest offices spaces, in your estimation?
Who designed the Roman Coliseum? That guy.
Q What was the best office you ever worked in?
I worked in an office where the bathroom was out in a shared hallway, for which you needed a key from our receptionist. That was back when I ate a lot of soup, chased with bottled water, and I had to pee every twenty minutes, which meant I had to keep going back to the receptionist’s desk to get a key, undergoing her highly curious stare. And then everyone in the office would see me leaving, and returning. Fairly high scrutiny. I didn’t last very long there.
Q Who are the writers you admire for the structure of their internal narratives?
Donald Antrim, Nicholson Baker, Lydia Davis.
Q You wrote an important essay for Harper’s on the current conditions of the literary enterprise in which you defend an approach to fiction that is other than a giant social contract with America. Since the essay was published, can you give an update on what you’ve seen lately in publishing?
I packed my radar away for a little while after writing that essay.
Q I wonder if you care to say anything about Franzen’s novel Freedom I’d be very interested to know if you felt the need to read it, and a thumbnail of what its publication might contribute to your thoughts?
I haven’t read it but I hope to, soon.
Q What’s your favorite decade in literary history?
This one, so far.
Q If I were to ask you to suggest some living writers for an anthology, like you’ve done in the past for Conjunctions and Anchor, what are some stories or authors you would want to include that you’ve never before had a chance to select?
There’s a pretty long list, and I’m sure I’ll forget a lot of great people. Jane Unrue, Blake Butler, Doug Elsass, Deb Olin Unferth, Matt Derby, Gabe Hudson, Tom McCarthy, Jennifer Egan, Mark Doten, Chris Adrian, Lynne Tillman. It’s impossible to name everyone. That book came about from eighteen months of concentrated reading. When I couldn’t forget something it went into a pile. I asked everyone I knew what I should read, and I bought hundreds of books and sat and read through all of them. So, to be honest, I’d want to do that again, and listing names here is too much of a short cut. I love the writers above, and there are so many more that I also love, but in the end I’d want to lock myself away with a new roomful of work and see what would happen.
American Fiction isn’t an organized sports team with a single, driving purpose. There’s no single it about it. If I say that Canadian bread is too dry, I’m overlooking some terrific bakeries in Montreal, and elsewhere. Calling American fiction too insular is not, by the way, an ‘argument’. It’s a display of monstrous stupidity. Plus, just to be thorough here, let’s remind ourselves of some great insular fiction by writers such as Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Jane Bowles, etc.
Q: On the back cover it says you’ll publish a new novel The Flame Alphabet with Knopf in 2012…what can you reveal about it?
It’s a book about language toxicity and what happens when children are the only people who can speak without getting sick. This gives them tremendous power, which they promptly abuse. It’s also a book about a family falling apart. And, among several other things, it’s about a little-known strain of Jewishness that is rigorously private, unadvertised, and conducted primarily alone in the forest.
Q How much time or silence or language or image did you need to write The Flame Alphabet? Are you still writing it?
It’s done. I wrote it in about eighteen months, after thinking about it, and faltering at it, for four years. For the first time since I had kids I went on a few residencies (I was on leave from teaching), and those were, sadly, crucial for concentrated writing time. Very great to work day and night without having to read Thomas the Train books, and yet at the same time very sad not to get to read Thomas the Train books each and every day to little, warm people who don’t hate me.
Q Is the cover going to be something special?
Haven’t seen it yet. Any day now.
Q Wire & String was kind of a father-inspired book. And Notable American Women was rather more mother-inspired. The Flame Alphabet is inspired by your other guardian, language?
This I don’t know. I don’t really think of my books as inspired by specific people or entities.
Q: Did you give yourself a specific constraint in writing The Flame Alphabet?
It needed not to deeply, horribly suck. That was a big constraint. Actually, for some reason, after finishing my last book, I decided I couldn’t write again about birds or cloth or wind, but somehow they got into this book too.
Q Do you have a process for revising your work? How do you know something needs fixing?
For me there’s always something that needs fixing. Sometimes I have to reckon with what I can’t fix, but, in general, everything can always be better, a lot better. The trick is not to go completely mad in the realization of this. But my process is as sexy as editing gets: I read what I’ve done and note my misgivings, which blacken the page. I line-edit, reading for sense and sound, and I try to cut what’s weak. Sometimes, if a whole scene is offensive, I re-write it from scratch. This is almost always a good idea, working from roughly the same content but attacking it with some different stylistic modulation. Once my own misgivings have been aggressively handled and I suffer the momentary delusion that I’m finished, I turn the work over to another reader, who usually waits a few weeks before somberly telling me that, as I suspected, there’s something treacherously rotten and flawed at the core of my project. I mourn and grieve and protest this, but days later I feel as happy as I’ve ever felt, and then get back to work. Pretty sexy stuff.
Babe Rainbow is the name of Vancouver-based Cameron Reed’s experiments in electronic music. I’m a big fan of his sound, the deranged moods, funky beats, chilly melodies, and intelligent structures. This is fresh music. Babe Rainbow’s got a lot of buzz going, so I’m pleased to have this interview. He’s put out a lot of tracks online, including some great screwed&chopped remixes of rap classics, and a collection of brilliant ambient work. There’s also the Shaved E.P. on Warp Records, a really beautiful selection of tunes from spooksville, with an apt cover by local conceptualist James Nizam. This interview was conducted via e-mail.
Q: The name Babe Rainbow, is it a reference to your circle of friends?
No, I was taking an art class in school saw a painting by pop artist Peter Blake entitled ‘Babe Rainbow’. I remember thinking it would be a ridiculous band name, kinda mocking the whole ‘put two unconnected words together as a band name’ idea (Twin Shadow, Neon Indian, Crystal Castles, etc). So when I start BR I needed a name to make a MySpace page and just used that name. Now I’m stuck with it. I don’t mind it though.
Q: Is there a piece of gear or was it a piece of music that inspired you to try making music in this style?
I’ve always made these kinds of moody soundscapes. Even when I was younger recording acoustic guitar on a 4-track I was making these loops of layers and layers of guitar. They all ended up pretty dark or moody. When I started making this music I just did was cam natural.
Q: When you begin a fresh tune, do you start with a sample or a drum loop, or where does a song start?
More often than not it’s a tone. I just start fucking with sounds and play around. Sometimes I’ll start with drums. I’m just starting to get more into sampling now.
Q: Is anyone else in your family gifted with music?
No one else in my family really plays music. They enjoy it but in a sort of passive way. I’m the only person in my immediate family that is really immersed in it.
Q: I can’t immediately solve your song titles, what’s the naming process for Shaved and its various pieces?
There’s no real method to it. Often just the first thing that comes to mind.
Q: Do you include other musicians in BR creative process?
I’m trying to do a lot more collaborating. But no, it’s really just been me for the most part.
Q: Local weather, tree species, ocean tides, island system, seclusion, Satanism, oddities, what do you most identify with that is part of this place, our home, Vancouver, BC?
Isolation/seclusion. It’s weird,
I can’t imagine what it must be like for other cultures that immigrate here. It would make sense why many of them maintain and stick so closely to the culture from where they move from.
Q: What is your experience with audiences here in town? Do they dig BR?
Yeah, everyone is usually very supportive. Some have said very nice things. It’s not dance-y music so if people just stand and watch without leaving it’s a success.
Q: Are you involved in other music projects outside Babe Rainbow?
No, not really. I’d like to play guitar in a band again.
Q: Have you reached out to other artists to collaborate with on Babe Rainbow tracks?
Yes, I’ll be working with more MCs in 2011. I’m very excited about it.
Q: How about the importance of Dj Screw for electronic music these days?
I don’t really know how that became so massively injected into electronic, it’s interesting. I pull a lot of inspiration from hip hop so it made sense to me. I assume it’s the same for most of these other artists utilizing his techniques.
Q: You know a lot about Vancouver after dark via Music Waste and being sociable and so on, I wanted your recommendations for each night of the week’s best dark locations?
Biltmore, Goody, Astoria, Six Acres, China Cloud, Fortune, the Narrow. I end up at those places most often.
Q: What are some of the first places you played live in the city as Babe Rainbow?
Funky Winkerbeans and Astoria were my first live shows,
Q: Even the loud noise music in town has been pretty crunk in the past few years — I think the Mutators were the crunkest. Looking back at a band like The Mutators, what do you remember the most?
I feel really lucky to have been a part/been friends with so many people in that noise punk community. The Emergency Room and all of the music that came out of there inspired me beyond words.
So much raw, youthful energy. DIY on a hundred thousand trillion.
Q: Music here in Vancouver, often great. You put together a super mix of local stuff for CBC Radio 3. What was the first Vancouver group you ever heard? What’s the latest you’re excited about?
Probably bands like Red Light Sting, the Doers, and Black Rice were the first I remember seeing that really impacted me. Around 2002 or so.
There are tons of bands I like now. Basketball, No Gold, White Lung, Heavy Chains, Defektora, Bison, Peace, and so on forever. Too many to name.
Q: I wonder if the 21st century’s pace of rap mixtapes and rap beat production has put more pressure on dub styles like yours to drop a lot of tracks frequently, in order to not look like a slouch on the blogs, etc? I know the rap scene as a daily conversation, and electronic singles are starting to appear almost as regularly…?
Yeah, in some ways maybe the quality control has gone down but who care. Music is so temporal most of the time anyways. And in my case, I’m just doing it for fun, so if I like it even though maybe it’s not the best or polished, why not share it. No harm.
Q: does a contract – rider for a live gig really depend on how popular your music is with drug dealers?
Q: 2010’s critical rappers?
Curren$y had a huge year. Big fan. Freddie Gibbs. Odd Future. Dad Racist.
Q: What are your thoughts on Aphex Twin?
He is a legend that has inspired an entire generation of musicians. He needs to release more music.
Q: You’re the first Vancouverite signed to Warp records. Do they have a west coast A&R? how did you meet the label, how did that all come about?
No, I’ve been in contact with their A&R/creative director out of London. He’s great. He got in touch with me to do an EP after some of my songs started to do the rounds online.
Q: Warp has a special history in modern electronic music. When they signed you, did they tell you to ignore all that?
Ha! No, they did not, however, I do try to ignore it. Only because a lot of negative reviews of BR stuff is coming from old school IDM heads who just want Warp to relive their 90s output forever.
Q: what kind of relationship do you have with Warp, is it encouraging, tampering, or hands-off? What does an artist like BR want from a label relationship?
I’m always in contact, sending them songs, demos, or just shit I’m into. It’s a great relationship. It’s very encouraging. They are pretty ideal as far as my situation goes. If they were requiring me to go on huge tours to ‘move units’ it would be different.
Q: Is one question Warp asks you when you sign is if you plan on doing BR for the long haul and want to be making music as BR for ten-twenty years? Is commitment a factor in your decision to make music solo with Warp?
No, we’ve never said anything like that. If they wanted to stop working with me they probably just would.
Q: Your label has a pretty significant history of doing videos, and you’ve done a suite of vids for your E.P. I’m wondering if part of the fun is that Warp encourages you to make visuals for your tunes?
It’s mostly just me doing it without consulting them. Since it’s only an EP they don’t really have a budget for it so I’ve just made my own, relying on the good will of talented friends, or funded them myself.
Q: What’s your next project with visuals?
I’m working with two friends who both did their Masters at Emily Carr. I’m really excited. They are both insanely talented.
Q: Ok so what is your next project for Warp?
We’re talking about a couple more EPs. Looking to put out two EPs around April.
Q: Did Music Waste start with zero budget?
Music waste still has zero budget
I interviewed you for my website when The Middle Stories was published, and you said many astounding things, and offered many fascinating, provocative ideas. Your story collection was quite the same — alarming, prescient, familiar, scary, and full of wit. Now, your third book is out, your second novel, and I have a new look for my website. I upgraded just in time to interview you again. In that period of eight years though, you have developed and designed many personal websites — before I ask you about your new book, will you talk a little about your experience with the web, what it’s meant to you as an artist, and how you approach the medium, creatively?
You have so much up there now! Before it was just a photograph of your bookshelf with a few links!
Margaux and I always talk about how it’s nice to have a website because you can change it when your mood changes, to suit what you now know or think is important, while you can’t change a book or painting once it’s out there. So it’s art that can evolve with you. One day the website feels great and like a real representation of what you’re interested in, and a week later it feels out-of-date and worthless. It’s neat to be sensitive to those changes. A person’s website can really be a living artwork, a changing artwork, with no record of what it was.
I’ll only ask one more internet question, to segue to conversation about your book. Your new novel How Should A Person Be? discusses ideas surrounding idolatry, art, desire, fame, celebrity, and influence. Social networking has given audiences a feeling of unfiltered access to the people who fascinate them, in a medium that feels more intimate, but is still very much an entertainment valve. But there’s the opportunity to actually communicate, which is so strange. Have you been in contact with any celebrities online?
I follow Steve Martin on Twitter. To me, he feels like the most celebrity of all the celebrities that exist today. He’s not so great on Twitter, but no one is. It’s like we’re at the beginning of a new expressive medium and no one knows quite what to do with it, so it’s always this weird artificial mixture of self-promotion and attempts and humour and forwading interesting things – I think to counter the self-promotion – and failed attempts at communication, and shoddy, transparent networking, and name-dropping. It’s like we’re all babies.
Perhaps this decade was the first in which becoming celebrity outweighed our culture’s fascination with celebrities. Has celebrity been democratized?
Maybe. Someone misquoted the Andy Warhol quote to me the other day, not realising she was doing it. She said, “It’s like Andy Warhol said, ‘In the future we’ll all be famous for fifteen seconds.’” I was like, Fifteen MINUTES! But fifteen minutes seems impossibly long now.
Do you make a distinction between fame and celebrity? There are people now, like Paris Hilton, who are celebrities first, and then do various things with that celebrity. Fame seems to come from having done something in particular?
I’ve never thought about it before. To me those words have always been interchangeable. I don’t think there’s a single person in the world who deserves the level of fame they have today. Who deserves to have their name passed down through the ages? That would be great if we all, everyone today, agreed to it – shook hands over that: None of our names will outlast our bodies. Agreed. What freedom! It would be a much more friendly world. We should be the first generation to say, Forget it. We should all, collectively, opt out of posterity.
Were you seeking, and what did you find then, in the eroticism or neuroticism of becoming celebrity — not the obsession with celebrity, but the act of trying to make oneself a celebrity?
I discovered – and I think Margaux discovered, too – just from me taping her and writing down what she said — that it must be impossibly hard to be a famous person unless you’re okay with misrepresentation. You’d have to understand that who you are and who your persona is – that thing that celebrity attaches to – are radically different. If not, celebrity would become a highly painful state, because then you’d always be trying to attend to your image, which is idolatry.
I’m trying to think of a male equivalent to the pure celebrity of Paris Hilton. I wonder if that kind of pure erotic celebrity is only granted to young men if they die prematurely.
Rock stars, too, though – that’s pure erotic celebrity, right? Jack White and so on?
Who else in fameworld fascinates you?
Just Steve Martin.
In writing this book, you often thought to describe it as something like making a Reality novel — as a response to Reality TV. But your new novel is also wonderfully indebted to Henry Miller and the many autobiographical novelists of that first wave of the sexual revolution, sensual humiliationists who made their obscurity legendary — all of which is now mainstream enough to be TV. Can you tell me a bit about your thoughts on the historical parallels between novelists and Reality TV stars?
I love Henry Miller. I’m so glad you brought him up! It’s wonderful to think about him in relation to the cast of The Hills. I think it’s true that sometimes an artist has to use themselves in their work – like Cindy Sherman did, or Agnes Varda in Les Plages d’Agnes – in order to get people to pay attention. All humans are interested in their limits and capacities, and I think these days we all sort of feel like we can’t learn about our limits and capacities from fiction, because fictional characters can do anything. But when you’re looking at journalism or memoir or autobiographical novels – well, that’s about real people, right? So the limits and capacities of those real people surely tells us something about our own limits and capacities.
Both Henry Miller and Heidi Montag are pretty playful about persona – like that totally wasn’t Henry Miller, and I’m sure that totally isn’t Heidi Montag; obviously they’ve both used life as an artistic medium – and their selves as characters in it.
I think it’s like Cubism, but instead of collapsing the foreground and background, you collapse life and art.
Your openness about sexuality in the book is a little unlike Reality TV — it’s more common for novels to have the kind of candour you employ, TV still has to be shy. But I like this idea you begin with that along with the painting of the nude, the readymade urinal, the real sex act is now art, too. Is this the sexual revolution documented in, and accentuated by, Reality TV?
I think the sexual revolution is documented in, and accentuated by internet porn, not Reality TV. I don’t think reality TV has anything to do say about sex, but it has a lot to say about relationships and dating. These shows where women compete for the love of one man – or one woman picks from a bunch of men – the idea that there are “a bunch of people out there” and you pick the one that’s best – I think that courtship structure is particular to our culture. That’s not how people always conceptualised the search for a mate.
What I learned with Margaux is that there’s something to be said for the inevitable happiness and the inevitable misery and the inevitable compatibility and the inevitable incompatibility of whoever you might be with. Love is not about finding the best person, but has more to do with recognizing the valuable singularity of every person you deal with – and it’s always difficult, and the value is in the difficulty.
I think Reality TV says the value is in the search, and that one’s intelligence is activated in their search is for the “best” or “perfect” one. But the more I learn about life, the more disgusting and destructive that idea becomes.
Your Reality, though, is not TV but language — in breaking up the narrative into memories, transcripts, e-mails, incantations, you also maintain a clear structure — the language guides the reader through your themes quite clearly. I guess I’m thinking right now of the aspects to do with faith, God, Moses, and prayer. Before writing this book, had you ever prayed? There is a prayer in an e-mail Sheila Heti writes to her self, but as Moses might write it. Has this book brought you to a different place in terms of that big question, that first step beyond?
I was not someone who ever prayed, really, and am still not, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful human acts possible. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a God who hears; just the idea of a human humbling themselves is very profound – I don’t mean the kind of prayer where you ask for something, but the kind of prayer that is about thanks and awe of what surrounds us.
In your novel, there’s a little mention of doing the I Ching and some other experiments with random actions — did this process of letting chance decide one’s actions help you at all in writing the book?
Yeah. A whole section of the book was written with a contrivance of various cards with numbers on them and a dice and lists of words and a map – I was like a D&D geek. It worked really well for two weeks, then it stopped working. But it was very useful for generating scenes that I couldn’t have come up with otherwise. Basically, it was an elaborate way of combining real things from life in a way that they could be made into fiction, because it’s hard to fictionalise what you’ve experienced and is real. So one list was a list of “actions of the gods” and the other was “contingent variables” and the other was “human gestures” and there was one more list, and these lists came from distilling 600 scenes I wrote, on the advice of Robert McKee, who said that no good writer writes one scene; they write 600. So I wrote 600 scenes – each a paragraph long, and distilled each scene’s essence and made them into these lists… and then the die and the cards led me to combine words from these lists in a random fashion, and from those four words – which had depth because they came from those scenes – I wrote a bunch of new, imagined scenes.
One book I’m reminded of, have you ever read Andre Breton’s novel Nadja?
No. I used to really like Breton – when I was 18 – and then I got a bit older and he reminded me too much of all the pompous men I was meeting who believed they were starting literary movements!
What’s Nadja all about?
Nadja reminded me of the sections in your book with Israel – although Nadja’s a lot less graphic in its obsession with the mate.
What seemed like a crucial book to you while writing How Should A Person Be?
There were a few: A to Z by Andy Warhol. Art and Artists by Otto Rank. Art as Experience by John Dewey. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Those were the books I thought about the most. And a bunch of self-help books, but not one in particular. And the Bible, of course.
What seems like a crucial book for you today? Yesterday?
Yesterday I liked The Normal Personality by Stephen Reiss, which argues that personality is an assemblage of values – and he gives, I think, 16 possible values. And any combination of those values is “normal,” like one can really value and be driven by success and romanticism and family, and that’s normal, but also normal is to be driven by athleticism and status. He also makes the point that good marriages occur when people with similar values marry. It’s not rocket-science, but it’s the kind of science I love, which is when people try to make science from the human sprit.
Today I want to read “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer.
Part of your inspiration for the book was to search for a way to be more at-ease, less neurotic about book-writing, to emulate Margaux Williamson, a close friend of yours and a happy painter. Or did Margaux end up becoming more neurotic?
She became a public writer, with her amazing movie review blog, Movie Is My Favourite Word. And she does that neurotic writer thing of worrying over sentences now, which is really the essence of neuroticism: a sentence in your head that is worried about a sentence. So I’m happy to say I made things worse for her, while she made things better for me. I have much less patience with my desire to make things beautiful all the time. I’m pretty sure it was bad for me and resulted in my work and life being rather lacking in oxygen.
Are you pleased to have had the chance to see and document the Miami Art Fair in its heyday? Would you think going back might reignite some of the same ideas you had about the strange democratization of the pursuit of fame? It’s still happening but so much has changed, it’s even funnier now.
Wow, what’s it like now? I feel really amazed to think that we were there at its peak – its total, decadent, insane peak. I really felt sorry for the art there, but not for the artists.
It’s so rare one is at the right place at the right time, but that was definitely the right place at the right time for us. One has to give thanks for those moments in one’s life. When were you last at the right place at the right time, Lee?
I really can’t recall ever being in the right place at the right time.
Did you find a narrative to the ascent to Famous, is it a state of ease or anxiety? fixed or fluxed? is it a vice?
I think it’s a vice, yes – vanity, idolatry, avarice. You make yourself into an icon to get there. You can’t actually be what a human is – this creature whose only nobility, only divinity – is that it changes and learns and grows. Instead, you have to be this fixed thing, like a car, so that other humans can understand you and worship you. Wanting to be famous is wanting to be worshipped. I think that creates a tremendous amount of anxiety when it works, because being worshipped is a sickness for both the worshipper and the worshipped – it’s a perversion of the human relation.
I think many people in this culture feel a particular kind of anxiety but don’t know where it comes from, and I think a lot of that contemporary anxiety comes from this unconscious desire to model ourselves – our beings – after things like perfume bottles.
Do the tabloids matter?
Yes. I can always ruin a good day by looking in a supermarket tabloid. The problem is they are so certain about who is important. But who is important is your mother, your father, your brother, your wife, your best friend, your grocer… The tabloids fuck that up.
Are you fond of the kind of writing that appears in magazines, and what do you find is the best way to prevent writing in that fashion?
That’s a neat question. I never thought about “the kind of writing that appears in magazines” before, but you’re right. There’s something about it that’s different from writing that appears elsewhere. I once worked as a magazine editor and the main question you had to answer at editorial meetings – if you wanted the magazine to cover something – was: “Why is this important NOW?” In fact, nothing is any more important now than anything else, so I think there is a kind of desperation in magazine articles to prove to the editor and some imaginary reader who supposedly cares about NOW that this is important NOW!
I believe that’s why Lawrence Weschler quit writing for The New Yorker – because it had once been a place (like The Believer or Geist magazine are today) – that didn’t care about NOW. It just cared about good writing and good stories. Then that changed. The stories he wanted to write about were things that seemed important for all time, and that’s not what magazines are selling: they’re selling urgency, the feeling that if you don’t buy the magazine you’ll be out-of-step all month.
Did you go through many revisions? Are there parts of How Should A Person Be? that didn’t suit the final manuscript that your readers may see published later in lit journal or magazine?
Nothing but revisions. There are chapters that could have been in it, but aren’t, and chapters that are, that easily might not have been if I had worked on it six months more or less. I thought for a day about putting some of the sentences that I liked but that didn’t end up in the book on Twitter, but for one thing there weren’t enough characters on Twitter, and for another, it ultimately seemed stupid.
Is part of the project still ongoing?
What do you like to see in a finished sentence (you write some perfectly epic lines of prose)?
It has to sound like it does in my head. I’m still disappointed with some sentences I edited in The Middle Stories to please my editor’s sense of how a certain sentence should be. Every time I read those sentences, I feel a pain. It’s like music, like a wrong note. I just think it needs to have its own music, which is probably the music of my metabolism, just as your sentences are the music of your metabolism. Or maybe it’s like a gait. Reading my writing feels to me like walking down the street, and when I read a sentence that I’ve compromised on, it’s like I stumble. I assume the reader stumbles too, but I might be wrong.
What do you prefer to see from contemporary fiction (in this case I mean another person’s writing)?
Just something really alive. The best genre of fiction today is probably amateur porn – the written kind – found on bulletin boards on the web; really out-there stuff like incest porn and other taboo stuff like having sex with animals. It’s not that these works have great literary qualities, but they have something better – they’re vibrant and vital – because the author HAD to write it. Much contemporary fiction lacks a connection to real life; it’s like someone standing up and singing in a warbly voice beside a piano; it’s some recital in a 19th-century drawing room, and you have to smile and nod while they display their talent. But that amateur porn stuff – they’re real writers, to me.
I don’t know if you can answer for yourself if it feels different now that the book is published and the overlap with your life and the text is no longer a concern, but I know this novel has been an important part of the lives of your friends, can you talk a little about the feeling of having these overlapping projects completed?
This is the happiest time of my life.
Thank you, Sheila!