SAMMY HARKHAM ON CRUMB

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“Reading Crumb, and thinking about Crumb … it’s kind of crazy because you realize he’s the first alternative cartoonist, really. And he’s so good that an entire industry forms around him. Where you have people that were not publishers become publishers to publish him with the stuff he was doing in San Francisco. And then all these publishers asking other people to make comics, so they can keep publishing and making money off the back of Crumb’s reputation. Basically they sell a bunch of Crumb comics and then these head shops or records stores or whatever want more and then suddenly you have an entire industry being built up around one guy. And he’s so good – he’s got the craft and skill set of a John Stanley or Carl Barks mixed with this really primal, personal, intense content. So you can’t deny him – he’s the first cartoonist, he’s the best cartoonist – he’s yet to be surpassed I think”.

– From the Comics Journal

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COMICS REVIEW: HARD BOILED

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I felt much more like a junior partner with Geof Darrow in most of my collaborations, because his point of view was so distinct that he dominates. It’s like being a wrangler at a rodeo, you’re riding a bucking bronco and the best thing to do is hold on”. – Frank Miller

Context: Due to a bad herniated disk I was flattened out a few weeks ago and asked to stay horizontal for seven days. So with a head full of painkillers and limited mobility I was in a unique state of mind to spend time in Geof Darrow’s hyper brutal and elaborately dense drawings. Hard Boiled was Darrow’s American debut and was released four years after the superhero comic industry was transformed by the darker tones of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The work takes its marks from these pillars of comics and further pushes the boundaries and explorations of mature themes and violence in the action adventure genre.

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Story: Set in a bleak dystopian future, Hard Boiled operates in a world of excess and depravity reflected down from its heartless corporate domination. One such conglomerate, called Willeford Home Appliances has put into action a paramilitary army to wipe out any opposing corporate values. Not only do they build products for your home, but also build people. Artificial intelligence that look, think and act like normal humans but are secret corporate assassins. Unknowingly, a robot called Nixon is one of them. Completely reconstructed to think he is a regular husband and father called Carl Seltz working as an insurance investigator, Nixon’s fits of rage and faulty programming get scrambled up in a secret robot revolution that finds him at the center of its possible victory.

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CARTOONING

Influences and background: One of the deciding factors that separate Darrow with your regular American cartoonist seems to lie in a broad international influence. I don’t know what kind of comic shop was around when Darrow was growing up but it was more expansive than what is usually felt in action comics. Moebius is the obvious towering influence, even to the point that they collaborated together (Darrow drew, Moebius inked) on a series of images called La Cité de Feu (above) now impossible to find and a Holy Grail amongst collectors. Influences of Ku Fu films and Monster movies are also in the mix along with a good dose of Hergé’s sensibilities to form and colour.

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Look and feel: It’s as if Hieronymus Bosch had infiltrated comics – decadence and detail. The kind of astonishment and kick in the gut you get from coming face to face with extended volume and ornamentation. At the heart of Darrow’s art is a fundamental exploration of contrasts: big versus small, many versus one, fast versus slow. This creates an interesting push and pull. Full of action and speeding ahead, the plot of Hard Boiled is intentionally designed to be quick and lean. This encourages a fast reading of story, while the image making knowingly jams the breaks demanding full stops. It’s a musical thing – melodies and rhythms that push the narrative against the pull of the heavy visual bludgeoning. It has a dizzying effect, specially when seen in black and white.

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The brutality of it is hard to take in, but the tone and excess of Darrow’s vision really ties in with the story’s overarching theme of corporate culture growing out of control. Logos, product placements and pop culture references like the Flinstones, Astro Boy, Nancy, Porky Pig, Batman, Tweety Bird, Homer Simpson, Ed the Clown, Duran Duran, Hanna Barbera, Popeye, Tintin, Psycho and Bambi are plastered everywhere. Along with Ramones bumper stickers, cars named after Stallone, Eastwood and Norris, highway signs named after Goldie Hawn, giant Pepsi and 7up cans on cars, snickers, butterfingers, Baby Ruth, Milky way, Cheetos – total excess and abundance, the more absurd the better. Although I can’t spot exactly where it is, but Darrow has mentioned in interviews that he even has a battle scene that has one character with a shirt saying Godzilla and the other saying King Kong. It’s a crazy mix.

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I recently read cartoonist Daniel Clowes talking about how much attention he’s given to study how folds work when drawing clothes. How it takes time to understand and take under consideration the points of tension and release. Darrow indulges in this and there is something delightful in seeing his folds worked out with such complexity – wrinkle over wrinkle over wrinkle. Interestingly enough Darrow gives as much care and attention to folded fabric as he does to twisting metal. Car after car crashing, folding and intertwining into each other in the same way that Nixon’s trench coat folds and flows when in motion. For a lot of cartoonists drawing cars seems to be a serious problem to tackle and sometimes its avoided altogether … must be something about the geometric shapes of circles and curves in perspective that proves to be tricky – but Darrow is the opposite. Many MANY cars.

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It’s slapstick Looney Tunes violence gone ballistic (a man gets his arm ripped off and then stabbed WITH it). Almost to the point of being able to read it as a cyclical commentary of how comics had become plagued with gritty hyper violent stories after the influence of Miller’s late eighties work. It’s almost as if Miller and Darrow are addressing this by going all the way with it as a marker for and end point. You want to play this game, here is as far as it can get pushed in commercial comics – now move on and bring it somewhere new.

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Colours: An international comics influence is also apparent in the thinking of its colours. Darrow’s colourist, Claude Legris uses a mix of softer pastel combinations against brighter tones that creates a unique contrast when framing its violent content. And like European comics its size was bigger, the colours more complex and was printed on a heavier stock paper. The entry point to each issue (the covers) where unusually white and minimalistic, offering a sense of design and vision to the whole. These production values really made the book stand out at the time. Even just on the shelf, next to other comics Hard Boiled dominated and bullied its way into your hands.

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When looking at the colour work next to the black and white pages it becomes apparent how important the colour is in directing the eye where to go. The original ink work is so dense that the viewer is lost (which is not unpleasant as a curiosity in the deluxe edition) and totally dependent on the colours to come in as a guide, giving focus points to decode its proper pacing and direction.

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At times the blasts of colours are blood soaked and bright red, but on some pages – the more extreme ones, the blood is black (below). It reminds me of Scorsese talking about how he had to desaturate the colours at the end of Taxi Driver to avoid an X rating. I’m wondering if there was a call on the publisher to tone it down, which seems a bit odd given what else happens in the book.

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WRITING

Frank Miller said that he had to change his whole approach to writing the book when seeing the first three pages from Darrow. So much so that the overall tone had to be completely rethought. The attitude went from being a serious science fiction story to a dark bombastic satire. Miller had to play straight man to Darrow’s visual gymnastics. Look at how this straightforward plot element (main character is chased by police) changes in Darrow’s hands:

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Darrow not only draws the police car bigger (big vs. small) but draws it 12 TIMES bigger! Many times in the story Darrow’s art sets up visual jokes that play on the above mentioned big versus small / many versus one / fast versus slow dichotomies. Another one has the main character needing to get passed a series of security men. A trail of bloody agents leads to a full double page spread that has Nixon locked in and surrounded by the enemy along with the battles casualties on the ground. The damage is not just a few dozen injured men but 578. I counted them all.

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Miller doesn’t deviate much from standard science fiction themes – artificial intelligence rebelling against humans. But something about its tone does feel refreshing. When trying to readjust to Darrow’s art he says “Finally I happened to write down the words “come and get it you bum” and realized that it was going to be a comedy”. That bleak comedic edge might be what sets it apart – in the original letter pages of the individual issues (fake or not, all funny) they ran angry letters almost exclusively complaining about its violence and lack of morality. Truth is the story itself does seem a bit slim at first, but as previously mentioned the best Darrow story is slender and compact, and here Miller’s trimmed the fat considerably.

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Favourite page: (Above) Oddly enough I’m not sure exactly why this is my favourite page other than the look of it feels right. The second issue of Hard Boiled came a few months later and double the size of the first. In my copy, because of the staples and binding design it always folded open at this spread. It was the first issue I bought and always the first thing I saw when I picked it up. It’s not really about the dialogue plot point or action sequence, but more about how the tone of the colours homogenize the page as a thrilling piece of design.

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Favourite panel: (above) For me the dread of the whole thing is summed up in this one image. It’s all a sham and Dorothy can’t go back home anymore. Not smart enough to notice his part in a possible robot revolution, Nixon’s finally cornered and given a last chance. “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Not a fan of Lewis Carol, Nixon gets to keep working in the insurance business – happy ending and all.

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Fun Fact: Miller says he used Darrow’s likeness as the template for Sin City’s flesh eating murderer in the first book in the series called The Hard Goodbye.

COMICS REVIEW: THE KILLING JOKE

Martin Dupuis Killing Joke_1Brian Bolland did a wonderful job on the art but I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting.” – Alan Moore

It’s probably well known that John’s choice of colors turned out to be startlingly at odds with what I had in mind” – Brian Bolland

Context: Tim Burton’s Batman came out in 1989 and got lots of kids picking up comic books for the first time, me included. My dad brought me to a comic shop he had found during a lunch break and bought me The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told (seen below). It had a cover by Brian Bolland, which looked great. But to my disappointment none of the art inside, which was all drawn by different cartoonists was as good as that cover. A few months later I saw The Killing Joke on the shelf, fully illustrated by Bolland and written by Alan Moore. Thirty-seven of its forty-eight pages feature drawings the Joker. And as much (or as little) as that sounds it solidified Bolland as the definitive artist for the character.

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When The Killing Joke came out the superhero revolution had happened a few years before with Frank Miller doing The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore on Watchmen. Both books brought a darker perspective on the superhero genre, which influenced Burton’s take on it and flooded the market with violent, gritty anti-heroes. Bolland was unhappy about its final color treatment by John Higgins and Moore (who generally likes bigger more far reaching ideas) felt a smaller story between the iconic Gotham characters didn’t lead to anywhere interesting. No big ideas. Interesting to see a book loved by so many but looked down upon by its creators. Moore has pretty much disowned it and Bolland got to recolor it the way he originally intended in a 2008 deluxe edition re-release.

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Story: The Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum, takes over an old dilapidated Carnival playground and terrorizes Gotham with a simple premise – all that’s needed for someone to snap and go insane is one bad day. That everyone is one bad day away from being like him. He chooses to prove his point by singling out the commissioner as his test subject, first crippling his daughter with a shot to the spine and then submitting Gordon through a series of humiliating events and eventual witness to his daughter’s horrific suffering. Throughout the story we are shown several flashbacks that propose to be the Joker’s origins: the one bad day that lead him from being a normal husband who is trying to support a pregnant wife, into a green haired sociopath.

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CARTOONING

Influence and background: Like many cartoonist of his time Bolland was heavily influenced by the superhero visions of George Perez, Joe Kubert and Neal Adams. Adam’s cover for Batman issue 251 has been noted as a direct influence on him to want to draw a Joker story. Bolland’s art school background aligned itself with creating art that had, as its foundation a deep understanding of anatomy and perspective – something not easily found in a lot of comics art. Early work includes finely crafted black and white pages for Judge Dredd and British sci-fi magazine magazine 2000 AD. And along with British artists Dave Gibbons and Brenden McCarthy, Bolland broke into the American comics market in the eighties but now has the luxury of mostly only doing comic covers. He has stated that after working with the best (Alan Moore) on Killing Joke, it would only be a step back to draw any stories for anyone else.

Martin Dupuis Killing Joke_17Look and feel: I’m flipping through the book and surprisingly enough my first reaction is that it’s all very normal looking. Nothing too obtrusive, panel after panel of un-frivolous comics pages. He must have stood out at the time in my collection because from an early beginning it was the heavily stylized art that got me picking up comics. Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen. Bolland stands out from all of them. In fact, that’s what saves him now – maybe it’s the fine arts background.

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Lord knows I’ve spent many a teenage Friday night drawing superheroes – the “fun” stuff is always the dramatically exaggerated fight stance, the power poses. But if you learn to draw comics by reading comics you’ll only really know how to draw those kinds of dramatic moments (Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen) and will be completely lost when having to tell a proper story  – where people have to sit at tables, open doors and walk down the street. Mapping out all that anatomy and perspective stuff is tedious, most action cartoonist avoid it as much as they can.

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And the truth is that Bolland draws those small moments with as much focus and detail as the more grandiose ones. All within a very structured grid system that trusts the story and allows for a visual system to support it rather than trying to show off. It brings a sense of reality and balance to the more fantastical elements of the story and ultimately renders it all the more terrifying because of it. Comparing it to other artwork done at the time, even next to Dave Gibon’s masterful pages in Watchmen has only solidified how strong Bolland is in Killing Joke. And I’d challenge anyone to hunt down any comics of its time and find better panel to panel cartooning in a mainstream book. It’s deceptively good.

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WRITING

When I picked it up I must have had a bit more money that week because it spotted a 4.50$ cover price. Triple what a normal cover cost at the time. Right next to the price tag was a “suggested for mature readers” label, which either the shop owner didn’t see or didn’t care. At 13, I brought it home and its tone was unlike any other comics I had. To a young reader, its mix of violence and nudity was startling, revolting and titillating at the same time. A strange mix to take in. I hid it in the back of another comic and carefully placed it in my collection so that no one could see.

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The smaller and more intimate design of The Killing Joke is part of what attracts me to it all. The way Moore loops up the ending as the start and vice versa, its construction is effective and condensed – not grandiose. His scripts are infamous for being completely mapped out and fully detailed when it comes to what should be drawn in each panel. I’ve read that smart cartoonists follow instructions step away and do their best to follow his vision.

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I’m not a big fan of stories that explain motives and back story so much, Moore addresses this by making the Joker mention how he often remembers his past in different ways – choosing to have it as multiple-choice. This introduces the subtle idea that he’s been an unreliable narrator in portraying himself as an innocent victim of bad circumstances.

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The story jumps from present to past in effective visual transitions (a part of the image always repeating itself when jumping from past to present). Some of these flashback sequences involve two gangsters and a naïve pre-Joker trying to put together a heist. These are by far the least interesting parts of the story and carry with them an amateurish tone that point towards a possible open affection for the bad acting and dialogue often found in old film noirs.

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The story element that is most referred to when speaking about the book is the treatment of Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. The Joker assaults her and breaks her spine with a gunshot. The sequence in which this happens is well paced but terribly violent. It alone is jolting, but it’s the extra touch of darkness when the Joker unzips her top to take photos that gave me the feeling I was reading something I shouldn’t have been as a 13 year old kid.

Moore now talks about the sequence as possibly being too extreme for the time, and I might not disagree. The mix of violence and titillation often seen in horror films is used to similar effects here, but looking back its darker implications give weight to Joker’s main objective. An earlier draft (above left) of the photos in question shows that they had pushed it even more with a center drawing not only suggesting nudity, but outright showing it.

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THE ENDING

Even for it’s biggest supporters the ending of the book has often been a moot point. Some tolerate it, while others downright loathe it. The story climaxes with Batman saving Gordon and confronting the Joker in a fight. It ends in the same way it started, after years and years of fighting each other Batman wants to stop the cycle and genuinely reaches out to help the Joker. Man to man, one on one. It’s as tender a moment that they will have together, and with a sense of helplessness and defeat the Joker declines and offers up a joke in return:

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn’t dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says “Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!” B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says “Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!

To which Batman chuckles at, and like two old friends they fall into each others arms laughing as the final panels show the police arriving to take the Joker away.

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After such violence, possibly the most brutal seen in any Batman book, how could it end with Batman laughing it all off? How could Moore end his bloodbath on a joke – and one that isn’t even funny? Taken at face value the joke seems to trivialize the previous events, but its underlying message is poignant.

Dressing up like a bat and running around fighting crime is as unleveled an activity as one can think of. Certainly as odd as dressing up like a clown creating havoc on others – “two guys in a lunatic asylum”. Batman offers to reach out and help: “I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me“. But the Joker sees through the well meaning gesture and points out the obvious – Batman is as crazy as he is and might not be the most solid of anchors to rely on : “Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!“. 

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This reading of the ending satisfies me and seems fitting, but a few years back comics writer Grant Morrison (Batman Arkham Asylum) brought a whole new perspective to the ending:

No one gets the end, because Batman kills The Joker. That’s why it’s called The KILLING Joke. The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story [because] he finished it. But he did it in such a way that it’s ambiguous so people will never be able to be sure, which means it doesn’t HAVE to be the last Batman Joker story. It’s brilliant.

Listen to full Fatman on Batman episode 44 segment here:

I find this take on it terribly exciting and if it isn’t what the original authors intended, maybe it should have been. Presenting the book as an origin story, and at the same time killing off the character on the last page is a great idea. The ultimate loop. But nowhere in Moore’s script (see below) does it hint to anything more than the two longtime adversaries leaning on each other in a quiet moment as they are allowed to laugh at the absurdity of their eternal struggle:

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And if killing the Joker was intended, it might of happened in a very subtle fashion, perhaps as an in-joke just between the two creators that Bolland eventually let slip out in his 2008 intro to the re-edition. He hints at what Morrison mentions above – but Batman’s arm stretched out is clearly not on the Joker neck in the final illustration.

But all this fact checking doesn’t take away from the validity and impact of Morrison’s suggestion. In fact there is an odd tone to the story right from the beginning. Batman wanting to put a legitimate stop to their feud – obsessing over the idea of death and possibly putting into gears the self-fulfilling prophecy of one dying in the others arms.

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And it would, in a backwards way completely prove the Joker’s main point. That given the right circumstances people can be pushed to the edge, go crazy and burst out in violence. His broken neck would be the punch line to the joke that killed. The commissioner might have had a hint of this when he warns Batman that he wants the Joker brought in “by the book … in order to make him understand that our way works”. To which he gets the unconvincing reaction above.

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And it wouldn’t be the first time Bolland would be attached with a Gotham murder. He shoots Batman in the head in a short story he wrote and penciled in 1996. So maybe he is daring enough to pull a fast one on us all – it’s true that without the Joker around after the Killing Joke, having Batman is useless.

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Favorite page (above): I love the pacing and classic grid system of the layout. Real Slow. The way Bolland gradually reveals all the elements of the joke, beat per beat. Pink elephant, handshake and weapon that land on the poisonous punchline. A hint of Joker’s madness is showcased as we see that part of his delight lies in the flirt and buildup. The ownership of the circus has already changed hands well before this chat, but he still strings along the owner as long as he can to meet up and talk. The yellow teeth and bulging eyes are the result of the deadly handshake attack, but not much of a challenge. Harder will be the trial up ahead – setting up the right circumstance for someone to end up with the same blank stare of psychological defeat, but getting there on their own without the old gag prop at hand.

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Favorite panel (above): Drenched in rich pinks and popping purples, I’m attracted in the image’s strength to underlining how ridiculous the idea of dressing up as a bat is – much sillier than dressing up as a clown. The bat mask sliding down, the Joker is in full swing unleashing years of unfair feelings of how his oddities have been vilified while Bruce Wayne’s championed. Both are as crazy as the other, one has found a socially acceptable way to focus his psychotic tendencies, while the Joker keeps getting put away. Both locked into a cycle of doomed patterns, needing one another to define themselves.

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DC Comics released a deluxe edition of The Killing Joke in 2008. Bigger page size, new design and according to Bolland’s wish – was completely re-colored by the artist. Unfortunately none of it works as well as the original version, even down to the logotype re-design.

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Graphic design: The original design credit (above) is given to Richard Bruning, who’s bold center aligned type layout brought a strong sense of branding in a medium that rarely allowed for sophisticated design work. As they went into further printings, the logotype changed colors – making the typography an active participant in the impact of the opening image. Smart stuff.

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In comparison, the type design in the new deluxe edition seems dull and uninspired. On the cover (above – top) a bold slab serif font is mixed with thinner condensed typeface- a big step down from the original. The type design inside the book (above – bottom) doesn’t even match up with the cover, showcasing an even worst layout with a default looking font, bad kerning and terrible spacing considerations. Look how unbalanced the space (too tight) between “BATMAN” and “THE” is compared to the space after “THE” and “KILLING” … and how they forced the line under to align with “BATMAN” and “JOKE”, opening up the kerning in between the letters even more. None of it seems to be working together, none of it works. Which are also my feelings about Bolland’s recoloring job.

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Coloring: The original colors by John Higgins have real flair, popping out on the page and giving an offbeat tone to the drawings. Bombastic and surprising at times, the dark tale is told in splashes of oranges, reds, greens and purples. While detractors say it shows signs of its time, I say the baroque palette elevates the hyper nature of the mania into a pseudo-psychedelic light show.

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Bolland chooses to go in the opposite direction – stripping down the colors and bringing it all down to a more muted, lifelike palette (above right). I fully understand the exercise of trying to ground the visuals to a more realistic standstill in hopes of making the story even more palpable – but the end result lack vividness and excitement. Look how the original colors (above left) bring an urgency to the action, soaking them in a spastic fever dream. Something in the nature of the Joker’s character allows for the more frantic approach to work more effectively.

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In Bolland’s revision, the flashbacks are contrasted with the story told in he narrative’s present tense by totally desaturating them of color. All black and white. The function of making a clear division between the two time-frames is not uninteresting, but it all seems too easy and somewhat cliché – like a bad TV show that makes the screen fuzzy to indicate a dream sequence, or black and white to indicate the “past” or a “reenactment”. He also adds another bothersome element by highlighting one color a la Schindler’s List that seems gimmicky and frivolous rather than helpful.

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Bolland really layers on the gloss and Photoshop slickness when coloring lips in the book, especially for the the Joker (above right). It’s a micro detail and I guess it’s to add realism – but it has the opposite effect for me. Looks fake and sticks out like a sore thumb. Much prefer the elegance of Higgin’s more subtle colors and touch of white paint (left) to indicate a highlight.

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And call me old fashion, but a pet peeve of mine in comics today is the homogenous look of computer coloring. Everything looks the same when flipping through mainstream action stuff. The hand rendered, sometimes hand painted craftsmanship is replaced with overly glossy, slick, web 2.0 soft gradients and machine-like thinking. Not all of it is bad, but enough to look back at some of the pre-computer color designs, however primitive they were with a certain amount of affection. Look at how the grassy background on the left is highlighted and accentuated with tone and texture in the original – seeing the human touch of the brushmarks completely affects the mood.

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I’m really curious to know what was behind Higgin’s process for a panel like this – it seems like a mix of older CMYK plate color techniques with slight painterly touches on top (above left). Not 100% sure. The background gradient seems like an airbrush effect, layer of purple looks like a more traditional flat color plate and Batman has touches of what seem like had painted brush details. Love the small splash of white on his chest, really adds personality – something the Bolland’s recolored version on the whole (right) is lacking. The design, coloring and vision of the original was better left alone.

COMICS REVIEW: GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE

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Moebius was a genius. Because he was not only an artist with incredible capacity, but he was very quick. He was superhuman.” – Alejandro Jodorowsky

Context: Jean Giraud is a French cartoonist who also worked under the name Moebius. The name Giraud was used for his more conservative works while Moebius was used when doing more mature experimental pieces. At the time, these included: La Deviation, Le Bandard Fou, Arzach and Le Garage Hermétique. The latter was started in 1976 as a serialized story in a magazine he co-founded called Métal Hurlant and took four years to finish (34 installments in all). There are only a handful of names in comics that command international respect and Moebius is one of them.

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Story: The world of Le Garage Hermétique is governed by a semi-god like figure called Major Grubert. He takes on different physical attributes during the story, but is mostly seen as a mustachioed man wearing an old colonial uniform. Pointy helmet and all. Grubert’s labyrinthine world is composed of three levels: the unconscious, the conscious and super conscious.

The plot involves a mechanic accidentally blowing the fuse of an important machine and running away to avoid his boss’s retribution. This mistake ultimately triggers a manhunt that unifies a cast of characters from all three levels. This includes Major Grubert who ends up being forced to personally investigate all the levels of his own creation looking for a possible saboteur. Worlds manifest into other worlds, characters change names, personalities and even gender in a miasma of fantasy that aims to blow up the inner workings of the medium while celebrating its action adventure origins.

Martin_Dupuis_GH_14Writing: Le Garage Hermétique started off as an unambitious double page strip. 2 pages. It was drawn just for fun and got filed away without plans to continue. Months later when asked to hand in a small piece for a magazine, the strip was dug up and published. To his surprise, he was asked to write a follow up and handed in the second installment without referencing or remembering the previous story.

Part self dare and highly self-confident, he continued writing the story in this spirit – putting himself in a corner and seeing how he could juggle all the open endings he was setting up. Like a jazz musician improvising on stage, pushing ahead, going off key for stretches of time only to come back to the main riff. Some melodic build ups work, others are dead ends. This also allowed Moebius to work through all of his favorite childhood adventure stories, projecting a love of the genre while fully embracing its clichés. The writing and narrative of Le Garage Hermétique doesn’t always work, some parts are weak but the fluidity and ambition of the blast more than make up for it.

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Influences & background: Usually it’s the name Moebius that gets mentioned by other cartoonists as an influence. With Brandon Graham leading the way, there has been a slight resurgence in the kind of science fiction comics he pioneered years ago. But oddly enough, after reading many interviews with him I can’t easily recall specific names as direct influences to his work.

I’m sure there are, and maybe many (and to totally contradict myself, above is a page layout homage to Will Eisner’s use of typography) but my feeling is that there was an early leaning towards image making that came out as a natural extension of who he was and how he communicated. Maybe that is what makes his work seem so genuine and personal, even if he is dealing with spaceships and aliens.

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Drugs and exploring different perceptions of reality is also part of his make-up. He refers to an influential year off living in the Mexican desert as being a deep source of stimulus. Its dreamlike vision is a reoccurring pattern in the work: environments reflecting internal psychological states that take the shape of barren landscapes and empty deserts.

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Look and feel: Hatch marks, hatch marks, hatch marks. Thrilling to look at – obsessively covering the surface of his masterful page designs, they make the flat pages curve up, create dimension and form. Even rocks and clouds (ESPECIALLY rocks and clouds!) in his backgrounds are exciting to look at, and whether or not you’re a fan of the genres he works in (sci-fi, westerns) it is hard not to get dazzled by his drawing abilities and seduced by his ardent dedication to the art of cartooning.

Martin_Dupuis_GH_9Like cartoonist Gary Panter, Moebius is easily able to shift drawing styles. Altering perspectives according to plot points, new settings and psychological states. It creates a schizoid template that allows for an amalgam of unexpected images. Serious and carefully rendered at one moment, elastic and spontaneous the next – a completely malleable world building ability.

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When he worked on more conservative pieces (most notably a western series called Blueberry) the impression is that that original artwork was carefully gridded out, penciled and then inked. But when working under the pseudonym Moebius, it is said that Giraud rarely did any preparation pencil drawings underneath. Straight to black ink on the page. It wouldn’t matter to me either way, but I am curious to see original pages to see what kind of template and safety net he was using. It seems a bit crazy to think that images like these could get done in ink alone.

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Favorite page (above): One of my favorite pages in the book has the story coming to a climax when a triggered explosion disrupts the foundation of the 3 worlds. Formally speaking it’s a gorgeous page to look at, and what excites me the most about it is its execution of tonal shifts. The move from calm blank white water to hatch mark clouds, curving into crosshatching mushrooms that end in jet black inks. Its balance and harmonious design is admirable. The ship also seems to point towards Le Garage being an influence on George Lucas, this being published before the original Star Wars film was made.

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Favorite panel (above): After much build up and secrecy in the plot, Moebius finally shows us an image of Jerry Cornelius. He’s a major personality in the story, but not an original Moebius character. He was taken from science fiction writer Michael Moorcock. As previously mentioned, many of the characters throughout the story change names, styles and even genders. In a bravura performance of cartooning Moebius uses many different drawing techniques and also decides to give him strong feminine traits.

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Hatch marks meet crosshatching in bold moves that render the drawing spontaneous and precise at the same time. He even brings in elements of pointillism to soften up the face. He has to juggle the shading of the image itself (characters are looking at an old photograph) and the shadow marks in which are imposed on the photo by the characters hands and pipe.

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Possible use of Patti Smith and Amelia Earheart as inspiration.

COLOR vs. BLACK & WHITE

Context: His books are not easy to find, French editions exist and English ones are rare. Marvel Comics published collections of his work under the Epic imprint in the eighties. This is where I first read him. These included English translations and a full color treatment (Le Garage Hermétique was originally in black and white). I had been looking for the original French B&W edition for years, and recently found a great set of new reprints by Les Humanoïdes Associés. I read them side by side, one page at a time.

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Page flow: The first thing that stands out between the two versions is Epic’s (English / color) decision to break the original design of the spreads. Because of their written introduction, the story BEGINS on the right page, while in the original work the story spread STARTED on the left page. This seems like a small detail, but ends up completely throwing off the whole rhythm of the book. It’s always a page behind.

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See how the flow of the original black and white (above ) has a much more harmonious feel – Major Grubert on left page looking to his right, pushing the eye towards the next page. Starts with light pen marks on left and pushes towards a heavier hatch marked end point on bottom right corner.

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While the colored version has Major Grubert looking away to the right, pushing the flow off page and breaking the movement. The color palette of the two story segments don’t necessarily clash, but the mood of the spread would have been much more effective if only composed of the soft greens and bubbly pinks of the odd aquatic hippo ride.

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Beautiful use of heavy blacks and contrasting empty space pushes the flow nicely as the above clearly shows how the spread was designed to work together, and becomes messy when tampered with.

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Color pallet: For enthusiastic Moebius fans, there is nothing like seeing his original black and white lines uninterrupted by color. But it is also important to point out how lush and beautiful some of the off kilter coloring choices are in the 1988 Epic version.

At the time, traditional (American) super hero comics often worked with very crude color plates, not always being able to catch the subtleties some artists needed. Call it a European sensibility, but how refreshing it was to see soft pastel pallets challenge the usual macho context. The colors sometimes get in the way of the art and at other times make it POP and snap vibrantly – right down to seeing the crackling on some pages from the paint application.

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The use of the color extractions on the very last page of the book (above) is a brilliant touch only a colored version could pull off. The shift happens as Grubert is being hunted down, eventually escaping the colorful world of Le Garage into the lifeless black and white of the “real world”.

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Coloring hatch marks: Interesting to see that Moebius’s line work alone is strong enough to suggest a sense of dimension and light without the help of color. See how well the image reads with the hatch marks making the foreground closer in the B&W version – guiding the eye towards the two figures walking, making them pop out on the stark backdrop. The color struggles to deal with the extra lines and opts to make the (darker) foreground colors paler and (lighter) background colors darker.

Ultimately the addition of color, more often than not ends up flattening out the line work of the pages. Not to say that Moebius’s work is not adaptable to color, only that the original piece was conceived in black and white and feels more complete in its original state.

Martin_Dupuis_GH_24Criticism: While I like a lot of the story developments that deviate and make us face dead ends, other story points don’t feel as well rounded as they should be. Specially near its end point, when having to deal with a climactic confrontation that resolves itself suddenly by a convenient interference from an outside source. But maybe action adventure stories always end that way, so maybe he is playing within the genre. An easy way out, or maybe I need to re-read it again. 

BLACKLUNG: CHRIS WRIGHT INTERVIEW

Sweeney_Tongues_1Artist and cartoonist Chris Wright lives in Richmond, VT and was awarded a fellowship at the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2008. His first comics work called Inkweed was published by Sparkplug Books in 2008. Blacklung is his latest book, published by Fantagraphics. My review of it can be found here, his work and blog updates can be seen here.

CREATURE DESIGN
A big part of the joy in reading Blacklung is your character design. Would you elaborate on the mix of influences that ended up shaping them?

When I was still in Highschool, I became obsessed with Vaughn Bode. His work had all the sex and violence of mainstream comics I liked but it was also lush, and free in a certain sense. I started aping him, and developed all of these crazy non human characters. I was really into Ralph Bakshi movies around the same time. So, there are a couple of references that will send comics snobs running for the hills. As I left those guys behind, and got into other underground comics, and some of the older stuff I mentioned above, I carried their influence with me a bit. I’m not sure why.

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The creatures have a playful, even malleable quality, that allows for an unrealistic amount of physical violence to be inflicted upon them. Do you think that creating highly stylized characters ends up distancing the reader from the violence, thus making it more palatable?

The characters I am working with now, are more or less human, but I don’t regret treating the designs in Blacklung the way I did. They’re mythological characters, in a sense. I didn’t want to introduce “Scarry Eyed Joe” or “ Six Fingered Jepson.” I didn’t want to create comfortable archetypes. I didn’t want human beings. I see Blacklung almost, as an expressionist play. I didn’t want these guys to seem like real people.  At the same time there IS a human face behind every mask… Unless you put a mask on a dog, then it’s a dog face behind the mask.

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CROSSHATCHING
The crosshatching work in Blacklung has an obsessive characteristic. Its compulsive energy reminds me Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb, where his brother slowly falls into a strange graph mania, filling up book after book with pencil lines and hatchings. Did your cartooning approach jump straight into this kind of mark making, or did it creep out slowly?
(Crosshatching is the amalgam of vertical lines drawn on top of horizontal lines to create densities).

When I found the style I more or less still work in, all the obsessiveness was there, which is odd because the style I had been working in previous to that was very clean. I had been working in that clean style through my teenage years, and at some point realized that I didn’t draw anything like my favorite cartoonists. I would have been around 19, and I was looking at a lot of early 20th century stuff, Herriman, Segar, Debeck, Edward Gorey, and also a lot of late 19th century pen and ink illustration.

I began to appreciate line quality, and hatching density, and I found some kind of pleasure in sitting there with the ink and the pen and the scratching sound. Maybe it relates to an undiagnosed condition, but I’ve cut back severely on the hatching in my more recent work. I really was overdoing it for awhile, but I liked the rattiness it brought. I never really used it as a constructive drawing element, more as a graphic one.  After awhile I realized that you don’t need that kind of density of hatching to be ratty and graphic. I love pen and ink, I love nibs, I love having the kind of relationship with a pen where as you are working, you can somehow feel the moment when the ink is about to run out, but hasn’t run out yet.

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How do you work out a page? Do you find yourself mapping out each one without all the hatch work, only to return to the hatching when you’re in the right frame of mind? Or do you work it all at once?

My pencils are very simple, usually I already know what textures are going where, so I design the panels (and the pages) based on that awareness. Then I attack the panels one by one, and work clean through. Usually I do the basic line work, then I fill in the blacks, and then I do the hatching, because whether the hatching tones work or not depends on their relationships to the blacks.  It’s not like my style is super complex, but if the elements in place don’t cohere, the whole thing falls apart.

I think I work a-typically from most cartoonists. Most, I think do drafts and drafts of thumbnails, and layouts, and have the whole thing worked out before they attack the final. It may not be to my credit that I work the way I do, but I find it impossible to do anything but DO the page. I write and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite the text, but when it comes to the visuals, I can’t help but be intuitive.

In Blacklung, I began to feel a bit trapped by the visual narrative style I had established.  “This character goes here, and this character goes here, and he looks different than he did in that panel that’s a problem.” I would get really stressed out about it.  Now I realize that I am not the kind of artist to whom these things matter, because EVERYthing in my process is intuitive. I’m embracing the things I’m good at rather than compromise them with the things I am less good at.

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Who do you look to as masters of this kind of hatching and crosshatching?

I’m not sure there are any masters of this kind of crosshatching. As I say, I use it in a very basic graphic kind of way. I mentioned Edward Gorey (image seen above), and Herriman, and Debeck, who are all astonishing in their own spectacular ways, but I don’t have much in common with any of them as a draftsman. Herriman can take my breath away. The calm confident easy richness of his lines, and yet they are also totally dynamic. It’s hard to put into words. It’s like being attracted to a person not many other people see the beauty in.

I don’t have the qualities in my drawing, that he has in his, but I admire the hell out of it, and the school he grew out of. Most of the early newspaper guys were influenced by Charles Dana Gibson, and his acolytes. But then you also had Howard Pyle, whose textures could be fascinating, and Joseph Pennell, and E.W. Kemble, and A.B. Frost, and T.S. Sullivant  and later Joseph Clement Cole. On, and on, and on. All of these artists employed crosshatching, but they used it in service of painting with the pen. Mine, is a blunter instrument. But there are many channels to master in comics, and balance is key. Content, and form can’t overwhelm one another.

FORMAT
Frank Santoro once riffed on the idea that “the line I draw is the line you see,” when the question of resizing original artwork came under consideration. Is that something you think about when first putting a project like this together? How big are your original pages?

I draw more or less at around 100%. The pages in Blacklung were reduced a bit, but not by much. You can’t really mess with my crosshatching, or my thinness of line. I actually began drawing a version of Blacklung in a standard comic book size, then I got distracted by another project, and put it aside. I decided to come back to it a couple if years later, and that’s when I went with bigger pages. I have some of the pages from the first version somewhere, maybe I can dig them up.

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GRIDS
There is no apparent grid system or pattern to your layouts. It seems more intuitive. What is your process for sketching and mapping out ideas before getting to work on the final version?

I don’t believe in the grid. Not that I think it’s immoral, it just bores me. I don’t see comics strictly as a story telling medium. I think that there is something in the spirit of comics that still hasn’t been explored yet.  There are “literary comics” “poetical comics” “cinematic comics” not enough “comics comics.” I also sometimes worry that young cartoonists are more conservative in these regards than older ones. I started Blacklung, as a reaction to some of the “precious” elements around the indie community in that moment. I wanted to make an “art” comic out of a genre subject, and also pay tribute to the “underground” (S. Clay Wilson etc – image seen below) and to the history of comics in general, while hopefully also turning it on its ear. I changed a lot while I was working on this book, and the way I think about comics changed. Right now I am trying to figure out what my version of “comics comics” is.

BL_Wilson_2Sorry, you asked me a question.  Yes it’s intuitive. As I said, I write and rewrite, but once I’m okay with the dialogue I do, maybe a couple of thumbnails, and then go to the page, and usually what ends up on the page turns out not to be related to the thumbnails. I break the beats down line by line, figure out which images go with what, how it all interacts, and so on. I try to make each page a constructed sequence, with a beginning middle and end, even if that sequence is only part of a larger sequence.

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VIOLENCE
From time to time a film like Django Unchained makes me rethink my relationship with violence in entertainment. Tarantino is on record saying that he loves exploring violence in his work because it’s thrilling and fun. I have mixed feelings about it all. I generally dislike and don’t gravitate towards overtly violent entertainment, but a lot of the artists I like have violence as an underlying theme in their work (Herzog, Francis Bacon, Scott Walker). As both a creator of art, but also as a consumer of it, how do you find yourself dealing with and reacting to violence in entertainment and art?

It might be surprising to learn that I’m not a fan of horror movies, and that frankly I think Tarantino is a little bit of a sociopath. I love Scorsese (image seen above), and sometimes people lump those two together because of the violence. But if there is such a thing as an ethical portrayal of violence, I think Scorsese is way closer to the mark. The violence in his best movies tends to be fast, and jarring, and emotional. Maybe it’s a little fetishized, but it’s nothing close to what Tarantino does in that regard, and, I don’t think he gets much of a thrill out of it intrinsically. Except maybe for that little thrill catholic boys get out of being bad. Tarantino’s a cartoon. I usually enjoy his movies, but I don’t really approve of them. I may be the only person under 40 who thought that Kill Bill 2 was terrible.

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I don’t know how to defend the violence in Blacklung, except to say that I wanted to completely destroy all of the romantic identifications that come with the idea of Piracy. I mean, I love Errol Flynn movies, but I decided that if I was going to take this premise on, I was going to take it all the way. I don’t think any of the violence in Blacklung goes down as thrilling or fun, and if you remember, even Mose is horrified by what happens at the fort.

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There is a hierarchy to the psychopathy in the book. Mose is a rough character, but sadism is foreign to him. Brahm no longer enjoys what he is doing, and is going through the motions. Others are following orders, and only Sweany really takes glee in the suffering… And he’s lost his mind, in every sense. From an entertainment point of view, I don’t think there is any gratuitous violence in the book. I think it all relates to story, and thematic functionality. All of the horrors in the book are based on historical accounts.  History is WAAAAY more horrific than entertainment could ever be allowed to be.

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Part Belly of the Beast, part Empire Strikes Back—my favourite page in the book is when the Captain punishes a guilty man by stuffing him into a whale and throwing him off the ship. Can you elaborate on how you arrived at this terribly effective dreamlike imagery?

People seem to respond to this sequence. It was actually based on a dream, but not my own, and actually I don’t want to say much more than that in public if that’s okay with you.

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On my second reading I was surprised when the character Outwater completely disregards his role as Sweany’s assassin when they get aboard the ship. There are a few indicators in the book that despite the chaos, there is still the need for an honour system. Am I naive in expecting Outwater to keep his word, or is it every man for himself?

No, I don’t think it’s an honour system exactly… I think Outwater has kind of had it with the whole thing from his first appearance, he just hasn’t figured out how to move on yet. I think of him as the smartest of all the characters. He has a loathing of Sweany, but doesn’t want to push the contention too far. He thinks Brahm is a little ridiculous, but finds him worth following, because at least he has something going other than moneylust. He may not be admirable, but at least he is crazy.

And Outwater is actually the one keeping Sweany in check, in a way. He is outranked by Sweany, and Sweany is also stronger than he is, but for all his pretentions, Sweany is not that bright, and Outwater can manipulate him fairly easily. I even think that Sweany is aware of this power dynamic, and knows that he kind of needs Outwater. Outwater leaves the crew of his own free will, and Sweany doesn’t fuck with him. Their fight was fraternal, and  Brahm always liked Outwater better, but wanted a psycho as his first mate. The whole relationship is about power dynamics.

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Some of this I prefer to keep mysterious. Why did those guys care for Sweany while he was dying? Maybe he was good to them, for all his psychopathy, maybe a few moments of deranged kindness occurred, that made them want to watch over him. Maybe not, maybe they were so terrified of him, that they took care of him for fear of vengeance from his ghost. Sometimes, when you make stuff, you have to give up your intentions, and just let it sit there.

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INFLUENCES
I always find it tricky to overtly reference a piece of work from the same medium you’re working in, especially in comics. It feels almost incestual. I recently saw Dumont reference Courbet’s L’Humanite and Paul Thomas Anderson referenced Gursky in Punch Drunk Love, and thought that it really complimented their vision. There seems to be a mix of Melville, McCarthy and David Milch in the attitude of Blacklung. More literature minded. Who where you thinking about, and who do you think seeped in when putting it together?

I may have already answered a couple of these points in previous answers, and I would love to belabor them, but I probably shouldn’t. I have always said that Blacklung is what would happen if Bergman made a pirate movie with muppets. Blood Meridian was a huge influence, as was Bergman, and Tarkovsky… and Fellini was always in the back of my mind (image seen above). Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits.

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I came up with Blacklung, before I was aware of Deadwood (image seen above), but once I saw Deadwood, I was relieved to see that somebody else was taking an interest in some of the same ideas. Not that would compare myself to Milch. I do not exist in a space that is close to his literary intelligence.

I have never really been a literary person. I might be a little dyslexic, or maybe I have some weird anxiety around reading prose fiction. Most of my influences are filmmakers, and songwriters. Playwrights to some extent also, but usually in the context of film. I’m not as big a reader as I would like to be. I read an interview with Fellini once, in which the interviewer asked him about similarities in his work to Proust, and Joyce, and Fellini admitted that he had never read either of those authors. And that brought me so much relief, to know that it was possible to make La Dolce Vita, or 8 1/2 without having read Proust or Joyce.

If you just engage deeply enough in the thing you are doing, and you are completely honest with a certain part of yourself, you can do really good shit. It’s not all about book learning… Thank Christ.

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OPENING QUOTE

Old gods are terrible to look at when they weep, all bloated like spoiled fish. One wonders if they ever understand that they have caused their own grief” – The Epic of Gilgamesh

You’ve mentioned that opening up Blacklung with a quote from Gilgamesh points possibly to a the characters being tangled up in events beyond their jurisdiction. Does this reflect a notion that we are less in control of our lives, decisions and free will than we think we are?

I think we construct all these mythologies to give ourselves a sense of control. Even the myth that all you need to do is meet that perfect person, and have that perfect child, and you’ll be good, everything will be fine. We are just apes with defense mechanisms against the void.

That quote is interesting to me for a few reasons, but mostly it’s because the Gods looked down on what they had done and saw that it was not good. They had the self awareness and lack of selfishness to mourn over the consequences of their actions. In Blacklung, Brahm comes to a similar kind of self awareness. We walk through life in our passion, and conviction, or in our spite, and are only actualized when we realize how wrong we are to feel any of those things in the configuration we originally found them in. Once this is understood, the configuration again becomes original. It’s a continuous process ended only by death. We can only aspire to our higher selves through humility, and a glad resignation. I am horrible at all of those things.

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Brahm is going through the motions in that torture scene. That’s why he pours his history out to Isaac shortly after. Something about their contact has made him realize that his intentions are empty. He is just staring into the evil he has created, and he can’t make it heroic anymore, he can’t mythologize it. When he rejects his own mythology, he is finally embraced by a “higher power,” and, in that moment, is sent into the underworld. He steps down into the ocean, and, water being a symbol of the unconscious, finally into his own mind. It’s the moment where he liberates himself from himself, and realizes that he has to destroy what he has created and die in the process. His moment of self actualization, is a moment of intrinsic cognitive self destruction. To answer your question… I believe that human beings have the power to make choices, but I don’t think they have much say in the creation of the machine that ends up making those choices.

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Joseph Campbell says that, “the achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for and it’s a manifestation of his character. The landscape and conditions of the environment match the readiness of the hero. The adventure that he is ready for is the one that he gets.” I would need to re-read the ending again to be sure, but It seems like Isaac experiences an awakening by the end of the story—that the level of violence surrounding him frames his existence in a way that is ultimately liberating. He seems humbled by the recognition of a force bigger than him, an annihilation of the self. Since he survived, does that mean he was ready for the adventure he was given?

I actually did a lot of thinking about Joseph Campbell while I was writing Blacklung, and I wanted to play with certain mythological motifs. I wanted to engage with the hero’s journey, without the forward momentum those stories usually provide. At the end of Blacklung, the villain is the one who is changed.  Isaac, while maybe more adapted to his circumstances, remains, for all intents and purposes, very little changed. He is just a shell, in a world he thought himself above. In the last panel he is faced with his books, and his supplies. There is still the potential for regeneration, and transformation, but for what, or to what, or to whom?

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He still hasn’t achieved the wisdom Brahm acquired, and the question at the end of the book is will he bother to try? It’s a personal matter, when ego is divorced from an appreciation of art, and wisdom texts. When you aren’t just reading things, and talking about things to prove that you are so smart, and are actually evaluating, and processing them as they relate to your own actual heart. It seems cruel to leave Isaac on that beach, but really he was always on that beach he just didn’t know it.

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Thanks to Dimitrios Koussioulas for helping with copy and editing.