Archive for April, 2010

Artist Interview: Ryan Alexander-Tanner

Monday, April 26th, 2010

For the second of our series of interviews with artists we met at MoCCa Festival, we’ve got Ryan Alexander-Tanner, a comics artist living in New York. He recently collaborated on a book with educator Bill Ayers, and was at the Festival promoting it.

Ryan Alexander-Tanner

  • At MoCCA you were promoting your new book, To Teach: The Journey, in Comics. Can you tell me a little bit about that project?
  • Oh my goodness, what a question! Ever since we started working on it, I’ve struggled to find a brief description. In a nutshell, it’s a comics adaptation of Bill Ayers’ book on teaching from the 90′s. He wrote a book that’s pretty much a humanist guide to teaching and the publisher, Teachers College Press, decided to do a new edition in comics. So it’s a guide to teaching for people who are going in to teaching and need a little benevolent guidance on their journey.
  • And how did you get involved?
  • Well, Bill wanted to do the comic but he didn’t really know who to approach to get it done. His brother Rick was a teacher of mine in high school and Rick’s daughter Sonia has been a good friend of mine since then, too. Bill is really into reaching out to his network of people to get projects off the ground and when he asked his brother for suggestions, I came up. I’d recently gotten a Xeric Grant and I had a website and all that so I guess I looked ok on paper. The folks at Teachers College Press had a shortlist of artists they wanted to approach but I got a chance to audition for the project anyway and it just sort of worked out.
  • As far as content goes, is progressive education something that you’d had an interest in before getting picked to do this project, or were you more or less learning as you went?
  • I’ve been interested in teaching for some time. My perspective is a little odd because I feel like my education was a pretty lousy experience, so I’m interested in progressive education as a means of providing young people with all the stuff I wish I’d had. I definitely learned a lot as I went, though. How could I not? That was a big bonus of this project: being interested in education and then getting to sit down for months with someone who really knew their shit. How often do you get to read a book full of interesting ideas and then sit down with the author for months to discuss those ideas? What an opportunity!

    Another point I’d like to add is that, as a comics artist, I’m always interested in new subjects. I really advocate for comics as a means of telling any story or expressing any idea, and in that pursuit I’ve learned some pretty amazing stuff. So this time it was education, but before that I’d teamed up for projects about microcircuitry or the Donner Party or Women’s Roller Derby, etc, etc. I’ve always loved that aspect of the work I do: getting to approach subjects through this medium and learning all these amazing new things in the process.

  • That’s really interesting, thinking of comics as a way of presenting all sorts of information/stories/et cetera in a new way.

    Now, you don’t have to answer this one, since it’s not really about your art, and you’re probably tired of talking about it by now, but: You were living with Bill Ayers during the 2008 presidential campaign season, and were present for a lot of his rather infamous celebrity. Can you tell me about being present at such a strange locus of history?

  • Yeah, this question got old pretty fast. More than anything, I see it as a distraction. It was a big annoying distraction when we were working on the book, and now it’s a big annoying distraction when we’re trying to talk about the book. I have to acknowledge it, though, especially since it has definitely drawn a lot of attention to the book.

    I’d just say that it was a pretty creepy experience. Imagine if someone hired you for your dream job and showed you genuine kindness and then every time you turned on the tv you saw a bunch of stuff on the news about what a shitty guy they were. For me, it was like living in bizarro world.

    I guess I’d just like to say that I really got to know Bill while we worked on this book together and in my opinion he couldn’t have been less deserving of such a demonizing representation.

    It’s interesting because a significant portion of our book is about getting to know people wholly and not reducing them to a label or an association, which is too much to ask from politics and the media, I’ll tell you that much. So although this book is really about education and helping people to approach their work with the right spirit and the right attitude, since Bill is the narrator I did take it as an opportunity to present the guy I met and got to know. I think that the little cartoon character of Bill in our comic book is a much more accurate representation of “the real Bill Ayers” than that mugshot on Fox news.

  • Yeah, that sounds pretty wild. Alright, backing up a bit…

    How much freedom did you have with formatting the text to a more visual language? How did that process work?

  • Oh, much better question!

    Well, going into it, Bill thought that his work on this project was finished because he’s already written the book. No such luck! If he’d written a straight-up story I think I could have adapted it unassisted, but since To Teach is essentially a book of theory with no central narrative, I didn’t really see it as my place to freely interpret what he’d written. I always told Bill that it was going to be just like turning a book into a movie. We were adapting from one medium into another, and with that comes a whole new set of challenges and necessity of invention. I always say that the best part about working with Bill is that he gave me total freedom, and the worst part about working with Bill is that he gave me total freedom. So it was quite a process.

    The best thing about it, I think, is that the process of creating the comic became very much in synch with the philosophy of the text. Bill and I were each other’s teacher and student at the same time, which is really, to me, the central theme of To Teach.

    So the process itself was pretty darn complicted.

    To put is as briefly as possible, I read To Teach about three times and made a list of what I thought the central concepts and themes were. We discussed those notes and made revisions and then I made these sort of rough outlines for each chapter while also developing key images to build around.

    A lot of the storytelling was based around these sort of built-in constraints because of how many pages we had and things like that. So a lot of the struggle was, “ok, we’ve got three pages to represent this idea… what’s the most effective way to do that?” We went through a ton of drafts and revisions, that’s for sure.

    So basically we would consult the original book and Bill would also do these lengthy free-writes about whatever idea we were dealing with and then we’d try to make it fit. Over time these sort of narrative frameworks developed for each chapter and then we’d continue to push it and revise it as well as we could while trying to cram these huge ideas into these little tiny spaces. My priority was making it a compelling narrative with engaging visuals that fit well together, and Bill’s was providing text that was concise but still got the points across. We also gave each other a lot of feedback throughout, so often times I’d suggest a certain phrase or he’d invent a certain image. It was a pretty intense back and forth process.

  • How did this process compare to how you’d worked in the past?
  • Well, it’s hard to say, because every project is different. Sometimes I make a whole comic by myself, so that pretty much just involves me sitting in my room and trying to concentrate and power through. I’ve worked with writers who are familiar with comics who provide complete scripts, so in those instances you usually just have a few quick discussions and notes and then you get to work. I’ve also worked with writers who aren’t familiar with comics who try to provide full scripts, and that’s always a logistical nightmare. So I don’t know, man, it’s like snowflakes. But I will say that this was easily one of the most rewarding collaborations I’ve had.
  • At MoCCa, did people come to your table having already heard of the project, or were there just teachers in the crowd that were lured in by your signage and the flow of the show?
  • That’s interesting, because we got a fair amount of press leading up to the show, but the majority of the people who bought the book did seem to be teachers who’d stumbled onto us while perusing the floor. I do think that there are elements of the book that lend it a wider appeal, but it’s still a bit of a niche project. Personally, I’m fine with that. What a great audience to target for a comic book! Can you think of any other comics that specifically appeal to teachers?
  • Yeah, definitely outside the proverbial box in terms of comics audience.
  • Well, thats a big thing for me. I always say, “Why should comics have such a specific audience?” Imagine if movies were thought of as something for teenage boys. Not action movies, but movies as a whole. That would be crazy! So i really saw this project as a great opportunity to make a comic book that had a specific audience, but one that you wouldn’t necessarily expect for comics. To me, that’s a progressive move for comics.
  • Are you aware of other artists working to expand comics’ domain like this? Anybody you take influence or inspiration from?
  • Oh, you bet. That’s the thing: for a long time, I think that the associations comics had were sort of self-imposed. I love all sorts of comics and I agree that the most high-end superhero comics can be seen as a literary form of art, but they’re still genre comics. Over the last decade, I think all that shit’s gone out the window. I think comics have finally created enough challenging and highly literate work that this whole “comics aren’t for kids” discussion can finally be put to rest. Any journalist writing that story nowadays needs to get with the times, man.

    I think the problem now isn’t as much creating the work that brings comics out of the gutter, but getting people to read it. So, for me, one of my loftiest ambitions for this project was to try to create a comic that could be used as an example. Ideally, some young teacher-in-training who’s never read a comic in her life will be assigned To Teach in a grad school class and big lightbulb would go off over her head.

    As far as progressive cartoonist I take inspiration from, there are a ton. My favorite guy is David Mazzucchelli. I read the adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel, City of Glass, that Mazzucchelli did with Paul Karasik while adapting To Teach, and I made Bill read it, too. We had a lot of good conversations about the relationship between the two versions of that story.

    There are a ton of other go-to artists when you’re trying to speak in defense of comics. Chris Ware is an easy choice, as are Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Seth, Los Bros Hernandez, Lynda Barry, Chester Brown, Thomas Herpich, Dan Clowes, James Sturm, Alex Robsinson, Bill Watterson, and about a zillion others.

    But just to put a little cap on this discussion, I always think that there’s this pretentious desire to denounce superhero comics when you’re speaking out in defense of the medium, and that really bugs me. I’m gonna freely admit right now that I like superhero comics. I think that the only real problem with the superhero genre is that it’s so associatively synonymous with comics as a whole. Hopefully the scales will balance out a little more in the years to come. But, having said that, i think superhero comics are a lot of fun, and I’ve gotten as much out of reading the first 100 issues of Amazing Spider-man as I did reading all those ‘sophisticated comics narratives’ I just listed.

  • One more thing: when you look at the Duckrabbit logo, which do you see first? Duck or rabbit?
  • Definitely a duck! I actually looked at it quite a few times before I even saw the rabbit. One thing that strikes me as odd is their expressions. The Rabbit looks sort of hopeful, but the duck is melancholy. What’s up with that?
  • It might be unintentional. Maybe we’ve got an inkblot situation going here.
  • Yeah, its like a Rorsach test.
  • Yeah, I just didn’t know how to spell that.
  • I think I spelled it wrong. I learned how to spell it from reading superhero comics!
  • Cool man, well thanks a bunch for taking time out for us.
  • Sure!

Artist Interview: Robert Gavila

Monday, April 19th, 2010

At the MoCCA Festival last weekend, we met Robert Gavila, a local New York comics artist. Mr. Gavila was one of a handful of veteran self-publishing artists at the show, and has been showing at MoCCA for years. Also prominently displayed was a notice that he recently had his iPhone App, Wierman’s Family ASL 1, approved by Apple and placed for sale on the iTunes Store.

On top of being a cartoonist and programmer, Mr. Gavila has also done a lot of thinking about the current state of the comics publication and distribution, and had interesting things to say about what he expects in the future. We decided to track him down after the show, and he was kind enough to talk with us for the first in a series of artist interviews.

  • Looking over your biography, it strikes me that you are a man of varied interests. You’ve been a musician and a programmer as well as a comics artist. Do you see these other interests as bearing on your art? And if so, how?
  • Yes, I think the timing aspect of music is valuable. I read once that Aristotle thought that people should study music in order to be well educated.

    I find timing to be a major element in the pacing and the page turning experience of reading/writing/drawing a comic book.

    And the things I studied in college also have a bearing in my comic book work.

    As an accountant, I was appalled at the way auditing firms got away with giving good reviews to extremely unstable companies. I included those perspectives in my “Nisha” comic book.

    And, of course, being a guitar player for over 35 years, I appreciate good old every day “hand skills”, such as the proper execution of a line with an ink brush. I’m not an expert in that area, but I certainly can appreciate the skills of other artists.

  • Can you name some artists that you particularly appreciate the skills of, whether or not they are a direct influence on your own work?
  • Right off, at the top of my list is Mark Schultz.

    I love what Andy Hughes has done to expand what I call the “vocabulary of faces” in the books published by Image.
    But Mark Schultz… wow, I can just go on and on about his incredible work–all in black and white.

    When Mark started to really get to his peak in using the dry brush I almost couldn’t stand it anymore. I felt like I had to grab the nearest stranger standing around and tell him “Do you see that? That’s almost impossible to do, and he does it for a COMIC BOOK!”

    I wish I could see actual samples of the great Wallace Woods. I’d like to get a better idea of how much of that incredible work was done by a simple brush dipped in ink, and how much was created by applying white paint to refine the lines.

    And to this day I read and re-read Leonard Starr’s “Mary Perkins On Stage” reprints.

    I understand that there are difficulties in getting the original work to reprint, so the stuff we see coming out is not all putting Leonard Starr’s work in the best light, but it’s still incredible to see how consistent he was in drawing faces.

    I thought I was in love with Mary Perkins when I was 14 years old, I felt like I really knew what she looked like, almost like she was a real person. No generic faces for Mr. Starr.

    I’ll probably think of another ten artists later, but that’s my top list—oh, wait, I must add Gerhard, of Cerebus fame. I met Gerhard a few times, and I was also lucky to get drawing tips from his past partner, Dave Sim. Dave’s “Guide to Self Publishing” is an absolutely indespensible work. Every artist should read it. Dave’s new academic study of early comic artists, printed in “Glamourpuss” is also very valuable. But for me, Gerhard was extremely influential.

    In my Nisha comics, and my work drawing landscapes in Europe, I’ve been justifiably accused of channeling Gerhard.

  • It’s always good to hear someone else compare you to someone you consider an important influence.
  • Oh, yeah. I feel like I’m getting a gold star when that happens.

    Some people think that having your influences show too clearly is a bad thing.

    I was always a fan of better artists. As a musician, programmer, artist, writer, I am always marveling at the work of somebody a couple of steps above me. To be compared to the person I’m “sweating” (young persons speak there, I think) is like hearing “Hey, good job!”

  • In this same vein, I’m wondering about how you view your own creative process, especially as it relates to the work of your influences. That is, you’re obviously well-versed in the history of your medium, and I’m wondering how you would characterize your own departure from what has gone before. Given your influences, what do you see your art doing or adding to that continuum?
  • Aye, tough one.

    I suspect that I will naturally fail a little in everything I try, and by those failures, hopefully, add something to the immense body of work I see in the marketplace. I am way too humbled by the people who have their work hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to imagine that I can see what I am adding right now.

    So, what am I doing? I’m trying to get a story out.

    I am using pen and ink, some Photoshop, and a lot of hours committed to hanging over my projects to get a story out.

    And the purpose of my writing is to embed all the things I’ve read that got me angry or sad into something that might (I pray) move people.
    If I could do that as an inker, I’d be tickled pink. I’ll try, but… heck, about three years ago I went to the MET to see the DaVinci pen drawings. I was blown away!

    Then about two years ago I went to the Met to see the ink drawings of Van Gogh. I didn’t even know that such a body of work existed, but it just makes sense that it would. Again, I felt so unworthy to hold a brush or a Hunts point 102 nib.
    For me, the art side is where I struggle to get the comic realized and the writing is the driver. I love the art side, but I have to be realistic: adding something to the world of meaningful art? Ooooh… tough one.

  • Can you say something about your experience as an artist with a “day job”? How do you juggle the logistics of life and the drive toward making art?
  • That’s a good question, because when I’m really well into a book, that is the issue that makes my brain feel like it has a fever.

    It’s horrible how I can never carve out enough time to draw because I have a full time job.

    You’re 100% correct, that is the main problem I face in trying to pay the mortgage, help the children and grandchildren and be true to my desire and need to create: time.

    There’s no easy answer. I’ll just have to cut out going to the movies on Friday night.

  • Unless the movie’s something you can use as inspiration for your book, of course.
  • Ah, that’s my standby excuse.

  • You seem to have a very technical appreciation of your process, judging by the method you described above. Does this exacting use of technology dovetail with your interests in computer programming? And to what extent do you see the technological angle being a part of the artistic process, and to what extent is it simply supportive of the creative work?
  • Oh, yes, I’m guilty of being limited by and helped by being a technician.

    Yes, I did seem to automatically ‘meld’ with computer programming when I first discovered it, so I am a technically oriented guy.

    But the human spirit still works its way through all those layers. The careful study of technical aspects of an artform provides a platform for the leap of human imagination.

    My wife, who is an excellent watercolor painter, for years told me, “I never liked working with tracing paper. It seems to make whatever I initially drew go stale or ‘off’ somehow.” So I never tried to use tracing paper in my work.

    Then I met Dave Sim and Gerhard, who, by the year 2005, were heavily using tracing paper in their work.

    Dave recommended using tracing paper, but when I ran into Gerhard at the airport in Ohio and we talked about this, he emphatically told me, “It makes the process faster in the long run.”

    So, off to New York, and I run to Pearl Paint and I buy tons of carbon paper and tracing paper. And I discovered something: when I draw something–very roughly–and then turn the paper over to see if it needs correction (the main purpose of this technique), I find that I use the drawing underneath as a springboard to my imagination.

    Suddenly, I found, I wasn’t tracing the opposite side, I was using the rough sketch as inspiration.

    So, here a technical trick, but still it best served me as a tool to engage my interest, joy, and imagination. I would draw everything three times, transfer it over with carbon paper, and then refine it again.

    Crazy, right? But I felt like I went from a sucky artist to what Dave Sim later labeled “less sucky”. That is not easy praise to earn from Dave. He’s a very tough teacher.

    I learned guitar the same way: tons of scales, but then I would go into a night club with my band–and do you think I’m going to play scales for an audience? No way. I’d use my technical skills as a springboard for my spirit to try to scream out and sing with my guitar. Or something like that. Technique is not all bad.

  • I know that you’re a critic of the current way distribution of comics works in this country. And as you are also interested in computer technologies (as evidenced by your recent iPhone app) and the change they might bring to how the whole thing works. Do you care to comment on both the state of affairs as it currently is, and what hope you see for the future?
  • My favorite subject, after art: distribution.

    The current state of affairs is that, happily, this is the beginning of the end of Diamond Distributor’s stranglehold on the industry.

    The state of affairs, circa 2005 was horrendous. I’m not sure any comic book artist wants me to tell you their name insofar as being a supporter of my struggle over the past five years.

    Like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, who boycotted Taco Bell (and other fast food chains) in order to get support for their request for a pay raise of one penny for every 30 pound bucket of picked tomatos paid by the Pacific Tomato Growers, Six L’s Packing Company, and DiMare Fresh, I feel justified in boycotting the comic book retailers.

    I love the comic book shop owners in New York City. They have been super with me.

    They all took my hand-delivered comics and placed them on their shelves! Midtown Comics (hi, Fuller, I want to hear that podcast), Silver Age Comics (hi, Mark. I know, it’s been too long), Forbidden Planet–all of them have been very good with the independents.

    But I simply cannot let another penny go from my pocket to Diamond’s register.
    I have not entered a comic book shop for over three years.

    I’ll buy from Comicology or some other online service, but on an emotional level, I have so much RAGE at Diamond for refusing to carry my three books, that I simply cannot step into another comic book shop.

    Now, the present: Thank God (and Steve Jobs) for the iPad!

    Really, I think the iPad only had to be the Kindle-killer to make it as a must-have home commodity. It’s that and much, much more.

    Now, I would love to be able to upload my comics to an online store, like, say, iTunes, and find it offered for sale at a nice low price of, say, 99 cents, tops.
    I would love to know that my comic book could be read with a universal Comic Book reader that allows the reader to multi-touch the page and zoom in to see the detail.

    I would love to see video linked into hyper links on the page, maybe showing how the page was inked, or pencilled, in brief, or maybe offering other supportive material.

    I would love to see all of this and more and the iPad only needs the right reader and we’ll be there.

    The distribution channel is there: iTunes/iBooks. The technology is there: HTML/XML, etc. links and mult-touch API (you know, the stuff the programmers use to let you do something with the computer).

    I do not yet see all of that in an iReader. The iReader in the iPad (yes, I did pre-order one on the first day it was offered) does not let you do multi-touch expansion of a page–so far.

    And there’s still that question of “How the heck are we going to pipe out 25 megabyte pages to the customer without super high speed connectivity?”

    Yes, there are challenges. But I am ‘tickly excited’ about the iPad device, and I’ve been using this thing.

    Please, Apple, create the reader comic book fans want and let’s put an end to the Diamond-chain. By the way, Diamond routinely takes 70 percent of the take on a book. Apple gives us 70 percent and takes 30 percent.

    Okay, so maybe Diamond had to take the exclusionary policies they did to survive market conditions. But I don’t think it’s fair and I demand a better deal.

    Okay, that’s enough. I’ll probably need a good lawyer after this, but I’m sorry, that’s the reality I’ve had to deal with. Maybe my comic book sucks. Let’s say that’s the truth.

    Would it have hurt Diamond to post it in their Previews magazine?

    If I paid for an ad in their Previews magazine and no retailers ordered it, I might have said, “Gee, I really suck at this. I think I’ll quit it while I’m ahead.”

    Then you wouldn’t be reading my rants.

  • Just one more thing: When you look at the Duckrabbit logo, do you see a rabbit first, or a duck?
  • A duck. Now I have to go back and take another look! I didn’t know there was a rabbit in it. That’s cool.

Review: William Kentridge: Five Themes

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing, the contingent way that images arrive in the work, lies some kind of model of how we live our lives. The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are or how we operate in the world.

- William Kentridge

This quotation is posted at the entrance to the MoMA’s gigantic retrospective of the work of William Kentridge. And, like any good epigraph, it both sets the tone for the viewer’s experience of the exhibition, and later resonates with that experience as the viewer reflects from an angle of comfortable repose. In this case, I am struck by exactly that model of lived life and how its personality comes through in all its asymmetrical grandeur. But more on this below.

William Kentridge

William Kentridge is from and of South Africa. His career can be seen as the struggle of a privileged white male, trying to find a language that lets him understand his place in a society riven by apartheid. A strong political pathos pervades his work, yet though Kentridge’s sympathy for the oppressed classes is strong and unwavering, it would be unfair to take the reductive step of labeling it simply ‘political art’. This difficult (and successful) brinksmanship is achieved by the intense ambivalence with which the artist places himself at the center of every piece, a sort of schizophrenic Janus that is, as an artist, sympathetic to the lower class’s plight, but also, as a white, middle-class man, an agent of its residual oppression.

But even talking about the art in these terms seems to impute an ideology to them that is refreshingly absent in the presence of the works themselves. While they, the works, are certainly aware of these generalities, it is detail and subtle movement that define both the still images on display and the huge, projected animations that fill at least five theater spaces constructed on the MoMA’s second floor.

William Kentridge

The centerpiece, both of the show and probably of Mr. Kentridge’s career, is the collection of animated films entitled, Drawings for Projection. The two central characters in these films are the two aspects of the artist himself, as mentioned above: Felix, the lover, artist, and sympathetic everyman; and Soho, zillionaire business tycoon and oppressor of the masses. Their interactions with each other are not direct, but instead play out across the shifting landscapes of contemporary South Africa, both as land and as idea.

Mr. Kentridge’s distinctive style uses heavy, dusty charcoal to create sketches that are at once rough and accurate. The animation is achieved by rubbing away a portion of the drawing and redrawing it in the new position, like most ‘analog’ animation. But it differs in that Mr. Kentridge doesn’t fully erase the foregoing state, and thus leaves a ghostly trail of movement through each scene. The effect is dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish, but also seems to play with the way memory works by making it visibly evident across these created spans of time. This is especially moving in the more abstract flights, where the texture of the image’s history compliments, or even comprises, the full artwork as it develops before the viewer.

William Kentridge

Throughout the films, the viewer is confronted with strange amalgamations of technological devices and organic objects, like sentient camera tripods and telephones that morph into cats. Mr. Kentridge seems to deploy artifacts of banal, bureaucratic existence as an army of karmic payback, as these phones and cameras, along with notary stamps and guns march against a civilization that is portrayed as perilously close to the abyss. In fact, that abyss itself seems to be animated as the anxiety (depicted as rising, blue water that is creeping up all around Soho in some scenes) that threatens to consume everything. The impression is that of a quotidian apocalypse, slow but intractable.

And again, what makes this particular apocalypse so powerful is that it is so personal. Felix and Soho, as parts of the artist himself, are trapped by the force of their circumstance. They are defined, for better and worse (though more often for worse) by their histories, which the viewer can actually see as the ghostly trails of the animator’s technique. They can move around, but they cannot cleanly rub out the past, only smudge it some and hope it fades with time. By exploring this inescapable contingency, Mr. Kentridge is searching for a better model for life, a better way to operate in the world.

William Kentridge: Five Themes runs at the MoMA until May 17.