This post originally appeared at The Panelists on April 8, 2011.
Austin English is one of the most original artists in the small world that is art comics. Over the course of his works, his images have become ever more sui generis, combining a child-like representational simplicity with texture, collage, and patterning, without eschewing the telling of a story. He first gained attention for Christina and Charles (Sparkplug Comic Books, 2005) a short graphic novel and then later releasing three volumes of Windy Corner Magazine (Sparkplug Comic Books, v.1 2006, v.2 2007, and v.3 2009), which featured his own comics (including the serial “Life of Francis”), essays, interviews, and short comics by such artists such as Richard Hahn, Molly Goldstrom, Fiona Logusch, and Sakura Maku. Sparkplug has just released his latest book, The Disgusting Room (which should be available at MoCCA this weekend). Austin has also recently announced his latest project as publisher and distributor Domino Books whose first release will be Dark Tomato #1 by Sakura Maku. This interview was conducted via email.
Derik Badman: Christina and Charles was the first time I remember hearing about your work (someone who I’ve since forgotten blogged about it) and the first of your comics I read. The style you use it in always brings to mind the old cliché about modern art that “my kid could do that.” The style seems to be (and I assume is) purposefully child-like in its flat space, limited points of view (almost every head is seem either from the front or in profile), scribbly patterning, and even the use of (what I assume is) colored pencil. You list a few influences in the front of the book that seem fairly obvious (like Matisse), and I believe seeing that you are an Emberley fan, so I’m wondering how that style came about? Despite the “my kid could do that” appearance, most purposefully child-like art seems to come not from the limits of the artists skills (or a lack of conventional “realist”/representational drawing skill) but from a purposeful stylistic movement/removal. Are there realistic Austin English drawings out there from before this book?
Austin English: I never sit down and say, “I am going to draw this in this way.” It is a matter of my limitations as an artist that I draw that way. I sit down to the table and think, “I am going to draw a normal story in a conventional style.” With drawing #1 for that story, maybe I succeed. But by panel #2, I’m completely lost, playing catch up. Then, as I keep going, trying to handle the mess I’ve made, I begin drawing something that has some importance to me, that feels personal and worthwhile. But if I ever allow myself to sit down and say, “I am going to draw this in an expressive manner,” that’s when things fall apart.
“Purposeful” child-like art is a sticky thing to discuss. Matisse is an intellectual and he can draw well… but his “crude” art doesn’t seem like a “choice” to me. It seemed like a style he came to after a lot of thought and work. I don’t think most innovative work that moves the viewer is that calculated. I think worthwhile experimental art often comes from trying to do something the right way and being unable to make it work, but sticking with it all the same.
I made Christina and Charles when I was 21 and drawing was much more stressful at the time than it is now. I would try for hours to get those drawings to look how I wanted them to. Now when I draw, I’m more content to see what happens. I have an ideal in mind of the tone of how I’d like things to look but I don’t mind if things go in a different way. I trust myself more now.
Blaise Larmee, when we were first getting to know each other in New York years ago, said something funny about Christina and Charles. He couldn’t understand how someone as chronically hard up for money as myself would start making art even less commercial than Christina and Charles. It’s still the book that most people who know my work know, but it seems like a dead end style to me. With my current work I feel like I can keep going forever in all kinds of directions.
DB: Well to me “a lot of thought and hard work” is partially about choice. A lot of thought and hard work can take you many directions, you have at least some choice which way it leads. If Christina and Charles is your best known work, people are really missing out on Windy Corner. I’ll probably get back to this later with another question, but rereading those three issues really re-enforced my conception of how great they are as a whole package. Not just your work but the work you gathered to accompany it (that Richard Hahn comic is one of my favorite comics ever).
Anyway, I’ve been rereading your works in chronological order, and it seems to be a movement into greater abstraction and more dense images. While “Life of Frances” in Windy Corner 1 is pretty close to Christina and Charles, by Windy Corner 3 “Life of Francis” looks like it’s a whole other artist. The figures have become large and dense, the space is flatter, the panels themselves are much more crowded compositionally, and you’ve added a variety of media. I guess, based on your previous answer, that this was just a result of a natural progression, but I’m still curious how you ended up there. Unlike most comic artists you seem to be pulling from outside comics themselves. I can’t trace your style to any comic precursors. Do you see yourself as working within any comics lineage?
AE: I do pull from outside of cartooning, but I also really love comics. On any day I can go from total frustration with comics to an absolute embrace of them. I think everyone is that way a bit. In the end, I just can’t shake comics–making them or reading them.
For about 5 years I was working full time at a really big New York comic store, Forbidden Planet. That store has everything… every DC Archive, every strip collection, every mainstream trade, all the old Fanta warehouse stock, tons of Last Gasp undergrounds. I was the minicomics and zine buyer and I had a carte blanche ordering budget. We had maybe 1,500 zines and minis in stock. I think the store may be different now as its been two year since I left, but that’s how it’s preserved in my head.
So… everyday I was surrounded by different kinds of drawing. And I just started feeling an affection for all of it. All those comics seemed to say, in mass, “there’s no one way to make a comic.” I love the way Lloyd Dangle draws and I love the way Blutch draws… and I love the way the weird guy off the street who dropped off his zine draws. And there it all is, vastly different but under the same roof.
But when you read about comics, there seems to be this persuasive attitude that there is a right way to do it. “Draw consistent looking characters in a simplified manner over the course of many pages.” I took that very seriously but I’ve struggled with it… when I made my first comic in 3rd grade, I drew my character on page one and I loved how he looked. Then I tried to draw him again and I just couldn’t redo it.
What I like in making drawings is coming up with something new each time. I love the freedom of drawing, following a line and seeing where it goes, then changing the line with different tools. I thought I had to keep this in check to make comics, but… as the variety of approaches that I would see in the comics store every day seeped into my head, I let go more and more of the feeling that I needed to make a “normal” comic. Christina and Charles is in many ways my stab at something normal, even though it probably doesn’t come across that way.
So when I would draw characters after Christina and Charles, I would increasingly give up on trying to make them recognizable from panel to panel, and instead draw them as I pleased each time. Somehow, as I let myself just draw what I wanted, the characters became thicker and stronger. Their eyes got to be big masses of black. Right now I’m drawing these big torsos with little arms attached on the top. I don’t know why… I didn’t set out to make arms like that. But, for now, I like drawing the arms that way so much.
I think the only “comics lineage” that matters is the one you make for yourself.
DB: Truly, as Borges says “every writer creates his own precursors.”
So, as you follow the line and see where it goes, do you redraw a lot? Your work seems to eschew the conventional pencil then ink form of comic making, which allows a certain leeway at the early stages for correction and editing (though much less so at the later stages). I guess I’m curious about your process and editing. Do you do scripts (or any kind of written version of the comic), thumbnails, layouts? Your drawing seems very intuitive, is the rest of the creation process, also? You mentioned a few times the issue of not liking something you’ve drawn as you went along trying to be consistent and more conventionally comic-styled: do you still have that problem when drawing the way you do now or have you completely changed how you think about the success or quality of any particular image?
AE: This will sound silly, but… I love how Mike Leigh makes his movies. He works with a group of actors, and they improvise scenes together. And then, through those improvisations, they work out a very focused script. They pick what’s best from the improvisations. I think Leigh said something about not liking improvisation for improvisation’s sake. He has a good bit about how its a way to work but he doesn’t believe in glorifying the improvisation as if there’s some kind of inherent truth in it. The meat of the thing is in the thought that goes into refining it.
That’s how I feel about free drawing sometimes. I love it as a means to an end… I have many sketchbooks full of free drawings that I’d feel funny about publishing.
Disgusting Room was drawn in pencil first and then inked with a G Nib (my favorite nib, which Megan Kelso introduced me to when I worked as her assistant). Then I’d add acrylic paint, watercolors, oil paint, fabrics, etc. Often times the pencil work I did would be completely obscured… but the pages I liked are the ones that I at least had a good pencil foundation to start with.
I’ve written comics a lot of different ways… and I think this is true for all cartoonists. No one seems to settle on one way. I’ll talk about my most comfortable writing process, the one I use for an idea that’s very precious to me.
For Disgusting Room I wanted to write a story with a small group of characters. Like a theater piece. I sat down and wrote a long synopsis of everything I wanted to happen in the story. And then I’d write two pages of script. But the dialogue, at that point, is just “sketched in.” I decide on the dialogue last.
So, then I’d draw those two pages. Then I’d write another two pages of script… in a way its like giving your “actors” (though I hate that analogy) new scenes every morning as they rehearse. But I don’t letter any of this really until all the drawing is done. That way I can change ideas and dialogue until the very last minute.
The writing is the most important part. I shoot myself in the foot at times because I also use the writing as an engine to come up with images–I think that weakens the thrust of the story at times–but I also think it puts a good burden on the images to do their part. Obviously I’m conflicted about this and making a muddled explanation of it.
To put it more simply: the characters and situations in Disgusting Room mean a great deal to me–and I think that’s where the strong thrust of the images comes from.
DB: Your comments about Mike Leigh make me think of Eric Rohmer (one of my favorite directors) who also puts a lot of the actors themselves into his films, letting their personalities and words work their way into his scripts as they film. Improvisation in comics hasn’t, to my mind, been very productive of interesting works. You end up with too much crap surrealism or pointless comics jams.
There are a couple pages in Disgusting Room where there are only pencils. Is that perhaps a case where you liked the pencils too much to cover them up?
It’s interesting that you consider the story an engine for images. I tend to work with structure and process and constraint as my engine for generating both story (if there is one) and image, where the story is often the last… byproduct of the process. You’ve done some autobiographical stories (in Windy Corner), are those stories similarly an engine for the images? Or is there more to it, in those cases? A number of them seem to be about art and your early (formative?) experiences with it.
AE: The story comes first. Probably because I think of fiction as the peak–the best art form. Fiction feels like the richest structure to make art with.
While I feel like I’m getting somewhere with my drawing–I feel like I’m expressing something that clicks with me at least–in terms of fiction writing I still feel like I’m at square one. It felt like a long process to go from trying to make drawings that felt like 1% of what I wanted to where I am now with drawing. But with writing… I know I’m not where I want to be… know I’m just scratching the surface. I feel like I got a lot closer with Disgusting Room, as it feels more like a consistent punch–less of a start and stop affair.
If I don’t have a story that is important to me, I feel like I’m wasting my time a bit. Those auto-bio pieces started to feel confining when compared to the rich (and more difficult) realm of fiction that I was always more interested in anyway. Every time I sit down to draw a comic, I’m setting aside time for it–budgeting out my life. Now I have the opportunity to do this piece of art–and I naturally want to spend that time with a story I believe in.
I let myself include things that were just pencil in Disgusting Room because I had a rule with the drawing that I was going to let myself do whatever I wanted to do. Other times I feel like I at least have to be consistent with the medium…but with Disgusting Room the agreement was that every page was mine to do whatever I pleased with.
DB: Reading various pieces of your writing on influences (in Windy Corner and that recent post at Inkstuds) children’s book illustrators come up frequently. Your stories, in their simple structures and writing style (lots of short sentences), seems to show some influence from that genre’s stories/writing, yet the stories themselves do not read like children’s stories. They don’t have the pat conclusions and morals I expect from children’s literature (though, I have never been a fan of children’s lit, even when I was a child). Though, there does seem to be an underlying concern with morals as seen through interpersonal relations and the basic way people treat each other. I hope I’m saying this right, as it’s something I’m having trouble putting into words, perhaps having not thought it through enough.
For instance in Disgusting Room, we see Margaret teaching Theo to read, despite his outward unpleasantness, and her husband(?) Bobby’s apparent dislike for him. And we see her struggling with the decision to take care of Nicky: “You think of yourself as kind. ‘I’m a kind person.’ You hum that to yourself endlessly! Now comes a real moment for goodness and look at you: doubled over, pathetic.”
And in “Life of Francis”, a lot of the story concerns people struggling with decisions and their treatment of each other. It’s like many of your characters are trying to figure out what’s right, what to do with themselves and other.
Am I making any sense? Does it ring true to you at all with your goals with your stories?
AE: You’re making perfect sense. I think I’m highly unsubtle with those things–how characters treat each other and my feelings on it–so I’m glad it doesn’t seem totally cut and dry.
I’d narrow down more what I’m interested in as being about how characters live alongside each other, how they share rooms or apartments. Every time I sit down to write a story, it often ends up being about that… I’ll try to write something broader in mind and it usually devolves into a story about people living side by side in close quarters.
I think most art that I have affection for is grounded in how characters treat each other. I’m a big admirer of Mervyn Peake, for instance. Now, for all the lush, imaginative writing as there is in Gormenghast–isn’t everyones favorite part how Fuschia interacts with Steerpike? Or Prunequallor and his sister? Gormenghast is grounded in these rich human exchanges–which I think augments the stranger elements to beautiful effect.
Something like El Topo is the same. These violent, absurd images coupled with all that wonderful stuff at the end–El Topo’s relationship to his son and the cave people. That end part is beautiful… who isn’t thrilled when they watch those bits? I think, combined with the absurd elements, works like that achieve this powerful authority.
There’s this bit at the end of Last Picture Show where Ruth Popper goes from shrill anger to really graceful compassion. I think that’s a valuable thing to express in art…comics never seem to show that gradation. I’ve always been moved by that in art and in people and I guess I’m always trying to do justice to it in my own art, through my own ham fisted methods.
DB: Now you’re referencing art I don’t know. I’ve heard of Peake/Gormenghast, but never read him. Though, looking at some descriptions of the trilogy, it looks like it’d be something I’d enjoy [Edit: I just started reading Titus Groane this past week]. I haven’t seen El Topo either (though I’ve read some of Jodorowsky’s comics). But I can understand the interest in the relationships as a core of a narrative even amidst fantastic or unusual settings. Just reading a summary of El Topo, makes me think of Koike and Gojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub, which despite all the fighting and bloodshed, is at heart about the relationship of the father and son.
This talk of sharing rooms, there seems to be a connection between the later part of “Life of Francis,” where she moves to the city to live with her boyfriend, and Disgusting Room where Nicky moves into a room with a strange roommate. These stories also repeat a theme of people in intimate quarters who don’t really know each other, a simultaneous intimacy and alienation. The way your images show the characters (abstracted, other hulking in size) and the spaces (crowded, flat) really works to add to that sense of estrangement.
Moving on a bit, so this doesn’t go on too long… The front of Disgusting Room shows a cast of characters and suggests that the reader “Note hairstyles to keep track of who’s who,” which I was delighted to see, because I was doing that exact thing in reading a lot of your previous work. You seem to be admitting here that the reader will have some difficulty differentiating characters and that contrary to most comics the consistent character design is not something you’re all that concerned with. That seems to be one major place where you break from conventional comics. Stylistic consistency is one of the defining traits readers seem to look for in comics, where “good art” means clarity and consistency. But I feel like I’m seeing more artists backing away from that conventional standard. Thoughts? (I realize there’s not really a question in there.)
AE: I think I see more of artists, when they’re just starting out, “backing away from the conventional standard” as you say. Probably because they are blissfully unaware of a conventional standard. I wish that they were allowed to stay unaware. Unfortunately, what seems to happen a lot is after that initial burst of unique, eccentric creation, I see the standard being subtly imposed on these artists. I can’t count how many distinctive cartoonists I’ve seen ending up doing straightforward comics.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. I believe that if you admire an artist, you give them the benefit of the doubt and follow them where they want to go. But it still feels odd–after Kramers Ergot #4 there seemed to be this moment where the tried and true ways of making comics wouldn’t be held so dearly anymore. Now, especially in avant-garde circles, they seem to be in a place of high regard again. I love genre comics, I like some corporate comics. But I don’t think they’re models that need to be followed. In film, the Cahiers du Cinema crowd loved George Cukor… but they didn’t make movies like him. They admired Cukor for his originality, for making personal films. That’s what they took away–not his commitment to the studio system or some such ideal. I think that Harlan Ellison quote is apt in a way: “Comics people choose the wrong heroes.” I’d change it to say “comics people tend to take away dubious lessons from their heroes.”
What I tried to do with Windy Corner, as an editor–and what I’m now trying to do on a different scale with Domino Books–is find artists that I felt were making powerful art and who didn’t fit into the normal idea of what art comics are. Every single artist I work with–my secret hope is that they go further and further in their distinctive direction, pushing their aesthetic as hard as they can. I think, without this kind of advocacy, the pressures (external or internal) to make comics the ‘normal way’ can be strong. I know Dylan Williams’ [of Sparkplug] early support for my work has been indescribably important to me. I think without that support, I’d have made very different choices with my art. I’m thankful that, due largely to his and others faith in what I was doing, that I’m making what I’m making. I think I’m obligated to pay that support back to artists I feel strongly about.
DB: Speaking of Windy Corner. Will we be seeing any more of them? Rereading the three issues before starting this interview, I was once again really impressed with the work in it and your editorial work on it. There are some great comics and articles in there. Does Domino Books represent a moving focus of your editorial interests? Can you tell me a little about your plans for Domino? And while I’m asking these questions, will we ever see the end of “Life of Francis”?
AE: Yes, I will do another Windy Corner. But right now I just feel overwhelmed with the amount of work I’m doing outside of it. Also, Dylan contributes so much work in design/editorial to Windy Corner. It’s a big undertaking, every issue, for each of us. And I think after #3 we both wanted to free ourselves up to focus on other things.
I’m currently working on a book of 8 short stories. The stories (one of which is Disgusting Room) will all be told in different mediums–one in lithographs, one in oil pants, one in graphite, etc. I’m working on it very intensely. But when that’s done it may be a good time to come back to Windy Corner. I have “Life of Francis” all worked out, and I want to draw it. And I want to work with artists again in that way.
I don’t have a nest egg for Domino, but I’m very committed to doing a lot with it in the next year. Sakura Maku’s book, which is out first project, is funded from me selling 12 original pages from Disgusting Room, as well as from working my day job (dishwasher here in Stockholm) and a fundraiser I had in Brooklyn two years ago.
It’s an important thing to me–two months ago I sold a large chunk original art to a collector, and I immediately decided to use it for Domino. My original plan was to save up as much as I could dishwashing, and publish the book much later in the year. But I was lucky to sell this work and do the book sooner–I believe in doing what you can when you have the opportunity to do it. Now the structure of Domino is in place and that makes me want to surge forward with it. Whatever small savings I make in my day job and my art will go directly to Domino. Right now I have enough saved up for two more projects that will come out over the next year. We will also be co-publishing a few books with individual artists.
Basically it will be, at the start, a publisher that puts out two comic books a year, and a committed distro. The distro will first focus on underground work here in Sweden. I also want to focus on art being made away from the comics world. Much of the worthwhile art I see is made by people who don’t go to shows, don’t put their stuff on the internet. I want to make books with those people.
We want to publish comics, 22-24 page comics, because I think that’s the most beautiful thing… a real comic. I keep hearing people say pamphlet comics are dead, which seems so silly. When where they alive, financially? When I got into comics, the best thing you could hope for was that Dan Clowes might write you a nice letter about your mini. It was all about making the work and thoughts of financial payoffs didn’t really enter into it. Now we just went through 5 years of money being a reality in comics–but I don’t think the attitude that came with that new money will prevail. I think the low economics nature of the comics “industry” allows us to not worry about whether pamphlets make money. They are wonderful and that’s why we are going to continue to make them. It’s their artistic potency we should focus on.
To paraphrase my credo for Domino: I’d much prefer a world where people sit down and try to bring the art that’s within them to the surface, rather then attaching widgets to gears for someone else’s benefit. I want to make books that will give readers yet another pressure put upon them to not ignore their innate creativity any longer.
DB: I look forward to seeing what you do with all those media (I did lithos in art school and found them too labor intensive for my purposes). After seeing the story in Windy Corner, I’m really excited to read the Sakura Maku book. I hope Domino is successful for you. And thanks for answering my questions.