Alex Dueben interviews Ho Che Anderson (Part One of Two)

Posted by on March 25th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Ho Che Anderson will likely always be associated with King, the three-volume biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was published by Fantagraphics in single-issue form between 1993-2002 before being collected in a single volume, and rereleased in hardcover this year. For some of us, our first introduction to Anderson’s work was a series of gritty urban relationship tales — Young Hoods in Love, I Want to Be Your Dog, Pop Life — a little more sexual and frank than most comics, with an expressionistic style defined by mood and lighting.

Sand and Fury: A Scream Queen Adventure is a horror/crime thriller featuring a contemporary banshee set in the American Southwest, a different book in a different setting for Anderson, but it doesn’t feel out of place in his oeuvre. It would have been interesting to see in what other directions Anderson’s work would have gone in — like his now abandoned Godhead project — but he discussed over e-mail why the book he’s currently working on will likely be his last.

ALEX DUBEN: I’m curious, how do you describe Sand and Fury?

HO CHE ANDERSON: Sand & Fury is an expansion of my 2005 short graphic novel Scream Queen. It’s a 140-page horror story about a banshee, an Irish spirit whose wailing under windows foretells a death in the house. This version of the story has grown to include a monster that challenges our protagonist just when she’s starting to get a handle on her new life. It was the first time I got the opportunity to draw a creature and it was a tremendous amount of fun.

What exactly is the relationship between Scream Queen and Sand and Fury?

If you’ve read Sand & Fury, you’ve read the original Scream Queen. The first version was a compact little story that featured an episode in the banshee’s existence not long after she became an angel of death. It was originally meant to be one story of many in an anthology book I was doing with my former partner Wilfred Santiago until our partnership dissolved. I had already finished the story when we split, so instead of letting all that work go to waste, I decided to publish it on its own. Then I got some flack for putting out such a slim volume after my previous book, King. I have to admit this kinda bugged me. Anyway, one thing led to another led to another and in 2007 I had an idea for it and decided to expand the story. What I ended up with is a three-chapter comic. Chapter One is the original story, Chapter Two is a kind of origin story that doesn’t really explain a damn thing, and Chapter Three picks up where chapter one left off and takes the nameless protagonist on a bloody new adventure. For me it was a nice antidote to King which was all about men sitting in rooms planning campaigns. This was more about women and movement and not so dependent on dialogue to tell a tale.

Where did this idea come from, this woman who is a contemporary bean sidhe?

The original inspirations came from music. When I was a teenager back in the ’80s I liked a band called Siouxsie and the Banshees. That was the first time I really remember hearing the word and I found the concept fascinating. Around the same time there was a song by Kate Bush called “Experiment IV,” about some scientists who were developing a sound that could kill, which was an idea I found incredibly disturbing. Those sources put the idea into my head. Around that time I wrote a 10-page story about a woman driving through the desert who could use her voice to kill. I never did anything with it but the concept stayed with me, as did my fascination with the American desert.

Then in the ’90s when I got together with Wilfred to do the doomed series Pop Life, I resurrected the idea and decided to do it as an ongoing serial that would last the length of the comic’s projected 30-issue run, which at the rate of a page or two per ish would have no doubt pissed off everyone who came into the contact with the thing. Of course we got cancelled after five issues so another great plan goes awry. It’s an inherently un-comic book idea, in that it relies on sound and as far as I know there is no sound in a comic book. It would work much better on the screen, but I didn’t have those tools available to me when I originally decided to do it.

When I wrote the second and third chapters, a true crime story that has sadly been floating around my head for a number of years filtered into the material. I saw a story on television once about a serial killer whose favored method of execution was a hammer to the skull. He’d snatch girls, take them out to the woods, make them perform oral sex on him and then he’d use the hammer and he did this over and over and over again, and I found the whole idea of dying alone at the hands of some maniac in the woods in the middle of the night horrifying and I hoped to find a way of exorcizing the image from my mind by inflicting it on the comic reading world…but I don’t think it’s really worked.

You call it an inherently un-comic idea because it revolves around sound, but the style in many of those scenes does change, becomes more abstract. I couldn’t help but feel it was your attempt at crafting a visual equivalent. How did you go about trying to find the right style for those scenes?

A visual equivalent is exactly right. But it’s not thought out to any particular degree. My stuff is entirely intuitive. When I came to those scenes where sound would have come into play, they just seemed to call out for a looser, more abstract vibe. I’ve been doing this kind of thing so long I don’t think about it anymore, my hands just seem to know what to do and I’m smart enough to get out of their way and let them do their thing.

How did you decide on the color palette for the book, a lot of black with splashes of red, and how does it complement the expressionistic style of the book?

S&F is a dark, disturbing tale, so the use of copious black seemed like a no-brainer. As for the splashes of red, I just thought it would look striking to do a black, white and red book, and that idea seemed to fit the tone and mood of this story. My first paying gig was a short Grendel story I drew for Matt Wagner that was done in black white and red—in fact the series it eventually appeared in was called Grendel: Black, White and Red—and the idea stuck with me all that time. Ninety percent of the time the red is used to delineate blood, which in itself says something about the nature of the story I’m telling, but occasionally I also use it as an accent on a scene, or to describe a character’s psychological state. I tried to use it sparingly, but it would be cool to do another story where I really went over-the-top in its use, just make the red kind of garish and overpowering.

I know Howard Chaykin was a big influence on you—me and everyone else who read The Comic Journal #300—but anyone else that stands out?

Why do I feel like you’re telling me I’ve gone overboard in my Chaykin-worship, sir? Yes, Chaykin was huge for me but he wasn’t the only one. I’ve been influenced by and stolen from hundreds of artists, probably thousands. I’m very, very receptive to strong work. When I was starting out and developing my creative sensibilities, there were a handful of comics creators that really formed the core. Chaykin obviously, but also Frank Miller, Los Bros Hernandez, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Kyle Baker.  I read Miller’s Ronin at 13 and was absolutely blown away by the thing as a narrative but also as an experiment and a treatise about what comics could be. With each issue Miller demolished every preconception I had about what comics were and became one of my great gurus. From Sienkiewicz I took a certain visual exuberance and a desire to become a painter and basically to experiment, to always reinvent myself. From the Bros I took a desire to tell stories that reflect our everyday existence, though I’ve stepped more and more away from that as I’ve gotten older.

But it didn’t stop at comics. I also drew very heavily from movies and novels and plays for inspiration. I idolized David Mamet and August Wilson and Tennessee Williams as playwrights. I’ve been studying and stealing from Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee and Oliver Stone and David Fincher and John Carpenter and James Cameron for years. I could write a hundred-page document about all the people I’ve been inspired by and stolen from. Right now I’m rereading Hergé, who was another huge influence when I was a kid. Hergé’s one of the people who made me want to draw comics in the first place.

Have you spent much time in the American Southwest? I’m just wondering where the idea for the setting came from, and how much of what we see was captured from your own impressions of the landscape?

I haven’t spent so much as a nanosecond in the Southwest, yet I’ve been fascinated by the setting my entire life. I couldn’t even tell you why, there’s something about the romance and the danger of the place that I find compelling. The closest I’ve ever come was staring down at the desert for a couple hours as I flew to and from Los Angeles in 2007, and even from the air the place amazed me. I changed planes in Phoenix and from the airport I looked out at the landscape and again, even in that setting the place felt epic, like the kind of setting stories should be told about. Our equivalent in Canada are the prairies and I have to tell you those plains don’t cry out for stories to be told in the same way to me. As a storyteller it would have been better for me to have been born in the States because my natural sensibilities seem to be more in line with that great behemoth than they are with my own country. Someday if I’ve ever got two pennies to rub together again I’m gonna take a trip out to the desert to see how much I got right and how much I got wrong.

The back of the book mostly cites non-comic influences or comparisons — Polanski, Argento, Lynch. How much of the influences on this book and the story were cinematic as opposed to comics?

I’ve always been highly, highly influenced by movies, as much if not more so than comics. There were certainly comic book influences on S&F, like Richard Sala’s work and also Richard Corben whom I’m a big fan of, and even a little Jason Lutes though it’d be difficult to see. But it’s true that the majority of the influences were cinematic, particularly Dario Argento and David Lynch. From Lynch I took the dark eroticism of something like Blue Velvet and the dream logic of something like Inland Empire. I’ve said before, if you examine my story based on real-world logic it falls apart pretty quickly, but it’s not supposed to operate under that framework, it’s more a waking dream than a logical narrative. From Argento I took a love of gore and theatrical violence, and also an examination of gender, which I’ve delved into before. I’ve always been curious about our fears of each other, women’s fear of men but more specifically men’s fear of women, and how our physical strength lends more destructive overtones to how our fear manifests.

Continue Reading: PART TWO

All images ©2010 Ho Che Anderson

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