TCJ 300 Conversations: David Mazzucchelli & Dash Shaw

Posted by on December 16th, 2009 at 2:17 AM

 

When it comes to conversations about the art of comics, you could hardly ask for a better intergenerational pairing than David Mazzucchelli and Dash Shaw. Mazzucchelli is known in the Direct Market for his collaborations on Daredevil and Batman with Frank Miller, in indy circles for his Rubber Blanket series, and in bookstores and libraries for his comics adaptation (along with Paul Karasik) of Paul Aster’s City of Glass. He recently released his first solo graphic novel about, as Charles Hatfield says in his review in this issue, “an intellectual run to ground.” The well-received Asterios Polyp manages to be both an impressively constructed work and a critique of the structuralist perspective. He even taught Shaw at the School of Visual Arts. Shaw, 26 years old, has had a meteoric rise to literary acclaim with the his formally ambitious 2008 graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button, which examines the impact a divorce has on a family — and led to a gig animating shorts for the Independent Film Channel, among other projects. The two grappled with color theory, art history and the cartooning possibilities for electronic media over coffee and horchata.

Transcribed by Brittany Kusa and Jessica Lona.

 

08-01


From Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, ©2009 David Mazzucchelli.


Dash Shaw:
When I think about your work, I feel like there is so much control. You’re someone who has such control over your hands that if I said, “Do layouts by this person, finishes by this person,” you could just sit down, and do it, and it would be correct. Do you ever wish you had less control, or that you could let loose? Or do you think that you are letting loose?

David Mazzucchelli:
That’s an interesting question, because I suspect that your impression of the control I have is probably much more than it actually is. For example, several years back I did four pages in this comic that Evan Dorkin wrote that were supposed to be in the style of Jack Kirby, and they came out OK, but it took me months to do that. To try to capture something of what Kirby had in those books, and even when I felt like I was finally getting it, I would open up a Jack Kirby comic, and be like, I’m still light-years away from what Jack was really getting.

Shaw:
But everything feels very calculated. Like if you’re doing Toth or something, it feels like maybe Toth’s looser. Like you’re a tighter version of Kirby when you were doing the Dorkin story. I feel like there’s a deliberateness to your line, and when you’re doing Rubber Blanket, in my mind you’re trying to bust out and get a little looser. And even in those, it’s a calculated looseness. Do you disagree with me?

Mazzucchelli:
I slightly disagree with your premise. I think I see what you’re seeing in my work, but for me, it’s not like I feel there is one natural way that I draw, and I am mutating it this way or that way for specific projects. I feel like I’m curious about all these different ways of drawing so I am trying to find an appropriate voice for each thing that I’m doing, and sometimes that veers towards certain artists, sometimes it veers towards other artists and sometimes it might be coming out of my own thoughts on how to express something.

Shaw:
No, I understand what you’re saying, but I feel like when David Sandlin or Gary Panter will look at someone and they’ll try to do them, it gets fed through this grinder of their hands, and I was thinking, “Does Mazzucchelli have a grinder?” But then I felt like the grinder was that it got tighter. I don’t see you just sitting down and doing a 24-hour comic.

Mazzucchelli:
No, I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do a 24-hour comic. [Laughs.] I feel like I’m busting out all the time, that’s the thing. I mean you’re seeing control and to me that’s just the way I work. There is a lot of thought that goes into what it is I’m trying to make, and how to approach it, and once I establish the territory that I want to work within, then I feel very free. Once I know these are the parameters I want to work with in this project, then I feel like I know the territory and I just go. Does that answer that? What about you? Do you feel like everything you do is all Dash Shaw?

Shaw:
No, I don’t think so. I feel like I have even less of a grinder than you. If I draw something, it’s really obvious what I’m taking from. Like Paulie Panther in BodyWorld is just like Dick Tracy. You know, it didn’t go through something.

Mazzucchelli:
That’s interesting. I recognized that Gould was in there, but it still looked like you. It’s a strange thing. For me, it’s all about being curious about what other artists do, especially artists whose sensibilities are different from mine, and so I am curious to try to figure out what they’re doing.

You’re using the terms “tight” and “loose.” Are you using these to describe different methods of drawing, i.e., “tight” is slower and more deliberate, and “loose” is more gestural and spontaneous? Or are you also talking about a way of thinking? Because if it’s the former, to me it’s just a difference in style, but both approaches are a means to an end: achieving a certain kind of expressive result. I’ve thrown paint (or ink) around as much as anybody—I don’t see that one way has an advantage over the other. My tendencies are toward planning and aiming at the final product however I need to get there.

I will say this about my process: I’m very interested in mark-making, and the way marks come together. If a mark goes down that’s not exactly where I wanted it, but it feels right, I’m inclined to leave it alone rather than “fix” it.

I like to think I’m tight in the way a good band is tight.

08-02


From Shaw’s “The Galactic Funnels” in Mome #11, ©2008 Dash Shaw.


Shaw:
Is that part of why you’ve spent so much time collaborating? Or was that a choice?

Mazzucchelli:
I would say initially it was a choice, insofar as I wanted to get into mainstream comics.

Shaw:
And those are collaborative.

Mazzucchelli:
They’re all collaborative. As a young artist trying to break in I didn’t present myself as an auteur. You know — writing and drawing whole works. I got in as a penciller. If you get in as a penciller, clearly you are going to be collaborative. The best you can hope is that you’re collaborating with good people. So that was by necessity of working within that milieu. And when I was doing that work, I always felt like: “One day I am going to be writing my own stories.” I thought maybe they would be within that genre. It didn’t occur to me that, after doing that for a little while, I would leave that genre.

Shaw:
Did you leave because you knocked it out of the park, or were you going to leave anyway, and it happened that you knocked it out of the park?

Mazzucchelli:
There’s another option: I didn’t know I was going to leave. I didn’t know I was going to knock it out of the park. Certainly once I had achieved those comics with Frank Miller, I had gotten to a point where I doubted I could go any further in that genre in a satisfying way. So it was actually difficult for me because I knew I still really liked comics, and I wanted to work in comics, but I wasn’t sure what to do.

Shaw:
And that’s when you did the Marvel Fanfare work. Was that in the middle of those thoughts?

Mazzucchelli:
Yep. Actually, after Batman, I did that. And that was sort of… you could see in that story that I was already getting away from superheroes. One of the reasons I did that story was because, although it had a superhero in it, he was a really minor character in the story.

Shaw:
This thing that you did, that sounds like it wasn’t planned, now all of these people are trying to recreate it in reverse. I would always tell people that I would really just like to do a mainstream comic, and that’s because I thought, “Well, Mazzucchelli did it really well,” and people now are looking at the work that you did and they’re trying to do it. I don’t feel that way any more. That was kind of how I was thinking when I got out of school, now I don’t really want to —

Mazzucchelli:
You don’t really need to try to work in mainstream comics. When I started my professional career, “mainstream” comics (superhero comics) were popular comics — popular as in “popular music.” Now, as I understand it, these comics don’t sell many more copies — if any — than other kinds of comics from other kinds of publishers. That actually redefines what “mainstream” is.

Shaw:
But then there is Paul Pope who went back and is doing Batman Year 100, you know?

Mazzucchelli:
I find it interesting how many so-called “alternative cartoonists” seem to work superhero and genre stuff into their comics.

Shaw:
Well, I think they do it because they like that genre.

Mazzucchelli:
Sure, right.

Shaw:
So, you don’t like that any more? Do you feel like, “been there, done that”? Because your work has myths in it. And it feels very big. It feels like it has a foundation in those kinds of comics. Especially “Big Man.”

08-03


This character in The Mother’s Mouth led Shaw to more character-driven work. ©2006 Dash Shaw.


Mazzucchelli:
“Big Man” turned out to be much more about the kinds of themes and ideas behind superhero comics than I ever thought it was going to, in retrospect. In retrospect, it seems like I’m commenting on superhero comics, and I didn’t intend to.

Shaw:
It feels like a superhero comic and an American short story.

Mazzucchelli:
I was thinking of it as a retelling of a fable, in a way. Trying to take a fairly straightforward fable-like story, one where — as far as the line of the plot, there probably wouldn’t be too many surprises — but what I was trying to do was see if I could invest it with something much more emotional that rang true. By using this armature of a fable… [Pause.] As far as the superhero thing goes, it’s not that I don’t like that kind of stuff. I’m not happy with the way that those stories are being told today.

Shaw:
In comics or in popular culture?

Mazzucchelli:
In the comics. The whole popular culture, the whole movie thing is just puzzling to me. [Laughter.] That this stuff is as popular as it is.

Shaw:
It’s crazy. Dark Knight is the No. 1 movie in the world, and I mean, that’s you. That’s Batman: Year One.

Mazzucchelli:
No, it’s Frank Miller.

Shaw:
I’ve heard you say that to people before, but it’s more you. Because Frank Miller is more of the big mythic stuff, you know, 300 and Dark Knight. Batman Begins, there’s a lot of you there. I don’t think you can say it’s all Frank Miller; I think it’s a lot of you. Your execution took the superhero genre and gave it a realism that Miller’s work lacks, and that reality is what’s in Batman Begins.

Mazzucchelli:
Whatever.

Shaw:
OK. When Batman Begins was packaged for DVD there was a documentary included, where you’re mentioned but don’t appear. Were you asked to appear? Also, there was a small pamphlet of “comics that inspired the movie” but Batman: Year One isn’t in the pamphlet. Were you asked about putting that in the pamphlet? They probably wouldn’t have to ask you, but it seemed strange it was excluded.

Mazzucchelli:
DC doesn’t really have to ask me about anything, since they own the rights to everything I did for them, but they’ve been pretty good about recognizing me and including me in some decision-making, certainly better than some other publishers. They even went along with my idea for the diagonal dustjacket on the “deluxe” Batman: Year One — which I thought Chip Kidd made work wonderfully, even though some people hated it. As for the DVD, I honestly can’t remember if they asked me to be on that or not, though I wouldn’t have wanted to, anyway. I’ve never seen the pamphlet you mentioned.

The tone and the atmosphere is really Miller, much more than me, and I think still, more than Year One. But, what’s just puzzling about the whole thing is, it seems very clear to me that superhero comics, where you’ve got people dressed up in costumes with boots and capes and superpowers, is children’s comics. And I don’t think there is any reason for people to have a problem with that.

08-04


Panel from “Discovering America” in Rubber Blanket #2, ©1992 David Mazzucchelli.


Shaw:
Are you conscious about your comics being American? And what does an American comic mean to you? I’m kind of changing gears, because I don’t want to talk about superheroes any more.

Mazzucchelli:
That’s perfectly fine with me. I would say when I am making my comics, I never think about that, but when I look back on them, they seem very American to me.

Shaw:
Because for me it seems like you’re thinking about American comics as being an amalgamation or a melting pot or a salad bowl, of all of these other European or Japanese comics and American comics together. I thought that you were thinking about that. But it’s more that you just like all those other comics and are interested in America. Or maybe you’re not interested. You can’t tell me that you’re not interested in America.

Mazzucchelli:
I’m very interested in America. In fact the most important thing about America, the thing that interests me the most, is exactly what you’re talking about, the fact that it is made up of many different cultures. I think that’s the saving grace of America. I’m not sure that I feel like I am overtly trying to allude to that in my comics, but it probably does come up in the way that you’re saying.

Shaw:
But that is what you’re doing.

Mazzucchelli:
Well, because my influences are many and varied, and they come from different cultures, and I am putting it together. You know, other people have talked to me about my storytelling. Let’s talk about “Big Man” again for a minute. When I think about that story, I think about how much I felt I was influenced by Jack Kirby when I was making it. And I have mentioned that to people and they say that the storytelling isn’t anything like Kirby, and when I go back and look at it, I see that they’re right — that the storytelling isn’t anything like Jack Kirby at all, that the influence has maybe come from different kinds of comics, or books and movies — but there is still something Kirby-ish about it to me. With you, is it the same kind of thing, though.

Shaw:
You can’t just toss ‘em back. [Laughs.]

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