TCJ 300 Conversations: David Mazzucchelli & Dash Shaw

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

 

Shaw:
Hey, wait: Did you make zines or photocopied comics in high school?

Mazzucchelli:
I made lots of pages of comics when I was a teenager, and mercifully, few of them were ever published. I did belong to a fan collective for a little while, and had some of my drawings published in other people’s zines. (And by the way, back then, photocopiers were nowhere near as good as they are today.)

It’s not like you start a story without a plan, and just go forward, right?

08-11


From Shaw’s manga proposal, ©2009 Dash Shaw.


Shaw:
But I think my comics are more readable than it sounds like you think they are.

Mazzucchelli:
No, no, no. I never said your comics were not readable. I was just asking you if it’s something that comes into your process as you’re putting together a story. When you’re devising a whole story — when you say I’ve got this character and this scenario or this world that I want to create — before you start making it, or once you start building a scene, or building a chapter, are you thinking about how this progression of panels is going to make sense to somebody reading it? When you make decisions about “if I change the point of view here, or if I introduce a new character, or if I change the scene,” is there any thought that comes into your mind about: “Will the reader be able to follow this? Or will it just seem like some random switch?”

Shaw:
I think that in general they make sense. I don’t know. I also don’t have a lot of interaction. This is kind of unusual, too, because you started off with a lot of readers, working in mainstream comics, and then they just piled on.

Mazzucchelli:
And then they left. [Laughs.]

Shaw:
I never really had a lot of readers. And I’d be fine with losing some readers. In my experience, whenever I thought about the reader, I made bad comics and nobody read them, and when I stopped caring, I started getting more readers. But a lot of readers for me is nothing compared to what you’ve experienced.

Mazzucchelli:
Yeah, I’m a regular Stephen King.

Shaw:
I stand by what I said. You can’t see it, I think. You started very young and stayed under a spotlight producing great work. And, obviously, with the Miller work, it was a unique time in the industry. You’re a very unusual person in the comics world. It’s rare for someone to transition from “mainstream” work to “alternative” work with accolades on both ends, and it’s rare for a high reputation to have been created on such a slim, scattered body of work. It’s just that everything you’ve done has had such staying power. When I read the press release for Polyp and it said it was your “debut novel” I was like: “Oh, wait, yeah…” It was a mindfuck!

Mazzucchelli:
I’m going to tell Pantheon to use that in their promotional material.

Shaw:
I never had people saying, “This doesn’t make sense.” I only had you, as a teacher, who said that to me. [Laughs.] You’re the only one who told me.

Mazzucchelli:
And did you listen to me? [Laughs.] Did it make sense to you when I said that, or did you just think I was crazy? About 50/50, right?

Shaw:
Well, I don’t know. I think my comics make sense.

Mazzucchelli:
That’s good, that’s good. I think mine make sense too, sometimes in ways that are not necessarily easy to explain. It has to make sense to you.

Shaw:
I don’t just do some random drawing.

Mazzucchelli:
No, no, no. You’re acting like I’m accusing you of something. I was just wondering. When you start to draw a page or draw a scene, if it’s just coming out “this is gonna be interesting,” or do you change a panel because you think, “Maybe that’s not clear enough, what I was just trying to show. Maybe I should show this a different way, or maybe I should add another panel to make this clearer.”

Shaw:
I can’t remember a time that I’ve done that.

08-13


An example of manga’s influence on Shaw’s earlier work, from Love Eats Brains!, ©2004 Dash Shaw.


Mazzucchelli:
Do you not see any value in revision or second drafts?

Shaw:
This month I’ve been working on a cover for a short-story collection, and I’ve done full versions of it five times, so I definitely revise and do second drafts, but it’s not because I’m thinking, “This needs to be clearer.” It’s because I just didn’t like it and I work on it until I arrive at something I like. In BodyWorld, I’m not thinking, “What’s the clearest way to explain telepathy?” I’m thinking, “What’s the most accurate way to record how telepathy would work?”

Mazzucchelli:
They sound like essentially the same thing to me. And although you may not be consciously thinking, “This needs to be clearer,” I wonder if your internal criteria — whatever it is that makes you “like” what you’ve done or not — may on some level have to do with whether or not you feel a piece is expressing what you want it to—that is, whether or not it’s communicating something to you (and therefore to a potential reader).

Shaw:
Also, a lot of times, I’m the only person looking at the work until it’s published.

Mazzucchelli:
Well, me too. So there is a point where you have to trust yourself.

Shaw:
Maybe I shouldn’t be trusting.

Mazzucchelli:
No. Actually, if you want to go back to the work you were doing when I first met you, maybe I was telling you, “Are you sure this is the way you want to put it down?” I think you were trying a lot of very complex things.

Shaw:
It wasn’t random.

Mazzucchelli:
I know it wasn’t random, but I think you were trying a lot of complex things that were sometimes working and sometimes not working as far as communicating as clearly as it could, and I think the work you are doing now is much clearer in that regard. I mean, in BodyWorld, the progressions and the scenes and the way you set it up — formally it’s very clear. The ideas and the storyline are very complex, but I don’t think there is any problem reading from panel to panel to panel.

Shaw:
Well, that’s good. What gets you really psyched to draw? Do you get really pumped up to draw comics?

Mazzucchelli:
I do. I mean, that’s basically the only drawing I do, is drawing comics.

Shaw:
I remember you told me once that you like to do observational drawing.

Mazzucchelli:
I did once. [Laughs.] Well, more than once. I still do some observational drawing, but the subjects have changed. I used to like drawing the human figure and architectural forms, and now I’m much more interested in things like trees and cats.

I’ve gotten much more interested in — we’ll call it cartooning, or the idea of much more stylized ways of —

Shaw:
Broader?

Mazzucchelli:
Not broader necessarily, it’s stylized ways of seeing things and depicting things, whether it’s simplifying — which has always been one of my major concerns — or finding interesting combinations of marks to represent something differently from the way you would draw it, say, from observation. I mean, drawing from observation is great because it gives you a real sense of the world and the way things fit together and the structures of things, but once you start to feel like you’ve got that in your head, it’s very interesting to then distill it into something more stylized.

08-14


From Love Eats Brains!, ©2004 Dash Shaw.


Shaw:
Did you do comics before Polyp that weren’t published? And do you work on a lot of comics that you decide not to publish?

Mazzucchelli:
Before Asterios Polyp… I had a couple of false starts on some short pieces that never got finished for one reason or another, but mostly it was a lot of preparatory work for that and just working on that book.

Shaw:
And then now, you’re just preparing something else?

Mazzucchelli:
Now, yes: something else, exactly. I have another idea for a book.

Shaw:
So you don’t produce short stories —

Mazzucchelli:
Actually, I would like to do that now that I’ve finished this big book. I actually would like to. There is another big book that I will probably get into starting this year, but at the same time I would actually like to try doing some shorter pieces, that don’t require the same degree of engagement over a long haul that a book-long piece requires. And that’s always a chance to experiment — doing shorter pieces — with a kind of storytelling or a kind of style or presentation.

Shaw:
So a lot of cartooning for you is preparing, or do you do a finished page for an idea, and then, that’s now a finished comic? Or do you think that, “This page that I did — I’m going to use what I did here for something different.”

Mazzucchelli:
Oh, I almost never finish a page, unless it’s part of a longer project.

Shaw:
OK, I guess that’s my question.

Mazzucchelli:
Although, again, that’s something that I actually might try to get away from — the kind of long-term planning that a book requires — to maybe do something a little bit more improvisational. Do a page and then do another page and then see where that goes, and then that will probably never get published. ‘Cause it will probably be a mess.

Shaw:
OK.

Mazzucchelli:
[Laughs.] But it’d be interesting to try. I have a question for you. Let’s talk about the grid: How important is the grid to you?

Shaw:
Well, I started doing the grid because what I was doing in your class, I felt — you said it was a little all over the place, and I kind of agreed. And so I thought a grid would be a way to focus my energy. And then with BodyWorld, it’s more explicitly referencing animation or seeing a filmstrip laid out.

Mazzucchelli:
In what way?

Shaw:
Well, a lot of it’s the same angle, and it’s the same size and it’s done with acetate, like animation backgrounds, and so I feel like I can just do panel, panel, panel, panel, panel, until the end of the chapter and then the panels stop in the middle of the page. ‘Cause what I was doing when I was in class was a lot of dealing with facing pages, page properties and page turns, and all of these tech-y things, and I wanted to go the opposite way from that and just tell a story in a stream of panels. And so those are automatically a grid.

08-15


From Paul Aster’s City of Glass, as adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli ©2004 Paul Aster, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli.


Mazzucchelli:
It’s interesting that you think of it more as animation, where what you’re describing sounds more like early comics, also, with the kind of stage-like presentation.

Shaw:
Yeah. Well, that too.

Mazzucchelli:
That too, exactly: But what also intrigues me is what you just said about how you used to think about the facing pages or the page turn, things that I think about all of the time because I’m still thinking about book format.

Shaw:
I’m starting to think about it again. But, I felt like it was creating a lot of weird crazy problems in my head. [Laughs.]

Mazzucchelli:
That were getting you away from something you wanted it to be?

Shaw:
Yeah. Sometimes I couldn’t have more than one kind of scene or thing on a page, you know. And so you end up with a lot of pages with three panels running along the bottom. But I think I can go back to it now and be better at it. I’m starting to work on things again, printing it on thinner paper, so I can play with the relationships with the front and the back of the page on top of the spreads. Before it was keeping me away from storytelling, and now I can go back —

Mazzucchelli:
In BodyWorld, if I remember correctly, almost all the panels are the same size?

Shaw:
Yeah, the panels get larger as the story goes, but it starts with four-tier.

Mazzucchelli:
Four-tier, so you do have a place where you consider a page as a break?

Shaw:
That’s just the size of what I draw. That’s like a physical page that I drew it on.

Mazzucchelli:
Right. For the benefit of those reading the discussion here, BodyWorld is online, as a long scroll-down. You wouldn’t know to read it going down, but there is an end-of-a-page and a beginning-of-a-page.

Shaw:
Right, but since I drew it on the page, a lot of time things turn out being 12 panels long, and then that’s the end of that scene.

Mazzucchelli:
Right.

Shaw:
So when it’s printed, you’ll be able to see that affected what I drew, but I tried not to think about it. I tried even not to care that something was the end of a tier. I wanted to be able to just swap in panels, but I also broke that rule too. ‘Cause I would do “Carl Barks” things where the people are walking, like if I have someone walking —

Mazzucchelli:
At the end of one tier, they’re looking back, so that [it leads you] to the next tier.

08-16


From Shaw’s “Echo and Narcissus,” ©2004 Dash Shaw.


Shaw:
Yeah, I would just do those things naturally.

Mazzucchelli:
Right, it’s just ingrained. The reason I’m thinking about this, too, is when I think about the form of comics and what to me makes comics unique as a medium, one of the most important things to me is that you’ve got multiple images on the same page. If you have one image on a page, on every page, I would call that a picture book; when you have more than one image on a page appearing at the same time in your field of vision, that, to me, is comics. And I think that’s a very interesting aspect of comics because when you have a number of panels on a single page, the reader can read them in the order they are intended to be read, but can also see all of them at once, and move around the page, so as the artist you can create a page or a two-page sequence that encompasses something —

Shaw:
More than the sum of its parts?

Mazzucchelli:
Right. And more than just the single panel. So when you’re talking about being able to use panels that are the same size, so that you can think of them as a mass of individual units that you —

Shaw:
More like when you look at a whole page of text — maybe the space between the words forms a skull or something — [Mazzucchelli laughs.] But usually it’s just nothing. But that’s what I wanted to do for BodyWorld. Bottomless and other things —

Mazzucchelli:
Well, Bottomless is clearly designed as spreads. But how far do you take that? I’m thinking of this thing I read online; some genius was trying to defend reading comics that are formatted for the cell phone and saying that it was superior to print comics, because you were able to see one panel at a time, as the artist intended!

Shaw:
[Laughter.] Right, right. That’s funny.

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