TCJ 300 Conversations: David Mazzucchelli & Dash Shaw

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

 

Shaw:
This is a really weird question. Do you feel like you spent a lot of your youth holed up and that you wanted to do something social? ‘Cause you were doing those comics right out of school.

Mazzucchelli:
Yes, but aside from just making comics when I was younger — I mean the music didn’t come out of nowhere — I also did play music and do other things when I was a kid, before I got out of college, when I had free time to do such things. So it wasn’t like I felt holed-up completely all the time. But it’s a different thing; it was an interest that I always had, and I wasn’t able to focus on it while I was doing monthly comics. And I am still interested in music. I would still like to do something, maybe like doing animation or something bringing the two together. Bringing the image-making, the story, and sound, which is something you don’t have in comics. That’d be interesting.

That brings me to another thing about comics: To me comics is more unlike film than it is like film, which is why I dislike when people make that comparison. It’s a reading form. It all happens in your head. All of the illusion of time passing and things happening is just because of the way you put pictures together and words with them, and the reader has to assemble it all, and can read it any way that he or she wants to. Read the page any way, flip back though the pages —

08-22


From Asterios Polyp, ©2009 David Mazzucchelli.


Shaw:
A lot of times I have that initial reading experience and then I spend more time with it afterwards as it just being an art object or a monograph of nice drawings. [There are] some comics that I’ve carried with me everywhere and I don’t remember the first time I read them. That’s something that I really like about comics more than normal books. Normal all-word-books I just read them and I feel like I don’t have to own them.

This is like thinking about a reader, but in a different way: Do you think of your work as being socially conscious, or do you want it to have a positive effect on humanity? That sounds maybe too grand, but —

Mazzucchelli:
No, I know what you’re saying. I wouldn’t phrase it like that, but I would say that there are ideas and, for lack of a better word, issues that concern me as a person, as a citizen, a citizen of the world, that I’m sure get into my work. Either consciously or unconsciously, and if it’s consciously, then I try to let whatever that is be part of the story, and not necessarily stand out as, “Look at me, I’m an issue!”

Shaw:
But you don’t want to hide it if it’s on your mind.

Mazzucchelli:
I don’t want to hide it if it’s on my mind. But nobody wants to be preached to, and I’m very conscious of not wanting to seem like I have something to tell the reader. You know, most of my work is about exploring questions rather than trying to say, “Here’s a few answers for ya.” Does that answer that?

Shaw:
I think so. I think you just saying anything after I ask the question is going to be revealing somehow —

Mazzucchelli:
Pretty much answers it! [Laughs.] Is that something you think about with your work? Do you have a social agenda?

Shaw:
I don’t think so.

Mazzucchelli:
You’re not trying to develop a cult of Shavian thought?

Shaw:
No. I always just thought maybe me doing my thing is a good example: just me drawing my comic, because it’s not hurting anybody.

Mazzucchelli:
As far as I know it’s not hurting anybody. And that’s a good thing. That’s a good place to start. First, do no harm.

Shaw:
No, but I don’t think about communicating a particular message. Does it seem like I am or something? It probably looks like I’m actively not. I’m just dickin’ around.

Mazzucchelli:
Yeah, you’re just dickin’ around! There is a lot in your work — you come back to themes of different ways of experiencing the physical world. That’s one way of putting it. Whether it’s through drugs or other kinds of experiences, that’s something that gets into your stories a lot, it seems to me. Is that just something that you happen to be interested in, or —?

Shaw:
I like the body, you know. I like feeling things in my body.

Mazzucchelli:
Yeah — unlike most people. [Laughs.]

Shaw:
Well, when I’m at the drawing board, I want to be transported to this other place, and part of that is kind of being inside another person’s body. And I think that extends to all kinds of things. Like, maybe character development — instead of it being the person’s mind that you’re in, you’re in their body, and then maybe the physicality of things — like, if you do a really nice drawing of someone, that should count as good character development in comics.

Mazzucchelli:
Oh yeah, sure. I agree with that. In some cases a “really nice drawing of someone” could be just a gratuitously fancy rendering, and in other cases could “count as good character development,” but it’s awfully hard to articulate the difference between the two. And that’s without even getting into what we mean by “really nice drawing.”

Shaw:
Well, if you want to get into what a “really nice drawing” is, I want to hear what you say.

08-23


From BodyWorld, ©2009 Dash Shaw.


Mazzucchelli:
The definition of drawing that still works best for me is from one of my high-school art teachers — an organization of marks on a page. So if we just put the words “really nice” at the beginning of that, then everyone will be in agreement.

Shaw:
So that’s kind of about bodies and physical things.

Mazzucchelli:
Right. But it’s the idea of being inside someone else, and not to get all art-historical or anything —

Shaw:
You can get art-historical. I would like that, maybe.

Mazzucchelli:
Don’t you think that maybe that also happens when someone else is reading something that you have made?

Shaw:
Maybe they’re in my body?

Mazzucchelli:
They’re re-experiencing some of the thought process that you put into it, in the first place.

Shaw:
I think so. I mean sometimes I’ll look at a drawing that someone has made, and I kind of imagine my hand making those marks. That happens a lot. So, yeah. I don’t know if that answers your question?

Mazzucchelli:
Yeah… [Pause.] I’m still thinking about that idea. The kind of the mind-altering elements of what you do. I think that there’s a lot of science-fiction elements in your work that, to me, seem less concerned with the science part than with imagining this possible scenario or possible experience that characters could have that doesn’t exist yet.

Shaw:
Well, I started doing that because I wanted to do something about telepathy. And so then you’re automatically in science fiction. I’m not a big science-fiction fan although I like some science fiction. I’ve basically stopped doing science-fiction comics since finishing BodyWorld. I’m doing other things now.

I don’t really feel attached to a particular genre, like the family story. I wanted to think about characters and so then I thought a family story would be a good way to dive into characters. And then I thought telepathy would be a good subject to explore thought. But I wasn’t thinking, “That’s kind of like a sci-fi comic, I’ll do one of those now!” I’m not like a sci-fi dude the way some cartoonists are married to a genre. And I don’t think that you’re a dude of any particular —

Mazzucchelli:
I’m not a dude of any kind. [Laughs.] How important is character to you, when you’re coming up with a story? Because I think I’ve heard you say things in the past about not being so interested in characters.

Shaw:
I got into them through being interested in character designs. And I think it’s maybe what I thought a character-driven comic would be like. So, it’s a little off the mark maybe —

Mazzucchelli:
It’s pretty good. You’re more interested in characters now.

Shaw:
What about you?

Mazzucchelli:
I would say I had a similar path. If you look at some of my earlier short pieces, they’re probably more based on some story idea than specifically on the characters. I tried to make the characters feel alive within them, but I think it wasn’t until doing a really long piece of work that I was able to feel like I was actually exploring character.

08-25


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


Shaw:
Yeah, that was something that really hit me, too. When I was doing The Mother’s Mouth, it was like 100 pages, and they’re really open pages. That was when it first happened because I really liked the character designs.

Mazzucchelli:
There was that librarian with the big eyes, right? Was that Mother’s Mouth?

Shaw:
The scrawny guy with the really fat woman. They were drawn differently. And I really liked them as a Laurel and Hardy team or something. But I didn’t really know anything about the characters. It was just more about appearances. And then I really liked them and I wished I would have gotten more into them, so that’s what led to me doing a more character-driven comic. And then on top of that, it felt weird to do — obviously I could have done it if the storytelling style was [done] differently, but 100 pages felt like a long short story for me. And then it feels weird even now to have a book of it, because it just should have been in an anthology of longer short stories.

Mazzucchelli:
But that’s that interesting thing about the pacing of comics. If you want a page to do a certain thing, it can do it. You can compress a lot into a page, or you can open it way up. And the number of pages in a comic doesn’t correspond to pages of prose, in any way. Sometimes it feels like 100 pages can be a lot, or it can feel somehow like, “Why isn’t there more here?” It’s funny. It’s just a different form.

I actually had a weird experience, and I didn’t expect this at all, but when I was drawing the last pages of Asterios Polyp I started getting sad that I wasn’t going to be dealing with these characters anymore. And I remembered Charles Schulz toward the end of his life, getting all teary about Charlie Brown and thinking how —

Shaw:
It is weird.

Mazzucchelli:
It really moved me that he was getting so emotional about it, but I thought, it makes sense: he’s been living with these characters for 50 years. But for me, doing something much less intense, to still feel like I’ve been living with these characters for several years —

Shaw:
You’ve spent a lot of time —

Mazzucchelli:
I feel like I really know them now. And then to say goodbye to them was more strange than I would have expected.

Shaw:
Yeah. That’s why the ending of Bottomless is just the people going away.

Mazzucchelli:
Because you’re saying goodbye to them as well.

Shaw:
I was drawing them a lot, and I had to leave. I had to wrap up the book. Do you think about what your characters do after the book is done?

Mazzucchelli:
I don’t think about it.

Shaw:
I don’t think that either.

Mazzucchelli:
But, it’s funny. I remember getting some fan mail about “Big Man,” where people were asking things like, “Are we gonna see the Big Man again?” and it would never occur to me that we would see the Big Man again! You know? That’s done.

Shaw:
But people like the characters, too.

Mazzucchelli:
I guess, yes. And especially, I think within comics, too, we are used to this serial format, where you see something, and then you see the characters again, and then you see the characters again. There’s something that I’m finding more interesting about that now. I’m feeling like maybe I need some characters that I can keep coming back to, and check in on. And have them living alongside me, in a way.

Shaw:
Do a daily comic.

Mazzucchelli:
That’s right, I’ll do a daily comic. Easy!

Shaw:
[Laughter.] Start tomorrow.

08-26


Color marks the battle of the sexes in Asterios Polyp, ©2009 David Mazzucchelli.


Mazzucchelli:
Getting back to format and BodyWorld, again, the fact that you presented the whole thing online first: I know you probably were thinking about it being a book, eventually, but do you see online comics as being equally viable to printed books? Supplanting printed books? Just a different way of experiencing —

Shaw:
Yeah. It’s just a different thing that runs alongside, you know? I don’t think that one is going to beat the other or anything.

But the weekly format — looking at it now — it would have been nice if I had done something that couldn’t be translated into a printed book. That would be so pure to the webcomic medium! [laughs]

Mazzucchelli:
Right.

Shaw:
BodyWorld will be a vertical-format book. And that basically covers it. It can translate very easily, easier than I thought. I still really like the webcomic version of it. Although, I see it on some monitors that make it look really awful.

Mazzucchelli:
Oh really?

Shaw:
People have their monitors set to all of these different things. So I don’t like that lack of control, but I definitely like the medium, and I like it that it’s free, and it’s just interesting that someone could hear about it, and immediately read it. I like that. And I would like that to be my experience with other things.

Mazzucchelli:
You want a lot of free stuff. [Laughter.]

Shaw:
But as I’m doing these animations for IFC, I am thinking about comic/animations combinations that can exist online, or things that are somewhere between comics and animation: just exciting little areas. I like getting into formal properties of things.

Mazzucchelli:
The specifics of whatever the medium you’re working in.

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