TCJ 300 Conversations: David Mazzucchelli & Dash Shaw

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

 

Shaw:
I did this Torture Hospital print, you know, it has torn edges. So, I think when you hold it in your hands it feels really different than when you get a mass-produced item, and then it has paint that sits a little up from the surface. You can do that on a print of 40. It took me a long time to really understand the difference between something reproduced and an original. An embarrassingly long time.

I went to an art magnet high school, in Virginia, so we would look at all of the reproductions of different prints in class, and then we’d go to D.C. and see something in a museum and it felt like, “Oh, there’s that Matisse from that book.” And then you walk by and you have 3 million other things to see that day, because that’s just how you experience museums. It wasn’t until I got out of SVA and then moved back here, and started to casually go to museums, that I noticed that scale was important. [Laughter.] It took me a long time!

Mazzucchelli:
“Wow, the color looks really different in person.”

08-28


From “CMYK” in Mome #13, ©2008 Dash Shaw.


Shaw:
David Hockney would talk about how every artist has postcards of their favorite art, and that they really spend a lot of time with that postcard. But now with the computer, I feel like if I want to go see something in Chelsea, I see it online first.

Mazzucchelli:
One example that really stands out in my mind, two examples that stand out in my mind, from when I was younger and traveling in Europe: When you see, for example, the Giotto paintings, in Padua at the Scrovegni Chapel… when you see those in the context of the chapel that they’re in —

Shaw:
It’s totally different.

Mazzucchelli:
— and, the particular blue that he got in those paintings, it’s such a different experience from looking at even the best reproductions in books.

Shaw:
I know, because those are designed to be seen at certain angles.

Mazzucchelli:
Exactly. It really struck me, traveling from place to place, seeing things. The other thing I’m thinking of is the Villa of Mysteries, in Pompeii. Again, you see reproductions of it all the time, but until you’re in the room and looking at these things on the wall — the beautiful surface of the walls, where it almost looks like…like marble. It’s painted, but it’s hard to know what it was painted with.

Shaw:
People don’t get that a still image can be like installation art.

Mazzucchelli:
Right. Or that certain things were made for specific environments, and to see them in their environment is very different from seeing them isolated, whether it’s in a museum setting, or reproductions. But it just doesn’t give you the same feeling. And I think that even in mass-produced work, like you and I do, it’s something to think about.

You know, I worked for years for Marvel and DC, companies where you had very little say over the format in which your work was going to be presented. They had a specific format, and specific paper, and this is how they did it, and you designed your work to fit into that format. But when I got away from that I realized that I could make all of those decisions, if I were to publish my own work, or if I were fortunate enough to be working with a publisher who could accommodate the different things I had in mind. So it’s choosing paper, and the size of the book, and what kind of binding it’s going to have, and what it’s going to feel like in the hands of someone reading it. All of that creates a context as well.

Shaw:
Yeah, it’s a whole environment. Because something great about comics is that you can get into another environment, even more than just a still image, for me personally. A lot of times I look at a still image, and then I can look away. A comic I feel like I really am in there, for a time.

Mazzucchelli:
A good one.

Shaw:
A good one, yeah. A good comic.

Mazzucchelli:
Yeah, it’s nice being transported. As a maker of comics, how steeped in comics history are you? Do you really know a lot of stuff, do you feel like you really know the history, different artists, who is important when, and…?

Shaw:
I think definitely if you read my comics, you [David Mazzucchelli] can tell that I’m really interested in comics history.

Mazzucchelli:
I can see that. I guess I’m asking because you said at some points when you’re drawing, there are all these different influences coming in. Do you feel that that’s helpful to have that history, to know what’s gone before or what other people have attempted?

08-29


From “The Train” in Mome #12, ©2008 Dash Shaw.


Shaw:
My girlfriend does animation, but when she draws she just sits down and draws. When she isn’t drawing, she’d rather be playing The Sims, or doing something that isn’t related to drawing. But for me, it’s my personality. When I’m not drawing comics, I’m thinking about comics and reading comics, or looking at drawings on the Internet. And so I am forced into being someone who knows a lot about comics and art history, and who also is making it. I am a little bit envious of someone who maybe can just do it and isn’t that interested in the history.

And I don’t know how much of an advantage it is because I think it does create problems. I guess it doesn’t even matter if it’s good or not, ’cause I’m stuck with it. But I think there’s so much visual culture that I can get into, and there’s so much that has happened, and so much that’s happening at this moment while we’re recording this interview, that it’s almost so much that there’s nothing. You know?

Mazzucchelli:
[Laughter.] It all cancels each other out.

Shaw:
I don’t think it’s gonna create any problems in my thought. American comics has this really weird history. When it’s taught in colleges, I don’t think there’s another medium where the history was so — well, I don’t wanna say that because I don’t know that much about other mediums — but a lot of the greats in comic history were people satisfying an assignment that was specific to that time. So, I was going to say I don’t know if that’s as true with literature, because, from my perspective, it isn’t as true… but then I was reading this New Yorker article that just came out that said Edgar Allan Poe wrote mysteries because that was what was popular at his time. But for me comics has a really weird history.

Mazzucchelli:
I think it’s interesting that all of us trying to make indy comics, literary comics, art-comics — whatever you want to call them — still, the people we all look at as the masters were people who were doing commercial work on a deadline, whether it was daily or weekly or monthly, and who were able to come up with something that still speaks to us across the decades.

Shaw:
Inside these weird requirements, these bizarre dimensions. Do you think that working in superhero comics — being inside those dimensions — helped you think about how dimensions can help your work later on? Like parameters for your work? You were saying earlier that you — and I do this too — you create the rules before the game, before you play it. Did you pick that up from your mainstream comics time?

Mazzucchelli:
I’ve thought about that often. It’s an interesting question, and I’m not really sure I have the answer. I know that when I stopped doing that kind of work, I had a very strong feeling that I almost had to unlearn everything I had learned from doing that kind of monthly commercial work. But as the years pass, I think I appreciate more some of the lessons I took from having to produce work that was specifically directed at an audience and within very confined parameters. And I feel like that gave me some groundwork from which to veer off, or go in a different direction.

08-30


From “Still Life” in Zero Zero #27, ©2000 David Mazzucchelli.


Shaw:
When you were teaching, a lot of the classes were about creating parameters.

Mazzucchelli:
Because I find that very interesting. When I started teaching, when I was first asked to teach a class in comics, I hadn’t given it any thought before that point. So I had to actually sit down and think about, “How would I teach this?” And I was originally teaching a very broad, general comics class, so I took a couple of months to think about the form, and try to break it down into aspects that I thought could be isolated in a way that allowed a student to focus on one aspect, and then another, and another. And by doing it in a certain order, you could add each new aspect to the ones that you dealt with before, until you finally had a larger sense of what’s possible.

There were a couple of things that happened during that process. First, it allowed me to really break down what comics does in a more analytical way than I had done before. And in doing that, I was making these lists of things that comics can do, and things that I like that comics can do, and as I’m doing it — as I’m looking at the list, I’m noticing, “Wow, I really like this about comics, but this doesn’t get into my work at all. Why not?” And so by analyzing it, it actually allowed me to re-examine my own work and say, “Why are certain aspects of comics that I really think are strong about the medium not in the work that I’m making?”

Shaw:
What were some of those things?

Mazzucchelli:
Well, things I was doing in comics I was making as a child. As a kid, I was reading all kind of comics: newspaper comics, Funny Animal comics, superhero comics, any kind of comics available. And I would take things from those to make stories for myself: there’d be characters doing something, and then there’d be a diagram, or an explanation, or then there’d be some other visual — there’d be arrows pointing to things, or… all kinds of graphic elements that you can use on the page. But when I got into doing the monthly stuff, it all became about pictures that had a kind of cinematic quality going from one to the next, and always showing things as if they’re happening in three-dimensional space.

Working with Paul Karasik really helped too, because he thinks about comics as a combination of symbols, and about the ways that you can express abstractions on a page. Working with him and developing a course helped me rediscover the graphic things that comics can do really well. It doesn’t have to be just showing this illusion of time and movement from panel to panel to panel. Comics can do other kinds of very interesting things.

08-32


From “The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.”, ©2009 Dash Shaw.


Shaw:
Since I went to SVA, I’ve thought about how someone might teach comics. While I was a student, the two classes that I felt I got the most from, James McMullan’s figure-drawing class and Steve Assael’s painting class, had very tight, specific rules for the class. It was very much learning how to draw like McMullan or how to paint like Assael. That creates some problems, like when you see the SVA senior portfolio pamphlet and it’s maybe too apparent who took their classes. But I also felt I learned a lot under that method of teaching. I wonder if a class could be taught that would spend the whole school year just focusing on how to draw a comic like early Tezuka or a specific Kirby period. The class critiques would be less scattered. It would always be like “Tezuka wouldn’t do it that way, you’re wrong.” Ha ha. Instead of these surreal scattered critiques.

Mazzucchelli:
Of course, it’s very difficult to assume why someone else — Kirby or Tezuka — would do something. Sometimes it’s more interesting to ask a bunch of students why they think an artist did something a certain way. About critiques: It’s usually clear when something doesn’t work (or, it’s frustrating when students can’t see that it’s clear something doesn’t work), and it’s usually clear when something does work, in an obvious or traditional way, but what’s most interesting is when something works, but nobody’s exactly sure why…

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