TCJ 300 Conversations: David Mazzucchelli & Dash Shaw

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

 

Mazzucchelli:
What you’re saying about different characters translating things differently — even what you said about the way you’re trying to express things visually, and some of the things we’ve been talking about before, it brings me back to manga again. When you talk about what the influence has been, in a certain way, I feel like one of the big influences of manga into what we’ll call Western comics, for lack of a better term, is a certain kind of subjectivity. Before manga, in American comics, the point of view is very much from the outside, very objective, very much of a narrator, whether there was a narration or not: watching the story unfold.

Shaw:
I think my comics are more objective than subjective.

Mazzucchelli:
But I think — you talk about in Bottomless, how you wanted each character to feel as if he or she had drawn himself, so that we’re seeing that character’s point of view, to an extent.

08-36


From “Dead Dog” in Rubber Blanket #1, ©1991 David Mazzucchelli.


Shaw:
That was something I was doing, starting with The Mother’s Mouth and the different lettering for the different characters. BodyWorld, the character designs are more as distinctions — (pairing characters together, like Jem and Paul, angular, and Pearl and Billy, round).

Mazzucchelli:
But the whole way you try to express the telepathy is so much about subjectivity.

Shaw:
Mmhmm. I think I agree that Bottomless and my comics are about subjectivity. But I think overall that they’re looking down at these people from an aerial perspective. I guess it’s a combination.

Mazzucchelli:
Well, I don’t mean that it’s completely subjective. But I mean, there’s a kind of subjectivity, I think, that’s been introduced, possibly from manga.

Shaw:
We didn’t get into your time at Kodansha in this interview, but from what I’ve read from Pope and the Destroy All Comics interview with Tom Hart (as well as me asking Tom about working with Kodansha), the Kodansha notes were all about main characters and the story being what the character experiences. Tom told me that Kodansha would want the main character in every scene, even when Tom would say “but, he isn’t in that scene.”

But a lot of that subjective influence comes from all-word books.

Mazzucchelli:
Books? Literature?! [Laughs.] No, no, no. We must only talk about comics!

Shaw:
For me, books — I feel like I’m almost a little too much in someone’s head. Even if it isn’t a first-person book, and someone — just by the idea of someone writing the words, I always think is this an unreliable narrator?

Mazzucchelli:
Right. Well, I think about that a lot. I’m very interested in who’s telling the story, and what the reason for telling the story is. Even if there’s no narrator, I’m kind of like, “Whose point of view is this?”

Shaw:
If it’s words, yeah, it’s automatically some kind of narrator. That’s what I think of books.

Mazzucchelli:
[Laughs.]… So you read books?

Shaw:
I read some books.

Mazzucchelli:
Good for you! [Laughs.] That’s very good.

Shaw:
Well —

Mazzucchelli:
No, I like books.

Shaw:
[Laughs.] What are you doing to me over here?

Mazzucchelli:
When we were talking about the whole thing about the reader, I was thinking: Are there times where you get stuck?

Shaw:
What do you mean?

Mazzucchelli:
I mean — what do you do if you want to express something, you want to show something, and you don’t know how to do it? Does that take a long time to get through? What do you do in instances like that?

Shaw:
Can you give me an example?

Mazzucchelli:
Say you’ve set up the situation where something has to happen, and you know you want to show it so that — to me, I think about the reader. I think I want the reader to have this experience, in some way. But I’m not exactly sure what’s the best way to draw this, to get across what I’m trying to express. Do you sort of work through it? Do you think about how’s it been done before, and I’m not gonna do it any of those ways, or…? Just curious.

Shaw:
I guess I think of it as… problem-solving.

Mazzucchelli:
Yeah, problem-solving, I guess: especially because you were doing a weekly installment.

Shaw:
Again, I wanted to be like you, man.

Mazzucchelli:
[Laughs.] Were there points where you —

Shaw:
Serialized comics, like Mazzucchelli.

Mazzucchelli:
That’s the way to go. Was there a point where you were like, “Deadline is looming and I just don’t know what to do with this page… What am I gonna do?” Or did you always have a pretty clear idea?

Shaw:
I really enjoy it, and so it doesn’t really feel so much like a problem, because it’s all making decisions about how to do something. But that’s enjoyably frustrating, you know? So it isn’t like… a total breeze, or anything. I’m not breezing through these. But when I get stuck, it’s enjoyable to figure it out. I also don’t really — I don’t have any hobbies. [Laughter.]

Mazzucchelli:
You’re just thinkin’ about your comics. No skateboarding, or —

Shaw:
I’m trying to think of something that was a problem.

08-37


From “The Death of Monsieur Absurde” in Rubber Blanket #3, ©1993 David Mazzucchelli.


Mazzucchelli:
Those were some complex things you were trying to express. First the description of the game and then showing it being played, or certainly the experiences when Paulie and Pearl, for example, were sort of getting inside each other, or overlapping imagery, or the back-and-forths, even the things where you’re getting bursts of flashback. Did that require a few drafts to figure out?

Shaw:
With Bottomless Belly Button, I felt like I was more creating an atmosphere or an environment about this place, these characters, and what was going on wasn’t really as important to me. And so the problem-solving with that one would be like how to best create a kind of texture with the scenes.

But with BodyWorld, I thought it was more like “I got a story to tell, telepathy.” [Laughter.] So all of those things came out of my interest. I was sitting in the woods in Rochester, just thinking about how telepathy would happen and different stages of telepathy. So, explaining it visually was enjoyable because I was really excited about these ideas on telepathy that I had.

To answer one of your examples specifically, I started doing the flashbacks in Chapter Two of BodyWorld because Paulie wasn’t in that chapter and I wanted to draw Paulie. Paulie’s the main character and it felt weird not to be connected to him for a whole chapter. So I put in the flashbacks and then they taper out in Chapter Three and there aren’t any other flashbacks, because he’s connected with the other characters at that point.

But if I had to do something that I wasn’t interested in, like if I had to visually explain… I don’t know.

Mazzucchelli:
Would you just excise that out of your story?

Shaw:
I wouldn’t write it.

Mazzucchelli:
You wouldn’t write it. Even if something felt necessary to the story, you’d feel like “Well, maybe it’s not necessary?” Do you feel that way?

Shaw:
I’m drawing, and I don’t — it isn’t like words that I have to illustrate. So I’m drawing it and I would never draw something that I don’t wanna draw.

Mazzucchelli:
Yeah, OK. I can understand that. [Laughter.] That’s one of the nice things about making comics. You decide what you wanna draw.

Shaw:
And usually, I don’t know how to draw things that I’m not interested in, so they don’t come into the story. [Laughs.] Do you have to look up how to draw something?

Mazzucchelli:
Sometimes. If there’s something that finds its way into the story, and I need to find a way to express it. But it’s problem-solving, as you say: most of the time it’s very enjoyable, trying to figure out how to do it. But I guess my new philosophy is: If I get in a jam, I just think “What would Steranko do?”

Shaw:
Really?

Mazzucchelli:
Yeah.

Shaw:
OK. I don’t know if you’re joking or not.

Mazzucchelli:
I’m… I’m… mostly serious.

Shaw:
OK.

Mazzucchelli:
I find that as I get older, I kinda look back at those Steranko comics differently. There’s a lot more interesting in them than I remembered.

Shaw:
What do you like about them?

Mazzucchelli:
They’re not like anything else. There’s always something —

Shaw:
Is there something specific?

Mazzucchelli:
Well, just about everything he did. I read them as a kid, and then when I got older and got into comics [professionally], I remembered them as being flashy, but not all that interesting. Or, you know, he couldn’t really draw that well, or something like that. Certainly the stories didn’t always make a lot of sense. And then I went back and looked at them and, yeah, there are those things, but there’s still something really interesting. There’s always something inventive. Some way that he found of showing something that you hadn’t seen in that kind of comic before. And whether he was getting it from contemporary graphic design or poster design or magazine layouts or wherever it was coming from, he was bringing something into comics that no one else was. So there’s always some interesting quality to Steranko solving a problem in a way that other people didn’t.

08-38


From Asterios Polyp, ©2009 David Mazzucchelli.


Shaw:
Are there any fine artists that have influenced you conceptually? Or are you more interested in good drawing or good design in fine art? Do you know what I mean?

Mazzucchelli:
Not exactly, because I’m not sure I can separate conceptual from the drawing.

Shaw:
Are there fine artists who’ve influenced you that just don’t draw?

Mazzucchelli:
Sure, well — sculptors. But they draw also, I suppose.

Shaw:
But the idea behind a piece of work.

Mazzucchelli:
The idea: I’m not all that interested in the ideas behind work.

Shaw:
Conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt or anything?

Mazzucchelli:
Well, I wouldn’t think of Sol LeWitt as a conceptual artist, because he made things.

Shaw:
Well, I think he’s the main conceptual-artist guy. And sometimes he wouldn’t execute the piece. It’d be his idea.

Mazzucchelli:
But there are artifacts. There are things to experience. To me, if someone’s making things, the things themselves ought to speak, in some way.

Shaw:
So what if the idea’s written down?

Mazzucchelli:
I’m wary of that. I’m wary because I think if you make something, regardless of the ideas you’re putting into it, once you make something, it takes on a life of its own. And for you, as the artist, to be following it around explaining what it means —

Shaw:
You don’t have to follow it around, but if you write it down once —

Mazzucchelli:
If you write it down once, it’s the same thing. It’s like your explanation is attached to it. I think that doesn’t necessarily work, because maybe the work is doing something that you don’t know it’s doing. So you can say, “This is what it means,” but that may not be what it means. And it may not mean anything. It may only mean what it is, and you’re just trying to invest it with some kind of meaning. So I don’t trust that kind of art so much. I really think that art, as I said, it takes on its own life.

Shaw:
An idea takes on its own life, too.

Mazzucchelli:
Like what? What do you mean? Like “democracy”?

Shaw:
Like if you say the idea behind something, that can be a part of it. That can take on a life too.

Mazzucchelli:
It can be. I think it does take on a life, because —

Shaw:
Anything takes on a life of its own.

Mazzucchelli:
Sure. But I think sometimes an explanation can overshadow the work itself, and people might buy the explanation and stop looking at the thing.

Shaw:
I don’t think that question went where I thought it was supposed to go, but that’s OK.

Mazzucchelli:
Because I didn’t name any artists, any conceptual artists. I’m interested in ideas, but I’m not so interested in talking about what those ideas are, as they relate to what I’m trying to do with my work, anyway. I’d rather try to get all the things I’m interested in into the work, and then see what it amounts to at that point.

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