A lot has happened since we last spoke – back in the Fall of 2004, I believe it was – but I think I would like to pick up more or less where we left off, which will also maintain the chronology somewhat. We ended up talking about your drawing, and about approaches to storytelling with drawing, and you’d just started publishing comics in your much looser sketchbook style back then. In the years that have passed, you’ve published Monologues for the Coming Plague, as well as a couple of pieces in Mome in which you make use of that approach. Could you give me an impression of what it has given you in terms of your storytelling, and how you think it supports your artistic endeavour?
I just re-read the older interview… Indeed, a lot has happened. There are several things that might be worth re-visiting. One being that I’m not working as a cook anymore (for which I am very grateful).
As for the present question… I think I touched momentarily on it previously, but it is really helpful to me to have the two different approaches running simultaneously. I started the looser-styled stuff, what turned, ultimately, into Monologues for the Coming Plague, while I was working on Dogs and Water. I was working on that book as well as Big Questions, and that meant all the drawing I was doing was for relatively polished, finished, official-feeling stories. Until that time I had always kept sketchbooks, which allowed a degree of experimentation and playfulness. The amount of work I was doing for BQ and DW had eclipsed that. Also, though both those projects are in a way improvisational, they are/were slow to realize. I was inspired in part by going on a tour with several other cartoonists to start drawing, and storytelling, purely for fun again. To varying degrees I’ve kept both styles going in the years that have followed, and still have, though both have evolved, partly because of events in my life. The End isn’t about humor or absurdism in the same way, but it grows pretty directly out of that more experimental work. I’m a great believer that once an artist knows exactly what they are doing, there is a problem. Leaving myself open to various possibilities is part of keeping myself on my toes and also keeping myself entertained, which is really what it’s all about in the end. I occasionally lament the potential polish or seamlessness I have traded for that restlessness, but ultimately I think I’m happier. And hopefully more fun to read as well.
I’ll return to The End and your other, more abstract comics presently, but just wanted to stay with Monologues a little here. You say it’s about humour and absurdism, and I was going to ask you whether it was really, at base, you trying to do gag strips in the vein of your previous work. In a way, it seems to me like you revisited some of your earliest Big Questions in those comics. Why the return to shortform humor writing?
Yeah, I definitely see the Monologues, in retrospect, as a return to the kind of stuff I was doing in BQ 1 and 2. As important to me as Tintin and the superhero comics when I was a kid were things like Charles Addams and other New Yorker cartoons, and probably Mad. I love that form, the single panel gag. It’s so much about the perfectly efficient marriage of image and text. There’s no room for bullshit. It’s like haiku. I also think of it in a way as the most pure kind of comics. Any longer-form comics are going to begin to inevitably reference tropes and traditions of literature and film, graphic design, painting. There really is no equivalent elsewhere in the cultural world to the single panel gag. Certain stand-up comedy, maybe… but another thing I like about the single panel gag…. which I try to recreate in a way in Monologues, is the fact that it generally exists within a separate unrelated context – surrounded by articles and ads for example.
One other thing about the connection between the early issues of BQ and Monologues that I’ve recently become more aware of is that the material that ended up in those early issues (and a few other minis I did around the same time) was, in part, a diversion from the more serious painting and installation work I was doing then, which I thought of as my ‘real’ work. Much the way Monologues was a diversion from Big Questions and Dogs and Water. I’ve recently begun assembling and revising the next Monologues book, and it seems to want to do much the same thing that the birds did, which is get more complex and involved and evolve into a coherent narrative… Which I’m letting it do to a certain extent, while trying to maintain the chaos a little as well.
How would you say you recreate the unrelated context in Monologues? Is it the opposite of what happens in a newspaper, where the cartoon is surrounded by something less “arty” than itself? I mean, it seems to me that, by putting these strips in a niftily designed book that connotes “art” you insert the gag cartoon in a high culture context. Would that be accurate?
I think the contextual bits I created in Monologues were probably not that qualitatively different than the ‘gags,’ and maybe the specific content of each was less important to me than the general sense of one narrative stopping momentarily for the insertion of something with a different emotional tenor. I could probably relate it to commercials during a TV show. Also, I’m just interested in the rhythms and interplay of different narratives. I’m not sure that one is necessarily less ‘arty’ either… I guess some of the material in that book is more experimental, other material more clearly related to traditional modes like gags… maybe that makes it arty. Really I was just having fun, playing around.
Also, of course, the content is to an extent different than your traditional gag cartoon, situating as it does the absurd in a more intellectual context than the absurd humour seen in a cartoon by Charles Addams, for example. To what extent is this a conscious artistic choice, and what do you achieve by doing it?
I’d say that the New Yorker is definitely a high culture context… and that in certain ways the gags they run are frequently very ‘art-ful’, in that they are very fine examples of the ‘craft of the gag’, though they are generally not ‘art-y’. How’s that for a fine distinction? It seems to me that they are edging more and more toward the absurd, too, which I appreciate. And they probably do have a function of sort of giving the magazine a certain grounding – even though it seems to be becoming a sort of ‘lifestyles of the rich and powerful’, there are these funny/hip cartoons that ‘keep it real’. There’s a certain dumbness in the gags that I do too, so maybe I am trying to do some kind of high/low thing. I don’t know. All these categories are just really fun to play around with. It’s hard for me to totally separate out what is intentional, and what is just spilling out as I go… and even what the difference is. It’s too complicated and makes my head spin.
What is it that you appreciate about the absurd?
Hmm, the absurd. Absurdism just seems like the most honest, realistic response to the world… I just looked up ‘absurdism’ in the dictionary and it says: “…a philosophy… holding that humans exist in a meaningless, irrational universe and that any search for order by them will bring them in direct conflict with the universe.” I would qualify that in a couple of ways, one being that one place meaning is clearly found is in our own minds and interpretations of things. Which makes absurdism more interesting in a way, because to really embrace it is to constantly be trying to keep ahead of one’s own innate, human compulsion to make meaning. We can’t help it. I would also qualify my enthusiasm for absurdism by saying that for us to actually function in the world, we really do have to hold on to certain of our constructs, ethical ones in particular, but epistemological, too. We have to have some generally functional way of interpreting events and evaluating truths. So the absurd is great for art and literature, I wouldn’t recommend it as a basis for a politics or a theory of knowledge or something. I guess one of the profound roles of art and literature, to me, is to encourage people to see things in new ways, to question habits. And the absurd is a good starting point to be able to throw things into the air, to undermine assumptions.
I also have recently been doing a (very) little reading on [John Stewart] Mill and [William] James and Pragmatism, which really appeals to me. And I think James was in a way trying to encourage a wiping away of assumptions in favor of seeing how things really function and finding out what actually works. I guess if one was an optimist one might try to argue that absurdism, as a way of questioning things, could therefore be a kind of prelude to a better ‘functional’ philosophy or way of being. I probably keep an idea like that in my back pocket, just in case, but in general I’m not a much of an optimist.
Returning to your sketchbook-style work; you’ve been incorporating photos in some of your work in this vein in a couple of pieces in Mome recently, which again seems to be something of a return to the initial version of what became Dogs and Water. Do you regard it as such?
When I started using photos again for the stuff that ended up in Mome, I wasn’t thinking of the parallel with that particular earlier work. But I think it was nevertheless a return. I’ve had a thing for those kinds of big empty landscapes for a long time and they’ve figured in all kinds of other work I did in school and after: photography, collage, painting etc. The fun of experimenting that came out of the work in Monologues allowed me to revisit some of those interests and recombine things, old and new. And that kind of experimenting and playfulness was very much a part of what I was doing before I took up comics in a more serious way. So in that way also, it was a return.
What are your general experiences on the use of photos in comics?
I don’t really know. The things I think of are, like, Crumb’s fumetti or whatever he called them, which I think are pretty terrible. I think drawings and photos can interact in super interesting ways, though. Nog a Dod, the book Marc Bell edited on his and other Canadians’ collaborative drawing, has some stuff in it that positively gives me the shivers, it’s so good.
Are you thinking of the work of McClean/Thompson, the Canadian clean-up crew stuff, or perhaps the cut-up stuff by Tommy Lacroix?
Yep, that’s who I mean (had to look it up).
Some of that stuff is indeed spectacular, but it also strikes me as only marginally narrative, which leads me to wonder whether photography tends to work better in comics that downplay narrative in favour of other, more associative movements across the page. You’ve worked a good deal with comics that eschew traditional narrative – the most immediate examples occurring to me being some of the material in The End and the one with the coloured squares in Mome, but also some of your rough gag strips are kind of in this vein – what are your thoughts on comics as a non-narrative – perhaps we can even say ‘non-literary’ – medium?
As far as eschewing traditional narrative, “traditional” might be the operative word there. Since I come from a background in painting, the word “narrative” for me has a pretty wide berth – excluding only a pretty slim group of high art movements of the mid-twentieth century. In something like “Event” in Mome #2, the images are all just colored squares, but there is a very definite (if vaguely) story being told. And even a single panel gag has to bring in elements to create a context and a back-story. If it’s a guy sitting on an exam table with his shirt off in a doctor’s office, we’re already being given a pretty detailed idea of what the back-story is. Every detail is a little bit of storytelling. But I would say that I am interested in stripping away some of that context and seeing what remains… so most of the ‘gags’ I do are fairly open-ended. And you could probably say that about a lot of that ‘psychedoolia’ stuff and people like CF and Paperrad… probably someone like David Shrigley. There’s a way in which they are creating narratives, or at least certain trappings of them, and then undermining them almost simultaneously. Which is a little bit what I’m trying to do with the Monologues stuff, too… although I’m probably a little more attached to the story. I think you’re probably right about what incorporating photography/collage is generally going to mean for narrative. Not that there’s some innate reason it can’t work to enhance story, but in practice it’s generally not going to be the case.
What do you mean when you say ‘undermining the narrative’? Is there a deliberate effort to do so, and what is the interest in this subversion?
Just that there are traditional or at least typical routes for stories to follow, certain rhythms, certain cycles of character development, the building and relieving of tension. Or even in something like the one panel gag, say the guy in the dentist’s office, there is typically going to be a certain consistency to the details that lay out the context for the joke. To undermine those would just be to have them not really all make sense together… have things clash, be inconsistent, be random… I guess a simple non-sequitur is one way of doing this. It probably goes back to what we were talking about earlier – absurdism, play, taking things apart to just see what you get when you mix them around. You might relate it a to something like a zen koan, where you ask an unanswerable question with the idea that the brain, when not allowed to go its usual, expected route, will find a new one. It might be a little much to expect enlightenment, but it can lead to pretty great little moments.
I might also say that I can relate that idea… of creating coherent narratives and then undermining them… to the more traditional work I do as well. Like, in Big Questions, the fact that none of the characters really knows what’s going on. There is no settled “actual” account of things. I’m sure some literature person out there could tell us the term for that, it’s probably old news. But I find it an interesting idea to play with. There’s a film that I love called Before the Rain [Milcho Manchevski, 1994] that’s all about cycles of violence in the Balkans. It has a very carefully constructed chain of cause and effect until the end when you realize that the first thing that starts everything off can’t have happened until the last thing happened at the end of the movie. But it’s not like The Usual Suspects or something, where you’re just not learning the key details until you get to the last scene, or where the story is just being told out of order like, say, Memento. It’s not about plot twists. The sequence in Before the Rain is impossible. But totally necessary and poetic. Anyway, that’s a bit of a tangent and not exactly what I’m doing. But related. You can undermine narrative at the outside, almost before it begins to cohere, or you can do it actually within the narrative itself. The results might look nothing alike, but I think they are actually closely related ideas.
Inserts from “The Beast” in Mome #1 (2005). Examples from Monologues of the Coming Plague, Big Questions #3, twice, Monologues again, “The Beast”, twice, and “Event” from Mome #2 (2005).
Check out Nilsen’s website here, and read this profile of him in the Chicago Reader. If you read Danish, my reviews of Dogs and Water and Kramers Ergot #4, which contains Nilsen’s “Sisyphus,” are available at Rackham. Also, if you’re in Denmark between now and the new year, Nilsen is one of the exhibitors at ‘Comix’, Brandts klædefabrik, Odense.