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December 21, 2009


CR Holiday Interview #2 -- Frank Santoro On Multiforce

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The cartoonist and artist Frank Santoro has in the last few years become one of my favorite thinkers about comics, and I'm always pleased to spend some time basking in his opinions about and love for the comics form. I don't care if that means reading a piece he wrote for Comics Comics; enjoying from the audience a confrontational, rollicking appearance on a small-press show's panel; or simply listening to him hold forth from behind his box of curated 1980s comic books -- I'm there. Within comics' tiny world he's that wonderful cliche "a force of nature," and my enjoyment of comics over the last few years would be poorer without Santoro around.

I wanted to revisit Mat Brinkman's jaw-dropping Multiforce with Frank. While I've been basing one or two questions per chat on what this year's interview subjects have written about the comics they've selected, when that's possible, I like Frank's original essay on his choice so much that for a few questions there I basically just made him re-argue the whole thing, only this time so we could watch. Sorry, Frank. You're welcome, everybody else. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Frank, I don't think we've talked about this before, but how exactly did you end up writing about comics as well as making them? Have you always done that, or is that a new thing in your relationship to art? Has it had a beneficial or detrimental effect on the way you make art, to operate from an analytical point of view?

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FRANK SANTORO: I'm just doing my best Bill Boichel impression. He's such an amazing talker. I learned so much from listening to Bill ramble on and on. He can really articulate all these far flung ideas about comics. I just tried to do that when we started Comics Comics. And starting Comics Comics was just Dan, Tim and me wanting to write about comics the way we talked about them. So... I dunno. Before that I was assisting painters. Like abstract painters and portrait painters. So I had to be able to talk to them about their work while it was being made. Lots of thinking on my feet and trying to explain things that have no way of being concretely explained. Artists seem to talk about things differently to each other than they do when speaking to the audience or a critic. I thought if I started writing about comics I could represent a different viewpoint.

It's helped me in how I go about making things. I'm more alert, more aware of what my motivations are when working. And most importantly, I'm more aware of what I'm trying to say in my work and how I want to present that work to the audience.

imageSPURGEON: Multiforce originally appeared in Paper Rodeo, one of the most influential comics publications of the last 20 years. Is that where you encountered this work? What was your impression of Paper Rodeo generally?

SANTORO: I first encountered Multiforce in Paper Rodeo, yes. Dan Nadel showed them to me in like 2004. I was late to the party.

My impression of Paper Rodeo was that it was a sloppy mess. I didn't like it. It took me awhile to "see" what was going on. It's wildly uneven. But that's its charm. And don't forget it was sort of antithetical to the spit and polish of "literary comics." So that's charming, too. Or was back in 2004.

I read all the Multiforce strips when Dan tore them all out of Paper Rodeo and collected them all in one binder for his own reference and reading pleasure. That was when I really began to study the strips. It helped me to see how connected those serialized strips were. And how sophisticated the construction was and how it all read as a comic strip.

imageSPURGEON: In your short collection of notes on Multiforce you talk about not really engaging with Brinkman the cartoonist as much as with some of his other artistic pursuits. What is it you prefer about Brinkman as an artist?

SANTORO: The drawings look so different in person. Seeing his work in a gallery is just so immediate. His line, the ink, the paper -- it's just gorgeous stuff to behold. It's just so successful as drawing. His exhibition at Fumetto this year was amazing. Maybe 50 drawings of grotesque heads. All good. All made with no hesitation. They radiated heat.

The comics are more like collages, I think. He's assembling bits, gags, action, etc in Multiforce and he's doing it in such an organized, complex fashion that it's a little overwhelming. That's the opposite approach, I think, of the single large drawings that are for an exhibition. One is an intimate reading where prolonged engagement is encouraged. The other is a public display where immediacy counts.

It's not about preferring one or the other -- the comics or the work done for exhibitions. I simply appreciated him first as a poster artist, designer and sculptor before I appreciated him as a cartoonist. I mean, he may have created some of the most memorable "rock posters" since the Fillmore posters of the 1960's. And I haven't even mentioned Forcefield.

SPURGEON: I know this may be a frustrating, but can you describe exactly what you mean when you mention the architecture of the world in Multiforce? How wide a conception are we talking?

SANTORO: I don't mean "world building." I mean how he effortlessly scales from tiny detail to mammoth proportion in a three panel sequence. That's very difficult to do convincingly. Brinkman's skill lies in his phrasing style. He constructs pages out of connecting routines. So the narrative itself is built into the segments. The routines, like a giant head rolling down a hill, aren't front and center like in most comics. They're like backdrops for the gag cartoons that float around. There's a tension between the elements. It's an expansion on his earlier style which was much more about following a main character through a landscape. In contrast, the phrasing style of Multiforce is more like a diagram. It grows and grows and builds upon itself like a city; like a shattered mirror. That's the architecture as I see it. It 's the drawing. It's the scaling of panels in an organic manner that is pleasing to look at. There's evident vibrancy in the lines and forms. Those all build together in ways that I rarely see. Figures, landscapes, psychic space. Brinkman's offering a glimpse into a real world. A wide world.

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SPURGEON: Do you think that the spiraling effect that you talk about, that Brinkman's pacing comes from the creation of places of visual interest and then allowing readers to move between them, is entirely a conscious one on Brinkman's part? Is it a strategy that he employs to a specific narrative effect, or a just an outgrowth of his way of conceiving story and narrative?

SANTORO: I think it's just natural to him. And the reason why it's appealing for me as a reader is that it feels natural to read. He's as conscious of it as any artist is to what "feels right." I also think that this natural strategy is something that was honed by doing "straight ahead" comics first and then sort of experimenting with ways of composing large pages with smaller fragments.

The spiraling effect is something that goes back to the architecture of the pages themselves. Despite the left to right, top to bottom arc of the reader's eye, the page is experienced as a whole all at once. And Brinkman's beautiful arrangements are like nothing I've ever experienced so completely in comics. The arrangements don't feel rigid or cold. They feel natural. He understands how to move the reader through the page. He doesn't zoom you around the page or bog you down in detail. The centers of visual interest are fragments of the whole. And all these fragments sort of fold back on each other and build up. My eye spirals around the page when this happens. It reads like a web. And one could say that he built his pages in this fashion. A sort of ramshackle symmetry.

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SPURGEON: I agree with you that Multiforce has a strong narrative component, but I was wondering just how we know that, given how so much of what Brinkman's artwork asks us to do is dance playfully in and out of these startling visual tableaux. When we're looking at these page as a map, or as a lively Sunday page from some distant planet, how are we still sensing the story? Or we reading it both ways at once? Do we eventually settle in for a more standard reading?

SANTORO: Yah. My "return readings" are more standard now. I still experience it all at once, it dances around but now I, as a reader, feel more settled. There's so much to see, to explore that I find new paths to follow. The story surrounds me & I'm aware of it but it's like a war or something. It's the background. Giants are destroying castles in the background and Micromen are making me laugh in the foreground. Each page is a main event with an undercard.

I mean I can see how one could say "I don't see the plot" or wonder where the main narrative thread is going -- but Brinkman's phrasing style gives me a more complete reading experience. How does he accomplish this? I really don't know. It's uncanny. I think there is such a remarkable fusion of storytelling and drawing in Multiforce. I just get lost in there. It crushes me. Good storytelling, good sequencing. And great drawing. Man.

SPURGEON: Can you talk a little more about how you feel that Multiforce is of its time? Is it just the complexity of it that feels right now to you? Is that more of general feeling than maybe one that can be qualified?

SANTORO: The short answer for me is: Love and Rockets mirrored the '80s, ACME Novelty Library mirrored the '90s, and Multiforce mirrored the '00s.

The longer answer is: I've seen how people far and wide react to Brinkman's work. It's really interesting. The director of Fumetto in Switzerland spoke his name with reverence. His peers in the fine art world also speak very highly of him. There are very few people whom I respect who don't "get" him. He's himself through and through. Genuine. Sincere. A serious craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Cartoonist. Same thing. Same reaction on both sides of the fence. Does that qualify him as "of his time"? Maybe. But I think it's more of an echo of how far his voice has carried.

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SPURGEON: How much do you relate to the gaming aesthetic that so many people seem to immediately latch onto? Is it fair to simply describe what Brinkman does here in terms of it being like a video game?

SANTORO: Sure if that's a gateway for readers to engage the work. That's an easy "in," y'know? So, go for it if that's the way the work speaks to you. Because once you're "in the game" you can see and feel how far it goes. You can keep playing so to speak. And then I think the reader will connect to other elements that are beyond its genre trappings.

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SPURGEON: I know this is sort of a ridiculous thing to ask, Frank, but how much of what Multiforce accomplishes do you think can inspire people beyond the excitement we all feel when encountering a significant work? I know that when I first saw Chris Ware's work in an issue of New City, it immediately suggested to me a way of doing comics where I could imagine other people doing something along those same lines, and I'm not sure I can conceive of what work that was inspired by Brinkman would even look like. How much of this work is for Brinkman alone and how much does it speak to other artists, do you think?

SANTORO: I really feel that Brinkman taps into some universal voice. And like I said I've seen audiences respond to it. It may be how well he draws or what he draws, I don't know, but Brinkman's voice carries and it resonates with the crowd. Funny, scary, pretty. Gorgeous drawings that scare the shit out of you and then make you laugh. Audiences love that. I love that.

I think it's inspiring work. I can definitely see Brinkman's influence on comics. There's a seduction to the drawing and I can imagine kids wanting to ape it. And I mean that simply because it looks easy to draw. That's the seduction: it looks easy. But it ain't. And I think that's how or why it speaks to other makers of art. It's like hearing a really good band live and not quite believing it, wondering, are these guys really that good? You look around the room and everyone is just digging the band. And then later everyone agrees that was an awesome show, maybe one of the best shows they've ever seen. To me, that's how Brinkman's been working audiences for over a decade.

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* Multiforce, Mat Brinkman, PictureBox Inc., 22 pages, Spring 2009, $15

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This year's CR Holiday Interview Series features some of the best writers about comics talking about emblematic -- by which we mean favorite, representative or just plain great -- books from the ten-year period 2000-2009. The writer provides a short list of books, comics or series they believe qualify; I pick one from their list that sounds interesting to me and we talk about it. It's been a long, rough and fascinating decade. Our hope is that this series will entertain from interview to interview but also remind all of us what a remarkable time it has been and continues to be for comics as an art form. We wish you the happiest of holidays no matter how you worship or choose not to. Thank you so much for reading The Comics Reporter.

* CR Holiday Interview One: Sean T. Collins On Blankets

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