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December 30, 2008


CR Holiday Interview #8: Matt Forsythe

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I'd seen Matthew Forsysthe's Ojingogo comics linked to here and there, but I didn't start paying attention to them until I got to see a whole bunch at once in the print collection of the same name, just released from Drawn and Quarterly. It's a fun book. The leads and the creatures they run into are imaginatively designed, the encounters offer a level of complexity when viewed as a series that distinguishes the overall work, and a lot of it is very funny. Forsythe is also a contributor at Drawn, the illustration and cartooning blog that I won't let myself read regularly for fear of merely replicating the consistently excellent way they draw attention to deserving and interesting artists all over the world. He was nice enough to take a few questions. I enjoyed his answers. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: Matthew, I'm not familiar with you at all beyond seeing your name up for a few awards, which is absolutely terrifying to me considering the accomplishment on display in Ojingogo. I liked your biographical cartoon [see bottom of post]. What about your life story do you think might distinguish you from most of your artist peers?

MATTHEW FORSYTHE: I guess the main thing is that I don't draw full time. Editorial illustration doesn't really get me excited -- though I do take the occasional job if it's interesting. And I don't draw comics full-time. I have a day-job that I love and I'm happy coming home in the evenings and weekends and drawing whatever and whenever I can.

SPURGEON: You mention a few places that Ojingogo is derived in part from influences that you picked up while teaching in South Korea. Can you talk about those influences a bit? Am I right to think that you also mean influences beyond comics and cartooning?

FORSYTHE: Yes, definitely. I was teaching a group of kindergarten kids and we would make up stories and tell them to each other every morning -- and they really changed the way I saw the world. I was enamored with their dream-like logic and I found it echoed in a lot of Asian pop-art. Western narratives suddenly seemed so oppressively literal. I was also learning to read Korean, too,. and I found the language to be very inspiring and very rich visually. I hope that comes across in the comic.

imageSPURGEON: Although I'm certain you must have talked about this elsewhere, can you clue me in about how Ojingogo developed? In hurling myself towards the Internet to find out more about you, what I came away with is that it was an on-line project -- perhaps even a flickr-based one -- that developed into the print one. Can you talk about how you ended up in print?

FORSYTHE: I started posting the comic on my site way back in 2004 and the feedback was immediately very positive. I was working a lot and traveling around Asia and posting about one strip a month -- which I'm told is a very poor schedule for a webcomic. But I was never trying to make a living off of it -- so it was fine for me. I self-published a couple mini-comics and did a few shows. The comic started getting noticed a bit -- award nominations and that sort of thing -- and Chris [Oliveros] from D+Q got in touch and told me he liked the comic.

I also loved designing the book for print. I'm such a big fan of Chris and Tom [Devlin]'s production work with D+Q and Tom's earlier work with Highwater Books. It was really exciting to actually make a book with these people.

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SPURGEON: Talk to me a bit about character design. I love the girl, especially the tiny feet. Is there difficulty involved in making a character that is both distinct but has cipher-like, every-person qualities like that character design has?

FORSYTHE: Most of the characters in the book came from dreams or floated up from the subconscious. But the girl is a very direct manhwa interpretation of a good friend of mine and drawn in a style that's fairly common in Korean newspaper strips and cartoon culture. I don't feel like I could draw a bunch of cute human characters like her without completely changing the tone of the comic. So basically it's her tangling with a bunch of my nightmares.

SPURGEON: It's hard for me to think of a question to ask about the creatures... the shaggy man and the dragonfly remind me of something one might see in a Miyazaki film, but I'm woefully unfamiliar with Asian fantasy and myth in a broader sense, let alone within the various, individual cultures, to know the basic sources that might be involved. Let me ask you this: Is there an attempt to have the creatures together represent a larger design? Do they fit together? Are they partial aspects of a larger whole? Or is it more directly in line with your intention that they represent individual ideas and the world you've created is generous enough to contain them all?

FORSYTHE: Miyazaki's films were a huge influence. Another common thread its that they're iconic animals in Korean folk-history. Dragonflies, fish, squid, rice, ginseng -- these things all pop up in folk tales all the time. At one point I was thinking of making comics of Korean folk tales that I was reading. These things are also symbolic in Korean life. Ginseng (Insam in Korean) is endowed with almost magical qualities in Korea, so I knew I had to have a ginseng root being consumed somewhere in the strip.

Also there's a lot of playing with scale in the book. Things get big. They get small. People often ask me about this. But this is also a common theme in Asian pop art. Godzilla, The Host -- we've seen it a thousand times and even more in Asian comics. There's a history in Asian pop-storytelling of horrific monsters growing out of innocent and natural origins; almost certainly a psychological vestige of the nuclear attacks on Japan and Korea's tragic history in the 20th century.

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SPURGEON: I do have to specifically ask after that one creature with the raincloud over its head. That's just odd and lovely-looking and I'd love to know where he came from.

FORSYTHE: I honestly don't know.

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SPURGEON: One thing I find fascinating about your work is that on the one hand I get this real sense of exploring a world, but in exploring that world you use foregrounded figures and limited or dropped backgrounds over 90 percent of the time. What led you to that approach? Because certainly from your sketchbook work and a few of the panels that are used in that fashion it's clear you could create a lush, atmospheric world in every drawing. Is it the nature of the project? Is it a desire on your project to emphasize the relationships?

FORSYTHE: That's definitely part of it. It's something I picked up from manga -- which moves a lot quicker and has panels and pages that breathe a lot more than North American comics.

Also, I'm a big fan of the stuff by Blutch or Jean Jacques Sempe -- who use the negative space on the page so liberally but elegantly. David Lynch says we fill negative space with our imagination -- and I think that happens a bit with Ojingogo.

imageSPURGEON: Do you believe your chapter to be purposeful as narratives or it more about exploration and interrelationships over story? I know that with Jim Woodring, say, I get a sense of parable and an undercurrent of meaning being expressed. Can we look at this work that same way? Is there a way you'd prefer people read it?

FORSYTHE: The comic was completely unscripted. The chapters were inserted more as beats than any sort of marker within the narrative. I definitely read heavily into some of the stuff going on in the comic -- probably the same way Woodring does. Personally I find it more satisfying to read it in pieces -- strip by strip -- the way it was created- - but obviously people can read it however they like.

SPURGEON: Am I right in thinking there's intentional sense of optimism that courses through the work? There are these encounters depicted which tend at first to be scary or problematic but are eventually rectified in a way that not only keeps people mostly from harm but seems to fit a higher purpose, some sort of goal.

FORSYTHE: The comic is definitely meant to be fun. Fun for me to create and fun to read. I was looking at my friends making mainstream North American comics -- and as you're probably aware a lot of them aren't having a lot of fun doing it. They don't always buy into the stories, so they kind of resent the work and the constant deadlines. I was working my ass off in Korea -- teaching 10 class-hours a day most of the time -- and when I got home I didn't have any energy for anything that wasn't fun.

SPURGEON: You also contribute to Drawn, the mighty web site for illustration and cartooning. Does looking at art in the way I imagine you must to be a contributor there have an effect on your work, do you think? Would your work be different if you didn't have that specific relationship to art and artists?

FORSYTHE: It's a daily dose of humility. There are so many great artists seeing the world in radically different ways. The most important thing I've learned through Drawn is that great art is not just about craft and practice -- though those things are very important. It's really just about trusting the way you see the world.

One of my favourite artists this year, Alberto Vasquez, has a very simple and restricted style. But everything he does blows my mind.

SPURGEON: I hope you'll indulge me a question about another cartoonist. I was intrigued by the fact that you were so complimentary of Richard Thompson's Cul De Sac in your year-end list despite the fact that your work as I'm familiar with it seems more fantasy-based and his is a fairly grounded and only occasional whimsical in that way family strip. As a cartoonist and as someone who interacts with cartoon art through Drawn, what is it that you think makes a great comic? What makes that one a great one?

FORSYTHE: I think the thing that gets me about Cul de Sac is its honesty. You can just feel Thompson is channeling his own experiences in an honest way through this wonderful family. I'm not saying necessarily that it's his family -- just that these characters are alive. We all know these people. I can only hope Ojingogo resonates a little bit in the same way.

SPURGEON: What are your plans for 2009? What's the next book?

FORSYTHE: I've started working on a more traditional narrative. It's inspired by my trip home from Korea through China, Mongolia, and Russia via the trans-Siberian railway. Right now I'm researching images and re-reading my old journals and starting to put stuff together. I'm also working on more Ojingogo comics.

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* all imagery from Ojingogo; that's the cover of the book up top

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