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April 15, 2012


CR Sunday Interview: Brandon Graham

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I wasn't sure how best to interview the cartoonist Brandon Graham on the occasion of the collection of his King City series. I hope what we came up with worked out okay: a series of short bursts of questions formulated around five pages from that new volume, three of my selection and two of his. The best thing about that arrangement for me is this means I may get to do a more standard, comprehensive interview down the road. I'm confident that Graham will be around for a while. Everything about him says "lifer" to me, at least if his talent doesn't pull him into some unforeseen direction.

I was lucky enough to spend some time in Graham's company as we were going back and forth on what follows. I was told by someone when Graham left the table that the King City trade had been doing very well at the show (Emerald City). I hope so; I like the book quite a bit, although I wonder from hearing it described if I'm reading the same book everyone else is. Heck, at times I've wondered if I've been reading the same book from one look into it to the next. What I like most about King City, I think, is how consistently Graham works to thwart standard storytelling expectations: it's a mini-symphony of minor-key narrative choices. Forming questions about King City forced me to deal with the book as it is rather than how I imagine it to be. Even then, it'll probably be something else the next time I read it. What's not to like about that?

I tweaked what follows a tiny bit for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon

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"I Want A Man Who's As Irresistible As A Pack Of Cigarettes"

TOM SPURGEON: I suppose some general questions are in order. King City isn't your first work, but it's one of those massive, early works that some cartoonists have on their resumes -- I would be greatly surprised if it weren't a touchstone for you, no matter where you go from here. Were you a different cartoonist after you finished than when you started? Are you happy with the work as a cohesive creative effort?

BRANDON GRAHAM: When I started it I had such a feeling of excitement and freedom about what I was doing. Those early pages look a little awkward to me now but I still remember the feeling of just doing what I wanted with no publisher or audience in mind. These days I'm much more fueled off of the idea of who might be reading it.

At the beginning I was just doing what I do and by the time I was half way through I felt like I knew what tricks were expected in the story and now that I've done those I'm at a new place trying to move away from some of them.

I'm really pleased with how the book as a whole came out. I do a lot of stuff with really high hopes for what it'll become. I have a blind faith that in the process of making a story that something will click. A lot of times the stuff I do falls short of the goal, I feel this way about most of my porn comics. With King City, it started out as a mess that I think worked out better than I hoped.

SPURGEON: The format changes involved when the project stopped and started between Tokyopop and Image -- is there any hangover in terms of visual strategies or techniques that you employed that you might not have if you had gone, say, straight to this end result?

GRAHAM: Yeah, I think it worked out for the best. Because of the format changes I was thinking of pages differently at different parts of the book. It helped me switch up my approach.

I wasn't thinking about the format at all for the first 40 pages; I was hand-lettering everything and drawing it without and idea that I'd later add graytones. Then, after that, when I thought it was going to be in a tiny paperback manga format, I would do bigger panels with less going on per page and then I got more dense at the end when I knew it was coming out as issues and I had a limited amount of pages.

SPURGEON: I should also probably ask -- the price point for King City is pretty great considering the number of pages involved and that there's a bit of color in there. Did you want to keep the price low for a specific reason? Is there a model for the kind of presence you want this to have in the marketplace, books that you feel would fit comfortably next to it on the bookshelf?

GRAHAM: The guys at Image had a big hand in pricing it so low and allowing even more options for cool stuff to throw in it -- like the French flaps and the color pages in the back. They've really had my back on all things. It's a long game plan of making something that is giant and cheap and denser than a lot of other comics. Hopefully enough to woo new readers into trying it out and keep them around for my future books.

For the format of it, I was thinking of this one-shot [Katuhiro] Otomo book I have that's the same size as his Akira books. I think a lot about the work Paul Pope was doing in the '90s, there was such an air of excitement to everything he was putting out then. I don't know if the books I'm doing really reflect that. Sometimes putting out comics feels to me like I'm balancing a broom on my hand and running around just to keep it up. That's some of the fun of it, too, just trying to make fun work out of what's thrown at me.

SPURGEON: I really like the way this page employs blacks, and that it's a bit offbeat in terms of structure from a lot of the rest of the book. How deliberate are you with page design, how important is that distinct visual impression to you?

GRAHAM: Thanks; page design and some of the jokes are what takes up the most time for me. Or at least it's the hardest stuff for me to do. Something I really like in drawing is that thing when the black of one shape bleeds into the black of another shape but your eye still makes out what is what. That's like magic to me.

SPURGEON: There's a great mini-sequence here where you isolate an image within a previous image -- the way the feet are placed to show a kind of forward intimacy. For someone that comes across to me as a pretty natural cartoonist you use a lot of what I'd call underlining, calling attention to specific moments in the narrative through repetition or labeling. Do you think that's a fair assessment, and what do you achieve through moments like this one, above, really emphasizing that specific part of the previous picture?

GRAHAM: I like how well comics works for that sort of thing, you can just draw an arrow pointing at something and write "look!" next to it and it doesn't really throw anything off. I don't think of a panel like that as just a close up of another panel, as much as it looks like it. I still think of time progressing on the page. It's a beat of time.

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"It's Too Nice Of A Day To Be Acting Like That"

SPURGEON: That top tier, with the slap, how that's timed... it's funny. Do you feel like you always get the sense of timing you want out of sequences? Is that ever difficult for you?

GRAHAM: I think something like that helps if it's not that preplanned and just drawn in the moment or it helps me if I allow myself to change it dramatically If it's not working.

SPURGEON: The way your work is structured puts a lot of attention on the physical staging of certain scenes. In the above, those last two panels, there's a thousand different ways you could portray that, but you choose a way, for instance, that show the two figures in relation to one another. That seems to be something that's concerned people from the mainstream comics tradition maybe more than those in art comics, a reliance on storytelling through the placement of bodies. How much do you key on staging as a part of your storytelling?

GRAHAM: It's really important to me to make it clear to the reader the characters' relationships with each other and where they are. When I was learning the mechanics of comics growing up I was obsessed with establishing shots and keeping everything constant. yeahs later I noticed that a lot of my favorite books were much more casual about that sort of thing, I've tried to ease off a little.

SPURGEON: With a black and white work like this one, where there's a lot of shading, was there a learning curve in terms of how the eye moves according to the different hues involved? Like Mudd on this page, the eye just seizes on him because of the dark clothing, darker skin, dark hair. Is there any danger at all in a figure or object that kind of draws attention on the page? Is Joe foregrounded, for example, in order to give him more visual strength?

GRAHAM: I got a lot more daring with how I was toning the book as I got used to it. For most of the pages It's not something I thought about until I was already toning it.

SPURGEON: I love the cat house... how much time did you spend with the architecture on this book? Because I honestly can't tell if the buildings are fanciful with maybe a few exceptions, or if they're more rigorously designed.

GRAHAM: There wasn't much preplanning on the looks of any buildings. Sometimes I'd use photo reference. I have a couple photography books full of buildings that I would go through when drawing city scenes.

I remember when I was drawing this page I had it just labeled "the cat house" and my pal James Stokoe looked at it and said "man, you're slipping. at least call it something like El Cat-cienda" so I included both names.

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"It's Got A High End Mercy Lock With An Eight Dragon Seal"

SPURGEON: So is there really such a thing in your mind as a mercy lock and a dragon seal, or are you just being fanciful there? How much attention do you pay to naming things, and the more writerly aspects of fashioning a story like this one? How did you write?

GRAHAM: The biometric satin stone hand print lock from earlier in the book was based off of a real thing. Whenever I say mercy I'm always think of the French for thank you -- merci. For the dragon seal I was thinking of the six demon bag from the movie Big Trouble In Little China. It's nice when the names I come up with can relate to something else in my life.

SPURGEON: The main reason I fixated on this page is I thought it was a good example of how you occasionally stop the flow of your narrative with a kind of diagram or map or game board or other visual element that's distinctly narrative cartooning. Is that just you having fun? Is something like this diagram and all of the materials named within it a way to stop the narrative for a second? Because I think the flow issue get really interesting when there's suddenly a map, or a game board, or connect-the-dots.

GRAHAM: It's mostly just me having fun when I do this kind of thing. Although, it takes the most time. I think of this kind of stuff as something that a reader might not spend that much time on the first time but hopefully makes a book more fun to read again later. I've noticed that when I'm going through something I've done, I just skip over most pages like this.

SPURGEON: This may be the only page we selected that features Earthling. Where did that design come from? I don't recall ever seeing a cat stylized in that way, but maybe I'm just forgetting something.

GRAHAM: He looked more like a normal cat in some early drawings. I'm not sure where the football head came from. It always felt a little like Sanrio's Helly kitty to me.

SPURGEON: Joe's relationship with the cat, this kind of martial artistry... a really facile way to look at fighting like that in comics is as some sort of reflection of the cartoonist's attitudes towards his art, the skill set he has. Is there anything we get out of the fact that a lot of what Joe does is facilitating this thing outside of himself? I know it's a stretch, but do you feel distinct, separate from your art?

GRAHAM: I'm always trying to relate what I'm talking about in stories to how I feel about something in my life, so that seems pretty accurate. I do think of my work and my ability to work as a separate animal from me.

It feels like a relationship that requires some maintenance. I always feel like I have to keep it going -- working to stay in love with making comics.

Sometimes it's revisiting work that first got me excited to make comics or finding new comics I'm excited about.

It can be trying to find things in other mediums that get me thinking about things I haven't seen done in comics or something as simple as just remembering that I like making lines on paper.

*****

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"I'm Here To Rescue You"

SPURGEON: What appealed to you about this page that this is one of the ones that you suggested we talk about? I know how lame that question is, but I'm genuinely curious.

GRAHAM: I know it's not a particularly exciting visual page but it's the page that I was on when Tokyopop canceled the book.

SPURGEON: Oh. Okay. Huh.

GRAHAM: At the time it made me feel almost like they were trying to stop her from being rescued.

There was a big gap between when I drew this page and the next one. The scene after this -- with the fight where Joe loses his syringes and the other catmasters show up was done with the book in limbo and then the last page of that scene with Mudd's hair eating a bird was when I started it up again knowing it would be issues through Image.

SPURGEON: This page shows off your tendency to work in three horizontal tiers across the page. In fact, I think three tiers is the default structure of the book and that across the page panels is probably used more than any other kind of time measurement. What works for you about that structure?

GRAHAM: I assume it's just a refection of a lot of the comics I was reading when I was learning to draw. Even though I don't do many 6 panel grids I think of that as the basic bones of a page.

SPURGEON: More generally, how naturally does structure come to you when you're breaking a page down? Do you struggle with those kinds of decisions? How do they make themselves apparent to you -- through drawing, through scripting... ?

GRAHAM: It comes pretty quickly, but what slows me up is trying to do something more interesting with a page than whatever my first take is. I often do rough layouts with a lot more panels than I end up using and then try to combine the actions and hopefully boil it down to what needs to be shown. Recently I've been doing the more complicated page layouts on really big butcher paper just so I have lots of room to think.

SPURGEON: There's a really nice moment in the bottom, left-hand panel where the two hands touch and the word "nothing" appears over them. First, of all, I'm not entirely sure what that means. Am I missing something obvious? Because I assumed at first it meant an absence of feeling, but I'm not really seeing that played out as the story progresses. Second, how frequently do you try to employ that kind of lettering effect, where there's a visual element involved?

GRAHAM: There's a scene earlier in the book where Pete and the alien girl first hold hands and the word "trust" is there.

SPURGEON: Okay. I did miss that.

GRAHAM: I really like this sort of thing, being able to tack notes onto picture to add to them. It reminds me of a great page that Tom Herpich did in his Cusp book where he shows a fist with the words "your guts are like this" and then an open hand "do this" and then he goes onto show the text without the hands but the words and the pictures have become married. "your guts are like this"/"do this"

SPURGEON: I'm not sure I have any questions regarding what's shown on this page in a narrative sense, but is there anything to be said about the nature of what he's risking here? Because I guess there's an element of danger involved, but mostly what we get on this page is the scariness of making this commitment to someone else. Is that fair? I'm curious, because you've slowed this moment down so I'm guessing it means something.

GRAHAM: I think it's mostly about this rescue that's meant to make everything better just being awkward and nothing like Pete was expecting.

*****

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[Silent Page]

SPURGEON: I wanted to talk about a silent page, because there aren't a lot of them. That was a bit surprising to me because your style seems like it would facilitate several stand-alone images like this one. To be honest, there's so much typography on display it's debatable whether this is "silent" in any way. But let's pretend it is. Are you conscious of using dialogue-light or even dialogue-less pages, how powerful that can be in the course of reading a comic?

GRAHAM: I remember when I drew this page I meant it to be two pages earlier but had to move it for the spread before it to work. Also this was a page that I based off of a photo I found. When I'm thinking about it I avoid doing many silent scenes just because I think of text as the best way to slow down the reader.

SPURGEON: I was actually surprised when I re-read King City that there weren't a lot of cityscape depictions, or there were at least fewer than I remembered. One thing about living in a city is that there's frequently a disconnect between the people living there and where they live. Was it important to you to depict the city itself, or in this case was it really more about the characters and what it's like to live in a city as opposed to the characteristics of this specific place?

GRAHAM: I like being able to show something from far away to convey that other things are going on at the same time as the main focus of the story. It was important for me to show the city but I wasn't ever trying to make it a specific city as much as show how it feels to live in big metropolis. Aside from Anna and Max's apartment I didn't really even have any landmarks that I went back to.

I remember reading that when they drew Spider-Man 2099 the artists had planned out how the city was laid out and redrew the same skyline. It's impressive, but I could see it making things less fun.

SPURGEON: You seem to a real knack for proportion and scale, what smaller and larger figures and the disparities between them can communicate on the page. Is that something that just appeals to you in a visual sense, or are you trying to communicate through story moments that count on there being this contrast between figures and some building or monster or event?

GRAHAM: Thanks, I love showing the characters in a story relating to their environment and the props around them. I feel like it helps to ground things and make everything more believable as real. There's something so fun about believing your own lie that there's any depth or large scale on a flat piece of paper.

*****

* King City, Brandon Graham, Image Comics, Softcover, 424 pages, 9781607065104, 2012, $19.99.

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* images provided by Graham; most images are hopefully contextual in that we talk about them directly; the top and bottom images were sent along by Graham with the others

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