A Short Interview With Lilli Carré posted August 2, 2009
I've greatly enjoyed Chicago-based cartoonist, artist and animator Lilli Carré's first few forays into the world of comics. Longer works such as Tales of Woodsman Pete and especially The Lagoon were stuffed with undeniably interesting formal techniques even if you cared not one whit for the comics themselves. There's a soulful element to Carré's writing that helps greatly to involve the reader in the surface narratives, one that's put to good use in her latest, Nine Ways To Disappear. While I look forward to seeing what Carré does next and far into the future, I don't want anyone to miss what she's accomplished in this latest work, which I thought slipped out largely and unfairly unnoticed. Carré paid great attention to the following; it's the longest I've ever waited for answers to come back, but I think it's worth it. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Lilli, I know very little about you other than what I've read in a pair of interviews. What kind of art did you enjoy and pursue before you began to discover comics while in art school? What qualities to your current art remain, do you think, from that early exploration of art?
LILLI CARRÉ: When I moved to Chicago I was certain that I wanted to be a sound artist, but once I started classes I began to leap from department to department. The way the school is set up is rather amoebic, and you don't have to define a major or anything, so you can slide around wherever you want. I ended up becoming very interested in creative writing, film, and printmaking. I think that working in all of those different areas informed the way I make and think about comics, much more so than if I had stuck in one area, or had strictly worked on comics at the time. Crafting new stories every week for creative writing classes and reading my own words in front of an audience was horrifying for me at first, but I grew to like it. I enjoyed hearing what popped out of everyone else's head, as well as reading my stuff out loud. Doing this made it a lot easier for me to trust my own stories and also gauge what seemed to resonate with people and what didn't. Around this time I started reading some short story writers that have inspired me very much, especially Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar.
While at the school, I got a job working in the Joan Flasch Artists' Book Collection. It was fantastic, best job of my life so far! I got to look through hundreds of artists' books, and pull them by theme for classes and people that came to visit the collection. There were editioned art objects and little books made of mirrors, cast chocolate butt holes (really), lots of odd die-cut and accordion books, all of the big RAW magazines... I drool just thinking about it. Being around all this got me even more excited about the possibilities of bookmaking, and influenced the forms of some of the book/comic projects I was printing in the offset class at school.
Also, while studying film and animation, I got to see lots of experimental films and animations that are stylistically very influential to me, especially the work of Chris Sullivan, Lewis Klahr, Janie Geiser, and Larry Jordan. Having to figure out through animation how to create a world, characters, and a mood from scratch translates pretty directly to doing the same in comics, which is one thing I like so much about the two. You start from nothing, a blank piece of paper, and have absolute freedom and control over what you want to build from there. I think my animation sensibilities have seeped into my comics-- perhaps the inclination to make more open-ended stories, or to want to make something feel slow or very fast when necessary, and the desire to want to feel lots of space and have the story feel immersive and experiential rather than trying to move it along as efficiently as possible. The mood of a piece is something I like to play with a lot, and is usually an integral part of whatever I'm working on. Anyhow, studying all of these things contributed quite a bit to the way I make and think about comics.
SPURGEON: I was wondering after your initial creative process, because it seems like you develop very firm ideas as to what you want to explore in a certain work. How do your ideas develop into specific projects? Do you keep a notebook, a sketchbook, do you free associate and build on certain notions? When does a project really click into place for you?
CARRÉ: A project usually clicks into place once I feel fired up about a particular incident or moment that I want to flesh out. I do keep a sketchbook, and will write ideas down as I get them. I'll look through my scribbles and see if I can link things or build anything from there. Often the impetus to start writing a story will be one little incident or observation from my life. One example is the idea for "Dorado Park." It came about while I was passing through a large park here where it's very easy to get disoriented and a little lost, and I was drawn to the idea of wandering a public park forever in loops and getting older. Another is with "Wide Eyes," which was sparked from having seen this girl around town that has some very wide-set eyes, and I kept going back forth between whether I thought she was quite seriously beautiful, or sort of spooky looking, it was a really thin line. I still haven't made up my mind. I began sculpting other details of the story from there, and usually the completed story ends up being about something quite different or larger than the particular incident that sparked the idea, which often ends up as a little detail. I usually just use one little grain of a story from real life to then build upon in my imagination. After I think of the general theme, I'll start writing down other ideas for it, and I'll often thumbnail it out and then start drawing.
SPURGEON:Nine Ways To Disappear seems like a curious project in formal terms following your first two books. I'm not familiar with Little Otsu -- can you talk about the practicalities of getting this one off the ground?
CARRÉ: I had worked on some illustration projects for Little Otsu back when they mostly put out paper goods. They share a storefront/office space with McSweeney's in San Francisco, which I believe inspired Little Otsu as they were beginning their own publishing efforts. A while back they asked me if I wanted to put out a book of my comics with them, to which I said "Yes!" They had been nice to work with on the other projects, and the things they print always end up looking really sharp. I thought it would be a good opportunity to experiment with a new book project, hoping to work looser than I had with the previous books. I think this is the fourth book Little Otsu has published so far, and I believe they have some more coming up, not necessarily comics though.
SPURGEON: Why a book of panel-per-page comics? That's a very specific and I think underutilized way of telling a story, one that makes people think of Edward Gorey or Dr. Seuss more than comics. Creatively, how did the project develop?
CARRÉ: I was very slow to figure out what I wanted to do for my Little Otsu book until I decided on the theme of disappearance and a one-panel-per-page square format. Once I set those parameters for myself, it was much easier to work on the book. I don't know what initially drew me to this format... I liked the idea of giving each panel a lot of attention, and having it read more like a storybook. Making every image the same size and on its own page gave the stories a certain pace that I liked, and every image had equal weight in that sense. Hmm, what else... I worked on it mostly all while out in parks and coffee shops for a change. It was refreshing to think-up the stories quickly as they popped into my head, having an idea of the main direction I wanted them to go in and then seeing how they evolved once I started them.
SPURGEON: How different was it for you to work with single-panel imagery after building pages in The Lagoon? Were you able to draw on your animation work, which has a similar "single window" into what we're seeing?
CARRÉ: I do like composing a page of multiple panels, and in The Lagoon it was something I had specifically tried to play with. The pacing from panel to panel was important for the mood of the story and I tried to have sounds threading through the panels and pages to connect them. In any case, working with just one panel was a nice and simple change, and I liked the focus on one image. Some of the stories seem to me particularly animation-like, within the one-panel style. "What am I going to do," "The Sun" and "Wait" seem sort of like key frames for an animation, with one thing morphing gradually into something else. I'd like to try making more work in that style. With on image per page this style works well I think, and with that singular window given to each image, there's more control over the reader's surprise with turning the page, there is a beat to the way it reads.
SPURGEON: This is probably a goofy question, but can you talk about the way the pages were framed, the decorative flourishes that surround each panel? They seem fairly representative of visual elements within the story, but it occurs to me I may be reading too much into that. Also, in the first story, they change, but they remain static in the rest. The book has a lot of those decorative elements, and also I wonder if that was simply fun to do?
CARRÉ: Well, the first story I wrote for the book was "Dorado Park", and I drew different borders around each image; I'm not entirely sure why, other than my love of borders (I just really like they way they look) and that it was indeed simply fun to do. I wanted the rest of the comics in my book to be consistent with "Dorado Park,: so I continued to use borders for all of them, but instead made one border to use with each story that would be vaguely related to the one it housed, either aesthetically or with a tiny nod to the content.
SPURGEON: In general design terms, how much are you involved with the overall look of your books? What are your some of your influences in that arena? I'm interested in maybe you talking about some of the choices with this book design-wise: the cover, the ink on the pages, the size of the book…
CARRÉ: The covers of my three books -- and often my mini comics as well -- have all ended up being fairly similar, design-wise; I always seem to go with a centered image, usually a character's big head smack dab in the center, surrounded by a border. I'm a little border-crazy; I can't help myself. I spent a lot of time with a Pantone book in my lap trying to pick out colors. Initially the pages were going to be two-color and the cover full-color, but we pared it down to a two-color cover, one-color inside cover and one-color for the interior pages. We did this to keep the cost of the book down, since LO prints everything they do on recycled paper with soy inks, which is a little more pricey to print. Sorry, this is some wildly unexciting stuff to hear about... [Spurgeon laughs] Anyway, LO picked the papers and the thickness, and I designed it and chose the colors and size and such. I really enjoy this part of working on a book.
I considered the design and feel of my book as an object before I started working on it, rather than after, and planned on it being small, chubby, and ornate. As far as other books that have a similar format and/or influenced the style of Nine Ways: I really like Sammy Harkham's Poor Sailor book, which uses this format; the pacing is perfect with one panel per page, it works beautifully for that story, and it's nice as its own small little book. Also last year I found a book at a seaside bookshop called Millions of Cats, a picture book by Wanda Gag, which is very charming and the drawings are also kind of dense and ornate. I liked the breathing room for each image paired with the density of her mark-making, and I tried to have that same feel in my book as well.
SPURGEON: I thought your lettering was attractive in the book, too. How much thought do you put into how the words are going to look on the page? In "The Sun" and "What Am I Going To Do?" you play with the lettering as a visual effect -- did you accomplish what you set out to do with the lettering in those stories?
CARRÉ: In this book I wanted the text in the boxes below the images to be pretty personality-less, just sounding like a regular voice in your head as you read. In the stories you listed, however, the text does enter the main image and plays a part in the action of the story, and this text I treated as part of the drawing. In "What Am I Going To Do," I tried to make that text feel like it was heavy in the air, and as if it was a character itself, which it actually quite literally turns out to be in that little story.
SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you about some of your creative choices. In "Wide Eyes," you depict the female character with an increasingly larger head and body in a way that portrays both the change in perception the male character has but also her growing discomfort. Why such a blunt physical metaphor there?
CARRÉ: I wanted her to physically appear increasingly a little more monstrous, the part of her that appeared to the male character as "alienesque" becoming more and more so. The problem grows literally out of proportion. I also wanted his entire body and head to fit between her eyes, there was something about the physical comedy of that that I couldn't shake, hammy or no.
SPURGEON: In the first story, I love the physicality of the vines. Were you being conscious about reinforcing those patterns in the floor, and in the protagonist's hair and in the speech of the man at the road? Are their specific visual elements appealing to you?
CARRÉ: I just like the look of that snaky line. I've been asked a lot if my drawings were made as woodcuts, which is a cool idea, but the reality of having made all of these as woodcuts seems crazy. I do really like the look of woodcuts and I think that my drawings in this book, specifically this story and the parts you mentioned, have that kind of gouged look, which is a style I'm drawn to. It wasn't a conscious decision to connect all of those patterns, it was just the way I felt like drawing them.
SPURGEON: I don't want to ask a whole lot of questions like this, because I think it ruins a lot of the discovery process with a comic like this, but I was taken with the drain comic as an idea. Where did that initial idea come from?
CARRÉ: Hmm, I'm not sure I have a satisfying answer for that one... Nowhere in particular. I began writing and it spilled out, that story especially quickly. I just started with the line about being a fish, but maybe it was raining that night and I was possibly distracted by thinking of storm drains…? I guess I'm not too good at picking apart where these story ideas come from, but this one is my favorite of the stories I made for the book, and the one I've heard the most reactions to.
SPURGEON: Lilli, was there a conscious attempt on your part to develop theme in a way that connected the stories here? Do you see anything in it now that you might not have originally intended, or do you exert more control over your work than that?
CARRÉ: I usually start rather open-ended and see where the stories go, but as I write them I like to connect things, especially with a batch of short stories like this. After deciding, "alright then, a general theme of disappearance, start!", I began with Dorado Park, and once I wrote the piece about the storm drain, the themes of those two stories steered the rest, about all these people and things that slip between the cracks, and odd forms of temptation that leave you in the middle of nowhere, or with nothing. I intend for a certain amount of connectedness, but there are certainly plenty of things in there that I don't realize until I read them later or as a whole collection. That may be the most interesting part for me; coming across patterns in my stories that I didn't set out to make, but that are clear as day when you step back and look at them.
SPURGEON: I thought there was a sweetness to the book that was reinforced by its measured pace, and I left it with a feeling that while life can be arbitrary and unfair it can also be full of rich experiences and that most of them can be coped with. Do you have an opinion about the underlying value of these stories? Do you think your work to date has been a reflection of your general point of view? Do you recognize yourself in your comics?
CARRÉ: I think it would be hard to keep one's views from seeping into his or her comics. I really like what you came away with after reading the book. As I wrote the stories I didn't have the intention of that being the overall theme of the book, but I think that a lot of my comics end up with that kind of feeling. I've tried to write more peppy things, but they always get a little twisted into themselves and end up like this, with something like this general feeling. They're all little bits of my head; I can recognize myself in the storm drain, the button, the sleepwalker, the upstairs neighbor, the girl on the chair, the bad joke writer, all of 'em.
SPURGEON: As a younger cartoonist that's emerging in this kind of book publishing-focused comics world, I wonder how you thought about the vocation of comics. Do you have a sense, when you look at the opportunities and venues that might be available to you, that you can make comics a part of your artistic life? Do you want to, long-term?
CARRÉ: I hope to always be able to make comics. I don't know if I'd count on it as a main job, plus I feel like I need to do something else to counter the solitude that I need while working on comics. But yes, I hope there continue to be venues for putting more comics out into the world and that I get the opportunity to do so.
SPURGEON: Do you like the promotional aspects of comics? How do you find the process of talking about your work in the hopes that people will buy it?
CARRÉ: I'm not so great with the promotional aspects of comics. I find it hard to be a salesman of my work, and frankly I'm no good with such things anyway. I do enjoy going to comic conventions, though -- I like being around and indulging in so many new comics, and getting to meet and talk to other cartoonists. I can be a bit of an over-stimulated blushing wreck, but I have fun. Otherwise I am just happy to have some work out there for people to stumble upon.
CARRÉ: I've never really worked with someone else's narrative, let alone one as deeply, punch-in-the-gut sad as Hans Christian Andersen's The Fir-Tree. So that was a new way of working for me. I was invited to work on this project of adapting the story with illustration, and it was refreshing to work on something narrative and not feel the pressure of building my own story, but rather getting to embellish this pre-existing one. I liked breaking up the text into different pages, and figuring out what imagery that would compliment it well. I had to think about what talking sunlight or a pompous rat might look like, etc. Also there was the challenge of anthropomorphizing a tree without giving it a face or anything, as I thought a tree with a face might look very stupid, so I tried to make it look devastated through the arrangement of its branches and such, and by allowing it to be a tree that sweats. This project yanked me out of my tendencies to draw things I normally might, like water or leaves or wild women, so that was good. I definitely prefer crafting my own stories and making up my own scenarios to just illustrating those of others', but it is fun once in a while to have the chance to work on something that would never come out of my own head, and to flex strange muscles in doing so.
SPURGEON: What is it about Chicago that makes it a good city for artists?
CARRÉ: I like Chicago because it's got a lot of character as a city, it's cheap to live here, and it's crawling with amazing cartoonists. The winter is so miserable that it makes you stay indoors and get work done. I think I may move to a new city sometime soon, just for a change of pace and avoiding the aforementioned winter of misery (I've got this sissy west coast blood!), but I think Chicago is a great place to live as an artist, especially as a cartoonist.
SPURGEON: Where will we see your work next?
CARRÉ: More stories for MOME, and another animation, someday soon!
* Nine Ways To Disappear, Lilli Carré, Little Otsu, softcover, 192 pages, 2009, $12.95
* cover to book
* image from animation
* image from MOME #14
* image from The Lagoon
* drain image from Nine Ways
* another single image from Nine Ways
* two images from The Fir Tree
* two videos from the artist (below)