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A Short Interview With Kazimir Strzepek
posted November 19, 2006
 

imageWith strengths both in terms of bringing its reader an involving narrative and visual sumptuousness, comics has always been a great way to tell a fantasy story. At first glance, you may think you've seen The Mourning Star before, in a thousand mini-comics false starts and forgotten 1980s black and white hopefuls. A cartoon-art take on familiar fall-of-society, hit-the-road, hand-to-mouth tropes, Kazimir Strzepek's new work distinguishes itself for its pleasing design elements, its effortless blend of mundane and fantastic ideas brought to the reader in matter-of-fact fashion, and an accomplished sense of flow that rips during action scenes and slows down appropriately when dialog and rumination drive the story.

I can't argue that The Mourning Star will strike everyone as transcendent work; with fantasy among those delicate genres that can fall apart two pages before the end it's likely we'll not be able to enter a final verdict on anything until the story's completion. Still, this selection from Bodega Books' first foray into comics publishing proves to be fun comics-making of the type I could read every week: odd, charming, stuffed with compelling visuals and a surprising story moment or five. Not knowing a damn thing about the artist, I looked forward to interviewing him. The Seattle-based cartoonist was enthusiastic and charming. He also dropped more name than anyone should have a right to in a short interview, making our chat at the very least linktastic.

*****

TOM SPURGEON: I don't know anything about you other than you were born in Hawaii and now live in Seattle. Is there an over-some-drinks version of your life story you can lay on me?

KAZIMIR STRZEPEK: Ehhh... there's nothing really exciting. I moved to Hawaii from California when I was four years old. My parents had no real reason... just wanted to live in paradise. Flash forward 18 or so years, I was finishing up my animation degree at the University of Hawaii and took my first plane trip out of the islands to check out the 2001 San Diego Comic Con. It was there that I met a ton of artists I look up to including Johnny Ryan, Steve Weissman and Jordan Crane.

Coming home, I realized that if I wanted to be serious about comics -- with only a semester left to go, I was already burnt out on animation. Don't tell my parents -- I'd have to move to the mainland to avoid paying $650+ just to fly to a convention to get my stuff out there. I took a second trip and after getting some encouraging emails, I decided to pack up my essentials and move to the West Coast. I haven't had a decent Spam musubi ever since.

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SPURGEON: Is there anything unique about the influences you were seeing there? Is there a greater Asian influence than you might find in, say, Oklahoma City?

STRZEPEK: Oh yeah, most definitely! Hawaii culture is so comprehensive of East meeting West. I grew up in a mostly Asian/local community, and I think learning about different cultures and participating in traditions broadened my childhood experiences.

As for early Asian influences, I had a lot of vinyl Kamen Rider and Kikaida toys and coloring books when I was little. I think those, Godzilla/Gamera and M.U.S.C.L.E. toys really sparked my interest in drawing creatures and junk. There also used to be a couple local Japanese television channels, KIKU and NGN, that had bootlegged Dragon Ball episodes and Crayon Shinchan -- kinda like a Japanese Dennis the Menace but with more nudity -- years before anime and all that stuff got popular on the mainland.

SPURGEON: Is Seattle still a good cartooning town?

STRZEPEK: It is! And Fantagraphics just opened their own shop in the Georgetown district.

SPURGEON: Do you socialize with other cartoonists? What's the scene like?

STRZEPEK: When I first moved here, one of the first art shows I attended was for David Lasky. Through him, I was introduced to the FineComix crew: Scott Faulkner, Mark Campos, Dalton Webb, Stefan Gruber and Tatiana Gill. They get together and chat about comics and do jams every once and a while. Jim Woodring and friends also have a weekly get together. I know other rad guys like Corey 'the Rey' Lewis, Brandon Graham and I think Greg Stump still live in Seattle.

This place is cool. But I am a little bummed out though after attending the Stumptown Comic Fest in Portland last month. More and more of my favorite artists are moving to PDX. What the hell?!? I wish I had something negative to say about the place to help detour all my comix buddies up north, but besides the high comic-nerd on comic-nerd crime rate, and the problem of acidic air that yellows archival paper, I can't think of any.

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SPURGEON: Do people ever mistake you for Kaz Prapuolenis?

STRZEPEK: You mean the real Kaz? [laughs] Yeah!

SPURGEON: Are there any funny stories there?

STRZEPEK: First off, David Lasky loves introducing me to other people as just "Kaz" and letting them gush about Underworld to me and how young I look for drawing comix for so long. That used to be embarrassing. But here's my funny altercation with the real Kaz: He once sent me a friendly e-mail after seeing this weekly comic I used to do for reddingk.com, inquiring about the origin of my name a such. I wrote a response explaining that I was in no way trying to rip him off and that we had actually met at a convention -- SDCC 2001 -- a long time ago and that I was a big fan of his work.

Now mind you, I may have been drunk while writing this email... so I then continued in my email explaining, tongue in cheek, that he shouldn't be concerned about me being a crazed comic fanboy, who was "stalking him and planning to skin him alive, wear and/or feast on his flesh, combine our Kaz-ness and be born into new worlds as the ULTIMATE KAZ." I figured by the the sense of humor in his work that he'd probably find this hilarious. In retrospect, I now see this made my well-intended offer to get his address so that I could send him copies of my minis extremely awkward. Not surprisingly, his email response was rather laconic... it just said he did recall meeting me and that he liked my style and good luck on my future endeavors. I wouldn't be surprised if I was on his blocked list.

SPURGEON: Tell me about the genesis of The Mourning Star. It has a very idiosyncratic feel to it. Were there specific inspirations? Was this a story you carried around with you for a long time?

STRZEPEK: It was all a pretty much new story. Several of the plot lines within the story are loose metaphors to events and the character archetypes are somewhat like relationships in my life. Not the parts where they're fighting a giant centipede, or where one character gets his head chopped off, though. Physically, two of the main characters, Klavir and Futch, originated from a short animation piece I did for school back in 2001. I felt like there was more potential beyond the short for those characters. I just revamped the story to include more of their world.

As for comic inspiration, Megan Kelso's Artichoke Tales most definitely got me scheming about Mourning Star. I first saw it as a short story in NON #5, and just recently found a few additional minis she self-published. It's a really enjoyable series about these waring nations of people with leafy artichoke bracts and stems for hair. The universe is very self contained and charming. It was her work and stuff like Brian Ralph's that reminded me that indie comics could be unapologetically fantasy/adventure and weren't just slice-of-life, potty humor and auto-bio comics.

Another artist that's influenced me who was also in NON would be Mat Brinkman; his stuff is so great. Teratoid Heights is one of my favorite books of all time.

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SPURGEON: Where did you come by your sense of character and creature design? They almost look like 1960s animation or something you might see on stickers.

STRZEPEK: Basically, the North Ender race -- with the pointy ears -- originated from doodles I used to make of Nosferatu. I was required to do a short animation piece for school and I decided I wanted to make some kinda dreary, deserted wasteland world where the main character would have to go on this fantastic journey to bring his loved one out of a mysterious coma. I was thinking about what physical traits would be appropriate for a native of this planet, and at the time I drew this one-page gag comic about the Hamburglar making friends with the Wolfman, Frankenstein and a vampire by giving them "monster porn." The vampire was drawn Nosferatu style, not like Dracula.

And for some reason, I kept on drawing this character in the lining of my class notes and junk. Slowly he became cuter and squat... and yeah, I just figured an animation about a lonely vampire in a wasteland sounded cool. When I started the book, I think the Nosferatu feel became a bit lost, although Klavir still sorta resembles the classic character, all the other North Enders seem to be more of an elf-alien combo. As for the other characters and creatures... I don't know... I just goof around.

SPURGEON: Is this a collection of mini-comics or something long-form you set out to do just for this release? And why Bodega?

STRZEPEK: Yeah, I self published the first two issues as mini-comics a couple years ago, mostly selling them online and at the few conventions I could attend. My attitude towards starting Mourning Star was more of an exercise. Before all of this, most of my comics were just gag strips. Lots of dicks, shit, butt-holes and cats. And I kinda wanted to grow and do an actual story with some kind of plot and character development.

So anyway, I was attending a few conventions, and at the 2005 APE in SF, Randy Chang -- who runs Bodega -- and Tom Devlin came by and said they really dug what they saw so far and to keep in touch. Now, I'm an extremely huge fan of Highwater Books, so I was shitting bricks. After that show, I entertained the idea that if I were ever picked up, who would I like to be my publisher, or with a book like Mourning Star, what publisher carries the same sensibilities and genres. Of course there's quite a few I would loved to have heard from, and on the top of my list would have been Highwater, if it were still around.

Randy and I talked about the direction he's going with artists lined up -- Dave K and Brian Ralph's are currently the other two put out so far -- and the books sounded really exciting to me. Bodega's just starting up and I'm stoked to be included at this early stage. I'm hoping the word spreads and readers enjoy our books and other deserving artists get this kind of opportunity.

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SPURGEON: Can you talk about your approach to page design a bit? You're working with a base two-panel by two-panel page -- how did you decide to do that? What effect are you going for when you add panels to that mix, or make the page out of fewer panels?

STRZEPEK: I draw really small. The original pages are pretty much the size they appear in the book. So being limited to only so much space, I can only fit in so many panels in one page. There is certain imagery and moods I try to deliver to readers, and I suppose one tactic would be the large one panel page. I also like playing with panels by tilting or skewing them to add action. I don't know if that really works; I'm still learning.

SPURGEON: How much further do you plan on extending this story? Do you have an end in mind?

STRZEPEK: I do have an end in mind... there are certain events I want to occur, but some of the connecting downtime parts still need to be fleshed out. I was kinda hoping it would be only six mini comics or so long... but since I just collected the first three in this book, and I've barely scratched the surface of what I want to do, I'm thinking it might be double that. Maybe four or five collected books? I really enjoy working on this series and I'm happy with the characters so far... so as long as my boss will print them and people enjoy them, I'll gladly continue working on it.

SPURGEON: Unlike a lot of people doing this kind of fantasy work, you seem to have a real passion for showing mundane activities, like cooking and the constant attention paid to how much water one has left. Does figuring out these survival steps have a specific appeal to you?

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STRZEPEK: Yeah, I enjoy it and I hope it brings in a realness and believability to the characters and universe. Everybody has to cook. Or use the restroom. Believe it or not, even Superman and Nightcrawler have to. I feel these activities bring life and personality to the characters. I want the readers to know about these things.

I suppose I also feel that when in a post-apocalyptic setting, small mundane things like eating or having water and such are actually momentous and could be day-long tasks of their own. I bet Mad Max got the runs from eating dog food all the time, and it would be a story in itself if he spent the entire day hunting down the last surviving container of baby wipes to tame his uncomfortable imposition. Another perk would also be that I get to draw more cool gadgets like the portable campfire thing.

SPURGEON: Why are some pages black and some pages white?

STRZEPEK: I just thought it would look cool. Especially now as a square-bound book, when you look at the edge of the pages.

SPURGEON: There's a lot of attention paid to memory in the book -- some people don't want to think about the past, some people can't help it, and so on. Do you think in terms of building metaphors like that in your work, or do these things just kind of naturally develop around the story?

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STRZEPEK: I do have some personal metaphors underlining the story, but not much has been revealed in this first book. And it's not entirely tied to the theme of memory. I'm still playing around with some ideas for the series in the long run; and getting back to memory, I think it's interesting how the same event can be viewed -- and remembered -- differently from other people's perspectives.

Wow, now that I've given this question some thought, I just realized one of the female character's name is actually "Memmori." What the hell, that's scary! That was not intentional.

*****

The Mourning Star, Kazimir Strzepek, Bodega, Paperback, 220 pages, $13.95, 0977767914 (ISBN), AUG063122 (Diamond)

*****
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