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CR Sunday Interview: T. Edward Bak
posted October 23, 2011



imageI first interviewed T. Edward Bak in 2007, coming off of Bodega's publication of a collection of his Service Industry alt-weekly strips. I had been reading him for years before that; the first memory of his work that sticks were the comics he placed in the early Sparkplug effort Orchid. His main project the last few years is Wild Man: The Strange Journey And Fantastic Account Of The Naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, From Bavaria To Bolshaya Zemlya (And Beyond). The title alone should give you an idea that this has a chance to be a substantial comic about a grandly worthy subject. Pages from that work -- as well as pages that won't go anywhere near the final product -- were serialized in the recently concluded anthology MOME.

I'm not certain I know of anyone else doing comics exactly like Bak's. In the Wild Man pages, the cartoonist alternates between graceful drawings from nature and these strangely textured tableaux that communicate as clashing shapes, like a box of rocks collapsed in on itself. Bak recently went to Saint Petersburg, Russia to take part in that city's International Comics Festival Boomfest, where he presented on his work and spoke about the general DIY efforts of his friend Dylan Williams' Sparkplug Comic Books. I had no idea what this show entailed or how he snared an invite, so I used the opportunity presented by this site to satisfy my curiosity.

We began our conversation by talking about the late Williams. A small part of that conversation I've included here because of the organic way our discussing Williams allowed for a transition into other topics. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: This must be a tough time.

T. EDWARD BAK: Yeah. It's a shitty thing. I'm still dealing with it, and everybody else is, too. It helped me, to go to Russia. The last exchange I had with Dylan was over e-mail. I found out I was going, and I told him about it. I told him I wanted to take Sparkplug. He loved that; he thought it was great. So I was really happy to be able to do that, because I know he was stoked about that. That made me feel good, too: to connect with people in Saint Petersburg and tell them about Dylan, kind of talk about Sparkplug and his vision, his take on things, this embrace of underground and outsider artists. It was good for me to talk about that with other people. It was strange, because they're people I don't really know. Dylan's always in the back of my mind. He was the first person to put faith in me and my work. The sensibility I've developed is because of Dylan in a lot of ways.

SPURGEON: How did you meet Dylan?

BAK: I was living in Athens. We met through Ben Catmull. Ben I met first. And Ben was like, "You should meet Dylan Williams." And I'm like, "Yeah, that guy." Dylan and I started exchanging e-mails and when we met, it was funny, we hit it off right away. It was like old friends running into each other again. I would come out to visit and talk about my stupid ideas and he was always like, "Yeah, that sounds great." [laughs]

SPURGEON: Now, we last spoke in an official sense about four years ago.

BAK: When I was at CCS, yeah.

SPURGEON: In that interview you talked about when you lived in Athens, Georgia, and that you felt you had a greater sympathy with artists in other places. You're in one of those places a lot of the time now: Portland, Oregon. Has that worked out for you, being in Portland? Is that a comfortable place for you?

BAK: This past summer I was traveling a lot, and I went to Athens for the first time in five years. I have so many friends there. It was a great, phenomenal experience. But it was a different time in my life. I feel I sort of outgrew being down there. I really like being close to the ocean. I grew up in Denver, where there are a lot of pine trees, a lot of fir trees and stuff, but it's not as diverse.

SPURGEON: You're pretty far from the ocean in Denver, too.

BAK: [laughs] Don't get me wrong: the Southwest is phenomenal. Amy and I drove through New Mexico to Tucson from Colorado. It's so beautiful. Arizona, too. But could I do it year-round? No, I couldn't. Maybe in the winter... I need to be near the coast. I think the proximity is kind of important for me. I don't really understand why. I'm fascinated with the North Pacific. It's nice to have a lot of trees, you know? I really like it.


SPURGEON: Let me ask you about Russia. How did your trip to Russia come about? This is Saint Petersburg's festival, right?

BAK: Boomfest. It's a pretty amazing festival. Me and Julie Doucet were the only North American cartoonists, but here were so many fantastic European artist and Russian artists who were invited and who participated. There was a Hugo Pratt exhibition. A lot of great stuff that was exhibited and presentations for like a month. There was something going on every day. It was all because of this guy Dmitry Yakovlev. He's the guy that does all of it. He organized the whole thing. He's a publisher. He just published the Russian translation of Epileptic, which translated into something like Spiritual Malady, I guess. They didn't want to refer to it as a disease. He's the organizer. Joe Sacco's been over there a few times, I think two times, maybe. José Alaniz, I don't know if you know that guy, he just wrote a history of Russian comics out from the University of Mississippi.

I became friends with these guys through some artists in Portland that are Croatian, Eastern European. They're trying to establish this kind of like Eastern European pipeline [laughs] with Portland and Croatia. Anyhow, through these artists, who had seen what I was working on as far as the Steller stuff, and knew I was interested in Russia, I started to talking to Jose and he said, "You have to get involved with this Boomfest thing." I kept talking to them about it, and eventually when I went to TCAF this past summer I talked with Philippe Girard. He just did a book about a guy in Saint Petersburg and went last year. I was at the Fantagraphics table with Janice [Headley] and Mike [Baehr] [laughs] and of course nobody comes by to see the guy who's drawn one thing in MOME and nobody's reading it. [laughter] So this guy is nice enough to come back over and say hi. I had met him in Montreal the night before. This was awesome: I rode with Dave Collier on the train from Montreal to Toronto. That guy's amazing. [laughter] He's the greatest storyteller, he has just good, awesome, honest stories. He's sort of eccentric, but he has amazing stuff. So I traded stories with him.

So Philippe comes over to the Fantagraphics table, he didn't really know what I was doing, but he looked trhough the MOME stuff and said, "Oh, this is in Saint Petersburg. This is like Russian history. You need to talk to these guys at Boomfest." The lightbulb went off and I was like, "He's talking about the guy that Jose and Joe have talked about." I started e-mailing the guy, and he said, "We need to apply for a grant through the Russian consulate: a state department grant." So I did all that. I had very little time. My visa didn't go through until after my ticket was bought. I had the money from the grant, the grant went through, but the Visa didn't clear until literally the day before I was supposed to leave. I was sweating bullets. It was such a nightmare.

SPURGEON: You presented at this festival, am I right?

BAK: I went over there to make a presentation on this project. I don't speak Russian. Fortunately, they had a translator. I got to explore the city and hang out with these great Russian artists. Steller was an adjunct professor with the Saint Petersburg Academy Of Sciences. So I got to see stuff the camera was new when he was there, and a lot of that stuff is preserved. A lot of the architecture is the same as when he was there and the academy was new. That was nice to go there and photograph that stuff for reference. The Nazis bombed outside the city, but they didn't do any damage to the stuff inside. So it's all pretty much preserved.

imageSPURGEON: That's one of the great cities of the world. What was your impression of Saint Petersburg? I hear it's New York-y.

BAK: Yeah, it is very much like New York. That's a great approximation. The first day I was nervous. I got to the airport, and I'd been flying for a long time. It's hard for me to sleep on a plane, so my brain was fried. I got off the plane and I'm in this airport. Everything out there is Soviet-era; it's great, really depressing. It's strange. Everything smells like cigarette smoke, because people smoke constantly. Everywhere. It was mind-blowing. I couldn't believe it. The cigarettes are so harsh. I bought some to smoke when I was there: fuck. Anyhow, I go outside the airport and the person that's supposed to meet me is this 16-year-old girl. She's standing in the airport holding a sign that says "Edward Bak." She speaks good English, so she helps me out for the first couple of days.

We go outside, and it's far outside the city. Everything is like I said dilapidated Soviet-style architecture. We took a bus to the subway. The bus goes through this part of town that's sort of like a suburb. It's crazy. There are old Soviet-style apartments. The old parts of the suburb, the way it's laid out, and you can see it from the air, too, it looks like huge barracks or something. We drove past one section and these buildings are these flat, gray, and you look at some of the windows and the balconies from a distance and it's like they've been firebombed. Like they had a gas explosion or something. There were many places like this. It looked a little strange to see that. One of the things that was interesting is that there's an 11-hour time difference. So in the middle of the afternoon is usually when I'm asleep or dreaming. I'm walking around in this place, it's completely surreal, I can't understand anything or anyone, and it's the time of day I'd usually be dreaming of strange shit. I really enjoyed it.

SPURGEON: What kind of feedback did you get from your presentation?

BAK: I didn't know what to expect. I know I wanted to talk about Dylan and Sparkplug, so I did. That was the first part of it. Then I segued into my relationship with Sparkplug, what I'm doing, how I became interested in this subject. I went off on Steller, and talked about natural history in the North Pacific. I didn't impress anyone with my knowledge, but I feel they were sufficiently convinced I had done some research. [laughter] That made me feel good, because people were like, "Wow, this is Russian history." People more than one time told me, "Some people here don't even know the history of this." People know that Peter the Great founded the city, but a lot of people don't know about the history of the Academy of Sciences.

We went on a boat ride. It was about 9 o'clock at night. All the artists were taken on a boat ride down the Neva River, which was phenomenally beautiful.

SPURGEON: The Neva goes right through the city, right?

BAK: Yeah. I was like, "Oh, there's the Kunstkamera." And some of the Russians were like, "That's not it," but I kept saying, "That's it." And it was. [Spurgeon laughs] Some of them didn't know where it was. I wasn't like, "In your face, Russian!" [laughter] I was pretty sure that was it. That was phenomenal. It was great to see that kind of stuff. The people were very receptive.


SPURGEON: Was this other cartoonists, fans, artists in related fields? Who goes to something like your presentation?

BAK: There were so many things going on. There were people interested in all of the presentations. They took place over four or five hours, in three or four different centers. A lot of artists were there. For these kinds of presentations, it was other artists attending. It was like APE: you have people that are making comics or are interested in making comics. There were journalists there, too, of course.

SPURGEON: Is there a local scene in Saint Petersburg?

BAK: It's kind of a thing between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Moscow has a different thing that seems a little bit busier. There are more artists in Moscow. Saint Petersburg has some great people and some great artists. I don't think it's as big or as complex as it is in Moscow. They're all very supportive is the thing. The people from Moscow and Saint Petersburg all knew each other. The whole group knew each other from Angouleme and other festivals. I was the real oddball. I knew Julie Doucet, but we had met once ten years ago.

SPURGEON: Was that a different feeling for you, perhaps odd or even affecting, to be around these international artists?

BAK: It made me feel really good. It made me feel great on one level because I could have done the American thing and been the typical American whatever here. But I'm really interested in this art, and really interested in this culture. I fully embraced it, and I felt welcome by everybody else. Everyone was so supportive; everyone wanted to do stuff together. I felt bad I didn't get to do as much stuff with everyone as I could have. I don't speak Russian, and sometimes people would leave the hotel earlier, and I would try to catch a cab where I wanted to go. [laughs] The language barrier is tough. There are different places with the same name some times, and I'd show up at the different place with the same name. I was very close to where I was supposed to be, but I ended up missing some things because I would go to the one place.

SPURGEON: [laughs]

BAK: I know! It's frustrating. I think Dmitry thought I was blowing people off and trying to do my own thing without anyone else. I was just being the dumb American. I should have asked for a little more help. Eventually I realized I had to.


SPURGEON: You mentioned doing some research, taking some photos. How far along are you on the Steller work? What's left to be done?

BAK: I draw every day. Or at least try to draw every day. I had to seriously look at it. I've been doing this three years, a lot of the early stuff I've drawn is not even going to be in the book. A lot of the early stuff from MOME is not going to be in there. I had to look at what is the most realistic thing. I could easily be doing this for the next ten years. But I also have other things I want to work on. This kind of takes up most of my creative time. I'm in school, too. I'm in school partially because of this project.

I have to decide how much time I want to do this. I don't want to cut corners, but I really need to get some more travel experience. I'd really like to make it to Kamchatka. I'd really like to get back to Alaska one more time. For this -- I plan on getting back to Alaska as much as I can. For this particular project I'd like to get back at least one time where Steller actually went ashore and explored. Southeast Alaska. So in three or four years I'd like to have it finished. I think that's doable.

SPURGEON: Are you going to use the same visual approach that you employed in the last couple of chapters?

BAK: I was so excited to get started on this thing, I just went after it and tried to work a lot of ideas that I knew I wanted to use. I kind of started at a point where stylistically I wasn't really sure about. I was trying to develop more, and go in a different direction. Those first two or three MOMEs are me trying to decide what to do with those thing. I'm not really happy with it. I may redraw some of it. Some of it may get in there, just redrawn.


SPURGEON: I thought the last few chapters of Wild Man in MOME were very visually intriguing. There was an attractive texture to them, a lot of shapes and a lot competing visual elements on the page. This really flattered the one-page/one-scene approach you were using. Can you talk about your basic approach?

BAK: There's a different scheme I'm working with for this. It's not like the Service Industry stuff because it's separate drawings. Hopefully when we publish this it will be one drawing per page. One of the things I wanted to do is give a different sense of space and time to the work. Artists have a way of establishing space and time with panel configurations. What I wanted to do is give this work its own time frame that was established but also had more to do with an atmosphere. I wanted to explore the characters within that space.

A lot of the dialogue is coming directly from Steller's writing. That was something I wanted to do. I have to play around with the narrative a little bit to make things work. I decided not to compromise anything as far as the science of natural history goes. So as far as what he said about the animals and the environment he was exploring, that's going to be accurate. I want to place all of it in context, too. The 18th Century, they're not having a climate crisis the way we understand it. There's not even really a word for ecology, it's natural history.

imageThe kinds of stuff I'm going to develop for the natural history sections, there's going to be large sections of the book that explore North Pacific ecology. North Pacific ethnography, too, although not in a scientific way, but maybe through storytelling and mythology of native peoples in North America and Siberia. Steller was the first person to suggest a relationship between the two indigenous populations. I want to explore those cultures through their storytelling. That will probably be in a different style. But the ecology, the stuff that's more natural history, that will be in full color and more based on naturalist artists.

SPURGEON: The images in the last couple of chapters are very thick, with a lot of elements colliding into one another. What's appealing to you about the density of these images?

BAK: Part of the purpose of that is to visually represent the idea -- this will manifest further as the narrative progresses -- the idea of these images running into each and images weaving in and out in a way, is to give credence to the idea that everything is ecologically related. Everything is tied into everything else. The graphic material where things meet or connect is to give the viewer this idea of what Steller is observing is what leads to our understanding of the relationship between ourselves and the environment.

SPURGEON: And full color? Because many of the pages seen so far are black and white.

BAK: The Saint Petersburg chapters in the earlier issues of MOME are blue; that's going to be a certain thing that will re-occur. Certain memories have certain colors, and different time schemes have different color schemes.

SPURGEON: At one point you were pitching a graphic novel about memory using the Orpheus story as a framework; is that an idea you developed there?

BAK: That's funny, I was organizing some material recently and I realized that Steller is an Orpheus story. He goes into this strange realm and after losing his wife -- it's almost like in reverse. He goes and she stays behind. He tries to convince her to follow, but on the way back to her he perishes. It's a twist on that.


* MOME (Bak's first issue is Vol. 15)


* from Wild Man
* photo of Bak from TCAF 2011 by Tom Spurgeon
* image from early Wild Man chapter likely not to make it into final book
* three photos from Bak's trip to Boomfest Russia; the third is a reference photo of a ship model
* a page from the chapter of Wild Man to run in the last issue of MOME
* two nature-type pieces of art from the cartoonist (above and below)