"DC or Marvel?"
To many comics fans, this question is as fundamental as "Chocolate or vanilla?" "Yankees or Red Sox?" "Boxers or briefs?"
I've been creating graphic novels since 2002, and I have a dark secret to reveal: I've never read a DC or a Marvel comic book. You might say, "But how can you work in the comics industry and remain so ignorant of your forefathers?"
It might be most accurate to say that my creative forefathers (and mothers) are scattered throughout the Western Canon rather than throughout the superhero universe. My personal superheroes include Dante, who confronts evil villains in the deep circles of Hell; Athena, the goddess of wisdom, courage, and justice; Michelangelo's muscular deities and mortals. Vaster still is my canon of anti-heroes--the lonely and desperate wayfarers of Annie Proulx's stories; the ghost-faced babies and strippers of Marlene Dumas's unsettling oil paintings; the oddballs and lunatics of Werner Herzog's films. I believe that comics can and should take inspiration from every art form. I put this conviction into practice when I was working on my first graphic novel and my editor steered me toward the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I assiduously studied his camera angles and lighting choices, pausing A Touch of Evil on select frames to copy their compositions into my sketchbook. Slow Storm, a graphic novel also influenced by Japanese poetry, Sam Shepard's plays, and Mexican folk art, is better because of it.
I came to comics later in life than most enthusiasts--well after the age when many children begin filling cardboard boxes under their beds with illustrated accounts of muscle-bound, costumed vigilantes. I've always been another kind of comics nerd. From grade school through college, I was the shy geek who hadn't yet discovered comic books, but was developing a serious passion for all the things that count in comics: complex characters, witty dialogue, cultural relevance, high stakes, interesting narrative structure, and, of course, beautiful artwork.
When I went off to Yale to earn my bachelor's degree, I planned to study visual art. I began with the prerequisite drawing, gravitated toward photography, later switched to painting, and eventually returned to drawing. I loved the bare honesty of the line, the immediacy and intimacy of ink on paper. My paintings and drawings were always narrative, and my writing--short stories, mostly, written for the school journal or just for fun--were always visually descriptive. I made my first comic strip when my studio-mate in the painting major asked me to fill in for him one week at the Yale Herald. The comic I produced probably had little mass appeal--a contemplative and moody piece about loneliness, a theme (and feeling) I still grapple with today--but the act of placing images in a sequence flipped a switch in me. Why not combine my love of literature and my compulsion to draw into one unified art form? The week after I graduated, I went to the college bookstore and exchanged my used textbooks for my first graphic novel: Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware.
It took me a long time to feel comfortable with this liberal arts trajectory into the comics scene. In my early years of cartooning, I reluctantly attended comics festivals, where I would dodge light sabers and wonder, "Will I ever fit in here?" Gradually, I've found my place as a drifter between crowds--I present my artwork at concerts and on theatre posters, my graphic novels are nestled on library shelves, and I still table at the occasional Comic Con. I continue to love comics for its incredible scope of possibilities. With comics, I can tell a linear story or an atmospheric one; my images can support my text or contradict it. I can describe a scene documentary-style or evoke the mystical through ghosts and dreams and abstracted memories. My comics might look like a painting but read like a poem. I can fill a page with dialogue or invoke long moments of silence. If you ask me, "Why comics?" I'll respond that in comics, the experimental, interdisciplinary possibilities are endless.
My favorite graphic novels look to a wide range of other artistic and literary media for inspiration. Alison Bechdel's brilliant family memoirs interweave personal narrative with references to classic literature and modern psychology to describe the full range of influences, anxieties, and anxiety of influence behind her family's dysfunction. David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp draws upon Greek myth and architectural structures as the framework for its protagonist's personal odyssey and debates about form and function. For my most recent book, The Undertaking of Lily Chen, I studied Chinese brush painting techniques, Eastern folklore, Disney animation, Spaghetti Westerns, and Chinese cultural and political history. Whether subtly or overtly, many comics take instruction from the conventions of film, playwriting, and graphic design--see Frank Miller's cinematically backlit gangsters, his saucy dialogue, and the exquisite visual rhythms of his pages. I know what this means: it's time for me to read Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. I hear it's pretty good (sorry, Marvel).