From the Trenches of Comix
FROM THE TRENCHES OF COMIX
Brandon Graham is a rising star in the comics community, and his work (KING CITY, PROPHET, MULTIPLE WARHEADS) has gained fans across all genres and styles of the comic book industry. As a writer and artist, he’s found an audience for his witty, in-depth world-building, often filled with clever puns and a fusion of graffiti-style art with European illustrators like Moebius and Vaughn Bode. His work, for which he just won the prestigious Eisner Award, has been featured in The Washington Post and New York Magazine. He just had a gallery showing of his work in Amsterdam, and his latest collection is a sketchbook compilation & art book known only as: WALRUS. We spoke with Brandon about life in the trenches of comics.
Since Mr. Graham has given a number of interviews lately on a wide variety of topics (porn and his work in that world, his recent Conan-ification reboot of Rob Liefeld’s ‘Prophet’ along with Simon Roy for Image Comics, and his recently-completed work King City, now in paperback), I thought I’d take a different tack with this interview. Full disclosure: Brandon is an old friend. So I thought I’d take us back to a time when I met a young lad drawing comics in a coffee shop, and see where the conversation takes us.
TONY: So Brandon, it’s great to see your work out there and getting such a positive response. I remember talking your stuff up to a few people while we were in the company of Paul Pope many years ago, and Pope joking that I should be your agent.
BRANDON: Thanks. Yeah, you are a rare creature – an extrovert in comics.
T: It was back in that little coffee shop, formerly known as ‘Alt.Coffee’ over on …. was it Avenue A?, near Tomkins Square Park [in New York City], when I wandered into the back and saw a guy drawing comic books at a table. This is such a rare sight to see – especially a decade or so ago – that the two times in my life I’ve seen people drawing comics in public, I immediately just go over and talk to them.
B: Yeah, Alt was on Ave A, A lot of the Meathaus guys used to hang out and work there. [Writer/artist] Farel Darymple worked there for awhile. I would go in there for hours and draw. I remember once I spent 2 whole shifts there, while the guys working changed out.
T: I could see from the piece you were working on that you had a lot of ability as a writer and not only as an artist. I think you were working on Universe So Big at the time. (which is about to be collected, right?) Can you tell us a bit about Universe So Big? And your series before that, Ionium Blue. These were published by Radio Comix, as I recall…
B: Yeah, Universe was Radio Comix, It’s about a brother and sister that create a new kind of robot brain technology called the Royalboiler — the brother goes off to become a kind of celebrity mechanic, while the sister hides out in deep space and works on her own projects. The story starts with her learning that he brother has died and being asked to finish his last great project.
I did it about 12 years ago when I was 24. It was a 3 issue thing Radio Comics was putting out, only 2 issues ever made it to print though.
Ionium Blue is even older, I think I was 19 when I did it. That one’s about a musician who plays an instrument that, if played wrong, explodes. The story takes place on a flying cruise line full of aliens. I originally just did that as a photocopied zine.
I put it out in an older collection called Escalator. But I’ve got a big 400 page book of my older stuff — with Escalator, Universe so big and some newer work that I’ll put out in the next year or 2. I’m trying to put most of my older shorts into the book except for the color or adult stuff – those will be in other collections.
T: I remember your short story about graffiti artists (included in Escalator) was really moving, and personal — and for me, as someone who knew absolutely nothing about the graffiti scene, as a kid from suburban Long Island, I read that and I thought ‘Huh… I think I get this scene; at least a lot more than I ever did before.’ I understood some of the genuine passion, creativity and enthusiasm behind it. What inspired that story? You have an old friend who’s been like a mentor to you in many ways, a tremendous artist who you met in the graffiti scene back in Seattle…
B: Thanks, That one’s called ‘True Crime.’ I was really fond of the graffiti scene in Seattle in the 90’s, so that was an attempt to show what it was like. My pal Ludroe (that’s his pen name now) was a big part of me getting into graffiti. He has these really high standards for how the culture should be treated and would give me books, some of them just photocopies of books, since the good stuff was rare– on the history of hip hop to study up on the scene if I was going to be a part of it. I really like that. It’s something I’ve tried to carry over into my comic work.
I’m glad I did that story, I feel like I was still close enough to it then. It’s kind of a time capsule for how graffiti felt to me at the time. Now I’m older and out of touch with it. So it goes, my head is in comics now.
T: The MeatHaus comics collective in NYC/Bklyn was a big part of your early work… how did you first meet the MeatHaus guys, like Farel Dalrymple and James Jean? Seems like you guys just had so much fun making comics together, and finding inspiration and creativity bouncing ideas off each other.
B: Meathaus was a great time. The short version of the long story is that right after I’d moved to NYC I met Lesean Thomas (who’s doing all kinds of animation work now, Boondocks, Black dynamite, Avatar) when I saw him drawing in a coffee shop. Lesean was a huge help to me and ended up getting me work at the afrocentric internet animation company he was doing a cartoon for. Farel and Chris McD [Chris McDonnell http://www.chrismcd.com/ ] were both working there. I remember they were part of the only show that had all white guys working on it there.
I called them ‘the isle of white.’ Farel was the first guy I’d met in NY who was actively publishing his own comics. They had this idea with Meathaus that it would be like a comic that everyone got together and drew in one night. Like a 24 hour jam anthology. I think after the first one came out they rethought putting more time into the stuff, It eventually evolved into everyone doing full color stuff in the last one we did (I think it was the 10th issue)
I met so many of my favourite artists, and people through Meathaus. Tom Herpich, Mu Dafaka, Tomer Hanuka– who taught me photoshop. Becky Cloonan, Dash Shaw, and a ton more. Meathaus was like my art school– since they were all in school and I wasn’t.
T: Does Meathaus still exist now? I haven’t seen anything from that group in a year or two. Who took over, so to speak? I think it was down to a ‘one paperback every 1 or 2 years’ kind of a frequency.
B: Yeah, it’s still around. There’s even a website: http://meathaus.com/ It’s still Chris McD who runs it; he was one of the dudes who started it.
The last couple of MH books have been sketchbook collections called ‘Go For The Gold.’ I did stuff in the last 2, they got some really interesting work in them Chris managed to get sketchwork by guys like the Ren and Stimpy guy John K and Peter Chung, who did Aeon Flux.
T: I remember hanging out with you guys on a rooftop and you telling me that everyone in art school called James Jean “James Genius” from early on – they saw something special in his work and knew he’d go far. His first Fables cover – Fables #1, in fact – was a 50/50 share with Alex Maleev, since Maleev was the known ‘name’ at the time in comics and James’ work was so brand-new to the field.
B: Yeah, I remember he used to roll his eyes at being called ‘James genius.’ I think Farel brought him in to to meet the Vertigo guys. I forgot that was Maleev, I remember thinking that James won that cover contest.
T: Your brother is also an artist. Did he first get you into comics? How would you describe his illustration style? And did he ever have any interest in working in the comics industry? How did your relationship influence your creativity? Where can we find his work and what sort of stuff is he up to lately? I remember you had a ‘Brothers Graham’ website a while back, but not sure if that still exists…
B: It was my brother and my parents that all read comics when I was growing up. He got the good stuff though, all the books that I cherish the most these days, Moebius, Manara and Fil Barlow and Shonen Jump were all first shown to me by my brother.
His influences are from more outside of comics than mine… I guess Gary Panter’s work is an influence of his. He draws pretty cartoony these days. Kind of constructionist underground style? I don’t know how to describe it best. He did a couple Meathaus stories but never cared about the money end of comics, he works at a resort now and paints for himself.
But yeah, his attitude about art was a huge influence on me. He’s pretty harsh about it. I think between him and Ludroe I’ve always got a voice at the back of my head telling me to always try hard and have fun with it.
The website’s long dead, but hopefully we’ll do some more comics together in the future. I was just talking to him on the phone about it.
T: I also remember you mentioning your father building a geodome out West somewhere – and that your grandfather, Bill Randall, was a painter/famous pinup artist in the 50s. Your mother writes science fiction – what sort of stuff did she write, and did you read a lot of her stuff when you were growing up? Did you show your mother your early comics output? Any advice from the parents as you trod your merry way through the craziness that is the professional comics world?
B: My mom writes kind of catholic inspired sci-fi I guess. She just sent me some new stuff, for me to do a cover for. I haven’t read yet. I like what she does.
She exposed me to a lot of sci-fi and fantasy growing up, she’d read the Oz books to me and the Hobbit when I was really little. She used to play the music from the Rankin-Bass Tolkien movies…. there was a lot of Glenn Yarbrough in my childhood.
I used to make my mom look at everything I drew, she still has my first comic– It was a Last unicorn thing I did after seeing the movie. I did a talk about the Last unicorn recently, in a movie theatre in Oslo Norway, where I showed off some of my Last Unicorn comic from when I was 7.
My mom told me some stories about her dad working as a pin up artist; the thing that stuck with me the most was the quote “if you can draw the human hand you can draw anything” although I’m not sure if I agree with it or even if I’ve applied it that much to my own work. Ladies’ hips I find to be like my version of hands.
T: Obviously your influences include Vaughn Bode and Moebius… you were also really into Matt Howarth (Those Annoying Post Bros.) and some other early Eclipse books. What was it about those 80s indie books that inspired you? I like how you brought back a story from the writer/artist of the ‘Zooniverse’ in the latest Prophet as a backup.
B: Those were the books that really made me feel like anything was possible in comics. They all had that sci-fi that I was weaned on and took it to personal places.
It was a big kick for me to get Fil Barlow (creator of 80s indie comic ‘The Zooniverse’) into a Prophet back up. And just being able to talk to him about the work that he did that was such an influence on me. I love hearing his stories of working on the Alf cartoon or the animated Gen13.
He’s a very cool guy. I’ve also been talking a lot to Frank Teran; his work was huge to me during the 90’s and he just did the 1st of a 2 part thing in the back of Prophet.
T: Larry Hama / Mike Zeck G.I. Joe – fond memories? What other 80s comics blew your mind?
B: I remember the silent Snake Eyes issue. The GI Joe that really hit me was the Annual that Michael Golden drew– with the Russian October guard. He made the toys look so cool; and how he drew them with the skill of someone used to drawing army Nam tanks. I think they just put out a giant sized black and white version of that book.
T: You came into your own at a time when there was no internet, and comics had to be self-published at Kinkos copy stores, and there were times you and Becky Cloonan could be found at various copy shops printing up your books, flyers and such. Was there more of a sense of community back in the pre-internet days among comics folk, or just a different, more personal sense of community?
B: It’s not that different now, if anything I think this internet makes it easier to meet other artists. I look back fondly on long nights at Kinkos but I prefer it how it is now. If anything, I’m glad I had to mail in pages so I can really appreciate how much easier it is being able to send stuff through time and space in the blink of an eye.
T: Who are the artists you’d like the world to know about, people who you feel might not have received the recognition they deserve? Spread the word, B.B: Here’s a couple artists I’d like to see get more attention:
Sloane Loane — http://sloanesloane.com/
And I’ve been super into E.K. Weaver’s comic TJ and Amal http://tjandamal.com/
T: King City was originally called “Catmaster” when you first created it and pitched it. Are you happy with that new title now? What was it like first pitching the series to TokyoPop? I remember you mailing the pitch package off from a post office in the East Village… what was going through your head back then as you waited to see if they’d go for it?
B: At one point I was calling it Catmaster: In Color. I think Catmaster might be a better title. King city is kind of a throw away title but it’s how I think of it now. Tokyo Pop had some issues with it sounding — I dunno … sexual, fecal? I don’t remember.
I sent in a ton of pages just to show that I could produce. I was pretty used to comic book rejection, I was pitching stuff all the time and KC has already been rejected by a couple places. It was a huge deal to me when they said yes. I jumped on a bed.
T: There’s a really fun short autobio story you did about meeting your partner, writer/artist Marian Churchland, at a convention, your partner and collaborator on several projects. Will we see more autobio comics from you in the future? I remember your short piece on being a comics artist – advising ‘always keep artwork by the greats in front of you to remind you that you suck and to keep trying.’ And that great panel of a soldier slapping another soldier on the battlefield, yelling “Don’t you die on me! Get a hold of yourself, solider!” about never giving up in the comics trenches.
B: Yeah, I do a lot of comics like that in my sketchbooks. I like doing those, I’ll have some more out. Walrus has a lot in there.
T: You also had an old short story called ‘Breakfast’, right? Where a guy receives a mysterious package one morning? (I don’t think this was in Escalator but I could be mistaken) Any plans on that concept coming out to play in the future?
B: Breakfast was kind of a pre-King City thing; it’s set in King City. And yeah, it’s in Escalator.
That would have been a fun series to do, it was about a guy who signs his soul away to a UPS man and then has to track it down again. He carries with him the head of a demon delivery man who has a different demon possessing each orifice in its face. So they’d all speak with different shaped word balloons.
T: What inspired you to get your elephant neck tattoo? Why an elephant, specifically?
B: There’s not a great answer for that. I was hanging out with a tattoo artist named EGO a lot. It was a mess of a time in my life and at some point I got an idea to get a neck tattoo so I called him from a bus stop and made an appointment.
I grew up with a couple guys who went into tattoos, and they would always make fun of people who came in with long winded stories about what the ink would mean to them. So I just wanted something that my friend would make look cool and then I could attach meaning to it later.
T: I read somewhere online that your run on Prophet for Image has only another 7 issues left. Are you just nearing the end of the story you wanted to tell?
B: I’m even exactly sure how many issues it has now, but yeah it’s close. I lucked out with Prophet that it did well enough that I could keep going on it for a lot longer if I wanted to. But I like the idea of things having endings.
T: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Brandon.
B: Yeah, thank you Tony. Good to type at you.
Tony Wolf is an actor, voice-over guy, pop culture fan, comic artist, and occasional storyboard artist in New York City. He can be found lurking about at www.tonywolfactor.com