Monday, May 11, 2009

Daring to be Different with Joe Infurnari


“I just figured that you’re not going to get anywhere by doing something that everybody else is doing or doing something like everybody else; so do something that’s retarded enough that nobody would dare,” Joe Infurnari says from his drawing table. “The challenge is to make something that sounds nuts actually work. If you can do that then you have something.”
The “something” he’s referring to in his normal dry humor is "Vs.", his entry into SMITH Magazine’s Next Door Neighbor series of online comic strips. The strip reads like a demented Dr. Seuss tale, following Infurnari’s plight with hellish neighbors, and has just been nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic. It’s a thesis statement towards his own creator-driven projects, especially the post-modernism dressed as retro-pop webcomic The Transmigration of Ultra-lad.
Infurnari’s work has already emerged as having a distinctive voice devoid of the navel-gazing of nostalgia, yet still steeped in an appreciation of old newsprint and four-color printing processes.


Hailing from Canada, Infurnari came to New York after Grad School to pursue a career in the fine arts. With a painting background, Infurnari fell into comics in 2004 through a friend, and a character that merged two genres: cavemen and robots.
“I’d been living in Brooklyn for a few years, struggling as an artist and trying to do my own paintings,” Joe remembers. “A good friend of mine, Jason, had this character Caveman Robot, and this L.A. production company, Epiphany Pictures, had bought the option on the idea. We thought of ways to generate content and one of the first things we did was assemble a comic book anthology to take to San Diego. He asked me to do a short story, so I did one, and that was my first comics foray.
“It was a story idea that Britton Walters had sketched out and I and adapted it to comics, penciled it, and I thought I would be saving time by inking it on computer, but it wound up taking a lot longer. I think it was the unfamiliarity of working in ink, and I didn’t want to screw things up. I thought I’d have more room for error on the computer.”
Caveman Robot is a robot dressed in a loincloth, who fights the nefarious Ape Lincoln (an alternate universe Abraham Lincoln, who just happens to be a large ape with “chin beard” and stovepipe hat). While the character has kitsch written all over it, Infurnari’s art had “talented” written all over it, at least according to comics news site Comic Book Resources. Joe entered the story into their 2004 “Comic Book Idol” contest and made it to become one of ten finalists, giving him reason to “pause that I should think about doing comics.”
It wasn’t a long pause for Infurnari. He went to the San Diego Comic Con that year and walked away with plans for a new
Caveman Robot color comic, the more mainstream Caveman Robot Chapter 1 Welcome to Monumenta one-shot. The next year’s San Diego saw Joe winning Oni Press’ talent search, and landing a gig drawing two issues of Oni’s Borrowed Time, pushing him further towards becoming a real contender.


Then, in 2007, The Process, Joe’s strip that combined watercolor with pen and ink, premiered online.
The small crustacean scrit that runs from a storm in the first chapter, only to be met with a grisly death by a cave boy, is only the start of Infurnari’s cerebral story. While in the middle of dealing with the scrit’s dismemberment by the boy, we’re pushed forward into the mind of Joe Infurnari, working amongst piles upon piles of art pages, and trying in vain to fight off a low blood sugar attack. The diabetic Infurnari (his First Response bracelet is notable both in the strip, and in real life) collapses outside his fridge at the end of the second chapter, and the drawing of the fallen artist pulls back into a photograph, with comic characters streaming outward in a psychic collage spiral, and even further to reveal his plight taking place on a cartoon stage.
It’s Infurnari’s own blend of stream-of-consciousness combined with a colorful take on German Expressionism. The Process was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic in 2008, and only furthered Joe’s visibility.
In the pages of The Process was a little boy superhero transformed from a middle-aged man and a magic word. Ultra-lad would spin out of The Process into his own world, a four-color one that reveals his sense of the kinesthetic quality of the comic…but in an online format.


“I got an email from Dean [Haspiel], kind of out of the blue, to see if I wanted to do a story for Next Door Neighbor,” Joe says. “I said ‘Sure.’ I’d also been in touch with Jeff Newelt, as well. Newelt, in passing, suggested me to Dean for Act-I-Vate, and I jumped all over it. They invited me to come hang out at the Deep Six studio, so I was doing that, and working on my Next Door Neighbor story when I first started coming in.”
The Next Door Neighbor anthology has a different online strip a week for New York’s SMITH Magazine, with all strips edited by Haspiel and featuring several local cartoonists. While most have a first-person narration within the framework of a traditional comic strip, Infurnari decided different would be more distinctive, and went with an untraditional approach with collaborator Alexis Sottile.
“I’d had a number of adventures with neighbors,” he recalls. “When I saw the email from Dean, I went ‘Oh, have I got a story for him…but which one? How am I going to do this?’ I had already collaborated with Alexis one other time on another story, and had an idea that I wanted to do some kind of cryptozoological adventure on my history of next-door neighbors. One of the ideas was that I had myself in a safari hat, so I thought I would have him/me go through this history. I wanted to make it as crazy as I could, and I decided to make the history of me versus them, and do it in verse…of course.
“Alexis was great for doing the verses. She’s a brilliant writer and was amazing at it. We worked at it together and invariably, my rhymes were not the right meter, so she kept me in check.”

“Join me if you dare for my tale of misery,” a comic Joe Infurnari says in typeface that conjures up memories of Tales from the Crypt. “This cryptozoologic New York rental history!”
We pull back to Joe in a crowd, and then to the city, and back to him as he takes us on a tour of all his nightmare neighbors. We see a rooster in a suit of Spanish armor, a “puppy from Cerberus litter”, a rock band represented by a killer octopus, a drunken oaf of a super…When Joe finally finds the perfect dwelling, it turns out even more besieged than the previous, escalating into a frenzy of loud music, mysterious brown goo leaking from the ceiling, and the final straw coming from a small dog. "Vs." uses black and white with graytones, with spot coloring emerging for dramatic effect, to either highlight one of Joe’s many antagonists or (towards the end) an angered Joe. The strip reads like a storybook and, if he’d wanted to make the paper plunge, would work as a print book.
While working on "Vs.", Joe was invited to join the web comics collective Act-I-Vate, where he’d create The Transmigration of Ultra-lad, the story of the boy superhero from The Process.


New Crown City is gearing up to celebrate fifty years of their kid superhero, Ultra-lad. While the festivities are underway, a giant robot T-Rex wreaks chaos, destruction, and death on the innocent crowd. Only Ultra-lad can save the day.
But where is Ultra-lad? Ultra-lad is really the bathrobe and slippered old man, Timothy Janus, hobbling around on a cane, who speaks a magic word to turn into the super-powered tike. According to his former enemy, and former bearer of the Ultra-lad mantle, Ultra-lad is eating his age and vitality away, making the 52 year-old Janus seem thirty years older than he really is.
As Janus must become Ultra-lad again, he struggles with a crisis of faith. The Transmigration of Ultra-lad is not only a black and white comic on faux faded comics pages (scanned from a giant-sized Shazam! comic book from the ‘70s), but Infurnari also throws in a mock Sunday page (in full color, reproduced in a four-color pattern) at moments of suspense, creating a “commercial break” between dramatic moments in the story.


“Ultra-lad is about nostalgia,” Joe reflects. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, and it’s a Trojan horse that lulls you into this quiet comfort and familiarity of these musty old comics, but I think the message behind Ultra-lad is to not be nostalgic. Life is about moving forward. The characters in it are ensnared in some way because of their inabilities to accept life as it is. I think it would be a great way to draw people in with that sense of old comics as well as emphasize the physicality of these ephemeral, decaying pages. I also enjoy the fun anachronism of having a new character and comic idea presented to look old and do it on the web. You have a web comic that looks like it was printed years ago. I’m doing that for a reason and as part of the storytelling. The longer I’ve been doing it, it’s granted me the opportunity to use crayon, or the paper model idea, the Sunday newspaper strip pages, cutting out a panel or a piece of the page…all those things come from trying to exploit this comic as though it were really printed.”


Joe notes that some of Ultra-lad’s influences are subliminal, but that the main one is the Golden Age Captain Marvel by cartoonist C.C. Beck, a character better known today as Shazam!.
“I like that idea of a boy who gets to say a magic word and becomes an idealized adult,” he notes. “It’s the childhood forward thinking of ‘What do I get to be when I grow up?’ He gets to be a superhero. The influence from that is ‘What if it’s the other way around, and you had these old guys who are clutching to the past and stuck on their youths? They’re losing their health and getting older and fighting for the ability to utter some magic words to become this super-powered tot?’”
The blending of traditional comics techniques with the modern tools available through Photoshop, but done in a manner that convincingly apes old school printing processes, gives Ultra-lad an emotional punch from a deceptively harmless super-powered boy. Joe hopes to bring Ultra-lad full circle and put it in actual print, aiming for about a 120-page count by its conclusion.


“My approach is to generally prepare them as if they’re going to be a book, and then save them out for the Internet,” he reveals. “They’re all imaginary books that are going on the web, and I just make them as though they are. I also like thinking ‘What would this look like as a book?’ I guess I’m kind of old school and perhaps even a little nostalgic to assume print will be the final destination.”


Another break came Infurnari’s way this year, a chance to illustrate a back-up story in the pages of Image comic Jersey Gods, this story written by legendary comics writer Mark Waid.
“I did a pin-up for them and they liked what they saw, so they gave me this story,” Joe says of the Kirby-esque characters. “I had fun. The first six-page script was a blast, and I did it in a really short amount of time. Ironically, now, they’re expecting that type of turn around on every script, so they’re turning them in late!”
Joe laughs.
“Mark Waid is a great writer and is probably the most well-known writer I ever collaborated with. They’re good scripts and great fun for me to adapt. Its been a fun job.”
Along with an upcoming book for First Second about sled dogs, written by Colbert Report writer Glenn Eichler, a short story in Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men First Class Giant-Size Special #1, Joe Infurnari is being kept plenty busy.




It had been raining all day when Seth takes Joe’s portrait outside, beneath the Gowanus Bridge that runs over the building housing Deep Six and Joe’s own Hugs and Kisses studios, an image of Ultra-lad projected down over him from a projector sticking out a window on the second floor. Rainwater, trapped in the bridge, continues to fall and, since he’s standing directly under, Joe has his own personal rainstorm and cloud over his head.
Like with his comics work, Joe Infurnari has to be different.

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