Monday, August 10, 2009

Comics and Philosophy with Michel Fiffe

“I hate when people say that ‘Everything’s been done’, because that reveals their own limitations. Not everything has been done,” Michel Fiffe says halfway through our interview. “That’s so fucking limiting and frustrating, yet it’s another way of naysaying. Another way of putting everything down, which is funny because this is the age where everyone’s allowed to and given the forum to express themselves, so everyone’s a creator, even people who shouldn’t be. What happens is that you get a lot of mediocre stuff, a glut which exists in the industry, anyway. The challenge now is that you have to stand out even more. If you think everything’s been done, you have no hope in creating valuable work, which is what’s going to survive.”

We’re sitting in a side room at his day job at Randy Carfagno Productions in Hell’s Kitchen, a shop that builds sports mascots one day, or costumes for Broadway musicals the next. Our table is flanked by shelves of labeled boxes with all types of costume materials. Wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, work boots, and black-framed eyeglasses, Fiffe’s comics have mostly been published online (with his Panorama finding print life as the second half of Image Comics’ Brawl mini-series, along with Dean Haspiel’s Billy Dogma story Immortal). Despite his contemporary leanings, he has one foot firmly set in the past, with a love of comics history and the artists who made it happen helping to navigate his own course.

“I don’t think the format’s important,” Fiffe reflects. “I’m personally married to the idea of newsprint comics, but it doesn’t matter. I mean, I think the actual comic floppy such as Eightball and Hate and Dork and Yummy Fur are works of art in themselves, and the fact is that they came from one person is what makes them uniquely powerful. Comics are the perfect vehicle for pure expression, because it’s just you and an empty canvas, and a comic you can roll up and take anywhere and lend out is appealing, but if they go, they go.

“I think the only thing that will save comics are the ideas and content, not the specific formats, not the specific brushes you used, not the revisionist update of old lame characters, not the screenwriters from Hollywood. Comics are thematically infinite, and exploiting that potential will save comics.

“Now while there’s a sect that puts down technique, I think technique is an equally important ingredient to the survival of comics. I think technique allows creativity to expand. To disregard technique forces you to be interesting. If you have to say you’re interesting, then you’re probably not at all. By technique I mean structure and understanding what you’re putting on the page, not slick gimmicks or impeccable muscle placement or what kind of Bristol paper you use. That’s secondary. You can put down slick gimmicks on a page and still come up with empty product. A comic is a lot of work, a lot of disciplines put together to create a unique language. If you throw any of that away, it’s not going to work.”

A member in standing of web collective Act-I-Vate, Fiffe’s personal narrative voice was honed in a series of short strips, collectively called Fut Miso. He decided to crank things up a notch with his first long-form comic, Panorama. More than an exercise, Panorama forced Fiffe to work out his own narrative hurdles.

“I just wanted to put my influences out there, not to get rid of them so much as flush them out,” Fiffe admits. “I improvised the story in the beginning, thinking that if it went nowhere at least it would look cool. Naturally I got frustrated when it wasn’t happy with the improvised results. I had a very basic idea of how it was going to end, but I was more concerned with having fun and keeping myself interested. It was a huge learning experience.”

Panorama opens with a young man, Augustus, falling off a building’s ledge and into an alleyway. Walking around aimlessly, he’s confronted by a few street kids in an alley and mutates into a dripping monstrosity, besting his would-be assailants. The stream of consciousness approach to comics narration naturally meanders at times, but firms up a third of the way through, and develops into a sometimes disturbing and sometimes poignant story about a freakishly mutated boy and his girl.

“I originally wanted to kill him; that’s how frustrated I was with it in the beginning,” Fiffe admits. “I wanted an easy way out. ‘Screw this, I’m going to get it done.’ It started out as a sort of horror thing and when I forced myself to make a structured story of it, it turned into a romance comic. I then just fell in love with everyone. That’s it—it’s out of my system. I’ll probably reread it at some point in the future.”

Panorama is told in two parts: the first following Augustus, and the second following his girlfriend, Kim, after the two merge together. Panorama is not for the squeamish, as the story takes disturbing, visceral, and outright gross turns; the heartfelt ending is further served by the contrast to the shocking pages before it.

Panorama isn’t so much the evolution of Augustus and Kim, but watching Fiffe’s narrative evolution, spurned on by the forum-like nature of Act-I-Vate.

“I think it’s good to put my work online,” Fiffe says. “I was actually reluctant to do that in general because I’m very married to the idea of print and pulp and traditional floppies. Dean [Haspiel] was very supportive in my embracing this new format. Our formation of Act-i-Vate has been really great because it helped me reach out to other folks, other peers as well as an audience. Being a part of Act-i-Vate also gave me a sense of deadlines. If not for that, I’d probably still be trying to perfect Panorama.”

Something to note about Fiffe is his energy and passion for learning from the cartoonists who came before him, while still utilizing the contemporary leanings and techniques of today’s artists. His biggest mentor would be Steve Ditko, the enigmatic cartoonist behind Spider-Man, Blue Beetle, The Question, and his own Mr. A.

“I’ve had a correspondence with him for about twelve years,” Fiffe says. “When I lived in New Orleans, I wrote to him out of nowhere, just wanting to connect with artist’s I admired. I’ve always loved his work, but it was when I discovered his creator owned, political stuff, that’s when his work clicked for me and made sense. Even his new stuff is great.

“I wrote to him, sent him some of my comics and didn’t expect to hear back from him. I drove to a comics convention in Orlando, Florida for a weekend but decided to return home a day early. I was extremely disheartened with the state of things. I had no connection to anything in the comics world. So I get home and find a five page letter in the mail from Steve Ditko. I was excited, of course, but when I opened it up… I don’t want to say he wasn’t nice, but it was definitely brutally honest in the most constructive way possible.

“I was angry about it at first, wondering ‘Why does this guy not like my comics? I thought he’d get it.’ I totally took it personally but I eventually came to agree with most of what he said, formalist things and approaches to art for the most part. He never critiqued my work directly, he questioned the thinking behind it. Most cartoonists don’t even care about that stuff. People dismiss him as crazy; I don’t think it’s crazy at all. He’s made certain decisions based on his own beliefs. He’s a product of his own conviction. How many of us could say that? He’s sometimes condemned for it, but he doesn’t care, and he shouldn’t.”

Ditko left his gig co-writing and drawing Spider-Man over a dispute with co-writer and editor Stan Lee (apparently over revealing the villainous Green Goblin’s secret identity) and returned to Charlton Comics, a publisher in Derby, Connecticut, known primarily for producing badly-done fly-by-night comics. While there, Ditko began writing as well, creating a new Blue Beetle (a blue-clad crimefighter with only his scientific gadgets and physical prowess), as well as The Question, a crusading reporter who dons a faceless mask to fight crime. At this point in the late-‘60s, Ditko’s Randian beliefs, steeped in Objectivism, crept to the surface of his superhero work; the result was a headier superhero reading experience than had been done at that point. Fiffe refers to them as “the most autobiographical comics [Ditko]’s done.”

Ditko went on to DC Comics, where he created The Creeper and Hawk and Dove. Eventually, he left mainstream comics entirely, to produce his own politically and philosophically slanted comics, such as Mr. A (a reworking of The Question). Since then, Ditko has become known as comics’ own hermit, refusing to do interviews about his work, which he’d rather have speak for itself.

“I think a lot of people don’t like when politics are in comics, but I think art in general is political by nature,” Fiffe elaborates “You could sledgehammer an idea, message, or moral, but it’s always going to be political because it’s a product of the times. If you don’t necessarily have a political agenda, that’s still going to be reflected in your work. Everything Ditko believes is in his work, sledge-hammered or not. What else do people want to know?”

When Michel Fiffe encountered another artistic influence, Trevor Von Eeden it started as a meeting of two generations of cartoonist, and ended as a published interview in The Comics Journal #298.

“I was rediscovering his work, and it struck me as odd that he even got work with DC back then because his work was so bizarre and weird and edgy,” he elaborates. “How did they let this guy work on something as popular as Batman in that style? It was the work of a master, yet he hasn’t been mentioned in decades. I looked for any information on him online, and found that no interviews existed, at lest nothing substantial. So I decided to go out on a limb and look for him myself. A number of people were extremely helpful in contacting him for me.

“I thought he was gonna be a hermit who just didn’t give interviews and disappeared for a personal reason. But he wasn’t: he was the nicest guy, and very patient, very giving. I told him ‘It doesn’t even have to be an interview. I just want to know these things. I could call you, I could e-mail you, or we could meet in person. Whatever you want, I just want to know these things.’ He agreed to an interview and after a bunch of months transcribing and asking follow-up questions, I had a formidable body of information. We’ve developed a great relationship out of it.”

The interview was just as much as learning experience for Fiffe as a cartoonist himself, as for him as a budding historian:

“It confirmed what I suspected, which was that you can only go so much in that field. You have to either meet it head-on or get out. If you’re not happy in the industry, either do something else or approach it differently. He’s an artist of great integrity and self-respect, and it’s good to hear it from a pro who’s not cynical or bitter; I know some people felt he came across as bitter in the interview. He’s not bitter, he’s simply aware of what has happened throughout his career.”

It’s weird expecting Habana to be a war zone when instead it was a beautiful, bustling metropolis full of music and nice people and great architecture and ‘50s cars. -From Cuba

“After Panorama, I wanted to do something completely different, and Cuba was something that interested me very much,” Fiffe elaborates about his current webcomic. “It’s totally different from Panorama, in that it’s based on history and personal experience, as opposed to a surreal genre piece. I had a story idea for Cuba while doing Panorama, but wanted to concentrate on finishing it up the latter. I’ve immersed myself in the Cuba project. It’s taken a lot of research and work, interviewing a bunch of people, fact checking, as well carefully wading through my memory while avoiding self-indulgent navel gazing. It is important to me, but there’s a bigger, more universal story within my specific interest, and I wanted to tell it. It’s just a different monster.”

Fiffe, now 30, was born in Cuba and lived there until his family moved to Miami, Florida when he was a year old. Cuba is starting as a webstrip with print aspirations of a 300-page graphic novel, as it folds his own trips and feelings of his native land into chapters detailing the history of the misunderstood country.

“At the time of developing the idea for Cuba”, there weren’t any comics about Cuba,” Fiffe admits. “A few movies existed but they usually glamorized things that make up a fraction of the Cuban culture. Other elements, such as politics in particular, are really demonized. I want to show a wider, fairer scope of the Cuban situation.”

Part of Fiffe’s interest in Cuba has to do with his maturity: now 30, his life experiences have undoubtedly left his beliefs more open, and ready to embrace his heritage more than he was as a teenager. On top of that, he has shaken off the shortcomings of the Miami view of Cuba.

“They’re anti-Revolution in Miami,” Fiffe says of some of his fellow Miami natives. “In general you’ll find the super rich, Cuban elite who lost all of their property back in the 60s as well as the low-to-middle class immigrant families who don’t agree with Cuba’s political direction. Their stance is pretty much an anti-Cuba stance. It’s hurtful to Cuba. Unbelievably, they somehow had some sway in how this country acted toward Cuba for a long time.”

As a contrast to the trippy Panorama, Fiffe’s art on Cuba is cleaner, more detailed, and (out of necessity) far more grounded in reality. All of the sequential tricks he developed from Panorama have come to roost in Cuba, showing a marked development from the first page of Panorama.

Maybe as a release from the rigors of the research-intensive and self-reflecting Cuba, Fiffe has started another webstrip, set to premiere on the screen of Act-I-Vate and the pages of the IDW-printed Act-I-Vate Primer in October.

“It's my love letter to Cliff Sterrett and Jamie Hewlett,” Fiffe alludes to two of his favorite cartoonists. “Their manic approach is very inspiring. Zegas gives me the chance to try out different things, tell all sorts of stories in different mediums, and experiment with character development. It's a psychedelic dream mired in horrific, sobering reality.”

Zegas follows the exploits of siblings Emily and Boston Zegas, exploits that might not be openly fantastic, but that are glossed over in a whimsical fashion. The first Zegas strip features the duo shopping for a new cactus after Emily accidentally kills the old one; it’s about far more, combining the realistic feel of Cuba with the dream-like state of Panorama. The understated and sometimes muted coloring gives it the grit of a printed strip, and is a more footloose reading experience than Fiffe’s earlier work.

In the meantime, Fiffe continues to look forward to his future comics, while keeping a keen eye to the past:

“I haven’t had a clear cut mentor or curriculum or answer,” Fiffe states “In regards to Von Eeden, I’ve learned about his life and his approaches. Ditko, for all of our disagreements, showed me that it was perfectly realistic, mandatory actually, to stick to your guns and do what you believe in. As a result, I’ve created all my work on my own terms, my own conditions. I’m not saying I’m above [work-for-hire] – I’ve done it and I like it fine. But, for my own work, why would I wait from someone’s permission? I’m satisfied with my decisions, despite the changes in the industry.

“Every comics generation has the talk of comics coming to an end. Whether it’s been a paper shortage or terrible sales or going online... it’s all a pretty self-defeatist attitude.”

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