Monday, September 28, 2009

Depth and Theory: Discussing Comics with Leland Purvis

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I like work that…works fine on the surface but when you look closer, there are thematic ringings with other things, and level of depth that you might not have seen on the first reading,” Leland Purvis reflects. “I think it’s one of the things to keep me interested in work. A page of comics is so much labor, in the writing and layout, drawing, inking, and lettering (and sometimes with coloring). There are so many man-hours, and you’re often redrawing things in different forms. You’ve really got to have extra things to keep your interest involved. I like material that works on multi-levels like that.”

We’re in McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village; the oldest Irish pub in New York, the walls are as covered in yellowed pictures and news clippings in wooden frames as the hardwood floors are covered in sawdust. Leland’s deep voice rises over the normal bar noises. Given Purvis’ old-fashioned gumption that's married to a modern sensibility, hanging out in a pub apparently visited by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and e e cummings seems fitting.

“Sometimes the layers occur as the work is developing…” he continues. “When I’m writing for myself, a lot of it starts with the dialogue. It’s interesting that you say it’s about the characters, because every story has to have conflict. I’m not interested in a story that has one person in conflict with himself. There’s not a lot that’s going to happen there. You can certainly have a situation where you have a person against a lot of people; a classic example is Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. A lot of people saw the movie and the great short story: it’s essentially a lottery that, whoever loses, gets stoned to death. You’ve always got to have conflict of one kind or another, and there always has to be that tension and relief, set up and resolution.

“Also, early on with Vox, I was doing a lot of short material, and writing short material. An anthology seemed to make most sense to me, and also made me more comfortable with doing longer and longer pieces.”
Leland’s four-issue anthology book, self-published in 2000, won a Xeric Grant for the first issue. The magazine format for the first three issues is indicative of the artist’s working beyond the standard comic book, while the stories are a grab bag of genres, approaches, and styles. A man comes home to face a giant in a Homeric allegory (riffing off Odysseus versus the Cyclops) set against the backdrop of a brutal and bloody fight; a scientist turns the table on her unscrupulous employers; bar patrons talk about the places they’ve visited; a man wakes up to swim through his house…

“It was really about experimentation and exploring the medium, for me,” Leland confesses. “I think the anthology shows the different approaches. Some of the stories in there were one or two pages, and others were twenty; some are silent, while others are filled with text. It was an area for me to really explore the medium and both get my work done, and self-publish my work to get it out there.”

“There are a couple of silent pieces that are favorites for one reason or another,” he adds later. “I like the Alexander Selkirk one, which is historical fiction, about the historical figure who was the basis for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. There was a short three-pager called 'Mano', about a man who wakes up without his hands; there’s another silent piece called 'Box Boy' about a relationship and break-up, which is surreal and all allegory.

“One called 'Enemies of Glass' is about a biologist who’s creating a vaccine to prevent a terrible epidemic, and the pharmaceutical company she’s working for has locked her out of her lab, to control what’s going on. I thought that was pretty interesting. For somebody who’s really attached to traditional comics storytelling, it was sort of EC-like in its twist at the end. I don’t like looking at those pages, because I would redraw the whole story now, but I wouldn’t change any of the dialogue.”

Leland followed Vox up with Pubo, a 2003 graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics, that featured the trials and tribulations of a wise-assed genetic experiment let loose in a forest full of equally wise-assed animals. Where Vox was Leland exploring a toy box full of new techniques and approaches, Pubo is a flat out fun and entertaining comic.

In 2004, Leland moved from Portland, Oregon to New York City to be with his girlfriend (now wife: they married in ’06).

“I think that there are more comics artists per capita in Portland than anywhere except maybe Brooklyn,” he points out. Certainly, with Fantagraphics in Seattle, and Oni and part of Top Shelf in Portland, along with the old Will Vinton studio and the Laika animation studio in Portland. There is a lot, a lot of talent. It’s a very civilized place to live, and the pace of living is easier.

“The move to New York was comfortable for me. I’d lived as a kid in West Berlin for a year, so I was at ease with a big city and subway, so that wasn’t a problem. But Portland, for all its merits, is pretty small. It’s mostly white, and 'critically Caucasian' as an old friend used to say. I think it’s very healthy for people who grew up in those places to come to somewhere like New York and commute on the subway to hear Russian and Spanish and Mandarin, or a Jamaican accent, and Yiddish, and all kinds of languages and accents around you. And find that, when you step on a subway car, you may not be the majority at all. That’s a very healthy thing. I like the age of New York, and the artistic energy.

“As far as the artists I’ve gotten involved with in the studio, there’s now two studios next to each other, and the studio down the hall, amounts to about fifteen cartoonists, with a total of about twenty people rolling in and out. That’s a lot! We’ve seen a lot of pages, a lot of conversations about what people like and don’t like…and we’ve had conversations about working that are a lot of fun. I’ve worked by myself in a studio for years, and sat home all day, and it’s not healthy for me. “

Go into Deep Six Studio, where Leland occupies a corner spot, and you’ll often find him involved in a discussion with one of his studio mates like Dean Haspiel or Simon Fraser.

“I’m interested in discovering what other people think, and why they think that way, and narrowing down and triangulating on points of view I might be missing out on. It isn’t necessarily about debate for debate’s sake…The whole thing about a studio, for me, is the interactivity. And it's a great thing.”

“The irony is that the mechanics of comics don’t require that you need to draw at all, or have any sense of draftsmanship,” he admits. “For the guys I refer to as ‘Sharpie artists’, clearly draftsmanship isn’t an issue at all and they tell a story as well, because the mechanics of comics work anyway. Which puts me in an odd little non-category: on one hand, I’m an artist who appreciates craftsmanship and drawing, but in the comics industry, the only group that takes advantage of that are the superhero artists. The superhero stuff doesn’t grab me quite as much as more interesting stories that are more multi-leveled and are more involved than your traditional good versus evil…

“Then you move over to what’s called indy comics, and you have people who either can’t or don’t bother to draw. Some of them draw really well, and it works for what they’re doing but they only go so far. Other people are putting down whatever lines they have to get the story across, but they’re complex stories. You have really rich multi-layered stories about families and developmental issues. Think of things like Persepolis, or David B’s Epileptic. The draftsmanship isn’t always there, necessarily, but it’s a complex story. I don’t know if you read that book that’s a conversation between Miller and Eisner: they brought this up where it’s a really odd dichotomy. On one hand you have complex visuals to simple stories, and on the other hand you have complex stories with simple visuals. I don’t know why that is.

“It seems like the reader is surprised when they go to simple visuals and discover complex stories, or they go into a fantasy and are looking for escapism that seems real, so they need a realistic visual. I don’t see any reason why you can’t mix a really rich, thematic story with high-level draftsmanship. I can’t do it so well as I'd like, but I keep trying. It’s one of those things that I find a little odd about the whole industry. That aspect of my work, seems to put me outside of all camps.”

To know Leland Purvis is to know a myriad of theories and have countless discussions and debates over art and comics. In Deep Six Studios, where he takes up a modest corner flanked by framed pictures, artwork, and a stash of art books, Leland is always ready to pose new questions or introduce his own views because – to be frank – he's done his homework.

“I’m going to start to get really academic here,” Leland warns back in the bar. “There’s a school of thought that comes out of both Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and David Mamet’s On Directing Film (which is very popular amongst comic artists, oddly enough). He’s talking about visual storytelling, Mamet is, and I don’t think his stuff works as well in the movies as he’d like to believe, but there’s definitely an argument to be said about his theory, which is basically Eisenstein’s theory of montage (Eisenstein was a Russian silent film director) that ideally you put two uninflected and unrelated images next to each other, or a series of them. The human mind is built to try to make sense of a sequence, and the beautiful thing about that is that ideally the story doesn’t take place anywhere nearly so much as it does in the mind of the reader. The trick then, on the part of the artist, is placing those images in the right order in such a way that the reader infers just what the artist intended.

“McCloud also talks about simplifying the visual; he wants to go from a more photorealistic face all the way down to the Charlie Brown, all the way down to the face we see in the electric socket with two eyes and a mouth. His idea is that the simpler it is, the easier it is for a reader to relate, and I think that’s crap. I think that what allows the reader to relate to a story is the circumstances. We don’t relate to Charlie Brown because he looks like us, we relate to Charlie Brown because of the emotional geography he’s in. We don’t relate to Calvin and Hobbes because of a visual record [either], we relate to [Calvin and Charlie] because we know what it feels like to be in the spot they’re in, whether they’re on a pitcher’s mound and it’s raining and no one else wants to play with them, or when you’re left alone with your stuffed animal and there’s no one there but you, what are you going to do?

“You understand the emotional content, and that’s what makes you relate, not the visual part of these simple, uninflected images. To me, you mix that Eisenstein visual narration, and when you get to the emotional turn, you have to hit them with expressionistic representation of the emotional content, which is what cartooning is, essentially, the visual over-expression of the emotional content. You think of illustrators like Ralph Steadman and how over the top that is, but it works. You couldn’t really have a comic where it was like that in every panel, it would be too rich and too violent on the emotional senses.

“Anyway, you need really simple storytelling like Noel Sickles or Milton Caniff: very clear, very beautiful storytelling, and then hit them with an emotional turn. In my mind, that’s the way the medium really ought to be done. It’s a very clear Eisenstein montage theory, where you tell it visually before you put any words on it at all. Some people say that ideally a comic would be a like a silent movie, because you’d put in everything you need to know without any words at all. I don’t really subscribe to that, but I see what they’re getting at. If you can get that engine to work, the car will run beautifully.

“So it isn't about making the visuals of the copy take the lead. The key is that you can get this visual narration to work by putting these images together that sometimes don’t even relate. Documentary filmmakers do this all the time, where they’ll have one shot of a hunter’s foot on a twig and it goes ‘Snap!’ and then you cut to another image of the deer’s head coming up and looking. Those two pieces of film could have been taken in opposite parts of the country. The only thing that relates them together is that you infer that one meets the other. That’s what we’re doing in comics: you put one image next to another and, as Scott McCloud says, when the scream happens and you see a guy with a raised ax, you’re the one who decides where it fell or what happened.

“I think that’s brilliant, putting those uninflected images next to another, and the reader infers the relation. When you turn the page and, as an example, the unrequited lover has read the ‘Dear John’ letter, you need to see his face and feel the emotion, and you need to have it tear your heartstrings out. I don’t think photorealistic comics, or over-simplified Sharpie drawings do that. I think that you need to have an expressionistic exaggeration come into it more, but you can’t have it be a shock thing where you’re drawing like Milton Caniff for three pages and then turn the page to have Egon Schiele or George Grosz. You can’t do that; it’s not a responsible thing to do as an author. Even Picasso said that the most effective portrait starts as a caricature. Like the line that the best portrait looks more like a person than the people ever do themselves, because you’re exaggerating the parts that are really indicative of the character.

"What’s more important than anything is the delineation of the character: the character of the story, the emotional life of the characters, the way they’re relating. The pacing defines that, the lighting defines that, and the tension defines that. Paul Pope has a brilliant sequence in 100%, where a girl is getting paranoid and has a pistol. She’s out late at night with a friend, and there’s this car coming with booming music, and it’s like the devil is arriving slowly, coming down this alley. The tension is just brilliant. I think all things feed into it, but if you try to do that with photorealism it’s going to fall flat and will die on the page, and flatten out emotionally and visually.

“On the other end of the spectrum is the artist who has oversimplified cartooning. Chris Ware is a great example: it’s thematically rich, but it doesn’t really reach you personally with the drawing itself. Certainly the craft is high. He knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing things. But there’s no inflection, there’s no emotional punch in the imagery itself.”

“Sometimes I have a habit of jumping off a cliff and hoping you can build wings on the way down, or learning to swim when I'm already halfway to the water. “It’s kind of tricky.”

“I think anytime you’re working with any kinds of restrictions it is often a benefit, because you become more creative in terms of trying to get across what you want within the confines you're working in. Imagine a boxing match on a dry lakebed?” Leland laughs. “It’d end up with one guy twenty feet from another and both walking the same direction. Nothing would happen. You’ve got to have the confines in order to have anything happen.”

One of Leland’s strip on ACT-I-VATE, Vulcan and Vishnu, follows the adventures of two workmen. The story is told in single panels online, with the characters communicating through an “iconic” language of images in word balloons. Vulcan and Vishnu is not only an exercise in cause and effect, as the pair use their engineering prowess and smarts to find their way across a ravine, or even out of a hidden underground temple. The clean artwork is elaborate and the page structure non-existent as readers click from one panel the next.

“Tension’s created narratively the same way it is in any other narrative medium, whether it’s the movies or a novel or a play,” Leland points out. “The characters want something, and then the story leads to it over the top of obstacles. The closer they get, the more the characters want something, the higher the obstacles get, and the tension gets higher. That’s one technique. The tension and relief is a narrative issue, and not one that’s expressionistic. What I’m talking about is thinking purely in a visual representation when a character feels when they’re reacting to something, or in the textures that go on that maybe go from a simple, quiet moment where there’s limited mark-making and lyrical line work to really high textures where you might feel you’re getting white noise, like here in the bar, where you’re getting a lot of background stuff, and there’s a lot of texture to the recording right now, rather than if we were sitting in a sound studio and sipping our tea or whatever.
“In terms of Vulcan and Vishnu, there are different reasons for those things. The single panel idea was because this was ultimately going to go out as a podcast and be seen on iPods, so that you could scroll through and see the images one at a time, rather than try to get a full comics page into something the size of an international postage stamp. That doesn’t work for me. Also, when it’s that small, it needs to work in an iconic and really simple way. You’re not going to be able to read any text that way, you’re just not. It only, to me, makes sense with what I was doing, to have conversational exchanges with these iconic images in speech balloons. You knew what they were talking about and that they were having an exchange, even a philosophical one, but in a way that worked in the confines of a digital medium that would go out on people’s iPods.”

Ever the glutton for a challenge, Leland decided to do the Vulcan and Vishnu strip for the ACT-I-VATE Primer hardcover in color.

“I’ve never done a Vulcan and Vishnu in color before, so I gave myself a limited color palette and tried to do it. I think it’s one of those things that’s a learning process, and I’ve always got the right to get better,” he laughs.

“I don’t think it holds up all that well compared to a lot of the other great stuff put in the Primer. I’m really impressed with my fellow cartoonists who have done some phenomenal work there, but I’m also embarrassed by my own work, especially when it’s recent. When I go back a couple to three years later, I’ll usually go ‘Okay, that wasn’t too bad.’ But generally if an artist is happy with their work all the time, then they’re not growing. The sign is that if you’re really dissatisfied with something from three weeks ago, then you’re getting better on some scale. I think it wasn’t too long after I finished those pages that I felt I could’ve improved on them.

“But, deadlines are deadlines.”
“I’m not just a hired gun who runs paper dolls through a slalom course. It’s really something where the mechanics of comics are in my control, which is my job.”

“It’s only in recent years that as an artist I’ve been able to do collaborative work,” Leland notes.
The graphic novels which he has served as artist on are unsurprisingly, like the man himself, intelligent and well-read.

“The first long collaborative work I ever did was Suspended in Language, which was a biography of Neils Bohr with writer Jim Ottaviani. He’s really interesting: a nuclear engineer turned science librarian who writes comics about scientists, and it’s brilliant stuff. He sent an embarrassment of riches in terms of reference material.”

While Suspended is a cross between sequential art with an added spot illustration aspect, his work on the recent Turning Points graphic novels for Simon and Schuster and written by Marshall Poe, have continued to hone his knack for research in a more traditional sequential format. Sons of Liberty follows a father and son in the opening days of the Revolutionary War, while A House Divided is the story of two abolitionist brothers prior to the Civil War. Leland’s style on Sons uses spotted airbrush effects to enhance the sense of depth, while House features a looser pen style enhanced with gray washes.

“You work differently with every writer you work with. In terms of the Resistance books, the writer is Carla Joblonski, and we’ve done historical fiction where kids are in the French Resistance in World War II. That’s been great. Carla is great to work with. She’d never written a comic before, which with others sometimes makes me very nervous. She’s a brilliant writer and has done young adult fiction and is an award-winning playwright, so she definitely understands dialogue and story, but her pacing and timing is different. She is very open to suggestions. We worked it out where we did sample pages where she did a certain amount of script, and I then told her ‘This is what you’re looking at in terms of comics pages’, and she went ‘Oh, so that’s the density of the work.’

“‘You give me nine different separate actions that have to happen on a page, and twenty different beats and responses, and that’s way too dense for this format.’ She understood that immediately, and so what she ended up doing was divide her story to 120 pages, and within those pages, I’m free to determine layout and page beats all on my own.”

Aside from three Resistance books with Carla Joblonski for First Second, Leland has plenty of plans for his creator-driven projects.

“I’ve taken a long hiatus from Vulcan and Vishnu and, with the printing of the ACT-I-VATE Primer I’m going to be finishing that up. I know how it’s going to go. It’s hard to get your regular deadlines for the pages that you have to do to make a living with doing webcomics on the side. I want to finish off Vulcan and Vishnu, and there’s something else I started on the ACT-I-VATE site called Nombril, which is also single panels, and has no characters. I call it a ‘geologic fable’, and it essentially revolves around when an asteroid hits the planet and forms a crater. You follow what happens to the crater through ice ages, people coming and making a living there, and then other people coming in, fighting, and kicking them out…You never see any close-up people there, you’re always looking at them from a bird’s eye view, or a distant view, where you only see the changes in the landscape. That’s all an allegory and metaphor, and it’s a fun experiment and something that ends up reading really fast.

“Until you get hundreds of panels, it’s not something that’s going to be a very satisfying reading experience, but I can only do so much at a time,” he laughs.

“After Vulcan and Vishnu, and Nombril, I’ve got another thing in mind for ACT-I-VATE, and it’s going to have multiple panels a page. Watching Mike Cavallaro doing Loviathan, he discovered that he’s designing the page to fit the screen. And lo-and-behold, that fits the old newspaper Sunday format, which is essentially three tall by four wide, roughly. We’ve also found that three tall and four wide is roughly half the dimension of a standard comic book page. All of Dean Haspiel’s Street Code for Zuda is done as two traditional comics pages on top of one another; you cut them in half and scan them separately, and you’ve got two pages. That format is what I have in mind for the next thing, which will be science fiction and is about an eccentric old junk-dealer in outer space.

“In addition to that, I have numerous graphic novel projects in the works, from which I'll have to choose one or two to develop. But definitely my Writer-Artist days are not over.”