Comics as endless experiments: interview with Brandon Graham

tumblr_n02qin3mx01qj97xmo1_1280Brandon Graham, born in 1976 in Oregon and grown up in Seattle, Washington, came in contact with comics and graffiti when he was still quite young. Influenced by numerous different styles, from manga to European comics and US underground comics, he firstly worked for Antartic Press, and then Oni Press and Image Comics, and his books Multiple Warheads, King City, and Prophetmake him one of the most interesting artists outside the world of US mainstream comics. In our interview, we discussed about his past and present works, and his opinions about American comics.

Hello Brandon, first of all thank you for this interview. I would like to begin with a maybe banal but necessary question: because you started as graffiti artist, when did you realize that comics were your favorite expressive form?
I always wanted to be a comics artist: I told my mother when I was ten that I wanted to spend my life doing that. Getting into graffiti was more of something connected to the scene I was involved in, since I didn’t know that many comic book artists in Seattle, and all the people that I knew were into graffiti. It was interesting though: a lot of my belief systems are deeply connected to the graffiti scene of Seattle and this is not always transferable to comic books, but it was really important to get involved in an artistic community and grow inside of it. Then I managed to be published when I was really young, nineteen years old, by a small publisher, Antartic Press. But I started living thanks to comic books only in my late twenties/early thirties, so in the beginning it was more for myself than doing it for a living.

In the beginning of your career, you were part of the underground scene and you experimented with different comics genres, from erotic comics to sci-fi. What were your sources of inspiration and what pushed you in these different directions?
I was really lucky having an older brother who was reading a lot of comic books. Also my parents did. So I was around basically all kinds of different works. My father read a bunch of underground comics, like Gilbert Shelton’s works and Captain Pissgums, about whom he was telling me when I was way too young to understand, and Heavy Metal magazines were always there, with Moebius’ works and others. I also learned about Milo Manara probably when I was too much young. And of course a lot of Japanese works: in Seattle there was a big Asian community and when I was going to the Japanese grocery stores I was always watching for the big manga weekly books, starting from Dragon Ball and going on.

completemultiplewarheads-covAnd this strong influence of manga is pretty clear in your works, like Multiple Warheads
Yeah, exactly!

Talking about Multiple Warheads, I believe I can see both the Oriental influences we already discussed about and also elements of the Italian sci-fi comics from the Eighties, such as Tamburini’s Ranxerox. Where did you get the idea for this story?
Yeah, of course I know Ranxerox and all that stuff. Coming to Multiple Warheads, in the beginning the only way for me to get paid was doing pornographic comic books. But apart from showing sex in these comics, then I had complete freedom: the publisher didn’t care what I was doing in the comics. That time was really strange:I was living in New York right after the 9/11 and the World Trade Center attack, the security was really tight, there were soldiers in the subway with guns, it was very surreal. So I started this first Multiple Warheads chapter, set up in a fictional Russia behind the iron curtain. It was like art therapy to talk about some difficult things, even if it was weird doing it in a porn comic book. That was just the basic idea: this woman who has this sneak through the security, she can pass through the security checkpoints (that was happening a lot in New York at that time) and she gave this werewolf penis to her boyfriend as a gift for his birthday, and then he turns into an actual werewolf. Now it sounds ridiculous, trying to explain it! (laugh)

Prophet was a real surprise for those fans that remembered prophet-marian-coverthe character of the same name from the Nineties. It was completely re-written, with elements coming from both the novels of the Fifties and that European science fiction typical of magazines like MétalHurlant. First of all, I would like to understand why you and Image Comics decided to give new life to this character, and also how you and your penciller worked to carry out this project.
Initially Eric Stephenson (CEO of Image) was thinking about re-launching two or three old Rob Liefield comic books from the beginning of Image. I think that in the beginning they wanted my friend James Stokoe to re-launch Prophet, but he turned it down. When they proposed it to me, I also turned it down because I couldn’t see myself working on it, I was still doing Multiple Warheads at that time and I didn’t want to do something else. But one thing that I really like to do is thinking what I would do with an existing comic book: a thing that my friends and I are doing is sitting around and start saying how we would like to do Aquaman, for example, as something that we would like to read. It was funny to think about what I would do with Prophet and then my friend Joe Keatinge suggested me just to write it and work with my friend Simon (Roy) and see what’s happening. It was a gamble, Simon is a lot younger than me and at the time I asked him he was going to start working in a butcher shop, so it was not easy for me to propose this work to him. When the original Prophet comic book was coming out, in the 90s, I was really frustrated by the mainstream scene of US comic books, so a lot of the work for me was to transform something that I was not interested in when I was younger into something exciting for me right now, so stripping down everything and create something new. The original Prophet had a very Christian religious undertone: we got rid of a lot of that and we kept just something, and we started thinking about what could happen if a superhero survives ten thousand years after the rest of humanity has gone. It was really a lot of fun to see what was going to happen. I was also able to hire all friends of mine to work on the book and few others I became friend working on it. I knew Simon Roy, whileFarel (Darlymple) and I are friends since 2000; about Giannis (Milonogiannis), who did the majority of the book, I brought him in because I knew him on the Internet more or less in the same time I met Simon. The idea of showing each version and each point of view with a different artist was interesting, using the storytelling and not the track and style like a connection, even if I don’t like when the artist changes during the series. Prophet was really a bonding experience, we all have a tattoo of Prophet, I have mine on my forearm, Farel on the back of his arm, Simon on his shoulder.

So it was really a life experience…prophet-tattoo
Yes, and the majority of the tattoo were done by Joseph Bergin III, who colored the series. So it was really a nice group of people!

After Prophet was done, you began other two interesting projects for Image Comics: the comics anthology Island and 8house. Let’s start with Island. How does a serialized anthology like this fit into a market that depends less and less on monthly issues and always more on trade paperbacks sold in comics stores?
I don’t think it suits to the market at all, it reflects what I would like to read when I go to the store. So there’s a lot of work in making sure that every comic that is in there it’s something that I or my friend Emma Rios would be excited to read and trying to make it as dense as possible, with 30 page for each story and selling it at a fair price. The average price for a comic book is 4 dollars, we are selling at 7$ for 72 pages, just putting a bunch of fun comics that you couldn’t see in this format with this distribution. Early on we selected mostly single creators, as Image Comics always focuses on writers and artist separately, putting them working together on a monthly schedule, while Island was an excuse to hire single creators and allow them to work on a long story doing the text, the pencils, the colors, the lettering and so on all themselves, and putting it out just when it was finished, without following a monthly schedule for each one, since multiple artists were working on it. It’s an experiment and I hope it sticks around, because in the past in US if an artist wanted to create a work, often times he had to work with a writer and prove himself before coming out. I feel this is really frustrating, I like to cut the middleman, ask the people what they would dream to do and help them to realize it. There are obviously a lot of people who like to collaborate with other people, but there is a lot of space for this collaborations and unfortunately not so much for cartoonists who want to experiment, right now.

On the other hand, 8house attempts to establisha shared/collaborative universe for stories that are very different in graphic style and narration, and shows balance between coherence and expressive freedom. What difficulties have you encountered in developing this project?
Yeah, 8House itself right now has fallen apart, but all the individual comics are continuing. Again, this was an excuse for me to get a bunch of cartoonists and writers that I like and put them together working under one label. I think it was a little bit confusing, so now all these stories are separated.
So everyone right now is on its own way.
Yeah, that was the initial idea, a so called “shared universe” like the Marvel Universe was in the beginning. I don’t think that in the beginning the X-Men and Thor where in a dramatically different universe, going on they just tried to tied them together. So the idea was not putting too many restriction on it, we just said “let’s do fantasy comic books” and then we created a universe and discussed how it was working.
I am always curious and excited to start something and see how it is going on when you put together creators and give them freedom. Sometimes it’s working, sometimes not.

island_magazine

So all your experience can be described as a continuous experimentation.
Yes, absolutely.

One last unavoidable question: in addition to these two projects, are there any other ideas that your unpredictable creative genius is developing?
I finished off all my writing stuff, just finished the last Archlight 8House issue, Prophet is done. Now I am finishing Multiple Warheads and I am working on a new comic book which is a science fiction about – it always sounds strange when I describe it – a supercriminal who downloaded his brain in a butler. It’s a weird, dystopian future with these immortals that fashion off the 1920 America. It’s a lot of fun, my publisher asked me to do something like King City, with a beginning and an end, because Warheads is very much all over the place. It’s coming out different from King City, but I am trying to experiment and messing with a very structured plot and with readers’ expectation. King City was very much me, making fun of a lot of very standard adventure comics and I think I want to move in some new direction…and see if I can make sense. (laugh)

Interview performed live on the 29th of October 2016 at Lucca Comics 2016

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