Friday, August 21, 2009

CONFESSIONS OF A HYPNOGRAPHER: a comprehensive interview with JASON SQUAMATA, Head Writer of HYPNO KOMIX (Part One)

conducted electronically by Sir Richard Wentworth


1. What's the first comic book that you remember reading? Can you describe the circumstances, and what it felt like?

I think it was my sixth or seventh birthday. A friend of my Mom's (whose daughter i had a desperate, sexless crush on) gifted me with two comic book collections: an oversized compilation of Superboy and The Legion of Super-Heroes and a trashy little airport paperback edition of the Fantastic Four, the first six issues, the Kirby cornerstone of the Marvel mythos. I remember that the "Legion" contained maps of their headquarters, a terrifying museum of their many enemies, a trophy room containing oblique souvenirs from their strange adventures. And a sprawling double page spread, celebrating the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Triplicate Lass (or someone to that effect). The wedding guests included teenage godlings from every planet in the universe and from various historical periods. The Legion is based in the thirtieth century, where time travel disasters and rippling histories are a fact of life. In the back, there was a mass of numbered silhouettes corresponding to the guests. Every character had its own power, premise, continuity, rogues gallery, and supporting characters. A collage of contiguous mythologies. The impression it gave was of a fully developed alternate reality, much richer and more vivid than my own, which i could enter at will through a cloud of pages and panels and bubbles. The characters had a life that went on when I wasn't reading them. The Kirby comics effected me in a different way: they were as raw and turgid and apocalyptic as the Legion stories were utopian and serene. I was spellbound by the voice, as opposed to the verses. Antic punk expressionism vs. elegant and idyllic futurism. In HYPNOKOMIX, I like to think these strains have been digested and reconciled.
A reading experience that influenced my view of comics just as strongly occurred when I was about twelve or so. I was crazy for science fiction, burning through used books all summer long, anything I could get my hands on. In my stacks, amidst the Harlan Ellison, the H.P. Lovecraft, the Michael Moorcock, there was a book of short stories by Philip Jose Farmer. "Riverworld and Other Stories". Tacky cover, curiously stiff future people performing some stilted ceremony in a glistening grove. But inside, there was this story called "Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod". It was Farmer's attempt to write an Edgar Rice Burroughs "Tarzan" story as if it had been written by William S. Burroughs. It's an incredible piece, slivering the pulpy tropes of the whole hundred-book apeman saga through the cut-up biomorphic horrors and hustlers of the Interzone wavelength. The syllables went off like pop-rocks in my brainmeat. Weird vistas and nightmarish tableaux (that were not in the text itself but seemed to lurk between the lines) arose unbidden before the bloodshot eyes of my word-fried mind. I didn't know words could do that. I immediately hunted down all the Burroughs a lad can find in the strip-mall suburbs. Pure Uncle Bill was a little bit beyond me until another pass at fourteen, but that pastiche, that perfect combination of sleazy pulp surrealism and experimental hieroglyphic psychedelia, that Farmer thing gave me a view of the pop art collage story as a visionary vector for shameless, dream-sick American surrealism and post-modern magick that I've been trying to replicate in my own work ever since, in various media. And now, definitively, in HYPNOKOMIX.

2. A lot of us have read a comic at one time or another, but maybe haven't considered what's "under the hood" -- and how comics are made. Can you tell us about your process when writing a comic book?

The alchemy of it is different for every practitioner, I think, maybe moreso than with other collaborative forms because it's more intimate: a series of exchanges between writer, artist, and editor, rather than a writer, a director, a cast, a crew, and a plague of accountants, but I do it like this:
When I get the first shiver of an idea that seems to have a story sleeping in it, I might make an evocative note someplace that will summon forth that feeling at a later date, or I might jump right into the brainstorming process, not asking any specific questions of the work, but filling pages with character sketches, thumbnailed layout ideas, and automatic writing that carries the frequency, maybe channelled speeches or bursts of dialogue from the characters as they cohere. They often begin as a bunch of voices. At the same time, I'm cutting up magazines of every type and collaging. Half-random frantic approximations of the comic's emerging visual language. The story often seems to be lurking and achieving complexity in the space between the images, in the relationships between them.
At this point, the characters have usually introduced themselves. Sometimes it's obvious who the main characters will be. Sometimes it's more of an ensemble thing. For each major character, I work out a twelve-stage Joseph Campbell-style mythic journey. Every character has a path of transformation or a road of trials to take through the story. Sometimes it's an interior initiation. Sometimes the myth is more overt. But the paths of the characters are always fairly obvious to me, as if their stories were complete in some Platonic, immaterial space, teaching me to coax them into being. Buddhists call them "tulpas". When I've subjected the major players to this treatment, i indicate each stage in their journey on index cards and i lay them out. Some histories extend back to before the story begins. Some arcs aren't complete until after it ends. The narrative meat occurs where the paths of these characters most densely intersect. Whatever the scene happens to be unfolding in the body of the comic itself, I'll know what all the other characters are doing, elsewhere in their ethos. Based on this zone of dense intersection, I make a twelve-stage main plot that weaves together these threads, but it's the beginning, middle, and end we'll see in print.
Using the six-issue model that currently seems to be the industry standard for comic books, I allocate the scenes and happenings that tell this story to specific issues, whether they're in a linear progression or a fractalizing web of flashbacks and flash-forwards and narrative deconstructions. I know what gets told when and what gets seen.
Then I break each issue of the six into numbered bullets that indicate between seventeen and twenty-five pages. Usually twenty-two. I determine what basically happens on each page. Maybe one major incident. Maybe as many as five. I'm basically determining what happens in each panel, on each page. Who appears and what they do. Then I usually make thumbnail sketches to make sure the scenes flow visually.
Then, based on the thumbnails, I start scripting. In the script (which is basically a complex letter to the artist), I describe what image should appear in each frame, along with rough dialogue that may be shaved or altered later to suit the final image. Sometimes the description tells the artist the basic details they need to include to move the story forward. Sometimes the descriptions are exhaustive and crammed with detail that may never make its way into the image, but it creates a mood and an array of options that the artist can draw from or play with. The density of the script depends on the particular title, the needs of the artist, and my mood.
Then the script goes to the artist. All at once, ideally. In pieces, more often than I'd like. The artist then does his own sketches and thumbnails based on the script, drawings from the thumbnails, pencilled and inked. then I rework the dialogue in each panel to give maximum power and prevalence to the image. The artist letters based on the finalized dialogue. We edit. Make changes. edit again. We lock it. We print it. That's how we're doing it so far, anyway. I yearn for a time in the near future when there's an editor in the mix. A keen publishing intelligence who is attuned to that "frequency" i mentioned, and whose goal is to make the work more fully itself. Dream editor, if you're out there, we can't wait to meet you.

3. You are currently working with four different artists on five titles comprising the first wave of Hypnokomix. It's a diverse collection of styles and narratives. Can you give us a sense of how each collaboration operates?

My approach in general has been to connect a title with an artist whose work already embodies the aesthetic frequency the story is begging for. That way, I don't need to coach an artist into a certain way of seeing, the story is already playing to their strengths and obsessions, and I know that however they see fit to improvise or diverge from the script, I know it will still be true to the spirit of the work. I know they'll show me things the story wanted to do that I wasn't seeing.
The process began with Owen Hunter, on a book called OTHERMAN & THE ORAKULOIDS. Owen comes from a painting background, he showed an instant affinity with the core concept of OTHERMAN ("Surrealists as Pulp Heroes fighting Nazi supermen on the streets of Paris, circa 1930"), and was obviously a serious, studious, driven artist as thorough in his research as he is in his renderings. And we barely new each other. So Otherman had a longish brainstorming process, with me sending Owen bushels and bushels of internet links to images that, for me, evoked the "vibe" of the Orakuloids, and sometimes their actual real-life models and originals. Owen was, in the meantime, sketching for all he was worth, Clouds of living faces made of pencil lead. He even pencilled a beautiful prototype seven-pager called "The Voice of Robert Desnos" that will someday resurface as a back-up story or something. Finally, after determining what OTHERMAN definitely WASN'T, I wrote a full script for Owen, with lots of details and links to photo references. I've been studying the Surrealists since I was a teenager. I had to learn not to take that knowledge as a given. We were both getting educated. Also, knowing how nuanced Owen's figures were, how many shades of emotion were at play on their faces, I was compelled to offer more data on the moods and body language of the characters. I know those are things Owen can draw with grace and precision.
Once I've done all the outlining and thumb-nailing I described, I sort of write the script itself in a trance, just letting the scenes unfold, trusting the dream because i know where it's going. In the process, some characters take advantage and talk too much. there's only so much space in a word bubble. a second pass at the dialogue, after the pages are pencilled, is almost a given. Owen makes these miraculous filigreed pages, like European comics with an underground urgency, I rewrite dialogue and captions to suit them and serve them. My favorite part is when the story veers into absolute Otherness, and I can describe a scene of oneiric delirium and Owen methodically. flawlessly translates every feverish facet into the elements of a perfectly composed page. Pure Otherness.
With Andrew Mc Kenzie, the process is completely different. We've known each other for over a decade. While Andrew was having adventures in Taiwan, honing his ninja design skills, running a modern antique shop in the chicest quadrant of TaiPei, playing rock steady love-songs to thousands with his band "The Sound Clashes", he was sifting through world-building notes that I'd left in the back files of his computer, and spinning his own complex scifi soap opera from the bits and pieces. What he came up with was HYPNOZINE, a sequence of several dozen hypnotic op art movie posters, advertising films too intense to actually exist. The story they illustrate is Andrew's. It's complex and heart-breaking and will someday be told in a more linear fashion. But HYPNOZINE in its current state is me just riffing on these images in a delirious Hypno whisper, drawing forth the slivers of scene and sensation that are encoded within each stained glass mirror. A voice from inside the scene, not quite telling the story, but like it's the story itself, talking to you. Allowing for maximum interface like a song does because it's just cryptic enough for you to charge it with your own meanings. So Andrew makes these images and arranges them in order, with the story in his mind as a guide. He briefs me on the elements each image contains. And I sing it. I download the implicit video. Then, using musics composed by Sir Richard Wentworth or Esotronica or NoMa or other expert sculptors of ambience in the HYPNO family, I create a spoken word soundscape/slideshow of the issue in question. Each issue contains eleven pieces. A multimedia experience you can enter in the dubious comfort of your own squalid bedsit.
With AMERIKAN ZER0!, I exploit Andrew's natural powers of propagandizing to create a process that's almost the opposite of what we do with HYPNOZINE. For ZER0, i write hyper-detailed scripts, presenting each page to Andrew as a concentrated scene or an eye-raping set piece containing layers of media within the media, the events of the story played out clearly but seen from every angle at once in a kind of surveillance opera. However complex the contents of the page might get, I keep the dialogue simple and vicious, like ZER0 himself, knowing that Andrew will implode all those details in a single poster-style image that seems to advertise a hi-res apocalypse. A cracked color wheel. Four super-flat flavors of fear. Once i have the pages to work with, I retool the dialogue to suit them, usually arranging it in a fashion closer to magazine logic than comic logic. Again, Andrew will often ignore most of the details I provide, and yet their presence can be detected like eidetic echoes, hidden in the images he DID choose.
With Damian Zari, on PARLIAMENT OF BABIES, I have a series of thirteen double-page spreads mapped out for the first installment. I've been dropping the principal visual idea for each spread on Damian one at a time, without restriction, with the text to be laid in when the art stage is complete. I've seen him fearlessly airbrush illustrations in the space of an hour that look like they've ben labored over. It's the loosest of the collaborations. More of a freestyle conversation, really.
Sir Richard Wentworth has been a best friend since we were six. Our process is mostly telepathic. His most publicly exposed work thus far has been in the domain of album cover art, both for his own musical configurations (BALD GUYS, PEER GROUP, CLUE DISPLAY, OMEGA GIRL INCORPORATED, OCTOBER MEN) and for other more famous and less interesting groups, but Rich has a grasp of sequential art and how it functions and how it can be made to function that's born in the blood. Our influences are either completely conjoined or highly complementary. We're coming from so many of the same places, that a lot can effectively go unsaid.
With BEACH BLANKET BEYOND, we determined the basic idea ("H.P. Lovecraft meets Frankie and Anette" or "Betty and Veronica with tentacles"). Rich generated a flock of appropriately weird and whimsically delicious images. I re-read lots of Lovecraft and books about Lovecraft and watched a few more beach movies in a row than any human should. i defined the conceits of the form and its principal archetypes. I tweaked them all into Lovecraftian directions. Then Rich crafted a few key images that served as tonal guides for all that followed. I broke the story down into twelve stages. We want to keep the Teenage Luvkraft stories on the short side, like Archie comics, so I compressed it as much as possible. The minimum we settled on to tell this tale: seventeen pages. For each page, I determined five happenings, in most cases one for each panel. based on those breakdowns, Rich thumbnails everything. I script based on his thumbnails. he pencils, inks, colors, and letters the fucker based on my script. The first draft was narrated by Luvkraft, and that pasty ghost, once channelled, will not shut up. The captions would have taken up most of every frame. So the second draft efficiently inroduced Zadak Bourbaki (a Lovecraftian version of the Ancient Mariner, fried by too much Drano and sickly summer sun), a kind of crypt-keeper who wanders through the tale, narrating things at random. Sir Richard can run with things that would cripple a less playful artiste. He runs with them into a paradise of perfect cartoon communion between word and image.
So the process is unique to each collaboration. the basics and preliminaries are the same at my end, but the technology can be tweaked to allow a mind and soul-meld with any kind of illustrator. I would like to work with these gentlemen for eternity. I would also like to make comics with literally EVERYONE. Sharpen your pencils, America. Draw me "tomorrow"!

4. In five words, please describe HYPNO.

Optical mythologies for future generations. be continued...

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