Are there other cartoonists (or non-cartoonists!) whose work affected the way you approached this stuff?
A lot of the cartoonists whose work I love tend to find interesting ways to represent their thoughts. I love how Gabrielle Bell blurs the line between “real life” and imagination. Sometimes you read her work and wonder whether this or that situation actually happened to her, or whether it was a dream or fantasy. But in the end, does it really matter? It was part of her experience of the world. Then there’s Kevin Huizenga, who uses form in comics to pick apart the way the mind works in a more universal way, how our thoughts fold back on themselves. Or what rumination would look like if you could diagram it. It’s not that I think my work is similar, but reading comics like that has shown me how perception can be something worth investigating with comics.
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The question of showing how the mind works is really interesting. You mentioned David Foster Wallace in your interview over at Kickstarter, and one thing I always liked about his nonfiction was that he grafted in stream-of-consciousness techniques from fiction to try to convey the way his own perception of things outside himself worked.
He called it “French curls and crazy circles.”
That is awesome.
You can just work yourself into a frenzy going back and forth about how you are experiencing something, then how someone is experiencing you as you are experiencing them…
One thing you share with both Gabrielle Bell and Kevin Huizenga, in this book anyway, is a really stripped-down, clear-line way of drawing people and their faces. Was that a design decision for this project, or do you think of it as something that’s more native to the way you draw?
That’s just the way I draw. Or at least, that’s the way I draw comics. I went to a very traditional art school, the kind where you draw from nude figure models for hours every day and learn to work in oils by painting realistic still lives of reflective objects and draped cloth. There was something so satisfying about drawing a crumpled-up paper bag so that the drawing looked real. Later, I started getting more expressionistic with my paintings, still working from life and having that realness underneath, but using lots of bold lines and painting with a palette knife instead of a brush. But when I started making comics, I couldn’t use bold marks like that any more to draw people. When you’re working from life, you have a thing in front of you, and all you have to do is copy what you see. It’s not really hard–it just takes practice. But making comics is so difficult, because you have to create this figure out of your own head. So I keep it simple. But I also have always really liked comics that are drawn in that clear-line style, starting with Tintin and Disney when I was a kid. I wanted to be a Disney animator, so I copied the Disney drawing style all the time.
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Yeah, I was noticing a lot of quiet Tintin things in the book–even the three-tier layout! How much reference drawing did you do on the 2007 trip, and how much did you have to reconstruct later?
I thought I was going to be doing a ton of sketching on site, so I brought this thick sketchbook with me. But that book ended up getting filled with notes instead! I was constantly writing, and there was no time for drawing, which is too bad. But I also took a ton of photos, so I used those for reference a lot. I really wanted to give the comic a sense of place, and to show people what the country looks like, so it was important to me to get the details right.
Are there things you feel like you can do with drawing to show people what something looks (or feels) like that you couldn’t do with, e.g., your reference photos? (This is a thing that always seems to come up with non-fiction comics: what can you gain by interpreting something in a non-fiction context?) Is there a sequence in the book that you can single out as something you’re particularly happy with as… non-fiction art, for lack of a better term?
Yeah, in the way that earlier I was talking about drawing things as they are experienced in your mind, rather than as they actually look. There’s one scene in the book where I’m thinking about how hard it is to imagine what a war looks like, and there are a few panels that show some of the ways I imagine it could be. The first panel is what you would reasonably expect to see: a soldier firing a gun while taking cover. But then, by the last panel in the sequence, I’ve let my mind wander into the ridiculous–imagining soldiers mounted on fire-breathing dinosaurs. Dinosaurs didn’t even breathe fire–it’s absurd! So this sequence isn’t about war, it’s about the limits of understanding something we have never experienced.