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There’s not much I can say by way of an introduction to Tom Neely that the above image can’t do better. Combining the gangly, jaunty character designs of classic comic icons like E.C. Segar’s Popeye and Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse with a take on horror that’s equal parts metal album cover, ’70s horror mag, and sexualized Surrealism, Neely’s comics, paintings, and illustrations wed a high level of craft to intense imagery that often literally tears its characters apart. It’s a style Neely has deployed with surprising versatility since the high-profile release of his self-published graphic novel debut The Blot in 2007; in that time he’s riffed directly on his influences with the Popeye reinterpretation Doppelgänger and the horror-mag cover collection Neely Covers Comics to Give You the Creeps!, adapted the songs of punk mainstays the Melvins in Your Disease Spread Quick, created a series of strip-format comic poems in Brilliantly Ham-fisted, put an alternative spin on the gag comic in the anthology Bound & Gagged, and most famously helped craft an ode to the timeless love affair of hardcore legends Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig in Henry & Glenn Forever. I’ve enjoyed all these comics. But The Wolf, Neely’s new self-published full-length graphic novel, is the leader of the pack.
It’s easy to enjoy (if that’s the right word) The Wolf as a thrilling, chilling onslaught of monsters, bloody combat, and graphic sex — and indeed I do. But beneath the werewolves and zombies and tree-headed monks is a moving exploration of couplehood, as our male and female protagonists deal with the pain of the past and the threats of the present in order to build a (literally) brighter future together. As with The Blot, The Wolf‘s wordlessness emphasizes Neely’s powerful images, with a clever use of single splashes and double-page spreads propelling us through a story that at any moment can toggle between nightmare, wet dream, and peaceful reverie. It’s like life with the volume cranked up.
With The Wolf‘s release party scheduled for this Friday, July 8, at L.A.’s Secret Headquarters (although you can already purchase a copy through Neely’s website), Neely has provided Robot 6 with a selection of preview pages from throughout the book, and took the time to answer a few questions about its origins, influences, style, substance, subtext, sex scene, and more.
Tell me a little about the genesis of this project. How soon after The Blot did you know this was your next big thing? You’ve done many smaller — and in the case of Henry & Glenn Forever, sillier — projects since then; how did this come to be a full-length book rather than a mini?
The Wolf, like The Blot, grew out of some paintings I was doing. I had a solo show called Self Indulgent Werewolf at a Gallery in 2007 about 2 months after The Blot came out. So, I was already working out these ideas with wolves and sex and skeletons and stuff right after finishing The Blot. I thought I was gonna work on this other graphic novel I have written, but the wolves kept speaking to me and soon a story had grown out of these paintings and sketches that I thought could become a longer book. But the process for this book was a lot more abstract and intense and in a lot of flux, so it was taking a long time… meanwhile I needed some other “sillier” and fun projects to work on, and I kept myself entertained with Henry & Glenn and my comic strip poems and the Bound and Gagged book and other minis. I’ve always got too many ideas going.
The Wolf was originally intended to have a musical component provided by Aaron Turner, late of the metal band Isis. I see that Aaron blurbed the book, but I take it the comic element took on a life of its own?
After finishing the Melvins comic book, Your Disease Spread Quick, I got the idea of having a soundtrack for The Wolf, so I approached Aaron Turner and he loved the idea and offered to write music for a collaborative book and record co-release project. It was an interesting process to work with another artist this way, but eventually we decided that it wasn’t going to work. I think we both became personally attached to our parts in the collaboration, and we ended up on different paths, and it just didn’t make sense to release them together anymore. I think Aaron has a new House of Low Culture album out soon.
You seem to be working through your golden-age influences a bit less directly than you were in past works like The Blot. I still see Olive Oyl physiques and Floyd Gottfredson white gloves, but the links are otherwise much less direct. Instead I see a lot more continuity with the metal and horror illustrations you’ve been doing. Am I on the right track?
I don’t really consider myself a “metal” artist any more than I consider myself the “Floyd Gottfredson” cartoonist. I’m not really interested in honing a particular signature style. I’m always exploring and finding the best way to tell the story for each project I do. I’m conscious of wanting to evolve and try new things. I think the art in The Wolf is the way the story had to be told, and the same could be said for The Blot. The Blot was a book that needed to feel like an old comic strip. The Wolf is a different kind of story, and to make it comic booky wouldn’t work. I really just looked more within myself. I wanted to flush out the external influences and distance myself from my contemporaries and just get back to what’s in me. I found myself drawing more expressive and more anatomical and sometimes wanting to draw realistic, other times exaggerated… I just didn’t wanna give myself any restrictions.
As for the metal and horror, the metal world has embraced my work, and I’m very happy about that because I am one of them and it’s fun to draw those kinds of things. This freeing up of drawing ideas has crept into all my work recently. I’m just trying to get back to what I love about making art… and sometimes I think I was happiest when I was 14 years old, listening to Obituary and drawing skinny skeletal creatures and stuff.
So what were you looking at/reading/processing while working on this?
All kinds of things… I’ve spent a lot more time looking at pre-Renaissance art, German Expressionism, Japanese watercolors, more Surrealism, and a lot of horror comics. I actually haven’t been reading many new comics at all in the last couple of years. With a few exceptions, I haven’t kept up with what my contemporaries are doing. I’ve been looking more at the woodcut novelists. Otto Nuckel’s Destin was an influence on how I wanted to tell the story of The Wolf, but also movies like Vampyr and Night of the Hunter. I’ve been very interested in the art of Alfred Kubin. I’ve been devouring Prince Valliant and revisiting all my old Creepy and other ’70s horror comics. Reading lots of old werewolf books and lore. Lots of poetry – Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Blake, Yeats… a book of dirty poetry by Aleister Crowley. William Carlos Williams. Lots of old horror and B-movies. And always lots of music – metal, punk, but also a lot of experimental and a lot of jazz.
In addition, I see a rougher edge to your line, which in the past has been classically clean. The brushstrokes are more in evidence, and it makes the art both a little warmer and a little harder-edged at varying points in the narrative. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your technique here, and how it was tailored to the project.
I was very focused on clean linework for many years, but it started to lose interest for me. I wanted to be more expressive. I don’t know how to talk about specific techniques. I’m more interested in what I can say with a line than how perfect a line is. And trying different kinds of lines to say different things. I left in a lot of pencil marks and mistakes, too. It didn’t feel right to clean it up. I wanted the whole thing to feel more painterly. Like you’re looking at a long narrative series of paintings instead of a comic book.
You also introduce color in a big way, from the spot color of the ghouls to the rhapsodic, abstract, sun-like colors of the sex scene to the full-color conclusion. At times it becomes the primary vehicle for your visual storytelling. The Blot, by contrast, was black and white, with a bit of spot color toward the end. Why did you introduce color as such a major player here? Were there any unique challenges you faced in making work for you?
I like using color when it’s necessary. Black and white is the basic structure you need to tell a story in comics. But sometimes you need color to tell it another way, or to add something to the story. In this book the colors are used symbolically represent various emotions from fear and anxiety to love and connection and peace. I flirted with some of these ideas in The Blot, but I think I took the idea to a new level in The Wolf.
You’ve never shied away from nudity in your work, but this is by far your most explicit depiction of sex yet. What’s interesting to me is that it cycles back and forth between graphically detailed, “anatomically correct” elements to big washes of color and line and movement–abstract, rather than illustrative, images. Can you tell me a bit about what you were going for with this scene?
I originally drew an entire graphic sex scene that was about 15 pages long, but when it was done it didn’t feel right. It reduced the sexual act to a pornographic illustration of sex, and I wanted to communicate something more than that. I wanted to represent the emotional feel of sex and connection in the abstract because the illustrated version seemed cheap and masturbatory. But I book-ended it with more graphic imagery to give the abstraction a context.
On a related note, frank depictions of sex are increasingly prominent in alternative and art comics right now — Powr Mastrs, Sock, Thickness, Celluloid, Brecht Evens’s work…Moreover, in very few of these cases is it presented in the sordid, squalid, or masturbatory light people might expect from alternative work. I know you really can only speak for yourself, but do you have a sense of why this might be?
I actually haven’t read any of those books you just mentioned (except the first volume Powr Mstrs and I don’t remember any sex in it?), [Tom is forgetting one of the great human/jellyfish sex scenes in comics history – STC] so I don’t know why sex may be emerging in indie comics. Maybe because the big push of the aughts in comics seemed to be towards literary and more intellectual comics. I get tired of the over-intellectualizing of comics. It’s fun and it has its place, and I overanalyze the crap out of everything, too… But when I get in the studio to work on this book I just want to make something more expressive and poetic and raw. Now I’m eager to check out those books and see what you’re talking about.
On the surface this may seem like an odd thing to say about a book involving werewolves, skinless zombies, and tree people, but there are elements in The Wolf that strike me as almost autobiographical in nature — dealing with past transgressions and reaching a state of, I dunno, healing or acceptance in the present. I don’t mean to pry, since obviously if you wanted to do straight autobio you would have, but I did at least want to point out that there’s more to this, emotionally, than horror and sex.
Yep… I believe all art is autobiographical at some level… but you know… sometimes with werewolves and skeletons and tree-headed monks and stuff.
You’ve been quite frank about the…I almost want to say “existential crisis” you went through after seeing Henry & Glenn Forever, the Rollins/Danzig slashfic gag collection you created with the Igloo Tornado collective, take off in a way that your more serious, personal, labor-intensive works had yet to do. Did that impact The Wolf in any way? Have you come to terms with it now?
Yeah… I’ve come around to being really happy about (and for) Henry & Glenn. It was a weird thing to be in the middle-to-end stages of The Wolf and see this other book, that I honestly think is the dumbest idea we ever had, become such a huge hit! But I’ve learned to just enjoy the weird ride. I always like to do different things with my art, and those things are going to appeal to different people. I had fun making Henry & Glenn, so it’s fun to see people enjoy it. I don’t expect even 10% of the Henry & Glenn fans to be fans of my other work. Maybe some of them will trickle over to The Wolf or The Blot or Bound & Gagged, but whatever… every piece of art has to find it’s own audience. I think the important thing is to not let any of this popularity influence my work. The popularity of Henry & Glenn isn’t going to make me spend the rest of my career chasing that popularity, but I won’t shy from it either.
We’re actually talking about doing a second Henry & Glenn book and I think it will be fun. Or maybe it will be a beaten-up dead horse. But as long as we’re having fun with it, why not?
What’s in store for you now that The Wolf is almost out?
Let me take off the artist hat and put on my PR hat: I’m having a book release party for The Wolf in LA at Secret Headquarters Comic Book Shop on July 8th. I won’t have a table at San Diego Comic Con, but I will be doing some Wolf signings with Decibel Magazine at the Nuclear Blast booth. And later I’ll be tabling at SPX and APE. I also hope to be doing some book tours with The Wolf in the Fall.