Talking Comics with Tim | Chris Wright on Blacklung
Storytellers fascinate me, a fact that is hopefully obvious given my affinity for interviewing them. Over the years, I have mined creators for information to varying degrees of success — some folks want to open up, others … not so much.
Chris Wright, writer/artist of Blacklung, showed a willingness to discuss his creative process to an extent I rarely get — and for which I am eternally grateful. Case in point of the quality of his answers, consider this one-sentence excerpt: “I love Tchaikovsky, and Mahler, and Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen, and Cormac MacCarthy, and Tarkovsky.” All that in one sentence. Blacklung, which was released Nov. 7 by Fantagraphics, was best described by my Robot 6 pal Chris Mautner as “a bloody seafaring tale about a man determined to do what it takes to meet his dead wife in hell.” Wright’s debut graphic novel is part of today’s Fantagraphics Cyber Monday Sale. If you want to get a taste of the novel, Fantagraphics offers a 12-page/4.9 MB Blacklung excerpt for consideration.
Tim O’Shea: This book is dedicated to the late Dylan Williams. Can you talk a little bit about the impact that Williams had on your career?
Chris Wright: I don’t know if it’s so much about “career.” I mean, Dylan was a guy who touched a lot of people, and I was sort of on the periphery of that. I didn’t know him as well as I would have liked, but he saw my stuff around, and offered to put a book of my work out, and that book became Inkweed, which is kind of a menagerie of short stories, and drawings. I’ll always be grateful to him for that book, and for his interest and encouragement in general.
My primary memory of Dylan is just that he was a kind dude. I’m an extremely anxious person, and he welcomed me into various situations where I felt kind of outcast and made me feel comfortable. I don’t think this was through any effort on his part, there was just something about his presence that had a calming effect on me. He was also more knowledgeable about comics than nearly anyone I’ve known. He knew Bill Blackbeard for Chrissakes.
Blacklung opens with a quote from the Epic of Gilgamesh, what prompted you to tap that particular poem?
I was listening to a series of lectures about Mesopotamian mythology, as I was drawing, and the lecturer happened to quote that particular passage. I read Gilgamesh in high school or something, before I had any way of appreciating what I was reading, and had forgotten good portions of it.Of course in high school, they really don’t give you any kind of historical context for the thing you are reading. It’s just kind of like, here, have this now, the test is on Thursday. They don’t tell you that these tablets were uncovered in the late 19th century, and completely fucked over the way that western Christians, thought about their religion. The idea that there could be a pagan flood myth which predates the oldest sources for the story of Noah, apparently caused a big stir. A stir which is naturally hard to identify with, on theological grounds, as a 21st-century person, but there it is.
The most interesting thing to me about that specific quote is the lament that the Gods are giving out. They see the misery they have unleashed, and they mourn for their creation. They cry out dumbly, and the reader is unsure whether or not they understand that in causing suffering, they have caused their own. It’s one of those very simple, very profound, human moments, which not only predates Noah, it predates “do unto others as you would have them to unto you.”
That’s what I find most interesting about that passage it’s the compassionate element. The person who wrote it had grief on his mind. He/She felt compassion for the Gods, he/she understood that the Gods might grieve at what they had done. Not so much with Jehovah, who decided that man was bad and that was that, goodbye earth. Guilt is for humans, not Jehovah.
But anyway, the characters in Blacklung, particularly Brahm, are wrapped up in these hellish cycles, of destruction, and grief, and that quote seemed, not so much to sum up the philosophical point of view of the book, but to act dynamically with it, and become part of it’s dialogue. How responsible are we really for our own fates, and how much of what we become, and what we experience is beyond our influence.
Ben Towle recently praised your work from a unique angle, noting, “The prose writing the actual use of words and language in Black Lung really stands out unlike anything I’ve read comics wise in a while.” How did you go about constructing the prose writing for this project was it done in advance of the art, in parallel or how?
I was writing bits and pieces, and more or less had the arc of the story figured out before I started the artwork, but then I wrote and drew the book scene by scene. I had an outline, and then filled it in as I went. This is not a method I necessarily recommend, but if I try to thumbnail an entire story, and break everything down until it’s perfect, I would either just get completely lost in the minutiae or I would go bonkers. I NEED to ink, I need to feel like I am doing something real.
So scene by scene I would write out the dialogue in notebooks, while trolling older notebooks for little lines I had scribbled down, to see if I could find anything that might be appropriate for what I was working on, and would just write, and rewrite, until I had something I thought would work, and then I started to break it down into panels live on the page, and pencil it.
Comics are a really sophisticated, and complex medium, and obviously there have been many tremendous silent comics. Woodring’s Frank being Lord of them all. But, taking the traditional idea of comics as a confluence of words, and pictures, I suppose I wanted to try and remind people of the words part of the equation. That while comics is primarily a visual medium, it is also primarily a writers medium.
I’m a romantic, and a romantic modernist. I like the big thoughts, and big feelings. There have been a lot of great writers in alternative comics, Clowes, Ware, Los Bros, primary among them. But it did occur to me that not many of them draw attention to the prose. The dialogue is flawless, but for the most part pretty naturalistic, which is part of what makes it accessible. I have a taste for things that are over the top. I love Tchaikovsky, and Mahler, and Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen, and Cormac MacCarthy, and Tarkovsky. I am not all that interested in making dialogue seem natural in my own work. I want to make work that is poetic, and confrontational, and fits into a certain tradition in 20th century art, but which has never had a strong contingent from our particular wing of the armed forces.
Tom Spurgeon partially commended the book for its “verbal cadence.” Did you set out to infuse a cadence to your writing, or was that merely a fortunate coincidence?
That quote is actually from a tiny review of a mini comic that I did in 2003. Spurgeon gave me a little note in the “year in review” issue of the Comics Journal of that year. It got picked up in the promotional materials for Inkweed, and was grand fathered in for Blacklung. To whatever small extent that I am on his radar, I always imagine that Spurgeon resents it. I don’t know if they ever got his permission.
I’m struck at your ability to work in a healthy number of panels and words on a single page without it being overbearing. Do you sometimes catch yourself trying to tell too much in one page and having to hold yourself back?
The pages for Blacklung were huge compared to the dimensions I was used to working in, and honestly I just wanted to take advantage of that expanse. I was aware of what I was doing, I mean, I am a pretty compulsive person, but I was consciously trying to create layouts that would be aesthetically pleasing, and hopefully play into the nature of the narrative itself. I was also trying to create a contrast between certain sections of the book. The layouts in the first part are, by design, more conservative, gradually things become unmoored, until that sequence where the Captain tells his story, where all bets are off. I am sort of hinting at the idea of that sequence in certain passages as I go.
But no, I don’t really find that I have to hold myself back. Small panels can be good for pauses, and short lines, they can get a point across without using up much real estate. It’s not like I was trying to cram extra shit into the page, I was just trying to use the land that I had effectively.
Of your cast, was there one particular character that proved more challenging to write than the others?
Well Brahm would have been the most challenging probably. I mean the whole book lies with him to some extent. I understood, Outwater, and the psycho, and Isaac, and I knew what I wanted them to be, understood their place in the story, but they were all satellites of Brahm, and he had to make for an interesting planet. But I never thought of it that way, I never thought “this is going to be a hard character to write” I just wrote, and revised, and wrote, and revised until I had something workable.
Mose was probably my favorite character to write. That combination of humor, and violence. That “seen it all” sarcasm he uses as a defense mechanism once he’s one the boat, though he has clearly not seen it all. I wanted him to be the measure of a common brutality against the howling lunacy of his new environment.
There are at least two pages in which you plunge the narrative’s perspective into absolute darkness. Did you debate back and forth with yourself whether to allow the story to breathe/pause in such a manner?
Those black pages are intended basically as chapter breaks. When I finished the book, I reread it, and decided that it all flowed together too easily. I had eschewed a traditional chapter structure, but I realized that the narrative had to be broken up somehow. In Seven Samurai, there are moments in which the screen fades completely to black, and this usually happens where Kurosawa intends some kind of major temporal shift. I was kind of inspired by that. Even though comics and film are incredibly different media, but that is a rant for another day.
Speaking of panels, you typically opt for traditional square panels, but as you delve deeper into the tale, it seems like you started experimenting more with the shapes of your panels (and challenging yourself and the reader with your experimental layout)? What prompted you to really shift the layout (from grid to ambitious) in the latter stage of the story?
As I was working on the book, I knew that I was going to experiment with page layout while the Captain was telling his story. As I said before, the opening part of the book is relatively conservative in terms of page layout. It’s usually in three or four tiers, the biggest extravagance being the occasional stacked panels at the end of a tier. Once Mose and Isaac make it to the boat, I wanted to be freer with the way that I designed the pages, to indicate not only a tonal shift, but a psychological one as well. It’s a bit subtle at first, and then I started to drop hints at what was coming more formally, by changing panel shapes, and using more abstract imagery during monologues. Those hints are meant not only to indicate the fractured unreal world the pirates live in, but also link directly to the mind of Brahm. They are in some ways formalist accents of his experience of events, and ideas.
With that afore mentioned sequence in which Brahm is telling his life story, I was trying to create a comic book approximation of memory. When we remember things, we don’t remember the event in all its detail, we remember an approximation of events, some things we remember more or less correctly, others, more symbolically or more hazily. Other thoughts flicker in and out, associations, and images which are sometimes directly connected to that memory, and sometimes completely random. These peripheral notions can act as a kind of seasoning for the primary memory, and, if we could catch them, might tell us more about ourselves than we would care to know. Our brains are all jumbled up with these ideas of our own experience, and I attempted to put that across with the designs of those pages. They cross over, they bleed into eachother, some are more sequential, others more symbolic. The final page of that sequence is more intentionally austere. It is simpler than the others, and more wholly symbolic. He’s fallen into himself.
Back in 2011, Chris Schweizer theorized you are influenced by Joseph Conrad. Was he right?
To be honest with you the only Conrad I have read is Heart of Darkness. I am not the reader I wish I was.
But I imagine that is probably the Conrad that Chris was referencing anyway. Heart of Darkness has become such a part of the culture, thanks largely to Apocalypse Now, that it’s impossible not to reference it when creating a story like Blacklung. It’s the story of a boat on water, and this Buddha-like figure of horror.
But that said, I think Brahm is a more romantic figure than Kurtz. Romantic in the old sense of the word. There is a vulnerability to the character in spite of his monstrous qualities. He still has a hope, however dark it may be. Kurtz has pretty much become nihilism itself. I also don’t think we are ever tempted to believe that Brahm is right, while I think we ARE tempted to believe that Kurtz might just be.