Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Interview: Michael Neno, creator of "The Signifiers"

Looking at Michael Neno's press materials, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the man is a mysterious figure; a self-appointed "Culture Czar" operating some sort of clandestine comic cult from the shadows. All available depictions (both on his website and in his work) either show him from a distance or cast him in an imposing suit and sunglasses ensemble, and, consequently, there is an element of unknown about him.

Paradoxically, however, his comics speak volumes. Having an intelligent yet visceral quality about them, it soon becomes apparent that Neno is something of a culture vulture. Low-brow and high-brow have been mixed together many times before in comics, but, in my opinion, no one does it quite so honestly as in his work. There seems to be no limits to what might influence his output, and apparent references range from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan, Jack Kirby and everywhere in between.

Also having a Xeric award, Negative Burn contributions and a stint working with Paul Pope under his belt, we couldn't pass up the chance to invite Neno for a chin-wag following the release of his new comic, The Signifiers. Covering the influence of the silver-age on his work, his thoughts on current-day Marvel comics, the Xeric Foundation, self-publishing and a whole lot more, you can find his detailed and often-insightful answers below. Enjoy!

A hell of a lot happens in The Signifiers issue 1, as characters, settings and relationships are introduced. What are your intentions and motivations behind the comic?

My intentions were to set a stage, introduce characters and the world they live in and to entertain and intrigue. I could have been more explanatory about the world I created for my characters, but I'm adamant that that context be gradually discovered by the reader through the story I'm writing and will be writing, not through footnotes or interviews. In creating The Signifiers, I was creating something that amused myself and, as a reader and viewer, I enjoy comics and films wherein the author thrusts the characters (and the viewer) into a situation and expects/allows the viewer to catch up on their own. The first ten minutes of playwright and director David Mamet's films, The Spanish Prisoner and Redbelt are textbook examples of this technique; so were Jack Kirby's Kamandi comic books, which thrust the character/viewer into a startling and unsettling new environment at the beginning of each story.

Not that The Signifiers is necessarily in this category, but I do think there is a place in comics for work that is defiantly enigmatic, that doesn't explain itself in an obvious way or promise to. Stories can effectively adhere to their own dream logic, apart from mainstream expectations. Work of this nature is accepted in film (Bunuel, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch) and in music, literature, painting, photography and poetry. I think comics are also up to the task. Few cartoonists, for example, have attempted to meet the challenge Moebius laid down in the '60s, a free-floating, psychedelic conception that opened a new avenue for communication.

Also, like the work of Mamet and Kirby, The Signifiers is personal, even autobiographical. It's difficult for me to create work that isn't meaningful to me in one way or another. The hope is always that someone else will find meaning in it, too.

One of Neno's wonderfully-rendered Desert Thugs from The Signifiers

You've stated that The Signifiers takes place in the same world you introduced in Reactionary Tales. Was it always your intention to create an overarching setting for your stories, or did the process develop more organically than that?

It did happen organically. The first chapter of "This Eternal Flaw", the earliest material in Reactionary Tales, was originally never meant for print. It was just a collection of tiny ink drawings I drew to amuse myself and show around a convention in Chicago twenty years ago. Later, I blew the art up to minicomic size and continued the story as a minicomic. "Larvae Boy", the other story in Reactionary Tales, came much later, but I'm always looking for connections between things and it made sense to me to unify the various series I was dreaming up into a cohesive whole. I mean "dreaming up" literally; the origin story of The Voyst, the catalyst for The Signifiers Universe (which I'm planning to present as a Signifiers Summer Annual next year) came to me in a dream and I liberally apply dream imagery to my work when possible.

I'm creating a timeline for The Signifiers Universe which will pin down the chronology of all the series, including one I haven't printed yet, The Altered Sons.

The original, unedited "World of Landlark" map, as later seen in The Signifiers #1 with a few edits

There is an apparent and unashamed love of silver age comics in The Signifiers, both in art and the frenetic speed of the action/ plot. Is the comic a work of nostalgia or simply a continuation of a form largely forgotten by the mainstream comics industry?

There is an element of nostalgia in my work, but I trust it's not to the work's detriment or the reader's annoyance. The impetus for my work is not nostalgia, but need for expression. With the exception of my art for Landlark, which is a loving homage to Mike Royer's india ink-drenched '70s pages, I'm not deliberately drawing in a "retro" style, but drawing, conceiving, struggling, thinking, period. I would guess that's probably true for many of the current artists drawing in a style that seemingly hearkens back to an earlier time: Darwyn Cooke, Frank Espinosa, Tom Scioli, Dan McDaid and others.

Unlike the '70s, the current comic book marketplace allows a wide variety of styles and methods of artistic expression. If a Marvel reader from the '70s were thrust into the year 2010, the content of the average new Marvel comic would look to them like a European comic, because artistic and printing techniques pioneered across the ocean forty years ago or more have been sublimated and co-opted by mainstream American comics. And, like those European graphic novels, a wide range of drawing styles is now accepted by mainstream editors and readers.

Having said that, there is a sameness to much of today's American mainstream output that parallel's Marvel's Kirby-influenced house-style of thirty-five years ago: dreary stories that are the opposite of fun and cosmic, thin, anemic, unemotional line-work, dependence on photography, and a shunting of responsibility for establishing light sources to the colorist. That's a weaselly and lazy thing for a penciler to do.

My holy nexus for action genre material is Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Frank Robbins, Alex Toth, Johnny Craig and Jack Kirby. Like Moebius' work mentioned before, these gents created new doorways into chiaroscuro-based expression; challenges that, for the most part, go unanswered today.

Outside of the silver age, what are your favourite comics/ graphic novels?

All of the Tintin books, Joost Swarte, Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, Peanuts, EC comics, anything by Hayao Miyazaki, anything by Rumiko Takahashi, Krazy Kat, '40s and '50s romance comics (especially Matt Baker and Mort Meskin), Carl Barks' work, anything by Chris Ware, anything drawn by Joe Maneely or Basil Wolverton, the delicate graphic artistry of Hank Ketcham, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge's Hate, Lev Gleason comics like Crime Does Not Pay, Daredevil and Boy Comics, Floyd Gottfredson's '30s Mickey Mouse strips, Dr. Seuss' books, Fletcher Hanks' comics, Roy Crane's Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, anything by Kim Deitch, anything drawn by John Severin, Craig Thompson's Blankets, Jughead comics drawn by Sam Schwartz, Steve Gerber's Hard Time series, Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, Frank Robbins' Johnny Hazard strip, anything by Jim Woodring, anything by David Mazzuchelli, anything by Paul Pope (esp. THB), Jack Katz' First Kingdom series, Mark Beyer's Amy and Jordan comics, Enki Bilal. And Baby Huey comics.

"Feline Genetic Experiment #1"; reproductions available for purchase here

The Signifiers is self-published under your "M.R. Neno Productions" branding. How difficult is the process of funding, printing and distributing the comic?

I quit my day job of 25 years working in a Information Technology cubicle last year to write, draw and publish comic books for a living. I used my savings to publish The Signifiers #1 and am hoping I can sell enough copies to fund the next issue. I used a local printer, Fine Line Graphics, who had never printed a comic book before and I think they did an excellent job on it. I've solicited the book to Diamond and am very much hoping they'll choose to carry it!

Reactionary Tales won a Xeric grant in 2000. What can you tell us about the award, both as an entrant and a winner? Do you have any advice for young creators looking for financial assistance from the Xeric foundation?

The Xeric Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Peter Laird, one of the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The foundation provides grants twice annually to cartoonists who want to publish thier own work. It's uncommon for a cartoonist who's made a bit of money from their work to give back to the comics community so generously and Laird's organization has very generously provided over $1,885,000 in funds to cartoonists starting their careers! As a newly married cubicle drudge, there's no way I would have been able to publish Reactionary Tales without the Xeric foundation's financial assistance.

To applicants for the Xeric grant, I can only recommend: do your homework. Research all the printing costs involved, provide all the financial information the Xeric application requests, as well as everything else the foundation requires to make a decision on the book you want to publish. Your biggest obstacle may be getting the book distributed after it's published; Diamond Distributors has established acceptance criteria that potentially makes it difficult for distribution of just the sort of books Xeric gives grants to publish.

You've also self-published mini-comics in the past. Currently you produce a webcomic serial, The Mesh. Do you think webcomics represent now what mini-comics did five/ ten/ fifteen years ago? Is the issue more complicated than that?

The issue is more complicated than that for the reason that minicomics and other self-published books, zines and digests have never gone away. At shows like APE (Alternative Press Expo), SPACE (Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo) and SPX (Small Press Expo), small comics printed on paper can be bought by the thousands. Also, many cartoonists print their web comics in paper format ranging from 8-page minicomics to glossy, hardbound books. Anecdotal evidence is revealing that cartoonists who do this sell more physical copies of their work than those who don't make their work available for free on the web.

The web is merely (merely!) an additional outlet for distributing creative endeavors and product, but it's also one self-publishing cartoonists can't afford to ignore. The technology requires a multi-pronged approach to marketing the work.

From the mini-comic "Michael Neno's Dream", featuring F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

In the past, you've worked with Paul Pope, who also wrote/ drew the introduction to Reactionary Tales. Please tell us more about your relationship with him.

Paul was living and working in my home town, Columbus, Ohio, when I met him. I hadn't read any of his work but had seen ads he had placed in The Comics Journal magazine and so stopped to meet him at an art gallery showing while I was on the way to a friend's backyard cookout. The work Paul was presenting at the gallery was very impressive; I gave him copies of my minicomics and I remember we ended up talking about Akira Kurosawa movies. That was fifteen years ago.

Over the next few years, I lettered several of his projects; I lived close by his apartment and the lettering was practically an excuse to talk aesthetics and music. The man's work ethic was and is amazing and heroic. Paul has a prolific dedication to his craft that puts most cartoonists to shame (certainly, me included!). Don't let Paul's Twitter tweets fool you; he's probably inking with his right-hand while he thumb-types with his left. Paul totally supported my creative work, nudging me to submit short works to Caliber's Negative Burn anthology series (two stories were published) and giving me critiques of my work. I appreciatively learned a lot from Paul.

A sketch of Zelda Fitzgerald from Neno's work on "Michael Neno's Dream"

The Signifiers #1 ends with a cliffhanger. What can readers expect in the second issue?

The story in The Signifiers #2 both broadens the scope of the world the story takes place in and hones in on the characters introduced in #1. The mysterious Signifiers will provide a clue to Splash's role in future events. You'll meet Clay's four-eyed girlfriend, Tiffany, learn more about Val Crocodile, Associate Professor of Linguistics and pay an inquisitive visit to Splash's aunt's cigarette smoke-filled pad.

The Signifiers #2 will also feature a longer letters page and an interview with cartoonist Tom Scioli (Godland, The Myth of 8-Opus).

Aside from The Signifiers and The Mesh, do you have any other projects that you're working on?

In the world of comics, I'm submitting a Cloud Buster story to Juan Ortiz's Silver Comics line; they previously published my story "The End Meets the Ricket-Meister", utilizing their pulp/noir character The End, in Silver Comics #8. Landlark, The Heat-Seeking Dwarf will be graduating to his own comic book series and I'm hoping to get caught up enough on The Mesh, The Signifiers and Landlark this year to publish Reactionary Tales #2 (debuting the western series, Renegade Rex Ransom, "Wanted for a crime he'd like to think he didn't commit").

Outside of comics, I'll be illustrating a mystery novel by my Aunt, Nancy Baker and have illustrated a period western story for critically acclaimed author Van Reid's new fiction anthology, The American Zig-Zag. As soon as possible, I'll also be illustrating a sequel to Sirianus' parody collection, The Lost Quatrains of Nostradamus.

The first act of my superhero play, Octo's Helmet, was performed last year by Wild Goose Creative as a part of their annual Geekfest programming and I'll be finishing the play this year.

I'll also continue curating gallery exhibits at Wild Goose Creative. My exhibit, "Steinweiss, the Inventor of the Record Album Cover", showed last April; my new exhibit, "Long-Hair Music: Classical Music's Response to the Counter-Culture", is showing now and later this year, in conjunction with Geekfest, I'll be presenting "Hey Kids! A History of Comic Book Advertising".

Then I should take a rest.

The Signifiers Issue 1 is available to purchase directly from Michael Neno's website now. We'll be reviewing the comic in the following weeks, but we definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys frenetic action-packed stories featuring varied and fantastical characters. In the words of the artist himself: "The leading professor of linguistics is a crocodile"; what more do you need to know?

ATF would like to thank Michael Neno for his time and providing us with such considered and detailed answers to our questions. He informs us that he will be documenting the full version of his play Octo's Helmet  later this year, and readers can be sure that we'll try our best to hassle him until he gives up the goods!

1 comment:

  1. Michael Neno is a genious. And I can't wait to print the Cloud Buster story!