Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Springsteen as the Second Coming: an Interview with Box Brown

With the third issue of Everything Dies being officially released only days ago, we invited writer/ artist Box Brown to answer some questions regarding the series. A serialised look at the world's religions traditions, stories and myths, it's definitely one of the most unique small press comics in production at the moment, and approaches its subjects with an objectivity that equally mystifies and demystifies them, all the while retaining  its creator's understated humour.

Read on for Brown's thoughts on his upcoming stories, the subtle influence of Peanuts within the comics, Kickstarter, the Xeric Foundation, his involvement in Philadelphia-based newsprint anthology Secret Prison, and an anecdote on the Christ-like potential of Bruce Springsteen.

Congratulations on the release of the new issue. How did the launch party for the book go?

The launch party was great! It’s really nice to have a local accomodating comic shop. Both of the stores I’ve had parties at here in Philly: Brave New Worlds and Locust Moon Comics have been awesome and the crowds (I use that term loosely) have been really great. It’s pretty awesome meeting readers.

What was the inspiration behind creating a comic-book study of religion?

A bunch of different things really. I’ve been interested in religion for a long time. I went to Catholic school when I was a very little kid and my grandparents are UBER religious so it’s been kind of ever present most of my life. At some point, it occurred to me that it was ironic that right-wing Christian groups say that Muslim beliefs are bogus or that Scientologists’ beliefs are bogus. And, once I really starting getting into researching the religions, I found it was a never ending rabbit hole that I am still stuck in.

Independent or ‘alternative’ comics have a long history of religious satire. Everything Dies is against the grain in this respect, as it seems to treat its content with objectivity and respect. How important was this to you when planning the series?

With Everything Dies I’m trying to depict all of these different religious beliefs truthfully and on an even playing field and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions on the subject. I make no bones about the fact that I’m an Atheist but I truly don’t wish to disparage religion but allow each religion to stand upon its own weight. I am of the mind that it’s unnecessary to skewer religion when the facts are enough to sway the people you would have swayed either way. 

Containing simplified cartoon re-tellings of many religious stories and beliefs, a great deal of research must go into every issue. Do you have a particular favourite story or fact you’ve learnt whilst writing the series?  

Oh man, it’s a non-stop rollercoaster! At some point in the series I do wish to tell a Hindu story, but it’s so daunting. The art and stories are so beautiful and complicated respectively. I am currently working on a story for a later issue that is pretty fascinating. I started looking up religious statues and monuments and found an interesting one in the US called “Christ of the Ozarks”. It’s one of the largest statues of Jesus in the US and it was commissioned by a guy named Gerald L.K. Smith. Now, this guy Smith was one of the biggest scum bags in American history! He was a racist, nazi sympathizer and one of the first New World Order conspiracy theorists in the world! Also, the guy he commissioned to do the statue was famous for designing Dinosaur statues.

Similar, if only in terms of the way it aims to illustrate biblical passages, we were curious to see if you’ve read R. Crumb's Genesis. Was it an inspiration or influence when writing the comic?

Yes, Genesis did have some influence. I’ve actually not read the whole thing and probably never will. Oh sure I own it and I love it and look at it all the time, but even with R. Crumb’s art, the Bible is boring as hell. But, he hit the nail on the head by depicting it factually. I know that Christian groups STILL hate the book, but they have no grounds for it. Whereas if he took any artistic or literary liberties they would have an argument.  

Some of our favourite pieces in Everything Dies come from the philosophical parables within the “Heart of Stonework” sections, which have appeared in every issue so far. What can you tell us about the inspiration and purpose of these characters?

I started doing HOS in a comics class that I took at the School of Visual Arts in New York with instructor Tom Hart in 2007. It started as a strip comic in the vein of Peanuts. Originally, I would just depict actual Buddhist koans, but it has since morphed into its own world that I’m not sure actually exists. When I was coming up with the original concept for Everything Dies I was also being courted by The Times of India who had found some of those old strips online and wanted to run them. That, of course, didn’t work out but it got me to revisit those old strips and I thought they’d be a perfect fit. Though, I think they’re the most confusing at times too. Especially since they really don’t follow true Buddhism but a weird mix of Buddhist philosophy and my own. Further, they don’t exist in a legitimate time period or setting, I just make stuff up. But, look out for Issue 5 in winter 2011 it’s a full issue of a 32 page "Heart of Stonework" story.

Everything Dies was initially financed by donations via Kickstarter, which has become something of a hot topic over the last few days following Johanna Draper Carlson’s criticism of the site. As a creator who has had success using the service, what’s your take on the issue?

She seems to have softened on Kickstarter and recently wrote an addendum to that article but I see her point Kickstarter IS a tool. It’s imperfect but in some cases, for some people it works. And in this business a creator has to take every advantage he can. It worked out for me. It funded issues one and two, and brought in a lot of subscribers. Kickstarter seems to be an exercise not only in fundraising but in marketing as well. Both are skills that any cartoonist (who is looking to turn cartooning into a career) would find invaluable. As independent creators, we’re also our own marketing team (as well as a number of other jobs), and it’s difficult to begrudge anyone taking advantage of anything and everything available to them. 

Do you think that sites like Kickstarter can provide a new financial model for independent comics?

It seems to me that, generally speaking, the model is pretty much the same as the “Pre-order” model that many webcomics have been using for years. I’m not sure how much life the Kickstarter model has left in it. I mean, for sure, I hope that it becomes and stays robust, but I feel like it’s a bit flooded with projects right now. But surely, Kickstarter has its place in the world of comics.  

Speaking of Kickstarter, you’re contributing to Philadelphia-based comics tabloid Secret Prison #2, which is currently appealing for funding there. What can readers expect to find in the second issue?

The second issue is FUCKING BAD-ASS! (can I say that?). Benjamin Marra, the featured artist is a superstar. This video is proof. Also there are some awesome international artists involved as well,  Simon Gärdenfors (120 Days of Simon) and Luke Pearson (cover artist for Solipsistic Pop II) and others. It’s basically half Philly artists and half other artists. These anthology newspapers have come into fashion lately and I love ‘em.  I hope they continue to grow. It would be awesome to have these types of papers in comic shops everywhere.

We hear that you’re exhibiting at the Philly Alt Comic Con. What will you be offering at the event? 

I’m psyched about this event. It’s our second annual. Last year was really fun and even Charles Burns showed up with free mini-comics! So this year I’ve got all three issues of Everything Dies and some other comics of mine, but also I am doing the covers for a little limited edition anthology of PACC artists that’s being made for the show by the boss, Pat Aulisio.

You earnt a Xeric grant for Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing in November 2008. Please tell us about your experience as a Xeric recipient. What is your advice for creators looking for financial assistance from the foundation? 

The Xeric Foundation is fantastic. I always encourage people to do it. My advice is always to fill out your forms completely. The competition is always fierce and a mistake on a form is an easy way to eliminate your proposal. Also: you should keep submitting until you get it. Xeric is great. They’re really easy to work with and the name alone is enough to open some doors for you. The review requests alone are worth it. Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing was reviewed on Ain’t it Cool News as well as a ton of other places.

Finally, the title of Everything Dies is named after a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City. Have you sent a copy of the book to “The Boss” himself?

Ha! No, I haven’t. I should. I love Bruce Springsteen, he’s the patron saint of New Jersey. Growing up in NJ he really is a God. It’s funny a few years back my Grandpa wrote a book of short prayer annecdotes. In one of them he discusses his theory that if Jesus did come back he would be a man like Bruce Springsteen. He’d be a working man of the people and when you saw him and heard him speak it would be wonderful and people dance and be filled with joy. I love that.

A thank you of religious proportions go to Box for taking part in this interview with us. Everything Dies #3 is available now for $5 online, along with all previous issues. We defy anyone to not want a comic that features bigfoot, Mormon underwear and a existential analogy involving Super Mario. In fact, you should use that as the pitch when you go and bully your local comic shop into buying some wholesale. 

Oh, and Mr Springsteen, if you're reading this, buy one for heaven's sake.


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