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Interview: David Heatley

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Cartoonist David Heatley’s work has included a self-published graphic pamphlet, Deadpan, cover art for the New Yorker and drawings for the New York Times and McSweeney’s. His graphic memoir, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down, will be published in October. For Granta 102, Heatley created a cartoon strip, ‘Classic Combo’, confronting the complex industrial processes that produce fast food. Here Granta’s Simon Willis talks to him about his intolerance for wheat, dairy and political art and the current popularity of confessional cartooning.

SW: For Granta 102 you drew a strip documenting the production of a hamburger from crop to kitchen. How did the strip come about?

DH: I’ve had stomach trouble all my life. A few years ago I started getting a serious intolerance to soy, wheat and sugar. In the last few months I’ve added dairy to that list. So food is a subject that’s on my mind a lot. The idea for the story came to me during my morning meditation. I imagined what it would look like to draw all the steps involved in engineering (there’s no better term for it) a classic burger and fries combo at a diner or fast-food restaurant. I read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation years ago and have seen Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me. I’ve also read articles on food by Michael Pollan and others. There’s really no new information I’m imparting. I was just interested in visualizing all the steps that have become invisible [in the production of fast food].

While drawing the pages, I could see even more clearly how convoluted and absurd our process for getting food on our table has become. It’s almost like a Dr. Seuss or Rube Goldberg machine. After I’d thought of the strip and made some notes on it, my agent told me that Granta was looking to feature more cartoonists and they were wondering if I had any ideas that related to people feeling disconnected from nature. Perfect! Before I had even drawn the strip, my idea had a home. It was a really nice synchronistic experience – the kind of experience that seems to be happening more and more in my life.

You’ve said that you don’t like overtly political art, so why did you decide to deviate from that principle for Granta?

I don’t think of this strip as overtly political. I’ve tried to make it quiet and as neutral-seeming as possible. There’s a clear embedded viewpoint that I find our food industry absurd, but I’ve added no narration, dialogue or commentary. I’m just presenting the facts of how this particular meal was made. I’ve even shrunk the panel size of the images of the cow being killed so as not to completely alienate the reader. I have a lot of respect for Sue Coe [author of Dead Meat] as an artist, but her book about the meat industry is the opposite of what I’ve done – visceral, angry drawings of slaughter. Unfortunately, I think that tactic almost always backfires because it winds up completely repulsing the viewer. Charles Taylor put it really well in a recent New York Times book review: ‘...humanist empathy devoid of the distinctly human is finally not art but merely grim reportage’.

Your dislike of overtly political art is interesting in another respect. Contemporary cartoonists and graphic novelists often trace a lineage to political satire, as far back as Hogarth and Gillray. Modern cartoonists like Robert Crumb and, more recently, Joe Sacco are also overtly political.

I’m not a fan of political cartoons from any era, really. I think sharp political cartooning requires flattening people into groups and factions to render them right or wrong. I’m much more interested in complexity and contradictions within people. Anything I would be angrily decrying as wrong with the world exists inside of me, too. My time is much better spent examining myself and trying to root out what I find repugnant. The opposite tack always seems a little hypocritical to me. Joe Sacco is possibly the one exception to what I’m saying. He finds a way to make his stories personal and include himself as a character in the narrative, which I think makes all the difference. My favorite works by Crumb are his early issues of Zap and his collaborations with Harvey Pekar and Crumb’s wife, Aline Kominsky. I’m not so into Crumb’s rants.

Who has influenced your cartooning?

Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Art Spiegelman and Gary Panter are probably the biggest influences. There’s John Porcellino, whose books Perfect Example and The Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man are brilliant. Crumb, Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, David Mazzucchelli, Debbie Dreschler, Joe Matt, Chester Brown and Seth [the pen name of cartoonist Gregory Gallant] are all really important to me. Seth’s art in particular has a deeply soothing effect on me whenever I look at it. Ron Rege, Adrian Tomine, Dave Kiersh, Gabrielle Bell, Kevin Huizenga, Sammy Harkham, C.F., Dan Zettwoch, Mat Brinkman and Leif Goldberg are all amazing contemporaries of mine. Painters like Philip Guston, David Park, Basquiat, Saul Steinberg, Jim Nutt, H.C. Westerman and Alice Neel had a big effect. I’m also inspired by the video game design of the 1980s, especially Nintendo arcade games like Donkey Kong Jr., Dig Dug, and Q-bert. I consider all of them works of art. Children’s book authors that really impacted me at a young age were Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry and Clement Hurd. I’m also deeply inspired by too many musicians and filmmakers to name, but an experimental filmmaker named Scott Stark was probably my favourite when I was in film school.

The title of your forthcoming book, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down, a graphic memoir, is taken from a Ramones song. Tell me about the book and how it came about?

The book evolved really naturally. None of it was planned in advance. My first comics strips to get noticed were illustrated versions of my dreams. I started getting known as someone who only did dreams, but I thought of them as only one facet of my story that I wanted to tell. I got the idea of doing comics about my sex life and doing portrait comics about my father. All these strips made it into my self-published comic book Deadpan. If I was planning anything it was probably that I’d keep publishing these comic books until I had enough material for a collection. But I met my first editor, Michael Homler, at a party and he asked if I had any book-length projects to propose. I gathered what I had so far and wrote a book proposal describing possible additional strips like ‘Black History’, ‘Family History’ and ‘Portrait of My Mom’. And I got a book deal.

I spent the next four years drawing those strips and learning how to organize the material into a book. So basically I had to learn how to go from being a comic book artist to an author in that span of time. It was tough, but I’m much happier where I am now. It makes sense for cartoonists to be treated like authors, to have literary agents, to get real book advances. Without a doubt, I’ll be approaching my next book a little differently.

What draws you to memoir rather than to fiction?

I was traumatized into preferring memoir. I think having a father who was so caught up in fantasy my whole life (my dad is a lifelong fan of science fiction and Tolkien novels) has made me run screaming to things that feel authentic and reality-based. I read a lot of novels in school, but I often find I can’t even get through them anymore, with the exception of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who are my favourites. I can devour a non-fiction book if it’s on a subject I like and I read newspaper and magazine articles more than anything. I have a special fondness for memoirs, graphic or otherwise, though I hold them to the same high standard of everything else. I recently saw a movie called A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. It blew me away. There’s something so powerful in someone surviving a situation and peeling back all the messages they got from life or their family and just screaming it out into the world: ‘This is the way it happened! I know! I was there!’

Many current superstars of cartooning have made their names with graphic memoirs: Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) are two famous examples. Robert Crumb’s work has a strong autobiographical element, as does Chris Ware’s. Why is memoir so popular among cartoonists at the moment?

I think there’s something in the zeitgeist in general for whatever reason. Reality TV, blogs and documentaries are all being produced in huge numbers. In terms of comics, I know both Spiegelman and Crumb were inspired by Justin Green and Aline Kominsky in the 1960s. The form didn’t really exist before them and few people have actually read either of their work. It’s such a tiny slice of the pie in terms of comic books, but it just takes one person like Spiegelman or Satrapi to be inspired and then they take it to this completely other level. I picked up the thread after reading Spiegelman’s Maus, and also the work of Julie Doucet, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Debbie Dreschler and Seth. There was this great autobio renaissance in the ‘90s that kind of faded away. I think a lot of young cartoonists are looking to people that Dan Nadel is publishing with PictureBox – fine art crossed with lowbrow fantasy comics. I’m inspired by a lot of that stuff too, but I’m planting my flag solidly in the personal storytelling camp. I hope my book furthers this thread in comics and inspires others.

In a review of the cartoon issue of McSweeney’s, the British satirist Martin Rowson wrote that ‘comics aren’t and shouldn’t be respectable. The closest they should come to the adult world is as a kind of foul-mouthed, filthy-minded and grubby adolescence’. Do you agree with that?

That’s a little extreme, but I agree with his overall point. I’m not crazy about cartoonists who use expressive, painterly brushstrokes that are supposed to show their connection to Cezanne. It kind of deadens the reading experience for me. There’s something magical about a pictographic doodle that’s simple enough to scan and then move on. The whole page comes to life. Within that range of simple doodling, it’s possible to express the gamut of human emotion, including things that only adults deal with. So I’d part ways with Rowson’s comment there. Anyone who has read Maus or Jimmy Corrigan or Persepolis or Carol Tyler’s The Hannah Story knows just how powerful comics can be. There’s nothing adolescent about any of those works.

How important is good writing to good cartooning?

In terms of the importance of writing in comics, I’d say it’s absolutely essential. Writing is the foundation of comics, or maybe the armature. A comic is only worth reading if the story is well-planned and powerful. Otherwise it’s a series of loosely connected pictures, regardless of how well they’re inked or colored. Writing is easily seventy-five percent of my process and it takes the longest. I prefer artwork that isn’t too laboured over, that shows some spontaneity and improvisation. But the story has to be really well-constructed if it’s going to reach me.

We are seeing more and more graphic adaptations of literary works. Andrzej Klimowski has just made a graphic version of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. We’ve had adaptations of Shakespeare. Martin Rowson has done Tristram Shandy. What do you think graphic treatments of literary works add? Isn’t it just publishing opportunism?

I think the idea has merit. One of the greatest graphic novels is David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s novella, City of Glass. It’s brilliantly inventive, while staying very true to the original. And it’s not just a Classics Illustrated approach to literature. It expands upon, highlights and collapses parts of Auster’s book. In other words, it’s a book that has a real reason for existing. Kevin Huizenga has also done some very interesting work adapting from other works of literature. I don’t think any use of comics is bad per se, it all depends on the execution.

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