Ira Marcks is involved in many artistic projects, but this interview focuses on his Illustrative Score, a scrolling piece of art set to music. As he told me, it’s something like a “45 minute music video” and a “graphic novel told in a single, 50 foot long panel.” Ira answered my questions by email in March and April 2010 (I’m Dan Copulsky).
How did you get the idea to do an Illustrative Score?
The original idea was Jake Lodwick’s. He had commissioned an album from The Few Moments for his record label, Normative (no longer active). Somewhere along the way he had the idea to have me do “one long drawing” to accompany the music. The term Illustrative Score came about from the process. I had the lyrics and the finished album in my hands before I did anything. The story progresses in a mythical way that made me think of the different ways ancient cultures preserved their stories through sequential wall paintings. This combined with the cropping effect of the screen made me think of it as a visual score to the music. Put simply, it’s kind of like Mario Paint Composer.
Could you describe the process of putting this together a bit?
I used Photoshop to build a gridded template where 6.5 inches was equal to 30 seconds of music. I had to be very careful to abide by these rules since it was going to be over 50 feet of illustration. All the little cheats would add up and the images and music wouldn’t sync up. I did a simple sketch of each song using loose geometric shapes to mark the feel and density of the music. Then I traced over that with the content I felt suited the lyrics. Next I inked and water colored the parts in 6.5 inch segments making sure they would lock together when I scanned them. After all of it was digitalized I used After Effects to bump the images up against each other like a slow moving train. Jake helped me out with the render settings and optimizing it for the web.
I was curious what you could say about the relationship of your Illustrative Score to what’s more typically called comics. In what ways are they similar for you? How do you see them working differently?
The only important difference between comics and this Illustrative Score is the automation of the visual. Genres and categorization only serve to organize items, not to accurately describe the experience of the art. I would say the differences between the “score” and a comic is the same as the difference between reading a book and having it read out loud to you.
Would you consider making the art from the score available in a format where the person viewing it has control over the speed they see the images at?
As a whole work, it wasn’t designed to be looked at in any other format than the one it was presented in. As a study of the process or in the context of a lecture on the project, I would display the raw image. If only for the opportunity to see what is lost in the digitization of hand-rendered art. For those people with minimal interest in the work, I would rather they didn’t have a second option than that of the published video.
What do you think the role of experimentation in art is? Is it more about finding the right form for one particular project or more about creating new ways of expressing things that others can use and adapt?
The things I find inspiring are often designed around a very specific set of guidelines. I am inspired by process and the concepts that generates it. I think many artists are. But experimentation is a difficult thing for a patron of the arts to invest in. It can overshadow the resulting art. I’m surprised at the overwhelmingly positive response this Illustrative Score has generated. I suppose, in this case, the art prevailed. The experimentation it was born from can now be addressed as a method worthy of a term. In my vocabulary at least. Early in my career, I thought the ultimate challenge was to indulge in experimentation with minimal regard for an audience. Now, I’m finding the biggest challenge is to create something new, but still accessible and worthy of a viewer. The relationship of art and craft is something I reassess from project to project.
What are you working on now?
I’m preparing a print collection of my comic strip, WITCH KNOTS, collaborating on an experimental radio drama and illustrating a wordless sci-fi children’s book. I’m also in a band and teach art full-time.
James Kochalka is a comic artist and musician, and now he’s a video game designer too. The awesome, prolific creator took some time in February 2010 to answer Dan Copulsky’s questions about his comics, life, and new venture.
You’ve been doing daily diary strips for over ten years. You’ve created a rather extensive portrait of your life and self, but there are some limitations to the form. You only have a few panels for each comic, and each generally has to focus on one day. Taken as a whole, do you feel like there’s anything missing from American Elf, or do you feel like it shows a pretty accurate picture of you and your life?
Both actually… it’s pretty accurate AND there’s lots and lots missing. But what I omit, either by design or accident, can be just as important as what I show in the strip. For as much as I reveal, I don’t reveal everything, and some things are only hinted at. It’s actually a strength of the strip. It’s a simple fact that our fellow human beings will always remain unknowable on some level. No matter how much you know about somebody, the vast majority of their life still remains secret. And so it goes with my strip as well. You will get to know me quite intimately by reading the strip, yet still the majority of my life will remain veiled. Basically, I reveal as much as one might reveal to a really really close friend.
Your website once required visitors to pay a small monthly subscription fee to read your comics. A couple of years ago you switched it so that most of your work was available to anyone but only subscribers could see some bonus material. Did the change have a noticeable effect on the number of visitors or subscribers?
Ultimately, no. Although there was a HUGE rush of attention when the site changed over from the subscription only model to the mostly free model. I think a few hundred thousand visitors came to American Elf in just a few days. It’s basically evened out.
The important thing about having the archives free is that it’s very useful for attracting new readers, and I can’t really get new subscribers if I don’t attract new readers. In the long run, it’s kept the site making money. Even though it doesn’t make any more than it did under the old system, at least it doesn’t make less… which is the direction things were heading before I switched.
Your two sons have appeared regularly in your diary strips since they were born. Oliver might still be too young to really understand what’s going on, but Eli must be pretty aware of your work. Does it seem like being a character in a well-read comic makes life more exciting or do you think growing up with it just makes it normal?
Both! That’s actually part of the point of American Elf… that the “normal” stuff in our lives is actually magical and exciting, if you’re open to it.
Being a character in my strip is something that Eli really likes, for now at least. He’s only 6. He even seems to like the attention that he receives from fans. The strip runs in our local newspaper, Seven Days, and people often recognize them on the street just by hearing me call their names. People hear “Eli and Oliver” and their ears perk up and they ask, are you from American Elf? He thinks it’s cool.
What happens if your kids become teenagers and are totally embarrassed by your comics about them? Would you stop putting them in comics? Would you take older strips out of your archives?
I expect they both will eventually reach an age where they don’t want that kind of attention drawn to themselves. I’m prepared to navigate those treacherous waters. I can easily just refocus the strip more prominently on myself, for instance.
No way in hell would I remove the strips from the archives. I don’t think they will ask for that, and if they did, well I’ll have to make some other compromise. My friend Steve Bissette suggests just paying them royalties.
How do you manage the time you spend working on art? For projects that you’re not necessarily doing a little every day, do you have deadlines (imposed by yourself or others)? Do you spend a set amount of time working on things every day or work when you’re inspired?
I do very little work that has a real “deadline,” so I don’t have to worry about that. But it’s still a trick to manage the time. I work when Oliver is napping or after Eli and Oliver have gone to bed at night, or sometimes a manage to steal a few minutes here and there. Eli is in first grade, so he’s gone all day, but Oliver only goes to day care two days a week… so I have just two days a week to really concentrate and get work done.
You’ve done a wide variety of creative projects, including diary strips, vulgar superhero comics, children’s books, paintings, and music. Is there anything else you’d still like to do, like drawing a really serious memoir or writing a novel?
One of my big dreams, since I was a little boy, has been to design a video game. So… a few years ago, I just started working on it… designing it on paper, working on the character and gameplay ideas. Then recently I was introduced to a small indie video game company called Pixeljam. I happened to be a huge fan of their games Dino Run and Mountain Maniac… and it turns out that they were huge fans of my comic.
So… we started work on my video game idea together. It’s called Glorkian Warrior. It combines my hand-drawn art style with their low-rez pixel graphics style. The bulk of the game is hand drawn, but Glorkian Warrior has a little pixel-robot version of himself in his pocket who can go into little caves and tunnels, where you play old-school style single-screen levels. We’re trying to fund the project through Kickstarter, and there’s a lot more information about it on our page there.
How much of your attraction to comics and video games is the same (like love for storytelling and art) and how much is different (like love for the interactivity of games)?
One of the things that I love about art is that it opens up a magical space for you to enter and explore. This feeling happens in novels, comics, music… but especially in video games.
Did you expect the game to actually get made when you started designing it?
I think I started work on it when one of my readers said, “Hey, I make videogames, do you want me to help you make a videogame?” We were going to make it as a GameBoy Advance game. So I started work on it, but they were really too busy and I never really heard much from them again. But I kept on working on the game on my own… mostly in my mind, but also sketching things on paper. And then I drew a short Glorkian Warrior comic for Pop Gun, and then I started working on a Glorkian Warrior graphic novel, which I’m about 2/3rds of the way done inking at this point.
Do you think you would have found a way to get the game made if you hadn’t been introduced to Pixeljam? Did those expectations shape the way you imagined or worked on the plans for the game?
My hope was to find someone to make the game eventually. But I wanted to be sure I found someone pretty professional and not flakey that would actually be able to put the work in and get the thing made.
I tried to keep my design ideas simple enough that I could explain them to a collaborator easily. I tried to hone the ideas in the game to something clear and precise and fun that a collaborator could make quickly and easily without much fuss. I actually came up with 2 or 3 clear different game ideas, but when I hooked up with Pixeljam they loved them all so much that they insisted that we combine them into one game. And then we all got so excited that it started to balloon wildly as we got more and more crazy ideas. But we know we can’t explore every idea or the game won’t get made… we’d just go on for infinity thinking up new amazing features, so we’re prepared to cut things back to the core.
Could you describe what the game’s going to be like once it’s ready?
We’ve made a very simple rough prototype of the basic gameplay elements, and it’s fun. The core of the game is good, it’s really strong. Basically, it’s sort of a combination of Super Mario Bros. and Galaga with some gravity flipping.
Here’s the premise: The Glorkian Warrior is supposed to patrol his asteroid field, but he lost the keys to his Glorkian Supercar, so now he has to go look for them. So, he follows his patrol route on foot from asteroid to asteroid, looking for his keys. He has a Super Backpack that he uses to shoot space-invadery type aliens flying above him, but there’s other creatures on the ground that he can jump on and bounce off of and stuff.
But he also has a little robot version of himself in his pocket that he can send into little secret caves to look for his keys and stuff. In the caves you will play an old-school style pixel-graphic version of the game. It’s going to be really cool.
Josh Frees is going to introduce himself. He is a delightful artist and swell guy. Swell enough that took some time to answer Dan Copulsky’s questions (by email, in January and February 2010).
First, could you give a short bio of yourself, the kind that would typically be found in the contributors section of an anthology?
Josh P.M. Frees is an artist and a musician from Philadelphia, PA. His work has been published in several anthologies and websites and he self-publishes his own intermittent mini comics when he gets the chance. You can find out more by hitting up joshpm.livejournal.com.
Next, could you give the sort of bio someone might be able to write about you after making small talk at a party?
Josh is some sort of ridiculously happy idiot who likes to make people smile. He plays music like a madman and makes comics that are full of the best kind of inside jokes and awkward dialogue.
Are comics and music just two things you’re interested in, or is your interest in both connected? I know you sometimes draw comics about making music. Does either art form have other influences on the other?
They are most definitely connected! Both are very important aspects of my life and it would be really difficult for me to do one without the other as different as they seem. First, music often inspires me while I draw, right down to stylistic decisions. I listen to happy, poppy ska, punk, and indie rock, and I feel like that shines through in my work. Like my comics, I like my music fun and carefree, but also a little provocative and with just a hint of edginess.
In addition, when I’m having trouble writing or drawing I often use music as a release. Performing with my band, Victor’s Lament, is always a really fun time. I jump all over the stage, play my heart out on my sax, sing along, and just rock out in general. Or if I’m at home I’ll take out the guitar and noodle around. I’m not very good at guitar but I’ve been writing some neat little licks that we might be turning into songs soon. But yeah, it’s another creative outlet that helps me clear my head and express myself in a different medium.
On the same theme, is there anyone you admire as both a comic artist and a musician? James Kochalka’s the only other person I can think of that does both, though there must be others.
There are actually very very many comic artists who also create some astounding music. Lucy Knisley writes some really touching heartfelt folky guitar songs every now and then, Nate Powell has been in several punk bands such as Soophie Nun Squad and The Universe (both of which I highly recommend), Liz Baillie and M.K. Reed are in a band called The Holepunchers and Liz also plays ukulele versions of Bouncing Souls songs in her one-woman cover band ECFUke, and my good friend Alvaro Lopez-Moreno writes both folk songs and makes some intense rap music under the name M.C. Blackwolf.
Other folks include Katie Rose Leon who makes some really fun synth pop rock gems, Jim Gardner (beautifully simple sweeping tunes), Jeffrey Lewis (straight up American folk), Aaron Brassea, Josh Sullivan, Brian Fukushima, Brian Lee O’Malley (as Kupek), Rebecca Sugar, honestly this list could go ooooon and oooon!
I’m always impressed by the range of talents of comic artists. Rarely are we one trick ponies and often the people I’ve met who make comics have a vast variety of interests in subjects ranging from art to literature to neuroscience to the biology of beetles. I think that this is one of the primary contributing factors to the richness of both the comics community and the medium itself. The variety of talents within the comics scene really makes it accessible, which sets it apart from the world of “fine art.”
You graduated from college a few months ago. What are you up to now? Do you have plans for the future?
Lately I’ve been finishing grad school applications and trying to find a part-time job. I am applying to both the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. I am really interested in really getting a down and dirty in depth education in comics, because while it’s something I’m passionate about and I’ve been doing relatively successfully over the past few years, I still don’t feel like I’m very good at it! I feel like both programs will also help me continue to improve my writing and branch out artistically!
I have been recording with my band as we are about to release a split 7” with some good friends of ours: The Heat Machine from Nebraska. I’m really proud of the new songs and the idea of releasing vinyl is pretty novel to me.
You also made a passing references online to working on a graphic novel. Can you say any more about it or when people might be able to look forward to seeing it?
I am very much in the planning/prewriting stages. I have some character sketches, a few outlines, some freewrite short stories that might be incorporated, but I have nowhere near the endurance, the drive, or the time to tackle anything like that right now. It is definitely something that I am taking my time on and really giving my all, because I want it to be huge and AWESOME. My ideal timeline would be to work on it for the next three years or so and see where it takes me. What I have in mind is expansive and convoluted and I love it, so I don’t want to rush it.
Lurking around web comics, I’ve noticed that you have a great ability to befriend people, like you seem to have this really easy way of making to-the-point, engaged, interesting, nice comments on other people’s work and in getting those people interested in what you’re doing. Is it a skill you practiced or just a natural talent?
I’ve always been one to kind of reach out to people. In almost anything I do, whether it’s art, music, traveling, etc. I really value the interactions and relationships I’ve been able to form with folks. As far as the comics scene goes: when I first started reading and posting comics on the internet I always felt very welcomed by people like Robert Forest (Grugg), Ive Surocok, Natasha Allegri, Liz Prince, Ryan Estrada, and the livejournal comics people in general. As I got more involved with comics and started going to conventions like MoCCA and SPX, meeting people like Alvaro Lopez-Moreno and Sarah “Sally Bloodbath” Louise who really took me under their wing and taught me how to do pretty much everything I know. It was really encouraging to see that, unlike a lot of art and music scenes, a lot of the pomp and pretense that exists in other mediums was completely missing. I found it very easy to talk to other artists, ask questions about techniques, or just generally make friends.
People also really tend to appreciate both support and constructive criticism. Comics is a largely thankless process where we spend a lot of time creating pieces that rarely take more than a few minutes to read. It makes a big difference when someone takes the time to say they really enjoyed a piece or to offer up some tips to help you improve! By the same token I try to make a point of replying to just about every comment I get on Livejournal (even if it’s just a “thanks!” or “hello!”) because I am really grateful that people are enjoying what I’m doing and it’s nice when they take the time to say so.
Basically Comics folks are just some of the nicest in the world. It’s always a pleasure to hang out, bounce ideas off folks, grab a drink, do some jams, or generally just joke around. This particular art scene makes it easy to just be myself and relax while doing something I love.