Conversation with Austin English

Detail of last page from low level enjoyment, 2015.

Detail of last page from low level enjoyment, 2015.

 
 

 

Jason Silva:

When did your interest in comics begin?

 

Austin English:

I was just talking about this with my mom in preparation for a talk about my book, Gulag Casual. She told me recently about how she would take me to the bookstore to get me children's books. One day I was in the bookstore and they had a paper cutout of the character Tintin. It was a cardboard display next to the stacks of books out for sale. As a four year old kid, I kept staring at the cutout. I just liked it so much - I would come back into the store to see that character. She bought me one of those books and I loved it. I still remember that book being read to me when I was a little kid. I had all of the different Tintin books from then on read to me over and over again. I can't remember a time when comics weren't important to me, someway or another. It was natural. She told me she didn't pick out Tintin for me, which is weirdly telling, because it's like there was something about comics or these iconic characters that I couldn't resist.

 

JS:

That was the entryway?

 

AE:

Yes, and maybe this would have been true even if I hadn’t encountered Tintin. Even if I don’t aesthetically like a comic, or I’m repelled by it in someway, I’m still interested in reading it. If a comic is put in front of me - there’s still something about it that I care about. Even if I don’t like it, I still feel like I get to know the person who made it. The art is pure interaction. It may not teach me anything or influence me to have any feelings, but at least I will understand what the person is trying to get at.

 

JS:

Does this also relate to how you respond when reading a novel?

 

AE:

Every now and then, when I’m reading, I’ll think the ideas expressed in literature are much more appealing to me than what comics have to offer. They have more of an influence on my feelings or thoughts about life than the vast array of comic literature does, but there is something about the form itself. Watching characters be pushed around the page - moved around by the author. There’s something about the form of comics, in itself, that’s just as exciting to me as anything else, but I can’t explain why. I think that for a lot of people involved in comics there is something about the potential of it that is so alluring, because it hasn’t been fully explored. Maybe there’s something about that potential. That it is so hard to harness. Everyone is sort of getting near it and falling away. There is something very comforting about it, and also something very exciting about it. Even if the ideas expressed in it are often sometimes lacking.

 

Two-page spread in the Spring 2017 issue of The Cut-Up.

Two-page spread in the Spring 2017 issue of The Cut-Up.

 

 

JS:

The history of comics and motion pictures run a similar timeline...

 

AE:

Yeah, the timeframe is very similar. I'm interested in early Sunday comics like The Kin-der-Kids by Lyonel Feininger, who is mostly known as a fine artist. At the beginning of the 20th century, comics were competing with film as being the most prominent, popular art form. That was a time when I think comics could beat film. They could be in color. You could have the characters appear in any way on a limited budget. Around that time, the turn of the century up to the 1940s, before comics started being more influenced by cinematic techniques - there’s just some stuff that I think is as beautiful as anything. Once film ultimately won out as the most popular art form, mainstream comics started to adopt a more cinematic approach, and I think, kind of lost part of what made it so interesting. As time goes on, it is coming back around to exploring an un-cinematic approach.

 

JS:

In that regard, it seems like both comics and filmmaking are wide open art forms. A goal could be to push past the approach where the medium is forced to appeal to the largest audience?

 

 

AE:

The potential of film has been further explored. The difference between the two of them is that comics - the really expressive ones - are usually done by one person. Film is collaborative. There is more of an industry around it. Someone designing the costumes, lighting the set, an expert in cinematography to photograph it beautifully. The best form of cartooning is written by one person. Staged by one person. Drawn, inked and colored all by one person. The progress of people figuring out the medium is much slower, but you can also see these little beautiful moments or beautiful turns that come through and people trying to figure it out over the years. This is so exciting to follow. It's mostly a medium where all of the elements are filtered through one person. The progress of it is slowed down, but the appeal of it is more intense when the appeal comes through.

 

JS:

You're taking it a step further by introducing cartooning in a gallery setting...

 

AE:

It’s not an intentional thought out thing. Around the time when I started making my own work there was this idea that was building up. You can read interviews with really incredible people making comics from the 1940s and 50s - they did some of the most beautiful work then - and they view themselves as making pulp and being good draftsman. Conscious of doing a good job. Over time, because of people like Will Elder and Bill Everett, who did amazing work in the 50s and 60s, it influenced people to take their work more seriously. Around when I started making my own work in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was this underground void that held the potential to do anything. It could rival anything. The idea that it was a substandard medium or a medium that you could just be a good draftsman from a small community of people - that wasn’t the thinking anymore. The thinking was that you could take this medium seriously and you could do anything in it. I happen to be coming of age when this idea was really fermenting, so I kind of just thought that you could make your work in any way you wanted. It was an art form to me.

 

Cover image of Gulag Casual by Austin English, 2016.

Cover image of Gulag Casual by Austin English, 2016.

JS:

From a young age you've been comfortable with the comic book format. Do you feel the same way when placing your work in a gallery setting?

 

AE:

With cartooning I know what I’d like to accomplish, although I don’t know how I’m going to get there. When I finish a comic, it’s different from what I aspired to make. From the start, I have an outline of the project and it means something to me. When I fail to realize that outline, or that ideal - something new happens and I have the intelligence within that medium - and standards - to guide the changes or guide what it becomes. I'm able to mold it into something that means something to me. Where as when doing work for a gallery show, I just don’t have as much of a standard, which makes it more fun in some ways. The rules are more foreign to me. I hope to work toward a real standard for both.

 

JS:

It is interesting to navigate two distinct artistic approaches...

 

AE:

I really feel lucky to be a part of two communities but not being totally immersed in one or the other - which gives you a lot of freedom. You don’t get as hung up on things that are irritating in either community. It's like having two part time jobs. If all your passion, all your creative ambition, all your community is involved in one art form - I think you kind of think that one community is the end all be all. I feel really lucky to be a part of two things that have completely different standards and thoughts. Also, different prestige and economics associated with it. So I can kind of let both of those things matter - or not. They can kind of cancel each other out because they have such completely different ways of working. I think that is very healthy. When you are able to cancel those things out you can focus more on the work.

 

JS:

On the last page of your book, low level enjoyment, the protagonist is laying on the ground splayed out on his back and he says in a little bubble flat out, “It’s a pleasure.” I’m interested in the interaction between the drawing and the text.

 

AE:

Comics should have clear storytelling. The emotions that you draw in the characters should compliment the emotions of what they’re saying. It should synch up. It should emotionally make sense. I think my work, in contrast to traditional cartooning, struggles with that idea. To draw the characters in the same way consistently. To make their facial expressions match the emotion of what they’re saying. By the third or forth page, I really buckle under that. I try to ride that handicap. I try to ride it into something unique. That’s when I really start enjoying it. I feel like some other kind of expression comes forth. I try to justify it in the sense that 95% of comics are done the other way and something feels worthwhile doing them in another way.

 

JS:

Can you think of examples of other artists that take a similar approach?

 

AE:

Film people talk about Robert Bresson as being stilted. How he used people's ticks and weirdness of expression, and how it shows something more about how people actually are. One thing I think surrealism is about is improvising with imagery, and building imagery with ideas as they come into your head as you’re working. I think that is one of the true thoughts that surrealism pioneered. I like doing that. It feels fresh and meaningful improvising the character’s expression and bodies in contrast to their train of thought or the dialogue - that’s a phase I’m definitely in right now. Currently, I’m working on a follow up to Gulag Casual. It will be one long story. I’m trying to make it more cohesive, but also make it true to the other concerns in art that I care about. It’s definitely something that I struggle with and think about.

 

JS:

Is any of it autobiographical?

 

AE:

It is two characters talking to each other for a couple hundred pages, so it’s autobiographical in the sense that I like talking with people. It’s also aesthetically autobiographical. Movies, books and theatre that have this structure of just a few characters in a couple scenes are usually more interesting to me. Not all kinds of emotions or ideas have been expressed in that small play structure. I get a lot of pleasure hearing other people talk, and I like talking to people, so I thought that would be a good template to work with...

 

JS:

Have you ever seen the film, My Dinner with Andre?

 

AE:

I’ve seen that movie a couple times. That movie is the same structure as what I’m working on. I like the filmmaker, Louis Malle, and I love Wallace Shawn, but there is something a bit corny about that movie to me. I like it. When I watch it I see that it’s such a great idea. I endorse the concept of it. There are a lot of bits and pieces of it I really like. At the same time, there’s something about it that I believe a lot of artists feel when they see something so close to what they're working towards. Something is lacking. In a way this will be my edit of that movie, but hopefully a bit more from me...

 

 

Austin English with comic book at age 10.

Austin English with comic book at age 10.