Connor Willumsen's first graphic novel, Anti-Gone, beautifully follows a couple who drift on a small boat and go see a movie on drugs. It felt to me a bit like a Tao Lin novel in that it focuses on young people who spend their time shopping for clothes and entertainment/drugs. Tim Hodler suggested I talk to him for the Journal. I don't know Willumsen very well, so this was a real treat. The phone conversation took a while to schedule. We had a lot of connectivity problems, so Willumsen recreated, and embellished, his text in typed form. So what follows is a combined phone and typed interview, condensed. The phone elements were transcribed by Gareth Bentall and Avi Kool.
Dash Shaw: Before we got cut off, I had asked you how this story started and you said you built it out of sequences. You had an idea for this movie scene and you had an idea for a scene at the beach, and you wanted to do something longer, and you just had a lot of sketches that you constructed into a bigger book. Is that right?
Connor Willumsen: Yeah. I had been developing notes and pages and drawings for a long time knowing I would eventually be producing some type of substantial book with Koyama. I was not sure when conditions would allow me to actually start the book, or what would be an appropriate method for developing that kind of book in a finite amount of time, how it would look, anything. What I ended up with was a large box of disparate notes, written scenes, or entire drawn sequences, which were all over the place and maybe unrelated. I also made the cover before any finished pages. I was searching for something that I could hang everything onto and would hold my attention for the duration of its making. When the time came to make proper test pages, the first scene of the book, on the beach, was the scene I gravitated towards and I continued from that starting point, adapting some other scenes or ideas I came up with along the way.
These are really unusual characters. When I read it, I wondered if it was tongue-in-cheek to choose these people. Do you get why I would say that?
I think I do, although I don't think my personal interest in them is tongue-in-cheek. By the time I started moving forward with them I felt genuinely comfortable following them around, so it’s hard for me to interpret that reading experience from you, because tongue-in-cheek feels like it's too distant of a perspective for me. I can see how they can be read as funny because of the way the act within their environment, but whether or not it feels unusual I didn't want it to feel like they and their setting were so jarring or absurd that you couldn't become familiar quickly. The reason I stuck with them is a sincere interest in how they hang out together and how they navigate that world, and how that plays out and where they end up, with the terms being that everything is driven naturally by what they’re saying and what they do or don't want. I felt like I could get more out of that, out of their experience, based on the way they present themselves when they're talking or doing nothing, even if it reads as bizarre or innocuous.
Do you know people like this?
I think the answer is yes, but not completely. They're sort of based on the way I or people around me during the time of its development were interacting or talking, generally hanging out, but I don't know anyone who is specifically represented by one character or another. I don't think they exhibit any behaviors or reactions that aren't at least strongly familiar to me through someone I am close with, or that I myself can't relate to, and these qualities can range from disturbing to endearing.
Essentially the whole story is just them buying things and lazing around. They have a boat that's a giant sofa. He's paying someone to help him stop making movie references. He punches someone who asks him for money… But it didn’t feel a Bret Easton Ellis thing. It wasn’t that strong in terms of a palpable "ironic" use of amoral characters, but it also seemed like there was a goofiness in how they were drawn and in choosing to make them the lead characters when they are solely consumers essentially.
Well, I don't know if it's an odd or ironic literary device, but I think portraying someone who is solely and in essence a consumer is something that's at least extremely relatable to anyone buying this book, probably more than most qualities. And here I think I'm more understanding of what you mean about them being odd or goofy, but it's still meant to be honest. Like they don't look or act any more goofy than I am able to feel if I'm absently thumbing through socks at a Uniqlo, or doing anything else for that matter. But in the same way you have to put serious limits on your level of self-consciousness or awareness of surroundings just to get through a day in public without having a crisis, I committed to embracing them and being comfortable rather than distant and observational. Like if the perspective of drama is to look up to someone, and the perspective of comedy is to look down at someone, I am trying to look laterally or through.
The way his muscles were drawn is like a Capcom character, like he works out at the same gym as Guile from Street Fighter.
Actually, he has a more specific model in terms of physique, this professional wrestler from my hometown named Bret "The Hitman" Hart. He's from a local family wrestling dynasty, whose pinnacle was actually in that Street Fighter era. He was really beloved because he had a unique aura of like benevolent and innocent machismo which was almost childlike. I also had in mind Mickey Rourke as he dresses in public, whose shopping choices seem to embody an experimental stream of consciousness totally unrelated to any conventional meter of taste.
You have these sequences and you decided to put the characters into them, and then it just organically emerged that it was characters buying things and doing drugs and seeing a movie.
Yeah, I just decided I was going to start them off and follow them and see what they do, essentially. A few locations were important to me as a destination. The movie theater, for example. But I wanted to give them the agency to avoid going anywhere they didn't want to. My decisions just offer up a choice, but they're guiding it.
They're guiding it, but they're not what we would think of as active characters?
But somehow they led you through all of that.
Yeah it’s just like a simple matter of them making choices about preference, like they’re bored and looking for something to do, and options are presented to them from the outside commercial world. Events follow them, and there are trivial decisions made in commercial situations which are banal, but have a subtle but developing emotional consequence that's difficult to define, and the whole of these micro effects defines the relationship of each character to their surroundings.
When you’re equating drugs with entertainment and movies, it made me think, “Is this comic entertainment?” Do you think that Anti-Gone is entertainment?
That’s a good question, because I spent a lot of time thinking about what that word means. I mean, it’s not entertainment to me.
It’s not entertaining to you?
No, but only because it’s hard for me to understand what it’s like to have the experience of reading the book properly. A lot of what it’s about is how your immediate relationship with art or entertainment changes your experience of it, like with a movie or book, or something like that. So, it’s hard for me, as someone who's had to scrutinize it so intensely, to get to a point where I’m recognizing it as entertainment. But I don't imagine anyone would bother to read through it unless it's amusing them. Really broadly, there isn't a lot of art I wouldn't call entertainment. Its depth really depends on your situation at the time.
For example, the female character reads a book that isn’t intended as entertainment, but because she is reading it in this relaxing way, her mind is changing it into something that would be pleasurable to read?
Yeah. The situation of your reading experience and a bunch of other things that could be happening are affecting your interpretation of it deeply. Or, that’s how I relate to something that I'm consuming. I feel like I’m very sensitive or even vulnerable to my environment. Personally, I've noticed that if I see a movie on an airplane, I’m a lot more sensitive to the conceited drama of it. For some reason, because of the specific conditions related to air travel and its ritual preparations, if I watch any movie, no matter how obvious or even bad it is, I will easily be brought to tears at its emotional apex or some trivial moment I personally connect with, whereas if I’m watching something at home on a laptop I feel like I’m analyzing it or judging it critically, or trying to understand how it was made, and I feel less engaged emotionally. I watched Roger Rabbit on an airplane recently and the scene that really effected me was when the camera pans over a desk of old newspapers and one headline reads “Goofy Cleared of Spy Charges”.
You definitely sense that when you travel with a movie and you watch it play in different contexts. But books don’t have that. You don’t sense that. It’s more like you’re, you know, like a radio DJ or something and you aren’t present while the person experiences the book. Have you ever watched someone read all of this book?
Yeah, this is the first time I’ve ever had someone I could trust read it while I was making it. Because I was under a time constraint to finish it, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on what I was doing and go over every tiny decision. I just had to move forward, so every time I finished four or five pages, I would have a particular person read it, and I could watch them laughing at certain parts and not at other parts and directly observe their experience and any emotion it stimulated. And I would adjust my interpenetration of that response depending on the nature of my relationship with that person.
Can you say something that someone said that struck you, or made you rethink something?
I can’t really, specifically. The person I was having read it was close to me, so it was more of about a general emotional assessment of the material, or a shared interest and humor. It has a lot to do with how I found them reacting to the character interactions, or empathizing with how a character was feeling in a particular moment. In that way it was more of a broad assurance that I was eliciting something rather than nothing, which allowed me to feel free to simply continue. I could trust them to tell me if I was having an honest relationship with my own work, which is all I wanted to know. Technique or structure didn't seem relevant at the time.
It was drawn on sheets of vellum, which is like a thick stiff tracing paper that can take a certain amount of medium without buckling.
Yes. So, every page in the printed book is exactly how it looks physically in hand. I wanted the reproduction to feel like unaltered photographs of my drawings, and that's because there is a lot of subtlety of depth and value available when working with vellum. You can apply medium on the front or back, and it can recede or pop out depending on which side you're looking at. There are various spaces in the book, where there is an overall change of value to the page, whether dark or light, which is a sheet of white or black paper placed behind the actual drawings. And on some pages there is a combination of these values which is made by the placement of cut paper swatches behind the drawings.
Ok, I get it. When you’re talking about the state changing the entertainment or the story, a couple things popped in my head. [laughs] One is: do you experiment with the same thing in making it? For instance, I stopped listening to music while I draw, because it convinced me that I was better at drawing than I actually was. I would get excited or I would feel like I was in a groove, and it was a false feeling. And then obviously, some people are really good at drawing comics on drugs. A lot of the greatest comics were drawn on drugs. Can you speak to anything about that?
Yeah, I mean, that’s something I’m super preoccupied with. It doesn’t necessarily have much to do with drugs specifically, but all kinds of things that affect my mood and the situation where I’m drawing. I’m very strict about how I interact with the internet depending on what I’m drawing. I also feel like, this particular book…
Wait, elaborate on that-- how you interact with the internet while you’re drawing. What does that mean?
Well, just like how easy I can access it or not, what lines of communication are open and to whom. I find it changes what I’m doing because there are operational possibilities that aren't necessary bad, but maybe not relevant or in service to my capacity.
To me this just sounds like trying not to get distracted. [laughs]
It is basically like that but… it's more about being deliberate in how I relate to my surroundings, which includes ephemeral modes of communication like the internet, which almost feels like it has a spiritual quality of good and evil. For example, in my studio I usually restrict myself from being able to use a device that can do anything quickly. I have crappy little homemade computer that rests disassembled in a small carrying case, and I have to put it together if I want to use it, and its very limited in what it can do, not meant for graphics. There are different outdated or broken phones and devices lying around that are clunky and serve different devoted purposes. With one I can take photos of my drawings without being able to upload them, and another I can only use for radio. At home I keep my laptop in a chest with a bunch of potted plants on it, because I want to be sort of respectful and deliberate about its possibilities and its traps. And this way of operating has a lot to do with why I produced the comic the way I did and how it ended up looking.
Are you saying that if you’re dealing with a cumbersome computer, you have to be more deliberate in your actions and that might make your drawings more deliberate?
Not exactly, not as in the drawings are made with the same restrictive ethic that I apply to my environment... I mean that the situation of my material arrangement, which includes economy or technology, forms the circumstantial limits of possibility for making the work. It is hard to explain, but I'll give you an example. A big reason the pages look the way they do is because I could not afford the possibility of having the more high-end computer that I use for image processing suddenly die on me, because it's out of warranty and I couldn't afford a repair or a new one on short notice. So I planned my book in such a way that there was little to no digital backend, so that even if I didn't have access to a computer I could still get a friend to sneak me into a college to use a good scanner, and upload the raw files through ftp on my a cheap little shoebox computer, and that would effectively be the book. Because the production of a comic book is not outsourced or standardized, it's truly unwieldy, so I had to come up with my own contingency plan or risk a major coincidental setback. Had I a different economic situation or access to technology, the book would probably look completely different. To my eyes, the book is a snapshot of the practical circumstances, environments, and time in which it was made.
What about the room where you draw the comic? Your studio.
I don’t think it's quite the same thing. I think of the workspace as like mood and posture, surfaces and height, very physical, and then communication or information possibilities are something else. Even if I'm not actively using it, a laptop in my workspace can have a really weird aura to it, and I can sense its presence and the way it reaches out everywhere. Most objects and furniture that are in my workspace are spread out in relation to how I move, considerate of how they effect what I'm doing. It's less mental. Like I always try to draw standing up, I feel like I can move around an entire spread more, it keeps me from fussing to much or wrenching my body to get into some compact detail. I become more conscious of a conservation of energy.
Did you draw this comic standing up like that?
Yeah, and I felt like that’s more of the same, what I was saying about the vellum, where a manipulation of circumstance, or like a contingency plan, forms the aesthetic.
Right. So, a lot of the look of the book obviously has a sparseness that I feel does a lot of different things at once. I just want to blab and you can tell me I'm totally wrong, but one is that when you emphasize negative space it becomes activated or stronger and a lot of the book is in this zone, like the sun is inverted and the cover has a hole in it; even the title is two negatives: Anti-Gone. And for me, someone who finds these characters difficult to be around, I think there’s a big negative hole in their lives that they’re trying to fill that I see echoed in the formal properties of the book, you know?
How I picture it is probably different than, well, definitely different than other people. But I think that another element to it is [laughs] and this might sound crazy, but I think that while there are these characters being slackers, there is also kind of like a slacker element to the sparseness. Do you think that’s just me being critical of those characters?
Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I know what you mean, the reason for it being sparse and that kind of thing. I’ve observed some of these correlations that you're mentioning in the finished product, although it didn’t start like that because I wasn’t necessarily sure when I started how the character experiences were going to play out, or how they were going to feel to a particular reader. So while I did correlate some of those things toward the end, it wasn't a strategy, the sparseness or the idea of a negative wasn’t contrived to be symbolic. To me, the black dot as the sun wasn’t symbolism at the time of its drawing, but a solution for rendering the sun in an opaque expanse, or like developing the possibility of unique visual codex within the book – but of course you manipulate these standards of comic shorthand, like how the sun is depicted, knowing it will become enigmatic and form unexpected symbolic relationships with the rest of the book. To me the process feels more like discovering symbolism rather than deliberating it.
But it’s an accumulation of all of these decisions that you’re making. You’re deciding to not draw these things and to draw things in a different way… I get what you’re saying, that it’s intuitive, but you're still creating the conditions. It’s not like those things happen to you.
Right, but I guess I am sort of nurturing a perspective as if they are just happening to me. I’ve been giving some workshops lately and I’ve been telling people that it helps to get through a page, continue the narrative, by just blowing the space on the page they’re currently working on, you know, like waste a lot of space and draw something small in an expansive void. The way I look at the way the book did turn out has a lot to do with how I was feeling while I was making it, because I was trying to make it quick, like as close as I could to the speed of reading a comic, which is impossible, and so I was subject to my immediate state during any particular page. So if I was feeling bogged down with a page, if it I was feeling it was becoming too laborious for me in its detail or pace, if it was boring me, I would blow a lot of space on the page to get through that moment and start fresh at the next, and my thinking is if I had a intuition that that needed to happen, just for my own wellbeing in that moment, the reader would have similar intuitions during the reading experience. Like if I'm getting bogged down by a page so is the reader, and to give myself drawing space is to give the reader space at the same appropriate moment, as if at the same moments we would feel the same moods or rhythms, even though we can't possibly read and draw at the same speed.
I never finished something that I was in the middle of asking earlier. I’ve seen this in movie screenings where obviously the audience’s conditions change how they receive it to a great extent, but there’s also things that just work. Like, “Oh, I know people are going to laugh here” or “They’re going to get scared here,” and despite how individual people are feeling, there’s something it is genuinely providing that blasts into the audience member. And comics are probably less like that because it’s a more participatory experience. But I guess what I would say as a definition of entertainment is to try to “work” in some ways where the audience would laugh or be "played like a piano." But it doesn’t seem like that would be a goal that you would have, or that many alternative comic artists would have.
I think a lot of the problem with that is like what you said earlier, you rarely get the opportunity to witness someone experiencing it. I think you could do that in a comic book, really manipulate emotion. Personally I don’t feel like I have enough experience with feedback from a readership to know when things like that are working or not, even if I'd like to. I’m taking a gamble with what I’m doing. There are some things that I know that certain people are going to find funny or interpret a certain way. The things that I think are the funniest things, I can assume have a resonance with at least certain people, but as of now I don’t have a really thorough sense at all of who that is or what’s connecting and what’s not.
Are there any comics that you could point to that work as entertainment to everyone, anyone? [Laughs]
Uh, well, [laughs] try and get more specific if you can. I mean, yeah there’s a lot of books that I think are really entertaining or something like that.
I guess you’re pretty safe in giving someone The Far Side.
Yeah, yeah. It’s like a lot of strip comics, and palatable material that feels familiar to another medium. I find the comics that I got started with when I was a kid, if I hand a person a Frank Miller comic or something, if they’re willing to engage with the tone and subject matter, which is a another topic, they understand the beats perfectly, super simple and quick.
As entertainment. They often remark it’s like easy entertainment or something like that, familiar or digestible like a movie might feel. It's borrowing from the more recognizable language of film, there's less of a learning curve. Although now I'm wondering how pervasive the language of comic strips are now. Memes have sort of superseded that shared language. The Far Side really feels like a meme collection now.
Something that I really like about the drawings in this book is that I feel like you could chart a… you could call it minimalism but I think that would be incorrect, I’ll just say "minimal marks." Recently, for instance, John Porcellino is a master and CF and Aidan Koch are masters of this… go farther back to Hergé and it’s "clear line" cartooning. But you have figures moving in space more. They go forward and back in space. They move away from us in space. All of those cartoonists that I mentioned have a very two-dimensional plane of the comic. And that figure in space I associate with commercial drawing chops. Like Mazzucchelli or someone who can draw Batman jumping across a room. Do you think that that comes from a formal comics education? It must be something you pay attention to, because I see it in the book.
At this point it feels pretty natural to draw like that for me. That sort of special diorama image box is my shorthand and offers me a faster working process, but it doesn't come specifically from my comics education. It more comes from how I was determined to draw and study when I was a teenager, when I was actually copying Mazzucchelli's drawings as isolated images, and my education in illustration and observational drawing. The thread of my comics education, specifically, is more about theory and history, how narrative, juxtaposition, and the object of a printed book or scrolling website functions, and tends to circumvent what I absorbed in that other education. I really have to focus and slow down in order to grasp perspectives alternative to that familiar “photographic” or spacial one, if they are more flat or isometric or whatever.
When you’re stripping this stuff out, I don’t really think it can just be to try to get it done faster. Because I have to believe that it’s connected to these characters. Your answer to why it looks like this is because you were making conditions to try and get it done. That’s an honest answer and I accept it, but I also believe it’s related to the same impulse as making a comic about these particular people [laughs].
When I said that it's a practicality of getting it done, I mean being able to work in the moment unattached to the internet and the problems that occur when you're trying to manage the multitude of exchanges of your day-to-day life. I'm trying to organize everything in this way so that in the moment when I'm drawing I can be fully present and focus on my intuition about what should be portrayed and not actually having to think about anything practical at all. So a lot of the structural process itself is a stripping away, and I think you're right in suggesting that this process informs the characters or maybe illustrates their appeal to me, and is reflected visually in the book. It's a difficult thing for me to be conscious of, because I am weary of being too deliberate about an overall thematic connection. I want these things to resonate, but by way of me and my efforts to let go and allow the narrative, with whatever formal and aesthetic properties it has, to be evocative of the limits of my controlled process as much as the unknown variables of my personal life. That way, whatever is resonating can more potently evoke the same source context. I’d relate it to playing sports where you spend more time training and practicing than you do actually performing, when all you can do is act with a calm trust in your experience in a way that almost feels meditative. So in a sense I spent more time preparing to draw than actually doing it.
Did you try to do comics before that got bogged down in these things that you said you were trying to avoid this time?
Yeah, you know, I started making comics with this overwrought degree of thinking and preparation of what it will become, as if I could see it ahead of time. That's how commercial comics are made, where you know before you even draw that there is supposed to be a coffee cup in the foreground or something. It can be great but might not be sustainable, unless it's being financed appropriately. Maybe it's a burden of associating comics to film, which tends to be more prepared. But I've learned that the essential moment for me is knowing when the planning stops and the execution begins, because you could plan something to no end. More than that, it's important for me to know what preparations or safety nets or references are going to become a burden if they're carried into the execution, you have to be free to simply draw and continue. In the moment I don’t want to think about the process at all. I want a blank area to work with.