It's an easily achievable pleasure to get lost in the world of Lale Westvind's comics. The expansive quality of her sprawling intergalactic terrain ranges from the outer limits of the cosmos to the inner-workings of the mind. “I believe that your thoughts completely affect your reality,” Westvind, suggests during a conversation after the final evening of MoCCA Fest in New York City from her home in Harlem. “Whether [that's] because your thoughts affect your actions or because your thoughts are another type of matter or energy.” We discussed her new book Now and Here, along with a multitude of thematic and stylistic components that provide the richness, depth and excitement that feel like a signature of her outstanding body of work. Her characters and readers alike may sense they are bushwhacking through infinity, and that's kind of the point.
From an early age, Westvind, born in 1987, found it difficult to relate to the mainstream superhero fare of gallant men in spandex. Her early influences are punctuated with intellectually weighty comics from the likes of R. Crumb and spastic capers on the lawless fringe of civilization like Tank Girl. She also devoured the works of Moebius and Jodorowsky, and her work is steeped in the traditions of otherwordly environments these authors operate in, often constructed to reveal deeper truths of modern life and the desire to return to the spiritual in a world saturated with technology. Through the thematic juggling of mystical alien societies and basic tenets of modern life, Westvind's work explores the intricate systems that connect these ideas, and reveals that they aren't really so different after all.
Building on a lifelong education in alternative comics, Westvind earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute in 2009. Continuously looking to fuel her hunger for the possibility of discovering new worlds within our own, Westvind's search for inspiration for her life and work includes new-agey texts like Dancing Wu Li Masters, a laymen's investigation of quantum physics. Through this book, Westvind discovered the idea that particles composing inanimate objects may themselves function with consciousness. Though mentioned briefly and not elaborated upon in the text, that morsel marks a cosmic shift in the nature of things, a significant theme in Westvind's work: the will of an object can impact its surroundings. Westvind has a knack for seeing the potential in seemingly absurd or outlandish ideas.
Westvind primarily focuses on the potential madness of futuristic and alien worlds. Often depicting simultaneous perspective and motion, her characters bounce and blast their way through desolate deserts and impenetrable tangles of organic and mechanic matter. Departing from exploration of material worlds, Now and Here explores the liminal space of her protagonist's psyche, simultaneously stretching infinitely while locked within the confines of thought.
Now and Here is a creation born out of the act of creating. Admiring her prep drawings for an upcoming animation called Cunt Eyes, Westvind wanted a vehicle for those images to be appreciated as static, allowing the viewer to soak them up to the fullest. “It was like making a comic backwards,” she recalls. “I picked the ones I liked and rearranged them, tried to put them in an order that might make narrative sense and wrote something describing each image. I had a vague idea of how I wanted it to work, but I definitely didn't know what it was going to be about or what was going to happen until I was finished. In that way, my subconscious wrote it.” Now and Here captures the subjective nature of thought in a material way; it confronts the reader with the process of taking in visual information and assigning meaning through thought and the new visualizations those thoughts take on.
Westvind's experience with animation leaps out of her comics through her clear love of ecstatic movement and tumultuous acceleration. “I always want as much stuff to happen in as little time as possible.” The energy of her work is palpable, often featuring high speed travel and disastrous collisions, while maintaining a generally goofiness that serves to keep things in a realistic recognizable scope that allows characters to fumble their way through new territory. “There is always slapstick. People are always falling or tripping or choking. That’s life. That’s inevitable.”
In one of her earlier works, Titus and the Cybersun, Westvind uses this slapstick element in a pivotal part of her so-called “hero's” journey, as well as Westvind's own treatment of how a male hero operates in an unfamiliar world. This is particularly effective because Titus is a comic without dialogue or narration. It's pure visual storytelling. “Titus is like the anti-epic,” she says, “The hero dies immediately out of his own stupidity.”
After his vehicle runs out of fuel in a oasis inhabited by raucous, wild women, Titus is apprehended by mysterious figures he believes are acting with some sort of malicious intent. He fights his way free from their grasp, kneeing a dude in the dick and running manically with no direction, only to trip and fall into a pit where he is disintegrated by some sort of inter-dimensional power source. While Titus flees in panic and the person he kicked barfs from his dick-related injury, it becomes apparent to the reader that these mystery dudes were only trying to show him where the source of his fuel comes from.
In the male dominated world of sci fi heroes, it can be a frustrating endeavor trying to find a female protagonist whose purpose is a step beyond looking sexy, scantily clad and blasting baddies while ultimately reinforcing stereotypical gender roles. While Westvind's lady warriors may have the bulk of their anatomy on view, it takes on a different definition of exposure and beauty. “I wanted them to be bare chested the way like He-Man is bare chested or Hercules or Tarzan. 'I'm bare chested cause I'm so strong and invincible.'”
It is unfortunately not surprising that not everyone understands this presentation of female bodies without a little guidance. Westvind recalls a poignant reaction she received when she shared her work: “A relative who read Titus asked 'Why are all the women in this so unattractive?' I was like, 'What? What are you talking about?' 'Well all their breasts are hanging,' and I said 'Yea, that’s what breasts do!' Rather than being disgusted and getting really angry, I thought maybe it's ok, I'm doing something right. Because if he thought that all these women in here were sexy that's not what I want.”
Westvind treats her technological objects with the same reverence and complexity as her characters. In her world, vehicles and ships demand the same respect and holistic understanding as the human (or alien) body. In her ongoing series Hog Dog Beach and Hyperspeed to Nowhere, various groups and individuals are consistently at the mercy of their technologically advanced environments. Considering the possibility that objects can have consciousness, along with the increasing integration of humans and technology which we see in a very real way in the modern world, this aspect of her work is particularly poignant and captivating.
The organic fusing of man and machine is a fascinating aspect of some of the best sci fi, forcing characters to consider themselves as a part of a larger system where they struggle to find a balance between the response to fight or surrender to opposing wills. Westvind notes the importance of the Arthur C. Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
“As technology progresses the interface evolves closer and closer to thought execution,” Westvind continues. Now and Here celebrates Westvind's idea of future technology fusing with the mind to create a space where thoughts and matter are one and the same. “Thoughts are reality, there's no distinction. Maybe it's closer to a dreaming reality. You know, in a dream, if you think of something it just appears. Or vice versa, if you're thinking of it too hard, it can't happen. That’s the kind of space the narrative [of Now and Here] exists in.” The language, which shifts perspective between an omniscient narrator and the main “watcher,” is purposefully vague but clearly loaded with meaning, allowing the reader to bring their own thoughts to intermingle between those laid out on the page. If this sounds like a lot of mental muscle-flexing to read a comic, consider that this is what feeds your perception of reality on a unconscious continuous basis. Westvind explains, “You’re interacting with this world and you're in your thoughts and then you meet another person and they have their whole world view and reality and then you're interacting with that.”
In the real world, even the most mundane situations occur because of layer upon layer of thoughts colliding and morphing into ideas into actions, constantly and simultaneously without us even having to think about it. Now and Here is Westvind's spiritual exploration of what is real, the appreciation of the unsaid and unknown within ourselves which result in a shared reality.