“I Wanted The Opposite Of A Style”: An Interview With Jon J. Muth

Jon J Muth has long been regarded as one of the best artists and one of the great painters in comics because of a series of comics he wrote and drew like The Mythology of an Abandoned City, Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight and Nightmares, M, and Swamp Thing: Roots. That was in addition to his projects with others like Moonshadow (written by DeMatteis), The Mystery Play(written by Grant Morrison), Wolverine/Havok: Meltdown (with Walter Simonson, Louise Simonson, and Kent Williams) and Sandman #74. For the past two decades, though, Muth has primarily been writing and drawing picture books, for which he’s received a Caldecott Honor and a Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators, among other awards. From his own books like The Three Questions, Stone Soup, and Zen Shorts to his collaborations with Mo Willems, Caroline Kennedy, Sonia Manzano and others, Muth has continued to display the same humanism and sense of humor, and playfulness in his writing and his painting, that has made his work so uniquely his own.

2019 marked Muth’s first comic project in many years. He adapted Stanislaw Lem’s story The Seventh Voyage into a beautiful oversize hardcover volume published by Scholastic’s Graphic imprint. The book began more than two decades ago when Muth reached out to Lem, and after many years away, Muth felt the need to return to the project more recently. Featuring Lem’s well-known character Ijon Tichy, it concerns a trip that quickly becomes strange and complicated, potentially life-threatening, and absurdly comical. The kind of story that both Lem and Muth do so well, in other words.

It was one of the best comics of the year and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about this long in development project and how children’s books has become his home.

Alex Dueben: Youve made a number of comics, which many of us still read and reread and hold dear. But in recent years youve spent your time making picture books. What interested you in making a new comic?

Jon J Muth: The Seventh Voyage was always a story waiting to be done. I love the form of words and pictures together and maybe I’ll do more comics, but this was the one comic story I felt had been waiting quite patiently.

You write in the book about your love for Stanislaw Lem's work, but what was it about this story that made you think it would be a good graphic novel and that excited you to make it into a graphic novel?

I got the feeling Ijon Tichy was the right ambassador to connect Lem’s work and mine. When I wrote to him, I think Lem liked the humor in the things I’d done. Maybe they reminded him of his own drawings. It would’ve been easy to choose something like The Invincible or Fiasco or Eden. All of those are very visual stories. At one point I was seriously considering doing his short story The Mask, which is terrifying.

Who is Ijon Tichy to you?

Ijon Tichy is a personable, bumbling guy with good intentions, and he makes a mess wherever he goes. To me, Tichy is a paradox – he’s ordinary with petty concerns and weaknesses, but all that is cloaked in intellectual prowess and personal ambition, and he’s renowned for his accomplishments. Which makes for a very strange but familiar and plausible person. Tichy innocently stumbles into different adventures and each strange place he comes to is used by Lem to make a comment on the human condition. 

The Seventh Voyage is only the tip of the iceberg of Tichy’s adventures. Throughout the stories, Lem ruthlessly targets different topics, social problems, and intellectual positions. Yet he remains charming.

In the back of the book, you mention that you made models of the character, the ship. When did you start making models?  

I probably started with this book. But that would’ve been been the original start back in 1993. Since then, I’ve made several models of my panda character Stillwater and his nephew Koo. Making models or maquettes keeps me rooted in actual light, and mass, and color, and keeps me from having to make up too much. Or rather, what I make up is more specific. Being a fabulist I still feel my imagination is so much less interesting than reality. By bringing in what we experience as real and even ordinary, it creates an interesting tension with events in the story that may be extraordinary. Visually that interests me.

As far as the original start of the book back in 1993, how far along did you get and how do you think it would it have been different?

I thought about that a lot when I was working. Much of the ground work was done back then. I had a strong sense of what Ijon Tichy and his ship looked like. I got about six of those original pages finished. The layouts of the final book are very similar to those first pages. I think the time between then and now has dialed up my sense of the absurd. It’s probably funnier because of that. I hope my storytelling has evolved.

I think that Lem feels like an ideal collaborator for you, because you both are philosophical but also have this comic, playful quality to your work.  

I feel very fortunate to have worked with him. He is always looking hard at the question which we will always insufficiently answer – what is it to be human? I admire his genius so much and his writing just delights me. Our ambitions so often outpace our efforts and that is what makes us utterly absurd and illogical, but also romantic, and noble. The playful part comes because I see so much that is worthy in us. We do not say children are unable to think clearly because they say “goodnight” to all of the objects in their rooms. Life is like that. We are still only where we are. But, that’s pretty amazing!

Im assuming that you have a process of making picture books that is different from how you used to make comics. How did the process of Seventh Voyage differ from a recent picture book and the last comic you made? 

The processes are different. I broke The Seventh Voyage down into very specific layouts. I think many comics creators do this. I only mention it because it’s new to me. In the comic book work I did previously, I would often work in a looser fashion. I never developed a very professional approach to comics. Picture books come about more loosely, in that I’ll do an entire dummy sketch book of a story, but often, as I paint, the story starts to show me what it wants. So the art will change. And then the text changes. The Seventh Voyage was always about keeping all of Lem’s text in the form that Michael Kandel translated.

For a book like Mama Lion Wins the Race, are you making models of all the main characters, the vehicles? Do you have many Stillwater and Koo models? Or do you mostly go hang out in Panda enclosures? 

I’ve done all of those things! The first drawings which became Stillwater and Koo were done from life at the San Diego Zoo. I stayed in the panda enclosure for hours drawing the pandas Bai Yun and her cub Xiao Liwu. I’ve visited the Smithsonian National Zoo. Now I’ve visited pandas all over the world. Not in China though. My wife, who is Chinese, tells me I haven’t truly completed my panda journey but since Stillwater is a pilgrim I think it’s good to meet them outside their natural homeland.

Mama Lion Wins The Race started with my children’s stuffed animals so the models already existed. Mama Lion has been with my son since he was born. We were playing with his stuffies one day and there was a video on the television of an Italian road race, like the Mille Miglia, or Targa Florio and he stopped, transfixed. He thought it would be funny if Mama Lion were driving, so we drew wheels on a facial tissue box. That evolved into old Italian racing cars, so we made up this story together.

Coming out of working in picture books, how conscious were you about the size, the format, and the design of the book? Because The Seventh Voyage is this beautiful oversized hardcover.

The Graphix – Scholastic – design team is amazing. I chose the size based on some black and white books I’d seen by the Italian comics artist Gipi. They felt very good to hold. Now I see many comics companies are putting out beautiful books at that size. The book is the final product, so I try to be very conscious of how that will be experienced.

To your mind, how does The Seventh Voyage compare to some of your other comics work like Moonshadow? What are threads that connect these stories in your mind?

There is some slapstick quality to Moonshadow, which was my contribution, but I don’t know that there are connecting threads besides myself. I’m glad I didn’t do The Seventh Voyage until now. The book is better for it. I do wish Lem had lived to see what we came up with. My storytelling has improved, but I don’t particularly value that over the naive aspirations that were present in earlier work like Moonshadow. Moonshadow is really about memory. That’s why the art had such a strange variety. Old Moonshadow is looking back on his life and he remembers some events and people as if they were drawn by Chuck Jones, and other parts he remembers as serious or beautiful – different moments have different lenses.

One reason I bring up Moonshadow is that there was a new edition of the book earlier in the year, but also I keep thinking about how it was called a fairy tale for adults when it was releasedand I think one could argue that Farewell, Moonshadow was a picture book for adults. Its an early work of yours but I think it encompasses a lot of the work youve done in your career.

One thing in my work tends to lead to another which leads to another, and so on. That’s the point really. Yes, Dark Horse recently did a beautiful edition of Moonshadow.

The idea of Farewell, Moonshadow being “a picture book for adults” is probably accurate. I didn’t want to go back and do something we had already done. Another comic with Moonshadow wouldn’t have held any interest for me. When we started Moonshadow, J.M. DeMatteis had written in the comics industry for a while already and he had friends in the field. Because I didn’t have much experience of traditional comics and I was coming from painting, my work in Moonshadow was more reacting to his text.  Often, what seemed visually obvious to me was startling to him. The connection to Charles Dickens came when he saw my first drawings. He said, “What’s this?” I said something like “Well it felt like Great Expectations.” So the story and art started to create each other. It’s completely J.M.’s story and the writing is all him, but while we were working it was a real symbiosis. Moonshadow was a wonderful phenomenon to be part of.

When you were starting out as an artist, you were painting and making comics at a time when that was unusual. For you was the decision to work that way simply a question of combining what you wanted to make with how you liked to work? How did you come to make painted comics?

When I was starting out I wanted the opposite of a style. Each project seemed to be asking for something different. Since one could never avoid it, it seemed like a ridiculous thing to try and shoot for. I just wanted to approach each project or story and find some truth in it. Making pictures is just how I get through the world. I grew up looking at paintings in museums. All of those paintings were stories and so when it came to telling stories, why wouldn’t you paint them?

I remember when I was young and those old Gold Key Comics had painted covers. It was as if Magnus Robot Fighter, was painted by Caravaggio or Titian. Then you would open them and the work inside was the standard line and color artwork. Which is fine! After working in the comics field for 20 years, I can see the extraordinary power and beauty of bounding line and color works by Jack Kirby and Walter Simonson and others. And I love that work. I now see it as the proper form for those stories. Painted work in comics has limitations. But, there were a group of us – Kent Williams, Bill Sienkiewicz, George Pratt, and later Dave McKean – who were interested in something, let’s say, with a broader spectrum of emotional possibility. For me, painting is just my visual language. Now it has found a home in children’s books.

A few months ago, Zen Happiness was published and I will admit to loving your Stillwater books. Ive given them as gifts. What keeps you interested in this series and returning to these characters?

I like the connection to readers that I’ve made through books. I never set out to continue Stillwater’s story, I even retired him once. But it didn’t stick. I find myself bumping into him again and again. I just finished another book, Addys Cup Of Sugar, with Stillwater. There is no plan, he just shows up. I feel really lucky to know Stillwater. He has genuine equanimity.

Im curious about your process, especially now. Do you work on one project at a time? Or are you working on a few things in different stages?

I only work on one book at a time. It’s difficult to be two places at once. Needs must sometimes, but I’m not very good at it. Dave McKean once told me he admired the ability to do one thing at a time, put a line through it, and move on. This is a shortcoming of mine which he beautifully made sound like a virtue!

There are a few of your earlier books which are no longer in print. There was a beautiful edition of M that came out a while back. Is there a chance well see new editions of Dracula or Mythology of an Abandoned City one of these years?

I love that people remember these works fondly. I really do. I was trying to make something I had never seen before. I wanted it to work the way literature works.

I hope they get reissued. If I’m honest, they would need some tweaking. Abrams did M and they have asked for others. I think you can still find copies of Dracula if you hunt for it. NBM did the nicest edition in English.

So what are you thinking now? More picture books? More comics? More painting? What do you want to try next?

More picture books certainly. I like working in children’s literature. It feels like home. It feels like I can be useful.

I have several more stories to tell, some are for more mature readers. I’ll have to see what that turns into.

Feeling like home is such a beautiful sentiment, and I think its something every artist hopes for. How do you feel you can be useful in childrens literature? 

The children’s book world has been very welcoming. It seems to be a natural fit for the stories I find important to tell. I don’t want to be too precise here. My muse is timorous and may steal away at the sound of voices. Like Tolstoy said, “Progress consists only in the greater clarification of answers to the basic questions of life.” That’s what I’d like to do.

I have to ask, has anyone said, I loved this book, but I cant find Voyages One through Six? 

Not yet. I’m waiting!