A Brandon Graham Interview

Comics From the East

You describe in one of your text pieces in Escalator how you used to warm up using Korean manhwa. Do you still warm up?

GRAHAM: Yeah, I do a lot. It’s not the same process, but for instance, the day before Stumptown [2011] I was staying at my friend Joe’s place, and he had all the Inside Moebius books I’d never seen before, and I just pulled them off his bookshelf and went through them with my sketchbook. Just kind of redrew things. Moebius had this thing in there … He drew himself having a sexual dream, and the thought balloon is like the classic sawing a log, but it’s sawing a boner. (Burns laughs.) I was like, “Oh my god. This is such an advancement in comic book technology.” So I went through it and redrew things and even drew things playing off of it in a sketchbook. It’s just so fun. Moebius is one of those guys … he’s not a guy who does crazy perspective, he doesn’t try to do the manga stuff of showing the most dynamic poses, but he has so much style when he does it right, and he kind of shows you how to do it. And it’s easy to pick up. There’re tons of artists who just draw like Moebius because it’s easy to pick up his style. It’s really inspiring to be looking through work and doodle.

BURNS: Right. Do you thing Moebius got kind of streamlined and was able to tell stories with what he had?

I don’t know if streamlined is the way to put it. I feel like Moebius is someone who just kind of draws how he draws. He doesn’t filter his subjects through style as much as he’s just a guy that draws like this.

BURNS: He just is his style. He’s not trying to be stylistic.

GRAHAM: Yeah exactly. Where as manga, for instance … Say the Naruto guy draws a picture of Warren Beatty or whoever.

BURNS: It’ll look like a Naruto character.

GRAHAM: Yeah, whereas Moebius would just be like, “Ok. What style will it take to draw this person?” And that kind of fluidity is something I really admire. So yeah, I still warm up. And … my sketchbooks have way too many drawings of naked ladies from the internet. Which I didn’t have access to when I was looking through the Korean comics. When I was living in Queens I had a library near me that had a bunch of Korean comics. So I’d just go there every day and just grab one or two of them and sketch out of them. These days I draw a lot more, but it’s more from life. I should get back to that more. I go on walks and draw buildings and things. Back then I was more focused on doing different things with panels, and now I’m getting more into trying to draw better.

So you saw things that were different in Korean comics, the layouts for example, that you weren’t finding in Western comics?

Yeah. Definitely. They’re much more derivative of the Japanese stuff. And a lot of it back then was just that I had access to so much of it. There’s not really any Korean comics that I’ve latched onto as my favorite stuff ever. I feel like if you look at a 400 page, telephone book-sized manga thing, it seems like by looking through half of that you’ll come up with different ideas about storytelling. I feel like all the Western stuff, it’s kind of ingrained in me. There’s not a lot I can look at in X-Men comics and be like, “Oh there’s a panel layout.” They don’t seem to play with stuff very much. They’re all pretty standard unless you’re talking about Frank Quitely or something.

What specifically were they playing with? What actually was different?

I think what I really focused on … The sound effects were really a big deal to me. The Korean stuff just looked much more aesthetically pleasing to me. Whereas over here, when a gun fires and you get the “BAM,” it doesn’t seem to lend itself sometimes to what the sound would look like. Sometimes now I do sound effects where there’s not any language behind it. It’s just kind of the shape of what the sound would look like visually, or me trying to do something like that. A lot of it’s that. A lot of it’s looking at weird romance comics, how they set up the panels or break down. I’m really obsessed with the idea, and I don’t do it in my own work, but I like the idea of using blank panels to show pacing. That was being done a lot in romance comics.

BURNS: Did you get into the Korean stuff after manga or was it the other way around?

GRAHAM: I was into manga really early on. I went through a period of being totally manga-obsessed where I didn’t have much interest in a lot of Western comics and would just focus on that stuff. I’ve gotten much less … I’m still really influenced by it but I don’t have the same kind of vigor. I used to have this idea that everything from Japan was kind of better, but now I can see the cracks in their system as much as I can see them over here.

BURNS: Why do you think you were interested when you were younger?

I think it was just new and exciting. Kind of a different way to do comics. The way that I was accessing it was I would have to go to grocery stores or whatever and everything I found that made it over here seemed really good and it gave me the impression that there was a huge amount of stuff in Japan that was all of really good quality, where now you can kind of see everything that’s coming out in Japan fairly easily, like the mainstream stuff, and see the bad stuff as easily as you can see the good stuff.

BURNS: Were there types of stories you were finding in Eastern comics that you weren’t finding here? Where you finding different archetypes or story structures?

GRAHAM: Something that I liked a lot—some of it may have had to do with not being able to read it or having weird translation—just the ideas seeming so much weirder. I remembered recently the first Dragon Ball I ever saw had Goku as a kid with a monkey tail fighting a guy in a devil suit, standing on top of these giant demon statues. They both have their tongues out, and the demons are both sitting on toilets and behind them is this stone toilet-paper roll. It was just so wacky, what it wasn’t done like a newspaper strip joke, it was done with this idea that these statues they were on were these ancient things that just happened to be sitting on toilets.

BURNS: So it was almost like there were freer imaginations.

GRAHAM: And me being 14 or 15 and looking at this stuff thinking there was a lot more going on and a lot more weird stuff. A lot of people talk about getting really into different Japanese cartoons or whatever and then you see the translated version and you’re like, “Really? I thought they were talking about something interesting.” But, you know, they’re just complaining about each other’s haircut. One of my favorite Japanese cartoons, I’ve actually never seen it in English, it’s this thing called Iczer One, and it’s basically like these lesbian elf girls and giant robots fighting Cthulhu monsters. I love it. It’s so weird. There’s big chunks of it that don’t really make much sense to me, and I’m sure if I saw it in English it would all make sense and it would take the magic away.

And like you said, your sound effects are often their own language. It’s almost like asemic writing. How did you start to figure out how to do that effectively? I can see how it works, but how did you start to develop that?

I think a lot of it was just being really influenced by stuff that wasn’t translating into English. A lot of times now the Japanese sound effects, they don’t translate them anymore. I was looking at a lot of Japanese stuff and seeing things that were really effective over there, and then when they translated it and changed the lettering it didn’t work as effectively. I think I was just trying to do the same thing they were doing but not having that language.

So the idea is a sound isn’t in English, it isn’t in any language, so the purist form of that sound is something different than “POW!”

GRAHAM: Yeah. And sometimes “POW!” is the best sound effect.

BURNS: Yeah.

GRAHAM: But sometimes it doesn’t need to be there. Like if it’s an explosion, you don’t need to have it say “BOOM!” to know it’s an explosion, but it kind of adds to the effect just to have these big letters jutting out also so you know it’s loud. A lot of it wasn’t really a conscious choice. I think I’m kind of part of the generation that grew up without a wall between myself and manga. I was able to pull from it directly and be influenced by the Japanese artists without Americanizing it first. I think a lot of guys like Frank Miller were seeing this stuff and then trying to make it work for American audiences, but there’s not that need anymore.

BURNS: You wouldn’t look at their work and immediately say, “Oh, he was influenced by a manga artist.” It’s been through some changes.

GRAHAM: I saw it when I was so young is the thing. Miller was seeing this stuff more when he was in his 20s, whereas I was seeing this stuff when I was 13, so while I was learning to draw I was looking at Dragon Ball and Iczer One and whatnot.