“I’m Trying To Be Someone Who Doesn’t Understand What They’re Doing”: The Benjamin Marra Interview

Once you meet the artist behind the gloriously pulpy action-crime pamphlets published by Traditional Comics, you wonder how you ever felt you understood his work before. Benjamin Marra’s gregarious, genuine, and permanently enthusiastic personality has become inextricable from his art for me. In an alternative-comics milieu which prizes creations that foreground their creators’ deepest neuroses, comics like Night Business, Gangsta Rap Posse, and Lincoln Washington are the antidote we never realized we needed: brash expressions of unfettered Americana and masculinity, an earlier breed of comic-book storytelling reincarnated to take advantage of the modern medium’s disdain for content restrictions. Ben’s comics are explosive orgies of blood and sex and fire, but the hand behind them is probably the surest in the game at the moment, the product of a rigorous art-school education that pulls inspiration from the chapels of pre-Renaissance painting and highbrow modern art as well as the trash bins of comics history. Conversing with Ben recalls the mix of high and low on display in his comics: theoretical musings on the arts not only intermingle with excited outbursts about back-issue bin gems, the two stand revealed as inextricable from one another. The long and the short of it is that Ben’s one of the most interesting people it’s been my privilege to talk to, and I’m truly stoked that he agreed to put one of our conversations on tape for all of you.

MATT SENECA: Did you read comics as a kid?

BENJAMIN MARRA: Yeah. I remember the first comics that I read were Tintin comics. I remember reading Tintin in the car on a road trip with my family, and I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I can read!” I was reading this story, I could understand, I could figure out the words, and I remember that feeling really strange. It was kind of a similar thing when I figured out I could swim, or when I learned how to ride a bike, a very specific sensation -- that was what first reading >Tintin was like.  The other comic that I had was one my mom bought me, and it was a Marvel Comics adaption of The Temple of Doom

SENECA: Aw yeah, who drew that?

MARRA: I think it was one of the classic Marvel guys, but I can’t really recall. But I remember my mom got that for me. I hadn’t seen the movie, I was too young, but I remember being really into that. Then the first comic I bought, that I actually went into the store and bought, was Darick Robertson’s Space Beaver #1. And I was totally addicted to comics after that point, and had every issue of Space Beaver. I was obsessed with it, obsessed, and I got every issue and read them over and over again. But I only wanted like, black and white Ninja Turtles rip-off comics. I didn’t want any Marvel comics, I thought color comics were stupid. I thought human comics were stupid. I thought you had to have the hero be some kind of animal. I was totally one of those kinds who was just buying all of the crappy stuff, not because I thought it was going to be valuable like TMNT, but actually because I loved Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters or whatever. I mean, I had TMNT comics, I got all the first editions, and they were great. I read the shit out of those, and I was into like the violent versions of it, like where Shredder died in the first issue, that sort of thing.

So I grew up with those. I remember some nerds in middle school would come in with, like, Justice League comics and I was like, “that shit is wack, I’m only into animals.” It was around the time that Kevin McGuire was drawing Justice League.

SENECA: Yeah, that shit is kinda wack…

MARRA: I actually kinda like that shit now…

SENECA: Well, his faces are bananas…

MARRA: Yeah. It’s weird to me that all he wants to draw is the faces, though, and then he has somebody else come in and draw the backgrounds -- I mean, I understand the need for background artists, but I like to really put the scene into a context by myself, you know?

SENECA: When did you become aware that there was a real culture around those ‘80s black-and-white boom comics, that you weren’t the only one?

MARRA: It all seemed really normal to me until I read that article that Groth had written about how it was such a terrible thing for the comic book industry economically. I really didn’t have that perspective on it. I didn’t really see it as a “thing” for a really long time. Because I was brought up inside of it, I didn’t know anything else, and my transition was into Marvel -- Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane stuff -- and then into Image when they all left. But that Image stuff was when I jumped off the bus for a little while. I was reading Spawn like “this shit doesn’t make any sense to me, this guy cannot write.”

SENECA: Not like Space Beaver!

MARRA: (laughing) Right? No, Space Beaver, I think Space Beaver #1 is much better written than Spawn #1. I also hated captions being first-person narration, and I hate that still -- but then again, at the time Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns were two of my favorite comics ever. I got that big complete Frank Miller Batman hardback, and that was like my Bible when I was in seventh, eighth grade, I would read that thing like every week. It was weird (laughs), because actually DC’s binding hasn’t gotten much better! I remember the glue ripping off of the spine, the endpapers were ripping by month one, but to me that was the shit, and that had first-person narrative in the captions. So yeah, I got out of comics in late high school, college. I went in and out, kind of.

SENECA: Were you drawing then?

MARRA: Yeah. Always. I can’t ever remember not drawing.

SENECA: Comics?

MARRA: Not really. I would try and draw the characters, I drew Space Beaver all the time, but I tried to draw comics and I couldn’t do it because I lacked the attention to do it, and every panel of a comic can’t be like the most awesome drawing ever. They serve the book as a whole. But as a kid it wasn’t enough for me if a picture just conveyed the idea, I just wanted to draw the big splash page every fuckin’ page. And when I did actually try and do it, I tried for my whole childhood to do it, and I couldn’t. Tried in high school and I couldn’t do it. It was very frustrating. I’d redraw stuff. It was very very frustrating, it was never cool enough. And then I tried in college, I drew a ten-page thing — it was only because I had to do it that I was able to do it, I think.

SENECA: You went to art school, right?

MARRA: Yeah. Well, art school within Syracuse University, the visual and performing arts college at Syracuse.

SENECA: And you’re not reading comics at this point?

MARRA: Yeah. It’s such a cliché at this point, but in college my professors didn’t see comics as respectable. I did have a few who adored R. Crumb, but they were in the minority. If I tried to draw comics or anything like comics they would really be against it. Also, I like drawing from my head, and that was something that wasn’t really thought of as the right way to be illustrating -- you had to get reference, and all this shit. That all seems really backwards to me now. It created so many blocks for me to try and get over. This was a formative time in my education, and I thought that in order for things to be successful, they had to look exactly like how they look in reality. So if you didn’t have the proper reference, it didn’t matter whether or not I could sell if drawing it from my imagination. That really fucked me up for years, it took me like a decade to get over that shit.

SENECA: What were you in training to do at this point?

MARRA: Illustration. And I was listening to my professors because I wanted the keys to be successful, I trusted them to know what was right and what was wrong, and they said comics was shit. But deep down, you know, it still satisfied this guilty pleasure for me, so I’d be like, “I’ll read this stuff but I won’t take it very seriously,” and I thought that maybe I could be a comic-book artist if illustration didn’t work out, or something like that, which is just so naïve.

Also I had a lot of painting professors who I gravitated toward, and they were sort of at odds with the illustration professors. So I was getting a lot of input, and that was good because I was able to create a more three-dimensional background. Or you start to be able to define the borders of the arena that you’re operating within because you’re hearing from all the different sides. It definitely helped in a way. But it really discouraged me from trusting my own tastes and instincts towards comics.

So I would still go to a comics store — it’s the same way with me now, really, where I’ll be buying stuff and then I’ll wonder why I’m spending my money on all this shit that I don’t read, and then I’ll drop it for a long time, and then get back into it. That’s how it was in college. And I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, and comics were like two dollars, three dollars… and now they’re like four.

SENECA: At least.

MARRA: Yeah. I don’t know how college kids today do it. Anyway, I was still reading a lot of comics, I still liked them, but I didn’t take them seriously. I didn’t think of them as a viable or legitimate pursuit, because my mentors didn’t.

SENECA: So then you went to Italy to study painting, when was that?

MARRA: 1998.

SENECA: So what year in college?

MARRA: Spring semester of my junior year.

SENECA: And this is still before you think you’re gonna do comics.

MARRA: Yeah, yeah. So that was huge. It had a huge impact. First of all I had my favorite professor teaching me painting, Stephen Zaima. What I loved about him was his approach to teaching was all about how you psychologically approach image making. It’s not about technique, not about how much oil you mix with a pigment, it was just sort of about why you make these choices. He would comment on whether or not he thought a painting was stupid, but what I liked was that the way he got you to realize what you were doing was by asking you questions about it. So you’d have a painting up and he’d ask you about details like, “What would this painting sound like?” I mean, that one’s a little more out there, but he got me thinking about why you make one mark and not another, that sort of thing. I got really into thinking about how I approached image-making from a mental standpoint.

Then also I was looking at Francesco Clemente’s paintings too, and seeing how confident that was, and confidence was really a big deal for me. The first few years of art school just introduced me to so much doubt and second-guessing, and everything I’d learned drawing on my own as a teenager was all of a sudden thrown out the window, which was totally baffling.

SENECA: So were you still thinking you were gonna be an illustrator?

MARRA: Well, at this point I was actually considering changing my major to painting. I was taking art very seriously at this point, I was very serious. It was still fun for me, but it was still a little bit of an internal struggle. I didn’t want to draw stuff from life, I didn’t want to draw realistically. I was looking at Francesco Clemente’s stuff where it’s all about emotional value, the emotional relationship between the artist and the image, between the viewer and the image. It wasn’t about replicating reality, it was about replicating our experience with our creations, our image making. Like I was saying before, there was so much attitude in it. It was just so badass. So impactful, really really powerful images created very simply.

But then at the same time I was looking at pre-Renaissance stuff like Giotto, Fra Angelico. I didn’t really like High Renaissance stuff at the time because it reminded me too much of my illustration training, this trying to replicate reality. I liked it when it was awkward between the artist and what they were trying to do. Like, Giotto was trying to re-create perspective, and he didn’t understand it. But the way he would try and convey the idea of perspective with the way he paints buildings -- they’re always fucked up, and I loved that! Because it’s not about drawing that exact line, it’s about the impression or the idea of buildings in space. And that was more interesting to me than being able to craft an exact replication of what I was looking at. All that influenced me a lot much later on -- it helped me in making comics.

SENECA: So this all isn’t leading you back to cartoon drawing yet?

MARRA: No, it’s not. But it’s still developing my tastes and what I had an affinity for, and how I wanted to make pictures. Also, those guys were telling a story -- I mean, going to the Scrovegni Chapel, it’s basically a comic! It’s like a comic-book installation, it’s like a full room as a comic. It’s amazing. I mean, you could say the same thing about the Sistine Chapel, but I don’t really like that as much. And it’s based on the Scrovegni Chapel anyway.

So that was really interesting, and it’s based on how everything’s composed at angle from the side — conveying a story from the side is such an easy, simple way to process information. All that was relayed to be again later on by David Mazzucchelli, who told me that Jim Shooter said the best way to show action is from the side, the best way to show somebody punching somebody is from the side.

SENECA: I’ve always thought Jim Shooter and Giotto are really close aesthetically.

MARRA: (laughing) Yeah, I mean they’re definitely on different platforms, but they understood some of the same things.

SENECA: So what did you end up really pulling from this classical art education? It’s not something that a ton of people in comics have as a part of their background -- I’m wondering where we can see that stuff, specifically, in your comics work today.

MARRA:  One thing was, it’s about conveying the idea. It’s about using symbols to get across a bit of story. It doesn’t have to be exact, it doesn’t have to be precise. Precision almost gets in the way, actually, of good comic book storytelling for me. When I look at a page, if somebody’s actually drawn out like a Mercedes Benz S-Class or whatever, I’m like, “That’s from a photograph!” It actually impedes your decision-making process for creating a comic-book panel, because you’re trying to fit this image of a photo in, and the panel might not call for that. Also the other thing is, you’re talking about the idea of something, and it’s not about that actual S-Class. Or I mean, maybe it is, but at least for me, what I try to do is more about the idea of a car, it’s less about whether or not it’s the exact car from this angle.

With Giotto, with the buildings in that weird perspective, they become a design element almost, within the composition, and that’s sort of how abstract art comes into it, the understanding of dominant shapes and passive shapes and how they interlock in a composition. One of the terms when I was in art school was “empty space,” or “negative space” -- that’s not real, it’s all space. It’s almost like, in the universe we’re all always moving within some kind of substance, there’s no truly empty space. In a picture plane it’s the same sort of thing. And using symbols to occupy certain spaces, it’s all about the relationships between the symbols within the panel, and how you use size and the idea of space to make it readable for people.

So with buildings, for example -- like, the skylines in Night Business are just these right angles with little squares in them that indicate windows, and it’s by manipulating very simple shapes like that that you can create the impression of a city. It doesn’t have to be like a shot of downtown Manhattan that I traced.

SENECA: Were you not being exposed to the pre-Renaissance stuff in art school?

MARRA: I think I was, but I dismissed it. It didn’t have an impact until halfway through my time in Italy that I realized what was going on with Giotto and all these guys. Before that, I thought that High Renaissance was the fuckin’ best. But I was there with a classmate of mine whose painting I really respected. I thought he was like the best artist I knew personally who was my own age, who I could talk to. And he was really into Giotto and that made me think, man, maybe I should look at this stuff a little bit harder.

That actually happened with Paul Gulacy too. I read Terminator: Secondary Objectives, and in the letters page somebody was like, “This is the best artist!” and I was like, “This art sucks!” And now I think that it’s the best fuckin’ shit. It was only after I read an interview with Steve Rude, who was obsessed with Master of Kung-Fu -- which I had never been exposed to. He was like, Gulacy had a huge influence on me. I had a lot of respect for Steve Rude’s style, it was so nice and clean and just perfect, and then I went back and understood Gulacy more. It’s all about getting over stuff that I dismiss, and then going back and understanding it better. It was the same with Gary Panter, or even Jack Kirby. That stuff, I didn’t realize its value to me until I had been a practitioner for a long time, and only then I started to understand.

SENECA: So how soon after you came back from Italy did you come under Mazzucchelli’s tutelage?

MARRA: Not very soon. I graduated from college, and I started hardcore trying to do children’s book illustration, like really tight, controlled acrylic paintings. And I thought that I was gonna develop a portfolio and I was gonna have a career doing book illustration. That didn’t happen at all. It was really insincere artwork; I wasn’t interested in that. I was interested in Francesco Clemente, like really weird artwork with women, you know? Like sex stuff, like really hardcore, really fucked up stuff. I was doing these paintings because I knew I had the facility to do it, and I thought it could guarantee me a paycheck, that it would be a really nice living. It was a romantic sort of fantasy of having a house in New England, and doing a book every year, and getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it. So I was sort of trying to do that, and then after college I went to a bunch of meetings with like these old grandmas, and they were wack. I remember going to see Jerry Pinkney talk at a library and there were all these grandmas there, and I was like this... scene... sucks! I don’t wanna do this!

Meanwhile, I was having this big civil war inside. I was also making these really fucked up drawings, and I kept thinking, do I want these fucked up drawings to be what I wanna do, or do I want this children’s book bullshit to be what I wanna do? I was having trouble reconciling how those two pieces fit. So I went to grad school. I got a job doing informational graphics at a newspaper, and that helped me do comics because it was about communicating ideas visually to a reader who didn’t understand anything, and making things understandable. Sequencing information that way, and also working on a daily deadline where I had to pump shit out, really got me into production and the value of working every day to get something done.

SENECA: Hold on, so what were these fucked up drawings you were doing?

MARRA: I did a bunch of fucked up drawings in Italy, in a sketchbook. I decided I was gonna be like Clemente, and not censor anything that came into my head. Because growing up, there would be a bunch of things that I’d think about and I’d be like, I can’t draw that! I’m not allowed to draw that! Like, I don’t want anybody to see that, number one, and also you’re making these ideas some sort of tangible reality that people can actually interact with. And that’s what I liked about Clemente, was he was like, “I’ve got this shit… it’s fucked up. If you don’t get it, fuck you.” It had that power to me, and that resonated big time.

So I was doing these drawing in this sketchbook where I -- I had also decided I wasn’t gonna censor any lines. So it was all these weird sex drawings, weird spaghetti-type lines, really abstract figures, pen, pencil, charcoal, it didn’t matter, it was whatever I had on me. And I didn’t show anybody. Then I remember I was coming back from Budapest into Italy and this one border guard opened up the book and started looking through it and I felt very violated, because I hadn’t shown anybody. But after that I was traveling around with some classmates, and one guy who I really liked took it, and he was like, “Can I check out your book?” And for whatever reason I was like, “Yeah sure, take a look.” And he started looking through it, and he started laughing really hard, he was really entertained by it, and to me these were the most evillooking things, but to have somebody laugh at it was really disarming. It made me think that maybe this stuff isn’t that bad, and maybe other people can have a connection to it. That was a really poignant moment.

So I was doing drawings sort of like that. I stopped penciling, it was all with pen. I didn’t want to plan anything anymore. In college I would do hundreds of drawings just to prepare for the final piece, and I wanted the final piece just to be the drawings, because those were the ones that had all the energy anyway, those were the ones where I was excited. When would finally do a painting in college I had lost all excitement for the image because it was dead at that point. I actually think that’s what people saw when they looked at those paintings, and that’s why I never got any illustration work, because they saw it was dishonest.