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

SENECA: So you did two issues of Night Business thinking this publisher in LA was gonna pick it up, right?

MARRA: Right. I did two issues because that’s sort of what Diamond [Comics Distribution] demands, and even going into that kind of arrangement, I was excited for them to publish it, but as soon as I started understanding how the direct market works... Actually, going back to grad school, I had a History of Comics class, which was taught by Chris Couch.

SENECA: That’s N.C. Christopher Couch?

MARRA: Yeah. He used to work for Kitchen Sink Comics. He’s one of the smartest professors I ever had, he’s incredible. He covered a lot of history, and one of the things he talked about was the direct market in the ‘80s, and it was an eye-opener, so I didn’t and still don’t have the greatest opinion of them. I’m sure they’re great for all the bigger publishers, and obviously for comic shops…

SENECA: Yeah, but even still I’m not sure you can find anybody with a great opinion of Diamond.

MARRA: It’s hard. And with the comic book industry, nobody else really wants to get in the game, because it’s just not that lucrative. They’ve been around longer than most, I guess.

SENECA: Yeah, it definitely is a labor of love. [Diamond owner] Steve Geppi is an interesting guy.

MARRA: Yeah. They seem to have been walking on a razor’s edge for years. So I didn’t have a lot of faith in that system, especially coming up as an independent, and I knew personally that we were just gonna get buried even if we got in. So I didn’t want everything to hinge on that. I trusted these guys, but they wanted to do it this way, and they already had an account with Diamond. But I knew launching an unknown book — to say it’s an uphill battle doesn’t even do it justice. I knew the direct market didn’t work for what I was trying to do. But I went ahead, and after I had finished the two comics, I was like, well, I have a job. I have enough money to put this out myself if I want to, and I was starting to read more about comics online, I was reading Comics Comics. I started meeting people at cons, Frank Santoro, Dash Shaw, and going to their events, and I’m like, I have a comic, I’m sitting on it right now.

And I had known Dash -- he and I were actually in the same Mazzucchelli class. He was already putting out comics then, I was in awe of his ability because at the time it just seemed like such an overwhelming feat to put out a comic. I was in awe. So he actually contacted me out of the middle of nowhere, after I had released an ashcan of Night Business. He found it somehow, and I remember he emailed me addressing me as “Mr. Marra,” and I was like, “Dash, we were in the same class together!” I don’t think he remembered me. But I went to go see one of his events around the time that Bottomless Belly Button came out, and was thinking, “Man, I just want to put this stuff out.”

So the guys in LA, I just told them I really wanted to self-publish and they were very cool about it. I think the comics industry is just hardcore. You can’t expect much from it, I didn’t expect much. I wanted to self-publish just as a way of putting things out. I didn’t have any illusions about what I was doing. But I wanted it out in the world, I didn’t want to sit on it. And I didn’t want to depend on anybody.

SENECA: Did you have your comic-book format set from the beginning?

MARRA: Yeah. I had a very very strict philosophy going into it. I wanted it to be on newsprint, I wanted it to look like the comics I grew up on. I wanted it to be trashy throwaway entertainment. That’s what a lot of comics artists that I was following were complaining about, and I agreed with them. All the comics I loved were on crappy newsprint. I hated seeing all the Image comics come out on this archival, glossy paper because they were trying to sell it to the speculator market, people thinking they can flip it for forty thousand dollars in twenty years. But the thing is, what makes things precious is if they can break down, if they’re not gonna be around forever. You put out all this junk on archival paper, all you’re gonna have is a pile of crap that doesn’t mean anything to anybody.

SENECA: It’s not even calculated to be living art in the moment either, it’s some investment piece.

MARRA: Exactly. The thing that makes things precious to me is that some things aren’t gonna last, and you have to cherish them. When you have this stuff on archival paper it takes away from the fact that it could mean something.

The other thing was that I wanted it to be a comic book. People were talking -- and they still are -- about the comic book pamphlet format dying. And I was also responding at the time to literary comics, which are these longer book-format comics. I wanted the comic book format, I wanted 24 pages. Because I actually think it’s easier to create the illusion of a more powerful work of art if you make it bigger. I took that away from going to a Jackson Pollock retrospective, and I actually can’t stand Jackson Pollock. He’s such a crock. Some of his paintings are kind of interesting, but it’s the whole mystique and the whole way he was promoted that just makes me think that he really isn’t all that.

So I went to this retrospective, and look, I love Abstract Expressionism. Rothko, de Kooning, all the guys from that school. Early Philip Guston -- Philip Guston is my fucking guy. But I think it’s because of Guston’s rejection of Abstract Expressionism is the reason I also don’t— I understand the philosophy, I understand modernism, I studied that shit hardcore. But,look at art and science.  They’re related in that each has a basis in the human brain. In science the basis is in logic. Art has a basis in intuition — what feels right — because when it feels right that’s when it’s the most successful. Science, to be successful, it has to honor the laws of the universe. The history of science is like a big Jenga game. If one piece of thinking isn’t relevant anymore it gets knocked out and replaced by a different piece. The idea that the world is flat gets taken out and in goes the piece that says the world is round. With art it’s not like that, it’s just a pile of junk that people keep throwing more and more shit on top of. Abstract Expressionism is one of those things that’s in the pile, and we’re beyond that now, we’ve built on top of that. So for me it doesn’t apply to what I’m doing anymore, even though I have a lot of respect for it. To me the people who think that modernism and that stuff is still relevant are the people who were slaves to their modernist, Abstract Expressionist professors in art school, and never got around to thinking for themselves.

So yeah, I love Ab-Ex, but when I went to that Pollock retrospective I could see that as his ego got bigger, his paintings got bigger. And before, when he was trying to make it as a figurative painter, he was trying to copy Picasso. That was the running narrative throughout the show, was that he was the up and coming artist and Picasso was like the aging rock star. So he was trying to become bigger than Picasso, and he had all these people telling him yes, yes, yes. You are that great. So you could see, as he came into this fame, the paintings got larger and larger. And then at the end of his life, you could see he didn’t really believe it, because he went back to trying to paint like Picasso like he did when he was 20 years old! He was like holy shit, I’m a fraud! This is what I really need to be doing! And he tried to go back and restart, and he died! Going into the show, I already had all these prejudices, so that’s what I took from it -- that might not be the case, but that’s what I saw. So when I look at these really ambitious comics that are trying so hard to be something important it just makes me think of those big Jackson Pollock paintings. Just because it’s bigger, that doesn’t make it more powerful. I’m trying to make something that’s not reliant on physical size. It’s just a pamphlet comic, and that’s gonna be what’s powerful. Something that’s short, and that’s small, and that can be thrown away.

SENECA: The thing about that too, is the format fetishism goes away after the first one. I feel like the idea that this is the era of the graphic novel and the pamphlet is dead is going away -- like, Michael DeForge, Jonny Negron, those guys aren’t doing graphic novels --

MARRA: Even Tomine is still doing pamphlet format. It’s interesting, because it’s still an achievable format. I mean, I took a really long time, like six or nine months to make the first Night Business, but you don’t need to take a very long time to produce a 24-page booklet. It’s also something that you can build on. I remember having a professor say that every drawing you do is based on the last drawing you did. It’s like that in comics, but if you’re doing a 150-page graphic novel it’s very difficult to develop very quickly. If you’re doing 24-page pamphlets it’s a lot easier to develop at a rapid pace than it is if you’re doing a big graphic novel. Go and tell any indie comic con that the pamphlet is dead, there’s like 200 tables of pamphlets! It’s still a vehicle, it’s just not necessarily a monetized vehicle.

SENECA: Which is weird because that’s the whole reason the pamphlet exists in the first place. Like Frank Miller used to just rail against it as being just some commercialized construct. Just about every interview he does, it’s like, “that stupid fucking pamphlet!” But I guess he’s talking more about aspect ratio, he thinks that the sideways format from 300 is how it’s supposed to be.

MARRA: Oh, I don’t like that. Just the way it folds.

SENECA: Well, you're just composing in square boxes, six-panel grids…

MARRA: It’s a Kirby residual thing, composing in a square as opposed to a horizontal box like you’d find in an eight-panel grid.

SENECA: All right, so then you came out with the first issue of Gangsta Rap Posse. Did you conceive of that, and your Lincoln Washington comic too, as highly racialized comics from the beginning, or did you just want to do fun riffs on black culture and N.W.A.?

MARRA: Well, I wanted to do an N.W.A. fun thing, because my friends and I were watching a VH1 Behind the Music documentary on N.W.A. and it’s just amazing material, amazing stories. I loved gangsta rap when it was out -- I wasn’t as into it as I think a lot of other guys were, but it definitely had a lot of impact on me when I was in high school. Those were my formative years, and it seemed really cool and dangerous at the time, probably everything that they wanted it to be. I don’t think you can really do that stuff without it being really racial, because that what it’s about. And I knew if I was gonna do it -- it’s the same lesson I learned as a developing artist, you just can’t censor yourself in any way, especially when it comes to that kind of material. I just knew I had to do it as honestly and as… it’s weird to say respectful of the material, but that content demands that kind of outrageousness. I felt like if I had done anything different it would have been weak and dishonest and insincere.

SENECA: But anyway, do you think that not pussyfooting around that cultural expression -- as a white artist yourself -- do you think that’s a statement in and of itself?

MARRA: Yeah. It goes back to how I think about comics and what I think they should to. I was on a panel recently with Johnny Ryan and we were talking about controversial comics, horrific things in comics. Someone asked what he thinks about comics these days, don’t you think they go too far… I can’t remember exactly, but his response was really great, he said he didn’t think comics go far enough. Because nobody pays attention to us anyway! The only way that anybody would pay attention to comics is if they actually had a story that people wanted to talk about. But they don’t! I mean, people in the comics community wanna talk about them, but it’s very rare that anyone else does. At least, that’s my perspective.

SENECA:  I think you’re right. I think that really only a comic like Persepolis is something people have actually considered a conversation piece in mainstream America this millennium. And that’s not to say others don’t break through, but nobody thinks The Walking Dead is something important.

MARRA: Right. So part of the way I approach Gangsta Rap Posse is that I think comics need to go as far as they can. I think they used to -- I mean, this is a medium that the American government tried to impose censorship on. That’s an amazing thing! It’s an inherently American art form, and it had censorship imposed on it. Movies didn’t; movies had a ratings system. There were movies that came out unrated, or rated X. But comics, there was a code full of things that you couldn’t put out a comic with, for decades. And there were Congressional hearings about it. That’s the power that comics used to have. I sort of look to that, I look at pre-Code comics and they’re scandalous even by today’s standards.

So Gangsta Rap is me trying to push it far. Also, if I have these story ideas, I can’t censor myself or else I won’t do them, because I won’t think that it serves the artwork in the end if I try to water it down based on this illusion of how I think people will react. That’s not a viable gauge to base decisions on, because it’s not real. It’s only real after. I can’t imagine what people are going to say, I just have to do it and see what happens. To me it’s about serving the work, and gangsta rap is gangsta rap. There’s nothing that’s in the comics, I think, that isn’t so outrageous that it’s not already in the lyrics.

Gangsta Rap Posse is underground comics, it’s not on a lot of people’s radar, but the things is, I’ve never gotten anything but a positive reaction to it. I’m sure if it was distributed to a much wider audience it would get a really negative response, if people took it seriously -- not as satire, not as a comment on myself as a white suburban artist making a comment on black urban culture from a specific time period. I think people might react negatively. 

SENECA: Did you calculate race as a specific cultural pressure point that you could push in order to bring comics back to that place of intense controversy?

MARRA: No. It’s something I’m personally interested in. Even though I’m very far removed from black culture, I really love it. I don’t even listen to a ton of rap, I listen to a lot of heavy metal, but race is just something that I’ve always been fascinated with. It’s a part of our heritage and also a part of our everyday culture. It’s impossible to escape, even today. I think about civil rights in the ‘60s, and I grew up in the ‘80s. It’s not that long of a time span between when I grew up and when the civil rights movement happened. It’s just something that fascinates me, and I’m compelled by it. Part of the allure of it is the controversy, and I can’t help but walk down more controversial paths just because it’s more interesting.

In college, to dismiss a painting, Stephen Zaima would say, “It’s very safe.” And I don’t wanna make safe stuff. That was ingrained in my education. That’s one of the things about Francesco Clemente, is that it was not safe. He makes very vulnerable stuff. That’s what I take inspiration from, this need to go down these paths. I also think I’ve been -- not a rebel, I mean I’ve got a full-time job, I’ve got a 401(k), very good citizen, all that sort of shit -- but the ways that I do rebel is when I perceive that there’s a subject matter that I’m not allowed to work in, that ends up becoming what I’m attracted to.

SENECA: There’s this band Salem, which a lot of people have written hit pieces on for basically doing in music what you did in comics. It’s white dudes from suburban Michigan trying to sound like Houston rap, Atlanta rap…

MARRA: Really! Oh, wow, that’s really interesting to me.

SENECA: Yeah, and it seems to be a legitimate expression of admiration and influence, but when they came out everybody was like, “No, you can’t do this,” because of the idea that the cartoonizing of black culture by white artists was just wrong. Do you ever worry about that reaction, even though you’re doing it from a positive place?

MARRA: I can’t, because that’s something for other people to decide. And if they reach that conclusion, I personally don’t think it’s accurate, but then again I just might not be conscious of it. It’s not how I would view it, but it would be hard to argue against that viewpoint. But, I don't know, it’s not gonna stop me from making more stuff just because that’s what’s inside me. That’s what it is. I also think that I’m not coming as close to the actual source material. My comic books about rap music are a little bit removed, in a way. Even though there are comic books about the Wu-Tang Clan and stuff like that.

I’ve had the comparison with [Laurence Hubbard and H.P. McElwee’s “urban terror” comic] Real Deal, and I was actually unaware of that when I was making the first Gangsta Rap Posse. And then when I actually became aware of it, it was pretty disheartening because they were so much better at it than I am.

SENECA: And that’s kind of a more authentic expression from the culture that you’re trying to evoke, I guess. This brings up something else, though: you’re undoubtedly coming at everything you make from a dedicated, pure place of trying to make something that interests you, but especially with Gangsta Rap and your Maureen Dowd comic -- I feel like somebody could make the same comics coming from an intellectualized standpoint of wanting to address racial politics, gender politics, media study, postmodernism. Do you try to play into that stuff at all, to exploit it?

MARRA: No. It’s not really a consideration when I’m making something. It’s probably just a product of my own my own mental diet regarding the current state of things. It’s just how I process things, how I’m responding to other entertainment form, ideas, or philosophies out there right now. I don’t think, “Oh, this is going to be a postmodern-type deal.” If it is, it’s just the result of me being in this climate. Like NPR had this whole piece about foie gras, and how it’s made out of — is it turkey livers?

SENECA: Duck livers? I know they force feed them…

MARRA: Right. So they bury them in the ground, and they force feed these ducks, and balloon their livers to an insane size. Well, this guy found a way to create foie gras through natural methods, and it’s all about making the ducks feel like they’re not prisoners. Making it so they wanna be there. It’s in Spain, and he has this very natural method, and these ducks are like his family -- but eventually he slaughters them to make this foie gras. And evidently this foie gras is outta control. The guy telling the story was this New York chef, and he had tried to mimic that method with disastrous results. He said when he tasted that guy’s foie gras it was the most insane sensory experience he had ever had with food. He said you could taste the earth that was from the diet of these ducks, or whatever. So, I just think whatever stuff that I make is based on the diet that I have, whatever stuff is out there that’s coming in. And since we’re in a postmodern era... Like I was saying earlier, art is just this big pile of ideas, and I just have to be on top of the pile.

SENECA: All right, so then Lincoln Washington, it’s almost like a refutation -- like, no, see, we’ve had all this with us from the beginning, this is a part of American culture, and the potential problem of Gangsta Rap is getting caught in our cultural moment and not looking at it as part of the big story of American race relations. Where did you come to Lincoln Washington from?

MARRA: Actually, it’s funny. I developed the idea at the same time as I was developing the character in my thesis for Mazzucchelli. He was supposed to be this big American hero, so I was thinking the name would be Lincoln Washington, the two greatest American presidents. When I told that to my professors, they were like, “That kinda sounds like a black name,” you know? My character was a white dude, but I was like damn, I like that name. So I ended up going with Steve Dukes for the character in my thesis -- like Steve McQueen and the Duke, which sounds a lot more white. But I liked Lincoln Washington. So I did a drawing of him, thinking he’d be a freed slave. He assumes the name Lincoln Washington by choice, to shed his past and start anew with a different identity. So then I started to develop this story around it. Actually, my fascination with black culture might stem from my middle school and high school years, because my 6th-grade teacher only read books about like, black struggle. I read To Kill A Mockingbird, The Slave Dancer — only books about slavery, and the fallout of slavery. So thinking about that sort of story definitely was part of it, but this idea sort of came to me, and I had it all outlined for years, just waiting for the right time to do it, and I figured I should put it out before Quentin Tarantino came out with his freed-slave story.

SENECA: The way I feel like Lincoln Washington is different from your other stuff is the content. It’s way more exaggerated than everything else you've done. Does he rip a dude’s arm off, or his leg off?

MARRA: Both.

SENECA: Yeah! But the scenario is more realistic. Clearly Maureen Dowd isn’t actually jumping around shooting people, clearly N.W.A. didn’t actually do all the things that they rap about, but everything in this comic most assuredly happened -- beside the arms and legs ripping off -- on probably a daily basis during slavery times. Did you feel more of an obligation to realism, or did you exaggerate more because of that?

MARRA: Again, it goes back to what I want comics to do, because I don’t want comics to use realism. I feel like this is what superhero comics could do, but I didn’t feel an obligation to realism, because I want comics to go where reality can’t. You have the opportunity to, so you might as well do it. I just wanted it to be like a superhero comic where the superhero draws his power from like, racial injustice, and the resulting power from that would be the ability to rip people’s limbs from them, or punch their heads off.

SENECA: Did you switch up your style on purpose to look more like superhero comics?

MARRA: No, it’s a constant struggle with me. Drawing is always a conflict. It’s never easy for me, it’s really frustrating. It’s me coming to grips with who I am and all my deficiencies. I’d been experimenting with line and how I wanted shadows to work, and with this I wanted to reintegrate shadows to a degree, but still capture a sort of freshness or rawness. I think the next book I do will be sort of absent of shadow again, be more cartoony lines. I wanted it to look older. I’ve been reading a lot of old crime comics, outlaw comics, pre-Code stuff, and I wanted it to kinda look like one of those. But it didn’t end up looking like that at all. The thing is that I can’t draw like those guys.

SENECA: Yeah, the whole Alex Raymond feathering line.

MARRA: Yeah, but like, not nearly as good. And there’s so much space usually, like the figure is in the corner all tiny with just this huge field of yellow or something. Stuff like Fletcher Hanks was kind of an influence on me too when I first started drawing comics just because it was like wow, this guy obviously doesn’t care about proportion or anything, it’s just about the ideas. It doesn’t matter if every individual panel is the most amazing drawing ever done -- he could care less. It’s just about conveying this weird story. That’s what I get from it, I don’t know what his true intentions were. He could have just been knocking it out and not even caring about it at all. Yeah, I wanted Lincoln Washington to look like an old superhero comic in a way, or an old crime comic, but there’s only so much control I have at a certain point. There’s a threshold.

SENECA: Do you struggle against that?

MARRA: Yeah, absolutely. Because I want to be able to draw a certain way, and it never comes out the way I want it to. Usually what I’m going after is illusory, just a feeling that I get when I look at it, but if my entire production was based on those instincts then I would never finish anything because I can never tell if it works or not. That’s for other people to decide. I remember when I was working on the first issue of Night Business I was like, “I don’t even know if this works or not, but it is what it is, and I’d rather it exist than just never come into being.” That was what working at newspapers taught me, like, you gotta finish stuff. You gotta follow through. You gotta just buckle down and fuckin’ do it, because the thing is coming out tomorrow.

SENECA: In the American comic book tradition.

MARRA: Yeah, exactly. I really miss that tradition, too!