“Making Something Look Really Cool Isn’t My Goal”: The Ryan Cecil Smith Interview

Harsh Sentiments

I think you demonstrate a focus with your books on making a print object, and that could or couldn’t imply a focus on finding a way to share a story with more people. So, that idea of book-as-object, and of working in an aesthetic that incorporates that fully—for you, is that coming from that idea you mentioned, about making something you can share with other people? Or from some other place? [laughs] I realize I’m not asking this very well here.

I actually think I can answer both ways you asked that! You kind of asked that in two ways. But one way, of sharing a story: 100 percent, my motivation is to share the work. When I got into Matsumoto, I was so blown away, and just totally impressed—it’s just incredible that he’s not known in the West. I mean, I understand why, because it’s comics and comics don’t make a lot of money, and his stories… it’s very “genre,” you know? Like, you can reprint a Tezuka work like MW, which has a very broad appeal. But Matsumoto’s just doing sci-fi, and it’s a very specific flavor. It’s his own flavor, which is very, very specific. So it’s kind of natural [that Matsumoto’s work is unavailable in North America], given that the potential audience is small. But still, man, I wish people could see it. So, doing that series [the SFSF #2 comics] was a way to show people this stuff, and the parts that I chose to re-draw and to translate were specifically chosen because they do really interesting things.

Ryan's rendition of a Matsumoto sequence
Ryan's rendition of a Matsumoto sequence, from SF Supplementary File #2A

Like, in Part A, a character blows up a planet in like a nine-page sequence or something? But it’s really effective. And I could imagine that being poorly done or something, but man, it’s really effective. And I wanted to share that, but also to kind of trace the hand of a master drawing, try to go over the same stuff and try it myself. I mean, that’s great for me. I was mainly re-drawing it for Part A, which was really good, and I was originally going to put in my own words for the story since I can’t read Japanese that well. But I just read it visually, and that was beautiful by itself. But then when a friend helped me to translate, the writing was so, so great. And we kind of looked at the book and figured there was this hundred-page set that would fit real nicely into three books.

So we wanted to share that whole thing, we went right for it. And I think that—especially the ending of SFSF #2, the ending of that sequence with Emeraldas, is for me so powerful. To me there’s a moral lesson in it which is so strict… you just don’t hear that kind of thing. It’s something that’s kind of similar to what I put on the cover of SFSF #3 [“When you make a promise in space, you have to keep it, or you die”]. And Emeraldas says something like, “I can’t stand people that pretend to be strong. That they won’t follow through on their promises.”

The scene with the quote Ryan's referring to, from SF Supplementary File #2C
The scene with the quote Ryan's referring to, from SF Supplementary File #2C

She’s, like, so harsh—and I think we’re not used to that. And I think it’s really fun and good and refreshing, and invigorating to read that. If someone I knew said that, I wouldn’t know how to take it. But when I read someone from another time say that, I know he’s being totally genuine, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the way he… well, not wisdom. It’s just a different way of looking at the world in that time and in that place. It’s just really good—I want to share that with people.

Yeah—well, it’s incredibly firm, that sentiment, and it’s from an artist with such a pretty… he’s got a really firm quality to his drawings, but the lines are also kind of feathery, in a certain way?

Yeah, yeah.

And it’s not... especially when they animate them, it’s not…

A Matsumoto character design sheet

Yeah, yeah, totally. Some of his character designs are so goofy, and they look so brittle. He has this recurring character design of, like, a little old lady and a little old man, who basically look like crabs—it’s so weird. But it’s cool, he just animates them—he follows through. When I first looked at those drawings, I thought they were really bad. I looked at the material and thought, “This is really shitty, what do people see in this?”  You know, because of how brittle his stuff is—and how weird and crammed his compositions are. You know, like, he’ll squeeze like six vertical panels into a page. And he’s squeezing the balloons, like, into the edges. But it works really well. It took me a while, but now I think it’s great.

Yeah. He seems to push the medium in all kinds of weird ways.

Yeah. Well, he’ll do those eight-page sequences where there’s just a ship floating in blackness. And it’s very clear... when you look close, you can tell he had a deadline and he just needed to fill the space. And that’s pretty funny. That’s totally clear to me, but they still just give his work a really great effect. I think the point is that his writing process, his style, his stories, you know, they have that built in. You know, they have that expectation that there are big spaces that can be inserted —so [since] that’s built into the idea it comes out really well.

Yeah—I think so.

But the other thing is, with the way we write comics in the U.S.? I mean, for one thing I’m talking about mainstream comics, mostly—but even for alternative comics, we don’t have the same page count as they have in Japan. So, I mean, it’s hard to imagine—like, take a mainstream comic, like a Spider-Man or whatever—and it’s hard to imagine twenty-page silent sequences with nothing happening, you know?

Ryan's take on one of Matsumoto's decompressed sequences, from SF Supplementary File #2
Ryan's take on one of Matsumoto's decompressed sequences, from SF Supplementary File #2A


And there are silent North American comics, I guess, where the reader is supposed to follow the action—like, Daredevil flipping through a building or something? But I just can’t imagine, can you really imagine really doing nine pages of just Spider-Man jumping through space? It’s so cool that they can do that. It’s because of economics and our expectations, but there are just things he does that we just don’t do, that we just miss out on. It’s so cool… I guess it’s kind of like what Mat Brinkman sometimes does, if one panel filled up a whole page?

A sequence from Brinkman's Teratoid Heights; ignore the blanket.
A sequence from Brinkman's Teratoid Heights; ignore the blanket.

Yeah... well, it’s kind of interesting; I moved to Montréal a while ago, and they have all these comics there, and they have a ton of Japanese comics, translated into French, that aren’t available in most of North America.

Yeah, they do.

And I’ve been poking around for Matsumoto, but I’ve also been going through Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese stuff, and it’s been really interesting, because I feel like North American [particularly mainstream] comics have been really resistant for a long time to anyone but maybe Stan Lee displaying a persona. And you may have to discount newspaper comics from this… but, I don’t know, having the kind of sentiment you described earlier with Matsumoto, where the whole sensibility, really, is that idiosyncratic? It’s just hard to get away with that in North American comics, or at least it has been. And it probably still is in some ways. But these Corto stories, they’re really weird. Because my perception was that they were these kind of swashbuckling, Tintin sort of adventure things, but there’s a really melancholic undercurrent to a lot of them. And there are just a lot of weird complexities there that seem very personal, and that you couldn’t display so well here.

From Corto Maltese: Les Celtiques, by Hugo Pratt
From Corto Maltese: Les Celtiques, by Hugo Pratt

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think in general, North American mainstream stuff is just bad. There’s just no room for quality like there is in French or Japanese stuff. ... Look, honestly, there’s still so much crap in Japanese comics—so stupid, so terrible, and so bad. [Elkind laughs.] But there’s also room for really good stuff. And I’m sure it’s the same for French comics. But I don’t see much room for quality in [North American] mainstream comics, because mainstream comics is so small; it’s dominated by two companies—that are owned by Disney, and Time Warner, right?

Yeah, I’m totally with you.

Yeah, getting personality like that into books [in North America] is really hard. And, you know, it’s not my thing. I don’t really care, personally. But, you know, I just lament that what I grew up with, personally, isn’t that great. I mean, it’d be cool if it was. But, you know, that kind of stuff—I don’t expect it to change.