Where did you come up with the title Grey Supreme?
The grey zone between art forms is what I’m interested in. I’m a practicing visual artist and comics is an interest. Increasingly there are people crossing those lines. Those overlaps are what interest me. That grey zone by definition interests me, so I just like the term. Not White Supremacy or Black Supremacy, but Grey Supremacy.
Yeah, it’s interesting because there’s a history of ‘gallery artists’ taking imagery from comics, like Roy Lichtenstein, but it seems to be now there’s a few artists entering into that form and doing the actual…going through the mechanics of making a comic instead of just taking individual images. Do you have any theories about why that’s happening now?
I think that Lichtenstein’s a very interesting example in terms of art history, because he approached comics as this novel thing and did some interesting things with it, but always very much positioned himself as a visual artist slumming in this sort of lesser medium. And that proved to be false in a way right?
Comics have their own legacy and history. I think when people look to other genres and other mediums and other kinds of histories now they’re doing it with a different intent. High and low isn’t as crucial or critical. Nowadays it’s from a genuine connection to these minor histories, and I think the results on the surface may look the same, but the kind of intent and depth of where they can go is a lot different.
What’s your attraction to comics?
I’ve dabbled with comics since my teens really. I was born in Windsor which is very close to Detroit, and it was an interesting area for the underground comics scene. One of the main reasons was because [of local printer] Preney Print and Litho. When the black and white explosion happened in the late 80’s and early 90’s everything in North America was being printed in Windsor, shipped out and never really coming back.
I remember calling this print place realizing that all these books that were hard to find were being printed in my hometown. They explained to me that you can’t buy from us because we’re just printing, but I developed an early fascination with print, and with what was going on in comics, and it sort of became a habit to visit this print shop.
They would give me offcuts of Cerebus the Aardvark phonebooks and things like that, and as an artist they eventually became my landlord. I lived in the same building that they stored the books in so…
I could always sort of sneak down, and peak at what was being printed, and use the material as necessary.
At the same time as an artist, I was breaking away from my singular interest in comics and becoming interested in photography and collage and sound. As I took on all those new streams, the idea of sequential language was always an interest for me…and collage, which is sort of what comics to me act as. From panel to panel there’s a kind of mental collage happening.
I discovered the collage observation by accident. I was talking to somebody involved in film. [She told me] you could never do [what comic panels do] in a movie, it would just look like…it would flicker.
I’d always thought of comics moving like movies, but apparently they don’t.
Yes. Film is based on a very specific singular pacing of time, 24 frames a second or whatever it is, and comics can continually change pace between panels. An artist can be pacing a certain way, and then between two panels jump 100 years or whatever,or back and forth in time, so it’s irregular.
There has always been a bit of a divide between superhero comics and I guess alt or whatever you want to call the non-superhero comics, and now with comics that are more attached…have one foot in the art world…do you think there’s another divide opening…a third possibly? The art books…?
I don’t pay much attention to mainstream comics on the whole, but I know that there are more than just superheroes in that market. Similarly in the alternative market there are superheroes…people playing with the mythos from the last 20 years, from the Watchmen on, and doing some really interesting things with it. And then there’s all the rest of the stuff, and I think it can probably divide quite evenly into mainstream and non-mainstream.
The divide you’re maybe talking about is…when someone makes a comic there are only so many potential venues for the work. Certainly the printed form has been an area of interest, but also now the internet has become an area of interest, and perhaps the gallery has become an area of interest. It’s kind of like another form to apply the work to, and people are starting to play.
I wish there wasn’t as much of a divide. I don’t really read superhero comics anymore, but I mean there’s a rich history there. I wish there wasn’t…um, I dunno… anyways…that’s just my little wish for the world.
Talking about Swallow, the first story [in Grey Supreme] or…
Let’s see here… Sorry, I’m always so…
No problem. Probably one of the things I might start with here…the idea of the Grey Supreme book for me is…Anne [Koyama of Koyama Press] had actually asked me to do a kind of one-shot project, and I had seven or eight things we could’ve done. She kinda liked a lot of the work, and I thought it might be interesting for me as an artist to treat it as a bit of a challenge and create a template for myself to work within. So I started to think of the idea of doing a yearly book, and what I actually ended up doing, what I’m planning on doing is taking projects that don’t seem to have larger homes and can maybe live within eight or twelve or twenty-four pages and work within the context of the series.
So every issue there’s going to be a different few works and they may connect to comics directly, or they may connect not at all.
On this issue there’s the two projects: one which is a photo print experiment (Double Rainbow), and the other which is a series of drowning cartoons (Swallow).
Will the other projects always be sequential?
I think it’s interesting because of where Anne is going with her press. I think the success [Michael] DeForge has had has really passed the press on to the comics audience pretty firmly, and I think Anne is trying to capitalize on that a bit, so more and more she seems to be putting out comics proper. But there are a lot of things she’s released that are kind of like art books and, not that there’s a huge difference, but my book exists somewhere in between.
I guess I’m sort of maybe thinking about capitalizing on that same thing, looking to works that I have already completed that are a bit more sequential. For the second issue at least, I might try to push the sequential element. I don’t have a plan past that.
Did you ever consider doing this as a poster project?
Well not really. These could easily be prints in a gallery. For both these projects I felt like print was the way to go. Koyama press is edging increasingly towards comics from a bit of a left field position, and it’s sort of right where I wanted to be with that work. I thought that that audience could really look at it, particularly the front project, and see the kind of cartoon language and be interested in the idea of the series – what’s going to happen next?
With the Swallow [the first sequence in Grey Supreme], speaking of superhero comics, I was thinking, just what I was observing, there was sort of a battle going on here between, a number of battles, one with the element of water and air, and that double space. Did you see it as a conflict…?
A conflict between?
Between different forces…water, air, dying?
In a lot of my work on the whole I have an interest in the life/death theme. These drowning cartoons are very fun for me to do, you approach water, you have a hand, two great things to play with – how many times can I work that through? I am interested in looking at mortality, but rather than doing it in a way that’s connected to religion or to spirituality I’m looking at it from a pop perspective and a surface perspective. Like Bugs Bunny, violence can happen to cartoons, but nothing really every happens to them. I think there’s a sense of that in this work, but at the same time there’s maybe a sense that these cartoons are really drowning.
There was a play I saw about 10 years called Lucky Strike, what it was…it was kinda actors were playing, men and women were playing out sorta pulp movie scenes, stuff you would see in a Humphrey Bogart movie. They just repeated these motions over and over and over again, it was kinda like by repeating it over and over again they were getting at…they were imprinting an imag…and I was thinking there was sorta the same dynamic going on with Swallow.
There’s something very, something about the drowning hand, either it’s resonating or it’s an innate fear that I or we all carry…what are you doing with the repetition?
I guess repetition to me is an important part of my practice. I bounce around a lot as an artist. When people ask me what I do, I introduce the idea that I consider myself project based, so I’m not really medium specific, but rather I’m context specific or idea specific.
Repetition is a way I play through an idea. Sometimes I’ll do one, and it’s like that’s enough, but sometimes something seems to have a lot more…leg room or whatever. And the way for me to explore that is to do a second one and do a third one… So for [Swallow] it’s always water and a hand and that’s really it, but within that I felt there was a lot of room.
I came out with a second book…do you know this? (Holding Brickbrickbrick, a book of ‘brick poems’, images of many different cartoonists’ styles of rendering brick walls.)
I heard of it. Unfortunately I haven’t seen it.
Sure, can I introduce it to the context of this?
It’s a project I worked on as a background work for around seven years. At some point I realized it had the potential to be a book. I phrased these as visual poems, but it definitely has a huge connection to comics and illustration. A poem for me is like a wall – a small form and the words are perfectly placed within the context of how it exists on the page. It’s a very beautiful thing, and the way it builds I’ve always imagined this rather a bit like the way a brick wall builds. So taking that metaphor I just started playing with other comic artists’ bricks.
I could find just a few bricks sometimes. I tried to mimic their hand and turn it into a singular field, and over a period of about seven years I developed about 100 or 150 works. But again, looking at repetition, it’s all about repetition, about the changes between them. The sequence is really important to the book, and I’ve clustered it into seven or eight sections.
So this section is brick walls that are incomplete in some way, and in this section there are elements within the context of the bricks, just subtle things graffiti tags, things like that.
They’re really quite modeled, but at the same time speak to the language of the artists that I’m working with. I felt they fit better in the poetry world than in the comic world, but yeah, in terms of repetition I think it’s a prime example of how I make work.
It’s an example where you would never get this sensibility coming from mainstream comics, but it really reveals something about the style or the essence of what comics do.
Someone wrote about it on the Comics Journal and he looked at it from the perspective of comics and the discussion…he seemed to really get the project. And then there was discussion between the readers and the writer of the review. It’s all really interesting to me.
It’s probably a good example of why people with a gallery sensibility should be welcomed into comics for as long as they want to stay.
I did send Dave Sim some of the work just to see his opinion on it. He really…I mean I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything more. It was really kind of like, “oh this is sort of interesting that the art world is slumming.”
My understanding was that Gerhard was responsible for the backgrounds and Dave Sim did the characters, so I titled it Gerhard. Dave said, “oh no, I do a lot of the backgrounds too.” I left it Gerhard because that’s my prerogative. He definitely felt it was not of the comic world, which I guess it isn’t.
It’s his point of view so…
It’s interesting because it’s sorta like distilling each artists’ stylistic DNA.
That’s exactly what it’s like.
You were saying about the spirituality…what was that again?…about the spirituality without the religion…
I’m interested in looking at mortality through the lens of pop culture. There’s an artist named Bill Viola, who I find quite interesting. He’s a video artist. All his work really looks at mortality but very much from a spiritual side of things. I think he was in some way an influence on me, even though it doesn’t necessarily show in the work.
The idea that a sustained look at mortality through artwork could work without being…that it could work and that it could grow over time with you as you age. I’ve always been very interested in pop culture, and it made sense for me to use it as a lens. It’s more interesting than history or spirituality for looking at that. Pop culture has a tendency to be very surface, so there was a definite challenge. I’m still working through that as an artist.
You’re talking about mortality is it in a…are you approaching it with just curiosity or dread or is it a positive or a negative or…?
I guess it’s this huge question mark. I’ve tried to approach it in different ways, probably at some point in all of those ways. Maybe having all those things happening simultaneously is where the work sort of resonates the strongest.
I made a series of momento mori, which is latin for, “remember thy death”. A lot of the symbolism the painters would use – rotting fruit on at able, a skull, melting candles – those are all historically memento mori.
I did a series of 100 sandblasted drawings on granite with skulls all found in pop culture. Some of them are from comics, and some of them are from album covers and t-shirts and art history.
It’s interesting because pop culture is sort of notoriously not looking at death.
Was it well received. I’ve shown it several times and I guess that’s about as well received as artwork tends to be.
I think if there was a next step it would be outdoors, like in a park or somewhere permanent. I just did a comic-oriented thing for the TTC for a bus shelter on St. Clair.
It’s a collage piece of four long horizontal glass panels. They’re based on a little experimental comic I did about a year and a half ago. It’s just like a comics explosion.
Does it read sequentially?
We were talking about reading the panels in between…instead there’s depth between, almost like layers. It’s like a comic that’s been shaken around.
Any time I’d used letters it’d have to be something like an ‘H’ because it was glass that you could see on both sides.
I’ve never even heard of it.
It debuted very quietly. They were just installed in December.
I don’t know accidentally or on purpose, but [this issue of Grey Supreme] has kind of stumbled on an Old Testament sequence here with the flood and then a rainbow…was that accidental?
I guess so. Merging those two works into one book was more about the possibilities of the thirty-two page space. I hadn’t really seen that relationship. It’s an interesting one. They’re both natural phenomenon to do with water.
I actually thought it was funny that rainbows are supposed to be this promise from God not to flood again, and in your photo the rainbow ends at this big pit, which is threatening to fill up.
That’s right outside my window here. When I moved to this building it was a completely open field for a very long time. The condo thing is happening in Queen West.
So they were totally digging and it was taking forever and it was just a pit and this rainbow happened. It was goofy, but it actually looked quite beautiful and it was like, “I’m just going to take some photos on my roof here.” One of the photos just really looked perfect, like that rainbow’s coming out of the pit, and then it was like, “okay well what do I do with this?” At some point I had the idea it would probably look nice to print it, tint them, and print a kind of rainbow sequence with the repetition. That’s where the “Double Rainbow” comes from.
And then shortly before the book comes out there’ s this weird internet meme and it’s titled “Double Rainbow”. So yeah, that bugs me.
So you came up with the Double Rainbow title before that meme?
Yeah! The project was probably done for about a year and a half and I just had never printed it, and when I went to print it people were like oh, “Double Rainbow! Is that a reference to…” and obviously it’s not, but yeah that’s…
And that’s another interesting thing about pop culture right? Certain things are bigger than others and you have to sort of…
And you’ll never get away from that one. Ha ha.
This interview has been edited and shortened.
Comics Journal review and discussion: http://thepanelists.org/2011/01/brickbrickbrick-by-mark-laliberte/