Two of my favorite things I read in 2013 were Christopher Adams's Strong Eye Contact and Yule Log, both released by Minneapolis-based small publisher 2D Cloud. Adam's comics are fascinating reads: they're told in elliptical ways, have an interesting diversity of artistic styles and force the reader to bring something of himself to everything that's presented. They trigger as many questions as answers for a reader. So when I was asked if I wanted to interview Adams, I had to take that offer and speak to this unique artist.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: One of the common elements between Strong Eye Contact and Yule Log is an elliptical (or sometimes very unconventional) narrative thrust. Do you see these comics as having plots?
Christopher Adams: Not really. I usually just think of different ideas or images and then I'll make connections between them and if they seem interesting enough then I try to organize them in a reasonably logical manner and one that has some direction to it and can arrive at an endpoint that colors a bit what happened before. Sort of like the alphabet.
Which makes "sense" because it's been set for a while but would probably make more if letters were grouped in the way people think of them, vowels together, consonants together, etc. But as is you can say it effortlessly and with some satisfaction.
Anyway if the logic of the string of ideas and images in my book as I picture it goes from A to Z I might leave out some letters here and there but still get to Z. Or again I might organize it in a way like I said the alphabet could be organized. So the non-plots might seem illogical or elliptical but the elements are pretty comprehensible and common.
CB: How much do you feel the reader should bring to the story to help bring the story to life?
Adams: Probably as much as they want to. I try to make things that would be interesting immediately but would have additional things going on so that if you looked at it again or thought about it a bit you'd be able to enjoy it in another way.
First I suppose the images and the look and feel of it should be neat enough and look worthwhile then there should be enough to the arrangement of those images and the book itself and the story or whatever the work "has to say" to have some inexhaustibility to it. Or as much as you can muster. So that it doesn't matter so much how much is going on or how long it is. You can look at a single photo or painting for hours or read the same poem or listen to the same song hundreds of times. And for me comics often don't have that quality so I'd like to make an attempt to have some of that in my own work. Where a page can work alone as a strip or narrative or just an image and then also work as part of the whole book if you want to read it through again.
So again I think a reader can bring it to life in different ways depending on whether it's a first reading and they are just going with the flow or are trying to figure some image or action out or they've looked at it a couple times already and for some reason want to see what it's like backwards. Which is often how you might thumb through something before you read it.
The only other thing I can think of is also that I try to make the books work as a book you have to physically go through, that it would be very different if you formatted it differently, the way say some comic strips have panels that can be arranged in a single line or in columns and rows. Any reader probably has to bring an interest in the book being a book. Because a lot of what might be considered interesting in the contents of it works with the form of it. And if that's not interesting to you then a lot of it might be boring. Or seem all over the place and like a bunch of nonsense.
CB: How do you approach creating these pieces? Do you see them as narratives first?
Adams: Some of this I answered in question one so I'll try to elaborate somewhat more and differently.
Like I said I usually think about some different stuff over any given period of time and some of those things might seem like a good idea for a picture book or at least part of one. In 2012 I made a book called Period. I made it after Strong Eye Contact but it was published first. Strong Eye Contact I made as I went along not really thinking of what it'd be or how it would piece together.
Period, however, I organized very methodically. One because I wanted it to be easily reproducible and two because I had a clearer idea of what I wanted it to be "about". Both those reasons led to its having a very strict symmetry. The structure from page 1 to page 32 is like a palindrome. The page layouts very much so and the images and narrative bits on each page slightly less so but tethered and drifting here and there within bounds. Almost like the book structure and story structure are repeating or have some rhythm to them but are out of phase so sometimes line up and sometimes not.
Generally I wanted it to be about being a regular guy and what that might entail. In the current era of the world especially. So I thought of some different details and how they might link up in subtle and more obvious ways and built it around that. Once I got that going I just let it play out. The more "significant" elements would then work on the drier elements and vice versa.
The guy in the book is a dad since being a dad is often part of being a regular guy. The book mostly has examples of that but is bookended with what I'd think of as being very diametrically opposed examples of being a dad or regular guy. What a guy does or can do or thinks is important. The first image of the book is a seahorse. Which since a male seahorse births its babies is an example of maybe the least male thing a male can do but maybe the most dad thing a dad could do. And then of course a seahorse is very tiny and delicate and organic, even crusty. So that was something I wanted to think about and be part of the story. Moreso than just a plot where characters jump through efficient hoops. And again is typically how I think about stuff and therefore plan out my work.
CB: As the creator, do you see these characters as people, or props to be manipulated, or something else?
Adams: I suppose I never like when writers try to talk about their characters as though they are real people, as though they created a person and then wrote about them. I don't think that's necessary or effective most of the time. No matter how real a character might be to a writer the reader only has what was written to go by.
So I just try to come up with what the person is going to look like and generally what they are all about and then have them do stuff. And more recently say stuff too. And that's about all you can know about a real person too. So hopefully the pictures and words seem vivid and alive but that's all in the actual making of them, not in what I think of them beforehand.
But yeah I'd say I certainly don't think of them as props or symbols or ideas or whatever but also not really "characters" in a normal liter
ary sense. Most book characters aren't very real anyway. It all just sort of happens when it happens. Again like how a real person accumulates in the body of a particular human over a lifetime.
CB: I was struck by the sincerity of Yule Log, which didn't have the ironic distance that I associate with many independent comics. Did you conceive it that way?
Adams: Well the whole book start to finish minus a few details popped in my head all at once either in a dream or during a 5 minute stint of not sleeping during normal sleeping one night last year right before Christmas. Since the whole thing was there and wasn't going to be long I was hoping to hammer it out real quick. But stuff came up and I put it off and was finally able to finish it for this Christmas.
So I didn't really conceive it very purposefully. But I would say that with it and the other things I've made I try not to put much distance between myself and it and it and the potential audience. I think that ironic distance can sometimes be there as a sort of protection. Sometimes it's just part of the feel of a work but a lot of the time it's a protection. Don't want someone to read it a certain way and think you're lame or whatever. Well I figure I poo and pee and am less than ideal already so I might as well not worry if someone else who poos and pees and is less than ideal thinks I'm lame. And if I just make stuff that's as "close to the source" as I can then maybe the people who look at it will feel it and not worry about seeming one way or another.
Maybe 6 or 7 years ago a friend of mine and I were at a kind of wholesale overstock store and they had some coffee table books. We were looking at a picture book of the Rolling Stones and then a Van Gogh book. My friend hadn't realized how much stuff Van Gogh churned out in only a few years and that on top of the intensity of the work led him to say "This guy wasn't fucking around". And I think that quality and clear conviction really comes through his pictures and is why despite the strangeness of them he's just about the world's favorite. If you make something that's "really real" it's hard to say much about it, either positive or negative. So I try my best.
CB: It's intriguing how Strong Eye Contact had a companion zine included where you had a conversation with a reader of the book to gauge their reaction to it. What made you decide to do that, and how did it help you gain insight into the way that your work was received by readers?
Adams: Well, the guys who published Strong Eye Contact are called 2D Cloud and they decided to put together that pamphlet. One of them is named Justin and he sent me some questions and I answered them. I think they thought the book might seem confusing to the few people who might pick it up so they wanted to share some of the "background" info that went into the making of the book. Some of which they themselves had gotten in our talking back and forth while preparing the book for printing.
I agreed to answer the questions but tried not to get too specific in terms of explaining the book away. I guess I just tried to talk about how I think about some stuff as far as pictures go and writing and making books. There are some things I find weird about comics too and with my own work I try to do stuff that makes more sense to me when it comes to the physical process of reading a book with pictures and I think I got into some of that in the pamphlet too.
As far as gaining insight into how the work has been received I'm not sure. For one since I make the stuff I don't see it as odd or difficult to comprehend any more than say scratching my elbow is for me. So it can be hard to imagine being someone who finds the book tough or off-putting. And I'm also not so sure how it's been received or if the pamphlet could help since I don't think it's been looked at by very many people. Some people I know personally seem to like it. But they also seem to like me too.
CB: Your work encompasses many different art techniques. How do you decide what techniques to use for different sections of the stories?
Adams: I usually try first and foremost to pick different materials for each project and then to experiment with different new to me materials and see what's fun to use or seems to make sense for a given type of story, etc.
For Yule Log I knew I wanted something a bit vague and misty but that I also didn't want to paint it. So I thought either ballpoint pen or pencil. I decided to hold off on the pen and used pencil. I could get gradients like in painting but have the feel of a drawing since it is a drawing. As opposed to say using a solid intensity pen and doing crosshatching, etc. I wanted it to be gauzy. So I also used colored pencil for the color parts.
The format and structure of the physical book often is part of how I draw or paint it and again with Yule Log I made the 4 color content pages in such a way that they'd be in parallel places in the book which would make for easier cheaper printing depending on the method. So that helped me create the structure or I guess how I'd take the story and lay out the details and where and why I'd use color for certain parts. And then usually that give and take between the structure of the book as a thing and the book as a story ends up producing some connections that I hadn't really planned on. In Yule Log all the parts in color take place in the air for instance.
And aside from the book structure determining some materials I'll also get somewhat more conceptual with it. Like in Strong Eye Contact the middle section is in crayon because I thought it would be neat to draw it in the way a kid might draw their own version of a character they like.
CB: Is there one central idea that you think unifies your work?
Adams: So far I've only made a few books. All three and the stray strips and pictures I've made over the years tend to have some underlying things. I don't really have a set style or materials I use so the similarities can be a bit more under the surface or more based on certain images or objects or arrangements, which I suppose over time makes something like an idea that might unify it all.
As I said earlier I like to take a figure and make it do stuff. And that takes place in a landscape of some kind, whether manmade or not. And then that doing stuff is sometimes interrupted by or involves other figures and often animals. So I'd say th
e contents of the books are probably all about the people and things in the particular book processing the world in the book and that the book itself is probably about me processing the world as well, but in this case primarily visually or at least the output is visual. The two things at once.
And maybe to take it a little further I think that generally processing the world and finding enjoyment in that is about the only healthy thing to do and that people tend to be too obsessed with people things and that that's where lots of problems arise. So my work tends to have some of that to it too, the idea of going a bit above or below the normal area of daily human headspace. That picking your nose or the weight of the ocean is more interesting and important than whether or not your friend is upset with your other friend about a regifted sweatshirt.
Buy Christopher Adams's comics at the 2D Cloud website.