Nicolas Mahler: Q&A
Posted: Monday, February 16, 2004
Posted By: Tim O'Shea
Nicolas Mahler is a creator that Top Shelf Productions hopes more people will recognize to a far greater extent in the coming months. While he’s popular in certain European circles, his work is relatively new to U.S. audiences. That soon will no longer be the case as Top Shelf is set to release Mahler’s Van Helsing's Night Off next month. Before launching into the interview with Mahler, here’s some background, courtesy of Top Shelf:
“Nicolas Mahler was born in 1969 in Vienna, Austria, and still lives there. He works for Austrian, German, and Swiss newspapers and magazines. He publishes his books mostly in France (at L'Association, L'Ampoule... ) and Canada (La Pasteque). His comic series Flashko (French version published by L'Association) was adapted as a series of animated shorts and shown at various film festivals around Europe. His book Kratochvil (French version published by L'Association) was turned into a puppet-play by a Swiss troupe, and is currently touring in Switzerland, Austria, and France. His work appears regularly in the anthologies Lapin (F), Galago (SWE), Spoutnik (CAN), and Strapazin (CH).
…Mahler is famous for his silent and sophisticated comics. Perfect for fans of Edward Gorey, this volume includes humorous comics stories featuring the classic archetypes of the mummy, vampire, wolfman, Frankenstein, and, of course, Van Helsing. These short stories are intriguing, humorous and incredibly illustrated in a whimsical, yet weighted, sketchy style. This first American compilation will be sure to create an instant fan base Nicolas' work.”
Tim O’Shea: You've been successful in Europe for a number of years, do you think the fact that your work is "silent" will make it more accessible/universal to the American market?
Nicolas Mahler: I think some of my non-silent stories, which are mainly genre stories like the boxer story, TNT (which was published in Top Shelf Asks The Big Questions), or my favorite, a story about an down-and-out racecar-driver (Lone Racer) should work well in America, because these stories are of course influenced by American movies.
The same could be said about the Van Helsing book. Again, these characters are figures from American movies—this time horror movies. So this should work fine, because everyone knows these monsters, but here they are shown with a different view on them. They look a bit different. And they behave in strange ways. So I would say there is not that much difference between the silent work, and the non-silent things I have done. If you don’t like the drawing style, or can’t make out what’s going on, in fact the silent ones are more difficult I think...But I concentrate very much on the readability of my silent stories, because there are too many silent comics I have read (by others) that I couldn’t really follow.
O’Shea: How did this work, your first American compilation, come about?
Mahler: Brett Warnock of Top Shelf had seen some of these stories in the French anthology Lapin (published by L’Association), and suggested that one day I should make a book out of them. So I drew some more stories, and now there is a book.
O’Shea: Would you agree with the characterization of this book as "perfect for fans of Edward Gorey"? Would you say Gorey influenced your humor or style? If not, who (or what) would you say has had the greatest impact on how you approach your work and/or your comedy?
Mahler: I read some stories by Gorey relatively late, although I had seen some single pictures of his work earlier.
He might have influenced me in that I use more "lines" now, and that I work on giving an old-fashioned "hand-made" look to my drawings. Also, he might have influenced me in doing more "illustrated stories" now than actual comics. I am not that much of a comics reader, so this approach appeals to me: to tell a short story in words and pictures, but not necessarily in a comic book way. The humour I would say is untouched by Gorey, although he of course is an example for doing stories that do not really aim at a certain public. They are too cruel or strange for a children’s book, but have the form of it somehow nevertheless. So the impact is maybe also to draw a story without thinking who might be the target audience.
O’Shea: When and how did you first realize the comedic potential in horror archetypes?
Mahler: I have done quite a lot of silent stories in the past few years, and in these, since they are humourous stories, there of course has to be a lot of physical comedy. In silent stories, you don’t have the time to explain the characters motives etc. a lot, so it is better to choose certain "archetypes". So, for this [project], these horror characters were perfect, because everybody knows them, we know what they are about to do, and so I can concentrate on the slapstick, the way they walk, HOW they do things. I do not have to explain why it takes very long for the monster of Frankenstein to walk to a castle. We already know why: because he has those clumsy shoes! So I can concentrate on the long walk.
O’Shea: You already do a great deal of work for Austrian, German, and Swiss newspapers and magazines, but if the opportunity presented itself would you like to do some work for American newspapers and magazines, or is your workload already too full?
Mahler: In fact I am in the lucky position that most of my work time goes into my books. I have relatively few "real jobs" where I have to draw exclusively for a magazine, or publicity jobs. For magazines, I mostly draw one panel-cartoons, some are commissioned, but mostly I work relatively independently and just send these cartoons to certain magazines that print them when they need a joke. So I could handle a few bonus-jobs, because I draw relatively fast.
O’Shea: If response to this Top Shelf work is strong, can we expect further releases from you through Top Shelf ?
Mahler: I hope so!
O’Shea: Down the road, would you like to try to garner an American audience for your spinoff projects, such as the Flashko animated shorts and the Kratochvil puppet-play adaptation. On a related note, how odd was it when you first saw your characters in a puppet-play?
Mahler: The Flashko shorts have played at over 30 international film festivals (Annecy, Ottawa...) but sadly not in the United States, because of the entry fees. That was a bit too much for an independent production like ours. So far, there has been no opportunity for an American audience to discover Flashko. It would be interesting to see reactions from Americans, because the films are VERY slow, and very much a matter of taste. The Flashko -films played as short films before feature films (like Ghost World, About Schmidt...) in Austria, Germany, Switzerland. I have seen some of the screenings, and the reactions were very mixed. You have to imagine, that each movie consists of one take of about one minute, where almost nothing happens, there is only very slight animation in the films.
The Kratochvil puppet play is a very minimalistic thing also, very much like the comic. It was a bit weird to see that the actor had learned the text of the comic strips by heart, they didn’t change a single line. And so what I wrote just to make some stupid gags work has become something serious, the way they performed it. They took it very seriously, and I liked that a lot. Usually comics are treated like some worthless piece of trash, but when it is transformed into a theatre play, major newspapers write how poetic and well-written the texts are. You have to laugh about this.
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