Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bruce Mutard Interview Update

A Panel from Bruce's submission to Tango 9.

To coincide with a reprinting of Word Balloons 1 we present below an update to that issue’s interview with Bruce Mutard. For those who came late, Bruce is a Melbourne-based writer-artist committed to telling stories that have a deeper meaning. From early socio-political works for street zines he has progressed through his self-published Street Smell, contributions to local and overseas anthologies, such as DeeVee, Tango and SPX, to substantial graphic novels: The Bunker (Image 2002), The Sacrifice (Allen & Unwin, 2008) and The Silence (Allen & Unwin, 2009).

PB: When the interview was published, early in 2006, The Silence was in limbo following Image dropping it due to poor advance orders. The Sacrifice, meanwhile, was in the early stages of production. Given its subject matter you expressed a hope that you may be able to find an Australian publisher for The Sacrifice. Despite the fact that, as you said, it seemed a bit ‘pie in the sky’ that’s exactly what has happened. So how did this come about?
BM: Via what some cynics, in particular authors, might describe as the least likely route to publication: the unsolicited submission. After the term of the Australia Council grant had expired, which I think was the end of 2005, I had produced sixty pages which I decided I should use as a sample of a prospective publication. So I consulted the Australian Writer’s Guide, made a list of likely publishers, and sent off the package. Lo and behold, a few weeks later, I got a call from Erica Wagner [pronounced like the composer], a publisher in the Children’s and Education Division of Allen & Unwin (A&U). She expressed a great admiration for the work and a desire to publish it.
PB: How many publishers did you approach ?
BM: A&U were essentially the first. That occurred in 2006, but it still took me a good year and a half to finish the rest of the work.
PB: Over the course of its production the work has expanded to become a WWII trilogy. You are currently at work on the second volume The Fight. What was the thinking behind the expansion?
BM: At a fairly late stage of the production of The Sacrifice I realised that there were natural sequels to the story. If the first volume told the story of a man wrestling with his conscience and beliefs with regards to enlisting to fight in WWII, then it seemed logical to follow the consequences of that decision in a second volume. To show him in the army and participating in a combat zone, where he sees and performs dreadful things. And then it seemed appropriate to follow the narrative through to the character’s return home, and to look at the issues surrounding how you come back to being a normal citizen having done such things. In Robert’s case, because he was a reluctant participant to begin with, he finds it quite difficult to deal with. So I approached A&U with the idea late in 2007. They were very receptive to it, but given that The Sacrifice had yet to be released, and they were essentially entering into the unknown as far as finding a market for the graphic story in the mainstream book trade, they didn’t commit to it immediately. But after a month or so Erica agreed, going on gut instinct rather than sales. So that enabled me to start researching and writing The Fight.
PB: How have you found A&U to work with? How has the editing process changed both The Sacrifice, which was underway prior to finding a publisher, and The Fight, which A&U have been involved in from the beginning?
BM: They’ve been very easy and good to work with. They have had a very light touch in terms of their editorial involvement. I have actually invited them to be more involved because it is quite constructive to get that objective view. Their input definitely improved The Sacrifice and The Silence. But they are not prescriptive in a way that a more commercial publisher, or an educational one might be. Their position has been that this is my work and it is more their job to make suggestions rather than directions. There have been instances where I have gone against their advice, feeling that they didn’t ‘get’ the point I was trying to make. Although that does raise the issue that if they didn’t understand it, perhaps other readers won’t as well. But on the whole it has been a really good working relationship.
PB: Has their input been primarily in the story, or the art as well?
BM: Primarily with the story. With the art on occasion they may point out some inconsistencies with regard to the appearance of characters. But it is difficult when you are doing a representational style of art. You don’t have the leeway that a more cartoony artist may have with exaggerated characteristics and expressions to describe the internal emotional states of the characters. But most bloopers and errors of continuity I have had to fish out myself. I am aware of some of my failings. I tend to draw fairly masculine looking women with square jaws and can have a certain sameness to character design. Artists tend to have a stock of types and a set way of drawing facial characteristics and it is difficult, especially when you are doing a long work, not to default to easy patterns to reduce your labour.
PB: What have sales been like? Are A&U satisfied with the results?
BM: I’ve only got numbers for The Sacrifice, but they’ve been satisfactory as far as A&U are concerned. Mind you, the bulk of the sales were to some educational marketing firm on release. Traffic since then has slowed to a few dozen every half year, matched by the number of returns. We don’t expect to see any kick along until The Fight is released, which is a long way off yet.
PB: What sort of feedback have you had for either The Sacrifice or The Silence? I recall you saying that when you were doing Street Smell you would get regular letters of comment from readers.
BM: Primarily only reviews in the media.
PB: Do you think that has to do with the greater distance between author and reader in the two forms of production?
BM: Undoubtedly.
PB: But people could still write to you care of A&U.
BM: They could and I was hoping that there might have been a little bit of that. But I do think it has to do with the diminution of letter writing in the modern world. If I had set up a Facebook site or a blog and was regularly contributing to them I probably would have got comments, but I have no interest in doing that.
PB: Why is that?
BM: Just being lazy and perhaps a degree of animus I have against the whole business of exposing oneself online…like publishing one’s personal diary. It just strikes me as being immodest. I see it as an extension of the general cult of celebrity we’re in: “you too, can be a star”. But I can also see it as a rather broad version of the human need for community and neighbourhood gossip.
PB: In the interview you stated that The Silence had been the most challenging work you had done up to that time. How does The Sacrifice or The Fight match up to it? Have they been more challenging?
BM: Yes. Each work that I do does present greater challenges because I set the bar a little higher each time. The Silence was challenging because its subject matter required me to find a visual metaphor for a non-visual idea. Something that would avoid too much explanatory dialogue, which my critics have pointed out is a bit of a problem with me. It is something I am trying to iron out. I write books with a point in mind and it is hard not to make them baldly, rather than integrating them into the narrative so the point comes through that instead of merely being stated. But I think with The Silence I came pretty close to achieving this. I worked pretty extensively to iron out a lot of explanatory dialogue that had been in the initial version. PB: You or A&U?
BM: Largely myself. This is why I really would like the editing to be a little more demanding and robust. I really would like the editing to be an active process. I’m sure it was more so back in the ‘old days’. It may well be the way it’s taught these days and a part of the postmodern discourse where they don’t want to violate the integrity of the artist. I see it often in non-fiction where over-writing and repetitiveness is let go.
PB: So had The Silence appeared from Image these revisions wouldn’t have occurred.
BM: No, that’s right. But to get back to your question, The Fight was difficult to write. It took me a year and around ten drafts. But you expect that with an extensive novel. It has a broad canvas and multiple characters and it’s a challenge to sustain a narrative over such a length. But the feedback that I have had from A&U has been positive and they have sent it to a number of independent readers.
PB: What stage is it currently at?
BM: I have completed the breakdowns, but they still need to be culled a bit as it’s close to 300 pages.
PB: I’m interested in the different formats you’ve employed. The Sacrifice was virtually A4, which you would think would be ideal for illustrated work, especially detailed work, yet I was surprised that I didn’t warm to it. Perhaps that was due to the design, perhaps that’s just me. But presumably you must have had some reservations as with The Silence you’ve gone for almost a square format with only two tiers of panels per page, which I think works better. So why the change?
BM: That was my decision, although it did have a mercenary aspect to it. You once said to me that in its look The Sacrifice resembled a text-book and I tend to agree. In part that was probably intentional on the part of A&U as they had a stated intention of selling it into the educational market. The Silence, on the other hand, was originally in three tiers and around 100 pages and I just thought that a larger book with more pages would appear more substantial, have a better chance of standing out on a bookshelf and seem a better buy. Because each tier was the same size it was easy to reformat. And I liked the option of having some pages with just a single tier. Indeed A&U suggested that I use them as a form of chapter breaks. I liked how that accentuated the wordlessness or ‘silence’ of these panels. So in a way I’m glad that it didn’t come out from Image a few years ago.
PB: During the interview you also mentioned a number of other projects you would like to produce – biographies of Jesus and Hitler among them. Do you worry that because the WWII trilogy is such a long running project that these and other works are held up?
BM: Yeeeah... Sometimes I’d like to be working on a project that is contrary to the trilogy just to have some respite from it.
PB: More to the point are there more stories that are coming to you that are creating a log jam of ideas.
BM: You can never stay away from new ideas. I have contributed some short stories to the last few Tangos and will also have a strip in an edition of Meanjin [one of Australia's pre-eminent literary journals] next year.
PB: How did that occur?
BM: It was a strip I submitted to Gestalt Publishing’s Character Sketches back in 2007. When they knocked it back, I submitted it to another anthology, Rosetta, put out by Alternative Press in the USA. They accepted it, but after some three years and no sign of the book, I assume it was killed off by the GFC and the weak market for anthologies in general. Then I noticed that Meanjin was becoming receptive to graphic stories with their new editor Sophie Cunningham (like the serial by Kate Fielding and Mandy Ord). So I gave it a go and it worked. It’s something that I hope to see more of: graphic stories appearing on an equal footing alongside prose and poetry in literary journals, as a part of literature.
PB: As well you began a Masters degree at Monash Uni in 2009. In what discipline?
BM: It began in Fine Arts, but I’ve changed to Design for a variety of reasons.
PB: Why did you undertake it?
BM: Because I felt the medium ought to be examined in the academic field from the point of view of the artform itself, rather than from a feminist, Marxist, or post-structuralist position that has previously occurred. My initial idea was to focus on the transition between word and image, as I had discovered that I would often have to change the script when I came to do the breakdowns. There is something about telling stories in images that is qualitatively different to telling stories in words. And I wanted to analyse that dialectic to see if there was any kind of universal system buried in there. Mind you, it has tracked away from that now. Initially I was going to utilise The Fight, but then I realised that it already had a lot of constraints on it in terms of form, and anyway, it was too big as a project for a Masters degree. So I decided that I might do the Hitler story and work on both simultaneously. But that has been complicated by the need to earn a living doing commercial work, so right at this minute I’m not entirely sure where I am with the degree. But the Hitler book and the Jesus story are two I keep needling at. I still hope to produce them eventually.
PB: Speaking of commercial work you have just completed work on three books for Macmillan Education.
BM: They are for a new series called Stories from Australia. Macmillan have commissioned an initial series of six books of which I have done three. Two other artists have done the other three, but there’s a single author for them all. They are history texts aimed at Years 4 to 6. The three I have done are on the Anzacs and Gallipoli, Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet, and Vida Goldstein and the Suffrage Movement.
PB: Did you choose those or did they?
BM: They did show me the six ideas originally but in the end they chose. They road tested a number of illustrators by giving us all a panel to illustrate to demonstrate our style and how we would interpret the script.
PB: Illustrators or comic artists?
BM: The two I’m aware of are Scott Fraser who did the Dollboy comic a few years ago [see Doug Holgate interview WB 10], and Chris Burns, who I think was the artist on Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday (Gestalt, 2008).
PB: Did this come about because of The Sacrifice?
BM: No, again, it was an unsolicited approach. Earlier in the year I just began to contact publishers seeking illustration work. I mentioned that I had special skills in graphic narratives and as it would happen Macmillan were in the process of commissioning a series that was going to use the form.
PB: How many pages?
BM: Twelve pages per book. The rest of the books will presumably be bulked out with prose, maps, diagrams, illustrations etc. In this case I was just the hired gun. Although I did have input into the script from the position of what didn’t seem to work. It’s hard for me to switch the writer off. They were, for example, far too overwritten. The author was totally unpractised in writing for the medium and the editor and publisher hadn’t had any contact with it either. Indeed this is the first time Macmillan have used comics in their books. So they are testing the waters as well. I think they’ve learnt a lot from the process, and will undoubtedly get better at it. I gather they are thinking of commissioning another series of six next year.
PB: When are they being released?
BM: March 2010, but they will not be available through the general book trade, only to the education market. I hope it works for them, because it’s a very good field for the medium to become a part of. You’d think it would be a natural, but educators have been resistant to the medium up to now because of the old pejorative associations that comics equal too much sex, violence, fantasy and so on, not helped by the big budget films of recent times.