I’ve been noticing the fervor around Black Friday this year and so it seems appropriate to interview a Mormon artist who is–for a limited time only–offering his already inexpensive comic book (with shipping), for less than I paid for it (without). Act now.
Brandon Dayton works in the video game industry by day and makes comics by night. He recently released his first book, Green Monk, a fantastic action story set in a fairytalish version of Russia featuring a monk with a magical weapon and a fearsome monster. He brings more humanity to the story than the quota require and in the process proves that simple drawings can be a powerful mode of storytelling.
Th: So, Brandon. First, tell us a bit about what you do as an indie cartoonist. How you fit in the time, how much time you fit in, what you’re drawing, what your goals are, etc.
BD: Currently my role as an “indie cartoonist” is limited to my personal time. I work full time as a concept artist at EA Salt Lake, so the cartooning happens between dinner and bedtime. I didn’t actually set out to be a cartoonist until recently. Although Green Monk began several years ago, I didn’t start working on it in earnest until the beginning of this year (Jan 2009). At the time is was part of a portfolio of projects that spread out across all of my storytelling interests: animation, film, illustration. But, completing the project has set my path pretty firmly towards comics. I still have other interests, but I think comics is what I’m going to be focused on for the next several years.
My schedule for fitting in the work is pretty modest. I try and focus on a consistent schedule rather than a marathon of herculean efforts. For Green Monk I would work on one panel a day (which in the case of Green Monk was a fraction of a typical comic panel). Depending on the complexity of the panel it would take me anywhere from a half an hour to two hours of work a night to complete it. I really start stressing out if I have more work to do then that at night. I have friends that can put their kids to bed and work another five hours at night. I can’t keep a schedule like that consistently. So the work was slow and steady. I had about 20 pages when I started in January, and I was still drawing in August.
There were some nice benefits of the slow pace. It allowed me to think about the story quite a bit. Some of my favorite story came during that time. It would have been a different story if I had just blown through it after finishing the thumbnails.
My goal is to empty as many stories out of my brain as I can before I die. I have stories that are important to me that I’ve imagined as films, and comics for a long time. I had a realization as I was doing Green Monk that if I didn’t make them into something concrete they would die with me. That seemed kind of sad to me. I think I was reading The Neverending Story at the time, and helped me realize that — the whole thing with Bastian having to have the courage to name the Childlike Empress. The book is a great metaphor for the creative process.
Also, I’d like to spend more time during the day making comics. That’s a financial issue I’ll have to work out.
Th: So AMV’s focus is “devoted to exploring the world of Mormon arts and culture” which will inform my next couple questions.
First, how is your view of the creative arts shaped by your faith? Or, in other words, how is being LDS amenable to being an artist?
BD: Hmmm, that question’s an invitation to ramble. An invitation that I will accept!
Religionhas certainly shaped the way I view the world. In general, I believe in the inherent goodness of people. My favorite stories are the ones where you see the humanity in the villain. I also believe strongly in the idea of the opposition in all things, or the idea of the Fall and the Atonement. In other words, I think the world can be ugly and brutal, and yet somehow life can still have moments of beauty and people can have moments of divinity. It’s a critical part of our theology that sometimes gets pushed aside for more sanitized versions, but I have an equal distaste for art that just shows ugliness. Welcome To the Dollhouse is a brilliant film, but in the end, the best it can do is give me empathy for Todd Solondz. This is probably why I dig Kurosawa. He’s able to find that balance. Those contrasts of suffering and transcendence also make for great drama.
Art shares a lot with religion too. Art really grew out of religious ritual, so you have to ask yourself what the two have in common. One thing that they share are myths. I love the myths of Mormonism: The Sacred Grove, Nephi and Laban. I think they are really powerful metaphors. The one advantage that religion has over art is how the myths are woven into your life. You share the myths with others. You participate in ceremony and ritual that puts the myths in context. That’s missing in art. There are all these powerful stories, but there is no context and no community. People have a natural urge to integrate narrative into their lives. There’s this trend to participate with movies whether it’s dressing up and singing along with the Sound of Music or Rocky Horror Picture, or LARPing. I think that’s why you go to see a band live too, you want to share the experience with a community. Art can be really powerful when that happens. I’m not sure how you do that without religion, but I think about it a lot.
There’s also this idea within Mormonism that the greatest joys are a result of a harmony between the physical and spiritual. It’s an idea that’s pretty unique amongst Judeo-Christian faiths; that rather than destroying the physical to grow spiritually that the two quicken one another. It’s something I’ve been trying to do with art for a good while. I love sparse, ascetic films by guys like Tarkovsky, Dreyer and Ozu, but I also love Star Wars and Asphalt Jungle. I try to find a harmony between those two aesthetics. Miyazaki is one of the only film makers out there that really knows how to do that. His movies will be Ozu one second, then Kurosawa the next. Green Monk is pretty blatant attempt to do that. At its core it’s really just a brawl between super heroes, but I try to make that work with a smattering of contemplative moments too. Again, the contrasts can make for good drama.
My spirituality is also a very personal thing. It always has been, even when I was much more of a soldier of the faith. I have a real distaste for art that is meant to promote Institutional Mormonism. I wouldn’t even say that my art is trying to promote Mormon theology or values, or even religion or Christianity in general. Of course my upbringing has an effect on how I see things, but I’m trying to get to experiences that are universal. In Green Monk, Alexey isn’t meant to be an example of goodness because he’s the religious one. Alexey’s naive faith is a starting point. It’s his point of view, and its what puts him in tension with his world (again, drama). Hopefully I’ll be able to play with more of that in his future adventures.
Th: You’re answers are so thorough, you’re knocking out most of my followup questions before I ask them.
But one thing I wasn’t planning on asking, but is now begged: You studied film in college, yes? And film is still clearly how you measure excellence. So why the switchover?
BD: I did study film in college. I originally wanted to study animation, but because I was too intimidated to apply to Cal Arts, and because I intended to find my future spouse at BYU, I went to BYU. They didn’t have an animation program so I enrolled in the film program. While I was there I really became wrapped up in film making. When I look back on it sometimes, I almost see it as a diversion, but I took it very seriously. I was passionate about it. I tried to watch a lot of movies. I made films, and I tried to do some very ambitious things. My senior project was a period piece with costumes and props and pyrotechnics. It was awesome what we were able to accomplish, but it was also kind of catastrophic. I was trying to do so many big things, and I didn’t give myself enough wiggle room for when things went wrong. In the end, it had some beautiful moments in it, but the film as a whole was a mess. It did win some awards though.
That experience left me pretty discouraged for many years. I’ve tried to get some other feature projects going since then, but I always seemed to hit a wall. I would have 10 different projects going on, and I never did anything worthwhile with any of them. Finally I decided to just focus on one project and that happened to be Green Monk. It was the one story I was most passionate about, and I knew it had to be a comic.
As far as film being the measure of excellence – I don’t feel it’s a superior medium at all, in fact, I think it has big disadvantages to good ol’ fashion writing and comics. It just happens to be where I’ve spent most of my time, so when I’m trying to think of an example of an idea, its much easier for me to reference film. I hope to become as well read with comics someday, but reading comics is more expensive than watching movies, so it might take a while.
To address the issue of switching over: Green Monk has really illuminated the possibilities of comics to me. For one, I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to tell my story. I don’t need to cast people, or find locations or try and find skilled people to fill all of the various positions needed to make a movie. I can just sit down and start telling my story. The other thing that really is seductive about it comics is that it gives me a chance to master a craft. With directing a film, you have to be generalist, and I don’t think you get the same high that comes from mastering a specific skill. I love drawing, and I love having breakthroughs and drawing stuff that seemed impossible at one time. I love when I get in the flow, where I feel like I can’t do anything wrong. I don’t know if you can have that same experience yelling into a megaphone. Lastly, it just feels right. I think I avoided drawing for so many years out of fear, and now that I’m past that I fill much more at peace about the direction of my life’s work.
Th: Follow your bliss.
Sticking with Green Monk, you wrote that your monk character “isn’t meant to be an example of goodness because he’s the religious one” which is, I think, a rather Mormon viewpoint. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young started off this dispensation making a big deal over how not perfect they were. Mortality is part of an eternal progression (and your experience with comics makes a good metaphor of that) and being part of the One True Church doesn’t prevent us from being screwups now and again.
Anyway, that was hardly the only Mormony thing I saw in the book, but I’m curious if now, looking over it, the book appears more or less strongly Mormon than it did when you were creating it. In other words, if you sell ten million copies, how is the blogosphere going to accuse you of tricking their children into liking Mormonism?
BD: Hmmm, I dunno how you stop the blogosphere once it gets an idea in its head. The best I can say is that any of the Mormoness of the book is happenning at a subconcious level, enough so that I’m hard pressed to point out any examples myself. Although I’d be interested to know what you see in it that feels “Mormon”.
Th: I just reread your book in order to give you examples of its Mormonyness, but instead I got sucked into the story–deeper than last time–and I couldn’t find the subtleties I suggested exist.
So instead let’s talk briefly about the book’s influences generally and call it good. (I could clearly go on endlessly, but much longer and people will stop reading.)
While I couldn’t find anything strictly “Mormon” the book does have a strong Christian grounding. The monk’s reliance on penance and redemption goes deeper than mere reporting–you’ve got yourself a healthy, full-functioning metaphor here. And then there are the folktale references and the framings show off the superhero element.
So my question is this: Which of these elements did you deliberately choose and how did you balance them?
BD: I really like Stephen King’s description of the process of writing in his book On Writing. He compares the process to paleontology to archaeology — you are excavating your own unconscience. When I start, I just have images and moments I really like and as I go, I start to see patterns and metaphors. Part of the decision for the blatant Christiantiy in it, is wanting to be true to the character and the time. I love Master and Commander, because it does just that. You can tell Peter Weir really put in the effort to tell a story from the point of view of the time period. So many period pieces get all the visual details right, but then make all of the psychology contemporary. It ruins the illusion for me. I wanted to tell a story in a medieval Russian setting, and it seems right that monk in that time and place would talk and think that way.
I think it’s being true to its Brothers Grimm influence too. You read the old stories, and there is a lot of religion in them. That’s just how people saw the world back then.
That having been said, Alexey is certainly a reflection of my own spirituality, and the comic as a whole represents much of my inner life. That probably has a lot to do with why I wanted to tell a story about an Orthodox monk. It’s funny, someone commented on A Canticle for Leibowitz on Twitter the other day and I responded how much I liked the character of Brother Francis in the first part.When I made the comment I realized that a big chunk of my favorite characters in fiction are these idealisticinnocents, and many of them are monks! Alexey is really just an amalgamation of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublyev and Dosteovsky’s Alexey Karamozov. I guess the real Mormon twist in all this is to make him a warrior too. Mormonism has a lot of great characters that are warrior-prophets, I’ve always really liked that concept. I think that’s why a character like Judge Dredd resonates with me too. He’s really the same archetype.
Th: Thanks, Brandon. That seems like a pretty good place to wrap up. Anything you want to throw out before we end?
This was my first ever Google Wave interview.
Just in case anyone is tracking such things.