Emily Wieja, Tyger Tyger
Continuing the Myrant interview series dedicated to the Center for Cartoon Studies artists (graduates and students) who will be at the New York City MoCCA con on June 23-24 later this month, selling their latest comics creations, it's time to hear from CCS pioneer class graduate Emily Wieja.
Per usual, many of the comics you’ll be seeing previewed and discussed in this series of blog interviews are
SB: You're among our most worldly and international CCS participants, Emily. What's your background -- where you are from, schooling, etc. -- and when did you first get into comics as a reader?
EMILY WIEJA: I was born in Vermont but lived in Greece as a small child and then in Maryland. When I was 12 I moved to Holland -- my Dad was a teacher and ended up remarrying a Dutch woman so I went to middle school, high school and art school there. I did return to the US after high school for 2 years to attend SVA [School of Visual Arts] but I hated NY and I didn't like the school so I ended up finishing my BFA in Holland at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the Hague.
SB: What was available to you in the pop culture -- and comics -- in Holland, and how did that shape your interests in the medium?
Splash page: "Tyger in the Jungle," one of Emily's most recent works, 2007; not to be confused with Tyger, Tyger.
EMILY: In terms of pop culture, there is definitely tons of American influence -- TV and movies and music. Comic books are viewed a bit differently there though. You could buy a lot of the DC and Marvel type stuff and it had it's following amongst the young male demographic, though probably not as big as here. There are a lot of those European albums however which are of a different breed, often large format hardcover books with continuing adventures of popular characters or single story graphic novels of a sort. Maybe seeing those books influenced me subtly, though I never thought about it much. It's funny because as I saw it, European comics seem to be more "artsy" in general, and yet there was a disconnect between fine art and comics books, just as there is America, though this seems to be changing a little bit.
SB: What prompted your creating your own comics, and what was your first comic creations or project?
EMILY: Well in high school I started making my own comic, called Twisted which was sort of a zine, but had a running comic story in it which served as the base of the whole thing. The comic was all about puking and making homemade bombs and stuff that I thought was funny when I was 15. I used the copier at school to run them off.
SB: You’d have been suspended -- or worse -- for doing such a comic in high school in an American school today! Mind you, I would have been arrested for the stuff I drew in high school. Did you feel an affinity for the zine scenes?
EMILY: I didn't know very much about the whole zine underground at that point, and in Holland there wasn't as much of that stuff going on then. I just thought it was fun to draw. I used to give them to my local skate shop though and they would give me free wheels and t-shirts and stuff like that in exchange.
SB: Now, Emily -- about Archie. Your CCS first year presentations revealed a real passion for those comics. When did you first get into Archie?
EMILY: I've been reading Archie for as long as I can remember. When I was a little kid it was the comic all the girls, and secretly some of the boys, though they wouldn't admit it, read.
SB: What's the allure of Riverdale, Archie and that whole comicbook universe for you?
EMILY: Partly I'm sure it's the sense of familiarity I have with it through so many years -- and the more things change in Riverdale, the more they stay the same. But for some reason I also have a perverse compulsion to defend things that people for whatever reason want to dismiss as being uncool or whatever. Obviously Archie has some kind of hold on our culture or it wouldn't have existed for 60 some years. There must be something there, even if it's hard to explain. I've read various treatises on why Archie is "important"-- historically, sociologically, and in terms of story structure etc., and though these things are all interesting and I agree with them, I don't personally think that they totally explain Archie's lasting appeal. Maybe it's just the the characters, pure and simple, and their basic predictability.
SB: Much as you are into Archie, I've rarely seen it have any impact on your own cartooning. Why is that?
EMILY: I dunno, but I think what I get from Archie isn't anything artistic at all, though like everyone I admire the drawing and inking of former Archie artists Dan DeCarlo and Sam Schwartz, among others. I mean, I still read the current comics which are- sorry to say it- utter crap drawing and coloring-wise. There's something else there that pulls me in- it's like a litany, sounding out the same old stories again and again! I can't really see myself ever drawing like Dan Decarlo, it's just not my thing, though I'm not gonna lie and say it wouldn't be nice to be able to!
Image: Panel from "Tyger in the Jungle" (2007)
SB: Backing up a bit, what were your impressions of the US upon your return after living abroad?
EMILY: Well, number one, I never learned how to drive, and I still don't have my driver's license, which I'll admit is pretty retarded. Everyone in Holland rides bikes everywhere and I still miss riding around on my bike, smoking a cigarette with my groceries and about ten other things hanging off the handlebars! When I moved here I wasn't at all prepared for just how car-centric the area is, even though I should've been because obviously Vermont is familiar to me.
Other aspects such as health insurance, sick days and vacation days at work and stuff like that are much better in Holland. It's easier to be poor in Europe, the social system is more just.
But, I think when it comes down to it, I'm more American than Dutch after all, and though I spoke Dutch fluently my writing skills aren't as good so I can get better jobs here in the States. I'm planning on staying in the US for the forseeable future, for better or for worse. My mom also lives in Vermont and I like seeing her more often!
Image: One last panel from "Tyger in the Jungle," 2007.
SB: What led you to CCS in its first year of existence?
EMILY: In art school I pretty much majored in printmaking and I found myself interested in making comics after a long hiatus. I made lithography and linoleum print comics which were pretty unusual for my school. No one there had even heard of comics it seems, except for the Donald Duck albums that everyone there reads as a kid. I made a lot of silkscreen comics too. I wasn't really getting too much response to these things though. I was thinking about grad school but wasn't sure what area I wanted to go into exactly. My mom was living in Vermont and wanted me to come live back in the States, and she told me about CCS which was to be opening the following year. I applied and the rest is history.
SB: Indeed it is! Tell me about your new comic -- your first graphic novel.
EMILY: My new book is called Tyger, Tyger and the title is inspired by a William Blake poem. The story is about a cat who is born domesticated but makes a gradual decision to turn feral and goes to live in the wild. It's kind of an abstract story- very cutting edge! Ha! I'm interested in the concept of personal transformation and wonder what factors and events can cause people to radically change their relationship to the world around them.
SB: What was your first year at CCS like, and how did that experience culminate in conceptualizing and completing Tyger, Tyger?
EMILY: The first year was hard, and it took time for me to find my feet comics-wise. I think I had to arrive at a point where I felt more confident making the type of comics I wanted to make, and I had a lot to learn about the sequentiality of comics and about making things make sense on that level. I still have a lot to learn in that respect, at times I feel that I am too focused on the purely aesthetic aspects and don't pay enough attention to readability.
When the second year came around and I had the freedom to pursue whatever idea I wanted, I was ready with the concept for Tyger, Tyger and enjoyed bringing that concept to fruition over the school year. The feedback one gets at CCS from fellow students is invaluable -- I was thankful for the second class of students who came in this year because it widened our little comics community and helped to provide more stimulus. The exposure I've gotten here to so much incredible work, and the feedback I still get from fellow students and teachers helps me every day.
SB: You've explored very primal turf with Tyger, Tyger, delineated in a often raw brush-and-ink style. What was your approach, as a writer and as an artist?
EMILY: I've always enjoyed drawing with a brush and ink -- to me it is a way to really get in there and "feel" what I'm drawing -- it helps me to translate what I have in my head directly onto the paper with less interference. Then, too, I enjoy "accidents" -- I like to slop some ink down and see what happens -- the results are often surprising and gratifying.
I have a weird approach to making comics which is party practical and partly what has evolved according to my own comfort level. I tend to draw directly with ink and brush and draw each panel separately, then scan everything in and compose my pages in Photoshop. I think this appraoch has freed me in a lot of ways, I'm not afraid to "mess up" a page and I can draw each panel as many times as I need to.
As a writer I tend to begin with something I have written, a piece of prose or a more abstract idea I will usually get from something I read -- I steal heavily from novels, ha! Then I'll try to draw a rough layout of a page or story, and try to think what form the comic should take. After that I'm free to concentrate on the more raw, ink-slopping act of drawing itself. By separating the more mundane parts of the comics-making process out from the drawing itself I hope that the more immediate and emotional, visual aspects stay more apparent in my finished work.
SB: How did your prior printmaking work shape the imagery in Tyger, Tyger and your brush work?
EMILY: I think that printmaking helped my design skills the most -- when you are composing something that will be reproduced you tend to think more carefully about the balance and composition -- or at least in a different way. And comics are similar to printmaking in this way. It's also true that certain subtleties of shading are not available to certain printmaking techniques -- except for lithography and maybe certain other ones. I made a lot of silkscreens and linoleum prints in college and that got me into making flat brush-stroke type lines, and taught me to build up planes with color and flat shadows.
SB: The narrative in Tyger, Tyger is very mercurial; it dissolves in and out of some sequences, asserts a sense of more traditional 'story' in other passages. How did you approach writing, or did it evolve in a purely visual manner for you?
Tyger, Tyger (2007)
EMILY: When I wrote Tyger, Tyger I wrote a two page, five-part outline which served as the basis for everything I did after that. I don't tend to go into a lot of detail with my writing -- enough to get the general sense of what is going to happen only.When I had figured out approximately how long each section was going to be I made thumbnails and began making individual drawings -- it is important to note, however, that I do plan out even the most abstract, mercurial sequences. They are written into my thumbnails and don't evolve out of the drawing -- the drawings evolve out of the idea I have for story and rhythmn.
SB: Tyger, Tyger is also very dreamlike. Was it shaped in part by your own dreams, or did you find your dreams influenced in any way by this project during the year you spent working on it?
EMILY: Nyeh, I can't say that Tyger, Tyger was really shaped by my dreams -- I tend to just have weird dreams about people I know and stuff like that, nothing very poetic I'm afraid. What I do feel inspired by is that feeling, that kind of twinge you get when you read something or see something that you know has meaning for you in some way. The inexplicable -- which I guess could be considered dream-like in some ways.
SB: I hope you'll continue exploring the path this project initiates -- what are your plans, in terms of your art?
EMILY: In terms of mundane things like, format, etc., I would like to make only much shorter pieces for a time. Undertaking a 40-page story was gratifying but I felt at times that it was difficult to sustain the essence of what I was trying to get across in such a lengthy piece. Hopefully by making shorter, more concise comics pieces for a time I will discover more themes that intrigue me, and I will keep my drawing and writing muscles in shape so that when and if I make such a long piece again, I can make something more coherent. I am interested in working with more text than I used in Tyger, Tyger. One thing I'm kind of interested in is using mathematical equations in comics in some way -- I just have no idea how yet!
SB: Will you stay in the US, or do you hope to return to Europe? I mean, if you could go anywhere, if work or money were no object, where would that be?
EMILY: If money and work was no object I would like to move to Toronto -- I've never been there but it seems like a cool city. Right now I have this random list of cities in the Northeast where I would like to move to, and I have to narrow my focus a bit! I think a slightly more urban atmosphere might be in order for me especially since it doesn't look like I will ever learn to drive! Of course if money were no object I would hire a chauffeur.
SB: Thanks, Emily!
More interviews, coming up! Have a great Thursday, one and all...