Friday, June 11, 2010

Tim Lane Blacktop

Tim Lane is a double threat, accomplished as both an artist and prose writer, his graphic novel Abandoned Cars, (which is now out in paperback), blew me away. It's not really a novel though. A collection of graphic short stories linked by theme and style that modulate between a sharp, gritty focus and dream-sense stream of consciousness, it reads like the book Jack Kerouac may have written with oh, say Donald Ray Pollock, populated by characters outrageous and familiar, out of their minds and so far down to earth that they're actually beneath it.

And that's not saying anything about the visuals.

Tim's gorgeous illustrations are why I bought the damn thing. That he could write worth a crap was gravy. His style is batter-dipped Americana with a generous dose of film-noir aesthetics and if I knew anything about graphic artists, I'd blow your mind with some mash-up comparison, (please insert your own dream team here and then assume that he tops it).

Tim's fascination with Americana transcends his medium and he's followed it into what I'm going to refer to as "Radio Drama", though I've never heard them on the radio. He's produced several dramatic readings complete with music, sound effects and actors. He'll be unveiling a film soon - marrying the images from his books to the radio dramas. I've been twisting his arm to participate in a N@B event and hopefully, he'll show the film at one for those who don't catch it at the St. Louis Film Makers' Showcase this summer.

I met Tim about a year ago, several months after reading Abandoned Cars, and have had the opportunity to speak with him several times and let me tell you this - he's one modest fucker. If you've got the opportunity and the time to draw him out, you'll learn some fascinating things about his life and possibly even wrangle an opinion out of him, but he's as unassuming and laid back in person as you'll ever meet.

Lucky for me, he opened up with some kick ass answers to my stock questions.

Your black and white panels are very evocative of film-noir. How would you describe your visual style?

I wouldn't really know how to describe my visual style. It seems that that's the kind of thing for others to decide. When you spend the better part of your life trying to refine the nuances of your work, I think most of the process takes place unconsciously over a long period of time. I often get comparisons to Charles Burns. Although I couldn't think of better company to be in, I don't really understand that comparison. Burns has been influential, and I think he's one of the greatest comic artists out there - and perhaps ever - but I think of his work as much more precise and mechanical than mine could ever be. I almost think of him as a designer more than an illustrator. He rarely, if ever, cross-hatches. His work is highly stylized in a way that I don't believe mine is. If you look at even his early work, there was always a clean precision and designerly sensibility at work there. Mine is definitely more illustrative and humanistic, and by humanistic, I mean you can tell it was drawn by a human hand, where as Burns nearly defies any evidence of the human hand. I think what I have in common with Charles Burns is a concentration on contrasting black and white. You mentioned film noir. Film noir has absolutely been an influence - not only as a visual style, but as a representation of a unique American aesthetic - similar to comic books, in that regard. Sure, you can trace the origins of film noir to German expressionist film, but it blossomed into a full blown style in America right after World War II. I've always thought that that visual approach to depicting a narrative was appropriate to the kinds of stories I like to tell, and also expresses well my general outlook on life. But, getting back to Charles Burns: I think he and I share an interest in that kind of graphic aesthetic, but, from my perspective, the similarity ends there.

If anyone has played a major role in the development of my visual style, it's been Will Eisner's "The Spirit", particularly the work he produced during the latter half of the 1940's. He, too, was influenced by film noir. I'm also very interested in creating a hint of pre-comics code comic illustration style in my work - especially the crime/horror comics of the late 40's and early 50's - because, beyond the fact that I love that stuff, I think it represents something ideological that is still pertinent today and resonates with my own attitude toward life. So the attraction for me to those influences is both visceral and cerebral.

What about your prose style? There seems to be a tension between a downbeat and realistic filter placed over a romantic 'on the drift' sensibility that drives it.

Again:That's a tricky question. It's difficult for me to give a clean-cut description of my prose style. Some writers might be born with complete originality, but for myself - as vulnerable as it makes me feel to admit - I think I'm on one hand, an amalgam of various influences, and on the other, a set of deeply imbedded questions that philosophically motivate me. Or, at least, let's put it this way: I think a young creative person tends to gravitate toward material that somehow speaks to their own developing worldview, and they absorb those voices like a dehydrated man needs water. You feel like you've met a kindred spirit in the words of writers whose work influences you. Of course, your worldview changes and matures with time, but then certain writers leave an indelible mark. Eventually all of these influences become completely absorbed, and you can't really tell who's who anymore. I guess that's the point when you've made them your own. The "whose-who" doesn't matter anymore, because ultimately, they are "you". I think that topic could at least make for a fruitful evening of good conversation and debate: Are we original, or are we a junkyard of our influences? I think that a creative person develops a "style" - both in terms of a visual look and narrative sound - over the course of time and study, and, I think for the best of them, that "style" is constantly evolving. For myself, I'm never quite satisfied with my work, although I know it's getting closer to capturing what I mean to say. But then again, I feel like I'm finding my way to what I want to say through a series of questions that I've posed for myself, both consciously and unconsciously. So it's the questions that drive the work. Rilke said something like "Trust the questions and live, and you'll live your way to the answers". I've always loved that idea. I think it explains everything from style to content to worldview. It explains the whole process of trying to create or understand something. For me, creation is an investigation; an attempt at understanding. I think I write and draw stories in an attempt to understand, rather than understand something first, then attempt to write about it. The process of writing and drawing is for me the process of searching. I've found that comics is the best medium for me to undertake that search. It's the medium that works best for me. But I didn't always know that.

Writers have been much more influential to me than any other creative artists, so I have a very idealized idea of them. When I think of Kerouac or Carver or Dostoyevsky, my heart breaks a little. I genuinely love those guys. I love what they did, I love them for their vulnerabilities.

But I guess I haven't really answered your question yet. You mentioned "a tension between a downbeat and realistic filter placed over a romantic 'on the drift' sensibility'. I think that's a great way to describe my writing style - or maybe it's more of a worldview. I think that there's endless romanticism in American culture - especially here in the midwest. And I love that romanticism. It's not the kind of thing that people think of when they think of the midwest, but it is certainly there. It's in the heart of the American experience, I think. Most of us come from ancestors who came to this country to make a better life for themselves, to forget the past, to build a future, and many of them did so with great expense and unbelievable ruggedness. That, in itself, is extraordinarily romantic. I think that romanticism still exists in us, collectively in our culture. But it's like the cement between the bricks of a building: It's not very noticeable, but it's there, and it's holding everything together.

The downbeat realism I expect is the result of ordinary people in my stories coming to terms with the truths and untruths regarding the myth of the American Dream. The American Dream is like an estranged father. Someone who you deep down love, but realize as you get older that he wasn't quite the great guy you thought he was, and he was a bit of a dodger to boot. Some of his stories were fabrications, and you hate him for it because you might have believed in them whole-heartedly - as I did - only to find out that, at best, those stories were only half-truths and self-agrandizing advertisements. But eventually you come around to love him again, and accept him for his weaknesses. Eventually you come around to appreciate the good and the bad, and perhaps also see that you were a little naive in believing so whole-heartedly. That's sort of how I see it.

How did you come to your medium?

There are a lot of things that I love about comics. I love, for instance, their history - I love the fact that they were once produced in bulk and on-the-cheap, meant for wide distribution to an audience for only ten cents a copy. Obviously those days are long gone, but I love those origins. They speak of both entertainment for the masses, as well as capitalistic quick-buck schemes. Very American. The medium of comics is not intimidating. One doesn't approach comics as they would an art gallery or a work of conventional literature; By that, I mean there isn't what I call an invisible mediator between you and the work of art, constantly reminding you to be on your best behavior because you're in the presence of high culture. In that way, I think the relationship between a comic and it's audience can be very direct and intimate, without the invisible mediator. Although the identity of comics and the medium's relationship to culture is changing, I think there is still evident it's initial pop culture, or low culture, status. For my interests, I like to keep that part of it's history alive. I've never seen myself as a product of high culture, so it's unnatural for me to feel comfortable working in mediums of that stature. Being a product of pop culture -and proudly so, by the way - it feels much more appropriate for me to communicate through mediums of pop culture rather than high culture. After all, I was a fan of Will Eisner long before I was a fan of Michelangelo. When I was growing up, Kitchen Sink Press was reprinting all of the Spirit comics from the 1940's, as well as the EC Crime and Horror comics. I really loved that stuff, and am still grateful to the now defunct publisher for reprinting those comics from the 40's and 50's. So, to answer your question, I came to the medium of comics because, in terms of my own artistic interests, it was a perfect fit. It isn't the only medium I like to work in, but it shares with the others a direct connection to popular culture.

Where did the idea for the "radio dramas" come from?

That's really tough to explain. Working with audio recordings to present a new context for characters is an idea that has evolved for me over several years. Like most things, it came as an intuition more than anything else. I've always played around with recording my own writing in my own voice, but I first started working with recordings and sound seriously with a story I've been working on since I was in my early twenties called "Belligerent Piano". The protagonist, a character named Jackie No-name, is kind of an alter ego for me. Over the course of time, my interest in expanding the breadth of his character and giving him increased texture led me to experiment with sound. I had always written a lot of prose involving the character of Jackie, as well as many of the other characters from the story - prose for which I really had no tangible use in the context of the comic proper. You might say that one of the ways I flesh out a character involves this kind of writing process. Giving literal, recorded voice to those written sketches really resonated for me - the inclusion of the recorded voice added a new dimension to the way a character was presented. It made the character more multi-dimenional, kind of like adding a new piece of evidence to the character's persona.

One of the limitations that really bothers me about comics is the absence of sound. I think noise accounts for a great deal of our understanding of things - it helps complete a picture. I wanted there to be a supplement to the story of Belligerent Piano that helped complete the picture of Jackie, while still leaving room for the picture to be completed in the mind of the viewer. You could think of it as giving someone a bunch of pieces to a puzzle, but having them put the pieces together. In a sense, I think of it as trying to create different levels of reality to a story or character. I think of Jackie as a myth, so, like myths, I wanted there to be a variety of elements giving substance to that myth, but no one piece in particular that tells the whole story completely. I wanted to focus on nuances. The telling of the whole story is left to the imagination of the recipient of the story. Just like the myth of Stagger Lee exists through a handful of newspaper clippings dating back to 1895, a slew of folk, blues, and pop songs, comic book interpretations or "retellings" of the story, etc. To my knowledge, no actual photograph of Lee Shelton - or Stagger Lee - actually exists, but like Bob Dylan said, "he's more real than anything on the boob-tube". So it's that kind of thing I'm messing around with with the audio recordings.

I've expanded the audio recording concept into the short stories I'm now producing for my next book, Folktales - the follow-up to Abandoned Cars. Writing short stories involves a lot of editing. Since I begin all my stories in prose form, there's a lot of writing that gets edited out to meet the requirements of telling a story through words and images. But, for me, the original prose still ha value, so much of that gets used in the audio recordings, and I think it adds nuances to the story that go missing in the comic version, just like elements of nuance are gained in the comic version. They end up complimenting each other - or, at least that's the idea. I plan to have a CD supplement to go with the published book. I call the recordings radio dramas mainly because the story of Belligerent Piano takes place during the era when radio dramas were popular. It's a very rough and event misleading way to describe them, although some of the pieces are specifically meant to feel like old time radio dramas. It would be more accurate to call them sound experiments or something. But, for me, calling them radio dramas just makes sense on some intuitive level.

Another reason why I like calling them radio dramas is because I love radio, in general. It, again, is the result of being raised on pop culture.

By the way, the Belligerent Piano story now appears as a weekly serial in the Riverfront Times, and the beginning of the story can be found in the issues of my self-published, rarely seen comic book, Happy Hour in America.

I heard that you used to record people's conversations for source material or to catch their cadences, can you speak to the influence that has had on your work?

I still record conversations. I try to keep a mini-cassette recorder with me as often as possible. I've got a little microphone that loops through my jacket and fastens to me sleeve. Not just for conversations, but for sounds, in general. Mainly for conversations, though. I started doing that when I was in my early twenties, shortly after college - well, actually, while I was in college, too. But I spent a lot of time after college working odd jobs - bartender, parking lot attendant, gas station cashier, etc. Jobs that put me in contact with people. At each of these jobs, it was always interesting how involved conversations could get, so I started recording them and, with some of them, transcribing them to paper. Now I just download them onto my computer. I also record conversations with people I meet while I'm traveling. I've got a great one from a few years ago when I took a road trip to New Orleans. I had just crossed the Mississippi state line and stopped at the first roadside rest area I could find. I asked the security guard if there were any pay phones, and he went into a very unexpected racist tirade that really set me back. Welcome to the south, I thought. I was really glad I had my mini-cassette recorder with me then. It was an incredible portrait of racism, as told by a security guard, no less.

I really love conversations. I love the way people talk. I've used those conversations endlessly in my stories - or at least aspects of those conversations. It's pretty fascinating how much of a portrait you can get from the way a person speaks. I think it's easy to miss the unique ways in which people speak because, being very visual, we concentrate on the way people look, and, unless their speech mannerisms are very pronounced, it's easy not to notice the uniquenesses. When you play back recordings of people, and the concentration is on the speech patterns, it's really amazing how uniquely we all speak. So, yes, those recordings have been very influential to my stories. I only wish I recorded them more often and was more disciplined in that practice.

What kind of people do you write about? What's the connecting theme in your characters?

The type of characters I was drawn to in Abandoned Cars are ones that tend to be outsiders or alienated in some manner. for the most part, they don't fit into any advertisment idea of the proper American stereotypes. Their credit ratings are probably not so great. They probably don't care much about taking vitamin supplements or being eco-friendly, don't contribute to any charity organizations for tax write-off purposes, or even have health care. A few of them probably have expired license plate tags. If not any of those things, then something else has tarnished their chances at a spotless image in the eyes of upright society. The word "desperate" comes to mind when I think of most of the characters in Abandoned Cars. Or "vulnerable". There are indeed those who, metaphorically speaking, have their shirts tucked-in and who seem invulnerable to criticism. In terms of attaining the mythic "American Dream", they are without blemish: My characters - and the kind of characters I'm interested in - are not those types of people. With a few expections, in my real life, I'm very skeptical of anyone who tries to appear too unblemished or invulnerable. Firstly, it just isn't interesting; secondly, I'm pretty convinced that it's a costuming of some sort. Or maybe it's just that I can't relate to them because I'm too aware of how imperfect my own life has been. I think of my characters as floating through the Twilight Zone of the American Dream, lost in some kind of surreal thrift store of American mythologies and artifacts, which is where my characters all share my own circumstances and perspective on what I call the Great American Mythological Drama. Other than that, I think they're all pretty different from one another.

The type of characters I'm working with is broadening for the next book. I'm writing stories that involve college professors, police officers, wealthy yuppy-types, etc. This isn't happening for any directed reason; it's just kind of happening.

I tended to think of your characters as specifically mid-western, but after what you just said and upon second thought, it might just be my own lense I'm seeing your work through. Are your characters or stories tied significantly to any specific piece of American geography?

I have a hard time with geographical identities, for the most part. Or I think it's a very complicated blend of things that make us who we are. Geography plays a part, but so does socio-economic status and experience, ethnic background, gender, and a million other subtleties that aren't superficially apparent. My point is that speaking in general terms about these things gets tougher the more considerations one has to make in any given circumstance about an individual person's life history. I have a sensitivity about those kinds of things: For instance, I notice very often writers - comic artists included - have tended to jump quickly to general stereotypes regarding a character. In fact, two of my favorite comic artists - Will Eisner and Chester Gould - were terrible when it came to depicting African-Americans, and their biographers tend to stumble over themselves with apologetics and references to the fact that "that's the way things were back then". Personally, I think it was under-analyzed material for those comic artists, and, for me, that fact tarnishes their work. It's like having a grandfather who you love for so many reasons, but he's a bigot and you have to tolerate it. In stories for my next book, I deal with racism, for instance, I use the "N" word, but I do so in a way that is my attempt to bring a kind of truth - however ugly it is - to the fact that our society is as ugly - and even psychotic - as it is beautiful, and maybe it is these polar dualities, and all of the gray areas in between, that makes American culture so remarkable and fascinating.

But I'm getting off the subject. To answer your question, I'd say that my characters are tied significantly to my sense of compassion and empathy. If those characters exist in the midwest, then that's how it goes. I'm from the midwest, and there might be some truth to the idea that you can take the boy out of the midwest, but you can't take the midwest out of the boy. I spent a large part of my twenties and early thirties traveling, living on both coasts, and trying to absorb the differences. But I don't know: Maybe, like you say, the best I can do is see everything through the lens of a midwesterner. Ultimately, I'd like my characters to be linked to the greater country as a whole, not specific to the midwest. But it might be true that all I can write about with any real accuracy is the midwest. At any rate, I don't consciously write to be site-specific. In fact, all I just wrote only came to me now. WHile I'm working on a story, I don't know how much of any of it matters because, for me, writing comes from feeling more than thinking.

Have you been asked to work on anybody else's projects? What's your temperature toward collaborations?

Yes, I've been asked to illustrate a number of different comics and animation projects, but I don't really have any interest in them. I'm not involved in comics for commercial reasons. If I was, it would've been the dumbest career move I ever made. I've done a Bizarro World piece for DC that dealt with the Justice League about five years ago. It was unexpectedly fun drawing Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman - those iconic superheroes that've been around since the beginning of the superhero genre. But I did it for the money, and I've never had a fascination with superheroes. I made my living for years as a freelance illustrator, right up to the publication of Abandoned Cars. I used to really enjoy illustrating, too, but with the publication of Abandoned Cars, something really profound happened to me. I felt like finally I'd finally created something that I was genuinely proud of in a way that I've never been proud of anything in quite the same way. It brought all of my interests in writing and drawing and communicating into sharp focus, and sort of showed me the path I should be on. Although I'm aware of the book's flaws, there's so much of how and what I want to communicate in it, everything else feels like a waste of time - and, the older I get (I'm going to be 40 next year), the more I think my time is the only thing I have that really matters in this life. Although I know that sounds absurd, Abandoned Cars helped me realize without question how I want to fill the majority of my creative time. So, no, I'm not interested in working on any material that isn't my own. There's one exception that involves a project I'm working on with a close friend, but I think that project connects very definitely with the other work I'm doing, and will find it's way into the next book. Comics is an extremely laborious practice: From concepting a story, to writing it, to scripting it, to working out panel breakdowns, and finally to inking it, the whole process takes a very, very long time. Even if a collaboration came along that was twice as strong as anything I could do on my own, it could never matter to me as much as a piece of work that was completely my own work. I just wouldn't have my heart in it the same way, ever. So why waste my time? Nothing, no amount of money, is worth it to me (much to my wife's chagrin). And I say these things with all humility. I certainly don't think that I'm God's gift to anything. I'm not a Prima Donna. I just feel that at some point in a creative person's life, they have to decide what matters the most, and for better or worse, I've decided that it's what I produce as an individual that will be the driving force in my life, even if I fail. There are so many things that come along causing gray areas - especially when money is concerned - the opportunity to make money. Whenever those kinds of opportunities arise, I try to imagine what Jack Kerouac would do, and it helps me answer some of those dilemmas. I imagine Charlie Parker hocking his good saxophone for a lousier one. I try to imagine what my idols would do. Sadly, most of my idols were maniacs, but then again maybe my own lunacy is what attracts me to those maniacs.


Kelly said...

We're going to have a signing/film premier with Tim at Subterranean on Fri, Aug 6. 7pm. He'll be with Joe Meno who'll be signing Demons in the Spring.

Nate Flexer said...

Thanks, Jed, for the interview. Just ordered me a copy of Abandoned Cars. Damn, I really dig that artwork.

jedidiah ayres said...

Thanks for the info Kelly - Joe Meno again? Nice... oh yeah, Tim's okay as well

Nate - Maybe he can do your next cover...