A few weeks ago, my friend and neighbor, and fellow Publishing Genius writer/drawer/dry humorist, Edward Mullany was good enough to sit with me beside my Christmas tree. Being polite and neighborly, he brought a bottle of wine, and patiently answered my questions.
JW: How does your artwork, your writing and drawing, function as a meditation for your reader? I can imagine how your creative process is a meditative pursuit, but would you say that the process of reading or looking at your work is intended as a meditation as well?
EM: Recently, you and I discussed Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks, Two Talks and you said that it was the remarkably quotidian nature of those pieces that appealed to you. Some of the poems I write are quotidian like that, in that they don’t have a dramatic plot but they’re still compelling. That lends itself to a meditative mood in a reader or viewer. Good paintings, still lifes, do that. They invite contemplation. There’s not much going on but you’re still interested in it, and that’s the mood that part of me wants to evoke in the audience.
JW: What about the function of repetition and practice in your work, the way you repeat certain tropes, sometimes with variations?
EM: I’m always repeating myself thematically as well as formally, the way something looks, and even the lengths of stories. There’s a lot of violence in the stuff that I draw and the stuff that I write.
JW: In your comic strips, I can see it in the sets you’ve created, the physical spaces and the characters that you go back to repeatedly. We see that telephone again and again!
EM: The telephones became really interesting to me. I kept wanting to do them over and over as variations. I did five or six or seven drawings of the telephones, some where there’s a telephone, some where there’s two telephones, one where there’s a person on the telephone, another one where the person is just sitting there, and it’s really interesting for me to look at, because there’s nothing happening but it seems like there’s a lot in it. I don’t know if other people get that. But it brings me back. My mind is working around something, and I let it. Repetition interests me as an effect in the same way that suspense can have an effect or a romantic moment can have an effect or a quarrel can have an effect. Repetition has no quality in itself but it develops quality in mere accumulation. You would think that repetition might bore you in art, but it only bores in real life. In art, it is ordered in a very intentional way by the person who is making it. The artist has a stage and he’s arranging the repetition.
JW: The reader then wants to pay attention to why you’re repeating images and where the slight variations are. Like Viktor Shlovksy explaining defamiliarization by saying he never noticed a sign that he walked by every day until the day it was broken. The compactness of your pieces sets up this feeling of repetition more than the specific elements within each one. Reading one of your books creates this expectation of a “move” in each piece. The trope is always different, but it’s reliably present. As the reader you look for that pay-off. It’s similar to the pleasure you get from reading a joke book (but without the punch line).
EM: But maybe they do have something in common with punch lines. They don’t make you laugh in the same way but there’s a similarity in the telling of a joke and the telling of a short story.
JW: Your comics are built on various levels of repetition, including featuring the lovable goths, Rachel and Ben. Comics are a fairly new expression for you, but have become your primary undertaking recently. How did this happen?
EM: Rachel and Ben began as a logo for a project that my wife wants to develop. [Details of secret goth project deleted.] I drew Ben, the tall Edward Scissorhands-looking guy, first, and then I drew Rachel, and as soon as I did, I said, “Oh, I love these. I should do a whole comic strip with them.” I named them and names are important. It gave them a context and a personality, even though the names are so ordinary. That’s the humor. It established them as high school goth kids. Ben is not as smart as Rachel. Rachel is intelligent, but she’s also a teenager. It began with conversations between them, but then I drew a tree with a leaf falling and I knew there should be backgrounds to give a whole new complexity to the story. Then I drew suburban homes, which I had used before. Then I drew a beach scene and a cityscape with a pizza joint (Pizza Pete’s from my old neighborhood on the Upper West Side) and brownstones. Finally, I drew a high school with lockers and a clock. Using Photoshop helps you to use repetition as an effect. I learned that after I drew a balloon for Rachel. Using copy and paste, I made a whole bunch of balloons, until they filled up the whole screen and she disappeared. That was exciting. I did it every day for three weeks. I may go back to it.
JW: Do you have any plans to do non-Rachel and Ben comics?
EM: I’m working on text-based comics too. I started that a year-and-a-half ago. I stopped working on it for a while because it’s horizontal nature made it appear too small on Tumblr. I like working on both projects, but I really want to focus on more Rachel and Ben pieces. The text-based comics are challenging and fun. It’s interesting to make text function as an adequate substitute for an image. But I love doing Rachel and Ben, so I hope I will make comics with them for a long time. My problem is that I run out of steam on a particular project pretty quickly.
JW: Would you consider creating a sustained narrative with Rachel and Ben?
EM: They’ve expanded from three to ten panels and I feel that they could definitely go longer. I could imagine more narrative continuity between episodes. They already have an associative continuity. One of my limitations is that I’m not confident in drawing my characters in different positions, because of my drawing training. I vary the backgrounds and the proportions of the characters, but not their physical behavior. (I’ve drawn Rachel’s head in profile but I’m not happy enough with it to use it.)
JW: Your comics certainly benefit from the constraints of the limited pieces that you give yourself. The humor and tragedy are results of the presence of a few carefully selected elements. You’ve created a diorama and game pieces to tell stories with.
EM: You get to know your constraints and limitations as you continue to work on a project. You learn what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. And as long as you use both, you will make interesting stuff.
JW: You’re a student of English literature and a poet. So what brought you to drawing?
EM: I started drawing in the winter of 2009. Anjali [Edward’s wife] and I had moved to New York that summer, and for a semester I adjuncted at the College of Staten Island and I didn’t like it so I quit. Until I got a job teaching kids English in Chinatown a few months later, I drew. After Christmas, I didn’t know what to do so I walked around the city with a camera taking pictures, which made me want to create something visual. I made a book of collage. It was time consuming. It was forty pages of a desert landscape with a crow flying across it. Then I got some canvasses and started paintings. And then I got on my computer and started using Paintbrush and then Photoshop. I don’t feel that I’m a writer more than a drawer. I may be better trained as a writer because I’ve been doing it longer, but I love visual work just as much and it’s just as much a part of what I’m doing. The stuff that I write, in its starkness and simplicity, is an image. It’s not surprising to me that I like drawing so much.
JW: Your work has become increasingly visual. Almost everything now involves some drawn element.
EM: Since I finished my last book, all my work has been image-based.
JW: Once you become accustomed to adding images, it’s hard to stop. It becomes impossible to conceive of a work that doesn’t include them.
A copy of The Cartoons of Flannery O’Connor sat on the table between us. Edward and I learned that we had both received the book as a gift recently.
JW: Flannery O’Connor was a writer who drew. She was also a Catholic. Are you a Catholic?
EM: Yes. I feel like I should say something about that. I think of myself as a Catholic, not a lapsed Catholic. Most people who grow up with a religious background, at some point in their late teenage years, they go through a point when they question their faith, and perhaps I wasn’t a Catholic for a few years. But for most of my adult life I’ve been a Catholic because I believe in the faith. But there are many complications in that. Do I fulfill all the obligations that a Catholic ought to fulfill? No, but I believe in the traditions of the faith and the rituals of the Catholic Church. So that might be the biggest influence on my life. It’s a hard question to answer because you don’t answer it much.
JW: I don’t know if I’ve ever asked it of someone.
EM: You don’t have a chance to think about your answer much or hear yourself saying it. How do you think about it?
JW: I’ve never seen faith as an issue that holds up to verbal definitions. Similar to you, the Catholic faith, in many ways, dictates the way I try to live. It’s not that I have a particular chauvinism for an identity, but I can confidently say that it is the system that I most identify with and that I want to live by. So, if I were asked the question, the easy answer is ‘yes,’ although it’s almost a useless answer on its own.
EM: You feel like you must say more.
JW: Because, on its own it doesn’t mean anything. I think we assume that in the milieu that you and I live in there are so many prejudices surrounding this faith, that people automatically misconstrue what that affirmation means. It’s an easily dismissed thing that, in our world, there’s not often complicated discussion about. But assuming those prejudices might not be fair.
EM: You feel like you have to explain yourself.
JW: Let’s talk about Catholicism and art. My own passion for text and interpretations of the text is certainly driven by Catholicism, a non-fundamentalist faith, and a Jesuit education (as we both have). I also think it’s not a coincidence that both of us have an interest in the visual as Catholics, practicing a religion in which the image looms so large. Profanity is associated with idolatry, which is created by the visual. (This focus on image is one of the very things that the Protestant Reformation was responding to.) How does this inform your work?
EM: Flannery O’Connor said it better than I could. She says, in “Writing Short Stories”, from Mystery and Manners, “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” A tendency, when you’re trying to learn how to write, is that you can become didactic, and your beliefs become apparent on the page, and fiction doesn’t work that way. Or shouldn’t, I don’t think. Your beliefs should filter or shape what you write, but they can’t be what you write. Later in that same book, O’Connor describes the old Italian story about St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. The story goes that St. Francis converted this wolf, and O’Connor mentions this story to illustrate the idea that a wolf will always be wolf, no matter how he might behave, in the same way that a novelist is a novelist, first and foremost, no matter his beliefs. The point, I think, is that a writer must be true to her nature as a writer, no matter what her beliefs are. And a writer’s job is to avoid cliche and to get the details right. Gertrude Stein said that we have to learn to see what we’re looking at, not what we think we remember we saw. She always said this is something that painters can teach writers. A writer, or an artist, has to be true to the reality of the world, in all of its profanity and its mundaneness. You don’t write what you want the world to be. But that doesn’t mean that your faith, if you’re a person of faith, has no value or effect on your technique. Faith shapes the context. I can write exactly what I’m seeing if I train my eye well enough, but the story and the vision and the way things move are only interesting because of what I believe and my unique way of expressing that, because of my personality and my memory and my experience. All of those things shape the pure technique behind it. Technique is important, but if you don’t know what your vision is then the result is going to be nothing. Just water. Or just a mirror of reality that doesn’t have any personality.
JW: Your vision informs your faith. That’s an idea that’s often difficult for people, with and without faith, to understand. Religion is often seen as an idea that comes through art either as obvious worship or didactic teaching.
EM: And it often does. But when the art is good, it doesn’t.
JW: One last thing. Tell me about one or two artists or works of art that weigh heavily on you while you’re working that might surprise me.
EM: Who wouldn’t surprise you?
JW: O’Connor or Thomas Merton.
EM: Merton made me feel a lot better about being a person.
JW: Who else?
EM: Krzystof Kieślowski’s movies.
JW: I watched White in the back of the car while you drove from Norfolk to Charlotte for seven hours in the middle of night. Thanks for doing that.
EM: The silences in his movies affect me. I started watching his movies around the time I began to write. Any writer that is good with silence or absence is with me in some way. Mark Strand, Charles Simic. I don’t know, all the ones you would guess. The way that I think, write, and draw owes a lot to Emily Dickinson, Shirley Jackson, Gary Larson, and Edward Hopper, as well. One you might not expect is Jack Kerouac. One of my favorite things Kerouac said was in a TV interview with William F. Buckley Jr., a year before Kerouac died. He was in a panel interview with two other dudes, and he was a little drunk, but at some point he said with conviction, to make a point, “I believe in order, tenderness and piety.”