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Koren Shadmi grew up in Israel, where he published two books as a teenager and served as a graphic designer and illustrator in the Israeli Defense Forces. Shadmi then studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Still living in New York, Shadmi works primarily as an illustrator, but has published multiple books in France, but Villard Books has just released a new English-language collection of his short comics, “In the Flesh.”
All the stories in the collection revolve around relationships, but this is not a book of slice-of-life stories. The tales found in “In The Flesh” often involve surrealist imagery, physical and psychological transformation, and graphic experimentation. Shadmi is far too experienced for the book to be called a debut, but it’s a striking volume that manages to present a radically different world even as the internal life of its characters is often uncomfortably familiar.
Koren was kind enough to take some time out to talk with CBR News about “In The Flesh.”
CBR: Have you always been interested in cartooning?
Koren Shadmi: I started getting into cartooning around the age of 9, when I joined a comics course. Before that, I just remember really being into drawing. Comics were pretty scarce when I was growing up in Israel, but now it’s a lot easier to get a comic book. I think the first comics I was reading were Asterix books.
You've been working as a professional illustrator and cartoonist for years now. How has your work changed since you started as a teenager?
When I was a teenager, I published two books, one was a superhero farce and the other was a book of comics for kids, so my work was more mainstream oriented then. I was following on the footsteps of my teacher back then, whose work I admired. Over time, though, I started making stories for myself and being less interested in pre-defined genres in comics. I started making sci-fi/horror comics that were more allegoric and psychological. Eventually, I abandoned the sci-fi bit and started working on stories that were more set in our world - but always with some sort of twist.
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Were you involved in the Israeli comics scene?
Somewhat, I did some comics for the big underground magazine of the early ‘90s (and probably the first one) called “Perversions of Penguins.” I also participated in the first Israeli comics convention. It was a time when the comics world was really starting to bloom there.
In the stories presented in “In The Flesh,” you avoid both realism and politics. Was that intentional?
I do try to avoid politics because I think they are their own world. I feel like I'm not enough of an expert on politics to have my say - I also think that politics put a mark on things, and set them in a certain time and place, I would rather my stories existed somewhere less defined.
Realism - I'm not so sure I avoid it, I deal with very real things - post breakup pain, haunting memories about the ex, dead-end jobs and humiliation. I think that the approach might not be realistic but the subject matter is. There's no warriors and busty princess characters, or even aliens - so I would say overall on the comic book scale it's pretty high on realism. One the first facts of existence is pain. Pain is a big part of reality, which again brings me to the point that there is quite a bit of realism underneath those stories.
For all the pain and loss, there's not much death in “In The Flesh.” Suffering and pain, yes, but not death. Were you conscious of that?
Someone actually mentioned to me that he had thought a lot of the stories seem to link love and sex with death. There's one character who dies in the book - Grandpa Minolta - he explodes with the film footage of his teenage granddaughter. Other places in the book, death is not literal but it's insinuated - Antoinette is holding her head - she's sort of a living/dead. I try to avoid killing off characters, I think people turn to murder way too easily in stories and it's become sort of a cliché way to squeeze out more drama. I try to find other ways that maybe just hint towards death.
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That’s an interesting observation, that love and sex are linked with death, because except for Grandpa Minolta, I never thought of the other characters as dead, just transformed. Maybe that’s just a matter of individual interpretation.
Yeah, the stories are somewhat open to interpretation, some things are just hinted rather then spelled out. Sometimes death is only hinted. For instance, in “Radioactive Girlfriend,” it's obvious that if he keeps seeing the girl he will ultimately die, he loses his hair and becomes sick from the radiation. Luckily she is kind enough to dump him.
All the stories of “In The Flesh” are about relationships. Was that conscious?
Of course, this is the main premise of the book and what binds it together. I specifically picked the stories that dealt with relationships. It’s important when you deal with short stories that they have similar themes, otherwise it doesn't feel like a coherent book. There were other stories that were dealing with various subject matters but they were excluded.
A lot of the stories seem to be dominated by a single surreal image - the couple making love with bags over their heads, the headless woman carrying her head, the grandfather with the head of a camera. For you, does the story begin with the image and then uncovering the story around it?
Sometimes it does. I wish there was one way or approach of writing a story, but it's pretty inconsistent. I think that a lot of times I search around for a good visual metaphor to say what I want to say. Sometimes it just pops up, sometimes I need to labour on it for quite awhile till a good story is ready to go.
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Surrealism is a word that gets tossed around a lot. What specifically does it means to you and what about it do you find meaningful?
What I like is the tremendous freedom that you have to use surrealist elements in comics. If it was a movie about a beheaded girl, I would need a whole set of people doing special effects. But in comics, it can be done fairly easily. Also, I deal with a lot of subconscious material so surrealism really lends itself to dealing with that.
The story "Radioactive Girlfriend" plays with a lot of comics conventions. Was that intentional?
Yes, I grew up reading superhero and fantasy comics and it's something that I still find fun to deal with. I like to approach it from a different angle - where reality breaks into the fantasy world of comics. Being dumped by a girl is no fun, but how about putting an A-bomb in the background and tossing in some superpowers? I'm really not mocking this world but quoting, it's a big part of my personal history.
In “Cruelty,” the physical look of the comic really managed to perfectly convey the characters’ relationship, or lack thereof. Did you conceive of the story in this fashion?
It started from an Idea of telling a back-story in an irregular manner. There are gutters between panels, so I figured why not have a story be told inside window frames, the displacement between the memories of the girl and the actual guy in the now help stress the fact that the relationship is over and/or was flawed. I also wanted to experiment with having three layers of narrative going on at the same time. I wasn't sure if it would work but most people manage to follow.
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Etgar Keret has a lot of short stories which seem very unrealistic but play out emotionally in a very realistic way, similarly to what you do in a lot of your stories.
I love Etgar Keret's work. I spoke with him a few times in Israel, he's a really friendly guy. I read one of his books while being in basic training in the Israeli Army. It really touched me and I think maybe influenced as well. He manages to find really strange surreal ways to dealing with conventional stories and also relationship anecdotes.
You've lived in the United States for a while now, do you think of the stories in the book as set in any specific place?
The U.S. I don't like to call it off but they are all set in Brooklyn, I could point out quite a few specific locations, and I also use reference shots sometimes. McCarren Park, Greenpoint and Park Slope are all there.
Who are the cartoonists you follow and enjoy?
My American list isn't too original: Crumb, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes. And from outside the States, I really like the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Suehiro Mauro, Moebius and Blutch. And also Dave Cooper - he's an all time favorite.