Patrick McEown is a renaissance man, a learned man, whose talent is abundant in both line work and storytelling. Cartoonist, storyboard artist, teacher -- someone who's been in the comics scene since the '80s. His latest project is "Hair Shirt," on sale now from SelfMadeHero.
The book is a whip crack to the senses, a picturesque black cloud in an otherwise blue sky. McEown evokes these feelings because he's managed to take the idea of wearing a penitent garment, unravel it, and re-knit it into a psychological, visceral feeling that we're all much too familiar with, and he's made a beautiful piece of art in the process. McEown sat down with CBR News and spoke about his book, his background and, naturally, hair shirts.
CBR News: Patrick, I had never heard of the term "hair shirt," but wow, those things actually exist. What's the idea behind the name, and how does it play to the story at hand in "Hair Shirt?"
Patrick McEown: I first encountered the... concept, I guess, in the song of the same name by the Birthday Party (here, in their earlier incarnation as the Boys Next Door -- music nerds, you are welcome) around the mid-'80s. The song doesn't explain what it is, but it conjured a pretty vivid impression that lingered in the back of my mind for years. Eventually, it started to take form in sketches and unpublished story fragments, but at that point its character was more like a cancerous growth or an infestation than a penitent garment.
Over time, through various sources, I pieced together a clearer picture of what a hair shirt was and its actual purpose, but I was less interested in its specific origins than its metaphorical possibilities. So while the hair shirt's monastic connotations are appropriate, I don't feel strictly beholden to its alignment with Christian notions of shame, or limited to its role in habitual patterns of self-mortification, but I like the paradox it offers. In scourging the body, attempting to negate "profane" desire, the hair shirt makes the body the focal point and turns pain into an insidious kind of righteous pleasure. But its appeal as a narrative device is more psychological than physical. Or at least not as over determined in its fetishism as, say, S&M can be, but something slippery and unsettling that doesn't fit into a simple dichotomy. It's an extension of John's self-loathing, sure, but connected to deeper currents in human experience, to something ineffable, yet still visceral. It's an unresolved tension, not taut like a wire, but churning like sewage.
Coinciding with the book's production, I actually commissioned a friend to knit a hair shirt as part of my master's thesis exhibition (scroll down to see images). It's about 20 feet long with 15-foot arms and fitted with an armature to hang from the ceiling like a creepy/goofy puppet. It's sort of a furry patchwork lamprey with arms. As it so happens, the hair shirt's knitter is a devout Christian and she jokingly likened the process of making it to an act of purgation or exorcism, which really appealed to me, even though I'm not religious in any way. I think she even described it as a cascade of hairy effluvium, which is dead on.
The story's great, by the way -- everything from the lettering to the pacing to the beats -- it's all there. How long was the story in gestation?
Thanks, it took about a year to write and draw, concurrent with obligations to teaching and graduate studies, but portions of "Hair Shirt" have been simmering for years on the back burner waiting for missing ingredients before the distillation process could fully proceed. Elements were drawn from a number of previous projects, including a short lived children's comic strip I created for Disney Adventures called "Luna Park" and a story called "Queen of Darkness" that appeared in the Dark Horse "Book of the Dead."
Let's talk about John, one of the main characters in the book. His story could be, well, anybody's story: reckless love and an attempt to rekindle said love. How much of his life is your life?
A lot of it, indirectly, some of it directly, but still condensed and conflated with the experiences of people close to me, the way most fiction is. Much of it is heightened for the sake of drama, of course. Trying to relate feelings and impressions from over a twenty-year span, many of which can't effectively be put into words or pictures in any literal sense, means relying on implication and affect to simulate the experience for the reader rather than simply describing or explaining it.
So attributing exactly what happened to whom, and when, wouldn't really help the reader understand why any better, even if it might give some insight into the process of assembling the story. It's probably understood that if John is me, he's an exaggerated version of me. I'm not nearly that miserable all the time. He personifies adolescent angst in a way I hope I'm not capable of.
In that same vein, which character besides John do you relate to? And why that person?
All of them. They're all aspects of me, to some degree, for better or worse. The way we internalize other people's behavior and project it back out onto the world is part of what I was exploring in the story. Closed systems and feedback loops. Interestingly, in the response I've had so far, the character who's most often overlooked in this equation is Shazia. I've described her on a couple of occasions as the book's center of gravity. She's the person the other two try to objectify and mediate their fears and desires through in their struggle with each other. As an author I think I'm sort of entreating the reader to do something similar, with the understanding that Shazia's an unwilling focal point in the drama, but not passive, so any projected longing will fall short of fulfillment. She attracts and resists John and Naomi's depredations, but how far that effect extends to a given reader remains an open question.
You wrote, drew and lettered "Hair Shirt," but it was colored by Liz Artinan. How was she chosen for the book?
It's actually Artinian, but I failed to catch the spelling error in the English edition before it went to press. "Sorry, Liz!" he says, chagrinned.
I'd been casting about for someone to tackle the color or help me with it for over a year. Liz and I both work on "The Venture Bros." and [creator] Chris McCulloch pointed me in her direction. The Ventures were on production hiatus for a few months and Liz is like some kind of color WIZARD, so she was able to turn the entire thing around on a really tight schedule. OUTSTANDING.
She did the lion's share of the color, and came up with a lot of the best solutions, but there was pretty intensive consultation, back and forth, during the process. I did some of the coloring early on and provided a few templates/palettes for particular scenes or chapters that Liz then improved upon dramatically. Some of the combinations I proposed were actually based on backgrounds she'd done for "The Venture Bros.," in fact, so she deserves credit for inspiration as well as execution! At a certain point it became clear there were too many cooks, so I just stood back and watched the magic happen. Her facility is incredible.
Color became a more crucial component in the storytelling as the book developed, especially when it came to transitions between interior and exterior, whether that meant states of mind or actual settings. So making sure the color sequencing from scene to scene was thoroughly balanced across the whole story arc was paramount. There was a lot of deliberation about how the chapters should compliment and/or contrast with each other, and how the shifting palettes help to drive the narrative. It's really hard to imagine how it would have come together without Liz.
I colored the cover, though! I'm not totally incompetent!
Your art is a little unlike anything I've seen. Messy, beautiful, simple. If I had to describe it further, I would say it's a softer, maybe looser Robert Crumb, but that's not right. Who are your influences, Patrick?
Sure, Crumb's in there somewhere, but in a really oblique and diffuse way. In gaining fluency with the medium, you end up digesting parts of so many peoples' moves over the years that they become indistinguishable from your own repertoire. I'd be hard pressed to parse what came from where in any given panel.
The nervous, scratchy line comes naturally, but it's not always well suited to every project. It's been present in my work as far back as the '80s but this was the first opportunity I've had to put it to the test on something substantial.
In more general terms, I guess there's some of the gestural flourish you see in European comics, rather than the stolid clarity of form that still seems so prominent in North America (i.e. Burns, Ware, Clowes), even in more "expressive" quarters. There's definitely some Asian influence in "Hair Shirt," too, but I couldn't pinpoint it because it's more of a broad sensibility than a specific style that I'm responding to. The overall effect is murky, but intentionally so. Blurred distinctions and unstable perspectives are some of the book's central themes. That said, the story and the drawing informed each other, and the style emerged out of that exchange more than some preconceived idea of how it should look.
Of course, I certainly pay attention to other cartoonists and still covet their particular strengths, but when I'm in the thick of a project, there's usually too much momentum for me to be consciously referring to a lexicon of influence. I'm concerned with how tonality, texture, contrast, character of the line, gesture, etc., serve the story, rather than this person's style or another's. Inevitably it takes on a life of its own and unfolds pretty organically, but there are endless revisions. It's trial and error.
You've worked with companies like Dark Horse in the past. What's been some of the noticeable differences in working with them and working with a publisher like SelfMadeHero?
Well, I worked for Dark Horse over a long period of time in a variety of capacities so it's hard to compare with my place in SelfMadeHero's line-up, which is still a comparatively recent development. "Hair Shirt" was originally commissioned by Gallimard-Jeunesse for the European market, so all the editorial consultation during the book's gestation was with Thierry Laroche and Joann Sfar at Gallimard's Bayou imprint. SelfMadeHero licensed the book for its initial English release in the UK, which has now been picked up by Abrams in North America. Our working relationship has been centered on promotion rather than creation, thus far, but they've been very dedicated to that and have done a great job. I'm grateful to them for taking a chance on the project.
You have experience as a storyboard artist, namely with "Batman Beyond" and "The Venture Bros." What tricks or tools have you brought over from storyboarding to comics?
Storyboarding encouraged a tendency toward cinematic storytelling that was already present in my work. Accentuating the illusion of continuous, volumetric spaces through montage, along with a higher degree of consistency in direction when staging action, certainly spilled over into "Hair Shirt." But neither of these were undertaken simply for their own sake. That the sense of depth and staging should be significant to the narrative was an important consideration.
I like the idea that these spaces can open up to you, draw you in deeper, so when they don't, it's meaningful. You're denied something. Framing is an important component in that respect as well. What's revealed, what's hidden? Why? Sometimes you want the spaces to have a depth of character and not to just provide a backdrop. Giving an imaginary space that kind of dimension by moving characters through it in a continuous fashion is one way to achieve that. Of course, a lot of stories don't require that kind of deep space. In many cases it's more about how things move across the surface of the page to generate narrative momentum.
Prior to storyboarding, I'd begun playing around with a slightly different kind of narrative space that had more to do with lateral movement across the page ("Wanted Man" in "DHP" #130, "1998," and "No Escape" in "Weasel" #1, 1999) than an illusionistic, diegetic space. Animation took me away from that line of inquiry for a while, but I fully expect to reintegrate those dropped threads into future projects. Not sure how, yet. Again, that's trial and error.
According to your bio, you don't get around to reading too many comics nowadays, but which ones are you reading? And which would you recommend to your students?
Things have changed since the bio was written, but either way, that would be still be a long list and I can cover more territory by naming publishing houses. In addition to my own publishers, my personal preferences lean toward folks like Picturebox, Drawn and Quarterly, Pantheon, Fantagraphics Books, Uncivilized Books, Nobrow, Koyama Press, Kus, l'Association, l'Oie de Cravan, La Pastèque, and a number of other independents.
With my students, we cover the whole gamut, from precedents in other narrative forms back to prehistory, through the crucible of newspaper comics at the turn of the 19th century and then the birth of superheroes, to the undergrounds and independents, and finally into the plurality of voices in the current landscape. I teach in Montreal so a proportion of my students are more familiar with Bande Dessinée (and Manga, for that matter) than English-language comics.
Overall, in terms of variety and richness, I'm of the opinion that contemporary independents offer greater diversity and a more deeply considered engagement with the medium in terms of both form and content. Which is not to say there aren't a lot of thoughtful cartoonists working more comfortably within genre conventions, but as receptive as the mass market has become to more complex material, I think the bottom line still tends to unduly influence and limit the form it takes.
Of course, I speak as someone whose work is steeped in genre. "Hair Shirt" is sort of a combination of Roman Noir and more straightforward melodrama. It's gently pushing at the edges of those forms, maybe even bulging at the seams, but in order to elicit a sense of instability in the reader even remotely similar to that of the characters, it helps to have a stable, familiar platform to slowly tilt until they lose their footing.
"Hair Shirt" by Patrick McEown © SelfMadeHero, 2013, is on sale now.