David Heatley a sorti l’un des 4 ou 5 livres les plus enthousiasmants cette année ; un roman graphique éclaté et autobiographique, paru sous le titre de « J’ai le cerveau sens dessus dessous ». Il a répondu à mes questions par mail. Voici l’intégralité de notre échange.
How and when did you start drawing and writing comics ? Which comics did you read as a kid that were an influence ?
I’ve pretty much always had the urge to draw my version of whatever it was I was reading since I was a kid. So at first, in early childhood, it was my own picture books and my version of Peter and the Wolf. Then as a teenager it was Lord of the Rings, Spiderman and Wolverine. Then Mad magazine (not the good, early Harvery Kurtzman Mad, unfortunately). And in my 20s it was « alternative » American autobiographical comics, which had an early flowering in the 60s (with Justin Green and Aline Kominsky Crumb) and then a renaissance in the 90s. It was during the 90s that I started reading comics being published by Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics and began doing my own hackneyed version of relationship stories, and personal history narratives. I’ve stuck with it long enough to have found my own voice, but it took about 10 years to get to the artistic terrain I find myself in these days.
How did you work on your book ? Parts of it were published beforehand, but at which point did you come up with the whole concept ?
It took about 5 years from when I first started on the earliest strips until the book’s completion. I chipped away at it a little at a time. I tried my best to listen for what needed to be included and not force anything. Editing and arranging the book continued up until right before it went to print.
You draw your dreams : what makes you do it ? how do you proceed when to try to recall your dreams?
I was inspired by the dream comics of Julie Doucet and a dream-based strip by Dan Clowes called « Nature Boy. » I later discovered Brad Johnson’s work, which operates under a similar, hazy dream logic. When I decided to take the comics I was making more seriously, I realized that all the best comics I was reading had a solid architecture of good storytelling underneath the art – the best cartoonists are always primarily writers and use their art in the service of their narratives. When I first started out, I knew nothing about writing fiction, but I did have almost ten years worth of journals dating back to my teen years. At least I knew how to do that! Once I started reading my journals with the intention of making them into comics, the dreams really stuck out to me. They were spectacularly disturbing, symbol-ridden and deeply personal. They were a synthesis of all that I was thinking about and longing for and they were already written. All I needed to do was illustrate them. I’ve probably done about 30 of my dreams at this point, some of which have made it into « My Brain… »
What part of fiction is there in your work ?
It’s all real. Even the dreams are all real dream fragments. I might have chopped off a part of the dream to give it a neater ending, but nothing is made up for the sake of narrative. I have a long fiction story in the works which will come out a few years from now.
About the race part of the book : what made you want to work on that area of your life ?
I was born white in America, so I have racism in me. It didn’t help that I was beat up by a group of black kids at my first pre-school. But I would have had most of these thoughts and feelings anyway. I’ve been conditioned. I knew I wanted to do a strip about race. Just like I realized how unique my dreams were and what a great subject they’d be for art, I had a similar appreciation for my how racially integrated my childhood was. I grew up and went to public school in a town with a large black population. I also went to a religious sleep-away camp with kids from all over New Jersey, including a large group from the inner cities of Newark and South Orange. When I was in high school, a black kid was shot by a white cop in my town. There were riots in the street. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton came and held rallies. This isn’t the average suburban white kid’s experience. So I knew there was lots to explore there. I also knew that it would be pretty shocking if I spoke as candidly about race as I do about sex in my book. White people seem to be either cagey about discussing race at all or are cavalier and oblivious about their racism. There’s a lot of fear about being misperceived. I’m not really afraid of that. As I quote Malcolm X (who is one of my heroes) in the beginning of the strip, « I’m for truth no matter who tells it. » I’d be thrilled to read an honest account of what it was like to grow up black in my town (Mike Kelly does his best to tell some of that story in « Color Lines »). I can only write what I know, which is what it was like to be white in that town, and everywhere else I’ve lived. I’d say for every black character that might fulfill a stereotypes, there’s at least one immediately following who is the opposite. Many of these characters were close friends of mine, not people observed on the surface, so there’s a lot of complexity there. Ultimately, I think my thesis for the piece goes something like, « If I group all the black people I’ve ever known into one comic strip, can I make any generalization about them all? » And the answer is no.
why did you include hip-hop records reviews ?
While making notes, I realized I wanted to include the music I was listening to. Hip hop, for me, is one of the most miraculous art movements that’s ever existed. As Mos Def says, you take some teenagers from the projects in the Bronx, who aren’t even supposed to have one good idea, and they come up with breakdancing and rapping and graffiti—all of which are now multi-billion dollar industries. Hip hop was and still is tremendously important and inspiring to me. I wanted to honor the music I was listening to by including it. Some of the record « reviews » in there are really about the experience of hearing the music for the first time. How the child heard it. And later as I grow up in the strip, I start getting more critical in my taste and appreciation, so the reviews get a little more complex. De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest altered my consciousness forever. They’re all heroes to me. And they hit my town like an atom bomb when their albums dropped. The excitement was palpable. It was a powerful experience for me to own how strongly these records influenced me and to honor that I might have something to say about them—to contribute to the dialogue, not just passively consume or co-opt this stuff.
Where does the need to draw your family history come from ?
It probably started out as some kind of longing to finally have my say—to tell the truth of what happened in my family growing up as I saw it, without any sugar coating. Some of my earliest work has that kind of angry, « let’s settle the score » edge to it. But as I drew each story for the book, I was surprised by how much compassion for my family I began to feel, even over events that I might have considered « traumatic » at one point in my life. That was especially the case as I looked back a few generations and could see my great grandfathers struggling to keep it together and failing miserably.
As a writer, you often imagine an ideal reader who has all the time in the world for you, who would gladly sit and listen to everything you want to tell them. This has to be tempered by the editor side, who tries to make sure it’s entertaining and not just solipsistic.
About your drawing style : it reminds me of a cross between Gary Panter and Chris Ware : how familiar are you with their work ?
Without a doubt, the 3 artists whose work I revisit most often are Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and Gary Panter. Especially Chris though. He’s done more to expand the graphic possibilities of the comics than anyone in the the medium’s history (even more than Crumb, in my opinion). But there are plenty of others too. Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ is still the highest achievement in comic book form. Ever. I don’t think anyone else has gotten close to it yet. Allison Bechdel’s book ‘Fun Home’ blew me away. Carol Tyler’s « The Hannah Story » is a masterpiece that pretty much makes me cry every time I read it (including last week). There’s John Porcellino, whose books ‘Perfect Example’ and ‘The Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man’ are brilliant. Crumb, Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, David Mazzucchelli, Debbie Dreschler, Joe Matt, Chester Brown and Seth are all really important to me. Seth’s art in particular has such a deeply soothing effect on me whenever I look at it. Ron Rege, Adrian Tomine, Dave Kiersh, Gabrielle Bell, Kevin Huizenga, Sammy Harkham, C.F., Mat Brinkman, Leif Goldberg are all amazing contemporaries of mine. I could make this list forever. As far as European cartoonists, I’m most familliar with the recent « old guard » because of Raw and Drawn and Quarterly, so people like Tardi, Trondheim, Dupuy/Berberian, Loustal. All beautiful stuff. David B. is probably my favorite of the L’Association group. Years ago while living in Chicago, I bought every volume of his « Epeleptic » story in French because I found the artwork so stunning. Marjane Satrapi is fantastic as well. Persepolis part 1 is definitely a masterpiece and her movie is a huge inspiration. I suppose I’m drawn more to the Belgian look (Herge, Peyo) than the painterly approach. In general I respond to comics that aren’t overly stylized or done using « fine art » techniques. It usually feels like the artist is trying hard to make it look respectable and it just kind of deadens everything. Comics get their spark of life from the simple doodle. The further you stray from that, the harder it is for the story to just flow. Probably my favorite French artists are Blanquet and Blex Bolex. What an unbelievably twisted and dark imagination Blanquet has. Even though the stories are hideous, the drawings are gorgeous and expressive while remaining iconic and readable. Bolex’s stuff looks very inviting and familiar but it’s actually unique when you look closer. He blends Richard McGuire’s exaggerated but precise character design with Gary Panter’s handling of marks and color. Very exciting to the eye. Speaking of which, I really respond to a lot of the Le Dernier Cri books I’ve seen, though they’re more like art books than comics. Oh, and Anna Sommer’s « Remue-Menage » book is still one of my favorite L’Assocation books. I think she’s from Switzerland though, right? I wish she still did comics like that – those simple line drawings with no panels. I’ve become acquainted with Domitille Collardey who is a wonderful young French artist. She’s promised to show me more work by the new crop out there. I hope she comes through for me. I’m very interested in learning more.
There is a very naïve side to your drawings, but also a very violent subtext in your narratives. What comes first : the urgency to tell a story or to make a drawing ?
Ideas show up as a vague impression of what it might be like to read the story. First I’ll make a few quick sketches and maybe a list of things that might happen in a strip. The uphill climb is always the writing, which for me involves lots of lists, diagrams, scribbles. It’s like chiseling in stone. And there’s really no forcing it. You sit and try a few combinations of ideas and it either flows forward or there’s a roadblock and you back up and try a different route. Once I get that breakthrough where I know what will go on a given page, I can start thumbnailing it, usually in light pencil. That part is also very difficult. Because every inch of it involves decision making. I try not to agonize. I just go with my gut instinct and get the first quick doodle down. And that usually stays. But sometimes, there’s a lot of editing for space requirements. « I need this strip to end on this page…. how essential is this panel? Can I collapse these two into one? » That kind of work can also be painstaking. Once I have the whole page pencilled, there’s a sense of relief. I can read it through and see how it reads and how it feels. After that, the work becomes more about craft, which is fun. Inking the page, scanning it, coloring it on the computer. These go really quickly for me. And I can usually estimate a number of hours on each and stick to that. There’s pretty much no estimating the writing time though. It has a life of its own.
How do you feel about your book now ? Did it liberate you from anything once it was finished ?
I don’t feel like the same person who wrote and drew this book. I’m glad it’s out there and that people respond to it, but it’s a strange feeling. Like I almost can’t take credit for it. The kind of stories I would tell now and everything about my approach to it would be completely different now. But I’m very glad to have it out of my system. Finishing it and having it published absolutely did change me.
The “Portrait of My Mom” strip was the most transforming to work on. The memories I focused on were mostly ones that still had an emotional charge or some kind of resentment attached to them. I found that once I shrunk my mom down to less than an inch and controlled her movements and the things she said, her power begin to shrink in my own mind. And once she became the protagonist in these stories, I found her sympathetic. Suddenly it was clear that no one had done anything wrong in these anecdotes. They were perfect as is.
In “Black History,” I began the strip with a clear framework, but no clear ending in mind. I was working on these memories about summer camp, doing some terrible hazing to some of the campers in my care, some of whom were black. And also remembering being bullied and beat up by black friends growing up. In the midst of all that, I got slapped in the face by a black woman on the train. I kind of knew that had to be my ending. It was a total shock.
You were part of one Kramer’s Ergot anthology : did it change anything for you ? And if it did, in which ways ?
When I used to read RAW, I imagined it was this tight knit group of cartoonists who all got together and showed each other their work and drew together. But now I know how naiive that is. Each artist is mostly off exploring their own territory. An anthology is more than anything a personal statement of the editor about how they see the medium, what they think it should be or could be. So I don’t think of myself as part of any club when it comes to Kramer’s. I like most of what’s in those books and mostly agree with Sammy on his taste, though not in every case. I went on a tour with a bunch of cartoonists when Kramer’s 4 came out. The best part was getting to see the loft where Mat Brinkman and Leif Goldberg and Brian Chippendale were living. That was cool. In a way I feel like I don’t quite belong with the rest of the « far out, » hippie-punk, fine art cartoonists, even though I appreciate what they’re doing. I think I’m coming more from a literary angle. But as long as Sammy publishes that book, I hope I keep getting invited to contribute.
Finally, what other projects do you currently have ? Any new books planned ?
I’m working on a graphic memoir about sexuality and parenthood, written by a writer named Christen Clifford. It will hopefully find a publisher this fall and come out in about a year. My second book for Pantheon is called Overpeck. It’s about half finished, but won’t be completed for several years. I’m making music again after a 10 year hiatus and have an EP up on iTunes. (http://wondersoundrecords.com/David_Heatley). I’ve made 2 music videos so far with a 3rd one planned for later this year. I’m also thinking about ways to adapt my stories to the screen. Beyond that, I still do freelance advertising, design and illustration work. All these things feed each other.