Brandon Graham's comics inhabit a strange space. His work spans from other-worldly roadtrips (Multiple Warheads), to intergalactic wars (Prophet). His characters inhabit worlds decorated with annotations, hinting at stories yet untold or worlds beyond the gutters. Rather than having a building off in the distance be a mere piece of scenery, Graham will make a chart detailing events occurring on each floor as one of his characters looks on in the distance. He says he does this to stave off boredom while drawing. His art style is fluid, and he describes his colored work as resembling melted ice cream, but there is a clear sense of form and structure in his work. On Friday September 19, at the Society of Illustrators (128 E 63rd St, New York, NY 10065), Graham came to talk on the subject of censorship and how artists could overcome it.
Graham came to New York as part of his tour of the country with the comics podcast Inkstuds Radio, which is hosted by Robin McConnell. Graham and McConnell have been making their way from coast to coast talking to creators such as Rebecca Sugar, creator of the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe, Junko Mizuno, the author of bizarrely feminist comics like Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu and Pure Trance, and Ed Brubaker, who’s run on Captain America laid the groundwork for the hugely successful Winter Solider film. During his talk, Graham recounted interviewing Rob Liefeld who’s 1990's action comic, Prophet, is now being re-imagined by Graham. Graham admired that even though Liefeld’s work is the butt of many jokes amongst comic fans today, Liefeld still creates, works hard, loves comics, and has a loving family. In attendance were myself, a young boy that was excited to hear that Graham recently worked on an episode of Adventure Time, your usual comic book store denizens, some artistic types, and students looking for advice or wisdom from someone who “made it.” While Graham did not offer much in the way of traditional Horatio Alger-esque advice, his observations on the artistic medium of comics were valuable.
Graham is tall to the point where once he was on the podium he had to stoop so he wouldn’t only see tops of our heads. His hair is blond and thinning, his eyes peaceful and almost languid. His voice is soft, belying a sharp tongue on Twitter and an eagle eye for talent. He has multiple tattoos, including one from his current book, Prophet, but his most prominent ink is an elephant’s head on his neck. Graham eschewed formality in his talk, and projected scenes from some of his favorite comics. Some were from his contemporaries, some from Europe, others from the States, some old some new, but all of it daring and imaginative work. Artists like Fil Barlow and Paul Pope emphasized Brandon’s love for strange cityscapes and environs full of life. Graham proudly wore his love of Japanese comics (manga) on his sleeve. Atsushi Kamijo’s To-Y, a 1980’s manga about a punk band was one of Graham’s favorite examples, showing the importance of a good character introduction. Akira Toriyama’s comically manic Dr. Slump has a character wielding an exclamation point from their own talk-bubble as a weapon. Graham spoke highly of the dream-like landscapes of Japanese girl’s comics that portray the world not as it is, but as the heroine perceives it. For Graham, there was no clear separation between manga and western comics. To him, both had valuable lessons on how to tell a story. Graham still hadn’t said anything on the subject of censorship, though.
Graham continuously showed work from two particular artists; Masamune Shirow, and Matt Howarth. Shirow is considered a big name among fans of Japanese animation and comics, where his hyper detailed machines and tough as nails heroines in works such as Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell have made him a vanguard for manga and anime outside Japan. Howarth is an underground comic artist known for Savage Henry and Those Annoying Post Bros., whose work is bizarre, rough and experimental, a hallmark of Heavy Metal era comics. One of Graham’s favorite examples of Howarth’s work was a time traveling comic that is meant to be cut and pasted onto a strip of paper and turned into a mobius strip. A knife fight from Shirow's Appleseed was deeply coveted by a young Graham for its fluid motion. Shirow’s work is elegant, precise, detailed, and displays keen technical prowess with a pen.
I was left wondering why Graham kept returning to these two artists. While he never said as much, I couldn’t help but think of how these two artistic polarities made Graham into the artist he is today. Shirow embodies Graham’s technical eye for composition and form, with the occasional jaunt into cheesecake territory, though Graham laments Shirow’s current work being nothing but cheesecake. Graham’s work ethic was described by a host at the Society as “workman,” but I see a more punk ethic that Graham has culled from work like Howarth’s. Graham gets pages done no matter what, even when he was fighting testicular cancer (Graham recounted making an editor back off on changing one of his covers by signing a letter of protest as “serious as cancer”), but also staying true to an artistic vision that is purely his own. There was still no mention of the subject of censorship.
Graham had no prophetic final world, no last grand sweeping statement. There was only a quiet and sincere appreciation for the storytelling possibilities of comics. What was advertised as a discussion about censorship became Graham simply giving an ode to comics. When Graham was asked during the Q&A to say a few words on censorship, he simply stated that the more like he felt he was going to get away with printing something, the more likely he would. At this point, it’d be fairly difficult to put any kind of fear of censorship or reprieval into a former graffiti artist and a cancer survivor. There is only the drive to create.