Interview: DJ Bryant
DJ Bryant is a writer and cartoonist based in Seattle, WA. His upcoming release Unreal City is a 104 page black-and-white illustrated collection. It's five stories navigate the blurry lines between love and hate, sex and marriage and relationships that work and those that don't.
CYA: How far back into your personal history do comics go? Did you begin purely as an artist and graduate into the form or were comics and the passion to write/draw them there from the beginning?
DJ: I had some encounters with comics when I was little that seem important in retrospect. I remember drawing my own Garfield comics in kindergarten, but I didn't zero in on comics specifically until I was in my early teens. In middle school, I met my friend Dustin Weaver who was into comics, so I got excited about them too. Comics came as an epiphany because I realized they were the perfect outlet for the daytime fantasies I'd have as a kid. I would ride my bike around the neighborhood and dream up little movies in my head, but the idea of making a movie seemed impossible and I knew I wanted to do something that involved drawing. So comics were the perfect solution for that. One of the first things you realize with comics is how demanding they are. My drawing skills weren't nearly good enough to do comics the way I wanted. So I studied and studied and drew and drew and it was a long time before I had the confidence to do my own comics.
CYA: Your line work is inspiring, characters and environments that are so fully realized and enveloping make for a timeless style. Is there a certain era of comics that you're inspired by stylistically?
DJ: Thanks. My influences are all over the place, but yeah, there are certain eras that appeal to me. You might say my style comes out of the Caniff school of cartooning, which goes back to the 30's, but the guys I'm most inspired by came later. There's something special about the comics from the early 60's. Before that comics were sort of finding their footing and the language was still developing, but by the early 60's the language was fairly codified. It's what I think of when I think of "classic" comics. The stuff that Roy Lichtenstein stole from when he did those Pop paintings, guys like John Romita Sr. and Russ Heath. That stuff is really beautiful to me. I arrived at that by working my way backwards from the artists I grew up with in the late 80's and early 90's. I wanted to devour the brains of my favorite artists so I would hunt down their influences. I was also interested in comics from outside the US. Herge's ligne claire style was an important influence, and manga was also a big deal- specifically Tezuka and Otomo. The detailed environments I draw can probably be linked to them.
I do see comics as sort of a grand tradition. No matter how far-out or avant-garde an artist you are, you're working within a tradition whether you realize it or not. I'm not really trying to invent a new way of drawing or anything. I think that's a totally worthy pursuit but that's not what interests me. I think every artist reinvents drawing for themselves anyway. But with scanning and computer technology there's no reason to draw comics with pen and ink any more. I just find that aesthetic really beautiful. So rather than smash the tradition, I get a kick out of using it and bending it to tell my own personal story. If there's any originality to my style it comes from the movement of my hands and what I have to say.
CYA: In addition to your linework, you have very creative selection when it comes to your page design. You choose to highlight certain scenes with a cinematic, psychedelic quality with the way you layout your pages. Is this part of your scripting process or something that develops as your draw?
DJ: I do write a script but I don't do any panel breakdowns whatsoever in the script stage. Once the script is written, I'll divide it into panel beats and figure out how many of those beats I can fit on a page. Meanwhile, the story is playing in my head like a film, so if a scene has a cinematic or psychedelic quality it's usually from trying to adapt that sequence to the page. Sometimes I might have an idea come out of left field and I'll work it into the sequence as I'm drawing it. The transparency technique I've been using came to me like that. It was inspired by scene fades from film and I've used it in a number of different ways.
CYA: Many people's first introduction to your work was your 21-pg Evelyn Dalton-Hoyt story from the MOME anthology. Inspired by a 1970s Ditko story, it's an off-the-wall, pulp film-style piece comprised of worst case scenarios for your main character. What about this specific work piqued your interest?
DJ: The Ditko story came to me pretty randomly. It was initially intended for Robin Bougie's Sleazy Slice anthology, which is a sex oriented comic anthology. When Robin first approached me, I didn't have a sex story but I'd always wanted to do something in that vein. Then one day I came across that Ditko comic in an antique store and I was immediately drawn to the cover. It was one of those EC style stories where the husband is trying to bump off the wife, but since it was Ditko, there were these weird suggestive, subconscious things going on. I realized what was missing from the story was that we didn't know anything about the sex life of the characters, which is a hugely important ingredient to a relationship. I realized that's where the real story was and that it would make the perfect sex story for Sleazy Slice. I was married at the time and my own marriage was in a crisis, although I hadn't realized it yet. Two weeks after I'd written Evelyn Dalton-Hoyt, my marriage fell apart. I realized that on a subconscious level, I was coping with my own marital problems when I'd written that story, and I drew it over the painful divorce period.
CYA: Your upcoming book Unreal City is comprised of five stories (including a reissue of Evelyn Dalton-Hoyt). What cohesively brings these stories together as part of the same release and what makes them each unique to each other?
DJ: I definitely feel like the stories are all of a piece. Some of that was intentional and some of it was happy accident, because they're all drawn by me and there do seem to be certain themes that I return to. I've been subtitling the book as "strange stories about relationships". Every story has a surreal element and every story is about a relationship between a man and a woman. Although each story was conceived individually, read in succession they do seem to cohere in a narrative arc. There's some degree of crossover too. I like to use cartoon "actors" so an actor from one story will turn up in another, sometimes as a different character or playing the same character. And they all seem to be part of the same "universe" too. The Yellowknife Retrospective ironically was the first story in the book conceived as part of the whole, even though it's the only story drawn in a "cartoony" style and the only story in full color. I'd intended it to offset the other stories, to add a lighter note. My inspiration for that came from reading a Spider-ham back-up in a Spider-Man comic as a kid. I always loved that dichotomy, or how Dan Clowes would change styles from story to story in Eightball. So Yellowknife is the "Spider-ham" of Unreal City. And I knew Yellowknife would follow Emordana, which is the most surreal of the bunch and had spot color, so we'd go from spot color to full color back to black and white again. And Objet d'Art was meant to balance the entire thing tonally. So although it hadn't started that way, the book was carefully orchestrated the way someone might put together a music album.
CYA: With Unreal City being a collection of previously printed and newly written stories, does it act as a book end to a certain period for you? Does it feel good to be able to get these books into the hands of people collectively under your own name?
DJ: Yeah, it feels great! It feels exactly the way you describe it, like it book ends a period of my life and a particular phase as an artist. After I finished Objet d'Art, I felt like I'd finally articulated a certain kind of story and that whatever I follow up with will probably be completely different. I do seem to have certain obsessions and certain themes that I return to. Part of the fun of Unreal City is seeing how those things play and build off each other from story to story.
CYA: Although Unreal City isn't released until next month, are there any new works or projects on the horizon for you?
DJ: Unreal City was definitely a mountain climb for me, so I'm still recovering from that mountain climb before I climb the next mountain. Right now I'm dating a few story ideas and seeing which one decides to take hold. In the mean time you can see some of my work in Dustin Weaver's Paklis (released by Image Comics). I wrote a story in issue two called An Empty Shell in the Ocean. Dustin drew it and the work he did on that was absolutely beautiful. I feel really lucky to be working with him. As I mentioned before, Dustin and I have been friends since middle school and we've been collaborating since the very beginning. This was the first project we've completed together and Dustin really brought his A game. It feels like it's equally a DJ Bryant and a Dustin Weaver comic. Anyone who enjoys my work should check it out, I think there are a number of interesting parallels between An Empty Shell in the Ocean and Unreal City. The characters from Empty Shell will likely be turning up in later issues of Paklis in a much longer story arc. And there's a couple Paklis cameos in Unreal City as well.