We Talk Tales of Admonishment and Astonishment with Andrez Bergen
Andrez Bergen, creator of Bullet Gal and Trista & Holt, is a writer/ artist with influences ranging from classic noir to classic comics. Graphic Policy catches up with Andrez to talk about the fine art of sampling popular music and popular culture, his favorite characters, fictional and real, the upcoming release of the new Tales to Admonish collection and the latest issue of Trista & Holt.
Graphic Policy: In the “modi operandi” at the end of Bullet Gal you write that noir is the “best genre construct there is.” What about it makes it the best?
Andrez Bergen: For me, noir is so open-ended. It might have a darker undercurrent and the finale may not be something that comes up roses, but the best noir has an interweaving sense of humour — dry or sarcastic or tongue in cheek. Cynicism reigns, a downbeat flip to heady optimism. Crime and suspense have their own parts to play within noir, as do the occasional detective mystery, but equally important — if not more so — are the oddball characters and cracking dialogue. Raymond Chandler was the master there. His dialogue slays me 70 years after it was written. Noir’s also great for infusing other genres too, like sci-fi and dystopia and occasionally horror.
GP: You’re originally from Australia and now that you’ve been living in Tokyo for fourteen years, how has being immersed in Japanese culture, particularly regarding art and anime, influenced your work?
AB: I was already into Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira Kurosawa and Mamoru Oshii before I moved to Japan, but since I arrived I’ve been able to interview and work with Oshii and Ryuichi Sakamoto (Y.M.O.) and discover and meet the late, great Satoshi Kon. I’ve done some odd jobs for Production I.G (‘Ghost in the Shell’) — and been able to hone in to some of the noir/suspense and darker elements at play here, from I.G’s innovative anime series ‘Ghost Hound’ and Shuichi Yoshida’s novel ‘Villain’, right through to older school manga by Kazuo Umezu and the Seishi Yokomizo gothic mystery ‘The Inugami Clan’… which is translated into English, by the way, really badly.
Embracing the whole culture, from the music, movies and art through to the food, history and architecture has been part of my experience living here — and residing in Japan also means you have to live not just with cherry blossoms but continual earthquakes. The big one three years ago helped shape my second novel ‘One Hundred Years of Vicissitude’ (2012), which is my homage to the country. In a roundabout fashion. I think Japanese elements filter through into all of my work. Lee is obsessed with the country in ‘Bullet Gal’, and Laurel’s grandmother is Japanese in ‘Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat’.
GP: Your comics feature many strong, action-oriented female characters such as Mitzi and her nemesis Brigitte of Bullet Gal, then there’s Trista and rivals Alaina Holt and Marcella Cornwall of Trista & Holt. Are any of these characters inspired by female noir characters you’ve come across in books or film, or are they totally original?
AB: I grew up with a strong mother. She wasn’t always fair, but when the going got tough at difficult times in my childhood she really knuckled down and pulled us through. My parents also loved watching old black-and-whites, from dubbed Godzilla flicks to hardboiled classics starring Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum… alongside women who matched up to them despite the general gender imbalance at the time — people like Mary Astor and Lauren Bacall, Jean Harlow crossing wits with Clark Gable, and Katherine Hepburn being more than a match for Spencer Tracy. Thirty-five years ago, along came Ripley, the kick-arse only survivor in ‘Alien’, and more recently romps like ‘Xena’, ‘Battlestar Galactica’, ‘Firefly’ and ‘Buffy’ where the women were the truly strong characters. Over the past few years Ed Brubaker has fleshed-out female protagonists like Velvet and Josephine in ‘Fatale’. So I guess all these things have probably influenced me. In noir the powerful-woman trope isn’t exactly new — I just give it freer reign.
And while Mitzi (Bullet Gal) was original based around the look of the Fawcett comic character Bulletgirl from the 1940s, I think she has more in common with Will Eisner’s P’Gell or Sand Saref from ‘The Spirit’. Alaina Holt-wise, I think I was swayed to some extent by the characterization of the manipulative Lady Kaede from Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’, and Marcella Cornwall has to have a bit of Martha from Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ decanted away inside her. I think Trista is the most unique because I initially modeled her on the legendary figure of Tristan/Tristram — reimagined in the 1970s. In a crime family. As a woman.
AB: Top of the crop? Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who I read on regular rotation. Otherwise Ryū Murakami, Isabel Allende, Angela Carter, Patrick deWitt, James M. Cain, Philip K. Dick, Richard Matheson, Gabriel García Márquez. For particular books? Joseph Heller (for ‘Catch-22’), Nicholas Christopher (‘Veronica’), Eugene O’Neill (‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’) — and Edith Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence’. That’s the fractured romantic in me. Comics-wise I’m heavily into Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, a lot of stuff coming from Kelly Sue DeConnick, Jonathan Hickman, Brian K. Vaughan, Eric Stephenson, classic Will Eisner, and older material from Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Manga-related? Otomo, Oshii, Kon, Umezu, Masamune Shirow, Hayao Miyazaki and Mitsuru Adachi.
GP: Who are some of your favorite characters, either fictional or real?
AB: Imaginary first, since they hold precedence: Philip Marlowe (‘The Big Sleep’), The Continental Op (‘Red Harvest’), Sam Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy & Joel Cairo (‘The Maltese Falcon’), Robert Neville (‘I Am Legend’/’The Omega Man’), Rick Deckard (‘Blade Runner’/’Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’), Velvet Templeton (the ‘Velvet’ comic from Image), Jonathan E. (‘Roller Ball’), Nick & Nora Charles (‘The Thin Man’), Harry Lime (‘The Third Man’), Clint Barton (‘Hawkeye’, in Matt Fraction’s run), Flora Poste (‘Cold Comfort Farm’), Captain America (in Stan Lee’s and Ed Brubaker’s runs), Ripley (‘Alien’), Sam Lowry (‘Brazil’), Buffy Summers (‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’), both versions of Starbuck (‘Battlestar Galactica’), Carl Kolchak (‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’), Norma Desmond (‘Sunset Boulevard’), Professor Fate (‘The Great Race’), The Thing (in Jack Kirby & Stan Lee’s monumental 1960s run on ‘Fantastic Four’), Major Matoko Kusanagi (‘Ghost in the Shell’), Max (‘Where the Wild Things Are’), Corporal Agarn (‘F Troop’), Hugo Z. Hackenbush (‘A Day at the Races’), the masterless rōnin (‘Yojimbo’), Guy Fleegman (‘Galaxy Quest’), Tony Baretta, Starsky & Hutch, Zorro, Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Tristan & Iseult. There’re dozens of others I could slide in here!
Real life ‘characters’ I hold respect for? Creators like Akira Kurosawa, Lauren Bacall, Marcel Duchamp, Satoshi Kon, Cabaret Voltaire, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Man Ray, Toshiro Mifune, the Marx Brothers, Humphrey Bogart, Joss Whedon, Terry Gilliam, Ray Harryhausen, Vincent Price, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Christopher Nolan, and Raymond Chandler — chronic alcoholism and all — for creating Philip Marlowe. We could also throw in a hotchpotch of other people: Martin Luther King, Jr., Napoleon, Gough Whitlam, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ned Kelly, Elizabeth I, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Alexander the Great, Monty Python, and Hannibal.
GP: Your graphic novels and comics contain strong visuals and you do very innovative work in a visual medium, yet you’ve also published many short stories and prose novels. How would you compare the two methods of story telling, prose and comics? For example, do you enjoy writing description or do you like letting the pictures speak for themselves? Or does it just depend on the story and how it needs to be told?
AB: Great question, and in a nutshell? While I love write dialogue between characters, esp. a rapid-fire repartee or some meaningful soliloquy, I’ve always suffered a wee bit writing the descriptions of space, setting, character expressions and nuance. They’re vital, but they don’t roll as easily for me. And to be honest, sometimes in other people’s books I feel that the descriptions are padding out the novel and I get tired and start skipping, looking for dialogue. Sometimes. Doing comics and graphic novels has liberated me here, since I focus purely on writing narration and dialogue between characters — when I’m doing the art. If someone else is doing the art, I have to explain the descriptions of the setting/backgrounds/character “look”, although sometimes I resort to pictures nabbed off the Internet to give the artist a feel of what I’m on about. You can’t do that in novels. But novels are still more challenging because of this; sometimes I feel like I’m on autopilot doing comic scripts, so I have to kick myself.
GP: One aspect of your art and story-telling that I find intriguing and quite unusual is that the characters are well-established in the narrative of the stories, but in some of your comics and graphic novels you use different images to represent them, including famous actors and actresses, photos from ads, and other artists’ interpretations. Are various images representing one character different facets of that character’s persona, evolving aspects of their personalities or just a fun way to portray them visually?
AB: You hit the nail on the head in terms of both. Fun, for sure — I really dig seeing the different ways in which diverse artists “see” the same character, and this comes I think from my music background, when me and mates were constantly remixing one another’s tracks. But I also think this alternate viewpoint adds depth to the character, as these are three-dimensional beings that, like us, are seen differently by other people — be it because of mood, interaction, or relationship. Characters are always developing through this process, so that we finally begin to see the sum of all his/her parts.
The cut-ups/collages in the comics do hark back to my admiration and nostalgia for Dada, surrealism and Monty Python, but recently adapting famous people into the mix has enabled me to (a) pay homage to the old movies and actors I grew up with that helped shape my own mindset, (b) match-up their particular “image” with that of the characters they’re roped into playing, and (c) inserts another element of fun: can you place the celebrity faces?
GP: What can you tell us about the imminent release of Tales to Admonish? And what of the title—is it the characters who are being admonished or are these cautionary tales for us wayward readers? Or is it a playful nod toward 1950s comic titles such as Tales to Astonish?
AB: Definitely the latter — when Matt Kyme and I released #1 in 2013, with him as artist and me as writer, thereby starting IF? Commix — we tipped our hat to a mutual love of Jack Kirby in particular and classic Marvel comics in general from the early ’60s like, you guessed it, ‘Tales to Astonish’. I just altered it a tad to reflect the “dire-warning” cautionary yarns (often with playful tongue in cheek) that I’d grown up watching on TV such as ‘Twilight Zone’, ‘Outer Limits’, ‘Kolchak’, ‘Doctor Who’, and ‘The Evil Touch’. Our stories here are far from serious, verging more upon flippant, but there are messages I guess that greed isn’t so good for your health — but snappy dialogue helps.
Matt and I decided to put together the first three issues, along with six new stories I wrote by other artists, as a trade paperback we’re releasing in Australia in August. It’ll be launched alongside ‘Trista & Holt’ Vol. 1 at Eisner Award winning store All Star Comics while I’m briefly back in Melbourne on the 29th. The added stories are by a swag of talented new artists like Gareth Colliton, Asela De Silva, Adam Rose and Ken Best. They really capture the vibe of each tale, from noir to light horror.
GP: You DJ under the name Little Nobody. Did you sample selections from popular music in your performances the way you sample popular culture images in your graphic novels?
AB: You got it — I love cheeky sampling, and was a loud-mouthed exponent of the art as a music journalist back in Australia before I moved to Japan. But sampling is its own form of “art”. If you’re going to be cheeky and appropriate stuff from other sources, then have a sense of humour and make sure you change it enough so that it becomes a part of what you’re trying to create, rather than stealing a riff and riding on someone else’s sterling efforts. It should be a cog, not the foundation of what you are trying to do. That said, I nicked stuff from bods like Madonna, Black Sabbath, James Brown, Giorgio Moroder, Desi Arnaz, Rachmaninoff and Japanese kabuki musicians — but good luck picking it! On the side I’ve also not so legally remixed ‘Aquarela do Brasil’, George Sanders, and Jack Palance. Shhh.
GP: You’re a very prolific storyteller and artist, constantly producing new work. Can you tell us a bit about your process? Does the art happen alongside the writing, or is the writing ever inspired by the images and artwork that you create, recycle, or re-create?
AB: This proliferation has only really been happening over the past four years — I guess since I published my first novel ‘Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat’ (2011). At that moment I realized doing these things was possible after all, instead of half-heartedly working on manuscripts that ended up collecting dust under my bed. But for several years before that I’d been working as a freelance journalist, meaning tight deadlines, the need to be flexible at all hours of day (or night), writing quickly, and self-editing on the fly. Add to that fine-tuning the process of research to be as speedy as possible, without letting errors slip through, and it’s a great accidental training regimen for aspiring writers.
All the different projects I’m currently doing — regular process, comic scripts, art and music — have to be squeezed in between work and family responsibilities, so I tend to wake up around 4:00 a.m. most mornings, giving me a three-hour stretch to potter on stuff. Also Saturday mornings are pretty much focused on this. I do what a feel like at the time, if possible, but if a deadline’s pressing then I attune to that project. I think visuals influence all my work, even novels. Everything I’ve seen in this world — traveling, incidents, movies, pictures, photos, even advertising — crosses over into my headspace while I write, much of it subconsciously I’m sure. When doing comics, especially as writer/artist, I do the two things together concurrently, so that each page writes and visualizes itself… often surprising me along the way, because the story might detour. I love this process because it’s completely liberated and the end of each issue is often something I never imagined when I began.
GP: In the upcoming Trista & Holt #7, you collaborate with American writer Renee Asher Pickup, who scripted the story of Trista’s childhood and young adulthood while you supplied the artwork for that double issue. Was it at all helpful to have a female writer’s perspective on Trista’s youth?
AB: Actually, I never thought about it along those lines — huh. I just knew that I respected Renee’s writing, mentality and imagination, and when I decided to start this series based on Tristan & Isolde, she was one of the biggest vocal supporters of the concept. We chatted a bit about it, and then when I asked her to do the “origin” issue, she said yes — luckily. I knew I wanted the voice of Trista’s childhood to be a little different than the contemporary one I was writing, but still linked. Renee captured that and paid beautiful heed to the original legend at the same time. And you know what? She’s American, and therefore likely has more insight into the gun culture Trista is raised with than I do, having grown up in Australia. I just thought of that now. Maybe it’s of import. Maybe not.
GP: What advice do you have for new artists and creators of comics who may be just starting out? Was there anything you had to learn the hard way that you’d like to share? Any words of encouragement, caution or admonishment?
AB: You know the old expression about grabbing the bull by the horns? I’m going to cite that dusty nugget instead of resorting to Nike’s corporate “Just Do It” mantra — which apparently anyway was inspired by an infamous murderer’s last words. Where was I? Encouraging people? …Yeah, I suppose the important things to remember are that if you truly believe in what you’re doing, whatever the medium, and would like to share that with others, then you should try. Give it a shot. If it fails, well at least you gave it that whirl. If it succeeds, all the better. But don’t do it for the riches. There are none unless you’re the lucky 0.2% that may or may not be real people. Passion rules over purse, I swear. Finally, don’t expect others to shoulder the burden of getting your work out there. Do it yourself or work with kindred spirits as a democratic collective. It’s more fun, you need the camaraderie, and less of a slog.
GP: Have you ever experienced what could be called a paranormal, supernatural, metaphysical or spiritual event, or any other such psychic phenomena?
AB: Um… there’s an interesting question. I’m just trying to think. There was this one time, when I was about 11, riding my bike back from school. I was shooting down this hill in Caulfield, in Melbourne, the middle of suburbia, same as I did every day. Going toward a crossroads where I had right of way, and there was never any traffic. But for some reason I felt something telling me to slow down almost to a stop, before I reached the intersection — and then a truck shot through. It would’ve flattened me.
GP: One final thing–I know you’re a big fan of Patrick McGoohan of Secret Agent Man and The Prisoner in particular. What do you think is up with those big bubbles in The Prisoner?
AB: Ha Ha Ha… You’re spot-on, I’m a huge fan of McGoohan, but I haven’t seen ‘The Prisoner’ in years! My last McGoohan romp was a re-screening of ‘Ice Station Zebra’. Lemme think back to ‘The Prisoner’ — the balls/bubbles there kind of remind me of the omnipresent black spheres in this more recent Japanese manga called ‘Gantz’. But the ones in ‘The Prisoner’ were far more active. I just wonder if the scriptwriter’s or special effects supervisor’s kid had a bubblegum fixation…?