Functioning on a Different Timescale

An Interview with Marcel Guldemond

By Joe Zabel
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The following email interview was conducted in December, 1999.

Page from an early work, WEIRD... NO SEAGULLS, copyright 1999 by Marcel Guldemond Joe Zabel: Tell us a little about your background; how did you get interested in comics?

Marcel Guldemond: Comics really only lived on the periphery of my existence until after I had entered my 20's. I had read some of the Sgt Rock type comics when I was really young, and even did some of my own spoofs, but that was grade 6 and after that, I pretty much forgot about them and eventually ended up trying to become a painter.

There were 2 events that I can think of specifically that were important to my interest in comics. The first was walking into a comic book store in Toronto on a whim, and buying 'Signal to Noise', by Gaiman and McKean. That's really the book that made me think "Holy shit, you can do this with comics?" I couldn't ever get away from that book, it was so good.

The second event was that I serendipitously found a copy of Cerebus in a bin in a comic shop in Thunder Bay, while in the middle of a cross continent motorcycle trip. I wanted some mindless reading material for the trip that wouldn't be too bulky, and somehow I just pulled a Cerebus out of the middle of all those boxes. Maybe I saw the title, I can't remember. Anyway, 'Signal to Noise' gave me a really good clue as to what I wanted to do, and Cerebus kind of solidified that and showed that it was actually possible to do.

Zabel: Your bio says you spent some time planting trees. Did this have an influence on the writing of BILL?

Guldemond: My planting career had a huge influence on BILL. I spent 7 summers in the cutovers (areas that have been logged) of northern Ontario, so I think you could say that it made a permanent impression on me.

Zabel: BILL seems to be very authentic; how did you go about researching the visual material?

Guldemond: It's all from memory, actually. I guess it's authentic because I've been there, because working in the bush was a big part of my life for quite a few years. Those exact scenes don't exist, but the ones in the book are distillations of what I saw and experienced while I was outthere.

Zabel: There seems to be a parallel in BILL between the harvesting of trees and the smoking of cigarettes. Was that intentional?>

Guldemond: There was no intentional parallel there. BILL orginally started from an ex-smoker's nic fits (mine of course), but this transformed itself very quickly into something about working in the bush. I was really interested in the sense of space and light that you have being in a cutover, and the fact that most words and speech are superfluous when you're out there like that for such extended periods of time. The other thing is that the basic things like your smokes and your lunch become really important; having a cigarette becomes a much more significant event. Life seems to function on a different time scale there than it does in more developed areas of the world, so I was also interested in the pacing of the bush worker's work day.

Zabel: In your most recent book, UNDER A SLOWLY SPINNING SUN, you develop two disparate visual sequences-- one is a series of portraits, seemingly from a sketch pad; the other is a sequence involving an old man walking, and later a woman watching his passing. I guess its open to interpretation how these sequences interrelate (perhaps as past and present?). What did you have in mind with this? Page from UNDER A SLOWLY SPINNING SUN, copyright 1999 by Marcel Guldemond

Guldemond: I intentionally left this up to interpretation. Spinning Sun is a lot about consciousness and the awareness of time, and in particular the way that time somehow fragments itself when you focus on it.

The portraits, to me anyway, are like haphazard memories, like the fragments that you remember when you think about some of the people that you've known in your life. All you really get are those little fragments, and all those moments when you knew those people are really little faded sketches that float around in your memory. Those people and those times that you're remembering are really permanently gone, you'll never ever see them in that way again.

I mainly wanted to associate this kind of effect of time on personal memory, this fragmentation of memory, with the more academic and poetic threads of the story that deal more overtly with the/my reality of time.

Zabel: You seem to have a very unconventional narrative strategy, breaking down sequences into incremental moment-to-moment and even simultaneous shots. What are you trying to do with comics narrative structure?

Guldemond: Good question. I think BILL has a fairly conventional narrative structure, but Spinning Sun is definitely an experiment with parallel narratives and text threads.

One of the things I was trying to get at is the way that you can have a moment where you're just really, really aware of yourself as being in the present, just here now and nowhere else ever, but somehow you're also really aware of who you are and all the memories and thoughts floating around in your head all at once. But none of that is in foreground consciousness, and as soon as you focus on some one thing, as opposed to somehow being aware of everything at the same time, the bubble pops and you come back to normal reality.

I didn't see anyway to do this within the framework of a convential narrative structure, so I went with the unconventional.>

Zabel: Your art is very realistic, almost photo-realistic. Why is that?

Guldemond: Maybe because I'm not very confident about my ability to stylize things, but probably because I haven't seen a reason to stylize them yet. Maybe because I'm often focused on the effects of light and space, and abstracting things into a highly stylized mode of working would seem to kill that for me.

I'm also not so sure that my images are that photo-realistic, at least in the sense that I don't go and take photos of the scenes before I do them, like many artists do. I prefer to try to construct the scenes, so that I'm interacting with my own memories and inner images, or else reacting to the thing itself when I'm there sharing space and time with it. I guess I feel that the elements in my images just have a more spatial feel to them. I'm not sure really, since I have no objections to more overt stylizations, but I haven't yet felt that what I was working on required that kind of drawing.

I guess I would associate myself more with post-Renaissance painting than I would with pre-Renaissance iconography. I find Rembrandt more personally powerful than I do Byzantine church art, and I guess that my comics would reflect that preference.

Zabel: I was wondering if you're familiar with Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics? His theory of iconic images suggests that very realistic, non-iconic art may be at odds with the goal of making comics a 'unified language.' Do you see it that way, and if so, what do you think?

Guldemond: I hate to say this, but I'm actually not familiar with Understanding Comics. It is a good question, but the concern of a unified language has never really entered my working process. I guess I've never analyzed that and have just gone by an intuitive sense to design pages that are readable and help the story telling. So I guess that I feel it doesn't really matter, as long as the page is readable. McKean's work in 'Violent Cases' and 'Signal to Noise' is very realistic in points, but I don't think it hurts either of those two books at all.

Zabel: What comics have influenced you? And what current comics are you interested in?

Guldemond: McKean's work and Cerebus have influenced me the most, I think. Here in Hamilton there are no good comic book stores, so I don't actually get to read many good comics unless I make a special trip to Toronto. Otherwise, most of my influence come from outside the world of comics. There are a lot of good comics out there, ( which made the SPX great to go to because I came back with a big stack of comics to read) but like I said about Hamilton, I can't find them here.

Zabel: What have your experiences been as a self-publisher? Do you plan on continuing in that mode in the future? Was the Xeric award a big help in this regard?

Guldemond: Self-publishing is hard, and it takes up a lot of time. I think that's the main problem with it for me right now, since I have a full time job, so it makes it harder to keep up with the art making. The Xeric award will be a big help in the future, since it means that I should be able print the next book that much sooner. Another bonus is that it means that I can offer better discounts and free shipping to retailers.

Zabel: What comics projects do you have in mind for the future?

Guldemond: I'm currently working on a longer more plot-driven story, still without a title of course! It will have much more mainstream themes such as familial power struggles, love and hate, the limitations of the language of economics, etc. As you can tell from 'Under a Slowly Spinning Sun', it'll be full of the requisite gun fights, car chases, and girls with big breasts. (Tongue planted firmly in cheek...) Seriously though, the challenge of multiple characters and dialogue is really quite interesting. If you check the Aporia Press website, you can see a new page from it every week under the 'Page of the Week' section, so you'll be able to see the new story as it progresses. (