David Heatley was one of my picks for Artists to Watch in 2010. Here, he talks about his wonderfully edgey graphic memoir, "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down," the influence of cinema on cartooning and his work as a musician. Enjoy!
There's a very cinematic quality to your comics. Is film an influence on you?
Absolutely. I was a film major at art school, but it was "experimental," personal cinema. Often the works I studied were made by a single creator. Artists like Ernie Gehr, George Kuchar, Scott Stark (all teachers of mine), Stan Brakhage (especially his 8mm "song" films, which are incredible) were all an influence. Scott Stark is probably the one that really stuck with me the most though. There can be a severity to a lot of the experimental work and Scott's always had a little bit of entertainment worked into the equation. Some moments of his films make you laugh out loud. I love Guy Maddin too. I think he's a kindred spirit, artistically speaking. Other filmmakers that come to mind as having an influence are Todd Haynes and Michel Gondry.
Your graphic memoir, "My Brain is Hanging Upside Down," is unflinching about details depicting your family and peers. How have they reacted?
My mom was great. I showed her everything before it was printed and we had some deep, healing talks. Imagine handing your mom a stack of all of your grievances (mixed with some joys) and talking it all over until you see eye to eye. It was like that. Our relationship is totally different now. I think my brothers are fine with everything in there. We don't talk about it much. My dad's proud of me too, even if he doesn't like how he's portrayed in certain parts of the book. I've had a few ex-girlfriends contact me (heart pounding as I opened their emails) and it was all fine. So much of this book is ancient history. There's nothing to do but laugh at it all now. The best response was from my very first girlfriend Karen, the one who mercilessly dumped me on the first night of her camp (where I didn't know anyone) after cheating on me the week before. She's now my facebook friend and "fan." She apologized for being a bitch and laughed like crazy over the page I sent her. It was kind of an author's dream come true. And the last one I'll mention was my best friend from 9th grade, Andrew, who figures prominently in Black History also wrote me out of the blue. Subject line was "Black History... WTF?!?" The email just said, "I thought we were like brothers from another mother!" I wrote him explaining the intention behind the story and apologizing if it made him uncomfortable and offered to meet up and explain some more. He forgave me right away. We met for drinks a week later and had a great time reminiscing. He's like this international power broker dude who does "acquisitions" for a mega coporation. I feel so grateful that no one's really gotten mad at me about any of it. No one who was in it at least!
How did you decide it was the right time to publish a memoir? Does it mark a milestone in your life?
I published it as soon I was done with it! I started it when I was around 29 and had this ambition to have a book of my work out by my 30th birthday, but it took almost five years to finish, so it came out when I was 34. Now I'm 35. It definitely feels like a milestone finishing it and getting it out. I'm glad it's out there doing its thing. There's so much I would do differently now if I was to start from scratch, but I can't change it. It's a pretty good time capsule of who I was when I was working on it. The content of the book kept changing as I wrote it too, the ending to "Black History," especially. It was almost like trying to catch a wild animal before it got away.
Your book has been translated and published in numerous languages. Do you think your style of storytelling and sense of humour come across differently in other cultures?
I can't really say. I've gotten some touching emails from Spanish speaking fans and French speaking fans. I think it works in other languages. I know for me it's very strange to see my own drawings, my own thoughts, even my own handwriting in the case of the french edition (they made a font of my lettering) in a language I can't read. It sort of allows me to see what my work looks like from the outside and it's not as bad as I often think it is! The Spanish edition reads as very funny. Much funnier than the English version. Whereas the French version feels kind of serious, like a new wave film. Everything is tinged with a whistful melancholy when I read it in French. I'm not sure that's really there, but that's how I experience it.
You also released a "mini soundtrack" to "My Brain is Hanging Upside Down," and music has figures prominently in your appearances. Can you tell me a bit about that?
I listen to music pretty much all day long every day. I like pretty much everything, but I have a special fondness for punk, indie rock, reggae and hip hop. I'm moved by artists who come from squallid backgrounds and manage to find the self-confidence to launch themselves into the spotlight. Being a musician is a weird thing. It almost requires turning yourself into a superhero–exaggerating sides of your personality into an idealized, larger-than-life version of yourself. If it's convincing enough, people respond to it. I love the bravado and confidence of rappers like Ghostface, Nas, Raekwon, Jay-Z, Kanye. And on the other end of the spectrum, I love singers like Neil Young or Jeffrey Lewis who seem like they're not calculating at all about what kind of image they project. Of course, unvarnished sincerity and honesty is also a strategy. They're opposite poles of the musical spectrum and they both exist in me with about equal force. So I'm always trying to find a way to balance them.
Your Michael Jackson piece is meticulous and intruiging. Can you tell me a about it?
I'm just a huge fan of his and have been since I was in 2nd grade. In some ways I didn't even realize how much his music meant to me until he died. He was a pretty hard guy to like in a lot of ways. There were a lot of layers in the way of appreciating his music. As a kid I didn't have any problem with liking someone who seemed to exist at this really uncomfortable crossroad between black and white and between male and female. As a teenager I couldn't accept who he was becoming, though I always secretly enjoyed his music whenever I heard it on the radio or on MTV. Now that he's gone, we're left with his body of work to appreciate and it's staggeringly great. So much of it. I knew I wanted to draw something to honor his memory. I wound up spending a whole day researching the specific, iconic images from each period of his life and creating a timeline that showed his rise in stardom (peaking with Thriller) and then ultimately his tragic demise. I asked my brother to animate it and he did a beautiful job. He told me that after he finished it, he wept. I couldn't ask for higher praise than that.
What are you working on now?
I'm starting to play live shows with a full band. Working on my 3rd music video (Right to Feel High) and pitching a book with a writer named Christen Clifford called "Give It To Me Baby," a chronicle of her sex life before, during and after having her baby. Hoping to have it published by Mother's Day 2011. My next book from Pantheon, Overpeck, is on hold for now. Probably won't be done for at least 4 or 5 years. But I think about it often. I'm very much into collaboration these days after spending so many years creating alone. I often swing between those two poles though, so I may hole up in a couple of years and work on my own thing again.