Smash Pages Q&A: Nick Thorburn on ‘Penguins’

The Canadian musician discusses his first graphic novel.

Nick Thorburn is a Canadian musician who has fronted the bands The Unicorns, Islands, Mister Heavenly and others. He’s composed music for various projects, including the film Ingrid Goes West and the podcast Serial.

His new project is the book Penguins, which is out now from Fantagraphics. A wordless book that inventively tells short tales of penguins in stories that are mundane and fantastic and inventive and strange. It’s an inventive and darkly comic debut, and Thorburn was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book.

I like to ask people especially when it’s their first book, how did you come to comics?

I probably came to comics the way most kids do – through the funnies in the newspaper; starting at around five with Garfield and then graduating to Calvin & Hobbes and Far Side around 10. Mixed in there were Archies. I devoured Archie comics. From there I discovered Marvel books through an older cousin – Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and X-Men. Then I saw the movie Kids when I was 13 and was intrigued by a scene in which one of the kids was holding a copy of Peter Bagge’s Hate. That was my entry point to underground/alternative comics/comix. Because I lived in a tiny nowhere town, I had to travel four hours to get to a decent comic book store. It became a pilgrimage and it was there that I discovered the comics that have helped shaped me.

How do you describe Penguins?

Badly. A book. A collection of drawings. Gags. Art comic? Wordless. Sequential Narrative. Interconnected vignettes. A graphic novel!

Is there a particular species of penguins that you think your penguins are? Or are you not thinking in those terms?

I haven’t thought of it in terms of taxonomic ranking. They probably most resemble the Adélie penguin, but if pressed, I’d say they’re Pengmans.

How did this book start? Is this something you’ve been working on for a long time?

It all happened fairly fast. I had been asked by Eric [Reynolds, Publisher of Fantagraphics] to contribute to his new anthology, NOW. It kind of reignited the spark of comics and drawing in me, and I started developing this simple humanoid penguin character. It was in between the recording of an album – 2017’s Boxing the Moonlight – and the touring of that record. I began drawing it in April of 2017 and finished in December. Any downtime I had where I wasn’t writing or playing music, I funneled into the book. It became a cathartic distraction and a repository for my creative impulses.

You’re also a musician and I’m curious how these two art forms overlap and intersect in your own mind. Are they different aspects of the same impulse? Are they very different in how you think and how experience them?

I mean, they’re similar in that they both stem from the same brain stem, but otherwise: Extremely different. I come at music from a lyrical and melodic vantage, and of course, Penguins has no words or melody. There might be a kind of rhythm or musicality to the drawings but I really wanted to flex a different muscle and try to pivot away from my regular modes of writing.

I guess I especially ask because Penguins is a wordless comic. Were you doing this intentionally? Is this simply the kind of comic you like?

I don’t prefer wordless comics, but it was something I wanted to explore; to simplify and reduce my framework of story as much as I could, while still trying to express that mixture of humor and sadness – which seem to be my two key themes in everything I do. I didn’t want it to feel language bound, but have a kind of universality. Plus, it felt appropriate to keep the animals mute.

You said that you think about music from a “lyrical and melodic vantage” and in a similar way, this book and these stories have a melody and rhythm to them. There’s no words, but I would argue that the stories in the book are based in melody. Or to you do music and comics feel so very different?

I guess the stories have a certain rhythmic quality to them. There’s a sense of timing and certainly a way to read these gags that feels musical, in a sense. I think anytime a comic contains a clear punchline, you can feel a bit of a rhythm. As for the melodic component, I have no idea. Certainly wasn’t intentional, and I don’t see it, unless we’re speaking in more figurative terms. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that

What have you been drawing lately? More penguins? Or are you drawing other things at the moment?

I’m sketching. I bring a small book with me everywhere I go and any idle time I have, I draw. Usually just grotesque faces from imagination but sometimes grotesque faces from the public world.

So what’s next for you? Do you want to make music, make another comic, alternate, try something different?

I’m sorting through ideas. I’m trying to take a sabbatical from my music projects – which is proving extremely difficult – but I’d like to have a good five-year break from releasing and promoting music. I want to make another comic, something longer and bigger in scope – one idea, with words, dialogue and a plot. I’m also doing other writing, but it’s all on the low for the time being.

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