Smash Pages Q&A: Disa Wallander

The creator of ‘The Nature of Nature,’ ‘Remember This?,’ and ‘Help Yourself’ discusses ‘Becoming Horses,’ her latest graphic novel from Drawn and Quarterly.

In recent years, Disa Wallander has been crafting a small but deliberate and brilliant body of work in comics like The Nature of Nature, Remember This?, Help Yourself, and in her webcomic, Slowly Dying. Her new book, Becoming Horses, which was just released by Drawn & Quarterly, is her longest work to date, and perhaps her best.

In the book she uses collage, mostly watercolors and photography, overlaid with a precise but delicate linework that’s been compared to Jules Feiffer. Like Feiffer, Wallander is interested in shape, gesture and an interest in dialogue, but the similarity ends there. In this book Wallander is crafting a series of conversations about art and life, which doesn’t sound exciting or visually interesting when phrased that way, but in Wallander’s hands, these conversations are at the center of this stunning and moving dream-like journey.

There are scenes and images form the book that have stayed with me through multiple readings, and I was so thrilled that Wallander agreed to answer a few questions over email about existentialism, how she works and Tove Jansson’s influence.

How did you come to comics?

I feel like there are a myriad of different answers to this, but I think, crucially, I started experimenting and posting them online at a time where it was fairly easy to get them seen and noticed. Or maybe I just lucked out! But I feel like there were just less people doing indie or art comics online then and stuff didn’t get drowned out as quickly. Anyway, I was lucky and got some recognition from people I looked up to, like Zainab Akhtar who back then ran the excellent Comics & Cola blog, and Roman Muradov who’s one of my favourite cartoonists. This immediately went to my head and I became convinced that I was a genius and I just continued running on the steam of my inflated ego. And, embarrassingly, this has worked out really smoothly for me! I’ve just been making whatever I want and gotten to work with some really great publishers and just overall had a really good experience putting out comics in different ways. I think it was just the right thing for me, I studied illustration at university but by the end if it I’d been disillusioned with pursuing that as a career and comics had enough of a DIY scene that it seemed like something I could just dive into on my own terms, have fun and meet some nice people.

Since the first time I read Becoming Horses, I keep thinking of these conversations from the book. And I’m curious if that’s where it started, these encounters and conversations between the characters?

Yeah, I wasn’t initially sure if there was going to be any sort of storyline at all or if it was going to be just a collection of strips. It wasn’t until fairly late in the process that I decided to have some sense of a running narrative, even if it’s a loose one. Honestly narrative isn’t my strong suit and that part of it was like pulling teeth. I’m not really interested in what the characters are doing or where they are going, but I love to write these dialogues and I find it endlessly fascinating to think about the stories that we build with one another in everyday conversations, the internal logic that builds up throughout them and the absolute absurdities we end up saying all the time that comes from the intense need to communicate our inner workings and the shortage of adequate language to do so. 

When did you begin using using collage and different media and incorporating them with your drawing?

I thought it was a more recent thing, but going back through my tumblr it looks like I was doing it already back in 2012. So I guess it’s been something of a gradual shift but back then I was still pretty invested in drawing as my main practice so it’s probably only in the last few years that I’ve switched almost completely to a collage process, which has been very beneficial.

What is your process? How do you like to work?

I’ve come to think of everything I do like a collage, writing as much as image-making. I make pieces separately and then I fit them together but I also try to look for contradiction in each step. So I’ll have some written dialogue, and when it comes to drawing the figure I look for gestures that will add something to the text rather than just empathize it. Lately I’ve been making very simple comics where the character is speaking directly to the reader or talking into space while doing stretches or rolling around on the ground, it’s a lot of fun just making those two things bounce against each other in different ways—the writing and the acting. And then there’s the “colouring” which can involve a whole host of things, ranging from photography to weaving and sculpting. Sometimes I make things specifically for what I’ve drawn but I also have an archive with thousands of photos of different things and absolutely NO organization of these whatsoever so I’ll just haphazardly click through folders until I find something that makes me go “huh, that would work.” There’s an element of chance to it that I think is really crucial. I like to retain that element of mystery in my own process, it makes things less predictable. The human brain is already so wired to find a logical connection between things that I think it just makes for more interesting art to throw it for a curveball rather than to try and perfectly illustrate what’s happening in a story.

I recently started learning about animation and realised that is very similar to how I work with comics nowadays. I feel like I’m a team where one part of my brain is assigned to background, another does writing and another one is in charge of drawing, and they all work independently of each other and do their own thing. And then I become the director where I have to pull the team together to make something out of these different bits. I think this approach is freeing, because it puts less pressure on any one thing to be good or interesting in itself and there is lots of room to play with things, to add and leave stuff out, right up until the finish.

Becoming Horses is your longest work to date, I believe, and did that change the way you worked? Obviously it’s a different beast than the strips of Slowly Dying, but did you approach it or make it differently than say, The Nature of Nature?

No, I think the process was fairly similar—just slower! Both of those books deal quite intently with one subject that I set from the beginning, and then it’s a matter of following all the different threads I can find and trying to look at it from many different angles. So I did the work in little chunks without really knowing how they were going to fit together until I had most of the material for the book, and then I filled in some of the gaps. And that’s been the same process for all of my books, pretty much. But I strayed from my usual routine a bit. In all my previous comics collections I’ve used a formula of call and response, where I have these two elements that speak in very different tones of voice and often one side will be more serious and the other will play off that in a humorous way. In The Nature of Nature that’s very obvious—every other page is a close-up or abstract image with some kind of statement and then the other pages follow a character bumbling about. Remember This?, my mini with Kuš!, follows a similar pattern. In Becoming Horses I considered doing something like that but with a 160 page book I thought that pattern would get tedious. So that was new for me, not having that structure to rely on. Becoming Horses is more linear than what I’d been doing before, and I think that was necessary but it was a difficult thing for me to figure out!

It’s a very philosophical comic and I think of so many of your works are at their heart about that. But they’re very playful and have this lightness and I wonder where that comes from. 

I have a severe case of existentialism and I just can’t help that, and I think if I was able to take myself more seriously I’d be an academic or something—but I can’t so I’m a cartoonist instead. And as such I want to use my art to have fun, enjoy life and appreciate all the things in it that makes it interesting and beautiful. Turning ennui into comedy is a great coping mechanism.

One aspect of the book is a gentle parody mocking art and artists and how people talk about art. But I also thought more than once that those were your own thoughts or efforts in making art.

Yes, absolutely. All the characters are in some sense me, I don’t really make much of an effort to make them into real and separate people—they are simply mirrors and vessels for different thoughts. They are pretty much a reflection of all the strands of dialogue happening in my head all the time, I just have a very talkative brain but I’m not the most talkative person so it’s got to come out somehow! I mean, I wouldn’t want to say that they represent me perfectly, it’s more like things that pass through me, bits of debris from the world that kick about and turn into brain worms that slither out into my comics. Some of what they say is very obviously taken directly from a source, there’s one character that recites a Queen song and there’s a bunch of other stuff too that’s in very direct reference to something but it doesn’t really matter if the reader would recognize it or not, I’m just retrofitting it into my own universe.

Art and art-making was definitely a theme, but I think these struggling artist characters could just as well be taken as an allegory for more existential themes. I had a lot of thoughts about beauty and our capacity to imagine things and what that means for us in building an idea of our selves and our communities. The ability to imagine and to dream isn’t limited to artists, nor is the importance of finding and appreciating beauty in the world. I think that’s just a human need and I’m more interested in that, universally, than the plight of the artist specifically, but that stuff is just near at hand for me to write about because I’m surrounded by artists in my day-to-day life. And, frankly, we’re very easy to make fun of.

One of the people that so many critics have referenced as far as your work is Jules Feiffer and his comic strips, and I’m curious whether you’re familiar with his work and do you see that influence?

I’d never heard of him until fairly recently but that has indeed happened a lot now so I really should have a done a better job of looking him up! I’ve Googled him and read a couple strips but I don’t think that really did him justice. I can see a similarity to my work in the gestural drawing style, a little Quentin Blake-like. I need to find a book of his and find out what this is all about.

Because I have you, I feel like I should ask about Slowly Dying, which was your webcomic that I enjoyed. Do you have plans to return to it? Or are you working on other projects now?

No plans for it, but you never know. It was always a very casual project and if the feeling returns to me, I’ll do more strips. All my work is done very in the moment and lately I’ve found it more freeing to use blank slate characters. But the recurring figures from the Slowly Dying strips will surely pop up again, as they have in Becoming Horses. My model for them is the Moomin universe. One of the things I really love about Tove Jansson’s work is that she was very free in how she used her characters: they had many shifts in personality and how they looked, and appeared quite differently in the books versus the cartoons. In one sense they are archetypes, representing a specific worldview or personality trait and that one part of them stays pretty consistent throughout, but all her various treatments of them means that it gets to resonate in really different ways. To me that’s a compelling way of working with recurring characters, and something I’d like to emulate in my own way.

Just as a final question, how do you describe Becoming Horses to people?

I can’t! I’m absolutely terrible at it! My reply when people ask what it’s about so far has been, “Um, well, it’s about a lot of things, and there are some horses in it.” I mean I guess that sort of sums it up but not really selling it very well! Somebody needs to explain to me what this book is about so I can tell people about it.

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