Image’s ‘Genesis’ Artist Alison Sampson On The Intersection of Comics And Architecture [Interview]
Available for pre-order now, Genesis is a forthcoming graphic novella from Image Comics created by the team of Alison Sampson, Nathan Edmonson, and Jason Wordie. In it is the 56-page story of the awesome thankless burden of one man’s ability to shape and change the world. Edmonson has scripted a moody, horror-tinged tale that captures perfectly the spiraling psyche of a man trying to create a better existence only to be constantly overwhelmed by the obstacles that come with this, not the least of which is a a multicultural and gendered world which seems more than happy to stick to the status quo. It’s a mind-melting story brought to uncommonly vivid life by Sampson’s artwork and the coloring of Jason Wordie.
Sampson creates an angular, expressionistic spindle of a universe that at once affirms the wild possibilities of creation and underscores the haunted fragility of those creations. Simply through her abilities at montage, she’s able to immerse the reader in a flowing, psychologically amorphous world. Genesis is worth reading simply to behold the spectacular buildings and vistas that she creates out of the co-mingled shrapnel of the constructed and natural worlds. There is a monstrous castle in this book that has to simply be seen to be believed.
All of this is colored in a pleasant, muted palette by Wordie. The finished images call to mind Joseph Bergin III’s work on Prophet in its kind of peaceful, painterly soft-horror. Sampson’s work creates a mood of shifting, unstable depression, while Wordie plays off of that and finds a modulation that is transformative to the greater horror of the book as a whole. By the time you get to Genesis’ apocalyptic rivers of blood, they are expressed with a really special kind of weight. The strength of Wordie’s work in this book makes him one to look out for in the coming years.
We sat down to with Alison Sampson to discuss these topics and more, both with respect to Genesis and her approach as an artist in practice. What followed was a really fascinating discussion, delving into the intersection of architecture and comics.
ComicsAlliance: One of the more interesting dynamics within Genesis is the concept of the shaped environment. Within that shaped environment, generally we are accustomed to seeing a stark separation between that which is built, like a house or an apartment complex, and the natural world into which those things are built. In Genesis these elements aren’t separate, though. In fact they seem to constantly bleed into one another. What made you decide to do that?
Alison Sampson: In life, even the natural world is managed. “Natural” areas are kept natural, roads are built, maps are made, national parks exist, people design landscapes, landscapes knit into buildings. Everything is architecture. Architects don’t just deal with new buildings, they deal with the entire environment. My work, because I specialize in large and complex projects, often has to deal with buildings within landscapes, and so-called external structures. We also work on what isn’t there as much as what is, at every level from removing signage to making sure sight-lines from one end of London to the other are not blocked. So to me, everything is ripe for control — and everything is controlled, even if it does not look like it.
In our story, our hero doesn’t differentiate between what is synthetic and what isn’t — it is all part of his world. To him, it is all landscape. We try in our book to represent the art in the same way. It is all landscape. Our panels read together and separately. Tangents and visual structures link one place and another, gutters make thresholds. I guess I am stepping into our hero’s shoes. Everything is designed, everything is synthetic. We don’t have to follow a natural law, we can put things where we want. But that way lies danger and chaos. This is why Nathan’s and my collaboration was so essential — it is a very considered script.
As a newcomer to [drawing] someone else’s comics I was particularly keen to stick to the script. With Nathan’s writing, I took this on because of his way of pacing the story. I knew there would be density. And there is density. What this means is that I am fighting to fit what needs to be shown onto the page. There is nearly nowhere I could add in another panel without throwing the page count. There are panels where (without giving spoilers) where something extremely specific appears from nothing (or changes from one thing to another) in a single panel. How do you show that? I wanted to bring an idea of movement and change to the reading. One thing turns into another. Not only does the art flow, but the world does too.
CA: You mention creating movement within restriction, and a density such that you couldn’t even add an extra panel without throwing the page count, and how your answer to this problem was creating amorphous shape changing clouds of form within singular panels. Within that decision, how do you control the pacing of the story?
AS: Through layout and device. I could also choose point of view, shot, scale of activity, panel size, and, of course, I had trust in the script that I had. I could also design things, which might be big, so they looked compact, and I could incorporate things which hopefully would supply a possibility for shorthand at that point, or later. We could have panels in panels and I could squeeze in detail — like the stars that our cult members wear. I think pacing is one of Nathan’s big strengths, and perhaps a main reason I enjoy his work, and I’m not going to mess with it. Whatever he wanted could be made to work, I just had to find out how. Even if I had had a full script when I started (and I didn’t — I received it very incrementally, which meant I didn’t see the overall picture until about two thirds of the way through), I don’t think we would have added more than the one page. I did whatever I could with the script to make the best experience possible. At the end of the day, hopefully all the mechanics are invisible to the reader and the story flows as it should.
CA: What challenges does that kind of choice create for you as an artist?
AS: Exciting design challenges. Architectural challenges. Not only defining space, but how spaces work together in a non-linear way. Fitting lots of things into small spaces is the bread and butter of architecture work, and doing it in a fun, elegant, thoughtful and functional way, with the materials we can find, is our task. We don’t just design rooms, but the space as a whole; thresholds, details, filters, points of focus and all. We take pride in doing it well, and there are always plenty of ways — but care shows, and it is even better if it is enjoyable for our clients. I drew a script by Jon Callan for Image Comics’ Outlaw Territory anthology and when I first read it, I thought he didn’t give me anything — poor, ugly people, barren landscapes, bare bones, dust, mud and disappointment. But it was those limitations which gave the story its focus and richness, and I think it is always the way.
CA: Was there anything you were surprised by in taking that approach that will follow you from this project to the next?
AS: Howard Chaykin gave me a comment on the art I’d drawn in Spera (which I drew in a break from Genesis), about a part of it being distracting and I took that on board, and used it on this story. Sometimes using existing conventions have their purposes, even if it isn’t obvious. Architecture is like comics, but it isn’t comics. There are some things you only learn by doing. I know this shouldn’t be a surprise and it isn’t, but I did appreciate the art crit, and I always do. I’m also very self-critical (and have solicited art crit from others) and take a fair bit of input from this project to my next, as provided by comic professionals (if any are reading this, I am very grateful).
CA: The page where Adam changes his wife’s body to suit his desire, you chose to do it as four static horizontal panels that she changes through. What did that choice mean for you against other possible choices?
AS: There are several reasons for this choice. There is a complex, vertically-based facing page (which this has to work with) and the tone of the page is “everything is beautiful” so things are not too chaotic. I need space on the page to set them in their world — together, the world is their oyster, at the beginning. I wanted to have a sense of progression and some sense of motion from panel to panel, but it isn’t frenetic. This seemed like the simplest way of doing things, whilst being able to co-opt items around our couple to expand on what is happening. As we close in, the rest of the world is gone and the art becomes… less clear, deliberately. Our book is suitable for a wide readership, despite this scene being what it is. Being anything less than straightforward would have shown perhaps too much, and lost the moment. When I drew this, I’m not aware there was a lot out there like it, and maybe there is more now. But I wanted this to be beautiful and not from the man’s point of view, so here we are.
CA: If you were doing your own comic, does the way you approach a page change significantly?
AS: I make documents for people to read, for a living, as well as spaces for people to dwell in real life, and they are not comics — but include words and pictures, so I have this different vocabulary to start with. We use diagrams, projections, models, and the reading of architecture is a whole other thing. Comics are not our source material for communication devices; we have a different history. We think about the glance and the gaze. I’m pretty sure, where there is opportunity, I would vary the notation. Also, architectural information is only presented in a linear format if it is text. Architectural drawings do not appropriate reading conventions like comics do, so my approach to a comic might be more or less similar. Here is my first comic, written/ designed over a weekend, about three years ago:
CA: One of the more remarkable things in Genesis is the way that the buildings themselves seem to contort and twist and are very psychological in nature. One of the best examples of this is the bridge that Adam builds away from his troubles, midway through the book. Can you walk me through the design choices you made and how it helped characterize Adam’s mind state? Where does something like that come from?
AS: I was particularly excited about this page as I thought that it would be a piece of pure design and composition. The reality was, there were so many constraints. So it is a house, it has dark bricks and is wrapping up like a [garbage bag], it has been a castle and a cliff, and his house from a few pages back, and in a couple of pages time it has to be identifiable, but be something else, something extremely specific. There has to be Adam’s anger, and his sense of a safe place, and shame, and there has to be continuity with what has just happened and some sense of compositional tidiness (structure, I guess). How do you draw shame? Walls going up, blindness, a thing turning in on itself and rolling to a ball, self harm, isolation (so, surrounded by water). The world drifting away.
Around it are things that Adam may have had in his mind: a lamp post, a balustrade. Maybe he’d been to Trafalgar Square in London and what is there has come from his memories. Stone work and worn flags and a sense of history and stability. The bridge comes from his house, and I had to find some way of telling the reader what it was doing, so this is the house that ate itself. Instead of a garbage bag, it would be rolling, so that was a home was being eaten, so something “occurs,” as opposed to just “is.” The bridge has to connect to this, so the whole thing is twisting round and then connected to the facing page, so the spread has a sense of unity and it can be seen where the bridge comes from. It might not be clear what things are, but it is hopefully clear what they do. And then we draw a line under the whole thing, take a pause as what has happened sinks in, and scream.
This is the script from Nathan that I drew to for what is now page 19, bar the last small panel. You’ll see the dialogue is entirely different now.
FULL SPLASH. He’s looking around as the skies are rumbling with lightning and thunder, the landscape around him. There are still bits of sunlight, rays cutting through the clouds, but these are being swallowed up. Behind him, his house continues to twist and hide itself under gothic-like arches and dark bricks, twisting up the facade like a garbage bag being tied shut.
1) Caption: I’ve done a bad thing.
CA: It is also really interesting that in the script, Edmondson is mostly writing about the weather to reflect the mind, but for you the psychosis is as deeply reflected as the stone work. I’m interested in the way different architectural choices can reflect or create different moods. How deep is that particular rabbit hole? Or is a lot of it contextual? What is the value of one kind of arch versus another when you hit the page?
AS: The ways architectural choices can affect or create mood are pretty infinite, at least on paper. Off paper, there are more constraints. The big thing with paper versus life is that the paper version does not have to work in the same way, be finished or complete, or subject to the constraints of life, or even be mundane spaces. Real buildings have gravity and real materials and all sorts of considered matters with them. This makes them both more immediate in terms of a presence, but differently able to evoke mood in quite the same way as say, artwork can, which is much more like a painting. So where I use architecture, or landscape, or both in the book, it is tailored to that page, that mood, what the story is trying to do, and it is whatever it needs to be for the story, and nothing more. Composition is as important, and much of the strain on me was to get spaces comprehensible, whilst also fitting them in the narrative and the page design. That said, there is no rule in life that says spaces have to be completely explicit to the viewer from a single point, and that goes for comics too.
Lines in ink are not stones on the floor — we are really talking about different things. They can be shorthand, they can evoke things real materials could not do. We make all sorts of cultural associations when we look at pictures of architecture, and much of that depends on who we are, so a stone balustrade evokes a certain thing and bricked windows another, and so on. I use architecture as a device, to make enclosure, or to suggest taste (or a life) or to elevate. There is no rule that it should be the brick boxes we know, because those are not architecture. Architecture can be about and be anything we want it to be, on paper, as in life.
CA: I also noticed some touches of Lebbeus Woods in this particular bridge. Can you talk about what his work means for you, and what part of his language you’ve had most resonate for you within your functions as an artist?
AS: Oh.. Lebbeus Woods. He came along at a really critical moment when I was studying architecture, the day before I started my diploma at the Bartlett. I’d thrown in my Cambridge place to go to this London school which had just had a new head for a year, Peter Cook of Archigram. I’d heard it was good. I had no idea what they did. It was an emotional decision. So when there was an invite to go in the day before term started to do a workshop with Lebbeus, I thought it would help get me warmed up. I did the project on that day and can’t remember what, but I was caught up with the way he did things. Draw first, manifest emotion in your work, don’t get too caught up in the practicalities to begin with, work with composition.
It was architecture that was painterly whilst being defined. I’d come from this school, which was known for a certain kind of architecture, beautiful and rational, and there had been a clear reason for everything I had drawn. Lebbeus Woods said that a reason could be emotional as well as functional. As well as being a great experimenter, he was very convincing as a person. In this place, at that time all this was a radical departure. So that laid the groundwork for my next two years and, since I’ve taken a 20-year hiatus, this work now. I’m picking up where I put my pen down then. He was always drawing and also, always politically engaged, both with people and with what was happening in the world. It is quite easy to get caught up in drawing and not be politically engaged (by political I mean “between people,” at all different scales), and he cut through all of that. Just a really inspiring person to follow and know.
CA: Do you see comics as a way to be more politically engaged in that way? Does that extend off the page as well?
AS: As I’ve said elsewhere, I think emotions are the most important thing in comics, and in that way I’d like to make them political; about how one person relates to another. There is a lot of scope there for storytelling, and design on the page. I think as an architect, it is correct for me to be politically engaged within society. We do have a responsibility not only to our clients, but to everyone, from how we work with people’s environments, to trying to minimize how much carbon our buildings consume, and so on.
I don’t think that responsibility extends as far as making comics, though. There are things I am interested in, and I’ve had a certain amount of professional experience elsewhere, but that manifests itself in me liking the work of people like Jacques Tardi, or making projects like Think of a City. Think of a City is an experiment with form, and a kind of a community. That project is bigger than me, and it is about all the people who contribute and what we are doing — building a city. I wanted to promote the idea that the design of places and spaces is important in storytelling. Think of a City brings together a few people who are into that, so we could make something bigger and maybe more lasting, together.
CA: What was your comics journey that got you to where you are now with the medium? You’ve said in the past that you started reading comics fairly late — what were the series of books that shaped how you see on the page?
AS: I read 2000AD as a child but stopped when I went to study architecture. We had children’s books with original painted illustrations, and art based books like those of Brian Wildsmith and the Puffin annuals and a solitary Marvel comic, which I never knew the origin of. In terms of what shaped the art on the page, zoom up to the present, and it would be Jock’s work that made me identify practically with drawing a comic. You can see his hand in the work, and it was not as though I thought I could do that work, but, having been an inker, I respected it. So I’d had a job inking artwork for architecture, without having seen any comics; and a design job, where we deal a lot in narrative and execution, and made books with words and pictures, without having made any comics.
When I came to make my own work I’d like to say it was probably people like Alberto Breccia, Egon Schiele and the narrative/ street photographer inhabitants of my Space In Text site that had the influence. But they all had less influence than my actual experience as an architect and all those 20th century children’s books. I bought and commissioned a lot of original art, mainly from British artists of my own generation, including Philip Bond, Duncan Fegredo and Jock, so I’ve seen what the ink is like on the paper. That was really about learning, and supporting artists I liked.
Tony Salmons reached out very early on and gave art crit, and introduced me to friends who also had an influence, like Matt Southworth and James Romberger. Now we have Think of a City, a collective project started with like minded artists, and they are an influence (as are several of “the ones that got away”). Most recently it has been Children of the Sea by Daisuke Igarashi, and books by Jacques Tardi. I hear about many new things from Zainab (Akhtar) on her blog, and from my friends on Tumblr. There is always something new.
CA: Wow, you had a job inking architecture? That’s really interesting, and that inking was kind of your portal into comics. How would you describe your relationship to ink as a medium? Is there a difference for you between using actual ink, or inking on the computer digitally? What kinds of things are exciting to you in other people’s style when it comes to ink on the page?
AS: Before computers were used for drawing architecture, it was all done by hand and that work was a profession in its own right. That is pretty much as you started out in big offices, as an assistant, where you drew up other people’s sketches really well, and did inking, lettering and rendering and all sorts of stuff in conjunction with other people. I also used to make custom lettering, and set up perspectives. It was all sorts of things. That work was swept away by the mid 1990s so I only did it for a couple of years up to when I was 21. It was fantastic practice, though, and everything had to be really perfect, so we’d use razorblades for our erasing, but also to perfect our lines. The scratching out was part of the work — it was how drawings were changed, which was what was expected to happen. So you have this culture of putting on ink and taking it off. And these drawings have a “life” and were all about what was printed. All content, no form. But I like making things and form, so my original art has this same life, and there comes a moment when you are working with the drawing and the panel comes alive, then you stop.
I don’t think I fetishize inking, though I do enjoy working on paper, and this is a pretty novel experience. Most architecture is drawn digitally, unless it really is quicker not to do that, or there is a reason. Hand-drawings are more forgiving, and have their place and I do a fair amount of those. Working in black and white is great, though, and it goes back to my idea that art that you want to circulate should be cheaply and easily reproducible without damage. It really just office business i.e. *keeping your costs down,* and photocopies, depending how they are handled, can have their own special quality. You can say, “oh, now we have PDFs,” but I don’t see the guy laying paving slabs out there in the rain having a tablet in his back pocket. Paper has its uses.
In terms of other people’s inking, I think the person who has me most excited at the moment about inking is Jeff Stokely. There don’t seem to be happy accidents there, just total skill and focus in trying to achieve what he is doing. I like Alex Toth’s work for its design qualities, and around that, the work of people like José González and Ferdinando Tacconi and Tonci Zonjic. There are lots of people trying new things right now: David Rubin, Damien Worm, Roque Romero, Daisuke Igarashi, Kerascoët, Taiyou Matsumoto. For me, it is how to bring a life. There is a lot to learn. From everyone.
CA: You’ve been a fairly active aggregator of art and comics art on the Internet over the years, through your wonderful Space in Text website, Tumblr, and on Facebook — I don’t think a singular person has turned me on to more great art than you have with those sites. As an artist, what role does that kind of sharing play for you?
AS: It is not really sharing. I do it for myself — to learn, to take notes — and people have come along for the ride. Space In Text actually started as a place for me to practice my reviewing, and that’s really how I got into comics, by looking for things to write about. After a while, the writing dropped off as it was taking too long. I was doing a lot of writing at work, so I was just posting art, which was especially interesting. Then I started to ask myself why I was doing that instead of making my own. Also, as an architect, we make many daily aesthetic judgements, as part of our work, based on an emotional response, and I see the constant judging as a kind of keep fit. Being more confident of and quick in your judgements helps you design faster. A website doesn’t have to be all about getting followers, or showing people. it can just be a home for something on the internet.
CA: What do you want out of comics? Like in a perfect world, you’ve got your character Adam s world shaping powers, but as it applies to you in comics, what do you want to see for yourself, and for comics as a whole going forward?
AS: I’d like my work to be read and ideally paid for, and I’d like comics to pay, generally. I’d like to see more comics in bookshops and reaching people who might be into the work, than is currently the case with the direct market. I come into contact with a lot of people who I think would be interested and they quite simply do not have the access, as I didn’t, or have some kind of idea it is about capes, which puts them off. How can these people be reached? Why did it take me all this time to walk into a comic shop? If comics are a good means of creative expression for me, then I’d like to be involved.
My favorite comics at the moment are Pretty Deadly, Prophet, Undertow, Robert Ball’s Winter’s Knight, and I’m looking forward to new work by Rob Davis, more Christoph Blain, and Jacques Tardi. I’m impressed by the design approaches on Zero and I’ve just read In The Kitchen by Christoph Blain. All of these use alternative notation. I admire what Emma [Rios] has been doing with Pretty Deadly. As a fellow architect, and one with some experience, as well as a wildly different reading background, her approach teaches much. I can’t wait to see what she does with her own writing in 8House, and I’m sure that will be a massive (and useful) kick up the backside. I just need to do my own comic, after this experience. Then I will know. I appreciate the constraints collaboration brings, in whatever manner it occurs and I enjoy it, but there probably is a line somewhere there. I guess we will see.
Genesis goes on sale in print and digitally April 19 from Image Comics. It can be pre-ordered now from finer comics shops.