Diving Into The Canvas: W. Maxwell Prince And Martin Morazzo On ‘The Electric Sublime’
Art crime strikes in The Electric Sublime, a new comic due out this fall from writer W. Maxwell Prince, artist Martín Morazzo, and colorist Mat Lopes. At the center of the story are Margot Breslin, head of the Bureau of Artistic Integrity (BAI), and Arthur Brut, a mentally unstable consultant who interacts with art in ways nobody else can. Together they're investigating an escalating series of events involving famous works of art inexplicably changing, and people reacting even more inexplicably.
We talked to Prince and Morazzo about art, mental illness, and what we can expect from The Electric Sublime.
Comics Alliance: Why the Mona Lisa? Was that always going to be the piece of art at the center of the first issue, or did you consider other works?
W. Maxwell Prince: For me, the Mona Lisa is a sort of perfect synecdoche of classical art. It’s a work made by a Renaissance master that somehow managed to exceed the limits of the classical world and came to be recognized by everyone, whether they’re interested in art or not. Everyone knows her; everyone’s haunted by her little smirk. And the idea in this first issue is that the integrity of our artistic works is intrinsically tied to the stability of the universe: if something’s wrong with an important painting, the foundations of what we know begin to slip, and people start to go insane.
So La Gioconda (a snoot’s name for the Mona Lisa) was kind of a no-brainer candidate to use as an introductory example of The Electric Sublime’s early thesis: that a change in a well known piece of art might start to have weird effects on its spectators. Which in Mona’s case includes pretty much everyone.
CA: What influences have had an effect on this series for both of you, whether inside or outside of comics? I thought maybe there was a bit of Morrison’s Doom Patrol, but that could just be me.
WMP: I’ve actually never read Doom Patrol. But I’m a big Morrison fan. Comics-wise, I’d say the tone of The Electric Sublime owes a lot to The Sandman, insofar as it includes a super-powerful, super-flawed skinny guy that does his magic or whatever on the periphery of other peoples’ lives. (Arthur Brut might be construed as the the series’ main protagonist, but really I see this first arc as being about Margot Breslin, director of the BAI.)
As for stars I tend to steer by: Denis Johnson’s fiction and poetry, George Saunders, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo. Any Winslow Homer painting featuring a body of water. Lots of Magritte. Frank Quietly, in and out of comics. Those Ba/Moon guys. Anything Martín [Morazzo, series artist] sends to my inbox. Morrissey, Okkervil River, Sam Cook. Every mode of art gives me new ideas for The Electric Sublime, and I hope I get to address a lot of them eventually.
Martín Morazzo: At first, I found it hard to create this conceptual construction of the intangible art realm called The Electric Sublime! I started researching any story that had a similar concept. Sandman, Inside Moebius, and the movie What Dreams May Come are some of the stories I remember checking out.
CA: I’m also curious about the role of high art in the creation of this story. Did you build a story around art as a way to talk about art, or are you using art as a way to tell the story you want to tell?
MM: I think it's both ways! Once Will contacted me to work together I was thrilled by the idea of doing a comic book about the world of art. As we got deeper into the story, I realize it's really about its characters and how they react, suffer, modify or even use, for some totally twisted goals, that world of art!
WMP: What Martín said. I wanted to tell an art history story, but wound up writing something about how hard it can be to express yourself, in any mode.
CA: Martín, is it a particular challenge to draw a comic that’s about art? Do you have to give more consideration to the aesthetics in general in that situation?
MM: I love to do detail and use exact reference in my work! That's been a real challenge, drawing the Louvre halls, trying to put each painting where it is, exactly, or giving life to characters that you've seen so many times in famous paintings!
CA: What inspired the idea of the Bureau of Artistic Integrity and its art detectives?
WMP: I imagine the FBI would be ill-equipped to deal with a winking Mona Lisa. Who would they call? What would they do? The BAI is just a logical extensions of all of our governmental and administrative specialization. There’s an organization for everything! (I recently found out that there’s such thing as the US Dry Pea and Lentil Council, who I bet are aces at dealing with hummus-crimes.)
CA: Mental illness can be a very delicate thing to deal with in fiction, and people argue a lot about its relationship to creativity in particular. How much did you think about these kinds of issues in creating the character of Arthur Brut?
WMP: There are a few lines of attack to this question. The first is: Arthur Brut, our heroic art detective, can also be called, for short, “Art Brut,” which was the name of an artistic movement featuring works of “outsider art,” often created by the mental ill. And Arthur is, as you’ll find out, immensely unstable. So the correlations between creativity, art history, and mental illness are all very consciously coded into the story.
But the problem is that no one’s ever been able to prove a real causal relation between creativity and insanity beyond the presence of dopamine in the frontal lobe. There’s just an endless supply of empirical and methodological problems in testing this sort of thing. We know that bipolarism and depression and mania have afflicted some of our favorite creators. But why? My own homespun theory is that for all the possible connections between being “mad” and being “artistic,” art has proven itself to be a really efficient way for people of a certain wiring to communicate with the rest of the world.
In my own experience, the most creative people are typically those that have trouble having conversations at parties, or looking another person in the eye for an extended amount of time. But then they get behind the canvas, or pick up the guitar, or sit in front of a word processor, and all that congestion and difficulty fades away. Creativity, in this sense, presents itself as a kind of freedom to people who feel otherwise trapped.
There’s another side to this, though, and that’s the spectator. A lot of madness might go into the creation of painting, but how it’s received on the other side can be totally different. i.e., while a painter like Van Gogh might have been “insane,” people often find peace when looking at one of his manic, impressionistic paintings. We see it all the time: a person staring at a work in a museum, lost in a kind of splendid reverie. All of their problems just fade away. Or it happens in music, or when reading a really good book. Art can be the product of madness, but the product itself often acts as a kind of salve that ameliorates madness. It’s an anxiety-reducer, a coping mechanism.
This is all by way of saying that it’s really hard to talk about this stuff, but The Electric Sublime makes a good faith attempt at being honest about it. And it all starts when a painting that’s supposed to have us in awe and put us at ease instead starts to make us lose our minds and do horrible violence.
MM: To me The Electric Sublime was extremely cathartic! I had tragic cases of mental illness in my family, so I can say it's been hard to portray Arthur and other characters. But like I said, it's been cathartic, and relieving too!
WMP: When I started putting TES together, Martín was already the best candidate to draw the story. But when he told me about his family history, it all seemed a strange sort of kismet.
CA: There’s a villain who appears late in the first issue who’s clearly based on a famous real-world artist. Will there be other artists cast as villains in the future?
WMP: I don’t think it’s ruining anything to say that Warhol — or a man who looks very much like Warhol — shows up in this first arc. If I have my druthers, you’ll see lots of artists — both famous and unknown — in the pages of The Electric Sublime. As for whether they’re foes or friends, who’s to say?
CA: I don’t know how long the series is planned to run, but are you planning it as a single story, or are there more art crimes to come after this first one is solved?
WMP: We’re contracted for four issues, but I believe the deal is that if people dig this story enough and come out for it in sufficient numbers, then IDW will allow Me, Martín, and Mat (Lopes, our colorist) to continue to do our thing. I’ve got plenty more TES in my head and notebooks.
CA: Can you tell us where the title “Electric Sublime” comes from, or is that something to be revealed in the comic itself?
WMP: The honest, uninteresting answer is: this series was originally called something else, but for a number of reasons that title had to be changed. The Electric Sublime are just three words that assembled themselves in my head, and they seemed perhaps a more suitable title than “Untitled Comic About Jumping into Paintings.” But it’s got a nice ring, doesn’t it? The Electric Sublime. I can see it on a t-shirt. Once the title was in place, it actually came to mean something very specific for Arthur, which you’ll find about in issue two.
The Electric Sublime #1 is due out Oct. 19 from IDW.