Marra Dialogue a.k.a. Bitch Swag

Originally published at Spandexless.com

Alec Berry & Shawn Starr / couldn’t come up with a title

Alec Berry: Benjamin Marra is the dude who can’t be told ‘no’ at the moment. The industry, or the side aware of him, has latched onto his work, and no matter what genre, content or heinous thing he draws, the people can’t get enough.

I would place myself in that camp of the faithful. Like most of the industry, I too was unaware of Marra’s comics up until this year, but now after having spent time with them, I find his attitude and passion for creating engrossing, and I feel his comics represent a long forgotten aspect of the medium. Representing, of course, for the betterment of comics.

Marra’s books, while lewd, grotesque and absurd, are keeping this funny book thing on the ground, balancing out the high reaching works of Craig Thompson, or whatever other clone there may be, celebrating some of the roots associated with comics while simply presenting an artist who doesn’t really give a fuck what you think. Marra’s making the shit he wants to see, and from this I feel it’s appropriate we discuss Marra’s work after our previous discussion which pertained to Rob Liefeld. Because Marra, like Liefeld, celebrates the trash entertainment value found in comics, but does so with an energy and charm that cannot be overridden. Yet, as an added bonus, Marra’s comics juxtapose the trash subject matter by presenting astounding craft and draftsmanship, making his books into these bombastic scraps slammed together with staples.

For anyone who spends any time on the comic industry’s side of the internet, this may not be anything new to chat about as Benjamin Marra has become a very well covered, and discussed, cartoonist. You can read just about any interview with the guy and discover what I just wrote, straight from the man himself. But, this aside, he does have a new book out titled Lincoln Washington: Free Man, and I think we would be remiss not to discuss this book because, of all the Marra comics I’ve read, I feel Lincoln Washington is his absolute best. It really brings all the ideas of his work home and houses them under a perfectly illustrated composition.

From the subject matter to the characterization to the humor, this comic performs in every way. And we can’t forget the six panel grids. But, fuck, let me stop. You’re the bigger fan than I. What did you find appealing about Lincoln Washington?

Shawn Starr: I think what makes Marra important is that he makes genuinely fun comics. That seems like an odd statement, but when you examine the landscape of comics in the wake of the 80’s / 90’s intellectual movement (in both art comics via RAW and Art Spiegelman and in the “mainstream” by the likes of Alan Moore and Frank Miller) everything became serious. Too serious. Every comic, from superheroes whose only power was to shoot arrows and look like Robin Hood, to the ‘zine some guy xeroxed on his lunch break about middle-aged samurai kangaroos, was considered the pinnacle of art.

Everything became graphic-novel-this and graphic-novel-that, and comics were thrust into the hands of the mainstream under the guise of “Art”; even the Batman movie was accompanied by a Grant Morrison / Dave McKean “graphic novel” that would grab the attention of none of the moviegoers. Seriously, that book is fucking impenetrable.

Intellectualism is what everybody decided made comics acceptable, I guess. That’s why all those RAW guys live on yachts and pour champagne on bitches all day. Except Spiegelman; he just puts his cigarettes out on their inner-thighs and watches them dance real slow. Real slow. And now no one looks at the kid reading the new issue of Wolverine on the bus weird, because everyone knows how serious Wolverine is. Dude’s got adamantium claws and can’t remember his past. Dostoyevsky, eat your heart out.

Except, none of that’s true.

The problem is that Spiegelman and his disciples looked at EC Comics and MAD Magazine and saw an air of intellectualism in Harvey Kurtzman, and assumed that’s where comics went right, and pumped it up a thousandfold. They abandoned all the horror and humor that made those comics popular for an attempt at respectability. They tried to make comics for the “masses” (those masses being people who hang out at Cambridge coffee houses and try and pick up Grad-Students with an insightful critique of China’s economic development they culled from last year’s New Yorker) and lost what made comics, you know, comics. Liefeld and the Image guys recaptured that to a certain degree, but they were never able to get that underlying intellectualism down. It was a perfect mix, that everyone took the extremes of and lost what made it truly great. (The Wally Wood art didn’t hurt either.)

That air of intellectualism and is an important feature of EC and MAD, no doubt, but its beneath the surface to a large extent, or at least as beneath the surface as a 1950’s comic could be. Kids didn’t read EC and MAD to find out about Cuba’s strategic geo-political value or Soviet Collectivism, they wanted to see poop jokes and ghouls ripping limbs off unsuspecting college students, and Marra perfectly captures that feeling. Gangsta Rap Posse is steeped in the history of Gangsta Rap, but Marra doesn’t allow that to constrain the book. It’s all there if you want it, but the book is first and foremost an exploration of a 12-year old’s perception of NWA and Gangsta Rap. A view warped by the perception that the band itself put forward and the media’s further distortion under Reaganomics skewed morality. He makes comics warped by white suburbia’s fears of the violent, aggressive and subversive extremes of art and culture. Something Robert Crumb would have loved, if he hadn’t turned into a old curmudgeon who yells at his direct (rather than theoretical*) descendants to get off his lawn.

NWA smokes crack, fucks hookers and kills cops. The end. So why not make a comic about that, and not the 10,000th auto-bio comic about how you can’t get laid and no one understands you.

Marra makes fun comics first and foremost. That may be why he can do no wrong (currently), and Lincoln Washington is his best effort yet. It’s the exploitation movie Tarantino wishes he could make (and may now have) done in twenty-three expertly crafted pages. Even his use (along with the current crop of art/alt-comics creators) of the comics pamphlet is revolutionary; a back to basics approach to comic making in the strain of the original EC Comics shock aesthetic, reproduced on the disposable newsprint (which American Psycho used perfectly) that created the ideal of the trash culture of comics. No more multi-arc genre deconstructions based on a Yeats poem the author misunderstood, just single issue fistfights, with a little something more if you want it. Straight up comics.

Even Marra’s books that end with a “to be continued…” read more like a threat than a promise of more to come. Maybe Marra has a Lincoln Washington #2 in mind, but #1 did everything I wanted and more. I’m not sure comics could handle a follow up.

I don’t know. I’ve had enough of intellectualism and pseudo-realism in my comics. They have their place, i just don’t think that place is at the forefront anymore. I just want comics to be comics again, and Marra (and company) captures that aesthetic perfectly.

Also on your point of Marra’s apparent “lewdness” do you actually see his comics as “lewd” or is it his use of violence and sexuality for satirical purposes that causes that feeling? I assume that’s his intent, to create lewd and obscene work, but I don’t think any Marra book is as violent as anything that DC puts out (just look at an issue of Green Lantern and you’ll see a female in far skimpier attire than anything Marra depicts disemboweled for 20 pages at a time) or as sexual. If anything it’s less, since Marra is depicting a slave ripping out his “owners” spine purely for laughs (even the slave-owners rape of Lincoln Washington’s wife, although horrific, is done with the readers knowledge that he’s going to get what’s coming to him sooner rather than later). Maybe the problem is that Marra makes the reader complacent, or even proactive in the violence? I know when I saw what happened to everyone I was gleeful. I literally rushed out to make my brother read it and point out panels to him. While when you read the same thing in a Batman comic you’re kind of disturbed by the whole experience. Batman’s real, or at least his world is portrayed as real, Marra’s is always firmly dealing in the fictional.

AB: While the content plays into the humor or Marra’s fascination with trash entertainment, it is, by nature, still provocative, and I wouldn’t go as far as to say a DC or Marvel comic is worse or just as bad. Maybe in terms of the context, yes, a Marvel or DC can take a lighthearted thing like Green Lantern and pervert it through violence or an overly serious tone, but the violence, by itself, is still technically worse and more explicit in a Marra book. But it can feel lighthearted, as you say, because of association through humor or knowing exactly what you’re reading from the start. Batman going out and raping someone or whatever will come at more of a shock and leave more of an impact (that’s for you, Joey) just because of the expectations placed on a Batman comic. A Ben Marra comic brings with it a whole other bag of expectations. So, to a degree, I can agree with your point.

I’m not trying to demean Marra’s subjects or make these comics out to be offensive. In fact, I find the lewd quality as a definite benefit to the work because I feel it helps accomplish the mission of what Marra’s doing, in that, these are things you shouldn’t own or show to people. You should read Gangsta Rap Posse or Night Business alone in your room, and when your mom walks in, tuck it under the bed.. It brings back that idea of hiding shit from your parents. Like, even now in my own apartment, I stack Marra’s stuff underneath other comics because I don’t want someone to walk into my room and get any ideas about the shit I’m into. But again, that’s cool. Like you usually say, “comics as weapons.” Or comics being the poison which ruins your kids. I love that concept or perspective on the medium.

I like your thought on Marra’s violence making a reader more proactive because I do think he uses violence in such a way, as do stories or entertainment of this sort. Especially for this subject matter where good and evil are so black and white (no pun intended). You can’t help but cheer Lincoln Washington on. And that even comes down to the characterization. Washington is such a set-in-stone hero and the Klansmen are such vile pieces of shit. Nothing’s grey, and it completely dodges this current idea of what we see in super hero comics or other stories in general. Every character has turned into a washboard, contemplating life’s big questions before acting. Marra’s characters just do what they do without any further thought. Bad real life practice, great fictional stance.

But as for participating in that violence, or anticipating it, banking on it … I do find that an interesting way to read into people. Trash entertainment, being what it is, speaks to that savage side of us. That side that’s not really concerned about the consequences but just wants bloodshed, tits and hard drugs. You could go into a whole debate about whether it’s a good thing to stir up that side of our psyche or not, but I feel the point is it’s there. We possess such an instinct, and storytelling such as this feeds or at least exercises that shit out in a relatively safe way.

There’s more to say about these types of work than just wish fulfillment or humor. Maybe they help keep us sane?

For Lincoln Washington, it’s about payback. It’s about rubbing shit in the white man’s face as well as confronting some of that white guilt – on top of being about a man ripping another guy’s spine out. And it all sort of satisfies by the end, no matter the reader’s skin color, because you feel in a sense justice has been rightfully served, fictionally. But though fiction, it still hits and means something. The reaction either is one of they got what they deserved, or I, being the white man, totally needed my ass kicked.

Maybe that’s an unnecessary reading, but I like the idea of Marra’s work both being trash as well as well-thought out and intelligent. I feel much of that resides in Lincoln Washington, and it builds a little on what you were saying about the violence inciting a proactive response. The violence has a purpose. Like all the best stories.

How did you feel about the inking style on this book? It sort of reverted back, in a sense, to what he did before Gangsta Rap Posse #2. Does it fit the book for you? I would say so. The bold blacks certainly give the story more of a defined stance, and the inking really helps to depict Washington’s character as this bad ass hero type who appears cut from stone.

SS: He certainly has a lot more spot blacks in Lincoln Washington, a contrast from his last work (Gangsta Rap Posse #2) which was all line work. I’m not sure if it’s a reversion, though. His early inking style is quite heavy handed, while Lincoln Washington’s inking seems like more of a continuation from Gangsta Rap Posse than a reversion. His inking here is more restrained than his previous works, and utilized with greater purpose, something that I wouldn’t generally identify with Marra. By doing away with all the excess inking, Marra seems to have figured out when and where it’s absolutely necessary to the story and leave it out in any other instance.

In Gangsta Rap Posse #2 Marra choose not to distinguish the black cast from the white with any additional shading or color, that probably stems from  trying to keep the colors (black & white) in balance on the page, along with streamlining the process. It works on that project, and there’s a definite improvement in the art between issues #1 and #2, but in Lincoln Washington it needed the blacks to distinguish the character from his surroundings.

Lincoln Washington is the only black character in the book (except for his wife, who appears for a total of three pages), and he’s entering an “alien” and hostile place (Post-Civil War South), so his color has to be at the forefront, requiring a heavy shading/color process to separate him from the white residence. What could be ignored in Gangsta Rap Posse really can’t in Lincoln Washington. Race is a far more prominent detail.

If you look at the first page of Lincoln Washington, the only two objects that are completely black are Lincoln Washington and the title “O’ Sins of Men, What Demon Fathered You” which both distinguishes Lincoln from his surroundings and connects him with the title explicitly, the title both works as a comment on the sins of racism (America’s original sin) and Lincoln Washington, who is a man empowered by the souls of slaves to avenge the wrong doings perpetrated by white slaveholders. The colors are used as a way of separating and defining Lincoln as a character.

I also want to expand on Marra’s use of the six panel grid which you touched on. His layouts are simple, concise, and have a great 1-2 beat, while the nine panel grid always seemed too dense (probably due to its association with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen) and anything less reads too fast (Widescreen comics and their Three/Four panel grid for example are closely associated with decompression). The six panel grid allows Marra to tell a whole story, both between each panel, and over the course of twenty-three pages, without any sense of decompression, or limiting his artwork by confining it in an overly dense panel.

Marra’s ability to keep his pages kinetic has always impressed me, and I think the six panel grid has a lot to do with it. He has a particularly stiff line compared to most artists, which he uses to a great effect in showing his characters body language and adding a subtle hint of contrast between his characters by playing with their bodies “stiffness” and “looseness” on the page. But his line’s stiffness never seems to constrain the action. Everything’s in constant motion on a Marra page, making it seem that each panel is being pushed into the next. I think this is where the grids’ simplicity comes into effect. It allows the action to flow smoothly from one panel to another while still remaining clear and rhythmic, which Marra uses to offset anything static about his line work.

AB: This Matt Seneca interview with Marra is a great read, if you haven’t already.

I’d say you summed it all up nicely, Shawn; therefore, I’m going to let it go at that.

Purchase Lincoln Washington: Free Man here. That is a demand.

ENDNOTES
*Johnny Ryan and Ben Marra have more in common with Crumb content wise (especially Crumbs early work) than every artist RAW published combined, and yet Crumb identifies with the latter instead of the former. Going so far as to criticize Johnny Ryan for his content. Which always seemed odd from a man who started out drawing a mixture of racist and perverted comics meant to offend squares in San Francisco.

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