Spandexless Talks: Michel Fiffe of Zegas

This interview was done nearly a year ago, but I wish to post here it for the sake of posterity. It was originally published at Spandexless.com. Enjoy.

Michel Fiffe should be on everybody’s “watch list.” I know he’s sitting comfortably on mine.

Sometime during the span of 2011, Fiffe caught my attention via his involvement in the Erik Larsen-fueled passion project known as Twisted Savage Dragon Funnies, and from that significant seed I couldn’t seem to escape the guy. Whether it were thought-provoking essays or his own comic book Zegas, Michel Fiffe popped into my radar and quickly engulfed my line of sight like a bright, blinking red dot.

But, honestly, I’m not concerned. I’m glad he captured my attention because Fiffe produces the work I want to read – comic books with a point. But more importantly, comic books that take advantage of what make them comics. Zegas stands as a wonderful example of that, using a formalist approach to really experiment with what exactly makes a comic book narrative tick. Decorated in delicate line work and ash-fire color, Zegas tells the tale of a brother and sister and the numerous thoughts and worries they experience. That’s the best way I can sell it. The story is set against the backdrop of a sort of science fiction background – via one of those “apocalyptic events” – but really, at its core, it’s a story about personal concerns, and if anything, it comes off as more “slice of life” than sci-fi.

Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with Michel about himself and his comics. To say the man is a very helpful person would be an understatement. He gave me 100% of his attention, and I can’t say every creator would have taken the time to chat with me as he did. So, give the interview below a read. If it reads like it were conducted over some sort of instant messaging software, that’s because it was. I went for conversational here, and I feel I captured that, along with always interesting responses from Michel about his creative process and what he wants his comics to be.

Without further adieu …

Alec Berry: So, how are you?

Michel Fiffe: Good. I’m just trying to catch up on things. Gotta finish that coloring! Tons of scanning to do, too.

AB: Yeah. Looking at the finished product, I’m sure you put plenty of time in. I wouldn’t know where to begin (laughs).

MF: THAT is the toughest part. I just want to just sit back and read a comic FOREVER and never think.

AB: I’m with you. I always wonder why I choose to get so involved with comics when, really, I could just read them and do other things

MF: I feel the same, except it’s borne from loving it so much. Like, you have to act upon it somehow. I can just read a comic series, but then I’d have to articulate my love for it somehow. Sometimes I end up just scanning and posting comics I dig, mostly old comics from the 70s and 80s … but you know, making them is a good alternative, too!

AB: You have spent your fair share of time on the “comics internet,” working I guess as a critic as well as interviewing people. Talk about doing that and then transitioning into making comics yourself and what you brought over from that.

MF: Well, I’m a cartoonist first and foremost. All the other stuff is just a way of sorting through my own interests and learning curves. The first interview I conducted was based on a personal need to find something out. I had tracked down the cartoonist Trevor Von Eeden and wanted to know what he was up to and how his career developed. You know, basic interview stuff, except it didn’t exist for him, so I sought it out myself. From that, I learned to somewhat voice my own views and approaches to comics. That Von Eeden piece, which I thought would be a one time thing for me, turned out to be a side thing for me, almost an occupation. It almost took over at one point, the interviews and retrospectives and all that. I had to pull back a little!

But yeah, I still find it important for me to explore, at the very least, my own interests. It’s not my duty to report or interview things/people in the industry. It’s solely based on my own need to see certain things represented and, hopefully, discussed.

AB: Which is funny, because I think you’ve managed to bring that need to “explore” over to your comics.

MF: I’ve never quite thought of it like that, actually. Funny you should notice that. I do like to experiment, though, and put forth things that may or may not work, but I certainly like to utilize the things in comics that make them comics, you know? I suspect these things come half intuitively and half by design.

AB: Tell me more about putting the comic together. What do you take away from the process?

MF: My process is all over the place. It starts with trying to tell a story I’m not too embarrassed to tell. I like the journey, sure, but sometimes I won’t enjoy the comic until it’s done. The high of completion will last a few seconds, then I reconsider my life options for a few moments, and then I diligently begin all over again.

I gotta say, though, sometimes the writing is so painful. I sweat over that the most. Just getting it right, you know? I labor over it, hoping never to kill the spark of it. During those kinds of writing sessions, I sometimes wish that I was just a penciler or something.

AB: I saw on your blog how you’ve adapted writing to more of a visual experience.

MF: That’s the best way for me to do it, where I carry the story through a conversation. I then edit it down to the essentials. You saw that page on my blog? That was one of the neater spreads.

AB: I thought it was a cool approach. For a visual medium, it makes a lot of sense to keep it visual from initial thought to finish.

MF: Man, I just can’t type a script. It’s redundant if you’re writing for yourself. Even when I see a comic book script, it doesn’t register to me. It looks like homework. It looks boring and restrained. I like working visually. Yet, I can’t stress enough how important the words are to me. I’d rather have a flawed drawing than a hoaky line of dialogue.

AB: Hm. It seems the consent from a majority of people is much the opposite. Everybody seems to champion comics for the nice art, yet if the story suffers, whatever.

MF: You just nailed my position in comics perfectly.

AB: Why is the creative process so magnetic – as in – why does it seem to suck people in even though it involves so much work?

MF: It’s magnetic to those with obsessive qualities, I think. That’s certainly the case for me. After something’s complete, I just can’t stand to look at it. All I see are the flaws, which makes self publishing interesting. I am forced to not only look at that older work longer than I should, but I have to then sell it with a straight face.

AB: So diving back in, working on the next project is your way to move on, pretty much?

MF: Right, right. Absolutely. I already feel like a slow worker, so I need to keep myself moving, even at what I consider to be a slow pace. Of course, I’m probably measuring my pace against those that do one task instead of them all. And writing about comics, or editing comics, or anything that has to do with comics, it’s all part of that, too.

AB: I get the vibe you come from more of a broad background in terms of comics and cartoonists. Tell me about the guys that influence you, but more specifically, what techniques you take from those guys and try to apply to your work.

MF: The most immediate examples I can think of are… well,  I like the naturalism of Jaime Hernandez and David Mazucchelli but also the energy of Walt Simonson and Tony Salmons, and we must not forget Cliff Sterrett and George Grosz. All that stuff moves me to make something of my own, but I try my hardest not to be obvious about it, but they all have sensibilities that I wrestle with. I like a number of things that are at odds with one another, and sometimes my comics are an attempt to reconcile those differences.

AB: Like, say, the difference between Hernandez and Simonson? Naturalism versus energy?

MF: Right, right. Like being aware of the power that a simple panel grid carries, yet wanting to make a flashy page design because it serves the story better. It’s not either/or for me; I want to utilize everything. Or having a scratchy, dirty line versus a clean and solid line. Both really appeal to me, so I try to use them when appropriate. What I try to do is try to control these urges, or channel them, rather, through a specific narrative. It’s the foundation I need to make sense of it all.

AB: Which makes sense when Zegas places stories in a post-apocalyptic world, yet the stories are more focused on personal drives and wants. You’re pitting the elements of sci-fi, high concept comics against the introspective comic, yet, through that combat, creating something whole.

MF: Sure, but it’s so not a sci-fi comic by any stretch. If anything, it’s a slice-of life with weird backgrounds. Keep in mind, though, that I hate the term “slice of life”, despite using it as a descriptive crutch sometimes. It’s about people and the stuff they worry about – that’s it. I can’t wrap a high concept around that,  you know? I can’t do it. It’d be restrained if I did so. Introspective, sure, I just hope it’s not boring or too self-indulgent to the reader. I know Zegas won’t be for everyone, but to those it speaks to, I hope it speaks to them on deeper levels. That is perhaps too much to ask for, but all I can do is try, and I’m the wrong guy to ask whether I’ve succeeded in doing so or not.

AB: Yeah. You mentioned that you wish to “utilize everything” when it comes to constructing your comics.  Why exactly? Why such a desire to be omnipresent in terms of the page?

MF: Because I’m a masochistic control freak and an empty sheet of paper seemed like an easy thing to control. It’s not, though, and it’s silly to think that it is. Entire lives are forever changed in trying to control that page! I’m about to be done with Zegas #2, which is why I don’t hate it as much as I eventually will, but I cannot wait to start up a few essays on comics. I hasten to say “essays” because they’re just… I’m just jotting down ideas and observations. It’s nowhere near as academic as some people make it out to be.

AB: It kind of is small, but it’s still creating in some sense. How do you feel about having your mistakes in the public eye? You know, developing creatively in front of everyone?

MF: Uh…. not comfortable in the slightest.

AB: (laughs).

MF: But that’s part of it isn’t it? It beats getting in front of an audience I think. I could never be a stand up comic, mostly because I’m just not funny. But also because that is… there’s just no hiding up there.

AB: Yeah. I think the closest thing to that in comics is selling your book at a show, but even then, you’re not performing. You’re just sitting at a table, and most people are nice anyway.

MF: No, it’s totally not the same.

AB: What sort of things do you want to represent, and how are books like Zegas going about that discussion?

MF: On an aesthetic level, I want to represent a compelling union of words and pictures that don’t express the typical stuff you see everywhere else. It’s not as reactionary as it sounds, really. I want to express specific things that I just don’t see anywhere else. As to how I’ll get that across on a practical level, I decided to self-publish. I decided to keep it print exclusive, too, which has stronger appeal to me. So far, the response to Zegas has been better than it ever has.

AB: I know you’ve done a nice array of work, but it seems like now, especially in the last few months, you’ve been amping up. What’s the plan from here?

MF: Well, Zegas #2 is my primary concern now. I’m managing this crowd funding campaign to get it printed. Overseeing every single aspect of publishing takes a lot of time, but I’m still working on making more Zegas comics. I’m treating every issue as my ultimate statement on comics, on what they can do, on what they can say, and as if it were my last comic. It’s a full plate, but it has to get done.

If you wish to learn more about Michel Fiffe, check out his blog and his Twitter feed.

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