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Interview: ‘Monocyte’ Creators Kasra Ghanbari and Menton3
RoughJustice   |  

Monocyte #4 coverI’ll admit, when I first was assigned to review Monocyte #1, I hadn’t seen a comic like it in a while, and probably wasn’t ready to. Growing up in the 90’s, the surrealist style of H.R Giger was all the rage. Aliens had come out just four years before 1990 and, at the time, you couldn’t pick up a comic without seeing hints of Giger’s twisted influence.

It was great for a while, but after a certain point, the style began to seem dated, especially as Jim Lee and Image were introducing the world to the bold and vibrant styling of Wild C.A.T.S and Stormwatch. I have always preferred capes and utility belts to brooding, gritty vigilantes stalking the streets of New York, Detroit, and Chicago. Swap a pistol for a ray gun and you’ve got my attention. I had no place in my heart for the brutal reality and endless darkness that was found in comics like Zero Hour and Judge Dredd. So, when I first opened issue one of Monocyte, it all came flooding back. The darkness, the agony, the complete hopelessness, it was all there.

Needless to say, my first review of Monocyte wasn’t glowing. In the review I went on to say the following;

“I am a huge supporter of comics written artistically and poetically, but only if characters and stories are being full developed within the poetry. I know Monocyte is there to bring back the glory of death, and I know that Azrael is tired of the immortals but in no way do I care which side is obliterated and which side is victorious.”

Like I said, I wasn’t ready. Over time, however, this tale of death and the agony of eternal life grew on me. Issue by issue I began to see what Menton3 and Kasra Ghanbari were trying to accomplish with Monocyte. They weren’t trying to be endlessly dark for shock value or to satisfy some gothic fascination. They were creating something beyond traditional comics, they were fusing high art and story. The work of Menton3 isn’t just “sequential art,” it is art unto its own. The kind of work that should be in galleries accompanied with a story that refused to accommodate anyone unwilling to be intellectually challenged. Monocyte became a necessity for me, and in just three issues it warped my entire perspective on what could be accomplished when comics embrace the unconventional.

With Monocyte ending in its fourth issue last May, we said goodbye to one of the most mind-bending, artistically stunning and thought-provoking comics of 2011/2012. Luckily, I have stayed in contact with the guys from Monocyte and they were kind enough to speak with me about creating this IDW miniseries. We spoke about pitching such a high concept to IDW, the fear of alienating readers, and creating beauty out of darkness.

Geeks of Doom: Monocyte as a comic is brutally dark, there is little hope for any of the books characters. Did you write and draw this story with such a dark mood in mind, or did it just develop this way?

Menton3: The whole point in me doing art and writing in general is to externalize the internal. So a lot of my ideas, concepts for stories, paintings, songs all come from what I would refer to as internal architecture. So in that regard, I don’t think that it has anything to do with hope or fear, darkness or light. I think, a lot of it is basically taking what would typically be dream material and turning that into a fictional story through a comic book.

So, whether it being dark or not, or hopeless, I would have to say I think that both me and Kasra are oblivious to it. We were writing something and trying to be true to what we were writing about. If it’s a horror book or a sci-fi book or if it’s a book that’s hopeless, then so be it. But I do think that the core of the book is definitely talking about hope to a certain extent. That said, hope is just the counterpart of fear, fear being anxiety that something bad will happen, hope being anxiety that something good will happen.

Kasra Ghanbari: Over the first few months that we were developing the story, our main worry if anything was that it was too mainstream for our tastes. That ended up not being an issue once we were done living in the world for a prolonged time and then attempting to bring it out intact. Honestly, it never even crossed my mind that it was too dark. As much as anything, the story is about taking action. As the story has continued to unfold and be revealed, I think people started to see this more. Your characterization of the comic as brutally dark with little hope probably does mean we had some success in communicating a few basic parameters in the first several issues of the series, that there are consequences for our inaction and that it’s OK to not be apathetic but actually recognize these consequences and do our part to direct them.

Menton3: We were trying to ask the question in general “How would you have it be?” Everyone can look around the world right now and see issues, politics, religion, gay marriage, whether to have guns or not, abortion rights, everybody can say I see something wrong. Everybody gets to be Monday morning quarterbacks. But then to explore and say, OK, what would you do to right it, how would you change it, how would you have it be, is definitely kind of the basis of the story.

GoD: Monocyte is the avatar of Death, so instantly he is a natural enemy to humanity. How did you feel was the best way to make him likable even when his very existence puts readers at odds with him?

Kasra Ghanbari: I suppose that’s one way to look at it and certainly a possible outcome for some readers, though as an example I’ve seen plenty of films where the humans were the lowest rung on the viewer’s empathy pole, below dogs and even inanimate objects.

I look at Monocyte and Azrael as being consequential to the humans rather than having anything near a formalized relationship with them such as enemy. In fact, these humans have been enslaved for so long that death would be a form of benevolence, and any form of change whatsoever would be potential seed to their benefit. Yet clearly, Azrael and Monocyte aren’t taking action based on benevolence.

That said, it would be wonderful if human beings reacted at odds with anything that seemed to negatively affect other human beings.

Menton3: Well, first off, our intention is to not try and create likable characters. I think there’s enough people out there writing stories, songs, creating comic book characters, paintings that have the intent behind it of hoping that someone will like it. And to be honest with you, I make artwork and write for myself, and if other people like it that’s good, too. That doesn’t mean I don’t love to hear feedback from people, positive or negative, but in a sense what that does is tell me if I’m communicating what I want to be communicating or not.

I don’t think that Monocyte being the proxy of Death makes him the antithesis of Life. To me, that’s a slightly linear way of thinking. In my way of viewing, you have to destroy something to create something, you have to create something to destroy something. They’re kind of one and the same. If we were ever to intend Monocyte to be likable, I think it would be in that way, that the counterbalance to the fact that humanity in this story are nothing more than cattle and currency, which is obviously a reflection of how I feel about our current social status period, especially middle class and lower class, that we are meant to be consumers. I don’t think that the powers that be, if there are any, could be any happier than if we just sat and played video games all day, watched television and sports, made babies and paid taxes. That’s pretty much our job, that’s pretty much what we’re supposed to do.

So, that was never really a relevant thought for us. Again, we were trying to stay true to a story that we had come up with together. And I hope it doesn’t sound offensive that we weren’t trying to please people, but at the same time there’s enough of that going on.

Kasra Ghanbari: One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people didn’t even consider that Monocyte could be human. In issue #1 he was cold, stoic, detached ruthless. In issue #2 he was given greater voice, and that seemed to break the relateability veil for some, and they were left thinking he was a strange, bad ass creature. By the end of issue #3 where his mask flies off and the beginning of issue #4 where he’s shown in full light, people were like oh shit, he’s human? He’s not infallible? He’s like us? There’s actually history and experience and reason behind his decision and actions? And that made them rethink things.

As Menton has described above, I won’t say that all of this was entirely conscious on our part, but as a relational arc that reader’s had with Monocyte, it’s a pretty good one. What you end up finding out is that it’s one possible arc of many.

GoD: The content within Monocyte is very intellectually driven. Were you ever concerned that it would isolate some audiences?

Menton3: I think that if it isolates some people, then that’s kind of a good thing. I didn’t finish high school, and I know most of the words in the book. I understand them, I deal with them.

We weren’t writing a book to the lowest common denominator. I think both me and Kasra are aware that Koosh balls and pet rocks sold, but if we just wanted to make money and make people happy, then we’d be in a completely different business. Comics aren’t a lucrative place to be as far as money is concerned. We’re trying to do the best we can at saying something, whether that’s right or wrong, and we’re definitely not trying to preach.

So my point isn’t to purposely isolate people or put people in a corner, but again there are far too many people writing books, songs, and stories for people that they hope will like it and not enough individuation with art as a whole. And when I say art I mean poems, music, paintings, and more. We wanted to write a book that we would like. One of our favorite shows is Deadwood, some of my favorite books are by Shakespeare and Dante’s Inferno. These are the kind of things I like. And what more could I do to make something that I can believe in than to make something I’d like when I picked it up. And I think Kasra is in the same boat.

Kasra Ghanbari: Yup. And lots of things isolate me, like insensitive coloring, spandex, alternative universes, bad art, gaudy logos, creators that look down on their fans, distribution monopolies “¦

Looking back on issue #1, I still wonder how we could have conveyed a world without duration populated by two races representing the played out extremes of our natures without being unorthodox, dark, disjointed, uneven, unstructured…without playing with pacing, without placing as many words as possible within areas, shapes, and forms acting like preordained balloons, or by using words as symbols and melodic strings rather than linear slaves to our modern convention.

We’re definitely not the smartest guys around, but we aren’t stupid, either. We considered who our audience would be, but we were far more interested in who our audience could be. And given the amount of energy we put into actualizing the book and the possibility of reaching new people, I’d like to think we performed a delicate dance comprised of dozens and dozens of beliefs and approaches that culminated in a strange, unorthodox book from an unknown writer and up-and-coming artist that received scant exposure early on yet managed to attain relatively good sales and be critically regarded rather than being readily dismissed and panned by an establishment that screams every day about what they think they want without taking material action to have it realized.

Monocyte was an invitation to emotionally engage a story. A lot of people described reading the book as an “experience,” which is just wonderful to hear.

GoD: Monocyte straddles that line between comics and fine art. Do you think the two can exist cohesively without sacrificing story?

Menton3: What is the Sistine Chapel but a graphic novel all over the walls of an amazing building? I mean back from cavemen, we were putting narratives to pictures. I think currently there is definitely a section of comics that’s spandex and superheroes and water-downed versions of Jenna Jameson movies. And I think that’s great, and man I love some of those comics a lot. But I think that comics as a medium are art. I think if you go back and look at Bill Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters, Ashley Wood’s Lore, these are pieces of art.

To me, the difference between art and illustration is that with illustration all the lines are in the right place and you know it’s an apple, with art regardless of where the lines are you feel the apple. What I definie as art is does it move me. Stray Toasters changed my life, that’s pure art. I can’t imagine ever going past that line or comparing myself to it. But at the same time, whether or not I make fine art or not? I don’t know. It’s a weird word, because when you say it the word implies a high end of art, but it’s really a section of the art community as a whole. Galleries carry fine art. Whether or not you like that art or not doesn’t mean it’s fine or not it just means it’s fine art. So I sometimes do fine art, and I think some of that leaks into my comic panels, but I’m not one to say whether it moves someone or not. I would hope it would, and again hope is just the same as fear.

Kasra Ghanbari: Without a doubt, yes. I’ve stood in front of museum paintings that are extraordinarily narrative and expansive. What’s going on in my head is the processing of individual symbols and images and their interrelationship to form that narrative, which sounds much like a comic book to me. And in this case the painting was eliciting the story.

Maybe others believe there’s a bigger difference between sequential storytelling and comic books, that panels must not be implied within composition but drawn, or that it’s not a panel unless there’s empty space around it or a certain thickness of line, or that it’s not a comic book unless you call it a comic book or it has staples otherwise it’s simply sequential images or illustration. I choose not to make those distinctions or impose external expectations and find it to be fertile ground for me. The comic book medium is extraordinary.

Maybe we should start using the term “American comic book” to denote a form distinct from “comic book””¦? Would that help end the endless self-consciousness surrounding the issue?

GoD: What’s next for Monocyte?

Menton3: Well, the mini series we just put out, the four issues, takes place at a very pivotal point in the crux of the entire story. But me and Kasra have written story for hundreds of years before and after this. And we always kind of maintained that if the book was well received and people liked it and didn’t hate us for making it then we would definitely try to make more.

As to when that’s going to happen or if it’s going to happen, some of that is up to IDW. Doing the book with them was a lot of fun, but it’s going to depend on whether they want to continue doing it. So as many people that write to IDW saying that they love the book, the more possible it will become that they’re going to do more with them. I would definitely like to do more.

We’ve written something that would almost be considered like an on-going series for it. I don’t know that the book sales were up for that, and I don’t know if there’s an audience for it. It would be great if there was, but we can continue doing it as long as anyone asks us to. And I love the world. After finishing book four, I’m very sad that I don’t get to paint some of those characters any more. Which is weird, because normally when I finish a book I’m so sick of painting a character, but these characters I actually really miss.

Kasra Ghanbari: For now, we’ve got a collected edition of Monocyte coming out at the end of July that we’ve worked real hard to put together.

It will be a 224-page oversized 9×13.5″ hardcover that will include the digital prequel, all 4 issues, all 8 side stories, all 12 covers, as well as 60+ pages of new content. The book will have art by Ashley Wood, Bill Sienkiewicz, George Pratt, Phil Hale, Barron Storey, Ben Templesmith, Riley Rossmo, Christopher Mitten, David Stoupakis, and Chris Newman, as well as new content by internationally-known comic book and fine artists/sculptors such as Scott Radke, Matthew Bone, Guillermo Rigattieri, Richard A. Kirk, Alberto Ruiz, Tim Roosen, Richard Friend, Toby Cypress, and many many more.

You may still be able to pre-order the book from your comic book retailer (#MAY120462), otherwise it’s available for pre-order on Amazon for only $26 [due for release on August 14, 2012].

GoD: How did you first approach IDW with such a provocative book like Monocyte?

Menton3: I think the running joke at IDW for awhile was that everybody loved Monocyte, but nobody knew what the book was about. But I got to work on Zombies vs Robots Adventure at IDW as my first professional gig really. After that, I did a Square Enix project, and then I got to do Silent Hill: Past Life. And I think I did a decent enough job on Silent Hill where they were at least somewhat interested in a creator-owned book of mine.

So we pitched it to IDW, and you know those guys are crazy busy, so it took about 2-3 weeks to hear back from them about it, probabaly the longest 2-3 weeks of my life. It was really a dark time, just absolute stress and wanting Monocyte to exist in this world and have people read it and so forth. But yeah I just emailed Chris Ryall, we had a working relationship with IDW, and asked him if he’d be interested, and he said yes. We sent him the pitch, and about 3-4 weeks later, felt like 7 years later, we talked to Tom Waltz, and Tom talked to Chris, and they greenlit the book. And that was a really exciting moment. We went and had a burger right afterwards, and I will never forget that burger. We were both very excited and could not wait to get to work on it.

Kasra Ghanbari: I think we did our best to honestly convey what the book was going to be like, but as a pitch it’s still going to be a view of the finished product from outer space. We had full plot summaries that showed solid story development, a few good hooks and surprises, some resolution, measured pacing, and all the required hallmarks of thoughtful narrative construction. Menton’s character designs were absolutely killer, and we leaned heavily on them along with our intention to have fantastic creators join us throughout the series, many of which we’d already secured. It was a tight, professional pitch.

The degree to which we pushed our storytelling techniques, how we constructed the actual narrative, and the overall structure of the series occurred to a large extent while we were immersed in actually making the books. By the time we turned in issue #1, we were literally naked in the dark and had no idea what we’d just created. But the feedback we got was great, everyone seemed stunned while conveying some genuine awe, which was gratifying and timely.

Chris Ryall must have felt the vibe and artistic intention of the series immediately, as he offered us a card stock cover and agreed to spot UV, which was a dream of ours for the book. It’s moments and elements like that which can bring a project into cohesion, and we’re very grateful to Chris for it.

GoD: I have seen several comic outlets cover Monocyte as a “horror” comic, but I don’t know if Monocyte can be so easily classified. Any thoughts?

Menton3: If somebody wants to call it horror, then I have no problem with that. If they want to call it sci-fi, or want to call it whatever label they want, I really don’t care, especially if that label helps them enjoy it or avoid it.

I appreciate your sentiment that it might not be classified like that, that’s a very large compliment, and I thank you for it. But I wouldn’t mind what it was classified under. Honestly, if it was classified under “Children’s Story” I wouldn’t be surprised, and I wouldn’t care.

Kasra Ghanbari: File under “Teen Paranormal Romance.” Daddy wants some new shoes.

GoD: Any last-minute advice for aspiring comic creators and artists?

Menton3: I could write a book on this. First off, I haven’t made it. People think all the time that you’ve done all these books, so yadda yadda yadda. But I’m still getting my gears wet. You know I’m starting two books with Steve Niles right now, and I feel like an idiot the whole time. It kind of starts out that way every time.

But my biggest advice for comic book artists is that they make their own book. I do a lot of conventions, I see a lot of artists come up with their portfolios, and some guys you see come up with the same portfolio you saw last year but without new work in it. You know they’re hungry, they want to get work, but you’ve got to put in a lot of work to do this. One of the most shocking things to me about doing this was how much work it actually takes to make a comic book. No one really knows that until they’ve done a comic, until you’ve done 22 or 36 pages of a comic you have no idea how hard it is to do. And when you’re workiing under deadlines, it’s really tough.

So first and foremost, be ready to work. I legitimately get into work most days around 9am, I leave around 10-12 at night, and comic book guys don’t get sick days. You’ve got a deadline, you’ve got a deadline. I think there was a 8-month stint where I had a total of 4 days off. I’m not complaining, because I’m very lucky to be able to do what I do. So first and foremost advice is to be willing to work and then to put your own book out. It’s not rocket surgery. If you make something that you really love, then other people are going to love it, too. And if they don’t, then who cares, because you made something that you really love. Get that book, get it printed, get a booth at a con, and don’t be a dick.

From what I understand I’ve seen Scott Allie, Chris Ryall, Ted Adams walking around comic book conventions and walking through artist’s alley and they notice it, and if it’s something good and catches their eye they’ll do it. I think the biggest issue with comic books and getting published is that a lot of guys walk around with their hand open and they’re kind of begging for work which kind of immediately puts you in a dark, negative space with anybody. Women don’t like to date desperate men. So if you’re doing it on your own, you’re making any kind of profit on it, you’re doing well at all, people are going to pay attention.

And in the end, even if you’re doing creator-owned books at Image, IDW, it’s stil just you in a room making a book. Whether you have the backing of a publisher or not is in many many ways irrelevant. It’s definitely nice, I’m not going to knock it, being able to have your book in a prime spot in Previews is realy important at times, but you don’t have to start out that way. I started out with Ars Memoria that I self-published, and I started going to Wizard World and conventions and selling them. And as soon as I started going, I got paid work.

So my biggest advice is to just do it. Like don’t talk about it, don’t wait for someone to back you, don’t wait for a writer, don’t do anything…find a story that you love, whether it be public domain or one you write or friend writes, and just start making a book. Don’t wait, don’t wait for motivation, it’s not going to come. If you’re going to do it, then do it. If you want to be a runner in the Olympics, you’ve got to go train and run. If you want to make comics, you’ve got to go make comics. If you’ve never done a comic book page before, then someone isn’t going to hand you a giant gig to do a comic book.

The other thing is, everybody always says they’d like to start out doing covers. Covers are a prestigious thing. I did Silent Hill and ZvR before I got to do covers. Everybody of course wants to do covers. So don’t start off telling a publisher that all you want to do is covers, because they hear that every day and all the time and it kind of makes you sound like an amateur.

And if you meet a publisher, a guy who runs a company, don’t just sit there and talk about the fact that you want to make a book. Become friends with him. If he wants to talk about jet skiiing, then talk about jet skiing for awhile, and be the guy he remembers as the cool guy who talked about jet skiing. Don’t always be pushing yourself on other people.

And I guess the last piece of advice is pick the right conventions. If you want to be a comic artist, the best comic cons to go to aren’t just comic cons only full of artists. You want cons with publishers and writers at them. If you’re a writer and you want to break into comics, I have no idea. I think that’s one of the hardest things ever. As an artist, it’s like here’s my art, do you like it. As a writer, you’re actually asking someone to sit down and read and consider what you’re doing. So as a writer, I’d say find an artist that you really love, and start making a book. Don’t let anybody stop you. I meet people all the time at conventions who have just made their own book, and it’s impressive, because we know how hard that is, everybody knows how hard it is to make and fund your own book. Some guys are using Kickstarter, everyone is finding their own way to do it. There’s obviously no cliché in making your own book and just producing what you make. And if it’s good, then people are going to respond to it. So again, I would just say don’t look for hand-outs. Do it yourself.

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