Diego Cumplido: creating comics
"I want comics to be fun and cartoonish. I enjoyed that as a kid and now that I’m an adult I can see extra layers within the cartoonish aspects of the medium. Just because you are in another stage of your life doesn’t mean that you have to abandon some of the enjoyment you had back then – you can just appreciate more flavours now."
AN INTERVIEW IN FIVE PARTS
PART ONE: WORKING ON COMICS
DISCUSSED: Difference between making comics and film, childhood creativity, intersection of life and art, drawing technique, permanence of linoleum printing, thematic patterns.
Circular: How long have you been drawing comics for?
Diego Cumplido: That’s a good question but it’s difficult to say exactly because I’ve been drawing comics since I was quite young. I also read a lot of comics when I was a kid. One big moment in my life was when I started writing comics starring my own classmates in high-school. People would pass them around and laugh and enjoy them. I even had classmates who would photocopy them and collect them – even people who were not my close friends. School was kind of difficult for me and to find this kind of connection to my classmates was awesome. I loved it. I was addicted to it. As they would read them I would try to see where they would laugh and what their reaction would be. I did that for quite a few years. That was stage one. Then I started to make films. I did a lot of story-boarding for my own short films. I did a few comics now and then but I only started taking it more seriously about three years ago. I’ve worked with visual stories and constructions since I was a kid, though. You know, working with film isn’t drawing but it’s a similar thing in a way. I would say that it’s more comfortable doing comics because with film you are fighting against the rules of nature – against the sunset and light changing, the noise in the street, against people, money, actors. You are fighting against everything. It is so stressful. In comics I find things more comfortable. I can make it in my own time and the outcome will look exactly how I want it to look. I don’t have to accept the intrusion of reality.
Circular: It is interesting that you enjoyed writing comics as a child. Children are often trying to translate things that they see and the people they meet into relatable, understandable characters and roles. Creating comics perhaps resonates with this.
DC: Yeah, that’s true. I feel like characters in comics are half people you know and half people from movies, literature and other comics. It all gets mixed up together and a part of your life always gets mixed into it.
Circular: In terms of techniques and materials, how do you go about drawing your comics? Is it just ink on paper or do you edit it much digitally?
DC: Mainly ink on paper and then I clean the images on the computer. I scan the images and make everything higher contrast… it’s a whole laborious process that could be quite boring to explain in detail. I don’t really clean the images too much. Part of the reason I digitally edit is that drawings cannot be scanned in perfectly. You have to edit out debris that builds up beside the lines.
Circular: Some of the lines look almost like lino-print.
DC: Funnily enough, I actually spent the whole morning today carving linoleum. I’m just starting to do lino-prints at the moment. I took a course in it because some people, especially my wife, have been telling me that I should try it, as it is similar to a lot of my work. I would like to learn more about printing.
Circular: There is definitely a different feeling when you print your own image yourself rather than scanning the image. It’s something more permanent and solid. There’s something quite special about it.
DC: Yeah, I really believe that is the case. I normally do high-quality prints on good paper with a needle printer. They look very good but I think it’s much more interesting to produce something with a more hands-on printing technique.
Circular: There seem to be some strong underlying themes running through all of your comics; your body of work seems in many ways to be thematically coherent. Would you agree that you often return to particular ideas?
DC: I think so. And you know, each time I start a new comic or a new work, I think ‘okay this one is going to be absolutely different’ so when I print all of this stuff together there will be more differences between the individual works and things don’t feel repetitive. But then I finish it and it’s like ‘damn it, it’s the same thing all over again!’ You sometimes wonder how that can happen. So it is a frustration but I guess it’s also just part of who I am, you know.
PART TWO: CARROT SOUP
DISCUSSED: Robert Crumb, underground comics, artistic inspiration, unintentional stylistic convergences, inversion of gender roles, an uncontrived creative process, subconscious expression, father-figures, expectations of masculinity.
Circular: So let’s take a look at ‘Carrot Soup’. This was one of the first of your comics that we looked at and I found that it reminded me somewhat of early Underground Comics from the 1970s. I’m thinking of artists such as Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton – there seem to be similarities in tone and style between your work and theirs. I mean, I read ‘Carrot Soup’ and the grotesque, unsettling portrayal of human-beings and human relationships definitely recollects artists such as Crumb; it’s the combination of the strange and surreal that is also somehow uncomfortably truthful in its depiction of humanity. Would you say you take inspiration from other Comics artists?
DC: I think that Robert Crumb is probably the cartoonist that I’m most related to. But it’s weird because I hadn’t really originally read anything of his and I really didn’t know too much about Robert Crumb. My stuff got to be kind of similar to his because I have a similar taste to him. You know, probably the sort of style that he likes got to be more known because of him so his influence exists even if you haven’t necessarily read a lot of his actual works. But this was all before I started making these comics and then I saw the great documentary that they made about him (Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb 1995) and it was scary. I felt really touched by it. You know, I feel a real connection to certain small aspects of his life and how he looks at art. But, even since seeing that film, I’ve still not actually read much of his work. I mean, I read The Book of Genesis only just last month. I love his drawings but I haven’t really explored his stuff too deeply.
Circular: So more of an unintentional thematic and stylistic convergence, rather than a conscious effort to emulate him or his work?
DC: Yes, originally but then I think that later there has been more of a direct influence. But then also, when you feel that your work has a similarity to the work of someone else, you do try to differentiate it. You try to maintain a healthy distance so you don’t end up just being a copy-cat or something like that.
Circular: There seems to be some kind of exploration of gender and identity in ‘Carrot Soup’. There are stereotypical and quite damaging ideas about traditional gender-roles: a dominant male figure coupled with a weaker, more dependent female. This comic seems to play with the inversion of that relationship. Is this something that you’ve intentionally picked up on or is this unconnected to your authorial intentions?
DC: The thing is, I try not to think too much about exactly what my comics are about. Especially before I make them or when I’m writing them. I just try to create a specific atmosphere, tone or environment and then just explore the story and see where it goes. I try to keep myself entertained. It’s a really personal process that doesn’t involve too much rational thinking about what it exactly means. Sometimes I get a lot of feedback about what people think that it means or I get to analyse it myself. But then sometimes it is really weird for me to confront the idea that this is about gender roles and their inversion. It’s a pretty deep question.
Circular: I suppose lot of people, when they’re making something, find that just the process of making something itself absorbs your whole mind-set. It’s often only afterwards that you can reflect back on it and think ‘what was I doing?’ or ‘why did I do that?’
DC: I think, the kind of art that I like is exactly like that. If you pre-think what your work is about you don’t discover anything about yourself or about the world or internal realities or contradictions in yourself. It’s all very clean and academic.
Circular: Yeah, this is the danger of the research/outcome approach. I think, for a lot of artists now, emphasis is put on research, which can be really useful for your practice but can inhibit you from just getting absorbed in the process of making. It can all be quite systematic.
DC: And it’s also like a pamphlet, you know. When someone decides ‘I think this, so I’m going to teach the people what I think about it’. That’s boring to me.
Circular: Do you ever find that you’re totally absorbed in the process but then when you’ve finished you start to reflect on the work and come to realisations about meanings that weren’t originally intended? Almost like your mind has subconsciously picked up on something that you only notice when you read it back?
DC: I completely agree with that. I think the big thing that I can’t escape is that most of my comics deal, in some sort of way, with father-figures. Like strong father-figures or weak-father figures. Essentially complex father-figures. As I said, I try to avoid repeating themes too much but some just keep appearing. This has more to do with what we were discussing earlier - the issue of masculinity and ideas surrounding how a man behaves and what he should represent.
PART THREE: LUCIO CIFUENTES AND THE “OH YES” MACHINE
DISCUSSED: Masculinity crisis, second wave feminism, Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, The Supremes, John Carpenter's The Thing, Chilean editions of Fleming novels, complexity of interpreting comics, the Pinochet dictatorship, schooling next-door to the dictator, Mexican Sesame Street, political art, ALF meets the ghost of Salvador Allende.
Circular: The theme of masculinity immediately brings to mind one particular comic of yours 'Lucio Cifuentes and the “Oh Yes” Machine', which we could maybe have a look at now. Immediately after reading this comic, we had the feeling that you were engaging with the theme of masculinity in crisis. The idea of male identity in crisis has often focussed on the disruption of traditional male gender roles. Masculinity has struggled to locate itself within rapidly progressing spectrum of modern ideas concerning the fluidity of gender and identity – the masculine increasingly loses its traditionally ascribed, outmoded position of power and dominance. An obvious example of this would be the disruption of traditional male gender roles in the face of second-wave feminism that first arose in the second half of the 20th Century. In terms of popular culture, 80s action movies – such as Rambo – have often been seen as a reaction to disruption of old-fashioned male roles. 'Lucio Cifuentes and the “Oh Yes” Machine' seems to connect to these ideas. You have the two quite unpleasant, domineering male characters playing with a female-styled machine that seems to be doing exactly what they want – a reflection, perhaps, of outmoded male ideal of the submissive role of the female, conforming to masculine fantasy and desire. As soon as this machine deviates from the male characters’ views of how it should behave, it becomes a threat and a danger, causing them to react with aggression and violence. Would you say that this is a misinterpretation?
DC: No, not at all. That’s all there. It can be scary to confront your own work in this way, though. You can end up feeling quite exposed. I think everything that you've read into my work is accurate. This one particular comic doesn't really have too much to do with all the ideas you just mentioned, though. When I produced this comic, I was quite sex-obsessed. It didn't begin immediately at that point, though. I originally did a sketch of the main character with the same title that’s written in the illustration. The title connects to an old movie called Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine – I haven’t actually watched all of it but it’s got an opening-sequence with a very catchy theme-tune by The Supremes. It’s a catchy song and I had it stuck in my head when I was drawing. I made my title kind of rhyme with the film’s title. I also created a 60s style throughout the comic. So I had this original illustration and decided to turn it into a full comic. I’d also say the comic was very influenced by John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, as I’d seen that recently when I started drawing it. I'm also a really big fan of the Ian Fleming James Bond novels – especially the Chilean editions that they made in the 60s. I’d say the comic combines all these ideas and influences with some of the ideas about the gender roles that you just discussed.
Circular: Apologies if we read too much into the comics. I think, when approaching comics from the perspective of literary analysis, the immediate response is to start to de-construct them and find satisfying interpretations. This is something that’s really interesting when you look at comics. They are a really interesting fusion. It’s easy to think of some comics as great works of literature but, in actual fact, they’re not quite literature. It doesn't work to categorise them like that. It’s a medium that’s a really interesting fusion of ideas. You can approach comics from the perspective of visual art, looking at the images and the tradition of sequential art. Yet, they are also, in a sense, literature because they present text-driven narratives, often communicating complex stories involving morality, emotion and complex characterisation. It’s a really interesting difficulty of interpretation in comics but that’s also what makes them so fascinating.
DC: Well I like your interpretations a lot. The thing is, I think, in a way, you know more about my comics than I do. I can tell you why these topics are so important to me, which is also very personal. I was born in the last years of the Pinochet dictatorship but I didn't really live through that because, about a year or two after I was born, my parents went to study in the US. But I think my country has been shaped by the Pinochet regime. It’s very authoritative. So there’s that. My school was also very conservative. It was actually located just in front of the house of the dictator. He was still there because there was no revolution. The guy kept on being a senator and he wrote the laws of democracy for the country. Actually, for his birthday, we had no school – there was a military parade in front of the building, so we couldn't access it. It was a free day for us. It was a conservative, catholic boys’ school, which is a like the law of the jungle, you know. It is basically the law of the stronger male. I also don’t have any sisters; I just have two brothers. But, in some ways, we had a very matriarchal family. My father is kind of silent. It’s a difficult subject to dissect. I don’t know how to put it in order for you. I guess, I really didn't have a lot of contact with women when I was younger so they were always very scary to me. There was also a lot of male violence and I was just a sensitive little child. I didn't have the tools to survive in this environment. This was maybe also because my father wasn't necessarily someone who would teach me about these things – so I had to survive with more matriarchal advice.
Circular: So would you say that subconsciously a lot of your life experience has kind of bled into the work that you produce? Because there isn't necessarily anything too specific, where you can say “yeah this image represents that part of my life.” Would you say that it’s accurate to say that there are aspects of your life that are semi-reflected in the comics?
DC: I don’t know. You can read things into my work and certainly be accurate with those interpretations. But the thing is, I'm not very literal with it. I really think I am my work. For example, in my first years, when I learned to talk and started to form a view of the world, I was growing up in the US. I learned to talk English, watching The Muppets. As a kid the visual culture of the US felt like home to me. And then I moved back to Chile and all the rules were different. It was like I was from another planet.
Circular: It must have been quite a clash of cultures.
DC: Well I don’t remember it too well but I think it was. It’s kind of always been like that; I've always felt displaced. The US also has a very mainstream culture. It’s not like it felt like home was the strangest place in the world. It’s just that my connection with it was different from how it was for everybody else. In a way I think that I'm always talking to something from my infancy in my work. I was always reading a lot of comics and I loved cartoons when I was a child. A good example is Sesame Street. You wouldn't get the American version in Chile. They had the Mexican one. We had a different Big Bird – instead of yellow, they had a multi-coloured Big Bird. I thought that version was shit. When I spoke to people about Sesame Street and they referred to that, I would be like “No! It’s not the same thing!”
Circular: Considering the political environments of your childhood, would you consider your work to be political?
DC: Yes, absolutely. I'm always thinking about it. For the last couple of years I've been very obsessed with this dictatorship story. It was really weird for me because – although my parents were what you might call a newer conservative with different, newer values – I was still in this conservative environment and they never told me anything about politics. I didn't even know there was a dictatorship. When I first knew about it, for many years I had a very naïve and superficial view of it. I didn't know the depth of it – how bad it actually was. I had a knowledge of it when I was about 17 but I really didn't know the details until I was around 20. It was something that felt so crazy, so so crazy. I can’t believe I grew up in an environment where all these things had happened just before I was born and some things when I was actually a kid. I've actually written a screenplay. It’s a kind of dark comedy set in the dictatorship. It’s inspired by ALF. You know the basic story of the Chilean dictatorship? The democratically elected, socialist President Allende committed suicide on the day of the coup. So it’s about a kind of sit-com set in the house of Pinochet and the ghost of Allende lives with them as a puppet – as ALF. So my movie screenplay is basically a documentary on the twenty years of the TV show. It's live action but with the one puppet character. It would also have to look like a sit-com from the 70s or 80s.
PART FOUR: UNCLE MOUSE OF THE FOREST
DISCUSSED: Pictoplasma Festival, exhibiting comics, cat portraiture, a moment that clicks, Mickey Mouse, rubber hose cartoons, Air Pirates versus Disney, The Disneyland Memorial Orgy, respectful subversion of iconic styles, the shocking power of empathy.
Circular: 'Uncle Mouse of the Forest' has already been exhibited before. Could you tell us a little more about that?
DC: It was made for Pictoplasma Festival 2014 in Berlin. It was a site-specific project. It was designed to fit onto a specific set of windows at the Urban Spree gallery.
Circular: We saw some photographs. It was really effective seeing a comic presented like that; it was really interesting. Seeing comic strips mounted in series is so much more effective than just reading through a book.
DC: Thank you. Yeah, it worked quite well. It was actually quite a crazy experience. It was the first exhibition in my life and it was such a huge international occasion. The Festival is quite a big deal, you know. A lot of people go to it. For me, it was one of my first times showing work in a foreign country and it actually had a really good reception. People were interested in my work. I was quite happy with it.
Circular: What kind of ideas prompted 'Uncle Mouse of the Forest'? How did this particular work arise?
DC: A friend of mine was collecting portraits of her cats done by Chilean illustrators and cartoonists. She commissioned one of these drawings to me. I put some of these mice figures in the background. I then had to do something character related for the Pictoplasma exhibition and I thought ‘okay, I’m going to recycle the mouse image’. I decided that it could be the head of a character but I could also leave the actual mice in the cartoon. Like I said before, I try to construct an atmosphere and a sense of place. So after I had done that, I tried to draw a story that I could fit into the 24 window frames of the gallery. I really enjoy just sketching ideas. I sketch a lot of stuff that ultimately I wouldn’t be able to turn into a finished work. This is because I’m always looking for something – an idea or an image – that will click. A lot of stories click for me in just two or three moments. 'Uncle Mouse of the Forest' clicked for me in the moment when the kid dies when he’s thrown off the cliff. For me that is the moment of the comic. I usually have more moments in my comics that I like but for with 'Uncle Mouse' it is just this one moment because it is a shorter comic.
Circular: One of the first things that struck me about 'Uncle Mouse' was a potential suggestion of a Mickey Mouse figure in the eponymous protagonist. Is this an intentional reference?
DC: Yes and no. No, because I never thought of this when I was working on the comic. But yes because I love the iconic feel of the 1920s and 1930s rubber hose cartoons and all the merchandising that came with them. Some of them have an appeal that is also something creepy and unsettling at the same time – especially when it’s merchandising because you’ve just got something like a surreal, dead doll with a fixed expression. So I suppose I have borrowed some of that imagery but other than that it wasn’t particularly intentional – I never really thought about it.
Circular: I found it an interesting idea because, going back to the 1970s and Underground Comics, it brought to mind the Air Pirate/Disney lawsuits. Underground artists made use of the iconic Disney characters in various counter-culture parodies and satires. There is perhaps a similarity of the use of this iconic style, to create something darker and more adult.
DC: I know the work you mean. I saw it when doing research for my written pieces at university. I don’t know it in too much detail though. There is the images of the Disneyland Orgies or something like that.
Circular: Yeah, there is one particularly famous image – the ‘Disneyland Memorial Orgy’. It’s quite a disturbing image.
DC: Yeah, I like that stuff but, for me, with my work I try to do something different. I definitely enjoy that kind of work but I also sometimes miss the emotional connection to it. I’m not saying it’s easy but it’s already been done – subverting these characters and having them do something repulsive or grotesque is nothing new. I do sometimes do something similar but I think that it has an even stronger impact when you make it emotionally connected to the reader – when you still care for the characters and there isn’t such a distance between characters and reader. I would say I do put both elements into my work – the subversion and the respect for the original style. I do it without just shitting all over the original American cartoon imagery.
Circular: Because of this would you say that your work has more of a narrative drive? Would you say that your stories are more touching and moving whilst also, on some level, shocking?
DC: The achievement in 'Uncle Mouse', and what makes the moment click for me when the kid dies, is empathy. To make it a surprise or a shock I have to create empathy and I have to make the reader believe that the opening could be an adventure story for children. It’s not like I’m simply making fun of these things. For a moment it is such an adventure story and I invest a lot in making that moment – so when the death comes, it is really surprising. The moment of shock, by itself, has no value; it has value because of what came before or what comes after it – where I am leading the reader.
PART FIVE: UNDERSTANDING COMICS
DISCUSSED: The influence of Scott McCloud, explanatory power of comics, genre prejudices, the fun of comics.
Circular: There has been a stigma surrounding comics – some people dismiss them as childish. However, there seems to be a gradual change in attitudes towards the medium taking place, particularly driven by books such as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Do you have any thoughts on this?
DC: Understanding Comics was so important in my life. I have a story about it – it happened exactly the same to me and to a friend who I met in my twenties. Probably in the same year on separate occasions we both went into the same bookstore. We both asked for a book to help us learn how to draw comics. The bookseller just picked up the first book he found without realising that it was actually a very complex essay about the art of comics. My friend and I both bought the same book from probably the same guy without realising. It was a strange coincidence. I loved the book. I read it as a kid and it was really quite complex for a twelve-year-old. I really enjoyed it, though. It widened not only my view of comics but also my view of reality. Obviously I didn’t understand all of it when I was younger but I’ve been continuously re-reading it since then.
Circular: It is a remarkable book. McCloud is explaining, using a comic-strip, how complex a comic-strip can be – its content and form fit together in conveying meaning so perfectly. It is like reading the very best of essays. There are sections that are deeply philosophical reflections on the way that art works. You could spend hours studying dry, dense passages of art-history texts but Scott McCloud conveys such complex ideas in a few comic panels. It is a book that demands to be taken seriously, whilst remaining hugely enjoyable to read.
DC: Yes, and you understand the concepts immediately. They are really difficult, complex ideas but, because they are conveyed as a comic, they are much more accessible. As a kid even, I could understand most of it because it was made in a language that I could relate to.
Circular: Some would say that comics still have a bit of an image problem within more mainstream culture, though. Have you ever encountered this? Have you ever found that people haven’t taken your work seriously because it takes the form of comics?
DC: Today, the whole graphic novel thing is really popular and people are really pushing for comics to be taken more seriously. A lot of people think that to take comics seriously, you have to take the cartoony nature out of them. Nowadays they often deal with very serious topics. People who find the idea of comics somehow embarrassing use the term graphic novel to make it sound more serious. Part of me wants to just say that is bullshit. They are saying that, to gain respect, comics have to lose a great deal of the things that made them appealing to me in the first place. I want comics to be fun and cartoonish. I enjoyed that as a kid and now that I’m an adult I can see extra layers within the cartoonish aspects of the medium. Just because you are in another stage of your life doesn’t mean that you have to abandon some of the enjoyment you had back then – you can just appreciate more flavours now. It is quite a complex topic. In terms of how people react when I tell them I do comics, I don’t really have a specific anecdote about that. For sure, sometimes you do feel that some people don’t respect it, which is just absurd.
Copies of 'Uncle Mouse of the Forest' and 'Six Tiny Bricks' (A collection of Diego's including 'Lucio Cifuentes' and 'Carrot Soup') are available at Deadhead Comics in Edinburgh. You can contact him via his website.