Shiny as Hell: An Interview With Benjamin Marra

I first heard about <a href="http://www.benjaminmarra.com/index.html" target="_blank">Benjamin Marra</a>, the guy who drew <a href="http://www.viceland.com/int/v16n10/htdocs/comics-benjamin-marra-198.php" target="_blank">yesterday's comic</a>, when...

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Nov 2 2009, 7:21pm

I first heard about Benjamin Marra, the guy who drew yesterday's comic, when Johnny Ryan made fun of me for not knowing about Benjamin Marra. Now I know more about Benjamin Marra than Benjamin Marra knows about Benjamin Marra. He draws in a way that's like those hand painted movie posters and air brushed flea market T-shirts. Awkward action figure anatomy combined with screaming mouths and shiny, shiny muscles. Everything looks dirty and dark and like art that was airbrushed on the side of a carnival ride. Ben's put out two issues of Night Business, which seems to be a comic about a guy who protects strippers and one issue of Gangsta Rap Posse, a comic about what you think N.W.A. is like when you are twelve and gullible. Don't be a chump, take a look at this new champ.

VICE: What were you like growing up and how'd you discover comics? Benjamin Marra: When I was very young I wasn't allowed to watch anything on TV but Sesame Street or 3-2-1 Contact on PBS. But I used to wake up at an ungodly early hour and watch Go-Bots, GI Joe or He-Man. I was also a very anxious, fearful, and nervous child. Visual depictions of violence and horror resonated deeply for me. I learned to read from Tintin comics but the first comic I selected for myself from the spinner racks of my local comic book store was the first issue of Darrick Robertson's Space Beaver. Even though I was traumatized by the story and images, it was the best thing I'd ever seen; Robertson's raw-power drawings of intense action, over-the-top emotion were exceedingly violent and savage. I didn't know drawings could be so awesome. It provided for me a feeling of secret discovery of a forbidden fruit of mayhem. I think that Space Beaver comic has served as a template as far as the kind of comics I'd like to create. With regard to my artistic progression, it has gone through many cycles. I grew up loving to draw just for my own personal satisfaction. Later, during my formal training in college and grad school, I began to question my motives and decisions. Why was I choosing certain methods and materials? What content should I choose and then what form should it take? Did I want to be an applied artist or fine artist? If an applied artist or illustrator, then what discipline? How was I going to turn making pictures into making money? I experimented a lot and had breakthroughs but my struggle with doubt in my work was constant. Ultimately all those questions led me to create work that was based on trying to please these imaginary, external sources of judgment. I felt I needed to please these imaginary people in order to qualify my work or feel it had any value. As a consequence I began to hate what I was making because I felt I had to make it a certain way to fulfill these imaginary requirements. My art process became a chore. After school and working a regular job, I slowly shed that basis for creating pictures, began to trust my own instincts, accept (and even celebrate) my deficiencies as a draftsman and create work that simply satisfied myself as it did when I was younger. As a result I think I create more confident, honest, and sincere stuff. It might not be very smart or intelligent but I have fun making it. I was also really easily affected by media as well. I was nauseated and deeply upset by the Garbage Pail Kids and Ren & Stimpy but now I think they're beautiful. Yeah, I was a casual collector of Garbage Pail Kids. I remember how immaculately rendered they were and at the time didn't believe it was humanly possible to paint so skillfully. There were a few I remember feeling so revolted by a few that I had trouble looking at them. I it troubled me that someone out there had the imagination and wherewithal to create such an image. None specifically come to mind. I remember thinking a bunch of them were really cool looking and we used them as a resource for calling people names. Ren & Stimpy was way out there. Even though I was pretty young it was apparent that was a different cartoon and that John K. was a different sort of creative person. That show might have been one of the first times I could see a corporate hand in the end of something that was obviously operating by it's own rules. It was just such a weird cartoon, weird rhythms and just strange, disgusting story ideas. And it got more bizarre as it progressed as a show. But, yeah, it was amazing and unforgettable stuff visually. Some of the still shots were great pieces of work. It's weird how you come to love, or at least appreciate, stuff you initially are repelled by, like we're drawn to things we once saw as awful or threatening. And the opposite seems true, too, some of the stuff you used to love, you just abhor now. I like this image of Alexis. It reminds me of prison art. You ever see Buttman magazine? It seems like all the stories and drawings contributed must be coming from America's incarcerated. Whoa. No. I don't think I've ever seen Buttman magazine. I gotta check that out though. I'm really interested in prison art. When I was in Arizona visiting my buddy, he told me about this trailer that was parked across the street from this prison in the middle of the desert. It served as a makeshift art gallery for all the prisoners. You could drive there, go to the trailer and look at all the art the prisoners had made and buy stuff. We never made it there--I can only imagine the insane stuff that must be in there. Also, there were these paintings done by this Aryan warlord from inside prison. There were basically straight copies of Heavy Metal magazine covers, coupled with intensely rendered portraits of rottweilers. The cops thought he was communicating instructions to his skinhead army on the outside. Craze. Is Super Satan at all inspired by the old DC comic book, Son of Satan? Nah. Super Satan is completely inspired by and totally an homage to Tim Vigil's Faust, which is another comic I keep close to my heart. It's just totally fucking insane. Vigil draws it like he's trying to draw the Sistine Chapel on every page. His pages are Haymaker punches and he often loses his balance and falls down. But I don't even think he's aware he's fallen, which makes his work so perfect and endearing to me. Compared to Faust though, Super Satan is much goofier, Bugs Bunny-style hero. Faust is pretty serious. Super Stan does have that pentagram scar on his chest like Son of Satan, which was unintentional. You do good muscles. Thanks, bro. Muscles are cool. They represent power and strength, which are cool qualities. I've been thinking a lot recently about the way Art Spiegelman dismissed superhero comics as "male power fantasies" (I think in one or two of his essays he makes that statement). But I actually think that superhero comics have gotten away from being power fantasies and have been too concerned with making the stories seem more "realistic" and keeping the continuity in order. That's not a unique complaint though. I'd like to see superhero comics return to the male power fantasy. And that just makes me think of having muscles that would allow me to decimate any adversary. It should be said that muscles still play a big role in current superhero comics despite their lack of being satisfying male power fantasies. I think a lot of art boils down to being a male power fantasy--superhero comics are just more honest about it. I've been reading the current Green Lantern comics as an attempt at getting back into modern superhero comics and I'm really enjoying it. Again, I agree. Isn't the act of creation a fantasy of power? Or, isn't it a method of qualifying yourself to the opposite sex in order to get laid? And therefore a power fantasy? I am reading Green Lantern as well. I got sold on the hype for Blackest Night and started picking it up. I buy it mostly for the art (my main reason for buying most mainstream books). I really like Dough Mahnke. He's an incredible storyteller and designer and he can draw anything. It seems to me that DC has relegated him as a reliable workhorse though. He doesn't seem to be the first choice for prestige titles and events other artists get, rather he's brought in to deliver awesome work under a tight deadline. But that's just an observation from a casual observer. As far as the story in Green Lantern goes, I think it's above average. The scope and ambition of Blackest Night is mind-boggling. It's taken years to set up. I find the stories in the individual issues of Green Lantern confusing, the dialogue is mainly exposition, and I don't really care too much about what's going on or what emotions the characters are feeling. But it's a pretty cool read and I want to see what happens next, and maybe that's all you can ask for. It seems modern superhero stories and continuity have created a big box to exist within and the writers end up running into the walls that create the box and the box keeps filling up with more and more stuff and they're running out of room to maneuver. I read the Fourth World collection recently and was amazed, naturally. Unlike other superhero-story reading experiences, The Fourth World is a deeply moving tale. There's a sense of purity in those stories. It lacks the largess, gluttony, and indulgence that other superhero crossover stories are full of. And a lot happens in just one Mister Miracle issue. Modern superhero comic book issues feel like they're just checking off certain points that need to be established in a larger story outline. Kirby's individual issues never feel that way. Maybe that's because he was sort of making it up as he went along. Geoff Johns can really get some intense emotions out of the character. It helps that I get chills every time they recite the Green Lantern oath in the comic. How do you feel about Ryan Reynolds playing Green Lantern in the movie? Ha, yeah, the Oath of the Green Lanterns is pretty moving. I feel great about Ry Reyn getting the Green Lantern gig. I think that guy has got ability. He obviously doesn't take himself too seriously, which I think can be an asset playing a leading-man-type hero, having that innate comic sensibility for the right moments. But he's also got to deliver on the drama. We'll see. I'd like to see that Deadpool movie he's rumored to be the attached to. His disposition is perfect for that character it seems. Did you ever read Cyber Frog, the comic that Ethan Van Sciver got his start in comics with? I was into it when I was 12 and when I saw his name on DC's best comic I was taken aback. I have read Cyber Frog. It's incredible. I remember when it came out it got a lot of attention and I picked up a few issues. Then it sort of disappeared. Several years later I got really into Van Sciver's work (not knowing he wrote and drew Cyber Frog). Now I'm completely obsessed with his stuff. I'll pull out his books, from time to time, like the GL: Rebirth, or that two-issue series with Batman and Catwoman called Trail of the Gun, or his New X-Men issues, and his drawings will just blow my mind. He's one of those artists who, again, doesn't always get the anatomy or perspective perfect but he sells it so hard, gives it his all on every panel, you've just got to admire the guy's devotion and emotional investment in his work. It's extremely inspirational to me. After reading interviews with Van Sciver I discovered he was responsible for Cyber Frog and the circle was complete. I love that that's where he started. His commitment to the medium is exemplary. What other books are you reading nowadays? Prose-wise I've been reading these Jack Vance Dying Earth books which are fucking out-of-control brilliant. It's some of the most imaginative, beautiful, humorous stuff I have ever read. As far as comics go, I read Matthew Thurber's 1-800-Mice #3 and was thoroughly entertained, not surprisingly. That guy's stuff is amazing and I can't get enough of it. Also, I read the most Cold Heat #7  and #8 double issue, which continues to be awesome, trippy, confusing, and interesting. I looked at, but didn't read, the most recent Tales from Greenfuzz. That stuff is perfect. I read these issues of Black Diamond about a super-model super-spy. I picked up a couple issues of the most recent Fantastic Four run with Dale Eaglesham doing the art. I enjoyed those quite a bit. Also, picked up the first issue of Starr the Slayer series with Corben artwork. Corben always impresses me. Got a few used trades not too long ago of some Alan Moore Swamp Thing issues and a few of the Fables trades. Read those for the stories. I'm waiting for my copy of Prison Pit to come in the mail, so I'll read that a few times I'm sure. Your drawings remind me of Pinball backglass graphics, with your heavy use of shiny black shading and the awkward, stiff anatomy. How'd you learn to make things so shiny? Dude, I appreciate that. I effing love Pinball machine art. I'm sad that I can't achieve the same level of artistic success. I really dig those weird niche commercial art jobs done by anonymous craftspeople, that are required to work in a really classical, formal aesthetic, like doing paintings of legendary baseball players – like Brooks Robinson – for some special edition Topps baseball cards. Or doing pet portraiture. With regard to how I learned to make things so shiny: I became obsessed with this comic American Century that had this penciller Marc Laming inked over by John Stokes. The people always looked really shiny I guess, with these awkward, illogical shadows. I just stole that from those two comic artists. I don't really see it as things being shiny, I see it as me trying to be like Laming and Stokes doing American Century, and failing. I feel the same way. When I see modern "folk art" made by people who went to art school in galleries it usually makes me want to throw up in anger. Pinball machines are beautiful kinetic sculptures. The guys who did the graphics probably wanted to do something else and weren't good enough so they got stuck in that world. Have you been to the new pinball museum in Asbury Park? It's amazing. I agree with you about fake folk art or psuedo naive art. It's inherently dishonest and honesty is the spine of art creation. Truth is a pretty important part of life in general. When you get some MFA painter trying to replicate the aesthetic quality of a yard-sale, black-velvet Elvis painting in a gallery show, it's lame. Pinball machine graphics exist within their specific vehicle or context which can't be duplicated. And, yeah, those guys creating the pinball machine graphics are probably just doing it to make some dough. I tend to like genre art that's created within the frame of just making some quick cash. Like Philip K. Dick writing tons of stories cause he needed the money. Or Lucio Fulci movies that are just knock-offs of successful American movies. Even Jack Kirby, churning out obscene amounts of comic pages in order to make some extra bread. C.R.E.A.M. yo. Doing your best and failing is what style is, I think. You are right. Your style is when you shoot for an aesthetic with the utmost intensity, faith, and determination and miss wildly. I think Picasso said something like, "Everyone can draw a circle freehand, without the aid of a compass, but everyone's circle would be different and those mistakes you make trying to draw that perfect circle are actually what represent you, your art choices." Our imperfections and faults are what make us our perfect selves. It was only when I realized that, accepted and celebrated my shortcomings as a draftsman, that I was able to become much more productive.

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