Frontier Psychiatrist

Sober Demons: An Interview with Bernie McGovern

Posted on: August 28, 2012

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Chicago-based cartoonist Bernie McGovern is an idiosyncratic worldmaker.  His work is a phantasmagoria through a jagged yet welcoming landscape populated with heartbroken archetypes as captivating as they are bizarre.  It’s as if Hayao Miyazaki were asked to fill in on Peanuts.In his latest work, DemonTears (Hic & Hoc Publications), McGovern uses his breathtakingly peculiar imagination to tell the very real story of his struggle towards sobriety.  Alternating between his daily humdrum life and his inner existence, which is anything but, DemonTears is a painfully honest and dizzyingly creative, if occasionally inscrutable, journey through addiction and out the other side.  FP staff  writer Jared Thomas recently sat down with Bernie McGovern to chat about DemonTears, independent comics, and catharsis.

FP:  DemonTears is obviously a very personal book.  It must have been a cathartic experience to create but what do you hope the reader will get out of it?

BM:  It’s strange that the book is so personal yet wasn’t cathartic at all. Working on this story definitely stirred up feelings, but did little to change them or make me feel better. It would blow my mind If this book could help someone realize that he or she has a drinking problem.   I would also like the book to stand as an experiment in personal myth-building. It’s something anyone can do. Invent characters to represent parts of yourself.

FP:  In regards to “Personal Myth-Building”, do you think with the rise of global media, our inner mythographies are becoming all the same?  Or is it the exact opposite for the same reason?

BM:  I feel lucky to have gone through development without it, but I have to imagine that it’s having a huge effect. I teach art to kids ages 3 through 30ish, and I can say that there is a huge spectrum in kids’ creativity. Many seem capable of coming up with totally bizarre, rich concepts, while others default pretty strongly to imitating popular cartoons, movies, and video games. I hope it’s not doing damage, that it’s instead making a variety of influences accessible.

FP:  In DemonTears, we split time between a very real, biographical account of your life and what might be a just as real biographical account of your inner life.   Tell us a little about creating the “fantasy” world.  Was it an intellectual process where you were searching for appropriate metaphors or is this a world which simply exists in your head?

BM:  My process began with making visceral, intuitive choices in character design. I imagined the mannerisms these monsters, robots, and puppets would have. I let them breathe for a while in my sketch book until it felt like a good time to hold them up to inspection for a little narrative integrity quality check. The fantasy world had gotten off track from the purpose it was supposed to serve. It had become a mindlessly fun adventure with no connection to the realistic side of the story. So the second phase was about trimming the superfluous and rewriting it to stand metaphorically. Ultimately, I would say it was an equally split process of intuitive and intellectual creativity.  Each fantasy world scene ended up representing a specific aspect of life that was nudging me toward sobriety.

FP:  DemonTears employs a very cartoony style.  Is this a conscious decision on your part?  Are there advantages to doing cartoon versus realistic illustration?

BM:  It’s funny, the cartoony face choice was born out of workshops I have been teaching to kids in hospitals.  I have this “expressions” drawing exercise where we combine different eyebrow, eyelid, mouth, and nose configurations. Within it, I’ve settled into a sort of large-eyed style that’s carried over into my work effortlessly. Also, it was just more fun to draw human faces that way.  I began the project drawing myself pretty realistically and it was just an unpleasant chore. I felt I needed to change the approach if I was going to finish this book.  All of my under-drawings for these pages were swirly, active shapes and I wanted to preserve some of that vitality without totally overhauling my aesthetic.

FP:  Who are some of your favorite artists currently?

BM:  I’m still completely hooked on all the sci-fi compositions Moebius made over the years. Flipping through his collections always makes me feel great, and it’s the only work I can look at when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my projects. It somehow inspires me without making me feel totally insecure. Add to that, I’ve been reading a wonderful 1978-80 book series called the Terran Trade Authority, written by Stewart Cowley. It’s a fun, future-history handbook full of awesome drawings and paintings. There are my contemporaries here in Chicago. These people all impress the hell out of me and push me to improve: Grant Reynolds, Jeremy Tinder, Lilli Carre, Laura Park, Aaron Renier, Nate Beaty, Josh Cotter, Edie Fake, Joe Tallarico, and everybody in our Trubble Club collective. There are other contemporaries who I don’t know personally but am following with wide eyes like Dane Martin, Jesse Jacobs, Michael Deforge, and Alabaster.

FP:  Because of superhero movies, comic books are in the public spotlight but there is still a sense that superheroes are totality of what graphic fiction has to offer.  As someone involved in independent, non-superhero comics, how do you explain to casual readers what you do?

BM:  I begin by saying that my comics are usually not for kids. If I’m talking to a parent, I usually have to follow up pretty quickly with a statement that stops them from thinking it’s pornographic. From there, I describe my new work as surreal autobiography or as illustrative fantasy/fiction. I often say that my books are elaborate daydreams put to paper. But that is usually the short answer. I get a huge kick out of showing scenes from life, then presenting hopes, fears, and dreams coming true alongside them. I sometimes frame indie comics as a medium where creators try to bridge formats. Some prefer to think of their works as Literature presented through a visual lens, others see their comics as abbreviated animations, and many think of their work as sequential visual art.

JT:  In your mind, what is the current state of graphic fiction as a medium in America today?

BM:  I think comics are in a really awesome place! Everyone feels energized to contribute & create. Though the publishing industry is of course struggling right now. So getting published is pretty rough. But, smaller publishers are still strong as hell. I think the demand for the printed page will always be there so long as the industry’s expectations follow realistic trends. But then again, I may be reaching way beyond my expertise. I find the most important attitude to have as a creator is to make the kind of work I want to read. If I can get the work into the right hands, opportunity may follow. But when it doesn’t, I am not too crushed because I have at least made something that I like.

Jared Thomas is an author and scriptwriter living in Brooklyn. His works include The Street Dreams of Electric Youth, The Last Amesha, and Gre & The Devil. His recent FP pieces include Snap Judgments on 5 Days of Olympic Competition, Don’t Blame Batman for the Colorado Shootings, and the Top 10 Korean Pop Videos of 2012 (So Far).


1 Response to "Sober Demons: An Interview with Bernie McGovern"

[…] with Jared Thomas of Frontier Psychiatrist: Chicago-based cartoonist Bernie McGovern is an idiosyncratic worldmaker.  His work is a […]

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