Trouble with Comics
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Interview conducted Thursday, December 30, 1999 by Alan David Doane and Marshall O'Keeffe
Barry Windsor-Smith is the author of Opus, a projected series of five hardcover volumes that showcase his over 30 years as an artist while revealing the extraordinary events and phenomena that have informed and inspired his art from nearly the very beginning. Volume One was the fastest-selling book in the history of publisher Fantagraphics Books.
My thanks to Alex Bialy, studio manager for BWS, who was invaluable in his efforts at getting us all together, and my longtime friend Marshall O'Keeffe, who also sat in for the interview.
Alan David Doane: Opus sort of comes as a surprise, after the last decade or so that you have done a lot of sort of standard comics, Weapon X, Rune, Archer and Armstrong. What was involved in the decision to do Opus?
Barry Windsor-Smith: You mean the content of Opus, "Time Rise?"
ADD: Yeah, I mean, it's a quantum leap from your last comics project.
BWS: It's a quantum leap only to the comics fans really. I say something about this in the book, in the introduction. If I'm gonna produce a book like this, a big, lush book is gonna cost money to produce and money to buy and what the heck kind of verbal content am I going to put in it, you know? I didn't want to do what everybody else does. Sure, I could write about my childhood and the first comic I ever read. I could natter on about the sort of materials I use, but, frankly, I'd rather die first than do that. If the text of OPUS was anything other than what it is, I probably wouldn't have produced the books at all.I don't think this book and the ones coming after
it could exist if it were not for me saying "hell with this, I've just got to tell the truth about some stuff here. I've got to say something about me." There have always been some things about me that nobody in the whole wide world knows about. Would you rather know about that, or would you prefer some bland recitation about what pens I use and how I always wanted to be a baseball player but ended up in the pissy old comics field anyway. I'm 50 years old, I would hate to die and leave everything unsaid. Bad Karma. I'm not planning on croaking anytime soon, but there comes a time, you know?
BWS: Or something happens, like you just miss a bleedin' motorbike going around the corner, it's like, "Whoa! I haven't even made up a will."
Marshall O'Keeffe: Brings it home.
BWS: Brings it home. What if I was dying, or knew I was going to die, and I had this terrific regret of never telling anybody? About all the stuff that I know about? Whether it's true or not, whether
it can be proved or not. What if I just never told anybody?
And what if at the moment of dying-crossing into some great beyond or whatever, I found it was all true?
BWS: My God, I'll end up as one of those ghosts going around raking chains and just being really pissed off all the time, giving people a hard time (general laughter). It's kind of a jokey way of saying it, but the fact is I knew that it was imperative that I say out loud all the experiences I've had, and I also knew that I was walking into danger. I knew it. God, everybody -- "everybody" as if there's like millions of them -- each and every single individual who has attempted to -- I put this in quotes -- "enlighten" other people about human potentialities, afforded by their own experiences, has gone through proverbial hell. You're either a heretic or a total nutcase. Thank God this isn't 400 years ago, you wouldn't be talking to me, you'd be looking at a pile of ashes.
ADD: You'd be dead already.
BWS: Burned at the stake. I'd still be smoldering. This is America,
anything can happen here. It'll go down in history as the Woodstock Witch Trials. My answer, then, is that I had to say what I've said. I'm personally compelled to tell the truth as I know it. Since beginning to unload my history into the pages of OPUS I am feeling so much better about myself. A terrible weight is being lifted paragraph by paragraph. I'm getting shat upon by some people who need to believe that their reality is the only reality, but then again, I meet interesting people like you.
ADD: So "Time Rise" really is, for you, the reason that this book series exists.
BWS: It's the very reason itself. I am decorating my story with all the cute pictures I've done. I spent about 500, 600 words talking around the fact that I'm a Gemini and all the split-personality pop culture that goes with that.
MO'K: I noticed that, yeah, that was interesting.
BWS: I thought I'd get it in before somebody else said "Well, the guy's got
a damn split personality, I bet he was born in May or June. He's just a cuckoo." Yeah, okay, I'm a Gemini. I don't believe in astrology, I just thought I'd throw it in so I don't get a lot of letters. But for those who believe in star signs and all that, my life is a terrific example of human dualities. From a distance, OPUS is a coffee-table art book. You start to read it, and it's about the paranormal and metaphysics.
ADD: You're multi-tasking.
BWS: "Multi-tasking." What a modern term.
ADD: That was the thing that struck me when I first read the book. That there are so many different audiences for this book. Conan fans, comics and art fans, and people who really want to learn about what it is possible for us to become. And I think that all of them can be equally pleased with the book.
BWS: Oh, I think so too, man. But I should have called the book "Lots of Stuff," or--something more indicative, you know. "Opus" is a charming term, andit has its significance...
Alex Bialy: "Eclectica."
ADD: Horn O' Plenty.
BWS: I mean, if I'd really wanted to sell it, I could have called it "Tits Galore" or something like that.
ADD: "Volume Four, Tits Galore."
BWS: There you are. Provocative. Inviting.
MO'K: When I heard the title "Opus," I kept thinking of that penguin, the character from...
BWS: Oh my God, I never thought of that!
ADD: You've got to think at least one person will have bought it thinking it's a Bloom County retrospective.
BWS: That's grand. I'm not proud, a dollar's a dollar, don't forget.
MO'K: Alan told me you've got to read this book Opus, it's like "Oh, it's about Bloom County?"
BWS: Wow, that is fabulous, my God just -- every word has been corrupted, hasn't it? Even a beautiful word like Opus.
ADD: It appeared to me that a lot of thought went into what pictures were included...
BWS: Yeah, that's why I had to design the book myself.
ADD: What was the process in saying "this will be in, and this won't."
BWS: That is multi-tasking. That is literally multi-tasking. I was wearing, you know, the old cliché, I was wearing all these different hats. I was both the writer of the book and the painter of the pictures. I was the editor of the material, and the book designer. I mean everything, I was doing everything. That's multi-tasking. For the most part I didn't want my pictures to clash with what I was saying, that's an easy enough level to want to achieve. But that itself wasn't so easy. When you consider the disparity between the text and the pictures I've made over these years, there's a lot juggling to do so that innocent bystanders don't get totally confused. There were a couple of scenes, areas where it just flowed quite nicely, where I was talking about the confusion of people and the duality of mind. I included a picture of a doppelganger, called The Book of Samothrace, the woman seeing herself at the momentof profound realization. But that runs the
risk of a piece of art becoming an illustration. I've never done illustration in my life--well, I have, I have, but don't tell anyone. So, anyway, sometimes I'd forget to remove one hat before putting on another.
MO'K: You talk about one of your goals, which might perhaps be to help people make a paradigm shift.
BWS: Yes, that is a goal, certainly.
MO'K: When you say that, I'm curious -- do you feel a whole world paradigm shift, or perhaps just a few people? Do you think that mass illumination is possible or even desirable?
BWS: Only in my dreams, only in my dreams. No, that's an idealism. If I can help change only 20 people's minds about wanting to look for a truth, then that is a worthy goal. But I can only help to influence, if at all. Individual minds can only do it themselves. No matter how much you want to change people's minds you cannot. But influencing an individual into knowing they have choices. That's a soft and organic approach. The very best thing that's happened
since the publication of OPUS 1 is the private letters I've received. Not many, yet. Less than a dozen so far. A few e-mails here, some snail-mails there, some people knew of my comics work or my paintings beforehand, but not everybody.
Basically, OPUS is helping to make it okay to talk about things that people are often afraid to discuss publicly. Extraordinary experience, a term put together by John Mack, or "Non-ordinary experience," if you'd prefer. So I've been receiving letters where people would say something like, "I've never told anybody this. I haven't even told my wife this. You know, I wouldn't even tell my best friends this, but after reading Time Rise, let me tell you what happened to me a few years ago," or "when I was a kid..." And they go into detail. They trust me. Damn, that makes me feel so good.I feel - vindicated. When I was writing OPUS 1, and as I'm now completing the second volume, I worried myself sick about what people were gonna think of me. All of the worries I've had for 30,
40-odd years--concentrated. I edited that book so bleedin' tough, so rigidly. I took out things that I knew people just wouldn't believe. And it's not because I'm afraid of the possible vilification. I want the reader to go from the first page to the final page and hear me out without tripping up over the language, the terminology, the strange contexts of ordinary events, and the extraordinary events in utterly normal contexts.
I wanted people to make it to the last page, so I had to edit myself very severely. I had to judge what I imagined the reader would be willing to accept, and what would seem just so far out that I lose their willingness to give me a reasonable hearing. I need -- I need two things: One, I need to get all this off of my chest, to use a common phrase, two, I want other people to get it off their chests if they have their own stories but have been hitherto afraid to share them with anyone.. I'm not looking for glory here, I want to believe that I'm doing something valuable, sure, but it's
really just a small step. "Small steps, Ellie, small steps." That's a quote from Carl Sagan's novel CONTACT. In the story's context those words have a lot of meaning.
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