Three Questions for David Mazzucchelli
by Bill Kartalopoulos

David Mazzucchelli famously walked away from a successful career in commercial comics to pursue the medium sans frontières, publishing three issues of Rubber Blanket with partner Richmond Lewis and contributing short-form work to anthologies including Drawn & Quarterly, Snake Eyes, Zero Zero, and Little Lit. Art Spiegelman approached Mazzucchelli in 1992 about possible participation in the planned "Neon Lit" series of graphic noir adaptations. Mazzuccchelli broke down four City of Glass pages that he would later characterize as an "atmospheric" presentation of Auster's text.1 Spiegelman brought Paul Karasik on board to try a different approach. One of the most seamless and productive collaborations in modern comics followed, as Karasik and Mazzucchelli traded several subsequent drafts to infuse Karasik's structured iconography with Mazzucchelli's sense of urban space and broad graphic palette. Mazzucchelli drew the book in its final form.

When I ran into David Mazzucchelli at a New York comics event, he produced the original art for City of Glass from a well-guarded case. He showed me several pages, and indicated the one small correction that will see print in the upcoming Picador edition. I mentioned "Indy Magazine" and suggested an interview. When I followed up with Mr. Mazzucchelli via e-mail, he admitted that he'd more or less given up interviews, but proposed to answer three questions in writing. He also offered to share the first set of breakdowns he'd made at Spiegelman's request, pre-dating Paul Karasik's involvement with the project. The resultant short interview below is illustrated with both those pages and with pages from the final, published version of City of Glass.

Bill Kartalopoulos: How would you describe the relationship between formal and aesthetic elements in City of Glass?

David Mazzucchelli:
In a successful work of art, formal and aesthetic elements are inextricably linked; this was not only our goal with City of Glass, it continues to be my goal with all the work I do. With this project, I think Paul (K.) and I thought of it not so much as an adaptation as a translation from one language to another. In that sense, finding the structure (which Paul did brilliantly) was very important. All the "aesthetic" choices augmented that structure, or were intended to be visual analogues to the text — especially to the large portions we were leaving out.

That being said, let us remember that art is not science. Comics are primarily visual — and one of the main pleasures in reading them is looking at the pictures. There are times when a beautiful image makes sense as good storytelling in ways that are not easily explained.

BK: In your interview with the Comics Journal, you referred to the "baseline style" that dominates the more conventionally narrative sequences in City of Glass. What led you to choose or develop the particular "baseline style" you used in City of Glass, and, more generally, what considerations inform stylistic choices in your work?

DM: It was a combination of personal and practical considerations that led to the drawing style(s) in City of Glass. Paul's original structure called specifically for iconic representations (as opposed to more standard "drawing") in two sequences — Virginia Stillman's account of Peter's life, and Quinn's research into the elder Stillman's writings — as well as the screaming child's drawing which recurs throughout the book. I took that a step further by allowing the style of drawing to act as another layer of information in this already dense presentation. One change occurs when Quinn is thinking of children who had been raised in isolation; another when he sits to write his observations in his notebook; the drawing becomes more ragged and less naturalistic after he "loses his grip;" and the final sequence is rendered in ink wash. (I should note that the treatment of text goes through similar permutations for similar reasons.)

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All these variations had to come from something, which is what I referred to as the "baseline style." I wanted a drawing style naturalistic enough to evoke the "real world" in which the story takes place, calligraphic enough to bend easily into the other styles I planned to use, and simple enough to be clear in the book's small format. What I arrived at was also informed by my growing interest in comic book drawing as cartooning (as opposed to a kind of simplified naturalism in much of my previous work) — as a system of mark-making that creates its own credible reality.

In general, the way I draw a comic is determined by the content, but always balanced with my particular visual interests at the time.

BK: How did your collaboration with Paul Karasik influence your thinking about comics and your approach to work you've done since then?

DM: Working with Paul Karasik was a real treat. His sensibility and mine are quite different in many respects, but I think our strengths complemented each other.

Most of the comics I made before City of Glass have cinematic tendencies — and by "cinematic" I'm referring to the way each panel creates a kind of mise en scene; and the way the sequence of panels — often without narration — evokes a linear progression of time. (Actually, I dislike comparisons between comics and movies, but this is the clearest way I can describe what I'm thinking of.) Paul thinks of comics in much more graphic terms — drawing as symbol, cipher, icon...cartoon! At that point in my career, I was experimenting with the language of comics, mostly in my magazine, RUBBER BLANKET, and was discovering (and in some cases rediscovering) this expressive aspect of the medium; but working with Paul, and seeing the kinds of decisions he made, really brought this into sharp focus.

A more interesting way of understanding what I'm talking about is to look at the sample pages I drew before Paul was brought onto the project — the City of Glass that never was (or in this case, the City of Glass that shouldn't have been). While I was still working on the third issue of RUBBER BLANKET, Art was pressing me to start thinking about City of Glass. I quickly came up with four pages as an attempt to get a feeling for what my approach might be. You can see that I was thinking about using the text and the pictures to deliver two levels of information simultaneously, but my proposal has none of the wit and structural integrity of Paul's approach. (In fact, the opening pages I attempted are the ones Paul and I went back to and spent the most time on, each of us improving the other's ideas.)

A year before working on City of Glass, I had made a short autobiographical comic called "Air" using a thematic structure and graphic approach that embraced many of the aspects of comics mentioned above, and hinted at the direction my work might take. The City of Glass experience affirmed all the things I had tried in "Air," and sent me headlong down that particular road by reintroducing me to the unique possibilities inherent in the medium of comics. 

1 Brayshaw, Christopher. "David Mazzucchelli." The Comics Journal. # 194. March 1997. 40-84.