The Seeds Of The Subconscious – Conversations With Ann Nocenti, Part 1

by Hannah Means Shannon

I had the exciting opportunity to talk with comic creator, editor, filmmaker, and writer Ann Nocenti at New York Comic Con to talk about her upcoming book with David Aja to be published by Berger Books at Dark Horse, but in any conversation you have with Nocenti, you are likely to be treated not only to her forthright and open attitude, but to her wealth of wisdom from working in comics for decades, as well as documentary filmmaking.

Her upcoming work, The Seeds, is her first creator-owned comic project, and it is also Eisner-winning artist David Aja’s first creator-owned work as well, making this a unique and remarkable pairing of two great talents to bring an original vision to the world of comics.

Before speaking to Nocenti, I had been able to attend the Berger Books Panel at NYCC and had heard a little about their sci-fi comic series, enough to learn that it contained interesting dialog on the idea of a “wall” between Mexico and the United States, and that there were hints at an alien encounter as part of the comic series’ plot.

Part 1 of my interview with Nocenti, where we talk primarily about editing and writing in comics, and The Seeds, will be found below.

In Part 2, coming up next week, we also cover wide-ranging topics in journalism, social media, film, and travel.

In the Berger Books Panel, Nocenti had spoken about the subconscious elements in creating comics, and the way that room for subconscious elements contributes to the richness of a comic story. By contrast, “editorially driven” comics, working on a very tight deadline, may be the norm in the comics industry, but may not produce so rich a product. I asked Nocenti if she could elaborate further on this philosophy.

Nocenti said that she’s been “on the other side” as an editor putting out ten books a month, “wrecking lives and torturing people”, she added self-depricatingly, so she certainly understands that world. She “was that person”, so she has sympathy for the “editorial angle” of publishing, watching dips in sales that mean starting new storylines and making sure that comics sell. The “comic book narrative” you find in hero stories actually applies to the entire comic industry, she said.

“You rise from the ashes, to fight again. That’s what you do”, she said. The comic companies have experienced that too, being bankrupted, or bought by a mogul who wrecked the company or, society trashing comics and breaking down sales. Editors have that responsibility working under difficult circumstances, often with teams who are doing too much work, and so they have to drive the book however they can.

And they, too, give up their personal lives. On vacations, they are on call and have to drop what they are doing to return to work, she said, based on personal experiences. She actually “loves that feeling of being put in the harness and running the track”, she said, “that feeling of having to run the race”. But as a writer, now she stops and asks herself, “What would my stories be like if I actually had time?”

This project, The Seeds, is one where she actually has time to create differently. And “Who better to have time with than David Aja? Because he raises the bar. He raises the bar on the conversation that goes on within the comic industry about storytelling.”, Nocenti enthused.

She had recently been at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library, and looking at the experimentation of Winsor McCay in Little Nemo, using horizontal panels, and original Gasoline Alley strips, really inspired her.

These conversations about panels, grids, and how to present things are the kind of conversations you can have when you have time, and the kind that Aja wants to have, Nocenti explained. He’s a rare artist who “brings an indie sensibility to the mainstream” as in Hawkeye with Matt Fraction. You get your costumes and your mainstream, but you get innovative storytelling, too. Fraction and Aja “merge those two worlds”, Nocenti said.

Working on The Seeds with David Aja is like a “dream come true”, Nocenti said, and adding to that the fact that she’s working with Karen Berger, who she’s a “huge fan” of. When she was on staff at Marvel, she recalled, she was always the first to rip open the comp “bundles” of comics from DC Comics, which contained Berger’s Vertigo books. She’d pull out anything Berger had worked on, and that’d be a big draw. She knew she’d find “an indie sensibility within the main stream”, which made her a fan of Berger’s.

I stopped Nocenti for a moment as I suddenly realized what seemed to me to be a bizarre truth. “Is this your first creator-owned book?” I asked incredulously.

She confirmed that it is, and that The Seeds is David Aja’s first creator-owned book, too. That blew my mind because I’ve known Nocenti for some time and always as a major supporter of creator-owned and independent work both in comics and film.

She said that she found it a little “scary” and especially in doing something so different, where she doesn’t have the “natural buttress of the superhero narrative” which she “hates and loves”. Where all stories escalate toward violence. Now she doesn’t have to do that, but it feels like walking a tight rope, in a way. She finds herself putting in unnecessary fight scenes, which Aja reminds her to remove, and she’s weaning herself off that instinct.

Nocenti called Aja a “juggler” who “switches things up”. She hands him the elements of story, and he “throws all the balls in the air”. When they “come back down”, characters are changed in their age, ethnicity, and other features, and plot elements are gone, expanded, exchanged. But when the balls come back down, she said, “It’s perfect”.

I commented on some of the artwork that had been previewed in the Berger Books panel, as having an almost “stamped” or “woodblock effect”, and having a street art feel, something I knew was an interest of Nocenti’s.

Nocenti confirmed that she’d been working for some time on a street art project, seeing the ways in which “people communicate with each other through the walls”. When traveling in other countries, like Mexico, you find some of the street art is political, advisory, and more. But researching ancient Egypt, that kind of graffiti often was advice and guidance for travelers. Then there’s the history of hobo etchings and markings, Nocenti noted. All of these are forms of communication that fly under the radar.

They are hoping to develop a “language for the walls” in the comic. She doesn’t fully know yet what things will be. They are in the midst of creating the series, so things are still a “game”.

During the panel, Nocenti had described a setting for The Seeds, where there’s a wall with two cultures divided by it, and I asked her if she meant “The Wall”, as one dividing the United States and Mexico. She confirmed that it’s “The Wall” in The Seeds. But it’s also a “metaphor”, she said. It’s set in the future, and the Wall has been built, but it hasn’t really worked. The relationship is “porous” and what’s going on beyond the Wall in Mexico is “much more fun” and therefore appealing to people on the American side.

So, there may be a wall, but it’s clear that there are worse things happening on the American side of the wall than the Mexican side. But there’s also “comedy” in this, since characters want to be on the other side.

I asked her if this project has been influenced by her work in filmmaking. She said that everything one does in life affects everything else. Certainly, working in Haiti, and with Indigenous peoples and with at-risk kids showed her so much of “what the rest of the world is going through”, and a lot of that is “in the comic but on the fun side of the wall”. Because, for Nocenti, it’s been a weird realization that she had so much “fun” in all these places that “no one wants to go to because they are so poor”. To her, those are places where “life is very rich”. Coming home is returning to a “sterile world”, and she comes to the conclusion that we are “missing a lot by trying to stay safe”.

There’s a military presence on the Wall in The Seeds based on a military presence that David Aja noticed at a comic convention he attended in another country. It inspired him to just write the word “SAFE” on their uniforms. It was exactly what was on Nocenti’s mind at the time, so she came up with an acronym to result in S.A.F.E. and worked it into the script.

That comes back to the subconscious, I commented, here connecting with the reader on a subconscious level, since unpacking the symbolic weight of that word could go on forever.

Nocenti said it was an example of things that “show up” if you have the time to work on a comic more fully. Aja sends her images without commentary, and she’s left to wonder what he’s trying to tell her occasionally, Nocenti said. Recently, an image of a “dead astronaut” turned up. And then suddenly, she’ll “figure it out”, as she did this one.

She really wants artists to be able to incorporate what they are “thinking about and dreaming about, and having nightmares about” into their work, as in this case. She agreed it’s their “change to process” their lives. Otherwise, if you’re dictating closely what an artist should draw, whether as a writer or an editor, you’re just giving them “marching orders”. That creates a different kind of comic, and this time, they can approach comics differently with The Seeds.

It was a great honor to talk to Ann Nocenti about The Seeds. Thanks, Ann!

Please stay tuned for next week’s Part 2 of this extended interview.