I met artist and comic creator Mike Sgier at Small Press Expo last autumn, his work looked familiar to me with its strikingly inked panels and atmospheric images steeped in a kind of dark fantasy tradition. Not only that, but seeing his work on display at his table at the show immediately made me wonder where his stories and his imagery came from, in the same way that highly individualistic work often makes us wonder. Even while I could see points of reference in my favorite fictional tales within pop culture, and could feel that I related to the images I was seeing, the mood, tone, and accent of the art made me aware of the personality of the artist, and the ways in which he mined his own perspective to bring viewers something new and interesting to experience.
When I started talking to Sgier, I was struck by the two tracks in art that he pursues–both in creating comics and in print-making–as a not uncommon feature of artists you might encounter at shows like Small Press Expo, MoCCA Fest, or TCAF, but one that means they inhabit multiple worlds as creators, both through their communities and through their creative methods.
Mike Sgier kindly agreed to talk to me about his experiences as an artist, and not only that, but answered my questions at great length, raising many interesting points that I’m sure fans of comic art, illustration, and print-making will appreciate below.
Hannah Means-Shannon: To start rather arbitrarily, I’d like to ask about genre and its influence on you. “Fantasy” is the word you use a fair amount for your narrative work, but I also see horror creeping into illustration work. In a world where you might have lost interest in either of these genres after childhood (some do, I’ve heard, though I have no experience of that!), why have they stuck with you and how do they permeate your work?
Mike Sgier: Fantasy is a label or genre that I have not always proudly embraced, and I say that with some regret. Looking back now, it played a huge role in my creative life growing up. Tad Williams’ ‘Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn’ trilogy, Jeff Smith’s ‘Bone,’ Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman,’ Final Fantasy VI (yes, a video game!)…without these to inspire me, I don’t think I would be attempting to make fantasy comics and art the way I am now.
I think there was a lengthy period of time, from college until well after my graduate/art school days, that I actively avoided the label or term ‘fantasy.’ During that time, I don’t think I found that term acceptable for my work, or was afraid that others would look down on me for using it. However, in retrospect, there was consistently some kind of fantasy element within my work, but it was hidden and layered over with other stuff that I thought had to be there to be taken seriously.
But once I embraced fantasy for my work, I felt very liberated on a creative level. A lot of things clicked into place for my work, as well as a newfound confidence. I just realized that this is where I should have been all along. The challenge now is to build a body of work within that genre, and find a personal voice within it.
I think the horror element is a somewhat recent addition to my work, and I think that comes about from just being exposed to that genre more. I’ve had some anxiety around gore (and still do), so I’m a bit selective when I find and pursue that kind of work.
HMS: So, you create both comics and illustrations, sometimes in a “shared world”. By what methods do you create them? Do you think of yourself as part of a community in terms of the methods you use, or are you more of an outlier?
MS: My comics are made through pretty traditional means– pencil, pen and ink, and brush on bristol or a good sketch paper. My printmaking and illustration work is made with relief block printing using wood or linoleum. I’ve tried out screen printing a couple times, and I like it, but haven’t quite found my voice with it.
I feel like I’m both a part of the comics community and part of the printmaking community. They can be pretty distinct from each other, but I feel pretty comfortable with a foot in each one. Sometimes the communities will overlap, but I’ve found that at the very least they each have an appreciation for what the other is making.
HMS: Does that “two camps” issue mean that people who are exposed to your comics aren’t as likely to explore your prints, or vice versa? While there may be a distinct separation between creators in those two media, do you think there is a big divide in readers/appreciators?
MS: I think that may come down to the reader or viewer, and what exactly they are looking for. With comics, there’s a certain hope that a person will read it, and then add it to a collection, maybe re-read it or share it if they really like it. The price point is lower, and so the reader is risking less, monetarily anyway. For a print, there’s more of a lifestyle decision that needs to be made. The print price will be higher, but then framing and preserving the print needs to be taken into consideration, and where to display it after that. It demands more of a commitment.
Another wrinkle to all this is that a large number of my past prints are derived from illustration and fan art. The fantasy prints are still relatively small in number, and I think those are in need of a specific audience. It may be that the subject matter and genre dictate the receptiveness of an audience rather than the media used. I think I’m still figuring it out, haha.
HMS: You often use a format that’s 6×8, a “squarish” format, though not a square, for comics. What led to that decision and how does it affect how you present storytelling on a page vs. traditional comics page formats?
MS: I think this choice developed around the time I was seriously starting to make comics, say around 2005-2006. I had tried an 11×17 format, which is more normal and closer to the Marvel/DC format, but then started using a 6×8 page format, and just found that more satisfying. I felt having more width to the page proportionally helped my art, and thereby the story, breathe a little more. On a technical level, that format helped my brain break a page down more easily, and I felt I could experiment and try out different storytelling techniques more easily.
HMS: Do you think that choice of format influences readers approaching your work to think of it more as art comics versus simply indie comics that might appear from an indie comics publisher like Image or Top Shelf? Of course, there are plenty of art comics publishers who will use a wide array of formats for publication, too…
MS: Possibly. I think if I was utilizing more printmaking techniques in my comics, they would definitely fall into the art comics camp. But right now, even with the size differences, they’re still very recognizable as comics. The reading method is still very traditional.
HMS: I’ve noticed that sometimes, seemingly rarely, you use color. What leads to that decision? How does that change your experience working on a project?
MS: There is a boldness to black-and-white that I think lends itself well to my creative voice. Having that extremely limited palette allows me to make more confident artistic and storytelling decisions. With color, it’s a whole different ball game, the choices seem infinite! It produces a good bit of anxiety and scares the hell out of me, haha. I think that’s why I often use digital methods for color, I can lay down some color and then adjust the hue, saturation, and lightness as necessary. It doesn’t immediately become a permanent part of the image.
That said, I have some experience with watercolor, and I’m planning to work with color pencils more. I think in some ways I’m searching for the right kind of tool to use for color. Throw caution to the wind, and dive in with confidence!
HMS: If you became comfortable enough with color, would you produce alternate colored versions of your past work, or is a conceptual thing, where you want to plan and execute in color for future work only? In indie comics, I’ve frequently seen creators put out black and white single issues of comics, for instance, and then spring for a color collection…
MS: Hmm, that’s a tough one. There’s always the temptation to go back and modify or change an older, existing work, and to improve it or correct it. But I think I would be more focused on using new color techniques in future work, just because that’s where my thinking and process would be in that moment. I think a completed work signifies a certain moment in time, and I think an artist and cartoonist has to respect what was happening then to create it. Decisions were made then to create it, and just because your future self might be using a different process, that doesn’t necessarily mean that process would serve the past work.
Then again, revisiting an older work might provide fresh insights, or bring out new dimensions in the work! Again, it’s a tough call.
HMS: You belong to some collectives and groups, I believe. Can you tell us more about them and how that supports your creative work?
MS: Absolutely, there a few I’d love to talk about. I’m a member of BYO Print, which is a print studio co-op based in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. I started working with them in 2012 by renting press time on an hourly basis, encouraged in large part by member Lisa Imperiale. I became a full-fledged member in 2013. Essentially, the studio gives me the ability to pursue my printmaking work. The shop is equipped for relief printing, etching, screen printing, and a lithography setup is in the works. As a group, we have an annual art show, do print demos at art fairs, and do collaborative projects from time to time.
I’ve also been showing work with an illustration group called Phantom Hand for the past few years. Phantom Hand is comprised of illustrators and artists based in and outside of Philadelphia. They typically do a few art shows every year based around specific themes or subjects, which is great since it gives you a chance to try out work that you might not normally make. The shows also push you creatively, you just see the work people make and think ‘Damn, I gotta level up!’ It’s challenging, but in a positive way. I’m a somewhat late addition to the group, but I’ve had a hell of a good time!
I’m also a contributor to books published by Locust Moon Press. I had a page in their Little Nemo book, and had a couple of my fantasy comics published in Quarter Moon. Being a part of those projects meant a lot to me since I was still developing a body of work within the fantasy genre, and they were tremendously supportive, giving me room to do the work I wanted to make. I’ll have a story called ‘Andromeda’ in their upcoming ‘Once Upon a Time Machine 2’ book which I’m really excited for people to read.
HMS: To get specific, I’m looking at “The Glass Candle” illustration/print that you create. Can you walk us through where the concept for that came from, and what steps you went through to create it?
MS: This is an interesting illustration since the concept and finished art were made a year apart. For the concept, I was developing an image for Phantom Hand’s 2016 Halloween art show, and I had a few ideas in mind. I did a small sketch of a veiled woman holding a candle with some kind of creature in the background, in the shadows. It reminded me a bit of Jean Cocteau’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Ultimately, though, I decided to go with something else entirely, but I kept the sketch around.
Fast forward one year later to August/September 2017. Phantom Hand was planning two back-to-back Halloween shows for October that year, and I returned to this sketch knowing that I wanted to really develop it into a finished piece. Probably the biggest differences between the concept and the finished art were the tattoos/marks on the woman’s face, the spiral on her hand, and the circular pattern emanating from the candle flame. If I had proceeded with the image a year before, I don’t think those elements would have been there.
I finished the drawing in late August, carved the linoleum block during the first couple weeks of September, and then printed it by hand in late September. I use oil-based ink, so you have to give the prints at least a week to dry before framing and packing them. The print was in one of the Halloween shows in mid-October, at the Lost Bar in Fishtown.
I’m quite fond of this image, so I’m really glad you asked me about it. I find that there’s a certain mystery to it which I like, there isn’t a clearly defined interpretation. It was an instance where I just tried to let the image be what it is.
[‘The Glass Candle’ print discussed above.]
HMS: Some print making and illustration is driven by existing texts which the images are made to accompany, but in this case, this image was created purely independently. Have you ever illustrated from a text? What sort of difference between those two approaches might there be?
MS: I haven’t illustrated from a text professionally, but it is something I worked on when I was in grad school. I did some exercises illustrating James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, and Neil Gaiman’s ‘October in the Chair’. I enjoyed the process at the time, but then had to attend to my own work. But I think that desire to illustrate has fueled a lot of my print work.
Conceptually, I think the biggest difference is that the text is giving you a blueprint or road map to think about the story visually, whereas with an original image, you’re relying on your own devices, creating your own process to bring the image to life. One of my earliest encounters with both illustration and printmaking was a book called ‘The Artist of the Missing’ by Paul Lafarge, which had these incredible woodcut illustrations by Stephen Alcorn. They created this wonderful atmosphere for the story which has stuck with me over the years. If I have any sort of philosophy for illustration, it would be to help create some kind of visual mood or atmosphere for the story that strengthens the reading experience for the reader.
[‘Where Are You Tonight, My Love’, discussed immediately below.]
HMS: I’m now looking at a comics page from your collection “First (Mis)Steps”, and just looking at the composition of it. You use an ornamental device—the scrolling ribbon—to carry text and guide the reader across the page. Where do you think a visual element like that comes from in your creative background and why did you decide to use that to help order the page?
MS: That page was from a story called ‘Where Are You Tonight, My Love?’, which I had originally made for a music-themed anthology called Rock Ink Roll. The story was about these two former lovers who are in separate places, but who are thinking of each other, and are both participating in some kind of musical performance. The ribbon served as a bridge between them, with the text serving as an interior monologue which could come from either character. And whenever I use music in a comic, I tend to visualize it as a flowing, wave-like element, something that could encompass and overwhelm the environment of the story. That’s a crucial feeling that I was attempting to convey in that particular page.
HMS: It sounds like the demands of the narrative drove visual innovation for you. Bringing a separate media like music into the specific medium of comics can pose challenges. Do you ever feel like you try something outrageous, but in the end interesting, when most at your wits’ end about how to visually tell a story?
MS: I had a ceramics teacher in college who said, “If you hit a wall, paint it.” I still think about that a lot. Encountering a block or obstacle or challenge, however frustrating, also offers an opportunity to try something new, to learn a new skill, to level up. Sometimes it misses the mark, sometimes it’s just right, and sometimes it knocks your socks off. You’re never going to know unless you hit that wall in the first place!
Overall, I think comics and art are a form of problem-solving. You have this story or image in your mind, and the problem before you is to make that a reality in some form or fashion. It may seem perfect in your mind, but as soon as you start drawing or writing, well, that’s where the hard work begins. It’s like untangling a piece of string, you know it’s supposed to be a piece of string, but you have to untie all the knots first, and there may be a lot of knots! Sometimes you’re left with a perfect piece of string, sometimes there are some knots you just can’t get out, and then sometimes you realize it wasn’t a piece of string at all, but something else entirely. It’s a process of problem-solving and discovery at the same time.
[Arya Stark from Game of Thrones!]
Huge thanks to Mike Sgier for his patience and thoughtfulness in taking part in this substantial interview.