“Beauty is the Lowest Common Denominator”: Benjamin Marra on Night Business
Also: Giotto, Dario Argento and Lampooning Hyper-MasculintyComics Features Benjamin Marra
The cover of Ben Marra’s Night Business portrays a woman in lingerie astride a motorcycle brandishing a handgun, a stubbled man flexing a fist, a stripper flipping her hair and a creep in a full-face leather mask holding a bloody knife. It’s also one of the mildest covers the Toronto-based cartoonist has ever produced. In contrast, Marra’s previous exploitation odds-and-ends collection, American Blood, features a testosterone-gushing man’s fist flying through another man’s face, and the graphic novel Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. has its grizzled anti-hero beheading a villain (who’s holding a chainsaw) with a sword. Night Business is less openly absurd than some of the auteur’s previous works, and less obviously satirical, but it clearly reflects the same obsessions that have marked Marra’s career. What kind of a person would focus on this bottom-shelf, grindhouse imagery, stemming from the B-movie ‘80s underground? A gore-crazed shut-in, his walls lined with clamshell VHS tapes? Maybe, but Marra, also a Paste Songs Illustrated veteran, seems like a pretty nice guy [Ed.: He is!]. Paste tried to pry open his brain to see what inspires the sex-and-violence melange that occupies his books.
A soft NSFW warning for the preview art displayed below.
Paste: You studied at the School for Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, right? Did you take any classes with David Sandlin ? I feel like I can see a bit of his influence in your work.
Ben Marra: I went to SVA for grad school. I did indeed have David Sandlin as a professor for my thesis class and I took a silkscreen bookmaking class he taught as well. I never have included him as an influence, though I love his work. He was definitely an influential force on my comic book efforts. I feel like he was one of the first professors I had who actively supported and encouraged me to make comics. Funny that he was one of the last professors I had in my education.
Paste: And then you went to Florence to study painting? Was that as part of a program or just on your own?
Marra: I went to Florence before I attended SVA. It was during my undergrad years at Syracuse University. Syracuse has a satellite school in Florence and it was one of the reasons I chose to go to Syracuse. I knew I’d want to go to Florence my junior year.
Paste: You know, Ben Hatke went and studied there, too. It doesn’t seem like artists do that much these days. What led you there, and what did you do while you were there?
Marra: I wanted to make the most out of my education and my time in school. There aren’t many opportunities to study art in Italy after you’re out of school and have a job. When you’re young, you have time for such pursuits, and I took advantage. I studied drawing and painting while I was in Italy. My classmates and I drew and painted constantly. I had a few breakthroughs. I took several fine arts classes and art history classes. We’d go on field trips to various cities to look at frescos and sculpture. Seeing that stuff in person really hits you. It’s a profound experience. It really changed me and the way I thought about making art.
Paste: I definitely see a preoccupation with human anatomy in your work, although not necessarily with trying to make it super accurate. It’s more like Michelangelo, in that the dudes are pretty lumpy with someone’s idea of muscle. Would you say you’re influenced by the Old Masters? Who’s your favorite?
Marra: I would say I am indeed influenced by the Old Masters. But it’s less about how they represent the human form or anatomy and more about capturing and communicating a feeling. I’m not influenced by Michelangelo or any of the High Renaissance artists. In fact, I think that stuff is kind of boring. I think Michelangelo’s David is probably the greatest work of art any human has ever created because of its sheer impossibleness, but my artistic ambitions aren’t about replicating reality or creating beautiful things. Beauty is common. Beauty is the lowest common denominator. Everyone can appreciate beauty. What’s the challenge in that? My favorites of the Old Masters operated in the Middle Ages or Pre-Renaissance. Seeing and studying Giotto’s work was probably the single biggest shift in my perception of art and what I would try to do with drawing and telling stories. Giotto’s struggle with his limitations as an artist did not stop him from creating. I find that incredibly inspiring. His work is about figuring things out, not success. The success comes from the attempt.
For instance, perspective in drawing had not been discovered yet, so all his buildings jut out at different angles, clustered together as cities. My favorite is Piero della Francesca, because his art is so strange and mysterious. His figures are stiff, even cold and empty. His devotion and attention in his work are not overlabored. They stick in my mind and never leave. I find the attitudes toward creation of these two painters endlessly inspiring.
Paste: What did you draw when you were a kid? Lots of guns, like most pre-adolescent boys?
Marra: I drew lots of different things as a kid. I did draw planes and tanks and weapons, for sure. I drew a lot of my own characters, mostly anthropomorphic animal superheroes because I was deeply into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Paste: Did you read comics then? Which ones?
Marra: I read Tintin a lot when I was young. I also read a lot of comics from the black-and-white boom. Darick Robertson’s Space Beaver was the first comic I ever bought off the racks for myself. Then I got into Jim Lee and X-Men, John Buscema’s Wolverine, Frank Miller’s work on Batman, Todd McFarlane’s work on Spider-Man, Rob Liefeld’s stuff on The New Mutants, etc. Then I was primed for the whole Image revolution. I read a lot of stuff Dark Horse put out as well.
Paste: I find it so weird that you’re a Piero guy but not into Michelangelo. Maybe it’s strange for me to draw a line from Michelangelo straight to Miller and McFarlane and Liefeld, but… it’s kind of there. It’s like a very masculine universe, which yours is too, in some ways. Do you have a lot of female fans?
Marra: Yeah, I totally agree with that line of connection. Musculature is intrinsic with heroic adventure comics. And Michelangelo is arguably the greatest artist for depicting muscular human forms. Comics owes a lot to him. I have fans who are women, but most of my fans are men, I think.
Paste: Your stuff is difficult to talk about because it’s hard to tell how sincere you are. How sincere are you? Clearly, you’re not a men’s rights advocate or a believer in alpha males or a gun nut (she said, crossing her fingers and hoping that she was right), and yet you seem to love the stuff you draw very genuinely. Talk about how you keep all that in your head at the same time.
Marra: I am sincere about the work I do and the stories I tell. I’m very serious about my discipline and craft. I have a deep love of Giallo and ‘80s action movies and underground comics. But each of those things doesn’t take themselves too seriously, and neither do I. I learned I can’t be engaged with my work if I’m not emotionally invested in it or treat it with honesty. I tried making things I thought other people wanted to see from my skills and it was unsatisfying creatively. If I’m connected to my work, then others may see that connection and have it as well.
Yes, I’m not a men’s rights advocate or believe in alpha males and I’m not a gun nut. I’m totally pro-woman and completely anti-gun. I get the confusion. My stories are pretty insane. And I think my author photos can throw people off. I think the audience sometimes confuses that character with me, the actual person. It’s funny to me the audience can’t disassociate the work from who I am as a person. They expect me to be some kind of unpredictable, feral man fueled by cocaine, like I’m a character from one of my stories. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I guess it’s clearer from my perspective. I have always seen my work I make as separate from myself as a person. Creating is a compulsion for me, and other artists might understand me when I say sometimes it doesn’t even feel like I have control over what stories enter my mind.
Paste: What’s your favorite Dario Argento movie?
Marra: Tough one. I’m not a huge Argento fan. I feel like his movies are too classy for Giallo. I’m more of a fan of Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino. However, if I had to pick an Argento movie as my favorite it would definitely be Phenomena with Jennifer Connelly. That movie is insane. I also really liked his recent Dracula movie.
Paste: Phenomena is a pretty amazing movie. I have a fairly high tolerance for gross and violent stuff, and it made me gag a bit.
Marra: Yeah, I think it’s Argento’s best effort. The gross stuff is visceral, and the concepts in the story are really imaginative.
Paste: Would you say you’re coming from a more Japanese perspective, as far as creating violent art as a sort of cathartic outlet?
Marra: It’s tough to say because I don’t know what the Japanese perspective is on the subject. I do love Lone Wolf and Cub, Fist of the North Star and Berzerk. I would say that I do create violent art as a kind of cathartic outlet, but it’s probably up to the audience to analyze that aspect. I know that the stories I come up with have violence in them and that violence serves to propel the narrative and characters’ choices. But beyond that reason, it’s tough for me to say.
Paste: Why are your books so recursive (to use a 50-cent word)? Is it because the works that influence you are repetitive in their plots and their language? Is it because you have a compulsive need to cover the same territory over and over with slight variations?
Marra: First, I think it’s because the reason I make comics is mainly to draw. I’d argue my drawing styles aren’t repetitive. Even in Night Business, my style shifts every chapter or couple of chapters. But I still need a framework of story upon which to put my drawings and I keep that framework dependable. So, second, my storytelling ambitions are fairly elemental. I don’t mess with the basic tenets of story craft. Even my philosophy for panels and page layouts is restricted to the Diesel engine of comic books—the six-panel grid. I also think I’m still exploring old ideas with narrative structure, character and plot. I haven’t deviated much from what I already know works because I don’t feel like I’ve mastered that stuff enough to start bending things. My interests lie in the drawing and inking, and I’m thoroughly interested in basic storytelling ideas even if the result ends up being kind of repetitive. A few of my next projects are collaborations with writers and I think that might help me break out of my cycles.
Paste: Who’s your favorite character to draw in Night Business?
Marra: Either the Rider or Johnny.
Paste: You also do web design for Major League Baseball, right? That design seems pretty straitlaced. Do your worlds ever get to collide?
Marra: Yes, that’s right. It is straitlaced design, although the technology MLB.com has developed is incredibly advanced and cutting edge. My worlds don’t collide much. People I work with know I make weird comics. Sometimes I do illustrations for the website.
Paste: One could say that the body type that was dominant during the steroid era of MLB actually has a lot in common with that of your characters. Thoughts?
Marra: That’s true. I think the MLB steroid era, and even ‘80s and ‘90s comics’ depiction of body types, can be traced to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s success as a professional weightlifter and movie star.
Paste: That’s a good point about the really widespread influence of the roided-out body type (pro wrestling, Commando, Stallone movies, etc.). What do you find aesthetically appealing about it? Is it just that it’s so over the top?
Marra: Those were the movies I grew up with, so I always just thought action movie heroes had physiques like Schwarzenegger or Stallone. That was just the standard and I never questioned it. Then Van Damme kind of carried the torch for a bit. When I got older I was more into Charles Bronson movies. I think the aesthetic appeal of this body type is the physical representation of power over one’s reality. It shows the force of power over one’s body to make it into this epitome of human physical achievement. It represents discipline and work. It also shows power over one’s surroundings, as is demonstrated by heroic feats. But it also is over the top and something most people are never able to achieve with their own bodies. They project themselves into these action heroes (and athletes) and feel like that’s something they could also achieve if they had made different choices.
Paste: But you’re not interested in body-building yourself? Have you read Harry Crews’ novel Body?
Marra: When I was younger I was into lifting. But now that I’m older my body doesn’t respond the same way. So I find other ways to exercise. I haven’t read Crews’ novel, but I bet it’s awesome.
Paste: How do you come up with your color palettes?
Marra: I use a color palette I found online that emulates the colors mixtures the DC Comics production art department had back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I think there are 126 colors? I like to keep it pretty limited and use colors I know will print well. Also, the colors are distinctly “comic book” in feel.
Paste: Here’s a weird, technical question: why coated paper for this book instead of uncoated (I feel like the majority of classier books are on uncoated paper these days, but maybe I’m wrong)?
Marra: That was Fantagraphics’ decision. I’m partial to matte paper, but Joseph Remnant said he liked black-and-white art on glossy paper when we were at Small Press Expo, flipping through a copy of Night Business. I can see what he means. The black line art is super black. One comment I would routinely get from readers about my style is that they liked how everything looked “shiny” from the way I rendered forms. I guess it’s appropriate that the paper would also be shiny.
Paste: This book has a fair amount of Zip-a-Tone. Who’s your biggest influence as far as that’s concerned? Do you use a computer to lay it in or are you using the old-school stuff?
Marra: It’s all digital screen tones. I used Kyle Webster’s screen tone brush set to create that effect. It sort of ties the book together. My biggest influence in that regard would probably be Wally Wood, though I love how Klaus Janson and Tom Palmer utilize screen tone. Also Roy Crane and David Mazzucchelli.
Paste: How much revising do you do?
Marra: Not much. Only when absolutely necessary.
Paste: What’s the last really interesting dream you had?
Marra: I hardly ever remember my dreams. I think they end up as my comics.
Paste: If you think of cartoonists as running along a spectrum from concerned with the physical (representing action, focused on physiognomy, the process of drawing) to the intellectual (constructing a tight narrative, responding to ideas, more words than pictures), where would you place yourself?
Marra: Great question. I’m certainly more interested in drawing forms and the properties of ink as a drawing substance than I am with formal narrative cleverness with sequential images. However, telling a tight story, where conflicts and questions are resolved and answered, is very important to me. As important as the drawings are satisfying for me to make. I’d have to place myself in the middle and at the bottom, if we’re talking about an x-y-z matrix graph. My drawings are attempts at classic comic book artwork. I’m no experimenter with drawing either. I’m not pushing the boundaries of what constitutes narrative drawing or cartooning. And the same goes with my storytelling. It’s functional to tell the story, but I don’t test the limits of panel architecture, time or plot structure.
Everything I do is functional and there to serve the telling of the story. As I said before, it’s basic. It’s three-chord garage rock. It’s not Mozart. It’s not even the Beach Boys. But I’m more interested in the intangible and emotional investment in telling these stories and making these drawings than the formal aspects anyway. What emerges from the synthesis of sequential pictures in combination with words and the way those two separate channels of communication work together is what fascinates me about the comic book form. And I believe there’s something that can’t be controlled by the author there. I’m interested in what can’t be controlled. There’s a threshold in our lives as human beings where there are things beyond the sphere of our control. I feel the same is true in creating art. That space, using words and pictures, just beyond the area of control, and allowing oneself to explore that space, is what I find most interesting.
I guess that’s why Michelangelo doesn’t interest me as much as Giotto. Michelangelo is all about the demonstration of facility, and mastery over materials. His work is about control. Giotto’s work is about exploring areas he doesn’t yet understand. It’s a struggle with his implements, formal understanding of painting, and concepts such as scale and perspective. And yet his resulting work is way more interesting to me, because it’s about his belief and confidence in himself, despite his limitations as a craftsman (and I don’t mean to say he isn’t a master painter, but he hadn’t figured things out in the same way, say, Leonardo had). He’s exploring that space he can’t control and there’s an intangible quality, a spirit, that resonates with me.