In The Forcefield
By 2000, four years of studying painting at the Slade School of Fine Art were enough to alienate Alex Tucker from the art world. “Comics were not accepted as a legitimate art form by the tutors or my fellow students, except for painters Luke Caulfield and Djordge Ozbolt who are both still avid comic readers. My returning to comics was a reaction against the art establishment.” As a boy, Tucker had made small comic strips called ‘The Artist’ for his local Parish magazine in Dungeness, Kent, but embarking on Shandor in Sylvia Farago’s anthology Sturgeon White Moss #4 in 2003 marked his first time creating cohesive sequential stories.
Parallel to this, Tucker began recording his solo music. “I was struck by the similarity of recording with a digital 8-track to the layering process of painting. The placing of individual tracks next to each other to create a whole picture mirrors the glazing techniques I’d employ to build up texture and light within a painting.” Depressed and displaced at the time from family and home, Tucker found making music helped to channel these feelings, while the fantastical world-building in his ambitious Shandor comic helped to visualise them. Both media would eventually merge into the finished hybrid piece, partly exhibited in 2014 at The British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition.
What he began as a series of single-page episodes as a distraction from the demands of the Shandor epic has culminated this year in his new ongoing graphic novel World in the Forcefield from Breakdown Press. “I started working in a more unconscious way, without planning or pencilling”, Tucker explains. “But soon narrative themes presented themselves and before I knew it a story started to unfold.” The strong inspiration of the 19th century French artist Gustave Doré, since his last year of The Slade, is evident here. “I was buying the Doré books from Dover. I’d get stoned and lay on the floor pouring over each engraving, the individual plates created a comic-like experience. Doré’s work in Dante’s Inferno is my favourite. The character of Virgil crops up in Shandor, and Blondy and Wold in World in the Forcefield are based on Virgil and Dante.”
Tucker’s latest book is daring and eerily affecting, from his striking mythic tableaux, especially of the giant Godhead figure Gwilam, to the way he undercuts the loftier pronouncements with colloquial or cynical everyday speech, and other sequences, several without words or explanation. “I’ve enjoyed leaving a lot of the imagery open-ended, it leaves lots of room for movement and future ideas. I’ve tried to rely on my unconscious process to generate ideas, which is proving difficult when trying to tie up loose strands but presents an interesting challenge to forming the narrative.”
Running through much of World in the Forcefield, and his new Strip below for ArtReview magazine, introducing a fresh character Mattheworld, is an undertow of separation, loss and longing, perhaps for transformation or transcendence. Tucker recalls, “Whilst beginning the comic, I witnessed the death of my ex-girlfriend’s father. It was the first time being so close to the process of someone passing away. This profoundly affected me and the direction of the comic. I’ve always had this sense of melancholia. Decay and transformation are part of the cycles of life, something I’m still trying to get my head around.”
And here’s the complete email interview I conducted with Alexander Tucker…many thanks for the replies…
I first came across you and your comics via Sylvia Farago’s Sturgeon White Moss magazine (a title I gather you dreamt up). I believe you came from a painting background/training? Had you made comics before this?
I studied painting for four years at The Slade School of Fine Art and have been very serious about art from an early age. Sturgeon White Moss was the first time I’d properly sat down, planned and worked through creating cohesive sequential stories. When I was 10 or 11 I used to make a little comic strip called ‘The Artist’ for the Parish Council magazine so I guess this was my first published cartoon work. I finished studying at The Slade in 2000 and by this time I felt extremely alienated by the art world, I think returning to comics was a reaction against the established art scene, comics were not accepted as a legitimate art form by the tutors and my fellow students, except for painters Luke Caulfield and Djordge Ozbolt who are both still avid comic readers.
How did painting feed into creating music of your own? Do you think of your music partly as imagistic soundscapes?
When I first started recording alone at home with a digital 8 track I was struck by the similarity to the layering process of painting, the placing of individual tracks next to each other to create this whole mirroring the glazing techniques I often employ to build up texture and light within a painting. Aspects of my music have always evoked imagery of remembered landscapes from my childhood growing up in Kent and my emotional connection to those places. Even as a child I would turn the countryside around me into Tolkienesque fantasy lands.
I’m interested in how you see the relationship and dialogue between your music-making and your comics/art-making?
The thing I didn’t like about the fine art world was having to tie up concepts and ideas into neat little fully formed packages, what I feel about music and comics is this attempt to create a fluid way of expressing ideas, the process can become the actual piece of work and the lessons learned can weave themselves into the work throughout the act of making the song or comic page.
How did you combine comics and music in your Shandor project? How can these two vehicles of expression work together best to create something more?
I started working on my solo music and Shandor around the same time, I was feeling incredibly displaced from family and home and struggling enormously with depression around this time, the music helped to channel these feelings and Shandor helped to visualise the inner horror I was going through at the time. The Shandor world would often leak into the artwork of my first three solo LPs, especially Old Fog and Furrowed Brow.
What was the initial spark for World in the Forcefield: The Godhead Saga (or Void Atlas, its original title right?)?
I started working on World in the Forcefield as a distraction from Shandor. I was realising the difficulties of making a long-form narrative comic, so I started working in a more unconscious way, without planning or pencilling. I soon realised that trying to take an easier route to making comics was not really possible and narrative themes started to present themselves and before I knew it a story started to unfold.
I see echoes of William Blake here, and other classical art references like the Pieta, or anatomy drawing. This book seems like part of larger personal mythology you are channelling?
Blake is most definitely a touch stone but my main influence is Gustav Doré, the last year of The Slade I was buying the Doré books published by Dover. I’d get stoned and lay on the floor pouring over each engraving plate, the books layout of individual panels created a comic-like experience, I started imagining whole comics of classical engravings. His illustrations for Dante’s Inferno are my favourite, the character of Virgil crops up in Shandor and Blondy and Wold in World in the Forcefield are based on Virgil and Dante.
I also can’t help sensing Jack Kirby’s science fiction Gods connecting here - how much was ‘The King’ an influence on you?
I think Kirby is firmly locked into my unconscious, I remember having this trip where all these massive Kirby monsters were striding across huge planets. But I think more than Kirby. it’s Ditko’s meta-entity figures like Eternity which have dominated my mind of late.
Why did you choose the single-page episode as your initial format for WitF? What are its constraints and its advantages?
I started out with the single page motif to make the process of making comics more manageable, I was also fantasising the strip was a weekly serialised comic with plans to maybe approach someone to do this which never transpired. I also like the repetitious element of hammering home the title over and over, but recently I’ve been leaving more space between the titled pages.
I detect a sense of separation, loss, and longing, perhaps for transformation, running through much of World in the Forcefiled - would you care to comment on this undertow?
Even though the world is epic and fantastical I liked the thought that boredom is still a concern for some of the characters, I think boredom is the fear of one’s self and the responsibility for your own personal growth. Whilst beginning the comic I witnessed the death of my ex-girlfriend’s father, it was the first time being so close to the process of someone passing away, this profoundly affected myself and the direction of the comic. I’ve always had this sense of melancholia and the sadness of time passing by. Decay and transformation are part of the cycles of life, something I’m still trying to get my head around.
I’m seeing you alongside artists like Ron Rege Jr. and Pablo Holmberg, maybe other current cartoonists, who like you are exploring how to convey spiritual questions through comics.
Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Marvelman/Miracleman have long been spiritual guides for me, also David B’s Epileptic and Peter Blegvad’s Leviathan really affected me.
I enjoy the way you undercut the loftier pronouncements with very colloquial, slightly cynical everyday speech. What are your ideas behind this?
I’ve always liked the balance between the mundane and philosophical, the everyday and the fantastical. Since my early teens my love of surrealism and directors like David Lynch, Derek Jarman and Terry Gilliam introduced the concept of reality’s thin veil between the spirit world and our own.
I am also impressed by your progress and risk-taking here. You have created some striking tableaux, especially of the giant Godhead figure Gwilam, and some eerily affecting sequences, several without words or explanation. One very mundane image stood out to me, panel 9 on page 32 of a house next to a mountain slope - I made me think it might be your childhood home?
I’ve enjoyed leaving a lot of the imagery open-ended, often I find the mystery more compelling than the conclusion, it also leaves lots of room for movement and possibilities for future ideas. I’ve really tried to rely on my unconscious process to generate ideas, this is proving difficult when trying to tie up loose strands but presents an interesting challenge to forming the narrative. I’ve always been a fan of Goddard’s concept of using the beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that same order, what I love about comics is the freedom to knit these elements into multiple layers. I think the motif of the house relates to my parents old house in Dungeness on the Kent coast.
Dare I ask, did you use Burroughs’ cut-up techniques for WitF?
I do use cut ups for some of the text. I make a lot of collages and would pick the off cuts from the floor and enjoy the permutations of spliced text from the national geographic and science books I use. Some of the text is just written which may seem like cut ups but are generated the same way I would lyrics for songs, not really knowing what I’m trying to say but going with a feeling and a vague out of sight idea.
Tell me about the new 2-page comic you’ve made for ArtReview - is this a back-story or deleted scene, or perhaps a transition to your next comic?
This comic for ArtReview ties into the Forcefield universe. I’ve introduced a new character Mattheworld who I’m keen to elaborate on in future issues. I used these two pages to throw up ideas that I can mess around with in the future/past/present.
Do you see this graphic novel as part of a larger work-in-progress of universe-building, through comics and music and maybe other practices. How do you envisage it evolving?
I’m aiming for World in the Forcefield to become my longest work to date, Book 2 is well under way but I don’t want to make any promises about page counts just yet. My band Grumbling Fur are planning some more theatrical shows with costumed beings and I have a new solo album waiting in the wings.
Alexander Tucker will be appearing at the 2016 Safari Festival organised on August 27th by Breakdown PressPosted: August 2, 2016
The opening profile first appeared in ArtReview Magazine.