[Featurama] Interview with Dan Kim – Mountain Climbing and the Truth of Words
Remember last week when I posted that Dan Kim is working on bringing his comic NNN in a lovely, hardcover physical copy? If you haven’t checked it out yet, I strongly recommend you do so over at its Kickstarter page. I sat down with the author last week and asked him to share a few words about his project. Hit the jump for the interview.
Firstly introductions, who are you and what do you do?
I’m Dan Kim, a Canadian Cartoonist based in Montreal. I’ve been making comics for about thirteen years working mostly in a manga style.
How did you get your start as a comic author?
In 7th grade three things happened: I got hooked on Sailor Moon, I joined an anime club, and I got involved in a group comic book project for art class. Sailor Moon got me hooked on magical girls, the anime club’s drawing contest made me really pretentious and aggressive about art, and the comic project showed me the joys of making terribly-drawn comics with dark humor. We also delivered the comic three weeks late. It’s been a long time since then but not much has changed.
Please tell us about your Kickstarter project NNN.
I wrote NNN between 2009 and 2010. In 2011 it received a bronze prize in the International Manga Award from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.
NNN is a hybrid novel/comic/puzzle roughly in the tradition of House of Leaves with inspiration from Alice in Wonderland. It’s a work in which many tiny snippets of stories bounce and reflect off each others surfaces, hopefully giving shape and volume to the underlying concerns that unite and motivate the pieces.
It’s surpassed its initial goal of $6,000 very early.
Yeah in 3 hours – I was really surprised by that, actually.
There seem to be a lot of influences surrounding this work. You mention Alice in Wonderland and House of Fallen Leaves on you Kicstarter page as well as bringing up some other historical references such as the “Fire Snake of the Mountain.” Could you explain some of those influences and how they found their way into the narrative?
What I wanted to do with this work is make a clean break with some concerns that had been dogging and me and killing off various projects for about a decade.
The concerns were: 1.) A growing skepticism about truth as accurate representation and a related concern about language and meaning, and 2.) A reckoning with the radically different character of the self and the world as seen under the lights of (1).
In 2009, after killing off nine versions of a comic I had spent several months of prep work on it became apparent that these thin lines of suspicion were quickly becoming a thick, ready noose. I had to deal with this now. In order to do that I had to try and disassemble and reconstitute myself, and that meant revisiting and reorganizing all the books I had read and and the beliefs that were a result of those books – so everything comes out: Fairy tales I read as a kid, philosophical works I read as a teenager, various comics and novels. So, NNN ended up becoming a kind of eversion, or maybe self-surgery.
You explain that NNN really needs to be experienced as a physical medium. How so?
There are various faux physical effects such wrinkles, ink drops which (apparently) seep through multiple pages, the imprints of pressed flowers, etc. These effects only make sense in a physical book. Also, as good e-readers are, you can’t quickly flip back and forth between related pages (noticing hidden connections) or enjoy the various large two-page spreads.
I’ve tried to take the lessons of House of Leaves and extend, cut, correct (as I see it) its techniques. It’s a work meant to take advantage of the physicality of the medium.
We sort of touched on this earlier, but what was the process like for writing NNN?
It was a really difficult process, very slow. Due to the nature of the project, everything ends up being connected to everything else – in fact, one of the points of the ‘Fire Snake of the Mountain’ story is that what makes a thing what it is just its relationship to every other thing – that there is no absolute ground on which to build, only other various other things to prop up against. So the experience was a bit like trying to build a card-house from the inside out instead of bottom up.
Is there something you wish to accomplish through your work?
I got into comics by being attracted to comics, but I stayed in comics for the kind of conversation they allowed me to have with myself and others. I want to carry on having those conversations as long as I have something to say, whether that be through comics or something else.
It’s interesting that you’ve had a difficult time firmly grasping an audience despite the success of your project and that fact you have quite the ardent following.
I think it’s because comics which update regularly with small, quickly-consumable single-page strips which can be enjoyed without referring to earlier comics are easiest to share, find time to read, and follow on your own terms. Gag strips do very well.
I can understand why there aren’t a lot of people interested in following a long-form comic that doesn’t update regularly, doesn’t have a cliffhanger every chapter, and isn’t exciting or funny in the usual way. I’m honestly astonished that anyone bothers to read anything I’ve made, let alone jam F5 while waiting for updates. I’m grateful for that, though.
Your other works are of a wide variety in terms of emotion. Hilariously sharp black comedy and profound moments of sadness. It’s certainly not held back.
Yeah, I just want to keep things honest. Allowing a comic’s internal world to be overly self-consciously modified by external concerns seems to me both a violation of the comic and the trust placed in the comic by the individual reader. For that reason ‘holding back’ due to concerns about, say, potential audience appeal or social acceptability is far more gratuitous and ugly to me than any mere drawing in a comic could ever be.
As for why there is a variety of styles and tone, I just like a variety of buckets on hand. I need to keep my output free from cross-contamination. If I have an urge to draw cute magical girls in frilly dresses, I have to do it. So I have a bucket for that, and other buckets remain frilly-dress-free.
I feel that most writers or creators wish to explore something with their creative process. Do you feel like you’re searching for something?
“Searching” isn’t quite the right picture, I think – that suggests some wish for completion, possession, or a direction/directedness/goal, etc. None of that appeals to me. I no longer believe that art is path to betterment or consolation. It won’t save you from fear or loneliness. What it might do, I think, is give your loneliness a sense of orientation.
A solo-climber ascends by night – the cities below converge to a single point of light, and the mountain, too vast, too close, blots out all stars. There is but one comfort afforded to the climber: there, in the distance, the faint glitter of other solo-climbers, sending up their flares, lighting their lanterns, burning out. These lights will never bridge the gaps between climbers, nor will it help them in their climb – they wouldn’t want that anyway. The climb’s the thing. But there’s light were there was no light before, and these lights give a shape to the darkness. Art is like that, I think. At least, that’s what I think these days.
We already talked a bit about this earlier also, but what are some of your other influences and how do they affect the whole body of your works?
Well I found myself rereading Kafka’s shortest works again and again during NNN. Murakami was also an influence, though a minor one. Richard Rorty’s works were a major influence on NNN, particularly Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Davidson’s essays, too. These works, among others, let me engage my concerns as problems rather than boogeymen. In short, they allowed me to make the transition from weird, juvenile metaphysical concerns to concerns about the human world. NNN is in some sense both the record of – and the working out of – that transition.
NNN must have been a big evolutionary process, huh?
Hopefully. I think I’ve manage to jump over a wall, or maybe off a ledge. I’ll only know after completing my next project, I suppose.
Anything you would like to say to people who might be looking to back this project?
Just the same thing I say on my Kickstarter page: If you grab NNN you won’t just get a good read, you’ll get a one-of-a-kind comic that you’d never be able to find through normal commercial channels. If you’re an eccentric literary explorer, NNN is ready to send you to a strange, distant world. I hope you like it.