All About What Makes Us "Mortals" - An Interview with JOHN DERMOT WOODS and MATTHEW LAIOSA
Nothing is better than reading a methodical and thought-provoking story! Contributor Ty Whitton interviews John Dermot Woods and Matthew Laiosa on their newest comic book called Mortals. This book can really hit home for some, so please take time to read what went into creating this story.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Greetings, John and Matthew! It is my pleasure to welcome you to the Yeti Cave for an infinitely awesome interview! Let’s dive into how things have been for each of you. Looking back, how was your 2022 and how has your 2023 been so far?
MATTHEW LAIOSA: Mortals was published in 2022, which was a mixture of feelings for me, but the more distance I gain from the book, the more forgiving I can be of it. In a way the book feels a little like a foreign object, as if someone else had made it. And now that the person who made it has been more fully digested I finally feel ready to begin something new in 2023.
JOHN DERMOT WOODS: Matt and I have been friends for a very long time and working together for many years. We’ve completed so much work together, but Mortals was the first concrete object we could share with the outside world. I found that enormously satisfying. Now we’re onto our next project, a very different one narratively and graphically. It’s a series of full color stories exploring a fictional town on Long Island. We’ve kind of got our own New York trilogy underway.
ML: "To be honest it’s not always easy to switch gears. When I’m painting for theater I work on sets that have to fill a forty-foot stage, which can be a struggle because when I draw comics the page never feels big enough. But I guess the intimacy of comics made it the right vehicle for looking into the microcosm and telling what one might call a ‘small’ story."
CBY: What specifically brought you into writing and illustrating comics?
ML: I grew up reading the Sunday color comics, especially Calvin & Hobbes. I was a fan of cartoon shows like Batman, Spiderman, and X-Men, but I didn’t start reading comics until high school. When I went to college I had ambitions of making comics, but I got sidetracked with a scholarship for painting. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but it was a struggle since the professors didn’t really consider comics as ‘Art.’ When I got my BFA I moved to scenic painting for theater since it was the only thing I thought I could do to earn a living with a painting degree, so in the end painting became the job, and I still consider comics to be the art.
JDW: Most of it started with Calvin and Hobbes for me too. I read some X-Men and stuff as a kid, but Rob Liefeld ruined it all for me. It took me until college to come back to comics and that’s when I discovered Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti and Gabrielle Belle. As I worked through a fiction writing MFA and a Ph.D. in English Literature, I struggled to bring my drawing and writing passions together. Finally, while working on my dissertation, I just went for it, and that’s when I created my first comics.
CBY: In knowing that you both have a great education background when it comes to the arts, John being a professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY and Matt earning a BFA from Paris as well as a Juilliard internship for scenic painting, how has that background attributed to the creation of Mortals?
ML: To be honest it’s not always easy to switch gears. When I’m painting for theater I work on sets that have to fill a forty-foot stage, which can be a struggle because when I draw comics the page never feels big enough. But I guess the intimacy of comics made it the right vehicle for looking into the microcosm and telling what one might call a ‘small’ story.
JDW: As an undergrad, I double majored in English and Painting. All along I’ve had trouble resolving the two within the academic paradigm. Even now, it’s tough for me to find opportunities to teach comics-making within the context of the English Departments I teach in. But I do so on occasion, and that’s when I feel like I’m doing what I was meant to. Working on Mortals is kind of like that. Working with Matt (and if I’m not drawing myself then I’m only going to do it with Matt) is kind of like that. It allows me to follow my instinct to write stories and make comics at the same time.
CBY: Getting more into our main focus, the graphic novel Mortals, how would this book differ from your prior works?
ML: I tried being more loose and immediate with the art in Mortals, and I became obsessed with working on a square page. I wanted to focus the viewer with the format and see how the page would end up dictating the flow.
JDW: There is definitely more containment to this book than anything we’ve ever done (or I have, at least): the square pages, the three-act structure, the limited cast of characters. This book began as an experiment with the Greek tragedy model and it was our attempt to write a play to be performed on the pages of a book. The narrative about actors came to reflect that in a more literal sense.
CBY: Were there any models, be them people or events, that played a large role in crafting the characters and story within the writing and art?
ML: John sent me a few pictures of an acting friend of his who was the model for Francis. We also modeled Claudette physically after Lisa Bonet. Other than that I had to rely on memory, imagination, and research since Brooklyn was a thousand miles away as I was living in Atlanta at the time
JDW: A lot of what I was reacting to is really just the place I live, Brooklyn. I was thinking about certain class issues and family structures that seem prevalent in this place. And I was also just considering the unique physical surroundings of my neighborhood, from the ridiculous doughnut shops to the majestic botanic garden to the decaying tennis courts.
CBY: In noticing how well the art flows with the story, how did you go about communicating what each page and panel would look like?
ML: Pacing and flow is probably the number one thing I’m concerned with, so it means a lot that it’s working. I like to think every panel is telling a complete story, every tier tells a story, every page tells a story, and every spread. So I plan my moments around that basic structure. Also, when I read John’s script I’m trying to decide what are the BIG moments vs. the smaller moments. If there is a lot of dialogue I try to follow it with a silent moment. I’m not a musically inclined person, but I like to think that comics are my way of making music, and I do that by changing the panel size, choosing how much detail goes into a panel, repeating backgrounds, and above all trying to keep things interesting with variation.
JDW: Matt and I work very closely together. It’s not like I hand him a script and I walk away. As I’m writing, we’re constantly in conversation and Matt’s revising. As he’s drawing, we go through a very specific set of thumbnails and drafts where we can change things and adjust as it comes together. Like I said, I can’t imagine doing this with anyone other than Matt, and that’s because we’ve created this very specific collaborative method.
CBY: Beginning Mortals with a big event, a divorce, is very hard-hitting. Why did you decide to start this story in such a strong way?
ML: I don’t like wasting any time with a story. I want the reader to know what they’re getting into as soon as possible. I want a story to be a punch in the nose.
JDW: This story follows the strategies of stage drama. I looked at Shepard and Ibsen and Chekhov and Sophocles for my cues. They all start big and keep things moving from there. That was what I tried to do with Mortals.
CBY: While reading this graphic novel, I kept getting ideas on how well this story would transfer into a movie or series. Did you create this story and art while also thinking of it as a type of play?
ML: Comic book as a play was the very first pitch I gave to John. On one hand I thought it would be an interesting challenge to draw scenes that take place in a single environment, and on the other comics and theater are both great mediums for exaggeration. As a performer or an artist it’s your job to transform the ordinary into something that seems larger than life. The stage and the page are a space of heightened reality.
JDW: Yup. That’s exactly what we were doing. This is three acts with interludes. You can set your watch to it.
CBY: Before we all say goodbye, what projects do you have planned for 2023?
JDW: "There is definitely more containment to this book than anything we’ve ever done (or I have, at least): the square pages, the three-act structure, the limited cast of characters. This book began as an experiment with the Greek tragedy model and it was our attempt to write a play to be performed on the pages of a book. The narrative about actors came to reflect that in a more literal sense."
ML: With Mortals I was able to take a break from work, but finding time for a graphic novel is a bit challenging, so John and I are moving to shorter works in color that focus on the seasons. Hopefully a bit of visual poetry.
JDW: Matt and I are deep into the Long Island book I mentioned. It’s a collection of short pieces, so we’re hoping we’ll have something to share from it in 2023. I’m close to finishing another book that I’m drawing, a graphic novel called Werner Herzog: Park Ranger (yeah, it’s basically exactly what it sounds like), that I’m hoping to finish this year. It’s a collaboration with the writer Lincoln Michel and we’ve been working on it for a very long time. Some light seems to be appearing at the end of the tunnel.
CBY: It has been more than an honor in being able to interview you regarding Mortals! I think I can speak for all of the readers by saying that we will all be on the lookout for what projects you have in the future. You did a splendid job on this graphic novel and I am hoping to see this creative team work together soon!
ML: Thank you!
JDW: Thanks for taking the time to read our work with such care, Ty.
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