I’m very excited to kick off the Art for the Sake of Grace series of interviews with Catholic artists, and who better to begin with than my good friend and compatriot, Matthew Lickona? Matthew’s writing is profound and challenging, and his creativity is just a little bit intimidating. Ladies and gentlemen, my good friend, Mr. Matthew Lickona. (cue applause)
You’re the first person in what is sure to become a historic series of blog conversations. Are you nervous about being in the catbird seat?
No, just tickled. And honored.
Let’s start by talking about Alphonse. This is a powerful series that may be startling to some readers in its subject matter. You’ve described Alphonse as a story that takes the horror that hovers over many facets of the abortion debate and makes it overt. This project has been close to your heart for many years; how do you introduce it to new readers?
The blunt intro: Alphonse is the story of a sentient fetus who survives an attempted abortion and embarks on a mission of revenge. But he is pursued even as he is pursuing, and haunted by his only friend’s insistence that there is another way.
The literary intro: Alphonse is a Frankenstein reboot, one that takes Mary Shelley’s decision to call the monster a monster seriously. One of the American Heritage Medical Dictionary definitions of a monster is “a fetus or an infant that is grotesquely abnormal and usually not viable.” The monster in Frankenstein is grotesquely abnormal in his conception. Thanks to Victor Frankenstein’s experiments, he receives life without having parents, and takes a twisted form of knowledge from those whose parts make up his body. The monster in Alphonse is grotesquely abnormal in his development. Thanks to his mother’s use of experimental drugs, he develops both sentience and coordination in utero, taking a twisted form of knowledge from his mother’s imagination.
My brother says that the story sounds crazy when you describe it, but works when you read it. I’m not sure how to get around that problem.
Was it originally envisioned as a graphic novel?
Yes, though I never sat down and thought about the best medium for the story. It started as a sketch, and then another, and then the first page of a comic book. I read a lot of Peanuts and Pogo and Bloom County as a kid, and a lot of Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side as an adolescent, and a lot of Sinfest as an adult. I like sequential art as a medium for the outlandish – I think it numbs the “unreality gag reflex” just enough to let the story go about its business.
What’s next for Alphonse? You self-funded the first two installments in the story via Kickstarter; what’s on the horizon for this particular project?
Actually, issue one was funded by generous gifts from friends and family. Issue two was funded via Kickstarter. But the campaign for issue three on Kickstarter fell short. I decided that Alphonse didn’t pass the butts-in-seats test – the concept just wasn’t intriguing enough to get people to engage such a difficult issue in their free time. I put it to rest, but then a production company asked for a TV pilot. That went through a couple of drafts and stalled out. I gave up again. A film producer asked for some sample short film scripts, and talked about using them to fund a feature. That went nowhere. But I posted those scripts on my blog, and was encouraged by some friends who read them to keep trying. So here I am.
These days, I’m telling myself that the story will work better if it’s all in one volume, and in full color. So I’m begging again on my website, alphonsecomic.com. If 40,000 people give one dollar each, I’m good to go. But I’m also casting about for a patron, someone who can fund the whole thing without batting an eye. I’ve got a couple of leads. We’ll see.
In other discussions we’ve had about art and Catholicism, you’ve mentioned John Gardner’s statement that “Art begins in a wound.” Can you expand on that – what struck you about that particular statement, and how do you see it applying to your own work?
Have you seen Peter Sellers on The Muppet Show, telling Kermit that he cannot stop acting and just be himself because he has no self to be? Yes, it’s a joke. Yes, it’s still amazing.
What struck me about the statement from Gardner is that it fit with my own (admittedly limited) experience. And as I got older and started learning more about the artists I admired – Evelyn Waugh, Alec Guinness, Walker Percy – it seemed to fit with their experience as well. As Dylan notes in his song “Not Dark Yet,” “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.” Maybe there are exceptions. But life seems to be teaching me otherwise.
Applying the notion to my own work would probably amount to little more than dimestore psychology. And I fear that even the accurate parts would sound embarrassingly trite. I do know that as death has become more of a quite certain reality and heaven a less certain possibility, my story ideas have gotten better.
You’ve explored themes in your own work that many might shy away from – for example, your presentation at the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing on the role of pornography in Walker Percy’s novels. Is it fair to say you believe that no subject matter should be off-limits for a writer?
Well, Dante gave us Mohammed split from groin to chin (among other things) on his tour of hell, which is to say, yes, I think everything is fair game. Though I will say that the character of the writer is both tested and displayed when he or she tackles a difficult subject. And that, as ever, context is all. I once read a bit of online fiction that was nothing more than a pedophile’s monologue as he broke down a kidnapped little girl psychologically in preparation for assaulting her physically. That was an evil piece of art, and I am very sorry I consumed it. But if you contrast it with Walker Percy’s handling of rape in Lancelot and child pornography in The Thanatos Syndrome, I think you can see what I’m getting at.
My answer to this question is O’Connor’s claim that “The Catholic writer, in so far as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for. But this should enlarge not narrow his field of vision.” Also, I sympathize with Percy’s argument that the morality of a novel proceeds from the integrity of the whole – the way the parts of a good table fit together.
I think most anyone with Binx Bolling’s nose for merde – which is to say, most people – can tell when a writer is delving into dark material for less than honorable reasons.
As part of your day job, you occasionally review films – how did you come to take that role, and do you consider yourself a critic? What particular films or directors have informed your perspective as a reviewer?
I am a utility man at my day job. I’ve reviewed wine, restaurants, and churches. Now, I’m reviewing films – sometimes in print, but mostly on the paper’s website. I go where they tell me, and these days, they’re telling me to go to the movies. I do consider myself a critic, in the sense that I have a fair number of movies under my belt, a half-decent sense of story, and a few basic diagnostic tools in my kit. Plus, I’ve been doing it for a while. Experience is a good teacher, and I was lucky enough to have someone pay me to gain the experience.
I’m not sure what directors have informed my perspective – I try to take each movie as it comes. I do love much of the Coen brothers’ output, and I think Howard Hawks was an absolute master of popular entertainment, but I’m fairly, er, catholic in my tastes.
Who are some contemporary Catholic artists (in any medium) whose work has influenced your own, or whose work you hold in high esteem?
Well, it’s a pretty well-beaten drum, but I’ll beat it anyway: I’m a big fan of the illustrator Daniel Mitsui. He has a great interest in medieval art, but his work isn’t simply an imitation of what you can find in a history book. He’s adopted some medieval artistic principles, but he’s also incorporated stuff he learned from the great comic strips – Popeye, Krazy Kat, etc. I don’t want to misrepresent him, but I think those strips have influenced his eye for composition, the story told within an illustration. And a certain sort of cockeyed soul could view the smaller illustrations surrounding one of his crucifixion scenes as a kind of historical comic strip. I find his ability to adopt an ancient mindset without simply becoming a scribe for the ancients hugely impressive. He has a personal vision he’s realizing within some fairly strict objective guidelines.
A minor, but fun example – the background of one of his crucifixions features features cell organelles – creatures unknown to the medievals. He writes, “Some of these elements, I think, have a latent symbolism that could be developed more fully. Mitochondria seem especially appropriate to be associated with the life-giving Cross. Fossilized dinosaur eggs might represent mortification, as dragons, which for my purposes are the same as dinosaurs, represent sin. Planarian worms suggest the Holy Eucharist, due to their ability to be divided into parts no less complete than the whole…” Fantastic. Plus, I find his work delightful.
What role has the Internet played in your work as a writer, and what would you consider to be the particular challenges for artists in our information-overload society?
What role? Mostly as a damned distraction. But also as a frustration. I see how smart people, driven people, can build community, build a following, establish the media platform that makes the Internet a blessing to the artist seeking an audience. I can even see how it’s done, sort of. But actually doing it leaves me exhausted, and eats up my time to boot. Here again, I admire Daniel Mitsui, who sends out an occasional newsletter via email, blogs now and then, and is able to let his work build his reputation.
Challenges for the artist? Well, I know this is hardly a new observation, but the information overload cheapens everything a little: there is so much interesting writing available that it becomes difficult to value one thing over another. People wind up clinging to brands - The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Korrektiv Press, etc. – like they’re lifeboats. Buying a book becomes almost an act of devotion – not, “I need entertainment, so I’m trying your product,” but “I think so well of you that I will actually pay for your version of what I could probably get for free elsewhere.” Word of mouth becomes more important than ever – honest recommendations from one trusted friend to another.
While we’re at it, there are so many puppy videos and trailer mashups on YouTube, why would you ever read anything? Have you seen Hulu’s “online TV eats your brain” ad campaign? Yes, it’s a joke. Yes, it’s still amazing.
And finally, I’m a believer in the notion that the Internet is rewiring our brains, and in such a way that the structural virtues of something like a novel are less clearly worthwhile. We may never stop liking stories, but you don’t hear many troubadours reciting lyric poetry these days. Unless it’s on YouTube as a voiceover for a puppy video.
What did I forget to ask you?
Anything about Catholic fiction or Catholic art in general. Which is probably for the best. But let me just quote Abed from Community: “All stories are about death and resurrection.”