Journal of Writing & Environment

Interview with Justin Madson

by Chloe Clark

Justin Madson is an artist and graphic novelist whose work includes Breathers (a completed comic series) and, more recently, Carbon. To learn more about him—follow him on Twitter @justinmadson, on Tumblr on Facebook or check out his website:

1.)   What first got you interested in the graphic novel as a storytelling form?

I had taken some film study classes in high school that sort of ignited my passion for filmmaking and script writing and I really wanted to pursue that avenue as a way of telling stories. This proved a pretty difficult task, simply due to the number of people and resources needed to pull that sort of thing together.  I had been reading a lot of comics at the time, as well, and sort of came to the realization that comics were, more or less, just movies on paper, so I decided to start drawing my stories. And I fell in love with the art form and never looked back.

2.)   What do you think the strengths of sequential art are, compared to prose, and compared to other purely visual arts?  What can sequential art offer the cultural community that’s unique and, perhaps, underdeveloped or unexplored?

Sequential art is not limited solely by words on a page or by a single piece of visual art. It exists to tell a story through both words and pictures. It is the combination of both of those very different aspects and how they are combined that makes graphic novels so very unique.  A sequential artist may be able to convey more in a single drawn panel on a page than in multiple pages of prose writing. Often times, in my own work, it is the silent panel on a page that says the most. Sequential art offers storytellers the ability to create any type of story, really, and tell it in a variety of ways. There are not many rules when it comes to sequential art, which is why it is an appealing medium to work in. I have seen graphic novels with no words at all and somewhere words exist in panels with no drawings. And, in both these cases, the stories still move forward, time passing from panel to panel.

3.)     How does your sequential art, qua writing, fit within the larger literary community?  Many of us at Flyway are following the growing respect sequential art is garnering in the literary community.  Where do you feel your work fits in that community?  Where do you think sequential art as a genre (if we can call it that) fits?  Where do you think it should fit?  How does/should sequential art question, comment on, and interact with the broader community of books, readers and writers?  What do you see as the future of sequential art within the broader literary community?

In the years I have been producing comics and graphic novels, I have seen a significant jump in the appeal of graphic novels and comics, as well as the number of people creating them. I suppose that says something, that there is something appealing and worthwhile in it. I have a difficult time accepting that sequential art is being thought of very highly in the literary community, though, but I think things are headed in the right direction. More and more distinguished publishing houses now produce graphic novels and promote them as legitimate works of art and literature. Did anyone outside of comics know who Chris Ware was a couple years ago? I still believe the majority of American readers shy away from sequential art and do not really give it much value, treat it like some weird bastard child of words and pictures (which it kind of is). But there is such a plethora of great sequential art stories already produced and being produced today that it’s really just a matter of time before it becomes widely appreciated as the legitimate form of storytelling that it is. And, I do like to think I am producing work that can be thought of as something more than just words and pictures on a page, something with some sort of redeeming quality.

4.)    Following up on this last question: Flyway loves to publish good sequential art.  But we get very few submissions.  How do we better integrate the world of literary magazines and the world of sequential art?  (Or, is this something we should even try to do?)  Do you have suggestions for editors?  Do you have suggestions for writers/artists/creators of sequential art?

I think the main issue is that it is difficult to create a really good story of sequential art in only a few pages. In four pages of prose, one can create a lot more than four pages of sequential art. I am horrible at making short works and tend to create long, sprawling stories, so I don’t know, maybe it can be done, but not by me. I would need the entire magazine to tell a good story.

5.)    Writing and drawing are two talents that don’t necessarily appear together, and when they do occur in the same person, magic can happen.  Which came first, or most easily for you – the writing or the drawing?   How do they interact in your own process?  Do you write first (either on paper or in your head) and then draw the story, or do you start drawing and a story develops around your pictures? Could you take us through your process from idea conception to publication?

The writing came first and is still very much my favorite part of the whole process. The drawing part came out of a necessity.  In order to breathe life and personality into the words I had written, I forced myself to draw and draw and draw and learn the tricks of the trade. I have a writer self and an artist self and they sort of work together to keep each other in check. I may write a long piece of dialogue for a character that my writer self thinks is great, but when I’m drawing it, my artist self will see it differently and scrap it completely, or chop it to pieces. It’s a great way to self-edit as I go about creating my stories. I usually work out the main plot for the entire story, and since I see it all as a movie, albeit, it drawn on paper, I hammer a book out scene by scene, writing dialogue, then doing page layouts, then drawing and inking the pages. I have main plot points that I need to hit, but the rest I like to make up as I am actively working on it. If I had every page planned out I would get bored with it. 

6.)    Your series Breathers has a wonderfully enticing sci-fi concept (a world where everyone wears gas masks to protect them from no longer breathable air)…When did you first get the idea? Was it prompted by anything in particular?

The gas mask idea just came from me doing some drawings one day, just sort of whatever came to mind. I really liked the visual and thought, “Yeah, I can use this. This could make for a cool story.” My writer self then started to develop a story for these gas masks to exist in. I just tried to really think, rather matter-of-factly, what it would be like to live in a world where you had to wear gas masks all the time and I built a story around that. I really liked that the idea of needing gas masks to breathe affected everyone in this world, that everyone was equal, at least in that one aspect. Everyone needs to breathe.

7.)    A great thing about your work, to me, is that you often have sci-fi or “genre-y” concepts alongside very day-to-day situations and realistically portrayed families and relationships. Is it a challenge to find that balance? Do you think it is a balance that is needed especially because you deal with genre elements?

I remember reading in an interview with comics writer, Kurt Busiek, back when he was writing the comics series, Astro City, in which he said you have to create an interesting backdrop for your characters, whether it be the strange city they live in or some war time situation. So, I always think of that when I create a story. It sort of adds another layer to the building of the story, a foundation on which to build characters, relationships, intrigue. I always feel that my stories are about people, above all else, but without the genre elements, serving as a backdrop, I think my stories would be kind of boring, like one of those indie films that you just know is not going to go anywhere. And the best sci-fi stories are the ones you can actually believe could happen.

8.)    Your latest graphic novel, Carbon, plays really well with tropes of noir. Is that something you wanted to do from the start? Or did that just sort of happen?

I would say Carbon combines a lot of different genres, including, but certainly not limited to, noir. The story finds the city-state of Carbon in political upheaval as a newly elected governor seeks to strip the rights of a certain group of individuals who live there. These individuals are Seers, people with psychic abilities. This political unrest serves as the backdrop to the story, which, at its core, is a mystery involving several characters, each with their own issues to deal with. Like Breathers, the story is very character-driven, although it takes place in a world slightly different than our own.

9.)    Who have been some of your influences (both in writing and in art)?

Over the years many graphic novelists and cartoonists have inspired me. I consider Ted McKeever, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, David Lapham, the Hernandez Brothers and Alex Robinson amongst my biggest influences, but, really, there are so many to list. I cannot discount the films of the Coen Brothers, which really fueled that early spark to create stories.

10.)   What sort of projects do you have in the works?

In addition to working on Carbon, which I expect will take a good four or five years to complete, I also work on the occasional painting, which is a nice change of pace from the sequential art form. To just focus on one piece of art from start to finish is sometimes like a breath of fresh air.