An evening with Ian Bertram

This was a Thursday, on a cold autumn evening, Ian Bertram came to a signing at Album Comics. He came by himself, without press attaché, only with his sketchbook and pencils. 6 pm, the signing started, customers went by and fans were waiting to get their books signed.

Finally no more people around, I went on and ask him if he were ready to start the interview. After a cigaret we sat down at the designated spot. Well, it actually was the signing table in the middle of the shop. It was like a sitcom, with my loyal recorder turned on, we talked while people were shopping, glancing curiously at us. I learned quite a few things and overall it was a really interesting interview. I hope you will like it too.

If you don’t already know the artist, he drew Bowery Boys, worked at DC and Marvel and he is now mostly known for his collaboration with Peter Tomasi on House of Penance, a great book. I’d like to talk more about his art but it’s better if he tells you himself.

So here it is, without further ado, ladies and gentleman, I offer you Ian Bertram interview!

When doing an interview I like to start at the beginning, so, how did you begin in comics?

I was going to the school of visual arts in New York and I had a professor named Klaus Janson. He was amazing. He send my work to a lot of people. An editor at Marvel who had just left it, named Cory Levine… he was an assistant… well he was doing something at Marvel. He asked if I wanted to work on a book. I said yes, and that was Bowery Boys. I started that when I was in school and when I got out I was still working on it.

You do illustrations as well. Is the work process different than comics. If you could tell us a bit about your working process.

I’ve been very lucky with comics that I’ve worked on, I was able to do kind of anything I want most of the time, but still within the story. There is a lot of images that I want to draw but I don’t have a chance to in comics, so the personal work is a little more manic, a little more crazy, it’s a release in a way. And the style I do in comics is a lot of tiny lines, which I love, but also your hand gets tired, and it’s nice to paint, to release the tension.

In comics you have deadlines, directives to follow…

Exactly, and I can do anything [in illustrations], it’s a new way of thinking. I’m still learning a lot in comics but I know nothing about painting so it’s all new, which I love.

What are your favorites themes, what do you want to express in your art?

I’m really a little obsessed with sort of broken people, psychologically, physically, their overwhelming sense of sadness or anger or these emotions that people don’t think of as good, they don’t want them. But they are very important for being a person. Because you can’t be happy unless you are incredibly sad. I like to explore within myself those ideas and then to put them on a canvas. It’s a therapy.

Now about House of Penance, about the genesis of the book. Who’s idea was it? Was it a duo with Tomasi?

I feel like it was a true collaboration. He had given me a screenplay, for film. So I took the script play, and adapted it to a comic, he was very open to me changing the story here and there. The overall story is exactly what it was, but the tentacles were my idea, which was great. I was talking to him about the idea of the horror being manifested in a physically way, he loved it and then the tentacles became a bigger and bigger part as the story went on. It gave me an excuse to be an Akira like tentacles destroying everything…

Did you participate in the script and colors?

The script no, but the addition of the tentacles is part of it. The colors were all Dave Stewart. He is the best. Him and Matt Hollingsworth are my two favorites colorists.

The starting point is the Winchester House in San Jose, California. Did you went there and visit it?

No, but Peter has. He gave me a bunch of material, photos and such. But I also wanted it to be a fiction of the house. The house that I draw is huge, it’s a Usher House, it’s all of these crazy things. I made sure that the lines of the building don’t work in perspective, like the lines that overlap…

The way you draw bodies is quite peculiar, they are like almost tired and injured. What do you try to express, how do you work on bodies?

I think that the little marks that I make are very therapeutic for me. If someone is diseased or broken, you can almost fix them by making these small marks that sort of stitch them together. It’s also a way for me to get lost in the body, which I really enjoy and I think that the product is like you said: hopefully they seem tired and worn out, a little bit like old leather.

All characters are killers. Sarah Winchester is a widow. It’s almost like their feelings are being manifested on their body.

Yes, that is very intentional.

Where did you get your inspiration for bodies?

That’s a great question. So in comics Moebius obviously. And hopefully one day, if I make a deal with the devil, I can be close to as good… But I think that a lot of my influences are also painters like Francis Bacon, Egon Schiele. The way they work with bodies is, I think, very powerful and it’s hard to do in a comics because they have, most of the time, a very strict narrative, so then hopefully the drawings can elude to something more… give a sense of atmosphere.

It’s funny because sometime you don’t even need to read, you can just look at the drawings and they express something by themselves. You can see the continuity through the drawing.

Can you tell me about your work on matter and texture. It’s almost like you have to use the sense of touch to read, to see the drawings. Was it intentional?

I think it’s maybe a byproduct. It’s like … ok, so, the tiny marks are almost like meditation in a certain way where, as I’m drawing, I’ll be thinking about the people that are around me, the world we are living in, myself, all of these things. The little marks are sort of, this is maybe a little dramatic, it’s very dramatic, but almost like tick marks in jail cell. You mark time and I feel like the more marks that I make it almost justifies the time that I’m spending… if that makes sense.

Yeah that makes sense. It’s like these marks can be marks of time, of what they experienced in life.
For example Sarah Winchester’s sister has nothing on her face.
She is dull.

Yeah exactly. She is also boring because of it. It’s like who cares! There is something about people who have lived a life, you can see on their face and that I’ve always really loved.

Dear readers, I’ll jump in and, I swear it won’t take long, I will try to explain this “sense of touch” I used to read.

The sense of touch might actually be me extrapolating my impression, but still, these marks of time are actually not far from what I saw, or felt. Time, life experiences are not something that you can touch, that you can see, but here, with these tiny marks, Ian Bertram puts it on the visible spectrum. Furthermore being visible on the skin, being a mark on the bodies time has been granted a texture, something that you can touch, therefore the characters’ life experiences become visible and palpable. So in a sense, the sense of touch is part of the reading process, it is at least summoned in the story’s reality to stress out what has no visible mark.

It might also be true with the rest, especially the dust. Try to remember those scenes where people fight, or the dust being moved away by the wind, there is this big cloud which hides everything, which almost swallows bodies, it is dense and almost like a big cloud of foam. It seems so thick that you can almost grab it, it is not just dust but a different matter. Ok, maybe here I’m going to far but still, think about it.

There is like a dichotomy in your work. There are the visible and invisible. The inside of the body being visible on the outside. The tentacles as well. Did you try to put the invisible on the visible spectrum?

Yes, so… the tentacles, I wanted them to be sort of infusing to the reader. As I was drawing them I wasn’t really sure if they were actually real, if they existed in three dimensional space. If it was a film, I think that they might translate more as three dimensional because you are witnessing a three dimensional film, you know it’s two dimensional but within it’s three dimension, and everything moves at our rate of time, but in a comic you see individual snap shots so therefore… it’s like those old photos you know, if someone moves it looks like a ghost, but it’s not a ghost, but also it is. It’s whatever you want it to be.

It’s almost like there is a symbiosis between the characters and the tentacles. They have ghosts…

I also love the idea of the horror, the true like Lovecraftien horror, and this is not truly Lovecraftien because you see so much of the tentacles, but hopefully for the character in the book it is, because it’s at the corner of their vision. They feel it, almost behind their head, there is a sort of creeping sense of dread. Sometimes they almost look at it but they can’t quite see it.

There is just Sarah Winchester who can see the tentacles.

Yes, but also she doesn’t see anything. Who knows?

Yes we don’t really know what she is seeing. She is talking to her husband and daughter’s clothes. Is she seeing something? We don’t know!

There is something that really got my attention. It’s movement in your drawing. There seldom is a panel without movement. That could just be a leaf falling from a tree, or again, the tentacles… Did you want to have this movement in your drawing?

That’s a really good question. I think that there might be a subconscious thing that you are picking upon. I mean now that you are talking about it, I could give an explanation for it but I don’t know if that would be truthful. I could say that it would be a product of the anxiety of the characters, but I think most likely it’s my own anxiety manifesting on the page. So yeah, probably very subconscious. I hadn’t really notice it, thank you. I will think about it.

It actually came upon me when I thought of the book as a contamination, tentacles and the horror are like a virus spreading. The more you read, the more you have tentacles, the more you have movement, the more the horror is manifesting itself.

There is something that really got my attention. It’s movement in your drawing. There seldom is a panel without movement. That could just be a leaf falling from a tree, or again, the tentacles… Did you want to have this movement in your drawing?

I definitely did want the reader to feel suffocated by the tentacles at the end. You know it’s hard to do because it’s comic, it’s two dimensional. There are certain comics that do it really well, like Black Hole, when you read it, you just feel deeply uncomfortable. It’s this sort of creeping sense that I was looking for. In horror movie a character can jump out, but you can’t do that in comic, because you see at the corner of your eyes when you flip the page. The build of the horror is maybe the only way to have it.

At the end the tentacles win, a kid has a gun. Did you want to finish like that?

Yeah I mean I think one of the things, Peter and I wanted to bring to the book was a reflection on our society. The Winchester widow is very much like a lot of Americans right now, where she is deeply involve in the conversation about guns, but also she wants them to go away. She wants to make them silent, she doesn’t want to think about them and so they built, they built and they built until they destroy everything. So we wanted it to be in a lot of ways, a metaphor obviously, but the end is her being hopeful and her saying the 20th century will be one of peace and prosperity, which is hilarious, it’s like this deeply sad and funny thing, and we just wanted the story not to end on a happy note, I never liked happy ending, I always hated that. Because there is more to the story, always. Hopefully it’s like the beginning of the next chapter, who knows, maybe the kid does something good with it. I think probably not!

Also I hope that if someone reads it, they could think about the problems we have with guns in a way… You know I’m not saying that the guns themselves are good or bad, but they kill a lot of people so maybe we have to talk about it.

This book came out at a time where there is a lot of talks about guns in the USA.

Yeah, that’s funny though because we did a few interviews in the US and no one asked about the guns. There was one talking about the gun’s metaphor, but the rest they were very silent and I think because it is a very difficult topic in the US. Then all of the interviews that we done in France have really wanted to talk about it, which I think is amazing, it seems so odd, like the opposite should be true.

Any future projects?

Yes, I’m working on a comic right now, called Little Bird. I’m really excited about it, it’s science-fiction, but it’s also incredibly dark and about sort of a broken family. It is set in a very dystopian world. There is also a lot of dreamlike imagery to it which I really enjoy and there are also tentacles in there. The writer is Darcy Van Poelgeest, this is his first comic which I’m really excited about. The colors is Matt Hollingsworth, which is… I mean he is incredible. There is a lot of great colorist but I really like what he has done with the book.

Do you have any favorite comics or artists that you’d like to recommend?

So, two of my favorite artists that are working right now are James Harren and Tradd Moore. I would recommend their book very highly.

At this point the shop was about to close. More people came to have their drawings and it was done. Well not for Ian, I and Germanico, my colleague who put the signing together. We went to the restaurant across the street and the conversation went on about comics, movies and other topics. Alas, at some point I was mostly sleeping in my plate and we parted way, Ian Bertram went on to Belleville, to take a peek at the Parisian night and Album’s guys went on sleeping after a hard working day (I swear we work hard!).

Well we are not actually done, Ian Bertram allowed us to publish a few pictures from his personnal sketchbook.

Interview conducted by Aurélien Banabéra

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