Composers of symphonies consider the string quartet the most essential and least forgiving form in which to demonstrate mastery. Novelists, as you learn early in your literary studies, regard the short story as the purest expression and test of the storyteller’s art, a credential to be refreshed throughout a career. And now, in an age in which the endless comic serials of yore account for nearly all of the larger culture’s most profitable and resonant narratives, writer Keith Karchner and visual artist Matt Maley deliver Nonsecal, a terse but madly imaginative collection of nine graphic pieces that fall somewhere between short story, poetry/song and conceptual meme design.
The ’zine age, as well as the work of such cartoon memoirists as Linda Barry, has demonstrated that the graphic narrative form is well-suited to intimate miniatures (if Edward Gorey hadn’t already made the point), but Nonsecal is something else entirely; it is short but grand and maximalist, visually and conceptually. Essentially, it is modern mythmaking. The two Hudson Valley residents draw on a lifelong friendship and a history of collaboration, and it is sometimes hard to believe that Nonsecal is not the work of a single opulent-but-unsteady mind – a complicated mind, death-obsessed, given to fever dreams, dystopian visions, absurd what-if scenarios followed through to the finest practical details, irrational allegory and vertiginous philosophical speculation, none of which ends particularly well for anyone.
The opening segment, “Bones for the Dog,” exemplifies Nonsecal’s perilous balance of surreal, noirish grit (Karchner is an avowed fan of Harlan Ellison and William S. Burroughs) and oblique, nihilistic allegorical intent. It’s a fluid monologue about a dog that won’t stop barking. It ends with the dog’s rakish owner shooting the Moon, and time and tides going out of whack. From “Bones for the Dog”’s busy, nonlinear spirals, we move directly to the crisp, conceptual design of “Pavlov’s Advice,” a ’50s-sitcom riff in which an ideal mom prescribes, step-by-step, an almost Zen program for the eradication of the ego and the abdication of a hollow materialist self.
Black-and-white or color, panel-based or free-flowing, florid or stark, Maley’s ad hoc designs track Karchner’s crisp and surprising language with rhythmic empathy and a willingness to manifest their weirdest implications and obsessions. Some stories – the science fiction “The Rotbot Blues,” for example – are told almost entirely in image, while the piece that is arguably Nonsecal’s centerpiece, “Carson’s Bullfrog Farm,” is a conventional-if-certifiably-mad narrative told in a stock, folksy voice. Mixed in are a few single-concept one-pagers: a homage to the evangelical tract writer Jack Chick; “The Pauper King,” a mock, polluted medieval verse. One finishes Nonsecal with a quiet sense of wonder over the diversity that it manages to squeeze into tight spaces, and over its pervasive, consistent and discomfitingly queasy sensibility.
I am interested in the process you guys use. Is it strictly text first and pretty linear, or more recursive? Matt, do you edit text as you work, or request much in the way of revision from Keith as you develop the visual? (From a writer’s perspective, telling stories this way seems to require haikulike efficiency and I am wondering if you are involved in a boiling-down reduction of language as you head toward the final state).
Keith: Usually we start with text, and the process is very interactive and enjoyable, with our collaboration following a rocket’s trajectory. Once we are close to the end, there’s tweaking until we both agree that the story is done.
Matt: Keith is an incredible partner to work with. Our creative process is very fluid, very collaborative because we leave our egos at the door. Keith might recommend a character appearance or sketch out his thoughts on a page layout. And he has always been open to me adding or tweaking dialogue, changing the sequencing et cetera. It’s the kind of creative partnership that keeps a project from imploding under competing narcissism.
One thing I really dig about it is the variety of forms and story styles and references employed. There’s a disjunctive variety in narrative mode from piece to piece, and yet the overall effect is singular and consistent. Tell me about the way you use so many formats and design aesthetics in such a short and tight collection.
Keith: I am always very excited to see how Matt has interpreted the text. I’m always amazed and thrilled at how he can take the subject matter and make it so accessible and exciting.
Matt: As a kid, I never had the patience to get through a typical superhero comic book. They were always too wordy and overly descriptive for me. I was always attracted to more visually driven comics, like in Mad Magazine, Cracked and Heavy Metal. Highlights for Children was also a big influence. Keith’s stories are already so visual. He’ll construct and stack a story into a very poetic form, which makes it so much easier to break apart lines into panels and splash pages. The variety of styles really came about because we worked on it for 26 years. Styles change and evolve. And I’ve always been a chameleon with my artwork. I enjoy changing the visual look to match the mood or theme of the storyline.
A lot of the advance press seems to call out the fantasy-enhanced noir quality of the stories: the Tom Waits of “What’s He Building in There?” invoked as a touchstone. Did Keith’s mind dictate this direction? Or is that really a shared fascination and reference point?
Keith: Our style has always been an amalgam of our two very different personalities, which have been interwoven for almost 30 years. I can offer up my influences to point to some sources of the directions I’ve taken. Alphabetically, I’d cite William S. Burroughs, Mikhail Bulgakov, Albert Camus, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Franz Kafka, John Steinbeck, Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut. My source material has been my disability (I was born with cerebral palsy), my mother’s alcoholism and schizophrenia and my own struggles with addiction. What we create is always informed by the obsessive confronted by the depressive and answering with the excessive, all filtered through Matt’s amazing mind and hand and illustrative genius.
Matt: Keith has always been very open with me about how his life has influenced his art. That transparency allows light into places that can be extraordinarily painful. But it definitely lends itself to a creative and collaborative process that’s cathartic and beautiful. That kind of raw honesty allowed us to produce some rich, layered storytelling.
Is it safe to say that this narrative form – graphic storytelling – is still ascendant in the culture? I remember first hearing of Maus in the ’90s and becoming aware of an adult audience for that tradition. Persepolis of course was a landmark in academic and popular circles. And the highest-grossing stories in our era are all derived from the graphic narrative tradition. What kind of audience is available for a short, experimental work like Nonsecal? What are your plans going forward?
Keith: The Internet seems to have honed the public’s appetite for short, exciting bursts of ideas, and Nonsecal was always intended to be as concise as possible, so there’s always the hope that our work will be easily digestible and varied enough to spark interest in all ages. I’m incredibly excited to work on Nonsecal2, and we have plans for Nonsecal3, and also a comic anthology of non-fiction stories. Our collaboration process and Matt’s art have always encouraged me to push myself past my comfort zones and tell the truth, no matter what.
Matt: Much of today’s media are built around “three-minute reads,” Top 20 lists and Netflix serials. So it feels like Nonsecal is dropping in at the right time. Self-publishing is challenging. You can’t rely on a big distributor. You’re fighting for visibility on Amazon and shelf space in local independent retailers. You have to have constant, daily marketing tenacity – all while continuing our day jobs, freelancing, pushing my other titles and of course family. Nonsecal seems to be connecting with a broad audience because the protagonists represent all of us. Fear of aging, anxiety, obsessiveness, bigotry: Spinning these dark subjects we all encounter into something we can relate to, or even laugh at, empowers the reader. We’ll continue to create and put it out there. If anything, it’s great self-therapy.
Learn more at www.nonsecal.com. Track Nonsecal down at Amazon or find it locally at Barner Books, Inquiring Minds, October Country and Roost Studios in New Paltz.