June 2011

Martyn Pedler


The Influencing Machine and Josh Neufeld’s New Objectivity

Brooke Gladstone says there’s no point pretending there’s a distinction between the people and the press “now that everyone carries a potential printing press in a back pocket or purse.” The fact that she says it in the pages of The Influencing Machine -- a new manifesto on the media in comic book form -- made me think of the personal printing presses we’ve had for decades. They were bigger, slower, and dirtier, and the publications they produced were called "zines." Josh Neufeld agrees. “I love zines,” he says, “and I love self-publishing. I come from that tradition. I was a minicomics publisher back in the 1990s, and I think I always bring that ethos into my work.”

It’s not surprising when Brooke Gladstone, a well-respected and familiar-voiced critic from her radio show On The Media, appears drawn as Spider-Man inside. She says that as humans, “we crave novelty,” and as her cartoonist collaborator on The Influencing Machine it is Josh who provides it. On one page, he draws a corpse-strewn battle scene underneath a Yeats poem. On another, he transforms an editor from Scientific American into Darwin, Bigfoot, and back again. In lesser hands (and probably in any other medium) this visual whiplash would be drenched in flopsweat. Here it looks effortless, and the range of influences and examples in the book reflect what Josh calls the book’s “three-dimensional” sense of the media.

“Brooke wanted to do something that in some way approximated her relationship with her listeners, the certain intimacy that comes through on the radio. She felt it could be replicated by her character talking to the reader -- or ‘speaking in bubbles’ as she called it. She has a real innate understanding of comics. And before she embarked on this project, she immersed herself in Marjane Satrapi, and Art Spiegelman, and she had Understanding Comics open on her desk quite a lot.”

McCloud’s Understanding Comics is an obvious precursor to The Influencing Machine, and earlier proof that a manifesto -- usually so strident, earnest, desperate to convince -- becomes oddly charming in comic book form. Besides, most other books on the media can be divided into two categories: technologically-enhanced utopian of free information, and “Oh god! Newspapers are dying! We’re only inches away from living in Riddley Walker! Save the last bullet for yourself!” naysayers. The Influencing Machine stakes out a middle ground; its fair-mindedness is confirmed by the Neufeld’s cartoon version of Brooke Gladstone, who calmly explains the meaning of “incestuous amplification” while shapeshifting like Jack Cole’s Plastic Man.

“I definitely felt the onus to create a character, a la the Scott McCloud character in Understanding Comics, who would be your guide. Someone you could rely on to do anything that was needed -- to appear in violent war scenes, or in the future, or dressed as a caveman -- and someone the reader would feel attached to. It was definitely something Brooke and I talked about a lot when we were coming up with her avatar. There are a bunch of sketches of different versions we tried out. Some were much more realistic, and some even more simplified than the one we ended up using.”

The book gets its title from a woman known as "Natalija A." She explained in psychoanalysis how a man was tormenting her with some sort of electrical machine, existing in voodoo-sympathy with her body. Brooke explains that during her treatment, “Natalija continually re-imagines the machine with fewer and fewer ‘parts’.” And, as she speaks, Brooke’s own face distorts and simplifies. Cartoon faces, whether cereal mascots or cultural theorists, are inherently trustworthy. But what does that mean for psychological realism? Before The Influencing Machine, Josh wrote and drew the story of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. It’s a work of journalism with an entirely different approach, taking five real-life people from New Orleans and telling their stories before and after the tragedy. When I asked Josh why he felt A.D. had to be a comic book, he laughed:

“That’s like asking a musician why they play music! I love comics. It’s the way I tell stories, and this was a story I felt needed to be told. I didn’t even think for a second if it’d be better or worse or inappropriate. It’s just what I do. I know something people wrote that there’s a certain intimacy to reading these people’s stories that makes them feel real in a way they didn’t watching them on the news. I can’t say that’s something I do purposefully, but if they say it, I believe it.”

In The Influencing Machine, Brooke says the media’s objectivity “works to repel the attacks of critics, like a kind of ethical pepper spray.” She also says that “objectivity is impossible.” That’s why the book can present cautionary tales about the dangers of bias and show Senator Joe McCarthy with swirling, evil hypnotist eyes. And cartoon art can’t pretend to be anything but subjective, not like prissy photographs or film. It could be proof -- as David Weinberger also predicts inside -- how “transparency is the new objectivity.”

Josh says his style leans “more towards the simplified or cartoony. More towards the Hergé and less towards the Boris Vallejo. I do a little presentation where I talk about A.D., and there’s always a moment where I show headshots of all the characters and I quickly juxtapose them with my versions. Everyone gasps and chuckles when they see the actual photographs. The bridge you make -- between the representation of someone and real-life unique facial characteristics -- it’s always a little bit stunning.”

This is art that displays its influences without compromising its voice. There are fascinating panels in The Influencing Machine in which Josh redraws others’ art. Famous photographs, oil paintings, editorial cartoons. The results are accurate and idiosyncratic at once. He told me he doesn’t read too many comics while he’s working -- but that’s because he wants to escape his work, not because he’s afraid of others’ techniques creeping into his own.

“Actually, I get ideas from other cartoonists all the time. I used to trace comics when I was a kid. I ruined a lot of them because I pinned them down with thumbtacks and traced the whole things. You find little things all over the place to give you ideas and improve your work and keep you grounded. I’m not embarrassed to say my influences include Hergé, and Alison Bechdel, and Joe Sacco – they all have things to offer me.”

Ruined comics; it reminds me of a double-page splash in A.D. showing Leo, a young man who left his home before the waters rose, returning home to his comic collection. He imagines himself drowning with the issues floating all around him. It’s a rare moment of fantasy in a book that’s otherwise played straight, and even compared with all the horrors around it, it still carries wait. I ask if maybe a childhood love of comic books is required to really feel it.

“Yeah, the reason I chose Leo as a character was very much because of my identification with his loss, and to extrapolate that out to all the other things that’ve been lost by all the others, from music to Mardi Gras costumes to records and books, anything anyone can imagine. These treasured things. To think of losing them all in one moment is awful.”

This moment in A.D. seems to exist outside of passing time, and that’s its power. But Josh’s work on both these books also exploits the tick-to-tock of sequential art. The Influencing Machine holds up two panels, side by side, featuring the one man separated by years -- like poor Thomas Jefferson, glowing with admiration for the press in one, rumpled and miserable eight years later in the next. And in A.D., comic art lets us see Katrina and its aftermath somehow stripped of the sensationalism bestowed on it by the news. The water doesn’t come in a cinematic rush. It’s depicted with an awful calm. Then and now; before and after.

When it comes to the media, The Influencing Machine shows us the before. It’s waiting to see what we’ll make of the after.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He knows Cartoon Martyn would’ve been much more convincing. You can see more of Josh Neufeld’s work at his site, too.