GUNS, GANGSTA RAP AND GIALLO
GUNS, GANGSTA RAP AND GIALLO:
An Interview with Comics Creator BENJAMIN MARRA
by Rodney Perkins
Most modern comic books are the byproduct of a corporate sausage grinding process that dumps out an endless stream of generic superheroes that can easily be bootstrapped into saggy big-budget movies and other cultural detritus. Fortunately, a new wave of independent comic publishing has arisen in the creative vacuum left by the big comic book factories. Like the underground comics scene of the 60s and 70s, many artists are publishing their own limited-run comics without any artistic constraints. One of the coolest artists on the indie scene is Benjamin Marra.
Marra, who is based in Brooklyn, New York, publishes comics like Gangsta Rap Posse and Night Business under his Traditional Comics imprint (www.traditionalcomics.com). Marra pushes the envelope in terms of content and visuals. His work features stark black-and-white artwork; violent unhinged scenarios; and suspensful storytelling. His work reflects an extensive range of influences, including cinema (Giallo, 80s action), classic mainstream and underground comics, 90s hip-hop, and punk rock illustration. Gangsta Rap Posse is about the adventures of a 90′s era California hip-hop group whose lives are an endless series of drive-by shootings, crack smoking, and sexcapades. Night Business is an ultra-violent noir that depicts a world of strippers, pimps, prostitutes, and serial killers. Benjamin Marra (BM) kindly agreed to an email interview to talk about his work.
RP: I understand that one of the influences on Night Business is Giallo films. I can see this in the violent noirish storyline, and the visuals, including the leather-masked, leather-gloved killer. Can you elaborate? What were some of the specific Giallo films that inspired you? What are your favorite Giallo films?
BM: Yes. Giallo films were a primary influence on Night Business as far as tone and content go. I was watching a ton of Giallo films a few years ago It was a phase. The first one I picked up, randomly at this video rental place (remember those?), was Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key starring Edwige Fenech. When she made her entrance I was completely floored by her beauty. At the time I didn’t know what Giallo was, but I wanted to see every thriller movie this actress was in, so I quickly hunted them down. She happened to be in many Giallo movies. I watched Strip Nude for Your Killer and All the Colors of the Dark and The Case of the Bloody Iris. Then I started expanding to Bava’s films and Lucio Fulci films, like Blood and Black Lace and Conquest (not Giallo, but awesome), and many more, but they all kind of blur in my memories now. What really stuck with me and what I was fascinated by was the conventions of Giallo films, overt sex, lots of nudity, sexy women, serial killers, glamorous lifestyles, masked assassins, systematic killings, hedonism, shock value, heavy melodrama, stiff dialogue, mystery, over-the-top death scenes, simple emotions, twist endings, etc.
RP: Were there any other cinematic influences? Have you ever seen the movie Vice Squad?
BM: Yes. Abel Ferrara’s movies have been a direct influence on Night Business. Many of them feel like American Giallo films. The premise of Night Business is based on the Ferrara movie Fear City. Also, the origin of the Night Business character Chastity is a nod to Ferrara’s movie Ms. .45. I also love Driller Killer. I really love that era of New York, the late 70s and early 80s when things were really terrible. I’m influenced by most 80s action movies including the Death Wish series–Death Wish 3 most specifically–Rambo: First Blood Part II, Commando and Cobra. Mostly what influences me is the tone, the focus on male power fantasy. A lot of comics these days have lost that essential ingredient. Most of the heroes in mainstream, corporate superhero comics are sniveling pussies, I’ve found. In an attempt to create depth of character, mainstream superhero power-fantasy comics have failed resulting in boring, insular stories which lost their entertainment value to me. I wanted to make comics that were closer to the comics I grew up with and the movies that spoke to me during my formative years, where the archetypes of the hero are clear and uncompromising and the stories were direct, focused and lean. I like heroes to be flat representations of power with clear motivations. They can emote, but not to create depth or human authenticity, only to enhance their macho-ness and power. Yes. I have seen Vice Squad. It’s totally fucking awesome. I saw it after I made the first three issues of Night Business. I love it. It’s a perfect film in my opinion. I was unconsciously channeling movies like “Vice Squad” when I was making Night Business. It’s definitely a Night Business-feeling movie.
RP: I detect a few different influences in the artistic style of Night Business. The logo has an 80′s Miami Vice vibe. The black-and-white art is reminiscent of some of the 60s-70s underground comic artists like S. Clay Wilson. I also detect the influence of Raymond Pettibon, who did many of the album covers for Black Flag. What are some of your visual inspirations?
BM: Yeah, there are many influences on how I draw Night Business. First is Jack Kirby. I don’t draw like The King but I copy his page layout techniques and panel grid system. I also try to distribute information sequential the same way he does. As far as the style of the drawings I’m directly influenced by Paul Gulacy and a relatively obscure artist named Marc Laming, who drew a Vertigo series called American Century. The Night Business logo is actually an homage to the logo of my first comic book obsession, Darick Robertson’s Space Beaver. But certainly the underground artists from the 60s and 70s influenced me though more in an unconscious, indirect way. S. Clay Wilson’s work blows my mind but I don’t routinely look at his work. I could say the same for Spain. Raymond Pettibon wasn’t a direct influence on me until recently, though when I look at my past issues I can see a similar approach to how we draw figures, there’s an amateurish feel, a stiffness. I was trying to draw like Pettibon for Night Business, Issue 4. I wanted it to look like Pettibon drew an issue of Night Business, but I don’t think I’ll continue with that approach. Other than those I’m influenced by many artists, some of which are: Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Gary Panter, C.F., Tim Vigil, Leon Sadler, random, anonymous artists for the comic book publisher Avatar, Jason Karns. There are too many to list.
RP: There are 4 issues of Night Business so far. The fourth issue ends a pivotal point in the story; the plot really seems to be cranking up. Do you have the entire arc planned? How many issues will there be?
BM: No. I know how it ends and I have issue five outlined. There will be eight or nine issues. I have to figure out how I get from the end of issue five to the end of issue 8. It will come to me.
RP: I mentioned the early underground comics in a previous question. You are publishing Gangsta Rap Posse and Night Business under your own imprint: Traditional Comics. It seems like what is in the comics is a pure uncensored distillation of your ideas. How important is this kind of independence to your vision of how the comics will turn out? I somehow doubt you could tell these stories in this way if a bigger publisher was involved.
BM: It’s extremely important to me that my vision remain intact, uncensored and uncompromised. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I work in new media design during the day where I make compromises in everything I create. I also do illustration work from time to time where I must deliver what the client wants and has hired me to create. I need a place where I can do whatever I want and that place is in the comics I make. Now that I’ve established my particular vision and voice for storytelling, more publishers have approached me to submit ideas for books. So it’s a likelihood I will find a home for my story ideas without interference. There are safe-haven publishers who support individual creators’ visions. It’s what they bank on selling. They’re usually the smaller ones, not like Marvel/Disney or DC/Time Warner. I would never fit in with one of the big two corporate comic book publishers. I have little respect for their business practices and nearly no respect for the product they put on the shelves. I hear horrific, nightmare scenarios from professional comic book creators with regard to how they’re treated and how their creativity is stifled at corporate comic book publishers. Also, I think of the way they’ve treated many of my heroes, my teachers and Jack Kirby (who is probably solely responsible for why I make comic books) and I could never see my work at a big comic book publisher like those two.
RP: Gangsta Rap Posse is obviously a homage to the early 90s West Coast hip-hop scene in the U.S. It pushes the “gangsta” image of those groups to the absolute extremes but in a funny, satirical way. You really nail the historical details, too. How did you come up with the idea? Do you plan to do more than two issues? The possibilities seem limitless.
BM: My friends and I were at the independent comic convention, SPX, a few years ago and we were up late on Saturday watching the cable TV in the hotel room. VH1 had a “Behind the Music” episode about N.W.A. and I remember musing that it would be cool to do a comic about N.W.A. I’ve been a fan of N.W.A. for years. I love that era of Rap music. There are so many great visuals, attitudes and ideas. It’s really inspiring material. So then we started throwing around names for what it would be called. I like generic names. I settled on Gangsta Rap Posse. Yes, I plan on doing more than two issues. I have the third one outlined in my mind. Just waiting for the right moment to work on it.
RP: Unlike a lot of comics —indie or mainstream— you seem to have a knack for suspenseful story-telling. Every panel in Night Business seems to be advancing the plot. Even the action panels have a kind of forward momentum. Gangsta Rap Posse is more action-oriented and fantastical but you are still moving through a well-defined story arc. What’s your process for designing a comic?
BM: I’m happy you say there’s an element of suspense in my storytelling and the panels are advancing the narrative because I can’t see what the reader sees in my work. I try to make my stories as rich and muscular as possible. I hate seeing weak comics that don’t have any narrative thrust or are lazily paced. I see comics that waste panels or don’t use panels in an efficient way and it drives me nuts. Every panel needs to have a purpose and should contain as much information to advance the story as possible. However there’s a limit. The guideline is each panel shouldn’t contain more than two actions. Panels must have a reason to exist. The story should hinge on every panel. My process for designing a comic varies. It’s always changing and I could go on and on about process. It’s one of my favorite things to think about and talk about. But to put it concisely, I get the idea for a story, usually it takes a while for me to meditate on it, then I do thumbnails of each page, using a classic 6-panel grid. A lot of people are obsessed with creating wacky panel layouts, never repeating the same one twice. I think this approach is a waste of time. The only thing that matters is the narrative information within the panels and sequencing it in the proper order. And a simple page layout is the best delivery system for that narrative information. As I’m doing the page thumbnails, the words start to come to me, so I jot down notes for dialogue. Then I move to the finished page, pencil it very loosely since I do most of my drawing at the inking stage. I basically block out where dominant shapes will fall in the composition. Then I pencil in the words, referring to my notes on the thumbnails. Next, I’ll ink the words and balloons and then draw the comic finally in ink.
RP: Are you working on any new comics at the moment? Are there any other projects that you want to make people aware of?
BM: Yes, right now I’m working on book proposals for some longer form comic book stories. Hopefully I’ll get approval and start on them soon. I’m also working on several short stories for anthologies. I’ve got another issue of a brand new comic from Traditional Comics I’m meditating on. I think I’ll be drawing it next in March. I’m having an art show in Brooklyn next month, February 25th and contributing to an illustration collaboration book, which will probably be out next year some time. New projects are always arriving. I like keeping busy and being productive.