Aggressively Alien | Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan on their new graphic novel “Anasazi”

How do you communicate when you don’t even speak the same language? It’s a conundrum that’s caused tension, strife, and even war throughout the history of humankind, and one that’s at the heart of Anasazi, a new graphic novel from St. Louis-based creators Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan.

The duo’s last major work, the Kickstarter-funded graphic novel The Book of Da, featured frequent extended silent passages. But Anasazi takes this approach to the extreme: the book is “nearly wordless,” with a few thematically appropriate words defined via pictogram and those pictograms forming the entirety of the story’s dialogue. Growing out of an initial short story concept from artist Bryan, writer McCubbins expanded the story to explore generations of war between two alien cultures based on misunderstandings and engrained misplaced hatreds.

The pair is currently raising funds to publish the book via a Kickstarter campaign; the book is already funded, though the campaign remains active through August 31st. Those hesitant to back Kickstarters needn’t worry: McCubbins and Bryan have run two previous successfully fulfilled Kickstarters (one for the previously mentioned The Book of Da, the other for a quarterly anthology called Floating Head that serialized parts of Anasazi alongside a variety of other sci-fi short stories by local creators, each printed in its own unique format), and the artwork for Anasazi itself is nearly complete. The pair, who have been friends and collaborators attending high school together in Potosi, Mo., have also released a myriad of other comics over the years, including Bryan overseeing the Mixed Feelings anthology series from local St. Louis comics group The Urchin Collective as well as his frequent contributions to the anthologies of St. Louis-based comics collective Ink & Drink Comics (where, full disclosure, I’ve edited some of Bryan’s work). The pair’s work on The Book of Da particularly turned heads, winning Bryan a 2013 MasterMind Award from the Riverfront Times.

The Arts STL caught up with McCubbins and Bryan on the eve of the end of Anasazi’s Kickstarter campaign to find out more about the book’s creative process.

The Arts STL:You say in your Kickstarter that the concept for Anasazi grew out of a short story concept Matt had created. What was the process like of fleshing it out to graphic novel length? How collaborative was it?

Mike McCubbins: Matt’s short story was a kind of solid, concise, self-contained thing. It was still in the “treatment” stage, but it clearly had its own arc. It felt like a jumping off point, so I didn’t want to change it much at all. Instead we decided Matt’s short is the beginning of the longer story. Once we had decided this, we got together to talk about what the characters look like, what the world looks like, etc. There was a whole lot of back and forth trying to figure out the look of the thing.

Matt Bryan: I was thinking about the look in a very naturalistic way and Mike saw it more abstractly. I said at one point that I was picturing Dark Horse while he was picturing Fantagraphics. Where we ended up was something in between where the world has a functional feel but keeps it simplified. Mike’s colors help to push it toward abstract and also give it a primitive feel.

Mike: Matt’s story became chapters 1 and 2 and I wrote the remaining story chapter by chapter, sharing each chapter with Matt and getting his feedback along the way. This part was mostly me, but I would still call it a collaboration, Matt’s feedback and new ideas during this stage were pretty important. Since I had given myself the task of using actual non-English words and translations for each chapter, a lot of this was looking for words that fit, that had interesting associations, and that helped move the story forward. The words themselves had an effect on where the story went.

A comic book artist typically has two elements of script to go off of when creating the artwork: the panel descriptions and the dialogue. But in Anasazi, the dialogue is all simple pictograms. How did that change affect your communication as writer and artist? Was there more or less detailed discussion required before pencil hit page due to the lack of traditional dialogue to convey emotions?

Mike: In our case, the script didn’t include panel descriptions because we always storyboard together. I would always put in the script, however, when a character would be using one of the words. Where and how it fell on the page was done together as we figured out how the action fit into our panel grid. We sort of consider each other “writer” and “illustrator” but we don’t take those designations too seriously, our process is excessively collaborative!

Matt: Excessively and incessantly!

In an age where more and more comics are using digital delivery methods, I love that you guys focus on your comics as physical objects whose format supports the story being delivered, whether it’s Book of Da with its sturdy hardcover and gold inlay or the sprawling blend of sizes and formats in Floating Head. What is reading the physical Anasazi book going to feel like, and why is this the right format for this story?

Mike: My hope is that at first blush it feels somewhat aggressively alien. We’re not putting the title on the cover, and we’ll be downplaying it in the book itself. Maximum intrigue and minimum hand-holding is the idea. The panel layout is somewhat experimental and sort of dovetails with some of the things that happen in the book. The book is largely about the barrier to communication between cultures, so hopefully the presentation reflects that.  I like how you said it: “physical objects whose format supports the story.” That couldn’t be any more true. We would certainly rather it feel more like an artifact than a product. This one will be buckram cloth covered, which is the standard with old-school library binding. I want it to have the allure of something discovered or unearthed, but also have a kind of rustic “civicness” to it.

Tell us a bit about your Kickstarter video. I loved how it basically transformed a comic without words into a movie without dialogue, while giving just enough visible words to get across the atmosphere of the comic in a brief period of time.

Mike: Thanks! First things first, we knew we didn’t actually want to be in the video ourselves so that was priority number one! When serializing the comic in the pages of Floating Head Quarterly, sometimes we needed to come up with extras to make the page count work. The bones of the video came from one of these extras or “cheats” we call them where we build the name of the main character out of the basics of one of the languages. That name “Ebere” means “show mercy.” I had actually planned in the video to show how it becomes a name and how you can break down that name into its parts, and how this character who’s name means mercy actually has the word “enemy” built into their name. How that affects the character is a big part of the story. I realized, however, that having all of that in there would be a bit pedantic for the first taste, so I focused more on just showing some of the art and design in a way that felt true to the presentation of the book, and the central premise of learning to live in a culture with such a violent legacy.

Matt: Mike made the video!

This graphic novel was five years in the making. How do you keep your focus over that kind of length of time?

Matt: For me, it’s a slow build after the initial excitement and the honeymoon is long since over! Really, though, a lot of life happened to both of us over that span, and there were stretches of great productivity and periods of basically nothing getting done. For some reason, I never thought that it wouldn’t get finished, though. I just put it on simmer and worked on it simultaneously with other, smaller projects.

Mike: Floating Head. Among other things, creating Floating Head Quarterly was a way to stay working toward a deadline, to keep our feet in the tabling scene, and to work out actually printing pages from the book. I don’t know if Matt agrees, but I wonder if we would have actually come through without building our own carrot and stick type situation.

Matt: I think we would have gotten it done, but having that new angle to work with definitely helped it from becoming too tedious.

Any plans for what’s next?

Matt: I have a few ideas kicking around, as is normal, but no plans to get into something this involved anytime soon. Whatever is next will probably be more loose in all aspects. I expect in the not too distant future something will come up that gets us back into another graphic novel together.

Mike: Same. This is sort of only part-way into the cycle of making a book, now we gotta try and take it out into the world. As for the next big thing, I refuse to even consider it! Probably smaller stakes projects we’ll run through the Floating Head site. Something is bound to grab hold of us eventually. | Jason Green

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