By Marty Mulrooney
AMO recently reviewed a powerful graphic novel entitled The Listener, explaining how it “offers a unique blend of fact and fiction delivered in an original, unique style.” The Listener actually tells not just one story, but two: the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and the search for meaning in the great art of Europe by a female artist in the present day. The book’s author was recently kind enough to join us to discuss The Listener in further detail and I am therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with David Lester.
Hi David, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO!
Martin, I’m glad to get a chance to talk with you about my graphic novel The Listener.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
I’m a graphic designer, cartoonist, and the guitarist in the rock duo Mecca Normal. We have released 13 albums on labels including K Records, Matador and Kill Rock Stars. As a graphic designer I created the poster series “Inspired Agitators,” now archived at The Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, and I designed the t-shirt “Actually, I like crap.” I do a weekly illustration, with text by my Mecca Normal bandmate Jean Smith, for Magnet Magazine. I live in Vancouver, Canada.
Your new book, The Listener, was recently released. What is the book about?
The Listener has two main story threads. One is the true story of the last democratic election to take place in Germany (Lippe) before Hitler seized power. And the other is a fictional story of an artist who makes a piece of art that inspires political action that ends in tragedy. The connection between the two stories is art and politics. Aesthetics were an important part of Nazi ideology, while in my fictional story, the artist believes the blending of art with politics is a valuable part of progressive social change.
Is The Listener your first book?
My first book is called The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism, also from the same publisher, Arbeiter Ring in Winnipeg. It’s a book of statistics that are, on their own, disconnected facts and figures. I made some rather abstract associations and calculations to give readers an emotional impression of poverty, capitalist greed and the violation of human rights. For example: a child dies of hunger every seven seconds, meanwhile there are 400,000 liposuction operations every year in the USA.
Where did the idea for The Listener come from?
I got the idea for The Listener after stumbling on a brief account of the Lippe election in a history book about Hitler. After more research, I realised the story of the Lippe election had never been fully explored in English. I thought it would make an incredibly exciting project to bring to life as a graphic novel. This led to my first draft.
The story uses real life quotes and events from history. How much research was involved?
I researched, wrote and illustrated the novel over a period of seven years. Of course during that time, Mecca Normal wrote, recorded and toured an album called The Observer and we gave lectures and had art exhibits.
Was there anything found during your research that didn’t make it into the final book?
If anything, I had too much information and I had to cut out quotes and details that didn’t have a place in the story. At that time, the inability of political parties to work together, particularly the Communist Party and the Socialists, contributed heavily to Hitler seizing power. Those relationships would require entire books to describe. And I had a lot of scary quotes from other Nazi party officials that didn’t make it into the book.
How was the artwork’s unique style achieved?
The drawings are a combination of pencil, pen, watercolour and acrylics. For some of the images I ripped or cut the drawings and reassembled them to achieve a sense of movement.
Were you inspired by any visual elements from other people’s work?
The Listener is influenced by film techniques such as German expressionism and film noir, and the work of Hitchcock and Orson Welles. I also took great inspiration from paintings and drawings by Jean Smith, my partner in Mecca Normal. I admire her fluidity and I applied that to my work for this book.
How would you describe the protagonist of the book? What is she looking for?
Louise is searching for reasons to continue making art; she isn’t at her most confident and her attitude and body language tend to reflect that. She is a complex character. She’s a bit pretentious, very talented and intelligent, but not always likeable. She isn’t another souped-up, unrealistic version of a woman. I drew her without exaggerated features or smoothed out imperfections. I’m challenging how women tend to be portrayed in the overwhelming majority of mainstream media including advertising, movies, and graphic novels.
I wanted Louise to resonate with readers as a realistic character, like someone they might know. She’s not there to say being a political artist is easy so get on with it. I’ve shown her in times of quandary and distress, how individuals might in fact respond to being wrongly blamed for something. She is, by nature, introverted and she is searching within the history of Europe for reasons to return to her art-making, which, like most artists, is conducted in solitude.
There is something symbolic about showing a female character realistically operating within a story about spin-doctoring and manipulation. Women have obviously been consistently misrepresented within the media since there was media to misrepresent them with. Louise is a kind of metaphor for truth against the backdrop of Hitler’s lies and manipulation in general.
I mentioned in my review that “The one aspect of The Listener that initially puzzled me was the dialogue spoken during Louise’s modern day travels, which is always written as if coming from the mouth of a highbrow intellectual regardless of the speaker.” I soon came to interpret that this was how Louise – as an artist – perceives the world around her. Was this what you were trying to achieve?
Exactly. I wanted Louise to reflect the reality of how many creative people speak. They do in fact quote other artists. They do in fact struggle with concepts and try to articulate them, often awkwardly.
Art plays a huge part in The Listener. Do you think it is still as important in politics nowadays as it was for Hitler in the 1930’s?
Art has a long history in progressive social change. We saw the significance of songs, posters, and street art during the recent uprising in Egypt. In Israel, Palestinian graffiti artists have led the fight against the “wall” with their bold and defiant art. In the U.S., several books of collected political graphics have been put out by Josh McPhee of Justseeds, and Jean Smith and I are slowly working on The Black Dot Museum of Political Art as a viable way to exhibit art by cultural activists.
Could The Listener have been told via any other medium? The graphic novel approach seemed essential to the overall narrative…
I’ve primarily been a visual artist and a musician, but I am also very influenced by film, I’ve studied film. While I was writing The Listener, I was thinking that it would also be a great film, perhaps with some animated segments. Regardless, it’s an important story, but at its core, it’s a small story. Three people are facing the past and the future, assessing their actions in terms of regret.
One important theme from The Listener is that clearly, how we act as individuals really matters. And that is something Jean and I have been saying for years in interviews, with Mecca Normal and in our classroom presentation How Art and Music Can Change the World. Even though I don’t speak during Mecca Normal performances, Jean and I have always had amazing conversations about events in the world over our 25 year history and we have always sought out interview situations, not essentially to talk about our band and the new record, but to make an opportunity to try and inspire people towards creative self-expression that intends to create progressive social change. Creating the lecture brings that interview content into our presentation.
Would you like to create further graphic novels in the future?
I have ideas for other graphic novels. I’d like to utilise what I’ve learned about creating the structure of the book and the story, but as with any big project, you have to balance how it fits into other parts of life. Because I used my wife as the model for Louise, she was involved in the project in that way. Drawing her was a good balance to doing all those drawings of Hitler.
What is next for you David?
I have two other book projects in mind. One is a book about political art in general and the other is a collection of my poster series “Inspired Agitators” which was the inspiration for the lecture that Jean and I have been presenting. Ideally Jean’s third novel will be published and the focus of how we tour next will be decided by what comes out next. A book, a CD or another art exhibit.
We recently did a tour in Canada to support The Listener and Jean created an adaptation that included Mecca Normal. We had a power point presentation and Jean cleverly brought the two female characters to life and she coached me into being Rudolf. So Louise arrived to talk about her role in the story and then Marie dropped by to talk about regretting that she and Rudolf had not taken action to stop Hitler, and Rudolf chimes in about how important history is. Hitler also makes an appearance.
After we do all that, Mecca Normal plays some songs that correlate to that material. We have a song called Malachi (K Records, 2010) about a political activist whose life ended tragically. Jean introduces that song, making that connection, and we also use Mecca Normal’s history as an example of what the book brings up in terms of cultural activism and political art. Mecca Normal is preparing to record and no doubt, the work we’ve been doing recently, art and activism, will make its way into the remaining songs to be written. It seems there are usually common threads through the work we create together and independently.
Thank you for your time!
You’re welcome and thank you for your interest in The Listener.