Matt Rebholz is a visual artist and professor currently working on a graphic novel, The Astronomer.
Rebecca Marino: So you don’t actually storyboard your comic at all. In fact, you ink each frame or page after you finish drawing it, as opposed to inking a whole chapter at once when it’s done. Is the majority of the graphic novel written in this kind of stream of consciousness way? Do you know how it’s going to end?
Matt Rebholz: My process constantly changes as I keep working on this book. When I first started on the experimental comic that would become The Astronomer, working reactively without a detailed plan was very attractive to me. I wanted to see what would happen if I let each page dictate what would happen next. I would completely finish each page before moving on to the next one, even to the point of deliberately not thinking more than a page or two ahead. This reactive approach is still very much part of my process, but things are a little more organized these days.
For Chapter IV, which I’m working on now, I’m still experimenting with my process. The whole book has been plotted out for a while, so I know what will happen and when. I rough-out each scene as I go, doing sketches and layouts for all the narrative beats that I want to hit. Then I pencil the whole sequence, which is usually about 10-15 pages, and ink those pages in one batch. I’m waiting until the very end to do all the final dialogue, so I can see what happens if I let the imagery inform the character’s behavior as much as possible. I don’t really know what a character’s feelings or reactions will be until I’ve drawn them, so those drawings end up setting the pace and emotional temperature of the narrative. Sometimes I think of the characters as actors and of myself as a director. I really like what happens when they have enough elbow room to stretch out and surprise me or show me something new about themselves.
RM: Do you use any kind of reference materials when you’re drawing?
MR: Constantly. I have a huge folder on my desktop filled with all manner of reference images. If I’m having a hard time with a figure or a structure or a composition or something, I’ll just go root around in there. I also like to have friends pose or take reference photos of me if I have a specific panel in mind. I have a whole folder somewhere of pictures of me rolling around on the floor in a sleeping bag and pretending to eat a can of beans from when the Astronomer was camping out in the wasteland.
RM: How do you feel about presenting your work in publication versus on the wall versus online?
MR: For me, print is still the ultimate delivery device for comics. Holding a printed book in your hands allows you to explore each two-page spread, bouncing all around that segment of the narrative before you dive in to the meat of each individual panel. Only printed comics allow the reader to expand and contract time, experiencing the narrative simultaneously in the past, present and future; this is an experience that’s very difficult to simulate on a screen. Marshall McLuhan considered comics the “coolest” of all media precisely because of how active and engaged the reader must become. Most online platforms usher a reader from panel to panel in a preprogrammed sequence, sucking the life and subtlety out of the very mechanism that makes comics such a vital medium.
That being said, some of the most exciting and ambitious things being done in comics these days are web-native, like choose your own adventure comics and work that takes advantage of the “endless canvas” of the web. Of course, the Internet also allows me to jam my work right into the eyeballs of countless people that would’ve had no idea about it otherwise. So I guess it’s pretty cool.
RM: We’ve previously discussed our love for tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Can you tell me a little about your character and their background?
MR: Up until right now, I thought you were making fun of me when you said we should play D&D together (I’m totally down, by the way).
In that game, I like playing weirdoes who aren’t very good at their jobs. Right now, I’m in a batshit-crazy campaign dungeon-mastered by indy game design superstar George Royer. My character is a glam-rock bard named Beneluxe the Lesser who was recently involved in a very emotional orgy with an entire community of psychic, colonially intelligent mushroom people.
RM: It actually seems really relevant to your work, as those RPGs require a certain level of creativity and storytelling. When you’re playing, do you ever think, “Oooo, I should include that in this comic”? Does one ever inform the other?
MR: I’ve had a great love for games of all kinds for my entire life, and they have certainly influenced my work in a number of ways. If role-playing games like D&D have directly informed The Astronomer, I think it’s less in terms of character or storytelling and more about their unique and complex approach to world-building.
Games like that tend to be surrounded by densely woven universes cobbled together from history, mythology, pop culture, literature, film, science fiction, heavy metal and a million other sources. It’s an approach I love, and I’ve used it in The Astronomer, building a world out of elements plucked from many different sources, picking and choosing as I progress. The result is a place that’s familiar and alien at the same time. It makes me feel a little disoriented, just like many of the characters who live there.
RM: Mythology is a really consistent theme throughout your work. Can you talk a little bit about where that interest perhaps stems from?
MR: It’s all about crafting a mythic narrative. Encoded in the language of all mythologies are universal symbol systems that resonate on a deeply human level. When characters, events, and environments start to become symbolic, mystical, or cosmic stand-ins for human experiences and emotions, that’s when things get interesting.
The mythologies that exist in my work tend to explore elemental and primal concerns, such as religion and gastrointestinal distress. Themes of consumption, ingestion, digestion, and expulsion appear repeatedly. The characters of The Astronomer are constantly eating, shitting, and vomiting, both literally and symbolically, and often doing it to, on, and at each other. I mean, the entire first chapter takes place inside the body and digestive system of a giant cosmic blood-god.
RM: What are some of your favorite graphic novels?
MR: Some of my all-time faves that I always recommend to people who want to get into comics include Black Hole by Charles Burns, Frank by Jim Woodring, and anything that Moebius had a hand in. Dungeon Quest by Joe Daly is a lot of fun and is totally germane to our D&D discussion. Prophet, because it’s just so beautiful and cool, and there’s a crazy new run of comics that I only buy issues of (rather than waiting for them to be collected in trade paperbacks).
RM: Where can I go buy The Astronomer right now?
Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. She also works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX. Marino has shown her work alongside Rebholz’s in Co-Lab Projects‘ annual Art of The Brew exhibition. She has also served him many beverages at the aforementioned venue.