The stories in Koren Shadmi’s new book, In the Flesh, are classic art comics. Moody, thoughtful and rich in emotion and nuance, his comics combine gripping, surreal imagery with narrative scenarios that chronicle the vivid, alluring power of sex, the frustration and comedy of quirky relationships and the pain and distraction of separation and loss. Shadmi has published a number of comics works in Europe while working principally as an illustrator. His illustration work has appeared in the Village Voice, The New York Times, Spin, Businessweek and other magazines. In The Flesh will be published this month by Del Rey and is his first book for a U.S. publisher. PWCW talked with Shadmi about his background in comics, the stories in his new book and the nature of his approach to comics storytelling.
PW Comics Week: This is your first book in the U.S. Can you tell us about your background in Israel.
KS: I’ve been in the U.S. six years. I came to study at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I came to the U.S. right after finishing up my service in the Israeli Army. I was a graphic designer in Israel and in the army I worked for the Educational Force, a unit that kind of created educational materials. It was kind of silly. They discovered that I could do caricatures and they had me do portraits of officers who were leaving the service. I did some comics, but mostly derivative stuff, lighthearted stuff for the army magazine.
PWCW: Were you involved in the Israeli comics scene?
KS: I was involved in the Israeli comics scene to some extent. When I was really young I published a book, Profile 107. I drew it and the writer was a famous Israeli cartoonist, Uri Fink. I also contributed to an underground comics magazine called Perversions of Penguins. A couple of stories when I was young. I met [cartoonist] Ruto Modan at the first Israeli comics convention in 1997. I love her work but I have never been involved with [the Israeli comics collective] Actus. I couldn’t really work on comics with anyone else while I was in the army. I spent 3 years in the army, its mandatory, but I was able to make some comics just for myself.
PWCW: Your stories seem to revolve around surreal and striking visual depictions: a headless woman in one story, “Antoinette”, carries her missing head around in her arms; in “A Date,” the characters wear paper bags over their heads.
KS: It’s hard to explain. I’m inspired by surreal movies and art. Surreal imagery is a powerful tool to tell a story and bring a message forward. It lends itself well to sexuality and psychology and the subconscious, which I like to deal with. You can do more with a decapitated head in comics than you could in a movie. It’s very easy. I don’t need special effects, I can just draw it.
PWCW: While your stories seem to focus on love and on relationships, love in these stories is often synonymous with frustration, death and pain.
KS: Yes, I’m into looking at the extent someone will go to when they are in love. It can be very destructive. It’s a cliché, being heartbroken. But I’m approaching the psychology behind it and the testing the extremes. Love can be deathlike when it ends. When you lose someone you love, there’s immense pain, it’s like the person is dead to you and it can be very strange.
PWCW: There’s a visceral quality to many of your stories, both the narrative as well as the visual depictions. The woman in “Radioactive Girlfriend,” gives off an eerie irradiated glow and is also slowly poisoning her boyfriend; and a story like the aptly named “Cruelty,” can make you wince.
KS: The books and movies that I like really hit you in the gut. My agent [Bob Mecoy] told me once that all my stories seem to deal with the body. One character’s head is detached from her body or in “Radioactive Girlfriend” there’s a transformation and the girl’s admirer begins to waste away by simply being around her. I am obsessed with physical change and its relation to psychological states.
PWCW: The story “Cruelty” is particularly disturbing. It’s vividly illustrated with a kind of multiple track narration. It takes place in an artist’s loft and you use the giant windows that frame the space as panels to depict a woman telling a horrific story of cruelty that she observed as a child; while a male figure acts out in the rest of the space.
KS: The story deals with memory. Comics are really frames so I used a kind of window frame to tell a story that happened in the past. The girl is telling a story about herself as a child back in the day, telling this story to the guy, this artist, while she lies in the bed and while this guy is obsessing over her. The main idea is that someone can dominate you until you’re completely incapacitated. Kids are kind of cruel and uninhibited, animalistic and barbaric.
PWCW: In “Radioactive Girlfriend” the girl is comically exposed to a radioactive bomb blast when she oversleeps. While the radiation seems to make her stronger, more sensuous and more athletic, she also becomes eerily toxic to the guy who loves her. It’s a clever story, a kind of art comics satire on the legacy of how radioactivity is used in popular culture—people exposed to radiation either become superheroes or monsters.
KS: A lot of alternative comics creators grew up reading superhero comics, even in Israel where there weren’t so many comics. Radiation is a fascinating staple in the comic book world, a world where these kinds of clichés work. In “Radioactive Girlfriend” I flip the story around so it deals with real things. It’s like a 1950s sci-fi story with the A-Bomb going off. I don’t read superhero comics anymore but there’s something there that never leaves you. Superhero comics are exciting. I know that even a cartoonist like Dan Clowes likes to refer to them in his work. It’s such a large part of comics culture that it’s nice to wink at it when you can.
PWCW: In the story, “Fun Lawn,” a character on a children’s TV show, who wears a big puppy costume, is propositioned by a woman to wear the costume while they have sex. It’s satirical and funny and seems to turn the tables on sexual exploitation.
KS: I’m interested in humiliation as a topic. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said put your characters through Hell, don’t be nice to them. So in this story a guy who doesn’t really have much of a life meets this girl who only wants to use him to create some kind of YouTube video that’ll make her famous. There’s always something sad about sex—you end up naked and vulnerable—and its one of the best ways to explore humiliation and what’s behind it.
PWCW: You’ve been living in the U.S. here in New York for a while. Do you consider yourself a part of the Brooklyn and U.S. comics scene?
KS: Sort of. This is my first book here in the U.S. I’ve been more a part of the illustration world. I’ve published a few stories but now I’m just waiting to see what happens with this new book.
PWCW: Which artists do you like?
KS: I like all the main people, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, Dave Cooper, the French guy. Sfar is pretty great. I like Nicolas de Crécy and Blutch, he’s great.
PWCW: In the story, “Grandpa Minolta,” you have the surreal image of an elderly man with a camera for a head and you outline an ambiguous relationship with his young granddaughter. It seems to relate a vague and troubling tale of sexual inappropriateness. What were you trying to do in this story?
KS: It’s not so much what I’m trying to do so much as what comes out. I’m interested in voyeurism and I like to get a reaction from the reader. Sometimes you have to go to a taboo place. The main character in the story is a grandfather who was taking photos of his young granddaughter. But along the way his head has been replaced by a camera, a machine. But maybe this is just the young girl’s memory, which has turned his attention to her into the image of a camera. That’s what’s so great about surrealism. It’s open to interpretation.
PWCW: How long did you it take you to complete the stories in this book?
KS: It’s about 2 years of work. It all came together slowly while I was working on illustration projects. When I had free time or a story that I really needed to tell, I would work on them. I wasn’t trying to create a book. I just kept making stories and at the end we saw that a lot of them were relationship stories.
PWCW: How did your stories come to the attention of Del Rey editor Tricia Narwani?
KS: I met Tricia at SPX [the annual Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md.] a year a half ago. She had seen some of my work somewhere else and recognized it and we talked a bit. I told her I had published some books in France and she reads French. So I sent her one of my books and she liked it.