Over the last couple of years Benjamin Marra‘s work has been attracting serious attention throughout the comics world. His crude, ultra-stylised artwork and gutsy, gung-ho approach to story telling have drawn equal parts applause and condemnation in a manner that perfectly mirrors his influences in the VHS-only action movies of the 1980s.
Marra’s delight in the cheap and ghoulishly enjoyable has found its way into all his work, from his continuing 80s-set serial killer thriller Night Business and his hilariously unhinged satire Gangsta Rap Posse through to his quieter and more reflective American Psycho portfolio. His work can be seen as an attempt to reinvigorate the action comic and steer it away from the tired, clichéd posturing of so much mainstream work. In comparison to a Marra release, a mainstream superhero comic (the most prevalent kind of action comic on the racks today) looks glossy, overworked and boring. It’s lacking in vitality. A work like Night Business, however, despite its surface crudity and lack of finesse, practically vibrates with life. Its solid black inks and exaggerated pacing making for a rude, invigorating ride. Marra, along with contemporaries such as Michael Fiffe, who’s Suicide Squad tribute Copra has a similar unbalanced energy, is attaching electrodes to the chest of the action comic and shocking it back into twitching life. I sent him some questions to attempt to pin down where he was coming from and where he may be going next.
aqnb: Let’s start simple. What was it that made you want to draw comics?
Benjamin Marra: That’s not such a simple question. It’s a compulsion. I feel compelled to draw comics. I’m not sure where it comes from. I have always enjoyed drawing and writing stories. I’ve always loved the form of comics. I’ve read them my entire life. From reading and studying, I feel I developed an intuition for the language of comics, the synthesis of pictures and words. Of course, you never stop learning. So I’m constantly tinkering with my methods and re-evaluating my techniques. It’s like making comics is a car that I’m constantly working on, tuning and refining. I think Art Spiegelman called comics a “calling” and I think that might apply to me. I feel compelled to make comics.
aqnb: Have you had much criticism regarding your controversial subject matter?
BM: Sure. I don’t think you can tell stories with controversial subject matter and themes without being criticized or having people disagree with you.
aqnb: American Psycho Portfolio presents a different aspect to your work; more reflective and serious in tone. Is this a direction you can see yourself going down in the future or is it just a one-off?
BM: The American Psycho series was a formal exercise I wanted to try; employing a Raymond Pettibon approach to image making. The response that I normally get is that the drawings are humorous, so it’s interesting you found them reflective and serious. The source material, the Mary Harron movie, American Psycho, is very comedic and ridiculous to me. All the text in the drawings is from the movie and I was trying to capture my essential experience watching the film.
aqnb: Do you listen to music when you work? If so, what are you currently enjoying listening to?
BM: It’s extremely rare if I listen to music while I work. Sometimes if I’m writing I’ll listen to instrumental music or soundtracks. I’m always partial to Goblin’s soundtrack work. Recently, I’ve been listening to HEALTH’s soundtrack for the video game Max Payne 3.
When I’m drawing I usually listen to talk radio, TV shows or movies. I like to have my mind partially distracted by an outside narrative while I work, so I can slip into a zone I work well in. Back in college I used to listen to music while working and I would just listen to the same albums over and over, flipping the tape in the tape deck after each side finished. There are so many choices when it comes to music and I have trouble selecting what to play. I can’t just randomize my collection because I invariably come upon stuff for which I’m not in the mood and it takes me out of my zone.
aqnb: Your style has a deliberate crudity to it. Why is this? Is it an attempt at distancing yourself from more mainstream, streamlined action comics?
BM: I naturally draw in a crude way. It’s just how it comes out. I gave up on precision and desire for elegance in my drawing a long time ago. I just started accepting and celebrating my deficiencies as a draftsman. Also, the crudity is probably the result of trying to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. I do not pencil much when I draw, just basic shapes of the composition. I draw mostly directly with ink. This forces you to be decisive and accept lines you didn’t plan out. That leads to an unrefined aesthetic. But it’s an aesthetic I find more interesting and one that I prefer. In a way, yes, it is to distance myself from slick, refined mainstream aesthetics. I find that look really uninteresting and generic. I much prefer work where the artist relies on emotional investment than formal ability or skill to connect with the viewer.
aqnb: Night Business really riffs on all those VHS action movies from the 80s. What is it about that aesthetic that attracts you?
BM: Everything. Those movies were what was popular when I was growing up. As a kid, I didn’t see them as entertainment, I saw them as reflections of a world I was trying to understand. I didn’t know how they fit into a larger context of popular culture or Hollywood studio filmmaking. I saw them as evidence of what the world was like beyond my comprehension of it to that point. They were reality: all the fear, horror, excitement and answers to the mystery of the world. So they were significant during my attempts in youth to understand the world around me. I also like the way those movies were unapologetic in their over-the-top and bombastic nature. They seem to have such a casual attitude toward their own ridiculousness. But that was the general attitude in the 80s. Excess was everywhere.
aqnb: What’s a typical Ben Marra working day? How much time on average does it take you to complete a comic?
BM: I wake up and go to my full-time job as a designer in new media. I read a lot of prose books on my commute. I love reading. I could read all day. But I’ve been making myself read comics as well. I love reading comics, but my taste has been honed to the edge of a razor and there are very few comics out there I feel are worth reading. I spend most of the day at my job working on all kinds of design requests. I come home and work on my own projects in the evening, which can include working on my own comics, updating websites, pre-press work for comics, freelance illustration, drawing comics for anthologies and fulfilling orders for comics.
aqnb: What projects do you have coming up?
BM: I’m currently working on a graphic novel. I am working on an animation project with an ad agency right now, as well as a short comic book series with a friend. I always have a few commissions, freelance illustration, comic book pin-ups and skateboard designs to work on as well. **