Interview with Nicolas Mahler
By LJ Douresseau
May 16, 2004 - 10:40
May sees the release of VAN HELSING'S NIGHT OFF, cartoonist and book illustrator Nicolas Mahler's first foray into American comics, although his work has been available in Canada for some time. Mahler is a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers in his home country of Austria, as well as in Switzerland and Germany. He also contributes to comix anthologies in France and Canada, among other countries.
He participated in the adaptation of his comic FLASHKO into a series of animated shorts that appear at film festivals (although the shorts have been shown in Canada, they haven't been shown in the U.S.), and a Swiss troupe turned his comic KRATOCHVIL into a puppet play. In addition to Van Helsing, Mahler's other appearance in American comics is in the Top Shelf anthology TOP SHELF: ASKS THE BIG QUESTIONS. I interviewed Mahler a few weeks ago and that becomes Mr. Charlie #30:
What kind of work are you including in Van Helsing's Night Off. Is it all previously published or will there be new material?
NM: Most of the stories in Van Helsing have been previously published in LAPIN, the anthology from French publisher L`ASSOCIATION. Since my French is so bad, and the anthology at that time was published every 2 months, it was easier to just do non-verbal pages, so it didn't have to involve translation work.
How did Top Shelf become the publisher for this book?
NM: Brett Warnock has seen this pages in LAPIN, and seemed to enjoy those mute stories. Actually it was him who got me to the idea of doing a book with them. At that time, I didn't have enough material, but liked the idea of a whole book of such stories. So I drew some more, and now it's a book.
If what I've read is correct, most of your work has been published in Europe and Canada. Is Van Helsing's Night Off an effort on your part to crack the United States book market?
NM: I don't really think in "market" terms, because I have no idea what the market wants. If you look at my books, they are very anti-market. There is no action, or big-titty women, or color, or even skillful drawing. It is not even "artsy," so it could attract that special kind of public [audience].
My work is certainly not the stuff bestsellers are made of, but rather what I myself would like to read. Of course the foreign editions are important to me, because in Austria, where I come from, there is absolutely no market for books like mine. The booksellers hate them, and are glad if the 5 copies they got by incident are gone, so they don't have to bother with them no more. Of course, with each book I hope that it really sells well, but it hasn't happen so far. Maybe it needs a little time for my style of drawing to "sink in."
As I said the main problems are the booksellers and distribution people (at least in Austria), because they just don't get it that someone would actually be interested in these kinds of books. I really hope that's different in the States, because in bookshops that give the books an OK place, they sell quite good. The problem is to get the books there...
I may have misunderstood you, but when you say that "There are no publishers, no bookshops, and no magazines," I take that to mean that Austria doesn't have any kind of comics publishing business. If that's correct, has Austria always lacked a "comics industry?" As for as you can tell what's the interest of Austrians in comics and cartoons?
NM: In Austria you can find a handful of one-panel cartoonists, but no one who works in sequences of pictures.
There even is a "Karikaturmuseum" in Austria, devoted to cartoon artists. It is sometimes referred to as a "Comics Museum" also, but it is not exhibiting comics. There is no difference made between cartoon and comic, even people who make comic-exhibitions in Austria have no real idea what's the definition of comics, and they don't care.
In the "art" scene, comics are regarded as some "cool, trashy" thing, that will get some interest, but sadly most people there do not understand that the essence of comics is telling stories, not just to do some flashy pictures. For them, a badly painted picture of some "riot-girl" is a progressive comic.
Of the Austrian booksellers who do carry graphic novels or any kind of comics, what kind of comics are they interested in selling?
NM: They usually sell, what is published by the 2 or 3 of the bigger German publishing houses, which is mostly fantasy and such, plus some of the international favorites of course, like PEANUTS, or other strip series. But mostly, comics are sold in comic-shops only, not regular booksellers. In bookshops, you can find a "humor" section, where you can find some comic books, also American ones. Very few bookshops have a section for comics, and you wouldn't find my books there, for instance.
How would you describe the kind of comics that you do, both in terms of story and drawing style?
NM: Some say minimalist, but I would rather describe it as efficient. I always wanted to get ideas fast, and have a style of drawing that would get that idea onto paper in a direct and also quick way. It took years until I am at this point now. I just ignore everything that is not really necessary for telling a story, and hate everything that is made just to look skillful.
Would you mind sharing a little biographical information with readers?
NM: I was born in 1969 in Vienna, Austria, and I'm still living there. For doing comics, it is one of the worst places to be. There are no publishers, no bookshops, no magazines.
On the other there is nobody who could take away a job from you!
I started cartooning quite early, I had a daily newspaper strip at age 19. Since then, I didn't stop. Since there is absolutely nothing in Austria, I looked for foreign publishers, and since L`ASSOCIATION published some of my books, it is going pretty well in France and Canada. I also write and illustrate picture books, and did an animated movie based on one of my characters, FLASCHKO.
When were you first exposed to comic strips, cartoons, and comic books? What were your favorites?
NM: I read the usual mix of funnies and superheroes as a child, and then discovered KRAZY KAT, and some other older newspaper strips. These are my main influences I think. I never cared much for longer stories, but was more interested in these classic strips, that got things down to the point. And I preferred, and still do, humorous strips.
Were there cartoonists whom you admired, people you tried to emulate and copy?
NM: Of course [George] Herriman, [Windsor] McCay, [Lyonel] Feininger, people like that. The usual suspects! I think the Herriman influence shows in some of my stories...
From the contemporary artists, some from L`ASSOCIATION also were an inspiration. I like KAZ also. Other than that, I was influenced by a lot of "outsider art" (like everybody seems to be now).
When did you decide that you were going to be a cartoonist or was it more of a gradual thing? Did you start to train and educate yourself towards drawing cartoons?
NM: It was a gradual thing. I didn't know what to do, and then started earning money from drawing. Why should I have stopped then? So I decided to continue. I didn't go to art school, they rejected me. I am glad about this now, and I am doing OK now as an amateur.
Could the picture books that you write and illustrate be considered children's books? How many have you done, and what are the subjects of these picture books? Are they well received and well reviewed? Have any been sold in the U.S.?
NM: I did one book that was labeled suitable from the age of 4' it could be considered a real children's book. It is called MADAME NENETTE ET SES DROLES DES CHEVEUX. The publisher, ed. du rouergue, is known in France as rather "avant-garde," so I suspect that a lot of adults with interest in graphic arts buy the book as well. But essentially it is a children's book.
The other one I have done, LES SOUFFRANCES DU JEUNE FRANKENSTEIN, is labeled "all audiences," but it is a picture book rather for adults. The next one, coming out in November, is a book for about 10 year-olds, but again, for grown-ups, too. For me those books are not too far away from the comics stories. I do not try to make the stories more "suitable for children;" well, just a little bit maybe.
None of them have been sold in the U.S. I think, because French is not a popular language there, I heard. The books got great reviews in the French press, like in LIBERATION [a daily French national newspaper published out of Paris], but even in France it is hard to sell a picture book aimed at adults. It is still regarded as kid's stuff. But at least you can find a niche for things like that in France, even if it is not a bestseller. You don't do a picture book for adults to have a bestseller anyhow.
Besides this interview, are you planning on interacting with the American comics press, both print and web? I wondered if you spoke much to the media because I had a difficult time finding out much about you even after I did a Google search of your name.
NM: Since I am quite far away from the American press, I can only react if someone shows interest. When you are doing comics in Austria, you get used to the fact that there is very little interest in books like mine, so I hope that's different with the American press. I'm open to the hype.
Was your animated movie released to theatres in Europe or is it shown at festivals? What is the running time of the film? Did you direct the film, and how long did it take you to produce it?
NM: It was a series of 90-second films, mostly made to play alongside big movies in Austrian cinemas, like GHOST WORLD and ABOUT SCHMIDT, so we filmed in 35mm. It was my first film, and it took quite a while to make, though you wouldn't believe it when you see the films. They are very minimalist. The films were very well received, and played in the official selection at the Annecy animation festival, and got invited to over 30 other international festivals.
Who were the "outsider" artists who influenced you? Are there particular kinds or examples of outsider art that you admire?
NM: There are some very influential Austrian outsider artists, like Oswald Tschirtner for instance. He even had some exhibitions in the U.S. I think, and you should find some books about him.
In outsider art, I like the fact that the works of course don't "show off." I really detest artists, books, movies that are meant to "show off," show how good the artist can do this and that. The main [goal] for most artists is to impress, to show how good they are. That's why I absolutely lack respect for artists in general. There is nothing noble about doing art. In outsider art, I like the fact that the works are honest and direct.
Did you and Brent talk about how difficult it can be to sell non-super hero comics to American comic book stores? I know that you don't like to think in terms of markets, but getting into American comic bookstores can difficult, although general American booksellers are more open to art, humor, and children's comics.
NM: I have no idea how American booksellers react to this kind of book, but I can imagine it to be a hard sell for the comic-book market. Brett didn't have a problem with the fact that it's a non-superhero book. I guess he is used to the fact; the other books Top Shelf [publishes] are not really the usual comic-shop material either...
The book fits better into a regular bookshop too, I think. Maybe Van Helsing's theme might be helpful, with the big movie coming up. I am sure the book is better!
THANK YOU, NICOLAS. If you're interested in Nicolas' French and Canadian published titles, you can buy them from legendary comics publisher and also import graphic novel seller, Last Gasp through www.lastgasp.com, where according to Nicolas he is listed as a Swiss, German, and Austrian artist. Nicolas also says that the best place for his picture (or children's) books is Amazon.com France at www.amazon.fr. Mahler also has a website, Mahler Museum; the site, www.mahlermuseum.at, is in French and German.
Van Helsing's Night Off is, of course, available from Top Shelf, as is Top Shelf: Asks the Big Questions. If your favorite comic shop won't carry Mahler's new comix, you can go to www.topshelfcomix.com and buy his book, one among many, many excellent titles.
And if you are a comics creator or publisher and you want to send me material for review consideration or you just want to talk about your book in a Charlie column, punch the click-able name link to send me an email. Holla!