Nate Neal‘s first graphic novel, The Sanctuary, is a considerably quirky work on multiple levels. It’s a silent graphic novel, it sports an introduction by Dave Sim, and as I found out in this interview, Neal initially wanted the book to have an wordless title. Publisher Fantagraphics describes the book as exploring “the primal mysteries and sordid inner workings of a Paleolithic cave-dwelling tribe, creating an original ‘silent’ reading experience by using symbols instead of words.” The publisher offers folks a 15-page preview in order for consumers to get a small taste of the story. Neal also offers some unique marketing videos as well as other samples at his blog.
Tim O’Shea: Whether one agrees with him or not, Dave Sim typically elicits a strong reaction whatever he does these days. With that in mind, I am curious what motivated you to have him write the intro to Sanctuary?
Nate Neal: Gary Groth (publisher of Fantagraphics Books) and I were trying to come up with someone to write an introduction to kind of ease people into the comic–to explain to the reader that they were in for something different and to prepare themselves. Gary suggested a journalist who writes for The Comics Journal. I mentioned that I knew Dave Sim and thought he might write an intro for the book. Gary perked up. He seemed interested by this, even though he and Dave are kind of nemeses–he told me to give it a shot. He warned me that Dave was making people sign a “Sim is not a misogynist” petition before he’d talk to anyone. I first met Dave in 2005 at a comic con in Ohio. At that time, a couple other artists and myself had been self-publishing a comic book anthology called Hoax. Dave was a big supporter of Hoax–although I think he kind of disinterestedly loathed most of my artwork in that anthology–the style of the art, the ideology behind it, everything! Although when he thought something had merit, he’d tell you. He would write little reviews of Hoax and send them to us. Very detailed, scathing reviews. He butchered a comic I did for Hoax #4. It just destroyed me. Embarrassed the hell out of me because I knew he was right. Later after I got a Xeric grant and printed the first half of The Sanctuary as pamphlet comic books, Dave wrote me a letter telling me he thought it was great. He basically told me I was going in the right direction. So he kind of broke me down and built me up again. His work had astounded me since I first read Minds. Even though he’s been railroaded out of the alt. comics canon (along with other modern greats like David Lapham), he’s still one of the greatest cartoonists alive–a visionary. Of course I’d want him to write an introduction to my book. I’m not an apologist for Dave, but I’ve read every Cerebus book in detail and I believe that he doesn’t hate women. Sometimes I think what he really is is a Confucianist!
O’Shea: Advance marketing on the book describes it as: “An original, wordless graphic novel debut.” I would challenge the use of “wordless”, given that there are a form of words, albeit employing a phonetic language you yourself developed. Why did you choose to go that route in terms of dialogue (or lack thereof)–and how long did it take you to get a grasp of the language you wanted to deploy for the story.
Neal: Even in the conceptual stage, I knew The Sanctuary didn’t need any words to get the story across. With a made up language the words would take on a symbolic stance that they otherwise wouldn’t have. That helps get across one of the important ideas of the book: how things get fucked up when a society thinks too symbolically. Or at least thinks too symbolically without being aware that that’s what they’re doing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the world we live in now! The book uses symbols to convey a somewhat anti-symbolic sentiment. Kind of like how anti-war films are violent and bloody. The language in the book is not that complicated. I’m sure if somebody had a lot of time to waste, they could figure it all out. I put the language together with the idea that I would just use 200 or so words with some simple conjugations. I lived in Mexico for awhile and my method for speaking Spanish was like that. I knew 200 or so important words and some conjugations and I could function on a rudimentary basis. However, I couldn’t have a conversation about socialism or abortion or anything that complicated. That’s probably the level those early people were on. They weren’t verbal philosophers. Don’t get me wrong, I think that they were more complex people than we are generally. More complex and more capable. But who the hell really knows? Nobody, that’s who.
O’Shea: Speaking again of marketing, I found it interesting that you developed two promotional videos for the book that were quite comedic in nature. I enjoyed them both (and would love to know if you really got in trouble for the drawing you did in video 1), but am curious why you went for a comedic tone for a book that’s fairly serious?
Neal: Well, I kind of see the videos working like some of the trailers Alfred Hitchcock would make for his movies. He did one for Psycho–a very serious movie–and Hitchcock himself actually appears in the trailer, talking about the movie and he’s joking around, being very silly about the whole thing. Humor to me is a better way to draw people into something. Seriousness can scare people away. I like the idea of drawing people in with a playful kind of manner and when they get where you want them, you kind of clobber them. I think it’s fun to have that done to you as a viewer/reader. Although, The Sanctuary is a serious book, it’s got plenty of purposely silly, ridiculous moments. The book is kind of like a person–it’s got many levels to it. Some of my favorite people are dead serious about life, but playful and silly with their behavior much of the time. And yeah, we had to shoot that first video on the run as not to get arrested!
O’Shea: In a book like this where the characters do not have a voice for you (as the creator) to find in the traditional sense, how challenging was it for you to get a grasp of the characters?
Neal: Without words, you can really get to the core of who people are–or at least their true intentions. If you’re watching two people have a conversation on the street and they’re speaking Chinese and you don’t understand Chinese, sometimes you can intuitively figure things out about those people–who they are to each other and what they want–things that you otherwise wouldn’t realize if you knew the language, because the language isn’t getting in the way. Speech can be a cover-up for what people are really feeling and thinking. So no, it wasn’t challenging getting a grip on the characters. It was natural. Maybe more natural than if I used words. But a strange thing happened halfway through making the book. I realized some of the characters were, in a vague way, somehow people from my life. An old teacher or girlfriend or relatives. Not only that, but everything about me and who I am is in the book somehow. I can’t put my finger on it all exactly, but it seems to be the story of my life in a way.
O’Shea: How long have you been experimenting with “pantomime storytelling” and how would you define it?
Neal: But essentially the story is told in pantomime.
It is pantomime basically. I was always drawn to that kind of stuff in comic books. Like the Jim Woodring Frank comic books or Milt Gross‘ stuff. Those really spoke to me, without using words. And since I was a kid, Sergio Aragones‘ Mad Magazine cartoons affected me strongly too. He didn’t use words to tell his stories either. Before and during working on The Sanctuary, I was actually working for Mad Magazine, coming up with ideas for pantomime comic strips for their kids mag. One was called Spy vs. Spy Junior and the other one was called The Adventures of Willy Nilly. I churned out dozens of strips for them. Mad would generally only buy 1 or 2 strips out of every 10 I submitted. Later, I did the same kind of pantomime strips for Nickelodeon Magazine. I used to rent silent slapstick films from the library to steal ideas to use in these comic strips. I must have ended up seeing every Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton film. I watched the Chaplin films too, but didn’t get a lot out of them in particular.
O’Shea: What attracted you to tackling such a challenging and nuanced work for your first graphic novel?
Neal: I don’t exactly remember where the actual idea for the book came from. I do remember figuring out that there weren’t many quality stories out there about paleolithic men. Not in film or literature–certainly not in comic books. There are some well drawn comics loosely about cavemen, but conceptually most were pretty silly. I wrote the 2-page outline for The Sanctuary when I was 22 or 23 years old. That was in 2002. That original outline holds up. The story in the finished book matches that outline very closely. The challenging thing isn’t coming up with the ideas or the nuances–it’s sitting down and drawing the book, day after day for years, knowing that most people might not understand it, or care too much about it. Drawing it, knowing that you’re not earning a dime from it, knowing that all the time you have bills and rent to pay, knowing you could just go out or have some drinks or sleep instead. That’s the challenge–fending off all of life’s bullshit and just working on the book for really no other reason than just to do it. Few people can pull that off and do it well. The ideas and nuances are just a part of you, they come from of who you are and what you’ve absorbed. Your technique determines how well you’re going to communicate those things.
O’Shea: While this is your first graphic novel, you have also created a half-dozen stories for Fantagraphics’ art comics anthology Mome. Would you say that any of those stories were partially fueled/born by story challenges you encountered while at work on Sanctuary?
Neal: I’d say the comics I did for Mome influenced my work on The Sanctuary more than the other way around. I drew the first half of The Sanctuary between 2005 and 2006. I stopped work on it to do other things for almost 2 years. I didn’t get back to it really until 2009. I made 5 stories for Mome between 2007 and 2009. Half of those Mome stories were realistic stories about modern people. I became a better drawer working on those stories–especially of people. When I started on The Sanctuary again in 2009, I had been drawing those cave people for awhile and had figured out how to draw them better–partially due to drawing all those Mome stories. This prompted me to go back and redraw most of the faces of the characters in the first 90-pages of The Sanctuary. If you track down the Xeric pamphlets of The Sanctuary and compare them to the big book, you can see what I’m talking about. With my next book, I’ve made sure to draw all the characters over and over again to make sure they’re more solid before even starting page one of the novel.
O’Shea: In a book which does not employ language in the traditional sense, was there any temptation on your part to give it a phonetic title of some kind, rather than The Sanctuary?
Neal: Well, the book wasn’t even supposed to have a title you could read. The title was supposed to be a drawing of a bison symbol. The publisher told me they couldn’t sell the book like that. That was all the cover of the book was supposed to be–that bison symbol. I thought it would really pop on bookstore shelves. The publisher told me that wasn’t going to work. I needed a real title and a cover with some more imagery. That’s the only compromise I made from the original vision of the book, but I must say, I now think the front and back covers of the finished book work better than the bison symbol alone. Under the dust jacket, the cover of the book still has the lone bison symbol on it anyway. And as a title, I think The Sanctuary is pretty apt. That’s what the anthropologists called those caves with the paintings in them–sanctuaries. Like a church. It means more than that to me though. Working on the book was like a sanctuary to me–from life!
Neal: I don’t know about feedback. I always wonder if people who say they like the book have actually read it and not just flipped through it. If I can tell they’ve actually read it, I wonder if they’ve understood it at all. But as far as the launch itself–it was great. Gabe Fowler, who owns the store Desert Island (in my opinion, the best comic book store in New York City, if not elsewhere) is this extremely generous, easy going person. I want to do more store appearances for the book, throughout the country, but sparing the money to travel around is the tricky part.
O’Shea: After answering my questions, an opportunity to ask one of your own. Is there any question you’d like readers of this interview and/or of the book to answer?
Neal: It would be nice to know if people were inspired by the book. As an artist, that’s pretty much all you can expect a book to do, if it’s good.