Interview with Andrew Sztehlo

Interview with Andrew Sztehlo

Last week I brought you the beautiful and thought provoking work on Andrew’s site Tales from the Border. It turns out he’s as delightful as his work would have you believe and gave up some time to share the following musings on art, horror and an artist’s place in the world.

Me. Question 1: Your work certainly has a delightfully dark edge but covers so many different subjects – how would you describe the feel of your work ? Is the eclectic mix of material on your site a direct reflection of wider interests and experiences ?

Andrew. ‘I guess if there is one thing I try and communicate in my work it is an immediate sense of intimacy. Narrative is not so important to me, though it is an important element of storytelling. I want my work to create a powerful sense of feeling, both in the sensuosity of its environments and in the feelings of the characters.

“Spellbound” in this respect was about capturing the desolate environment, the feeling of isolation, and the inescapability of one’s own demons. There is no magic in nature that is binding this woman to this landscape; rather, her own fears, demons, and weaknesses do so. I think that’s something we can all relate to, the feeling of being trapped by one’s own failures. My upcoming strip “Judgement Time,” which adapts the lyric by singer-songwriter Mark Lanegan, is going to be a further exploration of this theme.

In my upcoming comics, my challenge is to change this intimacy from a sense of interiority to the intimacy between people; I’ve just started work on a WW1 comic, called “Trenches,” that explores the lives of two LGBT soldiers, and for me the challenge here is to create intimacy between two characters who we don’t necessarily know, but to display their conflicts, fears, and concerns in the space of 15 pages or so.

By the necessity of dealing with heavier themes like these, I think my work certainly has an existential flavour to it, and this often manifests in a gothic mode. I hope to explore these wider interests and experiences through my future work, creating comics that have a unique quality to them, crossing over different genres that I have loved separately and together – the gothic and the western, for example.

My website Tales from the Border was previously just a blog, but I decided to use it as the name for my anthology comic that I hope to serialise all my work in, both online and in print. As a result, there’s a large backlog of blog posts on an array of subjects. I have written extensively on film, comics, and literature, but it was also important (for me, and I hope for other people) to talk about my struggles with ongoing depression and my anger at some of the things that happen in the world.

I think these are subjects people avoid to retain some sense of comfort or normalcy, but for me having it out in the open is more important, and I hope that it makes at least one person reading feel just a little less alone in all this. I’ve struggled talking about and accepting both issues of my own mental health and sexual orientation, so I hope broaching these topics through my art and writing helps those who may be going through those things too.’

Me. Question 2. Horror is a very personal thing – what scares you ? Did the things that kept your toes tucked firmly under the covers as a wee pup still creep about at night or has adulthood brought fresh nightmares ? How do you balance up working on dark themes – for example, if I’m working on something particularly intense I make a point of going and giving the sea a good hard stare afterwards or cooking myself something especially nice to ground me again.

Andrew. ‘Ironically my first encounter with the horror genre probably came from a place of comfort. I grew up watching the 90s VHS releases of the old Universal horror films, and that was my first encounter with the gothic too. I loved the atmosphere and mood of those films – Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s The Mummy were particular favourites – but I think my enjoyment came because ultimately many of those characters were good people gone wrong.

I think David J Skal hit it on the nose in his book The Monster Show when he wrote that “monsters provided an element of reassurance. They were transcendent resurrection figures, beings who couldn’t die. The traditional monsters were perversely Christlike, offering an image of survival, however distorted or grotesque.” Those films brought a lot of comfort to a kid who felt that he was weird and emasculated.

Suddenly being an oddball and effeminate was cool, maybe even rock and roll. Death is something that has always terrified me, so to have these resurrection figures on screen, repeated again and again throughout my childhood, was almost like they were my friends, and that they had my back.

Later on, I guess my fears of death expanded, and nowadays my fears are what drive so much of my work. Classical gothic iconography continues to bring comfort to me – something that always will when your mum and aunt are goths – but nowadays my fears are a lot more overwhelming. Without sounding like a 20 something artsy stereotype, existential dread dogs both me and my work.

Feelings that life is meaningless, that the world is inherently amoral and that our actions as individuals are not necessarily moral or immoral and don’t really count for anything, and that there isn’t a God somewhere keeping score of it – these things terrify me. I think that’s where my interest in folk horror particularly comes from.

Films like The Wicker Man and Kill List were particularly informative and disturbing to me. What is more terrifying – being isolated from the world at large, the feeling that you don’t belong in a community, or the fact that you do belong and you’re just as awful as everyone else? That bleak reality is something that infuses my work.

As you can imagine when my work focuses so much on these themes, I can’t do it continuously. I haven’t been actively drawing for the past year because it just became too much balancing my mental health with creating art about this. I made up for it by immersing myself in that literature and film. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Thomas Ligotti’s short fiction, the novels of Alan Garner, and the graphic novels of Daniel Clowes bore the brunt of that.

Now that I’m back in the thick of my art, working on numerous short comics as well as my first graphic novel, titled The Stations of the Cross, I balance it with consciously healthy decisions. I see people, I get out and have fun. I do my best to eat well and get enough sleep. I listen to music that makes me happy. How can anyone feel sad when they’re listening to Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran? I watch sitcoms like The Office or Parks and Recreation that affirm that goodness does exist, and it’s some sort of lovely miracle in the face of cosmic indifference.

I travel. I’m seeing as much of Scotland as I can while I live in Dundee for this Masters I’m doing in Comics & Graphic Novels – Broughty Ferry and St. Andrews have been particularly beautiful. The key to any sort of healthy relationship with your art is a regular schedule and a balance between your work and home life. Not only does it ensure the work gets done on time, but it keeps you sane for the rest of the time!’ I feel like that’s the black hole at the centre of it. The cosmic indifference of a black and cold universe. It’s something that fills me with a lot of anger.

When you see shootings and hate crimes on the news everyday, and the fact that open racism, misogyny, and homophobia doesn’t stop certain people from succeeding in their career goals, and the general rise of extremist movements globally. It just feels sometimes like the world is on the brink. This probably reads as a long ramble, but those are the things that terrify me, and art that deals with those truths are what speak to me.

Charles Burn’s graphic novel Black Hole, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics, Bela Tarr’s film Werckmeister Harmonies, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the music of Nick Cave and Jeffrey Lee Pierce… these are the things that move me. You can’t listen to a song like “Jack on Fire” by the Gun Club (Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s band) and not feel the existential dread.

Spellbound

Me. Question 3. Screamfix is all about supporting indie horror creatives – do you have any favourite sources of support and inspiration you’d like to share with us ? As a new creator yourself, is there anything you’ve found difficult to access we could cover in a future article ?

Andrew. ‘Wow, that’s a difficult but intriguing question! I have so many inspirations from indie art and comics. Whilst my work tends to express itself in horror comics and gothic narratives, many of my inspirations aren’t necessarily in that vain, as it is the philosophical underpinnings of these works that inspire me the most. The work of Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine have always fascinated me. The films of Jim Jarmusch and the loving feeling of intimacy his films (particularly Mystery Train and Paterson) create are wonderful.

In terms of some great indie artists I’d say to check out – I’m a big fan of Emily Carroll’s webcomics. Her short horror comic “His Face All Red” is one of the few horror comics that has genuinely frightened me. In addition a recent discovery of mine has been “The Jaundiced Eye” by artist Tyler Landry – genuinely terrifying stuff – and the comics of Ezra Butt, particularly his short comic “Svyatogor“.

I would also like to take a moment to plug the art of my fellow course mates at the University of Dundee. Cartoonist Dan Barnfield’s fantastic work on his comic strip Adulting is hilariously prescient stuff (I challenge you to read it and not laugh) and the webcomics of Emma Oosterhous, whose work focuses on the LGBT community, are incredible.

She’s done some wonderfully moving stuff – you might have heard of her very successful webcomic Alphabet Soup – but my favourite pieces of hers are a short one-page comic called “hSpite” and a recent commission she did for me illustrating a quote from Sappho.

She has an incredible talent to create such loving and wonderful characters, and since a lot of her work is autobiographical it makes me feel just a bit warmer – that there are good people out there, and they live and love to spite all the awful things that happen in the world. Seeing the comic she is currently working on – a spooky lighthouse folk tale, quite a departure from the rest of her oeuvre – has me very excited to see what she does next.

Other than those artists, I think my biggest recommendation when reading webcomics is this: if you see something that you like, or find a comic that really speaks to you, see if there is some way you can support the artist. Buy a print or get a commission, or even just send them a message and let them know how their work has spoken to you.

We put our comics out for free because we want people to read them, connect to them, and come away having learnt or thought about something, but the impact of that is that it does create a very hectic life trying to financially support yourself on top of putting out regular content. Any sort of support that you can offer helps us out big time and lets us know we’re not just screaming at the walls in an empty padded cell!

Lastly, I’d just like to thank the folks at Screamfix, and particularly Karen Ruffles, for their generosity and support of my work over these past few days. It was genuinely surreal and heart-warming to wake up one Saturday morning to find that someone I had never met before had seen my artwork and had a genuine emotional response to it – let alone write a lovely review and then ask for an interview too!

So I just want to thank you all for taking the time to look at my work and feature it on your website. You’ve made this 23 year old feel very happy.’

Told you he was lovely 🙂