Feb 29, 2016
Ecstasy Through Agony: Talking with Mark Beyer about Agony
New York Review Books, the book publishing arm of the New York Review of Books, launches its latest imprint, New York Review Comics, with a cult classic that’s been out of print for decades: Mark Beyer’s Agony. Beyer produces images many admirers call “art brut,” his panels both intricately patterned and dreamlike. Agony follows friends Amy and Jordan, a couple who Beyer began drawing in the 1970s, as they endure misery after catastrophe after assault. Colson Whitehead, a longtime fan, introduces the new edition: “It cheers me up.”
How did you first start drawing comics?
In the early 1970s I was doing a lot drawing and making artwork on my own, but it never occurred to me to make comics. When I was growing up I was never much of a comics fan. I remember I went through a short period of time when I was interested in superhero comics, but I got bored with that very quickly and decided to just read novels instead.
When I was in my early twenties, I had a friend who was a big underground comics fan. He showed them to me. I was impressed by some but not all of them. It wasn’t until I saw Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman’s comics magazine Arcade in the fall of 1975 that it occurred to try to make my own comics. I could see how Art and Bill were trying to push comics in a different direction and were distancing themselves from the typical late sixties–era underground comics, which were largely concerned with drugs, sex, and the hippie lifestyle. Then in one issue of Arcade there was a notice that the editors were open to submissions. On a whim I drew a couple of half-page comic strips and sent them to the magazine. Those were the very first comics I had ever made.
A few weeks later I received a postcard from Bill Griffith saying that they were interested in publishing one of my strips in the next issue. That’s how it all started. So the first comic strip I had ever drawn in my entire life was published in a national magazine. I was really excited by that and was encouraged to make more, but the underground comics movement was dying a rapid death, and until Art Spiegelman started publishing Raw Magazine there really wasn’t any place to publish new comics.
I first met Art in person in the fall of 1976. I recall that after I met him he spent the first half hour trying very hard to discourage me from pursuing a career as a cartoonist. He kept asking me why I wanted to do it. He pointed out that there no money in it, and that I wasn’t going to get famous doing it, and there was little if any interest in the medium, but I kept saying, yes, but there is so much potential to do something new and different with comics. He agreed with me. Then I started visiting him regularly whenever I was in New York, and started making comics regularly, but it was next to impossible to get them published.
How did you find Amy and Jordan?
Amy was a character I came up with for one of the comics I submitted to Arcade magazine. I came up with Jordan in the fall of 1976. In both cases it was very arbitrary. Initially I don’t think I put a lot of thought into it. It could have been anything. I felt like I needed two characters in order to create some sense to depth and tension. Of course there was also a long history in comics with stories that had two protagonists. I was just trying to make work that had a different feeling from all the other underground comics that were being made at the time.
You killed Amy and Jordan a few years ago. Had anything that changed about their story (or their characters) since you first started drawing them?
When I started doing my Amy and Jordan weekly strip I finally had the space and time to give the characters and the stories a much greater sense of complexity and depth. I tried to make their relationship more complex, subtle, and idiosyncratic, but in a surreal, dreamlike way. I also tried to make their relationship more ambiguous, and more mysterious. They weren’t always nice to each other. Just like in a real relationship at times they could be downright mean to each other, but there was a bond there that kept them together no matter how badly things were going.
Is “art brut” a term you would use to describe your art? What does “art brut” mean to you?
I never really thought of my art as “art brut,” but I am totally self-taught so I guess the term applies. In that sense for me art brut is a way of making up your own rules, and following your own instincts, and having the freedom to create your own world without any regard for academic rules, or for what is considered good art or bad art.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been painting and drawing, but I haven’t made any comics in a long time. I’m thinking about starting again, but if I do it certainly won’t be Amy and Jordan.
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