Grief can be paralyzing to an artist; but — in a strange and bittersweet way — it can also be liberating. It was for British cartoonist, Ross Mackintosh, who lost his father to cancer in 2009. In “Seeds,” Mackintosh’s debut graphic novel, he chronicles his father’s diagnoses, rapid decline and death in deceptively simple black and white cartoon blocks. It’s an honest, inquisitive and candid illustrated memoir in the vein of Joyce Farmer’s “Special Exits.” And Mackintosh uses the story thread to probe deeper questions about birth, death, DNA and the meaning of life. Ultimately, however, as the artist explains in conversation with Hero Complex contributor Deborah Vankin, the Com.x release is a tribute to Mackintosh’s father and to every father-son relationship.
DV: Why did you choose this form of storytelling – comics over straight prose – to relate such an intimate story?
RM: I don’t consider myself a skilled writer so I’m not sure if I could have written a book. The main reason I created a comic was because certain memories were so clear in my mind, I wanted to reproduce them. The grim reaper in the hospital, for example, was something I saw in my mind that very night. A skilled writer might have wanted to deconstruct that image with words, but I wanted to draw it.
DV: And why share in the first place?
RM: I created the comic for myself, as a way of removing pictures and phrases from the maelstrom in my head. The secondary purpose was a subconscious need to express to my mom and brothers that the awful events didn’t just happen quietly. … Only once I’d finished the book did I think, following suggestions by others, that it might be worth sending it to a publisher.
DV: Did you worry you were betraying your dad’s privacy in any way?
RM: I like to think that my dad wouldn’t be ashamed of the book being so honest, but he’s not here anymore so the next tier of approval is my mom and brothers, and I have that. It’s surreal to mull over the hypothetical approval of someone who doesn’t exist. I’m sure he would like it and have no doubt that he was proud of me in life. While writing the book, it was as important to me to convey the charming character of my dad as it was to document the decline of his health.
DV: In the intro, you talk about how personal tragedy can amplify one’s senses and even sharpen memory. And that this allows you to create. Is this what happened to you after your dad died?
RM: Yes. I find that perception speeds up and slows down depending on how focused my attention is. You hear of people’s memories of their car crash being as if time is slowed down — I think this is because senses become intensified for the purpose of survival so they remember each second. We reflect more on memories of extreme joy and extreme pain. It’s fertile ground for expression.
DV: You also write that as a society, through mythology and art, we tend to push away the idea of death. Can you elaborate on that idea?
RM: We spend our days eating, dressing and behaving in ways that enhance our survival. We are conditioned to avoid dying, yet we know it’s coming one day. It seems inevitable therefore that during our history it would be attractive to be drawn to myths that claim there is life after death. Ghosts, karma and heaven are appealing.
DV: You describe the father-son relationship as being heavy with unarticulated emotion. Does this describe your relationship with your dad?
RM: Yes. We knew what we thought about each other, we just didn’t articulate it. The appeal of Hollywood movies is not just in good winning through, in getting the partner we desire, but also it’s in the saying of what’s felt. We yearn to say what we feel but don’t, perhaps because we fear what impact the words will have.
DV: And did you really tell him you loved him for the first time in those final days, as the scene in the book depicts?
RM: I may have said it in infancy, but I don’t recall.
DV: “Seeds” is deceptively simple, both in artistic style and narrative, yet the simplicity of the drawings camouflage very deep ideas about life and death.
RM: I think grand themes like that are more than worthy subjects for discourse. The artwork is simple because my day job is a graphic designer and I prefer minimalism. There’s also a stereotype of Yorkshire men being plain-speaking. I think both of these characteristics result in me often creating elaborate drawings or writing, then whittling down until there’s a minimum left.
DV: You reveal very little actual biographical detail about your dad in the book — we just know he loves sports and comedy and above all else, he values a steady paycheck — but he still comes through between the lines in the storytelling. By that I mean the rhythm of the words and images and your own feeling for him. We know him by the end. Was that purposeful?
RM: Probably not. I just weighed up all the things that made my dad my dad and put them in. If I were to write about a fictional character I don’t think I’d know how to make the character believable. I realize that any record of reality, be it a documentary or a book, the editorial choice about what to use and what not to use is guided by a motive to create characters and plots, so maybe there was a subconscious censorship going on.
DV: I love that your decision about how to draw the comic — a computerized illustration program vs. by hand — is part of the story in one scene.
RM: I reviewed all the artwork in the comic books I own and realized the style I admired the most was drawn with a brush and black ink. For “Seeds” I drew all the panels in pencil, then inked them, then scanned them into a computer. I then tidied up any blemishes and made some minor changes. Because my writing is terrible I chose to create a typeface of my handwriting so I could make sure I got the spacing right.
DV: How would you describe the British comics scene?
RM: I’m still discovering it. Like the U.S. comics industry, the superheroes tend to dominate the market. I remember the director Richard Curtis once saying something like “The U.S. has Woody Allen — where’s our Woody Allen?” What works for one culture often doesn’t work for another if imitated directly, but I’m interested in finding the U.K. equivalent of the kind of comics I like.
– Deborah Vankin
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