& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, May 19, 2017

Interview with Koom Kankesan

 Koom Kankesan is a novelist and a graphic art aficionado

Koom participating at the Toronto Comic Jam

Koom Kankesan was born in Sri Lanka. While his family lived abroad, the civil war in Sri Lanka broke out and this caused them to seek a new home. They eventually settled in Canada and have lived here since the late eighties. He has a background in English Literature and Film Studies. Koom contributed arts journalism to various publications before becoming a high school teacher in the Toronto District School Board. Since working as a teacher, he has taken semesters off now and again to work on his fiction. The Tamil Dream, his new book, is his most ambitious to date. It looks at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and how it affected Tamils here in Canada. Besides literature and film, Koom has deep interests in history and science, and an enduring love for comic books.

What explains your interest in graphic novels?

Let me rephrase that question to say 'what explains your interest in comics'? Way before I ever heard the term graphic novels, I was engrossed by comics of all kinds: newspaper strips, technical manual illustrations, cereal box mascots, superhero stuff, cartoon animation, anything that made use of pictures and words. I think that the term graphic novel is just a way of classy-ing up the form and I sort of wish that Will Eisner had never coined it. I suppose everything eventually tends towards class-ism and the seeking of prestige and status, and so this half-acceptance of the comics medium by the arbiters of culture is a double-edged sword. It was almost better when comics was left alone to authentically be itself, its joyous carefree self. Comics still retains some of that - you can approach most comics creators in a direct way that you can't with literary writers or filmmakers, but there might be the danger of this inherent classism or snobbishness in the future.

But yeah - to come back to your question, I was mesmerised by comics from the first moment I laid eyes on them. We were poor, living in England, and I can remember when my father bought a black and white Marvel comics reprint issue of Spiderman and the Valkyrie. I was maybe about five. I was just mesmerised by the way the pictures (and later words) fit together, the way the perspective could move up the side of a building and into the air. It was like you were flying. There was a magic to it. Of course, film also shares this magic and I love film too. Later, I would obsessively take out volumes of Tintin and Asterix from the library and there was something about entering this other world, this mirror cartoony world of ideal forms which were stylised in a certain way, their flat sheen and colour, their sensibility, that I found irresistible. Tintin remains one of my all-time favourite works to this day.

·         Have you attempted to do a graphic novel?

I've always been drawn to comics but never really had the confidence to do my own. When I was younger, I drew one or two or three-page strips for university publications but they were sporadic and took a lot of work and I always had to look at photos for reference. So I never really developed the confidence or horsepower to do my own stuff. That was around the time (in the mid to late nineties) when I met Seth and he was kind enough to give me some pointers and set a few assignments for me. I tearfully worked through his assignments but never felt great about them and ended up abandoning my efforts and turning to writing prose. It's always been one of my deepest regrets that I didn't persevere, sketch regularly, and take advantage of Seth's generosity and time. It wasn't a lack of skill on my part, but a lack of effort and confidence. His popularity and fame blew up a few years later so I was very lucky to know him when I did.

I've always been drawn to comics though. It possesses a sensibility and magic that is different from literature or film (although there are relations), and have always come back to them. I sort of see myself as somewhat of a failed fiction writer (no one reads my stuff) so I've been thinking of trying to get back to my roots and interests in terms of comics and sci-fi. A few years ago, I tried to work with an animator who said he'd be interested in doing a graphic novel with me but he just couldn't commit. Animators are always inundated with work and if you can't pay someone upfront, it can be an unreasonable expectation that they will simply carry out your project and illustrate it in the hope of future rewards or glory. 

Koom at the Erie Art Museum in PA
with Klaus Janson (left) and John Totleben (right)
Who are your favourite prominent Canadian graphic novelists? Why?

There is so much coming out now that there's no way I can stay abreast of it all. Koyama Press is celebrating its tenth anniversary and I feel like I don't really have a sense of everything they're doing and their presence on the comics landscape yet. Back in the 90s, I used to read Drawn & Quarterly's sporadic anthologies but of course, now they are an international player that sources many artists from the U.S. and other parts of the world, as well as Canada. Back in those days, I used to follow the work of Seth, Joe Matt, and Chester Brown (the 'Toronto three') and they were three of my favourites in terms of indie comics creators. Joe Matt isn't Canadian but he lived here for a long time - now I believe he's in L.A. - but I loved the humour and self-evisceration in his work and that led me to the work of Seth and Chester. As mentioned before, Seth was kind enough to give me some pointers and that's how I knew him. His work is immaculately beautiful and stylised and there's such a deep appreciation for comics history and the form that informs his work that I don't think I fully appreciated him back then. I just thought of him as this local artist that was producing autobiographical comics. I loved Chester's weirdness, especially in Ed the Happy Clown and some of those other absurd short stories, but he - like Seth - has gone on to carve this very reputable body of work that's both idiosyncratic and weighty at the same time. I don't think anybody back then realised or foresaw how respected and recognised these creators on the outskirts would become. Did D & Q help create the wave of respectability or were they buffeted by it? It's sort of a chicken and egg philosophical conundrum. It's one of those interesting tides of cultural history that only the most zealous anticipated.

I've been influenced by many comics that were not Canadian though. As I mentioned before, living in England, I devoured Tintin by Herge and that has become something (both in its aesthetics as well as its values) that has worked its way into the core of my being. If there's anybody whose influence I will never be able to escape (and that's a good thing), it's the work of Alan Moore. I don't need to go into why his work (and he, himself) are phenomenal - even the stuff that I write about being Tamil, which you'd think is very remote from Moore's body of work, is heavily influenced by Moore's oeuvre. I was also heavily affected and influenced by Frank Miller's storytelling and writing in the 80s. He was such a stellar poetic writer that seemed to lose his touch once the 80s was over. Sin City became so heavy handed and seemed to go against the natural intelligence and dynamic creativity of his earlier stuff. Paul Chadwick's Concrete is another personal favourite that has had a great effect on me - its gentility, humility, intelligence and unequalled sensitivity to life and knowledge is unparalleled and I think it's a great pity than Chadwick's work is somewhat neglected or forgotten. Jaime Hernandez, and his brother Gilbert's early Palomar work have also really moved and affected me. Once you start talking about this stuff, it's hard to know when to stop. It's such a rich field, and fascinating, like watching a universe unfold.

You were teaching a graphic novel appreciation course at U of T some years ago, what sort of a program was that?

That was something I was hoping to repeat but it ended up being a one-time thing. I'm loosely affiliated with the creative writing department in the Continuing Education division at U of T. They already have somebody teaching a 'making comics' class, so I suggested a graphic novel appreciation class. There was enough enthusiasm to fill up one section but the following year and the year after that, we couldn't get enough people to run the class. We read a representation of what are considered great graphic novels. Only the first one was superhero based - Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Daredevil: Born Again. The class was composed of young adults who loved comics and mostly, we deconstructed the language of comics and techniques in the books we looked at, using Scott McCloud's wonderful Understanding Comics as our guide.

What I learned from teaching that course was how far behind the times I was. Most of the books on the list were older (by the likes of Moore, Tomine, Chadwick, Spiegelman, etc.) and they were all by males. It was a good experience for me because it showed me that the current audience for comics and the sensibility out there has changed considerably from when I was getting into alternative comics. I did give students the option as to whether they wanted to write analyses or write comics scripts of their own - most of them went the analysis route. I was working at an alternative high school six years ago and there, I got the chance to design a comics course which I think they continued to run. It was a Grade 11 Media Studies/Art course where we did a combination of analysing comics and drawing our own. It was quite enjoyable and I used my meagre budget to buy copies of Watchmen and Batman: Year One for the students to read. Unfortunately, I teach at a regular high school now and there's no way I could set up or teach something like that. I'm at a smaller, more conventional school, and unfortunately, right now, we don't even run a Media Studies class. So there you have it - the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, comics seems to be this universal language that they're employing for all kinds of instruction and education so I have no doubt that it'll be much more integrated into everything given a couple of generations.

Thanks for taking the time to ask me about my love for and interest in comics!


Here's a recording of a conversation between Seth and Michael Deforge, held at the University of Toronto in March 2017. The conversation was part of a symposium called 'Making History: The Cartoon World of Seth'. Click here to listen to recording: Seth

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