An Undercurrent  of Odd Mirth: Exclusive Interview  With Andrez Bergen

An Undercurrent of Odd Mirth: Exclusive Interview With Andrez Bergen

Quick! Who do you think of when I say burning books, Mars, and one of the all-time great storytellers? Is it Ray Bradbury? What about if I were to say murderous cars, killer clowns, and one of the most prolific horror writers ever? Stephen King, right?

Okay, one more. This time I’ll say a science fiction, noir, and comic book cocktail, Dada-inspired comic book art, and an Australian living abroad in Japan. How about that one? Does this little word association game bring forth any names for that grouping of words? If not, it will soon. 

Andrez Bergen is an Australian author, artist, DJ and musician (he’s got a bit of a jack-of-all-trades thing going on) living and working in Japan. He has written four full-length novels (with the fifth, Small Change, coming out this December), as well as creating the comic books Bullet Gal, Trista & Holt, and Tales to Admonish. 

Andrez’s stories are deft mashups of science fiction, hardboiled noir, and the Silver Age of Comic Books. Sound completely insane? Well, in the words of Leslie Nielsen, “Like a fox!”

In his hands, the stories never feel like each different genre was smashed into place with a sledgehammer and a crowbar. Instead, they fit together like a beautiful stained glass window or an expertly played game of Tetris (those two things are on equal artistic footing, right?), and create something else entirely. If it is originality you are after in your stories, you will definitely want to take a look at what Andrez is cooking up in his witch’s cauldron of an imagination (a touch of Phillip K. Dick, a pinch of Raymond Chandler, and one hair from Stan Lee’s mustache).

Andrez was nice enough to take the time to sit down and answer some of our questions (from half a world away) about his life, his writing, and much more. 

You are an Australian living in Japan (sounds like a good set up for a sitcom). If you don’t mind, tell me a little bit about how that came to be. Do you think this major life move (if you would call it that) has greatly influenced your work? 

The sitcom intimation rings about right – Tokyo is a continuous roller coaster of the fun, cool, bizarre and surreal, even after 14 years in the place! So, yeah, I actually came over here in July 2001, and the plan was a six-month stint. Go figure. I’d fallen in love with the place during a previous whirlwind visit, and had ideas about pursuing my focus on electronic music, DJing, and the record label I ran at the time [IF? Records]. Instead, I followed through with journalism, writing, teaching, and becoming a dad. It changed my life in so many ways, 99 percent good. And living in a futuristic metropolis such as this – which still has an older school, traditional undercurrent unlike anything I experienced in Australia – and dealing with some of the ever-present disasters like earthquakes and fractured nuclear reactors has definitely impacted on my writing work as much as my mindset.

Tell me a little bit about your writing history. Was it the classic story of a young child with dreams of writing the next great novel or did the passion strike a little later in life? Do you remember the first complete story you wrote?

Yep, I was one of those kids. I always wanted to write. I penned my first novella in an exercise book when I was about seven. Definitely sci-fi, my go-to style of the time. From memory, something set in orbit with a dysfunctional computer. Blame my Dad, who took me to a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was four, and re-runs of Doctor Who on the telly.

You are obviously a big fan of noir, science fiction, and comic books. What is it about those genres that you find so appealing? When it comes to noir especially, why do you think people are so interested by such a gritty and dark genre with such bleak stories?

I’ve always loved sci-fi, having grown up in primary school with some of the 1950s cinema classics like The Thing from Another World, Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, Godzilla, and This Island Earth. And I was reading a lot of it too, by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, et cetera, et cetera. At the same time I was a huge 1960s Marvel Comics fan – I found a stash owned by my older half-brother Peter – and pined over the adventures of Fantastic Four, Captain America, X-Men and The Avengers. Jack Kirby was like God to me. I also read black-and-white reprints of 1950s/’60s Phantom, Superman, Batman and The Flash. Man, I could lose myself in these adventures and I totally aspired to be a comic book artist. Noir came later, I think in high school, when I was clobbered by films like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and The Third Man, along with the writings of Raymond Chandler and, a little later, Dashiell Hammett. That was the style that really grabbed me as I matured. I think the bleak nature of it has great appeal to adolescents, and the dialogue – particularly by Chandler – is punch, glorious, and dateless. And you’re not sure how it’s going to end… you’re not bird-dogging the traditional Hollywood happy ending. Yet despite the bleak nature, and a certain cynicism, in the best noir there’s also an undercurrent of odd mirth. I love that.

You mentioned Ray Bradbury, whom I love. I often consider my favorite book to be The Martian Chronicles. Do you have a single book you consider to be your favorite and has it had any impact on your work?

Bradbury was an incredible writer, and while I really enjoyed The Martian Chronicles too, I’d say my favourites would be Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man – as well as the film versions by François Truffaut and Jack Smight. The book-burning future dystopia of the former, as well as the somewhat bizarre varied tales from the latter, made a huge impact on me in my formative teenage years. There’s no question that Bradbury helped shape who I am and how I see the world. But the books that really continue to fizzle between the lines of my writing would be Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

When it comes to your own work, do you have anything you have done that you would consider your favorite or the one you are most proud of? Why or why not?

I think I do dig most of my work, warts and all, because that affection helped me to steer the course of months, even years, on end plumbing their depths! But I think novels-wise One Hundred Years of Vicissitude marginally tips the others. I love the character of Kohana, and being able to take the bullying villain of one book – Wolram E. Deaps in Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat – and render him sympathetic in this novel was a lot of fun to do. Comics-wise, I’d go with Bullet Gal since Mina/Louise/Mitzi is another one I really enjoy. There’s a bit of me in all of them, yet also… there isn’t.

Let’s talk about the style of your artwork you used in Bullet Gal. Where did you come up with the idea of using the pictures and changing them slightly, adding or subtracting to them, and was it difficult to piece together a cohesive story with this method?

I’m a huge admirer of Dada, the stuff dreamed up way back in 1916 by people like Tristan Tzara, Beatrice Wood, Max Ernst, and especially Marcel Duchamp. Their ideas of readymades, photomontages and collages still really appeals to me, and it’s how I’ve been making music under the alias of Little Nobody for the past 20 years. What I’m doing is, in many respects, a gritty digital version of their cut-ups. I’m also mad about Terry Gilliam’s work with Monty Python, especially during the days of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and I’ve been cutting up stuff and repasting haphazardly since I was a kid. When I approached Bullet Gal, and before that with the graphic novel of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, I wanted to challenge myself as much as some staid comic book traditions that still hold sway. Doing so using completely digital cut-ups, debased and sometimes lo-fi, was a slap in the face for my other artistic abilities – and it’s seriously difficult to tell a flowing, sequential story using individual, unrelated images! But I love doing it, and I think I’m really getting the hang of the format. At least I hope I am!

Pop culture plays a big role in a lot of your work. If you could write for any established intellectual property what would it be? Would it be playing around with an established universe such as with Star Wars or Blade Runner or would you take on a specific character, such as Batman?

God, tackling Blade Runner would be insane – I think I’d love to give it a shot, since I swear I’ve watched the original film somewhere in the vicinity of 250-odd times. And I occasionally fanaticize about rebooting Marvel’s Fantastic Four from scratch as I’m an overactive nerd for the ‘60s version done by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. In the past I seriously wanted to have a crack at Captain America, hence the character Southern Cross in Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?, but Ed Brubaker put that dream to rest – he did such a brilliant job, especially with artists Steve Epting and Michael Lark. Still, you know what? I do prefer playing in my own sandbox. It’s more liberating.

Is there any genre of fiction you won’t touch as far as from a reader’s standpoint? What about from a writing standpoint? Should we expect a 50 Shades of Grey type book courtesy of Andrez Bergen?

Ha-Ha-Ha… Yikes… I hope not, at least 50 Shades stylee. That stuff scares me more than intended horror stories. Otherwise I’m OK with flitting through genres – anything is open slather, and I like ramming a few together. But erotic romance brouhaha? Um…

What are some of the difficulties in adapting your own work from a novel to a comic? How closely do you follow the original story?  What about deciding what to keep and what is unnecessary? Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like it would be more difficult than it seems at first glance. Are there any challenges you’ve run into that you weren’t expecting?

It was definitely a challenge for me mostly because I decided to put my artist’s hat on, and at the beginning I wasn’t certain I was the right person to do that. Luckily the choice of visual style helped, and over the course of doing that I learned a lot of tricks. Story-wise, I realized early I’d never be able to squeeze a 212-page novel into a graphic novel only 144 pages long, so I decided to focus on the first 90-odd pages. Mostly I was faithful, but it did give me opportunity to segue into other character vignettes, not in the original book – and to add in some ideas I’d dreamed up after publishing TSMG in 2011. The graphic novel twist with Laurel, for me, was an essential… yet it isn’t in the written version. But, honestly? I had a blast in spite of any hiccups I encountered along the way. It turned into a real companion piece.

Andrez Bergen’s fifth novel, Small Change, will be available via Roundfire Books on December 11, 2015.

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