"Wondermark" Gets Real
He finds charming, romantic illustrations from bygone days, manipulates them in Photoshop, and produces comics teeming with caustic characters. His name is David Malki ! (space and exclamation mark required) and his brainchild is the ever-amusing comic, Wondermark. Obsessed with the Victorian era but also a fan of less-than-prudish sarcasm, Malki ! is a pioneer in that field where found art and sequential art intersect. He is also a champion of web comics and alternative weekly newspapers, and a man who believes in both magic and modernity. Like his comic, he is many things. But why both with any more metaphors and adjectives? Here's what Malki ! had to say in response to Quail Bell's plethora of eagerly spat questions on fairy tales, the Victorian era, and, yes, his art:
My work draws heavily on the arts and aesthetic of the era, and I'm particularly fond of the craftsmanship that went into the engravings and illustrations that fill Victorian publications. This was a time before photography was cheap or easy to reproduce for print, so any time an illustration was called for, an artisan had to create it, either as an ink drawing, woodcut, or engraving. There was a bit of a golden age between 1875 and 1890 when this artform reached a technical zenith...and then photographic technology improved in the 1890s and the more cumbersome technique (the illustrations) was rendered obsolete almost instantly as publishers raced to fill their pages with photos. And it wasn't only in the printing industry--everywhere, horses were being replaced by automobiles; craftsmen by factories; farms by cities; and provincialism by the rise of mass media. It's a period that's removed from our present world but still recognizably modern, and it's a well-documented window into human nature: we can see how the people of the time dealt with and adapted to all these amazing transitions and how decisions that they made paved the way for the society we have today.
So there's that, and also I think the drawings look cool.
Would you ever want to live in the Victorian era, if only for a day?
I think it'd be fun to step into the life of someone from the Victorian era (or any far-off era, really)--not with our present understanding of convenience, technology, etc., but rather immersed in that world and understanding it on a fundamental level...then I'd like to come back out and compare notes after the fact. Being a tourist is one thing, but if some dark alchemy has the power to thrust me back into a world long passed, it couldn't be too hard to throw in an extra newt and see the world as a local while we're at it.
Many of the volumes in my collection are filled with the work of artisans who toiled more-or-less in obscurity. Some went on to greater fame in book illustration (such as John Tenniel, who drew for Punch before going on to illustrate Lewis Carroll's books), and others were simply masters of the spot drawing. My favorite is probably Charles Keene, another Punch artist, and many of my comics feature his characters. When using images that have a very distinct visual style, I try to keep each comic internally consistent to a certain degree, so many times I'll find a piece by a certain artist, then page through the same book to find other work by the same artist to combine it with. Family reunions, for the first time!
But I only even know the names of a very small number of the artists from the era--much of the work in American publications is uncredited, and in a certain way that's okay. The less context the image has, the easier it is for me to change it around and do something new with it. I love working with images from German books because when paging through, I don't get distracted reading the articles like I do with British or American books! (Though now that I have a German officemate, I do trot over to ask him for the occasional translation.)
Do you ever explore fairy tales in your work? How do you think fairy tales influenced the Victorian era and what kind of impact do they have upon your work?
Fairy tales are important to a world--like the Victorians', or like ours--that places a huge emphasis on science and reason and technical advancement and solving mysteries. Those things are all wonderful, but as old gods get crowded out by better and better telescopes, the stories that explain how the Northern Lights are Valkyries dancing on the graves of the Irish get harder to hear and less likely to be repeated. With all the charging and clanging progress-machines pressing bottlecaps by coal power, it's easy to feel contented, like we've got the world pretty well under control--and that's where fairy tales can keep us humble. A culture that respects the mysterious and the unknowable is a culture that can never act with impunity as the greatest power around.
I'm trying to think of some way that I can retroactively recontextualize the entirety ofWondermark as one enormously elaborate interweaving fairy tale. I could probably do it if it wasn't for that 40-strip run in which I methodically and exhaustively disclaimed the existence of pixies in the Wondermark universe. I guess we all have to learn to live with our mistakes.
What role do magic and the supernatural play in your puns and themes?
A lot of my most striking work involves monsters, or chimeras, or other weird, "this cannot be" elements. I think I'm drawn to that in particular because the source material--very realistically-rendered illustrations--gains a certain power when it's used to portray unrealistic things. It's almost like giving these creatures a stamp of authenticity, as if there really were hippo-headed giants and bird-riding warriors and Piranhasmoose that sat for portraits 120 years ago. And I like playing in a sandbox in which anything is possible. Readers never know what to expect when they come to read the latestWondermark, and having the work occupy a world where absolutely anything can happen keeps things interesting for the readers and me both.
Now imagine that I am a bear, saying all that. See? It STILL WORKS.
How do you think comics and sequential art have evolved since the Victorian era?
Comic strips (the precursor to comic books as we know them) didn't come into being until the early 20th century, but you can see antecedents of comics in the Victorian era. Punch was doing humorous single-panel illustrations with captions in the mid-19th century, and once the market for documentary illustration flattened out (with the advent of photography), all those highly-trained artists had to do something with their time. Many who worked drawing houses for Harper's in the 1890s went on to draw comics in the 1910s, and in the Hearst days of newspaper wars and ubiquitous mass media, comics and magazine gag cartoons were tremendously popular and for some artists, tremendously lucrative. But that all came later! You can see precursors to the multi-panel strip here and there in the 1800s: a gag cartoon might be broken into six panels on a page, each with a caption, explaining how some poor fellow's vacation got worse and worse.
In Wondermark, by taking the format and vernacular of a contemporary comic strip and populating it with characters and imagery from the Victorian era, it becomes something new--comics in the Victorian era (such as they were) didn't look much like they do today. That's kind of exciting to me! Sort of like introducing an old farmer to a modern grocery store, or putting a Model T engine in a DeLorean. Wait--that wouldn't work at all. What I do is like putting a Zeppelin engine in a DeLorean. Perfect.
What advice do you have for people who want to buy Victorian illustrations like the ones you use in your work?
It's not as difficult to find as you might think! Most of the images I use for Wondermark are magazine and newspaper illustrations, and a lot of that material is available as bound library editions. I do a lot of research in my local library's microfilm periodicals archive, and it's also fun to poke around Google Books, the Internet Archive, and other scanned repositories. But since I'm creating print-resolution works, I need to work from actual paper sources...so once the research has pointed mento a particular title or volume of a title, then I look on eBay! You can get great stuff if you're not too picky about condition (which I'm not). Weird stuff pops up in used bookstores too, but that's strictly luck if it does. Allow for serendipity, but it's good to put in the work as well. Also, important note: 1922 is the latest publication year where you can be absolutely certain the material is in the public domain.
Okay, thirty-second elevator speech: why should people read Wondermark?
If you think that life is fundamentally ridiculous, and you like staring through slightly warped windows to watch the wobbly world beyond, you might like Wondermark. I didn't mean for that to come out quite so alliterative, but I think it can only help my case so I'm sticking with it. Wondermark is by turns silly, sarcastic, incisive and good-natured--just like YOU.
Any last words?
That prompt sounds very ominous! What do you know that I don't??