David Lester is multi-talented creator whose work fuses the personal and political, the aesthetic and the mundane, even as it entertains and challenges. However, recently Lester entered new artistic territory with the release of The Listener, his first OGN (original graphic novel).
Lester took a few moments from his work to talk about the roots and offshoots of The Listener, how his various projects often morph and cross disciplines, and reveal the secret source of his creative powers among other topics, in this exclusive interview for TMR.
Let’s start with the basics. What is The Listener, and what’s it about?
The Listener is a graphic novel that tells the true story of the last democratic election to take place in Germany before Hitler seized power. It is also a fictional story, set in the present day, about a female artist who creates a sculpture that inspires a man to commit a political act that ends in his death. The link between the two stories is art and politics. Aesthetics were an important part of Nazi ideology, while in today’s world, art and politics can be a valuable part of progressive social change.
Where’d this all come from? When did you first conceive of the project, and how did you develop it from that initial idea to the final, printed book?
I’m particularly interested in 20th century history, and several years ago I read a mention of the 1933 Lippe election in regards to Hitler’s rise to power. The Lippe election seemed a pivotal moment that had been relegated to obscurity. Significant moments are often lost in history because they pale in comparison to the enormity of events that followed—the Third Reich, World War Two, and the holocaust. Because of that, I thought this would be an exciting, interesting and important story to tell. Especially because events took place in a democratic country and Hitler was a politician much like we see today, utilizing mass media and spin-doctoring techniques.
In history it is often easier to relate to the death of one person over the deaths of millions, and that is what I’m trying to do by focusing my graphic novel on this little election in Lippe.
My research uncovered photos, speeches and news reports about the Lippe election. Though it wasn’t until I’d completed this 312-page book that I approached publishers. Several were interested but I chose a Canadian one called Arbeiter Ring Publishing that was distributed in the U.S. by AK Press. One of the biggest thrills in life was finally holding the printed version of The Listener.
Why do it as a graphic, as opposed to a prose, novel?
I’ve primarily been a visual artist and a musician and so it seemed logical that I would make The Listener as a graphic novel.
What’s your creative process? Do you write up a script or some kind of outline first, and then do thumbnails of the pages before actually drawing them, or do you prefer to just sit down and let the ink fly?
For The Listener, I wrote the script first, breaking it down into numbered scenes. Then I visually plotted out each scene using thumbnail sketches. The final drawings were often preceded by dozens of preparatory sketches.
How and when did comics first catch your eye, and what about the medium’s kept you interested—both as a creator and a reader?
As a child I read Classics Illustrated, horror comics, and Mad Magazine and in my teens I followed the work of Jim Steranko and the underground comic art of Richard Corben. In adulthood, I discovered the drawings of George Grosz, Robert Minor and Saul Steinberg.
In recent years I’ve been excited by the comic art of Joe Sacco and Jason Lutes. Comics continue to fulfill my interest in the written word and visual art, and sometimes they can have an artistic power to do things not possible in strictly prose or film.
You’re a multi-talented individual, which made me wonder how much those various interests intersect and interact while creating your work, generally?
The incredible reality of living an artistic life is that you don’t often know where things you create will lead. An artist’s work will often overlap other creative projects. Jean Smith, the singer in my underground rock duo Mecca Normal, has created an adaptation of The Listener that involves Powerpoint images, theatre, and a performance of our band. The Listener is a graphic novel, a live performance, an interview, a political event, a song, a workshop, or one day it could become a film. Each metamorphosis contains its own stand alone qualities. The Listener has many lives, and with art we don’t always know where it will lead.
You just mentioned your work as half of Mecca Normal. What kind of influence has music had on your comics?
Mecca Normal has been the thread that has held my artistic life together. An artistic life shared with Jean Smith. The power of her paintings and drawings have been a major influence on my own visual art. I’m also very inspired by how she talks about aesthetics. Jean gets to the essence of what is important. This is a vital connection to have with another artist. It is the fuel you need sometimes.
Jean writes novels and often parts of her novels become Mecca Normal songs and vice versa. As Mecca Normal we are portable and flexible enough to play a rock festival or give a lecture in a classroom. This artistic agility is crucial to longevity and fun. Over the years of making The Listener, we recorded two albums, a 7”, toured North America and had art exhibits.
So, what do you get from making comics, music and your design work?
There is an invigorating energy that comes with creating. Sometimes, life can wear you down with its complacently and predictability, but all you need is an idea and the world changes forever in that moment.
What would you like your audience to get from your music?
I never know how my work will be perceived and that is the great democracy of art. I've had people come up to me at shows and say they didn’t understand the band 10 years ago, but now they do.
Well, what’s next for you, comics-wise? How about musically or otherwise?
Mecca Normal will be recording a new album. We're presenting a book-making workshop on “Art & Political Engagement” at a conference for Teachers for Peace and Global Education. I’m hoping to publish a book of my Inspired Agitators poster series, which profiles activists in history. Jean has recently finished writing her third novel and we'll be combining all of these projects for various events.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The Listener can be ordered through your local bookstore, or online at Amazon.com or directly from the distributor AK Press. Check out our newsletter. To see the Inspired Agitator poster series, go to The Black Dot Museum of Political Art. Jean Smith and I do a weekly column of illustration and text for Magnet Magazine.