Magical Los Angeles: An Interview with Tom Manning




TOM MANNING IS perhaps best known for his graphic novel Runoff, about otherworldly happenings in a town called Range, Washington — a book that Guillermo del Toro considers “as scary as it is moving.” Manning is also the author of the graphic novels RACECAR and, most recently, Eric. We talked over email about Eric, which is now available to readers alongside a kind of personal soundtrack. Leslie Stevens recorded the main character Eric’s song “So So Surreal,” while DJ Mike Relm’s “Change the Channel” is inspired by the book. One band even recorded as Eric and offers their version of his first hit, “Beach Bum #1.”

Eric is about a washed-up, beach-dwelling musician in Los Angeles who has spent his career riding the waves of changing California sounds and drug trends only to find himself on the verge of complete psychological annihilation — or transcendence? — upon the promotion of his greatest hits record. Magic abounds in Eric, but beside all the spell-casting and fantasy devices are many opportunities for readers to identify familiar tropes about the music industry and the city of Los Angeles. Because Eric plays with so many allusions to California stories well known and obscure, I wanted to ask Manning about the importance of influence, collaboration, and deification in his newest work. Eric functions as a definitive California artwork, yet does so despite — or perhaps because — it transgresses generic boundaries.

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SARAH HESTON: Can you tell me how this project came into being, and how California (or the West, less specifically) is the right setting for the book’s action?

TOM MANNING: The idea of the book came to me in 2008 after I saw a late-night TV infomercial for a “Best-of-the-’60s” CD. It struck me how I knew pretty much every song, but almost none of the bands. There were a lot of one-hit wonders, and I couldn’t help but wonder what those people were doing now, specifically what it’s like to think of yourself as a cultural change agent but then turn out a to be one-hit wonder.

I grew up in a very small town in Washington State called Enumclaw. It’s a dairy and logging town in the Cascade Mountains. I moved to L.A. in 1995 to attend Occidental College, and lived in Los Angeles for seven years. Los Angeles was a massive change for me, and it remains a place that both fascinates and horrifies me. There is a hyper-individualism that Los Angeles can breed, partially I think because you can become so isolated if you want. I remember being stuck in L.A. rush hour gridlock traffic and realizing all the freeway lanes in both directions were full of these massive cars containing only one person in each of them. There is an isolation you can find in Los Angeles that can lead you to breed your own reality, to curate and craft identities.

Writing Eric was really a way of wrestling with that aspect of myself, of my ego. I wanted to write about the large degree of artifice that makes up American individuality, about how we can lose ourselves in the hall of mirrors that is Americana.

The 1960s have fascinated me, particularly the dark underbelly of the decade. And the center of the dark underbelly at the time was Los Angeles. Not just Charles Manson, but Arthur Lee (of Love fame) holing himself up in “The Castle” in the L.A. hills obsessing over the album Forever Changes because he was convinced he would die right after he finished it, and Brian Wilson falling deeper into madness while recording Pet Sounds and Smile. There’s Jim Morrison, and there’s the renewed interest in the occult which spawned people like Anton LaVey, Jack Parsons, and others. There is something about Los Angeles. When I go back to Washington, I feel the end of the American frontier is felt there in regards to nature, but in Los Angeles it seems to be registered psychically. For dreamers, there is no further west to go, and when things don’t work out, a spiraling down and inward begins to happen.

What else is important to note about your aesthetic form and artistic influences?

One thing I think is important is that I make all my comics using certain restrictions:

  1. No thought balloons
  2. No third-person narrator/expository text (in comics the text usually found in the square caption boxes that might read “Two days later…”)
  3. Black and white only
  4. Everything by hand (no digital inking, lettering, et cetera)

I’ve found these restrictions force me to make better comics. When you don’t have thought balloons or third-person narration to fall back on, you really have to think about how to pace scenes and handle transitions. I find it leads to comics that are more cinematic, because the reader has to pull a lot more from visual cues.

I think of myself of a practitioner of a type of art I call Gothic American Surrealism. It can be found in various mediums: the writings of Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy; the photographs of Diane Arbus, O. Winston Link, Ralph Eugene Meatyard; the music of Brian Wilson, Warren Zevon, DJ Shadow; the films of David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick; and TV shows like The LeftoversFargoLegionMad Men, and Twin Peaks.

Can you talk about the importance of allusion and sampling in Eric?

Eric is itself made up heavily of samples. Dialogue, places, scenes, and images are often samples from (admittedly obscure) songs, movies, TV, and literature, ranging from Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust to the B surf movie Big Wednesday. For example, chapter two, “Desperados Under the Eaves,” is named after a song by Warren Zevon. There are many, many more. Writing this book at times reminded me of another great American art form: hip-hop, where entire musical tracks are created from samples, with DJs and producers taking pleasure digging in the crates for obscure clips, and enthusiasts giddily trying to decode them.

I find it ironic that Americans put so much stock in individuality. All people change who we are not only from day to day, but from person to person that we interact with. So individuality is conditional, especially for Americans. But beauty can arise from that, and I find the clearest example in American music. Country music is the product of the instruments you would find among the immigrants of the Appalachian mountains: the Irish fiddle, the German accordion and harmonica, the West African banjo. African Americans merged African musical traditions with European instrumentation to give birth to jazz, the blues, and rock ’n’ roll. And hip-hop gets right to the point, with a producer like Prince Paul blending James Brown, Johnny Cash, Kraftwerk, and Steely Dan to create a single, new soundscape. It’s a form of music that is created largely through sampling and reappropriation. Something new created via samples of the past. In hip-hop, genre and individual style give way to a celebration of flexibility, of multiplicity. I think that spirit is an honest expression of what American identity is. And it is this love of sampling, of appropriation, that I find inherently and instinctually American about the way I create. Freeing myself from having to create with a single voice to instead “speak in tongues” seems more natural to me. It’s not that it’s easy to do. But it does feel more honest in a strange way.

Your use of “sampling” in Eric also has a mystical dimension, more like tuning in to some source, perhaps a muse, perhaps a line of artistic influence. Aleister Crowley (one of your many referents in Eric) describes this as a kind of magic, focusing on how imparting one’s will into a book is the first step to getting it published and then out in the world to take on a life of its own. By contrast, you bring up speaking in tongues, which is really a departure from individual will, perhaps.

I love that you are thinking about Crowley. Willpower and magic are in this book for a reason. Putting your will into something, releasing your willpower over something — as you may know the Cremation of Care Ritual discussed in the book is a real thing, happening annually at Bohemian Grove in California. Other things I made up, for instance the secret invocation of a Djinn by an even more inside group to infuse their will over things when people have ceded their willpower. And of course there are many instances of magic found by my characters the Grimoire Five, all of which are real spells and symbols pulled from grimoires such as the Clavicula Salomonis. I’m not saying to take these elements of the book literally, of course. The through-lines should instead be the power of intention, of will, a power that we both hope for and fear, and the strange cocktail of hubris and powerlessness that makes up conspiracy theories and our fear and fascination with the occult.

You’re right to pick up on the Pentecostal reference for the term “speaking in tongues.” I was raised Catholic, so I was never around that branch of Christianity, but I think its popularity in America speaks yet again to our national identity. At the same time, I also think there is a difference between ignorantly serving as a vessel for something, and going into it willingly. But then the question arises: “If our individuality is really a hodgepodge of artifice, why do you believe in willpower? Whose will is it?” To that I would say there is a part of us that can be awake to ourselves, the part of us that can watch ourselves.

When we are clear-eyed about the fact that what we think of as our individual self is really a hodgepodge of artifice, and not really our self, that can be both freeing and terrifying. Our ego constantly chases fleeting needs, which is why an identity based on that ego is fleeting, and happiness based on feeding that ego is fleeting. I think true happiness is probably only attained by the release of ego, which is ironically our ego’s greatest fear. In Eric, I try to capture the horror and freedom of what it might be like to actually erase your ego. It’s all in the book’s opening quote from the Beach Boys: “Hang on to your ego / hang on but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight.”

We can’t talk about California without talking about water. Can you discuss how you use water as a visual image to show change in psychic and/or material landscapes? This seems like such a relevant visual analogue for everything we’ve discussed thus far, which might be summed up (if too simply) as fluidity in narrative, spirituality, and aesthetics. As a corollary, is this congruent or in tension with the strict restrictions you place on your form?

Water in the book tracks to the Jungian idea of water symbolizing the unconscious. Along with my personal artistic vision, and use of sampling, we get reflections of something deeper below the observable surface. This perhaps becomes clearest in the third chapter, which starts out with Eric in the ocean with his “Beach Bum #1” sign; moves to his hotel room slowly filling up with water as he wades deeper into his memories, finally awakening in a panic; and ends with him following Carmelita’s lead by submerging himself into the pool. In each of these instances, water can be read as a symbol of the unconscious.

The ending of Eric happens quickly. I found myself flipping the pages faster and faster as the pace of what’s happening to Eric keeps picking up. Then boom, we end with a surprise that can be understood in so many ways. How many of the ways that readers can interpret the ending are productive? I’m interested here in what you see as the stakes for ambiguity in visual and written art forms, and also how such ambiguity might relate to the question of speaking in tongues that we discussed above.

This is a great question — and a really hard one to answer. Let me put it this way. Events happen through cause and effect. I hope the ending of the book has clarity around effect, and ambiguity around cause. The end of Kubrick’s 2001 came to mind for me when crafting this ending. We see the astronaut Dave has transcended our understanding, he travels and is reborn, but the cause is ambiguous. Has he entered a new stage of evolution, of understanding? Is it the final stage, or just the next stage? Kubrick may have had an answer to this, but leaving the ending open for interpretation makes it stronger, more transcendental. And while I don’t think every story needs this level of ambiguity, I think Eric does. A lot of my work seems to be a bit of a tightrope walk. Eric is a story constructed around things that have negative connotations: appropriation, sampling, ambiguity. I think there is a thrill in trying to get the right balance when working with these qualities so that the story becomes engaging, surprising. Redirection of expectation is at the heart of so many good stories, and I strive for this quality in mine.

I want to push on this idea that the ending of the book has clarity around effect, and ambiguity around cause. Without spoiling the novel’s end, something magical happens. Let me play the devil’s advocate about that. Remember when the TV show Lost got huge and fans dissected every episode to death and eventually everyone was furious that all the work they put in ended in nothing more than the revelation that the characters had died and were in purgatory since the plane crash of the very first episode? I don’t want to suggest that something similarly deflating happens in Eric, because after the title character leaves the pages, we still have a message from him that other characters act on. Eric’s words take on a life of their own. Should I thus take Aleister Crowley at his word that the true evidence of the reality of magic is that, after publication, a book takes a life on of its own, which of course must require ambiguity to reach a large audience? Is Eric not just about, but evidence of, magic?

This is so funny. I just sent an email to someone referencing Lost and how irritating and unsatisfying that show was! That is eerie and hilarious. I totally know what you mean. I will say that I think the book invites two extreme readings that are both false: one being that the whole thing is a drug trip Eric experiences while sitting in his hotel room, the other being that he is a multiverse spanning legend. With regard to the “it’s all a drug trip” reading, recall that people begin “disappearing” before Eric takes peyote in the Hollywood Hawaiian. In the beginning of the book, when Eric calls Trout late at night to complain about Olmec Tolkien not making the best of album, he says, “made me miss ol’ DMT Dave … hope that dude shows up somewhere…” This may seem like a throwaway line, but given that this is a book in which people suddenly disappear, I hope that it’s one that sticks out on a second read.

And of course, Carmelita and the Djinn deconstruct the multiverse conspiracy for Eric, decoupling the content seen on screen from the screen itself. That said, he himself makes a similar point, though less poetically, early in the book when he says, “It all depends on the channel! You’re a television man, right? And television … it’s a box … and on this channel the box is like … this show … you know? You’re nice. But, like change the channel … and you might get a cop show or a cooking show … same TV! Same box!”

So those are a couple things worth pointing to, which I hope suggest that Eric’s epiphany may have less to do with the novelty of the idea and more to do with how he applied that idea or understood its implications internally and externally. One other thing I’ll point you to is in the form of the book itself. The front is Eric’s face, the back of the book is the back of his head. The book literally takes place in his head. I hope this is a case in which readers will get the joke, and laugh about it, but also be inspired to think about it. All our lives take place in our heads, but while that is true, it’s also a gross over-simplification.

So where to go from the end of the book? This may seem like the biggest non-answer, but I swear it also reveals my deepest artistic intentions: I hope the end of the book launches you where you need to go. I don’t expect that will be the same from reader to reader, but I hope from reader to reader it is a place of interest. I hope the story takes on a life of its own, but that doesn’t mean a universal life. Rather, it should be one that varies from reader to reader. I’ll leave it there.

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Sarah Heston is a nonfiction writer whose manuscript, Daughter of Endtimes, is a true-crime, survivalist memoir that details a daughter-father relationship built on apocalyptic end-of-days scenarios in Los Angeles.


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