Chicago Artist Profile: Ben Marcus
Ben Marcus work has been seen in Lumpen Magazine, and his own self published books. He also has promoted DJ nights through Chicago, including the Total Therapy series at the Boystown nightclub, Berlin, and under his moniker Pluto. He has also designed the sets and posters for those shows as well. Marcus occupies an interesting space between dayglow nightlight in the Chicago Dance scene and the Alt Comics crowd, an original form that I wanted to explore in a longer conversation.
Max Morris: My understanding is that you worked for Red Moon Theatre in Chicago, and I’ve seen you do a lot of promotional artwork for your DJ series. Can you speak on those experiences?
Ben Marcus: Well, I suppose I started throwing throwing my own parties to make a setting where my ideal Dj set made sense in. I wasn’t playing in proper nightclubs for a while so I wanted to make one to fit my ideals basically. We put a lot of effort into attending to all of the aspects of the experience and as we continued with having events I kept expanding what I could do with the decorations.
I realized later on that they were essentially just party decorations but I’d been thinking about them in terms of theatre and set design from the start. I wanted the parties to be extremely immersive, and have very little to do with an average ‘night life’ experience. I found a way to work with images and materials that convey a sense of place and meaning with a lot of efficiency. I learned to prioritize meaning so that the important details are emphasized, for heightened clarity and simplicity of creation.
Working with Redmoon was very educational. When I first started I was excited to collaborate as I saw them as doing what I wanted to do but on a much larger more professional scale. In the end I lost a lot of my interest in throwing my own events as I realized that I had made what I wanted to make for the most part, and that I wanted to change the scale of the art I made from public and impersonal to something smaller and intimate like comics. Working there helped me focus my own priorities, and I realized how important is to me to make things that I personally care about.
It turns out I have a kind of agenda for experience when it comes to art creation, from my work to the viewer, and I didn’t notice that as much till I was working with another large group that had a different agenda than mine. I found that I could be more precious with how I want art to be made and seen.
MM: It seems in both realms you are working in creating an immersive landscape, an experience. In the past few years you have been active in the Chicago alt comics scene- it seems that graphic narrative suits well to the experience you are working towards creating. Was this something that you felt compelled towards, or did you already have an interest in comics?
BM: Yeah, I didn’t grow up obsessing over comics really. I came to comics basically because I wanted to draw more and comics are a great way to carry drawings around inside a narrative. Drawing ‘for’ something. ‘For’ a story. Re-kindling my interest in drawing, I got really attracted to manga because it operates very cinematically and requires a lot of the illustrator.
But both of those challenges appeal to me as I’ve always cared a lot about making and watching movies. So I started to really obsess over drawing for comic narratives. Images that read clearly and convey a lot of nuanced information. It’s extremely hard for me to do. But yeah sometimes I think about making comics as these tiny movie drawings. I mean that’s how they seem to me after I make them, mind movies or something. But also not even a real whole movie, just scenes from movies, excerpts, or trying to remember a movie and explaining it to someone.
MM: There are a lot of flavors of manga and anime out there, but I see you attracted to a certain type- the romantic, melodramatic flavor, Shojo manga, but also the influence of underground work as well, such as Yokoyama. I feel that I’ve seen that some of these influences bleed
into the DJ/Dance universe that you have promoted shows for as well. Do you sense a kinship between that part of culture that you felt drawn to, and the aesthetic qualities of Japanese comics and animation?
BM: It seems this relationship changes a lot for me. I have a lot of different ideas and I try to find aesthetics that match those ideas. But there is a cross-over for me with the romantic comics and the night-life aesthetics, and how I see them intermingle. I think it comes down to this intense romantic desire of certain dance music. It’s hard to pin-down because it’s like talking about a feeling that a short chord progression can give me. Of course there are the lyrics which are often pretty straight forward. Also a lot of music is about love, a lot of dance music is more immediate type of love, almost more generic, but still feels vital.
So it’s very solipsistic which I think a lot of American alt comics are anyway, or were, I’m not totally sure what the thing is now. That autobiographically sad sack comic thing is part of the form, part of the history of the cliche role of the artist even. But to me striving to convey personal truth is too complicated for me. I do have these intense feelings that I want to convey, but I know they are cliche but also very relatable, very common. It’s like why bother to make it more personal to strive for authenticity, why not exaggerate the generalizations revealing myself in the awareness of the short sightedness of the obsession over romantic experiences/
So it’s a hopeful message, and I think sometimes hope can be another mask of desperation. This needing to escape something, towards a dream of the future. It’s almost sci-fi to me to talk about yearning for something to walk into your life from the future. It’s like prayer, this deep wishing for something, but it’s funny to me because it’s wishing for romance. So right there I have a lot of vibrant imagery I can draw, a vivid context. It’s highly imaginative speculation, what takes place in the melodramatic romantic narrative, so that’s really fun for me to make art from that shiny dream place.
I find that actual real-life relationships have more mundane qualities to them. But that’s ok, to me it’s the intense emotional experience that is being validated. Because the way life feels can be starkly different than the way it actually is. So it’s this infusing of this extremely narrow hope for things to be a certain way, this intense romantic desire, but in this generic language, not too specific about who and how. So aesthetically they are both talking about this experience but symbolically, in a language that might seem foreign, vaguely alien and trite.
MM: With that in mind, the most recent work by you, “Sadness of Time” by Tan & Loose Press, is less representative of the romantic universe just described, and was a bit different of the work I’ve seen from you. What were you thinking of as the goal of that work when you began it?
BM: With the ‘Sadness Of Time’ comic. I wanted to try making a more traditional narrative. Characters, expansive location, and even dialogue. But the vibe is still coming from a similar place that my other comic work comes from. It’s just a much darker, pessimistic, gothic tone. I wanted to give myself an excuse to draw the saddest character you’ve ever seen. This level of sadness requires a level of fantasy embellishment to get darker tones.
MM: You’ve said “Sadness of Time” is a continuing series with Tan & Loose press, what else are you working towards in the future?
BM: Well, actually I think that I’m going to make single final book of Sadness Of Time. Originally I thought I could release the entire book as separate issues, and sell them individually on-line. On a monthly or bi-monthly basis. I’m not really fond of that idea now and I prefer people to have an entire story in their hands. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll make a long rambling story on a subscription basis, but not now, I don’t think I’m there in terms of readership or dedication.
The future is me trying to learn music making on a regular basis and make big paintings. Finishing the Sadness of Time is going to take a lot of time and effort so that’s going to be a lot of what lies ahead. We’ll see where I’m at by the time I work my way out of that.
You can see more of Ben Marcus’ work at benjaminmarcusi.tumblr.com/, listen to his sounds at soundcloud.com/deejaypluto and order his book from Tan & Loose press at tlpress.bigcartel.com/product/sadness-of-time-by-ben-marcus