William Brian MacLean produces and distributes independent comics, and his work can be found at Rooster Tree, here. Interviewed for PRATE by Lynn Alexander.
LA: Could you start by describing Rooster Tree, and your current projects?
WBM: RoosterTree is the name I use when self-publishing comics. There was a time when I was excited about the prospect of bringing my talented friends together as a collective, but it sputtered. Now RoosterTree is an effort in self-reliance, & I branch out from here to work with others.
Currently, I’m passionate about non-fiction. The trampling of rights, gender bias & sexual ignorance, age bias & generational ignorance, these things in particular gall me to no end. I’m compelled to sculpt them into the comics form.
LA: I remember some of our discussions at Outsider Writers, where I first came across you and your work. OWC is a collective of diverse, creative individuals who share a sense that they are apart in many ways from mainstream or established institutions or communities, many are self taught or produce independent zines. There is some agreement that the lines are blurry as far as what constitutes an “outsider” and whether or not such distinctions even matter. To me, “outsider” is not about labels or the spaces we inhabit, but about a state of mind when we approach creativity. I do not like the idea of barriers that keep people out when it comes to art. I’m curious about your sense of “outsider” writing and art, your thoughts on these kinds of questions. I’m curious about your own path, how you came to OWC, and now that you are with us- your experience. I wonder how you identify yourself, and if you use terms, what terms do you connect to and identify with?
WBM: There are barriers everywhere! When I was playing music, I’d meet people who seemed to have something cool & different – they were outsiders at first glance. Then, when I was on the cusp of being welcomed into the fold, I found there were rules to abide by, sometimes more strict than anything in ‘accepted society.’ I’d do some research in an attempt to understand the clique, to see if I really wanted to be associated & labeled; I would usually end up amused in
the most bitter of ways when I’d learn that whomever I’d envied didn’t adhere to the philosophy they claimed to embrace, whether naive or hypocritical.
Now I see it everywhere – you aren’t punk enough, you aren’t gay enough, you aren’t feminist enough. I’m not anything enough except contradictory; I can get along with nearly anyone until the big questions get asked. I dislike barriers & labels, & have great affinity for the grey areas in between the tribes, their customs & belief systems.
I suppose what I’m getting at is I don’t see myself as an Outsider artist, I’m an Outsider person. Insiders (if I can use that term for Jane & John Average) love self-defining terms to rally around, to reinforce their comfortable facades so they can pretend to be normal in nice big normal groups. No one’s normal, really – there’s just a whole lot of people trying to be normal, a good number of the overly vain making great efforts to be anti-normal, & *ahem* us wise few trying to tear off the masks we donned in our youth so we can learn who we really are. Without my mask, I think I have something I can teach the world. ‘Reality’ looks a certain way to me & I’m keenly aware that my world is vastly different from my next door neighbour’s world, my co-worker’s, my local grocer’s, my Mom’s, my Member of Parliament’s. As a result, my comics are Outsider, & there’s absolutely no effort on my part to make them that.
As for my own self-definition during my development, any time I found I could label myself, I’d see if I could break it down. Guitarist became musician who happened to play guitar, became artist who created with music. I’m not so headstrong about art anymore; I’m perfectly at ease as a comics creator, rather than a writer/illustrator or the
blanket term ‘artist,’ although they all apply. My vanity wants to rebel against the more fundamental identifiers like gender & orientation, the things that aren’t so much about what I do but who I am.
LA: The following is something you wrote a few months ago, about the
drive to create:
“I believe I’ve just acknowledged what drives me to create. It’s a
sense of incompleteness, perhaps in me personally, perhaps in my
immediate surroundings or even the greater world.”
You went on to say that there are differences in the immediacy of art, drawing versus writing, and the sense of needing to capture a particular moment. Can you explain the sense of “need” when it comes to your creative work? Why you need to create, why do you continue?
A: Physically, I’m a homebody, but I don’t languish anywhere philosophically. I constantly reevaluate why I do what I do. I remember making that statement, but there’s this distance between the me when that statement was 100% true & the me right now. I’m not so sure there’s any incompleteness. Today’s terminology includes the words ignorant, self-deceptive, misguided. Not that I think I was necessarily mistaken, but I’m recognizing, to a certain level of
satisfaction, that ‘incompleteness’ was like a placeholder for something I hadn’t yet identified. Incompleteness knows it’s missing something, but not what that something is.
The need to create, though, is a mystery. This very moment, I’m creating text to relate my ideas. I break that down into the desire to be understood, choosing words & crafting phrases that have a flow to them so they’re easy to read & they transfer ideas without unnecessary mental effort for the reader, which culminates in an effort to gain respect. But there’s a job at hand – the questions have been asked & need answering, so this isn’t the same as making art.
I went through an interesting transition a few years ago with psychiatric medication. Before meds, ‘now’ was all that mattered. With a lover, when we fought, then we may as well have been breaking up, because that’s how painful it felt. Happiness now was happiness always; unhappiness now was unhappiness always. When it came to writing words, all I was capable of conceptualizing was song lyrics or blog posts. With the turn of a page came a blank slate; the page
before may as well have never existed.
With meds, my entire conception of reality has ‘opened up.’ I can write a 100-page script & have a concept in my mind of the themes, the progressions between scenes & how they go together to make the whole.When I fight with my partner, I have a sense of preservation of the relationship over the long term. I can tell this is a bump & I shouldn’t push too hard, because I don’t want to give her a reason to never return.
As I analyze the difference between pre-meds & now, it makes perfect sense to me that music was my artform. With music, ‘now’ is all that matters; listening, performing or creating, music is always in the moment. With meds, I’m post-music. I have a broader sense of reality, so music doesn’t satisfy me anymore. But I still have the need to make
something from nothing, which is where storytelling comes in. If all I had in the world was mashed potatoes, that would be my medium.
LA: Comics. Art and Commerce. What are you willing to say on these?
WBM: I don’t know if I have a right to comment. I’ve come to realize most comics creators are like musicians – they started in their teens or earlier, were driven to the medium & it’s all they do. I grew up reading comics, but I dropped them for music. I’m a 40-year-old who has only been making comics for about 5 years, so I’m a latecomer.
At around 37, the meds caused music to lose its appeal & most of my creative history went with it. At that point, I kicked myself for sticking to my creative vision instead of writing pop music & going for the money. With comics, I’m driven to tell certain stories, the marketplace be damned. I do have stories written about mythology & superheroes, fantastical tales that could be commercially viable, but I believe I have a purpose & am compelled to stick to it. I’ll never learn.
It’s a good thing I don’t measure success in dollars.
LA: When you think about artists that you admire, comic artists or otherwise, who stands out?
What are some of the common attributes, what are some of the traits that seem common between the artists whose work you find yourself drawn to?
WBM: There are too many artists I admire for various reasons to try to list them all. Honesty, vision & eccentricity tend to speak to me.
With three sentences during a 20min critique a few years ago, indie comics creator Chester Brown completely changed the way I write. The raw honesty in his autobiographical work is the biggest influence in my autobio writing.
I’m completely enamoured with the complexity of Alan Moore’s plotting & his full-bodied approach to character sexuality.
John Romita Jr’s artwork is the perfect example of comics illustration that walks the line between realistic anatomical rendering & caricature. I’m tempted to use the term ‘cartoony’ to evoke the less-realistic rendering of ‘cute’ & ‘funnybook’ comics, which is what I mean by caricature, but the word ‘cartoon’ doesn’t mean what we think it means.
Musicians like Bjork, Prince & Frank Zappa cut a swath of originality through popular music that is nothing short of breathtaking. With words, Kim Gordon, Clive Barker, Kevin Smith & Charlie Kaufman are able to get at the essence of humanity in their own unique ways.
LA: What are your plans, looking ahead?
WBM: Every day I take a breath is a good day to be alive. I mean that. If someone took my pencils away there’d be no reason to live, because life for its own sake is completely pointless. I mean that, too.
LA: How can we find out more about you and your work, websites, etc.
WBM: My ‘tactile’ comics are available through http://roostertree.com/ In the works is the 2nd issue of Lynchpin, a Kindle release of issue #1 & a current affairs-inspired webcomic series. E-comics & a gallery of my cartoon portrait work are in development for http://wbmaclean.com/ I’m ‘RoosterTree’ on both Twitter & WordPress, & ‘William Brian
MacLean’ on The Sphere & Outsider Writers. I try to attend the monthly Toronto Comic Jam at Cameron House as
often as possible.
roostertree.com – comics self-publishing
wbmaclean.com – artwork site