(Because 10 isn’t enough — and who has time to read 12?)
The word “genius” is used so often that it’s lost all impact.
However British comic writer Paul O’Connell is nothing less than a comic book genius. Creator of the The Sound of Drowning series of comic stories, his work has been called “a devastatingly funny, misanthropic and strangely beautiful carnival of delights” by 3 a.m., Magazine. Mark Stafford at The London Cartoon Museum has said of O’Connell’s work: “Paul O’Connell’s Sound of Drowning strips are my favourite Brit finds of recent years. He has a knack for nailing a specific kind of urban unease, for detailing the fantasy lives of the impotent, and our disquiet at the gulf between our shiny expectations and the shabby reality around us. Highly recommended and bloody funny too.”
O’Connell said some of his comic book favorites have been American superhero comics, Mad Magazine, the legendary U.K. Science fiction comic 2000 AD, and the European editions of Heavy Metal.
T.E. Pouncey: Your biography of Charlie Parker was one of the best I’ve ever seen presented in any medium. What interested you to write about him?
Paul O’Connell: I think Charlie Parker is a very interesting artistic figure. He took an art-form (jazz) and did things, not just with the form, but with the whole idea of ‘music’ that people had never conceived of. I think innovators are always fascinating. You want to know what makes them tick, what their secret ingredient is, how did they get to be so ‘special’. Or at least, I always do!
TEP: You wrote a wonderful story called It’s A Small Press World about rivalries among comic book creators. Why do you think comic books continue to be dominated by the superhero genre, when so many fans seem to want an alternative?
PO: Why are superhero comics the dominant form of comics? It’s a good question when there are so many other possibilities. It seems sad to me that with the enormity of the vocabulary that comic strip creators have to work with — every word, image, and emotion since creation — that so many people just want to write, draw, and read about men in tights. I don’t know. What do the experts say? It’s beyond escapism. It’s pretty weird. No wonder comics have a hard time being taken seriously.
TEP: Many of your stories feature real people such as John Travolta and Walt Disney. Do you choose a celebrity and then write a story, or do you create a plot and then determine a celebrity to use in the story?
PO: I think it’s about defining a reality more comfortable whilst also knowing — and being able to laugh at — the futility of the endeavor. Certain human beings, for all different kinds of reasons, stand out from the crowd. They become people we project our own stuff onto. The idea of the person becomes more real than the person themselves. It’s fun to take one of those people and start throwing them around and into unexpected places. It’s a gag that everybody gets.
TEP: You have written stories such as The Eyes Of Travolta and Maskon and Corporate Animals that are satirical, eerie, horrific, and funny all at the same time. How do you combine so many elements in one story?
PO: Thank you for crediting me with the intention, but it just seems to be the way my brain works!
TEP: You have written about Charlie Parker, Bonnie Tyler, The Supremes, and David Bowie. What kind of music do you like to listen to when you write?
PO: I’m always listening to all kinds of music. This last week I’ve been listening to a great Trojan Records Jamaican ska compilation called The Roots of Skinhead Reggae.
TEP: You wrote about meeting Frank Black while on tour as a solo musician. What is the one thing you discovered as a traveling musician that you were absolutely unprepared for?
PO: That actually was a friend of mine whose name was omitted to protect the innocent! He also told me another one about Vic Chestnut that I may have to tell the world one day.
TEP: You have worked with some wonderful artists. Who are some of your favorite collaborators?
PO: Lawrence Elwick (who illustrated the Charlie Parker strip) is an astonishingly great artist. Watching him draw is humbling and mesmerizing. We’re currently working on a whole series of strips that will make up a future issue of The Sound of Drowning. There are some people who have very fixed ideas of what comic strip art should look like and it’s not The Sound of Drowning. I thought it would be fun to confound them.
Nelson Evergreen also awes me with his artwork. So far we’ve only worked on a couple of small pieces (like ‘Fucked Up Moments in Rock’ in The Sound of Drowning #9). But we’re currently working on a strip about ‘Sabrina’, a blonde-bombshell who was very famous in the 1950s, but who for some reason time has forgot.
Laura O and I have also recently been doing some comics together. She’s probably the best writer I’ve ever met and she doesn’t even think of herself as one. It’s tragic. She dabbles in many things though. I recently coloured some of her very fun and very graphic comics which can be found soon at www.adultwebcomics.com.
TEP: Some of the most popular and creative comic book professionals are from the U.K. — such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis. What is there about British life that produces so many talented comic book writers?
PO: Just concentrating on one comic-related aspect, 2000AD was a huge part of the formative comic reading experience of most British comic book writers. It’s a very culturally specific experience. There’s a certain quality of writing and approach that the British auteurs you mentioned have that I think you can still trace back to that.
TEP: Is life funny because it’s ridiculous or ridiculous because it’s funny?
PO: I think that human beings are desperate creatures. The things we do, the things we come up with. Amazing. Who has an easy life? Everybody needs to find their own means to survive physically, socially, spiritually, psychologically. It’s trial and error. The results are often both laughable and ridiculous. Sometimes they are quite horrific. I think that how we see ourselves and others dealing with the tension between these extremes can often be surprisingly poignant.
TEP: Your story Adler suggests that insanity can be inherent in mechanical objects. I often think my telephone and my printer have gone crazy. Can you recommend a therapist that specializes in insane technology?
PO: When anything you depend on becomes unpredictable, unresponsive, and cold to the heart, it is best for your own sanity to move on. They’ll be just fine without you. Sometimes you just have to let go.
TEP: What new projects will you have completed by the end of 2007?
PO: I have a compulsion to constantly be doing something so who knows? Issue 10 of The Sound of Drowning will be done. Probably several side projects too, like Sabrina and maybe even Issue 11 which will be the first issue that I won’t have actually directly produced the art for. I should have something in Paper Tiger Comix War Anthology. I’m currently working on a series of strips about pioneers of early electronic music. No idea where that will end up but watch this space. Oh and I’ve been invited to have a strip in the next Blurred Vision anthology from New York publisher Blurred Books, which I’m very excited about!
You can read Paul O’Connell’s amazing stories online at www.soundofdrowning.com and www.myspace.com/soundofdrowning.