Steve Lafler on his ‘Bughouse’ graphic novels and Oaxacabilly music
Update: Date and venue of event have been changed.
As he embarks on a tour across the United States, cartoonist Steve Lafler will make a stop in New York City to showcase Menage a Bughouse, a 408-page collection of his three-book series of graphic novels. Bughouse, the first comic in the trilogy, was ranked 22nd on critic Rob Clough’s list of the top 100 graphic novels of the 2000s.
Lafler will host a panel discussion about the graphic novel and present a brief musical performance on Friday, July 13 at Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn at 7 p.m. He recently talked with us to discuss insect noir and his upcoming book tour.
What prompted you to write and draw the Bughouse trilogy?
When I started Bughouse, I’d been thinking a lot about doing something with all insects. I had seen a movie, Kronberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch, and it had an odd, off-hand, stark humor and a great soundtrack that inspired me a lot. I also read the autobiography of Miles Davis—he spun such great narratives about his life, about the moment when swing jazz gave way to bebop. That just set me off. I sat down and just started drawing bugs in these sharp little suits.
Where did you draw inspiration for Jimmy Watts and his jazz-playing comrades?
Jimmy is the lead character, so I needed something dynamic and iconic. He was a red ant in terms of a bug, but because it’s jazz, I wanted the characters to seem like they were African American but also different racial mixes. There’s also the sensitive thing of not making really unfortunate-looking stereotypes. I wanted to illuminate the characters by writing dialogue that would shine a light on their personalities, rather than have a top-down story with stereotyped personalities. Jimmy Watts is brilliant, he’s enthusiastic, but he’s also selfish, and I wanted to show that through dialogue.
What do you mean when you say Bughouse is “insect noir”?
Well, film noir, of course, is just like a dark movie. It’s atmospheric, it might be funny, but bad things might happen too. It’s about style and mood. Bughouse is my attempt at noir style, but with an insect case, so there you have it: insect noir.
When did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?
I probably had that figured out from the time that I was really, really young, like 3 or 4 years old. My mom would sit me and my siblings down with crayons in the afternoon and we’d just sit there and draw and draw.
What comics had the greatest influence on your work?
I was a kid in the late ’60s, when Marvel Comics were in their first glory and the artist Jack Kirby created so much of that stuff that inspired me. In the late ’60s/early ’70s, Underground Comics came out with Robert Crumb. I literally learned the facts of life from reading Robert Crumb comics at a very tender age. He’s gone on to be a great satirist.
What is “Oaxacabilly” and how does your music tie into your comics?
Five years ago, I moved to southern Mexico with my family—my wife and my kids. I fell in with a group of ex-patriots who would get together and play country and blues—it’s this big, motley group of people. We started a country punk band down there called Radio Insecto. I fell into the music scene and, as someone who has spent a lot of time at the table, alone, drawing, it’s fun to stand up with a bunch of people and make shit-kicking music.
Bughouse is about jazz, it’s about bebop, as well as about addiction. It’s about how addiction and creativity are partners, it tries to investigate and ask the question “Why are so many musicians and artists addicts?”
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