Writer and teacher Ian Evans has created something truly unique: The Mechanic, an existential poem that’s illustrated to mimic a one-shot comic book.
The illustrated verse centers around the titular mechanic, who dwells on his life while working on a vehicle. According to the author, “it is a dark, psychological character study revolving around the theme of how the routines of a mundane life come into conflict with the desire to leave a lasting impact on the world.
To learn more about this unique work, we had a virtual chat with the author himself, and the comic’s illustrator Loriana Takacs, who are in the process of funding their intriguing project through Kickstarter.
Head below the jump for the full Q&A!
First things first, Ian, what inspired you to write The Mechanic?
So, I wrote the first draft of The Mechanic as a poem in 2009 and went back to it now and again to revise it until 2011 where I just let it sit. At the time, I was completing my undergrad work as an English major and was finishing up my master’s in Secondary English Education, and much of my coursework was devoted to creative writing and modern poetry. In those classes, I found myself really intrigued by poems where the speaker is a character, like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock or the Alberta K. Johnson poems by Langston Hughes. I thought about how there might be a little of Eliot on Prufrock or a little of Hughes in Johnson, and I wanted to do something similar. I started imagining this mechanic, who is often assumed to be this masculine, work-hardened character, struggling to make connections with his peers and not fitting into the grease monkey stereotype. Thus, The Mechanic was born.
At what point did you decide your poem would be better as a one-shot comic?
Earlier I mentioned that, after 2011, I left the poem to gather dust. The problem with it was, by journal submission standards, it was massive. I mean, it’s common for journals to ask for poems of about thirty lines (one page) in length. The Mechanic was seven parts then, about sixty lines, so it was basically unpublishable. It wasn’t until years later, after getting more into graphic novels like Blankets, Epileptic, and Ghost World that I thought about The Mechanic again, this time as a comic. I kept the idea burning in the back of my mind until one day I saw Loriana’s art decorating a bulletin board in our school’s hallway, and it seemed so much like something that could be adapted for a graphic novel that I knew I had found my illustrator. After planning out the panels and getting a rough idea for how many pages the poem would take to tell–nineteen–we found out that that was about the length of a one-shot and so we went forward from there.
I know that it may seem pretty different to people that I’m mixing poetry with comics, but the two forms fit together surprisingly well. The fact that a comic is divided up into panels and pages seems to pair up well with poems, which are divided into lines and stanzas. The final result is that you get three layers of meaning: one created by the line, one created by the image in the panel, and a third one that is created by the relationship between the two. That has provided some interesting new ways to make meaning.
How did working with an illustrator change your writing process?
Working with Loriana has been very validating for me as a writer. Often, when I’m working on a poem or short story, I wonder if the images, themes, or mood I’m trying to strike are really what a reader would pull from a piece. With an illustrator, it’s allowed me to see my images, visualized by someone else, made physical on the page. I still remember sitting down with Loriana after our first meeting where we annotated my poem to come up with some concepts for images; I remember seeing her first sketches and thinking, “Yes, that is what I have been thinking all along.” It was like she took the images from my brain and put them right there on the page for me to see. It was incredible.
It also allowed me, like I mentioned before, to add that extra layer to my writing process. For example, there are moments later in the poem where I want the reader to be reminded of something that happened earlier. With comics, and with an illustrator, you don’t have to create that repetition through text, you can do it through images instead, which I find really interesting.
Did you pull any real life experiences into your poem?
Oh, yeah. The poem is an amalgam of different experiences of mine. Part of the reason it is dedicated to my high school auto services teacher is because of how influenced it is by my knowledge of cars. From the very first page, where the speaker compares the three ingredients needed for combustion–fuel, oxygen, and spark–to bodily functions, I’ve worked to make the automotive parts as accurate as I can.
Similarly, the deer section is loosely based off the experience a high school friend had when he accidentally hit a deer with this old Buick Cutlass Supreme he had. When I wrote the poem, I remembered him telling the story in the high school cafeteria in such an animated, erratic tone that it seemed almost reverent. Of course, he was likely just shocked, but it definitely helped me to imagine the mechanic’s perspective.
Lastly, and in a general way, this poem is largely about how someone will be remembered after they die, or what impact they’ll have on the world. I think that’s something that a lot of people think about when the lights are off and they’re trying to sleep but there are a million different tangents keeping them awake; at least, that’s what I think about.
What do you hope readers take away from The Mechanic?
A couple things. One is that I hope I can inspire some readers to start telling even more stories through poetry and comics. There are so many perspectives in the world, so many different lives and imagined experiences, and they deserve to be documented through the arts. I teach seventh grade, and one of the lessons in our Realistic Fiction unit focuses on this: write the kind of story you want to see in the world. That was how The Mechanic originally started; I wanted to see a story about a blue collar worker who did not fit the mold society had caste for him and so I wrote that. Life is complex, and we need our art to provide windows and mirrors for that complexity.
The other big take away I hope readers get from The Mechanic is that it is natural to struggle with depression and the weight of one’s legacy. The mechanic’s life is routine, and we meet him at a time where he feels more like a machine than a human being. At the same time, all this routine is at conflict with this desire that he has to be important, to be remembered, to have this lasting impact on the world, and it makes him sad. I think this is something we all go through, you know?
(Interviewer’s Note: Oh yes, I very much know.)
Most of us live these everyday lives where we have our established routines of sleep, work, food, and entertainment; but at the same time we’re constantly being shown, through television, movies, and social media, these images and videos of people living as the best versions of themselves. It’s easy to look at that and think, “That’s not me,” and it’s natural to jump to that next question, “If that’s not me, how will I be remembered when I die?” I want people to realize that’s normal, and I want for us to be alright with that. There’s a great line in Prufrock where he realizes, “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;” and he’s okay with that, and I think that’s great.
Kickstarter is a very different beast. What challenges have you/do you expect to face publishing through this platform?
Where to start! The main thing is that, with Kickstarter, you become responsible for everything. You can’t just write a piece and send it off to the publisher, have their marketing team devise a campaign strategy, and start up the book touring circuit. That is a gross simplification of the traditional publication process, mostly informed by my ignorance of it, but the point is that with Kickstarter all those roles that would be fulfilled by others are now on you. And it’s true: companies have sprouted up to help with that, promising to take care of marketing or fulfillment, but this is a small project, and it’s my first. As a result, I’m going without any third party services like that, and it has provided some challenges, albeit I’ve found them fun and exciting.
Like, I remember waking up the morning after posting my project on Kickstarter (I had worked on it until three in the morning the night before), and seeing that I had received a one dollar donation. I was excited, the way a business must be with its first sale, and at the same time it was at that moment I realized, Oh, you mean people aren’t just going to come and throw me money. From there, I started coming up with a strategy, creating a series of updates that might generate interest and looking into what social media sites and message boards I could advertise my project on. Thinking about ways to generate interest in my project has basically become another job for me, but it has been a fun one, and we’re starting to see it pay off!
Fortunately, throughout this entire process I’ve had a friend and well-experienced Kickstarter comics publisher at my back. She has listed twelve separate projects through Kickstarter, and each of them have been funded. Having her as a resource has proved invaluable, and she has been more than generous with me by giving me honest advice as well as contacts to a reliable printer should the project be funded. Without her, I would not have been able to turn The Mechanic into the comic it is today.
Why should people donate to your project?
This goes back to something I was saying earlier–that we should write the stories we want to see in the world. People should donate for the same reason: if you want to see a story like The Mechanic, then donate. Otherwise, it will literally not exist without the support of backers. In this way, publishing through Kickstarter is not the same as other avenues because there isn’t any publishing company that is taking a gamble on a story by producing a run of copies in hopes that readers will buy it. The publishing company, in this case, becomes the customers themselves so that your money is going to produce the comic that you will then receive. That’s why it’s so important for people that are interested to back it. If you wait, and if the project doesn’t fund, there won’t be a chance for you to get a copy in the future because it won’t exist. There won’t be any dusty crate, sitting next to the Ark of the Covenant, in a warehouse somewhere full of unbought copies of The Mechanic. The backers are what make the project even possible, and it is for this reason that I am eternally grateful to each and every one of them.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects planned?
I’m always working on, and workshopping, my poetry and short fiction, so that’s what my immediate future looks like, but the next graphic novel project I have planned is something very personal to me, and it’s something I’m very excited about. It’s more of a memoir, or a people’s history, from the perspective of my grandmother. My entire life, she has always shared these stories from her experiences growing up. When I was younger, and my mom was working after I got out of school, my grandmother would be the one to pick me up, so I had plenty of time to hear her tell me about these relatives I had never, or only briefly, met. Her older brother Tony, for example, fought in World War II and was stationed in England when it was being bombed. Well, he survived the war only to die of smoking-related lung cancer years later. That’s the kind of story I want to tell. I have all these stories from her life that I plan to organize into categories along thematic lines, like stories dealing with race or stories dealing with war; and it is urgent that I get these stories down because her memory is not what it used to be, so they will be lost otherwise.
Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Ian! Now it’s time to put your illustrator in the hot seat. Loriana, is this your first foray into comics?
Yes, I normally work on small illustrations or larger colorful paintings. However, the structure of comic books is interesting–having some images to represent the story with few words.
How did working with source material alter your creative process?
In any project I start there is always some type of source material, whether it be a small image or a still life. I rarely work just from my head; it’s helpful to have a reference to work off of.
Why was the decision made to illustrate in black and white with only some pops of color?
Using minimal color doesn’t distract from the author’s story. The lack of color also adds to the look of the comic to make it unique in comparison to traditional full-color comics.
Ready to help fund this independent one-shot comic in verse? You can get Ian and Loriana closer to their goal by donating to The Mechanic on Kickstarter!