On Aidan Koch’s cover for our Summer issue, six panels depict a woman lounging and reading and ruminating at the shore. Each panel exists both as a discrete event—here, she looks at her book; here, she shades her eyes—and as one sentence in a paragraph about the woman’s day at the beach. The issue also features Koch’s comic “Heavenly Seas,” the story of a woman who travels to a tropical location with a man she doesn’t love. It is twenty-eight pages long and contains just over a hundred words of dialogue and no narration. The difference between “Heavenly Seas” and the cover sequence is like the difference between Lydia Davis’s long short stories and her very short ones.
Koch, a native of Olympia, Washington, is the author of three book-length comics—The Whale, The Blonde Woman, and, most recently, Impressions. She also makes sculptures, ceramics, and textiles that reinterpret the classical motifs that appear in many of her comics. Her narratives are elliptical, fragmentary, and open-ended; it seemed appropriate to include “Heavenly Seas” in an issue that is largely about translation. Last month, I met Koch at her studio, in the basement of a tatty mansion she shares with eight other artists and a corn snake named Cleopatra, in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Where did the story for “Heavenly Seas” come from?
I’d been trying to think about how to utilize the idea of traveling. I’d read a couple of Paul Bowles books, and I liked how well he captured the mindset of how foreign places can seem to the traveler and how that’s seductive but also scary. He also thought about people’s attitudes in different countries and in confronting different cultures. That’s something I’d been considering, since it’s a big part of my life. I’ve been traveling constantly for the last three or four years. I left Portland in 2011 to travel and just didn’t stop. I went to Spain and Turkey, then I was in Scandinavia and around Europe. My book Field Studies documented 2012, when I lived in a different room in a different city every month, just because I didn’t know what to do with myself. I thought maybe I’d figure it out along the way.
Did one of those places serve as the setting for for “Heavenly Seas”?
There are semi-Arabic shapes, so in my mind it’s set somewhere around the Mediterranean, but I left it open, so it could be a European country that has an Islamic history, or somewhere off the coast, maybe Morocco. I had just been in Croatia, and they have that kind of mix there. The idea was to use travel as an escape. The main character is having a relationship issue, maybe it’s the end of something. They’re in a kind of limbo state emotionally, and this was maybe a last trip. She’s using him—she mentions how she didn’t want to go there alone, and she’s manipulated him so that she’ll feel comfortable enough to go. And she’s dealing with the guilt of that. The story slowly reveals that mindset.
It’s easy to compare comics to movies, but with drawing you’re selecting what people see all the time instead of giving them a whole frame of imagery. I’m taking that to an extreme, and I think that helps the play between watching a narrative and experiencing a narrative—you don’t necessarily know whether something is just what someone else is seeing or whether it’s something that’s happening emotionally. I’m trying to manipulate those things into a more encompassing experience, so that it’s more about internalizing your own experience or relation to it than just having a scene playing out in front of you.
If I drawn a whole scene that shows her whole body on a beach over and over, the reader is an outsider in relation to the story, a spectator, and it’s a more voyeuristic experience. Whereas moving between her point of view, of her legs and looking up at the sky—there’s a part where I moved the water panels on their sides so that it’s her perspective while she’s lying down—it’s about her vision. It’s her mindset. I like giving the images the ability to expand their meaning.
The reader has to do a lot of work.
Yeah, that’s been a mild critique of my work. Some people are irritated by not understanding what’s going on, whereas others are excited by that, excited to reread it and try and figure it out. Part of the point is that there is not necessarily a definitive view, so the more you read it, the more you might pick up on other details and see how they relate to each other.
Do you put in recurring images as a way of leading the reader down a particular path?
It plays multiple roles. I learned early in making comics that sequence and pacing is important to building tone, so a lot of the repeated imagery is about figuring out how I want the story to unfold and at what speed I want it to unfold. But then it’s a symbolic tool as well—absence is also saying something.
So little happens in most of your stories that I think time can’t help but be a strong sensation.
When I was making The Blonde Woman, I started breaking down time and creating disjointed sequences in which you couldn’t be sure what was happening when. And part of that is just trying to represent her mindset, because it’s about choosing between realities in a way, so having parallel actions emphasized that. I think about extending “Heavenly Seas” and making it into a circular story that will reflect the mindset of obsession, of thinking obsessively—your brain going over and over the same ideas.
Where does your interest in classicism and ancient cultures come from?
I’ve always been obsessed with beautiful artifacts and objects. Going to the Met is one of my favorite things to do because I can just stare at gems or sculptures or jewelry. Painting, too. I enjoy it all aesthetically, but it’s dangerous to leave it at that, to not understand the full history behind an object. Part of Impressions was thinking about who painters’ models tended to be, and that it’s weird to think of all those paintings only in terms of being painted by men. They also show idealized female forms and manipulated the idea of female vanity, which plays back into patriarchal oppression. So to be comfortable liking those works, I have to confront their reality, too, and be critical of it.
How do you do that in your own work?
I’m figuring it out. Impressions had to do with personal female identity and how, in the case of a painter’s model, whether it’s worth becoming anonymous for the sake of someone else using you for your beauty. Is it worth giving up an independent identity simply to become preserved in history as a beautiful thing? But it’s also amazing to be visually celebrated. In many cases, it would have been impossible otherwise for those models to be remembered, but, of course, they’re remembered as being someone else’s depiction of them. Part of what I’m doing is trying to bring those ideas into the conversation, even if it’s indirect. In Impressions, I didn’t even want to draw the painter, because I felt that by putting a man in, it would automatically create a sense of sexual tension, which was never my intention. I wanted it to be safe. I wanted my characters to be naked but safe.
You frequently paint without outlines, so that the color provides the form.
It’s nice to have options for how to depict things, depending on what’s going on. Having the same level of information all the time constrains your view. I can change the way I represent something to give an idea of it without actually having to show it. Readers automatically associate things if you give them hints. If I showed a bunch of things in a row, you wouldn’t necessarily know if they’re related or how they’re related, but the minute I give concrete information, you’d see connections or resemblances.
Sometimes the colors will dictate each other. If I don’t know what I’m doing and I start using one color, then that color becomes really important, and all the other colors I choose are based around that.
If you decide to color a flower, say, vermilion, and you carry that flower through the story, does the flower take on a special symbolic or narrative significance? Does it dictate the story in that way?
It actually would work the other way, where if I did anything else in that color, it would then reference the flower, if the flower came first. In that sense it’s a tool that I can utilize at any time. If I did the flower that color and then the next page there was a big dot that same color, the dot is then representative of the flower. I drew it once and now all I have to do is make a dot and it’s the same as drawing a flower. I do that a lot, where I’m like, Okay, I drew her face, now we know she has brown hair, so I’ll just do this blob of brown, and it’s her, done, easy. It’s nice not to have to beat the reader over the head with description. You don’t need to be told or shown every little detail. And assuming people can’t make that connection is not giving them much credit.
Do you read any fiction that works in abstraction that way?
When I was teaching, I tried to find writing that could relate to what I talk about with comics. I shared a lot of Italo Calvino and Lydia Davis and a piece by Susan Sontag. They feel relevant to my own work.
In what way?
Relevant to thinking about narrative and building narrative and how it can come from so many different places. I feel like the biggest handicap for people just starting in comics is that they already have a story but it’s usually epic and intense. It’s their second year of school, and they’re like, I’ve been thinking about this two-hundred-page story for years and I’m finally going to do it. That sounds like a nightmare! It’s great to be able to give people an understanding of where narrative can come from intuitively and how little you need to get started.
There are certain resemblances between your comics and Lydia Davis’s stories, particularly in the idea that stories can come from anywhere.
My work has been compared to poetry, and when I first started, I definitely felt that way, and I think the way I wrote was more poetic, but I don’t have a deep affiliation with poetry, and that’s why her work was instantly so interesting to me. Her stories can be two lines, but they’re not poetry, they’re stories. That difference is important to me to because what I do just doesn’t feel like making poems. I love narrative and creating characters, even for only a minute.
Have you tried working in a longer form?
My books are the longest works I’ve made—Impressions is maybe seventy pages. It’s hard for me to imagine a story longer than that. I’m scared that writing something longer would force me to give too much information, and that’s not what I’m interested in. None of my characters even have names. I once called a character’s dead partner “S.” That’s about as far as I’ll go. Now I don’t even bother.
Your stories—and Davis’s, too, in a certain way—are a bit like Rorschach tests, where the reader has to interpret minimal information, filling in a lot of the story, a lot of the picture, in order to give fuller meaning to it.
I gave my class one of her very short stories and a page from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities to adapt into comics. The challenge with Davis was to find a way to express the weird undertones of the story, the emotional parts, because she doesn’t say anything about that stuff, but her stories are still loaded. Whereas Calvino’s were filled with imagery and metaphors, comparisons to grandiose objects and ideas that don’t work technically as description. The challenge, then, was trying to figure out what something looked like or what was happening.
It’s amazing to give someone three sentences and tell them to make a one-page comic out of it and have them say, I have to do more, there’s too much there.
Self-editing—what you can take out, what you should take out—is a tough skill to learn.
It’s very hard in comics, and a big problem with comics, I think. I know people who have done one-hundred- to three-hundred-page books, and because they’re that long, they’ve done storyboards and they have the dialogue written and assigned to images, and then they just do it. But they’ve left no room for change, and because it’s so laborious, they probably don’t want to change anything as they go. They’ve planned everything out for themselves, and I think that can detract from the possibilities that push the work.
Do you plan out your work before you draw it?
Barely. I started one recently but the whole piece so far is just intuitive, working from loose ideas. This is my idea for extending the “Heavenly Seas” story—it’s just dialogue scraps and weird notes.
But visually I leave it totally open. I try to get the general idea of what’s going on. I’ll plan things out vaguely, thinking about gradients, color, thickness and associating those things with emotions or tone or structure. I wanted “Heavenly Seas” to have a cyclical feeling, so at the end of part 2, when she’s lost alone at night, I added a gradient that takes the reader to the next day but also takes them back in time to the start. But look, there’s even a note about how many pages it should be and what it’s about—with a question mark.
Nicole Rudick is managing editor of The Paris Review.