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Making the invisible visible: An interview with Jesse Lonergan, creator of Hedra

Jesse Lonergan blew people away with his 2020 book Hedra. But who is he? And how does he think about narrative and art?

Jesse Lonergan CU NYCC 2022
Image credit: Jim McDermott

In the midst of the nightmare hellscape that was Pandemia, one unexpected ray of light was an unusually-sized and crafted comic book by a creator I had never heard of named Jesse Lonergan.

Lonergan's comic Hedra tells the story of a woman chosen to search for viable plant life across the galaxy after a nuclear war destroys the Earth’s soil. As she collects samples in her little ship, she encounters a strange flying man. It’s a great story (which I am going to try very hard not to spoil here), but what makes the book so completely unique is its panel structure. Lonergan’s base for panels is an astonishing 7 rows of 5 columns, and the infinitely inventive ways in which he uses them makes you think he might be the secret love child of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Scott McCloud.

To give just one of a thousand examples I want to tell you about, on one paneled page Lonergan has our heroine fighting through enemies down the left three columns, giving the sense of her descending as she fights. And then, at the bottom left, she throws her sword all the way across the page to the upper top right, where our eyes had already seen a rope hanging, given our natural instinct to read left to right. In the top right we have the rope cut by the sword, and then in the bottom right we see its other end attached to this thing she doesn’t want the aliens to get. It’s such a creative and well-crafted page that reading it I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a motion comic. But it moves just as clearly as they do.

It also took me about half the book to realize there were no words. I know that sounds crazy, but the story is so competently and emotionally told, I hadn’t even realized the book was silent. And then just when you think you have a handle on the rules of his game, Lonergan generates a page on which rows of panels subtly become one enormous thought bubble.

Whether it’s a matter of time, space, size or other conventions, Lonergan is constantly playing with the medium. And the work is so well put together that it made me want to go slower, not so that I could understand but because I wanted the experience to go on longer. I enjoyed it that much.

In October, I had the chance to talk to Lonergan at New York Comic-Con as he was selling prints and promoting a sample from his new book Drome. We talked about Scott McCloud, his favorite Kafka story, his own secret origin story and how he sees the relationship between narrative, theme and visual style.

Can I ask, is it HE-dra or HEAD-dra?

I say HE-dra. But it’s such a design book, I wanted the name to be confusing. I wanted people to not know necessarily how to pronounce it. I wanted it to not be a word that people knew. So I’m fine with whatever pronunciation. It felt like it fit with the story.

It’s also five letters because the book is five panels wide. It’s me being kind of obsessive about it.

The style is so striking and unique. Had you been working in that sort of a style before?

My first graphic novel came out in 2007, and it was very different. I don’t know how to describe it….[it was] the idea of the graphic novel in your head, the serious, dry literary pretensions, the mentality that you shouldn’t even notice the art.

That’s like the opposite of Hedra.

Yes. And no one was telling me to do that, but in my head I had this editor.

So I did three books with NBM Comicslit, and they’re all fine. But the last one I felt like I put so much time, so much effort into it, and it really just fizzled. It came out and nobody talked about it, nobody wrote about it.

And I thought, if I’m going to work this hard, why limit myself in any way? If no one’s going to pay attention-- This book came out of that period.

How did you come up with your heavily paneled style?

I have influences, like Chris Ware and his dense paneling. I feel like alternative comics do that thing as well. Ivan Brunetti and Seth get pretty dense too.

It was sort of an aesthetic thing. But also, one of the biggest things that has always frustrated me is the speed at which people look at comic book pages. There is so much time put into the art, and people just zoom past it.

So I sort of wanted to have this thing of 'No. You need to stop'-- forcing people to do that. Part of that was doing this sort of aesthetic where you can sort of look at it at a surface level and sort of have an idea, but then if you look at it closer there’s another thing, so that it rewards staying on the page. It’s a little bit like a puzzle that needs to be solved, so that people are spending more time with it.

Also, I feel like Scott McCloud talks about the invisible art. I was like, 'Let’s make it visible.' I almost feel like Hedra especially insists on itself. You are either going to hate it or going to like it.

I almost feel like it’s not even me that did this. The cover came about because the original version I did was newsprint. I did it at a newspaper publishing thing, so it had to be 48 pages [in total], so I thought, I’m just going to have the cover be page one. It is the cover, but it looks just like the pages.

[On page one a rocket ship takes off from the lower left hand corner, where the Earth is, all the way almost to the right top, across almost five rows and seven columns.]

And I don’t know that I thought about it [more than that], but then I saw it at my local comic book shop, and it just sticks out. Not in necessarily an amazing way. It’s just, you’re going to see it because it looks totally different. I didn’t feel like I 100% intended that, but that was the result.

And once you start doing something, it leads to more ideas, it leads to different ways of thinking.

So you published Hedra independently?

I published the newsprint first, then Image contacted me to do the mass market version. And we briefly talked about newsprint, but practicality-wise, shipping this size gets expensive. It’s so big it’s no longer considered an envelope. Shipping internationally gets really expensive. So having it a in a more compact format, even though it’s still bigger than a normal comic, it’s easier.

Have you you found that Hedra has brought you job offers?

Oh yeah. I don’t think anybody knew who I was in 2019. This came out in 2020, it got nominated for an Eisner, people started talking to me and people started being interested.

How long have you been working as a comic book writer and artist?

I mean, my first graphic novel in NBM Comicslit was published in 2007. I think I drew that book starting in 2004, So I’ve been doing it since then.

It’s kind of funny, I didn’t think of myself as a professional until recently, because I feel like a professional means it’s your job.

What was your job before?

I taught English as a second language at a private school in Harvard Square, the New England School for English, third floor of the Garage. I taught there, that was my job, and then I would work on stuff. I was a very serious amateur, but I would kind of consider it an amateur. I didn’t really think of myself as a professional until like three years ago. But I feel like the term amateur gets looked down [upon], and I don’t really think it should.

Now it’s my job, and it’s in my income. I have a child. It changes the way you think about things, in good ways: You have to do it, you’re not like, I don’t feel like doing it. That kind of repetition builds your skills, build your momentum and all those things.

But also, I feel like I might think about something now and be like 'Well, what would I do with that afterwards?' Some ideas, some comics, if I want to print it myself I can do whatever I want. But If I want to do an 8-page comic, where does that go, within the industry, I mean? Nowhere.

So for me, it’s like if I think of an 8-page idea now on my own, it would need to be combined with other things. There’s more of a business sense as compared to a pure creative sense. It has pros and cons, like everything.

Did you go to art school?

No. I went to a school called Hampshire College in Massachusetts. It’s like an alternative hippy college, no grades, no tests. I studied art and literature there, but I took 3 or 4 art classes, maybe? So I feel like really I’m self-taught. I’m jealous of those people who went to art school. I feel like they have chops. They can really draw. For me, it’s like I have this weird backwards style, lots of bad habits that I put together on my own.

I’m surprised to hear you say you don’t think you can really draw. Your work reminds me of Daniel Warren Johnson.

To me, he is on such another level that I find it bizarre to hear my name connected to him. I love his stuff. It has this fantastic energy. His comics are great but I kind of like his commissions more because it just feels like there’s no holding back. He’s just going for it. I aspire to that maybe, but I don’t know if I’ve reached doing it as well as he does.

[At his table Lonergan is selling both individual prints and newsprint copies of the first 20 pages of his new book Drome, which he says is going to be around 270 pages. When we talked, he’d already done 250.]

Thinking about Hedra, your new book and your past work, are there themes that you find come up repeatedly? Or preoccupations?

With Hedra, there were artistic themes driving the creation. It’s ideas of how a page is broken up, the juxtaposition of things, thinking almost in terms of like collage, and how the medium itself can be used as a narrative element. So there are these artistic ideas.

In terms of narrative, I like mythology, and I like these kind of rock bottom stories. I feel like there’s almost a bit of surrealism, where it’s not all necessarily about the narrative but the idea. 'Why' isn’t as important to me as 'It just is.' I feel like right now, in this sort of media space, we have this very corporate idea of how stories work, where you have the beginning, the protagonist, A needs to happen, B needs to happen…you need to put these pieces in places.

But the things that I really respond to outside of comics are things like Kafka, like 'The Burrow,' where you don’t know what the creature is, but it has a burrow, and it’s talking about all the maintenance that it does on its burrow, where it hides its food in its burrow, and there’s just this heavy-duty dose of anxiety and fear. There’s no plot. There’s not even really a sequence of events. He talks about things he remembers, like when he went out of his burrow, and how he had to spend a day watching his burrow to make sure that no one had seen him come out. And then when he comes in, he spends a day again. That paranoia and fear, getting that sort of raw feeling, that’s what’s interesting to me.

So I don’t really think that much in terms of narrative, it’s more like themes and tones, and then putting them into a visual structure that works, that holds together. Narratively, I feel like you could call it light. People have said 'Oh, you can read Hedra in 10 minutes.' But that’s like saying you can drink a glass of wine in 30 seconds. That’s no comment on the wine.

It’s interesting, you’re so interested in the structure of your pages, but narratively you’re resisting structure in a way.

Going as dense and design-heavy on the pages as I do, if I had a complex layered story, too, it would really be in conflict with the visual sense. It’s not impossible, but it’s another Scott McCloud thing: The more intense and realistic the art is, the more it pulls you in one direction. The simpler the art is, the more it pulls you in another direction. It’s about balancing.

And I guess I like these sort of simpler stores in a way. Like I described 'The Burrow,' but that doesn’t give you 'The Burrow.' You gotta read it. That’s kind of how I think of it.

I think it was Somerset Maughan writing an introduction to a book of Rudyard Kipling short stories who talked about Chekhov versus de Maupassant, the French writer. And he preferred Maupassant because Maupassant’s stories, anyone can tell them. You read 'The Necklace' and you can tell people that story. Chekhov, it’s like 'No, no one else can tell that story,' because it’s not about the story, it’s about the writing, the way he tells it.

He prefers Maupassant. I prefer Chekhov. I don’t want it to be able to be told by lots of different people. I want it to have that voice.

That sounds very personal, but also from a business sense the result is something that is pretty unique in the market.

I feel very lucky. I just sort of got to this point where I decided I’m just going to do whatever I want, and people responded to it. I feel like people have been very kind to me in the last three years—reviewers have been very kind, very generous, people online have done a lot for me. So I feel like I’ve been very lucky to be able to do what I do.

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