Small Press Expo (or SPX) nonprofit created in 1994 to promote artists and publishers who produce independent comics. It’s mission is to “To provide a forum to showcase new and emerging talent in the fields of comics, graphic novels and political cartooning”. In the spirit of this mission, the Comics Beat has conducted a series of interview with some of the phenomenal cartoonists in attendance at this year’s Small Press Expo. We hope that these interviews will improve our understanding of these creators voices, techniques, interests and influences.
In this second SPX 2017 interview series, we talked with Moaz Elemam. Moaz is a cartoonist from Virginia. He’s also an animator and a freelance illustrator. I first discovered his work in the Nib last year, right before the election, in a very poignant comic called Distant Fires. I’ve reached out to Moaz to talk about Distant Fires and his comic A Day at the Beach, as well as his daily comics The Sacred Flame.
Philippe Leblanc: For those readers who may not be familiar with you and your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Moaz Elemam: I’m a cartoonist, illustrator and animator. I studied animation/film and video in college. I’m 24 and I’ve lived in Virginia for most of my life.
ME: I was in a period where I was highly dissatisfied with my artistic practice. I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing as much as I’d like. I wanted to experiment with my technique. I was also getting into doing some stream of consciousness writing.
PL: The Sacred Flame is a title ripe with implications. I understood from it the creative spark that keeps you going, especially considering those were mostly autobiographical. Do you feel like you’ve gotten what you wanted out of this experiment? Did it help keep the flame going, or did it burn you out to do this in addition to your other projects at the time?
ME: By the end I was feeling a bit burnt out – but the process could be pretty invigorating! I remember feeling like I was coming up with a lot more ideas and that it was making my other projects more fruitful. I was making more connections between things in my own life…But at the the end of the year I think it was right to take a break. Things could get a bit overwhelming.
PL: What do you think was the biggest takeaway from that particular project, both artistically and personally? Would you consider doing this again?
ME: I felt like I was more capable as an artist. If this makes any sense – over the course of that year of comics I really tried to make the strips feel like the pictures and words were wrapped together very tightly…or interchangeable in a way. To sound trite – I wanted to draw with words and write with pictures. And it was certainly interesting to see the symbols, themes and characters that began to recur. I actually have been considering doing something similar soon.
PL: Moving closer to more recent comics, you’ve done a deeply moving and personal comic for The Nib before the 2016 election called Distant Fires. It’s the story of how you felt as a Sudanese-American on the eve of the election. One of the thing that stuck with me the most was how you mentioned that the conflicts in the Middle East was like fire creeping ever closer to your family. It was a powerful image for a terrifying thought. I might be mistaken, but I don’t think you had done work that was this overtly political before. What prompted you to write it and what was the reaction to it?
ME: Yeah – I hadn’t really published anything overtly political until that piece. Like a lot of people, I was following the 2016 election closely. All the news coverage made me want to pull my hair out. It felt like an arbitrary line was drawn at where and what you could criticize the Democratic party for. Of course, being a part of the depraved American war machine was beyond the pale. People with legitimate critique of Clinton and Obama’s foreign policy would be lumped in with misogynists, racists, and the people who think the DNC runs a Satanic pizzeria.
I was hesitant to draw that comic at first. It felt a bit narcissistic. You’ll see people online spin a tragedy to be all about them. And besides that – I’m not Iraqi, or Syrian, or Libyan. My family is lucky enough to not have had their homes destroyed. But I thought it was important to show that this sort of thing is an immediate and frightening concern to a lot of people. It’s not abstract, no matter how much people try to make it so.
As far as the reaction – it was mostly positive. I had a few people kinda roll their eyes at me. Especially once the election actually happened and it didn’t go how we all thought it would. But I still stand by what I wrote.
PL: I particularly enjoyed your comic A Day at the Beach, an impossible tall-tale about a man following a seagulls scavenging for food. I was impressed by how wonderfully the story flowed and maintained a down-to-earth tone even as it becomes progressively grandiose and impossible. Can you tell us a bit more about this story?
ME: Thank you! It was an attempt to fashion some of the stream of consciousness writing I’d been practicing in my daily comics into a narrative piece. I really tried to get mimic the way a person might speak for the narration, to make it feel like an intimate moment between the reader and the book.
PL: What do you want readers to take with them once they’ve finished reading your comics?
ME: I’ve found that art that resonates deeply with me will have an image or a turn of phrase that I will think about for days, months, years after I first see it. I suppose that would be something to aim for in making my own work – for someone to have that reaction. And of course I always hope to leave my readers with an all encompassing desire to hand me money for more work.
PL: Do you have any new comics or material you’re bringing to SPX? If so, can you tell us a little bit more about them?
ME: Yes! I should have the debut of a larger project I’m working on – a fantasy comic I’m calling My Own Temple. I’ll be tabling at J11 with Nicole M. Willis, Tres Dean and Kerin Cunningham. I’ll also have copies of A Day at the Beach and a sketchbook zine. If you’ll be at SPX, come on by and say hello!
You can follow Moaz’ work at his tumblr, his website, and on Twitter as well as his online store. You can find Moaz Elemam this weekend at Small Press Expo’s table J11. He’s looking forward to talking with you!
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.