The Daily Heller: Comics Artist Leaves Planet Pandemic for Better World

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Luca Buvoli is a "futurist"-artist and director of the multidisciplinary MFA program at MICA’s Mount Royal School of Art. When the pandemic hit, he began to regularly post graphic narrative stories; those from Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles are excerpted below. On Easter Sunday (“Easter Eggxit”) he uploaded his 100th post. Through his art he has departed the damaged planet Earth for points up- and outward. The work has a soulful, unreal solemnity—just the right vibe for an endgame scenario. Although reproducing many pages are required to fully do justice, the work the excerpts selected below, both visceral and sensual in tone and texture, will give you a sense of the sweep of this intense visual tales. Many artists, including Buvoli, are riding out the COVID-19 storm by creating literal and symbolic monuments to this Earth-altering history.

As Buvoli writes, “How will we remember this pandemic time of anxiety and loss? Can we re-envision the absurdity we have been enduring? Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles is a tragicomic series illustrating our vulnerabilities through the protagonist’s daydreams, allowing us to transform domestic chores, pandemic restrictions and fear of contagion into fantastic astronomical journeys and Olympic feats. … Imagine Chris Ware’s Building Stories sharing room with Jason Adam Katzenstein’s Everything Is an Emergency on the International Space Station. The series is an enjoyable and thought-provoking capsule of human trauma and resilience in times of crisis.”

I spoke with Buvoli further about art as a survival tool.

I am aware that the stories in Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles are manifestations prompted by the pandemic. Every artist I know has tried to make sense of the disease in their own ways. How does this differ from your normal work?

In this last decade, I have been working on a multimedia group of works called Space Doubt, started thanks to the collaboration of NASA scientists and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles is one of these works, the only one so far that uses the form of a comic book or graphic novel. So, when this pandemic exploded, I was already “floating” in outer space! For one of those 180 works, last winter, just before COVID, I was struggling to find the courage to use some dark humor to “exorcise” the fear and memory of cancer, which killed my mom and a few friends and supporters in the past six years, and my own cancer—now cured, let’s hope, thanks to a few great doctors. Spontaneously, I thought of connecting the pandemic, this planned work on dark humor about illness, and the idea of another of the Space Doubt works, about the quarantine that the Apollo 11 astronauts had to do when they returned to Earth after the first moon landing.

When the pandemic shutdown started in the USA, in three days I made a bunch of playful drawings about it, using white ink and pencil on a black paper drawing pad, like the darkness of the unknown space we had just entered. It was very liberating! My friends convinced me to post them on Instagram. I had not planned to make a whole series back then, and it just grew month after month, like moss on a tree.

We never met each other before this virus. I refer to the people I've met through email and Zoom this past year viral arrivals. It is possible we would never ever have crossed paths. So tell me a little bit more about you as an artist (and a human being)?

“Viral arrival” has a nice sound to it! I am so glad that we “virally” met, and thrilled that you responded to the arrival of Astrodoubt!

After being “derailed” from comics into a more traditional “fine arts” path, I focused on painting. When I came to the U.S. on a Fulbright in 1988, my professor Ed Mayer introduced me to sculpture. Initially I was using materials and techniques like metal, cast resin and Plexiglas. Stop-motion animation, which I began making in 1992, was hard work, but also a revelation! More recently, I began activating some of my sculptures with motors controlled by microprocessors. Every time I switch from one medium to the next, I am excited to learn something new that I bring back to previously used media.

I’d say that in all my artwork I use elements of daily life, “philosophical” ideas, a bit of irony or humor, combining opposing ideas and perspectives. For
instance, in the Not-a-Superhero series I addressed the fragility behind the mythology of the powerful action hero. In Space Doubt, I related the optimism of the Space Age exploration with the atomic anxiety and paranoia of the Cold War era.

What can I tell you about myself as a “human”? I swim—when pools are open, hopefully soon—or run or bike a bit every day, I enjoy films, I teach. Actually, I am the director of a multidisciplinary MFA program at MICA in Baltimore. Like everyone these days, I miss seeing family and friends. Yet, despite all difficulties, I love every day of my life.

You wrote the following in an early email to me: Imagine Chris Ware’s Building Stories sharing room with Jason Adam Katzenstein’s Everything Is an Emergency on the International Space Station. The series is an enjoyable and thought-provoking capsule of human trauma and resilience in times of crisis. What does this mean in relation to your graphic work?

Yes, I enjoyed how both books have protagonists who live with a condition of illness, but I could have also listed Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar. They are all so different in their narratives and drawings: Look at the precise compositions of Chris Ware—great artist and writer!—versus the expressionistic or cartoony approaches of many others who attempt to alleviate stress through storytelling and art. I often think of Kafka, who was laughing when reading his stories to his friends, but who finds them funny now? I imagine how a place like the International Space Station—which echoes the isolation we lived in this past year—may affect the mood of a shared “sublet” with Astrodoubt.

What is the ultimate purpose lurking behind your complex narrative?

Perhaps to provide some relief to the stress of our lives under restrictions and fear, and to the sadness for the loss of loved ones? During times of plague, war and crisis, we have had creativity, empathy and humor helping us to survive. Have they served us in this tough year, and will they continue to serve us in the next few months? I have been receiving some very touching comments from people I know and others I've never met. I have been lucky to find a very positive response by some respected museum directors and curators, like Vesela Sretenović, who invited me to present an episode of Astrodoubt in a one-person digital show at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. But friends of my teenage daughter also seem to enjoy the story, and many athletes around the world liked the “2020 COVID Olympics.” I would love to reach out also to an even larger audience of people who do not visit museums, but may be affected by the emotional or by the visual life of Astrodoubt.

Is it a complex narrative? Maybe because we are complex beings, and we are facing something that is complex that we cannot fully understand and control. It’s a complex narrative, but it’s simple too: It is always the same protagonist, you, me, most people who have been threatened and still live under uncertainty.

Is this work purely experimental?

I would not say that it is purely experimental, because ultimately Astrodoubt communicates to many nonspecialized audiences. From the reactions I have received, there are many entry points into the Chronicles—some enjoy the drawings, some the emotional appeal, others the attempted jokes. As you figured out, I am not a comedian—if I were, that would be tragic!

The Chronicles are a hybrid of comic book, or better, “sequential art,” illustration, graphic design, conceptual art, representational and abstract art. The looks and “styles” shift, at times from one page to the next, but there is a consistency in the emotional core and in the development over the 100+ posts. For instance, in these recent weeks, I am “breaking” the black-and-white rigid “rule” by progressively introducing color, a sign for the hope that is coming with the vaccine. It’s a tragicomic narrative: If you are expecting funny cartoons or dramatic stories only, sorry, you will be disappointed.

Perhaps they are experimental because words become images, playing visually and moving around very much like Astrodoubt’s figure does. But the language spoken is plain, neither experimental or poetic or intellectual or colloquial, so that it can be understood by an audience who reads a bit of “international English,” and, mainly, so that it does not overwhelm the drawing.

A couple of episodes might be experimental for a comic book: in one, Astrodoubt questions who/what they are: a character, a projection of emotions, a drawing or an algorithm.

Are you leaving a record of life on the planet just in case something dire happens to you?

That’s a nice idea and delusion; funny, isn’t it? Sometimes I wonder, how do we want to remember this time of anxiety and loss? Can we re-envision this absurdity? Through Astrodoubt, I have tried to transform our traumatic psychological journey into a phantasmagoric and changing universe, even though I used no more than a few lines, brushstrokes, cut-out letters and hand-held animations of DIY “action figures.” Not sure what will remain of them. I’d like to imagine them surviving as insects trapped in amber, instead of being squashed on the floor.

I've been purposely vague in describing your character. Now's the time. How is Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles differentiated or segmented?

The narrative in The Quarantine Chronicles is simple: Astrodoubt, a person of a never-defined gender, age or race, dressed in an astronaut-like hyper-protective suit, and grounded from their attempt to escape a collapsing planet Earth, daydreams and reimagines banal daily events as fantastic astronomical journeys and Olympic feats.

Each episode chronicles a simple, daily situation, like: going to the supermarket; being unable to see friends, therefore dreaming of being abducted by a
liens; feeling trapped in a time loop; being terrified when looking up data of COVID cases and deaths; house cleaning, maybe pushing the imagination a bit so that vacuum cleaning, black holes vacuums and the void created by COVID all come together and somehow make sense … well, at least visually.

This graphic novel is currently structured in 17 episodes, 14 of which I have already posted, separated by “Coming Soon Previews,” and interludes like the ”Safety Messages,” “Deep Space Thoughts,” “Derailed Asteroids” and “2020 Summer Olympics Reports (COVID Edition).” A few have “bonus” animated sequences. Episode 13, Welcome to Covidville, at the moment exists only as a video animation, but I’d also like to present it as a series of video stills, in a sequential way. I also made—but have not shown yet—another shorter animation for outdoor projections.

I have a couple of other ideas and sketches for a new series of interludes inside the Quarantine Chronicles, that I hope to be able to complete soon.

You explain this in a video, but there is still something enigmatic about it that I'd like to understand. Help me?

In a short video documentary/animation, I ask, “Could Doubt, like the one in Astrodoubt, teach us more than certainty?” People are free to interpret it in different ways. I was thinking how, in the past few years, we have seen groups of people around the world locking themselves in their own belief systems, preventing themselves from questioning what they read, see and hear, and refusing to open themselves to interpretations other than those confirming their own values.

Doubting, asking, being curious and open, accepting our vulnerability and trying to make something out of it—instead of relying on the most comfortable ideology—seem to me a healthy way to create the foundation for a post-COVID society. Or am I deluding myself?

What are your plans, post-COVID?

I would like to take Astrodoubt back to the physical world, hopefully one larger than the desk where it was initially shaped. I’d like to publish a book of Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles, a time capsule, comprised of approximately 200 original pages in black-and-white and color, selected from the over 350 already drawn and other upcoming pages. A few longtime friends are encouraging me and giving advice—the power of friendship in tough times! Also, I’d like to plan some exhibitions with the original drawings, animations, sculptures, the limited-edition “artist’s books” inside their special cases, and create installations using the sets from the video animations. The initial response is promising.

Besides Astrodoubt, I’d like to revive Not-a-Superhero, who also embodies our era of vulnerability. Then I’ll continue some of the paintings and other works [that are] part of my exploration of art and science in Space Doubt. And I’d love to travel, perhaps not to Mars, though.

How has the pandemic changed you?

Good question. I am not sure yet. I am still learning. I am still changing …