The Daily Heller: David Sandlin’s Tangled Love Story (In Progress)

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Comix artist, printmaker and painter David Sandlin began finalizing his new graphic novel, Belfaust, while he was a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. After fiddling with it for more than a decade, he explains, “I’ve discovered that breaking it into bite-sized episodes is the best way for me to finish it.” Eventually, he wants to see it published as a single novel, but this is a good start. Sandlin has 18 episodes mocked up; three are published and one is currently ready for the Riso printer.

The novel, somewhat rooted in Goethe’s Faust, draws on Sandlin’s childhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and his young adulthood in Alabama, where his parents moved the family to escape the ages-old religious, secular and political turmoil known as “The Troubles.” When awarded the fellowship, Sandlin had just finished a seven-part series of artist’s books, A Sinner’s Progress. The protagonists of that series, Betty and Bill Grimm, a couple based on his parents, who are grappling with what Sandlin understates as “the temptations and trials of modern life.” That initial series was more about Bill’s story, while in the new novel, he chose to explore Betty’s story and allow her to have a stronger voice.

Adding even more autobiographical weight to this project, Sandlin’s oldest sister had just passed; she was in his thoughts, and so he modeled Betty and Bill on his sister and her husband to some extent (combined with himself and his own wife, Joni). Some of the narrative is based on true events and characters, but “pretty quickly,” he adds, “it explodes into fiction.”

The first three episodes are bitterly heartfelt, courageous, dramatic and honest. I asked Sandlin to provide a peek at what’s progressed and what’s to come. At the time he was making a holiday road trip from his home in northern New York state to his family in Alabama.

There is something otherworldly and yet very real about this work. (And without giving too much away: Belfaust begins in war-torn Belfast, where the main protagonists, Bill and Betty, are trying to survive the chaos. Their lives are put in jeopardy by Carl, Bill’s evil doppelgänger who is really the manifestation of Mephistopheles (an agent of Lucifer in the tale of Faust). The largest painting centers on an exploding red double-decker bus, indicative of the prevalence of car and pipe bombs used to wreak havoc and revenge throughout “The Troubles.”) How would you describe this? Otherworldly or real world?
As far as otherworldly aspects of the story, I used the Faust legend as an underlying structure. Bill has a demonic doppelgänger, and I wanted to offer the possibility that there are supernatural actions afoot to contrast with the notion that Bill simply has a split personality. I’m also a big fan of classic country music and the moralizing that underlies all the drinking and womanizing and overall fecklessness. In addition, I’m interested in the ever-optimistic American idea of self-actualization and the fact that it often devolves into hucksterism.

I’m compelled to ask this: I have Parkinson’s Disease, as do you. How, if in any way, has it impacted your physical and creative self?
I’ve always been a workaholic, and PD has just turned it up a notch. I don’t want to waste any time. I’m fine right now, but I guess eventually I won’t be. I try to exercise and stay fit to keep the symptoms at bay, and I have to say, silkscreen printmaking is nothing if not physically rigorous!

I am always impressed with your production. Even the comics have the tactile sensation of silkscreen.
I love making color separations—the process is how I bring drawings to their finished state. Ever since I was a kid reading comics, I’ve loved ink on paper, and silkscreen has long been my preferred medium. To keep Belfaust affordable, I’m using the Riso print process, which requires separations, so I still get the effects I want. Making the color separations also helps me prepare the novel for offset printing in the future.

This work is the result of your NYPL fellowship. Is there a direct relationship to the time spent at NYC’s most illustrious institution, particularly for encouraging comic arts?
The year I spent at NYPL’s Cullman Center was one of the most fulfilling of my life. Not only could I order whatever literature and art books the library has—basically anything in the world—but its print collection is incredible. It was a real honor to have access to it. The Yoshitoshi prints in the collection inspired me to start my current artist’s book series. And of course, my colleagues at the center were a major source of inspiration.

What is next for you?
I always have three or four projects going—right now, I’m working on Vol. 5 of my next artist’s book series, 76 Manifestations of American Destiny. Each volume starts out with drawings, which often turn into paintings before getting translated into a 30-foot-long bound accordion book of silkscreened prints. Over the holiday break, I started a new painting that’s about 11 feet long … painting helps me work out composition, color and other issues before I get to the printmaking part of the image. I also hope to have another few episodes of Belfaust in the can by spring!