M.K. Perker Discusses Insomnia Café
If you've been following the work G. Willow Wilson (and you should be), then you know artist M.K. Perker's work. He's been the outstanding artist on Cairo and the ongoing series Air, both of which have received rave reviews. But now he's stepping out as both artist and writer on the newly released Insomnia Café. Here's what the talented creator had to say about his new book.
You were born in Istanbul. What’s the comics and graphic-novel market like there? What did you grow up reading?
I started reading when I was 4 years old. And I started reading with comics. My mother got me French comics like Lucky Luke and Asterix and read them to me out loud. Then I started reading them myself. My father had a big library, mostly filled with Russian novels and a lot of poetry. I started reading the Russian novels at a very early age. And read the same poetry books over and over again and ended up memorizing most of them. There was no real comics and graphic novel market in Turkey back then. But my father was getting me the Turkish translations of the Franco-Belgian graphic novels and they were mostly the comic book adaptations of the famous classics. All the classics were not available as comic book adaptations, but those books helped me to get into the other works of the authors that I came to like through these adaptations. I became obsessed with Jules Verne and Mark Twain in the beginning. Then I started reading excessively. I used to give my father a list of books every week and he used to bring me those books every Friday. Around the early ’80s, there was an Italian Fumetti boom in Turkey. I started collecting those books, but I never really liked the stories. I was crazy for the artwork in comics, but prose books were what I really liked and read. I was collecting comics, comic magazines and was drawing almost all the time, and I came to a realization: I was literally into comics because of the drawings but was only reading prose novels and poetry. At a very young age, I made peace with this situation. One Saturday night when I was in the third grade, I saw the movie Julius Caesar and loved it and stayed up that night and made a comic book of the movie. Later I did the same thing with The Planet of the Apes. Despite my love of literature, I never thought about becoming a novelist and I always wanted to be a comic book artist and kept collecting comics and copying the works of the artists I admired.
Later I discovered writers like Hesse, Borges, Ambjornsen, and through Norman Mailer I got more into American literature and became the happiest kid in Istanbul. I started reading everything, from Kurt Vonnegut to Harold Robbins.
Who would you say were the biggest influences on your work?
I had many influences, and the list keeps growing every other day. I loved Uderzo a lot in the beginning and copied almost every panel he did when I was a kid. But when I saw Moebius’ work, my life was really changed. I didn’t look at anything else for a while and kept comparing him to every other artist, and he always won. I didn’t like his writing but like I said, I had already solved that issue in my mind, and he stood tall as the greatest artist in the world for me. Then I discovered many other artists, like Alex Toth, Boucq, Serpieri, Manara, Alberto and Enrique Breccia, Bernet and Nicholas DeCrecy, who were and still are big influences on me. Other artist’s work is like fuel. You get tired at 3 a.m. and drink as many cups of coffee as you can imagine, but still you can’t get the same energy as you would get from looking at a panel by Breccia (the father). That brings me back to life, really. Drawing, like writing, is a very lonely process. Benjamin Percy, who I think is one of the greatest writers in America, once said that “writing is like walking in a cornfield alone while talking to yourself late at night. And once in a while somebody appears in the cornfield and tells you that he heard you.” So when I’m amazed by a drawing of Boucq, I also realize that it’s the moment I heard him.
Besides the work of these great artists and writers, one other thing amazes me. It’s their enthusiasm. Their character and inspiration emanates from their work and their lives. Clarice Lispector, on her way to the hospital the day she died, told the cab driver, “let’s pretend that we’re not going to the hospital. Let’s pretend that we’re going to Paris, and you can bring your girlfriend, too.” These people, with every line they drew, with every word that they wrote, mapped out a world for me.
You’ve done a couple graphic novels in Turkey, but Insomnia Café is your English-language debut. Will there be a Turkish version of it as well?
A shorter version of Insomnia Café was first serialized in a monthly comics magazine in Turkey. I did six-page installments for every issue, and since it was a magazine, I had to cut the ending shorter because if I continued the next month it wouldn’t be as effective since the conclusion was already revealed. When I pitched the book to Diana Schutz, I told her that I needed to add like eight more pages to make it the way I wanted originally. She agreed, and I drew those pages and started making a lot of changes in the writing so I ended up rewriting it instead of translating. A couple of publishers want to publish it in Turkey, and when they do it, it’s going to be the Turkish translation of the graphic novel, which is ironic.
Insomnia Café begins in the middle of the action, jumps back to the past, and then features flashbacks periodically without warning. Were the style and pacing deliberate?
When I wrote the story, it was not like that. I made the flashbacks when I started breaking it into pages. I don’t write in a script format. I write it as page layouts. So I practically moved the scenes around and made adjustments. The pacing was deliberate from the beginning. I wanted it to be short and quick. I wanted people to read it very quickly, in one sitting, and go back to the beginning. I could have easily extended it to like 300 pages and it would feel epic. But instead of laying out fancy looking pages with three panels and turning it into a longer book, I did each page with a lot of panels. Only one page, the one where we’re introduced to the Archives, has a panel close to a splash page. Some critics said that they wished I devoted more to the Archives, for example. Yes, that would be good, but it would compromise the ambiguity that I wanted to maintain in the story. This way, you’re not sure if the Archives exist or not. If I did it longer and had many pages taking place in the Archives, and at the end tell you that it maybe didn’t exist, then you would have felt cheated.
Did you worry about how accessible the story would be to readers?
No, I didn’t. Because I was sure that it was not going to be a mainstream darling. I did it for the few who enjoy this type of writing. I hoped after reading this, your curiosity would arise toward, for example, reading Goncharev after it’s revealed that Oblomov, the gangster, was named after a character in Goncharev’s novel, or Grant Wood or the world of rare books as much as you would enjoy the story.
How long did you spend working on Insomnia Café?
I penciled and inked two pages a day. The style I used on Insomnia Café allowed me to go really fast, too. But the story evolved in my mind in two to three years.
The cover of Insomnia Café is brilliant—a great evocation of American Gothic, which plays into the story. What drew you to American Gothic in the first place?
Thank you. I love American Gothic and it haunted me all my life. I love it that there’s a story in it. You look at the painting and instantly you start trying to understand who are these people, and this allows you to come up with an explanation, which leads to a story in your mind. Are they married? Are they siblings? Are they happy or did something bad happen or will it happen? Whichever way you want to answer these questions, you’re making a decision to lead the story in your mind to a certain direction.
I also love the unapologetic realism in the artwork that was produced in an era when it was not popular to do so.
What are some of your favorite comics and graphic novels right now?
The very recent books I read and liked are Millar and Edwards’ 1985 and Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker. Last night I read Abuli and Bernet’s Torpedo and really liked it, and the artwork was exceptional. I follow The Unwritten and Scalped monthly.
How did you meet G. Willow Wilson?
We met when we started working on Cairo. We talked a couple of times on the phone and met personally the month we completed the book, when she came to New York from Cairo.
How do you two work together on Air? What’s the collaborative process like between you at this point?
It’s a very smooth process. I receive the scripts from her and start working on the artwork. I never express any opinion about the way the story goes but give my ideas about breaking the pages into panels from time to time. This means, for example, if there are four panels in the script for a page and I feel like it has to be six panels, I break it into six panels or vice versa, and if she’s happy with it, I’ll do it that way. But for the Air covers, they’re all my ideas. I’m very happy with the artistic freedom I’m given by our editor, Karen Berger, for the covers. I present like three ideas for each cover and Karen makes the selection. I’ve been also coloring the covers since the first issue.
Are there any secrets you can reveal at this point about Air?
An interesting character from the history of aviation and literature will appear.
What are you working on next?
At the moment, Air is my priority. But I’m working on writing a new graphic novel and a monthly series that I want to illustrate. But they’re at a very early stage of writing, and I’m constantly taking notes and developing characters.