Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vancouver artist, guitarist tells tragic tale in graphic novel

A sample page from David Lester's compelling graphic novel, The Listener.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 27, 2011


Nine boxes of books arrived in the afternoon. David Lester hauled each heavy box up the stairs to his third-floor apartment in eastside Vancouver.

And there they sat. Hour after hour.

He could not bring himself to open a single carton.

The boxes contained copies of his graphic novel fresh off the presses.

“I waited many hours,” he said. “I could not bear the thought of it looking badly.”

The books were the end result of a project started years earlier, a laborious process involving thousands of sketches and detailed final drawings in stark black and white, rendered in pencil and pen ink, watercolour and acrylic paint. After a long, intimate relationship with each drawing, the work had been sent off to the printers.

Too much ink and the images would be blobs. Too little and the book would be a washout.

It is a circumstance familiar to any parent. You nurture your darlings before sending them off into a cruel world.

“I was worried,” he said. “This could be seven years of worthlessness — of nothing — if the print job is terrible.”

After eight hours, he could wait no longer. He slashed open a box just before midnight, holding in his hand a copy of The Listener, a graphic novel published by Arbeiter Ring of Winnipeg. Next, he was dancing a jig of happiness.

The illustrated story, which is set in Vancouver, opens with a man accidentally falling to his death while trying to hang a banner with a political message from the old Woodward’s sign — a revolving red neon W atop an Eiffel Tower-like structure. The man’s desire to hoist the banner was inspired by a sculpture, his death causing the artist to flee to Europe to escape her guilt.

On the continent, she meets an elderly couple who tell the story of the last free election held in a small German state under the Weimar Republic, a campaign in which the Nazis claimed a narrow plurality at the ballot box through thuggery and intimidation. It is this victory, however modest, that Hitler uses as leverage in convincing the president to appoint him chancellor.

The artist sees in that history a cautionary note for our own time, which has not been immune to official deceit and spin-doctoring with tragic consequences.

The Listener’s early reviews have been harsh (“the artist’s limited powers can’t do justice to his ambition,” said the Winnipeg Free Press), straightforward (“a shadowy morality play cloaked in German Expressionism,” noted the Pacific Northwest Inlander), and glowing (“as a graphic novel, it raises the stakes of the whole genre ... a launch into the big leagues,” said the Victoria Times Colonist).

The 310-page book is a major step for the artist, whose work will be familiar to many in Vancouver. Mr. Lester’s designs have graced T-shirts and album covers. He created some of the earliest punk rock posters in Vancouver before designing theatre posters. He is also the longtime designer of the quarterly literary newspaper BC BookWorld.

The son of a postal worker and a homemaker (and the grandson of a Scottish immigrant who played horn in a band sponsored by the radical Industrial Workers of the World), he was raised in east Vancouver near Rupert Street and east 29th Avenue. His early reading included Mad magazine and Classics Illustrated. An older brother who worked at the Georgia Straight newspaper brought home stacks of underground and alternative newspapers, a library of garish, stunning and provocative images that also influenced the budding artist.

Mr. Lester, 53, is also a guitarist, early in his career performing with a band that opened for Talking Heads. He is better known as a longtime member of Mecca Normal, a duo in which he plays guitar to the vocalizations of Jean Smith. Confrontational and provocative in lyrics and sound, the combo is credited as helping define the spirit and sound of the early Riot Grrrl movement. They’re not to everyone’s taste and Ms. Smith has memorably described Mecca Normal as “the Buckley’s cough syrup of rock.” The pair have opened for DOA at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret in Vancouver and have performed with the likes of Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. Rolling Stone magazine included them with newcomers Radiohead and Liz Phair in a 1993 guide to cool music.

Ms. Smith has developed a performance adaptation of Mr. Lester’s graphic novel, which will be presented at the Word on the Street festival in Vancouver in September. The show includes PowerPoint slides of Mr. Lester’s drawings.

What was it like to capture in ink a maniacal tyrant responsible for so much tragedy?

“It’s bizarre to be drawing Adolf Hitler for seven years of your life,” Mr. Lester admitted. “You’re focussed on the overall book, so your dedication to it goes beyond that you’re drawing a horrible person. You’re trying to tell a story. You lose the creepy factor.”

Still, he mitigated the awfulness of portraying the Nazi leader by basing the novel’s lead character on his wife — Wendy Atkinson, programming manager at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

It is not every artist who can say, “For seven years, I drew my wife and Hitler. That’s what I did with my time.”

David Lester discusses the stories intertwined in his graphic novel, The Listener.

This posting has been edited to credit the "cough syrup" description of Mecca Normal to Jean Smith.

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