Interview with Brad Teare

Interview with Brad Teare
author & illustrator of Cypher

[ Interviewer ] Brad, thanks for joining us today. In your creation, “Cypher”, you have various cameo appearances of characters and scenes; many unknown to the common man but obvious to the art aficionado. Tell us who these characters and scenes represent and why you included each of them in this saga of humorous misadventure.

{ Brad Teare } I included various cameo appearances to give greater meaning to the narrative. For example in the first story, Cypher, Jean-Paul Sartre makes an appearance as the philosopher writing in the street because the first three stories are explicitly about existentialism. Later appearances of M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali are manifestations of two types of thinking in the story “Hemispheres”. M. C. Escher represents the analytical mind and Dali the subconscious, intuitive aspect. They were two artists who greatly influenced my thinking as a young artist. They were both realists and appeared to be taken seriously by the art establishment which gave me hope that, despite post modernism, a person could still pursue an artistic life.

More incidentally,there is also an appearance of a drawing by William Blake, English poet, painter and printmaker, 1757 – 1827; called “Ghost of a Flea” in the “Fear of Dreaming” episode (the man who introduces the magician). William Blake was a very important printmaker who influenced others like Rockwell Kent. Some have thought that my work is influenced by Kent but we actually have many of the same influences. If you have a magnifying glass you can see my homage to Lynn Ward (another famous woodcut artist) in the book that the gatekeeper holds (the girl with the baseball cap). It is a woodcut of a woman kissing a skull.

There actually are so many references that I have forgotten some of them but people pick up on the complexity of the creative process and feel more than know that it has a meaning beyond the superficial. In a sense I was trying to create a world like the one Cypher encountered in the first story, a world encrusted in undiscovered meaning.

That’s great. Thanks for sharing those details. How did this madcap story get started? What or who was your inspiration?

In a general sense, New York City was my inspiration for Cypher. It could never have existed without my exposure to its manic energy. The story itself evolved slowly over time, picking up bits and pieces here and there all of which I wove into a gigantic visual and narrative puzzle. But the main kernel, the one that convinced me I could write a surreal narrative was as follows: One day I was picking up my check at United Features Syndicate in New York City. I had done a political illustration for their syndicate and their policy was that when you delivered a drawing you could pick up your check. So I was standing in line with a bunch of other artists. A person near me was explaining that a comic magazine was looking for material and was paying $50 a page (it was the magazine “Snake Eyes”). I was broke at the time so this sounded pretty intriguing.

On my way home, I began constructing a story about a guy who was so sleep deprived that as he drove home he would slump into a momentary stupor only to snap awake to see cars passing him that were driven by giant insects. Horrified he drives frantically home hoping for a resumption of normality. He arrives at his fourth story apartment glad to see his wife and return to reality. When he walks in the door he finds her in bed but she is a huge beetle! He is so terrified and confused he stumbles and falls out the window. This story has a lot of things I like, shifts in consciousness, anomalies of reality, but it also had the disadvantage of being too close to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. But it was the dramatic event that formed the nucleus of the main story. I had read a lot of contemporary comics and the thing that impressed me most was that the genre was still pretty hidebound. Despite having a patina of post modern hipness, the stories weren’t all that unconventional. I wanted to create something that was completely unprecedented and never before seen. If possible, to invent a new kind of story telling.

What do you feel the rewards have been for creating this graphic novel? It’s been almost ten years,in hindsight, what shines out in your memory of creating Cypher?

The best memory of writing Cypher was sitting on our porch on Livingston Street in Rhinebeck, New York drawing the pages. I thought it was wild that I got to spend my days outside, watching people drive to work enslaved by the supervision of managers with ruined imaginations while I got to create this outrageous book. Rhinebeck is a sort of artist’s community and friends would walk by and we would end up talking. Occasionally even strangers would come up and take a look at what I was doing. As an artist, I got to write and illustrate stories involving two of my favorite subjects; art and philosophy. I don’t think I have ever felt so free. The fun ratio was very high.

I’ll quote now from some of your personal writings: “Cypher is a symbol for my life’s experience. He travels through life as an object – his internal world irrelevant to those around him. He is totally isolated in his pain and loneliness. The world would despise him but opts to pay no attention to him at all. Cypher is an invisible man archetype.” – Brad Teare, 1997, facsimile document.

You’ve observed a reason you felt as quoted above is you suffered from the second son syndrome. This condition happens when parents ignore their second son’s feelings of pain and fear from being ignored,cheated, and thwarted. The second son feels he is a ghost or cipher in the family structure. Did you see yourself needing to be a lone hero? Was there a subconscious healing inspiration for creating Cypher?

There is a lot going on in Cypher that was a manifestation of my psychological world view. When you effectively express that view healing can take place. Hopefully people who connect with Cypher can experience the same therapy vicariously. I have always viewed my relation to the world as one of the loner, of being perpetually misunderstood. I also have a deep seated notion that to live your life fully you have to do it in the role of hero, because no one else is going to defend you or shield you. It is an illusion of course, and a kind of conceit, but it can help when it seems no one believes in you. At its worst it can express itself as the young artist who paints rubbish but insists he is just a misunderstood genius. Cypher is a character who, in a way, has no potential. He is an unfilled vessel. No one expects anything from him (because he is essentially invisible) and his self consciousness is truncated by the indifference of the world. So in a sense, he is a part of my best self, an unwitting hero, and my worse self, a person who is often oblivious to life’s importance. Cypher is also a feral scream against the idiocy of the world.

When I first published in “Heavy Metal”, the editor loved Cypher. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, the magazine was purchased by a new owner who hated Cypher and fired the editor. The third story that was slated to run in Heavy Metal, “Abstract”, was replaced by a 14 page story of two ninjas in a sword fight. No plot, no story, just two guys chopping each other up. I never published again in Heavy Metal, which potentially could have given Cypher a much greater audience (plus I was paid $250 a page which could have subsidized many more stories). My story “Boxer Rebellion” emerged from that rejection. My wife and I used to joke that Cypher was therapy for those damaged by exposure to the “Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles”, a popular comic in the 90’s. Ironically, Heavy Metal was bought by one the the creators of that comic and the aforementioned ninja story that displaced Cypher was written and drawn by the same man. Strange world.

A cipher is a message written in a secret code. A cipher is also the following: a zero or nothing, a person of no influence or importance, a scrambled or hidden message, or the key to an obscured secret.

Correct. Cypher is a multi-layered experience and all those meanings come into play at some point of every story. The concept of encrypted meaning is the main constant in what I consider a Cypheresque story.

If today, you unfolded that soaring paper airplane shown in “Hemispheres”, what would the hidden message say?

I believe quite strongly that asking the question “what is the meaning of life?” is the most important question anyone can ask. A person who asks that question is going to have a better life. Some people avoid that question at all costs indulging in terribly destructive behaviors. Existentialists tell us it is because the sad secret of life is that there is no meaning. I don’t believe that. In a way, Cypher is a countervailing manifesto to existentialist nihilism. If people really believed existentialism to be true they would buy a gun and kill themselves. That is the logical fruit of that ideology.

“All of art can be summed up as the necessity to emphasize the significant over the nonessential.”

Thankfully very few people really believe in existentialism. But many continue to live in the crippling twilight of existentialist belief. Despite the obvious, though subconscious, disbelief in existentialism it is still a powerfully destructive and paralyzing dogma. “Hemispheres” is a story suggesting that to live a meaningful life would be the most rewarding of all endeavors. The structure of the first three stories emerged when a person I loved a lot told me they believed in existentialism. I knew existentialism to be terribly destructive. Cypher emerged as a story that couldn’t be told, because to denounce existentialism is a taboo of post-modernism and would brand one a heretic in the modern world. The message of Cypher was forced underground and became a modern parable.

Hillman Curtis, (1961 -2012), noted Flash website designer, had an xray of the human heart as his logo. His guiding principle is “Making the invisible visible.” Do your x-ray cover symbols have the same inferred meaning? Perhaps even implying an “exposé” that reveals surprising information?

Yes. The essential aspects are usually hidden. The unessential is usually on the surface. If you take a person into the woods and ask them to paint a tree they will start by painting a leaf. They miss the most critical part which is the skeletal structure of the trunk and the inferred power and rhythm of the roots. If you ask them to paint a face they will start by painting the reflection in the eyes. Our obsession with the meaningless is quite persistent. The artist’s job is to overthrow this obsession. All of art can be summed up as the necessity to emphasize the significant over the nonessential. Post-modern culture is astonishingly superficial, while simultaneously inferring that it is the most significant and critical aspect of reality. It really is quite absurd. Few are writing about this absurdity. The whole post-modern philosophical construct is still being taken seriously.

Brad, you mentioned “postmodernism” and “existentialism” several times during this interview. You said the first three episodes of Cypher are “explicitly about existentialism.” Yet, you reject existentialism as a form of societal suicide. Since the Cypher book is loaded with irony and irrationality, is Cypher contradictory to your stance or just a lampoon about the contradictions of existentialism? Are you a closet- existentialist?

Well, there are lots of interesting ideas in existentialism and many of them incontrovertible (like Kierkegaard’s notion of responsibility) so I am not dismissing existentialism totally. But the unavoidable conclusion of existentialism is that life has no meaning. Life can be occasionally absurd and even irrational and yet still have meaning. I meant Cypher to be a counter current, perhaps even an undertow, against popular culture, while still flowing in well worn channels. For example, “Hemispheres” appears to have the raw, gritty patina of an existentialist drama. Yet it is about the possibility of finding the purpose of living. What you think you are going to experience is not what you experience in a Cypher story. I guess you could say I am questioning the certitude of our culture.

Existentialism views human beings as subjects in an indifferent and “absurd” universe (a state of “Cypherness”.) Early existentialists were interested in people’s concealment of the meaninglessness of life and their use of diversion to escape from boredom. Cypher’s unnamed main character complains of boredom.

Yeah, the idea of boredom, dread, isolation, and death being the four horsemen of the existentialist apocalypse interests me from both an artistic and aesthetic perspective. This is one of the many things existentialists got right.

A central theme in Cypher is about meaninglessness in an apathethetic and mechanical world, that we are all “herd- animals” lost in “everyday- ness”. These are core beliefs of Existentialism . . . and it would seem the core premise in Cypher. Yet you say Cyper is a world with undiscovered meaning and “a feral scream against the idiocy of the world.” There seems to be a conflict here. Can you clarify? In other words, Cypher could easily be the “Bible” for existentialists. Have you thought about the potential of it being used as a defense for existential thoughts?

You are right about Cypher embracing many concepts of existentialism. But what concerns me is not so much what we have discovered about ourselves but what we have yet to discover. I can’t agree with philosophers like Sartre who implicitly claim that existentialism was an evolutionary inevitability, that it is the pinnacle of human reasoning. In the 80s and 90s there were all kinds of book entitled, “The End of Art”, “The End of History”, etc. as if philosophers had finally figured everything out and we didn’t need to think about anything anymore. You have to admit meaninglessness as the ultimate answer is a pretty all encompassing idea, there really is nowhere else to go. But of course, these ideas are merely the most recent ideas in a never ending stream of ideas. Congratulating ourselves on having finally figured everything out has no future whereas trying to overturn those ideas will lead to even more interesting insights. On the first page of the next Cypher graphic novel (The Roadless Traveler) a highly esteemed scientist realizes that everything he now knows to be true will one day be proved false. This is so terrifying that he has a heart attack and dies. The irrefutable tenets of existentialism will someday be overturned, perhaps by its own logic. I like this kind of convoluted thinking. I’m the kind of guy who would make a bumper sticker that says “Question people who question authority” and think it pretty funny.

I look forward to your new works. Thanks for your time. It’s always a pleasure to have you on our show.

Addendum Discussion about Subwayward episode.
with Brad Teare, author & illustrator of Cypher. Summer 2007

Brad Teare: Thanks for your excellent and accurate analysis of Subwayward. It was a real eye-opener. It was so accurate I got chills when I read parts of it. I have never deciphered its meaning and had almost decided it was a prosaic non sequitur.

Cypher Fansite: It was fun to decode. A dream symbol book came in handy at times. All of Cypher is dream-like.

Teare: I did feel it was the perfect capstone to the series, however, and was amazed I finished the book in such a satisfying way (it was confusing that it was satisfying yet perplexing).

Fansite: Once you know the meaning of “No Exit.” It becomes more satisfying.

Imagine the story of a man who gets completely sidetracked in life, whose life becomes a complete hell of controlling authority figures and mindless automatons. Who does that sound like?

Teare: [sarcastically] Hmm? Let me think?

Here are the main points I learned from your analysis:
The descent into hell (life’s seemingly meaningless sidetracks) is plagued with dread but this fear is imaginary. The “Empire of the Dead!!” is a papier-mache threat.

Fansite: I thought this interesting, too. The “hero” was stressing a lot about things that turned out, after the fact, to be fluffy worries.

Teare: Life’s inevitable sidetrack is something you have to get THROUGH. Forward motion is critical.

Fansite: This was an interesting point, too. Sitting waiting to be rescued produces nothing. Action in any direction will at least get you back to the “No Exit” signs.

Teare: Being subwayward means loss; loss of time, freedom, choice. It doesn’t mean loss of dreams. Being subwayward is frustrating, but not without purpose. You can learn things on such a journey that must be learned for your dreams to manifest themselves. Subwayward is Necessary Hell.

Fansite: I tried to decode the title and I think you’re right. Time can only be “felt” as lost. It’s part of the journey to the destination. It is only “purposeless” if you can’t make the connection to how it fits in the story line.

Teare: The Subterranean story is the crux of the narrative. Subterranean is an antithetical archetype, meaning that he is the opposite of me.

The role of the comic book in the dark always seemed bizarre, but now it makes sense. And is the biggest clue to decoding this episode.

He wants to have a mundane tenured job with a university. He wants to live a “normal” life. I want to live an uncommon life (life of an artist). He had superherodom thrust upon him. I had mundaneness thrust upon me. But we share a common weakness that must be mastered, we must defuse our anger if we are to return to the lives we want and claim our dreams.

Fansite: I think you’re right in that interpretation.

Teare: “No exit” is unconventional means of escape. “Limits” is means of escape.

There are many impotent guardians of the status quo during this journey. These authority figures, although frightening, must simply be ignored.

Fansite: Right. Their opinions are pure vaporous invention. Meaningless to the outcome.

Teare: The crying being, or “Wizard of Oz Head”, is a personification of anger, grief and pain. These primal emotions must be totally and effectively defused. But they are not to be feared. They are powerless except as I suppress and ignore them.

Fansite: They are defused by redirecting the emotional energy into creative endeavors deliberately. Consciously.

Teare: “Stop button” means there’ll be a time to end the subwayward journey. That moment will be dramatic and finite.

Fansite: Hmm? You’re right. I missed that finality actually.

Teare: Hell’s terrors are illusory. I emerge with dreams intact (the book of dreams.)

Fansite: Yes. This was very interesting to me. It’s the opposite of when “hero” unknowingly bats away the paper airplane. In Subwayward, he has concrete evidence of surviving something. All other episodes, he awakens without any enlightenment. Back to the grind.

Teare: These are very significant and legitimate insights. The question remains: Did I subconsciously cause these events to come upon me? Or is it a natural (and perhaps common) step in the creative journey?

Fansite: That you can only answer at the end of your life, not in the middle. To be liberated, you first must feel trapped. That’s obvious. Thanks for the insights to this episode of Cypher.