This week, cult favorite novelist Chuck Palahniuk released his first adult coloring book—emphasis on the “adult.” The book, which also serves as his second compilation of short stories, showcases a whole host of talented comic book artists, each lending pages to be colored tailored to a specific story.
Artist Tony Puryear lent his talents to the short story “Nonsense,” which features racially-charged themes and, like much of Chuck’s work, makes the reader confront stark truths about the world. Mr. Puryear spoke to me about his involvement with Bait, how he approached working on the project, and how “Nonsense” touched on some his own personal history.
FS: How did you become involved with Bait?
Tony Puryear: Dark Horse Editor Scott Allie called. He knew my inked-with-a-sharpie style from Concrete Park, and perhaps he thought I could bring some of that, um, crudity? Enthusiasm? to Bait. I also think it shows a sensitivity on his and Dark Horse’s part to the edgy treatment of race, sex and power in Chuck Palahniuk’s story “Nonsense”. I’m glad they reached out to a black artist from the Dark Horse family.
FS: “Nonsense” is a very haunting tale and, days later, I find it still lingering with me. Was there a particular type of headspace you needed to be in to approach the story?
TP: The story features people at a sex club role-playing extremely racially charged characters like Harriet Tubman and Woodrow Wilson and Paula Deen. (You have to read it). First, as an illustrator or interpreter, I wanted to respect Chuck’s story, but it made me uncomfortable, which I think is a place some really good creative work can come from if you let it.
How to show these characters? How to handle their true/false racial identities? I knew I didn’t want to be the guy who drew “Harriet Tubman” as a white woman in blackface. The solution I hit upon was to draw a club full of black people in masks, masquerading as Chuck’s various racial types. As an “undercover brother,” a black man who looks light, bright and damn near white, masks, of course, fascinate me. As a comics fan, I also recognize masks as the ultimate comic book trope, but black people in America mask every day, have secret identities every day. As Paul Laurence Dunbar famously wrote:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
So, masks. And you know, I had some real fun with the contrast between body language and false-face language. I think my illustrations are true to the spirit of Chuck’s racially provocative text, but maybe by pushing back, or pushing sideways a little.
FS: The story has some personal significance in how it touches on your personal history and that of your dad. Would you like to talk about that?
TP: My dad died this year, just before his 96th birthday, which was June 5. He was born in Jim Crow Virginia in 1920, when Woodrow Wilson, though crippled by a massive stroke, was still president, at least in name. I looked on one of those “this day in history” websites, and found that on the day my father was born, Woodrow Wilson, a fellow Virginian, signed the Army Reorganization Act of 1920, re-segregating the United States Army. The Civil War and the Spanish-American War had seen black and white soldiers fighting side by side in a rough, de facto mixture that offended the openly racist Wilson. On my father’s birthday in 1920, Wilson, or his wife, Edith, or his Richelieu, Colonel House, put pen to paper, making the armed forces, de jure, Jim Crow.
On my father’s birthday in 1944, he was in a landing craft, waiting to cross, then crossing the English Channel. The next morning was D-Day. My father hit Omaha beach as a sergeant in that segregated US Army, leading an all-black platoon. Their commanding officer was white. They had trained with wooden rifles, because the Army didn’t like the thought of Negroes with guns. They had slept in substandard barracks at home and in Scotland. They had been the victims of bitter racist violence from their white fellow troops. They were on that beach to fight for a freedom they neither enjoyed at home nor saw abroad. My father wore a mask his whole adult life. This was Woodrow Wilson’s legacy in my family. I approached drawing him, or “him”, with trepidation, anger and excitement.
FS: What kind of discussions did you and Chuck have in terms of how you both wanted the art of the story to be?
TP: We didn’t discuss it. I’m just as glad, because I was free to develop my take on his story without worrying that I’d offend a new friend.
FreakSugar: Do you have any projects down the pike you’d like to tease?
TP: I’m working with my co-creator and writer, Erika Alexander, on two follow-up volumes of Concrete Park, (they’ll be hardcover trades, volumes 3 and 4), as well as stand-alone Concrete Park stories for Dark Horse Presents. And I have another campaign poster coming out for a certain history-making presidential candidate. My last one’s in the National Portrait Gallery. Fingers crossed.
Bait is on sale now from Dark Horse Comics.