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David Lester is most well-known as the guitar player in Mecca Normal, the Vancouver-based indie rock duo that's been performing since 1984 and has released no less than 13 albums. But he's turned his artistry to many different mediums, as you can see for yourself in his "bio in 25 images." Most recently, Lester has published the graphic novel. The Listener merges truth and fiction, art and narrative, to tell a story that Abeiter Ring Publishing calls " one of the world’s most tragic acts of spin doctoring."
1933: In a small German state, the last democratic election is about to take place before a failed artist named Hitler seizes power. The election is Hitler’s chance to manipulate events that will lead to the death of millions.
2010: After a man dies during a political act inspired by a work of art, the artist flees to Europe to escape her guilt. Through a chance meeting she discovers the truth of the 1933 election. The past becomes pivotal as she decides her future.
It's a big story. The 312-page book also includes a lengthy bibliography on art and Nazism: Hitler's own artistic ambitions, the aesthetics of the Germany he envisioned, the wildly popular 'degenerate art' exhibitions. The story of politicized art in Hitler's Germany has been much-examined over the generations, but Lester's double-narrative pointedly juxtaposes it with the questions of contemporary working artists. He refuses to let us believe that we can shut the door on the misguided use of art "back then." We, too, are seekers. We, too, are tempted. We, too, aren't always sure what to do with our powers of creation and destruction.
A reviewer for Baltimore City Paper says that The Listener is "[s]prawling, yes, but also powerful. The drawings, black-and-white sketches given contour by broad washes of ink, are beautiful and oddly playful." School Library Journal just named it one of the best books of the year so far, and Publishers Weekly calls it a "dense and fiercely intelligent work that asks important questions about art, history, and the responsibility of the individual, all in a lyrical and stirring tone."
Not bad for a debut graphic novel from an indie press.
Lester has moonlighted as a publisher, founding Get to the Point Press in 1993, which specialized in design and poetry chapbooks. His own debut as an author came with The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism, which artfully aligns statistics to present an unnerving narrative about poverty and class. The book is part of Arbeiter Ring's Semaphore Series, which features concise titles on urgent matters. All the royalties from Lester's book go to the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture.
In our interview for Isak, David and I discuss spin-doctoring, the intersection of art and politics, how graphic novels are evolving, technology, how to re-interpret a book into live performance, and the body of an artistic life.
Here is David:
So, when people ask you about what you have created with The Listener, what do you tell them?
My graphic novel The Listener is a cautionary tale of complacency with two intersecting stories. One is the true story of the last democratic election to take place in Germany before Hitler seized power in 1933. And the other is a fictional story of an artist who makes a piece of art that inspires political action that ends in tragedy. The link between the two stories is art and politics. Aesthetics were an important part of a destructive Nazi ideology while in today’s world, art and politics can be a valuable part of progressive social change.
I got the core idea for The Listener after reading a reference to the Lippe election in a book on German history. (Editor's Note: Lippe is a small German state of about 100,000 people; Lester's referring to its pivotal 1933 parliamentary election.) I searched out more information, but there were only bits and pieces to be found scattered among dozens of books. Nowhere was the story given the prominence it seemed to warrant. When I realized the Lippe election was a story that had never been fully explored in English, I thought, what an incredibly exciting project it would be to bring this history to life. It was from that point on that I started to collect material that would form the basis for the first draft.
The events of 1933 seem entirely relevant to the political milieu of today. Media manipulation. Spin-doctoring and decisions made for expediency by morally corrupt political parties, be they left or right or centre.
It's interesting that you describe how aesthetics contributed to a destructive ideology of the past, but note that art can be a force for social change today. Do you mean that aesthetics no longer plays a role in constructing a destructive politics today? Isn't art powerful enough that it can still be used to harm?
Absolutely, the mixing of art and politics remains a powerful force. We can see this in the number of progressive writers, artists, filmmakers and cartoonists who are still being imprisoned around the world. But we can also see the use of visual icons such as flags, or classic songs, to push forward anti-democratic concepts. What I also notice today is how the power of art is dumbed down to sell stuff. It used to be that art was selling itself, but now it is used to sell "stuff," including a social ideology of how men and women should act. This seems a more insidious form of combining art and politics than we saw in the cruder nationalist propaganda of the Third Reich.
Why did you settle on the medium of the graphic novel to tell the story of The Listener?
One pivotal scene in the book demonstrates how the graphic novel form excels. The scene shows Louise having a conversation about the relationship of art and politics, the past and present, and the weight of responsibility in understanding history. I visually represent Louise, our protagonist, struggling to hang a heavy mirror during the conversation. This is her story. Her awkward burden.
Here in 2011, where do you think the medium of graphic novels is at? I mean, how is it evolving? And how is The Listener located in that trajectory?
Graphic novels are on the frontline in the battle against obliterating the printed book. Graphic novels can not be easily tamed to a kindle. The only area of printed books (over digital downloads) that show an increase in sales are graphic novels and kids' books. This tells me graphic novels retain a unique value not easily usurped by technology. I find this very hopeful. Overall, the quality of graphic novels continues to rise with a great diversity of drawing styles and subject matter. I particularly like Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco. It is a masterpiece in a very cinematic way. On a totally different level is Tangles by Sarah Leavitt, a book about a daughter dealing with her mother's Alzheimer's. Both books are equally compelling, despite totally different approaches. As for The Listener, I'm not exactly sure where it fits in, perhaps it falls stylistically somewhere between Footnotes in Gaza and Tangles. I'd be happy if that was the case.
Would you say, then, that graphic novels are *not* influenced by today's technology shifts? Or are they influenced in ways that are more subtle than the e-reader option?
It is impossible not to be influenced by changing technology, but I think the tradition of graphic novelists will not be so quickly derailed. It will be more of a slow cautious approach as to how technology can serve graphic novelists needs (rather then how can graphic novelists serve technology). Artists are already making web only novels, which has led some to being published in the traditional way. Unlike text only books, paper, texture, and weight are all an essential part of the graphic novel experience. But having said all that, Sam Cooke once sang "a change is gonna come."
I feel like this interview is no comparison for a live two-hour version of it, but I can't resist asking: how does this graphic novel fit into 'a lifetime of work in art and music'?
I see The Listener as part of my own artistic continuum rather than a new career in graphic novel writing. The stamina and drive it took to write and record 15 albums was the same as required to make this novel. When you examine an artistic life, it is made up of a body of work, and as the years go by, you realize that the work may vary in form -- music, graphic design, cartoons, painting -- but in the end it all fits together because the artistic vision and working methods come from the same person.