Malcolm McNeill began writing and illustrating Tetra (Stalking Horse Press) in 1977 for Gallery, a pin-up magazine. Star Wars came out that year and suddenly science fiction jumped to the center of mainstream culture, providing him the chance to get paid to do what he wanted. Tetra focuses on a nameless female character, a liberated “pleasure unit” in search of her identity and an understanding of the universe.
For two years, McNeill worked on the series—from writing the story and dialogue to drawing and airbrushing. Despite all the work he put into its creation, many of his friends didn’t know it existed. All that work without the recognition took its toll on his motivation. In Tetra’s introduction, McNeill states that in 1979 a more interesting project surfaced, but during our conversation via email he clarified that the project was fatherhood that ended the series. The graphic novel as a genre was just starting to come into its own at that time, and there was no market for publishing Tetra.
Forty years later, a contemporary audience has the opportunity to see this trailblazing text in its entirety. In this interview, McNeill addresses his aesthetic sensibility, his relationship with William Burroughs, the philosophical underpinning of the storyline, as well as how cinema and fine art influence the story’s stylistic elements.
Jacob Singer: In a 2008 interview, you discuss some of your early inspirations as an artist—Francis Bacon, RB Kitaj, and William Turner. In particular, you point to William Burroughs and Hieronymus Bosch as influences in how they “are able to combine horror and humor in the same frame.” The mixing of high/low brow and serious/humorous is a significant feature in Tetra. Can you share your affinity towards this aesthetic stance?
Malcolm McNeill: Comedy and horror goes to the heart of it. This dichotomy is what defines us, trying to reconcile it is the impetus for most philosophy and religion—it certainly characterized Bill Burroughs’ work. I mention in Observed While Falling that it was LSD, ironically, that really clarified that for me. It shows that our tenuous grasp of reality can be compromised with something no larger than the proverbial head of a pin. Which is ironic because Burroughs wanted nothing to do with it. He was concerned with this controlling something else in his work. “Control” was not only an actual character in Ah Pook is Here, but the method of placing himself into the text was a way of addressing the problem. By becoming part of his own fiction, Burroughs set up the means for considering the relationship between character and author as we experience it in real life: the idea that we are characters authored into a reality over which we have no control. It’s a literary device that’s been used by many authors including Miguel de Cervantes, Flann O’Brien and Kurt Vonnegut.
One of the problems with the Burroughs collaboration was that the project had no comedy in it at all. Bosch’s images did inspire the backdrop for scenes in the book, but only the dark ones. Ah Pook is Here was a deadly serious book about Death, and by the time Tetra came up I’d been working at it for seven years with little encouragement and even less money. The “Art World” dismissed representational imagery as déclassé, and “Graphic Novel World” didn’t exist yet. The ability to laugh in spite of the relentlessly terrifying insanity that besets us is one our few charitable clauses written into our DNA. It struck me how rarely that idea was represented in the visual arts. Bosch and Magritte seemed to be the only two who really pulled it off. In literature, on the other hand, writers like Burroughs and Beckett did it all the time. They could describe the most appalling situations and simultaneously make you laugh.
JS: Let’s talk about Tetra…
MM: The chance to create a female protagonist with a sense of humor and get paid for it was a welcome relief, particularly since I married right before it started and I had someone specific from a practical and emotional point of view to star in it. It’s interesting that musicians write admiring songs about their intimate partners all the time, yet when I did the visual equivalent, it seems to make readers uncomfortable.
None of the current reviewers so far have mentioned that fact, even though it was integral to the whole idea and certainly the reason it came to an end. There seems to be much more concern that the images may be “sexist”, or that I might be “objectifying” women, which is hilarious, considering my relationship to the woman in question. It’s fascinating to me how our attitude to sex has evolved since then.
One of the ideas that motivated Tetra was our uptightness over how much of our “nakedness” we were prepared to show to “aliens” in the package onboard the Voyager spacecraft. (The probe had been launched around that time) For all its claims, that dilemma doesn’t seem to have changed much. Our “official” attitude to sex appears to be more uptight, more self-conscious and more constrained than ever. Burroughs once told me that “sex was not a time for laughter.” I wondered of course what kind of sex that would be. It seemed incredibly odd that the mechanics and rigmarole of sex hadn’t cracked him up at least once. But “no laughing during sex” appears to have become the norm: our attitude has to be “correct” now and there is no humor in correctness.
JS: Tetra opens with a scene of liberation in which the woman escapes from a Boschian hell only to step into literal emptiness. She knows neither the world nor herself. But there is a punchy bit of dialogue regarding suicide that provides a bit black humor. This motif of laughter and insanity is clearly established and blended together in both the characters and text.
MM: Republishing Tetra after all this time is fascinating. It shows me how we are different people at different stages of our lives, with very distinct emotional and intellectual needs within distinct political and technological circumstances. Some of the reactions to Tetra are from people who are probably as old as I was when I did it. Though the outward circumstances are different, it’s clear the basic preoccupations of that age are the same. The difference is that there has been an enormous amount of science fiction created since then and a lot more defining and redefining of sexuality and gender. Anything from the past, that stumbles into those categories is considered now with an almost formulaic appraisal based on whether it conforms to the current sexual “narrative” or its relevance within science fiction tropes.
Like I say in the intro, science fiction is about now, a way of thinking about current concerns in terms of their hypothetical future implications, in order to try and figure out a sense of direction. The frustrations and confusions between males and females have been with us since the get go and that will probably never change.
JS: Can you talk more about your thoughts of representation of female characters while creating Tetra, especially what you mean by emotional point of view?
MM: The most efficient way to try and understand what you’re looking at is to draw or paint a picture of it. To do that, you really have to pay attention. The things that fascinate you most as a male, naturally, are females. Drawing pictures of them was something I’d done from very early on. It’s a male compulsion that’s been with us since the cave painters. (It doesn’t work the other way around: there is no equivalent tradition of women making images of men.) To dismiss that as males “objectifying” women’s bodies is incredibly short sighted. The future comes in through women’s bodies, it’s inconceivable that males would not be compelled to acknowledge, record, and marvel at them.
The idea for Tetra started when I was in art school. It was a way of seeing how a woman would look and react in situations with a kind of obstacle course, as it were, an audition of sorts. It was a way of trying to understand what I was looking at. Most men I would think are drawn to a woman with a sense of humor and certainly one who’s unconventional, who says “fuck all the bullshit.” Not the narrow “male bullshit” of now, not the idea that we are told what to think. Constraint and the feeling of being confined by a script not-of-our-making, inevitably leads to the bigger picture of “Destiny” and “Control.”
Tetra was going to be part of an adult comic I’d helped start in art school and that was what led to my meeting Bill Burroughs. The editor wanted Burroughs to contribute and when he showed him the artwork of the available artists, he said, “I’ll work with this guy.” But I didn’t like way the comic was headed, including the fact that Burroughs—an American writer was in it—so I stopped working on it. Once I met Bill everything changed. Seven years later, when Gallery made me the offer, I happened to have discovered what I felt to be the woman I was “looking at.” I’d found the wisecracker who said, “fuck all the bullshit,” and the perfect model for the main character.
In the first episode, she is rescued from the conventional female role of “pleasure unit”/ “damsel in distress.” Once outside of that world, she faces a kind of carte blanche. She doesn’t know who she is, where she’s going, or why she’s going there.
Nothing leads to a male understanding of females, they’re fundamentally incomprehensible and vice versa. It’s a two-way street, and the project is always ongoing, which is what appealed to me about a narrative that was open-ended.
JS: Can you discuss how cinema and fine art influences your composition on the level of the panel? I’m interested in the three lower panels on page sixty-seven. The first is an establishing shot of the woman from behind and at a distance. The center panel presents her in a full shot before moving to the right panel where she is captured in a low-angle shot while she is in a contrapposto stance similar to Michelangelo’s David.
MM: Not everyone makes images, so understanding the process isn’t likely easy for non-artists. It’s difficult for me to know how those people think. One reaction to my work has been that I obviously went to art school and they didn’t—as if that was what distinguished someone who was an artist from someone who wasn’t.
I started making images when I was young. That kind of commitment means I’ve inevitably studied the way others make art to improve, and since I was interested in visual narrative, film and television direction naturally became part of the process.
A created image contains within it all the elements surrounding it as it was made, the location, the people, the mood, even the weather are embedded within it. Looking at an image created maybe thirty years ago revives those sensations—similar to the way it does with a photo taken on holiday. In effect it becomes a time capsule both for encapsulating a moment in time and for traveling back and forth to it. What the experience of Ah Pook did was to extend the range of that travel in a unique and bizarre way. It proved in a very real sense what Bill had proposed in the first line of the book: “The Mayan codices are undoubtedly books of the dead, that is to say instructions for time travel.” As Observed While Falling points out, that can amount to travel in both directions, even beyond one’s own lifetime.
I thought of Ah Pook and Tetra as “film books,” so camera angles and the look of the images reflected that. Alternating close-ups, long shots, down angles and up angles were intuitive based on years of watching films and television.
JS: Can you discuss the inspiration and creation of “The Naked City,” a film in Tetra that the woman watches with Meetoo? This section seems to be the most important moment for the woman’s development of awareness of the human condition.
MM: I moved to New York two years before I started Tetra, and it just occurred to me wandering around in it, that without the buildings and traffic etc., the shape of the city would still be defined by its inhabitants. New York is “The Naked City” so it went from there. Like the alien says—in the city or out of the city, naked or not, in the end you’re really on your own.
JS: Do you have any new projects in the works?
MM: I’m working on two projects. Science questions the idea of “knowing” and Maps is about the relationship between Image-making and Time. I’m also continuing to write my essays for International Times or anyone else who will publish them.
JS: Is there anything I missed that you would like to include?
MM: One of the quirks of created images is that they’re full of things you wished you’d done better or done instead, or things that you think turned out completely wrong. They’re the first things I see whenever I look at it them. In that sense, I’m sure I’m far more critical of Tetra than anyone else. There are a lot of things that make me wince when I look at it, but not its relationship to the circumstances of the time.
I’m really glad it was republished because, like I said, it’s fascinating to see it reacted to in the context of now. It shows how every generation tries to come to terms with the same basic issues. As for science fiction, I’m sure there will be a lot more “realistic” space ships and a lot more “believable” aliens, until the real ones show up.