In February ’04, when Jim Munroe and I were interviewed for an eye story on this website, Toronto cartoonist Marc Ngui caricatured us for the cover. He made Jim a spot-on reproduction of a video-game skin. Me, he drew in a nimble cross-hatching, a Crumb-style likeness so effective it stopped my own brother in his tracks.
As I’ve come to learn, Ngui is a cartooning chameleon, flashing and fading with new styles at will. “I’m wary of style,” he admits in his soft, filigreed voice. “You can get trapped in a sense. It’s more like I’m building up a catalogue, like an arsenal.”
Each piece in Ngui’s stockpile is perfectly realized. His previous book, Enter Avariz — a collection of his fantastical activist strip Zak Meadow — he drew in manga’s clean, bold lines in a grid of measured panels.
But look at his latest book, The Unexpurgated Tale of Lordie Jones. Here he’s assembled hives of cross-hatching that climb across the full-page drawings. Side by side with Ngui’s other projects, from his obscure, diagrammatic illustrations on the intelligence of architecture to his loosely pencilled breakdowns for ads for Sears and ING — he was a storyboard artist for years — each piece could be the work of someone new. Which Ngui kind of likes. “It’s been hard to do illustration professionally, because I don’t have a single style, so when they look at my portfolio, they can’t define me. That doesn’t bother me — in fact, it gives me a little thrill.”
Lordie Jones is merely Ngui’s latest recapitulation. He first drew it as a zine in 1996 under the somewhat less ambiguous title The Boy With a Pig Up His Ass. The book’s claim that it’s “a modern retelling of an obscure Caribbean folktale” is, Ngui admits, a ploy to “put some distance between myself and the work. A lot of my early work is influenced by a sense of the horrific. Like the films of Todd Solondz: you know you should be horrified, but you’re laughing. It brings out strange emotions.”
Seven-year-old Little Lordie learns the danger of double-crossing the tooth fairy when he wakes one morning to find the dental deity has implanted a pig fetus in his colon. “The image came out of nowhere,” Ngui marvels. “A boy with a pig in his ass. I wondered, ‘How would it work?’ It’s such a compelling, strange image. I wanted to figure out how it got there.” Naturally, Lordie’s porcine pregnancy wins him the torment of his peers. “I wanted to depict the adult world through the eyes of kids,” says Ngui. “The tooth fairy, for example, is this fabrication of adults. I rolled all these childhood fears into one nightmarish tale.”
The new book reprints the zine’s original panels with new endpapers (“I managed to copy myself fairly well”) and a softened ending. His inspiration in those days was Chester Brown. “There’s a little Ed the Happy Clown in here,” Ngui says of the large heads and supple limbs and the story’s cruel, paranormal twists.
Ngui has since graduated to a new set of influences, which he channels like an artist possessed. He shows me some pages from a sketchbook, one of several he is continuously filling, each with its own distinct personality. The pages shimmer with dissonant combinations of pink, lime and yellow clashing atop crisp black cartoons, unhinged collages inspired by the latest Kramer’s Ergot anthology. “I can get sidetracked,” Ngui explains with a hint of apology. “There’s so much energy in this work, but I really shouldn’t be doing it. It’s not my focus.”
His focus these days is a new graphic novel he’s preparing, for which he recently won an arts council grant. It’s a tale of suburban catnapping, in black and grey ink reminiscent of Bryan Lee O’Malley (whose Scott Pilgrim: Vol.1 is lying on Ngui’s bed when he shows me around his sprawling apartment). “This one is conceived as a book for kids. It’s a traditional narrative, so I want the style to be accessible, to fit the story. It’s just as warped as Lordie Jones in some ways — but not as grotesque.” Ngui’s technique may have precedents, but his imagination remains elusive. “One of the greatest things about drawing and comics is to discover things afterward; the points where it doesn’t make sense and your brain has to put it together. Some of my favourite moments are things I don’t quite understand myself.” Spoken like a true medium.