San Francisco illustrator, photographer and costume designer Michael Manning leads an intensely creative life producing dark, beautiful art and stories. He took some time to speak with us about his process, inspirations and current projects.
Your web persona and a lot of your art are under the name "The Spider Garden." Tell me about the origin of the name.
The Spider Garden is the primary setting for the graphic novel of the same name and the series that grew out of it. It originally began as a short strip that I was producing for an anthology of erotic science fiction comics.
I had an idea for an environment that was loosely based on a medieval Japanese castle and garden but was really a futuristic, artificial world maintained by insect-like robots. I was envisioning all these elaborate erotic rituals being played out in the privacy of this hermetic paradise with the robots (or "constructs" as I later named them) running things from the background - trimming the trees, running errands, etc.
I also had an idea that the various clans in this world would have animals as family crests or totems and would embody some of the characteristics of those animals. The owner of the Spider Garden, Shaalis the Sacred Androgyne, is a very complex character - always hatching intricate plots for Hir own amusement and puling strings from behind the scenes like a spider in a technological web.
The Spider Garden graphic novel was published in 1995 and by the time I had a computer, it was the work I was best known for, so I decided to stick with that title. It seemed appropriate for the Web, Net, or whatever you prefer to call it.
You're based in San Francisco, and although your work has shown all over the world, the bulk of your showings have been in SF. Where are you from and why do you think the Bay Area connects so well with your art?
I was born in New York and grew up in Massachusetts. My father's family was originally from Queens. During the 1960's and '70's, they lived in San Francisco. My grandparents had an apartment near the Presidio, and my uncle did his medical internship at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in 1968. I visited my family in 1969, and it left a really big impression on me. I didn't visit again until 1987, at which point all of my relatives had left, but it was still a very magical place for me. I knew that I wanted to live there eventually and in 1991, Lyn and I moved cross country from Boston to San Francisco.
Before I actually lived here, I had been exposed to a lot of art, music and writing that had been produced in San Francisco - Fritz Leiber, Pat Califia , Spain Rodriguez, the Residents, Chrome, V. Vale's Search & Destroy and Re/Search books, Joanie Blank's Caught Looking anthology, etc.
Pat's Macho Sluts stories especially were a kind of revelation for me. Even though they had a fantastic feel, they seemed very much based in her (now his) own personal experience, and that helped me to form my own ideas about how to produce convincingly erotic work. That and Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness had allowed me to build up this really sexy shadowy image of what San Francisco might be like.
I had also done covers and illustrations for Mark Pritchard's Frighten The Horses zine. Subterranean Records and Rough Trade were selling copies of my comix anthology Z/Xero so I already had some venues for my work. After I moved, I started doing art shows, usually a couple a year - and that plus the books helped reach a wider local audience.
Because of the nature of the work I do, I don't expect to hit the mainstream in a big way any time soon. It's more of an underground thing - building a fan base gradually over the years. To be perfectly honest though, I don't know that the Bay Area connects so well to my work. I've lived here and been producing work here since 1991, but I'm far from being a household name.
San Francisco, like many other places, has a tendency to ignore local artists of any medium unless 1) they've become famous elsewhere in the US or Europe or 2) they have friends in the local press or art scene who are promoting them from the inside. Back when people from a wider variety of social and economic backgrounds could afford to live here, I think there was more support for different types of work. A lot of the people with more adventurous tastes were uprooted during the Dot Com fiasco. Most of the people that situation made room for are in a higher income bracket and tend to be more conservative. Unless they see something being aggressively hyped on television or in the weeklies, they're not interested.
It's OK though. That's not my audience. I'll continue to produce work for myself and like-minded freaks. Everyone else will just have to catch up later.
Most of your illustrated art is in black and white. Why do you prefer it to color?
It has purity that I really love. It's very direct, but it can also be very subtle and understated at the same time.
When I was self-publishing, I was working in black and white for economic reasons. I was printing the books out using a photocopier. Sometimes having limitations can be a really good way to learn.
How did your illustrations evolve into graphic novels?
I've always liked drawing comix, but it took me a long time to understand how to really lay them out or properly construct a plot.
In my junior year in high school, I drew a fairly lengthy sf/fantasy comics story called "Blackguard" for the Aegis, my school literary magazine. It was a pretty standard "Man With No Name" type revenge story. I had started a lot of other comic strips before, but that was the first one I actually finished. I learned a lot doing that one. For one thing, up until that point, I had always been under the impression that comics artists drew their pages at the same size that they were reproduced which was an unending source of frustration for me. I couldn't understand how they got so much detail into those little drawings.
Ah ha, neither could we! How did you get hooked?
I think my "breakthrough" erotic strip was "Switch/Bored." In art school, I would always draw in those hard-bound black cover sketch books. I'd usually have a couple of different sized books to work in - a little 8" x 5" to carry around with me, a 12" x 9" for class use, and a 17" x 14" for drawing at home.
One day, I started sketching panels for a comics story in the 17" x 14" book which, even though I didn't know it, turned out to be roughly the same size as a professional comic book page.
I began with a very basic idea - two women making love. All completely visual. No dialog. I just kind of started in the middle of the action with no real notion of where the plot was going except that one of the women would be revealed as a man in drag. By the time I was finished, it was around twenty pages long.
I did two other stories in the same book in the same fashion - starting with a basic idea and letting the action develop intuitively, without any words or dialog. It felt really liberating. "Switch/Bored" eventually became the centerpiece of the first issue of my mini comic Ukiyo X . The story "Switch 2 Match" in Cathexis is actually the sequel to "Switch/Bored," by the way.
You do commissioned tattoo design. How is that process different for you from commissioned artwork?
I usually have to work more closely with the client on a tattoo design than with a commission. I want to be sure that the proportions are correct and that they're happy with the design before it becomes a permanent part of their body.
Do you find people are more difficult to please when your art is going on their person?
They tend to be more picky, but I think that's understandable given the fact that theoretically they'll be carrying it around with them for the rest of their life.
You've collaborated with costume designers to bring your illustrated character's clothing into reality. How cool! What's it like to see the vision from your head on a real flesh body?
It's always a thrill. I remember the first time I saw a model wearing one of the Madame S latex concubine Manning skirts in a fashion show. Since it's a hobble skirt, it took her a while to tip-toe out to center stage, but when she turned around and presented her ass to the audience everybody went nuts - including me.
How much are the designs altered to fit realistic constraints?
There are always compromises - budgetary concerns and time constraints. To date, there have been some really nice interpretations, but I think that my fashion designs have yet to be fully realized.
You do some photography as well. When did you begin shooting? Why?
I've always had a point-and-press camera since I was little, and I would take snap shots of my friends during school musicals or on class field trips. I tried some 35mm photography courses while I was in art school but never felt that I was very good at it. At the time, I was much more interested in shooting 16mm and Super 8 live-action film and animation.
I first began shooting reference photos for my comix in 1989. If I needed a model, I would use Lyn or myself. I usually shot with a polaroid camera since I didn't know how to process and develop 35mm film and I was worried that Walgreens might intentionally fuck up my negatives if I brought them rolls with nudes on them.
I had my first offer to do a fetish shoot in 1993. I thought it would be a good opportunity because I felt like I was still learning to draw and wanted to give my characters more individualized features, different body types and more personality. I also wanted to improve my photographic and lighting skills.
The woman who made the offer was an employee at Stormy Leather, a local fetish shop. She was a non-professional model, but really nice and very pretty. Unfortunately, we were both a bit nervous (me especially) and I had to end the shoot prematurely. I thought that I had loaded the film wrong and messed up the camera. I found out later that I hadn't, but it was really annoying because she had just started to relax and get comfortable with posing and I just was starting to get the hang of giving her direction.
Subsequent shoots went much smoother as I became more technically adept. Live and learn...
Does photography feel like instant gratification to you or is it more difficult because you have less control over the product?
There is a certain amount of instant gratification for both myself and the model - especially with digital photography. I usually consider photography to be a component in my drawing process, rather than an end to itself. I've only recently done shoots where I had to think of the images that I was shooting as the final product. The portraits I've shot of Reina Aurora are a good example of this.
One thing I still find gratifying about photography is that much of what I shoot outside the studio is still something that's purely for my own enjoyment - things I don't necessarily have any intention of sharing with an audience - other than my friends, that is.
You studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Were you doing erotic art there and how was it received?
I was drawing erotic art the whole time I was there - from 1981 to 1985, but didn't show any of it to my instructors until my review boards (starting in 1983). It still felt like a very private thing to me and I didn't feel comfortable sharing that side of myself with an audience I didn't know personally. None of the other students or teachers there were doing art that was explicitly erotic so I didn't think it was an appropriate venue. However, my friends liked my erotic art a lot and were very supportive, and I was investing so much time in producing it that I thought I should get over it and bring some of it to my boards.
On the first one, one of the teachers who was originally going to be evaluating my work had to drop out at the last minute because she was ill. Her substitute was a drawing teacher who had terrified me during my first year there. He would sometimes show up for class drunk screaming at his students, and if he didn't like what you were doing, he'd rip the drawing off your easel and tear it to pieces. It was an incredibly intimidating atmosphere for a seventeen year old who had never drawn a model.
Life drawing was compulsory in the program I was taking, and his class would usually end up being the only one I could fit into my schedule. I would sign up for his class, then try desperately to draw the way he wanted me to so he wouldn't single me out and humiliate me in front of the class. The pressure would always get to be too much, though, and I would end up cutting his class for the rest of the semester.
It turned out that he loved my erotic drawings. He had plenty of criticism for my technique, but he felt that I was really trying to push boundaries with the subject matter. He and I and the other teacher and students had a really good discussion/ critique. After that, I made a point of bringing my erotic work to my boards and tried to do a lot more life drawing - but I was still too chicken to ever take another class with that particular drawing instructor.
Are your characters based on anyone you know in reality?
All of my characters are me to a certain extent. Some of them embody some of the personality and physical characteristics of people I know. Reina Aurora and Instructress Hyon Jee from the Metal Web books are based on friends that modeled for me. I wanted characters with a really distinctive look and they were a perfect fit.
I'm currently working on story that parallels the main plot thread in the Spider Garden series. Zille Defeu, who does Dark Play, suggested the basic idea, so I thought it was only fitting that she model for the one of the main characters. It was a great shoot. She's amazingly beautiful and very easy to work with. I've also recently shot with my friend Kelly for the same story. Kelly isn't a professional model, but visually she's perfect for the part - an androgynous ninja-style bodyguard to Zille's mistress character.
Very cool, can't wait to see it! What else do you have planned for the future?
Patrick Conlon and I are hard at work on the next book in the Tranceptor series. We're also producing a mini series, Tranceptor: Alliances that explores the back stories of some of the main characters.
On the solo side, I'm painting my first full color book - a one-shot entitled Arcana . I'm also working on an art book Inamorata that will feature portrait pieces inspired by many of the models I'm work with. Then there's the Garden Initiate books that will function as a guide to the Spider Garden world and the sequel to Metal Web . There's more but I should probably wind this up. Suffice to say, there will be plenty to keep me (and hopefully all of you) busy for the next few years.