And just like that, a new artistic medium is born.
I’m exaggerating, but only a little. Kelton Sears didn’t invent the GIF, or the web-based comic book, or the comic-book soundtrack—but he’s the first person that I’m aware of to combine all three elements into one package. And what a weird, compelling package it is.
Trash Mountain is a surrealist dystopian sci-fi fantasy adventure cartoon-comic-musical hybrid, animated by Sears’ homemade GIFs and videography (plus a little 3D modeling) and set to Sears’ self-produced electronic music. The storyline focuses on the psycho-spiritual liberation of a triangle-headed humanoid named Globby who finds himself involved with a collective of anti-corporate psionic monkeywrenchers. It’s some very out-there shit.
There’s no text and no voice, just action occurring panel by panel, enhanced by the animated medium in which it’s depicted. The imagery undergoes the constant, jittery reiteration of the GIF as the reader vertical-scrolls from one chapter to the next, Sears’ soundtrack playing behind it all. My initial reaction upon encountering Trash Mountain was something like Wha? and then Whoa and finally Ha!, at which point I knew I liked what I was seeing. Experiencing ridiculous novelty has that kind of disorienting effect.
Sears, the erstwhile Seattle Weekly journalist and Kithkin bassist, spent the last two years developing the story and style of Trash Mountain, which he finally released into the world a couple weeks ago. It’s clearly the work of an obsessive, a shaggy but refined expression coming from an outsider’s voice with something to say and a strange, absorbing way of saying it.
What is it about GIFs that you like so much?
That’s a good question nobody has ever asked me before! On a conceptual level, I love how inherently shitty they are. It’s 256 colors max. They get compressed to hell a lot of the time, and I think that compression and the artifacting it leaves behind adds to their character. If you have a long beautiful sequence you want to put in a GIF, you have a few options. A) You come to terms with the fact that the GIF is going to be enormous, load incredibly slowly, and clog up people’s data. B) You compress the bejeezus out of the GIF to make the file size smaller. Or C) You just make the sequence shorter and live with it. I love those limitations.
They’re one of the trashier file formats on the web, both in the way they look but also in the garish way they’ve been used both historically (as amazing decoration for early DIY Geocities websites) and today in social-media comment sections. I’ve always been drawn to trash as a medium or an idea—I directed a Kithkin video that was just a bunch of people beating the hell out of a pile of trash, and I often think about how trash will be one of the main artifacts humanity leaves behind on this planet, so GIFs make sense to me in that they’re kind of internet trash. Working in GIFs, in that way, feels like an act of recycling to me. It’s taking a format that kind of blows around the internet like a used plastic bag and trying to make something new and pretty out of it. I also love the ephemeral nature of GIFs, both in the way that they appear and then disappear into the net void, but also how they loop infinitely. There’s a meditative quality to them that attracts me, especially as someone who runs often primarily for the state of mind it puts me in. GIFs are kind of about endurance in the same way running is. You just keep going and going and going.
But really, what is it? You’re more involved/infatuated with GIFs than most normal people.
I just think there’s so much potential for the medium that gets overlooked and that hasn’t been explored in the way I want. The way most people think about GIFs is in the context of, say, a reaction GIF from The Office. I think that’s a perfectly fine and appropriate use of GIFs, and I love how reaction GIFs and emojis have started to make common everyday communication much more visual, but I also think there’s so much more there. I like the way you can linger on a GIF and find new things in that repeated moment. I love the idea of looping art, how the “perfect loop” becomes its own kind of sub-genre of GIF art that’s unique to the form. And especially as a narrative form, I think the potential there is only just starting to emerge. Especially for a GIF comic.
One thing I want to explore, and only just started to poke at in Trash Mountain, is the way time functions in a comic, and how a GIF comic throws a whole other layer of time on top. Scott McCloud has a section in Understanding Comics where he talks about how comics can represent time passing within a single panel, but also in between the panels. GIF comics kind of open that can of worms even more, which is exciting to me.
Is there a thriving GIF underground that I’m not aware of? Some kinda forum where people trade information and resources about GIFs?
Kind of! I mean, my personal GIF community extends to Sofia Lee, the GIF photographer I worked with at Seattle Weekly. Her and Trevor Crump are the only locals I know primarily working in this medium, and we’re all doing it in very different ways. There are lots of GIF artists on Tumblr; that’s primarily where this kind of art lives and thrives. There’s GIPHY as well, they’ve started a GIF studio that mostly does brand work, but beyond that, I don’t think there’s a huge unified GIF community beyond, like, people who like sharing funny GIFs on Reddit, which I don’t do.
Art F City takes a positive slant towards GIFs since its founder, Paddy Johnson, organized one of the first big GIF-based exhibitions. They actually wrote about a GIF I made for one of Christian Petersen’s GIF Gallery “exhibits” on Digital Sweat that was themed around “belfies.” I was really surprised when they did that, since it’s a really crude pen drawing of a guy shitting himself over and over. But anyway, since it’s a web-based medium, I think it’s inevitable that the community is sort of disparate. I’ve started trying to reach out to more of those places now that I have real work to show, and I’ve been getting positive feedback. GIPHY loved the comic and gave me a dedicated artist channel on the site, so now my GIFs can theoretically be used as stickers on Instagram and Snapchat. Larger GIF art tumblrs I love also have started reposting the work. But up until now, it’s pretty much just been a personal thing.
In the two years it took to complete Trash Mountain, were you learning the technique as you went?
It was very much a learn-as-you-go thing. I started the project because I wanted a proof of concept that GIF comics could work on this larger narrative scale, but also because I wanted an excuse to develop my frame-by-frame animation skills, drawing ability and the digital-collage aesthetic I’d always flirted with. I sucked so hard in the beginning. The animations on the first page are still a little embarrassing to me even after I went through and cleaned a lot of them up. That shot of Globby’s ass in the third panel—the first time I drew it his ass looked so bad. Then I took a figuring drawing class at DigiPen, learned how an ass works, and totally redid it.
What’s the overall precedent for GIF-form storytelling? Is it more like comic books or a slideshow or… SOMETHING ELSE??
One thing that inspired this project was a site I stumbled upon called bdnext. It’s this French university program for people interested in interactive web-based storytelling, and the site is where the student projects that come out of the program live. I looooooved what I found there. They’re like these stories that are animated that progress whenever you click them. I thought it was such a brilliant format, and that really inspired me to try my hand at GIF comics in this larger, more narrative, immersive way.
There have also been GIF comics before mine, the biggest being Thunderpaw by Jen Lee. I love Thunderpaw as an idea, but I don’t love the way the story is told, how minimal some of the animation is, and how often it switches back to being a classic still webcomic. I wanted to love it more than I actually did.
What’s your personal history with comic books? With fiction writing? With music production?
I’ve never been a fan of superhero comics, but I grew up totally infatuated with Tintin. I asked for Tintin volumes every birthday and Christmas, watched the cartoons, and had a big cherished Red Rackham’s Treasure poster I got from the Tintin store in London on a family trip. Beyond that, I was always more into fiction. I grew up aspiring to be a fiction author, always writing little stories ever since first grade. Then I ended up disliking the creative writing courses at Seattle University, and loving working for the student newspaper, so I became a journalist.
I didn’t think about comics much until I stumbled on Simon Hanselmann’s Megg Mogg and Owl comics on Tumblr before he got published on Fantagraphics. I fell head over heels for his stuff. Then I went to Short Run for the first time, got my mind blown by this secret comix community I didn’t realize existed here. I moved in with Brian Dionisi for a year, one of the contributors to The Intruder and just a heavenly human being, and got to see what making comics was like from the artist’s end. I started reading more and more alt-comics and thinking about what pursuing that would be like in my own context. I saw the incredible storytelling artists like Julia Gfrorer and Michael DeForge were doing in these comics, and I just decided to make a go at it, at first through journalistic comics at the Weekly, then on my own with Trash Mountain.
In Kithkin, I was trying to write music about what it feels like to live in the Northwest. I started messing around with an MPC [drum sequencer] after falling in love with the Vancouver electronic scene really hard in 2014/2015. Brian Eno talks about how “scenius” is way more important than “genius,” and I think Vancouver has some incredible scenius happening right now. Artists like Khotin, D. Tiffany, Yu Su, Pender Street Steppers, Cloudface, Slow Riffs, RAMZi (I could go on and on) inspired me to try exploring that impulse through electronic music. What came out was rougher around the edges than the gorgeous, breezy work those producers make, but I tried to make it my own. Again, I love trash, so the music I make is always going to be a little trashy.
How do the limitations of the form inform the story that you tell? Have they been in any way liberating?
They’re very much liberating rather than limiting. I think working in GIFs encourages me to just wing it without worrying too much if the final product is polished enough because it’s going to be this lo-fi thing no matter what. When I started the project, my friend Bjorn, a comic artist I worked with at the paper, told me he thought GIF comics were a bad idea. When I asked him why, he showed me some examples of similar things he’d seen on Tumblr, and he was right, they didn’t work, but it was because they were cramming whole scenes with multiple cuts and shots and camera moves into one GIF. The other potential roadblock I foresee is dialogue. I purposefully didn’t want to include dialogue because I wanted to really focus on my animation, but I think that in the future when I do another GIF comic, I’d like to try out dialogue, which might be tricky given the infinite looping, but I have ideas on how to make speech bubbles or captions feel natural in that context that I’m excited to test.
I detect a theme of anti-patriarchy in Trash Mountain…
You mean all the dicks? Yeah. Being a man is weird, don’t you think? Especially right now.
At the time I started this project, Trump had just made that comment in the debates about how he had a big dick, and the Dakota Access Pipeline situation at Standing Rock was becoming more and more hideous, so I think there were a lot of phalluses to be reckoned with. To be honest, I included a lot of the dicks because I think there isn’t enough male nudity in art. “Men,” or our classic conception of what men are, can be these really frightening figures. You think of an erect dick and it’s kind of scary, it’s like a threat, but in reality, dicks are soft and droopy and floppy the vast majority of the time. Again, being a man is weird and awkward, you’re conditioned to be this hardened, aggressive person, but in reality, being a man is really confusing and you feel kind of… droopy and floppy a lot of the time trying to figure out how to navigate “manhood.” I wanted Globby to be naked a lot because it was this physical manifestation of his vulnerability. I saw the Magic Mike movies halfway through this project and I was like “yes, that’s it!” I thought those movies were such a beautiful, gracious and nuanced take on masculinity. And they showed dick, so I was hyped.
And, you know, dicks are funny and fun to draw.
Also Cascadianism? Is that the weird little pine-tree symbol in there?
That’s my Kithkin symbol! We all adopted Led Zeppelin-style runes in Kithkin for fun, and mine was that tree. I’ve actually drifted away from Cascadian thought a lot since Kithkin. Although bioregionalism is an interesting idea, I think it inevitably starts to lean towards nationalism, which is a dangerous dead end.
After the election, Bernie and all the memes pointed me towards socialism, and I’ve been reading nonstop about socialism, and critiques of capitalism ever since. Socialism, its history, and the ideas it encompasses finally gave me a coherent framework to explain what the hell is and was happening in the world in a way that made sense to me.
Before 2016, I’d always just thought I was a “liberal,” and my values were “be nice to people and the Earth.” It always perplexed me why Obama didn’t really do much about, say, the Dakota Access Pipeline, beyond granting that ineffectual easement to construction that eventually got overturned and didn’t really do jack. When I read about socialism, especially within an American context where it has this rich history I was totally unaware of, I suddenly realized how much of what I’d supported politically was ultimately hollow and complicit with these issues. Like, I had no idea MLK was a socialist, and that before he was killed he had this sweeping economic vision to lift up the poor he was organizing around. Or that the Black Panthers and Huey Newton were incredibly principled, thoughtful Marxists. Or even that Eugene Debs was a person. Trash Mountain is my way of making sense of what I’ve learned and trying to communicate it back, albeit via a very simplified cartoon narrative.
Haha the irony of using technology to criticize technology! <—ironic observation of irony. I mean, this is an overly facile argument (“But you drove your car to the anti-oil rally!” etc.) but how do you address it?
I’m actually very pro-technology! I don’t think the GIF comic is anti-technology. Squigga and the Trash Mountain Psiobiocollective are building a bunch of biodomes in the second page. There’s this nascent genre called “solarpunk” that’s been floating around, imagining utopian futures instead of the ubiquitous dystopic visions of cyberpunk and steampunk. I very much wanted the second page of the comic to be solarpunk. I think technology is amazing. I work at DigiPen now, which is basically a four-year technology college, and I love it. I love video games. I love digital art. I love my computer.
I think the way we use technology is often really stupid because it’s driven by the market instead of human need. Like, great, your startup made it so I can get a sandwich delivered in two minutes for $17, cool. Very “disruptive.”
I love the Amazon biodomes architecturally and conceptually; I wrote a feature story for the Weekly about how cool I think biomimetic architecture and design are. But I hate that the biodomes were only built because Jeff Bezos, a bazillionaire, wanted a way to keep his employees on the Amazon campus instead of going home. We’re moving towards this bizarre technocratic feudalism right now that lots of people celebrate because… I guess because Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos also use their money to build rocket ships, and people think those are neat. But, people are starving, and the Earth is on fire, and there’s no reason any of those people should morally be allowed to hoard as much money as they have. I’m just not that impressed by techlords, or the latest iPhone. Apple is terrible too, the way they forcibly make their products obsolete. If Globby smashing the phones is a critique of anything, it’s that: So much of our tech is built to fail so you have to buy more. It’s so wasteful and dumb. People don’t need the latest iPhone, most people just want to be able to afford to live their lives in stability and peace.