This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 12, 2016.
Box Brown is one of the most exciting cartoonists working comics today. In addition to establishing the Retrofit Comics line, he has continued to push the medium with a diverse array of stories. Two years ago he appeared on many “Best Of” lists for his first historical graphic novel Andre the Giant. Now he is returning with another history,Tetris: The Games People Play. While it focuses on the titular games creation, rise to popularity, and the intricate business dealings behind it all, it also details a brief history of the concept of gaming and the Nintendo corporation.
Comics Bulletin Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett had the opportunity to read Tetris before its publication this week and discuss the work with Brown at New York Comic-Con. Brown was full of insight both on the story itself and the nature of non-fictional narratives. Tetris is available as of today in comic and book stores everywhere.
Chase Magnett: Tetris is the second time that you’ve written a history in this format, following Andre the Giant. What is it about histories that has led you to focus on them in comics?
Box Brown: I’m drawn to nonfiction. A lot of my stuff is influenced by documentary film. If I was a different kind of artist, I would be a documentarian. I also do fiction work and I think that helps to inform the nonfiction because you’re figuring out what stories are, how to tell them, and what the ups and downs are. You have to know about storytelling to make a nonfiction book interesting.
You’ve seen The Wrestler, right? I thought the documentary about Jake “the Snake” Roberts is better than that movie because it’s the real deal. It’s the actual thing. I’m drawn to that.
Magnett: Tetris shows an incredible amount of research considering how far it goes back in time and the many, many narratives it includes. How much research do you conduct before you actually start to plan your story?
Brown: It doesn’t feel like a lot of work because when you’re doing that type of research you’re trying to look up anything about it. You want to get the concept of the story together. I found with the Tetris story there’s really only so much about it and a lot of it refers back to the same sources. You have to check out those things and try to talk to the people that are around.
But I also had to realize that this is Tetris through my lense. However I feel about it is how it’s going to happen. As hard as I try to be impartial, opinions still come through. When you’re telling a story, the thing that makes it a story worth telling are what you find interesting. It’s like when you’re telling a story to a friend, you’re highlighting the interesting parts. Lots of other things happened that day, but you know the interesting parts. A lot of times with these comics it’s finding the narrative in these seemingly random events.
Magnett: So what was it about the narrative to Tetris that leaped out at you as being interesting?
Brown: I saw an old BBC documentary about Tetris, and this is how I decide things would make a good comic. When I start stumbling across things and reading more, I tell my wife and friends about it. All of the sudden whenever I see something new, I’ll start to say, “Didn’t you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, Tetris!” When I’m doing that, I know the story is interesting and something worth telling.
The other interesting thing about it and the reason it’s a story that took a long time to get out is the timing. If you tried to put out a story about Nintendo or Tetris contemporaneously, the view people had of computers then was so different. It was a poisoning, zombie ruining our children’s lives. It’s like the show Halt and Catch Fire about the early days of computing. If that came out at the time, no one would understand it. Nobody had a large body of knowledge about how computers worked and it would be all jargon. Because computers and technology are such a large part of our lives now, we can look back at these events with knowledge of what it’s about. Whereas, in the 80s and early 90s, people weren’t aware of what these things were and how they worked.
Magnett: That sort of context is really important to understanding a historical narrative. In Tetris you go way back and pull in the history of gaming and the foundation of Nintendo before the 20th Century. What made you decide those were necessary elements of context to tell the Tetris story?
Brown: I wanted to go back to the beginning of time. People tend to look at video games as a modern phenomenon, but gaming is so essential to the human experience. It’s something we did as cavemen. If you consider it as an artform, then you can trace it back to early cave painting. If you think of games as sports, people have been having foot races and wrestling forever. Technology is new, but the idea of gaming has been around forever. It’s a human phenomenon. Everybody does it, whether they want to admit it or not. It satisfies something in us as humans. I also wanted to go back because that’s also the way I think about stuff.
Magnett: That section reminded me of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in that he’s making his specific topic universal. Whether or not you consider yourself a comics fan, he shows how it connects to your life and history in order to justify interest and study. Were you trying to do that for gaming and gamers?
Brown: I don’t know if I was thinking about it in demographic terms. I was definitely going at this and Andre the Giant with an awareness that pro wrestling and video games carry a stigma. In case any of those people picked up the book, I wanted to sway them that this was an art form and important to humanity. I feel that way about comics too. Everytime I make a comic I’m trying to prove to somebody out there that this comic isn’t what you think comics are. The people out there who don’t read comics because they see them as one specific thing — I want them to know comics are a medium just like movies and can tell any type of story. People are comics fans even if they don’t know it yet.
Magnett: Looking at both Tetris and Andre, and that they’re presented in comics, it seems like you’re fascinated with these mediums that are thought to be low or outsider art. Is there a reason you’re attracted to these modes of entertainment and storytelling?
Brown: Probably. Going back to when I was in high school, before The Rock and Stone Cold [Steve Austin], wrestling was garbage in the 90s. Nobody watched it and I watched it every week, but would be embarrassed to tell my friends about it. I think that’s bad. If I was back in high school now, I would be like, “I don’t care what you say. Wrestling is fucking awesome. And it’s awesome for these reasons.”
It’s not just that I think it’s cool; it’s a specific and interesting type of art. The people who do it are artists and I consider them brethren. I got into comics late in life, didn’t start drawing until I was 26. When I look back I wonder why wasn’t I doing this and it’s because I didn’t think it was something acceptable. I just wish I could go back and never stop drawing when I was a kid. You start thinking this is something kids do when you’re young and it’s not a worthwhile thing, but it is. I constantly feel like trying to get that message across to people so that if the young Box Brown of today can read it, it will help hold themselves up and support their passion and creativity.
Magnett: As someone who came into cartooning later in life and has developed a unique style you have a knack for boiling things down to their essential forms and geometric shapes that combines the concept of this game [really well]. Do you consider how your approach meshes with a story when considering something like Tetris?
Brown: That was totally accidental. Before I started on Tetris, I was really trying to push that geometric style. So much of my comics were just rulers everywhere. It just happened to work out and be a good fit. I can really only draw comics in one way.
For me it’s more about the subject matter. Let’s say I want to do a book about bicycles, which are notoriously difficult to draw. If I was really into the story, I wouldn’t shy away from it. I would just figure out how to draw bicycles. When you’re first getting started, you have to let the story dictate what you’re going to draw. You don’t ever want to think that you’ll change the story because it’s annoying to draw cars. If it fits, you got to put it in there and force yourself to draw those cars.
Magnett: Choosing what to draw with a history is interesting because there’s so much in existence surrounding a subject like Tetris. How do you go about choosing what’s in and what’s out and how much space everything receives?
Brown: I did do a rough draft focusing on the things I think are interesting. Then I have an editor and other people who help me read through my work and figure out if there are problems with flow. Sometimes I will breeze over something too. I always want them to read it like the everyman, assuming they know nothing about the topic. Everybody knows Tetris, but some kids haven’t played it. You have to get all of the essential information there just so they know what you’re talking about. I’m much more concerned with being clear than anything else.
Magnett: There’s a specific point in the story I want to address including, toward the end of the book there is a family annihilation and it comes out of left field in the narrative just as it seems to have in life. When you come across something like that which is so devastating and shocking, but also important to the history, how do you make it part of the story?
Brown: I really didn’t know what to do, but then I started to think about what the themes are in this book. One of the main themes of the book is the effect capitalism can have on a person. This is an example of somebody who made some sort of money, but he didn’t start off this way. They were citizens of the Soviet Union with no concern for this, then he became involved with big business, and it ended badly for him.
I wanted to keep that in there, not only because it would be impossible to ignore, but it’s an extreme example of Notorious B.I.G. saying “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” You see success as a dream, but it doesn’t always work out for everyone. Look at so many lottery winners and you see how often bad things happen.
It was difficult to write about. I had to do some research on family annihilators, and what psychologists and psychiatrists have to say about them. It’s really sad, but what else can you do?
Magnett: The ways in which Tetris reflects capitalism as a modern system, both for good and ill, was something I found very surprising. Do you ever find yourself surprised from the themes that emerge as you craft a nonfiction narrative?
Brown: Definitely. I usually start off with a central character and I’m optimistic by nature. So I look at these people as being a generally good guy, just like me. I put myself in that role and ask, “How would I feel about this? What would I think about this?” Then you find out what you find out and put yourself in the head of the character to see how they react in these situations.
I’m not super well versed in business and how these things work, but it always seemed very cut throat to me. That’s something I wanted to highlight. You have these high, lofty goals to make literature. When it comes to capitalism and business, it’s just cold, hard facts.
Magnett: Your characters in Tetris are real people, some of whom are still alive. Whenever you introduce a new character you devote an entire page to a profile photo and very brief biography. What’s the purpose of devoting that much space to each person?
Brown: There are so many different characters and I’m not really used to working with an ensemble cast. I typically have one main character and everyone else is secondary, but this one had a lot of main characters. One of the first things I did when working on the book was to draw a huge family tree of all the characters and how they were connected to one another. It was really helpful for me, but not something for the book.
When I went into editorial, they told me it’s hard to keep all of these people straight. So that’s the method I used to make sure readers understand who these people are. That’s a big part of the story: understanding all of these individual personalities involved in this crazy thing.
Magnett: That tree dates all of the way back to the foundation of Nintendo and how its early success actually stemmed from external gambling and organized crime. It shows how chaotic the entire story is and how often seemingly unrelated elements create big changes in life.
Brown: You get a piece at random and you have to play it on whatever landscape is in front of you in order to line things up the right way.