"Since I was a boy, I've had black thoughts," says says Swiss cartoonist Thomas Ott, speaking slowly on the phone from Zurich. "In my work, I care about things that make me sick, that are very dark. When I see sketches I did at ten years old, I see the same things: ghouls and monsters. It's just gotten more specific."
A young man tries, in numerous ways, to kill himself, and dies in a freak accident. A murderous member of the Ku Klux Klan gnaws off his fingers in his sleep. A soapbox packer is beaten and seized for becoming enlightened. These are Ott's twisted tales, grim modern fables by a virtuoso cartoonist. Though his artwork has been lauded in Europe for more than a decade, North American readers are just now getting a glimpse of T.O.T.T. (the acronym with which he signs his work). This month, Seattle publisher Fantagraphics will reprint Greetings From Hellville, first released in Europe in 1994. Anyone expecting Tintin, however, is in for a shock.
"People always ask me how it can be that my work is dark, my thoughts are dark and so on. Really, I'm just trying to get this stuff out through my work. It's a kind of therapy." Ott's goal, he has said, is to "show things people may not want to see." His stories, many of which are wordless, are incessantly grim and often surreally violent (though always with a droll wink). They unfold at a masterful pace, in panels resembling stills from a letterbox film. He uses a scratch-board, scraping white lines onto black board with a knife. "It's like being in a black room and slowly putting the light on." Inspired by the French comics of Marc Caro, Ott experimented with the technique as an art student at the School of Design in Zurich. "I thought I would do just one story like that," he claims. Nearly 20 years later, the scratch-board style has become his trademark. The work is demanding, he admits, but adds, "When I'm working, I don't hurt, I don't think of time. It's like being in a rhythm. When I finish drawing, it's like I'm waking up."
His artwork suggests deeply intricate engravings: white irises glowing from tar-black hollows, moonlight creeping across shadowy walls. It is stark and stylish, remarkably accurate, and perfectly suits his nightmarish tales of ordinary people "caught in a vicious circle, who can't get out of their destination." Though he doesn't use photographs directly, Ott studies black and white photography books of boxing matches, of old New York crime scenes and absorbs what he can from his surroundings. "Everything I do and see is preparation for my work. I'm inspired by everything."
When Zurich had "run out" of inspiring sights, Ott moved to Paris. "Zurich is too clean," he complains, "no people in the street." It was during this time that he wrote and drew Greetings From Hellville, a comic saturated with the French capital's gothic ambience and decor. His art flourished, but at a surprising cost. "When I was doing the book, I felt at the top of my technical ability. I felt I could draw anything I wanted, with all the detail." The realisation became a crisis. "I already knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I could see myself drawing when I'm 60, still doing these silly comics. I was too clear; I wanted more adventure."
He had already been the lead singer in a garage rock band called the Playboys, who released two albums in the early '90s before disbanding. Now, at 32, he took a break from comics to study film at Zurich's University of Art and Design. He made a short film the story of an accountant who suffers a heart attack and winds up on a train to "Heaven" directing his actors to improvise dialogue in a made-up language. It screened at last summer's Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. "The cinema was already in my comics," he explains. "It was interesting to get the same atmosphere in front of the camera, to learn how to tell stories in different ways." Ott stayed in Zurich, where he is in great demand as an illustrator. He remains, though, as restless as ever. "I would like to do something different, to change the attitude of my work or the way the stories are going. I would like to do a story for children, but my work is still too heavy. It's not good for children. Unfortunately, whenever I think of a story, things tend to get brutal."