Aaron Shunga (AKA Aaron $hunga, Aaron K, and maybe many more aliases) seems to be one of the most slippery artists among the US “alternative/underground” comics crowd. He might not be a household name even by indie standards, but Aaron is a pretty solid creative powerhouse.
Also an illustrator, musician and occassional short-form writer, Shunga is commonly associated with one of his best-known comic books: Vacuum Horror. A near-perfect darkly comedic horror/sci-fi extravaganza, with nods to Suehiro Maruo, David Lynch, and more, though completely a beast on its own. It’s a twisted tour de force in just 56 pages, an off-the-wall mix of terror and wicked sense of wonder. And most of all: a reminder on how wildly fun, imaginative and subversive comics can get. If you wanna know more, search for other reviews at your own risk. Because here in HMPH!, we love that comic very much, and we think that it is better to face it having as little info as possible. Just so you know, there’s plenty of gore and alien vacuum cleaners in it. Isn’t that enough?!?
Vacuum Horror was posted online in 2003, in a time when several of his comics could be found at the author’s website(s). Nowadays, fewer Shunga works are available for online consumption. For the past year, Aaron has allegedly spent more time more dedicated to his punk band Pleasure Gallows than to drawing comics. But luckily for us, his Tumblr has been showing a lot of activity in the last few months, and there’s quite a few things in the horizon to be excited with for us Shunga fans. One of them is awaiting for the completion of his long-term comics project: the mammoth graphic novel Cabeza, a 500-page wasteland epic that still has to see the light of day. Just don’t expect it to come to a close soon…
Meanwhile, you can turn to other works that we can highly recommend: Skeleton Key [1 , 2 , 3 ,4 , 5 , 6 ], a haunting Clowesian short story, that originally appeared in the kick-ass anthology Happiness Comix; “Earl“, a literal adaptation of Earl Sweat‘s rap lyrics, with surreal results; or this charming tribute to Moebius [ 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ].
Aaron’s comics don’t fit in simple categorization. He varies in tone and style from story to story: from straightforward narrative, to the downright abstract and experimental, though black humour, obscenity, and psyched-out surrealism are constants of his. While being very open about his references and idols, his comics conjure a distinctly personal feverish atmosphere. They usually trigger from quasi-philosophical reflections/statements, which take shape in unexpected ways, sometimes in the most cryptic fashion. Shunga may be unpredictable, but never accidental.
Months ago, we reached Aaron for an email interview. We expected him to be a mysterious dude, but he has been open and nice to us, and here’s the result!
My real name is Aaron Yuanga. I grew up in Honolulu, HI. In the late 1990’s, a sexually transmitted disease found in livestock infected the human population, which caused widespread mental retardation, and genital mutation. I suffered from neither, many people in my generation did.
Shunga is pornographic traditional art from Asia. I regard it as the lowest form of intellectual exercise. My artwork always revolves around this theme.
When does your career as a visual artist start? And what are you up to these days?
The first official recognition for my work came upon placing Vacuum Horror on the internet in 2003. I have since then had my work published in various anthologies under the “experimental/indie” moniker.
I make a living teaching basic english to inner city youth. To supplement my income I also work in kitchens.
It’s been a while since you made Vacuum Horror. How does it feel to look back at that comic? I know it is already explained in the book’s preface, but: what was the impulse for making that book?
That book was incepted from the standpoint that the human race had outlived its purpose. I was also looking at a lot of traditional Japanese prints and studying the links between nihilism and pop culture. “The New,” an exhibition in the early 1980’s by Jeff Koons can shed a little light on the subject.
So, is there any hope for the future of humankind?
There is always hope for humankind. The cancer rate is decreasing. Our environment is not deteriorating, it is changing. To survive fuel depletion and global warming, we will use bioengineering and cybernetics to augment ourselves to conduct photosynthesis in our bodies.
Can you tell us about some other past comic works besides Vacuum Horror? Any chance of reprinting more stuff of yours in the future, maybe?
I have published many short stories, centering around automatic script writing, subconscious explorations, and generic television programs. There was “Renegade Rhombus,” a story about cyberpunk and highschool algebra, and another called “Skeleton Key” in which a woman deals with latent lesbian tendencies.
Publishing of older work should appear on my site in the near future.
This story will be a culmination of everything I have done since Vacuum Horror.
What is your relationship with putting up your stuff online? Are you comfortable with it, with the Tumblr era we’re living in and such? What decisions led you to remove the comics you posted in your previous website(s)?
Online projection is liberating with a hint of desperation, due to phantom recipience. Initial motivation was due to being told I needed to “lay off the drugs” by peers. The glut we experienced initially was a purging of useless thought that can be trimmed away in time. Now, universal fragmentation of perception dominates. At age 20, I cast my faith in a goldfish mind. Erasing memories routinely could
grant an artist monolithic awareness. Rebelling against shape. The ultimate power of computers is not memory, it is deletion.
And what about publishing on paper? Do you enjoy printing your own work, or you’d rather just being published?
Monetary constraints motivate printing agreements. Paper is visceral. Our eyes are physical, they perceive more than HD can offer. Books are powerful. So is the smell of bleeding grass, the heat of the rising sun. Without these things, we wither.
Your site has sort of an introductory paragraph which cites your many influences and is indeed pretty accurate. Despite easy comparisons, the overall impression upon reading Vacuum Horror was one of something fresh, fearless and different from everything else, a story straight out of your subconscious mind. Your more recent comics look even more experimental to us. Do you feel like you have reached a point where you have a “voice” truly of your own, specially now that your art points to more to abstract territories?
I am convinced that everyone has the same voice. All other styles are mutations and additions. Compare Basquiat and a five year old… they draw the same way. I drew like that when I was five, too. These intellectual accoutrements are what we deem our “voice,” but they are really impure yearnings to imitate someone else. They are always rooted in a desire to be understood and to be noticed. But the pure voice we possess when we are born, that’s nothing but a scream for nourishment, and can never be washed clean.
From this realization, versatility is simple. Also, reading like an “open book” when it comes to influences forces me to reverse engineer excitement in the audience and work up-hill. Originality is a falsification. The only way to pioneer a field is to be skillful and relentless.
Does your illustration work or your writing require completely different mindsets for you? I mean, different from when you’re doing comics? How does this shifting between the arts work for you?
A degree I accrued in painting influences me always. Imagining the church of England could execute me for failed impulses, or listening to the voice of Daisetz Suzuki while elements organize
themselves on a canvas through magnetism motivates everything I draw. Wandering at length, I noticed language had similar attributes. Words and tones, they defined a phrase like competing vegetation. Tall words killing timid words. Hardy words surviving the drought.
Sometimes in a subtle fashion, sometimes straightforwardly, I sense that dark humor permeates all your work. What is your take on this?
Where does darkness truly emit from? We would have to look to Japan. Aristocrats lived court lives with blackened their teeth, signaling wealth. Suicide is their highest achievement. In Zen, religion and nihilism married. Faith in spirit gave out to a race of changelings. We sprouted from atomic ashes. We are born from shameful organs of vulgarity. Most corpses shit. Death is humorous. Everywhere, humor persists.
Tell us about your music projects!
Most of my creative energy last year went to a punk band I am involved in called Pleasure Gallows. Aside from being a pretty effective release from the emotionless trappings of visual art, confronting audiences live is a new challenge.
What does punk mean to you?
Eliminating thought is the purest connection to death and beyond. Drugs are the shortcut, the subway train. True freedom is to see things as they are. The punk realizes he has already won, while sitting in the dark in his dad’s garage.
What other future comics projects [besides Cabeza] are you working on? Where is your “inner artistic compass” pointing you to as of late?
Currently I am working on a collaborative comic called “G-Wave” with Michael Olivo which will be showcased at the University of Michigan. It is a science fiction comic designed to isolate the viewer from all known reality and facilitate immersion into a hyper-evolved ecology where syntax, biology, and digital realities have combined.
I see this space, the “G-Wave” as a realm in which iconoclastic abstract painting can be experienced physically. We are planning to exhibit the work via projector at Escapist Comics in Berkeley, hopefully some time in December, 2013. We (Michael Olivo and I) plan to unveil accompanying music, using digital sound collage and improvised low decibel experimental guitar inspired by Fred Frith. Our musical formation will be called “SO.”
The interesting thing about “G-Wave” from a process oriented standpoint is, we are digitally combining comic pages together from a bank of drawings we have done ahead of time, into prepared panel templates. The synthesis of the comic in G-Drive [Google Drive] is essentially the most inhuman, technologically oriented way to create, which aids in flexibility while also being counterbalanced by the organic, washed out drawings that make up the essential “marrow” of the project.
I am also doing an anarcho-punk comic which will accompany my band Pleasure Gallows first tape release. It will be 10 pages with a black vinyl paper cover, in an edition of 100.
Cabeza is on hiatus, but I have been eagerly assimilating the style of Wally Wood. I feel like his work is a truly lost Americana that holds the key to understanding pop illustration and its devolution from classical art. The heavy-handed classical style is ideal in comics, but it is very taxing on the psyche.
Biomorphism, of Anish Kapoor/Jean Arp notoriety, is more suitable from a structural/functional process standpoint vs. an aesthetic, which speaks only of the decorative. Output, I believe is something that should not be forced in an assembly line/Auschwitz fashion. Creative output grows naturally from the artist like a stalactite. This is the slow answer. I don’t give a fuck about being superficially famous, or popular. Those are empty pursuits. Moreover, I want as many people as possible to appreciate my work and relate to it on a meaningful manner. This would reveal to me that humanity is not alienating, that I can participate with ease and even if that means I will alienate a great deal of them. I don’t aim to be prolific, I aim to be effective, and relevant.
BONUS QUESTION: Is is true that you own 3 McDonalds?
Underneath these McDonald’s I am able to conduct artistic activities in complete secrecy. They are located in various suburbs surrounding San Francisco.
[Where to buy Vacuum Horror] Portugese publishers MMMNNNRRRG printed a fine edition of Vacuum Horror in 2011, with portuguese “subtitles” (of the non-intrusive kind). You can still order copies online at the Chili Com Carne store, and also via Ruru Comix. Wait, there’s also a Finnish edition!