Giving Life to Comics

Lyra Hill talks comics, film, and Japanese a capella

“In the first Brain Frame, the one goal that I had was to make sure it was really weird.”

I first encountered Lyra Hill as the impassioned, excitable auctioneer at a fundraiser for the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo. A recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute, Hill is now a projectionist at the Gene Siskel Film center, co-lead artist for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Teen Creative Agency program, and founder and organizer of comics performance event Brain Frame, which will end on its third year anniversary in August. She is as enthusiastic and captivating in one-on-one conversation as her regular host duties imply.

I didn’t know what I was doing when I started Brain Frame; I really had no plan, and it was supposed to just be a single show. I was just setting up one show, and a friend was coming to town and said, “Will you set up a comics reading for me?” I said sure, but the comics readings that I had been familiar with were pretty dry: PowerPoint-style presentation, reading along, which I’ve always thought actually detracts from the medium because it’s an awkward combination of image and text.

If the performer is compelling, that’s great, you get that kind of insight into their personality and presence. But if not—and most cartoonists are not that compelling on their own as performers—then it’s a little bit of a thing you have to suffer through, whereas reading a comic is a totally independent, enriching experience where you can explore the layout of the page, the composition of the story as a whole and the pacing of the narrative arc on your own. You can take in all of these different aspects that a straight-up comics reading makes null.

So, in the first Brain Frame, the one goal that I had was to make sure it was really weird; I was going for this kind of startling discomfort or unpredictability from the very start. I invited the friends of mine I knew had some kind of performance background or who were just really weird, compelling people, and told them they could do whatever they wanted. And that show was so successful that it was insisted upon that it needed to become a series. And I said, “Maybe it’ll become a series.” The people whose house we were at, I heard them later that night telling everyone else that it was already decided. So it kind of moved beyond me really quickly.

The first priority in curating any specific show is finding a range of performers. The contrast is really important. I always want to have a slower, more personal story; often that takes the shape of a straight-up autobiographic comic reading. Then there has to be somebody who is really funny, somebody who is totally bizarre. Other things I like to throw in are people who just do intense performance stuff. I’m interested also in people who have very strange approaches to narrative, or approaches to non-narrative, that maybe don’t have any through-line that somebody can logically grasp onto. It’s really important to me that something like that happens in every show.

I’m attracted to narrative mediums, like comics and film, because there’s this narrative built into them, there’s a time-based way of looking through the pages or watching the duration of a film. And within that you can do such experimental, avant-garde, totally abstract things, and mess with the timing. You can mess with the back-and-forth.

The experience of reading a comic and watching a film are very different, but the methods by which that flow is achieved can be similar. And so when I have ideas, sometimes they go back and forth for me between being in a comic and being in a film. There are other things for me that are tied together—like I have this series of mini-comics that I’ve been making called Possession Scenes that are each just one page folded into an eight-page booklet. There’s one frame per page and so there’s seven pages total, and I just draw the stills. Seven stills from the scene.

I’ve always been interested in possession, in much of my work and my life. And the movie that I’m finishing now has a possession scene in it, so this became a way to make more comics, and also to study the aesthetics of possession in films.

Do you ever  have to sacrifice the pursuit of being a creator in order to curate, or vice versa?

Yes, but that’s more of a logistical issue. The way that I really struggle with both of those is in time management. It’s coming to a head in my life as of late because I’m doing too many things and I don’t have time to make. I’m working on a new comic now and I performed a new piece at the second anniversary show, but since then I haven’t had time to make anything, any new comics, let alone make a new performance. It’s eating at me because as wonderful as it is to enact the role of MC, or run the auction, it’s different. It’s a curator position as opposed to an expression of my own art and self.

On the other hand, my role as a curator is intrinsic to my role as a creator. Collaboration is such an important part of my process, and has become more and more so since I started Brain Frame. I used to be really bad at collaborating, because I’m a perfectionist and super-neurotic and controlling in artwork. And then when I started Brain Frame, I had to learn how to step back and let other people blossom and listen to their ideas and take them seriously, incorporating them into my own work. Every Brain Frame poster is a collaboration between myself and another artist, so that’s a really literal kind of art collaboration-creation.

In the show, it’s always inspiring for me to work with the performers. My favorite part of running Brain Frame now, since I’m no longer actually performing, is having meetings with people before the show. I visit and meet with every single person who is going to read, and we sit down and have a conversation about what it is they’re going to do and why and how it’s going to look and how they want it to feel, the very specific technical details of that pursuit as well as the kind of emotional arc of their performance and how they’re feeling about the show in general.

It often turns into a therapeutic kind of meeting, but that’s really good for me too. A lot of the people I work with are really nervous—they’re not professionals—and it’s so important to me to really know how people are approaching the work, and approaching the opportunity to be on stage, because it’s become such a unique environment that I have a hard time comparing it to any other show, which is exciting on its own, very flattering, but—it’s a weird art realm.

It’s a beautiful world of possibility. As exhausting as it is to run the show, and as frustrating as it is to not be able to work right now, it’s constantly inspiring and a brilliant opportunity to help other people find that in themselves and in their own work, and it often leads to more creative work for myself.

In Brooklyn last Friday I did a Brooklyn Brain Frame, and one of the performers had this crazy project involving a video where people were singing this old Japanese children’s theme song. She asked me if I’d be a part of the video, which meant that I had to memorize two verses in Japanese—I don’t speak Japanese—and sing it a capella into a video camera, to then be projected at the show. And that’s a position that I never expected to be in, but it was awesome. The song was great, it got stuck in my head, and it felt really good to challenge myself in that way. To challenge someone else then be challenged in return is very rewarding.

The Brain Frame community exists outside of Brain Frame events—it always has. There are people who go to school with one another, who are friends and get together for drawing nights, et cetera. I belong to a cartoonist’s collective called Trubble Club and we do group comics; Trubble Club has performed as a group at Brain Frame several times. Brain Frame has been ridiculously successful at promoting and expanding that community because it’s so fun, because so many different people work together for the show. And because I actively seek to incorporate artists of different media in the show—so I’ll seek out new media artists, animators, musicians, puppeteers, all of these people I try to bring in to Brain Frame because I see that their work has some kind of connection to sequential art or image—the various elements of the comics medium as I see it. And once I do that, I see people make these kinds of friendships, I put a lot of people together.

Often, people will ask if I know someone who has a projector they can borrow, or if I know someone who will help them make a soundtrack for their comic, and so I spend a lot of time connecting people. I see those connections flourish and expand, and in a big sense, that’s what Brain Frame has been doing with or without my active emailing—it’s like all flowering and mushrooming all the time, and that’s really wonderful, and I have no fear that it will die when the show ends.

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