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San Francisco illustrator, photographer and costume
Manning leads an intensely creative life producing dark, beautiful art
and stories. He took some time to speak with us about his process, inspirations
and current projects.
Eros Zine: Your web persona and a lot of your art are under
the name "The Spider Garden." Tell me about the origin of the name.
Michael Manning: The Spider Garden is the primary setting
for the graphic novel of the same name and the series that grew out of it.
It originally began as a short strip that I was producing for an anthology
of erotic science fiction comics.
had an idea for an environment that was loosely based on a medieval Japanese
castle and garden but was really a futuristic, artificial world maintained
by insect-like robots. I was envisioning all these elaborate erotic rituals
being played out in the privacy of this hermetic paradise with the robots
(or "constructs" as I later named them) running things from the background
- trimming the trees, running errands, etc.
I also had an idea that the various clans in this world would have animals
as family crests or totems and would embody some of the characteristics
of those animals. The owner of the Spider Garden, Shaalis the Sacred Androgyne,
is a very complex character - always hatching intricate plots for Hir own
amusement and puling strings from behind the scenes like a spider in a technological
The Spider Garden graphic novel was published in 1995 and by the time I
had a computer, it was the work I was best known for, so I decided to stick
with that title. It seemed appropriate for the Web, Net, or whatever you
prefer to call it.
Sez G: You're based in San Francisco, and although your work has shown
all over the world, the bulk of your showings have been in SF. Where are
you from and why do you think the Bay Area connects so well with your art?
Michael Manning: I was born in New York and grew up in Massachusetts. My father's
family was originally from Queens. During the 1960's and '70's, they lived
in San Francisco. My grandparents had an apartment near the Presidio, and
my uncle did his medical internship at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in
1968. I visited my family in 1969, and it left a really big impression on
me. I didn't visit again until 1987, at which point all of my relatives
had left, but it was still a very magical place for me. I knew that I wanted
to live there eventually and in 1991, Lyn and I moved cross country from
Boston to San Francisco.
Before I actually lived here, I had been exposed to a lot of art, music
and writing that had been produced in San Francisco - Fritz Leiber, Pat
Califia, Spain Rodriguez, the Residents, Chrome, V. Vale's Search
& Destroy and Re/Search books, Joanie Blank's Caught Looking
Pat's Macho Sluts stories especially were a kind of revelation for
me. Even though they had a fantastic feel, they seemed very much based in
her (now his) own personal experience, and that helped me to form my own
ideas about how to produce convincingly erotic work. That and Fritz Leiber's
Our Lady of Darkness had allowed me to build up this really sexy
shadowy image of what San Francisco might be like.
I had also done covers and illustrations for Mark Pritchard's Frighten
The Horses zine. Subterranean Records and Rough Trade were selling copies
of my comix anthology Z/Xero so I already had some venues for my
work. After I moved, I started doing art shows, usually a couple a year
- and that plus the books helped reach a wider local audience.
Because of the nature of the work I do, I don't expect to hit the mainstream
in a big way any time soon. It's more of an underground thing - building
a fan base gradually over the years. To be perfectly honest though, I don't
know that the Bay Area connects so well to my work. I've lived here and
been producing work here since 1991, but I'm far from being a household
San Francisco, like many other places, has a tendency to ignore local artists
of any medium unless 1) they've become famous elsewhere in the US or Europe
or 2) they have friends in the local press or art scene who are promoting
them from the inside. Back when people from a wider variety of social and
economic backgrounds could afford to live here, I think there was more support
for different types of work. A lot of the people with more adventurous tastes
were uprooted during the Dot Com fiasco. Most of the people that situation
made room for are in a higher income bracket and tend to be more conservative.
Unless they see something being aggressively hyped on television or in the
weeklies, they're not interested.
It's OK though. That's not my audience. I'll continue to produce work for
myself and like-minded freaks. Everyone else will just have to catch up
Sez G: Most of your illustrated art is in black and white. Why do you
prefer it to color?
Michael Manning: It has purity that I really love. It's very direct, but it can
also be very subtle and understated at the same time.
When I was self-publishing, I was working in black and white for economic
reasons. I was printing the books out using a photocopier. Sometimes having
limitations can be a really good way to learn.
Sez G: How did your illustrations evolve into graphic novels?
Michael Manning: I've always liked drawing comix, but it took me a long time to
understand how to really lay them out or properly construct a plot.
In my junior year in high school, I drew a fairly lengthy sf/fantasy comics
story called "Blackguard" for the Aegis, my school literary magazine. It
was a pretty standard "Man With No Name" type revenge story. I had started
a lot of other comic strips before, but that was the first one I actually
finished. I learned a lot doing that one. For one thing, up until that point,
I had always been under the impression that comics artists drew their pages
at the same size that they were reproduced which was an unending source
of frustration for me. I couldn't understand how they got so much detail
into those little drawings.
Sez G: Ah ha, neither could we! How did you get hooked?
Michael Manning: I think my "breakthrough" erotic strip was "Switch/Bored." In
art school, I would always draw in those hard-bound black cover sketch books.
I'd usually have a couple of different sized books to work in - a little
8" x 5" to carry around with me, a 12" x 9" for class use, and a 17" x 14"
for drawing at home.
One day, I started sketching panels for a comics story in the 17" x 14"
book which, even though I didn't know it, turned out to be roughly the same
size as a professional comic book page.
I began with a very basic idea - two women making love. All completely visual.
No dialog. I just kind of started in the middle of the action with no real
notion of where the plot was going except that one of the women would be
revealed as a man in drag. By the time I was finished, it was around twenty
I did two other stories in the same book in the same fashion - starting
with a basic idea and letting the action develop intuitively, without any
words or dialog. It felt really liberating. "Switch/Bored" eventually became
the centerpiece of the first issue of my mini comic Ukiyo X. The
story "Switch 2 Match" in Cathexis is actually the sequel to "Switch/
Bored," by the way.
Sez G: You do commissioned tattoo design. How is that process different
for you from commissioned artwork?
Michael Manning: I usually have to work more closely with the client on a tattoo
design than with a commission. I want to be sure that the proportions are
correct and that they're happy with the design before it becomes a permanent
part of their body.
Sez G: Do you find people are more difficult to please when your art
is going on their person?
Michael Manning: They tend to be more picky, but I think that's understandable
given the fact that theoretically they'll be carrying it around with them
for the rest of their life.
Sez G: You've collaborated with costume designers to bring your illustrated
character's clothing into reality. How cool! What's it like to see the vision
from your head on a real flesh body?
Michael Manning: It's always a thrill. I remember the first time I saw a model
wearing one of the Madame S latex concubine Manning skirts in a fashion
show. Since it's a hobble skirt, it took her a while to tip-toe out to center
stage, but when she turned around and presented her ass to the audience
everybody went nuts - including me.
Sez G: How much are the designs altered to fit realistic constraints?
Michael Manning: There are always compromises - budgetary concerns and time constraints.
To date, there have been some really nice interpretations, but I think that
my fashion designs have yet to be fully realized.
Sez G: You do some photography as well. When did you begin shooting?
Michael Manning: I've always had a point-and-press camera since I was little,
and I would take snap shots of my friends during school musicals or on class
field trips. I tried some 35mm photography courses while I was in art school
but never felt that I was very good at it. At the time, I was much more
interested in shooting 16mm and Super 8 live-action film and animation.
I first began shooting reference photos for my comix in 1989. If I needed
a model, I would use Lyn or myself. I usually shot with a polaroid camera
since I didn't know how to process and develop 35mm film and I was worried
that Walgreens might intentionally fuck up my negatives if I brought them
rolls with nudes on them.
I had my first offer to do a fetish shoot in 1993. I thought it would be
a good opportunity because I felt like I was still learning to draw and
wanted to give my characters more individualized features, different body
types and more personality. I also wanted to improve my photographic and
The woman who made the offer was an employee at Stormy Leather, a local
fetish shop. She was a non-professional model, but really nice and very
pretty. Unfortunately, we were both a bit nervous (me especially) and I
had to end the shoot prematurely. I thought that I had loaded the film wrong
and messed up the camera. I found out later that I hadn't, but it was really
annoying because she had just started to relax and get comfortable with
posing and I just was starting to get the hang of giving her direction.
Subsequent shoots went much smoother as I became more technically adept.
Live and learn...
Sez G: Does photography feel like instant gratification to you or is
it more difficult because you have less control over the product?
Michael Manning: There is a certain amount of instant gratification for both myself
and the model - especially with digital photography. I usually consider
photography to be a component in my drawing process, rather than an end
to itself. I've only recently done shoots where I had to think of the images
that I was shooting as the final product. The portraits I've shot of Reina
Aurora are a good example of this.
One thing I still find gratifying about photography is that much of what
I shoot outside the studio is still something that's purely for my own enjoyment
- things I don't necessarily have any intention of sharing with an audience
- other than my friends, that is.
Sez G: You studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Were you doing erotic art there and how was it received?
Michael Manning: I was drawing erotic art the whole time I was there - from 1981
to 1985, but didn't show any of it to my instructors until my review boards
(starting in 1983). It still felt like a very private thing to me and I
didn't feel comfortable sharing that side of myself with an audience I didn't
know personally. None of the other students or teachers there were doing
art that was explicitly erotic so I didn't think it was an appropriate venue.
However, my friends liked my erotic art a lot and were very supportive,
and I was investing so much time in producing it that I thought I should
get over it and bring some of it to my boards.
On the first one, one of the teachers who was originally going to be evaluating
my work had to drop out at the last minute because she was ill. Her substitute
was a drawing teacher who had terrified me during my first year there. He
would sometimes show up for class drunk screaming at his students, and if
he didn't like what you were doing, he'd rip the drawing off your easel
and tear it to pieces. It was an incredibly intimidating atmosphere for
a seventeen year old who had never drawn a model.
Life drawing was compulsory in the program I was taking, and his class would
usually end up being the only one I could fit into my schedule. I would
sign up for his class, then try desperately to draw the way he wanted me
to so he wouldn't single me out and humiliate me in front of the class.
The pressure would always get to be too much, though, and I would end up
cutting his class for the rest of the semester.
It turned out that he loved my erotic drawings. He had plenty of criticism
for my technique, but he felt that I was really trying to push boundaries
with the subject matter. He and I and the other teacher and students had
a really good discussion/ critique. After that, I made a point of bringing
my erotic work to my boards and tried to do a lot more life drawing - but
I was still too chicken to ever take another class with that particular
Sez G: Are your characters based on anyone you know in reality?
All of my characters are me to a certain extent. Some of them embody some
of the personality and physical characteristics of people I know. Reina
Aurora and Instructress Hyon Jee from the Metal Web books are based on friends
that modeled for me. I wanted characters with a really distinctive look
and they were a perfect fit.
I'm currently working on story that parallels the main plot thread in the
Spider Garden series. Zille Defeu, who does Dark Play, suggested the basic
idea, so I thought it was only fitting that she model for the one of the
main characters. It was a great shoot. She's amazingly beautiful and very
easy to work with. I've also recently shot with my friend Kelly for the
same story. Kelly isn't a professional model, but visually she's perfect
for the part - an androgynous ninja-style bodyguard to Zille's mistress
Sez G: Very cool, can't wait to see it! What else do you have planned
for the future?
Michael Manning: Patrick Conlon and I are hard at work on the next book in the
Tranceptor series. We're also producing a mini series, Tranceptor: Alliances
that explores the back stories of some of the main characters.
On the solo side, I'm painting my first full color book - a one-shot entitled
Arcana. I'm also working on an art book Inamorata that will
feature portrait pieces inspired by many of the models I'm work with. Then
there's the Garden Initiate books that will function as a guide to
the Spider Garden world and the sequel to Metal Web. There's more
but I should probably wind this up. Suffice to say, there will be plenty
to keep me (and hopefully all of you) busy for the next few years.
Woah, busy times! To keep up with the creative and crazy world of Michael
Manning, visit thespidergarden.net.
Michael Manning - by Sez G.