Welcome back to our countdown to the Small Press Expo (SPX), where we talk with some of the best indy creators who’ll be premiering books or spotlighted at the show! This time out, we talk to the creator of an autobiographical comic about a very unusual job in a very unusual place. Two words: Monkey Chef.
Creator Mike Freiheit digs into his own experiences preparing food for monkeys in this new series, which depicts a series of anecdotes from his time in Africa at a primate sanctuary. The tales range from simple moments of social awkwardness to surreal animal fables, taking a look at how humans relate to both primates and to each other. Plus, you know, monkeys. We talked to Freiheit about the first volume of his story, which will be available at SPX.
Newsarama: Mike, tell us a little about Monkey Chef.
Mike Freiheit: In August of 2010 I moved to South Africa to become a primate care taker and chef at a primate sanctuary called International Primate Rescue, and I ended up staying there for 9 months. Monkey Chef is a collection of stories from my time over there.
Nrama: So...what's the origin story of your decision to get into the monkey business, pardon the pun?
Freiheit: I was living in Brooklyn, working the same crappy job I had been working for three years, my girlfriend had just broken up with me, and I was sick and tired of New York and everything about it.
In college I had become very interested in drawing and painting primates, also just about primate sociology in general, so I had signed up this mailing list that sent out new opportunities for jobs or volunteer positions in the field.
Long story short, one night after being fed up, I checked this email list, saw that there was a volunteer position available in South Africa, emailed the director (Sue Mously), gushed my heart out about how I wanted to work with monkeys so bad, and three months later I was there
Nrama: And what made you realize this would work as a comic series?
Freiheit: My original intention was to make a book of paintings, observations, recipes, etc. It wasn't going to be sequential at first, but then as things became stranger or more complicated at the sanctuary, I really figured out that I had to tell stories, and not just give a vague glimpse of what it might have been like through paintings or notes.
The story had to be a bit fuller, and that's where comics came in. I still made a lot of paintings, and some will be in Monkey Chef, but comics was really the way to go.
Nrama: The first issue is sort of non-chronological, looking at different anecdotes in the form of short stories with thematic beginnings, middles and ends. Why did you take that approach as opposed to a straightforward look at your monkey-time?
Freiheit: The time spent at the sanctuary could be pretty similar day to day, because not only was I living there, I was working there, and we only had one day off a week, so things could seem pretty monotonous. In that way, when things did happen there, it felt more episodic and specific.
The other main idea is just how memory works, and that fascinates me: our memories are a somewhat flawed testament to our past experiences, because in many ways the things we did or the way we remember them aren't always perfectly true, in that our mind distorts what we see through emotional impact and time. Our brain does the work of jazzing these memories up and making them particular and special.
I also don't remember things quite linearly, everything gets kind of jumbled up, so I'm trying to show you some perspective on how my mind works. (while I'm trying to understand it better myself).
I'm also interested in it as a storytelling device, in that I'd like ideas and themes to stack up over the course of many stories to give an overall broad view and feel of what I'm putting across, but then have the stories also stand on their own.
Think of it like this: instead of it being like a movie, it's more like a TV series, where things can build up slowly, and you learn things about characters over time until your idea of them is stronger and well rounded.
Nrama: What's the biggest thing you learned about monkeys? I'll be blunt: I'm terrified of an uprising.
Freiheit: I learned a lot about Marmosets (they were by far the most abundant) and their social structure. It was really surprising how in some ways they were very close to humans.
For instance, they are monogamous for as long as their mates are alive, which is usually (but not always) a human trait. They mourn their dead, and even in some instances when a monkey had died, we would have to show the body to it's partner or mate so that it would know what happened, and be able to accept it.
Even their facial expressions and actions, you can see there is character there, depth behind this furry ape-like face. They are really complicated creatures.
Nrama: And tell us a bit about the artistic style you're using for this book.
Freiheit: Well, you'll probably notice the first two stories look a bit different from the last two, and that's from me changing things up midway. The first two were done in ink and some watercolor, and the last are purely ink and halftone screen.
I like the idea of also showing time and growth through the way the art may change, so who knows, it might even change a bit more in the future as I make more and more of these stories.
Really my main goal is to show everything as clearly as possible, but add as much energy to the work as I can. Hopefully the emotional significance comes through, as well, but it's definitely a hard thing to pull off.
Nrama: How long do you have this series planned?
Freiheit: For at least four issues, but I have so many stories that it could easily be more. The plan is for it to be a big, collected book at some point.
Nrama: TRIVIA TIME: Share a monkey recipe for us that humans can also enjoy. Um, a recipe for monkeys, not involving monkeys, like those brains in Temple of Doom.
Freiheit: There was a cake recipe, and it was just a basic cake (flour, eggs, water, salt, lots of sugar), but we would add in these red pellets, which were fortified with nutrients for the Marmosets. You'd basically water these pellets down until they were this gross looking slurry, then add it to the cake mixture so it was smooth, and the cake ended up looking like red velvet (only a human would not want to taste this thing. I think I did once and it was bleehhh).
Other things they ate, which I get into more of in the second issue, were things like boiled chicken, vegetables, lots and lots of fruit (they loved bananas) and even chicken necks (which we had to cut with scissors, and they made a terrible snapping noise each time a cut was made).
Nrama: Something we're asking everyone in this: What are some other books/creators you're looking forward to seeing at SPX?
Freiheit: I have a lot of friends that I'll be able to see and hang out with, so I'm really excited for that! Jess Ruliffson, Victor Kerlow, Alex Fine. Also I'm going to check out whatever Koyama has, most likely. Annie's the best and puts out really great books.
Nrama: And what's fun with a show like SPX?
Freiheit: Oh man. I guess unlike a big super hero show, SPX is purely about comics. It's about the art of storytelling, and I think about coming together to celebrate the art form, being able to hang out with each other and just have a good time!
Nrama: What's next for you?
Freiheit: More Monkey Chef, for sure! I'm working on the second issue now and it's going to be a doozy. I've also got another book available that I made for SPX called Party Animals, which is some illustrations I made with a funky animal theme. By the time SPX rolls around I'll be married, as well, so that's pretty exciting!
Nrama: Anything else you want to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Freiheit: If anyone is interested in checking out Monkey Chef, please come find me at SPX and we'll have a chat! Or, if you aren't going and would like to grab a copy you can find it on my website.
NEXT: It’s samurai vengeance with Black Sheep, followed by an unusual historical tale in Wild Man: Island of Memory. And next week, we talk to SPX Guest of Honor Gene Luen Yang about his two-volume GN Boxers & Saints as our countdown to SPX continues!