An interview with Bryn Ziegler on their new interactive comic, ‘Dont Look into the Abyss’

Our new contributor, Maxwell Van Cooper sits down with artist Bryn Ziegler to discuss the artist's new book, "Don't Look into The Abyss," a "choose your own adventure" type book that comes with a 10-sided die you can choose to roll, or not -- or you can choose to follow the map instead. They talk about artist books and comic books and their makers in Philadelphia. And they talk about the process of printing an artist book. Check it out book lovers!

Author’s Introduction

I met with Bryn Ziegler in her studio on a hot August day to discuss her new artist and comic book Don’t Look Into the Abyss. An edition of 150, the book is 4 ⅜” by 7 ¾” and is accompanied by a ten-sided die. This graphic novel uses a single-player choose-your-own-path format, which is to say the book acts as a game where each roll of the die leads to different storylines and endings. The book is printed with spot color printing, in a navy, pink, and turquoise color palette. Don’t Look Into the Abyss follows the adventure of a person exploring The Expanse on their small ship, all while trying to avoid The Abyss. Don’t Look Into the Abyss is available on Ziegler’s website. In September, Ziegler spoke at a panel about Comics in the Digital Age, hosted by Swarthmore  Libraries.The artist recently graduated from the University of the Arts with an MFA in Book Arts and Printmaking. We sat down to discuss Don’t Look Into the Abyss and the future of comic books and artist books in Philly.

A photo shows a room in a library, with books in shelves in the background and up on a 2nd floor balcony and at a broad table covered with small books sits a young college-age white person with close-cropped hair and wearing glasses who is talking to an audience and showing slides on a screen behind them.
Bryn Ziegler speaking at book launch of her book, “Don’t Look into The Abyss,” at the Philadelphia Free Library. Photo by Alina Josan.

Maxwell Van Cooper: I wanted to say first off that I love Don’t Look Into the Abyss. What specifically about choose-our-own-path [narrative format] appealed to you as an artist and a writer?

Bryn Ziegler: I chose the choose-your-own-path format because I wanted to create a game within the game. I wanted to create a book structure and a game structure that would mimic the feeling of restrictive social norms. So, I did that in a couple ways. The first way is that if you go through the book, you will notice that when the narrator offers you choices, they offer you binary choices.

Max: Mm-hmm.

Bryn: You can do this or you can do that. And you may also notice that the narrator, which in most games we assume to be, like an objective voice—

Max: Yeah. Like a reliable narrator—

Bryn: Yeah. A reliable voice. That tells us how to play the game in the game instructions or you know, when you pull a card and it says, do this, do that. [This voice] has biases. In Don’t Look Into the Abyss, the narrator has opinions on what you’re doing and what is the right choice, and is sort of reinforcing this idea that the abyss is a bad thing. That it’s something to avoid, that the fact that you are not able to navigate through without running into it says something negative about you or your skills as a navigator. And that narrator voice that we all assume to be objective at the beginning, I hope is reinforcing one viewpoint and giving you these binary choices.

And I wanted it to feel pretty frustrating. You know, you go through and you can be successful, but the successful ending maybe doesn’t feel that exciting. And you, you can make it through, but most of the time it’s not through your own skillset. Like you just make it through by accident or because you choose to relinquish control.

Two pages of a book show (left panel) a woman in dark purple and white who looks off to the left and says “uh-huh.” In a blue box, white letters spell out, “Why don’t you give the map a try? Just to get you on the right path.” More letters at the bottom show a map and give direction to either turn to page 12 or to roll a die and turn to different pages to continue your path through the book.
A two-page spread from “Don’t Look into The Abyss,” Image courtesy of the artist.

Max: Like the autopilot.

Bryn: Yeah. Like the autopilot. And so I didn’t necessarily want it to be a satisfying experience to win the game.


Bryn: And I wanted physically for people to end up back towards the front of the book repeatedly. Until that frustration grows enough that maybe you make a choice to break out of the game structure, out of the game cycle.

And to me, that is kind of the direct metaphor for a queer experience, of making the choices that people tell you you should make, or trying to feel the things that people around you expect you to feel. Until one day it becomes too frustrating and you step outside of that narrative.

Max: Yeah. That makes me think about how in the book, there a lot of the pages linked to the plot or the storyline But then if you go past those pages and you don’t make a choice, they’re these, I guess Easter eggs?

Bryn: Yeah.

Max: And one of those actually is a very explicit, like, queer moment in the book. But it would’ve been easy to completely have missed it, if I remember correctly.

Bryn: Yes.

Max: I really liked that there were these in-between spaces, where it also seemed like it was an opportunity for you to just really explore your art without text, you know? And explore this metaphysical project of space in the abyss.

Bryn: Yeah. The hidden passages were ultimately the goal of the book. Those were the parts that I wanted the rest of the book to uphold, this idea that—you’ll notice that those pages don’t have page numbers.

Max: Yeah.

Bryn: And they don’t have the narrator voice, they don’t have any instructions, like you said, [they’re] without text for the most part. And those are the pages that you get to if you choose to reject the restrictive structure, or the task that the book is giving you without a whole lot of explanation as to why you need to complete this task, and why you need to do it in the same way that everyone else before you have done it.

So, I’m really glad that you felt that way, that you got to those passages and that was your impression.
Max: Yeah,they really stood out to me, for sure. And that kind of goes into another question, I am not too familiar with the sci-fi genre, but I love the idea of queerness being explored in space, and I was definitely curious about how you feel sci-fi as a genre itself lends itself to exploring queerness. They seem very compatible.

This is the first sci-fi work that I’ve done. I admit that until I saw this question, I hadn’t thought about [Don’t Look Into the Abyss] so much in the context of sci-fi. I’ve been thinking about it and people have been asking me about it in terms of an artist book, the print process as a comic. And I loved talking about those things, but I never sat down and,went, why did I make a sci-fi book?

I think part of that is that in my head it’s deep space and it’s also like the deep sea. Because initially I was drawing from a lot of map imagery. I was making pieces that were about the connection between like the body and topographic maps and whether it could actually be—

Max: I love that.

Bryn: Thank you—freeing to treat the body as an object, to think about it divorced from expectations, and how people see it, and just think about it as, like a form for yourself.

Max: Absolutely.

Bryn: And so I was making work. Making that connection between body shapes and topographic shapes. And I started looking at topographic maps, and it tied in really well with this sort of choice mapping that I was doing for the choose-your-own-path. And so I pulled on deep-sea maps. And then I also wanted to have this idea of a contained little ship in this wide expanse. And so that’s where the visuals started.
But when I think about sci-fi I think about discovery. A lot of my experience with sci-fi is Star Trek. And the idea of finding the limits of your personal or the societal belief system, finding things that challenge that… the idea that you are challenging a belief system by seeking out something new.

Max: Right.

Bryn: And I think that ties into queerness very well.

Max: Absolutely. So something I really like about Don’t Look Into the Abyss is how it blends the artist book and a comic book. I feel like distinguishing the two is really interesting and not always easy, but yeah, how would you distinguish independent comic books from small press artist books? And where do you see Don’t Look Into the Abyss fitting into those genres?

Bryn: Yeah… Book artists can argue all day about the definition of a book, so all opinions are my own. But my feeling is that there’s a lot of overlap, but when I talk about an artist book, I’m talking about something that was approached from the start as a whole object.

So I’m talking about a book that is, you’re developing the content, or if it’s a narrative, you’re developing the plot at the same time as you’re making decisions about how thick the boards for the covers will be, what kind of structure it will have internally, how you’re going to be sewing it, how many pages you can print, based on the number of press sheets available to you…

But when I think about the idea of something that is a comic book first and foremost, it’s about the content. And so, comics are a medium of content, it’s a visual language of panels and speech bubbles, andthat is what comprises a comic.


Bryn: And an artist’s book can have that, that can be part of its genre of the medium that builds it, but it’s also about the completeness of the piece.
So what I have written here is, it’s about whether the book is a container for a comic. Like the book format is a container to hold the pages, the illustrated pages. Or whether the comic is just one part of the whole.

Max: Yeah. I really like that definition, and that makes a lot of sense to me. Would you say that—I mean, it seems to me that Don’t Look Into the Abyss is definitely an artist book with comics.

Bryn: Yeah, it is. And I would call it a graphic novel. But I had to decide the number of pages it would be before I had even, started the thumbnail sketching.

Max: Right.

Bryn: Because I had to make a print schedule and everything was defined based on that. So I had to decide this many pages at this size on this paper before I could start making a lot of the narrative decisions.

Max: Yeah, yeah. I also really love the idea of an artist’s book being this conversation between the content and the actual object itself.

So, offset lithography, I think goes without saying, it’s a very complex printing process. And I had seen, from your other books, that you had tried different printing processes, and I know a really popular one, especially for comic books [and] for artist books, is risograph. I feel like everyone does risograph these days, which is great. But I was curious, why, for this book, did you choose offset lithography as opposed to a different method you’d done before?

Bryn: I have a lot of answers for that. So, to start, I love risograph. Yeah. I actually just taught a pre-college risograph class for [the University of the Arts].

Max: Oh, that’s so great.

Bryn: I’m super happy that they have a risograph studio that they’re starting up there. And I did a sample for this book in risograph because of all the print processes out there, it’s the closest to offset.

Max: Right.

Bryn: But for this book, you may notice that there are pages that have really bright colors. But most of them are more subdued. And that’s because I chose a split complementary color scheme for it. Where originally it was gonna be complementary, and that was just a little too dull, when you overlay those complementary colors, it got very gray.

Where I wanted the colors to mellow each other out so that on those, in those hidden passages or when the abyss is present and the bright colors show, it’s really meaningful.

Max: It is.

Bryn: And it pops. And I’m also using something called a moiré pattern, and I use that in the representations of the abyss, so that those concentric lines, what I was aiming to do there was to create a moiré pattern. Which is where layers of concentric lines or dots, if you’re using CMYK, align in such a way that they create incidental patterns. Like a bit of an optical illusion.

Max: Yeah.

Bryn: And usually in printmaking that’s considered a negative. It’s something to avoid. It’s something that can interfere with your image. It’s like a naturally occurring phenomenon. But it’s also often looked down on in printmaking as a technical error. And I wanted to utilize that to be the representation of the abyss.

Max: I love that. I think that was very successful, I mean, the use of color, and also it’s so cool that I remember in the book that there are these shadow patterns that pop up.

Bryn: …I saw a clear connection between this idea of a naturally occurring, interesting looking pattern that is usually avoided. And this theme of, of queerness and like stepping outside the binary. In the idea of the moiré pattern and in its deliberate usage in this book.

And to get back to offset lithography, offset lithography has a much tighter registration system than risograph. So when I was testing risograph printing, one of the issues that I found is that those moments didn’t look deliberate.

Max: Right.

Bryn: Because there was a lot of very slight misregistration throughout the print. That’s normally just a feature of risograph, that’s something that you accept and work with. But it wasn’t going to work for this book because if I couldn’t get the rest of the page registered really tightly with those three layers of color.

Max: It doesn’t make the same impact.

Bryn: It doesn’t, yeah. So that was one reason. And then another reason that I chose offset was because, I had this access to the Borowsky Center when I was a student at U-Arts, and that is very rare to be able to have that kind of direct access and to be able to work so much with the press hands-on. It’s an incredible studio. And the master printer there, [Erica Honson,] is great. But I was able to make my own plates. I was able to be the print assistant…

And finally I wanted to create an accessible edition… and for this book, because it’s interactive, I wanted it to be cost effective.

Max: Right. That makes total sense. So, going back to artist books in general; I think something that has always appealed to me about artist books is the fact that they’re a more accessible and interactive form of art. The fact that you can handle this art object as opposed to going to a gallery or something.

[They’re] often way more affordable pieces of art. And they’re portable, you can take them with you, you can take them to a friend.

There are a lot of reasons that I personally love artist books, but I was curious, what about you—going back to before you even went to U-Arts, what originally drew you to artist books? What was that moment where you were like, I really need to make these?

Bryn: Absolutely. I like what you said about books being portable because I see books as a companion object. And I like for people to be able to take and carry them wherever they go. I also like seeing an object through. So, I actuallystarted with comics before I got into bookmaking, and then I took one bookmaking class and I was like, oh, I can do everything all the way to the end.

And I am a bit of a control freak. I like the ability to make all of those choices, and I like the ability to sit down and make a book in a day if I want. Not anything as ambitious as this, but having that power and that control over what the finished object looks like really appeals to me.

Max: Yeah, I appreciate that. And thinking on a broader scale, I think first, in my head there’s a separation from mainstream-commercial graphic novels and comic books, and then I feel what I’ve been seeing a lot of in Philly is very independent, artist-made comic books. Where they really are—they’re zines, they’re like a little bit more of an artist book, but they are comics. To me it seems like they’re really becoming increasingly popular in Philadelphia.

And so, I was just wondering, what do you think it is about this medium that really speaks to consumers and artists?

Bryn: Yeah. I think that there is a novelty to the object. We’re in a digital age where it isn’t necessary to print something to get it out into the world. And that’s kind of what makes it interesting or special to go ahead and do so. I think it maybe makes people think about those objects more, like those comics that they’re making and think about, you know, physically sharing them with people and with the world, and I think that plays into it.

I don’t know that that necessarily answers the question of why comics over other forms of zines. But that to me contributes to the idea of these like more independent hand-printed objects.

Max: Absolutely, definitely. What do you think the future of artist books and comic books holds for Philly?

Bryn: I hope that it’s a collaborative future. I hope that those spaces for comics and artist books continue to intersect and grow together.

And I hope that we can continue to do community programs. Like I did a program recently at the Free library, which you were at. But that was my way of trying to be like, look at book arts and look at how interesting and exciting it can be. And I wanted to make that free for the community because I wanted to break down any barriers between the community and seeing, and understanding, and getting excited about this stuff.

A book is part-way open, showing glimpses of the pages of a graphic novel, with words and images and a story. The colors are grey, white, blue, black and pink.
The book, “Don’t Look into The Abyss,” float on a white background, some of its pages open, showing glimpses of the story in the book. Image courtesy of the artist.

Max: Totally, and from the artist perspective it can feel really intimidating, the book as an object. I loved taking that class, because I was like, yeah, this isn’t as complicated—I mean, I know it can get so technical.

Bryn: Yeah.

Max: But just the act of making a book, it doesn’t have to be—

Bryn: It can start easy!

Max: Right. It doesn’t have to be the craziest thing in the world.

Bryn: Yeah. Like you can think about books in terms of, what does the margin that I put on this page mean for the narrative that I’m constructing, all day long. And I find it fun. But making a book can be a simple and fun experience. And also I think that it helps people appreciate what goes into things like hand-bound books and those objects, [and] be able to try it for themselves.

Max:Yeah. Well, I wanna just thank you for your time and sharing with me. And my last question is, do you have any future projects in the works that we can look forward to?

Bryn: So, I am trying to start a subscription press. Which is like a Patreon for physical books. It might even be hosted on Patreon, I haven’t decided. But I’m trying to create a subscription press where I would create a couple of artist books each year and people would subscribe and then I would mail them as I make them.

Max: I love that.

Bryn: And I am hoping that by the time this [interview] becomes public, I’ll have at least a mailing list for that up on my website.