Levni Yilmaz is the creator of “Tales of Mere Existence,” a web based series of animated shorts that have evolved into a successful comic. Initially, he published the comics himself and distributed them at screenings and local art events, eventually gaining a following, a publisher, and commissions from outlets like NPR’s This American Life. In the age of Internet-everything and traditional publishing gone awry, Lev is living the independent artist’s dream. I met with him at his beautifully curated home studio to talk about animation as storytelling and distribution in the digital age.
While Lev looks almost nothing like the swirly-haired cartoons he draws of himself, something about Lev’s essence comes through in his starkly narrated stories of every day life. Perhaps this is because the subject matter comes directly from his journals, and strikes a near-perfect balance between the incredibly personal and universally identifiably feeling of what it means to navigate modern life without an owner’s manual. “I really go to town to make sure I write about what I’m thinking about at the time being. I try to never second guess what people are going to like because whenever I’ve tried to make something specifically so that it will be popular, I’ve screwed it up so badly.” His approach has payed off with sincerely sarcastic shorts about online dating, awkward social interactions, and how to break up.
For someone whose main means of distribution is the Internet, Lev’s work and influences are startlingly low-fi. He types all of his scripts on a beautiful vintage typewriter and draws all of his shorts by hand, lounging in a reproduction Eames chaise, smoking a pipe, surrounded by bookshelves stacked high with vinyl and vintage Playboy memorabilia. Maybe that’s why his approach to merchandising his art has worked out so well, “With some objects, like a zine or a cassette tape, it’s like having a souvenir, or a memento for a certain state of mind. Also, sometimes there is a musician or a writer where you feel like buying a book or record is kind of like buying a ticket into a club. That was something that I was aware of, and I became aware that a lot of my favorite stuff operated like this.”
Lev’s background is also fairly traditional. “I went to the School of The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but was much more into video than animation. I was doing the sort of pretentious garbage that I think all art students do when I first started out,” Lev says of his foray into the storytelling medium, “but I stuck with the video part of it and moved to San Francisco to work as a production assistant at a motion capture studio. I fell into animation almost entirely by accident. I don’t have any great love or loyalty to animation. It’s just ended up being the most logical way to tell the sorts of stories that I like to tell.”
Likewise, the evolution of his work from a hobby to a career seems more practical than anything else. “I stared doing screenings around town that were getting good responses, and it occurred to me that I should try selling DVDs. Usually, though, it doesn’t register with people to buy independently produced DVDs. They don’t get it. They absolutely do get buying a zine, though.” The art and the stories evolved organically through this process, from his journal, to the screen, and back onto paper again in the form of comics.
Alternative publishing and distribution are still unpredictable elements in modern culture. Can going mainstream, like with so many indie bands, result in the destruction of that feeling that fans are buying a ticket into a club of like-minded connoisseurs? “I don’t think that really has anything to do with it,” says Lev of the evolution of his own work and the risk of “selling out.” “I didn’t have anyone breathing down my neck that badly when I was working on the official book. It was just hard to meet the deadlines for that and still put out a good number of videos on YouTube.”