The world of Violet Austerlitz’s self-published comic The Satanic Mechanic first appeared in a short story.
“The very, very early origins came from a little piece I wrote that was published in Little Village,” Austerlitz said in an interview in an Iowa City coffee shop.
The piece, “What Happened to Violet Kubicek,” was published in February of 2014 under the name of Violet Virnig, also the name she uses when serving as Riverside Theatre’s technical director. Using Virnig for her theater work and Austerlitz (her middle name) for her comics is “a way of separating the two kinds of arts making,” she explained.
“What Happened to Violet Kubicek” was part of Little Village’s Hot Tin Roof project, which is an ongoing juried opportunity for Iowa City writers.
In the story, the title character, who works in a donut shop, is both awestruck and inconvenienced by a 500-foot pillar of granite that mysteriously appears in University Heights.
While the reasons for the appearance of the pillar were unclear at the time, Austerlitz had taken the first step toward creating what she calls a “bizarro version of Iowa City that I liked constructing in my head.”
“What Happened to Violet Kubicek” doesn’t mention any mechanics at all, let alone satanic mechanics, but Austerlitz, who said she’s been a Car Talk listener since she was a young child, was soon imagining “a mechanic for the stranger problems that might plague old cars.”
“The eccentricity of cars is something I’ve always been aware of,” she said.
Enter Agnes and Clover, the stars of The Satanic Mechanic: Chapter One, The Secret Desires of Elderly Buicks. Agnes, depicted in coveralls and boasting pointed ears and antlers, is featured on the cover cradling a car part.
“St. Agnes is usually depicted holding a lamb, which I replaced with a muffler.”
Clover, her co-worker, holds a hubcap behind Agnes’ head in place of a halo.
This is interesting religious territory for the child of a pastor. While Austerlitz says she herself is not a terribly religious person, she has an ongoing fascination with religion.
“I particularly find the notion of the satanic fascinating,” she said, “especially when applied to the very mundane.”
Like car repair, for example. In the first issue of The Satanic Mechanic, Agnes and Clover set out to diagnose and repair a Buick that has taken to growling.
“Growling is something these cars actually do,” Austerlitz explained, laying out the mechanical reason for the issue. For her comic, she imagined a different cause. “What if this is happening due to some suppressed id that yearns to run free?”
A car with a suppressed id? “The anthropomorphizing of old cars is something I find really interesting. Any mass-produced machine that has a personality is something I’m interested in.”
Austerlitz knows this particular Buick well.
“The car is actually based on a car my very best friend in college owned.” She says the 1992 Buick Park Avenue was “the last ocean-liner car that Buick made.”
“We would primarily use it to drive at irresponsibly high speeds down gravel roads.”
The inaugural issue of The Satanic Mechanic has a bit of a work-in-progress feel, something Austerlitz is well aware of.
“A lot of this is born out of the fact that I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing, which is exciting.”
That’s not sarcasm. Austerlitz seems genuinely enthused about continuing to find her way as a comics creator, solving problems as they arise. That’s a process that was underway in the first issue. She would think to herself, “I’m not sure how to do this, so I’m just going to make decisions. That works well for me because I tend to overthink things.”
Austerlitz employed a blended process for her first issue.
“The whole thing is a mixture of hand drawn and digitally drawn artwork,” she said. “The process needs some refining, but going forward I think I will mostly draw by hand.”
As for the future direction of the story, Austerlitz has some ideas.
“In a nebulous way, I have six or seven issues in mind.” Agnes and Clover will continue to figure prominently, though a more episodic approach might bring in a wider cast of characters, giving us glimpses of “the other weird things that go on in this city.”
Speaking of other weird things, what about that enormous pillar from the original short story? It appears as a teaser image on the back cover of The Secret Desires of Elderly Buicks.
“The current idea,” Austerlitz said, “is that this pillar of granite has been created to provide a space for many more condos.”
So it would appear that ongoing development is in full swing not only in the real Iowa City, but in Austerlitz’s alternate imagining, as well.
The first issue of The Satanic Mechanic had a limited print run, though Austerlitz anticipates a second printing at some point. It is also available digitally. More information is available at violet-austerlitz.com.
Born colorblind and therefore convinced he’d never enjoy graphic forms of storytelling, Rob Cline was first bitten by the comics bug in college. The resulting virus lay dormant for many years before it was activated by the inscrutable work of Grant Morrison. Now Cline seeks out the good and bad across the comics landscape as the Colorblind Comics Critic. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 202.