Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Whit Taylor Interviews Mike Dawson

Mike Dawson
Mike Dawson is the author of Freddie &  Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody, a memoir of his childhood obsession with Queen, and Troop 142, a sorid tale of a New Jersey Boy Scout troop away on a week-long summer camping trip.
Entertainment Weekly called Freddie & Me "undeniably contagious", while the UK Daily Telegraph said it was "Charming, sincere and above all, expressively drawn'. Troop 142 was nominated for multiple Ignatz Awards, including Best Graphic novel, and was the winner in the Best Online Comic category.
He is also the author of a collection of short stories entitled Ace Face; The Mod with the Metal Arms, published by Adhouse Books, and was the co-host of Ink Panthers Show!, a long-running comics-themed 'lifestyle" podcast. Mike was also once the host of a comics-interview podcast on The Comics Journal, named TCJ Talkies.
He lives in Fair Haven, New Jersey with his wife and two children.
I have been a fan of Dawson's work ever since picking up Troop 142 and have eagerly awaited his next project. Dawson will be debuting his new graphic novel Angie Bongiolatti (Secret Acres) at MoCCA in early April. I decided to ask him questions about his latest work as well as some more general comic-world related ones.
Whit Taylor: So, let's talk about the new book. I'd like to know why you chose this topic and what meaning it has to you. 
Mike Dawson: This book is extremely personal to me, despite being a work of fiction. I feel very exposed by it. The story reveals much of my own thinking about political engagement, gender roles, and sex; topics readers are likely to already have strong preexisting feelings and opinions about. Even the choice to excerpt key passages by Arthur Koestler and George Orwell, feels very revealing. It shows that these passages moved me enough that I opted to incorporate them into my work. I feel like I need to be prepared to defend that choice, in ways I didn’t feel the need to defend appropriating Queen lyrics or aspects of Boy Scout culture in my previous work. 
WT: Yeah, I guess any comic one does is inherently political in some way, but some will be viewed that way more than others. How would you "defend" it hypothetically?
MD: The passages prescribe a world-view, unlike, say, the Queen lyrics in Freddie & Me, which just reveal my musical taste. People won’t necessarily disagree with the world-views presented in the excerpts. I’ve already encountered this, with people who’ve seen early drafts of these comics, Koestler’s essay especially.
In terms of defending the choices, it’s still too early in the publication process for me to have a great handle on how the comic will be received. Maybe it’ll actually work very well for most readers.
WT: Your previous works, such as Freddie & Me and Troop 142, are autobio/sem-autobio to my knowledge. What was it like to transition into fictional storytelling? Are there any elements of this that come from your life experiences?
MD: There are elements that come from my life: I was working at a dot com in New York, during that period before and after 9/11. I used to meet with friends at bars in the city to write comedy scripts, and I ran into an old college friend on one occasion, who encouraged me to come out to a Socialist meeting and also to the protest march against the WEF. But, I do consider this book very much fiction. With Troop 142 and even more with Angie Bongiolatti, I feel like I’ve found this approach to storytelling where I draw upon my life experience for scenarios, but develop characters to exist in those same situations. It works well for me, drawing upon my life as a starting point, and then seeing the directions things go in from there. 
WT: I know you've worked with Secret Acres before. How did they receive this piece, given that it was a change from your past work?
MD: I guess I’m not sure… This was the first time I've ever gone into writing a story with a publisher already in mind. In the past, finding a publisher for my work has always been something I've had to figure out, along with the actual writing of whatever I’m working on. This book is the first time where I've already had people willing to publish the book, even in those early stages. There were pros and cons to it. I think on the negative side, I might have been kind of a pest to Secret Acres, nagging them for feedback too frequently along the way. This might have been because I kept this story offline while I worked on it. Having work put on the web is good for getting that feeling of a response while you’re in the middle of something that takes a long time to finish. I haven’t put any of this out there, really. So, it’s possible that I leaned on Secret Acres a bit to replace that need for response. They were good about it though - they managed to keep me at bay until I was at a point where feedback was truly useful.


WT: You start off with text from Arthur Koestler. His words as well as those of other "radical" writers and thinkers appear throughout the story. What informed what? Meaning, did you choose these texts first and then base your story on that? Or did you write the story first and then choose pertinent excerpts?
MD: It happened organically. I went through a period where I was very worked up about the evils of Soviet Communism, and was reading a lot on that subject. I came across this essay by Arthur Koestler in a book called The God That Failed, which was a 1950 collection of works written by ex-Communists, explaining how they’d all been card-carrying members of the party, but then had all experienced disillusionment along the way. I liked all of the essays, but the first part of the Koestler piece really stuck with me. This is what I chose to adapt. At one point, I was going to do a straight adaptation of his entire essay, as its own comic, but as I was simultaneously developing this story about political activists in 2002 New York, I kept feeling that it could be possible to get the two things to somehow fit together. At a certain point, I made the decision to just focus on the beginning of Koestler’s essay, where he contrasts radical utopias with religious zealotry. I found this idea very provocative, and wanted to have it be the part of his essay I kept in my story. 
The choice to contrast Koestler’s essay against an autobiographical piece by Langston Hughes came as I was working on this story. I read Hughes memoir, I Wonder As I Wander, and found that it shook up a lot of my thinking about Koestler’s work. 
So, I guess the answer to the question is that some of the texts were there at the beginning, and served as a basis for the story, and then other texts were integrated into the comic as I worked.
WT: What does the term 'dialectic' mean in the context of your work?
MD: The key point in the Koestler essay for me is right at the beginning where he talks about a dialectical spiral, where both the revolutionary and the religious zealot imagine a utopia exists at the end of history that is identical to one they believe existed in a lost paradise of the past. I found this idea very provocative. It’s one of the key purposes of including the Koestler text.
I don’t think I personally use the word dialectic elsewhere in the comic, but it does feel like an appropriate term for what I think is going on with the book. The story mirrors an internal debate I’m having with myself, contrasting different points of view and perspectives in an effort to find some kind of truth. I think many readers may assume because of the subject matter, that I came to this story with some kind of a pro-Socialist agenda. This is not the case. I came to the book with natural left-leaning tendencies, but also with reservations and suspicions. 
WT: Do you have any concerns about how the Koestler and other excerpts will be received by the reader, given their complexity?
MD: I do. It was something of a technical challenge as a cartoonist, to try and get the Koestler excerpts to work in a way where I hope readers won’t completely gloss over them, because the ideas in them I think really do add something to the main narrative. 
Inserting dense blocks of text into comics is a challenge. I think readers process comics and prose differently. Anyone is capable of reading blocks of text, we do it all the time when we read normal book-books, not comics. But, when a block of text is sitting in the middle of a comic, I think our brains struggle to absorb it in the same way. Because I think we take in comics at a much more rapid pace, it’s a switch to have to slow down right in the middle of something. 
WT: The text block pages differ artistically from the comics pages. What mediums did you use? And why did you choose to use two artistic styles?
MD: I drew the regular comics pages using a crow-quill nib and ink. I did the Koestler excerpts using a soft lead pencil. I hadn’t drawn in pencil like that for a long time, and it was a lot of fun to use those different tools. 
I tried a number of approaches to the adaptation before settling on the pencils, with the goal of finding a way of presenting them where I hope the reader’s mind can click over and hopefully absorb the essay as they read the book. I chose to present the text using a typewriter looking font, and to completely jump to a different style of illustration for those sections. In previous incarnations of the adaptation, I was making comic pages that looked much more similar to the rest of the comic, but I was really concerned that readers would just skim that stuff if it looked like everything else, just with lots and lots of words.
The pages are setup to look kind of like storyboards, which ties in to the work the characters are doing at the e-learning company. Both the characters and I were trying to take fairly complex blocks of text, and illustrate them in a way to make them readable and easy to understand.
WT: For the comic sections, which most of the book is comprised of, how do you think your style lent itself to the story?
MD: I have some early drafts of this book drawn in different styles. I settled on something that was satisfyingly “visually dense.” I wanted to get a feeling of a full, cluttered environment. This is different than the style I drew Troop 142 in, which was more visually spare.
WT: Let's move on to the characters. Angie Bongiolatti is quite fascinating and complex. Why do you think Angie holds so much power over people?
MD: A challenging thing for me was getting a firm grasp on Angie as a character and not just the person that all of the other characters orbit in the story. She does serve as that person, very much so - all of the other characters revolve around her and/or desire her or her attention. But she had to feel like a character herself, and there are many aspects of her personality which are more difficult for me to understand. Primarily the fact that she holds firm political convictions, unabashedly. It’s difficult for me to express my own ideals in that same concrete way. 
WT: What were your influences when writing her character?
MD: Aspects of Angie’s life are based upon a character I created in a very old mini comic called Cabaret, which features a sexually experimental couple called Steve and April. The Steve character remains pretty much the same in this book as he was in the mini-comic. I felt that the April character was no longer the same person, so I changed her name to Angie. I took the last name Bongiolatti from someone I went to High School with. I always just like the bouncy sound of the name, especially coupled with the first name Angie. 
WT: You mentioned earlier that you explore gender roles in this piece. This seems to tie into the male characters revolving around and desiring Angie. How did you develop these characters?
MD: Male characters are easy for me to write. It’s a lot easier for me to imagine their world-view. I’d spent so much time depicting a very male world in Troop 142, it was part of the reason that I wanted to put a woman front and center in this new story. 
WT: One of the most intriguing characters in my opinion is Angie's friend Kim. Can you talk a bit about how you developed her character, what you think she contributes to the story, and why you chose to physically render her the way you did?
MD: Kim was one of my favorite characters to write. Her politics exist to the far left of even Angie’s. Angie believes in the slogan “Another World is Possible,” and she believes that world can be achieved through progressive solutions. Kim’s outlook undermines a lot of that. Kim doesn’t believe in building a better world, she believes that the only solution is to tear it all down and let it burn. And she’s kind of an alpha bully about her political convictions. What I like the best about Kim is that a lot of what she says is actually not wrong. I think even for myself, there’s very little in that philosophy of “everything is basically fucked” that can be argued against. The question to me is how to proceed with the business of being in this world while conceding that there are possibly insurmountable problems facing us. 
The choice to depict Kim physically the way she is, was something I thought about quite a bit. I like her unique look. I like that it’s not totally clear what her backstory is, and exactly what her gender role even is. I went through moments of second-guessing, worrying that if I depicted a potentially non-cis person as a heel in my book, there’d be a backlash that I was somehow criticizing that whole community. I decided though, that Kim is an individual, and isn’t a representative of an entire group of people. She has strongly held convictions, and I didn’t need to soft-pedal that, or change the way I was depicting her out of fear that she’d be interpreted negatively.
WT: Sex plays an important role in this story. Most of the sexual encounters seem to deal with miscommunication, frustration, shame, jealousy, and lack of compatible needs. Why did you feel this theme was necessary to include in the book?
MD: There are aspects of this book that I felt almost helpless to incorporate, despite the fact that including them presented their own writing struggles. A version of this book that does not include any examination of Angie’s sexuality could have existed. But to me, that side of the story needed to be in there, even if that’s all the stuff that makes this book uncomfortable for me to share with my family and parents on the playground, etc. I saw Angie as having these different, almost compartmentalized sides to her, and I wanted to find the point at which they intersected. I don’t want to give away how I feel this all resolves, but my feeling about the outcome is that Angie walks away from the story without shame.
WT: Why did you choose for your characters to work for an e-learning company?
MD: The choice to have them at an e-learning company works well thematically. There is a side to the industry which seeks to bring about positive social change, which is increasing access to education through technology. At the college level especially. On the other hand, the company depicted in the story is still a for-profit capitalist enterprise. And, undermining the Utopian ideal of a higher-learning education for all, is the very real existence of a gap in access to technology, especially in lower income communities. 

At the time this story is set, most people were still accessing the web through dial-up connections, so there existed a great divide. Having Angie work at an e-learning company made sense to me. The idea of making education more accessible to people would square well with Angie’s political leanings. But the realities of capitalism do catch up to her and the company over the course of the story.
WT: What was the biggest lesson you learned from making this book? What challenged you the most?
MD: It’s hard to say. I find that all writing is a learning process for myself. I think writing long-form stories can be a way to really pick-apart my own preoccupations, and hopefully come out changed on the other side.
WT: I'd like to move on to some more general comics world-related questions. Which artists do you feel inform your work stylistically the most?
MD: I was looking at Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary while working on this book. It’s probably one of my favorite comics, and I just love the way she cartoons.
WT: What about the cartooning medium resonates with you? I know you have a painting background, so why the transition?
MD: Well, painting was just something I had to do, because I had to choose a focus for my BFA, and cartooning wasn’t offered in schools back in those days. I spent most of my college years trying to incorporate cartooning into all my paintings as much as possible. Since graduating in 1998, I’m not sure I’ve painted anything since.
To me cartooning is the best way in which I express my ideas. I’m most comfortable writing in that format. Essay writing is very different to me. I have a harder time laying out my ideas just through typing, and I feel much less confident to stand behind the things I write on the keyboard as I am to stand behind the things I draw in comics form. Keep that in mind as you read all these responses to your questions! 
WT: The independent comics world has changed significantly in the past few years. How would you characterize these changes? And how do you feel that affects your position as a more established graphic novelist?
MD: There was a move towards long-form graphic novels around 2005-2006, that I feel lucky to have been swept up in, as it’s a format I feel very well suited to. I like spending a long time on a story, really settling down into a book and working through it over a couple of years. I get the impression that the trend may have shifted away from the graphic novel in recent years, but I think it’s something I’m sticking with.
It remains to be seen how changes in the industry will affect me. At the moment Secret Acres is going strong as far as I can tell. But it’s hard to know what things will look like in another 3 or 4 years, when maybe I have a new book ready. Something I think the independent comics industry has learned in recent years, is what a huge role an individual person can play in the scene. Like Picturebox was just one guy, publishing all sorts of cartoonists who might not otherwise have been published. When he closed up shop, I assume that means all sorts of cartoonists are looking elsewhere to find outlets for their work. It leaves a hole. Other micro-presses seem to spring up, but again, those are always just one or two people.
There seems to be very little real infrastructure in this little corner of comics. Exciting things happen here, conventions seem more popular than ever, but the whole thing always feels very fragile at the same time.
WT: Who are your favorite cartoonists working today?
MD: I like a lot of cartoonists. Dylan Horrocks, Eleanor Davis, Tom Kaczynski, Vanessa Davis, Sarah Glidden, Joe Sacco, Jason Lutes, Noah Van Sciver, Nick Abadzis, Kevin Huizenga, Gabby Schulz, Joe Lambert… these are all favorites. I like narrative. I like the work of my friends Alex Robinson, John Kerschbaum, and Tony Consiglio. I am looking forward to seeing the next things they do. I recently enjoyed The Property by Rutu Modan and Special Exits by Joyce Farmer. 

WT: Speaking of Alex (and Tony), why did you decide to wrap up 'Ink Panthers!'? Is this IT or is there the possibility of bringing it back one day?


We basically felt like the project had run its course, and we both didn't want it to be something that sputtered on too long past its expiration date. We both agreed that the actual act of recording conversations was something we really enjoyed, but all the stuff that went along with it: trying to schedule time to record, thinking about bringing guests on the show, was starting to feel like a chore. I think this is "it." We have plans to record the occasional one-off thing together, but I know Alex is having a great time doing Star Wars Minute these days, and I feel like if I ever went back to podcasting, I'd want to maybe do a more comics-focused show, similar to the TCJ Talkies show I used to do for The Comics Journal. Right now I'm enjoying having some time off though.
WT: What is one thing you want to tell the world about you that is completely unnecessary to share?
MD: When I fall into one of those Wikipedia/Youtube rabbit holes, I am most likely finding myself looking up things about Action Park or the Basket Case movies. Or I’m watching clips like this  to see if it’s possible for me to get through them without getting all weepy.
WT: Funny you should mention Action Park. The other day, a good friend of mine was reminiscing about how she had an injury back in the day at that notoriously dangerous place. Jersey pride...sorta? Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
MD: Thanks for asking me to do this. It's great to finally get to talk about this project.
Follow Mike on Tumblr.

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