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June 15, 2014


CR Sunday Interview: Mike Dawson

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imageThe cartoonist Mike Dawson returned to book publication this year with Angie Bongiolatti, from Secret Acres. It debuted at this year's MoCCA Festival.

A snapshot of several mostly younger people working in and around New York City right after 9/11, Angie Bongiolatti derives strength from Dawson's decision to make the setting and emotional framework of his interconnected characters as specific as possible, while leaving the political nuance as well as the events that got the characters where they are just enough in the shadows to allow the reader their own interpretation of why people make the choices they do. What we see is instantly recognizable and completely unfathomable, which is how a lot of us stumble through our twenties.

Dawson has recently turned his attention to making short comics essays, which I think has seen its best expression in a very good "Cartoonist's Diary" feature at TCJ.com. In his late thirties, Dawson also has much to say about comics as a lifetime pursuit. I was really happy to talk to Mike after almost five years, and hope that people take a look at the new work if they haven't already. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: This is our second time to interview this week due to some technical issues I had... I wanted to start the same place we started last time, though. Do you find Angie Bongiolatti difficult to talk about? Is it hard to talk about a work -- this one, or more generally -- without giving away too much in terms of how the story was executed?

MIKE DAWSON: It's a book I haven't had a lot of experience talking about. I haven't done a lot of podcasts or written interviews.

I do find it difficult just in that I was trying to do things myself that I had not tried to do before, in my other work. I think plot-wise it's close to how my other books were. It's not a plot-driven story. There are a lot of ideas I'm trying to explore. I think that there's enough character and concept that it should be interesting to people. When I'm at conventions, trying to do my table pitch, I find it's easiest to say it's about politics and sex. It has to do with this protest march in 2002, but it's funny as well. It's still funny! That's about the the best I was able to do. That's never been my strong point, the elevator pitch.

SPURGEON: You know, there's a whole public aspect to being a cartoonist now that I still find sort of strange, because for years cartooning with rare exceptions was one of the last mostly-isolated professions in the arts. A lot of people, especially guys your age and the generation after you, a big part of making comics now is being on your feet and pitching at a show, or talking to the media. And we have a lot of media now, it's very diffuse. Is that something you've taken to naturally, that public aspect of being a cartoonist?

DAWSON: I do well with panels. I'm good on panels. I do a lot of podcasting, so I'm comfortable with talking. I've never gotten good at the stand-behind-the-table pitch. [laughs] I think it's never going to happen. I had to see what my strengths were, and focus on my strengths like with the podcast. I thought that would be a better way to present myself. The part where you stand there and trying to describe yourself... I think maybe the younger generation of cartoonists is starting to shake off that insecurity and self-esteem issues that may have come with my generation of being a cartoonist.

I've not been able to get rid of this idea. I have a hard time standing behind my work. I'd prefer to let it speak for itself. I wish I could talk better about it. At this point, I have to recognize what I can do and what I can't do.

SPURGEON: One strength of having a public aspect to a career in cartooning is that ostensibly one builds a fan base over time: not just for a book or a series or a character, but for you. These are people that will go with you from project to project. Do you feel you have those kinds of readers? Do you interact with fans of your work in a way that you can sense when a book like this one drops that there are people happy to see a new Mike Dawson book?

DAWSON: I'd say I have a handful. I don't have a reliable set of people that are necessarily interested in my work. In fact, at shows, I've had a frustrating number of experiences where people come up and say they've enjoyed my previous work but they won't buy the new one. [laughter]

I don't know if that's an Amazon thing. Not all people going to small press conventions are selling books that could be sold in the bookstore, or are easily available on-line, for less money. I'm not selling handmade items. It's possible that people want to save their money for things they can only get there.

SPURGEON: Do you see a continuity between your works, both the books you've done and the early comics? Your work seems different to me each time out. Is there a continuity you see there? Are you doing anything purposeful to perhaps make each project different?

DAWSON: I see connections between Troop 142 and this book. During both of them I gave a lot of thought to being empathetic to characters that you might naturally not like, or that my readers might start off biased against. I definitely had that in Troop 142, where you had some of the asshole adults, the alpha males. I definitely have that in this, where there are characters that I know in the beginning of the book people are going to dislike or see as the bad guy. I'm trying to be sympathetic to all of the characters.

I don't know if that goes back to the old stuff or not. [laughs]

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SPURGEON: One element that does go back is that you've worked pretty consistently with ensemble pieces. I don't know if that's because the strength there is that you can break an idea or a theme out among multiple characters, multiple points of view. Your work is personal enough that I wonder why you're engaging with these ideas from multiple viewpoints rather than simply your own, more directly presented.

DAWSON: I think that I do like considering different characters' points of view. It's pleasurable to write people that may have friction between them. I think about this in my regular life. I know a lot of misanthropic artists [laughter] that claim to not like people. I have always thought that as a writer I should be open to all sorts of people. I'm interested in different kinds of backgrounds and points of view. There must be something about getting to break these things up.

Every time I come to a book I have a sort of theme or a question I'm trying to ask myself. Being able to spread that out over different types of people and work the question back and forth between their interactions? I think that works well for me. This book... I had these scenarios, I had characters, but really what I was trying to do through the book is ask myself about the value of political engagement. It works well to have a large cast of people. Troop 142, a lot of that is about this sort of jockeying for alpha male status that goes on amongst a group of boys. What men are like. [laughs] It needed all sorts.

I also think about... I love the movie Boogie Nights. I love big stories, with a lot of people that you might get to know. Each person has their moment and there's a lot of people there you're interested in. Freddie & Me is probably the least ensemble-y one, but even then I think there are sections with a lot of characters. Those are my favorite parts.

SPURGEON: One thing I know about your process is you don't necessarily know where a book is going to go as you're writing it. You might have an idea for a general destination, but you don't have a specific one nailed down. You let things develop through the writing and the overall creative process.

DAWSON: Yeah.

SPURGEON: Here's what I was wondering: exactly how much do you have in place before you feel comfortable starting to write? Do you have a premise and a couple of characters? Do you have two or three points you know you want to hit? How much do you need to have locked in before the grind of writing begins?

DAWSON: Coming up with a premise is a big part of it for me. To sort of have an idea where I can spend my time putting together the puzzle of what a story might become. My whole process seems to be -- this isn't by design; it's not something I decided on a long time ago; it's really inefficient -- is when I have a premise to dive in and do the writing. Start making pages. I then like to keep myself open to scrap those pages or start over if things start to click, or come together, or if I manage to make connections through the process of writing.

I'm not able to write a script beforehand. I think your brain works differently when you're writing by hand and when you're writing on a keyboard. I have a very limited amount of time to work in the week, with my day job and the kids and all of that. I feel very unsatisfied if I'm not getting enough drawing done. I feel that I have to jump into the drawing. Kind of the way I feel about it is I take premises from my own life, characters who are connected to people I have known, or to myself. With this book, the scenario and the characters are a springboard for me to try and take it someplace new and answer some questions.

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SPURGEON: You've had a couple of runs at this story. There are a couple of short stories that directly relate to Angie, and I think you may have had a dry run at a longer story about these ideas. What is it about this attempt that took? How do you know when you've crossed a threshold and into a work that will stand up? Can you talk in general at taking a number of different runs at an idea?

DAWSON: Well, I think it's the most pleasurable part of putting together a book. We'll probably talk later about all the non-pleasurable parts. Those come after the book finished. You have idea and you're trying to make connections; that's how I think about it. You start with scenes and then allow them to grow out as things are occurring to you in the process. That's the best for me. Things that are going to change the narrative or, in the case of this, makes me want to go back and start again. Something has been figured out. Something has clicked that wasn't there before.

You mention this material goes way back. The storyline of these college kids with an open, swinger relationship, is a story I'd done back in the year 2000. I even did a second mini-comic which was a 14-page account of guying meeting someone from college who is involved in a socialist organization. He decides to go out to this march and his friends make fun of him for going because they say he only wants to get into the girl's pants. Those are two premises I'd been working on around that time: the years 2000, 2001 and 2002. And I knew those were things that I hadn't fully explore in the work I'm doing now. So I don't know. To have a source like that to get going from, yeah, that's the way I like to do it.

I just started a new webcomic on StudyGroup that I kind of see going the same way as a lot of the early drafts of this book. I've got some ideas for a premise, I want to do stuff about climate change and I want to do something about social impact games, but I don't really know what the story is yet. This time I'm going to attempt to do that publicly. I sort of see that this could go the same way, that once I've started to figure some things out, I'll start doing another draft.

SPURGEON: What's different about this book for your having written it now as opposed to following through on one of the drafts from 2000-2002? That would have been a very immediate book. Is there a shift in perspectives? Does your skill set allow you to do things you couldn't do back then?

DAWSON: At the time I was very interested in writing stuff that was reflective of the world as I saw it. Sort of an inner life kind of approach. I was steeped in the autobio comics of the '90s. That was the kind of cartoonist I wanted to be, so I would write slice-of-life stories. Now, 12 or so years later, I still have my natural inclinations to do slice-of-life type work, but I wanted to try to challenge myself to write works that asked a political question, to ask myself about the value of political engagement and not just telling some story of a guy that goes to a socialist march. Within this large world with all of these different people and all of these perspectives, what is the value of getting engaged or not getting engaged? What difference does it make?

The other thing i had read in between that had really triggered me is this Arthur Koestler essay I excerpt in the book. One point it made that I really like to think about is that the revolutionary utopia, the idea of a utopia of the sort a radical envisions is in a way like a religion zealots concept of the world. They both think there was once a world where things were good. If people could just change the way they behave, or the way a person thinks, the zealot or the revolutionary thinks people could change and we could get back to that utopia. I think both perspectives are pretty flawed, but the book is about applying thinking like that to regular people's lives, young people with jobs, older people with jobs and kids: just reality.

SPURGEON: The idea of political engagement... that was a big part of your own coming to terms with American citizenship, am I right? [Dawson laughs] Do you see this a key component to one's public life?

DAWSON: That was a big deal to me. Because I'm from England, and it's a country from which people aren't necessarily escaping to America, I sat on my green card for 20-plus years. I came here in 1986 and was never naturalized. When I decided to do it, there was a natural feeling of "this is a big deal." I was making the decision to join something. My political leanings have always been more to the left. My whole life. But something about that process that I went through, and it was really around the time I was beginning to write this book, did bring up to me these ideas that... let me put it this way: it was my most rah-rah u-s-a moment [laughter] that I ever went through.

Some of that had something to do with contrarianism. I'd been living in Park Slope throughout the Bush administration, endless nights out with friends complaining about the Bush Administration and everything. I don't like the idea of being on a team. "Democrat, Republican, that's my team, and we're all going to sit here and agree with each other." I was going through a period of contrarianism when I was sorting out what I did appreciate about American democracy and what I thought was strong about it. So I got into this weird anti-communist thing.

SPURGEON: Right. [laughter]

DAWSON: It sounds funny, but I was trying to sort through the Cold War from the perspective that maybe there was something legitimate about the American point of view. That's what took me down the path that led to these Arthur Koestler essays. This sort of weird, latter-day Cold Warrior thing I was on.

That essay had something to do with rejecting Soviet-style communism. And I was very sincere in it. I was very angry about communism. I was looking for people to argue with about it. [laughs] The book, that's a bit of my starting point mentally. Over the course of writing it, I came back to more how I naturally feel about political engagement, what my perspective is. For me it's almost like a test of how I feel about the world. To not dismiss opposing viewpoints out of hand, to say, "Okay, people may legitimately feel different ways than I do. They may feel as intellectually sincere about it as I am about how I see the world." I wanted to open myself up to feeling those opinions, and the book is about me deciding where I fall out on everything.

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SPURGEON: Are we to take anything away from the fact that you dealt with the Koestler material in this formally oblique manner? You actually engage with excerpts of the essay, put them on their own pages, illustrate them in a way that's different than the rest of the book. I suppose this is in contrast to your introducing a character named Arthur [laughs] that embodies those quote. My point is that you treat this material differently, and I wondered if that was how you wanted them emphasized, or if it was a function of when those entered into the making of the book, even. Certainly you were doing that reading at a time that was later than the personal experiences you had in the post-9/11 world. Why was that material treated differently.

DAWSON: I wanted to inform the main narrative with this brief, essay-like interludes. And I think it's a bit of a challenge, because I think as a reader it's hard to stop and take in those essays. I wonder if people might gloss over them, despite my trying to make them as palatable as I could. That wasn't easy. In many cases, they're saying things that are perhaps a little provocative and perhaps undermining things that are said in the main narrative. They're sort of arguing with each other a little bit.

I was more on board with the Koestler and this sort of anti-Soviet thing until I read this Langston Hughes autobiography. The reason I read it is because he had traveled with Arthur Koestler in the USSR. Reading an autobiography by Langston Hughes really shook up the way I was reading Arthur Koestler because Langston Hughes saw the Soviet society through a completely different lens. It shook up in me that idea... not everyone's experience is the same. By the end of the book I had rejected a lot of what Koestler was saying. It was much easier for him to be saying what he was saying because he was a white European. Of a middle-class background. Than say someone who is black and grew up in Jim Crow America. The Langston Hughes experience raises a bit of a question about being American, and the theory of equality and freedom we have here. That we have this separate track of lives lived in this country that aren't as free as we'd like to imagine.

SPURGEON: I thought that was the most striking instance of you making sure there was room for some ambiguity, allowing the reader to find some space to sort things out for themselves a little bit. I don't know how intentional that was, Mike. It could be dictated by the subject matter. But it seems like you're wanting to avoid making this a didactic experience; you don't want to lecture. You leave just enough up in the air, just enough things unexplained that the reader can find their own place in some of these issues. Was that intentional? Was there thought given to not coming down so solidly one one side or another?

DAWSON: I don't think I'm capable of that, just as a person, of writing something to tell someone what to think. There's no thought given to being clever in terms of ambiguity, or a lack of clarity where the book falls on every single thought. It's more that I honestly experience that in my own life. I see different perspectives, validity in different perspectives. At one point I include a George Orwell quote, from his essay Inside The Whale. And it's a character is much more capable -- what was the word you used, didactic?

SPURGEON: Orwell's essays are a model of concision and certainty.

DAWSON: That's something that I admire. I have a character that gives a quote from a George Orwell essay talking about how writers aren't writing active political arguments in the same way and instead are writing more passive inner-lives stories where we accept the world around us and record it and show it. I'm criticizing myself in the inclusion of that comment. The books is trying to do its best to achieve something in the way of a political argument. But I can only go so far.

imageSPURGEON: One thing I think people will take away from the book is an interest in the character of Angie Bongiolatti, how you portray her. She's seen almost entirely from other people's perspectives, except for the end, where we get to see her in a totally different light -- but then that's in a different setting altogether. It informs us about her character, but it doesn't overtly explain her place in the world depicted in the bulk of the book. I wondered about some of your choices with that character. Did you want her to be that kind of person that people read things into? Are you interested in that kind of person generally? Also, how interested are you in the role she plays as this person around whom this little world revolves without her really knowing that's who she is?

DAWSON: I was interested in the challenge of trying to get inside her head. She was a more difficult character to fully comprehend before I had gone through the process of writing the whole book. This thing where she's seen through the perspective of many other characters, that started to happen naturally. I kind of think about that at this point in terms of the phrase, "it's a feature, not a bug." [laughter] Someone like that, who understands their own political outlook, feels a resolve about their worldview that I don't have, it was hard for me to get into. It was much easier for to understand the perspective of the people that wanted something from that person, to be brought into her inner circle, to somehow feel connected to her. I understand that perspective. The character herself, a big part of it is her keeping a wall up. There are hints that she does let her guard down, and she does let some people in, but we don't see that side of her a lot in the story. The exception is the flashbacks to an open relationship she had in her college years. We're seeing her there more as a social person in a setting, more comfortable in her surrounding than she later on in primarily a work setting. There's a wall up throughout.

What I tried to do in concluding the book is try and make a connection between those two sides of her. To see where the wall might come from. Whether or not it's rooted in the things that happen at the end, I don't think so, really, that's not the origin of her personality. That's where we see it manifesting itself in an environment where she is more comfortable and social.

SPURGEON: The immediate post-9/11 setting I thought interesting. One thing I thought you nailed -- at least something that jibes with my memory -- is the way that New Yorkers would describe the presence of that event without it necessarily being dominant or intrusive. It was there, it was everywhere, but life goes on. You're still focused on career and job and getting over with the people that are attractive to you. Was this rebuilding a reality that you experienced yourself right after 9/11, or was this more of a construct necessary for the story you wanted to tell? How much revisiting did you do?

DAWSON: I definitely revisited it. As for the event itself, I was living in New York at the time. I was working at an e-learning dot-com at the time. It was a weird event. I didn't know anybody directly involved, but I was living in the city before and after. It's weird in that, like you say, it's this central event everyone in the city is connected to and going through. Simultaneously, all of those lives continue. Work continues. Social lives continue. But it's not the same. I definitely see myself... 9/11 for a lot of the country, people see it as this before and after: there was a time before, and a time after. I definitely saw my own personal life shaken up, with that as the dividing line. I was a young, single guy in the city. Within a year of it happening I met the person I got married to and we were engaged. It was a massive shift. It re-prioritized things.

SPURGEON: I thought that was delicately portrayed, and not something typical to most 9/11 art I've seen.

DAWSON: There are moments in the book where characters say things that are insensitive towards 9/11. Some of those things were said by people I knew, cartoonists I knew. I put them in the book, so I remembered them. What I remember about them is that at the time, being more left-leaning as I said, I was more inclined to laugh along with this chickens coming home to roost kind of mentality that someone might have that was a little younger and closer to college age and more into left-wing politics. Later, with naturalization, I went through a process where I wanted to consider what happened from an older point of view.

I wanted to spend some time in that event again. Take some time to evaluate it. I was sitting and drawing and watch videos posted to youtube; hours and hours of video from that day. Reliving it all again. I was rereading some stuff from the time. I had saved all of these work e-mails from my job at the time. I was reading the comics that were published at the time, like David Rees' Get Your War On. I did try to re-immerse myself, because I wanted to reconsider what my own perspective had been. I had a little bit of shame and regret I wanted to work through.

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SPURGEON: One thing we talked about last time is that I found the slightly older supervisor character interesting when I went back through the material, this character at work and at home, with his wife. I wondered why you brought in that perspective. Other than the vocational connection with some of the other characters he seems sharply at odds age- and experience-wise with the bulk of the cast. They seem connected by age and outlook and this guy doesn't seem to have that connection.

DAWSON: So... [laughs]

SPURGEON: Was this a way to bring in some of the perspective you have now as an older man?

DAWSON: I want to back away from the idea that I have an older, more mature perspective. [Spurgeon laughs] I don't believe in that! I feel differently now, and I look at some things differently, but I also feel like that will be the case three years from now. Three years ago, like we were talking about, I was Captain America. [laughs] So I would never want to imply that there's maturity to a political outlook.

I did look at this, and I think there's an underlying theme to this work of being involved in morally acceptable work. Angie and her friends, this is something they're concerned with: what is the ethical/moral implications of what they do for money. I have that line at one point, where she's having an argument with her radical friend and he calls her and her co-workers "Little Eichmanns." I wanted to include that phrase because I remember -- I don't know if you remember -- there was this guy, this college professor, that had written off the people in the World Trade Center as Little Eichmanns. Suggesting that because of our involvement in this capitalist machine of America we all bear some responsibility for that blowback that comes our way. We're participating actively in this machine, and this machine does things that we're not actively involved in, but by existing within it we bear our portion of responsibility. I think that's an insane viewpoint, and not applicable to people's lives. When you get to the age of this character of John -- he's middle-aged, he's got a wife, he's got kids -- people are going to say that you can make decisions and not do certain things. That's not the world we live in.

Having kids, having a family, your choices become more and more limited. It's different when you're 20 years old and a big thing is thinking about the political ethics of your work. I'm not saying older people can't consider those things. But your range of choices gets more and more constrained as you get in later life. There's also this worry that I have that that character is the most like myself. [laughter] Which is why I'm arguing so passionately, "You can't blame him." [laughter]

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SPURGEON: The formal choices in Angie Bongiolatti as opposed to some of the earlier books you've done... This one seems leaner, this one seems pared down a bit in certain respects -- the art may be less worked over. The contrasts seem sharper. It could be that there's even more of a looseness to the characters, how they're designed. Is that something practical that you do when working with a project of this length, or are there thematic concerns in terms of how you execute a work like this on the page?

DAWSON: I did make some choices about how I wanted to draw it. Some of that got worked out in those early drafts. I moved towards this style, which was more enjoyable. I also had the idea in my head that it should feel something like a 1990s, zany kind of look to it. I was thinking about Julie Doucet's New York Diary comics, and a lot of people have made that comparison. It's something I was very much thinking a bout while I was working on it. I also want to continue to find ways to draw that make me feel satisfied, and not like I'm cutting corners because of time constraints. I need to find that happy balance, where the work is at a level I can feel good, but it's also work I can produce rapidly enough that I can have a book every couple of years.

SPURGEON: How much do you overtly work on sustaining visual interest given how much talking there is in a book like this one?

DAWSON: I knew I wanted a kind of visual density throughout. I knew I wanted a gritty, cluttered feel to it. That's enjoyable for me, and I hope it makes the potentially dry setting of an office more pleasurable to read. There is a lot of dialogue. People sitting at desks looking at storyboards and computer screens. [laughs] So I definitely was trying to find solutions for making the reader enjoy themselves, as much as me enjoy myself. In terms of things in the book where we will return to certain settings and they will kind of repeat moments separated by time: people arriving at work, people running into other people at a bar. It's just small things like that that naturally come out of that loose approach we talked about earlier. As I have ideas to go forward, I'll make unexpected connections that helps me build a structure. The book is quite structured. The protest march itself is the spine of the story -- it's a short chapter in the center. There are chapters on either side that sort of mirror each other in terms of settings and the events that take place. People's lives and circumstances have changed from the first half to the second half.

That's fun for me. For me, the writing is the most rewarding part of this whole process. That's the part where I feel the best. That open approach, it keeps me the happiest. I'll have a day where I have a breakthrough on something and be in a good mood. [laughs]

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SPURGEON: Your character design is always entertaining. Is there any concern at all when you're making a book like this one, both serious and nuanced, that you're employing a design sensibility that favors grotesques and outsized, cartoon-like visuals? I also wonder if you give any thought to how your characters signify as attractive or sexually appealing given that you're working outside of standard conceptions of what that might look like on the page.

DAWSON: I don't worry about it. I just try to enjoy the way I'm designing characters. I think Gabagool! was the first time that I used the idea of performing the silhouette test on yourself, whether or not you can tell a character from their silhouette. I like that idea. It enables me. I do keep in mind that I like doing these grotesque characters. I like that Angie herself is a grotesque even as she's supposed to be this figure of romantic fixation for a lot of the characters. She's weird-looking. [laughter] The Kim character if I didn't tell you she was female you might not think she was female. I can never tell if that's a good choice or a bad choice, because that's kind of not going the job of a storyteller. I'm not putting out a symbol of female that's read as female. I liked what that did for her character, her ambiguity as a character.

SPURGEON: Would you design these characters differently if it were a straight-up comedy?

DAWSON: [laughs] Probably not, really. It's kind of the same rubbery, grotesque characters I used in Gabagool!; as far back as that. Do you think it undermines the drama?

SPURGEON: No, but I'm fascinated by that idea, and it comes up every so often.

DAWSON: I feel like when people are at a convention, looking for a book, they might not take to that sort of drawing style. I think it's the best. I've. done. But it's not to everyone's taste.

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SPURGEON: You've been doing essays recently. Your TCJ diary in particular seemed like very fully-realized work, solid in a way that a lot of similar shifts from cartoonists might not. Can you talk about these short comics essays? Where did that come from?

DAWSON: They're entirely on-line with the exception of the Journal one that I turned into a mini-comic. It's a new thing I'm trying. Have an idea -- a little bit of a concept, something to play around with -- then put the idea down very quickly with the idea that people are going to read it on a tumblr. That's the way they're going to experience it. My pattern up until know has been to write these long books. So this is a new thing for me, and it might be a more satisfying thing. It's satisfying in a different way: the quick feedback, the visceral sensation of people looking and liking. All of these things you're unsure you want to become addicted to or not. It lacks the thing where I get to immerse myself into a project for two or three years and get off the grid and work on it. It's interesting to have an idea, put the idea on paper and show the idea. Not have to bury it in the center of something. That's a lot of what happens. I have a lot of ideas in my books. Sometimes they just sort of show up.

SPURGEON: Do you feel like this approach is appropriate to the time? Prioritizing getting a more immediate response, doing work of a kind that examines a single idea, are these things that have been dictated to you by the state of the market an d the nature of what people will read now. Or is that more a choice you're making?

DAWSON: If I could have my druthers, I would write a book every year or two years, and publish them. I have had the feeling since finishing this book, which is not that long ago because Secret Acres has a rapid turnaround on having work done and then published.

SPURGEON: How quick are we talking?

DAWSON: It's about a half hour. [Spurgeon laughs] I finished this book in January and printed copies were ready at the beginning of April.

SPURGEON: Whoa.

DAWSON: I may have to re-evaluate my priorities there. I had this thing where I didn't like the big delay... I wanted that feeling of getting that book out. It's one of the reasons I went to Secret Acres with Troop 142 back in the day. They were going to get the book on their schedule and out more rapidly than other places. I wanted that. Part of me wanted to get past the "He's the guy who likes Freddie Mercury" thing and get other work out. This I wanted out, too, I wanted more work out there. But I might have reached the point in my career where if I'm writing books I might want to allow the book distribution model to do its best. When you do give some time between the completion of the book and it coming out to allow books to go to reviewers and get into the system. I have a couple of books out now; maybe I can afford to wait next time. It might help the book if I allow that to happen.

Your question was about the on-line thing. I think it's about enjoying the flexing of different creative muscles. The TCJ.com thing was rewarding because I didn't have any of my usual ideas beforehand. I didn't have premises or themes -- that happened naturally. I hadn't done a lot of short stories.

image

SPURGEON: You're drawing for the scroll, obviously. There's strategic placement of word balloons. You're employing more of a clear line style that doesn't hold the eye as long. Was that studied, or did you work out these solutions pretty quickly once you started doing comics like that?

DAWSON: I learned really quickly. I did a couple of tumblr comics that were less polished, and then moved onto this current thing -- it's very much like that. I want people to take it in quickly, move down the screen and enjoy it. I think I'm accepting the fact that this is where people are. On-line. I have to stop acting like that's not reality, which is how I've always felt about it. That it somehow doesn't count. [laughter] Or that print counts more. It's nothing to do with marketing: the way most people will encounter my work is the Internet. I have to accept that as real. It's a real thing.

SPURGEON: You did a podcast with Alex Robinson about this new book. You guys talk about the hope that cartoonists have that a work of theirs might break out. I wondered if you could talk about that more generally. Do you feel a lot of pressure to figure out how to negotiate the opportunities that present themselves to you. Do you agonize over career a whole lot? Even the bad ideas that used to drive an orthodoxy have died out. Now there are a thousand different strategies. Are you ever frustrated by trying to figure this all out?

DAWSON: It definitely comes on strong at this point in the book. [laughter] I'm away from writing it, and now it's out, and at this point I'm like, "What? What happened?"

With Freddie & Me I benefited from that moment in time when it seemed like we'd all be living off of our graphic novels. I got paid a bunch of money, there were multiple publishers. Great. Now I'm a professional graphic novelist. My book didn't sell very well. Those big publishers are getting more focused on what they publish. So that didn't work out. That was fine for me because I'd always had this attitude that I didn't do it for money. I came up in the 1990s when there wasn't any money and we were all making 'zines and passing them around. I really liked that culture. That attitude that I'm not writing comics to make a living sustained me through Troop 142 and this book. I was like, "I have a job to make my money. This is just for me."

What I mentioned in that podcast with Alex is that there's always a part of me that's like, "Well... you never know..." [laughter] Maybe I'll become really popular and more people will be interested in my work. That isn't like my plan, but to be honest there is a deflating sense when the stuff comes out and you're like, "This isn't something I can do to earn my money.

This is probably partly that the book is out and I'm not ready for the next thing even though I have a few ideas. I also go back to the on-line stuff -- some good things have come out of it. I'm being paid to do a short strip for a web site. That wasn't going to happen before. That makes me feel a little bit more -- it's nice to think that things might be clicking a little more. If I'm not making money, I'd at least like to have a little bit of an audience. [laughter]

SPURGEON: Is there something that you think that's missing. The world of comics -- is there something about the infrastructure that you think is missing. Getting a book like this out, do you feel like you're served by the marketplace?

DAWSON: The book is probably succeeding to the level it should given all we talked about concerning distribution. The book hasn't yet gone into Diamond. It didn't have any advance review stuff happening. If this is the way I've decided to put out books, this is about as good as it's going to do. Part of the book might not go down easy. Obviously I don't explain the book well. [Spurgeon laughs] I feel it's a good book. I think people just sort of have to read it. So I guess what's missing is more people that are interested in reading my books. [laughter] That's the main structural issue I'm having here. [laughter]

*****

* Angie Bongiolatti, Secret Acres, softcover, 240 pages, 0988814943, 9780988814943, April 2014, $20.
* Mike Dawson On Twitter
* Mike Dawson On Tumblr
* Mike Dawson Diary At TCJ.com (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
* More General Mike Dawson Index Including TCJ Talkies
* Ink Panthers

*****

* cover to the new work
* picture so old I should probably just apologize for the next 200 words
* some of the ensemble work in Angie Bongiolatti
* scene from the march, a central event in the book
* one of the Arthur Koestler pages
* the character of Angie Bongiolatti
* the older manager-type character we discuss
* the leaner approach to the figures
* character design
* two essay pages, the first from TCJ.com, the second from the new StudyGroup thing
* a conclude image from Angie Bongiolatti (below)

*****

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*****
*****
 
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