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A Short Interview With Mike Dawson
posted July 1, 2008
 

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imageI've been aware of Mike Dawson since his work with Chris Radtke on Gabagool, a straight-forward observational humor comic that came out at just about the time when such a project was way more doomed than usual. I think I may have seen one or two things before that as well. I hadn't known before we spoke that he had been pursuing his latest book, Freddie and Me for a few years before finally landing it with a pair of book publishers (one in the UK; one here). I had seen an early mini, and liked it, and linked to some on-line material. None of this prepared me for the book itself, a very large book that felt even more so because of the density of the work. A walk through memory that turns into a rumination on the same, Freddie & Me does as good a job as any autobiographical comics work in making the reader feel the passage of time, the accretion of details that make up a life.

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TOM SPURGEON: Mike, we get a glimpse of your reading habits in the new book, but I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your history with comics. Was it a pretty standard attachment to superheroes followed by a discovery of alt-comics? Does the fact that you lived as a kid for a time in England have any effect on how you comics reading habits have developed?

MIKE DAWSON: I read a lot of comics as a child living in England. Definitely the usual British suspects: The Beano, The Dandy, Whizzer & Chips. I also used to read some Scottish comics like The Broons and Oor Wullie. I really loved the UK version of The Transformers, which wasn't an import -- it was mostly an entirely original series. It did have some Marvel US imports that ran as back-ups in each issue, like the Barry Windsor-Smith Machine Man limited series, and the Rocket Raccoon comic that Mike Mignola drew. That material was my introduction to Marvel comics.

In 1986, when I was ten, a new humor comic for kids called OINK! started publication, and this quickly became my favorite. It was much edgier and anarchic than comics like The Beano, but similar in format, with recurring characters and strips. It was similar in tone to the cult TV show The Young Ones, another bit of British pop-culture that I loved: a great mix of comedy and a kind of grim morbid/dark undercurrent. That kind of tone has always appealed to me. I can see a direct connection in sensibilities between a comic like OINK! and my own Gabagool!

In my teens I was very attached to superheroes as you suggest, and went on to branch out into alt-comics during college, starting with material like Dork, Action Girl and Minimum Wage, and going from there.

imageSPURGEON: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Gabagool!. That was a humor comic that you were making when very few humor comics were being done. How frustrating was it trying to get that title over in that market? Is it something to which you'll ever return?

DAWSON: Chris Radtke (who I co-created and wrote Gabagool! with) and I did have a hard time with this -- especially because we got the sense that people did generally like the book and thought it was actually pretty good. Nobody ever wanted to take over publishing it for us though, and yeah, I can blame a little of that on the fact that humor comics series weren't really being done anymore.

We self-published six issues of Gabagool! between 2002 and 2004. One of the reasons we wrote the Hedonism storyline was because we were getting the sense that we might have more luck getting a publisher interested in putting it out as a graphic novel. We had no luck with that either, which probably had a lot to do with the content. I am very proud of that story though, and was a little disappointed that it always kind of hovered under the radar and didn't really get noticed.

One thing I always liked about the series was that it was concretely set in a specific time and place (New York in 1999-2000). I wonder if it would be hard to return to it and pick up right where we left off. I'm not sure. I think there's still a lot of material to mine. It probably doesn't matter -- in the grand scheme of things the original comic was read by so few people -- we could probably just do a re-boot and go from there. It would have to be a collaborative effort though. Chris and I agreed that neither of us would really be capable of doing Gabagool! on our own.

SPURGEON: The Hedonism Island storyline in Gabagool! was one of the more memorable, I thought, in a humor comic of recent vintage. Is there any background to that story that'd be interesting to hear about?

DAWSON: Back when we were both unmarried, Chris and I went to Hedonism on vacation, along with two other guys that we were working with at the time. Along the way, we all agreed to one of those "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas..." pacts. We called it "The Hedo Credo," which makes me feel like a douchebag for admitting out loud. Seriously, I might be more embarrassed about that than I am about some of the things that happened on the trip... Anyway, obviously Chris and I violated "The Credo" something awful by writing a comic based on the experience, but what can you do?

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SPURGEON: What is it that you find funny about sexual discomfort?

DAWSON: I think the story is funny because the characters behave in an honest way, even if they do or say things that are bad at times. Though, I'm not sure I think anything that they do in the story is actually really "bad," just maybe off-color. I think the only character in the story that is kind of unlikable is Garry, the divorcee who frequents Hedo for ten-day stretches (to take advantage of the weekend turnover), and berates Christopher Vigliotti and his friends for failing to "score." But, even him; he's not necessarily a bad guy, just a creep.

SPURGEON: How was that storyline received? Did you get any negative reaction because of its occasionally lurid nature?

DAWSON: I think the people who read the story generally liked it. It got some very positive reviews and good feedback. Also though, one of my favorite negative reviews that I've ever received was written about Gabagool! #6. Here's the best line: "If it's not porn and it's not erotic, what is this stuff? Oh, of course. It's alternative comics." I don't think he meant it as a compliment, but it's kind of true.

SPURGEON: Mike, Freddie & Me is much larger and more comprehensive than I would have guessed before I held it in my hands. The last I saw of this project it was I think just a few pages, maybe a mini-comic. As explicitly as possible, can you talk about how you landed the deal for this book?

DAWSON: The book took about three-and-a-half years to complete -- I started in the summer of 2004, and was finalizing all of the production work and cover designs this past January. The first deal I signed was with Jonathan Cape in the UK, which happened in February or March of 2007. Then Bloomsbury USA followed shortly after.

Because I went so long without a definite publisher, I spent a lot of time between 2004 and 2007 trying to get some attention for the project, especially since my initial outreach to publishers didn't really go anywhere. I made a mini-comic out of an excerpt at one point, and I also posted large excerpts online for a while. I got linked to from a bunch of places (including The Comics Reporter), and this actually directly led to an offer to publish the book in France. For a little while there I thought the comic would come out in French before it ever came out in English.

There was a period of time in 2006 when the plan was to publish with AdHouse. Chris Pitzer was one of the few alt-comics publishers who'd expressed cautious interest in the project from the beginning. He was always interested in seeing the book as I completed chunks of it, and also helped give me a big boost career-profile-wise, by publishing some comics of mine in his Project: Superior books.

The Jonathan Cape and Bloomsbury deals came from working with a literary agent. A co-worker at Scholastic -- where I worked at the time -- suggested I contact an agent she knew who was working with cartoonists, which I did. I sent him some sample pages and a description, which he liked, and thought right-away that Jonathan Cape might be interested, which they were. It was really very exciting, and very unexpected. To go from a place where you're basically prepared to self-publish, to getting some really great deals and working with some excellent publishers -- it was really kind of remarkable to me.

SPURGEON: What kind of editorial support did you get from Bloomsbury? Was there any back and forth on the project?

DAWSON: Before things really got going, the prospect of working with an editor really freaked me out at first. I had no idea how the process was supposed to work, and I really didn't get what happens when you and your editor just fundamentally disagree over something. Who has final say? I still don't really know. From what I know about people who're published by more traditional alt-comics publishers, it's not unusual for there to be almost no editorial input at all. It just seems like the expectations at the larger book publishers are different in this regard. I dunno, I used up a lot of adrenaline worrying about it for a few months.

In the end though, my own experience was actually really positive. Since I'd completely written, drawn, and inked the first draft of the book by the time I started working with an editor, most of the support seemed to be focused on helping me to tighten and trim the story, which for me was not actually so hard to take. I met with my editor at Bloomsbury one time, and we talked through her questions/comments/suggestions, some of which I agreed with, and some I didn't. And, for the things I didn't agree with, there was pretty much no push-back. Like I said, I wasted a lot of worry.

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SPURGEON: How did you structure the work? It's in vignettes, but I'm curious as to a) why you went that direction instead of a sustained narrative, and b) if that was a matter of folding in existing material into a longer story.

DAWSON: The conceit of the book is that it's composed to match the structure of the song "Bohemian Rhapsody": it has an intro, The Ballad, the "Guitar Solo," The Opera, a "hard-rock" section, and then an outro. So, structurally, that's was my idea. It's supposed to be a less literal adaptation of the song than the one I tried in high school.

SPURGEON: I didn't catch that.

DAWSON: I attempted to mimic the song in other ways as well. One of the main ones was that I chose these three main sections from my life to make up the book, but I tried to write each one of them so that they had a separate feel from one another. Kind of a different tone. In the first section there's no narration of any kind, everything is just what you see is what you get, kind of like a kid's point of view. In the second section there's heavy introspective narration throughout -- which I think suited the tone of a self-absorbed teenager well. And it's a little melodramatic too. The idea is that like the song, even though the parts all feel a bit different from each other, and aren't always directly connected, hopefully they would all coalesce into a coherent whole.

SPURGEON: A more specific structural question: at what point did you decide to include the material on George Michael? The surface reason why is because that was your sister's Freddie Mercury-type figure, and you could use it as a basis for comparison, but I wondered why in terms of the creative decisions you made you did so much with him?

DAWSON: A few reasons: One minor one was that I just thought it was funny -- and kind of a little bit unexpected. I imagine people picking up the book expecting one thing, and not really anticipating quite so much George Michael inside. Also though, I always had in mind the very end of the book, when my sister and I met Mr. Michael at the Virgin mega-store. I knew he would appear at the end, so I had this idea of having snippets of his life-story play out as a parallel narrative to mine, knowing that the two threads would eventually connect.

The other reason for me was that it was actually very easy for me to invent a character out of him. I guess it was easier to create something of an "inner life" for him as a character. I wrote two scenes with Freddie Mercury and http://www.brianmay.com/Brian May interacting, but those really didn't come as easily to me. I think it's a combination of the fact that I don't think the milestones of their lives are quite as well known as some of George Michael's, but also that George Michael happens to write very autobiographical pop-songs. This definitely helped me feel connected to him as a character, and made writing those scenes flow quite naturally.

imageSPURGEON: I love the design of the little kid version of you. How did you enjoy working with little kids in terms of the figure drawing? Did you use old photos and the like to nail down your designs?

DAWSON: Yes, I spent some time digging through the boxes of old family photos to pick out things for reference. Pictures of our old neighborhood, the Butlin's holiday camp where I sang in the talent show, etc.

I tried a few other designs for the little kid version of me. I knew I'd hit on the right one when the drawing that I'd done made my wife burst out laughing. I think it's funny, drawing a giant head, thick goofy teeth, and beady little eyes. I once had someone who was reading an early draft comment on all the teeny little eyes on everyone, and how that was kind of weird (and disconcerting) for a comic. I couldn't help it though; we all have beady little eyes and big heads and teeth in my family.

SPURGEON: There are all sorts of famous difficulties in working with autobiography, but what did you personally find the most difficult thing about working in that genre?

DAWSON: Well, there's the familiar issue of trying to depict things as accurately as possible, and often coming up short. The way that I remember some things, isn't always the way that things actually happened. One of my best examples of this is that on November 23rd, 1991, the day before Freddie Mercury died; he announced to the world that he had AIDS. I remember going to school and talking about it with my friends that day, which is what I depict in the book. Then, the next day, I was shocked to learn that he had died, and I went to school all weepy and had to go to the nurse.

The disturbing thing is, I've gone back and looked at calendars from that year, and November 23rd was apparently a Sunday. So, I wouldn't have gone to school that day. But, I remember it differently, so that's what I went with in the story.

I feel like this is forgivable, since I do make an effort to explore some of the things I discovered about my own memory -- and some of the tricky things about it -- within the context of the book.

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SPURGEON: One of the more interesting plot points is how you processed Mercury being gay. Was there anything else to your experience in dealing with that information? Was there any re-evaluation of his presence in your life? That's a sensitive age for a lot of young men in terms of issues like that.

DAWSON: Before Freddie Mercury announced that he was sick, I really had no idea that he was gay. I don't think this was totally my own naivete -- I think that at the time, for someone my age, it didn't seem so strange that a pop-singer would be flamboyant and dress in leotards and still be straight. This was around the era of Poison, Warrant, and early Motley Crue.

There was homophobia in my high school for sure. I've started to wonder though if I was a teenager around the time that things might have started to get slightly more progressive for kids. Maybe it was related to the grunge phenomenon, suddenly making the so-called outcasts into the cool kids.

I don't recall it ever being a huge deal that I was into Queen in regards to social-embarrassment. However, it wouldn't have been socially cool to actually be openly gay -- so there was a line. I get the impression now (from MTV and movies), that there are kids who are openly gay in high school now, which I think is remarkable. Kids have it better these days in all respects. They can go to their prom as a homosexual couple, and they can openly play Magic: The Gathering in their homeroom without fear of harassment from the jocks.

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SPURGEON: One thing that I thought was curious is that you were reluctant to show the socializing you did that included proselytizing on behalf of Queen. One scene we get with you listening to music with another person near your age, and it's about Rush. Did your interpersonal relationships have an effect in any way on your admiration for and interest in Queen, or was your interest in the music something you mostly kept to yourself?

DAWSON: I could have been a little shy about actually proselytizing. My friends would have known I was a Queen fan, and I would have felt confident enough to try to push the music on the ones I was closer to. I think I got pegged at some point as being someone with lousy taste in music, which would have made me self-conscious about pushing my tastes on other people. I still feel like I have crummy musical taste -- but, I kind of feel like it is what it is.

I'm not a big proselytizer of anything really. Like comics. I know that I like them, but I don't push them on other people. My wife doesn't read many comics, and that's OK with me. I know that I like them enough for the both of us.

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SPURGEON: Do you think the connection we feel for a musician is different than that we might feel for a filmmaker or cartoonist?

DAWSON: I had some ideas about the connection between music and comics that might not be shared with film-making so much. My thought was that with both singing and cartooning, the work of art was being created directly from another person's physical body: their voice or their hand. I was wondering if this similarity between the two might have some connection to the fact that I think both art-forms serve autobiography especially well.

I was asking myself a great deal at one point why there sometimes seem to be a lot of cartoonists who work autobiographically. I was thinking it's wrong to assume that it's a case of there being a lot of cartoonists who can't think of good fiction, as some people have complained. Instead, I thought maybe look at it inversely and consider that perhaps cartooning is a form that naturally lends itself especially well to that kind of storytelling. I'm not sure, I don't feel capable of constructing some sort of thesis out of it, but I think it's interesting to consider.

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SPURGEON: In one of the book's most interesting passages, you talk about distrusting memory, the way that a scene you might depict in a certain way you really only remember in bits and pieces, while also acknowledging other people might remember it differently. It's a lovely point in and of itself, but how do you feel that section fit in within the entire book? What would you have someone take away from it?

DAWSON: I've learned from this writing experience is that memories are not as concrete as we would probably like them to be. When we think of certain memories, we can compose a watery picture of them in our minds, but the harder we try to solidify that image, the more it disintegrates and falls to pieces. What's interesting about it is that we construct a concept of who we are as people based on our memories. And, I've been doing a little reading lately about this kind of thing, and have been learning that even those constructions of ourselves as people are not as concrete as we would probably like them to be either.

SPURGEON: Is there a Queen fan community out there? What has been their reaction to the work?

DAWSON: There are a lot of Queen fans out there, especially outside of the United States. Queen is like the soccer of rock bands: beloved everywhere in the world except for America.

I've made some attempts to reach out to them, and will continue to do so once the book is published. Sites like MySpace have been very good for me. I can find a large population of people who will probably be interested in this book, just because they love Queen. And, the Queen fans that have read the book really seem to love it.

I've also attempted some outreach to some of the larger Queen related websites and personalities. When I was posting excerpts online, I was linked to from brianmay.com, which sent a horde of Queen fans my way. I will definitely keep going with this effort to connect with the very, very large fan-base.

SPURGEON: Did you ever find it difficult to work a music element into the comics form?

DAWSON: That is most definitely a challenge. I may well come up short on this in some people's eyes.

I didn't totally answer your question before about the difference between music and comics. Obviously there is one. But I've read other cartoonists make other comparisons between the two -- most memorably the idea that there's a relationship between panels and rhythm.

To a certain extent, I can represent a music element in a literal way. I can draw the notes, and render the expressions, and do my best to convey the sense of a sound that has impact in a silent medium. Past that though, I am able to fall-back a little on the knowledge that hearing music is a universal experience. I think everyone is able to relate to the idea of being moved by music, even if they aren't able to relate to Queen. In some ways, I feel like it works for me to have remained ambiguous about Queen's specific musicality. I hope that this might help make the some of the things I talk about in story feel a little more universal.

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SPURGEON: I found it fascinating that you didn't obsess over your own attraction to Queen in the book, because that seems to be the typical way that autobiography goes, that kind of examination of choices. On the other hand, I guess that makes it an unanswered question. What do you feel appealed to you so much about Queen? What was your point of connection and why did it endure?

DAWSON: My initial connection was more to do with their videos than their music. In the book you see that the first time I encountered them was in their "I Want to Break Free" video. I just thought it was hilarious. There were some other videos out around that time, "Radio GaGa" and "It's a Hard Life," both of which were colorful and interesting to watch.

Pretty quickly, though, I would have begun to appreciate them for their sound, and not just their videos, because I'm sure they weren't the only band around making interesting music-videos. I mean, "Land of Confusion" by Genesis had an extremely entertaining video to go along with the song, and I never got into them.

Freddie Mercury had a great voice, I think that's undeniable. I like that the other band members also had great voices, and I love Brian May's guitar. And, I have to say again, the best thing about them is their attitude. They do things big, and they're bombastic, and they have a sense-of-humor. I love all the stuff where they layered their own voices over and over again, to create that massive chorus sound. It's so over-the-top, but perfect.

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* all art from Freddie and Me except for the Gabagool! cover and the page featuring Garry.

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* Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody, Bloomsbury USA, softcover, 308 pages, May 2008, $19.99

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