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A Short Interview With Dale Lazarov
posted June 14, 2009
 

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As is made clear from the start of the interview, I don't know the writer Dale Lazarov at all well. It's part of the reason I wanted to interview him. Another part of that reason is that I rarely talk to creators who work in whatever surely-loaded-to-someone-out-there term by which you want to call comics with a lot of explicit sex in them. And I should be interviewing more people working those areas of comics. It's an important avenue of expression within comics, an approach that's yielded a lot of great work and an historically important financial pursuit for all sorts of publishers. Yet another part of why I wanted to interview Dale is that I liked the work he did with Steve MacIsaac on Sticky and I enjoyed his collaboration with Amy Colburn, Manly.

Manly was the spur for this interview, a prompt that had the two of exchanging e-mails right before I went through a brief period of time where it was difficult for me to do interviews. In an ideal world, this chat would have come out closer to Manly's initial publication in late 2008. Luckily, Dale's comic is still out there to be discovered and there's much more to come -- he talks about several of his future projects in what follows. I thank him for his patience both in waiting for me to start asking questions again, and the fact that so many of my questions as to what he does in comics and why were so basic and straight-forward. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: Dale, I'm not aware of you at all before you worked with Steve MacIsaac on Sticky. What's your background in terms of writing and publishing? Where did your interest in comics arise?

DALE LAZAROV: I'd been reading comics since I could remember but since I tend to be, as a writer, not really attuned to what paying comics opportunities want, I never tried really hard to write for comics. That's not to say I don't love graphic novels about self-loathing Charlie Brown-manque protagonists or this week's serialized variation on Kid Miracleman on a rampage. But I am certain that if I were given the opportunity to write in either mode I would not produce something that would meet the expectations of the audience. Having talked to agents who want graphic novels for the book market, they want the former in nonfiction form, and looking at what local comic retailers sell, they want the latter. I do have an idea for a parody of a Charlie Brown-manque novel but the difficulty for placing it, because it won't be non-fiction, and the fact that only a handful of people would get it dissuades me from writing it even though I have an illustrator semi-interested in it.

I'd been publishing literary short fiction for the past 20 years or so, as a writer and and editor, by the time Steve and I met online. About a year or so after we became pen pals, I had a short story collection come out that Steve read and liked so he asked me to write for him. I'd also had brief stints in book selling and book marketing so I had that to bring to the table, too. It's my dumb luck that Steve asked me to write for him and what I wrote for him -- wordless, carnal, sweet slice-of-life gay erotic comics -- was something that appealed to both my now-publisher and other collaborators looking to draw gay porn comics. I had no idea I had it in me.

I am not writing gay erotic comics at the moment -- I just started writing and publishing poetry in the past year -- but it's safe to say that I should have five more chic hardcovers of gay comics filth out by 2015; they're all written, and artists are slowly working through the pages or completing other projects as I write. If I write any more it will depend on the interest of my current and possible future collaborators as well as improved publishing conditions for myself; I would love to have my own imprint at a publisher so I don't have to worry about, say, the inconstancy of editorial policies. Right now I am focusing on having enough poems for a book so I am not writing comics for the time being. That's not to say that if someone really awesome, after reading this interview, asked me to write for them, I wouldn't make time for it. But I am not being aggressive about looking for collaborators or other publishing opportunities at the moment.

SPURGEON: One thing on which I'm unclear and in which I'm interested is that I have no sense of the market into which your comic would be sold. Who buys your comics and where do they buy them?

LAZAROV: Bruno Gmunder Verlag, my German gay art book publisher, says that most of their books sell online; given that I can go to online booksellers in Argentina, Italy, Poland, India and Japan and see Manly and Sticky listed, I would say they certainly do their homework with online booksellers. They are distributed to bookstores internationally, though, since they're marketed as art books and not comics. Here in North America, high-end, erotica-friendly comic stores like Chicago Comics, or big city independent bookstores like Books, Inc in San Francisco (which has a long-standing end cap with my books! Yay!), plus still-vital gay bookstore chains like Lambda Rising, carry my books. I helped Gmunder get Manly carried by Borders and InsightOut (the LGBT division of Quality Paperback Book Club) so there's room to grow, too.

Independent bookstores and comics book stores with "family friendly" hang-ups won't carry them. Diamond-only comic stores have no access to my books; Steve asked Gmunder to distribute through Diamond but that didn't work out.

SPURGEON: Have any of the markets changed in a way that you've noticed since you've been doing comics?

LAZAROV: I am only judging from my very limited perspective. I can tell you that gay literature is really dead right now; I have friends that say that book editors look like someone has placed a rotting fish on their desk when they see a literary gay-themed novel in front of them. Gmunder's expanded their gay comics offerings in the past five years. Make of that what you will.

If anything, gay culture has shifted away from its more traditional highbrow desires if one judges by the books that see print. Comics for me is a happy medium (pun unintended) because I can do a work that feels like pulp but aspires to be art and the audience either doesn't notice its pretentions or loves them.

imageSPURGEON: Am I right in assuming that the wordless nature of the book is in the hopes of reaching different language markets without the chore of translation?

LAZAROV: Absolutely. Silent gay erotic comics have been around since the days of Tom of Finland, though, so there's a precedent for it, too.

SPURGEON: Did the decision to do wordless stories with Manly change how you approached them in any way? Was it more difficult for you?

LAZAROV: I have to say that it's easier for me not to have to write cheesy porn dialogue. I can imagine a page and a story visually so that's not a problem for me and I can't seem to run out of ideas for silent gay erotic comics in general. My biggest problem is that I am an ambitious writer so I shitcan lots of writing if I don't think it's doing something new for me and/or the genre. I love to figure out new ways to subtextually sneak in emotional and progressively ideological content into what should at first glance look like hot, finely-crafted gay comics filth. I usually look to previous scripts for ideas that I could develop more overtly in another book; Nightlife, drawn by Bastian Jonsson and out next fall, is set in gay nightlife but it's not overtly about how community has an impact on relatedness and sexuality. I can so write a book about exactly that as a subtextual theme underneath the fornications. Darn, now I have to find an artist for it.

SPURGEON: What did you learn during the experience of collaborating on Sticky that you took into this collaboration with Amy Colburn?

LAZAROV: I learned that comics is not curing cancer and upsets are ephemeral. This gives me incredible patience, enthusiasm, confidence and resilience as a creator, collaborator and editor. I didn't have that when I worked with Steve, as I had been spoiled by literary publishing.

Say, Nightlife started production a year before Manly and it's coming out a year after Manly. It's gone through four colorists. Gmunder rejected it when I first showed them a story about two years ago.

SPURGEON: Have you worked in collaboration with folks outside of comics?

LAZAROV: Nope. Every once in a while I get an inkling to write a small black-box theatre play but then I go and see one and I am cured of the desire for a few years.

SPURGEON: How do you script? Full description? Marvel-style? Did you write differently for Manly?

LAZAROV: I write full scripts for everyone I collaborate with. The scripts are very specific about what I want to see and in the sequence I want to see it but I leave the rest to the artist. The artist knows that ultimately following the story beats is what's required so they have some leeway to, say, add panels to a page. Colorists also get to throw something in if they want to; Yann Duminil has thrown in some awesome, unexpected details in his coloring of Nightlife.

Since I edit the art also I get to tell the artists if their interpretation of the script doesn't quite work narratively or visually; after character designs are finalized, some artists show me layouts and then draw full pages. Some want me to look at their blue line pencils before they ink, too.

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SPURGEON: What do you think appeals to the folks buying it about your work to want it in paper form, in the comic book format? I know that some comics with nudity and sex have found themselves absolutely buried by the widespread availability of related and unrelated material on-line. How do you make the Internet a tool to sell the print work and not force the two into competition?

LAZAROV: I may be a pollyanna, but I believe the quality of the work I collaborate on is so palpable and distinctive that it stands out amongst the millions of homoerotic renderings of anime characters everywhere present. It's really easy to use the internet to market the comics hardcovers because, even if one out of ten people who see page samples buy it, that one person is extremely easy to reach because there are so many venues for posting page samples. Say. women who like gay erotica buy my books because I know where to find them online and market to them; they're heavily networked and word of mouth really drives their purchases.

I think that the fetish for fine art hardcover editions of filth is a powerful one, too. The format has a profound impact on how the work is seen and how it's valued. Samuel R. Delany tells me he keeps Sticky and Manly on his coffee table and I could not be more delighted by his appreciation.

Floppies are a dead medium for this genre, as far as I am concerned; bookstores won't carry them and very few comic stores carry even mildly gay comics regardless of their quality. If you have to serialize erotic comics, do it online... My book publisher says that as long as one story is new to the book they don't mind online serialization.

SPURGEON: You're in Chicago as I recall, which has one of America's great gay and lesbian communities in addition to being one of the traditionally comics-strong metropolitan areas. Is there any specific local reaction to what you do?

LAZAROV: Chicago is strong for theatre and performance poetry for both creators and consumers. Comics? For creators, nope. It's inexpensive to live here if you are an artist but there's no real sense of open, fluid community; it's a very cocooned social network. For example, the Firecracker Award folks, who I would think would be all over Sticky or Manly, said to me, when I e-mailed them about sending them galleys, that they won't consider books that aren't suggested by people they know.

That said, I know lots of Chicago webcomics people who have embraced me as an equal and embraced everyone I brought to the parties. Otherwise, my comics friends are outsiders or transplants of one kind or another.

There is no local erotic art festival, either. The one time there was a small (read: non-Wizard) comics con I was unable to interest them in having a gay comics panel even though the convention was held at the LGBT Center on Halsted and several of its officers are as gay as Christmas geese. I know and like these folks so I guess their local artist/superhero-dominant focus determined the programming.

In the meantime, the gay mafiosi at Angouleme are fans but I am waiting to have more books out before I make the trip over there. My mother used to say you can't be a prophet in your own country. As I like to say, I am world-famous in San Francisco but I can't get arrested in Chicago.

I am happy to report that nearly everyone except the two major newspapers in Chicago have done a story on me and/or my comics, though.

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SPURGEON: One thing I found interesting about the works in Manly is that there's a consistent tenderness involved; the book positive to the point of being upbeat. Would you agree with that assessment? Is that something you were conscious in pursuing?

LAZAROV: Absolutely; the generosity of spirit is by design. I hate meanness and cruelty in gay porn. Also, gay media does not need more representations of emotionally disconnected sex. I aspire to be like my favorite gay artists, like Pet Shop Boys, who aspire to produce work that make gay men feel less alienated from themselves and from each other.

Erotica is ultimately about representing the aspirations of their audience. Tenderness is an aspirational quality as much as manliness is and they are not mutually exclusive. If anything, I want to expand rather than limit the possibilities and aspirations for interaction and fulfillment between gay guys.

SPURGEON: What do you think is the basis of that tenderness as it reveals itself in your stories? Is it love? Mutual affection? Kindness? Charity? Self-reflection? Is it a share quality in your stories, or do the characters come at that trait from different places?

LAZAROV: All of those and empathy, compassion, playfulness, non-judgmentalism, affection, fraternity, etc, etc. And bukkake.

There are all kinds of gay relationships and some of them only last twenty minutes in a dark movie theatre but all of them can be life affirming. I always leave things open ended for the characters to continue past the stories in the readers' imaginations unless they're already partnered (like "Kindly Woodsmen" in Fancy or "After Hours" in Nightlife) or the point of the story requires me to show them developing something more long term (like "Hot Librarian" in Manly).

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SPURGEON: How much were you involved in determining page design? How conscious were you of making the page work as a unit in addition to provide solid panel to panel transition in order to move your story along?

LAZAROV: I visualize the page in my head and write a script that describes how the panels follow each other and either end in a panel that gives the page a sense of either suspended closure (like it's the end of a paragraph) or asks the reader to flip the page to see what happens next. I stick to describing moments of action and behavior unless I specifically require something in the framing to be placed or presented in a certain way. I always state what should be a larger panel for emphasis, what panel should be closer to a particular action, how the sequence of panels represent an action, etc.

SPURGEON: Whose decision was it to drop background during the sex scene? Was that on purpose, and if so, to what effect? Was it to bring more focus onto the figures, the bodies?

LAZAROV: It depends on the artist. Most of them drop backgrounds as it's more common for action-oriented comics to choose when the setting is important for the choice of framing and choice of moment and when it's indifferent. Hey, it worked for Tezuka!

imageSPURGEON: One of your on-line homes mentions that you'd like to write both an alternative comics drama and a run of Legion of Super-Heroes comics in addition to the work you're doing now. What do you find appealing about the Legion characters?

LAZAROV: I love the idea of teenage-to-college-age superheroes in the future striving to make the world better even though they are volatile teenage-to-college-age superheroes in a practical utopia. There's something nutty and lovable about this premise; when I was a kid, the idea of ice creams of many worlds just branded me for whimsicality.

SPURGEON: How close are we to seeing Fancy in print form? Has that been a different experience for you, putting together something that was initially published on-line?

LAZAROV: The only difference is that Delic delivered a page a week for months without a break. His productivity is awesome.

Right now, I am waiting for Gmunder to change their mind about fantasy-based comics and pitch it to them again. They now have a new policy on page length, too, so we will have to cut out the wrap-around, thankfully not yet drawn fourth story of the book (the book was originally written to be 120 pages). We won't publish the third story online as they said a reprint of a webcomic was OK if the book had one new story in it; Delic needs to finish the third story, too, but he has been up to his neck with a commercial project that has ballooned out of proportion. I have tried to find other publishers for it that are equivalent to Gmunder but haven't been able to get a nibble from any of them.

SPURGEON: After Fancy and I guess Nightlife, what then?

LAZAROV: Nightlife comes out next fall. Fancy might be next in publishing order. Chums is 1/3rd done. Power Pop Boys will be drawn by Mioki but he's currently finishing the sequel to his very popular Side By Side. I have an artist attached to Greek Love but he's currently busy with his day job and cheerleading duties. Amy and I want to do Manly 2 but I want Nightlife to come out before I write it. I am open to doing more gay erotic comics hardcovers but for the moment I am working on poems.

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* all art from Manly except for second piece, which is from Sticky, and that awesome Legion pin-up by Curt Swan

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* Manly, Dale Lazarov and Amy Colburn, Bruno Gmunder Verlag, hardcover, 3861878879 (ISBN10), 9783861878872 (ISBN13), 80 pages, 2008, $28.99.

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