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A Short Interview With Dan Zettwoch
posted October 23, 2003
 

The biggest surprise of the last few years in mini-comics circles was Dan Zettwoch dropping the bomb that was Ironclad. The St. Louis-based cartoonist's lovingly crafted story encompassed in dramatic and sometimes hilarious detail the meeting between the Monitor and the Merrimack in the U.S. Civil War, the first battle of an eighty-year period where the best metal fighting ships meant rule of the world. The oversized comic was gorgeous -- hand-screened silver covers, attractive endpapers, and the employment of a wonderful foldout technique that perfectly captured the size and scope of the battle. Ironclad was easily one of the more accomplished and striking mini-comics efforts of the new century, yet what made it surprising was that its artist had until then failed to truly distinguish himself as a talent to watch. Zettwoch was known primarily as the creator behind Collectin', a mini-comic that proved less than compellin' -- despite a dollop of visual flair to be found in its rubbery figure drawing, thickly-inked lines and dedication to the religion of cross-hatching. He had also contributed to a few higher profile small press anthologies, such as one of the better Expo efforts and the St. Louis-area Impossible. Zettwoch's entries were solid and diverting, but never came close to offering the best story in any collection; it's hard to remember some of the comics at all.

The good news for readers is that Ironclad signaled what looks to be a sustained period of artistic growth rather than the brief sizzle of a fluke hit. Zettwoch has since focused his attention on a solo title named Redbird, designed to feature new works and provide a more permanent home to some of the more obscure anthology pieces he's invited to do. With "Still Life" in Redbird #1, the story of a feckless commercial artist visiting a bored high school art class, Zettwoch found a happy medium between the cartoonish qualities of his figures and the realistically observed details of the world in which he plops his slightly aggrandized characters. That story was also the best evidence so far of Zettwoch's increased skill with page composition, specifically in making use of unifying elements and balancing his figures and blacks. In Vs., a short, in-between issue of Redbird (it carries a number of "1.5"), Zettwoch showcases his admirable memory for the minute details of a childhood obsession -- in this case, slot-car racetracks. Distinguishing his comic from similar efforts limited to nostalgia, he marries his ease with the particulars to an oblique storytelling style. This forces the reader into the object of the two kids' passion by refusing to let anyone's attention drift away from it. The result is a visually lively story with a last-minute twist that may take many readers a second reading to puzzle out.

A native of Louisville, Dan Zettwoch lives in St. Louis, the city where he attended college at Washington University. He is one of the local cartoonists responsible for the USS Catastrophe web site, a clearinghouse for mini-comics and a showcase for their own work. Other members of this group include previous subjects of this column Ted May and Kevin Huizenga, with whom Zettwoch completed a series of pastiche-filled comics for a special September 2003 issue of the Gateway City alternative weekly The Riverfront Times. "I think Dan's strength right now is being able to draw almost anything – he's a really confident illustrator," Huizenga told the Journal. "Fast too. When we worked together I was always amazed by his illustrations." Huizenga also noted that Zettwoch is a third generation artist, and has an aptitude for physical items shared by other members of the cartoonist's family. "I think as far as stories or thematic concerns he's definitely got a thing for machines and objects. I think he takes after his old man there. I stayed at the Zettwoch's on the way to SPX this year and his dad has got an incredible workshop, just packed every square inch with nuts and bolts and machines."

Yet despite the potential for clutter, Ted May insists that Zettwoch isn't the kind of artist who tinkers around. "It's my impression that Dan isn't an artist that fusses much over pages. He seems to be more of an intuitive cartoonist that can make his decisions on the fly rather than always working and reworking. He can crank out a page at a pretty alarming rate. Definitely more of a Jack Kirby than a Johnny Craig." May notes that Zettwoch's intuition has recently favored a cleaner narrative approach. "Lively visualization is great for comics but too much of it can trip you up. I think Dan's earlier tendencies were towards over-visualization to the point where it choked the storyline. In Collectin' there's all kinds of graphic 'stuff' to look at but it comes at the expense of readability." Despite literally searching for the kitchen sink in the parade of objects that distinguish "Still Life," May believes that the days of needless clutter and visual distraction are behind Zettwoch. "Dan has, over the last few books, been able to iron this out in his work."

Dan Zettwoch's best comics pages will continue to work according to the leavening effect his cartoon flourishes have on the comparative, potentially immersive beauty of each picture. The danger for Zettwoch lies in finding a way to communicate the positives of his facility as an illustrator without feeling the need to artificially pump life into the stories to make it comics, skating dangerously close to that point at which whole works teeter towards overeager and confusing-to-read shtick. Obtuse narrative strategies such as those employed in "Still Life" and Vs. have worked well for Zettwoch because the jumps from one aspect to another seem to keep his boundless energy as a performer in check. Yet sooner or later, some story will force Zettwoch to slow down and work with minute changes in a single depiction – at which point we'll know if he's become the cartoonist his best work promises he might be. For now, Zettwoch has plenty of time to grow. Artistic breakthroughs grant instant access to the Land of Adult Expression for some, but most cartoonists develop by the footstep, on a path that winds its way slowly upward, dozens of battles for a firm foothold to be fought on every page. Zettwoch's journey should at least provide for some interesting scenery along the way.

TOM SPURGEON:I'm interviewing you in October 2003. How old are you?

DAN ZETTWOCH: I'm 26.

SPURGEON: Were you interested in comics as a kid?

ZETTWOCH: I was pretty interested in comics – particularly humor mags like Mad, its knock-off Cracked, and even its knock-off Sick. I remember scouring flea markets for old issues of Sick. I think my first critical breakthrough was when I discovered The Far Side. "Hey this is funny and smart" -- I think it was a gag about an insect. Naturally this appealed to me, as I considered myself smart. I was never as into superhero type comics, partially because even at a young age I never felt like I could penetrate that universe of complex continuities, character histories, and insider knowledge. Y'know, like there's no way I could ever learn all there was to know about Spider-Man, so why even try? I gravitated toward bottom-of-the barrel comics like Rom: Spaceknight and a dumb motocross comic called Team America. Hey! One issue guest-starred Ghost Rider. With those series I could amass a complete set of them from nickel-bins, and felt like I wasn't as "out of my league," so to speak. I have this really funny memory of being prank phone-called one night by some teenager who asked me what comics I collected, and did I know who the X-Men were. Terrified, I mumbled something about having heard of the X-Men but never read the comic, at which point I was laughed at and called "a big chump" because apparently I didn't read the cool comics.

I'm still sort of catching up, in regards to good comics of yesteryear, and still feel out of my league and like a chump when talking to Ted May about who I like inking on Kirby. Actually one of my favorite comics growing up was a DC book called Who's Who that was basically just dossier sheets from their universe of characters. I had no idea who these people were but really enjoyed reading bulleted lists of their special powers and group affiliations. This inspired me to do the same: drawing after drawing of characters from comics that didn't exist. These, and some lame gag strips, were my first attempts at the comic language. I have some of these scanned and on my website if you have any interest in seeing them. Scroll all the way down to the Louisville years: http://www.usscatastrophe.com/zettwoch/html/comics.html

So yeah, just as I was kind of lazy comics reader I was a lazy comics maker, too. I spent a lot more time and energy as a kid drawing elaborate mazes on graph paper and weird still-lives from bric-a-brac I'd find at my grandparents' house. I was also really into this PBS kids' drawing show called Commander Mark's Imagination Station that, apart from teaching me infinitely useful tips on perspective, foreshortening, and space-dinosaurs, really kind of instilled a kind of mix of craft and goofiness that to me, still makes drawing fun. Plus the dude had curly hair and a moustache and wore a red jumpsuit with hi-tech mechanical pencils strapped all over it.

SPURGEON: Did you live in Louisville the whole time you were growing up?

ZETTWOCH: Yeah, I was born in Louisville and lived there until I went off to college.

SPURGEON: The only cartoonist I can think of in the Louisville area is Don Rosa, and he might even be in Lexington. Did you have any inkling that there were people out there who did this for a living? Were there any local talents with whom you were familiar?

ZETTWOCH: I didn't then – and still don't – know of anybody at all who did comics in Louisville. The only native talent I was familiar with was Hunter S. Thompson, who had gotten kicked out of the same high school I went to, Muhammad Ali, and Colonel Sanders. And Pee Wee Reese. Because my experience of Louisville ends sharply with the end of high school, before my "comics life" started, I'm really surprised anytime I even hear of someone there being into alternative comics. One time the catshop [the on-line store at www.usscatastrophe.com] got a mini-comics order from Louisville and it freaked me out.

In terms of having an inkling that people did comics for a living, I don't really ever remember thinking about it. I guess I assumed they all lived in New York City and wore those visors with the translucent green bills. I remember being remarkably bad at keeping track of comics' makers' names. For whatever reason there was no cult of personality as far as comics went to me; I could barely recite the names of probably my two favorite artists – Don Martin and Sergio Aragones -- let alone tell you who penciled or inked that motocross comic I was into.

SPURGEON: Were you formally trained? Informally?

ZETTWOCH: I went to art school at Washington University in St. Louis, where I studied Illustration in the "visual communication" department. I also got into printmaking and classic literature. Contrary to most other people's art-school experiences I hear anecdotally, mine was very positive. It seemed like there were a lot of people sort of prematurely jaded or cynical about art, and I couldn't understand it. I was probably naive, coming from a public high school in Kentucky with no emphasis on art and having zero contact with the "art world," but I'd really look forward to going to every class and busting my ass on every project, be it a recreation of a Giotto painting or building a full body aardwolf costume using only paper bags and hot glue. It was a lot more fun that working out integrals and derivatives in my calculus classes, that's for sure, although I'm still probably guilty of approaching art and storytelling somewhat too "analytically."

Even though I guess maybe I never really "let myself go" or discover new parts of myself that was alright -- I really felt like I got a lot out of art school, both in abstract kinds of ways, in "get a job" nuts-and-bolts type ways, and just by being around generally creative and ambitious people all the time. My only regret would probably be not bringing my comics interests to my work sooner, as my professors and peers were pretty welcoming when I finally did so in my last semester. But all that time learning how to put together a painting or illustration proper probably was good for me, too. In terms of formal writing education though, I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't had any.

SPURGEON: What led you into mini-comics?

ZETTWOCH: For some reason, the idea of making and selling my own little comic books eluded me for a long time. I had been involved with the DIY punk community for some time and had even sporadically published a hardcore music zine, but the notion of combining my comics interests with that just never occurred to me I guess. Perhaps I had a view of comics, because I considered them "art," rather whatever an interview with the singer of Slugfest was, that if something merited being read, it should be published by a real publisher. That's the way it works, right? It pains me to say this as a mini-comics artist and as someone who runs a distro devoted exclusively to mini-comics but I think there's part of me that still thinks that. A small part! But then I think about all the awesome comics that I never would've been able to read if people hadn't put them out themselves.

Where was I? Oh yeah. So after having made the magical discovery – sincerely! – of "art comics" and being strictly an adulating fan for a few years, I then had the pretty typical experience, I assume, of stumbling upon some really great and inspiring mini-comics – in my case, those by Jerome Gaynor, Kevin Huizenga, John Porcellino, and Joe Chiappetta). To risk hyperbole, my mind was officially blown and consequently opened to the idea of making and selling my own books with comics stories in them. I think mini-comics were a pretty good way of forcing me into action, for better or worse. So far I've avoided including record reviews in my mini-comics.

SPURGEON: It seems like you draw on a pretty wide array of artistic influences. Who and what are your inspirations in general?

ZETTWOCH: I like old-fashioned and archaic art forms, like mechanical whirligigs, wooden roller coasters, and hand-painted signs at the Laundromat. Sometimes I think I'm essentially driven by nostalgia and a desire to notate and catalogue details. I look at a lot of fifties design type stuff, especially things like faux-English Trucking company logos, extinct gas station mascots, and Popular Mechanics. I read a lot of old southern writers like Faulkner and Penn Warren, lots of Russian literature and lots of sleazy true crime.

My years working for an information graphics studio made me respect lots of scientific modes of depiction, like maps, diagrams, and cutaways, that bypass the cinematic versus stage dichotomy that often arises in comics arguments. I really respond to decorative and visually dense things – like medieval icons, illuminated manuscripts, old woodcut engravers like Rockwell Kent and Lynd Ward, and muralists like Diego Rivera. I like lots of old underground comix and lots of new ones -- some of my current favorites are Ben Katchor, Julie Doucet, John Hankiewicz, Chris Cilla, Lauren Weinstein, Warren Craghead, Ben Jones, and lots more. Oh, and I just finished the Louis Riel hardcover -- history comics represent! -- and suffice to say I will be inspired by that for a long time.

I also look to my family, the hills and history of my home state of Kentucky, and to my adopted hometown of St. Louis, architecturally and otherwise, for inspiration.

SPURGEON: What mini-comics that you've done do you feel are the important milestones for your artistic development and why?

ZETTWOCH: Well, definitely Ironclad is the big one. Maybe it was because I was worrying less about the story and characters as those were fairly readymade by my research, but it allowed me to focus on the rhythm and mechanics of my storytelling? For the first time, it felt like I halfway knew what I was doing while constructing panels and pages. Clearly I've still got a long ways to go with that. But more obviously, the design and packaging of Ironclad as a whole was a major breakthrough -- realizing that the story didn't have to remain encapsulated within the 8.5 x 11 guts of the thing. I don't consider it "cheating" to have a reader want to spend time with a book because of its design, or presence or whatever.

I'd say the other milestone was the first issue of Redbird, which is my new on-going title. That one I was happy with because I felt like I could pull back on a lot of the tricks and pyrotechnics Ironclad employed and let the characters and stories pull their weight. In "Still Life" I was bringing my heavy-handed "symbol layer" or whatever to an almost embarrassing closeness to the narrative layer of the story, but in the end I felt like in worked okay within the sweaty and grotesque confines of that story. I also felt like I was finally beginning to understand how to use texture and crosshatching on the page with more facility, while figuring out what the differences are between a nice drawing and a successful comic book panel. Hopefully Redbird will keep getting better.

SPURGEON: Ironclad is a pretty amazing comic.

ZETTWOCH: Oh, thanks.

SPURGEON: What made you decide on that project? Tell me about your research.

ZETTWOCH: Ironclad happened by accident, really. I was researching primitive submersibles for a story about a revolutionary-era submarine to be serialized in future issues of Redbird and along the way started reading about the battle of the first Ironclads. Meanwhile, I was thinking about submitting a short comic to Shiot Crock but didn't have any ideas. In case you don't know, Shiot Crock is an anthology where you print up just enough copies of a comic for other contributors, and then all the stories are compiled into one motley folio of terribleness. Since the appeal -- for me at least -- of Shiot Crock is that since you're making a small edition strip, you can get creative with the arts and crafts of your pages -- hand coloring, die cutting, whatever. I decided to draw a quick story about this Confederate Ironclad "The Merrimack" and have the pay-off be a fancy gatefold battle scene. Since I only had to make 50 copies of this thing, the hand trimming and folding would be no big deal.

Okay, so I did that, and was pretty happy with it. So happy with it that I kind of regretted putting that story in an arena where only 50 denizens of the Comics Journal message board would see it. So I decided to expand the story to contain the Merrimack's Union counterpart, their fated encounter in Hampton Roads, and other junk like diagrams and maps. It seemed like a neat idea at the time. Long story short – I've now ended up hand trimming, silk-screening, and folding almost a thousand of these things. Research is always a lot of fun for me, especially when it comes to history. It seems to work really well when putting together a comic, too -- because the act of gathering texts and pictures from dusty books in the library is so similar -- it's sort of like putting together a puzzle.

Researching the battle of Hampton Roads was my favorite kind of research too -- the kind in which there really is not that much out there: a few primary accounts, a couple newspaper stories, a couple of major texts. I really felt like I could know the story inside and out. I had dreams where I got into arguments with other Ironclad scholars about which hand James "Old Buck" Buchanan would fire a pistol with. While the story was pretty straightforward, while militarily ludicrous, the vessels themselves were somewhat more mysterious, as there are no verified blueprints of the Monitor and the Merrimack, just dramatized engravings and models reconstructed from ironworkers' and sailors' descriptions. Actually, while I was inking the last part of the comic, the big news in the world of naval scavenging was that they were raising the remains of the Monitor off the ocean floor. That was pretty exciting for me, but also kind of scary because I thought some of the new discoveries might force me to re-draw some of my panels!

SPURGEON: What comics have you released in calendar year 2003?

ZETTWOCH: The only two books I've put out in 2003 have been the aforementioned Redbird #1, and a little book called Vs. I've gotten roped into way too many anthologies this year. Two cop-outs in two questions!

SPURGEON: Your recent work has also been very lovingly art directed.

ZETTWOCH: Thanks again.

SPURGEON: [laughs] Now is that something specifically important to you? What are your thoughts behind presenting your work in a specific way?

ZETTWOCH: I guess it just goes back to wanting the book to work as a whole. Not really as an art object or whatever, or to make this thing a more attractive package to consumers, although I'd be lying if I said that was entirely unimportant, but because I feel like the experience of reading a comic book starts with picking it up. I think someone once told me that the cover is the first panel of a comic and I think about that every once in a while. In reality, I probably over-think the decisions that go into putting together a mini-comic. Will anyone make the connection of the orange endpapers inside Ironclad's charcoal gray cover to the fire inside a metal ship's boiler room? Probably not. But I think that stuff goes a long way in establishing tone or mood, and shouldn't be neglected.

One of mini-comics' greatest strength is, of course, is nearly total control of every aspect of production. Other than maybe getting stuck with a shitty photocopier, you have no one else to blame for producing a book that looks like shit. It's all on you. In terms of inspiration, I think it's pretty clear that my frame-of-reference has little to do with the "comic book cover' idiom, which I love, of course, or traditional design and more to do with forms of commercial signage: the cover of Collectin' drew from old postcards, Ironclad from 19th century broadsheets/metalwork, Redbird from old firecracker packages, and Vs. from a Hot Wheels box. I guess my interest in that kind of stuff just comes from a love of lowbrow, mass-printed matter. And in an age where junk packaging and visual clutter occupies so much of our physical -- and mental -- landscape, type and design and goofy roadside emblems have just as much power to evoke ideas and feelings than a tree or a portrait of a loved one, or whatever.

SPURGEON: Can you tell me about the gatefold effect that appears in Vs. and Ironclad? Where did that come from and what are you trying to achieve through its use?

ZETTWOCH: I'm not sure what the exact inspiration for the foldout was, other than the desire to do something different with the format I was given, but within the confines of popular photocopying technology. The neatest thing I could think to do was the ultimate "Splash page" of this naval battle scene -- meaning a splash page literally twice the size on tabloid size paper. It seemed like a) It would be a lot of fun for somebody to open up and look at, and b) It would be a lot of fun for me to draw! When it came to drawing the second half of Ironclad, I wanted to do another corresponding foldout, but instead of sheer bombast I wanted to emphasize the drawn out and stunted "chess-match" nature of the actual battle between the Monitor and Merrimack, using lots of small panels and stuff.

This, of course, turned out to be infinitely more confusing and less successful, but I guess helped enforce a kind of symmetry to the story. In Vs., I had a much more clear-cut rationale for using the foldout. I guess I wanted to make the climactic O. Henry "twist" as surprising as possible, and it seemed like it would be neat to put that revealing process literally in the hands of the reader as they were unfolding that part. The large page also allowed me to draw the entire racetrack in one big panel, allowing the reader, if they were so inclined, to kind of do a mental re-tracing of all the individual sections that had been shown in fragmented vignettes throughout the story. I'm not sure either or those things really justify the existence of the foldout, especially with the weird page order issues that arise, but I just couldn't help myself I reckon. I guess it's that same thing about controlling the aspect of your book's production -- I mean, this thing is getting hand assembled on your kitchen table anyways, you don't have to worry about a machine in Hong Kong being able to correctly crease your foldout, so you might as well do it. Sometimes "cool" is all the justification you need, I figure. And for the record, I did my first foldout before Kevin Huizenga's Gloriana mini-comic -- which also featured a foldout!

SPURGEON: Describe your approach to the human figure – it's very elastic, almost cartoony. Are you going for a certain effect?

ZETTWOCH: To be honest, I struggle with the figure, and always have. I feel like I have a scientific grasp on anatomy and musculature in my head, but without careful observation cannot replicate it in on the page. I had someone once refer to my figure drawing as "entropic" and another as "sausage-like." I'm not sure if those terms were meant as compliments or critiques but I sort of liked them. I think the weirdness lies in the fact that I approach the figure exaggeratedly and gesturally, but then apply mass and form to them courtesy of my compulsive crosshatching. This is gonna read like a giant cop-out, but I feel like I've sort of harnessed that quality to a certain degree, maybe bringing more energy or tension to what's going on. Any little bit helps when you've got a claustrophobic/constipated style like I do. Also, there was a time that I was heavy into regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, who does a similar kind of "cartoonish realism" in the service of melodramatic narrative, I guess. And R. Crumb too. I dunno, maybe I need to get into a night-class or check a Burne Hogarth book out from the library or something.

SPURGEON: In "Still Life" and especially the story in Vs., you use a very oblique narrative approach, where you change views often and radically and shy away from the traditional talking heads or illustrative example.

ZETTWOCH: Well, Vs. had a pretty clear gimmicky rationale for not showing the talking heads spouting off all that ridiculous dialogue, but I hear what you're saying. That's a pretty conscious decision I make, the "wandering eye" or whatever you want to call it, although it seems to come pretty naturally. Maybe it comes from the way I engage the world, not looking people in the eye when I talk to them or something. I think part of it has to do with the desire to present stories in a way that reveals as much as possible about a situation, externally, through it's physical setting. Why bother showing this visiting artist dude's sweaty face for the sixth time when i haven't showed the students' clumsy contour drawings tacked to the walls yet?

I kind of think of comics like a murder-mystery board game, maybe. You're giving the reader lots of clues as to how they should be assessing or experiencing a situation. Some are subtle, some -- like most of mine -- are heavy-handed, some are totally inconsequential or red herrings or what have you. To me, that's an awesome thing about comics. Because of the strange effect and hierarchies created by combining words and pictures, and the fluctuating descriptive characteristics of each, you can really create layers of information in a "spatial" way. Like if you were writing a short story and took two pages to describe the art teacher's desk, naturally a lot of importance would be placed on every geegaw and knick-knack. But if you've got a panel with her desk in it -- I mean you've gotta draw that stuff because it's sitting on there – but it doesn't have to take two pages worth of narrative weight. Also, to me, it's interesting when text or dialogue is overlapping seemingly unrelated stuff. It's like when I used to sit in the back seat of my parents station wagon, with lyrics from the radio overlapping the neighborhood tableaus I'd see out my window. Or alternately, watching a movie with subtitles. I like that voice disconnected from what I'm seeing. Sometimes there's an illustrative relationship between the words and the pictures, sometimes there's an oblique relationship, sometimes it may just seem like a goofy non sequitur. I guess this is something I'm interested in – the friction and intermittent resonance that can be achieved with that. Not that I've achieved success with that to any degree though. Also, maybe it's just to keep me from getting bored drawing the same thing over and over again.

SPURGEON: One flourish I really like in "Still Life" is the lettering or pictures in the middle of the other pictures. Do all of them make some sort of commentary on the story? Because a few, like the chair, just lost me.

ZETTWOCH: I really like using those circular panels in the center of the page because they sort of turn the page into something more than just a matrix of panels. I think a lot about the page as a unit and I think of that panel like a keystone that's sort of locking everything into place. I like that it touches upon every other panel, and it's sort of ambiguous as to what order that panel is "read" in. This way it exists on a different plane than the rest of the page, like an inset panel on a Byzantine Saint icon, and is allowed to comment on the entire page at once. So to answer your question: sort of. The symbolic relevance of certain objects to a particular page are pretty obvious, others, like the chair, might fall into that "goofy non-sequitur" zone I was talking about earlier. I constructed the actual still life in "Still Life" first, before I had the story nailed down, and wanted to keep myself limited to the objects I had begun with. Every high school still life in the history of high school still lifes contains a skeleton, roller skate, clock radio, and chair draped in fabric. Some juxtapositions were pretty calculated ahead of time to map to the story, like the aquarium deep-sea diver, but others – like the chair! – I had to squeeze into the story where I could. I felt the act of extracting and isolating the components from the still life was really the primary statement made by those inset panels anyway, and kind of liked that some of them didn't make any sense.

SPURGEON: Tell me about your role in the St. Louis "cartooning scene." Is it helpful to have other cartoonists around?

ZETTWOCH: My role is the "B.A. Barracas" role. Just kidding! Seriously though, I'm not sure what my role in the "scene" is, but it's definitely nice to have other cartoonist friends around whose work I really love and respect, and who will call me on my shit. Actually, I think my role is probably still best classified as "new guy." I've learned a lot from Kevin, Ted, Jerome, and Jeff Wilson – all guys who've been at this longer than I have. I mean, I'm not gonna pretend like my comics are silently improving while I eat frozen custard with those dudes, but there is something to be said for a small community of people seriously devoted to comics. A few of us get together on a weekly basis to draw, and compare notes, but nothing really too hardcore. That is, unless someone brings up the idea of computer lettering!

But yeah, it feels good to be in St. Louis these days -- there recently was a pretty great comics show here, and some local media outlets have proven to be pretty hip to what we're doing, there's a nice comics shop, and of course Todd Hignite's amazing Comic Art magazine. I am not going to deny that being in an environment with some positive reinforcement and recognition goes a long way when we all end up sequestered in thankless, week-long pencilling sessions in our respective apartments. The best part of being part of the St. Louis group is, of course, I get to read these guys' stuff before anyone else.

P.S. -- Ted is "Hannibal" and Kevin is "Howling Mad Murdock"

SPURGEON: Describe the newspaper opportunity you guys had recently and how you approached your sections of it.

ZETTWOCH: It was a classic "Oh shit – what have we gotten ourselves into" scenario that ended up turning out all right. A writer for The Riverfront Times -- a St. Louis alt-weekly -- had been trying to write an article about the St. Louis comics scene for a while, just because he liked our comics of whatever, but we just never managed to hook up. In the meantime, the Post-Dispatch, our big daily paper, sort of scooped the guy -- as ridiculous as that is -- on the profile of us. Meanwhile, the RFT writer kept trying to foist his article on his editor, who eventually agreed but said "If these dudes are so talented why don't we actually print some comics by them". That was about the extent of the editorial input we got. We didn't have much time to do the thing, and there are a lot of issues with doing something like with an alt-weekly because they don't know what the layout/ad situation is exactly until fairly late in the game. For that reason we decided on the flexible episodic structure which led us to making the strips homages and quasi-homages, strung together with that silly narrative skeleton. We included lots of St. Louis in-jokes so people around town wouldn't think it was a total waste of escort-ad space, but so far I think the only feedback we've gotten on it have been either friends of ours or people from out-of-town.

It was pretty easy to divide up the sections along our respective tastes, and it's probably rather obvious who did what. I only had two real pastiches – the "Tops in Adventure" style intro page and the Crumb page. It really made me want to do that kind of thing more – aping a style like that forces you to really examine the work in a much deeper way than you do just reading it. Having said that, I think my most successful section – "A bold new direction" – was the one that was just in my generic house style. I've done very little color work before, and am always kind of worried about how to add color into my dense, crosshatched stuff. I thought it'd get muddled really fast, especially on newsprint, but I was pretty happy with how that one came out. Of course it goes without saying that it was nice having Ted and Kevin on either side of me to pick up the slack. I definitely applaud those guys at the Riverfront Times for trying something different and letting us do whatever we wanted though, and I think if we get another chance to do something like again it'll be much better.

SPURGEON: Do you plan on continuing with the omnibus Redbird?

ZETTWOCH: Yeah, as I hinted at earlier, I'm gonna keep making these mini-comics and using Redbird as the over-arching title. I've got a long story in the works -- who doesn't? -- and plan to serialize it starting with the next issue. It's gonna be called "The Locks" and partially takes place in the Devonian Era, the "Age of Fish." There won't be any foldouts. Hopefully it'll come out fairly regularly, and at the end it will mark my first really mature work. I don't have any other concrete aspirations other than that. And drawing comics forever. Maybe being an old man in a red jump suit with mechanical Windsor-Newtons strapped to it trying to get the kids of America excited about mini-comics. Oh, a short-term aspiration I have to finally buckle down and figure out how to use this Leroy Lettering Kit so I can letter my comics like the old EC books. Hmmm… there might be one foldout in my story. Two at the most.

Dan Zettwoch Selected Bibliography

Whipping together a bibliography for someone who helps run a small press and mini-comics clearinghouse web site might be one of the easier tasks out there. The following is cobbled almost entirely from Zettwoch's pages at www.usscatastrophe.com. Most of the comics not orderable from Dan through the on-line store are uploaded onto the site for your computer screen viewing pleasure. The essentials are, in order, Ironclad, Vs., Redbird #1-2, and Collectin'.

Redbird #2 (TBP)
"The Secret of Gabriel Syme," Orchid 2 (TBP)
Various Strips, "Comics Take Over," Riverfront Times (September 17-23, 2003)
Vs. -- Redbird 1.5 (September 2003)
Redbird #1 (April 2003)
Ironclad (July 2002)
"IMPOSSIBLE Vs. SpaceMen Parts One and Two" Impossible #2-3 (February 2002)
"Salvage Yard," Bogus Dead (October 2001)
"The Disappearing Man of Hill-Behan," Shiot Crock III (July 2001)
"Northwestern Parkway," Expo 2001 (April 2001)
"Halfway to Hell," Impossible #1 (February 2001)
The Secret Society of 6 Mile Lane (January 2001)
Collectin' (November 2000)
"5:30 AM" (October 2000)
The Angel and the Escapist, unpublished (May 1999)
"Phantom Digits," Bug (March 1999)
Running With Scissors (1998-1999)
"The Legend of Obn Clay," Star Clipper Small Press Smorgasbord 1998 (September 1998)
Blaze Calhoun -- Man of Invincible Fate (December 1997)
"Obsolescence," Bug (March 1997)

Orignally Published as "Do You Ever Get to Draw Anything Cool?, The The Mini-Comics of Dan Zettwoch" in The Comics Journal's Minimalism column