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CR Sunday Interview: Joe Daly
posted June 6, 2011

imageJoe Daly may be a special cartoonist. His Scrublands and The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book provided intoxicating flashes of lively, idiosyncratic comics-making, stories that tap-danced through a wildly disparate set of influences while bringing quiet, insistent attention to Daly's appealing and only slightly off-kilter worldview. There was an easy authority to Daly's comics right from the start, a way of depicting light and noise that encouraged the reader to stay in the places he depicts for as long as the story might allow. The two volumes of Dungeon Quest that are Daly's latest works -- he's working on a third -- are marvelous evocations of a certain kind of familiar, heightened reality and the vastly reduced human interaction that many choose to have within them. The first of the two books already in print won the Prix special du Jury at Angouleme in 2010. One of my most fervent hopes is that comics can somehow help accomplished and original work like this build an audience; if nothing else, I have to imagine that an audience with the kind of taste that would embrace Daly's work would be well worth having around. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Joe, you've talked several times about the fact that in South Africa you're kind of a cartoonist without a comics industry, but I wonder if you could describe how you think that may have had an impact on your artistic development? For instance, do you perhaps have a broader range of influences for having to seek work from artists outside of your direct sphere of influence? Do you place a greater emphasis on those South African comics that you have read than you might have otherwise, or do you have a greater appreciation for your country's tradition of editorial cartooning than you might have had you'd been raised in Los Angeles? How are you different as an artist for being where you are?

JOE DALY: Growing up in South Africa during the 1980's and 1990s it seemed to me that all the wonderful pop culture -- television, movies, comics, music, etc. -- was coming from the USA, at least to me that was where the "good" stuff was coming from, the stuff I wanted to relate to. I immersed myself in it. From a pop cultural point of view, I basically am an American. So is much of the world, for that matter, but as an English-speaking South African the American world of pop culture was extremely attractive, especially since we don't have a strong pop culture tradition of our own. If I'd grown up in a well-defined culture -- like the French or British -- I'd have been harder to imprint.

Unlike many Americans, perhaps, I also had this small window open for pop cultural things -- in this case comic book influences -- from Britain or Belgium or France, or other places. The sense I get is that I was aware that I was growing up in an environment lacking in pop culture, and I was always looking outward to the world to find stuff that I could enjoy and learn from. South Africans suffer in a sense from a pop cultural inferiority complex. There are phrases that go around like "local is lekker," meaning "local is nice." To me however, I saw this as a corruption designed to mask mediocrity. To me "lekker is lekker," no matter where it comes from.

In terms of a comics world view, I'm a hardcore internationalist. That probably stems from my pathological reaction to the inferiority complex married to this celebration of local mediocrity that was insinuated into me by South African culture. Also, on a purely pragmatic level, the fact that we don't have a comics industry in South Africa means I'm forced to look outside of the country for opportunities to work in the comics field.

If I were an American cartoonist or a French cartoonist I don't think I'd have this attitude, or at least it wouldn't be so pronounced, because I'd be mostly satiated by the world I found myself in.

To be honest. I don't think I ever placed more importance on the South African comics than I placed on foreign comics, probably less. I mean, Bitterkomix is very important to me, but it's not more important to me than Tintin, or Peanuts or Robert Crumb, or The Amazing Spider-Man, or The Simpsons. I have a greater appreciation for South Africa's editorial cartooning than if I were raised in Los Angeles, but only equal to the appreciation I'd have for the editorial cartooning of Los Angeles if I were raised there. Whilst I can appreciate editorial cartooning when it's done well, it's just not something I'm very passionate about. Politics to me is very boring, and things in politics come and then go. To me politics is just the theatre of distraction for the little people. So is pop culture, but it's more enjoyable to me, there's more truth in it, it's more giving, and the really good stuff lasts.

I also have a strange aversion to using my South Africaness as a selling point in my work. It even irritates me to be constantly described as a South African cartoonist. That's starting to get under my skin.

I've used South African settings in my early work, but that's more incidental than anything else. I've used some South African slang words in Dungeon Quest but that is only to create something I think of as "Dungeon Speak," something similar to the "City Speak" they used in Blade Runner. I'm really trying to infuse my work with my own "Joe Dalyness" as it relates to the pop cultural influences I hold so dear. That's what I'm trying to sell ultimately, my own personal creative vision.

Maybe that's because I'm hugely egotistic and I don't want South Africa to get any credit for my creations or I have some deep twisted aversion to my own South Africaness, like a dissociative mental condition, or something. The idea of using your history or culture or politics -- in other words, one's nationality -- as a selling point for your art feels like an exploitation to me, and something that whilst it might get your work some immediate attention could be the very thing that causes people to move past your work and lose interest in it as the future unfolds. I have the same problem with American work that's main selling point is Americana. I know that not everybody feels this way, and that's fine. I'm interested in how creative a work is on its own terms, on how it defines itself.


SPURGEON: Looking at your influences, is it fair to say that you have an appreciation for craft that doesn't call attention to itself, art that works in a subliminal way or at least in some way past its immediate visual impact?

DALY: I think that's a fair statement. I feel art in comics is primarily, there to communicate stories or ideas, or express the reactions of the characters. I mean, I'm still trying to work towards a signature style, so people can immediately recognize my work. I suppose that's also about communication. I can actually draw much better than I do in my comics. I can do very elegant realistic figure drawings from life, but that wouldn't serve the worlds I'm trying to create which are not real worlds. They're cartoon worlds. If I find a natural limitation to my drawing ability, something that looks strange and awkward and wrong, then I try to actually go in that direction and work it into my style even more.

I believe these quirks and limitations are the key to building a personal style; they're a cartoonist's best friends. Comic artists who are too naturally adept and have also ironed out their limitations by years of training tend to struggle to immediately imprint their style on a readers' mind. The stuff can start to look too good, too generic to be recognizable or even that interesting. Gary Larson can barely draw a figure but he's a great cartoon artist from my point of view.

That said I also kind of have this real appreciation for well-studied draftsmanship, where someone can really draw something elegantly and accurately. So as a drawer, I'm torn between these two drives, to become a Hal Foster on one hand and a Gary Larson on the other. It's an interesting tension to be working with. However, that's not really an unusual tension for a cartoonist to be working with. It's what attracts me to work like Tintin or the work of Chester Brown. It's cartoony realism, in the service of narrative.

imageSPURGEON: Can you unpack the qualities of Gary Larson's art that you find appealing? I don't think he gets enough credit as a visual stylist, but more importantly, I'm looking at your work now and it may only be that I'm easily suggestible but I now see a certain kinship to the look of Larson's comics in your own. For that matter, I know this is sort of a boilerplate question, but is there anyone in your work that you see that maybe no one else might?

DALY: When I was younger I went through a very definite Gary Larson phase. I still find his work very appealing, although his work is less of a central influence on me that it was before. Since we're on the subject of art I won't talk about his concepts or his writing, which he's perhaps more famous for than his actual artwork. I really like the fact that his art is really original, and I can't think of many precedents for his style in the world of cartooning. He just seemed really naive and unschooled as a drawer, and that he hadn't been heavily influenced very much by the cartoons that he must have grown up with or the cartoons that were being made around him at the time he started cartooning. This seemed very unusual for a cartoonist. Most cartoonists start out as huge fans of other cartoonists and are very much rooted in previous forms or styles. I really enjoy all the solutions he came up with which lead to his really unique style. The little heads, the googly eyes, the huge, lumbering, awkward, amorphous bodies, the big flat cigar shaped shoes. It's really funny drawing, and it really helped push his concepts from just being weird and interesting concepts into the realm of true cartoon comedy. He's got a unique line too, sort of shaky and electric. His work just seems to all come from that Gary Larson universe. It's instantly recognizable as his. Maybe I'll discover an obvious lineage from him to his influences if I dig hard enough, and become a little disillusioned when it comes to my idea of his uniqueness.

I also went through a heavy The Simpsons phase (Matt Groening's work in general). I also went through a heavy Beavis and Butthead/Mike Judge period. I like his art for similar reasons to why I like Larson's. I went through an Edward Hopper phase when it came to painting and thinking about depicting buildings and cityscapes. I went through a superhero comics phase -- mostly Marvel and DC -- which I finally found a use for when it comes to drawing characters like Lash Penis, who is somewhat Hulk-like in his construction. Although not an early influence on me, I find the work of Gary Frank very impressive and informative and useful. I discovered Gary Frank when I collected The Incredible Hulk for a while. I'd actually been a big fan of Todd McFarlane for a while when I was younger, and whilst he might be a great stylist -- if you happen to like his style -- when I discovered Gary Frank's work I really started to become more aware of the difference between a stylist (like McFarlane, with a questionable understanding of structure) and a really solid draftsman who really understands structure and anatomy. You might like Frank's style or not like it, but there can be no argument about whether the guy can draw or not. He's a really impeccable draftsman. That solidity of drawing is ideally something I'd like to move towards as an artist. If I can marry that kind of technical competence to my own native style and the styles I've been influenced by, I'll start to be satisfied with my drawing ability.

Hergé's Tintin was a huge influence, but that's rather obvious in my work, I think (although I feel I'm moving further and further away from that these days). Charles Burns has been a big influence, too, especially more recently on my inking style (because he's possibly the best inker in the world, and I'm trying to improve my inking abilities, so why not try to learn from the best). Once I understand how he does it, I'll probably be able to move away from his inking techniques to a more personal style.

I'm a big fan of Daniel Clowes and Robert Crumb, and I'm sure at one time or another, a little bit of their styles peek through into my style, but they both have styles that are little foreign to my sensibilities, are relatively late influences on me, and I'm very aware of not wanting to imitate them, because they've both got strong identifiable styles and I'm trying to establish my own thing. I think there's an element of the British kid's comics, like The Beano, in some of my work, too. There's possibly a slight Picasso, Edward Ardizzone, Fergus Hall, Bill Peet, Dr. Seuss, Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Charles Schulz, Chester Gould, Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, Jim Woodring influence in there, too, although you might have to dig quite deep to see it. They're all artists that I was quite fascinated by at on time or another. I still am.

SPURGEON: One thing I always wonder about with a cartoonist attempting a longer work, especially when that work is serialized in the way that Dungeon Quest has been is how difficult it is to maintain a visual and tonal continuity through the entirety of the work. I assume that you're a different cartoonist than when you started what became the first volume, and I was curious if you found yourself tamping down certain things you may do now that you didn't do then in terms of keeping the story or cohesive. Are you a different cartoonist now? Is the overall work different now that you're so many pages into it?

DALY: I think I'm definitely a different cartoonist now from when I started Dungeon Quest. I've been working on another project between doing Dungeon Quest, which really is in another style to the one I'm using on Dungeon Quest. I'm even framing the images differently using a different format, a different approach to the anatomy and different angles to the Dungeon Quest work, but when I come back to Dungeon Quest I'm mostly drawn back into the Dungeon Quest "house" style. It's mainly the format and the characters that control this style. This is generally speaking. When I look closer at the specifics of the work I can see that there are changes that emerge from book to book (I'm working on book three at the moment). Changes can emerge from the beginning of an individual book to the end of the book.

imageIt would be very difficult for me to artificially stunt my development in order to achieve a totally cohesive look across the Dungeon Quest series, and further more it's not something I'm interested in trying to achieve. I try my best to keep the character models the same, but when I notice areas for improvement I start to employ them. For instance Lash Penis' face is getting smaller in relation to his head, cause it looks good to me, he's moving further into the absolute version of the character. I noticed the same thing happening in The Simpsons from season one to season four. Things get more refined and the models become more honed. In Seinfeld, Kramer's hair gets taller across the early seasons and his clothing gets more specific, and the color schemes get more resolved for each character. Same thing with the early Peanuts or early Tintin, most comics in fact, it's a natural tendency. The same phenomenon applies to the writing normally.

In Dungeon Quest: Book Two, I started to use a thicker outline around the characters to make them read clearly and separate them from the density of the backgrounds. Now this line looks a little too heavy to me, and I'm thinning it out again and finding new techniques of keeping the characters from blending into the backgrounds. It's an ongoing process, but I'm realizing that, 160 pages into Dungeon Quest: Book Three, the character modeling and the line work is starting to get much more consistent, as I get closer to the absolute style that is emerging for Dungeon Quest. This is part of the appeal of an episodic work for both the artist and the reader.

A long-format graphic novel that's designed to be read as a whole novel as opposed to episodes almost requires that the artist has resolved their style from the beginning, reached a certain level of maturity. Books like Black Hole by Charles Burns or Watchmen drawn by Dave Gibbons are remarkably consistent, but they'd reached that point of maturity by then so they could achieve this. Personally, I wouldn't hold it against an artist if I noticed morphing occurring across a book. It's not something that bothers me greatly. The complete Dungeon Quest may emerge in the future as a single volume -- I can't know this for sure -- but I think it will still read in an episodic way, which will be more forgiving of the honing and morphing that will probably occur throughout the whole saga. On a very subtle level I'd suggest that each Dungeon Quest book also has its own tone in terms of the dialogue and the humor, maybe even the pacing, but again that's not something I'm fighting. Each chapter in the overall saga should accomplish its own thing. Some will be slightly more focused on dialogue, humor and weirdness and some will be slightly more focused on exploration and traditional adventuring.

SPURGEON: Refine that last point for me a bit, if you could. Are you saying that the variations in tone from chapter to chapter is something that just happens by virtue of your being a younger cartoonist, or is it something that you encourage in order to have that different experience with each work? Do you think there will come a time when you want to do something that's more sustained in its tone and approach, like Black Hole, or is that a kind of storytelling that you don't find as interesting?

DALY: The variations in tone are something that mostly happens from me being a younger cartoonist. For me this is because of various reasons, one being that although I'm sure I could do a better job of holding one tone, it would be difficult for me to do this because I'm growing naturally (unconsciously) and I also want to try new approaches to things (consciously). I don't want to get bored and burned out by sticking hard to one tone, and I want to develop new tones and techniques to employ in future projects. I realize I'm entering a particular part of the cartooning development curve where a lot of development and improvement is going on in my writing and drawing right now.

imageThis is one of my hidden agendas for doing Dungeon Quest. I thought it's unlikely that anyone will take this series too seriously, which means they won't give a shit about it being tonally or stylistically inconsistent, and I can use it as an opportunity to draw a lot of things, write of a lot of things and improve my skills (like framing, and lettering, and inking and drawing things that are difficult for me to draw like water), in other words, to approach it in a fairly experimental, developmental and enjoyable way. That said, whilst the drawing is evolving quite a bit in Dungeon Quest, I think the tone of the writing and the overall tone of the books is not that inconsistent. I think of Dungeon Quest as being like a TV series in its early seasons, moving from its primitive, beginning phase to its mature phase. This is something you want to happen, both from a creators and an audience point of view. It's enjoyable and interesting. Although there's a simple story arc in there somewhere, tying it all together, Dungeon Quest is really about episodes. That's why it's a series of books.

In the second story, "John Wesley Harding," in the Red Monkey book, I think I managed to stick to one tone and one art style pretty consistently all through 70 pages of it, which took me several years to complete. That wasn't easy for me, and I felt frustrated along the way, because, at a certain point, I had to force myself to stunt my development to achieve this. Given that the ideas I generated for Dungeon Quest couldn't be contained in one book, and that I wanted to exhaust the potential of the Dungeon Quest universe before I move on to other projects, and that I'll be working on Dungeon Quest for several years, my concession I allowed myself to get through it, is that I'd allow myself to develop freely and naturally across the series.

In the future I want to create something different to Dungeon Quest, something self-contained and sustained in tone. I plan to. I find value in that, too. Black Hole is very interesting: it's a novel, or perhaps more like a feature film, and tonal control is essential to that form. Although it came out originally as a series, I'm sure it was designed to ultimately be a self-contained unit, and not read like a series of episodes.


SPURGEON: When reading the first two Dungeon Quest books, I initially thought that what you were doing was basically a riff on tabletop role-playing game quirks and outcomes with a massive textural component derived from videogames, but am I right in thinking now that your background is almost solely the videogames side of things and that the way tabletop games inform the work is mostly through their videogame equivalents? That may be the most potentially convoluted and squirrelly question I've ever asked anyone, so I apologize; I'm mostly interested in the exact elements from gaming that informed your approach and their provenance in terms of your own experiences and interests.

DALY: If that's the most convoluted and squirrelly question you've asked anyone, then, I'm kind of flattered (in a weird way). [Spurgeon laughs] Yeah, your insights are quite correct. Whilst I knew some people who played tabletop games, I didn't play them. I just didn't have the right focus for it at the time. I was into comics and skateboarding and animation and films and rock music more, and that seemed to soak up all my patience and attention.

I kind of knew about that tabletop world, but I was looking into it as an outsider to it. I did however play the videogame equivalents, which appealed to me because I liked playing computer games: I like the visual element to it, I was interested in the creation of worlds, I liked collecting items, discovering new places and I was interested in animation. I liked playing them alone, as an escape from the real world and people, and all the crap that they bring. Sometimes I wouldn't want to even spend time with other nerds (who were already quite outside the real world). I liked to smoke a lot of weed and escape into films or RPG videogames, or just videogames in general. Nowadays I still spend a lot of time alone, but mainly just working. There's a whole less weed smoking and video watching and game playing going on in my life. The other videogame genre besides RPGS that's an influence in Dungeon Quest is the adventure game genre. These included Space Quest, King's Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, The Dig, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango. I held particular reverence for the LucasArts games created by Tim Schafer with Full Throttle and Grim Fandango at the top. Grim Fandango is high art in the form of an adventure game.

What appealed to me about the RPG world, beside the beautiful fantasy worlds, is the outsider nature of it all. It's kind of like a lot of outsiders who'd otherwise be very alienated in the world finding this kind of secret community which they can belong to, and engage with the greater mythologies and mysteries and "meta-histories" of the world through this medium. And there's a kind of sadness to it, too, which I find very appealing. There's a cosmic "Blues" to it. I also found that "Blues" in Beavis and Butthead, although most people just saw it as a crude, silly, funny show. I felt empathy and sadness for these poor outcasts, who the rest of world and even their own parents had left deserted in front of a TV. Beavis and Butthead were human beings who had potential and needed care and love and nurturing in their lives, and just weren't going to get it. There was a level of pathos and blues to it all, which I actually find kind of affecting. I think if one digs to that level in Dungeon Quest there's a blues there, too, although most people won't see it probably. So, a strange rambling answer to a squirrelly question.


SPURGEON: One thing I think comes out in this work -- maybe particularly the first book -- is using this kind of fantastic interaction as a way of processing or dealing with one's personal, immediate environment. That's something that the cartoonist Dylan Horrocks once told me his experiences with gaming engaged, and certainly in the Fort Thunder school of comics there seems to be a lot going on between videogame environments and the way they constructed their art space. Is that something that interests you at all, this way of reprocessing information through these constructs in order that people get a better handle on them? How much are you aware of what you're doing in Dungeon Quest as a way of grappling with one's perhaps more quotidian surroundings?

DALY: I discovered Fort Thunder's work via The Comics Journal, and I got hold of Teratoid Heights by Matt Brinkman, because I just immediately related to what he was doing on some subliminal level. I'm probably the only person in South Africa who knows about Fort Thunder; at least, it's very likely I am. It feels that way. I was already on that track of thinking before I discovered their work, but discovering their work was a real confirmation about this area of cartooning, where one is focused primarily on exploring an environment in a very primal kind of way. This obviously relates to videogames, especially primitive videogames, where one has to navigate some kind of maze or series of platforms and just collect things and kill monsters or try to avoid monsters. I think these early kinds of videogames really spoke to some deep primal part of the brain (a part that deals with survival in a hostile environment), and that's why they were so stimulating and unforgettable, especially to kids who grew up with them. If you spent enough hours playing videogames, you'd carry on seeing the game playing out in your mind as you lay in bed at night with your eyes closed, and then you'd have dreams about these games and game environments.

I guess everyday life is also about survival in a maze, although it's a little more subtle most of the time. Negotiating through one's days can be very game-like, with a lot of false leads and dead ends. Certain things you have to get, certain things you have to avoid. In my opinion, reality really is a construct; it's a programmed matrix world made up of theoretical "pixels" that we call atoms. It's just that it's a highly complex one, too complex to really get a grip on what's going on without going completely nuts. I suppose that by breaking down that complex construct into a more simple videogame or movie or comic book is way in which one can start to wrap one's brain around the situation because it's been broken down more into simple, comprehensible components, and one is not flooded by too much information all the time. Perhaps.

Dungeon Quest is certainly about the attempt to grapple with one's environment and wield power within it. It's almost impossible to vent one's primal frustrations in real life, because we live in a civilization, so sports and action movies and videogames and violent comics are important outlets, especially for men, who probably require some sort of violent activity in their life to remain psychically balanced. We were designed to hunt animals and fight and kill other groups of men, but another aspect of our being is destined to live in and create civilization, so that's what we got to grapple with. I abhor real violence and even depictions of violence in movies that are too realistic and gory and brutal, and yet I enjoy cartoon violence very much. It's abstract and artistic enough for me to find acceptable as a civilized person and yet it also satisfies a primal part of my brain.

imageSPURGEON: Another thing that I think about when I read your comics is another classic fantasy trope, that the kind of adventures you're depicting, this spiral of increased personal effectiveness and treasure gathering, have a satirical element in that they're essentially ways of coping with the real powerlessness of the players or characters. How do you view the nature of the quest that your character on, how it plays out in bigger weapons, cooler items, greater killing potential, more money? You don't seem openly hostile to the appeal of this kind of story progression, from their viewpoint at least.

DALY: I'm not hostile to the appeal or power ups. As your characters move into more hostile environments with more powerful enemies they have to power up to survive. It's an arms race. Those are the rules that keep the tension going. From my point of view as the artist, it also means the armored clothing and weapons the characters have on them will change periodically, which means I'm less like to become bored drawing the characters in the same way over and over again. I really enjoy designing all the outfits and weapons and special items and then naming them. Likewise the progression through different environments with different kinds of rocks and vegetation and temples and stuff means I don't get bored drawing the same backgrounds over an over again. It gives me a good opportunity chance to expand my visual lexicon.

Thematically, I thought that the progression the characters are on would be, kind of, like a journey back through time. So they start out in a 20th Century suburb and then enter a more medieval world and then enter a more sort ancient mythological world. This is a general idea I'm holding, but I'm not being too strict in how that plays out.

SPURGEON: You've talked about the first Dungeon Quest winning the Prix special du Jury at Angouleme in terms of it not being a cash prize or making a big dent on your sales. What I wondered is if you had any sense of how that work was received by French-language audiences in terms of what they reacted to, how they viewed it? I ask because some of the signifiers we've talked about here, I have to assume they're different for Europeans, and that they might be coming at the work from a completely different direction. What would you say has appealed to European audience about Dungeon Quest, and maybe specifically what qualities do you think they were giving an award in 2010?

DALY: That's a hell of a question. Firstly, whilst the prize didn't turn Dungeon Quest into a comic book best seller, especially by the sales potential of French comic books, it certainly helped the book, which would have potentially remained extraordinarily obscure amongst the thousands of comics produced in France every year. So it was a very good thing. It's helped me a little bit.

I can only guess as to what may have appealed particularly to the French audience. Perhaps they're going through a phase of celebrating more joyously silly books after several years of focusing on serious books. I don't know. I don't know if this is true at all. Perhaps they saw something primitive and joyous in the work more so than other nations would. Maybe Dungeon Quest is the Jerry Lewis of comic books. Jerry Lewis was almost inexplicably popular in France. The Jerry Lewis biographer Shawn Levy postulates that whilst the French love high art, they're also suckers for lowbrow humor. It might be wishful of me but perhaps they saw in it a strange mixture of high art and lowbrow humor, in which case it hit both the diodes in their French cortexes. Maybe they just appreciated the lowbrow humor. Dungeon Quest does have its share of lowbrow moments but I like to think that they're knowingly lowbrow, that they almost subvert the lowbrow humor genre, at least a tiny bit. It's a funny, quirky, childlike book but it also has a weird, almost medieval, dark side to it at the same time, which I think resonates with the character of the French people (at least some of them). I'm guessing that it has a similar appeal in the USA, and elsewhere, although I'm not sure if it will be seen as such an arty book by the American comics' audience. Apparently the French don't worry about penises and vaginas and breasts as much as other nations (especially many more conservative Americans) so they'll probably read the book and not even notice the penises and stuff, they'll focus on the other things. Perhaps the French judges were baffled by how to classify it, and guessed that it might be a work of genius. I doubt that's true, however.

I won't suggest that it's "good" literature or "good" art but I think it is good cartooning, and that's what the judges recognized. I could feel that, when I made the book. I felt, "Hey, this is pretty good cartooning." It is a weird book. It's definitely not for everybody. It's going to confuse a lot of people.

imageb>SPURGEON: How comfortable are you with doing choreography for the action scenes? The scene on the bridge is the showstopper in Book Two, I think, and it struck me as a scene that despite its arch qualities worked pretty well as straight-up action. How do you plan for a scene like that one? What is important that you show, how much time do you spend making sure the rhythm and timing of it works? Specifically the move where Lash Penis dispatches the straggler, what were you trying to convey by the way that extended scene broke down into these almost disjointed actions?

DALY: I'm actually very comfortable doing it, which is unusual for an alternative "arty" cartoonist. I think it has to do with my openness to superhero comics, and my initial training as an animator. As an animator you learn to really relish doing action dynamics, because that's where the medium of animation really becomes exciting (for me). I'm not really trying to do parody in Dungeon Quest: my characters really are going on their own quest, they're really taking it seriously, so when they enter these fights, I have to try and really deliver the goods. I can't simply hint at action, I've got to actually depict it. So I have to switch over from the conversational, satirical side of things, to a pure action mode.

I initially conceive of a fight sequence for each character, which will comprise a series of attacks, blocks or damage received and counter attacks, then I figure out what "beats" within that sequence I can use to cut across to another characters fight sequence. When I cut back and forth from character to character it creates the impression of one big battle going on where, the characters are all fighting simultaneously. I can also then start to see places where the characters fight sequences can overlap with each other. I'm doing this now to a much greater degree in Dungeon Quest: Book Three. When Dungeon Quest: Book Three comes out, I want it to have the best action sequences ever seen in indie comics. Maybe it won't, but I want it to. Even if people hate the book, I want to force them to recognize the action sequences as being something special.

In the scene where Lash leaps towards the last troll, hooks his arm around the troll's head, rotates 180 degrees around the axis of his head, stops himself from over rotating by touching his foot against the bridge wall and then slides down the wall into a crazy wrestling hold, I was trying to slow time down by showing all the action from different angles and in slow motion. It's kind of like a Hong Kong action movie-making technique. It's almost a John Woo kind of sequence. The actions weren't meant to look disjointed. They were meant to look continuous but captured by different camera angles. This is something I hope to get better at doing and conveying to the reader. It's also kind of a parody of these kinds of action movie conventions. It's action movie schtick.


SPURGEON: The funniest scene in the book precedes the fight on the bridge, the time where the adventurers partake of drugs and Lash Penis starts screaming and eventually everyone needs to calm down. What is that you find funny about that kind of massive and inappropriate overreaction? Because it seems like it goes beyond squirm-inducing humor because it's not about the faux pas as much as it is the lunacy of the specific overreaction. Do you ever want to be funny and then back away from being so because it's inappropriate or not right for the story?

DALY: I don't think I thought to deeply about that one, other than the idea that despite the fact that they're friends and in a team, sometimes certain tensions boil to the surface in these relationships. I think Lash just saw something aloof and threatening about Steve at that very moment, and felt the need to bust Steve's balls. Perhaps Lash was simply projecting some unrelated and pent-up rage at Steve, and Steve just happened to be in his sights at that point.

Only at this point (during the process of working on DQ Book Three), am I starting to think more consciously about balancing humor against narrative and sacrificing one for the other when it's appropriate to do so. That said, one of the things I told myself, when starting Dungeon Quest, was that I was going to try to not edit myself too much. I want to create a fantasy adventure that seems to stream out of the subconscious, in the way that dreams do. I really want Dungeon Quest to have a primal, dream-like quality to it, where certain moral restrictions and considerations are not present at all. I'm trying to not think about things too much and just let them unfold. I'm sure this will become a criticism of the series from people who require a more conscious kind of construction. However, I think the fact that, all this phantasmagoria is contained within the fantasy adventure genre, within the framework of an RPG, will help to give it a form. In a way it forces a form onto it. So it's a good vessel for my more stream of consciousness tendencies.

SPURGEON: You're still a very young cartoonist. How aware are you of seeing the possibility and potential for your work 10, 20, 30 years from now? Do you have other interests? How long do you think you'll do comics and what's important for you to get out of such a long time working in that art form?

DALY: I don't feel so young anymore. I think making comics is going to turn my hair gray pretty soon. But it's something I feel I can really sink my teeth into, so I'm going to try my best not to quit or be forced to quit any time soon. Sometimes it's the most energizing thing, but a lot of the time it's pretty draining, and one can get kind of despondent about the future. It would be great if comics are still around in 30 years time. I think if comics have survived as a medium and art form up until now, despite all the threats to its existence, comics will survive into the future.

imageMy only plan, at this point in time, is to finish Dungeon Quest and this one other self-contained project I've already started, and then see how I'm doing, and see if I want to make more, if I can make more. Something that's very satisfying for me is when I can reach a new development bump, like there's a long period of hard work and struggle with my craft and then suddenly I start to resolve things I hadn't figured out before and I find myself on new level with a whole lot of new tools and tricks to employ. A lot of what keeps me keen to keep on making comics is this curiosity of what I'll be able to master and do in the future. I worked long and hard to get to where I am today, and I still feel like I've only got my foot in the door (to the comics industry), so I've got to keep going in order to make this pursuit worth while. Psychology of prior investment says I can't quit now.

I have few other interests outside making comics at this point. I love film (movies), but I'm not holding great filmmaking ambitions, likewise with my interest in music. I want to get into craft beer brewing sometime, too. I might make some sculptures or paintings when I have the time, and try to enter them into the fine art world. I don't particularly love the fine art world (not most of it, in any case), so for me it would just be a means to (attempt to) make some serious money, if I can't make it in comics. I do however love comics and I'm dedicated to making them so I think I'd be really loath to stop.

I'm not sure if I'll ever make a comic that appeals to the populace at large, so my strategy is to hone in on a very specific type of comic and comic reader, something more like the traditional underground comics fan, as apposed to the new more "literary" graphic novel audience. I often view this newer "bookshop" audience with suspicion, as not real comics people at all, and I often doubt they have the dedication to follow any particular artist across the course of their career. I want to develop a dedicated fan base, even if it's a small fan base, and reward their dedication with my best efforts to entertain them. More than a "comics guy" or a "writer" or "artist" I want to build a reputation as an entertainer. I feel that the value of sheer entertainment is often overlooked or dismissed in today's sophisticated and occasionally pretentious comics world. At a certain point in my life, sometime during high school, I subverted against superhero comics, which I used to love when I was a less self-conscious youngster. Now that I'm older and more intellectually secure I'm feeling like returning to my interest in superhero comics. Maybe it's just nostalgia, I don't know. I think they have a real value though, as their own art form, and as a modern form of mythology. I feel they've been overly dismissed and downgraded by many people. I want to start collecting superhero comics especially from the period 1950s up to the late 1980s. I think I'll start with the 1980s and work my way back. Superhero comics can be beautiful and pure, and they just have that real comics comics feels to them. Between my love of the work of "primitive" stylists, like Gary Larson, and my love of the work of studious draftsmen like Gary Frank, and my love of the underground stuff, like Crumb's stuff, and my renewed love of superhero comics, I'm developing quite a catholic taste is comics, and quite a schizophrenic approach to making my own comics. If I can manage to sustain a career in comics over a long period of time it's going to be a really interesting creative adventure for me, to see where all these different influences, elements and impulses take me.


* Dungeon Quest: Book Two, Joe Daly, Fantagraphics, softcover, 136 pages, 9781606994368 (ISBN13), 1606994360 (ISBN10), April 2011, $12.99.


* all images from Dungeon Quest: Book Two