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You might not know who Dash Shaw is. Don’t worry,
you will. Dash’s current indie book, Love Eats Brains, is an epic zombie romance and has captured much critical acclaim. His upcoming book, Goddess Head, will surely do the same. Dash spoke to Comic Foundry and proved that even though you’re in the small press, it doesn’t mean you can’t do big work.
Can you take us through your process in creating your comic?
There’s a moment when I’m filled with the desire to make a comic. And then I have to hold onto that for as long as I can. It’s difficult. I don’t write a script. I just start drawing the comic on 8.5-by-11-inch computer paper really loosely.
I don’t have a consistent working method, so it’s difficult to explain. I did a short story, Heart-Shaped Holding Cell, because that place was in my mind and I wanted to draw it out and explain it. It’s not a story, really. I just wanted to describe this imaginary location. And the OddGod Press Love Eats Brains came out of Someone Who Cries For No Reason. And that kind of led to Hormones, which led to different things. I drew a lot of scenes for LEB that didn’t make it into the finished comic. And Operation Smile came out of my dad, who worked in South America cheering up kids with cleft lips before their operations. When I was little, he brought a box of “before and after” photos from the operation. I guess I was 10 years old, and the kids in the photos were all around my age.
I could describe how a particular comic happened, but each one came out a different way.
Tell us about your early struggles to publish Love Eats Brains.
In high school I was making Xeroxed mini-comics and doing illustrations for the Richmond Times-Dispatch every other week. And so when I moved to NYC for school, I wanted to start working on a series that I could self-publish from the money I made from the minis (that were made basically free since I had a friend who worked the graveyard shift at Kinko’s). I should have continued hand-making minis. My early minis were all drawn differently; some were more cartoony and others were more like short illustrated books. And at the Times-Dispatch every other week I would try to do something different too. One week I’d try to learn (Adobe) Illustrator or Photoshop or do a watercolor one. It was like illustration boot camp. I guess I got anxious and wanted to do something consistent (even though I wasn’t anywhere close to being a confident-enough cartoonist), instead of just continuing down that more experimental, learning path (which I’m now back on). I definitely jumped into self-publishing prematurely.
Anyway, the first three issues of LEB were done freshman year at SVA (School of Visual Arts) and I got burnt out on them too soon. They were printed at the Small Publisher’s Co-Op, which has incredibly cheap rates. I could sell them for 2 bucks each and make my money back easily. I already knew a lot of stores that would carry them from doing my mini-comics.
Those garnered some attention and a publisher asked to do a collection of the finished story. At that point I had done Garden Head and I was starting to move back to the kind of comics I was doing in high school. So I asked a friend of a friend, who I’d spoken with briefly before, about helping me finish the LEB series. He seemed really enthusiastic about it, and he said he was a fan of those issues. So I drove over to his place and stayed at his apartment for a week and I made a mock-up of the finished book for him. I penciled/sketched in the remainder of the story on Bristol board. I wanted to work on a comic with a friend, you know? I thought it would get me enthusiastic about the series again. It was really fun working on the project and, I think, we became good friends in the process. He wasn’t under any contractual obligation to work on the book with me. I just trusted his enthusiasm.
So I left all of my original art for the first three issues with him, along with a dozen or so pages I had finished on my own, and a whole bunch of penciled pages and stuff, and I left. After that, he stopped talking to me and kept all of my original artwork. I tried calling and e-mailing him and mutual friends and on and on. He really just cut me off. It’s weird. I still have no idea if the whole thing was a hoax or what. Obviously, I felt really betrayed. It was a shitty thing for an artist to do to another artist, but it was worse since I thought we were friends. I don’t have scans of any of those pages. He really just took a year’s worth of work from me. I later heard other pretty shitty stories involving this person, so I guess he didn’t single me out. But it doesn’t matter anymore. I just said “Fuck it” and decided I didn’t want to finish that series anyway.
So the OddGod Press LEB graphic novel is a completely different story with different characters. The only similarities are the title and the theme (feeling vs. thinking). It looks really different than the original series, since it was done a couple years later and I had developed a lot. And my bestest, oldest drawing friend Will Jones did a short story in the back. So I guess LEB has a happy ending.
How did you go about selling the books? What do you recommend as far as distribution?
The original series was distributed by me and my friends, who lived a lot of different places since they had all moved to different colleges. Tony Shenton, who single-handedly runs a distribution service, helped get them out too. My recent work is distributed through Diamond (Comic Distributors) and other catalogs and the Internet.
How do you put personal interludes and so much emotion into a mass product?
I’m always a little surprised when people say my comics are personal, because they’re certainly not in the autobio category of a lot of indie comics. I guess things sneak in there. I never have a character who is Me. But when I’m drawing, I tend to exaggerate shoulder blades and Adam’s apples and weird noses. And I have a weird nose and my shoulder blades stick out and my Adam’s apple is pretty pointy. But I notice that later. That’s true for the whole comic book story and places and everything.
I want my comics to be an emotional experience. The main character in my comics is “You” and the story is “You’re reading this comic.” I’m not interested in having characters go through experiences and then the reader can feel for them whether or not they relate to the character. Some people will relate to a character and others won’t. I have no control over it. I could draw a character who looks like someone you hate, but to another person it could look like their sister or mother. It’s all associative. But the emotions, the psychology of the drawings and sequences, is universal.
What are the advantages of working in the small press?
There’s so little money involved. Everyone in the small press totally loves the medium and has a lot of enthusiasm. That’s rare in any industry. Last weekend at APE (Alternative Press Expo), Jane and I hung out with the Hidden Agenda Press people, whom we’d never met before, and we all hit it off because we shared a love of comics. It was great.
What, on the business side of things, do people need to know before entering the small press arena?
I know a lot of publishers don’t make really official contracts with the artists. It’s good to keep your receipts and try to figure out how much money, exactly, you’re losing by working in comics. If Hollywood gets involved I’m sure it goes all crazy. My mom said I should do more “film-adaptation friendly” comics and try to cash in on that whole thing. Gary Panter’s told me a lot of film-meeting horror stories.
You have a lot of different styles. What was the evolution between them?
I choose the line quality for a scene or sequence. And I’m very interested in how different kinds of lines and marks look next to each other. Like how if someone writes you a letter, you’re going to get an emotional response from their handwriting before you go through and decode the words. With a comic, every time you turn the page, you get an immediate vibe from the marks and design. So sometimes the psychology of the drawings should be one way, and other times it’s different. Sometimes I can’t explain why something was drawn a particular way; it just felt right to me.
I think the reason a lot of cartoonists are so consistent is that their cartooning came out of the illustration field, or illustrating a story, and illustrators are hired to have a consistent style (so the editors know what they’re getting).
What can you tell us about your band and incorporating music and comics?
The Mother’s Mouth is something I’m almost done with. It’s a 128-page graphic novel and a full-length album by my friend James Blanca and I. The book and album are packaged together, but it’s not like a soundtrack for the book, and the book isn’t an elaborate lyric sheet for the album; they just compliment each other. The themes of the book/album are memories and regression, incorporating a lot of ideas of evolutionary psychology. So the music and the book are tied thematically and emotionally and they both “regress” in some way. It’s hard to explain. The book and the album will be completed at the same time, (I hope) in a month or so.
Where do you get your design influences?
I like Milton Glaser’s book illustrations, Ida Applebroog, Yoshiharu Tsuge, Peter Greenaway’s movies (especially “Drowning By Numbers”), Matisse, Charles Schulz, Henry Darger, my friend Andrew’s short films, David Mazzucchelli, Richard McGuire, Gary Panter, other Meathaus artists (especially Thomas Herpich, Angry Jim and Kenichi Hoshine), Keith Mayerson (Horror Hospital Unplugged), Dr. Seuss, Jules Feiffer, James McMullan, Chester Brown, Winsor McCay, and on and on… Chris Ware is a big one. I think many cartoonists working today owe a lot to Chris Ware.
So let’s say someone has an idea for a comic and writes and draws it. What’s their next step?
There’s a lot of different things: Internet, hand-made minis with Xerox or silk-screen or whatever … I guess the artist has to decide whether or not they want to show it to anyone, and if so: What’s the method of production that best suits the material? Making an emotional, interesting comic is a lot more difficult than finding someone to publish it.
You can learn more about Dash Shaw and his work at these site:
— Interview by Tim Leong