The Gabby Schulz aka Ken Dahl Interview, Part Four
Here Be Monsters!
Gabby, finger & fellow CCSer Jaci June; February 2007 (photo by Jeremiah Piersol, compliments of Emily Wieja)
More people see movies than read mini-comics, so bear with me a moment as I offer a cinematic context for the following interview. Seeing as Gabby and I eventually go there ourselves in today’s installment, it seems appropo.
Larry Clark’s notorious debut feature Kids charted a day in the life of a cocky AIDs-infected teen lad eagerly popping as many virgin cherries as possible, while a recent ‘score’, having tested positive, listlessly tracks him down before he can infect more young women.
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later blighted the UK with a hyper-infectious viral ‘rage’ that decimates the island populace in two weeks, erupting from a botched animal activist raid on a biotech lab; 28 Weeks Later, the sequel, finds the ‘rage’ re-emerging and spilling beyond control.
In Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a misanthropic scientist deliberately spreads a contagion to fellow passengers on a commercial international air flight, thus precipitating a global apocalypse.
As of yesterday, though, we all now know it needn’t happen this way.
Malice, microbiological scientists and misanthropy needn’t be involved.
All it takes is being horny, homesick, and self-centered enough to ignore the consequences for anyone else.
Gabby’s current comic series Monsters is more relevant than ever, with
Image: "The biotech industry arrives in Hawai'i"; Amusement political commentary for Honolulu Weekly (and a pointed adoption of movie monster imagery) by Gabby, 1999
Monsters, natch, concerns herpes, not TB (or AIDS or ‘the rage’ or cultivated bioweaponary). But few other works in any media so thoroughly explores the ethics, issues, empathy (or lack thereof) and agonies of knowing one is infected, facing the conundrum of personal will (and desire) after becoming a mobile vehicle for a contagious disease. Monsters is timely in ways Gabby never imagined when he began work on such a personal project.
That said, there’s only one intro suitable for what follows: reading the previous three installments of this lengthy interview with Robert Schulz aka Gabby Schulz aka Ken Dahl. From his childhood in Hawai’i to his initial breakthrough into comics via four issues of the self-published minicomic Drenched and a healthy stint of political cartooning, it’s all there, with ample illos and links.
If you’re stepping in to this for the first time today, you’ve got some catching up to do. If you’ve been with Gabby and I thus far, what are you waiting for? I’ll get out of your way -- the interview continues...
SB: What was the rest of the minicomics 'scene' of the '90s like for you -- bringing us up to date with your recent move to VT and your fellowship at the Center for Cartoon Studies -- your post-Drenched, pre-Monsters work?
GABBY: While I was drawing strips for the Honolulu Weekly, I really didn't draw anything other than that, what with all my traveling and work and codependent relationships. It took a dose of real tragedy to get me back into minicomics. By 2003 I had been going out with someone for three years, and had really sunk into a nice comfortable routine of not drawing at all. The time and effort I would have put into drawing went instead into watching DVDs on the couch, making pancakes, and generally bending over backwards to make my partner happy. But then my mother, who lived in Phoenix, got diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I spent a few months back and forth between Phoenix and Hawai'i, trying to help her fend off collections agencies and landlords and move into a hospice home. Then, when she started getting real bad, I went back again and spent a good month and a half alone in Phoenix, sleeping in a rental car on the side of the road, with very, very little support from family or friends, basically waiting for my mother to die. Apparently I was the only family she had left, so it also fell on me to take care of her funeral arrangements and remains.
SB: Oh, man, Gabby -- I’m sorry you went through that alone --
GABBY: Ah, that’s just what happens with parents I guess. They die.
After my mother died, I returned to Honolulu, and me and the girlfriend promptly went through a really awful, complex, drawn-out breakup. We both started seeing other people, casually, and I moved into my father's house. Luckily cartooning, like an old cast-off ex-girlfriend, took me back again with open arms. So in 2004 I finally found my way back to the photocopier, with a tiny little minicomic called Blind Fart that I drew for one of the last Honolulu Zine Fests, which was really just like 20 kids finding a good excuse to get liquored up to loud music at a bar.
SB: It seems like Blind Fart was a real logjam buster for you: you've since put out Taken for a Ride (2004), No (2005), Gordon Smalls Goes to Jail (2006), and your magnum opus Monsters (2006-7) -- and that's just what you've shown me.
GABBY: Yeah. And I was surprised to find how hard it was to get back into, to even draw a tiny, simple little story like Blind Fart, after slacking off for so long. It felt really good to have a finished comic in my hands, no matter how small, after such a long hiatus from drawing.
I worried that if I didn't keep drawing I would never start again, so I drew Taken for a Ride immediately afterwards -- it was a slightly larger minicomic about flying on a plane on the one-year anniversary of the World Trade Center blowing up.
Those two small efforts got a bit of kind attention from readers, and gave me the juice I needed to get back into relearning how to draw comic books well. At 32 years old, I knew that this was probably the last chance I was going to get to start over from scratch. So I went to lots of free life-drawing classes, got back into filling sketchbooks, and generally tried to avoid all manner of employment or human contact until I remembered how to draw again. I also moved away from Hawai'i again, and spent a sumer working on organic farms to get my head clear. I ended up settling back in Arizona, where some friends had offered me a couch.
I have a whole stack of comic stories from this time that I had pencilled or thumbnailed but then abandoned; the stories that survived to the inking stage I compiled into the No minicomic (also available via I Know Joe Kimpel), which I sold at my first comic con, the Alternative Press Expo in '04.
SB: What did that convention experience mean for you, and your sense of 'the community' at that time?
GABBY: I only started going to cons like three years ago, and I think it was the best thing I ever did as a cartoonist. It allowed me to actually meet and get drunk with other cartoonists in person, which led to all sorts of happiness -- including landing the Fellowship at The Center for Cartoon Studies this past year. It was so great to watch Kaz Strzepek suddenly get popular too, after he'd spent his whole life in Hawai'i drawing amazing comics and getting absolutely no attention for them, even with the internet. I'm really glad we both put ourselves up to buying a table at APE.
Going to comic cons now, I've even got to finally meet in person a few of my old pen-pals from back in the Factsheet 5/Drenched days -- like Carrie McNinch, John Porcellino, David Lasky and Dylan Williams. The funny thing about Dylan Williams was, he had actually spent a day showing me around San Francisco once over ten years ago, but at the APE in 2004 he didn't recognize me, and I was too shy to reintroduce myself -- and so for the next two years I would avoid him whenever I saw him at a con. Even after someone (re)introduced us he still didn't recognize me, especially since people know me by a different first name (Gabby) now than they did back then. And so I kept pretending I didn't know him!
I guess it was really insane of me to not just mention to Dylan that we used to know each other a decade ago. Eventually it just became a perverse game to see how long I could draw the awkwardness out.
Then for this year's APE I needed a ride down from Portland to SF, and someone told Dylan that I was looking for a ride, and he called me saying he and Tim Goodyear were driving down and had space for me in the car. So me and Dylan were sitting in a car together for like ten hours and I still couldn't bring myself just to tell him that he already knew me!
Sometime around four in the morning it finally came out that I used to live in Hawai'i, and he's like "hey, that's funny... do you know a cartoonist that used to live there named uh... Rob something?" And so I finally had to break it to him that that was me. He took it pretty well, although he was understandably pretty freaked out I guess. I stayed at his mom's house that night. So I guess we're friends again! As long as he keeps recognizing me at cons...
SB: Let's get into Monsters, which deservedly won the Ignatz Award in 2006. Now you’ve got the second issue out, which is tremendous, too. What was the launch point for this project?
GABBY: Uh, geez, I dunno... misery? boredom? When I was drawing Monsters #1 at the table of my housetruck, I took it for granted that it would meet the same fate as everything else I've drawn -- a few people would read it, a few copies would gather dust on a zine rack somewhere, and that would be the end of it. If you had told me then that in a few months I was going to have to accept an Ignatz Award for it, I would have laughed and laughed. In fact, I'm still laughing. I have no idea how that happened.
SB: Well, congrats, man. Enjoy it!
GABBY: OK, OK. I do have one guess about how I won the Ignatz: everyone who had herpes at the SPX voted for Monsters to win the Ignatz. That's a lot of people! According to the Centers for Disease Control, 50-80% of American adults have Type-1 herpes, and 21% have Type 2 -- and more than two-thirds of these people don’t even have symptoms.
I guess that was the point of drawing a comic book about herpes, too. I had gone through so much misery and confusion about this virus, and drawing a comic book about it was a way to make sense of it, both for myself and for other people who knew as little as I did about it. I was really angry that I had heard nothing about this virus until my early 30s; and then only because my partner had an outbreak. So I wanted to make sure that other people didn't have to go through the same bullshit as me, only learning about herpes the hard way, after they got it themselves (or, worse, gave it to someone else). It seemed like a good use for comics -- I could use Monsters as a cheap, easy way of forcing people to think about something they otherwise probably wouldn't. Like Chick tracts, only not insane!
SB: It's far more ambitious and cohesive than anything you've done before, with a most singular focus. The title is a bit deceptive, but entirely appropo -- when did you settle on that moniker?
GABBY: That and a few other things will (hopefully) become a lot more obvious as the story progresses. I'm trying to draw this thing with an eye on the collected, finished book. But, without giving too much away, the "monsters" name has something to do with how our culture views contagious viruses, and herpes in particular. In future issues I'm going to get a lot more into the monster-movie aspects of disease -- like with vampires, which are such a perfect metaphor for STDs. And some horror-movie directors, like David Cronenberg, I am just totally convinced have herpes.
SB: OK, let’s get into all this. Monsters embodies a real maturation of your cartooning and writing skills. There's nothing tentative about it, it's all of a whole. Were you consciously stretching and challenging yourself, or did that just manifest in the doing of it?
GABBY: I think a great story just fell into my lap (ooo -- no pun intended) -- and when I realized this, I did everything I could to be worthy of the opportunity. In a way it's been easy to write, since it's mostly about my own life, and covers topics I've been obsessed about anyway.
But I guess it has taken a lot of challenging myself. First of all, writing about herpes meant telling everyone who read my comic book that I had herpes! So before I could write about it, I had to force myself to get over my own embarrassment at having the virus -- which was extremely hard at first, and took a lot of research and forcing myself not to be a chickenshit. I think my history of drawing about uncomfortable subjects really helped me through this stuff.
And in the process of doing all that, and educating myself about the disease, I found that my embarrassment and shame had been replaced by a fascination with, even an admiration for, herpes and viruses in general -- in all the weird ways they've learned to coexist with humans and other "higher" forms of life. In some ways they're a lot smarter than we are; they just multiply, and let us do all of the footwork. They've pared everything down to a streamlined simplicity. If the point of life is to propagate our DNA, then viruses are the undisputed champions of evolution. Which makes sense, as they've been around a lot longer than most anything else on this planet. So you can see, by what I'm writing here, that once a virus is in you, they not only become a part of you -- you become a part of them, too. It's a weird world.
Anyway, I should stop talking about this before we get into bird flu and smallpox... Did you know some monkeys in a zoo in Colorado just died from the bubonic plague this week? And there's a guy in Arizona locked up in a hospital, permanently, for having a deadly new strain of TB! So these little viruses and bacteria aren't going anywhere. They're always working as hard as we are to win the evolution game.
Photo: Suck some face, baby? Oral horrors, sexual parasites in David Cronenberg's Shivers aka They Came From Within (1976)
SB: They’re everywhere! I won’t get into Avian Flu turf, but let’s dance. This empathy for the virus you’re discussing puts you in rare company: William Burroughs ("language is a virus"), David Cronenberg, who you’ve already mentioned, etc. Cronenberg has spoken openly in interviews since the '70s about his fascination with viral lifeforms (or whatever they are -- the 'life' thing is still a point of some scientific controversy) and empathy/admiration of their life cycles and methodology. He's still the only Western filmmaker to openly articulate that, in his films and his interviews.
GABBY: Yeah, I guess that's what makes Cronenberg's movies so fuckin' creepy, too. And that's part of what Monsters is going to try to address... how it wouldn't kill people to have a little more sympathy for, or even just curiosity about, other lifeforms (or pseudo-lifeforms) --especially the ones that live inside us.
Panel: Those cuddly mites from Jay Hosler's The Sandwalk Adventures
SB: Jay Hosler has taken this to a different level with his second graphic novel The Sandwalk Adventures -- I mean, Charles Darwin’s eyebrow mites are cute li’l lovable creatures in Jay’s world. There’s no horror element whatsoever. Jay’s a biologist, so he has a very pragmatic, scientific orientation to the subject; they fascinate him, too (as they do me).
GABBY: I think most people resist this because to accept and understand the motivations of things like leeches, or scorpions, or viruses is a big step towards legitimizing the existence of these other critters -- and this severely hampers our ability to kill them. It also makes us a lot less secure about our assumption that we're top species on the totem pole, and all our behaviors are good and right and preordained to be so -- even when we carry out or condone atrocities that no self-respecting virus would ever be psychotic enough to consider. For whatever reason, humans are really, really allergic to the idea that we're not only animals, but that we're not particularly nice animals, at that.
But once you do start to grasp this, the audiences of all these horror movies start to boil down to so many mindless football fans rooting for the home team. Both “teams” of protagonist (human) and antagonist (monster) still have identical objectives -- winning; surviving; getting the healthiest most attractive mate. Only an idiot (or a rabid fan) could think there's an unequal morality behind the motivations of the two teams. On Earth all of us species are just trying to get along -- unfortunately, "getting along" around here usually involves some degree of killing, eating, and otherwise sucking the life out of other lifeforms. It sure is a wacky game; but, as white American humans, we do a heck lot more of this killing and life-sucking than any lamprey or cougar or face-hugger. So why do we keep rooting for the home team?
Photo: Richard Wordsworth as the infected astronaut in the Hammer Films version of Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Xperiment aka The Creeping Unknown (1955)
SB: Well, that’s the genre orientation, traceable to a number of seminal 1950s science fiction classic. Nigel Kneale introduced many of these motifs in The Quatermass Experiment BBC teleplay, which was huge in the UK, but most Americans were first exposed to this archetype around the same period via novels like Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was originally serialized in Collier’s magazine, a very popular weekly. The parasitic alien lifeforms -- Heinlein’s controlled nervous systems, Finney’s supplanted humans with replacement sentient vege-entities -- are a threat, and must be destroyed. Period. That’s it. It’s Cold War xenophobia gone viral. To take this one step further -- and tie in to the Japanese pop culture you were enjoying as a kid, and where it has since gone -- the contemporary Japanese ghost novels, manga and films have taken their hauntings ‘viral.’ Koji Suzuki’s trio of Ring novels -- Ring, Spiral and Loop -- specifically manifest their hauntings via disease (smallpox), genetic codes (a dead man’s altered DNA is central to Spiral) and so on.
GABBY: Yeah, and not only Japanese movies -- movies like 28 Days Later, Children of Men, and The Host (which is from Korea and actually anti-American) play on the new terror over virus-bourne illness. I've also noticed that all the new Marvel superhero movies have updated their origins; Spiderman gets bit by a genetically engineered spider instead of a radioactive spider, and The Hulk gets engineered genes from his father instead of just getting bombarded with gamma-rays. Viruses and genetic engineering have replaced radiation as That Creepy New Threat That No One Really Trusts or Understands. I guess I'm just lucky to have gotten herpes at a time when I can jump onto that whole train.
SB: Lucky?? You devil, you. By naming your comic series Monsters, you’ve tapped this genre pool. So, again, I ask you: why the title, Monsters?
GABBY: Now, that takes some explaining; and, again, it will become a lot more obvious as the story progresses. But since those won't be done for a while, and I can't resist getting back up on my wingnut soapbox, I'll try to lay it all out here too:
I just watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers again last week -- the remake with Donald Sutherland. The first time I saw it was on HBO around 1980, on the very first stormy night my family moved into this big creepy house on a hillside with lots of winding stairs and weird architecture and strange plants growing under it. Anyway this movie, partially because of my environment, and also because of all the fucked-up shit going on between my parents at the time, gave me the most sweat-drenched, wake-up-screaming nightmares on a weekly basis literally for years. It was hands-down the most traumatic piece of media that I consumed throughout my entire childhood. I think I still don't trust adults because of it.
Photo: The original nightmare: the vege-Becky (Dana Wynter) wakes up in Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
SB: I grew up with the original, the 1956 Don Siegel version, which induced plenty of nightmares. But keep going --
GABBY: The other night I pulled the  movie out of my roommate's DVD stack, feeling like I was in the mood for a good scare, and curious to see how the movie held up 25 years later. I was surprised to find myself not only completely unscared, but actually rooting for the pod people. I mean, everyone on the "human" side of the movie are these painfully corny and pretentious post-hippy Bay-Area fashion victims, wearing turtlenecks and using chopsticks for no reason and going to pop-psychology lectures and writing self-help books and sitting in mudbaths... just total fools. And meanwhile, you've got this amazing alien lifeform that traveled through our galaxy on the solar winds to find a new home on Earth -- and their big threat is, what? That they want everyone to get along? I mean, what exactly is the problem there? Where's the horror? You go to sleep, and when you wake up war, and disease, and hunger have been abolished, and you can communicate telepathically -- definitely not a worst-case scenario, as far as horror-movies go.
I mean, I understand about having free-will and self-determination and blah blah... and I know that Body Snatchers was just anti-commie propaganda.
SB: Some interpreted the novel and original film in that manner, but both cut much deeper than that. Clearly director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter revamped the remake to resonate differently for the ‘70s; you’re right, the humans are narcissistic yuppies. That was a calculated decision: it’s part of why that film works so well for much of its running time.
GABBY: But, you know, what's the big deal? So you're a plant. What's so bad about being a plant, anyway? Has a plant ever invented a machine gun, or nerve gas, or a nuclear bomb? Do plants force orphan children to do cocaine and clear minefields? Do plants dump millions of gallons of mercury and arsenic and PCBs into the groundwater? Has a plant ever forced anyone to work in a diamond mine? Show me one plant species that spends the majority of its time and resources plotting better, more efficient ways of killing and enslaving other plants. Let's give the plants a break already, Donald!
Photo: 'Liberation' in Cronenberg's Shivers aka They Came From Within (1976)
SB: Cronenberg always said he was on the virus’s side, too; that was his radical take with Shivers aka They Came From Within: the sexual parasites are nasty little fuckers, but they do ‘liberate’ their uptight human hosts. Part of what was -- and remains -- so perversely disturbing about that film is the way it caricatures the sexual liberation of the '60s. It presents sexuality as a non-lethal contagion, in and of itself, embodied as these fecal, transmutable parasites.
GABBY: Yeah, that was a great movie! I saw that for the first time when you showed it to a bunch of us at CCS this year.
But I guess if I was going to attempt to drag that rant up there back to some sort of relevant point, it would be this: thinking about what it's like to be a herpes virus has really altered my perspective on what it's like to be human. Now that this virus is a permanent part of me, I can no longer really see it as a separate life form, much less a threat, you know? And so, when I watch horror movies now, I often find myself rooting for the "away" team -- the monsters -- more than I do the polished, boring, clean and predictable Hollywood "heroes." The "monsters" in the movies just want the same thing that anyone wants -- affection, nourishment, understanding, safety, survival. Or maybe it just wants to be left the hell alone! I mean, what exactly was the big crime of the monsters in Creature from the Black Lagoon, or King Kong, or Alien? Why did they, and countless other monsters, all deserve to be hunted down and killed? What did they ever do to us? We came to their houses, for no reason other than this weird white-guy colonial impulse to fuck with other peoples' business. Why are so many of these movies rooting for the overdog? Is it because the underdogs don't look like us? Because they also find "our" women attractive? Because they also want to survive? Who's side are we on, anyway? And is picking a "side" even a good idea the first place?
SB: Sure, exactly.
GABBY: What’s really scary to me is that all these preconceptions make their way out of the cineplex and into our real lives. And entertainment -- not just monster movies but all media -- always comes with an agenda, packaged up in a way so that most of us never even notice it. Kind of like how a virus operates! When movies entertain us, we allow them to slip through our defenses and implant their agendas inside us, where they gestate, mature, and become a part of us (and, in some rare cases, come popping out through our ribcage).
And this is the process by which we're taught how to act, who to emulate, who to hate, what our core values should be. This is how our cultural perceptions are shaped about how we view outsiders, and strangers, and people who are different than us... including people who have diseases like, say, herpes. Monster movies teach us more about how to treat people with herpes than any amount of grade-school sex-ed classes.
Which is kinda lame, considering that these films usually try so hard to maintain the (usually WASP, straight, middle-class, non-diseased) status quo, and I don't hardly ever see this being questioned or challenged -- certainly not by Hollywood (although Cronenberg is a rare exception).
SB: Cronenberg always challenges. He articulates his perceptions and obsessions with greater skill, intelligence and clarity than most; he’s quite deliberately subverting narrative and cultural conventions. Most monster movies do -- consciously or unconsciously -- take the monster’s side, that’s the allure of such films. I mean, the monster is always far, far more compelling than the hero or heroine, or the cultural status quo. But that’s almost accidental. I see your point; we’re supposed to be rooting for the hero, against the monster. All this was and usually still is sublimated into a standard hero vs. menace scenario. In that mode, you’re right, most standard genre genre fare embraces a very conservative, imperialist and xenophobic imperative.
GABBY: It's the cultural war of the bully and the popular kid against the rest of the world. And usually -- like with our real popular-kid wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama and so on -- the threats of these wars are entirely invented and maintained by the popular kids themselves. The popular kids need to enshroud themselves in victimhood and martyrdom before we'll allow them to invade, kill, rape, torture and enslave the rest of the world.
SB: Ideology as virus. That’s what Burroughs was saying: language as virus, ideas as virus --
GABBY: Right, right. And so they invent the War on Terror. They invent Satan and Christ. They invent Reefer Madness and Static Cling and Ring Around the Collar and Acid Reflux. There's always got to be a thousand daily threats pushed up in our faces, to draw our attention away from the real problems and ensure that the goalposts will always remain in a place where the winning team can always keep winning, and the losing team never has a chance.
And any entertainment medium, even comics, plays a huge part in this war -- in their narrative point of view, in their themes, in the way the action is framed. And this is intentional -- no one, least of all artists and storytellers, is immune from it. There's no such thing as a story that doesn't have a moral (even if the moral is not to bother with morals!). I suppose that's why I'm drawing cartoons instead of making music videos or something -- cartoonists have a lot more freedom to express unpopular ideas, and have a much better chance of finding an audience for them. It's my way to fight for a world where people cry instead of cheer at the end of Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Photo: That's it! I've held out as long as I can! Gabby mentioned my fave movie monster again -- so here he is, with Julie Adams. Go, Gillman!
SB: Shit, I cried! Well said, Gabby -- you’ve pretty much summed up my own affinity for horror and monster films since childhood. I always sympathized more with the monsters than the humans; there’s a subversive drive to most of the genre that favors the outsider, particularly when the deck is stacked against the outsider so completely. We love our monsters. You've in fact made the Herpes virus a character in Monsters -- it's gone from a malignant presence in #1 to the sideshow carny of #2, overseeing and ballyhooing "Herpesland." What has the process of characterizing the little boogers been like?
GABBY: It's been really fun. I wanted to make it at least a tiny bit based on reality, so first I looked at a few microscope pictures of the things on the internet, and a few interpretations of what they might look like in 3D. Luckily they looked sort of cool -- spiky gelpacks with little honecomb balls inside. Just grotesquely pretty to look at. So I used them for a starting point, and sort of let them ooze gradually into the comic, and "evolve" into more anthropomorphic shapes and characters as they made their presence more known. In the next issue they become sort of my pirate's parrot, as I go through the process of conversing and debating with this new "monster" in my body (which I hope isn't going straight over the top into ridiculousness). Anyway they're a lot of fun to draw, and not as boring as, say, an HPV virus.
Continued -- no, concluded! -- tomorrow!
the good life at The Center for Cartoon Studies, and more!