Part One: Heaven and Hell in Hawai'i
Gabby Schulz, aka Robert Schulz aka Ken Dahl, emerged from the 1990s Factsheet 5 era of intensely personal mini-comics and has kept his hand into slinging the ink, telling stories and making comics (with a few siestas and sabbaticals en route) ever since. Under his current "Ken Dahl" moniker, Gabby won the Ignatz Award last year for Best Mini-Comic (Monsters #1), and joined us at The Center for Cartoon Studies as our 2006 fellow.
He's a kickass cartoonist, a solid musician, plays a mean game of ping pong, and avoids the CCS office we share like the plague due to the asbestos-wrapped piping on the back wall. He's also a grand and humble fellow, and we love him, even though he's likely squirming to read it here. But it's true, Gabby, we do!
Fascinated by Gabby's comics, art, personal philosophies and his pretty amazing background, and eager to archive his experiences as part of the ongoing effort to compile a comprehensive history of the vital comics scenes and subcultures of the '90s, I asked Gabby if he'd be up for an interview, and he agreed. It's best you hear his story from the man who lived it and lives it. Hang on to your hats, folks, here he comes, and he's taking no prisoners.
SB: Gabby, let's go back in time, back, back to your little Gabbydom. When and how were you first bitten by the comics bug -- as a reader, and with the urge to draw your own?
GABBY: Um... Bill Keane got me into comics. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to The Family Fucking Circus. I guess I'm old enough now to not be ashamed of that fact anymore. Well, I guess Charles Schulz was a huge influence too, but in second grade I don't remember being able to tell the difference between the two anyway. I probably just liked them both because they had kids in them. My mom would buy me the trade paperback collections of Family Circus and Peanuts comics when we went grocery shopping, and I would read them until they rotted. I stashed my collection under my mattress like porn, and pull them out and read them after school and on weekends. I was an only child so there was plenty of time for reading comics.
When Bloom County came out I was still in grade school, I remember that was a big hit with the kids back then. We would cut the daily strips out of the newspaper and collect them in little boxes, then bring them to school and trade them. I'm not sure what the allure of this was. It took over marbles as a major playground fad.
I think it's a logical progression to go from reading comics to drawing them, especially if you're not a very popular kid who is no good at sports. So I started tracing stuff, and drawing characters, and crapping out a couple lame gag strips -- not in any big way, just out of an instinct to imitate more of something that gives you pleasure, once you've consumed all the available stores of the original. That didn't last, though. I gave up drawing for most of my puberty after a particularly traumatic period of my childhood.
SB: What was life like growing up in Hawai'i [note: we will use the preferred island spelling, per Gabby's suggestion], and how did it change for you from childhood to adolescence and the teen years? That's a fantasy many Americans harbor; I'm sure the reality is (per usual) light years away from the exotic fantasy.
GABBY: Growing up in Hawai'i was... complex. Obviously the natural environment was perfect, almost too perfect. And I think, in retrospect, I was very fortunate to be a part of the many unique cultures that are all mixed up on the tiny island -- although at the time it didn't seem unusual, as I didn't have anything to compare it to until I left at 18, which meant I took a lot of it for granted.
At the same time, my life could not have been constructed more perfectly to ensure that I would remain isolated and alienated throughout my formative years. My parents moved there basically on a whim while my mom was pregnant with me -- my dad was from Florida and my mom was from somewhere in the northeast. They were both from poor and unhappy backgrounds, but my dad had just finished medical school, so they were movin' on up.
They didn't know anything about Hawai'i when they moved there. My mom thought it was going to be like James Michener, and regretted coming as soon as the plane landed -- although it would be another ten years before she was able to get out. Hawai'i was a complete shock to all of us, as it was different in almost every way from my parents' cultures; at the same time, they were trying to get used to their jump up into the comfortable middle class, without really knowing how to play the part.
Add to all that the fact that both my parents had basically made it their life's mission to escape their shitty pasts and reinvent themselves as important, classy people, which meant ditching most of their family ties and play acting at how they thought important, classy people lived and acted. The results were both absurd and tragic.
So here's what all this meant to me by the time I was born: I was an only child living with two parents who had hardly any friends or relatives on an island they didn't understand or have any ties to. Meanwhile, they had ditched whatever family they had left on the mainland a long time ago. They were still poor, but hated poor people; they tried to make friends with the rich people, but the rich people could still smell the lingering residue of white trash on them, no matter how hard they worked to cover it up. Some local folks tried their best to make us feel accepted into the neighborhoods we lived in, but my parents scared them all off with their affected, corny snootiness and their lack of any desire to be a real part of the local community. So it was all very isolating and confusing.
And it only increased as I got older. The other neighborhood kids thought I was weird, and I kept accidentally insulting them due to my dad's lingering racist indoctrination. We were frequently mistaken for tourists by the locals, as well as by other tourists (and everyone in Hawai'i hates tourists!). I sucked at sports and was generally a sissy, which ruled out any possibilities for male bonding. In junior high I guess I sort of became a pretty boy by accident, but I utterly lacked the social skills I needed to cash in on it, and my father was giving me all the wrong advice about girls. I remember once in fifth grade, when he was dropping me off at my friend Jose Elizaga's house, my father actually made me bring some perscription zit cream in with me to give to Jose's teenage sister. I guess he had good intentions, but I'm still recovering from the awkwardness of that whole experience.
So I was still tortured and outed as a dweeb by the popular kids, but the nerds still didn't trust me since I was still too... dumb and good-looking, I guess.
My folks had put me in a nice private school, which is a pretty common thing for fragile white people in Hawai'i to do, since the public schools are so bad there, especially for "haoles" who don't fit in to the local culture. But one of the consequences of private schooling in Hawai'i is it does its best to completely isolate you from all the culture outside of its privileged, mainland-centric, blatantly white-supremacist bubble. You're taught from the start to only speak Proper English, memorize the capitals of a bunch of states you've never seen, to wait for Santa Claus to ride up on a "sled" with "reindeer" and come down your "chimney" (whatever the hell all of those things are!) Generally, we were all trained to act like a nice suburban honky from the continential USA -- even if you were Asian, like the majority of my schoolmates.
And the school did all this under the assumption that there is no sane reason for a successful person to stay in Hawai'i -- that is, until they amass enough loot and connections to come back and buy their first seaside vacation mansion. It went without saying that once we graduated we'd all be leaving for good mainland colleges and getting the hell off the island. Staying in Hawai'i for college was considered a prison sentence. Not going to college at all was a fate worse than death.
Gregory Yamamoto photo from The Honolulu Advertiser; Hawaiian high school classroom, 2006
Not surprisingly, this prep school I went to was filled with the most awful, old-money rich kids, some of which were truly evil; by now I'm sure most of them are very important, rich and powerful people, and have still never worked a real job in their lives. They'll be padded from cradle to grave by their daddy's daddy's money, and will cite Ayn Rand and Rush Limbaugh to justify it. I remember kids coming to school in their own BMWs (this was before Hummers), then crashing them drunk-driving, and then getting new ones for Christmas. I desperately wanted to fit in with these charmed, magical, soulless brats, but never could, even though my dad was a doctor. I was a rich kid raised by poor kids, which put a weird set of contradictions in my head: money and materialism were all-important, and poor people were lazy and stupid (especially if they weren't white); but rich people were weak-willed, mean, couldn't be trusted, and never seemed to be really happy. Meanwhile, the poor kids outside of school resented my privilege the same way I resented the privilege of the richer kids at my school.
Regardless of all that, I was still exposed to a lot more non-white, even anti-white-supremacist culture than I would have been if I'd grown up in the lower 48, and for this I am extremely grateful. In the '70s especially there was a huge push towards Hawaiian pride and understanding Hawaiian culture(s). Ethnically, honkies are still a minority there. When I was a kid Honolulu only had one McDonalds! So the isolation of the islands was also a huge benefit -- isolation FROM the meat-grinder of LCD American culture.
Instead, I was surrounded by a mix of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, and Pacific Islander cultures, that weren't watered down by whiteness the way a lot of people are forced to be on the mainland. I mean, Hawai'i had only been a state for 13 years when I was born! So it was still a very long way from the USA back then. Of course, in the past 40 years a lot of that has withered or changed, thanks to globalization, increased militarization and the internet. I could spend another whole interview just talking about that.
But for me the big catch of growing up in Hawai'i was, and still is, that I could never actually feel like I belonged there. No matter how much I tried, I could never really assimilate into the culture that I was born in. I spent all my time in school learning how to not be Hawaiian, and all my time outside of school around Hawaiians. And you literally can't talk to someone in Hawai'i for two minutes before they ask you what school you go to; it's a way of figuring out what class you're from, who your friends are, who your family is, where you belong -- a way to establish a bond, if there is any, between yourself and someone you don't yet know. It's a question that makes it obvious that the biggest division in Hawaiian culture is between the private-school kids and the public-school kids.
Whenever I admitted that I was from a private school, I could just see people's defenses and judgements pop up -- and I couldn't really blame them, knowing what I knew about the people that went to my school. They knew then that we wouldn't have any family or friends in common. I didn't have any family or friends period! And in Hawai'i, with all the emphasis on community and social ties, that's considered sort of an abomination. So I was kept stuck in this weird purgatory between social and economic groups.
And this meant that I spent a lot of time awkward and alone in a weird house that hardly anyone ever visited. Then my parents' marriage blew up, they were fighting all the time, blah blah, the typical cartoonist's-childhood story. Once my mother left the islands I had even less of a reason to stay there myself. I guess all the above is just my extremely long-winded way of saying that growing up in Hawai'i is a lot more complicated than most mainland people might realize. I'm still trying to figure it out, actually. Even now I have no plans whatsoever of moving back, and yet I miss it severely. It's my home, but I don't belong there. And believe me, it's not from lack of trying.
SB: From my self-publishing years, I know there was separate distribution to the islands -- implying comics shops, and some core comics scene. What was the comics scene like in Hawaii -- where were you buying your comics? Were comics plentiful, or hard to come by? Were there shops you frequented?
GABBY: There were some great comic-book stores in Hawai'i, actually! Although the first place I can remember buying comics was when I was already in high school, at this small independent bookstore called Interlude Books. It was next door to a restaurant I worked at, so I would go in after school and before work to look at books, and one day the hip young cashier told me to read this Love and Rockets comic. That immediately became a big deal to me. It sounds stupid to say this but Jaimie Hernandez really changed my young life, and is probably the main reason I'm even drawing comics at all.
I guess I never got into the superhero stuff that much as a kid, but I know that there were quite a few shops at the malls and stuff. Gecko Comics in Kaimuki was probably the best place in Honolulu to buy comics -- or at least I thought so, since they sold all the indie stuff (although sometimes you had to beg them to order certain titles). There seemed to be a level of interest in indie-press comics in Hawai'i on par with any other place in the states.
But probably the single biggest, most Hawaiian comics landmark ever (in my small memory) was the book
This book was sort of a dictionary of local slang (pidgin), with lots of really awesome illustrations by a guy named Douglas Simonson. Literally every kid in Hawai'i in the early '80s owned a copy of this book, and its sequels. There was something about the way it was illustrated that nailed the vibe of that whole time and place, it was part of this whole mythology of being local in the late '70s and early '80s. Short OP shorts and cut-off football shirts, surf wax, big wingy hairstyles, muu-muus and dirtstaches and too much eyeshadow and eating lots of food.
It might be pretentious to take it this far, but looking back at it I think the book was also a hit because it was basically a much-needed nose thumbing at white colonialism –- it was an affirmation of an attitude and a way of living that whites had been telling Hawaiians to be ashamed of ever since the missionary days. That history is still so fresh in Hawaiian culture, and it's amazing that, on some subliminal level, that book taught us kids all about that stuff too, in a way we all innately picked up on. Even white kids like me.
Plus that book taught me about marijuana – how to smoke it, even! Man, it's hard to even imagine that there used to be a time when you could sell a book to children that was full of happy, unapologetic illustrations of guys smoking weed behind their parent's house.
As for most of the other cartoonists FROM Hawai'i, I don't know much -- like I said, i was pretty darn isolated. Of course Stan Sakai is from Hawai'i, and was a big influence on a lot of the kids that drew comics there.
When I got older my high school friend Cade Roster taught me about drawing (and reading) comics; he was a very promising cartoonist himself, but I guess he has gone more the capital-'A' Art route, and hasn't put much time into comics.
There was Deb Aoki, who drew a weekly strip in one of the papers; I just saw her at APE this year so she's still working.
Honolulu had a bit of that zine renaissance that went around in the early '90s; there were even a few "zine fests" put on by a really motivated from-Hawai'i punk named Otto. Those pretty much faded out a while ago, though, thanks to the internet I guess, and all those old local zines are packed away in boxes in people's parents' houses.
But again, I can't say that I was part of any real comics community while I lived there, so I can't say whether one existed or not. My guess is that the same thing happens to Hawaiian cartoonists that happens to any other creative group there -- as soon as anyone gets good or ambitious at anything, they leave the islands. They've even got a name for it there, the "brain drain," and it's one of the main reasons I don't want to move back. Every good cartoonist I know of from Hawai'i left: Kaz Strzepek and Aaron Mew moved to the west coast; R. Kikuo Johnson left Maui for RISD and New York City; Deb Aoki lives in LA now, I think. There's just no opportunity or audience for creative stuff like that in the islands. Interlude Books closed its doors sixteen years ago, and Gecko's is barely paying their rent with Pokemon cards. It's a really tough place to make it as an artist -- forget about as a cartoonist!
SB: That begs the question, what pop culture was available, other than
comics, in Hawaii as you grew up? Was there an indigenous pop culture -- music, movies, TV -- that was unique to the islands, and that you recall as being quite specifically regional in nature?
GABBY: Yeah, in the '70s and early '80s there was definitely a recognizably
indigenous pop-culture in Hawai'i. A lot of it was influenced by Japan -- there were lots of Japanese kid's shows and cartoons that everyone watched. We had a Japanese network TV station called Nippon Gold something, and other network stations, where you could see shows like Kamen Rider and Ultraman and Battle Fever J and the Japanese Spiderman, plus a lot of soaps. and of course later, in the '80s and '90s, there was a lot of anime like Star Blazers and Robotech, although I'm not sure that's unique to Hawai'i.
[Supaidâman/Spiderman, Toei, May 17, 1978 - March 14, 1979 (41 episodes);
SB: Well, some of the mainland got those, but not all. I only saw Ultraman on broadcast TV growing up in northern VT because of Canadian TV stations. Most of the US certainly didn't and doesn't have the direct link to Japanese media you enjoyed in Hawai'i. We just had occasional exposure to the programs themselves in dubbed syndication, until the coming of vhs and bootleg 'gray market' subcultures and all that.
GABBY: Yeah, Ultraman would come in person to malls sometimes when I was a kid!
Of course, there were all sorts of toys that went along with this stuff. The luckier kids had Kamen Rider motorcycles, complete with flowing scarf and removable mask.
I don't know if it's worth mentioning, but a thing I remember being really huge on late-'70s after-school TV was TV POW, a sort of sub-show inside of the children's afterschool show Checkers & Pogo. It was hosted by a radio guy who was most famous for being a shill for Meadow Gold Dairy.
TV POW was this call-in game that capitalized on the new Atari home-video game craze. It was basically a space-invaders knockoff game that you played on TV and over the phone; they'd put it up on the screen and one lucky caller would get to scream "POW!" over the phone to make their little moving spaceship fire a round. The shy and dumb kids would try to aim the shots, or else they wouldn't speak loud enough for the game to register their voice; this drew the ire of everyone watching at home. The smart kids knew to just scream "POWPOWPOWPOWPOWPOWPOWPOW!" at top volume until their time (or their breath) ran out. Winners would get to select prizes according to how many points they got. The host would close the ten-minute show by saying "until next time, SHAKA-POW!" -- and hold up the "shaka" sign, while sort of waving the first joint of his pinky finger. It takes a lot more dexterity than you might think.
In retrospect, watching someone else sort of play video games over the phone on TV doesn't seem like much of a draw, but if you were in grade school in the early ‘80s, you got your cereal or pop-tarts and you watched. The TV POW t-shirt (received just for playing, whether you won or lost) was a coveted playground status symbol.
[Rap Replinger's Poi Dog With Crabs]
I don't know if this is part of a larger trend on the mainland too, but comedy was really big in Hawai'i in the '70s. There were a couple of local comedians that everyone knew about -- the biggest guys were Rap Replinger and Andy Bumatai. They were both big-enough stars to get their own one-shot TV specials, some of which has been put on YouTube by now.
SB: Whew, I've never heard of this stuff --
GABBY: It's always been hard for me to tell whether Hawaiian humor is translatable to the rest of the world; I have a feeling it comes off as kinda lame to other folks. There's a lot of in-jokes i guess; mostly it's funny because they're all basically caricatures of people you'd only meet in Hawai'i. And like with most other Hawaiian comedy at the time, it spends a good amount of time basically making fun of haoles, which is hilarious.
Unfortunately, I can't find any video footage of Andy Bumatai's TV special, All In the Ohana, in which Andy played all the members of a local family unit. I'm sure this is all super boring to anyone who has never seen it... so uh... moving on...
Super Boring? No way, Gabby! We'll finally be getting to Gabby's comics tomorrow, so hang in there, Ranters.
If you found this first installment interesting in and of itself, I might also mention