Interview with Gabby Schulz aka Ken Dahl, Part Three!
Though autobiographical and semi-autobiographical comics indeed predated the launchpad commonly attributed to the underground comix era (e.g., Sheldon Mayer’s Golden Age Scribbly; Sam Glanzman’s U.S.S. Stevens backup strips in the DC war comics of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, etc.), there’s no denying the importance of the landmark comix that set a high bar for personal comics and “confessionals.” Robert Crumb, Justin Green (whose 1972 Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary was the first true classic of its breed), Harvey Pekar, Lee Marrs, Roberta Gregory, Howard Cruse, etc. set the stage for the alternative, graphic novel and mini-comics autobiographical boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Of course, turning one’s personal history and miseries into art and popular entertainment is hardly unique to comics. Novels, painting, sculpture, theater, music, cinema, etc. thrive on the transmutation of life’s shit into vicariously-experienced gold, and one need only take a cursory glance at the history of film comedy, for instance, to count the goldmines. From Charlie Chaplin to Judd Apatow (whose latest, Knocked Up, is opening this month everywhere), even the most populist of propectors have found their muses in personal tragedy and reached the masses.
Thus, Gabby Schulz is blazing new trails with his latest effort, Monsters, while building upon the bedrock laid by countless cartoonists before him -- and his own worthy body of work in the minicomics ‘scene’ of the 1990s. To get to Monsters, though, it’s crucial to trace Gabby’s cartooning path from the beginning.
Last week, Gabby shared with us his early years, growing up in Hawai’i, finding himself a perpetual outsider, and his formative fascination with comics as a reader. Which brings us to today’s installment of this interview, charting his creative bond and evolution with the medium, and his tenure as a political cartoonist...
SB: Where did your first minicomic series Drenched come from, and why embrace the confessional comics route?
GABBY: Drenched #1 came out in 1995, I believe -- right after I'd left a really, really horrible restaurant job in Chicago, moved back to Hawai'i in a sort of PTSD state, and was generally in that time of life (my early 20s) where I was just realizing how bad of a fuckup I really was, and figured I'd have to begin setting about the work of improving myself (or at least start feeling guilty about not doing so). So autobiographical comics might have been part of that.
But I think I probably just chose the "autobio" idiom because those types of comics were so huge around then, what with Chester Brown and Seth and Joe Matt and Julie Doucet and Joe Sacco and Jim Woodring and Ivan Brunetti and the Crumb family's Dirty Laundry and 58,000 other minicomics and "perzines" all coming out full of artists picking over their own neuroses while carving a swath of destruction through the rest of their social circle by publishing the intimate details of real peoples' lives. It's a seductive habit. It was basically cheap therapy for people who couldn't afford health insurance, and I don't think anyone was pretending it was anything more than that, which was comforting for someone as solipsistic as myself.
Now a decade later I guess I'm still really attracted to that autobiographical stuff -- dirty secrets, gossip, voyeurism; getting a peek underneath the veneer of someone's public persona to the really awful and disarming and pure, lovely, human mess that convention and sanity can't expose. All the things that civilization is designed to snuff out, diminish or regulate, basically -- the urges, vulnerabilities, fears, and dreams that hinder the smooth gearwork of heirarchy, convenience, and tepid industrial business-as-usual. Everything about the civilized world seems designed to either snuff out, diminish or regulate our humanity. Even language and clock-time are compromises, repressions, ways to fracture and partition and sedate the chaos of our outsized superape brains, and lull us away from freaking out at the places where the unbearable burden of our self-knowledge butts up against the meaningless bare absurdity of existence.
...which isn't always such a bad thing, really, since many parts of the human brain are pretty messed up and contrary to nature. I wouldn't want to suggest that repression doesn't help humans to work together, form healthy communities, and avoid some of the more monstrous acts we're capable of committing. But at the same time, I’ve gradually come to suspect that this setup might not be worth the trouble. It's way too easy to forget that the guts and mess and horror and forbidden ecstacies are all still in there, like a virus, churning away right under the surface. So where does it all go? What's happening to it in there? What does it look like? Let's take a look! Or try, anyway. And the best place to start investigating all of this is inside your own brain -- that is, if you’re the type of person who can handle wading through all the horror and confusion and contradictions you find inside yourself. But I guess everyone’s got to do that at some point in their lives, whether or not they make a comic book out of it.
So for me, drawing confessional comics has always been something like the luscious revulsion you experience while opening a carton of cottage cheese that you know has been in the back of the fridge for months and months and months. Only that carton is my brain. If someone has no desire to gaze upon whatever's waiting inside that carton, they must be a pretty dull person. And who knows -- maybe under that wet skin of toxic spores there’s actually a band of magic dwarves jamming on theremins and standing on an ingot of solid gold.
Of course, all this isn't to say that the comics I drew as a result of these beliefs were any good... but I did what I could, and had a real curiosity about my own messed-upness, and a drive to improve -- both my comics and my brain. At first, not knowing any better, I basically followed the template that had been provided me by the minicomics I read and admired: digest-sized, rudimentary ink scratchings with an "intro" in front, printed on the cheap with help from your friend that works at Kinkos. My basic, unconscious credo for drawing comics was basically to just take something that terrified me -- death, the future, love, adults, being forgotten, having the plain truth about my character exposed -- and wallowing in it as completely and honestly as possible.
The first couple issues of Drenched got a way, way better response than I'd expected -- which is to say, more than four people read them. Not much more than that, though -- I doubt I printed more than 80 copies of each. But still, they got around, and the people who read them made a point of telling me they enjoyed them. I guess we were all pretty starved for creative stimulation in Honolulu back then, and so people were pretty liberal with their encouragement. And so you can see my drawing getting better and better by the third and fourth issues.
I was also of course sending my stuff in to Factsheet 5, so by the time I drew the second issue I was getting pats on the back from overseas as well. Something about the personalities of the people I was trading letters and comics with really gave me the feeling that there were people out there in the world that I could really get along with; that's something that had never happened in my life before.
I guess cartoonists get along with each other because cartoons attract a very particular, and very rare, personality type. We're like slugs oozing our way alone through the horror and rot of the underbrush, with no real means of defending ourselves or inspiring sympathy in other species; but when by chance we come across another of our kind, we can't help rubbing the slime of kindness all over each other.
And Steve, if this slug analogy goes against anything you know about actual slug behavior, I don't want to know!
SB: Bring on the slime, Gabby. This was your first taste of creative communities --
GABBY: Yeah. Still, I didn't go to comic cons or zine fests on the mainland until almost 10 years after drawing Drenched. When I finally did -- at the 2004 APE, with my pal Kaz Strzepek, who was also pretty much unknown at the time (and is now justifiably way more famous than me!) -- I got that feeling again, that great feeling like "these are my people!". I found out that “Indie” and “Autobio” cartoonists are a messed-up, tortured, long-suffering bunch, but they understand each other very well; there's a sense of comraderie between us that I think is a lot more deeply felt than most other artforms. But then again, maybe that's because none of us are getting rich, and there's no tenure-track jobs for us to fight over. Anyway, that feeling of solidarity with other cartoonists that I admire, that's a big reason why I even still draw comics at all, I think.
But back to Drenched. I drew four issues during I think just a sixteen-month period, which is really prolific, for me. Due to a surge in social popularity resulting from my minicomics, my life was more eventful than usual during this period -- but I'm afraid all the good anecdotes involve people who hate me now and have access to the internet.
I swear I'm really a nice guy with very good intentions, but at the same time it's obvious by now that -- until maybe recently, and then only with other cartoonists -- I just never got the hang of even the most rudimentary rules of social interaction, and because of that I've managed to piss off a lot of good people just from sheer inertia. Drawing comics about your real life can be a pretty grisly habit. I've really hurt a lot of people that I've cared about from doing them. In fact I still seem to be doing it today. It's impossible to make these people understand why I think it's a good idea to draw all the stuff that I draw, or to get them to share the perverse love of masochism that makes me want to reveal the hidden things I observe and recreate, both about myself and others. Like I'm doing everyone some kind of huge favor or something! Sadly, I am no stranger to death threats, suicide threats, social ostracision, or ex-friends trying to run me down with their cars. I guess it's only funny to say that if you know me in person -- I swear I'm one of the most good-natured, boring and obliging idiots you'll ever meet! But nobody's perfect, and, like I said, I can't afford therapy.
Basically I've been painfully shy and awkward my whole life, and connecting with other humans has been an immense challenge. Autobiographical comics were a way of getting some relief from that. When I draw comics, and people read them, it makes me feel like I exist, and am not just a drooling, mealy-mouthed chuckle-headed idiot, and maybe that I'm even a worthwhile human being... which is definitely not the impression that I usually give off in person, nor how I’ve felt for most of my life. Maybe that's gotten better lately -- but I used to be so shy that my father was convinced that I needed speech therapy; I couldn't stop slurring and mumbling my speech when I talked to people, and I generally nodded mutely or chuckled awkwardly when asked direct questions. Basically, I was more of a bothersome pet than a son; they could have just left me out in the backyard on a leash, fed me Kibbles and threw a Frisbee at me every now and then, and everyone would have been happier. I still have a huge problem with expressing important emotions, like affection or anger, in an appropriate way. I'm an emotional cripple and a social disaster -- of course I'm a cartoonist! I draw comics because they're a quick, cheap way to assert and justify my existence when i feel like a ghost -- which is pretty much every day of my life. At the same time, the message-in-a-bottle anonymity of comics allows me to have friends without the agony of, like, actually interacting with other human beings -- except for comic conventions, of course, during slug mating season.
SB: Similar feelings, similar situations led to many of us becoming cartoonists. When social interaction seems so daunting and insurmountable, the genuine intimacy and potent ability to communicate via the solitary acts of writing and drawing is very powerful and very liberating, once you feel you are connecting with someone, anyone. That then becomes a path to community, for many of us. Now, you braved a more public expressive route during the ‘90s; you nurtured a political/editorial cartooning tenure amid all this.
GABBY: The political cartooning started pretty much at the point where the minicomics left off. During the Drenched days, one of my "fans" was a lady who owned a small, very cool bar in downtown Honolulu called the CD Cafe, in this building that used to be a brothel. She wrote me and offered to let me sell Drenched there. I ended up meeting a whole bunch of new friends through that, and did a mural and some newspaper ads for the bar in addition to selling, like, eight or ten beer-stained copies of my comic.
So, fast-forward a few years to 1997: Stu Dawrs, who used to be the bartender at the CD Cafe, was now the editor of the Honolulu Weekly, Honolulu's liberal free press. He was a very nice guy, and so he called me when I moved back to Honolulu (to go to college) and asked me to draw a strip for the Weekly. He said I could draw anything I wanted, and it paid $20 a strip -- so that's about as good as it got, for me.
That began a good four years of drawing my newspaper comic Amusement, every week. At first they were completely ridiculous nonsequitors, but over time (probably from being forced to think at college) I started to get more into thinking about politics, and the cartoons reflected it. I started drawing more strips about local and national current events, usually in a way that nobody could make any sense out of.
Still, just the simple act of condensing a complex political issue into a 3" x 4" box forced me to use my brain a lot more efficiently -- both with politics and with comics. I learned a lot about how to pack information into my drawings; I also learned how to wade through a lot of the bullshit and spin that comes packaged with most news stories, especially those from the mass media.
And I think eventually that's what put me down the slippery slope towards getting out of political cartooning and back into comic books.
My primary motivation for drawing political cartoons -- which is probably the same as most political cartoonists' -- was to make politicians, pundits, developers and other powerful people look as vain, greedy, narcissistic and foolish as they really are.
Naively, I thought I could use political cartoons to change people's minds, to get them riled up, to goad them into action. I wanted to get people good and pissed off about things. I wanted to make John Ashcroft sit up late in bed weeping as he gazed down into the black, unredeemable pit of where his soul should have been.
Of course, none of that actually happens. Political cartoons are basically thermometers to gauge a publication's political orientation; and, especially if you're getting paid, the spectrum of that thermometer never goes beyond Republicrat reformism, a pointless croquet match of liberals-versus-conservatives ideology-squabbling which I have come to despise as an utter ruse and distraction.
And so, as my politics moved further left than liberal, I also found that the cartoons got harder to draw. It's easy to draw a comic that convinces your average fence-sitter that George W. Bush is a monster. It's a bit harder to convince them, in the same amount of space, that the entire two-party system of politics in the US is fatally flawed and has long been rotted out from the inside; that lobbyists and globalization have made our quaint notions of democracy irrelevant (if indeed they ever were relevant); that most of what you read in the paper is just a series of red herrings designed to throw people off the scent of any issue that actually affects their lives (or the lives of others -- and God forbid Americans should ever care about those). It's hard enough to use political cartoons to point out how bad things really are; using them to inspire Americans to shake off their complacency and act directly to change things for the better is probably near impossible.
There's a great Eugene Chadbourne song that goes, "Governments love anti-war songs / they say sing 'em loud, and we'll sing along / because it reminds them, in a musical way / that there's a war." And the same is true about politicians and political cartoons. No matter how mercilessly I caricatured a local politician in my strips, I would get nothing but kind words back from these fuckers. Their assistants would regularly email me saying that their bosses saw my strip of them in the paper and would like to buy the original to hang in their offices. In fact, Hawaiian congressbot Neil Abercrombie still owes me $70 -- his secretary wrote out my check to "Ken Dahl" and they refused to send me another one with my real name on it.
So basically I got sick of feeding the narcissism of those bastards -- and anyway, the paper would never run my strips advocating the public lynching of Dick Cheney. What was left for me? Maybe someone more talented than me could still be able to pull that stuff off -- I know I really loved the way David Rees (the “get your war on” guy) wrote about Americans’ response to Bush invading Afghanistan and Iraq -- just the sheer venom and absurdity that he milks out of his strips is so great. But my theory is that parody is no longer possible, or at least appropriate, because the Bush Administration has literally made parody obsolete.
SB: Well, Stephen Colbert has evolved something unique, and got his shot at the Administration in their own hallowed halls, but I know what you mean. Karl Rove doing rap-parodies of himself, Bush’s average Rose Garden press conference -- they’re too vile and absurd in and of themselves.
GABBY: I mean, have you ever been reading a news story on the internet somewhere and after you’ve read the entire thing you still can’t tell whether it was from The Onion? I don't think that's accidental; I'm almost inclined to believe that it's a deliberate strategy of the current administration's PR team. I think things have literally gotten to the stage where we need a stronger tonic than simple lampoonery. The shit ain't funny anymore. It's an overused comparison, but can you imagine some German cartoonist in 1939 drawing silly little political cartoons about Hitler 's final solution? It's like Tom Ridge telling us to use duct tape to protect ourselves against bioweapons attacks. Somewhere out there some motherfucker is not laughing about that. In fact, that same motherfucker probably got paid a whole lot of money to come up with that plan while keeping a straight face. Listening to Attorney Generals try to parse the definition of "torture" so we can all justify it is, or judges turning environmental activists into some kind of Satanic sex-cult is... fuck, man, how do you doodle a response to that? Especially when the press is in on it?
Of course, that's not to say that I don't think political cartoons are completely without a use. I had a few Pat Oliphant collections as a kid, and they probably did more to inoculate me against Ayn Rand than anything else life threw my way -- I knew Reagan was a despicable scum-sucking monster before I was even out of grade school, thanks to Pat! But these days, I just would rather not bother mixing my comics up with some posh pseudo-liberal publisher's ad revenue. so I chose to go back to a life of flipping pizzas and self-publishing comic books instead.
SB: So, what were the first comic stories you tackled in the wake of that decision? Were you prompted to dig deeper into more personal -- or personalized -- work?
GABBY: Despite all the big talk I just spewed about political cartoons being worthless, actually the only reason I quit Amusement was because I was graduating from the University of Hawai'i and moving away from the Islands yet again. I even considered continuing the strip (in a less-political way) while traveling on the mainland, but I was going to be homeless for a while and wouldn't have access to the internet. So that was around 2000. I was still doing the occasional illustration for the paper while gone, and when I moved back again to Honolulu in '03, the new editor of the Weekly (Curt Sandburn) invited me back to do a bigger strip about local issues for more money ($50!). He even took me out to lunch! It's amazing how little it takes to get a poor cartoonist to do your bidding.
So I drew a new strip called King Street Babylon for a few months.
It was great to have more room to draw, and the extra money didn't hurt either. But the new editor was a lot more interested in micro-editing my stuff, and by then I was such a prima donna that this created some tension. As our invasion of Iraq geared up, that got me so angry and disgusted that I couldn't help drawing strips about that, and getting away from the whole "local" focus of the strip. Curt wasn't happy with that either, and I was like "BUT THIS FUCKING SHOCK AND AWE SHIT IS FUCKING BULLSHIT MAN!"... so things got sort of tense.
Then someone tipped me off that the Weekly's other cartoonist -- who was inexplicably Republican, and a close pal of the publisher -- was getting paid $200 to draw a strip in the same paper. Even before I found out how much he was getting paid I was never a huge fan of this guy -- he was a real status-quo, boring cartoonist, and his style was pretty much a direct ripoff of another cartoonist, this guy named Ranan Lurie. It really burned me up that this jerk was making four times than me for strips that took probably an eighth of the effort it took me to draw KSB. Shit, man, with $200 a week I could have quit my restaurant job and paid my rent with money still left over for top-shelf liquor and organic produce.
So I wrote this uppity email to the publisher and editor of the Weekly, telling them that I was going to quit in a month if they didn't start paying me as much as their other cartoonist. They offered me a raise -- of $20. So I quit. I guess that was pretty stupid of me -- $70 a week sure seems like a crapload of money right now. But the truth was the strips really took a long time to draw, were sort of mediocre, and I was just plain sick of drawing little tiny comics every week for someone else. Especially since I couldn't draw dicks and oozing brains.
SB: There are priorities.
BONUS: Reader reactions to Gabby's Amusement "Bushland" cartoon
I just poured [sic] over your Bush-land cartoon. I haven't seen that level of hate in a long time. It's sad. I pity you.
Just saw your cartoon about Gov. Bush. You are one big lying son-of-a-bitch. May God condemn your soul to hell.
San Angelo, Texas
Just a thought... I wonder if you ever so viciously parodize the left, (i.e. algore etc), as you do with the right (as in "Bushland", showing a very pathetic attempt to be clever). You really can't call yourself a political humorist if you don't, as you're in effect a political agendist who pretends to be fair when you're not.
GREAT BUSHLAND TOON! (from a fellow cartoonist):
Saw your toon on Cagle, oh my god that was GREAT. One of those, I wish I had done it toons! good job.
Part Four of the Gabby Schulz interview gets into breaking the logjam of life with Blind Fart and oh, so much more...