Part Five (and Final) of the Gabby Schulz aka Ken Dahl Interview
Photo: You can write & draw anything you want about cats; they'll still love ya. Photo compliments of Josie Whitmore.
Well, all good things must end -- and that includes this interview.
I'll be jawing and drinking with Gabby next week, but you won't. It's the end of the road, folks, and I hope you enjoyed the visit. Last call.
More on Monsters (see yesterday’s interview installment for context, if you’re just joining us today), the risks of spilling the beans in pen, brush and ink, life in 2007, The Center for Cartoon Studies scene and a wrap-up to our conversation follows.
SB: You go through great pains in the text pages of Monsters #2 to distance the comics from any real persons or events in your past, or any adherence to specific people, places or events. This isn’t something I noticed in your earlier comics. Has the more intimate -- in terms of sexuality -- nature of Monsters been problematic for you, in terms of feedback from friends, etc.?
GABBY: According to some people, I'm still making Monsters way, way too close to reality for their comfort. I really need to go back and make sure that there's no possible way anyone can mistake any of the characters in the comic for anyone they know. So the intimate stuff is a bit problematic, yeah -- mostly because my own story involves other people who might not be as much in the mood for confession as I am. Most of that is just my fault; when I was drawing the first issue of Monsters, like I said, I had no idea that anyone was going to actually read it. So I was a lot less concerned with making “all resemblances to people and places living or dead purely coincidental” than I probably should have been.
And writing Monsters also forced me into a private debate over the strengths and risks of drawing autobio comics, too -- I worried that if a story became too fictional, it would lose the whole impact of the story. I didn't want to lose that voyeuristic, Real Story quality that makes autobio comics like I Never Liked You, Epileptic, or My New York Diary so engrossing (and gross). I wanted to make sure people reading the comic really knew that everything in Monsters was at least possible, that it could happen to them too -- that anyone could put themselves in the shoes of the characters, and not just write them off as gross or stupid or slutty. I was also afraid that, if I didn't ground it in autobio, some parts of my story might seem so over the top that people would write it off as fantasy, or metaphor.
It's actually really frustrating to me that I couldn't write out the full story of what happened during the first two issues -- since the reality of it was so, so much worse and more awful than what I write about in the comic. I had to cut out everything about my mother's death, for example, which came immediately before finding out about the herpes, and made things exponentially harder and more insane at the time. But at some point I decided I needed to focus on just the herpes, and save the other stuff for another, even more miserable comic book.
But I guess really what you're asking is whether it was hard for me to draw and self-publish a comic book that basically screams I have herpes!!!... yeah, it was a bit uncomfortable, even for a masochist like myself -- only because I didn't want anyone to think I was, you know, totally stoked about it or anything.
SB: To understate the obvious -- clearly, it sucks, that comes through loud and clear. I know folks who’ve struggled with it for decades -- it usually provokes the reaction, “There but for the grace of God go I,” unless one is a moralistic prick who considers such infections punitive in nature, which is utterly stupid, but sums up the knee-jerk reaction many still harbor towards AIDS and STDs in general.
GABBY: I guess part of my motivation for drawing and publishing the books in the first place was to force me to "get over" having this virus, and to force other people to get over it too. A couple of my friends at the time when I was first trying to cope with having herpes were really strong women who made it a point of being vocal about their having HPV, which is genital warts. Their talking about it in public seemed to have this magical effect on other people, including me; suddenly it was OK, not an issue, not anything gross or sordid or shameful. And that made me realize that the people who talk about herpes like its gross or disgusting or a big deal are the people who don't actually know much about herpes, and are still ignorant enough to assume they don't actually know anyone that has it -- when, statistically, it's more likely that they already have it themselves! So idiots create the stigma... and, from my personal experience, it seems like most of us are idiots -- about herpes, anyway.
But I also noticed, from watching how my friends with HPV influenced our other friends, that these same ignorant "ew grody" people all generally take their cues about STDs from people who DO have STDs. So if you act ashamed or disgusted about your virus, other people are going to follow your lead, because what the hell do they know about it anyway? So if you can get it together to just get over all that bullshit and treat it like any other innocuous disease or virus, people generally follow suit with that too. (Plus, if they keep being assholes about it anyway, you're now allowed to fuck with them by threatening to spit in their drinks.)
I know it's fucked up that it has to work that way, and it's a lot harder than it sounds to just "get over it." It's not right that people with the disease are also forced to correct everyone else's cruel ignorance about it; but I just don't see anybody else bothering. And forcing myself to come out of the closet about herpes was literally the only thing that kept me from killing myself over the initial shame and disgust, and allowed me to see it for what it was: just a fucking skin rash.
The irony of all this is, it turns out that I might not even have herpes myself -- but I don't want to ruin too much of the ending of Monsters.
Good lord, I'm sorry for going off about this. I guess it's obvious by now that this has become my favorite topic of conversation. The short answer to all that is that drawing Monsters is just a way to force myself to deal with something I couldn't have dealt with otherwise. And that worked really well. Too well, actually, as people have started treating me like some kind of authority on herpes (which I'm not!). People are always asking me questions about what's contagious and what's not; what's safe to do sexually; what the different strains are about; how to talk to other people about having it. These are all things everyone in a just world would have been taught in grade school.
Also, dozens of people have told me things about their own STDs that they've never told anyone else before. There's so many people with herpes walking around, and most of us are too embarrassed to say anything about it. So it feels good to help with that, in a way I never thought would be possible and in fact seems kind of absurd. But I guess it's a good deal for me, since as long as there's STDs there'll always be an audience for my ridiculous little comic book.
SB: Actually, The Comics Journal said Monsters is
GABBY: Yeah... it's all very Catholic. I've gone from having stigma to having stigmata.
SB: The first two issues of Monsters clearly present stages of your own process, which is almost like the stages of grieving. The excruciating exchanges between 'Ken' and his girlfriend in #2 are really agonizing reading, you perfectly captured the nuances of such dynamics: the clumsy word choices resonating with blame, maladroit verbalization of confusion and ignorance inherently skirting any culpability for the situation, and so on. This is tough stuff, Gabby.
GABBY: Yeah... it was really hard to draw. I mean I literally spent most of the time at the drawing table not actually drawing but just sulking, paralyzed over how to plot out these miserable interactions. To draw something out well I have to mull over every little tiny part of it, every hand gesture and sweat-bead -- so when I'm drawing traumatic or depressing situations it can be just a huge bummer. I'm glad it sort of came through, and didn't just come off as ridiculous -- although part of it should be a little ridiculous too, I guess. But I think for my next comic I'm going to draw something about hugging puppies on a sunny day outside a chocolate castle. On vicodin.
SB: Let's get into some technical storytelling and graphic decisions: there's a careful pacing in both issues I love. In #2, it's shaped by the shift from a predominate four-panel grid to the accelerated nine-panel grid (on pages 24-25) as events push 'Ken' toward dropping his guard and risking intimacy again. Was this predetermined, or did it just emerge as you drew that sequence?
GABBY: I think I regretted the square, four-panel format just a few pages into the first issue, after I found out how restricting it is, and how hard it is to build up momentum on a mood with just four panels. I would switch to the nine-panel grid when I wanted things to flow a little faster... to suddenly hurry up the reader with the smaller panels, so they'll feel like they're being rushed a bit, in places that I thought that would be appropriate (like with the rollercoaster, or when 'Ken' is drunk and suddenly making out with someone). But from all this drawing in a square, I sure have a new appreciation for the versatility of the nice, long rectangle.
SB: Your basic drawing has evolved tremendously. Your observational skills are formidable in the day-to-day details. The body language between your characters read/feel/look true, but you bring the same chops to bear on the more fantastic elements: the herpes critters, in all their various incarnations; Herpesland; the dream landscapes. It's all of a piece. Is that flowing easily for you these days, or do you agonize over those imaginative elements, too?
GABBY: Hey uh, thanks. I really enjoy drawing the imaginative stuff. As for getting better at drawing in general, you know what helped the most? The realization that someone other than me was actually reading my comics. After Monsters #1 got all that attention, I got scared straight about drawing -- that is, I figured that if people were actually reading it, I should actually bother to, you know, draw elbows right for once in my life. I think for most of my life it's been hard to justify going whole-hog into drawing comics because there was just no possible way I could make a living off of it. And because if it wasn't making any money, it was just a waste of time that could have been better spent doing something to make my rent. What gives me the right to draw funny widdle cartoons, when the rest of the world is busting their ass just to catch up with their credit-card debt?
The Ignatz thing: Ken "Gabby" Dahl with his Ignatz Award -- "The Brick" -- at the Small Press Expo (SPX), October 2006 (photo from Greg Means & Tugboat Press)
But now I guess I'm trapped, since after the Ignatz and The Comics Journal thing I would feel like if I stopped drawing, or only drew crappily, I would be an even bigger asshole and failure than ever. I don't know. I have no idea how the hell to talk about drawing cartoons. It just sorta happens and then afterwards either people like it or they don't; the truth is I have no idea what I'm doing, or what looks good or bad. I can never guess what other people are going to think about it. I keep reminding myself of that Jackie Gleason line though, that goes something like, "Talent doesn't ask, 'will they like it?' Talent says, 'I like it.'" Pretty big-headed, but it seems to work -- at least for people who don't have terrible taste in comics.
But you know what else really helped my drawing a lot? Not having a job. The last time I worked anything over an 8-hour work week was in 2005. I've spent over a year now basically living out of a truck and spending all day and night drawing and sitting in parks thinking about drawing comics. And being unemployed freed me up to take the Fellowship at CCS, too, which couldn't have possibly hurt my drawing "skills." So I think unemployment has really done me right, even when you factor in the abject poverty and chronic periodontal disease.
On the other hand, I'm broke as a dead-baby joke now, so I fear my days of beer and roses will soon come to an end -- as will the new comics -- as I plunge back into that big Barrel o' Shitjob.
SB: College is about providing that kind of environmental bubble environment, really. Well, I want to back up a bit and get into something else about this current body of work. Gabby, what kicked the puppy over the mountain three years ago?
GABBY: Oh, you know: getting dumped.
SB: Hah! That’s what prompted me to get going on Tyrant! Sorry, I guess I essentially asked about this earlier in another way. But I’ve got to ask if there’s more to it --
GABBY: I don't know if this is true for a lot of cartoonists, but I really, really need to be totally alone to be productive. Not just physically alone but, like, "psychically" alone too. Because when it really comes down to it, there's a thousand things I'd rather be doing than laboring over comics. I suppose if I were more disciplined, I could set up some kind of regimen for drawing that still allowed me to have time for a relationship and (shudder) a full-time job. But the truth is, I am just so fucking lazy and unfocused that if I am given any reason whatsoever to step away from the drawing table, I'll probably take it. So if I'm living with someone and they're watching a cool movie in the next room, or going out with friends to a bar, or making pancakes, I'm not going to be able to resist joining them.
It's also hard for me to be really close to anyone while I'm working on comics, since it feels like there's someone else in my brain. I'm too easily influenced by other peoples' opinions, especially people that I respect -- and that usually makes me self-conscious when I'm drawing. I need to be a brain in a jar in a dark basement while I'm working on a comic book -- free to obsess over the most stupidest, lamest, most depraved and inappropriate things I please, without the feeling that I'm being judged or put on display. The idea that someone I'm living with might come across some pencils I drew of a naked person is just abhorrent to me. There's nothing a voyeur hates more than being observed himself. That's basically why I stopped drawing comics from 2000-2004 -- I was involved with an extremely PC person, and I didn't want to freak her or any of her friends out. Not that anything I’m drawing is so reprehensible -- but the idea that it might be, to someone, is enough to shut off the tap.
So I guess I just can't win. On one hand, the lonesome cartooning life is perfectly suited to my disposition, and I really enjoy being alone; on the other hand, drawing cartoons is really fucking lonely! I think for people like me, there's nothing noble or workmanlike about comics. Comics for me are just a cry for help. I started drawing comics to prove that I existed; to communicate with people that otherwise would never have bothered listening to my dull, petrified stammers. For whatever reason, comics-speak is the only language my brain is fluent in. It's how I think -- which is an immense fucking burden, since it's impossible to translate that into any other type of communication. But every time I'm offered a quicker, easier, less labor-intensive route to gratification or validation -- like a relationship -- I go and ditch comics again. Hopefully that's going to change someday; but most likely I'll just die unhappy and alone under a pile of inked pages, like most "indie" cartoonists -- that is, if I'm lucky!
SB: Well, we’ve all got Jack Kirby to look to on that -- he had a full life and drew a monstrous amount of amazing comics. It’s possible to do both, but that’s not an easy path to find. You've been on the road most, if not all, of your adult life thus far. Now you're plugged into a new comics community, the new one evolving around CCS. It’s something pretty unique, really, unlike anything I’ve experienced since the Kubert School days. How did you get involved with CCS -- the Fellowship (no Tolkien reference intended) -- and has this been feeding you creatively?
GABBY: I know that there's a legitimate selection process and everything, but I'm pretty sure that the main reason I got the CCS Fellowship was because I went skinny-dipping with Robyn Chapman at the San Diego Comics Con a couple years ago. Now I realize Robyn's rationale: White River Junction can be a pretty boring place, and we need to import as many people as we can get who have poor impulse control. I'm sure it also helps that I was able to drive my entire house here; otherwise I imagine it would be really hard to drop everything and move up into the wilds of Vermont for a year. But basically she told me to apply for the Fellowship a couple cons ago, and I did, and James Sturm liked my stuff, and so the next thing I knew I was stocking up my housetruck with rancid oil to make the cross-country trip from Oregon to Vermont.
Now that the Fellowship's over it's becoming obvious that I was pretty lucky to have done it. Like you say, there's a real comics community up here, which is something that's really rare and special, especially for cartoonists, who spend so much of their time alone and underappreciated. It's like being at a comics convention every day... well maybe not that exciting. But I've definitely learned more about comics and cartooning life in the past year than I have in the other 33 -- primarily from you, actually! And most of it has been pretty much just by accident, because I happened to be in the same room while something cool was going on.
I've met some really cool people here, and feel like we've got an awesome (if dysfunctional) family going on. Everyone's really eager to help each other out, share information, critique each other's work, buy each other beer, and generally make life up here more bearable. It's not like some art schools, where the students can be really antagonistic and catty and mean to each other. I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens to the new CCS students in their second year. I'm actually, against all sanity and good judgment, even thinking of sticking around for another year myself, to watch the second-year kids graduate.
SB: Do it!
GABBY: I might not have a choice -- I’m too broke to get my house out of the driveway!
Being here has definitely been feeding me creatively -- there's so many other cartoonists to swipe from! I've been ripping off [student] Joe Lambert's style more than anyone realizes, and he's only like 22 years old. Everyone's gotten way better at drawing cartoons since they got to the school, and I think a big reason for that, other than the formal education, is all the time we spend together. Oh, and the ping pong. The intensive ping-pong training has been invaluable to my development as a cartoonist and a human being.
SB: OK, other than ripping off Joe and ping pong, let’s get to brass tacks: how has CCS affected or altered your comics work, or your orientation to it?
GABBY: Being at CCS has definitely helped me take comics more seriously -- or at least made me feel like it's OK for me to do so, without getting laughed at. It's also nice to be around the younger cartoonists -- most of whom draw better than me. It's been really reinvigorating, like when they bring kittens to nursing homes. It feels good to have a bunch of people who care about comics collected in the same geographic location. I'm really worried about what life's going to be like back in the real world, where nobody gives a crap about my little comics.
At the same time, traveling has really helped me make better comics. I think it's a good idea to get out in the world and force yourself to out of comfortable mindsets and habits. That sounds obvious, but I know so many comic-book people who have no idea there is anything to life beyond their sheltered little menagerie of Comics Journal flame wars and pop-culture references. And there is no better way to ensure that your comics will eternally suck than allowing yourself to remain in an exclusive, insular group that always validates your work, no matter how derivative or mediocre it is. Cartoonists need to be kicked in the ass a lot more than most people.
So traveling has helped a lot for me in that regard -- it shows me exactly how little my private interests, concerns and beliefs really matter to the rest of the world; it reminds me that nobody outside of this clique knows or cares what the hell an "Ignatz Award" is. Most importantly, it reminds me to draw for a wider audience than just other indie-comics geeks. It's so easy to fall into a rut of ideology, not just with comics but with anything -- I've found this especially true with political activists -- where you think all that needs to happen for the whole world to be better is for everyone to shut up and be more like you. When I was vegan I totally forgot that the rest of the world gave zero shit about my dietary dogma. It was easy to forget because I surrounded myself with other vegans, or at least with people who knew what the word "vegan" even meant; and so eventually I stopped even questioning the legitimacy of our convictions. And that's how people go crazy, no matter how clever or persuasive their theories are. It's never a bad thing to keep throwing all your cherished theories and assumptions against the cold, hard wall of reality to find out what sticks.
Crap, I don't think that had anything to do with your question. Um, yeah, CCS has been great. I'm sad to leave. The industrial paper-cutter alone made it worth the trip.
SB: So, in the big life journey, do you feel part of a community at last? I mean, I feel you’re a big part of what CCS is right now, if nothing else --
GABBY: Yeah, very much. Especially with "my" class, the second-year kids; a lot of us are really supportive of each other's efforts, and make a point of helping each other to do better, and everyone seems to have improved so much over the year because of it -- me included. There's a bit of healthy competition too, which is great for motivation. There's some people here who think a whole lot about comics, and I get to drink beer and talk with them like every week. I'm sure it helps that there is literally nothing else to do up here than sit around and talk and draw, at least during the winter. And now that it's summer we all get to go play kickball together. I love the kids here (including you, Steve!), and I'm really excited to see what the new class will be like.
SB: Huh, so I'm a kid, eh? What or who are you reading these days -- in terms of book, comics?
GABBY: Sadly, I have been reading a lot less non-comics books this year -- although I did finally get around to reading Don DeLillo's White Noise a few months ago... that would make a great comic book!
Being at CCS has exposed me to a lot of new great foreign comics -- I really flipped over European cartoonist Christophe Blain, just for the gorgeousness of his drawings, and how easy and casual they the story reads. And when the school went up to Montreal a few weeks ago I found a ton of really incredible-looking French-language comics by cartoonists I'd never heard of before and no one in the US has ever heard of, since they've never been translated into English.
Although I'm probably forgetting a lot of people, I am eagerly anticipating new stuff from Dan Zettwoch, Aaron Renier, Sammy Harkham and Kaz Strzepek. And I've picked up a lot of great stuff at cons lately, too -- Elanor Davis, Drew Weing, Matt Bernier, Chris Wright, and Nate Beatty are all people I wish would put out even more comics, and get more recognition (and money!) for them. And that big King-Cat Collection that just came out was a really great dose of nostalgia -- although it also made me really glad that people aren't doing so many of those "dream" comics anymore.
And, mark my fucking words, people will be going apeshit over Laura Park once her comics start coming out.
Photo: Gabby, CCS Guest Lecturer, May, 2007; photo by Joe Lambert.
SB: So, about your own comics -- what's the plan with Monsters? What's the scope of this project at this point?
GABBY: Agh, I'm not really sure yet... to be honest all I want now is to just finish it as soon as possible, before I piss too many more people off or I die or something. It should be going on for at least three more issues -- but frankly I'm not sure. Since it's going to be pretty much pure autobio from issue three on, I keep having to add on different endings and footnotes every few months, every time I get a new test or find out something new about herpes.
And I want to include all this stuff that I find out about herpes, but really at this point there's so much to still be learned about it that I could just go on forever, way past any sane reader's capacity to care. So hopefully I'll rein it in to just a few more big comic books -- and then it'll be published as a book, probably by a very new comics publisher called Secret Acres. So Monsters has already got a little home, once it's all done.
SB: Any other projects you care to discuss?
GABBY: To procrastinate on drawing the rest of Monsters, I've been drawing a few things for some really cool anthologies coming out. Julia Wertz (of Fart Party fame) is getting a bunch of great cartoonists to illustrate Craigslist "Missed Connections" ads -- that should be out sometime in early 2008. And some CCS students are putting together an oversized anthology called Sundays, which I'm drawing my largest pages ever for -- we should have that ready for the MoCCA in just a month from now!
Also, when my roommates aren't home I've been trying to teach myself how to play the fiddle. So if anyone out there wants to give me any pointers...
SB: Bring ‘em on, folks, if you’ve got ‘em. Thanks, Gabby, and thanks for the considerable time you poured into this interview -- much appreciated!
That concludes our first marathon interview; hope you enjoyed it. There will be more to follow from other folks, including more cartoonists and fellow CCSers.
Have a good weekend, one and all -- I’ll be posting between now and Monday, but if I don’t see you here ‘till then, have a great one.