Saturday, May 26, 2007

Gabbin’ with Gabby
Part Two: The Gabby Schultz aka Ken Dahl Interview!

So, you wanna be a cartoonist?
Gabby aka Ken Dahl tells all, circa 1997.

For a proper intro, read yesterday's post -- and part one of Gabby's interview. With this second installment, we jump into the 1990s comics scenes, such as they were, and lay the bedrock for Gabby's own comics creations.

SB: OK, so, let's jump the Pacific. How and when did you come to the mainland, and what was your process of assimilation?

GABBY: I finally made it to the mainland after high school. I hated school (and was terrible at it), and wanted to travel and bum around, but my dad of course mandated that I go to college. So we compromised, and I pretended to want to go to college as a way to get him to pay for the plane ticket out of Hawai'i. I applied to and got accepted to one college, Arizona State University -- one of the only mainland colleges that still accepted kids with grades as bad as mine.

And so, the summer after high-school graduation, I conned my dad into flying me out to Montana to visit a friend in Missoula; and after a couple weeks of visiting her, I started hitch-hiking around the West. It was a lot of fun, and really liberating, and really cliche. Dumpster-diving and meeting 12-year-old drug addicts and getting hit on by creepy old truck-drivers. Every sheltered whiteboy's dream! Especially after being locked up on a rock for so many years -- I could go wherever I wanted!
I could just travel and travel and travel and never see the same thing twice. And everyone was so different than they were in Hawai'i -- there were so many more scary bible-thumping drunk-driving white people! Everyone I met, when they found out where I was from, would say "yer frum Ha-wah? why'd you leave?" That's the question I've been forced to answer about once a week ever since.

SB: I won't ask that of you, ever. I promise.

GABBY: Heh. So by the time fall came around I had made my way down to Phoenix, Arizona to start college. I'd now had a taste of what a bum's life could be, and it was really hard to give that up just to get down to the drab business of going to college: studying, going to lectures, not having friends. I just couldn't find a reason to do it, at the time. So I basically went to the art classes and failed the rest of the stuff. It was a real disappointment to my father. but man, I was super unhappy.

Gabby hell, Fig. 3

Also, even though I liked being on the mainland, it was a serious culture shock for me, and, since I had no family except my grandfather (who would have me over to his house in Scottsdale every Sunday for a quiet dinner and a dose of America's Funniest Home Videos), it was extremely isolating. I guess I was pretty sheltered too. I spent a lot of time playing pool in the dorm rec room and drawing in my journals and doing acid and generally just being a reclusive spaz. I just sat around doing crypto-quotes and listening to the Butthole Surfers and being a total wreck.

After three semesters I had finally had enough, and jumped on a bus to Portland, Oregon. I guess I've been wasting time ever since! My father has mostly gotten over the disappointment though, now that he realizes it's too late for me to go to medical school. Actually he even sort of encourages the comic-book drawing by now, in a way, I guess. So that's good. All it took was 16 years of failure!

Jumping Chronology:
The 'first ever' Amusement strip, 1997, by Gabby

SB: Your father should be proud: now you're a college Fellow and you're speaking at The Center for Cartoon Studies! You mentioned Portland, which had a lively comics scene in the '90s. What was the first mainland comics scene you gravitated to, and how did that go down for you? Did the mail-order comics and zine scene predate this, or was it integral to the process for you?

GABBY: Ah, I was never really part of any scene. I would just buy a lot of comics. I was really broke all the time because of it. I never read superhero stuff, just the usual indy comics suspects: Jim Woodring, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Julie Doucet, Pete Bagge, Dave Cooper, Chester Brown, the Hernandez Brothers, etc.... and a lot of really good self-published stuff like King Cat and Cometbus and The Assassin and the Whiner and Probosco (remember Probosco?).

So, since I was lonely and the internet still sucked, I would write a lot of fan mail to cartoonists and zine people. I wrote a lot of letters back then. Some people even wrote back, and their little scraps of encouragement helped me to get up the guts up to start drawing more than just doodles. I think I started self-publishing comics just so I could save money, by trading comics instead of having to buy them. I definitely wasn't part of any comics scene in person -- I was terrified of other people, especially people who could draw better comics than me.

Gabby Hell, Fig. 4 (photo credit:

After a year or two I finally got enough short comics together to make my first real comic book, Drenched #1. The irony is I didn't publish it until I had moved back to Hawai'i, after a particularly rough couple of months in Chicago.

SB: Chicago -- it can't get much rougher than that --

GABBY: I did four issues of Drenched (ugh, don't ask me why I called it that) while living in the tool shed of my dad's house in Honolulu -- not having to pay for rent does wonders for your growth as a cartoonist!

  • Among Gabby's inspirations

  • Anyway my comic book got a lot of really positive response from people, both through the mail and locally, which I still can't understand. I guess because it was really autobio-oriented and way too revealing, and people like a voyeuristic thrill. Well, maybe I'm projecting about that. But soon I started getting letters from people like Adrian Tomine and David Lasky and John Porcellino and Ariel Bordeaux... basically the other cartoonists that were self-publishing comics and sending them to Factsheet 5 around that time.

    Actually I remember having this snippy letter exchange with James Kochalka, who was still just putting out minis at the time, over the audacity of his charging two whole dollars for a 16-page minicomic! It was like, dude -- that's way over the cost of printing! How dare you! What are you, some kind of careerist?? He wrote back something about how we cartoonists should respect ourselves more, or something.

    Man, thinking about the ideology of that whole scene is really hard to do now. Things are so different these days. The 1995 me would have thought the 2007 me really sucked, if for no other reason than I'm using a computer. What a sellout!

    James Kochalka: Cartoonist, Musician, CCS instructor -- careerist?;
  • photo via Jason Cooley's blog.

  • SB: Factsheet 5 was a really key cataylyst for this era, and your life, at this point. How did you find your first copy, and could you tell us about F5 and it's importance to your own minicomics involvement?

    GABBY: I think I got my first copy of F5 at Tower Records, back when they had a really good comics & zine section. Either there or at Borders, sadly enough... Borders made it to Hawai'i in the mid-'90s, and, at first anyway, they kept their magazine section stocked with really good titles. The buyer then was real interested in carrying local comics and zines, including mine, and back then there were a decent amount of local zines in Honolulu (most of which I can't remember anymore, without sifting through my moldy box of old zines, which is presently about 4000 miles away from my carcass). So I guess I can thank the Americanization of Honolulu for getting me into comics, too.

    There are probably a ton of people out there who are better qualified than me to talk about Factsheet 5, but here's what I remember about it: it was a big fat zine of zine reviews, with a few short articles and comics inside. It was in the same format as other big networking and fanzines back then, like Maximum Rock'n'roll and HeartattaCk: black and white on newsprint; magazine-sized; saddle-stitched; with regular columns, letters, comics, and big lists of stuff you might want to read or listen to. It was basically just a big list of self-published and small-press zines and comics. Now that I think about it, I guess it pretty much did exactly what the internet does now, socially -- in its own paleolithic way. You'd use it to connect with interesting people with similar interests in other cities and countries -- which was especially cool if you were stuck on a rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

    Factsheet 5 #47, in its prime circa 1993

    To get your minicomic or zine into F5, all you had to do was send them your stuff, along with a form you'd cut out of the zine and fill out. If they decided it was worth their effort, they'd write up a short review of it in the next issue (or so), and print your contact info, along with your price and a description of your wares. They'd also mention whether you accepted trades instead of money, and whether you were willing to send your stuff free to prisoners.

    I always thought that that last part, about the prisoners, was one of the coolest parts about F5 and the pre-internet zine "scene" in general. By including the "free to prisoners" checkbox on their mail-in form, F5 probably inspired a huge increase in correspondence between prisoners and free people, and did a lot to make prisons and prisoners less invisible to sheltered white kids like me. And I'm not convinced that the internet has filled that void since F5 went under; but I could be wrong, as I don't know how much internet access prisoners are allowed. The prison system in this country in general seems to have gotten much worse since those days, in more ways than anyone even wants me to go into now; I'll just say that back in the day I sent some pretty messed-up comics to prisoners, while these days they won't allow suff half as tame past the prison censors.

    Gabby hell, Fig. 6

    Anyway, some of the best "fan" mail I got for Drenched was from people in prison. Their stories about prison life were usually a heck of a lot more interesting than anything I was drawing about. It made me kind of embarrassed to be so concerned with all the little dramas in my life and comics -- like, my moped breaking down or not liking my job or something. Jesus. At least I wasn't locked in a cell with a Satanist who was trying to kill me with Lysol so he can die of AIDS alone!

    SB: The relative 'normalcy' of your comics was possibly a lifeline for some of your readers in prison. This is vital stuff. That said, and not to sound opportunistic, their stories would also fuel some great comics --

    GABBY: Yeah, I agree! I guess this is a good spot to slip in a plug for
  • the Real Cost of Prisons Project, a group that's publishing comics about the problems with the prison industry in the US.

  • Also, since they started their website they have been getting comics from prisoners, and they've started putting up a few on the site.
  • Here's the URL for that page (check out especially Carnell Hunnicutt, Sr.).

  • According to one of the RCPP people, the incarcerated cartoonists they know are happy to get mail from people on the outside -- if anyone likes the comics they see they should drop them a line! I think they list some inmates' addresses on the website.

  • Comix from Inside, Artist: Carnell Hunnicutt, Sr. (copyright 2007 Carnell Hunnicutt, Sr.)

  • SB: Now, about Factsheet 5 --

    GABBY: F5 petered out at around the same time I discovered computers and email (and I held out a lot longer than most people).

    SB: Ya, me too. The print version of Factsheet 5 gave up the ghost almost a decade ago -- though they were historically among the first zines to have an online presence as early as the 1980s. They were no doubt impacted by the magazine distribution collapses of the late '90s. Those market implosions took out a lot of great zines, leaving their publishers broke and owed tons of money.
  • I see an online announcement for online publication restarting last year.
  • I've not seen any activity there, but I've not kept tabs on that link. Anyhoot, the print version ended in 1998.

  • Cover by Mary Fleener, Factsheet 5 #63, 1998

  • GABBY: Apparently putting F5 out took a huge amount of work, and money that they couldn't possibly recoup through ads and the cover price. I guess, like most grassroots things, it started out as just a simple good idea put out through the spare time, cash and efforts of a few committed people -- and when it caught on, and reached a certain level of popularity, things just got beyond the means of anyone to continue without some severe changes. Just thinking about the logistics of compiling all those submissions and getting all the information right gives me a stomach ache. They wrote about how hard it was to put the thing out during the final few issues, and I'm sure all this stuff has been put up on the internet somewhere.

    I really miss those days. I want to start babbling on about how printed media is more accessible and humane and "pure" and less environmentally destructive and less elitist and so on than this whole digital internet instant-gratification setup we've got now, but I don't want to come off like a sentimental old douche. But my eyes sure hurt a lot less when I was staring at newsprint instead of a computer monitor, that's for sure.

    SB: Ah, you were a younger man, then, too. The four issues of Drenched represent your first body of work with sequential comics. Having had a chance to browse those at CCS last week, I was really struck with the work there, and the clear evolution. Care to talk a bit about the four issues, and any anecdotes you care to share about any or all of 'em?

    GABBY: Hey thanks. Yeah jeez, I dunno -- I haven't thought about those days in such a long time. Now that I have, for some reason I have this sudden urge to tell everyone to never, ever date a cartoonist...

    SB: You'll never reproduce if you keep thinking that way, Gabby!

    Gabby Hawaiian comic Amusement, circa 1997/98


    Part Three coming up -- next week! Yes, you'll have to wait a day or two. Still, it's coming.
    Wherein we at last get into discussing Gabby’s mini-comics, political cartooning and much more!

    Have a great Saturday, one and all --

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