Despite growing up reading 2000 AD and the fun and flinty horror comics of the early '90s Vertigo line - with all the fetishistically rendered viscera and fluids that came with them – Dan White's work is principally that of a cartoonist. On first glance his work is more in the tradition of Chuck Jones and Beano legend Ken Reid – particularly the latter given his predilection toward the grotesque – than it is that of Brian Bolland or Steve Yeowell. This tension is re-enacted between his immediately appealing, chunky cartooning and his ever-present desire to peek round the darker corners of the psych: into the alleys where the one-eyed witches, the screaming skulls and the missing fathers alike all live. This gives his work the fizzy, combustible energy so apparent in his ongoing Cindy and Biscuit series, as recently nominated for the award of Best Children's Comic at the British Comic Awards.
Along with his work as a cartoonist Dan is also one of the founder members of the long-running comics blog Mindless Ones and, along with Fraser Geesin AKA Gary Lactus, host of the podcast Silence! under his codename, The Beast Must Die.
Dan and I sat down over pizza and Holsten Pils to talk cartooning, all ages comics, scaring kids and criticism.
When did you first start drawing?
It's been life long. There was a family acceptance of art as being something worth doing because my uncle was a commercial illustrator and a cartoonist. My grandma was also an artist - she did pet portraiture - so it's in the blood. There was a lot of drawing war scenes and copying Asterix and that sort of thing, but I didn't start doing comics until fairly late.
When I was 15, a friend of mine - Fraser Geesin, my co-host on Silence! - did his own comic and photocopied it at school and I was blown away. I remember going “I'm going to do my own comic”. I didn't, I got about two pages drawn of this Jaime Hewlett rip off. The main guy wore John Lennon style sunglasses and wore big anoraks and rode a scooter. It was all very Tank Girl.
Were you reading a lot of the British comics at that point?
Yeah. That was a sweet spot in British comics, when you could go into a WH Smith's and pick up 2000AD, Crisis, Deadline, Revolver, Strip... I think the first genuine influences in terms of me telling stories were Jamie Hewlett and Philip Bond. It almost felt like they'd drawn their stuff on their school books, there were notes in the margins about what they'd been listening to and things like that, so I tried to ape it. I don't think I even did roughs, I just used to start with panel one and by the end I'd realize that I'd fucked myself over and have to do a tiny panel in the corner.
Before that, the first things that I remember having a huge impact on me are Asterix and, unfortunately, Garfield. I don't think it's been residual, but I remember loving Garfield for a while. Then my dad gave me a Calvin And Hobbes book and I realized what people could do with the form. I also remember reading a lot of British comics like Battle, Action Force, Mask, Transformers, those sorts of British weeklies.
Were comics a cool thing to be into when you were at school? Did you shout about it or keep it under your hat?
One of the things I liked about comics was that it was a secret. I didn't get on that well with what's expected of you as a 14 year old. I didn't want to go shoplifting and I didn't want to do aerosol and hang around car parks. Comics was this white hot passion that I was completely overtaken by, but you couldn't say to your friends at school after football that you were into Batman or 2000AD. I made some friends outside of my school and they were into comics and made it seem OK. They were into going out raving and things like that as well, so I thought “well, you seem like quite adventurous people and you're into comics so they must be cool”.
What was the first comic you published?
There were a few abortive attempts. I tried working with friends to write stories and quickly realized that working from another person's script is difficult, but that working from a script from someone who doesn't know how to tell a comic story - even though they might be a fan - is even more problematic, because you're being asked to do something in a panel and you're like “I can't do that, that's eight different things you've asked me to do”.
The big break through was when I moved to Brighton after university and picked up a couple of local self-published comics by Danny Noble and Paul O'Connell. I thought “I'm going to give this a go”, so I did a comic called Beau And Me. It was about a guy in his 20s and was infused with my experiences of living in a city. It was real world storytelling but I made the main character a little wolf guy and his friend look like something out of a Ralph Bakshi cartoon. So these cartoon characters are telling a slightly bittersweet tale of 20-something angst. What an original idea! But it was liberating and it worked. I just kept doing it until it was done, and then I got it printed up and started selling it.
What was it that was so liberating about going for that approach rather than just going straight in and doing a sci-fi epic, for example?
I had big plans about doing certain comics, but then you realize that your artistic skill set isn't suited to the 12 part mega-epic involving drawings of other planets. Also I've always been a fan of Raymond Carver, who could carve out intensely meaningful moments from the everyday without going into soppy sentimentalism. I realized that by having a fantastical element I could satisfy my interest in drawing weird things, but that welding that to the mundane meant that I could also look into what it's like being a person and living now. It was a practical decision, but I found the alchemy of it really appealing.
When did you start noticing that your style was developing? Was it an incidental discovery or was it something you were working towards?
There's a hodgepodge of influences that I can see in everything I do, but it's nice that a style has formed. When I'm doing a brush stroke I'll be thinking “the way I've drawn those bushes is really Bill Watterson.” The style also came out of admitting that I didn't have to do figurative art work. I could still tell stories that I liked by using cartoons. I should say that the biggest influence in my life is Chuck Jones. Seeing the Warner Bros. cartoons broke me forever.
So you were quite strict about wanting to be a cartoonist?
I just admitted, y'know, “You're not going to be Simon Bisley and you're not going to be able to draw Batman”. Nor would I want to. My uncle was an illustrator and I used to look at his work and the looseness of the brush work used to really appeal to me. When I realized I could tell the stories that I wanted by cartooning, and not being a slave to anatomy and photo-referencing, that was really liberating and I think the style developed there. It was quite organic.
A lot of your work – Terminus for example, which you did weekly for Mindless Ones – consists of single panel pieces. What is it that appeals about that format?
The one panel strip is traditionally used for political cartoons or simple visual gags, but I wanted to explore what you could do. They were like haiku experiments in paring down the text. Doing it on a weekly basis was great - doing anything on a weekly basis is great because it's a way to refine your style - and I noticed that I was getting much better at paring the words down. I wanted to do something that wasn't necessarily funny. What about if you had a one-panel comic that just disturbed you, or made you feel a bit sad? Somebody on the internet said “It's like a fortune cookie that you open up and inside there's an obituary.” That was the perfect description of what I was trying to do. He didn't mean it as a compliment but I put it on the back of the first collection anyway. It was about trying to capture something and suggest a whole world in a panel. There was a nerdy element also, because I got to tell a science fiction or horror story simply. Horror is a thing that comes up again and again in my work and Terminus was a good way to flex some of those muscles.
What scared you when you were a kid?
My dad introduced me to MR James at an early age and that really worked a number on me - the idea of the ineffable unknown and the hinting at the horror. Haunted houses and ghosts got to me more than anything. Monsters I was fine with. I routinely used to watch '50s sci-fi movies as a kid and enjoy them, but it was the ghosts that stuck with me. I was also seeing little bits of horror films. The first five minutes of An American Werewolf In London is still one of the scariest things I've ever seen.
With Cindy And Biscuit are you aiming to scare kids? Is it a worthwhile thing to do?
I've always wanted to do that thing of not including stuff that's going to make it inaccessible to kids, without writing for kids. I think there's an important difference. That Neil Gaiman thing of proclaiming “I'm writing for children now” is everything I'm trying not to do. I think as soon as you start writing for kids you patronise them and try to put on a voice that you think they'll like. With Cindy and Biscuit I want to create things that kids will still be thinking about when they close their eyes, so some of the pacing and the use of silence and so on is designed to scare.
Presumably there's a line you wouldn't cross?
There have been a couple of times when I've finished a strip and thought “have I gone too far?” Not because it's explicit, but because it's unsettling. It's interesting seeing kid's reactions to it. They are sometimes freaked out, which is good. What I try and stay away from is anything too graphic. I like the look of blank eyes and blank expressions and I think that can be quite unsettling for a kid as well. Cindy doesn't have pupils. She looks like Little Orphan Annie or something out of a Max Fleischer cartoon. Some people find it off-putting: “Why can't I see her pupils?!”
I wanted to try something that would artistically stretch me. Insomnia was an attempt to go further, like a prog version of Terminus. I wanted to have no fucking jokes in there and get much closer to an impressionistic sense of horror. I would collage photos by photoshop, copying and pasting them then printing the results out. Then I would trace over it using stark black and white, then colour it in a really sickening psychedelic way. Then I would put these broken fragments of text over the top. It was definitely an attempt to push a one panel cartoon to a new degree of abstraction, whilst retaining something that hooked people in.
Are comics a good way to tell horror stories? The way the page is laid out makes it difficult to scare people in the same way you can with a film, for example.
Horror can be done, but you need to know what the art form will lend itself to. With comics you can break up space and time in an interesting way, so you can prolong a moment and then jump to ten years later in a break between two panels. A special effects moment will be OK, but ultimately it's not going to be that scary. Although having said that there are some explicit images from comics which are burned onto my retinas, so it can work.
If you look at the horror comics that I grew up reading, which were post-Alan Moore Vertigo comics, they all use a Stephen King model of, y'know, demons related to a certain aspect of your life, or something like that. They were all quite literal in their ways of doing horror. Also when you read your Hellblazer comic there has to be a sense that John's going to win. It's an adventure comic really, just with horror trappings. Whereas with Josh Simmons or Junji Ito there's a good chance that the person that you're following isn't going to make it to the end. It's interesting because with Cindy And Biscuit I do want it to be a bit like a Beano strip. There should be an element of reset: that she's not traumatized or scarred by the things that happen to her.
How did Cindy And Biscuit come together?
I did a one-off strip for Terminus called 'Cindy and Biscuit save the world again'. She had a baseball bat slung over her shoulder and was stood happily over a destroyed Martian fleet. It was so simple and appealing. I loved the idea of this plucky, angry little girl. If you've ever spent time with a five year old girl, the fearsomeness of them is really amusing and endearing. This guy, Karol Wiesniewski, was putting together an anthology of new British comics and he got in touch with me. I did three strips for him, one of which was the first six pages of Cindy And Biscuit. In those pages I nailed what the world view would be: this rambunctious little girl playing in the woods with her dog, who comes across a Martian invasion and beats the seven shades of shit out of them with her wooden stick, before she goes home and gets a bollocking from her mum. I had never had it in my life, that moment when – it's a cliché – they really did come alive. When characters are alive to you, you don't even have to think about it and you know what they would do in a situation.
There's a melancholy to Cindy And Biscuit. She's obviously got problems at home, there are hints of an absent father...
It's this idea of a super plucky girl who is unafraid of tackling any monster that comes her way, even if she's completely out matched. What that person might find challenging is going to school and having a relationship with her mum. I remember the kid in the class who everyone just decided that they smelled, or something. There were some kids who through no fault of their own ended up being the butt of all the jokes. I wanted Cindy to be that girl.
Childhood is a really weird time, and I think that for every happy memory you've got a sad memory to go along with it. That's something that people who write for children don't always realize. I like to think that kids pick up on that. I was talking to some of the kids who read Cindy And Biscuit following the nomination for the British Comic Awards. They were into the fact that she's not popular and that she's an outsider, and not through her own choice.
So tell us about the British Comic Awards?
The awards are part of Thought Bubble, which is a Leeds based comic arts festival. The Young People's Comic Award is nominated by a panel and voted for by local kids. Last year I was nominated for Cindy And Biscuit Volume One. It's hugely gratifying to be nominated, especially when you're up against what I consider to be 'proper' comic artists. The best thing about it is getting to meet the kids. It would have been awful if they were like “Yeah, we don't like it”. But they were into the edginess and the horror elements and they love that fact that it's a girl doing it all. So, yeah, the experience was just plain rewarding really.
I didn't win.
Do you consider Cindy And Biscuit an all ages comic? People talk about what a hard sell all ages comics are...
Yes, I do. I think if anything it can be an inhibitor, because some adults will be like “Oh, it's a kid's comic, I'm not interested in that.” The devil is in the details and in Cindy And Biscuit the storytelling is quite broad. It's not overly nuanced, the characterisation. It's meant to be archetypal. And it is a very simple idea: a girl and her dog against the world, and that's it. I think the nuance is in the way I tell the story. So, yeah, it is a hard sell.
We touched briefly on the fact that you're a contributor to Mindless Ones.
Mindless Ones started in 2008. It span out of a number of my oldest and dearest friends, plus a few people from the Barbelith online community. We were all people who liked to write about comics and liked the sound of our own voices. It was initially broadly focused around Grant Morrison, but we're all huge comics fans with a range of tastes and we're very much not beholden to any one genre or format, so we try to bring in a lot of diversity. I think what people like about Mindless Ones is that it has quite a consistent voice. People responded well to the critical analysis along with the fairly irreverent humor. The trouble is that writing about comics for no money is something you can do for a while but then life gets in the way. Inevitably the writing died off a little bit and that's when the podcast, Silence!, became more prominent.
The podcast has been going for while now hasn't it?
It's been going on for three and a half years, just with me and Fraser (Geesin). It's taken on a fairly healthy fan base, surprisingly enough. We do songs and jingles and bits where we do shit American accents and things like that. Neither Fraser or myself are hugely serious when we talk to each other, and we'd get bored if we had to be serious all the time.
You have celebrity fans, don't you? You have a live show at Thought Bubble...
Which is routinely attended by about 20 people, none of whom ever forget it. We've had Brandon Graham, Kieron Gillen, Si Spurrier, Al Ewing, various people who are up for being humiliated and embarrassed. It's been a good way to engage with the wider critical community.
Do you think there's been an upwards curve in the level of debate about comic books?
The level of diversity in the critical conversation is really noticeable, because anyone can start a tumblr, anyone can start a blog, anyone can do a podcast. It's great because the larger comics world has traditionally been dominated by fairly dull voices and now the debate is a lot more interesting. Although, obviously, people like to argue. The problem is that the argument becomes the thing sometimes.
It's easy to make a name for yourself by being a bit of an arse. And it's very amusing. I love critics like Neil Kulkarni and Charlie Brooker and Lester Bangs: that tradition of writers who are great when they're taking something down in an eloquent way. But you are aware when you're a creator yourself of how someone's put a lot of effort into a piece of work, so you don't want to be dismissive. That said, I really like being rude about people like Neil Gaiman, because it doesn't matter what I say. He's not going to be affected by it. And I don't mind being a bit dismissive about Marvel and DC comics, because by and large they are something that is produced in a factory environment. No one person is wholly to blame when they're bad, it's to do with a whole load of other problems in the industry. But I think that trying to shed light on interesting work is a worthy thing to do, whilst occasionally still delivering the odd kicking to the Bonos of the comic world.
Do you see that as your role as a critic then? To turn a lamp on to stuff that people might have missed?
I really enjoy taking another look at a particular artist. Recently I've been going off on one about Keith Giffen's work in his Lobo and Trencher period, because for me it's the most gorgeous, creative, weird-ass artwork, but I think people maybe skip over it because they fucking hate Lobo. I like to go over the old back issue bins and expose some of the forgotten gems that you can get for 50p. I like to highlight new creators, I'm just less good at it because I'm an old man. It's like a hip-hop thing, my Golden era is 1988 to 1994. That's my sweet spot.