Joe Daly’s new comic, Dungeon Quest Book 3, reveals an even more complex level of storytelling from the cartoonist in his ever-expanding, mind-bending swashbuckle of a quest for the Atlantean Resonator Guitar. A giant-sized digest, this volume is double the size of the two previous books, including some amazing supplements and illustrative guides along the way. Joe was kind enough to answer questions about everything from the intricacies of the book to his inspirations and research. I previously interviewed the South African cartoonist a year ago on the occasion of the second installment of his series. This interview was conducted over email in June and July, 2012.
Eric Buckler: In the beginning of Dungeon Quest Volume 1, Millennium Boy starts in a very normal looking house and the book builds from that very realistic world into a quest with lots of fantastical elements and environments, how did you start to build these elements in?
Joe Daly: The fantastical elements were planned from the beginning, of course, or rather than planned they were an inevitability, since the theme of the book is fantasy adventure. I wanted to give the characters a foundation in the real world, or at least in a more real world than the one they discover. I guess I also wanted to plant a question of uncertainty in the mind of the reader: Is the world that the characters inhabit a real one or is it a world created partially or entirely through their imaginations or the imagination of another being? Of course all of those questions are pretty much redundant since Dungeon Quest is just a comic book, it’s not real to begin with, and that ‘another being’ is me.
How do you come up with the dialogue between the group members? I ask because the comic is funny and quick, something that seems to stem from some knowledge of how people actually talk, the proper way to tell a joke, etc.
First I draw a picture of the character and give them a name, that’s most of the information I need to work with. It seems to automatically inform the way the characters think and talk in my imagination. All I have to do then is place the characters in a situation, and then ask myself, “What would Steve or Lash or Millennium Boy or Nerdgirl do or say in that situation?”. When the process is going well, the characters pretty much write the dialogue themselves, or they have a kind of awareness through me or my brain is simulating them. Something like that.
A lot of it is also based on people I’ve known in my real life and characters I’ve observed in pop culture. In the end it doesn’t matter if they’re real or fictional sources since the characters are going to be fictional cartoon characters anyway.
I don’t really think about telling jokes or creating gags , I’m trying to constantly build a ridiculous, awkward, uncomfortable atmosphere and then looking out for opportunities to create humor, to break the tension. Under the correct circumstances if the correct amount of tension and cognitive dissonance is created then anything and everything can be funny without the need for structured jokes or gags.
How old are the members of the group respectively?
I like to be very vague about it. I guess Millennium Boy is anywhere between 6 and 16, although he acts like he’s the senior member of the group. Steve is in his early thirties and Lash and Nerdgirl are in their mid to late twenties. Lou is older, possibly very old, so old that he’s getting young again.
This book is very transformative for everyone involved, except for maybe Nerdgirl. What do you hope to have these characters transform into eventually as compared to where they started, is that something you even worry about?
I don’t worry about it. As much as they learn and progress they stay the same. I’m not sure we can change our character. We can change the way we think and see the world perhaps, the way we express our character, but perhaps not who we are essentially. Readers have mentioned that Nerdgirl is silent and doesn’t say anything, but it’s not true, she has said several things already, many readers don’t pay close enough attention. Perhaps I’ve unconsciously hypnotized the reader into thinking she’s mute so they don’t notice it when she talks. I have ideas for Nerdgirl beyond her mere presence as a very effective awkward tension generator.
Whose story are you the most interested in seeing unfold? Why is that?
Mmm, maybe Lou, because he’s the most mysterious character and he’s new. He’s my favorite character, and I really shouldn’t say this since he’s my creation, but he cracks me up. Other than that it’s an ensemble cast, so the story is the story of the group. The group is the protagonist.
They’re things that interest me, these apparently magical forces. The realm of hidden forces and the interaction between the imaginary and the real, the manipulation of perception and reality is interesting to me. The whole fantasy adventure genre seems to be perfectly setup to explore these ideas about the mysteries of the psyche and sorcery in a way that’s acceptable to people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in them or might feel uncomfortable exploring these realms directly. In Dungeon Quest the subject of magic is at once handled very blatantly and obscurely. The humor, the cartooniness and the subversive nature of the whole thing obscures the fact that it’s a fantasy adventure, which obscures the fact that it’s mythical and magical, which obscures the fact that it’s map of psychological processes. Perhaps. I don’t know if any of that makes sense. It’s a sword and sorcery thing, so I’ve got to have the sorcery in there.
Volume 3 is double the size of Dungeon Quest 1 and 2. Why so much bigger, what were the factors behind that decision?
Mmm, perhaps I was feeling kind of insecure about the future of the series after book two, which is not a bad installment by any means but it felt a little bit low key perhaps, compared to the first book. I wanted to make Dungeon Quest Book 3 have an impressive presence so that I can continue with series in the future. I also became aware that I need to cover more ground in each book, so that each book feels almost like a complete project, standing on its own. I’d originally planned for Dungeon Quest 3 to be even bigger, which would have taken much longer, then I planned to split it into two shorter books, but eventually I found a place in the narrative where I could tie it up naturally at 288 pages., and that also suited the production schedule of my publishers.
I guess that just felt right. So it was a combination of worry, enthusiasm, timing and feel. I think it worked out well.
You employ a really interesting device to portray the history of Atlantis, a sort of hieroglyphic comic. Can you talk about why you used the hieroglyphic idea to tell this part of the story?
I had a lot of information to communicate but I didn’t want to lose visual interest, so I combined text with illustrations in a non-comics way. It’s basically a slide show with a commentary. The fact that you related it to hieroglyphics pleases me, because that gives the otherwise dry exposition an added and very appropriate mythic resonance.
Referring to things like emulating an RPG, including Esoteric Books into the actual comic, and creating a new world out of the existing universe, etc. Could you talk about how your willingness to try new things throughout the series has evolved?
Mmm, I’m not really sure my willingness has evolved, I’m always willing to try new things, as long as they seem to fit in with a very vague set of rules for Dungeon Quest that I have floating around in my head. It’s mysterious to me why one strange new idea might seem to break the tone of the book, and another strange new idea gels. I tend to go by what feels right, and not to think things through too deeply. I can’t know if a thing is right but maybe I can feel if it’s right.
Yes, I drew on various alternative history books, official history books, religious texts, podcasts, websites etc, to give it that tone and flavor. Stuff like The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Bible etc. I was also drawing on my own notions about these things and some weird dreams I’d been having about visiting ancient cities inhabited by these Neanderthal-like people with shaved heads. The Romish Book of the Dead is a synthesis of some of my interests up till that point. It’s just another map of a particular area of my psyche at the moment when it was written, an area where data mixes in with intuitive notions and the imagination to create something new that’s not necessarily literally true but maybe it’s not complete bullshit either. I don’t know. It’s the flavor of authenticity that I was after.
What made you decide to include a textual supplement (Romish Book Of The Dead) in this volume?
To be true to the role playing game conventions aspect of Dungeon Quest, where books with short texts often flesh out the history of the fantasy world a little more, and also because I want the crew to discover a ‘ Romish’ city in a future Dungeon Quest book, and I wanted to give some background to it. It was a risk, as I imagine that this might be some people’s least favorite part of Dungeon Quest Book Three, they might find it loathsome and irritating but it might add a depth and flavor too.
The dream sequences (when Steve removes his penis and when Millennium Boy finds the corpse box made of the rest of the crew) in Book 3 are very rich and involved, where do these come from in your own head and where do they fit into the purpose of the storytelling?
They come from my subconscious I guess, like almost everything else. The praxis behind these scenes is uncertain. Again, it’s a feel thing. I’ve imagined that some of these scenes will mirror or resonate with other things that happen later in Dungeon Quest. The corpse box and the encounter with the strange figure in the wheelchair felt very shamanic, which relates to Millennium Boys journey through shamanism towards becoming a magus, and the figure in the wheel chair will play a role in future Dungeon Quests. I’m feeling my way through the story and trying not to analyze it too much.
To create breathing space between the talking, and action. To create non-focused scenes where the reader can mediate, or project their own feelings onto the scene. To simulate the trek aspect of a quest, the matter of the time it takes to travel through a landscape. Those scenes help to give the reader the feeling that the characters are actually quite serious about their questing. I like drawing walking scenes, and it gives me a good chance to also focus on drawing elaborate backgrounds.
Lou The Forest Man was a surprise at the end, where did he come from in your head?
Mmm, again I don’t really know. I guess it’s usual for travelers to meet a small magical being on these kind of quests. I liked the idea of creating a character without shame, and a almost healthy polymorphous sexuality, and within that a kind of an innocence, or at least a pureness. I also try to challenge myself to see what cartooning can achieve, what it can get away with. There seem to be things that cartoon characters can get away with, that would be far less acceptable if they were real people. That’s kind of obvious of course, but it’s still a challenge to find the right tone. For instance, I wanted to see if I can have this big male character, Lash, give this tiny little man, Lou a handjob and get the tone just right, so it doesn’t come across as sick and dark and pervy, but instead comes across as hilarious and possibly even bizarrely charming. That’s the challenge. Oh yeah, and I liked the term ‘ a little forest man’, just that term is amusing to me. That and ‘ fruits of the forest’ . I cannot explain why I enjoy these phrases so much.
Do the voices of the characters in Dungeon Quest get stronger for you as time goes on, do they gain any certain external identity for you?
Some get stronger and some get weaker from moment to moment, I’ve got to be careful not to lose the characters along the way. It seems that in storytelling a character starts out generally defined but not precisely defined, then the character becomes precisely defined, then the character becomes a parody of themselves. This seems to happen in series, be it The X-Files or Star Trek or whatever. This will happen at a certain point in Dungeon Quest too. At this stage, the characters in Dungeon Quest are still evolving though, both in the way they behave and the way they’re visually designed. Characters are so much more than just tools for telling a story. You’re reading a story like Dungeon Quest in order to enjoy the characters, to spend time with them. Do they gain an external identity? I don’t know. They become a little more objective to me perhaps.
I think Book 3 has only two scenes where the characters smoke marijuana, one scene where they’re rendered unconscious by some kind of nerve gas, which I guess counts as a drug. So perhaps the scale of drug use is implied rather than present.
Drugs are just chemicals, chemicals are ‘ keys’ . They can be used to depress certain faculties of the mind and body or to enhance them, that depends on what chemicals are used and how they’re used or misused. Knowledge is the key to proper use. All we need to do as a culture is discourage ignorance and encourage knowledge, then things will work better. My policy would be to legalize everything, all chemicals. All we need to do is have the proper containers for the chemicals. Radio-active chemicals go into containers that contain radioactivity, water goes into containers that contain the wetness of the water, weed goes into containers that contain the inner goodness of the weed. It’s a pretty simple concept.
Drug use and drug possession is not a moral or ethical issue, and it shouldn’t be a political issue or a criminal one either. It’s a personal issue.
I’m not sure that it seemed important to me, it just felt like the right thing to do. I guess there’s a metaphorical explanation behind it, the idea of being stripped of your personal armor and having to face life’s hardships without that phantasmatic barrier, or more precisely being stripped of one’s false personal armor, leaving the armor of one’s true character exposed. So there’s that. On a purely sensual level I’m highlighting the primal feeling of being naked in a combat situation in which the characters are at their most vulnerable, which I hope makes the readers feel somewhat vulnerable too. It’s like one of those dreams where you’re under attack and you realize that you’re naked and your sword is made out of marshmallow. It’s much more neurotic than erotic.
Do you pull objects and elements from your daily life into the series, or is the story somewhat firm in its content already?
The story is architectural, like a cell wall, but it has a semi permeable membrane, which allows elements from my daily life to infuse into it like nutrients which feed the cell growth. It’s a very organic process, very biological. I think of the Dungeon Quest series as a healthy vegetable, pushing its way up out of the rich soil, and starting to ripen under the tender rays of a late summer sun. It’s one of the many fruits of the forest. Firm but not too firm.
Do other people have much input into your work in general? How about the Dungeon Quest series specifically?
No. My comics projects are pretty much hermetically sealed, and only I go into the chamber.
Relating to the last question about the sealed chamber of creativity, what is it like in there, are you conscious of going into a creative state or place when you work?
It’s like going on a mission in a submarine with an imaginary crew.
The first part of my work is more meditative, it’s just thinking, which I do while I’m walking or making a sandwich or pulling a vegetable out of the earth or smoking a joint or lying on my bed or whatever. It doesn’t look like work but it is. It’s natural work for me, and usually joyful. The second part of my work is production and practical problem solving which is less natural and requires more pure discipline. I’m often conscious of going into a focused creative state when I’m working, a state of higher concentration. If it doesn’t happen naturally I can force it till it happens, although that doesn’t always work.
I don’t always want to work, it’s not always enjoyable, the joy comes and goes on its own, but I’ve started to think of myself as a professional, so I’ll often approach making comics as filling out boring forms or laying bricks or cleaning the toilet or whatever, because I’ve got to get pages done. Sometimes it feels like a performer who has to go out on stage when they’re not feeling it, so I’ll pace around a bit and mutter to myself ‘ backstage’ to get pumped up to face another blank sheet of paper.
Usually once I can settle down to drawing, the process of drawing focuses my mind and the hours fly by.
How do you stoke your creativity? Is it something ever-present, or something you have to find, maybe journey to access?
It’s like a fire that’s always smoldering under the ashes. Usually a bit of anger, frustration, and disappointment and desperation in my life will push me closer to that vital state. When the alchemy works the coals burns hotter and that divine fire-beet pushes its way up out of the ashes.
Last time we talked, you said you thought the series would end on book 4, reading this monster volume, it seems like there could be many more books to come. Is 4 still the goal?
I guess I’ve changed my mind since then, there could be more books to come, beyond Book 4. I’ll have to see how much I’m able to accomplish in Book 4. Part of me would like to tie things up in book 4, however this has to remain somewhat flexible as I handle various factors which include, the demands of my overall plot for the series, the eagerness of people to read more Dungeon Quest books, and my eagerness and ability to make them. Starting the drafting on Book 4 is the goal now.
Relative to the other volumes, what part of Book 3 did you spend the most time on? (ie: the story, the back-story, the art, the dialogue, etc.)
I think I spent the same amount of time making the book (relative to the other ones), however I was more careful making this third book. I paid more attention to everything, but perhaps special attention to the art and the lettering.
What part was the most satisfying?
Probably the dialogue, because when it’s coming easily to me, when it’s flowing, it’s almost instant. It’s instant gratification, and doesn’t require a lot of production time, like all the other elements do.
Can you talk about the physical environment you like to work in (like your work setting in your office, if you have one)?
I can talk about the physical environment I’d like to work in, but that would be another topic. The one I do work in is my bedroom/studio. I have a light-box on the floor and a computer and scanner on my desk, and usually a bunch of pieces of paper lying over parts of the floor. Scatterlings of dust, pencils, pens and cigarettes can often be found, in almost celebratory configurations. The winters are remarkably mild. If I was given access to large well equipped studio I probably recreate my little work corner in there with the same setup I have now, to honor what I have now.
What else have you got going on comics-wise, and in your general creative endeavors right now?
I’ve got a new Fantagraphics mini-comic book called SOH! coming out now. I’m working on a new secret original graphic novel this year, before I start work on Dungeon Quest Book 4 next year sometime. That’s the plan for now.