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The Mike Dawson Interview

The project that wasn't: Jack & Max.

TCJ: In what ways do you see Troop 142 as a step forward creatively?

MD: I already mentioned how I feel like I’d found a better way of drawing, and I felt like my cartooning was stronger in general with this book. But, also, Troop 142 is the first novel-length work of fiction that I’ve written non-collaboratively. I was writing short fiction before Gabagool!, and then I spent all those years writing autobiography. Ace-Face was fiction, but still just short stories. So, to me, that feels like taking a step forward.

The Ink Panthers Show, TCJ Talkies and the Comics Community

TCJ: What led to you and Alex Robinson deciding to create your own podcast?

MD: One of the initial impetuses for the show was slightly more cynical than I almost care to admit. It goes back to what I was talking about before; about online promotion. We thought creating a podcast would be good publicity. It could be something more palatable to share than just constant hyping and self-promoting, especially during periods where we didn’t have new work coming out.

TCJ: That’s funny, considering how both of you seem to get so embarrassed about promoting your own work.

MD: That’s true. But, apart from that very calculated reasoning, there were a number of other factors that led to us creating the show.

One has to do with the timing of the launch, which was maybe a year or so after my daughter was born. I think Alex was feeling that he and I weren’t hanging out quite as regularly as we used to before I had a child. We used to get together almost weekly, to buy comics, and then get dinner and chat for a few hours. I think for him doing the show was a way for us to maintain that aspect of our friendship, even if we couldn’t physically hang out as much as we once had. This was important to me as well, though I probably didn’t feel the loss of hanging out as acutely as Alex, because I was all of a sudden preoccupied with changing diapers and not getting any sleep and all of that sort of stuff.

But I really enjoy conversation. I read an article recently talking about how good conversation is a form of playing for adults. Like tennis, where you knock the ball back and forth to each other. It’s like a game. Alex and I have great conversation chemistry. It’s good give and take. You’ve got to listen to what the other person says, and not just be waiting for them to stop talking so you can say whatever you’ve got to say. You have to ask questions. You’ve got to be interested. One of my wife’s favorite sayings is: you’ve got to be interested to be interesting.

Ultimately though, I think the reason we’ve kept it going so long is because the podcast is simply a fun, creative endeavor. In many ways it feels like the opposite of how cartooning can occasionally feel. It’s creative without any pressure. We like coming up with topics for discussion and thinking of guests. We like coming up with ideas for formats and special episodes. It’s just fun.

TCJ: Ink Panthers has always been billed as a “comedy podcast,” while your solo comics have tended to be serious for the most part (leavened with moments of humor). Has the podcast been a way of scratching a comedic itch?

MD: The best conversations on the show are the ones where we each build off what the other is saying, discussing more and more outlandish scenarios. I like when we arrive at something unexpected. It’s all very improv. You’ve always got to “yes, and…”

I’ve never been able to do actual improv. I get too nervous and bottled up. It’s something I always wished I could do. The podcast allows me to try my hand at it, in a very low pressure, low risk kind of way.

TCJ: It seems like there’s always been a part of you that’s liked to perform. Is the podcast a way of exploring that aspect of your artistic self and personality without the full commitment of say, trying to be a stand-up comedian or in theater full-time?

MD: Yes, I think so. I probably spent more time working on sketch comedy shows in college than I did drawing comics.

I like performing. I was a best man for my friend Gary a while back, and I gave a speech. I was so nervous beforehand, but it went really well. I got a lot of laughs. It was really fun. That led directly to an episode where aspiring stand-up comedian Adam Conover came on to the show to give us advice on pursuing secondary careers (tertiary?) as comics. He confirmed what we pretty much suspected, that you can’t just casually do theater or stand-up. It requires the same dedication as being an aspiring cartoonist does.

A nice side-effect of the podcast has been the occasional live shows we’ve been invited to do. Every time we agree to do one, I regret it in the days leading up to it. I get really anxious about it. But usually they go well, and afterwards I think, “That was great! we should do that again.”

I think the nerves are a good thing. If I didn’t get anxious, then I wouldn’t put as much effort into preparing, and making sure we have a sense of how we’re going to fill the time. I don’t ever want to get up in front of a group of people and just talk about how we weren’t able to think of any material to discuss.

TCJ: Given your past doing theater and other performing arts, do you ever have a desire to combine this with comics?

MD: I’m not sure. I’ve done a few comics-readings, and some have gone better than others. Doing a reading is fun in a different way than doing a live Ink Panthers show. I don’t think I have a strong desire to combine the two, though.

TCJ: What’s different about the two experiences?

MD: I guess a live comics reading is a little more like being an actor in a play. There’s no room for improv. You have to read the lines as they appear on the screen. Actually, if I’m being honest, doing a live comics reading can actually often be a little like appearing in the worst play ever, because everyone in the audience reads the script before you can say it. If you want one of those comics readings to go well, you really have to prepare well beforehand. It doesn’t work to just project the whole page on the screen. You need to cut things down into small chunks you can skip through quickly.

I did a reading once with Lisa Hanawalt and Kate Beaton, and they both had their presentations set up well in this regard. Kate especially. Her comics are such quick one-two jabs of comedy as it is, it worked perfectly for a reading. It was very much, if you don’t love this joke, wait two seconds and you’ll probably like the next one. Almost like each individual gag on its own was disposable, but the cumulative effect of so many of them was incredibly entertaining. I’ve seen other comics readings that were less successful. I don’t think those type of shows are necessarily easy to pull off.

But my point was that a live improv show is really a totally different beast. If you think about it, the creative pursuit of comics and creating entertaining lively discussion are two very different things. Comics is a very slow process. A lot of time is spent thinking. It’s very deliberate. The podcast is all very off-the-cuff. It’s all made up as we go along.

TCJ: Do you ever feel like the podcast detracts from your ability to make comics, or does it provide a necessary break for you?

MD: It certainly detracts in terms of time. If I wasn’t doing Ink Panthers, then that would be an extra night or so a week that I’d have that maybe I could do some drawing. However it’s nice to spend an evening doing the podcast. I enjoy it. So I wouldn’t want to give it up. It kind of makes up for the fact that I don’t go out and do a lot of social things these days.

TCJ: Have TCJ Talkies and Pro-T.I.P.S. been a way of exploring your journalistic side? Given your busy schedule with a day job, T.I.P.S., your family and your own comics, why spend time with yet another venture like this?

MD: The idea with TCJ Talkies (formerly Pro-T.I.P.S) was that I get a cartoonist to come on and talk more in-depth about their work than we would if we brought them onto regular Ink Panthers. The concept behind Ink Panthers was always to keep it light in terms of process talk, and to force our guests to go along with us in whatever conversation we were having. We didn’t want to lose this. I like that Dylan Horrocks came on the show and we talked about movies, or that Matt Fraction was on and I told him a story about going to work in a pair of smelly sneakers. It’s fun for us to feel like we’re getting to know the guest a little, through regular conversation, rather than straight interviews. And hopefully it’s fun for the guests too. People are often asking if they can come on.

However, it turns out that I also really enjoy interviewing people about their work. I like talking about it. I don’t think of this as “journalism” per se, in the sense that I am reporting on something. What I wanted to try to do with this type of show, was to take the conversational informality of Ink Panthers, but apply that to interesting discussions about process and career.

What I’ve gotten out of this is a better understanding that many cartoonists go through all of the same things that I do, creatively and practically. It’s a concern for everyone to try to figure out how to earn a living – supporting themselves, and possibly a family – and balance the desire to explore their creative pursuits.  It’s very affirming for me to chat with people I admire, and see how they wrestle with the same things I do. It can be very inspiring.

TCJ: Is your day job at all creative or related to your ability to draw?

MD: I work as a producer for a popular kids’ education website. I do project management, but I also create some illustration. I’ve been kind of straddling the line between the two roles since I’ve been there. For the past two years I’ve been really focused on creating educational games.

I have a pretty lengthy career in online education, going back to around 1999. Chris Radtke and I were both working as producers at a company called Global Education Network when we started Gabagool! GEN’s mission was to create complete online college courses with very high production values. The idea would be for students to attend a lecture by watching it on the computer, and then complete assignments through e-mail. It never really came together, but it was a very interesting job. After that I went to work at Scholastic for a few years, project managing for their online division. Then I came to work at my present company.

Developing games has been an amazing experience. There’s a guy I’m acquaintances with, who knows a lot of cartoonists, Jesse Fuchs, who seemed to also be really embedded in the world of gaming. There’s a whole scene of aspiring game developers. I had a conversation with Jesse, and he said he felt the burgeoning game developer scene is very much like the world of small-press and alternative comics of ten or fifteen years ago. As I’m getting more involved in it, I can definitely see that. There’s the Fort Thunder of gaming.

There’s a huge push towards creating high-quality educational games for kids to use in the classroom. A lot of people argue that games are, after all, the most effective way for someone to learn. When you play a game you are highly engaged. It’s not a passive experience. You learn by doing. A well designed game scaffolds you up in ability in a seamless way. Good games don’t require you to spend a lot of time studying a rules manual. You get right in there, and as you increase in skill, the game increases in difficulty. There’s a lot going on in this field. It’s exciting to be involved.

TCJ: How do you balance all of the above interests with family?

MD: I have a pretty regular weekly schedule. I go to work at my day-job on Mondays through Thursday. I’m fortunate to have Fridays off. I spend all day Friday trying to get as much comics work done as possible between 8:30AM and 5PM. I also try to draw in the evenings on other days, and a little bit on weekends, but that’s not easy.

We normally record Ink Panthers on Monday or Tuesday night. It takes about an hour or so to record, and really only another hour or so to edit. I try not to edit too much these days. Early on I was editing more, but it became overwhelming.

I only have to record TCJ Talkies once every two weeks, so there’s a little break on that – though I quickly discovered how much time it takes to do the research on the interview subjects. I make sure and read all of their books and old interviews. I spend time thinking what my angle is going to be for the conversation.

I alternate riding my bike to work and taking the subway. The subway is good for reading, the bike is good for thinking about the podcasts.

Saturday and Sunday is pretty much exclusively Family Time. Since both my wife and I work, we want to make sure and spend all that time with our daughter on the weekend. I used to be able to get in an hour or so of drawing on the weekends when my daughter would nap, but she’s becoming less and less reliable about that.

TCJ: What have been your favorite moments from T.I.P.S. and Pro-T.I.P.S. thus far?

MD: Getting Dylan Horrocks onto Ink Panthers was a great moment for me. I love Hicksville, but he wasn’t someone I knew personally. We had a really great conversation with him about role-playing games and storytelling. Similarly, I just had Jason Lutes on TCJ Talkies, and we discussed some similar things. In both cases, it was a cartoonist I really admire but didn’t know, having a very fun, relaxed, but interesting talk about RPGs and world-building. I really liked both of those chats.

But really, a lot of the non-guest episodes have been my absolute favorites. Ones with just me and Alex, or me, Alex, and Tony Consiglio. When we’re just talking and riffing and all adding on to what the others are saying. That’s the best. I remember the Chatroulette one being really good. Gummy fangs. Tony’s story about impersonating a cop and going to his neighbor’s house. Alex being an aspiring hikikomori. Douche chills. The Sexy Human Centipede Halloween costume.

TCJ: What do you think Tony adds to the show?

MD: The chemistry on the show is the same as it is in our real lives. Tony always has great stories to tell. He’s hilarious. We made a point with our hundredth episode to have Tony on. People might have expected us to try to round up a special guest for the show. But we felt like having Tony on as the guest said something about what we think is the best aspect of our show, which is the joking and the banter. Just friends making each other laugh.

TCJ: How did you come to hook up with TCJ for TCJ Talkies? How do you see this being different from your other podcasts?

MD: I had done four PRO T.I.P.S. episodes, and they had each been with cartoonists I consider myself somewhat friendly with: Gabby Schulz, Jim Rugg, G. B. Tran, and Dustin Harbin. For the fifth episode, I decided to ask Frank Santoro, who was the first person I had never had much of a conversation with before. We were acquaintances from being on a panel at SPX one year, and then just recognizing each other from conventions, but had never really had a real one-on-one chat.

I did the episode with Frank, and I thought it came out great. And I felt proud, because as I said, he was someone I’d never really talked to in the past. And to be honest, knowing that he’s someone with strong opinions, who’s good at expressing them, I had been nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I was pleased that he also seemed happy with the conversation after we were done. It made me think that maybe I’d be pretty good at doing this.

That episode aired just a week or so before the Comics Comics guys, Tim Hodler and Dan Nadel, took over The Comics Journal [online]. I got into a conversation with Tim, who it turned out was a fan of Ink Panthers. We talked about the idea of me taking the PRO T.I.P.S. format and creating something for TCJ. I was really excited about the opportunity.

TCJ: How has doing T.I.P.S. changed your standing in the comics community? Do cartoonists write wanting to be guests on the show?

MD: We do get asked. Thankfully not that often, because I hate having to saying no to people.

It’s incredible when someone whose work I admire turns out to be a fan of the show. I am amazed that Dan Zettwoch is on our Facebook fan page. I was shocked to learn that the Pizza Island cartoonists were listeners. Alex and I have discussed the fact that there may well be a lot of people out there who like our podcast who don’t really like our comics that much, and how we have to be OK with that.

TCJ: Have you actually encountered this phenomenon in real life? What do you think draws fans to your show who aren’t fans of your comics?

MD: I’ve never encountered someone who explicitly said, “I like your podcast, but don’t really like your comics,” but I am pretty sure it happens. I think a lot of people haven’t read Freddie & Me. It’s unfortunate that it’s incredibly easy to tell if someone hasn’t read it, by if they express surprise to hear that I’m a foreigner. We’ve had guests on, and the subject of my nationality came up, and it was pretty clear that it was news to them. I don’t really care though. If someone likes the podcast, that’s enough for me. It’s still something that I’ve created and put out into the world.

The flip side of that is that I don’t like it when I get a request from someone to come on, and I can tell they don’t listen to the show. Sometimes I get the sense someone thinks it’s more of an interview-style format than it really is. They are under the impression it’s an outlet for them to come on and promote their work. We try to avoid becoming that. It’s better to get approached by someone who you can tell is listening to the show and understands what it’s about.

TCJ: How do you prepare to interview a guest on T.I.P.S. or TCJ Talkies? Do you make sure to read their work, past interviews, etc?

MD: On T.I.P.S. we usually have a couple email exchanges, bouncing around ideas for topics. In my experience it’s much better to lay a little groundwork, so the guest has an idea of what they’re getting into, and will let their guard down a little more. I’m finding it’s the same with TCJ Talkies. I think it’s just better to give an interview subject some idea of what kinds of things I’m going to ask about, so they’ll have had a chance to let things roll around in their heads too. I don’t tell them specific questions, but I try to write up a description of the basic things I’ve got in mind.

I definitely read or re-read the guest’s work. I need to do that to come up with questions. I did a few TCJ Talkies where I spent a lot of time reading past interviews. I can’t decide if this is good or not. I want to be prepared when we talk, but I also want things to remain conversational. I’m trying to strike some sort of balance.

TCJ: Your comedic role on Ink Panthers is interesting, because you’re adept at shifting into and out of different roles. At times, you can be the object of humor. You can be a straight man, setting up the more outrageous Tony Consiglio. Then you’ll rattle off a series of one-liners or mean jabs at your co-hosts, showing you can give as good as you get. How much of that ease in humor was developed before you even started the show with Alex?

MD: Again, I just think it’s what we’re like in real life. It wasn’t until after we’d been doing the show for a year or so that I started thinking about our dynamics. I realized that it actually kind of works because Alex and I are different kinds of people. We’re able to naturally find places to contrast with each other, which I think then leads to more lively conversation.

TCJ:  How many listeners do you get per week?

MD: I’m not sure. I haven’t really figured out how to get good stats from iTunes. I don’t think we have thousands and thousands of listeners, but I think we probably have somewhere in the hundreds. I have a little stat-counter on the blog, and it seems to average around 200-300 unique visitors a day. I assume those are people who listen by streaming through the site?

TCJ: How long do you see you doing the podcast with Alex?

MD: I have no idea. We really enjoy doing it, so I don’t see why we’d stop. But on the other hand, we aren’t going to be like The Simpsons, where we just go forever. So I guess it has to end at some point.

Maybe podcasting is still too new for many people to have officially ended their show. There aren’t many that I know of. At some point there’s going to come a time when popular podcasts officially come to an end, and people are aware of it. I don’t know of many who have had their series finale just yet.

TCJ: Is there anything you regret saying on the podcast?

MD: Not too much… There are some episodes which I think could have been better, but I can’t think of anything outrageous and regrettable we may have ever said. There was that famous instance where I read from my teenage diary, and I said I really liked lesbian porn, or as I described it, “Lezzie Love.” Then my mother happened to hear that episode, and embarrassed me at my 35th birthday by writing “Lezzie Love” on the cake. So that was something I regretted saying. But then again, once I got over the embarrassment, I had a good follow-up story to tell on the next week’s podcast.

TCJ: That may have been the single funniest moment on the show, especially in the way you related it.  The story was humiliating, yet even you knew it would kill as a moment on the show.

MD: Yeah… and on balance, I’d take the comedy over me not being embarrassed. I can live with the embarrassment, and I still chuckle thinking how much Alex was laughing when I read that diary entry. I love those rare moments where one of us really cracks up on the show.

It’s not really the kind of show where we badmouth other cartoonists or talk shit about the comics industry. There was a recent episode where we talked fairly frankly about our mixed feelings for Chester Brown’s Paying for It, which was unusual for us. But I didn’t feel too self-conscious about that discussion, since presumably the point of writing Paying for It was to get people to discuss their opinions on prostitution and whatnot. That was a good episode though. It was one I felt proud of. So, sometimes it’s nice to talk frankly and be opinionated and all that.

TCJ: You’ve been going to small-press shows for a long time. How has the community changed over the years? What have shows like SPX and MoCCA meant to you?

MD: I really enjoy myself at conventions. Usually I come away from them all amped up to make new comics. They can be really motivating.

There have been changes I can think of, having to do with what kind of work people are looking for at a show. When I first started going to SPX, I feel like it was a lot more of the black-&-white-photocopied-at-Kinko’s-with-a-color-cover kinds of comics and ‘zines. Just your basic 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, folded in half. Then, in the early ‘aughts, it seemed like silk-screening became really popular. More book-making. It might have been that there was a feeling that minis were just as valid and valuable as any other sort of comic.

I have this vague sense that there was some sort of auto-bio boom in there somewhere, but I can never be sure if that actually ever happened, or if it became fashionable to gripe about supposed navel-gazing autobio books. There was the period where people were getting big book deals left and right. Now it feels like that whole thing has calmed down a bit. Obviously there are way more webcartoonists at small-press shows now, and a lot of these people are hugely popular with the crowds.

If I didn’t have so much fun at them, I would wonder more often what is the point of small-press conventions. When I first started going, it was much more the case that you couldn’t find a lot of this stuff anywhere except at SPX and APE. It’s not like that anymore. Lots of people are there with graphic novels you could buy in a bookstore, and most minis could be bought or read online. It feels like an open question. I see a lot of talk about it online. But I also see a ton of excitement about conventions. Clearly people want them to exist. I certainly do.

TCJ: What do you get out of shows like SPX now, especially since so many people exhibiting at the show are either out of your specific area (like the webcomics people) or else a good decade younger?

MD: Ugh, that question made me feel old. But it’s true. There’s a thing that happens probably to anyone who’s a part of something for an extended period of time – there’s a moment where you feel like you know who everyone in the room is, and then a mere year or two later, and you’re wondering, “Who are all these kids?”

But I go for fun. I like buying prints and original art. You can get stuff like that super-cheap from cartoonists. I like socializing. I get charged up from shows. Gets me psyched to make more comics.

A scene from Ain't No Power, currently being serialized at mikedawsoncomics.com

Final Thoughts

TCJ: Let’s talk about the future. I’ve read the posted episodes of your new story, Ain’t No Power. This seems to touch on a lot of issues we discussed in this interview, including working at a company providing electronic educational content, collaborating with others on a creative endeavor, and negotiating a variety of political ideologies and influences as a young person. What do you have in mind for the strip’s future?

MD: Yeah, it touches upon a lot of the stuff we talked about. It’s all stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while. Again, without being too coy, I have to say I really don’t know where this is all going right now. A lot of it might end up being exploratory. I really don’t know. I have an idea of where it might head, but it also may be too soon to tell.The coloring is something I’ve just been experimenting with as well. I like the way my pages look colored. I haven’t thought far enough ahead to know if I envision a published full-color graphic novel or not.

TCJ: What other projects are you considering at the moment? Do you find this kind of choice to be liberating & exciting or paralyzing, given that whatever choice you make will likely take up months and possibly years of your life?

MD: An in-between state is a good way of putting it. I’ve only been here once before, when I finished Freddie & Me and dove right into the Ace-Face collection and the Jack & Max stories. There was a good-sized gap between me finishing F&M and really getting my momentum up with Troop 142. I think finishing a book is an odd place to be. Coming to the end of something you’ve been intensely focused on for years… Something that’s nice about being in the middle of a long story is getting into a rhythm with it. It’s strange when that goes away. Right now my plan is to keep going with Ain’t No Power, and see what that ends up turning into. I have one or two other ideas for long-form stories in mind, but I might try doing something short.

My ambition is to write books, but having had a little experience with this now, I know it’s not always easy to see an idea all the way through to completion. It’s not just that a book will take up years of my life. It’s that the story has to absorb me enough that I can keep it going in a practical sense. I have so many distractions from drawing, like my family, day-job, and podcasts – if I don’t feel totally immersed in the book, I’ll lose the plot. It needs to be something that I think about all the time, and mentally write, even when I go days without drawing any pages.

TCJ: You’re someone who’s both an artist and a fan, and keenly aware of comics history and trends over the past two decades. You’ve done mainstream superhero and horror work as a young person, slice-of-life comics, geek-oriented humor comics, straight autobio, and now long-form fiction. Where do you think you fit in as a cartoonist in today’s scene? What sort of artist do you think you are and what do you aspire to be?

MD: I’m not sure. Like I said, I want to write books. I like telling long stories. Things that take a while to read. I like tangents and supporting characters, and writing long-form comics gives me opportunities to do that sort of stuff. I think my work reads best as books. I am all for online comics, but I don’t think my stuff works so well on the web. I’ll keep putting it up there, I think, because I figure it doesn’t hurt to make it accessible. It’s a way that someone who might like the stuff might find it.

TCJ: Many experienced artists advise younger artists not to have a safety net when they start making art. In other words, if you have the cushion of a day job, you’ll never be able to fully commit to your art. Do you feel you would be a better artist if you had a chance to draw full time? Do you ever wish you could?

MD: Absolutely. Thinking about all the comics I could be making if I didn’t have a day job is the sort of thing that gives me heart palpitations. Especially considering my approach to writing – so much of it happens while I’m at the table, working on a page. If I could get to the drawing table more, and spend more hours focusing, then who knows how much more I would have written by now, and how better I might be.

I think one of the few upsides to having a day job is the freedom to be fairly indifferent to the amount of money I make off of my art. Aside from wanting my work to see print, I don’t think too much about needing to earn a living from it. I don’t have to hustle for paying work. I don’t spend any time doing illustrations.

But aside from that, of course, I wish it was possible to work on comics full time. I sometimes think if I’d been a better cartoonist when I was younger, then maybe it would have been more feasible. But who knows? There’s not a lot I can do about that now.

All I do know is that if the opportunity ever does present itself, I’d make the most of it. And in the meantime, I just hope I can keep up the levels of productivity I’m managing now.

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