Features

“It Ended Up Growing To Be Bigger Than I Thought”: An Interview with Andy Douglas Day

Andy Douglas Day’s Boston Corbett is an imposing object, a 1300 plus page, three volume, three-and-a-half-pound chunk of surreal, mystifying, and hilarious stories sort of centered around the life of the man who (probably, maybe) killed John Wilkes Booth. It’s an ambitious work, for sure, but one that maintains Day’s art and storytelling style from his two previous works, 2013’s Chauncey and 2014’s Miss Hennipin.Day’s works, taken as a whole, create a world that is recognizable as our own but also vastly different. It’s a place where turtles marry rocks and live out their lives in quiet solitude, slowly poisoning a dolphin who lives in the lake next door, but also a place where kids still rush to finish their geometry homework on the bus ride to school. We spoke to Day about science fiction, board games, sex cults, and—of course—ice cream.

Robert Newsome: I wanted to talk to you about your work partially because there’s not a whole lot of information out there…

Andy Douglas Day: When this interview is published it’ll be 50% of the information about me online, I think.

Boston Corbett is such an ambitious work, I wanted to start off by talking about that. The book is split into three volumes housed in a slipcase. What was the thought behind releasing the book in this format rather than serializing the three individual volumes? 

It was always going to be one thing, but it ended up growing to be bigger than I thought. With serialization, you always have a certain number of people who buy the first volume, then fewer people buy the second and even fewer buy the third. The three separate books in one case are just a limitation of physics and paper. We really wanted it to be one giant cube; just a car battery of a book but we couldn't do that, so it was split into the three volumes. Early on, I knew in general what I wanted the book to be. I knew there was going to be this guy, Boston, and there would be different storylines involving him, and then I knew it was going to suddenly switch to this other guy, Dabbler. I didn’t really consider splitting it up. It was just going to be one big blob. The book isn’t very dense. There are a lot of pages that are just one panel. I’m always disappointed when I buy a comic or a ‘zine and you’re done with it in, like, eight minutes. I wanted something that you could sit down with, something where you had this little world right there instead of feeling like “oh, well, I read this one thing and now I’ve got to wait for the next one.”

I didn’t start drawing until later in my life, or, at least, I hated everything I drew up to a certain point when I sort of became okay with it. I started posting things online, and I never really made any ‘zines or anything like that. I wasn’t really involved in that scene and I’m really even now. I started posting these little snippets online and my friend asked me if I wanted to make a book. That was Chauncey, my first book. Miss Hennipin and Boston Corbett I pretty much just sat down and drew. There were little pieces, little key scenes from Boston Corbett that I’d drawn years ago on little scraps of grubby paper, but there’s no real previous incarnations of those things. Maybe just a couple of clues in something I’d posted on Tumblr that nobody really understood. “Oh, there’s some guy in a weird triangle mask and some lady is yelling at him, I guess?” But that was the primordial ooze that became Miss Hennipin.

You can see that in the final product, to an extent. The flashback scenes in Miss Hennipin are drawn on different paper than other parts of the story, for example. 

Yeah, I’d forgotten about that. I think those parts of the book are drawn on the backs of book pages. It was the result of me just going to my bookshelf and ripping out the blank pages at the beginning and end of books. I like the textured and “found” quality of that. It’s also because that’s just what I had around. I knew nothing about how to make a comic, what paper you should use, or how to do it in an efficient way that doesn’t cause logistical nightmares. I had cheap colored pencils loosely in a box and when I needed a new piece of paper I’d just grab one for wherever. I’ve since changed a little bit and learned why people don’t draw comics the way I did. It’s because it’s a terrible way to draw comics. My friends make fun of how grubby the paper is in those books.

I’ve definitely tried to wipe stains off the cover of my copy of Miss Hennipin that are actually a part of the printed art.

Yeah, that’s the joke they make, like “why’d you sell me a shitty dirty copy of this book?”

That style forces the reader to think about the process of making the comic as well as about the story. The process of creating the work becomes a part of the work, like looking at a photograph of the original pages.

It’s like tape hiss in music. It adds a little ghost to whatever you’re looking at. It’s certainly not meant to be meta or anything obnoxious like that but if you’re listening to someone’s weird demo tape and you can hear the tape hiss and their mom yelling at them in the background, there’s a certain charm to that as opposed to this kind of platonic perfect thing where everything is so perfectly produced that you forget you’re listening to a recording. You can kind of feel the excitement of someone creating something. Like in a comic you might be able to tell when someone was pushing down so hard they broke their pencil. Usually in comics, the paper texture is all scrubbed out and it’s this perfect black and white thing. I understand why people do that for practical reasons, but I wasn’t being practical in any way. I didn’t know anything about aspect ratio, so that was a pain in the ass. All these pieces of paper we’re talking about were different sizes, which is not a good idea.

In Miss Hennipin especially, you can see the changes in a panel. You can see where the dialog was originally supposed to be and then that it was erased and moved somewhere else. Leaving those artifacts in the book works well with the surreal elements of the story where things aren’t always fixed in one place.

Or “whoops, Andy must have drawn this guy’s nose way too big and erased it and got his act together.” I went through Boston Corbett for a week and tried to remove every little eraser mark. There was maybe 900% more of that stuff in the book and I didn’t want that. I thought it was distracting. The reason that stuff was in there is that it’s drawn all in pencil. I drew that book like I was in a fever, just with a claw pressing a pencil really hard into the paper. So, if I messed something up, I was screwed. I’d have to erase it later on in Photoshop, which I also didn’t know how to use. Scott—the guy who published my books—encouraged me to leave that stuff in there. He thought it was part of it. A little ghostly artifact that added some mystery to the book.

Were you drawing the art for Boston Corbett close to the actual published size?

The size of the book is about the same size as the art, but some of the pages were actually drawn smaller and blown up. I’ve never minded blown up art. I know everybody draws big and then shrinks it to make it look really clean, but most of the drawings that I make are incredibly small. The stuff I post on instagram, that stuff is tiny. If you scan it at a high enough resolution and blow it up, I think it looks cool. There are parts of Boston Corbett where the page-by-page single panels were just too much. I highly recommend not creating a comic this way. You’ve got all these separate files for the pages and it’s really just seven panels of someone leaning over and smelling a trash can. Some of the pages, we took flour panes and shrunk them down onto one page, but the pages are mostly 6 inch squares. I have this wooden block that’s six inches by six inches and I would trace that onto the piece of paper. The reason it’s a square is because I fucked up Miss Hennipin’s aspect ratio so much that I figured if it’s a square you can’t mess it up.

The nature of the stories in that book really do hint at that idea of being a part of a larger world than what the reader sees. It has the feeling of walking into the middle of a conversation between these characters and having to figure out what’s going on.

There’s definitely a bigger world than what’s on the paper. The book is already tangential, but there were even bigger tangents going on with some of the characters that weren’t in the final book. I’ve always admired works that suggest a bigger world than what they’re showing, rather than explaining everything to you. I’ve always really liked Dane Martin. I feel like he’s just barely getting sketches down of this larger world that he couldn’t possibly record. That lets your imagination take over to fill in the blanks.

You’ve posted some art online that you said were outtakes from the book. Are there plans to do anything with that material?

Those are just kind of dead ends. Like the story about Dabbler getting a tattoo and things like that. There’s a lot of serendipity in my process. I’ll draw one thing just because I want to see it, and then that thing becomes a rule of that world. I drew this weird picture where Topher is at a fountain and his parents are there, but his parents are balloons. So, okay, then I guess Topher’s parents are balloons. That’s something that I couldn't really come up with on my own by just sitting and thinking about it. So those drawings are some of those little cul-de-sacs where things like that got established but they didn’t really turn into anything in the final book.

That sense of being dropped into a world that has set rules, even though those rules are wildly different to our own world is a part of Miss Hennipin, too. It’s a very science fiction style of storytelling. That book as well as Boston Corbett take place in a world that’s mostly recognizable as ours, but there are differences that the reader has to figure out. It’s like a convergence of two separate realities…

Right, like how Dabbler has a little homunculus friend that lives inside of a helicopter.

Exactly. 

It’s funny you say that about science fiction, because I tend to think of it as obnoxiously expository. I love science fiction, but when I read it I’m disappointed when everything is explained rather than just shown. The Strugatsky brothers do it very well, especially in Roadside Picnic. There’s a whole world there that isn’t really explained. You’re just kind of dropped into it rather than characters saying things like “oh, well, ever since the Global Laser War of 2064…” I was reading this book by Clifford Simak and it’s kind of a bunch of short stories that he just glued into a novel. The glue is these dogs from the future presenting each story, like “these are some weird stories from back when humans apparently ruled the world, but we don’t really believe that happened.” Those stories are so expository. When you’re drinking soda from a cup, you don’t talk about the cup, or where soda came from, or the Coca-Cola company’s takeover of the world. You just drink it. I’ve always liked that lack of explicit exposition. Maybe it comes through in the comics I make.

But, to continue the soda analogy, you famously have two separate instances in Boston Corbett where a character explains what ice cream is… 

If you think about it, that’s a clue to what kind of world they live in. I was also just obsessed with ice cream at the time, which is probably why that burst through into my fiction. But I don’t think ice cream was an everyday thing back then.

Was there anything in particular that drew you to the historical character of Boston Corbett? This obviously isn’t a historical biography, but there are aspects of his real life that are woven into the book.

I read his Wikipedia article and it was insane. Sometimes you just find a Wikipedia entry that’s just so golden, and it just keeps getting weirder. It’ll start out about how there was a castaway stranded in the middle of the ocean, but then there will be three paragraphs in the middle about how he drank turtle blood to survive. The thing that jumped out at me about Boston Corbett was that he was propositioned by prostitutes on the street, and then he got so freaked out that he castrated himself. I thought about that all the time. He was so fearful of his own temptations that he had to cut off his option for indulging that temptation. I also really like the idea of someone was so naive about sex. It seems like he didn’t know anything about it. That idea was interesting to me. If someone grew up knowing absolutely nothing about sex, what would they think when they hit puberty? They could only think that they were suddenly possessed by demons causing them to have these strange, intrusive thoughts. Would they be able to figure it out? I don’t know. But that’s one reason why Boston Corbett interested me. He had a wife, so I guess he had to have some idea of it, but he seemed like someone who would have had no idea what those prostitutes were talking about. He just knew it was something disturbing enough for him to castrate himself.

Another thing that spoke to me about Boston Corbett was how corny it was that he was specifically given orders not to shoot into this barn where John Wilkes Booth was hiding out. I really love imaging the look on everyone’s face when he just shot anyway. His fellow soldiers were probably all yelling “what are you doing?” but then he became a national hero for this stupid mistake. I thought that was funny. What made him crazy and incapable of being a famous man was what made him famous. He couldn’t take orders, he couldn’t listen to anybody. They tried to make him the doorkeeper at the Kansas House of Representatives and he just couldn’t do it. [Editor’s Note: Corbett was removed from this position after brandishing his pistol and chasing officers of the House of Representatives out of the building after he became convinced they were plotting against him.]

As Boston’s way of thinking about the world changes through the course of the story, the way you actually depict him on the page changes as well.

Yes. That’s probably pretty confusing to people. He starts out looking almost vaguely like me. Then, he turns into this other guy, and then he turns back. I couldn’t tell you why that happens. He’s definitely going through different phases of his life and he looks different through each of them.

There’s a similarity between that change and the change in the look of Mokumbo in Miss Hennipin, although Mokumbo is a masked character, so the changes are really just changes in the masks he wears.

Yeah, when they go to the dance, he’s got some tassels on there. It’s a little nicer.

Toward the end, Mokumbo’s getting chastised and the mask is frowning. Almost like he had a mask that he wears specifically for receiving punishment.

He knew he was in for it that morning. He put on the sad mask.

You mentioned your Instagram earlier, and from the recent posts there it seems like you’re working on a board game design.

I’ve been obsessed with making art for board games, but my own board games. I have maybe a half dozen of them that are half-created and not very fun to play. My friend August and I had this idea about ‘zine fairs and comics shows. They can be kind of tedious and overstimulating at the same time. Have you ever tried talking on the phone when you’re in a grocery store? You find yourself holding, like, a pomegranate in the wrong aisle and wondering what you came in there for in the first place. That’s how I feel at those things. August and I thought it would be fun to sell homemade board games at ‘zine and comic shows with handmade components that aren’t printed but made. It’s just art that you can play with. There’s a world going on that has rules that you must abide by, but people could also make up their own rules. The latest one I was working on was about this cult in space. You flick these little spaceships around and there are these cult leaders and cult members on the spaceships that are trying to recruit new members for their cults or create new members through weird sex rituals or stuff like that. I like the idea of board games about really stupid stuff like that. I’ve been talking to some people about helping out with those who may be a little better at game mechanics. Maybe they can help make them better games. I love the idea of having your own little role playing world. It’s a really interesting way to use art. It doesn’t have to be something you just look at and appreciate, it can be something you kind of fiddle with.

I know that Boston Corbett was released near the beginning of pandemic-related lockdowns, so did you have the chance to attend any of these comics and ‘zine shows with it?

There was an issue with the printing. It was supposed to come out in December of 2019, but it was delayed and ended up coming out right at the start of the pandemic. Which may be good because this book is a hard thing to lug around. I don’t imagine a bunch of people would be buying it. Anyone who buys it, they’ve got to carry that shit home, too. I imagine if anyone was going to buy one that they’d buy it at the very end of the last day so they wouldn’t have to carry it around. We haven’t really had any events for Boston Corbett. I’m hoping that because people can’t leave their houses that maybe it’s benefitted the book a little bit. Right before things got locked down I did a reading in Oakland. People were selling comics and there was a reading where I read a couple of stories that were projected onto a screen. It was kind of silly. It went really well, but all we could do at the end was shrug and tell people that the book was coming out eventually. I love doing those readings. I did one for Miss Hennipin, and I did another one at a bookstore in Sacramento between the two. All the people who came were just fans of the bookstore. It wasn’t a bunch of comics people. They didn’t know what they were getting into. It was a really interesting cross-section of people from Sacramento. There were six or seven people there reading comics and it was well received. I really love that stuff and I’m sure I’ll try to do more stuff like that as soon as I can. 

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a big new comic. Back in April when things started to shut down, my wife and I looked at each other and said “we were made for this.” Of course, then everyone thought we’d just have to stay home for a month. We both have a fairly monastic streak. I’ve been pretty productive. I’ve finished the writing and I’ve penciled some of it and inked a little bit of it. This is not something that I’ve ever done before. I’ve never done thumbnails and writing and then pencils and inks. I’m trying to make a more conventional comic. I’ve learned the hard way why people do things the way they do. If you pencil something and then ink over it, you can make all the mistakes you want with the pencils. I’m not sure when it’s going to be done, but it’ll be a long comic, probably watercolored. So I’ve been working on that and also making those doomed board games that nobody plays.

Andy Douglas Day’s art can be found online at his Instagram and his books are available from Sonatina.

Ad for Toucan, the official blog of Comic-con and Wondercon