I Feel Like We Don’t Meaningfully Have Much Of An “Underground” Right Now”: An Interview With Evan Dahm

Evan Dahm is an illustrator and cartoonist whose body of work includes the graphic novels Rice Boy, Order of Tales, Vattu, Island Book (with First Second),  and the forthcoming The Harrowing of Hell from Iron Circus Comics). Since 2006 Evan has been creating long-format fantasy adventure comics set in the universe known as Overside and publishing them on his website. Evan’s work focuses on absorbing sagas chronicling the evocative lives of characters set in expansive and absorbing fantasy worlds, delving into the philosophical and often the political with an intimately poetic approach. I got to talk with Evan over email about his slew of new books, comics in progress as well as discuss his creative philosophy and working within the constraints of a visual medium, genre and all the traditions that entails.

Sloane Leong: Thanks for talking with me Evan, I'm really excited! To start out, maybe you can share some basic contextual stuff. Can you talk about your creative history and it's trajectory? Did you go to art school? Did your parents have any influence on your desire to become a storyteller or cartoonist?

Evan Dahm: Feels tricky to narrativize this sometimes, so I ramble: I've been drawing my whole life and have always been motivated by the feeling of being immersed in strange fictional environments. My parents were extremely supportive of the creative work I was doing and accommodating of the sometimes-maybe-antisocial ways I wanted to do it; they were encouraging and excited with me as I fumbled through trying to make a career out of this work. I was making comics in high school, a lot of them on entervoid.com (With You, Sloane), but felt kind of agnostic about the medium in particular until I figured out what I personally wanted to do with it with Rice Boy in 2006, in my first year at college. I went to Appalachian State University in NC; I was going for a fine art degree for my first year and a half there because it was the closest to anything I was interested in, but moved out of that program because it felt increasingly incompatible with what I was doing and "fine art" felt more and more clearly like an obsolete and vacant idea to me.

Publishing Rice Boy as a webcomic from 2006 to 2008 gradually opened up an enormous conception for me of what comics could be, what self-publishing was at the time becoming, and how it could fit into the world and my life. In retrospect I see this all happening within a window of time that's now closed, when the internet wasn't a predominantly corporate space. I've been working on a series of fantasy graphic novels consistently since then, self-publishing them in the same way which now feels a little nostalgic or obsolete, and I'm only recently moving into working-with-publishers territory.

It’s always been really cool to me how you’ve maintained such complete control of your work and how it’s presented! Your self-published books, to say nothing of their engaging content, are always beautifully designed. When I get one of your books, it always feel like this meticulous thing, formed with intent down to the spine.   

Thank you; the more I think about it the more I think the main reason I'm able to continue to self-publish and maintain so much control of what I'm doing is that I started Rice Boy at a particular moment, when it was feasible to build a big audience doing work like that and when there wasn't much like it being published on the internet. And then when Rice Boy was done I still didn't feel like I had any technical or systematic skill or understanding of stories (I still don't), so all I could think to do was push forward with the same attitude of doing exactly what I was interested in a rigorous and uncompromising way. Book design is an obsessive focus for me generally, I usually develop a really clear idea of how to present a comic in book form over the course of doing it, and it is hard to budge that idea.

What were some of your formative influences? What elements from those have you kept with you till now and why?

I have trouble thinking about early influences, I don't really know! Hard to see what I took in and stuck with me before that's a thing I was consciously trying to do. I was really into fantasy novels generally as a kid, into the experience of really believing a fantastic space is real. The Myst games are probably the pop cultural thing from when I was a kid that's stuck with me the most; I am still deeply motivated by their atmosphere and approach to space and exposition. My mom has always drawn and is a very visually-literate person, there were a lot of books of illustration around.

Can you talk about your creative process, routines, and rituals? What kind of mindset is the most beneficial for you when creating?

A lot of that changes depending on the project, but I've tried to build my schedule around awareness of what parts of the process require creatively-active improvising brain and which parts are just grind. Most of the comics are grind, like 90 percent; I feel like this is universal, maybe you can confirm.

Vattu is made one page at a time, usually on a two-a-week schedule lately. Like, doing each page start-to-finish before I start the next one. Writing Vattu is still a pretty constant process; I try to focus on that like once every week or so? But it varies a lot; I feel like I've gotten comfortable at this point getting in and out of writing space for that story, like holding enough of it active in my head at once to be able to write. Island Book was/will be a lot more systematic: tight outline of the whole thing, writing an almost-tight script, thumbnailing in chunks, drawing, coloring. Exhausting to keep my brain in the same mode for such a long time for each of those phases—doing so much staring at a screen for so long in the coloring phase was difficult!!! But there's a lot of consistency and clarity that doing it that way helped with.

Also I have been working on multiple books at once for a while so it's all kind of a mess. I try to set clear goals for the day and week and just push through as well as I can. I try to get up early and I try to take advantage of my brain working in a more open-feeling way in the mornings; that is as much as I can see a specific routine/ritual.

I find your choices in how you depict your character world very interesting, especially for the fantasy genre. It’s complex but its not overwrought with detail. You stylize characters but they aren’t pushed to the edge of caricature. Can you talk a little about your decision making process with what you choose to leave in and out visually?

I think a lot about this stylization question! I think it's hard to say how far characters or settings are "stylized" when they aren't building off of real-world referents in a clear way. With Rice Boy I feel like I hit upon this technique or technology of making a story in an invented setting with no visually human characters at all, and a really nebulous, abstract attitude towards the different bodies characters can have. I really love how unsettling this is, and I like how it helps to build a sense that the visual style of the drawing is endemic to the world of the story itself—as opposed to when I draw a human being, in which case the "style" of that drawing is painfully clear. If a story takes place totally outside of a visually human context, "style" feels a little more like an open question to me, in a way that I hope helps make the whole thing more involving. Also I feel a little neurotic about wanting to take advantage of working in a visual medium in this way; I want to invent everything, I want to develop the whole visual context according to my interests and taste, and according to the needs of the story.

About detail: with Island Book, I've tried to develop a different aesthetic that's much more simple and clean in terms of linework, and have everything look sort of plasticky, simple, iconic. Because of how I see the "style" question, I see this as a formal decision on my part, and something that percolates into the imagined physical reality of the book's fictional setting.

So cool! Can you expand a bit more on this visual approach for the Island Book series, the iconic-ness? Is there a distance there you want to create with the “plasticy” feel? Or does it have to do with with the younger audience it’s meant to be read by?

I guess I usually have a clear visual-atmospheric sense of a project pretty much before anything else, so a lot of what Island Book is seems like it accreted around that aesthetic. I wanted it to have a sort of "fable" feeling, and to deal in broad iconic ways with the questions of its characters, cultures, ideas. I got really into having a sort of Italo Calvino approach to poetic, applicable fabular storytelling, which feels consistent with the goals of the aesthetic to me. Also there's a cute irony to me in the contradiction between the book's focus on the unknown and unknowable, and an aesthetic of total clarity, objectivity, and something like cleanliness. All the characters looking like little plastic dolls. I don't think it had much to do with thinking specifically about a younger audience! It's textually simple but I tried to apply my whole adult brain to it, if that makes sense

SERIES, yeah, there is gonna be more than one of these books; I don't think this has been formally announced yet but it got lined up soon enough in the production process for Island Book that they added a big number 1 on the spine.

(an addendum to that bit about "stylization": I thought about this question a lot reading Prism Stalker, actually: so much of that book is about human figures suspended in totally unintelligible, bizarre spaces, and having their visual bodily integrity kind of challenged by those spaces-- I think the mechanisms of how we understand a visual environment are dependent on our relationship to human figures or their lack in that environment; really cool to see that worked through so richly in a different way than I have in my own work)

(eee thank you! you hit the nail on the head!)

That's so exciting you're getting to explore more with Island Book! I really appreciate that you're constantly questioning your style's effects and adapting it to complement each story. I feel like many artists often don't consciously challenge the current culmination of their style and take for granted how altering it to adapt to their story can make such an impact. To continue on the subject of style, what has become easier to accomplish on the page? What are you are still grappling with conveying?

A lot of what I'm doing is invisible to me of course! And I'm sure there's ways I can't see in which I'm ignorantly leaning into a certain objective image of "getting better," "culmination of style," even if I try to think outside of that.

I'm not sure; I guess I've gotten better along the lines of what's always been most engaging to me: making spaces believable atmospherically, and building quiet moments in them. Most violence and character-action stuff has always been difficult for me, but also kind of deliberately not the main focus of most of my work lately. I dunno I'm trying to walk the line between pushing myself in new directions and exploring & taking seriously the sorts of interests that have always been a part of what I'm doing. A thing I'm working through, struggling with a lot is keeping "in touch" with what I understand as the anarchic Surrealist "core" of a lot of my aesthetic interests?? Like trying to keep that thread alive in whatever I'm doing, even as the work might get more and more grounded and detail-oriented (like Vattu in particular). But I don't know how to talk about that without getting insufferably abstract, even more insufferably abstract lol 

I'm all ears for abstract haha! This is getting closer to some other questions I want to ask but can you talk more about that anarchic Surrealist core? How did you come to that as a centralized thread in your work? Why is it important to you to keep in touch with it?

Sure; I guess I have been motivated by an almost-frustration at how much pop media feels obliged to explain itself. In fantasy in particular, a big thing that went into Rice Boy was a frustration that fantastical conceits always seemed to have a rationalizing framework. I don't know why I hate that so much! I don't need to know why all of the strange stuff exists in a story or why the world is the way it is, necessarily. I'm much more engaged if I'm put into the strange context and follow the story on its own terms, with no overt concessions to making it intelligible and incorporating it into a genre tradition. I'm interested in European Surrealism as a framework to talk about this sort of thing: it's motivating to me to work through the personal and ideological constraints on what I'm thinking and making—not with the aim being to achieve a "pure" untethered artistic product, I think that's an impossible and maybe reactionary idea, but with the aim of keeping it all alive and critical in my head?? The Surrealists were often too Mystical for me but I like the framework of it.

This has become more important to me as it's become more of an emblem of a broader anarchist approach to the world. You have your ethical convictions and you take them seriously, but the world is never known to you and every structure of authority and knowledge in your head and in your culture is to be challenged and picked apart, literally endlessly.

Interesting! Recently I was listening to this research economist being interviewed and he was saying he didn’t read fiction and found it somewhat dangerous; specifically in speculative fiction when it manufactures too convenient dynamics and easy moral binaries in a crafted world. I don’t fully agree with that notion but I find it really interesting. I don't think people are as critical of fiction, especially genre fiction, enough. We talked about this a bit on the panel you moderated at VanCAF but what’s your relationship with history, politics and building fictional worlds? You seem to enjoy worldbuilding but it seems seated in deep political opinions and social insight rather than just solely being a fun creative exercise...

I was just talking to a friend about a parallel thing! Like how we inherit our sense of narrative from the novel, a basically bourgeois form that is equipped mainly to build a socially isolated image of a person-as-character, and not as deeply equipped to talk about big systemic and ideological questions. I don't agree with this economist person fully either but I think it's motivating to keep that tension in mind.

I've had very different approaches to the idea of "worldbuilding" throughout different projects, and I think it'll stay at the core of basically everything I do. I'm thinking more and more about how the technique is premised on an idea of "objective" history that is limiting and imperialistic and doesn't do justice to people's lived experiences. I've been working on Vattu for nine years now, and over the course of that project my attitude towards worldbuilding has shifted from that more objective perspective towards one that emphasizes differing perspectives on the details of the setting: the nerdy detail has become less a thing to build for its own sake, than a loose framework to talk about ideas from different angles. Like it feels more like a space to explore: not an objectively-built fictional space to fill out, but a field of ideas, perspectives, disagreements.

The genre of the secondary-world story is another thing we inherit, like the novel, that should be interrogated. I'm a white American with all of the contingency of that perspective working within this tradition that has a lot of inbuilt colonialism, race science, imperialism encoded into it. And I can't think of there ever being an endpoint to that process of interrogation! But this genre material is the tool I'm using and I'm trying to keep these tensions alive in my head. I think a lot about Le Guin's Earthsea series as a narrative that builds on and interrogates its own genre traditions in a way I'd like to do.

Yea, this genre carries a lot of weight from its tradition, it’s refreshing to see you not taking its origin and inherited elements for granted. You have a lot of comics under you belt, stories that cover a huge scope of time and breadth of characters. What themes have you found yourself circling around, coming back to? What’s important thematically to you right now that you’re exploring?

I guess I've been playing around with and pushing back against certain archetypal and mythic ideas and story structures since Rice Boy. I don't know, I can sort of project backwards certain thematic concerns that I absolutely wasn't aware of at the time; I don't think I even knew what I was doing thematically with Vattu until several years in!! In that comic there's a fixation on identity as something emerging out of and in opposition to the surrounding cultures; I'm trying to use that idea as a way of looking at the story's more textual focus on imperialism. Island Book is an explicit, focused attempt to work through this unknowability idea I mentioned earlier: what does it mean to fail to understand the world, what do we do wrong when we believe we understand it... My adaptation of "The Harrowing of Hell" that I just finished feels pretty thematically tight with that, sort of a Christian-anarchist angle on the same ideas of the fallacy of human power, punishment, knowledge... I feel like I'm simple and I fixate on certain similar broad ideas from different angles.

I think that’s something all artists do! Since you brought up Harrowing, how did working on something like an adaption change your approach? And what drew you to this story in particular?

Felt very different! I could only really wrap my head around it if I thought about it less as an adaptation and more as a way of charting a particular intentional course through the text... Like much of the story is an adaptation of the Gospel According to Mark guided by my interest in how that story articulates a Jesus acting and existing against Roman imperial authority and its inherent violence. I really can't make sense of the gospel stories generally outside of that political focus; I think it's at the core of the whole thing, covered-over by a bunch of mystifying elements.

What drew me to this story! The Harrowing of Hell is an apocryphal story of Jesus descending to a vaguely-defined underworld to rescue the people imprisoned there before his canonical resurrection. It was written in the 300s AD, coincident with Christianity's incorporation into the Roman Empire officially. It's such a fantastical, gothic idea and I had been wanting to do something with it for a long time. Christian Anarchism has resonated with me for a while and it felt appropriate and interestingly ironic to connect a politically grounded, anarchist reading of Mark with an adaptation of the Harrowing: the most propagandistic, fan-fictiony story of Christ that I can imagine. Jesus' resurrection is a statement on the total fallacy of power and punishment, while Hell (as we think of it now) is an ultimate extrapolation of that same power and punishment!

There is something about punishment and the logic of punishment permeating our institutions and ourselves, and about liberatory traditions and ideas being strip-mined for their potential as punitive tools, that feels resonant to me right now.

Me too! I feel like Harrowing really captures that aspect of Jesus teaching in a really emotionally impactful way too rather than just a dry, philosophical one. One scene I really liked was when Jesus says "what is there but stories?". As a storyteller yourself who finds it important to interrogate the self and the surrounding structures of culture, what kind of impact do you want your work to have? Or is its reception or effect not something you're necessarily concerned about?

That bit is working through a part of Mark where he talks about using metaphor to communicate, and seems to implicate the gospel itself in that idea in what feels like a very self-conscious, modern way. Most of what he does is tell stories, and the things that he does are almost explicitly shown to be metaphorical tools themselves, within the story of the gospel. I really like that idea. (forgive me I am not a pronoun capitalizer)

The impact I want my work to have... I normally feel so overwhelmed by material concerns and trying to keep it working as a career that I am just desperate for people to read it at all!! But also I'm increasingly feeling a sort of flattening, hemming-in of creative and ideological spaces in our pop culture... We're in this desperate scrambling moment of late capitalism and all of our spaces for creativity and interaction are being turned into shopping malls. And at the same time everybody is overwhelmed by the same material concerns; we're all wandering around these entirely corporatized internet shopping-malls trying to make our art and have people care about it, in this environment systemically deadening to art. For the huge quantity of art being produced in both corporate and independent contexts I feel like we don't meaningfully have much of an "underground" right now, or much work that's challenging or deeply, meaningfully weird? This isn't really a resolved idea for me. And I don't think I am really living up to that in my work, but I guess I want to push in that direction.

I feel that. I think the mindset people have now when consuming comics or movies or any media seems troublingly impersonal and also unimaginative, probably from the capitalist nature of the atmosphere you’ve described. You’ve been making comics and telling stories for awhile now, have you noticed a shift in how readers respond or engage with your work?

I think I agree with that about reception becoming impersonal and unimaginative—I wish there was more of a popular contempt for the sorts of things that technologically perfected mass media is doing and failing to do creatively. It's hard to hold onto that backlash when mass media is so all-consuming, so engrossing and enormous, tho. I wish the political-mindedness that's percolated into our discourse had more teeth and more intentionality to it.

With my own audience I haven't seen as much of a clear shift as I guess that would imply. I get the sense lately that most of the people who engage with my work came to it years ago and have stuck with me throughout... So there's been a lot of consistency in who's interested in what I'm doing and how they engage with it. I am extremely grateful that I've been able to connect in this way!! Like I want to do that justice. I don't know how to wrap my head around "staying relevant," or building an audience of new readers... I'm trying to diversify because I don't know what else to do; I hope the work I'm making through book-publishing channels resonates with people. I feel like a lot of what I am saying is just old man stuff maybe.

Speaking of publishing, how has your experience been working with a publishing house? Have you found collaborating with an editor beneficial? Has it changed up your process any?

I love a lot of it, absolutely. All of the infrastructural stuff and the book-distribution stuff is still very unfamiliar to me and exciting. First Second has always seemed on board with and excited about what I'm trying to do with Island Book. We're just lately getting deeper into story editing for the sequel and I'm interested in seeing how that goes: I brought the first Island Book to them pretty planned-out so we didn't do much editing for that phase of it. My process for these books has had to be dramatically different: every part has to be clearly planned-out, and phases of the process have to be moved through one at a time, which makes me acutely aware of how much more improvisation fits into the process in my self-published stuff. I try not to think of it as preferring one or the other type of process; each one has its own strengths I'm trying to lean into.

Iron Circus Comics is publishing the Harrowing of Hell in early 2020... I've known Spike, the head of ICC, probably as long as I've known anybody in comics, and I had been wanting to work with her on something like that for a long time. She is a really recklessly excited, ambitious and intentional person and it's really cool to see ICC figure out exactly how to exist and function in the industry as it is now.

The hell book is a weird and confrontational project and I really don't know who else I would want to publish it. My process for that book was almost entirely self-directed, in one long obsessive fugue with occasional open-ended check-ins with Spike.

Just to circle back a bit, what was your thought process behind the depiction of Jesus, Satan, and Hell? They're such visually loaded symbols now but I found your takes on them really refreshing and interesting: Jesus is CUTE, Satan is in a handsome Caesar cosplay and Hell is this sprawling burnt orange labyrinth...

I incorporated some reference to existing, familiar depictions of these things because maybe it would be impossible not to, but for the most part things are designed around the needs of the story and what I'm trying to draw out of it. And secondarily I tried to lean on historical accuracy, but that sort of definitive journalistic thing isn't really my goal for the book. I wanted Jesus to look consistently shy and humble and deeply anti-authoritarian and anti-violence, as if inherently to his being and appearance. Rounded, harmless. Satan isn't textually called "Satan;" I tried to avoid getting sucked into later mythologizations of all the details of hell...he's just meant to be this exaggerated metaphysical locus of authority and violent power, and I tried to build his design and the design of hell generally to push that as much as I could.

Wonderful, I absolutely loved your depiction of Jesus for that very reason! I’m curious, what are you afraid of when engaging with your creativity and making comics? What motivates you to tell stories and persist in this medium?

I haven't put it to myself as "afraid," but I guess I am afraid of my work shifting towards pure technique and losing touch with the core feelings and interests that motivate me. I worry about losing momentum, forgetting what pursuing an idea honestly looks like. Something like that!

Sometimes I think about trying to write a prose novel because it would be so much less grueling, like it would be a tiny fraction of the amount of effort that it takes to make a comic of equivalent-feeling scale. And I'm drawn to all of these narrative things around immersion and enormity that comics feel really at odds with sometimes. But I really depend on thinking visually and building stories visually and I want to keep focused on comics for that reason. I have my own approach to the medium and my own way of using it that I've been working with for so long that it feels like the primary way I have of communicating this sort of thing. And increasingly I am grateful that a medium in pop culture can exist where individuals can do their own stories in a visual medium with little compromise.

... This has become the way I think about the world and myself and work through ideas. I have no other way of thinking hard about things and I don't know how I could function without having projects like this ongoing as a thing to bounce off of and communicate through.

I feel that. What can we look forward to reading from you in the future?

A bunch of things coming together and coming out in the next couple of years. Vattu is still being serialized online and is around 1020 pages now, in its last book: a lot of things are coming together for the climactic stretch of it and I'm nervous and excited about that. The Harrowing of Hell is out in early 2020 and is a very different and more aggressive sort of project for me. And the two sequels to Island Book are in development now, I think they'll be enormous and exciting and unsettling and I look forward to making that happen.