Dan McDaid’s earlier work of the Jersey Gods and comic book forum reality show era featured the rounded Jack Kirby shoulder-work and thick musculature that also seemed to inspire the character designs and comics of your Bruce Timms, your Ron Frenzes, and your Tom Sciolis. He’s of a fine and noble lineage for drawing superhero and sci-fi action comics, but as he passed through the landscape of Judge Dredd and into the strange corners of TKO’s Fearsome Doctor Fang and whatever back alleys he ended up in with Joe Hill’s Sea Dog two-pagers, befitting the horrific and pulpy subject matter, his work became increasingly rough and unsettling.
In Dega, McDaid’s self-published graphic novel under the “Dr. Ink Production” banner, that grotesque Kirby skeleton remains, but it’s layered with smeared brush strokes and etched lines, an almost gestural approach to drawing that suits the nightmarish space narrative.
This is a full-on McDaid package, from concept through writing, drawing, coloring, printing, and distribution. His 14 pages of production notes that follow Dega's 44 pages of story indicate that McDaid began the project as an experiment in speed. “I wanted the turnaround of the book to be as fast as possible,” McDaid writes. “It took closer to five years.”
The thumbnails and story notes in the back matter place the genesis of Dega a bit before McDaid began drawing Judge Dredd comics. Dredd and Mega-City Zero inhabitants show up in ink atop the penciled fragments of Dega dialogue from McDaid’s sketched layouts. The final version of the story is a bit more refined than the penciled sketchbook pages, of course, but even with the five year gestation period and paying work pulling him away from this small sci-fi story, McDaid seems to have been able to retain the spirit of the Dega project by not over-rendering the pages or packing in obsessive details. Dega, even after years of would-be neglect, remains raw and beautiful in its finished state.
Dega does indeed have a story in its first 44 pages, though the specific plot details aren’t the most interesting thing about it. It’s elliptical and the opening image echoes the end, and there are pages with vibrant, glowing color and pages entirely in black and white (with an occasional orange and red intrusion). The shift to and from color is suitably disorienting, and that’s appropriate as the young protagonist is disoriented as well, fighting a hostile alien landscape with fragments of memory and a hope for the future.
In its symbolism and image patterns, and perhaps in its narrative heart, McDaid’s Dega is reminiscent of Ridley Scott and John Ford movies, with sunken mysteries beneath the surface of a barren planet, and with flashbacks to the lost homestead on the wasteland of a faraway frontier. The genre of the book is possibly survival horror as much as it is that hoary mashup of space opera westerns, but McDaid upends any expectation you might have about the young protagonist sneaking around and avoiding the clutches of the “magpies,” the slime-and-maw-faced alien raiders, as her actions show her to be supremely capable but also impulsive and irrational. The nightmarish story doesn’t operate completely on dream logic, but bits of it are beyond the comprehension of the protagonist. McDaid unbalances the reader as well by providing hyper-specific details without context, like the blank mask and the cape of feathers or the screeching of a discordant train, and drawing some later moments as if seen from the corner of your eye – not out of focus, but not clearly representational.
Dega, as a slim hardcover book complete with production notes, is as much about the process of its creation as it is about the protagonist’s struggle to survive and persevere in a dangerous alien landscape, and it’s all the better for it. The final panel of the 44-page narrative seems disarmingly optimistic based on what we have experienced with the protagonist in the previous pages, as her disorientation turns to confidence and control in that final moment, but as a statement about the work itself, and the artist launching the one-man project into the world, its optimism feels earned.