Talking Doll: An Interview with Guy Colwell

Guy Colwell's Self-Portrait in Green Overalls, 1997

This interview was done over email in 2018 for inclusion in Colwell's forthcoming Fantagraphics Underground collection of Doll, out in May.

Katie Skelly: When is the last time you revisited Doll after its publication in 1989? What stands out to you about the comic 30 years later?

Guy Colwell: 30 years! Yow! I suppose I hadn’t thought about Doll much since the last of the European translations were done and the sales began to fizzle out. It did pretty well for a couple of years, then nothing. But two things came up in the last couple of years that made me pay attention to these books again. One was the agreement with Fantagraphics to print a collection of all eight books. The other was a character who came out of nowhere saying he was a movie producer and had always wanted to make a film version of Doll. That didn’t go anywhere. He would have had to make an NC-17 version to tell the story faithfully but wouldn’t get much of an audience. I mean, how often do you see NC-17 films in your local theaters? And I could never get the person to say much about money, so I decided to back away from the project. Maybe it is not possible to make a movie and it would be rather dated now.

But to your second question, what stands out about it now is that what I have seen of sex dolls being made today, mostly in Japan, they are far more technically advanced and realistic than Doll. I mean, I think we are on the verge of walking, talking sex robots that will make my conception of a voiceless fabricated surrogate look incredibly primitive. I know some people have said my books were prescient about what would be done in this strange field, but my “predictions” fell far short of the reality.

In Doll, the ideal female creation isn’t born out of science fiction, but instead her birth (or “birth in reverse”) has its genesis in the art world. How did you view your relationship to the art world at that time? 

A good question. In a way I think Wiley was a wish fulfillment figure. He had a strong presence in the art world. He was successful. He was sought after. For me, on the other hand, the art world had not taken much notice. I had been trying to carve for myself a place in that world as a fine artist for about 30 years at that time, but was stuck living in semi-rural Auburn, California, trying to make a small living doing comic book production and drawing comics, while also continuing to pursue my goal of achieving success as a painter. I had a great outpouring of very good oil and acrylic paintings then, but not many people saw them. I think a lot of the people who know my name only know me through comic books. So making the creation of Doll something done by an artist grounded the story in something I knew about, but also expressed some of the frustration I feel because I have not been so successful as my comic book artist character. I think now it has gotten a little better. More and more people know me as a painter today, but I am still climbing that mountain and still not making a living from my fine art.

From when Wiley is propositioned by Evergood to “make me a woman” to the realization of Doll, no one stops to question if making a sex doll for a deeply traumatized man who lives isolated in a trailer is a good idea. Looking back, why do you think that was?

Well, is “traumatized” really the right word? That has a psychological connotation that might not apply. Evergood was deeply disfigured physically but I thought of him as otherwise a rather level-headed guy who just wanted to have some kind of sexual experience other than masturbation before he died. The fact is I was in similar circumstances myself when I came up with the idea for Doll. I was not physically disfigured but lived with crippling shyness. During all the years I was in Auburn and drawing Doll, I was living alone, yes, in a motor home. I fantasized about a sex doll but as lonely as I felt, I was not an Evergood and I did not give up hope of coupling up again — a hope Evergood never had. I don’t know if I had been given access to a realistic sex doll if I would have used it, but I tend to think not. I knew the real thing would find me eventually. So since I strongly identified with the character of Evergood, I was writing from a more or less autobiographical perspective.

Do you consider Doll an erotic work? Or do you view the sex scenes more as functional for driving the plot? 

Can I say the answer is both? I suppose I was inspired by Larry Welz’s Cherry books which were selling very well through Rip Off Press when I was working as art director there. So I wanted to do an erotic book and make some money, but something like the raw but trivialized sex in Cherry would not have been my way of approaching a story that had to rely on a lot of sex. Not very interesting and there were plenty of other pure stroke books out there already. I wanted something a little more serious that looked at some of the dark side and sadness and tragedy of sexuality, not just the bumping and pumping and grunting. So, yes, the sex is a driver of the storylines and, yes, it is still an erotic book meant to excite the reader.

Cherry is a series by Larry Welz

You mentioned wanting to make some money doing erotica. How was Doll received? Did it face any critical blowback?

 Doll did pretty well for a while. I believe I wanted extra money because I was thinking about going on some art pilgrimages. Doll produced enough income that I was able to go on my first solo trip in 1988 to see the Italian Renaissance art in Florence, Rome, Milan, Padua, and other cities. It was a great trip and I felt well worth doing some comics that were rather trivial in comparison to Inner City Romance, which started out so hardcore political. Then in 1990, there was still enough money coming in from Doll to take another incredible sketching journey, this time to the African countries of Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. Again, a little salable erotica supported an excellent, life-changing experience. I just wish I could do something more serious and worthwhile in terms of social commentary that would be as financially productive.

As for critical blowback, well, I don’t recall anything very harsh. One writer mentioned that a person as disfigured as Evergood shouldn’t be thinking about coupling with anyone as cute as Doll but should be content to look for a partner just as disfigured as himself. There is something to that in the sense that everyone ought to have a right to love and sex, according to the hippie “free love” ideal that I was still grappling with when I did Doll. But it misses a deep truth about the male psyche, that the male sexual arousal works by stimulation that enters through the visual system. I guess this is one of the tragedies of humanity, that men are programed to seek young and beautiful female bodies to feel the sexual response.

Maybe the closest comics touchstone I can find for Doll is Milo Manara’s Click! series, in which a woman is implanted with a device that a maniacal doctor can use to drive her sexual arousal to the point where she is insatiable and her ability to deny consent dissolves. In both these comics, the presence of a woman (or “woman” in Doll’s case) with no sexual boundaries causes complete chaos in society. What was on your mind at the time writing a “character” like Doll?

I got quite interested in Manara. He is a really remarkable artist and draws such beautiful women. He has a keen understanding of what men, for good or not, are hoping to see. I almost took a side trip in Italy to look him up but because of time limitations and shyness I did not go to his home even though I had somehow located his address. In the end, wasn’t it the case that there was nothing inside the controlling click box? I thought that was a great ending in that it seemed to say her insatiability was not the result of an artificial implant but actually a part of her biology; the inescapable reality of natural programming.

Of course, Doll is not an insatiable woman, she’s just a sex doll. But my intention was to do some comics about men and the way sexual temptation, visual stimulation, and, yes, the possibility of sex without boundaries can reduce them to instinctive, impulsive beasts. There has always been an exploration of the dark, primitive side of sex in my stories going back to Inner City Romance #1. It is fascinating and disturbing to see and try to understand how human life and history have been shaped by the most ancient schemes that evolution has come up with to make sure we keep being fruitful and multiplying. And this dark and beautiful thing between male and female has worked damn well as our planet groans under the weight of these billions of lusting bipeds.

From Click! by Milo Manara, 1983

Even though it may not always be at the forefront, it’s hard to deny that there is social commentary in Doll: from the sleazy pornographer with the “ERA Now!” T-shirt, to the drive to mass produce and sell Dolls for huge profit, there does seem to be a cynicism around the “right to love and sex” you mentioned earlier. Doll is especially prescient now, as conversations about “redistribution of sex” (particularly as it would benefit straight men) have found their way into mainstream discourse. My experience reading Doll is that its innate cynicism is well founded. Is there a message you hope readers who are new to Doll can glean from its story?

I suppose the point, and yes, it is a cynical point, is that nature is unfair. Nature only cares that we reproduce and has worked out a way to impel us to do so. And that way has to do mostly with physical, visual attraction. We don’t do display dances or get turned on by sniffing butts. It is the way we look to each other that turns us on, like it or not. So what to do about the unattractive humans with whom no one wants to couple? My books could not find a solution for this. Do we teach ourselves to rise above sexual desire? A lot of religious movements have tried this and there is little evidence that it does much good since most humans remain fixated on seeking sexual gratification and remain forever entangled in the basic animal biology that brought us into the world. Do we create a sexual communism wherein attractive people are assigned and compelled to service the sexual needs of the unattractive? I doubt if that would make anyone happy and would seem to disregard the important element of love and companionship. In the end, Doll is my serious and tragic way of saying the best we can do is try to understand our sexual dilemma as nature’s joke on us and at least get a laugh about the clowns we make ourselves into as we struggle with our urges.

Do you have any other comic book projects in your future?

As a matter of fact, I have written and started penciling a graphic novel that will run about 180 pages. It is a story of Hieronymus Bosch creating one of his famous paintings. I think it might do well because so many people are fascinated by Bosch. I don’t know how long it will take to do, maybe a couple of years considering all the demands on my time. All of the more than 250 pages of the original Doll comics plus all the front and back covers, inside covers, collateral illustrations, and pinups for promo took a little more than 3 years to do. But then I was living alone without family responsibilities. So it is hard to say how long my Bosch book will take but it is definitely doable. My preference is always to do a standard 32-page comic book but that market seems to have evaporated for the alternative things I come up with, so it is the graphic novel that demands to be done now. Other than my Bosch book, I have no other comic projects in progress or under contemplation. I keep trying to stay serious about my Social Realist paintings even though after devoting more than 50 years to oil and acrylic on canvas, I still can’t make a living from it.