The Mike Dawson Interview

Early contact with a future Ink Panther, Tony Consiglio. From Dave & Co.

TCJ: Let's go back to that early Temporal Darkness collaboration with Gretsky. Of all your comics, this 1995 effort was the one that most resembled a standard superhero comic, featuring "The Face," a character you would revisit in several iterations. What made you decide to leave those kind of stories behind?

MD: I was influenced by all of the alternative underground style comics I’d suddenly become exposed to. I credit Evan Dorkin for a lot of that. I was a member of a cartoonist’s club at Rutgers, and Evan came to speak to the group. I think the idea was for him to talk about being a working cartoonist and tell us about the comics industry. Through the talk, he introduced us to his work and publishers like Slave Labor and Fantagraphics. It really opened my eyes to a wider world.

For a comics reader, it was a wonderful period of time. I was just snatching up all these great alternative comics that I'd never heard of before. I went to a store and got the first twelve or thirteen issues of Eightball which I had never read. I bought all of the first ten or so issues of Peepshow. For a very long time, I was such a fan of that series. I picked up the I Never Liked You and It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken books. I read Maus. It was just so amazing to be discovering this stuff all at once.

This started changing the types of comics I wanted to make. I liked doing the daily strip, but never had any childhood ambition to be a daily newspaper cartoonist. I'd been doing Ace-Face comics since high school. It was a big, long, melodramatic superhero style serial. I got bored with doing that kind of work.

Getting back to that senior thesis I mentioned, the comic I made was a stand-alone story, thirty-two pages, about four college students in their room smoking marijuana and talking. It was called The Chamber. I'm embarrassed by it now... not because it was bad, though it was bad, but because it was something I drew to be a jerk to some roommates I'd had one year. I had based the characters on them. It was an incredibly unflattering portrayal.

Among the things I got on my high horse about in college, being vocally anti-weed was one of them. I didn't get along well with those guys. I think I spent my whole junior year of college in my bedroom with Marisa, complaining about our housemates being stoned all the time. It's a bummer to think about now, because honestly, I was the one with a stick-up-my-ass, and I really could have had more fun if I had lightened up. As an aside, I recently went to a reunion for the theater troupe I was a part of for a lot of college. Two friends and I walked past the house I’d lived in at the time I wrote The Chamber. The one friend pointed to the upstairs, where she’d lived, and the other pointed to my downstairs apartment and said something along the lines of “and that’s where Mike lived, shaking his fist and being the fun-police.” She was right though. I was like a bridge troll.

After The Chamber, I quit doing the Ace-Face serial and became focused on more slice-of-life type stories.

TCJ: By 1999 and 2000, it seems like you started to figure out what kind of comics you wanted to do. With Much and Cabaret, two variations on the same story, you underwent an interesting shift. You moved your thinly veiled "Malcolm Muldowney" character from being the principle protagonist to more of a sideline character. Who were your main influences at this point? What spurred the changes from Much to Cabaret

MD: I was probably mostly influenced by Love & Rockets around that time. Them and the autobiographical comics Drawn & Quarterly was publishing.

The characters in Much were college kids. They did a lot of talking. The character Malcolm has decided he's unhappy with where he is in life, so he decides he's going to live in 1994 instead. This means he starts dressing more grunge, and talks about bands from the early '90s and so on.

My idea with this was the story with the other characters would keep going along, all slice-of-life, but something would happen with Malcolm where it would be that he really was living in 1994 somehow, even though he was there with the rest of his friends in 1999.

I was watching a lot of Woody Allen at the time, no doubt inspired by Seth and Joe Matt talking about him in their stories, and I had in mind to do some sort of "magical realism" thing in my comics, like Woody Allen had done in some of his movies, like Purple Rose of Cairo or Zelig.

The problem was, I couldn't figure out how to make it happen. I didn't know how to convey that Malcolm was in 1994, beyond just having him name-check bands and other pop-culture references.

So, I dropped that story and started again - this time focusing on the other characters from the story, which eventually became the Cabaret booklet I put together in 2001.

When I finished Cabaret, I happened to be taking a silk-screening class at SVA in the evenings, so I put together a nice cover and bound up the book with glue and made a little art object. It was the first thing I ever made that got any sort of notice at all. I met Chris Staros of Top Shelf at a convention in Philadelphia, and he bought ten copies off me to distribute. I got one of my first internet reviews, at Sequential Tart. A little micro-review of the book appeared in Wizard magazine.

TCJ: What effect did that initial feedback have on you in terms of your confidence?

MD: It was great. I’m so interested in comics, such a fan myself, that I’d been part of the Wizard and Top Shelf audience before they gave me any sort of response. I’d grown up reading Wizard magazine. My high school friends and I all read it. It was really nice to have a blurb about my own book appear there. There’ll always be a part of me coming at this as a longtime fan of comics. I’ll always get excited about certain milestones.

Themes and Patterns

TCJ: Your comics seem to have their true themes hidden behind their premise: memory instead of fandom in Freddie & Me, the effects of violence on everyday life vs retro-fun superhero adventure in Ace-Face, a harsh assessment of the ways in which how boys interact is recapitulated by adults vs a typical coming-of-age story in Troop 142. Why do you like to bury the lede, so to speak?

MD: I can see what you’re saying, but it’s hard to say that this is a conscious decision that I make. I don’t sit down and say, “All right, what will I make this book look like it’s about, and what will it actually be about?”

I think my approach to writing probably causes this outcome. With the exception of Gabagool!, I don’t write scripts or thumbnail beforehand. I have a sense of the story, maybe an outline of the general plot points, and I make notes when ideas occur to me. But for the most part my process is to script, then pencil, then ink a page from start to finish, before moving on and starting on the next one.

An outcome of this method is that my story changes as I write. I gradually find the thing I’m really interested in.

When I started Freddie & Me, I thought it would be about ninety pages long. A “graphic novella.” It would just be a record of all the memories I have that are associated with the band Queen. Kind of a catalog, similar to David Heatley’s My Sexual History. It grew as I worked on it.

The "GUITAR SOLO" chapter, which is a little mini-essay about memory, was not something I had in mind when I was working on page one of the story. It was an outcome of having spent the first hundred pages of the book remembering and reconstructing my childhood. The process of having to remember, shifted me towards thinking about how memory works. I think it’s the best part of the book, and it wouldn’t have been in there if I was working from a script.

TCJ: In what ways did reading superhero books affect your art style--what specifically about your art draws from them? What artists wound up affecting how you draw? Your figures have a cartoonish, almost grotesque quality to them; is this taken from a tradition of humor comics or something else?

MD: I’m probably influenced by the humor comics I read as a child in the UK.  When I look at pages of the British Dennis the Menace and Desperate Dan, I can see how my drawing style connects to that.

Style is weird though. It’s tough to shake off. I think almost every artist I know wishes they were capable of drawing in a completely different style from their own. I am continually trying to find something more satisfying.

I like the grotesque quality of some of my comics. I think it worked extremely well with Gabagool! All those big meaty hands and gnarly knuckles. I’m still amused by the incredibly unflattering caricature I created for myself in Freddie & Me. That giant head, and the beady eyes. I asked the cartoonist Damien Jay to read a draft of the first chapter, and one thing he commented on was the weirdness of the teeny eyes in the big faces. He was right, that usually in comics, eyes are big and expressive. Especially when you’re supposed to relate to the characters.

TCJ: Do you find that this effect is a distancing one, and to what extent is this intentional?

MD: Hm. Interesting. Like I said, the story is ostensibly about people making connections with each other. I wanted readers to relate to the emotions I felt in the story. Perhaps the off-putting character design was a self-sabotaging decision. I am certainly prone to that. It connects a little to what you were asking before, about me presenting the story as one thing, but it really being about something else.

I mean, I tried to be as open as possible, writing autobiography. But, at the same time, there were pangs of over-sharing, and a desire to be more private. It’s possible that I felt the need to be a little defensive in the way I chose to portray myself and my family. Distancing, like you said.

One side-note about Damien Jay is that we barely knew each other when I asked him to read my book. I cringe now, thinking how obnoxious that was. As I recall, we were just casual convention acquaintances talking, and all of a sudden I’m dumping a 100-page manuscript on him and asking him to send me feedback. That was a terrible thing to do. Sorry, Damien!

TCJ: On The Ink Panthers Show, you have occasionally expressed a distaste for your own past opinions and (for lack of a better word) personae. For example, you were once far more of a leftist and were more concerned with identity politics. How do you reconcile previously held positions with what you believe now? Is this distancing something that you've always done? Do you find yourself evaluating past work differently for similar reasons?

MD: My feelings about my own work vacillate a lot. I’ll go cold on something for a while. Usually, eventually, I’ll come back around and reevaluate after a few years, and be like, “Oh yeah, I remember what I was trying to do here. This isn’t actually that bad.” That happened with Gabagool! For the past year or so I’ve been feeling lukewarm on Freddie & Me but assume I’ll come back around eventually. I just feel more excitement about whatever I’m working on currently.

In terms of changing my political outlook, I am not sure I have to reconcile past beliefs and opinions that I no longer agree with. I feel like I was wrongheaded about some things. If someone asked me in the late '90s what my political stance was, I’d fire back “radical liberal.” I’d read maybe one and a half Noam Chomsky books and Lies My Teacher Told Me, and there I am lecturing my parents about western imperialism. Ugh! I once seriously considered getting a tattoo of Michael Moore’s face on my arm. How awful would that have been?

The reason I have such a strong distaste for that particular period of my life was that it was a time when I was completely convinced of my own rightness about everything. Like even with what I was saying about the pot smoking. I was very judgmental. And political correctness was a real thing back then. Especially in college. We were constantly talking about how this thing was offensive, and that thing was objectifying, and so on. We were very sure about how right we were. It’s possibly a phase all teenagers and young adults pass through. A period of being very critical of anyone who disagreed with me, and quite certain of the absolute correctness of my own position.

TCJ: What wound up shifting you out of this period?

MD: Partially age. I just think the truth is always a lot less black and white than it’s often made out to be. Also a lot less Left and Right. When I was younger, and more “radical,” I used to think people who didn’t agree with me politically were either ignorant or evil. I think as I got older and more exposed to different points of view, I couldn’t think that anymore. And once you stop dismissing other viewpoints like that, you have to learn to accept the fact that someone can be just as smart and well-intentioned as you, but honestly see the world from a totally different perspective.

I think the internet helped. I spent a lot of time online in the past decade, with various day-jobs. For many years I frequented a message board that was supposedly about comics, but was really just a group of friends from around the country discussing topics of general interest. The fact that the Bush years were so polarized led to many, many heated online debates. And, I think participating in that sort of thing, arguing with people I respected and liked, rather than anonymous trolls, may have had an effect on me.

TCJ: Whatever the formal themes in your comics, there's always a sub-theme of connections or disconnections with family and friends. Is that a conscious choice?

MD: I can remember thinking about it while I was working on Gabagool! That comic was so much about Chris’s background and family and the kinds of people he knew. I remember thinking about one day trying to write something about my own roots, which then eventually led to Freddie & Me.

Troop 142 was a story I had in mind for a very long time. I tried writing it from a number of different angles. The approach that seemed to work for me was the inclusion of the dad’s points of view, in addition to all of the kids and their relationships.

TCJ: Like many humorists, you enjoy depicting scenes of your own humiliation. Why is that? It's even true on Ink Panthers; your best target is usually yourself.

MD: I think it’s funny. The people who make me laugh are always the kinds of people who don’t mind poking fun at themselves. I think Chris Radtke is hilarious, and he never shied away from depicting the Chris Vigliotti character in humiliating situations. Ink Panthers really wouldn’t work if Alex or I couldn’t take a joke at our own expense. Who would want to listen to that if I got all sulky about being the butt of a joke?

Like anybody, though, I have my boundaries. I don’t accept jokes made at the expense of my family. And I don’t like people acting too familiar. If I don’t know someone, I don’t think it’s fine for them to point out that I have a large head. I can say that. I drew a comic that highlighted that fact. But that doesn’t mean I’m alright with some stranger walking up to me and saying, “Hey, Bighead.”

TCJDo you consider yourself to be an artist who writes, a writer who draws, or neither?

MD: I had to think about this a little. At first, I was compelled to answer "artist who writes," because I’ve always felt more confident in my drawing than my writing. But, then I was thinking about how I only draw when I have something written. I don’t keep a sketchbook. I don’t draw just for drawing’s sake. If I don’t have a story in mind, I find it very hard to produce anything. I really need to have a story in order to make comics.

When I do have a story I can be incredibly prolific. When I don’t, I can go through long stretches of time where I do very little work. Some cartoonists talk about how they draw every day. I certainly don’t do that.

On the other hand, I was recently thinking about confidence. I always felt like I was the best at drawing in any given situation. But I look back at past work, and it’s not good. I found a comic I drew in 1990 using Marvel characters, and it shows how weak I was at drawing. But at the time, I felt like I was the best! I felt like the comic was something Marvel should have considered publishing. I felt totally confident about my skills.

I’ve never felt that same confidence as a writer, even though I’ve had some success writing. I never had the thought “Oh, I’m the best writer in school” or anything like that.

TCJ: Do you feel like a little self-delusion is a good thing for an artist’s development, in that too much self-analysis can lead to artistic paralysis?

MD: Yes, totally. You need a degree of confidence to think anything you have to say is worth saying. Then you need to balance that with enough self-doubt that you keep pushing yourself to get better.

TCJHow difficult was it to get into the head space of a teenage boy again when writing Troop 142?

MD: Sadly, it’s not that hard to get into that head space. I have friendships that go back as far as junior high, and there’s something very static about the dynamic of those. No matter how old we get, it’s the same competitive argumentative way of interacting with each other. I’m not like that with other people, but with those old friends it’s different.

TCJ: What were some other cultural influences on your comics, in terms of books, film, TV, etc?

MD: Two big cultural influences from when I was a kid would be the UK TV series The Young Ones and the movie An American Werewolf in London. Slightly more recent movies that I think have had an effect on me would be Boogie Nights and Summer of Sam. I like that both movies have large casts with lots of well developed secondary characters. They’re both set somewhere very specific, and have an ambitious scope. They’re both funny and sad and intense at the same time. In terms of books, it’s got to be Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole series.

TCJ: What is that about?

MD: It was a British series that started in the 1980s. The entire thing is written as the diary of the protagonist, Adrian Mole, who in the first book was 13 and ¾’s years old. It’s set in the Midlands. Margaret Thatcher is prime minister. The economy is bad, people are unemployed. Adrian’s parents are irresponsible Baby Boomers. Throughout the series they have affairs, get divorced, reunite, have other kids. Adrian fancies himself a poet and an intellectual, though he is neither. He is actually dull-witted and oblivious. A lot of the humor in the series derives from Adrian being too naive or dim to see what’s really happening around him, while the reader can.

When I was a little kid, I identified with Adrian Mole. I liked the idea of being an “intellectual.” I also had ambitions as a little kid to be a writer. I didn’t see the satire in the series. As I grew older, and read and re-read the books, I got a lot more of that. I think the approach to storytelling, where the reader understands a great deal more of what’s happening than the protagonist, is something I’ve brought to my own writing.