TCJ: Compared to the other comics you had been doing, Gabagool! was a bit of a departure. It was geeky and silly, as opposed to the more dramatic work you had been doing. What made you decide to initiate that collaboration with Chris Radtke?
MD: I was involved in a theater troupe in college that performed a lot of sketch comedy. After graduation, I continued to write scripts with two friends. One of them was my Tear Down Babylon ‘zine collaborator Matt, and the other, Garry, was working at a dot.com with Chris Radtke, and they were friendly. At one point we invited Chris to join our writing group, which did not work out well. It was an awkward, uncomfortable night. There definitely was no chemistry there - and chemistry is the most important thing in collaboration.
Garry eventually got me an entry-level job at the same dot-com with him and Chris. Through that, Chris and I became good friends. At a certain point the sketch-comedy writing group dissolved, but it ended up that Chris and I were the ones who became interested in working on something together. We definitely had good chemistry when it came to humor. Chris really had a strength for plotting. He had plot ideas for the first three issues of Gabagool! pretty much ready to go, so it was just a question of us working together to make those ideas into actual comics.
There were a few factors that really got the series going. One was that it was fun. We really had a good time working together, from writing all the way to selling and promoting. Two was that I didn't feel confident about the comics I was writing alone. I wasn't sure if I was good at it. When Gabagool! first started, I had intended to keep working on solo stories, but as I became more and more invested in the series with Chris, the more my own comics fell by the wayside. One of the earliest versions of what became Troop 142 was something I was trying to work on at the same time I was doing the first Gabagool! minicomics. I completely abandoned it to work on Gabagool!
And, the third factor, and this is the one that probably accounts for the changes in the quality of the series, was that Gabagool! started to get a response. A far greater response than I'd ever gotten from anything I'd done previously. We started getting lots of online reviews, we sold a lot of comics at conventions. Cartoonists whose work I'd admired started corresponding with me.
TCJ: Which cartoonists?
MD: It was usually just the occasional e-mails here and there. I got friendly with Bob Fingerman. I got to know Dean Haspiel a little. Evan Dorkin. All of the cartoonists associated with The House of 12. Chris and I got included on a number of group signings at Jim Hanley's Universe, and we got to know people through those. The comedian Patton Oswalt sent us a note after reading the Dungeons & Dragons-themed short story “Double Damage” from Gabagool! #4. A local filmmaker chose us as the subject of a documentary he wanted to do on indie comics. It’s called Inkswell, and is mostly about Chris and I putting together an issue of the book, but also features other cartoonists, like Dorkin, Bob Burden, and James Kochalka. Needless to say, the better the response became, and the more focused I was on the project, the more the quality of the presentation improved.
TCJ: There seemed to be a pretty startling progression, especially on your part, from issue to issue. Did you feel like you had finally found your style as an artist by the end?
MD: I was definitely motivated to improve. As I said, before Gabagool!, I pretty much got no feedback from my comics. Cabaret got one or two nice reviews, but not too much. I would only sell a handful of minicomics at shows like SPX. Almost nothing. People were actually buying Gabagool! and they seemed to like it. So, I wanted to make it better.
After we did Gabagool! #3, I spent a few months re-drawing issue 1. That was kind of a waste of time, and I don't really recommend ever moving backwards like that, but at the time it bugged me that issue 1 was so sloppy looking, now that I was taking more care over the artwork.
This was part of the reason we upgraded to properly printed comics with issue 4. We did it through Quebecor. We ordered two thousand copies of Gabagool! #4, and Chris and I still have boxes of them sitting in our apartments. We reduced the order to one thousand copies with issues 5 and 6.
TCJ: What was the division of labor? Were there ever any conflicts?
MD: Well, when we started out, Chris definitely had the slackers-become-bounty-hunters stories pretty well plotted out in his head. We created the characters together - with the main character, Christopher Vigliotti, being modeled on Chris - and we scripted together. Our process was to go to a bar or a restaurant and write everything out longhand in a notebook. We'd know the plot points, so together we'd talk through the dialogue and write the jokes. For a humor book like Gabagool! I don't think we could have done the script without being in the same room and riffing. It was a matter of acting out the dialogue as the characters, and trying to make each other laugh.
After that, I'd take the script and draw it. I'd bring chunks of pages into work periodically to show Chris, and see if they made him laugh. Sometimes he'd suggest changes, and I'd get all bristly, but not too bad. Then, we'd print them. With the minicomics it was a reasonably equally shared division of labor. Once we started dealing with Quebecor, I did most of the production. Learning how to use Photoshop and InDesign and format things for the printer, etc. We always split the financial cost 50/50.
Issue 4 was a point at which we came into conflict over the direction of the series. Chris had to be talked into doing the three-issue Hedonism saga. He had other ideas for stories, some of which made it to script form. There was a story idea where one of the roommates started a business delivering potato-chips to stoners in the neighborhood. We wrote a short story where younger versions of the characters went to see the She-Ra: Princess of Power movie in the theater. We scripted about a third of a story where the characters enter a Heroclix tournament, which I've gone back and re-read, and think is hilarious and feel bummed that it never happened.
I basically forced Chris to do the Hedonism story. I was beginning to have anxiety about not doing my own comics anymore, and I wanted to do something long-form again. Chris, unfortunately, always lost the battle of leverage with me, because I was the one who drew everything. I could always threaten to go off and do my own thing if he didn't go along with me. I know it was incredibly frustrating for him, but it was equally difficult for me to dedicate so many hours working on something if I didn't feel like it was the right way to be spending my time.
TCJ: To what degree were these stories based on actual people and incidents? In particular, the very funny "Hedonism" storyline, in which the protagonists go to the titular resort in Jamaica in an effort to get laid: to what degree was that autobiographical?
MD: It is true that Chris and I went there with two other friends, and also sadly true that we were the only four mopes at the resort not hooking up with anyone. We took that vacation at a time when we were all single. We all lived in the city, had decent jobs, and some money to spend. We thought it would be a great time. Honestly, Hedonism was a skeevy place to spend a week. Yes, a lot of the details from the story are based on things we saw or experienced. The one that cracks me up still, is the party "game" where the rules were basically, "You drink a beer, and then you see who yells the loudest."
In the story there's a group of guys from a fraternity down at the resort, and that was a real thing. And, they did have a goal of having sex with every lady there. As they said, they had that place on "lockdown." There were also plenty of middle-aged swingers, and the group of 20-something girls from Philadelphia was real as well. The steroid guy in the story who yells at Christopher Vigliotti and his friends for not scoring, and then brags about having unprotected sex in the hot-tub, that guy was real too. He was the one who had figured out that the thing to do was book a ten-day trip, because that way you'd get two batches of guests at the resort to hook up with, since most people were there for one week. Really, almost every character in the story is based on the people we encountered down there. While the trip was a bust for me and Chris, it gave us a lot of story material.
TCJ: Given the success of that story, why did the collaboration end after issue #6? Have you ever thought about picking that collaboration up again?
MD: Well, first, I’m not sure how successful it was. I was so proud of the Hedonism saga, but we could never sell a lot of copies of it. It got some good critical response, but I still feel like not enough people have read it. In terms of me and Chris splitting up, well, that’s always a little tough to discuss, because Chris and I remain close, but I know that Gabagool! coming to an end was hard for him, and did strain our friendship. The long and short of it is that following a period of roughly two years, where I'd been collaborating almost exclusively with Chris on the series, I felt anxiety about not pursuing “my own work.” I wanted to go back to writing and drawing my own comics. I had some opportunities to put some short stories into a few anthologies, most notably Chris Pitzer's Project: Superior. This was the story where I first resurrected Ace-Face. It was exciting to me to be included in that book. I consider it my first "published" comic. It brought back the urge to make stories that were my own.
I've thought about this a lot, collaboration vs. being an "auteur." I think in alternative comics, there can be an unfair and unearned value placed on auteur-created work. I think an idea persists that while an auteur-created comic may not be as good as something created collaboratively, it's inherently more valuable because it was all done by one person. Auteur-created work can be considered more truthful or "pure," or something.
I reject that. I like collaboration and I am OK with editing - as long as the chemistry is right. If you're working with someone who really understands what you're trying to do, there's nothing wrong with letting someone in. An outside perspective can sometimes help you say what you want to say in a more effective way. The best collaborations produce works that couldn't have been created by either one of the individuals working alone. I could never have written Gabagool! without Chris. He couldn't have done it without me.
But that all said, there's another dilemma, which is, "How much time is there in this lifetime to work on the things that are meaningful to me?" Quitting Gabagool! to write Freddie & Me doesn't mean I think Freddie & Me is necessarily better, but it was the thing I was compelled to spend my time working on at that time.
It's possible that Chris and I could have continued working on the series while I still did other projects, but the truth is that it wasn't an easy ending. As I said, there was a period where we had a rift. Our friendship healed, but on the occasions where we tested the waters to write something new, it felt like that old chemistry was gone. And without that, it just doesn't work. It probably makes both of us a little sad. I said before, there are unpublished scripts and scripts we half-wrote which I think are hilarious. But there's no real going back.