The Mike Dawson Interview

Troop 142

TCJ: Troop 142 is another example of you revising your work in public. You significantly altered a key scene from the original mini-comic/webcomic in which a politically liberal dad confronts the more conservative dads over the Scouts' policy regarding atheism. In the version revised for the book, the dialogue is far less strident on both sides; were you pleased with the changes you made?

MD: It was the right decision. The original version of the scene nagged at me. It read kind of ham-fisted. I wanted to rewrite the scene to convey many of the same points, but make it feel more natural. I don’t believe I changed the character’s viewpoints. Charlie and Mr. DeMaria tell Alan the story of a situation where a Scout declared himself an atheist and how that created problems. Part of advancing in Scouting is adhering to the Boy Scout law and oath, both of which mention reverence and faith. A Scout who was an atheist could be perceived as not fulfilling those requirements. My original scene felt like a debate to me, less like a conversation. Even worse, it had a lecturing tone. It sounded more like me trying to make a point, rather than the voices of the characters. As if I was using them like puppets to lay out my thoughts on the issue.

TCJ: How do you distinguish between the voice of a character and your own thoughts and opinions as a writer?

MD: I can tell the difference. It’s easier to write things when it feels like the character talking. The words just flow out, because I’m just imagining what that person would say in that situation. It’s simple. The times where it’s more me talking, I struggle more with the writing. Trying to shoehorn the words into their mouths.

The dads discuss Scouts and atheism. From Troop 142.

TCJ:  Speaking of revising in public, the first Troop 142 story was in the first Awesome! anthology. That story contained a very different kind of debate (about God) as opposed to what appeared in the book (how to wipe yourself with toilet paper). Why did you make such a dramatic tonal shift?

MD: This was a similar situation. These pages came from my first attempt to write the book. I had Jason, Matt, and Tony (though they might have had different names in the Awesome! anthology) in their tent, getting philosophical. The debate was if God is all knowing, and God created you, then how can he punish you for your actions? If he’s all knowing, then he already knew the things you’d do before he created you. So isn’t God ultimately the one responsible for your bad behavior?

I don’t think it was off-base to have three teenage boys in their tent discussing this. I think it’s common for kids to sit around at night conversing along these lines. But, again, in retrospect it felt like lecturing. Like it was me trying to make a point, and just putting my words into the mouths of the characters.  I have lots I want to say, but I’d prefer that in a story, the points I want to make will come through in the characters' natural interactions together. I’d like to avoid speechifying.

In both situations, it wasn’t that the original scene was bad, but they nagged at me after the fact. If I hadn’t changed them, they would continue to bother me.

TCJ: How much of your own experiences as a Scout informed this book? What were your feelings about being a Scout at the time, and what are your feelings about the organization now?

MD: I was in Scouts for a very long time. I was a Cub Scout in England, and then the BSA. I stayed until I was 17. I was one merit badge and a community service project away from being an Eagle Scout. A lot of my friends were in Scouts. Camping trips were a lot of fun. I went to summer camp every year, and one year had considered working there as a counselor.

It’s hard to articulate what I got out of Scouts. I’m a reasonably good swimmer, and could probably perform CPR, but I’m not good at cooking, and I don’t know that I could tie a complicated knot, or remember how to sail a boat. It’s been a very long time since I did all those things. However, I do think there are things about Scouts that helped, for lack of a better way of saying it,  “build character.” A lot of it is about working together, and taking on leadership roles. I became a Patrol Leader. I think that’s a good thing for a kid to experience. Trying to “lead” a group of your peers. It’s not easy.

I wonder how readers will assume I feel about Scouts. I like the BSA. If I had a son I would be happy to enroll him, and like to think I would participate as well. There are definitely things about the organization I disagree with. But there’s a lot that’s great about it too.

TCJ: From my perspective, it seems like your feelings are mixed.  One gets a sense that being Scouts is important to these boys despite their cool exteriors, but the hypocrisy and bureaucracy were things that you felt the need to comment on. In other words, the critiques you made felt like “insider” critiques, made by someone who has something at stake in the Scouts.

MD: That may be true. Also, Scout Troops are such local affairs, really. They’re part of this big organization, but the individual Troop is really the kids from the neighborhood and the parents who decide to participate. Any individual Troop is really only going to be as good as the people who take part in it.

TCJ: You are unsparing on pretty much every character, in part (I'm guessing) because those Scout trips were very much a display of unbridled testosterone. You saved special vitriol for the "Big Bear" character's bombastic speech-making, homophobia, and relishing of his ability to wield authority. Was he based on a real person?

MD: Many of the characters are inspired by real people, but nobody is an exact representation of one specific person. Big Bear may be the closest, though. Most of the scenes with him are based on incidents that happened in real life. The speech at the end of the book was something that really happened, and the way Alan experiences it is much like my own memory of it. That incident was really the genesis of the whole book. I had the memory of it floating around my head for years and years, and always saw it the climax for the Boy Scout story I would eventually write.

TCJ: Did experiencing that speech change your feelings about the Scouts?  How old were you at the time?

MD: My friends and I were appalled by that speech. We all considered ourselves “nonconformists” and we were against homophobia. But after the campfire, back at the camp, the Dad who was the Scoutmaster at the time sat down and talked about how he didn’t agree with what was said. I can’t remember his exact words, but it was a good example of a decent guy saying the right thing to a bunch of kids.

TCJ: While you sneer at conservative, frequently cruel Bill DeMaria, you are careful to portray "sensitive liberal" Alan Levine as kind of an asshole himself--and one who's just as likely to assert physical dominance over a kid as Bill is. Was that one purpose of your narrative here--to assert that everyone in the camp was a rigid thinker in their own way?

MD: Yes, I think so. I’ve listened to a lot of “progressive” talk-radio shows in my day, and I think it’s fair to say there are people on the left who are just as biased in their opinions and convinced of their own infallibility as anyone. Alan has no real reason to judge Mr. DeMaria in the beginning of the story, but the fact that DeMaria is “conservative” is grounds enough for him to do so.

The story is set in the 1990s. At one point I was thinking about working in more references to actual events from the decade. I thought maybe Mr. DeMaria would talk about how terrible he thought Clinton was, or Alan would go off on a rant about right-wing propaganda leading to the Oklahoma City bombings. Ultimately, I decided there wasn’t really a place for such moments. It was another thing I was worried about feeling shoehorned in.

I was also at a small disadvantage, because I was a teenager in the '90s, I don’t really know for sure if people argued in the same heated partisan way back then like they do today. If I set a comic in the ‘aughts, it would make a lot of sense to have characters arguing passionately about Bush and politics. I’m less sure of how it was in the '90s. I know that the “Culture Wars” were raging at that time, but I don’t know if adults debated politics in the same manner they do now. I don’t recall hearing a single conversation between adults about Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, but to be fair, I wasn’t paying attention.

TCJ:  The most devastating and subtly told aspect of the book was between David and David, two boys discovering their own sexuality with each other in an atmosphere that was openly anti-gay. How important was this particular aspect of the story to you? Did you know of this sort of thing going on when you were a Scout, and did you see this sort of reaction (one of the Davids vandalizes the tent of the camp scapegoat with "fag" graffiti)?

MD: The exact nature of the relationship between the two Davids is ambiguous, but there is a lot implied. Homosexuality and homophobia are recurring themes of the story. The interaction between the boys is pretty normal, I think. Lots of razzing. Putting each other down. Homophobic slurs. Gay panic. Frustrated sexuality. By contrast, the BSA has, or had, a more institutionalized anti-gay stance.

An early reader commented on the different faces reacting to Big Bear’s farewell campfire speech.  He was surprised by some of the expressions of kids who he thought would have been repulsed by the speech, actually looking more like they agreed with it. But my thinking is two things: one, you can’t really judge a kid as “bad” or “good” when it comes to this stuff. A person can definitely have opinions as a teenager that they later rethink and reconsider. And secondly, society was different in the 1990s. A larger majority of people simply felt that homosexuality was morally wrong. Nobody would have thought gay marriage was a serious possibility. Homophobia was much more normal. These kids are just reflecting the society that produced them, and society was different, even just 15-16 years ago.

Daily one-upsmanship as a way of life. From Troop 142.

TCJ: Chuck is another interesting character. He's the camp scapegoat, but you explore a few possibilities as to why. He seems pretty thoroughly unlikable, but it remains an open question if he's awful because people treat him poorly, or vice versa. Were you around scapegoat situations as a Scout and a teen, and did you participate in piling on?

MD: The question of to what degree is Chuck unfairly mistreated by the group, and to what degree is he simply hard to like... I don’t know. That’s a lot of what I was thinking about while writing him.

Obviously I thought a lot about social hierarchies while writing this story. There are Alphas, then Betas, and so on and so on, all the way down to the Omegas like Chuck. Why does nobody like him? Is it his fault? Is it something self-perpetuating? The fact that nobody likes him, has that made him sour and miserable, and therefore less likeable? Or, if everyone just treated him better, would he actually turn out to be a more pleasant kid?

It’s so painful, all of it. I think a lot about the tragedy that one day my own child is going to have to be exposed to this sort of thing. There’s no escaping it. She’s going to get older, and she’s going to have to deal with being popular, or not being popular. Having people like her or not like her. I really wish there was a way to shield her from it, but there isn’t.

It was definitely a part of my own childhood. I certainly received my share of bullying, but also participated in the harassment of others. There were kids like Chuck in my Boy Scout Troop. And they were in my high school too. I’m not proud of it, but it happened.

Boys being boys. From Troop 142.

TCJ: You're back with a small-press publisher (the excellent Secret Acres) after (I assume) you weren't picked up for another book by your Freddie & Me publisher Bloomsbury. Was this an unexpected blow? How has been working with Secret Acres been for you?

MD: By the time I was trying to find a publisher for Troop 142, I was already aware that Bloomsbury wasn’t going to simply publish whatever book I wrote after Freddie & Me. I had already pitched them a YA graphic novel entitled Jack & Max Escape From the End of Time, which featured characters I’d introduced in the Ace-Face collection. They passed on the pitch, as did all of the other publishers I sent it to.

My assumption when I sold Freddie & Me was that I would form a relationship with Bloomsbury and that yes, they’d naturally be interested in publishing whatever I wrote next. But that wasn’t really the case. I can guess this had a lot to do with F&M not meeting sales expectations.

But in addition, I had no relationship with anyone at Bloomsbury. The editor who bought F&M left the company shortly after the book was published. I never actually met him. We exchanged just a handful of emails. The other editor, who worked more closely with me on the book—she left the company as well. By the time I was beginning to get a sense of how my book was selling, there wasn’t anyone working there with any personal connection to me. When it came to trying to sell a new story, I felt like I was in no better position than anyone who’d never worked with Bloomsbury before. In fact, sometimes it felt like I was in a worse position, because I already had a book that had sold poorly.

This period of time, when I was trying and failing to sell Jack & Max, was tough for me. For a few years there it felt like this thing, being a “graphic novelist” was about to pan out as a "career." It felt like it was going to be possible for me to earn a living on book advances, and so on and so on. So there was a period of coming to terms with reality.

I had to step back and think about the comics I was trying to make. One thing I had accept was that I wasn’t actually that interested in the Jack & Max book. I was writing it because I thought it would be something I could sell. “Young Adult”, manga influenced, adventure oriented. My motivation was very calculated in that way.

If I was the kind of writer who made pitch-packets – like, with outlines, character sheets, and maybe just a handful of sample pages – this wouldn’t be such a big deal. Try something – see if it works – if it doesn’t, just try something else. See what sticks. But I was working on Jack & Max the same way I work on everything: starting at page 1 and writing, drawing, and inking it, then moving on to page 2, and so on and so on. I was maybe fifty pages into it around the time I realized I was making a mistake, which obviously makes it harder to quit working on a project, because of all the time that I’d invested.

My choices were to keep going and finish the book, since I was already so far in, or throw in the towel, and get started on my Boy Scout story, which I’d had on the back burner. So I quit the Jack & Max story and began writing Troop 142 instead.

I made the decision to make minicomics of the chapters as I completed them, because I wanted to be able to go to small-press shows with new material. And it was through those that I met Barry [Hodges] and Leon [Avelino] at Secret Acres, because I sent them my minis in the hope they’d be willing to distribute them in their online store. They agreed to carry them, which for me was validating, because my impression was that they were selective about what they’d take on.

The first time I actually met Barry and Leon in person was at SPX 2010, where my Troop 142 minis had been nominated for some Ignatzes. At this time, a few publishers were interested in the book to varying degrees. At some point I was just having a conversation with Barry on the show floor and he started telling me how much he liked the comic. He really seemed to understand what I was trying to write about, and seemed so enthusiastic about it, which I hadn’t expected.

A few weeks after SPX, Barry and Leon took me to dinner, and offered to publish the book. Everything about the conversation felt like the exact opposite of what I had experienced with Freddie & Me. They made me feel like they’d be excited to publish Troop 142. They really got the story. And, they were OK with my main “demand,” which was that the book be published within a year.

That point was important to me. I’d already had the experience of a “big” publisher, where you have to sit on your hands for a year or two after you finish the book, waiting for it to hit shelves. I just didn’t want to do this again. I am really proud of Troop 142. I feel like it’s a step forward for me creatively. I want to see it published.