Trauma, Anxiety and History: Travis Dandro In Conversation With Pascal Girard

Memoirs are a funny thing. It’s a very human impulse to talk about oneself and try to understand the world and our place in it by revisiting our past. Many memoirs are almost always mundane—ordinary people living ordinary lives. The fascination is seeing ourselves reflected in those lives.  Of course, many other memoirs are concerned with personal trauma through which the reader gains knowledge and empathy. I like both types of memoirs, of course, but who isn’t interested in struggles different than one’s own?

I had met Travis Dandro twenty (!!) years ago when I was still publisher of Highwater Books. I spoke on a panel at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA with Travis, Greg Cook, and Jordan Crane. I recall Travis being quiet and considered, pretty much the opposite of his brash and smart-alecky Mr. Gnu strip. Many years later, when I became an editor at D+Q, Travis sent me the first batch of pages of King of King Court to consider for publication. I was surprised by the seriousness of the project and the detail of the artwork. This was a radically different type of cartooning for Travis. The pages were dense, so dense that there were no panel borders and almost every square inch was filled with black ink or looping scribbly hatching. The spreads were of a piece with art and action sometimes located deep in the book’s middle or pushing to the very edges of the trim.

As Travis turned in more pages, the gravity of the trauma became clear. And keep in mind that Travis’ sense of humor crept in as well. This delicate and deft combination reminded me of another book about grief and childhood trauma we had published a few years prior—Pascal Girard’s Nicolas. In Nicolas, Pascal writes about his younger brother dying. His memories are often humorous but the grief is apparent. I saw a connection between these two books and these two cartoonists. Both Pascal and Travis have full-time jobs working in health and social services fields. They both help clients navigate their medical services with lots of follow up and of course lots and lots of paperwork. With this in mind, I thought Pascal would bring a sympathetic point-of-view, both personally and professionally, when discussing King of King Court. - Tom Devlin

Pascal Girard: While preparing for this interview, I obviously googled you since I knew nothing about your career before reading King of King Court. There was an interview from 2002 and you talked about your strip Mr. Gnu. During the interview you described your childhood as “a…good and bad…childhood living with [my] grandmother.” Followed by “It was tough growing up…it was really good to have close friends, because sometimes my family wasn’t there.” There's no other mention of family so I assume it was a tough subject for you at that time. How did you come around to deciding to write a book about that very subject? 

Travis Dandro: I can’t remember when I started thinking about drawing a book about my family, sometime after graduating from art school in 1996. The first time I drew my childhood self in a comic was by accident. It was 2003 and I drew a strip where my character, Mr. Gnu, meets a lonely kid living in a hollow tree in a graveyard. I called him Depressing Boy and he looked like I draw myself in King of King Court only with pupils. Mr. Gnu kept trying to cheer him up but it would always backfire. A few months later I gave Depressing Boy his own strip called Read It & Weep along with his sidekick, Sorrow the squirrel. Every panel featured the same image of the two of them standing around talking to each other. The humor was dark and often focused on Depressing Boy remarking about his home life which was based on personal experiences.

Later on I made a few attempts at drawing a “graphic novel” about how I grew up but would quit after a few pages because it didn’t feel right.

So what was it that felt right this time?

I had an extremely bad 2014 and ended up in counseling. For the first time I started talking about my childhood and it didn’t make me feel better, it made me feel way worse. Everything from the past seemed like it was happening all over again. I started waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. A panic attack feels like an adrenaline shot to the heart and there is no going back to sleep. I took Valium for awhile but it quickly lost its effectiveness and I didn’t want to take more than the prescribed dose. So instead I just stayed awake drawing and it actually made me feel better. It was as if the anxiety was being transferred to the paper and a load was being taken off my shoulders. It was an entirely different experience than my previous attempts to draw my childhood. The process became as important as the product. 

I'm happy the process worked for you. When I first published Nicolas—a short book about the death of my younger brother—many people asked if it was therapeutic and if I'm being honest the answer would be "no." I did that book very quickly (a single weekend) whereas you spent a few years. Maybe that's why?

Part of me thinks that just having something to focus on when I was feeling anxious was the most important thing. Also, when you’re spending days drawing particular incidents, some of which lasted less than ten minutes, it gives you a lot of time to process what happened.

Do you have a specific example of this?

Well there is the time I witnessed the fight between Dave and my grandparents. I don’t think I captured in the book how scary this actually was. At the time I was absolutely terrified and after it happened I ran back up to bed and put my head under the covers. My grandparents didn’t know I had witnessed it and for some reason I never told anyone what I had seen. It took me several days to draw what happened in the span of a few minutes. While drawing that sequence I was right back in the darkness of my grandparents house during the middle of the night. But at the same time I was also in my studio where I felt completely safe. I think drawing a graphic memoir may be like a form of exposure therapy or something.

I can’t imagine how traumatic it must have been but I have to say that your skill as a cartoonist clearly showed your anxiety. It made me anxious while I was reading! The menacing presence of Dave was always a threat to the joy and purity of childhood and I could feel that. There is a panel that described how I felt while reading your book, in it you say to your grandmother: “Life was so much more fun back then when I believed stuff like that” (regarding a cuckoo bird that you believed was alive.) Your grandmother answers: “Yes, but you also believed that there was a monster in the basement and you were terrified of it!” 

I think this anecdote illustrates how my imagination is often a double edged sword. Sometimes I imagine horrible things so vividly that it can lead to anxiety. At the same time being able to imagine things enables me to draw comics which is a way I cope with anxiety. It’s a never ending cycle! 

The book is as much a book about you than it is about your biological father Dave. As scary as his behavior is, it's clear that you have a lot of empathy for him. Did you always feel that way? Or did it develop as you worked on the book.

The empathy was always there under the surface even when I was a little kid but it increased while working on the book. A lot of that had to do with me being about the same age Dave was when he died and having just gone through my own emotional crisis. I felt like I understood him a little better and that helped me draw his experiences. When he got out of prison Dave put an effort into rebuilding our relationship and drawing the book made me realize that I didn’t really give him a chance. I came away from this project feeling regretful about that.

Did you always plan to publish the book or were you thinking of it as just a therapeutic exercise for your eyes only? 

In the back of my mind I always wanted it to be published. My biggest concern was my family's reaction, it wasn’t until the book had gone to print that I told them about it! Lucky for me they weren’t mad. My mother hasn’t read it yet although she plans to. I’m sure it’s going to be difficult for her.

I did the same thing when Nicolas was re-issued. I drew a new foreword about my other brother Joël. He only saw it after the book was printed. I still don't really know what he thinks of it. He referred to it as “fiction” and didn’t want to elaborate. I'm fine with that reaction but I don't think I'll do it that way ever again.

I know that some people who do memoirs interview their family about things they experienced together in order to find the real truth. But the fact is that everyone remembers things differently. My mother thought that when Dave tried to break into our house she hid with me in the closet but I distinctly remember hiding alone behind the living room chair. Maybe she was in the closet with one of my brothers or maybe I actually was in the closet.

Does your mother know that the book is dedicated to her? 

Yes, I told her about that. She feels a lot of guilt about everything that happened and now it’s out for everyone to read. She’s not thrilled with that but at the same time she is proud of me and understands why I needed to draw it.

It’s clear from the book that she loves you.

That is very true. She is coming up to Maine in a few days and we’re going to camp with my brothers. It’s kind of rare for us to all be together and I’m looking forward to it.

Had you considered your family reading the book while you were making it? Did you change anything or leave anything out with that in mind? 

When I was completely done with everything I did take out a couple things I thought family members would be too upset by. But when I was drawing the book I didn’t worry about their reaction, each page was kind of like ripping off a band-aid. One reason why previous attempts at my memoir failed was because I was tiptoeing around everything.

What was your working method like? Did you plan extensively—writing, thumbnails, layouts, finished drawing—or was the book largely improvised?

I started with the first page and worked chronologically. My background is in comic strips for the most part so I decided to approach the double page spread as if it were a Sunday comic being serialized. In a serialized strip each individual comic needs to be interesting on its own while at the same time continuing the narrative. The first thing I would do when I woke up was to sit down with a 9” x 12” sketchbook, the same size as the finished spread, and work on the design of the page. I experimented a lot, writing and drawing simultaneously until I was satisfied with everything. From there I would go to my drawing desk and do the final work using the sketch as a reference. Oftentimes I would finish the two pages by the end of the day and the process would begin again the next morning.

That's surprising! I was very impressed by the rhythm and flow of the book. The way I read it, I felt that there were two long chapters. Both separated by the years your father was in prison (which you don’t really draw.) Maybe I read it wrong but I feel like that in-between is where the title came from. You were the “King of King Court” in these 8 years. Does that make sense? 

I didn’t plan things out in advance so I was a little shocked when the first and second half of the book turned out to be exactly the same page length! I don’t really like the title myself but I couldn’t think of anything better. I agree that the eight years I was living there influenced my decision. Another part of me felt like I was laying claim to King Court. The little dead end street is named after my great grandparents on my mother’s side whose last name was King. They built a lot of the houses on King Court, including the one my mother grew up in and where I lived. When my nana passed away we inherited the house only to tragically lose it a few years later. I’ve never gotten over it. A few years ago I went back and discovered the new owners had painted it a horrible shade of purple!

I like how—for lack of a better word—"nature" is a character in the book. Ants, owls, grass, flowers, waves, etc. It is at the same time beautiful and menacing. (If you have something to say about this here.) 

When I was really young, nature was extremely mysterious and I tried to capture that feeling in the book. That’s one reason why I drew things from nature with more detail in comparison with everything else. I also used nature as a metaphor or symbol for my emotions and express things I didn’t have words for. Nature is very important to me, I go for a walk in the woods every morning as a way to center myself before going to work. Some days I don’t have time and the rest of the day doesn’t seem to go as well. 

I'm curious about the layout of the book. There aren't really traditional panels with gutters and all the pages are full-bleed. What was behind this decision?

I decided early on to do full bleed throughout because I wanted the reader to feel like they were in the book rather than being presented a story if that makes any sense. When I was done drawing the pages and sent them to D&Q Tracy informed me that .125” would be trimmed off the edges during the printing process which was not very good news! I had a lot of text and important imagery that went right up to those edges. So Tom ended up lending me a Wacom tablet and I extended the drawings around the perimeter of all 464 pages! It was a lot of work to say the least but I’m glad I did it.

 The book starts and ends on that same memory of you jumping in the pool in the arms of Dave. I do the same thing in my book Nicolas where I start and end on the same memory of me playing with a cassette recorder with Nicolas. When I did it, my idea was to portray my favorite memory of him. I read your pool scene as the same. Was that your favorite memory of Dave?

I think that bookending with that memory was very effective in Nicolas. When I got to the end of King of King Court, I remembered watching the scuba diver in my fish tank and it brought back that first happy memory of Dave in the pool. Originally the last two pages of my book were the first two. I would say swimming with Dave in my grandparents pool is my best memory of him.

Now that the process of making this book is done, do you feel like the positive impact it had on you while doing it is “sticking”. Did it heal some childhood traumas that therapy did not?

I feel like I needed to get this stuff out of my system and when I finished the book I was able to relax a little. I still have anxiety and the occasional panic attack but I’m definitely much better than I was.

As a cartoonist, I love that you show making comics as a positive force in your life: the pages where you draw are joyful, Mister O’Brien who encourages you to draw, your aunt Mary who gave you a drawing table, etc. Not only that but then making comics becomes a type of therapy for you!

I had a lot of encouragement from people growing up. I remember when I was 14 my mom signed me up for drawing classes at the Worcester Art Museum. I brought some copies of the Leicester Journal to show the instructor my published comics and he was impressed. He actually had me draw a comic and then put me in charge of the class as we recreated it on a giant piece of paper that must have been 5’ X 20’! It was a boost to my low self esteem which may have been my teachers intention.

Were there specific comics that influenced you while making King of King Court?

I often think of comics as visual music and I like to read all kinds of comics as much as I like to listen to all kinds of music. My style is sort of a hodgepodge of all the comics I’ve loved, mostly classic newspaper strips. I can’t think of direct influences while making the book, I was too busy drawing. Some major influences early on were Brian Ralph’s Cave-In published by Highwater Books and The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa. Currently I’m reading Hot Dog Taste Test by Lisa Hanawalt which I was surprised to find in a little free library stand on an island just off the Maine coast. I’m also delving back into Krazy Kat and loving it.

Did making KoKC have an impact on your role as a father? You mentioned that you have three sons.

It’s kind of funny, my biological dad was the oldest of three boys, I am the oldest of three boys, and now I have three boys! Being a dad is the most important thing to me, I try to never let my kids take a back seat to comics. During the making of the book it became a real struggle to juggle all of my responsibilities and sometimes I screwed up. I do think it was good for them to see me working hard on a project and then seeing the final product arrive on our doorstep. I hope it showed them that they can accomplish their own goals.

How much did your boys know about your childhood?

They knew bits and pieces but not very much.

You have a full-time job and a family—where did you find the time to do this massive book? What was your day-to-day drawing schedule like?

During the making of the book I worked for my wife who had a baking business which we operated out of our home’s licensed kitchen. My drawing schedule came about because of waking up with the aforementioned panic attacks. Even when my anxiety dissipated I kept the same routine. I would go to bed at 8 p.m. and wake up at midnight, then I would draw until 7 a.m. Later in the day I would try to squeeze in another hour so I averaged eight hours a day, five days a week. The result was around eight pages per week. I lost a few months when I broke my wrist. All in all the book took me two years to complete, including some production fixes. It was a crazy time, I was always falling asleep at my drawing table like Osamu Tezuka.

Wow! This is the craziest schedule I've ever heard. It's so clear that making this book was important to you. How was your family during the process—were they supportive? Worried?

When I was drawing King of King Court I was tired and usually felt like shit. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday one of my kids write their own childhood memoir called Zombie Dad. Fortunately my wife really picked up the slack while I was working on the book, I wouldn’t have been able to have done it without her. 

Was this the first time you worked that way? In the middle of the night, sleep deprived? 

It was the first time I had worked consistently for that long with lack of sleep. I couldn’t go back to that schedule now, I would be passed out in my cubicle. But I have always worked on my comics in the early morning when there are no distractions. I’m definitely a morning person. 

In an email preparing for this interview, you mentioned that your full-time job is as a case worker for people with intellectual disabilities. What does this job consist of exactly? 

I had been working as a direct support person for people with intellectual disabilities for 20 years. I have had some incredible experiences over that time and made some really good friends. I became a case manager last October and it’s been a fairly big transition. As a case manager I help my clients get the services they need, whether it be healthcare, housing, education, or employment and once they have what they need I make sure that things are running smoothly. Usually I visit my client’s monthly and we chat about what’s going on with them. They relay any concerns that they have and I do my best to help them out. Sometimes they are struggling with an issue and I will pull everyone together who is in their support circle and we come up with a plan to tackle the problem. But most of what I do is paperwork and it is extremely boring. I absolutely hate all the paperwork!

We have similar day jobs. I’m a social worker in a movement disorder outpatient clinic. I work mostly with people with Parkinson's disease. Your work description is more or less the same as mine if you replace "people with intellectual disabilities" with "people with Parkinson's disease". Do you feel like this work, which is so different than cartooning, has any influence on your comics?

Everything influences my comics but it’s not usually apparent to me what those influences are until much later. I did have a client who used to like to draw in my sketchbook. It was always the same thing, he would trace his hand and then in the middle of the hand he would make a face and then he would give it a little body with three fat buttons on his shirt. I called the character Handy Man and I used him in my comics several times.

What are you working on right now? Anything in pre-production? 

I have the next book ready in my head and now I just need to get it down on paper, it’s another memoir. I’m also drawing strips and posting comics daily for subscribers on my website.

Can you elaborate?

I’ve been posting a mix of old and new stuff. My longest running strip is Mr. Gnu which I created back in high school. It’s kind of a parody of a traditional newspaper strip but with very juvenile, lowbrow, humor. Some of these Mr. Gnu comics were actually translated into french and published by Tom Devlin in Coober Skeber #1. After Mr. Gnu I began experimenting with other strips like Read It & Weep which is the comic I mentioned with Depressing Boy and Sorrow the Squirrel. From there I drew Journal which also became a self published comic book. Journal was originally inspired by Thoureau’s Walden and began as an exploration of a specific area of woods in Maine. The goal was to document the changing of the seasons but I only finished winter and spring. Then for some reason it turned into this dreamlike fantasy about exploring my childhood in a mythological way. My most recent comic is Cherry Valley which is a bizarre, serialized strip that is very stream of consciousness, I never know what’s going to happen next which keeps it interesting to me. Almost all of these strips have appeared in the Cornell Daily Sun, which has been publishing my work daily since 1998! They have been my biggest supporter over the years and will run whatever I send them.

Have you kept everything you've drawn? I say this as someone who does not and I can't imagine how much artwork you must have amassed by now?

Yes, I have several vintage suitcases stacked up in the studio full of my comics and sketchbooks from the past 30 years. I really need to invest in some flat files. 

I understand if you don't want to talk about your next book because it's exactly how I am but what is it about?

I’ll just say that it picks up right where King of King Court leaves off.