I first witnessed Dash Shaw’s comics on the Fantagraphics tumblr, a tumblr which, if you follow HFR there, you know I subject to many reblogs. It was a few panels featuring President Obama, quickly followed by a succession of posts promoting New School (Fantagraphics, 2013), his latest effort. From that instant, I was hooked. What fascinated me, and continues to fascinate me, about Shaw’s work is its ability to toe the experimental and yet remain completely accessible—reading his work, I never found myself perplexed, as some comics and literature tend to do to new readers. I’d grown tired of the graphic memoir in college, having been assigned one for a dense theory course—I’d always admired comics, but had never been a purveyor, hitting so many dead-ends, re-imaginings or documentations of childhoods, affecting and necessary as they were, after my initial exposure to the alternative via SLG and Jhonen Vasquez in high school (superheroes were out of the question by then; serials still a strange thing). But there was Shaw’s work, doing many of the things I’d wanted comics to do, like the novels and stories I’d been reading. I’m glad I found it.
With the release of New School, I thought it would be the perfect time to talk to him about his process, not only composing the book, but about a few other aspects of his work. What follows is collected from a series of emails.
Dash Shaw is a comics artist and animator living in New York. His books include Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics, 2008), BodyWorld (Pantheon, 2010), New Jobs (Uncivilized Books, 2013), 3 New Stories (Fantagraphics, 2013), and New School, and recent animations include New School, Seraph, and Wheel of Fortune.
*ed. note: click on images to enlarge, so you can read their dialogue.
How does it feel to have finally published New School? Had this story been with you for a while?
It feels great. This book was hard to make. The story was very important to me, and I wanted to get it right. There were times when I thought I could just publish what I had and be done with it, but it felt like it would have been a mistake. I kept working and reworking it to get it right and I’m glad that I did.
What have been some of your favorite reactions to the book?
I was talking to someone about foreign editions of the book coming out. I was basically just thinking out loud, you know, “It’s about two Americans in a foreign country running around, fucking shit up … what are they going to think?” and they answered, “It’ll definitely confirm some suspicions.” Ha ha ha!
Talk for a minute about the choices that went into New School‘s layout—for instance, when there is color in the book and when there is not. Did Fantagraphics offer any input?
I sent an earlier draft to Fantagraphics and asked them for notes. Originally the whole book was in color. Groth said, “I kept waiting for something to explain why it’s colored like this.” So I moved the color to when the boys arrive on the island, and it became—like The Wizard of Oz—a way of saying “we’re in a new place.” Storytelling is all about the order of things, what follows what. And by moving the color to later in the book it made the book much more approachable and legible.
How did you plot the story—by page, chapter, or was there a less precise system? I’ve talked to writers who are somewhat averse to outlining, but I am curious to see, for you, is the writing and drawing a separate process?
I write it all out in words first, but I know that it’ll change. Even what a character says changes right as I’m about to write their dialogue in. Writing it in words creates problems for myself—I write things that I wouldn’t necessarily draw, or know how to draw. There’s also a rhythm I could get in writing, like automatic writing, that isn’t true for me in drawing. When I doodle I tend to draw the same things over and over, but when I automatic write I seem to reach previously unreachable areas of myself. But when it moves from the text document to a comic it becomes “just a comic.” I’m not illustrating the words, you know? The end result is always a comic. The words are just a starting point.
I love the exactitude of Danny’s dialogue, and then, the dramatic, though assured, nods to popular culture—Taco Bell and Jurassic Park, to name a few. Who or what influenced this style?
That kind of language comes from old comic books. Periods would get lost in printing, so every sentence had to end in an exclamation point. Consequently, everyone was overreacting and enthusiastic about everything all of the time. It’s bizarre, unique-to-comics, overwrought, semi-Biblical, and I think somehow connects to young boys, you know? I think it’s why 12- to 16-year-old boys really relate to those superhero comics, and that language speaks to them and their heightened, ecstatic view of the world, and when they look at the same comics when they’re 22, they’re like, “How the fuck did I ever read this? The writing is insane.” Ha ha. So, I thought I’d reach into this language as a way of furthering the young boy’s perspective in the book.
3 New Stories was published a few months before New School. What was your experience having two books published in such a short span?
Having a book come out is always a little disappointing. I don’t know why. I’m proud of the books, but the feeling of being in the middle of the project is the best. Starting and ending isn’t much fun, really. I space it out and then put things out at the same time maybe because it’s a long enough time to forget that having a book come out doesn’t really feel so great.
Can comics find an audience on e-readers?
Sure. Good comics are good comics. Whatever’s best for the story, really. Whatever the creator wants to do. They’re just different, but related, mediums.
Who are some of your influences, literary, artistic, or otherwise, and why?
Mazzucchelli is a big one. The drawings in Batman: Year One and City of Glass. He said the Batman: Year One drawings have “a dumb line. A line that doesn’t know what it’s describing.” That’s all he said about it. I’ve since become fascinated by that idea and expanded on it to mean something I’m not sure he intended, but which I believe to be true: which is that so much of illustrative drawing is about showing you what something is and simultaneously telling you how to think or feel about that thing. Someone draws a woman and uses sexy thin-thick-thin brush lines to attach sexiness to the woman. Or someone draws a meditating person and uses thin, spaced out lines to connect peacefulness or tranquility to the drawing. You can think of pretty much every line-based drawing this way, particularly illustration and comic drawings. It’s almost like the more you connect your opinion to the subject, the “better” people think the drawing is. It’s a very manipulative form of presenting information. What the dumb line does, I think, is completely remove that from the equation. Everything is drawn with the same even-ness, or thickness, or lack of nuance … and finally you’re allowed to think for yourself! Finally there’s room for conflicting thoughts and feelings. You can draw a woman and it’ll almost say, “I’m not sure how sexy this woman is—I’m not sure how I feel about her.” This drawing made sense to me. I related to this. It’s a morally ambiguous line, really. There is room for irony and doubt in the line. Kind of like the lines you see in coloring books, where they’re presenting something unadorned by an opinion, and with thick enough lines that you can color however you like and the subject, the content, is impenetrable. Mazzuchelli. Coloring Books. It seemed to make sense with how I view the world.
You taught English overseas when you were sixteen?
I just ran through English scenarios with people my age. It was through a program called Youth for Understanding. It’s basically exactly like the English-teaching scenes in the book. It’s like a performance, where you pretend to buy something or want something and they react to use English words that they know.
Is there another graphic novel?
Yeah, it’s called Doctors. I have it almost done. Just some redrawing to do. I hope it will come out in 2014. I don’t know who will publish it yet. I try to finish the book before I think about stuff like that, which means that the books come out a longer time after I finish them, but it’s hard for me to think about publishing while I’m actually drawing it. I have to be free to decide not to finish it. Anyway, it looks like Doctors will be done and I’m happy to get back to doing more animation. I have ideas for a couple more comics I want to do too after Doctors but I want to let those ideas sit for a while.
What was the most difficult part of completing New School?
I worked in drafts, first in words, and then drawing at different scales, to arrive at the final book. So that means there were a lot of times where I’d think “this could be done,” you know? “I could have this book come out in 2012 and be done with it.” But I knew that it had problems, and that it wouldn’t be right just to be satisfied with that. Also, I was looking at the whole thing at once a lot, instead of moving forward through it. BodyWorld was additive—moving forward, adding scenes, as I made the story. New School was subtractive. I had a lot in words that I didn’t draw, then things I’d cut. So it was difficult to make all of those decisions, basically. Like, the book is from Danny’s perspective, so there are many things about Esther that we don’t know. I’d hint at things sort of—like Esther’s father is the one who helped Sharpe when he was broke, a failure, living in Brooklyn. But it didn’t make sense to include a lot of that material since the book is from Danny’s POV and he wouldn’t know about any of that. I couldn’t figure out a place to put stuff like that in without it feeling like “exposition back-story time.” It was hard to cut that material, but it just didn’t belong in the book.
Do you remember the first story you wrote?
Vaguely. Something about a tree, for a kindergarten class maybe. And I wrote horror stories in spiral bound notebooks.
If you didn’t write comics, what would you do?
I’d probably be more financially secure but be much less happy. Comics gives me some sense of purpose and meaning to my life.