Zainab Akhtar, Laura Snapes & Douglas Wolk talk journalism and its crossover between comics and music with Dan Berry. Recorded at the Thought Bubble festival 2014 with support from the Arts Council as part of Thought Bubble’s TBTV youtube channel.
Scott McCloud and Dan Berry talk about how Scott got into comics, the artistic potential of comics, getting the urge to do something and letting his story The Sculptor incubate for 30 years. The Sculptor is out on the 3rd February from First Second in the US and Self Made Hero in the UK.
Transcript by Renée Goulet;
Dan Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. I’m Dan Berry. I spoke to Scott McCloud about getting into comics and the artistic potential of comics, getting the urge to do something and letting his story The Sculptor incubate for 30 years. This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. Hey, Scott McCloud, how are you doing?
Scott McCloud: Pretty good Dan.
DB: Pretty good, pretty good.
SM: Pretty good. Extremely good.
DB: That is an upgrade. Well done! We met, I think for the first time in 2011 in Finland.
SM: Yeah, that’s right.
DB: But I spoke to you on the phone when I was… I think it would have been about 2004. I was working on my undergraduate work into interactive comics and I rung you up to ask you some questions.
SM: Wow, I forgot about that.
SM: Oh my god!
DB: Yeah, that was a long time ago.
SM: 2004, that was another world, wasn’t it?
DB: That was more than an entire decade ago.
SM: Yeah, ten years ago we were sitting around thinking how long the internet had been around. Like, how old webcomics had become.
DB: Yeah, oh my Lord. Incredible!
SM: We’ve made so little progress.
DB: We just have podcasts, that’s the only difference now.
SM: Right! [laughs]
DB: And they’ve turned into the most valuable online commodity there is as well.
SM: I think so!
DB: I mean financially and culturally. In so many ways they were the pinnacle.
SM: They pretty much rule the world. Without podcasts society would fall apart at this point.
DB: They’re pretty good. I know I’m biased, but they’re pretty good. So, I remember when we were in Finland, there was a conference on education I think, and we were both giving talks. We went out for a meal, and I remember we were sat at this meal and behind us in the restaurant there were a couple of guys playing chess. And they were doing it really, really quickly, and you said, ‘Oh, those guys are really good at chess.’ I said, ‘Oh, because they’re doing it really quickly?’ And you said, ‘No.’ [laughs] And you explained what it is about chess and you blew my mind. Chess is an entire world that I know nothing about, and I know this might be a strange question to lead off with. You know, a guy who’s done some really good comics, but Scott, what is it about chess? Because chess was going to be your other career, wasn’t it?
SM: Yeah, when I was 13, 14 years old I would have told you my goal was to become World Chess Champion. It didn’t quite work out.
DB: [laughs] Evidently!
SM: No, but I went three straight years of pure chess. I was really obsessed with chess. The way it worked was, when I was a little kid I would have obsessions that would last for maybe a year. There was the Space Program, there was mineralogy. For two years I was going to be a microbiologist. This is elementary school now, we’re talking. Chess was sort of, from elementary school to middle school, and that was three years. I think of that as the first grand obsession. There were the smaller obsessions and then there was the grand obsession. Chess was a grand obsession. Then it didn’t quite pan out for me. I didn’t quite have the talent, and while still in the throes of chess, Kurt Busiek, who I met in middle school, who of course also writes comics today, that’s when he got me into comics, and I just transitioned and became obsessed with comics, except that one stuck, because that one I was able to make work for me.
DB: So he’s responsible for all this then.
SM: Oh, totally. He really is, because Kurt got a lot of resistance from me, because I had a lot of prejudice against comics.
DB: Oh, how so?
SM: So he had to work hard to get me to read the stuff. So, that says to me that without Kurt there, we have a pretty good idea that I wouldn’t be doing what I do today.
DB: That’s really interesting. What were your prejudices?
SM: Well, I thought they were dumb. Some friends had superhero comics, like Batman comics and things like that. I was reading real books. I was beginning to get interested in fine art and I was really into surrealism as a kid, and I looked at comics and they just seemed kind of crudely drawn and badly written and silly. It’s not that I was wrong exactly.
DB: I mean, there are some really dumb, silly comics out there.
SM: Yeah, there really were.
DB: Even today. Even in today’s modern world, there’s some dumb stuff out there.
SM: It’s Sturgeon’s law, you know. It’s 95% crap, or 96%, or whatever his number was. But still, Kurt gave me these stacks of old X-Men and Daredevil and, I don’t know, I got hooked and about a year later, I was 15 years old when I said, ‘That’s it, I’m going to make comics.’
DB: What made you jump from being a reader to a creator then?
SM: I always was going to make something or do something. I was always very proactive. I drew for fun. We started out by doing this weird little role-playing game that had superheroes in it, but it also had things from old TV shows like The Prisoner. It had that big white ball, Rover, from The Prisoner.
DB: Of course, yeah.
SM: And references to The Goon Show and Monty Python. He had a bunch of Goon Shows on old reel-to-reel.
DB: He’s fallen in the water, of course!
SM: Right, exactly! ‘He’s fallen in the water!’
SM: So we had this really weird role-playing game and we would do drawings for it. We would draw characters, and some of them were superheroes, and I started getting into drawing the superheroes. Then I just started to do actual comics, and that was it. That was it. It took about a year and I just plunged headlong. I remember there was an old Jim Steranko X-Men that I was reading in a friend’s house where even as a little kid, I was like, ‘You know, I see some artistic potential in this art form.’ Because Steranko was using these cheesy Salvador Dali effects or something, that to me looked like actual art. So even then, even as a little kid, it was not so much that, ‘I want to draw like these guys,’ it was more like, ‘I see that there’s something you can do with this art.’ I was a very pretentious kid, and it didn’t wear off.
SM: It stuck.
DB: So you failed to progress.
SM: I failed, yes completely, to discard my pretentions.
DB: A lot of the people I talk to, they got into making comics professionally in two ways. They’d either go off and show their portfolio to a bunch of people, or they would make comics until someone said, ‘Hey, you make comics. Do you want to make comics for us?’ Was either of those your experience?
SM: It was the former, but there’s a reason, and it’s because I’m just old enough that the ladder wasn’t really available to us. When we were starting out, the only way that we could conceive of to get into making comics professionally was to go through the big publishers, which were all superhero publishers. So yeah, we worked on our portfolios. But, you know, I was about to leave college and my teacher, Murray Tinkelman at Syracuse in New York, he was tennis partners with Will Eisner, and I remember he set up this meeting with Will Eisner for right as I was leaving school. I managed to get a job in DC Production right before I left school. Three weeks before I was done with college I had this job in New York, working in the production department of DC. So, I was going to be in New York and Murray, my teacher, he arranges for me to meet Will Eisner. I remember showing Will Eisner my portfolio, and I had some of my comic samples, but it also had a lot of my illustration work from school. I remember he was telling me, ‘You know what? This stuff is more interesting.’ He was looking at the illustration stuff, the stuff that I was doing that was just experimenting with different art styles. He said, ‘This is more interesting,’ than basically me trying to imitate Neal Adams or whatever, you know? He was pointing me in that other direction, which I thought was… and I was already starting to maybe lean in that direction myself.
Kurt and I had actually tried, even while still in school to bring stuff down to the majors and see if we could ship around our portfolios and our script samples, and of course we hit a brick wall. In a way maybe it’s good we did, or maybe it’s good I did. Kurt eventually broke into that world. But the model of just make it and tell everybody was not a… in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, you see, that wasn’t really on people’s radars. It wasn’t even until the late ‘80s that minicomics was a way to put yourself out there. You were invisible until an editor and a publisher, probably in New York gave you permission to be visible.
DB: So it was a geological variable then, basically. If you had the luck of geology with you… geography, sorry!
SM: Oh yes, geographically, yeah!
DB: That was a test. You passed, well done.
SM: It was just beginning to change, of course, because we had… Sim started Cerebus I think in ’77 was it? Thereabouts, a year or two later we had Elfquest, and I was watching those guys. So the idea of self-publishing was starting to look like an option, but I wasn’t as intrepid as they were. Then the independent publishers came along shortly thereafter, so by the time I got my job at DC, I had it in my head that, no, there’s this other way that I can go. I don’t necessarily have to go the traditional route.
DB: What was your first published work then?
SM: That was Zot! which started in 1984, and it was a pseudo superhero story, but it had a lot of other crazy stuff, kind of, folded into the mix. That one I did while working at DC. I was only at DC in production for a year and a half, but some things happened to my perspective, including my father dying, and I just somehow got it in my head that I should create something from scratch instead of trying to piece together a career from being given permission by publishers. So I just did it. I worked on the proposal while at DC and then I got four independent publishers interested and went with the one that could publish it sooner, just in case there was a nuclear war.
DB: You know, your reasoning is solid!
SM: I am not even joking. I was so convinced there would be a nuclear war before I could publish my first comic, and I just wanted my comic out there. I had this existential terror that my whole life will have been for nothing if I couldn’t at least publish my first comic.
DB: Do you still feel that terror?
SM: Well, no because nuclear war couldn’t possibly happen now.
DB: Well I should hope not!
SM: You know?
SM: I’m sure we’ve eliminated that possibility.
DB: Yeah, I mean, disarmament worked!
SM: Have you ever heard that riddle, ‘what is the definition of the Soviet Union’?
SM: It is a nuclear arsenal that used to be a country.
SM: Doesn’t that fill you with…
DB: …dread. Yes. [laughs] Yes, dread. Yeah, I grew up with Chernobyl.
SM: Oh yeah.
DB: You did Understanding Comics in ’93 then. Was that straight off the back of finishing Zot! then?
SM: Yeah. As a matter of fact what happened was that I was determined to do Understanding Comics for a while, and I realised this was something I needed to do now, now, now, just as I began a long story arc in Zot!, and I couldn’t abandon it. I had to finish the series, but it took me a year and a half, maybe even two years to finish out that series. I just suddenly… it just hit me like an earthquake. I just realised, I have to do that book, and it was just torture waiting until I was done with Zot!. And the funny thing is that the stories I did for Zot! under duress, ones that I did towards the end of the series tend to be people’s favourites.
DB: Oh really?
SM: But inside I was just dying, because I really wanted to do Understanding Comics.
DB: So what was the impetus then for doing this, because Understanding Comics, I’m going to throw it out there and say that most people listening will probably have read it. That’s a fair assumption.
SM: I think maybe, yeah. That’s possible.
DB: It’s one of the first comics I read that took comics seriously, I think. It’s a very analytical way of thinking about comics, and it explains how to understand them. Where did this idea come from? Where did this drive, you know, this burning to desire to do it, where did that come from?
SM: Well, you’ve got to go back to that 15-year-old kid, who’s sitting in his friend’s playroom while his friend’s little brother is watching The Banana Splits or whatever and rocking back and forth, and looking at this Jim Steranko X-Men and thinking, ‘This art form has potential.’ You know, this was just the way my brain worked. I was always looking at it from a formalist point of view, even as a little kid. So that meant that with hanging out with Kurt or other friends, I was always babbling about this or that about how comics worked, about page compositions, about pacing, about techniques. I’d gotten really excited when I started to look at manga, and I saw that they had this different storytelling approach. I had a lot of ideas, and I was always trying to communicate them with people, but for the most part I was that guy at the party that, you know, you have to find the excuse to get away from.
SM: You know, I think I’m a little OCD. I’m probably a little on the autism spectrum or something, and it was hard to take. I was describing visual things, trying to do it verbally and it just didn’t work. But I had a few examples out there of people who were doing nonfiction comics, like Larry Gonick and his Cartoon History of the Universe. I had examples of people who explain things, like certain professors in college, or James Burke and his BBC specials. There were examples of people out there who were just unravelling the mysteries of the universe, so I started to take notes for this idea of a comic about comics. For me it just seemed natural that it would be a comic.
DB: It’s the best format for it.
SM: Yeah, exactly.
DB: Say what you see.
SM: In fact, Will Eisner, who was very supportive of the book, his reaction was basically, sort of a forehead slap.
DB: Of course, because his book totally missed out on that, didn’t it?
SM: He could have done that. And he could have, he could have done it.
DB: Sure, yeah! That’s not up for debate.
SM: No, no. We know. I have this old… what do they call them? The little filing cabinet folders, the ones on the hooks with the little tab.
DB: They have a name and I can’t think of them.
SM: Whatever they’re called, hanging folders. They’re hanging folders. So, I’m keeping all my notes for this theoretical, ‘some day I’m going to do this book’ book, and I have dozens of projects at that point that I might do someday, including The Sculptor by the way, but this one is just weighing heavily on me. And it’s growing, and it’s growing, and it’s growing the folder until those little hooks are tearing off of the thing, because it’s gotten so heavy.
SM: Yeah, that was it. I just… I had to make it a book.
DB: That’s really interesting, that there’s this burning drive to do it. Because you did two subsequent, sort of, Understanding, Reinventing, Making Comics. The comics holy trinity.
DB: Was there a similar burning passion to do those books as well?
SM: No. Actually, with Reinventing there was a real passion centred around the digital stuff, but it was also a little curdled, because when I did Reinventing Comics in 2000, I was talking about ideas, some of which had been kicking around in my head for five years or more. I was on about the infinite canvas and giving talks at MIT and such. I was doing that pretty quickly after Understanding Comics. I was obsessed with the web, but eventually I thought, ‘I’ve got to put this in a book.’ But that was more like, I felt I was almost late to the game.
DB: If your book takes however many months to go to print and then come back from print and then go to shops, the internet develops at a really… a pace quicker than publishing, I think is fair to say.
SM: Exactly. Yeah, and I was talking about things that were difficult to talk about in print. They were easy to demonstrate. Understanding Comics, anything I had to say I could demonstrate right there on the page. What I had to say in Reinventing was harder.
DB: Yeah, because you can’t click on the page itself.
SM: Exactly, yeah. Whereas Making Comics, I like Making, and I think Making is a more solid book, but also Making had the drive that I was trying to literally teach myself to be a better cartoonist. I knew I had this graphic novel coming up, and I knew it would help me as a student. Basically I was getting up on my own shoulders and then pulling myself up.
DB: [laughs] Yep, I understand how the physics of that work!
SM: Speaking of The Goon Show-
DB: Of course, yeah! Or pulling yourself through a telescope.
SM: [laughs] Yeah, yeah!
DB: I know my Goon Show. Going back to Finland and this meal we had in this restaurant. I remember someone asking you about… I can’t remember if it was micropayments or if it was about definitions of comics and things, and you were very calm and very reasonable, and the long and short of it was, ‘I don’t really want to talk about this.’
DB: Do you get asked the same questions over and over and over again?
SM: Oh yeah, some.
DB: Is that one of those questions?
SM: Yeah! [laughs] The definition of comics, well, ‘What about single panel comics?’ or, you know, ‘They combine words and pictures and how about that?’ Those come up a fair amount, but it’s not… I don’t have that bad a cross to bear. Somebody who writes a popular superhero book probably gets more irritating common questions. And you know, these questions, they are interesting. ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ is the old whipping boy.
DB: I’ve got that one in the chamber. It’s ready to go. Just strap yourself in Scott, because we’re gonna [tongue click] pooow.
SM: We’ll get around to them.
DB: We will.
SM: Even the simplest question like that, probably, it has depth.
DB: You bet. I love that question.
SM: Yeah, and I don’t really mind so much. Also, sometimes the answer changes a little. I mean, certainty, ‘What’s the future of comics?’ does change, but it’s just a little bit too broad.
SM: For a while it was hard to talk about things like the economic stuff like micropayments, which I got in a lot of hot water for in the early part of the century. It’s hard to talk about that without sounding defensive.
DB: How do you mean you got in hot water for it?
SM: First of all I lost the bid. I just figured, ‘You know, maybe I could just reinvent the entire world economy so that I could have a job in it,’ and this seemed like a reasonable idea.
DB: I mean, the best way to predict the future is to invent it after all, as Alan Kay said.
SM: I talked a lot about micropayments until the 10th or 11th startup that contacted me seemed like they had a good system. Couple of Stanford grads, they had something called BitPass, not to be confused with Bitcoin, though there are some vague connections there. They had a system I kind of liked. We gave it a try and we failed, and we failed spectacularly, because it was also very, very tied up with various feuds that I wound up an unwilling participant in with popular web cartoonists who felt like their model was being ignored, or whatever. The whole thing was just depressing. It was depressing. We tried, we failed, and I invested a lot of time in something that didn’t come to fruition. Now looking back on it, I realised that you really can’t accomplish anything significant over the course of a career without having some pretty spectacular failures. I think a lot of people who do manage to accomplish something significant usually look back with some pride on their failures, and I’m beginning to get a little closer to that point. But for one, it was hard to talk about it, because I didn’t… it’s hard for me to talk about something where I don’t have a specific positive agenda to offer. All I had was rehashing the past, and I’m not a person who enjoyed rehashing the past.
DB: No, that doesn’t sound fun. Sorry for drawing you into rehashing the past Scott. Sorry about that! So, where do you get your ideas?
SM: [laughs] What is it Neil says? Neil has the best answers. Neil Gaiman says that there’s a little shop. He gives the address, and there’s this lovely woman who will sell them to you for quite a reasonable price.
SM: Actually Jillian… I think it might have been on your show, Jillian Tamaki said recently that like most of the artists she knows, and I’m included in this one, just say that is not the problem. The problem is finding the hours to execute the ideas you have, because… but if you’re going to take years to do a graphic novel, how many more ideas have you come up with while working on it?
DB: Yeah. If you have one idea per week, and you have 52 weeks in a year, and you have however long… you know, it gets silly after a while.
SM: Yeah, it’s insane. But I will say though, as a general philosophy of learning, I try to cast a very wide net. I get my ideas from everywhere, so I have a very voracious appetite for movies, for music, for TV, for life, for experiences and relationships and all, and it all goes into the same pot. And by having that wide net, I also have a wider data set from which to derive connections, and the connections that I see often, are the origins of those ideas.
DB: I completely agree. I think that ideas are where two things… I’m making gestures with my hands, like there are two spheres either side of my head. But you have these two things that somehow become connected, or they bump into each other, and that spark that comes between those two things is an idea. Then whatever you do with that spark is up to you of course. You can ignore it, you can write it down, you can turn it into a book, but for me ideas have always been about connections between things.
SM: Yeah, absolutely. Ideas have valences and they match up with other ideas in some unexpected ways, and you can create these new compounds that are genuinely new. I don’t subscribe to the notion that there are no new ideas. First of all, to posit that you have to logically posit that there was a time at which the new ideas had been exhausted.
DB: Yeah, we reached peak ideas.
SM: Exactly, that’s it! Congratulations Bob, that was the last new idea! Back in 1987, you know, 1976-
DB: You invented the car, and we’re done.
SM: Yes, of course you can look at any work of fiction or art and find parallels or precedence or elements of that work that in some way predate that work, of course. But no, there are… it’s new enough, some of the things. Even in the 20th century, maybe even the 21st century there are works or ideas that have come along that you can say are genuinely new, that have, as their beating heart, something that’s fresh and new in the world. New enough.
DB: Yeah, I think ideas have to have a strain of recognisable DNA for them to be accepted. Does that make sense?
SM: Yeah, although when Duchamp signed his name to a urinal, you could say that that was as clean a break with the past and had as little of what was previously understood to be any kind of artistic expression, as anything that had come before it. Maybe that was the last new idea, Dan. Maybe that’s it!
DB: Maybe it was.
SM: It was 1912, or whatever.
DB: Just draw a red line on the calendar at that point.
SM: Congratulations Marcel! [laughs]
DB: Congratulations, you’ve achieved so much.
SM: The last idea!
DB: [laughs] And it was an idea that just was waiting to happen as well. You know, it was one of those things that zooms around the universe just waiting for a fertile mind. Oh boy. You mentioned as well, we’re going to talk about The Sculptor, which is your book that is coming out imminently on February the 3rd?
SM: Yes, February 3rd. I’m trying to get better about saying that. Let it show we consult the talking point.
SM: February 3rd, from First Second, the eminent publisher.
DB: First Second in the States, and SelfMadeHero in the UK, and this is a synchronised book launch.
SM: Yes, and also BAO Publishing in Italy and Planeta DeAgostini in Spain and Rue de Sèvres in France and Scratch in the Netherlands and I’m not sure of our Korean publisher. This is all within about a month of each other.
DB: Oh wow.
SM: Oh, and Germany is Carlsen.
DB: And you’re going to every single launch party on the same evening.
SM: We don’t have a Korean launch party, but I am actually going on a European tour, which will take me to all of those territories within a month or two of the book coming out.
SM: Yeah, and that’s after the American tour, which is, like, 15 cities in 16 days I think.
DB: You’re giving me a tight chest just thinking about it! It sounds great.
SM: It’s pretty nuts.
DB: Horrifying at the same time. Oh boy. So the book itself, I mean, you kind of alluded earlier that it’s an idea that you had a long time ago.
SM: Yeah. Well it goes back to my… just past adolescence almost. I had this notebook in… I think it was middle school or high school. I forgot when I got it, but it was one of these old three ring binders with that typical 1970’s denim cover. It was stuffed with ideas, and you can see all of these goofy ideas for superheroes that I had, like Thrombor, the Human Superball. Some day I’m going to do him. He was awesome.
DB: So everyone else, back off! That’s Scott’s.
SM: He was made of this material that was like flubber. It bounced with just a little more energy than the initial force, and he could just bounce around. I think that would be a great superhero. Anyway, so I had these goofy superhero ideas, and pretty soon thereafter I had this idea about somebody who could shape matter with his hands, but instead of fighting crime or whatever, he just made art. He was a sculptor. Okay, so that’s just… what is that? That’s just a silly power. This kind of thing that a kid comes up with, but then it mutated into this Faustian deal with death. Then soon after meeting Ivy, who I would marry many years later, but who I was secretly in love with for seven years, she became this love interest. Okay, now the story… okay, it has a few more elements. It’s still this big, corny piece of cheese, but there’s something in there. There’s some narrative interest in there. Then, as I came to understand how the story would play out, and just a few years after that, just out of college it clicked, and I realised this is actually a really good story. It’s still a big, corny story, but if done right it could be pretty amazing. So it just sat in the back of my head for years. Literally close to 30 years, I don’t know. It’s a very, very long time.
DB: So it incubated.
SM: Yeah, it incubated and what happened was that it was a young man’s story, but it was the old man who sat down and finally wrote it. I was almost twice the age when I sat down to write the thing, and with the help of Mark Siegel at First Second, who’s a really good editor, I think we brought the older man’s experience and perspective to it, and I really took the business of writing very seriously, and I discovered just how much more substantial the story was in the details, in the individual moments. Even if it seemed like this big, prog rock opera, you know? [laughs] In broad strokes, right?
DB: Because this is a long book.
SM: Yeah, it’s a long book. It’s almost 500 pages, but in the details it was something much, much more. And I was able to really discover for the first time what serious writing, and serious as in the hard working process of writing and rewriting and figuring out what you actually want to get across with a story, what that was like. It was terrific. I really enjoyed working on this.
DB: In terms of sitting with the same story for 30 years, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to ask this question properly, but because it’s an idea that’s lived with you for so long, was it difficult to tie it down into one final form? Because it’s lived in your head for so long as this, sort of, ethereal idea that I guess did change over time, did you become comfortable with the idea that it did change over time, and was it difficult to then nail it down into that one final, finished thing that’s now printed as an actual finished, final thing?
SM: Well, I wasn’t really wedded to much, except the skeleton of the story until things got serious. So I made a lot of changes in the process of writing it, but there wasn’t anything that I had been clinging to for 20 or 30 years that I had to let go. What I had, and one of the reasons why I continued to think this was a story worth telling, is because occasionally I would tell somebody the story. Just over the course of a minute or two, I would just describe the basic beats of the story, and even just standing in the supermarket with a friend, I would get an emotional reaction about the story. Because it was a good ending, the way the whole thing played out had… I don’t know, it had something. I could tell, this has something, but I hadn’t fleshed it out too much. One of the interesting things that happened, and this is a little like Understanding Comics, is just at the point where I realised it was time to begin work on this seriously, we started the tour for Making Comics, which means I couldn’t work on it.
DB: Ooh, forbidden fruit!
SM: Yeah, for an entire year, all I could do was think about it, and that’s what I did. I thought about it. I took notes, but for the most part I just sat there, Ivy did all the driving, because I’m not to be trusted behind the wheel.
DB: Worth noting.
SM: I sat in the passenger seat, staring out the window and just thinking about the story. And that was an amazing process, because what happened was, I was considering all the ramifications of the story, and making sure that all the planets were lined up correctly, and that the story proceeded in a way that was consistent and logical. That was good, I liked that.
DB: It’s not very often you get that time to just sit and think.
SM: Exactly. That was a great gift. Not only that, but the fact that frankly I had a good agent, who got me enough of an advance, that I was able to work on this thing for a long time. I also had an editor who saw where I was going with it, and at one point basically just told me, ‘Let’s just throw away the schedule, let’s get this right. Let’s just take the time.’ Both of us were very committed to taking as long as we needed to, to get the story right. Before I ever drew a single, finished panel, I had spent two years on the layouts. I did 500 pages in tight layouts. My layouts are very anal-retentive. They’re not particularly sketchy, they’re very tight. So I had basically drawn the entire book, and then I redid it, and redid it, and redid it. Four drafts of just tearing it up and putting it back together, until we were happy and felt that yes, this is the version that we like. Then I still, after I finished, took another three years to draw it. I still went back at the very end and redid the first 40, 50 pages.
DB: How long was this entire process then?
SM: It was five years altogether. I’m not counting the sitting in the car thinking about it.
DB: Or the previous years from that first…
SM: Yeah, right. The 20, 30 years before that, yeah.
DB: Wow. It’s good, I really enjoyed it! I told you before, and I haven’t quite finished it yet, but I’m hooked. As soon as I hang up, I’m going to finish it.
SM: We should say for the listeners that you only got it, what, like 20 hours ago, and it’s 500 pages.
DB: It’s a big, big book!
SM: It’s very thick.
DB: [laughs] But yeah, I’m hooked. I’m literally going to hang up and then finish reading it.
DB: Yeah, really looking forward to it. You mentioned about this slow working of the story. Do you approach the story in a similarly analytical way that you approached the form of comics?
SM: No, because… well, I mean yes. I’m sorry. The correct answer is yes.
SM: But not with the same spirit, because for years I was very much a formalist, and I accepted my role as, okay, I’m the mad professor. I’m tinkering away. I’m concocting new reading directions and compositions and playing with the form. This time, the important thing was to impersonate my opposite number, and to create something that felt intuitive, it felt natural. I was trying to follow that advice somebody once said, ‘You have to figure out what you want to say in a story, and then bury it.’ I was trying to bury the theorist, and harness my deeper instincts of what made the story right, to just know that it was right. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a lot of analysis in the editing, and there was. When I was rewriting and rewriting, I went for long walks without any music. I turned off my phone so I wasn’t listening to anything, just thinking about what needed to be done, where the story wasn’t working and why, and that was a very analytical process, but it was all in the service of transparency, of creating something that simply reads. Where you start reading, where wherever your eye lands, you’re on this conveyor belt and you can’t stop reading, because it’s just happening in front of you. That’s what we were looking for.
DB: It works. I feel like I’ve been yanked off this conveyor belt by having to talk to you.
SM: [laughs] Right!
DB: You swine! [laughs] You mentioned travel as well, your tours. You get invited to all sorts of places to give all sorts of talks. How do you fit all of that alongside what I imagine must be a fairly hectic drawing schedule?
SM: During those five years, it’s funny because I did still travel. I mean, while I was working on the book I did probably… oh I don’t know, about 60, 70 different trips. Some of them overseas, some of them quite long. Earlier this year I did two months at a Tennessee University, but the book was more or less done at that point. Not completely done, there was little mechanical stuff we were still tinkering with, and I did want to redraw those first 40, 50 pages.
SM: Yeah, I get a lot of invitations. Now that the kids are grown, Ivy’s coming with me a lot. She’s been with me for almost this whole year, and that’s been terrific. We just got back from China, we did two weeks there, and Santiago, Chile. First time I’ve been in South America.
SM: But yeah, I do lectures at universities, computer companies, festivals, and that’s also… I mean, presentation is an art form too, and it turned out to be something that I think I’m pretty good at.
DB: I would agree with that. I saw you give that talk in Helsinki and it’s a very slick show!
SM: [laughs] It is. I try to synchronise everything so that as I’m talking, images are just sliding up under my feet. It’s a challenge, it’s a creative challenge and it’s one I kind of took to. And I do it a lot now, and word gets around and I get invited to places, sometimes multiple times. I’ve been back to MIT, Stanford, NYU multiple times. And it helps support the comics, you know? It’s just another income stream. Two kids in college, [laughs]. I kind of have to say yet, basically.
DB: Yes please!
SM: The way I say it, I mean, it’s not that much of a cross to bear, because I mean, if the worst thing is, if I can’t only do what I love to do, going places and talking about what I love to do, it’s not so bad.
DB: That’s a pretty good second best.
SM: Yeah, exactly. It’s not bad at all.
DB: So you’ve got the promo tour for The Sculptor coming imminently.
SM: Yeah, February 3rd it all… bang, that day I begin that 15 cities in 16 days, and then I’m off to Europe right after that.
DB: So you’re going to be busy for, I guess, the whole of 2015 then.
SM: I think so. 2015 is going to be a lot of travelling, but I’m also working on the next book, up here, once again in my head.
DB: Staring out of the window.
SM: Right, but also in the talks in a way, because we’re doing a lot about what the next book is going to be about, is working its way into the talks. That’s about visual communication and visual education generally, which is the next frontier for me.
DB: Is this fiction or nonfiction?
SM: Nonfiction. I’m going to be doing a book, probably digital first this time. So we may be starting out with a tablet version. I want to do a book that deals with the common principles and common roots of different kinds of visual communication. Everything from information graphics, to educational animation and comics, to data visualisation. Even facial expressions and body language, and just see if I can distil what principles lie underneath all of these things, because I see people in different disciplines trying to reinvent the wheel, and I think that there are fundamental principles. I’ve been describing it as a kind of Elements of Style for visual communication. It’s something that I’ve been passionate about for a while.
DB: Do you think comics kind of, sets your brain up for thinking this way, or do you think that your brain set your comics up for thinking this way?
SM: A little of both. I mean, it’s true, it’s like that particular orientation probably affected the kind of comics I do. But I think cartoonists are maybe uniquely, if not qualified, uniquely…
SM: Yeah. It’s a natural transition to think in terms of, ‘what results does this picture get?’ If you’re in the fine arts, it’s very hard… critiques are just murder for fine art students, because everybody just sits around trying to figure out, ‘God, is there anything I can say about this painting that won’t offend my friend over there who made it?’ But in comics you have very specific goals, you know? You hope that this image will trigger this reaction, this recognition. If you’ve drawn a face with an expression on it, you have a hope that a particular emotion will be evoked. If you draw a bicycle, you hope it will look like a bicycle. If you draw Toronto, you hope it won’t look like Seattle.
DB: Or Vancouver.
SM: Or Vancouver, all these other places with needle-y things on the skyline.
DB: Heaven forbid! [laughs]
SM: So, that means you can measure those goals, and you’re thinking in a very practical way. You are communicating with images. You’re trying to ring the bell, you’re trying to get a result, and that’s actually a lot of fun, because now we can look at whether or not you succeeded and talk about the solutions. From an educational standpoint, it’s fun to be a comics teacher, because there’s always something to talk about.
DB: But this is something that I talk about with my students a lot. When we’re trying to figure out a layout, when we’re trying to figure out a composition and something’s not working, I’ll make my students list off what it is they want to achieve. Like first of all, okay, so what does this need to do? What’s the bare minimum? So we list it off, and I’m like, ‘Right, okay. Now in your picture, solve those three problems that you’ve just posed for yourself there.’ And the process becomes far, far easier, because, like you said, you’ve got something to measure it by. You can be objective about it, and you can put as much heart as you want into the drawing. As a component in the story you can be analytical about these things, and not lose the heart, I guess, of the story. It’s a real multifaceted thing, drawing comics. It’s harder than it looks, isn’t it?
SM: And no matter how subtle the mission, no matter how nebulous the effect, the fact is, you’re still going to have this wonderful little gallery of short-term goals. Things that you want to get done, and that’s a gift. To be able to measure, to know, to wake up in the morning and know, ‘I am going to solve problems today.’
DB: Do the problems change over time? When you were saying that, I was thinking back to the problems that I had when I first… the very, very first comics I ever drew as a grown adult trying to make comics, not as a kid having fun with comics. I remember my problems were things like, I’d draw the speech bubble and then say, ‘How on earth do you fit all the words in there?’ They’d be all scrunched up around the edges. The problems I was trying to solve were incredibly practical, you know, just craft things. I know for me that the problems that I’m trying to solve now are, ‘How do I get this idea from my head, into the head of the person reading it.’ It’s like telepathy, they’re the problems that I’m trying to solve now.
SM: Well it is.
DB: It’s exactly what it is.
SM: You’re trying to evoke a mirror of your thoughts in others.
DB: It’s hard!
SM: Yeah, it is hard. And you can never do it completely, right? But that’s the burden of all artists, in all media, is to evoke that mirror. Yeah, it’s tough.
DB: You can’t stand next to the bookshelf in the bookstore and say, ‘Right, before you get started, a few things you need to know.’ You just can’t do that, physically can’t do that with every copy of the book.
SM: No, but that’s the human condition. I even wrote about that in Understanding, that notion, why do we have all these different forms of storytelling media, other media? It’s because we can’t communicate directly mind to mind, and that’s the burden of being human. So we’re trying to overcome that burden, you know? Actually, going back to Understanding Comics, what you’re describing in a lot of ways, is the progression from surface to core, and yeah, I think most of us start out with the surface. First thing we do is try to get that really cool shine on things, or whatever.
DB: Get the hatching, really, really detailed.
SM: ‘I can do that, I can make lines like that.’ Then pretty soon it’s like, ‘Ah, but I can’t get the hand to look like a hand.’ And okay, now it’s craft, right. Then eventually you get down to the structure of the page, and all you’re doing is you’re moving from the skin down to the core.
DB: Do you think there’s anything beyond the core?
DB: Are there layers we haven’t peeled away yet?
SM: Yeah, actually yeah, there is because what happens is, you think you’ve come down to the middle of it all, and you realise you’ve been asking the wrong questions. But then you do get down to the, ‘Why do I make this? What’s the purpose for this?’ You have to get to the fundamental stuff. Why am I making art at all? Why do I care? What do I hope to achieve? Is it really that important that anyone remember me after I’m dead and gone, and is that even a realistic hope? No matter who I am, doesn’t everybody get forgotten? How do I want to spend my minutes, you know?
DB: Exactly. Well that’s as good a note to end upon as any! [laughs] So from February the 3rd people can buy The Sculptor, across the planet, by the sounds of it, on the day of release. Where’s the best place to find out more about you? You have a website and a Twitter.
SM: Yeah, just scottmccloud.com and I even have… the last blog post before today’s was me just plunking the book in front of you, and turning it around and showing you what it looks like. The hardcover comes out first. It has a neat little dust jacket, and stuff underneath. By the time this airs you may have to dig through a few more blog posts to get back to it. And I’ll have a page on the site just devoted to The Sculptor pretty soon.
DB: Excellent. And the Twitter?
SM: Twitter, I’m just @scottmccloud. Just all one word, all smushed together, lowercase.
DB: Lovely. Well I hope next year goes really, really well for you. Well actually, by the time this airs, this year. I’ll be honest, I hope 2016 goes really well for you as well. I’ll put that out there.
SM: [laughs] I hope it goes well for both of us!
DB: Thanks very much for speaking to me.
SM: Thank you Dan.
Transcript by Renée Goulet
Dan Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. I’m Dan Berry. Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and I sat down to talk about hyperfiction and hypercomics, academia, sound and time and Sonic the Hedgehog. This is Make It The Tell Everybody. Hey, it’s Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, how are you doing?
Daniel Merlin Goodbrey: I’m good, how are you?
DB: I’m pretty good. I think the first time I heard your name… I’m just going to drop some names here, was when I was a student I rung up Scott McCloud to get some feedback from him, pick his brains about interactive comics, and he told me to look at your website.
DMG: The nice thing about Scott is you can ring him up, and he will give you input on things.
DB: And here’s his number, we’re just going to read it out! [laughs]
DMG: Just ring up Scott! I wouldn’t have a career in comics without Scott McCloud. A, because he got me thinking about a lot of things, but B, because he was incredibly generous with promoting the stuff I do to a lot of other people. He’s one of those really nice people that generally just wants everyone who is interested in comics to succeed at comics.
DB: Yeah, I can’t find any selfishness in there.
DB: Which is great! I remember his website, when I was first really getting into comics, he ran this blog on his website and I would check it daily, more times than was healthy per day. Like, refresh, refresh, refresh. I don’t think I even… I guess there’s a thing about the internet where you don’t really see a person on the other end of it, and I didn’t think about time differences and the fact that it would be 2:00 in the morning or something. Refresh, ‘Come on. Come on, more stuff! I want more stuff on this website!’
DMG: I still really miss the fact that he hasn’t been updating his blog for the past few years. I still have it in my list of blogs and every now and again I just check, to make sure there’s not another update.
DB: So Scott, if you’re listening, you’re letting us down.
DMG: Start again.
DB: Go back and start again! So Daniel, you are a purveyor of hyperfiction?
DMG: Yeah, mostly just hypercomics these days I guess. I started off with a master’s degree in hyperfiction, and during that I started making hypercomics, and most of what I do is comic related these days.
DB: Can I ask a dumb question?
DB: What is hyperfiction, and what is hypercomics?
DMG: Hyperfiction or hypercomics, comics which have multiple pathways through them, determined by the reader. There’s a nice, simple way of explaining them.
DB: A choose your own adventure.
DMG: Yeah, a choose your own adventure, or choose your point of view, or choose the order in which you pick through a sequence of events, but some kind of choice.
DB: Okay, so it’s up to the reader? Now, is it a reader?
DMG: Reader’s a good word. Some people would say ‘user’ I guess, and that would be fine too, and I think with some you could say player. I usually use either reader or player, depending on whether it’s more game-like or not.
DB: How did you get into doing this? I’m going to show my hand completely here, I don’t think there’s many people doing what you do. Am I wrong in that?
DMG: There’s not a huge number. There’s always been a few, and a few people wandering in and trying it out.
DB: I think I was one of those people that wandered in and tried it out.
DMG: Yeah, I think you wandered in and tried it out, yeah definitely.
DB: And then wandered off again!
DMG: Well, you know, I wandered off for a while and then wandered back.
DB: We’ll talk about that later.
DMG: I was doing my master’s degree in hyperfiction. Interactive narrative type stuff, and I’d done an undergrad in that kind of thing, multimedia design, animation type stuff as well. While I was doing the master’s and finishing my undergrad, starting into my master’s, I was just starting to make comics digitally as well, because I’d always been interested in comics, but felt like I didn’t have the art skills to make them, but I was finding I could make them using computer trickery.
DB: Cheating you mean?
DMG: Cheating, yeah! If I ever write a book about comics, I’ve always wanted to call it ‘How to Cheat at Comics’.
DB: Nice! [laughs] I bet that would sell.
DMG: Yeah, I think there’s a market. So I started to think about combining what I was doing in my own time with what I was learning, and trying to make digital comics that were also hyperfictions, or also had this element of choice to them. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed that way of storytelling more than traditional storytelling, and I also enjoyed it because, like you said, there weren’t that many people doing it, so it felt like there was a chance to figure stuff out that other people hadn’t figured out, which when I started out was really exciting. It’s like, ooh, new things.
DB: Yeah, because I think that we have very, very similar backgrounds. I was big into ActionScript and Director. I don’t know if that’s going to age me at all. I used to love Director by the way.
DMG: I hated Director.
DB: Did you? Okay, well you’ve been listening to the…
DMG: I finally learned how to use Flash properly, because I had to go back to using Director, so it played its role.
DB: [laughs] I think we had a similar education, and then when I started my master’s I was looking at interactive narratives as well before dropping out and taking a real job. I think that we’ve got a lot to talk about with what we were trying to achieve with interactive comics and interactive storytelling. What were you trying to achieve when you first started doing this?
DMG: I think I was just trying to see what was possible. When I first started it was, how do comics use the qualities of the web in ways that they’re not currently? What are the things that you can do on the screen that you can’t do on the page? Just trying every different possible thing I could to see what worked and what didn’t work. That’s what got me into it. It was just that idea that here is a medium where all the rules haven’t been written yet, so we can do what we want. Going back to Scott, it was reinventing comics and seeing all these possible ideas, and going online and seeing there really weren’t many people actually trying out the things that were being suggested. It seemed like this gap, to start trying them out.
DB: I remember one of the most outlandish things I tried, was I had this… because I was doing a lot of Web3D stuff with ActionScript 2, so I’d created this enormous virtual cylinder that was populated on the inside with panels from comics, and you would fly through this with these panels. You know, you would change the point of view, so you’d work your way around this cylindrical spiral. It was ghastly. It would really, really make you sick.
DMG: That sounds really cool!
DB: It looked really cool, but you couldn’t read that way because it would make you so sick.
DMG: Oddly, the next chunk of stuff I want to work on after I finish my current chunk of stuff, is stuff in that area. I said stuff a lot there. I’m starting to get really interested in panels placed into three-dimensional space, and how you would navigate that, and how you would read it, and what you could use it for.
DMG: I need to skill up in a few things I don’t really know how to do yet. I need to learn some 3D stuff that I don’t know before I can start tackling that.
DB: Sure. Hire a nerd.
DMG: Hire a nerd. Well you see, that’s the trick.
DMG: The reason a lot of people don’t do this stuff is they’re not both tech person and cartoonist, and you can try and find a tame tech person, but it’s hard to do.
DB: Hard to tame! I mean, they’ve got wild hearts.
DMG: Yeah, and like everyone else they want to get paid, or they want to start working on your project and then disappear and stop answering emails after two months. The same kind of thing as when you start out as a writer and you want to try and find an artist. It’s the same kind of problem, finding other collaborators.
DB: That was certainly my experience of it. My experience was that I had a lot of creative skills, and I think I had a really good understanding of comics, and I think at the time I thought I had a really, really good idea of how comics worked and what you could do with them as well. My tech skills were, I’d say a B. They were a B grade. They weren’t amazing, but they weren’t terrible, and I think that that little bit of knowledge was probably a bit of a dangerous thing, really. Probably.
DMG: I always consider myself someone who hacks code together rather than actually has any ability to write it well, so you can get by on a lot of knowing just enough to get by. But after a while… there are large projects I know I do want to tackle in a year or so, where I am going to try and find people with actual talent in the area to do it, rather than relying on what I can manage to scrape together.
DB: Frankenstein’s web interface.
DB: What was the first interactive comic you did that you unleashed into the wild and had any feedback from?
DMG: The first of any note was Six Gun, which was my final piece on my master’s, which ran at Comic Book Resources. It got some attention, not massive attention, but it was a substantial work in which I tried out lots of different ideas. The one that really got me noticed properly was a piece called Doodleflak. Again, because Scott promoted it on his blog, and also weirdly went on television on some weird cable TV show I don’t know.
DMG: Yeah, he was interviewed on some TV show in the US, and it was one of the pieces he showed. I think it was called Screen Savers. It was something that became something on G4 that then got cancelled. Anyway, that got a lot of hits and me a lot of attention. It also got me invited out to San Diego for what was going to be a digital comics panel with a whole bunch of people who were doing digital comics at the time, doing stuff that Scott liked. We were all going to be on a panel together, and the panel then got cancelled, but by that point I’d decided, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to San Diego anyway.’ So that got me out to San Diego Comic-Con, which was a big jump in terms of meeting people. Before that I’d never been to any comic convention, or really met anyone in comics before.
DB: So you literally jumped in at the deep end.
DMG: Yeah, if you want to go to a first convention, never having been to anything like that, go to San Diego. Every other convention experience you have will seem easy by comparison.
DB: Wow. Baptism of fire.
DB: Well now. So you took this initial success, and these first initial contacts you made in San Diego. How did you build from there?
DMG: Well I just kept… towards working on the end of my master’s I realised that what I wanted to do was make digital comics, and it’s what I wanted to keep doing. So I just kept making them. At the same time I fell into lecturing. So I fell into doing bits and pieces of lecturing at the university where I’d been a student. I just kept hanging around teaching until they gave me a job.
DB: This is remarkably similar to my career path so far.
DMG: It’s a good tactic.
DB: Basically, don’t leave. Don’t stop doing stuff and then they’ll…
DMG: Eventually they feel awkward.
DB: They have to give you a job. It’s the law.
DMG: I always was very clear, I only ever would work part of the week. Up until a few years ago, I’ve only ever been point 5 as a lecturer, so I always had half the week to work on comics or work on other stuff that whereas it wouldn’t make me any money most of the time, would let me keep doing what I wanted to do. That gave me the time to keep making more and more experimental comics, and after a while I became the guy that you find when you want to do something weird with comics. So if you’re an Italian architect wanting to make a comics installation for a children’s mental hospital in Paris and you Google things, you find me, and then I’m the one who gets hired to help you do that.
DB: A charmed life.
DMG: It’s a charmed life, other than that happens once a year. You have to try and eke out your salary between them. You get roughly one interesting a job a year, for a few years. And every time you do you get another thing for your CV or on your website, so it ticks over.
DB: So the last thing you do then, pushes you forward into the next thing you do. Interesting.
DMG: I get bored very easily, so it’s very important, almost with every project I do that I’m trying to do something I haven’t done before, if that makes sense. It kept me trying new things with every project I was working on.
DB: When you say that you get bored very easily, how does that manifest itself normally?
DMG: What I realised when I was starting out was I can’t overthink a project before I’m working on it. If I write the project out ahead of time I don’t complete the project, because for me, a lot of the time the bit I find interesting is the act of creation, coming up with the idea, and everything else is the thing I have to do to get the idea out the door. I immediately did the thing that I tell all my students to do, which is put the epic aside and do short stories for a considerable amount of time, because that’s how you’ll get good at telling stories. Then you’ll also finish them and they’ll be out there, rather than you’ll get a chapter in, and never finish your 400 page, sweeping story.
DB: I think that this is really, really good advice, and I think if anyone’s listening and they’ve not made comics before and they’ve got this 900 page book in them that wants to come out, start small.
DMG: Start small. Leave the book in there, it will get better with every small story you tell first.
DB: Yeah, it’s not ready yet. Just let it bake a little longer.
DMG: The only slight caveat to that advice is, or do it as a webcomic. Because you can. Don’t overthink it, just do a page every week and put it up, and there are plenty of people who have got their 900 page epic out that way, although be aware that you will absolutely hate the first, I don’t know, 950 pages of your 900 page epic if you do it that way.
DB: How do you keep yourself on the straight and narrow while you’re doing a project then?
DMG: It’s got easier as I’ve got older, I guess. Also I have more demands on most of the projects I work on. I have to finish them, because otherwise I let me down, or I let someone I’m working with down, or I screw up my doctorate. All these incentives!
DB: So it’s fear?
DMG: It’s fear. It’s fear and being better about saying the scale of the project that I’m going to do. Say Necessary Monsters for instance, where I’m working with…
DB: Sean Azzopardi?
DMG: Sean Azzopardi. For the two volumes that we’ve done, I did what I wouldn’t usually do, which is I wrote a full outline of everything beforehand because I had to know I wasn’t going to get to the final part and then not have an ending, because Sean would be spending a considerable chunk of his time on it. Even then, I then don’t write the scripts until issue by issue, so I can have fun in the discovery process on the script. It does still happen, like, I was working on a project a bit more than a year ago. A follow-up… a game comic, which I guess we’ll get round to talking about called Margaret Must Succeed, and it was going along and it was going along. I spent a chunk of time working on it, it got to a point where I just realised I’d got bored of it and I got bored of the process in it, so I shelved it, and I hadn’t done that in a long time because most things I work on, I want to know I’m going to get them out the door. I’m still not great at it, but it was useful because I realised what parts of making game comics that I enjoyed and what parts I didn’t, and I’ve made the mistake of setting out on a project where I found out, ‘Actually I don’t enjoy that part of the process.’
DB: Which bits do you and which bits don’t you enjoy then?
DMG: Well, Margaret was my attempt to make something more puzzle based and more mechanical, and in a way a bit less narrative based, and what that meant was spending a lot of time figuring out variations of puzzles. Probably to get it really good I would have had to have spent a lot of time testing and replaying those puzzles, and doing that kind of iterative process you do for good games design, whereas I’m much more interested in the world explorational aspects, and the more narrative aspects of gaming, which makes sense because that’s what I do. This was my attempt to try and do that in a different way, and I failed. I think if I was to do that again, I’d have to bring on a collaborator or really get that stuff working well before I started the project, so once the project was underway I didn’t have to figure it out as I went along.
DB: You mentioned earlier that a big problem with any project is overthinking it. How does that work? Because it sounds like the more you think about something, the better it will be.
DMG: Well, it does depend, because I have been, by the nature of… I’m currently studying for my professional doctorate. That does involve a process of overthinking. Perhaps it’s not overthinking if you have to do it, but I have been… the last few big projects I’ve been doing, I’ve been thinking about a lot. It’s not the death knell for a project and I think the last few I’ve been doing are much better because I have been thinking about them a lot, and trying to work that in, and doing things I wouldn’t have done without that process. But most of my webcomics, like Dice With The Universe, that I’m doing at the moment, by the very nature of the project, I have to make it up week on week in Dice because I don’t know what’s going to happen until the audience roll dice at the end of each week.
DMG: Yeah. Well, I can cheat slightly, because I can slightly have some…
DB: Oh, you’ve got a six! Just as I had hoped for.
DMG: No, but I can write both outcomes, so I can get a little bit ahead of myself. Although then you get into this weird situation where you’re actually creating a lot more comic than ever sees the light of day, just so you’re not desperately strapped for an idea when the dice roll comes the way you don’t want it. But I wanted to do that, because I’d never done a project which really involved audience participation, and I’d ignored the whole social aspects of the web in most of what I’d done, so I thought I would do a project that steered into that for a bit.
DB: That’s interesting. So were you thinking about your audience as being a single reader?
DMG: I was thinking of my audience as the steadily decreasing number of people that follow me from series to series I do on the web, I guess. With every webcomic I’ve done, since All Knowledge is Strange, my audience has slightly reduced, that I imagine I’m going to be having a conversation with ten people by the final webcomic I do. I have no idea who my audience is. I’m very bad at most of the things you have to be good at to really succeed at webcomics, in terms of self promotion and knowing your audience and targeting a specific audience, and constantly, constantly getting out there and promoting your work to people and getting it in front. All that stuff I’m just not good at and don’t really do. So what success I’ve had with more traditional webcomics has just been pure luck, I think.
DB: [laughs] Do you think it’s more difficult if you’re working online to have a presence at conventions and festivals, because what you deal with is essentially intangible? It’s magic dust that floats through the air.
DMG: You have to be smart about it. I mean, when I was really interested in conventions and getting stuff into print, I was trying to do more things that could be both online, but then collected in print. When I started out my stuff was… there was just no way to collect it in print. It was very much screen based, and then I moved much more towards the, kind of, serialise online, but collect in print model that a lot of people have. Then it’s very easy, because most of what you do can also be print based. I’m now back working digitally again. I’m doing stuff that really is only digital. The big difference I’ve found is, I’m really beyond the point of caring about comic conventions. I’ve started to realise that I just don’t really enjoy the part of the conversation where I sit and try and sell people books anymore. I like going to conventions, and I like talking to people about the work, especially digital work at the moment, and I’m really enjoying that. I really enjoyed the last Thought Bubble, because I got an opportunity just to do that as part of a lecture on comics. I was sitting at a booth, not really trying to sell, more trying to have conversations about what we were doing.
DB: So if this was Peanuts, you’d be Lucy sitting at her psychiatrist stand.
DMG: Idle advice. I think increasingly what I want to try to find to do, because I do enjoy going to conventions, but I want to find ways in which I can do little installations or little things where it can just be about showing what I’m actually working on mostly now, which is digital stuff, rather than trying to shoehorn myself into print.
DB: Okay, so the basic setup of a festival is, it’s a big shop.
DB: Without something to physically sell, there’s no point being at the shop.
DMG: You have to have a pretty good turnover of new content to sell. When I was really doing this seriously I’d have new books for most shows I did, and you’d have the turnover of your regular customers coming back. I just don’t get new stuff into print very often now, so that immediately cuts into what you’ll sell, and it’s just… I don’t sell that well at shows anymore. You go to Thought Bubble, that is a show full of nothing but amazingly talented people and books. It’s not where my head’s at. My head is on the screen at the moment, and the conversations I want to have are on the screen. I feel I’m going to enjoy these things a lot more if I actually go to them with that in mind, rather than with selling print books in mind.
DB: So you want to go to a festival and change the conversation.
DMG: Yeah, I want to talk about what I’m actually doing, rather than talk about the thing I’ve done just for the fact that the festival is happening.
DB: That’s interesting. I don’t know how to do that.
DMG: No. I have no idea!
DB: I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know why you came to me to ask!
DMG: Thought Bubble felt like a step in the right direction this year, and I really enjoyed it, and now I have to figure out how to keep doing that. Because I don’t want to just show up and have a chat, because I find if I… I almost never go to a comic show where I don’t have a table or something to do, because otherwise I just feel like, ‘I’m walking around. I am not at this. I should be sitting down somewhere.’
DB: Oh, ‘I’m the wrong side of the table.’
DMG: ‘I am at the wrong side of the table,’ yes. So I don’t know exactly how that will work. Lakes was really nice as well.
DB: Yes, it was lovely.
DMG: Why I enjoyed it, I think I made the mistake of having a table at Lakes. I think if I’d just been at Lakes to have a chat, I would have enjoyed it all the more.
DB: What we need is a festival that’s just chatting.
DMG: It’s just chatting! Well, I know they’re not for everybody, but I have in the last few years started going to academic conferences, and I have been kind of enjoying them.
DB: Have you?
DMG: You know, I have.
DB: Sorry, you noted the ‘really?’ in my voice.
DMG: I know you had the opposite experience.
DB: Shall we get into that?
DMG: Well, let’s get into it a bit. Partly I think the scene is much richer in just the last few years. Just since I’ve started I feel like there are more and more of these things, and more and more interesting conversations happening at them. You just have to pick your panels a bit, I think. There are more people who are both practitioners and academics at them. Also I think there are interesting academic conversations happening there as well. There’s been a real explosion in good comics theory books being published in the last few years, so there’s actually a good amount of stuff to react to and chat to. I’m primarily a formalist, so I’m interested in how the form works and talking about how the form works. There have sometimes been, for my liking, not enough of that at conference.
DB: Sure, yeah. I think that was part of my problem as well.
DMG: But I feel like there’s more than there used to be.
DB: Playing devil’s advocate here in my role as interviewer, so I’m going to offer an exaggerated view of a lot of the academic conferences that I was going to, and that I got quite disheartened by. It was the idea that the purpose of academia is to bring new knowledge to a group of people doing a thing. I remember thinking, ‘Great. I like that idea. I love this, I really do.’ My whole career, my work life is entirely based on that and I think I do it quite well. Going off to academic conferences and reading some of the weightier academic books about the theory and practice of comics, it was really, really difficult to get into. There was a whole different set of vocabulary that you needed to understand to be able to get something to improve your practice by. It seemed like it was running at odds with the general ambition of academia to get people better at doing stuff. I don’t know. I felt like if I saw another… you know, someone talk about Sandman again, and again, I’d just pick up and walk out.
DMG: Well I think you will always get people talking about Sandman again and again.
DB: And if you have written a paper about Sandman I do apologise, but I’ve seen a lot of these things now, and I’m kind of over it.
DMG: But I feel like it has got better. I mean, I’m very new at this, and I don’t want to denigrate the academia that was happening before but I also want to make clear, I am in no way part of what…
DB: Don’t listen to Dan! I’m not affiliated with Dan!
DMG: But I feel you go to most conferences now, you get a really wide spectrum of papers about lots of interesting things. But then I tend to apply quite a laser focus to only actually attending the ones that are as relevant as possible to what I’m doing, because it’s the only way to ever finish a doctorate, is to do that. So I feel that there’s lots of people saying things that I find useful or interesting for my work and my research, and the core of my research has always been, because I’m also a practitioner, trying to do stuff that is genuinely moving the practice forward, and not just theory forward. That’s because I’m doing a professional doctorate. I actually have to do that, I don’t get a choice.
DB: Your hand has been forced.
DMG: Yes, my hand has been forced. Yeah, I’m kind of enjoying them both, but I think I’m probably… I’m enjoying lecturing more in a way… like, for a long time lecturing was just the thing I did so I could do comics, but I actually genuinely enjoy that part of my week now more than I used to. I feel like I’m an actual… you know that thing where you mostly just are constantly faking everything you do and hoping no one will call you on it? I hit a point with lecturing when I suddenly realised, within a very narrow field, and I was very aware of how narrow the field was that I knew about, I actually was quite good at that part of my job. I could suddenly not have to fake the fact that I’m a lecturer. I could just be that. You feel very good about yourself for a little while.
DB: Yeah, sure. I think that again, in the same narrow parameters, there’s stuff I really excel at in teaching. Broader than that? Meh.
DMG: Yeah, not broadly, but narrowly I can be confident about the thing I know narrowly how to do.
DB: Ask me some questions about comics and stories and stuff, I can excel at that stuff. If it goes broader into cross media, cultural, blah, blah, blah, no. Not so much. So you mentioned earlier Electricomics. What’s this then?
DMG: Electricomics is a Nesta funded research and development project. It’s their R&D for the Arts Fund, something like that. We have an official name we always have to give that I always mangle.
DB: For someone who doesn’t know what a Nesta is…
DMG: Nesta are a European funding body that give money to people to research things. In our case they gave it to us to research digital comics, and specifically to make a few things. A tool set, a creation tool kit that people can use to make digital comics. By digital comics I guess we mean specifically comics on an iPad for now, or an Android, but we mean an iPad because that’s what we can afford to develop initially, and an anthology title called Electricomics, which will collect a few well known comics names making some digital comics, using some of what we’ve learned to create some digital comics that do things a bit differently from how you would do them on the page.
DMG: That’s it. That’s basically what we’ve been asked to do, so it’s being led by Alan and Leah Moore, who are comics creators you may have heard of.
DB: Sure. Name rings a bell.
DMG: Vaguely familiar. So it’s got a kind of weight of people who genuinely know what they’re doing when it comes to print comics. Then people like me who are both there to be part of the university research that’s attached to it, but also to provide some of the knowledge of digital comics. But beyond that, trying to keep it very open, so I’ve been trying to say things that have happened with digital comics without trying to drive the direction of the project too much, because I don’t feel that’s… you know, it’s for the project to figure out what we end up making rather than me to just say, ‘We are doing this.’ That’s basically what it is. Because it’s a research and development project, it’s highly possible that we will fail, and that’s okay. Also, it means that what we’re doing, everything we do is open source. Everything we discover gets released to the public at the end, so it is very much, at least in its initial form, its initial year, a non-commercial project. We’re just trying to figure this stuff out.
DB: Now you used a word in there that I imagine has many, many hidden depths. This one word you just glossed over and then it was done. When you said, ‘tool kit’. To me, my programmers brain goes, ‘Ah, no! It’s loads of work in there!’
DMG: Even within the project we should have perhaps more clearly defined up front what all partners meant by the word ‘tool kit’, because we’re realising that… there’s a lot of discussions about that. We’re still having discussions. It will be some sort of thing that lets you make comics on a screen.
DB: Okay. It’s literally a tool kit.
DMG: Beyond that, we don’t really know the specifics yet. We’re still figuring them out. We’re still figuring out how much of that we can actually deliver within the time and budget we’ve got. So it’s hard to say more than that, at that point. But that’s roughly what it will be.
DB: So you mentioned this is a research project and there’s a chance it might fail, and that’s a good thing. Of course it’s a good thing because you’ve got to strip out fear of failure from all of your research, because if you only did things that you knew would happen then you aren’t really learning anything new?
DMG: Yes. Something I realised about me, is I’ve historically been bad at allowing myself to fail. I often don’t do that enough. I tend to construct projects in such a way that I know… I’m pretty sure I can succeed at them. People talk about that so much, the idea of the need to fail, and it’s true and it’s something that we say to students. You need to allow yourself to fail at things as well, but I’ve realised it’s something that I actually struggle with myself. So I’m trying to do more projects where I have that opportunity to fail in them, if that makes sense.
DB: Yes, it does. So for this project to fail specifically, I guess it’s got to not achieve what it is you want it to do. What is it that you want it to do?
DMG: I mean, it will be hard to fail completely, because even if we don’t manage to do what we want to do, we’ll come out of it with everything documented.
DB: Unless the laptop goes on fire or something.
DMG: Well, we are using backups.
DB: Oh okay! [laughs] Good start!
DMG: It cannot be a complete failure, but it could end up not producing something… it could not produce anything I guess. That could happen. That would be bad. Or the tool kits we produce could be not as complex as we want it to be, or it could end up not being useful for the people we want to use it, which are people that don’t really have the technical knowledge to make digital comics, because that has to be, kind of, the point of it. If you know your way around a computer and around HTML5 or something like that, you should be able to make a digital comic. You shouldn’t need us to help you.
DB: You sounded like a parent telling everyone off then! ‘You shouldn’t need any help, you people out there!’
DMG: You shouldn’t need any help. You know how to make HTML5 webpages, you can make yourself a digital comic. Google it!
DMG: I don’t know where that voice came from.
DB: I don’t know, but it worked. It worked for me.
DMG: Good. I don’t know if you have this when you’re teaching students, but it’s amazing what they don’t know how to Google. They’ll ask you a question, and they’ll be completely stumped, and you’ll just put the question into Google in front of them and say, ‘That’s the answer, the first thing that comes up when you ask that question.’
DB: Now have you seen the website lmgtfy.com?
DMG: I have not seen that website.
DB: The website is ‘let me Google that for you’. So you type in, you know…
DMG: Ah! I’ve heard the long version, not the acronym.
DB: It’s a whole website, and so you type in your ‘how do you’, I don’t know, ‘mix paint’. You type that in and it would create you a little link that you can send to someone, and that little link then does a little animation of their question going into Google, and then clicking on the first thing that comes up. It’s pretty good. I think it’s what the internet was invented for.
DMG: That does sound pretty awesome.
DB: I don’t use that in my professional life, but I would love to. [laughs]
DMG: Yes. I feel like we’ve possibly wandered off topic somewhere along the line.
DB: No, no, this is all gold. I mean, we’re wandering around dropping gold nuggets here, and people are going to wander around picking them up.
DMG: Okay. Say something so I can say something else in response to it.
DB: Where do you get your ideas from Daniel?
DMG: Oh, I knew that question was coming! I don’t know where I get my ideas from. I don’t know. I think I used to get… I’ve heard you ask this question before.
DB: See, the way I think about ideas, if you’ve listened to the show you’ll know I have a few different ways of thinking about them, but I don’t think I’ve talked about them this way before. When I was doing a lot of digital stuff, you’d have to have this concept of how it was going to work before you could actually do it. I think with a lot of my art, I can have an idea for how I’m going to draw something and I can test it by drawing it. I find it far more difficult to have an idea and test it digitally. There wasn’t as much of the playful element with the technology. I can play in my sketchbook with pens and draw 200 different kinds of ducks if I want to, but it’s going to be far harder for me to sit down with Flash and code 200 variations of this duck I’ve got in my head, I guess.
DMG: That’s easier. Within most of what I do, especially with the digital stuff, I start with usually a shape or a structure. So I have some kind of concept of what it is I want to explore with a project, and some kind of concept of the form of that. So that might be a particular configuration of panels that I know I’m going to zoom around, and I start with a shape and then I start to think about filling the shape. Or it might be a particular mechanic. Like the idea that we’ll treat the panels as a world, and every time the person navigates, their avatar moves from one panel to another. That can be a specific idea, and then I can think, ‘Well I know I’ve got that. That’s what I’m going to build this around. What then is the story I use to tell that, in that shape or in that configuration?’ Mostly that’s how I work. I usually start with the formal thing first, and then figure out what kind of story it’s going to be. The next thing I usually do after that, because increasingly… this is something I’ve found as I get older. When I was younger I’d just have a bunch of mad ideas and I’d whack them into a piece and that would be enough. Or I’d have an interesting line of dialogue, and I’d write a piece around that. Or I’d think a thing, and I would just start doing something. Most of all my early stuff is just like, interesting idea, interesting line of dialogue, dah, dah, dah, dah, comic. But I have less time to work on everything now. Life is such that you have less time to do everything.
DB: Tell me about it!
DMG: If you’re going to spend a chunk of time working on something, and they are a chunk of time. The Empty Kingdom was eight months. You have to know what it is you’re going to say. You have to know you’re going to say something with it, because it can’t be an empty piece. So I have to think on some level, ‘This is a comic about this, and that is a thing that will be interesting to talk about, so it will be worth me spending the amount of time I will then have to spend on it.’ It may be that it ends up being about something completely else, but I have to justify to myself that the story I’m going to tell actually has some worth or value as a story. There you go.
DB: Good answer. You mentioned The Empty Kingdom, so this is the most recently released… is it a game comic? Is it a hypercomic?
DMG: It is a game comic and it is a hypercomic. What it was primarily at first, was a way for me to get to grips with how comics and audible sound, sound you can actually hear, might interact. One of the things I wanted to find out as part of my doctorate was that, because I’d been thinking about wanting to do something like that for a long time, for five, six years, but I’d never really got round to it. It was something I knew I wanted to do as part of my doctorate. So I started Empty Kingdom just as that. As, ‘Well I know I want to explore sound,’ but I didn’t let myself decide anything else about it until quite near the end, so I wasn’t sure if it was going to be more of a story, more of a game, just a wandering around, what they call a ‘going for a walk’ simulator. I didn’t really know what it would be until the end. By the end it’s like, yeah, I’d call it a game comic, although it is more about just going for a walk as much as it is about anything, I think.
DMG: And it let me figure out a whole bunch of stuff about how I think sound can work in a digital comic.
DB: How can sound work in a digital comic Daniel?
DMG: I’m glad you asked! I was building on other stuff people have done, and other things people had already thought. I think the way sound can best work in a digital comic is like sound works in a video game, which is the sound should react to the person reading it. So it shouldn’t be this pre-orchestrated soundtrack, it should be a soundtrack that shifts and changes in line with how a person reads. Time in comics should be set by the comic, not by the soundtrack as much as possible, so that probably means using loops of sound rather than sounds of fixed duration, because time in comics isn’t fixed, so the sound time shouldn’t be fixed either. It should be little overlapping loops that change. The trick about the sound in a digital comic is then finally, with what fidelity can you figure out where a person is in their reading of the comic? In a traditional comic you can really only tell what page they’re on, or maybe what double page they’re on, so you could only match the sound to the double page spread. In a digital comic there are a few different ways you might have some clues to what panel they’re currently reading. Then you get into this trade off between knowing where someone is in their reading, which you could do by having just one panel on the screen, and you only let them read a panel at a time, but then you’re losing a whole bunch of stuff about the page and the way panels interact, and all the other stuff that makes comics kind of cool. So you’ve got to find your middle ground and what you’re happy with.
Because of the nature of The Empty Kingdom, and it wouldn’t apply to a lot of digital comics, but it applied to Empty Kingdom, because you’ve got this avatar you’re controlling and moving through the panels, you can know with perfect fidelity exactly where they are in their reading every time.
DB: Because you’ve got an indication literally there on screen.
DMG: Yeah, literally this is where they are on the screen. So you can make the soundtrack change down to the panel, which gives you a lot more control. It also makes it much harder, because you really have to finesse the soundtrack to actually work at that level, rather than being a messier thing that might just change by the page. So that was one set of conclusions, and then the bit… I guess that was me. The bit about fidelity is me. I’m thinking now in terms of what I can claim to be new knowledge and what I have to say is other people’s knowledge, because that’s a thing you have to think about when you’re doing a doctorate. The other thing I kind of knew going in, but I wanted to gather the language to say, is the idea of the sync point, which is stuff that comes from film sound theory, but it’s where the sound you’re hearing syncs up with the image you’re seeing. On a film, the sync point has to be like, you have to hear the punch when the fist connects with the punch, otherwise you’re watching an Italian movie rather than a Hollywood blockbuster. So where do you put the sync point on the comics page, bearing in mind that time, as we said in comics, is this kind of indefinite thing rather than a definite thing? So I deliberately in the project had some spot sound effects as well as these loops. What I realised worked really well, was to put the sync point into the gutter. So you sync the spot sound to the thing you don’t see.
DMG: The bit in Empty Kingdom which I always use to make the point is the bit where you walk along, and as you walk past a rock, a bird sitting on the rock and it flies away. And what happens is, you see the bird sitting on the rock, you hear the bird flying away, but you don’t see that, and then you see the bird in the next panel in flight. So what you’ve done is synced the sound to, whatever you want to call the process, what McCloud calls ‘closure’. The idea, the motion you create rather than what you see on the page. That seems to work really well. I think. I’m pretty pleased with how it works, because then you’re not weakening what’s cool about comics, which is the reader doing the work of inventing the story.
DB: I agree with that. That sounds about right. That sounds good to me.
DMG: That’s what I figured out by doing The Empty Kingdom.
DB: To try and give an example of how this could and couldn’t work as well, I think the thing that works about The Empty Kingdom is the fact that it’s non-definite audio. So you don’t have your character going, ‘Doo, dee, doo, doo, doo. Here I am, walking along. Doo, dee, doo, doo, doo.’ Which I think would detract from it.
DMG: I think there are more experiments to do around other things.
DB: The ‘doo, dee, doo, doo, doo’.
DMG: Yeah, the ‘doo, dee’. I think there’s stuff you could do. I was very careful not to include the sound of his footfall most of the time, because I think it will drop you out. So it’s very much… and I’m very careful about saying The Empty Kingdom isn’t the one way to do sound, it’s just…
DB: …a way.
DMG: It’s a way, and I think it helped me figure out a few more things that hopefully we might feed into Electricomics if we have time and budget by that point.
DB: One of the things I always find interesting about interactive comics, when I was really giving it some thought was the differences… I mean, you talked about comics as being a non-time based medium. If you’re not watching them, they don’t do anything, whereas an animation or a film, even if you’re not watching it, it’s going to carry on regardless. It’s 94 minutes long, or whatever it is, whereas a comic is as long as you inflate it with your own sense of time. It’s almost like, remember when you’re a kid and you play Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System.
DB: So you’d get to know these characters and you have fun with them, and then the TV show came out, and you’ve got Sonic’s voice and you’re like, ‘Who’s this guy? I don’t understand this!’ I think that there’s an awful lot to be said for the idea of the tone of voice of the characters that you bring to the comics page yourself. I don’t know if it’s something to do with context and the way that you can use audio and dialogue together. I think that if you replace the voice inside people’s heads with, [squeaky voice] ‘Hi, you guys, I’m Sonic the Hedgehog,’ or whatever it is. See I don’t even know what Sonic sounds like anymore.
DMG: He sounds exactly like that.
DB: Thank you. Thank you.
DMG: [squeaky voice] ‘Hey guys!’ Just like that.
DB: We’re both available for voice work if people want to get in touch.
DMG: It could be the start of a whole new career.
DB: [laughs] I felt like it would take something away. With comics you get to invest yourself so heavily in these characters that, again… what was I saying? It was about context. If you understand the voice of your characters already, from reading them in a comic… and I think a lot of the stuff that I was doing, the problems that I was having with adapting comics to an interactive form, was context. I already had context for reading these stories and what they were like, and I was approaching them as a reader, rather than a creator, I think. Does that make sense?
DMG: Yeah, that makes sense, and I think the danger is, part of the other things I realised working on The Empty Kingdom, there’s a thing McCloud says in Understanding Comics where he talks about the idea that when you’re creating a comic you have to give both the words and the pictures a chance to lead. He calls it a dance. Most people who experiment with sound in comics create a comic or take an existing comic and try and whack a soundtrack on it.
DB: Yeah. I hate that, by the way.
DMG: Yeah, I know. It doesn’t work. Well it can work, but it’s not going to work as well, because you’re not giving sound a chance to lead. You’re just whacking sound on to words and pictures. If you’re going to make a comic which is not just about now combining words and pictures, it’s about combining words and pictures and sound, each have to be given… you have to think about that all the way through, and each have to be given a chance to lead as part of the finished thing you produce. Because I’m not actually great at sound, The Empty Kingdom, I started with the sound. I gathered lots of sounds from freesound.org and I used that for the basis for what the comic would be, because that way I knew I would have sounds that worked, and then built the rest of the comic around them. I think that’s part of the problem. I think, you know, had Sonic spoken when you first played that game, then that would be his voice and it wouldn’t be weird that he’s speaking now. But because you encountered Sonic as text on the screen, and action, and then were introduced to the animated version, it’s weird.
DB: But I never had the same problem with Mario.
DMG: Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe we know how Mario sounds?
DB: ‘It’s-a me,’ of course.
DMG: He’s an Italian plumber, and that’s… I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe there’s just… I don’t know. Now we’re getting into wild…
DB: This is a whole research paper in itself.
DMG: I think the idea of dialogue is really interesting, because there is no voice work in The Empty Kingdom and my gut feeling is, once you start putting spoken audio into a comic, it’s too time based, and it will take you too away from the comic from. But I am kind of curious about… I don’t know whether I’ll ever get around to doing this, maybe doing a comic where one character speaks in audio and the other character’s speech is in speech bubbles and they’re having some kind of conversation. Or maybe the narrator is audio, and the character is speech. I think there’s some kind of interesting interplay there that might be explorable.
DB: That’s interesting. So, if you want people to go to a website or go and have a play of your game comics, or is there anything they can buy or follow you online? What do you want people to do right now?
DMG: They should go to probably my website, which is called e-merl.com, which is where I put most of my stuff. You’ll find my weekly series, Dice With The Universe, and you’ll also find links to my new comic, The Empty Kingdom, which was the one we were talking about in detail.
DB: Which people should go and play.
DMG: Which people should go and play. And I guess I should also say people can also go to electricomics.net, which is the website for the Electricomics project. Which is electric, omics. You’ll find it, Google it. I don’t know why we even give out URLs anymore. Just Google…
DB: H, T, T, P, full stop. [laughs] No wait, that’s wrong! Anyway, brilliant. Well Daniel, thank you ever so much for speaking to me.
DMG: Thanks very much, it was fun.
Big news! I’m delighted to say that new episodes of the show are going to be transcribed by the amazing and very talented Renée Goulet. To see her in action, check out the transcript of the interview with Christopher Butcher.
Why is this big news? It means that the interviews and the many varied nuggets of wisdom, mirth and advice that they contain are going to be available in a more flexible format to a wider audience, not just people that do or can listen to podcasts. It means that they are a resource that will be searchable, accessible, quotable, easy to reference, share and fairly straightforward to mangle into a different language through something like Google Translate. It means the podcast has evolved into something more useful to more people than ever before.
This is all made possible thanks to the people who donate to the show through Patreon. It would simply not happen without financial support from the community that Make It Then Tell Everybody serves. Transcribing audio is not cheap, and when you have a back catalogue of audio interviews 3 or 4 days in length to transcribe, it is restrictively expensive for me.
At present I can only really afford to get new episodes of the show transcribed. I want to set Renée to work transcribing the back catalogue, so please head to the Patreon site for the show and sign up to donate a dollar or two per episode to help us do this. I need you. If everyone that listened donated one dollar per episode, it would financially cover the cost of transcribing everything many, many times over. It doesn’t take everyone, it’d only take a tiny proportion of Make/Tell listeners to make this work, and a modest proportion of listeners to make it a roaring success! Strength in numbers! Get enough tiny droplets and you have a whole ocean! If Patreon isn’t your thing, or you want to make a one-off donation, you can do so here through Paypal.
I know that this is something that not everyone might be in a financial position to do, so instead perhaps help spread the word. Telling people about the show and what we are trying to do is just as valuable to me.
I’m so proud of the podcast and I am so excited about what the coming year is going to bring.
Go and donate to the MakeThenTell Patreon campaign, it is quick and easy to do and helps support the production of the show.
Transcript by Renée Goulet
Hannah Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody, I’m not Dan Berry. This week the tables have turned on Dan Berry, and Dan Berry’s being interviewed by Hannah Berry. We’ll be discussing his career, his life in comics, his love of comics, and the Bristol scale. [laughs]
Dan Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody.
HB: Hello, and welcome to Make It Then Tell Everybody, with me, Han Berry. See what I did there?
DB: Oh yeah!
HB: Interviewing Dan Berry. Hello Dan Berry.
DB: Hi Han. Hannah. Hannah Berry, how are you doing?
HB: Pretty well, how are you?
DB: Pretty good. You see, I’ve already gone back to asking the questions. [laughs]
HB: Stop it! It’s my turn.
DB: I’ve done nothing but question you now, haven’t I?
HB: You need to drop those question marks. It’s my turn with the question marks.
DB: Okay, sorry.
HB: Okay so… wait, what’s my first question? This is harder than it looks!
DB: I know, yeah.
HB: Do you find there’s a knack? Is there a knack to the podcasting, to the questioning?
DB: It’s just a conversation. I don’t really get… let me think, stage fright anymore. I think the first few I did, because you keep thinking, ‘Oh, it’s got to be right. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to be witty, I’ve got to be clever, I’ve got to ask smart questions.’ I think when I came to the realisation that smart questions are kind of overrated and dumb question cut to the heart of things really, really quickly, it was quite easy. The Dan on the podcast is a character that I have to play.
DB: Yeah, I do. And when I talk to people I’ll say, ‘I play this character of the dumb guy.’ I want to be the guy that is asking the dumb questions. So if someone says…
HB: But Dan, I thought you were that dumb!
DB: [laughs] I’m very, very clever. Very clever in real life, but the benefit is… the way I explain it to people when we set up to record is that I teach comics for a living, and I’ve had loads and loads of students who would have had a far easier time of their studies, and a far easier time with their art, if when I said, or anyone had said, ‘Okay, go and scan this in. If you do it, it’s 300 DPI. And then you’ve got to move that. Then you’ve got to do this. Blah, blah, blah. Do you understand? Do you know what you’re doing?’ And they go, ‘Yeah.’ When what they really mean is, ‘Nope. You lost me at 300 DPI. I don’t know what you mean. So there’s a real value in asking dumb questions, and I’m not afraid of looking stupid, so I feel ultimately qualified now to ask stupid questions. I have forgotten your original question though.
HB: I don’t think I had one. I think I was building up to start, really.
DB: Rookie mistake. Rookie mistake for an interviewer there. [laughs] I don’t have any questions either when I interview people. I’ve got a list of things I like to think about, but I don’t write down questions. Not that I’m judging you if you have Hannah. I’m very sorry if you have.
HB: I might have written down some questions. They’re really witty. I’m currently scribbling them out, and writing some stupid ones now.
DB: Good, good. Just fling that to one side. You don’t need it.
HB: What’s your favourite colour?
HB: Oh! Good, good.
DB: This week I really like teal.
HB: This week, Dan is liking teal. So actually, my first question was going to be, you know when you meet people at parties and places… new people, these are. What do you tell them you do? If they say, ‘Hello, I’m John. I’m a scientist. What do you do?’ You’re only given a short space to answer.
DB: It depends on the person, it depends on the party, and it also depends on how drunk I might be. Normally I’ll tell people that I teach comics for a living, because this is… the lion’s share of my time is taken up with teaching. You know, I teach five days a week, and it’s an incredible amount of work that goes into that. It’s a really big thing, it’s the thing that pays my mortgage. It’s the thing that means I get to put clothes on my children, and things like that, and food on the table. So that is my primary occupation, is teaching. So usually it’s teaching. If I think they might be a butthead, I’ll say I teach illustration, because everyone knows what illustration is. They go, ‘Oh yeah, like pictures and that. Brilliant.’ And you go, ‘Yes, that’s what I do.’ ‘Oh, sounds pretty easy.’ And you think, ‘Yep. Yes it is. Really easy.’
HB: And then you walk away.
DB: Yeah, and then walk away.
HB: Walk away and leave them to their evening.
DB: Yeah. If they seem nice or if they seem cool I’ll explain in more detail what I do, that I teach illustration and storytelling, creative writing and pacing and narrative and design and typography. All the things that go into making comics. Also, I make comics myself. Hey! You know, isn’t that cool?
HB: You just drop that in at the end?
DB: Then we become firm friends.
HB: And you skip off into the sunset and all is well.
DB: Yeah, it’s pretty good. A charmed life I lead. It’s a charmed life.
HB: So you don’t consider yourself, first and foremost, a comics creator? Is that a different question entirely?
DB: I think I can only teach what I teach because of what I do. Interesting question.
HB: Bit Paxman, wasn’t it?
DB: A little bit. It’s all about the amount of time I spend doing things. At the moment it’s, sort of, 40 plus hours a week teaching, and then, I don’t know, maybe ten drawing and comics-ing. Then probably another five podcasting.
HB: How do you find the time? I’ve got this theory that you might in fact be a clone. You’re more beardy than when I last saw you, so I think maybe you’re not the same Dan Berry that I last saw.
DB: Yeah, there’s Dan Berry, there’s Dan Kerry, there’s Dan Derry. We go through the… how do I fit it in? I wake up really early. I’ve always woken up pretty…
HB: Talk us through a day in the life of Dan Berry.
DB: Are we talking about a typical day, or shall I take you through today?
HB: Whichever’s more interesting. Whichever one’s more podcastable. Whichever one has the least rude things going on.
DB: [laugh] Well! Okay, well I like to do a poo every morning.
HB: Consistency on the Bristol scale, or shall we leave that?
DB: Let’s leave that. Just a 6. An average I think. Let’s explore the Bristol scale now, because I don’t know if I’ve just made myself sound horrible, or like, really ill or something.
HB: I don’t know if there are numbers, or if there’s…
DB: [laughs] There’s numbers and letters. You know, so this is a 6C. Oh god!
HB: Like a sunken battleship?
DB: Very similar!
HB: This is what happens. Are you sure you don’t want someone else to do this interview? Because I’ve already brought it round to poo.
DB: Don’t you try and take credit for that, I did that. That was me.
HB: Oh no, you did do that. Okay, no that’s fine. I should have moved on.
DB: No, it’s fine. I should have moved on.
HB: So you’ve had this poo. Six on the Bristol scale.
DB: I mark it off on the chart that I keep in the bathroom.
DB: Okay, so a normal day, if it’s a teaching week, I will normally wake up at about half past 5:00, six o’clock-ish. If my daughter wakes me up earlier, it will be anywhere between 3:00 and 6:00.
HB: Good god!
DB: Naturally I’ll just wake up at 6:00 anyway. That’s my normal time to wake up, and that’s been the same as long as I can remember. I wasn’t the teenager that could stay in bed or anything. I’ve always been an itchy, restless, get up and do things kind of guy. I’m either awake or asleep. I can’t doze.
HB: Strange man you are.
DB: Yeah, I know this is unusual, and I don’t get comfortable very easily, and I don’t relax very well either. So I’ll get up, and the first thing I’ll do is, I’ll check my emails and I’ll check my Twitter, because I have a problem. Like all of us, we all have a problem with this.
HB: I think that’s the first stage, is admitting it.
DB: That’s right! So I admit I’ve got a problem, so I’ll check my emails. Then if they’re important I’ll answer them, straight away. If they’re not important… I’ve got this amazing new mail app, called Mailbox on my iPhone. You know when you’re normally answering email… sorry, this is maybe going off topic, but it’s been a big thing for me.
HB: That’s fine.
DB: And it’s really recent.
HB: We can edit out if it goes really boring.
DB: It might… might edit it out. Might keep it in, I don’t know. It’s going to sound like I’m being sponsored by them or something, but it lets you say, ‘Okay, this is important, but I’m not doing it now.’ So you, sort of, swipe it around and say, ‘Remind me this afternoon, tomorrow evening, do this.’
HB: That sounds amazing.
DB: Then it disappears. So it’s still there, and tomorrow afternoon it pops back into your thing saying, ‘Hello, answer me!’ And you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I do have time now.’
HB: That’s fantastic!
DB: I know!
HB: Could you get the same thing with your dishes and the laundry?
DB: Children. They’re not old enough to do them yet.
HB: Do children have a snooze button? I’m not sure.
DB: No! No they don’t! So I’ll check my emails, and if they’re really important I’ll answer them. If they’re something that can wait till later, I’ll set them to remind me later to do them. I’ll get up and have a cup of coffee and check my work emails, and important things, I’ll answer then. I leave for work at half past 7:00. I drive 35 miles to work each day, and then 35 miles home again. So on the way to work I’ll listen to an audio book, or a podcast, or something interesting. I don’t tend to listen to music in the car.
HB: Do you not?
DB: Nope. Not really. I’ve got to be in the mood.
HB: What kind of audio books? What kind of podcasts?
DB: I’m listening to the Malcolm Gladwell book about David and Goliath at the moment, and a bunch of funny podcasts. There’s lots of funny podcasts on the Maximum Fun Network, which I thoroughly recommend. Serial. I know we were nerding out about it.
HB: We were discussing earlier.
DB: So, I’ll get to work for about half past 8:00, and I start teaching at 10:00, so I start doing all of my boring admin work between half 8:00 and 10:00. This is really boring. 10:00 till 4:00 or five o’clock I’m teaching, so it’s a really mixed, varied bag depending which group I’m with, what we’re doing. We could be talking typography, we could be doing…
HB: So what kind of age group do you teach?
DB: People from 18 upwards basically. It’s a degree course.
HB: Oh excellent. They all want to be there.
DB: Yes. So I’ll teach till 4:00 or five o’clock. Finish up emails and things at the end of the day. Drive home, again listening to more podcasts, copyright, trademark.
HB: Nice, nice.
DB: Get home. We’ll have dinner. I’ll put the kids to bed. If MasterChef is on, I’ll watch MasterChef. If not, I’ll work on any of the numerous freelance jobs I’ve got going at the moment, and then go to bed for about, I guess, ten and a half…
HB: Ten minutes?
DB: [laughs] Yes, ten…
HB: For about ten minutes.
DB: Ten and a half minutes.
HB: Just long enough to recharge, and then up again. So you do freelance work as well. So you do the teaching, you do the podcasting, you do your own comics, and you do the freelancing, and you have a family.
HB: A young family.
HB: Good god. I suddenly feel really lazy. I hope everyone else listening to this is suddenly feeling really lazy as well, because shit.
DB: But the thing is, young parents will emphasise with this and everyone else will say, ‘Oh shut up.’ That’s the way it is, I understand what it is to be a young parent and talk about what it’s like to have kids, but having kids really makes you understand how many hours there are in the day, and how much time there is to do stuff. I’ve had two experiences where I’ve been given the benefit of finding out how long an hour is and how long things take. I worked in a creative job in a marketing agency, in my life previous to being an educator.
HB: Oh really?
DB: Yeah. You know, it was your standard design stuff, but it was really hard work, really intense. It wasn’t a good job. I didn’t have a good boss, and I ended up being hospitalised with stress because we were doing… I think the longest week I did was, like, 86 hours or something insane like that, without breaks as well. It was really horrible. So I ended up being hospitalised for stress and quitting the job and just never looking back. Like, ‘Oh god, it was horrible.’
HB: Bloody hell.
DB: That kind of workload is not sustainable at all, and it’s really nasty, and it was a very unpleasant time, but it gives you a really, really good understanding of what you can do in one hour. Sitting down and thinking, ‘Right, in this hour I’m going to achieve this. I’m going to do this. I’m not going to check Facebook. I’m not going to look at Twitter. I’m not going to do any of these things, and just do this one thing for a while.’ You can get loads done.
HB: You’re really super disciplined.
DB: No! It doesn’t feel that way.
HB: No? It sounds like you are. I’ve lost whole hours to Twitter. Bloody, bloody Twitter.
DB: I just think I’m not very good at it. I think I’m quite good…
HB: Well that’s clearly not true.
DB: I don’t think there’s such a thing as multitasking, and I think the people who say they can multitask are filthy liars. I don’t believe them at all. I think that you can dedicate your time and energy on one thing, and do it really well for a limited amount of time. But if you’ve got 12 things to do at any one time, you stretch out that amount of ability across 12 things and it gets spread really thing. So I’ll do Twitter for X amount of time, and then step away and have to do something else. I can’t do two things at the same time. I’m not good enough to do that.
HB: You say this Dan, but I can see on the screen here, I can see that you’re doing this podcast and you’re making a small mini comic at the same time.
DB: No I’m not. What are you talking about? I’m not doing that at all! [laughs]
HB: It’s just out of shot, and I believe that you could be. It’s the only way I can understand your time.
DB: I was drawing before we started recording, but I should have been doing something else.
DB: Yeah, I should have been editing a different podcast.
HB: Drinking port.
DB: I’m drinking white port at the moment, because it’s Christmas.
HB: White port. Very specific. [laughs] ‘Tis the season. It would be rude not to.
HB: I think Jesus likes white port. Wasn’t that him?
DB: Oh he loves it. He loves it!
HB: He loved a little bit of white port. It was his favourite thing. I think that’s actually why he came back after he died.
HB: Just a little… a last little dram.
DB: A little snifter.
HB: Is that bad to be faintly blasphemous? It wasn’t anything bad. He loves it.
DB: No, he’s fine. He loves everyone, and everything.
HB: How did you get started in comics in the first place, because you were in advertising. Were you doing comics at the same time?
DB: I was starting to try and do comics. I think that I started getting into comics as we know it, as I know it now, as the industry that is the loose collection of people connected by Twitter and a handful of events… I don’t think I really knew what that was until 2007, 2008 or so. I don’t think I did my first show till later than then. I can’t remember the year. I was drawing comics from, I think about 2002, 2003, or thereabouts, but they were terrible and nobody will ever see them.
HB: Oh, come on!
DB: I don’t have them! I’ve literally thrown them away. I’m not sentimental at all about things like that.
HB: What were they about? Do you remember?
DB: Yeah. For a long time it was me trying to be Chris Ware, because obviously, you know, you read Chris Ware…
HB: We’ve all been through that stage.
DB: …and you’re like, ‘Oh Jimmy Corrigan’s the best on the planet, and I love it, and I’m going to learn how to draw with a brush.’ I went through a long phase of that, and I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know anybody, because I was literally just doing these in my flat and thinking, ‘Cor, wouldn’t it be great if… if.’ I don’t know what I was thinking, to be honest. I was embarrassingly old to be so naïve.
HB: You wouldn’t have been that old in 2003, would you?
DB: Early 20s.
HB: That’s alright, isn’t it? That’s still…
DB: I hope so.
HB: That’s when you dabble with your career. That’s when you can play around.
DB: Yeah, that’s true.
HB: I think anything up until 39, I think, is the age when you can…
DB: [laughs] Sorry listeners age 39 and above.
HB: Give or take.
DB: So, I’d been messing around with doing comics, and I’d done a bunch of small mini comics. I found out if you took a sheet of A4 and made a cut down the middle and folded it in a certain way, you could make a book. And I remember that exploded my mind. I remember thinking, ‘I’m a publisher. I can make books. I’m a publisher. This is amazing.’ I felt powerful, but I didn’t know what to do with them. So I literally went to the local Waterstones bookshop and put them inside books that I thought other people might like. So I found copies of Black Hole, by Charles Burns and put them inside.
HB: That’s brilliant!
DB: I don’t know if I’d say it was brilliant. I felt…
HB: Do you still employ this model of distribution?
DB: No, my books are too thick now. They’re just marginally too thick to actually fit inside a different book. I have to rethink a few things, perhaps. That was it basically. That’s how I got in to drawing them. I really like drawing them. I think that I feel like I can prove that I really liked it, because no one was watching and no one ever read them. Like, my wife would read them and go, ‘Hmm.’ It’s like, ‘Okay, well these need to be better then, I suppose.’ And that was good, I think.
HB: Had you been doing them since you were very small, since you were young as well? Did you draw them when you were a kid?
DB: I remember I used to copy Asterix and Tintin stories. I remember drawing Asterix’s feet and thinking that he only had one toe on each foot, because he had that weird nubbin at the end of his…
HB: Yeah, that’s weird, isn’t it? Not sure about the nubbin. It’s a little bit like a hamster’s arse.
DB: That was exactly what I was going to say next! It’s exactly like that.
HB: [laughs] Hey, great Berrys!
DB: [laughs] And the eight-year-old me, definitely thought that.
HB: It’s not right, is it? It’s not right.
DB: No. It’s forgivable. They’re great books, I really enjoyed them.
HB: So you were reading Asterix and Tintin when you were younger, obviously. Were you reading Calvin and Hobbes, because your son is called Calvin?
DB: My son is called Calvin, yeah. Yep, I used to read Calvin and Hobbes as well. Very much liked Calvin and Hobbes.
HB: And your daughter’s called Hobbes I believe, isn’t she?
DB: My daughter’s called Bill.
DB: You know, my wife and I very much like Calvin and Hobbes and when he was born we had one girl’s name… no, we had a few girls’ names I think, and we only had one boy’s name that we could agree on. No, no, we didn’t have any girls’ names, but we only had one boy’s name we could agree on, so we had a boy.
HB: That’s fortunate then, really.
DB: Yeah. I couldn’t remember the… it was the most special day of my life. Of course I remember, so shut up. Yeah, he’s Calvin. Just seemed like the name that suited him.
HB: That’s a fantastic name. I’m a little upset that you got there first, but you know, fair dibs. Fair dibs.
DB: You know, there are other Calvins. Klein, Coolidge.
HB: I can’t think of any others.
DB: There’s Harris.
DB: This is great radio, by the way.
HB: The Calvin with Calvinism. Mr Calvin, the first of all Calvins.
DB: Of course.
HB: That might have been a surname.
HB: I’m revealing my massive ignorance. This is awkward, isn’t it?
DB: Let’s move on.
HB: Let’s move on from that. You’re the same age as me, aren’t you?
DB: I don’t know how old you are.
HB: I’m… ahem, I’m 32.
DB: I’m 33 actually, so no. Miles off.
HB: That’s why you seem slightly ‘maturer’.
DB: I have a better beard, for sure.
HB: You do. Mine’s got a little way to go yet. I’m working on it. I’m working on it Dan!
DB: I trust you. I know you can do this.
HB: Obviously you’re reading the good stuff when you were a kid. Did you have a weird tailing off as well when you hit the teenage years, where there wasn’t really much for us?
DB: Yeah. I had a whole bunch of… because my family was really poor when we grew up. I’ve got three brothers and our family never really earned any money, so all of the comics we’d get in were either charity shop finds, or they’d get donated or something to us. You know, someone would pass something along. So we never had brand new comics, really. Maybe Christmas and birthdays we might get a new Tintin book or something, and it’s pretty good, but by and large it wasn’t a regular occurrence. So books were special. And I had a bunch of old Eagle Annuals, which had a bunch of these action comics and these guys from… like war stories and people who could climb up buildings, you know. It was good fun. I really liked that stuff.
HB: People with square chins.
DB: Very square chins. The squarest of all chins.
HB: You could cut a sandwich around that.
DB: Yes, exactly. You could! You could mould a…
HB: Mould a loaf tin around it?
DB: Yes! That’s exactly what I was thinking. Two minds, one heart. Excellent. But I had some friends who were into comics properly, properly into comics, when I was at school, and I remember feeling that it was just this closed door, because they were all kept in these plastic bags and you weren’t suppose to read them. And if you did read them, you needed to know so much that came before it, that it… it seemed like a really difficult, closed system to get into. So I just stopped bothering really. But then it’s weird, because I don’t think I ever thought of Calvin and Hobbes and Tintin and stuff, as being comics. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all.
HB: No, I think I felt the same way. It seemed outside of that somehow.
DB: You know, Gary Larson’s Far Side as well. It never felt like comics, because it was too funny. I don’t know if that’s right. So I stopped. I stopped reading comics and stopped bothering. I carried on drawing. I’ve always been a doodler. I can’t stop doodling.
HB: I have heard this about you.
DB: Yeah. So when I went to university, I remember going into Magma in Manchester and seeing this weird book, this really big, weird, ornate book, and it was the Quimby the Mouse book that Chris Ware did. I remember being too scared to pick it up and too scared to look through it, because I didn’t want the people who worked there to judge me for picking up a book that clearly wasn’t for me. I don’t know why I thought that. I remember the next time going in and going, ‘I’m just gonna buy this, and I don’t care what’s inside it.’
HB: To hell with it!
DB: To hell with it! I’m just going to buy this book that I’m fascinated by. And I remember, because I was studying design and multimedia design and there’s one strip in it where he’s saying, ‘I hate you, and I don’t even care if you know anymore. That’s just it. That’s just the way I feel, so just shut up,’ and it was something like that, but the way he’d laid out the page is, he forces you to read backwards through the page, and upside down and around in circles, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is real control. In terms of a graphic design point of view, this guy’s exerting incredible control over the person who’s looking at this page. This is incredible!’ This is deeper than anything I’ve been thinking about in terms of design or typography or sequencing before, or storytelling. I remember being very, very impressed that you could get someone to do that. It’s not been something that I’ve been trying to replicate since. I don’t think that that’s necessarily my thing, but it’s very impressive.
HB: You try and exert your will over people in other ways.
DB: Just physically. Just push ‘em around.
HB: People don’t mind that, right? That’s fine.
DB: Spit at them. Things like that.
HB: Yeah. Push them over by the face. That kind of thing.
DB: Yeah, that’s me. That’s me all over.
HB: It’s funny that Chris Ware was the thing that brought you back into comics, because your work is so… is almost the anti-Chris Ware. It’s so far…
DB: Thank you. [laughs] Pause for applause.
HB: You know how everyone loves Chris Ware? Your work is the opposite.
DB: Yeah, you know how everyone loves that stuff. What’s the opposite of that?
HB: [laughs] Reviled! That’s what I’m thinking of.
DB: There we go! My work is universally reviled.
HB: But your work is so loose, and it’s so fluid, and it’s so vibrant. It’s the opposite of Chris Ware’s, which is obviously very, very planned and very orderly. So how do you arrive at that style?
DB: Lots and lots of planning. [laughs] Being very orderly about it, basically. Like I said, I’d always drawn, and I’d always been able to draw. I didn’t draw for a long time, from the age of, I guess, 17 to 20-something. It was half way through my degree that I started drawing comics and figuring these things out, but I’d always been able to fairly accurately represent something. I could draw hands that looked like hands, and I could draw likenesses and things like that with pencil, because that’s what you get taught at school. Draw some pencil drawings. So I was okay with that, and I remember being really dissatisfied with it, because if it doesn’t look absolutely perfect it falls into this weird in-between zone where it’s just ghastly, and it’s not fun to draw, it’s not fun to look at. I remember really, really trying hard to find a different way out of this. I’m a firm believer in doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results is just nuts. You’re an idiot if you do that. Sorry, idiots out there, if you do that. So I always try and find…
HB: You know they’re going to go back and replay this podcast and hope you say something different each time.
DB: [laughs] High five! Pretty good. Well done, Hannah Berry. Here all week!
HB: Thanks, thanks.
DB: I’m jealous now of that joke. So, what was I doing?
HB: If you want, we can cut that out and pretend that you did it.
DB: Thank you, I’ll just drop the pitch a little bit. ‘And that was me that said that, by the way.’ So, I remember being confronted will all these problems while I was trying to draw comics. Like, how do I get the faces to look the same each time? Which, as seasoned professionals such as ourselves, it comes as second nature to us.
HB: [laughs] Of course it does!
DB: But I remember that being the big challenge, the huge, big challenge that I wanted to try and solve with my work. I had to get the faces to look the same each time, and having to be quite analytical about it, and figure out, ‘Okay, so if this is the head, this is where, as a proportion, how far up the head the eyes go. This is how big the nose is, in proportion to this, that and the other.’ Trying to figure it out in a very methodical, scientific way. And then, finding that doing that had such stiff, boring lines. Then thinking, ‘Right, so why have these got stiff boring line? What’s going on here?’ So again, methodically going through it. ‘Oh, maybe it’s the pen I’m drawing with?’ I was doing everything with Fineliner, which is very, very difficult to get an expressive line with.
HB: I need to talk to you about pens, but perhaps we’ll come back to that in a minute.
DB: Sure. Ooh, how much time have you got?
DB: So I’d draw with a brush, because I heard someone used a brush, and then I found that brushes, you can drop them or you can do stupid things with them and let them dry out and they’re ruined, so I found a brush pen. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing! This is a thing that… it has that loose line that I’m looking for, and it does something slightly different. I hear Craig Thompson maybe uses a brush pen. Wow, that’s amazing.’ Looking for that perfect pen. I’ve been very analytical about the way that my work has developed, and I’ve always wanted that feeling that it’s the first time I’ve drawn it, to come out in the work.
HB: Is it the first time you’ve drawn it?
DB: No, no. Very rarely.
HB: It is always planned?
DB: Yeah, fairly fastidiously, really. I leave enough ambiguity in the planning that when I come to draw it, it’s not tracing. It’s getting the rough shapes down.
HB: You don’t use a lightbox.
HB: Oh, you do, but just the loose…
DB: Yeah, my roughs are super rough. Really, worryingly, amateurishly rough looking.
HB: Rougher than an old man’s bottom. No? That does not work, carry on.
DB: Old man… I haven’t sampled enough of…
HB: I mean, smooth as a baby’s bottom. You’d assume that…
DB: Oh okay! Sure, the inverse. Of course yes, that makes sense. I understand now. Yes, exactly, what you said was correct, but I’ve forgotten what I was going to say. So, what I’m trying to do is, because I don’t have an awful lot of time to do anything, a lot of my styles arrived out of being really busy and trying to find a way to cope, doing everything. I figured that my options were, now that I’ve got a big, full time job, and a family, and a commute, and a thing, and a whatsit, my options are give something up, or change something. So I continually do this, change things about the way I work to try and buy more time. For me the drawing bit isn’t a worry anymore. I’m not worried about my drawing like I used to be. I’m fairly confident in my line, I’m confident in the tools I use. I’m really, really boring basically. I use the same paper for everything, so there are no surprises there. I use a pen extensively before I use it for comics, so I know that there’s going to be no surprises, you know, if it goes blobby or catches.
HB: It’s like taming a horse.
DB: Like taming a horse, yeah. Or at least getting to know a horse so it becomes so boring, so dull, that nothing it does can ever surprise you. That’s basically it. Is that the definition of taming? I don’t know.
HB: I don’t know. I don’t like horses very much.
DB: No, me neither.
HB: I’ve not ever tamed a… I mean, insects. You know, when you’re a child and you keep a ladybird in a matchbox, that kind of thing. That’s kind of like taming a horse.
DB: Yes, it’s your command over nature. That’s fine. What was the question?
HB: I’ve completely lost track now! That’s bad question mastering. You wouldn’t get that on a regular Dan Berry podcast.
DB: No, no. This is getting all cut out. [laughs] This is going to be a 15-minute podcast!
HB: [laughs] Some great things we talked about, here’s a summarisation.
DB: What was the question? The question was something about… oh, I was talking about saving time.
HB: Saving time, yes. And changing your style accordingly.
DB: Yeah. And so, a lot of the way I draw now has come out of saving time, so I get more time to spend with my kids, or more time to do extra work or something. I don’t find the actual drawing difficult anymore. The process has become dull and boring, which is good. It’s great. It means it doesn’t get in the way of the ideas or the story that I’m trying to tell. I think that was a trap that I did fall into to begin with, trying to make everything really interesting all the time, and make everything brand new for myself and keep that, sort of, love affair feeling with the art work all the way through. I don’t think that’s really sustainable, and it’s a really good way of making yourself disappointed with your work. Well, for me that was what I found. Accepting that there are portions of it that have to be boring, but there’s an enjoyment to be had in that by itself was really good. You know, it’s really liberating.
HB: You still enjoy it though, right?
DB: Yeah! Oh god yeah, absolutely. Very, very much so.
HB: Did you hear the slight desperation in my voice then? ‘You do, don’t you?’
DB: I do, yeah! I really, really, really enjoy drawing. You get into this, sort of, mental Zen state when everything’s going really well, and I love it. That’s great. It’s a really good feeling. It’s deeply pleasurable. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens often enough that it’s totally worth it.
HB: Is that partly why you do it?
DB: No, because that’s only a recent thing. I think being comfortable enough with the way I work has led onto that, and that’s really nice. Why do I do this? I like the idea with comics, that I can have an idea, I can come up with something, I can write it down and turn it into a bunch of things that then makes that same idea appear inside your head. It’s like telecommunication, you know? It’s really good. You’ve got absolute control about what and how you communicate, and I think that there’s something really delightful about that.
HB: Yeah. That’s gone slightly back to controlling other people, but that’s is part of its charm.
DB: A recurring theme here, isn’t it?
HB: [laughs] Part of its glorious charm!
DB: Oh god. I’m coming across really badly now, aren’t I?
HB: Not at all, not at all. I think people will just be a little bit more cautious around you now.
DB: Yes, guarded.
HB: Be very aware of your mind control. So your stories, even though they’re very… generally they have a light-hearted feel to them, at least initially, but they’re not really, are they?
HB: Well, I had a little read of Carry Me, and I cried. I shed actually tears from my actual face, Dan Berry.
DB: I get that a lot.
HB: You do?
DB: Yeah, I get emails from people saying, ‘Oh, I bought this book off you at this festival, and then I read it on the train home and cried in front of all my friends, you bastard.’ Like, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry!’ And they’re like, ‘No, in a good way!’ And you think, ‘Well, okay. Um, good.’ Yeah, it is a sad story.
HB: I’m pretty sure that when you interviewed me, all those years ago, whenever it was, 2000 and…
HB: I’m pretty sure that we discussed… we’ve talked about writing darkness, and things. Are you drawn to that? Do you have a darkened patch of your soul?
DB: Yeah, of course. I think everyone does. It’s strange because the first few books I did that anyone paid any attention to were funny. At least I think that… I was trying to make them funny. Let’s say that. I know that humour’s subjective, or whatever, but the aim was, ‘Here are some funny books, and you’re going to laugh. Hey!’ You know, everyone likes to laugh, that’s good fun. That probably came… I was thinking a lot about comedy at the time. I used to do stand-up comedy way back when.
HB: Did you?
DB: Oh yes.
HB: I did not know this about you!
DB: Did a bit of stand-up.
HB: You’re a man with a dark past.
DB: Yeah, a chequered history. So, you know, I’m very interested in humour and comedy and I love it. I love laughing and I love a really well told joke and a really nicely constructed thing. I find that fascinating, but I also find the idea of taking a ghost story fascinating, or doing something tragic, or setting up a premise that misdirects you into thinking something else. I’m really interested in storytelling. I’m fascinated by it. Really, really fascinated by it. So I think that because the first few stories I did were funny stories, I made an expectation, ‘Oh, this guy does funny stories.’ Then you do a book like Carry Me, which is not funny. I don’t think there’s anything funny about it at all.
HB: No, not really.
DB: I think it throws people, because they’re like, ‘Oh! This funny guy’s doing something he’s not supposed to do. This is kind of strange.’ With Carry Me specifically, I remember people not knowing how to respond to it, because they knew what to expect with my stories. ‘Oh, it’s going to be funny. The Suitcase is funny. This was funny, this was funny.’ And then, ‘So what am I supposed to do with this now? You want me to cry, do you Dan Berry?’ Like, ‘Well, yeah. Yeah, that’s what I want.’ No it’s not. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.
HB: Does your storytelling, does it have the same kind of meticulous approach as your drawing?
HB: Do you plan it, and plan it, and plan it, and then make it look… because it has the same kind of spontaneity… not spontaneity. That sounds like I’m undermining you, but it’s not laboured, is what I’m trying to say. It doesn’t feel at all laboured.
DB: It is. [laughs] It really is! The process, as it stands is, I’ll have an idea, and I’ll tap it into my phone, into the notes, or I’ll email it to myself, or make a note of it in my sketchbook somehow. You know, as soon as I have an idea, I’ve got to capture it and get it down, and then it’s solid and it’s not going anywhere. If I just think, ‘Oh, well I’ll remember that,’ I won’t. It just dribbles out of my nose while I’m sleeping and it’s gone. So from that initial premise… I mean, a good example to give is Nicholas & Edith, the 24-hour comic I did. It’s a bit of a lie to say it’s a 24-hour comic, because the artwork itself was done in the 24 hours, but the planning was a month before hand.
HB: Is that allowed?
DB: Because I was in charge, yes it is!
DB: Yup. I made the rules there.
HB: The man in control, he has the control.
DB: It was a really, really good experience. It was such a good day. But the initial one… the idea that that started with was a haunted scrapyard. That’s where I started.
HB: Right. So not at all like the story?
DB: No, not at all like the story. The ideas I have… I mean, that one’s a really good example because it went through eight different versions of the scrapyard thing, because I’d gone to a scrapyard to find a part for my wife’s car, and you get this idea like, ‘Oh my god. This is where people have died, because all these cars are smashed up and… oh, is that blood on the seat?’ Like, ieee, this is… so that’s where the story came from.
HB: [laughs] I’m sorry I’m laughing at that. That’s horrific!
DB: Yeah, it’s really horrible.
HB: I’m laughing in fear.
DB: Yes, it’s a natural response. It’s a fight or flight, and you’re fighting it with laughter. So that was where it started and it will go through a whole bunch of variations, until it got to the point where I realised it wasn’t about ghosts chasing someone, it was about people coming to terms with the fact that they’re the cause of their own problems. They don’t just, sort of, pop out and then turn into artwork, and I’d love it if they did. I really would. If I’m honest, that would be ideal. Just pop out an idea, ‘Whee.’ Pop out as artwork, ‘Oh, done!’ You know, I could do two of these a week. It’d be brilliant. But it is a fairly laboured process. So it will start on my phone as a note, and then I find that if I wake up at 4:00 in the morning, you have this ideas furnace inside your head, and you start by feeding it these little twigs and then the flames get bigger. Then at 4:00 in the morning, providence comes and lands with this great big log that it piles into your head furnace.
HB: Are we going back to the Bristol scale again?
DB: We are, yeah. It’s a 17B, and it ignites this frenzy of activity where you can’t do anything but. It’s 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning, you have to get up and write this down quickly, immediately because, ‘Oh Christ, this fire’s burning hot and I’ve got to get on with it. Ahh! Now, now, now. Quick!’ But I don’t get that until I’ve done all the boring work at the beginning, where I think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be about this car that falls off this stack of things, blah, blah, blah…’ boring stuff. And then it will go through another version where it’s, ‘Oh, maybe they’ve got a lamp that they take in there, and it’s night-time. The lamp motif got shifted all the way through till the very last version of the story before I drew it, and then realised, ‘Oh, the only reason I’m drawing this is because it was in the first version, and there’s no reason for it in the story, so I’ll cut it out.’ I’m very cold and analytical about the way that the story will develop, but I still need to feel like I’m writing it with a bit of heart, and I don’t know how to describe that.
HB: That makes sense. It makes sense to me.
DB: Phew! Good.
HB: Hopefully for everyone else as well.
DB: I kind of just, blurted out a bunch of stuff and hoped that it sounded about right.
HB: It sounds like you still really… you do enjoy the process as well, of the whole thing.
DB: Yeah, I mean, there’s no bit of the process I don’t find enjoyable anymore. I used to hate lettering, and then I forced myself to do loads and loads of lettering. My handwriting’s terrible by itself.
HB: I didn’t want to say anything.
DB: [laughs] But now, now it’s pretty good because you can train it. You can get better at these things just by practice.
HB: I thought you used a font.
DB: Yeah, it’s based on my handwriting. I taught myself to do that. Part of my freelance job is making people typefaces as well, which is an awful lot of fun, but that activates a different reward centre in your brain, because it’s so cold, clinical, analytical. ‘Must sort out this kerning.’ ‘Mmm, what about this?’ You’ve got to get really nerdy about weights and ems and picas and things like that. It’s good. I like that. But it feeds a different part.
HB: Actually this leads me on quite nicely to pens, your fascination with pens. To try and do some research I’ve been listening to quite a few of the Make It Then Tell Everybody podcasts, and obviously they’re really enjoyable. I’ve noticed you do talk about pens a lot.
DB: Yeah, I love them.
HB: They’re kind of your thing, aren’t they?
DB: Yeah. It goes back again, you know, that analytical, ‘try and find that magic pen’ thing, that I spent a lot of time doing. I’ve spent a lot of money on pens, not to brag. [laughs] But I’ve spent a lot of money on pens over the years, trying to find that one magic pen that will draw bicycles or cars properly.
HB: Have you found it?
DB: No, no.
HB: It’s out there Dan. Don’t lose hope!
DB: I knew that I wanted a flexible line, so I went and used a brush for a while, and then I found that they weren’t practical, so I started using brush pens for a while. Then I found that the Pentel brush pen I was using, it’s got a synthetic tip and it doesn’t quite go exactly the way I want, so I’ll buy one with a sable tip, and it’ll cost an enormous amount of money or something, and I won’t tell my wife about that. Then I’ll just… you know, so it’s been a constant process of slow refinement, to try and find the pen that works best for me. I think I’m starting to find pens that are about right.
HB: Yeah. It’s like your life quest.
DB: It’s kind of a nice, fun little hobby as well.
HB: It must be good come Christmastime as well. I imagine you’re quite good to buy presents for.
DB: No, I’m terrible, because I don’t want anything! I don’t need anything. I’ve got everything I need. I’m terrible to buy Christmas presents for.
HB: People can’t buy you some nice nibs, or some lovely ink?
DB: No, you’ll get it wrong.
HB: Well, I’m glad I don’t have to buy you a present now!
DB: What I’ve found, the overall stories… I was using a Pilot Desk Pen, or a Platinum Desk Pen for a long time. I was doing a lot of my work with this Desk Pen, and I was finding that the nibs were wearing down too quickly. I’ve very heavy handed when I’m drawing, and it’s caused me some problems with my wrist. I smashed my wrist up when I was a teenager. I broke a lot of the small bones inside my wrist, and then when it healed…
HB: How’d you do that?
DB: I fell over backwards.
HB: That’s not as dramatic as I was hoping, I’ll be honest. Can you make something up for the podcast?
DB: I got shot.
HB: I knew it. I knew it. Drive-by in Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury? Shrowsbury?
DB: I live in Shrewsbury, because I’m from the other side of the river.
HB: Is that the definition?
DB: Shrowsbury is where the rich people live.
HB: Oh! Shrowsbury! [laughs]
DB: Yeah, mmm. Anyway, I smashed my wrist and then it was in plaster for eight weeks or something, and then it healed and I got it out of plaster and then I had a compression fracture on this bone here. My right distal radius. I don’t know if you can see if I hold my hands up, my hands are actually on wonky. This hand doesn’t fit on, because one of my bones is shorter than the other one.
HB: For anyone that can’t see this video clip, Dan’s got a massively wonky hand.
DB: Yeah, it’s just not on straight, but it’s my drawing hand.
HB: There’s a kind of pen that shoots out from his wrist, I think?
DB: Yeah, kind of like Wolverine.
HB: Like Wolverine, but nibbier.
DB: Nibbier! [laughs] Something like that. So I smashed it again, it healed, and then I broke it again. I fell over in the snow and smashed it up. It healed weird and wrong, so I had to have an operation to take out bits of bone from inside my wrist. I’m just going to try and make this noise into the microphone. If you’re really squeamish, I really apologise. [cracking]
DB: That’s the sound of my wrist, just moving.
HB: Well that is horrifying.
DB: I had a long time rehabilitating my wrist, really. So I couldn’t use it very well. I can’t bowl, because my hand’s not on straight. It’s gutter ball every time.
HB: You aren’t missing anything.
DB: I don’t think so.
HB: Bit boring, really.
DB: I mean, they get pretty snazzy shoes I guess, but that’s about it. So, I’ve had these problems with my hand, but I don’t think I’ve got quite the range of motion that everyone else does. So I was trying to find a pen that was comfortable to use and gave me the kind of lines I wanted. I was using this Pilot Desk Pen, which is quite a nice pen, and you can get a fairly variable line with it, and it’s easy to stick in your pocket. It’s quite long, so it sticks out, but it was alright. I was on my way to pick up my kids from the nursery that they go to, and I was early. I had an hour to kill, and in Shrewsbury there’s a pen shop called Write Here.
HB: Oh, nice!
DB: Wait, wait! You think that’s nice? It used to have a kite portion of it, so it used to be called Write Here Kite Now.
DB: Yeah, it’s pretty good. But the people there are lovely and I thoroughly recommend you go and see them, but I went in just having a look around. They do stationary things as well, and there was a guy sat at the back at this table who is a pen merchant, and he customises pens. So I just got talking to him, and he was saying, ‘So what do you do?’ We talked about these pens, and I showed him my Pilot Desk Pen that I was very proud of, and it cost me however much money. He was like, ‘Ah, that’s garbage. Garbage. Put it away, that’s disgusting! I hate that pen! Rah, rah, rah, these pens are useless. What you need is this, this, this.’ And this guy new exactly what he was talking about, and he knew exactly what I was trying to find, and he knew everything. And he knew everything about me! It was like going to visit a fortune teller.
HB: Did you go back to the site the next day and the shop had disappeared? There’s just a little ring of mushrooms.
DB: He had disappeared!
HB: He had disappeared, leaving a ring of mushrooms.
DB: Little puff of smoke and a ring of mushrooms. It was really good. So, from there I started looking into vintage fountain pens. They don’t make fountain pens with flexible nibs any good anymore. So, my pen of choice is this one here. This is a Stylomine 303, from the 1930s.
HB: Dan is holding up a beautiful pen.
DB: This one’s got an 18 carat gold nib.
HB: Wow, that is a shiny nib!
DB: Yeah, and it gives you a really lovely, flexible line, and there’s a bunch of them. These ones are really difficult to find and they’re really expensive, but there’s a whole bunch of other pens that have these flexible nibs. This one is a Peyton Street Pens Soquel Ebonite, with an Eversharp 14 carat nib, which is pretty good. I like this one a lot. So I’ve gone on this interesting little adventure, trying to find pens that have the kind of line that I want, that don’t have the impact on my wrist that makes it painful to draw. It’s been great, really fun!
HB: Like an odyssey, like a pen odyssey. Penodyssy.
DB: It’s weird, because a lot of the pens that you find, because they’re almost 100 years old, some of them, they need reconditioning. So, you can buy them fairly cheap. You can get them reconditioned already, but they’re unspeakably expensive. I’m buying these junk pens from pen fairs and eBay and places, and I’ve had to learn how to put them back together and to recondition them, and to polish the nibs and grind them, and put them back together, and that’s been really fun. I really like doing that.
HB: This is a thing that you do between 3:00 and 3:30am, every morning.
DB: Yeah, something like that. Yes.
HB: That portion of your day.
DB: Yeah, basically. I like pens. They’re the tool I use most frequently. I think getting them right is a good thing.
HB: Do you have a pen like this one? I don’t know if you can see this, probably not.
DB: Oh, it’s a French biro.
HB: My friend gave it to me. I don’t know if you can see, it’s a Bic Cristal for Her.
DB: Oh, finally a pen for ladies!
HB: That’s right, it’s a biro for ladies. [laughs] For my delicate lady hands.
DB: Finally. That’s what I think, finally.
HB: Actually the other thing that I quite liked, listening to your podcast, was noticing that our last conversation, there was a little ‘E’ for explicit next to it. It’s lovely.
DB: Because you drop an awful lot of swear bombs.
HB: I’ve got a bit of a potty mouth.
DB: A little, yeah.
HB: Sorry. Sorry about that. I’ll try and rein that in.
DB: Well, on the podcast I don’t swear generally.
HB: But you do normally, don’t you?
DB: Yeah. You know! You know for sure I love to drop them. In the first few I didn’t. I just didn’t, I can’t remember why, and then someone pointed it out, and now I’ve got stage fright. And I think, ‘Well, I can’t start now! This is 100 episodes.’ It would just be weird to start now.
HB: If you want to beep out my swearing then…
DB: I’m going to have to, basically. I’m really going to have to. It’s disgusting, it sickens me.
HB: Just make a little quacking noise over it, or something.
HB: When you started Make It Then Tell Everybody, what was your goal? What was your purpose? What was your aim for that? Was it just to have a chat to all your friends? Because you’re, kind of, in the middle of the comicking community. You know everyone.
DB: I think I know a lot of people. I don’t know if I know everyone.
HB: Everyone. Well, everyone says they know you.
DB: Sure, everyone.
HB: You’re probably pretending you don’t know them, but they know you.
DB: Everyone likes to drop that brag, I suppose. Ah, shut up Dan. What was I trying to do when I started? When I started it was literally trying to find something useful for people to get from comics. It’s going back to teaching and having people who lack confidence, or they don’t know what they’re talking about. Talking to someone, finding out that someone else is having the exact same problems as you are is really gratifying, and I find that really useful. There’s lots of comics podcasts out there, and there weren’t very many that were getting into the detail that I wanted to find out. I’m a really firm believer in, you don’t get to complain about something if you don’t try and do something about it. Lizz Lunney asked me to host some panel discussions at the Eye Candy Festival in Birmingham, which is an illustration festival, and there was the Birmingham Zine Festival running alongside it. So we did these panel discussions at the Hippodrome in Birmingham. My brother runs a podcast. He’s done things for Radio 4, the BBC and all sorts, with Johnny Vegas and people like that. You know, darling.
DB: So he had this equipment to record podcasts, and his podcast, it was doing very well actually.
HB: What’s his name for listeners who want to find him?
DB: Simon Berry, and his podcast is Tim and Simon. If you search for ‘Tim and Simon’ on iTunes you’ll find him. Very funny. So he came along and recorded it. I don’t even think that the idea initially was we were going to podcast them, but he was excited about podcast and I’d been listening to a lot of podcasts as well. I didn’t really know how they worked, and so he just talked me through it and walked me through it, and I was like, ‘Oh, these are easy!’ And he was like, ‘Yeah. That’s alright.’
HB: Wait, are you sure you want to say that? Because people will be listening and people might start doing their own.
DB: That’s fine.
HB: Is that fine?
DB: The actual, physical process of doing a podcast is easy. The difficult bit is affording equipment, but if you’ve got a laptop you’ve got the equipment. The difficult bit is finding the hosting and paying for that, which isn’t difficult. The really difficult bit is trying to make something good. It’s really, really easy to do a really shoddy job.
HB: Yeah. I’m struggling at the moment, to be honest.
DB: I mean, I was alluding to that of course, you know.
HB: I got that. There’s a look of distain you’ve had since I started talking. That’s what is cutting me most.
DB: It’s my wrinkled nose, isn’t it?
HB: Yeah! [laughs]
DB: Turned up nose.
HB: God, the horror.
DB: So that was basically where the show came from. It’s Lizz Lunney’s fault, basically.
HB: I thought as much! How’s she doing in Germany by the way? It’s a little aside.
DB: Pretty good I think. I’ve not been to visit her. I don’t know. I’m going to assume great.
HB: Well good. I hope so. If you’re listening Lizz, get in touch!
DB: Hey Lizz, drop us a line.
HB: Are you interviewing people that you want to interview? How do you choose people that you talk to?
DB: I’ve got two or three ways of trying to figure out who I want to talk to. The first is, I like them and I’m interested in them, and I think that’s important. That’s really important for me, for the sake of keeping me interested. So if I like them, and if I think they’re interesting. If I think the work is really good as well. You know, that’s really good.
HB: That helps. If you can contain the contempt, that’s pretty good.
DB: Exactly, and a mixture of the two is also ideal. If it’s people that I don’t know… I do know quite a few people now, but if it’s people I don’t know, but whose work I know and very much admire, I’ll see if they want to talk to me. Most times people do.
HB: I would be surprised if they wouldn’t.
DB: I get a few nos, of course.
HB: Do you?
HB: Idiots. Don’t talk to them again.
DB: It’s absolutely fine. Everyone is so busy, and not everyone has time for this, and I’m basically asking for an hour or two of someone’s very busy workday, and not everyone has that to give. It’s fine.
HB: Well, more fool them, really. More fool them.
DB: No, it’s fine. It’s absolutely fine.
HB: No, it’s not fine. I’m angry on your behalf.
DB: Well, if you’ve got a message that you want to…
HB: I want you to give me their names and addresses after this.
DB: I’ll send you a list of emails. Mmm, I won’t.
HB: No, no. Since you’ve been doing comics… wait, was it 2007? We established that was when you officially came on the scene?
DB: No, I think it was later than that.
HB: Came on the Waterstones scene?
DB: Oh, the Waterstones scene? Yeah, like 2006, 2005. The Waterstones scene. My books were first in Waterstones in 2005, 2006. Yes, there we go.
HB: So, since your appearance on the scene in Waterstones in 2006, something like that, the comic scene has changed pretty dramatically since then, hasn’t it? I don’t know if I’m allowed to call it the ‘indie’ scene or ‘small press’. After listening to the Stephen Holland interview that you did with him, I don’t think he approves those phrases and I don’t want to… you know, he knows what he’s talking about. I don’t want to go against his wishes.
DB: The comics scene in the UK.
HB: Yeah, the bit that we’re in, that doesn’t involve tights.
DB: Independent comics.
HB: Are we though? Is it?
DB: I’m independent.
HB: Well I’m… I’m independent, well am I? I’m not though, am I?
DB: You work for big comics.
HB: I know!
DB: You work for the man himself.
HB: I’m working for the man.
DB: Jonathan Cape himself. Independent my bottom, Hannah! So what have I seen changing?
HB: Yeah, how has the change affected you? What are your views on it?
DB: The first few things I did, the first things at the UK Web and Mini Comix Thing, my first show where I shared a table with Joe List, I had a couple of hand photocopied, black and white, hand stapled things. There was a brand new service where you could order a newspaper from this company, and you could get these newspapers, so I’d done this dinosaur comic and I printed it as a newspaper, and it had 40 something pages or whatever, and I was ever so proud of myself. So for the first year or two that I was doing things there were lots and lots of hand photocopied, hand stapled stuff around, and that’s great and I like that stuff. The book I did recently, The End is basically that, but to the best of my abilities.
HB: Lovely, lovely screen printed…
DB: Oh yes, with metallic inks and all sorts.
HB: Oh, that was nice. Shiny! Can’t go wrong with the shiny!
DB: But it’s exactly the same principle. It’s photocopied, stapled, it’s just nicer. I measure things and make sure everything’s nice and neat and I’ve got a really nice guillotine. Anyway, I’m boring myself now.
HB: No, no. Carry on.
DB: No, no. Carry on, and tell us everyone before you…
DB: You know, the ease of producing things has increased incredibly. You can get a really, really professional looking thing printed fairly cheaply. If you’ve got a few hundred pounds to spend on a print run, you can have something that looks really, really nice, and you can sell it for more than the print run cost. That’s astonishing. So the ease of actually producing things has increased like crazy. Being able to send a PDF to a printer and have it come back, literally days later, is amazing! Twitter has been a big thing. Twitter has…
HB: Yeah. Sweet mother Twitter.
DB: Sweet mother Titter, you know!
DB: Dr Freud!
HB: Or Twitter! That was a Freudian slip.
DB: It really was! Oh geeze, oh dear. So anyway…
HB: This is very silly.
DB: We’ve gone in too deep, haven’t we?
HB: Shall we go back to talking about poo again?
DB: We better had, yeah. Twitter’s meant that people can get connected, and people weren’t as connected when we started doing this. I think if you’ve got a bunch of people doing really interesting, creative stuff, and those really interesting creative people can get to see all the other stuff that everyone’s doing all the time, I think what it’s done is it’s caused everyone to raise their game. Because you’re not aspiring to be better than the last thing that you did, you’re aspiring to be better than the last thing that, ‘Oh god, that guy over there who’s going to be sat opposite me at Thought Bubble,’ is doing. I don’t know if it’s a conscious, competitive thing, but it’s accumulative effect. The idea that you become the average of the people that surround you, and if the average of the people that surround you is higher than your ability, then you rise to meet it. I think that’s really, really fascinating. That’s been a big thing for me. Seeing people come into things, and right off the bat having these incredibly produced, super slick packages. They make banner rolls on their stands at Thought Bubble and custom printed tablecloths or whatever, and it’s their first time. You’re like, ‘God, I’m getting left behind! I don’t know anything anymore.’ You understand that there are people that you’ve never heard… I mean, the weirdest thing about comics now for me, is that there are a bunch of islands, and doing the podcast has meant that I get to visit a few of these different islands. When I started there was, as far as I knew, there was like, 20 people in the UK that were doing comics. Even when I started the podcast I didn’t think I’d get to 100.
DB: Because there weren’t that many people to speak to. I literally worried…
HB: I was just feeling really proud that you said that effectively you interviewed me because you liked me and my work. Now you’re saying there’s not… there just weren’t enough…
DB: Just no other choices. I was scraping the barrel.
HB: Yeah, you ran out of people! [laughs]
DB: No, no. Literally not…
HB: My ego just came crashing right down.
DB: You know, the first couple I remember thinking, ‘Right, okay. So how long can I reasonably do this? If I do one a week, I reckon I can do it for, hmm, two years I guess?’ I remember seriously thinking that I can’t go much more than that, because I don’t think there’s that many people to interview. Doing it means that, you know, I talk about this idea of islands, and I think I was living on this one little island where there might have been 100 people that knew each other and talked to each other on Twitter. Now, because I’ve been afforded the ability to go off and visit other islands of other 100 people, doing other 100 people things, I’m like, ‘Oh my Lord, this is enormous!’ And there are loads and loads of people doing it. There was an article I read a little while ago, this idea that comics festivals, it’s the same pound or the same dollar that gets passed around from every creator, and it’s a closed system and that there’s no money coming in, and no one’s going to ever make any money from it.
HB: Well that’s depressing.
DB: It is! It’s very depressing, but I don’t think it’s true at all.
DB: I think that what comics doesn’t do particularly well is evangelise its good points and get more people in. I think the way that we tend to evangelise about comics is by saying, ‘Oh, no, no. It’s not just for kids. Honestly no, it’s not just for kids.’
HB: No, no. I think what we actually say is, ‘Kapow is not just for kids.’
DB: ‘Hey, no, no, no, it’s not just for kids.’ And you think, ‘Oh, Christ.’ It’s a bit like saying to someone, ‘Do you want a lift in my car? I’m a really good driver, honestly. No honestly, I’m a really, really good driver. I’ve barely crashed ever. Never crashed really. A couple of times I crashed, but honestly no. Just get in my car, it’s fine! Just get in my car!’ And that’s what we do. It doesn’t fill anyone with confidence.
HB: There’s a strip club in Brighton. I think it’s a strip club, something like that called Top Totty. If you have to say it, they’re probably not are they? Probably not.
DB: [laughs] It’s like having a taxi firm called ‘World’s Best Drivers, I Promise’. Mmm mmm, real good driving. Anyway, please carry on. Please interview me.
HB: It’s funny, because I was reading… you very kindly sent me some of your stuff to read, but I hadn’t read all of your stuff before. A lot, I’d read what I could get my hands on, but not everything. I’d never read Onion Soup before.
DB: That’s an old one.
HB: It’s very old, yeah. It doesn’t look like your stuff from now. But it’s funny, because it, sort of, sums you up perfectly I think, in that it’s you having this… how’d it work? It was you having a Twitter conversation with people. Is that right?
DB: Yep. While I was cooking onion soup.
HB: Were you actually cooking onion soup at the same time?
DB: Yes, definitely.
HB: Oh right, okay.
DB: Yeah, there was no artifice there. That is the timeline of events as they happened.
HB: It’s like a lovely chat with some very silly effects. I thought before I summed it up in that way, that that summed you up, but now I’ve said it in that way that’s…
DB: I’ve got a deep dark soul, with a twisted wrist… or something. That’s what I put on my business cards anyway.
HB: [laughs] Twisted Wrister. No.
DB: That’s my tribute band. We’ll talk about that next interview.
HB: Didn’t you used to be in a band as well? Did I imagine that?
DB: Yeah, I played in bands, punk and metal band or hardcore bands from the age… actually, I played my first gig before I ever went to one. I think I was 13, in this working men’s club for a battle of the bands thing.
HB: Did you win?
DB: No! No, no. We played an awful lot of battle of the bands things, and we never, never won anything.
DB: It was good fun!
HB: It’s the taking part really. In a way, you were winning just by taking part.
DB: I like to think so. That’s the story I tell myself.
HB: So what does the future hold for Dan Berry?
DB: I’ve got a few things that I’m working on at the moment. I’ve been drawing some foxes.
HB: I’ve seen your foxes on your blog.
DB: Yeah, I like them. They’re really good fun to draw, and they talk to me. I don’t mean it in, like, a crazy way. Like, ‘Oh, they talk to me!’ But I mean, the characters feel natural while I’m drawing them. There are certain ways of drawing them and certain things that they do that feel intuitive and natural and normal. So I think that’s a good sign that they’re a thing that I’m going to do something with. So I’ve been planning out a story with them. It might be a long one, don’t know yet. Probably will be a long one. It might be something else, don’t know. I’m working on a thing that is real close to being announced, but I can’t announce it just yet.
HB: Oh, we’ve timed this badly, haven’t we?
DB: Yeah, super bad! Oh, it’s just the worst! So that’ll be 100 and something pages probably, if it comes up. That’s pretty good.
HB: That is long. How long was The Suitcase?
DB: 50 pages.
HB: Okay, that’s way off.
DB: Yeah, tiny. Tiny! Miniscule! I’ve not really done much long form stuff, so I’m interested in getting my teeth into something much longer.
HB: Something meatier and foxier.
DB: Yes, something fox meatier.
HB: [laughs] Hmm, fox meat.
DB: [smacking lips] Yum… I think.
HB: I think we might be running out of time. I think we might have overrun quite a…
DB: Yeah, significantly.
HB: Must do some serious editing, yeah.
DB: There’s going to be people sat in their cars on their driveway, families screaming in the house…
HB: Yeah, waiting in the doorway.
DB: But they won’t stop until we finish talking!
HB: [laughs] They should probably turn off the ignition and go in now I think. I think it’s time.
DB: Probably, yeah. What a note to end on.
HB: Well, have you got any final things to add?
DB: Just go and buy my books.
HB: Oh yeah, buy all the books.
DB: Go to my website and buy my books. Someone told me off at Thought Bubble for never saying on the podcast that I’ve got my own books to sell.
HB: It is quite silly.
DB: I don’t say it, but you’ve got to remember now that what I’m doing is I’m building a shop front for the people that I’m interviewing, not for myself. This isn’t about me, it’s about the people I’m talking to.
HB: Well now it’s all about you.
DB: Seeing as I am now the… you know, the tables have turned dear listener.
HB: Now the worm is on the other foot.
DB: Here’s the things I want you to do. I want you to go and buy my books. Go and buy them from my website so I get all the money from them. I want you to commission me to do your drawing. Oh, they’re very affordable. I was going to say cheap, I mean they’re affordable.
HB: And high quality too I believe.
DB: Of course! Go to the Patreon site for the podcast and help me pay for everything. That’s really nice, strength in number, micropayments. You know, give me one dollar per episode, 5,000 people, that would change my life. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
HB: It would be great to be able to finish off that gold laminated wall that’s behind your head there.
DB: I know! I know! And my throne…
HB: Just a little bit more gold leafing. Just a little bit more. So close. And there’s that throne you’ve made out of pens. It’s not going to make itself.
DB: Patreon.com/makethentell. Follow me on Twitter. I’m incredibly funny on Twitter. @thingsbydan on Twitter.
HB: True, I laugh at you constantly.
DB: With me.
DB: With me.
HB: With… with you. With you.
DB: A little sample there, for the uninitiated. It’s pretty good. It’s pretty good stuff. I feel like I’ve overstepped the boundary. I’ve become quite churlish.
HB: Yeah, that’s what happens at the end. You get a little bit cocky. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I own this stage. It’s mine now.’
DB: Yeah, I don’t want to leave. I’ve got to.
HB: I’ve got to go. I’m going to go. I’m off now.
DB: Thank you.
HB: Dan Berry, it’s been a massive pleasure. Thank you for talking to me!
DB: Thank you for having me.
I get asked questions occasionally about the process of making comics. I’ve passed this particular question on to a handful of the people I’ve interviewed for them to answer, and I’ll post up more as they come in.
How do you make the faces look the same from panel to panel?
I remember this being a big concern of mine when I started drawing comics, and I get asked this pretty frequently. Probably more of a concern that actually telling a story if I’m honest. I think this is a question that gets asked a lot because it is so apparent when the characters don’t look consistent. Here’s how John Allison, Viv Schwarz, Glyn Dillon and Sarah Glidden tackled this topic;
I’m not sure I ever worked this out in a scientific way. When I was a kid, I drew Transformers comics, and because I was a kid who liked the toys, I knew where all the different bits of their faces went. Optimus Prime had that barn door over his mouth, Jazz and Blaster had visors over their eyes, Shockwave had a hexagon head. Their blocky appearance made getting all those bits in line easier.
I think that’s still what I do. I know what shape a character’s face is, what shape their nose is, what kind of eyes they have, and I put them in the same place each time. And I know that if I don’t properly work out a new character today, and try to draw them several times in the same comic, they don’t look the same each time. It’s not magic, you just get better at copying yourself.
I draw my characters without worrying too much beyond a simple set of rules about their individual proportions, concentrating more on their stance and expression. Then I check all the drawings, comparing them carefully and correct them in Photoshop where they are too far off.
I allow myself some room for variation because my characters tend to be a bit amorphous, their whole shape changes with emotion and their features wander a bit – that’s what I’ve observed happens in animals where feathers, fur or loose skin allow for a lot more expressive shape shifting. I am allowing that for my human characters to some extent as well because I think it reads just fine. I’m also making all the characters in any given story look quite different so that they are easy to recognise even if their shape varies a bit.
I couldn’t keep the faces completely consistent anyway because I myself can’t recognise real people by their features and have to memorise their voice, smell, stance, hairstyle and so on instead. I think that actually helps my drawing more than it hinders.
Glyn Dillon (Interview here)
Woodrow Phoenix and Dan Berry talk about the shape of stories, typography, pushing the boundaries of what you can do with comics and an enormous book that you can not buy on Amazon.
Be sure to check out the Make/Tell Patreon campaign and consider donating a dollar or two per episode to help in the production of the show.
John Porcellino and Dan Berry get together to talk about 25 years of King-Cat Comics and Stories, punk rock, style, sickness and health. John also has a new book coming out imminently from Drawn & Quarterly entitled The Hospital Suite and a US tour, so check both out quick as you can!
Please consider joining the Patreon campaign to help support the show. Many people donating small amounts of money makes a huge difference to the production of the show.