An Interview with Dash Shaw
An Interview with Dash Shaw
At the callow age of 23, Dash Shaw has written and illustrated two graphic novels, Love Eats Brains and The Mothers Mouth, a highly acclaimed short story collection, Goddess Head, has seen his work appear in numerous anthologies, and still finds time to play bass in his band, also named Love Eats Brains, and act in various indie film projects. In the insular comics community Shaw has made a name for himself (and a good one it is) by willfully eschewing the mainstream to follow his own decidedly original and peculiar muse.
In person, Shaw is as much an anomaly as his work. He's a former D&D nerd and Boy Scout, who girls fawn over and who emanates a relaxed sense of cool, even while effusing about favorite science fiction movies and the power of self-help courses.
In the following interview, conducted on a typical sweltering day in Charlotte, North Carolina, Shaw talks about the influence of his father, his introduction to alternative comics, his melancholic homecoming, and his music. Oh-and since you were wondering; Dash is his real name.
Interview by Robert Young
You have a very unusual story in that your Dad was making comics with you when you were young. How old were you when that began?
Very, very young. Before I could read actually. My dad would write in the words so it was really early. I don't know what age.
So the visual language of comics was sort of imprinted on you even before you could read?
Yeah, definitely. I think I was lucky or fortunate that I didn't have to fight my parents to get into comics. My dad had a box of underground comics, and he lived on Haight Street for awhile. And I would crawl into that space and look at those books before I should have-age-wise-been exposed to that. (Laughter.)
Do you still have any of the comics you made together?
Yeah, I have some. I have one where I really wanted to see the movie Jaws but he wouldn't let me see it, so he told me the story and I illustrated it.
He thought it was too violent?
Yeah, but my drawings were pretty violent too.
A couple of years ago in a profile on Ninthart.com you said: "I'm not like Crumb, who's constantly drawing on a napkin wherever he goes. I do figure drawings, but I spend more time thinking about comics, the design and everything, more than the actual hand-drawing time." Is the drawing secondary to the concept in your comics?
Usually when I'm sketching, I'm doing small thumbnail layouts for comics. Not casual figures or doodles. It's more preliminary work on comics or an idea for a sequence. I like drawing and figure drawing, it's just my weakness that I'm not one of those people. When I was working on "Echo and Narcissus" in Goddess Head a lot of it involved sitting in my dorm room just thinking of different ways that I could draw the same thing. Because the story is already written for me and it has things like a chase scene in the woods, I had to think about different ways to do it and plan it out. That took more time than the actual putting the ink on the page.
I know early in your career that you were strongly influenced by Paul Pope but you've since deviated far from your early style to a much more utilitarian approach; less flashy, more about servicing the story. To that end I see a Chester Brown influence, but what other artists have influenced you of late?
By far the biggest influence on my regular drawing has been James McMullan's High-Focus Drawing class at SVA. He wrote a book called High Focus Drawing that I recommend to everyone. That class was life changing. Prior to taking that class, my drawing was incredibly insecure. I would try to mask my dead, flat drawings with stylish, brushy strokes, splatters, and other lame tricks. Looking at some of that stuff now makes me choke. Figure drawing is handy for comic drawing, but they're different animals entirely. I like all of the top cartoonists you'd think I would like: Chester Brown, Chris Ware, Richard McGuire, etc. Even naming those few doesn't feel right. The list is too long. My main complaint with a lot of the cartoonists around today is that they're too consistent, too predictable. I understand that it's mature to do the same thing over and over, like the filmmaker Ozu, but I prefer the immature filmmakers who are always trying to reinvent their approach, even if they fall flat on their face sometimes.
What about critical reaction to your comics. It seems to have been overwhelmingly positive, but does it have any effect on your approach?
Most of the criticism has been positive. Some critics don't get why I would choose to draw one way if it's clear I can also draw another way that they find more appealing. Whenever I get an e-mail from someone saying they liked a story I did or have comments about one, or something like that, it's great and means a lot more to me. It really motivates me to get back to the drawing board. I guess it's difficult for me to take most comics criticism seriously. The comics community is so small, which I like, but it makes most of the reviews more like suggested reading. It's rare that there's any intelligent criticism or analysis. It's a shame because I love reading criticism and analysis. I'll regularly pick up a book I've read before just to read a new introduction or afterword, and Ray Carney's "Path of the Artist" essays were very influential to me. The situation is changing, though. There is a small handful of smart comics critics now, and there will be more and more over time. The fluff will move aside.
Can you talk a little about the Meathaus collective and your involvement with them?
Meathaus publishes an anthology that I've contributed to, and they published a comic I did freshman year [at SVA] called Garden Head. They have a great website: www.meathaus.com with a blog and free comics. It's really just a bunch of friends that occasionally pool some of their work into an anthology. There's no clear leader or editor. Many of the artists have moved to different cities, so the website is a way for everyone to keep in touch.
You went to The School of Visual Arts, right?
Yeah, but I met them before I took one class at SVA, because I was friends with Becky [Cloonan] and there was SPXiles . . .
SPXiles was the post-September 11 alternative to the Small Press Expo, because it was canceled that year?
Yeah. I moved to New York a week before September 11, and classes were canceled for awhile. I went to SPXiles with Becky and I met those guys and they were some of the first friends I had in New York. The ones I hung with the most were Brandon Graham, Farel Dalrymple, Tom Herpich, and Jim Campbell. There were parties and I would talk to Tomer Hanuka and the other guys, but Brandon and I would wander the streets, and I'd go to bookstores with Tom. Up to that point I don't think I'd seen any Chris Ware. Those guys knew all these comics, and they gave me a crash course in alternative comics. It was another situation where I completely lucked out.
And yet you came from a background where you knew about underground comics from your Dad-people like Crumb and Spain, but not the current generation of cartoonists?
I knew about the artists who were carried in the little store near my house, but they were sort of the pseudo-alternative artists. Like I knew about Sam Kieth, but I didn't know about Dan Clowes. I knew about people like David Mack.
The ones who were straddling alternative work and the mainstream?
Paul Pope was in that category too. And you can see it in my work from that time. It was sort of (an amalgam of) Sam Kieth, Paul Pope, and David Mack.
In an interview on The Pulse website you said you conceived the story "The Roots Hold Your Feet Into Place" from Goddess Head "One night when I was very frustrated when I was staying in Richmond, and I was feeling stuck there forever and helpless." You're back in Richmond now, do you still find it constraining?
(Sighs.) I think that's what my new book The Mothers Mouth is about. I was in New York and I was surrounded by a lot of successful people and I traveled around awhile, but it ended up that I was back in Richmond, going out with my high school sweetheart. And it was just a complete . . .
Yeah it was a total regression. It was like the wind had been knocked out of me and I was back hanging out where I hung out in high school, and running into people that had stayed home. Richmond is an okay place, but I was starting to feel like I could be really successful as an illustrator and cartoonist, and it just went backwards at a point. You know that Civil War reenactment scene was about how my girlfriend and I would go back and do the same things we had done in senior year of high school. Which was kind of nice, but it was also super-depressing.
I think most people would assume you're being sarcastic when you mention a fascination with people like motivational speaker Tony Robbins and Michael Jackson.
No, I'm not being sarcastic. Have you taken Tony Robbins' Power Course?
No, but that's what I want to hear from you. You're not being sarcastic.
I think most people are being too cool for school to reveal that sort of thing.
This interview will reveal that none of these things are ironic, and I actually am a complete nerd. (Laughs.)
You've also expressed a fascination with Michael Jackson.
I really love Michael Jackson too. I loved his performances with The Jackson 5. I think his abilities were forcibly pushed, but I think his goal was to be the consummate entertainer in all forms. Going to the courtroom dressed the way he did, his goal was a performance. And he succeeded, but I think it caused a lot of damage. Junior year (at SVA) I did a thesis on Michael Jackson and I did these large comic paintings. I just got into all the themes of Michael Jackson. You know childhood, and these sexuality issues and appearance. I think I was kind of the laughing stock of SVA for that section; but recently there was that book Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson and there weren't even any photos in the book. It was a serious discussion about Michael Jackson and his interests; The Elephant Man, Barnum & Bailey Circus. So that was reassuring because she ran over all the things I went over in my thesis. As kind of an essay about the issues.
So you actually liked him as a young performer?
Oh yeah, he's amazing.
But you're also interested in how he went off the rails.
Yeah. And he's not really . . . oh you can go on to the next question.
No, continue your thought.
It's just that I could talk about Michael Jackson for hours.
What role do you play in your band, Love Eats Brains?
I play bass, assist in writing songs-primarily the lyrics-and sing sometimes, but only on recordings. I can't sing live because I get too nervous. James does all of the singing when we play live. James is my best friend and he went to SVA as a Fine Arts major for 1 years. He dropped out. We've lived together for the past 3 years and he taught me how to play bass and everything.
Thus far you're better known as a comics artist than a musician, but given the seductive quality of live performance would you give up comics if the band became successful enough?
No. I like playing in the band because it's a social activity that's work but also fun. I need to get away from the drawing board for a couple hours every day otherwise I go crazy, and I don't like doing things that feel unproductive. I get depressed. So practicing is great because I don't think about drawing while I'm doing it and I get to work on something with friends. James works on the band 24-7.
Does being a cartoonist in any way inform your music, or conversely does being a musician in any way inform your art?
I don't think so. Only as much as doing anything does. If I wasn't working on this with my friends, I don't think I would ever leave the house. And that would get very damaging. So it helps keep me tied to the real world.
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