Dash Shaw is a graphic novel artist and graphic novel writer; a perfect combination to make great works of art; he’s also not scared to use color . . . lots of it. He’s created and published Love Eats Brains, GardenHead, The Mother’s Mouth, and Bottomless Belly Button. His most recent publication is the unusual and interesting BodyWorld involving some very unusual characters, telepathy and lots of the color orange.
Alex: What came first for you: the writing or the illustrating, or did they develop at the same time?
Dash: They come at the same time. I grew up making comics, not focusing on illustration or writing separately. If I try to write everything in words before it (a) makes it feel like I’m giving myself a boring illustration assignment and (b) makes me hyper-conscious of my poor word-writing ability.
Alex: When did you know you wanted to make a career with comics?
Dash: It’s more like I’m always working on comics and sometimes I have to get another job and other times I don’t. The past couple of years have been good. No day job. But I’m not opposed to moving somewhere cheaper and getting a day job if I have to.
Alex: Who are some of your influences?
Dash: Oh man, it’s always hard to answer this question. I gotta come up with some good answer. Mostly I think I just try to dramatize events or thoughts from my life, and so that includes basically everything, and is maybe a cop-out of an answer. One nice thing about comics is that you can doodle to develop ideas, just in your sketchbook, and you end up drawing things where you don’t know where they come from, but you like them for some reason and decide to spend more time with them in the form of a story. In terms of people, I had three teachers at SVA who were very influential to me: James McMullan, as a figure drawing teacher, and David Mazzucchelli and Gary Panter.
Alex: How did you get your first comic published?
Dash: I’d self-published a lot of things. I did comics for inSync (no relation to the band,) a supplement for the Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper, when I was in high school. It was a great experience. I got to see how things look when they’re reproduced.
Alex: Where did the idea for BodyWorld come from?
Dash: I’d done a book before this, Bottomless, where it didn’t have any thought balloons. The characters’ interior lives were only visible by their actions or how I drew things. So then I wanted to do something about how people think, or what it’s like to be another person, and that led to me to wanting to do a book about telepathy. I thought a lot about how telepathy would work and then built the story around that.
Alex: How long did it take?
Dash: Two or three years. It’s hard to say exactly. I drew it on a self-imposed deadline of a chapter a month, which took a little over a year, but I spent a lot of time developing it before that and then, for the book, I added a bunch of pages later.
Alex: Is there a specific process you use when creating a comic?
Dash: It’s a project-by-project basis. For Bottomless I wanted to draw immediately – like, if I had an idea for a scene I could just draw it and then decide whether or not to put it in the book or where to put it. It came together in the editing. The BodyWorld pages were more complicated technically to execute, so if I drew a BodyWorld page I’d know, with some certainty, that it’d go into the book.
Alex: Do you have a regular writing/illustrating schedule you keep to each day?
Dash: Right now I’m working on an animation project and another comic. The animation is a collaborative process and the comic is solo. So if I feel like talking to other people I work on the animation, and if I want to be left alone I work on the comic.
Alex: Did BodyWorld require any sort of research?
Dash: I got some pamphlets on telepathy, but I was always disappointed with them. They’d group telepathy in with things like telekinesis, which I don’t think has anything to do with telepathy. I guess I didn’t get the right pamphlets. I did e-mail some different people asking them how they thought telepathy would work. You’d be surprised how many people will answer your e-mails. If someone wrote a book about groupthink or is a psychology professor or something, you can just e-mail them and usually they’ll respond, even if your question sounds silly.
Alex: There’s a lot of color in BodyWorld, but only certainly colors. This is obviously intentional. Did you experiment with various color palettes, or was Bodyworld always going to be very . . . orange?
Dash: Color is freeing for me. When I was growing up reading and making comics, I’d always done black and white, line art, comics. And then when I got into college I started working in color and it opened up so many other things. It felt more intuitive than my drawings, and it made my drawings more intuitive. Orange is a great color; it’s pretty and ugly. In the animation I’m working on now all of the characters have orange skin, like they’re very tan, or when you see an old comic and the skin color has too much red in it.
Alex: Where did the characters come from?
Dash: Mostly they come from my sense of humor. I pair different characters next to each other. A lot of the humor in BodyWorld comes from different people interacting. The character designs, too, are like this: angular people next to round people, etc. I usually come up with groups of characters together.
Alex: Are they based on real people in any way, people you perhaps have known, or even amalgamations of different people?
Dash: When I was working on BodyWorld, the character of Paulie Panther was based on a sense of humor that I had with a friend that I lived with. A way of talking and behaving. But nobody’s based on a specific person.
Alex: How does a comic book idea begin for you?
Dash: Like I said earlier, it starts with drawings, ideas, doodles. Often I’ll start with a place, a map, that I want to go to, and then build the story or aesthetics around that world.
Alex: What do you use to illustrate with?
Dash: It’s a combination of a million different things: acetate sheets, gouache paints, crowquill pens, Bristol board, cut paper, colored pencil on construction paper, markers, etc. It’s more fun to work on a comic if you have a bunch of colored pencils, paints, or markers around, as opposed to sitting by a white paper with a black ink pen. Having color around makes it more playful, for me at least.
Alex: How much do you use a computer for your artwork?
Dash: I use the computer to compile different hand-done layers. Even if they’re flat computer colors, I draw the shapes by hand, like a color separation, and then make it a single color on the computer. And then I print it out, work over it, and scan it back it. I like having the final page be an original piece, meaning that I can look at it, hold it in my hands, and color over it if I need to, rather than going from a digital file and then being surprised what it looks like printed.
Alex: What are you working on now?
Dash: I’m working on a long animation and another comic.
Alex: Do you have any advice for writers/artists looking to get recognized and published?
Dash: Just keep drawing. Don’t sit around waiting for someone to give you permission to make something.
Alex: Who are some of your favorite artists and writers?
Dash: There are so many. I’ll name five that are on my mind recently: Kobo Abe, Bruno Schulz, Jack Kirby, Francis Picabia and Hayao Miyazaki. I could go on and on…
Alex: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Dash: The good thing about comics is that it doesn’t feel like a job. It feels like what I’d normally do in my spare time. But I like to walk around just to get out of the house for a bit. It can get a little claustrophobic in here. So if I’m hungry I’ll pick a place to walk to that’s half an hour, or farther, away, just to walk. I don’t cook at home because I want an excuse to leave my apartment. This is how exciting my life is.
Alex: What do you hope readers get out of reading Bodyworld?
Dash: I guess I hope they laugh and enjoy themselves. I had a blast making it, but I realize it’s unreasonable to expect people to have the same experience reading it. I can only hope some of that energy comes through.