Monday, January 26, 2009

Evolving Comics: Dan Goldman on 08

“I hate politics, but I’m sad about the world,” Dan Goldman is sitting in the windowsill of his Williamsburg against the backdrop of a snowstorm descending upon the Williamsburg Bridge. His hair trimmed to a buzzcut, Dan’s wearing a lavender tuxedo shirt with ruffles going down the front, and a pair of jeans. The apartment that Dan shares with his wife Lilli is a loft space converted from an old textile factory. Liliam Higa works at her table designing jewelry for her business, Lillot, while Wedge Antilles Goldman (an old gray tiger cat with a frayed right ear and a name that betrays his owner’s inner geek) curls up on a coat laid on the living room sofa. Dan’s art table sits in a corner amidst a bookshelf loaded with books. “My only mouthpiece and weapon is comics, which is why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

Goldman’s an understated and philosophical guy, much like his own body of work. It’s two weeks until the release of 08, the graphic novel that documents the historic and surreal 2008 presidential election. It’s a mashing of journalism with sequential art, designed as a kind of a Graphic Journalism that promises to grab non-comics readers and get them to drink the narrative Kool-Aid while they’re too busy indulging the Obama flavor they’ve been chugging all along. Clever, witty, bold, and graphically strong, Goldman’s second major project as an illustrator (like Shooting War before it) goes straight to the place of honor in mainstream bookstores as well as indy and comic shops. Dan’s career has been anything but conventional, so it’s not shocking that 08’s freshness is in it’s own unique approach.

“I didn’t want to do gags, but rather tell the story in surreal ways at points; in comics, you can show something visually the way you’re meant to feel it, but still not change the reality of it.”

08 opens in 2006, with the emergence of John McCain trying to maintain the GOP’s ever-dwindling hold on Washington. One by one, the players are introduced in a play-by-play of the election from beginning until historical end. 08 trades the traditional panel flow of a comic book for a design that plays with text sizes and panel shape and frequency, creating a conversational tempo punctuated by co-author Michael Crowley’s matter-of-fact approach.

“Crowley was new to the comics medium,” Dan notes about his collaborator. “ And I’m not a journalist, so we had to get to know each other’s worlds a bit. I shot him a few books to check out, and he sent me a bunch of books and movies. Crowley’s scripts were like breakdowns of the events as outlines, and when people talk in the book, 90% are actual quotes, and it is journalistic in that way. It was my job to turn the reading experience into a cracking read. It wasn’t just visual pacing, from moments when we’d talk about stuff. My phone would beep and he’d say ‘I’m at an event in Charlotte, and someone said this,’ and I’d say ‘That’s exactly what we want, the outsider’s perspective.’

08 isn’t just the reporters’ point of view (who are stand-ins for the American people), but it was also important to show the weirder campaign trail moments you’d only see if you were on following the race explicitly yourself. The book got more collaborative as we went on and, after the script and art came in, we pulled it all together. We lost some scenes that weren’t important given enough distance, while other bits got punched up and expanded. Our ending has a real crescendo, resonating off of Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park.”

The crescendo reached with Obama and 08 is an ironic reflection of a narrative crescendo that began in Everyman: Be The People, the 2004 graphic novel written by Dan and his brother Steven, and self-published in their own FWDbooks imprint.

Everyman follows New Yorker and African-American novelist Thomas “Mack” Womack’s underground campaign to expose voting fraud perpetrated by the Republican party, primarily President Birch (a thinly-veiled version of George W. Bush), with stuffing the ballots of electronic voting machines. Everyman is idealistic and, at times, perhaps a bit too forceful; the Brothers Goldman, however, created a prescient character in Womack, a crusader for restoring the power to the people.

Womack’s platform? He calls for government transparency, and the desire to get some “hope for the country”, and to not have the government abuse tax dollars for the fat cats. The eloquent Womack is a dead ringer for the young Illinois Senator who gave his historical speech on July 27, 2004.

Goldman recalls: “Our book was at [the printers] when Obama stood up at the 2004 Democratic convention and gave his speech, and my brother and I were watching him online and just pissing ourselves. That speech was something we had tried to put into words, nowhere near as eloquently as Obama’s speechwriters. All of a sudden, there was Mack.”

It was life imitating art, and would soon cycle into art imitating life for Goldman.

On December 21, 2012, President Obama stands on the front steps of the White House, messiah-like in a fuzzy white bathrobe and bunny slippers.

“For thousands of years, our civilizations have defined ourselves by the space between our bodies, crippled by the limits of our own senses. The rise of electronic communication has filled in those spaces with pathways for us to connect to each other nonphysically….” The President states, right before ushering in a Fifth World where human beings are upgraded to a metaphysical level that brings them closer to God.

“It’s a science fiction Obama story that takes place at the end of Obama’s first term, which coincides with the end of the Ancient Mayan calendar,” Dan notes. “It says that on December 21, 2012, the Fourth World that we’re living in will end, and the Fifth World will begin. There will be some cataclysmic change and everything will be different, and that will be the start of a completely new world.

“So, everyone’s talking about election this and election that, and I’ve obviously been involved in this in no small way. In the back of my mind, I’ve thought about the end of the Mayan calendar, and that whoever’s in office will have to deal with it.”

The strip, which runs on, is Goldman’s swan song for politically-charged comics. What started with Everyman five years ago, is ending with the personification of the title’s main character, in a metatextual narrative arc no one could have seen coming.

Everyman was this hopeful fantasy that was very much a fiction, and Shooting War was a loss of that fantasy and crawling around in the darkness of this bleak dystopian satire and with 08, all of a sudden, it’s the same beast and I’m just shooting arrows through different directions…At this point, I feel I’ve said all I want to say through these three books; I don’t want to launch any more arrows at the beast.

“My goodbye to it all is this comic that deals with the end of the Fourth World and beginning of the Fifth. I want to be in the Fifth World already, and for things to be better. We get so caught up in this elementary thinking about the world, but there’s so much more to our lives and who we are; I’m ready to get into that stuff with my work, now. I want to do more stuff about love and fantasy, not as a genre, but as an idea. I’m excited for all of the things that are coming.”

It wasn’t always politics for Goldman: he’s been working on the fringes of the comic book industry since the late ‘90s, and has most recently begun to emerge as a fresh voice with a fresh approach to the comics format. Goldman’s childhood took place in Florida where his family moved after his father’s Detroit business failed in ’81. Scraping by to make ends meet, Dan helped his Dad sell blank videotapes out of the back of a wooden-paneled station wagon in the Florida heat, rewarding himself with bags of second-hand, musty comics bought from others at the flea market. It was a typical beginning of a kid’s love affair with comics, back when they were still viewed as wonderfully disposable. Years later, his arrival in New York started with a bang, or at least a flurry of colorful explosions.

“I moved to here from Miami in the summer of 1998,” Goldman recalls as the snow continues to fall. “My friend Michael and I were working in the only independent bookshop in Miami and doing a bit of pirate radio, mostly just dicking around after college... but we kept hearing our heads thunking against the cultural ceiling. I wanted to go to New York to make "real films" like Woody Allen and Cassavetes, so we loaded everything into a truck and went for it. We arrived in Williamsburg (about ten blocks from where I live now) and unloaded our truck at a friend's place and then passed from the mid-summer heat. When I opened my eyes, there was a beautiful girl standing over me smiling with a cocktail and she said, "come on, we're all going up to the roof." I'd never been on a Brooklyn rooftop before and when I climbed out, the night sky started exploding into fiery colors: I'd forgotten it was July 4th, but the city sure hadn't. That was my official welcome, from the entire city; we stayed my first night up there most of the night, completely and utterly in love with the promise of it all.”

That promise took Dan Goldman to work for DC Comics later that year, which is where he was when I first met him. He was younger, fresh-faced, clean-shaven, and kind of looked like John Lennon. He wrangled interviews with comic book people for the press, then slowly emerging on the nascent Internet.

When Dan left DC over a year later and returned a couple days later to pitch to editors, he was told it was too soon for the editors to take any pitches from them. And then September 11 happened, a defining moment in the downward spiral of the country, but uplifting for the brothers Goldman. Frustrated at their inability to pitch to DC, and following the advice of editors, Dan and Steve self-published, leading into Everyman.

Everyman performed well critically and was slowly gaining sales steam, when comic book distributor Diamond upped their sales minimum, a move that shut out several independent publishers, including FWDbooks.
Unable to self-publish anymore, Dan hooked up with a group of New York cartoonists to form the online web comics portal, ACT-I-VATE. Goldman struck on the idea to tell these comics stories in a square format with minimal dialogue featuring large lettering, to better accommodate the emerging cell phone comics trend. His strip, “Kelly”, follows the down-and-out Max stuck working a dead-end corporate job while living in his brother’s apartment and haunted by the spectre of his ex-girlfriend. By the end of the first act, he’s moved in with Kelly, a bizarre new age stoner, who takes him on a journey of self amidst the backdrop of New York life and the impending return of his ex.
Kelly, to say the least, is a fucked-up strip, pushing the boundaries of taste while serving as a Petri dish for Goldman’s digital mixed media art style in the online comics lab.

“I don’t think digital comics replace books whatsoever, but all it does do is allow the tentacle of the octopus to reach out far more people that will come back and buy books when they’re available,” he notes. “The opportunity to publish on both paper and digitally exponentially extends the reach of your work. Comics are well represented in a publishing industry that is failing; everything’s going to have to change, and this is part of it. We just got our literary credibility at the right time because, had it been a year or two more, the publishing industry wouldn’t have had the strength to hard sell the media on comics being ‘legit’ as literature. That happened to us two or three years ago, for real. Now that the House of Usher is shaking down, we’re all going down together. As digital and electronic solutions happen, we’re in it together. We’re not on a dinghy being dragged behind the ship, but we’re on that ship, too. I think that’s really significant and exactly how it’s supposed to happen: whatever coming mutations publishing is going to go through, when it all comes out the other side, comics will be there, too.

“And that’s all that matters.”

Kelly also explores a New Yorker’s love/hate relationship with the city, one indicative of Dan Goldman’s own:

“New York stretches you to limits beyond you didn't think were possible,” he notes. “Every year you live here is worth two anywhere else: this city teaches you not who you are, but what you're made of. New York City broke me into a thousand pieces and fixed me, made me fall in love only to break my heart and nurse me back, saw me question who I was until I didn't even care anymore, try to live simpler and find myself bored, get a decent job and realize I didn't want one, fail artistically and walk away from it completely...only to realize that doing what I was meant to do was the only life I'd ever be happy living. It teaches you to stand up and not take no for an answer, and in that process, you become much stronger than most.

“Sure the trade-off is that everything's based here, there's lots of opportunities, that's what everyone says... but for me, it's the romance of slipping into flow of the river and losing yourself, becoming part of IT. That's what keeps my head swimming, keeps me putting up with the bloodthirsty landlords and dogshit everywhere and moms smacking their kids on the subway and shlepping my laundry for blocks in a blizzard... and just falling in/out and in/out of love with this ridiculous place, sometimes on a daily basis. It's home to me in a way no other place has ever been.”

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