Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mike Dawson and Me: The Artist on Being More Than Just "The Queen Guy"

Mike Dawson sits in a diner in Park Slope, Brooklyn, wearing jeans and a red t-shirt with the word YO emblazoned across it. We’ve been chatting for about ten minutes before starting the interview. His wife and their nine month-old daughter are gearing up for a bigger apartment, one more thing that Dawson balances between fatherhood, a full-time design/illustration job, and illustrating his web strip Jack and Max Escape from the End of Time. The strip, and his trade paperback Ace Face: The Mod with the Metal Arms, come hot on the heels of his autobiographical graphic novel Freddie & Me.
It made me more maudlin and emotional,” he laughs when asked about becoming a father. “Now all my comics are about kids. It affected me, work-wise…I haven’t been that affected, because we have a nanny, which has helped immensely. But that’s because I have a day job, and my wife works, so we can afford to have a nanny. I’ve always had a day job. My philosophy is that the happiest way I can be a cartoonist is to have a day job, because the times I was just freelance were very stressful and hard. I found it difficult to work on my comics when I was consumed with worry about finding work. I know it works for some people, but it doesn’t suit my temperament.”

“So, I go to work, we have a nanny, and my wife works. So, in some ways, having the baby hasn’t affected me so much, although I do feel as though the way I draw now is more streamlined. I’m paring things down, because there is a little less time, and I don’t have all the time I used to. I don’t know if that can entirely be attributed to the baby though, it might just be a natural progression in my work…

“So, with Jack and Max, the thing I’m doing now, is my trying to step away from more of the cross-hatching, because I don’t think it affects a storytelling. Also, I think it works especially well to pull back a little with an adventure story like Jack and Max, because I want it to move quickly and easily.”
Jack and Max is the story of two battling superpowered brothers; one able to teleport, while the other can move things with his mind. Their fights, as first detailed in Ace Face, tend to get a bit on the ugly side. In one story, Jack gets his arm teleported off by Max, while Max finds his leg fused into a dresser. At the end, their father, who has mastery over time travel, always turns the clock back and punishes them before they have a chance to start fighting.
“I think about kids a lot, and the siblings are like that, where it’s not too long before they’re at each other and fighting,” Mike elaborates. “I have a sister and we were like that, and my wife and her older brother were that way. With me, I think it’s funny, especially when you give them these powers. It’s not like Power pack where they form a team and do something with their powers. They’re basically using it to mess with each other.

Jack and Max owes just as much to the antagonism of classic American cartoons, as it does to Dawson’s recent exposure to more manga in his reading diet:
“I noticed in some manga stories I’ve read, that to my modern American eyes, some things seem a little more sadistic in a way. Parents whacking their kids in the head and so-forth. I wanted to incorporate that into Jack and Max. On book I love is Barefoot Gen, which is a semi-autobiographical story about someone who survived Hiroshima. The designs of Jack and Max are an intentional homage to the two brothers in that story, which I originally thought was funny, but… I do things where I start it to laugh at and then start regretting it later.”
“I have noticed that the way people are punching the kids in the head all the time in the stories are a lot more brutal. I’ve been trying to bring that out, where the brothers are that way, but the parents are even worse, having no patience for these kids. That’s why I worry that there’s not going to be any publishers of young adult books who don’t find the dad as coming across as too evil,” he laughs. “I think its just [his] bad parenting.”

“I’m a little worried that I’ve become ‘the Queen guy’,” Mike admits over a cup of coffee. “All last year, I went to conventions and had a little Freddie Mercury statue on my table, and sometimes I get self-conscious about that. But, clearly pop culture has been significant in my life I can’t deny it.”
Just last year Dawson’s heartfelt autobiography, Freddie & Me, came out. It's not only an ode to Freddie Mercury and his iconic band, but also to Mike’s growing up in the period of the mid 1980s through late 1990s. While several autobio/memoir graphic novels have come out exploring the dark recesses of a tortured artist’s coming of age, Freddie is an honest look at Dawson’s childhood, and an autobio about the art of autobio, warts and all.
“I’ve always been a big reader of autobio and I really do think that comics themselves lend well to autobiography,” Dawson says. “I think it’s such a personal and intimate thing, and I think about how the drawings I’m putting down, being the closest thing to what appears in my head, are a great way to capture memories and personal images. I think comics can be the medium perfect for that.”
“I believe that a story is good based upon how it’s told, not based upon the events that happen. I know my life isn’t especially exciting, and I deliberately chose to write on a topic that was even less remarkable, which is just that I love this one band a whole lot. I thought it would be funny, and also challenging, because a lot of people talk about whether you need to have remarkable experiences to write an autobiographical story with, and I don’t agree.”

Dawson was born and raised in Leighton Buzzard, England. When he was about nine years old, he caught the video for Queen’s “I Want to Break Free”, featuring Freddie Mercury in drag. His older brother, Andrew, noticing Mike’s fascination with his new discovery, gave him his Best of Queen cassette, starting a lifetime love affair of the band. Freddie & Me follows Mike’s family’s move to New Jersey, and his high school years ranging from heartbreaks to dealing with Mercury’s death, through to attending a funeral back in England.

Everything that’s happened to us makes us who we are, Dawson writes in one sequence. If different things had happened we’d be someone else. We’d have different memories. Different stories. Traying to draw memories is tricky, they’re like something you can only see in your peripheral vision. They seem concrete until you try to look directly at them in order to recreate the picture in your mind.

Then they get all fuzzy and crumble.
“The book became a little more complex as I worked on it, because I began to think about memory itself,” Mike admits. “I write as I go, starting at the beginning, and writing and drawing each page pretty much in order. Once I’d made my way through the first section of the book, and had spent all that time trying to construct a narrative out of my memories, it really became clear to me how fragile memories really are. How they seem solid at first, but the more time you dwell on them, the fuzzier and less concrete they become. I’m really glad to included material about that in the book, because I feel that it managed to take the book a little bit past just being a bit of a joke, to something more substantial.”

Freddie & Me, in an almost post-modernist fashion, pulls the curtains back to show that it’s just a play, and that Dawson is the director, sitting in the wings of the stage, coordinating the performance.
“In the end, I wanted to write an autobiography with the idea of what memories are, and how they create the stories that we tell ourselves, which in essence make us who we are,” Mike says.
“Memories aren’t just files stored in a filing cabinet in your brain that you access when you need them, like index cards in a library. I heard something on the radio explaining that they’re actually physical reactions that take place over and over again, re-creating themselves whenever you think of them again, almost like a Xerox being made of a Xerox, over and over. And another piece I’d heard was about the thing which makes us human being that we ‘tell ourselves a story’, which is the story of our lives. We tell ourselves the story of who we are. I included that in the book, as I thought it was fascinating, and also really appropriate, since I was in essence re-telling myself the story of me, by writing this book.”
But, back to the story of Dawson’s life in the pages of Freddie: he gets deep into his love of anything pop culture, from heavy metal to John Byrne comics. Through it all, he’s not scared to show his perspective at the time, no matter how pretentious.
“I think that, when you write a book, the audience will always go along with you and see things from your point of view,” Dawson admits. “In Freddie & Me I tried to present myself as very annoying. In my school, I’m a drama queen, and in my mind, totally insufferable. But, I find that readers go along with you.”

“I feel like [things are] going okay,” Mike says about his cartooning. “I have one major book out, and now I have Ace Face, which is a collection of stories, a lot of which I wrote after just having had a child not being able to focus on something long-form. Maybe parents who do things like this try to get things done because they’re worried the children will stop them from working, so they try to write twice as much right after they’re born. You want to have a family and you’re also very passionate about pursuing something. That’s why I waited until later in life to have a child, which is a pretty common thing in New York. People are very career-driven. Around here, you may have noticed.
Ace Face opens with a the origin of Ace Face, a British baby born without any arms; a well-meaning uncle grants the boy his new invention: adult-sized robot arms. Growing up with ape-like appendages, Colin Turney is a chubby kid mocked as "Tin Pot Turney" by his classmates. After Colin grows into his arms in later high school, he gets the chance to beat his childhood antagonist into a bloody pulp, thus starting his career as the crimefighting mod Ace Face.
The stories in Ace Face follow Ace’s growing up with a team of fellow crimefighters, eventually settling down to help raise his newborn son. Years later, a middle-aged Colin finds himself forced to confront a campus mugger at the college where he works as a professor. The results are more real world than you’d expect to find in a regular superhero comic.

But the real meat of Ace Face is in the adventures of his son, Stuart, a young father living in Park Slope. He and his wife have to deal with thuggish punks hanging out on their stoop until late hours, and the fear of confrontation possessed by the frustrated Stuart.
“I do think that the Ace Face story is fun, but I really don’t have anything more to say with superheroes,” Mike reflects. “I’m not continuing with it, because there isn’t much more that I can personally say. The idea is what a real life fight is versus a comic book fight, and then I became more interested in the Park Slope husband “
What’s interesting about Stuart’s adventures is that they pick up where Mike’s adventures in Freddie & Me end. Freddie wraps up with Mike as a newlywed, and Stuart picks up with the protagonist a new father.

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