Q+A: Dash Shaw on the FADER 7-inch and Bottomless Belly Button

November 14, 2008

Beginning with the newest entry in our FADER/Southern Comfort 7-inch series, we will have the songs from each side available for free download. We've already put up the A-side and B-side, and today we have an interview with 7-inch cover artist Dash Shaw. We also have physical copies of the record available (for free!). Email us at contests@thefader.com with your name and address for a copy until we run out.

Besides drawing the front and back cover of our latest 7-inch, New York based writer/artist Dash Shaw is responsible for Bottomless Belly Button, a massive 720-page graphic novel about a family coming together just as it's falling apart. He's also consistently working on his free online comic Bodyworld, and contributing to the quarterly anthology Mome. After the jump read Sam Hockley-Smith's interview with Shaw discussing the 7-inch cover, work for hire and Bottomless Belly Button.

Interview by Sam Hockley-Smith

How did you get started in graphic novels and comics?

Well, I started when I was really little. My dad would read comics and they were around the house. So like most three-year-old kids, I would draw comics, and then it just continued from there. In high school I started doing mini comics, and then I went to SVA, and when I got out I did this book. So I’ve never had a section of time when I wasn’t working on comics.

Was it something that you knew could be an actual career or was it just something for fun and then you realized you could make money doing it?

I took a lot of psychology classes at SVA so that if I didn’t get a job as an illustrator or cartoonist I could go back and get an art therapy degree, because you need a certain amount of psychology class credits to do that. So I thought that if everything was like a bust I could go back to school and get an art therapy degree and be an art therapist.

I’ve heard it’s really difficult to get a job in comics, or even illustration.

I created a situation for myself where I didn’t have to think about money. Because when I graduated SVA I moved down to Richmond, VA, and I got a place there that was $200 a month rent and I worked as a figure drawing model there, and figure drawing models get paid like $12 an hour and they can sign you up for like 20 hours a week. A lot of times the teachers wont need you for the class or they wont need you for the whole time, so you would just show and they would sign your form and then you could go home and work on your comic. I had a lot of free time and I didn’t need to worry about money. So I got to do it because of that decision, if I had stayed in New York and tried to pay the rent here it wouldn’t have happened. If it started to seem like I couldn’t afford rent here I would leave, so it’s not like I made a lot of money and now I’m a successful cartoonist, it’s more like I just created an environment for myself where I don’t need a lot of money. Because I’m not making a lot of money.

Based on the amount of work you’ve put out since I heard about you, you seem to work much more quickly than a lot of other artists like Chris Ware and Charles Burns.

I mean Bottomless Belly Button, the style of the sequences is more like Japanese comics. Japanese cartoonists do a lot more work. It’s a combination of having an insane work ethic and also thinking of things as a flowing sequence across multiple pages. I tried to get both of those things. It comes from me liking people who produced a lot of work. I just wanted to be one of those people who do a crazy amount of work and really like work their ass off. You know you read about how much work Osamu Tezuka did, and even if he had assistants it’s still fucking crazy. He must have done something on each of these comics even if it was mostly assistants and he would do like 3,000 pages a year plus two hours worth of animation.

Or someone like Jack Kirby, who was turning out what seemed like hundreds of comics a year through the ‘60s and ’70s, without really dipping in narrative quality.

Those guys were learning on the job, too. They were getting paid to produce something and you could see their work grow. I wasn’t getting paid, but you can probably tell that I got better. Especially from Bottomless Belly Button to Bodyworld, the web comic I do, which I think is a lot better.

As a whole you think it’s better than Bottomless Belly Button?

Oh yeah. Also, like I said before, I think money is a big part of that and I think the reason a lot of cartoonists don’t produce much work is because they have a day job or they have a kid.

I imagine that happened to Chris Ware, who probably supplements his comic work with New Yorker covers and things like that.

I don’t advertise myself as an illustrator and I don’t go to people. But you guys emailed me to do that 7-inch cover and you said just do whatever, so that’s not really like an illustration job that’s more like just give us a drawing that’s square-sized. I like jobs that are like that, I did something for The Believer and they just said: do some drawings. That’s a job that’s more up my alley rather than like trying to do a flattering portrait of some band that I don’t like. New Yorker covers are an exceptional case, obviously if someone called me and asked me to do an New Yorker cover I would say yes because that would be awesome but I’m not approaching the New Yorker people.

Now that Bottomless Belly Button is out are you exclusively working on Bodyworld?

Yeah I mean I do stuff for Mome [the quarterly comic anthology]. So Mome and Bodyworld, and that’s pretty much it. I have other things that are occupying my time but those are the main projects.

I notice you are able to turn out chapters for Bodyworld incredibly quickly, are you drawing it by hand or with some computer illustration program?

It’s all hand-done. I mean I wanted to do a serialized web comic. Actually I kind of cheated because I started a few months before I started posting it online so I had a backlog, so it’s not like that week is the pages that I do that week, it’s posted weekly, and it’s a lot of work. Bodyworld is a total pain in the ass, too, because of all the layers of color. I work on acetate sheets and then I have the originals which are really large and then I have to scan it and piece it together. It makes me want to like blow my brains out all the computer.

I read in another interview that you wanted to do it online because it allowed you to be more free flowing. Does that mean you’re improvising, or do you have it mapped out from beginning to end?

I know what happens between page whatever to page whatever, I have markings, you know? But the specifics of how it gets from Point A to Point B is usually improvised. I don’t like writing a script and then sketching the whole book and then executing the whole book, but I’m also pretty open to editing. Bottomless Belly Button had a lot of editing done to it. I would improvise a lot of the scenes and then decide later to cut things out or to move it around or redraw things. Bodyworld is more compete looking, I try to make it feel like a combination of planning and improvising, I don’t know if it feels that way.

It seems like it is more thought out. Also the constraint of doing weekly installments has an effect, I imagine. For me, Bottomless Belly Button was this sprawling family epic with plenty of breathing room.

The Bottomless Belly Button style is very airy and atmospheric. It’s longer than most comics, but I think it reads like a really short normal book, so its not really clear whether it’s—depending on how you judge it—really long or really short. Also, not very much happens in the story and it takes place over only like six days, so it’s somewhere between large scale and small scale.

I like that you have sections where you literally tell the reader to put the book down and take a break.

Different comics read different ways. The reason I put that in is because the book doesn’t have chapters and it doesn’t have page numbers. And so if I was reading a book and I hadn’t gotten to a chapter or some sort of marker point after like a hundred pages, I would just stick my bookmark in there and assume that there’s no breaks in the book. But I wanted there to be breaks between the three parts, so I figured like you could read a whole part in one sitting. It was a bad idea.

I thought it was a good idea. I also wanted to ask you if you averse to doing mainstream superhero comic books, like most of your peers seem to be. Like if DC Comics called you and said, “Hey do Batman…”

I’m not chomping at the bit to do the work, I would do Batman, I would do Swamp Thing or Ghost Rider, because I like Batman, Swamp Thing and Ghost Rider. I think that those books can be really good when the people working for them are enthusiastic about the material and about getting to play with characters that they loved when they were younger and still love. These types of drama stories are just as much a genre as superheroes, I don’t understand why someone would have an aversion to genre material.

It’s a strange industry.

It used to be like, writers could creep up because it used to be that you had a monthly title that you would do. I wanted to do a book because no one was going to give me a monthly title, and I wanted to do a whole book and then edit it have a whole solid thing. I think it’s going to happen more where cartoonists are judged on an individual basis.

You’re pretty young to have released something so huge. I read that you grew up in a really calm family, and I thought that came across really well in the way the characters reacted to some really heartbreaking scenes.

I obviously like the funny/sad brand of humor, so that’s large. And the other thing that’s big for me is kind of beautiful/ugly sequences—like, something about the sequence is beautiful or pleasing but then the drawings of the people will be really ugly. So I’m always looking for those grey areas, those kind of exciting, strange zones where you don’t really know what something is.

The one that really stuck out was when the mother and father are saying goodbye at the end. Everything was driving toward that moment, and then when it happened it was so…small.

Right, It’s structured where you arrive when they arrive, and then you leave when they leave. This is a really classic postmodern idea, having an ending being a leaving or a goodbye or something. But a book is traveling to a place, and when I get involved in a book I feel this imaginary environment, and when I’m working on it I want to be transported to this place and surrounded by these people. When I was drawing Bottomless Belly Button, I was spending time with those characters and then I left and didn’t want to draw them at all. Maybe that doesn’t mean something to someone who doesn’t draw comics. But I drew those people for three years, and it wasn’t casual, I was drawing them for three years nonstop. I drew like tons of stuff that wasn’t in the book. Leaving that is an emotional experience. Some of the cartoonists from previous generations have a cast that they use for everything, like Jimbo for Gary Panter or Frank for Jim Woodring, but I go on a book by book basis, and so when I say goodbye, that’s it.

This isn’t the complete story. but it’s like this family existed before this and they will exist after.

But we don’t get to know that. It’s kind of sad. People send me emails like, are you going to do a sequel, and it’s like, No. But that’s flattering.

I almost wouldn’t want to read something about these characters again because I feel like that is the story you were telling with them.

I wouldn’t even want to draw them again.

Do you ever get approached by fans to do sketches?

Well my rule with sketches—and I thought a lot about this, because I would go to conventions and I would see how different cartoonists reacted to the sketch scenario, what I do is I just draw whatever I feel like at that moment, even if its not very good or if it’s not the character they want or something. I went to Kevin Eastman at San Diego Comic-Con, and he cranked out his shot of a Ninja Turtle’s head in like two seconds. The same one he gives to every person. What’s the point of having a drawing that’s irritating for them to, and is a mass-produced head shot that they give to everyone. So I try to do something different each time and I try to just be open. I usually try to have a conversation and then draw something that I’m talking about. There’s something really sad about someone signing books and just doing the same drawing in each one, I think both sides are losing. I was in this middle school anthology book for Viking Children’s books and they were giving away copies of the book, so I was there with some of the other cartoonists like Lauren Weinstein and—I’m going to forget names—I think Gabrielle Bell was there too. And I think like 300 kids wanted their books signed, and it was exciting to try to come up with a unique two second drawing a hundred times for a hundred different kids.

It’s amazing for me to hear that. When I was growing up it was basically unheard of that any comic, outside of Maus, would ever be used to teach anything in school. But now there’s enough freedom in the industry that you can do stuff for children as well as more adult work. Do you think there’s been a big shift?

Yeah I mean everyone wants me to do a young adult novel because there’s money in that. Young adult graphic novels that’s where it’s at. But I just don’t have any ideas right now. Another thing is memoirs, If I had a memoir I could turn around and sell it for a trillion dollars. But Bodyworld’s some telepathy thing, and I don’t really have any memoir ideas, either.

Is the whole reason you wouldn’t do a memoir because you don’t have an idea of what you would do?

I’ve read interviews with some cartoonists where they cant imagine doing something that isn’t autobiographical, and that’s just how they work, how they’re wired. I cant imagine doing something that’s autobio, I’ve never gotten an idea that way. I’m open to it happening but it hasn’t happened that way yet. Sometimes you’ll have to do a little drawing of yourself for some little blurb or something about you, I don’t even like that, I don’t want to draw myself. Something about it is just irritating to me.

It’s got to be weird to do that kind of work.

We should get someone in on this conversation who’s really into autobiographical work. They know how to sell memoirs, they can get the guy who the book is about on NPR or on a show or something. Bodyworld has a lot of drugs and sexual stuff, how are they going to sell it, who’s the target audience? I don’t know.

Do people misconstrue Bottomless Belly Button as autobiographical?

Some people ask that. I wanted it to look like an autobio comic, because I like a lot of autobio comics and I like the way they look. I wanted it to feel like the characters were telling autobio stories that were overlapping, or that the characters drew themselves, so it was like a world of autobio comics bumping up against each other. Also, I have some things in it that are autobio staples. Like Peter will jerk off in part one, and that’s classic autobio stuff. In my book you’ll see that and be like, okay, that’s another one of those scenes. But then a hundred pages later, the mom comes up to him and says that she found her rag thrown outside and then she uses that as a reason to give him advice on his life, it was about taking things from autobio comics and using them to paint some kind of larger world. I guess people think I’m the Peter character, because he’s more iconic. But I think the reason they think that is because he’s a loser and cartoonists are used to portraying themselves as losers. I don’t think of myself as a loser. I don’t think I’m a loser, if I did an autobio story I wouldn’t make myself look like a loser.

I think artists get paranoid about making themselves look good, so they go in the exact opposite direction.

David Heatley—who did the comic My Sexual History—I think it is probably the best comic short story ever. I mean, he’s hard on himself but that short story is amazing.

Something I noticed you did in Bottomless Belly Button was that you never felt the need to fill an entire page, you were comfortable with white space.

The ones where it ends halfway through a page were done because the scenes were done panel-by-panel, and I wouldn’t want to change scenes in the middles of a panel. I want it to be like a chapter in a book, the text would end halfway through a page, and that’s standard. Obviously, whoever’s writing the book isn’t thinking, I have to make it to the bottom of this page filled with words. Comics should have that freedom that those authors feel. And then other times it would be used to separate the different places or storylines happening in the story. So there would be like a 4-panel grid next to a 12-panel grid and then a 6-panel grid, so I could alternate.

I noticed you label invisible aspects to the story, like a panel will have squiggly lines denoting heat, but you’ll actually put the word “heat” in there.

Those kind of labeling and diagrams have a feeling of being removed from a situation where you’re looking at the relationships between things. Like if you’re looking at a diagram from a building, its about spatial relationships and creating a space. I think my comics are like that. You’re not inside of a character and experiencing things that they’re experiencing, you’re more witnessing these different character bump up against each other. Also I think that if you get into it, it kind of activates your senses more. Japanese comics will have sound balloons that are extremely specific, so that if they were translated it would be like, “sound of water hitting sink,” it wouldn’t just be “drip, drip.” So I tried to take that from Japanese comics and integrate it. It also became a larger theme in the story that there was a narrator that was only interested in minute differences in sand and water. All of these things aren’t present in Bodyworld, I approach things on a book-by-book basis. And I try to do things that feel appropriate to what I’m trying to make in that particular story.

Posted: November 14, 2008
Q+A: Dash Shaw on the FADER 7-inch and Bottomless Belly Button