Conversation With Cartoonist

Dakota McFadzean self-portraitMatheson and McFadzean on comics, childhood nostalgia and working for free

by Emmet Matheson

Other Stories coverDakota McFadzean: Other Stories And The Horse You Rode In On
Book Launch And Artist’s Talk
RPL Theatre
Sunday 8

If you’re a regular reader of this mag, you’ve seen Dakota McFadzean’s work. A bunch. From cover illustrations to his regular comic strip Chilblains, the cartoonist’s versatility should be obvious to Prairie Dog readers. His debut book, Other Stories and the Horse You Rode In On, published by Conundrum Press, shows an even greater range in its collection of short stories previously self-published as mini-comics.

I first met Dakota in 2005. We were both freelancing for the Leader-Post back then, and I was assigned to write about Caravan Commix, the single-issue anthology he’d produced with his brother Jonah. Both of them had been prose and art contributors to the L-P’s youth page, Minus 20. Dakota had written a Weekender feature on growing up in Regina’s North Central neighbourhood, a place Maclean’s would later call “Canada’s Worst Neighbourhood”. Dakota had recently started a weekly strip for the paper called A Comic!!. I was struck by the brothers’ irrepressible enthusiasm for creating comics.

A few years later, we both ended up doing a lot of work for Prairie Dog, whose editors know something about talent. His comic strip quickly became my favourite part of the paper. Chilblains’ parade of the existential traumas of growing up — “the ambiguously upsetting moments of childhood,” McFadzean calls them — makes it a direct descendent of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strip. But McFadzean also has taste for the surreal and the grotesque, especially disfiguration or transfiguration of faces and heads, that gives his comics an eerie edge.

In 2010, McFadzean began a two-year MFA program at Vermont’s renowned Center for Cartoon Studies. In 2012, his minicomic Leave Luck to Heaven was selected for inclusion in that year’s Best American Comics anthology, alongside heavyweights like Jaime Hernandez and Chris Ware. This year’s edition lists his Unkindess as a “Notable Comic”. Both stories are included in Other Stories and the Horse You Rode In On. He currently lives in Toronto.

One of the recurring themes in your work is the innocence of childhood and the moment that innocence not necessarily ends, but changes. What attracts you to that moment?

I think about my childhood a lot for some reason. I don’t know if I think about my childhood more than the average person or the same amount; I just have the means of expressing that. I feel like that’s something you see in a lot of people’s comics, things about childhood.

During the process of making comics, especially the inking, you’re kind of on autopilot; your brain is just kind of wandering. I find when I’m inking — it’s not just me, a lot of artists do this: they sift through memories, they relive conversations they’ve had, or times when they were really happy or times when they were really upset. For me, for whatever reason, it keeps going back to my childhood. Though now that I’m getting older, it goes back to being an undergrad too. I’m getting wistful about that time in my life, I guess.

I think a lot of stories about children and teenagers are powerful because being a kid is just constant upheaval. Every event is a landmark event, something new, something life-changing. There’s an intensity to that that dulls with age.

Yeah, when you’re involved in something for a few weeks when you’re eight years old, that’s a pretty big chunk of your life. As you get older, experiences seem less novel or less significant. I guess a lot of the times when I sit down to make a comic, I’m looking to find that feeling of novelty again and to surprise myself. Comics take a long time to do and if I know what’s going to happen, I get bored. Maybe I’d feel differently if I didn’t have a happy, care-free childhood.

There’s an old cliché that says the worst thing for a writer is a happy childhood. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for you, in terms of mining your youth for stories.

Aside from happy moments in my childhood — hanging out with friends, drawing, reading comics and playing outside or whatever — a lot of the prominent things in my childhood were those moments of finding out: oh, this is how the world actually works. I’m working on  a 32-page story right now about how when you get to puberty you’re still a kid, and you still like the things you liked when you were a kid, but there’s this other force that’s present in the lives of your peers and it’s starting to be present in your own life. It’s a rough transition for everybody. I know it’s been written about extensively, but there’s that moment when you realize: oh, everything from now on is going to be filtered through this lens for the rest of my life. Suddenly, maybe watching clouds or playing in the grass won’t be the same anymore, it’ll be tied to something else: Sexuality!

You seem to get a lot of traction from your online comics. You post seven comics a week, called The Dailies, to your Tumblr account as well as to your website. These get reposted, retweeted, “liked”, and occasionally repurposed. Yeah, it’s good exposure, but you can’t eat exposure. How do you find balance between letting your work out for free and building a career as a cartoonist?

I sort of have two different strategies for getting stuff out there. One is the minicomics and the other is the online stuff. I find sometimes that they reach totally different people for totally different reasons. But I generally see the minicomics as the main thing I do, even though I tend to produce more of the online stuff just because it’s shorter.

I justify it to myself with The Dailies in the sense that I feel like I need to be doing those for myself and that it’s this sort of internal way to keep producing work and keep thinking. I don’t really see those being compiled into a print collection and I don’t really see any money coming from them.

One of the things I admire about your book is the chance to see you work at a different pace. Your three-panel strips are great, but here we’ve got stories that are eight, 10, 12 pages long. “Unkindness” runs 40 pages. What do you like about working in different lengths?

One of the biggest benefits of The Dailies is just seeing accumulations of the same idea repeated over and over and realizing, oh, that must be important and worth exploring in a bigger piece. The Dailies are quick and punchy. Then, in the longer piece, it becomes a little less directly humorous and a little bit more quiet and meditative and often a little bit more melancholic.

People seem to really respond to that part of your work and associate it with a kind of small-town ethos. Is that just what people assume when they find out you’re from Saskatchewan? Because to me, knowing you grew up in North Central helps, but I see a lot of the urban qualities of Regina reflected in your work, especially “Boxes” and “Skeletons”.

I am attracted to big, sparse, empty, ghostly-feeling panels. If I’m being honest, especially with regards to the early stories in the book, I just don’t like drawing environments. Architecture and stuff requires research and reference, and you’ve got to get it right. Prairie landscapes are what I grew up with, but prairie landscapes are also really easy to draw. You don’t have to do a lot of trees or mountains or perspective. You just draw a flat line and you’re done! Go home for the night.

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Dakota will give an artist’s talk at the RPL theatre on Sunday, Dec. 8 at 1:oo, followed by a book launch at 2:00 and a children’s workshop (pre-registration required) from 2:30-3:30. 

2013-11-28