THE INTERVIEW: Graphic Novelist Dash Shaw

Graphic novelist and animator Dash Shaw made a name for himself in the industry with innovative works like Bottomless Belly Button, a graphic novel published by Fantagraphics, and Body World, a web comic that will soon be released in print form by Pantheon. The artist, who graduated from School of Visual Arts in 2005 and is part of the Meathaus Collective is now stepping into the world of animation with a series of short animated films for the Independent Film Channel entitled The Unclothed Man In the 35th Century A.D. based on a collection of previously published short stories. The very innovative series of short animations about figure drawing in the future will air on IFC and can be viewed for free online at IFC.com. I had a chance to catch up with him and to speak about his work, the current state of the graphic novel world, and about our alma mater, School of Visual Arts.

The world of comics, illustration, and graphic novels has changed a great deal in recent years to the point where Persepolis is now required reading in many high schools. I wanted to get your input on where the medium is going and your feeling on how far it’s come.

I graduated School of Visual Arts in 2005 so I’m very fortunate to be taking advantage of all these people like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware that created the environment that exists today. My comics are in book stores really because of those guys but if I was born in a different time, I would be doing something similar; it would just be in a different form. Now it’s really hard for alternative cartoonists to do monthly pamphlet comics because they don’t sell very well so no one publishes them, but now we also have web comics which are a way to do your own thing and post it and I think I am okay with that trade off. I mean I like print pamphlet serialized comics a lot and I also like web comics so I think it’s just changing and we’ll see what happens next.

You must have been inspired by a lot of old school comic books when you were younger right?

Yeah, I mean my dad was a comic reader and I grew up exposed to a lot of comics history, underground comics and different things. I was reading comics and around middle school, that was when the Japanese comics, the anime and manga invasion, started moving so I kind of caught that and was totally into anime and manga and going to the comic conventions. I think what I’m doing right now is kind of a combination of these kinds of alternative comics and Japanese comics and cartoons.

Yeah, I read that in high school you actually spent some time in Japan?

Yeah, that was just, that was just a school year and I was there to help students learn English because they were in a very small town south of Nagoya so there weren’t a lot of foreigners there. They wanted someone, you know a native English speaking person, to be there and I also wanted the enrichment and to go to Japan.

What town were you in?

I was in a really, I mean really, nothing train stop town called Kasumigaoka south of Nagoya. I tried to find it on Google maps the other day and I actually found it but it was in the middle of nowhere.

Spending time in Japan must have had a pronounced effect on you. I might be more sensitive to it because I just returned from Japan myself but I noticed some of the Japanese sensibilities in the way you use color and the way your comics read. What did you notice that affected you specifically?

You know Bottomless Belly Button, it reads like a manga, it reads fast and it’s very character driven and it’s like one of those 800 page Japanese comics that take two hours to read. With these [The Unclothed Man In the 35th Century A.D.] cartoons it was also a lot like that loving relationship that happens in Japan between comics and animation and there’s a lot of cross over in the talent. It’s very much like a business thing there but I still really like it. It isn’t a super conscience thing; I think it is just that I like making comics and those are the kind of comics I like to read and the kind of comics I like to watch. I mean I like Aeon Flux and Batman: The Animated Series and some of these hand drawn cartoons in the 90’s, but for animation it’s really easier to use Japanese cartoons like the Golgo 13: The Professional movie the way the drawings flicker and the way it feels really hand done and off model. I just love watching documentaries with Miyazaki and he’s there drawing and he’s the director. He’s like the greatest director in the world and he’s there like figuring out how someone falls and drawing it like he’s a fucking artist like he’s really trying to figure it out. The Japanese animation feels like real art when it’s good, but I mean there’s tons of shitty Japanese cartoons too.


When they’re good you get the same feeling as when it’s a comic book and it is one person’s vision. I like the Pixar stuff but it still feels like it’s made by a committee you know, you don’t get that like single vision feeling. Up is cool but it kind of felt written around a board meeting with people offering options you know; it’s no where close to Ponyo.

Are these animated shorts you did for IFC your first real animated films? How long ago did you start doing animation?

I did test animations, a one minute animation for Bottomless Belly Button and then I did another one for Body World. I also did a lot of flipbooks you know, in middle school and high school but this is the first narrative thing that’s out there.

What made you come across the blend of animation styles that you use? Did you know right away that you wanted to use this mixed style of animation?

Well there’s a lot of different things in “Unclothed Man” like hand drawn animation and I wanted to be able to draw a majority of it myself- that’s just the animation that I like. I don’t have any interest in Flash animation or CG. I like sitting at a desk drawing

Which is also appropriate for the subject matter of the film too.

And also, I just don’t know those computer programs but that’s just because I don’t feel like I want to learn them. I don’t even know about squash and stretch. I mean I know about it but I wasn’t trained, I didn’t get any training in animation and you could probably tell.

Well there is still a sensibility about hand drawn animation which really looks different; it has a warmer feel to it so I totally understand.

Yeah, it’s really moving. I think it’s an emotionally moving process to figure out how someone does a really mundane activity and really break it down into small movements and really draw it and figure it out. If you’re not doing a kind of cut out Flash thing or a rotoscope thing you’re just sitting there just trying to fucking figure out how someone is going to take a step forward in perspective like that you need to know the human figure really well. I think it really increases your sensitivity to the world and your body, you know?

Yeah, actually drawing is at the center of the story too, you must spend a lot of time drawing from life to get these figures and understand the physics of things correct, right?

Well, I’ve done drawing from life but I didn’t take any reference for anything, but yeah, the whole “Unclothed Man” thing is about the love of figure drawing. It comes from me going to SVA and taking McMullan’s drawing class, maybe you took that too, just falling in love with his philosophy and that kind of cult of students that were centered around him and being a part of that. All these different colleges had their different art programs, like these warring tribes of different philosophies of how you should draw. Then when I graduated SVA I went to Richmond, VA and worked as a figure drawing model just to kind of continue being in that environment, I thought it improved my drawings but the teacher that I spent a lot of time working with there was very traditional, you know, where there is one pose for months and months and months and you’re plotting points.

Wow, months?

Yeah, “The Unclothed Man” is about these different ways of drawing and that’s connected to the weird paranoia that happens when you are a figure drawing model connected to the obvious sexual undertones to figure drawing and figure drawing modeling. That’s usually not talked about for obvious reasons in classrooms. Plus, technology was coming into figure drawing, like people bringing Wacoms. When I was doing this it was like 2006 and people just started bringing in Wacom tablets into figure drawing classes. So, if you are interested in figure drawing I think this is the animated series for you (laughing) cause it’s all about that…you know, the five people out there who are really into it (laughing). I think a lot of people go to art school and are exposed to it and I wanted to do something that was explicitly about that because it was really interesting to me. It’s such an unromantic thing to do. I guess when a lot of people get out of school they really want to feel like they didn’t go to art school or that they were self trained and you want to be this romantic folk artist or something that didn’t go to weird figure drawing classes all the time.

It has a sense of humor too. There is a fun sense of humor in most of your work. Do you find it hard to write the humor?

I don’t know, thanks for saying that, you know when I’m drawing I think I want to laugh and all of these things are funny to me so when I’m drawing I’m just laughing all the time. I don’t ever sit down and think ‘I need a funny gag right here’ or something. There are also lots of people who talk to me who don’t even get that some of these things could be funny. They don’t see the humor in it so I think if you don’t have a similar sense of humor it’s possible to watch these things and think that they’re just really weird or something- that they are not funny, I don’t know?

I saw you were working with graphic designer Chip Kidd at Pantheon Graphic Novels as an editor for the print version of Body World. He’s done some amazing stuff, what was that like?

It was good because there is this tradition of cartoonists that they publish that come from the Fantagraphics tradition, where there’s not really a normal editorial process. I didn’t submit sketches; I’m used to them printing exactly what I send them.

I currently teach art and animation in high school I’d like to ask the last question on behalf of my art & media students. From your perspective at this point, how difficult is it to have a career in illustration, comics, and graphic novels? I know the industry is changing but as someone who has had success, what advice do you give?

I actually have some advice, my advice to try to create an environment where you can do it so that if you live in a place that is expensive and you have to work longer than you would want at a normal job just to pay the bills so you can live at this place, I would say seriously consider moving to a place that is much cheaper so you can spend more time working on your comics. It sounds really obvious to say but a lot of people don’t do that. A lot of people think it’s better for their careers if they stay in New York, but there are places out there where you can live for just a couple of hundred dollars a month and spend most of your time just drawing your own things. That’s the thing I’ve seen a lot of my friends getting into, people who do really great work and they are just kind of in this situation where they can’t spend their time doing what they want to do. The other thing is it’s probably going to be touch and go forever and you are going to have to do an absurd amount of work before you get a penny for it and even when you get that penny, it’s probably just going to be a penny. On the other hand it is really awesome to draw all the time and devote your life to it.

And as someone who is self-published quite a bit, would you recommend it for young artists who are sort of coming up? Did that help you?

I think it’s good to see your illustrations or comics in print and to see how it’s different but it’s also good to have an awareness that it’s going to be something that you are going to be embarrassed of later so don’t make too many copies of it (laughs).

That’s good advice.

But I do think it is good to see what it looks like printed if you want to but you know I’ve done so many things that when I see it I’m like “Oh shit, I did that?” (laughs).

Yeah, it’s just part of the process I guess?

Yeah, what I think is really good about comics and animation and illustration is that if there is something good, people will notice it. I think it will stand out. I think that there’s not a lot of shit in-between the people and the work, you know? If someone just put up a web comic right now and it’s really good, I really think it would be found. I don’t think there are a lot of barriers. You don’t need an agent to get someone to see it and it doesn’t matter how old you are or what you look like- I think in general, if it’s good, it’ll exist, it’ll be out there.

Check out more on Dash Shaw at his website and watch his web series The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D. at IFC.com.

Tim Needles

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