Dash Shaw has always been hard to pin down. Over the course of a series of graphic novels including “Bottomless Belly Button,” “BodyWorld,” “Doctors” and “New School,” he’s established himself as one of the best cartoonists of his generation, both a masterful craftsman and a thoughtful, emotional storyteller.
2016 will be the biggest year yet for Shaw, with Fantagraphics having recently released “Cosplayers,” collecting Shaw’s stories about Annie and Verti, two young women whose passion leads them in different directions. Later this year will see the release of “A Cosplayers Christmas,” a sequel to the previous book which doubles as a heartfelt holiday tale. Shaw has also written and directed the feature length animated film “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” which had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
“Cosplayers” focuses on two characters, but it’s about fandom, how comics can change our lives, collaging and creativity. We spoke with Shaw about the book, his movie, the differences between comics and animation, and why Jack Kirby is the William Blake of our time.
CBR: Where did the idea for “Cosplayers” originate?
Dash Shaw: I wasn’t really planning on doing more stories with these characters; I just had the idea for the very first story of these people who did cosplay and meet. They start taking that part of cosplay that I like, which is the fantasy into reality part of it, and the DIY part of it, and start staging fantasy episodes in real life. When I had that idea, I branched into doing drawings of cosplayers and that was more interesting than I thought it would be. These characters exist as comic characters, but they’re now real people and I’m taking those people and drawing them, turning them into comic characters and putting them in this comic. As I got further into it, I realized that it was a lot deeper and there was a lot more to dig out than I thought there initially would be. Cosplay relates to performance and theatricality and comics and fandom and fantasy and reality, and I feel like my stories highlight all of these things in their own little idiosyncratic ways.
It does a lot of things at once. It’s suggesting that fandom is wider and more humanistic and more varied than the characters that the fans are fans of. I think that’s one part of it. Another part of it is how fantasy is invading reality–or how reality is mixing with fiction. When I stumbled across these collage backgrounds, that felt like it was the final piece. Collages are taking things from popular culture and repurposing them and finding connections between things and really taking control over these things that are outside of you. I came across that collage part late but when I did the collection I could cut up things from the Cosplayers issues and repurpose them and make collages more part of the book. I redrew the first story and used actual comic panels inside of the story.
Collage is one of the themes of the last story. Where did the idea for that story in particular come from?
I thought it would be really cool to see a comic story about a comic store owner that was one of the comic store owners that I really love. The ones I have seen in popular culture, like the Comic Book Guy on "The Simpsons," are abrasive and snotty. My heart is with these ex-hippie comic shop owners who are obsessed with comics. These characters would get to meet this person and he would talk about how he came to own this comic store and how comics took over his whole life. It’s one of those stores where we don’t know if they have set hours and you don’t know how they make money. It’s a specific kind of comic shop that I think a lot of people are familiar with, who love comic books and who love looking through old bins of comics.
The collage part, where they cut up those comics -- to me, comics are there to help us in our life. We’re there to transform and interpret them. That’s my perspective. The end of that story is the comic book story saying, I wanted to be transformed, thank you. It’s partly a joke but the comics in that story are commanding you to open them. They’re in control of the situation rather than the reader. I think that those [Jack] Kirby “2001” comics would think it’s awesome to be transformed by these people.
I think most fans have a story like that, maybe not on the scale that character does, but we have a comic that changed us and changed our view of the world and what we wanted to do.
I really wanted it to be passionate. Like he says he sees that everything is both itself and the symbol of itself. He learned this from Kirby. I think that is a real semi-psychedelic realization that is in Kirby that can alter your mind. That books and comics and music and movies are like consciousness-altering devices. I wanted it to really celebrate comics in a big way and not just a they can tell any kind of story you want kind of way.
Was Jack Kirby that for you?
I think the “2001” comics in particular are such a great example. “2001” is, of course, about these monoliths that change culture. I believe in all of the things that that comic store owner says about Kirby.
I liked “2001” a lot but when I was a kid I saw the “Fantastic Four” story where they become pirates. I think the official title is something like “Escaping Dr. Doom” but it’s the famous Fantastic Four become pirates story. It was fantastic. I really think that Kirby is the William Blake of our time. His comics are visionary. Words can’t express their power. That’s how I feel.
A lot of comics people do not like cosplay or cosplayers, to put it mildly.
I learned that after having made these comics. [Laughs] I didn’t know that before. It honestly never occurred to me that people would have a problem with cosplayers. It always seemed cool to me. When these issue come out, I found out that a lot of people don’t like cosplayers.
You make it very explicit that the cosplayers in your book read a comic and were transformed by it. But they didn’t want to then write "Spider-man" for Marvel or run a comic shop; they found a different creative outlet. The key for you is being transformed and then making something in response.
I think so. They’re definitely creative people. The characters in my book are telling stories and they’re making these movies and they’re really trying to participate in larger culture. They’re participating in what they’re fans of.
You also have another single comic coming out, “A Cosplayers Christmas.”
I realized that I didn’t have a story that was about them making one of the items for their cosplay. I thought that was a mistake; there should have been a story that was solely about making an item. I always liked The Charlie Brown Christmas Special. I’ve always thought it was one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever. And I liked the idea of doing a straight, sincere Christmas story. Those two ideas merged. One character is cosplaying as Indiana Jones and so the other character wants to make a holy grail for her to have–so it’s her quest for the holy grail. That’s it. It’s a 24 page issue that’s about getting cosplay-related gifts and exchanging them for Christmas. It’ll be a separate pamphlet comic. I know it sounds goofy, but I think it’ll be a really cool item.
You said before that you wanted this book to have the dimensions of the Fritz books that Gilbert Hernandez has been putting out from Fantagraphics. Those are books that on the surface seem very simple genre stories, but they’re complex. Which I think is one way to read “Cosplayers” as well.
I think those books are the best things that he’s ever done in his career. They’re my favorite comics to read, especially “Lovers Boys,” “Love From the Shadows," “Speak of the Devil.” I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. Especially among other alternative comics artists, those Beto books are the best books coming out right now.
When it comes to modeling the “Cosplayers” book on the same dimensions as those Fritz books, it was really me participating in comics fandom. To model it after those books. Also when I went to the comics store I realized that was exactly the dimension that I wanted to hold in my hand and read. I could bring it on the subway and it wasn’t a giant book. I just loved those books and I thought Fantagraphics did a great job designing those books and I wanted to reformat Cosplayers into that size.
Do you see yourself telling more stories with Annie and Verti?
I don’t know. I did a story for Smoke Signal. I don’t have any stories right now, but I’ll do anything that is exciting. As I’ve gotten older, on the one hand I feel like I’ve gotten better at making comics, so all the comics I do now are better than when I was younger. On the other hand it feels like there’s so many more distractions and so many more anxieties that are preventing me from making comics. In order to make a comic it has to feel like you have to do it. Everything in your being has to make this comic because otherwise there are so many other things you could be doing with your time. That’s the case with this book. These stories were like powerful enough to force me to not do other things and work on these stories. If that happens again, I would have to do it.
When I was younger, I used to think it would be really fun to make a pirate comic. Now, it has to be more, that this is a story that only I can tell. It can’t just be a nice diversion at the end of the day. It has to be fun, but also meaningful, and also feel like a good use of my time.
You’re not thinking, now that I have this Christmas story, I need to make a couple more stories to make another book. You’re waiting until you have a good story you need to tell.
I know that you’re working on another book right now which is a little different for you, called “Discipline.” Could you share a little about it for people who don’t know?
I’m working on this book that I’ve been working on for a couple years now that’s about a Quaker soldier in the War Between the States. Quakers are famously pacifists but there are many who fought in the Civil War. There was even an all-Friends regiment. My story follows one of these boys who’s really enlisting to leave his middle of nowhere Quaker community and he’s thrust into this different culture. Quakers wouldn’t listen to music so imagine you’re hearing music and on top of all this culture shock, you’re also part of this crazy war. I was raised Quaker in Richmond, Virginia so I knew about this story for a long time. I thought it was an interesting part of history, but it seemed really intimidating.
This will sound really ridiculous but I went to the Civil War art show at The Met and I saw that all of the paintings and drawings were very small. That somehow made doing a book about this time more approachable. Lots of Civil War things are small. There’s something small scale about it. I thought I could draw the pages small and it made it easier to picture drawing this book. I started applying to places to get research materials and I got this great Cullman Center Fellowship at the New York Public Library. They gave me an office in the building with the Lions and they had tons of Quaker letters and diaries that became the text material of the book. I sat there every day gathering material and reading and drawing and figuring out more how to do this book. There’s a lot of different things to say about it but it’s one of the the things I’m working on. I have a few more chapters of it to go. One chapter of it ran in the last “Kramers Ergot” anthology.
Among those projects is the animated film “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” which premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. You’ve been working on this film the entire time I’ve known you and has an amazing cast.
Those actors understood the sensibility of this project and they were psyched to participate. They wanted to be a part of this weird animated movie. I tried to make a super awesome movie, and it played really well at TIFF, and Fantastic Fest was great. The comics that I make have always had a very limited audience. I always felt that there would be more people in the world who would like them if they had access to them. I don’t know if that’s true, but that was always my feeling. With this movie people who don’t know anything about my comics at all are psyched to watch it. The aesthetic and the humor and so many aspects of the movie are exactly like my comics, it’s just being presented in a different medium.
The average person is very skilled at watching movies; they’re really adept at understanding filmic language. In comics that just isn’t the case. I feel like in order to understand comics the way I do, you’d have to almost be me. You’d have to have been completely obsessed with comics from day one and just kept reading them your entire life and thinking about them all the time in order to understand that “Loverboys” is a masterpiece. The average person is still figuring out basic comics language.
Having seen clips of the movie, I can see your aesthetic, but what do you think is the biggest difference between animation and comics?
I think they’re very very different. Comics are about simultaneity and juxtapositions and relationships between things on the page; movies are about time and controlled time with things unfolding in time. When I started making animations I thought that comics and cartoons were more similar than they were. When you’re a kid you read the X-Men comic book and then see the X-Men cartoon and they’re both drawing and they’re both storytelling. There are a lot of things that are similar, but they’re really completely different mediums. Part of why it took me so is that I had to figure out this new medium. I went to the Sundance Labs and I did the IFC series and I was slowly figuring out how to make these things that I wanted to make.
You’re working on “Discipline,” you’re working on a new movie, in addition to other projects. Are you as busy as it sounds? Are things busier for you than they have been?
I think things are going along at the pace that they have been, but now finally some things are done. The animated movie is done and coming out. “Cosplayers” is done and coming out. Maybe it feels like I’m busier, but it’s just because things are coming out. Those things that are coming out are the result of working on them every day for years. I draw every day and I just plug along every day and try to keep myself excited.