David Malki! Talks "Wondermark"

David Malki ! has been entertaining people since 2003, not just by using an exclamation mark as an honorific, but with the webcomic "Wondermark" which Malki ! describes as "an illustrated jocularity." The strip began as a weekly and is now updated on Tuesdays and Fridays, composed mainly of art and illustrations that Malki has culled from his own collection of nineteenth century illustration.

Malki has also written "Dispatches from Wondermark Manor," three Victorian parody novels available on the website, as well as directed, edited and co-wrote the award-winning short film "Expendable," available on AreYouExpendable.com.

Following up on the release of last year's "Beards of Our Forefathers," which was nominated for an Eisner this year for Best Humor Publication, comes another collection from Dark Horse, "Clever Tricks to Stave Off Death."

With the book on sale this month, Malki ! took some time out from his busy schedule to talk to CBR News about his many projects.

CBR: Was there any particular comic book or comic strip that played a role in shaping the sensibility of "Wondermark" and your interest in comics?

DAVID MALKI !: I read newspaper comic strips a lot growing up, much more than comic books, and I guess I've sort of internalized that format over the years as a way to tell silly little stories. Early influences were reprints of 1960s-70s "Peanuts," which my parents had dozens of volumes of; "Pogo," which I didn't quite understand but loved to read anyway; and of course the standbys of "Calvin & Hobbes" and "The Far Side," which pretty much anyone doing comic strips today can point to as influences. I read many more as well -- everything on my local newspaper's comics page -- and I think they all helped shape my understanding of how the format works, but those were the most creatively inspiring.

More than once, I traced over the characters in "Garfield," "Hagar the Horrible," or "Beetle Bailey" and re-wrote my own dialogue. So maybe that was an early signifier of what I would end up doing!

You worked for years in advertising, crafting trailers and commercials. How helpful was that for you in terms of pacing and timing and such?

Advertising teaches you the need for brevity and boldness. Being overly subtle in commercials is a good way to not sell very many products. I don't necessarily think that approach makes for great art, but it is certainly handy to have experience and training in a field like that -- I can break out the boldness when necessary, I know how to do it. And editing a movie trailer is very similar to what I do in "Wondermark;" I take pieces of a larger whole and re-assemble them into something different. Maybe my mind just bends that way!

In general, though, I think it's really valuable to have training in very different fields, because the skills can inform each other in clever ways and help you create something very distinctively your own. Also, you realize how lucky you are not to have to do it for a living any more.

How much time do you spend considering the pace of a joke and the dialogue? Do you think the sheer richness of the images means that people read it differently?

I don't know that people actually take a lot more time reading "Wondermark" than they do any other strip -- perhaps if there's something particularly unusual, they might stare at it for a handful more seconds. But because of the way the strip is made from repeated illustrations, I do have some different tools at my disposal relative to traditional cartoonists -- I can weave an element into the background without the reader noticing, for example, that can suddenly comes into play surprisingly; or I can show the same image in a different context and let the reader's perception of it change. It's a slightly different discipline from traditional cartooning and I'm still playing with the opportunities for its own type of storytelling that it presents. Also, using the old-timey images makes my comic look cool.

Had you been drawing and turned to the found images because you felt hamstrung by your own limitations as an artist?

I've always been an artist, and it was my training in art that really opened my eyes to the beauty of these old images. I've drawn comics in the past, but this collage-y format lent itself to making very fast, very interesting-looking comics very easily. Over time I've definitely tried to challenge myself, and the comics I make today are much more elaborate than the ones I was making six years ago. But sure, I think it'd be fair to say that I'm creating things that are more interesting than I'd probably be able to draw on my own, at least on a regular basis. I have more patience for this technique than I do with my own drawing skill.

How did you end up at Dark Horse and what has your relationship with them been like?

I met the editor at Dark Horse through my friend Nicholas Gurewitch, whom I met through doing comics, and after the success of his ["The Perry Bible Fellowship"] book, Dark Horse was very keen to explore the further potential of webcomics. They've been great; they recognized that I have a very particular vision for how I want my books to come together, and to their credit, they've largely stood back and let me run with it. I've been very happy with our collaboration and I guess they must be too, since we're planning a third book together. That's a good sign, right? Sometimes I am bad at sensing these things.

The humor of "Wondermark" is very dry. Is that how you would describe your own sensibility?

This is a question I should probably turn over to my solicitor, Dr. H.F. Bumbersnoot Jr. Esq., who advises me to answer "strictly on-topic and with no extraneous balderdash," a shameful habit that is rather hard for me to curtail. Last time I was asked what I found funny, I ended up burying a man's nose six inches deep in his throat with a ball-peen hammer and it made for a decidedly awkward Christmas.

How much of the "Wondermark" artwork is found and how much is either drawn by you in that style or cobbled together from different pieces?

Most of it is assembled from different components in greater or lesser degrees. Occasionally I'll draw a hand or a head or a facial expression, but most of the fun of the comic is in creating collages, building scenes out of paper dolls and toys and elements and props. Even strips that don't look particularly "weird" are often composite images created from a variety of sources because I felt the need to alter a pose or marry a character with a setting other than where it originated from. I definitely do not shy away from chopping up the source images if needed -- at some level, it just becomes shapes and textures in service of the greater good. That would be a good name for my autobiography.

What period and from what sources do you get these images?

The images come from the second half of the 19th Century, and largely from magazines of the period. This was a real boom time for illustrated magazines that reached every part of Europe and America through the newly efficient postal system, and there was a big demand for illustrations that could be reproduced by the printing technology of the time, which meant single-color woodcuts and engravings. (Advances in photographic printing in the 1890s basically destroyed this entire artform.) I have a growing collection of old magazines, newspapers, catalogs, and in some cases storybooks and primers that I scan the images from, and part of the fun is seeing the styles change over time, or comparing trends between different types of publications in different countries.

And I usually try to find books that have been somehow damaged or otherwise have very little collector's value, so I can acquire them cheaply and don't feel too bad pressing them flat on a scanner. Book lovers weep when they see what I've done to some of these books, but to them I just say, "The ravages of time were doing the same thing! Only slower, and more painfully."

You're doing a lot of different projects, can you see cutting back on "Wondermark" or taking a break from it?

I've actually cut back on other projects to spend more time with "Wondermark!" One of my main goals is developing "Wondermark" into more of a comprehensive brand rather than just a single comic strip -- that's why you see things like my greeting card line and the "Dispatches from Wondermark Manor" novels. The more different ways I can come at the idea of entertaining people, I think, the more rich the whole world of it becomes.

I'm a big fan of losing the "comics" from "webcomics" insofar as that the comic format doesn't have to be the beginning and end of a creator's expression of creativity. People shouldn't feel limited by labels like "webcomics" that someone else just made up. I am heading up a campaign to introduce the broader, more inclusive term "electric jollies" to replace "webcomics."

Where did "Dispatches from Wondermark Manor" come from and will we be seeing more of them?

The "Dispatches from Wondermark Manor" parody Victorian novels came from being steeped in the language and style of Victorian-period writing, just as a side effect of spending hours and hours poring through so many old books looking for images. I found that the rhythms stuck with me, and one day I decided I wanted to write my own piece in that style, very absurd and exaggerated. It was fun enough that I kept doing it, and before long, I'd written most of a novel! Then I just kept going, and now there's a full trilogy of novels, each a little longer and more strange than the last.

Next on the docket is an audiobook version of the first volume, which will be a podcast, and sometime soon I'm going to return to the style in the form of shorter stories which will be written through a dedicated Twitter account. I think that'll be a fun exercise. I mean a delightful escapade.

It seems you're interested in comedy and comics are just one way to do that. You're not really comics fan. Do you think that's fair?

I like comics, but I have no special fetishistic love for the artform like some people do. I think comics are neat when they're neat and dumb when they're dumb, and I'm glad loads of people are reading them and enjoying them -- but in general I'm most keen on things that are interesting, no matter what form they take. This is true in terms of the things I like to create as well as the things I read. I think the beauty of "webcomics" or whatever is that the skeleton of the whole thing is a website, which can be a vehicle for anything at all. Loads of people have been successful making a thing with no label; on the internet, the big question isn't "what is it?" but "is it interesting?" Although of course the answer to "what is it?" is now "an electric jolly, obviously."

Doing a gag comic is a craft in and of itself. How does "Wondermark" play to your strengths and is it hard continually coming up with new situations, new jokes, new characters?

I like the freedom of not being limited by a setting or existing characters -- if I want to do a comic about politics, or relationships, or Facebook, anything is possible. I do think that story comics have some advantages over gag strips in that the audience can get engaged with the characters and the world in a way that's very difficult to do with a gag strip. But there are challenges to both formats, and on balance I don't think a gag strip is any easier or more difficult than a story strip. But a gag strip is easier for readers to share, post on blogs, etc. and it's easy for new readers to jump on at any time -- that's a key advantage that's kept me married to the format, and I've exercised my impulse to tell longer stories in different ways outside of the comic itself.

Besides, because of how I make my strip, I don't always know what it's going to be about when I start assembling it, and I like that freedom to make up stuff on the fly. If everything were pre-scripted, like it would have to be for a story strip, I think when it got down to the actual execution of making the comics, I'd get bored. I guess I bore easily?

What "Wondermark" strips have gotten a lot of feedback about you hadn't expected?

I've had some intense reactions to some of the more political strips I've done (such as #220). Political or highly topical strips tend to attract a lot of attention in the moment that they're relevant, though they don't age well in books and so on. But I still like doing them from time to time if for no other reason than they can provide an injection of new readers, some percentage of whom usually stick around. Also, strips that speak to people's obsessions (such as #442) tend to pull readers out of the woodwork, because folks like knowing they're not alone, that others share the unique way they think and feel about topics they're passionate about.

The nice thing about doing the strip for this long is that my audience is more-or-less distilled into people that care about the sorts of things that I care about, so they're fun to talk to and share with. I approve of them.

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