"Dresden Codak" Digs Deep Into Life & Death

Chances are you're unfamiliar with "Dresden Codak," but if you combined Nicholas Guerwitch's "Perry Bible Fellowship" with a Warren Ellis story, you'd have a good idea what it's like. Described by creator Aaron Diaz as a "celebration of science, death and human folly," "Dresden Codak" is a webcomic that covers a different theory or concept in each strip, from modern and post-modern philosophy to psychoanalysis to quantum physics. The rotating cast of characters include the brilliant and misanthropic scientist Kimiko "Thunderbolt" Ross, her friends Dimitri and Alina Tomaki (picture the Wonder Twins if their powers operated by scientific principles) and Tiny Carl Jung (one of the founders of tiny psychology).

The strip's current storyline is the massively epic "Hob," in which Kimiko finds a post-singularity robot and in so doing learns what the future might hold for both herself and artificial intelligence.

In the first part of his conversation with CBR News, Aaron Diaz talks about the "Hob" storyline, the origin of "Dresden Codak," and his influences as a cartoonist.

CBR: Where did the idea for "Dresden Codak" come from?

Aaron Diaz: I would always be drawing this and that on the side and it was actually "Perry Bible Fellowship" that spurred me to put it online. That's when I thought there really could be audience for weird stuff like this. Like most webcomics, it began as just sort of a hobby thing. My first attempt at making something was basically a knockoff of "PBF," just small three-panel strips with punch line-driven humor. I realized I wasn't very good at it.

That's when I discovered [the now defunct webcomic] "The Lesson Is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible." They were playing with panel design, really crazy layouts, infinite canvass -- a lot of things I hadn't really seen before. I realized that appealed more to me than straight jokes, so I threw away the old format I was using and focused more on telling stories.

That's an easy influence to see in your work. The entire canvass is the joke as opposed to merely the final panel.

Which is something that's very intentional, because if you're not good at [punch lines], you can lose the whole strip. But if you have multiple jokes or a funny concept, you're not reliant on a single element to always hit a homerun.

The strip spans the gamut of the academic: philosophy, mathematics, psychology, and the bleeding edge of technology itself. What's your educational background?

Exactly what you'd think. I went to school for about six years and didn't finish. I changed my major a few times. I went from physics to anthropology to computer science to art. I found that my biggest problem at school was that I had too many interests and didn't know what to do with myself. The comic ended up being a nice outlet, because I could write about whatever I was interested in. I'd say I'm most strongly versed in physics and the history of science in particular, though.

How much research ends up going into a "Dresden Codak" script?

Since I started the current storyline "Hob," not so much, mainly because I've had most of it written out for a while. In general, when I do a single strip about a concept, I usually have a large stack of books and Wikipedia handy for the references. But the stories usually come from whatever I happen to be reading at the time, anyway. I read a lot of textbooks and non-fiction about science, and then if I get a neat idea, I just jot a note about it. Sometimes a simple idea can lead to a really big story. The central idea behind "Hob" is the Axolotl that morphs into the Salamander. That's a metaphor for the future of humanity and it actually came from a little passage in Richard Dawkin's "The Ancestor's Tale."

You read textbooks for fun?

Yeahhh... sometimes I do. I'm one of those guys. Mostly I'm just fascinated with any kind of academic non-fiction.

How did you get started drawing?

I was a poor child and we couldn't afford toys. [Drawing] was the way I passed the time. But it was all casual. I never even made an attempt at developing a serious style until I was well into the comic. I never really had any art training. Most of it is self-taught. About a year into ["Dresden Codak"], I decided I needed some art classes and I switched my major. All of which kind of explains why it takes me so long to draw anything.

What are the influences on your art? It's a very strange style. It has some Asian influence but it's difficult to nail down.

Yes. I think my influences have change a lot, though. When I started the strip, my biggest influences were various kinds of anime, which I really couldn't do very well. It wasn't even a style so much as a way [anime creators] approach narrative visual content. It was a lot more serious than what I'd seen in animation or American comics. I actually grew up reading American superhero comics but I had no interest in emulating any of it. It'd been done to death.

But as the strip got more elaborate, I started reading a lot more comics by the French artist Moebius, who is probably one of my favorite creators of all time. Also, more recently, I've been reading a lot of Mike Mignola's work on "Hellboy." The ambitious approach to layouts in both those works is something that really interests me. I think my art is shifting away from Asian influence and to a more European style because of what I've been reading.

Let's talk about your layouts. You really do shake up the traditional form of panel progression, even basic things like always following the story left to right. What is the thinking behind that?

The truth is there isn't a lot of thinking behind it. It's mostly me being experimental with it just to see what I can do. If everything isn't visually interesting, I get bored with it. So the panels start competing for my attention just like the characters and the scenery. It also has to do with my desire to make my comic work only as a comic and not look like a storyboard for a cartoon. I don't usually plan out the layouts. It's a very intuitive process for me, moving things around until I feel comfortable with it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Generally, I've found when you switch from right to left, you have to be very careful not to make it obvious because if people are just seeing the layout and not the comic, then you've really killed it.

Tell us about your new storyline, "Hob."

It started out as two or three different stories I had that I was going to make into smaller comics. The first one was something I had cooking in the back of my head for years, literally before I started "Dresden Codak." It was a little short story I wrote that was a little absurdist adventure about this robot named Hob. The other idea I had -- once I introduced Kimiko into the strip -- I had this idea for this grandiose future in which she's become a kind of robot overlord. Then I read this short story in "The Ancestor's Tale" and I realized I could combine all these stories into one big one. The idea was to flesh out Kimiko's character more, which I felt I needed to do to make the single-page strips work better. It's about her coming to terms with who she is and her propensity to ignore the human condition. Also, it's kind of story that's just my view of the future I'm afraid of, where people will become surrogates to consumerism and their own base desires, while machines continue to live everyone's lives for them. It's about human beings inventing themselves out of existence, which is really the central idea of "Hob."

It's a simple story, it just comes off as very complicated. [laughs.]

Is Kimiko the main character of "Dresden Codak?"

Initially, she wasn't going to be. She was just going to be a character I threw in once in a while because I like having someone that I can use to vent my weird world view. Then I realized that the way she acted, the character she became, worked very well for the strip. She talks a lot, which is good because there's a lot of heavy ideas that come up in the strip, but at the same time she's kind of presented as a bit of an explorer which allows me to jump to different worlds and whatever.

I really don't want to have a comic that's appealing mainly because of its cast. There's nothing wrong with that, people do it, but I'm always afraid people will come back only out of continuity and "what are the characters doing this week?" Even with this big story, I wanted to make sure that the universe itself and the ideas presented are kind of the star of the show. It's helpful to balance.

I should also point out that despite the fact that the "Hob" story is rather epic, there isn't really an over-arching continuity in "Dresden Codak." I think that other people can do [that kind of thing], but I'm not really interested in it.

"Hob" is a real departure in that sense. Was it always the plan to go from self-contained, surreal single-strips to something larger like this or did it just develop naturally?

I've always had a bunch of big ideas in the back of my head for stories I wanted to do, and "Hob" just happened to be the one that jumped out first. It's really about me doing the kind of stories I want to tell -- whether they're long or they're short. Before "Hob," I didn't really feel I had the kind of background or detail to the world to pull something like this off. Probably once "Hob" is over, I won't do anything this epic for quite a while. It's taken more than a year now and I'm looking for a break. It's been a lot of fun, but "Hob" has gotten a little too serious, I think, and I miss being able to throw whatever I want into a comic.

Kimiko is somewhat obsessed with finding a way to circumvent her mortality, which is expressed in "Hob." When did you first become interested in the technology singularity, which has become a large part of the strip?

Interestingly, it was actually introduced to me primarily through my readers -- the singularity as a formalized term anyway. I always kind of knew that existed but I never knew that there were organizations built around it and that kind of thing. But it was always in my head in that I understood the kind of direction technology moves in, and it was just a very natural fit for Kimiko given how savvy she is about this stuff.

Moreover, I think her obsession has to do with more than just avoiding death. It's really about trying to not be human. She's incessantly misanthropic and antisocial, so this really distant promise of avoiding all the human frailties she might have, her insecurities, it's very tempting for her. So she's kind of devoted her life to it.

Would you say there's a lot of yourself in Kimiko, or is she kind of a composite of people you've known?

I have found that due to the transparency of webcomics a lot of people closely associate the author with their work. People mostly assume that the comic's main character is the voice of or a carbon copy of the writer. But Kimiko is a lot less like me than most people would ever think. A lot of my characters are sort of caricatures of one idea I have or one habit that I have. She is kind of a parody of my mostly teenage obsession with robots and Isaac Asimov stories and generally just a parody of a misanthropic nerd. Not the most elaborate character but I built on that until she became very fleshed out.

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