Dylan Meconis: From "Family Man" to PVP"

Dylan Meconis first came to notice as a cartoonist thanks to her webcomic, "Bite Me!," a fun romp involving vampires and the French Revolution. When that wrapped, Meconis went on to create a number of shorter comics, including the Eisner Award nominated "Outfoxed," while building an impressive portfolio of illustration work, some of which was included in her art book, "Danse Macabre 2.0."

Meconis is currently working on two major web projects. The first is "Family Man," a complex, atmospheric tale that she's posting one page a week on www.lutherlevy.com. It's a story that's hard to classify, featuring a character teaching at a small college in Bohemia in the 18th Century, possibly involving werewolves and a number of other secrets. Meconis is also currently working with Scott Kurtz to co-write the long-running webcomic "PVP." Meconis spoke with CBR News about these two very different projects.

CBR News: Where did "Family Man" come from?

Dylan Meconis: That is a terrifying question. I'm always tempted to say that I found it at a flea market.

"Family Man" comes from a lot of different places. I had a nice overstuffed liberal arts education. I read a lot of primary source historical writing and Important Fiction and acted in a lot of plays. As a kid, I always loved mythology and fantasy, and I gradually came to feel like history is the most incredible genre of fantasy; you'll never be able to visit that time and a place, but it was complete and real. Everybody can follow the big events (1066! 1492! 1776!), but when it comes to individuals, you can only catch glimpses of people's inner lives, and try to reverse-engineer the world they lived in day-to-day. That's fun for me. 

So "Family Man" is an opportunity for me to drag up just about everything I was ever randomly had a brain crush on and hang it around a totally character-driven plot. That changes it from "random cultural factoids I will bore you with at parties" to "stuff that's having a big impact on imaginary people you've come to care about." So I finally have a use for the mental image of an amazing 18th century hunting rifle I saw at a museum when I was a teenager.

In terms of where the notion of doing the story at all came from, Luther was a side character in my first book, "Bite Me!" It is a very silly book, and he was very much the odd man out in that cast of characters. I initially thought telling the story of his youth would be a funny lark with an oddball love story and some supernatural humor, but it turned out to be a serious and much more involved story.

When people ask you what the comic is about, what do you tell them?

When people ask, I tell them that it's a historical fiction academic family drama romance and that maybe there are werewolves. By then, they're so confused that I can steal their wallets no problem, and they're too dazed to give a description to the police.

It's about a young, half-Jewish theology student who flunks out of grad school when he acquires a bad case of atheism. In order to get away from his family, he takes a job at an obscure university. He falls in love and starts up a secret affair with the librarian -- who also happens to be his boss's daughter. Unbeknownst to him, his new love interest is not only taking care of her father at the university but also donning boots and a rifle to visit a mysterious, possibly pagan tribe that lives in the woods outside of town. 

The rest is spoilers.

Thematically, it's a story about what you do with yourself after you realize you can't stay anymore -- in school, in your family's house, in your church, in your career, in a relationship.  All of which is very much on your mind in your twenties and early thirties, when you're faced with making your own life and nobody gives you a pass anymore for being a kid. I started "Family Man" shortly after finishing college, and I turned 30 this year, so it is a personally timely work. And the period that it's set in, the Enlightenment, was a similarly challenging period of transition in Europe.

Are you a big history buff? Between this and "Bite Me!" I have to ask, what is it about the 18th Century that you find so fascinating?

Yes, I think we've determined that I'm a history nerd. I'm not the kind of monogamous enthusiast who reads eighteen different biographies of Lincoln or can do a play-by-play of Waterloo, or the person who writes a thesis on bird symbolism in the psalmody of 13th century Italian nuns. Kate Beaton and I get to chat on occasion about history topics, and I feel we have a similar species of interest -- a liberal arts student's more generalist curiosity mixed with a cartoonist's tendency to make use of unlikely little bits and bobs.

There are many time periods and locales I'd love to use for a story. Some I simply don't feel qualified to even get started on. Vedic India? 15th century Aztec? Han Dynasty China? 18th century central Europe for me feels much easier to get my hands around, probably because much of my education involved reading work from that time, learning along educational principles that were formed in that era, reading the classical works that people in that era were inspired by. As Americans we're constantly talking about what people from that era meant when they wrote this or that founding document. 

At the same time, there are already plenty of English-speakers invested in depicting the American Revolution, or the Regency era, so it feels like there are plenty of quiet corners of the 18th century left over that I can show in an original and distinct way, without feeling like a generalizing noob or an appropriating jerk, or worrying too much that I'm drawing the wrong kind of shoe.

Really, what started it all is that they made me read "A Tale of Two Cities" in high school. I thought it was a lamely Victorian story told in a really cool vivid setting. There's nothing like a book that annoys you to set on the path to finding out what a period was actually like.

I have to say, wolves and Protestant theology -- not two things that go together naturally.

I remember visiting a wolf sanctuary outside of Seattle when I was a kid. The caretaker on that day's tour explained to us that one particular wolf would never be released into the wild. This wolf had been raised exclusively by people as a pup, until it inevitably became a large, aggressive adult predator and had to be taken into custody. As a result, it didn't really know how to get along with other wolves, but it was still too dangerous to be treated like a domesticated dog and placed with human owners. Her take was that the wolf basically was programmed to think of itself as a human but act like a wolf, and would never stop being confused as a result, but that the sanctuary seemed to be the right balance for it.

The church I grew up in was Methodist, but very liberal. It had a lot of gay and lesbian congregation members, and plenty of straight people who had grown up in much more conservative churches or regions and had made the decision to move away. They were people who longed for a faith community, but one that would accept and celebrate them and do all the good stuff they were raised to believe churches were for. So they gradually built one for themselves, sort of carving out what aspects of the theology they grew up with was essential, and which parts could be left behind. 

I think there's plenty of potential connection there; possibly just for me, but hopefully for my readers too, at least by the end of the book.

How much is "Family Man" plotted out, and how do you write the book as you're going along?


t this point, it's fully plotted out, with just a few transitional scenes sort of up in the air, in terms of planning. I write scenes ahead of time -- sometimes very systematically, sometimes letting them sit around for awhile until I figure out what I need to do. I don't break up scenes into panels or pages in advance, since that gives me a nice new layout puzzle to solve each week. Since I'm writing for myself as the artist, I keep descriptions pretty sparing, and focus more on pacing and dialogue. When I work with another artist, or the script is for a publisher, I'll be much more formal about it!

What do you like most and what is the challenge of posting this longform comic one page at a time?

I like that it's given me the time to explore a much more mature story than I originally thought it would be. I enjoy getting to torture my lovely readers with lots of little cliffhangers and gradual reveals. The fact that it's not my full-time job means that I can bring new ideas into the work that I've picked up from other projects, or radically change something without consulting with an editor about page-length.

In terms of challenge, it can be frustrating to work at such a slow pace, and I'm not always "in the mood" during the time I have set aside for "Family Man" work. Often I'll have been cranking on another project, or it will just take me awhile to warm up and go back into the right headspace, or I'll have a head cold or a trip and be forced to take a week off. 

Readers also regularly apologize to me for not reading the comic page by page every week. I don't mind that -- it's ultimately meant to be read all at once, as a complete novel, or at least in chapters. But the drawn-out timeline does mean that it's easy for readers to forget past events in the story without a little prompting, or for me to be irrationally resentful that nobody mentions the five hundred book spines I just spent my evening coloring in in panel three. When, really, if somebody is noticing all the details in a page, I haven't quite done my job as a storyteller. 

How long is the book planned to run?

It will probably be three volumes! Volume II should be coming out in 2014. I'd like it to be three, because three is a classy number. Eventually, I'll have it collected as a single volume, and the glorious hardcover edition will double as a ship's anchor.

I feel that many comics, particularly those started online, suffer from Initial Ambition Syndrome; the young creator says, "I'm going to start my twelve volume fantasy epic that I've been thinking about since I was ten years old!" and gets eighty pages in and then realizes that maybe it would be better to quit and switch to less burdensome projects. I thought "Family Man" would be about 150 pages originally, so I like to think I'm reversing the trend.

Having spent all this time talking about "Family Man," I have to say that "PVP" seems like such a completely different kind of comic from your other work. What is it about "PVP" that appealed to you enough to join Scott Kurtz on it?

Yes, "PvP" is quite different, which I adore. There is part of me that loves to be taken seriously and to do comics that are long and dense and uncompressed. And there is another part of me that really loves coming up with gags and bouncing mismatched characters off each other to see the sparks fly. There really isn't a lot of room in "Family Man" for cat jokes, right? It's a breath of fresh air to be challenged to come up with something that can be expressed in three panels instead of three hundred pages. 

I've read "PvP" for years -- I think Scott was initially a little terrified talking to me because apparently I remembered story arcs he'd forgotten about. I think I was always impressed by Scott's crazy work ethic ("PvP" must be one of the most consistent and long-running strips online), the just disgusting leaps forward his artwork has taken and his obvious love and respect for his characters. It really is one of the few strips that has the same effect on me now that the best newspaper strips had on me as a kid. 

Scott is also willing to do weird new things in the strip to keep things fresh -- I think his most serious rule (that I can tell) is that you can't screw over his characters or turn them into puppets. They can't be empty vehicles for topical humor or creator soapboxing. He's not going to reboot them or kill them or turn them into an object lesson. 

Scott told me once that many of his readers don't respond as strongly to a standalone strip or a one-off gag; Reddit may go nuts over a punchline, but his core audience wants to see if Jade and Brent are going to have a kid. That was great to hear, because I am decent at coming up with pure jokes, but I am much more interested in telling jokes through characters.

So even if we're writing a strip about a roleplaying game or a snobby cafe or how cats are weird, the joke in "PvP" is twice as enjoyable because it's also about how Brent or Cole or Jade reacts to it. Even if you don't get the reference, you can enjoy the character's response. And the characters are so well-honed that we can put down "Francis sees a spider" as an idea on our brainstorm list and it will turn into a week's worth of material, because you can intuit exactly how the character will respond to a situation. To me, it feels like borrowing somebody else's cool toys. 

You did a guest run on the strip before you joined as a writer. How did both come about?

A couple years ago Scott decided it was time to change Brent's look. He always wore sunglasses, so you hardly ever saw the character's eyes; he often looked snarky or inscrutable as a result. As a sign of Brent's increasing maturity (and decreasing eyesight!) Scott did this great strip introducing Brent with regular prescription glasses. Suddenly Brent had these big blue eyes that made him so much more vulnerable and expressive.

I thought this was just lovely, a great way to change a design and also change the character in a way that was both smart cartooning and meaningful for the readers. I did a little watercolor drawing of Brent with enormous blue eyes as a tribute.

A studiomate of mine had Scott's mailing address from sending him a piece of art he'd purchased, so I just sent it there. I know it makes my day when a reader sends a little proof of delight over a risky decision or a new direction in my work.

I also knew Cory Casoni, Scott's business wrangler, from the Portland comics scene; he'd been to Periscope Studio before, he knew I liked "PvP" and he knew I had sent Scott this fan art.

Last winter, Scott took a random nasty fall, so "PvP" was going to be offline for a few weeks while he recovered. Cory was lining up people to do guest strips, and thought it might work to have a single person do a whole storyline instead of just a bunch of one-offs. So he called me, I said yes and he and Scott suggested a storyline topic. The story would be "canon," so it would actually impact the characters and not just be a fever dream or a side trip. I sent some scripts and they liked them, so we were off to the races. I spent the next couple of weeks staying up late at night doing "PvP" strips, really getting carried away by the fun and the challenge of it.

I think maybe it was fun and startling for Scott to see how somebody else interpreted his material after fifteen years on the job; like finding a babysitter who introduces the kids to a new set of games. Cory and Scott are always looking for ways to put the emphasis on "playtime" over "burn-out" when it comes to Scott's eighteen million creative projects and responsibilities, and so they asked if I'd like to make "PvP" writing into a regular job. 

So how does it work? Do you and Scott brainstorm together? Do you get to do your own thing? What goes on?

Both! We have some shared documents set up where we can drop ideas for future storylines, keep a repository of one-off gags that aren't attached to a story and workshop longer storylines. We'll often have a Skype session where we hammer out the week in advance; whatever we don't have totally finished by the end of the call, we'll divvy up. And some strips or storylines we write totally independent of each other, as need or inspiration strikes. 

Some of my friends are familiar enough with my particular sensibility that they can occasionally peg some strips or bits of dialogue as "mine" (usually if there's an obscure reference to fonts, or historical clothing), but nobody has a 100% success rate. It feels like a success when somebody thinks a line I wrote is totally Scott, or vice versa. On the whole, I like it best when a script is really collaborative, with Scott and me literally working on the same sentence. 

Scott is obviously the final arbiter -- he's the one drawing and lettering the strips, and they're his characters; so in the final versions he can tweak the dialogue or images according to what he think will work best. I don't generally see a finished strip before it goes online, so I still get to check the site every morning like I have for the last ten years. It's a pleasure!

Tags: dylan meconis, family man, pvp, scott kurtz, bite me

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