Talking Comics with Tim: David Malki !

It's damn hard to make me laugh, but I did laugh last month when I looked at Robot 6's exclusive preview of  David Malki !'s (yep there's an exclamation point in his name) Wondermark Volume 3: Dapper Caps & Pedal-Copters. It happened most when I  got to the ambitious talking baby in a stroller in the In Which It's What Month Already? strip, where the baby lamented: "Still poopin' where I freakin' sleep!" In fact I still laugh when I look at that panel, no matter how many times. I had to get a perspective on Malki !'s creative mentality, so fortunately he agreed to an email interview. Here's part of Dark Horse's official summary of the project: "It's Wondermark time again! Come along for the ride as Dark Horse returns to David Malki's silly, bizarre, and hilarious world that's not quite present day, not quite the Victorian era, and not like anything else you've seen before. (Unless you've read the previous Wondermark books, of course!) This newest volume of the Eisner-nominated series contains over one hundred comic strips originally published in The Onion and on wondermark.com, plus many pages of additional material by creator David Malki. More than just webcomic collections, the Wondermark books have been praised for their magnificent design and loads of extra content for casual readers and superfans alike." My thanks to Malki ! for his time and for Dark Horse's Jim Gibbons for facilitating the interview.

Tim O'Shea: Okay, before getting into Wondermark, what led you to pursuits such as being a volunteer search & rescue pilot, or a freelance firearm specialist for film and television?

David Malki !: As a licensed pilot, I was a member of the Civil Air Patrol for a while, which is a volunteer organization whose main mission is to conduct aerial searches for downed planes after a crash is reported. A lot of times, when a small plane crashes in a remote area, there's no way to know exactly where it went down (all we have is a radio signal), and if the pilot or passengers are injured, it's important to find them right away. CAP pilots fly search missions in the area where the plane was last reported, and try to locate the site of the crash as quickly as possible.

My dad, who was also a pilot and who fostered my love of aviation from an early age, was a CAP member, and I have fond memories of hanging out with him during CAP meetings and being this little kid hanging out with all these older, experienced pilots. I had friends who were 60-year-old retired military pilots! When I became a pilot myself, I joined my local CAP squadron until time commitments precluded my staying too active with it. It's always fun to find opportunities to be of service to your community that are in line with your existing hobbies and passions.

As for the firearms -- that was my first real entrepreneurial venture out of college. As a film student, I'd collected a number of prop guns for use in various projects, and I had the bright idea that instead of just lending them out to friends willy-nilly, I'd codify the whole process and start up a rental business. I built up an inventory of rental items, even importing some high-end gun replicas from England and Hong Kong and Japan, and went to shooting classes and training seminars. By virtue of having a website full of essays about proper gun-filming technique (stuff I'd figured out as a filmmaker myself), as well as having the cheapest rates in town, I began to get a steady trickle of business both in prop rentals and on-set consultancy, where I'd go onto a movie set, be the one who handled all the guns to ensuresafety, and in some cases set up some basic special effects.

But it was horrible. Being the cheapest guy in town meant that I got all the lowest-budget productions, filmmakers who had no money or experience or professionalism. I was often not paid, my inventory was constantly being lost or damaged, and I had the foresight to project into the future and see that it wasn't going to get better. It was a case of doing something because I COULD, rather than because I really WANTED to, and it was growing into quite a nuisance. So after about five years, I cut bait, liquidated as much inventory as I could, wrote off a couple thousand dollars' worth of unpaid invoices, and chalked the whole thing up to "a swing and a miss."

I did have a pretty sweet Predator-style Minigun in my collection though. Electric motor and everything -- the barrels could spin at like 500 RPM. Now I think it's mounted to a dune buggy somewhere in Hawaii.

O'Shea: One of your resources for Wondermark material is the Los Angeles Central Library. Do the librarians recognize you when you come in to browse the collections? Do they recommend resources to you?

Malki !: I did ask them for help near the beginning of this whole project, but while they were friendly, they didn't really know how to help me. I had to dig around and do research to discover what I was really looking for -- which, I soon learned, is illustrated periodicals published between 1870 and 1900. I printed out a summary record from the catalog of all the periodicals published between 1870 and 1900 and I've been slowly working down the list for years now. Just the list of titles is seventeen pages long, and any of those titles can have dozens of 1000-page volumes!

Once I spent some time browsing the collections and got a pretty good handle on the titles that had the sort of  illustrations I could work with, I started acquiring my own copies. I now have thirty or forty big books in my own collection that I can go to for almost anything. But there's nothing like spending a whole day just devouring a stack of old books at the library. It's like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet -- except that the heartburn afterwards is strictly metaphorical.

O'Shea: How did you first become interested in using 19th-Century woodcuts and engravings as fodder for comedy?

Malki !: Initially it was strictly an experiment: "Can I do this? Will it work?" And from there it was just a matter of "how much can I do with this and still make it work?" There are some comics I've made basically from isolated shapes and textures that I've reassembled like a puzzle. I liken it to sculpting with clay or playing with Legos. I don't know that it's necessarily the era itself or the culture that I love, as much as the style of illustration and what it lends itself to. And its prevalence! There's a lot more of this type of work extant than, say, medieval manuscripts.

Also it makes my work look CLASSY.

O'Shea: Your comedy works on multiple levels: the vintage art, the modern-day dialogue and scenarios -- and then there's the tags. For instance, with #349: In Which It's What Month Already? you assigned 'age, babies, poop'. How quickly do you come up with the tags after the comic is written? Are you ever surprised when you click on the tags to discover when else you referenced poop?

Malki !: The tags are assigned at the very end of the process, at the point when I'm posting the strip to the site. I have a pretty broad range of tags to choose from, and I always like to try and find about three tags that, combined, will triangulate down to describe the particular strip. In other words, which concepts, combined, will alchemize into this specific comic and the themes it raises? Also I think it's just another fun way for people to browse the site, and for me to easily categorize certain groups of comics to make finding them easier.

But poring carefully through the somewhat-lumpy mounds of poop-themed comics is left as an exercise for the reader! (I do not think there are really THAT many.)

O'Shea: You've stated that as a kid, you were pen-pals with Jeana Yeager, copilot of the globe-spanning Voyager airplane. How old were you when that happened? How did it come about?

Malki !: Well, let's see. The Voyager flight was in December 1986, so I was six years old at the time. I must have written to Ms. Yeager that following spring, and the correspondence stretched out for at least six months. She was very kind and answered all of my little-kid questions about the airplane and the flight -- for example: "My dad says the Voyager had seventeen fuel tanks. I think it is one big tank." The answer, of course, was multiple tanks, for center-of-gravity reasons: you don't want all that fuel sloshing all around the plane, you want to keep it contained.

Anyway that was one of many letters I wrote as a kid. I wrote aircraft manufacturers to offer them my designs; I wrote the Smithsonian to offer them a model plane I built out of two-by-fours; I even forged a letter from the police once and got my friend in a heap of trouble. I was an epistolary child.

O'Shea: As of last year, you've been working full-time on Wondermark to the exclusion of all other employment. When did you realize that your income could be boosted by apparel sales (in addition to book sales)?

Malki !: As strange as it may sound, apparel sales is really what makes the whole operation sustainable. Books are great, but books take a long time to build up material for (and for me, to design). Prints and posters are another good thing to offer, and I'm always keen on weirdo specialty items like the limited-edition calendars I do every year -- stuff that's unique to my work and my voice. Usually the best approach is to test and offer a combination of different things, and apparel just happens to be an important part of that whole equation.

The first T-shirts I made were for the first convention I ever exhibited at, in 2006. But truthfully, it wasn't until I partnered with TopatoCo a few years later that apparel sales really reached their true potential. I'm firmly of the opinion that the best apparel designs are those that work broadly, out of context, and TopatoCo allows my shirts to be exposed to a much wider audience than just Wondermark readers. TopatoCo also handles production and fulfillmentof the products, so that's a big time-saver for me. I like them so much I started working for them, helping to design books and run promotions and develop new and unique products! That is what I do with all the time I save not folding and shipping T-shirts. Work for a T-shirt company.

O'Shea: Is your audience broadened by your willingness to let people post your strips on Facebook and share them with other social networking tools?

Malki !: Yeah, I don't know how it couldn't be! We live in a world with such a wide array of "content" available through so many different channels, that it's vitally important for an artist to allow fans to spread the work however they want to, in whatever circles they travel. Because they will anyway! If you wall it off, they'll just save it and re-post it somewhere else. Water doesn't flow uphill -- you have to coast along with it, and row with the current.

Allowing and encouraging the work to be shared gets more eyeballs on the work, which is a net benefit any way you look at it. People need to be EXPOSED to the work before they can ever evolve into fans of the work.

O'Shea: Does your podcast, Tweet Me Harder, help drive new readers to Wondermark, or is it the other way around? How does that work when you mix two different brands of creative expression?

Malki !: I've had some people find Wondermark through TMH, and others find TMH through Wondermark! They each help bolster the other, and I love just putting more creative stuff out there for people to enjoy in all sorts of different ways. TMH scratches a different itch than Wondermark, and my co-host Kris and I both have fun doing things with TMH that we can't do with our other projects. TMH also provides us with another avenue to interact with the fans and establish personal connections with them, which is always great -- TMH is evolving a fanbase of its own, similar to and distinct from Kris's and my existing audiences, and I love that, because it lets us get our creativity out there morein new and exciting ways. Also, TMH allows me to do funny voices. So that's a big plus.

O'Shea: What can readers look forward to in the new Dark Horse collection? Were there things you did differently in this volume based on feedback from the previous volumes?

Malki !: The stuff that worked in the previous volumes, there's more of! I really, really love doing special things for the books that allow me to flex my muscles as a print designer, whether it's interactive elements that require the reader to physically manipulate the book somehow, or just taking advantage of the beautiful printing quality and making a dynamite-looking book. Every book that I make, I pore over the finished product, and look at people's reviews, and watch how people interact with it, and consciously decide what worked and what could be improved.

For example, I left a special space in the front endpaper for autographs and sketches! That was a mistake I made with the first volume; I'd made the endpapers dark, so there was no place to sign. And I made some minor changes in page layout vs. the previous books -- I try to pay attention when I read the finished books to see if there are any hiccups in the flow, anything I can make more clear or more smooth or more interesting. I take this stuff pretty seriously, despite the jokes in the text, and I hope it all adds up to a really wonderful reading experience.

And of course there are a lot of strange manufactured documents, and silly articles, and pages and pages of extra content in it too! IT IS A GOOD BOOK. I am super-proud of it, and I'm a perfectionist, so that's saying something.

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