Talking Comics with Tim | Jamaica Dyer

It's fast becoming Jamaica Dyer week here at Robot 6. Yesterday she contributed to the weekly What Are You Reading column, and today she is the subject of an interview. Dyer joined me in this email interview mostly to discuss the serialization of her graphic novel, Fox Head Stew (at MTV Geek), the tale of two twentysomethings--Dee and Sam (aka Bunny Boy)--making their way through life. But she was also enthused to discuss the Isotope Comics-arranged Live Art Show as part of San Francisco's Noise Pop Music Festival 20th Anniversary. My thanks to Dyer for her time.

Tim O'Shea: While Fox Head Stew is being serialized at MTV Geek, I am curious are you looking to release it through a traditional publisher at some point?

Jamaica Dyer: Yes, I would love to see Fox Head Stew printed as a book. I don't have a publisher for it yet but I'm definitely on the market! I did some print-on-demand copies last year and it looks amazing on paper. Finding a publisher for it is difficult, because while it's the sort of story that indie publishers like, they typically only print black and white books, and I have to insist on having it printed in color. It's my own fault for insisting on painting the whole thing!

My hope is that through exposure on MTV Geek, the audience might decide that a book about girls experimenting in college, glam rock bands, and psychedelic fantasy sequences rendered in watercolor are the sort of stories they want to read in comics! There's a definite perception in mainstream comics of superheros and action stories, but this is an exciting opportunity to change that perception and expose new genres to the MTV audience.

O'Shea: The story partially delves into depression, how challenging was it to tackle such a subject in your narrative?

Dyer: While I don't personally have severe depression, a few of my closest friends are, and I've always observed it as a very concrete thing that you carry around with you. I brought the kitten from the end of Weird Fishes into this new storyline as an inky black cat who feeds off of Bunny Boy's negative thoughts, who encourages self-doubt and sadness and thrives on those feelings. I tend to try to create metaphors in my visuals for intangible things, so it wasn't really a challenge, but a way to express something abstract.

O'Shea: Can you discuss your coloring approach on this project?

Dyer: Yes, I wanted to create a gradual progression between the two storylines and have the colors express the character's changes. Bunny Boy's story starts off monochromatic, a rather dull-looking world, until later in the story when he gets curious and excited by things, the world gains more color. Dee's story starts off brightly, she sees in technicolor, her fantasies gain form on the corners of the page, but as she gets into more serious feelings you'll see the colors change darker and more monochromatic.

I paint mostly intuitively, and love watercolors and guache for being instant and messy-yet-precise. The process typically goes pencil-ink-paint-inkwash, but sometimes goes pencil-watercolor-ink.

O'Shea: You have a very relaxed style of lettering, can you discuss your philosophy in terms of lettering?

Dyer: I hope relaxed is a good thing! I've tried using computer type with my drawings, and it always feels off. Too sterile. Hand-writing the lettering makes it feel a lot more personal to me, it becomes a part of the artwork. I admit it's a little hard to read at times, unfortunately.

O'Shea: Am I right in thinking that you're trying to challenge yourself and push traditional boundaries with some of the layouts?

Dyer: Yes'm. I tend to go for more grid-like layouts when it's conversations and day-to-day subjects, but when we're dealing with fantasies and otherworldly moments, I like the panels to drip, twirl and arrange themselves in new ways. JH Williams III is a huge inspiration for me with his crazy layouts. One day, one day.

O'Shea: You recently pulled off a successful live-art show with Noise Pop, logistically how challenging was that to plan out--or did things come together pretty naturally?

Dyer: I've had the idea for awhile, I've been blown away in the past by the live art shows that Jim Mahfood, Scott Morse and crew do at Comic-con, it's really badass to see a collaborative piece of artwork grow right infront of you, all while listening to great music and drinking drinks. So when Noise Pop came to James Sime and me looking for show ideas, it was just a matter of explaining and executing the plan. It was going to be a lot more simple originally, just me painting and a live DJ, but then my friends in the band Hiking were all in town so we figured we'd do a full band! The rest came together the day of the show: Culture Club had an amazing projector setup so we covered the walls with images from Fox Head Stew, and there wasn't really enough room for me and the band on the stage, so I painted on the wall behind the band while balancing up on a ladder on the stage. So yes, lots of forethought and then it happened naturally.

Next I want to set up cameras and project the artwork as it's being made, and be painting off-stage a bit so that people can get closer and watch it happen, wandering from the music to the art and back again. And next time I want to bring more artists to draw with me.

O'Shea: In working in a situation like that, creatively do you feed off of the energy of the crowd more--or the music--or a mixture of both?

Dyer: The music, absolutely, feeds the drawings that I made on stage. I think I caught myself dancing a few times. The audience helps because the pressure of having a bunch of eyes on you means you have to work fast, pull ideas from the air between you, and go with the flow of whatever comes out of your brush. But I barely noticed the audience, it was the feeling of drawing with live music playing right next to you that was electric.

O'Shea: When setting out to tell the Fox Head Stew tale, did you have a concrete idea of the supporting characters you wanted to introduce at the story's outset, or did the idea to introduce some of the characters grow organically as you developed the tale?

Dyer: Yes, they were all there from the start. Bunny Boy's band doesn't get introduced until midway through the book, but I'd been sketching band photos of them for a long while. I knew I wanted the band "Block Cocks" to have a little bit of a history, even if I only knew about it. They went through a few rounds of casting, but once Lucy got behind the drums I knew it would work. As for Dee's supporting cast, Zack was always a main character in the story, I could have probably filled several books with his shenanigans. Someday I want to have a book signing with my friend Josh, he and Zack look uncannily similar.

O'Shea: As noted in a CBR interview from a few years back, you've been networking to work in comics since you were 16--and I was struck by the line in your website bio "But one does not eat by doing comics." What non-comics projects are keeping you busy these days?

Dyer: Well, I live in San Francisco, and like most geeky artists in the bay, I'm knee-deep in creating art for social games. I try to keep my work-life and art-life separate. There's a reason why I don't digitally color my comics: I spend at least 9 hours a day drawing on a Wacom tablet at work. I draw my own things in the evenings and weekends, and I love the feeling of working on paper, with ink stains on your wrists. The whole comics-as-work thing has always been mystifying for me, because I know some people are able to make it work as a career, but I think you must need to have a second form of income, or a sugarmama. It would be a total dream to be able to draw comics all day long and have that pay the bills, but it's just not a reality.

Even when you pursue creating comics entirely for the love of the art form, it ends up feeling like a job when you start dealing with printing, distribution, advertising, conventions... and it's really awful-paying for a job that puts you through that much. So that's why I'm putting my comic online for free and avoiding conventions for the time being: right now I want to draw something I love and I don't want it feel like work. It can feel like work later, if something changes for the better. It would be fun to draw mainstream comics sometime, I love when indie artists are paid to draw superheroes. I'd love to draw Batman comics (hello Poison Ivy and Catwoman!), and if that happens I'd certainly make comics be my main job.

O'Shea: Any questions you'd like to ask the Robot 6 readers?

Dyer: Since we're in a stage where aspiring and indie artists are using the internet to distribute their comics, videos and music, do you find yourself being nostalgic for physical copies? Do you think we should move entirely into digital formats and forget about publications and records? Would a collapse of the free market on the internet bring about an age of new photocopied zines and single issue comics? These things keep me up at night.

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