Talking Comics with Tim: Mike Dawson
Mike Dawson‘s Freddie & Me ranked on many Best of 2008 lists. It looks like he’s trying to capitalize on his elevated creative profile–given that the upcoming Previews (out on January 28) will include Dawson’s upcoming work for AdHouse, Ace-Face: The Mod with the Metal Arms (“a collection of stories . . . featuring everybody’s favorite well-dressed crime fighter, doling out super-powered justice with his bionic limbs, and handling crisis’s at home as a husband and father.”)
In addition to discussing Ace-Face, we delve into Freddie & Me. But that’s not all, as starting February 17, Dawson is returning to ACT-I-VATE with Jack and Max Escape From the End of Time, a webcomic spinning out of the Ace-Face universe. My thanks to Alex Robinson for facilitating this email interview as well as Dawson for his time and thoughts.
Tim O’Shea: How much of the Ace-Face book consists of flashbacks to his childhood and how much of is it “present day” adventures?
Mike Dawson: The stories take place in a variety of different times over the course of Ace-Face’s career. A good chunk of the stories happen in close-to present day, but there are a number of flashbacks. We see his origin as a little kid with gigantic metal arms in the 1940’s and 50’s, a little bit of his mod hey-day in the 1960’s, and some of his latter-day adventures as well.
O’Shea: How much of the present day supporting cast are the kids he grew up with? (From the AdHouse PDF preview, I’m really hoping that Sally is still in his life…)
Dawson: Yes, Sally stays in the picture, becoming Ace-Face’s wife, and mother to his son Stuart, who becomes takes the lead in a few of the stories as “The Son of Ace-Face”. The ruffians from the preview, alas, are not seen or heard from again…
O’Shea: What adventure tales or creators inspired Ace-Face?
Dawson: Well, the origin story in the preview was very definitely inspired by The Who, particularly the concept album and film, Quadrophenia. I think there’s definitely a lot of influence from the Marvel and DC comics I read growing up as well. One of the stories is called “Dr. Funhauser’s Haus of Fun”, and my initial inspiration for this was “Arcade” the X-Men villain. He’s a character I first became aware of when he appeared in an early Excalibur comic, the Alan Davis run of which might be one of my favorite superhero serials ever.
O’Shea: This book is a departure from Freddie & Me–how did you choose to pursue this project? Was it an intentional effort to show folks the variety of stories you can tell?
Dawson: Some of the stories (the two that have appeared previously, in Project: Superior and Superior Showcase) I wrote while I was still working on Freddie & Me. The new material is all stuff that I did since completing that book. I really just wanted to create some fun short stories. Fun in all aspects – most definitely I hope they’re fun to read, but they were also a lot of fun to write and draw.
O’Shea: Why did you opt to make your hero a Mod, with an eye for dressing sharp?
Dawson: I just thought it was funny. To be truthful, I don’t think Ace-Face appears in any particularly sharp clothing in any of the stories I presented. It amused me to have him known for being a snappy dresser in his hey-day, but generally skipping a lot of that time-period and focusing more on what happened before and after.
O’Shea: The character got its start in the Project: Superior collection, did you initially plan for it to be a one-shot short story and it grew from there?
Dawson: Pretty much. I hadn’t planned on writing more with the character, but I just got new ideas.
O’Shea: Am I correct in thinking that while it’s an adventure tale, on another level it is also satire of the adventure genre?
Dawson: It’s kind of a satire – I think in all of the Ace-Face stories I’m trying to play around with comic-book violence vs. real-life violence.
O’Shea: How hard is it to try to promote a project as unique as Ace-Face when the sequential art marketplace seems to be redefining itself in many ways on a daily basis?
Dawson: Yeesh, I’m not sure… everything feels a bit out of sorts at the moment. I guess I’m going to find out how well things go. I’m really, really excited to be doing this book with Chris Pitzer at AdHouse. My Freddie & Me experience was great, but since Bloomsbury isn’t traditionally a comics publisher, I sometimes felt a little disconnected from the comics scene. I am really happy to have my book be a part of a full line of great comics and graphic novels this time around.
Freddie & Me
O’Shea: I’m not sure if you have read this or not, but in the comments section of Johanna Draper Carlson’s mainly unimpressed response to Freddie & Me, industry veteran Steven Grant weighed in, agreeing with her. We both know not every critic or consumer is going to like one’s work, but I was stupefied by Grant’s line: “I never got the slightest idea from the book that Freddy Mercury and the music of Queen had any more real effect on Dawson’s life than, say, Elton John’s music had on me, aside from being contemporaneous with his youth and giving his relatively ordinary life a marketing hook.” How odd is it when folks shift from assessing your autobiographical work and instead assess your life as “relatively ordinary”? And is it harder to take a negative review of your semi-autobiographical work versus a negative review of another less personal work of yours?
Dawson: It’s a little tough to respond to this, because as much as I disagree with most of the things said in that link, it’s hard to defend your own work without coming off as personally being defensive. That said, I have heard a few times the criticism that the book doesn’t explicitly explain exactly what it is about Queen that I love so much, but I don’t really believe that the person who says that would really like the story all that much more if I did have that information in there.
To keep things fair and balanced, here’s a link to a much more positive take on the book, where the reviewer seemingly appreciates my intentions a little more, in that the Queen obsession, and the “effect” that they had on my life, is really a bit of a McGuffin; moving the plot along, being kind of inconsequential at the end of the day, but allowing me to talk about the things that I really wanted to talk about – which was different aspects of memory itself.
O’Shea: How large is the original art for the Queen Timeline piece that runs at the outset of the book? Of that timelines, which was the hardest cover to draw and how long did that timeline take to draw?
Dawson: Those two spreads were really large. I did them on illustration board 32 inches across and 22 inches high. I had to import them in from the scanner in about six pieces and knit them all together. Both were a little tough – I actually re-did them from scratch at one point. That was a version that I’d drawn early on, and was no longer right for the book as it had turned out. The ones that appear in the book were some of the last things I drew, after the story itself was all complete, and I knew what needed to be in there for sure.
O’Shea: How hard or easy was it to remember aspects of your childhood–I was impressed that you told the tale and your realization (in anticipation of the family’s move to America): “I’ve never met anybody black before”. Was that something you remembered saying, or a conversation moment that one of your family remembered?
Dawson: I definitely remember saying it. It was true. When my Dad first moved to America before the rest of us, I remember asking him on the phone if there were any black people in our new neighborhood, and he said there was one family. I dunno – I’m not sure if it’s weird or not. There are obviously a lot of people of varied ethnicities in England, just maybe not where I lived.
I remember saying almost all of the things in the book. I think everything came back to me slowly, as I worked on the story. I basically started at the beginning and went page by page, so the more time I spent dwelling on my past, the more little tidbits and nuggets sort of floated to the surface.
O’Shea: I was struck how you conceded in telling the string vest tale that upon reflection it’s a story you tell better orally. With that realization, why did you choose to still try to tell that story aspect visually?
Dawson: I included it because it was in a section of the book where I was focusing on those first few years in America. Aside from it being funny (and memorable – that’s a scene that people ask me about a lot), it tied into the theme I was discussing about people being storytellers, and how storytelling defines our senses of ourselves. It’s a story that I thought I’d told to a lot of people in person. Amusingly, in that scene I show myself telling it to my friend Alex and his wife (in the panel they are laughing uproariously at my hilarious recounting). After the book came out, Alex told me I’d never told him that story before in real-life. So there you go: memory definitely isn’t infallible. I know mine isn’t. But maybe he’s the one who forgot.
O’Shea: How much input did Bloomsbury have in editing the book? How many scenes did you end up deleting from the book?
Dawson: At the point I found myself at Bloomsbury the book was essentially written already. It just needed some tightening and tweaking here and there. Cutting parts of the book wasn’t a problem for me. Some major scenes (such as two long sequences featuring Freddie Mercury and Brian May in imagined conversations) had already been axed by me long ago, because I felt like they messed up the flow. I took out another imaged sequence with Andrew Ridgeley talking to a VH1 VJ a few years after Wham!’s breakup, which I do actually kind of wish I’d left in there now.
O’Shea: Speaking of scenes deleted and those left in, what made you want to include the anecdote about the French and Italian individuals fighting on the plane?
Dawson: Well, I thought it was funny, and I thought it was relevant. I think that death (especially fear of dying) is one of the themes running throughout the book. I don’t spend too much time talking explicitly about 9/11 in the story, but it does get mentioned casually quite frequently, as does flying in general. My fear of flying became much more explicit as an adult, and that was a moment that stood out to me.
O’Shea: Writing about your fear of flying, in that process did that help ease your fear of flying somewhat in the long run?
Dawson: No, not really. It ebbs and flows. At the moment I’m going through a “too afraid to get on a plane” phase, which stinks because my wife is urging me to plan a trip to Florida soon so we can introduce her grandparents to our baby. The last time I was on a plane was last Summer, coming back from HeroesCon in North Carolina. I was on the plane with Heidi MacDonald from The Beat, comic book writer Vito Delsante, and a few other notable New York cartoonist types. The flight was horrendous. I wonder if the plane had gone down, which of us comic folks would have been remembered. Someone would get to be the Buddy Holly and someone would get stuck having to be The Big Bopper.
O’Shea: For me, as much as the story is about you and Freddie, I also think it’s about the loss of your grandparents on two levels–1) Moving away from them; 2) Their passing years later.
Dawson: Yeah, as I said, a lot of the book is about death. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how I arranged the book to match the structure of the song Bohemian Rhapsody. I also borrowed a lot of the themes from the song – I think the line “I don’t wanna die” is represented in Freddie & Me many, many times. I practically say the line at one point, whilst on a plane, but in a larger sense, I much as admit that the act of going to such great lengths to record the events of my own life, is really just a reaction to a fear of mortality.
O’Shea: What has been your family’s reaction to the book (be as general or specific as you like)?
Dawson: I think it’s been extremely positive in general. I did recently get chastised by my Granny on my father’s side for not including that side of the family in the book more, but aside from that, I think my parents and siblings are happy with it, and generally OK with the way I portrayed them.
Jack and Max Escape from the End of Time
O’Shea: What can you tell folks about your upcoming project for ACT-I-VATE?
Dawson: There are two short stories in the Ace-Face collection featuring two super-powered siblings, named Jack and Max. Jack is a fifth grader with the power of telekinesis, and his younger brother is in 3rd grade, and can teleport, like Nightcrawler from the X-Men. My story for ACT-I-VATE is called “Jack and Max Escape From the End of Time”. The story picks up on a concept introduced in one of the short stories, which is about how they have a father who is a Time-Lord, who punishes the boys for misbehaving by jumping back in time to before they were bad.
O’Shea: How much are you adjusting your narrative for the webcomics format?
Dawson: Well, for one, the comic will be in color, which is something new for me. My goal will be to post segments each week which move the story along in a satisfying way. Serializing a story like this is also new for me, so I’m quite interested to see how the webcomics format effects the storytelling. I’m really excited about the whole thing.
O’Shea: This marks a return to ACT-I-VATE for you, given that a couple of years back you did a story involving the characters from your past project, Gabagool! In what ways have you improved as a storyteller since your last ACT-I-VATE stint?
Dawson: Well, for one, my head is more in the game this time around. I was flattered and honored to be asked to be a part of AIV back in the day, but unfortunately at the time I was too absorbed in the writing of Freddie & Me to give my web-comic the effort I should have. I’m not sure in which ways I have specifically improved, except that one would hope to keep getting better after just having drawn so many more pages between then and now.
O’Shea: What attracted you to working with the ACT-I-VATE gang in the first place?
Dawson: I’m excited to have my comic included in amongst so many other great ongoing serials. I think it’s great that Dino and crew have not only kept their webcomics portal going, but kept it growing, adding new great comics all the time. I’m really happy to be posting my comic at a site that’s only getting better and better, and shows no signs of going anywhere anytime soon.