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It’s been almost three years since writer/artist Mike Dawson and I last talked (back then our focus was on Ace-Face: The Mod with the Metal Arms and 2008’s Freddie & Me). In this 2012 round, we pitch a tent around his latest Secret Acres release Troop 142, the story of one week at a boy scout camp and its impact on the boys attending as well as the men running it. Dawson is a great interviewer in his own right (as we discuss briefly), so I was a tad nervous in trying to generate my queries. It was also refreshing to understand his stepping away from social media to the benefit of his creative efforts. My thanks to Dawson for his time and perspective, especially the book’s evolution from webcomic to printed bound edition.
Tim O’Shea: I gotta be honest, reading this book a week before my son goes off to scout camp was not the best thing for me to read. Many of the kids straddle the line between being insecure and total jerks (as all kids will be). But all the characters had redeeming values (of course)- – how challenging was it to strike a balance of positives and negatives with the characters?
Mike Dawson: I think that’s one of the few aspects of writing that comes easily to me. People are a mix of positive and negative values, and even then it’s subjective. It’s important to me to try to show different sides of a character. I think readers first impulses would be to dislike a lot of these characters, especially some of the adults in the beginning of the story, and my hope is to bring them around a little bit, and see them as more complex.
How much (if any) tweaking did you do to Troop 142 from webcomic to the collected edition?
I made substantial changes. There was your basic editing, which would be just small changes to word balloons and panels, but there were entire sequences I rewrote. There was also an entirely new ending to the story.
The way it worked, when I was putting it online, was that I posted pages as I finished them, with very little editing happening along the way. It was like one long breathless sprint to the finish-line, so what went up on my website, was very much the first draft.
When it came time to prepare the collection, I finally had some time to step back, and take in the story as a whole, and make a proper second draft. I think aside from being more satisfying, the ending I wrote for the book does a better job of pulling the story together and underlining many of the themes I was trying to get at through the course of telling the tale.
I did not expect to find LSD explored in a boy scout camp tale. So did someone try LSD while at your camp?
No, technically not at camp, but LSD was around and popular when I was a teenager. There was an early-1990s preoccupation and fascination with the hippie 1960s. The circles I moved in were interested in the counter-culture of the baby-boomers, and that included the drugs they used.
The LSD trip was important to the story for a few reasons. One, is that it was fun to write, and I think entertaining to read. Two, was to show some of the relationships between the scouts, filtered through their drug experience. Chuck getting tormented by the others (including his own father) is pretty awful in normal circumstances, but I think the addition of the hallucinogenics heightens the horror. But, also, throughout the book, I wanted to show instances of the Scouts being reprimanded for silly inconsequential incidences, like the Mad Libs, or going to the waterfalls, but never getting disciplined for any of the more serious things that they do, like the drug use, or the ways they torment each other, pretty much mercilessly.
The book is dedicated to your former troop. Have you heard from any of them (and have any of them read it)?
Some of the former members of my troop whom I’m still friends with have read it, yes. So, I’ve gotten some feedback on the particulars of any incidents that occur that are inspired by events from real life. That’s interesting to hear, but this book is fiction, so I don’t really care if details of events are jumbled and inaccurate. I’d be interested to hear from other Scouts, who I haven’t kept in touch with. I’d just be curious to hear their take on my presentation of Boy Scout life in general.
In addition to your storytelling pursuits, you have done a fair share of podcasting and interviewing. Has discussing your craft with fellow storytellers had an impact on your creative approach?
Interviewing creators was certainly inspiring. And, getting to talk to lots of different cartoonists has helped underline what I always suspected, which is that all artists are trying to figure out a way to make things work in their lives. Balancing the desire to make art against all the other stuff that can get in the way, either external or internal.
However, right now, I’m glad to have pulled back on my intense interest in the comics industry. I stopped making podcasts for The Comics Journal, because I really wanted to just buckle down and concentrate on making my own work. It’s been good. I’m trying to pay less attention to comics news sites, and have been trimming my Twitter feed, and so on. Since it’s going to be a little while before my next book is finished, I think I’m better off staying focused on just the writing and drawing, and doing my best to tune out all the industry noise.
When and what prompted you to realize you needed and wanted to get away from the industry noise (aka comic news sites and Twitter feeds)?
It’s the same reason that I decided to end TCJ Talkies: My wife is expecting our second child in November, and I know this means what little time I have available to make comics is going to get squeezed even further. Outside of comics and podcasting, I have a day-job and a desire to be with my family … so, I’m really just trying to focus on just making my own comics in the time I have, and cut the rest of the industry stuff out of my mental space.
It’s possible, that since I plan on sticking with Secret Acres for my next project, that there’s also less practical value to me being so well-versed in the shifts and changes in the industry. What does it matter to me if the serialized pamphlet is doomed or if graphic novels are going digital or whatever? If Secret Acres is willing to publish my book, then that’s all I need know. Hopefully it will find a readership when it’s done.
I love the map you provide at the outset of the story. Is that rooted in reality, or is that a completely fictional construct? I found it interesting that you included the Jewish and Catholic chapels in the map. Had you considered using either chapel for a story setting at some point?
Early drafts of Troop 142 had a bit more explicit God and religion talk in it. There are pages from an early draft published in the Awesome II anthology that Top Shelf put out with the Indie Spinner Rack podcast, and that features a big long teenaged talk about God and free will. I rewrote the scene though, because I felt like it was too heavy-handed and blunt. Now the kids are talking about which way is the right way to wipe your butt when you go number two.
Who worked with you on the editing of the book?
Barry and Leon at Secret Acres gave me a lot of really helpful feedback. It was awesome having two guys to talk to about the story who were really into it, and invested in the characters, and so on.
Was their any hesitation on your part in exploring topics like homosexuality (as in the prospect of a homosexual scoutmaster, as well as a hint that one or two characters may be gay) in the story?
No, it was something I explicitly wanted to write about. One of the events in the book that was inspired by real-life was the speech Big Bear gave to all of the troops on the last night of camp. I always knew I wanted to have the book end with that talk about gay scoutmasters and all the cheering and weirdness that went along with it. I’d known what the ending was for 20 years, I just needed to work out what the rest of the story was and who the people were and how things were going to lead up to it.
OK, I gotta know, did you actually know a scout that owned a co-ed naked lacrosse shirt? If not, do you currently own this shirt?
No, it’s not something I ever owned, or remember anyone having. I just remember it was a line of shirts that was pretty ubiquitous during that time period.
Dan’s nose drives me crazy (really if it existed in the real world, I am pretty sure it could be a cell phone tower), do you love drawing a variety of noses on your cast (one nose per person, of course)?
A long time ago I heard that bit of character design advice, that if you could tell who a character was by just looking at their silhouette, then they were pretty well designed. With a book like Troop 142, which has a pretty big cast of characters for the reader to keep track of, it’s pretty important that they all be visually distinct and instantly recognizable. Yeah, some of the designs are more outlandish than others, but the most important thing is that you immediately recognize that it’s Dan saying or doing something, and you don’t get pulled out of the story because you’re confused about who’s who.