Robot 6

‘I’m not afraid of revising’: Chatting with ‘Angie Bongiolatti’ author Mike Dawson

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Having detailed his love affair with Queen, delved into the secret lives of boy scouts and even produced the odd superhero comicMike Dawson has released his most ambitious book yet, the politically and socially charged Angie Bongiolatti.

tumblr_n5ziggSU5g1soutgdo4_1280Set only a few months after 9/11, the book centers around a group of twentysomethings, more or less fresh out of college, working at an aspiring dot-com in the Big Apple and trying to figure out what exactly they want to do with their lives. Like satellites, many of them seem to rotate to one degree or another around the titular character, an attractive young woman who is driven by her left-wing political beliefs and trying to ascertain how to adhere to them in the workaday world.

Far from being some sort of one-sided political screed however, Bongiolatti asks  questions about the effectiveness of any political movement, no matter how noble, and how best to affect change in the world while still being able to maneuver through it effectively.

I talked with Dawson over email the last few weeks about the book, its themes, politics and the joys of working with a large cast of characters.

Angie Bongiolatti is set within a very specific place and time, New York immediately after 9/11. What made you decide to set your story during this period rather than, say, during the Iraq War or during the Bush/Gore election. Or later?

The Bush/Gore election was the last time in my life when I was completely and blissfully unaware of current events and had no opinion on what was happening. I had no television set at the time, the Internet wasn’t yet an all-consuming focal point of my life, and plus I was 25 years old, and just didn’t care about the world outside of my own social life.

The period after 9/11 was that short window in time where the rest of the world was more or less on America’s “side” when it came to their response. To be against the invasion of Afghanistan was a minority position to take. The invasion seemed legitimate. I remember there were some voices of dissent at the time – David Rees’ Get Your War On being this great voice screaming into the roaring winds of war. I loved that comic. It might have been the first webcomic I experienced in real time.

Many characters in my book are against the invasion of Afghanistan, but they have fringe opinions. There’s a bit where some of Angie’s friends at the ISO are laughing about George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” line in his 2002 State of the Union, but their perspectives would have been heard only on the margins.

What makes it interesting is that also at that time, the mainstream perspectives are not necessarily in the wrong either. If I wrote a period piece set during the war in Iraq, it would be very difficult to present a character who felt the invasion was a good and just idea, without that character being undermined by our present day historical perspective. Many people might feel the same way about Afghanistan, but I think depicting a character living through those first days, who feels that the response is legitimate, can be seen to hold a reasonable view.

You changed your art style slightly recently, giving your characters some larger, bulbous heads and squatter bodies and simplifying other aspects. What led to this change and how did it affect your approach to this particular story?

I worked in a different style for a while, something much closer to the look of Troop 142, but I found that I was getting bored, drawing office buildings and cubicles in that way. I decided to start again and attempt this more visually dense and looser style. I wanted the pages to feel full and very very busy. I wanted something that felt like a crowded loud city, and also something reminiscent of 1990’s looking alternative comics.

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Going through your Tumblr, I noticed there were a couple early versions of certain scenes in Angie, but done with different characters or staged differently. How long a gestation period did this project have? How did these initial renditions get altered into the final version?

Technically there have been versions of this comic going back over a decade, but I think the version that became the final book was something I was trying to put together ever since finishing Troop 142 in 2011. I knew I wanted to use the e-learning company setting, I knew I wanted to do something with the protest movements, and I had this idea to adapt portions of this Arthur Koestler essay. It took a few stabs at it to get everything on the right track, and for me to learn how the different pieces might get put together.

I recently started serializing a webcomic at the Study Group Comics site, called The Age of Play. I think this is probably the first iteration of what might become a couple of attempts to write this story. I’m in a similar situation to where I was at the beginning of Angie Bongiolatti, where I have some elements I know I want to work with: middle-aged middle class family with a nanny, the idea of making video games for Social Change, and the terror of Climate Change hovering over everything. I’m thinking of the webcomic as a sandbox to explore some of these ideas, and am trying to figure out ways they might fit together and become a coherent narrative. I think it’s a fun way to work, just as long as you’re not the kind of cartoonist who doesn’t feel OK letting go of pages that you might have spent some time putting together.

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Angie has a pretty large cast, as does Troop 142. Do you prefer to work with a large cast of characters as opposed to a more intimate one or two character piece? And if so, why?

I do enjoy working with large casts. It’s easy for me to think of examples of stories that I loved at some point in my life that had immense casts, and to imagine they might have influenced me. Chris Claremont’s X-Men comics, Les Miserables (the book and the musical), the movie Boogie Nights. All favorites of mine at one point or another.

With Troop 142 and also this book, part of what I was trying to specifically explore is the idea that there are very few “good” or “bad” people – that everyone is a shade of grey. In Troop 142, we learn to empathize with characters who initially seem like straight up bullies or assholes, and conversely some characters who we initially sympathize with for being weaker, we see are just as capable of presenting an ugly side of themselves.

How much time do you spend detailing the backstory of each character? When you were working on Angie, for example, did you try to work out each character’s childhood, college life, etc., even if it wouldn’t appear in the story?

I don’t exactly do that, no. I have a sense of who each character is, but a lot of the details I figure out on the page. I knew that some of the characters knew each other in college, but the nature of their relationships I was fuzzy on until I took a few stabs at telling the story. With this book I had a couple of early tries and failed attempts, so there was an opportunity to experiment with telling the story a few ways, and having characters play slightly different roles.

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Am I wrong in thinking that this is your first overtly political comic to date? Is this an itch you’ve been wanting to scratch for awhile? Did you have any concerns in putting the comic together about coming off as overly strident in one way or another?

I wrote a short minicomic about this same protest march back around 2002-2003, which was obviously much closer to the time that the event took place. That comic was only 14-15 pages long, and didn’t explore much politically, beyond having the same scenario where a character agrees to go to the march after running into a politically engaged female college friend, and receiving the same ribbing from his male friends that he’s only showing an interest in activism because he wants to get into the girl’s pants.

I worried about misrepresenting my personal politics through the telling of this story. I think it can be very damaging to an artist’s career to be perceived as not-liberal, and my feeling is that the book is critical towards many aspects of the left. I lean well to the left in terms of my personal political sympathies, but I think a lot about how it ultimately makes very little difference to the world what direction my personal feelings lie in. There isn’t actually anything concrete that I do to further agendas. A lot of the time I feel like political sympathies have more to do with being social than affecting any change on the world. I can go to dinner with other people who think guns are terrible and climate change is a huge problem, and we can all agree and nod along, and then dessert comes, then we go home and pay the babysitter and go to bed. Is the simple fact of not owning a gun and laying awake at night worrying about the climate a political act? Not really.

The impetuous for me making this book was when I became a naturalized citizen in 2011. I’d been living in this country as a green-card holder since 1986, which had instilled in me this sense of always being on the sidelines of what goes on in the country. I couldn’t vote, therefore none of it was my problem. For me, it was a big deal to “join” when I did. I thought a lot about why I was joining. What I was throwing my lot in with.

I wanted to vote in the 2012 election. Ever since naturalizing I’ve felt a little let-down every time I go to vote, because I feel like there should be applause or something afterwards.

Do you feel like that stance of being “on the sidelines” before you became a naturalized citizen afforded you a unique perspective at all as a cartoonist? Did it affect your approach to your art in any way?

I’m not sure … maybe. One thing I try to articulate is that while this book deals with a lot of my thoughts about politics, and I think tries to consider different people’s different perspectives on the world, it’s not very interested in the idea of Republican/Democrat “political parties”.

Something that I think the book is interested in, which was also something Troop 142 was about, was this idea that most everybody has their redemptive qualities. Even the assholes. I am not sure if my interest in that idea comes directly from having sat on the sidelines, like Uatu The Watcher, for all those years, or if it’s just part of my personality.

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I was intrigued by the character of Jon, who is the only character who’s older and a little more experienced and thus more cynical (though he certainly has problems of his own). Was he intended to be a counterpoint to the other characters’ idealism? 

Jon is the character I worry the most about becoming. He was terrifyingly easy to write, as opposed to the other younger idealistic characters. Idealism isn’t how I’d describe my own worldview.

It’s very hard for me to maintain a permanent political outlook. One of the purposes of the Arthur Koestler essay that’s excerpted throughout the story, is to include the comparison that he makes; that a idealistic revolutionary outlook has something in common with the way a reactionary religious zealot sees the world. I like what Koestler had to say about both outlooks sharing in common the idea that there did once exist a perfect society, and if everyone could just see the world from their same point of view, and make the changes that they know to be the correct ones, then that better world could be brought about once again.

I was also intrigued with the character of Angie, who, despite being this figure of obsession for a lot of the characters, isn’t featured as prominently as some of the other characters and remains a bit of an enigma. Was that intentional?

Yes, a lot of the book has us seeing Angie mostly from the perspectives of the people around her. These other characters are essentially orbiting her. Some of them never interact with each other. They talk to each other about her. Some things, such as the rekindled relationship between Angie and her college friend Malcolm happen entirely off-the-page. They have a relationship and break-up, but we learn about it through Malcolm’s conversation with his jealous friend Amol, who also had romantic designs on Angie.

It wasn’t intentional in the sense that I decided before writing the story that I was going to construct it that way. But, I’ve never written anything yet where I make decisions like that beforehand. I let a lot of things naturally start to happen as I work, and don’t shy away from the book taking me where it wants to take me. I’m not afraid of revising, or even redrawing massive chunks of a story, until I get to a point where it feels right. I drew and redrew a number of versions of this comic, before getting to the draft that made its way into this book.

ab7One of the things I like about the book is the way it accurately portrays that time in your early 20s when you’ve just got your first job and are trying to figure out how to interact in a work environment and be an adult. Was that an important aspect of the book for you?

It was something I found pleasurable to write about. The storyline of the New York dot-com boom and bust was something I experienced. Working in an office has been something I’ve been doing in tandem with cartooning for many years. It was only recently, with my second child, that I stopped working in an office in Manhattan. I liked the idea of writing a story that would allow me to tap into some of my work experiences.

Having Angie employed in a corporate office setting was a choice I made that wasn’t immediately easy to square with her political outlook, but making the company an e-learning startup helped to make it all make sense. I didn’t dwell too much at all on what Angie’s particular qualifications might have been – there isn’t anything in the book explaining what she studied in school. But, that was what was interesting about that period of time: you didn’t need to have any qualifications for a lot of jobs in the web back then. That was definitely my own experience. I majored in painting, but fell into working online.

It made sense to have Angie working at Global Learning Systems, but I do have the scene later in the book where she’s fretting about how the greater company fits in with her political ideologies. Ostensibly the company allows greater access to higher education, which she approves of, but it’s essentially bankrolled by an Investment Banker type guy. That’s harder for her to reconcile. I wonder where Angie might have fallen following her downsizing in the book. I am not sure she would have stayed on the same track she was on.

I wanted to ask about the structure of the book, how you jump back and forth in time with certain characters to see them during their college days and then a year or two later at work. Why adopt this flashback structure and why was it important for you to show Angie’s college life?

The college scenes show a different side of Angie’s personality. She almost seems like a different person in those flashbacks, but that’s because they reveal more of what she’s like in her personal life. When we see her in 2002, it’s frequently from the point-of-view of somebody who wants something from her, but she’s guarded. The college flashbacks are the places where I reveal more of what she might be like when her guard is down. My hope is that the concluding scene between her and her boyfriend Steve, either suggest that’s the reason she often has her guard up, or else imply that she’s always been able to put up a wall towards those she doesn’t see eye to eye with. Kim calls her out on that behavior when they’re arguing in the restaurant: she’ll shut people out for perceived infractions. Steve gets shut out. We get the sense that Kim ends the book locked out too.

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You mentioned experiencing the dot-com boom and bust. How autobiographical is this book for you? Are there characters directly based off of your experience in the work force or college?

Yes, definitely. I’m all about mining my own life experiences to make comics, but I don’t think of my work as especially autobiographical, in the sense that I’m not trying to necessarily reveal something about my own life. Lately I’ve been thinking of it as I’m going to my own life, and people I’ve known, and I’m taking that stuff to establish a basic scenario to set things. I have a sense of who characters are, and I understand the place, because a lot of it’s just stuff from my past. But, then I’m trying to move the story somewhere new in the telling of it. This book especially. The scenarios and the people were all very familiar to me. But, the act of writing the story – and in this case – attempting to answer some of my own questions about the value of political engagement – took me to a new place.

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I look forward to reading this.

“There isn’t actually anything concrete that I do to further agendas. A lot of the time I feel like political sympathies have more to do with being social than affecting any change on the world. I can go to dinner with other people who think guns are terrible and climate change is a huge problem, and we can all agree and nod along, and then dessert comes, then we go home and pay the babysitter and go to bed.”

Fuck. That has got to be among the most insipidly bleak blocks of text ever written by an artist — moreso because the artist himself doesn’t know it yet. Despite what he claims, Mike actually does plenty to “further agendas” — he does it every time he draws a page of comics. But Mike seems utterly allergic to this concept, and the result is a pretty useless piece of art.

The simple, painful truth about Angie Bongiolatti is, it’s a book that’s too terrified of its own voice to say anything. And that’s an almost illegal waste of Mike’s prodigious drawing talent. Mike shines when writing mods with metal arms, but he’s clearly out of his depth describing political activism in post-bush NYC. Reading Angie Bongiolatti is like watching someone unable to decide whether to buy the skim or the 2% milk as the clerks shut down the grocery store. Mike is palpably straining to keep his comics hermetically sanitized of the sullying influence of an opinion, and the results are almost bizarre in their dullness. What’s so scary about having a preference? WHY draw comics that have nothing to say? Why read them?

And why publicly indulge in self-pity when your book bombs, probing every possible culprit other than THE ACTUAL CONTENT OF THE BOOK? That Bongiolatti failed isn’t the fault of The Comics Market, or the audience, or the publisher, or internet fads or middle age or whatever. In this case the fault is clearly Mike’s, for smothering his own story in childbirth out of a panic that it might make a noise & scare someone — and then dangling the tiny corpse over the railing, page after page, waiting for roars of approval & validation to start flooding his google vanity searches.

This terrified ethical fog seemed appropriate in books like Freddie & Me and Troop 142, because it flattered their subject (ie, childhood’s volatile, petty innocence). But when applied to actual adult characters, addressing an actual adult subject (ie, the tensions between fighting for social justice & not starving to death), it comes off as befuddled and naive. Or, at least, like someone writing very, very, very far removed from the concerns of their characters, and lacking any curiosity to bridge the gap.

Naivete’s fine, but Mike is a grown-ass man, and when he says somewhat not-naive things like “I think it can be very damaging to an artist’s career to be perceived as not-liberal,” we beg to ask what sort of “not-liberal” thoughts he’s denying us — and, more importantly, why he bothers to hide them in the first place, if his books are already as unsuccessful as he claims.

Combing through Bongiolatti for ANY clue of a thesis, i find the Koestler piece speaks volumes where Mike won’t. The essay that comprises this book’s play-doh spine is a searingly passive-aggressive kill-piece against political engagement. It’s conservatism striking its usual postures of jaundiced knowingness, and that it’s taken seriously at all by anyone is thanks entirely to Koestler’s cred as an ex-Stalinite. With bombastic poetics, Koestler elevates his own personal political failures onto the those of the entire world left of Eisenhower, strapping to them the laughable strawman that ANYONE identifying with the quaint “traditionalist faith” of radicalism is suffering from a LITERAL, actual mental illness. And they’re utopian to boot! (Gee — who knew the 40-hour work week was utopian?) Koestler drags us (kicking, screaming) toward the conclusion that the only sane people among us are the knowing knowers who do pretty much nothing, and enjoy life pretty much just like it is already — the fence-sitters and the dessert-havers and the lesser-evil voters. No risk of appearing “not-liberal” here, Mike!

Koestler — an ex-Stalinist turned zionist — is a layered guy, but his “God That Failed” essay is a puddle of cold-war pandering, and its first publication date (1950) gives you pretty much all the context you need to understand it, with all its blowhard psychobabble & florid overreductions. Wall Street was calling for body armor, & broad-brush, us-or-them hacks like Koestler & Ayn Rand dutifully supplied the fabric, to make their own petty vendettas & regrets seem more legitimate. It doesn’t take a mental giant to denounce Marxists — but this Koestler stuff is just hilariously dim & dated. And yet there it there it is, on the opening pages of No-Agenda Mike’s book about lefty activists. Hmm.

It says a lot about the somnambulism of comics’ readership that, after Angie Bongiolatti, we can still allow Mike to paint himself as quite far above mere “agendas” and “ideologies,” peering down aghast at the mess from the safety of his space-fence. (Of course, it could also just be that no one is even noticing.)

But you can’t have it both ways. Sometimes you just can’t draw a 227-page book without letting an opinion or two slip through about how you really feel — especially if you want to slap a pedantic “further reading” booklist at the end. That just begs for someone to come along & point out that there is in fact no fence under your ass, and never has been. You’re down here in the dogpit with the rest of us, covered in as much agenda-mud and ideology-shit as anyone (well, ALMOST as much), and pretending otherwise is starting to make you look pretty fucking silly.

As Mike puts it (with far, far too much modesty): “I think a lot about how it ultimately makes very little difference to the world what direction my personal feelings lie in.” And there we have exactly why Mike’s book will make very little difference to the world, or anyone in it. If the artist himself, nodding from dessert to dessert, can’t even be roused to choose a direction, or care about what he himself thinks or feels, then why the fuck would we pay him $20 to read about it?

Although everything i’m writing here comes from a place of vehement love, I don’t expect any love back for it — just like i didn’t expect (or receive) any for my attempts to help Mike with this a couple years ago, while he still had a chance to write this book well. Because this book at least ATTEMPTS to get political, I just couldn’t help saying something. I’d want someone to do the same for me, as a way of insisting that comics — and cartoonists — are only as mediocre as they allow themselves to be.

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