Joe Daly, the writer/ artist behind the sublimely demented Scrublands and The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book met with us to talk about his new book with Fantagraphics, Dungeon Quest: Book One. Read on to hear Mr. Daly's thoughts on the influences behind the Angoulême Jury Prize winning book, how video games informed its creation, his recurring cast of characters, and why he considers it to be "a mixture between Lord of the Rings and Easy Rider". Extensive and informative, the interview also touches upon the South African comics scene, why he avoids the politicalisation of race in his work, and, finally, the relaxing properties of clay sculpting.
Dungeon Quest is about to see its North American release via Fantagraphics, who previously published Scrublands and The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book. How did you get involved with the company in the first place?
After completing the first 10 pages of the first Red Monkey story in about 2001, I submitted it to Fantagraphics books. They initially showed interest in publishing the work, but after a year of me waiting for a conclusive answer they decided to pass on the project. I then approached a South African publisher, Double Storey books (a newly started general book publisher), who said they’d be interested in publishing the complete story (as a 32 pg. book), IF I could first publicize the work somehow, to gauge the market for such a book in South Africa (which traditionally doesn’t have a market for comic books). I posted some of the work on the internet, and eventually I was approached by the editors of SL (Student Life) magazine who were interested in trying out a comic page at the back of their magazine. Thus first Red Monkey story was serialized in SL magazine, published in South Africa. After the serialization was concluded it was published by SL and Double Storey books as a hardback book in 2003, in South Africa only. I think the book did as well as could be expected in the South African book market (i.e. a very mediocre sales performance). At this point I was already working on the material that would become Scrublands, which I showed to Double Story books. It didn’t take long for them to pass on the project, and in a way I can’t blame them because it’s a very weird book, very avant-garde, and the South African book market is not big enough to support cult/fringe material like Scrublands. Ultimately, Scrublands is my favorite book of mine (so far) and it went on to the shortlist for the Eisner award in 2007 (it didn’t win an award). It is published in the USA and in France but it is still very much a fringe comic book (even by fringe comic book standards).
As far as I can recall, it was about a year later (after the South African publication) when Fantagraphics communicated with me again and expressed interest in publishing the Red Monkey (for some reason the project had come to the attention of Gary Groth, who now saw potential in it). They agreed they would publish the project IF I could expand it from a 32 page story into a more substantial ‘graphic novel’. I then planned The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book, and offered Scrublands to Fantagraphics at the same time. They were happy to publish Scrublands, and that book was published in 2006. The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book was published three years later in 2009.
Dungeon Quest, like The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book, features a ludicrous adventure that’s grounded in a contemporary urbane environment (only even more removed from reality in the case of Dungeon Quest). How would you describe the environment and plot of the comic in your own words?
The environment is surreal, in that it combines the fantastical with the urbane. I try to meld these two sides together into a continuum that supports both the phantasmagoric and the banal, in a naturalistic kind of way. On a conceptual level, I’m also interested in combining extreme stupidity with a bit of cleverness (which the title ‘Dungeon Quest’ is supposed to invoke).
The plot is based on the standard role-playing game type of quest, i.e. it’s very simple: a small band of warrior/ magicians cross the country to face some kind of super foe and restart an ancient machine to restore balance to their world. The fascination becomes HOW they move from plot point to plot point. I thought of Dungeon Quest as a mixture of Lord of the Rings and Easy Rider. Easy Rider was essentially a quest movie (albeit a hippy biker quest), which took its time and moved organically from point to point. By having these basic plot points as a guide from the beginning, it means I don’t have to work with a finished script from the beginning and I can improvise my way from point to point. This makes the story telling process much more interesting for me and that will hopefully translate into an interesting reading experience for the reader. I would become bored very quickly simply illustrating a completed script.
When we first read Dungeon Quest we couldn’t decide if the RPG elements were influenced more by video games or traditional role-playing hobbies like Dungeon & Dragons. What were the main influences behind these features of the comic?
Video games. I actually didn’t get into playing the traditional role-playing games for some reason, that whole scene just passed me by, although I was aware of the hobby. My interest in video games was more in line with my interests in animation, visual designs etc. I assumed that hardcore RPG players would be able to catch me out, and figure that when it comes to RPGS I’m a bit of a pedestrian. To me, the fact that I’m not an expert helps to make the comic funnier, the idea that the characters are pretending, improvising and shambling their way through an adventure world.
I actually wanted to combine the RPG elements from games like Ultima and Dungeon Siege, with elements from point and click adventure games, like Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, Full Throttle, Indiana Jones and the fate of Atlantis, The Dig, and Grim Fandango (which are among my favorite games of all time).
Scrublands and Dungeon Quest seem to take place in a shared universe; Millenium Boy, Steve and Glorious Redman all make repeat appearances, as do certain place names (such as “Fireburg”) and scenery like the vert ramp seen in “My Beach Community”. Do you have a specific purpose in mind when reusing these characters and features?
No specific purpose, other than the fact that I like those characters and that particular universe seems to flow more naturally from my back brain than the Red Monkey universe which is more disciplined, conscious and constructed.
As a European/ North American comics reader, it’s very difficult to find information on the South African comics scene outside of Bitterkomix. For the uninitiated, what can you tell us about life as a South African comics reader and creator?
In South Africa there is a strong tradition of editorial/political cartooning in newspapers, however narrative comics are/were practically unheard of. Like most of the smaller ex-colonies, we seemed to rely on the USA and England for our comics and our pop-culture in general. Bitterkomix was the first and the most significant underground comic that I knew of, that was a wholly South African project, a product of the Afrikaner counter-culture movement. Currently there are a few people (very few and far between) attempting to make comics in South Africa, one because there’s not enough critical mass to form a real scene, two because there’s not enough market to sell comics to (local bookshops are loath to stock graphic novels), and three because there’s no comics industry to speak of that can start creating competition and excellence. Life as a comics creator in South Africa is a life of obscurity and isolation, for the most part. For me, I’ve tried to turn this situation into my strength and I think, when my comics hit the international markets, they have a strange vibe that they were created far away in some bubble somewhere, and I think that helps them to be unique. Of course, I started out as a loner and an outsider to begin with, and the isolation of making comics in South Africa simply heightens that tendency even more. For some people that ‘hermetic vibe’ of my comics can be quite unappealing, disturbing even, but for those who can tune into it I think it provides a strange and unique comics reading experience. For the most part I’ve lost touch with the South African publishing world, my new books are published in the USA and France only. Without that avenue it would be impossible for me to make the comics I want to make.
Speaking of Bitterkomix, Joe Dog and Lorcan White appear in Scrublands in the section entitled “Trawling the Streets of Cape Town”. Please tell us more about your relationship with them, as well as the story itself.
Anton Kannemeyer (Joe Dog), Mark Kannemeyer (Lorcan White) and Conrad Botes (Konradski), were and are the principal artists responsible for Bitterkomix. Anton and Conrad were students at Stellenbosch University at a time when my father was teaching graphic design there. I was introduced to Bitterkomix via my father, who regarded Anton and Conrad to be quite remarkable students. They’re all about ten years older than me, so by the time I started making comics I was able to communicate with them, and establish an almost protégé/ mentor relationship with them (although I never formally studied under them). Thus our mutual interest in comics, art, printing and making comics allowed me (a younger English speaking South African) and them (slightly older Afrikaans South Africans) to have concordance. Eventually I contributed work to a few issues of Bitterkomix and went to some festivals with them. Trawling the streets was a slightly surreal take on the area of Cape Town which we lived around as well as a snap shot of this unusual group of South Africans with rarefied tastes. It’s quite esoteric. It’s a slice of life strip which I didn’t really think about much at the time.
I’m not interested in involving politics in my work. I see my work as escapist or fantasist and thus an antidote to politics and reality. That’s probably why I hardly use black African characters in my work. It’s not because I’m particularly uninterested in black people in South Africa per se, but simply to avoid any socio-political connotations to being a white South African artist, or rather to avoid being seen as socio-political cartoonist at all. It’s something I almost flirted with in some of my earlier work, but I soon realized that it wasn’t my forte, because I’m just not that passionate about politics and society. I’m passionate about strange, hopefully funny adventures. Also to be a South African artist who DOESN’T involve the South African discourse in their work, that’s quite unique, that’s radical.
My aim in using Chinese and Mexican characters in those books was simply to capture some of the exoticism and pre-politically correct vibe of the Tintin books, which I am a huge fan of. Thus my aims are quite aimless. Bitterkomix on the other hand goes straight for the jugular on these socio-political, racial and cultural issues.
Who are your influences as a comics writer/ artist, both inside and outside of comics and illustration?
Hergé, Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, Jim Woodring, Gary Larson, Christophe Blain, David B, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Windsor McKay, George Herriman, Segar, Chester Gould, The Simpsons and Matt Groening, Amazing Spiderman, William Burroughs, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, the Coen brothers, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Chris Whitley, The Meat Puppets, Edward Hopper, Hayou Miyazaki, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Schafer (the video game writer/designer), amongst many others.
I’m working on book 3 currently and I hope to finish it by the end of this year. However, it might take longer, as I plan to put a lot more work into book three than the previous two books, which were somewhat more experimental and introductory. The series will finish when the crew has completed their main quest, but the sub-quests and all the little moments of interaction and comedy means the project as a whole keeps expanding. The great thing about a rambling adventure is that it’s ‘open- source’ which means it’s a great vessel for dropping new ideas into all the time, which is important for me to keep the energy up.
There is at least going to be a book 4, however if things go well I’d like to continue the series for longer.
I’m making book 3 more dense by working with more panels per page and thus I can cover more narrative in fewer pages, however I think that book three is also going have a higher page count than the first two( which are 136 pgs).
Whilst each book is tied together in the same over arching narrative (of finding all the pieces of the ‘Atlantean Resonator guitar’ and reactivating ‘The Gogh Verbirator’ Vortex machine) I’m trying to have each book have its own ‘flavor’. Book one is introductory and is steeped more in underground commix vernacular. It’s set in the suburbs and it’s grungy. Book two is slightly more of a traditional adventure as the characters explore the forest area, it’s got at least one ‘adventure game puzzle/solution moment’, and a significant fight sequence with some River Trolls.
Book three is hopefully going to be the most phantasmagoric book so far. It will be a return to the underground type humor of the first book but fused with the traditional adventuring of the second book. The sub-quest in book 3 is going to be more of a story in its own right. I want to explore the characters more, with some flashbacks to some of the characters childhoods (perhaps), which could be fun. Readers will also be introduced to the ‘Rufford Park Poachers’, ‘Orangutan Daydream- the strongest weed in the universe’, ‘the story of Atlantis’, ‘the history of the Romish people’, ‘Steve’s special abilities’, and a swamp area with monsters and a castle raid. Of course there will also be a lot of fight scenes and weapon and armor upgrades.
I have another comics project I’m working on, which I’d rather not detail at this point. It’s going to be a self-contained ‘graphic-novel’, not a series. It’s a very small format book with a high page count with its own universe and style. However that project is on hold, at least until I’ve finished work on DQ3.
Finally: Tell us more about the fantastic models/ statues of the characters that appear on the Covers of the Dungeon Quest books. Do you make them yourself? Could a die-hard Dungeon Quest fan get their hands on one?
I made them myself. I enjoy making things out of clay as a break from drawing, it’s very relaxing. They’re made out of clay which is unfired and some of them are broken now. If I got them baked in a kiln and they didn’t destruct in the process then I suppose I could sell them as ‘art’, but I don’t think I’m going to do that soon.
I purposefully kept them quite simple and crude to make them look like a fusion between Sumerian figures, early Minoan figures and Mexican/ Pre-Colombian figures, which have interested me a lot. They’re supposed to look ‘Atlantean’. I was struggling to come up with a drawn cover for Dungeon Quest, and then I realized that I could simply photograph the models and use them that way. It turned out well I think, and it’s a unique way to do a cover for a comic. It’s very unusual.
It would be great to make a mold for them and caste some replicas (in resin) which hard-core fans could get hold of, but I’m too busy with the comics to venture into that right now. Maybe when the Dungeon Quest series is finished, that’s something I could try. Thanks for the idea.