Ken Dahl has herpes, and he wants you to know that you probably do too—in fact, he wrote a book about it. Released this month on Secret Acres, just in time for SPX, Monsters is grotesque, horrifying, sickening, expertly drawn, and funny as hell. Of course none of this will come as any surprise to those who picked up Dahl’s (née Gabby Schulz) Microcosm collection, Welcome to the Dahl House.
What is surprising, however, is the book’s success on an emotional—and educational—level. There’s clearly much more to Monsters than good old fashioned gross out humor. The book succeeds on that most fundamental level for confessional comics: it’s unmistakably the work of an artist working through his demons the way he best knows how: through his art.
Speaking with Dahl at SPX, it’s clear that, while ultimately effective, such a candid approach to self-therapy was perhaps not the easiest method. “You don’t have a choice but to admit it,” Dahl explains, “because you can’t wuss out and deny it, or be embarrassed by it, because I’m making temporary herpes tattoos.”
But however such expression might ultimately affect Dahl’s sex life, we’re all better off for it, now having access to what is arguably the most entertaining STD pamphlet committed to paper.
So you brought the tattoos to the show.
Yeah. They came out all right.
What’s the story behind them?
Secret Acres does a little promotional thing with their books. We had a few sort of okay idea, like, oh god, I don’t know—but this is the first idea that seemed perfect. But it’s also destined to be the least popular tattoo in the history of temporary tattoos.
What is it, specifically?
It’s supposed to be a herpes sore.
What’s the relevance of that?
Oh, because the book, Monsters, is about this. It’s a story about a character who finds out that he has an STD and then spends 200 pages basically complaining about it, and then, at the end, finding out that he might not actually have it. It’s an odyssey—it’s an educational comic, as it was described by somebody, which is really ironic, because it was partially autobiographical, and it went from a state of complete ignorance to complete misinformation to complete misery, and eventual knowledge and acceptance.
How is it educational?
It had to be educational at some point, because it’s a 208 page book about this character basically obsessing over his cold sores. It’s simultaneously the least important subject ever and also one that infects and affects so many people. Also, there’s this huge stigma about it. It puts 70-80-percent of adults in this weird space where they can’t talk about it, and they have to feel really bad about it. But it’s also such a non-issue. I couldn’t explain how awful this was without actually putting down the facts about herpes, as we know them. It’s surprising.
The shear volume.
Yeah. Most people have it, and most of the people who have it don’t know they have it. Most people who have it don’t actually get symptoms, and most of the symptoms that people get aren’t actually herpes, so nobody really knows. Doctors don’t really know sometimes. And also, it’s incurable, and there’s all sorts of weird ways you can get it. Something like 40-percent of all college wrestlers have a form of herpes just because they’re always rubbing up against each other. It just seems like it’s really not all that big of a deal.
The first half of the book is me, basically—well, the character—finding out that his partner has it, in a really awful way. And that sort of catapults him into the misery of “why me” and feeling like he’s to blame for everything. I guess it was just a comedy of errors more than an educational comic about herpes.
In terms of stigma, you’re obviously putting yourself out there, simply by writing this book.
Yeah, a lot of people are like, “man, that’s really brave of you. I wouldn’t have done that.” And it’s really not at all. It was just stupidity. It was just like, “I’m gonna draw another little comic about something.” I’ve always enjoyed drawing personal comics, so this is just the perfect opportunity to get…ugly…
There’s a certain amount of distance when writing something that’s semi-autobiographical. Do you feel like people are still afraid to put themselves out there even in terms of something like that?
Yeah, yeah, because it’s really embarrassing [laughs]. it’s really one of the stupidest things you can do, to publicize the things what we all want to keep secret. And some of the people that are in the comic are really angry—okay, well, one person. And I can’t really blame them. I didn’t know how else to tell the story in a way that was juicy and good and accurate and didn’t involve some of my friends and partners in some way.
You sound a bit regretful and having done this.
Oh yeah, well all of that was the lead-in to me saying: but also it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, because it’s a great way to get over your fear of something, just to throw it all out and just bare it all, and not worry about the consequences for as long as it takes to finish the book. And then you don’t have a choice but to admit it, because you can’t wuss out and deny it, or be embarrassed by it, because I’m making temporary herpes tattoos. I’ve got nothing to lose now, and it’s really liberating. Now I kind of want to do it for everything else in life, because no one can make fun of me. What can they say that I haven’t already said?
[Continued in Part Two.]