Take it from Ken Dahl: not everyone wants to be in your book about herpes. There’s a certain level of caution one must practice when entering the world of confessional comics—that goes double when your book is about as touchy a subject as, say, your battle with herpes.
In this second part of our interview with the Monsters author, we discuss such considerations, and find out that Dahl would, in fact, write a book about AIDS—as long as it was, you know, funny enough.
Do you think the book would have worked with something really serious? Something like the clap? Something really debilitating?
Yeah. Something that’s basically going to eat away at your brain.
Well, I think there’s enough gallows humor in the book that I think it could work. Totally. There’s nothing that can’t be made fun of, if you do it in the right way—or at least the things about it that actually are funny. There are things in the book are are just a bummer, and I’m not going to make fun of people who have it. There’s a line that I just won’t cross. I don’t want to make other people feel bad who have it. I would totally do a comic book about AIDS, too, because it’s just another one of those things that people don’t talk about enough. And if you can deal with it with humor, that’s great.
People talk about it, but it’s always really overbearing. You don’t necessarily want to read that. There seems to be two approaches, the really dry side—usually a book about cancer. Or you can be Johnny Ryan, which isn’t especially educational.
No, right. But it doesn’t have to be educational, necessarily, but it’s going to be educational, when you spend enough time on it. Unless you want to look like a complete idiot and just give people the wrong information, at some point you have to lay down the actual truth of what’s going on with your subject. Johnny Ryan obviously isn’t doing any of that. He’s just making fun of everyone, and that seems to work for him, I guess.
Well, it’s funny.
Yeah. But that wouldn’t have worked with my comic. That just would have been the most awful thing, ever. People would have lynched me. But that’s the weird thing about this comic, it’s kind of like a secret society. I feel like every time I get a good review or somebody comes up and seems unusually happy to read the book, it’s like, well, they probably have herpes. The odds are definitely good. Why else would they be so into this book? Which is awesome. There’s people who feel happy that this book is being done. I’m glad about that—I certainly don’t want to make fun of it, because I was relieved when I got over it. It’s almost embarrassing to talk about how embarrassing it was. I just never thought about it before. I thought it was just some gross thing that just sluts got, and people shouldn’t be allowed to have sex after they got it. That’s fucking ridiculous, of course. Most people who think that have it already.
It’s not entirely autobiographical, of course, but at some point you’ve got to admit that there’s some of you in there.
Without going into specifics, what’s sort of things did you feel obligated to change around?
Well, I learned that lesson the hard way, after drawing the minis. It was read by somebody who was in it. This person was really, really angry, and I guess justifiable. And I guess I didn’t realize that anybody was gonna read it. and then it won an Ignatz Award.
Yeah! And then it got picked up by Secret Acres, and I guess I realized that this was for real, and I really had to consider people’s anonymity. And I don’t know, it’s just such a compulsive desire to just be real with the whole thing and give everyone’s real names. I love reading comics that are completely confessional, that feel like all of this is happening to the person who is drawing it, and none of this is fictional. They’re actually vomiting onto the page all of these things that happened. So I had to fight that urge. I think that most of the book did happen, but I got a little more creative with splicing together different things that did happen in ways that didn’t happen.
Since you were, in effect, getting feedback in real-time—putting out a mini, getting feedback, and then putting out another—did it become less autobiographical as you went along?
It did [laughs]. Because I was terrified at people being angry at me. And I learned to ask permission. By the end of the book, I ended up e-mailing people when I wanted them to be in book.
So people were okay with that?
Yeah. There was really only one other person who was a huge part of the book that I thought might be offended by exposed in that way. Because it’s about sex and nobody really wants to look at themselves having sex.
And your style isn’t always the most flattering.
Yeah, well, expect that person that I did write, at the end of the book, I tried—I drew her naked, but in the most flattering way I could. And I tried not to objectify her, also, even though there’s a scene that I was fantasizing about her. But she’s a really cool person, and I think she understood how this is important to me. And we’re still friends, so it wasn’t really an ex thing.
[Concluded in Part Three]