In the third and final part of our interview with Ken Dahl, we talk lepers, the egotism of autobiographical comics, a why Ernest Hemingway wrote about police batons instead of penises.
You’ve never really done any comics out of spite?
Only to myself. Yeah, I don’t want to make anyone feel bad. It’s really pathetic, because even that one person that got angry at me, even before I drew the comic, I thought that she would be—not flattered, but at least impressed with the amount of thought I gave to her character, because I really did make her look a lot better that she did in real life, at least as far as things went down and how she responded to all the stuff. And boy was I wrong. But yeah, it was not intentional. I just sort of fucked up.
Having written this book that, in a sense, gets a little less autobiographical as it goes along, do you feel that it become less true as it becomes less literally true?
Yeah, I though about that a lot, because I never really had to get all literary before. It’s so much easier to be autobiographical, because the script is all there, you just have to transcribe it. But I also realized that it would take like 800 pages to explain everything I did in the book, now. You look at Hemingway—The Sun Also Rises—it’s totally auto-bio.
But it’s incredibly sparse. He obviously left stuff out.
Yeah, right. He has to put symbolism.
Yeah. It’s so utilitarian to use symbolism. At the end of the book, he’s sitting in the car and there’s a policeman that raises a baton. That’s supposed to symbolize his impotence or something. He’s not actually writing about his flaccid cock—and a lot of that was probably there just to get through the censors. It’s about not freaking people out. But luckily I don’t have that problem. But I think the problem is that you have to be good at writing comics if you don’t want to write auto-bio, but you still want to write about what happened. That’s why a lot of people, including me, don’t do it.
You have to be a writer. I guess I tried to do that, towards the end. I tried to be a little more sly with the way I reveal the truth. I would have much rather been totally on the table with everything that happened. But when you’ve got 20 people that actually exist that were involved with this book—I also realize that most people who write stuff about all their friends often lose all of their friends, because they have to make a choice between telling the truth and having people like them. Obviously, if it wasn’t me, I would say, “you always have a responsibility to tell the truth, and it’s always going to make a better story.” But when it’s me, it’s different.
But you can tell the truth without telling the literal truth.
Yeah. There’s definitely a gray area where it’s hard to tell at what point your quality is dropping off and the juiciness factor is lacking.
But you don’t want to be sensationalistic. You don’t want to do that just to do it.
Yeah. Especially with a subject like STDs. You don’t want to get into a space where you’re mocking it or just exploiting it.
Are you going to take a break before you do something else that’s autobiographical?
Yeah, I kind of want to see what the response to this is, if people actually lynch me.
Which would make a great comic.
[Laughs] Yeah, “The Time I Got Lynched,” by Ken Dahl. But yeah, I’m worried that I might fall into that trap of autobiographical cartoonists, where they realize that people like their stuff, and all of the sudden they turn into the hugest douchebag ever, where it’s like, ‘I’m really important now.’ And then they get into real fine art stories. I can totally see that happen, because your head gets real big, and you know that everyone is staring at you, just waiting for you to draw that next gross thing.
And when your work starts becoming about the people who come up to you, talking about your work, that’s where you begin to fall into the trap.
Yeah, I know, that’s totally it. And it’s also your worst nightmare—I’ll just slip this in and run. But it’s never like that, because your name is on it, and you have a publisher now, and you’re getting paid for it, so you have to face the music. So, yeah, I can definitely see the desire to go into fiction at that point.
I actually really want to do this book about a leper colony. It would be perfect, because it would sort of be about diseases, which I love drawing—I love just drawing gross stuff. But that’s historical fiction, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to make the leap into real comics.
So you’re not actively working on anything right now?
I’m sort of working on that, because somebody told me you have to put together a proposal, so I’m learning about all of that fancy real comics stuff.
So you’re looking beyond Microcosm and Secret Acres for the next book?
Yeah. Anyone who would pay me anything at all, really, to draw comics. That’s how I was able to finish Monsters. They floated me a few bucks to just hole up for 8, 12, 16 hours a day and just hammer it out. Otherwise I don’t think I would have finished it.
Do you feel that, in terms of general excitement, this is a big step beyond Welcome to the Dahl House?
Oh yeah, definitely! There’s obviously some filler in that book, because a lot of it was like 10 years ago. I don’t feel ashamed of this book at all, though. There aren’t as many errors to be embarrassed by.
This is like new embarrassing territory.
Yeah, I haven’t even learned to be embarrassed by it yet. But I’ll learn. I’m sure I will.