INTERVIEW :: David King
DAVID KING is a cartoonist who lives and works in San Diego, California, United States of America. I first discovered his work a couple of years ago through his publisher, Sparkplug Comics, and have since come to think of him as one of the pre-eminent cartoonists working today. Lots of us draw, but not many of us do something uniquely us, not many of us have something to say or a way to say it that hasn't been done a thousand times before already. His comic Lemon Styles was on a ton of best-of lists last year, including my own, and he's also the author of Danny Dutch and Crime World. I heartily recommend you pick up all these, especially the massive, lushly printed, gorgeous Lemon Styles.
Anyway. David's comics are a weird amalgam of post-war cartooning and present-day disillusion--like a previous generation viewed through the crummy coke-bottle contact lenses of today. Or vice versa. Or neither--his comics are hard to explain, which is probably their very best asset, among many others. David was kind to give up a balmy Southern California evening for me to pick his brain.
DUSTIN HARBIN (me): You'll be happy to know that I came up with all these questions during this week's episode of The Bachelor.
DAVID KING: That's a very inspirational program
ME: It's REALLY inspirational if you hate women and love boob jobs.
I'd like to start off with talking about the craft in your comics, which I think is one of the things that first draws in a reader. Or first drew me in, anyway. There's obviously a high level of attention to craft and technique in your strips--how much of that is by design? What I mean is, how much is a natural extension of your abilities and skillsets, and how much is you pushing that angle as a part of the whole shape of the strip?
KING: I guess I could pretty easily not do as much drawing in the strips and they'd still work as comics, but in those Laugh Menu strips they wouldn't work the way I want them to without the amount of information that's there. I don't think I'm doing a ton of drawing just to try and show off my chops or something...
ME: That's interesting that you say "the amount of information"--I don't see your strips as overworked at all, but I guess you're right--every bit of ink is another piece of information, if you think of it that way.
So the level of texture and craft in the drawings is a requisite part of the "gag?"
KING: Well, sure, it all adds up. If I stripped it down to just characters' head and word balloons it wouldn't amount to much at all, but trying to put in a setting and body language and what-have-you will give the reader something to put together.
Everybody knows that, right?
ME: Are you making fun of me?
KING: I guess so
ME: I'm not sure everybody knows that though--I know one of the things I really respond to in your comics is how put-together they are, how composed. I might "know" intellectually that a person is making a ton of subconscious computations as they take in a panel and move to the next, but that doesn't mean that I have figured out how to put that into practice yet.
As we're typing back and forth I'm paging through your site, and one thing I almost never see is a "dropped" background, where a character is existing against nothing or a very minimal background.
KING: Yeah, to some degree I feel like it's cheating to leave out that stuff and it's also good drawing practice to do that. It's really boring to me to draw just somebody's head and shoulders talking. But there's also times when I'm sure it makes perfect sense to leave out the backgrounds...in these four panel strips, for me, I want to see some locations or else it's a waste of time and stupid.
A lot of the time the backgrounds and settings I use are pretty arbitrary, like I just feel like having them on a fishing boat or whatever and decide to see how it turns out. Just goofing around.
ME: Really? So you are, as a matter of course, always thinking of putting things, whatever they might be, into the background? I think a well-timed dropped background can add a certain something to the rhythm of a strip. I'm thinking of someone like Tim Hensley especially. I'm not trying to criticize you here, but I find the idea interesting. It's almost like you feel compelled to flesh out each panel to the max.
"To the max" = literary term.
KING: Well, yeah, like I said there's times to do it and times where it might be better not to do it. In Tim's Wally Gropius book, you know, it's a longer story and it's in color, so in a technical sense it actually doesn't always need really fully-drawn backgrounds, the color will do the trick and you'll get it when you read it. But in a black & white 4-panel strip, it might seem empty to leave out the background. And as far as timing the use of backgrounds to emphasize a punchline, that should be done very sparingly. I don't want to tell the reader when I've just made a joke, or tell him when the character is shocked or something. I'm not the teacher who tells you what parts of the lecture will be on the test and what part you can sleep through. Do comics readers want me to spoon feed everything to them? "Read this panel, then this one, and now here is when you laugh! see----no background!"
It's not that simple, I know, sometimes it works, sometimes it's not the best idea. I guess I want there to be a good reason for things, aside from just making it easy for somebody to get it. But in the strips I usually do, I like it if there's not a bunch of cues telling the reader how to feel about them.
ME: That puts me in mind of this quote from Tom Spurgeon's Dan Clowes interview of a few weeks ago:
"CLOWES: The obvious thing is to never have any kind of response to a joke, unless that is the joke itself, the character's response. The famous example is the comic strip Sally Forth, which I think is now drawn by somebody else, but back in the old days she would deliver some wry observation about the foibles of man and she had this little smirk on her face in the last panel. It was so off-putting and killed every ounce of alleged humor in the strip. I thought that was Cartooning 101 right there, that you would not ever want to do that."
KING: Anything Dan Clowes says, I agree with.
ME: I think all tools are available to a discerning user of tools, but I see your point, especially with regards to your own work. How much do you think about audience when you're composing your strips?
KING: I don't think about those dipshits at all.
Sometimes I think I ought to think about the audience more, but it's probably a bad idea...I don't want to paint myself into any corners where I feel like I have to give somebody exactly what they're looking for. My job is to make comics about what I want to make them about and that's it. Otherwise I would start making big-boob zombie vampire comics. Obviously, there's technical readability things that I think about, but as far as thinking about whether people will like what I'm doing or if they'll understand my point or something, I don't want to think about it.
ME: I mean the audience less as a group of demographics, and more as a group of readers you might be communicating with. Like, how much do you think about what does and doesn't come across in your comics?
KING: I don't really think about that either...unless it's completely blatant and obvious, anything that I might want somebody to understand on a subtextual basis is something that I can't ever expect everybody to get and there are maybe things that will occur to a reader that I didn't anticipate.. it's better to just do it my way and hope it works for somebody.
ME: Really! That's surprising--I'm genuinely surprised--I guess one of the things I love the best about your strips--maybe THE best thing, although the drawing is pretty good I GUESS--is how you seem to skate the line between open-ended and downright inscrutable pretty effectively. In my very favorite of your strips, other than the more gag-oriented ones, I find myself carrying the idea of the strip around in my head for a while after reading. The whole train story was amazing for me, especially since I read it the first time in Lemon Styles, so the art was big enough to smack me right in the face.
I guess it's surprising because you seem so good at artfully creating something for a reader to unpack, sort out, and try to understand on whatever level, whether just as comedy, or "oh I get it" or something deeper--the idea that you don't think about what it is your audience "sees" when reading one of your strips is.. well I don't want to say it rings false, but it seems... I don't know. You're a liar, David King.
KING: Well, I think about what works for me when I read it, but I'm not trying to fool myself that anybody else will take it the same way. Though if I'm really hot I might do a panel where I really need the reader to get the point and put it beside a panel where I want the meaning to be obscure, and at times that's on purpose because that's how I want it to work. Yeah, I'm in control of it and I'm trying to do a comic that I want to read, but I'm also not under any illusions that that's going to work universally. Maybe I'm trying to answer a different question than you're asking.
ME: Yeah this is like a meta-answer. It ALMOST makes sense, but not quite. Okay, on a related note--
KING: I mean, everybody has to consider how the comic will read when they're making it, but thinking about how the audience will receive it is a different story.
ME: This idea of delineating and obscuring things for a reader is something I notice a lot in your strips. As just one of a number of.. dichotomies? Dualities? It seems like there are a lot of pairs of things working in opposition in your comics. This whole idea of clear/unclear is echoed in the enormous warmth and beauty of the actual drawings, set against the often cold, fussy, highly mannered way the figures comport themselves. I don't mean the way you've drawn the figures when I say fussy; I mean the figures themselves. It's like they've been plunked down in the middle of these landscapes, and are never really a part of them, never really comfortable. Heck, they're never that comfortable with each other. This is a trite question, but related to this idea of communicating with an audience, is this sort of dissonance by design? Is it something you've built into the fabric of the strip?
KING: That's just me, baby.
I'm not sure if it's by design, or maybe just the style of the strip...that is, for example, it's hard for me to draw those characters in clothes other than the shirt-tie-jacket outfit, so it's definitely incongruous to see them hanging around out in the woods dressed like that. I think that's funny to see cartoon characters like that, but the only reason I might have drawn them out in the woods in the first place is because I didn't want to draw them inside a room for the fifth strip in a row...so what else is there to do but leave them in their uniform clothing and have them outside. It's "built into the fabric" I suppose, but only through a combination of restlessness and weird character design.
But I guess it could help in adding a dash of an alienation vibe to it.
ME: It’s hard to believe! It's for sure a part of the fabric of the strip to me. Maybe I'm over-analyzing it though. I don't come from a rigorous art background, so a lot of times I bring a real ignorance to things like this, although it's a useful ignorance (to me). I don't mind thrashing around your comics like a dullard if it's enjoyable for me. And educational too.
For instance--not only is there that disparity between the figures and their settings, or the way they're dressed and the way they talk, or the fact that none of them seem to have anything approaching a comfortable connection to any other one of them, but there's a weird thing you do where you'll abstract the characters to kind of silly thumbnail versions the farther away they are, or make them weirdly more real in closeups.
It's stuff like this, the way the idea of distance is treated, that brings me back again to the idea of distance as an organizing principle for the whole strip.
KING: That's a neat idea, it's neat that you're seeing that. I hadn't really thought of it. I guess I'm a pretty aloof character, maybe that's bleeding into the comics at a super subconscious level.
Did you notice the dropped background in that strip?
KING: I'm so lazy and worthless
ME: You are an aloof guy in person, that MIGHT be part of the reason why I am noticing that, but I'm no dummy either, I definitely think it's a strong thematic element in the strip.
KING: OK, if you say so... It's just easier to draw them as stick people when they're way in the background. I'm not good at drawing really tiny.
ME: Okay let's get off the high concept stuff for a minute. Your comics have a very clear aesthetic sense, and are obviously influenced by an illustrative comic style that was more in vogue in what--the 40's? the 50's? It's a question I always groan to read in an interview, but I have to say I'm really fascinated to hear about your influences.
KING: I have to go to bathroom
KING: Shoot, I don't know where to start, I've looked at so many comics. I guess it's a 40s-50s kind of look, sure. For awhile as a kid I was looking at clip art books as a reference, but I never saw too many old-time comic strips until I was probably 18 or 19. I bought that Smithsonian book off ebay. Before that, I had Jack Hamm's cartooning book which was the only decent cartooning how-to book that was available. For some reason I've always thought that suits and ties and stuff were a neat look, maybe from watching 50s & 60s reruns for years
ME: There's a real kind of 40's, post-war advertising art look to a lot of your stuff, maybe a certain polish? Is that coming from comics or illustration more? It's hard to think of older cartoonists who work in a style like that--except maybe in romance comics.
KING: Yeah, for a long time I really wanted to perfect that mixed weight brush line. I've pretty much given up on getting as good as those 50s commercial artists & animators. I guess I've kind of smashed together that kind of look and a 30's newspaper strip drawing style into one thing.
I also have always liked those clear line guys (Herge, Swarte, Gluyas Williams, but I can't pull of that type of drawing. But their organized look is something I think about. What kind of stuff influenced you?
ME: Oh man, don't get me talking about that stuff. My influences are all over the place. But I'll list one, because I think it might have some slight bearing, just in terms of being highly-polished. A guy named Warren Kremer was like the artistic brain trust at Harvey Comics from near the beginning onward--all the best character designs, and he had that perfect—PERFECT--weighted brush-line that's just flawless and shockingly graceful.
KING: Oh yeah, animation guys love him. I guess it just take practice, right?
ME: I guess. I don't think that kind of smoothness is in my future. I have too much OCD to pull off a nice swooping line without trying to muck it up with details.
KING: Practicing that sounds like OCD therapy, you should give it a try.
ME: What about Gluyas Williams--I know you're bonkers about him, don't you run gluyaswilliams.com? He's someone I know only through some old books of gag cartoons, stuff like that.
KING: Yeah, i was really interested in his stuff, but I've lost interest a little, possibly just because I've been focusing on making comics versus trying to maintain a website of somebody else's comics. I still think he's really incredible, but I haven't messed with that site in awhile. And I don't want to draw like him anymore.
ME: Yeah influence is great in its place, but it feels most useful in the background, except as a training exercise.
KING: Yeah, exactly. But Gluyas Williams is a great cartoonist to look at to study composition and line economy and stuff like that
ME: Okay, let's wrap it up. I have a harder question that I'd like to get a good answer on, if I can. In terms of goals, what is it you want to accomplish as an artist?
I don't really like that question
ME: Give it some thought--I think it's a question cartoonists don't get much. For us the idea of a goal is always about making a book or "breaking in" or something like that. But it's rarely about accomplishing anything substantive, whether it be personal or public or $$$$$ or whatever.
KING: The problem is that I don't make art with any goal in mind, really...I mean, I want to make things that I'm happy with and want to enjoy myself while I'm doing it. I'd like to keep improving and learning stuff...I'm not really prepared to say what I might think of as an improvement, I guess. Getting lots of tail or money or being famous are things that I have never thought of as benefits of making comic books. I don't think about getting into the illustration or animation business or anything like that.
ME: Well, can't making things you're happy with and enjoying yourself be valid goals? I don't mean to discount those at all.
KING: Well, calling something a goal implies that there's some destination that I'm trying to reach, and I'm not talking about that.
ME: Is it something you want to AVOID thinking about when you make art?
ME: The idea of having any goal in mind. You seem to shy away from the very idea.
KING: Do I want to avoid thinking about goals? Yes, I don't want to take a risk and set myself up for a fall.
I just don't want to ever fool myself into believing that I'll make some perfect thing at some point and that that's my "goal" because that's idiotic. So trying to answer what I want to accomplish as an artist is a weird question...I don't have a mission statement that's printed on the back of my business card. I don't mean to sound non-committal about it... but also it's makes me want to roll over and go to sleep when I get "but you must WANT SOMETHING, right??"
I want to enjoy myself and not have to explain shit all the time.
Sorry I'm getting so hostile!
ME: (cracking up) Listen buddy, you don't have to explain it to me! The fact that I'm interested in where you want to go doesn't mean you have to *go* anywhere. But: methinks the lady doth protest too much.
KING: SCREW YOU
KING: I have to answer this question EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE
ME: Well I think that's in the "So You Want To Be An Artist" welcome packet, isn't it? "Welcome to some pleasure and a lot of questions you will never ever answer."
KING: GIrlfriends, parents, dudes I barely know on the internet: "David what do you want to accomplish??"
KING: When are we going to talk about Wizard?
Thank you very much to David for his time. There were some questions that people submitted to me via Twitter, but the interview ran so long I wasn't able to get to them. But I encourage you to ask David any questions you like in the comments below, he's told me he'd be happy to answer them, although the answers may or may not satisfy you. How thrilling!