Warned you this might happen.
Few weeks back, I profiled a book called Cyclone Bill and the Tall Tales, which is being published by Moonstone Books. This week, I bring series creator and musician Dan Dougherty into the house, to dig a little deeper into the genesis of the series, how his music influences his comics, and what the hell Elvis has to do with the whole thing. Enjoy.
Brandon Thomas: Who is Dan Dougherty, and why has he come here?
Dan Dougherty: I’m the writer/artist of Cyclone Bill and the Tall Tales, writer/singer/guitarist in Casual Kill, and employee of the month at a dead end job. I’ve come here to lose the dead end job.
Thomas: What got you into comics, and what inspired you to become an artist?
Dougherty: I was a real stay at home kid growing up, so it kind of just came with the situation. My dad had this ritual where he’d take me up to 7-11 to buy comics as a reward for doing a hundred good things, and this went on until I realized that comic series never end. That’s something that has always bothered me, and I stopped reading comics for about five or six years because of that.
My mom and dad always have encouraged what I do, even if they didn’t understand it sometimes. My mom can be a real critic, but she’s allowed because she was an artist herself until she became a mother. I’ll show her what I’ve been up to, and she’ll tell me flat out, “you can do better that that.” My Dad doesn’t have the same knowledge, but he knows about passion and drive. They both have really given up a lot for myself and my brother Kevin, so the least I can do is give them their credit.
Thomas: What was it about the “never-ending” aspect of the comics you were reading that got to you?
Dougherty: The book loses its importance if it’s never-ending. That’s what makes books like Lone Wolf and Cub and Preacher more timeless. They told their story, it was big enough to create a world, but just small enough to stay grounded on that world. I can remember everything that happened in those books, whereas the more established books like Spider-Man or X-Men all start to blur together.
Thomas: Where did the initial idea of the Tall Tales series come from?
Dougherty: The idea originally stemmed from a trend I noticed in college – I received my degree in art from UIC – and the trend was that people were literally placing themselves in the work they were creating. It was actually a lot of video artists doing this, which I guess comes out of necessity when you have no budget and a vision. My big project at the time was a four-issue comic series titled “Upside Down”.
I had created a character to filter some autobiographical stuff through, and after finishing it, I felt I kind of wimped out. I wasn’t being brave enough to remove this fake character, who was acting out some of my experiences, and place myself at the helm. So, I decided that I’d be in the next comic I made. My professor asked me what kind of scenario I’d like to be in, and my first impulse was, “I want to be in a rock and roll band.” No more wimpy stuff. None of the small, heartbreaker stories that have come to define a lot of the indie market.
Thomas: So, exactly how much of the story and its characters did you take from your own life, and incorporate into the mix?
Dougherty: Except for Cyclone Bill, the band is a fully functioning band. It’s my band. And my immediate problem was that I wanted there to be a character in the band that lives the whole rock life, including the death. Sometimes the death becomes the most important part of the legend. But it wouldn’t make sense for me to kill myself, or my bandmates, because the possible meanings implied in that are too many to mention or control, so Cyclone Bill became the guy with the glory. He’s the Neil Young to our Crazy Horse.
Bill himself has gone through many incarnations, and I actually have about 90 pages of art that I scrapped before starting issue one. He was a lot more sinister back then, but now, he’s far more believable and human. I modeled him off of Robert Johnson and Pete Townshend.
Thomas: Does every band need a guy like Cyclone Bill? Who fills that role in Casual Kill?
Dougherty: Cyclone Bill is the kind of guy who wants it so bad that he’s willing to do anything to be great. Not every band needs that, but some do. Guys like those get you out of the garage and onto the radio. Whether it’s selling out or not is irrelevant if you like what you’ve done.
I love what I do, and I want to be able to live off of it for the rest of my life. It’s that Grant Morrison quote that I’m sure I’ll butcher, something like, “Fanboys, fangirls, don’t you want to rule the world?”
Thomas: So, what personally got you “from the garage to the radio” in regards to comics? Was there any one situation that told you this was something you needed to do?
Dougherty: That’s funny, because I don’t think I’m anywhere near the radio yet. I’m barely at the gramophone. I don’t think there’s one particular situation, it’s more like a daily concern that I’m going to settle. It’s not the most original feeling among creators, but it does hit home.
Thomas: Are there any additional story concerns that come from putting yourself into your own works?
Dougherty: Yeah, I didn’t want to be pompous. I also didn’t know where I should draw the line between real characters and fictional characters. For a while, I was putting too much of my life in the story, and it seemed like I was bordering on creating an in-joke, so I had to step back and see what the function of putting my band in the comic is. And really, it should only be about tapping into the fantasy element of comics that makes them so appealing. You can do things in comics that you’d never be able to do in real life. Why not explore that?
Thomas: Are there any key differences between Dan-the-writer/artist/musician, and Dan-the-comic-character?
Dougherty: I’m a secondary character in the book, very ancillary to the main plot. In real life though, I’m always in charge of whatever I’m doing. I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who allow me to do that, and Garrett Anderson, my editor at Moonstone, has been very trusting of the directions I take my book in, and I try to live up to that trust by making the best work I’m capable of. It’s a good dynamic.
Thomas: How’d the book find its home at Moonstone?
Dougherty: I had pitched Upside Down to Garrett and Joe. They liked it, but I had made the mistake of doing it in color and in a weird paper size. The cost of printing that would’ve been ridiculous. So I started working on Cyclone Bill, and when I had enough work, I pitched it to them. Not only did they like the idea, but they have been cool enough to leave me to my own devices. The relationship we have makes it really easy to work.
Thomas: It’s pretty obvious from reading this that you have an appreciation for the life and career of Elvis Presley. When did you first discover his music, and how has it informed your work as both a musician and an artist?
Dougherty: Real young. I love all the guys with a story. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Zeppelin, it goes a long way for me when an artist is not only good, but has a life that you could take notes on. I got into Nick Cave just by reading an interview with him, and now I have almost every album.
If you look at a lot of the scenes throughout the series, you’ll notice I’ve lifted moments from a couple big time musicians. My favorite scene thus far has been when a reporter asks the band what their sound is like, and the band makes a bunch of weird noises, and Bill adds, “with a twist of lemon.” I pulled that straight from Nirvana.
As far as Elvis goes, I chose to focus on him because of the title he carries as the King. I have this conflict in the book involving the devil and temptation, the kind of stuff that adds to the legend of guys like Robert Johnson (or Tommy Johnson, depending on who you talk to). The devil needs an opponent, someone big enough to give a challenge, and I picked the King. And plus, have you ever seen those karate moves? Do you know how much fun it is to draw that?
Thomas: I think that supernatural elements always work best when grafted onto a very real human emotion., and I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to the book in the first place. Besides temptation, what other concerns are forming the backbone of the horror aspect in Cyclone Bill?
Dougherty: Cyclone Bill is a desperate character. Like a lot of twenty-somethings, he feels like the time to strike was ten minutes ago and the clock’s running out. Plus, his mother dies when he’s still relatively young, and he’s really left with nothing. So, when the devil comes to him, he’s in the right state of mind to buy what is being sold. It’s equal parts ambition and desperation, and that always tends to get people in trouble.
Thomas: Is this the first in a series of works from you, or is this the one and only story you have to tell?
Dougherty: In regards to Cyclone Bill and the Tall Tales, this six-issue series is all I plan on doing. I might draw some extra stuff that I couldn’t fit in the comics to include in the TPB, but there’s a definite closure at the end of the book. As far as the future goes, I can’t tear myself from music, my gallery work, or my comics. I have plenty of things that I’m doing, it’s just a matter of getting them out there.
Thomas: As a creator, what has doing music taught you about comics, and vice-versa? Are both of your main interests always jockeying for attention, or would it be difficult to separate one from the other?
Dougherty: I think there’s a lot to be learned about the composition of comics from music. I remember reading that Kubrick let the music from 2001 direct the movie, and while it doesn’t apply as directly to comics, it still influences how I work. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard an artist I like inform the reader of the music that was playing while he/she drew. It connects to something deep down, and it’s important to recognize that connection.
I always feel like I’m neglecting one over the other, but I think it works for me because it also gives me a fresh perspective every time I come back to one or the other. There’s nothing worse than being creatively stuck, and having another outlet helps to free things up. If I could just lose the nine to five, I’d be made in the shade.
Thomas: How is rock & roll like comics?
Dougherty: Rock and comics. They both have the potential to speak right to the heart, or suck for a decade, but they don’t ever seem to really go away.
Thomas: If you had your way, where is Dan Dougherty in five years, as both a comic creator and a musician?
Dougherty: As far as comics, I don’t know. After seeing a little of how things work, I’m not sure how my comic ideas will translate successfully from a marketing standpoint. The easy thing to say is that I’d like to be successful enough to live off of my work, but I don’t know how to attain that.
The thing is though, I feel more relaxed about making comics than I do about making music, because I don’t need to be young to make comics. It’s hard to introduce an old rocker into a young crowd. Still, I would die a happy man to have half of the career that Nick Cave has had. Either half, they’re both good.
Thomas: Just want to thank Dan for stopping by this week, and encourage you all again to take a look at his series, Cyclone Bill and the Tall Tales, the first issue now available at a retailer near you. I’ll see you good people in seven.