Dream Life influences: The making of

Posted on Monday, July 14th, 2014 at 8:06 pm

WARNING, sovaldi sale SPOILERS!! This is an essay that first appeared in the back of a the limited edition of Dream Life book one given to the Indiegogo backers, hospital and comes with the Digital edition as well. You can grab a PDF of the pages as they appear in the book here.

For more in this series, clinic see “Dream Life influences: Movies, Picasso, and the Minotaur

The making of Dream Life
a long-wrought rendering
_

DreamLifeIndegogo_169_0001Back around 1993, living in Toronto my friend and sometimes roommate Jonathan and I attended a Zine and small press fair. It was a good show, lots of pre-net DIY zines, comix, and books. The space was stuffy, an old poorly ventilated church hall. Typical for a winter zine fair in Canada then.

As we wandered the folding tables, we came across Chester Brown, smiling in that misleadingly angelic way he does. He was selling his Yummy Fur comics, I recall, including some of his original ‘80s zines. Next to him, seemingly unattended, was a table with a set of identical but different coloured zines with a beset Charlie Brown on them, titled in the classic Peanuts font ‘You’re short, bald and ugly Charlie Brown’.

DreamLifeIndegogo_169_0002When I asked him about it, he smiled and said it was something he was selling for a ‘friend’, or something like that, claiming to be “just watching the table”, dodging taking any credit.

I was intrigued. Flipping through, at first i thought: it’s just a reprint of old Peanuts comics. A closer inspection revealed the text had been altered, making the iconic characters say outrageous things! The book was credited on the back to a Dr. Casey “Sparky” & Finnegan: A reference to Canadian children’s entertainer Mr Dressup.

We bought a copy each I think, wandered around and picked up more books. Later, after the show, Jonathan and I retired to our apt in the Baldwin village to pore over the loot.

It was soon clear that the little plunder comic was the star of the show. Sacrilegious, raunchy. One extended portion called ‘Billiards‘ was exceptionally inspired. Laughing together over it that night Jonathan revealed to me for the first time that he was an encyclopedic fan of Peanuts, and it was this conversation that seeded Dream Life.

We talked about how it would be fun to use the characters to satirize our own friends. Pulp Fiction had recently been released too; I’d seen it a month before I think? And wanted to do something with that kind of ensemble caper story structure.

I had been working at Marvel as a freelancer for a little while by now, and was frustrated by the constraints and ethical quandaries of that work. I’d begun reading and working on more “alternative” style books before breaking into the commercial “mainstream” comics world, and was beginning to realize that I preferred that earlier setting to the horror and sci-fi, deadline-driven, timid superhero books I was being paid to work on. It was more about the lack of real aspirations in the work than the genera. And I had real problems with the blind, top down nature of the job and largely lip service paid to the idea of true collaboration.

I was hungry. So we started talking about and working on a plot for a satire of our own. One depicting the Peanuts characters as 20 somethings like ourselves, caught up in life’s drama, driven by a drug-fuelled caper subplot, borrowed directly from Tarantino’s films. Elements of True Romance and Reservoir Dogs along with Pulp Fiction were peppered in along with surreal moments and tirades inspired by things like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing work. We cast ourselves as secondary background characters alongside Charlie, Lucy, Peppermint Patty, Pig Pen, and Linus.

DreamLifeIndegogo_172_0001By the end of that night, most of a plot for a comic called ‘Nuts’ was hashed out, and Jonathan began writing scenes. In the following weeks, we had a few more sessions like that. It was fun and I was excited to draw it. It was way more in your face than I dared imagine on my own at the time, while still intelligent, I thought. Jonathan reveled in raw and confrontational writing. And for a little while, we both put a lot of energy into developing the project.

One of the things I learned working with Jonathan, reading and publishing his short stories in our zine Nisrigion, was how not to be precious or protective of your characters. He was truly brutal. The book you hold now is far less over the top than what we started out crafting. I ended up wanting to make it more grounded later and I’ve reined back that gonzo aspect some. But I always respected the fearlessness of his work and tried to maintain elements of it. He inspired me to be a braver storyteller.

Jonathan was also always a bit of a wanderer and would come and go fairly often ever since the first time we shared a warehouse studio in the late ‘80s on Dupont. When city life started to drag, he’d return to his family home in the country or take off suddenly to other places, often with little warning: A phone call from the train station or a note at best. Once I thought he’d gone home after a visit, until I was called by his mother wondering where he was. Turned out he’d walked up the street, seen the student travel cuts outlet, and booked a ticket that afternoon to Vancouver, where he lived for the next few years.

This happened at the time we were playing with Nuts, eventually putting things on hold. And before we could pick up the ball again, he had a crisis of faith in himself as an author and stopped writing altogether. He was prolific with short stories, but got the idea that in order to be a proper author, he had to pen novels. But he found it hard to maintain interest in longer stories, so he decided he was not in fact destined to be a writer and packed it all in officially.

He would still show up now and again and we always had a good time hanging out, but he seemed to not be really interested in picking up the story again, or unwilling to act on it at least. Maybe talk about it but never followed up. In time I realized I’d have to let the idea of us continuing to collaborate go.

As a comic artist I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the stories other writers penned for me though, either professionally or casually, and in the late ‘90s, realized if I was ever going to get to draw the stories I really wanted to, I’d have to finally write them myself. Initially thinking I’d just use it as a hobby horse, I dusted off the rough material we had built up on Nuts, and started to work on it myself.

I did this a number of times. Being dyslexic I had a great deal of trouble with writing at first, and gave up on it more than once. But in time it became easier for me – regular blogging starting around 2002 and use of word processing software helped. And then just as I had what looked like a complete manuscript, I had a revelation about the structure of the story and proceeded to radically tear down the whole thing and start rebuilding from scratch. This is also, I recall, when the title Dream Life was thought up.

There are some bits left that still owe a great debt to Jonathan’s early work on the project: Lionel’s rant on pages 73 to 75, the specific events in Charlie’s dream at the beginning, to name two. His fingerprints are very much still all over the story.

But the tone, structure, and details have all undergone radical revisions and changes several times since his last contribution. I ended up expanding a lot of the other roles, making both PJ and Leslie much more prominent, and amalgamated the three bit parts we had cast ourselves in along with our mutual friend George, into the main casts parts, streamlining the narrative. My cameo merged with Lionel, Jonathan’s with Charlie, George’s with Dan. Lionel is what I ended up calling the character inspired by Linus, and “Agent” Dan is loosely based on Pig Pen. For a while I called Charlie, Howard. But in the end, it felt off and I returned him to his proper name. Anything else seemed to ring hollow.

One of the interesting aspects to developing something over this long and specific time frame, on something I wanted to feel a bit timeless, was that in light of the technological evolution of our culture it became impossible to do that. Several details of the older drafts are very dated. Feel like period pieces. Trying to keep them more non-specific in terms of era has been hard and generally, probably I failed. The year is never mentioned. I don’t even really let you know exactly how much time has passed between scenes. But a VCR thrown out a window was replaced by a Laptop. The advent of ubiquitous cell phones and email shifted the implications of one major character’s lack of use of them. I generally kept modern technology out of the story but by its absence it became notable. And once I had embraced it I found some good ways to include its presence, I think. I hope it’s not too timely though still. An odd obsession maybe, but it was a goal for me.

Subject matter wise, what I wanted to say with this story changed a lot as I evolved from a 20 something artist to a 40 year old author. At first a scolding damnation of foolish behaviours, now it’s more an exploration of life’s challenges to our ideals and expectations. As I aged and my ideas about folly and life matured, the story just naturally mutated to reflect this. More than any intended message, what I’ve ended up trying to do is build something that reflects life as I know it.

Somewhere along the line realized the truth of that old canard; of characters taking on their own lives and speaking for themselves. That started to happen more and more, and delighted me. And as It did, the book increasingly wrote itself as the cast took up temporary residence. I found I enjoyed having those guests in. I’ve become a fan of writing; I find it more pleasant than drawing. Maybe in part due to relative novelty. But as a process, it’s less complicated for me. This could just say something about how I make art though.

The first time I tried to draw the story, it was the late ‘90s and I’d just started to use a brush for the first time in my inking. So I thought I’d draw it all as a stark, chiaroscuro comic with heavy brush lines. I started that way, completing three pages of the story before pausing. You’ll find those pages included in this section of the book.

The scene has been cut now along with the entire idea of being inside Scrappy’s, or any character’s head. It’s told from Scrappy’s POV, modelled after the WWI flying ace tradition of Snoopy’s fantasies. Scrappy imagines himself a WW2 super spy, sneaking behind enemy lines with his handler, Charlie, to free prisoners of war. The scene ends badly for him, as he’s put to sleep by a vet at the end, thinking he has been betrayed. In that incarnation of the story, Charlie then goes home and fails to commit suicide himself. This was how the book used to start in Jonathan’s version of the script, concluding with Charlie passing out on the kitchen floor in a pool of puke and burnt last supper, after failing to overdose on sleeping pills he took to end it all. It was pretty dark.

Dream Life
by Jonathan Sugerman & Max Douglas

DreamLifeIndegogo_174_0001Interior, day. We’re in a kitchen – looking down from the ceiling – we see a dog and a young man dressed in a WWII SS officers uniform.
Narration (Scrappy): Here’s the world famous super spy about to embark on his most dangerous mission yet! The world famous super spy has seen one world war come and go, even defeat­ing his mortal enemy, the Baron! Now a new evil has reared its head, and he and his Captain have dedicated themselves to the cause of stamping out Hitler’s Third Reich. Undercover and underground, with absolutely no backup, my Captain the only one daring and knowledgeable enough to accompany me on this mission…

DreamLifeIndegogo_175_0001PAGE
Close up of Scrappy

Narration (Scrappy): TO FREE OUR VALIANT PRISONERS OF WAR!

Scrappy looks over at his master. They must be freed from their inhumane treatment at the hands of cruel execu­tioners. His master finishes the document he was writing. He puts it in an enve­lope and stamps it ‘TOP SECRET and packs it in his document satchel. Then he turns to Scrappy holding out a leash.

Narration (Scrappy): Yes! the perfect disguise! I will pose as you’re prisoner until we are in their very midst!.

DreamLifeIndegogo_176_0001PAGE
They walk out of their apartment in what looks like a run down French boarding house. Passing the other tenants rooms, Scrappy thinks…

Narration (Scrappy): We leave headquarters, perhaps for the last time. We nod farewell to our neighbours, members of the French underground. The famous German composer, who was raised by a Jewish nanny and now uses his popular compositions to hide coded messages for the resistance, and the Swedish watch smith, who has invented some of the most amazing espi­onage devices.

PAGE
They move into the heart of occupied territory like shadows until finally they reach their destination, the camp!

PAGE
The guards accept the captain as one of their own, Scrappy looking hag­gard and sick as he’s led down a corridor.

Narration (Scrappy): My prisoner act has worked!

Looking furtively side to side now

Narration (Scrappy): And my stalwart Captain has successfully masqueraded as my captor! What a genius plan! Soon we shall strike, right? right?

PAGE
They meet the commanding SS General, the man in charge of all the troops occupying France! The true brains behind the Reich in this area.

Narration (Scrappy): Truly, this must be the definitive operation of the war. Years of training for this moment! I won’t let you down my Captain!

Scrappy is looking up at his Captain hopefully.

PAGE
Suddenly the enemy general jabs him with a needle!

Narration (Scrappy): Betrayed! Betrayed by my Captain! Corruption at the highest ranks, oh no!!

Reality shifts to his master’s, (Howard) POV: Scrappy’s head is weaving in final toxic overload: the colourful prison and dark imagery is replaced by the clean antiseptic reality of a veterinarian hospital. And the General turns into the vet as he turns and speaks to his masters horror-stricken face…

VET/General: I know It’s hard, but there really wasn’t much of a choice.

Howard: Uh, uh, yeah, right

Vet/General: Do you want him, or shall we…

Howard: Cremate him please.

As he leaves, looking down, hands at his chest.

Howard: Sorry pal, I’ll be with you in the void soon.

Did I mention Jonathan’s version of the story was a bit gonzo?

DreamLifeIndegogo_177_0003In the end as I’ve mentioned, I wished to root my version of the tale more in my own reality, and keep Scrappy around longer. And make Charlie a more relatable and potentially sympathetic character as well, rather than the selfish douchebag of a human being he came off as before at times. There are bits of that story still there. The pills are still in the kitchen when Charlie makes Scrappy his favourite meal. Scrappy is still in mortal peril, and the emotions connected to his mortality are still a driver for Charlie’s flight back home. Now though, rather than mortified guilt, it’s a desire to return to the safety of home and peace of the wood. Something terrible is still going to happen to the old dog in the next act of this story, and we know his days are numbered by the vet’s letter. But it’s no longer played for shock value. I opted for a long game, hoping to involve readers more emotionally, digging my claws deeper.

DreamLifeIndegogo_177_0002Another mutation less visible: At one stage I played with the idea of doing the story in a more cartoony style. Something like Bob Fingerman’s Minimum Wage comics characters? I did a few stories in that style in the mid ‘90s, it’s fun. But when It became clear to me I that wanted to root the story in a realistic world, that thought passed. The pages of character studies you’ll find in this section of the book are all that remains of that thought. I liked the look of them. But it felt like it would undermine the impact of the moments of magic realism. I feel those are more profound and visceral against the general realism. And that in turn sells the mundane better.

DreamLifeIndegogo_177_0001I also considered doing all the dreams and hallucinations in colour, inspired by Dave McKean’s Cages. And then the whole story! It was at a time when I was starting to finally feel like I had a proper grasp of colour theory and wanted to explore that.

But after trying to maintain it as a webcomic, I realized that would take much too long to complete. And in the end I’m happier with it in black and white. There were a number of pages that were done in colour and some of those I think are quite grand. But I feel that aside from being extremely time consuming to do well, colour made the work very dense to read. Its absence–while making some things like the red-haired status of Kai less obvious–otherwise generally leaves more room for the readers to inject their own contribution to the story. An important aspect I think to making the work accessible.

Much the same way Scott McCloud argues that simplifications/cartooning leaves room for readers to project themselves into the story, and abstract artists propose to allow their viewers to project their own meaning on their work often. I feel that whatever element it is that you leave open, something must be if you want a comics reader to be more than a passive viewer. Once I wished to have a rich, visceral neorealist landscape, I had to wherever possible, forgo narration, or overload the already dense images with the much broader bandwidths of information colour contributes. So I fell back to the older plan of a simple black and white tonal aesthetic. There was a commercial risk in that, some would say. But I think it’ll make it ultimately a stronger story.

Also, I decided to forgo any captions or thought balloons, counting instead on my ability with pantomime and the reader’s own degree of theory of mind to, hopefully, suggest much of what’s happening internally with the characters. I employed symbolism whenever I could, along with the magic realism that dream sequences and drugs offered. Again, there is a risk in this, especially in the context of the story not being completed in one tome. Breaking it up became a necessary, practical decision, but my ideal would have been to release it as a single unit. I expect there will be some readers who don’t see the point or are unwilling to be as active in the narrative as I’m demanding of them. And I open the story up to a lot of appropriation and interpretation. But as a depiction of life, I felt this was honest as well.

Recently, in preparing this first book, I sought out Chester Brown’s input and feedback, hoping for a blurb or even asking him to write a forward. We’re not I’d say “friends”, but we’ve been aware each other since I first started working professionally, and I’ve always respected and been inspired by his work. His reply was…

“I don’t think you should release the piece at this point. As is, it’s a collection of incidents that don’t add up to anything. None of the storylines go anywhere interesting or get resolved in any satisfying way by the time we read the words “to be continued” on the last page.”

He confirmed the risk I suspected of it being read that way by some. I’ve been concerned by it. But ultimately disagree, though partly this is informed by my knowing what I meant and intended. An aside: After very few strong critiques of the work from those I’d shown it to so far, it was honestly good to get something constructive and clear like that. That it was a potential problem I was aware of was relieving. But I greatly appreciate his honesty.

There is a lot of stuff going on in people’s minds in this story. Only some of it is hinted at, often not at the same time as they are thinking it. There are long, wordless sequences with no clarity of what exactly characters are thinking. I tried to use symbols and expression to convey this. And in other moments characters talk and reflect on the things they are working out. But it’s up to the chance of a reader connecting dots.

Additionally, most of the classic climaxes in this story as a stand alone book–without the later portions–are recollections of past events, or metaphysical in nature. With the ending being quiet and clearly not a conclusion. I’ve given some thought to the frustration this might inspire in some readers, but I don’t feel it’s my job as a storyteller to give a reliable fix, as much as it is to provoke you into considering or thinking about things you might not otherwise.

A notable influence in all this has been films rooted in Italian neorealism. Until recently, I would have named a number of directors – Krzysztof Kie?lowski, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese – It occurred to me, finally, what I was trying to achieve is well-described more simply as neorealist comics. Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor has been described as such, but I think they are focusing more on the vérité aspect of Italian neo realism. The use of untrained actors and true stories. Dream Life is a work of fiction by a professional. As with the filmmakers I named, the influence for me is about a focus on quiet moments, use of place as character, and the employment of space and time–lots of it–in storytelling.

To make that room for the reader to bring their own contributions I forwent narration, thought bubbles, or hand holding in the story in the form of text that was not actually a part of the environment. While the story jumps in time, even back in time on occasion. It’s never explained exactly how far or when you are. Where is hinted at via the landscape, naturally occurring signage and landmarks. But if such a hint felt contrived, I let it go. Let you be lost. In the end internal development is more important in this work than geographical positions. Time matters, but I think those transitions explain themselves eventually. And it matters more in the unrooted and drift of it, than in the knowing. And another point of inspiration taken from those filmmakers is their invitation and exploitation of a questioning and even slightly confused audience.

I wanted readers to feel uncertain, to use the same faculties we do in life to locate themselves in the narrative and guess at the implications of things. We read the characters’ internal states–I hope–through actions, body language, expression, and subtext of their dialogue. We travel with them with only a few symbolic transitional cues, often having to do with a shift in consciousness or mood, meant to reflect my own experience of finding correlations between inner states of mind and external sites that become anchors or symbolic icons of that moment, and its later recollecting.

An example is the recurring planes in PJ’s wordless sequence on pages 113-118. They are there to help suggest her barely suppressed urge to flee, take flight. While her journey to the lakefront to ritualistically wash her feet and travel into a symbolic wood, finding an art installation of a lighthouse is meant to symbolize her finding a moment of feeling grounded and at home. Along with the context of her earlier experience in the story, I hope readers will pick this up without my explanation. It will require empathy and active imagining of this fictional person’s inner state to do so.

Despite talk of it in formalism–of “Show and Tell”–this kind of story “showing” has not as often been exploited in comics for one reason or another. Artist feeling limited by time or skill. Publishers wanting something that is clear and safe and readable in a conventional sense. And arguably simple practicality.

Finding my way to these moments on these pages took a great deal more reflection than most schedules ever allow for. That specific scene in its current form, not until the entirety of the rest of the book was done. Only then was its absence noticeable, and recognized as needed.

I would not claim this as any kind of innovation. In part, I take my example from work like Cages, City of Glass, Asterios Polyp. All have influenced my attempts here.

Another aspect of the narrative I wanted to develop further was an approach to page design that didn’t always rely on the staccato metronome of traditional panels.

Inspired more recently by the murals of Diego Rivera, I’ve been experimenting with montage sequences a long time. They first show up in my early professional work at Marvel. Then just as a way to make things interesting, they have become a conscious exploration of sliding floating POV shots, starting with some of the short stories in Revolver One. “Helpless” and “The rise and fall of it all” both exploited them to try to create sliding, smooth, or sometimes unrooted feelings of movement across the page. The transitions between moments left uncertain and a bit up to the readers.

In Therefore Repent! an otherwise very densely panelled comic, I used them a few times. Often those are the pages people told me they found the most compelling. For me, they most closely resemble my own experience of time/space in life, on the page.

One page in particular in this story I feel especially strongly about. PJ’s assault under the tree. Originally designed as several, decompressed manga-like action pages. A common way to approach “action” these days, slowing things down and drawing them out. But I felt that rendered like that, it would fail to convey the real feeling of an assault.

DreamLifeIndegogo_180_0001My own were not sexual, but I’ve experienced assault as an adult twice, and frequently as a child. Those experiences were of a tumbling, disjointed sense of space and movement. My sense of touch was hyperacute, vision super sharp. But at the same time, I felt dissociated from pain and the moment. Things felt slowed down by the density of information I took in. Directly after it was as though it all had happened a long time ago, compressed into a blink already as adrenaline coursed and shock set in.

I felt to depict her sexual assault, and the moment she gets the upperhand and kills her attackers, as a traditionally drawn-out action sequence would more likely unintentionally glorify and exploit the action, and distance us from the immediacy and visceral nature of the moment.

DreamLifeIndegogo_180_0002I pondered this for a while, and then was inspired to take all the rough sketches and cut them up in Photoshop and make a mosaic-like puzzle.

The scene was always going to have a lot of loose dead leaves fluttering around, but then I saw the ball of action this created was the shape of the foliage of a tree. I added more leaves and put the moment of impact–her first strike back with the butt of the gun her attacker loses control of in the chaos of their combat–as a moment beneath the canopy of the violence leading up to it.

DreamLifeIndegogo_181_0001I’m pretty happy with the way this resolved itself. I was always uncomfortable with the idea of possibly failing to talk about sexual assault with this story and simply exploiting it. Compressing this event symbolically on the page feels much more successful than if I had simply storyboarded it traditionally. It elegantly, I hope, intensifies the moment without sensationalizing it and leaves more room for the consequences of what follows. While the esthetic beauty of the composition and brevity of it communicates the intensity and unavoidable feeling of not being able to control an attacker’s actions.

There are a lot of formalistic experiments in this book, many of them using the same kinds of counter-conventional devices: decompressing and drawing out the quiet moments to nearly unbearable slowness, compressing or completely cutting out action to only show the before and after. They are mostly, if not all, designed to evoke a more realistic, true to life experience rather than the often more escapist, or alternately arms-length documentarian approach a great deal of sequential art takes.
Comics frequently employ what I think of as fairy tale storytelling devices, even when they seek to depict the real. I don’t condemn that, but I wanted to take the other road here. In doing so, I was hoping to find more humanity on my pages, rather than entertain. Though I hope the art and dramaturgy is sufficient to do that as well. I didn’t want this to be a difficult book to read. More I wanted to prove a theory.

That hand holding in comics makes for weaker work. It fails to challenge and reward more mature readers.

That despite often saying we can do anything with comics, we as an art form often fall back on known conventions.

As most media do. And we tell ourselves this is the best way. Only way.

I experimented less often in this book than I imagined at first, using traditional design and pacing often enough. Too much change being off-putting I suspected. And also time-consuming to conceive.

But where it counted I hope, when it would introduce a bit of the unexpected and tell the story better, I tried to do just that.

Hopefully, it’s a moderately successful experiment.

-SS

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