This interview was conducted over email by Fantagraphics' Eric Buckler. Thanks to Eric and Joe!
Cartoonist Joe Daly grew up in apartheid South Africa. His perspective on storytelling and illustration have a deeply infused characterization and a mythical slapstick. The comics reflect a bizarre and amazing facet of imagination that is at once familiar as it is far flung and not of this planet. His characters in Dungeon Quest are on a mission to find the Atlantean Resonator Guitar, and will go through everything from beating the shit out of some homophobic goons to returning a magic penis sheath to a large breasted demigod. The crew will be suited up with new armor, weapons, and will have loads of new mind altering opportunities in the all new Dungeon Quest Book 2. Daly is the creator of Scrublands and The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book.
ERIC BUCKLER: Would you talk about how you pace your storytelling?
JOE DALY: Comics can be a very efficient form for story telling, so it's very easy and natural for a comic narrative to progress very quickly. I think a cartoonist is usually trying to counteract that natural tendency by trying to slow things down. You're always moving away from the last plot point and towards the next one, and so I try to be aware of what's needed in order to heighten the moment of arriving at that plot point. It often requires adding more panels, slowing down the action, and letting the dialogue ramble to build tension as one is moving into "the big moment." Very seldom do I encounter a situation where I find I need to eliminate panels. That said, it becomes a fine line between building tension and padding, so the idea is to let the plot point dictate how much tension is required to precede it, and then add no more or no less panels than is required. As a reader you have to arrive at a plot point organically, in a way that you're a little unaware that you've even hit a plot point. I know as a reader I don't like to feel rushed or shunted along from plot point to plot point, as if one were on a conveyor belt. One of my main criticisms of my Red Monkey stories, is that they tend to be plot dominant, and the reader is moved from point to point too quickly. A story shouldn't be all about plot, the reader needs breathing space, unfocused space, where they can engage in the story in a non-rational kind of way. Of course, some readers favor structure and plot heavy stories, and some don't: they'll prefer the rambling, looser approach. I think each story should inform the pace that's required to tell the story, and since I've found myself doing these strange action adventure stories (with quite a lot of dialogue) I've found it's natural to keep "medium pace," somewhere between Chris Ware's work (extreme patience) and an in your face superhero action comics (extreme immediacy).
BUCKLER: Why black and white? Did you consider using color on this comic?
DALY: My first two books were already in color, and I wanted to try something different. I'd discovered while working on the Red Monkey stories, which were in color, that coloring the work took me almost as much time as writing and drawing the work, and so given that I'm currently unable to employ a colorist on my books I decided to eliminate this time consuming process altogether. I was also interested in shifting from a clear line art style to a high contrast black and white art style, simply to broaden my abilities as a drawer and inker, and that's the process I'm engaged in at the moment. I think black and white, whether it's in photography, or in film, or in comics can be very elegant and complete. When "completeness" can be achieved in black and white, it's all the more impressive and satisfying to me, because of the purity and simplicity of black and white. I think perhaps black and white also engages the reader's own imagination more than color, in that they are filling in the white spaces with their own projected colors. When one leaves things out, one creates suggestions. Also, working in black and white helps to keep the cost of the book down.
BUCKLER: Can you talk about lexicons you draw when creating dialogue in Dungeon Quest?
DALY: For Dungeon Quest I was trying to evoke the kind of language that me and my video gaming friends would use when playing video games when we were 10-14 year olds. It as a strange mixture of general profanity, South African school-boy slang, American slang we'd learned from TV and movies, technical jargon and the pseudo-poetic language of high fantasy/adventure which would be used in the actual game. Saved games could be titled things like "got to get splendid key from orange dude," "kief!," "totally fucked," "dawn light factory skyline," "given frayed rope to little whore," "in lonely place," "got to open fucking bay doors," stuff like that. It became a kind of esoteric lexicon. I don't apply this lexicon directly to the writing in Dungeon Quest. I'm drawing from it, allowing it to inform my dialogue. It's a flavor.
BUCKLER: Would you talk about the design of the books?
DALY: For Scrublands and The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book I did drawn covers. When it came to Dungeon Quest I wasn't satisfied with a drawn cover for some reason, and I wanted to try something different. I'd already made a few sculptures of some of my cartoon characters in clay simply for my own satisfaction, but I hadn't figured out what to do with them, other than let them lie around on a shelf. When I was thinking about some of the themes in Dungeon Quest which relate to ancient cultures, I realized it might be quite appropriate to photograph the sculptures and have them appear on a background which looked like a black box to almost evoke a museum display of ancient Mesopotamian, Minoan or Pre-Colombian sculptures from South America. In this case it was meant to look like a display of ancient "Atlantean" sculpture.
The rest of the design was determined by the basic image of the sculpture against a black background. I kept it very simple and minimalist. Because Dungeon Quest is a series, the design of the other books in the series follows the rules which were determined while designing Dungeon Quest book one.
The end papers are actual Sumerian art, which I scanned and added color to. I liked this Sumerian art because the style of drawing isn't so different from my own, and it's designed to tell a story about life in Sumer. It's a comic strip, and one of the oldest ones ever, I'm sure.
The books are a smaller format than my previous books, because the original art is worked at a smaller scale. I really like small books at the moment, and I want to make a really small format book in the future — postcard size, perhaps.
BUCKLER: You come from South Africa. What is the comic culture like there?
DALY: Books and reading culture in South Africa is generally poorly developed, and since comics seem to occupy a marginal area of the general book culture, I think it's fair to say the consciousness in South Africa when it comes to comics is very low. There's quite a strong tradition of editorial cartooning in South African newspapers, but that really is a different realm next to narrative comics. So the combination of lack of consciousness about comics and lack of market for them means hardly anything is really going on here. We're a smallish ex-colony with the majority of the population emerging, hopefully, from a 3rd World culture and economy. Lack of access to books and illiteracy are amongst the many challenges.
I think that American comics like Marvel and DC Comics, and British comics like Beano, 2000 AD, Viz, etc. were somewhat popular here in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Tintin and Asterix were popular here too and were translated into Afrikaans. Stuff like Robert Crumb's work, Gilbert Shelton's Furry Freak Brothers and anything subversive or counter cultural was pretty much forbidden by the Apartheid, White Nationalist government up until the early 1990s. It got into the country somehow but it was essentially banned material. The mainstream culture doesn't seem to know or care about comics very much anymore. I'm sure this would be very different if we'd been a French colony linked to French comics consciousness, but we weren't.
There are a few comics shops, some of them actually very good, in the major cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, and some book shops have a graphic novel section which are pretty dismally stocked most of the time from my point of view. Local book publishers rarely publish comics, and they're not successful publications most of the time.
So there is a lot of despondency when it comes to the big picture of comics in South Africa; however there is a small group of individuals here who know their stuff well, when it comes to comics, and an even smaller group attempting to make them. Of that group even fewer have had the good fortune of getting published overseas, which is probably what is required in order to seriously practice comics making if you're based in South Africa. Given the lack of consciousness around comics and the lack of publishing opportunities it's almost miraculous that South Africa has produced internationally recognized, independent comics artists such as Anton Kannemeyer (aka Joe Dog), Conrad Botes (aka Konradski), both of Bitterkomix fame, and Karlien De Villiers and myself, who've both been associated with Bitterkomix, at one point or another.
BUCKLER: The "status update," where you display each character's inventory of items and skills: What does that bring to the story?
DALY: I'm not sure that it brings very much to the story. However it's kind of a cute conceit as it relates to videogame RPGs, and their stat screens or windows. It's also helpful for the reader in that it lets you know what the character's statistics are, and helps them track the character's development across the whole series. It orients the reader and it's cute and fun. I also like inventing the names for the stuff. For some reason I find phrases like "padded flax jodhpurs" very amusing.
BUCKLER: The cross-pollination between video-games and comics, Scott Pilgrim for example, is an interesting phenomenon. What more about this synthesis do you want to explore?
DALY: Mmm, probably not much more. Whilst I think of Dungeon Quest definitely having its origins in videogame culture I also want it to stand alone as an original narrative which deviates off into strange new territories. The point I'd like people to get is that you don't have to be familiar with video games or fantasy literature to appreciate Dungeon Quest. It helps I suppose if you are familiar with those things, but it's not essential. Most people will probably not appreciate Dungeon Quest anyway, but for different reasons, not relating to video games or fantasy. It's really comics comics, y'know, not mainstreamy neutered graphic "literature." My next project after Dungeon Quest hasn't got anything to do with video games, but it's a long way away.
BUCKLER: Are the characters involved in the group, Millennium Boy, Steve, Lash Penis, and Nerd Girl, inspired by real people?
DALY: Yes, except perhaps Millennium Boy. He lives inside my mind. He's an elf, a sprite, a mini-magus. He's kind of like how I'd like to be as a person. He's a confident trouble maker but he's totally loyal to his crew, and he's a force for good in the Dungeon Quest world. He's a force to be reckoned with.
BUCKLER: How is your childhood reflected in Dungeon Quest?
DALY: I couldn't relate to the culture I was surrounded by (White, Western, Corporate, Judeo-Christian, Bourgeois, Anti-Shamanic, Materialistic, South African). I felt like a Mongolian, or something, and so there's a seeking, a yearning, for a tribe of my own, that's reflected in Dungeon Quest. There's a longing for other times and other places.
Besides that, I think I actually had a pretty normal childhood, mostly. I think, generally, children experience a great deal of frustration and anguish because they have no power, or are not allowed to have power in a confusing, threatening world controlled by adults who seem to behave like demigod-idiots. The world has all the power. The idiot adults try to keep everything hidden. Then when you grow up you get like a tiny measly little bit of power to play around with, and that's also frustrating and disappointing. Millennium Boy's quest is a child's fantasy of wielding the "christic-luciferian" energies against a dark, dangerous, deceitful world. It's a quest for personal freedom. But that involves going into the "dungeon," or through the underworld cycle. But that's kind of just the Jungian, Joseph Campbell kind of interpretation. I'm not exactly sure how my childhood is reflected in Dungeon Quest, to tell you the truth. It's really just a vibe.
I fucking hated school most of the time. It just seemed like of waste of most of your time as a child; your precious childhood. I think the other "learners" and the teachers were uncomfortable having me around. I only really enjoyed art, woodwork and judo class, I think. If you were a boy in a white school in South Africa in the '80s and '90s, like I was, you were kind of expected to play rugby. It was compulsory in some cases, but that was like the dumbest shittiest thing I could imagine doing. Only one guy I knew ever became a professional rugby player, and he fucked up his back pretty quickly. The other guys were wasting their time, but rugby was held up as this fucking glorious thing in our world, like a nationalistic religion. I dug judo because it was like for the outcasts who didn't want to play rugby, or weren't compelled into by their parents. It had grades and meditations and stuff and it kind of felt like belonging to a secret society. It was individualistic too. You also learned stuff like balance, calm, self-control, respect for your opponent, how to use your opponents strength against them, and Shinto-Buddhist philosophy stuff. Our judo teacher was a really good man. I'm a really skinny guy and I look like a nerd but I could break my enemies with the judo I know, but I won't kill them. That spirit is somehow reflected in Dungeon Quest I think, except the "not killing your enemies part," but it's only a comic book after all. I also did karate and skateboarding outside of school, also Shinto based activities.
BUCKLER: In the 2nd volume, we see the characters garments and accessories becoming much more ornate and intricate: different kinds of leather, metal armor, etc. Is there any significance to the different costumes?
DALY: I guess it's like accumulating personal, psychological armor in life-Character armor. Will the characters have to shed their armor at some point to advance to the higher levels? Readers will have to stay tuned to find out. On a less metaphorical level, I also like researching armor and designing the outfits for the characters. It's satisfying in its own respect. It also means the characters change appearance over the course of the series, which means I don't get bored drawing them the same all the time. Hopefully it will be an area of interest for the readers too.
BUCKLER: Do you have an endpoint for this series in mind?
DALY: Yes, but I want to get there slowly.
BUCKLER: The ruins that the group encounters are very intricate; are those based on any specific locale or culture?
DALY: Yes, the ruins towards the end of book two are based on the ruins of Ta Prohm, in Cambodia, built by the God King Jayavarman VII. I'm not making this shit up. Dungeon Quest is painstakingly researched to give it an authentic backdrop. I've made the deepest studies into the occult history of civilization for Dungeon Quest. It explores the known and the unknown. The main word you have to follow in order to tie it altogether is "Rama." Dungeon Quest has many levels to it, and those levels have levels, levels I don't even know about yet. It's an exploration.
BUCKLER: Can you talk about any other projects you have going right now, anything you would like to be involved in?
DALY: I'd like to be involved in a project that actually sells significantly one day. It's very difficult to produce these books in such a hostile, unrewarding marketplace — very difficult. I'm kind of working on a very small format, postcard size, yet very thick, self contained graphic novel in the background, but I haven't worked on it for almost a year now. I hope to work on it some more between Dungeon Quest 3 and Dungeon Quest 4. It's actually very special, I think, but that's all I want to say about it right now.
BUCKLER: Is there anything you wanted to add, anything we didn't go over?
DALY: Dungeon Quest book 3, which I'm currently working on, is already a longer book than the first two and drawn much better. It's got more panels per page than the previous books most of the time. It's going to be a fat book. I'm going to try to complete work on it this year. Dungeon Quest book 4 will also be a substantial book and it should be the last in the series.
Also, western civilization is over, it's a broken down old car. Mongolian Shamanistic civilization is on its way in. The United States won't have a president anymore, you'll have a Khan, and he won't be an American. People don't realize it but Nelson Mandela (N'el'son' Mandala) wasn't South Africa's first Black African president, he was South Africa's first "Mongolian" president. I'm not joking. There's a whole lot more to this revelation, but I think we've run out of time for now. Speak to you next time, and thanks very much for the thoughtful questions.
(Photo from Mahala)