Born in the UK but relocated to New Jersey during his formative years, cartoonist Mike Dawson has also bounced around subject matter. The autobiographical Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody was his first long-form work, drawing parallels between his life and his love of Queen’s music. Troop 142, a story about a Boy Scout camp and (more generally) the horrors of the adolescent male, started out as a webcomic before being republished by Secret Acres as a hardcover book. More recently, Angie Bongiolatti looked at political activism through the lens of a sort-of love story. Dawson’s new book pivots again, a return to the more explicitly autobiographical take of his early work. A Kickstarter project now being released by Uncivilized Books, Rules for Dating My Daughter compiles a number of his shorter works, many of which address parenting in the modern era.
Rest assured—Dawson’s trademark klutzy, lumpy-but-relatable figures are still present, as is his desire to delve into everything that makes him and the reader feel uncomfortable. Is there any correct stance to assume when your hypothetical teenage daughter starts to date? How do you gently expose your kids to the dark side of existence? Is there something understandable in the kind of deliberately ignorant tribalism that seems to shape more and more of our discourse? Rules for Dating My Daughter doesn’t provide answers, but it shows a mind grappling with the questions, and Dawson’s responses to the queries below reinforce that impression.
Paste: Anxiety! If I had to pick one word that sums up this new collection of your shorter work, it might be that. I don’t think it’s a feeling that’s exactly new to your work, but do you think becoming a parent has increased your anxiety level? The obvious answer is “yes!” but I’ve found (from my own experience) that in some ways it decreases mine. You start to learn better to let things go as you realize how little control you have.
Mike Dawson: A degree of anxiety strikes me as a healthy response to these times, even for someone like me, living in fortunate circumstances. Climate change is a problem for all of us. Gun violence is out of control. We all know what we know about the problems of the world, and we all have the same desires to keep our children safe and to see them living happy lives.
That said, I’ve probably always been prone to worry. I have distinct childhood memories of laying awake fretting about god and where the edge of the universe was. My first book, Freddie & Me, was baldly concerned with mortality—other people’s, but also my own.
When you talk about how having kids changes your relationship to your own anxieties, it makes me think about that book, and how those same fears would never be something I’d write about in the same way at this stage in my life. There are many good things about that comic, but from this vantage point it’s tough not to see it as a story written by someone in his late 20s, panicking about dying before making his mark on the world. That aspect makes me cringe. It seems childish. It’s tough to put myself in that same headspace, because now it’s my children who are front and center, for better or worse.
Who knows, though. In ten years, I may feel the same way about comics I’m making presently. Perhaps that’s a natural way to look back at past work.
I’m not consciously trying to bring worry into my work. My consistent desire in comics is to try to write honestly. I’m worried about the climate. I’m worried about my kids encountering all the obstacles they’re bound to run up against in their lives. When I write about parenting with the hopes of depicting my perspectives truthfully, anxiety necessarily seeps through.
Paste: The second word is anger. It feels like expressing or not expressing anger is something you struggle with, and, again, I find that true of myself as a parent. I was pretty even-keeled before I had children, and now I feel like I lose it at least once a day yelling about shoes. It also seems like we’ve become an angrier country in the past decade. Do you focus on anger intentionally?
Dawson: Haha, yes, I yell about shoes too, every morning as I’m trying to push the kids out to school, as well as brushing hair and teeth and eating some breakfast. Many of the comics depict scenes of me screaming at the kids simply because that was something that happened that day. Some of the other strips, I hope, try to more deeply examine anger itself, especially how it relates to ideas about masculinity.
This relates to something I think about frequently, which is how much people will want to deny they say and act in racist and sexist ways, even though we live in a racist and sexist world. I think it’s nuts to think you can come up in a misogynist society, yet somehow be free of misogynist ideas.
The title strip, “Rules for Dating My Daughter,” is an attempt to break apart the tired old trope of the dad with the shotgun, chasing off his daughter’s would-be suitors. The idea being that I know better than she does “what they’re really after.” I wonder, for what or whom am I supposed to perform this character? Am I worried about my daughter’s well-being, or is this something between me and these theoretical young men, where we jockey for influence in a young woman’s decisions? The strip ends with me admitting that I honestly don’t know what the answers are, because I don’t have a teenaged daughter. It’s all hypothetical to me. However, in another strip, “Overcompensating,” I try to grapple with the issue of toxic male anger and entitlement directly. I do know what it’s like to be a young man, twisted up and furious, feeling mad about not getting what he thinks the world owes him. A lot of the other comics try to grapple with our country’s sick relationship to guns.
When my daughter was a baby, it was easy to feel like she was safely cocooned in a world that consisted only of her and her immediate family. As she grows older, the more the outside world creeps in, and how little it feels like we as parents can control it. That produces many emotional responses, including anger and anxiety.
Paste: Is it easier to make short work when you’re tired from taking care of tiny humans all the time? And is making shorter work something new to you? I’m mostly familiar with your long-form stories.
Dawson: Shifting from long-form comics to short ones was an organic, unplanned process. It was a little bit because of the demands of parenting, but was more so my desire to take my work online in the hopes of reaching a wider audience. I began posting short comic essays to my Tumblr account, and very quickly found it a rewarding way to reach new readers. As I found other outlets to publish my work, like Slate and The Nib, I took more time to develop the pieces. A number of the earlier comics, like the “Sofia the First” or “Keep Christ in Christmas” ones, were originally much more crudely made and were heavily reworked or redrawn before they made it to print.
There’s a lot I like about writing book-length comics. I love getting lost in a long-form story, obsessing about it for a year or more.
Paste: Did you draw these for web publication or for print publication, and do you think there’s a difference in how you approach the two forms (page layout, coloring or lack of, etc.)?
Dawson: It was a mix. Initially I had no plans to make a book of these comics, but my French publisher, Çà et Là, suggested that I collect them. Some comics, like “The Underdog Myth,” had to be completely reformatted for print, as I’d drawn them with the infinite scroll in mind. Later comics, like “Longstreet Farm,” were written more with an eye to appearing in print.
Paste: Talk to me a little about interaction with your audience. Do you think you’re really reaching a wider audience online? Or is it that you can see the evidence more clearly?
Dawson: You can see the evidence more clearly, sure, but I also think online comics do in fact reach a wider audience. At least in terms of people seeing the stuff. How deep their awareness of me or my work goes is a different matter. Comics published at The Nib would consistently get page views and shares in the thousands. Discussion would crop up about individual pieces, at times heated.
Making comics is a pleasure, but figuring out the ideal way to publish and distribute them is always a puzzle. I want to make comics for myself, but also have people read them. I’m happy when I manage to get people to look, but then wonder how to turn a page-view into a dollar. I think this project pulled together about the best it could. I was paid to publish some of the strips when they originally ran, and was able to run a modest, but successful, crowdfunder out of some of the momentum I believe I’d built up. Now the book is in print, and I couldn’t be happier with how it came out. I feel good about how this went—the next question will be how easily it’ll be replicated.
Paste: Do you interact with people about your work? I know you struggle (as do all of us except Luddites) with the terrible distracting power of the Internet and its communities of like-minded and opposite-minded people. Do you think that interaction is more positive or negative on the whole?
Dawson: I’m online a lot, pretty active on Twitter and Tumblr and a couple of other social media sites. I am on Facebook, but I try to keep that strictly friends and family, photos-of-my-kids and anecdotes about them saying the darndest things.
Being online seems necessary professionally. It’s also good for interacting with other artists. I don’t live near many other cartoonists “IRL,” so it’s great to chat with them on the web. Being online is also good on a personal level. It’s a way to gain exposure to a much wider variety of perspectives than I would otherwise. I believe the time spent on places like Twitter and Tumblr has reshaped my political outlook.
I do my best not to get wrapped up in every debate the comics community has, and also to try and not invest myself too much in it as a greater community at all. I only exist in a small corner of it. Most of what goes on in the comics “industry” has nothing to do with me.
Paste: What do the French think of your work? Do they like it as an anthropological take on Americans?
Dawson: I’ve been working with one French publisher for the past six or seven years, and we have a great relationship. He’s brought me over to Angoulème twice now, which is always a remarkable experience. But, it’s very difficult for me to get a sense of how my work is perceived over there. The French edition of the book is a little different than the US version. The strip about the Underdog Myth was dropped, because it felt too US-centric. Instead, it includes the full version of a comic having to do with the idea of “boys’ toys.” This is one which observes that my son seemed to immediately gravitate towards playing with toy cars, despite growing up in a household filled with My Little Pony and Disney Princess figures.
Paste: Any ideas for a book-length work at the moment? Or are you cool with what you’re doing in the now?
Dawson: I’m interested in continuing to write short pieces that have a loose thematic connection, but am hoping to shift away from parenting as the common focus, and instead try and make some work loosely based around gaming and the NFL. I have a structure in mind, an account of a Jets game my wife and I went to last year, which was billed as Rex Ryan’s return to Met Life after getting fired and going on to coach the Bills. The atmosphere at a Thursday-night game between two division rivals was extremely hostile. I want to write about how militaristic and jingoistic football is, but also how much I get wrapped up in those same emotions. The idea is that the story about this Jets/Bills game would be told over the course of the book, with short pieces interspersed covering different aspects of sports and gaming and American society.
Paste: Ooooh. Football. I wonder how many comics artists are football fans, especially in the indie realm. Have you always been a sports fan? Have you read Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power?
Dawson: I haven’t, but I will. I was never a sports fan up until the 2008 playoffs. We watched the Packers playoff game, where the Giants won with an amazing long-distance last-second field goal. And then the Superbowl, with the Patriots having been undefeated that whole season, was phenomenal. I thought, wow, football is amazing. These games were spectacular. Surely it’ll always be good like that. The next year was the first Rex Ryan season, and the Jets were on a tear, and I became a big fan. I learned after a year or so that, no, it won’t always be good like that, but I still love watching. It’s the most entertaining sport. I always liken it to a live-action version of the collectible turn-based tabletop strategy games I love to play, like HeroClix or Magic: The Gathering.
Surprisingly, a number of indie comics artists seem to enjoy football.
Paste: Will Hard Knocks ever top that season with Rex Ryan?
Dawson: Recently Hard Knocks seems determined to spotlight only teams that I have zero interest in watching. The Falcons…the Texans… Though, maybe the next season about the Rams will be interesting.
Paste: Oh, man. That Falcons season was crazy boring. And I’m supposed to be a fan (I’m from Atlanta, and I still live in Georgia). My heart is really with college football rather than pro, but that Giants-Patriots Superbowl was an awesome one. I think my husband and I were at a party to watch it, then left and drove home just in time to catch the end of the game, at which there was a lot of happy yelling on our part. The Patriots are the worst.
Dawson: They. Are. The. Worst.
Paste: Talk to me about your drawing routine. Headphones? Music? A line of perfectly sharpened pencils?
Dawson: My studio is set up in the boiler room of our house, far away from the distractions of the computer. I have an olden-days CD player down there for music. I have a nice bare wall where I hang up pages as I work on them. This is very helpful for figuring out how to structure pieces and rework them. I script and thumbnail comics on notebook paper, and then will draw them using those non-reproduction blue pencils. I’ve been using the same kind of JetPens Maru nibs and Dr P.H. Martins Black Star ink ever since Troop 142. I love those nibs.
I’ve been badly out of a drawing routine for well over six months now, ever since the Kickstarter campaign ended and I focused more on producing the book and then shipping rewards. I think I spent a full month packing up books and mailing them out. I’m very eager to get back into a comics-making headspace.
Paste: What music do you listen to while you draw?
Dawson: I listened to a double-disc best of the Bee Gees CD incessantly over the past year. I’ve also been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack, a recent Indigo Girls album, the soundtrack to the movie Interstellar and the Scissor Sisters.
Paste: Do you read comics with your kids?
Dawson: Not as much as you might think… I found when my daughter was little, reading comics to her felt awkward. You always have to point at the person who’s talking so she can follow which word balloon goes with who. It felt smoother to read picture books. Now that she reads herself, she definitely likes some comics. I gave her Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, and she devoured it. It was uncanny. Something about that book just clicks with little kids. She was Raina-obsessed for a few weeks. Lately she’s been reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, which kind of count as comics.
Something that amused me about those recently—I went to a nearby Barnes & Noble to pick up one of the books and a clerk started talking to me about the series. She was saying that the author had wanted to build an extension on his house, so he decided to write the Wimpy Kid book to make some money, and boy didn’t that work out well for him? It made me laugh, because the last thing I’d think to do if I wanted to earn some extra cash is to write a comic. I’m not sure the story is quite accurate anyway. I think the Wimpy Kid series was a popular webcomic before it was a book. My daughter also likes those Pippi Longstocking books published by Drawn & Quarterly. She likes to read, and seems right on the precipice of getting into book-books, without pictures. I’m looking forward to that.
Paste: What did you read when you were growing up? Comics? Not comics?
Dawson: Quite a lot of comics. I grew up in England, and read things like The Beano and The Beezer. Some Oor Wullie and The Broons, which are very nice-looking strips. I say that because I don’t think British comics are necessarily known for their aesthetics. I liked The Transformers, which was published weekly in the UK. The comics were different from the US version, but they’d republish off-beat American strips in the back of each issue. Things like the Barry Windsor-Smith Machine Man limited series and the Mike Mignola Rocket Raccoon. When I moved to America I read a lot of Marvel and DC comics. When I was in college, I started reading more alternative stuff. Currently I host a book-club-format podcast for The Comics Journal called “TCJ Talkies,” where I invite other cartoonists to come on and discuss other people’s comics. The latest episode was a great conversation with Bill Kartalopoulos and Austin English where we discussed Dan Clowes’ Patience by comparing and contrasting it with an old Curt Swan Superboy issue from the ‘60s and a book called Peplum by Blutch, which was recently translated by New York Review Comics.
A big non-comics book series for me was Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books. I read those when I was young and have re-read them many times, like they’re comfort food. I read a lot of Stephen King as a teenager.
Paste: What have you been reading lately?
Dawson: I did recently re-read an Adrian Mole book. I’m currently reading The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. Other recently read books include The Chosen by Chaim Potok, The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. A great book I read in the past year was The Sisters Brothers [by Patrick deWitt].
I’ve been making an effort to read more. At night when the kids go to bed, I make a point of picking up a book. It’s a struggle to stop looking at my phone while I’m reading, of course. If the book is good, I’ll be able to overcome the urge to refresh Facebook.