If you’ve been to a comic arts festival in Toronto you can bet you’ve seen Dakota McFadzean there, selling his books and sketches. This Canadian cartoonist is well-versed in the strange and the imaginative. He also has a talent for making people relate to comics about things like ghost rabbits and cave-dwelling monsters. His comics range from depictions of mesmerizingly weird scenarios to witty commentary on familiar ideas. In this interview I asked Dakota to give The Spectatorial’s audience an idea of what his work is like and how he approaches cartooning.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Many people find you through “The Dailies”, the daily comic strip you’ve been putting out for 5 years now. You also have longer narratives, like the ones collected in your book Other Stories and the Horse You Rode in On. How do you decide whether an idea gets turned into a ‘Daily’ or a longer piece?
I’ve tried to view “The Dailies” as an exercise from the beginning. Part of the reason I started doing daily comics was because I was working full time and I was unhappy with my cartooning output. Back then, whenever I did have time to draw comics, I was way too precious about it. “The Dailies” were an attempt to force myself to put something onto paper every day, with no regard for perfection, no room for preciousness.
“The Dailies” have become a way for me to digest ideas and stumble on to new ones. If an idea keeps showing up in “The Dailies” over and over again, or I accidentally come up with something that I wouldn’t mind spending endless hours with, then I’ll try to explore it in a longer form.
I’ve never thought of myself as one of those cartoonists who has a bunch of graphic novel ideas sitting in their back pocket, although I think drawing a daily strip has helped me to better recognize ideas with potential.
Where would you say a lot of those ideas come from in the first place? Is there some treasure trove of creativity you have stashed away?
Maybe everything and nothing. Drawing a daily strip has made me realize that ideas are pretty much endless, but how they come to be is still a mysterious alchemy to me. Sometimes the lines flow out as easy as breathing, and other days I stare at a blank page for an hour while complaining that I have no ideas, and that I’ve peaked, and it’s all over so why do I even have to do this anymore?
I certainly don’t have a treasure trove, but cartooning is the kind of thing that usually leaves one alone with nothing but thoughts and memories. If I find that I’m thinking about something over and over, like the way bus drivers wave to one another or the way a three-legged dog walks, it will find its way into a comic.
A lot of your work deals with unusual representations of faces and masks. Is there a reason you frequently come back to this motif?
I like drawing faces. I like drawing grotesque things too. … Part of it likely comes from this idea that Scott McCloud articulates in Understanding Comics—that as humans, we see faces in everything. We’re hardwired to see ourselves. We can see a face in an electrical outlet, in wood grain, the moon, three dashes on a page. It’s a fundamental part of being human, and it’s a big part of why cartooning even works.
Beyond that, I’ve always loved (and feared) masks. I remember buying a werewolf mask at a garage sale as a kid, and putting it on at night and running around my grandmother’s back yard like an animal. It was play, but I was also spooking myself a little. When a face is slightly off, or unclear, or obscured, it can be deeply, irrationally unsettling, and I find that fascinating. I enjoy making things that are somehow disconcerting, and one way to do that is to make something that is simultaneously familiar and yet unfamiliar.
You’re part of a collective of cartoonists who continually produce an anthology of comics, called Irene. What is the selection process for those cartoons and comics?
Irene is a funny project that I think me and my co-editors, Andy Warner and d.w., are only gradually beginning to understand. We initially discussed the idea of starting an anthology near the end of our MFA program at The Center for Cartoon Studies. We hoped to find a way to maintain our creative momentum after graduation.
Our process for each issue is to approach artists we admire, and see if they’d be interested in doing a few pages. Beyond that, they get free reign. We’re there for editorial assistance if they want it, but few ask for it or need it. … We get a lot of enjoyment out of trying to arrange each book in a way that feels like a complete whole despite being made of disparate parts.
To make a ‘Daily’ you have to use any and every idea—so, a lot of it is pretty weird and surreal. What would you say to someone exploring that side for the first time?
It’s funny—weirdness and surrealism have been part of cartooning since forever, but audience tastes shift and change so much over time. Part of the maturation and acceptance of the comics medium has meant that more cartoonists are able to tell stories rooted in reality.
One of the most common comments I get on my online comics is “What.” (Or “wat.” Or some variation thereof.) Further, one of my most shared strips simply depicts a floating human skull eating out of a bird feeder. I don’t understand why that strip resonated with the masses, but they just can’t seem to get over how weird it is. Of course, if you imagine a world where floating skulls exist, the fact that they might eat is a pretty likely thing to happen.
For those trying to explore the strange side of things, I think it’s partially a matter of refining and recognizing those impulses through repetition like anything else. Exposure to art that does what you wish you could do helps too.
Anyway, I guess if you find your work gravitating towards the unusual, embrace it but don’t expect people to always love it.
What’s your opinion of speculative fiction?
I love speculative fiction, or as I called it as a kid: “anything that’s not just boring grown-ups talking.” The great thing about fiction is that anything can happen, even if it couldn’t happen in real life. The right cartoonist can show us something we’ve never seen before. It’s full of incredible possibilities.
You can follow Dakota’s work at http://dakotamcfadzean.com
– contributed by Jonathan Ramoutar