David Heatley is a Queens-based cartoonist and musician whose new book, “Qualification,” dropped last week. “Qualification” is the latest in Heatley’s intensely personal memoirs. The book starts with Heatley as a young child, being introduced to 12-step programs from his parents, and how he eventually, as a young adult, started attending meetings himself. Until, one day, he realized that he wasn’t addicted to any of the things that he, or the others he was attending these meetings with, said he was. It’s a story about self-help, self-discovery, and the wake that can sometimes kick up in pursuit of them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Heatley and I became friendly after interviewing him about his first book, “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down,” and have remained in touch here and there over the past 9 or so years. We discussed “Qualification” about a month ago over a lunch of Sicilian bread salad and iced coffee (me) and chopped liver on raisin nut bread and water (David) on the Upper East Side on Manhattan.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Written and illustrated by David Heatley
“Say what you mean, but don’t say it mean.” —12-Step aphorism
From the author of My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, a new graphic memoir brimming with black humor, which explores the ultimate irony: the author’s addiction to 12-Step programs.
David Heatley had an unquestionably troubled and eccentric childhood: father a sexually repressed alcoholic, mother an overworked compulsive overeater. Then David’s parents enter the world of 12-step programs and find a sense of support and community. It seems to help. David, meanwhile, grows up struggling with his own troublesome sexual urges and seeking some way to make sense of it all. Eventually he starts attending meetings too. Alcoholics Anonymous. Overeaters Anonymous. Debtors Anonymous. Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. More and more meetings. Meetings for issues he doesn’t have.
With stark, sharply drawn art and unflinching honesty, David Heatley explores the strange and touching relationships he develops, and the truths about himself and his family he is forced to confront, while “working” an ever-increasing number of programs. The result is a complicated, unsettling, and hilarious journey—of far more than 12 steps.
Last time we had spoken about your comics, I think this was the book you were planning on doing. But that was like 2012, does that line up?
Last time we had spoken about your comics, I think this was the book you were planning on doing. But that was like 2012, does that line up?
David Heatley: Yes. I had taken at least three or four years off from doing any comics. I wasn’t even drawing. I was just doing music and once I started thinking about another book, this was the one I wanted to do. And I had just left the program and almost immediately thought, “at least I’ll get a book out of this.”
Knowing the story and knowing you a little bit, I kept waiting for you to leave earlier in the book or there would be some fallout from it. when I put down the book I was like oh, he just left and it just kind of worked out. Did it feel that clean in the moment?
You just walked out like “okay, I’m done?”
DH: It was fairly abrupt. I think I stayed around Al-Anon the longest. And to this day I think about the stuff I heard in Al-Anon as being the most resonant. But otherwise it was a fairly clean break. AA was the last one I joined. At first, I had abandoned the other ones while going there, but then I’d dip back in. So it was a bit of seesawing.
When you would get disillusioned with one, was there a sense that this whole system was wrong or just this is the wrong flavor for me?Continued below
DH:I didn’t question that the whole system was wrong, honestly, until my therapist popped my bubble—as seen in the book. I just deeply trusted him at that point. It was so powerful. It was like, “What if this all really is an illusion? What if I’m not going to go insane if I don’t go to a meeting tomorrow? Let me just test that theory.”
When I was in it, I just…I think I was actually chasing a high. It would start to wear off and I’d have to find another one. The 12th Step ends with the phrase “practice these principles in all our affairs.” And when I was looking for a new program, I’d think, “Oh… THIS part of me is the dirty fucked up part. That’s what I should REALLY be applying the 12 steps to. And then I’d get high again when I started over and think, “this one is going to solve all my problems.”
I have a lot of experience with religion and we’re going to talk about God in a little while, but there are people that every month or two go on a weekend retreat because they feel like they need it to be their shot in the arm to get through life. And their whole lives are spent just in between those moments and the high lasts a day or a week or an hour and it’s just okay, when’s the next one? And that’s kind of the vibe I got at times. And I can understand why especially after giving a qualification or hearing a really moving one, you’re touched and that becomes what you’re looking for every day.
DH: Absolutely. I have no doubt that if I walked into a program room right now I’d feel that again. There might be more layers and skepticism and more defenses, but when you hear an addict tell their story about going from the gutter to being at one with human beings and okay with life again, you can’t help it—it will crack your heart open and make you feel part of the group.
Have you considered ever going back?
DH: Honestly, it would be like playing with fire or like an addict going back to drugs again. It feels like that to me. For the first couple years out of the program, I had vivid dreams where I was back in the rooms and I’d wake up like, “Oh no, I’ve deluded myself. I actually am an addict that should be there!” That’s worn off by now. I don’t feel that way at all anymore. But it does feel a little bit dangerous. I’m just susceptible to it. I might get sucked back in if I started going.
Do you think you were sucked into the routine of it? Were you sucked into the high of it? Was it a combination of things? What was the principle draw?
DH: Yeah, it was definitely the high. And honestly, the structure of it was really comforting because I tend to … I’m just uncomfortable around people. I’m okay one on one, but otherwise I’m fairly awkward and self-aware and just in my head a lot. So the fact that I could go in there and I had this attitude that I’ll listen to anyone talking when they get their three minutes. I don’t have to hear any more than that and I’ll get my own three minutes. It’s all clear boundaries and structure. I felt like, “I’m communing with people but I don’t have to get too close and thing won’t get too messy.”
But it’s a weird structure because you can walk into a group of strangers and everyone reveals their innermost secrets and that’s not how intimacy actually works with people. So it’s this weird shortcut. You feel like you know them, but you actually don’t know them. Everything is fundamentally a little bit off because of that. But at the time, I was really into it. It was an easier for me to deal with people.
Yeah I want to talk about the anonymous portion. You mentioned in the book you struggled with what stories to tell. And I’ve really been doing mental gymnastics over this. If you say you were at a meeting in Englewood in 1991, and even if the story sounds kind familiar, I think it would take a lot for someone to feel revealed from that. How much did you struggle with that when you were writing the book?Continued below
DH: I did struggle a lot. I struggled most with the person who was my sponsor. The stuff I had heard in the room anecdotally I felt was fair game. The bit of their story I heard is probably more a part of me than the person who shared it. I doubt they’d even remember saying it. Also, I’m not owned by the rules of the program anymore. I can talk about what happened there, and no lighting bolt’s going to strike me down if I do that. But I did struggle with my sponsor, the Darryl character. I had a very personal relationship with him. And I actually went back and spoke with him by email and sent him the whole book and told him that character is based on him.
We had some very tense exchanges and I wound up cutting at least five pages of it because of that. The final result was him saying “I can see you’re not trying to do any harm with this book and I do appreciate it.” He’s never going to be a fan of what I chose to do, and he did kind of confront me and say, “well what does anonymity mean to you if you can just violate it?” And we did go back and forth, but I don’t know. It’s sort of like I picked my allegiance to my readers and the people I’m going to share this with, the outside world rather than the internal world of the program.
You’re also probably an unreliable narrator at this point. It’s been long enough that details, while they might seem super clear to you, might be different than what you heard. I don’t think there’s anything in the book that’s necessarily so vivid that somebody’s going to read it, and say “oh shit, I know that story.” And if they were, it’s anonymous. They shouldn’t be sharing it anyway.
DH: That’s right. Who’s going to raise their hand and say “hey, that’s me!”
How long did it take you from start to finish to make the book?
DH: I started writing notes for it in 2012 and I right away talked to my publisher and said I really need an editor this time. I didn’t have one for my last book and I probably needed it then and I definitely needed it for this one. So I started meeting with my editor Tim O’Connell at the very, very beginning, just sitting talking about the idea for the book. And it probably took me four years of just writing and having conversations with him about it. I wrote the whole book out in longhand first. I wrote almost a 200 page manuscript and got his feedback on that and then it took two years to break it down and draw it.
Is that how you worked in the past in terms of manuscript writing?
DH: No. Never had an editor before.
What about a manuscript though? Did you ever write out the lead in your first book?
DH: No. I guess I have for dream comics. My early dream comics, I would have a journal entry that I would type up and treat it as text. And then I might break it down from there.
The book, it reads really…all of your work is very honest. I know that’s very important to you to present everything honestly. It reads, in parts, very uncomfortably. And I know that’s not a surprise to you. How does that effect your drawing? Is it harder to draw an uncomfortable page versus a page you’re just walking through park or something?
DH: Absolutely. I actually feel like I’ve relived things in a way. I was almost in like a catatonic state after drawing some pages. I couldn’t really relate to my wife and kids and in that moment I just felt like I needed to go lay down and not talk to anyone. It was traumatic. And then when I’d finish a chapter… for whatever reason, the chapter where I was living with mother in New York was one of the most painful to draw.
DH: Yeah. Because I didn’t realize that pain was still in there. It was very, very rough. And I wound up having those feelings every time I drew a page about her and interacting with and her pushing the program on me. And when I finally finished drawing that, it was like I outgrew the phase of being under my mother’s thumb in my twenties. I had the same feeling in miniature drawing it as I did living through it.Continued below
What about your dad or your brothers? Have they read the book?
DH: No. I basically told my brother, who’s in it more than other and my father, you’re in my new book and it’s about all of this stuff. If you don’t want to read it, that’s fine. They both said they didn’t want to read it, so that works for me. I said the same thing to my mother and she said she does want to read it and I said that’s going to be your business then. I’m not providing you a copy. I’m not necessarily going to talk to you about it. I did tell her everything that’s in it related to her. We had an amazing conversation about it, but I’m not interested in working that stuff out directly with her.
Yeah, that’s understandable I think on both sides. I tried to put myself in the shoes of your family. I don’t necessarily want to read my brother’s book or my mom’s book if it features some of my bad moments in it. And I don’t know if I would, but if I did I think I would have to set a lot of ground rules for conversation about it.
DH: Yeah, totally.
This is not the first autobiographical thing that you’ve worked on. I’m sure that they have some experience with your work. You must have revealed things about them that maybe they don’t think is accurate or honest.
DH: With my first book… I basically watched [my mom] read the whole thing and almost read it with her.
Oh really, okay.
DH: I wouldn’t want to repeat that. I don’t know. Something about that really felt wrong.
What did she think about the first book?
DH: She had…my mother’s relationship with my work is so complicated in general. She’s been jealous and competitive. And she’s been hurt by almost everything I’ve ever done as an artist. So it’s like I’ve just have had to learn it’s not for her and I can’t really show her or talk to her about it.
Is she okay with that?
DH: I feel like our relationship has never been better than it is now.
DDH: And it probably changed mostly talking about this book, just kind of saying basically here’s all the things I still resent you for and her owning it. And we just had a really freeing conversation. The feeling I have now is like I could say anything to my mom. If she’s starting to annoy me, I could say “Why are you doing that?” And I didn’t feel that freedom before. I just think it came out of drawing this book.
Oh, that’s good. Catharsis is real.
DH: Yeah, I did benefit. I wasn’t planning on that.
One of the thoughts I had reading the book was there was timelines in both your books that overlapped and I was wondering when you were writing this if there were things that you wish you could have included that were in the first book? Just because showing things differently would have made a story feel different. Do you ever have the desire to repeat things in that way?
DH: I think I did repeat a few salient points. With the first book…what am I trying to say? Only like 2,000 people bought it or something. It was not a big, successful book. In this book I almost just feel like starting over. And I just assumed no one’s ever read anything by me. That was one of the assumptions.
One thing that I regretted after I left the program was that the person that edited my last book was the me that was going to the program. I felt a desire to wrap everything up in a bow, put some spiritual bent on it, some lessons. And I wound up tacking this entire page onto the Sex History stuff and censoring the genitals on the boys. I do regret that now. The person who drew those strips had a right to have it appear as he drew them and not have this 12 stepper edit the whole thing.
So that’s a regret. But it’s an imperfect document.Continued below
They all are.
DH: I’m sort of at peace with it now, but at the time I was like, oh God why did I do all that?
But I think that also if you read both books together, it’s really fascinating to look at how the lens of the program was influencing your decisions at the end of that book. And I think that makes this book more powerful in a way because it shows the freeing of that. Of your mind, about having to put it through that.
DH: Well that’s cool. That’s nice to hear actually.
I reread “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down,” I read “Qualification,” then I read “Amy.” I read “Amy” as it was coming out, but I kind of read all three in sequence. And I was taken by a couple of really interesting things. First of all, the copy of “Qualification” I have is…will it be published in that size or is it going to be a larger format? Is it going to be oversized?
DH: No, small.
And that the first book is huge. “Qualification” is kind of a smallish one and then “Amy” is tiny. So from a production standpoint, I know “Amy” was written for Instagram so that’s a different thing, but for this, did you want it purposely to be smaller than your prior work? And if so what led to that artistic decision?
DH: I think when you’re young, a young artist, you’re just trying to show off all the different tricks you have. “Look, I can draw in THIS style and THIS style!” And the ego was soaring when I made that first book. It had to be BIG. It had to be bold. It had to feel really substantial. But I was very conscious that I wanted “Qualification” to be as stripped down and simple as possible. Very much portable, holdable in your hands and very digestible.
I wanted a different panel grid. “My Brain” is a labyrinth to navigate. Some pages have 48 panels on them. This book has a maximum of six per page. And minimal text in each panel. I think “Amy” in a way…I actually drew it before Instagram, but I drew it on business size cards of Bristol, one panel at a time. I was thinking of making it easily viewable on a mobile. Then when I started using Instagram, it was obviously a square canvas, so I stacked two cards per screen and was sort of a happy accident. The book worked well that way too. Just two panels a page.
Again, as you get older you sort of strip away what’s unnecessary. I think that’s part of what’s going on.
I tend to read into things too much. But because the program boxed you in, you boxed your work and then I wasn’t sure if there was some sort of meta text to that, but-
DH: There very well could be, yeah. I wasn’t aware of that.
How long were you, start to finish, in programs?
DH: When I went in, in earnest it was 2004 when my daughter was born. And I left, I think it was between 2011, 2012 but it was right in that area. So it was a good six, seven years.
And then you mentioned, it starts for you with your daughter being born. So the most intense period of your adult life, because you’re now raising a child. Looking back, even though obviously you have problems with the program, but then in some ways it was a helpful tool. Helped you deal with sort of the anxieties of everyday life.
DH: That’s kind of what I was telling myself the whole time. I had this really false narrative going which was that I was trying to protect Rebecca and Maya and Sam, when he came along, from me. And there was this real program-informed belief that I have a blot on my soul. I’m a sick person and you can’t be around me until I go get clean. Unfortunately, once you believe that, it’s just never ending. It’s always going to be that way.
I think if I had started therapy with my current therapist then instead of going to the program I would have gotten healthier much quicker than I did. I feel like the program keeps you in a holding pattern in a way, because you’re not dealing with any of the deeper layer stuff. You’re just sort of arresting the behavior, but not changing psychologically.Continued below
How many hours a week were you away from your family for program related things?
DH: It kept ramping up. By the end, it was literally every single day. If a meeting was local to where we lived it could be an hour and a half. If it was in Manhattan, it’d be three hours that I was gone. It was a real toll on Rebecca. She really resented it and that’s why after a year of that, she was like, “I’m just done. I’m done talking to you. I don’t even want to think about you right now.”
I think Rebecca’s really interesting to read about in the book because logically she’s the hero of the book in a lot of ways, but when you’re immersing yourself in the story, she’s preventing the protagonist from achieving his goals. I wound up resenting her in parts. And not really, but you understand what I’m saying.
As a reader, you think, “he’s trying to work through something here. Support him!” Has she read the book?
How does she feel about it?
DH: Yeah, it’s complex. There were definitely a few things … she basically said in a few instances, “Do you have to have me be so shrill and angry though the whole thing? Can you make this panel have me saying something supportive? Because I did sometimes!” And I was like “Yeah, I’m sorry. You’re right.” She felt like…she’s wonderful. She’s absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me.
There’s certain panels when she’s like “Why would you want to draw that?” Like a sex thing. There’s instincts I have as an artist that she doesn’t share, but she’s incredibly supportive. She wants this book to succeed and she wants me to get my work out there and tell my truth.
And she’s very on board with the idea of interrogating that period of time that I spent in the program. She just didn’t want to have to relive it herself. She’s like, “I don’t want to read to this. This was one of the worst experiences of my life.”
Yeah I was going to say it’s reminding her of all those terrible moments.
DH: Especially the amount of fighting and I don’t want to relive it either.
I am a hobbyist when it comes to making art. I’m a musician in a couple bands. But I think a lot of times I can get lost in that stuff. And I just think about the record I’m making or whatever I’m doing and my wife’s just like, yeah but the dishes need to be done, the kids will need to picked up from the bus stop and all that. And I feel really sorry for my wife sometimes and I feel like she is saddled with having to tether me to reality and pull me back down because otherwise I’ll just be floating in the clouds sometimes.
And then when you add to that all of the time you were away from home and although I do understand this being very hard for her to go back and revisit, but I’m sure that she’s glad where you are now versus where you were then.
DH: Absolutely. There’s so much in what you just said. I could go off in 10 different directions. She definitely resented being the one who had to pop my bubble all the time and ground me and bring me down from the cloud. And I totally get it. She shouldn’t have had to do that. I needed to learn how to internalize it for myself. Not everything is possible, and maybe I’m not as brilliant as I think I am, and I don’t actually need to commune with my muse all day long. The diapers need to be changed.
I’m really into this Ursula K. Le Guin book about writing. She talks about that. She talks about being a mom of 3 kids. And she wrote so many books. And people would ask her “Aren’t the roles of writer and mother incompatible?,” and she said “No, I can’t even imagine one without the other, actually.” The family is this safe haven and it is grounding. And it is a place to belong and get comfort. Then you can go explore the outer limits of your imagination and your psyche. You need both.Continued below
I want to talk about God for a while. When Rebecca did the interview with you on Facebook, it was so good, but I was like “I don’t want to do the interview anymore,” and you were like “no, we can talk about God.”
So obviously reading your work, you were raised in a family that to a varying degree always had faith somewhere in there. And obviously you do the program. There’s a lot of language about higher power and I know that that can turn religious very quickly too. And so when the bubble burst on the program, did the bubble burst on God for you too?
DH: Pretty much, yeah. I would say I feel more agnostic than anything. I definitely don’t feel qualified to say what does exist and what doesn’t. It’s funny, I do find my self praying still.
But I do wonder if it’s just more to an internal power or a higher self within me that I’m kind of praying to. The prayer that’s effective for me is this idea. I’ll say, “You take over. Put the words in my mouth that you want me to say. Let me do what you want me to do.” And it’s just this relief from the worrying, the anxiety, the wall of ego that has plagued me so often.
In some ways removing yourself from the program was obviously a big change in terms of your daily habits and the places you go or interact with, but removing God from the equation is more of an internal thing. Was there fallout for you from having that ripped from you?
DH: I really felt like I was going through withdrawal from drugs. I really did. And it was so depressing and sad. I’ve had this in waves throughout my life, this idea of … I periodically get this idea that something’s going to save me. “This is going to be the solution to everything and I’m going to be fine from now on.” Only to then be disappointed. So it was that times a hundred. It’s like, “What if really this whole time I’ve just been in a manic state and imagining a lot of it?”
I have a very good friend who had a very traumatic incident happen and basically just decided “look, I don’t believe in God any more.” And his whole thing was he said his brain knew he didn’t believe, but his heart couldn’t get there yet. So it was a constant struggle between sort of what he though, what he felt.
Had you had any of that? Was there any sort of struggle in yourself with that?
DH: In some ways I’m still very moved by belief in other people. Part of it was this… I thought to myself “I’m spending a lot of time trying to discern God’s will for me and what that means and I was kind of micromanaging God in a way. And playing God in my own head. And I came to this sense of… “If I was going to really believe that we’re like children and God is this all powerful parent, then why don’t I be more like a child and just NOT know?” If this thing’s out there protecting me or guiding me, great. But why don’t I just not try to even mess with it. I don’t even want to think about it if that’s true.
Ideally, kids don’t think about their parents. They’re just there. They’re just there to catch them. But they don’t question … all the things that can drive you crazy. There’s this great Ron Sexsmith song, you know it? “Don’t Ask Why.”
Oh yeah, yeah.
DH: I love that. I love that concept. “When the answers bring no relief, I don’t ask why.” That’s the state I was in. “None of this is bringing me any relief.”
Do you feel relief now?
DH: I do, yeah. I feel like part of relief is accepting the fact that I have a bit of a…I don’t know. In some ways I just wake up angry every day. I have ways to get through that and they’re not the same ways, but I don’t think of that is something broken about me now. It’s not like I feel great all the time. This morning I woke up, just so pissy and annoyed and then rode my bike for 15 minutes and that kind of cleared some of it away.Continued below
You wrote a note in the acknowledgements that your kids reading book when they’re older rather than younger. How much do your kids remember of this period? Were they aware of any of this when it was happening?
DH: I did talk to them about it. They’re very aware of what my book’s about and the fact that I went to these programs.
How did they react?
DH: In a way they’re pretty typical kids in the sense that they’re focused on their lives and they want me to focus entirely on their life, too. I start sharing and then a minute later, they’re cutting me off and telling me about something else. Even with “Amy,” I was thinking I’d like to write a book my kids could actually read. It’s a lot about my teen years. There’s no real sex in it. There’s no cursing. I can proudly show this to them and they’re not even interested. Sam read ten pages and said “Your books are too sad for me” and handed it back. And it’s like, “Okay, cool.”
Same thing with Maya. She just wasn’t all that interested. So that might be true for this book too. When they’re in their 20s or when I’m gone someday, maybe they’ll get interested then.
My father was not at all a professional artist, but he drew all the time. And he used to make cards for my mother, for every holiday he would draw a card for her. He drew superheroes on my wall when I was a kid and he died in March. I was helping my mom move and finding these boxes of cards that he drew, even though they were inside jokes I wasn’t aware of, it was so cathartic to read those things and see those things.
DH: Oh wow, amazing.
And so that’s definitely something I can see that one day far off in the future, your kids connecting to it that way. But I’d be really curious to see…I guess to talk to them one day about this to see if they felt a shift in you when you left the program versus, because again they’re so myopic in their own worlds if they’re even aware of that stuff. Because obviously Rebecca saw a huge change in you.
DH: She did. Something I haven’t really talked about it is, there was leaving the program and there was fully embracing the talk therapy that I still go to. And this guy is amazing. He’s a father figure for me and he’s very smart and he knows me deeply and that’s been really healing. And I did group therapy with him too so I know other people in that context and that’s helpful. But I also hit a brick wall where I realized I need some medication. So I’m on medication that has really changed my level of rage and anger. And so I think my kids might more recognize that difference, when I started having the meds.
Even a few years after the program, I still bottomed out on not making enough money and driving Rebecca crazy. Still being really short tempered and angry with my kids. So I think that’s actually been a lot better for the last few years.
Yeah I think that anger is a big problem in my life and I’ve recently started seeing a new therapist to kind of figure out ways to curtail that a bit. And I’m really hoping that my kids see a difference, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that they might just think that angry dad is normal and that really bothers me. They’re not aware that something’s wrong with me, they just think this is how dads are. I don’t want that.
DH: I know. It’s so painful. And then the forgiving perspective is like, “…and that’s been true of every father throughout history.”
Oh of course, yeah, yeah.
DH: They want to do better than they’re able to do. “I wish I could protect you from me,” that was my initial impulse, but it’s usually better to not remove yourself. It’s better to be in a relationship. They get the full range of you, even if some of that’s messed up.Continued below
Yeah, absolutely. And there’s so much in this book about your relationship with your parents and sort of the ups and downs of that. When you talked to your dad about it, I know he said he didn’t want to read the book, but did you give him sort of an overview of the things that were going to be in the book?
DH: Not as much. He’s pretty…he’s mentally all there, but he’s physically really declined. We just have a very simple relationship now that’s really satisfying. I’m focused on helping him where I can and he’s grateful. And he loves my kids and wants to see us as often as we can. It’s pretty simple. I don’t want to mess with that.
He has a beautiful part of the book when you talk about accepting your help. That’s a big step for a lot of parents. It’s hard for them to do.
DH: Yeah, he’s been so gracious. It’s been satisfying. It’s been much more satisfying than me ever wanting help from him because he never gave me what I needed, but I did get it elsewhere to the point where I’m strong enough to give it back to him. And I’ll always be grateful for the really young dad I had. There was something just magical and loving and just soft about him and I’ll always have that inside me.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s amazing to be reading this book because so many times you forget that these are real stories that happen to real people. And knowing you a little bit, there were parts of the book where it’s like…it was very emotional to read because here’s somebody I know only a little bit, but I care about. To see you go through that is very hard. So I could only imagine the pain of going trough that yourself and looking back on it.
I think you said that there was some catharsis from it, but did you ever feel like when you were working on this it wasn’t worth it? It wasn’t worth putting you through all the emotions again? Or did you always have that end goal in sight?
DH: For better or worse, I do have this kind of…I guess it borders on arrogance… a real energy of “This needs to be in the world and I need to be the one to say it.” I definitely have that and that never really wavered. So, it wasn’t like “Let me scrap this project,” but it was definitely like “This is way harder than I ever thought it was going to be.” There were moments like that.
Is that changing how you’re thinking about future projects?
DH: No. I feel really excited … I have like three books I want to draw.
I think you posted that maybe on Facebook or Instagram, something like that. All are about Teaneck, right?
DH: Yeah. One of them has a magical realist bent, because it’s more of a childhood story, though definitely not for kids. I’m sure I’ll hit the same kind of points where it’s like climbing a mountain or running a race and you have to just push through.
Now where does music play into your artist…obviously your books thus far, most of them have been very drawn from your real life, do you write autobiographically musically as much as you do cartooning?
DH: No, not really. I feel like almost all my songs are more in the realm of poetry, touching on a dream place. There might be characters that kind of feel like me, but it’s a voice. It’s like a voice calling to you. A voice that I’m responding to or embodying.
Your artwork is very easily identifiable. Before I knew you did New Yorker covers, I would say that looks like a Heatley piece and it was. Whereas your music, there are parts of it that are very much you, but you mask it a bit. Do you feel more freedom to break your perceptions or to go outside your comfort zone musically than you do visually?
DH: My earliest attempts in music were kind of like my comics in the sense that it was just me and a guitar on a 4-track and it’s incredibly stripped down, lo-fi. It was an evolution to start partnering with musicians who were better than be, who could arrange things. But I don’t know where I’m at musically. I feel like I have probably like 10 more songs I know I want to record, but I have no idea how to approach them yet. And I think I went too far in the direction of using a full band. I want to bring it a little bit back to me and with some lighter touches that add color. I got a little lost in the sea of color from other musicians. I don’t think I’ve really broken through what my voice is musically yet.Continued below
DH: I feel like … I can’t get anyone to listen to it, first of all. No one ever wants to hear my music. It’s just disappointing. But I also feel like I just haven’t nailed it yet. If I come up with that undeniable song where “You can’t ignore this”, then I’ll feel like “Okay, I hit upon the right thing.” I haven’t gotten there yet.
And I think, again with listening to music, it’s very hard because there’s just so much of it and it’s become devalued so much that even to come out to a show or buy a record is a big commitment. It shouldn’t be, I don’t think, but it is.
DH:I think music rarely breaks through on its own these days. It’s always accompanying either a TV show or a music video so I feel like that’s maybe a future action for me is to create animation or if it has my artwork and my music … you can’t not listen to music because it’s the soundtrack to the thing I’m drawing. We’ll see. Maybe do something like that someday.
The Bischoffs record, that was in 2013?
DH: Yeah, sounds right.
Somewhere in there, yeah. And I remember at the time talking to you about it. When it came out you were really amped on it. And then The Bischoffs kind of just went away. Was that personal stuff? Whatever happened with that band?
DH: Some of the disappointment with that was…we put on a really good live show. I was very happy with the way we sounded live and I still feel like if I could just get 20 people in a room I can convert them. I can put on a good live experience. And we had that, but the record became twisted away from that. It became between me and the producer and chasing OUR vision and the band resented that a bit. But I also felt like they weren’t really getting good enough takes in the studio. We had to kind of supplement what they had recorded. And so that was the tension. It was also really disappointing because we had a hundred plus people pay on Kickstarter to crowdfund the record and I couldn’t even get THOSE people to listen to it. Maybe like five people loved the record. Everyone else didn’t even listen to it.
So it was like, “Jesus if I can’t even get the people who are supposed to be the biggest fans of this band to take time to listen to it, what the hell am I doing?”
I believe you, but that’s hard to believe. I can’t imagine funding something then not listening to it.
DH: Yeah people do that. They’re just like, oh I like this guy. I want to support him, but then they can’t be bothered to actually … I think I’ve done that. I think I’ve done. I want them to succeed at this project and then I don’t read the book or… I don’t know, it’s weird.
It is weird. I’ve been working on a record with a friend of mine. We wrote these songs in college and we have lived in different cities the whole time since. A couple of years ago , we decided we were going to give it a go and so we’ve been recording. We’re almost done with it now, but I’ve been contemplating how would I put it out to the world. One of the first memories I have is my mom teaching me how to use a turntable. So I want to put it on a vinyl because it’s so connected to who I am as a person. But I’m also thinking like, “no one gives a shit.” No one gives a shit! Why am I going to spend money I really don’t have to put this thing out that I’ll listen to it a few times. I’ll pick out the flaws in it and I won’t even listen to it?
It’s this really hard…again there’s so much music out there in the world. Unless you are somebody who already has this built-in audience of some sort.
DH: Yeah, I know. It’s the end of an era. And music was so central to our life story. These pilgrimages to the store, taking a gamble on a record cover, that’s all done with.Continued below
I dealt with it all the time with my kids. We have an Amazon Echo in the kitchen, my daughter will say “Alexa play the Beatles” or whatever and plays them. I was like you’ll never understand the thrill and danger of reading a record review of an album you’ve never heard, go into the record store, paying to have it special ordered, and it arriving and you not liking it. That happened all the time to me. That was a real thing that happened.
And I’m glad I lived through that. I think that there is some value in the hunting and gathering aspect of being a fan of something, but I’m also glad that now I didn’t to put up with that anymore. I’m glad I’ve bridged those two generations, but I’m upset for my kids that they don’t have that experience.
DH: I feel the same way. The only thing that’s kind of cool is the ‘80s and ’90s are back. My kids are obsessed with Stranger Things. And there’s a bit of a fascination with that time. And I’m like, “Yeah you SHOULD think that’s cool. It WAS cool!”
But even just like comics. Now if you have a comiXology account, you can get so much brought to your computer whereas if your store didn’t carry something you’ll hope you find it in the convention or something, but that’s it. It was a very different place to grow up. I think that informs how I still get obsessed with things, when I still get really into things. When I hit on that vein I really liked, I would then discover as much I could and I don’t know if people dig that deep anymore or if it’s all just for shallow.
DH: My kids don’t. First of all, if the song’s in a movie or a show, they’re into it. Like Guardians of the Galaxy… My daughter Maya hears “Mr. Blue Sky” for the time, she loves it, plays it a lot. Awesome, she likes ELO. “Y’know, there’s a hundred great ELO songs, honey.” No interest. Doesn’t chase it down. She’s not a fan, she’s a fan of whatever memory or emotion was evoked watching that song along with these fucking Marvel movies! That’s the meaningful thing to her so I was like… alright, I got to let it go.
And who are we to say that she’s enjoying it wrong, right?
But it’s just so different than how I enjoy things. I remember just going to the movies and you’d hear … so I had head of the Pixies before I saw Fight Club, but in the mid ’90s finding those records were not all that easy. I heard “Where is My Mind?,” and I have to go by this band’s catalog now. But it’s something deeper. I don’t see it in my kids either. They like what they like and they don’t want to explore past that.
DH: It just doesn’t mean what it used to. I don’t know, for years now Sam’s main music interest is video game soundtracks. Sound capturing the soundtracks off of video games.
You know the game Undertale?
DH: It’s a brilliant game actually. It’s created in this kind of NES style 64 bit graphic and the sounds are all authentic to that period and there are these really excellent compositions that go along with it. So it’s a legitimate soundtrack, but that’s one of his favorite things in the world and that kind of never existed growing up.
No one would ever have the Super Mario Brothers song on their walkman. No, that just wouldn’t … that didn’t occur to anyone.
Right. What’s fascinating with that is you would think that … we’re talking about how your daughter she hears a song on a movie and is obsessed with that song, but we took in things much more … I never played video games with the sound off ever. I always had the sound on it, always heard that music, why didn’t we think to pull it apart. It was part of the same thing. You couldn’t hear it without playing it or play it without hearing it.Continued below
DH: Yeah, that’s right
Everything was just weirdly intertwined.
What’s been the most satisfying … I mean, you got an R. Crumb pull quote, which is insane. Congratulations on that. But what’s been the most satisfying part of this…of after the books been written, the process of getting it out there. What’s been satisfying and fun?
DH: Wow. I feel like I’m still waiting for that. I’d say the Crumb thing probably was the highlight. Sending him an advanced copy, having him write me a full page letter back, exchanging two letters back and forth. I’m probably going to write him back again.
Did you have any relationship with him before this?
DH: I did, yeah. Yeah, he liked my first book and I met him in France and I got invited to a breakfast with him when he was in NY. But yeah this felt like a deeper, almost friendship forming, and I love his daughter too. I love [his wife] Aline and to have the three of them respond so enthusiastically, I was just like “You know what? I almost don’t care what anyone else thinks. This is so satisfying.”
Oh I did have a really nice interview with a woman at Publishers Weekly which was a surprise.
Why was it a surprise?
DH: Because I just thought it might be a quick, cursory thing or might stay on the surface. But she went really deep into parenting and psychology and religion. We kind of went there. And it’s satisfying when people are willing to go to the deep end with me. That’s where I’m comfortable. It’s an invitation. The books are an invitation if you want to go there with me. And if no one comes, it’s lonely, but if certain people start trickling over there and swimming with me, it’s really fun.