The webcomic creator is never far from their audience. Be it through social media, public email addresses, Discord servers, or simply the comments section beneath a page, there is a rapport and a conversation that is developed that is unique to the medium. We’re continuing those conversations here, albeit a little more formally, by interviewing webcomics creators to pick their brains about craft, storytelling, and their personal experiences with the medium.
Fantasy comics are hard to get started and even harder to get people invested in without dumping a ton of lore and history onto readers ala “The Lord of the Rings” but somehow, Evan Dahm manages to make it look easy in his first work “Rice Boy” and all others. The creator of “The Harrowing of Hell” from Iron Circus Comics, “Island Book” from First Second, and his most recent webcomic, “Vattu,” Evan’s talents are many and his interests just as varied. Join us as we talk about them, with a brief detour into “Moby Dick” and the public domain, two things I’m quite fond of.
Thanks to Evan for taking the time to talk with me!
To get us started, what was your first experience with webcomics prior to making any of the ones that you made?
Evan Dahm: Throughout the 2000s I was only dimly aware of webcomics as a thing. I wasn’t interested in the big sort-of “guys talking about video games” kind of thing that felt like the bulk of the medium at that point. I got extremely into “Achewood.” That was the first comic that I was really keeping up with and really into for a few years before I started drawing “Rice Boy,” which I published just on LiveJournal at first, like, kinda unaware of webcomics as a way of publishing.
Oh wow, LiveJournal.
ED: Yeah! I wasn’t super aware of that way of publishing until I was doing it basically.
So you’ve been working on them ever since? Has there ever been a time you’ve taken an extended break?
ED: I’ve been doing it pretty consistently; I’ve been working on “Vattu” for about ten years now. It’s kinda slower going because I’m balancing it with other work over that period and the past few years, I’ve been doing a series of middle grade graphic novels for First Second books, which are on such a tight deadline pretty consistently it puts a pressure on keeping the self-published stuff updated. I’m still chugging along; I mean, I’m acutely aware more and more now the engine that makes my whole career work is making stuff and putting it out there in public so I need to keep doing that any way I can, even if the internet becomes incompatible with that it seems like.
So, has working on “Island Book” been not as fulfilling, because you’re working on your own without putting it out as you go?
ED: No, no. It’s fulfilling, it’s just a very different kind of work. What I mean is the only reason any of this is sustainable, the only reason I have these contracts with the publisher is because I’ve been doing this online for free. The only reason I was ever in the position to do this was because I’ve been putting it online for free forever. It’s very different to be making a thing on a deadline for an extended period of time and not have anybody see it except my editor for years. It yields a different kind of work but I wouldn’t say it’s less fulfilling, it just pushes me in a different direction that I try to play to the strengths of in those cases.
I imagine the deadlines can be a little crushing. Is it strange to work with a deadline that isn’t self-imposed? I assume that with a webcomic deadline – putting out pages & whatnot – is something you set for yourself and you can fudge it if you need but with a big publisher not so much.
ED: I’m pretty loose with the self-published deadlines at this point too.
I dunno. I always work a lot and pretty quickly. The weird adjustment is doing the whole book in stages. Like, thumbnailing the whole thing, then drawing the whole thing, then coloring the whole thing, that really ends up structuring a book very differently. But I resist against thinking either way is better, I mean, I can see both the strengths of each one and moving forward I wanna play to the strengths of different production models with more awareness. That’s the dream, at least, cause as much as I can, I want to keep working in this frantic, diversified way.Continued below
Do you have any projects coming up that are both independent and with a publisher? I presume you’re working on another book in that series [“Island Book”] but you’ve still got “Vattu” coming out. Are you planning on wrapping that up soon and starting something new or just continuing along with that?
ED: I’m coloring the last chunk of the third book, which is the last one with First Second. “Vattu” I have maybe another couple years. I have a number of nebulous things that I feel comfortable that I could run with in the near future. I have one book that’s a self-contained, kinda…psychedelic horror thing, haunted house almost, that will probably be the next new thing that I roll with.
I have to figure out how to keep the stuff going online for free as a large part of my output and everything else I have in mind is too nebulous to put down right now. I have so little time to think lately outside of coloring this book that I don’t even know but I’m confident that I’ve had ideas before and things will materialize. I can feel them beginning to materialize in the background sometimes.
You’ve been doing webcomics for a long time so you’ve seen things morph in terms of being able to sustain it for free online. Has your approach to that changed over the years or has it always been the same but you’re noticing the landscape shifting under your feet?
ED: Yeah, the landscape has shifted so dramatically. Like, I started “Rice Boy” in 2006 and I’ve been seriously professionally invested in being a person on the internet since 2007 or 8 and in that span of time since then it’s ridiculous what’s happened to the internet. Every shred of independent community or individual directed space has been either destroyed or sidelined so far it might as well not even exist. Everybody is on the internet now but the way everybody interacts is through these deadening, inhuman corporate shopping mall spaces.
That sounded awfully negative but I think the way I conduct my world has changed a lot less than I would’ve thought and maybe I’m sort of riding an obsolete model. I know I’m riding an audience that a lot of it has been with me for a long time and I don’t know how much I can expand that using this old model of the internet as my approach. I dunno what the solution is but I’m trying to diversify and keep moving forward.
I’ve not been very good at navigating the social media stuff. I don’t really know how to game those systems or make art that is popular and convey it in a way that gains traction on Instagram or whatever so my solution is to keep trying to do that stuff I want to do cause that’s worked so far. I’m gonna try to compromise in smart ways but not in serious ways. It does sometimes feels kinda tenuous so I dunno.
That’s something I hear a lot from older webcomics creators; granted most of the people I’ve interviewed have been on independent sites and haven’t done a lot of work primarily through Webtoons or Tapas or any of the other bigger webcomic platforms.
ED: Yeah, I’ve never learned very much about those platforms.
To tie this back to what you said earlier about your work process, do you primarily work physically, with physical materials and all that?
ED: All my drawing and inking is physical and coloring is photoshop. I got really stuck to it and I work very quickly that way. There are a lot of artifacts of drawing in that way that I love. I don’t like looking at a screen for the entire process, basically.
How long have you been using photoshop to color? Has that always been part of your process or was that something you adopted later?
ED: Basically always. My parents were graphic designers and were throughout my whole childhood so I’ve been at least tangentially connected to computer aided design of various sorts for my whole growing up. I had learned the basics of photoshop around high school.Continued below
I was doing a lot of comics for this competitive comics drawing website entervoid.com and around when I started “Rice Boy” – which was the first thing I was like “I’m going to take this seriously and make a thing that I can do something with and I’m saving it all at print resolution so I do something with it” and I did something with it – that was when I really figured out how to use it in the way that I wanted to use it and most of what I do in Photoshop now is basically just an abstraction of that process. I don’t really use anything in that program that’s newer than 20 years old. I do pretty simple coloring. Paring it down a whole lot makes it feel more aesthetically cohesive to me so I’m comfortable with that generally.
In that way you can more easily draw a thru-line from the early pages of “Rice Boy” to the most recent pages of “Vattu” and have them feel like part of the same world?
ED: I mean, I’m much less worried about inter-story continuity like that but yes, that is the case. It’s more been helpful within one comic itself to have a limited systematic way of coloring where I can move through it without a lot of struggling to figure something out, where there’s a built-in visual consistency in the coloring.
I think about coloring very different from drawing. Drawing is muscle memory and more self-evident when something looks good or bad. Coloring is more mysterious and I lean on my little systems I’ve developed in Photoshop over the years. My precious little systems.
Coloring is more of an abstract art for you?
ED: You could say that. It’s certainly abstracted; it’s less self-evident to me what coloring should look like and how to do it in a way that looks right. Drawing I know what works more automatically.
What’ve you found to be the most challenging part of making something? Putting aside printing and all the logistical stuff there.
ED: Hmmm…I think everything pales in comparison to the sheer amount of work that it takes to physicalize it. Every part of it is easy compared to having to draw hundreds and hundreds of pages, you know. Sticking to it and keeping in mind the broader “vision” or whatever… I guess I say that because I don’t want to be too precious because so much of it comes down to craft and just struggling to get through it. No matter how exciting the idea is, it’s just a grind and if I didn’t like a lot of the aspects of that grind, then it would be impossible. That’s the hard part, I’d say.
Is that one of the reasons, when you made Rice Boy, he’s just simple circles and simple shapes?
ED: I definitely wasn’t that self-aware when I was starting that. There reason for that was, I think I was excited about the idea of playing with a ridiculously simplified character in a big overblown fantasy setting. That was one of my big motivating visual ideas.
I’ve become a little bit smarter about building designs and building a style of drawing that I can do very efficiently. With the “Island Book” series in particular, I was thinking about it from the beginning. I wanted it all to look tight and visually fully formed, fully realized, but clean and simple enough that I’m not getting sucked into drawing a bunch of detail. In those books I want everything to look very clean and almost like it’s made of plastic or something. It’s my understanding if you can build in a short-cut like that early enough and deeply enough into the structure, then it won’t read as a short-cut. It doesn’t seem like a short-cut to me now. It’s just essentially how it looks.
You create a visual vocabulary and teach people to read it that way, that’s how they’ll read it.
ED: Mmhmm. I’ve been reading a lot of “Dragon Ball.” I’ve been reading the first several books and you can see him doing that. You can see Toriyama building a visual logic that’s often clunky and simple because he’s pumping them out so frantically but it’s so fully realized within it, it feels tight and fully realized.Continued below
It’s a wonder that, because it’s so clean and simple, it can convey so much more and he can get it out every week
ED: Yeah. There’s just so much of it that mechanically, even with assistants or however he worked on that, it would not exist if it wasn’t built in that sort of way.
Did you work that way when doing “The Harrowing of Hell” for Iron Circus Comics?
ED: That’s kind of a weird one, in a lot of ways. The basic ideas of that book and the way that it looked was so clear to me for years before I actually started working on it that it didn’t feel like it could work any other way. It’s shorter, like 130 pages or something, so it’s short enough that I’m not as compelled to simplify the aesthetic or build in simplifications to the aesthetic but it was extremely clear to me from the beginning that it had to be black and white and red and it had to be very physical and brushing and I had to lean into brush drawing more intensely and consciously than I had in a while. As a result, it feels more consistent with what I had in mind beforehand than most of what I do, also because it’s short.
Yeah, that’s a weird one.
Did you enjoy working on it?
ED: I loved it. First thing I’d done that was an adaptation. I was driven by a specific read on the Gospel of Mark, so it was comparatively very easy to know what the correct thing to do was and to stick to the central idea of the book throughout the whole thing. I was more kinda consistently engaged in that, also because it’s short, than I am in with most things that I work on. I always knew what it was about and I knew where I was going pretty clearly.
How did that book come about? Not from the idea creation, though I am curious about that. Did you approach Spike? Did Spike approach you?
ED: I’ve known Spike as long as I’ve known anybody in comics. When she started that publisher…I know her aesthetic pretty well and I know she would be into a lot of things I would be into making. I had it in my head that I would pitch something when it came up; she published an edition of “Rice Boy” that’s still in print now. “The Harrowing of Hell” struck me as…it would kinda be a cute joke to make a story that’s effectively making a Christian Anarchist argument using the most imperial Christaian fanfiction story there is, which is ‘The Harrowing.’
When my schedule allowed it, I was like “Oh, I’ll get something together and run with it” and it was nice to be rest assured that somebody else would make it a physical book, then I don’t have to think about it anymore.
That it’s out there in the world?
ED: Yeah. People seem to like it. I’m not used to making something that explains itself so well. Every other thing I’ve made relies on a huge amount of buy-in to the idea of a big fantasy world with weird creatures or whatever but everybody in the Anglosphere has some relation to the story of Jesus, you know, and if you make a book with a picture of Jesus Christ in Hell, it explains itself really well. I was kind of surprised at that.
Are you not a fan of using exposition to explain a world? Because, as you said, it requires a lot of buy in. Reading “Vattu,” you do a good job of constructing the world without forcing people to listen to somebody talk about it.
ED: Thank you. The thing that I like most about secondary world fiction is being dropped into it and being disoriented and the story subsisting on itself that you just have to figure it out. Like, developing all the interesting setting stuff or developing how the setting looks and works and feels is fun and exciting but it’s worth nothing to me if it’s conveyed in a clumsy way. That’s always been my aesthetic about this stuff.Continued below
I like “the story is the thing” and, I dunno, I’ve always been very annoyed at the fantasy movies that start with a big voiceover in the dark about how old the world is and, like, these big cosmological things. Nobody lives in that, nobody lives in their cosmology, they live in their culture. I want to create stories about people in a world and I want to make it all up and make it strange and interesting if it works to do so.
The stranger the better?
ED: Often. It can always go stranger.
Have you ever made anything where you got to a point and went “OK, that’s too strange for the rest of it?” Or has it always been “it can go stranger?”
ED: Well, I dunno. “Vattu” is so grounded and so much about history and anthropology that a certain level of strangeness feels like it would be breaking the rules for that story. Part of me often wants to reconnect to the frantic, totally irreverent I was sometimes going for in “Rice Boy,” but I do like something to feel fully formed and consistent so I haven’t done too much of that, I guess.
Maybe in a future project.
ED: Yeah, a couple things I have in mind, absolutely. This haunted house story…I’m trying to think of in this way. It’s a self-contained, probably under 200 page thing. It feels like an appropriate space to push in some directions I haven’t pushed in in a while, so we’ll see.
When you make that, would you be releasing it under creative commons, like you have the rest of your works that aren’t through a traditional publisher?
ED: That depends on the publishing situation. A lot of stuff will be nailed down once I figure out how I’m publishing it and with whom. I kind of would love to do that. I love the idea of publishing everything I do, of serializing it for free, but there’s all these parts of the publishing industry that don’t understand that. Even if my publisher or my editor, for instance, understands that, my understanding is that they have to make the case to a bunch of distributors and people who are like “Well, no one will want to buy a book if it’s for free on the internet.”
It’s an argument I think I’m going to have to make with one or the other of the institutions I’m involved in. It’s always felt like the honest straightforward way to do it, to make a thing and put it out there and make it easy for people to share it around. But maybe that’s an obsolete idea now, with the internet being the way it is.
What attracted you to Creative Commons over any of the others? I don’t fully understand every small bit of licenses 4.3.7 and all the icons, cause it can get kinda granular the further down into Creative Commons you get.
ED: I haven’t really thought about it in a while. The thing I have set up on the website is Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license is what I think it’s called, which is like, people can share it around, just…non-commercial, attribution, share-alike, so people can share it, just don’t sell it and don’t say that you made it. That seems like an ideal set-up. It’s still under copyright, it’s still a thing that I made, this is just an after-the-fact kind of license on top of that. It always struck me as a humane way of putting work out there.
I’m personally a big fan of that, and I’m a librarian so we get to deal with a lot of the digital restrictions on materials.
ED: Oh yeah, I can’t imagine. It’s so stupid.
Yeah. I wish the public domain was a lot bigger.
ED: Yeah I have that thought. I have that thought a lot, haha.
Speaking of the public domain, you’ve taken a few public domain books and made illustrated editions for them. Why those books?
ED: That is a thing that makes me want the public domain to be bigger, absolutely. A few years ago, in 2014 or something, I did “The Wizard of Oz” and a couple years ago I did “Moby Dick.” I’d been wanting to do something like that for years and years with a public domain work. “Wizard of Oz” is just very loose and suggestive in a way that seemed like it would be extremely fun to illustrate and also build a visual logic in opposition to the thing that everybody thinks “The Wizard of Oz” looks like.Continued below
To kinda counter the movie?
ED: Yeah the movie and the original illustrations. There’s a narrow window in how people imagine that book looking and so it was fun to invent that from scratch. Although, that book is not one that I, I mean, I like that book but it’s not like a favorite book of mine or anything. But for “Moby Dick” I became deeply obsessed with it. Wild, hilarious, prophetic book. I had read it before but I re-read it with the intention of developing a visual presentation for it and it was like nothing else I had ever done.
It’s a really strange obsessive project. A whole lot of dense illustration and I spent a huge amount of time type-setting it because I’m very opinionated about type-setting and I’m disappointed to see how so many modern editions of that book in particular look. The first American edition is the one I was mostly referencing and there’s some very intentionally strange typesetting choices that I tried to replicate in a more modernized style. I kinda got more excited about that than the illustration after a certain point.
It was a fun project. I have a list of things I wanna do that with another time too. Who knows?
Could you give an example of one of those sections that was intentionally strangely type-set in that first edition?
ED: There’s a lot of asterisks used as spacers in a way that appears clunky or accidental but isn’t. There are a few things, almost an emoji like treatment of punctuation at some points, and then there’s this big section at the beginning, one of the introductory sections are a bunch of-
ED: Yeah, a comically large, like an intentionally comically large number of quotes pertaining to whales and then some stacked columns of the word “whale” in different languages, some of which I think are jokes. It’s all laid out in a very intentional way in the first edition and it often isn’t in later editions.
Later editions often think, I dunno, they’re not aware that it’s as self-concious it is. In general, the way that people talk about that book, they’re just not even taking into account that a person could be making a joke 150 years ago. There’s hilarious stuff in that book.
Like a joke at his own expense.
ED: Exactly. I’m always frustrated that people think we invented irony 20 years ago or whatever for the first time.
It is weird to consider “Moby Dick” or any classic as having irony that we might have now, maybe because the language used feels so foreign. It feels so formal but if you dig under the surface you’re like, “Oh, he’s making a joke here.”
ED: And it’s such a huge dense book that to read it all, you have to get into that mode where you can understand it, I guess. A lot of it too, and this is what struck me reading it for the first time, is that the way classic literature is talked about doesn’t allow for engagement of that sort. It’s supposed to be taken seriously as this monumental thing, as a cenotaph even, but it’s a pop cultural object and it’s making this really intentional and occasionally hilarious critique of the trajectory of American capital basically.
Great book. Highly recommend.
Do you have a favorite chapter?
ED: I probably do. The one I think about constantly is the one fairly early on, I forget what it’s called, but it’s a taxonomy of whales.
The Cetology chapter.
ED: Exactly! Where he’s going through, “these are all the types of whales because science can’t possibly understand a whale, I’ve invented my own taxonomy wherein I will compare them all to books.” It’s such a self-evident joke. I mean the whole book is about how inscrutable this horrible, monstrous, god-like thing is and at the beginning, before Ishmael has seen everyone around him killed struggling to understand that thing, he’s like “Oh I get it. It’s like a book. That thing you can read.”
It’s great but so many people drop out of the book at that point because it’s where it becomes not really a novel.Continued below
Once they’re on the journey, they’re kinda adrift for the rest of the book.
ED: Yeah. Occasionally adventure story things will happen to them but it’s just like, here’s a bit of an encyclopedia for you.
Here’s how the whaling works. It’s funny. That’s the same chapter and section that, whenever I think about the book, that’s what I think about.
ED: I think it’s the keystone, at least for my personal trajectory through it. I think about that bit all the time.
The best line in that is him basically saying, “They think this is a whale. They’re wrong. It’s just a funny looking fish.”
ED: When I was in “Moby Dick” discourse and obsessed with this book years ago, so many people on the internet that don’t understand that irony existed 150 years ago look at that and go “Oh, this is stupid. This guy is stupid. A whale is not a fish. We’ve solved the problem of whales. We’ve figured them out now.” But like, you’re just doing the Ahab thing man. You’re gonna get sunk, thinking you’ve figured it out.
You’re gonna get your leg eaten.
ED: Exactly. I’m so glad you’ve read “Moby Dick.”
Haha, yeah. My senior year undergrad, I had a class and the only thing we read was “Moby Dick.”
ED: That’s pretty cool.
My professor was like, “This is the only way to read it. If you’re reading it in high school, you’re not going to get it cause you’ve got six weeks to get through this book and you’re going to come away from it miserable.” So we were not allowed to read more than 20 pages at a time and we met three times a week and on the third meeting, we wouldn’t have any reading beforehand because we’d read a chapter aloud in class.
ED: Oh that’s cool. That’s a great way to do it. I would love to take that class.
Yeah, it was excellent. We have a few people who were like, I hate this book, because they had read it in high school and they got to the end and were like, well now I love this book. Just goes to show, sometimes you just need the right context to experience something.
ED: And it needs to be stripped away from its reputation – that book – in my experience.
I wonder what comics are like that. I wonder if there are any that have taken on such a cache around it that it’s hard to judge the work as the work.
ED: I dunno. I don’t read nearly enough comics. I thought “Maus” was a lot more slapdash and wild than its reputation suggests because that’s one of the big monolithic classics. People talk about “Watchmen” in a weird stuffy way.
With “Maus” it makes sense, cause the chapters were originally serialized in an underground magazine and put together over a few years.
ED: It’s weird to look at it as a graphic novel even, in the way people think of it now as a fully formed, structured like a novel thing.
In a same way as we think of a lot of Dickens’ works, which was published chapter by chapter.
ED: Oh yeah. That’s a great point. And you can see that in the structure when you read him. I haven’t read Dickens in a long time but that’s cool.
To close us out, and based on your last response whether or not you’ll have an answer is more out there, what are three webcomics you would recommend for fans of your work?
ED: Oof. Yeah, I’m not really up on webcomics. I like “Kill Six Billion Demons”. I like that a lot.
I just read Meredith Gran’s latest bit of “Octopus Pie”, which was a comic she was serializing for years and years that she returned to with sort-of an epilogue that is really beautiful. Not a lot of what she does is like what I do but she’s a fucking master of what she’s doing.
Yeah, I haven’t been reading webcomics at all. “Dragon Ball?” I’ve liked some of Tom McHenry’s recent stuff at noncanon.com. It’s not like one big project but I like the vibe of his comics a lot.