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Reliving History

It was a year that none of us will soon forget. It began with a mindblowing victory for Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses and unfolded into a tight, unbelievably fierce competition with former First Lady Hillary Clinton. And when the dust settled…Obama was the winner of the Democratic nomination. And that’s when things got really strange, as the election cycle truly began and Obama matched off against Republican nominee John McCain. We all know what happened next. Is it too soon to relive it? Not at all, if you’re looking at the graphic account of the entire election told in 08, new from journalist Michael Crowley and artist Dan Goldman (see an excerpt of it here).

Goldman is an artist, writer, and pioneer in the comics field. He’s the artist behind Shooting War, as well as one of the creators behind the comics collective ACT-I-VATE. Here, we discuss with artist Dan Goldman what it’s like to take a year of history in the making and turn it into a graphic recount of one of the most exciting times ever in politics, as well as the future of independent web comics and art in the digital age.
So, how do you prepare yourself to graphically document one of the most controversial and politically eventful years in recent history?
When we began work on 08, no one had any idea it was going to become this groundswell moment in history; in fact, our original cover for the book even featured Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. As the campaign’s story shifted, I’d thankfully sorted out my stylistic approach and was ready to close in on the historical meat of what this election became.
I began with an initial research period in the late summer of 2007, during which I read/watched several campaign memoirs like Boys on the Bus, Journeys with George, The War Room, and Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (clearly my favorite; it just bleeds energy), and incorporated a heavy political-reading load via RSS as well. Michael and I swapped news sources/tips/comics to learn more about what the other does and how to funnel our strengths into a more unified vision.

From the moment we first sat down, I had a very clear idea about the sort of book I wanted to do, design-wise and storytelling-wise…so there were months of digesting various visual inspiration, lots of old campaign materials as well, giving earlier drafts of the book a more retro-’60s/’70s design quality. Once the strength of Obama’s design became so clearly of-the-moment, I reworked my layouts to ground everything in a clean and modern 2008, letting the illustrations be gritty/noir/strange while sitting in a handsome design container.
Are you a fan of campaign-trail memoirs and other political books? If so, what did you like about them, and how do you think the genre works in the graphic novel format?
Hunter S. Thompson likens campaigns to football seasons, which really worked as an analogy for me; I’m not a sports fan but definitely an armchair sociologist…. So for me the buzz is less in the adrenalin of victory/loss and more in the context of how the race sets other things in motion. I view the words-and-pictures language of comics to work for just about anything; in Japan, they have sections of manga about horses or golf; I’m much more interested in using its tools to tell a good story in an interesting new way.
Tell us a little bit about 08. How did it come together?
I believe its genesis involved from our editor Sean Desmond and my agent Bob Mecoy in a New York City bar, discussing how comics would be the ideal vehicle for a campaign memoir; both Crowley and I were brought in as the idea gelled and after our first lunch together, it was clear to me we were going to do something very special and new together.
Do we have enough perspective at this point on the campaign?
Enough perspective for a capture-it-as-it-happens docu-comic, yes; for a long-view analysis of this-is-what-happened-and-thus-these-things-about-our-world-changed, I think we’re all still a bit fresh yet. What was important to me, my mission statement even, was to find the essential story in what was developing and make it visually interesting to read and reread.
What was the hardest moment of the campaign to depict in graphic form?
This isn’t a moment per se, but I found Joe Biden really challenging to draw; the other “players” all have their signature visual cues that make them so instantly recognizable. But Biden, I really worked to make him read as Biden. Every time he appears in the book, I had to draw him several times to get the subtle nuances of his face.
You describe your artwork on 08 as “a mashup of sequential narrative and graphic design.” Can you explain what you mean by that and what that entails?
Being the kind of book it is, I wanted 08 to draw from both comics and newspapers/magazines in the hopes that someone who’d never read a 160-page comic could pick it up and not feel the room spinning as they tried to navigate the pages. Using big bold text as design elements throughout (not just as titles) makes it both familiar and chock-full of information.
You’re also the artist for the acclaimed graphic novel series Shooting War. Do you think the graphic format lends itself well to sociopolitical commentary?
I think comics have a magic all their own; Shooting War is a political commentary and also an action flick…and comics as a medium is particularly well-suited to do both of those at once.
What’s your background? What was your training in drawing and design?
I’ve been a doodler since diapers and I’m otherwise self-taught. I’ve been writing stories for just as long, but the art side had always been a bit frustrating, never coming out how I wanted it. My work is entirely digital now, drawn on a touchscreen with a Wacom pen in Adobe Illustrator, and since “going digital” I’ve been able to render the stuff of my imagination. It’s been a few years of practice (and I could do with a few more to get where I want to be with it), but I’m enormously grateful to live in a time where these infinitely expandable tools are available to me to work in new ways.
Who were your influences in the field?
I read mostly Japanese manga and European cartoonists for enjoyment, but the ones who’ve really wormed their way into my own work are creators like Naoki Urasawa, Joann Sfar, Rick Vietch, Will Eisner, Bryan Talbot, Bill Sienkiewicz, Kazuo Umezu, Jonathan Hickman, Taiyo Matsumoto, and Brendan McCarthy.
How long have you been a comics fan? What was your first comic book or graphic novel?
I’ve been reading comics since about the age of five; the first one I remember reading was a Captain Marvel comic I saw at a neighbor’s house in Detroit around 1979. Since then, they’ve been a constant in my life; I studied film at university, but I think deep down I knew it would always be comics.
You were one of the founding members of ACT-I-VATE, a web comics collective of independent writers and artists. What kind of freedom does that format offer you? Do you think it offers a positive wave of comics art and storytelling for the future?
Webcomics’ biggest strength is that you’re publishing yourself, immediately. I self-published books for a few years and it was really difficult; electronic publishing is just easier and cheaper, and your distribution is instant and global. Of course, that means there’s going to be a lot more comics floating around, but work always finds its audience…and online it’s even easier to find and build yours. That simple distinction is going to change the kind of comics that can and will be made, now and further down the line…and that is a very, very good thing. People associate comics with superheroes; that’s mostly because until about 15 years ago, that was the only way you could get paid to draw them. That’s changing significantly now.
What are you working on next?
Up next I’ve got a few original online comics premiering over the next few weeks: a psychedelic sci-fi/political story about President Obama’s first term coinciding with the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, which is running on the day before the inauguration. T hen an autobiographical story about an old next door neighbor of mine in Brooklyn that runs on the first Tuesday in February. Beyond that, I’m spending some lovely mornings writing two very different ongoing comic series for two very different artist friends that are absolutely s---loads of fun.

My next proper graphic novel that I’m writing and drawing myself is the first in a series of real estate horror-drama stories called Red Light Properties that I’ve been developing in the background for several years now.

-- John Hogan