One of the great parts about interviewing authors is I'm constantly having to re-examine stereotypes and perceptions. For instance, I never really thought about cartoon books as an avenue for education on difficult subjects. But Larry Gonick, with his cartoon guides, has proven me wrong on that front.
Now we turn to Lloyd Dangle who, with his cartoon and book, Troubletown, has also forced me to think out of the box as I realize it's possible to write sharp barbs about the Bush administration and the war on a regular basis and still be funny. Think G.B. Trudeau's excellent Doonesbury strip (there's an author I'd LOVE to interview) meets the movie Network meets the documentary Control Room.
As with Larry Gonick, Lloyd Dangle is a sharp, witty cartoonist. Dangle frets, though, that he may best be known for doing the artwork for the Airborne product.
This is Dangle's third book. He has been writing this comic since 1988.
I told Dangle I was going to reference Larry Gonick and his Cartoon History of the World book in my review and asked what he thought of Gonick.
I'm a big fan of Larry Gonick and know him. He's so good, I'm surprised he's never taken on anything really ambitious. Come on, history of the universe? That's a topic you could just phone in, isn't it? Seriously, Larry was also a mentor to me when I was starting out. He's a nice guy. But I like Larry's comics not only because they are very smart and accomplished, but because he's one of the guys who create characters that are springy and alive, and throw in lots of good yuks and visual surprises, and it makes for good, classic cartooning.
And now on with the interview, which was done via email:
How did you come to be a cartoonist?
Odd as it sounds, I had a crazy image of myself being a cartoonist when I was a kid. I imagined I would have this really cool lifestyle where I sit around a groovy Manhattan apartment, smoking a pipe, being witty and urbane, and somehow wads of money would just flow in. After a lot of missteps and twists and turns I ended up doing almost exactly what I had pictured, except for the pipe and the Manhattan digs––and the money. Mostly, I have always been very good at ridiculing people and drawing portraits that exaggerate their flaws and sensitivities. These things in the normal world will get you fired or beaten up, but for a cartoonist they come in very handy. Lastly, I was born with a funny name, which tends to send one down a certain path, like for me it would have had to be circus clown, porn star, or cartoonist.
Did you draw about less controversial subjects first or was politics always your interest?
When I was younger I drew “relationship” comics. Love is a universal subject and I seemed to be so good at getting myself into screwed-up relationships that I became an expert in dysfunction. That kind of drama was very relevant to me, and the cartoons went over pretty well. Eventually I got into a healthy relationship––and nobody wants to read about that. I was so happy when my son, Oscar, was born, in fact, that I wrote three Troubletowns about being a new parent. Never have I received so much hate mail!
The truth is that I always write cartoons about what is relevant to me at the moment. With the worst president in history and our liberties and values under threat, I can hardly imagine writing cartoons about other things right now.
What’s it like to hear someone like the late great Molly Ivins praise you with the words on the back of the book?
Ivins wrote in this column:
While we have been absorbed in the silly circus of cultural issues and the riveting questions of the war, we've also been getting our pockets picked. Big time. I am impressed that cartoonist Lloyd Dangle in the strip "Troubletown" managed to get the whole problem into 12 panels, each announcing some piece of economic news accompanied by an American saying, essentially, "What, me worry?"
I always loved reading her columns; she knew her stuff and she had a great sense of humor. So, yes, it was fantastic. I didn’t beg her for the quote, either, it actually came from a column she wrote in which she used a cartoon of mine as the springboard for her lead. Somebody emailed me and said, “Have you read Molly Ivins’s latest column? She mentions you.” I couldn’t believe it. It was so cool.
What was your goal with this book? Did you accomplish it?
Since I draw Troubletown in weekly installments I’m never sure whether, taken all together, it forms a coherent story, or whether what I do is equivalent to the random neuron firings by a jellyfish being prodded by a stick. Well, to my surprise in editing this book, not only did it make a compelling document for our times, I discovered that I had been right about…everything! Even things I forgot being right about I had been right about.
In the book you mention at one point MTV refusing to show bands against the war. I wasn't sure if that really happened or was an exaggeration. Was it? And, more generally, is most stuff in your book factual except when labeled as such?
At the time I drew the one about MTV I would have been able to cite my source, but I can't now. I recall that Clear Channel refused to run anti war songs as well as another major radio chain. I may have lumped them together with MTV, but definitely there was a voluntary ban on anti-war songs by the big music media at the beginning of the Iraq war.
In general, I cite actual facts, but I also use extreme exaggerations, like having Bush casually claim that he is over fifteen feet tall. He didn't really do that but he might as well have. I wouldn't say that I always label it when I'm exaggerating, but I think it's always pretty obvious.
What would you like to be known for?
I’m afraid it is inescapable that I will be known for the cartoons on the box of Airborne. I fear that my gravestone will say, “created by a school teacher who was sick of catching colds.” Seriously, I think it will work itself out. My son is the only one who will be stuck with the psychic ramifications of knowing me, so in his case I hope I’m known for being fair and accepting and loving.
Who are YOUR favorite cartoonists?
Toles, Derf, Sipress, Olipant…those are ones I always have to read. There are a lot of terrifyingly good young whippersnappers coming up too. Iraq and George Bush haven’t just created the perfect breeding ground for Al Qaeda, they’ve trained a generation of political humorists!
Are there good conservative cartoonists or is that, like conservative documentary makers, an oxymoron or just bad results like with Millard Fillmore who is about as funny as, say, the war? Speaking of which, how do you make the war funny?
That is a good question. A lot of the cartoons on the daily comics page are what I would consider conservative. Blondie and Dagwood live in a world frozen in time–– a conservative utopia. It’s one of my all time favorites by the way. I have a poster by Jack Chick, the guy who does those tiny comic book religious tracts you find in bus stations and laundry mats. It’s a funny and elaborate picture making a weak argument against evolution. It ends with a fat academic-looking archaeologist praying to a statue of a monkey eating a banana. I had to take it down recently. It was getting stale.
The war is tragic. You would have to be an animal to make fun of someone being maimed or killed or dismiss someone’s suffering or loss. On the other hand, as part of the human condition, humor is on the same continuum. That’s what makes it funny to see a cartoon frog with its legs chopped off panhandling for nickels with a tin cup. It cannot be explained.
Oh, and do you have a favored presidential candidate based on who would be fun to draw and write about or do you not think about such things?
I like Fred Thompson. He just cracks me up whenever I think about him, and the way that some people think he’s a gorgeous movie star. If he gets elected it will be hard to enjoy Law and Order reruns, the same way, as a California resident, it is hard for me to enjoy Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. McCain is always a barrel of laughs. Hillary never disappoints. Mitt Romney would be a gift for cartoonists. The problem, I am anticipating, is that anyone elected, even a Republican, will invariably do something good, which will be such a departure from what we’re used to, it will make Americans go sappy and let down their guard.
The other thing I am anticipating is that when Hillary Clinton is elected it is not going to be easy for her to give up all the heightened powers that Bush has taken. How will she handle it?
How do you choose what topics to write about? Are there other topics you consider off limits to you or others? What is the best and worst part of your chosen genre?
Cartoons can be precise and can nail any topic when they are done well. I’m not saying mine always are, but the great ones can. I choose topics strictly by what is relevant to me personally at the moment. What is off limits, and, amazingly, a few cartoonists every year do this, is to draw a cartoon that is reminiscent old racist propaganda. You know, suddenly a big, smiling “darkie”, a greedy, hook-nosed jew, or inscrutable “oriental” appears in an editorial cartoon in 2007! Those things usually cause quite a stir and they should.
The genre of comics I think is pretty amazing. In fact after all these years it still surprises me that a few crude sequential pictures can tell a believable story. I don’t dwell too much on the negative aspects, the limitations for placement, the money, threatening emails, the times they reduce the size of my comics on the page so you have to use a magnifying glass to read them, did I mention the money?
What are you working on next?
I have an endless array of books and creative projects underway in my studio. I would tell you about them but then I would have to kill you. I am more secretive here than Pixar when it comes future releases. I HAVE to be, the imitators are so busy. I do have some jigsaw puzzles coming out this fall, from the company Bits and Pieces –– just in time for Christmas!
Thank you for the interview.