By Peter Birkemoe
Dave Lapp is an illustrator and comic artist. His first book, Drop-In, an autobiographical look at his time teaching cartooning to underprivileged children, was nominated for a Doug Wright Award and an Ignatz Award. He has also been contributing to this magazine since 2000, most notably via the full-page version of People Around Here. His strip Children of the Atom ran on a weekly basis in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight from 1998 to 2003. His new book, Children of the Atom (Conundrum, 2010), collects this five-year run. He discussed the work recently with Peter Birkemoe, owner of the Beguiling comic shop.
Peter Birkemoe: I want to ask you first about the unique technical approach to this comic. Children of the Atom is very, very different from your previous book, Drop-In, or any of the other mini-comics that I’ve seen from you over the years, and you’ve told me your working approach was much different.
Dave Lapp: When I first created the strip, I was attending the University of Western Ontario, studying psychology. I worked on the student paper there, the Gazette. The cartoon I’d done prior to Children of the Atom was a gross, horrible, embarrassing thing, but I crafted it really well. I’m right-handed, and I penciled everything with my right hand and inked everything with my right hand. And after doing that for a couple of years, I had an urge to create something completely different. Around that time I began reading [Chester Brown’s] Ed the Happy Clown and other alternative comics like Raw, and my best solution to doing something different was to write and draw the rough work with my left hand, and the finished work I would do with my right.
P.B.: What made you think using your left hand would produce as dramatic and interesting a result as it did?
D.L.: I probably flipped though [Betty Edwards’] Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain at the bookstore. But it dawned on me that my left hand has these certain capabilities that it has learned from the opposite hemisphere of my brain. I wanted to do something so foreign, so strange, that nobody would guess I drew it. People would come into the office and say, “Oh, that stupid cartoon, it’s so weird.” They kind of hated it, but were intrigued by it at the same time.
P.B.: Those strips are not reprinted in the book, but they’re similar in character?
D.L.: They have the same kind of surreal world or philosophical curiosity, but I didn’t know what I was really doing then. I had the merest gist of it.
P.B.: There’s a gap between the strips done at Western and when the strips we see here began appearing in the Georgia Straight, in 1998. What happened during that gap?
D.L.: The gap . . . . I felt I had something really good with Children of the Atom, and I wanted to make sure I kept it out of OCAD [Lapp began attending the then-named Ontario College of Art in 1988]. Nothing against OCAD , but Children of the Atom is mine, and I didn’t want to submit it as a project, or have people tinker with the concepts or ideas and help me develop it. I wanted to protect it.
P.B.: There’s a considerable amount of emotional exploration, or soul-baring, in the strip. The concept of art therapy is pretty well accepted, but I want to discuss this idea of art therapy in a public forum. This is cathartic or therapeutic art, but it’s done in a way so it’s out there for all the world to see. Was that an important part of the project, or something you contemplated when you set out?
D.L.: I did not realize how intimate it would become. But I do know that the re-genesis of Children of the Atom was definitely caused by the termination of a long-term relationship, in which things just got worse, and worse, and worse.
P.B.: Well, relationship dynamics are kind of at the heart of the strip. We have two characters, Franklin-Boy and Jim-Jam Girl, who each have a very specific emotional profile. Was this a single relationship then that lasted from the beginning of these cartoons to the end of it? I mean, nine years is a pretty long time, and it seems that the creative genesis from beginning to end could all fit within that.
D.L.: The original strips at Western would have been around five years into the relationship, which was in 1988. When I was in my fourth year at OCAD , in 1992, that’s when the breakup occurred. Not to be melodramatic, but I seriously underestimated the effect ending a nine-year relationship would have on me. As I graduated art school, whatever dreams and hopes I had of being with that person and having that life were gone. I did Children of the Atom because I decided to process it with those two little characters. It became a much bigger area of exploration, starting from the point where I had just assumed I knew everything about relationships, and my assumptions created a feeling of total control, and then when everything collapses you suddenly find out what you don’t know. I decided to process everything through the comic strip because it was the only outlet that seemed true to me.
P.B.: How did it end up at the Georgia Straight?
D.L.: Using my protectionist attitude, I drew maybe fifty or sixty strips to make sure I had it up and running the way I wanted, whether it was accepted or not. I certainly didn’t consider it a graphic novel, or that I would do two hundred and forty of them, but I knew I was going to continue with them, with or without publication. I mailed it out to some papers, and the Georgia Straight accepted it and started printing it once a week, in 1998. It was in Vancouver, so I wouldn’t even see the paper. It was out there and I was guessing that people read it. I just kept cranking them out.
P.B.: So, in terms of the need for an audience, there’s an assumption of one there as you’re doing the work, but there’s not necessarily a guarantee. Was there any interaction at all, even with an editor, or the people you’re sending it to? Was there ever any feedback?
D.L.: No. That was one of the things I thought was great—there was no particular commenting or critiquing or editing. I just sent them in as is, and they printed them as is. It seems unbelievable to me now.
P.B.: Did your relationship to the strip or the work change at all once you did start hearing from people?
D.L.: Things changed when I started publishing mini-comics. For four weeks, right around Christmas, I would have one sentence, about a millimetre high, beneath the cartoon, advertising my mini-comics. You know, send your name to my address, and I’ll send you one for five bucks. People would order the comic, but some would include letters, and they were really personal, saying how this cartoon resonated, or they hung it on their locker, or they were going through this bad patch, which in terms of feedback is amazing. I still find it remarkable, because they were hand-written letters. Maybe it’s because people don’t really do that any more, but back then, just getting those handwritten letters—and they’re buying the comic!—that was a major, major turning point, and very encouraging.
P.B.: You mentioned some influences that are more obvious on the surface in terms of design—Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown—and that affected your perception of what kind of comics you could do. Can you tell me what influences of yours you see most in Children of the Atom?
D.L.: Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan, for sure. And the other one was Lynda Barry. She had Ernie Pook’s Comeek running in Now, and even though she would have narratives, which all seemed kind of goofy on the surface, her drawing and writing styles were very deceptive. Some of the issues she was dealing with in the cartoon had remarkable emotional clout, and my response to it was, I like Mark Beyer’s graphics and bleak world view, but I really like Lynda Barry’s heart. She communicated warmth, emotion, and care, and had a subtext dealing with more difficult issues that she never made obvious.
P.B.: I guess the other similarity to Beyer is that where Lynda Barry’s characters are very easily recognizable as real children, Beyer’s Amy and Jordan are not quite as easily imagined as real people. Franklin-Boy and Jim-Jam Girl have very human personalities and characteristics, but there’s no confusing them with actual people, or the landscape they inhabit with our world.
D.L.: Some of the things I did with Children of the Atom were definitely on a subconscious level, and by calling them “children” I felt more comfortable that a lot of the issues communicated as symbols or metaphors could be adult issues expressed in a childlike way. You would accept their language, you’d accept their naïveté, you’d accept their innocence, because they’re kids.
P.B.: It’s unusual for someone to choose a comic to work through emotional concepts or ideas and to work out individual emotions and interpersonal relationships on a reductive fundamental level— not that there aren’t other comics that have real emotional resonance. Did that seem odd to you approaching it, or are comics simply your chosen medium.
D.L.: I think it’s the chosen medium. While going through OCAD, one of the things I made sure to do was take all kinds of courses outside my program—fine arts, print-making, experimental arts, I wanted to see everything. My vague sense of what it meant to be an artist was just to be some kind of a commercial artist. I don’t want to sound highfalutin, but I think I approach the comic more as a fine artist, and it really doesn’t matter whether it’s economically viable—you have your other job to support it.
P.B.: You touched there on this not being particularly commercial for what we think of as a conventional strip—having a certain rhythm and presence of a punchline. You’ve created a comic strip that definitely doesn’t deliver, and perhaps uses that expectation to an effect by not specifically being funny. It plays with people’s expectations by not being something that reads simply, having a linguistic inversion to it. This is not an easy or immediate read. It feels like there’s a meaning to these strips, but it is not consistently obvious. Can you talk a little bit about some of those barriers to the reader, particularly in the language?
D.L.: I had a pretty crystallized mindset when I entered OCAD. I was coming from university, where you have structure. Going to OCAD and learning about art was very different. There was a teacher named Ross Mendes who I was fortunate to have in my first year. One of the concepts he talked about was ambiguity. He said, “People are very uncomfortable with ambiguity. They want things clear: one plus one is two, A, B, C, D.” And it fascinated me that art could be so ambiguous, without a clear end, or you have to interpret it, or there are multiple interpretations. So I wrote the language in the strip that way because I felt some of the stuff I was dealing with was so agonizing and embarrassing and shameful and awkward, that if I told it straight, it would maybe seem maudlin or self-pitying. And then if people actually get it, and if they’ve had anything like that experience, maybe they’ll have the same sense of calm or clarity. Just for a moment.
P.B.: These strips are meant to be processed and read as a weekly strip. This is not a graphic novel. To sit down and read these beginning to end, it’s a little too much to process. But it’s hard to put the book down and not sit there and read it page after page.
D.L.: I think it can be read through as a whole, because it’s not supposed to be one long narrative. I had a sketchbook in which I had hundreds of these strips written, and then I would choose certain ones at random to make into final art. But I was very careful to make sure that all of them were properly sequenced in the book based on when I wrote them. My hope was that while going through this long, agonizing process of self-examination there just might be some strange revelatory undercurrent that I didn’t even know I was expressing. Aspects of my life, my comics . . . it’s approach and resolve, approach and resolve, approach and resolve, like going up stairs, slowing taking steps toward resolution.
P.B.: It doesn’t seem like the characters are nearing that resolve, but as a reader you’re nearing that resolve for what you’re learning from their interaction. We don’t see these characters grow in the way that it seems you are growing in your understanding in creating these strips, or that the reader might.
D.L.: Basically what was happening was, I was pretty seriously depressed, and after being with a woman for nine years then having to go out and date again, I had no idea what neuroses and insecurities I’d developed, and processing these issues while trying to date was disastrous. However, I really thought that by letting everything out, reasoning and talking with friends and family, processing with women, and drawing the cartoon, that somehow I could resolve everything on my own and not have to go into therapy. The cartoon was a way of externally manifesting these things into a concrete form. By doing it over and over like meditation, I would finally achieve some enlightenment. The catch is that at some point I realized I didn’t. I resolved some things, but not enough, and the bad things were somehow closing in. And they were closing in in such a way that whatever resolve I thought I was achieving, there’s another sort of insidious presence. And it’s often with Franklin-Boy, that little shadow figure that comes out of him. And that insidious presence, I don’t think that ever goes away. You know when there’s a shift, and you shouldn’t be this low, and you’ve gone a step lower, and you know you shouldn’t be that step lower. That’s when I needed to seek professional help.
P.B.: We talked a little bit about the two characters, but there are other recurring elements. One of them is the box, and the other, toward the end of the book, is the black ball.
D.L.: The ball was basically all I felt was dark: bad, difficult thoughts and actions that were bothering me quite a bit. Franklin-Boy is basically showing it to Jim-Jam Girl, basically just showing it off. And I had felt, that even prior to having therapy, I wasn’t showing it off to anybody. When I was talking to friends and family, I was showing it to them, but putting it back. So that dark ball was when I was seeing a therapist and hoping to genuinely resolve something I was unable to with friends or family.
P.B.: To some extent, you are known now as the guy that did the Drop-In book, which is a very specific approach to cartooning, and one I think people can engage in without as much thought. You can pick up that book and know what it’s about. In your work going forward, are you likely to revisit the style or approach of Children of the Atom, or is this something you’re dropping?
D.L.: The next book I’m working on is not going to be strange like Children of the Atom. It’s more conventional. To revisit Children of the Atom, I don’t know if I could. There’s two hundred and forty strips there, there’s probably at least another two hundred to three hundred that are written that I never drew.
P.B.: Is the therapeutic quality for you the fact that you are, though the arts, having the courage to talk about the issue, or is it that you’re spending a certain amount of time with the issue, and therefore having a better perception of it through this process?
D.L.: Yeah, when I go through and I look at those strips, there are certain ones where I will look at it and think I did it just right. I carefully codified it, I carefully drew it, and everything has the right emotion and the right body language, the darkness, the shadow, the symbol, and when I look at it it feels done. I feel like that issue—I might not remember directly what it relates to, but I know I’ve resolved it. Yet at the same time, regardless of the difficulty of the problem, you might just think, “Oh that looks nice.” But for me, I’m aware of the agony that went into it. This many years later there is some calm and a quality of resolution. I think that anybody who does art, if you feel like you’ve really done it and you’ve hit your best level of self-expression, even if nobody else gets it, you’ll get that feeling. If you really know that thing you’re dealing with and you know exactly what’s going on and exactly what it relates to, and exactly what you’ve released or processed, then that gives you that feeling of calm or clarity or certainty, and those are rare moments in life.
(Originally published Christmas, 2010.)