an interview with Ottawa artist Dave Cooper
Probably the most active writer/artist in underground comics over the past few years, Dave Cooper is the creator of various books and serials, including the Harvey Award-nominated Suckle: The Status of Basil, Crumple, Pip & Norton (with Gavin McInnis), and Dan & Larry in Don’t Do That! His work has appeared in various formats, from publications by Fantagraphic Books to appearances in Montreal’s Vice magazine, Dark Horse Extra, Scatterbrain, and Zero Zero. He has done work for Owl magazine (“Dr. Zed”), and designs for Matt Groening’s Futurama. His current project is the ongoing series Weasel, the new issue of which features Cooper’s fine art oil paintings, with an introduction by David Cross, that has already gone into a second printing. The Weasel serial, Ripple, appeared as a collection in July, 2003, with an introduction by David Cronenberg. Dave Cooper lives in Ottawa with his wife, Julie, and their toddler, Jacob Nathan Parker Cooper, born April 15, 2003. This interview was conducted over email, starting just before Jake’s birth, as Julie was already a week past her due date.
rob mclennan: First off, how the hell did you get an introduction for Weasel #6 (a.k.a. Overbite) by David Cross (from HBO's Mr. Show)?
Dave Cooper: I introduced myself to David in the hotel lobby of the San Diego Comic Book Convention last summer. He's a big comic book enthusiast. I'd seen him and a number of the other "Mr. Show" guys at San Diego in past years. I remember, about 5 or 6 years ago I was at a Fantagraphics Books party in San Diego. I squeezed my way into a circle of people that were listening to Bob Odenkirk recall his days on Saturday Night Live. I was way too shy to let him know how much I loved Mr. Show. During a lull in the chatter, I was frozen staring at him smiling insanely and giggling a little. I must have looked like I wanted to lick him. I’m sure I totally creeped him out. Luckily he had no idea who I was. So when I saw David last year, I resolved to introduce myself like a normal human being. I mean, most people would be excited to see Madonna, or Brad Pitt, or somebody like that, but I couldn't give a shit about them... I guess David IS my Madonna. anyway, he was very friendly and welcoming for somebody who obviously isn't that at ease being accosted by strangers. It turned out he was already familiar with my work. When it came time to put out my first full-colour, coffee table artbook of Paintings, he was the first person who came to mind to write the introduction. especially since I knew he was as good a writer as he is a comedian. His monthly column in Vice magazine kills me.
rm: Your vision in Crumple and parts of Weasel seem both futuristic and post-apocalyptic in an unreal, even surreal way while maintaining a gleeful innocence. How is that balance maintained? As well, it makes the fact that you work for Futurama entirely appropriate. Does one feed off the other?
DC: it's more a case of either one becoming excruciatingly boring to me without the other. in the past I’ve always wanted a lot of that sort of contrast in all my stories. I find it puts the reader off balance a little, puts them in a position where they're not quite sure what to expect. and to me that's the perfect place to be as a reader. I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of cute with savage. like the first time, as a little kid, that you see your nice little kitty tear the head off a mouse and suddenly look like it might tear your fingers off if you interfere... but I’m starting to be able to separate the cute and the savage into their own distinct projects- for instance, "Ripple" is pretty unrelentingly dark and nasty. but to offset that, I’m in the midst making children's books, and comics for kids.
rm: It reads as though you revel in these contradictions, between innocence and desire, and humiliation, degradation and unmentionable sexual fixations, the, as you say, "cute with savage."
DC: Yeah, I do. Come to think of it, it's probably the one driving interest in all of my adult work. the ugliness in beauty and the beauty in ugliness as David Cross put it in the introduction. like how a bug or a wound can be sublime in their own way. or how a pretty girl or flower can be almost repellent they're so obvious about their beauty...
rm: What is it about the tensions between the two that fuels your work?
DC: It's just that give and take, I guess. Like your point of reference is always changing or something. I don't know that I'm SUCCESSFUL with that, but certainly that's what I'm AFTER. Maybe it's an attempt to mirror that ambiguity in reality. the pretty things don't always equal good, and the ugly things don't always mean jeopardy. If I could infuse all my work with some of that sentiment I'd be happy.
rm: The anthology format of the first few issues of Weasel had a number of stories running through, and other oddbits, including the five-chapter "Ripple." Why did you go this route instead of the single-story per issue?
DC: Again, it's a way of avoiding tedium. I really love using different drawing styles and techniques, and telling different kinds of stories, but I can only tolerate working in any given style for about a week or two at the most. At that point, I suddenly HATE any style, but I’m ACHING to work in some other style. Then the same thing happens in a week or two. So I’m constantly going from one project to the next. By starting up "Weasel" and forcing myself to serialize 2 or 3 different stories at once, I’m really making my restlessness into a strength rather than a weakness.
rm: It was once said of the London, Ontario artist Greg Curnoe, that he was worth watching (partly) because you didn't know what he'd do next. Is this the same kind of logic you work from?
DC: The combined elements of boredom (multiple projects at once) and keeping a reader guessing? I really hope that's the case. I'm always a bit shy to claim that sort of thing, because the really savvy reader may not find any of my work surprising at all. but yes, to me that would be the ultimate. Often the only visceral reactions I get from art are when either the expected, or the unexpected happen. The former gives me a disappointed, queasy feeling and the latter can make my heart race and make me want to create.
rm: You seem to employ a range of styles of drawing and storytelling, multi-tasking (at one point) three very different serials for various anthologies: "Dan & Larry" in Dark Horse Presents, "Crumple" in Zero Zero, and the all-ages "Pip & Norton" in a slew of publications from Dark Horse, including Scatterbrain, Guff and Dark Horse Extra, as well as Montreal's Vice magazine...
DC: Yeah, that was before I started Weasel. Before I came to the revelation that I needed to find a way of bringing all my different projects under one banner so that people would be aware of what I was doing. I remember during that time being so frustrated because even though I was productive as hell, a lot of people weren't aware of it. They'd only really notice the work once each body of work was collected into their own separate graphic novels. "Dan & Larry" was the most pronounced example of that. The story was serialized in about five 12-page installments, and it was probably the most disturbing, heartfelt story I'd ever done. But there was almost no response to the work because it was serialized in this awful, mainstream comic anthology. The only reason I got that gig in the first place was because an editor at Dark Horse Comics loved my work. When I finally collected all the installments into the "Dan & Larry" graphic novel, people loved it. It was so weirdly gratifying to get that delayed reaction, something like 3 or 4 years after the fact.
rm: When composing, how does the story impact upon the style of artwork, and does one come first, or are they concurrent?
DC: They're pretty concurrent. Usually my stories grow out of a character sketch that I’ve doodled. Then most of the story elements come together when I’m walking. For whatever reason, a particular character or mood will possess me, and that will be all I can think of as I’m walking around town. Everything I see will suddenly start relating to the ideas that are bouncing around in my head. It will become like a snowball rolling down a hill. The actual act of writing is just a necessary evil for me. Getting important dialogue or "stage direction" onto the page so I can start to make drawings. I really hate writing - except maybe for emails and travel journals - but writing fiction takes too much patience and thought. I prefer for my drawings to make their own subtext. it just comes out of nowhere, like I’m an idiot savant.
rm: You seem adept at creating fantastical machines, and odd creatures such as "Larry" (from Dan and Larry in Don't Do That!). Where does this fascination with strange technologies come from?
DC: That almost certainly comes from my Dad. he's a very talented jack of all trades. retired now, but still making all sorts of interesting things. When I was growing up he was the town doctor in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. He's the type of man who always has to be busy. he always built boats when we were in the Maritimes, and also always had a machine shop in the basement where he'd make machine parts and construct little contraptions for fun. Like little cars, or miniature steam engines. I mean steam engines actually worked! As a kid, I was always fascinated with that stuff, but unlike my older brothers, I had absolutely ZERO aptitude for mechanical things. or for anything other than drawing for that matter. I’m the same way now. And I was always a terrible student, a high school drop-out. But that fascination for complex machinery and industrial design just seems to get more and more pronounced over the years. It's become a really important part of my work. it crops up all over the place, even when I don't mean for it to.
rm: Where did the Weasel features "Television program x-32b" and the "Encyclopedia Nonsensica" come from?
DC: The “Television program x-32b" is really like a dream diary for me in a way. Part dream diary, part exercise in non sequitur bullshitting. It's actually one of my favorite parts of Weasel. It's the one thing that I could see myself doing now and again for the rest of my career. It's actually fun to get in that headspace and just be surprised by what I find there. The protagonist is Eddy, and he just lives in this puzzling world where nothing seems to make sense, yet everything is logical in its own way. Usually the stories stem from some snippet of a dream that sticks with me, or a handful of them, but then I treat the snippet like any other story idea, and freely fictionalize it or twist it, then I almost unthinkingly string them together with a bunch of other nonsense and see what happens. The one drawback to that stuff is that it's incredibly draining to illustrate. Drawing even a 7-page story can feel like writing a novel! The "Encyclopedia Nonsensica" stuff is really just messed up eye candy. those contraptions began as sketchbook improvisation. Just sitting and making up the most implausible machines or vegetation that I could come up with, then rendering them as realistically and plausibly as possible. I was obsessed with that for a while. I wanted to finally have a 300-page book out of it. But after five issues of Weasel (about 7 or 8 pages of "Encyclopedia Nonsensica"), I think I’ve had my fill. I suppose that work really stemmed from my childhood fascination with my Dad's crazy machines and also the garden sketching that I used to do with my Mum at a very young age.
rm: How do you think being a father will alter what you do? The need and want has already appeared in places here and there, but do you think this will change anything, or simply focus what has already appeared?
DC: Spoken like a fellow father, rob. I worried about this a lot up until a few days ago- I worried that I might lose interest in work, that all my thoughts would be with my son. But now I know that the love of your offspring isn't taken from some other part of your heart. It appears out of nowhere. It's like blowing more air into a balloon that was only half full to begin with. All my other interests are still there, and they even seem more -yes, "focused" is the perfect word.
rm: I remember being extremely disappointed when Gavin McInnis stopped doing his Pervert Comics...
DC: Me too! but I admired him for the decision. it reminded me of when I quit drums so that I could devote myself to my art rather than dividing my time.
rm: How did the Pip and Norton collaboration begin?
DC: Gavin and I became friends through our comics, it was at a time before email when there was this really healthy community of comic artists who were prolific letter writers. It was at a time when I was beginning to gain a bit of notoriety in the industry- I was beginning to get a lot offers to do really short stories for a number of Dark Horse anthologies. They were all-ages books, so I wanted to do some light, funny pieces. ...light and funny is not my forté... so I called Gavin and suggested that we create some characters together that we could wheel out whenever I was offered that kind of work. I've always preferred to somehow turn any minor gig into a small piece of some future collection- it helps my motivation. So we made all these short stories and strips and mini-serials with a view to collecting them one day. Now, five years later that's happened. A nice little 72-page collection, Completely Pip and Norton.
rm: Will there be any other collaborations on the horizon, whether with Gavin or anyone else?
DC: For now Gavin and I are just concentrating on more possible Pip and Norton projects, but it's certainly possible that we could do something else together. He's just about the funniest person I could imagine, and his imagination is so fertile it's scary. But as far as other collaborators, yeah- I'm thinking about that more and more. I'm thinking of making a series of children’s books eventually, each written by a different author. Also, if I get more deeply into tv or film, that will definitely bring with it lots of collaboration. I welcome that. It's a great way to distinguish between my personal Art and my Artful commercial work.
rm: Do you notice a shift in your work through working with someone else?
DC: yes, it automatically makes me more objective and gives me a healthy distance from the work. which is great for certain things. generally anything that I want to be more accessible in one way or another. the work I do purely for myself is almost defiantly inaccessible at times. and I love that. but there's another part of me that really enjoys the idea of making work that not only a hardcore fan would love.
rm: With Weasel being an umbrella for everything you do, how far do you see the series going?
DC: Barring poor sales or boredom on my part, I can see using the Weasel name forever. It may as well be called, "what's in Dave's head at the moment". I was really gratified by the good response from my latest Weasel, which doesn't even have any COMICS in it. It's just a book of paintings. It's really exciting to think of Weasel as not stubbornly comics, but as absolutely anything.
rm: Does this then become your "main" project?
DC: Yeah, in a way. Certainly for my adult, personal work anyway. It's like an illustrated diary or self-analysis. Not necessarily for consumption by the masses.
rm: What other projects are you currently working on?
DC: Right now I'm taking a short hiatus from work while I look after my wife Julie and newborn, Jake. Jake was just born five days ago by caesarian, so I'm in another world right now. It's interesting to be doing this interview actually because it's the only work-related thing I'm doing right now. It's fun to talk about it while I'm totally disinterested in it. It gives me a bit of objectivity. It's neat.
rm: What would you like to be working on that you haven't yet?
DC: I'm so fortunate to be doing so many of the things I've always wanted to. Mainly I'd just like to continue improving at what I do and getting more and bigger opportunities. But to answer your question; kid's books, animation, and maybe even film one day.
rm: Is there anyone who’s work you've seen lately that you'd recommend?
DC: To be honest I haven't looked at anything in ages. when I finished Weasel #5, I totally dropped out of thinking about or reading fiction. with the exception of hours and hours of bad tv. my brain has needed to be turned off for a while. Now with the new baby, I'm getting totally re-charged in a brand-new way. I can't wait to see what happens next. I may just paint from now on. or maybe some new story will start forming. either way, I'll be happy.
rm: Finally, I’m interested in that question that David Cross posed in his Weasel introduction: what is it about kitchens?
DC: I don't know. They're the first thing I tidy if I want the apartment to feel sane. Like the household equivalent of straightening your hair. They're the most comforting place in the home. They're full of neat contraptions. As a child, they're where you first see a loving female figure going about the job of sustaining you. As an adult, they're where the nourishment is kept. They're warm yet hard. But all that jibberish aside, they're an amazing visual backdrop for the female form; the exact opposite of the tired draped bed or lush pasture. Those are just plain redundant-- soft things on soft things. A hard, almost institutional backdrop for soft pink flesh is what it's all about to my way of thinking. More of that contrast we talked about, I guess.
This interview originally appeared in Broken Pencil