Dada Dearest: An Interview with the Dada Detective Creators

Tales of the Dada Detective have been delighting readers for some time, with a talkative mime, a mad scientist paranoid about Eli Whitney, and a main character who looks like the Man with the Yellow Hat gone noir. David Milloway, Matt Wood, and Stephanie Freese, the creators of this rather unique strip, gave us the following interview.

So, how did — and which one of you — first come up with the idea for Dada Detective?

David: After finishing Chocolypse Now, we were looking to try something a little different. A friend pointed us towards a local news rag called the Independent. They were looking to start up a full-tilt comics page and wanted to fill it with work by local artists, partly to give the artists some exposure, partly because local artists come cheap.

So we brainstormed awhile and I hit upon an idea for a gag-a-day strip called Likely Stories, a four panel comic that would tell little odd and improbable tales with a sort of deadpanned Jack Handy-ish narrator. I tossed together a few strips, one about a guy being haunted by a hairy yeti-like thing that ended up liking frappes and scaring away door to door salesman, another about the failed first inventions of history’s greatest inventors, featuring Eli Whitney’s famed "Cotton Puncher." Matt and Steph liked the idea, but the project never really gelled.

But one strip in particular sparked Steph’s imagination. It was about the narrator’s odd experience going to view an independent movie called, "The Dada Detective." Steph worked up some character sketches of a chisel-chinned detective, a smiling mime, a crazy mad scientist, and a cute little duck named Alistair. She showed them to Matt and I at our next meeting and posed the question, "What if we were to do the movie instead?" We loved the concept and the sketches. Together, the three of us brainstormed names and personalities and came up with our first mystery:

A heretical talking mime hires a hardboiled P.I. to track down her missing duck. Hilarity ensues.

Matthew: There was also a certain amount of inevitability to "The Dada Detective." Dave and I keep coming up with variations on the hard-boiled genre, so we obviously needed to get it out of our system(s).

Tell us a little about yourselves that might not be well known.

Stephanie: You can kill me by feeding me peanuts. Or tree nuts. In fact, you—you with the peanut M&Ms, get away from the screen. Right now.

David: I was trained as a high school English teacher, then did what everyone with a liberal arts degree did back in 97: I got a job in computers. Also, there’s titanium in my big toe. Not many people are aware of that.

Matthew: I get to quote The Matrix and not lie. "I know kung fu."

How did you meet? When did you decide to collaborate?

Matthew: The Residential College at UNC-Greensboro is the real nexus point for us. Steph and I have known each since high school—our brothers were best friends before we ever met—and I really got to know Dave after I’d already left RC. Even so, I think Residential College is the nexus that drew the three of us together. We had a lot of common friends there, and that’s where Steph and I first became close.

Stephanie: Matt and Dave worked for a while on convincing me that I should give this comics thing a go. About 6 years ago I decided to try illustrating one of their short stories, and while I think we all agree that the end result was not our finest, it also inspired us to try again. More shorts followed, and then on to The Dada Detective.

David: Well, I was going to talk about how all our fathers were killed by the villainous mutated monster known only as The Indestructi-Bull, and so united by a thirst for vengeance, we three banded together, trained for years and years, and then brought the burly beast to justice by the creative use of a red cape and a howitzer.

Seems rather pointless now, though.

I love your art – your main character is sort of a film noir version of the Man in the Yellow Hat. What artists influenced you?

Stephanie: I have several illustrator heroes. Edward Gorey is a huge influence, of course. Charles Vess, Carla Speed McNeil, Bill Watterson, and Darby Conley are all at the top of the list. I have a BFA in painting, so there are numerous painters I admire, especially those who worked extensively with the human form. After college, I spent a month in Florence, Italy and studied a lot of Michelangelo and Andrea del Sarto drawings. John Singer Sargent and Alphonse Mucha are also favorites, and I’m truly amazed by Picasso. Really, the amount of information and passion he packed into just one line of one of his drawings is incredible.

Matthew: By the way, that’s a terrific description of Dirk. Since I read it, I've been thinking about making a parody of Frank Miller's Sin City stuff called "That Yellow Hat." Curious George with a trench coat, a gun, a big "X" shaped scar…

I also like your humorous style – a talkative mime, a mad scientist afraid of Eli Whitney stealing his ideas, etc. What writers and humorists influenced you?

David: Oh, all the usual suspects. Humorist wise: Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Jack Benny, Dick van Dyke, Steve Martin, Edward Gorey. I always admire the ones who can say and do completely absurd things with a straight face. Writerly wise: Fred Chappell, Neil Gaiman, Dr. Seuss, Dave Barry, Roald Dahl, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Some more evident in the Detective than others. Oh, and of course, thousands of comics, dead tree and digital.

My sense of humor comes from my mom. Hi mom!

Matthew: Hmm. Adding to that list—there’s a bit of overlap—I think Ben Edlund's early work on The Tick was a definite influence, and Joss Whedon probably is too. In a more "officially literary" vein, there's James Thurber, Philip K. Dick, and Neal Stephenson. Chandler's a very strong influence—he has a great sense of how to be serious and hilarious simultaneously. It's one of the reasons the Phillip Marlowe stories are so perfect.

I tried to be influenced by Grant Morrison once. It turned out very badly.

Which of your projects has been your favorite–Dada Detective, Chocolypse Now, or Tales Too Ambiguous to Tell – and why?

Matthew: Chocolypse Now was tremendous fun to work on. There was an amazing synchronicity to it, as everything kept falling into place—Kurtz and Wonka really shouldn’t be so interchangeable, but they are.

David: As a completed work, I pick Chocolypse Now as well. It’s a good synthesis, and I will always be fond of my parody of Eliot’s "The Hollow Men." But like many writers, my favorite work is the one I’m currently working on: The Dada Detective.

Stephanie: Chocolypse Now is my favorite of the ones you listed. Both Willy Wonka and Apocolypse Now are so visually spectacular that it was both a nightmare and dream come true to illustrate.

If I could pick a work not on the list, it would be our series of paintings-turned-book called The Dada Alphabet: An Absurdist’s Illustrated Primer. All The Dada Detective characters are present and ready to teach you the alphabet. This project was originally for a gallery show. It helped me solidify some of the characters, as we were still in the early stages of the webcomic. We all had a great time developing the phrases and situations (Matt and Dave did most of them, I did a couple), and illustrating it was a riot—If you ever wanted to know what an electrodefenestrator looks like, this is your one chance to find out.

"The mime field"? You have the worst/best puns this side of a Jay Ward cartoon. Is there any pun too low for you to stoop to? Is that mainly the writer, or do you all love puns?

David: Well, the tentative title for our next chapter is "Mimes and Misdemeanors" if that tells you anything. Matt and I come up with most of the puns, but I’d like to think Steph contributes her share. At any rate, she hasn’t tried to kill us after reading one yet. That’s a good sign. We don’t actually set out to tell a pun joke in any given strip. It’s just sometimes a good one comes to us and, like any good punster worth his salt, we are compelled to tell it and damn the consequences.

When we started the Detective we wanted to play with all forms of humor high and low, though always with an eye to the absurd. Which is why we’re happy when we can include a reference to Monet and a pratfall in the same strip. But for every groaner we’ve come up with, there’s at least a dozen we considered and tossed away.

Stephanie: I do appreciate a good pun. Matt and I ran with a group in high school that pretty much thrived on puns, and even my grandfather was a notorious pun artist, so it’s in my blood.

Matthew: Jay Ward? Good one—add that to my list of influences. I grew up on a steady diet of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons.

Why did you decide to put this on the Web? What's the best–and worst–thing about putting a comic strip on the web?

David: At around the same time we were creating the first strips for the Detective, we found out Chocolypse Now didn’t make the cut for the 2004 SPX Anthology. So we thought, what the heck, let’s toss CN up on Steph’s portfolio website and see what happens. The response was overwhelming. Scott McCloud, Boing Boing, USA Today, more live journals than you could shake a stick at, even sites devoted to naked chicks, all linked to us. It completely overwhelmed Steph’s server. I had to scramble to get another host. Luckily, I already owned the domain, so I decided to stick it there.

It was in the middle of this deluge of links and popularity that we discovered The Independent wasn’t interested in the Detective. Alas! Fate, it would seem, was telling us something: "Paper doesn’t like you. Go digital."

So we did.

As far as the best and worst of it: The best part of having your strip on the web is the potential for so many people to see your work. It also makes it easy to connect with a community of like-minded artists. We’ve started up live journals over the past couple months and we’re just beginning to get a taste of that.

The worst part, ironically, is the loneliness. As you toss your work out to the faceless masses and watch the hit counter tick up, you find yourself craving feedback even more than usual. You know how easy it would be for a reader to just click a button and tell you what they think, and yet so few ever do. You start to wonder if the hit counter is lying to you. It is a web artist’s greatest fear, that all his hits are due to his mother hitting reload all day.

Thanks Mom!

Stephanie: The web really is a double-edged sword. The good thing is that your work is out there for everyone to see. The bad thing is that your work is out there for everyone to see. But to be fair, the feedback we have gotten has been almost uniformly positive. And it is great to be part of a community of web comics creators—the live journals have provided some nice opportunities for constructive critiques and feedback.

What is your collaboration process? Does the writer send the script to the artist cold, or is there any sort of input from the artist to the plotting, or what?

Matthew: Usually it starts with Dave or myself having an idea, and either talking about it or bouncing e-mails back and forth– face to face meetings are more productive. We both write a rough version of several scripts, and then deconstruct things, trying to find out what the rough drafts are trying to accomplish.

Then one of us says something irrelevant but funny, and we go with that instead.

Stephanie: Typically, Matt and Dave show the new scripts to me during our planning sessions, and I have a chance then to make comments or ask questions. I look for immediate issues like text length or staging difficulties, and we discuss what, if anything, needs adjustment. Dave emails the final script with changes to me. I’ll then send them an embarrassingly rough sketch within a few days, and once I get the green light, I’ll draw up a finished strip. Dave runs the web site so I send the final optimized strip to him, often beating my deadline by entire minutes.

David: In short, with all three of us splitting the work, it only takes three times as long as the average artist to complete a strip. Efficiency at work, baby!

What plans do you have for Dada Detective? Do you have any other projects planned?

David: For the Dada Detective? We plan to keep plucking away at the story. As random as it all seems, we do have at least a vague idea of where it’s going. We’ll continue updating every Monday like clockwork for as long as it takes to solve the mystery of the missing duck. Maybe one day in the far flung future we’ll up the number of strips per week, but it’s a hobby and life right now just won’t let us commit to more.

As far as other projects, Matt and I are currently developing a dark fantasy adventure tale that we’re thinking will turn into a weekly webcomic or some graphic novelish type thing. I’m also tinkering with the idea of resurrecting my Likely Stories concept as a photo comic, but I have a lot of experimenting to do before that ever sees the light of day.

Matthew: Apart from creepy fairy tale stuff, I think the best idea I've had is to work on some old-school ghost stories. There are some great horror-style books out there—Hellboy, Courtney Crumrin, The Goon—but for the most part they're eerie rather than scary. I'd like to get under people's skin; keep a few folks up all night.

Stephanie: We’ll keep doing the Dada Detective for as long as the story will allow. We’re working on building up a sizeable backlog of strips so that we’ll have more time to work on other projects. Personally, I’ve been hankering to start up my own weekly strip. How I will fit that into the schedule with a full time job and the Dada Detective, I’m not sure yet. But I’d like it to happen.

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