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Catching Up With Dylan Meconis

Dylan Meconis created the popular and well received webcomic Bite Me!ComixTalk reviewed it back in 2003.  Nowadays Meconis is working on the webcomic Family ManFamily Man is being serialized by Meconis on her website and as she discusses below is a work with a lot more ground to cover before it will be completed.

Meconis also wrote a regular column called Juxtapose This! for ComixTalk in its first years.  Aside from Paul Bryant Johnson's comics, it's the only thing I think we've published that had footnotes.  But really good footnotes! (honest!)  Being the fifth anniversary year of ComixTalk I thought it would be a great idea to catch up with Meconis and see what she's up to in 2008.

Your current webcomic project is Family Man -- how far are we into the story and how much longer will you need to finish this comic?  What's your sense of the reception for Family Man versus your first webcomic Bite Me?

We're not all that far into the story - there's still a main character or two who hasn't really shown up yet.  The first chapter was mostly about establishing the time period, getting used to the art and setting some themes - families and faith and being left out - and introducing Luther as the protagonist.

The second chapter brings in the main setting of the book, which is an isolated university, and is about the relationship that develops with Luther, the female lead, Ariana, and her father - who runs the University.

The third chapter is where everything goes to hell!  I swear, there will be some crazy supernatural stuff and some sex and violence.  Just not how you're expecting.

I'm not sure how long it will take me to finish; when I get a little further along, I'll be looking to submit to publishers so I can shorten my timeline.  It stands to be a few hundred pages, though, so it's definitely A Book.

Reception has been very different from Bite Me! in some ways - fewer readers, since it's not as rewarding to read page-by-page as a screwball comedy with a joke every week, but the ones I have are very engaging, very excited by all the silly historical detail I cram in and very active in guessing where the story is going to go.  They're extremely helpful and supportive, and in many cases almost as nerdy as I am.

 

How do you view your artwork on Family Man in relationship to Bite Me?  Do you feel like your style has evolved over time?

They're totally from different planets.  Bite Me! was pretty much me having low-effort silly fun and learning as I went - my skills improved a great deal over the course of the story, but I still wasn't investing major time in the art beyond what I needed to to make it entertaining and keep myself interested.  Cartoony and all done by hand. Family Man looks completely different -  it's in a much more "realistic" style, with a lot of sensitive linework and textured digital shading, elaborate environments, actual visual research into costumes and so on.  It was an intentional departure.  I can still draw crazy/silly/lazy, but I wanted to do something that really pulled you into a solid-feeling world with a particular atmosphere.

 

I liked listening to your podcast -- one thing I took from it was that in writing comics you're really focused on creating characters with real depth and personality.  Is that where you start writing from -- building a character?  What is it that you think makes the characters in Family Man acquire the shape to seem real?

It definitely starts with characters.  I put together a bunch of people or basic roles with some themes and a general premise, and then hope that a coherent storyline emerges from them crashing around together in my head.  It's definitely an acting-oriented approach as opposed to a plot-based approach.

As a result the story has shifted a great deal from my initial notions, because I follow what feels "right" in the context of a character.  Things that I winched in for the sake of plot get thrown out when I realize that it's too weird or contrived a thing to do to the person who's developed in the meantime.  I have character concept doodles from three years ago, and maybe half of them are still accurate in terms of the depicted personality.

I spend a lot of time listening to music that matches some of the emotional situations of my characters - particularly the characters I don't feel I have a good grip on yet.  In some cases a character and an artist or an album become very closely associated in my head; one person you haven't seen yet is all Lucinda Williams and Suzanne Vega, while another has a lot of Regina Spektor; poor Luther gets stuck with a lot of slightly goofy pop numbers from bands like XTC or Oingo Boingo because, while he gets very wrapped up in Deep Thoughts, he has a capacity to make fun of himself and his angst.

And some, the really closed-down characters, have no music at all.  (Ariana's father is a music-less character.)

 

You have a bibliography and notes for your comic!  (I remember now you did footnotes for your comixtalk column too)  That is awesome!  Bryant Paul Johnson is also big on endnotes but I suspect your work is more accurate (although Johnson's may have more "truthiness").  How much research do you do to prep yourself to write the comics?

I do research either on broad topics, like how universities were changing in the 18th century or the history of the Roma people, pretty consistently over time depending on what books I've most recently discovered, and their influence gets woven into the story as I go.

On a regular basis I also find myself wondering things like "I wonder if they had kerosene lamps yet, because I'm sick of drawing candles" or "who the hell ruled Moravia in 1768?" because it has a momentary appearance in the story, and for that I mostly rely on academic sites on the internet.

And now and then my more serious print resources will throw out a neat factoid and I'll intentionally work it in, to give the world a little more detail.  And so I can write a fun note about it. 

 

Are you supporting yourself through comics right now?  If not what else are you working on these days to help pay the bills.

No, not currently - although I'm pretty sure that I could crush out a sellable young adult graphic novel if I really wanted to - which I don't quite yet, despite occasional misgivings.  As it is, I work four days a week at a neat little design firm that produces a lot of explanatory graphics and weird process maps and animations for all kinds of companies.  I'm a project lead, so I get to do everything from speed-drawing cartoons for clients to designing complete print projects.  The people are great, I've picked up a huge number of technical and business skills, the salary and health insurance are pretty swell, I'm building up a lot of savings, and it all looks really beautiful on a resume.  Then on Fridays I'm at Periscope Studio, where I soak up wisdom from a lot of long-time industry professionals who all have an emphasis on craft.

I'd like to stick with it until Family Man gets to a point where it's time to just lock myself in the house for two years and get it done.  Or until I come up with a really marketable idea that I'm actually excited about.  Or until I get laid off.  Whichever comes first!

 

I believe you are in Portland, OR now?  How long have you been living there?  Is that the most awesome assembly of cartoonists in one metro area?  Do you all run into each other regularly?

I am indeed in Portland, and I have been since I graduated in 2005.  It's been absolutely wonderful, helping to bring together a huge community of artists and publishers and enthusiasts.  I see other cartoonists every single day - at work, at home, on the street, on the bus, at Periscope Studio, at social events, at meetings.  I'm involved with the Stumptown Comics Fest and I run a monthly open house for comics folks to come hang out.

It's remarkable that in a city of this size, there are cartoonists whose work I enjoy and whom I've met, but who I don't see all the time - because there are MULTIPLE SOCIAL CIRCLES.  There are literally too many people to ever get close to all of them.  As a result I find it much more difficult to get motivated to go to far-away conventions, because I often feel like I live in the best part of a convention.

I'm sure the scene will ebb and flow as time goes by and the city changes, but there's a core of folks who seem pretty settled here, whom I anticipate will continue to form a kind of core community.

 

Can you give me the details on the state of the Bite Me! book?  Also have you given any thought to putting Family Man in print at some point as well?

My goal is to have the whole damn thing scanned at high-res by June 15th (I foolishly scanned it all at web resolution when I first did the art) - I think I have a long weekend ahead of me.  If I get my act together, I should be selling it in time for the holidays.  Wish me luck, I'm researching printers and looking into taking pre-orders.  It hurts to look at some of that old art, but I know a lot of people are really fond of the book and would like a copy, and it would be a good feeling of closure to have a copy in doorstop form.  Bad decapitation jokes are my gift to the world.

Family Man was designed with a book edition in mind.  With any luck it will find a publisher to take care of the tough parts for me - it's possible I'll need to put together a more marketable project to kind of prove myself before somebody will take a chance on it, but I'm optimistic.  I would like to sell it before I'm done, since doing it at my current pace will take me a few trillion years!