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ComixTalk Hounds Thomas Dye: News at 11

Thomas Dye with Newshounds has been doing a webcomic since 1997, and working with these characters for a decade before that. He often comments on the world around him by means of his "furry" news team. He never shys away from political or social comment, and didn't in this interview.

You've been doing this since 1997; well, in a sense since 1984; an enviable record. How do you keep the characters fresh in your mind? Do you ever get sick of them? Are any of them based on real people?

Even since Newshounds' inception, the characters have undergone a lot of growth and change. Yet, as the old saw goes, the more they changed, the more they stayed the same. I believe that's true of people in general, too; if you've known someone for over ten years, chances are that person isn't the same as he was ten years ago, but he's not unrecognizable either. As the characters grow through the stories, writing for them becomes easier and easier. I find that I'm surprising myself on finding new revelations for each character, and it only makes me eager to write more.

The trick is not to stay focused on one character for too long, though, which can be easy to do. If I'm fixated on a thread that involves a revelation from Renata and Alistair, the temptation is there to stay on it and explore it. However, once the central issue is resolved, sticking with it long past its freshness date gets very tiresome, so I have to force myself to move on to a different character's story. That's the benefit of an ensemble cast.

The characters themselves originated as amalgams of various character traits that I find in people around me. There's a bit of me in characters like Kevin, Alistair, Renata and Ferris. Other characters like Rochelle, Sam or Hal O'Peridol rely strictly on observation. I'm finding that the characters tend to define themselves through my observation of real-life character interaction. The occasional romance or power struggle is often based on something I'm either involved in or that I'm constantly hearing about.

Nothing comes completely from whole cloth.

Who's your favorite among your many characters? (I'm guessing Kevin---he seems more Everyman, or perhaps Everydog---but I'm probably wrong.)

Kevin's the one I identify with the most, but my favorite character is actually Renata. Ambitious, forthright and no-nonsense, I just admire her in so many ways and wish I could be more like her. What I find funny is how she turns off so many people. I had one person write to me and say "Get rid of that ugly b***h!" Mostly this had to do with her rivalry with Rochelle, which I considered the flaw that made the masterpiece. I don't consider there to be a single good person that doesn't at least have a fragment of a dark side embedded somewhere within their soul. Cynicism or reality, you make the call.

At the same time, I don't let the fact that I have a favorite character make me favor one over another in the writing. I like the balance too much. I find when I think I'm phasing a character into the background, something interesting crystallizes around him or her and I'm bringing them to the forefront again. The unpredictability of who will be the focus this month keeps it interesting.

Who's the most difficult among your characters to write or draw?

Wolfram and Sam, easily. Wolfram's been a tough character to deal with; at first he was just a vain newscaster who only wanted a cushy life and was constantly drawn, unwillingly, into difficult situations. This made it obvious for a character like Rochelle to emerge: a love interest for Wolfram who still kept pulling him into danger. Unfortunately, after a while, the circumstances have defined Wolfram more than Wolfram has defined the circumstances. I find myself occasionally able to give Wolfram wonderful moments, but it's hard, because he's not a character who just writes himself the way the others do.

Sam is also tricky, both to draw and write for. When he's simply right-wing politics, he's a blast. I love writing his conservative-tinged dialogue.

Unfortunately, he's REALLY supposed to be a sportscaster, and I know very little about sports. I often have to rely on the good graces of my friends and my father to help me out with that. In all honesty, if I give Sam any sports-related material at all these days, it's only to shore up his credibility as a sportscaster before I get into the fun stuff like the character interaction and the political arguments.

You've gone through about at least four artistic "phases" in Newshounds and its predecessors. Who are your artistic influences?

In the very beginning, I was influenced by Hanna-Barbera's Tom and Jerry and Charles Schulz's Peanuts... rather an unholy hybrid, true, but nonetheless one that formed the core of my initial artistic output. Once I started taking cartooning seriously, I glanced over manuals from people like Preston Blair, Burne Hogarth and the ever-present Christopher Hart, taking bits and pieces from their work. I wish I could say I was conscientious about studying them, but I wasn't. I was very impatient and just tended to focus on what I considered important at the time, instead of being patient and looking at the big picture.

Once I arrived in the webcomic world. however, I admit that I have been influenced by several of my artistic peers. David Simpson and Albert Temple, among others, have done artistic things with my characters that have captured my interest. If one nuance particularly strikes me, I'll work on integrating it into my style without compromising my artistic viewpoint.

Frankly, I've advanced more in watching my peers than studying books. I suspect it's because you can look at something in a book and imagine that no real mortal could have done such fine cartooning. Surely he must be a god!

I mean, I've never met him, have I? But when you see your contemporaries, in person, actually doing these marvelous accomplishments, you begin to believe that you could do it too if you just put your mind to it.

Who are your storytelling/writing influences? (Besides Geraldo?)

Principally, it comes down to Berke Breathed and Bloom County. A lot of people cite him as an influence, so I think I should quantify that. I bathed my work more in his spirit than his style. Breathed, by his own admission, didn't ever really have a plan or any direction for his comic.

He just did whatever felt right, often taking his characters on long, rambling adventures that at the same time were still engaging. You could call it "structured randomness," rooted in Alice in Wonderland or Monty Python: going wherever you want to go, but being sure that you have a point.

I have to admit that when Bloom County first came out, I didn't care for it precisely because of its topical nature. But as I gained an appreciation of living history, I took to it more and more. Political events shape our lives and our way of thinking more than some of us care to admit. I grew more and more fascinated by the flow of current events and how we, as individuals, related to the "bigger" thread of history. Bloom County painted in grand strokes, yet it still existed within its time, unashamedly and proudly. Breathed noted the entertainment industry's swim in the river of Reagan's tough-cowboy rhetoric; the divisions between libertarian ideals and Republican party groupthink; the sad but true aimlessness of the Democratic party, unable to assert ideals in the fierce arena of class-related power struggles. And at the same time, it could be silly: arbitrarily cutting down overblown public figures like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Jesse Jackson. This treatment of political change as an educational plaything intrigued me more and more, and the Newshounds milieu finally allowed me to explore it on my own.

You do a lot of political/topical humor, and of course political humor combined with talking animals has a long and respected history, from Orwell's Animal Farm to Pogo to Bloom County. Are there any subjects you wouldn't tackle?

In all the subjects you mention, the key to handling a difficult subject is to handle it in metaphor. To some, this appears cowardly; if you can't say "Fundamentalist Republicans are hypocrites" in huge, red, bold letters across the top of your art, then you're weak and ineffectual. But I've never been into straight shock value or knee-jerk reactionary invective. Understanding how politics and human interaction work requires cutting to the core of the human behavior. WHY do people believe the things they believe? Why does the class dynamic exist and determine the focus of our society? Each answer depends on understanding a complex network of learned behaviors and cumulative experience. And once you can examine the underlying foundation for this, you can write a more penetrating story about touchy subject matter.

Walt Kelly knew this; "Simple J. Malarkey"'s effort to tar and feather people in order to ensure that we knew who the birds really were (because all birds have feathers) spoke volumes about the McCarthy mindset. Animal Farm's pig metaphor exemplified the "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" cycle of power without naming any names. While I've not been afraid to name names once in a while, people tend to tune out if you begin to sound like a straightforward political tract. Ingrain the message within a seemingly unrelated story, and it resonates more.

As an example, one topic I do plan to touch upon, in the future, relates to abortion/birth control. Even now I realize how difficult it is for any male writer to fully grasp the implications and ins and outs of this issue, yet it's this very awareness of its difficulty that makes me conscientious enough to want to get it right.

Have you gotten much hate mail for some of your political or social stands?

I've gotten a few emails, although they've mostly been from the same person. The most flattering bit of hate mail I received was from someone who understood one of my metaphors. Back in 2002, when the President was rattling sabers at Iraq with the ferocity of a thousand rattlesnakes, I did a little sequence about two boys demanding that we unilaterally attack Santa Claus at the north pole, because he wouldn't deliver presents to supposedly "bad" kids, and therefore must be a terrorist. Their underlying motive (voiced by Renata, of course) was to actually run in and get all the presents themselves. The boys dismissed Renata's complaints that there actually IS no Santa Claus by saying that she must have a terroristic agenda of her own and as a result, wasn't credible.

After I ran that, I received an e-mail from someone who completely understood the metaphor, picked it apart correctly, before saying my opinion on it was "crap". One of the few such emails I ever get where they take the time to figure it out, and they disagreed with me. While I was flattered, my standard response was then and is now to say "Let's agree to disagree." I can occasionally get into long drawn-out political arguments outside of my art, but when it comes to the comic strip, I prefer to let it speak for itself, for what that's worth.

You're one of the few webcartoonists that have actually tried the newspaper route. What do you like about the webcomics medium...and what do you dislike?

As to what I like... archives, archives, archives. Instead of constantly having to re-sell your strip every time you draw one, you have the freedom to rely upon the archives, which any new reader can peruse at his or her leisure. Since the eighties, newspaper comics have been in decline, as older readers want the same strip reprinted over and over, and newer strips have to keep it simple, straightforward and easy to digest. Rarely can a strip afford the kind of adventurousness that Bloom County had and still remain on the pages. Webcomics, however, are free to go where their heart desires, since there are no editors breathing down their necks.

The lack of editorial oversight does constitute a downside in one way: unless you're constantly motivated, it's hard to keep up a disciplined, steady output. There's a great temptation to go for days, or even weeks, without drawing or updating simply because no one is enforcing a deadline but yourself. I find it difficult to allow myself not to update, however, primarily because I'm afraid of letting anything pass me by. I've got a lot to say, but never enough time to say it in.

What's the most depressing thing on the news lately? (There's so much to choose from...) What gives you hope? And what on the news gives you the most ideas for strips?

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the news is how we can read about bloodshed, war, poverty and death, and still be told that whether a memo was typed on a 1970's Selectric or not is the most crucial issue facing mankind today. We're all so desensitized to others' plights. As long as the supermarket still has seven varieties of Oreos and the garbagemen still come every week, we believe the world is fine and nothing bad could ever happen to us. If we don't pay attention to what's going on, we'll end up paying for it in the end.

Hope, to me, lies in the Internet. These days, we can disseminate knowledge and awareness faster than anything. Causes which had no hope of being heard before can be read and understood by thousands, or millions. Once upon a time television brought the world into our homes, but now the internet makes the communication less one-sided and more mutual. People who might never have been heard before now have every opportunity to be heard. But there's still a lot to be desired, as words and static images don't take the place of faces and ambiance. We may have access to awareness, but real empathy is still a conscious effort.

It's hard to say what in particular inspires me most in creating a strip. Often I'll find if the media is blowing some sad little story or "meme" out of proportion, it gets me worked up to the point of finding satire all over it. Depending on the subject matter, the characters will just fit themselves into any inexplicably popular thread and wreak comic havoc on it. The "Harold Bent" kidnapper-terrorist arc that I wrote in 2002, for example, reflected my impatience with the media's insistence on flogging fear for the sake of sales. I'm not going to say many concerns aren't valid, like environmental decay or underfunded first responders, but I don't really believe the media is out to address the issue as much as scream big headlines and throw out vague anecdotes.

What are your further plans for Newshounds? Do you have any other projects in the works, besides Manifestations?

Manifestations, of course, is continuing and probably will be completed sometime at the beginning of 2006. Tim Tylor, a fantastic and supportive artist from England, deserves a lot of praise for taking on the artwork for Part II onward. Otherwise, I'm pretty much resolved to focus primarily on Newshounds... promotion, streamlining, what have you. I've been told by friends that I overthink Newshounds, but as my closest pet project, it means a lot to me to "groom" it for success. While I'd never compromise its basic outlook (because I couldn't approach this strip any other way) minute details that don't mean anything to me aren't worth keeping if they hold the strip back. The artistic switch at the beginning of 2003 was just one aspect of this. However, the political satire will probably never go away. As bitter and divisive as politics have become, it still doesn't change the fact that we're all stuck on the same rock and had better learn to make a decent life out of it. Laugh at your demons, folks; they can't bear scorn.