Stop Me If You've Heard This. 9 Canadians Walk Into a Cave – Interview with THE DEAD WORK COLLECTIVE
I set out a spread of poutine, butter tarts, and beavertails, put my favorite episode of Bob and Doug McKenzie's Great White North on the TV, and made sure the fire was roaring as I welcomed The Dead Work Collective to discuss their current Kickstarter for the Dead Work Anthology.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Hello and welcome to the Yeti Cave! Come on in, there’s plenty of room. As we near the 2-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to start with a sincere: How is everyone doing?
LYNDON RADCHENKA: I’m tired, but aren’t we all? More than that though, I’m excited. I’m excited when I look at the comics industry right now, and I’m excited about the Canadian comics scene (of which all my collaborators belong to). It feels like there has been been an easier way to get comics into peoples' hands, and I’m so happy that the world is starting to reopen (at the time of me writing this, *knock on wood*) so that we can get out to conventions again and keep the momentum going.
STEVEN KAUL: I’m pretty freakin’ awesome. Comic things seem to be going very well as of late and who doesn’t love getting a foot of snow a day, every day, all winter? Couldn’t be happier.
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I can honestly say I am okay. Kind of exhausted by everything going on in life and the world, but definitely okay.
GMB CHOMICHUK: It's a strange time, but as a strange person, I’m doing well.
JONATHAN BALL: “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
JUSTIN CURRIE: Doing well! Having a government-sanctioned excuse to sit inside and make art all day has been not the worst for my career…though my social skills have diminished substantially.
CBY: You are The Dead Work Collective, a group of 9 Canadian comic creators and this Anthology is a collection of shorter, sometimes more experimental comics. Had you come together prior to the pandemic or did the pandemic necessitate this association? Other than putting together this Anthology, what do you find are the benefits of a group like this?
ZACH SCHUSTER: Most of these guys were friends in real life, and I was only able to join in on the fun once they switched to video calls during the pandemic. So in a way, the pandemic really helped form the group! As GMB Chomichuk always says, “a rising tide raises all boats”, and I’ve found it invaluable to be able to share our skills and expertise with each other, both on Dead Work and our own projects!
SK: Comics necessitated this association! The pandemic necessitated the Dead Work anthology for sure. Multiple combinations of members met in different ways but it really was the need to make comics and the need to work with people who want to make comics that brought us together.
JC: Most of us knew each other in some way/shape or form pre-pandemic, and I think the idea had been voiced, but I don’t think this project would have come to be had we all not been stuck at home. Too many intersecting book tours / comic cons and life events would have kept me from this endeavor. The benefits of this group became immediately apparent as a maker, since everyone had such a different/unique skill-set. I think all of us will be hiring/collabing within this group for our next projects.
CS: Most of us knew each other pre-pandemic. Lyndon is kind of the person that connects alot of us. Zach, Steve, Gregory, and myself had all done work for Lyndon in a previous Anthology known as What Will Not Last. And for myself, Lyndon was the person who put me in contact with Jonathan and Jordan. I think regardless of the pandemic, Dead Work was going to happen.
One of the major benefits of this group is when I need another creative opinion/perspective on something. We’re all working together, so there is this inherent trust and I know the group has my best interest at heart, so it’s a combination of support and critique.
GMBC: One of the things I really like to do at conventions is book a restaurant space with an expandable reservation and invite people who make things, but don’t know each other, to hang out and see what sort of creative things might happen as a result.
JB: Pre-pandemic, Gregory and I had already had our comic miniseries The Eye Collector well underway with Heavy Metal, and Lyndon had also worked on that comic plus various members of the group had done different things together. In many ways, Lyndon (as a letterer and man-about-town), rather than the pandemic, was the social glue that necessitated these various creative crossovers.
LR: To borrow some words that I once heard Adam use to describe this group, it really feels like these people, which I feel so fortunate to rub shoulders with, support one another. Having a group like this, with all our varied experience, also provides this priceless wealth of knowledge that would have taken me a lifetime to learn on my own. Whenever I, or anyone, comes across a new challenge or needs advice, it’s been great to have these people to bounce ideas off of, and usually someone has dealt with something similar already.
CBY: One of the documents I was sent in the Press Kit was an FAQ sheet that described the Anthology as an “awesome comic charcuterie board” and kudos to whoever came up with that phrase. I know Zach Schuster is the Project Coordinator and Adam Petrash edited the included stories. Was there a process to decide which stories were included in the Anthology or could anyone in the Collective submit whatever they wanted? I appreciated the story order as well, was that done by consensus?
ZS: This was all the magic of Adam, (besides calling it a comic charcuterie board), so I’ll let him answer this one!
ADAM PETRASH: Everyone in the Collective submitted whatever they wanted, but as the editor I had the final say on what went in as well as the story order. I appreciate you saying you appreciated the story order! It was something I was very mindful about. I’d compare the process to making mixtapes when I was a kid. Structure was everything. How the songs started, their pacing, how they ended, and which songs followed. Dead Work Anthology is our mixtape, but expressed through comics.
CBY: Is there an overall aesthetic, sensibility, or mindset that characterizes or sets apart the Canadian comics scene?
GMBC: No. I think creatives all have a common need to find outlets of creative expression. The market forces of a country might shape that into an apparent aesthetic. Access to healthcare in Canada for example, makes it easier to “take the risk” of a creative life compared to America. That in turn generates projects that may not need to be as widely commercialized to be seen as a success. But regardless of international borders, people who make comics love words and pictures all mixed up and poured onto the page.
JC: We survive the cold winters by staying inside, working away at our craft, and so, we are generally better at making comics than most.
CBY: Lyndon was kind enough to reach out and send me the Anthology and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the diverse stories in it. GMB Chomichuk, your story The Exquisite Corpse starts off the Anthology and your comics are probably the most experimental, with Cube Dive and Dine In/Take Out. You have a podcast with fellow Collective member Justin Currie called Super Pulp Science where you talk about how genre gets made. I’m interested in your approach to the comics included here as it relates to genre, whether it’s science-fiction or horror, do you prioritize mood or tone over narrative or do you still find those things inextricably linked?
GMBC: That’s a big gordian knot of a question so I’ll try to cut through it like this: What makes something a genre are degrees and not categories. Suspense makes something scary, ( horror?) but when that suspense leads to a robot ( ah, science fiction) who happens to be your father ( wait, family drama?) and the quickest gun in town (um western?) who shoots down folks with gore splattered delight (action-horror) what sort of story is it? Mood, tone, and narrative are adjustable by all degrees in comics. Color can do things words can’t, lines can do things colors can’t, a page turn can reveal a surprise that a panel break can never hide. The comics I put into Dead Work were ways in which I was trying to play with pace and time and place and emotion. The Exquisite Corpse is funny, but Dine In/Take Out is decidedly not-funny. Both use gory details, but not with the same effect. Writing with Justin on Fear My Song is a whole different animal, since I’m “just the words” in Fear my Song and Justin created the images and pace first, I’m reacting to the work while also being a part of it. With She Wolf, as the illustrator, I’m using Jonathan’s script as the place to start out from, rather than the map. We’ve worked well together before and trust each other and I expect nimbleness from the writers and artists I work with, because the real magic for me in comics is the result of a collaborative process. We try to surprise each other in the same direction, as it were.
CBY: Turning to the other host of Super Pulp Science, Justin Currie, you and GMB teamed up for Fear My Song, which you created and is gorgeously illustrated. A story about the power of music to overcome fear/anxiety. It sometimes seems comics are created in an assembly line of script-art-colors-letters, but Fear My Song feels different. Can you tell me about what inspired Fear My Song and what songs do you think of when you think about music that can “banish the dark”?
GMBC: Let me chime in here to say nothing about what Justin does is ever an “ assembly line of script-art-colors-letters” which is why he is such a rewarding collaborator.
JC: Fear My Song was inspired by a single image that I loved too much to keep as just a single piece. I developed the comic completely silent- making certain that the story translated without any words whatsoever- then I plopped it at GMB's feet and told him to put words on it. This has been our collaborative process on most of our comics- The art has to do the heavy lifting, once that's working, the words come in to polish things off.
Fear My Song's muse music is “Ludovico Einaudi - Experience”
CBY: I’d argue Horror and Comedy are the 2 hardest things to write in comics, as both rely heavily, generally speaking, on pacing/timing and Dirk Dirkson vs. the Demons from Mars combines elements of both exceptionally well. Written by Jonathan, illustrated by Steve, and lettered by Lyndon, how did the 3 of you approach collaborating on this story to strike the right balance?
SK: If I remember correctly and Jonathan may correct me if I’m wrong, but Jonathan had an idea that he thought my art would be great for, so that’s what got us talking about Dirk. I think what really made the visuals work was just conversation, and understanding of each other’s humor, which were pretty similar. I got the type of physical humor that Jonathan was going for, so it translated very well to the page.
JB: Back in 2009, I had a weird gap of about 10 days between my final essay being due for class and some exam, and rather than studying I wondered if I could spend the time writing a feature film script. It was an experiment, could I come up with an idea and then write 10 pages per day on the idea and get a feature film draft?
The idea I came up with was Dirk Dirkson vs. The Demons from Mars, because I had re-watched They Live recently and also was obsessed with a short film called Lead Pipe Vigilante that was made by Stephan Reckseidler (working as Kick Jaxon) and my friend Aleksander Rzeszowski (who was the visual model for Dirkson in the comic).
The script never went anywhere but I kept returning to the idea and eventually, because I had met Steven and was seeing his new art in pages Lyndon was showing me from their various works-in-progress, I realized that he could do the “acting” that would be needed for a comedy comic, and approached him about moving it forward.
What people will see in Dead Work is the first appearance of Dirk Dirkson! And the Demons from Mars! But we are working on a full-issue to pitch out a series.
CBY: More Dirk Dirkson! Fantastic! Christopher, I loved your work in The Watcher. Your character designs are inventive, and especially for non-human characters, very emotive. The story Knight of the Hive continues the interesting character designs and the panel layouts, incorporating a geometric hive structure, adds dimension to the story. What are your influences when it comes to creature creation? Do you have a favorite monster design, something that you saw and thought, “I wish I came up with that”?
CS: I really appreciate the compliment, my focus is character/creature design for non-human characters. In regards to creature design, my biggest influences are The Dark Crystal and the computer games developed by the company, Oddworld Inhabitants. Both showed me that you can construct meaningful worlds and narratives without a single human character. Beyond that, nature really influences me, there are alot of strange obscure plants and animals that are great for referencing. And Nintendo, their character designs are so simple and iconic that they cut straight to the point of what the character is, and I think that is important. As for my favorite monster design, right now it would be any of the “Living Machines” by @SalmonTheKing on Twitter. When I saw these 3 designs I felt like it was a natural progression for where I wanted to go with my work.
CBY: One of my favorite stories was Eldrid Everflame’s Burning Question. At first glance it looks like a fun, adventure story, but it has emotional depth and feels very personal. Written and illustrated by Zach Schuster and lettered by Lyndon, this definitely feels that it could very easily be an all-ages graphic novel. Can you tell me more about the creation of Eldrid Everflame and if there are plans to expand this story?
ZS: I’m glad to hear that! I have been wanting to move into all-ages books, so I’m glad you think I’m hitting that mark! Eldrid is important to me and I’d love to be able to tell more of her story, and I’m definitely going to pitch the idea around and try and find a way to make that happen. Eldrid was based off of the scene towards the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender where Aang confronts his past lives for advice, but in this case the past lives are worse examples, and constantly chiming in. It’s really a story about dealing with anxiety, but with more fire and kung fu!
JB: I just want to jump in to say this is also one of my favourite stories! I really want to see more of this character.
CBY: Jordan, several of the stories that you’ve written are in the Anthology, including the Five Comics that range from The Arena to The Hangover. Anyone that follows Comic Book Yeti on Twitter or knows Editor-in-Chief Matt Ligeti knows he appreciates a good pun. Do you appreciate the oft-maligned pun? What would you say are the biggest influences of your sense of humor that comes out in your writing?
JORDAN PATRICK FINN: It’s no surprise that the Comic Book Yeti ape-preciates puns. And just like Matt, I can’t Li-get-enough of them. Honestly, I’ve never given much thought to my comedic sensibilities. I tend to consider myself a horror writer, but when I’m writing in either genre, I always think of throwing an empty bucket down a hole, and pulling it back up, full of thick, moist glue. Horror and comedy both have to be well-paced.
CBY: For Lyndon and Steve, I’m really curious about what inspired Tomorrow’s Escape? Steve, comparing your work in Tomorrow’s Escape, which primarily uses a 9-panel grid, with your work in A Law of Nature with less uniformity in the panel design, do you have a preference in terms of layout?
LR: Tomorrow’s Escape originated in the crush of the Platform Comics 10K Contest back in 2020. We wanted to tell a story about a jailbreak, and a prisoner who refused to give up, no matter how often they were caught. The idea started out as sort of a heist comic, but I think it quickly morphed into a metaphor for being a working creative these days. There are a lot of struggles day-to-day for those who make a living making things, whether those struggles are internal or external, and this story ended up being about that never-ending drive to keep trying, no matter how many times you get punched in the face.
SK: I do have a preference. I would choose the 9 panel grid, it is much easier to control. When laying out the grid, in any number of panels, it is very easy to know where my anchor points are. Be it the shocking moment or the punchline of the joke, or simply where I want the reader’s eyes to move. I am aware though that I stick to the grid partially out of fear. Fear, let’s say, for missing a deadline. I tend to be experiment-adverse when doing my work as I am trying to be as efficient as possible. So when it comes to A Law of Nature not only did I experiment, but I nearly missed the deadline (I did make it, with thanks to my hero, Zach Schuster). I did prove to myself that I can do it, and will do it again in the future, a paneling puzzle I’d like to solve is how to do some real 90s style Todd McFarlane pages.
CBY: Just for fun, can you tell me a celebrity that you are most proud to call Canadian?
CS: Keanu Reeves.
JPF: Keanu Reeves.
GMBC: Fiona Staples.
JB: I am obsessed with The Weeknd.
SK: Todd McFarlane.
LR: Todd McFarlane.
JC: Jim Carrey.
CBY: I’ve been playing D&D for the past 4 years and I know there are a few D&D players in the Collective. For any players, has playing or running a campaign influenced your story-telling? If so, how?
CS: I’ve run two campaigns in a homebrew setting, and I’m currently running my third. I don’t know if it has influenced my story-telling, but it has incredibly influenced my worldbuilding and project management abilities. I just find I am able to, when worldbuilding, create something consistent and genuine and complete it. I can work on a chunk of my homebrew setting, finish it, and move on, and it feels like it fits in the world. This allows me to do the same with other projects. I did this for Knight of the Hive, I did some worldbuilding, and made some reference boards and then pitched it to Jordan and asked him what part of that world he wanted to write a story in.
JPF: To me, playing D&D and making comics are the same thing. They are both methods of collaborative storytelling, and my favourite thing to do (and yes there is a U in favourite) is tell stories with my friends.
ZS: Eldrid Everflame, the titular character of one of my comics, was actually a D&D character I played for a year or two! Bartholomew Graves I have rolled up, but haven’t had the chance to play yet. The writers of my other two fantasy shorts were both about characters played by the writers of those comics, Josh and Lyndon. I’ve actually been working on more of these 4-page character introductions with other guest writers, as there is a lot of overlap between good writers and interesting D&D characters! I have vague plans to make a full book of these, but until then, these couple shorts I’ve managed to do are Dead Work.
GMBC: I’ve been part of a weekly game since I was 13, I’m 45 now. That is a lot of dice rolling. The groups have shifted and the games have shifted, but I really think that my love of collaboration in arriving at a story's meaning began in the TTRPG space. I’ve been designing tabletop games for most of that time, and have at last settled on a system I like best for story telling focused games. I also used a system I co-created with Brent Schmidt called The Classroom Story to run massive writing focused curriculum centered RPGs with groups of 20-30 students. Table Top Role playing games are, at their best, part of the grand tradition of oral storytelling or epic poetry. A long form story that brings out the best in the teller and listener and expects them to trade places often.
CBY: What is a comic from the last 5 to 10 years that you love and don’t think enough folks have read?
ZS: The guys are going to give me a hard time about saying this yet again, but LASTMAN is the comic I wish I made, and Skybound recently announced they are reprinting all of it in English! I could not be more excited.
LR: It came out in 2008, but I just finished reading Tout Seul by Christophe Chabouté, which was beautiful. I’ve been trying to learn French lately, and I’ve found the best way to do so is reading French comics (bande dessinées,) so I think most of my comics for the next while are going to be inspired by that style.
JPF: Disorder by Erika Price
GMBC: Track down the mini comics by Warwick Johnson-Cadwell or Becky Cloonan or Simon Roy they all have mass market work, but their personal work is so pure and the money goes right to them.
JB: Morlac by Leif Tande is one of my all-time fave comics, something I just stumbled across in a bookstore by accident, but is absolutely wonderful. It uses paneling and the page in a way I’ve not seen any other comic do, but which seems so right and intuitive that I cannot believe I don’t see it more often.
SK: I don’t know if it’s popular or not, but A Tale of Sand by Jim Henson and Ramon Perez is an almost word free, amazing story. It is, to me, the most amazing example of panel layouts, mixed media and use of colour in comics. I refer to it ALL of the time.
JC: Not that it needs a lot of help, but the Nausicaa graphic novel is definitely worth everyones time.
CBY: Where can you be found online?
ZS: zmschuster.com for finished projects, and @zmschuster on Instagram for sketches and sneak peeks of other stuff!
JPF: You can find me promoting indie comics and telling terrible jokes on Twitter @jordanpfinn.
JB: At www.jonathanball.com
SK: ^^^ also insta: @stevekaulart and twitter: @kaulsteven
CBY: Any other comics or projects that you are working on that CBY readers should check out?
LR: Check out Infinite Universe, Thrud, Death Kanji, and all the other books we have listed as add-ons in our DEAD WORK Kickstarter campaign!
JC: Dragon Nanny has Dragons AND robots.
CBY: Thank you ALL so much for chatting with me!