Due to a packed schedule for “Palmer’s Picks,” I missed the window to interview cartoonist Dave Cooper when his graphic novel Suckle was released at the beginning of 1996. I wanted to make sure that my column was timely. It didn’t always work out exactly, but I tried my best. Thanks to a steady stream of press releases from his publisher Fantagraphics, I was able to set up an interview with Cooper and time it so that this issue of Wizard would coincide with the launch of his new book Crumple—the second in a trilogy of loosely-related graphic novels—when it began serialization in the anthology Zero Zero.
Before I delve into Cooper and some details about this month’s column, allow me to remind everyone how awesome Zero Zero was. After a few short-lived misfires (Graphic Story Monthly, Prime Cuts, Pictopia) in the ’80s and early ’90s, Fantagraphics finally got the formula down for a great anthology. Zero Zero was big: none of the 27 issues published over it’s five-year lifespan were under 40 pages, and a few even clocked in at 64. That meant there was room for a lot of one-off strips as well as quite a few serialized stories. Aside from Cooper’s Crumple, Zero Zero also housed Richard Sala‘s The Chuckling Whatsit and Kim Deitch‘s The Search For Smilin’ Ed. Like most anthologies, not everything was perfect, but editor Kim Thompson was able to gather together a great roster of creators like David Mazzucchelli, Chris Ware, Al Columbia, David Collier, Mack White, and a whole bunch more. And there were several great covers throughout the run, including stand-outs from Gary Panter, Peter Bagge, and Charles Burns. (Drew Friedman‘s Rolling Stone parody cover for Zero Zero #10 is particularly noteworthy as it also inspired art director Marc Arsenault to mimic the music mag’s design for the issue’s interior text pages.)
This is one of the handful of columns that I don’t cringe at and actually think might be one of the better ones. The interview with Cooper came together nicely and he was a great subject—he was easy to talk to and had interesting answers to my questions. Having a successful interview usually meant that the actual writing part of the process would be easy, and this one was no exception. And for a little extra icing on top, I’m not embarrassed by the two books I chose for the “Recommended Reading” sidebar. Yikes! by Steven Weissman and Gary Spencer Millidge‘s Strangehaven were two completely different comics, but they were both excellent debuts that deserved more attention. In fact, I would go on to interview both creators for full-length columns in upcoming issues: Weissman in Wizard #63, and Millidge in Wizard #71.
Crumple completed its run in Zero Zero in late ’97 after nine installments in the anthology series. Cooper followed it up with Ripple, the final part of his graphic novel trilogy, which was serialized in his solo comic series Weasel. With each of these graphic novels, Cooper would refine his style, trying out new techniques and different methods of storytelling. This artistic development is something that continues in his current work—he’s expanded his horizons outside of the insular comic book world and has tried his hand at animation (including Pig Goat Banana Cricket, the Nickelodeon cartoon co-created with Johnny Ryan), toy design, and children’s books. He’s also had numerous gallery exhibitions of his oil paintings.
Bonus #1: An original Dave Cooper sketch drawn while I interviewed him for Wizard #61.
Bonus #2: Crumple sketches taken from the Fantagraphics press release announcing the book’s serialization in Zero Zero.
The Truth about Cats and Dogs
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Not many comic artists can instantly pull you into a fully realized fantasy world like Dave Cooper can. After years of trying different genres like autobiography and reality-based fiction, he broke out at the beginning of this year with Suckle: The Status of Basil. Unlike his earlier comics, this graphic novel throws the reader into a bizarre world full of surreal characters where anything is possible. As you follow the innocent and naïve Basil through the strange landscape of Suckle, you discover all of the weirdness along with him. Now Cooper is set to build on the creative freedom Suckle afforded him with Crumple, a new story serialized in the anthology Zero Zero.
This nine-part story has a different feel from the organic mushiness of Suckle. Set in the same world, but in a different era with an oppressive industrial feel, Crumple follows the life of a dissatisfied assembly line worker named Knuckle and his unemployed sexist friend Zev. “The first episode starts with Knuckle getting dumped by his girlfriend Audrey,” Cooper reveals. “Knuckle and Zev set out on a holiday to Hollywood looking for chicks. Since that’s where all the porn is made, they figure it has to be overflowing with bimbos. Along the way, they uncover a secret sect that all women are a part of. “I want to make this story feel like a ’50s conspiracy movie like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ So many people seem to think that men and women are two different animals, and I’m going to use that as a starting-off point for Crumple.”
This new story has provided Cooper with the opportunity to refine his artwork. One of his earlier series was Pressed Tongue, a Yummy Fur-inspired comic that was drawn in a style full of cross-hatching and intricate details. “After that comic, I was so sick and tired of all that rendering,” Cooper admits. “I wanted every panel to be a dense, textured illustration, instead of making choices that would serve the story. I’m still very proud of Pressed Tongue, but it was a bit distracting, all that texture. With Suckle I tried to get rid of all that stuff, but some hatching found its way in eventually. Now with Crumple I’ve tried to keep it totally black-and-white line art. It’s not an organic story like Suckle. Crumple is sort of a more unpleasant story all around. It’s just sharp and angular, and my art reflects that.”
Crumple is closely related to Suckle, but both of these comics are a big step compared to Cooper’s earlier comics like Pressed Tongue, Chronic Idiocy and A Big Someplace. With Suckle, Cooper let loose and gave his imagination free reign to create characters and new worlds. A less experienced cartoonist would not be able to pull off the sheer weirdness of Suckle, but Cooper’s precise yet cartoony style is perfectly suited for it. It seems like Cooper is finally creating the comics that he was meant to draw.
According to Cooper, there were many things that influenced his work on the graphic novel. “I wanted to do a book like Suckle for a long time, but nothing came together until I went to see a film festival featuring [director] Alexandro Jodorowsky. They showed ‘El Topo,’ ‘The Holy Mountain,’ and ‘Sante Sangre’ all in the same week. It totally blew my mind. I couldn’t believe this guy’s fertile imagination. When it came time to design characters and stuff for Suckle, I wanted to get away from the realistic things, like real people and real settings. I went back to my early influences like Dr. Seuss, Vaughn Bodé, Moebius and [children’s book illustrator] Tomi Ungerer.”
Creating an off-the-wall comic like Suckle was a draining experience for Cooper. “It just felt like I got rid of so much baggage. Two years of ideas came out all at once, and it was really satisfying. I don’t think I’ve ever done a book that was as satisfying. When I got copies of it in the mail, I was just so happy. I was happy that a copy of Suckle looks good on a coffee table. It’s sort of what I was hoping it would look like the whole time I was working on it. When I got a copy, I put it on the coffee table and breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Ah, it looks nice.’ ”
Cooper isn’t just interested in creating books that look nice to leave out when friends come over to visit. His main concern is to just make comics that are fun. “I want people to just get a sense of satisfaction, that it’s an entertaining read. It sounds kind of banal, but that’s what I’m really into now. I used to be into more didactic stuff, but nowadays I just look for something that’s really fun to look at or fun to read.”
While his comics may be fun to read, they are often full of gross, icky stuff. Cooper blames this fascination for the grotesque on his childhood. “When I was little, my dad used to have medical journals lying around the house. He was the town doctor where I grew up in Nova Scotia, and I would remember seeing these pictures of open wounds and gross stuff at an early age.”
Cooper’s childhood was full of much more than gross anatomy books. He also remembers when he first became interested in drawing. “I was always fascinated by watching people draw. A friend of my dad’s, Tomi Ungerer, who happened to be a children’s book illustrator, would let me watch him sketch. That was one of my first exposures to making a living as an artist. He’d come over and do little drawings for me. I also remember when my dad taught me perspective. It amazed me to watch him draw this 1920s-style car with the vanishing points and everything.”
Cooper’s early interest in drawing seems to have paid off. After laboring in obscurity for so long, people are finally noticing his comics, and Cooper is very excited about what the future holds. “I feel like I’m getting somewhere I’ve never been before with my work I just feel like it’s a lot more mature than it ever was. I feel like people are recognizing my work, but you can never see yourself through other people’s eyes; you don’t really know how well known you are. I have more projects in the works than I ever have [five or six major projects], and I think that now I’ll have less difficulty finding publishers for them. That’s really what I’m always aiming for—to find an outlet for my work.”
In his 96 years of writing this column, Tom Palmer Jr. has never forgotten to write one of these here bios…until now. He has since been beaten and shot.
FYI: Crumple begins serialization in Fantagraphics’ Zero Zero #11, which is scheduled to ship in July. Look for a fully painted cover by Cooper, and a 17-page chapter to start off the story, plus other stuff by David Mazzucchelli, Dave Collier, Roy Tompkins and Richard Sala. Fantagraphics also has copies of Cooper’s Suckle and his Pressed Tongue series. Call them at 1-800-657-1100 for a free catalog. And remember that Cooper’s work is for you mature reader types. Cooper has also worked on several mainstream titles, most notably Grendel Tales: Homecoming with Pat McEown from Dark Horse Comics. Give them a call at 1-800-862-0052 for ordering information.
Dave Cooper’s Recommended Reading
“I’m really into Jim Woodring [Jim], Jay Stephens [Atomic City Tales, Land of Nod] and David Mazzucchelli [Rubber Blanket]. I still look forward to Dan Clowes‘ Eightball. He’s so consistently amazing that people tend to forget how good he is. I like Rick Veitch‘s work [Rare Bit Fiends], Bernie Mireault [The Jam], Bob Fingerman [Minimum Wage], Pat McEown, Tom Hart [The Sands], Kaz [Underworld], Sam Henderson [Magic Whistle] and a French cartoonist named Stephane Blanquet. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of him. Then there’s people like Milo Manara, Edward Gorey, George Herriman, Herge’s Tintin, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa. These are all people whose stuff I look at and I think, ‘Oh my God, how could I ever be that good?’ It’s sort of depressing, but also quite inspiring, depending on my mood.”
Yikes!: Steven “Ribs” Weissman’s Yikes! is reminiscent of the very early issues of Yummy Fur, and that’s a good thing. Weissman has a nice, slick style and his comics are delightfully goofy. With a cast that includes such memorable little demons like the Pullapart Boy, Li’l Bloody and X-Ray Spence, how could you go wrong? Best of all, the new fifth issue (set for August release) will be in color. Get your comic shop to order Yikes! for yourself, or you can write directly to Steven Weissman. His address is
83 John St., San Francisco, CA 94133 and copies of Yikes! are $2.50 each.
Strangehaven: British comics artist Gary Spencer Millidge has a photo-realistic style that suits his comic Strangehaven perfectly. Fans of “Twin Peaks” will certainly get a kick out of this comic, since it revolves around some strange goings-on in a small British village. Millidge is one of a bunch of British creators (like Kane‘s Paul Grist) who are self-publishing in the American market, so you should get your local comic shop to support Strangehaven. If you have trouble finding a copy, you can order from the publisher. A sample issue of Strangehaven is $4.50 U.S. funds, and six-issue subscriptions are S25. Write to Abiogenesis Press,
P.O. Box 448, Southend-on-Sea, Essex 551 2FH, England for more information.