Jamaica Dyer burst onto the webcomics scene in early 2008 with "Weird Fishes," the story of two teenagers named Dee and Bunny Boy. The strip which came out weekly in full color on her website jamaicad.com was fantastic and strange and beautiful. She attracted raves from other cartoonists and comic book notables, such as Warren Ellis who said "The only explanation for Jamaica Dyer is that she was built by aliens and dropped here to show us all how crap we are compared to her."
Of course it wasn’t quite as overnight a success story as it might seem. The San Jose State-educated animator and illustrator has been making comics and contributing to anthologies and magazines like "Spark Generators II" and "Kitchen Sink Magazine" for years. Dyer also contributed the story "The Nightmare of Wine Hobo" to the December 2008 edition of "Myspace Dark Horse Presents," which appears in the recently released "Myspace Dark Horse Presents Volume Three."
The print collection of "Weird Fishes" has just been published from Slave Labor Graphics and the publisher is featuring Dyer’s work in their Art Boutiki and Gallery in downtown San Jose for the month of November. More information can be founds at the SLG website.
CBR News: My first question, because I’m honestly curious how you see the comic, is, could you describe what "Weird Fishes" is for those who haven't had the pleasure?
JAMAICA DYER: Yes of course, "Weird Fishes" is a story about growing up and realizing that all your childhood eccentricities might make you a crazy freak as you enter your teenage years, along with the realization that reality isn’t really what it seems it is. The main character, Dee, has had imaginary friends her whole life, she sees giant animals and talks to them, which is fine when you’re tiny, but she’s getting to the age when it gets kind of obnoxious and embarrassing. This is pointed out to her by her best friend Bunny Boy, who dresses as a bunny, and he decides he has to be a cool kid instead of a freak, so he goes and does that, leaving Dee to confront her imaginary monsters.
Where did the title "Weird Fishes" come from? Was it from the Radiohead song?
I’m asked this a lot, and yes, it’s named after the Radiohead song. "In Rainbows" came out while I was drawing the first pages of my comic, and I liked that track so much that I named the folder for my scans "Weird Fishes," thinking I’d come up with a different name later.
What is it that drew you to comic books, and what do you enjoy about the artform?
I was a young comic book fan, reading Catwoman and Batman comics all the way, and I drew my own superhero comics because I loved them so much. I’ve always drawn pictures to accompany my written stories, even when I was too young to write, and comics feel like the perfect marriage. I love sitting down with a graphic novel and getting caught up in the action, the cinema of it, along with the personal connection of reading a novel.
So I was drawing comics and self-publishing them, and they had a great impact on my storytelling skills at a young age, and when I entered college for an animation degree I brought along with me a unique viewpoint on how to compose and tell a story. School put me through the bootcamp of how to animate and draw, and when I returned to comics my senior year, all the passion I had for them was still there, but my drawings had improved a little. After working in animation, I’m even more attracted to comics because you can do an entire production all by yourself, and there’s no hurtles to getting a story across exactly as you envision it in your head.
As you were serializing "Weird Fishes" online, one page at a time, did you think of each page in isolation from the others in the story as something that should work on it's own and be appreciated on it's own merits, as well as serving the overall story?
Every week I’d sit down and think about what the new page needed to tell to move the story forward. It’s not like other webcomics where there’s a punchline and a complete idea; instead, I tried to capture a unique feeling, and have it be something that you could enjoy on it’s own but connect to the story as a whole. I write very loose outlines, and spend the week thinking about how it fits into the story, and I like going one page at a time because it made sure that each page had a purpose.
Was the webcomic always intended to be published in color?
I don’t think so. I was coloring the first few pages in Photoshop, considering whether I wanted to do monochromatic or black and white, got bored with that and started adding color and realized that it worked! Then I realized the fun I could have doing a full-color comic, and that publishing it online would allow me to do whatever I wanted, and that got more and more elaborate as they turned into giant watercolor paintings, me trying to beat myself each week.
That’s interesting, because you use color differently than most cartoonists, using a different palate and using it to underline emotion and mood. What influenced this and why do you think it works so effectively in the comic?
You got the color-mood connection perfectly. That came along with all the color work I learned in school and wanting a place to play around with it. I did a lot of color comps for classes, and I love experimenting with how different colors effect a piece. Mary Blair is an amazing example of that. I think my use of color works in the webcomic because I’m being influenced by my feelings for what is going on with the character’s emotions, and taking tips from Impressionist painters and old movie clips and animation background painters.
How did you end up connecting with SLG for the book?
I submitted my first book proposal to them when I was 16, and Editor-in-Chief Jennifer de Guzman and I kept in touch after that. She was good enough to tell me what I needed to work on, and to keep working on it, and I did. Seven years later, Jennifer’s reading my webcomic, and she and Dan Vado found me at my table at APE with my photocopied versions of "Weird Fishes." They were impressed with how the comic looked printed in black and white and asked me to submit a proposal, and that was that!
I know that the reasons that the Slave Labor release of the book is in black and white were largely economic, but what was your reaction to that, and how do you think the book turned out?
At first it was an upsetting idea. But I got over it when I realize it meant I could get a book printed by one of my favorite publishers. I’m extremely happy with the finished book, I think it’s a great size, and has a nice smell, and the printing is good. Plus, read as a book in one sitting, there are lots of art changes that you don’t notice so much in black and white, it feels more cohesive. I did 3 different paintings for the cover, and I’m glad I did because the third one was the charm.
I know you have an etsy store but I was curious about your thoughts on merchandising. Will we ever see prints of "The Event" from pages 55-56, or plush kittens with wings?
I’m working on getting prints of 55-56 right now. But plush kittens with wings, I love that idea! Let’s make it happen. I think the easiest and most memorable merchandizing would be yellow hoodies with bunny ears. Or Dee’s monster hat, I’m sure you can find one of those on etsy if you look hard enough.
Slave Labor is putting on a gallery show of my original paintings from the pages of "Weird Fishes." They’ll be hanging on the walls of the SLG Gallery in San Jose for the month of November. Here’s your chance to see the original watercolor pages from the book! Plus SLG will be selling prints of the pages you’ll see hanging there.
You’ve just released the graphic novel which wraps up the story you’ve been telling online. What happens next with the strip?
Once the webcomic catches up with the graphic novel, I'm starting a new book, featuring some of the same characters, but set a little later in their lives so we can deal with some more mature storylines. It's set in college and centers around attracting people with your creative force and discovering your inner self in unexpected ways, plus lots of surrealism you'd expect from the first book.
I've finished the coming-of-age story that is "Weird Fishes," and I'm a lot more interested in what happens to a character if you jump six years down their timeline than if you follow their progress year-by-year. Dee is going to be very different as an adult, searching for a way to express herself and fit in to society, and as her college story develops, you find out about the effects of "The Event" since the last story. I'm scripting out the book right now, and I should be posting the first pages online at the start of next year.
So for the remainder of the current webcomic story arc, is it just the pages that readers of the graphic novel have already seen and read, but in eye-popping color?
I drew last few pages in mostly black and white with some color highlights. As the story got darker and deadlines approached, that seemed like the best solution.