It takes a certain boldness to spell one's name with an exclamation point, but "Wondermark" creator David Malki ! justifies the affectation with his visually distinctive, lovingly crafted, bitingly funny webcomic series. The twice-weekly strips, composed primarily of archival Victorian woodcuts and magazine illustrations transformed by Malki !'s witty captions and dialogue, have appeared on wondermark.com since 2003, receiving fan and critical acclaim, including nominations for the Eisner and Ignatz Awards.
This month, Dark Horse released its third "Wondermark" collection, titled "Dapper Caps and Pedal-Copters." CBR News caught up with Malki ! to discuss the new book, his curatorial processes and his thoughts on a certain other faux-Victorian paperback series.
CBR News: I'd imagine you have a pretty good archive of woodcuts and archaic images to work into your comics, but how often do you refresh your raw material or search out new sources? Do you actively seek out new old drawings, or are these somehow things you come across in your day-to-day activities?
David Malki !: I went through a phase of really actively seeking out source material: I went to the Los Angeles Central Library and began to systematically examine all the periodicals in their collection from between 1870 and 1895 so I could figure out which titles had the types of illustrations I was looking for. Then I knew what to look for when I went scrounging around secondhand bookstores and Googling around secondhand internets. If I happen across something particularly surprising - "I've never heard of this German magazine before, but these images are dynamite!" - I'll usually try and keep an eye out for more of that thing specifically, because it's a known quantity in a hunting process that can be a bit of a guessing game at times.
People also occasionally send me stuff that they happen across, which is always welcomed and usually helpful. I'm always keeping at least half an eye open for new stuff, because I don't like repeating myself (there's nothing new the second time you see the same image), and it's always a jolt of energy browsing through something new. And I find cool things in old books, too: pressed leaves, handwritten postcards, children's drawings. Once I even found a 1905 dollar bill in the middle of an old book on trains!
Okay, I didn't. But that would have been awesome.
Some of your strips include modern objects, including bags of Cheetos and computers. Aside from being a really interesting visual, how do these seeming anachronisms play into what you're already doing with the Victorian images and modern text? Is it difficult to manipulate these props so they seem of a piece with the rest of the image?
I think having elements in there that are quite obviously "wrong," but only in a cognitive way, not in a visual way, makes the work more compelling on some level. And I feel like "Wondermark" is at its best when the creative process is transformative. I'm most pleased when I can really contribute something as an artist or designer myself - using the old images as raw materials; taking figures, limbs, heads, objects, or in many cases simply shapes or textures, and building them into something new like a kid playing with Lincoln logs.
Usually if I have a specific goal in mind, even just generally, it's a very fun process to put everything that's roughly the right shape into a Photoshop document and just move it all around until it takes on a certain character. My goal is to make it look as "realistic" as possible - I don't want to break the milieu of the Victorian engraving in such a way that the manipulation becomes obvious. Part of the fun is making it look like there really could have been an engraving of a man gleefully riding a giant piranha/moose hybrid through the forest.
And it's also just practical: if I want to make jokes about computers, or robots, or helicopters, or anything else that there are simply no Victorian engravings of, then I have to somehow make those things!
You've said in other interviews that you were interested in the aesthetic of these woodcut images, which have become a lost art. Are there any other lost art forms you'd like to restore, whether in a "Wondermark"-style mash-up or in some other fashion? With the rapid technological advances of the 21st century, are there any 20th century arts you see as in danger of vanishing?
I'd take minor issue with the idea that I'm restoring an art form - I may be sharing the work with a new audience, but I'm not making woodcuts or engravings. The closest people doing this sort of work nowadays are the folks at the U.S. Mint and one dude in Chicago named Jeremy Bastian, whose ink drawings are absolutely phenomenal. But I will stake a claim on collage, which has a long and venerable tradition of its own going back to Max Ernst and many others before him.
That said, I think in twenty years you'll have a hard time finding film cameras. You'll also have a hard time finding newspapers and phone books. Let's mash 'em all up and start a BrainBlog 5.0 full of nothing but photo negatives of phone book listings of newspaper offices. With, of course, funny captions added.
It's neat to see people taking obsolete technologies of any type and revisiting them for an aesthetic sake. Whether it's making new games in 8-bit, or shooting photos with old one-piece plastic cameras, or even something as simple as printing an illustration with spot colors, the way an old storybook would have been, in a situation when printing in full color wouldn't be any more expensive - I like it when people embrace certain limitations and create art that stands apart by virtue of being made of something that other people would overlook in their rush for the latest and greatest.
"Wondermark" is made largely from ephemeral illustrations - workaday stuff from catalogs and magazines that never took on an afterlife in any other way. Classic illustrations from Dickens or Carroll or Baum books, or Durer engravings, don't quite work for "Wondermark" because those things have identities unto themselves. They don't sit down quietly for me to tell them to be something different. So any other project I'd do along the same lines would have to use as its subjects similar orphans - flea-market family photos; mid-century government films; the products of a kindergarten art class.
Someone made a mash-up tool out of the Bayeaux Tapestry that I think is a real hoot. Do people say that? That something is a hoot? Maybe I have a lot of owl blood in me. I did, after all, just eat a raw owl.
Your web site is the main venue for "Wondermark," but you've also done a few strips on "MySpace Dark Horse Presents," which are formatted as comic book-sized pages. Is it difficult to adjust your sense of pacing for these larger strips? Is there anything you can do in the "MDHP" strips you couldn't do in the shorter gag pieces?
It's a very different process that writing the shorter strips! The first challenge is strictly technical: it's harder to tell a narrative story, which usually involves characters that you see from more than a single angle and ideally involves them doing something active or interesting, when the whole premise of the comic is that it uses found art. The success of the longer-form pieces has been predicated almost entirely on how many different images I can find (or puzzle together) that look like they could conceivably be the same person. So that's the very first hurdle, and in a lot of ways that actually determines the shape of the longer thing: "given this material, what story can I tell with it?"
That said, the most recent 8-page "MDHP" piece ("The Gax of Life") was initially conceived as a single comic strip, and then as I realized there was some meat on that bone, it unfolded into a series of strips, then into a series of double-length strips, then finally into what it became. At the time I was actually struggling my way through a different, monstrously complex piece for "MDHP" with the deadline rapidly approaching, and in a flash of inspiration I thought "Wait - this is the story to tell, instead." So I spent a day poring through my books, collecting images of bodies with roughly similar wardrobe, and also political cartoons with various angles of a certain consistent face (some politician who was constantly being lampooned), assembling all the pieces I needed to tell that story. It was a great joy to be able to tell jokes that really built on each other over a longer span!
But the labor involved in creating those long-form pieces means they probably have to stay somewhat rare. I'm using up all the easy images that lend themselves to that treatment, so each one's a little harder than the last. The next one'll probably be set in a meat locker during a power outage.
You've already released two "Wondermark" collections through Dark Horse. Is your sense that readers of the webcomic are also buying the printed edition, or are the collections appealing to a different type of reader?
It's tough to say for certain, because typically the only ones I hear from are the ones who're fans of the webcomic! Those are the sales that I see through my site (for when I offer sketch editions and so on), and those are usually the same people I hear from semi-regularly anyway, folks who're just tuned in to all the different stuff I'm doing - they're following the webcomic, they're getting the books, they're participating when I do weird collaborative projects on my blog or on Twitter, they're picking up Wondermark greeting cards at Christmas or listening to my podcast or being involved in other ways that aren't just limited to reading the comic strip online. Those are my favorite people, of course, and that's the audience I always think of as "my audience."
But at conventions I sometimes meet people who recognize the books but who may not have been exposed to the webcomic, and that's great too. My goal is to make the books accessible to everyone - one nice thing about doing a gag strip is that anyone can read any one of my comics and enjoy it completely, without having to have ever read anything else I've ever done. If a reviewer praises one of my books, or a friend or a store clerk recommends it, they hopefully intrigue some folks who'll enjoy that book as a work unto itself that requires no involvement at all with the webcomic. I really have no way of knowing how many of those people there are! Eight? Thirty-five? Maybe a million billion? The true number probably lies somewhere in between; we can just take the average of the guesses.
But I want every reader, whether they've read everything I've ever done or none of it at all, to be able to enjoy my books equally. That also means that I pack in a ton of extra content for the folks who may have already read all the strips online.
What sort of extra content?
There's almost more new material than reprinted stuff! In addition to all the design elements, which really make all my books into little worlds of their own in a way you can't really do with a website, there's around 20 pages' worth of extra stuff, most of which was created specially for the book. As mentioned before, I really want the books to be distinct experiences for the reader, separate from and in some ways superior to what you get just by reading the comics online.
I reprint my "MDHP" story "The Catch!" in "Dapper Caps," but all the other bonus material is brand-new, including a bunch of fake articles about and expansions on premises put forth in individual comics; "period" advertisements and other Victorian-type tomfoolery, some cool new art pieces and colored strips unique to the book, as well as some comics that have never been posted online; and a special system that ensures that readers from the advanced future will be still be able to read the book, in an age when books are reduced to spherical constructs parsed by special spectacles. Oh yeah, and there's an entirely separate, second book printed upside-down for when you get to the end of the main book - you can just flip it over and keep reading. So yeah, there's some extra material.
All of the books are quite eye-catching, but seem to play down the "Wondermark" name. What is the thinking behind this? Is a clever title (and they are clever) a better sell for bookstores than the Wondermark logo would be?
I guess it would have been smart to market-research that a little! I just wanted to follow in the footsteps of the comic-strip collections I loved as a kid (and still love) - with the exception of "Garfield at Large", etc. and the Calvin & Hobbes treasuries ("The Authoritative," etc.), most comic-strip collections take a title that's indicative of the content somewhat, rather than strictly using the name of the feature. It probably wouldn't have hurt to put "Wondermark" a little bigger on there, but honestly I just didn't want to clutter up the covers!
And I've watched folks at conventions read the titles and laugh. That might not have happened if I'd called them all "Wondermark Takes out the Trash" or whatever.
Although I do regret that the book "Beards of our Forefathers" is not, strictly speaking, a book just about beards of our forefathers. I probably could have sold a hundred times more copies if it was.
(P.S. Can you spot the pattern in my book titles? Hint: The very first book (pre-Dark Horse) is called "The Annotated Wondermark.")
So which strips are collected in "Dapper Caps & Pedal-Copters?"
The new book picks up in the web archive right where the previous one ("Clever Tricks to Stave Off Death") left off, which is to say at strip #341, and it runs through strip #458 (with the necessary addition of strip #511, the eponymous pedal-copter adventure). So it's comics I made largely in 2007 and 2008. And all the topical election material dates amazingly well, let me tell you. (I actually have a thing in there that pokes a little fun at some of the dated references.)
Potentially getting off-topic a bit, but I know you have the faux-Victorian novel series "Dispatches from Wondermark Manor," and in the last few years we've seen Jane Austen parody novels make a bit of a splash doing something related to but quite different from your "Wondermark" universe. I'd be curious to hear if you've read "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and whether you see these as kindred projects.
I haven't read it, but when I first heard of it, my immediate thought was "Dangit, I wish I'd had that idea first." In the "Dispatches" novels I have a tremendous amount of fun playing with the tropes and quirks of Victorian literature, and "P&P&Z" is conceptually the same sort of thing with a much more marketable hook. (I heard that the book wasn't really very good, but I mean, from a certain perspective that's not even the important thing - the title is what sells it.)
There definitely seems to be a growing interest in Victoriana, faux and satirical and arch and otherwise, and I think that's great. I'm confident that the things I'm doing are strong and unique enough to set them apart, while still being able to take advantage of any cultural tide that sees fit to lift my little boat. I will be like Moses in the bulrushes, in my basket made of reeds made of Victorian engravings. In forty years I'll free my people from slavery, and then die on a mountain made of quail meat, and then claim I was fundamentally misunderstood. And then retire and take up golf.
Wait, who was Moses again? Was he the one with the bears? My work is essentially about the plight of the modern bear. "Wondermark" is officially, canonically, an allegory about bears in America. Also there is sometimes robots. Which symbolize honey.