One thing Publishing Genius authors are doing this year is answering questions for this website. Recently Matthew Savoca interviewed Matt Cook, and before that Megan McShea interviewed Matthew, and Stephanie Barber interviewed Megan McShea. Now I had the chance to ask John Dermot Woods some questions about his new book, Activities, a stunning and evocative collection of comics. Not having a lot of experience with comics, this was probably the most challenging book PGP has put together. But John knows his stuff, and we took our time with it, and the printer did a great job, and the results are amazing. Check out this sample of the book and then read our interview.
I was on tour with Matt Cook a couple weeks ago and as we stood outside a bar in Philly, someone asked him what the “theme” of his poetry was. He didn’t know how to answer and we both thought it was a bizarre question, but after “prolonged and inconclusive thinking” (as Matt says) I have decided it’s the best question there is. So. What is the theme of your comics?
The theme of my comics is the creeping understanding of how we live. Maybe you’ll read one, scratch your head, and not much else. Then you’ll feel some sense of absence or connection or loss while you’re smoking a cigarette outside a bar in Philadelphia.
What does the title, “Activities,” mean to you?
It’s how we fill our days. It’s why we keep going and don’t think about the stuff that should stop us dead in our tracks. My daughter always asks me, “What activities are we going to do?” I like that approach to being.
How did you put this book together? It has a weird beginning, in that for the first few dozen pages there is no info about what’s happening. It just kind of starts.
A lot of my work is drawings, maybe cartoons as opposed to comics, often in response to my friends’ work. So we frontloaded the book with those, before the credits roll. Why did that make sense to you?
For one thing, I think the drawings are amazing and tell a lot of implicit stories. Showing the reader a long series of those at the beginning will set expectations for how to read the stories, which in many cases are as oblique as the individual drawings. Thanks for asking. So, our of curiosity, how long does it take you to draw a comic like “The Lumberjacks”?
I think that took about three days. Completely non-indicative of my usual painfully slow process. For instance, I think “Whistleblower” took about a year.
Although there is a semblance of narrative, the story in each comic always seems, primarily, to be unsettling. Do you know what’s going to happen every time you start drawing one?
Usually, by the time I start drawing, I do know. Kind of. I start most of my comics as text. Not scripts, at all, but maybe a work of prose. Then I interpret them into images through thumbnails. That process has been changing recently, but with this book, the pieces are mostly language-generated.
How is “Try to Sleep” colored?
Photoshop. Flat block of color on a layer placed beneath a layer of black inks set to “multiply.”
In his writeup about the book, or whatever it is that’s on the french flap, Joe Young says it’s good for us that you do these comics — and “I’m thinking it’s good for him, too.” Agree? Why so?
I think work like mine suggests that Joe’s work hits people hard. I think you can tell (not that you’d come to this conclusion on your own) that I was reading Easter Rabbit (Joe’s book) while I did some of this work. Joe tells stories in a severely different way than anyone else (even the Davis-Lutz continuum you could compare him to), and I think maybe my work can speak clearly to a guy who tells stories the way he does.
Does doing comics fulfill something different than writing, like in your books The Complete Collection of People, Places and Things and Baltimore Atrocities?
Yes. Drawing comics is a much different endeavor. Not to be obvious, but it’s more visual. It deals with an instinct to describe something beyond the limits of verbal language, but it has a system that gives me that satisfying sense of control over ideas beyond what I can usually capture or comprehend.
Okay, “Whistleblower.” WTF happens to that kids arm?
That’s an a priori skeletal arm, Adam. He entered the story with one regular arm and one all-bones arm. You gotta think it’s congenital. Is it too X-Men for you?
Ha, you’re joking, but I don’t think these comics aren’t like superhero stories at all. Like there are lots of turns in “Whistleblower.” Do you have a sense of how it’s working, which elements are the most important to understand it?
I think it’s important to know that his dad is doing a bad job of parenting. That the kid is different and people fear him. That he’s an extraordinarily talented tin whistle player. Otherwise, he’s a pretty regular kid, except he’s more generous than his father.
What are the “Recognitions” pieces?
Those are comics based on constraints. I picked a given book shelf for each one (at my own apartment, at a public library, at a thrift store, etc.) and pulled books at random and then opened to random pages, from which I pulled a line. I then had the task of tying together the text using my drawings. The text creates fractures and the images glue it back together (in a pretty incomplete way).
“The Remains” begins with a cat falling out of a tree and dying. There are lots of cats in Activities. But you don’t have a cat. No question, just saying. Unless, wait, unless you have an interesting explanation for the prevalence of cats in your comics but not in your life.
I noticed that. Weird, right? I like cats all right, but don’t have strong feelings either way. You’d think I’d draw lots of clowns or something, something that evokes a strong emotion from me. I really don’t like clowns.
You can order Activities here.