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Wondermark by Dave Malki

Essay and Interview by John Seven

“Wondermark” is the sort of creature that begs mystery — how did it come about? And how can you effectively describe it? It might sound less than the sum of its parts, but here goes — “Wondermark” is a collection of traditional three or four panel daily style comic strips that, instead of cartooning, uses stock art cut outs manipulated to act out the humor scenario in David Malki’s mind. The humor itself is sometimes coarse, but not in a stupid way, and employs modern attitudes, conversational tones and absolute absurdity in the dialog juxtaposed with the “ye olde” and sometimes stodgy visuals.

I know, that means nothing, but somehow, it all works, it all comes together into something magical.

The human condition, in Malki’s world, is just a bunch of stock characters preoccupied by their own warped interactions with each other. Nothing is beyond your own personal panel. 

Absurdity and irreverence are not enough to make a modern, adult-oriented comic strip, though so many lesser creators — far too many — tromp along with those twin Iapons, never learning to use them with any panache. Not David Malki. I think with “Beards of Our Forefathers,” Malki’s first collection of “Wondermark” strips, a superstar might Ill have been born. Zippy the Pinhead beware. 

Wondermark by Dave Malki Wondermark by Dave Malki Wondermark by Dave Malki
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Materials: My source images are scanned from, in large measure, illustrated books from the late 19th Century. These range from bound editions of old periodicals, with their very diverse collections of images accompanying different articles, to product catalogs, storybooks and primers. I also have some commercial clip-art collections, though these days, I don’t like to use them if I can avoid it. I’d rather the images I use be unique to my work (in the modern age, anyway).

The strip is created in Photoshop, with the occasional hand-drawn element thrown in. I’m experimenting with hand-painting some of the strips too — printing out a finished collage and water-coloring it. But that technique’s still in the development stage.

Q: What was the process of conceiving this? Did you have one idea that you stuck with or did the idea change a bit from conception to realization?
A: I don’t know that I could tell you what gave me the idea — I think it was frustration with my own artistic limitations, and the realization that the stuff these guys were making in the 1800s was beautiful and is under-appreciated today. Plus I’ve always been more of a writer than a fine artist, and I realized there could be a lot of potential in the idea of using component pieces to build something new. It’s always been easier for me to think that way, to start from something existing and spin it into something else, than to start from scratch. I liked building with LEGOs as a kid more than I liked — I don’t know — sculpting with clay or something.

Over time the strip has taken on a shape of its own in ways I never anticipated, which is exciting. I’m never satisfied with it, so I’m always challenging myself to push the concept in new directions. Nothing’s ever set; there’s no goal I’m particularly aiming at; it’s just a question of how it’s turned out today, whether I think it it’s cool the way it ended up, and then what lessons to take from it and where to go next. As I develop different approaches and techniques to answer the question of “how can I make this old woodcut into a comic strip,” new directions open up constantly and I’m able to look at the source material and the opportunities it presents in fresh ways.
I was trying to come up with a metaphor here about “there’s never a shortage of doors, I’m just forging new keys all the time,” but I think it was a little specious. Let’s keep it serious here. :[

Q: Do you come up with the script first? Does an image ever spur on a gag idea? What’s the process for creating the typical strip?
A: In the early years of the strip, I’d usually just throw a couple images together and start typing dialogue, and in the process I’d figure out what the scene was about. Or, I’d browse through images until two or three seemed like they might work in concert somehow, and then I’d go from there. Occasionally, when I’m not feeling particularly inspired, I’ll still do this — plop images onto a page, start typing, and then just keep revising it until it turns into a comic strip.

But over time, I started to train my brain to think in comics — I’d see some situation and the narrative arc of a comic would suggest itself unbidden, or I’d land on a concept and be able to see pretty quickly how to make it work as a scene. I can take that premise, open my blank strip template in Photoshop, and start writing out the dialogue, seeing if it’s a viable idea, figuring out what shape the words will make on the page, etc.
Once that’s done, I’ll start building the visuals. If the joke’s all in the dialogue, I’ll look for images that have the right number of people in roughly the right parts of the frame, or for individuals with approximately the right facial expression or gesture. Sometimes a single source image is all it takes, if I can find one that works; other times there’s a fair amount of compositing involved. The more the joke relies on a particular visual, even if it’s just a gesture or a facial expression but especially when it’s a scene that has to be understood visually for the joke to work, the more effort goes into designing the image. I often build characters and props from component parts, hand-draw small portions to make them work properly, and scan tons of little elements when necessary to build something more complex.

Q: How much of a bother is it for you to hunt down the figures you use?
A: The most tedious part of the process is when the joke’s already written and it just requires some overly-specific visual element to bring the whole thing together. I’ve spent hours poring through page after page of book after book, looking for something really specific.

Usually what happens then is I’ll start noticing pieces that could combine, Voltron-style, into whatever I need — this face could go with this body, this table is at the same angle as this chair, etc. — and so I’ll end up building the scene that way. I’m also kinda picky about keeping the art style consistent in a particular strip; I’ve got source images spanning 40 years of style changes, among publications with different house styles as well, so it’s sometimes a tricky thing keeping everything looking consistent. The goal is to present a finished piece that’s cohesive, that looks like it could really be from the era. It’s funnier that way, because there’s dissonance in seeing a perfect Victorian engraving of a ninja on a unicycle.

In terms of hunting down the source books themselves, though, that’s a joy. It’s like Christmas looking through the pages of a new book, the mind racing with possibilities. I wish I had the time and money to buy new books every single day, but most of them are about 500 pages long so each new one keeps me set for quite a while.

Q: Did you have any antecedents to what you wanted to do with Wondermark?
A: It’s funny how you can look around as an adult, see what you’re doing with your life, then trace it back and realize you were doing it as a kid, too. Back then, my dad subscribed to a flying magazine (he was a pilot), and every month they had a caption contest with a flying cartoon. Reading the new issue, reading all the submitted captions, and submitting my own was the highlight of my month, and I’m sure that helped teach me how something like a cartoon can be totally recontextualized by the presence of different captions.

Thinking back, I remember I also used to white-out the dialogue balloons in the funny papers to write my own jokes, or put photocopies of “Peanuts” books against a window, trace over them and make up my own stories. I also fell into a career as a movie-trailer editor — as an adult, not a Snoopy-tracing kid — which is basically the same thing: taking provided material and creating something new with it.

So in different ways, I seem to have always been developing a skill set that led to this. But that’s always the case, right? You do the things you’ve learned how to do. You don’t do the things you haven’t learned how to do.

Q: Have you ever been interested in collage as gallery or fine art?
A: I did a T-shirt design a few months ago that was just a really elaborate, design-y collage, and I was really gratified by the result. So I think, as I continue to grow and play around with my style, it may be in that or a similar direction. I also like putting work into something — recontexutalizing it lets me put a stamp on it. Otherwise I’m just reprinting.

I’d never given any thought to gallery-type work until I visited a gallery where some of my friends were exhibiting, and I started to think “How in the world could I get my pieces into a gallery?” I figured I’d have to adapt my style into more of an illustrative or design technique, rather than just making comic strips. In bits and pieces I’ve been feeling my way into that direction, but not in a mercenary way, just because I’m always trying to bend my technique in new ways. If nothing else, thinking of my work in a broader artistic context is valuable insofar as it inspires me to do more interesting things with the comics.

I’d never seen Max Ernst’s work until after I’d been doing the strip a while and a ton of people recommended I take a look. I checked out one of his retrospectives from of the library and devoured it. I love it! But one thing that’s interesting is that his audiences never saw the stuff he used for collage as art. It was marketing ephemera from a few decades prior — the equivalent of, say, ’80s clip-art to us. The art of his work came entirely from what he did with it. In fact, here’s my favorite quote from the library book:

“It is important to realize that even precise knowledge of the sources Ernst made use of for his collages and paintings does not help us understand them, for he cut away and obscured the meaning of the original image in the course of making his own work. In fact, knowledge of his sources only blinds us to the poetry of the final image.”

I love that idea — clearly, I think there’s value in the recontextualization process as well, and sometimes when I look through my old books gauging whether some image will work for a comic, it can be very distracting to read the caption — but I’m also very respectful of the craft that went into the creation of all these old woodcuts and engravings, and try to make that clear in the way that I work with them and make them work for me. Those dead guys from 130 years ago can draw a lot better than I can, so in a way, it elevates my game.

Q: Have you ever experimented with more modern clip art?
A: I have, a little. In my first collection, I have some samples of an aborted project called “Wondermark 2099”, which used modern clip-art. Obviously David Rees has made great work of really banal clip-art in “Get Your War On” and his other projects, but I think the key there is that his office-guys are just mouthpieces for his writing. There’s no inherent value to the clip-art itself, which gives the words that much more weight in contrast. (Compare this approach to the stick-figures in “xkcd” — in both cases, the more abstracted the character, the more easily the audience can identify with it.) “PartiallyClips” is another comic that uses cheesy clip-art as a sort of blank backdrop for gag writing. And no discussion of clip-art comics would be complete without mentioning “Dinosaur Comics”, which has, through the use of the exact same pictures of dinosaurs every day, developed its key characters surprisingly richly over the years. So there are a lot of approaches, and usually they involve using the clip-art as a stand upon which to prop writing.

That’s true for me as well, but I also feel that in Wondermark, the images are (in greater or lesser proportion depending on the particular strip) a key part of the whole effect. There was nothing in the modern clip-art I experimented with that was compelling from a graphic standpoint.

Once I tried a strip where my usual Victorian characters encountered a time-traveler from 1980s-clipart-land, and it didn’t work because the whole premise of my strip is to ignore anachronism. My characters don’t live in 1885. They live in today, and they just have really amazing fashion sense.

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