Tuesday, July 26, 2011

FYC replay: The Scribbler with Dan Schaffer

Here's another one from the vaults - a look at my Pulse column spotlighting the OGN from Dan Schaffer, the Scribbler. His artwork is akin to Bill Sienkiewicz or Dave McKean (without the multimedia aspect) and that style worked incredibly well with this story about mental illness. You should definitely seek it out. And here's why:

For Your Consideration: Dan Schaffer’s The Scribbler

By Chris Beckett


Daniel Schaffer, the creator of Dogwitch, is a creator whose art and storytelling have evolved with each subsequent creation. Come inside and check out his most recent offering, 2006’s The Scribbler and discover an artist working to expand his personal horizons and strengthen the medium of comics.

The 411:

The Scribbler

Art & Story by Daniel Schaffer

96 pp. b/w


Image comics

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Strange voices linger on the periphery of Suki’s consciousness. She has multiple personality disorder, and it has eroded away her life for too long. Dr. Sinclair is now using an experimental technique involving a Siamese burn module, a device that sends low-level voltage through targeted areas of the brain. This self-prescribed electro-shock therapy is meant to regulate the synaptic firings of the brain and bring the disparate personalities back in line. A cutting edge treatment, Suki experiences no physical pain, but the dreams induced while the device is running are incredible.

This treatment has worked so well that Suki is now able to take up residence in a halfway house called Juniper Tower. It’s a step forward for her, but things start inauspiciously at the Tower – called Jumpers Tower by some – as a suicide jumper lands fatally at Suki’s feet just as she approaches the front door. Not the best introduction for one with a fragile state of mind.

Inside, things are a bit tamer as Suki meets the Easter Bunny, Cleopatra, and Stigmata Steve and also gets a visit from an old friend also living in Juniper Tower. Hogan was ostensibly cured the last Suki knew, but trying to slash his wrists managed to get him re-committed. They catch up, discuss the residents of the tower, and then get more intimately reacquainted. Afterward, Suki sees Hogan out of her room and plugs in the Siamese burn unit, allowing herself to fall into her dreams. When she awakes, it is three days later and a dog is now living in Suki’s room.

Distressed that the machine has been running the entire time she was asleep when it should have turned itself off after five hours, Suki goes for a walk. Living on the sixteenth floor of the tower, Suki steps into the elevator, which – when it threatens to break down and suffocate her – compels her to take the stairs. In the stairwell, Suki’s day goes from bad to worse as she meets Alice, one of Hogan’s ex-girlfriends. A pusher, Alice sends Suki down one flight of stairs and then another before telling her to send Hogan home if she sees him.

Suki continues to use the Siamese burn unit as instructed, and days keep dissolving away. The voices that had been receding increase their chatter, while in the tower proper more apparent suicides occur as an escalating number of patients find solace diving into the pavement. With things spiraling out of control, Suki begins to wonder what connection she might have with the increasing rate of suicides in Juniper Tower.

Despite the troubling aspects of the Tower, at least Suki only has one extra personality left, the Scribbler. It’s just too bad this personality seems to be ascending during the therapy sessions as evidenced by the many notes written backwards now plastering Suki’s walls. Things are coalescing, a vortex forming around those missing days that now haunts Suki, posing the question: what will the outcome bring for her and for all the other inhabitants of Jumpers Tower?

Dan Schaffer has created a taut, suspenseful story that begins as a meditation on the mentally ill and eventually turns into a criminal mystery. Schaffer’s writing is sharp, parsing out pieces of this puzzle in short bursts, heightening the suspense of the tale before unleashing the climax in one longer final act. Revealing the dominance of the Scribbler, Schaffer pulls together all the varied threads while leaving room for interpretation by his audience. This is a book that can be enjoyed on a couple of different levels and rewards those returning for subsequent readings.

And the art provided by Schaffer is fantastic. A combination of painting and digital enhancement that he first used in Indigo Vertigo, the graphic novel on which he collaborated with writer/singer Katiejane Garside, the imagery springing forth from Dan Schaffer’s brush is reminiscent of some of Bill Sienkiewicz’s less abstract artwork. Despite being in black and white, Schaffer is able to layer his artwork, using light and dark to give the book a more intense feeling than if it had been rendered with a more traditional pen and ink style. The Scribbler is a sharp melding of words and pictures that showcases the breadth of possibilities for comics. With his next project, Schaffer hopes to take another evolutionary step with his artwork and storytelling, pushing the envelope of what can be done within the medium. I am anxious to see where Schaffer will go next with his comic work; he’s a creator to watch. Experimental, engaging, and entertaining – what more could one ask for?

An Interview with Dan Schaffer:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Dan Schaffer: I couldn't decide if I wanted to be an artist or a writer! When I started working in comics I didn't know anything about the industry or the direct market or fandom or superheroes or any of that. I grew up on British punk comics from the late seventies, old war comics, bizarre French science fiction, and I came into the business just as the light from the nineties indie comics explosion was fading. I'm not sure what's going on in comics now or why I’m still here. Hardly anything in the current comics market makes any sense to me at all.

Beckett: While trying not to divulge too much in The Scribbler, I was impressed with how you laid the bread crumbs for the final revelation in the book. It's difficult to make something like that flow naturally through the narrative without giving away the ending and still have readers be able to piece it together once they reach the climax. How did you approach this aspect of the story and did it involve much editing on your part?

Schaffer: I'm not very good at deconstructing my work retrospectively, mainly because I write intuitively in the early stages, collecting ideas until they reach critical mass and fall out onto paper. At that point I usually don't know what I'm doing. I'm just following a feeling. But then I go digging through the mess looking for clues and, once I’ve found them, I start editing, moulding the story around these clues and building onto a thematic framework. With The Scribbler, it all started with the concept of the Siamese Burn Module - a machine designed to cure disassociative disorder - and I just followed it from there. I'm not sure how I ended up exactly where I did, challenging concepts of good and evil and all that, but the multiple personalities were always intended to be personifications of Suki’s skills, dreams, and ideas, with the mute Scribbler being a physical representation of her individuality. This is the one that won’t go down without a fight. Instead, it rises to the challenge, grows bigger to fill in the gaps and, in essence, becomes an evolutionary step above the bureaucracy of everyday life. The Scribbler started out as quite a small, intimate little story. The psychological and thriller aspects were kind of deliberate but the unusual ending was a logical conclusion of events and themes, and that more or less wrote itself. I'm sure I got criticized for it, but there was really no other way to go. I had to be very careful not to break the aesthetic distance of that book. It had its own logic.

Beckett: The two books of yours I've read - The Scribbler and Indigo Vertigo - have been black and white, but the artwork seems to be painted. Is this the case, or is it a digital facsimile, and how did you develop your art style?

Schaffer: It's part paint and part digital. It was a style I developed for Indigo [Vertigo] to suit Katiejane's writing, but three years of intricate line art on Dogwitch was making my fingers hurt so I'd been looking to do something new for a while anyway. Indigo Vertigo was set in a surreal world of underwater imagery and strange metaphors, so I needed an art style that could visually display the tone and mood of Katie's writing as well as illustrating the story between the lines. I paint using only black and white paints, then scan the artwork and layer it with home made digital filters. I recently did the same thing in colour for the first time on a comic short called Lesions in the Brain (also a collaboration with Katiejane Garside), but most of the time I prefer working in black and white.

Beckett: With these last two books, you've worked as the artist in a collaborative capacity, and you've worked as the sole creator. What benefits - and, conversely, what drawbacks - are there for you in each process, and do you approach each process at all differently?

Schaffer: When you're working alone, your focus point is somewhere in the middle of your own head, but with a collaboration it's all about finding that same point between yourself and somebody else. Generally speaking, I've never been interested in collaborating with anyone in comics. Maybe as a writer, but certainly not as an artist. Trying to stick rigidly to someone else's script would drive me crazy. Working with Katiejane was kind of a special case. We weren't following any structural rules of storytelling with the art or the narrative, and we had a pretty tight creative connection at the time so we could trust each other to approach everything organically without going off the mission profile. So, the closer we stayed to the intuitive end of the process the better because we were trying to communicate on a different level, subliminally or subjectively, through a sort of dream logic. That kind of collaboration appeals to me. Being somebody’s pencil monkey doesn’t excite me in the slightest.

Beckett: I would think creating a book dealing with psychological disorders would be a daunting task. How much research did you do for The Scribbler, and is the technique used for rehabilitating Suki's multiple personalities something created by you whole-cloth, or did you come across it in your research?

Schaffer: The Siamese Burn Therapy is a metaphor for the machine-like nature of authority or the general rigidity of the modern world. Seems like the more free we get and the more enlightened we become, the more we tie ourselves up with rules and regulations. The idea of a machine that resets you back to normal mental health displays a certain arrogant assumption that the people who made the machine know what mental health is. I've spent a lot of time researching various forms of psychology, I live in a house with psychologists so the place is filled with text books, but The Scribbler isn't really about that stuff. It's all just a metaphor for life in the twenty-first century where everyone is expected to think in a particular way or do their jobs by the book without question, and this kind of spreadsheet-mentality leaves no room for personal style. Individuality is slowly becoming outlawed. To me, that’s insanity. Surely we don’t want to live like ants, right? The Scribbler is basically saying that the more you suppress people's creativity, the more creative they will become. It's an optimistic book looking towards a world where the people with all the answers finally realise they don't know shit and stop hassling the rest of us with their theories.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Schaffer: The third Dogwitch trade, “Mood Swings,” should finally hit the shelves later this year. There's a new comic project on my desk called Killdarlings which I hope to finish drawing soon. It's part horror, part brutal Hollywood satire. It's actually more twisted than Dogwitch, I think. Both the art and storytelling styles are a bit experimental 'cause I wouldn't want to stop doing things the hard way. Outside of comics I've been writing for film. I sold a screenplay last year called Doghouse. That's due to start shooting in a couple of months with Jake West (Evil Aliens) directing.

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