An Interview With Dylan Meconis

Posted by Tobias Carroll

At last year’s Stumptown Comics Convention, I found myself in a room watching a discussion of comics and history. I knew one of the participants, Kate Beaton, from her excellent Hark! A Vagrant. I was less familiar with the other one: a writer and artist named Dylan Meconis. Given the examples of her work that appeared during the panel — smart use of dialogue, an eye for detail, and a sense of pacing that recalls that of Carla Speed McNeill —  my interest was piqued.

A few days later, I was in a coffee shop elsewhere in Oregon, working on making some headway on a novel in progress. Taking a break from that, I decided to give Meconis’s graphic novel Family Man a look. An hour and a half later, I realized that I was hooked; promptly pre-ordered the first print edition, and have been checking back for weekly updates ever since. The story of a young academic in eighteenth-century Germany, Family Man encompasses religious and intellectual clashes and bonds familial and otherwise; its themes and connections to Meconis’s other work were among the topics we discussed recently via email.

Family Man‘s storyline both specifically invokes and incorporates parallels across a series of belief systems. Seeing how these arguments have been explored over the course of the story so far has been one of the high points of reading it. How much of the structure did you have in mind from the beginning? 
I knew when I actually started writing it that I wanted conflicting belief systems to be a big part of the story and appear on multiple levels. (The biggest conflict in the story hasn’t even fully turned up yet.)

I started out with a protagonist, Luther Levy, who already felt torn between two intersecting identities (Jewish heritage, Pietist Christianity) and begins the story having chosen a third identity (rationalist atheism) that makes him feel intellectually honest but personally miserable.

And I knew I wanted the story to challenge him even more, to confront him with a set of people who have even more dramatic conflicts of identity, belief, and choice; I like to joke that the story is about how Luther discovers he’s not the protagonist. The exact structure of how that happens has shifted since I first started working, but that basic set-up and the essential characters involved are the same.

From what I’ve read so far, there are also signs of — for lack of a better word — a more animist tradition at work in the village as well. Was that intended as a kind of counterpoint to the counterpoint?
Very definitely. That will turn up more in this next volume.

The way I present those first three traditions is that they are all focused on the intellectual side of spiritual experience and are refereed by a class of privileged, literate men. I wanted to include a form of religion that would have been written off by those men as primitive and “feminine.” Animist and shamanic religions were (and are) often quite complex, and some are really designed to empower the people typically at the bottom of the social ladder – women, children, slaves or other “untouchables.”

Different versions of some of these characters appeared in an earlier work of yours. Given the differences in style and tone between Family Man and Bite Me!, what prompted the overlap, rather than creating entirely new characters?
Originally, before it had a title, Family Man was going to be a “prequel” to Bite Me!, with much of the same silly tone but with fancier art. The three initial main characters in Bite Me! all got to spool out their ridiculous French vampire origin stories at some point, but we never actually find out why that version of Luther (a cranky German werewolf) is hanging out with them, except that he’s friends with Lucien.

I thought it would be fun to go back to this character’s idealist youth and show how he came to be a werewolf with a vampire pal. I was going to set up a running joke where Luther as a young academic is weathering all of these wacky lycanthropic hijinks but is oblivious to  the fact that his new friend bursts into flames in direct sunlight, etc.

Then I thought about it some more and the story took a turn for the serious and complex. I didn’t think I could pull off changing the names and pretending it was a totally new thing – people would see through it, and I actually had story reasons to keep a lot of the things that would be giveaways if I didn’t alter them.

So I decided it would be acceptable to confuse and torture my readers with a lot of strange parallels and false spoilers. I have plenty of stories in mind for the future that have nothing and nobody in common with these two books, though. Honest.

Now that the first collected edition is out, have you found that there are any readers reading Family Man exclusively in print?
Certainly there are – people I’ve sold books to at conventions or who have received one as a gift (or even ordered for themselves online, sight unseen, demonstrating a touching faith in my abilities). Some people have read a chunk online but really prefer book format. And I’m sorting out distribution so I can reach more comic book stores and independent bookshops, which I think will increase the number of people who only know it on paper.

I’ve always intended it to be read as a book, so I’m quite happy to have print readers. They’re also the ones guaranteed to have financially contributed at some point, which I appreciate immensely. I love that there’s now a way for somebody reading the comic and me buying groceries to be directly connected activities.

How do you balance pacing between the eventual print edition and the current online serialization?
In terms of story pacing, I like to make sure every page has an overall visual unity and depicts a satisfying standalone chunk of action or dialogue. I don’t like to start new scenes halfway down a page or have too many sentences cut in half by a page change unless it works to create suspense between updates. The fact that I create an entire page start to finish before moving on to the next one helps me balance out the two influences.

Has anything been revised between its appearance online and its placement in the collected edition? And if not, have you been tempted to do so?

Not much. I extended the art out by a quarter inch so that the images run seamlessly past the edge of the printed page. I fixed one or two glaring anatomy clunkers and some text errors.

But I didn’t redraw any pages. That seemed like a good way to never put the book out, even if it would make looking at some of the early parts of the story much gentler on my ego. I think that’s a trap many cartoonists fall into when self-publishing. For me, “I need this book in time to sell at Comic-Con 2010” was a good excuse to not look back.

Eventually the story will be collected in a single omnibus, and that’s when I’d consider overhauling some of the early art.

Are plans in the works for a second collected edition?
Of course! I just need to draw (and write) another hundred pages or so, something I’m committing to doing in less time that it took me to pull off the first book. I have a serious leap of faith and a lot of hard work ahead of me. The details of publication are a minor consideration in comparison to all that work

You talked about ideas beyond Bite Me! and Family Man — has work begun on any of them? Does your working method lend itself to working on simultaneous longform projects?
Right now I’m drawing a single-issue comic called Outfoxed, which is a sort of cautionary fable about friendship and ambition. I have about four other book-sized projects and several short pieces I would love to work on, too.

Really the problem for me is never the having of ideas, it’s investing the time, having faith that they’ll find a place in the world, and doing them in the right order. And making sure I remember to pay the rent while I work on them.

As for working method, I never seem to work the same way twice, which means I’m constantly challenged but also constantly worried I’m doing it wrong. I’m sure some day I’ll find my rhythm (or have one imposed on me), but for now every day is still an experiment.