Thursday, January 7, 2010

For the Love of Comics #07: Dan Goldman's Red Light Properties


Words and Pictures: Seth Kushner

Dan Goldman has been on the forefront of publishing comics on the internet. He was a founding member of the webcomics collective,, where he published his strip, Kelly. He then serialized his web-to-print Eisner-nominated collaboration with writer Anthony Lappe,Shooting War on Dan followed that with the book, 08: A Graphic Diary Of The Campaign Trail(with Michael Crowley). His new work, Red Light Properties just started appearing on
Dan has spoken at many conferences about online comics and digital distribution, including SXSW, The Miami Book Fair and at M.I.T.

Dan, a recent New Yorker, by way of Miami, just moved with his wife, jewelry design Liliam Higa, to her native Brazil. I recently spoke with Dan over e-mail, me from my cramped Brooklyn apartment, with snow covering my windowsill, and he from Sao Paulo, where it's late Spring/early Summer, and "hot and muggy as a bastard."

Seth Kushner: I know that Red Light Properties is an idea you've had for a long time; were does it come from?

Dan Goldman: I've always been fascinated with the idea of ghosts, of places holding onto echoes of their inhabitants; when I was a kid in Florida, I spent a summer riding my bike to the library everyday and reading every book on ghost photography I could get my hands on... It probably had to do with me losing one of my grandfathers early on and seeing him hanging around our house for a few years afterwards. But when you cross that obsession and sensitivity with a love of history and culture, all of a sudden those echoes contain music, permes, context... and there's a certain romance to that, of old times that have passed on but still remain.

Fast forward to 2001, and I'd had this idea about a realty office that specializes in exorcizing and listing previously-haunted houses; the first draft of the story actually took place in New York, which (no disrespect) is practically the default setting for every American comic story and unless you're Will Eisner or David Mazzuchelli, about as original as buttered toast. I'd visited my mom in South Florida later that year, having been away for a long time, and driving slowly down Collins Ave looking at the architecture, my imagination started fizzling... and I couldn't imagine the story taking place anywhere but Miami. I've spent the last eight years writing and sculpting this story.

SK: You employed a style of illustrated photo-realism for Shooting War and Kelly, and then went for a stark Black and White, graphic design-y approach of 08, how are you approaching Red Light Properties stylistically?

DG: The style I'm using for Red Light Properties is closest to Kelly in my opinion, though it's an evolution from it.

What was most difficult for me previously, with both Kelly and Shooting War, was taking that digital collage approach and bending that 2D reality to serve my storytelling. I've spend a good deal of time this year learning the 3D modeling program Maya and working with an architectural rendering engine to create virtual sets. Instead of recreating the sense of reality from scratch every time the point of view is changed (which is a complete pain in the ass to me), the environment can be created just once, and then be rotated, shot, relit, redecorated, and rendered with a few clicks while remaining as perfect as the first time I created it. It's a new technique for me and it's allowed a lot more fluidity to my storytelling than I've had before, and though I'm still finding my legs with it, it's definitely letting me "sell" Miami as a setting on a level I wasn't able to before. Beyond that, I really enjoy drawing characters by hand in Illustrator; I obsess over their performances as they deliver their lines, their silent expressions and gestures. They're what carries the story for me, and everything around them serves the spirit of what they're doing.

SK: Looking at just the first installment, I was struck by how different the format is from other webcomics, even your previous ones.  Panels are laid out in dynamic shapes, and the "next" button reveals further panels and word balloons on each page, giving the reader a distinctive and unique interactive experience. Were these features a product of you embracing the potential of a digital platform, and how was involved in the process?

DG: Yes, it's part of a continuing exploration of ways to make comics work better on screens in ways you couldn't on paper, while still keeping them comics.

Everything done with that "reveal mechanic" is just an added pacing-toy for the online reader; when the page is fully-revealed, that's how it'll look on the printed page... so you make the screen-reading experience special in its own way.

That mechanic is something I've been playing with for much of last year; it started when I received a "have you seen this yet?" email from Vin Deighan (aka Frank Quitely) with a link to Balak01'a DeviantArt page. Seeing Balak01's idea pushed the edges out for me with where I wanted to push both ACT-I-VATE and Shooting War but lacked the support; my panelist crew on my SXSW Interactive "Comics on Handhelds" panel all had seen it already and we talked about it over Texas-Thai food.

Around that time, I'd been commissioned by AMC Digital to create an original webcomic serial to build out their reboot of The Prisoner using new characters; I wrote one of the weirdest thing yet, and incorporated some of these panel-swipe ideas into my 4-page proof-of-concept for them. In the end, it turned out that they wanted was motion comics.Which turned out to be a blessing for me, because I'd created this new thing and was free to use it in something dear and personal to me, RLP. When Pablo and I started hammering out the details for how we were going to present the series, I showed him my work on The Prisoner and he started talking about their revamped comics-viewer they were working on and how he wanted to incorporate this idea into it.

So we had a few months of ping-pong getting the interface right and testing things... but I had no idea it was going to be used on comics going forward.That makes me very proud.I've also been playing a lot with more dynamic layouts since working on "08" and this short piece I had in Popgun Vol. 2, studying lots of seinen manga and Russian futurist design from the '20s and '30s. Recently, when I first saw JH Williams' layouts on his "Batwoman" serial at DC, adding these passions of mine to visual storytelling, it was he'd lodged an Alka-Seltzer in my brain and everything started fizzing.

JH's work is killing me right now; I feel like I'm learning things page after page, and it makes me feel lazy every time a new issue comes out, despite whatever I'm doing in my work.

SK: Your comics work is considered "non-traditional" in that you use modern technology like a tablet and cintiq rather than paper and pencil. How did you come to this new 21st century way of working, and what would you say to your critics? 

DG: I remember seeing Bill Sienkiewicz's Elektra: Assassin around the age of ten, a living thing on fire with fearless innovation and crackling with energy, and it completely blew my gourd. All other comics flattened and dulled to my eyes forever. I could never go back and still can't. Years later, with digital tools like tablets and Photoshop and Maya, I'm able to play in my own ways with comics, so the idea of mimicking older comic styles for the hoary old sake of "maintaining the craft" seems very small-minded when the possibilities are so very infinite.

SK: One can say that you're on the forefront of a the digital comics movement. Where do you see webcomics going in the future, for the industry and for Dan Goldman?

DG: I'm no Che Guevara, but I get around some; mostly I like to talk about the parallel evolution of comics into digital spaces alongside film/music/etc to places where those other media are being discussed and have our medium's evolution stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the others. I've learned a huge amount about where comics can/will go talking about digital distribution of films at SXSW Interactive a few years back; the parallels are so clear. The publishing world is scrambling to reconfigure itself, but I firmly believe comics will weather this storm with flying colors; it's a visual communication medium just happens to look pretty on both small and large screens.

This past year was when it became an inevitable part of our industry's conversation, but these ideas are hardly new. The business of digital music delivery that crumbled the record industry owes to Scott McCloud's micropayment ideas from, what, ten years ago, and proven subscription models from Netflix and iTunes are being incorporated into delivery systems like Longbox and others. I think the answer to where comics are going is: everywhere. They're going to be on all manner of devices for entertainment and instructional purposes.

And it's wonderful, coming from a place ten years ago when we were concerned if comics would even be around in 2010 to see them exploding from every screen, monitor, cinema, game console and even bookshelves. If that's scary to a cartoonist, they need therapy; we're finally going to get our due as storytellers of the highest order, if we're smart enough to captain ourselves accordingly. For me, all I want to do is continue using comics to talk about what I think about the world, telling stories that I know people will appreciate and connect to, and along the way figuring out new ways to make my work faster and prettier. Faster output means more story faster, which means more time outside and less time indoors at the desk. Don't get me wrong, I need to tell stories like I need to drink water, but there's more to me and more to life than just that.

Having recently moved from Brooklyn to Brazil, how do you feel your new environment and lifestyle is affecting your work?

DG: It's only been a month since I arrived in São Paulo, but I'm healthier and much more relaxed, thanks. I'm feeling incredibly inspired here, from the architecture to the food, the music, the warmth of the people, the convenience of metropolitan life at a fraction of the cost. The city is a complete chaos of people and traffic constantly streaming through the streets, but the difference is it's hopeful. The whole nation works together to preserve what they have and make it the best they can, like the soul of Brasil exists in a future they're all working towards together. I can get behind that, you know? I feel like I've moved from the twentieth century to the twenty-first... and the fruits here are very, very sweet.

Dan Goldman's webcomic, Red Light Properties launched on on January 5th. Check back every Tuesday for further installments.