We’re All Alive, in Spite of Death: Dan Goldman on the State of Comics Culture

We talk with transmedia writer and creator of the breakout Red Light Properties Dan Goldman about how he spent Free Comic Book Day and the state of comics culture in general.

It’s hard not to get behind Dan Goldman and his very unique, very gifted brand of creativity. Why is that, Dear Reader? Because it’s hard to not get involved in his vision of creativity. Involved in, in the same sense that the poet-speaker in TS Eliot’s “Hysteria” ”became involved in” got involved in that sublime, otherworldly laughter.

It’s a sense of involvement that comes almost directly from Goldman’s own sense of engagement with the world around him. A kind of fearlessness that he wears with a certain amount of pride, and on his sleeve, like a samurai who’s master’s been slain, but nevertheless presses on. And this quality isn’t more clearly demonstrated than when we approach a cultural reference that Goldman has no access to in his direct experience.

We’d just been talking about Jude, Goldman’s protagonist in the Red Light Properties series of original graphic novels, being an working analogy for the isolation of the artist. Much like Joss Whedon’s majestic vision of Tony Stark who calls the Iron Man armor a “terrible privilege,” Jude has been suffering through an incredible gift. Jude is psychic, and is susceptible to the cries of the dead. It’s been no easy time for him, but in the grand tradition of the American Dream, Jude’s cashed in built a business around his gift. Even if using that gift comes at a steep psychic (by which I, like Jonathan Franzen, mean emotional, and not spirit-sensing) price.

The more Jude uses his gift, the more his able to build a financial infrastructure and a lifestyle to support his loved ones. But the more he uses his gift, the more he’s isolated from those same loved ones and the world he builds for them. In one beautiful characterization, Goldman captures perfectly that sadness and emotional exhaustion that we all experienced collectively in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown.

It’s easy to from there, especially given Goldman’s formulation of Jude as an artist, to make the leap to Jude being a metaphor for the artist in the midst of the creative process. My view of this is colorized by, if not entirely prompted by, an earlier exchange where us speaking about how Goldman spent last Saturday, Free Comic Book Day (for those in the know, >Stan Lee, winkRed Light OGN, Underwater. There’s an element of Drake’s “Light Up” to the mood, when I move on and ask if venue makes any difference.

“It doesn’t matter as I barely am there.” Goldman responds after a measured pause, “I’m sticking my head through the laptop screen into Red Light Properties’ world. Most of the time I forget where I am. It’s disorienting, popping out… disorienting or worse—when chickens are clucking or music distracts me. I take headphones with me when I write in cafes or restaurants too in case our soundtracks are incompatible. Music with lyrics is murder for my thinking—I start typing song lyrics instead of whats in my own mind.”

After another longer pause, he concludes, “I tend to work wherever I can, its dangerous for me to travel sans laptop or at bare minimum notebook/pens.”

So Goldman’s unique, highly portable, ever mobile creative process colorizes my intuitions and expectations when I ask the question later in the interview about the likelihood of Jude being a metaphor for the almost self-exclusion imposed by the creative process, maybe this is even true for Goldman himself, I ponder, but don’t ask out loud. I frame the question by resorting to something from the distant past, that I never experienced first firsthand but only later in time through a grainy third-generation copy on VHS (remember VHS? Think back far enough and you still won’t be able to).

I summon up the image of BritPop troubadour and thespian Paul Essex doing music video cover of “Close Every Door,” from the Webber-Rice musical. In the video, Essex crafts the story of Joseph’s exclusion from his family, as a result of being imprisoned in Egypt, as an analogy for Essex’s exclusion from his own family while studying to play the part of Joseph on stage. I use that image and ask Goldman if it’s a comfortable fit, if he’s doing something similar with Jude and the creative process (possibly his own creative process, although I don’t say that).

There’s a momentary pause and then, Goldman dives right in. He’s not familiar the reference, and why should he be? But he dives right in nevertheless. “It is true in a sense, that some doors close down for Jude. But other doors are open, ones invisible to most. It’s literally true in Jude’s case.”

Not only does Goldman dive into the unfamiliar waters of a popcultural reference he doesn’t have immediate, firsthand access to, not only does he intuitively grasp it almost at once, but he leverages it to begin to talk about something that correctly identifies more clearly with a more mass-based, more recent work of popculture. Webber and Rice’s iconic ‘80s ultra-pop modernization of the Joseph story has a deep connection with Harry Potter’s struggle to both find acceptance in and freedom from the Muggle world in JK Rowling’s novels. Goldman offers this clash of popcultural steel as an almost throwaway thought, a kind of distraction almost.

We pick up the thread of the interview by returning again to a discussion of the story itself. When we left Jude, and this was really part of the real-world struggle for most of the first Red Light Properties book, he was teetering on the cusp of financial ruin. Red Light Properties, run out of that beachfront Miami office, was about to be foreclosed on. Where’re we head next? Where’s Goldman going to lead us.

“And we’ve also pulled their financial asses out of the frying pan (avoiding foreclosure),” he continues, “But improved business only exacerbates the problems that split up Jude and Ceci in the first place. So that’s going to get much worse

and their relationship infects all other parts of Red Light Properties.” There’s another momentary pause as if Goldman considers making a digression, but then he continues on the same vector, “In the first scene in Underwater, Cecilia’s talking about how their business has quadrupled in a week after their referrals from the Jentas started coming in. And we’ll immediately step in the doggy doo-doo the moment Jude arrives in the scene. On multiple levels. The scripting’s getting denser, I’m really happy with what’s coming out, though I need to be drawing the new pages already.”

We talk a little about some off-the-record stuff about the actual pages’ content. Stuff you and I, Dear Reader, will talk about in hushed tones a little closer to Underwater’s release date. But eventually we wend our way back to the territory we always wend our way back to—the creative process, the steep psychic price, the sadness and the suffering and the rise of the human spirit how exorcism becomes a vibrant and vital metaphor for just being human.

“We’re all alive, in spite of death,” Goldman almost whispers.

He composes himself and continues, “Its very phoenixy to me.” And we loop in to speaking about resources Goldman draws on, emotional, intellectual and otherwise. Especially the kind of emotional and creative resilience it requires to continue making comics in a time when the medium is so marginalized and at a time when fan culture so dominates. We talk about a dedication to art, and the resilience it takes to never have a Plan B. Goldman dismisses it as “bone-headedness,” then chuckles.

“God, that’s the bone-headness that’s a huge part of my own life. I mean, I’m making forking comicbooks,” although to be honest, he might not have said “forking,” despite his work being deeply reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ “Garden of the Forking Paths.” Goldman loops into talking about Marc Maron’s WTF podcast as a rich resource. “I sent Maron a copy of Red Light Properties, I hope he reads it. I listened to a lot of WTF while working on Red Light Properties down in Brazil. Anyhow, let me speak to the question as its a good one: The best comedy (and drama, etc) has elements of failure and a realizing of one’s perspective in the “playing field” of the ego. And I’m writing Jude’s work (and his thinking about his own work/role) as a kind of artist. I mean that in the ego-sense of being an artist. As in you versus the normals, pushing against the world to get your viewpoint heard and understood.”

It’s at this point that I think about the implications of exactly where Dan Goldman is leading us. About why Dan might withdraw from promoting the idea of comics to the choir of comics fans already in comicbook story on FCBD, and instead make comics for those who haven’t yet turned that corner. About why that ending to the original Red Light Properties, the one on the beach, feels so damned much like our generation’s “I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

In the backdrop to my thoughts, Goldman says “So much of that issue of the viability of comics is distribution and/or marketplace. Getting Graphic Novels into bookstores was a huge step, but they don’t really sell all that well there. Not without a TV show, at least.” Then in another almost whisper, “there’s no magic bullet yet.”

A generation ago, comics culture could easily point to three radically unprecedented success that seemed to point to a wide-scale cultural acceptance of the viability of comics as a creative medium. In 1983, Katsuhiro Otomo won a Science Fiction Grand Prix for his graphic novel Domu: A Child’s Dream, and not a decade later, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess won a World Fantasy Award for Sandman’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and the very next year Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for MAUS. They were three shining moments, and moments ready to be pointed to, to demonstrate the full potential of comics. But times do change, and the past is no longer enough. Goldman stands on the cusp of a new argument being made for transmedia, and the inherent transmedia nature of comics. That one story simply can no longer be confined to a single medium.

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