I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Dave Chisholm to discuss his new work, his old work, and his complete fascination with the connectivity of comics and music...and much more. Dave is a cartoonist and jazz trumpeter, dabbling in composition with both music and comics. Dave is also an educator who loves to focus on the form of music and comics.
Dave's work includes Instrumental, a graphic novel/soundtrack experience. His most recent work was Chasin' the Bird: Charlie Parker in California, a commissioned work delving into a stretch of time in the life of the famed jazz saxophonist (which is also nominated for a 2021 Eisner Award for Best Publication Design)...see POP's January 2021 review here. Canopus, an auteur creation of Dave's, will be receiving a trade paperback release September 21st, 2021. Originally released through four single issues over 2020, Canopus is a sci-fi thriller full of heart, comedy, and horror.
Austin Kemp/POP: So I was immediately hooked from the title page. It reminded me of George Melies’ film, A Trip to the Moon, which many people consider the first science fiction film. Was this something that was intentional?
Dave Chisholm/DC: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I definitely use the moon from that film in the logo for the book. So the tricky thing about talking about this book is that I don't want to spoil anything for anybody that hasn't read it. But I would also like to speak to people who have read it. So here's a question: Is this interview more like an interview for people who read the series when it came out? Or is this more like hype for people who haven't read it yet? What do you think?
POP: I would say, let's go for the latter one. Let's say this is for someone who has not read it.
DC: So the answer for that is the face on the moon is on purpose. It's purposeful. And it has to do with the story, but I don't want to spoil anything about the story. So that's all I'm gonna say is it's on purpose. It was not just a cool, hey, that's a hip hipster movie hip design. It's, hey, this is this. There's more to it than that, you know? Yeah, it's like an Easter egg or something like that.
POP: While reading Canopus, I was reminded of Mitch Gerads’ work on Mister Miracle, one of my absolute favorite books, because of the traditional structuring that I know you've spoken of previously. That traditional three-panel-per-tier structure. It creates a sense of normalcy that just makes it so easy to align these story elements with disruptions that have weighty, impactful ideas and themes behind them.
DC: Right, right. Yeah. Yeah. That's really a huge honor. I love Mitch’s work.
POP: One of the things that really affected me about Canopus was the formal approach you used in the memory sequences. When Dr. Sterling finds the doll and a cascade of panels erupts in a really visceral way as it flows across the page. The overlapping panels let me feel and share the physical effect these memories are having on Helen . My question is: was this sequence something you always had mapped out in your head, and was it hard to transfer from your mind to the page?
DC: You know, it's inspired by a sequence in the graphic novel Asterios Polyp. If you haven't read that, you should. It's by David Mazzucchelli, the guy that drew Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again, but it's very different from those books. And basically there's a scene in that book where a character is cutting his toenails. It reminds him of a moment he had with his ex, and then that leads to a bunch of other memories that all collide together in these overlapping panels. Then it ends with him back cutting his toenails, you know? And so it's sort of like that directly inspired this guy. So to answer the first part of your question, this was definitely part of this project from the beginning. Crafting a real, fairly rigid sense of normal for the story proper. And then to have the flashbacks be a really aggressive abnormal interruption. Interruptions through the course of the story where we kind of learn what Helen learns alongside her. You felt the image, you felt its impact on her. It helps you empathize with her kind of chaos and everything, and helps the reader kind of empathize on as visceral a level as we can get in a comic book. What it would be like to have all of this memory just kind of blast you in the head all at once upon picking up a doll? The flashbacks kind of flesh out the story, the backstory, and everything. The flashbacks when she's really young are a little more chaotic, a little bit less organized and a little bit less linear. And then as she gets older, the flashbacks get a little bit more linear. So yeah, just trying to find clever ways to mess with the form of the comic and to have the form reflect the entire interior world of the character, Helen.
POP: I’m just obsessed with form, language, and how every mode of literature has its own grammar and syntax. You know this. There's just this well crafted structure that comes across in Canopus. Were there other technical approaches you considered going with before deciding on the traditional three-panel-per-tier structure?
DC: I always do a little rough draft of a book in my sketchbook just to see if it works, you know, just to kind of test it out before I start doing full pages and stuff. And it always kind of had the same approach with it so I settled on this one before I started. And I think I'm like you in the same way that I've been obsessed with this form for a long time, right. And I feel like I've been inundated. I've been immersed in this storytelling form for like, longer than I can remember. And so for me, a lot of these decisions are bounced back and forth between like an instinctual gut decision, and then justifying that in this academic kind of way, you know what I mean? Like in my previous book, Instrumental, there's a lot of formal thought as well. The “normal” in that book was a two-by-four kind of grid and then me messing with that grid. This sounds so silly to say this as I puff my pipe or whatever, but I thought to myself, instead of two panels, let's make it three panels. And it's like, oh, no. But then I look at something like Casanova, which is a really influential book for me in these kinds of thoughts. The first arc of Casanova, drawn by Gabriel Bach, is a four tier structure. And the second one is a three tier structure. And it makes such a difference on the storytelling mechanics and the pacing. And even the way the storytelling works in a single tier, like how much content is in a tier and the way the timing works. And, you know, I also really love Mister Miracle. I think it was a really lovely book. Just thinking about the formal ways you can use the three tier timing really made its way into the storytelling for Canopus.
POP: Canopus is a conduit for a lot of feelings and memories for you personally. Themes of forgiveness and anger are played out by Helen as she has to run this gauntlet of her own pain and past sorrows, to kind of find out who and where she is when we find her in that opening panel. So how close would you say you became with Helen’s character through the writing process? And was it hard to put that last mark on the page and send it out into the world?
DC: Hmm, it definitely is a vulnerable thing to put this kind of project out. Writing this book took a fair amount of time. I do tend to work fast once I get an idea of what I'm doing. To kind of really solidify the idea, not only the plot mechanics but also “Who is this person?” took a long time. And so there were some things that I wanted, some of my own demons, that I wanted to kind of examine through this story. Sort of like trying to find an understanding of how I can be better at forgetting and moving past these things, transgressions or whatever, from my past and finding peace in the fact that I don't have to do that, you know?
POP: So are there any projects you’re currently working on?
DC: I'm finishing up a comic that I've been drawing for like six years called Tyranny of the Muse. And you can read the whole thing online, I'm like five pages away from being done with that book. It's written by a friend of mine named Eddie Wright, and it's about this guy who really wants so badly to be a creative person. But he can't do it unless he has these injections of creative energy directly into his brain with this big needle into his forehead. I've been drawing it on and off since before Instrumental even came out. I started drawing it out I think in 2015. And it's a real journey. It's really cool. So that one's almost done. We're probably gonna Kickstart that one when we kind of regroup after getting it all together. And then I have another script from my friend, Rick Quinn. And I really love this script. And so we're probably going to try to put together a pitch for this book to send to publishers. It's another kind of sci-fi, sort of magical realism, sort of speculative fiction kind of thing. He's writing, it's gonna be really, if we can pull this one off, it's going to be so awesome.
POP: If a soundtrack for Canopus existed, what kind of music genre are we looking at?
DC: Yeah, you know, some comic creators put playlists together for their projects and I can't do that. Because, you know, what would a playlist be? Just OK Computer like 600 times? And it's always incongruent, somehow it doesn't make sense. So like, Instrumental is this book about jazz musicians, and I listened to the Rolling Stones the whole time. Explain that. It doesn't make any sense. The Charlie Parker book that I drew, I listened to Radiohead the whole time, you know. At this point in my life, I don't look for as much new music anymore. I'm just so anxious all the time, and stressed out all the time that, for me, I just want comfort. I just want a nice hug, something that's really familiar to me.
You know, what I did do though, when the first issue came out. I am kind of in this cool pipeline of like, I have a lot of musician friends, you know, all my work has been in music for most of my adult life. So I sent the first issue to like, a bunch of musicians. I was like, write a piece of music that's inspired by this, and it can be whatever you want it to be. And there's some cool stuff that came out from that. There's a song that a friend of mine wrote, Chaz and the Dazzlers is the name of the band, that's like a song about Helen. Um, another friend of mine did a full soundtrack and edited these amazing videos for the first two issues of the series. He goes through panel by panel and has these incredibly cool, dark soundscapes, like the most beautiful soundscapes ever for the first two issues of the series. And it's like frickin awesome. Um, and you can find that on YouTube. So definitely look that up. It's super cool.
POP: So how much time do you spend reading, like the multitude of comics that populate the shelves these days? And if at all, what's one title you like? That's coming out right now, like a current title. Let's say current title, or one that's come out in the last year.
DC: I really, really adore Ginseng Roots by Craig Thompson. That's it. That book has been really fun. It's like a totally unique reading experience. A singular kind of work. I also love the first issue of that new DC series Nice House on the Lake. I thought that was one of the better first issues that I've ever read. I thought that was completely gripping and horrifying. I'm so behind on my current reading. Generally as a rule there are a couple books that when I get it, I have to read it. My pull list is too big. I just spend too much money on comics. What are the books that I'm digging right now? I have a big, like, endless piles of comics on my floor here.
POP: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
DC: Same here. It was good talking to you.
You can purchase Dave's comics, including Canopus from Scout Comics, at your Local Comic Shop or by visiting Dave's site