Dennis Hyer: The Comics Decoder Interview / R. W. Watkins






Dennis Hyer:

The Comics Decoder Interview


The man behind Mullein Fields and Inhuman Relations in conversation with R. W. Watkins

 

 

Okay, let me kick it off on this New Year’s Eve with what I would consider an essential question for someone like yourself: Whats a fellow born in (I think) 1983 doing, drawing Walt Kelly- and Carl Barks-style anthropomorphic comic strips in 2015? I mean, in this age of plastic ‘hipness’ and rebellion-to-the-point-of-cheese, aren’t you supposed to be designing video games, running a tattoo parlour, or ‘auditioning’ Californian street girls for anal gang-bang videos? 

 

Oddly enough, Rebellion To the Point of Cheese is the name of my post-ironic punk / polka / rockabilly string quartet. Check out our website and buy our albums! On vinyl, of course.

    But seriously, the plain, boring truth is that I enjoy drawing these sorts of comics, and I guess I’m just not competent or ambitious enough to do anything else with my life.

 

“...I guess Im just not competent or ambitious enough to do anything else with my life.” That sounds more Gen-X than Gen-Y. You sure you weren’t born ten to fifteen years earlier than you let on? 

    Anyway, what were your earliest influences, and how and when did you discover them? 

 

My earliest comic influences were whatever I could find in book form at the local library ... mostly Bloom County, Garfield (ugh), Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, etc. When I was a teenager, I became obsessed with old Doonesbury books, to the point where I began churning out my own blandly-drawn comics with outdated political references. This was circa 1996, so I was probably the only 13-year-old kid in my school who could toss off references to the ERA, Watergate, communes, and fine uncut Turkish hashish. My teachers were sort of impressed, but my classmates were not, and they let me know it in no uncertain terms.

    Some years later, during my post-highschool daze, I picked up an old Pogo paperback collection, and it was a revelation. Walt Kelly’s work challenged every single notion I’d ever had about cartooning. Here was a comic strip created by someone whose writing and drawing abilities were light years ahead of anything I’d ever seen before (or since). From that point on, I pushed what little I knew about cartooning out of my head, and replaced it with the mental cue: “What would Walt Kelly do?”

 

I must confess to having had limited exposure to Walt Kelly’s Pogo over the years. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the strip was ever fully appreciated or even understood here in Canada. It was probably too ‘all-American’ or something. Did any of the other classic cartoonists influence you to any degree? I’ve always detected elements of Schulz and Carl Barks in many of your strips – the former particularly in Mullein Fields. 


While we’re confessing, I have to confess that I’ve never read Carl Barks ... and I feel bad about that, because people keep telling me I must have been influenced by him. Every couple of years I resolve to track down some of his comics, but I have yet to actually do so. I stand in shame. 

    As for Charles Schulz, that’s a given, since Peanuts was inescapable in my childhood, in comics and on TV.

    There’s one other cartoonist I want to mention: Owen Fitzgerald. His work is mostly uncredited, but he worked on tons of comic books from the 1940s onward, including the Bob Hope comics, and his poses are out of this world ... dynamic, cartoony, and yet very subtle and natural. I love Fitzgerald’s work so much that, about 8 years ago, I scoured the internet for every jpeg scan of his comics I could find, and printed them out into my own spiral-bound “book”. As far as I know, it’s still the only collection of his comics in book form.

 

Well, I’d consider Barks to not only have been ‘the good duck artist’, but also the great storyteller of anthropomorphic comic books. Some of his compadres and imitators on the Disney titles (e.g., Tony Strobl, Vic Lockman) were not exactly unskilled either. Anyway, stylistically, some of your story arcs have reminded me of classic Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories. 

    The name Owen Fitzgerald sent me googling. I especially like the way he drew his women. I was immediately reminded of Lois Lane in the early ’40s Superman cartoons. It appears Fitzgerald did animation too; I wonder did he work for Fleischer or Famous. 

    This gets me thinking: Have you ever considered doing a series featuring fully human characters?

 

I’ve drawn some “human comics” in the past. But there’s just something inherently funny about cartoon animals doing human-type things that isn’t quite as funny when done by humans.

    I think I’ll just paraphrase Walt Kelly, who explained dropping a human character from his comics thusly: “being human, he was less believable than the animals”.


I mentioned Owen Fitzgerald also doing animation. Have you been influenced to any degree by animated series or films, old or new?


I enjoy animation, but I don’t think it’s had much of a direct influence on me ... except, as you say, by ex-animators like Owen Fitzgerald and Walt Kelly who went into drawing comics.


Let’s talk tools of the trade. What are you using these days in terms of pencils, brushes and paper? Have you surrendered to the allure of technology like so many other artists (for better or worse)?


I’ve been using a Cintiq for the last five years. Before that, I used a brush and ink on Bristol Board. I wouldn’t say one method is better than the other, but they each have interesting characteristics. The Cintiq is more convenient, being a drawing tablet / monitor hooked directly to a computer, but that convenience also enables a kind of sloppiness, in that it’s super easy to undo / erase / resize / generally fiddle with the artwork at all stages. It may be more convenient, but it actually takes me longer to complete a comic on the Cintiq than it does using a brush and ink, because I usually spend at least 30% of my drawing time hitting the “undo” button.

    I found using a brush and ink to be generally faster, because ink lines can’t be easily “erased” ... so unless I really screwed up big time, I pretty much had to live with or work around whatever I put down on the Bristol Board. That sounds like a negative, and it could be at times, but it could also be kind of liberating. It pushed me to want to get things right the first time and then move on, not to dawdle and second-guess every little detail of every single panel (which I tend to do a lot nowadays ... undo ... undo ... undo).


Actually, you’re probably the last artist on the planet that I would think of in the same context as such technology. You tend to have such a retro or reactionary air about you. 

Speaking of your retro tendencies, you mentioned that you were thirteen in ’96 and most of your classmates thought you kind of strange. Was your taste in things almost exclusively of a retro nature, then? I would have thought that the ’90s was a better era for a sophisticated young creative type to come of age in. I mean, when I was between seven and seventeen, it was Saturday Night Fever, The Spoons and Culture Club, Don Johnson’s Miami Vice fashions, and Molly Ringwald’s ‘brat pack’ movies. In other words, if any child or teenager was a tad sophisticated and wanted to maintain his or her sanity at all, he or she had to rediscover and retrofit. You Gen-Y youngsters, on the other hand, had grunge culture, Sloan and Nirvana on major labels, Twin Peaks and The Simpsons in its early years, Peter Bagge’s HATE comics, etc. Did you partake of this ‘alternative’ brand as it entered the mainstream?


This will probably cost me whatever’s left of my cool points, but I actually sought out Saturday Night Fever, Miami Vice, and those dumb brat-pack movies when I was a teenager. In the ’90s. When all that other neat stuff you mentioned was readily available. I admit this old shame purely as a caution to others.

    Before that lapse in judgment, however, my tastes ran the gamut from the ’50s onward. I enjoyed newer stuff like The Simpsons, The X-Files, and a lot of the Nickelodeon shows, but I also enjoyed reruns of Get Smart, Bob Newhart, Fernwood 2Night, etc.

    As for music, I was pretty much ignorant of what was going on throughout the ’90s. When I did try to discover new music, toward the end of the decade, I was clueless. Most of the bands I chose to follow were one-hit wonders who eventually slid into justifiable obscurity.

    Basically, I was really bad at being a Gen-Y’er.


Well, as far as Gen X goes, if one bought into all that low-grade late ’70s and ’80s pop culture, one is all but forgotten in the wake of ’90s arts and entertainment and its critical acclaim. I guess I got lucky by identifying more with the ‘alternative’ brand early on – but don’t feel bad.

    While we’re on the subject – and given your biggest influences – have you ever fantasised about or longed for that Walt Kelly era of fedora hats, suit-and-tie dress, martinis and cigars, Sinatra on the radio, and Milton Berle on television? Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead) recently stated that his ideal time and place to live in would have been NYC in the late 1940s – wearing a suit and tie, drawing a daily for the Herald Tribune, and chowing down each day at the automat. [http://blues.gr/profiles/blogs/prolific-cartoonist-bill-griffith-talks-about-the-underground] I was wondering if you’ve ever thought about yourself in that sort of context.


I don’t really yearn to live in a past era. It’s easy enough to queue up a Sinatra album and get your retro kicks that way; you can even don a fedora if you’re feeling particularly dapper. If you were stuck in the ’40s and ’50s, you’d have fresh Sinatra, but you’d also have to suffer through nuclear proliferation, McCarthyism, and, well, Milton Berle on television.

    That said, I wish automats would make a comeback. I love the idea of a vending machine restaurant.


Greetings from Mullein Fields

Anyway, let’s move on to your actual strips. Can you give me a little synopsis of how Mullein Fields became a full-fledged strip, why it ceased, and how Inhuman Relations came to be?


As for Mullein Fields, there wasn’t much initial effort put into its creation. I had a basic idea for a comic strip about “funny animal” kids with an environmental bent, and I just started drawing the comics, thinking I’d fill in the details as I went along. Eventually, a “world” developed around the two kids, in the form of friends, parents, a school, a town, and, since I was taking my cues from Pogo, a regionally-specific ecology (the New Jersey Pine Barrens). And it went on from there. The strip was basically a weird cross between “cheap Pogo knockoff” and “semi-autobiographical airing of personal rage and neuroses”.

    I ended the strip in 2006 (after three years and 550+ comics). I was dealing with a crisis of faith in my artistic abilities and my life in general, and I figured it was time to move on. For the next five years, I tinkered with a bunch of sub-par comic ideas, among them, a really dumb strip called Inhuman Relations. It was like a more “adult” version of Mullein Fields, but with one-dimensional characters, sloppy artwork, and a general air of insincerity. My only regret is that I wasted two years working on it, and now I’m too embarrassed to show those strips to anyone.

    In 2011, my attempt to revive Mullein Fields ended quickly with a bad case of “you can’t go home again”. So, later that year, I decided to dig up Inhuman Relations and see if I could rework it into something halfway decent. It was still a bit of a mess when it relaunched in January 2012, but it was much better than its previous incarnation. And it’s been improving ever since. Slowly, but improving nevertheless.


But what was so ‘wrong’ with the original Inhuman Relations? I thought it was pretty neat, and wanted it on the landing page of The Comics Decoder from Day One. I mean, you even published a collection of those early strips via Lulu. Why the sudden dissatisfaction or change of heart? And why attempt to resurrect Mullein Fields after five years? 


The original Inhuman Relations was borne of pandering. It existed to try to please an audience, and thus oozes insincerity. Some people seemed to like it, and I won’t argue with them about it, but even at the time, I knew I was producing something of which I was not entirely proud. Rather than go on doing a comic that my heart wasn’t into, I just ended it.

    Mullein Fields had its flaws, but at least it was sincere. It was from the heart. Not in a treacly sentimental way, but just as a work of personal expression. It never pandered to anyone. That’s why, after the original Inhuman Relations went bust, I tried to revive Mullein Fields. But the revival was flat and lifeless, so it ended after a few weeks.



Refresh my memory: Did those revived Mullein Fields strips go into The Complete Mullein Fields? I believe the final pages were devoted to new material that provided a sense of closure.... 


None of the revived strips went into The Complete Mullein Fields. Though I did “rework” one strip and add it to the new material that closed out the book.


How autobiographical have these strips of yours been? I mean, how much of you goes into a character like Fred, for example?


I’m not sure I’d call these strips totally autobiographical ... Some of the situations are made up, and some are borrowed from friends and relatives, and some are pieced together from my own experiences. Overall, I’d say they’re a reasonably close approximation of my tenuously middle-class existence in the greater Atlantic City region of Southern New Jersey. In cartoon form.

    As for the characters, people generally assume that Fred is my “self-insert”, but the truth is that each of the characters represent different parts of my personality (such as it is). I can be easygoing like Fred. I can be saturnine like Maureen. I can be cantankerous like Mother Chahoud. I can be jovial like Slavko. And I can be a blundering, naive space cadet like Tirzah.

    Basically, the strip is just me talking to myself.


You mentioned your “middle-class” background in New Jersey. How long has your family been in New Jersey? How did your parents and siblings react to your cartoonist ambitions early on? How about today? Are you “wasting your life away”? 


I think every member of my immediate (and extended) family was born somewhere in New Jersey, going back at least 3 or 4 generations. So yes, I guess we like it here. As for my siblings and parents, I’ll just say that a lot of the interpersonal dynamics in Mullein Fields were true to life ... and leave it at that.


By the way, I’ve been using some photo of a shaggy-headed, bearded man as your profile photo on The Comics Decoder for several years. I’m doubtful if that’s you; it looks as if it were lifted from an old film or something. Whatever the case, I stole it from your Facebook page. 


That bearded guy is Donald Sutherland from Kelly’s Heroes. A couple of years ago, my cousin told me that I looked like “that Oddball guy from Kelly’s Heroes”, so I used a photo of the character as my Facebook thing ... mostly as a gag. I’d say the resemblance is close enough, though my hair is darker.


I’ve never seen Kelly’s Heroes, so I now officially recognise the fellow as you rather than Donald Sutherland!

    I notice the original Inhuman Relations collection is no longer available from Lulu. Any plans to make the original incarnation’s strips all available in one place at some point? I’m thinking the ‘lost’ revived Mullein Fields strips would make good bonus material someday in a second edition of The Complete Mullein Fields.... 


I have no plans to publish those original Inhuman Relations strips anywhere, ever. And I doubt there will be a second edition of The Complete Mullein Fields ... unless the 15 people who bought the “first edition” lose theirs in a move or something.


Inhuman Relations definitely revolves around a circle of friends with Slavko’s bar as the general meeting place. Such a setting has been a standard of such comic strips, comic books, television shows, etc. for damn near a century. But the bar-stool sociologist in me has been thinking about such settings in recent months. Are there still traditional friendship circles and hangouts like this in the real world in 2016? Or have we actually become antisocial by virtue of electronic communications coupled with stifling laws and politically ‘correct’ mannerisms?


The erosion of real-world social interaction is a topic that’s way too deep a dish for me, but I guess people still get together and hang out and stuff. At least, I’ve seen it happen, so my evidence is mainly anecdotal.


Something else I’ve been meaning to ask you: How come your main character Fred is absent from the final chapter (ten pages) of Inhuman Relations? I thought that kind of odd....


Interesting point. I guess he’s not the “main character” after all. In fact, since Maureen is on the cover, I could say that she’s just as much of a leading character as Fred ... and since she appears in the final chapter, it’s all good.


How does Dennis Hyer celebrate his 33rd birthday [January 12th], by the way? Have you paid Slavko’s bar a visit?


It just wouldn’t be a birthday unless I spent it watching really bad movies. So I did. Which was nice.


Well, you’re sounding rather despondent on the day after!

    Let’s talk about colour – or the lack thereof in your strips. If memory serves me correctly, you’ve used colour on only one or two occasions (to emphasise blood and gore when Fred and Maureen are watching a slasher film), and those instances were reprinted in b & w for the book. Why the aversion to colour? It seems to be a must-have in this era of web comics and online newspapers.


Color adds an ungodly amount of extra work to each strip. I used gray tones for a few years, and even that was a colossal headache. So now I just stick to the old-school pen-and-ink look. Not only do the strips look nicer and cleaner, but they’re much easier to turn into print files (I had to learn the hard way with those “gray toned” comics in the last book).


Speaking of the newspapers, have you made any attempts to get Inhuman Relations (or Mullein Fields) picked up by one of the syndicates? Are you interested in taking that route?

 

I made a half-hearted attempt at syndication about ten years ago, with Mullein Fields, but nothing came of it. I can’t say I was disappointed.

    Honestly, I have no delusions about my comics. I know they will never pay the rent. They won’t even pay the monthly maintenance cost of their own website. But I enjoy drawing them. And a few people seem to enjoy reading them, so there’s that.


I think most people with an iota of sense would tell you that it’s a matter of timing and the era in which you’ve been attempting to make a name for yourself. The majority of those daily comic strips still offered through the syndicates seem slapped together compared to something like Inhuman Relations; and in terms of their level of humour and social commentary, they’re generically stuck in 1958 or ’63 or thereabouts. And then there’s the size issue. Notice how the panels have continued to shrink down through the decades? Thoughts?


I have no comment about the current state of newspaper comics ... though I will admit a certain fondness for Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts and Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange. Everything else just takes up valuable Cryptogram space.


[Laughs] I was expecting that!

    So what’s in the cards for Inhuman Relations? How far can you go with this strip, and what might come next? 


Inhuman Relations will probably run for at least a couple more years, and will most likely result in another book or two. Beyond that, I have no idea what’s going to happen.


Besides your own website and The Comics Decoder, have there been any other sites that have posted Mullein Fields or Inhuman Relations strips over the years? How about print journals and zines? Any luck there?


Inhuman Relations used to run in a small, local monthly paper (one of those “take one, it’s free!” things usually found at convenience stores). On a lark, I emailed the publisher and told him I had a comic strip that would fit perfectly between those half-page farm-market ads and chain email jokes. Amazingly, he agreed, and the strip appeared in every issue for the next 2 years. That all changed when “new management” took over the paper. They were less than enthusiastic about the comic, and gradually phased it out. That’s a polite way of saying they just stopped returning my emails.


Getting back to more ‘mainstream’ publishing outlets, have you ever considered approaching one of the so-called ‘alternative’ comics companies (á la Fantagraphics) with an offer to do a series or compile a collection (‘graphic novel’) like those you've done via Lulu and Amazon?


I doubt I’d ever be accepted by any serious, reputable publisher (alternative or otherwise). It’d be neat, though. I won’t lie. But I entertain no illusions that such a thing will ever happen.


For that matter, could you ever see yourself assisting the ‘big boys’ in the mainstream comic-book world? Or would computer-tweaking on the umpteenth reboot of Batman or Spider-Man (black, Muslim, transgendered) be too much like sacrilege?


I’ve never been a fan of superheroes. Ever. So I really couldn’t care less if Spider-Man was suddenly rebooted as a black transgender Muslim woman. Actually, on second thought, that sounds kind of interesting. I might read that.


The sociopolitical has often reared its head in your strips over the years. I’ve been wondering, where do you stand politically these days – left, right or centre? Or have you become as cynical and disillusioned as your central character, Fred? Are you partisan in your leanings?


I’m an unabashed left-winger, but I try to use politics in my strip sparingly. I’ll throw in a political reference when an issue is really bugging me, but generally, I try to maintain a light, funny tone in my comics ... and too much political stuff has a tendency to obliterate that tone. I learned that the hard way in the original version of Inhuman Relations.

So what are you reading these days, old and new?  You mentioned Mutts and Rhymes With Orange. What other strips or mags do you read with any degree of regularity? Are there any other ‘underground’ or online cartoonists that you think deserve a wider audience (like yourself)? 


I read a few webcomics. One of my favorites is Puck, which is a great, funny strip that cleverly disguises itself as fanservice. I also follow a few other artists on DeviantArt, who turn out some really good stuff: Mr.Wolfe, Granitoons, TrivialTales, Bakertoons, and I’m sure there are others. These people prove that DeviantArt isn’t all fan art and cosplay photos. There’s real cartooning talent out there.


What’s next for Inhuman Relations in the promotional sense? Do you have any new plans for promoting it in the coming year?


I guess I’ll run some Project Wonderful ad campaigns a couple of times this year, when I have some extra cash to spare, but that’s about the extent of my promotional plans.


Well, good luck with everything in 2016, Dennis. I appreciate your taking the time to converse with me like this. Cheers!


Thanks for the interview! It made me feel relevant.


Just promise me that if you ever make it big in the mainstream, demand that the original Inhuman Relations and ‘revived’ Mullein Fields strips be collected and published – even if it means forcing Fantagraphics at gunpoint!




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