[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of some of my favorite webcomics creator interviews that previously ran on WizardUniverse.com and were a part of the site’s archives that are no longer hosted there. This interview with one of my personal favorite webcomickers, David Malki, was originally posted on October 26, 2007.]
I met David Malki for the first time at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md., a few weeks ago. He floated in with a flood of other webcomics names, whom I mentioned last week. His comic Wondermark sits atop my Firefox bookmark roster of webcomics guaranteed to make me laugh. Like the other webcomics on that shortlist, such as Achewood, Perry Bible Fellowship and Dinosaur Comics, Wondermark’s brilliance comes from its creator’s simply executed but fiendishly absurd sense of humor. Malki doesn’t draw the strip himself, but like a lot of other webcomickers, he’s managed to take clip-art manipulation into stratospheric altitudes of hilarity.
Wondermark is sort of like the obnoxious redheaded little sibling to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Its gags are all fueled by tophatted obnoxiousness and the inherent hyper-silliness of costumes and contraptions that Malki discovers in hundred-year-old illustrations.
Malki and I chatted for a bit in Bethesda and spilled the conversation over into several successive rounds of e-mailing. I asked him about where he finds his magnificently ludicrous source material, and he gave me a brief history of his research methods, why he had to seek out more obscure publications at one point and what went down at SPX.
BRIAN WARMOTH: What’s the story behind that book that you had on display at your table at SPX?
MALKI: Whenever I show at a convention, I always bring an example from my collection of old books. Most of them are bound collections of illustrated magazines, six months or a year’s worth, from around 1870-1890. I also have a few individual magazines, which are great because they include ads, but those don’t stand up to time nearly as well as the bound volumes. The paper discolors, and ink bleeds through from the back—the images take forever to clean up.
Was that book where you got your source material when you did the first Wondermark strip? Does most or all of your material originate from there, or where else do you look?
MALKI: The very first strip—in fact, quite a few of the early ones—were made of images taken from clip-art collections. Over the first year or so of doing the strip I accumulated a ton of clip-art books, which are really great, except that everyone else has access to the exact same images. Once I realized that some of the same characters were showing up elsewhere online—on Threadless, for example; I’ve seen more than one hapless kid be accused of ripping me off because he used the same clip-art as I did—I decided that I wanted to make my material unique, so I started looking into primary sources.
The clip-art books are great when I need some really specific prop, because they’re organized by topic—I can say, “Okay, I need this same bowler hat from a different angle,” and I’ll open the book and there’s five pages of hats. But almost all of the people and characters in the strip nowadays come from authentic old books.
I don’t do this much anymore, because my personal collection has grown enough, but early on, I would take my camera and a tripod and head to the L.A. Central Library, where they have an absolutely massive periodicals department. I have a printout of call numbers that’s 17 pages long —and those are just the titles, each of which can have anywhere from one to 50 volumes or more! I’d fill out a form and hand it to a librarian, who’d fax it downstairs, and 10 minutes later the books would arrive in a little dumbwaiter from the basement.
Then I’d hole up in a corner and set the camera to take long exposures with no flash, and try to press the pages as flat as I could. It wasn’t an ideal setup, but it was a great way to learn which titles were chock-full of images and which could safely be skipped—knowledge that came in handy as I began to build my own collection.