[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.
I’m sure those librarians get plenty of weird requests, but did they ever give you a second glance or ask you about what you were doing with those images?
MALKI: I don’t think they knew what I was doing, to be honest. The first day, I actually asked the reference librarians, “Where can I find a bunch of Victorian engravings? What’s the very best place to look?” I think I even told them I was doing a comic, and they were supremely uninterested. They dutifully tapped away at their computers for a while, looking up things like “Victorian” and “engravings,” but didn’t get very far, because an 1885 volume of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly isn’t subtitled “A great source of Victorian engravings!”
As soon as I realized that I’d have the best luck with magazines—as opposed to books, which have a much lower illustration-to-page ratio—I compiled my 17-page list from the library’s periodicals index, and started requesting volumes from the basement. I can’t say that I got any strange looks at all, because frankly the librarians were much more concerned with the old guy who wanted them to type his e-mail for him while he dictated, or the non-English-speaker who didn’t understand the concept of “checking out” materials, or the homeless guy shouting obscenities, or the 20 other homeless guys sleeping in dark corners of the room. The worst I got was, “Sir, you can only request three volumes at a time, instead of the 10 you’ve indicated on the form.”
Where do you find most of the books that are in your personal collection?
MALKI: Most of them are from eBay, although a few are from used-book stores and library book sales. I have the advantage that I don’t really care about the condition of the covers or the binding, so I can pick up battered editions pretty cheaply.
Certain titles are very sought after and expensive on the collector’s market, though, so if I ever want to get more images from The Illustrated London News, for example, I’ll have to go back to the library.
Why do you think Victorian illustration makes such funny strips?
MALKI: I don’t know that the style of illustration is funny per se, but it’s certainly uncommon, distinctive and interesting to look at, which are good traits for anything in a visually driven marketplace. Of course, some of the humor is going to come from anachronism—top-hatted gentlemen saying “dude,” etc.—but I don’t think that’s what’s sustained the strip. Anyone reading the archives gets over the anachronism in 10 minutes.
I think it’s just cool to look at. It’s a good vehicle for jokes, the same way that distilled water is a good vehicle for watercolor pigment, because it doesn’t put speed bumps in the way of the storytelling the way badly drawn comic art can.
Whatever. I don’t want to get all highfaluting, because the very best way to do comics is to draw comics, and draw them well. I like drawing comics. But I think my thing can be fun too.
And if it came down to a choice for some reason, I would rather do things that are fun than do things that are comics, because I place no premium on “comics.” I place a premium on “fun things.”
Did you meet any other webcomics folks for the first time at SPX this year?
MALKI: Nick Gurewitch was sharing a table with us this year, which was very cool. We’d corresponded before over e-mail, but this was the first time I’d met him in person. I also met Meredith Gran and T Campbell for the first time, and David Willis I’d met briefly in San Diego, but SPX was our first chance to chat. James Kochalka and my table-mate Chris Yates, a sculptor and toymaker, also hit it off, though we later learned that James’ son wasn’t quite as taken with Chris’ work.
But I also got to hang out with many people whom I know well—my absolute favorite part of doing webcomics is meeting people who become friends even if you only see them two or three times a year. I’d have had a blast at the show even if I hadn’t sold a single thing.
At its best, the Internet is a vehicle for personal relationships, in the same way that Victorian illustrations are a vehicle for jokes and not the jokes themselves.
What were you doing with yourself when you began Wondermark?
MALKI: Well, whatever it was, I was spent for about 20 minutes afterward.
When did you realize that you’d found an audience for it?
MALKI: When does anyone know? People e-mail you, they buy your books. Recognize you on the street, stalk you at the gym, offer you half-eaten pastries, get offended when you decline, then weep. Ask for your autograph, but critique your penmanship. Marry you despite deep-seated reservations.
Who am I kidding? I don’t go to the gym.
Do you still live in L.A.?
MALKI: Yes, in the rather shady Venice area. My wife and I both work in film, so until we become hugely successful, we’re stuck here. It’d probably be easier to make a living wage doing comics if I lived somewhere a little cheaper, though.
Of all the days of the week to pick, why do you update on Tuesdays and Fridays?
MALKI: I picked Tuesday over Mondays for two reasons: firstly, because Fridays are low-traffic days on most entertainment sites, as people tend to get busier later in the week, and that way people who come into work on Monday morning can check my site and still see Friday’s comic, which they may have missed. Secondly—and maybe this should have been the first reason—I’m usually busy on Sunday nights, so it’d be tougher to keep a Monday-morning update schedule.
Back when I was weekly, Tuesday was the day, and then when I went to twice-weekly, Friday was just a handy way to bisect the week. (A Tuesday-Thursday schedule, for example, would have given less exposure to Tuesday’s comic.)
Anyway, despite the fact that it probably doesn’t really matter one way or the other, it is all quite deliberate.
What’s the oddest illustration you’ve come across that didn’t require any alteration before you put it into a comic?
MALKI: I don’t know if he’s hands-down the oddest, but “Bob,” from comic #139, certainly has a very unique charm. Finding that image made that particular comic spring fully grown from my skull like Athena. It’s nice when that happens. (Colleen AF Venable made a memorable sequel to that episode as well—hers is Wondermark #209.)
Although another one I love is the elephant on the penny-farthing in comic #013. It’s probably no accident that both Bob and the elephant have found new homes on a sticker and a T-shirt, respectively.
Oh, and comic #292—I mean, what the heck is going on there, seriously?
Do you remember what context you originally found the Bob illustration in? Those goggles are creepy.
MALKI: He was in a German satirical newsweekly called Fliegende Blätter, and the caption below him read, in German: “I’ve already drunken a quarter of [the inheritance from] a rich uncle! “