Warmoth on Webcomics: Jesse Reklaw

[Editor’s Note: This is the first 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. Many of the creators I spoke with have gone on to do some big things recently, such as Jesse Reklaw, who released a collection of Slow Wave from Dark Horse Comics. This interview was originally posted on August 11, 2006.]

Jesse Reklaw has been churning out webcomics since Netscape Navigator was the Web browser of choice and today’s most popular webcomics were nothing more than twinkles in their founders’ eyes. Slow Wave, Reklaw’s long-running webcomic is an ink-and-text translation of other people’s dreams, related to Reklaw from the dreamers’ own memories of their experiences.

I caught up with Reklaw and asked him about the long road he’s traveled since he started his webcomic, all the crazy dreams he gets in the mail and what he’s had censored in the Midwest.

BRIAN WARMOTH: For people who aren’t familiar with Slow Wave, can you talk a bit about how you got into comics and why you started publishing online?

JESSE REKLAW: Right. Well, I’ve been reading comics forever. I think that I started with drugstore comics, and I don’t know, but I think that quickly after reading comics I decided that I wanted to make my own. It takes a lot longer to develop the skills to do it than it does to develop the desire. So I was doing some mini-comics in college in the early ’90s when the Web first started to appear. It was a pretty exciting possibility then.

Were there any other comics being published on the Web when you started yours, or did you have a model to look at when you began?

REKLAW: I can’t think of any other comics that I saw online. Although, there were a lot of art sites where people posted stories and paintings and stuff like that. But I can’t think of any other comics that I saw when I first started. There might have been, though, and I could be blanking on them. I can’t remember. Pretty soon after I had Slow Wave, a lot of publications that had comics started putting them on their own websites. I think that Salon did that. I might not have my facts right. And maybe The Onion had some.

Sure, Red Meat Comics, right?

REKLAW: That was in like ’96 or ’97 maybe. I started Slow Wave in November of ’95, which was the fall after I graduated from college. I was actually working at a biotech company as a programmer, and what they had me doing was so easy, and they didn’t realize it. It was all this Web stuff, and they were like, “Wow. The Web. That will take forever.” But then everything was sort of preset, and so I would spend a couple of hours doing my job, and then I would spend the rest of my time building my own website. I was just doing comics and I was interested in the Internet and it just made sense to do both of them at the same time. I think that’s the main reason that I started putting it up on the Web.
What made you decide you wanted to do a comic about dreams?

REKLAW: I’m one of those painful, do-it-yourself types of people. I wanted to make comics, but I wanted to write it and draw and all of that. I realized that it was really hard to try and learn how to do all of those things at the same time. So I decided to focus on my drawing. I just asked some other people to give me some stories to draw, and I got a variety of stuff from friends and family that I think I posted on newsgroups and boards and stuff, but the dreams were the ones that really seemed the most interesting to me. When you ask people for writing and diary entries, they can be pretty awful. [Laughs] When you ask for dreams, there seems to be less of themselves in there or less “falsities,” and they’re willing to let this creative spark come out without ruining it somehow.

I’m mostly interested in narratives, and I get a lot of dreams that don’t really have any narrative content.

What do you look for when you’re trying to pick out stories from comic to comic?

REKLAW: Someone pointed out to me that most of my stories have some kind of turnaround or a sort of deflation where you think that something is going to happen, but then it doesn’t. So, sort of an irony like that. I also really like quirky humor with a sort of surprise and I love the kind of imagery that we get. It’s really fun to draw.

How has your style changed from the beginning to where you’re at now?

REKLAW: Oh, wow. So much! [Laughs] I think that visually, I’ve just tried to simplify it. With the writing, sometimes I’ll get a dream and it’s really long and I’ll have to hone it down and select from it. So I’ve read a lot of books about writing and have tried to figure out what’s important and what’s at stake, what’s essential to the story, and then trim things away to let that reveal itself.

You have to frame what’s going on in each panel and stuff, right?

REKLAW: Yeah, and try not to be redundant. If I can draw it in the panel I can take it out of the narration block. Usually the things that I leave in the narration block are the things that have to do with the people’s emotions or really complex things that are hard to show like actions or a change of pace. Those are usually things that I put in the narrative block.

Who did you get your original ideas from? Was it just from people that you knew? And how did that evolve into getting mass amounts of mail from your readers?

REKLAW: Mostly, I got it from friends and my sister at first, but then in the early days before the Web there were newsgroups and message boards so I would post on there and ask for stuff. I got some dreams from people that I didn’t know. Although years later I have come to know some of them. They’ve become “Internet friends.” For the first six months, maybe a year, it was pretty much from people that I knew and a couple of people from newsgroups. Then once I had the stuff on the website, I had a form on there where anyone who looked at the website could submit their own dream and that became the bulk of my submissions.

When did it first start going into print, like in alternative newsweeklies and press like that? How far into the process did that happen?

REKLAW: Not very far. It was pretty amazing. I think that it was around March of ’96. So it wasn’t even like six months. I just took the first thirty scripts I had done and picked the best ten out of them and sent them out to papers. That’s another thing that I did in my programming job. There was an association of alternative newsweeklies with all the addresses of all the newspapers … so I just bombarded around a hundred papers.

It seems like that worked out well.

REKLAW: I was really amazed. I picked up two papers, one of which kept the strip for a really long time. The other one dropped it after about a month. It’s weird. Those newsweeklies, some of them anyway, tend to get bought and sold and the staff changes so rapidly. When a new editor comes in the first thing that they do is throw out all the cartoons.

It’s a painful way to try and make a living because there is no security at all.

What did you learn that was true about, say, publishing and getting comics on the web and the possibility of getting things to print? And that process, is it still the same or have things changed over time?

REKLAW: I think that for some of the webcomics that I like and I think that are using the form really well, I think that they don’t really work in print as much. I don’t know if you know this strip called Leisure Town, up until about ’99, and it’s gone now, but it was really beautiful. The guys did it all in Photoshop, but he would photograph all of these toys and they were all original pictures and it was full color which wouldn’t work in print and really long stories. Copper is really beautiful, too. No newspaper is going to be able to devote a whole page and the color to print that, though. I also love Achewood, which I think is really funny, but no newspaper is going to print those d— jokes.

Does anything stand out in all the years that you’ve been doing this as the least printable dream that you’ve ever seen? Something that you say, “There’s no way that this can be depicted on paper?”

REKLAW: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely. I try to keep the strip at a PG-13 level. I’m probably more tame than a lot of strips that are printed. But yeah, any dreams that have graphic sex in them. I have been censored by a few strips. There’s a couple in the Midwest that have done that. They won’t run some of them and will ask for an alternate, but it’s really weird which ones they won’t print. Like, I’ll have a guy in a penis costume and they’re okay with that, but then I’ll have one that implies that these two guys are having gay sex and they won’t print that one.

What have you learned about people by looking at their dreams?

REKLAW: Well, I guess one thing is that there were a lot of dreams that I thought were unique. Like, it was a dream that I thought only I had, but so many people have the same dream and that kind of makes it less terrifying for me and is something interesting about human nature. I love that dream where you go back to school, elementary school or something, and you’ve forgotten to go to class for months and there is a test tomorrow, or you can’t remember the combination to your new locker. I always thought that was just my dream, but everyone has that one. It’s this weird social paranoia that anyone going to school succumbs to.

Do you subscribe to any interpretative rules that you’ve come to over the years?

REKLAW: Those can kind of ruin dreams. I like dreams that are weird. I do like some of the theories of Carl Jung that are expansive and not quite so literal like Freud and all those dream dictionaries that you see, the ones that are popular.

How have you seen the web comics landscape change since you started doing Slow Wave?

REKLAW: Man, there are just so many out there now. I really love it when someone does an article or does like a survey of webcomics because I don’t have time to go and look at all the stuff. I also think that it’s awesome that people are able to make money doing webcomics, because I think it’s a viable media that has a lot of benefits over traditional print. I’ve seen such great stuff.

Who are some of your favorites that you tend to read every so often?

REKLAW: Achewood is terrific. I love all the different characters that he has on there. I liked that Leisure Town one that was up for a while, but I guess it’s been years now since that’s been up. I try to look and see what Jason Shiga has up every now and then. He always has some sort of neat adventure-type comics that are interesting on the Web. There’s also a place called “Milkyelephant.com.” There are three people that do stuff there, but my favorite is Eun-ha [Paek]. She does some really cool stuff with Flash. They’re comics, but they’re also sort of animated. It’s beautifully designed.

How familiar are you and how would you characterize the community that has developed among webcomics people?

REKLAW: I do feel like a little bit of an outsider. I know that there are a lot of blogs and webcomics communities. I thought that Modern Tales website was really cool. I’m never on any of those. I don’t know. I guess that I’m not totally clued in to the community, and so maybe I’m not the best person to answer that question.

You said that you read comics before you started making them. What were some of your favorites?

REKLAW: [Laughs] I read a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t read now, a lot of superhero comics. I started out reading DC and Marvel when I was in my teens.

Those characters pop up in your comics online sometimes…

REKLAW: Yeah. Those are just endlessly funny to me. It kind of brings back my own childhood to have those characters in there, and then I love it when they’re sort of humiliated. My favorite? Oh, boy. I was really into the X-Men, which was probably the longest-running one for me–the one with Chris Claremont and John Byrne. I still read comics today, but it’s more like Drawn & Quarterly.

What are some of your favorites that you’ve seen in the last year?

REKLAW: My two biggest and most influential comic artists are Jim Woodring and Julie Doucet. They also work with dreams. Julie Doucet writes a comic called Dirty Plotte for Drawn & Quarterly. That was the first dream comic that I had seen and I probably wouldn’t have asked for dreams from people if I hadn’t read her.

What particularly struck you about them that made you think that it would work?

REKLAW: Man, I think that there is such a depth to dreams that I think you can get into those moments, and it really brings the story to the reader when you can articulate a really strange occurrence. There is an emotive context to dreams too. She would do these dreams about someone being tortured, but they would be laughing and having a good time. I think that sort of juxtaposition makes the story so vibrant. It works really well in comics because dreams are very visual and there is so much going on and I think that just reading a description about it is not so interesting. Hearing someone talk about it is, of course, totally boring, but in comics you can put all of that detail in there and all that vibrancy.

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