If Canadian artist Dave Cooper is now renown internationally for his paintings, let’s not forget that he has also produced graphic novels that have participated in establishing the genre as a rich, full-fledged media of expression. Ripple : a Predilection for Tina is indeed an impressive trip deep in the most tormented corners of the human soul. This portrait of a painter unable to free himself from his affective addiction for his tyrannical model brings this observation of the creation process to a paroxystic level — as Pygmalion will end up crushed by Galathea.
Nicolas Verstappen : You started your comics career in the mid eighties in the Aircel publishing company. 1986 seems to have been a big year for Canadian comics expansion (10 new titles for Aircel between 1986 and 1987 and money for the artists). Yet, in 1988, there seems to be a quick decline of the sales. What are your memories of that period ?
Dave Cooper : My memories are sketchy at best. I never really felt like I was aware of what was going on in the industry as a whole. I was always on the periphery at the Aircel Studios too. I’d work at home and just bring in my work every couple of weeks. That place was a nightmare — so much interpersonal drama. Barry Blair would play everyone against each other to the point that everyone was either a nervous wreck, or furious to the point of snapping. Anyway, to get back to your question, I guess we just rode that trend of independent comix until it collapsed. Readers here in North America were so excited to have an alternative to superhero comics that the independents exploded too fast. Eventually after a couple of years, the readers realized 99 % of what they were buying was garbage. We were totally guilty of feeding that hunger. I was a total hack in those days, a stupid teenager who didn’t have any concept of what being an artist was all about. I just wanted that paycheck so that I could go out drinking and smoking every weekend.
NV : Influence of Ed the Happy Clown… Moebius, Sfar and Trondheim are among your favorite artists. Their freehand drawings (and some scripts) look like they’re natural as breathing or automatic writing. Is it that aspect of their works you’re interested in ?
DC : Absolutely. I couldn’t have put it better myself. That’s the quality that I love about good drawing. You get the impression that the artist is so practiced, and comfortable that they don’t have to labor over every little detail, they just have a rich vocabulary of imagery and it’s at their fingertips at all times. And it’s a quality you can see in any type of artist whether they’re incredible virtuosos, or simple doodlers.
NV : I was surprised to read you were a Chaland admirer (I’m one myself but I didn’t know he crossed the Atlantic). How did you discover his work ?
DC : Like most of my “great discoveries”, it was pointed out to me by my friend Patrick McEown. He’s always been my ear to the ground. I think pat may have discovered Chaland initially through old Heavy Metal magazines, then probably found some of his books in some French bookstores either here in Ottawa, or maybe in Montreal. I’ve really only become familiar with Chaland in the past 5 or 6 years. He was a masterful draftsman.
In Weasel number 5 (august 2002), you were announcing a Donjon project. What happened since (I’ve heard that Killofer did the Donjon you were supposed to do) ?
DC : That was my own stupidity. I agreed to do the project after spending time with Lewis in San Diego a few years ago. But then I just kept getting buried in my own work. It was at a time when my own career was starting to really take off and demand was greater than ever. It was pretty intoxicating. I delayed and delayed until finally lewis and joann had no choice but to give the project to Killofer. I haven’t seen the book yet, but I think it will be a bit sad when I do because it was written specifically for me, incorporating all sorts of requests that I’d made. But judging by the images I’ve seen on the internet, it’s probably a lot better book that I would have drawn anyway. I think I may lack that expansive, epic approach that many of the French cartoonists are so skilled at.
NV : One of the main themes of your work is the chasm between Nature and Culture (desire/morals, childhood/adulthood…). This theme is pretty clear in your “Unnature portfolio” and drawings like the back cover of “Dan & Larry” (being an Eden Tree). Is it something coming back from your childhood, from a strict religious education ?
DC : Not at all. My parents are confirmed agnostics. I’m not sure where that love of extreme contrasts comes from. I know that living in the country for the first 9 years of my life was very formative. I was always surrounded by the most beautiful, lush vegetation. But I was also always very aware of how brutal and savage nature could be. It wasn’t always just sentimental flowers and bunny rabbits in my mind.
Also, at the same time, my dad was a hobby mechanic and had a very contagious love of cars and boats, any kind of beautifully engineered and designed piece of machinery.
I’ve always been drawn to contradictions, whether it’s a beautiful thing in nature that is dangerous, or a character that’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mainly I think it’s creating a character or situation that’s really unpredictable and unsure. I like the sense of anxiety it can create.
NV : What would be your work methods about writing ? Are you working with a lot of improvisation or with well-defined scripts ?
DC : It sounds silly, but basically what I try to do is be as cavalier and improvisational as possible with the very first draft. Then with any subsequent drafts I try to retain that energy and unpredictability while refining the story as much as possible. And I try to avoid any formulas or any logical choices wherever possible.
NV : In the Ripple TPB, we can read “Ripple is the last in a series of three very loosely related graphic novels that were seven years in the making — finally completing the SuckleCrumpleRipple triptych”. That idea of “triptych” was something you had in mind from the beginning ? Why Dan & Larry isn’t a fourth part ?
DC : Good question. That whole “triptych” concept is a little half-baked. I just liked the way it sounded. They’re connected more in the sense that as a writer, they represent a certain progression for me. You could almost see the 3 protagonists as an evolving whole. Basil is birth and innocence, knuckle is complacency and fear, and Martin is selfishness — which ultimately leads to his being deserted and alone.
Dan & Larry was just never a part of that in my own head. While it could fit with the others stylistically, the subject matter felt really different to me. The juxtaposition of real and surreal was sort of new for me. Sort of a precursor to the Eddy Table stories in a way.
NV : Ripple is a fiction drawn realisticly. Dan & Larry is a story of memories mixed with dreams drawn in a more cartoony way. Dan & Larry could have been drawn more realisticaly because of its autobiographical contents. Why did you draw it more cartoony ? Was it to have some distance with the subject ?
DC : Yes, distance is part of it. I wanted to be able to take memories (which are never accurate) and have the freedom to completely distort them and mix them with fiction and dream nonsense. I felt it gave the book a more poetic, surreal feeling. And I think that mood really mirrors the way I feel about the subject matter. My memories are a bizarre, hazy mess. I think with a story like that it’s better to try and capture the essence of your feelings rather than to try and accurately “document” the facts. That would have been totally boring to me. Also, with the exception of Ripple, I always hate drawing comics realistically. It’s just plain boring for me.
NV : The other reason why Ripple is realistically drawn is maybe that it’s a book about “flesh” and the human bodies would fit best.
DC : I agree with you on that one.
NV : Why did you decide to go in bichromy in the Ripple TPB ? Black and white wasn’t good anymore ?
DC : Actually it’s sort of the other way around. I had the duotone (bichromy) in mind for the collection right from the beginning, but I decided to do the artwork in black and white first in Weasel. I just wanted the drawing to be as modest and unassuming as possible in Weasel, and I wanted the art to be as quick and simple as possible. I thought that if I was making it duotone each issue, it would probably change the way I approached the drawing. Knowing I was going to be re-working the art eventually also gave me something to look forward to when it came time to put the collection together. Something extra that would make the book special.
NV : I wasn’t talking about the color use specifically but more of the system of having a book inside a book (like in the Watchmen, or a play inside a play in Shakespeare, or in all the Altman movies). Why did you decide to use that system ?
DC : Mainly to show the disparity between reality and the way that Martin perceives it.
NV : Were you surprised by the immediate sell-out of Overbite (Weasel number 6) ?
DC : Yes, I was a little surprised. It was very gratifying to know that my audience was still interested in my non narrative work. It certainly could have gone either way. And now that the second book of paintings has just been released (Underbelly aka Weasel #7), I know it wasn’t just a fluke. The sales for Underbelly are just as good. Of course there are some comix nerds who are all upset that I’m not doing comix, but they’ve been replaced by regular art enthusiasts who may not even know that I started as a cartoonist. So basically, my readership on the art books is about the same as it used to be for the comics.
NV : Was it your wish or Fantagraphics’ to publish that book ?
DC : Originally, I just wanted to print a quite modest little catalogue for a gallery show I was having. Just for fun I thought I’d see if fantagraphics would be interested in soliciting it as the next issue of weasel. But primarily it would simply have been a little booklet to be sold at the gallery. But when I proposed the idea to Gary (Groth), he said, why don’t you do a big hardbound art-book instead ? it didn’t take much to convince me !
NV : The Fantagraphics website says that since the success of Overbite, you have been producing new work at a fevered pitch.
DC : Yes, I have two solo gallery shows scheduled for this year. One in Los Angeles in July, the other in New York City in December. (for the record, two gallery shows is one more than most sane people would have in one year.)
NV : Are you leaving comics behind for Fine Arts and children books ?
DC : A couple of months ago I might have said yes. I was burnt out on comix for quite a while there. They just didn’t interest me at all. I found painting and drawing my children’s book totally satisfying. But then some ideas for a comic started to creep back into my head. It was very interesting actually because I didn’t actually WANT to do another comic, but these little ideas kept popping into my head when I was in the shower, or when I was on the bus going to my studio. So whenever I got out of the shower, or arrived at my studio I’d write down the idea and then try to forget it. Well, after the course of about a month, there was a big stack of notes and they’d all started to magically become interconnected without much effort. Now I have this neat little script that I can’t wait to illustrate. It will be similar in mood to the Eddy Table stories from Weasel #s 1-5. In fact, Eddy will play a minor role in the book. Because of my painting schedule, the book probably won’t be out for another year and a half, or two, but hopefully it will be worth the wait.
[Interview conducted through email between December 2004 and February 2008 for the eighth XeroXed leaflet.]