Wondermark: Our Interview with David Malki !

Today we're talking with David Malki ! (yes, the exclamation point is included), who is an author, creator of the webcomic Wondermark, editor of the anthology Machine of Death, and at the head of so many projects, frankly, I have a hard time keeping track. What I can tell you is he is definitely doing some unique work which I hope you'll dig as much I do.

Hi David, how are you doing?
Good. Thanks!

You write an online comic using Victorian wood cuts. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you got started?
Sure. Wondermark is a comic strip that's made using illustrations from books from the 1800s that are all scans from primary sources whenever possible and then cut apart in Photoshop. And the elements used is sort of puzzle pieces and ingredients to make comic strips. And it's something I've been doing now for eight years, and it started sort of as a lark, sort of an experiment like, "I wonder if you could make a comic strip this way." And the answer turned out to be yes. So I kept doing it.

So how did you get interested in Victorian illustrations, specifically?
Well, I've always been an artist and appreciative of the arts. And this particular era in art is really remarkable because this was before they figured out how to print photography in things like newspapers, so whenever you wanted an illustration in a newspaper or a magazine or a book, you had to have a drawing. And that meant that if you wanted to write an article about something that is far away from the readers or it could be across the world, you're going to get the artist to draw a picture of it for you. And that's true of historical events; it's true of scientific apparatus; it's true of portraits of the president. Whatever you want, you had to have an illustration.

So there's a period that starts in about 1816 and goes through to about 1895 which is about when they figured out how to print photography where this art of black and white illustration reaches this incredible golden age, in my opinion. And it's really lovely work, and it's wonderful to look at, and it's sort of an art that's been lost over the years. And I feel like I have a bit of a responsibility as a fan of the craft that went into it to share it with the world, in a way. And I also feel like it makes my work look really awesome and classy, so I'm riding on the coattails of the dead.

Well, it is beautiful illustrations. I like your comic; I was drawn to it because of the Victorian pictures, and I've always been a big fan of retro-advertising and older forms of art because it is amazing, the detail.
Yeah, absolutely. And I feel like as far as my comic goes, it's distinctive. I like having something that doesn't look like every other comic strip out there. And as a legitimate fan of the aesthetic, it's a lot of fun for me to do things that either recreate it like in terms of my books. I recreate a lot of period advertisements for the sake of parody and try and depict that style of layout, photography, and everything as closely as I can just out of affection and out of a sense that it's super-cool and people like to look at it.

Would you classify your comic as Steampunk or do you consider it its own unique subset?
I think that the – I mean I'm pleased that people who are fans of Steampunk enjoy the work. I don't quite know what – like, the label is so broad. It covers everyone from Civil War reenacters, potentially, to 1920s vaudevillians, in a sense. And so I've found a willing audience among Steampunk fans, but I like to feel that my work is also broader, even, than that. And it's hard, it's a gag strip, something like The Far Side. And it's something that, hopefully, folks who aren't even into comics can still enjoy whether someone is drawn to it like you were from the aesthetic or from the sense of humor or from the format or from the reference it makes to your particular job.

It's weird because I had someone saying, "You did a comic strip about a weird emergency survival kit that had yarn in it, and guess what, I work in emergency services, and someone posted that on my Facebook, and now I like your comic." You can never tell how people are sort of coming to it, and I really appreciate that it's broad enough that people can... like someone who loves Steampunk can be really into it, and someone who's never heard of Steampunk can also be really into it. I think Steampunk is fun, but I wouldn't limit myself by saying it's a Steampunk work.

Now, I hear that you have a huge collection of your own books that you're pulling illustrations from. How big is that collection?
Boy, it's been a while since I did the math, but if I had to guess, I would say it's probably over 25,000 aggregate pages. I'm looking at it now. It's three shelves of a bookshelf and a file drawer of those pages. And it's mainly collections like edition collections of magazines and mainly general interest magazines because you get to see a lot of articles on everything from science to fiction to history to art and politics. So you get illustrations that are of a very diverse character. And in addition to that, I have an old Sears Roebuck Catalog which is like my prop warehouse and some collections of Punch, a bunch of storybooks. Here's a book on grammar. Here's a children's reader. Here is a really interesting book that somebody gave me. It is a collection of cartoons from Punch by the artist John Leech, and I have some of his original newspapers and that his illustrations showed up in. And I have the – again, this hardbound collection which is kind of fun which was issued 30 years later.

So there's a lot of stuff. And what I have found is I'm able to acquire it fairly easily and cheaply surprisingly so because I look for copies that are damaged and that collectors have no interest in because I don't care if the spine is cracked or if there's stains on the pages because I'm more interested in the content than I am in the condition. So I got something on eBay that has a missing cover, or is missing four pages, and it's $20.

Well, I think that's great because I'll occasionally decide, "Oh, I want to do something with pictures," and I go look for the pictures because I can't draw worth beans. And it is surprisingly hard. You do a web search, and you're not going to find something real specific, necessarily.

So the fact that you've built a collection of books is really cool.
There's also... now that you bring up the search for something because one thing about doing comics in my way... it changes the process from the way that most people – most cartoonists would make comics because rather than saying, "I want to do a comic about a doctor talking to a lumberjack," then they just draw a picture of a doctor talking to a picture of a lumberjack. And if I wanted to do that same joke, I have to find it or create a picture of a doctor and a lumberjack. And maybe I have them handy, and maybe I don't. And maybe I have to spend hours paging through books looking for the specific thing that I need to tell the joke I have in my mind. And maybe I'm able to create it using a combination of elements and images kind of like building a Mr. Potato Head. Or maybe I have to shelve that joke for another day. So that's a problem that most cartoonists don't encounter.

However, I'm also given the freedom to not have to start with a blank page if I don't want to. I can make a comic by finding images and saying, "These will fit together. Let's put them together." And then the writing process becomes a question-and-answer session where I ask myself, "What is this man saying to this bear?" And then whatever they're talking about is discovered in the writing process rather than having to start with nothing and coming up with something without any help at all.

Right. I completely understand that. That actually leads me to my next question... I've occasionally had to make a mock-up with found images, and it takes way longer than people realize. They see something that you obviously cut and paste, and they think, "Oh, that must have taken two seconds," and it might have taken three hours, besides searching for the image and then tweaking it and so on. How long, on average, does it take you to put a comic strip together?
It depends, of course, on the complexity of it. There are some that have come together very easily, and there are others that really have to be wrestled into shape. The longest I think I've ever spent is 12 hours.

And on average, it's usually about three hours. I also weigh... I feel like I don't always own the work that I do unless I'm able to put some kind of unique stamp on it. And so I'm more inclined to want to modify it heavily than just say, "Well, copy, paste. This is perfect. These guys look great. Let me just draw a word balloon, and I'm done." Although no one else really cares, but I kind of feel like it's cheating, and so I'm more inclined to... I want to make it my own. I want to make it look like something you can't see anywhere else. And so a lot of times, then, it's as simple as, "Well, these two guys look great. But maybe one of them should have a fish head. Let's just do that and then see where that takes the narrative."

And you blend those really well because a couple of them I'm like, "Did he find a Victorian fish head man?" [laughs] But then there's others that I can see from one panel to the next, you changed the expression. And we're laughing here, but there's some crazy images from the Victorian period, so you know I wouldn't be surprised if there was a fish head man somewhere.
Well, there's definitely a lot of weird stuff. And there are some that are perfectly weird enough without me having to do anything, and my job is just to say, "Guys, check out this amazing scene. It's super weird." But the goal is to make it look like it's unmodified, in a way, so it's almost like a little paradox where I want to make it my own, but I don't want to make it obvious. I want to be as seamless with the process as possible.

That's great. Now, how would you describe the humor of your strip?
I think it is sarcastic. I think it can be silly. I think if I'm doing my job right, it can occasionally be kind of cutting. Like there's a lot... it's hard for me to judge it, myself, because it's just the way my mind works. But when I read people's reviews or whatever, they're like, "You know, well, these strips are all about deflating pompous organizations." I'm like, "Oh, I guess there was that undercurrent just in my brain all the time." I'm always looking for, you know, sort of the absurdity of modern life in an observational way which I think every cartoonist or humorist sort of does. But I also have a special interest in hypocrisies, I think, like, "Let's make this as serious a conversation as we can about something that's supposed to be funny."

But I guess I'm old enough that I don't think there's anything that the organization hasn't faced. I'm always looking for what the game is or what the scam is or what the scheme is or how somebody could game this system or this other program. And so I do a lot of explorations into what could be going on behind the scenes.

Some of us are born cynical, so I don't know if it's just age.
Yeah, maybe so. Maybe that's it. I try not to be nihilistic about it because I don't want to be depressing. But I try and make it funny. I remember one comic strip I did where's it's like, "There's sodium in all of our food. It's horrible. Every processed food is so full of sodium." And then the reason is because the Morton Salt Company has lobbyists in Washington. So it's, "You remember those margaritas? Now we need something from you." So it's like I'm always looking for those hypocrisies, but then for the sake of the joke, I'm trying to make the most absurd possible explanation.

What were your favorite comic strips?
Yeah. I love Calvin and Hobbes which I think every cartoonist of my generation will say as their first favorite.

He's my favorite, and I'm not a cartoonist... because he's fabulous!
He's everyone's. And that was the strip that taught me that you can talk about serious issues in a funny way. And you can have a point of view, and it doesn't make you preachy to have a point of view on serious issues.

A lot of people will also say The Far Side which I like, but I never really understood how groundbreaking it was until I got older. I look at the absurdity in The Far Side now, and it's just like, "Yeah. Absolutely. Of course it's as weird as it is." And I didn't realize until much later that that was a strange thing to be that weird, it was unusual to be that weird. But it was so up my alley that I didn't notice it. It was just like, "Yeah. Of course. This is how the world works, right?"

I also really liked Peanuts which is maybe a little bit before my time, and obviously, it's been around. It was around for 50 years. But at the time it rolled around into my childhood, it was a little bit stale. But I always had the books from the 50s and 60s that my older siblings had, so I grew up on those.

And again, it was a way of learning that you can talk about really serious issues in a way that's fundamentally absurd because there was like an experiment recently which I think is amazing, where someone on a Tumblr did this where you take a four-panel Peanuts comic, and you take off the fourth panel, and it becomes essentially horrible. And every Peanuts comic is essentially misery, misery, misery, joke, misery, misery, misery, joke. If you take away the joke, it's just existentialist, black wailing at the stars.

Absolutely. I was one of the few people where I was like, "I don't really care for it." Once I grew past a certain age, I couldn't read Peanuts without thinking just how depressing it was.
Yeah, for sure. And I think the real genius of Charles Schultz is – or was his ability to be so dark but make it so accessible at the same time. Like you're sad because Charlie Brown is a sad sack not because the world is horrible. But you're sort of laughing at the character more than the world, and it's his sly way of making his point without making you feel like the author is yelling at you. It's the characters' problem, not the author's problem.

Right. I think that's why I grew away from it because I felt fundamentally bad laughing at Charlie Brown. [laughs] I was like, "This is just horrible. They're really bad to this kid."
[laughs] Me, too, yeah, for sure. And I feel like it lost a little of its bite over the years, too. But it's interesting because a strip like that or a strip like Calvin and Hobbes you can talk about – the author can talk about things through the character whereas a strip like The Far Side or a strip like Wondermark, it always feels like it's the author talking rather than the character because there's no recurring character. And The Far Side is able to stick to absurdity more than other things that were too plaintive which is a credit to his genius. But I definitely... there are things that I say in the strip that are my voice, and there are things that happen in the strip for the sake of comedy.

Now, you have been right at the beginning of, basically, kind of a new publishing model with the online webcomics. What are your thoughts on how the publishing world is changing and how the Internet has affected that?
Yeah, I think things are definitely... things have changed over the course of the eight years I've been doing comics. And I can't take credit for being a genius because my involvement in it is mostly accidental, at least at the beginning, because I did comics for three years without knowing what [web]comics were. I actually recommend that because I didn't come at it with a sense of expectation, that I feel like is may be more common now than it once was, because there are people that have been successful now. And the people look to them, and they go, "Hey, I could do that," and there are some who can and some who can't. And it becomes discouraging if you're one of the ones who can't. So luckily, I was able to figure out my game for a while before that, without any set of expectations about how successful I should or shouldn't be.

But I think it's great. I mean I think the fundamental idea that you can make something cool and if enough people like it, that can be your deal. I think that is true now in a way that it was never true before. It gets more true every day. I think fundamentally, that is amazing. I think that is a net gain for the world. And in a way, it's easy, but it is absolutely remarkable that we are at that point.

I think comics have kind of a leg-up in that world in a way that maybe musicians have, too. I don't know. I'm not into the music scene as much as maybe I could be, so I don't know. But a comic strip is something that is updated regularly, instantly digestible, fun to share, and has a lot of monetization options, for lack of a better word, built into it – and a gag comic strip, particularly.

So I feel like that is kind of a native creature to the Internet, or it can be if it is positioned correctly by the author. So I think it's great that there are cartoonists who are able to work online and find their audience. I don't think that it is the same for every piece of creative expression. I think an easy example is editorial cartoons. There are a lot of editorial cartoonists who are finding their prospects drying up as newspapers get more and more broke. And I don't feel like editorial cartoons have the same economic prospects on the web, and whether that editorial cartoonist should make a living or not is sort of beside the point of whether they can work as webcomics, and I don't think that they can which is a shame.

But I think it's cool to see novelists are starting to get this wind under their sails, too, with easy Kindle publishing and ebooks from Amazon. I think it's a different audience than for webcomics, usually, but I think it's becoming economically viable in a way that it wasn't five years ago.

I want to ask about Machine of Death. I hear you're coming out with a second book?
It will be out next summer, hopefully.

Could you tell us in your own words and give us a brief synopsis of the first anthology's premise?
Yeah, so our book is a collection of short stories that revolves around the premise of what if there was a machine that could tell you how you're going to die? It doesn't say when, but it does tell you a few words of how. It's always right, and sometimes it's cryptic, but it can never be escaped. And if that machine was real, how would it change the world? That's the question that we asked to writers, and we invited submissions for short stories to further explore that concept. We received nearly 700 submissions and from them, we picked our favorite 34, and we made a book. And we also had every story paired with an illustration by a comic book artist. And so the result is a collection of short stories that is tremendously diverse because everyone starts with that same idea, and they go in different directions with it. So some of the stories are funny; some of them are sad; some of them are serious; some of them are silly. And everyone invents all the details of their own world and answers the question in a very different way. So as an overall collection, it's broad-ranging, and it's robust, and it's really thought-provoking, and we're really proud of it.

I had not heard of Machine of Death until recently, and this is the kind of thing that totally intrigues me. So it's on my wish list; I'm going to order it. So you're coming out with a second book; where are you in that process right now?

Right now, we're accepting submissions of short stories. That's where we are. July 15th – that's our deadline. We're inviting people to write a short story based on the Machine of Death concept which is outlined in more detail on our website, machineofdeath.net.

And we have received so far over a million words of submissions. We expect to double that by the time the submission period is over. We've got over a million words of submissions which is so far, about 350 individual stories.

And yeah, we expect to double that. It's going to be a book of around 30 stories, we're expecting. And we have no idea what the overall make up is going to be. I mean is it going to be more serious? Is it going to be more funny? We're going to try and make it as diverse as we can, but it's just going to depend on the kind of stories we get.

Folks are having a really great time writing stories for it. We are seeing people on Twitter and everywhere else saying, "Oh, I'm working on my Machine of Death story. Who wants to give me feedback on my Machine of Death story?" Or, the cool thing is when we see things like, "Oh, writing a Machine of Death story got me off my butt, and it got me to write something."

That's great!
"I want to be a writer, but I never write anything, but now I have a reason to write something that says something." And that is our goal. But we're only publishing 30 or so stories, so it's not that we're out to get everyone – to put everyone in a book, although we'd love to. But the main thing is we want to be the people that make you get off your butt and do the thing that you always wanted to do. And that's sort of arduous because the first book was made from submissions from nobodies. We had some people who were fairly well-known online, but a lot of other people... it was their first story that they'd written or the first that they'd sold after writing stories for a long time or something.

And we are a meritocracy. We want the best, and we are willing to read it from anybody because we believe that people can give us great work without necessarily needing to be famous or published or whatever, and we want to be the ones to discover those people.

So in a way – this will go on a tangent – by making that decision to accept stories from people that we thought were great even if no one had heard of them – which is, of course, the promise of the Internet – that was the reason we were unable to get the book traditionally published – because no publisher wanted to take a risk on that.

And so we thought the idea was super-compelling, and we thought the book we put together was really neat. And so we wanted to exhaust every option and give publishers a chance to look at it, and we got agents involved. And people who read the book were like, "This is super-great." But we wanted to publish it, though, because they didn't know how it would sell because the first story anthology, full of unknown authors in a weird economy, it's like, there's no possible way to make a less-appealing book.

But we spent like three years going down every rabbit trail we could, calling every contact we had along the way. And in the course of those three years, my co-editor Ryan and I – Ryan's also a cartoonist with a comic strip called Dinosaur Comics – and he was actually the one who came up with the original Machine of Death idea – over the course of those couple of years, he and I just learned more about publishing because we had books come out in that interim of our own work. And we got to see a little bit of this machinery and its pluses and minuses. In both cases, his book and my – he had one book, and I had three books that came out with traditional publishers. And we both looked at it and we're like, "There are advantages to this," but not as many as maybe we had hoped. And so eventually, when the last person said, "No," to Machine of Death, we said, "Well, we're going to do it ourselves," and we gave it another shot. And we weren't afraid of it at that point because we realized we can do a better job. No one else would be as devoted to our work as we would be.

And so we did. So we put the book on Amazon, and we tried to get people excited about this idea where we are going to prove the point that we didn't need anybody else to make this, to give us their stamp of approval. We just believed in it, and we thought people should read it. And so we asked everybody to buy the book on Amazon on the same day which was October 26th of last year, and we became the best-selling book on Amazon.

Oh, awesome. That's great.
And so when that happens, all of a sudden, people started to notice us because here's a book that came out of nowhere. We were not in any of the trade catalogs; we had no pre-publication reviews; we didn't spend any money on marketing at all. All we did was write some blog posts to get people excited. And when all of a sudden we showed up on the Amazon charts, the people who pay attention to that sort of thing all had the same question, and that is, "Who are you, and what are you doing?" Or in some cases, they would say, "We Googled you. We know who are, and this is amazing." And in a few cases, "We're sorry we passed on your book before. Can we have another conversation?" to which our answer was, "You had your chance."

So we went on; we got a distribution deal; the book is now in every Barnes & Noble in the country. There are a bunch in Borders, too, which is kind of bad news for us, but it's still there. And it's across America and Canada; it's 25,000 copies in print; we've had four printings; we are available on Kindle, we're available on Nook and iPad. We did a limited edition hardcover edition.

We've taken this book around to shows and people say, "Oh, I've heard about this everywhere. I need to get a copy of it." We held a talent show where we invited people to write songs, and people came. We had a birthday cake for the book when it was six months old. People were really involved in this thing as a – I'm not going to say movement, but as a – just a kind of a high water mark for, "This is what people can accomplish when they just do it themselves and are able to get people sufficiently excited."

And I think the most gratifying thing throughout has been people who joined in our effort to be the weird little best-seller for a day, and then they read the book, and then they were like, "Oh, wait. This book is amazing." And we were just like, "Yeah, we know! That's what we were trying to tell you all along!" So that's been incredibly gratifying.

And of course, just how – being involved in something like I mentioned before – taking advantage of something like Amazon, you kind of be involved in it is interesting because we were able to take advantage of a very public venue that was accountable, that nobody thought we were trying to be... you know, we couldn't be lying about our success.

And additionally, what happened was we accidentally beat a book – I mean we were the No. 1 book, so we beat every other book that came out that day. And we tried to pick a day that no other books came out; then we failed because we don't know anything about publishing. There was a book by John Grisham that came out; there was a Barefoot Contessa Cookbook; there was the Keith Richards' autobiography, all came out the same day. We beat them all by accident. And we also beat a book by Glenn Beck which came out the same day. And so on his radio program the next day – he is not used to not being No. 1 on the day he comes out, and so he called us part of the "liberal culture of death that's destroying America" for having the temerity to beat his book.

Oh, geez.
And that was another amazing thing that was completely hilarious and completely ludicrous, and it got a whole new round of people excited about the book because they said, "I don't know what this is but if Glenn Beck hates it, I want a copy."

Yeah, exactly. You can't beat that kind of publicity.
Exactly. And so things like that are just, you know, it's like you leave yourself open to strange, serendipitous opportunity when you make a big splash. You can never predict where it's going to go when you're able to be audacious in that way. So that's the lesson we took away from it, don't be afraid to view things in a different way because the worse that happens is nobody cares, and the best that happens is you can't predict where it's going to go.

Right, right. It's always better not to hold back, which I think is a hard lesson. Do you have any other projects or appearances coming up that you'd like to talk about?
Well, let's see. We have this event coming up in July, and I'm going to be back in the Bay Area for the Renegade Craft Fair which is July 9th and 10th. It's at the Fort Mason Center, and I'm going to be there with all my wares. But we're also going to be doing a Machine of Death event in partnership with a San Francisco theater company. Let me get the name of that... It's called the Un-Scripted Theater Company. And they are an improv group, and they're doing a show that's called Act One, Scene Two. And in it, what they do is they take the first act of unfinished plays; they read them onstage, and they perform the rest of the play as an improv piece.

Oh, interesting.
Yeah, it's a really cool event and I was invited to be part in it. And as it happens, there is a piece in Machine of Death that is called "Murder and Suicide Respectively," and it's by the co-editor Ryan North, and it's written as a play. And it's kind of talking about two scientists that are discussing the Machine of Death and what it can mean if these predictions that it issues are accurate. It's a really, really cool piece. And so what is going to happen is we're going to be, the Theater Company's going to be performing that play onstage, and then improvising the rest of the play for the next hour.

And it's going to be a really cool co-production of un-scripted theater, and Machine of Death. It's going to be the Machine of Death theme is at San Francisco, but we're also going to have a machine there that issues predictions to the attendees, and it's going to be a super-fun event. I believe it's going to be July 8th, but it may be – give or take a day. I'm not sure of the exact date yet.

But around the same weekend as Renegade?
It'll be that same weekend. It'll either be a Friday night or maybe a Saturday night of that weekend. We're going to have Ryan there on Skype. He's in Toronto, but he'll be there virtually, and we're hoping to get people out to see the show and to say, "Hello."

Great. Okay, so the last three questions are questions that we ask everyone at all of our interviews, and we call these the Culture Brats 3. Which do you prefer: Purple Rain or Thriller?
Oh, Thriller. A hundred percent Thriller.

Debbie Gibson or Tiffany?
Oh, man. I've got to say "I Think I'm Alone Now" was one of the first songs I memorized, so I don't know that she has a lot to give me now, but my memory likes Tiffany.

And finally, we have Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles?
Well, they're both movies that my mom wouldn't let me see.

Yeah, because I'm not a girl, I guess. [laughs] But I did watch them later in life, and the one that sticks – you know, I got to say Short Circuit. That's what I ended up seeing.

Oh, that's good. David, it was so nice talking with you. This was really fun.
Of course. It was my pleasure.

Check out more of David Malki ! at Wondermark.com, Machine of Death.net, or find his books and comic collections at Amazon.

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