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Webcomic Spotlight: An Interview with David Willis, Creator of Dumbing of Age and Shortpacked

David Willis takes us behind the scenes.

David Willis

David Willis is a popular webcomic artist most known for his college slice-of-life comic Dumbing of Age and a light sci-fi comic set in a toy store called Shortpacked. Recently, Willis took some time to speak to me about his creative process and the stories he’s created.

Alex Townsend: How did you first get into creating comics?

David Willis: I had junior high school classes I didn’t have to pay attention to to get As in, some notebook paper, and a pencil. That’s really all you need to “get into” creating comics. Later, the Internet would be invented, so I wouldn’t have to just force my terrible scrawlings on the other people at my lunch table. Life for me has mostly been a decades-long lesson that drawing comics is the best way I have to express myself. I’m not great at talking, that’s for sure, and whenever I write something I feel like pictures would be better at sharing half the work. With comics I can approximate my feelings way better than I can do with my face. It took me a long time to understand that.

But if you want to know how I got into creating comics professionally, the Indiana (University) Daily Student newspaper asked for submissions the first week of freshman year, I already had a bunch of comics drawn of course, and nobody else submitted anything so the glory was all mine!

AT: One of your main characters, Joyce, comes from a very conservative Christian family that you’ve often said is very similar to how you were raised. Could you talk a bit about the environment you grew up in?

DW: My parents themselves grew up reading science fiction and watching Star Wars, easy as they please, but as my mom got further and further into motherhood, her…. paranoia escalated? Like, she would read the early 1980s equivalent of Fox News and systematically remove things from my life that she was afraid would corrupt me. I managed to get a few He-Man toys before my mom read that “only Jesus has the Power” and banned me from it. Over time, I learned I couldn’t watch Scooby Doo (witchcraft!), Disney’s Gummy Bears (they are protagonists who use magic!), Care Bears (in the second movie they defeat Satan without the power of Jesus Christ!), or The Simpsons (Ned Flanders, nuff said). I remember being a small child and my mom sitting me down and explaining to me that Mister Rogers was wrong and that war was actually important and good, despite what that week’s anti-war story was claiming, because war is used to heroically murder unbelievers in the Old Testament.

After a few false starts at various churches, we eventually settled in a nondenominational fundamentalist Protestant church that didn’t tell us dancing was evil and had electric guitars and drums during worship services. I learned that the Bible is inerrant truth, that the world is 6000 years old, evolution is a conspiracy that can be easily disproven, and that the world was going to come to an end very soon — probably in 2000 before I would finish college…I was also scared out of my mind because when I prayed I heard nothing. I never heard God talk back to me, just my own thoughts, and everyone else seemed to hear him pretty fine! And so that, on top of my general self-loathing because I was a sinner, gave me many sleepless nights as I anticipated burning in the Lake of Fire for all eternity. You know, after not being called up for the Rapture and suffering through the Tribulation before ultimately the world actually ended with the return of Jesus Christ. Fun times!

AT: Shortpacked and Dumbing of Age have impressively diverse casts with a wide range of races, gender identities, religions, sexualities, and some disabilities that go along with fully developed characters. In fact, you even have many story-lines dedicated to exploring different parts of your characters’ identities. How do you go about researching life experiences that are different from your own? Have you ever had to deal with internalized prejudice along the way?

DW: Writing and drawing about people who are different than me is how I deal with internalized prejudice! I’ve got buttloads of it, and it doesn’t help that I grew up in the environment I did, where the gay folks stayed closeted and there was one black kid in the entire school. As a kid I read Rush Limbaugh books and was taught that the Civil War was really for states rights and that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and that multiculturalism is bad and that I can’t go to art school because it will be full of gay people and communists. By pointing at these things I’m not attempting to externalize my prejudice, it’s totally all in me as well. When I was writing my first webcomic, Roomies!, I was asked at least once where all the gay people are, and the terrible explanation I had for myself was that gayness just didn’t exist in this world. I didn’t want to talk about it. This obviously didn’t hold as that particular universe went forward, but the gradual inclusion of more people who were not like me was grown from me realizing my views were terrible and wanting to put myself in the brains of other people and rehabilitate myself. Like, toss a buttload of fertilizer on a patch of empathy I needed to grow.

For me, the largest part of research is just passively listening. I follow a lot of Tumblrs and Twitter accounts and Facebook feeds of some wonderful people, and I like to hear what they say about what bothers them, what upsets them, what makes them happy. And I try to write everyone as if they are the hero of their own story, and not just the sidekick to somebody else. And, of course, I have some folks who I go to when I have questions to ask. Combining that constant flow of information with the desire to really put yourself in the head of another person is a recipe that I hope works, since it’s what I’ve been doing. It can’t be one or the other — empathy is good but you can still find little patches of places that an ill-informed mind can stumble, while at the same time you need your characters to be people and not a list of faux pas you read from one person on the Internet. Also, if I’m not making myself a little uncomfortable, I’m probably not confronting my privilege enough, so I try to keep vigilant that I’m not just writing stuff that props up my place in the world. I want to learn, and learning means revising false information.

(“Revising false information” is probably the tagline of all of my comics.)

AT: The Dumbing of Age concept was originally an April Fools’ “joke” in Shortpacked. What made you decide to use all your characters again in a non-sci-fi setting?

DW: Honestly, a lot of the time while writing It’s Walky!, my sci-fi comic strip that spun out of my original college-based strip, a lot of the sci-fi stuff felt like a distraction from what I really wanted to do, which was sort out my feelings and emotions about how to talk to people and be understood. Sometimes I could use sci-fi tropes to sort of fasttrack those developments — like splitting Joyce up into two beings, one of which was overtly sexual and caused the original Joyce a homicidal shame (NO SUBTEXT THERE) — but often just, you know, needing to write more actual sci-fi felt like an obligation sometimes. “They haven’t fought aliens in a while, guess that should happen again” sort of thing.

Shortpacked! got a little closer to what I wanted, as it presented a farcical world in which the oddball stuff that happened was more transparently a ploy to set up more mundane character interactions. But there’s something about a college setting that just pulls back the blinds and lets more people in. Not everyone goes to college, but they understand college! They understand a time in which you’re on your own for the first time and figuring things out. It’s arguably the most important, volatile time in a person’s life. And I just wanted to focus on that and remove the “threat” of aliens attacking by removing them from the picture. It’s just college. These guys are in college. They’re not going to end up working for the government and shooting aliens. There’s no Drama Tag. There’s no Tome of the Ages. It’s just classes and parties and evil fathers. But there’s a superhero, because if I don’t get to draw action scenes ever so often I go a little stircrazy.

AT: Does it ever feel strange to write your character in DoA interacting differently of dating other people than in the Walkyverse?

DW: It depends. It was very weird at first to have Walky and Dorothy interact romantically without Joyce in the picture anywhere. But I got there, and now the reverse seems weird. That I even wanted to switch things up like that speaks mostly to my feelings about fate. I don’t think fate exists! I don’t think Walky and Joyce are fated to be together. That’s magical thinking. It’s possible for them to find other people who work out for them, or decide to not even bother. Joyce is not defined by Walky, nor the reverse. They are people with their own agency.

AT: You’re known for your enormous comic buffer and planning plots far in advance. What is your scripting process?

DW: I don’t script in the traditional sense. I don’t type the words in a document and then draw a comic based on those words. What happens is that I have an idea for what should happen in a strip, and then I start writing and drawing the strip, words and pictures, panel by panel, until I get to the end. For me in my current arrangement, the words and pictures happen simultaneously. I can’t even imagine writing words without pictures. I can’t separate the two processes in my mind. I don’t think I could write for someone else to illustrate. I’d just end up drawing it myself as I try to figure out how the story works in my brain.

I wake up in the morning, draw a comic, probably try to take a nap, and then draw another comic in the evening, then go to bed and sleep for a few hours. Sometimes if I’m really excited I can get three or four strips done. That’s how I have a buffer that reaches into February. I… really like drawing comics.

AT: Why did you decide to have a superhero in an otherwise normal setting?

DW: I wanted to give myself an outlet for drawing sweet action stuff. Though I’m okay with drawing people mundanely learning to love each other most of the time, sometimes I just wanna draw throwing a punch. Occasionally I get very angry in my head, and drawing throwing a punch is really therapeutic. In a probably shameful way, I want to see bad people suffer. They need to be punched in the face. Amazi-Girl punches those people in the face for me. I probably need Amazi-Girl for the same reason Amber does — a self-justified way to dispense of bad feelings.

AT: Who is your favorite character at the moment?

DW: Ha, “at the moment” is key. It changes a lot! And it often reflects who I’m writing at the time. So… probably Ruth. I’m currently writing a lot of Ruth. And she’s important to me, because she feels helpless and doesn’t know what to do with happiness — and she’s self-aware about this and so she has a dark sense of humor about it. I like my characters being self-aware of their problems. So often I feel there’s this trope that if only this person or this character knew what was going wrong in their head, they could fix everything! This is so not true. Often that just means it becomes an albatross around your neck. You know the enemy, and the enemy’s there, and it’s always going to be there, so might as well try to carve out some agency somehow by being the empress of snark about it.

AT: Are you working on any other projects right now?

DW: Just It’s Pregnancy!, which is a very small side-project me and my wife are running on Tumblr about expecting a kid. As said earlier, I process all of my feelings through comics, and all of my characters now are 18-year-olds who age so slowly in comic-time they wouldn’t even know if they were pregnant until 2020, much less come to term, and so I made this second comic to do pregnancy jokes because that’s the world I’m living in now. It’ll run until whenever the two little jerks pop out of the missus. This is also when my 4-month buffer will die.

AT: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

DW: Transformers, but I have learned to shut up about them most of the time, because I can get annoying.

Be sure to check out Willis’ work in Dumbing of Age and Shortpacked!

Alex Townsend is freelance writer, a cool person, and really into gender studies and superheroes. It’s a magical day when all these things come together. You can follow her on her tumblr and see her comments on silver age comics. Happy reading!

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