Damian Duffy is a cartoonist, scholar, writer, curator, lecturer, teacher, and a Glyph Comics Award-winning, New York Times Bestselling graphic novelist. Damian Duffy holds a MS and PhD in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is on faculty, teaching courses on computers & culture and social media & global change. Damian Duffy’s many publications range from academic essays (in comics form) on new media & learning, to art books about underrepresentation in comics culture, to editorial comics, to a graphic novel adaptation of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, with his J2D2 Arts counterpart John Jennings. The co-editor of the Black Comix Returns art book from the Magnetic Collection at Lion Forge Comics, Damian Duffy has given talks and lead workshops about comics, art, and education internationally. Please enjoy my interview with Damian Duffy.
How do you describe your occupation?
I’m a cartoonist, writer, graphic novelist, professor, and dad. Not necessarily in that order. Depends on the day, really.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
If it’s a weekday, one or both of my human alarm clocks (a.k.a. kids) wakes me up somewhere between 4 and 6 am, depending on what kind of morning we’re rocking that day, and who’s fighting with who about what. Once my wife takes the kids to school on her way to work, and assuming it’s not one of the two days a week I teach a class at the Universtiy of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Information Sciences, I spend the morning and early afternoon alternating between catching up on email, making comics—either through writing scripts, sketching, lettering, or drawing, depending on which projects have deadlines closing in—and occasionally working on prose writing projects. In the afternoon I pick the kids up, work a few hours after they go to bed, repeat. Weekends are more 6-8 hour work days unless there’s a close deadline, at which point they become more like 10-12. I apparently fall asleep somewhere in there.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
The comic I’ve been reading is the trade paperback collection of 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank by Matthew Rosenberg, Tyler Boss, and Thomas Mauer, and I wanted to read it because I’d heard great things about it, and very much enjoyed the other off-kilter crime comic Rosenberg wrote, We Can Never Go Home. In prose, I’m currently re-re-reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler because I’m working on writing the graphic novel adaptation.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
I’m not positive, but I think it was this Sesame Street book, The Great Cookie Thief. I was also really into the little comics that came with He-Man toys back in the 80s.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
I used to be more of a bookmarker, or more usually I’d sort of vaguely remember the page number and look around in the story for where I left off. More recently, if I own the book and I definitely want to come back to something, I’ll make a page look like origami.
When did you fall in love with reading?
As soon as I possibly could. When does object permanence set in?
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
At 16 I’d give myself On Writing by Stephen King, because that was when I was most into King as a writer, and I think that book could’ve inspired me to be a more prolific writer, or at least more aware of the old adage that you have to do a lot of bad writing to get to the good. At age 25 I’d give myself 47 by Walter Mosley because then I would’ve already read it, instead of having it taunt me from the top of my to-read list.
What are perfect reading conditions for you?
I like reading in bed before going to sleep, and reading on aeroplanes, because… well, that’s when I can carve out some time to read. Perfect conditions would probably be in a hammock on some tropic island, but like the kind that doesn’t have humidity or insects, and, like perfection, doesn’t exist.
For someone starting out in your career, which three books would you make required reading and why?
For someone starting out in comics, my required trio is probably:
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud—Probably one of the most famous comic about comics around, McCloud’s work is an optimistic, theoretical manifesto of what comics were when the book came out in the 90s, and what they can be, which is almost anything.
Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice by Ivan Brunetti—A book version of a class on cartooning taught by Brunetti, this one is more of a nuts and bolts, how-to type of thing. And even though the book is specific to cartooning—i.e. drawing narratively, with simplified images—it provides a way to start to teach oneself to tell stories visually, with attention to the narrative quality of not only depictions of events, but of artistic style.
This Is Everything I Know: A 24-Hour Comic About Comics by C. Spike Trotman—A fantastic, no-bullshit discussion of what to expect when you embark on a life of making comics, from the self-made comics creator and owner/operator Chicago’s largest alternative comics publisher. If Understanding Comics is a dream of the medium’s possibilities, This Is Everything I Know is a frank introduction to the industry’s realities.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Octavia E. Butler—Butler’s books have changed my life in so many ways, not least of which is the privilege of adapting her novel Kindred (and now her Earthseed series) into graphic novels. Butler’s interviews and personal papers reveal a dizzying, rapacious intellect, and her novels are such masterclasses in making complex ideas compelling. I’m sure it’d be amazing to have a conversation with her. But, honestly, mostly, I’d just want to say thank you.
James Baldwin—Of course, Baldwin is an important and influential thinker on art, race, and American politics, famous for speaking with a razor wit, and in this hypothetical dinner party, where the rules of time and space are set to “wonky,” I’d like to imagine we’d get to hear him deconstruct and stomp to pieces 21st century United States. And then later, when I’d had enough to drink where I’d actually get the nerve to chat with him, I’d love to hear him talk about narrative, about story. I’ve always been more of a fan of his fiction than anything. The short story Sonny’s Blues gutted me at a relatively young age.
Kurt Vonnegut—I read Slaughterhouse V in high school, and I was not ready. The half-casual narrative voice, being unstuck in time, the unbearable sadness and beautiful slivers of wonder told out of order. And then I realized my mom had a collection of most of his books, so he’s probably one of the few prolific writers whose body of work I have read almost entirely. Although, now that I’m thinking about being in a dinner party with these people, I’m getting pretend social anxiety.
Alan Moore—For me, no comics writer has performed the technical feats, nor pushed the boundaries of the medium, as much as or as well as Alan Moore. And, for a writer who tends to get meta, he manages to do so with flair and humour. I know he’s pretty well done with comics these days, so maybe I’d also request the time machine snatch up a 1980s Alan Moore, just to get a hit of that brilliant ambition. Then again, I’d also like to talk From Hell, and I think that was coming out in the 1990s… This is why time travel dinner parties are so difficult to schedule.
Zora Neal Hurston—From what I understand of Hurston, she knew how to liven up a party. And while she’s there it’d be great to hear her talk about her work with voodoo practitioners, which is a research interest of mine after writing a graphic novel called The Hole: Consumer Culture with my collaborator John Jennings. Or, if we’re keeping this more realistic, I’d probably just embarrass myself by meekly asking her to autograph my copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, never realizing I had spinach from the salad in my teeth. I’m starting to understand why I don’t get invited to more dinner parties…
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
The last books I bought were issues 1-4 of Black Panther: Panther’s Prey by Don McGregor and Dwayne Turner because after watching the Ryan Coogler-directed film twice now (and counting), and then reading Panther’s Quest by McGregor and Gene Colan, I really wanted to read more McGregor Black Panther. The writing is just this weirdly perfect mix of pulpy prose, humanist tone, and tightly constructed storytelling.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
My favourite thing about reading is the experience of becoming lost in a good book; of finding a book that ignites your imagination in ways the most immersive virtual reality can never compete with.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
I’d like to be in Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, because I’d like to be able to jaunt, which was how people teleported all over the world in that story.
Sort of self-serving, since I lettered this graphic novel, but I really think everyone would benefit from reading I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, Stacey Robinson and John Jennings. It’s a Black Lives Matter ghost story about African-American and Puerto Rican kid who, after killed by police, goes on kind of a mystical journey, meeting other victims of police brutality, and seeing how the world moves on after his death. Even if I wasn’t part of the creative team, I would certainly recommend the book for anyone looking for a more human, empathetic insight into the issues surrounding the unjust over-policing of black people in the U.S., and issues concerning oppressed peoples more generally.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
It would be a tie between Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, for obvious reasons, and Marvel Tales #192, which reprinted the two-part Spider-Man story The Night Gwen Stacey Died. This was the first comic book I read, when I was six, and after I finished it, I started making my own comics.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
I’m hoping to check out Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann in the near future. It’s partially research for a science fiction story I’m collaborating on, but more so that it sounds like a fascinating and enraging investigation of an incident in American history with which I was not previously familiar.