American writer-artist Dan Goldman is finally back stateside after a brief stint living abroad in Brazil. “I had been doing all this political material and got stressed out and sour about the U.S.” he says about his international hiatus.
Now based in Los Angeles, Goldman is back to embracing the American hustle. He juggles a lot at once: writing graphic novels and video games, drawing comics and editorial illustrations, and crafting augmented reality experiences.
“If you’re doing two things at once and you’re freaking out about how I’m going to pay the rent, it’s not good for your creativity,” he says. “It’s good to spin a lot of plates.”
After launching his comics career with a self-publishing imprint in the early 2000s, Goldman has always had a DIY attitude. He co-founded the Brooklyn-based ACT-I-VATE webcomics collective in 2006. Since then, he’s been lauded for his long-form graphic novels, including Shooting War, which earned him an Eisner Award nomination for Best Digital Comic in 2007, followed by 08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail, a nonfiction real-time collaboration with journalist Michael Crowley that hit the shelves the same week President Obama was sworn into office.
As a transmedia storyteller, Goldman has also created second screen applications for AMC’s original series Breaking Bad, The Killing and The Walking Dead.
His most recent work includes the comic series Red Light Properties, a “paranormal dramedy” about a husband-and-wife flipping haunted houses in Miami.
He’s now prepping for Issue 2 of a much different comic: Priya’s Shakti, which uses Hindu mythology to spark a national debate in India about rape culture and gender-based violence, like acid attacks.
“I work a lot, but it gives me the ability to do stuff for free that’s just as creative as the stuff I do for money,” he says. “It’s about having the freedom.”
I talked to Dan to see how he keeps all his creative plates spinning, while feeling free.
LF: What’s your background?
DG: I was born in Southfield, Michigan outside of Detroit and lived there until I was 7. My dad moved us to Florida where I grew up. I studied film and literature at the University of Miami. College felt to me like an extension of high school. I learned the most not in film school but at the radio station, digging into music and DJing and making lifelong friends there.
After graduation, I was living on South Beach, farting around. I was meeting people from all over the world. One day my roommate and I were out in the street and all the interesting people were suddenly gone and you could feel this vacuum. Whatever wave we had been part of, it was time to go. This was 1998. So we moved to New York City.
LF: How did you get into making comics?
DG: I moved to New York City to work in film, doing art department stuff, set decoration and scenic painting. It was not what I wanted to do. I busted my ass all day for $80 or some nonsense, and I’d go back to my hotel room on set and write. In film, it would have been a decade of working my way up to being a camera operator or director, if I was even lucky enough to get there.
If I just did comics, I could write, direct, edit, shoot, act, set direct, everything. Comics are cool that way. Creatively, they’re one of the purest narrative art forms. You can translate a story as you conceive it in your head, onto paper, yourself. You don’t need other people to manifest that vision and produce it.
At that time, I was 25. It took me another 5 years stumbling through life, realizing that’s what I wanted to do. And getting serious about doing the work.
LF: What did it look like to “get serious”?
DG: I started working in comics for real around the age of 30. I had a self-publishing imprint with my brother that was my first comics activist piece, called Everyman. We busted our asses on it. It was very difficult, very expensive. I had to work these graphic designer temp jobs in order to finance the printing bills.
LF: What made Everyman an activist piece?
DG: It was leading up to the 2004 elections. It was a political fiction that was meant to wake people up to electronic voting machine fraud and the Patriot Act and the War on Terror and all this bullshit that was being shoveled at the American people through the media.
I was working at night as a graphic designer at an insidious law firm. This Powerpoint presentation kept coming across my desk for me to edit: “Economic opportunities in U.S.-occupied Iraq.” It talked about everything from destabilizing the Iraqi currency to bringing fast food chains into a new democracy, and how the U.S. could make money off of that. It was so disgusting. My brother was at another law firm and he was coming across similar shit. We kept getting madder and madder.
We thought, we’re just two little Jewish brothers with college educations and not any worthwhile credentials and no one is going to listen to what we do.
The one weapon that we did have to speak truth to power was that we were both storytellers and we both made comics.
We both started referring to our comic Everyman as a bomb.
LF: Is there something from your childhood or history that makes you an activist?
DG: I remember sitting with my brother watching the World Trade Center burning and thinking about my place in the world. The only thing that made any sense to me was that I am a storyteller with a conscience and an attitude and a desire to speak truth to power. I guess it’s always been a part of my DNA.
I think it’s a genetic memory. I feel like there’s something deeply baked into the Jewish character that believes in social justice. I would never call myself an overt activist, but I do think that some of my work has activist qualities to it.
I do believe in social justice. I am mad at people and institutions. If you’re not, there’s probably something wrong with you.
LF: What did you learn from that experience that informs what you do now?
DG: There were so many lessons. Once the book is produced, that’s when the real job starts, which is marketing and getting people to read it. I think that’s harder than making the work.
My big lesson was that I was going to do things digitally.
That led to the next phase of my career. It was a whole new frontier in 2005 to be putting work up online, before Kindle and iPad, and literally giving the work away for free and serializing it.
Shooting War was the project that made the comic industry take me seriously. It was like a real viral overnight phenomenon, and suddenly, I was a creator of note.
LF: How do you know when that happens?
DG: They say it takes you 10 years to become an overnight success. It’s so true.
I was at Comic Con because I was nominated for the Eisner Award [for “Best Digital Comic” in 2007.] The news broke that there was a bidding war between all the major book publishers for the rights to Shooting War.
On Thursday, nobody gave a shit about me. I didn’t get invited to parties or anything. When it was announced that Hachette was going to be the publisher on Friday, I was invited to everything, forever.
People who didn’t want to know me on Friday were inviting me to their super secret party on Saturday. I thought, “I guess I made it, I guess I’m in this club. I don’t know if I want to be in this club…” But that was my moment.
The people who love and respect you when you ain’t shit–those are the people that mean more to me than people who know you’re celebrated and nominated for things and say, “Oh, now I wanna know you.” Yeah okay. You know that’s full of shit. It changes the way that you connect with people.
LF: How do you stick to your values?
DG: I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done, the difference being that I felt more political for a while.
I felt like I had been circling the same giant beast and shooting at it from different angles. It was more dystopian satire. I was circling the same horrible, political, American thing. I was exhausted. It’s also why I wanted to leave the country [to Brazil.]
I didn’t want to do anymore political work because Americans don’t care about things six weeks after the news cycle. I wanted to do things that would be around longer and be universal.
Red Light Properties is about life, death, family and ghosts. It’s like a horror drama comedy. It’s a husband-and-wife real estate agency in Miami who exercise and flip houses. It’s tropical horror.
LF: Is “tropical horror” a thing?
DG: No, I made that up. I love the idea. I grew up in Miami and it’s a weird sick place. You can be somewhere where it’s pastels and palm trees, and it feels terrifying or cracked out and scary. There’s so much dark energy in south Florida. It’s brightly lit neon horror. It’s funny just by its nature because it plays against that horror type.
LF: Why did you want to do Priya’s Shakti?
DG: My brother suggested that I go to this transmedia meetup in New York City. Just as I was leaving, I bumped into this guy who turned out to be Ram Devineni [the director, producer and co-writer.] I had no interest in collaborating with anybody else. But when he started telling me about this, it just hit me right.
I always loved Indian culture and the iconography of Hinduism, since I was a little boy. When we got into the activist aspect of it, how it was speaking to sexual violence to help women, and talking about the partnerships involved, the better it got.
It became clear that this was going to be something incredible. Once we started, it was magic. I’m very proud of that work.
LF: How does a white Jewish guy from south Florida have the right to tell this story?
DG: I think that’s small thinking. I’m a citizen of the world. I’ve been all over the place. I’m a person. Rape is a big deal in India, but it’s not an Indian problem. It’s a problem here, too. My hope and intention was for us to not just create a conversation but a movement that would come from India and spread out to other parts of the world. If I can do that with my silly comic books, then I’ve done something amazing.
LF: What does Priya stand for?
DG: She’s a heroine against the patriarchy in India as much as she is a symbol against rape. There’s such a deep, incredibly unfair, patriarchal view in so much of Indian culture. Indian women are pissed and frustrated. I can create a character to slice that open. I don’t see anyone doing that in the States, in any art form, except maybe novels.
LF: How are you getting your material?
DG: There were Indian culture consultants. We worked with NGOs, like Apne Aap, which rescues girls from prostitution and drugs. We’ve gone through all sorts of filters, and on the other side, we have people that vet our understanding of Hinduism. We’re collaborating with a female screenwriter from Bollywood to work on the series going forward. I feel like it’s going to kick everything up a notch.
LF: Why is it important to apply these types of filters?
DG: To get it right. When you’re creating something, you’re very close to it. You don’t see all the edges and the corners. It’s always helpful to have extra eyes, editors, partners and collaborators. You choose them wisely. You don’t want to take every knucklehead’s opinion. But people that you trust and vibe off–that’s great to have.
LF: How do you keep this transmedia comic accessible for people who don’t have access to digital media?
DG: It’s a printed comic in India. We lean on the art to tell the story. The first comic, especially, is written in a certain way that it’s easy to understand if you’re not the best reader. We’ve got it in three languages: English, Hindi and Marathi. Comics are great pieces of entertainment that can sneak in an educational lesson while you’re having fun.
LF: How FAST do you live?
DG: My brain is fast but I like the body to be steady. I drink a lot of coffee. I don’t really party anymore. I’ve done all that. I live fast in my imagination. The creative part of my brain is like an octopus. Octopuses can use all limbs at the same time or they can propel themselves quickly, too.