An Interview with Dame Darcy
I caught Dame Darcy on tour back in Austin, Texas, when her bluegrass trio played at a (much-mourned) bookstore called Fringeware. I'd read a few issues of her comic, Meatcake, and it was startling -- uncanny, even -- how closely she resembled one of her own drawings in both carriage and couture. Watching her flit around like Galadriel on espresso it struck me that Dame Darcy didn't just produce her work, she WAS her work. The aesthetic that made Meatcake so distinctive wasn't cultivated; it was who she was, and how she was.
Seven mixed years and eight great, gruesome issues of Meatcake later, I reached her by phone. We settled in for a chat about her multifarious creative life, beginning with the Meatcake Compilation (Fantagraphics Books, 2003), a hardcover that skims the comic's early issues.
My bandmate just played me this awesome song we're doing.
Is this Death by Doll?
It's Death by Doll, yeah. How did you know about that?
I'm, uh, kind of an obsessive researcher. It's not personal, so please don't be creeped out.
(laughs) Born 1971 in Caldwell, Idaho. Mother, when she was pregnant, ate of a lot of Jello.
You want to talk about the Meatcake compilation first, and then we'll move on to all your other work?
(audibly unenthusiastic) Okay.
What made you decide it was a good time for a retrospective?
Because my publishing company suggested it. Because I've been doing Meatcake for thirteen years or whatever, and I'm on issue 13. The Fairytale book [Frightful Fairytales (Ten Speed Press, 2002)] came out, and that did really well, and they were like, why don't we do a book? And I think it's doing pretty well, too.
Do you keep track of your sales, or check your Amazon ranking?
I don't really keep track of my sales or my distribution. That's what I have a publisher for. Maybe I should keep track of that a little more, but everything's always so hectic. It's already really hard. Sometimes I don't think I have enough of a social life. I guess I have one. I don't know what to think anymore.
How did you pick out what material from Meat Cake went in the compilation?
I don't know, I just went through them all.
I noticed issue #0, one of my favorites, doesn't show up very much. There's just tidbits of it here and there.
It's also my publishing company, you know. I picked all the ones I wanted, and then they told me which ones they wanted.
Did it feel like a turning point, a milestone?
I keep thinking there's going to be a turning point, and that everything's going to be okay. And things are okay, things move forward, but very slowly. I've never made a lot of money, so I'm always really struggling and right when I think everything's going to get better, it doesn't get better. But I'm okay.
After 13 years and 13 issues I can imagine you'd be tired of having to worry about money. It's a concern that's surfaced in your work for a while.
Yeah, well, whatever. I went into this racket a little naive. The thing is, I like doing comics, and I'll always do them, but I had no idea they'd never make me any money at all. I thought that after a while they'd make me something. They don't, really, but they do get me opportunities, things that do make me money. And it's a step towards getting a TV show or a movie produced. Meanwhile, I've been working on more and more books. I just finished my graphic novel, Gasoline, and I gave it to my agent so I can get an advance and work on the illustrations for it without having to worry about money. But part of me thinks there's just nothing I can possibly do to make me not worry about money, because I'm always so concerned with it all the time. It's always dogging me, always has.
So, Gasoline. is it an illustrated novel, or a graphic novel?
It's a graphic novel, yeah. It's about a witch-cult that lives after the apocalypse, and they're in a rock band, and they own the only car. My band, Death by Doll, does all the music. I'd like a CD to go with the book, but also I'd like my band to do all the music for the movie, and I want to make it into a feature film. I'm trying to get it to the right people to make it into a feature film. I had people who said they were interested a year ago, but it takes a while to get it written, especially when I have to move all the time, and of course I have to make a living.
You're teaching now?
Yeah, I teach art to inner-city school kids. I've been there a year. I also design for my own fashion label based in Japan, called Offbeat Brands. Now a big corporation based in Tokyo is promoting my line, and hopefully that will create some more revenue for me.
How is your reception in Japan? Are you, uh, an exotic Occidental over there? Because a lot of your work seems so specifically Western, historically and in terms of your influences...
It is, it is, but I think people over there get it. There's a lot of goth influenced stuff there. They really like the Addams Family thing, and the Gothic Lolita thing has a huge market and a huge appeal there. And when I perform in Japan... I've been there three times, and I'm going again this year... wherever I go there, everybody really loves me. A lot of girls show up that look like Meatcake characters. They're really really cute.
You're talking about trying to parlay your work into movies... you're in LA now, right?
Yeah, I live in LA. I moved to LA to get a TV show or a feature film. There's just more opportunities here.
Was there culture shock coming to LA after having been in New York for so long?
Yes. I almost died. It was horrible, so horrible.
How much does where you live influence your work? When you're living somewhere rural, say, does that affect you differently from being in a city?
(dismissively) I don't know. No. But if anybody has any ideas for anybody who'd be interested in helping me produce Gasoline as a feature film, tell them to contact me. Put that in.
You got it.
I guess in New York City I went to a lot of fun shows and parties; I'd meet people and people knew who I was, whereas I'm not really part of a scene here in LA. I don't know how it works. This city is so different... for instance, it's so segregated here, racially segregated. It's too bad.
That is. Hey, are you aware of any Dame Darcy female impersonators?
(pause) Dame Darcy female impersonators.
Yeah, you know.
No. But you know what, somebody accused me of being a drag queen! I don't know why they did. Who said that? I can't remember. I'm tall, but I don't think I look like a guy.
No, no, you don't at all. I just asked because you have, you know, such a distinctive persona...
I have, like an over-the-top feminine look...
I haven't heard of any yet.
Okay. I know you're interested in silent film. I want to warn you, this question is going to determine the tone of the rest of the interview. Chaplin or Keaton?
Keaton. I like Buster Keaton better.
Oh, good answer.
I like the fact Charlie Chaplin was a commie, but I don't like the fact that he impregnated and dumped a series of teenage girls. Pretty sexist, for one thing. And to be a pedophile, a pedophile clown... So, Buster Keaton.
Your work has such a defined aesthetic, a characteristic look and feel... do you ever feel trapped by the world you've created? Not in a Twilight Zone sense, but artistically. Do you sometimes feel like doing something radically different from your existent work?
Well, no. There are so many variations, so many themes within anything. I've developed my own style, but I feel the freedom to do whatever I want to. The only thing is, I do tend to get hired to do things only in the context of my style. In that way maybe I'm limited, but because of my style my work is recognizable, and I do get hired based on it. If I had no specific kind of style, I wouldn't get noticed as much.
I always tell my classes, whether it's my little girls that I'm teaching or whether it's college lectures: You can be hired to do art in general, where they tell you what to draw, and you draw in whatever style they want, and you can run a company that way, but you don't get your own name. Or you can have a specific style, and although you only get hired for specific things, your work is really yours, and because you have your own name, you have the possibility of getting something big that's just you, that's really about you and your style.
You've got to make your choice, but neither one is bad... This friend of mine was hired as a graphic artist. He's also a great cartoonist with his own style, but he was hired as a graphic artist for a place in New York, and then he was working in Paris. He's making good money, but he's also not famous for his own name, his own style. But he's been able to move around, from Italy to New York, from New York to Paris. He's modeling now too, because he's good looking. He's kind of a spoiled brat. No, just kidding!
I read somewhere that you were on the cover of a romance novel... is that true?
Yeah, I was on the cover of a romance novel.
What was it? Was it, like, a grocery-store bodice ripper?
I don't know... I never read it. It was just a photograph of me. I did used to model, but I haven't for a while. I don't care.
Okay. Back to the comics artists vs. illustrators for hire thing, ever since the New Yorker hired Françoise Mouly I've seen a lot of your fellow Fantagraphics artists doing pieces in there, spot illustrations.
The New Yorker doesn't care about me, apparently. If I could get more gigs like that...
You have illustrated things other people have written, though, even in Meatcake. Uh, who was it, Neil Gaiman...
Didn't you do something where you gave him two dolls, and he wrote something for Meatcake?
Who? When was this?
Oh Jesus, I'm sorry. I'm on cold medicine. Not Gaiman, Alan Moore. That's who I meant. Blame the cold medicine.
You have a cold? I have a cold too! I caught it from my pre-schoolers.
I can imagine, working in a school...
Yeah, I caught it yesterday. So we both have colds, it's okay.
Well, thanks for bearing with me. What I was getting around to was that in Meatcake #11, for the first time you had someone else drawing one of your stories, Tomasso Nicalao. What led to that?
That's who I was just talking about! That's that same guy, the graphic artist. I wanted to put his stuff in my book because I liked his style. He was in my band at the time, and he's a good friend, and he doesn't get his stuff published like that, so I thought I would. But my publishing company told me not to publish anybody else's stuff in my book anymore.
Really? What about... I mean, Peter Bagge, half of Hate used be other people's stuff. Or Julie Doucet, in Dirty Plotte...
Well, they don't want me to do it. (laughs) I said, "Okay, fine... whatever..."
What's the most frustrating part of your creative process?
Nothing, it's easy! I come up with stories easily, and they're easy to draw. I just wish I made more money. But I think I will soon anyway. I just wish I had a better, more humane living situation in general. It's really fucking hard all the time; I'm just sick of it. I don't have health benefits; I don't have anything.
Do you want to talk about your action plan in LA? You've been getting on TV... you were on Blind Date.
Yeah, I go on those dating shows to get publicity. (laughs) And it gets me publicity. I don't go on those shows to get dates. Oh my god, the people... I'm going to make out with somebody I don't know on TV? How do people think they're going to meet somebody who really cares about them?
I don't know, I've seen Roger Lodge make a couple love matches. Or at least lust matches.
The networks pick the people! If you went to a rock show or a gallery, and you met somebody, there's at least a chance they're going to have something in common with you, some shared interest, but the shows just pick people for drama. They just want good TV. They always want me back on there too, because I'm all...
Because you're interesting.
Because I'm weird. (laughs)
If you were going to be covered by a tabloid or a gossip column, which one would it be?
People. Definitely People magazine.
Yeah! I think it was a prank, but a friend of mine got given a guest subscription to People, she doesn't know why. It keeps coming to her house, and we've been reading it a lot, and now we're obsessed with it.
Are there any other comics artists, any up-and-comers you want to plug? Whose stuff are you excited about?
Do you get a lot of other peoples' work sent to you?
Tons, all the time. There's a 'zine I really like called Library Bonnet, and another 'zine I like called Flossie's Follies or something like that. They're both awesome. They're like, really demented girly crap... and I love Victoriana, and weird old books and stories that you'd never see. Those are a couple that stand out. But I do get a lot of great stuff, so much mail, and so much e-mail, and I'm just trying to survive and I'm always getting barraged with all this stuff. And I really love everybody and care about everybody, but it's hard to keep track of anything.
Speaking of 'zines, are you in touch at all with Lisa Carver [of the seminal "Rollerderby"] these days?
I haven't been. I should call her, I haven't talked to her in too long.
I saw she blurbed the Meatcake compilation.
She's so great. I want to know what she's doing. She's writing for Nerve, but I think she's writing something else too, like her next novel.
What's your relationship with the goth community like? Have they adopted you?
The people who like me, and the people who follow and read my stuff... I guess goth is the genre I most fall into, but when I go to goth clubs, the people are nice, and a lot of the music is okay, but oftentimes I find it all a little alienating. You know, I think in a very specific way and I am a very specific way. There's a whole comic book scene too, that I'm kind of part of but don't feel at home in. I think the Japanese have it the most right-on, as far as what I'm about, with the Gothic Lolita thing and the way they do it. Certainly much closer than the L.A. scene.
In spite of the blood and the elaborate costumes, I never thought of your work as being goth in the subcultural sense. Somehow I never connected it with that. Maybe it's just your outlook.
(laughs) I don't like rubber corsets, or platforms, or bondage wear. That stuff alienates me. The way my band, Death by Doll, the way I want it to be, the way I remember everything being, was in the mid-eighties, 1988, 1986. The fetish scene hadn't blended into the gothic scene yet, so it was much more about this dark romance, and much more about fun, weird, monster-mash horror stuff, much more about turn-of-the-century silent film and German Expressionism, Dada, cabaret...
I'm thinking of the band Bauhaus, which was very much an L.A. band, but was much more along those lines...
It was. It was much more about all of that, and inspired by that. And all that stuff, that's the way I think, and that's the way I make my comics, and my music. And the goth clubs aren't like that anymore. Piercing your face a hundred times, dying your hair blue... instead of it being about the literature, the historical stuff. There are other people, other bands I've met... at Ladyfest, or in New York, in Oregon or San Francisco, scattered all over the place... but I don't feel like I'm part of a scene that's about what I am.
You do seem to have a cult following on the internet.
I do, and I love them. I encourage creativity and originality, especially among girls. At the same time, though, I feel kind of alienated, and kind of sad. There's tons of people, there's lots of people everywhere who tell me that they love me, they care about me, but at the end of the day I only have a handful of friends. I don't really know any of those people. It's cool... I want them to keep writing, and to enjoy my work and to do their own stuff, but at the same time I don't know them, and I don't have them as a support system. They don't know me.
Your work feels so personal, though, I think it fosters that sense of familiarity. I mean, when I read your comics, it's so unambiguously your voice, your vision coming through the pages.
It is, it is my voice. And I can do whatever I want. I like the fact that even though it really doesn't pay me, I have a venue that I can say anything, and lots of people see it. With Meatcake, with my new book, with my compilation, my music, and when I did public access shows... I feel really fortunate that anything I make people will see. I'm not just sitting alone in my room writing. Anything I do, music, art, anything I create will have an audience. I feel very fortunate about it.
That doesn't ever intimidate you?
No! I want millions of people to see my movie, my feature film. I want tons... now I have a fanbase of, let's say, ten thousand, but I want ten million. I want a lot. I don't know if it's going to happen, I don't know if the right stars will align during my lifetime, but I just have to keep trying. The quality of my life, how happy I am and what living conditions I'm under, is sort of irrelevant. What's important is that my message gets out there and that it lives after I die. I mean, I would like to live in a nice home, I would like to have financial security, but I don't have it, and next to my work it's nothing. As long as I can make my art and music, as long as it's getting out there. But when things get so bad that it affects my art...
[the tape recorder eats a description of Dame Darcy's current situation: She had a great little house that she was very happy in, and then because her landlords weren't supposed to be renting it she got evicted without warning and lost her deposit. She's now couch-surfing, staying with friends and trying to recover some of the money her landlords owe her.]
...I have to work all the time, and I have to battle the court and all I wanted to do was live in my house and make my art. I didn't want to have to go through this, I don't want to have to have a day job, I don't want to have to battle the court to get money that I should rightfully own anyway. I don't want to have to have to look for a new place when I didn't do anything wrong and it took me a long time and a lot of hardship to find that place. So this is all very daunting and it sucks.
Man, no kidding.
This happened March sixth and now it's twenty days later and now I'm sick and I have to get up and go battle the court tomorrow morning and then go to work. And that's what my life is. Unfortunately I'm always so exhausted that I never go out. I don't have a social life any more because I'm so exhausted by what I have to do all day that I can't deal with trying to find where the goddamn party is. So I just practice with my band and make my comics at night and then go to sleep. If I'm doing that at night... even though these fucking people with their stupid drama took up my whole day, they can't take my art and my music away from me. I still am going forward. I've been staying with about four or five of my friends... I switch around every week or so because I don't want anybody to get too sick of me, although they've all been cool. Nobody's said anything to me, but I don't want to do this forever.
Moving every week? That's awful.
Sometimes I'll take certain books and use them as oracles. I'll ask one a question and flip through it, and it lands on a page and what's on the page will answer me. I was flipping through this one book and it landed on this fairy tale, so that's what I'm writing now. I got a white pen from an art supply store, but it doesn't work, so I'm just going to paint it. I've never done this before for Meatcake, but it's going to be white on black, because it takes place in the dark woods and I thought it would be funner to make it black. And that's how I feel lately anyway, that everything's gloomy. So I was reading it, and it's about a girl who's going through the woods. She's going through the woods with her family, and they're everything to her... they provide her food, her place to live, they're her entire support system. And these robbers jump out of the woods and kill them in front of her.
But she survives! She's hiding behind a tree. And she runs away, and now she's lost in the woods, and she doesn't have anything. She doesn't have a home... which is funny, because I read this two days after I was homeless... So she stops, she sits by a tree and asks god to help her. And while she's sitting there, a dove flies down with a golden key, and it opens up a room in the tree, and inside the room is food to eat, white food. All the food is white. And then the dove flies back down with a second golden key, and it opens up a room where there's a white bed. And I think it symbolizes that the bed and the food are pure. She doesn't have to do something creepy to get them; they just came to her and she has them. Everything's been taken from her, but she still has food and a place to sleep. Which is what I have, because my friends are cool. I'm staying with people who are awesome to me, who are really really nice to me, whose homes aren't alienating to me. And so even though this could have been a lot more traumatizing, it's been okay.
So she lives in forest for a while and she's doing okay. She gets to a point where she doesn't care that she's alone. She doesn't mind the forest because she's got what she needs, even though she's not thrilled to death. Then the dove tells her one day that she needs to go to this house in the woods, where there's this old lady sitting by the door. She can't let the old lady stop her or catch her. She should go past the old lady, into the house, and there are tons of rings in there. There are lots of them, tons of them, and all of them are really fancy. But she can't be greedy and take any of the fancy rings, she has to dig through and go for a single plain ring. She has to pick the plain ring and come back to the tree and wait and give it to the dove. I'm not sure exactly what this part is telling me yet.
It certainly seems rich with meaning.
I could sit here and go out of mind trying to figure what this part symbolizes, but I know it'll reveal itself soon, so I don't care what it means. So she goes in there and the old lady tries to catch her and doesn't, and she gets past her and finds the ring and goes back to the tree and waits for the dove some more. She's waiting, but the dove doesn't come. She's just holding the ring, and the dove doesn't come. But then the tree she's leaning against starts to move, and its branches turn into a guy's arms, and when she stands up, this guy is holding her, a handsome prince. And he says, "the ring is for you!" And then they get married and live happily ever after, because she freed him from this weird spell. And then they're okay. Oh wait! There was another thing. There was another door, that had fancy dresses. So even though the food was just milk and bread and the bed was a plain white bed, the third door has-- not just dresses-- fancy dresses! So she's sitting there in the woods, and nobody can see her and there's nowhere to go, but at least she's wearing really fancy dresses!
(laughing) There you go, goddamn right!
This is the way I feel, too! It's exactly my situation! It's the way I am. I go to work at the school, or I'm in my car, with all my fucking luggage, but all the time I'm wearing really fancy dresses, because that's what I wear.
I'm picturing you with the striped tights and the ribboned gowns in the classroom.
Oh yeah. All the little kids are black or Mexican, except two Russian kids. So I'm like this giant freakish Aryan nightmare person to them... even to the other faculty and the administration. But they're wonderful to me. I really like working there. I get paid okay, and everybody's nice to me. As far as having a job goes, it's good to be a teacher. As far as the rest of my life, I've become Zen. I've been studying Buddhism and Zen, and trying to get into this philosophy that as long as I'm okay right now, I'm okay. And I am okay. So I thought I'd draw that fairy tale, with myself as the girl. Put myself right in it. Hopefully nobody I know will get murdered like that, but I think the murder already went down, the eviction and all of that. And I do have a lot of keys now. I have all of my friends' keys, so I can get in their houses. I have tons of keys. (laughs) None of them are gold, though.
[Dame Darcy's parting words:]
Make sure and just tell everybody to go to www.damedarcy.com. It's going to be updated by my Japanese company so that everything's consolidated and everybody can buy the music, the fashion, the fine art, and the comics. But until it's updated, Meatcake and the Meatcake compilation are published by Fantagraphics, my fairy tale book is published by Ten Speed Press, my fashion label is Offbeatbrands.com, and my band is Death by Doll. And I also do a Sea Shanty band called Cabin Fever. And I used to have a band called Aye Aye Captain, which I think is going to have a CD released soon on Kill Rock Stars. Death by Doll is still looking for a label.