Cartoonist Joe Daly has won a major international prize for his work, but he's still broke and living with his folks, he tells Sean O'Toole
A year ago to the month, Cape Town cartoonist Joe Daly received surprise news that he had been awarded the jury prize at an important comic-book festival in France. That Daly, father to a cartoon family that includes Kobosh and Dorfmann, had been singled out for honour at the world's largest comic-book festival outside Japan should have been a big deal locally.
It wasn't, largely one presumes because the book that generated the praise was only available in French at the time. In 2009 the specialist French publishing house L'Association released Dungeon Quest, a raucous visual adventure featuring Daly creations Millennium Boy, Lash Penis, Nerdgirl and stoner Steve.
"I'm so f**king bored!" rants Millennium Boy, a swollen-head midget, at the start of the four-part journey, part two of which is due out in English in April from Daly's American publisher, Fantagraphics. "I think I'll go on an adventure! That's the only antidote to this mind-numbingly mundane existence."
Like many of Daly's cartoon stories, what follows is a farcical, libidinal and surreal journey through a fictional landscape that is, but isn't, Cape Town.
Traditional comic-book fans needn't worry, Dungeon Quest features lots of glorious comic books sounds. Gotch! Smek! Shic!
Unheralded locally, with only a two-line Wikipedia entry, I decide to track down Daly. I'm partly curious to see if he looks like his character Steve, described by Millennium Boy as an "old orangutan mama". The thin, bearded, slightly awkward man I meet in Observatory isn't apish, nor does he wear a bathrobe à la Jeff Lebowski. He also doesn't have lactating boobs, which Steve briefly grew in a strip appearing in Scrublands, Daly's first US book from 2006.
Before our meeting, Daly insisted that we do most of the interview by e-mail. "I simply have a preference for written e-mail interviews," he explained. "My brain functions better that way, and I can communicate my thoughts more honestly and directly in writing than in talking. Probably a sign of mild autism, although I'm not sure about that."
One e-mail question asks what winning the jury prize at the 2010 Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d'Angoulême has meant for Daly's career. Not much, he replies. While the prize has given him some status in France, he's still functionally broke at age 32 and renting a room from his parents (who support his all-or-nothing gamble). What, no prize money? None, he says, only a statuette, which is gathering dust on his publisher's shelf. "It hasn't really changed my life," he writes, "but it's a freaking HUGE honour and a very good thing, I think."
I ask Daly, who was born in London to South African parents who returned to Cape Town when he was two, which comic book most influenced him.
"The Adventures of Tintin was my favourite and is possibly objectively the best comic when viewed in retrospect. I always end up coming back to Tintin."
What about local influences? Say, Bitterkomix, the flagrantly dark and funny comic book founded by Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes in 1992?
Of course, he responds, describing it as "hugely influential". Daly's discovery of Bitterkomix was inevitable - his father, illustrator Niki Daly, was a lecturer in the graphics department at the University of Stellenbosch. Both Kannemeyer and Botes graduated from Stellenbosch. It was Kannemeyer who helped me track down Daly.
One of the reasons Bitterkomix made people sit up and pay attention, I write to Daly, was their strident attitude towards history. I think of Botes's retelling of Blood River, Kannemeyer's recent reinventions of Tintin in Congo. While life in Cape Town is very much a part of the texture of Daly's stories, he does not explicitly take on the big local themes: race, identity and history. Is this a conscious decision?
"I think it's probably a timing thing partly," he writes back. "Anton and Conrad's baggage (their artistic fuel) was that they were, and perhaps still are, much closer to and more connected to their issues of race, identity and history than I am. My baggage is perhaps that I'm more disconnected from it."
Given Daly's close observation of the "hey-shoo-wow" character of Cape Town's Long Street and Observatory neighbourhoods, I ask if he, Joe Daly, sometimes slips into his fictional stories?
"Joe Daly from the Mowbray-Obs border country makes occasional appearances in my fictionalised and stylised worlds," he responds, "but usually in a fragmented form. I'm not a biographical cartoonist. What I do is closer to fantasy. However, I do draw on my own history, neuroses, failures as fuel and sometime subject matter of my comics."
He tells how in the first Dungeon Quest book his character Steve becomes melancholy and introspective when passing Westerford High School. "That's me," writes Daly, "but it's also not me, it's also Steve, but it's also a cliché. It's an archetypal moment."
When we finally meet, I am glad to have captured most of the interview by e-mail. Our conversations pinballs all over the place. Here's Daly on Zapiro: "I like his drawings. People don't always see the craft, the draughtsmanship." On fan mail: "Not really." On his average monthly earnings: "Not R10000, way less." On earning a wage from commercial illustration: "My work is so not benign and generic that it makes it hard to commission me to do commercial work."
Given the propensity for film-makers to look to comic books for visual stories, I ask Daly if he has ever been approached to adapt his comic-book adventures, perhaps his early work, Red Monkey, into a film.
No. Okay, so if, hypothetically, someone did ask, what would you say? He mentally nurses the thought, handling it like a new and precious gift.
"Yes, for sure!" he eventually replies.