A tragicomic journey into the world of herpes: interview with Ken Dahl

Gabby Shulz was born, and grew up, in Honolulu, Hawaii. He became famous for Monsters, a comic book published in 2009, under the pseudonym of Ken Dahl. Monsters is about herpes; herpes, yes you’ve read correctly. It’s a tragicomic story about a guy and the awareness of his disease, in particular of his responsibilities in having sex and love with other people.
A love story, a seek for happiness inside yourself, but also an amazing and shocking trip in a too much real nightmare. If you wonder if you got herpes, probably the answer is, yes!
Dahel is the author of Welcome to the Dahl house as well, published by Microcosm Press. If you want to follow him, that’s his personal blog: www.gabbysplayhouse.com.

I think Monsters is the only comic in the world that speaks of herpes, how do you get the idea of talking about this topic? It ‘a autobiographical story?
Yeah, it’s autobiographical, sadly. I figured that was the only way for a story like this to have an impact. Because otherwise, there’s probably much more important things to be reading about than how one white guy sort of, kind of might have herpes. I started drawing Monsters for purely selfish reasons — to work through the issues of shame & disgust i was having dealing with herpes. I had only intended to make a few minicomics out of it, but then the first minicomic won an award, and then after the next minicomic a small publisher (Secret Acres) wanted to put out the whole story. So it got a little more serious after that, i guess.

Your comic has a very ironic tone, but there are also very strong images, what did you get and what was the audience reaction?
The reaction has been universally positive, surprisingly. There hasn’t been anyone yet who has had much negative to say about it. There was one guy in a Goodreads review of my book who was upset at how irresponsible “Ken” was sexually in the book, but then, that was the point — to feel kind of grossed out by some parts of the book (and then, hopefully, realize how easy it is to do these sorts of things yourself).

Your comic talks about herpes but it is also a history of research in themselves and at the same time a love story. There are many levels of reading. I want to know what was the message you want to send.
I guess the message was
1. You should know more about STDs, and
2. Herpes isn’t anything to really get upset or ashamed about, because everyone’s got it anyway.
Of course if i was just preaching to people no one would read the book, so I tried to make it as entertaining as possible, too. Actually i don’t know how much of any of that was intentional, i just tried to portray events in a way that seemed as accurate & as evocative as possible, & that’s just the way it came out.

Reading your comic I thought two things. First of all somebody could do a comic talking about the same as AIDS, or perhaps it would be important to do.
Yeah that would have made a much less whiny book! Someone did draw a graphic novel about HIV/AIDS actually, called Blue Pills. It’s sort of similar to Monsters except that the love interest is HIV+ and the narrator isn’t. And there’s a lot less panic and self-hatred.

Second, I think that the “herpes” could also symbolize Ken himself with his character, his defects. In the end we are all carriers of some “mental illness” which includes our history and how we interact with others, we just have to be able to find a person who is not afraid and that we understand. What do you think?
Yeah, that definitely is a best-case scenario. The ending of my book is actually the least-accurate part about it though; that one conversation Ken & Hannah have at the end of the book was actually just a condensed version of multiple, much longer conversations i’ve had with multiple people. And i still have those conversations today, really.

I loved the style in which you designed the story so funny and full of original ideas, what are your favorite authors? Who inspires you?
People keep telling me they see a Robert Crumb influence in my comics, and i used to love him (although he totally skeeves me out today). I also love Dave Cooper, and Julie Doucet, and most of what you’d expect — Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman….. blah blah blah

In recent years, comics have multiplied educational or historical theme, I think that comics as a medium is particularly suited to teach even though this need not be its primary function. What do you think?
Yeah i agree! It’s a perfect way to make the medicine go down easier. Actually just today i read a Noah Van Sciver comic that a local paper asked him to do about going to a museum (blogs.westword.com/showandtell/2012/01/noah_van_sciver_visits_the_den.php) and then this Lisa Hanawalt movie review (thehairpin.com/2012/01/war-horse-an-illustrated-review) and i realized how perfect it is to get cartoonists to write/draw about ANYTHING from their perspective, because if they are any good at all they can’t help pulling out all these great details that would be impossible to include with just text or photography. It’s amazing to me that more publications don’t pay cartoonists to do this.

What are you working on now, what are your future plans? Do you know if there is any Italian publisher interested in publishing Monsters or any of your work?
I know Secret Acres has been pretty good so far with finding ways to translate Monsters — i’ve already lettered a French and Spanish version, so i imagine an Italian (and German?) Monsters will happen someday. I hope so, i could use the money!
As for future books — i’ve started a few different books but they’re all in limbo right now. For the past few months i’ve been updating my website with chunks of a story about getting really sick, and that’ll be done soon — then i think SA wants to publish it in book form. I wish i drew faster.

I’m curious: why did you change your name? You were afraid of being mistaken for Charles Schultz? Here in the newsroom we were wondering if by chance you were a relative of a brilliant English writer Roal Dahl, but given your background I think not.
Ken Dahl is actually a fake name i’d been using to draw comics since like 1997 — i’m sick of it now, but it came in handy as a pseudonym for drawing a book about an STD, for obvious reasons… I guess i’ve always wanted to keep my comics separate from my real life, otherwise i feel too much pressure to make people happy or at least not insult them, and that’s a terrible frame of mind for a cartoonist to be in.
Being mistaken for Charles Schulz would be great though! Or Roald Dahl. But sadly i am related to neither.

Interview made in January 2012

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