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David Chelsea in Love: Q&A
Posted: Thursday, December 18
Posted By: Tim O'Shea
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David Chelsea and the return to print of his early 1990s autobiographical work, David Chelsea in Love, are the focus for the final week in SBC’s three-week (three-interview) Reed Graphica coverage. (Click here for the week one/part one with Reed Graphica’s consulting editor Calvin Reid and here for week two/part two with Jack Jackson on the re-release of his 1979 work, Comanche Moon). As detailed at the Reed Graphica site, Chelsea’s “illustrations have appeared in The New York Observer, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Press and many other publications. In addition to David Chelsea In Love, he is the author of another graphic novel, Welcome To The Zone, and Perspective! a how-to guide in comics form. He lives with his wife and two children in Portland, Oregon.” David Chelsea In Love is “the hilariously true story of cartoonist and illustrator David Chelsea's improbable love affair with Minnie, a would-be actress, in 1980s New York. Based in New York City, David meets Minnie on one of his frequent bus trips back (hey, the bus is cheap) to his hometown of Portland, Oregon to spawn. You see, David can't get laid in New York. The only women he meets in New York are art directors—and they know exactly how much an illustrator is paid. But Minnie's not easy. In fact she's profoundly and comically difficult. She's tall, gawky, absurdly neurotic and saddled with an abusive boyfriend. None of this matters to David who believes—against all odds—that Minnie is the only girl for him. This is the true story of their cross-country "courtship," as well as the story of their idiosyncratic cast of friends and relatives. David Chelsea In Love is a strange and very funny look at the lives of the young, the talented, and the semi-talented in New York City's East Village.”
Tim O’Shea: I was curious, was David Chelsea In Love at one point going to be a play, before it evolved into the Eclipse series?
David Chelsea: Well, yes. I actually staged it at a club in New York in three parts, playing myself, like I was Joan Rivers or something. In hindsight the egotism of it all makes me cringe, but that script eventually came in handy when I expanded the original series of short strips into a graphic novel.
TO: Did you lose any long-term friendships/associations over the very personal nature (understandably inherent) of an autobiographical work? Or had many of those connections ended already with the passage of time? In general, what were the reactions of family and friends to the final work?
DC: My sisters both told me they wished that I'd changed their names, as I had with all the other characters, and one guy who isn't even in the book, but whose sister is, still gives me grief because I included the line "I thought your brother was gay!" For the most part, I had little to lose in the way of friendships, since I hadn't seen the people I was most revealing about in years. I did get in touch with "Minnie" again when the comic book first came out, and we were actually friendly for a while after that- she and my wife really got along, and we used to go to plays together and have her and her kids over for barbecues on the roof. Then after about a year she decided she couldn't handle the whole idea of the book being out there in the world, and didn't want to be friends any more, and that's kind of where we've left it.
TO: Looking back at the work, what scenes really worked for you and have seemingly gotten better than you remember when originally drawn? (Personally, in terms of dialogue, layout and pacing, the complicated staircase scene on page 126 impresses me more each time I look at it)
DC: My own artwork didn't really take me by surprise, but there were a couple of scenes I'd forgotten about in which I was pleased with the quality my writing, which I'm usually much less confident about. One was a scene in a restaurant where I'm drowning my sorrows after being dumped by Minnie. I start to notice that a couple at a nearby table aren't getting along, and I find myself fantasizing about hooking up with the woman, who's obviously a major neurotic- until I pull back and say "What am I thinking?" That kind of puts my bad judgment in love into a nutshell. The other is another restaurant scene in which my new girlfriend Lily is in the middle of dumping me when she suddenly realizes she has one last use for me- she's spotted a very unwelcome would-be suitor across the room, and she wants me to hold hands with her so he'll get the idea she's not available. I spin a bitter little fantasy in my head of going over and telling him the truth, but in the end I'm too much the eager-to-please doormat not to do exactly what she asks.
TO: In an afterword/update at the end of the book, you say: "I've been single and I've been coupled, and I like coupled better even if it lacks the drama of a good graphic novel." Does this mean your days of being an autobiographical storyteller are over?
DC: You'd better believe it.
TO: Why are your days as an autobiographical storyteller over?
DC: For several reasons. Every woman I've been involved with since I began work on the very earliest versions of the story has made me promise not to put her in one of those, so I'm pretty much restricted to material from 20 years ago and back. I did start a story about an affair I had just before I met Minnie, but since it involved a woman I wasn't really in love with and wound up treating very badly, l chickened out because it showed me in too unflattering a light. How's that for honesty?
I suppose I could do stories not about my love life, about the little things in life like losing your car keys or finding a really good Mexican restaurant, but it's hard for me to bring the same passion to it. I've come to realize that I'm not a lifer like Harvey Pekar- when interviewers ask him where he got the courage to do comics about his cancer treatment, he replies that he would have been doing comics about his life whatever was happening in it, and I believe him. I'm not saying I'll never do another autobiographical story, but I'm less interested in the daily grind than in suspenseful stories with a beginning, middle and end, and life doesn't throw too many of those my way.
Oh, and another thing- at some point I decided that it is false to do an autobiographical story in which you yourself appear. To truly represent your own experience it should all be done subjective camera- that is, from your own viewpoint, with the other characters speaking straight at the reader and the central figure visible only in mirrors. I just haven't worked out whether it is actually possible to tell a story that way. Sex scenes would be interesting- close ups of one ear and a corner of pillow.
TO: How much of David Chelsea in Love was done when your father died in 1991? Did he know of the work and/or did he have an interest in your work?
DC: I was about halfway through the series, but nothing had appeared in print yet. I was coming up to the sequence he appears in, and I did ask if he minded being in the book, and he said he it was OK with him- of course he had other things on his mind at that point. I think he was proud of my career, but I don't remember him taking that much of an interest in my work. He probably would have liked some of the political cartoon stuff I'm doing now for INX.
TO: How much (if at all) did your mother's work in graphic design influence your style or approach toward illustration
DC: Well, I had a great example in front of me of someone making a living doing art, so I knew it was POSSIBLE, and I never got the family resistance that a lot of artists get when they decide that's what they want to do with their lives. It probably also helped that I used to hang out at my Mom's studio, futzing around with markers and reading graphic design magazines, in that I was exposed to a wider selection of art styles than if I'd just spent my childhood reading comic books. I grew up knowing who people like Milton Glaser and Paul Davis were.
TO: Do you like putting visual gags/homages in your work? What got me wondering this was the shot of you naked with a fully clothed Minnie on page 149, which in every aspect was a recreation of Annie Leibovitz's John Lennon and Yoko Ono photo from 1980.
DC: Oh, sure. Before doing comics I worked for years as a freelance illustrator, and most of that work involved using photo reference, and nowadays I do a lot of celebrity caricature, which ALWAYS requires photo reference, so it's natural for me to head for my clipping file when I'm stuck for an image. Riffing on a familiar image can give you a leg up, like samples on a hip-hop record, and readers clever enough to spot the reference can pat themselves on the back.
TO: Are there any plans to re-release your second graphic novel—1995’s Welcome to the Zone?
DC: What, THAT thing?
TO: Why do you refer to it as "THAT thing"? What was wrong with it in your opinion?
DC: I consider that one my New Adventures Of Abraham Lincoln [SBC aside: Chelsea is referring to a 1998 graphic novel that was Scott McCloud’s first attempt at computer-generated artwork]- an interesting technical experiment that doesn't exactly work as entertainment. I probably could have done a decent graphic novel about the East Village folk music milieu if I'd approached it straight, but for some reason I felt the need to go over the top, mixing in a lot of grotesque mutants and cannibals from outer space- I think I figured that it would sell better if the story had some kind of sci-fi aspect to it. I did have fun building little clay models of all the characters to use as reference, but I think I would have done better to have put in a little extra time on the script. Of course I'd be perfectly willing to allow a new edition, but so far as I know there's no group of Welcome To The Zone cultists out there clamoring to have it back in print.
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