Foreword Reviews

Foreword's Peter Dabbene Interviews Evan Dahm, Author/Illustrator of Rice Boy

Certain book genres never quite overcome bum raps—a carryover from bygone days when the book industry was fond of force-feeding readers a certain, stereotyped brand of content, not realizing they were missing a huge alternative reading audience within the genre. Take romance, for example. How many decades did it take before publishers started offering more sophisticated, better written, yet still sexy love stories? In recent years, millions of romance readers have come out of hiding to proudly proclaim their love for this new, improved genre.

Similarly, the stigma attached to graphic novels was of the “You read stuff with pictures? What are you, a twelve year old?” variety, as if every fictional illustrated book for adults was written for the comic book crowd. The times have changed, thank God.

Today’s Foreword Face Off features Evan Dahm, the brilliant creator of Rice Boy, a wildly original graphic novel that Evan serialized online back in 2008. With the help of Kickstarter, Evan came out with this beautiful softcover edition that releases this week. Foreword’s Peter Dabbene reviewed Rice Boy for the magazine; we asked him to chase down Evan for a chat—below the Special Features and this week’s Featured Reviews.

Also, we committed a colossal blunder in last week’s interview with Anne Watts. She’s only half of the editorial team behind The Collected Letters of Alan Watts, along with her sister Joan, but we mistakenly ran the interview without Joan’s responses. Please check out Joan’s contribution in the superb post here.

Evan, I had the pleasure of reviewing Rice Boy recently. That title, Rice Boy, might have people wondering “What is it? A story about a Vietnamese rice farmer? A tale of a picky ten-year-old eater?” So, maybe you could offer your own one-sentence description of Rice Boy?

Rice Boy is a surreal fantasy-adventure story set in a colorful world full of strange beings, concerning a journey undertaken by a little creature named Rice Boy.

Thanks! Rice Boy is quite striking visually, from the colors, to the geometric shapes, to the use of photographs, so I’ll ask you to talk about your first interest in drawing, early influences, current influences, and how your style has developed.

I have trouble working out any particular influences in my work visually, but I know I was really into the old Max Fleischer Betty Boop cartoons, and similar amorphous, psychedelic imagery, around when I was working on Rice Boy. I was really into the idea of assembling a believable, immersive world around incomprehensible images.

There’s a lot of heroic, Joseph Campbell-ish structure to Rice Boy, but it also feels at times like a total head trip, with scenes that seem like they might have been created spontaneously at the drawing board. How much of the book was planned versus accidental?

I started drawing Rice Boy with very little planning outside of an archetypal story structure in which to plug a bunch of images and characters I’d come up with. The beginning and the ending were pretty clear, but most of the story was just meandering around and building up ideas with no clear idea of how they’d pay off. I was definitely a lot more interested in rhythm and atmosphere than in specific detail. There’s an improvisational mode that serializing work online forces you into, and which I try to preserve a little of even in my later comics that are a lot more rigorously planned.

Rice Boy has a pretty long history—there’s a Kickstarter page dating from 2011. Can you take us through the evolution of the idea of Rice Boy to its initial funding and publication efforts, to this current complete edition?

I serialized Rice Boy online starting in 2006 when I was 18, putting up pages as I drew them. I was almost totally unaware of the concept of “webcomics.” The internet was a radically different place back then, and in a way I think more hospitable to individuals putting up idiosyncratic work and not really knowing what they were doing—the audience I built during that project is absolutely the only reason I have any sort of career doing this now. I did a print-on-demand edition of the book that was outrageously expensive, and I finally printed a more cost-effective edition of 1000 copies in 2009 or so with money borrowed from my parents. Since then, Kickstarter has become a viable platform for taking preorders, and I’ve used it to get several books printed. Kickstarter for me has always been a way of selling books to an audience I’d already developed elsewhere, to make it feasible to get larger editions of nicer books made. I can’t imagine publishing on a small scale sustainably without a preordering infrastructure like Kickstarter.

Any plans for more stories set in the Rice Boy world?

Since Rice Boy I’ve published other works set in the same world. Order of Tales, is a darker and more grounded exploration of the history of the setting; and Vattu, which I’ve been working on since 2010, approaches the setting with a more anthropological focus. I have no plans for other work in the same setting right now; I’m more interested in making things outside of that inter-story continuity. I’m working on a book for First Second Books now called Island Book, which is a seafaring adventure story set in another totally invented world.

Let’s say you are awarded one of those nifty MacArthur Foundation grants and you’re able to do ANYTHING you want to for the next few years. What would it be?

I am really fortunate to be able to do work I love and am obsessed with consistently already. But I’d like to use every step towards stability in my career to do more idiosyncratic work, I think… There’s a project I’d like to make that’s a wordless graphic novel/ritual object modeled on a medieval Book of Hours, that’s probably commercially-unviable enough that I’d use the occasion of a huge grant to work on it.

Peter Dabbene

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