Coming to prominence as the co-creator of the dystopian graphic novel Shooting War, Dan’s first notable work was nominated for an Eisner award for Best Digital Comic. Shortly afterwards he created 08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail, a non-fiction work of real-time graphic journalism marrying the visual languages of magazine design and sequential comics subsequently dubbed “Highbrow Brilliant” by New York Magazine. His paranormal horror comic Red Light Properties was serialized on Tor.com, published by IDW Books (US) and Plot! (Brazil).
Dan has also produced Emmy-winning experiences for AMC Television, written two video games based on The Walking Dead, scripted animated TV shows for Man of Action Studios, and created artwork for Wired, BBC Radio 4, Time Magazine, Foreign Policy, Entertainment Weekly and New York Magazine.
He’s spoken at SXSW Interactive, MIT’s Futures of Entertainment and numerous comic book conventions about digital-first publishing and the digital-only production processes. I did an interview with him when he visited India for Comic Con. We started off talking about his graphic novel Red Light Properties (which we will refer to as RLP). Anything but archaic, it is the story of real estate exorcists who clear spirits out of haunted homes to prepare them for sale. The story and the artwork were entirely created by Dan and the book is a true labour of love. Building 3D virtual sets to shoot inside of, working off actors’ performances (often his own), Goldman produced the series using just a laptop, a Wacom stylus and a smartphone.
In the graphic novel, Jude deals with drugs in order to see the spirit world. What is your experience with psychedelics?
I’ve logged my fair share of hours with psychedelics, but always as a tool for self-exploration more than an excuse to get f**d-up and laugh at the wallpaper moving. I’ve had (re)formative experiences, particularly in my (awkward) twenties, that helped me edit out weak parts of myself that I’d inherited from family and replace them with more functional chunks of code… and that’s made huge differences in the way I’ve lived my life [guilty as charged!]. Getting into the work of scientist John C. Lilly was big touchstone for me too, understanding human egos-as-editable-software.
Used as tools instead of escapes, psychedelics can be fantastic tools for self-growth, healing and understanding. That’s very much Jude Tobin’s view as well. He uses them to boost his clairvoyant abilities and enter the closed reality-loop of what we call “ghosts” so their cycling energy is broken and dissipated. I’ve had a few weird experiences like that before, seeing other people’s memories while in that state of mind, and that definitely fed into who Jude would become.
How much research went into the book?
Other than living in Florida for 20-plus years? I had the idea for the series living in New York the summer before 9-11, and the first draft actually took place in Brooklyn, but I went down to visit my mother for the holidays and passed almost instantly, RLP just HAD to take place in South Florida.
I moved down there for a while with the intent of working on the series, but life got weird and I wound up living and soaking the place up from a different perspective, into the soul of it, you know? The research has happened since I returned from there in 2003, and I’ve gone back and forth in spurts. It’s still ongoing, like the series itself.
In addition to studying the real estate market and the history of Florida itself, RLP has challenged assumption; it has taken me into all kinds of bizarre readings into phenomenology, paranormal detection, psychedelics, Yoruba religion, Cuban history, etc. The deeper into it I go, more doors appear, and I’m really lucky to have my own characters as a guide leaving no scope for complication.
Your artistic style is a wild combination of different assets. You juxtapose photographs, 3D models and hand drawings. How did you come up with the look for the book?
I started developing this style when my work went all-digital back in 2002 and it’s been an ongoing experiment since then. On my graphic novel Shooting War, the whole future-Iraq-war was created using collage. Red Light Properties is the first project I’ve done using 3D modeling as part of the workflow. This way I can “shoot” on virtual, relight day for night, move around furniture, have the scenery evolve along with the story, and it makes my life a lot easier (and the setting feel more alive to me).
The look of the book from its web launch to its final print publication has developed a lot in my eyes.
How do you decide when to use a photograph and when to create a background?
I try to never use only photographs, but at least collage together images with 3 or more layers; the end effect gets hyper-real. I’m a big fan of the visual style in the Wachowski’s Speed Racer movie and it’s important to me that the look of RLP has the same depth as the storyline.
What was the inspiration for the book?
It’s a combination of growing up in the “sunny death” of South Florida I mentioned before, and my mother being a realtor in Miami during the late eighties, telling me war stories from the front every day after school. I didn’t realize how deeply they’d sunken in until I started this series and it all started bleeding out of me into the work.
The level of detail in the characters is incredible. Were photos used as reference?
Photos and videos, to get nuances and performances. I play a handful of the characters, use a few friends to help. The actual photos are the most embarrassing images of myself that you’ll never, ever see, but the little things like tension in the forearms while someone’s waving their hands in the air and screaming are hard to realistically invent out of thin air. I love having low-tech tools that help me get that extra emotion onto the page.
What are your favorite horror stories or movies?
To me, horror is always a psychological FEAR thing, not a shock or scare. I get bored by (most) zombies/axe-murderers/vampires and always gravitated toward skin-crawling building horror instead of shock-and-gore. A lot of the J-horror and K-horror resurgence since the late nineties has done horror so well that Hollywood’s remade them, most of the time weakly, sometimes brilliantly.
I grew up reading Stephen King in the eighties, he was my first adult author and I read him waaaayyyy too early, so that DNA is buried deep. I’m also really into noir that borders on horror, especially rough-and-tumble Florida noir like Charles Willeford and classics like Jim Thompson, and some of those tones bleed into this series. Also, Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black novels are a fantastic bare-knuckled blend of supernatural and gritty noir. If you haven’t read those, seek out his book BLACKBIRDS immediately.
You’ve done major work in videogaming. How far have video games come since the 1980s?
I think video games have evolved from amusement to their own storytelling medium, some more sophisticated than films. In fact, I think interactive experiences are the future of storytelling entirely, beyond games even. I’ve been fascinated by the development of Oculus Rift and similar advancements in consumer virtual reality as a storytelling device rather than simply a game.
That said, I am an avid gamer (particularly PlayStation and Nintendo) with a love for good stories. My recent favourite are Heavy Rain, The Last of Us, the Bioshock series, the Legend of Zelda series and Red Dead Redemption.
Let’s begin with Red Light Properties.
In one interview, you said: ‘I believe in other types of consciousnesses and other levels of reality that we are too limited to perceive existing all around us..’ Care to elaborate?
I think humans are self-limited by society into choosing a simplistic consensus reality that does not account for a wider range of sensory experiences. That means anything that is not ‘normal’ can be easily dismissed, and we become ashamed of our individual experiences with the divine or extra-normal and hide them from others. They become ‘fringe’ culture and experiences.
I believe direct experience with the divine is the root of religion that society has stepped in to replace, making lions into sheep that we may be controlled and led by institutions and governments, instead of thinking for ourselves, forcing us to live in their world rather than creating the world we wish to live in. There is a much better future around the corner that media and government and business and religion are desperately trying to keep us from discovering for ourselves.
A version of this interview was first published in The Times of India