Out Of The Woods: An Interview Retrospective With Michael Dialynas

by Noah Sharma

After three years of continuous publication, Boom! Studios’ The Woods comes to an end this week with issue #36. It seems like not long ago at all that I picked up the first issue at C2E2 2014. Since then I’ve made it something of a tradition to stop by artist Michael Dialynas’ table at NYCC to say hi during his yearly visit to the US. In an era when seeing a regular artist on a series is increasingly rare and fewer and fewer comics break single digits, to have a single artist put out thirty-six consecutive issues of a monthly series is no small feat. Dialynas’ distinct style has always made The Woods a gorgeous and legible title and, with the series wrapping up, I thought I would take the opportunity to look back on the series with him, on the record.

Noah Sharma: So, you are done with 36 issues of The Woods.

Michael Dialynas: Yep.

NS: You illustrated all of them. How’s it feel, I guess, is the first thing.

MD: Right now? I have no idea. Right now I’m still in the limbo of pushing this book, talking about this book, and literally it hasn’t come out to the public yet.

So, I’ll probably feel it more on Wednesday when it actually comes out, people actually get to read it. Some people might review it. And maybe people do a retrospective and talk about- and say, “Hey, this whole thing ended.” But for me, I still haven’t got over the fact that it’s only been twenty days since I drew the last page.

NS: Wow. So, going all the way back, how did you get involved with The Woods? Where were you when this all started?

MD: I started off working with Boom! just after I finished Amala’s Blade for Dark Horse. When I finished Amala’s Blade, I got the chance to do a Spider-Man story for Marvel. And in between the getting the job and receiving the script, I had a lot of time on my hands. And in that time, I was like I want to do Adventure Time stuff. I want to hit up Boom! and say, “Hey, can I do a cover?” They’re like, “Yeah, awesome. Do a cover.”

I did one and then I did another one. Then I did another two. And I ended up doing, in that period of time before Spider-Man came along, I did like five covers. And I think I started pitching a short story for Adventure Time, if I remember correctly. So, after the whole Spider-Man issue, just before coming over here for New York Comic Con 2013, the editors got in contact with me and said, “Hey, we have this series. It’s called ‘The Woods’. We really want you to do it. Could you do like a sample just to be sure, like, what’s going on.” Like, “Sure.” Did two pages and I did…

NS: I’m gonna take a guess–

MD: I did this page, which was totally different when I drew it then. And I did this page.

NS: I knew you were going to say that somehow.

MD: Yes. So they wanted to see how I’ll do this and how I’ll do the weird horror parts. And, literally, they saw it and two days later they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, it’s yours. It’s yours.” So, when I got here it was the, “Alright, we’re doing this. Where’s James?” I met James, I met Jasmine, I met Eric. We had dinner, lunch, drinks for four days. It was great.

NS: So, especially hearing that the editors called you on board for that, what were the most interesting parts of working with James and translating his scripts into pages?

MD: That’s hard.

NS: That’s fair.

MD: No, it’s hard from the fact that right now reading James’s scripts is like the easiest things in my head, four years straight. Yeah, if I remember, I think he was more specific in the beginning. And now we ended up being like he’d give me a chunk of four pages, saying, “Shit will go down. This happens. This happens. This happens. You just take care of the setup.” Especially when there’s no dialogue he’d be like, “Just do it.” Or mainly he would give me spreads. Like two, three pages or a scene. He’d just give the dialogue and I’d figure it out. So, in the beginning I think it was more specific. And I like the way that, in the end, more freedom just because he trusts me and I trust him to give me the right amount of work. The right amount of script. To fit in pages.

NS: Well, this may be kind of lingering on the same kind of thing. What’s your favorite part of this collaboration with James?

MD: The easiness. It was just an easy collaboration. And I think I’ve been spoiled.

Like, four years working with James, there has never been a hiccup in the process. It just happens. He does his part, I get it, I do my part. I’ve had other collaborations, even smaller ones, that, like, for like a short story and it’s like annoyingly hard to figure out what this person has written for like a five page story. And then James gives me like a book, “Here’s twenty-two pages of script,” and I’m like, “Yes. I got it.” He writes the right amount of detail. For me. But, yeah. James has a good way to give you the right amount of imagery and freedom also.

NS: So, one thing we were kind of talking about already is I feel like The Woods, it kind of came to me reading #36 and looking back on it, is a book that starts as survival horror.

MD: Yep.

NS: The second year is civilization building horror.

MD: Yeah. Yes.

NS: And then, the whole thing, you realize third year, is kind of having a life horror.

MD: Yeah. And trying to get back to what you think is your normal where you should be. But for most of these kids the actual planet is the norm now.

NS: But so, especially in the third year, I really look back on it, I think about, like, how survival horror it was. How much it was like the threat for an issue was like, “Oh, yeah. Alien bees.” That’s an issue.

MD: Yeah.

NS: Versus just how intense and complex it gets as it goes on.

MD: Look at it that way. The first volume has a lot of alien beasts. The second volume has some internal politic beasts. And the third one has friendship beasts.

NS: Friendship beasts, I like that…

Especially in that first year but the whole way through, the monsters, the creatures of the moon, are such a huge part of the story. And, especially given that you kinda had to usually have them two ways, kind of having kinda domesticated and then feral.

MD: Yeah.

NS: What was it like kind of designing this whole ecosystem for this world?

MD: I still haven’t done that. It’s a thing I really want to do. There’s never been time. It’s James giving me a magic word that I’ll play off.

Like I remember in the beginning I would be like, “Aw, man, I got to sit down to design this creature and then after a moment would just draw something that’s weird in the background. Or draw something that’s pulling a cart. Or draw this thing that’s attacking the kids. It may have just been me trying to figure it out and now it’s just second nature to my hands, just draw a weird creature.

Like the fact that Doctor Robot, and all the space monkeys, have bunny rabbit ears. I have no idea why that happened. ’Cause James specifically told me to do a space monkey with six arms. And a Predator mouth. I have no idea why I gave him two long ears. I think it was to balance out the limbs. Like six arms, two long legs, two long ears, it makes a shape. Symmetry to it.

But yeah I’m looking at it now, this first- this guy here was the first thing I drew. Because I had to design the bird-wolf(?), wolf-hawk. That’s what the description was. So I wanted to go, like, this is me designing more than I do now.

I remember he wanted eyes. Lots of eyes. And, yeah. I don’t know, man.

NS: Yeah, no,  I admit, when I looked through this issue this morning I saw this page and like wow, this panel specifically stuck out to me as, like, this is different. This was really weird and interesting. So this is really the beginning. This is-

MD: Yeah, that was my getting the job panel. And plus Sanami was way different then. Sanami was redrawn, re-characterized. I think it had more gore. But look at it now. That’s a lot of gore. I don’t think- Have we done that? Have we done that level of gore, going on?

NS: I feel like there were places where it was, maybe it was halfway there.

MD: I don’t think I do that much now.

NS: Yeah. Well you needed that one, that one to just like let you know where we were.

MD: Yeah. Same thing with Amala’s Blade back then. I did one panel that was super gory. And, because of that one panel, I don’t feel right giving it to kids. Like, it’s generally a young teenage- a young teen fantasy, but that one panel, man. That one panel is really brutal. I went a little bit over the top. I feel the same way here. This is brutal. But it is what you say, setting the bar.

Year Two Year Three

NS: The other thing that really struck me looking back in this way, especially with these two here…

MD: Look at Ben!

NS: I know! So you got to really create these characters with James. But as much as James evolved them and everything, you basically had to redesign every character like three times.

MD: No, more actually. Because I had to constantly think what happened, what happened, what happened. Like there’s a point, I think in the second year, where Calder is half-naked. And I was like, “Oh! He had that bug thing on his arm.”

NS: Oh, yeah…

MD: So I had to go back, figure out what I had done in issue #2, I think. And I went back and, like, alright, he has nice scars on his arm. And then I was generally thinking, like, it’s been a while. They might all have a bit of scars. Like Sanami’s eye, never talked about the aftermath of that. And she has a big X on her cheek now, which is never talked about. There’s a little bit of, y’know, filling the imagination. Between year two and three things happened.

NS: Yeah. And do you have your own version of what it was or do you like to leave it?

MD: Some things I do, somethings I don’t. Like the shirts. The Calder shirt. That was- I had this whole image in my mind, like, she’s gonna get the shirt, she’s gonna take it. Like, the shirt on the back, on the cape. I just felt right and like sometimes I have an image or bit of a story, but then it’s just put it down on paper it looks perfect, it looks the way it should be. Like the whole reason I added the t-shirt to Karen’s cloak was a backward hug.

NS: Aww.

MD: It was a hug. Yeah.

NS: So one of the things that I love about the book is the way that you guys use color in it. You took over as colorist completely for the third year and you had some watercolors that you did straight onto the line art in year two. Did it come from James to have these kind of very stark, kind of pastel colors? Or was that something that Josan had, or something that you guys kind of worked on together?

MD: Well, it was basically me and James because, when we started this outline, James had words like, “I would like a big, red moon. A big red orbiting planet.” And, in my own mind, I was like, ‘okay,  if it’s that red, everything in the world will have to take a hue from that color.’ So we went to purple, purple it seemed nice- purple seems weird and exotic. And we went to the everything will have weird colors. So it’s kind of organic. I mean, I think it came from the first cover. I think the first cover that we did was the- the one that set the color tone. Then Josan did some, put some extra parts for himself. And at some point it felt more…  I’m more comfortable coloring my own stuff. I’m always been comfortable coloring my own work. And, before working in the US market, all the comics I’ve ever done in my life were written and colored by myself. So it’s more organic for me. And we wanted organic, so there was this evolution, it’s like every year is slightly evolved. Year one to year two, year two to year three, and now we’re done. Evolution’s done on the book. I would love to redraw everything. Ha. As most artists would with this long of a series.

NS: So, I actually had the very good fortune to meet you very early in the run.

MD: At the beginning. At the beginning.

NS: At this show, no less. And you were lovely enough–where’d it go–

MD: What did I do?

NS: -to, give me one of these – one of your last of these.

MD: Oh my God!

NS: I’m handing him a collectable collection of short stories that Michael did called Trinkets that is super cool.

MD: Wow!

And really cool, but a little difficult to read because it is all in Greek-

MD: But it has scripts.

NS: -with what is “Anglo-Saxon decodings”.

MD: Yes. Man, this is… seven years ago… The book is seven years ago. The stories are even older. Whaaat. See: colors, styles, purples…

NS: But, looking at that- you know, The Woods has this very beautiful, particular look that I think by, especially by year three, really settles in and latches onto its strengths. But it’s got this kind of flat, textured quality to it. Like you can feel dust when there’s little particles, the little faintness of lines. But, looking through stuff like Trinkets, there are many things that have nothing in common with that.

Now that The Woods is done are there parts of your art that are like, “I love this, but I’m ready to get back to that.” Things that have been on hold while you’ve been really doing this one vision for so long. ’Cause even Turtles has some of that- not the same but a similar kind of overall

MD: No! It’s cartoony. Yeah, no, the things I do with turtles is a little bit more cartoony than the things I do here. I’m trying to remember. Are you asking this question because I said something the other day?

NS: No, I’m not. I’m not.

MD: No? Okay.

NS: No, I have no cunning.

MD: C’monnn.

One of the things that has been on my mind for years is to go back and draw this series that I wanted to do in 2009. And it was very cartoony. It still is. Every year I draw something from this series. I have a folder full of concept art. And I’ve shown it around. People like it. Because it’s totally different from The Woods. It’s a very different- very cartoony, very fantasy-esque, very Adventure Time. That’s the reason that I wanted to do Adventure Time stuff because- because this is my style and people who are listening can’t see it, so ha!

NS: Yeah, when we were looking through Trinkets just now, I looked and was like, “Oh, yeah, it makes perfect sense that he’d want to do Adventure Time based on some of these.”

MD: Yeah. Where is it? This is the stuff I normally draw.

NS: Right.

MD: So it was kind of weird going to The Woods.

NS: Yeah. That’s really cool.

So, that’s kind of what you’re aching for now is kind of to do that cartoony kinda..?

MD: Maybe…

NS: Well, just because you kind of have that in Trinkets. You also have some stories where you can really feel the roundness of things. There’s a very three-dimensional thing going on. I don’t know. I’ve always been very taken with your art and-

MD: Thank you.

NS: -looking at that, I was thinking, ‘man, I mean, The Woods is gorgeous, but I haven’t seen that from him anywhere else.

MD: Well, this is one of the things that I knew was gonna happen was that, when I started a four year commitment, that, at the point where I started working US market, people saw two books from me, the Spider-Man story and the Amala’s Blade and now I’m committed to this loooong story. So, anything new will have to come after.

NS: Yeah.

MD: But the good thing is I suddenly was hit by a lightning and became The Flash. So, at some point, I think, two years ago I managed- I found out that I can actually draw two issues a month. So, I got to experiment on other stuff. So, while I was drawing The Woods, I was also drawing Turtles.

Then once that happened, I was like, “I can do this.” It hurt, but I can do this. I need to do something else in between The Woods just to keep my hands and my mind in a- To be more creative. Like, The Woods is creative, but I feel like I’m serving the purpose of the story. I need to just step aside, do something wacky, and come back to the emotions. Like the Dimension X story that I did just now was super fun. To draw turtles fighting a sumo wrestler in space. Then I came back to draw the tears of The Woods.

NS: So you kind of touched on it pretty well, but is there’s anything else, not just stylistically but, now that you’re kind of free of this, as strange as it is to say that. To put it in those terms.

MD: I’m free.

NS: Now that you are what excites you now that you have that kind of freedom to pick and choose a little bit. What are you looking forward to?

MD: Well, right now I’m looking forward to sitting down and actually leveling up my character on Destiny 2. Like, it’s still like in the mid-250. I need to get to 280. The character. People who listen to this will know what I’m talking about.

’Cause, yeah, video games and comics don’t gel sometimes. So, the main thing I want to do is take a break. Even if it’s just for another month. Sit down. Recollect. Become a human again. Not a drawing machine. Not visit the office. I have a separate office in the house.

But what I would really like to do is just hear what is out there. Like, I want to see what this new projects are. Is it going to be me developing my old idea? Like actually taking that big step to writing again? Or is it gonna be me listening to some cool writers with new ideas? Or is it going to be me doing the mainstream Big 2 stuff. I don’t know what it is. But, whatever it is, it’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be new. And that’s what this end of one big era with The Woods, it opens up the doors to the new, scary, frightening- I feel like the people who arrived in the… Actually, I feel like the last page of #36…

NS: Devilishly good, my friend.

MD: Yes.

NS: And come this Wednesday, you’ll all know exactly what he means.

MD: Yeah.

NS: I sincerely wish you the best. I wish you that time to become human. And then I wish to see so much more of your work.

MD: Thank you very much. Pleasure.

NS: So thank you so much for talking with me, man, giving us the chance to look back.

MD: Handshake.

Handshake. You can’t see it, but it was there.