Of Ships On Fire And Homecoming Kings – Dave Proch On His Indie Comic Art

by Hannah Means Shannon

Dave Proch is an independent comic artist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he still resides. Largely self-taught, and influenced in style as much by poster and music art as by comic art, he’s also a creator who meticulously works out very personal stories in the pages of his anthology series Mango Lizard, and in his first long-form work that debuted in its first chapter this autumn at SPX, The Homecoming King.

[Proch at SPX with some of the ink bottles he references below.]

In fact, during the several years that I’ve been following Proch’s work, I’ve seen an uptick in the popularity of style elements common to his artwork, convincing me that he has been a kind of forerunner to an earnest and folk art trend in zine comics publishing that is now enjoying something of a heydey. You really can’t read Proch’s comics without being struck by some element of emotion, color, or composition that makes you wonder again where comics come from within our own psyches, and what they have to say about the lives we live everyday.

Dave Proch joins us today on Comicon.com to talk about his work ahead of Comic Arts Brooklyn this Saturday, November 11th, where you’ll find him at table Q3 with his work.

HMS: I haven’t had the pleasure of interviewing you before, really, have I Dave? Though we’ve known each other for a few years. I’ve followed your indie comics zine Mango Lizard since at least issue #2, and it’s now at #4, and I recall hearing about The Homecoming King when it was first in the idea stages, I believe.

What has always struck me most about your artwork and your approach to comics as a person, is that you seem to be free of biases about what comics should be like in their construction or subject matter. As remarkable as that is, you must have had influences or people you look up to in comics. What comic creators or comics speak to you the most?

Dave Proch: Thank you for saying that, Hannah. And you’re right, this is the first time we’ve been able to sit down and do an interview so this is something I’ve been greatly looking forward to. But as far as influences these days, I really find myself revisiting a lot of that 1960’s and 1970’s Marvel stuff. A lot of that old Kirby stuff had a million different things happening within one issue and I love that.

Nowadays, it seems they space the ideas out a bit more but I love the older style of cramming it all in. I try to do that as much as I can in my own work because it keeps it interesting for me and I don’t get bored. So definitely, Kirby. Richard Corben, as well. I read a bunch of old Ditko monster stuff and horror stuff. I love his work. Goran Parlov’s work with Garth Ennis is amazing. I love Goran Parlov. I read a lot of Alex Toth, too.

HMS: I also think that, though you’ve chosen comics as your medium (though perhaps comics also chose you, as with many comic creators!), there’s an art feel to some of your work that reminds me of fine art, street art, poster art, and illustration. Have those other forms been part of your world? Do they inform how you think about comics?

DP: It does choose you! It’s true. And to a certain extent, other visual art forms factor into my work, but for me, it’s more the feeling I get from music. I want to make a book that makes me feel the same way an album like Raekwon’s, ” Only Built For Cuban Linx ” makes me feel, or the way I feel when I listen to John Coltrane or J Dilla. I want my books to feel like that, if that makes sense? So music is a bigger influence than anything else as far as the mood of the stories.

HMS: I’m going to ask you a specific question as an example, to see what your process is like. I’m looking at a short comic contained in Mango Lizard #4, called “Ship Fire”. What made you settle on the story to tell? How did it occur to you and why did you choose to follow that idea?

DP: With “Ship Fire”, I was actually asked to do a random drawing of anything I wanted for someone else’s story, and I just drew a boat on fire. And I really liked it and wanted to flesh it out from there. The idea gave me some energy and I just followed the energy, and just banged out a little short story. It wasn’t anything I planned out to a crazy extent. I just went with it because it was fun.

HMS: In that story, we watch a remarkable old sailor grapple with elemental forces at sea. The story is almost free of text except for key words and sound effects. What led you to use the large, angular, blue font for the key words “Save”, “Danger”, “Salvation” and more? Is this a strategy you’ve used before, presenting words almost as key focal points for the reader?

DP: Actually that was kind of a little inside joke with me as far as the big words across the page. These days, a lot of things I see, whether it be movies I watch or comics I read, tend to tell the viewer how to think and feel about the scenes. They remind you of what’s happening in the story over and over again, and they make it as obvious as possible about how you should feel about the events taking place. And I don’t like that.

I like subtlety in the emotions my characters show. I don’t need it spelled out for me. I like it interpretive. So I put giant words across the page in Ship Fire like, ”DANGER” and ”SALVATION” as kind of a joke to the reader like, ”Here you go! You don’t even have to worry about it. You know exactly how to feel because I’m writing it across the page in big blue letters.” I don’t know why, but I thought that was funny. I only used it for this story, but I might use it again one day.

HMS: Still looking at “Ship Fire”, the colors are a huge part of this story, almost an even bigger statement than any words or sound effects. There’s a bold yellow on the title page, a lurid yellow leading into the fire, and then raw, rough pinks and reds throughout.

At what point in creating a story do you start thinking about color? How do you approach it for each panel? While you do have prevailing color palettes, it seems like the color choice is very specific to the panel as much as the page?

DP: I think about color before I think about anything else, to be honest with you. I think about my colors first. Before I even start penciling a page, I think of my color palette because I do everything by hand with no photoshop at all, so I have to think about the last step first because I can’t undo anything. I just think about the feel of a scene and go from there. Sometimes it will be two colors for seven pages straight. Just two colors. Maybe a lemon and a raspberry for a nightclub scene.

Other times I’ll put 20 different colors in a single panel because it might be a city scene in the daytime and I want it to look accurate. So you’re right about that. It’s usually very specific for each setting. It never stays the same. I guess I don’t even have actual color palettes for my books. Just a bunch of bottles of Higgins and Dr PH Martin’s. I change them out as the scenes change and move the bottles I just used to the back so I can have a fresh palette to start off the next scene with.

HMS: To ask a more general question, how does working on comics fit in with the fact you are a native of Philadelphia and live there? How does the city relate to your experiences in comics?

DP: I’m glad you asked that because The Homecoming King takes place in the neighborhood I grew up in, so Philly factors in completely. I grew up in Sharon Hill in Delco, and I wanted to revisit that place before my future stories take me elsewhere. I wanted to pick an environment that I understood the politics of, so I can make it authentic. So you’ll see Septa buses and stuff throughout the book. Leo’s Cheesesteaks is definitely making an appearance. So on and so forth.

HMS: Moving further into this larger work, The Homecoming King, that debuted for its first issue at SPX, is this your first long-form narrative? What made you pick this story to devote so much time and attention to?

DP: It is my first long term story. This story came to me in an afternoon a few years back and the energy it gave me felt right. I go with the energy because making comics is tough and it can be grueling at times. Especially when you have a day job. So the idea of The Homecoming King gave me some energy and I can use that energy to put in a days worth of work after an actual, ”punch the clock, pack the box” day’s worth of work. It came to me a week after my very good friend was murdered, and I honestly feel like it was a gift from the grave from him. The understanding of it. And I don’t care if I sound like a jerk off either right now, because I mean what I’m saying! Rest in peace to Creep!

HMS: It seems like a big slice of Americana to talk about high school, football, and the changes life wreaks on people over time. Do you feel like you wanted to celebrate or commemorate these aspects of American life, or is this more of a criticism of those values?

DP: I wanted to show all of that stuff in order to show a more innocent time and innocent values before I take it somewhere else. And I didn’t want to criticize it, but I just wanted to show a simpler time before things go left. I’m drawing the “things go left” stuff currently.

HMS: Dave, you are a character in The Homecoming King, right? You have some stories to tell about discovering cartooning and what a comic artist does. Did you learn anything new or see anything from a different perspective from the process of creating this comic’s first issue?

DP: I did learn a lot. A lot about my color process, really. I think I’m a colorist first, to be honest. It’s the part of the process that I devote the most to. As far as seeing things from a different perspective, I definitely feel that after getting this story to where it’s at now, I’m going to be doing comics for the rest of my life, regardless of any success level. I don’t know. This story just told me that this is a part of my brain I can’t turn off.

Thanks to Dave Proch for finally doing an interview with me! Let’s not wait another 5 years. 

Find Dave Proch, Mango Lizard, and The Homecoming King this Saturday, November 11th, at Comic Arts Brooklyn at table Q3.