Graphically Speaking: Dirk Tiede

Lake Shore Drive - Dirk I. Tiede

(Interviewer: Alex Odom, GS Editor for SPACES)

Webcomics pioneer Dirk I. Tiede started his online graphic novel series, Paradigm Shift in 1999 and has never looked back. In addition to print collections, he continues to serialize his comics online and was a founding contributor to premiere comics portal Modern Tales. His artwork is showcased in the books Toon Art: The Graphic Art of Digital Cartooning and Webcomics, appears in the documentary Adventures In Digital Comics, and was featured in Season 3 of NBC’s Heroes. He relocated from Chicago to Boston’s North Shore in 2008 where he continues to work as a professional cartoonist and freelance illustrator.

Dirk Tiede’s comic Paradigm Shift is just that, a steady push and pull on convention, a police procedural that casts a paranormal throw down alleyways, and under El trains; it’s a native’s view of Chicago, as seen through Japanese, manga lenses. Fast paced, and fun, the story follows two tongue and cheek detectives investigating a series of grisly, and mysterious attacks. Part One: Equilibrium was released as a web comic in 1999, and later brought into print. Since then, Dirk has released Part Two: Agitation, and Part Three: Emergence in print and web form, and Part Four: Flight as a web comic.

Alex: Speaking in dog years, you’ve been with these characters 91 years; how has that relationship developed over time?

Dirk: It’s definitely changed over that period of time. I knew in the beginning that Kate and Mike were really just little parts of my self-given voice — Kate is that sarcastic, off the cuff  part that I know better than to speak out loud, while Mike is the ever-present voice of reason.  However, what started off as simply a fun adventure I wanted to tell slowly turned into a strange parallel of my own life.  It started with simply putting new locations and scenes in that reflected things that happened to me in Chicago.  For instance, in Part Two, our heroes interview a witness to recounts bumping into a screaming madman late one night near the train tracks.  That was me.  That really happened.  But later on I realized the events themselves were actually strangely in sync with patterns in my own biography.  I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that in the latest book, Kate & Mike go on the run and have to leave Chicago in a hurry.  That was in my original story outline.  What I didn’t count on was it happening to me before I even finished the first story arc.  I moved to Boston.  Suddenly the characters were being thrown off in that direction.  And while I’d intended the current book to be rollicking fugitive adventure turned into more of Night Sea journey, as the characters lost their city and their grounding.  After examining it as I near the end of the book I realize I’d been doing somewhat the same thing over the past few years as I’ve been writing and drawing it.  Not only were the characters looking for some direction, I was too.  Strange how the psyche can unconsciously work its way into your work even without you planning on it.

Alex: It’s interesting to know you’ve finished every issue outside of Chicago, because it’s obvious, from the comic, you know and love Chicago; how has relocating affected your inspiration? 

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Dirk: As I said above, it unconsciously changed the theme of the current book.  However, I did consciously work on those feelings of losing that sense of place myself. While I haven’t been able to rely on the day to day locations to inspire specific scenes, I’ve been falling back on other places that I remember help guide me.  Also, since I released Part Three back in 2010, I’ve been traveling like a madman to conventions and book signings all over the country.  I definitely wanted to get some of the sense of constant movement into the story as well.  All that time on the road can make you feel disconnected, I wanted to convey that through the characters.  Of course, they’ve got much darker reasons for leaving town.

Alex: What other inspiration do you pull from?

Dirk: All over the place.  Aside from the obvious stuff, Chicago and Japanese comics, there’s a bit of Stephen King floating in there.  80’s buddy cop films like “Running Scared” helped me shape the tone at the beginning, while “The X-Files” provided the paranormal feel.  I was watching the first few seasons of “24” while working on the second book, and “The Wire” while drawing the third. On the more nuts and bolts front, If I stumble across something that catches my interest, I tend to research the hell out of it, and some of that works it way back into the story.  I’d always loved cop shows back in the day, so I researched how actual murder cases were conducted.  Even found a book full of crime scene photography from the 1920’s and 30’s to help realize the grisly corpse scenes.  I also read up on the CIA’s MKULTRA program, the illegal LSD and brainwashing experiments that were made public back in the 1970’s, which gave me some insight into unethical human experimentation (the same thing that inspired King’s “Firestarter”, BTW).  The Field Museum’s “Maneaters of Tsavo” also inform some of the ideas surrounding the animal attacks.  They also make a cameo at one point.  I could go on and on here.

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Alex: In the great web versus print debate, your track record suggests a moderate stance; if you were forced to carry a banner for one or the other, which would it be, and why?

Dirk: As much as I love the web and owe my very career to it, if I had to choose right now I would go with print because all of my favorite authors are there, and I’d like to be right there with them.  The web provides a rich, easy platform to get started in comics, but I would have never even started drawing PS if I hadn’t had the idea of making a book out of it in the first place.  I will always have a fondness for cracking open a new book, no matter how prevalent digital distribution becomes.

Alex: Do you think it has become necessary to do both?

Dirk: I believe so.  The world runs online now.  Even major authors are being told to make sure to have a Twitter and Facebook presence, and blog if possible.  I still consider my website to be the best advertising my work could have (well, aside from perhaps a major Hollywood adaptation, but I’ll just keep dreaming there), and it lets me interact directly with my readership.  I’m even looking into doing ebooks, too.  However, it’s print that let me make the jump from just another guy with a webcomic to an established creator.  There are some who have done that without print, but I don’t think I could have done it without having the books in hand.

Alex: How has the industry changed over the years?

Dirk: So much that it’s hard to come up with a good metaphor. When I first started writing PS back in 1998, comics were pretty much just superheroes, with a dab of supernatural horror thrown in. Manga was just starting to come out in book stores, but it certainly wasn’t a big player in the market. There was alternative press stuff out there, but only people who were really into comics really knew about it. Fast forward 14 years later and graphic novels are saving the publishing industry. New publishers like First Second are popping up and releasing great books in a variety of genres for wider audiences.  It’s not just superheroes these days, and it hasn’t been for a number of years now. Comics are starting to feel like a real medium now, where you can really tell any kind of story you want to and there will be publishers and readers who will want to read it. And with the added bonus that even if you can’t find a publisher, you can self-publish your comics without any loss of credibility. In fact, it is a badge of honor to self-publish in comics. Small press actually commands some respect, even if not the big money.

Alex: I can imagine being the writer and illustrator can be a mixed bag; what’s your process like playing double duty?

Dirk: I’m constantly moving back and forth between the roles.  While I tend to write a complete outline for a book before I dive into scripting, I have yet to write a complete script from start to finish for a book before I start drawing it.  I tend to write a scene or two, then run out of steam and switch over to drawing.  Besides, the comics process is as much about writing as it is drawing.  I make thumbnails for each page and usually go through a few revisions before each scene is ready for final artwork.  Each layer of the process involves editing dialogue, and sometimes even whole panel layouts.  Every time I have to switch modes between the writer brain and the artist brain.  It can slow me down sometimes, especially if I feel rushed to get a page finished before I’ve worked out the rest of the scene edits. I do my best when I can wear my writer’s hat for awhile, including the thumbnailing stage, and then switch over to the artist’s chair when I’ve got a batch of pages (usually a complete scene) ready to go. 

Then I can just plow forward because all the decision making has been done.  Nothing left but to put lines on the page and make it pretty.

Alex: Who’s on your bookshelf these days?

Dirk: Ooo, I’m been delving into Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung pretty deeply lately.  Comparative mythology and its relationship to psychology has me completely fascinated.  Not entirely sure what’s going to come of that down the road, but it’s such rich material I can’t think it won’t be a big influence.  Also indulging some guilty pleasure reading in the urban fantasy and *cough* paranormal romance shelf at the library.  I can recommend Gail Carriger’s “Soulless” and its sequels if you’re into the literary equivalent of cupcakes — delicious, fluffy and probably not good for you, but you can’t help but eat them anyway.   Also Neal Stephenson and William Gibson keep coming into rotation in my literary diet.  I do love the info-punk.  On the comics front, I recently finished reading Naoki Urusawa’s “Monster” manga series, and it truly is worth tracking down.  It’s about a Japanese neurosurgeon in post-Cold War Germany who gets framed as a serial killer.  It’s a psychological thriller at its best.  Urusawa is a master storyteller, even if you’re not usually into manga.  Great stuff.  Also, if you’ve never read Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” you’re missing out.

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Alex: You did the artwork for the card game Sanitarium; how did you get into that? Have you got any other side projects going?

Dirk: Just one of those things.  I just got a call out of the blue one day.  A case of somebody who knows somebody who recommended me.  That’s how most of the best work comes  along.  And I’m glad they did.  I think the artwork I did for “Sanitarium” is some of my best to date.  It’s a bit of a departure from the manga stuff I do for the comics.  It was a fun change. 

As for other projects, I’m slated to do the background artwork for an indy video game called “Crisis Hearts Brawlers – Clash at Otakon”.  Yes, it is as nerdy as it sounds.  A bunch of artists from the anime con scene have gotten together to make this game for one of the biggest shows in the country: Otakon in Baltimore.  As far as I know, it’s the first video game based on an anime convention in the universe.  We hit our Kickstarter goal back in September, so production should be starting anytime, now.

Alex: In the spirit of that response, I’m going to nerd out for a second, if you’ll indulge me.Who would win in a fight: Wolverine or Yoda?

Dirk: Yoda, hands down.  “Judge me by my size, do you?”  I love Wolvie, but that ancient Jedi muppet had my heart first.

AlexSpielberg or Lucas?

Dirk: Double K-O in the fourth round.  Seriously, both have been a big influence in the sense they inspired me towards all this crazy storytelling stuff at an early age.  However, I don’t think they’ve aged all that well.  I wish Spielberg would stop trying to make the next Oscar-winner and just make some fun action movies again, and Lucas lost me with Phantom Menace, and just continues to annoy by editing one of my favorite all-time movie series to death.  Seriously, Star Wars was perfect the first time around.  All the going back and putting in more special effects and changing stuff just sucks the life out of it, man.  Okay, enough griping.

Alex: Bender or Robbie the Robot (From Forbidden Planet)?

Dirk: Bender. But I’d be rooting for Robbie. I always did like the underdog.

Alex: What’s next for Paradigm Shift?

Dirk: Big stuff.  I’m down to the last couple of scenes of “Flight” and they’re going to be really fun to draw.  All the inner struggles our heroes have been tangling with will be manifesting themselves in the flesh, so expect some excitement.  I’ll be finishing up the book this winter and hopefully will have it out for a spring or summer release.  

Also, the last few copies of the second book just sold out, so I have to figure out what to do about that.  Signs now are pointing to doing a special omnibus edition of the first storyline for summer 2013, just in time to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the first book coming out.  Also, I mentioned ebooks, so keep an eye out on that front. After that– well, I’ll just say that I’ve already got the next book outlined, and it will be going to eleven.  Tentative title: “Fight”  

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