Between the Panels: Cartoonist Dave Chisholm on Closing the Circle, Waiting for the Right Answer, and Making Music in a Silent Medium

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

Comic creator. Musician. Teacher. Dave Chisholm has been lucky enough to be able to follow his artistic passions wherever they’ve led him — whether opening on tour for Fall Out Boy or having multiple graphic novels on store shelves. His story of personal ups and downs, professional successes and failures, is the story of a creator determined to give voice to his muse.

First, the particulars…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): All of the above

Your home base: Rochester, NY


Social Media

Twitter: @chisholmdave

Instagram: @thedavechisholm

Facebook: davechisholmmusicandcomics

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Of all the guests I’ve talked to so far, you’re probably the first whose name I don’t primarily associate with comics, but with another artistic field — in this case, music. What do you enjoy about the comics artform and working in that form?

Dave Chisholm: There's a ton of reasons. Some of them are autobiographical, some of them are formal, and then the other ones are a bit more community-oriented. On one hand, I've been surrounded by comics my whole life. At a really young age, I showed a real precociousness with my drawing ability — right away, it was drawing Spider-Man and Batman and all the superheroes. And then it didn't take too long from me to start making my own comics. The medium has always been like second nature to me, as I'm sure it is for a lot of the people who make comics. Any story that you encounter kind of becomes like a comic book inside of our heads.

KS: For someone who’s been part of two different art worlds, is the community aspect of comics part of the appeal?

DC: Comics have a really low bar for entry. That's not to say that's bad, but it's not like you need to buy a $3,000 instrument or a $50,000 instrument and take a bunch of lessons. You don't even have to be good at it at all. People will be encouraging inside this community, even if you show up and are like kind of bad and stuff — it's very friendly to amateurs. It’s historically been like a low art, or straddled the line, always having one big toe still in low art, which is a silly distinction to make. As a result, like I think it's a community of people who love it and are enthusiastic about it.

KS: Before you were ever making comics, what were the creative things that you were taking in as a child? Reading, watching, listening… what were the kinds of the primal influences that were first forming you?

DC: Oh, man. Like I've said in other interviews, my mom claims to this day that my first word was “Spider-Man.” I had this thing when I was, like, three years old where I had to have some sort of Spider-Man article of clothing on at all times. So, my mom would put iron-on patches on my dress shirts, and I had all the underwear, tee shirts, and socks and all this stuff. Growing up, we were a very open household. The earliest music I remember hearing ever was my dad played Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis on the turntable, and [Charles] Mingus, the Beatles, Pink Floyd. And then MTV just constantly. It was pretty new when I was really young, and it was just on all the time.

KS: When did your journey as a maker of music start?

DC: I started playing violin when I was four years old, and I didn't really like it at all, but it kind of gave me a foundation. I switched to trumpet when I was 11 and I liked that a lot more. I kinda pushed that really hard, then when I finished high school, I got a bigger scholarship in music than in art, so I just chose that. By the end of end of my undergrad, I got a degree in jazz composition [but] by the end of that degree, I was really burned out on jazz, jazz music, and everything.

I was really into like indie rock, eventually started touring around with a rock band and we opened for Fall Out Boy and stuff like that. Had some pretty good success before that imploded. When that imploded, I realized I never want to rely on anybody else again, in my life, to be able to make art. Being in a band, a lot of it is about compromise and juggling schedules and dealing with people who aren't as intense as you are about what you want. Or being the person who's not as intense as the other person, you know? That ended and I was like, “All right, well, I'm gonna make a graphic novel.”

KS: Perfect segue to Let’s Go To Utah. I think probably you'd find a lot of people who have the idea to create something — whether it's a graphic novel, a novel, a play, whatever — and maybe they get five pages in and lose the momentum and it just lives on a computer. What was the driving force that kept you going across the finish line?

DC: That's a really good question. I think that I’ve always had good discipline and follow through on stuff that I start. I've always been a very intense person when it comes to my creative projects, for better or worse. That’s one answer, but I think the other thing about comics that's really interesting is that, what I tell my students is that you have to close the circle, the creative circle. You can't just start something and quit — it has to be part of the process that you close the circle. With that book, I would finish a page, scan it, letter it, and post it on DeviantArt. You can read the whole book on DeviantArt for free, if you wanted to really go through my old posts and stuff. That's where the book got a cult following; somehow, the word spread I think that knowing that people were enjoying it made a big difference for me, but I also think I probably still would've gotten it done regardless… and then would’ve been really depressed if no one was enjoying it. [laughter]

KS: We’re coming up on 13 years since Utah came out. What would you say is different about the creator you are right now than the guy who made that book back then? What’s something you’ve learned in that time?

DC: This is something that I learned way too late. When I was at Eastman [School of Music] getting my doctorate, there was this guy, Levi Saelua, a saxophone player and composer from Sacramento. And he's younger than me; he was an undergraduate jazz composition major when I was working on my doctorate. I’m a very intense person, very uptight about deadlines. I was always early with my work because I just hate the stress of having work hanging over my head and pushing up against the deadline. We’d take, like, a big band jazz writing class together, and I would finish my piece with tons of time to spare. Levi would finish his the day of the concert. I played on his senior recital and he was still working on the music the morning of the senior assignment — the big performance at the four-year degree and he's still working on the music! The dude was cool as a cucumber. He's a very intense, passionate person, but he was so calm about it ‘cause he knew exactly what he was doing. I have no qualms in saying that every time, his work was better than mine. Always, always better than mine. And it's because he had the patience to just wait for the right idea, for the right solution.

KS: You were able to translate his approach to comics-making?

DC: It’s all problem solving. No matter what you're doing, it's problem solving. In some fields where there's one answer to a problem, like the right size… bolt… right? Whereas in a field like comics or music, the opposite of a good answer could be another good answer. You could have a thousand right answers. So, my process was, I would find one, I would just do it. “This is the answer, that's it.” Boom. Off to the races. That’s still a part of me that I have to fight against to this day, but what I learned from Levi was to procrastinate a little bit, to say, “Okay, I have this answer that can work, but let’s wait and see what other solutions come forth.” [That can be] through watching a movie or reading a book, or whatever… and then the better solution comes.

KS: If that’s your “big picture” approach, is there anything on the pages themselves you feel like you’ve gotten a better grasp on?

DC: Back then, I didn't know anything about how to color comics, and now one of my favorite parts of the process is coloring. And then writing is something that I really worked hard to have a bit more of a plan [for]. Utah was just a whirling, hot mess of a book. [laughter]

KS: After Utah came Instrumental in 2017. I don't know if we want to call it a “multimedia package,” but it was a graphic novel with a soundtrack album. Did you come up with the comic and then the soundtrack as a bonus idea, or do you write the music first and then put the visuals to it? Tell us about the particular alchemy for that project.

DC: That was years building up in my head. There were two pieces of music on the album that weren't initially written to be part of this. And the wild thing is that they were both written like two years apart from each other — tracks two and seven, the second track and the very last track. Track two is really frenetic and really intense, and track seven is very calm and peaceful. It's the end of the story. They fit the vibe of the book, and it was cool music. I tell people, the goal with that book was to make a book that could stand alone and make an album that could stand alone, but make it so that when you put them together, it enhances the storytelling for each of them.

KS: Were you ultimately satisfied with the experiment?

DC: Yeah, and honestly, I would like to have another shot at doing something like that. I made that so fast, the 220-page book is still my longest book that I've done in terms of pages. I wrote most of the music and recorded and mixed the music myself. I drew it in 10 months. I look back on that and it was a lot of early mornings and late nights for what? It wasn't even a paid gig. It was just because I had to do it. I was lucky to have the time, and I would say lucky to have the kind of disposition to be a very obsessed person.

KS: Let’s step backwards in the chronology to your younger reading days. What were the comics you first actively collected versus just buying at random?

DC: The first ones were the Todd McFarlane Spider-Man series — the one that was not Amazing but started at #1. Relentlessly dark and violent. At the same time, my brother and I were buying all the Jim Lee X-Men and all the Rob Liefeld X-Force. It's such a cliché of people my age wanting the Holy Trinity of the Image founders. [laughter] It was a really exciting time. I was, like, 10 years old, obsessed with trying to draw like McFarlane. Then, Spawn was the next thing. Sin City, all the Frank Miller stuff. Akira was the next thing — I think the first comic I bought for a lot of money was Akira #1 at a comic shop in Seattle. I was visiting Seattle with my grandpa, and I was like, “Ooh, I have to get this.” It was 20 bucks or something.

KS: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums.  Looking back, can you pick out any story that you encountered as a reader at just the right time?

DC: When I was feeling really down about my band imploding, right on the brink of big, capital-S success, the book that found me at the time was Batman Year 100. There was something about [Paul] Pope’s work [that] felt… attainable. I know that's a weird thing to say, a delusional thing to say perhaps. There was something a little weird about it, a little like grotesque about it — it's still really beautiful, but his ink line felt fast, like I could do that. Especially in that moment, I needed it. I studied that book and his work quite a bit.

KS: What’s the first serious art project that you remember creating? Something where you felt at the time, "This is for real, I’m proud of this?"

DC: Honestly, I’ll circle back to my own delusions of grandeur that I've always kind of carried with me. “The stuff I'm doing is serious and is good” — even if in hindsight, I was completely full of shit. [laughter] I started making a comic series with some friends in high school called Sins of the Fathers. This story that was totally ludicrous but in a really fun way, kind of a rip-off of Akira. There was a massive world war and all of the adults were shipped off to serve in the war, so it was a nation basically run by children. It was like Lord of the Flies, but the entire United States with a few people who are, like, police and all the teenagers were antiwar rioters before they would be sent off. And then, there was all this psychic angle. I really believed in that and loved it and stuff like that. I even talked to the writer in the last like four years and was like, “Hey, man, if I want to revisit this, are you going to sue me if I remake the story?” I doubt I ever will.

KS: Did it at least get campus distribution?

DC: No, we did one issue. I had somebody else inking it and he was awful. I shouldn't have let him touch my pages at all, but it was a team. It’s like a version of every frustrating moment of my artistic life… going to my friend, who was the writer, every day and being like, “You have new pages of script for me to draw?” and then every day for, like, two months having no new pages. “Why isn't he writing new pages for me?”

KS: Is that the origin story of why you're a one-man band now making your own comics?

DC: I think more of the origin story is just that feeling of like playing music and dance with other people, and being not a great team player. I'm lucky enough to do these projects that are my big passion projects. Nobody's going to take a Charlie Parker book as seriously as I am. Nobody's going to take this Blue Note records project seriously like I'm taking it. I have no interest in giving those pages to someone else for me to micromanage them and maybe be disappointed in them. I'd rather be disappointed in myself.

KS: Let’s hit a few different topics before we get to the end of our time. This first one may seem obvious, but I have to ask: What are your thoughts on listening to music while you work on comics?

DC: Oh yeah, totally, man. For sure. Not just that — sometimes, I want silence and, sometimes, I want to put on a podcast or something with talking. When I was working on Instrumental, I listened to a ton of Rolling Stones. Which is really weird because I'm definitely not a huge Stones fan, but I really got into Let it Bleed and Gimme Shelter and that whole era.

KS: So, tunes completely different than what the comic might be focused on?

DC: Totally. For Enter the Blue, I listened to every single Radiohead live concert I could find on YouTube. Hundreds of hours of Radiohead concerts from people filming it with their phone and shit like that.

KS: In addition to your creator life, you're also a teacher. I'm wondering about something that you personally get out of that job, aside from a paycheck, of course.

DC: When you're teaching, you have to be able to explain a thing clearly, and you have to be able to do it, as well. I don't think I really, really, really learned how to improvise jazz over chord changes in a really clear, concise way until I had to teach it. I taught like a drawing class at a SUNY [State University of New York] school. To have to teach like drawing stuff in perspective, the next time I sat down to draw page and I had so much more of a plan and a real sense of how that fits into the process. It's wild, ‘cause I probably should have had those plans before. It keeps me honest and it keeps me sharp.

KS: To finish up, can you name check any work from the history of comics that you’d hold up as an example of the craft at its finest?

DC: Probably Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, if you had to twist my arm. Or Batman Year One. Maybe All-Star Superman. They’re just the perfect mix of writing plus art plus formalism — everything fuels the other things.

KS: The floor is yours now. Please tell the readers what you have coming down the pipe and where to find your work.

DC: The biggest thing on the horizon is my new book, Enter the Blue. The book was commissioned by Blue Note Records and is being published by Z2 comics. It’s a 180-page graphic novel about a music student who has quit performing and her old teacher who kind of goes missing. She has to go back into the world of music to find him, and along the way some weird stuff happens. It was supposed to come out in January — I don’t have a release date yet, but I’d say in the second half of 2022. It’s my best book yet, I’m so thrilled about it. 

A book I’ve been working on since 2014 in little bits and chunks — Tyranny of the Muse — written by Eddie Wright, just came out. It’s a big, fat black-and-white graphic novel about creativity and addiction and happy-go-lucky stuff like that. Eddie is self-publishing it; it’s really funny and dark. Follow me on Twitter for anything else coming up.

This interview was edited for length.

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