Joe Daly’s apartment in the coastal town of Kleinmond in the Western Cape is an unlikely headquarters for a multinational comic-art brand. For starters, it’s really tiny – so small that Daly’s bed and desk seem to constitute a single piece of furniture design. There’s also its location at the southernmost tip of the African continent, as far from the major international markets for comic art as you can possibly get.
And yet it is here that Daly – aged 36 and still more or less anonymous in South Africa, despite being this country’s greatest ever graphic novelist – recently completed his latest work, Highbone Theatre, an epic at 570 pages. Like his previous five books, it seems destined to attain cult status when it is published in the USA and France in 2016, where Daly is signed respectively to Fantagraphics and L’Association, two of the biggest names in alternative comics. So, how did Daly manage to leapfrog the almost non-existent market for local comic art and land right on the big stage? Andy Mason, head of the Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts at the University of Stellenbosch, has an idea.
“Joe is a creative extremist,” he says, “in the sense that comics are his whole life – he eats, breathes and dreams about them, and works harder at his craft than anyone else in the country.” To give some sense of just how hard Daly works, Mason explains that only a handful of South Africans have ever undertaken creating a graphic novel, and even fewer have attempted a second. “We’re talking thousands of hours per book, with no expectation of a decent financial return at the end because the market for graphic novels is quite small, even overseas. But in spite of these suffocating demands, Joe has kept on producing these things in solitary confinement, like a machine.”
The books in question – The Red Monkey (2003); Scrublands (2006); The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book (2009) and Dungeon Quest: Book One (2010), Book Two (2011) and Book Three (2012) – are all filed away in a small bookcase in Daly’s living room. Approximately 15 years’ worth of full-time work on a single shelf.
“Comics do take it out of you,” Daly admits, rolling a cigarette with a faint look of self-censure, his face made a little otherworldly by his Abe Lincoln beard and high cheekbones. “I’ve been living like a vampire: waking up, drinking coffee, working, going to sleep. I suppose you could say I’m a bit of a maniac. It’s affected my health, certainly.” But a Spartan work ethic alone won’t win you a global following, or prestigious accolades such as the Special Jury Prize at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, which Daly was awarded in 2010 for Dungeon Quest: Book One.
The successful graphic novelist must also possess artistic flair and a signature style, a high level of technical proficiency, an intuitive sense of market tastes and a wild imagination. Daly had the artistic flair dialled from the start, and it helped that his parents, Niki and Jude Daly, are both well-known author/illustrators of prize-winning children’s books. “As soon as he was able, Joe began to draw on the walls,” says Niki. “First, it was scribbles, and then it became shapes of things that interested him – circles, radials, people – drawn with the authority that all small children bring to their creations, before they become more self-conscious and start to seek approval. Joe always got our approval and continued to draw with authority, curiosity, great imagination, humour and always with a narrative content – as he does to this day.”
After attending SACS and Westerford in Cape Town, Daly enrolled on a two-year diploma course in animation at CityVarsity. “It was an excellent preparation for drawing comics. Much of the first year was taken up with drawing short poses, which taught me how to capture motion,” says Daly, adding that successful comics are directed in much the same way as films.
“You need to know where to position your imaginary camera, and in which way to direct the action,” he says. “Unless one studies film, you might not be consciously aware of why one thing works better than another.” After graduating, Daly began work on The Red Monkey. It took him two years to complete 29 pages, and although a local publisher was keen to take it, Daly had to find some way of marketing the material himself. He convinced SL magazine to serialise the comic, two pages at a time, and The Red Monkey soon had a small but enthusiastic local following. However, when the book failed to sell locally, Daly took it as confirmation that his only real chance of a career in comic art lay in overseas publication. For this, he needed expert mentorship, and like many great artists he sought out the very best in the business: Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes, creators of the legendary counter-cultural comic Bitterkomix.
Their provocative work had already influenced Daly’s own in profound ways, but the friendship and guidance offered by Kannemeyer in particular was soon to prove life-changing.“I went through a period of constructive criticism from Anton, especially with regard to the technical aspects of making comics,” Daly recalls. “I also learned a lot about the marketing side of things, because they were the first local comic artists to find success overseas, especially in Europe.” Daly made his first overtures “in the old-fashioned way”, sending his material to as many editors as he could find addresses for.
His work quickly snagged the interest of the Seattle-based Fantagraphics, although a year went by before that nibble became a bite (the legendary comics aficionado Gary Groth personally signed up Daly). In the meantime, Daly travelled with the Bitterkomix crew to the Cyclone BD International Comics Festival on Réunion Island, where he could physically present his work to French publishers, creating a ripple of interest that ultimately led to his second graphic novel, Scrublands, being published by L’Association.
For Daly, who had grown up reading classic French comic books such as Hergé’s Tintin, it was a dream come true. “The French and Belgians have long regarded comics as an art form, which is a view the English-speaking world is only now waking up to. As a result, the scene in the French-speaking world is huge, and it’s here that I’ve had my best sales and successes,” says Daly, who suspects his work may be better known in French-speaking African countries than in South Africa itself, thanks to the proselytising efforts of the French embassies’ cultural services departments.
What is it about Daly’s work that has captured the imagination of some of the world’s most discerning consumers of comic art? Mason has characterised Daly’s work as “100 per cent tailor-made… for young wired geeky guys who smoke too much weed and watch slacker movies”, and while there is some truth to this, it does not nearly cover Daly’s achievement or the breadth of his appeal. One of Daly’s strengths is his ability to work in familiar modes of visual narrative, but without conforming to expectations, so that each book ends up being its own unique, genre-defying artefact.
This is what underground comic art is all about, and purists, lamenting the mainstream turn the graphic novel has taken in recent years, celebrate Daly as a keeper of the original fire. In Highbone Theatre, for example, Daly stylistically subverts the comic-book superhero convention to hilarious effect by giving all the male characters Incredible Hulk muscles. In Red Monkey, he plays around with the European style of detective adventure comic (Tintin being the most obvious reference), whereas the Dungeon Quest series – if the name doesn’t instantly give it away – sends up fantasy role-play video games.
With the aim of universalising the appeal of his work, Daly has deliberately suppressed anything that might peg it as South African, although he feels some essence of place still seeps through and that this helps to give his books their particular flavour. “The life of a comics creator in South Africa is a life of obscurity and isolation and I’ve tried to turn this situation into my strength,” he has said in the past. “I think when my comics hit the international markets, they have a strange vibe that they were created far away in some bubble somewhere, and I think that helps them to be unique.” During The Red Bulletin’s visit to Daly’s apartment, a red-eyed pigeon lands on his little balcony, and stares in at us. Daly stares back.
“The birds like it here because it’s just about the tallest building in town,” he says. “At first I thought it was pleasant, but then I experienced an infestation of tropical fowl mites. Do you know what those are? They’re tiny pests that infest birds’ nests, often entering human habitations when their bird hosts disappear. They can’t actually survive on human blood, but they think they can, and the first time you realise your home is infested is at night, when they swarm all over your body, biting you.” This is vintage Daly: unexpected, unnerving, but still rather comical – a case of reality imitating his particular kind of art. It also signals a point at which the artist begins to feel claustrophobic.“Shall we take a walk?” he suggests, producing a skateboard from behind his sofa. “Now that I’ve finished Highbone, I’m determined to find a bit more balance. A bit more sun.”