“It’s A Tricky Spot To Be In” : Four Color Apocalypse Talks To Alex Graham About Life Before, During, And After “Dog Biscuits”

It’s no secret that Alex Graham’s Dog Biscuits, both in its original online iteration and its newly-released print version, has been one of the most talked-about comics of the so-called “pandemic era.” Timely, topical, and yet never anything less than intensely personal, its success has brought Graham new legions of fans/readers, and yet that success has also come, of course, with attendant challenges — and even pitfalls — of its own. Four Color Apocalypse recently had the opportunity to chat with the artist about her celebrated, and at times controversial, magnum opus from A to Z, Genesis to Exodus, and I’m pleased to present that conversation here for your enjoyment and edification.

Four Color Apocalypse : For readers who aren’t aware of the origins of Dog Biscuits, could you kindly explain how the strip first come about, and did you always plan for it to be as expansive as it ended up becoming — or did circumstances (i.e. COVID) force your hand and/or cause you to adjust your plans and ambitions for the story as it went along?


Alex Graham : I began drawing Dog Biscuits while I was sitting at the bar of the restaurant where I had been working for three years. I’d already been furloughed once and hired back after my restaurant received a pandemic loan, the terms of which required employees to be present for 40 hours a week no matter how busy we were (or weren’t). Business was dead. I’d just been sitting around reading books and scrolling the internet for weeks, while my coworkers watched Netflix on their iPads and watched sports on the bar TV. I had maybe one or two tables a day sometimes, and I was trying really hard not to resent every customer that walked through the front doors, but sometimes it was impossible.

 
At the time it’d been about a month and a half since the George Floyd murder, and protests were ramping up. When that first happened, I and many other artists experienced something of an ego death — nobody was making art because hey, art is a selfish pursuit and people are suffering, why should I focus on myself. I hadn’t touched a paint brush or a pencil or a pen in months, which was probably my longest break in years. Anyway, one day I’d been reading Factotum by Charles Bukowski at the bar (at work,) and I came to a paragraph where he’s talking about working in a dog biscuit factory. Suddenly I decided I was done reading, I wanted to draw. Or rather, I was going to force myself to draw because of how painfully bored I was — I don’t even think the passion was necessarily present. I went to the back office and helped myself to a few pieces of printer paper, returned to my seat and quickly, sloppily drew 6 empty panels on a page, and stared at it for a while. I was really running on an empty tank, there was zero inspiration present. I opened my book again and reread the paragraph where I’d left off, saw the words “dog biscuits” and just quickly, without pencil, drew a dog biscuits store front. Then I drew the second panel, thinking about how god awful these drawings are but, it’s okay, it’s just me stepping back into art after a hiatus. A warm up.


After I’d drawn all 6 panels, I decided that I didn’t like the female human character that I’d drawn (who would later become Rosie) and redrew the page — this time Rosie was a rabbit instead of a human. Even after redrawing it, I looked at the page and thought, these are some of the worst drawings I’ve ever done. But  I was drawing with a weak spirit, so I settled with it. I took photos with my iPhone of each panel, and posted them on instagram, sort of embarrassed of having posted something I wasn’t very proud of, but it felt nice to share something. I came back a little while later and people seemed really excited about it and I didn’t understand why… but it was encouraging. My spirit seemed to rouse, and I decided to keep at it, not knowing where the story was going. Draw a page, post, repeat, with no story planned out at all. People were digging it, I was still confused about why because these drawings were still pretty rough, but it was exciting to share some art.

 
I kept going like this for weeks — I’d come in to work, clock in, sit down at the bar, and take all my drawing supplies out of my backpack and just improvise the story as I went. My coworkers were so fucking supportive… they’d take tables for me so I could keep drawing all day. I was really lucky to have found that job a few years prior, I love those people so much and they helped me through a really rough few years of my life.


The first 100 or so pages of Dog Biscuits are totally improvised. I’d complete a page, take out another sheet and just lay it down as it occurred to me. I thought maybe I was making another 75 page comic like (earlier surreal sex/comedy comic) Going To Heaven. Then as I progressed, the plot started emerging. When it first came to me, I was out on a run, and (I thought) I came up with the ending of the story, which is when (spoiler alert) Gussy tapes the paper that says CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC to the front door of his dog biscuits boutique. I initially wanted that to be the last scene of the book. I realized it was a cynical ending, but I was comfortable with that — I wanted to show people how I was feeling inside about the state of things. I was feeling hopeless and nihilistic.


And so, as the comic progressed (and I was furloughed again at this time, and drawing Dog Biscuits became my full time job) I realized there was more to the story than just that. I’d become a bit infatuated with Gussy and wanted to expand on him, and the shit he’d been through, but I also wanted to leave people with a little crumb of hope. With all the shit we’d collectively experienced in those months, it almost felt a bit irresponsible to leave people on such a cynical and hopeless note, though I recognize there’s a place for that in art. I just didn’t want somebody to walk into traffic after reading Dog Biscuits… myself included.

4CA : Along those same lines, then, was any of Dog Biscuits well and truly plotted in advance, or did the whole thing just grow organically as it went along? Certainly some of the issues you address in the comic in relation to CHOP/CHAZ, the BLM movement, etc., really started to bubble to the surface of the public’s consciousness after the story was already going, but they fit into the overall “arc” of the narrative pretty organically. Had you been considering addressing those issues within the context of the strip from the outset, or did it just seem like a natural thing to work into it as “living history,” so to speak, unfolded before our eyes?


AG : It seems like I began drawing this story at the exact right moment to tie everything about the pandemic and police brutality and protests neatly into the plot. Because like I said, this story was improvised at first. I drew the first CHOP/CHAZ page the day after my partner and I had visited CHOP/CHAZ. That stuff was going on a half mile from where we lived, I stopped by the protests about three different times by myself. So I was up in it, taking it in up close, and it was inevitable that these things became threaded into the story.

I also felt that if I was going to write a pandemic story, I HAD to address police brutality in some way. If I didn’t, it would be out of deliberate avoidance, and that’s so typical of white artists and I didn’t want to be one of those people. But it made some people very uncomfortable. Some lugnut in the comments even tried to interrogate me at one point, saying “WHY ARE YOU FOCUSING SO MUCH ON POLICE BRUTALITY? YOU’RE JUST DISTRACTING FROM THE REST OF THE STORY,” and to me that was such a, for lack of a better term, privileged point of view, and it actually reaffirmed that I’d made the right choice by forcing people to think about police brutality instead of letting them escape into a love story.


It was tough, though, addressing that shit without overstepping a lot of different lines as a whitey. It’s a tricky spot to be in, not wanting to speak for the black experience as a white person, but also not wanting to be avoidant of addressing the black experience in that moment in history. I can’t say whether or not I pulled it off, but I did my best.

4CA : Prior to starting Dog Biscuits, you were working on a series called This Never Happened that now appears to have been set aside. Had you decided to shelve this prior to Dog Biscuits, or was it just a function of the latter taking up so much of your time that other things fell by the wayside?


AG : I did decide to quit This Never Happened a few months before I began Dog Biscuits, and I was really disappointed in myself for not finishing something. One of the tenets of my art practice is to finish EVERYTHING I start, even if it seems like it’s going to be a failed project — just finish it. But with This Never Happened, it was a semi-autobiographical story about the worst year of my life, about some awful choices I’d made that led me to be completely alone and fucked up. It was also a revenge piece about a cartoonist I’d dated who pretty much helped me ruin my life and then discarded me like I was a piece of trash.


Not only was the content of that story emotionally exhausting, the drawing style was too. I wanted that comic to prove that I was also good at drawing comics, not just writing them. The comics I’d drawn prior to this were pretty scratchy and rushed, so I wanted to show everyone that I could lay a perfect image down if I wanted to. I didn’t spare any detail, if the background of a panel extended all the way down several blocks I drew every signpost and building and street light. But it was back breaking… I could only do one page a day maximum and when I was done, I was emotionally and physically spent.


After I’d quit This Never Happened, I decided never to draw autobio comics again. And now I see people drawing autobio comics kind of creating personality feedback loops for themselves and becoming the characters they draw. Autobio can be a really toxic thing if you’re not careful.

4CA : Lane Yates addresses this issue in more substance in their afterword to the print edition of Dog Biscuits, but what was the reaction to it like for you personally as it went along? Or rather, what was your reaction TO the reaction like?


AG : Oh god, even trying to remember the “comments” experience is difficult because my brain is trying to block them out. That was actually kind of embarrassing for me to be honest. I’ve grown up on the internet, I’ve been an internet junky since I was 11 and I’m 33 now. I spent a lot of time on 4chan around the inception of the Pepe memes. So I thought that, if the day ever came where I would have to deal with comments and trolls, I’d be ready. But when it finally happened, I realized there was a learning curve to dealing with an internet mob. There were times where I KNEW someone was just trying to get a reaction out of me, but what they said pissed me off so much that I HAD to say something. And then it would keep me up all night, the fact that I took the bait.

 
The most difficult thing about it was when people were making damning character judgments on my characters for having normal flaws, dare I say… flaws that I have. “Write about what you know.” Like I said, I’m not making autobio comics anymore but, when you’re drawing every day and improvising dialogue and plot, a lot of yourself is going to end up in there. So there were times where I interjected and PLEADED with people to please not wish death on my characters, because it was hitting me where it hurts! Some of the shit that was being said took me back to being bullied in grade school. I actually cried one night after someone said “EW!” about the scene where Rosie and Gussy are first in bed together. That took me straight back to the locker room in middle school.


And the couple of times I did ask the audience to take a more analytical approach to their criticisms or engagements rather than reactive death wishes and condemnations… most people were really nice and understanding, and of course the wrong people were the ones feeling guilty and apologizing. The people that my pleading was directed at were basically telling me I was thin skinned and saying stuff about “death of the author” blah blah blah. Acting like they had some authority and ownership over the way I was presenting my FREE ENTERTAINMENT … FOR FREE.


4CA : With the previous response in mind, would you ever release another comic in daily chunks via instagram? Do you think it’s a healthy way to put work out there — for the artist as well as the audience?


AG : Despite the way the comments affected me, I do think, and always have, that there’s something great about having a comment section under these comics, especially during the pandemic where we’re lacking social connection and intimacy. I would never want to turn the comments off permanently. I do want to release another comic on instagram soon — hopefully I’ll be a little more detached next time and just let people talk amongst themselves.

4CA : Speaking of the print edition of Dog Biscuits, what prompted you to go the self-publishing route via Lulu, and are you pleased with your decision to do so?

AG : From the moment I realized I was going to see Dog Biscuits through to its completion, I knew it was going to be printed. Of course at first, I thought it was going to be a 75 page comic, so I was going to print it with Saigon (a popular Seattle print shop) like I’ve done with every other comic I’ve printed in Seattle. But when it passed 75, 150, 250, 300 pages… it started to dawn on me that I’d better get ready to lay down a lot of cash. I called Tan at Saigon and asked for a quote for a perfect bound book at 350 pages… and was floored at the price. But I was gonna make it happen one way or another. I knew I would have to do a pre-order thing and try to gather enough money to print 500 books, which I laugh at now because as of now I’m at over 1,000 sold.


When I announced tentative plans of the preorder situation, I can’t remember if I approached my friend Drew Lerman or if he approached me, but he’d printed one of his books on Lulu and we ended up talking about it. I was resistant at first to the idea of printing Dog Biscuits on Lulu because I was worried they would somehow own the book or I’d have to put their logo on the cover. But after some research, and examining Drew’s book and realizing their print job is kinda nice, I started warming up to the print-on-demand idea.


I wanted to self publish mainly to be able to release the story with some immediacy, because the things that were happening in it, were happening RIGHT NOW. And I’d promised people that immediacy, and some of them stopped reading the comic online after I’d promised to have it out by the end of the year (missed the mark by a few months though). 


Still, I’m glad I went with print on demand now that I’ve sold 1,000 copies, because there’s no way in hell I could’ve taken the time to ship that many books myself, especially after having spent seven months destroying my body and brain working on the book. 


4CA : Do you find the reaction to the print edition to be different in any way to what you were hearing from folks daily as it went along?


AG : The enthusiasm for the book seems to match up to the enthusiasm for the instagram comic. What’s different is that I don’t get to peer into the readers’ minds as they’re taking it in and see exactly what they’re reacting to. That’s what reviews are for at this stage.


4CA : It looks as though you’ve shifted your attention back to painting for the time being. Was this a deliberate move to “decompress” after doing such a long comic? Or is it more a case that cartooning for awhile, then painting for awhile, keeps your creative energies — as well as your interest in both mediums — fresh?


AG : Ideally ,I wanted to hit the ground running with another comic immediately after I’d finished Dog Biscuits. Because I know that Dog Biscuits is probably my greatest achievement in comics up to this point, but it won’t be the greatest comic I ever do. I can do better and I’m anxious to beat Dog Biscuits with a better story. Something completely different. I want to surprise myself and my readers and give them the kind of comic I want to read that doesn’t currently exist — and that WON’T exist unless I do it.


That being said, I have a few projects to catch up on first, and I also have seasons/cycles to the way I create. By the time I was finished with Dog Biscuits I was dying to paint again — I need to see some color and tell some stories without words. So I’ll probably paint for a few months and get sick of that and switch back to comics, but that’s good because it allows my next story to brew.

4CA : So, knowing that there are indeed more comics in your future, do you think they’ll be as immersive, even all-consuming, for you as Dog Biscuits was? Or does going back to more short-form work sound appealing at this point?


AG : I don’t think I have short form in me. I don’t think I can tell short stories, I don’t want to tell short stories. In the same way that I prefer painting on large canvases, I want to tell long stories. But next time I work on a long comic, I’m going to take it slow. By the time I’d finished Dog Biscuits, I felt like a decomposing corpse. I gave myself a few tarot readings as I was trying to transition into my next comic and every single one urged me to slow down and never mistreat myself like that again — not that I even needed to hear that from “beyond the veil”, because my body and brain were both screaming at me, but I’m stubborn and masochistic. So the next story will probably take twice as long, but that’s okay by me. I’ve established an audience and they seem pretty loyal, I’m sure they won’t mind if it takes a little longer next time.


4CA : Finally, were you able to get everything out of your system that you wanted to with Dog Biscuits? Did it dot every “I” and cross every “T” that you hoped it would? There’s an old cliche in sports about “leaving it all on the field,” and at the end of that comic it sure seemed to me like you had done that, like you had taken all these characters as far you wanted to go with them and said everything you wanted to say with them. Is their story well and truly finished in your mind, with nothing left out and no regrets about anything you could have done differently?


AG : Yes, I feel like the story went exactly the way I wanted to and that it ended exactly the way I wanted it to. I had a sense of closure with each character, in my way I got to say goodbye to each one, and the story ended naturally. Everyone said what they needed to say, and learned what they needed to learn.


However, two nights ago I had a dream that I had all this leftover material from Dog Biscuits and that I was going to release Dog Biscuits, part two. I saw some glimpses of some sex scenes and sad scenes and was really excited to release more material and I was like, “why have I been sitting on this? People are going to be mad that I’ve been hiding this.” But then I woke up and realized it was just a dream, and I was disappointed that all that material just vaporized, but… I won’t be making any more Dog Biscuits. One is enough.

I’d like to thank Alex for her time, as well as for her amazing comic, which you should definitely order if you haven’t done so already. It’s available via the Lulu website at https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/alex-graham/dog-biscuits/paperback/product-mgde9q.html?page=1&pageSize=4

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