Around the world, the dominant comic is not that of the superhero genre.  This may surprise readers, but know that the world is enormous and most remains unknown to whatever vantage point of any individual.

Comics have taken on real-life and historical events as a subject. Now, more than ever, when the old saying “real life is stranger than fiction” is more true than ever before, the complex nature of real-life and history in comics is an important one.

Gary Dumm is an artist whose past work includes art on Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor to his collaborations with Joe Zabel crime story’s at Known Associates Press to recent comics such as comedic science fiction SNARC and his historical graphic novel Fire on the Water with writer Scott MacGregor, who also joins us for an interesting look into their collaboration.

 

JOESEPH SIMON
What are Scott’s scripts like? What do you do to prepare the visuals for something that happened in real life and in the past?

Gary Dumm

GARY DUMM 
Scott’s script for Fire on the Water were full type-scripts (ala movie scripts) with not just dialogue, but also some suggested camera directions, which helps a great deal on a project of this length (approx. 300 pages). He also supplied some photos and drawings from the actual time period, but I like to research and ran everything past Scott for approval in the pencil stage.

 

JOESEPH 
How did that differ in comparison to Harvey Pekar for American Splendor? American Splendor was real life and at the same time, the script is from the person (Harvey) it details and the whole instance if the time captured was something from the past, it would be considered the near past instead of a more distant past.

GARY 
Less research on my part for Harvey’s stories, but I would often take photos of people and places in his stories to get things “right”. And Harvey, from time to time, would insist on someone being in a given story and would generally supply a photo. Harvey’s scripts were almost always what folks have come to expect: a page divided into rough panels with stick figures with word balloons of dialog printed out rather legibly by him.

 

JOESEPH 
Scott, as a writer, how do you go about capturing real life and historical events?  I’m sure you were consciously aware of the importance of a well understood script for Gary…what was the process you set up to do that?

Scott MacGregor

SCOTT MACGREGOR 
After I’d chosen a historic event that I hoped readers would give a crap about, one about issues still relevant to the present, I delved deep into it and lived with it day and night. It sounds nuts, but if you do the proper amount of research and fill yourself with stories and facts about your subject, as I did with turn-of-the-century Cleveland, you’ll start hearing the voices of the people who lived it.

I’d been helped by the fact that my great-grandfather, an illiterate Irish immigrant, was one of the tunnel workers. He nearly died in one of the many accidents. I’d heard stories about him as a child. It always stuck with me.

As far as preparing a script, I did something completely different with Gary this time. I’d used to rough sketch out my stuff in crude fashion with words scribbled into a panel. That works with 1, 2 or 4 page stories, but not practical  with a graphic novel. I chose the movie script approach by typing story board directions for each panel as I visualized it, where the characters were standing in the scene, the overall scene-etc. followed by dialogue.

Then, I gave Gary complete license to either go with my panel directions or go the way his artistic instincts led him. That’s the best way to collaborate, IMHO. That way, the artist owns his/her piece of the project, which is important for the artist’s morale and investment in a long, arduous project like a graphic novel.

 

JOESEPH 
Gary, you used to work at the very missed Collectors Warehouse.  Comics have certainly changed since then.  What did customers think of you, a store employee getting published and the comics that you did were not superhero based?

American Splendor #12

GARY 
I’m sure that the customers’ reactions were as varied as the customers themselves…but my forte has not been superheroes, so if they looked at my work through that lens, I’m sure that they were underwhelmed. But by the time the 1990s rolled around most folks who read comics at least knew of Harvey and “American Splendor”…if not from comics, perhaps from his guesting on David Letterman as that lovable curmudgeon. I was and still am happy to take a look at young artists’ work and am happy to encourage them in any way I can.

 

JOESEPH 
Do you think comic fans of today have changed from those days?

GARY 
I don’t know, except that they all seem mighty young…even those in their 50s! There definitely are more female comics fans, which is a good thing for comics in general.

 

JOESEPH 
It is interesting to note that Brian Michael Bendis worked at a competitor comic store in the same general area..  Both Bendis and yourself had the advantage of working in a store where you could, if you wanted, read anything in your back stock or new comic that came out.  This gave you an incredible range of possible influences and inspirations.

What were you dipping into the back stock at the store for, at the time, that helped you as an artist at the time and what from then continues to inspire you even today?

GARY 
I would page through everything that I could, looking for anything that caught my eye from any and all genres. Golden age in particular, because there weren’t all of the great “collected” editions that there are available now. I particularly liked horror, sci-fi, war, romance and funny animal comics. I still like all of those, but I still plumb the depths of horror in particular for inspiration of my pursuits, and for my collaborations with my wife Laura, who takes my weird ideas and drawings and turns them into fantastically wrought paintings.

 

JOESEPH 
Scott, likewise, in place of working at a comic store (unless you did), what were you reading as a younger man that helped influence you as a creator today?

American Splendor #2

SCOTT 
I was born in 1953, so my comic and storybook awareness took shape in the late ’50s primarily via comic books and the classic newspaper strips like Dick Tracy, Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, etc. The Batman has always been my favorite super-hero. Batman’s dark and tragic backstory intrigued me.

I also enjoyed the goofier stuff like Sad Sack and Bob Hope Comics. Beverly Cleary’s “Henry Huggins” series was an early influence. Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll Vonnegut, and John Lennon taught me the possibilities of thinking outside the box when it came to words and phrases. Post adolescence and pre-underground comics, Edward Gorey and Charles Addams had been broadening my horizons.

In the late ’60s and ’70s, when R. Crumb and others started cranking out a new genre of comics, I was 16-18 years old. It was a perfect age for the sentinel issues of Zap-Binky Brown, Reid Fleming, and Furious Freak Bros. etc.  I loved the whole idea of underground comics. Very liberating. Anybody with a mimeograph machine could mass-produce their comics and sell them with credibility. Take that, King Features! I’d met Gary Dumm (and Greg Budgett) in 1976 when they were working on American Splendor #2. After I’d seen what Harvey Pekar was up to, I knew that I could write my own illustrated stories.

 

JOESEPH 
Comics detailing slice of life or autobiographical as well as historical are important to the art to expand as much as it is for the industry to.

I think my first historical comics of note were Maus,  Barefoot Gen, Jackson’s, Tim Truman’s Wilderness, some Will Eisner graphic novels, Joe Sacco, and Rick Geary’s Victorian Murders. Crumb and Harvey, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Julie Dorcet were my introductions to autobiographical. It is, in fact, possible that I purchased many of these from Collectors Warehouse.

To both of you, what comics of the historical genre stand out to both of you early on as readers and how did they influence you as creators? The same question in regards to autobiographical.

Also, I don’t know what your answers will be, but I find it interesting, for the most part, my answers are primarily, at the time these titles were released, they were considered underground.  I want to see what your answers are and then follow up.

GARY 
Early on (in the 50s and 60s) Classics Illustrated did a number of historical and some autobiographical comics; those were the first of those types of comics that I read. Later, I read some of the autobiographical comics by Eisner and Kirby which were very enjoyable…they were sort of “underground ” and by that I definitely mean non-superhero.

Classic Illustrated

SCOTT 
In addition to those great books mentioned in your question, the Classics Illustrated (1941-1969) comic book renditions of classic literature comes to mind immediately as a great influence. They were a sort of ‘Clift Notes” Illustrated.

Peanuts is an example of an autobiographical comic that greatly influenced me as a boy.  Schultz’s childhood pain came through that strip in ways that immediately resonated with me. The fact that the strip was also funny was a teaching moment. Combining humor and pathos effectively in a story is no small feat for a writer. The ending of Chaplin’s “City Lights” comes to mind as a perfect example of what I mean.

I grew up during the early days of the Cold War. In the 50s’ and 60s’, memories of WWII remained painfully fresh with everyone who’d lived through it. Many movies and TV dramas of the day used WWII as a backdrop for stories. War comics like Sgt. Fury provided a way for us kids to fantasize about war.  It was all mind manipulative propaganda, of course. Nonetheless, my earliest encounters with comics that backdropped factual events for tales told in the foreground were the WWII comics. Historical graphic stories (ie; those that preserve the core truths of the historical events they portray) are, to quote Paul Buhle, “an exceptional way to tell history so that everyone can understand it”.

 

JOESEPH
I noted the underground aspect of my answers and would like to throw out a theory.  In America, where the majority of comics were considered fiction, it took the underground to legitimize the non-fiction possibilities of comics.  Agree or disagree? Why?

GARY 
I do agree. I collaborated with Harvey Pekar in his autobiographical efforts because I liked his concept that anyone’s life could make an interesting story/comic. And he certainly proved that was true. I admired his dedication and perseverance in the face of some years of no one noticing American Splendor! What seems obvious now was roundly ignored at first. But, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we know how things ultimately turned around with many other creatives reaping the rewards from the fields that he sowed.

SCOTT 
Probably so. The Underground comix were among the first comics that I’d ever read containing African-American and Asian characters alongside the white people. Crumb would often stereotype his non-white characters outrageously, but I understood he was trying to destroy racism, albeit in a reverse psychological manner. The underground comics contained a world of diversity, unlike most of the mainstream bullshit.

 

JOESEPH 
Scott, what were some of the difficulties and solutions to those difficulties in writing a historical story?

SCOTT 
The “real” story of “Fire On The Water” was covered up and suppressed in its day and forgotten—leaving more questions than answers. Once I’d had the full breadth of the story in front of me, I decided to insert my own conclusions when none were available.

My decision to use fictional names in writing “Fire On The Water” was a conscious choice. As a poor writer in a litigious society, I was not looking for any slander or defamation suits. The primary characters were dead but their descendants weren’t. People hailed as heroes at the time were portrayed as villains in my story because that’s what they were. The yellow journalism of the day had gotten way out ahead of the facts of the tragedies and anointed corrupt people as heroes when they weren’t. I wasn’t about to let that stand.

Ensuring that vernacular and phrases used in the story are accurate to the times written about is very important. For example, in one key scene I initially wrote, ”…Looks just like a giant milkshake!”. After some research, I discovered that “milkshake” wasn’t a known term in 1916. The correct term from the period is “Ice Cream Soda”. It’s a small example but there are many such terms to get right when attempting a story from history.

Ethnic patois is also very important. Gary and I had spent a lot of time revising dialogue with the correct accents to match the immigrant characters in our book. I did the Irish and Italians, he added the Germanic accents. Some readers found this irritating, but it would have been disingenuous to have German, Irish, and Italian immigrants emoting the King’s English with perfect Anglo-Saxon diction.

Another challenge is to find plot devices that keep in line with the times being written about. Modern-day stories can go in all directions when the plot devices employ today’s computer capabilities to make the story work. I had to find the plot magic-using 20th-century analog devices such as money-belts, knitting bags, rope, pullies, etc., and still make it interesting for 21st-century readers.

 

JOESEPH 
Gary, Fire on the Water presented scenes where visually complex ideas had to transform into something easier for the reader to understand. What were some of your most difficult times doing that? How did you overcome those?

GARY 
I’ll hand it to Scott. He tends to think like a movie director, giving ideas/suggestions for camera angles, etc. I just take them and run with them, sometimes diverging, but trying to serve the script as best I can. The most difficult thing for me was trying not to repeat myself too obviously in scenes (particularly underground) and coming up with different looks so that characters could be easily distinguished from one another…the workers mainly dressed alike, so haircuts and close-ups helped.

 

JOESEPH
What do the goings on’s and happenings in your book say about Cleveland in the time period the stories took place?

GARY
For me, it’s the fact that not much has changed: workers are still considered disposable, although laws are in place to protect them on dangerous worksites and there are disability payments now. And, of course, the elimination of the Black hero from any official account of the incident/s bespeaks the rampant racism that still exists in some circles.

SCOTT
One of the things I’ve attempted in the story of Fire on the Water was to convey just how lousy it was to be a lower-class person living in early 20th century Cleveland. The air was polluted, the natural waterways had been turned into open sewers. There were no social safety nets in place. If a worker was injured, let alone killed, there was no method to adequately compensate a family for the loss of income, much less the giant hole left in their lives.

The desperate circumstances of immigrants flocking to Cleveland for jobs were fully exploited by the bosses who knew these poor people were desperate to survive and weren’t in a position to contest their pay, hours, and working conditions, which were criminally deficient. Racism was standard operating procedure and blacks were treated like dogs by the white elite. Not a pretty picture of Cleveland, but it was the same in all the big cities-until Unions were formed and started fighting back.

 

JOESEPH 
What can other cities and civilians learn from these historical events?

SCOTT  
They can learn that greedy elite capitalists should never hold power over the masses. The only thing they care about is accruing wealth and power at the expense of whatever gets in the way. They don’t care about the environment, the workers, worker safety, or the countless deaths they’ve caused by contaminating the environment. Case in point; in 1916, the Cuyahoga River was an open sewer. Rather than clean it up, they moved the water intakes further out on the lake in order to avoid the worst of the contamination.

 

JOESEPH 
To your knowledge, have things in Cleveland changed since these events took place? Or after Fire on the Water was published?

GARY 
Things have certainly changed since the beginning of the 20th century, but it’s only lately with the BLM movement that real attention has been drawn to inequality. Still, attention is one thing, legislative change is slow in coming, and some reverses have been made…voting rights are currently imperiled in a number of states.

SCOTT
Building those water tunnels were horrific affairs. Nevertheless, they brought and continue to bring forth a cleaner brand of water that enabled the city to grow and people to stop being sickened and/or dying from cholera and typhoid. We still get our water from those same tunnels built over 100 years ago.

Ironically, the pollution has significantly decreased here in Cleveland only because we’ve lost most of our steel mills and other polluting industries along the Cuyahoga River and elsewhere. It wasn’t because the power shakers wanted those industries to go away. If it was up to them, the Cuyahoga River would still be catching fire and they’d still be dumping river dredgings full of PCBs’ and PAHs’ directly into the lake as they did right up to the mid-70s.

 

JOESEPH
It’s strange how things from the past reflect in the future. No one thinks about the occupation of your characters in your graphic novel. Their lives and, in turn, ours are reflected in an infrastructure bill. What positive changes came from the events in Fire on the Water and what negative ones have happened?

SCOTT
In terms of positive outcomes, the best change that happened to Cleveland from the tunnels is that citizens finally had drinking water they could trust. No more typhoid and cholera. No more babies dying of gastrointestinal inflammation from the filthy drinking water. The tunnels were a game-changer and still provide us water over 100 years later. I would like to think that the fatal work accidents that occurred while building the tunnels led to safer workplaces, but it didn’t. The bosses then, just as bosses now concern themselves with profits. They didn’t give a crap about the workers then and if allowed their druthers, they wouldn’t care now. Thank God for the unions. I realize that unions aren’t popular with everyone but thanks to them we have a 40 hour work week and child labor was eradicated. Job training and worker safety practices became the standard-all because of unions. We should never let the industries have total control ever again. They’ll pollute the world and kill us all if we do.

 

JOESEPH 
From an author’s POV and from a historical POV, what is your Fire on the Water about?

SCOTT 
At the turn of the 20th century, Cleveland, Ohio was the country’s 6th largest city thanks to its enormous industrial growth. Its burgeoning growth led to severe infrastructure deficiencies. Paramount among these deficiencies was the lack of clean drinking water because of environmental pollution. They just didn’t care about the consequences of shitting in the same waters they drank from. So, instead of cleaning up the water and restricting pollution, they decided to extend the water tunnel intakes out further on the lake in order to channel in cleaner water not contaminated by the Cuyahoga River and other sources of pollution.

Our story reimagines the lives of the poor blue-collar working tunnel builders, and their corrupt overseers who did next to nothing to keep them safe in the tunnels and lake platforms. My goal was to write a story, told plainly, that shows what making a living is like when the bosses are in total control and there is no social safety net to back you up in case of disability or illness.

In reality, the city potentates could’ve cared less about the environment, even less about their workers, even less again about the African American and immigrant labor they exploited. Donald Trump showed us clearly that those days could return in a flash when this country’s laws and policies are administered by people who are utterly devoid of integrity and goodwill.

 

JOESEPH
Greed is said to be the root of all evil.  One of the catalysts for the problems presented in the graphic novel is greed. Greed is a problem that never seems to go away.  What is it about greed that people just don’t get and how it can be harmful to them, the environment, society, and the world-at-large

SCOTT
Traven wrote a great novel about greed called “The Treasure of Sierra Madre”. It tells the story about what happened when three disparate fellas who were down on their luck, teamed up, and discovered gold in the Mexican Sierra mountains. The story turns tragic when the character, “Dobbs”, rich for the first time in his life, goes mad with greed. There’s a quote from that book that I will repeat to better answer your question:

“It isn’t the gold that changes man, it is the power which gold gives to man that changes the soul of man. This power, though, is only imaginary. If not recognized by other men, it does not exist.” 

The tragedy of our capitalistic society is that the “power” of wealth is seen as a strength in the eyes of many. So powerful that it places the wealthy on higher tiers of privilege. What bullshit! Rich people are some of the dumbest jackasses that I’ve ever known.  We live in a world of “Haves’” and Have nots’”  and it’s not sustainable. We saw after the George Floyd murder, that the “have nots’ have drawn a clear line in the sand with the elitists who think that a knee on the neck is how you fix society’s problems. If they continue to think that way, the meek will most definitely inherit the earth.

 

JOESEPH
Scott, in learning about these points in history, at what point were you compelled to write about these? Why?

SCOTT  
I was actually trying to write another book in which the story of the tunnels and Garrett Morgan were featured in a single chapter. Once I’d delved into the history of the water tunnels, my interest in the story grew and was fueled by my outrage over the way people were treated by the higher classes running Cleveland at the time. The dry retellings of the water tunnel tragedies and Garrett Morgan then in circulation didn’t go far enough to condemn the city and the waterworks for their depraved indifference toward the workers. That’s what compelled me to write my story.

JOESEPH
The problems you show in both books reflect greed, environmental, racial, and social issues and concerns. A lot of this boils down to money, neglect, lack of empathy, and ignorance. To reflect the more fictional side of comics, I’m curious what alternative Earth/future history / what if would you pitch for a way Cleveland could have avoided these problems?

SCOTT
Cleveland could’ve stopped treating its lake and river-like toilet. Granted, it would have been difficult, if not impossible in 1916 to stop the industries from polluting our waters with impunity. Despite the passage of the Clean Water Act in the ’70s, this attitude from industry continues. Thanks to them there are dead zones in Lake Erie including a 2 square mile sediment field of some of the worst chemicals known to man that were dredged from the bottom of the Cuyahoga River and dumped untreated into Lake Erie by the Army Corp of Engineers. That practice was ended by the Clean Water Act but thanks to growing fascism in America, the future is not clear. If solely up to them, the EPA will be dissolved in favor of industry and Industry doesn’t give a damn about anything except their bottom line. We remain in big trouble in Cleveland and other places where business and industry take precedent over the health of its citizens.

 

JOESEPH
Returning to the real world, what way can we avoid them from happening again in Cleveland or elsewhere?

SCOTT
Because we are in constant danger of a return to the bad old polluting days, citizens have to remain vigilant. It’s a simple question, do we want to drink out of the toilet or do we want to maintain the integrity of our water supply? Homeland Security worries that the “evil-doers” will someday contaminate our water supply. I maintain that they already have and that these terrorists are much closer to home than we realize. They go under the guise of business and industry. We have to remain vigilant against these nefarious forces who want to return to the societal and environmental values (or lack thereof) that existed in 1916 as portrayed in our book.

JOESEPH 
Scott, aside from Fire on Water, what other writing credits would you like to share?

SCOTT 
I did a one-off, 32-page comic book back in the ’80s called “DIP Stories” that contained several short stories. I attempted two comic strips and did a few tabloid-sized 1 pagers for a local publication. I gave up on it all in the late 80s and devoted my concentration to raising a family and working jobs in the medical field.  As I neared retirement, I regained my story-telling footing with FOTW.  I also wrote a 50+ episode story published in The Lakewood Observer. Currently, I’m hard at work writing my next (historical) graphic novel -its working title is:  “The Anderson Creek Gang”!

 

JOESEPH
Gary, your time in the industry has been impressive. What other credits would you like to share? You both tackle real life in other creative ways. Gary, you also do prints and posters that tackle real-life problems and situations, often in collaboration with your wife and fellow artist, Laura Dumm.

Talk about a few of these and what they’re about?

GARY
I’ve always liked “real life” more than fantasy in what I’ve done artistically (although I do like fantasy, sci-fi, and detective genres), beginning, of course, doing artwork for Harvey on “American Splendor”, alone and with Greg Budgett first, and then with Joe Zabel later on in that title’s run. I’ve done alternative comics such as “Flaming Baloney”, “Dr. Wertham’s Comix & Stories” and “Dip Stories”, the latter with author Scott MacGregor, and all were fun projects. That collaboration with Scott later led to our doing his graphic novel “Fire On The Water”, a fiction-based-on-fact work of which I’m very proud.
My wife Laura and I collaborated on a large piece of public art (8’ tall x around 60’ long) entitled “Our Love Letter To Cleveland”, which features historic images of some people, places and things that we feel makes Cleveland the great place to live that it is. It originally was in Ohio City near the West Side Market, but now resides at Cleveland State’s library on the 2nd floor.
Over the last several years I’ve collaborated with my wife Laura on a series of 3’ x 3’ paintings that we call our “Environmental Monsters” series as they picture a combination of classic monsters and environmental threats, using the monsters as stand-ins for humanity’s follies. I generally come up with the ideas, we talk them over, and I do finished drawings that I transfer to canvas and Laura paints them, adding or subtracting as she goes along and new/better ideas occur. The actual horror, to paraphrase Pogo Possum, is that “We have met the monsters and they are us.”

by Gary and Laura Dumm

by Gary and Laura Dumm

by Gary and Laura Dumm

Of course, I’m still doing comics and Laura is still coloring them. We’ve done two issues of “Snarc”, a comic written by Dr. Bruce Solheim (a history teacher in California) about a half-human, half-alien who arrives on earth as the vanguard of an alien invasion but comes to like we earthlings and decides to defend us instead of helping with our destruction. It combines sci-fi, history, and current events in my retro style…copies are available on Amazon. And the last thing I’ll mention is finishing a number of spot illustrations for Cleveland author Francis Elizabeth’s soon-to-be-published book “Drugs And Other Things To Do In Cleveland.” It’s a picaresque coming-of-age story and the title only gives you a small idea of what mayhem occurs within its pages. So we’re keeping busy.

 

JOESEPH 
Scott, you are a photographer. This is, in a sense, capturing real life and tapping into the now to show history later. Please talk about your photography.

SCOTT
Photography is where it all began for me artistically. Still photography and movies are comfortable places for my brain. I believe that makes me right-brained, or hair-brained.  I’m not sure which.

My photographs garnered notice early on, won me a couple of prestigious local awards like the now-defunct Cleveland May Show.  I have one picture that resides in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. In the late 70’s I’d discovered my personal photography nichè in Ireland. It’s a place where I’ve learned a great many things about the veracity of my creative self, and life in general. History and jaw-dropping landscapes come together nicely in the “terrible beauty” of Ireland. The effort I’d put into photography honed a sense of perspective and composition that is evident in my graphic story writing.

 

JOESEPH
Thank you both.

Anyone who is interested in Fire on the Water, check out the interesting mini-documentary, “The Making of Fire on the Water”, on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIISEdtqnrs

For more on Gary and Laura Dumm:
https://www.dummart.com

https://www.firstcomicsnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/FireontheWater_CV.jpeghttps://www.firstcomicsnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/FireontheWater_CV-150x211.jpegJoeseph SimonInterviewscleveland,Fire On The Water,GARY DUMM,SCOTT MACGREGOR,Underground Comics
Around the world, the dominant comic is not that of the superhero genre.  This may surprise readers, but know that the world is enormous and most remains unknown to whatever vantage point of any individual. Comics have taken on real-life and historical events as a subject. Now, more than ever,...