Smash Pages Q&A: Sami Alwani

The creator of the award-winning ‘The Dead Father’ discusses his latest work for Fantagraphics’ ‘Now’ anthology.

Sami Alwani is a Toronto-based cartoonist and illustrator who, by his own admission, works slowly, but in the past few years has produced a number of comics for Vice, Broken Pencil and other publications. He received a 2018 Doug Wright Award for his comic The Dead Father.

Alwani has a new comic in NOW #8, the current issue of the Fantagraphics anthology. The Misfortunes of Virtue isn’t just a good comic, but I would argue it’s Alwani’s best work to date. We spoke recently about life during lockdown, working slowly and where that title comes from.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I went to an arts high school and did the creative writing program there and thought I was going to be a prose writer for a long time. When I was around 16, I discovered the indie comics world and my brain just exploded. I wasn’t really an artist at that time. I didn’t really start drawing until I was around 20. I switched gears and went to art school and started doing it more seriously.

Like a lot of people, I’ve read your short comics in different outlets over the years. How did you end up in Now?

That was a weird story. My first connection with Fantagraphics was through Simon Hanselmann. I’m a huge fan of his stuff, and you can probably see that a little bit on that in my work. I met him before I even started publishing stuff at SPX when I was still in school. I said, “I’m a big fan, do you want to have a smoke outside the convention?” So we went outside and chatted. He started following my stuff and then my first time tabling at TCAF he picked up a few of my comics and gave them to Jacq Cohen, and they got back to me with a nice response and gave my stuff to Eric [Reynolds].

What was the editorial process like at Now?

They reached out to me a couple years ago, and I’m pretty slow at drawing. This story took about two years. At the same time, I was working on a bunch of other projects as well. I took my time, but there was very little editorial interference. When Eric reached out to me, because I had been mostly self-publishing, I asked him, “Do you want your hand in this? Should I run things by you?” He said, “Just do your own thing.”

I love the title, The Misfortunes of Virtue. Why is it called that?

“The Misfortunes of Virtue” is the subtitle of a novel by the Marquis de Sade, Justine. With all of my other stories the titles are lifted from pre-existing works, which might not exactly echo the work it’s referencing, but there is a relationship. One of the themes of the original is the outlining of de Sade’s philosophy of Sadism. His ideas were developing contemporaneously to capitalism, or proto-capitalism. One idea in my story is the contradiction of being an artist, where you’re trying to make an effect on the world and change the way people are thinking – hopefully for the better. That’s kind of a selfless act, in some respects. But at the same time, to elevate your voice to a level where people can hear it, you’re super-focused on yourself. So there’s a kind of arrogance as well. I felt like that was the dichotomy that runs through the story. There’s a moral character who, when it comes down to it, is doing rotten despicable things.

Having read a few of your pieces, you have this way of approaching work. You don’t just want to tell a story about him hooking up in the park or just about the scene at the end that takes place at SPX. Those scenes always have to be a part of something larger.

I don’t like to make work that’s about one idea. I don’t feel like life or fiction works that way. If I can couch it in a very naturalistic universe, then when I’m trying to describe that idea which is one focus of the work it maybe doesn’t feel so didactic or that I’m shouting at the reader. I want it to unfold naturally. For this story that was important for me. If you take each of these scenes on their own, you don’t have much sympathy or compassion for the character. You think he’s a total asshole – which he is! I feel like I’ve taken everything that I don’t like about myself and amplified it as much as I can but at the same time he has these redeeming qualities. I think if I wasn’t able to build up that sympathy for him, the terrible things that he starts to do wouldn’t be so relatable.

Exactly, this is a story of him riding his bike, having philosophical thoughts, hooking up, finding some success; it’s this tapestry of his life.

A lot of the time I try to take real life experiences but transform them into this magic realism environment. I like the idea of very down to earth things happening that are taken directly from my life interspersed with these totally fantastic elements that speak more to the way that something feels rather than the way it actually happened.

Why is the main character a dog?

I would be pretty dishonest to not say that I was influenced by a good friend of mine, Joy Ho, who’s an artist based in Singapore. We went to school together at MICA. She played with an anthropomorphic dog character doing human things before I did. There’s also an element of what Simon is doing with his animal characters. I also wanted to throw some Moomin in there so he’s cute and relatable. Outside of the aesthetic decision, the idea of him being a dog in a totally human universe where he’s the only one who is a dog speaks to him feeling like an outsider. Also I changed my name so the character doesn’t have my name, he’s Saehmeh. I’m Arabic. Both my parents are Syrian immigrants. But I’m light-skinned and my name sounds like a common European name – Sammy. Changing the name slightly to make it more “exotic” is othering the character so he is on the outside of a world that he desperately wants to get into.

He gets that rejection letter and says, “No one can take me seriously because I’m a dog.” But then what is it about him that makes him a dog? If you’re translating it from real life, is it that he’s gay? That he’s Arab? Or just his personality? I heard a great quote the other day that when you’re in a marginalized body, you’ll never know why people might dislike you. Is it for a real reason? Is it for another reason? What is the dog aspect of the character? Is he just a dick? [laughs]

I think this is a fabulous comic, but it also gives a great sense of how you think about stories and comics.

Thanks. This is the most involved thing I’ve done in a while. Lately I’ve had two streams of work. I recognize that putting out one story every two years isn’t really beneficial for a career as an artist. [laughs] I usually have one project that’s taking up a lot more time that I can sink my teeth into and then I have shorter works. 

I was going to ask, you make comics here and there, but what is most of the work you do?

I’m extremely slow at making comics. I have a day job, but the rest of the time, I’m drawing. It just takes me a long time. One of the issues is that I’m so much of a perfectionist. There are some artists who have been working at drawing since they were six and for them, that skill is very fluid and they can put together a masterful work in like a half hour. I don’t think about drawing in that way as much as I would benefit from doing that. It’s more of a labor for me. I’m drawing most of the time, it’s just that my output is slow. And now I’m working on a book so a lot of what I’m making won’t see the light of day for a long time.

Can you say anything about the book?

It’s going to be a collection of the short work that I’ve done. It’ll be coming out from Conundrum Press hopefully in May 2021. If the world still exists at that time. [laughs] I’m making a lot of new work for it. Hopefully a third of it will be stuff that people haven’t seen before. I have six stories I’m finishing up right now. After that I am hoping to keep the ball rolling with Fantagraphics as well and hopefully we’ll work together somewhere in the future.

Lately have you been able to stay sane, even if you’re not necessarily working?

I’m pretty sure I have an anxiety disorder. On the one hand I’m already near the edge of madness so this could push me over the edge, but the lifestyle I normally lead is helpful here. I was talking with a friend of mine who also struggles with depression. Have you seen the movie Melancholia? Kirsten Dunst’s character in that movie is debilitatingly depressed, but when a huge crisis hit the Earth, she is actually the one best equipped to handle it because she’s so used to dwelling in that space all the time. It’s been interesting as a cartoonist spending 90% of my time inside all the time anyway. It’s not like that 10% isn’t a big deal, but it is a little different from friends of mine who are super social and out all the time. For the past month I’ve been a bit sick, so I’m not pushing myself much. I’m hoping once I’m feeling well enough I’ll do some drawing. It’s been interesting how banal and normal this crisis feels for the average person who’s not working in a hospital or working essential services. Our daily lives are so slow and quiet, it feels weird considering how messed up the world is right now.

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