Smash Pages Q&A | Mike Dawson

The creator of ‘Troop 142,’ ‘Angie Bongiolatti’ and more discusses the second book in his ‘The Fifth Quarter’ series.

Mike Dawson is the Ignatz Award-winning cartoonist of books including Freddie & Me, Troop 142 and Angie Bongiolatti. He’s a comics essayist whose work has been in Slate, The Nib and many other publications, some of which were collected into his 2016 book Rules for Dating My Daughter. Dawson also contributed a comic to the Rutgers University Press anthology New Jersey Fan Club.

Recently he’s been making The Fifth Quarter, a series of middle grade graphic novels about basketball – something which he admits came as a shock to him, having hated sports when he was younger, but having come to appreciate the game when his daughter started playing. The second book in the series, Hard Court, is out now from First Second Books, and I spoke with Dawson about the series, what it has in common with his earlier books, and finding a way to make personal work.

You’ve been making short essayistic comics for years and correct me if I’m wrong but one of those led to The Fifth Quarter?

That’s true. How the book came to be is an interesting story. Way back in 2018, I had tweeted something about how I hated playing sports when I was a kid, but I love watching my daughter play basketball now. An editor at Slate who I had a done a little bit of comics work with before saw that and direct messaged me and suggested I adapt that concept into a comics essay. The strip I created was called “My Daughter the Jock” and in it I was contrasting my experiences growing up hating gym class, versus watching my own child develop as an athlete and seeing how that was building self-esteem rather than tearing it town. It was published at Slate, and then I redrew and revised it and published a stronger version on my Instagram and Substack. I actually really like going back and reworking older comics, it’s a very nice fun exercise. After the Slate essay was published, an editor at a middle-grade publisher suggested to me that maybe there was something there that could become a book. 

The part of that story that I find interesting is it general I think it’s always a bad idea to tweet. But in that instance, that random tweet completely changed any creative path and my ability to work on a book full time. It makes me alarmed to think of all the opportunities I’ve lost from not tweeting something. What kind of life could I be living if I put out the right tweets? [laughs]

My Daughter the Jock” reads like your other essays. It’s very much a piece of your work and very different from The Fifth Quarter books.

Totally. The last few months I’ve been doing presentations at schools and libraries and I have a part in the presentation where I talk about how to adapt the essay into a book, I had to take out the parts that were about me. The essay is very much about me and my perspective, which of course is very common in a lot of my short form comic essay work. To turn this into a middle-grade graphic novel, I had to remove my perspective, and think about basketball, and having the determination and passion to improve, from a kid’s point of view. Although, The Fifth Quarter is very much about a family as well. Lori is the protagonist, it is her story, but her family life is a huge part of what the story is. I feel like these two books are very much a representation of what my family life has been like. It’s a nice thing to have written down. 

For kids at that age, family life is a central part of their lives and who they are. But talk a little about making this book and thinking a little differently in how you approached these stories.

For a long time, creatively, I liked to believe I was writing without an audience in mind, because I come from a part of comics that very much celebrates the quote unquote pure artistic process. No editors, not considering readers. But, I feel now that I wasn’t being truthful to myself with that approach. I was always writing for an audience, my audience was just readers like me. A person that would be at a small-press comics show. That kind of reader.

I love writing for a middle-grade audience. I don’t feel that I have to change anything of what I’d been doing earlier, in terms of exploring characters, or trying to reveal well-formed complicated people who have good and bad sides. That’s the kind of writing I’m always interested in. Trying to find that place that’s not so black and white. The only thing that changed in terms of my approach, was letting myself think about who the reader was, and to try to tell them the story in a way that hopefully they would connect with and have resonance with them. 

I like creative constraints, and I just saw writing for a different audience as a new kind of constraint. How would a fourth-grader relate to this story? What about it is interesting to them? I think I definitely pushed things, like, are kids interested in town council elections? [laughs] I say that as a joke, but that aspect of The Fifth Quarter, where there’s a mom trying to achieve a goal and there’s a kid trying to achieve a goal – and to see two sides of that, how sometimes they’re at odds, I do think that’s an aspect of the story that a kid can relate to. 

These books are different because aimed at younger audience, but in terms of how you work and approach things, they’re not very different from Troop 142 or Angie where you are trying to present characters and reveal as the plot goes along. There’s no info dump. You try to approach it in a naturalistic way. The ways you tell stories have carried over.

I hope so. I hope that it feels connected. I hope older readers would read The Fifth Quarter. I don’t think it’s something that would not be appealing to someone who likes my work in general.

Talk about the title, which I feel like makes people do a double take.

The term comes from something that’s a part of youth basketball games. I was never a very sporty person, and I don’t know much about other sports, but I have now watched a lot of basketball. “The fifth quarter” is an extra period that happens at the beginning of these competitive games, where the not-so-good kids get a chance to play, but the points don’t count. They spend a lot of the rest of the game sitting on the bench. The fifth quarter is their opportunity to get some experience, but of course, being relegated to it can make kids feel a certain way. With Lori, being put in the fifth quarter motivated her to improve. With one of her best friends, Sophia, who also played in the fifth, well by book two, she’s not playing basketball anymore, now she’s involved in the middle-school play. She’s found something different. 

In book one, the other aspect of the story that relates to the title is that Lori, the main character, is part of a group of five friends. What I have noticed about kids that age is that they just don’t know yet how to interact with one another and how to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings over small things. No one’s trying to be mean or leave someone out, but feelings are always getting hurt over things like that. Kids have to learn to be social, like they have to learn anything. I don’t remember too much of this from my own life, but I did find through having children that third and fourth grade can be tricky. Friends are maybe starting to realize that maybe they aren’t so connected in terms of interests, and perhaps friend groups start to splinter a bit. But they’re at that age when they’re still grouped together because they knew each other when younger. It’s a tough age in that way. No one’s trying to make people upset, but feeling left out is something I think all kids experience and go through. It’s sort of like being a third wheel. The fifth quarter is a similar kind of concept.

I also thought, before I read it and had it explained, the idea of the fifth quarter is about everything going on around the game and the character’s life and how it impacts that. And then I read the book and learned about the term, but I think it works.

It is totally about their life. The sequel is still about their lives. The thing I feel proud about as a cartoonist is that I think the basketball is convincing. As I keep saying, I was never a sports person. I couldn’t do pick up and easily make a book about a different sport. Up until the past few years I didn’t know anything about basketball, but I spent enough time watching it and engaging with it to absorb the way things work and be able to work the game action into my story in a way that feels real.

You touched on this in your essay that you hated sports and your wife was a jock.

That I think has been an interesting dynamic in our household. I have to stress that the book is not in any way about my family. It is a work of fiction, and that’s a lot of the fun of it, but there are dynamics. I’ve always been someone who likes to write about the world around me. I like to do autobiographical work. My wife was playing competitive soccer her whole childhood. She talks to me a lot about how that’s practically all she did. She feels in some ways that she missed out on other opportunities because she was so dedicated to a sport. Which was the opposite of what I was doing because I don’t think I was doing much of anything. [laughs] It’s an interesting dynamic in our household. It affects how we related to what our kids have gone through playing sports. My daughter is technically very good at basketball. She just didn’t have the part where you have to push people and shove them around and so on. I think, she got that from me. [laughs]

I would imagine that being consumed by a sport like that, with your own kids, it’s like, you should try do at least two things.

Absolutely! Post-covid I’ve been trying – and I think succeeding to some degree – trying to be more okay with my children being a little less scheduled. Allowing them to have more time to just do what they want to do. I did an interview with a local magazine profiling my family. It was wonderful to do and a lot of the questions were about, what is your kid really good at? What activity are they really pursuing? And I thought, at the moment, not much. [laughs] Because right now they just seem kind of happy. And after all we’ve gone through the past couple years, that’s good enough! They’re connected to their friends and they may not be traveling around doing sports or winning games, but I think that should count for something. Maybe that’s just because generationally we might be over-scheduling our children a lot these days. I don’t mind pushing back on that. Its hard though because I feel the pressure to get them involved in more stuff.

That just keeps happening younger and younger.

My son never had the chance to get into travel basketball because it was already hyper competitive by third grade. Kids have been training with personal coaches! He had no chance. He’s already washed up at eight years old! [laughs] It’s far too competitive too early, but I don’t know how to push back the tide on that. In the story, the kids are pushed to win and achieve, but in the sequel I wanted it to be a bit about the character Lori discovering in herself more fierceness. I think that’s a good thing. For a child to find it within themselves to be aggressive for the things they want. To step up a level. But it goes back to what I was just saying about being young and things not being quite so intense at such a young age. Those things are at odds with each other a bit.

You get at that well in the books. The way that sports is a metaphor, but it can also be how we learn about ourselves and how it can help people navigate the world in tangible ways.

Absolutely. In the first story Lori develops this passion for basketball and she’s going to camps and training and I wanted the book to be about working hard and getting better. About effort and hard work. But in the second book it became about about taking a lot of that away from Lori. Her family is having problems, there’s job loss, they can’t pay for basketball classes or summer camps. Lori has to find the drive and the resolve within herself.

It’s a moment we all have with something, do you want this or do you really want this?

Exactly. And it comes down to yourself. 

It’s funny because people have talked for years about how there aren’t many sports related graphic novels and in the past couple years there’s been a few.

There’s not a ton. I can think of a couple other graphic novels, but not a ton. I meet lots of young basketball players and I get the impression that there aren’t many books that are relatable to what they’re doing and what they’re passionate about. That’s a wonderful part about shifting into middle grade, it’s very possible to get out and connect with readers. It wasn’t so great when the first book came out in 2021. [laughs] It was hard to have a book come out then. I’m not the only one, obviously. And on the list of things at that time that were difficult, it was low, but I feel extremely fortunate to have the sequel come out at a time when I can go out and do some face-to-face events. I’ve put together a presentation about comics that I deliver at libraries and schools. Having all these decades of making comics and having a lot to talk about outside of the books helps. Like I wouldn’t want to just do a “Fifth Quarter” commercial for kids. I mean, I would, but they wouldn’t want that. [laughs] I have a lot of stuff that I can show and talk about. I can explain how comics work, and show different ways I’ve approached them, and how that’s enriched my life. I’m trying to encourage kids to start to think of themselves as writers and start their own journaling practice. At the root of what I think I do is writing things down and just keeping a comics journal. And occasionally that will bubble up into a bigger idea.

Are you going to make a third Fifth Quarter book?

At the moment there are no plans for a third one. I do have an idea for a book that I think would conclude the story nicely. It would be great if I had the chance to make it.

You keep putting out essays. I loved the recent one about Quantum Leap. As someone who watched that show, I hated the last episode.

A terrible ending. It’s funny because I cannot help but be extremely wordy in these cartoon essays. The Fifth Quarter and probably my other fiction graphic novels are not dense with text. They’re trying to let the characters, as you were saying, reveal themselves. But I have so much fun with these cartoon essays where I can just fill up the panel with words. Where I try to make a point with 4, 6, or 10 panels. I feel like those are the best lengths. I just love doing that. The Quantum Leap one you mentioned is one of the more popular instagram essays I’ve written. I very much like this topic of the nineties and Generation X and what they didn’t realize they had at the time. I’ve been thinking a lot lately because apparently we’re the Trumpiest generation and I’m going to write more essays about how we got there. I think the formative Generation X childhood was we were raised on non-politics and not caring and the past couple decades have been a process of us becoming people who care. But not always in a good way. [laughs] I’ve been planning a number of essay pieces on this topic and I’ve touched on it a number of times. I like doing stuff where I’m coming through a pop culture lens. I did one recently about the movie Twister. That kind of thing is a fun way to come into these essays. 

Now they’re making a new Quantum Leap show.

People told me that after I posted the comic. The premise of my comic essay is that Quantum Leap couldn’t be made post-the new millennium. Because you couldn’t have a time travel story happening now where you go back to 2008 and it isn’t about stopping the financial meltdown or stopping the war in Iraq. In the nineties we were just so in our navels and we were in this period of victory lap boomer media where we had achieved what needed to be achieved, it worked for Sam in Quantum Leap to go back through the boomer lifetime and celebrate the stories that have now come to an end with a happy ending. They were seeing history as it came to its natural endpoint so you wouldn’t want to change anything because arriving at the 1990s is where we were supposed to get to. We win the cold war. We’ve achieved equal rights and civil rights. It isn’t that way now. I have been told that the new show is going to be a continuation of the original Quantum Leap but with new characters. So, it will be interesting to see how that works.

You also recently had a nice piece in the book New Jersey Fan Club.

That was fun. It’s called the New Jersey-est summer of my life. I worked at Wawa and Great Adventure and picked Jersey tomatoes. That project was fantastic. I moved to New Jersey when I was eleven years old. I came from the United Kingdom and I was here until after college and then I moved to the city and was there until 2012. I live now very close to the area where I grew up. I have embraced New Jersey in a way that I never did at any other point in my life. I do sort of love the way people from this state are, in a way I never really thought about before. A bunch of assholes but they’re funny. [laughs] My wife is in sales and she always talks about how its easier to deal with people from this area who will tell you what they’re actually thinking than go to the midwest where you get a lot of yeses, but they don’t want to do what you want them to do. I love that about this state. I was excited to be in that book. It’s a cool anthology.

So for now the plan is more diary comics, more fiction.

I have another middle grade comic I would like to write. I would love to make another Fifth Quarter book. I’m a little in between things at this stage. I’m making this new space for myself doing author visits. It’s very exciting for me. I want to do more Generation X comics essays. That’s what I’ll be doing in the immediate short term. Then I have to figure out how to stop putting stuff for free on instagram. [laughs] I never had a lot of readers until I started posting regularly on instagram. I don’t have a huge following, but I have a good amount of people following me there and I love the engagement in a way I never experienced in the past. But I can’t help but always be thinking, I should put this somewhere people have to pay me a dollar. [laughs] But then far fewer people would be reading it. It’s hard to figure out exactly what I should be achieving. The Twister comic that I put up is a lot about how when I was younger at art school, this idea of making for the sake of making and not selling out was a big deal ethos. I think that you have to have some blinders on for that. You have to come from a place of relative comfort and privilege to think that you could live a life where you can do whatever your muse tells you to do and get all the things you want in your life. I think that we’ve been learning that as a cartooning industry over the past couple decades. That shut doors to people when you’re coming at creativity just from that one perspective. People need to be able to earn a living. People need to be able to sustain themselves into middle age and beyond. Which you can’t do on an art scene built around 20-somethings doing it for the passion. On the other hand, I still like that idea. Sometimes it’s nice to just make something because you enjoy making it. It’s just fun to share an idea and have people react to it. To me putting all this stuff online for free is scratching that itch in a way that is very rewarding. But I do need to get paid. I have one comic where every cartoonist is a detective trying to solve the case of, how do I do this and make a living? [laughs] We’re all there with our magnifying glasses and Sherlock Holmes caps: if I could find a thousand true fans, then the case would be cracked! [laughs]

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