Grief, feminism, food diaries, horror and bunny-hat-wearing adolescents are some of the things that intersect at the hand of Jamaica Dyer, a San Francisco-based games designer and out-of-hours comic book artist whose work addresses big themes through the lightness of watercolour and ink. In contrast to the cool perfection of the digital world, her drawings embrace the sketchiness of her hand and the potential chaos of painting with watercolours, where ‘they can turn on you in an instant - mistakes are hard to fix in watercolour, so they train you to work with your mistakes.’ Her work fuses the everyday and fantasy - some characters are relatable and rooted in prosaic daily lives, and some are just having really great gay space sex - and all are drawn in evocative, detailed beauty.
Alongside the day job, Dyer collaborated with Israeli film maker Alma Har’el on a graphic novel version of Jellywolf, Har’el’s short film commissioned for The Fifth Sense. The film is saturated in deep, lurid colour and tells the mythic tale of a girl tapping into ancient female power through scent. ‘Visionary and high-end and immense like a Jodorowsky film’, Dyer tweeted that she loved the film and that it should be a comic. She drew some stills from Jellywolf in her sketchbook (‘when I see something I really love, then I have to draw it’), posted them online and Har’el challenged Dyer to make a comic version of the film, embodying a completely new type of crossover between film, fashion and comics. We spoke to Dyer about capturing sound in her drawings, rare hamburgers and doing the stuff that scares you.
What kind of a kid were you and what led you to drawings and cartoons?
I’ve been drawing stories since I was very little. I have boxes of illustrated storybooks I scribbled before I could even write. I got sick a lot as a kid — I was stuck in bed for almost a year with whooping cough, and after that, pneumonia — so I spent a great amount of time in bed telling myself stories and drawing them. I drew intricate little people, animals and mermaids and cut them out to make my own paper dolls that had extravagant dramas and adventures. My drawings captured all the things I was working through under the surface. The things I was writing about as a kid were shockingly sensitive and aware, even if I was veiling them in cowboy hats and pet lions.
Also intensely shy, I’d rather play alone than go be with other kids. I loved reading Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, and then when I discovered Catwoman and Poison Ivy I developed my lifetime obsession with comic books.
What senses are most important for your work?
Vision and touch, texture; hot and cold on your fingertips, synesthesia. I try to capture the way things sound in drawings, because it sort of tickles when you get it right, tapping on that feeling visually that you normally only feel, or hear. Smell is a difficult one — living in a city, you often wish you couldn’t smell at all. But once you get out into nature, smell is so evocative, so complex and fresh and primal.
Over the last few years I’ve gone through a complete awakening with taste through the joy of spicy food. I grew up vegetarian and fearful of spice, and so as an adult I’ve gotten to discover a whole new realm of food. It blows me away, because sometimes getting older feels like there’s nothing left to discover for the first time. I ate a rare hamburger for the first time when I was 25. Holy crap. I could feel the energy surging through my cells, lighting up parts of me that I didn’t know were there.
So you’ve been sketching your food - tell me about that.
I moved in with my partner who’s an excellent, experimental, daring home chef. He started making these incredible meals, and I started drawing illustrations of the meals to document his menu. I realised that if I really wanted to draw our meals I had to go all-in, so I resolved to draw everything I ate each day for the entire year of 2016. They’re simple inkwash illustrations, but the process of drawing everything I ate became this huge memory trip. I would have to walk myself through an entire week and remember each thing I ate, where I was traveling that day, who I was eating with, how was my mood? You can use food as a way to pin events in the past — if you can remember one special dinner, you can re-construct what happened the afternoon leading up to it. Food is funny because it’s intensely personal and you can put as little or as much energy as you want into it. So, taste is a contender for the most important sense.
Your work is a curious mix of fantasy and reality. Har’el talks about her ability to lucid dream - does this ability of hers resonate with you?
We’re both obsessed with the mix of documenting reality and visualising internal fantasy. At various points in my life I’ve had lucid dreams. I enjoy the freedom when you discover that can do anything and the world around you is moldable.
How important is color in your work? What tools do you use to capture moods and feelings?
I went to college for traditional illustration, and painted in acrylic and oil. Sensitivity to color and value is vital if you want to paint. I have a portable watercolor set I use for most of my painted comics. I got it because it’s super tiny for travel but it’s become my main tool. I prefer painting in watercolor because there’s an element of chaos: you get messy and spontaneous blending water and splashing on additional color. I like approaching a painting with half of a plan and letting the process surprise me.
For Jellywolf, I drew lightly in pencil and blocked in color, working from stills from the film on my phone. The lighting from the stills guided me on form and shadows and black ink and spots of color came last. For my diary comics, I draw from memory and use photos I take for reference. Sometimes I draw directly in ink to capture the thought process, or I draw in pencil and watercolor and ink it last. I like to limit my color palette, reserving a full set of colors for chaotic scenes.
How do you describe yourself and the work you do?
Badly! I draw comics and my day job is designing games, so I’m an adult child - self-deprecation comes hand-in-hand with being a cartoonist. I write and draw comics that range from autobiographical to campy horror to mind-bending surreal space operas. I self-publish some of my books but also publish stories with legendary writers like Grant Morrison and Kieron Gillen. I like the intersection between pop culture, fashion, music and comics. I paint on paper while the industry as a whole is moving to digital art. I’m turned off by art that’s too clean, so I always try to keep a rough edge to my drawings and paintings, and let you see how it was made.
I got the good advice when I was starting out that if I wanted to write comics, I should go watch a play, read a novel, listen to some music, and avoid reading comics.
Are there elements of autobiography in your work and your storytelling?
Yes, definitely. My first graphic novel, Weird Fishes, was a very personal story wrapped in fantasy through the eyes of a young teenager. These days I’m doing more nonfiction by keeping a diary in the form of a comic. I’m interested in how comics manipulate time, and how, by drawing one panel a day, you can compress time to give a wider view of the trends in your own life. I’ve been drawing snapshots from my day since last October, which have collectively turned into a documentary of the intensity of living in America today. It’s liberating to draw all the highs and lows in total honesty.
Do you feel free to draw and say what you like in your work - are you limited by anything?
Nah. I’m scared, though. I know I’m tapping into something good when I get a little scared.
Who or what are you inspired by?
I’m all over the place. I got the good advice when I was starting out that if I wanted to write comics, I should go watch a play, read a novel, listen to some music, and avoid reading comics. You can see in mainstream superhero comics that people have been digesting only comics and mimicking their favourite artists to death, so it’s created this sort of ugly monster. It’s turned into a style that’s not consumable or appealing to anyone but hardcore comics collectors.
Walking around in nature is my favourite thing to clear out my brain and get inspired. There is just simply the best design, balance of color, chaos and beauty found in nature that you could ever hope to capture in a picture. I get really inspired by indie game makers — the small teams building bizarre stories and off-putting gameplay are my favourite. I love bizarre runway shows, designers like Charles Jeffrey. I am inspired by David Bowie, every day, forever. I love reading novels, from nonfiction to sci-fi to thrillers, but I get so caught up in those worlds that it can be a little self-destructive. I love museums and absolutely soak in exhibits like a sponge. I get inspired by comedians. And comics, of course, I have an intense love for Charles Burns, Paul Pope, J.H. Williams, Dame Darcy and Daniel Clowes. That’s the OG crowd that completely corrupted me and made me realise I’d grow old making comics and it will be awesome. My two favourite contemporary comic artists are Eleanor Davis and Gabrielle Bell — they both do amazing autobiography and fiction.
What is next for you? What would you like to work on?
JellyWolf swept in like a storm and I’m just starting to realise that I get to return to my other projects after this. I’m writing a book called Beach Town that documents the changing landscape of my hometown Santa Cruz. I’m going to fictionalize the stories that I grew up with — my mom, a punk seamstress from Philadelphia, would camp out on the cliffs of Jamaica while searching for her own little paradise, a search that led her to California in 1979. I’m weaving together her journey, my childhood memories, my return to Santa Cruz after college, and the current heartbreak of watching the artsy hippy town I love so much become too expensive for any of the old-timer artistic freaks to remain there.
Watch JellyWolf, a film by Alma Har'el for The Fifth Sense, here.