BornJune 12th, sometime in the Dark Ages
Place of BirthTacoma, Washington, USA
City of residenceSeattle, Washington, USA
- The Gospel According to Scrooge
- Wisha Wozzariter
- Horrid High Book 1
- Roger Dahl’s Comic Japan
- Horrid High Book 2 (coming soon)
Roger Dahl lives in the North Beach neighborhood of Seattle, Washington following six years in Tokyo, where he was an English teacher at the elite Zushi Kaisei private academy for boys. For his last four years of teaching, he was also cartooning for The Japan Times, Japanʼs largest English daily newspaper. It has published more than 4,000 of his cartoons since 1991—political cartoons as well as his Zero Gravity comic strip and other feature page illustrations. He has been in the process of archiving and donating his original works to the Washington State History Museum, which requested them for their Special Collections.
In 2013 Penguin Publishing released a childrenʼs book, Wisha Wozzariter, illustrated in collaboration with Payal Kapadia, a former Japan Times colleague. It won the prestigious Crossword Book Award for best childrenʼs book of 2013. In 2014 Penguin published Horrid High, another Kapadia/ Dahl collaboration, and the as-yet-unnamed sequel to that book is currently in production.
Dahl was born in Tacoma, Washington, USA. His university degrees are in Studio Art (University of Puget Sound) and in Rehabilitation Medicine (Orthotics/Prosthetics, University of Washington). In addition to Seattle and Japan, he has lived in Washington, DC and Alaska.
He is an avid cyclist, including during his stint in Tokyo, where he mastered the maze-like tangle of streets, all without a helmet. Other special interests and hobbies include hiking/mountain climbing (he summited Mt. Fuji), beachcombing at the beach near his home, organic gardening and trying just about any food item on a menu (though he doesnʼt recommend cat food as a sandwich filler, something he mistakenly dined on when he couldnʼt read the Japanese on a label of canned tuna).
Dahlʼs latest book, Roger Dahlʼs Comic Japan, an anthology of the best of his Zero Gravity comic strip in The Japan Times, was published in 2015 by Tuttle Publishing.
Fantastic Five – Five of my favourite books
Wimbledon Green – Seth Seth is a quirkily original graphic novelist who works in a retro style, effectively creating moods and emotions. He deftly balances images and writing. I have always considered my cartooning craft to be most like the dramatic art of playwriting, and Seth demonstrates mastery at this.
Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite – Paul Arden Arden was the executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, and has wonderfully unconventional ways of viewing the creative process.
Any of the political cartoon collections – Pat Oliphant Oliphant is the political cartoonist’s dream cartoonist. His ideas are strong, hard-hitting, full of comic detail and brilliantly composed. He is a genius, the greatest political cartoonist of all time.
Any of the Peanuts cartoon collections – Charles Schulz The greatest comic strip artist ever. His minimalist approach to drawing and writing was enviable. How could something so simple be so incisive and
The Bible – God What can you say? Really amazing stories, bigger-than-life characters, and an epic sweep that’s, well, biblical.
Tell us about your earliest attempts at sketching/drawing. When, where and from whom did you learn the nittygritties of illustration?
I enjoyed drawing from a young age, and was encouraged by family and teachers. I remember being impressed with comic book art, and copying the images as faithfully as possible. The artists seemed impossibly talented! I was amazed by this art form, and wished I could do this for a living.
I began cartooning when I was at university, working for the campus newspapers of both universities I graduated from (Univ. of Puget Sound and Univ. of Washington). I also volunteered to contribute cartoons to a local community newspaper without pay, simply for the experience. This was invaluable. I learned a lot having
deadlines and being accountable to editors for content. It makes a huge difference realizing one’s work will be seen by many. Early on I became obsessed with making sure my commentary had facts to back it up.
I thought I was obsessive about my drawing style too, but looking back on those early drawings is painful for me, as my style was so undeveloped. Ignorance of my drawing limitations was bliss!
I am a voracious consumer of media, scouring libraries and periodicals and the Internet for news and information. For my editorial cartoons, I rely nearly entirely on Internet news sources, mostly based in Japan, since that is where I work. All of my ideas relate to Japan, so Japanese online newspapers and other media sources are my main information source.
Of course, all of the above relates only to the selection of topics. The ideas must come out of my own experiences and knowledge. Usually an editorial cartoonist’s main ‘tools’ consist of symbols and analogies, so I need to be aware of everything going on in society, especially in Japan. Because I now live in the U.S., I have to be careful not to use images that won’t resonate with an audience based in Japan. For example, though I am a fan of American football, that imagery will only be well understood by a small segment of my readership. The readers of The Japan Times are a diverse group; the biggest percentage is Japanese, and the expatriate readership is itself quite diverse. So I must select cartoon images that most viewers can understand. A cartoon featuring sumo wrestlers will resonate much better with my readers than would an image of a footballer.
Occasionally, when I am experiencing writer’s block, I will look over old cartoons—my own, or others’—just to get into a mental rhythm. Oddly enough, I get many of my best ideas in the shower. Often just before my nightly shower I will select a topic I want to comment on, and then step under the water. I think there must be some sort of mental stimulation from the drops hitting my head that facilitates creativity.
What does your typical work day look like?
I work late and rise late. Typically I will get up in the late morning, between 10 & 12. I exercise daily, run errands and take care of non-creative tasks to get all of those distractions out of the way. Then I usually begin working, which nearly always means first getting on the computer. At this point I am avoiding the most serious creative brainstorming; I prefer to do visual-processing work, such as enhancing a drawing which I have scanned onto the computer. This involves cleaning up the image, colorizing it, adding lettering, etc. I have a lot of friends and other responsibilities, so I get interrupted a lot. When I am doing the kind of tasks just mentioned, the interruptions aren’t so serious. My most creative brainstorming work typically comes late in the day, when the phone has stopped ringing, my hunger is satisfied and nobody is calling for a favor.
I can listen to music or TV or talk on the phone for other tasks, but not for idea creation. For that, I need isolation and quiet.
What is one habit / trait of yours that makes you effective / productive as an author?
I think I am good at seeing the big picture. While I am careful with details, I can discard any if they don’t contribute to the desired final outcome. I will sacrifice details I like if it helps get my main point made. Micro is important, but Macro is more so.
What is the one thing that you recommend every aspiring illustrator should do?
Be interested in everything. Music, politics, sports, philosophy, religions, science, pop culture, etc.—familiarity with a wide range of topics is invaluable for fueling imagination.
Tell us something about yourself that very few people know?
I have one eyelash that grows freakishly long. I have to trim it regularly. It would appear to be a transplanted hair from the top of my head, as it is blond, and grows at the same rate. Annoyingly it gets in my eye when it gets too long. I have tried plucking it out, but it always comes back. I should be in a circus sideshow!
Does technology (the Internet, software tools) help you in your illustrating process? If yes, can you tell us about them?
In my early cartooning/illustrating career I really didn’t use technology, because the Internet and software tools weren’t commonly used. I didn’t own a computer until 1996. All my work prior to that was hand-rendered, and sent via post or hand-delivered. Once I discovered how useful software is, there was no returning to the caveman methods.
That said, however, all my drawings begin with pencil and paper, which I then trace in ink via a light table before scanning. The Internet has changed everything for me. Besides being the means for immediate communication around the world for projects, it efficiently provides me with the information I need to do a job with accuracy and creativity. For drawings, it is indispensable for finding images quickly, and for ideas I rely on it for accuracy. It is also an endless source of inspiration.
Is there any other way in which technology can help you in your work as an illustrator?
In addition to what I just said, I must stress how important tools such as email and social media are for communicating with publishers, editors and readers. The Internet has an exponential way of expanding community.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others? (include websites, blogs or Twitter profiles, etc).
I take inspiration from so many sources that it would be impossible to begin a list. I think it’s important to acknowledge that none of us is truly original; we all have gotten ideas from others. The goal is to assimilate the innovation and make it our own.
Here is a quote I just stole from the film director, Jim Jarmusch: “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”
Can you tell about what you are currently writing and other works in the pipeline?
I am about to begin work on illustrating a third book for Penguin—a sequel to the first Horrid High book in collaboration with author, Payal Kapadia.
My Tuttle editor is encouraging me to present more book ideas to them for consideration. My current book, ‘Roger Dahl’s Comic Japan,’ which Tuttle is releasing on March 10, 2015, was such a pleasure to create with the Tuttle editorial, design and marketing team, that I am looking forward to future projects. Because I was an English teacher, I have a goal of eventually creating a useful illustrated textbook series aimed at the junior high school level. I was so disappointed with the existing curricula when I was teaching, that I developed my own, which proved to be very successful with my students.
I also have a design-oriented business idea which I can’t wait to find more time to develop. I have been sharpening the ideas for years. For now, however, it’s a bit of a secret!
You are a cartoonist with The Japan Times. You also illustrate for children’s books. What do you think is/are the difference/s between the two?
The biggest difference I perceive is how ideas get developed. As a cartoonist, I have been the sole creator of the idea and the writing as well as the artist executing the drawing. Really, I feel that I am more of a writer than an artist, as the conceptual idea is most important.
As an illustrator, because I have only worked on collaborative projects up till now, I have not been responsible for the writing. My focus therefore has been much more on the illustration tools and process. That said, I have been surprised to discover how much editorial content my drawings can bring to a book, even when I am not the writer.
What do you think about being a political cartoonist in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo incident?
I have always been somewhat aware of the risks in taking controversial stands in the public eye. To be honest, I haven’t experienced much fear; because my work is mainly for a Japanese audience, I perhaps have been lulled into a sense that I wouldn’t be attacked other than with words of protest.
I have, however, commented negatively on individuals and groups that might not be gentle. For example, Japan’s organized crime groups and right-wing militarists, North Korea’s radical leaders and many others who have been targets of my satire would probably not be favorable to how I have portrayed them.
But I think that the kind of critiques that satirists like myself engage in, is important. We are a kind of voice of accountability for society. Laughter can be a powerful tool for change. It is sobering to consider the power that my images can have, so I also recognize the need for being fair in my satirical works.
The Hebdo incident raises a lot of serious questions about the rights to free speech and the responsibilities inherent in those rights.
A few decades back, an illustrator needed an infinite imagination, a paper, a pencil and practice. Today, would that suffice? What are the indispensables in today’s context?
Though I just mentioned how dependent I have become on technology, I recognize that its main benefit is in facilitating productivity. Ideas and imagination are still the most important elements of creativity for an illustrator/artist/writer, and those don’t need technology’s assistance, helpful though it may be.
If technology ever fails us, “imagination, a paper and a pencil” will be sufficient for creative people.
The most important need is for that fourth item mentioned in the question: “practice”
Writer Malcolm Gladwell has cited the evidence that 10,000 hours are needed to master any craft. When I was younger and less experienced, I would have disputed that claim. Today I would confirm it. I am convinced that the only way one can reach mastery is with time and great effort. I wish there were an easier way, but I haven’t found it.
Find me at
Facebook: The Japan Times
Offline: The Japan Times
PlusMinus’n’More: Thank you Roger, for being our guest on F-pages and sharing with us your experiences as a illustrator and writer.