Who Are You?: An Interview with Dale Beran and David Hellman (A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage Is Irreversible)
Imagine the world of Dream of a Rarebit Fiend. It’s a world not unlike that of Little Nemo, only rather than mimes or dragons or other childlike pursuits the dreams are more adult in nature. And not the good kind of adult. More like the adult world of anxieties and awkwardness and responsibility. It’s a bizarre world that don’t follow logic, and each panel feels like you’re struggling through a sea of molasses. The big difference is that, in the end, you don’t wake up in bed, cursing about eating that last cheese sandwich. (Something that the Mythbusters proved wasn’t the cause of surreal Winsor-McCay-ish nightmares, anyway.)
I’ve read A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage Is Irreversible some years back. While feeling fresh and new in a webcomic world where humor was about video games and roomies and lotharios, there as something achingly timeless about a strip that seemed to be hewn from 19th-century style woodcuts and taken to the same surreal flights of fancy that would one day inspire Salvador Dali. It isn’t hard to imagine a comic like this getting a wide national release in the early 1900’s just because William Randolph Hearst took a liking to its oddball humor.
A Lesson Is Learned burned brilliantly between 2004 and 2006. The two creators, Dale Beran and David Hellman, then went on to other projects. The comic, while never that mainstream, was also never forgotten, and its return in 2012 was positively met with much joy among webcomic fans. Over at Fleen, Gary Tyrrell wrote: “If not the most widely-read webcomic that ever existed, it was surely near the top of the personal enjoyment list of people that make their living doing webcomics.”
In a set of questions sent by e-mail, The Webcomic Overlook tries to crack the code to what makes ALIL work.
WCO: OK, so… explain the longest title in webcomics: A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible.
This was David’s phrase. At first we were going to make a cartoon. I think it was going to be about baby animals? I don’t know. Then we decided it would be a comic because “that would be easiest” and that it should just be about us because “that would be easiest”. We regarded the name problem as at best as a stumbling block, at worst, an insurmountable boulder which would turn back our creative endeavors for all time. I was just out of college. David was finishing. This was like, our, first real thing or something.
I came up with some horrible names I’m glad we did not name the comic. We were sitting in David’s room and David read the phrase, “A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible” out of one of his old sketchbooks. We both laughed. We added it to the list and decided to choose it because it was too long and by all measures the most problematic.
At the time, I was in the habit of scrawling random free-associative phrases in my sketchbooks. Often surreal, fatalistic, and authoritarian. Sort of like the stuff you’d find in Stanley Donwood’s album art for Radiohead. I remember sitting on my bed and turning the page and reading that phrase, and we both laughed. Dale is telling the truth – we picked it in part because it seemed the most problematic. Too long to be a web address. But despite its awkwardness, once you pick your way through it, it does mean something. The first half is a hopeful platitude, lilting and alliterative. The second half lands more heavily.
WCO: To me, the comic is an exercise in stream of consciousness thinking, something that I think is pretty personal. And yet, it’s done by two gentlemen: yourself and David Hellman. How do you split the responsibility?
Some of what I write I get through a stream of consciousness technique, but not much. I think almost every writer has had that experience where he or she is falling asleep and his or her thoughts suddenly coalesce into a perfectly worded lock and key for creative expression. And if you are dedicated, you wake up and record them. But most of the time unconsciousness, where everything is like that but you can never take it back with you, is more inviting. Then, the next morning I wake up and labor over a few sentences all day that are not as good.
For every comic I will write about four scripts. David then chooses one to draw. There are “stage directions” in the script. They are generalized descriptions of actions and the way things appear, but not instructions on how to draw the panels (i.e. “third panel is a close up”). We’ll talk throughout the process as I am writing and the David is drawing and offer each other advice. But generally, he is in charge of everything visual and I am in charge of the words and what happens.
WCO: So, some time after ALIL went on hiatus in 2006, Dave would go on to do the artistic duties for Braid, a game that was nominated for a poo-pile of awards and became something as a poster child for indie games. Did you have a feeling that the game would be big? Was there any spike in interest for ALIL due to to the success of Braid?
From the first time I played Braid, I saw that it was very clever, the time mechanics functioned well, and it had an appealingly personal feeling about it. Clearly, Jon knew what he wanted to make. Over time, I saw how tenaciously he protected that vision – be it negotiating Microsoft’s XBLA requirements to ensure the best user experience, or extending development to enable more diversity in the art from world to world. Working on A Lesson Is Learned had already taught me that if you make something unique and personal, and you stick with it and manage to finish, it can find a passionate audience. Braid felt like that same sort of thing, just at a bigger scale. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate more and more how lucky I was that so many things went right in my first two big projects. It sounds bland to say, but I was very fortunate.
I don’t know how much the success of Braid fed back into A Lesson Is Learned. It’s a hard thing to measure, especially since ALIL was dormant until just recently.
WCO: While ALIL is nominally a gag-style webcomic, one of its defining characteristics is how it’s almost poetic. “Caroline’s Doppleganger” may have a punchline, but stripped of that it’s still a fairly touching and melancholy story. What sort of stuff influences your writing?
I just finished Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy yesterday. My thesis advisor in college told me he could always tell if a colleague or student had read the book instead of actually studying philosophy because this person would repeat the three mistakes Russell made in the book. My advisor created three pointed questions to pry out these phonies from his life. Unfortunately, I never asked him what the three mistakes were and just got to the book now, eight years later. I thought maybe the errors would pop out at me like how the evil runes glow on the cursed ring after Gandalf throws it into the fire. Instead, of course, I noticed nothing. This is a long way of saying I read a lot of history, literature, and philosophy but it only serves to make me very lonely and I get all my inspiration off Tumblr while doing searches for alluring cosplay pics. I’m kidding of course. Somehow the pics find me.
I’m also reading Solar Man of the Atom comics now– not the early 90s Jim Shooter / B.W. Smith reboot– that’s amazing– but the original 60s comic. Solar is made of pure energy and must have been one of the influences for Dr. Manhattan. Like Dr. Manhattan, he’s basically omnipotent. And what’s he doing on the cover of the comic I’m reading? He’s hitting some guy with a chair. He’s got this smoking hot 1950s girlfriend with a little snub nose and a swoosh of blonde hair who has annoying problems. People are always poisoning her drink. There’s subplots with gangsters and blackmail. He’s dealing with all this finicky crap all day. It’s so mindless and unrealistic it sort of pierces an atomic hole in fiction and suddenly you’re through the looking glass and it’s realer than real. I like that—there’s not really a word for it— where obtuseness rounds out to a sharp point— in comics and you can probably see some of it in ALIL.
WCO: Personally speaking, the funniest and most memorable ALIL ever done was “The Giants Stole My Rhythm.” I think it stands out among webcomics, especially, because that gag is based around something that’s outside of what we think of as geek culture. (Namely, DJs and dance clubs.) So did you have some database stored away somewhere full of unlikely, never-tried-before references that you can turn into comics?
When we started the comic, David and I drove downtown to Otakon to hand out flyers. We didn’t want to pay admission so we just hung out in places where they didn’t check badges. At the end of the evening a large area became screened off, lasers shot out of it, and mist was emanating from all the cracks. Turned out it was enormous nerd rave. Sweat soaked goths emerged with glowsticks. Naturally, at this point, we turned around and got back in our car. So I’m willing to lump D.J.s and dance clubs into nerd culture.
In Baltimore, the one artist’s bar is next to the gothic teenager nerd rave bar. Rumors are that they have a Gamecube inside. Naturally, I never want to go in there and find out. But the sight of starry-eyed teenagers in 90s parachute pants pouring out of the door in a cloud of septum piercings and cigarette smoke always warms my heart as I am waiting outside the artist bar thinking I don’t really want go in there either.
When I wrote that strip I knew people would like the idea, but I still don’t know why. Fantasy is so much about editing– cutting out cars, strip malls, mom and dad, job, etc and living in walls of old stone with your sword by your side. Creating a bridge between your escapist world and the world from which you are trying to escape then becomes either crazy fun or an epic disaster.
I do keep a journal which has some secret jokes in it but as you might imagine it is mostly sensitive poetry/bitter complaints.
WCO: David’s art style are similar to a children’s storybook, though also very experimental. Panels are packed with wood-cut like detail. The layouts are also highly imaginative, mixing up tiny frames with a large, central frame. What were his influences?
In high school, David would always carry around a mysterious case. His wrist, where it met the case’s security manacle, was deeply scarred, but you would never know it since the whole apparatus was generally concealed behind his extra-long, signature, white gloves. Now and again he would mumble something about how he “should have never made this bargain”, or “one day he’ll be free”. But at that point I would always change the subject, start laughing, or point out maybe some interesting bird flitting between the trees. One day, David came to school and the case was gone. He said things would now be “worse for everybody, everywhere”, but showed us all how with his (now unmarred) left hand, he could draw wondrous pictures.
WCO: Outside of the art, obviously, what would you say is the biggest difference between ALIL and Nerds of Paradise?
The Nerds of Paradise came into being because I had written some comics and I really wanted to make them. I decided I would teach myself how to draw comics, and after that, maybe if I had the time, how to draw. I used to draw all the time when I was younger, but at a certain point I stopped.
The main difference is length. Since the comics are longer than a page, the action doesn’t need to proceed at a frenetic pace. Characters can walk and talk. If I gave David a script where a character gave a speech that lasted three pages and told him, “Draw one panel for every metaphor!” he’d be like, “Why are you punishing me?” I had a lot of scripts like that. So after A Lesson Is Learned I was like it’s time to punish myself.
WCO: In his blog post, David Hellmen mentioned that ALIL ended in 2006 because both of you had felt it had run its course. What was it that changed your minds?
Wonderful people kept asking about it, which was very gratifying. I’m really happy that people feel so intensely about the comic. I’ve always wanted to make that sort of work– not necessarily popular work, but the sort of thing that is passed from one person to another as a form of communication or intimacy, like a little secret, as if to say, “Do you know about this? This is important to me.”
We were very much experimenting throughout the run of the strip, which was one of its virtues and also one of its weaknesses. Over the years, the memory of what it was condensed in my mind. So when I look back over it now, I’m surprised how much of it isn’t there– how much of it we didn’t make using all those elements which people liked. So I’m really pleased I got to collaborate with David again and work much more deliberately with everything we discovered when we were in the laboratory.
It never felt creatively out of juice, it’s more that life circumstances changed. Dale and I used to both live in Baltimore and go jogging together almost every day. We had a really strong shared foundation of life reference points. But there was increasing pressure on ALIL to make money for us. Maybe today we would have done a Kickstarter, but at the time we couldn’t make it work. Then I got the Braid job, which was one of several factors that led to my relocation to San Francisco. Dale was obsessed with baking for dogs and that was hard for me. After his business, Danishes for Dogs, was seized by the bank, we had a long phone call and decided to work together again.
WCO: Is the new comic (“I name thee Annihilator!“) a one off thing, or are there plans for any future updates?
I really enjoyed making this comic and I’m very pleased with how it came out and how everyone received it. I think if we find the time we will make more.
I definitely want to do more. Working with Dale on the new episode was just like the old days. Why stop? Life’s too short.
The fun thing about ALIL is that we’ve always played around with the format. Should we produce three episodes a year and make each one an epic, like I Name Thee Annihilator? Or should we get back to a shorter format and put less pressure on ourselves each time? All of Dale’s recent scripts are on the long side. Then I started to think, what if we abandoned the single page format and did something more like a book? On the other hand, people were really happy when we came back after five and half years. Maybe that’s the update schedule that works best for us.
WCO: Outside of ALIL, what are you and Dave up to these days?
I finally sold my novel, Dates Worse Than Fate, about eight months or so ago, but it won’t see print until 2015, so I’m writing a second novel as an emotional insurance policy just in case people hate the first one– sort of like how I imagine why people have more than one kid.
I just finished a short comic for a Baltimore/indie rock online T.V. series called Showbeast which will be released with a DVD sometime in February or March. I’m also working with Ben O’Brien of Showbeast on a series of short films due out this summer. I’m really excited about this project for many reasons, not the least of which is that it will involve puppets.
This month, I’ll be drawing and posting new pages of my Time Picnickers comic for The Nerds of Paradise. There are about 12 pages left in the story and I hope to finish it by early March.
Lastly, I’m writing the script for a very long black and white comic book, which I think will be very innovative in terms of how comic stories are told and how the medium is generally used. That project will manifest as a Kickstarter sometime in the spring.
My main project now is a graphic novella called Second Quest. It’s about a girl living in a secluded town who begins to suspect that the legends she’s been brought up on are not true. So it’s about her conflict with the provincial orthodoxy of her upbringing. In some ways it’s a response to The Legend of Zelda, in particular the more recent games, which have lost the mystery that made that series so special. I’m working with writer Tevis Thompson, whose essay Saving Zelda was an inspiration.
In November, Tevis and I ran a Kickstarter to fund the creation of Second Quest. It was thrilling and humbling. We received a lot of help from great friends. We’re working hard to make our backers happy. The book will be available in late 2013.
WCO: Finally, it’s been said that Perry Bible Fellowship owed a lot to A Lesson Is Learned. Achewood sorta does, too. Both webcomics have more or less gone on hiatus. Could you recommend to our readers other comics that they might be interested in that are done in the style of A Lesson Is Learned?
I think both those comics pre-dated us. PBF maybe appeared on the web a little later than us, but it was running in the Baltimore City Paper in 2004. They’re both flattering comparisons. Both of those comics are very good.
K.C. Green’s Gunshow is fantastic and Aaron Diaz’s Dresden Codak. Showbeast is funny, free, and online. I’ll recommend a book, Suspended Heart by Heather Fowler. It’s put out by Aqueous Books, the same publisher as my novel. I ordered it to literally get a feel for how my novel might be printed. After the feeling session was over, I read the book and realized that the feeling session was not in fact over. On the contrary, it had just begun and the road of feeling now stretched on before me perhaps forever.