I met Mike Dawson last fall during SPX while I was chugging down some beer in a hotel room. I was feeling a little out of my element, in a room full of prestigious cartoonists and, from what I could gather, possibly the only female cartoonist in the room as well. Mike was warm and friendly from the start and his sense of humor put me right at ease. I learned that his new graphic novel, Angie Bongiolatti, was originally going to be called Anna Bongiovanni and I couldn’t wait to read this comic that was probably based on my life.

To nobody's surprise, Angie Bongiolatti, is in fact, not based on me at all. It’s a politically-charged graphic novel set in a time of change and uncertainty in America. The character’s are both driven and lost, rendered in Dawson’s amazing illustrative and detailed style. I was able to ask him a few questions about Angie Bongiolatti and the process that lead up to the completion of the book.

— Anna Bongiovanni

I really enjoyed reading a story set only a few years back (well, what feels like only a few years, but I guess it was awhile ago). It was interesting to see a reflection of everyone’s actions/reactions during this time. Were you in New York near the time of the story? Why was it important for you to set this in the distant past versus the present?

Yes, I was living in New York at the time that this story is set. I was working in Manhattan at a distance-learning company veeeeryyyy much like the company depicted in the story. I was there on 9/11, and I did attend an International Socialists Organization meeting around that time, and also went to the WEF protest march. My experience at the march was different from what’s depicted in the book. I initially went with the people from the ISO I was friendly with, but eventually got separated from them, and then after a while, the whole event started to feel kind of intense with the severe police presence, and I got paranoid about my immigration status at the time (back then I was in the country on a Green Card), so I ultimately just slipped away from the march.

I like putting stories in specific places and times, but I also thought that this particular place and time was a good setting to examine the kinds of political questions I was interested in exploring in the book.

What did the start of this project look like?

Some elements of the book are drawn from obscure comics of mine, from back around 2001-2002. There are characters from old stories, and some of the scenarios, like the Y2K party, the couple who were into group sex, and the protest march against the World Economic Forum; these were all things I’d touched upon in old comics, but really not in the same way. Parts of the story were drawn from my life experience. And there was the Arthur Koestler God That Failed essay, which I became obsessed with, and tried a few times to adapt it into comics form. When I sat down to really start on this book, I had all of these different elements that all meant different things to me, and I sought to combine them together in a way that made some kind of sense.

An aspect of this comic that I found very interesting was the idea of your job and "your job". As in, the job that pays the bills and the job that you are passionate about, but is probably earning you little to no money. Is this at all reflected in your life (because it sure as hell is in mine!)?

Yes, most definitely. My whole adult life seems to have been about figuring out ways to make money while still managing to do the comics work that’s important to me. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got it balanced. Other times I feel suffocated and panicked that I’m never going to have the luxury of time that I really want to have to be able to dedicate to writing. Then, other times I feel like I’m better off having a day-job, because while I don’t have a ton of time to work on comics, I have absolute freedom to write the stuff I want to write, because I’m not earning any money from them anyway. I might as well do what I want. That line of thinking has worked well for me for the past two books I wrote. I’m hoping I can sustain it, but it really feels tiring at the same time.

Insecurity plays a large role in this comic, not only in your character's personal lives, but in their political lives as well. Can you talk about this for a little bit? I kind of feel like the whole American nation was feeling insecure at this time.

The insecurity of the time seemed like a good place to work out some of my own insecurities about a lot of what happened back then. I’ve been all over the place politically. My feelings about that particular place and time are confused. Sometimes I think back to my initial response, which was probably closest to the Kim character’s “chickens coming home to roost” kind of outlook, and I feel ashamed. Then, I feel ashamed for feeling ashamed, because of the unconscionable events that occurred after 2001, all in the name of what happened. I can’t sort it all out. I feel like at the time, I may have leaned too far in the wrong direction, but then I feel like that was the right direction to be leaning in when the country invaded Iraq. To me, the invasion of Iraq really is the thing I feel like the country wants to walk back from, and might be fooling itself into thinking we can put in the past… especially people like myself, who want to think of America positively. In a way, to answer your question, it was almost easier to try and write about the country in that period of time before 2003.

Angie's role in this comic was not what I expected. In some ways she is the main focus of the comic but not really the main character. She is this person whose affection and attention is desired by a number of people and while we get a good sense of who she is, the story seems to mostly follow the men who are following her. Did you consciously write the comic this way?

Angie was the hardest character for me to write. I struggled with her. Early on I became conscious of the fact that she was in danger of becoming, like you said, not really the main character, but more the person who all of the other characters orbited and/or desired. She is the character most unlike myself. Even politically, her outlook isn’t one I share comfortably. Being sure of ones own political outlook, being assured and earnest about that stuff. It’s hard for me. That was one reason I brought a lot of that George Orwell stuff into the story. Orwell seemed to really know what he stood for, and who he stood against. I can’t be like that - I’m possibly more like the tight-rope walker referenced in the title of the Arthur Koestler essay. I wanted Angie to be assured, like Orwell, as hard as it is for me to think that way. It would have been easier to just take the focus off of her and let the story just be about the men, I could have just changed the title of the book, and the pressure would probably have come off. But, I really wanted to get there with her, and make it work.

Angie was also this person who was valued and unvalued in the political circles she ran in. I feel like this is partially because she 1. is a woman and 2. is desired sexually/romantically by the people she was trying to influence. Is this something you've seen reflected in your own activism? Or the world around us in general for that matter?

I’ve seen women undervalued in the workplace, for sure. My wife, who is very talented and good at what she does, has had to navigate a career in a very male-dominated industry, which is sales. Women in environments like that, it seems like their best option is to try to be “one of the boys”, and it makes me angry. Having a daughter has also opened my eyes to a lot of things I thought I knew, but never really knew until I was raising a little girl. She’s strong willed, I can already see that. There’s this idea that women shouldn’t be bossy, or opinionated. A bossy little boy is seen as a leader, while a bossy little girl is seen as someone who has to get socialized out of that - have her edges smoothed down. I really don’t want that.

And for the record, I do think Angie is a strong character. She's got strong ideals and was probably the character who worked the hardest in the name of her beliefs. I also think she remains fiercely independent the whole time. She protects herself when relationships start to feel toxic and that's pretty commendable. Was the creation of Angie's character based on any real people in your life?

Yes, there were a lot of people who helped inspire the character. People from my past, people who were politically oriented. But, I also think part of what made her a difficult character for me to get a firm handle on was that she’s not based on any one exact person that I know. The combination of the different sides of her personality, the activist, the person navigating the culture of the work place, her sex-life, I didn’t have any one person who I was modeling all of that on.

And sort of on that note, do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes. I think male privilege is a real thing, as I think white privilege is a real thing. My background is pretty squarely middle class, and all of those things: whiteness, maleness, class status, just make me someone who more comfortably speaks the language of people in power than someone who is not those things. There’s just no denying it. To me, part of feminism, is recognizing that just speaking the language of power (and by that, I mean, just being white and male), makes it easier for me to open doors. To me, the thing to work towards is changing the language of power, making power more diverse. It’s an interesting thing about publishing and education, which are two fields that I’ve worked in quite a bit, that these are two arenas which are less strictly male dominated than others, and you can see how diversity upstairs opens the doors downstairs to let more people in. I worked at Scholastic for a few years, and thinking back on it, it’s interesting to see how many more women would come to work there, and have women bosses and managers. It’s world’s away from the industry my wife works in, which is the opposite - totally male dominated from top to bottom, and my wife always being aware of how alone she is as one of only a small handful of women in a very male work culture.

The concept of a boy’s club in a workplace (and I’ve worked in those environments too - the company I based GLS on was very much that kind of atmosphere), isn’t just lewd talk and borderline sexual harassing attitudes to our female co-workers, but there’s also this unspoken kind of ganging up that happens. The men, who in the case of the dot com I was at in 2000, were all single guys who socialized outside of work, would bond more firmly, and become subconsciously more dismissive of the co-workers who were not part of their inner-circle. The abilities of our female colleagues would be more closely scrutinized and criticized. The part of the story where Matt gets bumped up to a Producer/Animator position, that was something that happened to me. And, I’m good at that kind of work, and deserved the position, but it also just came more naturally into my lap because I was buddies with the guy managing us - I went drinking with him, we went out trying to meet women together. This is the kind of thing I mean when I talk about just naturally speaking the language of power.