Alex Graham (Denver, Colorado, 1987) is the comic artist and painter who has been highlighted, among more than a thousand projects, as the winner of the fifth edition of the Puchi Award, an initiative of La Casa Encendida and Fulgencio Pimentel that rewards works experimental and disruptive. On this occasion, the chosen one has been Dog Biscuits, a four-hundred-page comic previously published through the author's Instagram account, with great success, and which renews the best tradition of underground comix in a story tied to the present and largely improvised.
Dog Biscuits is the tragicomedy of everyday life, a story that takes place during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19, but which is not really about her but about the harsh reality of a love triangle with three vertices plagued by social anxiety, depression and, above all, precariousness. Gussy is approaching fifty and eking out a ludicrous business making gourmet dog biscuits; Rosie is his employee, twenty years his junior; and Hissy is Jennifer Love-Hewitt's son and Rosie's roommate. The three of them are anthropomorphic animals and they will be involved in a story of love and sex in strange times, between WhatsApp messages and police brutality, which perfectly captures our zeitgeist. The Spanish edition, co-edited by Fulgencio Pimentel and La Casa Encendida, with a brilliant translation by Joana Carro and César Sánchez, arrives in bookstores this month.
What is the origin of Dog Biscuits? It started as a webcomic at the start of the pandemic, right?
Yes. I live in Seattle and I dedicate myself to painting. She had been working as a full-time waitress in a restaurant for several years. With the pandemic, the restaurant closed, but it obtained help from the Government, through an agreement that required all workers to be at the premises forty hours a week, no matter if there was no activity. They were all there watching TV, looking at their cell phones or reading books. One day, I took a piece of paper and drew some vignettes, without any inspiration or intention. I told myself that I was going to draw the worst drawing I was capable of. [risas]. I uploaded it to Instagram and people loved it! That blew my mind, it was the worst thing I had ever done and people were going crazy, what was happening? When Simon Hanselmann (Megg, Mogg & Owl) shared it on his networks, thousands of people started following me. From there, I decided to continue with the comic and sit down every day to make a page at work, through pure improvisation. I drew a lot of pages until I got fired and was able to work on the comic at home, more focused and without distractions. That is the reason why, after a certain point, the drawing of the book improves a lot. It was with the tranquility of my house that I came up with the complete plot of the story, and I stopped improvising so much, although there are still certain elements and scenes that appeared in the process.
How long did it take to finish the book from that point on?
Six months. I did an average of one or two pages a day, although I did six on one occasion. Towards the end it became more difficult because I had bad posture and my back was killing me. At the end of the work, I was devastated, although I was super motivated with the possibility that I had. He felt that if he didn't take advantage of it to finish Dog Biscuits he would never be able to do anything like that.
I've read that the posts on social networks generated very heated comments, and that the opinion of their followers was affecting the story, is it true?
Not in the way that people think. What they were telling me affected me, but because I always did the opposite of what people expected. I wanted to provoke them. When people thought he was trying to send some kind of moral message with something, they did the opposite the next day. I really enjoy provoking the public, really. But looking back, I think that the book has too much influence what people thought. So I'm not going to do this in my next job. If I end up showing it on Instagram again, I'll do it thirty pages behind where it's at, so it doesn't affect me.
This is interesting because we seem to live in a time where many narratives are moral; they try to tell us what we should think or what ideas we should have.
That's why I'm not interested in a lot of contemporary comics, which seem to be trying to lecture their readers. Its protagonists are perfect and do not make mistakes, they are virtuous, and at most it is the secondary ones who act badly. I think these comics are unreal, because nobody is perfect. I am interested in creating characters who make mistakes and make mistakes, imperfect, like everyone else.
Dog Biscuits is a perfect mix of comedy and drama. Sometimes it makes you laugh, but other times it makes you want to cry, because very depressing things happen… What are your influences to achieve this tone?
I think my main influence is literature. There are a lot of comics right now that present reality softened, happy in a way. But I wanted to mimic life, which can be really sad sometimes. Another issue that directly influences my work is hormonal hypersensitivity, which affects my period. That's why when I write, I can be very happy one week, and totally depressed the next. That affects the plot.
Yes, Dog Biscuits has a very special rhythm. You also have a very amusing way of showing the characters' feelings through graphic signs: sadness, happiness, even sexual arousal... where does it come from, is it improvised?
What I like about comics is precisely that: you can express anything through caricature. I love classic cartoons, Tom and Jerry for example. I could say that literature and these drawings are my main influences as a comic author.
An important theme is that of mental disorders, which he shows not only through the interactions of the characters, but also through long monologues. Depression, anxiety, but also drug abuse. Did you have any special interest in these issues, did you do any documentation?
I think it's mainly based on my personal experiences, especially when it comes to Rosie and Hissy, who are the two characters that show my emotions and ideas when I was around their age. Anyway, I didn't want anyone to read it as an autobiographical comic because it's not, although in a way it's inevitable that personal experiences seep into the fiction. In fact, Gussy shows some of my current personality, even though he is about ten years older than me.
In Dog Biscuits political issues are also important. Many characters talk about the last days of Donald Trump in power, Joe Biden is mentioned... But, above all, police abuses are shown. He has previously commented that he doesn't want to give clear moral messages in the book, but it's hard not to think that he is trying to say something about police brutality, a hot topic in America, especially at the time.
Well, I was writing a story about the pandemic, where I knew that the only way to not talk about police brutality was to deliberately ignore it. That's why I had to show it, in a very concrete way. Because I didn't want to make the police look good: they're not. In Seattle, a kid was pepper sprayed in the eyes, very close to where I lived. I wanted to show all of that, at a time when I was very pissed off at the city's police department. That's why I represent them as monsters hooked on methamphetamine. Of course, I exaggerated it a lot. I think I was channeling all the discontent from my circle, from people of my generation, into what was going on. I know that the way I did it may not be the right way, since I am not the main target of the police, due to my race. People of color are; but despite that I felt that I had to do something, that it was my responsibility.
Have you had any problems with those vignettes?
No. I was afraid someone was going to say something to me for being a white person talking about a problem with other groups, but it didn't happen. No one told me anything, so maybe I did it the right way. Well we'll see.
I would like to ask you about the Puchi Award. How do you feel about it? How did you find out about the contest?
My friend Simon Hanselmann suggested that I submit the project just before the deadline. The truth is that I never thought I had a choice, because of the sex and the kind of humor in it. It's clearly a comic low-brow. So I was very surprised to win a literary award like this. I'm very happy but I still don't quite believe it [risas]. But look at me, now I am the first in my entire family to travel outside of the United States.
You mentioned the sex and violence in the book. Fulgencio Pimentel's edition is the first to be published without censorship, right?
The only reason I self-censored while serializing it on Instagram is because I didn't want to get my account suspended like some artist friends whose content was far less explicit. But the explicit sex pages could be found on my website with no problem, and they are also included in the Spanish edition.
I was surprised to find a cover of his in a comic magazine in Catalan, Forn de Calç (Extinció Edicions). How did he come to do it?
This is a painting that I already had done. The magazine's editor, Marc Charles, was following my work, and had read my first graphic novel, from 2018. After I finished Dog Biscuits, he asked me if I had any finished illustrations that he could use as a cover, and I showed him this painting, that he loved I have hearing problems, and on one occasion I was fitted for hearing aids; while they were doing them, this image came to mind.
On March 12 and 13, you participated in the GRAF independent publishing festival in Barcelona. How was the experience, how have you seen the Spanish comic scene?
It was wonderful, I saw a lot of great works, very colorful. The truth is that I haven't been to many fairs in the United States, but GRAF can be compared to my favorite, the Short Run festival in Seattle. I had a great time at GRAF, the people were great. It was a very inspiring experience.