Eisner-Award-winning co-creator of Bitter Root and Naomi, David F. Walker is currently running a Zoop crowdfunding campaign to fund Imposter Syndrome, a 100-page anthology with six stories: one prose story about zombies, a mini-comic about his childhood, a story based on Donald Goines’ life that explores the creative process, and some “other random nonsense that must be seen to be believed.” And recently, with a funding goal being reached, a new short story was added, “How Will Eisner Changed My Life and Harlan Ellison Almost Got Me Arrested,” a true story drawn by Walker’s good friend Jim Hill (who was there when Will Eisner changed his life and Harlan Ellison almost got him arrested).
The Beat chatted with David F. Walker about how he handles his imposter syndrome and depression monster, the people who inspired the stories included in Imposter Syndrome, and why he chose Zoop to crowdfund his latest project. The project is available to back on Zoop, but hop to it, there isn’t much time left, and maybe Walker fans can get the last stretch goal unlocked!
This interview has been condensed for clarity, but unfortunately, that meant leaving out an amazing section on how awesome the anthology format is.
Rebecca Kaplan: The anthology title is “Imposter Syndrome,” and you struggle with imposter syndrome. How does that inform your work generally and this collection in particular?
David F. Walker: Generally, I go through a horrific cycle of thinking, “Oh, this is pretty good.” And then going, “This is the worst thing ever.” Then, it’s an up and down roller coaster ride of, “Oh, this is good. This is terrible. This is good. This is terrible.” I talked to some other creators about imposter syndrome, which many people have, and someone asked me, “Well, how do you get over it? And I said, “Well, I don’t get over it.”
I’ve surrounded myself with enough people who I trust to tell me if something sucks or not. They’ll let me know, “Yeah, this is pretty good. You should keep going with this one.” Many stories in this collection developed during the pandemic when I wondered if I would still have a career in the industry and if the medium I’d given much of myself over to would survive. I had to do something creative. Initially, I had planned to do a series of shorts, and each one I was going to publish as its own mini-comic.
The plan was 2021, the convention scene would open again, and I could go to conventions with four or five of these mini-comics, and the convention season didn’t open up in 2021. But then the paper shortage and the massive spike in print costs forced me to rethink everything. Then it was like, “I’ll do these as a collection, but who will be dumb enough to buy a collection of stuff written by me. I suck.” Fortunately, I’ve got friends who encourage me to do either really stupid or brave stuff.
Kaplan: Can you define Imposter Syndrome for people who don’t know it?
Walker: It’s this feeling everything you’re doing, you’re not good at it. Even if — I mean, here I am, I’ve won awards for my writing and praise, and I still doubt everything I do. I second guess everything I do. When someone compliments my work, I don’t hear it as clearly as when someone criticizes it. There is no one more critical than myself. So I go through this cycle, literally my entire life. Even as a kid, I would draw a picture and write a story, and I’d finish it on Monday and think it was great, and by Wednesday, I would think it was terrible. And then, by Thursday, I would hope nobody noticed. That’s the thing, even when I’m doing work for Marvel or DC, when a new comic book day rolls around, it’s Wednesday, and something I have comes out, it’s like fingers crossed, nobody figures out I don’t know what I’m doing, and I just faked it, and the rest of the world is stupid for believing in me. And all this comes down to some bizarre childhood issues I have, which I’m still working through regularly with my therapist.
Kaplan: You said that you rely on your friends to tell you what’s good and how you don’t let those bad what’s bad overwhelm you when they say what’s good.
Walker: Well, it’s interesting because I tend not to pay too much attention to the negative critics or trolls who are trying to break my spirit because, amongst other things, nobody can hate me more than I hate myself. I don’t need Comicsgate or anyone else coming after me — and they do go after me — but it’s like, really, you guys are amateurs when it comes to this stuff.
I have developed this ability to look at my work and see its quality, for lack of a better term. I’m just convinced somehow I got there by mistake. So when I’m in doubt over something, or I’m suffering from writer’s block, I’ll read something I wrote years ago. If it’s good and still holds up, I’ll think to myself, “Clearly, I must have been on some meds that made this better, or I got lucky with this turn of phrase or paragraph.” I think it’s almost a check and balance system, so I don’t become so arrogant. I was raised to look at someone else’s work, see its quality, and be critical of it.
But more than anything, it’s just something you learn how to battle through. I tell other writers and my students that you figure out a way to navigate these waters, or you’re never going to be able to have a career. You hit a point — I’m a middle-aged man; I can’t do anything else with myself. Maybe I could get a service industry job, but I’ve got bad knees and a bad back. Even if I am an imposter, even if I don’t have talent, it’s too late. I’ve got a stack of books with my name, and people lined up to hire me to do work.
Kaplan: In “Bully,” there was a reference to Freddy Fender, and I got excited. How did Freddy Fender influence you?
Walker: Well, “Bully” is a true story, and it’s part of what will be a much bigger book at some point, a graphic memoir. My grandmother, oddly enough, was a huge Freddy Fender fan. When I was working on that story, I was going back and forth, talking to my cousin about it, just showing him some stuff, showing him DJ Parnell‘s rendition of our grandmother as a cartoon character. But I hadn’t shown him the script or anything lettered yet, and the first thing he said was, “You better make sure you mentioned Freddy Fender in this.” I was like, “Well, of course.” As an adult, I love Freddy Fender, but I couldn’t stand him as a kid because it was all my grandmother listened to on her 8-track tape player in her car. For me, that says so much about her. Her two favorite artists were Freddy Fender and Nat King Cole. She also had an appreciation for Elvis, which I don’t hold against her. But Freddy Fender was the one who never made sense to us as kids, and she would sing along with it.
She will be in other stories in “Bully” so we will learn more about her later on. Like, about the saw and the ax that she always kept in the car’s trunk and why she had that stuff. I want characters to come to life, especially characters in comics based on people I knew. In addition, my grandmother was always late, and purple was her favorite color.
Each chapter of “Bully” is a self-contained story, but if you read them chronologically, when they’re all done, you’re going to get a much larger story about myself, the people around me, and specifically about my issues with violence, with dealing with bullies, and with my anger management. I had to go to anger management courses when I was a kid. And, it’s about dealing with the unpleasantness. If you’ve read it, you’ve seen language there that will shock some people. And it’s like, yeah, but this is the language I heard growing up as a kid. These are the names people called me, and they will get worse because it gets worse as we get older. There are things we face; whether it’s racism or sexism or homophobia, or misogyny, I’m old enough not to shy away from including this in my story. If you’re a kid dealing with racist bullies, you better put some racist bullies in your story. Right? If you’re a kid coping with homophobia, you better put it there. And it’s interesting to me because a lot of times, we confuse word choice with someone being that way, if that makes sense.
I’ve had this conversation a lot with my friend, Steve Orlando. I worked on a story once where I wanted to write a character who was homophobic. I wanted to write a character who was homophobic because I wanted to take that character on a journey where he would start to overcome his homophobia. I remember talking to Steve about this and like, “Well, if you’re writing a character as homophobic, you better write a character as homophobic. They better say some things that are going to offend certain readers.” I try to tell young people and writers that words have power and understand they have power and know how you’re using them. Every word is like a weapon, and if it shocks people and offends people, that’s fine as long as there’s a reason; don’t be gratuitous about it.
Kaplan: “Hart of the Matter” is based on the life story of the Black pul fiction writer Donald Goines. Why is it so important to remember his account? Why is a comic the specific medium which can convey it?
Walker: I love pulp fiction even when it’s not necessarily the best or problematic; there’s something fun. I discovered Donald Goines in my late teens and early twenties. This guy helped inform what would develop into hip hop. But his story has been forgotten, and it’s very tragic. I thought it would be interesting to tell a story inspired by his life. I had started something much longer, and then the opportunity came to contribute to this other anthology. I thought, “Wow, Can I take a full-length story and turn it into six pages?”
Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I decided to do it. And now, actually, the folks at FairSquare Comics, who published the anthology originally, are in discussions to do the longer version. But I always wanted to write a story about creativity and the demons haunting us. In the case of Goines, he was a heroin addict, and the violence he wrote about in his books was mirrored in his personal life, even in his death. What happens to the haunted creator fighting demons when they lose the fight? We see it more often than not, we don’t necessarily think about it that way, but when we look at the past ten years or so, especially with some of the musicians we’ve lost, whether it was Prince or Chris Cornell, now it was the man from the Foo Fighters. Part of what contributed to their deaths was the demons they were fighting with.
What kind of legacy do you leave behind? I find all of that fascinating, and I felt like Donald Goines was someone worth exploring. I wanted this to be a 60 to 80-page graphic novella, something more akin to what was happening in the mid-seventies in comics and graphic novels. And then, Fabrice Sapolsky over at FairSquare, said, “Hey, do you want to write something for us?” And I said, “Sure.” And then, I was like, hey, you know what might be cool is: do I have takes to turn this into a six pager? And I did.
I love what I did with that story so much, and because Fabrice was cool with me reprinting it, I decided to share it with people. Then if people connect with the story, I’d lobe to expand it. The other interesting thing is Donald Goines, who inspired this, one of his books was turned into a graphic novel in ’84, and it’s out of print. It’s tough to find, so I’ve been talking to a publisher about seeing if we can get our hands on the original art to rerelease it because black pulp fiction and black pop culture are lost artifacts. I’d love to see it.
Alfredo Alcala did the art, and he was part of a fantastic generation of Filipino artists in the seventies that I love, like Alcala, Tony DeZuniga, Rudy Nebres, all these guys. I grew up with their stuff, and I feel people have forgotten the talent they brought in their generation. There are a couple of other people too. I’d love to write a graphic novel about the life and career of James Baldwin. There are people who, if their work moves you, sometimes you want to explore it a little bit more and then share what it is about their work that moves you, and with Goines, it ultimately was how as creatives, we’re sometimes writing or creating out of desperation. And with him, part of that desperation was trying to cop heroin regularly.
I remember reading Goines’s work, and again, he died a very tragic death. There’s still a lot of speculation about his final book because he wrote a series of books with the same character. In the fourth book, that character dies in a way that’s very similar to how he died, and there’s a lot of speculation a ghostwriter wrote it. I need to research that, but it would be fascinating.
Kaplan: Can you tell me about some artists working with you on the anthology?
Walker: There’s DJ Parnell, based out of Southern California. We met at a convention years ago. I love her work. She did some art for my webcomic DISCOMBOBULATED, and we talked about collaborating again. So she’s the artist on “Bully,” which will eventually be a collection in and of itself. At this point, I’m hoping DJ will be the only artist I work with on the book because I love her style, and she’s great to work with.
Steve Willhite worked on “Attack of the Depression Monster” and a story called “Crash Landing,” he’s a guy I’ve known from the convention scene for over 30 years. He’s a cartoonist who works a regular day job and has a family. He has done a few things here and there, but we’ve been friends forever and have never collaborated. When it came time to do “Attack of the Depression Monster,” I saw the story in my head as DJ, but she wasn’t available, and that’s why I took a chance. Then it went so well, and you throw in 30-something years of friendship, that now, we’re working on more stuff together.
Mark Bright drew “Hart of the Matter,” which appeared in another anthology, came together through the collection’s editors. I love it so much. While I’m always telling people to buy this particular anthology, I wanted to make it available, if nothing else, as an example of how I write. There’s a script, print pages, and process pages in this collection, and I’m talking about what I went through with it.
And if this is a success, and by success, I mean I move enough units, and people respond positively enough, I want to do another Imposter Syndrome. It’ll be called Imposter Syndrome: Fake It ‘Till You Make It. My goal is — I have a four or six-page story idea I want Walt Simonson to draw, who I’ve loved all my life and always wanted to work with but not on a story for DC or Marvel. No, I’d like to work with you on something deeply personal.
I’ve had a chance to work with artists I loved growing up. I worked with Mike Grell recently on Young Justice, and I never thought I’d get to work with Grell, let alone have him draw Warlord pages for me. It happened and felt great, but it would’ve felt better if it wasn’t for DC. I got to work on something with Gustavo Duarte for DC. I would die a happy man if we got to do a story that didn’t involve Superman or Bizarro simply because there’d be more creative freedom for us.
I did a short for Humanoids that Michael Lark drew, and what a great feeling. For me, there’s nothing better than when the pages come in for something that isn’t — when you’re writing for Marvel or DC, there’s always the risk there will be notes from higher up the food chain — it’s not that these projects are low stakes, mind you, but no one is going to say to Lark, “Hey, this panel, we can’t do this because Iron Fist is about to have his TV show,” and so there’s this creative freedom comes. I remember when Michael’s pages started coming in for First Degree: A Crime Anthology; I had this weird feeling some writers of comics don’t have, but it was the feeling of nobody’s going to know I wrote this, and that’s great.
What I feel good comic writing does is translate into the visual so that the average reader doesn’t necessarily think this was written. We see the text, and most people know that’s quote-unquote writing. But the art doesn’t necessarily come across as writing, which is it. And the masochist in me wants the artist to get all the credit, I know what I wrote, and they know what I wrote, and if the fans don’t get it, that’s fine.
Kaplan: Can you tell us any details about the Zoop campaign that readers might not know?
Walker: I hope people can discover Zoop as a platform. I’ve run successful Kickstarters and backed things on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. I love the concept of crowdfunding, and I love the idea of what Zoop is doing. Zoop is very friendly to comic book creators. As indie creators face a paper shortage, distribution problems, and all kinds of stuff, we need to look at other options. I had conversations with the folks at Zoop, and it was, okay, let’s give this a shot. Let’s see what we can do together. I’ve already gone down the Kickstarter route. Let’s try something different.
If you’re going to find any level of success in comics, I don’t care what kind of comics you’re trying to do; you’ve got to do some of them yourself. I’m in a very fortunate position. I’ve written for Marvel. I’ve written for DC. I’ve had a tremendous amount of success, but I’m most proud of what I published myself or did with indie publishers.
Getting your comic in every single retailer in America is challenging. You’re not going to be able to do that, but there are ways to get what you’ve created out there, and you shouldn’t necessarily go broke doing it, but you should pay people. If you’re going to hire an artist as a writer, maybe you can’t afford to pay someone $300 a page, but you should be able to pay somebody something. If you can’t do that, you’ll get what you pay for if you’re not paying at all. So when used properly, I think crowdfunding and platforms like Zoop provide an opportunity to open doors for creators. And there will be different degrees of success, but I hope Zoop is able [to have success] because they help with fulfillment and shipping and all stuff you have to do once the book is done. Man, that’ll crush your spirit if you’re not up for it: figuring out how to import your mailing list on stamps.com and then printing out postage till you’re crying. Oh man, nobody should have to do it. It sucks.
Kaplan: Is there anything else you would like to include?
Walker: I just want people to have a good time and hopefully enjoy my comics. If someone’s reading this interview at this point, hopefully they like me. If you hate me, you’ve wasted a lot of your time, right? So if you hate me and you hate my work, you’re more than welcome to this book and you can burn it or do whatever you want with it. I’m still going to get the money you’re going to be out of the money. But if you’re a fan of mine or maybe if you don’t know my work, check it out. Because I feel like part of what I’m trying to do is empower, especially younger creators and creators that are marginalized. I can’t give everybody a break. I can’t open the door for everybody, but I can through my actions and through my creativity go, “This is what I did. This is how I did it. And maybe this will work for you.” And, that’s part of what this is. This is really as much about the people who have contributed to my success as it is a gift to the people who are looking for some semblance of inspiration more than anything else.
Kaplan: I love that you said that because I always think that about Comicsgate, like, you’re still giving them money when you buy the book.
Walker: Oh yeah, no, please. If Comicsgate people hate me, that’s fine. Please buy ten copies of the book, and then burn it and make a video of you burning it, because what you’re really burning is your money.
As my closing thought, and I’ve said this before, there are people out there who hate me, and I know that none of them are justified in their hatred for me because none of them know me personally. And I can give you a list of people who are justified in their hatred for me, I’ve done things to them personally that I’m not proud of, but if you hate me because of my comics or because of you think I’ve got some sort of hidden agenda, that’s your problem. If there’s somebody who doesn’t like me based on my politics or ethnicity or race, or the fact that I’ve got a gay friend, or the fact that I went to school with Jewish people, that’s your problem. Your life is going to be much poorer because you’re closed off to the experiences that are out there.
There’s there’s more than one flavor at Baskin Robbins. There’s 31 flavors. You don’t have to try all 31, but I guarantee you, if all you’re getting the same flavor over and over again, you’re missing out, and that’s how it is with comics. That’s how it is with life. As creators, we should all be trying as many of the flavors as possible, and if we don’t like one, we just move on to the next.
The Zoop campaign for David F. Walker’s Imposter Syndrome runs until Friday, May 6th at midnight PST.