Graphic novels: More than wham! and bam!, Dan Cooney explains


Graphic novelist Dan Cooney has spent most of his life imagining and creating action heroes. His success against formidable odds suggests he might be one himself.

The West Tisbury resident is a whirlwind personality, a dervish of ideas and creativity, who grew up in a blue-collar northern California town and is doing the work he loves most: creating and drawing characters and teaching others to create and draw their own characters and sagas.

The 1998 graduate of New York’s prestigious School of Visual Arts will be at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven on Friday, Nov. 23, at 7 pm to discuss and sign “The Complete Guide To Figure Drawing for Comics and Graphic Novels,” his second instructional book on drawing and creating characters for the fast-growing graphic novel genre.

Mr. Cooney is the author of a comic book, “The Atomic Yeti,” and “Valentine,” an acclaimed graphic novel series about a woman contract killer. That series has caught Hollywood’s eye and is under option. For the past seven years, Mr. Cooney has been an instructor at the Academy of Art University (AAU) in San Francisco, where he built the graphic illustrating program from scratch. AAU now offers seven courses in the medium. Mr. Cooney continues to teach online and his hope is to offer workshops on the Island next spring and summer. “I miss that one-on-one interchange with students,” he said.

The Times caught up with Mr. Cooney last Sunday in the West Tisbury home he shares with his Island-born wife Carolina (Stewart), sons Dashiell, soon to be three, eight-month-old Dexter, and a silky black cat inexplicably named Greenly Bean.

Dashiell? “Yup, he’s named after Dashiell Hammett [1940s crime noir novelist],” Mr. Cooney said. Research is a strong suit for Mr. Cooney. He has a prodigious library with volumes by the icons of crime fact and fiction. In fact, his latest project, “Tommy Gun Dolls,” a gang of bank-robbing burlesque queens in San Francisco’s Prohibition era, is based on a true story in the 1850s Gold Rush days in the wide-open Tenderloin district.

“Their spree was pretty short, but it captured my imagination,” he said. “I really like drawing scenes and people in the Prohibition era, so I updated the story.”

Mr. Cooney’s success is a testament to his single-minded pursuit. “I always knew I wanted to draw comics,” he said. “I’d be doodling at school during math and science class when I really should have been paying attention to the classwork.”

After high school, a succession of classes at several junior colleges left him hungry for more. “There wasn’t a lot of money in our house, so I worked two jobs, including Kinko’s where I learned desktop technology and at now-defunct Tower Records as a graphic artist and saved the money.

“A junior college had a portfolio day and I showed up, mostly with work I’d done on my own and I was encouraged to apply to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I decided to go for it. I went to New York for the first time, worked two jobs and focused on the art. I was 23 or 24, so I was older than most of the students and I had discipline and focus.”

As things go in the art community, one thing led to another, Mr. Cooney’s portfolio and reputation grew, and he returned to San Francisco, creating work and teaching at AAU. In 2006, he met Carolina at ComicCom, the industry’s mega trade show. Mr. Cooney and Carolina, the daughter of late Island musician Michael Stewart, married two years later — at ComicCom. “We draped a ‘Just Married’ sign on our booth,” he laughed. The couple moved to the Island from San Francisco a year ago.

Now almost 43, Mr. Cooney has a good perspective on the art form and its appeal to its market. For students, the appeal may lie partly in the 24/7 electronic world in which they live. “It’s an age of instant judgment with Facebook, Twitter, and social media,” he said. “I see kids who are always ‘on.’ Superheroes may be a way for them to project beyond insecurities they may have.”

The market has grown by offering comics and novels that respect and appeal to women, according to Mr. Cooney. “This business has been traditionally male-dominated and women were represented as sex objects, but that’s changing,” he said, noting also that Valentine, his graphic novel heroine, is willowy and mostly fully clothed. She relies on her skill and intelligence to win.

For comics and graphic novels, as in all literature, plot and character development are the keys to success, Mr. Cooney said.

“New students tend to just want to draw the characters and the action scenes,” he said. “That’s not enough. I ask them: ‘Why is this character doing that? Where is the story taking us?’ Work that is successful today often involves heroes who don’t have super powers. Successful work is more than ferocious facial expressions. You have to be able to draw a bicycle wheel or a diner where the characters are eating.”

In the end, Mr. Cooney cautions prospective graphic novelists about the reality of the work. “This is hard work.” he said.