“These are Modern American Family Comics”: The Derek M. Ballard Interview

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Here’s a hypothetical. There is an upcoming massive Olympics-style battle royale between each country in the world’s single best cartoonist.

A history of publications will be taken into account, but this cartoonist must be making their best work right now, constructing their showpieces this very day. This contender should obviously have impeccable artistic chops and draftsmanship skills, but that’s not all. The nominating committee (which in this hypothetical, I have a prominent seat on) will also be considering the cartoonist’s mental fortitude, tenacity, and ability to adapt. The committee will be looking for diversity and distinction in terms of personal style. This challenger must also have no end of ideas. My choice to represent America is Derek M. Ballard.

Ballard has been producing a singular body of work for over two decades, congealing his keyed-up characters with idiosyncratic angular anatomy into an often-unforgiving neon science fiction setting. Oh yeah, these comics are also funny. Along with all his seemingly countless unpublished or abandoned strips, pages, and pin-ups, Ballard has released two issues of his one-man anthology Cartoonshow since 2011 (featured as a “Notable Comic” in The Best American Comics), the unearthly Ghoulanoids #1 in 2015, and Choreograph Volume One in 2018. All of these give a platform to Ballard’s creatures who slyly prowl or kineticaly clunk around his pages, and that is probably what attracted him to animation producer Pendletown Ward. Since 2014, Ballard has been a storyboard artist, writer, character designer, and title-card creator for two of Ward’s shows: Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time and Netflix’s The Midnight Gospel.

There is a quote by singer/songwriter Steve Earle that goes, “I’m into pain and joy and the in-between doesn’t interest me.” Nothing better describes Ballard’s recent comics, which have veered sharply into autobiography. For the last year plus, his pages have become introspective (amazingly without losing any of the unflagging energy from his previous work) and have explored fatherhood, relationships, and his peculiar past. We talk as he is becoming a more prolific cartoonist and his career takes a turn inward. – RJ Casey

RJ CASEY: Are you good to interview tonight? I know you’ve got a sick kid at home right now.

DEREK M. BALLARD: Oh, yeah.

What’s going on?

Well, this is par for the course. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, you know? But the thing is, my eight-year-old developed an inflammation last year, so he had to go to the hospital and get on a morphine drip. But earlier than that he had COVID and was on a breathing tube.

Jesus.

His immune system was lowered and then that happened. But now it started flaring up again and, man, no doctors can tell me anything straight. They’re like, “We’re waiting for test results.” So, tomorrow, if they don’t tell me anything more, I’m just going to go back to the ER. I’ve been giving him two MLs of Oxycodone the past two days.

That’s the only thing they’ve prescribed?

No, no, no. There are three topical ointments. One steroid, one antifungal, one anti-bacterial. And then an oral analgesic to help with pain. But it’s just me. I have a daughter who’s 19 and she works and I have a 12-year-old, but the eight-year-old won’t let anyone else help him. So I just gave him a warm bath with baking soda. I can’t believe this is my Comics Journal interview. [Laughter.] You get it. How many do you have?

I’ve got two kids. A three-year-old and a seven-month-old.

Wow, you’re a dead man walking.

 

I already feel that. This three-year-old is already challenging me.

How old are you?

I’m 34.

OK, OK. You’re still youthful. [Laughter.] I was 22 when I had my daughter. Everyone I know waited until they were like my age to start having kids. I’m glad I did not do that.

How old are you?

I’ll be 44 in a couple of weeks. Not that old, not that young. Is this interview going to be a hatchet job?

No. [Laughs.]

I don’t need help with that. I do a good enough job myself. But do what you’ve got to do. You Comics Journal people are all mean.

Sure. [Laughter.] You grew up in Mobile, Alabama.

You said it right. Yes, Mobile, Alabama. Most people pronounce that wrong. How did you know how to say it right?

I don’t know. I read books. I probably heard someone say it in a movie or something.

All right. [Laughter.] I’m suspicious.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in a FEMA trailer at the end of a dirt road. In the ’70s we lived in a different trailer, but Frederic was a big hurricane that hit Mobile. It rolled the trailer like a log. We weren’t in it.

Oh, wow. How old were you when that happened?

I was about two. Maybe one or two. I have a memory of going back to the trailer and seeing everything torn up. Then the trailer that we grew up in, we got it from the government. It was at the end of a dirt road and it was — Mobile is weird because it’s all kind of urban and rural at the same time. There are a lot of factories. So, the dirt road was a dirt road in name only. It was like a series of craters. There was an empty, wooded lot in front of us and a drug dealer lived there in a plastic teepee.

That was his permanent residence?

Yeah. He used to grow vegetables and give them to us. My parents were like, “He’s a drug dealer, but he’s the nicest person around.” [Laughter.]

What did your parents do?

My mom was a homemaker for a little while. Then she would just have odd jobs. My dad always worked at Scott Paper Company, which was a huge company in Africatown, which is a little neighborhood in Mobile. You can see stuff on the news recently about Africatown and it’s a shame the way they treat it. It’s the last place slaves were dropped off in the United States and it was founded by them. The whole neighborhood has been completely raped and destroyed by industry that hasn’t been regulated. It’s gross. It’s a gross place now because the factories do whatever they want. They just ruined it. I don’t like that place. I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t say this.

Did you have siblings?

I have one brother. He’s seven years younger than me.

How were you first introduced to art?

Definitely by cartoons on television.

Which ones?

The Flintstones, The Beatles cartoon show, Charlie Brown. A lot of the stuff that was on PBS like the interstitial things that were on Sesame Street or Electric Company. I still like those. But growing up I was watching all of these on a black-and-white TV.

Then did you start drawing to see if you could recreate those characters?

Yeah. Since my dad worked at a paper company, he would bring home cases of mis-cut paper. I would just sit there and watch cartoons and draw. My mom always tells a story of me being 18 months old and drawing. Just watching TV and drawing.

It was that natural for you right away.

I’ve always done it. I’ve always been the drawing guy. I’ve always loved it. I need to learn to do it faster. [Laughter.] Everybody says that, I guess.

How long did you stay in the FEMA trailer? Was that for your entire childhood or was that more of a temporary residence?

I was there until I was 13. Then my parents got a house, but shortly after that, they got divorced and we lost the house.

Where did you move after that?

My grandparents owned a trailer park that they started in the ’70s. My grandfather was a great guy. He was a really nice guy, but that place was a slum. What he would do was find people who couldn’t get in anywhere else or rent anywhere else. He would let them rent a trailer that he had on this land. The family used to critique him for letting some of the people in but he always said, “If I don’t help them, then who’s going to help them?” When I was a kid that annoyed me, but now I see it as a noble, nice thing. He was unique because he was an evangelical minister who also owned a trailer park, but also was an extreme leftist. He would be like, “I read the Bible and all this Republican stuff doesn’t make sense.” His fellow ministers were his friends and they would have these debates all Sunday afternoon and they would leave saying, “We can’t beat him. He’s right, but we don’t agree with him.” He used to say shit like, “I just don’t see how you can be a Republican and expect to get into heaven.” [Laughter.]

I feel like religious leftists used to be a little more prevalent. Like the activist nuns.

Yeah, stuff like South American Liberation theology. It’s inspiring, you know? We moved in there and what happened is, in the ’80s — my grandfather got used to dealing with drunks. There would be a drunk who would have a wife and kids and my grandfather would let him stay there. But stuff started coming in like crack, meth, and other stuff. My grandparents did not understand how that stuff worked. They didn’t drink or anything and just thought, “This dad has a problem and we think it’s some kind of drug, but we’re going to help him.” They just assumed they were going to be like an alcoholic. But they weren’t. In the ’90s, it got far more intense. It got to the point where people started blowing up his trailers with meth labs.

While you were staying there.

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It got so ugly out there.

Due to your grandfather, I assume you grew up religious.

Well, we didn’t go to his church. We went to our own church, but I had to go Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. When I was about 12 or 13 I was reading a lot and just decided I didn’t believe in God anymore.

What was the catalyst for that decision?

I started reading about biology and there seemed to be a design there that I thought supported evolution. That was one thing — I got into biology and was reading National Geographic. Also, a lot of the people I went to church with, I just thought they were awful. I was mad. Now I’m not so mad about it. If you want to believe in God, go for it. But when I was a teenager I was mad about it. I just saw how the men in the church could get away with whatever they wanted. I saw the moms and the kids and what they had to deal with.

How much time did you spend in your grandfather’s trailer park after the drugs started coming in?

I moved out on my own when I was 18, but you’ve got to understand that in that entire city, there was nothing good. That stuff was everywhere. When I was a teenager, the girlfriend I had, her mom got into a car accident and got a $100,000 payout and became addicted to crack. My girlfriend didn’t know she was addicted to it and then it became an insane fiasco after that. I got exposed more and more. At school, kids were dealing with their parents. My grandfather was dealing with those people. My girlfriend had bounty hunters coming after her parents.

How did you escape that?

I moved to Gainesville, Florida, when I was 30. That’s how I escaped it. The woman I was married to for so long, we worked so hard to get her through nursing school. Then she ended up getting a job at a hospital in Mobile in a burn unit. She was mainly treating people who had been cooking meth and got burned. At that point, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to get out of there. We worked forever to get her through school and we could pick between Gainesville, Florida, or Austin, Texas, to do travel nursing. That’s how we escaped. Gainesville is a nice, clean little place. Florida I have other opinions about, but Gainesville is a nice, little oasis. When I was 30, I finally got away from Mobile.

I want to go back here. You said you were drawing since you were 18 months old, but when did you know you were good? When did you know that you were more talented than your peers or classmates?

When I was in kindergarten, they went around the class — it was Miss Cathy’s class — and she asked every kid what they wanted to be. The boys were like, “firefighter,” and the girls were like, “nurse,” “Sunday school teacher”. She got to me and I said, “I want to be a cartoonist.” I remember she was like, “Uhhh… OK.” [Laughter.]

How did you even know what cartoonist was in kindergarten?

I remember I got into an argument with another little girl at my table because I drew a sheepdog and I didn’t draw his eyes. I drew the hair in the eyes because I’d been watching those Chuck Jones cartoons. She was like, “You didn’t draw the eyes. He doesn’t have eyes.” And I said, “He does have eyes!” I think I went home and talked to my mom and she’s like, “That’s how that cartoonist drew it.” I think I went back to that girl and said, “Yeah, a cartoonist draws it like this.” [Laughter.] In elementary school I would draw stuff for other kids for a quarter. I’d enter poster contests and win. I did that all the time. Then in sixth grade, the school I was at just got too bad. There were so many fights and my mom went to the school board. She was like, “Hey, can we get somewhere else?” They said, “We’re opening this school for the creative and performing arts. He can try to get in, but he’ll have to show a portfolio.” I got in.

Do you remember making that portfolio? Did you collect things that you already drew or did you have to draw all new material?

There were just stacks all over the house. My mom just grabbed stuff, you know? I think at that time I was probably really into Mirage Studios. There was a used bookstore that had just a ton of black-and-white comics like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Gizmo and the Fugitoid. You know that weird stuff? They all smelled like cigarettes. [Laughter.] I was like 12 buying that stuff at this used bookstore.

Was that your first exposure to comic books?

Prior to that, I really got into John Byrne’s Sensational She-Hulk.

 

Wow. OK.

I loved the drawing. [Laughs.] She-Hulk was like, “Isn’t it weird that I’m in a comic book?” I was like, “It is weird! And I’m reading you.” [Laughter.] Then I just started looking for more stuff.

It blows my mind that of all the comics, you found She-Hulk first.

They sold it at my grocery store. Yeah. It was the first issue.

I can picture the cover.

She says something like, “I’m going to rip up your X-Men.” I think I tried to read X-Men before and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what was happening. So I was like, “Yeah! I don’t care about X-Men. Rip them up!” I was looking for the weirdest stuff I could find on the newsstand. There were a lot of weird NOW comics. There was Speed Racer. They did Ghostbusters comics. It was just trash, but some of the stuff they had was bizarre. I really liked the weird black-and-white stuff and then I found a comic book shop in town when I was a few years older. I’d go in there and just dig through the dollar bins. I found Underwater by Chester Brown. I found a run of Dark Horse Presents with Moebius and Jodorowsky. I was probably 14 and had no idea who this Jodorowsky guy was.

In one of your more recent comics, you make reference to being locked up as a teen. When did that happen?

I was probably 14 or 15. What happened is… It’s kind of embarrassing for me to talk about this out loud. I don’t know. I don’t mean to make him look bad, but years ago I was telling Ben Marra about this and what happened — I ran away. I was sleeping under a bridge for a while and the cops picked me up and just took me and put me in a juvenile detention center. Ben was like, “They can’t do that!” And I was like, “But they did.” He said, “Man, they can’t do that.” I realized that for most people, that’s the first thing they think — “that can’t happen.”

He’s Canadian.

I love that man. I love him, but it was at that point where I was in different cities like New York — when I got to New York, I’ve got to watch my mouth because I start saying stupid shit like this. People are always like, “What are you talking about?” “Oh, right. This is not a nice topic.” It’s depressing.

So, at 14 you decide to run away. Why?

My dad was physical at home. He was physically abusive. One day I went to school at that creative and performing arts school and had a mark on my face. Somebody told their parents and then DHR [Alabama Department of Human Resources] came up there. DHR interviewed me and then they went and talked to my dad. They came back the next day and said, “He seems like a good, Christian man. I don’t think that this is worth investigating.” So then I had to go home to that.

And your dad knew that someone told and everything fell on you.

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Did you pack anything up or did you just leave?

No, I packed up. The school was downtown, so I left from school.

You said you stayed under a bridge?

Yeah.

A cop saw you patrolling or did someone report you?

I had been going to a gas station nearby to use the bathroom and I think they called.

How long were you there under the bridge?

Just a few days. I’m going to do a story about that one night because I got to Strickland Youth Center and there was this guy there who was like glowing bright red. He was this white dude that was sitting there waiting to be processed. He was glowing — I could just see energy coming off of him. This guy next to me was like, “Dude, you know who that is?” I was like, “No.” A few weeks before, it had been in the news that a pizza delivery kid got gunned down in a drive-by. It was his brother. At the sentencing for the guy that shot him, this kid — the brother that was glowing — jumped over that wall that separates everybody from the judge and lawyers. He jumped over it, jumped over the bench, and attacked the guy in the courtroom. They had to drag him out and I was there with him that night. I don’t even think that man blinked.

What was this Strickland facility like?

Shitty. Really plain, no frills, cinder blocks. Do you know what VCT tile is? It’s cheap-ass tile.

Did anyone attempt to get you out or vouch for you, or was that not even in the question?

I don’t really know. I don’t know. The authority figures were impenetrable to communication. I still run into that now. If people don’t want to hear something or don’t want to believe it, they’re not going to. I learned that there — no one is going to hear you if they don’t want to hear you. Most people there would say stuff like, “I don’t get paid enough to do this.” I’ve heard that a million times. I was there for a while and then I got sent to another place that was like a psychiatric facility.

How long were you at the juvenile detention center for?

A couple months.

And then they transferred you.

Yeah.

What was the reason for the transfer?

I think somebody was trying to be nice by not sending me straight home. Maybe they thought that at the psych place, something could get worked out.

What was this new place like?

A lot of kids there were on drugs. I didn’t do drugs, but I learned a lot about them and I met a lot of people there who, when I got out, I had a lot of interactions with. [Laughs.]

Seeing them around town?

Yeah, yeah. But at this place, on any given night, there would be like straightjackets and they’d thorazine somebody. Somebody would be freaking out and they’d put them down and strap them to a bed. There was a lot of people acting out, but I was just quiet. I stayed on the “good” list and got extra rewards like extra apples or Cheerios. I’m embarrassed to talk about this. Making a comic about it it different.

Why are you embarrassed by it?

I don’t know, I don’t know. No good reason. I just feel it.

How is talking about it different from putting it down on paper?

You know, it took me a long time to do anything autobiographical. Especially after everything that’s happened to me over the last few years and then COVID, now I feel like it would be completely dishonest if I wasn’t talking about this and putting this stuff down on paper. I got to a point where I just had to. Hearing myself say it — you know what it is? When I make a comic about it, I can make it funny. Right now, I sound emo. [Laughter.]

How long were you in this second facility?

Probably five or six months.

You were locked up for a better part of a year of your life. Did you have any communication with your family at all during this time?

At the psych place, there’d be a weekly family meeting.

Were you drawing at all during this time?

The whole time. The whole time. I was drawing extra.

What were you drawing?

At that time, I was pretty angry —

I can’t imagine why. [Laughter.]

I was drawing a lot of crazy stuff. People there would be like, “Hey, if I gave you this apple, would you draw something for me?” I would always say, “Yeah, sure.” A big thing was drawing things for other people to send to their girlfriends because we could send letters. “You think you could draw a heart or rose that I could send to my mom?” There was this guy Jamie and he was at the psych place because he was on meth or something. When I got out, I was hanging out with some people and we ended up at his house. He was doing OK and that night he said to me, “I want to show you something.”

Uh-oh.

This was years later, but he had this dragon that I had drawn for him on his wall in his room. I’ll never forget it.

That’s really cool!

It made me feel good and he was somebody that ended up..

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