Dennis Lindfors talks to Nicolas C. Grey about his HEADACHE
Dennis: It’s a long story. I woke up one day in Battambang, Cambodia, by a traditional funeral song being blasted out on the streets, which really mesmerized me. I headed out to get something to eat, and found you and your souvenir-shop full of weird shit across the streets of the place where I had my meal.
After knowing me for about 5 minutes you asked if I could take care of your shop for a couple of weeks, because you were going to see your mom in Thailand. I was at the end of my travels and had just come back from a headache-inducing meditation retreat, tired of travelling around feeling confused, so it sounded like a good idea.
You gave me a work-in-progress copy of ”This Dog Barking - the Strange story of U.G. Krishnamurti” before you left, which I helped you finish, and was the first thing we collaborated on. Later on, after I returned to Sweden, you came up with the idea to make a comics anthology, called Headache Comix, and… that’s how it all started!
Dennis: How did you come up with the idea of making Headache Comix?
I’ve always loved comics. I think I drew my first comic book at about 7 years old. I grew up with in the uk, where they had a good selection of comics for kids, and then my brother used to get 2000AD. I liked them, even though I was never that keen on the sci-fi stories or superhero stuff, but it was all there was.
When I was 16 I was a hippy when everyone else was a punk, and I probably saw some hippy comics like zap comics and others . I wasn’t long after that me and my good friend Ben Heath started our own comic called watermelon, this was before you could easily photocopy comics, so, just before zine culture really took of , or just at the start of it. The first issue was printed with metal plates, or however they did it back then.
We did that for a few years, and it was semi popular with the new demographic of drugged up ravers of the early 90s . This was also when, in the USA , comics had a real 2nd wave, you could get comics like eightball, weirdo, stickboy, trailer trash, all kinds of great comic books .
Somewhere along the line, my life spiraled out of control and I descended into drug addiction ect. Then, I cleaned up and through circumstances beyond my control, ended up moving to Cambodia about 16 years ago. I had to make a living somehow, so, I did shows in galleries.
I did ok, enough to just get by. I was also doing my first graphic novel , This Dog Barking, with my good friend James Farley, that ended up taking years and years, not just the drawing, but extensive research ect.
There is no underground comics in Cambodia. It’s wasn’t part of the culture. They had cheap, romantic of horror comics, and that was it. I missed them.
I had an idea to get some Cambodian artists together and do a comic . I would call it headache, as that was a popular phrase in Cambodia that people used for every problem, from a minor task being a bit of hassle, to a major catastrophe. I even held a few classes , some people where interested, but, it never came together. There wasn’t the motivation. Comics take a lot of work, and, there is no social capital in drawing a comic, unlike being an “ artist “.
But, I still liked the idea. If I couldn’t buy a comic in Cambodia, at least I could make my own.
I like self-published comics. I was slightly disappointed when everything turned into “ graphic novels “, and some of those people whose comics I used to read became celebrities in the comic world, I mean, they deserved it, they were brilliant artists, but one of the kicks I got out of comics was the kinda anonymous nature of them.
Weirdo was great for that , the hook was R Crumb, but he included all these great artists you never would hear of .
Comics are strange, they are hard work, you don’t make any money, and, it used to be none really cared much about them anyway, it had an outsider art quality to it, a kinda purest nature, totally at odds with how anything is meant to function in this world.
It’s kinda anarchic, or self-defeating, but it is the opposite of the art world, which is all about status and in the end, celebrity, which can sometimes take away from the art , it’s a bit of a dilemma, because artists do need to make money to even do them, but, a big part of my attraction is that, and that’s one of the things I wanted for headache.
Through Facebook I had made contact with quite a few cartoonists, so, I figured I would just try and get a few good contributions, and, I still did the odd short comic strip , and , just put it together. You had done such a great job with the graphic novel ‘‘this dog barking’’, that had somehow ended up being published by happer Collins in India, that I wanted to involve you again. Then, I figured you are better at being the editor than I was, so, here we are.
Recently I’ve been reflecting a lot on shame and guilt, and realized how much it has been affecting my life, much more so than I've ever thought before. It’s been quite eye-opening to see, a revelation almost, in how many ways it has had a negative impact on everything from my relationships to trying to accomplish more personal goals. One of the most painful thing is probably how it has been a huge roadblock for doing the things I love. In seeing that, I’ve also come to recognize it in friends, family, and in extension how it affects society and the cultures we are living in. Your story ”Life is meaningless and then you die” in Headache 3, brings that up, for example in the way advertising often works with subliminal messages to make you feel like an ugly, stupid loser - basically shaming you - and then selling you the solution that will make you attractive, smart, cool, powerful and whatever. How do you think shame and guilt has affected your life? Is it a topic you intentionally work with in your comics? And do you see it often in other cartoonists work?
In my personal life, when I was younger, and , for a while, a drug addict, and petty criminal, I , quite naturally, did suffer from shame and guilt . I think most people understand these things as negative emotions ( if you can class them as emotions, I don’t know), but I feel neutral about them, in that it can be a good thing to feel these things, but, it can get misplaced and then it can have a negative effect. The sad fact was I used to do a lot of things I knew where bad, in truth , mostly to myself, but, it effected people that where close to me. So, the shame and guilt was there for me to recognize that, and, change my behaviors. Of course, I didn’t , for years and years, as a negative feedback loop can, and often does, happen. The more shame and guilt i felt the more i ended up trying to escape those feelings, which led to more behaviors that were shameful or hurtful .
Now that I’m older , I recognize this pattern better. I do my best not do engage in things that make me feel shame and guilt. Of course, it’s not that simple , but I do my best . Simple things, like doing the things I say i’m going to do, not be a dick to people, ect ect . There is also this idea that there is no such thing as a private belief, epistemic responsibility, is the fancy term. The idea is simple, if I privately hate women, and don’t go around expressing that belief, it’s so going to affect my behavior to woman, therefore, my private beliefs do matter , so, I try to look at the things I believe in as well, and the effect those beliefs have on the world. Like I say , it’s complicated, right now it has been speculated we are in an epistemological crisis, and I tend to agree . So, good people may believe bad ideas, thinking they are good ideas , I could believe in bad ideas , and think they are good ideas .
Culturally, the world runs on shame and quilt. It’s just a side affect of the economic situation we find imposed on us . People need to sell shit to people, and keep that up forever ( according to the current economic model ) so, a huge degree of manipulation has to be involved in that , and, if you are born into this culture, which is global to some degree, no one is immune. So, a lot of work goes into messages that we are not good enough. A lot of guilt can be pushed on to the individual, you are causing global warming because you didn’t buy that organic tomato which is strangely twice the price of a regular tomato. Or, the device I’m typing this on was made possible by child labor in Africa, but, short of total non-participation in society ( which is hard, and getting harder , and, really not a life most people can handle ) you have to accept that is just how things are . All we can do is our best I guess . Obviously, some people don’t give a fuck about things like that , or hold a set of beliefs that justify it . Are they “ happier “, maybe, but, in my opinion, that’s another engine that drives quilt and shame , the idea that the goal of life is your own personal happiness. So, yes , this stuff works it’s way into my comics, as , like everyone else, I’m trying to navigate being a human in a very complex world, and to understand it, to understand why I feel or have felt certain ways .
I don’t see it that often in comics, sometimes. I should add, I don’t read a lot of comics, so, for all I know, there could be a lot of them. But, it’s seems more popular for people to write about there personal lives , and, that’s fine , I understand that , and understand you can work these themes into personal stories. I have just not taken that road particularly. I don’t enjoy thinking about my life , my past , I find it quite depressing. I enjoy taking a more philosophical approach, maybe that’s a cop out, I don’t know .
Your drawings are usually extremely detailed and packed with information. A few years ago you had an exhibition called ”Horror Vacui” - latin for ”fear of empty space" - , where you had filled walls and objects with your crosshatched, chaotic worlds. I know you listen to a lot of podcasts, audiobooks and youtube-videos when you draw - you seem to fill any empty space that would be left in your mind as well. Would you say you have a fear of empty space in that sense? Is your style of drawing purely an artistic choice, some kind of compulsion, or maybe just a meditative act?
It must be a compulsion, I don’t remember ever making an artist choice , I tend to think it as just a compulsion. I know this will sound deliberately self-deprecating , but I’ve never considered myself a particularly good artist. I have been much more prone to view my compulsion to draw, and draw the way I draw , as either some form of mental illness, or avoidance strategy.
Not sure why , but, in the past I have spend months and months doing a drawing, and , after I finished it, just moving on to the next one, not thinking much about showing it to anyone.
I do find drawing to be very meditative. I also find it helpful, at certain stages , to listen to something while I draw. It’s like my mind can be occupied with what I’m listening to , and quite engaged with it, almost freeing another part of my mind to draw. I don’t really understand why it works like that , or what is going on.
If for whatever reason I can’t draw for hours every day, and it goes on for to long, I begin to get pretty depressed. I really am unsure if this is healthy behavior or not.
My fear of empty spaces appears not only in my drawings , but in everywhere I have lived . I’ve moved 100’s of times and I also compulsively collect junk . At my worst , I was a full on hoarder , with men in hazmat suits appearing at my door once after a social worker had called . I’m a lot better now, but I still have this tendency. I see crap on the sidewalk and bring it home .
There is definitely something wrong with me, but I’m to poor to see a therapist. But, I’m also a mostly calm person. I actually like looking at landscapes that are not cluttered, like, the sea . I could stare at the sea for hours . I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out yet . It even bothers me when I see people’s houses in movies and there is to much empty space around them. When my brother said he was DE cluttering his house, I felt a pang of anxiety, totally irrational. I have been told various theories, heard various theories, but, like I said, more to understand it as a kind of mental illness. Drawing may be just a byproduct of it , and I can create worlds that are crammed full of details, with a bit of paper and pen, and, the fact I find this relaxing, is, weird. But maybe it better for everyone that I can get my weirdness out on paper, so, appear relatively normal in real life ( though that would be up for debate I guess , depending on who you ask )
How does your work process look like?
It looks like me lying on my stomach on the floor , with a lamp, in the darkness of the night , listening to some bullshit on YouTube, and making marks on bits of white paper. Really not that exciting. I’ve drawn lying on the floor since I was a little kid .
How do you get started on a new idea?
I have notebooks lying around with ideas and outlines for stories. I’m always working on multiple projects , jumping from on to the other .
If my imagination stopped functioning tomorrow, I would still have years of stuff to do that is already there, in my head. Ideas, really, come pretty easy .
It’s in doing the work that makes the idea into a graphic novel, or a comic strip, or just a big drawing, that is the work. The work of doing it can change the idea, it always gets to the stage where it feels like I’m just doing the work, the thing is already there, complete, I’m just a kinda very low paid worker drawing it up.
I can always somehow manage to fool myself into thinking what I’m doing the moment is good, long enough to finish it, once it’s finished, I usually feel almost embarrassed by the whole thing . Maybe that’s motivates me to try again, I’m not sure why it never motivates me to just quit, but, really, at this stage in my life , I would not know what else I can do.
how much time do you spend making it (how many hours a day do you draw), and where do you usually work?
I usually work throughout the night , from about 9ish , till 6 am. Taking breaks to look at some garbage on the internet, or get in to a pointless argument on Facebook. I take a day or 2 of a week, to actually go outside and walk around in nature for the day. I watch a lot of movies . At heart , I think I’m lazy, but, really, I work pretty much all the time . Maybe I aspire to be lazy . Like I said, I work lying on the floor in the front room of a little apartment on the 3rd floor of an old building, under some kind of bird house, that used to be a bat house, so, there are bats flying around, not many , but a few .
You live under some kind of bird house, that used to be a bat house?
I live on the 3rd floor in an old apartment block in a s small town in Cambodia.
I think the apartment were once for government workers.
It’s kinda falling apart, but, so I am.
The floor above me is some kind of make shift structure, I always assumed was abandoned. In my hall, there is a set of stairs , that lead to a metal door with a rusty old padlock.
One day, out of curiosity, I looked through this tiny slot they had in the door, and I could make out some kind of machine in there with blinking lights , it was confusing, as I didn’t know where the electricity was going from, or what that machine meant. It was probably a year before this guy appeared and wanted to go up there . I couldn’t communicate with him that well, but, managed to figure out it was a bat house up there . There was always quite a few bats flying around the house in the evening. The device , was some kinda MP3 player that played sounds to attract bats . About a year later, a bunch of people came and changed the machine to a machine that made fake bird sounds. They had given up on the bats . I know, in Cambodia, you can make a lot of money selling bird nest stuff, for this weird drink that is popular all over Asia . Anyway, now, during the day, I have fake birds sounds . It’s not so bad , a bit surreal I guess , but it’s pretty realistic and not so loud . However, the bats are still nesting someplace as I still have bats flying around, and a lot of bat shit in the hall way, and , occasionally, a dead bat . Maybe I should make some bat soup and attempt to start another pandemic.
We're planning a "Psychedelic issue" of Headache soon , Are you planning something for this?
It will be shocking for people to hear that I used to take a hell of a lot of lsd when I was younger , and for quite a few years, until it completely fried my brain. Years and years later, I have occasionally taken it again. I have noticed it has been getting a lot of attention these days. I will draw a story about my thoughts and experiences with lsd mostly, the good, the bad and the ugly .
What kind of submissions would you like to see for it?
I’m sure you’ll do a great job getting wonderful submissions, you always do. I will be interested to see what people have to say about the subject. It’s gone full circle , from the 60s, when it was going to save the world, to , it was going to drive you insane , back to it being a cure all for all most everything you can think of . It would be nice to see a range of views on it .
You mentioned that there were circumstances beyond your control that made you move to Cambodia. What were those circumstances?
Without going into the details, when my daughter was about 2, she and her mother ( we split up before then ) moved to Cambodia.
I was in London. It boiled down to, if I wanted to be around, see her grow up, I would have to gather what money I could and move to Cambodia. It was a good decision, as, I did, indeed get to be around. It was tough to survive, but, I did . I would never have come here otherwise, I didn’t really think about traveling, back backings ect , it was an alien concept to me. You could say I moved here for love .
What do you fear most about the future? In the context of your own life, but also when it comes to this ball floating around in space, that we live on.
I have always had a pessimist view of the future, when we did the last watermelon comic, I can’t remember what year it was, but we put 1999 on the cover, because, it seemed so, futuristic!
I kinda thought we may all be dead by then.
I think humans are mostly pretty lousy at predicting the future, maybe the writer Philip k dick was the closest .
I know I will get old, everyone I love will die, I will die .
I hope those I love don’t suffer, I guess, that is a worry, more than a fear.
To be honest, I hope people who I don’t even like don’t suffer . It may sound cheesy, but, if there is one thing I’m pretty sure of is that my own personal happiness and fulfillment, wouldn’t mean all that much if there is suffering all around me, and, that suffering is just a fact of life .
I worry about the collapse of society in terms of how it will affect people mentality, it’s nice to think it would bring people together, but, I’m not so sure.
I do try to challenge myself to think of good things that could happen, because, I find it pretty easy to come up with dystopian visions . I don’t really like thinking about the future, or the past , it’s better for me to take things day by day. I had a lot of disappointments, so, I don’t like to get my hopes up about many things , and, sometimes it’s painful to look back on the past. Even the happy times gets mixed up with melancholy.
I could take the long view , and pretend none of it will matter in the end because this planet will burn out and everything will eventually be forgotten, but, that’s just a story.
The fact is , I’m stuck in this ever changing moment, one falling into the next , and it’s what happens there that’s important I guess, and, the relationships I have with people, the rest, is somehow, I think, trivial. Even knowing this, I’m sure I could be better, but, all I can do is try .
If you would imagine yourself in a parallel universe, where you made some different choices in a young age, had different opportunities, or weren’t introduced to certain things that complicated your life to a great extent (like illegal drugs for example), and never started making comics (because that’s almost on par with becoming a drug addict), how do you imagine the Parallel Nicolas C. Grey? What’s he doing right now? Where is he living? Pick a miserable version and an ”I- wish-that-was-me-in-this-universe” one.
When I was young I read this book, “ the strange life of Ivan osokin “, by ouspenski. He was a friend of gurdieff, the Russian “ mystic “ popular in the 1930,s. The book was said to distill all his teachings in one short(ish) story. The premise, if I recall, is a suicidal man, feeling he has failed at everything, meets a magician, who says he can live his life over again, knowing all that he knows now, so, he can avoid the mistakes he makes . So, that what happens, but, the twist is, even knowing everything, he still somehow ends up repeating the same mistakes.
That book always stuck with me , I don’t know why.
So, even though I have regrets , I’m not so sure anything could be any different.
I often think of my life like a movie I’m am watching, I can only comment on it as it is happening, so, it’s hard to think of this idea seriously. Yes, I could fantasize that I could have a different life, but, I would still be me, whatever that means. I already feel like I have lived multiple lives .
When I wrote the comic book, “ life sucks “, it’s all about Parallel worlds, and they collapse in on each other, the character from the parallel worlds meet, explode into each other , but, the little cartoon bear ( the anti-hero of the comic ) just kinda blunders on. Drawing is creating parallel worlds, dreaming, maybe thinking is itself .
The world is pretty weird as it is.
So, I think the miserable version, and the ‘‘ I wish that was me’’ version, is the same, and it’s this world, with all its sadness, happiness, failings , love, loss and longing , it’s this world.
Dennis ; What are you working on now .. ?
I’m on the last chapter of a graphic novel written by Vincent Alexander, called “ death of a pornographer “. It’s a kinda love story. It has elements of Vincent’s experiences of working in a sex shop in soho .
It’s sparse and beautifully written , almost like poetry.
I just hope my drawings do it justice .
It’s kinda different from what I do usually, it’s been challenging. It’s set in a real place, it has a certain mood . It’s taken me / us years . My father went to school in Soho , so, I like that about it as well , some strange kind of connection.
Other than that , drawing for headache, other drawings, looking forward to doing the psychedelic themed issue. I wish I had more time , there is so much I want to do.
Dennis ; And , finally, how are you ?
It’s always an odd question.
I know people are just meant to say , I’m fine , how are you ? And , I guess that does cover it most the time.
I read someplace that we should not feel obligated to be the same person everyday, that if you are depressed today, does not mean you have to be that way tomorrow. I’m kinda get that , but , we all have this background hum, that we don’t think about, but it’s there . Maybe it’s all bullshit , but it’s like a story that plays inaudibly in the background, giving a consistency to our identity. Sometimes I get depressed, sad , whatever, and kinda hate the world , but , only in an abstract kind of way , really, I love life . I love the very few people that I’m close to . I love the wonder of it all , the mystery. It’s really all so goddammed beautiful, so, yeah, I guess I’m doing just fine .
How are you ?