Comics: South African Roundup #2: Joe Daly

Posted: 29 August 2013
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Joe Daly has achieved international acclaim for his comics work and is highly regarded in the industry yet he is not well known in South Africa, although he has been publishing books for about 10 years. Here's our roundup of his publications, including his stand-out series Dungeon Quest.

I am devoting the whole of my second South African comics roundup to Joe Daly as he has produced a significant body of work in the past decade and deserves more recognition locally for his achievements and the quality of his publications.

Joe Daly was born in London but grew up in Cape Town and studied animation at City Varsity in Kloof Street and you can see this animation influence in some of his work in how he progresses storylines and sets up the structure and content flow of the panels. In his early career he was directly influenced by Bitterkomix and the underground movement, and Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes in particular as they mentored him, and some of his work subsequently appeared in a few editions of Bitterkomix. This underground influence is often infused in the subject matter, how stories are tackled, and the visual style of much of Joe's work.

This roundup comprises everything I have been able to get my hands on that is, or includes, Joe's work but there are a few things that are missing, which I will include in future roundups if I can find them. There's also a Dungeon Quest mini comic available from Fantagraphics Books but you can only get it if you spend $50 in its online store or buy Dungeon Quest Book Three in the store so, for the moment, I don't have it.

Off Cuts Issue No. 1
Off Cuts Issue No. 1 Comic anthology; circa 2002/3; 30 pages; black and white
Publisher: Igubu Comics Collective
Contributors: Mirah, Joe Daly, Alex Penderis, Gerhard Mostert, Karel Swanepoel, Gerald Ngubane

Off Cuts was a publication produced by the Igubu initiative. There were only about 100 copies printed, so it is very rare, and it didn't go past the first issue, unfortunately. It comprises four stories: Superdoobymon by Mirah, which features a mad professor whose attempt at world domination is likely to be thwarted by Superdoobymon, a rastaesque dooby smoker (it's to be continued); Atom Flash by Alex Penderis, which features an alien spacecraft that lands on Earth (to be continued); Pear Shape, a 2001 story by Gerhard Mostert and Karel Swanepoel, which doesn't make a lot of sense - it looks like the start of a psychotic drug-fuelled road trip but it's not listed as being continued so I have no idea but I did enjoy it; and Spike N Mojo Get It Moving by Gerald Ngubane, which features two joint-smoking ghetto losers who happen upon a bank robber's loot (also to be continued).

Joe Daly's contribution to the publication comprises four single-panel full-page comics, entitled Damaged Goods, that are very much reminiscent of Gary Larson's The Far Side. The art is the most polished in the collection and you can see the beginnings of Joe's style, with its Hergé influences, and his colouring/shading ability, but I didn't find any of the humour to be particular funny (the twist on Olive Twist was probably the best of the lot).

It's a bit hard to assess the stories in the publication as they all seem to be just the start of something bigger that, sadly, we will never see but I like what is there. Atom Flash needs a little inking polish, or possibly shading, to give the sometimes chaotic, detailed art some depth, and the art of Spike N Mojo Get It Moving is a little crude (with hand lettering that needs some work) but on the whole all the art is very good. I especially like the style of Pear Shape (I don't know which of the two collaborators did what), which tells the entire story without speech - the art does all the work - and Superdoobymon builds some great characters very quickly.

Although nothing is complete and there isn't much Joe Daly in here I'd definitely recommend buying it if you can find a copy - Readers Den might still have one in its South African cabinet in Claremont. Not only is it quality work but it's now a rare collectible.

The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book
The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book Graphic novel; hardcover; parts originally published in 2002, 2003 (this compilation 2009); 112 pages; full colour
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606991633
By: Joe Daly

The work in The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book was completed before Scrublands (see below) but for some reason Fantagraphics Books chose to publish it second. Joe initially approached Fantagraphics Books with the first 10 pages of The Red Monkey but the publisher passed on the project after a year of indecision so Joe decided to try Double Storey in South Africa instead, which was interested but only if he could prove there was a market for it. SL magazine had seen some of his work and liked it so the first Red Monkey story, The Red Monkey - The Leaking Cello Case was serialised in the magazine and then published as a hardcover by SL and Double Storey in 2003. As the local market was very small the book didn't do particularly well and this scared away Double Storey, which passed on publishing Joe's next work, which was Scrublands. Meanwhile, Fantagraphics Books became interested in The Red Monkey but wanted something that was substantial enough to be published as a graphic novel, so Joe put together The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book, which comprised the first story plus a new one, and also offered Scrublands to the publisher. Both were accepted and Scrublands was published first in 2006, followed by The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book in 2009, nearly 10 years after The Red Monkey had appeared in print for the first time. (It's a lesson in frustration and perseverance, if ever there was one, for those wanting to enter the industry.)

The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book, which is beautifully bound and printed, comprises the stories The Red Monkey - The Leaking Cello Case and The Red Monkey - John Wesley Harding. The "Red Monkey" of the title is a guy named Dave who has red hair and monkey feet. Both stories take place in a fictitious Cape Town that's a bizarre mix of what, to me, seems to be Cape Town and Miami (with, perhaps, a little bit of Los Angeles in the mix too).

Iconic Cape Town landmarks such as the planetarium and museum (but not art museum), Table Mountain, Garden's Centre and the tampon towers are accurately depicted (all of those in one panel, in fact), cars all have CA number plates, and there are inferences to Long Street and Sea Point, but all the cactus plants look as though they've fallen out of Arizona and the text and characters are all very Americanised. It's a lovely mix of cultures that presents a great fictionalised version of Cape Town that feels like a movie reinvisioning.

The first story sees Dave, with the help of his stoner friend Paul, solve the mystery of the bizarre goings on in the flat above Dave's apartment and the second story involves them trying to track down John Wesley Harding, a capybara that's escaped from the animal sanctuary where Paul works, but soon they become embroiled in an environmental controversy. Both stories are humorous and surreal with a hallucinatory stoner vibe that's entirely suitable and philosophical moments that pop out of nowhere, which has become typical of Joe Daly's work.

The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book

Art wise there is a slight difference between the two stories but the marked difference is in the colouring. I prefer the colouring in the first story (although some might argue that it's oversaturated) because it reminds me of the richness of summer and the hot weather we experience in Cape Town. The colour in the second story is a lot flatter but the shading and shadows are especially well done.

The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book is a fun compilation of two stories that are gentle yet filled with intrigue and subtle, amusing jabs at society and culture. I'm hoping that at some point Joe will go back to this world and produce some new stories as there's so much potential and I really enjoy being immersed in his re-imagined version of Cape Town.

Scrublands Comic anthology; softcover; 2006; 126 pages; colour, black and white
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781560977445
By: Joe Daly

Upon opening my brand-new copy of Scrublands for the first time the cover came unglued from the spine because the glue binding wasn't done properly, which was a surprise, considering that this book was published by a professional publisher in the US and the quality of The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book (see above), which was published a few years later, is superb. My other big issue with it is that there are a few minor punctuation errors, which isn't acceptable, especially in a book published by a professional company that should employ people to proofread thoroughly.

Scrublands mainly comprises a series of vignettes featuring characters that appear in numerous stories and, in a few cases, are characters that Joe has revisited in later work - notably Dungeon Quest (see below). Most of the stories are in colour with constrained palettes, though a few are in black and white. The majority of the book is taken up by Prebaby, which is a surreal, wordless existential exploration of the circle of life (or something to that effect - it's definitely open to interpretation) with a very different art style from the rest of the stories, with the exception of the first Aqua Boy story. The art styles of the other stories are much more similar, though some have a touch of Hergé while others feel more Bitterkomix (and, in fact, Bitterkomix's Joe Dog and Lorcan White feature in one of the stories, which is set in Cape Town). There is also a page comprising nine Damaged Goods panels, three of which are reprints from Off Cuts Issue No. 1 (see above). Seeing so many on one page really strengthens the humour of all of them and there are a few new ones that I quite liked.

Many of the themes in the various stories are topics that Joe has continued to explore throughout his career. Scrublands, particularly, takes a dig at divorce, puberty, art, religion, drug culture, and the meaning of life, among others, in ways that are sometimes surreal, sometimes non sequitur, sometimes subtle, and sometimes very uncomfortably in your face. The results vary and I suspect that is as much about the reader as it is about the work. Two of my favourites are Kobosh And Steve In The Supermarket, for its random philosophical musings that are either going to resonate strongly with you, or not at all, and Kobosh And Steve In My Beach Community, which manages, masterfully, to use an irksome technique (a very annoying epistrophe) to generate an amazingly warm feeling of belonging and a sense of "home". I love the clever contrast and, as a words person myself, the fact that the skill in this story is in the text rather than the art, which is unusual for a visual medium.


This is a great, non-taxing, entertaining compilation that showcases Joe's ability to convey ideas and build characters in a very short space. There are few published examples of this as most of the rest of his work is intricate long-form storytelling with well developed flow and climaxes, as well as side-story moments that add depth to the whole, so being able to read some of his short-form work is a definite treat.

Bitterkomix 15
Bitterkomix 15 Comic anthology; softcover; 2008; 96 pages; black and white, plus 32 colour pages
Publisher: Jacana
ISBN: 9781770095274
Contributors: Joe Dog, Konradski/Conrad Botha, Sophia Martineck, Ana Albero, JC Menu, Noyau, Lorcan White, Henning Wagenbreth, Joe Daly

There's a lot to be said about this book, and Joe Daly is only one of the contributors, so I'm going to focus only on his story and leave the rest for a future roundup where I can discuss the entire publication in more depth. This is also not the only Bitterkomix publication in which Joe's work has appeared but it's the only one I've been able to buy - the rest are out of print and I'm going to have to raid someone's collection one day to see what else has been published.

Joe's contribution is a four-page short story from 2007 entitled Burrow World, which is incorporated into the colour section of the book. (Burrow World has subsequently been republished in Fantagraphics Books' Mome Vol. 18: Spring 2010 (see below), which may be easier to find if you're not in South Africa.)

In Burrow World two henchmen, Armoured Dylan, a furry, rodent-like armadillo man, and Crabmann, a crab-like man (or man-like crab?), are sent to deal with "an evil, powerful little boy" who has infiltrated their boss's lair.

Bitterkomix 15

The story plays with the pseudo mysticism often found in Asian action movies and is quite brutal in places but the clever ending is classic Joe Daly work that made me laugh.

Bitterkomix 15: Stevenson

Mome Vol. 18: Spring 2010
Mome Vol. 18: Spring 2010 Comic anthology; 2010; 128 pages; colour and black and white
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606993033
Contributors: Various; edited by Eric Reynolds

I haven't read this publication yet so I can't review it but I have read the Joe Daly story that has been included in it as it's Burrow World, which he wrote in 2007 and which was first published in 2008 in Bitterkomix 15 (see above).

You can view a preview PDF of the publication on the Fantagraphics Books web site to get a feel for what it contains, which includes the first page of the Burrow World story.

Dungeon Quest Book One
Dungeon Quest Book One Graphic novel; softcover; 2010; 136 pages; black and white
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606993477
By: Joe Daly

Dungeon Quest is Joe Daly's epic adventure series that has spanned three books (with a fourth on the way) and which has been in production for half a decade (and counting). The series features beautiful black and white line art and some surreal (and stoner) moments intermingled with adolescent philosophical musings and humour, all in a grand fantasy-adventure story.

In book one, frustrated with his homework assignment, Millennium Boy, a foul-mouthed kid from the suburbs, bids his mom farewell, recruits slacker neighbour Steve, and sets off on an adventure that would be recognisable to any role-playing-game enthusiast - with one catch: much of the adventure in the first book is set in the real world.

Through the course of the book they add two new members (that's half a joke) to the team - Lash Penis, a muscleman, and Nerdgirl, an archer - and the rest of the story sees them fighting through an increasingly fantastical suburban setting to reach Fireburg Forest while on a quest to find all the pieces of the Atlantean Resonator Guitar.

There's some juvenile offensive language (among other things, characters call each other "fag" on occasion) and some penises (penii?) that add nothing to the story (I don't know what it is about South African comics artists and their penis obsessions) so it's not for the easily offended. I imagine that Joe does know exactly what he's doing as there's an entire misogynistic conversation about misogynistic conversation, which presents typical adolescent arguments and logic and, I must admit, is entertaining even as it offends. There are also some fun, subtle in-jokes that will amuse South African readers and the language, notably the slang, has a definite South African slant, which is unusual to see in print.

My other complaint is that Nerdgirl almost feels like a background filler character, although it might be apt considering the gamer mindset that's still prevalent in many circles that there are "no girls" who play games (and if they do they play Minesweeper and Angry Birds and Barbie games filled with pink stuff). Nerdgirl rarely speaks (and when she does it's a handful of words) and her primary contribution to the team effort seems to be to shoot arrows from a distance and occasionally provide additional support assistance.

What I love about this book is how it re-envisions suburban norms through a role-playing lens, which results in some scenarios that are hilarious. Unfortunately in the later books the story becomes a more traditional role-playing adventure, albeit with gratuitous nudity, copious drug taking, and more offensive language and scenarios (both in terms of being crude and bigotted), and the suburban setting is lost. It continues to be a great story even as it becomes more of a fantasy adventure and less grounded in real life but the genius, for me, was in how the start of the story subverted suburbia using video-game culture from the 80s and 90s, as well as role-playing games.

Dungeon Quest Book One

Regular updates are included in each book (usually after a major battle) to fill the reader in on the status, and clothing and weapons collection, of each character, much like viewing a character status page in a video game, and each book ends with a list of quests that have been completed, quests that are still to be completed, and an inventory list. These are two of my favourite devices that are used in this series, just for the repeating nod to gamers, but they also help to ground the progression of the story in your mind, some of which gets lost momentarily among the insanity of many of the absurd situations in which the characters find themselves.

Dungeon Quest Book One is a great start to an unusual series with a sensibility that's influenced by underground comics and smart nods to sub cultures, and the incorporation of very diverse influences to tell a unique story.

Dungeon Quest Book Two
Dungeon Quest Book Two Graphic novel; softcover; 2011; 136 pages; black and white
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606994368
By: Joe Daly

Having reached Fireburg Forest at the end of book one, the adventurers continue their quest through the forest to try and find the prophet and poet Bromedes, as well as the rest of the missing pieces of the Atlantean Resonator Guitar.

Although by this point the story has lost its ingenious underground-comics-influenced suburban subtext, this is my favourite of the three books published so far - there are fewer offensive moments in the storytelling, and more action and adventure, and the care and detail in the art is superb. It seems as though Joe was just built to produce beautiful forest art. The line work is intricate, detailed, and very skilled and at one point there's even a visual nod to Ta Prohm in Cambodia, as well as Nāaga depictions that you can find all over the country too. When references such as this pop up in his work I have to admit that it blows me away because it's quite apparent at how knowledgeable he is about so many different topics and how diverse his interests are. All of that gets distilled into his work and his work ismuch richer for it.

Dungeon Quest Book Two

Back to Dungeon Quest. In this book there are a few pages of the characters calling each other "faggot" (it gets worse in the next book) in a drug-induced moment but, that aside, I really love this section of the story. The art, the scenarios, the location settings, and the adventure elements are all wonderful and combine beautifully to tell a fun, entertaining tale. Reaching the end is actually quite a disappointment because you want it to continue a little more.

I sometimes just enjoy paging through to gawk at the art, which shows an immense amount of care and attention, but the story is just as good, with lots of Mesoamerican and South American influences, which is almost as fascinating as the suburban context of the first book, and eclectic nods to astronomy, Indiana Jones, and The Lord Of The Rings. Joe has said that he wanted this to be more of a true adventure story and he has achieved his goal, spectacularly.

Dungeon Quest Book Three
Dungeon Quest Book Two Graphic novel; softcover; 2012; 288 pages; black and white
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606994368
By: Joe Daly

Dungeon Quest Book Three has more pages than the first two books combined, partly because a section is devoted to a thesis-like story within a story and because some brief plot scenarios are extended to more pages than are necessary to accommodate a lot more art and adolescent drug-fuelled musings, as well as far too much gratuitous penis storytelling that borders on the obsessive, and it all slows the pace. In fact, I think less happens in this book than in either of the other two.

Book three is almost a culmination (unless book four is going to be worse...) of "faggot" smack talk and penises and it's all ridiculous and unnecessary. I can't say I care for it, which makes it harder to enjoy the story as it seems so puerile. By the end of this book (through the course of the entire series) all the characters have had scenes in which they are naked - even Nerdgirl, although she (respectfully, I suspect) receives the most modest treatment and, bar one comment that another character makes, it isn't sexualised, which was my big fear. In fact, I was so afraid that something terrible was going to happen that a sense of trepidation loomed over me until almost the end of the book and lessened my enjoyment considerably. In particular, I was incredibly worried that the story was going to dip into some sort of rape fantasy. Thankfully it didn't happen but I wish there had been some way I could have known this beforehand as it messed with my ability to enjoy the book on a first read.

On the plus side, Nerdgirl gets to speak multiple sentences in this one but that's only because at one point she is kidnapped in the all-too-familiar damsel-in-distress scenario (which, unsurprisingly, requires a rescue).

This is the book that's going to be a challenge to a lot of readers and I think much of the sensibility comes from Joe's background in subversive underground comics. The violence is also gratuitous (unfortunately I can't stay away from that word for the moment as it has no equal for what I need to say here) and there's a combination of homoerotic and homophobic content that is going to make some people uncomfortable but which others, I suspect, will find hilarious. I think both reactions are problematic - if it makes you uncomfortable you need to join the rest of us in the 21st century and if you find it hilarious you need a wake-up call about bigotry (...or perhaps it's the other way around, which is why this is all so confusing).

I think my personal reaction is very similar to the internal conflict I'm currently experiencing with regards to Bitterkomix (to be discussed, perhaps, in a future article) in that it's not so much what I personally feel but that I fear the reactions of other people, which often indicate an ingrained layer of bigotry, patriarchy, misogyny, and privileged entitlement that that person is not even aware of and vehemently denies. Yet it makes this book all the more relevant right now as these conflicts are currently playing out all over the world in the gaming and geek spheres.

On a technical level there are a couple of places where it seems as if there was an errant apostrophe that was removed but otherwise there are no mistakes in the text (if I recall correctly, though I forgot to write notes at the time, there were minor errors in the other two books). At one point Millennium Boy seems to grow to the size of Millennium Teenager (and then it seems to fluctuate between the two) for the rest of the book, with no explanation (art accident? hormones/sudden puberty?), which confused me as so much care is usually taken with the art. My copy also, once again, has bad glue binding on the spine, made worse by the fact that this book is double the size of the others and therefore much heavier.

Partway through the story, in which the group continues its quest to find all the pieces of the Atlantean Resonator Guitar, as well as gets distracted by side quests and misadventures, the group discovers a book detailing the history of the Romish people (the Romish Book Of The Dead). It's a bit jarring at first as it's practically a dissertation and very intellectual and intricate (it looks like, and is like, reading a textbook) and this crushes the pace of the rest of the story but the effort you have to put in to reading it really pays off. It is both clever in how Joe Daly weaves ancient history together to form a new story and amusing in how he absolutely mocks everything in the process. It's a complete bullshit tale but he pulls it off masterfully. Just be prepared that it's coming and it's heavy reading.

Dungeon Quest Book Three

Quite obviously this is not my favourite of the books due to its challenging content (which may or may not also be bigotted content) and slower pace but the art remains incredible and it's crucial to read if you want to continue with the story. I'm looking forward to the next book because I'm keen to know what happens next as the group has picked up a staggering amount of equipment and yet still seems to be far away from completing its main quest, plus a long list of side quests have suddenly manifested and therefore there is lots to do and many new locations for the characters to discover. Add to that the random, unexpected subcultures that are regularly thrown into the storyline and I'm sure it's going to be a treat - or a challenge. We'll see.

Joe Daly, who is very reclusive, will be appearing at this year's Open Book Comics Festival in Cape Town so this might be your only opportunity to meet him and get copies of his book signed.

Special thanks to Readers Den for its assistance with, and support of, some of's comics research.

Tags: #books, #cape_town, #comics, #speculative_fiction

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