“Today in Three Panels” by Dean Mang-Wooley

I met Dean in Cook Street Village. We agreed with a chuckle to meet at Serious Coffee because, unlike Moka House, they didn’t have an anti-cycling petition.1

When Dean arrived and smiled shyly I wondered briefly if this was going to be awkward. It was my intention, after all, to listen more and talk less. And Dean was quiet.

Dean had an armload of sketch books full of storyboards and beautifully inked panels.

As it turned out, our meeting wasn’t awkward at all. Our time together was awesome. Dean surprised me by speaking easily and at length without much prompting. I had questions, sure. But Dean was happy to talk art and politics and life and growing up Christian in Alberta.

They’re the creator of Today in Three Panels. Which I love.2

Dean Mang-Wooley holds up a number of strips from their journal.
Dean Mang-Wooley holds up a page with three strips in it.

Dean is a watcher

The first time I met Dean was a few years ago. We sat side by side on hard wooden seats and in between listening to the scheduled speakers we had a few short, awkward, exchanges. Later that day I realized that Dean was a watcher. Blink, blink.

Dean watched. And noticed. Blink.

And when Dean spoke, they gave me the impression of a very slight delay. It reminded me a little of when you talk to your friend on the phone but they’re also writing an email. Except, with Dean, the delay was not caused by an absence of attention. It was more like they were routing everything that happened, everything they were taking in, through some kind of parallel process that allowed them to be even more present. Uber present. It’s as though they’re there twice, taking everything in and soaking it up and then having a conversation about it all at warp speed. Blink.

You can tell Dean is hyper present, because, well, they’re nice. They’re thoughtful. And the day I met them to interview them and look at their illustrations, I felt very heard. Which is hilarious, because I was there to listen.

Dean’s a kind of journalist

“Memory is very important. I want to be accurate. I want to be honest.”

Okay, so the thing about Today in Three Panels is that the characters are real people.3 The feelings are real life feelings. The moments are real moments.

And most of those moments were private right up until Dean published them on the interwebs.

Luckily for the people in Dean’s life, Dean takes seriously their role as a caring community member who considers the risks and impacts of telling stories. The result is that there are stories that have been made, but never published.

I laughed when I heard this, and barked, “it’s a secret archive of treasure strips that we can publish after you die!” Laughing, Dean simply said no.

Dean has chosen to make comics that are okay for the subjects. It’s a practice of active consent. And yes, there have also been transgressions. Dean tells me that “capturing the nuance of human interactions in three panels is hard.”

I have some sense for how hard, because I too draw and paint and tell stories. And I can’t help but envy Dean’s style and skills. One moment while holding a journal, a ridiculous thought flashes through my mind: maybe I’ve stolen their magic.

If so, I hope I would give it back.

As I drank coffee and resisted my impulse to look through all the comics, I couldn’t help but reflect on the thousand fragile membranes between the thousand private and public contexts of our everyday.

My God, I thought, Dean could be writing comics in their brain right now. Would I look oafish? Entitled? Would I feel invaded?

Huh, I thought, I actually am taking notes and writing a story. I even told Dean at one point to pause while I caught up writing down all the brilliant things they were saying.

And there it is. We’re all publishers. And this comes with a responsibility.4

But much like the constraint of squeezing story arcs into three panels, Dean welcomes the considerable constraint that comes with responsible publishing. It’s part of the art of the everyday. For Dean, it’s a normal part of being in community.

You don’t tell everyone everything. You respect people’s secrets and boundaries. You don’t interrupt people. You don’t riffle through someone else’s art without their permission. And when I’m around Dean, I can’t help but want to do better. Blink.

When I ask about the boundary transgressions, Dean explains that for relationships to grow, there has to be recovery from these transgressions.

“One strip actually was me in bed with a guy,” Dean says with a laugh. “And I wondered at the time if it was too intimate. In my public relations brain, I was doing a risk assessment. There’s also a comic about us breaking up. I never published that one. I wrote the script though, and I made the comic.”

"Wildfires arne't supposed to choke out whole provinces."

Art process

Each of Dean’s strips starts with an idea, a script, written by hand. This first phase is entirely textual. Then they compose the frames and perspectives. Usually, a sketch happens at this stage. It can look very much like a story board.

Then Dean will take photos of themself in all of the positions of the people in the strip. This is a key stage for getting the moment, the story, right. It’s a kind of visualization and it’s a kind of guide to honest drawing.

As Dean explains the interesting details of posing in time delay photos, I picture Dean setting up their camera. I can’t help but think of cats and the way they seem to visualize a tricky jump several times by moving their body through a series of faint renderings.

Then those pictures get drawn by pencil. And those sketches then get inked with a brush.

In the beginning, back in 2008, Dean would use a brush on the text as well. But over time, and with feedback, Dean started to use a pen on the text, and implement speech balloons, to improve the readability.

Once the original is rendered, it can be scanned and then reviewed for publication.

Dean’s not sure about God

Dean was raised by the cool kind of Christians. I know a little about this because I’ve had the honour of speaking with Dean’s sibling, Hannah, on the subject.

And even though Dean is not sure about the existence of God or gods, these days, I can’t help but think that Dean’s ethics and metaphysics are informed heavily by this. So does Dean: “Growing up Christian, I had a very good relationship with God, or, the god that I had constructed. I became obsessed with sin and penance and being watched.”

Atheist though I am, I think this is quite normal.

“I was performing a good life, a life that angels could watch and approve of,” says Dean.

I believe this is still the review process. There’s a panel of angels that Dean presents finished strips to.

“There are jokes that I made in comics that I would never publish. I’ve actually scrubbed the jokes from my pages, because I was glib about serious topics in the name of irony. I found the digital copies and deleted them. I didn’t destroy the originals.”

I smile when they tell me they didn’t destroy the originals. Thank gods.

Made but not published

Apparently, there are many unpublished strips. There’s quite a few about cancer, for example. It makes me happy that the unpublished strips exist. I don’t know why exactly. But I worry that over time, Dean will bypass the effort of making them, in favour of “publishable” ones. They are, after all, doing this for love, and it’s a lot of effort.

When I ask Dean about this conundrum, they tell me that they’re very careful to not do too many comics of themselves in pyjamas all day. And they admit to performing a kind of brand management. I find this admission very reassuring and it helps me trust their judgement.

“I think I’ve possibly become less brave about what I publish. But I don’t know if it effects what I make,” says Dean.

There’s no answer to this hard problem. In the absence of angels, who could tell?

Some part of me wants Dean to rage against the world and publish every image they make and to turn every thought, every story, into a strip.

Tell everything. Bear witness to everything, I think. But Dean, is too connected to other humans and has too much good judgement. Blink.

Dean's strip about a conversation with an uncle.

 

  1. Moka House and Beagle owner
  2. Dean tells me it’s also spelled Today in 3 Panels.
  3. One very cool exception to this is a comic that Dean did about Harley Quinn. It’s an obvious exception to Dean’s process and Dean’s art methods.
  4. And the flip side of this is that we’re all in public relations. And we’re all discovering and creating moments. And we’re all thinking about how people appear in those moments. And we’re all brand managers.

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