Comedian Jordan Doll on hobo tales, comic books and childrens' classics
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
People who follow Denver comedy closely know Jordan Doll, whose unique perspective and magnetically jovial stage presence have set him apart from the bearded hordes of joke-mongers. As one of the rotating emcees of Kinga's Lounge open mic, Doll has developed the kind of Colfax-sharpened comedic chops to sell even his most whimsical jokes. Off the stage, he shares his enthusiasm for paranormal investigations -- leavened with zingers -- on Werewolf Radar, the podcast he co-hosts with a murderer's row of local comedians. This week, Westword nerded out with Doll over tales of Americana hobos, comic books and classic children's books from Britain.
Westword: What are you reading these days?
Jordan Doll: I'm jumping between a few books right now. I've been having trouble finishing books. I just started reading a book called Ironweed, by William Kennedy that was given to me by Sam Tallent. It's a really cool kind of magical realistic look at homelessness in the '30s and '40s. Maybe even the '50s. Anyway, it's really cool; the main character talks to dead people and he's got a dark history. There's a lot about forgiveness, and really cool characters. Hobos! Old-timey hobos! I know I said that in a funny voice, but the book really is a stark look at homelessness.
I've heard a lot about that book, but I haven't read it yet.
It's kind of been making the rounds in our scene here. It's a good read. It's like a stern, dusty reminder of a hard past.
I think I asked Sam if I could borrow it and he said, "Oh yeah, I loaned it to some asshole."
That's me! I am that asshole! But I'll give it to you next. I'm about halfway through it. I put it down for a bit to read something else.
What makes you put a book down?
A lot of it is laziness. And I'm way quicker to just give up on books these days. When I had more time, I tried to read for a good while and wait for something to grab me and compel me to finish the book, but I'm not the reader I once was, so now it has to grab me much sooner. I want writers to get to the point sooner. Like, hey, let's stop sitting at the top of the slide and jump right into it. I put Ironweed aside for a bit to read a fantasy book by Stephen R. Donaldson called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever. Have you heard of that series?
No, but I generally enjoy chronicles. What's it about?
It's a fantasy about this writer who's written his first J.K. Rowling-level smash hit. It explodes. Shortly thereafter, he finds out that he has leprosy. He's a leper. This is set in like 1990, so leprosy is unusual. His wife leaves, she takes the kids because she doesn't want them to get leprosy. Like a real bitch. Then a little bit later, he gets Narnia'ed, basically. He gets transported to a fantasy realm, and he's part of this prophecy.
Does Narnification cure his leprosy? It wouldn't much of a fantasy wonderland if his skin was still rotting off.
Yeah, he gets cured. It would really take the sting out of the fantasy if he still had it. Or in this case, it puts the sting back in, I guess. He's a dark protagonist, though, and this book really sets the tone for the rest of the series. He commits, you know... deeds. Just because he's angry. So right off the bat, you're like: This dude is a son of a bitch.
Is it written in the first person?
No, it's a third-person narrator.
That's good, because I always hate being put into first-person headspace of a character who does evil things. First-person perspective invites the reader to identify with the character, so when that character is evil, I always feel weirdly implicated by it.
Lev Grossman started off a series with a book called The Magicians that sort of explores that idea. The premise is basically, what if Harry Potter was a huge asshole? I also recently read R.A. Salvatore's Streams of SIlver, and the whole Icewind Dale trilogy. He's not a great writer, Salvatore, but he is a great storyteller.
So fantasy is your go-to genre?
Yeah, I like fantasy, but I like when it starts out in a contemporary setting, or has some sort of twist on it. I remember when I was a kid and I discovered the Lord of the Rings books, my parents were worried about me. "He's reading! What does that mean?" They'd try to get me to take breaks, like, 'Jordan, your old friend Mario is here!'"
I assume you're also into comic books, then.
Yeah, there's a lot of the type of fantasy I like going on in comics right now. Comic books will also jump out at you right away.
Comics will often start in medias res.
It only takes a few pages to determine that I should stick with it, because it's going to pay off. I've come to realize how important the artwork can be, how integral to that form of storytelling. It's different from a book because the images are right in front of you, and it's different from a movie because the words make the images move instead of a projector. Comics are unlike any other medium.
Did you grow up reading a lot of comic books?
No, I used to think they were kind of ridiculous fluff about superheroes fighting. Not to denigrate superheroes. But no, I didn't really start reading comic books until about five years ago. I started with Maus. Watchmen wasn't far behind. I read Fables and loved it. Now I've got like thousands of dollars worth of chewed-up trade paperbacks of Preacher and Transmetropolitan.
Excellent comics all. Are you reading Locke and Key?
It's currently my favorite thing in the world. I can't wait until volume 6 comes out. Joe Hill is an incredible writer. He's got a collection of short stories called 21st Century Ghosts which is amazing. It might be my favorite collection of scary stories.
Do you collect comics issue by issue or wait until they're collected into trade paperbacks?
I usually wait for the trades. I want it all at once.
Who introduced you to comic books?
Weirdly enough, it was a class at Metro State.
What is the deal with Metro and these fun English credits? Why suffer through Chaucer if you can just read Persepolis and Goodnight Moon?
I know. It's like, "I went to college to study Picnic-ology! Now employ me, please!"
That's the most post-modern way to get into comic books ever. So, if not comics, what did you like to read as a kid? You grew up in Scotland, so were there any extra-British kids books you liked?
I remember that my dad would read us The Book of Brownies by Enid Blyton. I don't know if that's especially British or not. Do Americans read a lot of Enid Blyton?
I did. I used to love to listen to books on tape of her Famous Five stories because I liked the accents.
We moved in 1993, so I did most of my reading here. I'm trying to remember what books I used to like. I've chosen my own adventure a time or two. Do you remember Bunnicula?
Yeah. And its sequel, The Celery Stalks at Midnight.
That was the first book I remember laughing out loud at and recommending to people. The other one was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
You know in the book when Milo has to fill a sandbox a grain at a time using a pair of tweezers? That image is such an elegant demonstration of Sisyphean futility. I immediately flashed back to that scene when I started reading existentialism.
It's also a fun story for children, Mr. fancy school.
Have you ever given up on a graphic novel series mid-stream? I ended up doing that with Y: The Last Man because it just kept going forever.
Yeah, I gave up on Fables because I got so into Locke and Key. I finished all of Preacher, though.
I don't think that anything Garth Ennis has done subsequently is nearly as good.
I like Garth Ennis. Did you ever read The Pro?
It was a one-shot. It's about a prostitute who develops super powers, because that's just something that can happen in that line of work. Did you ever read The Boys?
Yeah, I didn't like it. It felt like empty provocation and self-indulgent. I also didn't like the art, particularly the design of the main character. I have a weird bias; I don't like it when comic-book characters have these huge faces. I don't like meaty faces.
But you're talking to me! There's meat all over this face!
Jordan Doll can be seen performing standup and sketch comedy October 15 at Deer Pile, at a special and appropriately Halloween-themed edition of Kevin and Jordan's Traveling Airborne Shindig, which he co-hosts with Kevin O'Brien. Last year's Halloween show featured hilarious jokes and a memorable cast of characters accompanied by an otherworldly theramin soundtrack.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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