Publish or Die: Creator Derf Backderf

Interview by Max Delgado

Derf Backderf knew there was a possibility he might die. And if that happened, at least he didn’t want to miss his deadline.

This was back in 2010, after the publication of Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, Derf’s first significant breakaway from the world of daily comic strips and towards graphic novels -- a segue he all but made complete earlier this month when he announced that he would be officially retiring The City, his weekly strip which ran in alternative newspapers across the country for a startling 25 years. Derf’s decision (which is still just a little over a week old) effectively allows the creator to recast himself as a graphic novelist after a long and prestigious careers as four-panel strip artist. This pivot was informed by many things, undoubtedly, and most of which Derf he outlined in a series of wonderfully exhaustive posts he published in the last few days. But the biggest reason for the switch, lies with popularity and impact of his latest graphic novel My Friend Dahmer.

In MFD Derf accomplished two things. First, he masterfully charted the early days of his one-time classmate and outer-ring high school buddy Jeffrey Dahmer; second, he sent this crystal clear message to anyone who questioned if a journalist-turned-cartoonist could ever successfully make a leap to full-time graphic novelist so late in his career: Hell. Yes.

Yeah, MFD is really that good -- not only does it elevate the genre of true crime, but it humanizes an inhuman cultural icon in a way that refuses to glorify, excuse, or sensationalize his deeds. Most extraordinary, MFD has helped Derf accomplish the seemingly impossible -- after completing one full career, it allowed him to launch a second.

Derf Backderf

But let’s go back to 2010. And the night Derf Backderf thought he might die.

“In 2010...I had my second go round with cancer,” Derf shared with LBP. “Well, not cancer specifically, but rather radiation damage from cancer treatment in 2003. They zapped me in the chest to kill a large tumor and the major arteries were so scarred up from the procedure that, eight years later, I was in big trouble.” The cartoonist would require open heart surgery to “re-plumb or replace everything,” an intensive procedure that made him focus on his mortality in a new way. “I drew this farewell strip and gave it to a buddy with instructions to post it if I didn’t make it,” Derf shared. “The idea came to me right away. No one under 40 probably gets the Carol Burnett connection, but who cares?”

Derf, of course, survived. And he generated a different strip to hit that week’s deadline. But that original strip -- the ‘publish-if-I-die’ version -- stayed with him for a long time, tucked away. Years later, and just days ago, it became the final strip of his beloved creation The City.

So yes, The City is dead. But Derf is still alive.

Just recently, Derf Backderf chatted with LBP about his career, and memories associated with his comic book collection.

LBP: Tell me about what comics you read when you were growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about.

Art by Don Martin

Well, l started with newspaper comic strips. Peanuts was my favorite, and this was mid-Sixties, so it was Schultz’s peak. Around 8 or so, I discovered Mad magazine, like every other cartoonist of the past 60 years. Mad was 75 percent lame, of course, even I could recognize that, but it was worth it for Don Martin and Al Jaffee. What I really liked was when they reprinted the old stuff from the Harvey Kurtzman era, draw by Will Elder and Wally Wood. That stuff blew me away. I’ve always had a certain Mad-ish quality to my work, especially my comic strip.

At age 10 I became a total comix dork. Marvel, DC, etc. This was 1970, which was a fabulous time to get into comix. It was the early Bronze Age and all the publishers were putting out amazing titles. And the classic Silver Age stuff was still plentiful and cheap. I read everything, except the girlie stuff and Archies. Cleared the spinner rack every week. This was my passion for the next decade. And also a secret shame, because to be a teenage comix fan back then was social death. I used to slink in and out of the corner drug store with my weekly stash, like a perv leaving a dirty movie. I learned the schedules of the register clerks and always bought my books when an old lady was working the counter, not one of my contemporaries from high school. C’mon you old bat, ring those books up before someone I know walks in!

“An Average Day on Mission Street” by Spain Rodriguez

My favorites were all the greats. Kirby, Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, Barry Smith, Jim Starlin, Steranko. They didn’t have much influence on my later work, simply because there is no way I can ever hope to draw like those guys. They were inspirational, not influential. I got ahold of Robert Crumb books a lot earlier than I should have. Spain Rodriguez, too. People tend to attach me to the Crumb School, but Spain was a bigger influence. Nice guy, too. Greatly missed. When Warren started reprinting The Spirit in the mid-70s, I got way into Eisner. His storytelling was a big influence. Not the way he drew— again, there was no hope of emulating that— but how he told a story. There are parts of My Friend Dahmer that are very Eisneresque, I think.

But by the time I finished high school, mainstream comix were all schlock. I stopped reading at that point. After that, I got into political cartoons for awhile, then alt-comix. I wasn’t reading other people’s work at all from like 1980 on, so whatever emerged is all me.

LBP: Tell me about your daily creative process -- how many hours you put in, and how long it takes you to write a script or draw a page. For drawing, what tools do you use?

I pencil with a mechanical pencil. Saves me having to sharpen a point every 5 seconds. I ink with Micron pens, Piit brish markers and Sharpies. Color or grey tones are added in Photoshop. My comix are actually pretty simply, some would say primitively constructed. I’ve always believed what you write and draw is more important than how you write and draw. Pick up 90 percent of mainstream comix for evidence of that. Oh good, you’ve really mastered that Cintiq. Too bad your comics still suck.

I tend to start working around noon and will usually draw until 10 or 11pm. Longer if a deadline looms or I’m going good. On a good day, I’ll produce four or five pencil pages. Inking is a little slower, depending on the scene. Three or four pages a day.

LBP: I'd love to hear more about the end of The City. Most importantly, I’d love to know why it felt like your final strip was  the “right” way to end.

It wasn’t my plan to use it as my farewell strip this time, but when I sat down to write, I couldn’t think of anything but this one.  It was stuck in my head. I was really running on fumes for the last six months or so. I could barely squeeze out a strip anymore. It was also surprisingly emotional closing the strip down, and to top it off I was jet-lagged, since I just returned from another book tour in France. I knew I wasn’t going to come up with a better strip, so why fight it? Besides, it’s good karma to print it on a happy occasion, not the tragic one it was originally made for.

Final strip for The City by Derf Backderf

LBP: Speaking of The City, you live, quite famously, in Cleveland, Ohio, and have become your city’s de facto historian for of those of us who follow your strip (and blog) from afar. When I think of Cleveland’s major contributions to the comic genre I mostly think of Superman, Harvey Pekar and, of course, you. What am I missing?

Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Azzarello grew up here, too. Crumb lived here at the start of his career, and hated it. Peter Kuper is a also Cleveland boy. We’re the same age and haunted the same shops and cons. In fact, we both figure we were elbowing each other at the Jimmy Olsen box at a Cleveland con in 1978. There’s a few other mainstream guys kicking around. I dunno what it is. It’s a big city, so there’s bound to be some talent emerging. Pales in comparison to Chicago or New York or San Francisco though.

In truth, there’s not much of a scene here. I wish there was, and some of us are working to make that happen. There’s a small group of young guys who’ve started an indy con here, The Genghis Con, and that has a lot of promise. But as a comix town, we’ve been passed by Columbus, where the scene is really thriving.  There’s no jealousy there on my part, because I’m a product of the Columbus scene myself, and am still connected to it! I got my start drawing cartoons for the Ohio State Lantern.

LBP: I think it’s safe to say that you’ve been noticed in a new and major way since the publication of My Friend Dahmer. What’s it like to have your work “blow up” so deep into your career. And what are your feelings about having your first widely read work be tethered to such a troubled character?

It’s a dream come true. I was talking about this with Frank Santaro at the Angouléme Comix Fest ealier this year. We both have the same French publisher, Éditions çà et là, so we were manning the same booth at the fest. He told me, man, you’re an inspiration to the rest of us. Stick to it and produce work and someday you’ll be rewarded. It’s a nice thought. Not sure if it’s true. Can’t say I ever spent much time fretting about it. I always made a living, at times a pretty good living, from comix. That alone is an accomplishment. I drew what I wanted, how I wanted. Another thing that is no easy feat. It was frustrating at times, that I couldn’t break out and be more than a cult favorite, but that also proved to be a boon, because it kept me restless and prodded me to try other genres. Turns out I was in the wrong place. I should have been doing long-form comix right from the start! I’m a LOT better at it than I ever was at comic strips.

As for MFD, I always knew (if I ever got it published) that it would be my best-known work. Never doubted that for a second. On one hand, that’s a bit of a drag, because it’s nothing like the rest of my output. But I figured it’s better to HAVE a best-known work than to not have one at all. That’s the reason I published Punk Rock & Trailer Parks first, and the early Trashed stories. I wanted a bibliography, so MFD wasn’t my debut graphic novel. The great thing about having a big hit book, is that no matter what you do next, a much larger audience will follow you. I’ll never top MFD, and I’m not really worried about it.

LBP: You’ve famously shared that My Friend Dahmer took over 20 years to create -- it entailed a lot of research, percolation, and mini-drafts. What advice would you have for creators out there who feel they have a mega-project deep inside them that’s wanting to get out?

It sounds more grueling than it really was. MFD was on a back burner for most of that time. And I set it aside completely at various periods. The important lesson there, is if you have a story you believe in, keep at it until you find a way to get it out. Don’t take no for an answer.

LBP: In the preface to My Friend Dahmer you write that you didn’t fully begin work on the graphic novel until after the murder of Jeffrey Dahmer in November of 1994, and that the process became a “cathartic exercise” for you. Twenty years after you drew that first line, I’d love to hear where you’re at with that catharsis now -- what do feel you were able to fully process about this friendship and what do you suspect will always feel undone?

It’s hard to describe the experience to someone who hasn’t gone through it. 1991, when he was first caught, was far worse than 1994. At that point, high school was 13 years behind me. I’d made peace with that period of my life by then. I didn’t view high school fondly, by any measure, but I had grudgingly concluded I had a better time than I initially gave myself credit for. I had good friends, there were fun times. Yeah, there were some Freaks & Geeks moments of extreme humiliation and terror, but overall it wasn’t horrible. And then, just like that, my entire personal history changed. In an instant, it was all re-defined in a very chilling way. And, of course, in those first months, each Dahmer revelation was more shocking than the last, especially when it became clear just how close we were to that first murder. Mere yards away. Yeah, that does indeed mess with your head.

My solution was to create mirror memories. I have TWO personal histories in my memory banks. One is the original history, with all the goofball antics and friendships intact, just as they always were. And the second, is that re-defined history, with the truth about Dahmer and what he was doing and thinking. I keep them separate. Curiously, all my other friends use this same technique.

By the time I finally sat down to grind out the final version of MFD, I didn’t really need catharsis anymore. My only motivation was to create the book I had in my head and get it published.

LBP: While Dahmer is certainly at the center of this this book, I had to keep reminding myself that you were also depicting an important swath of your adolescence, too. Like a true journalist, however, you stay focused on your subject -- your personal story is more of an access point to the central narrative.

Sure, there’s a secondary plot-line in MFD, involving me and my friends. There were several reasons I included that subplot. First, to give the reader something human to hang on to, especially as Jeff becomes less and less human as the story unfolds. I like the contrast, as a storyteller, between Jeff’s life and our lives, especially my life, because they were so similar in almost every way. We came from the same economic class, went to same school, our Dads were both chemists, even the houses we lived in were similar. That fascinates me. And secondly, and just as importantly, that secondary story was a way for me to have fun producing the book. It’s not a lot of fun spending time in Dahmer’s head, as you can imagine. But re-creating my life, and that of my friends, that was fun for me. So I zeroed in on that, lovingly rendering the school and the local mall, and filling the background with oddball characters that we used to interact with, like the weird janitor, and some the random geeks at school. Only a handful of people recognize this, although I think the average reader is taken with the amount of detail in the book, whether they understand its meaning or not. When I showed the first draft to my friends Mike and Neal, members of the Dahmer Fan Club and characters in the book, they both responded the same way. They said, “This is the funniest book I’ve ever read!” Because that secondary story jumped out at them and they, too, recognized all the inside jokes.

LBP: I’d like to hear more about the kind of kid you were, and what experiences led you to fall in love with art and cartooning in the first place. Was your family supportive of this path? Did you find support from teachers? And why was art school such a bad fit for you?

What kind of kid was I? Your stereotype comix dork. I was always writing and drawing. I had a couple great teachers along the way. My elementary school art teacher and a high school English teacher played big roles in my development. Most of my teachers did not, so school was mostly a drag. I got more out of extracurricular activities than the classes. My high school art teachers, in fact, gave me a D my senior year because I drew too many comix and not enough “real art.”

Art school was a bore. It was a commercial art school that was more interested in job training than intellectual growth. Half the classes were bullshit ones on how to be a fashion illustrator or a greeting card artist. I went for a couple quarters and absorbed all the basics of pre-press and reproduction. That’s all I needed from them, so I split. Luckily I was also a good writer and landed a Journalism scholarship to Ohio State. That was a much better fit. Didn’t set foot in an art class there. It was the opposite of the commercial art school, all pretentious goobletygook and installations that involved piles of tv’s in some way. Total fine-art bullshit. I had no stomach for that either. So I basically crafted my own major: writing and cartoons.

The key for me was the school paper, The Lantern. It published five days a week and had a circulation of 35,000! Everyone on campus read it. And it was an educated audience. I learned on the job, on deadline and under fire. When I blew it, it was a very public crash and burn. It was a great experience. Sadly, with the demise of newspapers, a young cartoonist can’t have that experience anymore.

The History of Underground Comics (1974)

I grew up in a small town in Ohio. It was Mayberry. We had the classic corner drugstore in the center of town where I could puchase all the mainstream titles, but I slowly became aware there was a whole lot more out there somewhere, comix that I had never seen. Underground Comics. Man, that even sounded cool! I had a subscription to Creem magazine, and there were small ads for Undergrounds in tha back, but what to order? I knew who Crumb was, thanks to the Keep on Truckin’ stuff you saw everywhere, but I knew nothing about his comics.  Then one day I was at the mall and wandered into Walden’s Books, as I usually did, to pick over the sci-fi selections. Yawn. Nothing new. But hey, what’s this? The History of Underground Comics? Sold! It amazes me that they carried this thing at Walden’s. I mean, the logo is actually a big veiny penis! But they sold it to me without hesitation. It’s a who’s who of undergrounds, with samples of all the greats and the their bibliographies. It was my first exposure to Gilbert Shelton and Spain and Spiegelman and Bill Griffith. I could then send away for those undergrounds. Sign here to prove I’m 18? Why sure, Mr. Comix Dealer! 

Big Ideas, Lynda Barry (1983)

This is Lynda’s second collection of cartoons from early in her career when her comics were incredibly wild and punk. I think some of them may be from her college days. I was working as an art director at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the late 80s, and was bored stiff and miserable. I wanted to get back into comix, but was unsure what I wanted to do, or how to do it. I ran across this book at one of the Cleveland bookstores I haunted. I read it once, thought “I could do something like this” and promptly tossed the book away. Think I left it on a train seat. I didn’t want to copy anyone. I was also aware of the other alt-cartoonists like Groening and Tom Tomorrow, since they ran in my local weekly, The Cleveland Edition, but it was Lynda who planted the seed in my brain. I quit my job, holed up in my studio and came up with The City. A year later it debuted in the same Cleveland Edition and I was on my way.

Fantastic Four #102 (Note: this is a scan of Derf's actual copy of FF 102.)

In July 1970, I was 10 years old and on vacation with my family at a lakeside lodge in Ontario. We’d been vacationing here all my life and it was a magic place, as these boyhood spots often are. The lodge had a gift shop in one of the main buildings, called the “Tuck Shop”, for some reason. It was full of souvenir pennants, t-shirts and fake Indian totem poles, that sort of thing. Mainly I went there to purchase the day’s allotment of strange Canadian candy. But on the back wall, behind the counter, safe from sticky, sandy hands, was a wall rack of comix. I’d never had much interest in comic books before, but this day, on a whim, I pointed to FF #102 and parted with 15 precious cents. This was Kirby’s last issue, the first part of yet another war with the perpetually pissed-off Prince Namor. Some of those last Kirby Marvels are a little weak, since he was already secretly working on The Fourth World, but this issue is a beaut, just masterfully drawn and paced. As I walked barefoot back to our cabin, I read it, while wolfing down a candy bar. I read it again on the front porch. Then again. I went back to the Tuck Shop and bought more. By week’s end, I had cleared the rack. And that was it. I was lost. Would it have been the same had I selected a lame book instead of a Kirby one? Probably not!

The Master Builder: Creator Marv Wolfman

Interview by Max Delgado

Let’s be honest: Marv Wolfman might be the reason you love comics.

While a statement this bold might seem debatable from a distance, if your love of the medium is tethered to anything mainstream then it gets real hard, real quick, to tease out Wolfman’s individual impact from the genre as a whole. Wolfman has, afterall, been toiling in the industry since the late ‘60s -- his first writing credit appeared about a decade after the creation of the Fantastic Four, and he’s been credited with creating dozens of beloved characters since he first bent over a typewriter and began plucking at the keys (Bullseye, Cyborg and Tim Drake just to name a few).

Simply put, he’s had his creative fingers in a lot of pies. And while some of his creations have gone on to be memorialized in television and film (Blade and Deathstroke) most geeks associate Wolfman less with the characters he created, and more with the franchise that he built -- The New Teen Titans.

Yes, back in 1980 Marv Wolfman and George Pérez re-imagined the retired team book and created what continues to be one of the defining runs of that decade --and helped established a new expectation for readers. After Titans action simply wasn’t good enough; we wanted character development and drama. We wanted stories where heroes like Dick Grayson and were finally allowed to grow up. So, if you’re a fan of any of the meaty emotion-driven mega-arcs that the industry has put out in the last twenty years, then you have to accept the fact you’re also a de facto Wolfman fan. Because he’s one of the writers that set that bar.

Just recently, Wolfman chatted with LBP about his career, and memories associated with his comic book collection.

LBP: Tell me about the comics you read when you were growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about.

Basically I read almost everything. Superman, Batman & Wonder Woman were the only super-hero books published back then, so I also read Harvey Comics, Archie, and more. When DC started adding super-hero comics, I followed all of them, too. Of course I'd been reading their science fiction and mystery line, too. Marvel came about a bit later but then I became a fan of theirs. My favorite was Superman followed by Spider-Man.

LBP: It seems that you locked onto a career in the arts pretty early in life -- you attended New York's famous High School of Art and Design and began your professional career shortly after that. How did this love of art eventually segue into a passion for writing?

I always drew and I always wrote the stories for me to draw, so when I realized my art would never be as good as my writing, I easily switched over to it. I can make my words do what I want but I could never get my art to do so. But having an art background is vital; to this day I can see the visuals of each scene and strive to make them as important as I can.

LBP: In your post Origin of The New Teen Titans you share that when considering how to relaunch Haney/Cardy’s classic title you and George Pérez decided it was essential to not imitate what had come before. The result of your approach was, of course, remarkable. As to how you got there, you write, “Our characters reflected our interests. Our stories came out of our personalities.” How might Teen Titans helps us better understand Marv Wolfman?

None of the characters are specifically me. If they were they wouldn't be true to themselves. But the idea of compassion and empathy are things I believe we all strive for. My wishes and hopes may be in the Titans comics, and a touch of my politics, but not my specifics. Then again I also wrote Tomb of Dracula for 8 years and those characters reflect very, very little about me, except, perhaps, the desire to achieve goals.

LBP: Confession: I’m a huge Batman fan. I still consider A Lonely Place of Dying, which introduced fans to Tim Drake, to be one of the best story-lines of the ‘80s. I’d love to hear the story behind how you created Tim Drake.

Simply, I was asked for ideas on what a new Robin would be like. My thoughts were that he'd be the opposite of previous Robins; he came from a loving family. He was not angst ridden. But like Dick Grayson he was smart. Smart enough to figure out that Dick, a circus kid he saw when Tim was a little toddler, later became Robin. So the final piece of the puzzle was Tim would be a character who saw and understood the exuberance of being Robin rather than the grim and gritty of being Batman. He was positive, not negative, and always grounded.

LBP: You’ve created a ton of major characters over the course of your career at both at Marvel and DC. I’m curious to know if any of your creations went on to have an impact that surprised you in any way?

Most of the good ones surprise me with their longevity. The ones you mentioned before, as well as Black Cat. Somehow they clicked with people which of course thrills me; it's my job, and hope, that what I do touches people's hearts, and when they take my characters and continue to love them it means I succeeded. There's nothing better than that. As for characters later being misinterpreted, I never read my characters once I leave them so I have no idea. My view is I never asked the people who previously wrote series I later did what I should do and I don't want the next generation having to worry about what I think. They need to do what is right for them. I wrote what I believed in and now it's their turn.

LBP: I know the first time you became aware of The Longbox Project was after reading Anthony Loveday’s personal essay which cites The New Teen Titans as a series that provided him with comfort and guidance during his difficult childhood. I’m curious if any other fans have approached you with similar stories over the years.

Because of email and my website, Facebook page, Twitter postings, etc. people can and do get back to me when they never could before. It is an amazing thrill when I get a letter or meet someone at a con who was affected by something I wrote. It means all those years in a room hunched over a typewriter then later a computer meant something more than just a paycheck. It's how I felt about comics when I grew up and I couldn't be more happy that others share that same experience. It's often embarrassing when they gush, but later it's a feeling of wonderful warmth and caring.

LBP: Your love of storytelling has expanded well past the comic medium and into other fields -- most notably video games. What's the experience of writing a video game like?

Writing games is completely different from writing anything else. They are not structured linearly and the writing of them rarely is; you might be writing a middle scene then an end scene then the third scene from the beginning, etc. You write based on the needs of tech. So that's makes it harder. But at the same time it's more challenging which is what's fun.

Superman #149: The first Death of Superman story was amazingly powerful to me.

Amazing Spider-Man #33: The Master Planner story in Spider-Man was all about a hero doing everything he can, and more, to save the people he loved and therefore was highly emotional.

Fantastic Four #48: The Galactus trilogy in Fantastic Four showed how huge comics could be in a way they'd never been before.

After the Quiet: Creator Gene Luen Yang

Interview by Max Delgado

For about five days, sometime in the late ‘90s, Gene Luen Yang was not allowed to talk.

He had entered the work world immediately after graduating from UC Berkeley and had already cobbled together two promising years as a computer programmer. He was a comic geek, a techy, and an aspiring writer. What he wasn’t, was the silent type. “It was like I was having withdrawal symptoms,” Yang shared with LBP recently. “Silence does not come naturally to me.”

The silence was a choreographed exercise, however, and one that Yang engaged in willingly. His church, a Chinese Catholic Community in the Bay Area, was offering a five-day silent retreat and Yang, who was poised squarely at the threshold of adulthood decided to go. While a difficult experience for the normally social Yang, each day offered a discrete release valve: “Every day I would meet with the retreat leader for about an hour. We'd talk over my life and those were the only words I spoke all day.”

Those conversations, padded by hours of intense silence, had a profound impact on Yang. During the course of the retreat he made the decision to quit his job in the tech industry and become a teacher. Yang ultimately found a job at Bishop O’Dowd, a Catholic high school nestled among the eucalyptus trees of the Oakland Hills. “I’ve taught high school computer science for well over a decade now,” Yang says. “Teaching is an immensely fulfilling profession.”

Cover-ABC.jpg

While the job satisfied him professionally, it did not directly nurture the comic-book-making habit he’d picked up as a kid -- nor did the daily obligations of employment entirely suppress it. Yang still wanted to make comics. But now he had less time to do it. His solution was just to work harder, and while most comic geeks have read Yang’s breakthrough work American Born Chinesevery few know that it, like most of the work to preceding it, was written around the margins of Yang’s academic work schedule  -- early in the morning or late at night.

It’s safe to say that Yang’s most recent multi-volume graphic novel Boxers and Saints, which got named as a finalist for the National Book Award, is what finally pushed him into the mainstream - or at least gave booksellers across the country the impetus to pluck his books from the graphic novel section and lay them alongside other mainstream fiction. In it Yang explores themes common to many of his pieces: identity, family, faith, and the inherent promise (and tension) that emerges when different cultures attempt to occupy the same space.

Just recently, Yang chatted with LBP about his career, and memories associated with his comic book collection.

LBP: Tell me about the comics you read when you were growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about.

I started collecting comics in the fifth grade.  Back then, most of the comics available were superhero comics, so that's what I read.  I was a Marvel guy because I thought DC was kind of silly, with their lads and lasses.  The exception was their Justice League stuff.  This was the J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen run, where things were intentionally, brilliantly silly.

As I got older,  I discovered comics outside the superhero genre.  I loved Jeff Smith's Bone, Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons, Art Spiegelman's Maus.  Those books really demonstrated to me the storytelling potential of comics.

In the past you’ve spoken about your belief that superhero comics, with its focus on dual identities and characters who must negotiate different worlds is uniquely equipped to speak to readers familiar with the immigration experience. I’d love to hear what life experiences you’ve had that’s helped shape this belief.

I grew up between two cultures.  I spoke one language at home, another at school.  I had one name at home, another at school.  I had to figure out two different sets of cultural expectations.

As an adult, I look back on my childhood and wonder if that's why I was so drawn to superhero comics.  Almost all the big, mainstream superhero characters were created by the children of immigrants.  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Avengers and the Fantastic Four.  Stan and Steve Ditko created Spider-man.  Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman.  Bill Finger and Bob Kane created Batman.  Every last one of them had immigrant parents.  They may not have been conscious of this, but I think the genre they established expresses something deep within their family histories.  Each of their characters lives two different lives, has two different names, maintains two different personas.  They have to figure out how to exist in a culture that doesn't completely understand them.

Speaking of your work, you’ve shared that when you first started making comics you were a discovery writer, but that as your career progressed you shifted towards outlining. Would you mind expanding on these two methods a bit?

Discovery writers make up stories as they go along.  Their stories surprise them.  When they're writing one chapter, they don't really know what's going to happen in the next chapter.  I started my comics career as a discovery writer.

Outliners are the opposite.  They outline their story first so they know all the major plot points before they start their first chapter.  I'm now an outliner.

I switched from discovery writing to outlining because I kept writing myself into these corners.  I find that outlining first helps me figure out what the themes of my story are.  Often, my final story will deviate significantly from my outline, but having the outline gives me the confidence to move forward.

I should say, there are successful writers in both camps.  A friend of mine, YA novelist Gary Schmidt, is a discovery writer.  He's won the Newbery Honor and been nominated for the National Book Award.  His stories a beautifully structured, despite the fact that he never knows what comes next while he's writing.  I wish I could do what he does.  I can't, so I outline.

We’ve already talked about the impact of the five-day a silent retreat had on you. How do you feel your faith has impacted the comics you produce?

Writing about faith is a tricky thing, especially since religion is such a contentious subject.  In college, my writing professor told me that I should never write directly about my faith.  I should live my faith and write my life.  If my faith is important, if it informs my life, it'll organically emerge in my writing.  I've tried to follow that advice ever since.

A common criticism of superhero comics is that it’s a medium built around the nucleus of predominantly white male characters (and one which often fails to represent the range of readers comics is hoping to attract). As a result, a lot of people of color who grew up reading comics didn’t have access to characters who reflected their backgrounds in authentic ways. How valid you think this criticism is?

There are a lot of white male superheroes.  It's understandable.  The genre was born in America when the country was very different.  Most of the early stories were targeted at American boys, most of whom were white.  It's like how Kung Fu flicks star mostly Chinese actors.  It's the result of how the genre came about.

I think the current discussion about the diversification of superheroes stems from a recognition of just how iconic they are.  Superheroes are deeply American. At their best, they express American ideals.  America is a different place now, and we want our superheroes to reflect that in authentic ways. We want our superheroes to show us that anyone can be a part of America.

Watching the Big Two engage with diversity makes me hopeful at times, frustrated at others.  It's because I love them.  I grew up with Marvel and DC, so I have a deep, pre-logical attachment to their characters.  I think there's a lot to celebrate in their current line-ups.  I really like the new teenage Blue Beetle.  I think the Black Panther, who has one of the coolest costumes in all of comics, has grown into an interesting, three-dimensional hero.  But I'd like to see more.  I particularly want to see original heroes of color, rather than heroes who take over an established name and legacy.

I know you had full-time job when you first started trying to break into the comics industry and yet you still found the time to write and draw. For those readers with similar aspirations (and similar jobs) what advice would you have?

Comics will eat your life.  When I was working full-time, I would have to wake up early and go to sleep late to get my comics done.  Making comics is a difficult way to make a living.  You have to be disciplined.  Early on, I met a group of Bay Area cartoonists: Derek Kirk Kim, Lark Pien, Jason Shiga, Jason Thompson, Jesse HammThien Pham, Ben Catmull, and a bunch of others.  Once a week, we would get together to draw, critique each others' work, and talk shop.  That was my training ground.  When young artists ask me for advice, I tell them to find a community that will sustain them when things get tough.

DC Comics Presents Vol 6 #57:  This was the first comic I remember buying.  The atomic bomb drops in 1986!  I remember staying up nights thinking about the bomb, about Superman, and about those giant mutated dogs the Atomic Knights rode.  This comic blew my mind.

The Incredible Hulk #377:  I hated the Hulk when I was a kid.  A big, dumb green guy smashing stuff?  Stupid.  Peter David changed all that.  He did an epic run on the Hulk in the '80s and '90s and made him into a complex, compelling character.  #377 was a highlight of the run.  Dale Keown's art was wonderful, and it had one of the most iconic covers ever.

Adolf by Osamu Tezuka: This isn't a single issue - it's a series.  It's a World War II story about the struggle over (fictional) documents that prove Hitler's Jewish ancestry.  This series showed me why its author is known as The God of Manga in Japan.

 

Happy Monster Kid: Creator Steve Niles

30daysofnight.jpg

Interview by Max Delgado

Back in 1973 a small-time television announcer for WDCA in Washington D.C. pulled on a pair of white gloves, threw on a black cape, and drew a widow's peak onto his forehead. His name was Dick Dyszel and under the stage name of Count Gore De Vol he’d go on to host a Creature Features for the next fifteen years, pairing classic horror movies with his own quirky brand of humor. For Dyszel, this shift towards horror brought the emergence of a new fan base that he hadn’t necessarily expected in the closing act of his career. But what no one expected -- and certainly none of the fans growing up within reception range of WDCA -- was that the final notes of Dyszel’s long career would do more than just serve as a campy homage to spooky movies. It would actually go on to shape the trajectory of one particular fan’s life.

That fan was Steve Niles. And he was just a kid when Count Gore De Vol got him to love horror.

Count Gore De Vol

Niles didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. Maybe it’s because he fell in love with celluloid before books, but Niles began his creative life wanting to make movies just like the ones Count Gore De Vol showcased on his program. And so before ever picking up a pen, Niles picked a camera and got to work. “I would make Super 8 movies and try creating my own special effects,” Niles says. “And for the longest time I thought I wanted to do monster make-up but then I wound up realizing writers get to do it all, in our heads.”

Since this pivot towards writing there’s been a pretty simple equation at work for most geeks and it goes something like this: if you love comics, and you love horror, then there’s a pretty damn good chance you love Steve Niles. He has, after all, been one of the most prolific and consistently gifted peddlers of horror in the comics industry since he first delivered one of the truest adaptations of Matheson's I Am Legend that you’ll ever read. And while I loved his adaptation of Legend, like most fans, it wasn’t until 30 Days of Night that I really began to seek Niles out -- digging for his old works and anxiously awaiting new ones. Whether it be with Criminal Macabre, or his zombie-infested Remains, he hasn’t disappointed.

One of the most enduring legacies of Dyszel’s Creature Feature is that it created a community of fans who could rally around their shared love of horror; they could tune in regularly and get a dose of the canon. That one of those fans would grow up to make significant contributions to the genre seems fitting then. “To me it’s about community and giving back,” Niles says. “If one thing I did sticks, I’ll die a happy monster kid.”

Just recently, Niles chatted with LBP about his career, and memories associated with his comic book collection.

LBP: You’ve famously credited Richard Matheson’s I am Legend as the first book that got you to read. Later, you went on to honor Matheson’s work by adapting it into a graphic novel. Tell us about when you first encountered this book.

I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an actual date, but I was one of those kids who only read books when I was forced to. I read comics and magazines but I’d yet to find a book that caught my attention. I was a pretty quiet kid and I think my parents worried. Then one day I read I am Legend and the world changed for me. I met a kid at the bus stop who was a big reader and we both loved horror and sci-fi so we started reading the same books at the same time and it turned into our own personal book club.

Do you still remember the first horror film you ever saw? How did you make the leap from someone who loved the horror genre to someone who wanted to craft horror stories of his own?

I don’t have a clue what the first horror film I saw was but I’ll let you in on a secret, when I was little I was TERRIFIED of horror movies. I’d watch them and then be up all night. It got so bad I was forbidden to watch them. Then one day the fear turned to love and it’s been that way ever since. I think I made the leap to wanting to create the second I found out people got paid to make monster movies and comics.

Your initial foray into comics was pretty bold: you began your own self-publishing company, Arcane Comix. How did you decide to make this move?  

When I started Arcane Comix I was heavily involved in the DC Hardcore scene back in the ‘80s. We put on our own shows, booked our own tours and put out our own records. So when I decided I wanted to do comics I never thought twice about doing it any other way. Anybody who knows me knows I think corporations are on top of my list of things that do great harm, so I try to avoid them as much as possible. But I’m also a realist and I know you can’t escape them fully. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Comics and fandom have become very corporate and it scares me that people don’t acknowledge the harm these entities do.  Like today, I read an article about Disney financing programs to show kids that fracking is ok. Fracking is not ok and I don’t want to have my money going to things like that, but now Disney owns Marvel, Star Wars and Indiana Jones so when we work for them or buy their products we are giving money to things like that. Personally, I would like to avoid that. I just can’t buy another statue that was made by some kid under slave conditions. Pretty dark picture, I know but I think about this stuff. I just wish other people did too. I’m not stupid. I know it’s impossible to get some things, like electronics that are cruelty free, but that doesn’t mean we should all just roll over and become corporate shills. So, with that in mind I like to work for indie companies and buy from them just like I shop local and try to support companies I like. It’s better for the world. What was the question?

I’d love to know what comics you read while growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about. How do you think these titles impacted you as a storyteller?

I was a pretty straightforward Marvel kid when I was very young. I loved Spiderman, FF and the Hulk. This is around 1970-75. I remember especially loving the Hulk because he reminded me of Frankenstein’s Monster and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong. He was the classic misunderstood monster combined with Jekyll and Hyde. I just ate it up. Spiderman too because in the '60s and '70s Spider-Man was very relatable to a loner kid. Hard to say how they impacted me but I carried those stories with me. I was caught up. I remember waiting at the local Drug Fair for the magazine guy to unbundle the issue where Spider-Man finally sees the Gwen clone (for the first time) and almost losing my mind when I read that issue. Great stuff.

Fuck Yeah Sobriety, featured at http://www.steveniles.net 

In a recent blog post entitled Fuck Yeah Sobriety you wrote thoughtfully and eloquently on the variety of ways people react to your sobriety, and how some of these reactions reveal inherent assumptions or misunderstandings people have about what the addict is experiencing or hoping to accomplish via abstinence. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to tell us a bit more about your journey to recovery and how (if at all) it’s impacted your writing?

Not sure exactly what to say. It was a long journey and the fight goes on to this day. I started smoking pot when I was 15. I drank. I ate pills from the medicine cabinet. It was the ‘70s. That’s what we did. I never did coke. Always hated that drug. What happened was as I got older it just got harder and harder. I needed more to get high and then I’d feel like crap the next day. But here’s the thing, it wasn’t any street drug that put me over the edge. It was a root canal that did me in. They gave me a giant bottle of Vicodin and that was all she wrote. I won’t say what I got up to everyday but it was bad, and expensive, and it was killing me. One night a friend was worried about a cough I had. They dragged me to the doctor and I do mean dragged. I had pneumonia and had no clue. Pills keep you going and you don’t feel annoying things like pain as much. Basically if my friend hadn’t taken me I would be dead. It’s just that simple. I was in a phase where I didn’t really see anybody so I would have just died alone. That woke me up. I did it the hard way, too, so I’d remember. I locked myself in a room and sweat it out. It was Hell but I’ll never forget it and I never want to feel it again. Since then I have cleaned my body out completely. I even stopped taking pharmaceuticals for a time to completely detox. I value my sobriety now so much and I love my life and the people in my life. I spent a lot of time not being present. I’m really enjoying everything in a new way now and I love my work more than ever. It’s hard to get sober but it’s worth it.

One last question regarding Fuck Yeah Sobriety: During that post you also wrote, more briefly, about your initial idea that getting sober would undermine your creativity. I’d love to hear you expound a bit more on this idea.

I think the cliché of the tortured artist is a very romantic one but not really based in fact. Sure, some great art comes out of pain but the idea that only good art comes from pain is bullshit. But writers and artists are a superstitious lot and when I sobered up I thought I’d lose some of my edge. I was so wrong. It was the opposite if anything. It’s painful to even think about everything I lost to addiction. I didn’t gain shit until I saw the world through clear eyes.

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Defenders #10 and Fantastic Four #12

They had a big impact on me because those were the comics that had the worlds of Marvel colliding. I loved that they all lived in the same world and seeing these characters interact was huge for me.

Swamp Thing #1

Bernie Wrightson. Period.

Creepy #3

I brought this one to church and my mother yelled at me. I always think of this cover when I think of horror comics. The sheer dread in the image tells a whole story

Muertos and Laundromats: Creator Riley Rossmo

Interview by Max Delgado

Riley Rossmo was at the laundromat, and bored out of his skull.

This was back when Rossmo was eleven -- years before getting launched into the comics industry and practically a lifetime before garnering critical acclaim for his artistic work on titles such as Green Wake, Proof, and Dia De Los Muertos. As far as anyone in that laundromat was concerned Rossmo was just another anonymous kid living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, running an errand with his dad. And as far as Rossmo was concerned, the laundry was taking too long.

Rossmo’s father couldn’t make the chore go faster, but he had an idea on how to make the time slip by. He walked out of the laundromat, wandered into the comic shop next door and picked-up a book which he figured would make a nice impromptu gift for his son.

And this is how Rossmo discovered the iconic Claremont / Miller Wolverine mini-series.

“I fell in love with a few of the images,” Rossmo says. “In particular where the Hand is firing a cloud of arrows up at Wolverine and Yukio.” While most kids might have simply used the discovery of Wolverine as a gateway into the deeper comic universe, Riley used it as a teaching tool. He took a random gift and turned into a text book, eventually spending hours of childhood laying on the floor of his dad’s living room with a pad of paper and a pen, trying to reproduce the Wolverine panels he loved best.

Decades later and Rossmo still spends hours drawing, although now he has an audience that grows with every new project he takes on. While he certainly has a signature style which is expressive and emotive, his artistic range is considerable -- and one he got to show off during his recent Dia De Los Muertos project which he just wrapped up last spring. In it, he shifted his style to match each of the mini-narratives that composed the book, shifting from washed-out lines that helped him tell a better ghost story, to full-blown comic style that matched a fantastical tale reminiscent of ‘60s pop.

Currently, Rossmo is getting ready to launch a new title, Drumheller, which will be released by Image comics on November 6. The series will focus on a paranormal detective who gets pulled into the supernatural drama of a rural town. But he took a break from this project, to answer some questions for The Longbox Project.

LBP: I’d love to know what comics you read when you were growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about.

The first comic I really collected was G.I. Joe by Larry Hama. From there I got into New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, and then Uncanny X-Men also by Chris Claremont, and John Byrne. There were some others I was into: the late ‘70s Tomb of Dracula and the early ‘80s Spider-Man. I got most of my comics from quarter bins until I was 15 or so. The only thing I bought new for a long time was G.I. Joe and Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee’s X-Men.

LBP: Reflecting on your journey as an artist, who were some of the illustrators you first noticed and began following?

The first artist I noticed and was fascinated by was Bill Sienkiewicz. I couldn't figure out how he’d go from an amazing painted cover to a kinetic and seemingly uncontrolled page for the Demon Bear Saga.

When I was 11 I started to notice Frank Miller's use of graphic shapes.  Once in a while I'd get a Savage Sword of Conan. I was big into John Buscema because of his work on Conan, and the ongoing Wolverine.  

LBP: I know you worked at a comic shop for a while -- a job which often gives geeks access to more titles than might have read otherwise. I’m curious if you think this experience shaped your artistic work, or career choices in any way.

It was a huge influence. The manager would recommend me stuff nearly every day. After working there for a while I'd just scour back issue bins for examples of old art. Mostly I learned about storytelling. Alex Toth, Jim Steranko, and José Luis García-López were my big influences. While at the comic book store I discovered artists that didn’t have massive bodies of work, but had a huge influence on other artists of that time.

LBP: Judging from your work on Proof and Green Wake, it’s safe to say you have an interest in stories that deal with the paranormal. In an industry obsessed with superhero fare, have you encountered many challenges in launching titles such as these?

The market seems to have more space for non-superhero books than it did before.  Creator-owned books are always a challenge; there isn't an editor asking for pages on a daily basis and there isn't a ton of infrastructure for creator-owned books, but the freedom is worth it. I think with the success of The Walking Dead books from Image have made a little more room for non-superhero books to get off the ground than there was 8 or 9 years ago.  

LBP: Dia de los Muertos impressed many, especially its execution -- your decision to adapt your style to fit each story not only demonstrated your range, but honored the uniqueness of each writer’s tale. How did the idea for this run and its execution come about? And have you received any feedback from the Latino community about your approach to this sacred cultural holiday?

I've been fascinated by Dia De Los Muertos for some time now. I'd been doing some illustrations around it for a few months when Jim Valentino asked if I had any ideas for projects. From there it kind of just happened.  I have some latin-american friends that helped; I visited Mexico, and I tried to be as respectful and faithful to the holiday as possible. The feedback has been great. I'd like to do more stories around Dia De Lost Muertos eventually, and maybe something longer in length.

LBP: This question might seem out of left field, but I’m curious -- I know you’ve got tattoos and I can only imagine that a comic book artist would be uber-particular about the art he puts on his body. Did you design your own tattoos, or pull them from somewhere else?

I have a mix. Some are panels from my books, some are things that are reminders of things that are important to me. To be honest, I'm not as particular as you might think about the execution of tattoos. Its more the content that I'm interested in. I like seeing people with older tattoos with diffused lines.

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Wolverine: by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.

I still have the collection from when I was 11 or so. It has a amazing cover of Wolverine fighting five or six ninjas; cover by Miller and Varley.

Tales of G.I. Joe #3: "The Trojan Gambit!" Written by Larry Hama; illustrated by Herb Trimpe and Jack Abel.

This is the first comic I remember in detail having as my own.

Classic X-Men #4: "Night of the Demon!" Written by Chris Claremont; illustrated by Dave Cockrum.

I traded some kind of DC comic for this issue (Batman or something) to a kid on my street who’d stolen it from his older brother. I loved the cover and on how weird the issue was; Cyclops was in a state of anguish over Thunderbird’s death and blows up an ancient portal to another universe which unleashes demonic hordes on the X-Men. Plus, the John Bolton Back ups were beautiful.

 

That Porch in Minnesota: Creator, Dan Jurgens

The Death of Superman -- one of Jurgen's most powerful contributions during his 10 year run on the title.

The Death of Superman -- one of Jurgen's most powerful contributions during his 10 year run on the title.

Interview by Max Delgado

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Dan Jurgens didn’t know anything about comic books.

But he did know about Batman -- he’d gained an appreciation for the caped crusader thanks to one of comics’ earliest and most enduring memes: the ‘60s television series starring Adam West.

Like most kids, Jurgens loved the show back in the summer of ‘67. It was hard not to. The explosive camp, dramatic acting, and saccharine colors were designed to delight kids just like him. And it worked. But like many young fans, Jurgens didn’t know the show was actually tethered to an original text.

But that was about to change.

A bit of background: Dan Jurgens grew up in Ortonville, Minnesota, a small town tucked near the border of South Dakota with a population of nearly 2000. Picture Jurgens as kid: it’s the mid-’60s and he’s walking through his small town neighborhood at night. It’s about 20 years before the start of his iconic run on Superman. It’s summer time. And by chance, he comes across a group of friends crowding the front steps of a house. Approaching, he finds that they’re orbiting around a pile of comic books.

“They were reading, swapping and trading,” Jurgens says, “and they had Batman comics, which was a huge revelation.” The revelation came in two parts: the first was simply discovering that the campy characters on television had originated in a pulp form first, and the television show was just an extension, not a creation of a mythic hero; the second revelation was that these heroes had been around for awhile.

“A couple of the guys had older brothers,” Jurgens shares. “That means they had comics that were seven or eight years old, which is how I immediately became aware of the idea that comics weren't just something of that specific moment, but something that had a previous history.”

Looking back, Jurgens’ early appreciation for characters with a previous history is notable, especially when considering the major impact he’s had on the continuity of some of comics’ biggest characters: Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor and Firestorm. And of course, Superman. Jurgen’s 10 year run with Superman, where he penned and illustrated the Last Son of Krypton through a wedding, death, and a resurrection, has had a lasting impact on the title -- and done much to shape The Man of Steel we know today.

But back to Ortonville, Minnesota, and to that porch where Jurgens first shuffled through a stack of comics with his friends. There was no way, of course, for any of those kids to know that one of them would grow up to be one of the industry’s most influential writers and illustrators. They just wanted good comics. And that’s exactly what Dan Jurgens would give them 20 years later.

Booster Gold, created by Dan Jurgens in 1986. 

Booster Gold, created by Dan Jurgens in 1986. 

LBP: I’d love to hear about what comics you read when you were growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about. Looking back, do you think these titles had any impact on you as a storyteller?

I started with Superman and Batman and branched out to the rest of the DC characters from there. A couple of years later I got more interested in the Marvel characters.

But, as a young reader, it was Batman, Superman, the Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man that captivated me.

As for having an impact on me as a storyteller, I firmly believe that anything you read, be it fiction or the daily newspaper, helps form that. In some cases, it develops an interest in an area you might want to explore. In others, you might read something that doesn't work and that becomes a red flag-- something you avoid.

LBP: Although you initially broke into comic as an artist, you made the leap to writer almost immediately -- and have now gained praise for your work in both disciplines. As a graduate of MCAD your training as an artist seems a bit more documented, but I’d love to hear about your journey as a writer.

I went through a phase during my middle school years where I was a voracious reader. I read everything I could get my hands on. A couple of paperback companies were re-releasing old pulps like the Shadow and Doc Savage and I devoured those. That's when I began reading more adult books-- I remember trying to understand "Catch 22". It was also my first real exposure to science fiction, which was experiencing something of a resurgence. So, really, it was about exposure to lots of different ideas, techniques and opinions, which I continued to explore up through high school and college. All that stuff was planting seeds that would bear fruit later.

LBP: Booster Gold was one of the first characters I encountered who seemed aware of his own commercial value; he often played with the tension between good deeds and good publicity -- a set of conflicting motives that’s made him one of the most human characters in the DCU. How did you come up with the idea of Booster? Has his impact surprised you in any way?

I remember watching the Olympics in the early 80's, back when athletes were still expected to be amateurs. There was a swimmer or diver who had arranged an endorsement deal without yet winning a medal, which was somewhat shocking for the times. That started the process rolling in my mind and, eventually, Booster Gold was the result.

In many ways, he's even more relevant today, in a world of empty celebrity culture and TMZ.

And, yeah, it's a bit of a surprise to have something endure for what is now close to 30 years. When you're a young creator, you're simply incapable of thinking, or even dreaming,  that far ahead. But it's quite gratifying.

LBP: Much has been written about your long career with Superman, and the major impact you had on shaping this flagship character. I’d love to hear which writers and artists helped shaped your understanding of the Man of Steel, and how their work might have informed your own work with the character.

This is a bit hard to explain, but as a kid and reader, I liked the character of Superman better than I liked the stories. For me, there were too many "out there" stories with Superman. He really was set up on such a high pedestal that he became hard to relate to. At the same time, the main artist of that era, Curt Swan, drew a very human Superman. So I was always a bit perplexed by what I was seeing, which was a god-like character with virtually no flaws whatsoever, who seemed very human in appearance.

So, to a certain extent, my approach as a writer was shaped by what I wasn't seeing as a reader. I craved a Superman that was a bit more human in terms of how he lived and a bit more powerful and raw when he wore a cape. I saw him as the ultimate leader, whereas before that, he always seemed to be looking for consensus. If you read the earliest stories of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, that's the Superman they depicted.

LBP: You’ve helped reshape or propel a ton of major characters over the course of your career, both at Marvel and DC (Superman, Spider-Man, Thor, Firestorm). Setting aside those big names for a moment, who’ve been some of your favorite supporting characters to work on? Are there any minor characters whom you think deserve more attention?

There was a time when I was writing four books-- Superman, Aquaman, Tomb Raider and Thor-- and my favorite of the four was Aquaman. I had great fun with that. Lots of stuff to play with there, even though the character has been the object of ridicule, from time to time. It's great to see him get the level of success he's currently enjoying.

Lois Lane is a tremendous character in her own right. I'd love to see her carry her own series again. Jimmy Olsen was fun to write as well. As were the Warrior's Three in Thor, where Volstagg can add such a great comic element.

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Superman #189, illustrated by Curt Swan, written by Otto Binder

The very first comic I ever bought. I bought it because I found cover to be incredibly intriguing. Out of all the comics on the stands, I this one begged to be read. How could Superman's own dog turn on him?!-- The very first comic I ever bought. I b

Green Lantern #76, illustrated by Neal Adams, written by Dennis O'Neil

I bought this out of the spinner rack, took it home and must have read it five times that day. It was such a radical departure and major step forward that it was absolutely a shock to the system. I was captivated by it kept trying to understand what made it different and why it worked. Probably my first attempt and deconstructing a story.

Detective Comics #443, illustrated by Archie Goodwin, written by Walt Simonson

The brilliant end to the equally brilliant Manhunter storyline. The perfect conclusion that often eludes writers because there is no such thing as permanent in the world of comics.

 

A Dream of Meager Living: Creator, Ben Costa

Volume-2-Cover.jpg

Interviewed by Matthew Jent

Ben Costa was cast out of his temple. He knew his brothers were out there somewhere, but he was going to have to leave the confines of his normal life and search for them.

(Coincidentally, this is also the premise of Ben’s continuing graphic novel and webcomic series, Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk.

“In high school, I was really into basketball,” Ben says. “That’s how I spent a lot of my time. I was on the freshman team, and there was summer league, and I was in that. And my sophomore year of high school, I was cut from the JV team. They posted a sheet, and there were only two people from that summer league that didn’t make the team. I was really sad.”

In what sounds like a scene from Pang, Ben says there was another member of the team standing there with him looking at the sheet.

“He made some really callous remark to me. And I was like, I’m gonna learn kung-fu.

But this is not a story of revenge. Like Pang, this is a quest for knowledge, spiritual growth, and … well, maybe a little bit of social inadequacy.

LBP: One of the stretch goals you established for your recently successful Kickstarter was that you’d finish a “forgotten-by-time” fantasy-comedy comic you started with your friends James Parks and Alex Ahad.

Yeah, that was my first actual comic. James and I wrote it and Alex drew it. This was in high school. I’d always wanted to draw, but felt like I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good at perspective at all -- I couldn’t draw what I saw in my head. I couldn’t put figures in a room. Just basic drawing inability. I always loved drawing, but never considered myself great. So I thought I should focus my efforts elsewhere.

But Alex Ahad was a prodigy. We had a creative writing class together where he made a comic, so I just asked him if he would be interested, and he was. We started this too-ambitious comic called The Shedu Hunter. The shedu is a monster in the Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual. It’s a lawful good creature, based on Babylonian mythology. And the picture in the Manual looks ridiculous.

 

 The enigmatic Shedu, from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous

 The enigmatic Shedu, from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous

The comic is about an insane, or at least gravely misinformed, adventurer named Gregory of Fartoy who goes on a quest to slay all the shedus in the world because they killed his brother. We had 6 issues planned out. We made a song with it and there was this band night at our high school, and we performed the song and were selling comics. We sold a lot of comics -- at least 50. It was really promising.

LBP: Why didn’t you finish it then? What happened?

We did 3 issues, and that brought us into college and things sort of fell apart. But for the longest time, my proudest comics moment was when James and I were in this local shop in San Jose, and we were just browsing. And this kid, probably 10 or 12 years old, came in and he said, “Hey, do you have Shedu Hunter?” Which they did, because we had it there on consignment. And our minds were blown. We were speechless. And the guy was like, “Uhh, I think so, it sounds familiar…”

LBP: What was it about being cut from the basketball team that led you to kung-fu?

I think it was just connected to my self-worth … Wherever I played, I was always the best, until I got to high school. When I got to high school, everyone was like 6’5’’. I went to an all-boys high school, so there were like more boys to be good. It was kind of a competitive sports school. And I was the weakest one.

LBP: This doesn’t end with you tracking them down and destroying the JV team?

No, I kind of separated myself from it altogether. I’m still sort of bitter about it though … I definitely didn’t think I was the worst one.

LBP: I’ve never done kung-fu, but I feel like there is a philosophical component to kung fu that isn’t always there in other sports. What was it like studying kung-fu after you were cast out of the basketball team?

There were all these characters there. I think that was the big draw after awhile. The master -- his name was Master David -- he was this chubby white guy with glasses and a ponytail. I think he was a computer programmer by day. His teaching was like, “So you take his head, and -- shoo!” And he’d do some quick movement, and it was really funny to watch. There was this other guy -- we’d always warm up beforehand, stretch and sit ups and stuff, and there was one time he farted -- like you heard this thhppptt -- and everyone looked at each other like, Did that just happen? And then it happened again.

LBP: Does that lead to an interest in historical China?

We were given this manual at the beginning, which had all of these shaolin stories. And that was kind of what did it. I was really interested in the history, after that.

The first Pang thing I actually started with James. We must have written maybe 20 pages together. It was way less rooted in history. I started drawing that, and after awhile James became uninterested in it. But I must have drawn like 60 pages of that (version). But by the time I was done, I was like, this kind of sucks, I should re-do it.

LBP: Was the overall plot similar?

There are some similarities. Especially with the beginning. He comes to town, he talks to an innkeeper. But I never thought it would be as long as it is now.

LBP: When did you start to get a sense of the longer story? When you decided to re-do it, did you plot it out in its entirety? Or did you do it page by page?

I made an outline, leaving a lot of room for change. Which inevitably happened. There have been times, working on volumes 1 & 2, where I’ve been going by the seat of my pants, doing one page at a time. But mostly I write it out in chunks.

LBP: It sounds like an intimidating process -- you’re doing a page at a time and putting them up for public consumption as this webcomic almost right away. You can’t really go back and change something.

Yeah. In the beginning, it was right when I started grad school. So I didn’t really have time to do more than one page a week, so that style fit.

But going forward with volume 3, I don’t want to do that. There were some moments where my production was slowed because I was stuck on a story part. I think I was on page 60-something back in September, so from September to the end of May I did 110 pages. Which is the most that I’ve done in a similar time period. So I just forced myself to make story decisions.

LBP: Does it still seem really close to you, or can you take a larger perspective on it now?

It still seems really close. I still have anxiety dreams about the book not turning out well or something.

LBP: But volume 2 is out the door now, everything’s with the printers.

It is.

LBP: It’s too late. I hope you didn’t screw it up!

Yee-hup!

LBP: Did anything surprise you in the creative process? Was anything off-plan?

Do you know the guy with the mustache? (note -- this is Ying Jie, a companion of Pang’s, introduced in volume 2).

LBP: I know that guy.

He was pretty much not planned to be that character.

LBP: He’s great -- he’s funny and surprising on the page.

I was afraid he was going to be too much like a character that I’d already planned for later, but I think they’re sufficiently different. I made him funnier than that other character.

LBP: There’s a lot of cool footnotes, which have always been there since page 1, filling in some of the historical detail. Did you give yourself much leeway in how you interpreted that history? Do you allow yourself to make things up or move historical facts around, or do you try to play it straight?

When you’re watching a kung-fu movie, half the time you’re not sure what period it is. Or if it even is ancient China, or what. So I wanted to do a really historical kung-fu genre story. That’s where I was coming from.

The main plot is pseudo-historical. It’s more of a legend, probably. That the shaolin temple was destroyed at this time period, in 1674. There’s no actual written record of it. It’s an oral tradition. But it’s set during a real time period where there was this actual war going on, the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. So on that side of things, I try to be historical. With everything else, I’m definitely filling in pieces. Anything that has to do with shaolin, is pretty much pseudo-historical.

LBP: What was Pang’s publication history?

It started on Webcomics Nation, and was also on ModernTales.com. They just recently shut down Modern Tales and all those sites.

Did you shop it around to print publishers, or did you always want to put it online first?

I was never ready. I thought I couldn’t produce it fast enough for a publisher, so I just thought, I’ll do this as a webcomic and see what happens. Getting onto ModernTales was a goal of mine -- I thought it was a cool site. In 2008 I moved to my own hosting at http://shilongpang.com.

How did the Kickstarter for Volume 2 go?

It was great. It far exceeded my expectations. I set it at $6,000 -- I had no idea what the response would be, and I wanted to make sure that I got some money, because I was willing to pay for the rest. So I was really hoping for $12,000.

A lot of the money came from the Kickstarter community, which I wasn’t expecting. So that’s where the great success came from. It was Project of the Day, which was a huge boost. I was refreshing at like 11pm, and it had already switched -- they didn’t tell me.

Their initial email when the project was approved just said “Great video.” And my girlfriend said, Oh, they probably say that to everyone. But maybe they don’t!

It’s a great video. And as you know, I’m really excited about the Reading Rainbow-style voice-acted Pang stretch goal. So in conclusion, what do readers of the Longbox Project absolutely need to know about Ben Costa that we haven’t covered?

You should read my comics.

 

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GHOST RIDER #17, written by Howard Mackie and illustrated by Mark Texeira:

I remember copying poses from Ghost Rider covers. There was one with Spider-Man and Hobgoblin in it, so I had Spider-Man fighting Hobgoblin, and then -- this is a really embarrassing thing -- I put Shaquille O’Neal in the comic. It was right around (the video game) Shaq-Fu. So with the help of Shaquille O’Neal, Spider-Man put Hobgoblin in jail. I showed them to my mom, who I think laminated the cover.

USAGI YOJIMBO #42 by Stan Sakai:

I’d known about Usagi Yojimbo from Ninja Turtles, but I hadn’t been aware he had his own comic. I may found out about the comic in high school. Getting into that was what brought me back to comics. I started at issue #42, then went back and got the trade paperbacks. I prefer trades. I haven’t been a collector -- I’ll just toss an issue or shove it into a bookshelf.

I had given (Usagi Yojimbo creator Stan Sakai) some issues at Wonder Con in 2007 or 2008. Then when I got the Xeric, he commented on a site, saying, Congratulations to Ben. I was like, Oh shit -- Stan Sakai knows who I am. So that got me the courage to ask for a quote for my book, and then we had a series of emails back and forth. For Diamond Previews, they coordinated a special thing where Stan talked about three of his favorite indie books at the time, and one of them was mine. So I’ve just been talking to him at conventions now. We’re trading books.

EIGHTBALL #23: DEATH RAY by Daniel Clowes:

I wasn’t aware you could do something like this in comics. I hadn’t been reading anything outside the realm of what you might pick up on a Wednesday, and I picked this up at Comic Con in … 2004? And it was a bunch of panels on each page, dealing with superheroes, but in a different way than what I’d seen. I’m not afraid to use a lot of panels. That isn’t the case in superhero comics, where it’s mostly 5 or less (per page).

I started using a lot of panels because I wanted to make each page do something. It was only published once a week, so I wanted to make sure I was getting this much information across, progression the story this much. So that just became my style.

Splash pages have never been my thing … If you read European comics, they’re all really tiny figures, at least 9 panels per page. I’ve really gotten into Dungeon by Trondheim and Sfar. Each page is 9 panels, all the figures are tiny, there’s no close-ups. 

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UPCOMING:

Following the successful Kickstarter for Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk, vol. 2 earlier this year, Ben debuted advance copies at 2013’s Comic Con International. “Comic Con was a success,” says Ben. “It’s been a success every year I’ve gone, because there are so many people. Which means potential for new readers. I enjoy talking to fans.”

Ben will be bringing vol. 2 to San Francisco’s Zine Fest August 31st & September 1st, and APE October 12-13th.

Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk, vol. 2 will appear on comic store shelves by this fall (ask your local shop about it!), and it’s always available to read on Ben's website.

Next, Ben will be drawing some shorter, smaller projects as he starts writing volume 3 in earnest.

Ladies and gentleman, the last word goes to Ben Costa himself. From his very own bio, his fondest wish of all: “What I really want to be doing all day long is make comics for a meager living so that you can read them.”

 

 Matthew Jent is a writer, teacher and storyteller based in San Diego. He met Ben Costa when they were students together in the California College of the Arts Masters in Writing program. Ben was wearing a Usagi Yojimbo t-shirt; Matthew lost to him in a game of basketball. His website is http://matthewjent.blogspot.com.

If you want to check out the Kickstarter video Matthew loved so much, here it is:

 

Farlaine the Goblin: Anonymous Creator

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Interview by Max Delgado

Here’s the first thing you need to know about Farlaine the Goblin: the creator is anonymous.

No joke -- I have no idea who this person is. But in an industry where folks sometimes take credit for work they didn’t do, and where gratuitous self-promotion is expected, this anonymous approach feels truly counter-cultural.

Second, the premier issue of this book is a delight; as readers we’re introduced to a spectacularly imaginative world where a tree goblin wields powers similar to Swamp Thing, navigates kingdoms reminiscent of Willingham’s Fables, and encounters villains you’d expect to find a few paces off the yellow brick road. This is all to say that Farlaine the Goblin is marketed accurately: this is a fairy tale.  And a well crafted one.

Here’s the premise: Farlaine is a tree goblin from the Forest of Fin-Din, and he’s looking for a home. We catch him near the end of his journey, after he’s spent years searching through hundreds of lands that aren’t quite right. With only 10 lands left to explore, the premier issue already has a sense of urgency, which propels the story nicely. Best, Farlaine’s abilities are revealed only when the story dictates, and only in ways that advance the story, which is how it should be. And the story is compelling: a goblin looking for a home, and with few options left.

Issue #1 goes on sale on September 4, 2013, and kicks-off a seven issue arc that will be published as a larger-than-average glossy. In anticipation of Farlaine’s launch, LBP asked the anonymous creator to share a little bit about this title’s long journey towards self-publication.

And, in true LBP style, we also wanted to hear about three books in his personal collection -- and why they're important to him.

 

LBP: Let’s start at the beginning: where did the idea for Farlaine come from?

Farlaine was born in 2009 as a random freeform drawing. I'd often start doodling eyes or a face and then build up from there. In this case, the face was meant be a troll or giant or something big and lumbering, but somehow turned into a somewhat angry looking goblin.

I was having fun with it and kept going, giving him some big horns and huge ears with earrings. Then I started to think he reminded me of a shaman, so I added a little magic, a belt of potions and pouches and even a little skull. From there he gained a funny skirt made of leaves, and somewhere along the way he was given a bag thrown over his shoulder.

With everything else done, the bag was still empty, and then it suddenly clicked - what would a shaman, a protector of a specific forest, do when he went on vacation (or traveled anywhere for that matter)? And it just seemed obvious that he'd carry a tree from his home and it'd give him the ability to carry a little magic with him.

I kept coming back to him and really liked the idea as time passed, and for the next 2+ years I doodled him all the time, trying to get used to drawing him, deciding those little things like how many fingers and toes he should have, what his story would be like, and so on.

So he changed from this angry over-rendered goblin in the first drawing to a more sweet and friendly pot bellied goblin over time, and then the story developed and grew and came together. It was an intentionally long process and not just rushing out with the first thoughts I had.

LBP: Your decision to publish this book anonymously is incredibly compelling, and surprising -- especially in today’s publishing culture How did you come to this decision?

I had 3 thoughts...

1) I didn't want people to be influenced by the name on the book. No gender, no age, no race, no ethnicity, just a comic book. It could be Jim Lee drawing it on weekends or it could be a 10 year old girl in a village drawing by fireflies. All that should matter is the work and whether you like it.

2) It seemed like splitting my energy to be selling two products, myself and Farlaine. Maintaining a website, answering emails, and all of the other work that's involved. I'm not looking to draw Spider-Man or work for Marvel or DC, so why should anyone care who I am?

3) "It's all about the goblin." If 10 years from now I could have Farlaine be well known or me, I'd pick Farlaine hands down.

LBP: Your initial work on Farlaine has been satisfying on a lot of different levels -- first and foremost, the book itself. But secondly, your blog, which serves as a pragmatic overview of what it takes to self-publish a book in today’s market. Tell us about your journey. And what advice would you give to other creators hoping to launch a self-published series?

I did lots of prep work. I read Dave Sim's book, read lots of interviews from artists like Jeff Smith, and tried to get as much behind the scenes knowledge as I could about the day-to-day life of producing a comic. I had read interviews with Todd McFarlane where he talked about how he'd produce a page a day of finished ink work - so this was my artistic goal. I rarely hit it, but it at least gave me a bar to measure myself against.

Then I sort of threw out most of the rules and did my own thing, regardless of what the norm was or what everyone else said. Everyone said you need to do a traditional size vertical comic so it fits on comic book racks and into comic book sleeves with comic book back boards. It needs to be color because people only read color. It needs to be 22 pages because comics are 22 pages. And so on and so on.

But that wasn't really the comic I was making or wanted to read. I wanted a comic that was a self contained story that could change from issue to issue the way Barks' Disney comics or Uderzo's Asterix are.

I was also serious about doing this. I covered the wall of my apartment with every decent drawing I had done of Farlaine and his world so I'd see it constantly. I wrote and drew a short story, Farlaine in the Tinderlands, and brought it to a comic convention and showed it to working artists and asked for honest feedback. Was this professional? Would you buy it? I got some great feedback and suggestions for improvement, but generally, positive encouragement from the right people.

Mark Chiarello at DC did a portfolio review that was positive and gave me some great pointers. I showed it to Terry Moore and he said it looked like the kind of book he'd pick up. I showed it to Greg Capullo who, even without glasses, commended the storytelling and reinforced that that was key. Storytelling was more important than style and pretty lines. Good characters, good story, clear storytelling.

I then wrote out the complete first issue, 30-40 pages in Word, and sent it around for feedback to a couple of close friends.

And then the biggest thing I did - I left my job.

I spent the first few months working on a non-comic project, and then on Jan 1, 2012 I started drawing. I wasn't very fast at first and those first few pages probably took me a lot longer than anything and came out looking far less than I wanted...but I kept at it like it was my real job 7 days a week for the next 9 months until the unemployment ran out and I'd sold off everything I could sell off.

So I committed on a somewhat epic scale to the whole enterprise.

I also tried to have realistic goals of simply getting the book done and out there. I wasn't aiming for an infinite series or to break into Marvel or draw Spider-Man. I just wanted to tell my little story and have people give it a chance.

I guess the one piece of advice I'd offer on the artistic side, in that it at least helped me, was to get ahold of some of the original art from my favorite artists and just stare and learn from it. I learned more from seeing that up close than I did from most books or classes. It helped to understand where to spend your time, how much detail you really need to put in, what reproduces well and what doesn't, and so on. Very helpful

LBP: In your blog you reflect a little on your creative process, sharing that you’ll often work on multiple issues at the same time -- drawing issue #2 while writing issue #3, for example. What have been some of the unexpected joys and challenges of acting as both artist and writer for this book?

For me at least, my brain almost breaks into two parts. When I'm writing I only write. I try to describe what I see in my head and don't do a lot of drawings or preliminaries, just write. I don't really connect that the artist is someone I know.

Then once the script is done I print off a couple of pages at a time to draw. I'll draw page 1 and may not understand my own writing or see it differently in my head then. Or maybe I have other ideas that develop as I start drawing that I want to incorporate, so I'll sometimes alter what I'm drawing and then go back and update the script.

I always work in chronological order and don't lay out the whole book at once. One page at a time, generally from start to finish - pencils, ink, scanning, lettering, etc. I wouldn't even be thinking of the next issue but just blindly drawing what I'd already written.

And when the book was finally done I'd go back and reread it and see how the whole thing came together...and then do another hundred revisions of the writing now that there were panels and characters and size limitations and all of that.

I iterate a LOT on the writing, trying to pare down the wording, come up with funnier jokes, clarify things, help the story flow, etc. Early on I was doing a lot of very wordy panels that I'd later have to break apart or alter because it wasn't an enjoyable read.

One other thing I really preferred about my unprofessional approach was that there wasn't that monthly pressure to rush something out no matter what. I was able to walk away from a book I'd finished and reread it months later with a fresh set of eyes, and you'd finally see it for what it was and the glaring issues were easy to spot and you stopped falling quite so in love with certain phrases you wrote or panels you drew. "Kill your darlings", as Stephen King says, is a lot easier when you have some distance.

LBP: You’ve shared that Farlaine is a character for all ages, which in the publishing world is often used as shorthand for saying this is a “kids book.” And yet this doesn’t feel like a “kids book.” How did you come to take this approach? And how has it impacted narrative decisions?

I'd again point to Donald Duck and Asterix, books that are generally thought of as kids books but are still incredibly enjoyable for an adult. I never set out to make it any type of book, just to make it the book I wanted it to be. When I was finished and looked at it, I went "Oh, this is something kids will like", and when I showed it to some kids they seemed to like it.

And to be honest, I don't really expect it to be popular with the average teenage boy who reads superhero comics. It's not something I think they'd appreciate.

 

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Amazing Spider-Man #300, by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie:  I remember sleeping over a friend's house who had this book sitting on a pile of comics. I was so taken by it I snuck out of the room to read it in the hallway. I was blown away and loved it. I didn't care who the artist or writer were, it was just a thoroughly enjoyable read. Venom was a great new character, Spidey starting in the black costume before changing it back to the red and blues, and this strange battle with two characters in the same costume. I later went on and redrew a bunch of panels from this book for fun and still consider it the single most influential comic in my life. 

Uncanny X-Men #251, Marc Silvestri, Dan Green and Chris Claremont: The first X-Men comic I ever saw or read during summer camp. To me this cover just ruled. I had never before seen the X-Men or Wolverine, so this was a pretty stark introduction. The story wasn't all that exciting, and was actually pretty confusing for a kid who knew nothing about that was going on, but it was a neat introduction. Wolverine as a weak and helpless individual, not a strong and dominant berserker, and Jubilee as the kid who saves him.

Iron Man 227, by Mark Bright, Bob Layton, and David Michelinie: The first Iron Man comic I ever remember reading. I remember panels from it clearly to this day and oddly remember feeling an affinity for the character because he wore the same tighty whitey underwear as me. Kids think weird. But it was also the plot and the story...someone trying to get back something that was stolen from them. One person against the world. And with some snarky Spidey-like banter going on too. What was funny too was that for years after this I always thought Iron Man was red and silver, and when I'd occasionally see older comics I'd think "they colored him wrong"! It's a very strange experience to be introduced to a character outside of their normal look!

 

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Upcoming

It takes a lot of guts to quit your job and launch a comic. But maybe more importantly, it takes a good marketing strategy. And while Farlaine doesn’t launch until September 4, the creator’s current marketing strategy has already won some impressive fans, and demonstrated some impressive reach. Just recently The Comics Journal gave Farlaine a shout-out, a major accomplishment for a fledgling book, and a testament to the effectiveness of this creator’s marketing approach. So how did he do it? To start, the creator sent 25 books out for review, and took out a full page ad in Diamond. Later, the creator sent 300 copies of issue #1 to retailers scattered across the country; he plans to send-off 400 copies of Issue #2, and 500 copies of #3, so the likelihood of seeing Farline the Goblin at your local shop is high. Plus, if you live in Boston, Baltimore, or NY, keep an eye out -- the creator will be at all of those conventions. And while this approach has been yielding some good results, a good marketing strategy, of course, is not what makes a good comic. Storytelling and art is what makes a good comic. Good thing Farlaine the Goblin is pretty damn close to having both.