A Dream of Meager Living: Creator, Ben Costa

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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: