I'm flirting with self-indulgence and shameless hype with this post, but what the hell.
I'm friends with the talented alt-cartoonist Ben Towle, and you really ought to visit Ben's website, which is updated regularly with sketches, craft tips, and sharp commentary (like his recent take on SPX 2008.) You can also listen to the chat with Al Feldstein that Ben and I hosted at June's Heroes Con, or troll through the backlog of TB comments to read Ben's insightful, humorously acerbic responses to many of our posts.
Our synergy continues in the second issue of John Read's Stay Tooned! magazine, where I interrogate Ben about his career, his favorite artists, and his graphic novel Midnight Sun. Ours was a long interview, and the Stay Tooned! version is edited due to space constraints. On the Internet, though, we can blab on as long as we like, so here are pieces of the Towle interview that didn't make it into print. My questions and comments are in boldface, Ben's end of the conversation is in regular type, and my after-the-fact interjections are in italics. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.
Excerpt #1 is from early in the interview. Right after Ben mentions that Harvey Kurtzman's art hits a "sweet spot" between cartoony and realistic representation, we dish about Kurtzman for a bit.
Is that what you get from Kurtzman, this idea of abstraction? Kurtzman keeps it simple: he uses a couple of thick brush lines to outline the human figure...
It's funny, because I'm not the sort of person who copies his favorite artists. When I was a kid, I would copy panels that I liked by artists I liked, but the cartoony figure just emerged naturally in my work, and then I found myself fighting it. I probably picked up more visually from Kurtzman's later stuff, with the real rubbery arms and the simplified single-brush-stroke style.
Not the E.C. war comics?
Probably more storytelling-wise from the war comics. Before I started working on Midnight Sun, I reread the Kurtzman war stories, in the Gemstone square-bound floppies that collected three issues of Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. I wish they'd put out some black-and-white collections of just the stories Kurtzman wrote and drew. Those are the stories I like, not the ones drawn by Wally Wood or George Evans. The Kurtzman stands out, even though he thought he wasn't a particularly good draftsman.
He farmed out the actual drawing, because he thought people like Wood were better artists.
But some of that stuff is so beautiful. Those big, slashing blacks...I guess you tend to admire stuff you're not good at. I'm terrible at spotting blacks. I'm such a chicken about laying down areas of black. One of my post-Midnight Sun missions is to learn how to use black more effectively. I want to go back and look at Kurtzman again, and maybe the Hernandez brothers.
Excerpt #2 comes immediately after our discussion of manga.
Here's a personal question: do you want to talk about why Slave Labor cancelled the last two issues of the comic book serialization of Midnight Sun?
There's not much to talk about, other than it wasn't selling. [Laughter.]
Obviously the news was a disappointment, because you like the comic book format so much.
In retrospect, it was probably unwise to have done it as a floppy to start with. I probably should've just finished the whole thing, and released it as a book.
In the market these days, it's tough for floppies that are not superhero stories. A floppy can't sit on the shelf to build a readership the way a graphic novel can. You'd be surprised at how little even the successful non-superhero pamphlet comics sell. Like Mome, for example: I bet it sells less than 3500 copies.
But Mome isn't really a pamphlet. It's designed to look like a literary magazine, like Granta.
That's true. That's not a good example. But small-press non-superhero comics have a hard time in the market, so the troubles with Midnight Sun weren't surprising. Obviously, it was a disappointment, because given the option, you would much rather have a highly successful book than one that doesn't sell. [Laughs.] I didn't take the cancellation as an indictment of the work itself.
And SLG's been supportive about publishing the graphic novel.
Yeah, they have. I'm not privy to their finances, but I think they were going through a rough patch, probably as a result of all those Disney licenses. I guess the way that works is that they have to pay for licenses for the various properties, and since it's work-for-hire, they have to pay a page rate to the artists and writers. That's not a model that they're used to. They were trying to batten things down a bit--they cancelled a lot of their floppies during that period. In easier times, though, I get the impression that SLG's gone ahead and run series to their completions, even if the company was losing money, just because Dan Vado liked them.
That was about the time of the infamous Vado panel at the 2007 Wondercon, where he said that he wished he had a piece of the rights of the characters created by artists he'd published.
Which is, I think, completely rational. SLG's contracts are generous and fair, and you can publish something with them and they incur all the risk. If the book fails, SLG gets no benefit, but the artist gets a book that he or she can use as a calling card to other publishers. A lot of the bigger publishers use the indies as a kind of farm team system. It's not a great prospect for a publisher like SLG.
Excerpt #3: a wee back-and-forth about hand lettering.
You think that hand-lettering is warmer and more personal.
Not across the board. I prefer it in my work, but there are plenty of examples where computer lettering looks fine.
And then there's the compromise that artists like Alison Bechdel have worked out: having a computer font made that's based on your own handwriting.
Yeah. Scott Adams does that. I'm not totally insistent on hand-lettering.
Above: Shuffleupagus settings drawn by Isaac Cates, Tom O'Donnell, Mike Wenthe and Tom Hart, purloined from Satisfactory Comics' excellent post on the jam activity. Below: Ben and I on the Shuffleupagus.
Do you want to try to describe the Shuffleupagus, or...? [Laughs.]
You can find instructions for it online, if you Google the word "Shuffleupagus." It's hard to explain verbally, but it involves randomly selecting a character and an environment from a deck of cards that you've accumulated over years of playing this, and then each individual artist draws a panel showing the character doing something in that environment. These panels go on to constitute every other panel of the final piece. The next page: you draw the panels in-between.
And try to pull it all together and make it semi-coherent.
The advantage of the Shuffleupagus is that everyone works on it simultaneously, unlike a pass-around jam. Also, when you do a traditional jam, there's the temptation to "up the ante" with how silly or nonsensical you can get. You can just come up with a bizarre non-sequitur and pass it off to the guy on your left and you're done with it. When students do the Shuffleapagus the first time, they're tempted to draw something crazy, but little do they know that in the next step they have to continue to work on that story..! Their own ridiculous panel may come back to haunt them.
I remember that during a Shuffleupagus that we did at our drawing club--our "Rolf vs. Hardees" one --I looked at the way someone drew a restaurant employee in an earlier panel, and tried to draw that character the same way in my panel. The Shuffleupagus taught me to try to draw on model.
"Rolf vs. Hardees," a Shuffleupagus drawn by members of the CCCGSC on 11/2/06.)
Drawing on model is a whole other level of achievement.
Now, I didn't say I succeeded. [Laughter.]
But it's a challenge to get students to recognize the importance of keeping a character consistent from panel to panel. The point of the Shuffleupagus is that at some point they realize that consistency is really important to storytelling. That's what "on model" means: consistency of your character, and consistency of environment. It's all a part of clarity.
That's all, folks! Special thanks to Ben and to John Read for permission to post these snippets.