Rich Barrett: The Comics Decoder Interview / R. W. Watkins
The Comics Decoder Interview
R. W. Watkins interviews the creator of Nathan Sorry
First things first: I was kind of disappointed to discover that the print edition of Nathan Sorry Volume One is sold out. (I’m not overly fond of e-books, despite having a number of short titles available in the format on Amazon.com myself.) How long was it available in print? Did it sell that well and that quickly?
Yes, unfortunately it is temporarily sold out. I’ve had a pretty good year or so between doing well at shows like SPX and HeroesCon and getting a fair amount of online sales here and there. I do small print-on-demand runs at a time so that last batch only lasted me about a year. My plan is to reprint when Volume 3 is ready, although I’m not exactly sure when that will be. Probably early to mid 2014. In the meantime, I’ve been focusing more on selling digital editions through Comixology and my own website.
For those completely unfamiliar—as I was, until Steve K. got me hip to it—can you give people a brief summary or synopsis of what Nathan Sorry is all about?
Nathan Sorry is about a guy who was supposed to be in the World Trade Center on 9/11 but has missed his flight, and instead has taken the opportunity of everyone thinking he is dead to steal $20 million and change his identity. He’s not the most adept criminal mastermind, though, and is suffering a bit of a nervous breakdown. While he’s hiding out in a small town down south, he starts to lose his mind a little, forgetting who he really is. He also begins to get a little too involved with some of the locals in the town. Particularly two women and one teenage girl who are all trying to escape from something themselves.
And where did the germs of this idea lie? Are there any particular works of fiction or historical anecdotes (other than the obvious) that you drew upon?
It’s an idea that was kicking around in my head for a while, especially back when 9/11 was a little fresher in everyone’s memory. I was initially working on it very slowly in my own free time and probably took about a year or so to cobble together the first 10 or so pages before I even got serious about it and started posting it online. I had been reading a number of fictional novels about 9/11, books like Don Delillo’s Falling Man, that definitely inspired me as I was working on this. I remember also being inspired at the very beginning by the HBO show Six Feet Under to do something that was just a little weird and reflective on heavy subjects like life and death while also being entertaining and character-focused. I’m also a big fan of crime fiction and noir and wanted to do a story that played with a lot of those elements though not in a standard crime story kind of way.
As for your artistic style, I must ask, are those heavy black lines and shapes influenced to any degree by the one and only Charles Burns? I ask, because Charles Burns is the premier horror and suspense artist of the past thirty years. In the 1950s it was Jack Davis (EC), in the ’60s and ’70s it was Steve Ditko (Charlton) and E R Cruz (DC), and the time since then has been synonymous with Burns. I can’t think of another comics artist who has dominated one genre for so long.
I’m a big fan of Charles Burns, but his inking style is about 1000% cleaner and more graphic than my own, so I can’t say I look at him much when working on my own stuff. For Nathan Sorry, especially, I think my biggest influences have been David Lapham, Dan Clowes, Cameron Stewart and Naoki Urasawa. I’ve looked at all of their work a lot during my process of making this book, and probably for different reasons involving inking, framing, atmosphere and simple cartooning style.
This is my first book and a lot of this whole thing has been a learning process for me. Learning how to tell a story, how to ink properly, how to stage scenes, how to develop character. I mean, jeez, everything about making a comic, I guess. And since I work at a relatively slow pace on this, a lot of my influences and my entire process for making the book has changed drastically over the last 140+ pages. That’s one of the reasons they tell you not to work on a large graphic novel your first time out. But, oh well, too late!
This is fun so far, great questions!
Well, I wasn’t going to ask you your favourite colour! I’m reminded of an old interview with Scottish white-noise rockers The Jesus & Mary Chain circa 1985. When asked some generic question about the state of the music biz, one of the Reid brothers replied, “Me fav’rite colour is gold”.
Anyway, let me ask you about the technical side of your creative process. Exactly what kinds of pens, pencils, paper, etc do you use in the creation of a page? Do you use a brush? I have a feeling that computer programs play a minimal role in the process (more about computers later). Take me through said process.
Well, actually, when I started the book I was probably about 80/20, paper/digital. Over time my process has kept changing and at some point I went 100% digital. In fact, it was so gradual that looking back, I’m not even sure I remember when I made the complete switch. I draw and ‘ink’ everything in Manga Studio now, partly for the sake of efficiency and partly because I really enjoy it. I think the comic looks better thanks to what I can do with it in Manga Studio.
I used to draw in regular old pencil on bristol board and ink with a combination of brush, Pentel Pocket brush pen and Micron pens, but I would always scan them in and clean up a lot of mistakes or panels I just wasn’t happy with in Photoshop. Since I spend so much time on the computer in my day job as a web designer, I had originally thought of the comic as a way to get away from the computer and get back to my roots of being an artist who actually drew things on paper. The damned machine just kept finding ways to keep itself involved in everything I was doing, though, and it made sense to give in and go all digital.
So how come you’ve chosen—like so many of us poets, novelists, musicians, other cartoonists these days—to go the independent route? Was it out of sheer necessity, or was it simply your default choice? (As I'm sure you’ve figured out by now, self- or semi-independent publishing has its benefits and its drawbacks….)
Have any of the ‘alternative’ companies shown any interest, by the way? Any offers to do lunch or anything?
I go back and forth about this a little. As you said, there’s definitely pros and cons to both approaches. I’ve only submitted the book to a couple of publishers (with no takers) and part of me would love to have a publisher for this. I think the way the market for graphic novels is today, though, attracting a publisher for a project like mine, especially as a first-time author, is probably just not feasible. And that’s okay. I’ve done pretty well getting the book out there on my own so far, and I’m free to work on the project on my own time and in my own way.
Self-publishing is easier than it’s ever been today, but it’s still really hard and there’s very little pay-off, financially. Digital distribution, digital comics, e-books and Kickstarter are changing the landscape drastically at such a pace it’s hard to keep up with. When I finish my book (hopefully in a few years), who knows what the market and distribution channels for self-publishing will be like.
You mentioned Dan Clowes as an influence. Yes, I spotted that too. But I kept my mouth shut, so to speak, for I’m not well-versed in Dan Clowes, I’m ashamed to admit. Of those major Fantagraphics cartoonists that one associates with the ‘alternative era’, Gen-X hipsters, grunge, etc, he’s the one whose work I’m the least acquainted with for some reason. Any particular Clowes storylines you’d recommend? I certainly enjoyed Birch and Buscemi in Terry Zwigoff’s film version of Ghost World. I knew all of those characters, so to speak.
I “came of age” as a serious comics reader when I was in my mid 20s, reading mostly Fantagraphics comics during the mid to late ’90s. This was after, of course, being a huge comics reader as a kid but giving it up almost completely when I became a teenager. Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes were pretty much all I was reading during this time. I’ve since become a more well-rounded comics reader, and actually now write a weekly column about the great variety of interesting comics that come out every week for the online magazine Mental Floss. But my tastes definitely have their roots in ’90s-era alternative comics.
There’s something about the sad yet darkly humorous detachment and alienation that guys like Clowes would make comics about that I always found appealing. It was almost the polar opposite of superhero comics in that superheroes were giving comics readers an unachievable, idealized form to escape into, whereas people like Clowes and Ware were showing them a too-close-to-home version of themselves.
Clowes, unlike some of those other guys at that time, had this weird take on reality in his comics. It wasn’t exactly the real world he was writing about. It was more dreamlike or just a little bit off. Some of my favorite books by him like David Boring or Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron are very David Lynch-ian. I actually started out wanting Nathan Sorry to be something like that, in my head, at least. In fact, the name ‘Nathan Sorry’ was originally meant as sort of an homage to ‘David Boring’. However, when I actually started to get into writing the story it became much more grounded, and anything that was derived from my love of Clowes probably became mostly unapparent.
Well, I must say, I’m not too impressed with the majority of ‘computer-generated’ comics that have been coming out over the past fifteen years or so. In fact, I’m working on an essay in which I make the bold claim that the greatest artist in mainstream comics over the past decade and a half has been the computer programs in use! To tell you the truth, I really can’t differentiate one superhero artist from another any longer—everything appears generic. I hear a lot of other longtime comics enthusiasts saying the same thing. As I mention in another essay that will be included in Issue Five, as far as Marvel Comics go, it’s part of the reason that no one really seems to matter historically after McFarlane, Larsen and Sal Buscema on the Spider-Man titles. I’d love to hear your opinion on such contemporary mainstream comics.
From what I’ve seen of your work so far, I’m pleased to announce that your increased use of technology hasn’t compromised or sullied your art to any noticeable degree—at least on a computer screen; which, I guess, is the ideal medium for viewing work created through such digital means. So this process involves a graphics tablet, right?
I think were in the midst of a big shift to digital art among a lot of well-known artists. Ive seen a lot of them make the switch from paper and ink to Manga Studio over the past couple of years and retain their unique style and characteristics. I think it’s true that there’s probably a slightly cold sheen to digitally inked comics that is recognizable, but I also think you’d be surprised to learn what is and what isn’t digitally produced. I remember being shocked to learn that Brian Bolland has been inking all his cover work in Photoshop since sometime in the late ’90s. Whereas, you look at the work of someone like Chris Ware, whose style is so graphic and geometric, but he does at least most of his work by hand (unless that’s changed in recent years, which is possible).
What digital is really revolutionizing is comic-book coloring. For years, digital coloring in comics stood out like a sore thumb and seemed like such overkill that it was weighing down the line art it was supposed to be complementing. Today, I think there are a lot of really smart colorists that are doing amazing work with subtlety and finesse. And this becomes really apparent if you read comics on a tablet or monitor. For me, this is one of the biggest selling features of reading digital comics. Superhero comics especially look SO much better on an iPad then they do on paper because you’re seeing the color in its natural, digital environment. I really find a lot of it breathtaking.
To answer your question about my own process, yes, I use a Wacom tablet, although I’m using an old non-Cintiq version, so it’s not one of those where you can draw right on the screen. I use Manga Studio to pencil out my pages and then also to ink them. I then move to Photoshop for lettering and to add the bluish green color and tone that I use for my ‘coloring’. To be more precise, I actually do the lettering in Photoshop FIRST with some really sketchy thumbnail drawings, and THEN move to Manga Studio. I’ve learned the hard way to think about and plan where and how the dialogue will flow with the images beforehand.
Regardless of the technical process involved, I think your work is a victim of timing. Courtney Love may have turned into a Gen-X embarrassment over the years, but I do agree with her observation that success is all about timing—getting started in the right era. I mean, you do realise, of course, that if this was twenty to twenty-five years ago, Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink or Drawn & Quarterly would most definitely be publishing Nathan Sorry in magazine or GN format? You do realise that, don’t you? Because of all sorts of economic and technological factors, most of the best new voices are getting left out in the cold these days. (I won’t even get started on how such factors have affected us cutting-edge poets!)
I agree and disagree with this. I think the publishing industry is in dire straits right now due to a variety of factors, including the proliferation of free content on the web and simply the sheer availability of other types of content. However, I’m not sure that means I’d have had a better chance of getting published twenty years ago. I think twenty years ago my only option would be to get picked up by one of the few independent publishers out there, and if they rejected me, you would never have heard of me. I mean, comics has always had a vibrant self-publishing faction to it, usually in terms of hand-made mini comics, but twenty or more years ago you would only be able to find those comics at one of the few indie-friendly comic-book conventions, or if you were lucky enough to live in a major city that had an indie-friendly comic book store. Even with those options, it was unlikely you’d ever come across it. Today, I can publish a comic on my website, and if its good, people all over the world may stumble across it via comic-book review sites, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, message boards, Comixology and whatnot. The problem is, there are now a lot of comic-book creators out there competing for the same dollars from the same readers.
Are there other comics artists / cartoonists that you know personally or with whom you keep in regular contact? Do you know of any other ‘unknowns’ out there whom more of us should be reading—and the major companies should be publishing?
There are really a lot out there. I’m only recently getting better at finding what’s there. Like I said before, I write a weekly column for Mental Floss where I try to point out some of these lesser known gems that don’t get enough attention. Between webcomics, digital comics, Kickstarter and small press, there is a lot of good comics about a variety of genres and subjects to find. Some of the cartoonists I’ve written about recently that may or may not be on your radar depending on how “into” the indie comics scene you are. Someone like Sam Alden is making beautifully written, thoughtful and surprising comics that he posts to Tumblr and to various blogs. He just won an Ignatz Award for Best New Talent and will be published by a small publisher called Uncivilized Books. Most comic readers don’t know who he is right now. There’s probably a lot of cartoonists out there like him posting comics as they do them on Tumblr. It can be hard to find them though.
You mentioned David Lynch. Is it possible to have a conversation about the ‘artistic heroes’ of Generation X without Lynch’s (and/or David Cronenberg’s) name coming up? I mean, stuff like Twin Peaks, Wild At Heart and Lost Highway seem to be woven into the Gen-X fabric in the same way that Clowes, Burns, Peter Bagge, Douglas Coupland, The Simpsons, Sonic Youth, Sub Pop and Kurt Cobain’s suicide are. In that new essay of mine I mentioned, on McFarlane and Larsen, it was impossible for me to discuss McFarlane’s fifteen issues of the ‘adjectiveless’ Spider-Man without pointing out their obvious similarities to Twin Peaks. What do you think it is about Lynch’s work that speaks so loudly to us more cultured and/or cynical members of Generation X? The lefties amongst us even seem willing to forgive or ignore his unabashed devotion to the Republican Party!
Haha, I’ve never thought about McFarlane and Lynch as having any sort of similarities before. I’d like to read that. Also, I had no idea Lynch was a conservative. Jeez, who knew.
Yeah, Lynch is a devout Republican, apparently, but I’d hardly consider him a conservative. Most of these arts and entertainment Republicans are merely financial conservatives who like to shoot their guns and hate nitpicking political correctness (like most of us, truth be told). I don't think Joe Perry, Gene Simmons or the late Dennis Hopper have been overly concerned about a lack of prayers in public schools….
Ah, yeah, so he’s a Clint Eastwood Republican. I’d imagine a lot of well-off Hollywood types are at least secretly Republican anyway.
I think it’s easy in general to pull influences from film into comics, and I guess when a lot of people do that they’re often pulling from a handful of sources like Lynch, Kubrick, Scorsese, Fincher. All the directors from the past 30 years or so that have really specific and stylish ways of telling a story visually. Lynch’s style is applicable to crime, horror, sci-fi. All the comics-friendly genres.
You also mentioned that you cherished mainstream comics as a child. What were your favourite titles? Do any of those still stand out in your mind today? Do you glean from them any influence upon your own work?
I grew up in the ’80s, which was a great time for comics. I was reading everything from Marvel and DC around the time DC was rebooting their universe post-Crisis on Infinite Earths and the X-men were going strong. Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, all those groundbreaking, game changing books were coming out then. I was also getting into the few indie books that were out there at the time. One of my all-time favorite comics was a book I was reading when I was like 12 and probably shouldn’t have been: American Flagg by Howard Chaykin. Books like that were my first taste of what comics for adults could be like.
By the way, one of the things that first grabbed me about Nathan Sorry was your depictions of the airport in Chapter One. For some reason, I’m a longtime sucker for airport scenes. There are some from Romita- and Kane-era Amazing Spider-Man and Tomb of Dracula that still stand out in my mind decades later. It’s a similar thing with motion pictures—like Bullitt for example. I guess for me airports suggest transition or something. I touch on this in one of my unpublished semi-autobiographical short stories.
Thanks! You know, so many scenes that I mapped out early on ended up changing quite a bit when they became actual comic pages, except for that very first airport scene. That was one of the first scenes that played out in my head when I began writing Nathan Sorry. Of course, being the first pages I drew, there wasn’t as much time for it to change in my head before I got around to drawing it as has happened with the later pages. That said, since they were the first pages, they’re the least technically proficient pages in the book, and I have actually gone back a few times to fix certain things that constantly bug me about them. I’ve even redrawn a couple of the panels and would love to redraw the entire scene, but I have to stop myself from looking backwards.
I’m glad you pointed out the dubious computer colouring of mainstream comics. The colouring has long been the biggest thorn in my side when it comes to contemporary superhero comics courtesy of Marvel, DC and Image. It’s like I was telling Bill Harvey the other day: Jack Kirby’s own mother wouldn’t recognise his art from Charles Schulz’s by the time they’re through with the colouring! I think you’re being very wise in taking a minimalist approach to the coloring process.
My tastes in art and design tend to lean minimalist. My reasons for coloring my own comic the way I have is partly to achieve the proper mood I was going for, but [also] partly for the sake of efficiency (coloring adds quite a bit to the process) and because I wanted to be able to easily drop it out for print purposes if needed. I hope with the final volume to be able to print it with that shade of blue in the interiors, but for the volumes I’ve been printing along the way I use just the line art and the half-tone dots, because printing with any sort of color really ups the production costs.
Like I said though, digital coloring these days has gotten amazing. I actually think we’re in a golden age of comic-book coloring. It’s at the point where for the first time I actually take note of who the colorist is on a book. People like Elizabeth Breitweiser, Jordie Bellaire, Dave Stewart, Matt Hollingsworth. They all do amazing work, mostly because they make very subtle choices. Or someone like Munsta Vicente who uses these amazing, eye-popping colors on Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s self-published digital comic, The Private Eye. She’s almost the real start of that book even if people are buying it for the other two guys.
I agree, though, when they go back and recolor the vintage stuff they often go overboard with inappropriate gradients and just too much ‘stuff’. The problem also is, the old comics were colored in a way that needed to work on newsprint paper, which absorbs the color. When they just reprint that on glossy, modern stock, it’s too loud and saturated. I don’t know the ins and outs on the reprinting process or the decisions they make, but I’d prefer they stick with choices that are truer to the original work rather than redo it in an effort to appeal to modern audiences. There’s plenty of companies that are taking great care in how they reprint the classic stuff though. Usually those are the high priced coffee table books.
You seem to be suggesting that the comics industry is suffering under many of the same factors that the music industry is being crumbled by. That’s interesting—especially when one considers the ultimate extension of the comparison: the comics industry equivalent of undermining file-sharing by reinstating vinyl LPs. Hmm….
I think most creative industries are trying to learn the lessons of the music industry in terms of digital sales and piracy. Comics have actually done a pretty good job with this transition because digital comics are a booming industry. Comixology has led the charge on this and has become the equivalent of Netflix in terms of sales and influence over the rest of the industry.
Comics have had other factors to consider that maybe other industries don’t. Particularly the way small comic shops are basically the backbone of the industry, and if too many of those go out of business at once the entire industry falls to pieces. That’s been the fear with moving to digital too quickly, and in some ways the fear has been unfounded. Print sales may not be great but they haven’t been negatively affected by the rise of digital. Digital seems to have mostly added new readers who weren’t there before. Maybe because they didn’t know where to find comics before.
In general, there’s a big problem brewing with all creative industries where most creative people aren’t making enough money to survive on. This has probably always been the case, but factors like increased availability of all types of media anywhere and at any time, the massive amount of free content available online, and cheap all-you-can-eat subscription models (particularly in the music industry) means the dollars are getting spread very thin.
Speaking of retrofitting, let me make a segueway here and talk about those forerunners of comic ‘books’; namely newspaper comic strips and single-panel cartoons. Are you or have you ever been a reader of ‘the funnies’? Would you care to comment on the current state of syndicated strips and sociopolitical caricaturists?
I’m actually currently reading this new collection of Peanuts Sunday color strips that Fantagraphics has put out. The printing on this is amazing. It’s a big, beautiful hardcover collection of all these strips from the ’50s, and I’ve been enjoying them with my kids. I grew up on lots of newspaper strips like Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Far Side, Bloom County. I’m maybe not as well versed as I’d like to be in the real classic strips from before my time. I’ve read bits and pieces, but I’d love to find the time to read more of EC Segar’s Popeye or some of the great adventure strips by guys like Al Williamson, Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff.
You’ve talked about Lynch in cinema and Six Feet Under on television. Are there artists from other media that you’ve drawn upon for influence? Painting, say, or music? Who’ve grabbed your attention in those mediums over the years?
Hmm, this is a tough question because I feel like I consume and absorb a lot of stuff but I’m not sure what I can specifically point to as being something that’s found its way into my work. With Nathan Sorry, I can say that I’ve thought about novelists like Don Delillo and John Updike in some respects with how I’m telling the story and even how I’m presenting my main character (basically, a selfish, privileged white American male). Updike was one of the first literary novelists I ever really got into, and I think about his work a lot even though it’s probably out of fashion these days. I have a potential graphic novel idea bouncing around in my head that may draw even more so on the Updike influence.
I’ve been looking at a lot of Godard while working on Nathan Sorry as well. One of my characters is kind of modeled off of Jean Seberg from Breathless and I even reference the movie directly in one scene. But, primarily, I look to his work for technical reasons. How he lights and frames his scenes, how he works in black and white, and especially how he handles conversational scenes.
It’s interesting that you talked about the ’80s as a great time for mainstream comics. I fell away from comics in the early ’80s when I was in my early teens. I felt the quality of the stories were going downhill just as fast as the prices were going up. The horror titles were being cancelled, the great artists of the ’60s and early ’70s had been reassigned (seemingly as punishment) to second- and third-rate characters, Gold Key and Charlton were going out of business, etc. I think the final straw for me was when they moved Jonah Hex into the space age! So by the time things started improving around ’86, I was completely unaware of the medium. I never learnt of The Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight stuff until a couple of years after the fact. What are your thoughts on some of these ‘problem areas’ that still affect us today—matters like the exorbitant prices that come with higher salaries and glossy paper; the decline of genres like ‘funny-animal’ and horror; the disappearance of comics from the local pharmacy and corner store, etc?
I think most of us long-time comic readers have hit that period, usually in our teenage or college years, where we fall out of reading comics. The period before that happens is something we have great nostalgia for. You’re a little older than me so you’re nostalgic for comics I was too young to read at the time. A lot of people I know who are younger than me grew up on ’90s comics like Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee or the early Vertigo stuff, or the rise of the Wildstorm stuff like The Authority. I missed most of that, and some of it I just don’t plain get because you probably need to have read it in your formative years to have an attachment to it.
But I’ve also spent a lot of time over the years dipping into the pool of ’90s comics that I missed because I wasn’t paying attention at all during those years. Grant Morrison’s early stuff, Mike Mignola’s original Hellboy comics, Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur comics. There’s still a lot of great stuff from that era I also haven’t gotten around to yet.
As for problem areas today, price is definitely an issue but it’s all relative. I think the price for a 22 page comic from Marvel or DC is way too high for most people, especially considering the amount of story you get for that price. A lot of people don’t understand why the price is basically the same for digital comics when printing and paper costs are not a factor. The problem there is all the distribution channels that are taking a cut. If you buy a comic on Comixology, the cost basically gets split three ways between the publisher, Comixology and Apple (if it’s bought on an Apple device). I think most indie comic readers don't have a problem with the price of those comics, though, because they know they’re supporting the creator with that money.
I actually don’t think we’re in a period of decline with any genre except perhaps superheroes. Horror comics are huge now, thanks mostly to The Walking Dead. Image Comics is booming right now with the mix of creator-owned genre comics they’re putting out now. We’re finally getting great crime comics, spy comics, westerns, horror, almost anything you can think of. Superheroes are what are kind of stagnating, even though they’re more popular then ever with mainstream audiences thanks to the movies. Not to say there aren’t great superhero comics out there right now, but I think they’re slipping behind in quality compared to everything else.
Well, this is actually the point I was trying to make. To the average ‘mainstream’ consumer, the mainstream publishers are all that matter. And what do they publish? Superheroes and Archie Comics. A few who are slightly hipper might be aware of some of the more popular long-time alternative names and titles, like the Hernandez Brothers / Love & Rockets, Clowes and Eightball, Bagge and Hate, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, etc. To some of us arts and entertainment enthusiasts and ‘insiders’, so to speak, numerous genres and sub-genres are alive and well in digital and independent/underground comics. But if you were to ask the general public, the average schmos in the street, about horror and ‘funny-animal’ comics for example, they’d be quick to chuckle and tell you that House of Mystery, The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves, Uncle Scrooge and Daffy Duck all disappeared from the racks around thirty years ago.
It really depends. If you look at monthly sales number of comic books sold through traditional comic book retailers, yes, the top comics are usually Batman, Spider-man, X-men, etc. When you start to look at the top-selling trade collections they’re usually books coming from Image, especially The Walking Dead, which is a horror comic, though maybe a different kind of horror comic. Horror is making a huge comeback right now. The Walking Dead has been an enormous hit both in comics and on TV, and Image is now putting out some top-selling comics that are also critically acclaimed and almost none of them are superhero-based. They’re all horror, crime, sci-fi, westerns.
The comic-reading audience is a lot smaller than it used to be but it’s also very fractured. There are more people reading webcomics than there are people buying comic books. There are people discovering comics via digital now. There is a huge manga readership, and now a generation of younger artists that grew up reading manga are creating westernized manga, primarily for the web, and this is what a large portion of the younger generation of comics readers are reading.
Yes, this is true—sadly true in many cases. Call me hopelessly nostalgic, but there’s a side of me that would love to get back to the days of children on banana-seat bikes racing down to the pharmacy on Saturday mornings for their junk food, sports cards and twenty-cent comic books! There’s still a lot to be said for those halcyon comics-buying days of the 1970s—to say nothing of decades before that I’m simply too young to remember.
Marvel and DC made the abysmally poor decision many years ago to stop gearing their comics towards kids. There aren’t a lot of great choices of comic books to buy for your kids when you go to the comic shop now, even though kids love these characters, go to the movies, watch the cartoons and dress up as them every Halloween.
This brings me to another question that I’ve found myself asking a lot of creative people over the years: Is there a particular time in the historical past in which you would have preferred to live—from a comics artist’s perspective and otherwise?
I don’t think so. I like to live in the present. These are pretty exciting times to live in. And really, from a comics perspective, the quality of the work and the writing in particular has never been better.
Well, that’s probably true to a large degree in regards to alternative and independent comics, but the mainstream stuff... yeesh!
Its interesting that you say you like to live in the present—especially being a creative person. I can remember being in high school and early uni in the 1980s, and I would say about half the pupils loved the mainstream 1980s and only wished they could be more like the 1950s that they were often compared to. On the other hand, about a quarter of us—myself included—were wishing we were still living in the ’70s or were teenagers in the ’60s. Still another quarter were so apathetic they probably didn’t even know what year it was to begin with! There’s no question about it—us ‘artsy’ and socially conscious teenagers in the ’80s were by and large longing for a time ten to twenty years earlier.
I will say that I definitely look backwards a lot for inspiration. I love vintage paperback novel covers, children’s books from the ’50s, Mad Men-era ads, movie posters and fashions from the ’60s and ’70s. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ’80s lately too, which, stylistically, has been derided for the past decade or two, and now it’s cool to reprocess that stuff. I think creative people love nostalgia, even when its nostalgia for an era they didn’t actually live through.
You mentioned that you missed or ignored most of the Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee stuff that was so big in the early to mid ’90s. That’s interesting, because I just plain ignored Image Comics from the outset in ’92, despite that being a peak in my comics-purchasing, during my latter semesters of uni. Now I’m thinking about picking up a load of issues from those titles’ early days, when their creators were still writing and drawing them, and evaluating them objectively twenty years on. Sadly, from the little I’ve seen, I don’t think there’s much to actually ‘read’ in most of those titles!
Early Image was very much about style over substance. The comics themselves I think are pretty unreadable. I don’t want to discount them, though, because they revolutionized the industry and even comic storytelling to an extent.
I was out of reading comics when Image started, so I missed that whole deal, including the rise of Liefeld and Lee, but, I was huge into Todd MacFarlane when I was a kid. Back when he was working for Marvel, and DC before that. At that age, I was very impressed by the way he ‘designed’ his pages. Breaking out of the standard grid of panel layouts. Placing figures outside of the panels as almost decorative elements rather than as ‘actors’ in the story. All that ‘detail’ he would put in, which was really just superfluous lines and crosshatching, really made an impression on me and a lot of kids at that time.
After years of art school, studying illustration and all the classic illustrators of the early 20th century, and then coming back and looking at stuff like MacFarlane’s work which I had adored, I could no longer see the appeal it once had for me. My tastes are completely different now, but there are a lot of people younger than me that grew up on all of that and are processing it in new ways. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know.
You talked about writing for Mental Floss. I think I’ve come across that site before. I think ‘Mental Floss’ was an experimental number The Doors used to play on stage, incidentally. So can you provide us all some comics trivia that virtually none of us were aware of, or is old enough to remember? Personally, when it comes to mainstream superheros, I’ve always considered DC’s Challengers Of The Unknown to be an underrated and forgotten title. And people forget how far back it goes. I mean, if the Marvel bullpen didn’t base The Fantastic Four on The Challengers, I’ll steep tea from my socks. Kirby was involved with—and was possibly a co-creator of—both titles.
I used to be a pretty big Doors fan but I don’t recall that song. Mental Floss is a pretty huge website in terms of regular readers. They have a print magazine as well, and in fact in the latest issue they just scored a rare interview with Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes. I’m only involved in the website and just focus on my little weekly comics column, but I love doing it, primarily because the audience is, for the most part, people that aren’t keeping up with the ins and outs of comics publishing like I do, so hopefully I’m exposing some people to some new books or webcomics they wouldn’t have heard of otherwise.
By the way, what do you make of all these film adaptations of (mostly) superhero comics in recent years? Have any stood out as particularly good or bad? Is there any title you’d love to see adapted for the big screen? How about television adaptations, both animated and live-action?
It’s really every comic reader’s childhood dream to see these movies done so right after years of half-assed attempts that never treated the material with respect. I think the movies have been pretty great. What may be great about them is they’re taking the good stuff from decades of comic stories and distilling them into almost a Best-of compilation. Still, as good as the special effects are and as great as the action scenes may be, the costumes still look a little silly. Superhero comics exist in a reality that works best as dynamic drawings on a page (or screen) with the reader’s imagination making it real in their heads. Seeing a guy in a Captain America costume makes you question why any real person would do that.
You say they’re “pretty great” and the special effects are “good”. Hmm... maybe.... But there’s a lot of folk who question the sincerity of these films. For example, a lot of us feel that Dan Poole’s early ’90s fan flick, The Green Goblin’s Last Stand, is the best ‘cinematic’ adaptation of Spider-Man—the one which best captures the look and feel of the original comics. [Check out my assessment of said movie in Comics Decoder No. 4—Ed.] A lot of people aren’t too fond of CGI effects in general, I might add. Personally, I’ve liked most of these motion pictures—including a few forgotten and dismissed ones (e.g., the original Punisher)—but I’ve loved very few.
It’s hard not to get caught up in them, though. Can’t wait for the new Captain America, and I’m pretty excited about this new Netflix deal they made with Marvel to start making some original TV shows.
You mentioned your children, so I take it you’re a family man. What does your partner and children think about your forays into the comics field? Are they comics fans? Do you have a parent or uncultured uncle who thinks you’re lazy and crazy and should become a longshoreman and join the teamsters? It’s not an uncommon family situation in the world of cartoonists or artists in general!
My wife doesn’t read comics but she’s very supportive of what I do. Of course, what I do is really closer to a hobby than a career. I make very little money from comics, but I do make a decent amount from illustration and some animation projects and most of those have come to me by way of people seeing my comics work.
Let me get back to Nathan Sorry. The drawing style you've employed in creating this… saga—Is it your default artistic style, or can you draw in other, possibly more cartoony or realistic, styles?
I’m kind of a cartoony illustrator but I would consider Nathan Sorry to be on the realistic spectrum of my style. A lot of the illustration work I do tends to be a little simpler and cartoon-like. It’s not all that conscious, mostly just me drawing the way I draw and letting the content dictate how it should be drawn, I guess. I know what I can and can’t do stylistically, though, so I wrote a story that not only appealed to my own interest but fell within the realm of being something I could actually draw. As opposed to a superhero comic or something with a lot of dynamic action.
Judging from what you’ve said, Nathan Sorry will have a definite end at a certain point. What’s next after that? An ongoing series, or will it be time to start work on that envisioned graphic novel you mentioned?
Yes, I’m about halfway through it now. I work very slowly on it because of all the other projects I’m constantly involved in, so I can never really keep to a schedule and determine when it will actually be finished. I have a few other story ideas in mind. They’re all a little more sci-fi in nature but with a very similar feel and grounded-ness to Nathan Sorry. One of them is a pretty short story. I’m toying with the idea of knocking it out in the middle of working on Nathan Sorry, just to do something different.
Could you ever envision yourself adapting someone else’s work to the comics medium? I mean a previously published novel, short story, film, television series, etc? Something tells me you could work wonders with Daphne du Maurier and Laird Koenig material. The original British House Of Cards would also work great in the comics format, I think.
I haven’t thought much about that. I tend to steer clear of working with other writers because I’d prefer to just work on my own stories. I’ve never really considered adapting an existing work and I don’t think I’d have the desire to do so. I could be interested in working with another artist on a story that I’ve written, but I haven’t really explored that.
All in all, I must say this interview has gone rather well. I hope it worked as well for you as it did for me. Thanks for taking the time, Rich.
Yes, this has been a blast. Thanks for giving me the opportunity and for asking such great questions.