“True Story, Swear to God” cartoonist Tom Beland weaves a tale of horror set in Puerto Rico this June when “Chicacabra” is released in comic stores by IDW Publishing. A 200-page graphic novel, “Chicacabra” tells the story of Isabel, a young girl who finds she has a demon with a ravenous appetite for death hidden inside her.
Beland spoke with CBR News about the island-based story, and how it’s based, to some extent, on a real person. Beland also opened up about the difficulties that come from writing fiction as opposed to his previous autobiographical work, In the process discussing his issues with depression and how “Chicacabra” reflects his battles with the disease, how he opened his heart up to Will Eisner, why he feels Puerto Rico should legalize marijuana and what marketing cue he’s taking from adult film star Sasha Grey.
CBR News: Tom, “Chicacabra” is a big shift from your previous work, being a horror story, but what exactly is it about?
Tom Beland: “Chicacabra” was originally a story about a boy who discovers he comes from a family lineage of chupacabras. I got to, like, page seven, and just threw it all away. I teach cartooning, and I had this student who was a beautiful girl — but she also loved these big gigantic tropical beetles. She would let them crawl up her arms. It was such a contradiction. From that came Isabel. I need to bind my characters to real people.
I’ve never written anything this hard in my life. I thought it would be easier than autobiographical comics because you’re making it up, but with autobio stories, you have a roadmap. I know where I have to go and how it’s going to work out, because I lived that experience. With fiction, everything has to be made up.
I also deal with depression, and when I look at the book now, I can see it’s also about that. It’s funny, because in therapy last week, I told my therapist that depression used to be this illness I had. This thing I had to fix. I realized my depression is this chupacabra inside me. A little pet I can let out. It’s like letting a dog off the leash at the park. You let it out because you’ll know it’ll come back later. Like the chicacabra in the story. So there’s a lot of me in this book. A lot of me.
You’re originally from San Francisco, but you’re currently based in Puerto Rico where “Chicacabra” takes place, right?
Yeah, I’ve been here 15 years.
Now, I know you’ve opened up about this in depth in “True Story, Swear To God,” but can you give us a refresher on how you wound up there?
I met my wife at Disney World. I worked for a paper at the time, doing illustrations and page designs. They let me do whatever I wanted creatively, but I was never getting a raise. Then one day, my editor asked me if I wanted to go cover the opening of Animal Kingdom at Disney as a fun assignment. It was four days at Disney World, everything was free, and then I’d come back and write a story about it.
So I flew out there — got my own room, too, which amazed me, because usually you had to team up with somebody. It was amazing. On the last night, Stevie Wonder was performing and I thought I’d go because I’d never seen him before. I went to the bus stop, and that’s where my future wife was sitting. We talked a little bit, then we got on the bus and talked more. Her friends never showed up, so we just hung out all night. We exchanged emails and dated back and forth for about a year. Then I moved here. My first series “True Story, Swear to God” covered all of this. Disney heard about it, and flew us out and married us.
I was nominated for an Eisner Award for it. That was the same year “Y: The Last Man” and “Fables” were up for it, too, so I just got drunk cause I thought there was no way I could win. I ended up having this long talk with this old guy at the table. I mentioned how I wished my parents could have been there to see me nominated. We had a long talk about religion and comics and everything. Then he said, “Well, I have to go get up there and hand out some awards.” It was Will Eisner. I had no idea it was him! I always get these weird moments because of “True Story, Swear to God.” I have no background in bookmaking at all. I never went to college, I’m self-taught. My only experience with comedy was doing stand-up for a couple years back in San Francisco in the ’80s. It got me into storytelling.
You incorporate your home of Puerto Rico into your work quite a bit. Has the island changed your work at all?
Puerto Rico is my biggest fanbase. I have friends in Napa and a few readers, but when I came here, they really embraced what I was doing. I even sold well in mini-comic form. I let my followers on Facebook see the process as I go. I post sketch and finished pages. People on the island got a chance to really get to know Isabel through the sketches. I’ve been having a great year, too, because when I do get hit with depression, I can talk about it on Facebook and I get a lot of support from the community here. A lot of support. And they don’t try and give me advice they just listen. The worst fucking drivers I’ve ever seen in my life, but they give me so much love and support. [Laughs]
I have more people buying my work here than even back in California. Here, it’s more like a fanbase. I’ve never had a fanbase before. It means a lot to me.
How is “Chicacabra” connected to the legend of the chupacabra?
I am making the chupacabra I want to make. I didn’t want to focus too much on it having a wolf’s body or a goat body. There’s a lot of conflict on what this thing really looks like and what it’s really about. In the book, [Isabel] stumbles upon this creature that enters her body. I compare it to the Hulk. Whenever Bruce is in trouble, the Hulk takes over. But when Bruce wakes up, it’s clear a lot of shit has gone down. That’s the part I always liked about the Hulk. When Bruce wakes up and he’s just going, “What the fuck?!” I love that about the Hulk. In “Chicacabra,” when the host body is threatened, it just goes about eliminating the threat.
It’s hard to tell what my target age group is. I teach fifth graders and I’ve told the parents there’s pot use and profanity and beheadings. They say it’s ok, I shouldn’t worry about it. It blows my mind! It’s a very cartoony book. There’s a lot of humor in it, but it reads like a true story. It’s told from Isabel’s point of view, very much through her eyes.
I just hope people like it. I’m excited. I want the book to come out tomorrow! The anxiety level is just through the roof, it’s hilarious. I can’t go into a comic shop right now because I want my book to be there. But at the same time, I don’t want to go in when it is there and worry about whether people think it’s shit! I want to have it out on my terms. I just want it to be awesome for people!
You say you get anxiety when a book is about to come out. Does anxiety cripple you, or does it cause you work harder and produce more?
I’m producing, but at the same time, I don’t remember with “True Story” tripping balls this bad. The feeling with “True Story” was, if people bought the first story, they’d buy the rest. I’m more nervous now. There’s always that moment I’m worried about, that even if I love the work, somebody is going to open it up and go, “What the fuck?!” There’s this thing you do with kids where you drop them off at school, and the only thing you’re thinking is, “Please love my kid as much as I love my kid.” This book is like that kid. I want the book to go to school, but man, just please like my kid! IDW likes it, though. So that’s cool.
“True Story” was published through Image. How did “Chicacabra” end up at IDW?
I pitched it to Image Comics, but I never heard back from them. I had a lot of IDW’s Artist’s Edition books and I loved them. They also make the “Parker” books which I love. So I thought I’d pitch it to them, since I love their books so much. I just did a blind submission, which is just the worst thing you can do. It’s like knocking on the window asking if anybody’s home. It was like a shitty pitch letter where I said I had written “True Story.” I called it a book women loved and men were embarrassed to buy. Then I sent them a PDF of “Chicacabra,” asking if they wanted to take a look at it. Maybe a couple of hours later I got an email from [IDW Editor in chief] Chris Ryall, who I already knew. It was the quickest contract ever. Print it out, sign it and let’s go.
Chris asked me how I’d like to release the book. I said I wanted to premiere it at the Puerto Rico Comicon. I’d never done that before, premiere something at a con. And this con has gotten really good. I remember when it used to just be in a ballroom like the early San Diego conventions were. In two days on an island they pump a lot of people through the door now, like eight or nine thousand. I can make as much as I do in San Diego if you subtract all the costs with flying there and getting a hotel. I asked Chris if we could make 100 special copies with the con logo and everything and he said ok. I also saw this thing that Sasha Grey does whenever she goes to a city. She hides her books someplace, like between two walls or under a table or something. Then she’ll take a photo of that spot and turn it into a scavenger hunt. If you find the book you can take a photo and she’ll put it in on her Instagram. So we’re doing that with “Chicacabra” at the con. I’m going to hide the book and every half an hour pan out of the photo until somebody finds it.
When I sent the letter in, I had no idea Chris was working there. You know that scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where he’s walking across that invisible bridge? Pitching is kind of like that. I have very little confidence in my pitching ability, so I had low hopes, but what came back was awesome. I always tell my students that no matter how ridiculous their dream is, it may come true one day. I’m married to a great girl. I’m living a cool little life on the island. And I wrote “Spider-Man.” I wrote “Fantastic Four.” I got to play with Marvel’s toys! Then I made my books. Then I got to hang out with Sergio Aragones at conventions. Crazy shit! I look at my students now, and they tell me I’m so full of shit. But I’m not. I had no idea I’d ever get to have these experiences. But I always wrote and drew every day. Every single day since high school.
“Chicacabra” by Tom Beland is out this June from IDW Publishing.