Like many artists, Benjamin Dewey’s work is immediately recognizable. His single panel webcomic “Tragedy Series” — set for a hardcover release from Thomas Dunne Books in March of 2015 — resembles the kind of cartoon you’d expect to find in an 1800s newspaper, detailing the misadventures of hapless people in top hats and bustles at the hands of otters and cassowaries. The success of the strip led to more opportunities for Dewey, who collaborated with Paul Tobin on the graphic novel “I Was the Cat” and Jeff Parker on a “Planet of the Apes” comic.
Of course, Dewey’s talent is currently on display via Image Comics, as the talented artist is currently teamed with Kurt Busiek for “The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw.” Described by Busiek as “‘Kamandi’ meets ‘Game of Thrones,'” the series features anthropomorphic animal-people and a lone human, who may or may not be the savior the world needs.
We spoke with Dewey about his exploding career, discussing his early days pre-“Tragedy Series,” the lessons he’s learned over the years and, naturally, his favorite animal to illustrate.
CBR News: How would you describe “Tragedy Series,” and how did it come about?
Benjamin Dewey: It is a surreal humor strip in a world that exists prior to 1900. It’s sort of Victorian and “Far Side”-esque. I’m hesitant to call it a gag strip, but it functions along those lines.
I try to keep my stuff relatable. One of the ways that setting it in a previous time period makes it relatable is that you don’t come up against the barrier of feeling bad for anybody. It’s like they say: “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” If you have a hundred years between you and the guy getting his pockets picked by a goblin, then you don’t feel bad.
It came about because I was in college, and I had made this mechanized box out of wood, copper, enamel and glass. It took me two weeks to make this thing, and it had a crank and gear shaft that made people bob up and down behind enameled waves. Behind them were enameled sharks, and behind them was an enameled ship being struck by lightning. I called it “Tragedy 13: Death at Sea.” I liked the dichotomy of a playful object that relayed something really awful.
You mentioned “The Far Side.” Were there any other comics or cartoons that led into “Tragedy Series”?
Sure. I liked Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the first two volumes, and Edward Gorey, especially his intro to the PBS series “Mystery.” As a kid, I liked Sherlock Holmes and saw these comic drawings [that depicted] the early 20th Century or late 19th Century, then saw them feed right into the show that was a perfect period mystery drama. Those things made a big difference.
How has “Tragedy Series” raised your profile as an illustrator?
My initial project was doing a webcomic with a friend from Ohio. I think I fell into the trap that a lot of young artists do when you think, “Well, I’m an artist. I’m not naturally a writer, so I’ll defer to the person who feels more comfortable with that.” My friend was a funny guy — I thought he could do that role, and I would be the Slash to his Axl Rose.
We were doing this comic, and a mentor was really honest with me. I asked him, “How come the people at my studio don’t promote my comic?” He said, “Well, it’s boring. It’s a slog. It’s unintelligible, and the characters didn’t have any clear motivation. I don’t think you know what you’re doing.” As hard as that was to hear, it was the thing that forced me to think about how to produce a comic I was interested in.
So, I thought about all of the elements that I like, and that project from college came back to mind. I thought that I’d take the same impulse I had to make that object and instead of doing a mechanized box, I’d do a drawing. I tried to keep it to this ninety-minute format that I saw artist Eric Canete using in his sketchbook.
I started doing that, it took off, and people in my studio were happier. They liked it and could honestly say they enjoyed it. It brought me to the attention of writers and other artists that I liked because I wasn’t undercutting my own abilities. I wasn’t producing a thing that had little to no direction.
[“Tragedy Series”] showed people that I could do a diverse array of things, and do a lot of it. After I was doing it for about two years, I was getting job offers from magazines for illustration and I got my gig for “The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw” from Kurt Busiek, along with me doing a short comic with Jeff Parker for “Planet of the Apes.”
It was a combination of those things. You do a lot of work that you care about that other people like, and it will raise your profile. It doesn’t have to be a big, epic, world-building monstrosity on wheels. It can be four hundred small illustrations that are invested with what you really want to do as a creator. That’s how it changed, with me going from not having an audience to doing what I really want to do.
Let’s talk about “The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw,” which made its debut in November —
It’s an epic fantasy adventure with anthropomorphic animal people. Kurt describes it as “‘Kamandi’ meets ‘Game of Thrones’.” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that there’s a human protagonist who makes their way into the story. [The animals] think that they’re getting their savior figure, but what they’re really getting is Michael Biehn from “The Terminator.” He’s a guy a guy who’s combat-oriented, and even if he’s not ripped like Conan, he’s still strategically-minded. It’s all about the nature of humanity versus the nature of creatures on the planet. Which one is more savage? What advantages and disadvantages do each have when you’re dealing with trauma?
What’s it been like, working with Kurt Busiek?
He’s a demanding cooperator, but he’s also good at listening. If I have an idea that I want to interject into the story, he’ll try to find a way to make it work, or he’ll explain to me why it doesn’t, or what complications will come of it. So he asks a lot, but he’s good at listening. In the long run, I feel like we’re making a project that both of us do really feel is fascinating and we care about. Our partnership is reciprocal, and he’s very good at explaining why he makes the choices he makes. They’re not arbitrary and they’re not oriented around something commercial; he’s doing what he likes. What’s transitioned over from “Tragedy Series” for me is that I care. It’s a worthwhile thing and I want it to entertain people and I want to entertain myself.
In “Tragedy Series” you created a lot of distinctive looking animals, a lot of whom were animals. How much input on crafting the characters of “Tooth & Claw” did you have?
Kurt will say, “This character is pompous, and he’s got a suspicious nature. I was envisioning an owl.” I’ll try to arrange my choices in a way that is character-driven and then make choices about their outfits and how they hold themselves. [For example] I’d recently drawn a warthog, and I liked the face, and that it was an unusual animal to see in America. It would set her apart from these other creatures.
I also liked Jacob Bronowski, the scientists, mathematician and historian, the guy who did the “Ascent of Man.” Remember that series? So I said, “Can we make her gestures and body language like this guy?” I sent [Kurt] a few videos from the series, and he was on board. So we do make decisions together, but typically he’ll start with character choices, and then [I’ll add] visual cues or character traits that I have in mind. I’d say that it’s probably 80/20 visual and character on my end, and 80/20 character and visual on his end.
What is different, from a character design perspective, about doing an ongoing series versus one-shot cartoons?
The primary difference is that, if you only have to draw them once, you can be really lavish. You don’t have to detail every angle of a costume. You can go as fancy as dictated by the subject. But in “The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw,” I had to think about what a character’s silhouette would look like, and how many times I’d want to draw, for example, a fully-stocked utility belt, or keep track of all the little elements. There are some fancy, discardable elements in “The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw,” though. We open on what’s essentially a wizard UN, where we see exotic creatures from around the world. Sometimes they’re wearing wraps and robes, but they’re not going to be in ongoing series for the most part.
There are a few characters who are going to show up in the ongoing series, and you want to make them look intricate or homespun, and there are a few ways to do that without killing yourself later.
I’m kind of amazed that Spider-Man’s costume — when you think about how elaborate the design is, it seems antithetical to that, but people have found solutions. The Fantastic Four? That’s brilliant design. It’s essentially a body suit with a belt and a circle on the chest. You want to strike a balance between what’s demanded of the character, and what has a certain utility in drawing, and what is not going to kill you in deadline terms. If you only have to draw something once, you can be a lot more baroque. In an ongoing series, you want to be strategic with your choices about elaborate costuming.
I feel like I have to ask you this since you’re so known for animal characters — do you have a favorite animal type to draw? Anything particularly versatile or funny or weird?
For “Tragedy Series,” I loved drawing bears, elephant seals and cassowaries. For “The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw,” we tried to keep it, because of where the story is set, to mainly animals from North America. We put limits on how many creatures from exotic locales there could be, because they would have to make their way through grueling travels to get to Colorado if they live in Australia and there are no airplanes.
What I’m hoping to do later is to introduce marsupial characters and characters from the Arctic Circle and that kind of stuff. But I think I made pretty copious use of elephant seals in “The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw” #1. Whenever possible, I’d try to put one into the background.
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