In early 2011, the creator of video game icon Earthworm Jim as well as nearly a dozen graphic novels including “Creature Tech” and “Ghostopolis,” Doug TenNapel decided to branch out. Never one to rest on his laurels, TenNapel has always mixed things up, moving from video games to comics and even changing up his art style, returning to the world of pen and paper for “Ratfist” after moving over to digital for a few books. “Ratfist” is TenNapel’s first foray into the world of web comics. With the series reaching its conclusion, the writer and artist put the book together and sent it to Image Comics to see if they’d be interested in putting out a printed collected edition. The answer was a resounding “yes!” and the book is slated for a mid-December release. CBR News spoke with TenNapel about Ricky, the rat-powered hero of the book, returning to physical art supplies and how “Axe Cop” creator Ethan Nicolle spurred TenNapel to create “Ratfist.”
“Ethan and I hang out and talk comics all the time, and he spent the last year working out the plot for ‘Bearmageddon,’ but he was stuck on some story problems he was having,” TenNapel told CBR News. “He went home for Christmas, and came back working on ‘Axe Cop,’ just to test out the Bearmageddon website and see if he could make the webcomic thing work. I was amazed to see his afterthought known as ‘Axe Cop’ just explode in popularity on the Internet. He went from thinking about story and drawing to checking out his Twitter followers and dealing with web host traffic.”
Nicolle’s success with “Axe Cop” piqued TenNapel’s interest in the form. From there it was just a matter of figuring out the appropriate material for the format, which turned out to be a previously pitched project.
“After a year of our conversations dominated by the drama surrounding ‘Axe Cop,’ I was convinced that webcomics was a great frontier to explore. I just needed the right comic that belonged on the Internet,” TenNapel said. “I had pitched ‘Ratfist’ around town as a cartoon series, and it was obviously too screwed up for children’s television, so it seemed like a better match for the wild digital frontier.”
While the story of a man talking to a rat that he can only hear while slowly turning into a rat himself might not seem like the right fit for a kid’s show, TenNapel explained that the story features many different elements that he brought together for the web.
“The plot on ‘Ratfist’ was particularly difficult because it has comedic elements, action scenes and a really complicated political/science fiction plot,” TenNapel explained. “There’s a romance, a hero’s journey, economics — it’s like this giant bowl of gumbo soup with a ton of ingredients that have to work together to make a whole. On any given day, the comic could live or die on just one joke, the web comic structure puts more weight on any given day than the entire plot. But now that it’s collected, the whole thing reads more like a rapid-fire sequence of individual moments that are glanced over to better emphasize the whole. So now the plot is a little more of a star.”
Though the plot takes center stage, Ricky, the hero of “Ratfist,” does his fair share of heavy lifting, though he’s not exactly the most mentally stable guy running around wearing spandex in the world.
“He’s a neurotic, post modern, anti-corporate man in tights,” TenNapel said. “Ricky is a well-meaning man of conviction, he’s just wrong about all of his convictions. He also has a lot of things to juggle, because his Ratfist identity is in conflict with his marital plans, his boss who is turning into a cat, and a crew of totalitarian politicians who see him as a useful idiot. His best friend is a rat that only he can hear. Combine that with a lab accident where he gets bitten by some kind of rat that is turning his body into an actual rat-man and that’s Ricky in a nutshell.”
Speaking of nutshells, TenNapel had the basics behind the story in mind thanks to the cartoon pitch, but the actual progression of putting out one page every day developed along with the process, especially when it came to plotting.
“I started out sure I would just write it one day at a time, but I’m such a plot addict that by the time the first third of the story was up I had pounded out the whole story,” TenNapel said. “I did still make adjustments as I listened to the audience and had to clarify through dialogue a few things in the story. But that’s a key difference from webcomics. My graphic novels are completely finished before someone can tell me what they think of the story. Webcomics invite opinions on every page. People on the Internet are used to giving their opinion so there’s actually more criticism involved with ‘Ratfist’ in general.”
Overall, TenNapel found the reader interaction and comments to be an interesting part of the creative process, though he didn’t let it overtake his plans for the project.
“The reader comments were good for tracking what plot points they were following and which needed clarity,” TenNapel said. “I don’t like to let my audience steer the story car since that’s my job. What’s important about comments is that I can learn about my audience, and webcomic readers are a unique sub culture of the comics reading world. They have their own set of traditions and expectations. It’s just as idiosyncratic as preparing a printed monthly for the Wednesday book buys.”
Speaking of traditions, TenNapel returned to an artistic form he had veered away from in his past few outings: pens, pencils and paper.
“My homeland is with the analogue arts,” TenNapel said. “It’s the three digital books I’ve done — ‘Ghostopolis,’ ‘Bad Island’ and ‘Cardboard’ — that were the deviation. I did notice that most webcomics were by younger artists who were just more naturally comfortable with digital art production, so that ‘Ratfist’ could stand out a little more with my sloppy brush splatters.”
With the entire series already written, drawn and released online, TenNapel had a full book to show around to different companies who might be interested in publishing the collected edition. But the cartoonist had only one place in mind.
“I’ve been working with Image for going on ten years now and ‘Ratfist’ is my tenth book with them,” TenNapel said. “They’re the world’s greatest indie publisher and I’m really proud to be associated with them. I’ve been doing my younger titles with Scholastic these days so I’ve been itching to find the right kind of project to bring to Image. They put out a lot of titles so my main goal is just to not be a big burden to them. I got the whole book wrapped up before I brought it in so they could easily make a decision. That’s how I’ve always done it with Image; I bring in the whole finished book, so there’s no guess work on what they’re getting.”
In addition to the complete “Ratfist” story as seen online, the collection will also feature an introduction by Michael J. Nelson of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and Rifftrax fame as well as a series of pin-ups by Nicolle, Ryan Ottley, PVP’s Scott Kurtz and Christopher Hastings.
“When it comes to pin-ups, I like to pick friends of mine in the industry who just so happened to be close to me during that project,” TenNapel said. “I’ve become friends this year with Ryan Ottley who I met through Skottie Young. Because ‘Ratfist’ was a web comic first, I wanted to load up the pin-ups with webcomic artists. Ethan was an obvious choice. I also got some nice work from Der-Shing Helmer and I’m still finding out if Scott Kurtz is going to hit our deadline! Come on Scott!”
“Ratfist” goes on sale December 14, 2011 from Image Comics.
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