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Doug TenNapel Talks Unearthing the “Sprawling Epic” of “Nnewts”

by  in Comic News Comment
Doug TenNapel Talks Unearthing the “Sprawling Epic” of “Nnewts”

Before “Earthworm Jim” creator Doug TenNapel found a publishing home with Scholastic‘s Graphix imprint, he had already established a long career in comics, cartoons and video games. An Eisner Award winner for his “Creature Tech” graphic novel and an Eisner nominee for “Tommysaurus Rex,” TenNapel’s latest video game venture is “Armikrog,” a spiritual sequel to “The Neverhood,” which TenNapel also designed. Additionally, TenNapel currently serves as Executive Producer of “VeggieTales in the House,” the animated series from Dreamworks and Netflix which debuted last fall.

TenNapel’s latest book is “Nnewts: Book 1, Escape from the Lizzarks.” The Nnewts” series marks a big creative departure for TenNapel, whose previous comics work has consisted of single-volume projects. CBR News spent some time with the acclaimed writer/artist, discussing everything from “Nnewts'” evolution from a webcomic to a major printed project to the importance of colorist Katherine Garner to his work, and how this project is the “sprawling epic” he’s always wanted to create.

CBR News: Now, “Nnewts” started as a webcomic a number of years ago —

Doug TenNapel: “Nnewts” is a project I started about 15 years ago, and knew it was something special because it was about my favorite animal. My problem was that I wanted to make a sprawling epic, and it seemed like a daunting task given how busy I’ve been over the last two decades in animation. The story idea ended up emerging week after week, and I was really frustrated getting about halfway through another book called “Hixon Bragg.” My friend Ethan Nicolle (“AxeCop!”) saw my frustration and asked, “Why don’t you just do that ‘Nnewt’ idea you’re always talking about?” It suddenly made sense to get started on my epic.

The webcomic was always just a test. There’s no pressure to finish a webcomic, because it’s free to read. Webcomics allow me to try a batch of pages and launch them on a site just to see how it reads and see what an audience thinks about it. The “Nnewts” webcomic also helped me with a few plot points that I didn’t like in the first incarnation that I changed around and rewrote for the book series.

Did “Nnewts” change a lot from your initial idea to when it landed at Scholastic, either in terms of length or what you were trying to do or your approach?

Not at all. Scholastic was on board with my vision for “Nnewts” from the beginning! They ask a lot of important questions and made sure I have an explanation for anything I’m doing in the series. I’m really happy with how my work comes out when I work with them. I’ve always loved my comic editors; I think they probably get tired of editing just text, so they probably like editing [comics] for the same reason I like making them!

This is a different project for you in the sense that you haven’t created a multi-book series before. Did that change how you work or how you thought about it?

The multi-book angle of “Nnewts” was by far the biggest challenge. My books have always been standalone stories, and this one could not standalone by design. I have a working outline spread across two sketchbooks that I use to keep track of details, character arcs and backstory. But I still try to make just the moment I’m working on read well. This is where I’m a little different than my audience, because I want whatever I’m reading to work first. I want the visual to give an atmosphere and I want the dialogue to be clear and help push the story along. 

How many “Nnewts” books are planned?

Three. It might spill into four, but I’d almost rather bulk up a third book before I’d pull the trigger on a fourth volume. We’ll see!

So when is book 2 out?

Spring of 2016! I’m in the middle of editing the second book with Scholastic right now. I’ve got about 90% of the black and white art finished, and I’ve taken a first pass at lettering the story. I’m trying to get the book out for Katherine to color by the end of the month!

Katherine Garner, with whom you’ve worked in the past, is the books’ colorist. What do her colors add to the project?

Katherine is a total weapon when it comes to my storytelling. I love working with her because there are times that I have to cut a section loose and have her just go away and make it work. I don’t babysit my colorists, so my notes are general. I do end up touching many pages myself because I’m also an artist, but the coloring is the part of the book where I feel the least qualified to touch. That makes my colorist unique in that they are as big of an authority on the book as I am in other areas. So I like to work with colorists who feel like me without me having to make them paint like me. 

I have a heavy hand when it comes to both the writing and the black and white art so I like a woman’s hand on the coloring. She adds a real feminine, magic touch to the color that I could not accomplish on my own.

I know that a while back you moved to Tennessee. Was that to work on “VeggieTales in the House?”

Yes! We have no family connections out here, so it was pretty much just to do that series. But now that we’re out here we got tricked into buying our house, the kids are in a great little school, we’ve connected to a church and it’s getting homey. Tennessee reminds me a lot of my upbringing where I was raised around farms and country folk. I’m still a California guy on the inside, but Tennessee is growing on me.

Can you talk a little about the television — or to be more accurate, Netflix — series and how you ended up working on it?

I got hired to do “VeggieTales in the House” based on a pitch I brought in to Dreamworks. They had recently partnered with Netflix to create new series, and Dreamworks got the rights to “VeggieTales” when they acquired Classic Media. I did well on that pitch, even though I didn’t think the show would pan out for me. I just love to pitch! They ended up offering me a job and I was moving my wife and four kids to Tennessee within two weeks! Now it’s been one of the more rewarding experiences of my professional career. 

The long-awaited video game “Armikrog” is coming this year. What can people look forward to with the game — and when is it coming out?

We’re still aiming to get it out in the next couple of months! It’s coming! “Armikrog” is another weird project in that I’ve worked on the idea for that thing a long time. It’s also one of the higher quality things I’ve ever been involved with mostly because my pals at PencilTest Studios are slaughtering the puppet animation! They are making my designs come to life that I think surpasses what I had originally imagined! You’ll see. The world is gonna see it in just a bit, and they’re going to have their minds blown.

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