Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch have been two of the biggest figures in alternative comics in recent years. Huizenga’s projects, including the Fantagraphics-published and critically acclaimed “Ganges,” “Curses,” and recent books from Drawn and Quarterly like “Gloriana” and “The Wild Kingdom” have established him as a top-level talent, while Zettwoch’s long-awaited graphic novel “Birdseye Bristoe” was published last year, after many years of creating acclaimed short comics and minicomics.
Now, both of their work can be found in the collaborative “Amazing Facts and Beyond,” out now from Uncivilized Books, collecting a weekly comic strip the duo produced for “The Riverfront Times,” St. Louis’ alternative weekly paper. The strip is “hosted” by Leon Beyond, a fictional character who takes readers on a tour through a world of fascinating and almost entirely fictional facts. It’s strange, colorful, laugh-out-loud book of one page self-contained strips.
The two spoke with CBR at this year’s Small Press Expo, though the original conversation was lost due to technical issues. However, Huizenga and Zettwoch were happy to re-connect for a second interview which, much like their book of fake facts, liberally merged the worlds of reality and fiction.
CBR News: When you were presented with the opportunity to create a regular strip, what did youÂ want it to be?
Kevin Huizenga: To be completely honest — I know we weren’t being completely honest about the whole “Leon Beyond” situation when we talked to youÂ at SPX, so in a way I’m glad, because this second chance at anÂ interview will give me a chance to come clean and go into moreÂ detail about this book and this whole project and really set theÂ record straight about Leon.
Honestly, from the beginning it was really all just about trying toÂ figure out what we could do to make more money as cartoonists. WhatÂ happened was, the alt-weekly in Saint Louis — “The RiverfrontÂ Times” — approached Dan about USS Catastrophe (which is Dan and I,Â along with Ted May) doing a comic strip for the paper. We knew weÂ wanted to be in the paper — every cartoonist worth their salt has toÂ put up or shut up when it comes to doing a regular strip, but weÂ also wanted to make some money at it. Newspaper strips haveÂ historically been the place where cartoonists make the big bucks,Â and Dan and I wanted to take a shot at getting a piece of that.
Dan Zettwoch: I was also enticed by the idea of a concrete deadline — to goÂ along with a concrete paycheck — that would force me to produce atÂ least one comic strip every other week.
Huizenga: We asked ourselves, what kind of idea is a hot money-makingÂ idea? The answer came back: Fake facts. Dan and I were both fans ofÂ John Hodgman’s books and of Ben Katchor’s comic strips. We knew thatÂ both of these guys had huge success with fake facts and poeticÂ licenses. Hodgman was on TV all the time, and Katchor was pulling inÂ MacArthur grants for his comics and operas. We figured fake factsÂ was a no-brainer, money-making avenue for us.
Zettwoch: I love Ben Katchor but have no interest in creating operas.
Huizenga: I could see writing an opera.
You each wrote and drew strips, alternating weeks. Why did you decide to split the work like that?
Huizenga: It just seemed easiest to do it that way. Two strips a monthÂ seemed like no problem. From the beginning, we were looking for a wayÂ to pull in top dollar for as little work as possible, so every stepÂ was about making it as easy as possible to do this work while at theÂ same time targeting it in ways that were sure to grow the brand.
It’s funny you ask about splitting up the work, because that’sÂ another issue I wanted to come clean about. What happened was thatÂ some weeks, for one reason or another, like we were too busy orÂ something, either Dan or I couldn’t do our strip. So the other guyÂ would fill in that week. But because “Amazing Facts” was based on theÂ idea of fake facts and bending the truth, we thought it would beÂ funny if we would sometimes fill in for each other in the style ofÂ each other. So we would fake each others style. Dan would try toÂ match my style as closely as possible, and we’d just run the stripÂ in the paper under my name!
Eventually, the challenge of fooling people got to be more fun thanÂ actually coming up with ideas for strips. Fake facts are super easyÂ to think up, so about halfway through the run of the strip, weÂ pretty much just flipped the script and Dan drew all the Kevin H.Â strips, and all the strips that are credited to Dan are actually byÂ me. We kept it this way in the book, but now seems like a good timeÂ to admit the hoax. We’re really proud of how smoothly we pulled thisÂ off.
Zettwoch: Yeah, I had to basically re-learn how to make comics fromÂ scratch to get at what makes Kevin’s comic tick. In a way it was theÂ profoundest challenge of my life. Not to mention copying his actualÂ drawing style — you try doing lips like he does, I dare you!
Huizenga: But there’s more. Toward the end of the run of the strip, weÂ really were getting tired of the deadlines and dealing with theÂ collections and everything got to be a lot of extra work, so we gotÂ a local kid, a Wash. U student Dan knew from teaching, to just drawÂ the strips in our styles. He was amazing at aping our styles. DanÂ and I would still write the strips — I mean, Dan would write mine andÂ I would write his — but this young guy, his name was Neil Cooper,Â would draw them. He was an amazing talent and a really hard worker.Â (I’m using the past tense because sadly Neil passed away last year).Â We thought it was better for the Leon Beyond, you know, the brand ifÂ we kept it all under our names, but now we figure it’s OK to mentionÂ Neil’s name too. It’s the least we can do.
Where did the character of Leon Beyond come from?
Huizenga: Dan is a big fan of the movie “Midnight Madness,” and he hadÂ recently shown me that movie. It’s this old Disney live-actionÂ comedy from 1980, about a big scavenger hunt which is mastermindedÂ by this nerdy mysterious guy named Leon. We both liked thatÂ character a lot, and he seemed like he would be a nerd full of fakeÂ facts. We had our agents contact Disney, and we began negotiations.Â It quickly became clear that this was another avenue for revenue.Â Disney was interested in bringing out “Midnight Madness” on Blu-ray,Â and we talked them into letting us use Leon as a character to kindÂ of bring him back into circulation. We had already decided the stripÂ would be called “Amazing Facts and Beyond,” so Leon Beyond was aÂ natural fit, and their lawyers’ signed off on that. The idea was forÂ us to act like Leon was a real guy, and so we always created thisÂ facade of that there was a real Leon Beyond and that he was writingÂ these strips. There was some talk of Leon spinning off into new CGIÂ movie, or a Disney Channel show, but that all fell apart once TomÂ Wright, the author of the novelization of “Midnight Madness,” and hisÂ lawyers got involved. Things got mixed up in court, and as far as weÂ know the whole thing is probably dead, but we’re still hopeful.
Actually we found about “Midnight Madness” and that the movie itself is an interesting mix of fact and fiction. It was based on actualÂ scavenger hunts that went on during the 1970s all over California,Â and these were organized by guys exactly like the character Leon inÂ the movie.
Zettwoch: The other tricky part was the character design of Leon BeyondÂ himself. Kevin and I went round and round about that: How scruffyÂ should his beard be? How curly should his hair be? How plump are hisÂ lips? At one point, Disney flew the actor who played Leon to St.Â Louis for figure drawing session where Kevin and I would do someÂ studies. Well, when the actor arrived let’s just say he lookedÂ nothing like the Leon we knew and loved. I mean, it was 30-some-oddÂ years later.
What was the challenge in finding something and telling it in aÂ style that you could both draw and write?
Huizenga: We knew we didn’t want to do a continuing storyline in theÂ strips, where there was a potential for writing ourselves intoÂ corners. Plus we knew the readers might not be picking up the paperÂ each week, so we didn’t want to lose readers who didn’t keep up withÂ the strip religiously. We were trying to give the strip as wide anÂ appeal as possible. Fake facts are easy to come up with and easy toÂ appreciate.
Zettwoch: I actually hide a lot of subtle plot clues throughout the runÂ of all my (that is, Kevin’s) strips that form a sort of macro-plot.Â That’s why even if you’ve been reading the RFT every week, or evenÂ buying the mini-comic collections, you probably need the bigÂ hardcover collection. It will finally all make sense.
Huizenga: Hmm, this is news to me, this macro-plot. I guess I’ll needÂ to read the book again. To be honest, I’m pretty sick of it, so IÂ probably won’t. But it makes me wonder now if you ever figured outÂ the hidden messages I put in your comic strips.
Zettwoch: What messages?
“Amazing Facts” has things in common with both of your work, but it’sÂ not quite like what you do, was that always the hope or plan?
Huizenga: The thing that really set these strips apart was really just howÂ much they were targeted at the average reader, because we wereÂ really hoping for as large an audience as possible. We bent overÂ backwards to keep the strips clear, readable, and keep theÂ references and jokes easy to understand for your average joe.
Zettwoch: I’d often have an idea for an elaborate diagram orÂ labyrinthine panel layout about, say, the Byzantines, but I did myÂ best to dumb it down for Joe Lunchpail and Jane Six-Pack. This isÂ the kind of book that someone should be able to effortlessly complete with half their attention. It’s good for common everydayÂ activities like sun-bathing, hot-tubbing or bathroom reading. NotÂ at the same time, though! [Laughter] In the industry they call themÂ one-sitters.
How was working on the comic different from other projects? Or was it?
Huizenga: Â It paid better than my other comics projects, at least at first.Â After 2008 and the crash the paycheck went down.
Zettwoch: For me, it was actually more like my editorial illustrationÂ work, or my corporate infographics work. I was enthusiastic aboutÂ it, often passionate. But at the end of the week, it was alwaysÂ about the paycheck. And it’s totally separate (and probably better)Â than the world-building I do in the rest of my art-comics. ForÂ instance, I would never have drawn someone with curly hair in myÂ art-comics, but this comic strip gave me that opportunity.
Why did the strip end? Was it your decision or the paper’s?
Huizenga: Â It was our decision. I woke up one day and knew it was time to moveÂ on. I always try to make my decisions about my career with veryÂ little forethought and just follow my instincts, and those instinctsÂ were saying, over and over, shut it down.
Zettwoch: I wasn’t as ready as Kevin to move on, but I also wasn’t readyÂ to take the strip on full-time. And I don’t think we’ll ever findÂ another Neil Cooper.
Huizenga: Because he’s passed on.
How did you connect with Tom Kaczynski and publishing the book through Uncivilized?
Huizenga: Tom was looking for a big hit book that really flew off the shelves,Â and so it was a natural fit.
Zettwoch: It was also a natural fit to combine three of the mostÂ mis-pronounced last names in comics all in one project.
Huizenga: I don’t think that many mis-pronounce your name. You’reÂ nowhere near me and Tom’s level. Though it’s getting better withÂ mine. I’m optimistic.
Did the two of you oversee the design and production of the book andÂ did it come out how you always wanted it to look?
Huizenga: For legal reasons, we can’t fully answer this question. A lotÂ of the design was by committee, and our lawyers and agents wereÂ heavily involved. A lot of things fell through the cracks. There areÂ some errors in the indicia that got us in some legal hot water, soÂ it’s better if I don’t get too specific about who did what! [Laughs]Â Like I said earlier in the interview, there’s a lot that we didn’tÂ fully spell out in the book, and some people were pretty upset. IÂ can say that at the end of the day we’re totally fine with the wayÂ it came out.
Zettwoch: I think it turned out great. 100% how I wanted it to. I’mÂ surprised to hear from Kevin there were issues?
Huizenga: Oh, yeah. Didn’t I tell you about that?
What have you been working on since the strip ended?
Huizenga: This year, I put out “The Half Men” and some little books calledÂ “Pocket Guides.” I’ve also been working on writing “Ganges 5,” as wellÂ as a new “Fight or Run” comic book and another zine of short comicsÂ called “The Sign in the Yard,” which should all be out next year.
Zettwoch: I’m working on a three-part miniseries for Oily Comics calledÂ “Cut-a-way Comics.” It’s about the naturalist and bird painter JohnÂ James Audubon. I’m also working on a new issue of “Tel-Tales” about myÂ Dad’s days working at the phone company. There’s some otherÂ anthology work, and new silkscreened prints too.