Matthew Loux’s first book was “F-Stop,” a graphic novel he illustrated for Oni Press. Loux’s work has been featured in many other books for Oni including “Sidescrollers,” which he wrote and illustrated; “Yo Gabba Gabba: Good Night, Gabbaland” which he illustrated; and his series “Salt Water Taffy.” So far spanning five 96-page volumes, “Salt Water Taffy” is the story of two brothers who are spending a summer in a small coastal town in Maine with adventures both ordinary and supernatural. The fifth volume was released at the end of 2011 and signaled the conclusion of the two-part story “Caldera’s Revenge,” which involved a great white whale, and a ghost ship full of dead whalers.
In the middle of winter, CBR News spoke with Loux about the series and its endless summer, lobsters, clam chowder and the joys of Mystic Seaport.
CBR News: Matt, for people who might not be familiar with your work, what is “Salt Water Taffy” and who are the characters involved?
Matthew Loux: “Salt Water Taffy” is an all ages series of graphic novels centering around two young brothers, Jack and Benny and their adventures in the mysterious seaside town of Chowder Bay, Maine. In this town, Jack and Benny are always discovering strange and unique folklore involving sea monsters, ghost stories and treasures around this New England setting.
The most recent book, Volume 5, is the second of a two part story. Why two parts and not just one large book?
“Salt Water Taffy” volumes 4 and 5, the “Caldera’s Revenge” storyline, was originally written as one full story involving the mysterious appearance of a ghost ship and a great whale wreaking havoc in Chowder Bay. The format of the series has always been short stand-alone stories of about 90 pages each. “Caldera’s Revenge” just got to be a bit more epic than the others, so when I was calculating the page count I could tell early on that there was no way I could fit all the action and excitement into just 90 pages. The reason we decided to split it up was to keep the format of the series intact. All the other books where the same size and price so we wanted to maintain that.
How did splitting up the story changeyou’re your process? Volume 4 ended on a major cliffhanger.
I didn’t change the story at all, actually. I was lucky it had a natural dividing point of it’s own. The abduction of Jack was there, it just wasn’t a cliffhanger until we made it two volumes. I’ve never ended a story on such a tense moment! Honestly the only way splitting the story changed how I worked was that I now had two books all written and planed out instead of one, so all I had to do was draw them and not worry about anything else.
Did you end up doing a lot of research into nineteenth century whalers, habits of sperm whales or ghosts for this volume?
I did! This was the most research I’ve ever done for a book to date. I read up on the history of American whaling, a subject I’ve been interested in for years. But the best research I was able to do was to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, and Mystic Seaport in Mystic Connecticut. The New Bedford Whaling Museum has an amazing collection of whaling artifacts including a 1/2-scale model whaling ship — it’s still huge! Mystic Seaport is a beautiful historic New England fishing village and has the only original whaling ship in America, so I was able to climb aboard and even below deck and take many pictures for reference, which was invaluable.
Reading all the books in one big chunk, it’s clear from the beginning you planted the seeds of future stories. How much has been planned since the series’ inception and how much are you making up as you go along?
When I was pitching the original series I had the first three “Salt Water Taffy” stories all planed out but even then I still had vague ideas for further stories. Once I came up with the general idea, it was hard not to think of more fun adventures for the kids to get into. The nice thing about having a big chunk planned was that I could drop hints about future stories in earlier volumes. The most fun way I was able to do this was with the map of Chowder Bay. In the first volume you can see the bottle dump and Mt. Barnabas and even a tiny statue of Captain Hollister in the down town. There are other things I’ve included on the map that I have yet to write about but hopefully someday I will.
By the end of volume 5, how far into the summer are we and how many books will the summer last?
I figure it’s that endless summer kinda of thing. Not particularly realistic, I know, but these are fantastical stories about the summer vacation. I don’t really have any plans to change the seasons or age the kids. If I did, I’d have to introduce school, maybe a new setting and things like that. Not really a direction I’m interested in going. Just fun adventures in summery Chowder Bay for me.
Will we be seeing more of the albatross who showed up in this volume?
I’d like to. Maybe he could have a solo adventure with Dan.
I wanted to ask about the style you utilize for the book. The backgrounds are very detailed, but the figures are done in a much simpler cartoony style. Why did you decide on that approach?
Just came from my art training I guess. I’ve always drawn cartoons but in high school and college I studied in a much more realistic art method, so when I started my comics professionally it felt only natural to ground everything in a sort of realistic environment by combining my two artistic sides. I think it is important especially if your characters are cartoony that you really push the backgrounds because it buys your world credibility. It takes a lot of time but it’s actually very fun to do a crazy detailed background.
You do a great job of pulling off telling this fantastic story in this very matter of fact and fun way. Could you speak to the feel of the series and if you had any models for what you were trying to accomplish?
I definitely do the “matter of fact” storytelling on purpose. There’s something I love about having crazy or fantastical things happening like animals talking or ghosts appearing and the boys just go with it and act like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Why disrupt your story with a realistic reaction? I also think I can get away with that sort of storytelling because of my cartoonish art style, although it might be hilarious to realistically depict an old fisherman having a conversation with a squid or something. Regarding story influences, I honestly don’t think I have any specific ones, especially in comics. I’ve always said there are too few humor comics out there and even though “Salt Water Taffy” is an adventure series, it still sort of think of it as a humor book over anything else. I’m probably more influenced by TV and movies, the sort of comedic styles of stuff like “Arrested Development,” “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.”
What was the impetus to include a back-up story in Volume 4? Do you hope to do more of them in the future?
I’d love to do more of those! Ending Volume 4 on that great cliffhanger also made the book only seventy pages instead of the usual eighty-five to ninety. I didn’t feel right about shorting anyone, so I decided to write the Dan the Wolf story. It was a pleasure to work as a writer with another artist too. Brian Stone, the artist for the Dan short, did a brilliant job getting the comedic timing, style and facial expressions for Dan and the story in general.
“Salt Water Taffy” is labelled as Y, meaning ages 7 and up. Do you have a target age for the readers of the books?
Anyone who likes a good story really. I know for marketing reasons you have to state your age demographic, but I write these books so that they would be entertaining for anyone. I try to make them funny and fun, cute and exciting. The best children’s literature can be enjoyed by both kids and adults. Or even better they can enjoy them together!
What do you enjoy about telling all-ages stories?
I really love the freedom I have to play around with exciting adventures and good natured-but hopefully funny-humor without worrying about any storytelling expectations that are present in books for older audiences such as romance, or darker more nuanced character studies. I’m probably not a good enough writer to tackle those kind of stories anyway. A lot of writers say this but it’s true, I write stories I would want to read, and sometimes if seems like the only stories that are truly interesting to me are all ages books.
You also did some work for the all-ages book “Yo Gabba Gabba.” What did you enjoy working on a project specifically geared toward young kids?
I enjoyed almost everything about that job. I love the show and how creative it is and I’m also a long time fan of the co-creator Christian Jacob’s band, the Aquabats. The best part about illustrating “Good Night, Gabbaland” was just being able to draw the characters in my style. Those are some fun characters to draw! It was also my first opportunity to work in color, something I hope to continue doing in the future. Another nice thing was working with the writer of “Good Night, Gabbaland,” J. Torres. I’ve admired his work since I was just a fan of Oni comics.
Favorite taffy flavor?
It really is peanut butter, but only if it’s fresh.
You grew up in Connecticut and summered in Maine — what your thoughts on one of the many questions that divides Nutmeggers and Mainers: hot lobster roll or cold?
I’ve never had one! I only sort of like Lobster and after creating some cool lobster characters I almost feel like I shouldn’t eat it. Feels sort of wrong — but being a New Englander I will always fight for the reputation of New England clam chowder and it’s supremacy over all other “chowders.”
What’s in store for your future projects?
I am taking a little “Salt Water Taffy” break and trying something new for my next big project. It is still in the “secret” stage right now so there isn’t much to say just yet. I am working on a web comic with my “Dan the Wolf” artist, Brian Stone which will be launching in May, so keep an eye on my twitter or blog for announcements regarding that as well as my next project.
“Salt Water Taffy” volume 5 is in stores now from Oni Press.