Jay Stephens has had a lengthy career in comics. He’s drawn weekly comic strips, comic books, and drawing instruction books. He’s been published by Oni Press and Dark Horse Comics, and newspapers including “The Stranger” and the “Toronto Star.” His Eisner and Harvey nominated comics include “The Land of Nod,” “Atomic City Tales” and “Jet Cat Clubhouse.” Stephens has worked in animation, creating and overseeing two different series — the Emmy Award winning “Tutenstein” and “Secret Saturdays” A new book collecting recent “Oddville” strips will be published by AdHouse Books this summer.
The cartoonist’s current project is “Oh, Brother!,” a daily comic strip written by “Slylock Fox and Comics for Kids” creator Bob Weber, Jr., syndicated by King Features and available online at ohbrothercomics.com. A daily strip is something Stephens has been working towards for years now, and he openly spoke with CBR about the all ages comic, why strips are not dying and talks the upcoming collection “Welcome to…ODDVILLE!”
Jay, you’ve done comic books, weekly strips, three drawing instruction books, worked in animation and on many other different projects. What made you decide to take on a daily comic strip?
Jay Stephens: I guess it’s obvious I’m a fan of all forms of cartooning, huh? Daily newspapers were where I first discovered the four-color charm of comics, so they hold a special place in my heart. A daily strip is something I’ve dreamed about for years. And, what the heck, it’s just about the only thing left in the cartooning business I haven’t done! No, wait — I still need to do a feature animated film. And a fumetti. And draw “Alpha Flight…”
I was a little surprised to see that you were working a daily strip, but I was very surprised that you were drawing a strip that you weren’t also writing. What was it about Bob Weber’s project that interested you and what’s your working relationship like?
I’ve teamed up with many other writers and artists over the years (Paul Pope, Mike Allred,Â Evan Dorkin, Brandon Sawyer, Dan Brereton, Marc Bell, Dan Savage, Grant Morrison, Sean Phillips, Tom Perkins and Eduardo Risso, to name just a few), so it really isn’t that unusual. If I think a team-up is going to produce the best work out of both contributors, I’m all for it, because what you end up with is 200% awesomeness and half the stressiness. I’ve spent 20 years discovering my strengths and weaknesses, and my time working in animation was particularly educational in how to work with other creative individuals. You can’t make an animated TV series by yourself!
I met Bob after a seminar I did at a National Cartoonist Society event in Arizona years ago, and we clicked right away. I had mentioned to the crowd I’d been trying to get a syndicated daily strip going for years but had met with nothing but rejection. He had samples of a new strip he wasn’t sure he wanted to draw. The rest is history.
Can you elaborate on what your time in animation taught you about collaborative work?
I had a blast working on “The Secret Saturdays” as Executive Producer and de facto Art Director! From the development process with good pal and fellow producer Fred Schaefer, to brainstorming plots and season arcs with head writer Brandon Sawyer, to nailing down the tone of the show with Director Scott Jeralds, to the hilarious recording sessions at Salami Studios with our solid gold cast, to hanging out at the production office with the over-qualified crew. I learned so much, and got through it all without being hated (too much) by my co-workers. But, like any workplace, there were personality conflicts and hurt feelings. I had to learn to delegate, and stay focused on the end zone. I definitely earned some grey hairs.
What has the experience of working with King Features and the people there been like as far as developing the strip?
King is wonderful. Brendan Burford is the perfect boss. But we didn’t develop the strip at King! We were initially rejected at King Features when the late Jay Kennedy was still in charge, despite Bob Weber’s connection and loyalty there due to his long-running “Slylock Fox” strip. We got a development deal with Washington Post Writers’ Group instead, and worked on samples for a year before they finally decided to pass. By that time, Brendan was at the helm at King and we had a lot more samples to show.Â
Part of the surprise that you’re doing a daily strip is, I think, this idea that most have which is that newspapers are dying and the daily comic strip is dying alongside them. Is this fear overblown? I mean, it’s never been easy to launch a strip.
Oh, please. Television was going to be the death of movies and radio. Radio was going to be the death of seeing music performed live and movies were supposed to herald the end of live theater. The world has been full of Chicken Littles yelling “the sky is falling down!” since humans first started running around screaming. We still have Opera, for crying out loud! And Shakespeare! Bill Watterson famously decried that comics were dead in the early 90’s — 20 freaking years ago. Comic strips and newspapers aren’t going to “die” or “disappear.” They will grow and change and, possibly, shrink, just like all popular culture always has. In any event, we are totally hedging our bets by building the “Oh, Brother!” website and focusing at least as much of our efforts there as in print.
As you say, the strip has its own dedicated website as opposed to simply being available on the King Features site. What have you been trying to do with the website?
King may be the oldest and largest of the newspaper syndicates, but it’s no dinosaur. They aren’t blind to the runaway success some webcomics have had, and have been carefully rethinking their comics syndication strategies for quite some time. I’m proud to say “Oh, Brother!” is the first strip King has launched where newspapers are not the primary target for sales. Just as much, if not more, time and effort has gone into planning and marketing ohbrothercomics.com. It’s the best possible way to connect with our largest potential readership: kids. It’s so great to be able to discuss strips and related topics directly with our readership, and explore more creative opportunities like the games, kids’ art gallery and Dona Erickson’s crafts.Â
You had done a weekly strip before in “Oddville.” I’m curious if that was at all helpful as far as preparing to do a daily strip?
A weekly is a totally different beast. You have sooo much more time to conceive your baby! To be honest, the weekly strip with the Toronto Star was a dream gig: large format, full-color, wide circulation, no editorial interference and illustration rates instead of the traditionally low comic strip rates. It was too good to last, and I knew it. The complete collection of those strips, “Welcome To…ODDVILLE!,” is due out this summer from AdHouse Books, by the way. Plug plug plug.
What exactly is “Oh, Brother!” and who are the main characters in the strip?
“Oh, Brother!” is the latest in a grand tradition of “brat” strips, dating back to Outcault’s “Buster Brown” and Dirks’ “Katzenjammer Kids” in the late 1800s. It stars a big sister, Lily, who is constantly challenged, pestered and exhausted by her brother Bud’s shenanigans. There are supporting cast — most popular so far is the dog, Buster (named for the above mentioned classic strip) — but the core of the comic is the simple relationship between the siblings. So far it has an almost “Krazy Kat” simplicity in the myriad ways we explore a single premise, but I imagine it will evolve over time. Bob writes with an enviable mix of retro classic stylings and modern experimentation, and I do my best to match the art style to that.Â
We are both huge John Stanley fans, and the primary influence on tone is “Little Lulu,” I think. Bob was inspired by Ketchum’s “Dennis the Menace” a bit. We love “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes” and early “Family Circus.” I’m quite fond of British “Beano” cartoonist Leo Baxendale, particularly the Bash Street Kids. Visually speaking, there’s some Cliff Sterrett, Jay Ward, Harvey Kurtzman and Fleischer Studios stuff going on. So many ingredients go into this recipe!Â
What was the challenge in creating the characters? It seems that, especially in a comic strip, characters require a certain simplicity but also a unique and distinguishable style.
Actually, they came quite readily, in one big flash. The first time I sketched them is pretty much how they look now. I suppose all those years of boiling down my drawing style to it’s essence was in preparation for this, and I was ready when the opportunity came. Bob and I clicked mostly over our mutual admiration for “All Ages” work as opposed to “For Kids” garbage that panders and patronizes children, and our creative styles of classic-meets-cutting edge reflect those convictions.
What’s the benefit of working with a writer who’s also an artist with his own experience putting together a daily strip?
Bob is a fantastic artist, and it’s so great to be working with a writer who can actually show me what he means, rather than merely describing it. I’m learning a lot of tricks of the trade from him. Because Bob and I have both writing and drawing skills, we can offer a professional second opinion about the way the gags are written and designed. Thankfully we also respect each other enough not to take each others’ advice to personally!
What’s the typical process for the two of you when putting together a strip?
Bob writes the gags out and sends them to me in emails. Occasionally they are drawn, but it’s primarily written form only. I do roughs that I send to him for approval, and then we go to finals. We talk occasionally, but generally speaking, the process is just that simple. You have to have a well-oiled machine running at full tilt to keep up a daily strip pace.
What’s the challenge and fun in crafting a daily strip where every day is self-contained and largely gag-oriented?
“Challenge,” yes. “Fun,” not always! I’m very grateful that Bob is a veteran of the strip world and keeps pumping out great, simple gags. My challenge is to keep it fresh with different layouts, expressions and settings. I keep it fun for myself by creating variety within our limited parameters. You can always trust me to push the limits of whatever I’m doing!Â
You mentioned the difference between “all ages” as opposed to “for kids” and I’m curious, for you as a creator, what’s the difference between the two designations?
It’s pretty simple. “All ages” is entertainment that everyone can enjoy. Adults find something they love, and so do kids. “Up,” The Beatles, “Alice In Wonderland,” the original Loony Tunes, “The Princess Bride,” “Peanuts,” “My Neighbor Totoro” — all of these are great works of art that impress and enthrall children and grownups alike. “For Kids” is material that some kids, or maybe even most kids of a certain age, might enjoy, but makes adults run for the hills screaming. “Barney,” Hilary Duff, “Care Bears,” “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” — this is the crap you will be embarrassed you ever liked when you turn 14. To create work that avoids the second category, you need to make stuff that, 1) you would have loved when you were eight years old, and, 2) still think is pretty cool. It’s harder then it sounds, of course. A lot of stuff that makes you laugh or accidentally say, “Awesome!” out loud as an adult is totally inappropriate for kids. And some of the stuff you thought rocked when you were eight years old sucks. You need to find the sweet spot.
You mentioned that there’s a new “Oddville” collection coming out from AdHouse. Would you like to say anything about the new book and what we can look forward to?
It’s an 88-page, full-color, hardcover book, collecting all the “Welcome to…ODDVILLE!'” strips that appeared in the “Toronto Star’s” weekly “Brand New Planet” section over a nearly three year period from 2003-2006. Nobody outside of Toronto has seen this stuff yet. It’s pretty crazy, they tell me. You’ll meet a Ghost Pumpkin, Talking Bandage, Gangs of Apples and a very rude snail. And Jetcat is back! It’s a pretty big book, too, 8.5″x11.” Ships in June 2011.