I was immensely impressed in early December, when Stephen Colbert recommended Glenn Eichler & Joe Infurnari‘s new First Second book, Mush!: Sled Dogs with Issues, to The Colbert Report viewers. Admittedly, Colbert is slightly biased, given that Eichler (the author of the frozen tundra/talking sled dogs/quirky humans comedy-drama) writes for the Comedy Central show. However, while many of the show’s writers have projects they’d love to have promoted by their boss, it’s relatively rare when Colbert uses the show’s forum to promote his staff’s projects. As a result, once I saw the endorsement, I made a mental note to track down the creators after the holidays for a potential interview. By some stroke of luck, the book’s artist, Infurnari, instead contacted me in mid-December to see if I was interested in covering his latest project (you bet I agreed to email interview with him and Eichler). I appreciate the collaborators’ willingness to discuss the project, particularly when Eichler shared the origin of his honed sense of comedic timing (having worked in an “editing room for a lot of animated half-hours for TV” [he was a story editor for MTV’s Beavis & Butthead in the mid-1990s, as well as creating and producing the television show, Daria]). Once you’ve read the interview, be sure to enjoy First Second’s preview of the book.
Tim O’Shea: Joe, I love the way you convey the intensity and energy of the dogs when they are working, how did you arrive upon conveying that particular style of kineticism?
Joe Infurnari: The story hinges on the idea that not doing what you love leads to discontentment and unrest. For the team of sled dogs featured in this book, running is their bliss and the time they spend not running breeds trouble. So it was important to make the times the dogs were running as full of energy and joy as possible.
Quick slashing lines, splashes of ink, dramatic foreshortening and powerful diagonals are some of the ways I tried to bring to life the rush of running through the trails. I also knew that if it looked quickly drawn, then that energy would come through in the movement of the characters. When it came to the final inks, I was very comfortable drawing the book and I think the art reflects that. The inks are decisive, gestural and full of energy.
The final piece to the puzzle was the use of sound effects to add a visual punch to the high action running sequences.
O’Shea: Joe, I appreciated the placement of sound effects (particularly the dogs’ sounds), how did you decide when to slip those sound effects into the page?
Infurnari: I like sound effects in comics. With Mush! I used them to not just be descriptive of the sounds of things but to also highlight some of the non verbal communication taking place between the dogs. So when Buddy feels Venus is responding to his amorous overtures, I punctuated his tail with a ‘WAG!’ When she responds with a withering quip his tail simply ‘sags’. Similarly, when Dolly tries to politely reject Winston’s advances, she moves her hindquarters away from him with a ‘scooch’.
Ironically, I also used sound effects to make the lack of communication and sexual frustration between the humans even more awkward. The ‘shlup’ ‘shlup’ of Patty mashing berries is a subtle and funny comment on her desire for more connection with Frank.
O’Shea: As collaborators, how quickly did you establish a rapport on this project, and had the two of you been familiar with each others’ work prior to this project?
Infurnari: I of course knew Daria and before starting Mush! I read Stuffed!, his book with Nick Bertozzi. That was a great book and I think it helped me understand what was needed for Mush.
Mark Siegel’s editorial style is to have his artists and writers work together directly so Glenn and I rather quickly built up a rapport.
Glenn Eichler: I have to say that I was not familiar with Joe’s work, but First Second’s Mark Siegel thought he’d be perfect for the book, and Mark has a great sense for that kind of thing (and was absolutely right). As for our working rapport, we were always in touch, but never working in the same room. Joe did his thing and I did mine, but when we did communicate concerning feedback or notes, I’d say our working relationship was great.
O’Shea: I enjoyed the comedic pacing of the book at times. There are panels where nothing is said, allowing the comedy to linger for a moment. How much discussion took place in trying to frame comedic moments like that?
Infurnari: Glenn and I both understand it’s not always what is said that is funny. Many times it’s what goes unsaid that can really be hilarious. I don’t recall how many of those moments were in the script and how many came out of our collaboration. Those moments just seem to naturally flow out of the characters and their situations.
Eichler: Often I had indicated in the manuscript where a blank panel should be… I’ve been in the editing room for a lot of animated half-hours for TV, and that helps develop a sense of timing. Obviously you can’t “freeze” for five seconds in a book, so we used blank panels instead.
O’Shea: Joe, the dogs in this story convey a range of emotion, to a great extent through body language (beyond the mere wagging of a tail), did you do a lot of experimental sketching trying to learn how best to convey emotions or how did you settle upon how best to emotionally wrangle the dog cast?
Infurnari: Doing this book taught me a lot about my own process. Unlike some artists who are able to nail the designs and style right from the beginning, I have to do the book to know what it will look like. The characters and their unique body language come out of living with them through the layouts, the pencils and eventually the inks. The more I drew them the more they would each gain their own life. I attribute the hard work of drawing, redrawing and living with them throughout the process of creating this graphic novel as responsible for really breathing life into these characters.
O’Shea: How much research did the two of you in preparation of doing this story?
Infurnari: In his character descriptions of the dogs, Glenn gave me their breeding. This was my launching point for developing the characters with the rest coming from just doing lots and lots of drawing. I also researched the Alaskan landscape, log cabins, the sleds and harnesses as well. The book was pretty light on research with most of the books focus being on the characters’ psychological states. They have issues after all.
Eichler: I read up on dog teams, the various breeds used, what type of dog is considered best for what position in the harness, etc. I had read a classic book about Alaska, John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country,” which taught me a lot not only about how Alaskans use dog teams, but also about what kind of person moves up there from the lower 48 to live in the bush.
O’Shea: Was there a great deal of discussion on the coloring of the pages between you two, or did Glenn defer to you on that Joe? I really like the wintery range used to convey the snowy landscape.
Infurnari: When Mark approached me about the book he said he was looking for something different from the color. A wintry landscape of mostly snow and sky is limiting of what can be done but I tried to inject as much color into it as I could without detracting from the characters. That was my other objective for the color; to really individuate the dogs. So after a few tests of the color, I showed Mark and Glenn what I had and I was pretty much given the go-ahead from there.
O’Shea: Glenn, the human characters in the book are named Boss and Boss’s Mate (clearly named from the dogs’ perspective). How early in the story’s development did you realize you wanted to take that approach?
Eichler: Probably when I first decided that we should see the humans from two points of view, their own and the dogs.’ The device of the names lets you know immediately whose perspective you’re seeing, and that’s also the reason that when the dogs hear the humans speak, it’s in nonsense syllables. In their scenes without the dogs, the humans call each other by their given names.
O’Shea: Glenn, how much of a struggle was it trying to pace out how much story you wanted to devote to human drama versus the dog drama that is the backbone of the story?
Eichler: It wasn’t hard at all. The book was always going to be about the dogs, so they got the main focus.
O’Shea: Question for the both of you, there appear to be metaphorical fences in this book (between people and between the dogs), in addition to the physical fences. Would you agree?
Infurnari: When I read the script, I was reminded of how in art and literature natural landscapes have often represented the depths of the human psyche. There’s something about the dark bottomless fathoms of the oceans, the mysteries of the forest or the wide open expanses of sand or snow that spark our imaginations. In Mush!, the barren isolation of the Alaskan landscape sets the scene for a story about the dogs’ psychological state and ultimately our own interior lives as readers. The fences in this story are boundaries preventing the dogs from being out in the open on a run where they are most happy. The trail is their bliss and the fences that keep them from it mark the breeding area of their issues.
Eichler: Well, definitely. No one can ever know or meld with another person (or dog) entirely, and the isolation in which they all live just throws those differences into brighter relief. But that same isolation also creates fences that enclose the people and the dogs, forcing them together because they really can’t get away from each other. I’m saying the book has a lot of fences. It’s best to read it with a pair of wire cutters.
O’Shea: Glenn, not to get bogged down in details, but naming one’s dog is often a challenge. You really did a good job of naming the team of dogs in this story, did that come to you quite easily as you developed the characters or was it challenging with certain characters?
Eichler: I hate naming characters as a general rule, but I tried for a mix of the silliness and anthropomorphism often found in the names that real people give their real dogs. I also wanted to touch on the way people will give their puppies names that turn out to be either perfectly descriptive of their adult personalities, or utterly wrong.
O’Shea: Glenn (from the book’s acknowledgements you thank the dogs “who talk to him when he sleeps”) how long have you heard the dogs talking to you?
Eichler: I didn’t write that. The dog dictated it.
O’Shea: Of the whole team of dogs, for both of you, did you develop an affinity for one of the dogs over the course of developing the story?
Infurnari: Definitely. For me, I loved Buddy and Winston the most because their particular physiognomy and situation gave me the most opportunity for some hilarious drawings!
Eichler: I always like all my characters. To write them you have to be able to understand and sympathize with the motives of them all, even the villains. That said, it’s hard not to love Buddy.
O’Shea: How much fun did the two of you have at the recent Cousin Corinne’s LIVE COMIX BLOCK at Book Court in early December?
Infurnari: Live comics readings are always great opportunities for pushing the material into a different comedic realm. I like to enlist the audience to do all the sound effects. With Mush!, I got no small amount of pleasure at conducting a room full of people into a resounding swell of grunts!
Eichler: It was my first time doing one of those, so I had a lot of fun. And I got to meet some people whom I respect a lot – including Joe! That was the first time we met face to face, if you can believe it.
O’Shea: Anything we should discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Eichler: Where’d you get that shirt? I like it.