It would be easy to characterize 2012 as a busy year for Doug TenNapel, but just about every year is a big one for the cartoonist. His graphic novel “Cardboard” was released in August, the third book he’s published with Scholastic in three years. He launched a new webcomic, “Nnewts” following the success of his previous webcomic “Ratfist,” which was collected by Image Comics last year.
TenNapel also launched a kickstarter project which ends later this month. The “Ghostopolis” creator is a disciplined artist with more than forty sketchbooks from which he’ll be assembling a hardcover collection of his work called the “Sketchbook Archives.” The cartoonist spoke with CBR News about “Cardboard,” his next book from Scholastic, “Nnewts,” color and much more.
CBR: Tell us a little about “Cardboard.” What’s this new book of yours about?
Doug TenNapel: “Cardboard” is about an unemployed widower who can’t afford to give his son a birthday present. He buys what appears to be a plain old cardboard box from a weird old man and builds a boxer out of it with his son. But this cardboard is imbued with strange abilities so that everything made from it comes to life. Then everything goes wrong.
This is your third graphic novel published by Scholastic. What has your relationship working with the people at Scholastic been like?
I’ve had a good experience with Scholastic on all three of these books. They care about story, character, my audience and me, so we’re on the same page about the big stuff. There’s a lot of back and forth when I start the book, and when I’m finishing up the book, so I have to make a case for why things are the way they are.
Do you see a big difference between your books that are specifically aimed at kids like “Cardboard” and your other books, and is there any difference in how you work on them?
I don’t see a difference, and I actually disagree with the way they are categorized as being for a certain age. That’s something Scholastic does because these books are marketed at a certain audience, but I make these books for everyone. I mean, I wouldn’t change anything in “Ghostopolis,” “Bad Island” or “Cardboard” if I was making them for 20 year-olds as if I was making them for 9 year-olds. The genre in these books are close to fairy tale so they tend to be for all-ages.
If I know that a lot of kids are going to read a book, I’m a little more careful not to play with the narrative too much. I mean, I don’t try to do really elegant things with the panel lay out or I won’t do unconventional breaking of plot narrative. I was pretty aggressive on “Bad Island” with two different story arcs going at the same time on completely different planets and I had to spend a lot of time making sure my younger readers didn’t get lost on that adventure.
How has working digitally versus working in pen and paper changed how you approach your work? After a few books, has your thinking about it changed?
I’ve been going back and forth between digital and traditional for about five years now. I love digital for being able to edit the story, and even work on a story out of sequence. But I’ll never be done with traditional ink and brush. I managed to knock out “Power Up” (traditional) just after “Ghostopolis” (digital), though “Ghostopolis” was published after “Power Up.” I did “Bad Island” (digital) then knocked out “Ratfist” (traditional). I finished “Cardboard” (digital) and am now working on “Nnewts” (traditional).
I feel really comfortable switching between the two because each offers so much and I’m not willing to give either one up. Digital is a more powerful technical tool. It makes sense on paper when I list its attributes, but old school ink and brush is like a great lover. It’s so beautiful and just more — real. Digital is like Facebook where you can be friends with 3,000 people, which is pretty powerful, but it can’t accomplish the same thing as spending an afternoon with a real-life best friend.
Working in color and working with a colorist is something you’ve been doing in recent years and I’m curious what you do differently knowing that work is going to be colored. Do you have a preference for colored vs uncolored work?
I prefer uncolored work just because I see comics as a pretty stripped down medium. No story must have color in my view. I haven’t really seen many comics where I just cherish the color. So when I work with colorists, I try to have them add a level of story I would never accomplish without them. I work with female colorists, because I’m looking for a more broad, complex, emotional layer (I’m going to get in trouble for this, aren’t I) to my binary black and white work. I like giving my colorists a lot of leeway to express themselves, so that they’re a contributor to the work and not just a colorist.
That said, I don’t have a lot to say about color. I’m not confident when it comes to color so my creativity freezes up when I try to tell story with it. I spent the first 40 years of my life making black and white comics and I did just fine without it, but my audience doesn’t see things the same way. People go nuts for color! I mean, I’ll sell one piece of black and white art, and I’ll splash around a little color and I’ll get four times the response. I don’t want to fight my audience, if color is important to them and twice as many people will read my story in color then bring on the color!
One thing I fear in doing color books is that my black and white art might get a little lazy. I don’t want to lean too much on my colorists, but I know for a fact that I’ve done a few pages that would not work if the color wasn’t there. It’s why I love “Bone” and “Hellboy” so much. They work in black and white just fine, so color is a helper, and only a helper.
Will we see another black and white book from you one of these years?
Man, I sure hope so. I really want to do another loose, fun, splashy india ink book! Maybe an action thriller or something. I’d like to do something really surreal in black and white since I love “Eraserhead” and “Elephant Man” so much.
Now you have another webcomic that started this year, “Nnewts,” which updates every Wednesday. This is your second webcomic after “Ratfist,” the collection of which was published by Image last year. What made you serialize another book on the web?
I never would have started “Nnewts” without the web comic so I guess it felt like I had nothing to lose! My web audiences are kinda small, under 10k a day. Some days as low as 2k a day. So I don’t think of that audience as super big compared to my printed books. They’re more like a laboratory than a full blown audience. Now that I’m 30 pages into “Nnewts” I’ve seen about 10 pages I need to scrap and rewrite. That’s something I see in my web audience, they don’t lie. They tell you EVERYTHING they think about that page! It’s good feedback. I don’t intend to put the whole story of “Nnewts” up, I’m just playing it month to month. When it becomes too much work to maintain the site, I’ll take a webcomic break since I can’t have the production of my books compromised.
Talk a little about the approach of posting one page a week and why you decided to do that even though it’s not how you would prefer to read the book.
“Ratfist” was a loose, sloppy book so I could easily do a page a day. It still killed my colorist, Katherine Garner, so she paid the price for that book more than I did. One page a week seemed a lot easier for Katherine and I to pull off without being too disruptive to our other work. The whole idea came from Ethan “Axe Cop” Nicolle! You can blame him. We were smoking pipes and I said I wouldn’t mind trying another webcomic and he said I should consider doing “Nnewts.” He’d heard me talk about “Nnewts” for years now, and I told him I was probably too busy to do a webcomic of that story. But then he challenged me by saying, “You could do just a page a week.” and I stood there with my jaw open, frozen in half sentence trying to come up with an excuse. I couldn’t come up with a good one and I published my first page a few weeks after that.
Why did you want to publish a sketchbook and how did you decide to launch a Kickstarter campaign for it?
That’s a dream project I felt was too intimate and micro to pull off with a publisher. Some of my books already have a small print run, and I don’t like pushing small print runs on my publishers. Publishers are good for certain things, like getting my big works out to a big audience.
The idea of avoiding a middle man and going straight to my audience is a compelling idea. Look, I don’t want to be a book publisher, so I don’t want to do this too often. I’m not going to have this book distributed, it’s a deliberately small collector’s book. I only want fans of the work to have the book, because I’m cutting out original sketchbook pages and putting them in most of these books!
My general audience may not be interested in how the sausage is made, so it’s more for people who are into the bonus features on a DVD. There are even some ugly pages in the book, because they contain a sequence of thoughts that led to the creation of “Creature Tech” or “Neverhood.” It documents the evolution of where the stories come like I haven’t seen in other making-of books. I have those processes captured in 42 sketchbooks that are like a diary of my creative life. It’s the kind of book I’d want to see of my favorite creators, so I’m supplying that for the fans of my games and comics.
“Cardboard” has been optioned by Hollywood. I know that you’ve been through this dance many times with other books and you’ve also developed other projects. We seem to be at a point where comics getting optioned by Hollywood is a big goal of many creators and I’m curious about your perspective on that.
Well, it’s definitely a goal of mine, and I’m not ashamed of that. There’s this backlash I hear among comic folks who see movies as some kind of sell out for comics. It might feel a little disrespectful to comic lovers because it appears that our niche medium is just a stop over before a bigger, more profitable medium of television and movie-making take over the narrative.
The reason why movies are a big goal of this comic creator is because it’s where I make my primary living. Comic sales alone only pay a fraction of the bills, and the movie deals are what have enabled me to do 13 graphic novels in as many years. If my indie titles weren’t as successful, I’d have to make mainstream superhero books, or go into some other field of work. I’m not above doing other jobs, but movies have a much bigger, broader mass media audience so it will naturally pay more money.
I also see the medium of film and comics as being really similar, in that they inform each other. Comics became popular in the motion picture age, so there has always been a lot sharing back and forth. We walk in the same culture, the same tropes, the same story telling styles, but comics are cheaper to make than films, so we frustrated story tellers have more opportunities in the medium of comics. I always see comics as my most powerful medium, mostly because I never have to ask someone else’s permission to make a comic, but I have to beg people to make a movie. Comics are friendlier to story tellers, particularly story tellers who operate a little outside of the mainstream.
Let’s take “Cardboard” for example. I pitched the “Cardboard” movie for over ten years and never got very far with it. It’s a hard story to see, and frankly, it’s a hard story to even pitch. I can’t really communicate what the “Cardboard” looks like walking around in a room. I can tell you how you ought to feel when a cardboard man is walking around, but I can draw that scene a lot better. Once you see the scene play out, you don’t have to exercise your trust that it’s going to work, because it’s already doing its work on the audience. They just respond. I like taking the guess work out of the executive’s mind when I’m pitching material that isn’t something they’ve seen before.
You’re also working on a few different things at once, it seems. Besides working on “Nnewts,” what else are you in the midst of right now?
I’m developing “Nnewts” as my first multi-book series, so while I’m drawing one book, I’m writing a couple more. But before I started “Nnewts,” I was 100 pages into my book called “Hixon Bragg.” That’s an adventure story that takes place in the art fraud world, and it features some of my best art to date. It’s REALLY hard to draw because there’s so much Los Angeles architecture, and realistic locations that it was beating me up. I started to draw “Nnewts” as a break from “Hixon Bragg,” and now I’m not sure if I have the time to get back to it for some time.
My 2013 book to come out through Scholastic’s Graphix imprint is going to be a deluxe new printing of “Tommysaurus Rex!” I’ve added 30 new pages of content, Katherine Garner is adding magnificent color, and there will be a hard bound version available. I’m excited to introduce this story to a new generation of readers!
I sold a pilot to Disney Channel and have been bringing pitches in to Dreamworks so my comic book work keeps getting interrupted. That’s the hard thing about doing independent comics — every time there’s a paying gig that comes along, I have to pay rent so I’ll set the comics aside, do some paid work, then go back to comics. There’s also movement on a couple of other movie deals on my unsigned books, so I turn in treatments and alternate scenes to producers to help them make a better story pitch to their studios.
Finally, I’m committed to make the “Sketchbook Archives” on Kickstarter a real collector’s item. I thought it might just be a book of my sketches, but now I’m writing in the margins descriptions and though processes on what I was thinking while crafting the pages. I’m having to do a lot of writing explaining what a lot of images are: “See that blob? That’s Earthworm Jim before I knew he was Earthworm Jim!”
In addition to the “Nnewts” webcomic, you can follow Doug TenNapel on twitter @TenNapel