Ben Towle Illustrates "Amelia Earhart"

The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont has been releasing a series of comic book biographies aimed at young readers the past few years, tackling historical figures including Henry Houdini, Satchel Page, Henry David Thoreau and in the newest volume, Amelia Earhart. Featuring an introduction by pilot and astronaut Eileen Collins (the first female shuttle pilot and shuttle commander), the book, published in conjunction with Hyperion Books, looks at Earhart and her triumphant 1928 crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

The book's artist, Eisner-nominated Ben Towle, has the perfect background to interpret this material. He has written and illustrated two graphic novels, both published by Slave Labor Graphics, "Farewell, Georgia" and "Midnight Sun," about an Italian airship expedition to the North Pole in 1928. We talked with the philosophy major and rock musician turned cartoonist about Amelia Earhart, his interest in historical fiction, collaborating with writer Sarah Stewart Taylor and layout artist and series editor Jason Lutes on the book, and take a look at the two projects he's working on now.

CBR News: Ben, how did you end up working on "Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean," and what attracted you to the project?

Ben Towle: I initially just got a call from James Sturm, who's the director of the Center for Cartoon Studies, to see if I'd be interested in working on the book.  James and I have known each other for a while - he was a teacher at the Savannah College of Art and Design while I was a student there - and I sent him a copy of my last book, "Midnight Sun" (SLG Publishing) since he'd helped me out a bit with it by looking over the first chapter for me.  (That's something I always do: get another cartoonist to look over the initial chapter of my books.)  I, of course, can't speak for why they thought I'd be a good fit for the project, but I'm sure it's not just a coincidence that "Midnight Sun" and Amelia are both '20s period pieces that center on aviation.  "He draws a decent airship.  I guess he can probably draw planes!"

As for what attracted me to the project, the source material is, of course, really interesting, and I'm obviously interested in that period of U.S. history, as well.  The Twenties were a really interesting time period: the rise of the automobile, the advent of long distance flight, the emergence of youth culture, broadcast radio, the Scopes trial, prohibition, the jazz age, the great depression... 

The main thing that particularly drew me to the story, though, was how it went about portraying Amelia.  I find the Hollywood-style "biopic" approach usually fairly uninteresting - where they begin with the person's birth, then move systematically through chronicling bits and pieces of the subject's life until death and/or some sort of personal redemption. (See the film "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" to see this parodied brilliantly.) With Sarah's script, though, she's approached things in a way that's a whole lot more effective: find some small but important part of your subject's life and then use whatever conflict is going on at that point within the subject to try to give the reader some insight into her true character.

You've created historical comics before, so you're obviously familiar with the research that goes into them. How much was required for this project?

I'm definitely in the middle ground when it comes to research and historical accuracy.  I certainly never want there to be elements of my artwork that are so jarringly-inaccurate that they take the reader out of the story.  On the other hand, I'm not going to expend a ton of time and energy making sure that I've got 100% historically authentic crown molding in every room on the off chance that someone might actually spot it and call me on it.  I think it's really a lot more important to convey the general look and feel of the period then getting obsessive over having authentic visual minutiae.

For "Amelia," I wound up using a lot of old catalogs for clothing reference, and you can find a lot of period furniture on the web.  It is important, though, to not make everything completely contemporary.  Just like today: you look out your window and the street isn't filled exclusively with 2010 model cars and clothing.  You're going to see a broad range of things from last year, five years ago, ten years ago.

Finding visual reference for the town of Trepassey, though, was really, really difficult.  I spent about two weeks tearing my hair out, trying to make any kind of headway with the various Newfoundland libraries, photo archives, etc.  Eventually I just paid a university student in Canada to drive up there and take tons of pictures.  Even with this, though, it turned out that the story needed a locale with more of a "main street" vibe than the real Trepassey, so we wound up taking some liberties here as well - although I hope I still captured the general feel of the village. 

What is it about crafting stories set in another period that appeals to you, and how does it play to what you think of as your strengths as an artist?

It's curious, actually.  The one history class I took in college I found completely mind-numbing.  I think it's because I really enjoy the aspect of uncovering things, researching things, making connections - and that's exactly the sort of thing you don't wind up doing in most "101"-type history classes.  What I really enjoyed about putting together "Midnight Sun" was that I was learning about an event that I (and apparently most people) knew nothing about, something that had been sort of skipped over in our shared historical narrative in a way that something like the Titanic disaster clearly hasn't. 

I don't know if, or how exactly, it plays to my strengths as an artist (whatever those may or may not be!) but I think I find historical settings appealing because, like a lot of cartoonists, I'm really drawn to "world building," which is exactly what you're doing when you set a story in some other time period.  World building is something that I think is an inexorable component of the comics art form in a way that it's really not for other media.  R.C. Harvey did a recent essay for The Comics Journal that addresses this really insightfully, I think.  He points out that much of the appeal of comics - even ones that aren't so great from a narrative or even aesthetic standpoint - is that they're this really amazing, personal "clockwork universe" that a cartoonist creates, populates and breathes life into with is own hands.  It's one reason I've theorized that there seems to be a significant crossover between people of my generation who played role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons in their youth and those of us who are making comics now: both pursuits involve heavy doses of world building.

You usually provide both the story and illustrations in your work, but this time you're working with a writer as well as working from someone else's layouts. First of all, what was it like working with writer Sarah Stewart Taylor?

Curiously, I really didn't wind up working directly with Sarah much at all.  Jason Lutes is the series editor, and in this case part of what he was doing was taking Sarah's script and doing layouts from them, which he then sent to me to work from.  I did, though, wind up working with Sarah some at the the character design phase.  I wanted to make sure that the characters as drawn had at least some resemblance to what she was seeing in her mind's eye.

Just generally on the subject of working with a writer as opposed to my usual practice of going solo, this actually turned out to be a great thing for me.  I started working on this project a few months after my daughter was born, and at that point the whole logical, reasoning, problem-solving part of my brain was completely non-functional due to lack of sleep.  It was great to be able to just sit down at the drafting table with all the brainy stuff done for me by Jason.  I was able to just sit down and draw.

What was it like working from Jason Lutes' layouts, and did you learn anything or pick up any ideas for your own projects, whether about layout and design or just about working in historical fiction more generally?

Well, I definitely picked up a few tricks from being in on Jason's process.  He's a fantastic cartoonist and getting to work with him was one of the great things about this project.  Interestingly, I never really came upon situations where Jason handled something in a radically different way than I might.  I think partly this is because we both tend to be fairly conservative - or perhaps "understated" is a better word? - cartoonists.  We both tend to stick to a pretty standard six or nine panel grid, and neither of us really go in for any formal experimentation just for the sake of formal experimentation.  I think for both of us, clarity in storytelling takes such primacy that we tend to stick to techniques that are as unobtrusive as possible for the reader, and when we do something that breaks out of standard narrative technique, there has to be a strong storytelling reason for it.

A good example of this is the series of full bleed two-page spreads in the book.  This is one of the very few things that are in the final book that were not in Jason's original layouts - in fact, looking through my copies of "Berlin" that I had on hand, I don't think bleeds are something he really does. This idea never would have flown if the justification had been "they look cool."  If you examine where they occur in the book, they serve a definite narrative purpose.  The first one occurs when Amelia first goes up in a plane, and thereafter they occur at changes of mental state, time, or physical location.  Nothing should be arbitrary.

The book is part of Hyperion's project with the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. I know you went to Savannah College of Art and Design for your advanced degree. How important was the program for you in terms of learning your craft and finding your footing as an artist?

The program at SCAD was incredibly important for me.  I went back to school a good long while after I graduated from Davidson College, where I got my undergraduate degree, so I was getting into cartooning fairly late in the game.  I was nearly 30 at the time and although I'd been drawing comics on and off pretty much forever, there was a lot of lost ground I needed to make up.  That said, it was important to me because I made it important to me.  I was an adult when I enrolled in the program and was paying for it myself, so I wasn't in Savannah to hang out drinking beer on Congress Street.  I made a point to keep my nose to the grindstone and to try to have a completed or near-complete book by the time I left. (That would be "Farewell, Georgia," my first SLG book - hence, the title.)  It was a great experience to spend three years totally immersed in the art form, although it was fairly intimidating as well, being in classes with people like Drew Weing and Ross Campbell who could draw circles around me and were ten years younger than me.  But what I lacked in polish, I tried to make up for with just working really hard.  

You mentioned that your time at Savannah was after being out of school for a long time. In that sense, did you find a like soul in Amelia who didn't fly until she was an adult or was even serious about it until her thirties?

That's an interesting connection that I actually hadn't made - although, I've certainly done some thinking on getting into cartooning seriously at a somewhat later point than a lot of other folks.  One thing that is encouraging is that - unlike, say, deciding at age 29 that you want to pitch for the Yankees - many cartoonists really do their best work later in life.  Look at Charles Schulz, for example: he was doing arguably his best work in the mid-1960s, when he was in his 40s. I'm sure my actual drawing chops would be a lot better right now if I had another eight years under my belt, but on the other hand, I feel like comics is a narrative art form, and to do good narrative you actually have to have something to say.  There are certainly many exceptions, but I often see comics by younger folks or by folks who have done pretty much nothing else in life except go from one school environment to another, that are beautifully-drawn, but don't really have anything to say.  Even if I could have drawn like Alex Raymond at age 20, I doubt I'd have been able to put together a story that would really be able to connect with anyone in a meaningful, honest way given the life experiences I'd have had to draw from at that point.

You have other projects you're working on right now. Tell us about "Oyster War," your current graphic novel in progress. What is it, and how is it coming along?

I've got two things "in the hopper" at this point, and which one I do next will probably depend on what goes on with them as far as publishers goes.  The first is "Oyster War" that you mention.  I had originally imagined "Oyster War" as another fairly straight historical piece about the so-called "oyster wars" between Virginia and Maryland watermen, but as I worked on it on and off concurrently with Amelia, it's become now more of a historical fantasy story with a sea monster, pirates, and all sorts of other over-the-top elements.  Visually, I'm really stealing from... uh, I mean "creating an homage to" a lot of my favorite Franco-Belgian cartoonists.

I'm also putting together materials for a possible graphic novel adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's "The Count of Monte Cristo." "The Count of Monte Cristo" is one of my favorite books and I think it'd work really well as a 200-250 page graphic novel.  I'm in the middle of doing a chapter-by-chapter plot breakdown for it, which is no small task given the intricacies of the novel's plot; it's 1500 pages, after all.  I've been talking a bit with an agent, although we're not "officially" working together yet, and my hunch is that if either of these gets a "go", it will be "The Count of Monte Cristo."   I'll certainly do "Oyster War" as well, though.  It just may have to be a side project that I shop around once it's nearly complete.

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