Emko and Young turn real-life superhero dog into a comic

Last year Ethan Young, creator of the webcomic Tails, teamed up with writer and conservationist Tod Emko to launch a Kickstarter for their comic A Piggy's Tale.

The comic stars a three-legged dog named Piggy, who gains super powers and fights crime. He's actually based on Emko's real-life three-legged dog, who has quite the origin story of his own. I spoke with Young and Emko -- whose "day jobs" have included being an anti-whaling "pirate" with Sea Shepherd and the founder of Darwin Animal Doctors -- about the project and much more.

JK Parkin: Tod, I thought I'd start by asking you about how you first met Piggy, the inspiration for your comic. What were you doing in the Dominican Republic when you found him?

Tod Emko: I met Piggy on a volunteer veterinary campaign in the Dominican Republic. I was there with a group that creates temporary mobile veterinary clinics in developing countries. The absolute worst case we came across during our campaign in the D.R. was of a poor dog that got hit by a bus a month before our team arrived. He was almost dead by the time we found him. His injured leg was barely more than exposed bone with some flesh hanging off it. He was covered in maggots, and he was so sick that all his hair fell off. We gave him emergency surgery to amputate his leg, and my friend spent all night removing parasites off him. We decided to bring him home to NYC with us, and since he had no hair, we called him Piggy, since he resembled a hairless piglet.

His survival alone was astounding enough to become a comic book story, but his journey didn't end there. After coming to NYC, it became clear that Piggy had developed an amazing ability due to his intense experiences. He could sense when someone was suffering, and he would go to them and give them comfort the way only a dog can. He's made so many people cry and feel better, and this way he's become a super-hero of sorts. Because of this, A Piggy's Tale was conceived.

You're also the founder of Darwin Animal Doctors. What does that organization do, and what led you to founding it?

Emko: Darwin Animal Doctors (DAD) is the only animal hospital in the Galapagos Islands. Since its inception in 2010, we've treated thousands of animals, both domestic and wild, and have spread humane education to countless people on the Galapagos. I was inspired to create DAD after meeting Piggy. I thought to myself, how many amazing, special creatures are there out there, year round, who deserve a long and happy life, but have no one to find them or treat them to give them this chance? So I decided to create a permanent, year-round veterinary project, and create it in the place where such a project would count the most, in the UN World Heritage Site of the Galapagos Islands.

How did you guys meet, and what made you decide to work on a comic together?

Emko: Ethan Young and I are both Asian American crazy cat lady comic fans in NYC. Of course, it was inevitable that we meet eventually! We actually met through the friend who first removed all the parasites off Piggy that first night, Andrea Gordon (co-founder of DAD with me). Ethan met Piggy at the same time that he met me, and became quite close with Piggy, too.

When I decided I needed to make Piggy's story into a comic book, there was no one I would have rather chosen than Ethan to make it with me. And I can safely say I couldn't have made this book without Ethan's help. As a respected, experienced comic book creator, Ethan showed me the ropes in comics creating. He showed me how to get inside the characters' heads, how to communicate critical moments, and where to inject humor or action into the story. Also, as a close friend to Piggy, Ethan knew this story well and was able to capture it intimately through images in a way that words never could.

Young: Yeah, we also bonded over Futurama and other nerdy things.

You guys ran a successful Kickstarter this fall to help bring the comic to life. What were some of the things you learned during that process?

Emko: The biggest thing we learned about Kickstarter was to treat it like a full-time business. Just like any business, you have your research stage, your development stage, tons of homework every night, and there's an incredible amount of stress involved. You have to line up media coverage for weeks leading up to the Kickstarter campaign launch to make sure it's successful. You have to stay on top of the KS every single day. You have to adjust your tactics if people aren't responding or contributing to your campaign, and you have to have a killer team assembled so that someone is working on the KS at any given moment. You have to become a salesperson, a project producer, and a full-blown manager during the campaign. The KS statistics page for your campaign will become your best friend. You also need a top-notch KS video. We were extremely lucky in that Sam Sielen, a head shooter for the TV show Whale Wars, produced our KS video and it worked out amazingly for us.

Young: I've learned that I loathe the entire process and will probably stay away from crowdfunding for a while. Like Tod said, it's a full-time job in and of itself. And Tod didn't even mention all the begging involved.

How did the Piggy theme song and video game come about?

Emko: To engage a modern audience, I thought it was critical that we use all media avenues to reach people. Modern audiences are going to give their eyeballs to video games and their ears to new music. If we wanted their attention, we had to make sure we were in those fields too. We have an amazingly talented and accomplished songwriter from Los Angeles, Rose Lovell, who made a moving and beautiful Piggy theme song. And we got the game developer who made the awesome mobile game for "Dumb Ways to Die" to make our Piggy mobile game!

For those who didn't back the Kickstarter, how will they be able to get a hold of the book?

Emko: A Piggy's Tale #1 will be solicited in Diamond's February Previews catalog under Bohemian Press. So, issue #1 will be available in comic book stores in April! Call your local comic book store to get them to carry it; tell everyone and their dog to buy our comic!

Young: Yes, and in addition to the first two issues we Kickstarted, we're also aiming to wrap up two additional issues. The four-issue mini-series will be bi-monthly.

Ethan, as long as I've got you here, I thought I'd ask about Tails -- I know you finished it up this fall, so how many more pages do you have to run on your website, and are their plans for another print collection? Also, how is your World War 2 graphic novel coming along?

Young: There are still over three chapters left of the webcomic, and an average of 20 pages per chapter. Since I'm running one page per week, I'll have a little more than a year before all the pages have been released online. The pre-order sales for Tails: Book 2 were just too low to justify a print run, so it was a mutual decision between me and Hermes Press to cancel it. It was sad, but ultimately the right choice. My print contract with Hermes Press runs until the end of 2014, so I'll evaluate my options when that time comes. I would love to make one giant collection of the story available in print one day, it's just a matter of time and demand.

As for my WWII comic, it's coming along really nicely. I've completed over 80 pages, which is most of the first volume. (I'm tentatively planning the book as two separate volumes, but formats could change.) Either way, I'm really eager to wrap up that one up. Ideally, I'd love to debut the first volume of my WWII comic the same year that A Piggy's Tale comes out; two projects which couldn't be more different, but both I'm equally proud of.

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