Exploring The Afterlife In TenNapel's "Ghostopolis"

Doug TenNapel has had what can only be described as an amazing and varied career. He is known as the man who created Earthworm Jim, has developed video games like "The Neverhood," cartoons like "Catscratch" and web projects like "Sockbaby." In comics, TenNapel is the cartoonist behind a long string of graphic novels including "Tommysaurus Rex," "Earthboy Jacobus" and "Iron West." He also contributed the short story "Solomon Fix" to the second "Flight" anthology.

In his latest book, "Ghostopolis," out now from Scholastic's Graphix imprint, a young boy is accidentally zapped into the afterlife. This isn't quite like any afterlife we've seen before, with chases involving dinosaur skeletons, mummy squirrels fighting over a nut, bug creatures and battles between the living in the kingdom of the dead involving suits made of cities...and this only scratches the surface of the graphic novel.

TenNapel will be at booth #1714 at San Diego this weekend along with "Axe Cop" cartoonist Ethan Nicolle, signing "Ghostopolis" and a new edition of his out of print graphic novel "Creature Tech." On Saturday, his new film project "Go Sukashi!" will be appearing in the convention's film competition.

CBR News: So, Doug - where did the idea for "Ghostopolis" come from?

Doug TenNapel: I have four kids 8 and under. They started asking me emotionally tough questions about the afterlife I wasn't entirely comfortable answering in detail. The more I told them about it, the more their fears were multiplied instead of being informed. I could give them every reason why they needn't be terrified of the afterlife, but they wouldn't have it.

It made me explore the idea of myths and how they deal with tough topics without being explicitly horrifying. Little Red Riding Hood is an appropriate warning to kids that they should be cautious of some strangers that are wolves in disguise, while some strangers are like the axe-man who will help you.

There were a lot of explorations of the afterlife, and some were so literal that they couldn't qualify as a myth. Stories like Dante's "Inferno" are more like an apologetic on afterlife theology and "Beetlejuice" made the afterlife into a joke, so I didn't want to do that either. For whatever reason I started "Ghostopolis," it became clear to me that this was largely a territory that was left unexplored by fairy tales and myths.

It's interesting that the book began with explaining the afterlife to your children, because zombies, skeletons, mummies and ghosts are all creatures that mankind has created to express what happens after we die, and they're all represented in the book.

But if we look around today, we know there's no such thing as living zombies, mummies and skeletons, so why do we keep having them pop up in our movies? In my story, we create these stories about them because they are real entities living in Ghostopolis and some people have gone over there and come back with stories about them.

It's kind of what Rowling did in "Harry Potter." We all knew about wizards, but we've never seen how they get trained and what makes their system work. So Hogwarts becomes a mythical explanation piled on top of a previous myth. I gave a brief view of why these myths might exist in our culture.

What threw me was Joe, the Tuskegee Airman who may or may not have built Ghostopolis. Where did that aspect of the story come from?

The Tuskegee Airman is an overlord of "Ghostopolis." I knew that the afterlife would need some character who was beyond the boundaries of the world, because we know that universes don't create themselves. There are hints and clues to worlds outside of the afterlife where I wanted to show that this was just one place in a vast array of places. It's not hard to put the pieces together regarding the Tuskegee Airman, and I won't ruin that mystery by giving the ending of that riddle here. One of the most consistent compliments I get about "Ghostopolis" is that the world is expansive and begs to tell more stories. People say it in different ways, but they just know that there's something else going on. There are a lot more cultures, categories and mysteries to figure out.

There really is a lot going on in the book. Were you tempted to break it into multiple volumes and explore the afterlife you've created more fully?

I wasn't tempted to break this book up into other volumes, because I always knew that this would be just an introduction to other volumes. In a sense, this is already an increment of a larger whole! Now, I don't have any sequels scheduled so I don't even want to think about it, but I was sure I could go back to those corners of the world to tell more stories if I needed to.

You really seem to enjoy really making your books complex and throwing as much in them as possible, creating a world that's alive and involved, but also much bigger than you can explore in a single book. Is it because you need to envision this level of detail or do you just enjoy those kinds of stories?

I do find a great a great deal of joy in the creation process. It's a unique part of this medium that lets me create worlds and characters. This is what I've always been doing in my imagination, since I can remember. I love to look at a blank page and start pushing and pulling ideas until there is something so real that someone else can enjoy it. That's what got me into animation, video games, TV and movies. I don't entirely care what happens to them, but I do find that they are particularly conducive to the film industry, which helps me sell ideas and create more full time.

My books aren't an exhaustive exploration of a world; they're more like a window. You can only look out this window or see through my video camera I just happened to be shooting. I'm very aware of my audience, and I see myself as holding their hand to take them into this story. They aren't supposed to enjoy everything, but they are supposed to enjoy just being exposed to another place.

Your work tends to deal with themes of growing up, reforming and redemption. Do you ever stop and think, "If I include this explicitly moralistic element of the story, it's going to turn off some people?"

Those thoughts are in my mind with every line I write and panel I draw! I not only consider whom I turn off by the overt morality in my work, but I think of the people I will also let down by editing it all out! My work doesn't go down on paper unfiltered. If I ever did that, the story, characters and ideas would probably be incomprehensible or offensive to everyone in the world. I sell out a little bit every time I choose to go outside with pants on. The compromises begin and the rest is a dance about what I'm willing to say and what needs to remain hidden.

Morality is really no different than any other character attribute I deal with in a story. If a character is a jerk, does he have to be a jerk with every line he says? Is he just nothing more than a jerk, and is that entertaining? So I might compromise who he is by giving him some counter-character mixed in with his person. It's a way to keep the characters and the morality in a place of tension with the reader. I want them to see the morality, then not see it. Sometimes it hits you over the head like a frying pan and sometimes it's invisible like the wind.

That's how morality strikes me in real life. There are things that are so obvious that it smacks me in the face. I might see blatant racism or overt charity, preaching over the environment or someone flying a middle finger. Real life doesn't present moral claims with the level of obtuse subtlety that much of our relativist culture demands.

Conversely, including some fantastic element in the plot might it turn off a lot of people of faith who otherwise would get a lot out of the story. That's not to say the two audiences are separate or at odds, but they often seem to seek different things from fiction.

I find that my faith based audience is far more tolerant of non-faith elements than my secular audience is of faith. All people of faith are used to living in a secular world, completely saturated with the most offensive images, rudeness and hostility to their religion on an almost daily basis. The world doesn't attempt to edit itself for Christian sensitivity and it makes the people of faith pretty rugged individuals. But the secular readership is so tender and easily offended by any mention of faith or even raw sentimentality, and they are programmed to scream, complain and insult as if it's an art form or sport. That's my observation.

I don't know where the exact boundaries are in the culture war, but I see it every day. They fire shots at each other, and my work is in that mix somewhere. The religious aren't even used to their ideas being seriously dealt with in fiction. It's almost always insulted or judged, and frankly, it's handled in the most cliche way. It actually takes a religious person to properly dismantle religion, just as it takes an atheist to know how to lampoon actual atheism instead of a straw man invented by some ignorant religious boob.

There's a good deal of my culture living in me, so I do love to tell stories that resonate with our culture, and I'm also a Christian, so I like to deal with ideas that transcend culture. Some stories lean more to one side than the other, and I'm happy to tell any story in between.  I have ideas for non-moral stories as well as blatantly Christian stories, and those don't tend to float to the top of my pile. I feel like man standing in the middle of a two lane street. I like to tell my stories from that dangerous place that tries to talk to both directions of traffic at the same time.

I think I ask this because your work is very personal, not in the sense that it all happened to you, but in the sense that it is very distinctive, both in terms of the artwork and the types of stories you tell.

All of my stories are true stories. I have to start there. I'm not interested in creating some new life form. In the end, only humans read stories, so all stories are by, for and about us. Nobody has ever written an epic for a dog, but every person has this commonality where we tend to bounce around the same kinds of stories, no matter what culture, religion or stage of life we are in. So, long before I was a writer or an artist, I was a man.

Now, it's possible to tell a lie, but I would find it very hard to lie in a medium as noble as comics. I see people lie, or I should say that I read a story or see a movie and say, "That's not true," but it takes a long time to tell a lie in these time consuming mediums. Who wants to spend 6 months crafting a lie? It's easy to lie in conversations or email because you can just spout one off in a matter of seconds. But sitting down to devote a huge chunk of my life to this medium is going to start producing what I really want to say about life. It's not unfiltered. Like I said, it obviously goes through layers of translation, simplification and exaggeration before I'm finished. But when it's done, it's real. I know it's real in part because people start loving and hating it from the moment they read it. People don't love or hate what isn't real.

You commented about an aversion to raw sentimentality, which is something I would not attribute specifically to a secular audience, but it's there in the culture and often in comics especially. There's that line, and I forget who said it, that it is not sincerity, it is truth which frees us, because it transforms us.

Sentiment is something that requires true faith, or some would call it trust, in something good that is hoped for that is real. We live in a culture this is the inheritance of the skeptics and nay-sayers of the last century. Existentialists offered a cowardly response to the challenge of skepticism, and it rings hollow. But the very brave will find that there really is something worth sentiment, and it requires a person who can be vulnerable. People have been sold a lot of false hope, and hope, if I'm remembering "Shawshank Redemption" correctly, is a dangerous, serious word. We are all in a prison, and the first guy to get an egg thrown at his face or a knife stuck in his back is going to be the vulnerable sentimentalist.

I feature transformation prominently in my stories because, on one hand, if you don't have a transformation, you don't have much of a story, and on the other hand, one only practices hope when the situation is hopeless. A desire to read fantasies that feature transformation begins with admitting that things require reformation, evolution or transcendence. I don't need a story that tells me life is a ditch filled with worms. I get it. We all lived that. But almost nobody knows, or is even allowed to think about how there is truth, beauty and light to be found in some adventures. I'm not talking about wishful thinking or empty calories. I'm talking about the kind of beauty that exists outside of the perception of the beholder. I hope to get more of that in my stories. I'm not good enough, yet, but each book brings me closer to those ideals.

How did "Ghostopolis" end up at Scholastic?

I had been looking for a project to make with them for years. I think it was David Saylor who set up a meeting at the San Diego Comic-Con some five or so years ago. I pitched a few projects to him, and "Ghostopolis" was the first one where he felt like there was a strong fit. I really hoped to access a broader audience in children's publishing than what I was used to. It's not that I didn't want to publish with Image. I will always want to make books with them. In fact, I have an 8 page story available in Image's new "Fractured Fables" compilation.

Most of your books have been solo jobs that have been published through Image. How was the experience of working with the editorial team at Scholastic?

Well, I have an editor on all of my Image books, but the Scholastic editors have more time to back and forth notes on a title. Image also puts out many more monthly graphic novel titles than Scholastic, so there's less dedicated resources to one title at Image, which is great if you want to be left alone! I don't mind working either way, because I love the long leash I get from Image, and that's appropriate on certain titles, but I also like to have a group of people dedicated to bringing an extra layer of polish out of my work as it goes through post production.

Most of your books have been published in black and white, but "Ghostopolis" is a color release. What was it like going the color route for this project?

I had done "Gear" in color with Image, but that was a splatter-fest of a coloring style so it's hard to compare to "Ghostopolis." This was an epic sized book, so as hard as it is to write a story in a first pass, pencil it in a second and ink in a third, the fourth pass of color is the hardest! It was amazing drawing a book I knew would be in color, because I didn't feel like I had to absolutely describe everything in black and white. I don't have to hatch everything, or fill in whole areas with black out of fear of visual boredom. I had to become a color story teller for the first time! It was scary but I grew as an artist.

It's hard to judge how the color turned out since I'm so close to the book. I like the way it feels - the color is solid and adds a rich dimension of story I'd never experienced before. But the best part is that my fans are responding really well to it. They love it? I love it!

Before the book even came out, you sold the rights to Disney and Hugh Jackman was attached to star in the potential movie. Has there been any progress since then?

We hired a writer! It's going well, and my fingers are crossed.

There's a new edition of "Creature Tech" coming from Image which will be available at Comic-Con. Is there anything new in this edition?

There are 16 new pages including a forward by religious columnist Terry Mattingly, an afterward by me and brand new pin up art by my pals Eric Powell, Scott Morse, Jim Mahfood, Ethan Nicolle, Rob Schrab and Skottie Young! The story has been out of print for 4 years, so it seemed like a good time to roll out a new edition. Oh, and I did a new cover. Everyone reading this should buy it.

You're also unveiling an animated project during Comic-Con - what is "Go Sukashi!"?

The greatest kung fu web shorts ever run through an internet. We will be showing it on Saturday the 24th. I made it with the "Sockbaby" guys, so if you like that, you'll love this junk!

You always seem to be in the midst of many things, but what else are you working on right now?

I have another book in the can called "Bad Island" (previously "One Bad Island") I'll be publishing with Scholastic in summer of 2011. I just finished thumbnailing yet another 272 page graphic novel that I'll be working on and finishing up by the beginning of next year.

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