Last week, I meant it when I said that I'd have "something for you to read here" despite my being out of town. Contrary to vicious rumors you may have heard, I actually do read comic books on a regular basis. This column is dedicated to three recent small press finds that I think everyone should be reading. I briefly interviewed the creators behind these books, asked them for ordering information, and most importantly got some preview pages to give you a taste test of the great comic stuff I just discovered and found too good not to share with all of you discerning readers...
Up first, writer Chris Reilly opens his mouth about the new graphic novel "Punch and Judy: A Grand Guignol", a sequel to "The Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy" published by Slave Labor Graphics.
If you can imagine Tim Burton collaborating with Rankin & Bass on a Jingle Belle vs. Itchy & Scratchy Christmas Special or… Grant Morrison penning a kids book with such things in it as palindrome bears, pickled children, and a protagonist who merely wants two bags of harps and the Double Jesus for Christmas … then you can imagine what absurd delights await you in "Punch and Judy: Grand Guignol."
TORRES: Give us the pitch for "Grand Guignol."
REILLY: In "Punch and Judy: A Grand Guignol" Mr. Punch - always on Santa's "Naughty List" - makes it his mission to ruin Christmas for Earth's last two good children. We learn about Punch's troubled childhood and the shocking truth he discovers about Christmas. The first book was a bombastic, ham-handed comedy; this one's a love story. I wanted Mr. Punch to fall in love, and the reader to fall in love with him. This was not an easy task because he is a sadistic murderer.
TORRES: Where did you get the inspiration for this story and the previous book?
REILLY: I started looking into Punch and Judy because I couldn't remember why I had childhood memories of it. I spent two years on local library waiting lists learning all that I could. After I finished the first book, an aunt told me that I'd seen Punch and Judy shows at the Pawtucket Children's Museum when I was four. I really wanted to do something different. I wanted to tell a story where the moral was hideous and the hero was repellant.
TORRES: What kind of comic fans do you think would enjoy your Punch and Judy books?
REILLY: I believe my audience is anyone who's looking for a good time. If you enjoy the works of Harvey Kurtzman, Ben Edlund, Bob Burdon or Edward Gorey, you'll like what I'm doing. I have a good beat and I'm easy to dance to. I guess "Spy vs. Spy" written by Vaughn Bobe, and directed by Terry Gilliam could describe what I'm trying to do. If you like books by Landry Walker, Tommy Kovac, or Sam Keith, you might like me.
TORRES: I had never heard of the artist of "Grand Guignol" before, never seen anything by him until you sent me those pages, but I became an instant fan. Tell us a bit about Jorge Santillan and how you hooked up…
REILLY: I met Jorge on a Yahoo mailing list that someone had put me on. People were making fun of his broken English, and his cartoony art. I went online and defended him, and then took a look at his art; I basically became a fan myself. His work embodies everything I love about comics.
TORRES: What it was like working with him?
REILLY: Working with Jorge? I love working with Jorge. He's a super nice guy, and we have the exact same interests. You'll appreciate this as a writer; sometimes you have to write a page to describe a panel, with Jorge, I can basically say "If it were a low budget film, produced by Roger Corman, and directed by Tim Burton" and he knows exactly what I'm talking about. He's the artist you dream about working with.
TORRES: Lastly, I read somewhere that you swore you wouldn't do a sequel to the first Punch book, but you ended up doing "Grand Guignol" so the question begs: any more planned? Or are you moving on to other stuff?
REILLY: Well, there is already another book that is finished. It isn't a P&J book, but Punch is the villain. It was written by Steve Ahlquist ["Oz Squad"] and myself, and illustrated by Jorge. The book is called "Puphedz: The Legitimate Puppet Society." It is a tie-in with Elite Entertainment's "Puphedz" series. I talked to Dan [Vado] about doing a Punch "origin" for the inevitable TPB. That's where it would be revealed that Mr. Punch was Gepetto's mad blunder, before he carved Pinocchio. The story will involve bears on bikes, and Rumplestiltskin.
"The writing is devilish and the artwork is absolutely stunning."
Josh Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
Punch and Judy: A Grand Guignol
60 pgs, B/W interior art by Jorge Santillan with painted cover by Jon Foster
Next, cartoonist Doug Holgate opens his mouth about his self-published quirky and cool comic book for children of all ages "Tales from Under Your Bed."
Writer Mark Millar has said that he'd happily go on the record as saying that Holgate is going to "spearhead the Australian influence in American comics in the same way Moore and Gibbons spearheaded the UK revolution." I'd go on the record as saying that Doug is channeling the ghosts of Jay Stephens and John Kricfalusi… but those guys aren't dead yet. Thankfully they're alive and well, as is the "comics aren't just for adults anymore" movement.
TORRES: Give us the pitch for "Tales from Under Your Bed."
HOLGATE: "Tales from Under Your Bed" is an all-ages adventure about courage, friendship, stand-up comedy and brain science gone wrong. Each issue is a self-contained story, focusing on various different characters from the city of Monsterville. All linked however by various guest appearances and interwoven plot lines. It's also 48 pages long and printed in glorious black and white, with a full color cover.
TORRES: Where did you get the inspiration for the story?
HOLGATE: The inspiration essentially came from my day job at the time. I was working on some toy designs for a classic Halloween monsters series and the ideas started to pour in from there. That and a love of all b-grade monster movies, cartoons, and everything pop culture, all mixed up in a fine broth.
TORRES: Why did you decide to tell this particular story?
HOLGATE: My original idea for the story was just a simple universal "kids on an adventure" story. A bit of danger, a bit of excitement and curiosity... mixed with some humor and bizarre characters and situations.
TORRES: I love that all the material I've seen from you is all-ages and fun. We need more people like you in this industry. Where does your all-ages sensibility come from? Why do you do so much all-ages type stuff?
HOLGATE: I just really enjoy the idea of having fun while I draw. I like to laugh at the pages I draw, I like my girlfriend to laugh at them too, 'cause impressing girls and making them laugh is cool. I also find it a really easy place to work in. You can pretty much go anywhere, do anything. Another reason I wanted Monsterville to be such an irreverent diverse place... it means I can touch pretty much any subject and it works. And I think that's the best thing about all-ages stuff. It has such a diverse scope. Kids aren't dumb... so just because you are making something specifically for them [that] doesn't mean it has to be stupid or one dimensional. On the contrary... the best thing about kids is their imaginations. Which, last I looked... if you had a good one... could take you anywhere.
Also, I think we kinda take ourselves a little too seriously for the sake of it. As an industry, we are getting kinda caught up in the idea that to be a legitimate artistic medium or popular medium we have to be producing serious works with a high concept for adults only... and while that's true to an extent, there is some phenomenal work out there for adults, I think to disregard where comics come from at their heart, is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. The public perception isn't that comics are for kids... the public perception is that comics are trashy and immature. I think we need to readjust our sights a little.
There is a real trend at the moment in thinking kids don't read comics these days, they are too interested in video games and the Internet... so it's too hard to try and pitch stuff to them and read comics again.
The best answer is obviously to give up, re-package old characters with a bland younger readers angle, just in case one of them does decide to read it, and just aim our sights on the adults with a bit more cash who want to re-live their childhood. Well that's great... the industry sees some steady growth now... but what happens in 10-20 years time when those adults aged between 20 and 45 start to age out of that demographic. What happens when comic book movies aren't subsidizing poor sales and aren't flavor of the month? There ain't nobody filling the gaps... because kids now haven't been shown what they are missing out on.
Hopefully as more and more people catch on that all-ages material can be good comics... then not only will the standard improve as a whole but the future will be pretty solid as well.
"…childhood wish fulfillment fantasy with just the right touch of knowing adult cynicism made this a joy."
Once upon a time, I wrote a semi-autobiographical comic book called "Copybook Tales." That was inspired in part by the (semi)autobiographical comic book work of people like Chester Brown ("Yummy Fur"), Joe Matt ("Peepshow"), and Bernie Mireault ("The Jam"). This was a genre I'd been sort of… neglecting of late (both as a writer and reader) so I was absolutely delighted to recently discover some truly exceptional material in this vein that not only entertained me as a comic fan but also inspired me as a comic writer. "Same Difference and Other Stories" by Derek Kirk. "Blankets" by Craig Thompson. "True Story, Swear to God" by Tom Beland.
No, you won't find a TON of autobiographical comics out there. And even less romantic comedies. So, how about an autobiographical comic that's also a romantic comedy? "Copybook Tales" was only semi-autobiographical and the romance was a mere subplot and I didn't really know what I was doing back then. In "True Story", Tom Beland shows me how it should be done and here opens his mouth on a little bit of how he does it…
TORRES: Give us the pitch for "True Story."
BELAND: California man meets Puerto Rican woman at a bus stop in the biggest theme park in America. Cultures, distance, family, careers and emotions collide.
TORRES: They say it's best to write about what you know. Is this why you chose to do an autobiographical story? What compelled you to chronicle such a private side of your life and put it out there for all to see?
BELAND: Oh, make no mistake about it... I'd LOVE to do a superhero book someday. That'd be a huge gas. But I picked up a copy of "K. Chronicles" about six years or so ago and was instantly hooked on the autobio work. My favorite comedians have always been the ones who could step into the audience's life and make them laugh at it. That sense of feeling "that's ME" is what gravitates me towards autobio. Books like "Fortune and Glory", "Pedro and Me", "Peepshow", "Blankets", and "Opposable Thumbs" can make you laugh, cry, think, relate and then go right back to laugh and so on... over and over. It's real.
TORRES: I love how romantic and optimistic this series is, but what if things hadn't turned out the way they did? Would we have seen a Tom Beland comic more along the lines of too many comic book autobios out there - darker, sadder, more cynical? Or is that just not you?
BELAND: Well, it depends on whether you're talking about the Tom Beland my friends know, or the asshole that will occasionally put his foot in his mouth on message boards. It's like a Jeckyl/Hyde thing for me. The boards are a tough place to keep your composure... I have absolutely NO IDEA why that is. But I'm working on that.
If things hadn't turned out... well, that's tough to consider. The reason being that Lily was the one who literally PUSHED me into printing my comics and making books. Had it not worked out, I'd still be designing pages at the newspaper in Vallejo. But I think that my autobio wouldn't be what you just described. There'd be a lot of humor in it. Humor sets up the tragedy, in my opinion and if you stick with just one emotion, your reader begins to lose interest. It's a food-of-love thing.
TORRES: To whom do you think this comic would appeal to most? What's your track record like with non-traditional comic readers? Do your siblings read it? What do they think?
BELAND: What I hear from readers is this. Reader buys book... gives it to girlfriend to read... girlfriend hands it to a friend... original reader comes to convention to restock. I swear that's what happens. The book has really found a home with couples. It's amazing how you think that your story is a one-of-a-kind story, then find a book that shows your story right there in black and white.
TORRES: Do your siblings read it? What do they think?
BELAND: My siblings all read it... the readers have really enjoyed my brother Joe. You have to love a guy who would throw a Filet O' Fish at a menu board to protest bad service. He's my brother and best friend and I think it comes through in the series. It's just amazing how many people have a "Joe" in their family.
The issue where Lily's mom pisses her off was really the only scene that was worrisome. At first, when I showed the sketches and thumbnails to Lily, she was all for it. But as soon as the book was sent to the printers, Lily started getting worried that her mom may not like the scene. In the end, her mom says she loves that scene, although according to her, "he exaggerates a lot."
TORRES: So, how much IS exaggerated? Meaning how "true to life" is it? How much do you embellish? I mean, you can't be that amusing and romantic and insightful in real life...
BELAND: It's actually 99.99% accurate. Her mom just won't admit it went down that way. Sometimes, because there's never a tape recorder used, you have to remember the dialogue the best way you can. So, this will be a case of "that's what we did"... along with "I'm pretty sure we said it this way." Other than the fact that I've put on some weight since the series started (hey, YOU come live in Puerto Rico, eat this food and TRY not to gain weight), everything's pretty dead-on.
But you'll be seeing more than the kisses and laughs in future issues. I had a HUGE problem getting used to living here.... and I'll be showing those difficulties. It'll be very relatable to anyone who's moved somewhere after living in one area for most of their lives.
Hope you enjoyed those previews. Now go and pick up the books! There will be a quiz when I return. I'm hitting the convention trail for the next three weeks. First stop: Anime Reactor (October 24-26) in Rosemont, Illinois where I'll be all over the program doing signings, panels, and judging costume contests. Next is the Las Vegas Comic-Con (October 31-November 2) where I'll be at the Oni Press booth promoting the new "Jason & the Argobots" and "Sidekicks" trades (and should also have the newly released "X-Men: Ronin" collection hidden under the table). Then finally, it's back home for the Toronto Comicon (November 7-9) where I'll be manning a table in artists alley on Saturday and Sunday when I'm not sitting in on or helping out with panels. If you're attending any of these shows, please make sure to come by and say hello.
Next week: While I'm in Sin City writer Budjette Tan will be filling in for me with the first of a two-part look at our people (i.e. Filipino comic creators).
Meanwhile, on the Open Your Mouth forum "Art Assignment: Argobots" goes into its third and final week.