Robot Love | Q&amp;A with <i>Love and Capes</i> creator Thom Zahler

Since 2006 Thom Zahler has been chronicling the romance of Mark and Abby, a.k.a. The Crusader and, um, Abby in the self-published book Love and Capes. As a part of Robot Love week here at Robot 6, Zahler shares a little bit about the couple, romance, the future of the book and a special promotion for fans that ties into the couple's big day.

JK: What I love about Love and Capes is that the relationship between Abby and Mark is the kind everyone wants, the kind to root for. What kind of relationship advice do you think Mark and Abby would offer somebody less lucky at love than they’ve been?

Thom: Abby would say that you have to kiss a lot of frogs. She was a little unsure of dating Mark when they first met. She took a chance on him after a lot of bad dates with other guys, and wound up being surprised with this quiet guy. We’ll see how, too, because in an upcoming issue, we’ll see their first date.

She’d tell you to be confident, too. Your vision of yourself and how you really are don’t always mesh. Abby dating a superhero is very much like a grade-school teacher dating a rock star. You do kind of look and say “What does the rock star see in that little common person when they hang out with supermodels and actors all the time.” What the other person is looking for is something only they know, so don’t be surprised when they find it in you.

Abby’s very much Mark’s rock in a way Amazonia never could be. Some people think, “Oh, she’d NEVER go for me” or “I’m not good enough for her.” You’ve got to trust that the other person knows what they want.

And she’d also say, “Watch out for the ex.”

Mark would say, “Understand that people are scared.” He had to start his relationship with Abby off on a lie. He couldn’t tell her exactly who he was when they first went out, and that lying always bothered him. It’s the thing he had to fight through when he did reveal the secret. He knew Abby might be upset that he’d kept it, because anytime you say “Now I know I can trust you” the other person is always going to have a bout of “What do you mean NOW? I trusted you a while ago.”

Likewise, Mark would tell you to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. When he dropped the secret identity bomb, he knew Abby would be upset, but he also knew she’d stick around and listen to his “why.” Mark ascribes to the theory that you should assume the other person isn’t trying to tick you off, so find out why before you get mad.Oh, and he’d say “watch out for the ex,” too.

JK: How much from your real life relationships makes it into the book?

Thom: As little as possible. I’ve learned that it’s is much safer for me not to pull things too directly from my relationships, past and present, lest I offend someone I’d rather not offend. “Hey, is that supposed to be me?” accompanied by a scowl is not a question you want to field.

But, in generalities, a lot of the concepts and miscommunication come in from my real life. I’ve always been obsessed with becoming a cartoonist. I’m an inveterate workaholic. That’s similar to the Crusader being on call 24-7, although I don’t have the trump card of saving lives.

And there’s stuff inspired by, too. I drive a convertible, and I’ve had girlfriends who don’t like taking the top down. (Was that a double entendre? I don’t know.) So, when Abby complains about Mark’s super-speed flying messing up her hair, that’s gleaned from that. A lot of the little things do make it through.

The best part of Mark and Abby’s relationship comes from the best parts of the ones I’ve had. I like the way they tease each other and give each other nicknames. I like how supportive they are of each other. For as much as they rib each other, they also know when the other needs loving support. That comes from people I’ve known.

There are two relationships, though, that are unabashedly templated on ones in my life. Mark’s Mom and Dad are very much mine. My Mom is less a woman, more a force of nature. She’s a Steelers fan in Browns Town (which is where Mrs. Spencer rooting for the wrong team in #5 came from). And my Dad is my reservoir of calm and wisdom. They’ve both been insanely supportive of their son who decided to pursue a pretty difficult career.

JK: Let’s talk about influences. Obviously superhero comics are referenced throughout the book, but are there any sitcoms that you’d say are influences? I’ve heard Love and Capes described as a sitcom adapted into comics form. The pacing, with a punch line of sorts coming every fourth panel, seems to be different from other comics.

Thom: The pacing structure of a beat every fourth panel actually comes from comic strips. I was a huge Bloom County fan, and that one-two-three-HAH! format is ingrained in me from that.

It’s also a nice metronome. I wrote a sitcom spec years ago and one of the reactions I got was, “There aren’t enough jokes, per page.” Having that four-panel format helps you keep time. Something needs to happen on that fourth panel that’s funny, or a payoff or a serious beat or something. I play with that more and more, doing a half-page panel or a three-tier panel or whatever, but never deviating too far from that initial structure.

Now, as far as sitcoms, the biggest is without doubt Mad About You. I always thought Paul and Jamie had the perfect relationship, and that show, at its peak, was one of the funniest things out there. I’m TiVo’ing some of the reruns now, and it still holds up pretty well, fashions and huge cell phones aside.

The show also taught me that you have to make all the characters good. In a superhero-based book, there’s a temptation to make the girlfriend “The Girlfriend.” Her role is to be the hero’s significant other. I worked hard to make sure that if I did a page of Abby and Charlotte (who, by the way, is unabashedly inspired by Jamie’s sister Lisa) just talking about non-super things, they would still be interesting and funny.

Sports Night is another influence. It wasn’t quite a sitcom, I think it’s considered a “dramedy” now. But that was a show that showed you could be funny and be serious. Friends did that too. The characters were very funny, but you’d still have a moment where Chandler is worried that his soulless job will be his life, or Ross is lamenting his relationship with his ex-wife.

There’s usually one of two scenes in Love and Capes that turn on the serious moment, and while it’s a balancing act, it gives the book a lot of heart. Issue #1 has the scene where Abby is watching the Crusader in a battle, and thinks he might be dead. That’s kind of a daring thing to do in a comedy, but it works well.

Oh, and with that in mind, be ready for #10. Heh heh.

JK: You’re doing pretty much everything on the book. What’s the process like? Do you write scripts and then draw them? How much of the production do you do on the computer?

Thom: When I sit down to start an issue, I’ve always got the beginning and the end clear in my head, as well as a vague road map for the story. I knew that issue #1 would start with them having breakfast and later revealing his identity, and end with the mid-air kiss and Abby’s line “--sweep me off my feet.” The places I hit in the middle came up along the way. Amazonia was created as I was working on the issue. And I never thought she’d be as popular as she became. Fortunately, once I saw the reaction, I was able to add her to more of the future stories, and man, has that paid off.

Artwise, I work on a page at a time. There’s a nice feeling to actually seeing a completed page at so many points in the process, rather than all the pencils then all the inks. It also lets the specifics of the story percolate in my head nicely so that I can figure out exactly what to do. And, it lets me send it out to my Secret Society of Super Reviewers, those trusted friends and colleagues who read the book in pieces and let me know if I’m doing okay or not.

I do the roughs, often scrawled on my shower wall in bath crayon, and do pencils on tracing paper over and over until I get things the way I want them. I then lightbox them onto a sheet of layout paper, inking in brush for the most part, and some Micron penwork. This way I don’t have to do any erasing. I scan everything in and color it. I work in Photoshop mostly, although I like some of the painterly effects I can get on the backgrounds when I use Painter.

I’ve adopted kind of an animation workflow, where I have characters on the foreground and a painted background beneath them. It’s helped the speed of my process because I don’t have to redraw the bookstore every time, or draw Mark’s apartment over and over.

Then I drop it into Illustrator and letter it. I never work full script, although I will jot down notes on the roughs if I figure out exactly how a line should be written. I’ll often have the punchline, but that might change slightly after I work everything out. I’m a nut for dialogue and cadence, so I like being able to tweak it until it’s just perfect.

There’s only one joke in the run where I drew it before I had the punchline. In #2, Mark and Abby are in the park. I needed one more four-panel moment before I switched to another scene. So I wrote a scene where Mark and Abby were talking about Christmas and were happy. Abby says something and Mark’s face clouds. Then they have a lighter moment reacting to it. That became the “Is your brother going to be there?” bit and it’s how Abby’s brother Quincy was created. That paid off well, too.

It takes between 2-3 months to do an issue. Love and Capes is never the only thing on my plate, so I have to deal with clients and their projects as I’m doing the book. Love and Capes does okay, but most of my income comes from other frellance work so I need to keep those clients happy. If LNC was the only thing on my table, I might be able to a full book a month, though I am afraid I’d burn out writing it. Either way, using those repeated background “sets” certainly makes it possible to keep up the pace.

Issue #10 was done in two months, because the Free Comic Book Day issue had to be done early for Diamond’s FCBD deadlines. That’s the fastest I’ve done an issue, and it’s got an extra two pages of story in it to boot.

JK: How has the book been doing? Have the new Diamond benchmarks caused you to rethink anything about self-publishing the book?

Thom: The book’s been doing well. Almost every issue seems to do better than the last, Free Comic Book Day excepted. The FCBD issue sells way more than the regular run, but that’s do be expected.

As for the Diamond benchmarks, well… They’re of great concern. The book has been brushing the old benchmarks, sometimes falling below it. Diamond has been supportive of the project, and I’m sure being a participant in the FCBD promotion doesn’t hurt.

That said, the new numbers are probably going to be a problem. And they have caused me to think about some things differently.

Love and Capes has always been designed to be three six-issue arcs: The courtship, the engagement, and the marriage. That’s also why, once the “season” starts, it’s a quarterly pace, and then after that sixth issue I take a longer break. Kind of like TV seasons. So issue #12 was always intended to be the last issue of the second arc.

As it stands now, I believe that Diamond will carry the last two issues. Issue #11 will come out in August, and then issue #12 will be a double-sized wedding issue. The double-size will raise the price point and make it easier to clear that benchmark, and the readers will get a satisfying bang for their buck. One thing the new minimums did was clarify that. I’d been thinking of ending #12 right before the wedding and doing a LNC Wedding Special. That’s probably not feasible now, so I’m doing the double-size issue to make sure I can end exactly the way I want to.

Then, after that, I’ll take some time to reassess my options. I still intend to do the third arc, but it might be a little while before I can get there. There are also some other comics jobs that I can’t talk about yet that, if and when they happen, will demand some of my time. And hopefully they'll be a big splash and make doing the third "season" that much easier.

All that said, here’s the good news: I promise that I will finish this story. Comics that end prematurely are never satisfying and I’ve always take it as a commitment that once I decide to do a six-issue arc, I finish it.

In the event that Diamond does drop me after issue #11, I will continue the story in a second trade. IDW is happy with the book, and while we haven’t spoken in any concrete terms about a second trade, I think it’s safe to say that it’s likely. IDW has been a dream to work with. And, in the unlikely event that California and the IDW offices fall into the ocean and I can’t get a second trade out, I’ll post it online. This story will end the way it’s meant to. (Best read with the same passion as Daniel Day-Lewis telling Madeleine Stowe “Stay alive, no matter what occurs; I WILL FIND YOU!")

I don’t begrudge Diamond making a profit, and they need to do what they need to do for their business. And I’ll I’ve ever asked is a level playing field. They’re being up front about what they’re doing and I appreciate that.

I do think that they should have a program where a publisher could pay the difference off their minimum. Right now they’ve got some “For $1,000 we guarantee to carry your book," and that’s fine. But if Love and Capes sells $2,000 of their $2,500 minimum, I’d like to be able to cut them a check for the $500 difference to keep the book in. In such a case, I would have personally made more than $500 off the sales, so I wouldn’t be losing money, just cutting into my profit. (Not factoring in production costs, obviously.) And, as an entrepreneur, that’s a decision that I may make believing that it will pay off in the long run.

In my case, I think finishing the series will help the trade and the brand. As it stands now, if #11 under-performs, there’s nothing I can do about it. Now if I could find a way to make things right after the fact, even if I was limited to going to that well only once a year, that’d still help me out more than betting against myself and spending $1,000 to guarantee my inclusion and distribution.

It’s a difficult thing, but as long as the rules are clear and apply fairly, that’s all I can ask. Then it’s my job as a creator to play the best I can in that environment. And I think I’ve got a plan.

JK: One of the areas where you’ve been really active is merchandising. On your site, you offer bookplates, T-shirts, tumblers … how important has merchandising been to your bottom line?

Thom: I’ve tried to make the merchandising gravy to my bottom line. Back when I still worked for The Man, I was an art director and graphic artist. I learned a lot about production and made some great contacts with vendors doing that. When I do a product, I try to make it as cost effective as possible, so that if never sell an item (since, gauging what will sell is always such a crap shoot) I’m not hurt too badly. And sometimes I consider it advertising. I did that with the first Love and Capes shirt that was part of a Hero Initiative promotion.

I managed to do the LNC Toon Tumblers because I do the design work on the regular DC and Marvel Toon Tumblers for PopFun Merchandising. Similarly, the trading pin set has been made possible through working with Pop Culture Trading Pins. Even the current Amazonia t-shirts were made possible by doing the design for the Mid-Ohio Con T-shirts and overprinting some so I could have product to sell.

I think it’s important to always have more. If someone has all the books, it’s good to have something additional, and of good quality, to sell them. I have a lot of great fans who want to support the book, so it’s good to have an outlet for the completists.

Between those and the sketchbooks I’ve done, the merchandise has definitely been a support. The books hit with a bang and then drop in terms of sales, which is natural. The merchandise rarely starts out as strong, but it’s more of a constant sales point, too.

My next product is as much a promotion as an item. I think I can say without too much of a spoiler warning that the happy couple will be getting married (or, at least going to the church) in issue #12. I can also further say that Delta Burke will not be invited. Stupid Wedding Destroyer Lois and Clark plot...

Anyway, I’m offering fans the chance to attend the wedding. The cover will be similar to the famous Jack Kirby marriage of Reed and Sue, with the Marvel Universe behind them. For $25 for singles, or $40 for couples, you can send in your photo and appear in the congregation. You’ll also receive a print of the cover.

If sales go crazy gangbusters, I’ll do an alternate version with Mark in a tux, as opposed to his Crusader uniform, and fill in that crowd with the overflow. It should be a lot of fun.I did a “soft” announcement of it at the New York Comic Con, and some people have asked if they can have their character appear in it, too. The answer is yes. So, for example, John Gallagher’s Buzzboy and Rich Faber’s Roboy Red will be attending the wedding as well.

For more information on that, go to www.loveandcapes.com/rsvp

I think I may have to draw/invite President Obama to the wedding, too. I hear having him on a cover can really help sales.

JK: And finally, tell us about your plans for Valentine’s Day and for Free Comic Book Day.

Thom: Valentine’s Day I’m cooking dinner for my girlfriend. Simple and low-key.

As far as the big FCBD, I’ll be in Austin, Texas at Randy Lander’s Rogues Gallery Comics signing and drawing. I’ve got friends in Texas (including Randy, I’m pleased to say) and I’ve been to Dallas and Houston, but never to Austin, so I’m looking forward to that. Randy’s always been supportive of the book, and he’s met most of the riders on my appearance. He’s not flying in a Ghirardelli sundae from San Francisco, but hopefully I’ll be on his Comics Pants podcast that weekend.

I can only be in one place for FCBD, but if any retailers are reading this and need some flyers or maybe a T-shirt or some signed books or something, give me a shout through the website and I’ll see what I can make happen, too.

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