Talking Comics with Tim | Ben Towle

On any given week, reading Ben Towle's Twitter feed or Oyster War Tumblr or his blog, I tend to take away some perspective of substance. And that's what prompted me to do this email interview with him. Rather than explain what ground we tried to cover, I prefer to jump right into the interview, after thanking Towle for his time and thoughts. This interview was conducted prior to Towle's Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean being nominated in the Eisner Best Publication for Kids category.

Tim O'Shea: When you started on Oyster War, did you expect that "publishers [would not]... be beating down my door to publish this weird, not-all-ages mashup of 20s newspaper comic strips and obscure (at least in the U.S.) French graphic novels"? Or has that been an unexpected, disappointing surprise?

Ben Towle: As far as my statement about publishers goes, I should clarify: no big publishing house is beating down my door to give me a publishing deal with a decent advance. And no, this doesn't surprise me at all.

I guess I've gotten a reputation as a naysayer as a result, but I've always been quite dubious of the (in my opinion, very Pollyanna-ish) claim that the graphic novel as a literary/art form has “arrived.” I think if you look at what GNs for adults have gotten deals from big publishers, they're almost exclusively very specific genres—usually memoir with some sort of an angle (historical, grave illness, identity politics, etc.)—-and that's not the sort of thing I'm personally interested in doing comics about.

That said, I'm optimistic that once Oyster War gets to the point that it's, say, 75% complete I'll be able to shop it around to a specialty graphic novels publisher and find it a home. It would be nice if we got to the point that there's a sizable enough audience for adult general fiction graphic novels to sustain the “living from advance to advance” model that successful prose authors can pull off, but until then, I'll just continue to do what I've been doing: produce the work that I love doing and which I truly believe in, and hope to find some success with those projects on the back end.

O'Shea: Talk about some of the 1920s comic strips and French graphic novels that clearly appeal to you (and help influence) Oyster War?

Towle: You had to ask? Am I not wearing my influences on my sleeve shamelessly enough?

Well, as far as comic strips go, my big influence here is Segar's Thimble Theater—aka Popeye. I've been a fan of Popeye since I was a little kid when I used to have to repeatedly borrow and re-borrow that Bill Blackbeard Smithsonian newspaper strip collection from a buddy of mine (whose dad actually owned the thing). So, yeah, I'm brazenly swiping a lot of stuff from that: mainly just the “bigfoot” style of character design, but also a lot of the general nautical ambiance, fisticuffs, and (hopefully) the strangely-alien visuals of Segar's world. The fictional town that Oyster War takes place in, Blood's Haven is a reference to the name of the town the Altman Popeye film takes place in: Sweethaven.

I probably should have said “Franco-Belgian” instead of “French” since there's some real Tintin influence going on, mainly with the layout of the strip. It's four-tiered—rather than three-tiered as most American comics are—and that comes directly from my love of the Tintin books. More generally, I really, really love that “Tintin-size” book that's the standard size for European books. I had read a bunch of those big editions of Tintin before, but it wasn't until I was looking around in the comics section of a bookstore in Madrid that I realized that that's the size that pretty much all European comics are printed at. It's such a great size to read. It's big enough that the art looks great, but it's not so big that it's too heavy and unwieldy to ready comfortably.

I'm definitely a huge Christophe Blain fan as well. I sure don't have the cartooning chops to even manage a shameless rip-off of his drawing style, but I am stealing... um, I mean “paying homage to”... the coloring in his books. I did blog post about it a while back, but in short, I really didn't have any interest in coloring my comics until I saw through his work how one could use color to serve an actual narrative purpose—the color could actually communicate rather than simply describe objects. You ask about coloring later on, so more on that then...

O'Shea: You've intentionally avoided joining Facebook so far, but you are very active on Twitter--and set up an Oyster War Tumblr page. Why are you selective about your utilization of social media to promote your work (and interact with folks in the industry)? Do you think Tumblr has helped generate more interest in Oyster War?

Towle: I think “selective” is putting it generously; I'm really not on-board with social media in any real sense of the term. I am indeed fairly active on Twitter, but I'm probably not using Twitter in the way that I really should be if my purpose were to leverage social media for self-gain/self-promotion. For sure, I’ll send out information about new work I’ve posted online, what conventions I’ll be at, etc., but mainly I use twitter to engage in “shop talk” with other cartoonists during the day. We cartoonists tend work alone and we really don’t get the benefit of the sort of chatter someone gets who works in an office. I think there’s something beneficial to seeing how other people approach the same sorts of projects/problems you do and how those people solve them.

I am pretty selective, though, about how much I’ll engage social media and on what platforms. The thing that I like about Twitter is that it’s more analogous to a radio—something that you can turn on and off depending on whether you want some “background noise”—than to a book that you have to read start to finish. Facebook seems to me like something that would become a real chore. I just don’t see it as a good “deal” for me right now: the time and personal information I’d have to put on the table is more valuable to me right now than what I’d receive in the exchange. Also, I guess I’m just old-fashioned. I’ve had a blog at www.benzilla.com for somewhere near a decade now and that’s just what I’m used to and comfortable with.

Again, with Tumblr, I’m not really using that platform in the way it’s intended. I’m basically using it as a webcomics hosting service.

I guess with most of this stuff, the bottom line is probably just that I’m foolishly-naïve: I’ve got this archaic idea that if you do good work and put it out there for people, it will get noticed. We'll see...

O'Shea: For the untrained artist, what did you mean when you wrote: "I'm using too much literal color in these Oyster War pages."

Towle: Well, that gets back to Christophe Blain. The coloring in all of his work is really beautiful, but I was really, really blown away by the coloring in Gus and His Gang. Rather than repeat myself, I'll direct you to a pretty extensive (and commented-upon) blog post I did about it here. After reading that book initially, I went back and looked just at how color was being used throughout, and the big take-away for me was that you can use color as more than just “window dressing.” When you color an apple red, all you're really saying with that coloring is “this is an apple” —something you've presumably already communicated with the line-art drawing. Obviously if you're going to use color, you have to use literal color in a lot of places for clarity's sake, but if the only “work” your coloring is doing is saying “this is an apple,” “this is a tree,” etc., then as far as I'm concerned you really don't need color at all.

That particular tweet was likely a reference to a scene I'm working on now where there are two different groups of people going back and forth between two different ships. It's a potentially confusing scene since the reader has to keep track of who's on what ship with various characters moving ship to ship, so I've tried to establish a distinct color scheme for each vessel (blues/purples for one, greens/oranges for the other) to hopefully reinforce the drawn staging of the scene. But, for this kind of thing to work, it's got to be consistent, which necessitates sticking to the proscribed schemes. I'm looking forward to getting crazy with color again when this scene's done, though!

O'Shea: Care to discuss further about the status on other projects like "Super-Secret Mystery Project That Probably Won’t Come to Anything" or In the Weeds?

Towle: Sure, I can talk a little about that. The “super-secret mystery project” is just something that an agent I'm working with sent my way. She's been talking with an editor at a (primarily) prose publisher who wants to do some graphic novel adaptations of some of their existing books. So far, I really haven't found the right match among their catalog, though—and to commit to a project like that, it'd really have to be a book I'm passionate about. I'd love to do an adaptation, but it'd have to be a good fit for me stylistically. I actually worked up a complete proposal for an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo that she shopped around, but there were alas no takers. Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed. (Here's a five-page sample I did for the proposal.)

In the Weeds is most likely what I'll tackle after Oyster War. It's quite different from any of my previous projects in that it takes place in the (relative) present day. It's a story about a part-time chef/part-time touring rock musician who gets into a cooking contest with a kitchen rival and has to use regional food knowledge and ingredients that he learns about while on the road to try to win the contest. The story is structured in five “courses” and each one concludes with a cooking lesson/recipe that relates to food from the story. The script's completely written (something I pretty much never do) and I've got most of the primary character designs done. (You can see some here.)

Interestingly, In the Weeds is what really gave me the impetus to go ahead and just start posting Oyster War pages—just putting them out there and seeing what happens. After the Count of Monte Cristo thing failed to find any takers, I started working on the In the Weeds script. Once it was done, I showed it—along with my character designs—to my agent. She really liked the story, but basically said, “It's pretty rough out there right now in the book market. I could maybe sell this if it were a finished graphic novel, but probably not just with what you've got here.”

I’d just read Dean Haspiel’s blog piece, “Dear Content Maker…” and it really got me thinking: if traditional publishers no longer have exclusive control of the delivery channels, and they're now at the point financially that they're reluctant to put an advance on the table... then what possible reason would I have to give up my creative output to them if I complete an entire graphic novel by myself, on my own time, and with no financial assistance? I mean: what am I getting in that exchange?

My experience working on Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean for Disney/Hyperion was fabulous. Having a decent advance involved meant that for a year or so—really for the first (and probably only!) time ever—I was a true “professional cartoonist” and sat behind a drafting table for my whole workday. That’s something that I value enough to exchange my creative output for. But if I’m going to do something on my own, then my inclination is to own it. Being able to adjust my monocle and haughtily say, “I’m published by so-and-so” isn’t something I really value that much.

So that’s where I stand now. I’m doing the comics work that I love—that I’m passionate about—and just putting it out there at whatever pace I can manage given everything else I have going on. If some big publisher notices my work and says, “Hey, we love this and want to publish it. Here’s a check so you can pick up the pace a little bit but in return we want a piece of the action sales-wise,” well then, heck yes I’ll take that deal. But until that happens, just look for Oyster War to continue… followed by In the Weeds… followed by whatever else I next find interesting in my “idea file.” I promise to keep cranking out comics (even if the pace is a little languid at times)!

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