Talking Comics with Tim: Chris Wisnia

After self-publishing his work for a few years, this past November, SLG Publishing released Chris Wisnia's 96-page Doris Danger: Giant Monster Stories. As we quoted Wisnia when the book was first announced: “I made this book for people like me -- people who love Jack Kirby, robots, low-budget 1950's sci-fi films; realistic, somewhat non-stop army, secret society, AND spaceship action, absurd conspiracy theories, romance, bad dialogue, ridiculous plot lines, seventh grade humor, kitsch, and of course...GIANT MONSTERS!" I email interviewed Wisnia back in November about the project. Before jumping into the interview itself, Wisnia wanted me to mention: "My website is www.tabloia.com, where you can find plenty of tidbits and bonus features. OH! And SLG is sending out free audio commentary CD’s, narrated by myself, to readers."

Tim O'Shea: After years of self-publishing, how did Doris Danger land at SLG?

Chris Wisnia: I self-published about a dozen books from 2004-2007, but it was very expensive. Around 2006 or so, I began taking my books around at conventions, and showing my work to publishers, with the hopes of getting picked up by someone. I’d left a few things with Dan Vado at SLG, for maybe a year or so. For some reason, I didn’t get the impression he was interested in anything.

Then in 2008, at Wondercon in San Francisco, I went and re-introduced myself, and he remembered me (or my work). I told him I’d emailed a few times and not heard back. And he said he never got any of those emails. And he gave me his card. It was then I realized I’d been emailing the generic SLG “info” site administrator or whatever. When I wrote his actual address, he wrote me back within the day.

It still took some time for us to get things negotiated and ready to go. Dan thought the book would make a nice digest-sized book, which was a format I hadn’t yet tried. And with the economy and everything, we had a few false starts, with deciding to do a book, with getting a contract signed, with getting a release date. So with the book coming out this week [the interview was conducted in late November], I think it’s been maybe a year and a half, or two years since we said we should do a Doris Danger book.

O'Shea: Doris Danger is clearly a tribute to Kirby's Monster work--when did you first fall in love with Kirby's work?

Wisnia: I remember in maybe in seventh or eighth grade, beginning to distinguish between the styles of different comics artists, and early on I recognized Kirby’s style as something I didn’t enjoy. I would actually get infuriated if I picked up a comic, and got home and realized Kirby had drawn it. I thought, That guy can’t draw. All his characters, even the women, look like barrels. He has no understanding of anatomy, musculature. The fingers look like rolls of quarters. When he tries interesting angles of profiles, his perspective is all off. No one is handsome or pretty; they’re all blocky and weird and kind of cartoony. Why does everything have that crazy shiniess to it? And the writing is oddly phrased, awkward.

And then I went to UC Davis and studied studio art, and I made non-representational oil paintings, and I got kind of pretentious about art, and I pretty much stopped reading comics.

And then I got out of school, and I had nothing to do with myself, and I began to gravitate back to comics shops. And it was right after the Image boom popped, and the industry wasn’t doing well, and Marvel was just about to go bankrupt, and a lot of shops were beginning to close and bulk dump comics in quarter bins or or ten cent bins, and I picked up a lot of junk, and sometimes I’d find old ‘70’s horror comics, including the reprints of the Kirby-Lee-Ayers-Lieber-Ditko giant monster stories. And I loved the covers, and I loved the kooky monsters, and the corniness of it all. This idea that these are supposed to be horror comics, but how there’s really so little that’s scary about them. And the monsters wear underpants, to protect their modesty, I presumed.

And I had a friend who was into comics, and Kirby got brought up, and I began doing my griping rant about how I couldn’t stand his work, and I gave all my reasons, and all the reasons I gave for thinking the art was awful, he was going, Yeah, and using it as a reason that he loved the art. And I began realizing that, after studying art in school, none of these reasons were really valid to me anymore. Because you realize that photo-realism and all that isn’t what makes art “art.” And I started looking at Kirby’s work with a whole new eye. And his work is so absolutely dynamic, and full of energy. Now, I find, anything he did, it’s just magical to me. I love nothing so much as reading Kirby comics.

O'Shea: The fictional references to past issues/years of Tabloia, is there any real world (old Kirby work) connection or do you pick random issue numbers for the fun of it?

Wisnia: When I first began self-publishing comics, I did a book called “Tabloia Weekly Magazine,” and it was a pseudo-anthology of characters and stories I did in different styles, to make it look like there was a slavish bullpen of artists throwing a low-quality tabloid together. The first issue of “Tabloia” was numbered 572 on the cover, and Doris Danger was a back-up feature in the book. By starting with that number, I was allowed to create a false sense of history. I did text features, bogus letters pages referring to non-existent “previous issues,” things like that. Since the Doris stories were drawn in a retro-Kirby style, it just made sense to me to write in the margin “originally appeared in Tabloia # whatever!” And I just made up numbers for “previous issue” references. Also, I was thinking of the 1970’s Marvel reprints of Kirby’s giant monster stories, which was the only way I’d experienced them, since I never saw those stories in any other format.

The Doris Danger stories aren’t told in chronological order. I wanted it to feel like a publisher who’s thrown together his favorite stories, or the stories he can find and get permission to license. So that they jump around chronologically and thematically. And as you read them, you’ll see some connections, or references to incidents you caught a glimpse of in other places. And I am consistent with those issue number references. If I return to a topic that I’ve footnoted in earlier stories, it will be numbered as the correct previously mentioned issue number.

O'Shea: How did you come up with the Tabloia name?

Wisnia: When I first started making comics, I’d drawn a few different stories, and I realized they were all basically tabloid in nature, and it occurred to me I could use “tabloid” as an umbrella theme, to explore the kinds of subject matter you see on tabloid magazines at the supermarket. Monsters and ghosts and freaks, predictions of the future, private detectives, mad scientists, weird surgeries, fringe and cult religion, serial killers, random violence; basically, anything I could imagine wanting to make a story about.

Partly thinking of horror magazines like Eerie and Creepy and especially Fangoria, I created the word “Tabloia” by combining “tabloid” and “paranoia.”

O'Shea: OK, in terms of your comedic sense, why on page 35, go to the trouble of setting up a tale "as written in 1955, republished in 1981" and using a footnote that explains the use of the derogatory term "midget"? Are you trying to ridicule the politically correct nature of some folks when it comes to historical fiction?

Wisnia: Layers of layers. I find I’ll come up with a joke, then realize I can take it a step farther for another bad pun, and I just think stuff out way too obsessive-compulsively, to the point (I fear) it could very easily make my work inaccessible, and alienate the readers. But to me, it’s funny, heh heh…

The way this particular gag developed, I came up with the joke, and I used the word “midgets” in it for insensitivity. And then I felt guilty, so I decided I should affirm that I recognize the insensitivity. And by doing so, I could historically add layers by explaining the change in the use of the term from time period to time period.

I was thinking of when you read older books, history documents or whatever, that use the word “Negro,” or “mentally retarded,” or things like that, that were acceptable at the time but are now offensive. And how then historians always have to spend a paragraph apologizing for it. I’ve got a Loony Tunes box set where Whoopi Goldberg apologizes for some of the horrible racial stereotype gags in some of the cartoons.

And then I thought, well it would be even worse to acknowledge the insensitivity, and then ignorantly be even MORE insensitive. And you didn’t even mention how I made it a running gag, and the subject matter returned in the letters pages (page 43)!

Interestingly, I’m very sensitive of political correctness, to the point I periodically get on the nerves of my friends.

O'Shea: How much fun was it to do a fake letters column?

Wisnia: Yeah, one of my favorites. I like the idea that readers may see a text page in my book and not even bother to read it, or that maybe they’ll read it and not realize it’s all fake.

I’ve got a very small, but virulently dedicated fan base, who’s always telling me they’ll feverishly go over my stories two, three times, pouring over every little piece of text or image, because they always find knew gags that they missed the first or second time.

The whole reason I got the idea to do a bogus letters page was that I’d heard in the early days of Marvel, Stan Lee would write the letters pages, and that no one was actually writing in. But I thought, well rather than make up letters of how great readers think the books are, why not go the opposite route, for humor?

The “letters” will just pop into my head as I’m writing stories. I’ll realize the absurdity or stupidity of something I’m doing, and jot it down, then have my “editor-in-chief” respond in a friendly manner as if the letters weren’t really derogatory, and they’re old friends. I think the Stan Lee-style, all-exclamation-points, all fun-and-games-and-“aren’t we buddies” tone just works nicely when confronted with hatred and fury over the low quality of my comic. Also, I find if you have insecurities, you may as well just get them out there and acknowledge them, and what better way than by having disgruntled fans write in and state the shortcomings outright?

I should also mention, Alan Moore’s fantastic “1963” series for Image had great fake letters pages, and they truly inspired me, like he always does.

O'Shea: Are there present-day creators (like Jeff Parker or Roger Langridge) that are kindred spirits to your homage-based monster work?

Wisnia: Sure. And even people that aren’t doing Kirby-style giant monster homage work appreciate it. Whenever I’m showing my stuff around, or people overhear that’s what I’m doing, they always act intrigued.

I don’t find many comics creators that don’t have some kind of reaction to Kirby’s monster stories. Even if they can’t stand them, they still smile and have something to say.

O'Shea: This collection features your past work, if you do a second volume in what direction would you like to take Doris Danger?

Wisnia: In this collection, the story goes all over the place. I introduced a ton of crazy characters and scenarios, and didn’t resolve anything. Why are a fez-wearing cult trying to hide and protect giant monsters? Why are French beret-wearing brothers trying to hide evidence of giant monsters? Who is the giggling scientist who says, “tee hee, tee hee,” and what are his motives? Why do our characters hear so much menacing giggling, such as “ahoo” and “hardy har,” in different locales? Is FBI Agent Mull a double Agent for Doris Danger, or a triple agent for the FBI, PRETENDING to be a double Agent for Doris? How do the UFOs fit in, and why are there different kinds? Why are the FBI and Army working together to try destroying and covering up the existence of giant monsters? Are the giant monsters natural Earth creatures or aliens or robots or a conspiracy? Why are robots masquerading as African tribesmen? Why are budding actors masquerading as robots? Why are peculiar mannequins appearing throughout Manhattan?

Believe it or not, I have an enormous “big picture” mapped out, and so now it’s just a matter of fleshing it all out. So the next volume will fill in a lot of holes, and answer a lot of questions. It will answer questions you wouldn’t have thought to ask.

O'Shea: You have a bevy of pin-ups in this book, for fans of these particular artists, it might be great to let folks know all who appear in the book. When you tap these folks for pin-ups, do you give them free reign or do you give them specific instructions?

Wisnia: Yes, this issue features a cover by SHAG and pin-ups by ARTHUR ADAMS, MIKE ALLRED, GENE COLAN, PETER BAGGE, RAMONA FRADON, DAVE GIBBONS, RUSS HEATH, LOS BROS HERNANDEZ, MIKE MIGNOLA, TONY MILLIONAIRE, JOHN SEVERIN, and BILL SIENKIEWICZ. It also contains five five-page stories inked by DICK AYERS, making it an authentic rip-off of the Kirby-style giant monster genre.

I think the pin-ups are fabulous. If a company tells an artist, Yeah, do another Batman pin-up, even though hundreds of artists have drawn thousands of pin-ups and covers of him. What else can you do, at some point, you know?

But with this project, I would just tell the artists, Draw whatever kind of giant monster you like, in any kind of scenario you like, any way you like. Anything they want. And everyone did phenomenal work. Really fun. I would receive the pin-ups in the mail, and opening the packages, they would take my breath away. I couldn’t be more pleased with the pin-ups.

That said, I actually did give a couple of them some general requests. I wanted Russ Heath to do a war scene, and suggested a few things, and we decided on the giant hand grabbing at a plane. I wanted John Severin to do a Western scene. I suggested some ideas for Gene Colan and he liked the idea of a giant foot stomping down on a graveyard. I told Tony Millionaire I’d like a ship at sea with a sea monster.

As I received pin-ups, I’d take copies to conventions to show artists what other artists were drawing for me. And I think that would sometimes up the ante, and artists would realize, Oh, it’s okay to do a pin-up for this unknown kid. And also, Wow, these are great pin-ups, I better make sure I do something really nice for this book.

O'Shea: Would you agree that part of the comedy of Doris Danger is the absurdly long dialogue bits (You jam pack the word balloons)?

Wisnia: Mainstream books are always trying to streamline the dialogue, and use as little as possible, to leave plenty of room for the art.

I read and enjoy the old Stan Lee stuff, and there’s a lot of text on the page. All the old sixties stuff is a lot more text-heavy. If I try and tighten it up, I find I’ll come up with another gag, and it winds up being even longer.

Have you seen that documentary about R. Crumb? He talks about his brother, who drew comics as a kid, and as he made more and more comics, the pictures got smaller and smaller because he kept packing more and more dialogue onto each page, until toward the end, each panel just had a tiny little head crammed in the bottom corner, and the whole panel was this mess of dialogue. I hope I don’t devolve to that point.

To me, a lot of the humor wouldn’t be as funny without the monotonous length of it. To others, I’m sure they see all that text, and pass the book aside.

O'Shea: How long did it take you to come up with the word search?

Wisnia: The word search is to find giant monster names. Coming up with giant monster names is one of the first things I did for this project, I think before I even came up with stories to tell.

Stan Lee (or maybe his brother Larry Lieber?) would create names like Bombu, Dragoom, Giganto, Gomdulla, Googam, Goom, Gor-Kill, Gorgilla, Gorgolla, Grottu, Groot, Gruto, Klagg, Kraggoom, Kurrgo, Manoo, Mongoo, Monstrom, Oog, Orrg, Orrgo, Pildorr, Rommbu, Rorgg, Sserpo, Spragg ....

So my wife and I kind of ended up using it as a party game, coming up with these corny-sounding giant monster names. Doris Danger meets monsters named Spluhh, Scrohtu, Vulvoo, Poogoo, Bungoo, Spanko, Fuggabluh, Plopsplu, Pwapwapwah, Sphinxtor, Krakapoo, Aahblaah, Hachooo, Spoosh, Snehsneh ....

I thought it would be fun to have some kind of game-like bonus page, and I had all these monster names, so I realized it would make a good word search.

Now when you say “come up with the word search,” I should mention, if you try and actually find any of these monster names, you’re going to be out of luck, so I wouldn’t take a lot of time at it. HOWEVER, if you read the word search, starting top left, and reading down each column to the right, there is a secret message, which is something I used to do for every issue of Tabloia Weekly Magazine, when it came out.

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