Talking Comics with Tim | Sean T. Collins

It's happened again (last time it was Michael May), I am interviewing one of my fellow Robot 6 pals. This time it's writer Sean T. Collins, regarding Destructor, the webcomic described as an "ongoing story of villainy byCollins and Matt Wiegle, updated Mondays and Thursdays ... 'Alone he fled, and came in from Outside. Upon the seething streets of Planet D he landed, in his armor and his rage. With General at his side and Wall behind, he wrote his name in blood across the worlds, worlds he would conquer, filled with foes to crush. He formed the Mob and set their star alight, the guns and gangs, machines and magic theirs, the red ambition his and his alone, until the System shuddered at his name: Destructor—the most dangerous man alive.'" As engaging and sometimes maddening  a co-worker (we have vastly different critical minds, an observation that I hope he takes as the compliment it is) as Collins may be, I was not surprised in the slightest to find him to be a great creator to interview.

Tim O'Shea: You are a faithful reader of Tom Brevoort's Twitter account, do you think he returns the favor and is an avid reader of Destructor?

Sean T. Collins: Hahaha! Aw, I'm sure we don't have nearly enough commenters asking us who would win in a fight, Jean Grey or the Blue Marvel, and given how much he looooooves that sort of thing we're probably not high on his reading list. He's a reader I'd love to have, though. Are you there, Tom? It's me, the guy who makes posts out of your tweets.

O'Shea: Break down how you and Wiegle first decided to work together--and how you concocted Destructor in particular?

Collins: I created Destructor and his cohorts, the Mob, way back in the third grade. They were my Axe Cop, if you will -- one of those sci-fi/fantasy/action/adventure things that imaginative kids concoct regularly, with inspiration drawn from He-Man, Star Wars, Tolkien, G.I. Joe, Silverhawks and Thundercats, Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper, the WWF, the Universal Studios monsters, Godzilla...everything I was into. The twist from the beginning was that these were the bad guys -- it gave me more freedom to make up awesome scary designs for the characters, and they could do cooler stuff like blow up planets and rule with an iron fist. Heh, seems like a cry for help in retrospect!

So I'd draw little mugshots of the characters and type up little lists and summaries of who they are and what went on in their world, and then play-act their adventures with my brother and sister and the kids in the neighborhood, or all by myself. This went on for years and years; even after I outgrew acting out the adventures, which I assure you took a long time, I would still advance their story incrementally in my head before falling asleep, or type up ideas and essays about them on the computer, folding in more adult influences, from George Orwell to Clive Barker to my interests in real-life wars and serial killers and organized crime. Once in high school and once after college I talked to some artist friends about possibly making Destructor comics together -- my drawings never really got much better than they were in the third grade -- but nothing really ever came of it.

As for Matt, he and I went to Yale together, and I've loved his comics ever since seeing his strips in the weekly student newspaper there. I really vividly remember sitting out in a courtyard one weekend with my roommates and my future wife, poring over every square inch of this hilarious Archie parody he did called "Good Kids Gone Bad" and marveling at how intelligently drawn and laid out it was, all in service of gags involving Veronica giving birth in a toilet stall and suchlike. When I got back into comics in a big way after graduation, I must have discovered that Matt was still keeping at it at shows like MoCCA, which was just starting out back then. At this point I was reading a lot of comics and writing a lot about comics, both professionally and in the early days of my blog, but mostly just dreaming about making them myself.

Then in...hm, I'm not sure when it was, probably 2003 or so, but at some point I heard that Jeffrey Brown, who my wife and I had become friendly with, was putting together an anthology of fantasy stories by alternative comics creators, called Elfworld. Suddenly something clicked. Ever since I first got the idea of making Destructor comics someday back in high school, I'd pictured them in the traditional form I'd been most familiar and comfortable with: A straightforward monthly series, with traditional superhero-style art and so on. But now, as an adult, I was so passionate about alternative/art comics, and I realized they were a much better fit for the material anyway. I think the key image, for me, was imagining Destructor as drawn by Brian Ralph -- it worked! All I had to do was find a fantasy-leaning story about him to tell, and since his world and adventures were a mash-up of everything I've ever been into ever, that was easy enough. I decided to flesh out a part of his life I'd never really thought about much before, a period of forced separation from the rest of the Mob that I'd invented way back when as an in-story explanation for some time I spent not working on the characters because I'd lost my original drawings and was too bummed out to re-do them for a while. I thought it made sense for him to have spent this time as a Conan-style wandering warrior, which would make for perfect Elfworld stories.

So now I had to find a collaborator, and Matt stood out immediately. I knew him well from college (all too well, perhaps; I could tell you stories), I'd been a fan for all that time, and I knew from his myth- and legend-based minicomics that he'd handle all the beasts and battles beautifully. I just figured he'd turn me down flat, because he was already an established presence on the minicomics scene, and because so few altcomix cartoonists have an interest in collaborating with an outside writer. Fortunately, Matt greatly undervalued his time and talents and decided to hitch his star to my wagon after all. Thus, the black and white version of "Destructor Comes to Croc-Town" ended up in both the Elfworld anthology, which was eventually (very, very eventually) published through François Vigneult's Family Style imprint, and on Top Shelf 2.0 -- my very first comic ever. Since then, Matt and I have done several other comics together, including some non-Destructor stuff, but this autumn the stars aligned once again when I pitched him on doing a continuing Destructor webcomic, right at the same time he was independently thinking about how useful it would be for him to do one. I got very, very lucky with him. Luckier still when it turned out that the webcomic was the first thing he did after winning the Ignatz for Promising New Talent at SPX this past autumn.

O'Shea: Is there a finite end to Destructor, or would you like to go on indefinitely with it?

Collins: I know how his story ends, I'll put it that way. But that's actually a very recent development -- until recently I'd only known where I'd stop telling his story, not where his actual story stopped, if you follow me. That only revealed itself to me in December, believe it or not. That said, I've been coming up with adventures for Destructor for over two decades now, and could recount them all in comics form for at least as long. And I certainly hope to, Matt's patience pending.

O'Shea: What is it about Wiegle's art and general sense of storytelling that makes him a good match for you?

Collins: I don't want to presume to speak for our readers, who to me have the final, and basically only, say on what if anything makes the comics work. But I guess to me, Matt's character designs have a vulnerability to them due to his surface-cute and cartoony style, but underlying that there's a real sense of grit and danger -- the scratchy lines, the impeccable and impactful action choreography. And he just seems to get, totally, who Destructor is and what these stories should feel like. When he first showed me the pages he'd drawn for "Croc-Town" years ago, I literally had no complaints -- it was exactly what I pictured in my mind when I pictured Matt working on this with me.

O'Shea: How was Top Shelf's 2.0 important in terms of helping to build an audience for your comics?

Collins: Well, I don't have site stats or anything, but I'd imagine very. I mean, Top Shelf publishes Alan Moore, Craig Thompson, Eddie Campbell, Jeffrey Brown, Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt...I think being associated with them sends a message to fans of those other creators that hey, this comic is officially worth reading. Moreover, Brett Warnock and Chris Staros have been enormously friendly to and supportive of me ever since I met them in my capacity as a journalist in 2003, and Leigh Walton has been as well ever since he joined the company. So even beyond the audience they helped us acquire, I feel like I wouldn't have gotten to where I am without them.

O'Shea: Would you say your work as a critic has helped you in terms of your storytelling skills (learning from the mistakes and successes of others, for instance)?

Collins: I really hope so. I think the main thing being a critic has done for me in terms of also being a creator is expose me to a vast array of approaches to the art form and encourage me to think carefully, closely, and critically about all of them. To me, writing criticism is essentially unpacking your reaction to a work of art, disassembling that reaction and laying it out on the table in such a way as to explain to your readers how that work worked, and how it didn't. When you're taking apart comics on a regular basis -- as I've done three times a week on my blog for years on end now, and pretty regularly for The Comics Journal and Wizard and Giant and so on before then -- you get to know the moving parts pretty well. Now, I'm just the writer, and it's very important to me to leave a lot up to Matt, since he's the artist and comics is an art-based medium and I'd be stupid not to. But I feel like whatever understanding of comics I've gained from all that critical work has got to inform the finished product, even if I'm a step removed from it, and even if it's only indirectly going into my stage of the process to begin with. Like, Destructor is a relatively straightforward alt-genre action-adventure comic strip, but I can tell you that in terms of making comics, Anders Nilsen, John Hankiewicz, Kevin Huizenga, Gilbert Hernandez, and Jaime Hernandez are much, much bigger influences on my thought process than a lot of more directly comparable comics. I think, or I hope, that's because I focus so much on how their comics work inside, not just what they're about on the surface. In a way it's similar to how my biggest immediate influence on most of the Destructor scripts I've written has been music, listening to a particular album over and over as I write. You're not going to see any direct references to Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada or Two Suns by Bat for Lashes or ...And Justice for All by Metallica in any of these comics, but the emotional effect those albums have from how all the working parts hang together in them informed how I tried to put the working parts of various Destructor stories together to have an emotional effect of their own.

O'Shea: How far in advance did you two have to plan to stockpile the story installments? Also, how far in advance are you working at present (three weeks, months or days ahead?)

Collins: Well, when I approached Matt about doing Destructor as a webcomic, he responded with an idea for how we'd do it: First he'd color and republish the two black-and-white Destructor strips we'd already done, "Croc-Town" and "Prison Break," and then he'd start working on brand-new material in full color. See, I'd been sending him scripts for further Destructor comics for years, though with his other commitments he'd never had the chance to work on them. As for how far in advance the pages are being finished, you'd probably have to ask Matt -- I get the impression it's a matter of days in advance more than weeks or months -- but I can tell you that we've got over 100 finished script pages for further adventures just sitting around waiting to be drawn. Right now I'm knee-deep in writing scripts for two other stories, and I have a pretty massively ambitious one I'm sort of working the kinks out of. And there's that final Destructor story I mentioned earlier. And there are the countless tales I came up with as a kid, all waiting to be written out.

O'Shea: The Croc-Town tale barely had any dialogue--was that challenging to pull off as a writer. Will the next story arc have more dialogue, or is Destructor mostly the strong silent type for the most part?

Collins: Haha, no, not challenging at all! I probably wrestle with getting dialogue to "sound" right more than I struggle with any other aspect of writing comics. But in "Croc-Town"'s case it really wasn't necessary. The second I realized I could do Destructor as an alternative comic, my touchstones were the largely silent action-adventure comics that were available from Fort Thunder alumni back then -- Brian Ralph's Cave-In and Mat Brinkman's Teratoid Heights, both from Tom Devlin's late great Highwater Books. Pacing and atmosphere and the use of space and environment were the keys.

Actually, "Croc-Town" was done in something approximating the old Marvel Method. I wrote a page-long summary of what I wanted to happen in the story, Matt went off on his own and drew it how he wanted to, I came back in and got the little bit of dialogue straight and asked for some tweaks, and voila. So for example, the sequence in which the Croc captain kisses the portrait of his family in the locket was totally Matt's invention, while the long outro of Destructor walking back out of town through all the destruction he caused was something I insisted Matt add. It was a true collaboration. Since then, I don't think any two Destructor strips have been written the same way. I've done full script, I've done page-by-page breakdowns with dialogue but no specific panel-by-panel instructions...I basically do whatever feels at the moment like it will present the least impediment from getting the ideas from my head into my computer.

O'Shea: Any hopes to publish a collection of Destructor tales at some point?

Collins: I don't see why not! I hope we're fortunate enough to do that. It'd be the culmination of a lifelong dream, just in terms of being able to give copies to my family and say "Remember all those hours I spent doodling and running around using wiffle ball bats as swords and guns? They paid off!"

O'Shea: How important was it to the two of you that the new Destructor tales be in color (given that the Top Shelf tale was black and white)?

Collins: This is probably a question for Matt, really, since coloring the old stories and doing the new ones in color from the get-go was 100% his idea. But I'm hugely grateful he insisted on it. I love Matt's color art. I suppose the first place I saw it was in the illustrations he does for Barnes & Nobles' Sparknotes site, drawing scenes from classic novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huck Finn and so on. It's so rich! And I can already see just based on what he's done for Destructor so far that he uses color to do a lot more than just fill in the spaces between the lines. I would also say, based on the reactions we've gotten, that the color has done a lot to entice and impress readers, and other cartoonists, even.

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