Talking Comics with Tim: Thom Zahler

No matter how long I cover the comic book industry, there are always one or two moments in the year when I am reminded how incredibly hard it is to be an independent creator. My email interview with Love and Capes creator Thom Zahler is the latest reminder. As tough as it is, Zahler's hard work is paying off. This week he's doubling up his participation in Free Comic Book Day with both Love and Capes #13 (Maerkle Press) and Captains Comics: Baseball Beyond The Stars (1,000 copies to be distributed at a Lake County Captains baseball game [as detailed by Robot 6 a couple of weeks back]). But in even better news, as revealed exclusively in this interview, Love and Capes is moving to IDW at the end of 2010. Read the interview to find out the details. My thanks to Zahler for his time and congrats to the move to IDW.

Tim O'Shea: There are very few comic book creators that have also been politicians (only other one I can think of is Bob Greenberger). Does your civic work every find its way into your stories?

Thom Zahler: Since we last spoke, my term of office has ended, so I’m no longer a Councilman. I have, however, been appointed Chairman of the Board of Public Affairs. Or, as I like to say, “Czar.”

The civic work itself hasn’t shown up in my work, although it’s bubbling in the back of my brain waiting to be used in some new project down the road. But the interactions a diverse group of personalities have when they work together, even in a tiny town like mine, are definitely something to lean on. Little places have big drama sometimes.

O'Shea: What do you have planned for Free Comic Book Day for Love and Capes? You're also doing a FCBD project for the Lake County Captains, how did that come about?

Zahler: I’m going to be going out to California, to Chris Brady’s Four Color Fantasies in Rancho Cucamonga. I’ve got a goal to hit a different state each Free Comic Book Day. This will bring me up to three, so I’ve got forty-seven left.

I’ve never been to Chris’s store, but friends of mine have and have raved about it. He’s got a phenomenal line-up of guests for that day, enough so that I’m wondering why he wanted little old me. But that’s just my natural artistic insecurity.

I’ll be out there sketching and signing and talking up a storm. I’m really looking forward to it. It should be a great time.

The Lake County Captains are the single-A farm team of the AL central powerhouse Cleveland Indians. I drew the Indians’ mascot, Slider, for five years and when that job wrapped up, I tried expanding out to other locations. The Captains are just down the street from me, too. Location always helps.

A few years ago, we got to talking and I worked out a deal with them and one of my local comic shops, Comic Heaven in Willoughby, and provided them with free copies of Love and Capes to give out on FCBD, along with a flyer to point them to Jim’s store. We did that the next year, too.

That got me to know the Captains’ staff, and led to some work designing some of their giveaways, like turning their racing fish (like the hot dog racers you see in other locations) into Bobble Fish.

When we spoke this year, I talked about doing an exclusive Captains cover, and they said they’d like to see some baseball theme. I started running the numbers and realized that it’d be just as easy to do an exclusive Captains comic, rather than adding things into the already-written Love and Capes.

The comic is going to look great, and is a lot of fun in a Space Jam/Superman vs. Muhammed Ali kind of way. I’m hoping I can use this as a sales tool to start doing more custom comics. As FCBD has taught us, free comics are really popular.

O'Shea: Did you jump for joy or merely burst into tears (of joy) when you found out that IDW (the publisher of the Love and Capes collected editions) had earned Diamond Premier publisher status?

Zahler: Hey, I’m a sensitive guy, but I don’t cry… well, except at Up, because if you can make it though that without tearing up, then you need to find a gypsy and an Orb of Thessala and try to get your soul back.

I think it’s great. IDW is a really smart company, their relationship with me aside, and has built themselves up nicely to get this status.

It was especially good news to me because, and now it can be announced, Love and Capes is moving to IDW at the end of the year. We’re going to do a five-issue miniseries, Love and Capes: Ever After that picks up right where issue #13 leaves off. Marriage isn’t the end of their story, it’s the beginning of a whole new story.

O'Shea: What kind of extras or bells & whistles do you have lined up for when the book lands at IDW?

Zahler: Well… someone will die! Does that count?

Yeah, the plan is to kill one of the characters. Which one? How? Will they come back as a Black Lantern? Can’t say much more than that. If you’re a fan and a little worried, I just ask that you trust me on this. It’s not something I’m doing casually or for shock value. And certainly not a stunt, because 900 numbers cost so darn much.

Also, if you read issue #12, you know that Darkblade had a choice to make. What (or more specifically, who) he chose will be playing out over the next five issues.

And, when the book moves to IDW, it’ll also be moving to a monthly schedule. Doing the entire book, top to bottom, is a lot for one guy, especially a guy who does other work, and a large part of why the book has it’s quarterly schedule. To go monthly, I need to get a lot of track behind me. Hence the long wait between FCBD and the first IDW issue. I’m going to spend this year getting far enough ahead to make that schedule.

There’s more stuff, too. There’s a lot of story to mine in their new newlywed status, but that’s the stuff I’m willing to say out loud at this point.

O'Shea: A few years back we discussed your creative process. In terms of balancing the comedy, I found it interesting that you utilized post-it notes and spreadsheets. "With the first two books, I kept a spreadsheet, so that I knew I had the right balance of Abby bits to Mark bits, superhero jokes to dating jokes, and so on. Achieving that perfect combination is something I work hard at." Would you say that nowadays balancing the comedy bits is more second nature for you?

Zahler: I don’t worry about the characters’ “screen time” as much anymore., so I’ve ditched the spreadsheets. The stories have gotten much more focused and plot driven than the randomly-connected bits with a payoff I did for the first couple issues. When you’ve got that plot backbone, you can be more confident dropping characters to supporting or even off-screen status.

In the first IDW issue, Abby’s sister Charlotte only has one scene. It’s killing me, because in a lot of ways she’s my favorite character, but the story is telling me she’s got no other place in it. It lets me do things like issue #11 where Mark appears in his civilian identity for two brief scenes. The rest of the time he’s the Crusader, and that’s a mix I wouldn’t have done before.

I still write with Post-Its, though, especially when I hit the back eight pages. I trained as an artist first, so it’s a visual way of marking beats and, more importantly, making sure that I don’t forget a bit I came up with.

Although I’ve probably gotten a lot more confident about that since I started. I swear, some of my notes read Do something funny here about X rather than have an actual punchline that I’ve figured out.

O'Shea: Back in that last interview, you credited Aaron Sorkin for helping influence your ear for dialogue. Who out there amongst the current crop of scriptwriters are providing lines that inspire your approach toward dialogue?

Zahler: I’m a huge fan of Castle. The exchanges between Castle and Beckett, and even bits with Ryan and Esposito are just gold. So, creator Andrew Marlowe and showrunner Rene Echevarria are inspiring me a bit.

Since you asked, though, I’ve realized that there’s a common thread running through a lot of my favorite shows. Gabrielle Stanton and Harry Werksman have worked on The Invisible Man, Farscape, Grey’s Anatomy and the first season of Castle. I met Gabrielle at Comic-Con a year or so ago and just gushed all over her. I don’t notice a “Stanton style” in their dialogue, the way I can pick out Sorkin or Joss Whedon’s writing and cadence, but there’s something about it that works well.

O'Shea: One last question using that old interview as a springboard: "Right now, I'm working hard, hoping that things will break big. On the other hand, I can't promise 100 issues with things as they're set up.

Now, if some big publisher wants to talk about picking up Love and Capes, that might be different.

So, the structure I'm using is three six-issue cycles. That's eighteen issues, and at the rate I'm doing them, it'll be well over five years worth of material." Now that you are working with IDW, how does that change your long-term plans for Love & Capes?

Zahler: IDW and I have a five-issue commitment. While self-publishing, there’s only so much time and money I wanted to tie up in one project, hence the 18-issue plan. Don’t get me wrong, the days I spend creating Love and Capes are the best days in my week. But there are other stories I want to tell, too.

Now, with IDW and depending on our success with the new series, there are more possibilities. I know for sure that I need a break after I finish Ever After. I’ll have done 19 issues (if you count #12 as two) at almost a non-stop pace. The double-sized issue ate up a lot of my down time.

When I was finishing up #12, I hadn’t lined up the IDW deal, and Diamond was a couple of weeks late in letting me know if I would be a FCBD participant for this year. Because of that delay, I was convinced that they were going to say “no” and that issue #12 would be my last. While not my plan, issue #12 would have been a great note to end on. So I thought I was done, period.

Then my FCBD participation got okayed and IDW and I worked out our deal, all in the space of a week or two. I went from preparing myself to walk away from the book to doing six more issues with no break in sight. That week in particular was emotionally draining.

So, my official plan is to take a break after the IDW series wraps up. I just need to recharge, and I don’t want the series to ever get stale.

But, and I wouldn’t have said this a year ago, I can see a distant point over the horizon where I’d come back to Love and Capes and that universe again.

O'Shea: I love how your word balloons are partially transparent, so that your art is not completely obscured by the balloons. Not many comics make that choice, how did you decide to take that approach with the balloons?

Zahler: Mostly my stupidity.

I did a proof-of-concept page to start. It’s reprinted in the back of Issue #6. I wanted to try out the style and the graphic look I was going for. When I drew and colored the pages, and as a letterer I’m ashamed to admit this, I didn’t leave enough room for the dialogue. Some of that came from my Marvel-style process of writing after I draw, but I should have left space anyway.

So, in an attempt to make what I did fit, I tried the semi-transparent word balloons. It let me let some of the artwork show through. It took some experimenting past that, like doing the opaque borders and having balloons cut out around each other to make it read clearer. Still, it makes it look different, and gives it a fairly unique graphic look, so I’m happy with it.

“Happy accidents” as Bob Ross used to say.

O'Shea: What else should we discuss that I neglected to ask you about?

Zahler: If you miss the Free Comic Book Day issue, it will be available in a retail form (same content, slightly different cover) from www.loveandcapes.com and Haven Distributors.

My 2010 con schedule includes Heroes Con in Charlotte, Comic-Con in San Diego, Baltimore Comicon in Baltimore, Mid-Ohio-Con in Columbus and maybe another one or two along the way. And the second collection, Love and Capes: Going to the Chapel is in Previews now (APR10 0387) and available for pre-order from Amazon and other outlets, too.

Once you've read the interview and followed all the links, please be sure to check out Zahler on Twitter as well as the Love and Capes Facebook page.

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