Talking Comics with Tim | Tim Gibson on 'Moth City'

If you're a fan of Tim Gibson's Moth City, you may have been introduced to the work on Gibson's own site or through its serialization at Thrillbent. Fans of the digital platform are able to consume larger installments of the series in one sitting with comiXology Submit, where  Moth City will wrap up its second season on Wednesday, with the digital release of Issue 4.

Set in 1930s China and featuring an interesting mix of characters, Moth City is what comiXology aptly describes as "a story about control -- when we lose it, when we gain it, and when others hold it over us."

To celebrate the release of Moth City #4, Gibson opened up about his murder-mystery series, and the creative process behind it. His storytelling and bio gave me a lot of ground to develop questions, particularly with great lines like, "When he’s not writing or drawing, he spends his time reading Elmore Leonard, Stephen King and Agatha Christie, and ogling the art of David Mazzucchelli."

Tim O'Shea: The first issue opens with a quote from Lord Byron's "On Leaving Newstead Abbey." What prompted you to open with that?

Tim Gibson: Byron is this great figure of masculinity, a soldier and a poet. A romantic who had a very twisted love life. He’s a great parallel to the story’s self-imposed tyrant, Governor McCaw, a man who sees himself in a very idealised light. Newstead Abbey also touches on the failure and decay of a once-grand estate, which helps set up one of the main conflicts of the story, that of the Governor, and his daughter Glitter who lives a life so sheltered she may as well be a possession.

Plus, you know, if you’re going to do a comic with car chases, bio weapons, shoot outs, hurried romance and underground plots, you may as well put a bow tie on it.

What made you want to set a story in China and in this time period?

First, the gap between World War I and World War II is an extraordinarily interesting time on mainland China. They’re recovering from in-fighting warlords, are in the middle of a civil war between the ruling Nationalists and the upstart Communist movement, Western powers are exerting influence, and Japan is about to invade – and all of this before WWII even starts.

It’s also the perfect time for an American like McCaw to start developing and selling Biological Weapons and set up a little kingdom of his own. Period works also allow writers to explore modern issues like factory labor, overbearing governance and rebellion in a more relaxed genre context. And you know, kung fu.

In the first installment of Season 2, you had some fight scenes. Were those particularly challenging to choreograph, in a way that took advantage of the digital platform but that still worked in a traditional storytelling format?

Using digital for things like fight scenes means that you can go "splash page" whenever it’s needed. It’s like that moment in at classic cinemas when the trailers end, and the curtains pull back even further than they were before and you know you’re going to get something special.

I come at the fight scenes from a variety of approaches in the series, depending on whether I’m going for impact or suspense. It’s great to be able to be flexible with it. Unfortunately (or fortunately for readers) without a print publisher’s page limit I can get a bit carried away.

You have expressed an appreciation for David Mazzucchelli's work. Does his style influence your artistic approach?

I lean towards the looser brushwork of his Year One work, yeah. It’s emotive and simplified, but there’s this amazing understanding of structure and anatomy underneath it all. The guy does it all.

I did a post about my favorite comic artists, both modern and classic, on my blog, if people are interested.

As both the writer and artist for this project, I am curious--do you have the script set before drawing or how do you approach building the story in a typical issue, production wise?

It’s an eight issue arc and the script had to be pretty tight so I had the whole story scripted and locked down before I started the illustrations. I do change things as I work through it, and the dialogue always gets tweaked a few times on its way to output.

When we first discussed doing this interview, you said of Moth City as it progresses, the story starts slanting away from political thriller and crime and more into horror and action. Was that your intent with the story initially, or has it organically changed in that direction?

That was always the intent. Moth City is a bit of a love poem to genre and pre-Code comics, so there are a lot of tones in there, from Westerns to mystery. I’ve worked pretty hard to keep those pages turning and the surprises coming, hopefully with the character’s conflicts acting as the backbone of the story.

As you developed the series, are there certain characters that have grown on you and/or have proved to be the hardest to write?

Some are much harder to write than others, yes, but that’s what redrafting your scripts a hundred times is for, right? It would often be during a re-write that I would change one line of dialogue for a character and that would ‘click’ and then I’d go back all the way through and rewrite their part.

McCaw is probably the most fun to write. He’s just this brash bulldozer of a man, all artifice covering naked aggression. But he’s learnt to be charming in his own way. Glitter, his daughter, is interesting because she has a lot going on behind the scenes in the early issues, so you see her more as an extension of her place in McCaw’s life. She has a few surprises up her sleeve though.

Your work on Moth City was partially sponsored by Creative NZ, the arts council of New Zealand. Have they been pleased with their investment in your work, or do you know?

Gee, I hope so. They gave me an amazing opportunity, to be able to walk away from film and TV design for a period and tell my own story. I think they’re probably intrigued by all this digital publishing malarkey with comiXology, having it published at my site, and running to Thrillbent’s crowd, too. I imagine they’re like a lot of folk, they’re really looking forward to holding a book in their hands. It’ll happen, I’m patient, and I want to do this right.

How much experimentation/revision did Governor McCaw undergo before you settled on the distinctive look for the character?

He was pretty easy: He’s one part Gregory Peck, one part James Coburn, one part Franco Nero and a pinch of Hellboy. That said, for a while he looked like a vinyl toy.

Is there a certain palette you favor (to convey a certain tone to the series) when coloring the scenes?

I looked at a lot of early comic art, so the inking is pretty old-fashioned, but I didn’t want to do 1940s coloring, and so I did a lot of research into '70s and '80s comics, and that really set the palette that I’ve since developed from. One of my main rules is that there’s no pure white, and no pure black.

There is a scene where an autopsy is being performed, where you go for a bit of comedy, framing it before the reveal of the autopsy as if it was a romantic scene. Do you enjoy injecting comedy into odd moments of your storytelling?

I didn’t have that scripted, it was just the storytelling opportunity of the digital page, and the context of the scene before it that made that happen. Moth City is on the darker side of things I guess - it’s not whimsical. But I like to think I’m funny, maybe it’s me rebelling against myself?

In the second part of Season 1, in a text piece you wrote, "Perhaps we're (creators) not making enough great stuff that's different. Perhaps we don't respect the audience enough that they are willing to try new things." What kind of response have you heard from folks on your opinion?

Well, I think getting people to try new things really comes down to an engaged comics journalism community, writers, reviews and bloggers, which is why I’m so lucky to have had the support that I have for an indie series. We all have these reading habits, and it often takes a friend to put something in your hands and say “try this, seriously.”

When I wrote that piece I was really struggling with this comics-as-genre vs comics-as-medium perception, and the dominance of superhero comics, perceived or otherwise. I think as an industry comics really put itself in a box, post-Wertham, and now we all want to get out. But if we wait for a demand for Romance comics or Mystery comics before we supply the commercial stock will be we waiting forever?

Maybe we just need to be making this stuff with blindfolds on so. I worry that potential new readers presume that they will be confronted by a wall of men’s Spandexed crotches if they walk into a comic book store.

So far, reviewers have been happily surprised at the turns Moth City is making, and there’s obviously this massive rise in exciting creator-owned properties happening, so maybe we all need to grab a friend by the hand, and put an iPad in it, and introduce them to this brave new/old world of comics?

Anything we should discuss that I neglected to ask you about?

Just that we’re mid way through the arc, so now is a great time to jump in on the series. The issues are only $1.99 on comiXology, and the first one is half-price at a buck. Boom – that’s like a fraction of your health insurance! People like it, try something new.

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