Terry LaBan's Life on the "Edge"

For almost twenty years Terry LaBan has been working in comics. As a writer and artist he produced the series Unsupervised Existence and Cud for Fantagraphics and Cud Comics for Dark Horse. He wrote the Grendel Tales miniseries The Devil May Care, a number of miniseries for Vertigo including the opening story arc of The Dreaming. He's also worked for Mad Magazine and has been drawing political cartoons for the monthly magazine In These Times.

For the past few years LaBan has been co-writing and illustrating the daily comic strip Edge City and last month saw the first collection reprinting the strip from Andrews McMeel, simply titled Edge City. CBR News caught up with LaBan to learn more about the strip and what the future holds for him.

For those people whose local paper doesn't carry the strip, what is Edge City?

Edge City is a daily comic strip nationally (internationally!) syndicated by King Features, that satirizes modern family life through the eyes of a post-Baby Boomer, Jewish-American family. It concentrates on the relationship between Abby, a therapist in private practice, and Len, an aging urban hipster who co-owns a delivery service and plays in a weekend rock band, as they juggle the pressures of running their careers and dealing with their two kids, Colin, 10 and Carly, 8.

There are also a number of peripheral characters, like Rajiv, Len's Indian-American partner, and Abby's parents. The strip generally takes the form of simple stories that last about two weeks and explore some kind of issue or incident, like Abby having insomnia or Len joining a Led Zeppelin cover band.

After so many years working in comics, what attracted you to the world of daily, syndicated comic strips?

Actually, I'd always wanted to do a daily strip. I'm old enough to have lived in a world where doing a syndicated newspaper comic strip was regarded as the ultimate position a cartoonist could attain and I wanted to be a cartoonist largely because I liked comic strips. I only got into comic books as an adolescent, and I never really got into mainstream comics -- I ended up in the comics industry mainly because I wanted to do underground-- that is alternative -- comics and ended up doing the mainstream work I did because I got to know the industry and needed the money. But the desire to do a daily comic strip never left me -- over the years, I sent a couple of other strip submissions to the syndicates which were rejected. I'd also come to a point in my mainstream comics career where I just didn't feel like I was going anywhere. The industry was in sharp decline and writing work was getting harder and harder to come by. I had two kids and I couldn't afford to do indie comics that didn't sell, even if I still wanted to. I really needed to do something new, specifically something that paid regular. Lucky for me, syndication worked out.

Talk about the rigors of working on a daily strip and how it compares to when you were writing and drawing comics regularly.

At first, it was really hard. No one teaches you how to do this -- you've really got to learn as you go. And if you screw up and get behind, you can find yourself in real trouble. Though I liked comic strips, I'd never really worked in the form and the 3-4 panel sequence ending in a gag was foreign to me and seemed kind of corny. I was used to thinking in fairly long narratives and, of course, comic books end and comic strips go on and on.

As time has passed, though it's gotten easier. Because you have to do the same thing every week, you quickly learn how to streamline the process. There's something I really like about doing something that appears every day. You begin to have a dialogue with yourself that you really can't have any other way. The strip becomes an extension of your mind, a conversation you have with yourself. Also, there's something I find very comforting about always having something to work on. I've also come to love the form -- comic strips are like poems or puzzles, everything has to be in just the right place to work. It's like writing little haikus all the time.

Did you have to rethink how you draw because you're now working in a much smaller size?

Yes, but that's been all to the good. Having to draw fast and strip away everything that isn't essential has been a great exercise -- there's nothing worse than seeing your strip in the paper and feel like it's being overpowered by Beetle Bailey. I think I'm a far better cartoonist than I was 10 years ago. I have a much better sense of how things look on a page and I'm a lot more comfortable with my drawing style.

In what ways does the daily format work to your advantage in telling stories and to what degree is it frustrating?

I don't think it's often appreciated what a unique and cool way a daily comic strip has of telling stories. It's this unassuming thing that people only read for a few seconds, but they read it every day, and, just as a comic strip becomes part of the cartoonist's internal dialogue, it can become part of the reader's as well. Because strips exist within the larger context of the newspaper and the overall comics page, appreciation of them becomes almost unconscious -- like life, they never end, but go on and on. I don't know of any other medium that really works this way, except maybe soap operas and sitcoms, but they operate on a completely different scale. Comic strips can only have this effect in print newspapers, which is why the fact that people read newspapers less and less is, from a comics standpoint, so sad.

On the con side, there's definitely a limit to the kind of subject matter you can do and the kind of stories you can tell, and sometimes you have to do some contortions to stay within those limits. But everything has rules.

You made the Ardins one of the only explicitly Jewish characters in the comics, which of course you wouldn't know from reading the overwhelming majority of the strips, but was it important for you to tell a story like the Passover story?

Actually, in the collection, it's more like 20% of the strips which have Jewish content -- there are certain strips that are explicitly Jewish, like the Passover sequence, and others that you'd have to know about Judaism to completely get, like the Sunday about dinners all week, which ends in a Shabbat only identified by candles in the background and the Sunday about feeding the ducks, which is in fact a depiction of a ritual called Tashlich, when Jews, on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, throw bread, which symbolizes their past year's sins, into the water. The book cover is another one -- it's Shabbat, which is a little more obvious, but again, if you weren't Jewish, you probably wouldn't get that.

Whenever we do stuff like this, we get email -- people love that they know and other people might not. It also allows us to keep things universal -- readers who miss the references still don't feel excluded. There are also a certain number of strips that have Jewish cultural references, like the Sunday with the grandma ghosts. We're working on a sequence now where Abby's dad tries to market caffeinated chicken soup.

But, yes, it's important for us to do this stuff. First of all, it makes the strip more authentic to our lives -- we don't want to do a comic about people who celebrate Christmas when we ourselves don't. Second, it endears us to at least one audience, and distinguishes us a little more from other strips. Third, while there's been a lot more ethnic diversity in the comics pages, there hasn't been much religious diversity, and we're bringing that. Fourth, we feel a certain impetus to put out a more positive and interesting picture of Jewish life than we usually see. While Jews are often depicted in the media, it's usually in the form of dated and mildly-offensive stereotypes, and we hardly ever see Jewish rituals portrayed as anything but tiresome and embarrassing. This isn't a result of anti-Semitism -- most of this stuff is written by Jews. But it's not what we experience.

I remember in the acknowledgements of one of the collections of Unsupervised Existence, you mentioned that your wife helped you to write many of the stories. I'm wondering how that working relationship has evolved over the years to the point where now you're producing the strip together?

Well, my wife, then-girlfriend, was kind of an uber-editor on UE. She'd read all the stories and made a lot of suggestions and, as a result, I ended up doing very different work than I'd have done on my own. After a while, I didn't want to do that anymore and went off in a different direction. But when the prospect of doing a daily strip came along, I realized that the kind of thing we did with UE might work well in that format.

Actually, Patty came up with the idea for Edge City, and I knew pretty much immediately that I could never do it without her help. As a practical matter, I haven't been out of the house in 20 years, so I'd quickly run out of ideas without her input. She also has a way of keeping the characters authentic and of not letting things run off the rails. And when you constantly have to come up with new ideas, two heads are definitely better than one. But between UE and the strip, we really didn't work together at all (on cartoons, that is), so our working relationship really developed through this experience. It's not always easy to work together, but we're very close, and have enough discipline to get through the process.

Take us through the process of working on a strip and do you work on the Sunday strips in a different fashion?

I tend to work on everything in week-long blocks; that is, I work on a week's worth of strips at once. Every Sunday, Patty and I meet and think of ideas for the next week (most of our stories are two weeks, so we think of a completely new idea every other week). Between Monday and Tuesday morning I break the story down into gags and write them in rough form. Once Patty fixes them and approves them (which we also do on Sunday), I start drawing them. Monday afternoon I pencil and letter the dailies. Tuesday I ink. Wednesday I fix mistakes and scan. Each step takes about 2 1/2 hours. I generally think of the Sunday on Wednesday and hopefully, Patty will like it when I show her that evening. On Thursday, I pencil, ink and scan the Sunday and on Friday I color it on the computer. If I time everything right, I have blocks of time in the afternoons to do other stuff and most of the day on Friday.

A lot of your work is not strictly autobiographical, but it seems to represent the emotional and physical place you're in at certain points in your life. You're not Len in Edge City any more than you're Danny from Unsupervised Existence, but there's certainly a lived-in quality to the setting and the emotion of the stories. Do you think that's a fair reading?

For the most part, yes. I think that's one of the things that makes the work interesting.

You seem to have gone into the strip with a clear idea of the kinds of stories you wanted to tell and how you wanted to tell them. It's not a gag strip, it's not centered around the kids doing wacky things. Was it an easy idea getting off the ground in terms of the syndicate and have people been supportive?

In terms of the syndicate it was very easy getting it off the ground -- Jay Kennedy told us he was syndicating it the week we sent it to him. We skipped the development period and, in fact, my submission, pretty much unchanged, became the sales package and actually ran as the first month!

In a lot of ways this was good -- the general deal is that the syndicate gives people a development period, which is nine months during which you do your strip for $4000, at the end of which they may or may not syndicate it, and we didn't have to go through that (and we got the $4000 anyway). The bad thing was the strip was really just a concept -- today's busy families. We didn't really know who the characters were, so the thing kind of lacked a strong center. It took years to define that; I still have trouble describing our strip in a sentence, which is what you should be able to do. But the syndicate, or really Jay Kennedy, may he rest in peace, has always been supportive, at least to the extent that they've always encouraged us in whatever we wanted to do. I never really had a conflict with them in the sense of them wanting me to change things or not liking something we did. Generally, once your comic strip has been around for a period of time, they stop paying much attention to you. For the last few years, we really haven't dealt with them that much at all.

Reading the book I think one of things that played to its strengths as a collection was the fact that it was a series of stories and not jokes and one-liners. Do you think that's just how you think and tell stories and how you've always told them, that you're a funny writer but it's not necessarily about jokes?

That pretty much sums it up, I guess, although I have gotten better over time at doing the one-shot gags. This is partly an issue of character definition -- the more sharply-defined your characters are, the easier it is to do gags with them. This is something I aspired to -- to me, comic strips work best with broadly-drawn characters who just kind of bounce off each other. Because of how quickly we got syndicated, we didn't start off with characters like that, so it was easier to work with a story arc, because the progression of the story tells you what each strip needs to be about. As the characters have gotten more defined, it's become easier to do gags with them. Actually, we meet a lot of people who only see the strip on Sundays, and since the Sundays are all one-shot gags, they experience our strip pretty much as a gag strip.

I was flipping through the book and it's easy to tell when some strips came out just because of the holidays, but is this a specific number of months or is it a selection of strips?

It's a selection, but it roughly corresponds to a year. Our Jewish stuff, in particular, is often set on holidays, so we put them in that order in the book.

You're probably one of the only people to have drawn political cartoons and minicomics, worked for Fantagraphics and DC, Dark Horse and Mad Magazine, you wrote The Dreaming and Grendel Tales, you've written for other people and worked on a daily strip - what was the most creatively satisfying experience of all those and why?

Doing my own comics, the ones I write and draw, is the most satisfying, but whether the strip is more satisfying than the comic books, I can't say. I'm one of those people who feel a constant and persistent drive to put stuff out. It's always great when a little vision that's been nagging at me actually does end up in print, but on the other hand, I've never been completely happy with anything, so I'd have to say that so far, true creative satisfaction has eluded me. But if I never had to do work for hire again, I probably wouldn't, although I've learned a lot by doing it.

The least?

The mainstream comic writing was pretty tough. I really didn't have an aptitude for it, really didn't understand the mainstream comic book aesthetic at all. It was like being a guy who was used to writing pop songs in the Brill Building trying to break into heavy metal.

So Edge City appears daily, your political cartoons are in In These Times every month, is there anything else on your plate?

In fact, I have a 170 page graphic novel my own in the works right now. I completed a rough manuscript at the beginning of March and sent it out and had a really top-notch literary agent within a week! She should be sending it to editors within the month -- one of the reasons it's taken so long to get back to you is that I've been working feverishly to complete the submission. I don't want to say much about it yet, although I can tell you it's not about cancer or surviving the Holocaust and I think it's not quite like anything anyone's ever seen before, particularly from me. I plan to post some of the completed pages on my website in the near future.

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