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Tom Beland Crafts True Spider-Man & True Life Stories

by  in Comic News Comment
Tom Beland Crafts True Spider-Man & True Life Stories
Spider-Man as drawn by Tom Beland (not preview art).

Comics creator Tom Beland is known for doing something most people don’t do in the American comics industry– writing romance comics. Against considerable odds (i.e. a comics market that’s generally not accepting of much outside of the big two), Beland’s “True Story Swear To God” is a self-publishing success story. The book tells stories from Beland’s own life as he meets the love of his life, Lily, and follows her from his home in Napa, California, to his new home in Puerto Rico. But it’s not all gooey sweetness or anything of that sort, rather a very human story told with honesty.

Next Wednesday sees the release of “True Story Swear to God” #14, which tells a much more serious story than is usually found in the series. In addition, Beland finds himself playing in the Marvel Comics sand box later this year in the form of a new Spider-Man story. We caught up with Beland to talk about both series and to get a preview of issue #14.

Starting with Spider-Man, Beland will be writing a story in an upcoming issue of “Spider-Man Unlimited.” “I was approached by [Marvel Editor] Tom Breevort about a year ago, while doing a signing in New York, about doing some writing involving Peter Parker and Mary Jane based on my writing on ‘True Story Swear To God,'” Beland told CBR News. “I think he liked the way I wrote dialogue for characters who were a couple. Anyways, I just couldn’t come up with anything solid for them, so I sort of put it on the back burner, while I worked on my own book.

“Then, one night, Lily was watching ‘Finding Neverland’ and the movie struck a chord with me and before I knew it, I was banging out this story for ‘Unlimited.’ I began working with Andy Schmidt, the editor on the series. He’s been great to work with and has really helped my writing.

Two versions of Tom & Lily.

“The story takes place when Peter was still teaching and it involves one of his students,” explained Beland. “This kid reminds Peter of himself in many ways. He’s a nerdy-sort of kid, with an intense love of science. To Peter, this kid is like looking into a mirror and seeing himself in his high school days. Tragedy hits this kid hard and Peter tries to find a way to help him stay focused on his future.”

Beland explained that the story shares many parallels to very tough events he experienced in high school. “I’d just buried my father in 9th grade, after he lost his battle with cancer. In my senior year, my mother was dying of cancer also and it was an absolute nightmare for me and my family,” explained Beland. “I had two teachers who were crucial for me graduating– my counselor Roger Ashlock and my art teacher Chuck Svendson. These two probably had no idea of their influence on me to not give up during that year. When my mother died before my graduation, the toughest part of leaving high school was leaving those two teachers. I still teach cartooning to Chuck’s art class whenever I go back to Napa.”

For Beland, working on a Spider-Man story is a dream come true. Books like “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Marvel Tales” and “Marvel Team-Up” were his place to escape as a child. “My mother brought a stack of comics home from the drug store she worked at one day when I was home sick from school with a cold,” said Beland. “I checked out the Archie, Gold Key and Disney books, but this Spider-Man character caught my eye instantly. He was someone I could relate to, being near my age group and a bit of an outsider and all.

“True Story Swear To God” #14

“Then, while I was losing dad, that connection became stronger,” continued Beland. “I can’t explain what that type of loss at that age is like for someone. When I pass a school and see other 9th graders, I can’t believe I was dealing with those things at that age. We were so young. So, for Peter Parker to have lost someone close to him at that age was a powerful thing to me. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne were adults or millionaires, I couldn’t relate to that. But Parker was living with a frail Aunt and barely making ends meet and, at this time, we were living on food stamps and had the same worries. I related to Peter’s rotten luck in life.

“So, to have an opportunity to give back to this character is an extremely emotional thing to me. It’s more than a book, it’s me saying thanks to Stan Lee, John Romita Sr., Gil Kane, Gerry Conway…all those people who made those books for me during that time in my life.

“Knowing this now, you can imagine how hard my jaw hit the ground when Breevort asked me to write a Spidey story. I went back to the hotel room and cried my eyes out,” admitted Beland. “Whether the readers embrace what I put out there is not the goal. Having the chance to do it, that was the gold ring to me.”

While Beland is both an artist and writer, he’s only writing the Spider-Man story with an artist to be announced soon. When asked why he wasn’t drawing the story, Beland admitted that he doesn’t feel his style works or fits in with a Marvel book. “I’m horrible at drawing buildings, cars and that sort of thing. It would have a very indie cartoony look to it. It might be interesting to create something so different, though.

“I will say that one of the unique things about this particular job is in seeing how someone else interprets my script,” said Beland. “I know how I would do this page or that page, but to see someone put their own spin on it is very exciting to me.”

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Working for one of the “big two,” as well as writing a script for another artist to interpret, has been both an illuminating and challenging experience for Beland. He said the first thing he learned in working with Marvel was to check his ego at the door. “You can’t walk into these offices thinking you’re going to change the face of Marvel or DC,” explained Beland. “This is an instance where you come in, ask what they need and do your best to give them what they’re looking for. It’s, to me at least, an honor to step onto their field and play.

“My main challenge is in the way I write. I work off storyboards, or rough sketches of my pages. So, to sit in front of a computer and write an actual script was the most difficult thing to try and accomplish. I was also afraid of giving too much information to the artist. (laughs) I could hear the artist complaining about not having any freedom to create while I writing.

“The most unexpected thing to happen was finding out that I could write scripts. And that I write a shitload of dialogue. ‘True Story Swear To God’ is pretty text-heavy, especially in the upcoming issue next week. I found myself working harder on what they say and laying off describing the scenery or what people were wearing, which is odd since I come from the artist’s side of the career.”

Moving on to next week’s “True Story Swear To God” #14, Beland notes the story is one of his most serious to date. “This issue deals with getting hit with that last straw,” said Beland. “Something happens to me, in the middle of trying to adjust to Puerto Rico, that makes me turn around and reach for the suitcase and head home. I think everyone who has ever left home has faced this moment. It’s a pretty emotional issue, as the other ones have been, but fortunately the next few issues are extremely light and stress-free. If you can get past this issue, you’ll love the next story arc.”

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In reading “True Story Swear To God” the reader discovers that Beland handles both the more serious and off-beat style stories with relative ease, but says writing about his own life can be the greatest challenge. “As far as the autobiographical stories go, to me, portraying myself as an asshole is tough to do. I mean, it’s easy to say ‘here’s the girl I met, isn’t she pretty and sweet?’ But you have to bring more to the table than that. The more you show of yourself, the more 3-dimensional you become to the reader. We’re not all perfect, we have our problems and moments where we’re not exactly proud of ourselves afterwards. When you show these sides of yourself, the readers are able to identify with you on a whole new level. And, at the same time, you can’t be a screaming asshole either. There has to be a balance, if that makes sense.

“True Story Swear To God” #14 features a guest cover artist this time around, something new for the series, but don’t expect to know this comics artist by name. “Jean-Paul is my 12-year old nephew and he’s been addicted to comics since I arrived here seven years ago,” said Beland. “He’d want photocopies of my cartoons and he’d trace them or color them in. Over the years, he’s been practicing his art and he’s just enamored with comic books. So, for his 12th birthday, I told him that if he was interested, he could do the cover for this issue. He freaked-out, like I did when Breevort offered me the Spidey gig, and it was very cool to see.

“He did 12 sketches, then we kept narrowing it down till we got the one we felt worked with the story. Then he drew it and used my colored pencils and I scanned it and TAHDAHHH. He’s a cover artist.

“I think he’ll be better at this than I am. I really do,” said Beland. “I’m able to tell him what to work on in school and what he should be expecting when he gets to high school, so he’s got a leg up on me at that age. He’s very into the whole thing.”

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Beland’s been hard at work on this self-publishing thing for a while and has learned a number of interesting lessons along the way. He says the key to success is making comics has to be a job and it has to be something you love doing. “When you come home from work, or school or whatever, that comic has to have its place in your life. You have to be able to sit down and work on it every day. No excuses. And you have to get the work out. And, for God’s sake, check your spelling. The best thing I do for myself is this: when I finish a book, I put it aside for a day, then look at it with the same amount of scrutiny that I give to the other comics every Wednesday.

“I’ll pretend I’m a customer and I have three bucks left over, after buying my ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘Daredevil,’ ‘Fantastic Four,’ ‘New Avengers,’ ‘Powers’ and ‘Conan. My competition is every book sitting on that shelf and if I have spelling errors, or there are pencil lines showing in my copied pages, or the story doesn’t make sense, I’m screwed. I’ll put Post-Its on every page that doesn’t work on my comic, for whatever reason. Then I work on fixing it. Then it goes to press.

“I’ve also learned to ask questions,” continued Beland. “No question is too stupid, if you seriously don’t know the answer and it involves your book. I’ve asked Kurt Busiek, Jeff Smith, Terry Moore, Mike Krunkle, Keith Knight, Jeff Nicholson, Gail Simone… everyone in the business, every question in the book. People in this biz are extremely approachable, as long as you make it quick and know what you want to ask.”

Before we let him go, Beland revealed an interesting story on how “True Story Swear To God” helped bring a couple together with a similar story to his own. “When you talk about people who become attached or close to you from a comic book, consider this. I got an email from a couple living in Las Vegas, Nevada. They met via an Internet dating site and began a courtship that spanned, guess how far– Las Vegas and Puerto Rico. Doug lived in Vegas, Kelly in Puerto Rico. So, a friend of his, who loves comics, told him to read ‘True Story Swear To God,’ telling Doug he was living the ‘True Story Swear To God’ story. He and Kelly kept reading the issues and related to the story so much that they’re getting married in Puerto Rico next week and Lily and I were invited to the wedding.

“That’s the power of comics. The part of comics most of America doesn’t realize. It’s more than BIFF, BAM, POW. There are actual stories that people can relate to and it’s a shame more people in this country don’t take a chance with them.”

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