Jim Ottaviani, T-Minus: The Race to the Moon

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

[Note: The following interview was conducted in July 2009.]

Since the 1997 release of his first graphic novel, Two-Fisted Science, writer, librarian, and one-time nuclear engineer Jim Ottaviani, has been telling compelling stories about the lives and work of scientists.  He’s written about everything from J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb (Fallout, 2001), to Hedy Lamarr’s invention of an early “frequency hopping” communication sytem (Dignifying Science, 2003), to  Harry Harlow’s investigations into the necessity of love (Wire Mothers, 2007).  Along the way, he’s worked with more than two dozen artists, including Donna Barr, Roberta Gregory, Roger Langridge, Steve Lieber, Dylan Meconis, Linda Medley, and many others.

His eighth and most recent book, T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon, relates the dual stories of the US and Soviet space programs through the late 1950s and 1960s, as they competed to be first to the lunar surface.  But true to form, Ottaviani’s telling of the story focuses less on the astronauts who made the journey than on the engineers and rocket scientists who made the journey possible.

[Danner] Did you do anything interesting to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission this past July?

[Ottaviani] I did a T-Minus signing at my local comic book shop! We showed Apollo footage, talked about space, I signed some books, and we had Tang on hand to quench our thirst and provide crucial vitamin C. So nobody got scurvy and we had a great time.

One scene that really struck me in T-Minus was the montage of the whole world preparing for the Apollo 11 launch—England considering a public notification system, the pope having a special color television installed.  The only recent events I can think of that had that kind of effect were either national disasters or celebrity deaths.  Am I being too cynical?  Or is it possible that, as a culture, we’ve lost our ability to appreciate extraordinary achievement?

I don’t think we’ve lost that ability. I wonder if one factor among the many that lead to the loss you’re talking about is that it’s more of an effect of us not all experiencing achievements and events the same way, or even at the same time. Your best friend learns about something new via Twitter and gets the full 140 character impact of that, someone else sees it on Fox News and gets their spin on it that evening, I read about it in the New York Times (online) a day later, you hear an extended piece on NPR that weekend via a podcast from the day it happened, etc. ad infinitum.

I won’t argue that more choices—both in terms of venue and in terms of the ability to experience something at a time and place that’s convenient for you—is a bad thing, because it’s not. But I don’t think big chunks of the world stop what they’re doing and all tune into the same, live, broadcast the way they used to. And that collective experience does change our appreciation of events.

Again, that’s just one thing that contributes to this.

Do you see any potential for space flight to ever again capture the world’s imagination the way it once did?

Well, two things about that. First, the world’s imagination was captured by Apollo, but it wasn’t held for long. If you’ve ever seen the movie Apollo 13, you’ll remember how their mission didn’t get much attention until things went wrong. Second, I think the answer is “yes.” Putting people on other worlds will do the trick. The thing is to not make it look like it’s just a trick or a stunt, but to get something out of it and make it part of an ongoing expedition to other worlds. There’s a lot out there to keep us enthralled and excited.

What about the burgeoning commercial space tourism industry that’s been taking its first steps over the past few years?  Do you see potential there, or is it too much of a stunt?

Imagine a long pause here, while I start to imagine a rosy scenario of me riding things that look like jetskis around the New and Improved International Space Station and Resort, and popping in for a quick sip of Tang and freeze-dried pizza when I’ve had enough of that…and then think about it harder and realize that if that sort of thing ever does happen it’s not going to be me on the SpaceSki™ and enjoying LunarDeepDishVeggieDelight®.

I don’t think it’s a stunt, or at least not any more so than climbing Everest has become. But that’s not a flattering analogy, since I don’t have a high opinion of what climbing Everest has become.

Providing an experience only to the wealthy—and that’s what space tourism will be for a long while after it becomes real—isn’t likely to excite, much less inspire, many people. Or at least not much further than to inspire people to say “I wish I was rich enough to do that, but if I was I would spend my money on X, Y, or Z instead.”

Though as an aside, and speaking for myself, space tourism would make my top five list of things to spend my fabulous and excess wealth on, once I had fabulous and excess wealth! I may need to reconsider my plan of achieving this by writing comic books…

Anyway, that’s more pessimistic than I’d like to be, and I do think the spin-offs of space tourism, such as making sub-orbital flights safe and routine, may have payoffs for the rest of us. But I doubt space tourism itself will inspire enough people to make it worthwhile for that reason alone.

I see your point, but don’t most technologies have a long history of serving wealthy early adopters until the development costs get paid off?  I could be mistaken, but my understanding of the history of commercial air flight is that it began by serving wealthy thrill-seekers, until it became economical to offer lower cost flights.  Is there reason to expect a different trajectory for the commercial space flight industry?

Good point. It’s true that commercial air flight’s transition from “full service with china place settings for wealthy travelers” to “no-service city bus in the sky” only took about 50 years. So maybe I’m just impatient.

The difference I see, though, is that commercial airlines always took you somewhere *else*, and not just up and down. So until there’s somewhere to go via commercial space flight, it’s not as much like a trip on a plane as it is like really expensive and very cool roller coaster ride. Again, I’d take that ride if I could!

I know T-Minus is the first book you’ve written with a younger audience specifically in mind, but do you have a sense of who your readers are in general?  Are your books being read primarily by adults or younger readers?

My best guess is that so far my readers are mostly adults. Maybe T-Minus will change that, but I don’t know.

Until the last two, my books have been on more adult topics, so that’s probably why. By “adult topics,” I don’t mean there are things in them that would get somebody in trouble with the school board or get something shelved in a special section of a library, but more that my first few books were unlikely to interest a 4th- or 5th-grader in reading about the Manhattan Project.

Everybody likes astronauts and dinosaurs, though, so my two most recent books seem to have appealed to the broadest group of readers yet. And you never know what works, for whom. I hear about Dignifying Science being used in sixth grade classes, and though I wouldn’t have predicted that, I think that’s great.

Do you find that your books sell primarily to individuals or more to schools and libraries?

I think [schools] are still discovering my books, and comics in general. I know some graphic novels are targeted specifically for a school market, but I tend not to see those…and I haven’t written any. Education is not the main goal of my books—I want them to entertain, first and foremost. I love it when people tell me they’ve learned something, and read one or more of the sources I referenced in the back of the book, of course, but whenever I have to choose between telling a better story or packing another useful fact/theory/idea/whatever into a book, story wins.

As for libraries, the most progressive were early adopters of comics, well before the general public started reading about Persepolisor manga or Watchmenin their local newspapers. But there are a lot of libraries out there, so I think comics are just beginning to reach their potential audience. The body of work that’s worth preserving and being read again and again has increased exponentially since I started writing comics. I hope I’m part of that!

In both T-Minus and Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards, you’ve acknowledged a degree of fictionalization in service to the story.  To what extent do you fictionalize events?  How do you decide when and how to fictionalize events?

The ideal is to fictionalize as little as possible. But any time you depict someone saying something that you don’t have an actual sound recording of him or her saying, you’ve already crossed the line. So you decide on the fly, or at least I do. I draw from documented sources whenever I can, and when I can’t I try to portray the truth of a story or a character, even in the absence of complete documentation.

Make that *especially* in its absence! And I know that stuff about truth sounds lofty. I don’t mean it to, since the goal is just to make a good story, but I can’t think of a better way to say it. And it’s in answering the question “What makes a good story?” that you decide when and how to tweak things: If an authentic quote was three paragraphs long and a bunch of it was an aside or not to the point, or if an interaction between characters happened over the course of two separate days and that’s not crucial to their relationship, I have no qualms about compressing things to keep the story moving.

Have there been instances when there was aninteresting scientific or historical fact that you found particularly fascinating, but had to leave out because it just didn’t fit with the direction of the story?

There have been too many to count over the years—or at least, too many to remember. But I actually have it documented for T-Minus, and there are 36 scenes or fragments of scenes that I’d have loved to get in there if not for space and narrative considerations.

One example: In the best of all worlds there’s a scene in the White House during the Apollo 11 trip where Nixon does a quick rehearsal of not one, but two prepared statements for July 20. There was one for success, of course, but there’s a gripping one they had on hand in case the landing ended in disaster, stranding or killing Aldrin and Armstrong. It’s one of those things you don’t consider now, since I think our natural tendency is to think “Apollo 11 succeeded, therefore it had to succeed.” But that’s not the way things work in real time.  [Nixon’s alternate speech]

I’m curious whether you ever hear from working scientists whose fields your books address.  How do they react to your work?

Occasionally, and the response has almost always been positive. The only negative reaction I remember getting was from three scientists who took offense with the cover of one of my books. In their impassioned letter they mentioned that they hadn’t read it, though, and that really surprised me for the obvious reason that their criticism was based on no…how shall we say, data. So I sent them an email in reply, asked for an address to send a copy to, and then sent one for them to read. But I never heard back. Otherwise, so far so good!

Just the cover?  What was their objection?

Yes, it was just the cover for Dignifying Science that caused the problem. And I don’t want to make such a big deal of it since this is the only blanket, negative reaction in over 10 years. That’s why it sticks in my memory. Readers have pointed out errors or things they think I could have done better, but that’s a different sort of response altogether, and one I’m grateful for—it means they’ve engaged with the books and are sharing their knowledge so I can improve.

Anyway, I don’t remember their exact words, but as I recall they didn’t like showing Hedy Lamarr in an evening gown, in her dressing room. The intent of the image—beautifully drawn by Ramona Fradon and beautifully colored by Linda Medley—was to surprise people by the juxtaposition, since she’s working with lab equipment in that setting. But these folks said the book was disrespectful as a result. I hope they changed their minds once they read the book.

As a writer who collaborates with a great many illustrators, do you find that the artists you work with are enthusiastic about the sciences as well?  Or can it be a challenge to find people interested in drawing about these subjects?

It’s no problem at all to find enthusiastic artists. Sometimes I can’t afford to pay them what they need to get to do the work, or they can’t fit the work into their schedule, but I’ve found very few that don’t want to do a book about scientists. Artists like good characters, and these people are good characters.

There’s selection bias going on here, of course: I only approach artists whose styles and sensibilities—based on the work of theirs that I’ve read—seem like a good fit for the stories I write. But there are plenty of those folks out there. I’m really lucky!

I’ve read that your next two books are on the topics of Richard Feynman and primatologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. Can you tell me any new details about those books yet?

We don’t have official titles for either of the books yet, and I only have a general release date for Feynman. It’s scheduled for Fall, 2010[Edit: the Feynman book has been pushed back to 2011 by the publisher.]. The primatologist book will probably come out in 2011. I think. Maybe. These things are up to First Second, really!

The artist on the Feynman book is Leland Myrick, and Maris Wicks is drawing the primatologists. I’ve seen the completed art by Leland and it looks fantastic. Maris has started sending penciled pages, and guess what? It is fantastic looking as well.

[Update, August 2010] I’ve completed the Turing script [The Imitation Game], it’s with the editor right now, and as far as I know we’re still on schedule for serialization through Tor.com. I’m happy with it, and having worked with him before, I know Leland Purvis (the artist) will do a great job.  I’m working on some other things right now, but they’re in the very early stages so I don’t have anything to say about them!

I imagine that writing about a single individual, as you have done in your Niels Bohr biography (Suspended in Language,2004) and the Feynman biography, would be a very different experience than writing about broader historical events such as in T-Minus or Fallout.  Do you approach the material differently, either in the writing or the research?

Neither are substantially different. Finding, or creating, the story may be a little harder when you have to choose among many points of view (a la T-Minus), but it isn’t easy even when you’re dealing with only one or two main characters. The research doesn’t differ at all. Read, find new trails, follow them, read more, find new trails, follow them, read more, and repeat until you can’t put off writing any longer or you’ll blow your deadline!

The life of Richard Feynman isn’t new territory for you; fully half the stories in Two-Fisted Science pertain to Feynman.  What drew you back?

What drew me back is what drew me in the first time around: Feynman the person and Feynman the character and Feynman the scientist and Feynman the self-made myth. He’s all of those things, and his life spanned such an important period of recent world history that he’s a fantastic character to explore. He was a very public personality, but he’s still not as well known as I think he should be. So just like the Bohr biography I did—Niels Bohr is my other physics hero—I hope this new book helps bring his story to new readers.

One aspect of Feynman’s career that you didn’t touch on in great detail in Two-Fisted Science was his role in the Challenger disaster investigations.  Now that you’ve completed a book entirely about space flight, can readers expect to see those events explored in your book on Feynman?

Yes, though one didn’t necessarily lead to the other. If you’re going to do a biography of Feynman you need to cover his work on the Challenger investigation, because it touches on so many important themes in his life.

Two-Fisted Science didn’t do this because it only showed small snippets of that life—it didn’t pretend to be complete. This book won’t be complete either, really, since there’s simply too much material out there, both published and unpublished. You should see my stack of reference materials! But the upcoming book will touch on all the major events in his life, especially his public life, and his work on the Challenger disaster was his last major adventure. The story about how he is persuaded to do it is fantastic on its own.

I have to confess, despite my own lay interest in several of the fields he worked in, I was completely unacquainted with Feynman until I encountered him in your books.  Considering how many of the 20th century’s major technological and scientific developments he was involved in—from the Manhattan Project, to the space program, to introducing the concept of nanotechnology—why is it that he’s not more widely known?

Quick, name ten living scientists! OK, it’s you, and you can probably do it. But I’ll bet you can name ten living comic book writers or artists *whose work you don’t like* more easily. Now, name one of the people who got the Nobel prize for inventing the transistor…you know, the thingees that make computers and cell phones and TVs and digital cameras and all that stuff work. Now tell me who taught “Defense Against the Dark Arts” in the 6th Harry Potter book, and who plays that character in the movie.

My point? I love comics, books, and movies too, and because I’m that kind of geek I can answer all of the above. Lots of readers here probably can too. But you get the idea: Even the most famous scientists don’t get the attention even minor media celebrities do.

I certainly see your point about relative celebrity, and I agree.  But given that scientists do occasionally achieve broader fame—Newton, Einstein, Hawking—why not Feynman?  Especially considering his personal eccentricities, artistic pursuits, exploits in amateur safecracking, and embrace of public life, on top of his achievements, he seems like a man born for science celebrity.  So what happened? Maybe that’s not a question it’s possible to answer, but it was running through my mind the whole time I was reading Two-Fisted Science.

I really don’t know. Maybe he needed a whole comic book about him.

More seriously, his books remain in print and are popular with a broad audience, so he’s not obscure. But his discoveries are harder to grasp than gravity, relativity, and black holes. Which I guess you could summarize as gravity, gravity, and gravity.

Quantum electrodynamics sounds neat, and it really and truly is. But it’s less easily grasped and visualized, and thus explained, than…well, gravity.

To your earlier point, honestly, I would be much harder pressed to create a list of living scientists than I would mid-20th century scientists!

True for me as well, but that’s the effect of time and more obvious revolutions. In our defense, I think we’re too close to know what the late 20th century means…

Bryant Paul Johnson, Teaching Baby Paranoia

First published in The Webcomics Examiner, March 2005

Bryant Paul Johnson’s Teaching Baby Paranoia has been on the web for over five years, first at Tragi-comix.com, then to ModernTales.com, where it has reliably updated every Friday for the past three years.

The series, which Johnson describes as “faux intellectualism,” presents quasi-historical short stories that seamlessly blend fact and fiction into a smart satire of history and society. Sometimes the stories are clearly more fiction than fact; other times, you only hope that’s the case. Through much of its run, each episode has been a standalone story, much like Carol Lay’s Story Minute. More recently Johnson has begun to experiment with larger, more sophisticated story structures.

A classic information junkie, Johnson is constantly reading, constantly researching, taking in history, politics, literature, and even cutting edge science in equal measure. He then pours it all back into his comics, to tell some of the smartest, most entertaining lies on the web.

First off, to confirm what I already know: Teaching Baby Paranoia updates every Friday on Modern Tales. You’ve also recently had stories appear in the True Porn anthology and SPX 2003. Any other publications I should know about?

Over the years, I’ve had various other comics in small anthologies. My work was in three or four issues of “Newbies Eclectica” a McGill University student publication, edited by Jordan Raphael (the co-author of Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book). In 1998, I had a two page comic in Chris Shadoian’s anthology called “Skin Eater Comics.” Between 1998 and 1999, I published three issues of a minicomic called “Mumbletypeg.” I wouldn’t call any of them indispensable. For the most part, the Teaching Baby Paranoia, as it appears on ModernTales is the only body of work with which I’m marginally satisfied.

TBP has changed considerably since it first began. Early strips had a more conventional gag structure, much more overt political themes, and a self-aware authorial proxy, all of which have more or less fallen by the wayside. It wasn’t until “Coriander Leaves” that you seemed to really grab hold of the idea of doing quasi-historical narratives. Was this a conscious shift in focus?

When I first set out to create a weekly comic, I didn’t want to tell one particular type of story; I didn’t want a strip that was dictated by a cast of recurring characters. My attention span is pretty short. I knew that I’d grow tired of the characters, and thus the strip.

I think the beginning of the strip was my gestation as a cartoonist. I clung to the themes of my college days: overt politicizing and overt cultural commentary. As I’ve matured as a cartoonist, I’ve focused on the things that interest me most (which, consistently, has been the intersection of history and folklore). Though I’m still interested in political and social commentary, I try to be more subtle about it.

I don’t think this change was so much a conscious effort to refocus the tone of the strip, so much as an evolving process of self-evaluation.

Where does the title “Teaching Baby Paranoia” come from?

The title, “teaching baby paranoia,” was the punchline to an unpublished, single-panel comic I wrote back in college (it had something to do with overzealous parents and a baby monitor). During my final year at McGill, I was the staff cartoonist for the weekly paper. After four or five weeks on the job, the editor told me I needed a name for my strip (titles have never been that important to me). I was flipping through old sketchbooks looking for a title and found the words: “teaching baby paranoia.” I liked that it had a completely non-descriptive quality; taken from the context of the image, it meant absolutely nothing.

Six or seven years ago, I began doing comic strips again, this time for a monthly magazine called VMag. For the first year, the editor was obliged to title my strips in the indicia, because, again, I never gave them titles. Once again, I dragged out the name “Teaching Baby Paranoia” (presumably, to cash in on the gigantic Canadian readership I had built up!).

The title really means nothing, it just has some sort of intangible quality that I like!

I’m intrigued that you say titles aren’t all that important to you, since you’ve actually titled every individual strip in TBP since some time in 2001. Why make that effort?

Two reasons, really. The first is rather mundane. I was never sure what the publishing schedule of the strip would be, having switched it several times over the course of its online history. Other than titling each strip, I didn’t have a convenient way of identifying an individual episode.

Talking about “that one strip where the guy goes crazy and builds a giant concrete fist, visible from space” became too awkward!

The other, and more important, reason is the illusion, or sometimes, the disillusion of continuity. By giving each strip its own title, I’m telling readers that this is a complete story unto itself. This, of course, works both ways; in the case of “Cell Division,” I gave each a unique title, leading people to discover the connections between episodes themselves.

In the case of my last “big” storyline, “Calabiyau” each episode has a unique title, but one that reflects its antecedents within the looping storyline.

“Calabiyau,” “Cell Division,” and “The Clockwork Marvel” were interesting departures in a number of ways. You’ve done multi-part stories before, but sporadically. Why the recent interest in longer work?

To be honest, it’s pretty much because, in each case, I came up with an idea that required a bit more room to work.

Generally, I like working in short form. I like leaving the reader with the impression that they’re getting just a glimpse of a larger history (in addition, I find that the most mundane of events becomes comically absurd when viewed through a tiny frame. Take for example, this past election: when you look at the big picture, it’s a pretty depressing affair [at least from the side staring down the barrel of this particular rifle]. But, zoom in on any particular moment, stripped of its place within the tapestry of American politics, and it’s pretty much two rich guys bickering over details of no concern to 99% of the population.)

In each of the longer stories, I had an idea for a concept that I wanted to try, beyond just a momentary look at the absurd.

For the first (Cell Division), I wanted to build a “secret” narrative that tied a number of seemingly unrelated stories together. I wanted to look at the number of historical coincidences that it took to create a present-day disaster. By keeping all of these plot elements relatively hidden, I hoped people would suddenly realize how the isolated things we do, tie together into a larger picture (which plays into my aside above, where I talk about the absurdity of zooming in on a particular event. Cell Division was my attempt to give a “macro” view of the types of stories I usually do).

The second (Calabiyau) was a narrative that I wanted to mirror a mathematic theory (string theory) that I thought applicable to history. String theory postulates the existence of numerous realities in parallel (a Calabi Yau manifold being an eleven dimensional geometric object). The story was dictated by some comically pretentious need to write an eleven part story to match each of the eleven dimensions! And to make it revolve around a textile manufacturer.

The third story (The Clockwork Marvel), was my attempt to do a relatively straight-forward story. Which didn’t exactly happen. As I worked on it, certain themes — that I thought important — led me to twist the narrative around and make it, by far, the most convoluted story I’ve ever done.

“Coriander Leaves,” “Calabiyau,” “Cell Division,” “The Clockwork Marvel.” Is there any significance to the fact that the titles of all your longer stories begin with the letter “C?”

Wow… that’s a really bizarre coincidence! Until you mentioned it, I had never noticed the connection! Maybe it’s my version of the “comedy ‘k’!”

How much advance planning goes into a story with complex narrative structures like these?

It really depends.

To motivate myself into doing a longer story, I usually come up with the metastructure first; something that makes me think in an exciting way. It’ll be something that I mull over in my head or in my sketchbooks for a few weeks, as I do my regular strips. Eventually, when I’ve either hammered out how I want the narrative to work, or get too impatient to keep “thinking” about it, I start with the actual plotting.

I try to plan out as much of the story, as possible, before I begin. I make notes to myself, and assemble the narrative as a series of index cards, or as a flow chart. From there, I actually start the writing and the drawing of the individual episodes. Because I tend to work pretty tight to the deadline, my overall story plan tends to be plot heavy, but detail light (Luc De Lyon travels to Marseilles. He catches a boat bound for Jerusalem. Boat sinks…). I flesh out the details as I write each episode and as I do the research.

Usually, I wander off topic a bit, as I chase down some theme that has become apparent in the details.

And sometimes, I drop certain elements of my metastructure, when I realize they’ve become too unwieldy, or drag the story away from where it is headed (If you look at the first dozen of strips from The Clockwork Marvel, there are allegorical attachments to the titles [all of the strips are named after celestial bodies, and thus characters from Greek and Roman legend]).

Come to think of it, I pretty much let the flow of the story dictate the end result.

Is planned “winging it” an answer?

For most cartoonists, “experimenting” usually means a drastic shift in art style. For you, it seems to mean a drastic shift in narrative structure, while the artwork remains fairly constant. What is it about these fractured narratives that sparks your interest?

I think fractured narratives more accurately depict reality.

Rather than thinking of stories as a sequence of points on a timeline, I tend to think of narratives as rays emanating from an event. You have an almost infinite number of moments that trigger the story on the page and, essentially, an infinite number of possible scenarios following.

In each of the longer stories I’ve done, I was trying to look at the causes and effects of certain actions. In those cases, the fractured narratives work pretty well; the reader can see the cause and effect without having to suffer through some arbitrary chronological progression (or in the case of psychological trauma, without a narrator explicitly identifying the root of a particular behavior).

That reminds me of another comment you made shortly after the conclusion of Calibiyau. You said: “It seemed to me that the mathematics of theoretical physics and the mathematics of history share a number of similarities.” Care to elaborate on that idea?

In the early part of the twentieth century, Einstein created the theories of General Relativity. They were a refined set of rules that showed how the universe fit together.

Einstein’s theories were based upon the observational physics of Isaac Newton. They largely dealt with the universe as seen through a telescope, or seen with the naked eye. Einstein’s theories started to bend some of the assumptions that we held dear (time as a constant, nothing moves faster than light) but didn’t break them. The universe made sense.

Once we developed sophisticated means of observation, physics turned its attention to the subatomic world. Though largely governed by the same forces of Newton’s and Einstein’s theories, there were things that physics could no longer explain: objects seeming to appear in two places at once; objects behaving as particles and waves; objects with a seemingly disproportionate amount (or a lack) of mass.

There was a discrepancy between the physics of the macroscopic (planets, black holes, apples) and the physics of the microscopic (electrons, photons, quarks).

In the late twentieth century, mathematicians and physicists working on refined versions of Einstein’s General Relativity came up with a theoretical model of the universe that unified the physics of the very large and the very small, called string theory (and later, superstring, bosonic superstring, symmetrical superstring, and now m-theory).

In this current model of thinking, the universe is an eleven (or ten, or twenty-six) dimensional object made up of harmonic “strings.” Our universe is four dimensions projected onto a two dimensional membrane floating in “‘branespace.” These membranes run in parallel, yet exert some degree of influence upon those around it.

Though this model is mathematically very sound, we can see no tangible proof of it. Yet. We need to sharpen our senses, and train ourselves to look in a new way.

So what does this multidimensional model have to do with history?

When we think of history, we tend to think of it as a tightly focused, and unbending sequence. History moves in only one direction, and irrevocably.

If we look at a regional history (say for example, the history of the city of Boston), we can see a timeline of events: 1620, Plymouth Plantation. 1641, Massachusetts Bay Company. 1776, War of Independence. 2004 Red Sox win World Series.

With a bit of due diligence, we can create a fairly accurate portrait of Boston. A history that makes sense.

But, to fully understand the true history of Boston, we need to look at a bigger picture. We need to look at a number of sequences, moving in parallel. We need to look at religious history (the conflict between Catholicism, the Church of England, and Puritanical Protestantism, and how that interacted with aboriginal religion); we need to look at economic history (the economic impetus for creating the Massachusetts Bay Company, tax laws in England); we need to look at military history (the military histories of England and France), cultural history (the ideas of manifest destiny, and pioneering) and so on.

Hundreds of events running in parallel –whole fields of study in their own membrane– exerting influences on the whole.

We can’t look at things in a strictly linear fashion. Events don’t always segue from one to the next. Things fester in the background, only to flare up decades later, and play a critical role in shaping history.

Plans are made looking into the future: England looked into its future, saw what damage a protracted guerilla war in the American Colonies could do to their balance of power with the French, and acquiesced to the Colonies’ demand for autonomy. Strictly speaking, the events of the past were influenced by events from their immediate (though hypothetical) future.

We have multiple dimensions of theoretical time affecting one dimension of perceived time.

It’s a matter of training ourselves to look in a new way.

When I started reading about m-theory, I saw a parallel (there’s that word again!) between how physicists were trying to reconcile microscopic and macroscopic observations and how I had been trying to reconcile microscopic and macroscopic history in my head.

And, of course, this isn’t new thinking. I know Joey Manley will be delighted to hear me talk about Jorge Luis Borges. Fifty years before the mathematical foundation of superstring theory was made, Borges wrote about a garden of forking paths; realities branching out from each choice we make in life.

M-theory is just a beautiful metaphor for a particular way of looking at our collective history!

Okay, let me see if I’m understanding this correctly—in the context of Calibiyau, the company meets the same end regardless of the decisions of Day and the board because of the confluence of seemingly unrelated external factors. The company wasn’t doomed by bad management, but by the wider web of events around it.


External factors (events that predated the point at which the three stories diverged [the death of August Day,] or were beyond the direct influence of the players involved) caused the death of the Calabiyau manufacturing plant.

Each of the three story-lines are drawn to similar (though not identical) conclusions by the gravity well of one particular entity (the never explicitly named W——). Through the footnotes, I tried to make it clear that W—— was in its position of power through a number of events that seem unrelated, out of context (environmental regulations, free-trade agreements, tax incentives…).

Again, I was trying to describe a more metaphysical look at history.

To be honest, I’m not terribly happy with how this story came out. I feel that by using such a loaded subject, the plot (the Moore Twine Company vs. W——) became more important than the story (the consequences of short term economic thinking).

I think I like the idea behind the story more than I like the story itself!

This theory would apply to Cell Division as well, correct? Where a series of interesting but seemingly unrelated and largely minor events culminate in a massive tragedy?

Again, correct.

Over the course of a couple hundred years, we trace physical and psychological trauma through a couple of families to an eventual boiling-point. And without any one clear cause of the disaster (the three potential triggers).

I think that by keeping the plot-at-large a secret, the emphasis is really on the theme.

Though this predated my interest in theoretical physics by a couple of months, this story is a more nuanced example of the history I was thinking about when I wrote Calabiyau.

Let’s turn to “The Clockwork Marvel,” the most recent, and I’d say most ambitious of your stories. In this piece, about a 13th century Christian heretic and Arabic astronomer, you bring the early development of the Heliocentric model of the solar system together with a surprisingly chatty Holy Prepuce [Note: that’s the foreskin of Jesus]. And then bridge the whole thing to an 18th century French Theologian obsessed with obscure history. With so many layers in this one, I have to ask: What was the seed that started you off?

It was really the culmination of a couple of things, the first of which was, obviously, an interest in world politics. In the process of trying to learn a bit more about the history of our conflicts in the Middle East, I read a few books on Arab history and the Crusades.

The second was the realization that this civilization that we westerners sometimes think of as “barbaric” was really the savior of most classical scholarship.

With the dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the rise of the Catholic Church, many of the seminal works of classical thought (Aristotle, Ptolemy, Pythagoras) were considered heretical by the church. They were either hidden away in boxes, never to be seen again (or at least until the Renaissance), or destroyed.

The Arabic speaking people (which included the non Arab Persians) had an immense interest in Greek and Roman scientific philosophy. It was really only through their direct intervention that so much of our knowledge of Greek learning survives.

So, I started reading a bit about the history of Arab science…

One of the strips in The Clockwork Marvel was a “secret” episode that depicts a conversation between me and a hermeneutist named Baran Juteland. That conversation pretty much sums up my reasons for doing this story (though, in the strip I imply that it is non-fiction, when in fact, it is almost completely fictional)!

Ah, so you admit that it’s fiction! Not that this comes as a surprise, of course, but in your forums, you tend to maintain the illusion that your stories are true, even when they clearly aren’t, going so far as to debate the details and motives of imaginary events and entities. This is further enhanced by the footnotes that accompany each strip, which even include an “editor” who sometimes corrects and pokes fun at the author. It seems like you intentionally avoid drawing the line between fiction and non-fiction.

Once you have the talking foreskin of Christ as a major character, I think it’s safe to admit that you’re writing fiction!

One of the reasons I like playing around with the line between fiction and non-fiction is that it changes the role of the reader.

When you read a work of fiction, you play a more passive role in the flow of the narrative. You let the author build and establish the rules of the world (that’s not to say that all fiction needs to establish new ground rules; the vast majority of fiction operates within a logic consistent with “the real world”), and how their narrative functions therein.

When you read non-fiction, the reader is charged with placing the story within the context of history, as they understand it. The reader is asked to make connections between what they see on the page, and their culture.

In my shorter comics, this works to my advantage. I don’t have the space on the page to establish exactly how the world works, and how the characters will play off of it. By using the framework of non-fiction, I can assume that the reader will understand enough of the history and culture referenced, for the strip to function.

For longer works, I’m willing to push the boundary between fiction and non-fiction a bit more. I have more room to establish an internal logic that facilitates more of the fantastic, while still using the resonating frequencies of history and culture.

By constantly straddling that line, ventures into the purely fictional have more emotional resonance. If the reader comes to expect a certain logic (religious artifacts don’t talk, for example), breaking this logic makes the reader question the validity of this trespass, and the role it plays in the narrative.

At least, hopefully…

It was interesting to see your authorial proxy make an appearance after such a long absence — and in the middle of a major story no less. What brought you back to this device?

While writing The Clockwork Marvel, I did a bit of reading about “hermeneutics:” the study of meaning behind words (a recurring theme in The Clockwork Marvel). Generally, it was applied to the study of the bible, though in the case of Janus Joseph, the study of Lucius Francus’ astronomical texts.

When I was scripting “Titania,” the strip paired with the “secret” episode, I was trying to figure out why the story had veered drastically from my original plan. In my original outline, Luc De Lyon was the focus of the story; Janus Joseph was merely a framing device. Somewhere along the way, I changed the story without really knowing why.

The “secret” strip was a hermeneutic look at my own work. I have largely abandoned using my proxy in Teaching Baby Paranoia because the focus of the strip has changed. Here it seemed appropriate (and divorced from the narrative).

In The Clockwork Marvel, you overtly raise a number of issues about our understanding of history. You point out that much of what we know of ancient history comes from records that were made centuries after the events documented (highlighting the questionable veracity of your own tale in the process). And, of course, there are simply many areas of history where nothing is recorded at all. Much of your work, this story being no exception, seems aimed at filling those holes in history. Where does this interest come from?

I was a Classics major in college. My forté in Classics was history, not surprisingly.

The history of the ancient world is spotty at best. Every piece of knowledge gained is the product of near-endless debate, generally between the historians, and the archaeologists.

A couple of years before I started at McGill, a major rift developed between the historians in the department, and the archaeologists (over research on the Greek province of Boiotia, for those keeping score). By the time I entered the program, the two most senior professors no longer spoke to each other, and wouldn’t even conduct classes in the same building (the department dissolved by the time I left).

From the beginning of my education in Classics, the divide between the literary (history) and the scientific (archaeology) was both philosophical and literal.

On some level, this fundamental split in the study of history has stuck with me. I have a hard time reading history without looking for some sort of corroborating evidence, from either a literary or scientific perspective.

Every historical narrative will have holes; short of omniscience, there’s no way to fully understand every event, and every angle. What makes the study of history so appealing is to work through these holes, and to try to find solutions that work from different perspectives.

(And of course, if you’re creating your own “historical” narrative, it’s also quite entertaining to challenge the assumptions that historians and archaeologists hold as canon!)

Since the end of The Clockwork Marvel, you’ve returned to doing short form pieces again. Do you find it challenging to go straight from something as expansive as The Clockwork Marvel right back into doing single page micro-fictions?

In some ways, it’s a bit of a relief. As you may have gathered, I have a million different interests. When I’m working on a longer story, all of these little interests haunt me in my sleep, begging to be made into a comic. When I do shorter stories, I can let my mind roam free, without fear of ruining six months’ worth of work!

Plus it gives me a convenient forum for future research!

Your last attempt to set aside long form work and return to short pieces (right after Calibiyau) turned out to be pretty short lived, before you got caught up in The Clockwork Marvel. Should readers expect to see another long form story in the near future?

I’m working on one now! My plan for this next story is to alleviate some of the pain of serializing, by releasing it in chapters. I plan on doing short stories for a while, as I work on a longer piece in the background. Eventually, when I’ve completed a chapter’s worth of material, I’ll release it all at once, and repeat the process.

Though it means doubling the amount of work I do on a weekly basis, I think it’ll smooth out some of the limitations of serializing.

Generally, serialized works suffer from one of two things: an arbitrary break between each installment that makes the individual episodes a fragment (one that relies upon the reader to keep re-reading the material, or to remember the important details), or a choppy narrative that pulls the reader along with an obvious mechanical trick (by devoting part of every comic to recapping the previous material).

We’ll see how that works out, I suppose…

Amber “Glych” Greenlee, No Stereotypes

First published in The Webcomics Examiner, November 2004

Amber “Glych” Greenlee is a busy, busy woman. After spending four formative years developing her flagship title “No Stereotypes” on Keenspace, she relaunched the title as part of Modern Tales, followed not long after by a the launch of NonPersons on Graphic Smash, as well as the eclectic Glych’s Experiment as part of the Drunk Duck collective. Her most recent addition is Red Dahlia, a collaboration with John Daiker that was featured in the latest Drunk Duck print anthology, Drunk Duck: Drunk and Disorderly. With three ongoing webcomics, and an anthologized print series, it’s a wonder she was able to find time for this interview.

My understanding is that the current versions of both No Stereotypes and NonPersons are complete restarts of stories you were previously running on Keenspace. Is this accurate?

Greenlee: Kind of… I consider the two original versions of No Stereotypes to be the “beta” versions. I actually had a false start prior to the one on Keenspace hosted at homestead (a free site) but it didn’t…click. I consider something a false start if it doesn’t exceed five pages, and the original v1.0 only had three comics. I then started up No Stereotypes on Keenspace with the beta v2.0 of which exceeded over 250 individual comics. NonPersons has had two false starts on Keenspace, v1.0 with only four comics and a chapter heading, and v2.0 had only two pages with a chapter heading. But the v2.0 pages of NonPersons will actually be used in the current version of the strip as soon as I get to that part of the story. I restarted the story from another point due to decisions made by T. Campbell and myself in a conversation at SDCC ’03 where I was telling him the basic plot and he was shopping for strips for Graphic Smash. We both agreed that starting at the “beginning” of a series of events sometimes isn’t the best place.

250 pages is a long way to go to then decide to turn around and go back to the beginning! Are these “beta versions” a normal part of your creative process? What motivates you to go back to the beginning of something you’ve already been working on for so long?

Greenlee: Yes it’s true, 250 comics is a lot to finish, but it’s also true that for every good drawing an artist does he had to go through about 1000 bad ones. So I kind of consider that all that work I did was getting as many bad drawings out of me as possible at that time.

I don’t think there are any concrete reasons why I’ve done betas of my comics aside from lack of experience and immaturity. When I originally started No Stereotypes (v1.0) I was only 15. When I started the beta (v2.0) I was 16. I didn’t start the current version until I was 20. I admit 20 is still young, but not as young as 16. In the four years between 16 and 20 my writing has matured a lot. It’s grown and changed. It’s stronger and more rounded…More structured without being stiff and more spontaneous without losing focus.

I decided to restart NS because originally I realized that if I wanted to make comic books I should practice my drawing everyday. I decided to set a daily deadline for myself to accomplish this goal. I went to the SDCC ’01 and stopped by the Plan Nine Publishing booth for a long time talking with Pete Abrams (stole practically his whole Sunday) who handed me a Keenspot flyer saying “well if you want to do comics, you can start here.

I joined Keenspace because it was a free place to upload my comic and they had an auto updating system that Darren “Gav” Bleuel created. My coding was pretty weak so I needed all the help I could get. It was okay back then when there were only about 1000 of us on the Keen server, not counting the ‘Spotters. It was pretty small.

I didn’t really have any ideas for a comic beyond designs for these quirky little characters, so I decided to use them and see what came out. I didn’t write anything for my comic for about the first year. It was purely out of my head. Even though I knew the direction I was going into I didn’t have a map…so I drifted a lot on Tangents…Which only weakened this pretty interesting story that was emerging under the strained amateurish art style. I mean, looking back at this old stuff, I find the occasional diamond in the rough, but the majority of it — if I saw it on the ‘net now — I wouldn’t bat an eye at. When my writing grew so much in such a small period of time and these quirky little characters I had invented to help me with my anatomy started to mean something to me emotionally, I felt like it was an injustice to their creation to have this badly drawn history.

I guess I got the idea to repackage the strip from Steve Troop (www.melonpool.com) who has restarted his comic multiple times since he was five. I guess I thought: “Well, if he can do it, so can I.”

How did your readers respond to the announcement that instead of going forward with the story you would be going back to start the “official” version?

The only kind of [reaction] I’ve gotten from it was disappointment. A lot of people miss the old archives which I didn’t remove from the ‘net to get rid of evidence of the old strip or anything, but instead because I was picked up by Modern Tales and I didn’t want to be in breach of contract to have a pre-existing version of the comic available for free on another server (Keen). I know, it’s not exactly as exciting as if I had burned my originals in a heat of rage or anything, but it’s the truth. My evil villainish plot after the story is over with is to release the previous versions on a disk available with a printed book of the MT No Stereotypes. As it stands, I’m working on the coding now for the crossover comics for The Great Framed Escape and my exclusive crossover with Framed!!!  for free up on my site. I just haven’t gotten around to finishing said code yet.

Do you ever worry about falling into the trap of endlessly revising the same work? Or, more to the point – how do you know when it’s time to stop revising and let the work stand?

Greenlee: When I was younger I would have quickly fallen into the trap you mention, but since then I’ve learned that there comes a point when you just have to let it go. This time around the story will finish because I no longer cringe at the archives. And because I no longer rush the comics so there’s no reason for me to cringe. I’ve learned that a half-assed job takes twice as long. So rather than quickly try to get a half-thought idea out into the world I’ve learned to back off and finish it first before pencil is ever put to paper for the first strip. To give you an idea, I’ve been working on an idea called Cronoshift for over two years now, which very little is known about outside of my own head. I’ve been doing intense research on the project including reading into possible time travel according to chaos math and physics.

Why? Because I want to get the science as correct as possible. I’m doing all of this research prior to ever fleshing out the story (of which a vague one is floating around my head). I’ve been writing the story ideas, the research notes, and the snippets of conversation down into a collection of “idea books” I’ve compiled on this particular story. An “idea book” is one of those journals you can buy at any bookstore just filled to the brim with sketches and handwritten notes on whatever subject comes to mind. I usually have about three running at a time, not counting the sketchbook which I tend to keep filled with anatomical and perspective studies. I rarely write in my sketchbook outside of the date. For the first run of No Stereotypes I had only about six pages in one of my idea books. For the second, I’ve so far filled about three idea books. For NonPersons I’m ready to finish up my fifth, and for Cronoshift I’m pushing seven full idea books. I won’t even begin to toy with the idea of starting it until well after No Stereotypes is finished because I want this one done right.

I recall there was a pretty major revelation about Atom’s distant past not long before No Stereotypes got picked up by Modern Tales. I imagine a lot of your longtime readers are eager to get back to that point. So—will we get back to that point, or is the story taking you in a different direction this time around?

The original story I had in mind, the one I tangented from throughout the majority of the beta’s run, I was starting to get back to prior to ending it. We’ll get back there eventually. I hope by the end of the year. I actually have the story completely written out this time (and let me tell you, it’s better and easier to fight through writer’s block and antagonize over your notes over the course of about 2-3 weeks of writing the story than it is to fight through random intervals of writer’s block over the course of months-years of doing each individual comic. You never know where you’re going. It’s like vaguely knowing which way is north, but without a map to guide you there. I highly recommend to anyone and everyone to write out your story first.) which makes things easier. I am taking slightly different directions in things, but not out of any need to change my original idea, but because while reading through the old archives of the beta, (while I was rewriting it for the current version) I realized I had false justifications for some of the character’s actions and a Swiss cheese amount of plot holes.

So the whole chapter of Jody possessed by Raven is to justify why Kat feels threatened by her and to introduce plot elements sooner than they were in the beta version. The whole three chapters I just finished with (with Spons talking to Kat and Jody discovering Atom’s immortality and dealing with it) justifies both Atom’s affinity for Jody and introduces a menacing part of Spons’ character that never had the chance to blossom in the ol’ beta version. I also decided to drop the character Alice from this current version (a character I never liked in the first place. Also a character which made the female/male ratio lopsided in the strip.) and introduce Raven instead as the middle-man between the two major sides of the conflict at the heart of the strip; Atom and Spontaneous.

Before Alice waffled with herself on the issue of what to do about Atom. If it was alright to throw him to the dogs if he wasn’t really hurting anyone. She also had a crush on him, which he provoked. I didn’t like this at the time or now because it split this guy between 3 women in the strip (Kat, Jody, and then Alice) romantically, which always kind of bothered me. If Atom were waiting to see his wife again, why would he be laying down with these other women? Now Raven is a more objective go-between, there’s stronger justification for Atom and the go-between himself; Raven. Now, Raven and Atom both get something out of their arrangement whereas before, Alice only acted out of her crush on Atom (a weak explanation) and Atom only out of his want to mess with people (also a weak explanation). This time around, though the order is a bit different, the story is closer to the heart of what I wanted originally.

Something I’ve enjoyed about your artwork is how you give each of your major projects a very different look—loose and cartoony for No Stereotypes, noir-ish realism for Red Dahlia, and a sort of hybrid sketchy-noir for NonPersons. How do you choose the particular look a story should have?

Greenlee: I think the writing dictates what the art should look like. I think that’s true for comics in general, print or web. A dark story needs a dark art style, a comical one seems funnier to me when it’s in more of a simplistic form. I could go heavily into detail on the effects of line on the psyche…Scott McCloud does a much better job of overviewing it in Understanding Comics than I ever could… (Chapter Five: “Living in Line,” page 118).

I try to suit the artwork to the story already written. I always write the story first before I start any project. Which is good, because then I can see what I planned on doing with the story, story-wise, drama-wise, setting, and characters. If I have a dark, compelling, suspenseful story set in a lot of midnight locations, like the docks in fog and lonely subway stations, I’m not going to have dancing trees and sunshine like Toon Town at the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit — it just…wouldn’t fit. But I also don’t want to copy someone else. I can emulate almost any style I set my mind to, so rather than emulate- I manipulate. I study all artwork to see what’s working and what’s not. I try to train my self-why on both accounts. These comics are long drawn out and precious experiments to me of my training to myself. They’re my art school.

No Stereotypes is an experiment in character, pacing, timing, and subtlety. It’s not important to the story to see every eyelash and have a harsh realism with the story; that’s not what the story is about. I chose a simplistic “cute” style because I wanted these guys to be likable and layered. I wanted them to be identifiable. If I did something like shrink their eyes, then they would appear distant to the reader. That’s why Atom has these dinky little beady eyes — you’re not supposed to know what he’s thinking. Where as Jody lives with her heart firmly worn on her sleeve.

NonPersons is an experiment about character interaction, foreshadowing, and visual shorthand. For the character interaction I realized with NS that though the characters were unique and quickly identifiable, I never really had them communicating through body language…they were always islands unto themselves as characters, individually posed because I was still learning while drawing them. Now I’m expanding my interaction of base lines in my drawings (the flow lines referred to in a million anatomy books.)

Think of it this way — If someone is leaning over a counter pulling on a guy’s sleeve, the first person’s body weight will pull on the guy’s shirt making the shirt pull harder on guy’s neck changing his position and lines of force or flow lines. Also, the person over the counter will be pulled up slightly, changing theirs too. People interact with people daily and I’m trying to train myself how to make it look “right.” I’m also trying to train myself how to make it move right.

Foreshadowing allows someone to expect the next scene. With NS I never really did that. In fact, I hear from a lot of people that they never know quite where I’m going with it…so I decided to try going the other way and try and clue people into what might happen next. If I lay out multiple “mights,” hopefully it’ll make it suspenseful. It’s still an experiment…

As for visual shorthand — my plan for NP is to have each NonPersons tell their story. Each person has different lives and experiences. Each see things differently. I want to show this through different styles for each story. I want to carry these styles into the story by having each character drawn in their own style. I plan on creating a kind of “visual shorthand” so that if I choose to have 12 NonPersons in a crowd of thousands the reader should be able to pick them out at a glance. I didn’t want to do this through bright colors or costumes or glowing powers…I wanted a powerful person to be able to wear street clothes yet still be unique from the world around them without elaboration.

The Experiment’s goal changes daily.

I’ve heard some artists argue the merit of developing a “signature style” as a way of branding their work. You seem to have gone in the opposite direction, even though you could easily develop a signature of your own. (The No Stereotypes style is particularly identifiable as uniquely yours.) Was this an intentional decision?

Greenlee: Intentional is another word for planned.

Yes, it was. I don’t want to copy or become a clone of another person. I’d rather go in my own directions. I study others’ work all the time though. I take hours looking at comics, paintings, sculpture, and architecture. I try to learn from the world around me. I sketch all the time and a sketchbook’s always with me. I’ve drifted into many different styles over time, in my sketchbooks in particular. Sometimes I like what comes out other times I’ll never go there again. But how do I know where I’m going if I don’t know where I’ve been? The way I look at it, I’m not to the “signature style” phase yet. When I get “there” I want to be able to look out from that plateau at the great valley of my journey there and know that I had trekked as much as I could. Every artist finds their style and every writer finds their voice. The funny thing about a comic book artist is that both of those (the style and the voice) are competing for attention. I think it delays our development as both an artist or a writer. But I also think it might be worth it in the end once I’ve found that “signature style” I like and feel comfortable with.

You’ve mentioned plans put NonPersons on hiatus, with the intent of finding an artist to collaborate with. Why the decision to bring in a separate artist?

I put NP on hiatus because it was the straw that was breaking the camel’s back as it were… I was being pulled into too many directions and something had to give, so that something was NP. I love the story, it’s something that needs to be told…so the decision to put it on hiatus was a painful one, but one that had to be made. I have it written all the way up to Chapter Eight (though only the first chapter is completed and three pages of the second) so it’s not like I don’t have a story to be written. When I decided that it might be best to go the Sheanon Garrity route (i.e. draw only one strip and write many) and get another artist to get the story out. What makes it difficult is I want to keep the art “consistent” throughout the story for each character. I.e. each character is drawn in a different style as a kind of visual shorthand. So they don’t have to wear bright colors or tights to be immediately spotted as “special” like in super-hero books. I want to have an artist who understands this particular vision of mine and who can do many styles…which makes finding one difficult…

Have you worked collaboratively before?

Greenlee: I have, but not much. John Daiker and I worked together on Red Dahlia for the second Drunk Duck books. How that worked was he and I had already both agreed to work on the book separately. I was terribly unprepared. I had about the first seven pages plotted out on thumbnails and a character sketch. For someone who works diligently on their stories prior to putting pencil to paper, this was practically a death sentence to me creatively. I hit a brick writers’ block hard. So John and I, talking back and forth after meeting on the Drunk Duck message boards, started talking about my story. He first started helping me with my writer’s block until it blossomed and bloomed into the character that she is today. Over the month of writing, there was no clear distinction of where my writing ended and his began for the story, and no distinction for her origins or back-story. She became ours together hence why he’s the co-creator of good ol’ Red. We’re currently working on a comedy installment of “Chibi Red Dahlia” for the third Drunk Duck Anthology (title’s still pending on the book but it might be called Drunk With Laughter).

<strong)When you say you always write the whole story first – I suspect you’re in a small minority, at least among individual writer/artists. Do you write full scripts?

Kind of…I write out all of the dialogue with vague descriptions of what’s going on physically. As in, I’ll write out a conversation, but leave the linking panels up to the artist, who’s me. That way it cuts down on my brainstorming time so I can get to the heart of the writing when I’m writing, without having to worry about the looks on the characters faces or what their body language looks like. The words tell me all of that when I pick up the script to draw it. THEN I figure out what kind of mood the characters are in and what’s going on around them. I work from page to page to page, one at a time, but always referring to my finished pages to keep consistency.

I have written out full pages for other artists, where I’ve gone into intricate detail of background and the like and have gotten something back completely different than what I envisioned. It’s not really a bad thing, in that even though the art may not be what I expected it usually takes the story to a different level that can only be achieved by another artist but myself. Writing only goes so far in comics. I’ve learned to cut back a lot on my description to free up the actual craft. And working both as a writer and an artist at two different points in the development of a story I have to learn to keep those two poles of creativity happy by giving both room to grow and work. The writer in me tries not to stifle the artist in me whereas the artist in me tries to remain true to the writer. It’s an interesting back and forth which I feel humbled to be in the middle of.

Do you think it shows when a creator has done the writing first, as opposed to working more holistically?

Greenlee: Sometimes a writer is very, very talented without ever “writing a word” prior to creating a comic. Sometimes they aren’t. I’ve read some amazing spontaneous and funny stuff that was improved off the cuff and other times I’ve been moved by a 24 hour comic or a panel-jam. Sometimes these “unwritten” forms of comics have a unique and precious spirit to them which you can’t write out, you can’t plan- a caught moment of an idea which would have easily been missed if someone hadn’t put it down at that moment. I don’t know, maybe it’s the muses at work. (shrugs)

What I do know, though, is that these moments are few and far between. If someone wants to continue capturing those moments, carry a sketchbook with you and jot them down quickly before they’re gone. You may not use any of them, you may use all of them — but it’s true for any kind of creative expression; You have to go through a thousand bad drawings/photos/words/ceramic bowls/etc. before you make a good one. I think it does show in someone’s work over time whether they do their homework or not. Anyone can be a one hit wonder, but it’s consistency and steady creation that makes a true artist or writer. I think it’s the difference between determination and a fling.

Glych’s Experiment seems to be part journal comic, part sketchbook, and part confessional. How does this fit into your larger artistic process?

Greenlee: Um…okay! We’ll go with that. The Experiment is what it is — a random collection of whatever comes out that day. Sometimes I put intricate work into it (like the “Search for Inspiration” storyline) sometimes it’s right out of my sketchbook (like the pirate glych). It’s part of my artistic growth because I can fail openly and completely in the Experiment, and it’s okay — I won’t get ostracized for doing so. But I can also succeed. I can stretch out to the stars of the comic medium and reach them — surpass them sometimes…I can let it go and see what comes out. Sometimes it’s inspiring, sometimes scary, but mostly it’s from me somewhere. It allows me to explore parts of my creative self without the limitations of a set story or characters.

What makes this something you want to share with your readers?

Greenlee: I think the reason why I like sharing these little insanities with the world is that it’s something I would read if I found it online. And if I like it, there’s got to be at least one other person in the world who likes it…so I guess I’m putting it on the web for them, wherever they are in the world.

One of your recent Glych’s Experiment strips addressed, among other things, the fact that you suffer from severe tendinitis. Has this affected your approach to your artwork?

Greenlee: It has affected my artwork. I’ve always written very tightly and drawn very tightly. I can do incredibly detailed work when I want to, but I’ve learned to loosen up in my styles. To let it flow out without trying to keep pushing it towards what I see in my head. I’ve since realized through letting my work loosen that what’s on paper is never going to be quite what I see in my head. But it can be close. I’ve cut down substantially on my backgrounds, which I miss sometimes, but I’ve since realized that — though missed — they aren’t absolutely fundamental to the understanding and flow of the story, which far outweighs the backgrounds in importance. I’ve learned and taught myself to draw more with my arm and less with my hand (a skill I picked up by practicing life drawing and painting). I also have been working a lot with my Wacom Tablet, working digitally, which allows me to get tight again while still remaining lose with my hands. All of Red Dahlia was done digitally.

And, unlike some artists, I realize that programs like Illustrator and Photoshop and technology like Wacom Tablets and Smart Boards are only better tools and not means within themselves.

I take it you find some artists’ preference for new technology overzealous?

Not at all! A tool’s a tool’s a tool, no matter what form it’s in. Just because Van Gogh decided to paint with a palette knife doesn’t mean that the brush was obsolete, it just depends on what the artist prefers to do.

What I do dislike though is when an artist who prefers to work in traditional media immediately discounts work done in a digital one as “not true art” simply because it’s digital- I find this rather elitist and closed minded. The same applies to people who work in digital media and close off themselves from working in traditional because they feel it’s old fashioned, dumb, or not worth their time. Coming from a colorist, yes- it’s a LOT easier to create dynamic, realistic color using layers and channels in Photoshop than it is to paint on canvas and retain the same effect simply because Photoshop reacts in the same way natural light does if you choose to multiply or screen on top of your base color- but it’s in the understanding of WHY Photoshop works that way that creates a true masterpiece in color. Understanding that can only be achieved through traditional observation of the real world and, I believe, through traditional methods.

People think they’re seeing one color in nature when they’re really seeing another. It works off of a visual shorthand of the world around us. We know that a tree has green leaves and a brown truck, but it’s in the degrees of the greens and browns which create realism, added with the effects of light and reflected light on those browns and greens. If I’m painting the tree at sunrise, then the shimmer on the tops leaves is created by soft light pink highlights and the shadows by a deep rich brown with a thick red base. This is because the air is stiller than at sunset, and there’s less filtering through “stuff” in the air like dust, water particles, smog, and clouds. The color is more pure because the light from the sun itself is more pure. This purity is seen as the shadows, which remain brown on the truck, and slightly brownish-green on the leaves, due to reflected light on the underside of the leaves. However the light shining through the leaves will be a brilliant green due to the fact that the matter of the leave itself filters all colors out of that light but green.

All of this changes if I were to paint the same tree at sunset. There’s more “stuff” in the air which created a redder, more muted tonality in the colors. The shadows on the truck and the bottoms of the leaves will be more purple due to reflected light on the tree from sources behind it. The shimmer is less of a pink and more of a yellow-orange, and the light shining through the leaves themselves aren’t a brilliant green, but instead a yellow-green due to the air’s thickness with “stuff” filtering the light, making the light itself less pure…and much more dirty.

I realize I went on a bit of a tangent there, but I feel it’s important to note that there’s more to art than what you see. Now Photoshop makes coloring comic books really easy because I can start out a picture with a flat base of colors and then add any color I want on top of it with a layer of either screen or multiple (depending on if I want shadows or highlights) and the colors mix for me. I don’t have to mix them. As long as I keep my shadow and highlight colors consistent with the light and backlight, it looks “right.” However, one learns how to tweak these colors towards a much stronger end product through practice, and practice alone in, I believe, traditional media. Because painting in acrylic or watercolor or working in pastels IS much harder with no “undo”s, one must learn HOW color behaves and works in order to be able to create great art. One has to think harder…realize how colors affect each other and interact. How they change each other. What other factors are involved besides directionality and strength of the light, because there are always multiple variables when it comes to art…Digital art is so fast and easy to make that I feel there’s a rush of people who think they can just take a shortcut through it to become great artists. I’m sorry, but there are no shortcuts to becoming something great — I was always taught that a half-assed job takes twice as long. If someone automatically discounts something old or something new in art simply because they don’t understand it they limit themselves to a narrow mindset, and limit the work they create. It’s like trying to bake a cake based off of its taste. There’s more to it than the end product.

Do you ever second-guess your chosen career path, in light of the personal physical cost?

Greenlee: All the time. I think that if you don’t question yourself and your decisions, you become stagnant in opinions, thoughts, and ideas. I think doubt is part of being an artist. Always curious, always questioning…It allows you to look at the world differently if you question it. I say, question authority, question math, question life in general and yourself. By wondering if the right choice was made or not it forces a person to try to see their decisions from multiple angles and poke for holes in one’s reasoning. None of us are infallible… Sure, I wonder if comics are the right path for me, but I think we all wonder that at some point or another. Keeps us on our toes.

Ted Slapyak, Creator of Jazz Age Chronicles

First published in Comixpedia, November 2003

Ted Slampyak broke into the comics scene in 1989 with “The Case of the Beguiling Baroness,” published by Caliber Press.  This story turned out to be only the first in his stylish adventure series, Jazz Age Chronicles, which followed the blueblood adventurer, Clifton Jennings, and the blue-collar private eye, Ace Mifflin, as they pursued supernatural criminals in 1920s Boston.  Soon after, he went on to work on projects like Quantum Leap and Neil Gaiman’s “Mr. Hero,” as well as providing illustration and storyboarding services.

In 2002, he returned to his roots, with “The Power of Silas Rourke,” a new Jazz Age story, and one of the original strips to run on the Modern Tales sister site, AdventureStrips.com.  After the unfortunate demise of AdventureStrips, Ted remained with Modern Tales, repurposing his JazzAgeComics.com site as a single creator subscription site, and the official home for Jazz Age on the web.  The current story, “No Escape” [author’s note: Working title.  Officially launches Dec 29th—will confirm] updates weekly (the current strip is always free), with pages from his original “Beguiling Baroness” story and other extras added to the member section throughout the week.

What motivated you to choose Boston, 1926 as the setting for your stories?

The series was inspired by a role-playing game that a couple of friends, Marc Gacy and Dan Neff, and I used to play in high school. The game was based (loosely, the way we played it) on the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, and like his stories, took place in New England in the 1920s.  I wanted to start a comic-book series, but I was growing tired of super-heroes, and I wanted to try a different genre. I decided to adapt the characters and some of the storylines we’d come up with in the game—with my friends’ permission, of course.

I did consider picking a different city for the setting, but Boston was just a perfect locale. First, it is in New England, where lots of superstitions abound. I always think of New England—Legend of Sleepy Hollow, etc. —when I think of Halloween. Even though I wouldn’t classify my stories as “horror,” there’s still a strong supernatural element. Second, Boston has the bluest of the bluebloods in its Beacon Hill Social Register and along the halls of hallowed Harvard, and I wanted Jennings and Carlisle to be firmly in that world. But Boston also has a large working-class community, mostly Irish Catholic, but also of other ethnicities, and I wanted Mifflin to be representative of that sphere. Boston is the perfect setting for the clash of those two Americas.

Also, Boston is small enough and isolated enough to feel like a small town, but big enough to be urban enough for the sophisticated Roaring Twenties. And I also wanted to avoid clichés, and 1920s stories in towns like Chicago and New York have been done to death.

“Clash of two Americas” certainly sums up the relationship between Mifflin and Jennings.  Do you think their relationship is peculiar to the time period as well as the location?

I don’t think so. America has always had a class system. And of course, the friction between Jennings and Mifflin isn’t just about class. Flynt is wealthier than Jennings, and he and Mifflin seem to get along okay.

At heart, it’s a personality clash. The difference in class and background just serve to heighten the friction.

Characters representing the middle class seem largely absent.  Does the middle class play a role in this clash?

Jeez, that’s a good question. Wow. I hadn’t even thought about that.

I suppose, when I think of the “middle class,” I first think of the migration to the suburbs after World War II. Of course, that migration started well before that, with the advent of commuter trains and then the automobile from the turn of the Century into the ’20s. Sure, the middle class was there. But I guess, when I think of the 20s, and think of Jazz Age, I immediately think of an urban environment, and the distinctions thereof.

Which is all just a lot of hooey that masks the fact that I’d just never thought about having a character or a story that involved the middle class. Oops!

The setting is very authentic, right down to the phonebook ads. How involved is your research process?

Initially, it was incredibly involved—perhaps too involved. You’re right—the phone book ads were researched, as were the acts appearing at the local movie theaters and vaudeville houses on the dates in question. I think in those early stories, the research was a little too evident—a little too distracting—to the story as a whole. I made too much effort to find places to stick what I learned into the strip.

The upside to all that research back then is that I don’t have to do so much now. I’ve got a very comprehensive foundation for the settings of the series, which made it very easy to bring the series back. I have a file cabinet full of research from the days of the comic book, and that helped a lot with getting the series back up to speed.

Do you think it’s possible to actually over-research, or is it just a matter of learning to manage your information?

Well, yeah, it’s a matter of managing it. But I think that’s a result of over-researching—if you’ve spent so much time amassing so much information, it’s so very tempting to find a place to use it. And sometimes that becomes as high a priority as telling the best possible story.

On the panel you spoke on at SPX, you mentioned using an almanac for the year to even get each day’s weather accurate.  That amazed me.

Yeah, that’s what I mean.

Actually, that’s not so bad—if the weather is treated as just a background issue, or a topic of small talk for characters. There are times when some background detail is needed for the pace of the story—to slow things down, or to show how a character is, or isn’t, noticing his surroundings, or something. Then it’s great. It’s when it becomes the focus at a time when it shouldn’t that you can tell the writer is trying too hard to shoehorn his research findings into the story.

The weather was an important element in Silas Rourke—the clouds and rain come on just as Rourke is revived, and the extent of his reborn power was equaled by the severity of the storm. Weather was as much a fictional element as the characters in that story, so it doesn’t really matter what the weather “really” was that day.

However, in the story you’ll also see that it’s fall, and the leaves are falling from the trees. In that respect, I need to be accurate with the weather—were the leaves falling off the trees in Boston in mid-October? Had they fallen yet? Or would they fall later in the season? On something like that, getting the weather right is crucial.

Aside from small details like the weather, have you ever needed to make any deliberate omissions or alterations to historical fact?

Well, other than the fact that I know Mifflin didn’t reside in his actual office building, or that there wasn’t really an archaeology professor named Jennings—no. Or the fact that the top of the Hotel Vendome didn’t really blow off in 1926—though it was destroyed by fire in the 1970s, I believe.

Like I said before, I’ll gladly include actual events that contribute to the story—but I’ll have to make up some stuff. Sorry, guys, I just do!

But I guess you mean the big things, like who was president or things like that. So far I haven’t had any need to do that. I will be including some historical figures in future Jazz Age storylines, but in ways that could have happened. You know, those times between historical events, where you might’ve shaken hands with Calvin Coolidge or Charles

Lindburg, and who’d know if you did or didn’t? Of course, if I did a story where Mifflin kills Coolidge—that’d be trouble.

Before your re-launch with Modern Tales, how long had it been since you last worked with these characters?

I think the last time I did anything with the characters was an eight-page story I drew, that Marc wrote, called “The Big Case.” That was in 1993. It was published in Caliber’s Negative Burn anthology book.

So, almost ten years.

Was it difficult to get reacquainted with your characters after such a long absence?

Not really, no. Even though I hadn’t worked on the series in all that time, I had been giving the series a lot of thought. I’d wanted to revive the series from the moment I stopped working on it, and I kept ideas about it circulating in my mind.

And while I’d been away from the series, I’d worked a lot on freelance stuff, like storyboards for ad agencies, that helped me refine my color sense. So when I made the shift from black-and-white to color, it worked.

Jazz Age carries a tremendous sense of nostalgia, both in the setting and in the tone of the storytelling.  Do you feel there’s a dissonance created by blending this kind of story with forward-looking technology?  Or, to put it more succinctly: Why does Jazz Age belong on the Internet?

Because everything belongs on the Internet. The Internet is just the vehicle, the medium; it’s totally independent on the content. That’s like saying old Jazz recordings don’t belong on CD, or old black-and-white movies shouldn’t be put on DVD.

But that does bring to mind something. Some people commend me for using an old-fashioned art style when drawing Jazz Age. They say it looks like a comic strip from the early part of the 20th Century. I have no idea what they mean. I mean, I know my style itself is somewhat “old school,” but I’m not trying to look nostalgic with Jazz Age. The story takes place in the ’20s, but I’m trying to draw it with all I know about comics today. I’m not going for a retro art style; just a retro subject. But hey—if people think I’m doing old-style artwork on purpose, and they like it, why should I argue?

We’re in agreement on Internet as vehicle, although I can’t help wondering if there are exceptions.  Seth comes to mind, particularly his Clyde Fans story.  It just feels like publishing a piece like that online would betray its themes.  But maybe I’m just being over-indulgent of Seth’s eccentricities.

Well, the medium may pose challenges, but I think you can use almost any medium to convey almost any kind of story.

If Jazz Age were solely in print, for example, it would have a different format. The reason it’s in landscape format—wider and flatter—rather than traditional comic-book format, is so it’ll show up all at once on the screen. But those differences in format are minor, I think. It’s like filming for TV or for movies. The different aspect ratio may change how you present some things, but the story itself can be told either way.

Retro storytelling was a very clear theme in the strips that Chris Mills selected for the AdventureStrips anthology.  Did you have any concerns that being part of a retro anthology might skew the way readers interpreted your own style?

No, not at all. Of course, when I first heard about AdventureStrips, it wasn’t described as a retro-themed site. In fact, I wasn’t specifically asked to do Jazz Age—I could’ve done anything for it, though Chris did say later he was hoping I’d bring back Jazz Age.

The problem, I think, with AdventureStrips was that it wasn’t specifically marketed as a retro site. Some of the strips were old-styled, and some weren’t. If it were exclusively old-style pulp, then maybe it would’ve found a target audience easier. I don’t know.

But it was pushed as adventure stories, and pushed on a web-savvy, webcomics-reading audience, who, for the most part, are very forward-looking. For them, adventure is Matrix and very futuristic stuff like that, and here they log on and see, basically, their parents’ comic strips. And their parents, while they do have access to the Internet, normally wouldn’t think to find entertainment like webcomics there. It’s a real challenge, targeting a webcomic strip to people who aren’t already looking for webcomics. There’s a hurdle there that must be jumped first.

After AdventureStrips shut down, what motivated you to stay with Modern Tales?  Did you have any reservations?

No reservations. I’ve got a great deal with them, so I’m happy there.

Have you seen any significant change in your audience since you moved Jazz Age to a dedicated Web site?  How is Jazz Age doing now, as compared to when you were still on AdventureStrips?

The only difference I’ve seen in my audience since the end of AdventureStrips and the beginning of Jazz Age‘s own site, is that it’s smaller. With AdventureStrips you had people going to fourteen different strips, and so there was a large cluster of readers.  If someone was reading Red Kelso, or Sorcerer of Fortune, they might wander over to my strip as well.  Now, the only people going to JazzAgeComics are people specifically out to read Jazz Age. It’s mostly the same core readers as on AdventureStrips, but with fewer casual readers.

Any other major points of interest I should be aware of?

The strip hasn’t missed a week, even when there wasn’t a host for it and I had to put each one on my own site each week. I have a small, loyal following that has stayed with me every week since the beginning, for which I’m grateful.