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The world needs more kid friendly but goofy stories like Matthew Loux‘s Salt Water Taffy (Oni), which has seen two volumes released to date. You can get a taste for the wacky pursuits of brothers Jack and Benny by checking out the webcomic site here. After email interviewing Loux, I look forward to seeing Volume 3–The Truth About Dr. True (be sure to check out these preview pages) when it comes out sometime later this year.
Tim O’Shea: Your art style has some distinctive elements I would love to ask you about. You seem to favor a style that is almost like an old time TV series. And what I mean by this is the establishing of long exterior shots, setting a scene and then you move into the smaller panels for dialogue and plot development. How did you arrive at such an approach visually? I love the way you draw arms when they are slack–the lack of elbows on people. What’s the thinking on wavy arms?
Matthew Loux: Thank you. I think i just watched to many cartoons and TV in my lifetime. In a lot of ways this series is my way of doing a cartoon. Each volume is it’s own stand alone episode while still having throwbacks to previous adventures. It also might seem like old TV because I’m pretty straight forward about my visual storytelling. I keep pretty normal panel shapes and don’t mess around with overly dynamic panel composition. I like to show depth and detail in a panel, but I don’t do dynamic for dynamic’ sake. Also there are certain jokes that only work with very straight forward, full body compositions, much in the way of Donald Duck comics, Pogo, Peanuts, and early Bone. And when drawing my arms, They can easily become emotional explanation points. I can show almost as much about a characters mood through they’re arms than i can with their faces. Or at least I can hammer an emotion home. It works for two Kid characters since sometimes it seams like kids are made of rubber.
O’Shea: What’s the appeal of writing an all ages book? What’s the biggest challenge of writing an all ages book? Do you wish there was another term than all ages, so that adults might pick up the book rather than unfairly pigeonholing it as something just for children?
Loux: A great appeal for writing the Salt Water Taffy series for the all-aged is that in a lot of ways it frees me from the expectations Indie comic artists often have to do serious or emotionally challenging stories. I love that kind of work when it’s done well, but it will be a long time before i attempt anything super deep in my own career. Kids comics might be the only avenue for purely fun and silly adventure stories in the industry today, and that’s what i love to do. It is incredibly enjoyable to create stories for the Salt Water Taffy universe because of it’s freedom to be fantastical, funny, action pact, and often making no sense at all. And though the series is aimed for kids, I really did write them to be enjoyed by all ages. I try to follow the lead of master creator, Carl Barks in writing age appropriate comics that are just enormously enjoyable to everyone. On the flip side, ‘all ages’ or children’s comics’ can turn off many who think it isn’t mature enough for them. That’s probably true, because i certainly don’t write mature stories. Doing all aged material has freed me from having to do mature stories. I think also, the industry has tired so hard to be taken more seriously as a genre that it can’t handle comics that are trying to be less serious, so there’s very often this stigma among main stream comic fans against kids comics.
O’Shea: As a storyteller, how do you make the decision to have talking animals in the narrative. It’s quite common, of course, but typically it’s a device used in stories featuring all animals. In Salt Water Taffy, the characters converse with animals quite regularly. But then again, the turtle in the story does not talk. Why did you choose to allow some
animal characters to have a voice and some not?
Loux: It has a lot to do with the characters purpose in the stories, as well as their interaction with the kids. For example, In ‘The Legend Of Old Salty’ The two lobsters talk but Old Salty, who is a giant lobster does not. The two lobsters purpose is for comedic interaction while Old Salty is a more mysterious and ancient creature, and is also the main adversary through the book. It’s like in a video game sometimes smaller monsters will talk but the boss won’t. It’s so they seem more of a force to be reckoned with. I don’t really have a underline rule, it’s whatever seems appropriate for each animal character. But then again, all the animals seem to be able to talk to each other and understand english. To be honest, I’ll never really try and explain it too much in the books because it will stop being funny if i do. And that’s the real reason to have talking animals in a story, because it’s hilarious.
O’Shea: In terms of comedic pacing, how do you decide moments where you can advance the plot, but still allow for small comical moments. I’m thinking in particular when Dan the Wolf is clobbered with a rock, but as he lays there stunned, he asks: “Is that blood?”
Loux: It pretty organic. When plotting the story beats, I’ll sometimes think of gags and jokes, but I’d say most of them happen as I’m writing out the script. I always try to throw some humor in a scene if i can, as long as it’s appropriate, but I also like to hide plot in humor too. It is great to hear people tell me that they thought a segment in my book was just a throwaway gag only to be surprised when it became important later on. I also love playing with different comedy devices, such as animal humor (one of my favorites!) repeat jokes, odd couple humor (mostly with Jack and Benny, but also with other characters) and of course the ‘you are obviously crazy’ jokes. I might go out on a limb and say that the Salt Water Taffy series is a humor book even more than an adventure one.
Also, with that particular “is that blood?!?” with Dan the Wolf, I’m glad that reads as a joke, I wasn’t sure if people would get it. It’s like the sudden shift in concern from “Ouch! I’ll get you kids!” to “Good lord I’m bleeding!” It’s funny because it normally wouldn’t be addressed in a book like this, but if your smacked so hard you bleed, of course you’ll stop and take notice.
O’Shea: With the brothers Jack and Benny clearly named as an homage to the old 1950s/1960s comedian–as you acknowledged in this CBR interview last year where you also expressed an affinity for the Marx Brothers–what is it about that era of comedy that appeals to you so much?
Loux: That era of comedy appealed to me big time when I was a kid. I particularly loved Bob Hope and his “Road” movies with Bing Crosby. But guys like Bob Hope, The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, They were amazingly hilarious in ways that were for the most part family friendly. it was a time where edginess wasn’t as much of a part of the mainstream as it is now. That’s probably why kids would like it. So without the need for crass humor (which i do also appreciate) These comedians were able to be totally on it, hilarious, and even ahead of their time in many respects without needing anything more than sharp wit and silliness.
With Jack and Benny as a comedy duo, I draw upon all of the old structure in comedy acts. There is often the straight man silly man angle like Abbot and Costello, The cool jokester and the crazy jokester like the Road movies, and of course the ‘everybody’s insane’ as in the Marx Bros. and just like the Marx Bros. there’s always someone normal observing all of this in horror.
O’Shea: With character development, why did you make it two brothers for the lead, instead of a brother and a sister?
Loux: I guess because I have a brother and not a sister so I know how older and younger brothers interact. I suppose you could replace Ben with a younger sister and keep a similar dynamic, but Jack might seam like more of a bully then? I mean, I did have a female cousin near to my age and we basically did the same stuff that Jack and Benny do so it could work, but I honestly never even considered it when forming the ideas for Salt Water Taffy because my own interactions with my older brother as children is really at the heart of these characters. Underneath the humor and adventure I did want Jack and Benny’s relationship as brothers who need each other to shine through.
O’Shea: How old are the Putnam brothers? Do you want all the Salt Water Taffy stories to be set in this one summer–or spread over time.
Loux: Um, I think Jack is 11 and Benny is 8. For now at least this will be like a sitcom where all these adventures exist in an everlasting, perpetual summer, as summers often felt when your a kid. I do like the idea of Chowder Bay in the different seasons though, like in the winter under a blanket of snow, but in the end this is a summer book. Maybe I’ll do a special comic about a young Angus, or young John Putnam and set it in the winter. That might be cool.
O’Shea: Do we get to see Dan the Wolf again? I love Dan the Wolf. Sure he’s evil, but he’s a fun foil.
Loux: I’m trying to think of other way to bring him into future stories because I ended up loving that character too. He’s not in Vol. 3, ‘The Truth About Dr. True’ but I do want to bring him back in future volumes. BUT, in a few weeks I will be posting a guest web comic on saltwatertaffycomic.com done by my friend, cartoonist Brian Stone, and it stars Dan the Wolf, and it’s ALL about Dan being foiled. So keep an eye out for that.
O’Shea: How did the webcomic phase of Salt Water Taffy come about?
Loux: One of the things I most enjoyed in writing Salt Water Taffy, especially Vol. 2 ‘A Climb Up Mt. Barnabas’ were the purely humorous moments, such as the gags with the grouse and the feather hunting, or the interactions with Dan the Wolf. So I thought I’d like a venue to focus on jokes without that pesky plot to get in the way. I also had been toying with the idea of a strip style web comic for some time now. and since there is always so much time between books I decided to fill that time with the strips. This way people can get a taste of some new Salt Water Taffy to tide them over till the new books are done.
O’Shea: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Loux: How awesome is Salt Water Taffy Vol. 3 The Truth About Dr. True going to be? Very. With scary ghosts, 1800’s old timeyness and extra mysteriousness.