Talking Comics with Tim: J.D. Arnold & Rich Koslowski
Given that folklore was my minor in college, I’m always pleased when a creative discussion touches upon a work that finds its roots in folk or fairy tales. With that in mind I recently jumped at the chance to interview J.D. Arnold & Rich Koslowski regarding their new book from Top Shelf, BB Wolf and the 3 LPs (released in June). As described by Top Shelf: “A farmer and family man by day, blues musician by night, and a drinker of fine spirits at any hour, BB’s life seemed simple. But this fragile peace comes crashing down when the LPs decide to take his land by any means possible. When all is lost, BB lashes out, setting into motion acts of revenge only a Big Bad Wolf could unleash.” In addition to discussing this tale of blues and racism, the creators detail a musical project connected to the book that will be available at San Diego. Top Shelf offers a seven-page preview of the 96-page book here.
Tim O’Shea: Rich, as the guy behind Three Geeks and Three Fingers, are you un-nerved or reassured at how the number three seems to track you down, even when you’re not writing the story?
Rich Koslowski: Well, it was all part of a “grand master plan” I had in mind with the magical number 3. Seriously. It kind of got derailed, though, when I did The King with Top Shelf. Couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get that book out there.
I’ll have to see if I can get that big idea back on track somehow.
O’Shea: Did you listen to music while you worked on this project? Also, the music quotations used to intro each of the book’s three parts–was that all your doing, JD, or did Rich have some input on the quotes?
J.D. Arnold: I almost always listen to music when I write. I generally need music without lyrics, and so my writing playlist includes a lot of classical, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, and the like, but also some electronica, deep house, ambient trance stuff. Love the Om Lounge and Carte Blanche compilations. And this is what I listened to when writing the story. I did listen to a lot of early Blues when composing the songs, stuff like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf. The song quotes at each chapter head were mine. Not much to say there other than I tried to find song quotes that somewhat related to what was happening in each chapter, regardless of style or era.
Koslowski: I need silence when I write but I do enjoy music while I draw…but usually quiet and in the BG as it’s still “writing’ in a sense when I do the art. Once I’ve got it all laid out, though, and ready to do the finishes, then I can crank it up. And my taste in music leans toward alternative rock but I did listen to a lot of great Blues while working on this project. And, of course, as the book moved along we got going on our own tracks for the cd! THAT was a ton of fun! Wait’ll you hear the soundtrack, I couldn’t be more proud of the way this entire project has turned out.
O’Shea: Pigs as white supremacists, did either of you hesitate in going as far as portraying them in the white robes (labeling them the PPP)–or was that a story detail that both of you knew needed to be in there. (As a native of the south, I always typically flinch whenever that inconic image pops up in literature).
Arnold: There were a few moments, a few events in the story where I would ask myself, ‘ok, how far do I go here? Do I show or insinuate?’ Almost immediately I made the decision not to pull any punches. I could have done a re-telling of the classic fairy tale as a straight revenge fantasy, and maybe just hinted at the racism. But what I really wanted to do was tell a story of racism and injustice, and dress it up in a familiar fairy tale dressing. The 3 Little Pigs story seemed the perfect vehicle for this. To do this right, to portray accurately an ugly belief and practice against the backdrop of a familiar children’s story, I decided to use the shocking images of the KKK style robes, decided to show in graphic detail the sad fate of BB’s wife and kids, and ultimately his fate as well. What I am dealing with here is a small section of a very large and unfortunate part of our history. And that comes nowhere near to accurately describing it. The last thing that should ever happen is that events of this nature be romanticized, forgotten, or marginalized. I think we need to be reminded of the horrors of our past in hopes of never repeating them. Idealistic, I know, but there you are.
Koslowski: I agreed wholeheartedly with JD’s call on not pulling any punches. It’s a harsh story and holding back would have been a disservice. And I had a helluva lotta fun drawing the evisceration panels!
O’Shea: In terms of the extra material for the book–how long did it take you to write those three songs?
Arnold: I wrote Sweet Baby Elle and Freight Train, and Rich wrote Rip It Up. It took me about a week total, knocking out the first drafts on a napkin (still have it!) and then tweaking and re-tweaking until I got something I was happy with. It almost took as long as writing the story itself. Comic scripts are easy for me, writing songs? I agonized for days! I think this comes from being a (failed) musician. The memory of failed Rock and Roll dreams was weighing on me as I wrote.
Koslowski: Waitaminute! BB wrote the songs, man! Back in 1919. We’re just bringing these “lost recordings” to the readers here for the very first time. And I must say that the lyrics BB wrote are very clever. Especially on Rip It Up! Pay attention and you’ll hear a phenomenal parallel between the lyrics in his songs and the classic fairytale. It’s uncanny! I couldn’t have done any better myself!
O’Shea: JD, before you started collaborating with Rich, you were a big fan of his work. How hard was it to make that transition from fan to collaborator? And Rich, for you, was there a certain element of you having to nudge JD out of his comfort zone in terms of collaborating with you?
Arnold: You’re right, I was, and still am, a big fan. The collaboration was a dream come true. I would constantly look to my wife and say, ‘I’m working with Rich Koslowski!’ And really, he was a joy to work with. I was fortunate that Rich believed in the story (I suppose he would not have worked on it if he hadn’t) and made very few, if any, changes to the script. There were some visual flow changes, an extra page or panel here or there, but the dialogue stands almost exactly as it did at the start. And Rich’s art…well, as we all know he is an artistic genius, and this will sound biased, but I do think this is his best work.
Koslowski: JD was smooth sailing to work with. As a “newcomer” I think I was able to bully him around as much as I wanted and got away with anything I liked. I’d just hold up my Ignatz Brick, shoot him a hard stare, if he ever started to question me.
His script was very tight so interpreting it was very easy for me. As JD said, the only suggestions I made were to add a panel here or there or the occasional splash page so the story was able to breathe better. We got along very well making this book.
O’Shea: This might be because I’ve seen too many revenge-themed films of the 1980s, but in this tale (spoiler space) there was a point where I thought “hey, he might get revenge on all the pigs” Did you want readers to gain a sense of false hope in that regards?
Arnold: Yes and no. I certainly wanted the reader to empathize with BB, and to feel that he SHOULD get his revenge. He certainly deserved to see revenge served, as the pigs had brutally murdered his family, took his land, his life, nearly everything dear to him. But I also did want to write a story where the violent acts of revenge were rewarded or ignored. Within the context of a fairytale world populated with talking Wolves and Pigs, I wanted it to be as realistic as possible. And at the same time I was not trying overly hard to hide the fact of his eventual fate (the hints in his narration that he was in jail, talking to a priest, etc…). Although I did take liberties with the original telling, I wanted the broad strokes of the story to remain somewhat true. In the end the Wolf gets the short end. Here it is much more drastically stated, but largely true to the original.
Koslowski: Sequel anyone? Without giving anything away, the last page is where I did make one “writing” suggestion to JD that we added in regarding the third pig, and it does leave an opening for a sequel.
O’Shea: Rich, this tale is a violent one at its core–did you hold back on the violence in any way or did you achieve the level of violence that was apt for the tale without going over the top?
Koslowski: We cut loose on the carnage! It was appropriate for the story and JD wanted to see blood! Who was I to say no to the man? But I do feel that we weren’t overly gratuitous or added blood and guts just for the sake of adding blood and guts. As far as “blood and guts” goes it’s done as tastefully as possible.
O’Shea: The farther that time passes and takes us away from the days of Emmett Till (1955), how important will it be for there to be fictional tales (as well as history books, of course) that remind folks that racism (to a certain extent) is in the past in some ways–but can easily return (and still exists) in different forms?
Arnold: Extremely important! As I’ve said, we need to be constantly reminded of the horrors of our past in hopes of not repeating it. I’ve learned one or two things during my time on this planet, and one is that most people seem to have a very short memory. What outrages us one day is forgotten the next. This is a gross generalization, and rather simply stated, but nonetheless true. Racism does still exist today. I see it in my life all too often. I may not be, admittedly, the natural choice to talk about this, or to tell this tale. I’m a white boy from California. But I have Southern roots (My family hails from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Ohio). I grew up with parents and grandparents who were…passively racist. Not sure if that is a good term…There was never any outward aggression or anger towards people of color or different ethnicity, but racial slurs would casually be thrown around all too often. Somehow, fortunately, I recognized this as wrong. It angered me, not only that it was done, and done by people I ‘looked up to’, but that it was done in such a casual way. And so I hope, by telling this tale, by telling more like it, by teaching my child the belief of equality and practice of tolerance, I can start to make a small change. It’s the least we can all do.
O’Shea: What’s on the creative horizon?
Arnold: I am currently working on a horror book with Eisner Nominated writer/artist Jon ‘Bean’ Hastings. We don’t have a firm released date yet but we hope to have it out in 2011. In the vein of BB Wolf, the re-imagined fairy tale, I have written a few more (three are completely scripted) which are awaiting the right artist to come along. I am hoping the success of BB will help jump start those projects. And, I am writing a sequel to BB Wolf that I hope Rich will consider working on.
Koslowski: I have TONS of new, bold ideas that I’m working on. BB Wolf turned out to be such a massive endeavor–what with the music cd–that I haven’t had much of a chance to develop these other ideas. I was also working with Top Shelf on the new printing of my GN Three Fingers, which has been out of print for awhile. THAT also ended up being a HUGE undertaking as we had to redo the lettering files and we also redesigned the book to give it a fresh new look. Now that BB and 3F are done, and the dust is starting to settle, I’ll dive back into the vault and stir things up again.
O’Shea: I’m normally better at my research–I had no idea there was a CD being released in conjunction with the book. What’s the story behind how that came together? How many musicians are involved in the project?
Koslowski: The idea actually hit me while JD and I were driving together looking for places for me to move to in Santa Cruz in the early summer of 2009. We were talking about which cons we’d like to attend, how to promote the book, etc. The artwork was basically all finished and, as often does, my mind started whirling with the possibilities of where else we could take the BB story. Instantly, the idea of cutting some songs occurred to me. I just kind of blurted out, “Ya know what’d really be a cool idea?…We should make a cd that goes along with the book! Cut some blues songs about BB!” JD’s no idiot, he said, “Sure!” And we were like two little kids in a candy store. I told him that I knew several musicians back in my hometown of Milwaukee and my brother-in-law was also in an award-winning metal band, Spiral Trance, AND he operated his own recording studio! I think JD was a little overwhelmed, initially, by my enthusiasm but when I get a really good idea in my head I go off and start rattling off all the possibilities! The best thing was that he shared my vision on the concept immediately. Then I took it to the next level and said that we could “find” the BB Wolf & The Howlers “lost recordings”…the ones that he recorded before his untimely death in 1920…and THEN we could also have some modern covers of those vintage songs recorded by some of my friend’s bands!!! It was an awesome idea! INSPIRED!!! We were both very excited by the idea.
The big question now was, could we pull this off?
We shared the idea with Top Shelf and they agreed it was a very cool idea…but I got the sense they doubted we’d be able to coordinate it all in time for the release of the book. So, a few months back, I quietly started making phone calls to my contacts back in Milwaukee. First I had to get my B-I-L, Pauly Karcz, onboard and secure studio time. As he was looking over his schedule I put in a call to my longtime friend, CJ Bettin, who also, coincidentally, helped with the lettering on the book and has helped me on many past projects…he’s a computer whiz. Anyway, CJ’s in a band called Big Wish. I filled him in and he was definitely stoked. I then asked him to start asking any musician friends he had if they were 1) interested and 2) if they could play the Blues.
In a matter of a few weeks CJ managed to corral his band, a blues guitarist (Lance Dobersek) he knew through his wife’s coffee shop, a harmonica player the guitarist knew (Paul Martin) and a slide guitarist (James Wagner) that the lead singer from Big Wish knew! I was slated to sing, and can sing btw (I sing on the bonus track! YES!) but I’m a tenor and I pictured BB having a deeper growly voice. So I started thinking…suddenly, just weeks away from our recording dates I remembered a guy who used to work at the comic shop I went to in Milwaukee! Big guy named Chad Lundgren! We played cards together once a few years back and my daughter was going to bed upstairs and I asked Chad if he could keep his voice down a bit. He apologized and said he naturally talked loud and then told me he was the lead singer in a Blues Band.
Fast forward to 2010 and this memory surfaces! I get a hold of him through the comic shop, tell him my idea, he’s interested, I ask if he can send me a sample of his vocals, he does, I listen, the hairs on my neck stand on end, I tell Sandy (my wife) to listen, she gets goosebumps, we smile, we tell JD to listen, he does, we all do a major group hug (over the phone), and we have “the voice.”
So, I’m living in Santa Cruz now and me and my family fly back to WI to start the recording and visit family. It’s June 7th… June 8th we are slated to start recording… I’m nervous as hell. I don’t really know half the musicians lined up and I’m just praying they all show up. They all do. At exactly the times we had them scheduled for. Now I’m nervous if they’ll be able to play. They can! Now I wonder can they turn three songs JD and I wrote, and then sang how we thought they should sound into our computers and sent MPEGS to these guys…the only thing they had to go off of…could they transform those into viable, professional sounding songs and do it in 6 days???!!!
If I wasn’t there to witness it all happen in person I’d say I was lying when I told you that magic occurred. These guys would sit down, pluck away for 10-20 minutes, talk the songs over a few minutes more, rehearse a few bars, make a few adjustments and then say, “We’re ready to try it.” My jaw hit the ground more than a few times that week.
It’d be three, maybe four takes and they’d nail it! Every song was like that.
We’d record at night, usually 7pm till midnight, and then me and Pauly would mix and engineer the following day. Usually about 5-6 hours per song.
It was one of the most exhausting and exhilarating experiences of my life. I was brought to tears (of joy) a few times as the song I wrote came to life…as this BIG concept came to life! And all the musicians, to a man, thanked me and were honored for having them involved. They thanked me! I had to remind each of them that the honor was all mine and that all thanks should come from me.
An incredible bunch of guys.
JD couldn’t make the trip out to WI with us and I tortured him by providing virtually no information on our progress as we went along. It was awesome! When he finally heard the songs a week later, when we got to Freight Train, his first song he wrote, the eyes got a little watery too.
So the CD will have the three “lost recordings” of BB Wolf & The Howlers and then three covers by Big Wish, Spiral Trance and Justin Rolbiecki. There’s also a “Bonus Track” of Rip It Up! with yours truly on vocals along with Chad Lundgren (BB) and the music of Big Wish behind us.
Right now the CDs are being mastered, then duplicated and silkscreened and the cd sleeves are also underway. JD’s partner-in-crime at the comic shop they own (Comicopolis), Troy Geddes, designed the book cover and also designed the cd art and sleeve art.
The cds will be ready to sell along with the book at Comic-Con July 21st!
The realization of one more dream!