Talking Comics with Tim | Thomas Scioli
Back in 2010, when Thomas Scioli started bolstering his online presence and entered the realm of webcomics with American Barbarian, I was curious to see how things would play out (as may or may not have been obvious in my June 2010 interview of him). I’ll be honest and admit that now, more than a year later (and with far more of the project online to read), American Barbarian far exceeds what I expected. As much as I have always enjoyed and respected his Kirby-influenced approach to visual storytelling, after reading this double post Apocalyptic tale, I am far more impressed with Scioli’s funky ear for dialogue. It’s like reading a 1970s comic written by a minimalist version of David Mamet. Doubting my quirky endorsement of the work? Then realize AdHouse is collecting the webcomic for a 256-page/6 ” x 9 ” /hardcover release early this year. If you don’t trust my tastes, then you should definitely trust AdHouse publisher Chris Pitzer. To mark the upcoming release, Scioli and I did another of our quick email interviews. Before diving into the interview, let me take a second to agree with JK Parkin’s sentiment in this post, back in June, that DC Comics should have considered Scioli for one of the New 52 titles that it launched back in September. So I was surprised to learn (as you can read in this interview) that DC did not contact Scioli when assembling the creative team for the new OMAC title. As I edited this interview I realized it was hard to find my favorite part of our discussion, but it may be the revelation that the look for Two-Tank Omen came to Scioli in a dream. A close second was learning a bit about his next webcomic, Final Frontier. Feel free to chime in with your favorite part of this interview and/or Scioli’s work in the comments section, please.
Tim O’Shea: As an independent creator, the job of marketing your work falls to you. Do you think over the years, you have gotten more comfortable marketing yourself? On a related note, how did you decide upon doing this one minute trailer for American Barbarian?
Thomas Scioli: Even the largest comics publishers don’t seem to have a budget for promotion, so I’d say any creator, independent or mainstream, can benefit from doing their own promotion. It’s something that I’ve never been comfortable with, but do out of necessity. I think I have gotten better about it, because in the beginning, it would give me crippling anxiety, now it’s just mild trepidation. The idea for doing a trailer came from having seen other people do it. AdHouse’s own Afrodisiac trailer and [Top Shelf’s] Infinite Kung-Fu [trailer] are two that made an impression on me when they made the rounds. It got me excited about those two works, so I wanted to do the same. I’d been dabbling with animation, back when I started AmBarb so it was a natural outgrowth of that, too. Once you start doing a webcomic it isn’t long before you realize, hey, why not just do a cartoon?
O’Shea: Did AdHouse’s Chris Pitzer contact you regarding the possibility of an American Barbarian book, or was it the other way around?
Scioli: It happened pretty organically. Comics is a small world, independent comics is even smaller. We’d been hanging out on the convention circuit. Chris had expressed an interest in American Barbarian from pretty early on, but there’s a wide gap between interest as, “that’s something I’d like to read” and “that’s something I’d like to publish.” When I got closer to finishing the book, I knew I had to start pitching it to publishers soon. I was dreading the thought. Chris had bought an American Barbarian pinup I did for the program book and art auction at HeroesCon 2010. At HeroesCon 2011, our tables were adjacent. One of the most common things people ask me at conventions is “When are they going to reprint the first Godland hardcover?” Since it’s been out of print for many years and goes for ridiculous prices online. The idea occurred to me, “Hey, Joe and I own this, so just because Image doesn’t want to reprint it doesn’t mean some other publisher might.” I half jokingly turned to Chris and said, “Do you want to publish a reprint of the first Godland hardcover?” Chris said no, but that he’d like to publish American Barbarian. It was as simple as that. I was ready to say yes right then and there, but I decided to wait until I got home and think about it first. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I had a long list of reasons why AdHouse would be the best possible publisher for it. And I like Chris so much, that the idea of working with him made it easy to say yes.
O’Shea: To you, what are some of the larger benefits to teaming with AdHouse?
Scioli: Before AmBarb, my audience was largely the wednesday comics store audience, viewing my work mainly from a Kirby nostalgia direction. When I started going all-in on webcomics, I noticed a totally new audience discovering my work for the first time. I think being with AdHouse gives it a different context where the full range of things I’m bringing to the table can be highlighted.
I feel like Chris Pitzer is strong in areas that I struggle with. He’s got a great understanding of book design, which is really important for a project like this that is going from an online context to book form. He’s focused on making the book an interesting object in and of itself. Since this is a work that I created entirely on my own, it wasn’t commissioned by a publisher, the main thing you need is a publisher who understands presentation. I know American Barbarian will get the attention it needs and not get lost in the shuffle. AdHouse’s line seemed to me to be carefully curated. Each release really counts. It’s gotten to a point where each new AdHouse book is kind of an event, you know? The Josh Cotter books, then Afrodisiac, then Duncan the Wonder Dog, Pope Hats, Forming. I feel like AdHouse has had this great track record of quality, where I’m benefitting from that goodwill, that American Barbarian is the next AdHouse book and that that means something. I think it’s a great way to have your work presented.
O’Shea: In the webcomic’s first chapter for several panels before his arrival you inject small panels teasing the impending arrival of Two-Tank Omen in a manner that reminded me of Walt Simonson’s teases for Surtur. Did that serve as an inspiration for you?
Scioli: I’m a fan of Thor, so it might be in there somewhere. It’s probably closer to the buildup to the introduction of Galactus, since the buildup and intro happen within the same chapter. Ditko tended to do more of the Surtur-style multi-issue buildup to a villain’s intro than Kirby did. Didn’t they mention Dormammu for months before he actually showed up in Dr. Strange? Spiderman always seemed like it had lots of silhouetted mystery villains hanging around making plans for ages before they’d actually make a move.
Specifically what I was thinking of, and I think it will be more apparent in the print version, is that I had an idea in one of my notebooks to have a subplot going on in a small panel at the bottom of each page, and to have that bottom panel slowly get larger and larger until it engulfs the entire page. I eventually found a use for that idea here, in the buildup to Two-Tank’s arrival.
O’Shea: Is it me or did you enjoy writing the dialogue for American Barbarian’s brothers and father? I cracked up when you had his dad telling the king: “you’re going to have to eat some shit.”
Scioli: Yes I did. I had to make that choice for this comic, how do people talk? I’d been doing the high and mighty fantasy speech in 8-Opus. I wanted to take a break from it and see if I could get away with some more direct, less polished speech. While I’m drawing, I’ll write temporary dialogue in the margins as a placeholder for when I can fill in something more polished. I’ve talked to some other artists who also do this, too. I thought it might be interesting to have them speak in that “first draft” dialogue. “Eat shit, Submariner!” rather than “Taste the full cosmic fury of mine awesome hammer Mjolnir!”
O’Shea: When Rick is carving revenge into his fingers you went to a completely different art style in two panels (pages 10 and 11) of Chapter 2, in fact at least with 11 it looks like it is a photo of actual hands. What lead you to try those panels that way?
Scioli: I don’t know. It was something that just came up in the course of doing it. I hadn’t planned to do it that way, until I sat down to draw it. I knew I wanted to reserve the right to draw any page any way I wanted to. That’s part of the freedom of webcomics. I knew fumetti, watercolor and collage were tools that I hadn’t used before in a comic, so this seemed like a good place to do it. In a lot of ways that’s the emotional focal point of the whole story, so if you’re going to do it somewhere, that’s the place for it.
O’Shea: Am I right in assuming you love designing zany-looking characters. Who do you consider among the American Barbarian cast to be the most outlandish looking character?
Scioli: You’re right, that’s my favorite part of the job. The most outlandish has got to be Two-Tank Omen. That was one that came to me in a dream, so I don’t feel like I “designed” it as much as some of the other characters. Gali-Leo is pretty weird and he was one that was very carefully constructed.
O’Shea: At what point in the story planning did you realize: “I want to have Rick driving a Honda in the opening to chapter 3!”?
Scioli: I wanted him to roll down the hill in some kind of vehicle. At first I was kind of picturing something like in the Simpsons driving game where you utterly destroy your car and drive around in a frame with no tires.
Eventually I decided I wanted this to be another point to include some photo-collage. That’s actually my car.
O’Shea: How is plotting and pacing for a webcomic different than your approach in your past projects?
Scioli: Here’s a big difference, which worked out really well: there’s no set length for the chapters. Each chapter is as long or short as it needs to be. I had 14-page chapters, 40-page chapters. Originally I had concieved of this as a 10-part monthly mini-series comic book. That means that I would’ve had to cram the 40-page chapter into 20-some pages or pad out the 14-page chapter. It lets the work breathe and find its own pace.
I also like how you can release it a page at a time. In a monthly comic, the only page that lingers is the last page. You have to wait a while for that next chunk of story, so that’s where the cliffhangers go. With a webcomic, every page is a cliffhanger. As a creator, you hate the fact that something you labored over can be read so quickly. The people who followed the comic as each page was posted read it in a timeframe that was a lot closer to the timeframe I created it in.
O’Shea: Am I right in thinking you love to use thought balloons for comedic effect (I am thinking in particular of the line “I thought that douche was her boyfriend” from Chapter 5).
Scioli: I’m a big believer in the thought balloon. It lends itself to humor of course, since it’s viewed as a quaint relic, but I think you can use it for serious effect, too.
O’Shea: The webcomic is currently at chapter 10. How many chapters will be covered in February’s release?
Scioli: There will be 10 chapters total, but chapter 10 is pretty long. That’s the whole story. After the story finishes, ambarb.com will host my next webcomic: Final Frontier.
O’Shea: Care to divulge some more details about Final Frontier?
Scioli: It’s the most straight-up superheroey thing I’ve ever done. There’s a whole universe of characters doing all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s tangentially related to American Barbarian.
O’Shea: Are there any extras that the American Barbarian book is going to offer?
Scioli: There are extra drawings and sketches scattered through the book as chapter breaks or design elements. There’s an awesome map of American Barbarian’s world on the endpapers. There’s no backmatter. The book is pretty much all story. The story ended up being a lot bigger than I thought it would be. That last chapter just kept going and going.
O’Shea: In a recent Twitter exchange with Kurt Busiek, you noted that there is a lack of plot (much less subplot) in some comics. How did that come to be, in your opinion?
Scioli: I disavow anything I post on Twitter. Anything I say on there is usually only how I feel at the moment I tweet it, and I usually disagree with it immediately.
I think that because Kirby-style action comics story-telling is my baseline, which is very plot-heavy, everything else tends to seem to my eyes, leasurely and anemic by comparison. But I probably tend towards an over-reliance on plot mechanics and need to learn to more fully utilize the other components of storytelling.
O’Shea: It’s a simple opinion at its core, but I still have to ask (based on this tweet) what is it about the writing process that is so enjoyable for you?
Scioli: That’s where it feels like you’re really playing with toys and having fun, when you’re in those early stages of figuring out the shape of it. The day-in-day-out drawing of a comic has its own set of rewards, but things happen so much more slowly, it’s not as enjoyable. I think it’s also because my early work was so much more focussed on the drawing. Writing was something I did to facilitate the things I wanted to draw, where now I’ve accumulated enough experience that I actually have feel like I have things to say, and a way of expressing them.
O’Shea: Please tell me that DC contacted you when they decided to include OMAC as part of the new 52?
Scioli: They did not. DC is the one big four company I’ve never done anything with. OMAC is a lot closer to what I’d like to see from mainstream superhero comics, a focus on visual bravura and clearly-choreographed action. It’s got that joy in the drawing process that I’d just mentioned. I’d been enjoying Giffen’s recent penciling work leading up to it. It’s beautiful. It’s my favorite of the new 52, and tellingly enough it’s by far the worst-selling. I know better than anybody what a tough sell the fake Kirby thing can be.