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After four years and an Eisner nomination, Ben Towles’ Oyster War is coming to an end. The webomic is based on an obscure chapter in American history, in which oyster pirates and legal fishermen fought over the rights to the harvest in Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. (Apparently, oysters used to be much larger and way cheaper before overfishing devastated the entire industry.) Don’t expect a straight history lesson, however: Towles’ version is visually more cartoon; he also embellishes his story with some fantastical elements, like a witch who turns into a seal, and a sea monster.
The old-school aesthetic of Oyster War recalls a style popular during the early 20th century, and the seaside town of Blood’s Haven, with its narrow corridors and piers that stretch past the shore, resembles Thimble Theatre‘s Sweethaven. While backgrounds are simple and minimalistic, close-ups are lovingly textured. The characters are simple cartoony designs: bulbous noses, brush-like mustaches, block-shaped heads and stocky bodies.
Welcome once again to What Are You Reading?, where we share what comics, books and other good stuff we’ve been checking out lately. This week our special guest is Thomas Hall, writer of the science fiction/fantasy comic Robot 13.
To see what Thomas and the Robot 6 crew have been reading, click below.
Ben Towle (Midnight Sun, Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean) has been posting pages from his current project, the seaside adventure webcomic Oyster War for a while now on Tumblr. The trouble is, Tumblr’s not all that friendly an experience for webcomics readers. Pages are difficult to navigate and since Oyster War is a “graphic novel in progress” (and new pages go up every two weeks) it’s good to be able to flip back a page or two to remind yourself what’s going on.
Fortunately, Towle’s realized this himself and has switched the comic to its own site with traditional navigation buttons. He just started Chapter Five (reading 45 pages will catch you up), so it’s a great time to jump in on a cool, fantastical comic about oyster pirates and the ragtag crew intent on ending their pilfering ways.
On any given week, reading Ben Towle’s Twitter feed or Oyster War Tumblr or his blog, I tend to take away some perspective of substance. And that’s what prompted me to do this email interview with him. Rather than explain what ground we tried to cover, I prefer to jump right into the interview, after thanking Towle for his time and thoughts. This interview was conducted prior to Towle’s Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean being nominated in the Eisner Best Publication for Kids category.
Tim O’Shea: When you started on Oyster War, did you expect that “publishers [would not]… be beating down my door to publish this weird, not-all-ages mashup of 20s newspaper comic strips and obscure (at least in the U.S.) French graphic novels“? Or has that been an unexpected, disappointing surprise?
Ben Towle: As far as my statement about publishers goes, I should clarify: no big publishing house is beating down my door to give me a publishing deal with a decent advance. And no, this doesn’t surprise me at all.
I guess I’ve gotten a reputation as a naysayer as a result, but I’ve always been quite dubious of the (in my opinion, very Pollyanna-ish) claim that the graphic novel as a literary/art form has “arrived.” I think if you look at what GNs for adults have gotten deals from big publishers, they’re almost exclusively very specific genres—usually memoir with some sort of an angle (historical, grave illness, identity politics, etc.)—-and that’s not the sort of thing I’m personally interested in doing comics about.
That said, I’m optimistic that once Oyster War gets to the point that it’s, say, 75% complete I’ll be able to shop it around to a specialty graphic novels publisher and find it a home. It would be nice if we got to the point that there’s a sizable enough audience for adult general fiction graphic novels to sustain the “living from advance to advance” model that successful prose authors can pull off, but until then, I’ll just continue to do what I’ve been doing: produce the work that I love doing and which I truly believe in, and hope to find some success with those projects on the back end.