Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Interview: Runton & Slade, Part Two

Without further ado, we present Part 2 of our interview with Andy Runton (Owly) and Christian Slade (Korgi).

Tracy: I'm curious about your process for starting a story. Do you make an outline or write a script, or do you stick with the wordless thing and go straight to thumbnails?

Slade: The earliest beginnings of a story start with spoken words. My wife and I are always coming up with fun little stories. The best of these seem to come when driving in the car on long road trips, usually to one of our National Corgi shows. Next, I write each idea on a little yellow post-it note. Then, I stick all the post-it notes on a large board. I then shuffle them around to see which ideas I can cluster together to make a great book. Then it goes to an outline, all words. (In fact, I am working this week on the outlines for the next 8 Korgi books all at once.) Only after I get the storyline working with words, do I start drawing out the thumbnails.

Runton: I work really similar to Christian. Honestly, coming up with a core idea for the story is the hardest part of the entire process for me. I have lots of ideas but finding one that I can really tap into and develop further takes lots of time. This is the most important piece of the puzzle because without a strong story, everything crumbles.

I take long walks with my mom and we discuss the story heavily. Once we get it to a certain point I write down all of the details and then we discuss it some more, working out the details. Eventually, when we think it's ready, I send the outline or simple narrative to my editors, and they take a look at it too. Once everyone has seen it and weighed in on the basics, I start sketching it out. But even so, the story isn't really finalized. It still changes... sometimes drastically. Just drawing it out gives me all kinds of ideas. Some things that I thought would work don't, and other things that I never considered come into being. While I'm sketching (like Christian alluded to earlier) it's almost like watching the movie unfold. I kind of just set the scene, gather all of the players, wind them up and let them go.

I sketchily pencil out the whole book and let the story work itself out. I get out the outline and just start drawing in pencil on regular 8.5x11 laser paper. I'll draw up to around 6 or 7 panels per page. I may end up re-ordering them as I go with little numbers (1) (3) (2) and I also draw panels I won't use. If I draw one I don't like I just keep going, finish the thought, and put a little (x) next to it. It's almost like I'm arranging a slide show in Powerpoint. Then I draw the panel again, learning from my mistakes... visually re-writing a sentence. (I finish the ones I don't plan on using because when I look back at the sketches sometimes even the bad panels give me ideas for other things.) Then, once I have a few pages done, I scan in those loose sketches and arrange them into pages using Photoshop, re-arranging the out-of-order panels and leaving off the (x)'d ones. I'll show a couple of pages at a time to my mom and my close friends to make sure everything is clear. Then, once it's done I show it to my editors and they read it through and ask me questions about it. If anything needs clarification, I rework pages and panels until we're all happy with it. It's a bit time-consuming but it's much better to get it working well in this stage when it's easy to make changes. It would be really hard to ink the whole thing and then have to re-work it.

Shelby: How many times did your book get rejected by publishers, and did you make changes before someone accepted it?"

Runton: Well, I actually never got rejected by a publisher per-se, but my story is a bit unique. I met Chris Staros (half of Top Shelf Productions) at a convention in Atlanta and that was the first time I saw anything like what he publishes (Graphic Novels but nothing like the Super Hero ones I was used to). So when I started drawing Owly I kind of had those stories in mind and I had something to shoot for.

Once I had a little 4-page story I showed it to Chris to get feedback. I was completely surprised by his reaction... he really liked Owly. But even so, that wasn't enough. I found out that there isn't a lot of money in comics, and publishers can't afford to take chances. Would I be able to produce a full graphic novel? Consistently? All of the work has to be done "on spec." (meaning you don't get paid until it's all done). Was this something I was willing to do, for little or no payoff? Well, those were the things I had to show him.

Along the way, I found that I had a lot to learn but I wasn't going to give up. I published my own copies of Owly stories (as folded and stapled mini-comics) and sold them at local comic shows. I also became friends with Robert Venditti (who was working part-time for Top Shelf and was a real writer) and sought his feedback on my stories. Chris helped me too. He gave me all kinds of editorial advice even though I wasn't signed or anything. Chris saw the potential in Owly, but he and Brett Warnock (the other half of Top Shelf) wanted to see it develop a tad more before they made a decision. So even though I wasn't picked up right away, I was sort of invited into the family to sell mini-comics from their tables and work with the Top Shelf team on the development of the stories.

So, I kept writing stories and producing my minis, showing my work to the guys at Top Shelf along the way, and starting to meet fans in the biz. Since Top Shelf really hadn't taken on comics meant mostly for kids before, Chris first suggested I try for a Xeric Foundation grant for my next story. This would give me a deadline to meet and if I won the grant ($5,000), it would allow me to self-publish the first graphic novel, which Top Shelf could then distribute for me. I finished "The Bittersweet Summer" and submitted it to the Xeric Foundation. Later, when I found out I was rejected by the Foundation, I had a short-lived period of being bummed, as the very next day Chris called and said not to worry, Top Shelf would publish Owly. It was time.

So, it wasn't a "yes" or "no" kinda thing, it was a gradual growth process. In the end it was kind of like, "Hey, we're both going the same way, do you want to team up?" And that's where we are today. I think a lot of people misunderstand the relationship between a creator and a publisher. It really can best be described as a partnership.

And I didn't really change anything about Owly during that time. I think he just became more of what I had always wanted him to be. He got more fleshed out and became more real. I think all of the little stories I wrote along the way were a big part of that.

Slade: I have had plenty of book ideas rejected, but that didn't really happen with Korgi. Like Owly, Korgi began self-published.

Korgi was my final thesis project for my Masters degree from Syracuse University. The degree was in illustration, and I completed it between 2003 and 2005. After graduating, my business plan was to self publish the Korgi series in limited distribution only through my website. I set up a booth in artist's alley at two comic shows in 2006 and the response for my self-published book was pretty enthusiastic.

It was around this time that I noticed when wandering into a comic shop or booth at a show, I picked up books that caught my eye. Ironically, they all said Top Shelf on the back of them. So I said, who is Top Shelf and how are they putting out such beautifully designed books? Maybe this could be a possible home for Korgi. I also recalled someone from the Syracuse program mentioning Top Shelf during a group dinner conversation; it was brief, but I remembered someone singing their praises. So early in 2006, I prepared an official submission to Top Shelf, and we were moving quickly after that.

Tracy: Andy, you're four volumes into a very successful series, and Christian, you're just starting out with Top Shelf. Where are you each going from here? Can you tell us anything about upcoming or future projects?

Runton: I'm inking Owly Book 4 as we speak, and it'll be in the stores soon. After that I'll be working on new Owly-playtime-fun-related-goodies that are, unfortunately, top secret at the moment ... but as soon as that's all finished, you'll know about it! Then, I'll start working on the fifth book and even more Owly stories. There are 15 convention appearances on my schedule this year, so it's going to be a busy 2007. In fact, on Free Comic Book Day, shop owner and super nice-guy Mr. Calum Johnston has invited Owly and me to spend the day signing comics at Strange Adventures in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada alongside Darwyn Cooke! We're really excited about that because the energy on that day is phenomenal! And, I plan on making more and more Owly graphic novels as the years go on with lots of new friends and adventures on the horizon. I can't wait! It's going to be a blast.

Slade: We have just finished Korgi #1 as of the time I write this. It is scheduled to be on shelves around the same time as Free Comic Book Day. I also have 3 other books I illustrated coming out this year; Reality Leak from Henry Holt, The Decoy from Mitten Press, and The Daring Adventures Of Penhaligon Brush from Random House. I am finishing Korgi #2 right now, which is shaping up nicely, and working on a new Christmas picture book for a 2008 release. However it’s going to be a few slow months at the drawing board as I am about to become a dad. And it’s going to be twins! Two of them to go with our two Corgis, Penny and Leo. They are scheduled to be due April 25, 2007, right around the same time I am supposed to be holding the finished copies of Korgi #1 in my hands. I will also be appearing at the Top Shelf booth at San Diego Comicon this year. Needless to say, 2007 is going to be a big year for my family and I!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Interview: Andy Runton (Owly) and Christian Slade (Korgi), Part One

We’ve been a bit interview happy around here lately! This week we’re very excited about our interview with Andy Runton (Owly) and Christian Slade (Korgi). The Owly series is an all-ages phenomenon and one of our favorites, and the first volume of Korgi was a huge hit around here as well. Owly and Korgi are joining forces for Free Comic Book Day and each has their own book coming out soon.

If you haven’t seen Owly, visit the Top Shelf site to preview Volume 1, The Way Home; Volume 2, Just a Little Blue; and Volume 3, Flying Lessons. You can also preview Korgi, Sprouting Wings.

Why interview Andy and Christian together? Owly and Korgi are wordless books and they’re both exceedingly sweet and endearing, and, of course, they’re both published by Top Shelf. The creators have very different styles, however, so each series has its own appeal. We thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the attitudes, working styles, and backgrounds of these two creators. What does Owly owe to Hellboy? Read on!

Sarah: Why did you write, um...draw, um...make your story with no words?

Andy Runton: Well, the real reason is that I don't really consider myself a writer. I tried to write "wordy" comics but the dialogue was always lacking. In fact, the first Owly comic ideas originally had words but I decided to leave them off and use his eyes and body language to tell the story. That was okay with me because I always loved silent characters, and it made me work harder to make sure the story was clear. My biggest inspirations were probably Snoopy and Woodstock, Dumbo, and Pete's Dragon. They were some of my favorites when I was growing up, and they were all silent characters, but they still had lots of personality. That's exactly what I was trying to do, too.

Christian Slade: I too enjoyed Peanuts comic strips and Disney animated films. I have always enjoyed stories told through pictures alone. Everything you need to know about Korgi is in the drawings. Also, the actions of Sprout the korgi are based on my dogs and they don’t use words to communicate.

Tracy: Your books are similar in that there is no dialogue, but your artistic styles are completely different. Could you give us a little background on how you developed your style and what works or artists had an influence on you?

Runton: Wow, well, that's a tough one because Owly didn't really come together for me until I was 28... so that's a lot of inspirational ground to cover. Honestly one of the things that really guided me and continues to guide me is the simple fact that I don't like to draw people. I never have. I somehow just see more character in animals. I loved Babar, Paddington Bear, Curious George, and Lyle Lyle Crocodile as a kid (and still do as an adult). I think the first animated movie I saw was The Rescuers and all of the Disney films were hugely inspirational for me because animals usually dominated the story lines. I also lived for Saturday morning cartoons. After I'd watch I used to try to draw what I had seen. This was pre-VCR and DVD so I'd have to watch closely to study the characters. That's really helped me out over the years. I found myself drawn to animated cartoons because a lot of characters designed for animation are simplified (so that it's less time consuming for the animators) and that made it easier for me to draw them as well. Keeping it simple was always the name of the game. The fact that I'm a bit impatient when I'm drawing probably has something to do with that.

When I was little I'd copy Peanuts drawings from the newspaper and cartoon animal drawings from books trying to learn how they did things. Growing up I read G.I. Joe and other comic books but when I found the early black and white Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, and Eric Talbot, my life changed. Here were superheroes that weren't people and I could draw them! I couldn't get enough.

After a while I stopped going to the comic shop and things got kinda crazy as my school-work got harder. The big turning point for me was really seeing Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. It had been around for a while but it took me a while to notice it. Once I really saw his comics I was older and I realized I had so much to learn and I didn't even know where to start. His artwork blew me away and I continued to see it every day in the newspaper. That kept my cartooning spark alive. Years later when I got back into comics it was because of that spark and because of Hellboy by Mike Mignola and the work of indie cartoonists like Jim Mahfood and Scott Morse. Their heavy use of black and bold sense of design was one of the main things that drew me in for good and really excited me.

Slade: I can relate quite a bit to Andy's answer too. I spent many youthful days in front of a TV drawing. When my family got a VCR, I paused scenes of cartoons and would lay paper over the television screen and proceed to draw my favorite characters in pencil. These were early attempts along with copying comic strips from newspapers which I would clip out and keep in a photo album. My first comic strip obsession was Garfield, followed by Bloom County, and then Calvin and Hobbes. Today, my favorite comic strip is Hagar The Horrible. I also love many of the Disney films. I was even able to work at Disney as an animator for a bit.

By the time I finished college (a place where I found out how hard I needed to work to become a professional), I was aware of many levels of Art History, but also some of the places in between. Before photography, newspapers, books, and magazines used artists to create everything from history and fantasy to maps and other decorations. Many of these artists, specifically pen and ink artists, influenced my work.

Regarding the style for Korgi; I thought it would be neat to create a comic that had drawings that felt more like a children's book rather than a comic book. My hope is to bring a background of illustration and animation to the comics medium.

Shelby: How did you get the idea for your story?

Slade: My wife, Ann, and I got the idea for Korgi while traveling to different dog shows to sell my paintings. The more we researched the breed that we had, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi, we discovered many poems and tales about the dogs involving fairies. There is a collectible market for Welsh Corgi artwork that I have contributed to over the years. Many of the paintings revolve around a fantasy theme, and it is in these early works that the seeds for Korgi can be found. Ann and I are always talking about Korgi, and since we have gotten to know these characters (and there are new ones to be introduced in future books) it’s almost as if we are letting the characters tell the story themselves. We want to establish the characters so well that they take on a life of their own. Korgi is drawn from the world around Ann and I. We get inspiration from all the best things – from the landscapes of the places we have visited, to the way our dog tilts his head when he is begging for a cookie, it’s all Korgi!

Runton: Well my story is similar to Christian's in that Owly's stories are a combination of reality and imagination. I've always loved owls, but oddly enough, I never really drew them until I started drawing the little owl that eventually became Owly. When I was in college, I lived at home and I would stay up really late working on design projects. I would leave little notes for my mom and let her know what time I went to bed so she wouldn't worry about waking me up. I started stayed up so late that she started calling me her "little night owl." But I could tell she was worrying about me so I wanted to make her smile when she read the notes. Now, she's always loved my cute little drawings - the cuter the better. So I started drawing this cute little owl on the notes to make her happy. I drew him like that for years and after a while he sort of became my mascot. Years later when I was trying to come up with a comic book idea I tried everything, dragons, aliens, ninjas... nothing worked. Then one day I just looked at Owly and saw what I had. He'd been there all the time and I had totally missed it.

But that wasn't all. Over time I'd been drawing little birds and animals on the notes along with Owly. Through him I was somehow able to capture how I saw nature and how beautiful it was to me. I could take little snippets of things that really happened to me... like bluebirds rejecting a birdhouse, or hummingbirds having to leave for the winter, and I could reinterpret it all through Owly's eyes. I could draw on the excitement, happiness, sadness, beauty, and joy that I saw around me, bring it into my art and enjoy every minute of it. I combined all of that with my love of comics and drew a little Owly story one day. It all felt so natural. I loved it! After that I started writing and drawing more and more stories using Owly and everything just clicked.

For a couple of guys who create books without words, Andy and Christian can certainly string together a sentence! In fact, they gave us such great information that we’ll have to continue the interview tomorrow. How does a Masters thesis become an all-ages comic? Is Chris Staros really the nicest guy in publishing? And what spectacular news does Christian Slade want to share? Come back tomorrow to find out!

Andy Runton’s website
Christian Slade’s website