A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Dear Creature by Jonathan Case, a new graphic novel out from Tor Books. As the review probably made clear, I love this book – both as a story, and as a work of sequential art. So I invited Jonathan Case (its creator) and Steven Padnick (his editor at Tor) to join me for an hour or so to talk about comics, storytelling, and what went into bringing us Dear Creature.
Jonathan Case, Creator of Dear Creature
|Jonathan Case writes and draws books in Portland, Oregon, as a member of Periscope Studio, the largest cooperative of comics creators in America. His work is featured in the Eisner award–winning Comic Book Tattoo, and has been lauded as some of the best show of new talent in comics. Dear Creature is his first book.
Steven Padnick, Editor at Tor/Forge Books
|Steven Padnick edits graphic novels for Tor Books and writes for Tor.com. He has been working in book publishing for eight years. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
CHRIS: First off, thanks for joining me! It’s great to have the both of you here to chat about Dear Creature. To start things off, Steven, I was really wondering what caught your eye about Dear Creature? How did it show up on your radar screen?
STEVEN: This is going to the most boring story in the world, actually. Jonathan’s very good agent sent it to me. I contacted Jonathan’s studio – Persicope – asking “Hey, is there anyone there with a graphic novel proposal?” and then a day later I got a call from Judy Hansen saying “I’m sending it over!” and it was done. Which is unusual for a graphic novel, since they are usually sold to editors at the pitch stage, and then someone spends a year of their life drawing it. But Jonathan had already done that. So I got a pretty much complete graphic novel. That catches your eye.
CHRIS: So you got both the script, and all of the art as well?
STEVEN: No, this was a one-man show. Everything was already done: there wasn’t a script, just the book, pretty much as you see it. And I read it, and it’s fantastic. Most of the book was done by the time I got to it, so if you want to know what caught my eye about the book the answer is…the book. It’s a fantastic story. I finished it off pretty quickly. Obviously beautiful. I was getting a lot of pitches at the time, and so many of them sounded the same – derivative. This was like nothing else. At all times the story took turns that were both totally naturally for the story, but surprised me. Which is the best situation. Usually we get great art. Or we get a great story. This was both, by someone I had never heard of. At all. Someone no one had heard of.
Every review has said the same thing: this book is fantastic and I cannot describe it to you. I found myself staring at this book that was perfect – as a book. As a selling item, by a new writer, doing a new concept, with a new character, with a really hard to describe plot, the thought was “Well, this is perfect. But it’s hard to sell. But it’s perfect.” In the end, the perfection argument won out, and made me get this book. Now.
CHRIS: So that difficulty in describing it, how has that translated into the publicity and promotional efforts to get the word out about Dear Creature?
STEVEN: There’s no magic thing we can do. We do what we do with any prose book that’s new: We send it to reviewers, we believe in our product, and we do our best. Except for our personal pleas to close friends to pre-order the book, there’s not much more we can do other than what we do for every book. I wish there was some secret like “Oh, we slip a twenty to the reviewer at Amazon” but no, we just do what we always do. Galleys help. That’s the most important thing. Getting people to review it, and hoping that great reviews and word of mouth sell the book.
JONATHAN: And I’ll chime in here, too. I think Tor has done a good job of giving me as a creator opportunities to reach out to a growing fan base with either guest spots on other blogs or interviews like this one. Bookstore signings, that kind of thing. And granted, they probably do that for their other authors in addition to sending books and galleys as well, but in comics, you don’t always find that support. So for me as a comics author, it’s gratifying to have that. I have been getting more exposure and more great reviews than I would have if I’d gone with a lot of the other options that were available to me when I was shopping the book around. It’s worked out well.
CHRIS: That actually raises another question. In sequential art today, creators have so many options for how to commercialize their work – whether crowd-funded indie books, serialized comics, webcomics, etc. What sort of drove you to do this as a graphic novel as opposed to packaging the story in some other format?
JONATHAN: Well, that’s a big question for me. I always wanted to do the sort of work that would take advantage of what I saw as my various strengths. I didn’t know that any one strength that I possessed as a creative person would have really allowed me to succeed. I’ve been drawing since I was two years old. I’ve just gone through reams of paper, and I love telling stories, I love acting and the performing arts. Comics is a way of doing all of those things. If you talk to anybody in my studio that not only draws books for clients but has their own creative thing flowing – whether it’s their own original graphic novels or short stories or whatever it is – almost all of them have an interest in acting. Or a background in acting. It’s really kind of surprising. Around college I graduated with a degree in performing arts, and I was thinking I was going to go to NY or LA. Then at a certain point my life just took a different turn. And I realized I really wanted to tell the stories that I wanted to tell now, and comics is a way for me to do that in a way that I might not ever have had the chance to if I had gone and tried to be an actor or a screenwriter or something. And comics is also just a great group of people. There’s a great community here in Portland that I really connect with on a personal level. Kind of a family business, it feels like.
CHRIS: So with that kind of background in drama, I have to imagine that informed the “crustacean chorus” in Dear Creature to some extent?
JONATHAN: Oh yeah. The whole thing really. The fact that I have a monster that speaks in iambic pentameter, really all of it. My dad started taking us to see Shakespeare plays when I was probably four years old. I couldn’t really appreciate it at the time, but I was steeped in it from an early age. But I also knew how overwrought it could be – how tiresome it could be if it wasn’t done well. And that was the main reason why I put the crabs in there. You don’t want just a bunch of flowery verse with no release valve. I needed to be able to poke fun at myself sometimes. The heart of the book for me is this character that has the sense of something divine. Shakespeare is like Grue’s Bible. It’s his code for living. Its archaic and anachronistic and kind of weird to his peers – like these little crabs that are saying “What are you doing with your life?” But I think anybody with a sense of the divine butts up against that. So that’s how I wanted to connect with this monster story. These grand themes, these personal themes, and the B-movie stuff. That kind of mash-up was interesting to me.
CHRIS: In the press release I saw for Dear Creature, it mentioned the story being somewhat inspired by experiences off the coast of Mexico. Did you run into a teen-eating atomic sea monster out there?
JONATHAN: Well, they have the diablo rojo out there – not the giant giant squid, but the mini-giant squid. That’s kind of monstery. But yeah, I spent some time in Mexico with my parents. They retired early. My dad had the dream of getting to the South Pacific and to New Zealand on a sailboat. And so he bought a sailboat. We never got to the South Pacific, but we did toodle around the Sea of Cortez in a Steinbeck style and met a bunch of different people from all walks of life. This was probably when I was twelve to sixteen. Pretty formative years. And that experience fed into the book, not only in terms of some of the isolation themes. I was the only kid in a vast sea of expats – you know, middle-aged people. But it was also an experience broadening my horizons. All these different people from all these walks of life and dialects. It was a very inspiring time, after I got over the frustration of being the only kid on the block or on that corner of the dock for a few years. The cabin that the leading lady in Dear Creature is holed up in is modeled after the cabin that I would hole up in myself, where I spent hours drawing and dreaming and figuring out a way to escape from paradise.
CHRIS: Speaking of Giuletta, she is obviously not your proto-typical love interest. What drove you to create such an interesting and atypical character?
JONATHAN: I knew it was going to be a hard-sell to do a romance with an Elizabethean-minded monster in a modern world. There’s going to be a quirky person at the end of that rainbow. So I was interested in the idea of matching him up with someone who had probably never had a great love in their life, they were probably a little set in their ways, or a little bit crazy. Just a good match for the insanity of this sea monster marching around with all of his idealism. And early on I had this vision of how I would do my take on the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. If I had this sea monster sitting in a tree outside of a Spanish mission’s window talking to an older woman and making a love of words to her. That was a powerful image that I wanted to get to. So that was the target, I guess. And I worked on the book to get to the point where that scene would make any sense at all.
CHRIS: That raises a question about process. And this goes for the both of you, actually. What were your processes in working on this book at various stages in its lifecycle?
JONATHAN: For me it started out as a play. I wrote a thirty minute play as a senior project in college. It was all in iambic pentameter, and it was about this monster who falls in love with a girl. And the girl reciprocates, instead of being taken aback in horror. That was the genesis of it for me. From there when I decided I wanted to do a comic, I really was coming at it from the standpoint that I wanted the script to be really solid before I started in on something that was probably going to be a multi-year process. I spent about a year off and on – part-time – working on the script, sending different revisions to a friend of mine in LA. His name is Alex Kamer, and he’s a guy who I enjoyed working with in the past on different projects. So before I had Steven, he was providing me with editorial feedback on a really consistent basis. And that was hugely helpful. I was also showing it around to different in Portland when I was just getting plugged into the comics scene. All this helped me refine and figure out what was working, wasn’t working, what I was passionate enough about to stick to my guns on, and then what things I could reconsider. I definitely didn’t work in a vacuum and that was important. By the time I got to actually drawing the thing, I had it all laid out, rehashed, and combed over pretty well. So I felt confident that it was something I could dedicate that time to. Comics just take a lot of time to execute, so that was sort of my process.
CHRIS: So that ultimately led to you having a finished, completed graphic novel for Steven. So what happened when you handed that off to him at Tor? What was that editorial process like from there on in?
STEVEN: Mostly I fixed typos. And I think we had one art change. Also there was a character who I thought might have been killed, who we clarified was not killed. Those were the notes.
CHRIS: So a fairly light editorial process then?
STEVEN: Yeah. Other than acquisitions, which itself is an important part, this was not my finest hour as an editor. It was more of an hour as an editor. Easy fixes, like “A period needs to go here” or “I think this character teleported, you need to fix that.” That was about it. Everything else was done.
CHRIS: I imagine that is different from the graphic novels and prose novels you might have worked on previously.
STEVEN: So far, all the graphic novels have gone through very different styles. Dear Creature was actually fairly close to the way first-time prose novels are sold because most first-time prose novels are completed by the time an editor looks at them. They should be pretty close to good enough to print for us to risk the money on them. So it’s very different from the way I’ve done other graphic novels, but it is very similar to the other prose novels I’ve worked on.
CHRIS: I also have a bit of a question for you, Jonathan, on some of the differences in your experience working on Dear Creature – which is entirely your project – and Green River Killer where you were collaborating. How did those two experiences compare for you?
JONATHAN: They were very different. In the case of Green River Killer, I was getting scripts in chunks. Jeff [Jensen] was working on it and he had a solid direction that he was headed in. He had a detailed outline he’d sent me, so in general I knew the story but I didn’t know the details of how it was all going to fall down. In a sense, I just had to learn to trust him as a storyteller. And trust my editor at Dark Horse that we were actually going to be able to land the plane because I was drawing twenty or thirty pages at a time, and then I would get more script in another week or two, and then do another twenty or thirty pages. And we’re talking final art, not layouts as I did with Dear Creature. With Dear Creature I laid the whole thing out before doing final art, but with Green River Killer it was kind of shooting from the hip. I would get scripts, I would thumbnail it out quickly, go through a lot of reference that was already provided to me by Dark Horse and Jeff. And supplement as needed and then start final art. I cranked through at a pretty good clip. I’m still happy with the work, but it was a completely different process. The freedom of that was really exciting: to be able to work on something where I hadn’t had to divorce myself from all of the preciousness that you get into when they’re your own characters and your own plot points. I didn’t have to kill any of my darlings because it was all laid out for me. So we got it done at a pretty efficient pace and I’m really pleased with the way the book turned out. They did land that plane, and I’m indebted to Dark Horse for releasing a book at about the same time as Dear Creature. That has really paved the way for me as an author, as another comics creator. The two books have really been cross-pollinating a little bit so that’s definitely good.
STEVEN: Yeah, that struck me as the funniest thing about the difference between the traditional prose publishing industry and the comic book publishing industry. We had a finished book of Dear Creature over a year ago, and then we went through the process of selling it to the bookstores, and getting publicity, and doing all this stuff for it. And in the time between when we had the gotten the finished book and published it, Jonathan drew an entire book that Dark Horse published before Dear Creature came out. The traditional prose publishing industry has ridiculously long lead times before books go on sale, and the comic book publishers have none. As soon as they’re done with the book, it is out the door and on the stands. And maybe somewhere between the two is the right answer to how long it should take for a book to come out. But we definitely had both extremes with Green River Killer and Dear Creature.
JONATHAN: It was very surreal.
CHRIS: What’s your perspective on the current environment of the comic book industry. It’s clearly an industry heavily in flux, with graphic novels, webcomics, and digital all changing the playing field. What’s your perspective on that industry today?
STEVEN: There are more people making better work today than there ever has been in the comic book industry. If we don’t limit ourselves to one particular format of comics, whether we’re talking about graphic novels or single issues or webcomics or manga. If you look at all of that, you see an industry at a creative height or maybe heading up a further creative slope. As for the industry as a money-making venture, I don’t know. DC had an amazing month with their re-launch of their individual titles. At the same time, Habibi and Hark! A Vagrant are bestsellers in the bookstores and there are new webcomics popping up every day. Which of these paths comics are going to take in the future? I don’t know. I don’t even have an iPad. Yet. But clearly that’s another route for comics to take, too. So flux is scary, but I believe in the talent that exists today and I think the comics industry is going really big places. Soon.
CHRIS: Jonathan, what’s your perspective from the creator’s side?
JONATHAN: It’s an exciting time, though scary in a lot of ways. I’m glad to see a lot more graphic novels getting produced with the amount of care that I think they should have. I think a lot of publishers are looking at them more and more as complete packages. And I guess I’m speaking of graphic novels in particular, not comics as a whole. But as we move towards this digital distribution model that we’re still trying to figure out, it makes sense to me that when you put something into print you really want an artifact. You want something that has a nice weight, a nice feel, and looks good on a coffee table. And that hasn’t always been the first priority with published comics. In both the case of Dear Creature and Green River Killer, they’re both really good looking books. People want that. People want a counterpoint to the lack of physical object that digital distribution presents. So I think that’s a good model. That’s my ideal model as we move forward. I don’t know if that will stand the test of time, but I’m glad to see that these art heavy books get an artistic presentation, and are marketed that way.
CHRIS: That raises another question about the artistic style you utilized for Dear Creature. It’s certainly very distinctive, especially when compared against what many people think of as the superhero default of the comics medium. What drove you to work in that particular style?
JONATHAN: I didn’t grow up reading a whole lot of comics. So I guess I’m not beholden to some of the same tropes that a lot of people are used to. I was sort of reinventing the wheel, maybe a little bit more than I even needed to when I was starting out with Dear Creature, but I knew that I wanted to emulate the style that people operated in during the ’50s and ’60s – the era when the book is set. So I worked oversized to have that grounding. I worked at 14×20 or 21 inches or some crazy thing. So the originals are huge. And a lot of people ask if I worked that big to get more detail, but the answer is not really. I worked that big because I wanted to emulate people like Alex Raymond and some of those classic comic creators. My hand likes drawing at that size, and I think that when you reduce it down or just when you present it next to other comics – you can’t necessarily put your finger on it, but you can tell that there’s a little something different going on. And I also wanted to get rid of cross-hatching. I made the aesthetic choice that I was just going to use stark black and white, and there are reasons for that which are probably boring for anybody but the artsy types. But it worked out for me. I like how the book looks, and even if there are some panels where it was more challenging to work in that mode, I think there is a readability to it. Your brain registers things quickly when you see an image that is well-composed with just black and white. And the emotional immediacy of it appeals to me.
CHRIS: Did you feel that by going with this aesthetic style you were giving anything up? Were there any trade-offs you were concerned about?
JONATHAN: Maybe a little bit. But when you give yourself a creative limitation like that, it tends to help your focus. So problems that I would have had five solutions to, suddenly I only had one or two. So when you’re working on a project of this size, sometimes that is helpful just for efficiency’s sake. You can always find a solution, no matter what mode you’re working in. It’s just a matter of having to think about it a little more on the front-end, which is something that I think is good for comics. When you think about something on the front-end as opposed to when you’re drawing it, it helps with your storytelling.
CHRIS: Now to wrap things up, a couple of questions à propos of nothing. First up, what are some of the stories you guys absolutely love? What are the stories that you wish that you’d had the chance to work on themselves? New, old, whatever.
STEVEN: Are we limiting this to graphic novels?
CHRIS: Oh no! Any stories whatsoever.
STEVEN: I wish I had written Casablanca.
STEVEN: Just flat out that is one of the best scripts. Ever. I wish that I’d written it.
CHRIS: Any others? Or Jonathan, any thoughts on your end?
JONATHAN: I like how Steven is editorially concise.
STEVEN: I have go-to answers.
JONATHAN: I love Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I love the characters in that book.
STEVEN: That’s a good one too.
JONATHAN: Yeah, it’s one of those stories where its reach almost exceeds its grasp. But you love it anyway. That’s definitely one of my favorites. Moby Dick, because that’s another weird book that works. I like weird things that work.
CHRIS: So what have you guys got on your nightstand now? Or on the top of your to-read stack?
STEVEN: This is going to sound like its self-promotion, but I actually read a lot of Tor books these days. I’m reading Ganymede, which is the third novel in Cherie Priest’s steampunk series – the Clockwork Century. The first one is Boneshaker, and the second is Dreadnought. They take place in an alternate history wild west where instead of lasting five years, the Civil War has now lasted twenty and shows no sign of stopping. And also there are airships, and also a disaster that destroyed Seattle and released a zombie plague on the US. They are fantastic, fun, rip-snorting adventures. The book came out a month ago, and it’s great.
JONATHAN: My wife makes fun of me for always having this copy of Don Quixote that I’ve never finished, the new translation. But I’ve been working on it, reading a little bit of it at a time pretty much ever since I’ve known her. And I’ve got this other book on grant-writing for artists that I’m reading through. Nothing too terribly exciting.
CHRIS: It’s actually funny that you should mention Don Quixote. Reading Dear Creature, I thought I was picking up a lot of quixotic elements in that story. As you’ve been working your way through Don Quixote, did you feel that filtering through into your work on Dear Creature?
JONATHAN: I was familiar with Don Quixote, but I hadn’t actually read the book when I started Dear Creature. But yeah, we have similar heroes doing similarly crazy things. They have their own ideas about what’s important and it doesn’t necessarily make sense to a lot of the world around them. So yeah, I can definitely see that connection.
CHRIS: Alright, so now what’s likely our final question: what’s some of the fun stuff you guys are working on now? What can we all look forward to seeing from you guys in the near future?
JONATHAN: Well, for my part, as we’re doing this interview I’m actually working on a page for Dark Horse Comics. I’m doing three different projects for them that are all starting up this month, which is kind of wild. Two of them are shorter pieces, and one is a longer piece that I’m doing with John Arcudi writing. So those will be some of my freelance projects. And I’ve got another book in the works that is another personal project, and doesn’t have a publisher attached to it. Nudging Steven in the ribs over the airwaves there. It’s kind of an adventure, getting back to things that I loved and appreciated when I was a little kid, a book geared to all ages, all audiences. So I’m excited about that. The stuff for Dark Horse, one is called House of Night and my little bit of it is Anthony and Cleopatra as vampires. The project with John Arcudi is called The Creep, which is a character he developed for Dark Horse Presents a few years back. Those are some of the things I’m working on.
CHRIS: How about you Steven? What’s got you particularly excited?
STEVEN: Out in stores right now, actually, are a couple of projects that I worked on. One is a graphic novel – written by Orson Scott Card and his daughter Emily Janice Card – called Laddertop which is a great all-ages sci-fi adventure. That’s out now – actually came out a month ago. Upcoming we’re collecting the webcomic Girl Genius in a very nice hardcover collection. It’s gorgeous, it’s going to be fantastic. After that there’s a graphic novel which I’ve had a lot more influence on called The Advance Team, which is written by Will Pfeifer who wrote Aquaman and Catwoman and is drawn by a Spanish artist named Germán Torres who drew Dr. Who and Speed Racer. The one sentence pitch is a young man discovers that his pop culture icons are in fact the advance team of an alien invasion and only he can stop them before the invasion happens, except while he knows that’s true, everyone else sees this young man going around murdering famous people.
CHRIS: Sounds fun!
STEVEN: He kind of has to somehow do this, and convince people he’s not crazy. It’s a lot of fun, total crazy action. Will has been plugging it pretty much once a week on his blog so you can already see some of the preview pages up. We got Tom Orzechowski to letter it, and the whole book looks fantastic.
CHRIS: Well, that’s pretty much it. It’s been great chatting with you, and thanks again for taking the time!
JONATHAN: Thanks, it’s been fun!
CHRIS: And as a final way of saying thank you, here’s the book trailer for Jonathan’s Dear Creature: