Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: That certainly seems to me like a much more viable method, particularly in an artistic environment. I noticed that you’re basically a one-man band. You write, do the art, letterer, colorist, publisher…do you do windows, too?
Thom Zahler: I do them around the house. I’m the only person I know who will work for my own crappy rate. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: Is it more satisfying doing the entire project or does it create its own frustrations?
ZAHLER: I think more satisfying, at this point, for lack of a better term, is that it’s become more incestuous. Because when you’re learning traditional comic book work you’re taught to make your pencils as clear as possible for the inker. And I’ve been doing my own stuff for so long, especially with Love and Capes, that it’s become very hard for me to break out the process. I know people who have encouraged me to get an intern or an assistant to help speed up the process. There are times when Love and Capes, as much as I love it, is not necessarily an immediate source of revenue. It’s generally a back end source of revenue and it’s one of those things I’ve done to promote myself as a creator, but it doesn’t make my house payment. At least not at this point. So I’m taking on other client work and it’s important to get that stuff taken care of along with everything else. With the book I don’t have a clear point of demarcation any more where I can just hand it off to somebody.
I started out as a letterer, so I doubt I’d ever give that up anyway, but I write the script when I write the book. I dialogue when I’m lettering it, because I’m both the letterer and the writer. I can do that. The effort of having to section our one of those tasks so I can hand it off to somebody would likely take me as much time as just doing the job myself. But also it’s a project which I decided to try, because I thought it would be a good idea. I didn’t have to worry about taking anyone else down with me.
When I did Free Comic Book Day, there’s a point where you say, “Hey, I’m going to take this brand new book,” because I did an original for every Free Comic Book Day, “and essentially give it away for free “, and there might be a lot of people who would say that was a bad idea. I didn’t have to convince anyone, because I’m the only one who works for me and I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay everybody else in this chain not knowing how well the book was going to do. It sets me up so that I can take the risk myself. It’s not only a product I can put out, but it makes it easier for me to decide things without having to worry about providing for other people along the way.
CB: So there are definitely some liberating aspects to it.
ZAHLER: Very much so. It allows you to take the risks and also my inker is never waiting for pages from me. It’s a remarkably streamlined process. Since I don’t have to give out anything to anyone else it’s just easier. Communication is obviously internal. It’s just me and the mirror. I don’t have to worry about messing up somebody else’s schedule. If the client comes in at the last minute and I have to do a caricature for them, I’m not messing anyone else up. It allows me to fit it into the parts of my day where it will fit in without having to worry about messing anyone else’s world up.
CB: I imagine it’s nice, too, to not worry about someone not catching your vision of what you wanted to happen on the page. (Mutual laughter.) Love and Capes began in 2006, correct?
ZAHLER: I think you’re right. I started the book the year before and it came out in February at MegaCon and it was in stores in June, I think. It was originally released to the public the same week that “Superman Returns” came out, which I think was ’06. It just gets a little blurry because I know that I was doing work on it before it was published, so it had been with me a little longer than it has everyone else.
CB: Of course. I imagine it’s been gratifying with how well it’s been received.
ZAHLER: That’s just been amazing. It’s not the first project I wrote and drew myself, but it’s the first one that people noticed. One of the things I did was to do a bunch of guerilla marketing techniques, especially with the first issue. I worked with Mid-Ohio Con and got them to advertise in the first issue to help pay for the printing, but part of the deal was that I would give out 100 copies at each convention I did that year so they would get their ad out. I would find whatever the longest line was. So at Comic Con I went to the line waiting for Joss Whedon and I just gave out a bunch of them figuring that people want to read comics. They don’t generally turn down a free book. They’re going to check it out. And people would show up at my table afterward and say, “Oh, I read this and this part was so funny and I love how you did this.” It was the first book I started getting that kind of reaction to. People had read the book I’d done and I knew they liked it, because it was causing people to come up and talk to me afterward.
I’ve also been impressed with the number of people who are much better than me that seem to like the book. When I found out Kurt Busiek was a big fan of the book it just seemed bizarre. I know Mark Waid had been giving him copies of the book, but I never actually had any proof that he was reading them. Because when you give somebody copies of a book for free, you generally don’t quiz them on it afterward. I like Mark’s stuff and if he’s reading, great. I didn’t know if he’d like them or not and we’d see each other for such little periods of time that I wasn’t following up on it. We were at MegaCon and we were talking about the sixth issue and he’s talking about how he really likes this part and he’s squeezing his fist which involved the last panels in issue six, and what I thought was cool was that I realized he was doing it so that he didn’t spoil the book for anyone else who was in the line. That’s when I realized, “Oh, my god. He’s reading the book and he’s enjoying it.” It was great.
CB: I know this isn’t news, but I see Tony Isabella praising you to the rooftops at every opportunity.
ZAHLER: Yes, he is. Tony’s a friend of mine, but most of my friends don’t have any problem telling me when I’m screwing up.
CB: It looks like you have a wonderful mix of topical humor along with hero cliché’s. Does it seem to flow together pretty naturally? What’s your creative process like?
ZAHLER: The latest arc is a little bumpy for me because every iteration of Love and Capes is getting farther and farther away from my area of expertise. The way Love and Capes is set up is that every 6 issues is essentially like a TV season. I write in 6-issue arcs. That’s my commitment when I start the project, because a lot of independent publishers will go, “I’m going to do this 52-issue Magnum Opus,” and then get 3 issues in and run out of money. So I did the first issue as a standalone and if I do issue #2, then I’m going to do issue #6. Every time I start up I look on the horizon and say, “This is a reasonable amount of work that I can do and this is the amount of work that I’m going to do. As a self-publisher, I can afford to do it.
So the first 6 issues are about them dating, and I’ve dated people before. The next 6 issues are about them being engaged and I haven’t been engaged before, but I’ve thought about it and when your friends get engaged, you’re very involved in that process. Then this third arc is about them being married. I haven’t been married before, but I’ve seen other people be married and I have friends my own age who are, so I’ve got some good reference. But now, Abby is pregnant, and I’ve got no idea. My friend Colleen lent me her book, “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Being Pregnant,” so I burned through that just trying to get a better feel for everything that’s involved and to try to come up with story ideas that you wouldn’t necessarily think of.
I tend to write page by page. I will know where a story is going to begin and end, but I don’t necessarily know the middle. Recently I’ve had a couple of books where the ending kind of changes based on what I initially planned. I killed off a character in the most recent issue from IDW; Love and Capes Ever After #5. I know I said 6-issue arcs, but I had done a Free Comic Book Day issue as #13, so 13 issues plus the IDW make that 6-issue arc. I’d killed a character off and originally it was going to be a lot funnier, but then the ending wound up being different. Because I was at the funeral of a guy I’d gone to school with. It was just monumentally crowded and there was honestly an hour and a half wait to get up to see the body and the family. So I had a lot of time to think, and I thought, “Man. It had to be really rough being a superhero when somebody dies, because you go the funeral, but you can’t say ‘How do you know him?’ or you have to come in with a cover story.”
That’s kind of how I arrived at wanting to do some stuff about death in comics and how transient it is. So there’s a scene where the superheroes are actually checking out the body and they’re going through a litany of the ways people get resurrected. Just make sure that none of those are actually in play for this case. I think in terms of comic book storytelling the reader empirically knows that everything is transient, especially in a world where we’ve brought back Barry Allen and Bucky. That nobody is actually dead forever in comics, but the important part is to make the characters think that the character is dead forever. Or you can play against that if you really want to. But it’s kind of the same way you know that Superman is probably going to take care of whatever menace he’s facing. It’s just a matter of making the ride interesting enough and making the story engaging enough that you’re not as concerned about the fact that you kind of ultimately know how it all ends. So in the same way I wanted to deal with superheroes who get them to the point that they’re not worried about it being a real death. It is a real death, now what are we going to do?
Past that, I write on Post-It notes, because every Love and Capes pages is 8 panels. There are two 4-panel sequences. My friend Bill Williams who does the books for Lone Star Press in the days before the iPad pointed out to me that a comic book page is vertical. A computer monitor is horizontal. So if you’re going to do a comic that you’re going to put on a website you might as well cut the comic book page in half, turning it into a monitor size because the act of scrolling down is kind of an unnatural reading act. So part of Love and Capes comes from things like Bloom County, which I’m a huge fan of, but just that 4-panel gag format.
Also when I did the first issue I didn’t know if it was going to do well enough for me to keep doing print books, so I wanted a way to keep doing it on the website. Just because Love and Capes tended to be 3-panel, beat, 3-panel, beat format, so I write it on Post-It notes and put it on my kitchen wall because it’s the longest wall in the house that doesn’t have anything on it. Then I can move the book around as I need to from there. Sometimes the note will be, “Something funny happens here,” which I hate when I write that, because eventually I have to do it.
ZAHLER: There’s a little bit of music to it. It will be, “Okay, I’ve got this scene with Crusader and Abby and there’s another scene of Crusader and Abby later on and I need to have something happen in between so I need to have this beat happen where I focus on these two characters and…better.” But it allows me to see the book and say, “Okay, page 15 is the last of the first page of the Mark and Abby scene, page 17 and 18 are going to be a Darkblade scene and page 19 at the end of the book is going to be the final scene, so it’s a good tool to write visually. Originally being trained as an artist makes it my natural wheelhouse.
CB: I presume you produce your work on the computer? It seems hardly anyone does it on the board much anymore.
ZAHLER: It’s half and half. I pencil by hand and I ink by hand. With Love and Capes I’m inking on marker paper; layout paper. Through a light box. Then I scan it in and I color it and I composite it very much like an animated series format where I’ve designed the bookstore and once I’ve designed the bookstore I don’t have to keep redrawing it unless the characters are directly interacting with some element. I’ve gotten better and better at creating sets that are much more useful. Mark and Abby buy an apartment building at one point and the original beat up apartment that they were remodeling for a couple of issues, the bannister up to the second floor was one piece of artwork, so when I’d draw them I’d have to redraw the bannister because it had to be in front of the characters. When they finally remodeled it I figured out my lesson and just did a second layer on Photoshop and now I don’t have to redraw the bannister every time somebody goes upstairs. Stuff like that just makes it…for doing a full color comic and doing every part of it, realistically I work at a quarterly pace. That’s why there’s a delay between every series I do for IDW because I have to work monthly. So I have to work ahead to get to the point that it will come out monthly, but I’ve been working on it for about a year before the first one comes out.
Just in terms of things like that I’m using the computer as best I can to make it do as much and as complicated as far as the things I do. I’ve started doing the covers as blue lines. I’ll get a fairly tight pencil and I’ll scan it into the computer, do whatever computer modifications I need to whether it’s putting on a logo or drawing something technical, which works really well on the computer. Anything from a building to just doing a giant circle, where it would be a pain to get a compass to work it that large. I’ll have that stuff inked in black, but the actual artwork will be in blue pencil printed out on my printer and then I will ink by hand because I’m looking to have more original artwork. As a businessman I’m cutting off a revenue stream if I don’t have originals. I could change the process with Love and Capes, but at this point, 20 issues in, it just feels like, “Why mess up a good thing?” But any project from here on out I’m going to be putting a little more ink on board to make sure that there is more product that I have and will be able to sell.
CB: It makes good sense, because it’s incredible how the market has just gone bananas the last several years, I’m sure for the more modern stuff, too, but it’s rapidly getting to the point that most mere mortals cannot afford the average Silver Age page, never mind older stuff. There seems to really be a demand out there. Digital comics seem to be the future and I sometimes wonder if something isn’t being lost in the process.
ZAHLER: I’m a big proponent of digital comics, mostly from a television point of view. I’ve found that…like I have a Kindle and I love it because there are books that I want to read that I do not need to own. At a certain point your bookshelf becomes a bunch of animal heads. “Hey, I read this book and I read this book and I read this book.” I read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and I enjoyed it, but I’m probably never going to reread that book. I don’t need to physically own that book for the rest of my life, so it works just as well on a Kindle, whereas I love the art of Pixar and every time a movie comes out and there’s something particularly neat that isn’t going to work on a digital display.
The thing I like about digital comics is that it makes it easy for me to get an individual issue. I would love to have a subscription format because… like DC did “Blackest Night” and it was something like a 60-issue crossover by the time everything was factored in and I don’t know that I needed to buy all 60 issues. I think I would have been just as happy reading it in digital format and just buying the collection afterward. But I think you’re right in that there’s part of the process that’s getting lost and it may be possible to find a middle ground where, for instance the same way I watch Castle on TV. They give it to me for free by putting in some ads, but I still buy the box set at the end of the year and the season because I like the show so much. I don’t do that for every show, but I’m willing to pay more of a premium.
Getting back to comics, for something like All-Star Superman, which I’m going to go back and reread because it’s just so gorgeous and I’m going to have to have every issue of that, but there are other projects where, say, I read the Simpson comics and I actually think they’re pretty brilliant, but I don’t need to have an Absolute Edition Collection. It’s more than the artwork requires and the Simpsons are a little bit more disposable long term, but it’s the only one I can think of that I enjoy at the moment and it goes in the collection, but I’m probably not going to necessarily touch it again.
CB: It may be because my very first interview was with Gaspar Saladino and I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for letterers, but one of the things that stuck out for me was your use of translucent word balloons. Is that an original innovation of yours?
ZAHLER: I’m not going to say I invented it, but I don’t recall having seen it somewhere before. The reason they came about is personally embarrassing to me, because I did come up as a letterer. I did a test page to conceptually see how I would lay out and design the characters and I didn’t leave enough room for the lettering. And that’s horrible, because as a letterer that’s one of the things I complain about.
So I was doing a sample page and I didn’t leave enough room for the dialogue and I didn’t want to have to make room to redraw it, so I said, “Oh, what happens if I make it transparent?” I found I really liked that look. I like being able to see a little bit of the art behind it. I think the first issue has a little bit different translucency than the rest of the issues because some of that was experimenting with printers and how it would look when it actually prints, but yeah, I like that and I like the upper and lower case, which is something I never thought I’d care for.
Lettering is one of those great invisible arts. If you do it right, nobody’s going to notice and if you do it wrong, everybody’s going to complain. I take great pride in being able to lay out this dialogue-based comic and make it very readable and be able to have natural, conversational cadences because of the way you letter it. I know there’s an example in the second or third issue that I have a group of friends who read every page after I get it done because their job is to tell me when I start screwing up. They’ll catch dialogue errors and I’ve actually had friends catch continuity errors. I think that’s pretty insane, given that they’re my characters.
One of my best friends has an 8-year old daughter and she loves the book. He has read it to her over and over and over again and we got into a discussion over how old Abby is. He won it! I was like, “Wait. How can you win this discussion over how old Abby is? She’s my character!” But I couldn’t win. He’d made his case flawlessly.
Getting back to lettering, you can tell the people who know how to letter and you can tell the people who know how to type. I have this theory that you should learn how to do things the old way so that when you learn the new way you know the steps that you’re skipping. When I was at Kubert, comics were still being separated by hand. So that was a process we had to learn. It was on the tail end of being useful. It was a 3-year program, so by the time we finished our third year DC was starting to do digital coloring and you knew that was going to change everything. But it was still important to be able to learn color separation because when you’re working on a page and trying to figure out how to make a black a rich black to it prints right or how this is going to print being able in your head to break it down into CMYK and getting the plates right in your head is an important skill to have.
In the same way I computer letter most of the stuff that I do. I have my own font that I’ve used on occasion. A lot of clients really like the Comicraft fonts and they’re lovely fonts that I don’t have any problem using, but knowing where to place a balloon and how to fit the copy in it right; those are skills that I think are best learned by doing it by hand. Then when you go to computer lettering you know what steps the computer is doing for you. And it makes it easier to integrate it into the process.
CB: I could see Love and Capes easily being turned into an animated format. Do you see that possibly happening?
ZAHLER: I’ve had a lot of people tell me that. I honestly see it as a live action sitcom. My fear…and I can be talked out of this, by either a very convincing case or a truckload of money, because I’m not a proud man, is that most of the animated cartoons that are successful on television these days have a bit of an edge to them. Even The Simpsons, which has a very nuclear family that love each other, but a lot of the jokes have a spark to them. They’re really funny, but I don’t know that an animated TV series that has at its heart an honest-to-god relationship would work as well. I just think that might be a bit much to ask of the viewing public based on current buying trends.
I think Disney and Pixar seem to be able to do it, but I’m worried that in a serious format people wouldn’t respond to it in the same way. The structure of Love and Capes is actually very heavily based on sitcom where most of the superhero stuff takes place off camera; the same way that in most sitcoms the characters have jobs, but you rarely see them go to them or do any actual work. It actually brings down the special effects budget. It keeps a lot of the expensive stuff happening off camera as far as special effects and production work goes.
In terms of what I’m doing I like it because it lets me focus on the characters. I’ve had a couple of fight scenes in the book, but it’s not what the book is about. If you want to read a book with cool fight scenes DC and Marvel publish a bunch of cool comics every month, but if you want to read a relationship comic there are very few of those out there. I figure it’s important to stick to the parts that are unique and by virtue of that it makes a lot of the other stuff fall by the wayside.
CB: Keep to the niche and run with it. I see you’re planning to be at Emerald City Comic Con in the spring. Are you a regular on the circuit?
ZAHLER: Oh, yes. Last year was legendary. I think I did 16 shows. I just decided that there were a bunch of shows I’d put off doing for one reason or another and last year I got kind of carried away. I think I did them all. I like doing the convention circuit and I’m trying to cut back just a little so that it’s not as hard to get other work done as I’m traveling the country. But I’ll be doing, just in the first quarter of the year, Emerald City in Seattle; MegaCon in Florida; and Wonder Con in Anaheim this year, which is a little disappointing because I wanted to go to San Francisco this year. And then I do the big shows in New York and San Diego. San Diego, at this point, I feel like I can’t not do. Part of it is that if you’re not there, people think you’ve left the industry. The other part is that I have a booth and it’s a very well positioned booth. It’s #2000, which, in terms of being able to give people a location is one of the better numbers to have. It’s been there for 8 or so years at this point, so I know if I give it up I’ll never get it back.
For a show like San Diego, it seems counterintuitive, but you see more people if you stay in one place. Because eventually whoever you want to see if probably going to walk by. Whereas if you’re a moving target and they’re a moving target you’re probably going to miss somebody. Having a booth has got me more conversations and contacts than when I would wander the floor separately.
I also like the travel. I try to book the trips a couple of days on either side so I can enjoy the city, especially if it’s one I haven’t been to. I’m lucky enough that I have a lot of friends in a lot of the cities, so I stay with them or extend my trip that way. On my trips to San Diego I’m always up in LA for a week afterward. It works out well.
CB: Very sweet. As I wrap things up here is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to bring up, Thom?
ZAHLER: There’s a new Love and Capes series coming out in either June or July of 2012. It will pick up where the last one left off; the pregnancy that I alluded to. I can’t talk about it because there’s a lot of stuff in play, but there is going to be a Love and Capes Valentine’s Day thing that will happen. From a purely marketing point of view it’s the best day to promote my kind of book, even though I don’t have an actual physical issue coming out. There will be one or more things happening to promote the book, because that’s the day people will be paying attention to it. And of course the website is loveandcapes.com. That’s the big stuff.