Terry Moore: Leap of Faith

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Terry Moore’s been doing unique, personal and interesting comics for over twenty years. He self-published his own series Strangers in Paradise for many years. SiP was one of those indescribable series that crossed many genres, but it was ultimately about some complicated and very interesting characters. That series was much-loved and is still missed by many fans. In 2008, Moore took a leap of faith and launched a very different series called Echo. As you’ll see in this very interesting interview, Moore has some complex mixed feelings about the transition to his new series and his comics work in general. It was a real pleasure to talk such an honest and thoughtful cartoonist.

Jason Sacks: Echo is an interesting book. It’s traditional superhero stuff on the surface, but below that it’s really about people. How did you approach this book? It must have been tempting to create something that’s much more a more traditional super-hero type of series.

Terry Moore: I wanted something that was more high concept than Strangers In Paradise. You know, it’s impossible to say what Strangers In Paradise is. It’s impossible to explain. After a while I got tired of that. So I just thought that with my next series, which turned out to be Echo, I’d try something different.

Sacks: It’s interesting too, because you have the same kind of similarly flawed characters to the ones in Strangers In Paradise, but none of them are really heroic or even villainous in Echo. Do you feel a lack of interest in writing about people who don’t have flaws in them? I think of Julie, who just seems like such a mess when we first meet her.

Moore: I like interesting characters. People who are complex. I’m always pulling for the people who have lots of reasons not to get up out of bed in the morning. I think Julie falls into that category. When the story begins, we’re finding her at a low point in her life. Clearly she has not been living her whole life as a misfit loser, but she is clearly having a rough year, or a rough two or three years.

Finding somebody when they’ve got one wing broken and then something extraordinary happens to them -- I find that basic concept interesting, without ever describing what the thing is, or what happens. It appeals to me to write about characters that you have to start peeling away layers like an onion to figure them out.

I like the stories where they change. Somebody that starts the story off weak can end up strong, and then another character may be strong and we turn them down as we go.

Sacks: We’re already seeing her really change. We’re starting to see Julie start to change as circumstances are forced upon her.

Moore: It’s the classic hero quest thing, in a way, I guess. I try really hard not to follow [Joseph] Campbell patterns, but this is clearly a case of the everyman being handed something of great responsibility. She’s being forced to rise to the challenge because going home and crawling under the covers is just not an option. You’re forced into dealing with something bigger than you’d ever imagined. It’s not the first time we’ve read that kind of story.

Sacks: It’s interesting. You consciously tried to stay away from Campbell, but you still found yourself having to move towards it because of the dictates of your story.

Moore: I think it comes with the genre that I’m playing with here: give something really powerful to one human being and see what the others do about it. As if this were the first person in the clan to come up with the fire stick. That is Campbell’s turf.

Where I was able to avoid a lot of that with SiP, but I also did a lot of wandering around in the story wilderness. But here, dealing with this high concept, it would be very hard not to break it down into a hero journey.

Hopefully what you can do is add so many new elements to it that you don’t get bored with it. We’ve all seen the basic formulas. There must be more to it now to engage the reader.

Sacks: She is definitely a unique person. Definitely not at this point a person who we even necessarily want to be with, but there’s nobody quite like her. Having this thrust upon her externally forces internal changes.

Moore: I like that description. I don’t know if I quite thought of it that way. It’s interesting to explore that as a writer.

Sacks: You were implying earlier that this was much more of a conscious work than SiP was, which I guess makes sense based on where you are with your life now versus when you started the series. Do you approach writing it in a different way than you did when you created SiP?

Moore: A little bit. I certainly had it all mapped out ahead of time. But I find that when it comes down to making the moments, the scenes, that working in more of a cartooning mode -- as opposed to just a writer who figures it out with words only -- that I’m not sure I trust that when I’m going to draw the story as well. So I really fall back on my cartooning roots, which is to create as I draw, and trust that I find moments and dialogue while I’m creating the panel that are much more suited than I ever would have figured out if I was only looking at a word processor.

I do have deep cartooning roots that I rely on when I get in the mechanics of drawing an eight-page scene, even if I did map out that scene last year. So I guess I’m maturing and learning how to handle my chops. At least I hope I am.

Sacks: It’s a little bit like what Dave Sim talked about, which was having story in mind and having it plotted out, but giving yourself the freedom to create in the middle of it.

Moore: You’ve got to. Figuring it out ahead of time is just about as valuable to the process as declaring what you’re going to do on a ski run. Saying it is one thing, but once you get into the middle of it and start doing it, things happen and other things come into play. You have to allow for that. There’s something Zen about cartooning that you need to let happen.

It’s like acting in live theatre. I hear this feedback from actors that if they’re working live stage, the have a script and they know what they’re supposed to be doing, but sometimes these wonderful moments happen and new dynamics occur that can be magical and be added to the process, added to the work. And it sticks. That’s what rehearsals are for.

It’s like that with any performing art. I think that drawing -- cartooning -- is a performing art. It’s a verb. Art is a verb to me. It’s not a noun. You have to let that process happen. It’s like the difference between writing music out with a piece of paper and a pen in a quiet room versus playing it. It’s different dynamics that both lead to creation.

Sacks: I see that in your art style, too. It’s got a certain life of energy, life and improvisation to it compared to a lot of the guys who work for the Big Two companies especially.

Moore: I think when you talk about mainstream work, because everybody is given a single task -- you do this, you do that -- they take their single task as far as they can. So you’ve really got a lot of components. Versus if one cartoonist is doing it -- compare six people creating a Marvel book versus Al Jaffee. Or Jules Feiffer. You’re going to get a different type of -- it’s just going to have a different energy.

There’s a lot to be admired about a mainstream comic and the process used to make it. At their best, you're looking at a wonderful piece of architecture. Some of them are so gorgeous and so complex and beautifully rendered by specialists in their areas that it's like looking at a Frank Lloyd Wright building. It's a beautiful design. But it may not have the energy of a Jules Feiffer teepee that leans in an amusing way or whatever.

It all has a place on the planet. I guess I hover between those two disciplines.

Sacks: I've been reading comics since I was a kid and I've never thought of it that way. It's a really intriguing idea. Architecture vs. improvisation.

Moore: I think if you start comparing it to the other artforms, it's easier to see it in its context. Imagine the really great accomplishments of a Marvel or DC series or a book when they really hit it right. It's like a beautiful building that was built by a team of very talented people. It's hard to find a flaw. It's amazing. It's more than one man might be able to manage, certainly given the time constraints.

Sacks: You've dipped your toe into the water of mainstream books a bit with Runaways, you wrote a Spider-Man book for a while, but you keep coming back to the indy work.

Moore: It's all about the freedom for me. I love being able to do whatever I want, tell any story I want without having to change it because I'm on the phone with somebody who has a different idea. I guess I like that freedom, that independence really.

Sacks: But you do like to occasionally play in that sandbox?

Moore: I do, but I always feel like I'm on probation because -- it's kind of like I'm in somebody else's house, picking up all their possessions, being watched. When you go to work on a mainstream book, it already has a fan base. The fan base already loves somebody that previously worked on it. They're loyal to somebody that came before you. What the hell are you doing here?

You always feel like you're the third husband. And their grown kids are watching you out of the side of their eye. It can be very uncomfortable. And the goal is always to win them over. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't.

Sacks: You have your own pretty passionate fan base that you've built up over SiP. What was their reaction when Echo first launched, and have people come to appreciate the new series?

Moore: I think everybody was a little tentative about what Echo might be. It just had to earn its own wings. It's a totally different thing. It's like going from the Beatles to McCartney's Wings. I was so heavily associated with that first band that it's really hard for somebody to picture me with a different band and doing something different. It's kind of like Foo Fighters.

Echo is my Foo Fighters, you know? I kind of thought about those guys. Thinking if they could do it, I could do it. I just bravely pushed on. I just didn't want to be branded as a one-trick pony, because I do have a lot of characters and ideas in my head. It does take a big leap of faith to quit the best job you've ever had and try to start another one.

So far it’s gone well, and the fans have accepted Echo. I don't think I kept all my SiP fans by any means. I think there were a lot of SiP fans who were only interested in Francine and Katchoo. It's not about me. It’s about Francine and Katchoo. They don't follow me around, but if Francine and Katchoo ever poke their head out again, I'm sure they'll check them out.

Sacks: I'm sure you've had a few conversations with Jeff Smith. He was kind of going through the same thing at the same time.

Moore: Not much. We're very aware of what's going on, but I'm not sure we talk about it that much. Because it's kind of like talking about the boogey man. If you talk about him, he'll show up. It's scary turf.

Jeff's in a different league than I am. Scholastic did wonderful things for Bone. It’s so fantastic for him. With Bone, his legacy is secure now. Whereas I'm still very much fighting to stay relevant in the comic world and hoping that my new series is going to keep me going.

We're playing with two different sets of stakes here. I really need my series to work. It's different for Jeff.

Sacks: Was it hard for you to let go of those characters?

Moore: It wasn't hard in the beginning, because you're full of plans and bravado. But as time goes by, I've found that I miss them, yes. Because I spent so much time with them. It was my job every day to wake up and spend all my conscious hours thinking about them. So to suddenly not have them there has been like a breakup of some sort.

If I could get in the car and cruise by their house drunk one night, I would.

Sacks: Do you feel like you got closure?

Moore: I did get closure on the story that was happening there. But did I leave a lot of stories untold? Yes. I left huge gaping holes all over the place. There's a lot that can be done with it. My mind is open to what to do about that. I haven't really made up my mind yet.

Sacks: You were talking at one point about pursuing a TV series.

Moore: There are people pushing other people off high cliffs trying to get that to happen. So we'll see. That really is out of my control. It's just up to the fate of the gods.

Sacks: And who even knows if it would be successful and all that. With a media adaptation, you never know how it's going to turn out.

Moore: Exactly. So often you'll look forward to something, then once it gets going you immediately wish you'd never done it. We're all really aware of that. I think that's one of the reasons you've never seen anything before. I'm very leery and I will nix anything that just doesn't feel right.

It's not like it's some idea that I came up with at lunch and would be happy to sell for any price. It's the work of my life. I've turned down an awful lot of offers that were normal offers, but they don't match my vision for the show. It has to be special.

Sacks: As time has evolved, some of the themes in the book are seen in a different light. For instance, you got a lot of praise in the GLBT community for your treatment of homosexuality. Attitudes towards that subject have changed a lot since the book started appearing -- the Gay Marriage decision in California. Peoples' perceptions of homosexuality have changed dramatically.

Moore: Society has changed, definitely. And as society changes, it will change the viewpoint on my work. I knew that at the time. When I first started doing SiP, I was standing out there very much by myself on some things. It felt very alienating. Just in a scary place. I couldn't help myself. I was forced to write a story that was emotionally powerful for me, and kept my attention and my empathy for the human condition and trying to survive in a so-called civilization.

It all just kind of snowballed, and next thing you know I have this huge opus to human rights. Or so-called human rights under this blanket of what we call civilization, which turns out not to be in the details.

It's amazing how much America has changed since I first started SiP. I would imagine that in 20 or 25 years time it will be a young reader’s book or something -- I dunno. I just decided that if I focused on creating a story from the heart, that it would live longer than if I wrote about my times.

Sacks: And the other thing that you're obviously associated with is the self-publishing world. As we were talking about in San Diego, you've been involved in self-publishing... I met you at the Spirits of Independence Tour in Seattle in 1994. I was thinking the other day about how few people I met that day are still publishing -- how many are still creating any comics at all -- and you're one of the very few who are still putting out their own book.

Moore: The attrition has been horrifying. I feel like I'm in the Alamo. There is no movement, and there's no community, and there's no network now. There's no support. Every creator is an island.

It seems like when you look back at the history of art, it's either one or the other: artistic community or isolation. Isolation is probably more common than community and camaraderie under some movement. I guess I should count myself lucky that I was able to experience any sort of art movement at all. Even if I was the Johnny-come-lately.

I'm at an age where I've showed up at the end of every party in the last 50 years. Whatever big movement you want to track in America over the last 50 years, I came of age just at the very end of it. Either I'm ill-timed or I'm just bad luck. I don't know which one it is.

Sacks: My wife and I laugh about how we're not quite Baby Boomers, not quite Generation X.

Moore: I have the exact same slot. Apparently you need to be born between the zero and the three of a decade to catch the movement. [Laughs]

That syndrome in my personal life has also hit me in comics. I was never part of the initial self-publisher group. You never see me in those photos of them all together. Because I was a self-publisher, I was never in the magazines. I wasn't Fantagraphics, I wasn't Drawn & Quarterly, the Canadian movement, and I wasn't mainstream. So there was no magazine for me.

My influences don't have anything to do with comics, they come from MAD magazine and comic strips. So there's just nowhere for me to fit in. I'm just a total misfit, all along the way. I have no idea what I'm doing here. [Laughs]

Sacks: At the same time you've put out over 100 comics over the years. You're one of the few people who's able to survive with his own small company in his own unique niche. You've got to feel successful in that way.

Moore: I don't know if it's success or just ignorance in action.

Sacks: Are you still hoping to make it in newspaper strips? That's another thing that used to be a big deal and has changed dramatically over time.

Moore: Exactly. Now the syndicates finally know my name, and they're shutting down. Yeah, I could get a syndicated strip now, but who gives a shit? Saying I want to get a syndicated strip now is like saying I want to get into a disco band.

Sacks: And who knows where things are going...

Moore: By the time I figure out digital comics, it will all be in holograms.

Sacks: Paper? Who prints on paper?

Moore: Digital? You're still digital? [Laughs]

Sacks: You obviously have a conclusion in mind for Echo, since it's ending with #30. Do you have something lined up after that for us to look forward to?

Moore: I'm kind of flipping and flopping between several ideas. I'm actually beginning to get the occasional cold chill realizing that it's just around the corner. Come spring I'm going to have to come up with something that's going to carry me through 2011. I'm not totally sure what that is. I'm in a very anxious place with it.

That's probably a good thing. It keeps me attentive and not at all blasé about the future. Anybody who knows me personally knows that I'm really just creating and publishing out of sheer fear that I will become obsolete on any given day. The fact that I now have to come up with a third series is just – if I had a therapist I'd go to him.

So… yeah. We're working on it, and we'll see what I come up with.

Sacks: Anything else you'd like our readers to know about you?

Moore: Just that I sure am glad to be here. I sure am glad to have a career after all this time. To still be able to wake up and draw comics every day. Not a lot of people get to do that. I'm very grateful. I'm very grateful to people who like comics. Especially people who like my comics.

I'm always thinking I'm just one bad comic away from tanking my career, and then what would I do? I don't know what I would do, whether I'd have to do work at McDonald’s or try to get into a blues band real quick. I don't know. The thought just terrifies me. It makes me stay at the drawing table. Trying to do the best work I've ever done on the next issue, because whatever you did last week is so over. It's all about what you're putting up this week. Staying relevant. I want to have a long career. I want to do this till I drop. I'm glad to have the chance.

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