Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Deconstructing Destructor with Sean T. Collins pt. 2

(All art provided by Matt Wiegle)

When we last left our heroes...

Kiel: One thing I find compelling about this entire endeavor is the fact that it's one of the few times I recall there being a real collaborative effort between folks who still fall very firmly in the alt comics camp. I'm sure someone will show up to point to 12 examples of this, but it's still pretty rare. How difficult has it been for you to enter that part of the comics community as a writer only, and what do you think the response has been or might be from the "pure cartooning" folks?

Sean: I don't have 12 examples of it! Haha, I wish I did. The touchstones for writer-artist collaborations in bona fide alternative comics are really few and far between. There's Harvey Pekar and Dennis Eichhorn, but they were doing autobiography. There's Alan Moore's body of alternative work, but he's Alan Moore! There's Gilbert Hernandez drawing stuff for Peter Bagge or Mario Hernandez, but he's Gilbert Hernandez! They're not really germane comparisons. I think that for more direct, and more recent, comparisons…hmm. Rob Vollmar's comics, mostly for NBM, are done in collaboration with artists. Top Shelf has been publishing more collaborations -- the Immonens, Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover, Jason Hall and Matt Kindt, and of course Chris Staros's comics themselves. My friends from the old horror blogosphere Matt Maxwell and Sam Costello have written very independent horror comics for other people to draw. There are the Cold Heat comics, which involve Frank Santoro either drawing stuff he co-writes with Ben Jones or other artists drawing stuff Frank co-wrote. MOME is publishing couple of collaborative comics right now, drawn by Josh Simmons and Derek Van Gieson, and I think Fantagraphics is a publisher where the disinclination toward collaborative comics in the contemporary alternative idiom is perhaps strongest. So hey, maybe I do have 12 examples! But I think that very, very few of those examples really involve a situation where one person is a fully functioning solo cartoonist who normally writes and draws their own stuff (like Matt) and the other is a person who literally can't draw at all (like me). And I think that maybe only half of them could you get bona fide altcomix cartoonists to even classify as doing the same kind of thing they do, really.

How difficult has it been for me to enter it? Not very, I guess! All it took was a decade of low- and non-paying gigs writing incessantly about untold hundreds and thousands of comics day in and day out. [Laughs] Early on, like 2001, 2002, when I told people I wanted to write comics, cartoonists I mean, they would inevitably say "you should just draw them yourself." But I can't draw! I really can't. And what I want to do in comics requires craft. I could bang out stick figures or shitty little scribble people with no perspective, but that doesn't work for any of the kinds of comics I want to do. I like to think that my criticism work has convinced people that I'm serious about these kinds of comics, and know enough about them to talk about them intelligently, and love them very much. Whether or not that translates into good comics of my own, who can say, but I think it at least gets my foot in the door. And of course, people take Matt seriously no matter what he does, as well they should.

The response has been bizarrely, gratifyingly good from "pure cartooning" folks. I mean, I'm still waiting on my congratulatory phone call from Robert Crumb's villa -- maybe he called Matt -- but many real-live cartoonists have been very complimentary and supportive in comments, over email, and on Twitter. It means a great deal to me. In the end, I want Destructor to feel like the product of one cartoonist, like Matt and I are really working hand in glove. That support is a sign that it's working, I hope.

Ben: Brief publication history of Destructor from Elfworld to the current site--GO!
Elfworld was the idea of Jeffrey Brown, with whom my wife and I are friendly. He wanted to put together an anthology of fantasy comics by alternative comics creators -- I don't know if he had Chris Pitzer's alt-SF anthology Project: Telstar in mind when he came up with it, but something in that vein. When I heard about this, I realized that maybe here was my opportunity to finally write and publish a comic on the one hand, and do something with these Destructor ideas I'd had for almost two decades at that point on the other. In my mind I envisioned whatever I'd end up doing with it as akin to Brian Ralph's mostly silent all-ages adventure comics for Highwater Books, like Cave-In. All I needed was to pick a story from Destructor's life that was more fantasy than science fiction, and there was a period in his life, a time when the Mob was not a going concern, that I realized I could flesh out with the aforementioned Conan-style wanderings and battlings. So I quickly came up with the idea of "Destructor Comes to Croc-Town." I can't recall if I approached other artists to work with me on it before Matt -- I was friendly with the great cartoonists Jordan Crane and Nick Bertozzi at the time because I'd been hiring them to do illustration work for the magazine I was an editor at, and I'd be surprised if I didn't reach out to them in some way just to see if they had the time or inclination to collaborate, even if I didn't end up actually pitching them on this particular script. But I think I'd also seen Matt around at the then-young MoCCA festivals and knew he was still making comics, many of which were about myths and legends that involved monsters and fighting -- pretty much perfect for Destructor. I approached him, he said yes, and we did the strip Marvel Method. I wish I still had the written description, but it's lost to the ether. Matt did his thing, I suggested some tweaks, and voila, finished product.

It took a long time to see print, because Jeff's other commitments prevented him from running point on it anymore; eventually an enterprising young cartoonist and publisher named François Vigneult realized the project was M.I.A., got in touch with Jeff, got his blessing to run with all the submissions that Jeff had received so far, and published it through his Family Style imprint. The book went over well, and François naturally started talking about Volume Two. It's with that in mind that we produced "Prison Break." I think François has since published another Elfworld book, though not a full-length sequel, but "Prison Break" never made it in.

At some point, and I don't remember when exactly, I think I showed Brett Warnock and Chris Staros at Top Shelf, with whom I'd become friendly through my work as a magazine writer and editor and comics blogger, the strips I had. At the time, they were looking to relaunch the webcomics component of the Top Shelf website, and they offered to publish the Destructor strips on it. We couldn't have been more pleased -- Top Shelf's the real deal, and it felt really good to be published, in whatever fashion, by the guys responsible for Craig Thompson, Jeffrey Brown, Alan Moore, and Eddie Campbell.

Anyway, in the years since we completed "Prison Break," I kept sending new stories and scripts to Matt, and we also made a couple of other non-Destructor comics together, and he helped me put together a collection of my comics that he published through the Partyka collective, and of course he kept doing his own stuff. But there finally came a time this past fall when I was really hungry to be working regularly on comics, Destructor in particular, so I pitched Matt on doing a Destructor webcomic. Turns out he himself was looking to do something along those lines, as he'd just wrapped up some major freelance and personal work and was looking to do something that would see him putting out new work on a regular basis while he prepped for his next major personal project. And this happened to coincide with me relaunching my own blog at the new seantcollins.com domain. It just all came together.

So we've started out by recoloring the original black and white "Croc-Town" and "Prison Break" per Matt's idea, and we'll start rolling out brand-new, full-color material after that.

Ben: What prompted you to "start in the middle" when it came to publishing Destructor as far as beginning with "Destructor Comes to Croc-Town," a story that picks up in a random period during his life?

Well, as I said, it had to do with me needing a fantasy-type story to fit Elfworld's parameters; this time period in his life worked much better for than did the points that would have made for a good start if I wanted to do it all chronologically. As it turns out, I think it works really well. The sense of mystery, of not knowing exactly who Destructor is or what he wants, is what helps get that strip over, or so I've been told by a bunch of people who've read it. And once we'd finished it, Matt encouraged me to continue telling the stories out-of-order -- it gives us a lot of freedom, and I think it's fun for people to try to put the pieces together. This, of course, is exactly what Robert E. Howard did with Conan, though I didn't really know that at the time.

Ben: What is "Prison Break" about?

Sean: Three Spanish landowners on a weekend in Manhattan. [Laughs] No, it's about a prison break, and if you haven't already read the original black-and-white version, you will soon see who's leading it and who that person is trying to rescue, or at least one of the people that person's trying to rescue. Much more than that, I'd rather not say.

Kiel: This may just be me, but I'm really interested in the larger plan for how you're rolling out Destructor's story. That is to say, I'm curious to see how you plan on creating a cohesive whole for this character with stories randomly plucked from his life and told in the "There is nothing but what's physically happening"/Brian Ralph style of storytelling. Are you looking to introduce a timeline of his life as this goes along, or will the ways in which these pieces fit together reveal themselves once we're five or six stories in?

Sean: Well, not all of the stories will be so firmly in that all-action, very little dialogue mode, first of all. I’ve got a couple of real yakfests in the can. So you’ll learn a bit more about Destructor from that, both in terms of what he’s like as a person and some actual backstory. So that’s one way to address this issue.

With regards to timelines and suchlike, it’s still so early in the game that I haven’t given that much thought beyond “Yes, at some point I think it might be good to write out a timeline.” But I would probably do that after the vast majority of events on the timeline have already been revealed through actual comics, rather than peppering the timeline with cryptic, as-yet-unseen things. I want the stories to be the story, if you follow me.

Frankly, I also don’t want to lock myself into doing this or that simply because I wrote it down publicly at one point. A good deal of the fun of Destructor for me so far has been – I don’t want to say improvising, but it’s something like that. Like, for example, as I said earlier I’d never really thought much about the period of Destructor’s life during which “Croc-Town” and “Prison Break” take place, but simply conceiving of the “Croc-Town” story instantly created an entire storyline to fill that gap. If I’d hashed out some elaborate timeline and were in one way or another forced to stick to it, I might not have had that freedom.

Meanwhile, Matt will occasionally add elements that give me a whole new path to go down. For example, he invented the whole sequence in “Croc-Town” where Destructor’s arm armor gets torn off. Once I saw it, I had to think of why that might have happened, and what the consequences might be, and how he might get it fixed, and so on and so forth. This all led directly to a story I probably never would have thought of otherwise, but one that just so happened to perfectly tie into all sorts of ideas and plot points I already “knew” about Destructor from years back.

So yeah, I’d much rather a sense of the whole of his life emerge from the readers putting the stories together on their own rather than by me creating some kind of concordance or what have you. It’s more fun for me, and I think it’s more fun for the readers, too.

Kiel: That said, it hit me when you'd referred to "Prison Break" on your blog by saying "It's time to meet the Mob." Even though I'd read it in black and white, I hadn't thought of "Prison Break" as a kind of cast introduction until then. Are there specific elements you need to get on stage before a lot of the synchs up, or will we be jumping into a story much later in the character's life soon?

Sean: This actually ties into your previous question somewhat. I have two relatively firm ideas to keep things from getting too sprawling or confusing, and making it feel like it really is “synching up” as you say. The first is that at some point, when enough stories have been posted, I’d like to set something up on the website where the stories are archived in in-story chronological order, not just in the order we did them. I won’t really specify dates for them, and one might have taken place years before the next one but just days after the one before it, but yeah, some loose ordering.

The other, and this could easily change just depending on what Matt and I feel like doing, is that my initial plan is to do stories that all take place within one sort of grand era of Destructor’s life, even if they bounce back and forth a lot within that era. I’ve toyed with jumping waaaaaay ahead in the timeline and writing a script that takes place right near the end of the story, but I really don’t think it worked, not right now. My rough idea is that when the first however many stories are completed, you’ll have a picture of one “volume” of Destructor’s life. Then I can move on to the next “volume” and bounce around a lot within that.

But again, none of that’s set in stone. Matt has specifically asked me to keep bouncing around in time rather than telling all the pre- and post-“Croc-Town” stories in order, and he made the right call there. Also, I have a standing invitation to him to tell me basically anything he’d like to draw, because I can virtually guarantee it’s in Destructor’s saga somewhere. Urban warfare, abominable snowmen, space dogfights, swordplay, I don’t give a hoot, Matt, whatever you want. He hasn’t taken me up on this yet – the only thing he’s ever really requested came after he did the Sparknotes Romeo & Juliet, which is for me to not do a story set in Renaissance Italy – but if he ever does, and if that requires skipping way forward or way backward in time to deliver what he wants, so be it.

Ben: Do you have Destructor's entire existence roughly--or painstakingly--mapped out chronologically in your head or do you just come up with adventures and you'll figure out where it all fits later?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that it's painstaking in places, rough in others. I know exactly how his story begins. I know almost exactly where I intended the main arc of my telling of it to end. I know where it really does end, although as I told Tim O'Shea, that's a recent development -- I think I only learned it this December. And I have various periods in between totally mapped out and acted out and thought through and so on. That said, the wonderful thing about all this, as a writer, is that none of it is set in stone, because I'm the only person who knows any of it, really. Matt has actually asked to be kept in the dark about where everything is headed, preferring to learn only what he needs to know to get a given strip done. I've dropped hints in scripts about things that will be a big deal in other strips at some point down the line, but that's it. So if I want to change things, I can. If I want to explore areas I'd never really thought out before -- like I'm doing in the time period in which both "Croc-Town" and "Prison Break" take place -- I can. There's no Handbook fans can turn to and write to me complaining about continuity errors. I am the continuity. [Laughs] There's a master plan in place, but lots of room for improvisation on the way to the final destination.

Ben: What's upcoming for you, Matt and Destructor?

Matt has fully 100 undrawn script pages in front of him right now, waiting for him to work his magic. I've got two other short-ish Destructor stories in various stages of development, and I'm plotting out a pretty huge and ambitious one as well. I've got ideas for a bunch more jotted down, and a reservoir of 24 years' worth of stories to draw from beyond that. Meanwhile Matt continues to work as a freelance illustrator, mostly drawing awesome illos for classic books for Sparknotes, and doing his own comics, which of course is how he won his Ignatz Award at SPX this past fall. I've also got a book-length project in the works with Matt Rota -- we're in the revision stage of that now -- and of course I write about comics for my own blog, Robot 6, Comic Book Resources, Maxim, Marvel, DC, and just about anyone who'll have me. And Destructor himself has a very long journey ahead of him, which I hope will continue to excite people. The feedback we've gotten so far has been enormously gratifying, and I can only hope that it keeps up.

Be sure to DestructorComics.com and Sean T. Collins' own site for more! And thanks to Sean for taking the time!


FrightenByPenguins said...

Such a huge fan of Destructor - the artwork and writing both seem to gel to well together - best thing I've seen in a long while.
I can't wait for the new stuff to come out after Prison Break (seriously SeanT send me all your advanced workings thanks)

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