Open Your Mouth: Issue #30

Thu, December 4th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
J. Torres, Columnist

If I recall correctly, I first met Andi Watson some time in the mid-90s when he and his wife Phil (yes, Andi's a he and Phil's a she) were living in California. We both worked for SLG Publishing at the time; I was writing "Copybook Tales" and he was producing "Skeleton Key." Andi was also a skate punk back then and had long hair past his shoulders. These days he's sporting a much shorter do and instead of riding a skateboard you're more likely to see Andi pushing his daughter Clara in a baby stroller on the way to John McCrea's house for a play date with his son Kirby. But one thing that hasn't changed about Andi is how great he is at writing/drawing comics. Actually, he's improved with age. We've kept in touch over the years but in the last year or two it's basically been the odd e-mail correspondence since Andi's been super busy going back and forth between SLG and Oni Press for his creator-owned stuff, as well as freelancing for Nickelodeon Magazine and Marvel Comics, and of course doing the dad thing. So, sitting down to do this interview was like catching up with an old friend…

TORRES: When was the last time I saw you in person? Was it that time you and Phil visited Toronto?

Andi Watson's Self-Portrait
WATSON: Last time we met was probably '99 when Phil and I were in Toronto. She was there for a museum conference and I was tagging along. I remember Phil lost a watch I bought her while we were walking around the CN Tower. This being Canada though, when we called up the next day, it hadn't been taken but handed in to lost property. I heart Canada!

TORRES: You still skateboarding?

WATSON: Last time I was on a skateboard was a coupla years ago when I was staying at (SLG publisher) Dan Vado's house. He has two boys and they used to think I was cool because I skated. By that time they were skating themselves and I thought I'd show the young punks a trick or two. I fell on my ass, they were a lot better than me and laughed. I had a "Wonder Years" style voiceover going through my head, "It was then I realized I was a pathetic old fart."

TORRES: All right, we'll end the trip (no pun intended) down Memory Lane here to save face and get on with the comic book questions. You're working for Marvel now. Tell us how you got the gig working on "Namor."

WATSON: I ended up on "Namor" because I know C.B. (Cebulski, Marvel editor) over there, we've been friends for a long time, and Bill was familiar with my stuff. He allegedly once said to Jamie (Rich, Oni Press EiC), "this is what we should be doing" while holding a copy of "Breakfast After Noon." Imagine the forum hysteria if Marvel had started a line of unemployed-in-the-English-regions books! Anyhoo, I was invited to write a sample script, they liked it and I got the gig.

TORRES: To be honest, I had the toughest time working for Marvel. Maybe it was because of the way the company was run at the time, maybe it was because of where I was coming from as an "indy" writer with little editorial interference, maybe it was the project. We're coming from pretty much the same place, so what has it been like for you?

WATSON: I think I'm coming from a little farther away from Marvel than you even. As I write and draw my own stories, I have total control over my work. And I'm fortunate in working with Slave (Labor Graphics) and Oni where I can bring them any idea I have and they - so far, touch wood - are entirely willing to go with it.

Skeleton Key Vol. 5 (SLG)
I guess it all depends on your expectations, going in. I figured these aren't my characters, aren't my situations, this isn't my plot so when the inevitable notes came in I didn't have any problem making the changes, there was no moving away from my "original vision" because it wasn't my vision. If it was a story that I had a much closer relationship with it might be different. But, I figure it's a job and act as professionally as possible. That means I try and write to what editorial wants out of the book and get it in on time and generally do the best I can within the parameters of what that particular book is.

If they want an Andi Watson book then cool, let me write, draw and own it without any reference to the Marvel U and leave me alone until it's done. Realistically they just want someone to work on their property.

TORRES: I think part of the problem I had was that editorial wasn't sure what it wanted, from me or from the book. It was learning experience, though, and at least the money was decent.

WATSON: Bill really pulled my ass out of the fire by offering me that gig and it meant I could afford to do my own work, too. There was a very real likelihood after two dire financial years I was gonna be a stay at home dad full-time. And Bill, C.B., Stephanie and Teresa, the people I collaborate with there are nice people to work with and passionate about what they do.

TORRES: Was this your first experience as a co-writer? How did it work between you and Bill Jemas? Did he plot and you scripted?

WATSON: Writing with Bill was perfectly fine. He laid out the themes and characters, the first few issues in detail and the overall arc. I took the main points of the arc, filled in the gaps and wrote the scripts. Sometimes stuff gets tweaked, which isn't surprising.

TORRES: Sadly, it's just been announced that "Namor" will end with issue #12. I've not read the series yet, but was planning to pick up the trade. Do you think fans like me "waiting for the trade" are hurting sales of monthlies?

WATSON: I think in this specific case waiting for the trade wasn't unreasonable. All these books were trailed as being collected from the get-go and as an attempt to appeal to the people who're reading stacks of manga but not, presumably, stacks of Marvel comics.

TORRES: I found the listing for the "Namor" trade on Amazon. Says it's 144 pages so I'm guessing it'll collect the first five or six issues, and it's scheduled for April.

WATSON: I have no idea what's happening. It's been solicited in various formats and cancelled so who the hell knows? Not me!

TORRES: "Namor" was supposed to be targeted at younger readers, especially females, and the numbers tell us that teenage girls who are reading comic books these days prefer shoujo manga, both in terms of format and sensibility. Why do you think you didn't reach your demographic? Was it because "Namor" wasn't available in bookstores where we're told all the teenage girls do their comic shopping? Or was there another reason for the book's cancellation?

WATSON: Y'know, I'm not privy to Marvel's motives. If they're not in the bookstores it means there's more shelf space for "Love Fights," "Slow News Day," "Breakfast After Noon" and the rest. I can live with a marginal presence in the direct market when the hypothetical book store pay off is so much bigger.

As far as the Big Two and bookstores go I don't see why they don't let creators write and draw OGNs in black and white for that market. Costs would be lower because it's a one person job, there's no color and the "talent" costs are less because Jim Lee and Jeph Loeb mean nothing outside of the direct market, so why employ them for this kind of job?

Slow News Day #1 (SLG)
TORRES: Hey, I'm asking the questions here! When did you find out that "Namor" was cancelled and what reason were you given?

WATSON: Bill told me the book was cancelled a few months back and the reason was sales. There are other theories but once a book dips into the 20K realm it's fair game. It's part of the nickel and dime of mainstream comics, books are launched, books are cancelled. The only constants are Batman, Superman, Spidey and the X-Men.

TORRES: Have you heard from Jemas lately? Are you keeping in touch?

WATSON: After he cashed in those shares I'm definitely keeping in touch... even if he doesn't know it yet.

TORRES: Did you guys become buds while working together? Or was it "strictly bidness?"

WATSON: Yeah, we used to go camping together, swap stories around the fire, and toast marshmallows. My daughter's middle name is William...

No, y'know, we swapped e-mails a bit and had a coupla conference calls in the line of work, but I'm several thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. My experience of Bill was he was easy to work with, an enthusiastic guy and always had an eye for what my strengths were. He was a good manager, in that he could spot talent and be encouraging rather than a jackass. He was good at his job, he'd know when a project wasn't working and kill it rather than prolong the pain.

The concepts that he circulated were strong, too. He'd make the properties sound interesting and relevant, even to someone like me who's barely ever read a Marvel comic. I think that was his plan, to drag Marvel into the new millennium and make a play for new readers. Apparently, fans don't want that, they want the same old stuff and are more exorcised by the color of the Hulk's pants than anything of substance.

Ask anyone else and they're likely to give you a different tale, but that was my experience.

TORRES: Do you know how he's doing these days?

WATSON: I've been in brief contact with Bill since the move and he seemed cool. But y'know, whatever his feelings he's still working for Marvel.

TORRES: May I switch gears here? From your work as a writer to your illustrating. Let's talk about design. I love your graphic sensibilities, the covers you do, your color choices... I have that first samurai t-shirt you did for Fanboy and it's all faded from being worn so much... what are some of your artistic influences?

Dumped OGN (Oni Press)
WATSON: Artistic influences... well, I like a lot of different stuff in prose, design, movies, comics etc., etc. In fine art I like Degas, Matisse, Ingres, Hiroshige, Gothic art, Renaissance portraits, early German/Low countries painting, Picasso, Chinese tomb pottery, expressionist woodblock prints... to scratch the surface. Design-wise, I generally dig early to mid 20th Century illo and graphic art. Posters, book covers, adverts. I like a lot of Japanese design, there's a tradition of beautifully stripped down design, from architecture to gardens to calligraphy, ceramics, textiles and works on paper, Hello Kitty, Miffy...

TORRES: So, you still dig that San Rio stuff, huh? What about comic book influences?

WATSON: Comics I like Jaime, Avril, Seth, Dupuy-Berberian, Stanislas, Posy Simmonds, Glen Murakami, Mignola.

TORRES: You must be having a blast putting together the covers for "Love Fights" as well as designing the costumes and symbols of the various superheroes in the story. How do you start composing a cover?

WATSON: I enjoy designing the covers and working as stripped down as possible. Sometimes I'll get an idea right off the bat and think that's too simple and doodle three pages of other ideas and go back to the first one.

TORRES: Do you doodle until something comes together or is there always a clear image in your mind from the start?

WATSON: Generally, I sketch ideas over pages until I hit on something that I think works, refine it and worry at it until I'm happy, then draw the cover. With the design aspects you're using a different part of your brain, it's more time consuming, and you have to stew on ideas which isn't always possible on a deadline.

TORRES: "Love Fights" is one of my favorite titles right now. Who would you say is your target audience for the series? What's your demographic for that?

WATSON: Why, everyone reading this interview would love it, of course. Rush out and buy the first five issues. Y'know, with my personal work I don't think about demos, I just go with the ideas I'm really excited about. If you're interested in a love story and you're interested in comics then this is the book for you.

TORRES: So, what's your pitch for it?

WATSON: It's essentially a romance story set in a world of superheroes.

TORRES: What comics did you read as a kid and did any of them inspire you to create this series?

WATSON: The comics I read as a kid were newspaper strips, "Peanuts," Disney, "The Perishers," Brit humor comics, mostly "Beano" and "Star Wars" and stuff from the library like "Tintin," "Lucky Luke" and "Asterix." They had no direct influence on "Love Fights."

TORRES: No capes and tights, huh? Then… romantic comedies? Hepburn and Tracy movies perhaps?

WATSON: Yeah, I love the old Tracy/Hepburn comedies, "Adam's Rib," "Pat and Mike." Also, Cary Grant, "His Girl Friday," "Philadelphia Story." Lot's of smart writing, fast talking, romance/work conflicts - "Adam's Rib" being one of my favorite examples.

TORRES: I'll stop trying to guess now and just let you tell me where the inspiration for "Love Fights" came from…

WATSON: The inspiration was originally from the Oni guys. They were thinking about a romance story where the protagonists were kept apart by superhero nonsense. That sat in my head for a while and then I put it to my own ends. In its own way it's kinda autobiographical in that Jack and Nora are the "little people" at the mercy of bigger events. It's exactly how I feel doing indy comics and constantly being thrown around by the big superhero industry.

TORRES: "Autobiographical?" Why a soap opera with a superhero backdrop then? You've done some great slice of life stuff in the past, what compelled you to go Astro City on us? Are you all done with Saskatchewan?

Love Fights #1 (Oni Press)
WATSON: Part of the reason for using a genre setting is I get to draw fun stuff, not just the view outside my window but costumes and a city and all that jazz. Most of my scenes are people interacting in their homes and familiar "real world" settings but I get to use a flying cat too, which is a bonus. And I'm not done with Saskatchewan, Nora makes a trip to Spy Hill in #7, really, she does. And I've never even read "Astro City," if anything my "real people in the hero world" riffs more on Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane than anything recent.

TORRES: I knew it! You're working with another writer/journalist protagonist in "Love Fights" (see "Slow News Day")… did you have a thing for Lois Lane as a kid or something?

WATSON: I never read hero books as a kid or as an adult but Lois is pretty unusual in that she's a regular person and female in a long running hero book. How I imagine her is probably different from how she is in the books but I see her as a career woman in this overtly masculine world. I can relate to her more than the guy with the laser beam eyes. Fast talking, intelligent, career women? Yeah, they're my type.

TORRES: Okay, everyone knows Oni eventually collects all its pamphlets. Back to my earlier question about monthlies versus trades: do you think this inevitable collection hurts your initial sales?

WATSON: Trades are clearly the way to go and from pretty early on I've been interested in telling stories longer than a single issue. It's only in bookstores and venues outside the direct market that you've got an opportunity to reach female readers and anyone interested in comics that aren't X-Men, Batman, Superman and Spidey. I have no doubt there's a desire to have a good chunk of story to read and enjoy. That's got to be part of the appeal of movies and novels. Now even TV shows are collected into seasons on DVD and people can pick up the whole thing without being in at the same time on the same day every week. Should be the same with comics. The move away from comics as a "hobby" and collecting has got to be good for the medium long term.

TORRES: Then why an ongoing monthly comic to begin with?

WATSON: The good thing about the direct market and pamphlets is you get a steady income while you put your book together and it gives the publisher some indication of the market for a trade. Until the OGN market is financially buoyant enough to allow publishers to pay creators an advance, the pamphlet will have a place. But it's a means to an end and I want my stuff available on the shelves in book form for years rather than a pamphlet's shelf life measured in days.

I have sympathy with anyone who waits for the trade, why should you have to buy the same thing twice? But in indy comics you're actually helping keep everyone afloat by buying both, and often with the trade you're getting some "added value" with extras and whatnot. The irony is the big two with the deepest pockets are the ones who are less likely to go to trade. Look at the indy guys, they're the ones taking the financial risk with their trade programs.

TORRES: So, when's the first "Love Fights" trade due out? And what will it collect?

WATSON: The trade is due April, first six issues. The page count is a little tight so we might cram in something more than the covers. Have to see. Dunno when the follow up trade will be. I guess we'll decide when I have the majority of it done. I'm working on #7, so we're on schedule.

TORRES: That's good know. And it's been good catching up with you. Thanks for doing this. Regards to Phil and Clara.

WATSON: And you, take care. Bye!

Sneak Peak from Love Fights #6 (Oni Press)

Related Links:


Dumped
Love Fights
Skeleton Key
Slow News Day

Next week: Comics for Christmas.

Meanwhile, drop by the OYM forum and share your thoughts on the pamphlets versus trades debate.

Thank you for your attention.

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