No Lie: Tom Beland talks 'True Story, Swear To God' and… Spider-Man?

Mon, February 17th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

Strong language in the following story

True Story, Swear To God #5
What if the story about finding your one true love could bring grown men to tears? And what if you found a way to put that all into an Eisner-nominated comic book, touching the lives of thousands of people along the way?

Then you'd be Tom Beland.

The acclaimed writer and artist of "True Story, Swear To God" has been finding the aforementioned series growing in popularity by the day and recently, AiT/PlanetLar released a trade paperback collection of the series' first four issues. CBR News spoke with Beland to get an update on the status of the series and to introduce new readers to a series that has attracted readers from every walk of life.

"The series is autobiographical and centers around myself and Lily," Beland told CBR News. We met at a bus stop in Disneyworld while covering the opening of their Animal Kingdom. She was from San Juan, Puerto Rico and I was from Napa Valley, California. It's been THE most interesting relationship I've been in my life.

"Picture 'My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding' and there's sort of the flavor of the series. I have more emotional scenes in my series than that movie, but as far as cultures getting together, the film and the comic sort of blend."

For those wondering how long they'll have to commit to "True Story," Beland admits that he isn't sure how long he'll continue writing the series. "I'm such a newbie at making comics. I would think that a romance series would end at the couple's wedding... but there's more to life than just a romance. The everyday, mundane stuff is what makes the story. The series will go on for as long as it wants to. After the relationship stuff has run its course, I'll be talking about what it's been like to go into self-publishing and how I went from making small zines to creating a comic book series that was nominated for two Eisners. For anyone out there who wants to make comics, but lacks that confidence, you'll love this storyline."

One problem that Beland doesn't have is finding inspiration to write his stories in "True Story, Swear To God" and he says that he feels he isn't doing something someone else couldn't do. "I don't think it's all that much of a tough thing to do, really. I mean, we all have the ability to tell stories. We all have that one good story in us that we love to pull out at parties and get-togethers. Something someone's brother did once, or the time when you and someone else got busted for this or that. It feels great to tell them to others.

"Especially when it's a bizarre tale that you think no one else has experienced, then you find out that everyone's gone through it. It creates a connection.

"I love standup comedians who can make that connection onstage. Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and Bill Cosby are my favorites. They could grab your attention and suddenly pull your own life onstage and it was real.

"The three people in comics who can do that would be Keith Knight, Joe Matt and Carol Lay. Joe Matt has no fucking fear."

When writing a comic like "True Story," where Beland is relating past events that he looks upon favorably, there's always the temptation to embellish upon events and even if one avoids that, sometimes one's memory can just be plain faulty. While Beland says that he's usually quite accurate, he knows that there are times he is just completely off base. "Sometimes, I'll be working on a page... and I'm talking hours here... and it'll just about be finished, when Lily will walk in and take a look at it and say 'That's fantastic - but it never happened.' Fucking kills me," laughs the writer. "So, the answer there, obviously, is that it's very difficult to do. Memories embellish themselves in your mind over a period of time... it's just natural. You catch a pretty big fish one day and a year later, that fish is enormouse and it took you two hours to bring it in!!

"That's why, when I look at the Bible... I have to take into consideration that it was written some 300 years after Jesus died. I mean, I can't comprehend how much embellishing went on over the span of 300 years. One day, he's feeding four people with one fish... 300 years later, he's feeding the entire town with it. Great book with good advice... but c'mon already.

"So, yeah... the comedy angle alone has a desire for you to punch it up here or there... but the secret is in knowing when to resist it. The more real the situation is, the more the audience connects with it and you. Lily's the Historical Editor of the book."

There's also the challenge of knowing which events to include in the story and which to exclude, as some might disrupt the flow of the story or leave the reader uninterested. One infamous scene that has proven quite popular is a scene where Beland is in the newsroom with co-workers and he's making "dick jokes" out of some news stories, much to the chagrin of a particular female co-worker. "Well, here's the thing. If you think you're only going to produce one single issue... why hold back?" explains Beland. "The whole thing about this being an 'intensely personal' series... well, I've never seen it that way. It's only that if the readers sees something they'd never talk about themselves. But, good Lord, anyone who knows me will tell you that nothing is sacred in my world of conversation.

"Maybe it's fearlessness or complete ignorance... but I've never been one to pull back and say 'I shouldn't talk about that.' Usually, Lily's the one who has to pull my shirt a bit and say 'I wouldn't go there if I were you...' I keep going back to those comedians... there's a rush in saying something that everyone can admit to doing, but would never admit they've done it.

"The dick joke scene. I can honestly tell you from working at two daily newspapers that when something horrible happens... you'll hear some horrible jokes about it that day. It's the only way to keep your sanity or you'd become depressed.

"That's not to say that people who work in newspapers have no compassion for what's happening in the world... but you have to have some way of relieving the stress or you'd go nuts."

[True Story, Swear To God: Chances Are...]
True Story, Swear To God: Chances Are...
Though it won't surprise most people to hear so, Beland says that writing "True Story" is the hardest aspect of working on the series, but he loves the work he does. "Writing. That's 98% of the job. It's hard, but very satisfying.

"That and the fact that I tried to have a mailing list for weekly cartoon strips. But that was demolished when I moved over to DSL with Puerto Rico Telephone. Their service sucked and I didn't have my emailing list anymore. Plus, doing the cartoon every week was more difficult than I thought it would be. I still get them done, but they're not really on a weekly basis anymore. Larry's planning on a trade paperback collecting the cartoon strips, which would be excellent!

"Readers can still email me at tom@yunque.net to get back on the mailing list. If they haven't received any strips in a long time, the reason is my list got trashed and I've had to start from scratch again."

Speaking of collections, with the popularity of the "True Story, Swear to God: Chances Areā€¦" trade paperback, it would stand to reason that Beland might have considered releasing the rest of the series as graphic novels instead of single issues, but the scribe says he's decided not to, even after talking with AiT/PlanetLar founder Larry Young. "Larry and I talked about this over the months. We could release them as graphic novels... the page count would definitely be that ball park. They'd probably do well sales-wise.

"But I just love the single issues too much to give them up. I'm absolutely floored when I walk into a comic shop and see my comics on a rack, alongside something like 'Strangers In Paradise' or 'Amazing Spider-Man.' It's fucking unbelieveable. As someone who's been buying these things since I was six-years old... it's the greatest thing to see.

"If you'd ask Michael Jordan if he'd rather skip the regular season and just go to the finals, he'd tell you 'no thanks.' It's getting through the season that makes the playoff and finals so incredible (at least, this is what I hear... I'm a Warriors fan). So, putting out the comic books are what makes the trade paperback so cool. It's a symbol of all the hard work and energy that went into the series."

Another symbol of all that hard work is the popularity that Beland enjoying recently at APE, the Alternative Press Expo, in San Francisco and when asked about that experience, he admits to being blown away. "Best. Feeling. EVER," says Beland. "Think of it. You're making comics out of your house. You're by yourself at the drawing table, working on this scene or that, making sense out of this page after finding out that this shit never happened. It's the type of work where it's just you. It's very solitary. Along with this, you're checking out the top sales for Diamond and you're not even on their Top 300 lists, getting beat by books like 'Ninja Vampire Hoes From Mars' or some other book you've never heard of in your life. You feel that if anyone's out there reading your stuff... it's gotta be family.

"Then you go to APE and it's a fucking zoo! I had people lined up to buy the trades, pick up the issues, buy our greeting cards and pick up all our zines. We had to restock our table, like four times, retailers ran out, Larry and Mimi had to restock a few times... weeeeeird.

"That's when you realize that others are reading your work. They can quote dialogue and they're asking about how this page was planned out and what tools I use. You find out that people were actually moved by the work and some of them actually cry when talking about certain scenes of the series. It's powerful stuff.

"To have started this series a year ago, then attend the conventions, then get the Eisner nominations then get picked up by AiT/PLanetLar for the trade, then see the trade come out and then seeing it flying off the shelves... it was, to say the least, overwhelming. I went to hug Mimi good-bye and I got emotional when I thought about how cool this first year's been. I went from having complete doubt about how I could do this for a living, to participating in panel discussions, shooting story ideas with Judd freakin' Winick, to younger cartoonists asking me advice... it was a lot to take in. I'm just too amazed by the generosity of not only the fans, but by other creators and Larry and Mimi.

"Larry and Mimi... MY GOD!! If anyone gets picked up by a publisher.... they should only dream of having two people as fucking cool and nice as those two are. I had sooo many things that I forgot about that week before APE and they totally took care of me. Forgot to have Quebecor ship the books to Napa... couldn't get my resale permit number... wasn't sure what table I'd be at... it seemed as though I was calling them every other minute. And they'd just say 'don't worry, we'll cover it.' and did just that.

"AWESOME FOLKS!"

Beland's respect for Larry Young and his wife has only grown with time, but even when the writer was trying to get "True Story" picked up by a major company, he knew that AiT/Planet Lar had something special. "Well, for one thing... they offered an interest. We shopped the books around during the San Diego Con and the response was flat to say the least. It was 'yeahhh... put it over here and we'll get to it.' This is even with the Eisner noms.

"I was going to go to Larry and offer the books to him, but, and i have to say this... I was horribly intimidated by Larry. I've read his column on CBR and my image of him was sort of this Lou Grant/Louie Depalma personality. I thought, man, if this guy is anything like his columns... he's going to make me cry. So I approached him and just said 'I'm Tom Beland, this is my series, read it when you have the time and I'll be at table 92 if you're interested.' Then I bolted.

"The next morning after the Eisners, Larry comes running around the corner, nearly falling down and screams, 'Have you signed with anyone yet???!!' It turned out that our book perfectly filled the gap they had in their comics line. They had books for guys, books for younger readers, but nothing for couples. This series was perfect for them.

"For the record, one of the reasons Larry was willing to read my stuff was because I was short and to the point. I got in, gave my sell, then left him alone. A lesson for anyone looking for a publisher at a con.

"So, Larry and Mimi... they showed an interest, a definite excitement and a love of the work. If the publisher's excited about a project, it gets the artist excited. They're just so fucking cool."

There's a lot of rewarding aspects of working on "True Story, Swear to God," but Beland points to the international feedback as being a highlight. "Getting emails from readers in Malaysia, Canada and Rome- to think that the series has readers in those areas is mind-staggering. It's also cool to get the emails from readers who've been with you the whole time. I've got people like David Arroyo (who's getting his first comic book 'Reality On the Rocks' ready in time for the EXPO), Jon Grassechi and Kelly Doran who've been rooting for me the way.

"Also, meeting and discussing comics with people you admire. Kurt Busiek came to my table in San Diego and told me that this is one of his favorite books. I fucking died! I also talk with Mike Weiringo time to time and he's fantastic!

"We had a couple drive from Arizona to San Diego just to meet us at the San Diego con. The man's wife was insistent on talking with us about the series. There was a scene in issue #2 where I'm at my parents' gravesite... and the woman just connected with it. She started to cry right there when she was quoting the page. It was extremely moving.

"The best emails in general have been the ones where a guy will tell me he bought the book, then let his girlfriend read it and she gave it to her friends to read... and the guy never got his book back. That's happened a billion times with this series. Guys by it, their women take it and it's never seen again. That's been the difference between how men and women treat their comics. Men buy them, put them in their protectors and put them away. Women tend to give their books out to friends. They toss them around and spread the love."

Separated at birth?
[Tom Beland] [Tom Tolbert]
Tom Beland Tom Tolbert
With comic book to movie adaptations being all the rage, can Beland ever envision a movie version of "True Story, Swear To God?" "[laughs] My brother and I were talking about that. Ummm... okay... here's the thing. You know we all have an identical twin out there in the world, right? Well, if he would quit working out, my dead-ringer is Tom Tolbert, the former Golden State Warrior player who now does an excellent job on the NBA on NBC. But for acting... well, I absolutely love Albert Brooks, if he'd shave his head. Seen 'Lost in America' over two hundred times easy. Him or Tom Hanks.

"For Lily... I'd go with someone like Sandra Bullock. They're not quite the same looks wise, but the personality is definitely there. Possibly Winona Ryder with short, red hair. She'd insist on a Puerto Rican to play her... so I guess that leaves J-LO.

"For Joe, my brother... ummm... Will Farrell would be an interesting choice."

Now Beland is a superhero fan at heart and he explains that he's been talking with Judd Winnick, late of "Green Lantern" and "Exiles," with "Green Arrow" and "Outsiders" next, about pitching to both Marvel and DC, though it's been more about advice than collaboration. "I talked with Judd about this very thing. I have two Spidey stories in my head for 'Tangled Web' that I'd love to try. I've also got a Bruce Wayne idea for a short, one-shot. I asked him for some advice on how to approach the two companies and he was great. So... I a, interested in a couple of short stories, if they'd like me to do it! I mean, c'mon.... I began my love of comics with Spidey! Issue #112, I believe... the Birth of the Gibbon! How cool would it be to do a Spidey story?"

Readers can expect "True Story" to get back on schedule very soon and Beland explains that a prominent indie star gave him a few tips. "I'm currently working on the next issue of 'TSSTG.' I had a lengthly talk with Terry Moore as I gave him a ride from a signing at Atlantis Fantasyworld in Santa Cruz to San Francisco... and he told me how he gets a book out every six weeks. He said he does a page a day.

"Now, many of you out there may say 'DUH...' but that sort of schedule was eluding me for quite some time. Now that I know this, I'm going to try to get my books out on this schedule. The next issue comes out in June, so I should be able to get a few books under my belt to cushion the schedule. By the time May rolls around, I should have plenty of issues in the bin."

And don't expect to see Beland putting down his pencil anytime soon- the writer says he's very committed to the artform. "Oh Lord... as long as I'm still able to put comics out there, and the readership continues to grow, I'll be more than thrilled. I think the plateau of success in this business is when you wake up and bitch about having to draw for a living... which I don't see happening with me."

 
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