When Words Collide

Wed, October 8th, 2008 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: October 8th, 2008 at 2:34pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

SEAWEED: THE BEST GRAPHIC NOVEL YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF

"Seaweed--A Cure for Mildew"

Often, an "all-ages" comic is seen as overly simplistic, or overly childish. The kind of thing Robert Kirkman might say "speaks down" to the reader. After all, if something is truly for any age, then a child should be able to enjoy it just as much as an adult, and how many comics can really pull that off successfully?

"Bone," maybe? A few of Jeff Parker's "Marvel Adventures" issues? "Tiny Titans"?

Besides those rare examples, most all-ages comics are either too chatty for kids or lack a subtext that would make the work interesting to an adult. And there's also a kind of vanilla safety in most all-ages stories -- they tend to feel a bit censored, a bit limited. If you've ever picked up one if the fifty-seven issues of "Spidey Super Stories," you know what I'm talking about.

Of course, all-ages isn't really a demographic. You can't target everybody, no matter how appealing it might be to try to do so (think of all the possible readers if you could!). The "Harry Potter" books ended up becoming, basically, an all-ages phenomenon, but they started as children's books first, and quickly became embraced by everyone but me and two other old grumpy guys. Pixar's movies, while they might transcend their target audience, are still directed at children. I never saw a whole lot of "Toy Story" paraphernalia anywhere but in the kid's section of Target.

So when I say that "Seaweed: A Cure for Mildew," by Ben Balistreri, is a fantastic example of an all-ages graphic novel, I'm taking everything I just mentioned into consideration. I realize that it's the rare story that can appeal to the young and the old with equal charm, and I know that it's the audience which ultimately decides if something is truly all-ages or not. But "Seaweed" has a shot at, if not "Harry Potter"-esque crossover appeal, then at least something approaching the success of "Bone." If anyone ever gets a chance to see it.

For "Seaweed," which is a physically impressive hardcover graphic novel, measuring almost 16" x 12", is only available online, directly from the artist. You aren't likely to see it in any comic shops or bookstores in the near future, because, like "Bone," it's a self-published venture, and it's now more difficult than ever to get a self-published graphic novel noticed by mainstream comic book readers. There's simply too much product out there -- too much good product -- for something like "Seaweed" to get much notice. But I think it's worthy of attention. It's probably the best graphic novel you've never heard of. And based on the reaction I witnessed when I read it with my young son, it seems to be the kind of book that truly lives up to the Platonic ideal of an all-ages comic, even if it never aspired to such a thing in the first place.

Balistreri Draws One Mean Dragon

The story in "Seaweed: A Cure for Mildew" is surprisingly complex, especially considering that only 38 out of its 64 pages are devoted to the narrative. (The last 26 pages are character sketches and artist commentary.) This volume, by the way, is labeled as "Book #1," and it features only the first half of what promises to be a two-part story. But plenty happens in those oversized 38 pages, plenty of stuff you wouldn't expect it from a graphic novel with a anthropomorphic pelican and his fish sidekick.

Like "Looney Tunes" and "Donald Duck," "The Tortoise and the Hare," and so many other classic children's stories, "Seaweed" is about talking animals. Balistreri comes from the world of animation, and it shows. A character designer by trade, he elegantly distinguishes the cynical old-sea dog Seaweed (well, not so much sea-dog as sea-pelican) from sidekick Poisson and the blind-as-a-bat Mildew. Balistreri's characters are expressive, and his line bold. This is the slickest-looking, most dynamic self-published graphic novel I've seen in, well, maybe ever.

The plot is basically a pirate adventure store, with plenty of twists along the way. It's a classic heroic journey, but filled with imaginative ideas and fresh characters. And, of course, it's visually stunning in its oversized presentation.

The story begins with the brutal murder of a toad, as the lethal Concealeon Maylay (a chameleon with an uzi) hunts for a mysterious map. It's a pretty harsh way to begin a comic that I've declared all-ages, that's for sure, and the first page ends with Mildew (after popping up from his hiding place inside a dumpster), declaiming "piss and vinegar," his trademark phrase for expressing complaint. But Balistreri isn't presenting a sanitized world in this "funny animal" comic. It's violent and corrupt, and he signals all of that on page one. Yet, Balistreri doesn't add gratuitous violence or unnecessary curse words. If the language is a bit rough, it's because his characters live in a rough world, and the shocking moments of violence raise the stakes and make everything matter all the more.

Early Character Sketches

There's a scene on pages 19-20 that benefits from the tone established way back on page one. After Mildew had hired Seaweed and Poisson to help him find the White Library which houses the Devil's Cookbook, Concealeon Maylay followed, in pursuit of Mildew. A bottle-nosed dolphin pops his head out of the water as Seaweed's boat, the Salty Sugar, chugs past. The dolphin seems a bit goofy-looking, and we soon find out why, as Balistreri cuts to a shot beneath the surface of the water and shows that the dolphin was nothing but a sheath for a periscope -- a periscope from Concealeon Maylay's one-man submarine. It's a funny scene, but since we've seen exactly what Maylay is capable of, there's an undercurrent of dread. And that's what makes Balistreri's graphic novel so effective.

And there's so much more in these 38 pages, like the Unopus, a wealthy one-legged octopus with a chauffeur. Like the dunders, with their masks of oceanic cutures, and the Don Martin-inspired design of the Dunder Chief, who is the Tiresias figure in this anthropomorphic odyssey. Like Princess Doyly, in all of her bloated splendor.

It looks like a coffee table book, and it reads like a thrilling, gut-wrenching adventure tale. And Balistreri's sketches and process work in the back pages are fascinating as well.

Curious about Balistreri, and the unique tone he decided to take throughout "Seaweed: A Cure for Mildew," I contacted the creator and threw a few questions his way:

TIMOTHY CALLAHAN: What's your specific background in animation, and why did you decide to make a move into comics?

BEN BALISTRERI: I've been a character designer and storyboard artist in the animation industry working for Disney TV, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and I'm currently at Dreamworks working on the upcoming feature, "How to Train Your Dragon." I recently won an Emmy Award for my character designs on "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends." I've also been nominated for 5 Annie Awards, 3 times for storyboarding on "Danny Phantom" and 2 times for character design -- once on "Danny Phantom and a once for a show called "Crash Nebula."

Maylay On the Mildew Trail

Comic books have always been a huge part of my life. Growing up, my dad would limit the amount of TV I was allowed to watch so I would read and re-read the same comics over and over. You should see my copies of Walt Simonson's run on "Thor." The love I have for those comics shows on the spines from the billions of times I would read them. I finally re-bought a copy of "New Mutants Special Edition" #1 which had gotten so thrashed that what was left of the cover had fallen off.

One of my heroes growing up was the former editor in chief of Marvel and writer of the "Squadron Supreme" 12-issue series from the 80's, Mark Gruenwald. Mark was from my hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He was a former student of my father's at the University of Oshkosh, and Mark's success really inspired me to pursue a career drawing. I ended up choosing animation, which I love, but I always wanted to write and draw my own book.

TC: "Seaweed" is a bit darker than other anthropomorphic animal comics. What inspired you to make that choice?

BB: I always thought it would be great to use the appeal that comes from a simple "cartoony" character with a sense of real danger and mystery found in a "darker" story. I used movies like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Goonies," and "Monster Squad" as barometers of what I felt the tone of the book should be. I've been receiving a lot of compliments from parents who are enjoying reading the book to their children and maybe that has something to do with the fact that I didn't intentionally make it for children. That being said there is some violence, alcohol drinking, and a couple questionable curse words in the book that parents should be aware of, and it may not be for everyone's taste.

TC: Why self-publishing? Something of this caliber could have landed a publisher, surely.

The Salty Sugar Revealed
BB: I actually never tried to show it to a publisher. "Seaweed" has always been a way for me to completely control every aspect of the creation and I didn't want to hear that I couldn't print it with the quality that I wanted, or that retailers wouldn't carry a book of that size due to lack of shelf space. Maybe a publisher would have been okay with my printing wish list but with the internet as a selling tool and printing costs dropping drastically over the last 10 years, I thought it would be more fun to just keep all the decisions to myself. Besides, I get notes from directors and executives during my day job, (which is fine because I'm getting paid for that), but this project was a way for me to have 100% creative freedom and put out the type of product I would love to find at a comic shop or on-line.

TC: Why hardcover? Why this size? You talk about putting two sheets of comic book size art board side-by-side horizontally in the back matter--can you talk a bit more about why you decided to go that route? Were you influenced by European graphic albums or anything like that?

BB: Comic book art is amazing and I wish all comics were giant and in hardcover. Could you imagine if Marvel would print a comic like "Silver Surfer" #4 by John Buscema with that amount of love? Oh my god, I would rub it all over myself every night! I really enjoy the Absolute Editions that DC has been putting out and I hope we see more books of that quality.

"Seaweed" is an homage to the European Bande dessinée, (or BD's for short.) I adore artists like Uderzo (artist of "Asterix"), Andre Franquin (artist of "Spirou et Fantasio" and "Gaston"), and Morris (artist of "Lucky Luke"). I even took a trip to Brussels to study Belgian comic art at the CBBD, (Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée).

I draw each page on two 11" x 17" sheets of bristol board (each layed out horizontally). This mimics the way that the Europeans draw their pages. I found that the big page size allows me to keep a lot of detail in the panels and the ink lines look even tighter when they get shrunk down to the actual publishing size. The horizontal format lets me compose longer more cinematic layouts than a profile orientation.

TC: You explain where the name "Dunder Chief" comes from -- a mis-hearing of the AC/DC "Dirty Deeds" song -- but what about the other characters? How did their names, their looks, and their personalities develop during the process of creation?

BB: Honestly, most of the names came about by finding a word that was memorable and gave the feel of the character's personality. Doyly (spelled differently than Doily because I thought it looked more feminine), was originally a female koala bear that was Seaweed's super annoying girlfriend. The idea was that she was the ultimate girly-girl and would be a foil to he and Poisson's friendship. The story got too complex with her in it, however, but her name got recycled when I needed a name for the giant female toad at the end of the book.

Preview Pencils from Volume 2

Most of the designs stayed pretty true to my initial drawings but get refined as I draw them repeatedly. Concealeon Maylay's camouflage, (again, I spelled melee differently because I felt it looked cooler), was influenced from the Cobra Saboteur, "Firefly" who was always my favorite G.I. Joe figure to play with.

TC: You sent me a review copy of the first "Seaweed" volume, but what's the best place for readers to find it?

BB: At my Salty Sugar website, where I've set up a Paypal account. Each order through my website comes signed with a small sketch.

TC: The next volume is the conclusion to this story, right? Can you talk a bit more about what we will see in that book?

BB: Yes, volume 2, "The Devil's Cookbook" finishes the story. I've got it all drawn now. It's definitely more intense and has a lot more action in it than "A Cure for Mildew." This part of the story takes place almost exclusively in the White Library as Seaweed and Mildew get a hold of the Devil's Cookbook and... oh, I'd better not say anymore! For those that are interested I occasionally post previews for the book on my blog.

In addition to recommending "Seaweed" graphic novels -- which he does, enthusiastically -- and writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the recently-released "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  seaweed, ben balistreri, bone, harry potter

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