When Words Collide

Mon, July 13th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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WEB SHIFT: THE COMICS OF ETHAN YOUNG

Cover of the Self-Published "Tails."

Every week or so, I get an e-mail asking me to review some self-published comic or to check out some new webcomic. These creators can't just sit there and wait for people to notice their work. It's all part of the promotional hustle, and getting eyeballs on the comics requires a lot of e-mails and convention appearances. But it also requires quality, because unless the comics are well-written and/or well-drawn, those eyeballs will slam shut and never think about these comics again. Most of the stuff referred to me is complete junk. It's sub-amateur level work that doesn't even show any potential. Any publisher will tell you that most of the submissions are abominable, sometimes even frighteningly so.

I've seen Chris Pitzer from AdHouse deflect less-than-talented artists (and I'm talking artists who present page after page of scrawled artwork, 90% black from graphite smears, and figures who look like they've escaped from the bulletin board of a third-grade classroom) by saying things like, "it could be published, but it's not right for us." I've seen a nervous, sweaty not-all-that-young man talk to writer Rick Spears about his own comic projects at MoCCA, and then say, "well, I'm more into hentai," and then slide a few 8 ½ x 11" pages of stick figures, and I guess stick figure porn (done with colored pencils), from his messenger bag.

That's the level of quality of plenty of stuff that I'm asked to review. I tend to politely decline those requests.

But every once in a while…no. Not every once in a while. Once, ever, I was approached (via e-mail) by an artist who modestly asked that I check out his website. Ethan Young was his name, and he told of his experiences self-publishing a comic called "Tails" and how he has now brought the project online.

Not only was Young's "Tails" comic, available at tailscomic.com, shockingly good -- very well-drawn and with a sense of humor about itself -- but it completely blasted apart a few of my biases.

It's a largely autobiographical comic about dating and cats. None of those things sound like something I'd be interested in reading. I'm not against any of them (well, I might be against keeping cats as pets, but I certainly wouldn't say that out loud -- oops, too late), but yet in less than two dozen pages, Young charmed me with his drawing style and his jubilantly downtrodden protagonist.

"Tails" isn't a masterpiece, but it's a very promising start. I wouldn't be surprised to see Young use this comic -- now that more people can see it -- as a springboard toward a much bigger career in comics. I see this as a first major work by a cartoonist who we should start to pay attention to. And I was curious about his approach to comics -- to this comic in particular -- and about his decision to move toward a web-only model of publishing. He isn't anywhere near the first in line to do such a thing, but I think he's representative of the shift that's taking place. The shift toward online serialization. The inevitable shift.

So I spoke with Ethan Young about his career, his method of making comics, and his large-scale plans for "Tails" and beyond. I'm curious to see where he goes from here.

Ethan and the Cats

Timothy Callahan: How did you go from self-publishing to doing webcomics? It seems like a pretty natural transition on the surface, but I'm sure plenty of thought when into the hows and the whys, right?

Ethan Young: In all honesty, the deciding factor was money. Without delving too much into the history of "Tails," let’s just say that self-publishing hurts the newcomer’s wallet (and publishers weren’t exactly knocking down my door). After a lengthy amount of contemplation, I decided conclusively in January of 2009 to release "Tails" on the web. I hired a designer, aimed for an early summer launch (which was achieved, thankfully), and now here we are.

Now, on the surface, that sounds like I’m simply "settling" for the webcomic platform. But there’s more to it than that. The comic book medium is about sequential storytelling; doesn’t matter if we’re discussing webcomics, comic books, comic strips, or mini-comics. What matters is the material, and getting your material to as many people as possible. Ultimately, that’s through the web. If it were cheaper and easier to print, then yes, I’d probably be printing (I love holding a fresh comic in my hands, what can I say). We all know that the entire industry is moving towards the digital format anyway (we’ll see how successful LongBox will be), so it’s not so much "settling" as it is accepting and embracing the digital format.

One big difference I’ve noticed right away is the promotional aspect. A self-published comic has a short shelf-life, so the window for promotion is slim. Most reviewers already have a back-log of stuff to read, so the wait-list could be months. For a printed issue of "Tails," a review that’s four months late is useless. With webcomics, the material is always there, always fresh. I can contact reviewers, journalists, podcasters, and bloggers anytime I want. A review four months from now will have the same effect as a review being published next week. Any person who jumps on "Tails" in the future will have full, easy access to all the stories.

"Tails" is an edited/revised version of your self-published efforts, and since I haven't seen the original, I'm curious: how much have you changed? And why?

Well, before the webcomics route was concrete, I was preparing a manuscript aimed at publishing houses; merging the original graphic novel, "Tails: Life in Progress" with its tentative sequel, "Tails: Addicted to Sin" along with completing a third act. At first, I was only going to touch up a few pages; making it more aesthetically cohesive. What started out as "touching up" a few pages ended up being a practical revamp. All the essential elements of the original story are still intact. We have Ethan, the struggling cartoonist with a dozen cats; the distressed girlfriend, Sin; the estranged brother; the crappy boss at the animal shelter; the escapist fantasies. It’s the polish on top that’s different.

Idiots and Wackos

The biggest complaint from the original "Tails" concerned the uneven art, and that’s completely understandable (since I was learning as I was going). In the first issue alone, there are three consecutive pages where Ethan looks drastically different page to page.

It was also important to finally create a palpable environment for the story. In the original "Tails," you never really saw much of Ethan’s home, just his couch and a few blank walls. You don’t even get an establishing shot in the first issue, and that’s just bad storytelling.

Not to make any direct comparisons, but the best example of a practical revamp would be Joss Whedon’s revamp of "Buffy." He took a cheesy, one-note B-movie and transformed it into a cult phenomenon. I’m not saying "Tails" will be a phenomenon, or that I’m as talented as Whedon. But this is my second chance to do it right; to give readers the best experience possible. The original "Tails" will always hold a special place in my heart, but it was a rough draft of what I’m trying to accomplish.

I do, however, want to apologize to all the readers who purchased the original "Tails." I hope they don’t feel too ripped off; their support meant a great deal to me. If a "Tails" fan ever sees me at a convention, they can demand their money back. I may not have any cash on me, but I’ll draw something for them if that helps.

I also promise to never do anything like this again (my girlfriend, Carol, would dropkick me if I did).

Why autobiographical comics? I guess that's a two part question: why autobiography? Why comics?

Why autobiography? You mean, besides feeding my enormous ego? I’ve always described "Tails" as more of a semi-autobiography. What’s the old saying? All autobiography is fiction, because we’re always the hero in our own stories?

When "Tails" was first conceived, it was originally a tribute to my then-girlfriend, Sin. Eventually, the book grew into a pseudo-journal, a venue for my ranting. Dealing with problems in comic book form was more convenient than facing real life confrontations. Unfortunately, when you treat your story like a self-indulgent journal entry, that’s what it’ll read like: a self-indulgent journal entry. You ever read "American Splendor" and think, “Gee, this would probably be more interesting if I actually knew the people that Harvey complains about”?

And why comics? Well, that’s pretty much all I’ve ever wanted to do since the age of three. In high school, there were brief periods when I wanted to be an animator or break-dancer, but I always knew I’d end up in comics.

How conscious are you of avoiding the pitfalls of other autobiographical comics? How do you avoid the "navel-gazing" label?

Oh, very conscious. One thing that’s noticeable in so many autobiographical comics is the exclusion of a cast of friends. Most autobiographical comics consist of the following: depressed hero, bitchy lover who will soon be ex-lover, smartass friend who’s probably made up. As the new "Tails" progresses, you will see a much larger cast come into play; Ethan will interact with people during the day like a normal, healthy human being!

Also, I’m going to tone down the emo-drama and emphasize the comedy. There will still be dramatic elements in "Tails," sure, but it’s not going to be one big Kleenex fest. In the end, that’s the best way to avoid navel-gazing: stop trying to make people feel sorry for you. This also goes back to what I was saying before, about self-indulgence in comics. I just have to be extra-cautious of how ideas translate from my head to the page.

The Mind of Ethan

What's your technical approach to writing and drawing comics? What's your process from idea to publishing a page on your site?

First, I like to picture the whole story arc in my head. I visualize key moments, themes, important plot points, facial reactions to certain jokes, how awesome this one page will look, et cetera, et cetera, all while jotting down notes. Afterwards, I’ll flush out the plot and establish an emotional core for the story. Be aware, during this phase, I’m usually mumbling to myself like a madman while pacing around the house.

As for the dialog, I only loosely outline my scripts. Nothing’s finalized until the rough sketches are laid out, and I can see how much room is available for the lettering. For me, the words and pictures need to compliment each other, since they share the same space. There’s nothing I hate more than seeing a single panel overwhelmed by seven computerized word bubbles – OR – when an artist leaves vast amounts of blank space for the words, rendering the drawing empty and flat.

Once six or seven pages are penciled (penciling each page could take anywhere from a day to a week, depending on what my schedule is like), I’ll review the pages once more before going to inks. I don’t like to jump back and forth between penciling and inking too often; I prefer concentrating on one skill-set at a time. Also, this way, it keeps things fresh. At the end of inking seven pages (which takes about 3 days), I’ll have a burning desire to get back to penciling.

So far, I have over 100 pages of "Tails" completed and ready to go. At this point, I’m just trying to pace myself and keep everything on schedule.

How big IS this "Tails" project? What's your ultimate goal with it? What if freelance offers come your way and you don't have time to finish this autobiographical story?

I’m finishing Chapter 7 right now, right in the middle of a cool story arc. Each story arc is as self-contained as possible; each ending could potentially serve as an acceptable ending to "Tails" (albeit with a few loose ends). There are several more story arcs laid out, so we’ll see. Eventually, I’ll be faced with a simple decision: do I want to continue with these characters that I’ve grown fond of, or not?

As for my freelancing, I’m usually involved with two to three different projects on a weekly basis. I work on "Tails" as often as my schedule allows. But since I deliver my freelance stuff at a pretty quick pace, I’m lucky enough to have time for personal projects. If a really BIG freelance project falls on my lap, I’d probably have to reduce my "Tails" output, but I won’t out-right abandon the story. Worse comes to worse, "Tails" will receive a proper farewell.

"Tails" is ultimately about journey; the journey from kid to adult (in mindset if not in body), the journey from dreamer to achiever. Ethan goes through many life-lessons, and hopefully it will resonate with the right audience. My favorite compliment I ever received about the original "Tails" was from my friend’s aunt. She said, “I loved your book, it was wonderful. Nothing happens, nothing really happens to these characters, but I couldn’t stop reading it.” That’s how I want readers to feel about the new "Tails," except this time, something happens.

What sources do you draw upon? What kinds of books and comics and movies have inspired you over the years? What specifically made you want to become a comic book creator?

The biggest influence in my life was my older brother, who was aspiring to be a comic artist while I was still a toddler. Although we’ve been estranged over the years, that shouldn’t diminish the significance of his influence.

Cereal and Some Sin

But the one mainstream comic artist that shook me to my core was Art Adams. I’d imagine that tons of artists from my generation would say that, but come on! Art Adams did those amazing "X-Men" annuals. The life he injected into those characters made me want to be a part of that X-family. You can blame Art Adams for shattering my mother’s dream of my having a medical career.

Other than that, I draw inspiration from everything that I enjoy; the kinetic energy from a Jim Lee comic, the irreverent humor from a Dan Piraro’s strip, the pure joy from "Calvin and Hobbes," the spot-on narration from "High Fidelity," the humor/drama balance from "Scrubs," the list goes on and on.

I do want to point out one show that has been a critical influence on me (and on "Tails"), which is "Mission Hill," otherwise known as the best cartoon ever cancelled. That show had witty, understated humor. It had a rich design. It was a cartoon about young adults, which is perfect for me, because I’m a young adult who loves cartoons. Not to mention the fact that the main character, Andy French, is a struggling cartoonist. Finally, a cartoon character I fully related to. "Mission Hill" is what I wish more autobiographical comics could be -- a story that captures the ennui of young adulthood, the struggles of being a cartoonist, all while maintaining the good humor to poke fun at itself and at its characters. Most autobiographical comics miss that last part, and just head towards depression-town.

What response have you had to the online serialization so far? How has writing an autobiographical comic affected your real life?

So far, so good. Originally, I thought that people would be turned off by the black and white, or the fact that it’s hand-lettered. Those were my two biggest concerns off the bat. Luckily, most comments I’ve received so far have been very positive. But hey, it’s still early. We’ll have to wait and see how many people are reading "Tails" six months or a year from now.

People tend to see me just a tad differently after they’ve read "Tails," but not in a negative way, unless they hate vegans and/or hate cats. (Wait, come to think of it, most people do hate vegans…) Friends who’ve read "Tails" will smirk if I dive into an anecdote that was previously covered in the comic; it’s like we’re in on the same joke. I’ve also learned to never, never do a story about a real life girlfriend EVER again.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "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.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, tails, ethan young, webcomics

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