Over the past two years, the minds behind Disney's animated films have been making a quiet splash at Comic-Con International in San Diego, but not in a way that most fans expect. While the massive family entertainment company continues to announce new films, toys and multi-media projects at the show, the artists who storyboard the company's hit animated films have been taking Comic-Con back to its roots with limited edition comics releases.
In 2009, the artists released "Who Is Rocket Johnson?" – an anthology of original stories that set out simply to answer the titular question. This year, the group is back with "What Is Torch Tiger?" a $20 volume featuring stories of jungle discoveries, anthropomorphic airplanes and bickering spouses amongst other visually-appealing plays on the main question. As the Rocket Johnson volume sold out quickly last year, CBR caught up with "Torch Tiger" editor and Disney storyboard artist Paul Briggs early at CCI 2009 to get the scoop on the book, which readers can see a preview of here.
CBR: Usually when people do these kinds of projects, they look to take them out to other publishers and get national exposure, but you guys have kept things at Comic-Con only for two years running. Who runs the show in terms of getting the anthology ready for its big weekend?
Paul: There's four of us involved. It's me, Nathan Greno, Joe Mateo and Don Hall [who] all came up with the idea. And it was something we could pose to everyone – because we're a story department, and we all board – that was accessible to everybody. So you start with this abstract question, and that's the freedom of it. I don't care what you do. Just answer the question in your story. Doing that and knowing that our day job is storyboarding is why we only do a limited run, and only at Comic-Con, because we don't want to divert our attention away from our day jobs. 'Don't quit your day job!' That's our real focus – making animated films.
There's a real connection between what you do on a storyboard and what you do on a comics page, but was there a real learning curve for you and some of the other guys in terms of learning what you have to change to make the visuals work on a printed page rather than as one step in the animation process?
Totally. I have a whole new appreciation for comic book artists. [laughs] I have a lot of friends down here who are in the business, but it's amazing how much more information you have to put into a much more limited space that you have. With storyboarding, you always try to tell the story in as little amount of panels as possible, showing a clear idea, but in a comic book it's a whole different way of laying things out. With a storyboard, you're drawing a panel and reading it horizontally, but with a comic book page, the way you can lay it out to make things work – I know a lot of guys struggle with that. They think, "Wow. For the first time I can go totally vertical with this panel and tell the story." I think that's what really attracted people to the project in a lot of ways. It's kind of familiar, but it's totally different.
You had "Who Is Rocket Johnson?" last year, that was a big hit. What was the response internally in terms of people who didn't take part last time wanting to jump in?
I thought for sure after Comic-Con last year people were going to say, "Okay, that was fun, but we're not going to do that again." But everybody wanted it. There were a lot new people coming into the studio as well, and they were right away going, "I definitely want to be in this book." It's a lot of fun, and I'm really big on having your own thing. We work for a big corporation, and we love what we do, but it's also important to have your own thing outside the studio – outside the building. Go out on your own and have fun with it. People get that. I want to have fun on something that's similar to what I do, but I'm really enjoying it.
How did you approach the "What Is Torch Tiger?" question, and how did your pages turn out differently than last year?
This year, I tried to take it not very serious at all. Mine is super simple. I almost ended up reusing images to tell mine. It's very, very limited. I approached it that way because I knew I'd have to go limited. Other guys went all out and went crazy with it, but I approached it from a minimal standpoint and still tried to get, in very little panels, an answer to that question.
Have you been working on Disney's return to traditional animation, "The Princess and the Frog" while also prepping the anthology?
Yeah. There's probably five or six people in the book who all worked on "Princess and the Frog," and we're super proud of it. We're really excited about that film not only for the story, but the animation and the effects – everything looks so good. There are guys in here working on "Rapunzel" right now too. We're all a department, but we're all on different movies. But in this, we're all together. It really unifies the department and brings us together.
It looked from the blog you have that you had a gallery day at Disney for the book. Was that just a day off?
It was a big celebration. And that's the thing. Disney is very supportive of this. They understand that to keep our creative juices energized, this is a great thing. So once we had all the pages finished, we had an open house – because everyone's in their own bubble working on their comic book story, but once it's done we put it up for everyone to read all the stories. We invited people in the building to come check it out before the printing. In a way, it's kind of a final check, too, going through to make sure that everything's kosher. [laughs] There's a lot of spelling errors to check out.
Last year you sold out quickly. Did you overprint this year to compensate?
We did, but the only reason we overprinted was because the artists themselves only got two books last year. So this year we overprinted just so we could get some. [laughs] But almost in a way, it's the same number of books [for the floor] so I think things will probably go pretty quickly too.
If folks aren't at the show this year to buy the book, have you decided what the question for next year will be?
We have. We did this last year with "Rocket Johnson" too where none of the artists knew about it, but we always put the next question in on the last page, and then when they get the printed book, they go, "What's next year's question?!?" So the question for next year is, "Where is Dead Zero?" And I'm thinking – I'm not sure how the other guys feel about it – but I'm thinking that could be our last book.
"What Is Torch Tiger" is on sale at booth #2302 all weekend at Comic-Con.