Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch have been two of the biggest figures in alternative comics in recent years. Huizenga's projects, including the Fantagraphics-published and critically acclaimed "Ganges," "Curses," and recent books from Drawn and Quarterly like "Gloriana" and "The Wild Kingdom" have established him as a top-level talent, while Zettwoch's long-awaited graphic novel "Birdseye Bristoe" was published last year, after many years of creating acclaimed short comics and minicomics.
Now, both of their work can be found in the collaborative "Amazing Facts and Beyond," out now from Uncivilized Books, collecting a weekly comic strip the duo produced for "The Riverfront Times," St. Louis' alternative weekly paper. The strip is "hosted" by Leon Beyond, a fictional character who takes readers on a tour through a world of fascinating and almost entirely fictional facts. It's strange, colorful, laugh-out-loud book of one page self-contained strips.
The two spoke with CBR at this year's Small Press Expo, though the original conversation was lost due to technical issues. However, Huizenga and Zettwoch were happy to re-connect for a second interview which, much like their book of fake facts, liberally merged the worlds of reality and fiction.
CBR News: When you were presented with the opportunity to create a regular strip, what did you want it to be?
Kevin Huizenga: To be completely honest -- I know we weren't being completely honest about the whole "Leon Beyond" situation when we talked to you at SPX, so in a way I'm glad, because this second chance at an interview will give me a chance to come clean and go into more detail about this book and this whole project and really set the record straight about Leon.
Honestly, from the beginning it was really all just about trying to figure out what we could do to make more money as cartoonists. What happened was, the alt-weekly in Saint Louis -- "The Riverfront Times" -- approached Dan about USS Catastrophe (which is Dan and I, along with Ted May) doing a comic strip for the paper. We knew we wanted to be in the paper -- every cartoonist worth their salt has to put up or shut up when it comes to doing a regular strip, but we also wanted to make some money at it. Newspaper strips have historically been the place where cartoonists make the big bucks, and Dan and I wanted to take a shot at getting a piece of that.
Dan Zettwoch: I was also enticed by the idea of a concrete deadline -- to go along with a concrete paycheck -- that would force me to produce at least one comic strip every other week.
Huizenga: We asked ourselves, what kind of idea is a hot money-making idea? The answer came back: Fake facts. Dan and I were both fans of John Hodgman's books and of Ben Katchor's comic strips. We knew that both of these guys had huge success with fake facts and poetic licenses. Hodgman was on TV all the time, and Katchor was pulling in MacArthur grants for his comics and operas. We figured fake facts was a no-brainer, money-making avenue for us.
Zettwoch: I love Ben Katchor but have no interest in creating operas.
Huizenga: I could see writing an opera.
You each wrote and drew strips, alternating weeks. Why did you decide to split the work like that?
Huizenga: It just seemed easiest to do it that way. Two strips a month seemed like no problem. From the beginning, we were looking for a way to pull in top dollar for as little work as possible, so every step was about making it as easy as possible to do this work while at the same time targeting it in ways that were sure to grow the brand.
It's funny you ask about splitting up the work, because that's another issue I wanted to come clean about. What happened was that some weeks, for one reason or another, like we were too busy or something, either Dan or I couldn't do our strip. So the other guy would fill in that week. But because "Amazing Facts" was based on the idea of fake facts and bending the truth, we thought it would be funny if we would sometimes fill in for each other in the style of each other. So we would fake each others style. Dan would try to match my style as closely as possible, and we'd just run the strip in the paper under my name!
Eventually, the challenge of fooling people got to be more fun than actually coming up with ideas for strips. Fake facts are super easy to think up, so about halfway through the run of the strip, we pretty much just flipped the script and Dan drew all the Kevin H. strips, and all the strips that are credited to Dan are actually by me. We kept it this way in the book, but now seems like a good time to admit the hoax. We're really proud of how smoothly we pulled this off.
Zettwoch: Yeah, I had to basically re-learn how to make comics from scratch to get at what makes Kevin's comic tick. In a way it was the profoundest challenge of my life. Not to mention copying his actual drawing style -- you try doing lips like he does, I dare you!
Huizenga: But there's more. Toward the end of the run of the strip, we really were getting tired of the deadlines and dealing with the collections and everything got to be a lot of extra work, so we got a local kid, a Wash. U student Dan knew from teaching, to just draw the strips in our styles. He was amazing at aping our styles. Dan and I would still write the strips -- I mean, Dan would write mine and I would write his -- but this young guy, his name was Neil Cooper, would draw them. He was an amazing talent and a really hard worker. (I'm using the past tense because sadly Neil passed away last year). We thought it was better for the Leon Beyond, you know, the brand if we kept it all under our names, but now we figure it's OK to mention Neil's name too. It's the least we can do.
Where did the character of Leon Beyond come from?
Huizenga: Dan is a big fan of the movie "Midnight Madness," and he had recently shown me that movie. It's this old Disney live-action comedy from 1980, about a big scavenger hunt which is masterminded by this nerdy mysterious guy named Leon. We both liked that character a lot, and he seemed like he would be a nerd full of fake facts. We had our agents contact Disney, and we began negotiations. It quickly became clear that this was another avenue for revenue. Disney was interested in bringing out "Midnight Madness" on Blu-ray, and we talked them into letting us use Leon as a character to kind of bring him back into circulation. We had already decided the strip would be called "Amazing Facts and Beyond," so Leon Beyond was a natural fit, and their lawyers' signed off on that. The idea was for us to act like Leon was a real guy, and so we always created this facade of that there was a real Leon Beyond and that he was writing these strips. There was some talk of Leon spinning off into new CGI movie, or a Disney Channel show, but that all fell apart once Tom Wright, the author of the novelization of "Midnight Madness," and his lawyers got involved. Things got mixed up in court, and as far as we know the whole thing is probably dead, but we're still hopeful.
Actually we found about "Midnight Madness" and that the movie itself is an interesting mix of fact and fiction. It was based on actual scavenger hunts that went on during the 1970s all over California, and these were organized by guys exactly like the character Leon in the movie.
Zettwoch: The other tricky part was the character design of Leon Beyond himself. Kevin and I went round and round about that: How scruffy should his beard be? How curly should his hair be? How plump are his lips? At one point, Disney flew the actor who played Leon to St. Louis for figure drawing session where Kevin and I would do some studies. Well, when the actor arrived let's just say he looked nothing like the Leon we knew and loved. I mean, it was 30-some-odd years later.
What was the challenge in finding something and telling it in a style that you could both draw and write?
Huizenga: We knew we didn't want to do a continuing storyline in the strips, where there was a potential for writing ourselves into corners. Plus we knew the readers might not be picking up the paper each week, so we didn't want to lose readers who didn't keep up with the strip religiously. We were trying to give the strip as wide an appeal as possible. Fake facts are easy to come up with and easy to appreciate.
Zettwoch: I actually hide a lot of subtle plot clues throughout the run of all my (that is, Kevin's) strips that form a sort of macro-plot. That's why even if you've been reading the RFT every week, or even buying the mini-comic collections, you probably need the big hardcover collection. It will finally all make sense.
Huizenga: Hmm, this is news to me, this macro-plot. I guess I'll need to read the book again. To be honest, I'm pretty sick of it, so I probably won't. But it makes me wonder now if you ever figured out the hidden messages I put in your comic strips.
Zettwoch: What messages?
"Amazing Facts" has things in common with both of your work, but it's not quite like what you do, was that always the hope or plan?
Huizenga: The thing that really set these strips apart was really just how much they were targeted at the average reader, because we were really hoping for as large an audience as possible. We bent over backwards to keep the strips clear, readable, and keep the references and jokes easy to understand for your average joe.
Zettwoch: I'd often have an idea for an elaborate diagram or labyrinthine panel layout about, say, the Byzantines, but I did my best to dumb it down for Joe Lunchpail and Jane Six-Pack. This is the kind of book that someone should be able to effortlessly complete with half their attention. It's good for common everyday activities like sun-bathing, hot-tubbing or bathroom reading. Not at the same time, though! [Laughter] In the industry they call them one-sitters.
How was working on the comic different from other projects? Or was it?
Huizenga: It paid better than my other comics projects, at least at first. After 2008 and the crash the paycheck went down.
Zettwoch: For me, it was actually more like my editorial illustration work, or my corporate infographics work. I was enthusiastic about it, often passionate. But at the end of the week, it was always about the paycheck. And it's totally separate (and probably better) than the world-building I do in the rest of my art-comics. For instance, I would never have drawn someone with curly hair in my art-comics, but this comic strip gave me that opportunity.
Why did the strip end? Was it your decision or the paper's?
Huizenga: It was our decision. I woke up one day and knew it was time to move on. I always try to make my decisions about my career with very little forethought and just follow my instincts, and those instincts were saying, over and over, shut it down.
Zettwoch: I wasn't as ready as Kevin to move on, but I also wasn't ready to take the strip on full-time. And I don't think we'll ever find another Neil Cooper.
Huizenga: Because he's passed on.
How did you connect with Tom Kaczynski and publishing the book through Uncivilized?
Huizenga: Tom was looking for a big hit book that really flew off the shelves, and so it was a natural fit.
Zettwoch: It was also a natural fit to combine three of the most mis-pronounced last names in comics all in one project.
Huizenga: I don't think that many mis-pronounce your name. You're nowhere near me and Tom's level. Though it's getting better with mine. I'm optimistic.
Did the two of you oversee the design and production of the book and did it come out how you always wanted it to look?
Huizenga: For legal reasons, we can't fully answer this question. A lot of the design was by committee, and our lawyers and agents were heavily involved. A lot of things fell through the cracks. There are some errors in the indicia that got us in some legal hot water, so it's better if I don't get too specific about who did what! [Laughs] Like I said earlier in the interview, there's a lot that we didn't fully spell out in the book, and some people were pretty upset. I can say that at the end of the day we're totally fine with the way it came out.
Zettwoch: I think it turned out great. 100% how I wanted it to. I'm surprised to hear from Kevin there were issues?
Huizenga: Oh, yeah. Didn't I tell you about that?
What have you been working on since the strip ended?
Huizenga: This year, I put out "The Half Men" and some little books called "Pocket Guides." I've also been working on writing "Ganges 5," as well as a new "Fight or Run" comic book and another zine of short comics called "The Sign in the Yard," which should all be out next year.
Zettwoch: I'm working on a three-part miniseries for Oily Comics called "Cut-a-way Comics." It's about the naturalist and bird painter John James Audubon. I'm also working on a new issue of "Tel-Tales" about my Dad's days working at the phone company. There's some other anthology work, and new silkscreened prints too.