Sam Alden seems to have come out of nowhere. "Hawaii 1997" made a splash when he first posted it online in early 2013, and since then, Alden has developed a trend of steadily releasing quality stories over the past two years, including "Household," "Backyard" and "Hollow," which was released online in May on his website gingerlandcomics.com. Not content to solely produce digital comics, Alden also made the comic "Wicked Chicken Queen," which was released through Retrofit.
"It Never Happened Again," which just came out from Uncivilized Books, combines his print and digital worlds. The release collects two of the Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent winner's tales -- his previously mentioned debut, "Hawaii 1997," and, "Anime," a brand new story exclusive to this book.
CBR News: I feel like you've had this pretty incredible run of comics that have appeared over the past year or so. Now, obviously, you weren't an overnight sensation, but I am curious about your background and what drew you to comics.
Sam Alden: I've pretty much always been drawing comics. I wish I could point to some Important Moment early on with them, but I literally can't remember a time when I wasn't reading and drawing these fucking things. And either because I'm used to them, or because this is how I operate, comics are a medium that really work for me; I like having total control over a narrative, and getting to write dialogue without having to mess around with prose. Being a part of the North American comics community in 2014, it's a really exciting period.
I loved "It Never Happened Again," but I was curious why you decided to collect these two stories. You've made a lot of good short comics, why did you decide to pair these two together?
Part of why they got paired together was chance; Uncivilized and I made plans for this book before I had drawn any of my other stuff. And honestly, although it's tempting to envision a big encompassing collection of everything from the last year, tonally, it might not work together. I don't think that "Hawaii 1997" should go in the same collection as "Household," which if you haven't read it is a story I did last year with much darker and more explicit family dynamics.
In terms of like thematic cohesion I guess I wrote both stories while thinking a lot about innocence and romanticization. Like, "Hawaii 1997" isn't really about the island of Hawaii in 1997, and "Anime" isn't really about anime; they're more about how the protagonists perceive those things and hold them up to be something that they're not. I tried to create a symmetry to the arcs: In "Hawaii," you see the creation of a personal mythology, and in "Anime," you see a personal mythology being pulled apart. But I dunno, I don't want to imply that I know what I'm doing or anything. Some of the parallels were intentional, and some of them happened "organically," i.e. by mistake.
Where did the title of the collection, "It Never Happened Again," come from?
I guess both these stories felt like they were about those temporary states of innocence that you either spend the rest of your life trying to get back to, or you grow up and walk away from. Originally, in summer 2013, it was going to be titled "Nothing Was The Same," but then a month later, that was a Drake album.
Reading these stories and then others, I'm curious if you've figured out an "Alden style" or "Alden approach," or is that still something you're working out?
I try to experiment with materials and approaches, but if I have any particular visual style that I lean on a lot these days it's the loose, gestural pencil stuff. I'm in a mostly-committed relationship with pencil. I'll probably mess around with other media in the future, but I assume I'll keep coming home to graphite.
In terms of writing structure, I'm still all over the place. Something that I tried to do with my more recent work is to write around stuff rather than about it. Like, as an example, "Household," which I mentioned before, deals with incest and abuse in a pretty basic, explicit way, by literally just showing you all the messed-up stuff that happens in this one family. I think the protagonist in "Anime" also has some kind of trauma in her past (I'm just speaking here as the author of the piece, which doesn't necessarily confer final authority); but rather than talk about that, I tried to use it as something that I understood about the character which the audience wouldn't have to know. Like a temporary support system that holds up a stone arch while you construct it. I'm still such an amateur when it comes to writing, but that felt like a baby step in the right direction.
The two look similar, by which I mean that you tend to lay them out in a similar way and use similar materials. I guess I was curious about your approach for the two and were you conscious of their similarities?
Yeah, they're similar. "Hawaii" was drawn with a mechanical pencil, very, very small, so that there was a lot of texture to the line. "Anime" was a little more refined as a process; I was lightboxing it and using nice soft pencils. But I drew them with the hope that they'd look okay next to each other.
What do you like about working in pencil and graphite?
There are a lot of good things about it, most of which are too much about personal aesthetics to put into words. Pencil makes a line of uniform width that still feels organic; I've never been proficient enough with the brush to produce that effect. And it allows for a certain amount of speed and looseness which never seems to look as good with pen and ink. At this point, I think I'd rather be agonizing over the writing and getting the drawing out as fast as possible, and working with these tools is currently the easiest way to achieve that.
When you take something like "Hawaii 1997," which you originally created for the Internet and are now putting in print, were you thinking, how should it look on the page initially?
I actually always intended to print "Hawaii"; it's sort of a fluke that I think most people saw it first online. Certain things do read better on the Internet; scrolling, for example, rather than turning the page, plays really well with those sequences that are almost like animation storyboards. You can almost see it move. I'm working on a longer piece right now, called "Hollow," where I'm really trying to take advantage of that partial animation thing that Tumblr facilitates. But that rhythm of spreads and pages was built into "Hawaii" from the start, and there are all sort of pacing subtleties that work so much better on the page.
I'm asking this in part because of "Wicked Chicken Queen" -- and I'm working under the assumption that you made this story for print -- but you really seemed interested in approaching the page differently and thinking about the design in a new way than in the stories you've created and posted online.
Yeah, "Wicked Chicken Queen" was definitely a print baby from the very start. That book wouldn't work nearly as well online. I was trying to force this kind of children's book thing where reading the text and looking at the picture are very separate activities. Comics are normally something that you ''read" all at once, right? Like you're absorbing the picture and the text simultaneously. I tried to push away from that a little with "Chicken Queen" by using these really big detailed drawings, with the captions way down at the bottom of the page. I think I wanna try that approach again at some point in the future.