Comic books and Rock n’ Roll are two items on the short list of things that I’m supposed to give a damn about. So when a rock band is mentioned in the same headline as a leading comic book property, my ears should really perk up. Sadly I can’t be bothered to give a damn that the Foo Fighters are suing Marvel Comics’ Entertainment Production division. The suit seems to revolve around a third party (First Serve International Toonz,) and a fourth party (Toonz Animation India) using the Foo Fighters songs “Best of You” and “Free Me” without permission.
In other news Vertigo Comics seems to be finally acknowledging that not all of their readers look (or want to look) like Sandman or John Constantine. That’s right, Vertigo has discovered black people besides -Agent 355. Their first few forays into the worlds of lead negro-dom have been (pardon the pun) mixed. There are now at least four count them four whole graphic novels available from DC/Vertigo that feature a black (male) lead. 2004′s Angeltown, Hellblazer: Papa Midnight, M.F. Grimm: Sentences, and most recently, Incognegro.
Incognegro (written by Mat Johnson ) is a fair read, with solid art throughout most of the book (Warren Fleece). Think O Brother Where Art Thou merged with a network tv quality detective story. There are twists, and there is action but all in all a pretty predictable and formulaic but competent read. For a real surprise though you MUST read M.F. Grimm: Sentences. This is an Eisner quality work. If you want to know some of the back story of hip-hop, want to be entertained by a moving narrative, or if you want to feel the power of truly emotive sequential art (Ronald Wimberly), read this book!
Okay, Black History Month is now officially over as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got some lovely Latinos coming in to clean up after the party and then I’m running out to the suburbs to play “Jungle Fever”. Before that though check out the interview I conducted a few weeks ago with Rich Tommaso. We talk about Satchel Paige: S.OJ.C., inking techniques, and why Adrian Tomine shouldn’t draw fight scenes.
Rich Tomasso Speaks with DaFC about Satchel Paige, inking and the Kubert Style.
DaFC: Satchel Paige was actually finished two summers ago?
Rich: It was September 2006.
DaFC: Satchel Paige seems to have come out on James Sturm’s imprint the Center For Cartoon Studies.
Rich: What happened, is that he and Jason Lutes were at a Mocha convention and an agent who works in New York City – Judy Hansen, saw both of their comics and she knew someone at Hyperion, that’s owned by Walt Disney – they do children’s books. She knew that they were going to be starting a graphic novel line. She knew they were going to start doing historical biographies. So at that time she asked both Jason Lutes and Jim Sturm if they would be interested in doing something. And what happened was Hyperion chose the subject of Satchel Paige, because they knew that he, (Sturm) had done Golem’s Mighty Swing and because of Jason Lutes. He had done stuff about Houdini, so they asked him to do a book on Houdini. They also knew about the school, so they wanted to work it in a way that a percentage of the profits went back to the school.
DaFC: Now were you at the school during this time?
Rich: Yes, I was at the school for the first two years that they were open.
DaFC: Were you teaching there?
Rich: I was teaching with Steve Bissette (we did some workshops together), and I did some teaching on my own.
DaFC: What were you teaching?
Rich: I was teaching mostly like what the Joseph Kubert school taught me. Which a lot of students told me that they just weren’t getting elsewhere. Old school fundamentals and stuff, like shading, human anatomy, some courses on lettering, and how to use the Ames guide.
DaFC: Now I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself, but do you remember Milestone Comics? They were distributed briefly by DC. They had a lot of so called “multi-ethnic” characters and story lines.
DaFC: Their big claim to fame, was that they had a revolutionary new way of inking flesh tones. They were able to color in a way where everyone was not just beige or pink. Now to be honest, some of it looked like ass, because you had what looked like an unrealized marriage between old school inking and the emerging computer coloring techniques. Now in Satchel Paige, your mainly dealing with people of color. I noticed that you made some very interesting inking choices. You seem to use the background inking wash with shading.
Rich: Yeah, I used a lot of dry brush. It’s a technique I introduced a few years ago.
DAFC: I thought that was a filter.
Rich: The color is actually an addition made by myself James Sturm and a guy named Joe Lambert. We all worked on adding that extra tone to it. Basically, we each did a third of the book.
DaFC: So there was no real colorist?
Rich: The inking was mainly the dry brush techniques that I was using. I had to use so much photo reference on every single panel, so when you see these heavy shadows, that’s what I was going off of. I used the dry brush where I saw those heavy shadows in those old photographs.
DaFC: And the green? Is that a wash? How did you decide when to use it?
Rich: We added that in on computer.
DaFC: The combination of dry brush and that filter are one of the better ways I’ve ever seen people of color inked. It’s a true blend of artistry. I also noticed a lot of wide angled scenes (that seem to come from photo references). As an artist do you find those scenes a pain in the ass to draw?
Rich: The thing I liked about most of those panels, is that James had all of these thumbnails, he had laid out for me. He wanted to give it a little bit of air, instead of just plot, plot, plot.
DaFC: I can see that. Like the part at the beginning, where the main character is going to the train station. It’s almost manga like in its pacing. It’s only a few panels, and yet it feels so much longer.
So with the lay outs and everything, did you feel just like a hired gun? How much editorial input did you have? You do happen to be, a writer in your own right.
Rich: there were a few times when I would change layouts just according to how I felt about the pacing. There were a couple of times where there were medium shots or close-up shots, and I would say, “Well, we might as well stay with the whole figure for the whole sequence.” But most of it was tightly plotted. He (James) would sometimes even do the thumbnails twice before I got to it. He was writing the script and rewriting it a bunch of times, but the thumbnails were pretty tight. There were a few pages here and there that were added in afterwards just to kind of space things out a little more.
DaFC: You’re trained in the old style, the “Kubert Style”, that means that you’re familiar with the old “in house” tradition of “work horses”. Were you pretty much the workhorse on this book?
Rich: Yeah, pretty much. He had asked me to pencil two pages a day, if I could, but he didn’t think, that I was actually going to (be able) to do it, but I actually did. I tightly penciled two pages a day, and when I had to ink it, because of the deadline, I had to ink at least a page everyday to get it done. That includes lettering and all that stuff too. So yeah, all I did was work on this thing. That whole ten month time. Plus I never had to work so much off of photo references and stuff, but just reading that story, I could tell, that this was something that he had really put his heart into, that it was really important to him. So I made sure, everything was referenced, even the kids’ clothing, the hairstyles of the children. For everything, I would go off of photos.
DaFC: Not to mince words, but I’ve read my share of both white authors and black authors, and to be blunt, I’ve rarely read a white author that could convey that they understood the pervasive viciousness of the Jim Crow South. Reading this book, I feel that James completely “got it”. I was about to jump online and see if I could find a picture of him, just to make sure that Sturm was actually a white guy.
Rich: It was extremely well researched. For like a whole year, he just read books about the whole Jim Crow period, and then Satchel Paige and what was going on in the baseball leagues. Lots of things that weren’t even pertinent to the book. Things that weren’t about baseball, he read all about Satchel Paige and his life and that period.
DaFC: I loved you’re rendering of the Jenkins Boys on horses. It was very reminiscent of the black literary traditions of overseers. An ugly traditions from the servant’s quarters of Southern Gothic. They were the horse-riding, monstrous, slave drivers and whip-crackers on the plantations.
Rich: All that was in the thumbnails, but then again, I also read a lot of the first hand accounts about Satchel Paige and that era. It really helped.
DaFC: Now the story is told from the perspective of Emmit, was he a real person, or is he a character used strictly for the sake of narration?
Rich: I had asked James about that, I asked him besides Satchel Paige, who else is an actual historical figure he said, “Nobody, its all fictional”. Because I had actually been searching through all these books on the Negro Leagues players, and I had found that there was no picture of him (Emmit). There was someone who had the same name, but our Emmit was totally a fictional character.
DaFC: Was it hard going from a storyteller, to a workhorse?
Rich: The hardest thing about it, where James was a harsh taskmaster, was just the baseball. He’s a total baseball geek! There were times, where he would be like “I think the foot should be more in this positionÃ¢â‚¬Â¦” It was really helpful, because like the first thing that our editor said when he met us was “The thing that I’m so impressed with, is the poses are just so right on.” That’s James. (Thankfully) he was real picky, about having those poses down.
DaFC: “Striking Out Jim Crow” is a great title, but I want to know why didn’t you go more with a title, like “The Negroes Mighty Swing”?
Rich: Actually, a student and I made a joke about that, the next book is going to be like “The Golem: Part III”.
DaFC: On your other works, I find it easy to tell the difference between you, Seth, and Dan Clowes, but I feel, that a lot of untrained eyes might have trouble making the distinctions. Do you get accused of aping other artists’ style a lot?
Rich: On the Miriam book, a lot of people that reviewed it were like “This looks so much like Dan Clowes”. There was even this one guy, that basically said that I could probably be sued for it.”
DaFC: Well, Clowes is the most famous from that style. He had a movie and all, but it’s a pretty common style. People will quickly assume it all looks like Clowes, but they probably aren’t even aware of who Mitch O’Connel is.
Rich: It seems that they leave Adrienne Tomine alone about it, and his stuff is amazingly similar. Every time I see him on a New Yorker cover, I’m like, “Oh, Dan Clowes got a cover ofÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ oh, wait”. I got the Clowes comparison so heavily on this book. I kind of saw that coming though even while I was drawing the book.
DaFC: Well, this scene here, with the girl fight to me looks more like the Hernandez Brothers than anything else. Honestly, Tomine doesn’t impress me much as a visual storyteller. For example, his little story “Pink Frosting” seems to be like Romper Stomper, in that its one of those skinhead stories written by someone too gentile to really know much about skinheads. He just comes off as an art school pretty boy. (Unlike Evan Dorkin) he seems like someone who did the rock club circuit, but never lived through the really seedy stuff. His work shows a lack of “authenticity of the streets”.
Rich: It does always sort of show through. There’s this Hernandez story that I love, It’s Ray and DoyleÃ¢â‚¬Â¦”
Rich: “..and they go to hang out with this crazy guy they knew from high school, and he’s still like that. He’s getting drunk as Hell, and he gets in a fight. (Reading it, your like,) you know, that the Hernandez Brothers actually know these guys.”
DaFC: Do you think integrity and experience helps personal cartooning?
Rich: I think so. I definitely think so. Especially, because it helps so much in film, and the other arts like that, and comics is so related to that.
DaFC: To me you come off with more authenticity when you write what you really know, like Jeffery Brown. He doesn’t seem to write about relationships that he couldn’t have actually been in. Now, I doubt that you or James have ever played for the Negro Leagues, but you (guys) at least did your research.
Rich: In New Jersey, in my high school, there were always fights like that. There was once this real bad one between two girls like that one. It’s like a memory that is still so vivid still.
DaFC: Speaking of Jersey, the hair in those drawings!!! If you’ve never seen hair like that up close and personal-
Rich: That’s true. Like, when I drew that I was like, “This isn’t one of those cheesey 80′s things, I knew girls like that. I knew girls that really had that hair. At times it may feel like a caricature, or like I’m drawing something real cartoony, but it’s not. I remember this girl, and she did look like that.
DaFC: Have you ever heard of the tradition of “taxing” like you tax someone for their boots, or their jacket, because they “haven’t earned it yet”?
DaFC: I think Tomine needs to be taxed for his pens if he ever tries to draw another fight scene. Why did you come back to Atlanta?
Rich: I’ve got a lot of friends and family here. Vermont, it was great to be up there, and I do miss the students, but it was really hard to live there. White River Junction VT, is like the middle of nowhere. There’s like only three restaurants and a stationary store. It used to be a railroad town. Now it just sort of survives because its only about 15 miles from Dartmouth.
DaFC: I guess it’s not a great time to have a rail-based economy, unless you’re hauling auto parts.
Rich: If you’ve read any of James’ last four books, you know that he romanticizes the trains. He came down here a few years ago, and he loved it. Seth loved it too.