Talk Over Balloons: comicsmith Brendan Leach

Among the independent comicsmiths I became acquainted with at Big Apple Comic-Con, only one of the few who really stood out I asked to do an interview, and his name is Brendan Leach (@iknowashortcut), a recent alumnus of the Masters of Fine Arts Illustration as Visual Essay graduate program at the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Will Eisner taught at SVA. As did Jerry Robinson. (Although, I believe in the undergraduate arena.) It is one of the few, almost definitely the oldest, places in the United Sates one can get an education in making sequential art. NOT illustration, but illustration in the service of "visual essay", usually expressed as sequential art storytelling. There is a difference. It's definitely the only place you can graduate with the amazing David Mazzucchelli for your MFA thesis advisor.

Our early interviews here on The Long and Shortbox Of It have been with a writer and an artist. This time, for our third interview, we give you a true comicsmith: a man trained to do it all.

Jon Gorga: I'm here tonight at Soup n' Burger in New York City, Lower Manhattan... Lower Manhattan isn't quite accurate. Near Astor Place.

Brendan Leach: Below Fourteenth Street.

Jon Gorga: Below Fourteenth? It flies? It flies. Cool. I'm conducting the first recorded interview for The Long and Shortbox Of It with Brendan Leach...

Brendan Leach: Hello.

JG: ...artist and writer of "Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City" a very cool indie self-published comic. So jumping into the trenches, which is how I like to do interviews: How did you come up with the brilliant idea of having the cover be a mock newspaper?

BL: It was just practicality. I knew I couldn't make a mini-comic on a Xerox machine because of the ink washes in the art. So I realized I had to get it printed. The cheapest way to print anything is newsprint. And I said: Newsprint's okay because it's set in a time period when newsprint-- newspapers were the main form of news and media. And then it just made total sense: Why would I do a cover that was anything but a newspaper? I researched newspapers from the time period. Also, I could use the text on the cover to jump-start the setting and the story. So it just made sense on every level.

JG: How many of these great little blocks of text are actual reprinted period newspaper columns? These are from 19o4? You copied them and blurred them out?

BL: Everything. I copied the 19o4 front page from the day after the General Slocum ship sank in the East River.

JG: I haven't even heard of it.

BL: It's an insane bit of history. A bunch of people got on a boat, most of them were from a congregation, kind of around here, more like Sixth Street. There's a church, near where all the Indian restaurants are, there's a little plaque that commemorates it. They all got on this boat to go sightseeing up-- I guess it was the East River because they got about as far as Heart's Island-Riker's Island up there. There was a fire on the boat and it started to sink.

JG: I see. It is here, it's legible in one place: "Slocum Catastrophe Recalls A Like Disaster".

BL: The crew was not trained in what to do in a disaster. The life boats were painted to the deck. Everything was wrong so nobody survived, basically. Because there was no preperations for an actual disaster. The life preservers were rotten and falling apart, couldn't get the boats off the deck. So everybody died in the fire.

JG: And you would have a proper amount of concern similar to your plot, which is, by the way, a delightfully cool concept of pterodactyls terrorizing Lower Manhattan and the story of two brothers in an ongoing rivalry who work for the 'Ptero Patrol'. Would it be pronounced PE-ter-OH Patrol?

BL: No, it would be ter-OH Patrol I think. It's a visual alliteration. You'll never say it, but you're reading to yourself so it looks like alliteration.

JG: Now, the brother's rivalry is pretty unique in that you never quite see why Declan (is it pronounced DAY-clen?)...

BL: It would think DEH-clen.

JG: ...why Declan resents Eamon other than some of the surface-level stuff: that Eamon is kind of a hero, but we don't really see their past, we don't really see them growing up. I was wondering where the inspiration came from for these characters to be in a rivalry and what you think about their motivations for the rivalry.

BL: Do you have a brother?

JG: I don't.

BL: I have a brother and I love him to death, we have no tension between us, but on the few things that we both do, that we're both into... he's my older brother so the main motivating factor is to do it better. He's a little bit older, he always did it first. You're always playing catch-up and I just exaggerated that feeling that I assume everyone has. And I have a good relationship with my brother so it's not that odd.

JG: That makes sense.

BL: So I imagine, if you're in the same line of work and you're already stressed out because the line of work's not going to last, as the pterodactyls get fewer and fewer. I imagine there's a high amount of stress where the older brother is interested in getting rid of them, the younger brother never really had a chance to hunt them, so there's a lot of animosity connected right there.

JG: It's one of those cases of a human being groomed, in a way, for something that all of a sudden then becomes obsolete and the pain of that.

BL: Yeah. Absolutely. 100%.

JG: I love this page (what is this, the third page?) the first time we see a pterodactyl slain.

BL: Maybe fourth.

JG: It's really gorgeous and the image of this pterodactyl falling through the sky then landing right in front of a pharmacy on a downtown Manhattan street, dead as a doornail. It's pretty hilarious. It's hilarious as well as sad, but maybe more than anything striking. You've got a really interesting technique in what I assume to be a sort of a riff on the idea of a thought balloon: as Declan walks down the street in Manhattan, you're seeing a textual representation of his thoughts like a thought balloon, but they're kind of smudgy, they're kind of wavy and you can see particles of the previous conversation that he just exited. So I was wondering if you could talk about where that came from and how you perceive it, and (if you can imagine me doing air quotes) how you 'read' it.

BL: Maybe it's not exactly like this, but this sort of thing is done all over comics where there's something buzzing in somebody's ear. Not exactly the same, but you ever read "Night Fisher"? R. Kikuo Johnson? It's a good little book. They live in Hawaii and this kid tries drugs. They're smoking meth at one point. His ears are buzzing from doing it. He keeps drawing these hornets. Not really flying around, but just floating next to the chracter's ears. So you just know what's going on: his ears are buzzing, he's got that feeling in his head and it's not really a part of reality.

JG: Kind of the equivalent of the flies around the trashcan as Scott McCloud writes about in "Understanding Comics", an iconic representation of something. [NOTE: This phenomenon has been called "emanata".]

BL: So you know there's thoughts going on inside his head. Even in a movie it's kind of hard to depict. You have an actor making scowling faces and you're like: 'oh that guy's thinking, I know he's thinking'. But in a comic it seems like this is a much better thing because his head is literally buzzing. You just need to know he's conflicted, he's got a lot going on in his head. There's literally a lot going on around his head.

JG: Come to think of it, what you've done is combine the thought balloon with the old 'storm cloud'.

BL: Exactly. It's the 'Charlie Brown storm cloud'.

JG: That's really cool. We're kind of going chronologically through the comic, since that's the easiest way for me to just say 'Oh yes, that's something I wanted to talk about!' I love that their father is painting a New York City sky with pterodactyls in it because it's his world and it's his world that's dying, and he's trying to capture it through memory.

BL: Yeah, that comes from talking to my adviser about: 'I got these characters that have got to say a lot of stuff, I don't want to have a page of just heads moving'. So he said: 'Well, what are they doing while they're talking?' In the time period and the tenement they live in, he's a retired guy so maybe he's drawing. What would he draw? He'd draw the pterodactyls!

JG: Cool. One of the things-- one of the very, very few things --that didn't work for me was the few times where you draw something twice to reflect speed, old-school like The Flash or Spider-Man in a mainstream superhero comic. Quite honestly, my first reaction was that it was a printing error and then only after I saw one of the pterodactyls do it, did it finally became clear to me.

BL: It's two moments in time.

JG: Yeah that it's the classic: The Flash moving at super-speed that we saw a million times, Carmine Infantino-style. But a human doing it somehow just felt really unnatural, and I overheard you talking about the way the comic was done, which we'll get to in the next question, so I thought it was a left-over from that process.

BL: You didn't like that? I get a lot of compliments on that. More on the pterodactyl one.

JG: The pterodactyl one works.

BL: I see what you're saying. I used it because, like you said, it happens all the time in comics with the Flash and everything. You're just trying to do as much as you can on a page, in each panel and when things are happening fast sometimes it's hard to notice things.

JG: I really want to know a bit about the process because I overheard you talking about the ink lines versus the washes, and that you literally created two layers and had to match them. Which must have been a PAIN IN THE ASS.

BL: It was an extra DAY of work.

JG: ONLY a day?

BL: Yeah, once I got the system down.

JG: Explain the process as best you can since this is recorded. There'll be some images accompanying the interview.

[A left, a preliminary drawing for "Pterodactyl Hunters" similar to the ink-lines layer.]

BL: It's not even that difficult to describe. I did a pencil draft first, very rough, then a tighter draft of pencils, and I did the pencils at the size that the final art would be drawn. So I could take the pencils, put them on a lightbox, take the nice paper and work with the solid black ink directly onto the nice paper, straight from the pencils on the lightbox so there's no penciling done on the final art. I use watercolor paper. So that's all straight ink and then I ink the whole book in just the black ink. And then took a second separate sheet of paper over the ink on the lightbox and I did the wash on top of that.

JG: I did figure that you would need to have the ink first and then the wash. But you had them on separate layers.

[A left, the final panel as it appears in "Pterodactyl Hunters".]

BL: They're on separate sheets of paper. So the way the art looks in the book doesn't exist on any 'original art'. I have 36 pages of ink-line and 36 pages of wash.

JG: Yeah, I suspected that was true. Here's another gorgeous page. I had at one point imagined that you had literally drawn them entirely separately and them combined them in Photoshop.

BL: Because I did them on the lightbox, I did them in InDesign. The file sizes were exactly the same and the original art is the same so when I put them into InDesign they just fit perfectly, I didn't have to adjust them.

JG: That's what I would screw-up: the file sizes. I also noticed that at several points, you really smartly have text that can't quite be read because of distance, creating a great aural effect, an off-camera sound. And that's something I noticed in the work of someone that I know you drew heavily from: David Mazzucchelli. Was it something that was suggested to you, was it something that you realized through his work or was it something that you came to separately? To create this text that's background text, so to speak? Illegible text that represents a sound that can barely be read? Heard. Ha. Synesthesia. Tough.

BL: No. No, it wasn't suggested to me but it's something I definitely picked up from reading, you know, not only Mazzucchelli's work, but I guess in more modern comics it's pretty common. You think about, not replicating other media, but trying to achieve effects that comics can give that other media can't. But they relate: if you were reading a novel, the author can just write 'this character said something that couldn't be heard' and you know what's going on, and when you're watching a movie you hear the muffled sound so you know they're saying something but you can't hear it. So how does that happen in comics? The small balloon that is far away that you can't read.

JG: I have seen it done differently. I've actually seen empty balloons.

BL: I think I've got some empty balloons in here.

JG: Do you?

BL: I think so. But not full-size.

JG: Tiny buggers?

BL: Maybe they're not totally empty.

JG: At any rate, the end is intentionally ambiguous because we don't see what should be the final beat. You end just before the conclusion, you end before the final action beat. So I presume that's a case of 'leaving it up to the reader'?

BL: Right, because getting up to it is the interesting part of the story. He's got to get to the point where he can make this decision and he gets to that point. The best parts of a story are what gets left out, right? You know, you build it up... It seems to me any reader in any medium is going to like what they think more than what I think, you know? So I made all the other choices, but this thing, the ending, it ends the way YOU think it ends! It ends without a decision.

JG: If I ask you, in your imagination, which decision does he take, you going to give me the deflection?

BL: I would like to give you the deflection.

JG: You absolutely have that right to, as the creator, to leave the ambiguity! But I'm curious as to what you'll answer-- we have a disclaimer about spoilers, I don't know if you know that-- does the character take the shot, in your imagination, in the next beat that isn't in the comic?

BL: I've been asked this before. When I think about: If I were to continue this story, how would I tell the story in order to continue? You need to know what happened. If I was to continue the story, I STILL wouldn't let you know what happened until the end of another 36 pages. But in my mind, I think he definitely takes the shot but... he takes the shot, he pulls the trigger but you don't know if...

JG: Oh, that's great! Ambiguities within ambiguities! Great.

BL: I think he would have the courage to pull the trigger, but he may or may not have the tenacity to hit his target.

JG: Cool! It's a great hanging moment, because the last page is another gorgeous one. So part-and-parcel of that, is there a possibility of a continuation: a "Pterodactyl Hunters 2"?

BL: Man, I've thought about that and it was always: THIS was the story. It's really not about pterodactyls it's about the brothers, that relationship. And the story of that relationship, what's interesting to me about that relationship is already in this 36 pages. And I like it as a one-shot. To get things picked up by a publisher, sometimes they be 90 or 100 pages long. So this is not really going to get published the way it is because it's too long to be short and too short to be long. And I've thought about doing two more 36-page chapters.

JG: Continuing the story of the brothers, giving ambiguity about what happened in this moment perhaps?

BL: Actually, I imagined there'd be a chapter before when their father is more like their age, and they're kids and there's more pterodactyls, and there's more action. And it would have to be a different story with a different emotional tone. And then a story set maybe twenty years after this story, when it's the late 20s almost the 30s, the world is more modern, and what would happen after that. But those aren't important, what was important to me, was that this story is about things becoming obsolete, at a time when things are changing. 19o4 is when New York City is really turning into a modern place: they built the subways in 19o4, they started the sewer system, the fire patrol's getting organized, the unification of all the boroughs either just happened or it's about to happen. It couldn't have been set at any other time, to me. So it's about those changes. Major changes happening. Everyone has to change. When it's not a choice: It's happening, things are changing, can you do it? And that's what, to me, this story's about. And another chapter or an earlier chapter doesn't really fit for that.

JG: If you do create more, this story will still be the hinge, so to speak, just as it's the hinge moment in New York City's history?

BL: Right, or they would be totally different and have a different emotional process.

JG: The final question I have for you is, again, related to that one: What is the next project? What's coming for you? And what do you want the Long and Shortbox readers to know about?

BL: I have some short comics that I'm working on for some anthologies. One is for "Ferocious Quarterly". The Twitter account is @WeAreFerocious and the blog is fe.rocious.com. I've got a short comic in that which is set in a small town, contemporary times-- more character based. I've got a comic that I'd like to work on about greasers in the late 1950s. That one I haven't really worked-up yet.

JG: Oh, that sounds cool.

BL: I've got some things in the hopper.

JG: Always a couple plans on the back burner that could be moved to the front burner at some future point.

BL: Looking for outlets to publish it or make some mini-comics. Nothing so concrete yet. I really wish I had a better answer to this! I've got a lot of stuff in the hopper.

JG: That is, first of all, better than nothing and, second of all, exciting to me because I really liked "Pterodactyl Hunters". And hopefully exciting to our readers who may or may not have checked out "Pterodactyl Hunters", yet! If you know me personally, I'm probably going to put this in your hands pretty soon because I think it's really awesome. I think that mostly wraps it up. Thank you Brendan for making the time, for doing this for The Long and Shortbox Of It.

BL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

JG: Absolutely. And thank you guys for reading.

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You must seek out "Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City". All you have to do is send Brendan a little bit of moolah ($2.00 I believe) or if you live in New York City just go to any comic-shop in Brooklyn OR ask Brendan what other stores across the nation are carrying the book.

Brendan's website is at iknowashortcut.com
You really should do yourself the favor and go check his stuff out.

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