Talk Over Balloons: Jason Lutes, Donna Almendrala, and Bingo Baby

Last year, cartoonist and teacher Jason Lutes recruited a few of his recent students from the Center for Cartoon Studies for a session of the game Fiasco, which they would then turn into a comic. Bingo Baby, the book that came out of that session, is the first project for Lutes's collaboration focused publisher Penny Lantern Press, and is now being funded through Kickstarter (go help them out if you can!). I recently spoke to Lutes and Donna Almendrala about the project.

Josh Kopin: First, how did the two of you and the four other creators of Bingo Baby [Bill Bedard, Joseph Lambert, Amelia Onorato, Dennis St. John] decide to produce a comic using a role playing game?

Jason Lutes: In the spring of 2011, I flew down to North Carolina, to speak at the first annual Comics Fest at the Durham Country Library. While I was there, my friends at the library passed along a copy of Fiasco, which had been left for me by Jason Morningstar (who couldn’t make it to the Comics Fest itself). Jason and I had corresponded briefly about my ongoing comics series Berlin and his work in independent tabletop games, but we had never met face to face. I was excited to receive a copy of Fiasco, since I love tabletop and roleplaying games, but had only a passing knowledge of the indie game scene in which Jason is a big player.

I host a weekly boardgame night at the Center for Cartoon Studies, which is a great opportunity for me to socialize and introduce a younger generation to the sorts of games I love. At one of these game nights, soon after returning to Vermont from North Carolina, I pulled out Fiasco and gave it a spin. CCS students are cartoonists, and cartoonists are storytellers, so they took quickly to the way Fiasco creates a compelling, structured, yet improvisational narrative. The game was a huge success, and we played it a number of times over the following weeks.

I had been looking for some kind of hook for a project I had been mulling over, and Fiasco provided that hook. It's fun, fast, spontaneous, and structured so that it allows a group of players to contribute equally to the central narrative. By its nature, the game is also a set of constraints, and constraints give you clear boundaries and focus, reducing the scope of creative decision-making so that you can concentrate on whatever aspects you decide are essential. In the case of this project, I wanted spontaneity, interaction, and a story with multiple voices, so Fiasco was perfect.

Thumbnails for a page of Bingo Baby, done by Joseph Lambert and Jason Lutes
JK: Jason, how did you bring the rest of the collaborators together?

JL: The idea for the project germinated in early 2011, when James Sturm (co-founder of CCS) and I were at a dinner party. We were talking about how successful a particular class project -- called "the Golden Age Project" had gone that year, and how we should expand upon the basic idea and move it outside of the classroom. For the Golden Age Project, we break the class up into teams of 5-6 students and give them two weeks to produce a complete 32-page, full-color comic book based on a genre from the Golden Age (superhero, western, etc.). It's a great experience, and one of the best parts is that each book's story is hammered out in the first 2-4 hours of the first day, with every member of the team contributing. tehre's a real feeling of seat-of-your-pants storytelling, that gets pushed through the classic production line before emerging in short order as a complete, polished package.

So we had a basic model for what would become the "penny lantern method," but I needed a team to pull of the first book. It was really important to me to have everyone in the same room as much as possible, much like a classic comics bullpen. Instead of a two week time frame and 32 pages, I settled on 3 months and 72 pages, with those 3 months being June, July, and August. For a while I was calling it the "Secret Summer Project." So an immediate limiting factor on whom I could recruit was that they would have to be sticking around White River Junction (the Vermont town where CCS is based) for the summer. I also needed to draw only from the alumni pool, since I didn't want this project to interfere with classwork, and/or create any tension around the idea that favoritism was at work.

Donna had been my T.A., and a general all-around superstar in the classroom, so she was an easy pick. She had been planning to head back to California after graduation, but I proposed this idea and, thankfully, she decided to stick around for the summer. I don't know how we would have gotten it done without her. Bill and Mia (Amelia) both graduated with Donna in 2012, and I had worked with them as their editor on the Golden Age project, so I knew they had the chops for the job. Joe and Denis both graduated back in 2008, but they have made White River their home, so I knew they weren't going anywhere. In the end, I couldn't have been happier with the team and everything they ended up bringing to the project. Which was pretty much everything.

Denis St. John's background pencils for that page.
JK: Did knowing that you were recording the gaming session, which you were then going to transcribe and turn into a comic, change the way that you played the game?

Donna Almendrala: We all knew that this game would set the foundation for the narrative of our upcoming comic venture. However, Jason was sneaky and actually told the group that we would be playing a round of Fiasco just as a warm-up exercise or a practice round, not the actual thing. This was partially to deal with potential nervousness that could have disrupted the game flow, and also to provide us with a way out in case our "practice" was an actual fiasco (not the good kind). Luckily, I think everyone played the game as normally as one can play the game, and any nerves seemed to disappear because we were actually having a fun time playing.

JK: Can you give me a sense of how the game is played?

DA: I'll field this one since it's pretty straightforward. The objective of Fiasco is for a group of players (3-5) to create a Coen brothers-like story on the fly and in the span of 2-3 hours. It sounds pretty intensive and it is due to all the active listening and thinking one has to participate in, but it is also really fun and hopefully generates lots of laughter. There is usually a winner at the end of the game, but you don't necessarily try to win, your goal is more to fulfill your character arc, good or bad, usually to the bitter end. Everyone sits around a table with a playset of random character relationships, wants and needs, objects, locations, etc. and by rolling dice each player assigns these random characteristics to other players until every person has a defined relationship to the person next to them and often some time of goal or object in common. This random assignment is not unlike rolling your character in any other tabletop RPG. Each player then creates their character based on this assignment of relationships and needs. The rulebook advises all players that the best way to play Fiasco is to think about their own character's needs, and to pursue them relentlessly. This in turn creates the foundation upon which the ensuing narrative is built. The rules of the game follow similarly to improv, when one player sets up a situation each other player must respond with an attitude of "Yes, and..." which essentially means that you must accept ideas that a player comes up with and then contribute something more to the story to further it along. There is a pool of dice in the middle of the table, half are black and half are white. One color indicates a positive outcome and the other color indicates a negative outcome. A person's turn consists of either setting up a scene involving his character and once it is set up, another player will hand him a colored die indicating whether this scene will end well for this character or poorly. Conversely, a player can request to be given a scene involving his character to resolve and then choose the colored die himself and whether the outcome will be good or bad. Each turn goes around the group clockwise with each person trying to further the goals of their character; there aren't really any rules besides "Yes, and..." and throughout the game, players can jump in to other people's scenes, act out supporting characters that sometimes appear, etc. Halfway through the game, there is a "Tilt" that gets thrown into the mix which throws characters out of their comfort zones and introduces another element of chaos. The game ends after everyone has gotten a "turn" four times, and there is usually an elaborate and disastrous story that has emerged from it which is perfect for translating to the comics page!

Amelia Onorato's penciled figures

The greatest lesson I learned while playing this game is realizing how compelling and unique a story can be if you bring many different personalities together and pursue character driven plots. Sometimes, as a creator, I can get bogged down in figuring out all the little details of world-building and making the twists and turns of the plot. But the best and organic stories usually arise from developing strong and interesting characters just experiencing their world in the same way we experience ours.

JK: Once you had completed the game, how did you go about turning it into a comic? Did all those personalities begin to clash a little bit?

JL: We recorded the session digitally, and transcribed the recording. Then, we had another meeting where we read it over and talked about things we needed to cut, change, or expand upon. Once we had hammered out the kinks in the plot and established an overall scene-by-scene progression (which mostly followed what had developed during that initial play session), I assigned each contributor scenes to "thumbnail," or turn into a comics draft with page and panel composition roughed out. Each contributor was given leeway to edit the transcript and shape the dialogue of their assigned scenes. Then, Donna and I took everyone's thumbnails, collated them, and revised them over two more drafts, until the characters felt consistent, the pacing was right, and the story felt solid.

At that point, we were ready to kick into assembly-line art production, which meant handing the pages to pencilers first -- Amelia handled all the figures, while Denis, Bill, and Donna handled props and backgrounds. Once the pencil pass was complete, Donna took on the monumental task of inking all 72 pages. And how long did that take you, Donna? I forget.

The compiled pencils
DA: Haha, yeah that was fun. I think I was trying to do maybe 4 pages a day. We finished around Sept-Oct.

JK: Donna, was it difficult to collaborate with so many other pencilers? And was there a particular reason that you did all of the inking yourself?

DA: Penciling was a tricky process because we tried to save time by having Amelia pencil the characters on every page separately from whoever did the backgrounds (not sure if this really saved time in retrospect). Sometimes the background penciler would have to draw the backgrounds before the characters were filled in. When I got to ink, I would composite the characters over the background, using Photoshop to transform the objects to make the perspective look right. Jason is king when it comes to drawing backgrounds, and he taught us one of his learned techniques called freehand perspective (this is just one of the secrets he shares with us in his classes at school) which really speeds up the process and gives you key things to look for when making things look correct. I think we wanted to have one main inker to smooth out the overall art style and have some kind of consistency at the inked level. I think it was also mostly out of necessity since everyone already had packed schedules and we barely were able to squeeze this thing out in time. It was really tough learning to ink someone else's pencil lines, but about 20 pages in, I got the hang of it and now the book is done I feel like I got a lot better for it.

JK: Do you think you approach penciling differently now that you have this experience inking
someone else's work?

DA: Well, I've always approached drawing pretty methodically. I really liked inking Amelia's pencils because I got to feel the way she draws figures and was great for practice because I'm not really good at that. Inking Jason's pencils was pretty thrilling since he's one of my favorite cartoonists.

Donna Almendrala's inks. 
I think I did a lot of absorbing through the whole drawing process. I drew another comic recently since Bingo Baby, and it ended up looking like partly Amelia's figures and similarly Jason-esque backgrounds.

JK: Given that, would you describe this sort of collaboration as a kind of learning experience?

DA: Definitely, individually as a cartoonist and on the whole. This was was the first of many experiments in collaboration. I think most of us rarely work on comic projects of this ambitious and aggressive of a schedule in a group setting. I was sort of curious to if this was going to end up a success or you know, a fiasco.

JK: How important was CCS's environment to the incubation of a project like this one? Do you think it would have been possible to put something like this together out there in the world?

JL: Everyone involved had to commit a lot of time and energy to get the majority of the work done within a three-month time frame, with the understanding going in that we had no idea what we would end up with on the other side. There had to be a of trust. I think you could pull that off in another context, but it would take a lot more effort and energy. Group chemistry is also a big part of the equation. The two CSS-related factors that really helped out were the sense of community that surrounds the school, and the fact that I had all of these guys in class for two years, so we had a shared language and understanding of how comics works.

Bill Bedard's and Joseph Lambert's colored page
JK: How are institutions like CCS important to the community of comics makers and readers? 

JL: I think this is impossible to really quantify, but I can try to answer the question in a general sense.

CCS students sometimes encounter a negative reaction from other cartoonists in regards to the fact that they are studying cartooning at the graduate level. The criticism is usually framed along the lines of "you don't need to go to school to learn how to make comics," or "real art can't be taught." And both of those things are true to a degree. But in my role as a teacher, I have witnessed three inarguable facts about CCS students: they form a community that becomes the foundation for their professional network; they become adept at giving and receiving constructive criticism; and during their two years in White River Junction, their cartooning improves at a phenomenal rate.

So CCS is important to comics makers in that we are helping to turn more of them out into the world, equipped with skills that well help them make the most of their lives as authors and artists. And we are important to readers in that our focus is on helping each individual cartoonist find a personal voice, and then find the best and clearest way to communicate to whatever audience may be ready to listen to that voice.

That all may sound pretty high-falutin', but I genuinely believe it to be true.

DA: I think CCS is a hotspot for attracting people who love comics and are passionate about creating their own ones. It's a really unique place that gives cartoonists a refuge to study and hone their craft. I personally found CCS's classes to be invaluable to my growth. At our graduation ceremony, commencement speaker Tom Devlin gave us parting advice saying that now as we re-enter the real world, we have a duty to share and teach others who might also want to learn the craft. It's one of the best ways to honor what we do and also to give back in something that has changed our lives for the better. CCS does pretty much that.

Thanks to Jason Lutes and Donna Almendrala for taking the time to talk to me. Go kickstart Bingo Baby!

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