Cartoonist Thom Zahler has been around the comics world for years, but ever since debuting his creator-owned “Love and Capes” series back in 2006, he has become known for his unique brand of quiet, comedic relationship-based comics. His work has been self-published online and through print, published through IDW, and most recently been hosted on Webtoon, a major webcomics hub. I spoke to him this past NYCC about his recent works, from “Warning Label” to “Long Distance,” “Time & Vine,” and “My Little Pony.” Read on for our chat, and make sure to check out his new series, “Cupid’s Arrows,” when it launches on Webtoon at the end of October!
What brought you to Webtoon for “Warning Label?”
Thom Zahler:They kind of came to me. I met them in Baltimore a few years ago and we got to talking at a party. Tom Akel, the editor, came up to me and I told him about this romantic comedy book I did called “Long Distance,” and next thing you know, he’s like, ‘I want to work with you.’ And they asked me to pitch a bunch of stuff, and one of the things I pitched was “Warning Label.” It wasn’t the pitch that I thought was going to go. It kind of surprise me that they picked that one. But I’m really glad that they picked it, and it did phenomenally.
How would you say that your craft, or at least your approach to the comics page, has evolved or changed from working in the Webtoon format?
TZ: I don’t know how much it’s evolved, because I work in both print and digital. With Webtoon, the thing to remember is that you really can’t be wider than the phone, so you can do lots of vertical layouts, but you can’t do as many horizontal layouts. When I did “Warning Label,” I built it on a traditional comic book page with a 2-by-3 grid, so all of my panels are the same size. In my next Webtoon, “Cupid’s Arrows,” which is coming out at the end of the month, I’m looking to expand that and make it much more of a webcomic and less with having print in mind. I want to take advantage of the things that a webcomic can give me that a printed page can not.
Working in that 2-by-3 grid where every panel is the same size, did you find yourself having any struggles with telling the story? For instance, in places where you would normally use a bigger panel in certain places, or things like that?
TZ: Not really. There are a couple of places in the printed version where the panels are much larger, and that was planned to begin with. But I’ve been doing this long enough where thinking in page increments isn’t that hard, so being able to think in five pages of a comic, which is roughly what any given chapter of “Warning Label” was, that worked pretty well. It was nice to have the flexibility to expand by a page or two if I wanted to, and to bleed things into the panel borders. There are a couple pages where they’re watching a movie where I got to experiment with a different format, where the grid is still there but it’s spread out a little bit so that you can have people talking on screen and people talking over them at the same time. So that was interesting to do. With the first [Webtoon] I wanted to have print as a backup, but I’m interested in exploring what the format can do that you can’t do somewhere else.
Moving out of Webtoon and “Warning Label,” do you typically set out to work on romances, or do your stories evolve into them naturally when you’re developing them?
TZ: I’m known for doing romance stories and part of what I try to think of is, what would the fans that I have want to see me do next? Not that it has to be a duplication of what I’ve done, but if I say I’m doing a story about time traveling winery that’s all about family and there is less of an active romance, which is “Time & Vine,” my fans get that in a way that if it was, “Hey, he’s going to be writing the Vampirella comic,” there’s not a lot of transition to that. I think my stuff tends to be relationship and quieter-based, and I think that’s just my wheelhouse of where I want to go. And some of it too is, with my creator-owned stuff, as opposed to, like, “My Little Pony” which I also work on, or “Disney Tsum-tsums,” I’m hitting them where they ain’t. Like, if you want to read a super-cool superhero story, DC and Marvel publish a couple hundred bucks a month that do that. But if you want to read a story about people in a relationship, that there aren’t many books doing that right now.Continued below
In “Time & Vine” it felt like you were consciously staying away from the romance elements and, even though there were elements of romance and human drama, that quieter human drama that you mentioned, how was it playing with world-building and time travel in a way that hasn’t really been done in your other work?
TZ: As far as time travel, I had really clear rules on it. A friend of mine and I stress-tested it to make sure that I didn’t have any glitches where it would fall apart. I thought it was interesting to do a time travel story where you can’t change the past, but since you don’t know anything about these characters, you don’t know how it’s going to end. So you know that Kennedy gets killed, but we don’t know what people who may have been watching Kennedy be assassinated were doing.
And “Time & Vine” at its core does have a romance, but the thing is that the romance is finished by the time you get there. Jack and his wife’s story is the emotional heart of it. I played around with the idea of more of a romance for Megan in it, but it was never really about that. Once the story became about her and her mother, I thought that relationship was interesting, but the thing that drove the story when I was creating it was Jack and his wife and that particularly sad story, and being able to tell it nonlinearly in the comic.
Can you talk a little about your use of time in “Long Distance?”
TZ: The only nonlinear part is that the story is told in flashback, kind of like How I Met Your Mother. There’s one moment at the end that jumps through another 7 years because when I do a project like this, I don’t know if it’s going to be successful enough to do more. “Long Distance” was originally conceived as a television series and the idea is that you see a lot of romances in TV shows where the reasons the character stay apart are pretty dumb. And I wanted to do it because they both love each other, but they also both love their jobs, so that gets in the way and neither of them wants to move, and the complications that go along with that. So there is one giant stretch where the other seasons of the show would go. And it’s kind of covered and if I wanted to I could go back and expand it, but ultimately we know how that relationship ends because I wanted to tell that complete story.
Earlier, you mentioned your licensed work at IDW. Pretty much all of your creator-owned work is you as a solo cartoonist doing everything. Now that you’ve done some licensed work with other creators at IDW, how do you feel about working with other creators? Would you ever work with somebody else on a creator-owned book as just a writer or just an artist?
TZ: I love working with other creators. It’s been one of the joys of working on “My Little Pony.” The first issue I worked on was all me except for the coloring — Ronda Pattison did that and she did a fantastic job on the book. But as I moved away from penciling the issues and just doing covers while writing the book, those team-ups have been really interesting. I’m lucky enough to have collaborators who challenge me and push back and say, “You can come up with something funnier than that,” which forces me to be better.
As far as creator-owned stuff, it’s hard for me to get somebody else to take the risk that’s involved with it. If I could pay them that would be one thing, but then that’s a different relationship. And especially if I’m writing it, it’s not taking as much time or cycles or paying work out as it does the artist. It’s hard to ask them to do it for free and I don’t have the budget to buffer them. And then in the reverse, I am very very picky about the things that I draw, because I’m not right for everything. I feel like I could write any story, but I’m only built to draw certain stories. I want to tell the stories that I want to tell and that just kind of lines up with me deciding to do it on my own because I’m the only one who’s in the line of fire. For the right project, I would love to do more things with other people, but it’s more a question of getting it to line up. It’s harder to get an artist who’s willing to spend, you know, a chunk of a year working on a graphic novel to do that on any sort of spec or even deferred compensation.Continued below
So a question about your Kickstarter: First off, was this your first time doing a Kickstarter?
TZ: It wasn’t. I did a Kickstarter about 6 years ago putting together an art book of all the art I’ve done that’s not for comic books.
Okay, so two questions branching off that: One, how has Kickstarter changed in the time since then, and two, how was Kickstarter different from your previous attempts to self publish your comics?
TZ: Second question first, the great thing about Kickstarter is that it’s guaranteed pre-orders, so I knew what number I had to hit to make the books happen. I work as a graphic designer and I’ve done printing quotes and everything that’s involved with it, so I have a pretty good feel for what’s involved with making a book. With both projects, my art book and “Warning Label,” most of the work was done. The comics were already created. It was putting them into book form and adding bonus material, but I wasn’t asking anyone to believe that I would finish the [main content of the] book. The book was finished, I had to then make the [physical copy].
The first time through, things like stretch goals were still very new, just the promotion for it, the infrastructure that Kickstarter has to promote the projects and having it become ‘Projects We Love,’ those things weren’t quite there. I intentionally started off with a small project on Kickstarter because I wanted to test it out. I didn’t have another one until I had the opportunity to put up the Webtoon book. There, my Kickstarter stretch goals were much clearer. I knew that I wanted to make the game that Danielle comes up with in the book. That was a big stretch goal that I was trying to get to. I had done the math, but I was very surprised at how many people came out to support it. I was relatively confident that I could get enough people to make the book, but I didn’t think it would happen in 3 days. That was insane. I wasn’t sure we would make the stretch goals, and I’m very impressed that we did. So just being able to come up with a, “this is my alpha goal, to make the book, but then my beta and gamma goals are, I’m going to make the t-shirts, I’m going to make the game,” building a project that had multiple layers, that was very different from how I had done Kickstarter before.
Going back to Webtoon, would you say your work has reached a new audience? And does that change the way that you work, or are you just your happy that these different types of people are finding your work now?
TZ: It’s definitely found a new audience, it’s found a much bigger audience, and I’m very conscious of that and I try to be respectful of the reader. Stan Lee has quote that says, “Don’t give the reader what they think they want.” So I like hearing from the readers, I like knowing that I’m giving them things that they want, and I find it interesting, especially if there are things that I thought I was clear on that they didn’t understand or that played the wrong way, but I try not to change my story based on what the readers are telling me because the story is the story and you should remain true to it. If everybody wanted to see Danielle and Jack get together earlier, that’s not the story. I have to be strong enough not to give them exactly what they’re asking for. And it becomes a level of trust where hopefully they’ve realized that there is a reason I’m doing what I’m doing, and it may work or it may not work, but the important thing is that it’s the agreement we have. I signed on to make this thing, you signed on to read it, and we’re going to trust that both of us know what we’re doing. So it’s being respectful of the relation to the audience.Continued below
It’s been so great being able to interact with them. At the end of every [chapter], about halfway through [“Warning Label”‘s serialization] I started taking comments and questions, talking directly to the audience at the end of it. That’s been phenomenal and I love that interaction, but I also want to make sure that I don’t change the story just because I’m being pushed or hinted at that it’s the right way to go, because I have to remain true to the story that I initially wanted to tell.
So being on Webtoon is that a completely different way of interacting with your fanbase than what you’ve ever done before?
TZ: Yeah, it’s definitely more direct. I’m lucky enough to have fans on Facebook and Twitter, and the production cycle is just different. Because, as an example, I can get feedback from the readers at the end of chapter 14 and not have drawn chapter 15 yet, so I could implement those in a way that, what I was doing in “Love and Capes,” the third book was out in stores and I was working on issue six. So if there was something that played really wrong or something that readers wanted to see, I wouldn’t be able to change the book to fit that. So having the ability to do that is excellent, it’s awesome, it’s very powerful, but you don’t want to do it often. You want to make sure that you are very clear about why you are deciding to pull that trigger.
Finally, what is your next project?
TZ: My next project is called “Cupid’s Arrows” and is going to be on Webtoon at the end of October. It reimagines Cupids as two-person hit hitman teams that have to figure out the right moment to get a couple together and shoot both parties in the couple to make that special moment happen. It’s a little Thin Man, it’s a little Nick and Norah, and it’s also going to give me the chance to tell multiple love stories. Instead of just one huge longform one, I get to tell the beginnings of multiple hopefully interesting love stories that can change and move around as the strip goes on.