Interviews 

NYCC 2019: Caplan and Weinersmith on Open Borders, Considered Arguments, and Coyotes

By | December 2nd, 2019
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

New York City Comic Con may have happened more than a month ago but Multiversity Comics’s coverage of the East Coast’s largest comics and pop culture event is just getting going. Multiversity sent 14 of our staff to the event this year for interviews, panel reports, and more so expect lots more to come over the next few weeks. This way, even if you couldn’t make it yourself, you can still see the con through our eyes.

Bryan Caplan is an Economist from George Mason University. Zach Weinersmith is a Cartoonist for his daily webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. What do these two have in common? Well, they worked together to create “Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration” for First Second books and they both sat down to have a thought-provoking, fun chat with us at NYCC. Yes, academic arguments can be fun and these two prove it’s possible. Your move scientific journals.


This is your first time at New York Comic Con promoting your new book, “Open Borders.” How did that project come about? I saw a blog post from 2016 talking about the inception of this. Did it start before that? 

Bryan Caplan: I am an economics professor. I’ve been fascinated by immigration for a long time and blogging about it for many years. And I’m also a huge fan of graphic novels. And I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be great if I could just somehow turn this into a graphic novel and reach a broader audience and make it a lot more fun? And eventually, I got to the point where I said, “Okay, I’m gonna do this thing.” And then I made a list of who are my top choices to actually draw on the book because I have zero artistic ability. And Zach was my number one choice and so I friended him on Facebook, and he said yes. And then I waited three weeks. I bided my time, didn’t want to seem like a stalker. Then I went and contacted him. And we chatted about it. And his first reaction was-

Zach Weinersmith: No, no.

BC: Thanks, but no thanks. You can’t expect things to work out. But then but then three days later, he calls me back and changes his mind. And away we went.

What caused you to change your mind? 

ZW: I got that call it the worst possible time because I was just wrapping up work on the manuscript for a popular science book I wrote with my wife, which was very research intensive. And our son I think was about to be born. So we were about to have a baby, we had finished a book, we were exhausted. I was trying to say no to everything. And then I got the ideal project. I’d known Bryan, and I kind of had an inkling this is what the call was going to be about. And I was like, “I really hope he doesn’t ask me to do this because I’m going to want to and I’m going to have to say no.”

And then I thought about it, and I just recently been doing my own family genealogy. In my own family, my father’s side of the family is Jewish, and there’s a side of that family that stayed behind in the 30s, and the side that came [to America]. And there’s a very stark difference between who immigrated and who didn’t, and it just felt very personal. Then I did try to find another artist who could do it, and I was concerned that. . .there are other people who were more talented than me at drawing, but I thought, “they are never going to get the the economics aspect of this,” which I felt like was important, especially for portraying data well.

The last thing was, I went to my wife, and I was like, “I can’t do this, right?” And she was like, “I don’t know, what does it pay?” And I told her the amount and she was like, “you can do this.”  It kind of tied together a lot of things, like personal things and pragmatic things.

So you’ve been working on this book kind of non-stop since, or. . .? 

Continued below

ZW: There’s a big amount of time between when you turn in the manuscript and when it gets off the presses. We’ve had a bit of a reprieve since. . .it hasn’t been that long, has it?

BC: There will be there are two big phases. There was the phase where we were doing the pencils and we didn’t have the publisher yet. And then we almost got done with that, and then we got our publisher lined up. But then he had to minimum ink through the pencils and actually re-do everything from scratch.

ZW: It was about four and a half months to ink the whole book. It was insane.

BC: And then we had a fantastic colorist, Mary Cagle, who I micromanaged to an insane degree just because, in my mind knew what this world look like, and what the colors of the world were, and also, maybe this is my only chance to ever do this. I want the one thing that I do to look just the way I wanted to look. But what would make me happy is everyone else involved like the colors too so it wasn’t just, well, Brian’s crazy, but people were happy with what I was doing.

How did you find First Second as the home for this book?

BC: Actually two routes. So, I actually had a good friend who was married to an editor so she was aware of its existence. And then also our agent went and pitched in and she was the one that got pitched to, and so we had two different streams of influence coming together to get us at what is one of my very favorite publishers and graphic novels. As I said, I’m a huge fan boy, I have a crazy collection of stuff. They’re so great.

One of the main things I learned about Zach is: I already already knew he was a majestic artist, great drawings of people, but I didn’t know that he could draw anything. When we were doing this, I would say “okay, I want you to go and draw, like, it’s old galleon, and I’m on a dinghy, and I’m jumping for this.” And he would do it, and I’m like, oh my God. And then I’m like, “Okay, why don’t you put like a road runner type coyote there?” And like, boom! Then he’d explain to me, “Well, Coyotes don’t actually look any different from wolves in comics but. . .” But to me, it was really like a superpower that he has, where anything I could imagine he can put on the page and to have that kind of ability on tap, it’s such a thrill. The one disappointment in the project is I don’t get to work with Zach every day now.

Was it an iterative process? Or did you have the script entirely done beforehand, or was it mostly research, or was everything kind of happening all at once?

ZW: You turned in a pretty complete script.

BC: I started trying my hand at comics, like about 15 years ago. There was a comics editing software called My Comic Book Creator. And it’s completely unavailable now. If you want it you have to go and buy an old disk. To me, I liked it a lot better than just doing original comic strips because it lets you do the the storyboarding. You can see how many panels will be on a page, what will the shape be, how many words can comfortably fit into each panel.

So I actually did a full storyboarded script, and then it looks terrible, because I’m just using like screenshots and things to give a vague notion of what I want it to look like. And then I would go and put little notes there, like, turn this guy into a coyote, things like that and then I hand it over to Zach. Then he would go and take these very rough ideas and make them look really good. But then again, I’m enough of a control freak out there saying, make my expression 17% more happy here. And he would do it!

Getting back to the argument at hand. Do you think it should be a controversial topic? Because it is. But do you believe it should be? And is that the central argument of the book, or is it mostly just, here all the reasons why you should do it?

Continued below

BC: You should say that any idea that’s radically different than what we have should be controversial. And you need to be nervous about radically changing things ever. History is full of someone who comes along, I’ve got a big great idea I’ve never tried, and then everyone does it, and it’s a disaster, and it blows up in your face. There’s two reactions you get: one is never change anything by a lot. But that has some very bad implications. Or, you could say, don’t change anything radically until you have been very studious and careful and have really listened to everyone that is skeptical about it, and try to look at all the evidence is out there. So that’s what I try to do.

All of my books are about some idea that hardly anyone agrees with. And I always say, “Look, I know I’m saying something hardly anyone believes. And it’s totally fair, I have the burden of proof. But I’m going to meet it.” I’m not going to just be a lazy person saying anyone who disagrees with me is evil. I’m going to say, “I’m going to listen to you, and I’m going to try to actually do a very fair reading of all the evidence, whether it’s supportive or not.” When I read things, I try to say, don’t think about whether this helps you or not. Just read it, just try to go and pay attention what the person said and see what it makes sense and don’t be trying to rule out arguments that are going to be unwelcome for the conclusion, because I just think that’s vital for quality control. It’s vital for not pushing radical ideas that will be disaster.

Given that is such a big change, it is reasonable to be skeptical, and to say it’s controversial, although one of the main points I make early on is that this is not really an untried idea. This is the idea that built America. We had 100 years where we had gone back, but during the preceding centuries, it was darn close to open borders, and almost no one thinks it was a bad idea. If it was such a great idea for so long, why do we think that’s a bad idea now?

How much extra research did you [Zach] have to do to then bring it to the page?

ZW: I don’t know if I did any extra research.

BC: You might have gotten some models.

ZW: Yeah, plenty of visual research. There were a lot of pages where there was like, draw the Brandenburg Gate. It’s like, I think I know what that looks like. There was a lot of historical objects that I had to draw. And so what I would do is see if I could find a 3D model, clip art or look up Google Images, and that’s fine. But if you have a 3D model, you can kind of turn just how you like it and see how it looks. So I did a lot of that. But yeah, there was definitely a lot of visual referencing going on.

Did you do more reference for this project than you had done, or that you normally do for a daily comic?

ZW: Oh yeah, way more. I normally draw gag strips where it’s like, not only is there not time to draw detailed backgrounds, for example, but it doesn’t make the joke funny if there’s a detailed cityscape behind every character. I can do it, but I don’t usually do it because it’s pointless, unless there’s some compelling reason. The amount of time that went into a given panel, this was probably about 10 times as much as a normal panel.

BC: I think you were saying that your ability draw perspective went way up.

ZW: I had to actually learn how to use the perspective tools in Clip Studio. It was terrible.

Do you think people who are coming to this from your comic, they’re probably going to notice . . . I don’t want to say jump in quality.

ZW: No, that’s what it is. I was talking to a guy who was like, “It’s an order of magnitude higher quality. Can you do that?”  And he was like, “Is there another order of magnitude that you can do?” Am I secretly Da Vinci and I’ve just been holding out?

Continued below

Totally. You can draw more religion jokes.

One other question on process. How different was this from “Soonish” in terms of working on that and working on the comics for that? And also working with your wife on a project versus working with Bryan? 

ZW: Both Kelly and Brian are very good collaborators. And again, this is a really boring answer, but it helps to be be a little bit older. I worked on a lot of not so great collaborations in my 20s and I think once you’ve done a lot, you start developing good rules and good habits. In both collaborations, everyone communicated. One of the most fundamental things that a good collaboration is if you disagree with someone you just say it, instead of being angry or holding it in. We had very good communication, very good expectations about whose job was what. I always get asked, was it tough working with your wife? I kind of wish it was because I would have a story. But we just worked. It was fine. No one broke a window.

BC: And Zach is just such a consistently positive person. I would do something and he wouldn’t say, “this sucks.” He would say, “we can make this so much better doing this.” And I was like, “yeah, that’s great, let’s do it!” I always was so happy to hear from him, even when I was on vacation. Normally, I don’t do any work on vacation. But when he sent me an email saying, “Okay, I’ve got another page.” I was like “let’s see the page! Oh cool! I love this!”

My final question: what chapter in this book was either the most interesting to read about or to put together?

BC: I’d say probably the chapter, the golden goose on trial, which is about the effect of immigrants on politics. This is one that people usually don’t name and yet, I’d say out of the more sophisticated people that I talked to, usually it’s like, “yes, I understand all the great things about immigration unless they come here and vote to turn us into Venezuela, and then what was the point?” To me, these arguments are better than the other ones, they’re more thoughtful. They’re ones that make you think, we got to take this very seriously.

I was able to go and address all the arguments, even the very most controversial ones. I’ve got like 10 pages on the effect of immigration on national IQ, and many people were saying just cut this, it’s too incendiary. And I said, no. There are thoughtful people who said this is what worries them, and I’m going to keep it in. I’m not going to dodge the question, and I’m going to face it head on. I’m going to be honest with them. I’m going to level with them, and I’m going to at least going to try to make them feel like I listened.

ZW: I think my favorite part was, there’s a discussion of the idea of linguistic life expectancy, which is this argument that immigrants don’t learn English. And what I love about this is there’s there’s this picture of philosophical debate people have between multiculturalism or assimilation or whatever and people go back and forth on what the ideal is. And it turns out, there’s just what people do, which has not changed much in 100 years.

There’s this old scientific fable may have heard of, the king who wants his wise man to explain why when you put fish in a bowl, the bowl doesn’t get any heavier. And they debated for months and months and months. And then someone says, “Wait, why don’t we put fish in the bowl?” Turns out it does get heavier. That part for me did the same thing. It cuts through the discussion to say, well, there’s an actual thing actual people do, and it’s fine.


Thanks again to Bryan and Zach for their enlightening thoughts and humor! “Open Borders” is now available for purchase wherever books are sold.


//TAGS | NYCC '19

Elias Rosner

Elias is a lover of stories who, when he isn't writing reviews for Mulitversity, is hiding in the stacks of his library. Co-host of Make Mine Multiversity, a Marvel podcast, after wining the no-prize from the former hosts, co-editor of The Webcomics Weekly, and writer of the Worthy column, he can be found on Twitter (for mostly comics stuff) here and really needs to update his profile photo again.

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