Tom Scioli is one of our favorite creators here at Multiversity. Whether it is “Godland” at Image, or his self published webcomic work. We reached out to Tom for an interview a month or so ago, and we were getting to the end when he dropped a bombshell on us: he was quitting comics.
Well, thankfully for all involved, Tom reconsidered, and is back to providing us with more amazing content than we deserve, in the form of his two webcomics, “Satan’s Soldier” and “Mystery Object.” He talks with us about his creative process, his current projects, why he almost quit, and most importantly, why he came back.
He also provided us with some process pieces for “Mystery Object,” which you really need to be reading right now. Both of his webcomics are available at his website, and make sure to follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.
A few weeks ago, you were toying with the idea of quitting comics altogether – something that, quite honestly, really hit the MC staff in the gut. Part of that was due to the fact that we are all big fans, but it was also due to the fact that you seem like a guy who has comics in his DNA. Can you talk us through what led you to contemplate that move?
TS: It was the normal frustrations that anybody has in pursuing a career in comics. You ask yourself from time to time, “Is this endeavor which takes so much of my time worth doing at all?”
I created a graphic novel I was very proud of and couldn’t find a publisher. I created another graphic novel that I liked even more. I couldn’t find a publisher for that. I was starting a third and began feeling overwhelmed by the pointlessness of it. Was I just going to keep piling up unpublished graphic novels? In the past, whatever career frustrations I might’ve had, they didn’t keep me from remaining productive and creative, but I’d reached a point where the inability to get my work in print was interfering with my ability to make new work. I thought about Kickstarting/self-publishing but imagining the enormity of the endeavor made me feel really tired. Career frustrations were easier to cope with in my 20’s. There was always time ahead. Now that I’m well into my 30’s it feels like I’m further away than ever at making this work. I was thinking about all the other things I could’ve done with my life and how I’d squandered that time doing comics and now it’s too late to try something else.
It’s pretty common, normal stuff that people who work in creative fields have to navigate. At that particular moment it felt like it was more than I could bear. Convention season is in full swing. It’s difficult because I work a day job, too, and I try to maintain my normal workload in addition to going to conventions and create new comics.
When your involvement in comics gets in the way of your enjoyment of comics, it’s debilitating. I’d poisoned the thing I love. Every comic I read reminded me of all my own personal failures.
I agree; just about everyone who does anything creative, at one point or another, doubts that what they’re doing is worth the effort. What brought you out of that?
TS: It’s hard to say. I thought I needed to quit comics, but I think I just needed a vacation from comics. I took some time off, not from my day job, just from comics. No drawing, reading books instead of comics. Disengaging from social media did a lot of good. Talking about it helped me figure things out. Embarrassment is a powerful motivator for me. Some people let me know that if I really did quit comics for good and all, they’d never let me hear the end of it.
How do you think this experience will help your creative work in the future? Do you think you have more of a perspective on your place in the industry or the role that comics play in your life after taking this break?
TS: It’s increased my tolerance for the ups and downs. I’ve since had those same feelings of despair and futility but haven’t re-quit comics, so I guess I’ve adjusted to the new reality. One of the facts of the 21st century is that you have to work harder and harder for a smaller and smaller reward. For the moment, I’m okay with that. I’m still working on clarifying what comics means to me. If it’s a hobby, I should work on getting more enjoyment out of it. If it’s a job, I should work on getting more money out of it. If it’s a dysfunction, I should work on finding a real cure for it. Just saying I’m quitting isn’t the same as quitting.
Life is long. The real proof of quitting is when a bunch of years pass and you’ve done nothing new. Saying it just made me realize how silly it is. It was the thing I was afraid of. I was afraid of being forced out of comics. It’s ridiculous. Comics has become this amorphous thing. As long as you’re willing to make a comic and stick it under somebody’s nose, you’re still in comics. I don’t know what I thought would happen. Was somebody going to take my pencils and paper away if I did a Kickstarter and it failed? There are so many options now. I think about what Kirby would’ve done if he had the tools that we have at our disposal.
Well, thankfully, we still have you around, putting out quality work. You’ve really embraced the webcomic as an artform – what about the webcomic appeals to you so much?
Tom Scioli: It’s free for people to read. It doesn’t involve chopping down trees. It allows you to project colored light rather than the reflected light of a printed page. I know exactly what the finished product will look like. There’s the potential for instant contact with your readership.
When you are working on a webcomic, do you approach them as if they will stay as internet-only comics, or do you envision a print home for them? Your first two webcomics, “American Barbarian” and “Final Frontier” felt like they could just as easily be print comics (as “Barbarian” eventually was released), but “Satan’s Solider” and “Mystery Object” feel far more like internet enhanced projects.
TS: The longer you work in a medium the more comfortable you get with it. You get a greater understanding of what you can do in it. I envision and create all of them with a mind towards print, but I want each experience to take full advantage of what each medium can offer.
I think about early motion pictures and how stiff they were, how much they were stuck in the limitations of live theater, how they didn’t think to take advantage of what film uniquely had to offer. I’m trying really hard not to fall into that trap. I want to utilize the unique things webcomics can do that will seem obvious to future generations (or are obvious to people who’ve been doing this longer), but are currently somewhat elusive. I’m just beginning to figure out how far you can push electronic color.
As stated above, “Satan’s Soldier” and “Mystery Object,” are your current ongoing webcomics. They are also the two that seem like they are the least in your usual work wheelhouse. I’m sure it is liberating to tackle projects outside of your comfort zone. What was the inspiration for each comic?
TS: “Satan’s Soldier” started out as a pitch for Rob Liefeld’s “Supreme.” When I first heard about the Extreme Relaunch, I wondered ‘why are they doing this?’ Those characters are such ciphers, why put all this creative effort into something so empty? Wouldn’t it be easier for Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell to create their own Warrior Woman? Why don’t Brandon Graham and company create their own Future Man? They’re basically creating something from scratch. Why not do that for yourself rather than for somebody else?
But when the books came out, it looked like everybody was having so much fun. In spite of my better judgement, I wanted in. I started getting all these ideas for what I could do with “Supreme.” At first I fought it. It was a waste of time, but my imagination kept going there so I stopped fighting it and just let it go where it would. As it kept going it became entirely its own thing, outgrowing its beginnings as a Supreme pitch. By the time it was ready to go, I wanted to do it as “Satan’s Soldier.” I sent Rob a Supreme-ized version. I never heard anything back, which is totally understandable. It was a weird pitch and made way more sense as a totally different character. It would’ve been interesting to do the “Supreme” version. It would’ve been a very different comic, in terms of art style and story, maybe better, maybe worse. We’ll never know.Continued below
“Mystery Object” is an idea I had for a novel. I’m not a novelist, I don’t have any interest in writing a novel, but if I ever decided to write a novel, this is what I have in my back pocket. On a drive home from a convention, I told Ed Piskor about the idea, and he said I should drop everything and do that as a comic. It was good advice. So in the translation from novel to comic, I ended up making a novelistic, Joycean comic strip.
Because of the fluid nature of the stories, how far in advance are you plotting/planning each strip?
TS: “Satan’s Soldier” was all plotted out from start to finish before I started drawing it. “Mystery Object” is newer. It’s longer and more ambitious. I have a roadmap that will take me all the way to the end, but I keep adding things to each episode up to the last minute before I start drawing it.
“Satan’s Soldier,” in particular, looks very different from anything you’ve ever done before, in part due to the extreme digital coloring, but also in terms of your pencil style. Was there a conscious attempt to do something that looked a little rougher and looser than your usual work, or is that a result of the time constraints you place on yourself for working on it?
TS: I kept moving my inks going in a more and more raw direction. I started thinking if I want a raw aesthetic, why ink at all? Pencil has a beautiful jagged quality that comes about naturally, without forcing an effect. I also realized that as a Kirby fan, I’ve probably spent more time looking at reproductions of his pencil art in The Kirby Collector magazine than in the actual comics. Kirby rarely used anything other than a pencil in his work and it reproduces beautifully with modern printing techniques. It just seemed like the natural next step. Inking was a skill I had to learn to get my work to reproduce on a late 90’s xerox machine. Pencil was my first love, and I’d forgotten that.
Earlier you called Supreme a cipher, and I don’t think anyone would argue with you about that characterization. What has making “Satan’s Soldier” shown you about writing for that sort of character? Has this increased (or created) a desire to work with company owned characters?
TS: I couldn’t have done what I did with “Satan’s Soldier” for any mainstream company. Nobody will let you torch their universe. You have to create your own if you want to do that.
My desire to work on mainstream characters is pretty low. I do wish I would’ve gotten a shot at them when I was still in my 20’s, when I could get fired up about that sort of thing. I’m curious what I would’ve come up with.
The one mainstream comic that I always wanted a shot at was Jack Kirby’s “New Gods.” I so loved the direction that book was going, then it stopped. My idea was to delve as deep into my imagination as possible, and try to really channel Kirby, try to do whatever I could to follow up directly from where he left off in the 70’s. One day I thought, if that’s my dream assignment, why not pretend I actually got the assignment and make that comic. I wrote a bunch of New Gods comics, penciled a few pages and exorcised that desire right out. When you try something like that, you see what an impossible task it is. Creating a good comic is difficult enough, but when you’re trying to pole vault around the obstacles another artist set up, you’re making it go from difficult to impossible.
I realized the appeal of “New Gods” for me, aside from the high quality of the work itself, was its self-contained complexity. It’s way easier to create your own self-contained universe than to build an addition onto somebody else’s.
“Mystery Object” is a captivating, hypnotic piece that has more than a little Nintendo influence. As a guy (I think!) roughly the same age, the original NES played a huge role in my entertainment development. How much of a Nintendo kid were you, and how do you think that has influenced you as a creator?
TS: It was hugely influential. Every generation has their creative revolution they get to witness. I was born after the Beatles’ time, born after the heyday of Kirby’s comics, but I was there for Nintendo. It was mindblowing. Especially seeing the jump from Atari to that. That change from having Pitfall Harry do the same jump no matter how long you held the button, to the ultra-sensitive, longer you hold the button adjustable jump of a nintendo game. The improvement from system to system was incremental. Colecovision was a little better than 2600. Then the jump from Colecovision to NES was like fast-forwarding to the future. We’ve never seen a jump like that in gaming since. We’ve had incremental change, but nothing like that where overnight video games went from a gimmick to an art form.
Do you view your work at ambarb.com as something different than your work on traditional comics? Do you have to limit yourself to only doing so much work on the free webcomics versus other stuff that you do to pay the bills?
TS: The webcomics are my primary focus. It is my comics work. I have the last handful of Godland pages that I’m drawing, but other than that, ambarb.com is my comics work. I feel like I’m close to figuring out a way to make it pay the bills, but I’ve worked a non-comics job concurrent with just about my entire comics career, so making a living from comics has always been a secondary concern.
What about Nintendo games led you to use them as the backdrop for “Mystery Object?” Was there a certain feel or tone that they struck that inspired you?
TS: I like the color, the visual vocabulary. I’ve spent so much time absorbed in those worlds, contemplating those empty characters, whether I knew it or not. Going back to atari, you’d play these fun, but narratively hollow games and you’d start constructing a story for them, because there wasn’t one there. Nintendo gave you more to play with, but there were still these endless gaps for you to fill. This is a continuation of that impulse.
The instruction booklet for The Legend of Zelda had these cel animation style drawings in it. We all assumed this game was based on an animated movie or something. We all created a different cartoon in our minds. There was no cartoon, the drawings in the instruction book were all there was. Your imagination works overtime to make sense of a world that was newly minted. Add to that the fact that it was from a country on the other side of the world. We were trying to parse a code that didn’t have a solution.
You mention attempting to pay the bills through your webcomics – have you ever had the desire to partner with a distributor of digital comics, like Monkeybrain or ComiXology, or do you want to keep everything at ambarb.com?
TS: I’m open to anything. The main component is time. I haven’t had time to sit down and implement my strategy. I need to make time, but at this point, I’m as busy as I’ve ever been. I force myself to at least have a one-day weekend and I spend that drawing “Mystery Object.”
You mentioned that all of your webcomics are designed with an eye toward print – how do you see both “Satan’s Soldier” and “Mystery Object” adapting towards print? Part of the fun of “Mystery Object,” in particular, is the unusual layout that simulates falling down a shaft of some sort. And “Satan’s Soldier” uses such iridescent colors (not to mention the occasional animation)- are you planning the print releases to have significant differences from the web versions?
TS: “Satan’s Soldier” was designed specifically for print. I’ll adjust the colors where it’s necessary, probably re-letter it, but it’s an easy translation. “Mystery Object” was created with the web experience being paramount. I haven’t given a whole lot of thought to what a book would look like. I make the comic kind of like a film. I’ll edit and move around the order of scenes as I’m working on it. I intend to extend that to the book itself, so it’ll probably be a different experience from the webcomic.
Are two webcomics, running concurrently, about the most your workload can handle right now? Should fans not hold their breath for a Thursday/Friday strip?
TS: Two seems to be the maximum. When “Satan’s Soldier” ends, I have another one to fill that place. If I figure out a way to make a living from creator-owned comics and quit everything else, I could probably handle four concurrent comics.
How long do you see each of your current comics running? Is there a set end point for both stories?
TS: The thing I learned from my previous comics like “Godland” and “Myth of 8-Opus,” is that you need multiple exit strategies on a long-running series. I would’ve ended “Godland” a long time ago, but we didn’t have a strategy for a quick exit. We had to build a bridge to the end and that took time. So with “American Barbarian” onward, each of my series have multiple rip-cord moments. If I’m not feeling it anymore, or if the audience is losing interest, here’s how you can end it and make the narrative pay off. “Satan’s Soldier” is much more finite than “Mystery Object.” “Satan’s Soldier” should be finished sometime this year. “Mystery Object” is more open-ended. It could run a year, it could run 10 years.
You mentioned “Godland” earlier – what is the status of the book?
TS: There’s just a few more pages to go. It’s really difficult being this close to the end of something I’ve invested so many years in. My imagination has moved on to other things, but my hand still has to finish drawing those pages. That’s issue #37, the finale. Being at the end of a large project is not the same rush as being at the beginning of one. It has an interesting energy, but it’s not as much fun. It feels more like I’m sweeping up after the house is built, rather than building something new. If I’m going to work on something purely for the joy of it, I get way more joy out of my webcomics. “Godland” is fun and the ending is going to be great, but I’m weary from the long journey. When I sit down at the drawing table to work on “Godland,” I feel the weight of all that’s come before. I was able to get a lot of issue #36 done when I was in France, I think because being in a different environment got me out of my own head a little bit. I’m sure I’ll feel differently once it’s done. I can sit back and be proud of it, admire it from a distance.