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January 26, 2014


CR Sunday Interview: Rich Tommaso

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imageOne news story that completely escaped me in 2013 is that the longtime indy/alt cartoonist Rich Tommaso began actively self-publishing. He's put out four books so far, under the Recoil imprint: Don't Look Back!, Vikings' End #1, Yearling: Masked Detective and Dry County #1. These are all comic books, but small-run self-published rather than commercially printed: very high-end mini-comics, think Copra or the kind of books you see come out from young cartoonists at SPX or CAB rather than the world inhabited by Uncanny Avengers and The Walking Dead. Don't Look Back and Vikings' End are oversized for minis, a little taller than the old Golden Age comic book size; Dry County and Yearling are more typically mini-comics sized of the sheet-of-typing-paper-folded over size. I think they're pretty sharply designed and executed. Moreover, the work in them is fun. Tommaso has a pretty solid pedigree in terms of being a horror (Don't Look Back) and crime (Dry County) comics maker, but those comics are no more enjoyable than the works in genre I've never seen the Georgia-based cartoonist work: fantasy-adventure (Vikings' End) and superheroes (Yearling).

It is my hope that those of you working in retail might contact Rich Tommaso through that first site link regarding your carrying his books, if that sounds like something in which you'd be interested.

All of this material has appeared on the Internet in some form or another, at least in part, in much the same way that serialization of pages drove the completion of his The Cavalier Mister Thompson: A Sam Hill Novel, the first in a planned series of books. That they are purposely comic books rather than more book-length work Tommaso talks about in the discussion below. Like all middle-aged men, we began our conversation by talking about duck comics. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: This week was Colorist Appreciation Day. Were you appreciated?

RICH TOMMASO: What? No, I didn't get any appreciation. Not through e-mails or twitter or anything like that.

SPURGEON: I am sorry to hear that. [laughter] The reason I ask is because the last time we spoke was right when you had started working as a colorist on the Disney duck comics being re-released by Fantagraphics. Is that a still a gig for you?

TOMMASO: I amstill doing those. I think I'm on volume seven now. That's the one I'm finishing up. Yeah, still doing that.

SPURGEON: Is it just the duck books for you? I honestly can't recall if they have you doing Mickey or anything else, or even if that works requires a colorist. I know you're not doing Peanuts for them.

TOMMASO: I guess they are doing some Mickey stuff. I did do a few of those. Over a year ago they asked me to do a few -- they might just have a different person doing them.

imageSPURGEON: I'm always fascinated by people when they get to do the same gig in comics for a while. Has it become an easier job?

TOMMASO: Yeah, it is much easier. The first few months of it was rough because we were trying to figure out all the colors and how to get a vibrant yellow-red-blue but without it being too garish. That's when we came up with using pantones for that. At this point I know what I'm getting into every day. There's much less communication than there was in the beginning, much less going back and forth about the color.

SPURGEON: I have to imagine there was pushback -- I think we talked before the work had been widely seen, although maybe I have that wrong. I have to assume there were complaints, with the exacting nature of the fan base for those Barks comics. I wondered if any of the criticisms you heard kind of worked their way back into the coloring itself. Or was that just a process of weathering the pushback you received and keep on how you were doing it?

TOMMASO: I feel bad because I found out that Kim [Thompson] fielded a lot of those criticisms. [laughter] He went to the message boards and engaged with people quite extensively. Most people love how they look -- that's the reaction I get. I think the only thing... well, there were two things. One was the yellow used in the first book; people found it too loud. So that's when Kim chose a different pantone for that color but also came up with the idea of printing a white pantone over it so to quiet that color down a little bit. So we did that, and I kind of slowed down on being too literal with the color choices. There was a thing, a Santa Claus strip where Santa's beard had all of this crazy, blue streaks of shading going throughout it. I was being too literal in following that. Now if I see something, if I see some shading in something -- it doesn't happen very often, but sometimes the shading will be a mess -- I just do a basic reinterpretation of it. I'll usually shade it very simply rather than going crazy with it. That's something where just doing it every day and following color guides can mess you up. If you're following too closely.

SPURGEON: It's rare to stumble on a subject about Kim Thompson that hasn't been discussed a lot in the months following his death. What did you think of him as a color guy? Did you find his suggestions valuable? Did he have a good eye? Was he more about the historical presentation of those comics? What his color sense like?

TOMMASO: He did have a good eye for it, and also of course an historical sense of what those comics should look like. But him being so knowledgeable about printing, and how all of that side of things works, his figuring out the pantones as a solution to the cmyk mixture was really, really good idea. All of his suggestions made sense. He kind of took that project over. At first I was talking to the art directors over there and Gary was editing the book. It moved over to Kim and at that point the fact the books look so nice is really down to Kim. He understood so much about the printing process and how to get what he wanted.

SPURGEON: Not a lot of your work has been colored. Have you been learning things through this process -- perhaps through Kim -- that you can apply to comics work, or future projects?

TOMMASO: I don't really know. I'm not sure exactly what some of those solutions were! [laughter] The books look really nice. [laughs] I know a little bit that I was able to apply to Sam Hill, and learned a lot myself from talking to printers directly on that one. Getting the colors you want -- and depending on the paper you're printing on what that color will look like. A matte surface vs. a smooth surface, all of that. I'd never colored four-color before. Those old comics really informed me about a lot of colors that I never thought would work together. So when I color my comics, the few that are four-color, it's helpful in terms of figuring out what colors work together. Because I never really did that before. Any time I worked with color it was in terms of shading -- thinking of it that way, which is very different than thinking about different colors working together on a page. Looking at those comics intensely has really informed things like the Sam Hill book and the Yearling comic I do. It really helps to inform those. I love the way -- for the most part -- those comics are colored.

SPURGEON: It strikes me when I read old comics how frequently there's a jarring choice on the page and I like trying to figure out if that's a bold choice or just a technical/production error.

TOMMASO: There are times when I see things and think, "Now that's an odd color for that." At this point I just think of a color that might complement that background a bit better.

SPURGEON: You just described a very practical way of building a skill set. You have these jobs in front of you, you apply what skills you have to completing them and learn new ones along the way. Do you think in terms of building comics-making skills outside of just meeting the challenges of the next gig? Do you work on skills that you don't necessarily use right away? Do you ever even look at other comics and think, "I'd like to be able to do that someday?"

TOMMASO: I think it project by project. At this point I'm working on so many things at once I feel like I'm picking up a lot. I knew I always wanted to do four-color, but at this point there's so many ways it's attacked, all these cartoonists like Chris Ware and Charles Burns are using color as part of the writing of the story. I've always put that off, to have an experience with it. Then I was having this experience of coloring every day, and talking to someone way more knowledgeable than I am about color -- Kim, on the phone, month after month. That's a good training ground, even if you're not aware of it at first. "Okay, this is how it's done. I can do this at some point." I think I know how I would attack this if I ever did something in four-color.

I kind of have to be thrown into experience. With Satchel Paige [2007's Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow], I learned that having a job... if I have a job and I'm being paid to do it, I work a lot better. I feel there's an obligation to do that work, and I'm not the typical artist where if I'm given money then the money is suddenly gone and no work has been done on the project. I feel a tremendous responsibility to do the work, and do it right. It becomes a job. With Satchel Paige, because I had been paid for it and certain things were expected of it -- it had to be historically accurate -- I learned that I could do it. It became possible for me to do something that was set way in the past. I learned how to look up all of this reference, and to find historical references in books. It's something I always wanted to do. But it's hard to find the motivation to do these things that require a lot of time and skill and patience when you have other jobs to do and other responsibilities and thus a limited amount of time to give comics work. Whenever I'm thrown into a situation where it's a paying gig and there's a deadline, I quickly pick up these skills. I start learning about things I always wanted to do. It's like a crash course. I take it more seriously because people are depending on me to do this work. It's mostly in situations like that where I learn new skills. [laughs]

SPURGEON: You have to be far enough way to have some perspective on the first Sam Hill book. Do you have a grasp on how that went by now? Have you cycled away from that.

TOMMASO: Yes. [laughs]

SPURGEON: What did you come up out of there with? What was the lesson there?

TOMMASO: One big thing is that in a lot of ways Cavalier Mr. Thompson led to what I'm doing now, these 24-page comics. Doing something in a whole chunk like that, I was happy with the result of the book. I did a ton of reference but you don't really see it in that book. My main goal was to do a work of fiction. So all of the reference, all of the research I read to do that book, the majority doesn't show up because it's mostly a fictional tale.

The big question was... I don't think I'm good at doing a whole book in a big chunk like that. As I'm doing these stories now, a lot of these comics worked out because right at the 24-page or 32-page points, it seemed like a great place to close an issue where another chapter could begin after that. They just seemed to really work that way. It seems like it's easier for me to write a story that way. It's easier for me to continue enjoying working on it. Around page 70 or 80 of working on The Cavalier Mr. Thompson, I just got really burnt out on it. It was hard for me to keep going. That last year of working on it I did much less work than the first year of working on it. I think taking breaks from it, and wrapping up an episode or a chunk of story as an issue and putting that out... you have perspective when you see it printed. It gives you and idea where you go next with a story. Working on a story with a beginning and a middle and end, something over 100 pages, it's really hard for me to work that way. The book didn't really read well at all until I looked it over and realized that two chapters were completely misplaced. There was a chapter where the Thompson character, this grifter, comes into the town and it's many chapters into the book. I realized that doing that put... he's the thing that changes the entire town forever, whether people realize it or not. The reader realizes it. So the character needs to come into the story much earlier. It's not a 400 page book. It's not that long of a story.

I think I have more control over a story when I'm writing these pieces in 24-page segments. I think I'll be able to work more efficiently from now on. With the books I'm doing it's exciting to start a new chapter, and to know you're opening up the second issue of a comic book at the same time. It's made me more excited to work on these things, and I'm getting work done much more efficiently than when I was just working on one thing. Especially one thing that was very long where I felt I had to do it in one big chunk like that.

SPURGEON: Usually when I talk to cartoonists about this, it's personal preference and pleasure. They miss being able to work serially because they like the rewards of having a book out. It sounds like you're talking about...

TOMMASO: That is something I enjoy. [laughter]

SPURGEON: Well, sure. And those pleasures are no longer denied you. But it sounds slightly more complex than that. It sounds like there's something about the way you work that is naturally attuned to specific rhythms of serial comics-making, and that you don't want to waste energy fighting against that. And it also sounds like it helps you in terms of orienting yourself towards the work entire.

TOMMASO: Yeah. It may go back to an early understanding of that's how comics were supposed to work. Everything I read in the late 1970s and 1980s worked that way. I started writing and drawing comics when I was in the fifth grade. I did this comic called "Urban Assault Vehicle" [laughter] -- I think I was watching an Inspector Gadget, but I really liked Sergio Aragones' cartooning, so I was drawing like him. I did 12-13 issues of that thing. I was at a very young age when I became used to that being the way comics worked. That's how I understood the beats. Whenever I reached page 24, my comics always magically had an ending. A close to that story or that part of the story. I think it's more intuitive for me to work that way.

SPURGEON: It sounds like those are the rhythms you picked up. That's interesting. I'm not sure I've heard anyone put it like that before.

TOMMASO: A lot of younger cartoonists, they've been reading graphic novels for quite a while now. This newest generation, when I talk to younger cartoonists, they have no problem working on a big book like that. Right out of college they have a graphic novel ready to go in their head. They've been around long enough for them to understand how you do a book like that.

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SPURGEON: I want to talk in explicit terms about what you're doing with Recoil. You sent me four books. These are books collecting serials you did on-line at one point.

TOMMASO: I think they where... Yes, those are all books that were on-line at some point.

SPURGEON: Now that on-line serialization was a few years ago. Is this everything from the back then just coming to fruition as originally planned? Inferring from what you said earlier, I'm guessing that maybe the serial comic-book format aspect of it is what's new, not necessarily that these comics would end up in print. But are we on time? Is this when you originally thought you'd move into print?

TOMMASO: The idea was to release them as graphic novels. The first book I finished was Don't Look Back! and that was always a one-shot kind of story. It's like 8 1/2 Ghosts in that it's a story with a cute hook to it -- those stories are usually good for about 24 to 32 pages. But really the whole plan [laughs] of doing self-publishing and getting on the phone and calling all of these shops personally -- they really didn't respond to e-mail -- and doing all of this work myself, and working from my list of stores, basically this plan of doing this is that some of these comics were taking so long to do. Not having it be my job was proving difficult. I had lots of time besides coloring the Donald Duck stuff in my day, but I wasn't working. I was being really lazy. This whole self-publishing thing was partly to put a boot in my ass, and make me get to work. If I have all of these shops carrying this stuff, and I let everybody know that every couple of months I'll have another comic for them, then I have to do it. It will at least be more than I'm working right now. Left to my own devices, I can be really lazy about working on this stuff. At the same time, I'm always upset that none of these books are getting done. It was really just to get me to work five days a week on this stuff, to see these stories complete.

SPURGEON: You're saying that going to a smaller form is a change from the original plans of doing longer works, but it will also help you because you will put more work out working in short bursts. Is that a way to put it?

TOMMASO: Yeah. Every time I put out a book, people are talking about the comics, and I get feedback that way. It's not the same as having the comics on-line. It started that with the on-line stuff that I was getting some attention, but when I put out Don't Look Back!, a lot of people that I know visit my web site and have been visiting it for years, they commented on how much they enjoy the comic and that they thought it was really funny... their comments were like they had never read it. That was something I always wondered. I have problems reading stuff on-line myself. I like reading things in print more. It seemed like a lot of people that bought the work were the same way. They may have looked at the art on-line, but they hadn't read it. There's a much better reaction now that I have something in print for people to read.

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SPURGEON: You sent me work in two different formats, one larger and more in a traditional fold-over format. Why two different formats within what you're doing?

TOMMASO: That was just an aesthetic thing. I was thinking about self-publishing comics for the past couple of years. But the problems I kept thinking about were, well, I don't have that much money. They'd mostly have to be in black and white. So a big thing was how I can design these books to be attractive even though they're cheaply printed and maybe there's very little color even on the covers. That's why I spent so long trying to figure out designs for the books. The other things were the sizes. Like you were mentioning. With Don't Look Back! I was thinking it's very slick artwork. There's a lot of brush work in there, and I thought the small size would look strange. Dry County is more simply drawn, it's drawn with pens, a lot of pen and ink. It can take that shrinkage. It looks okay at that size. But I thought something with a brush, something with a slicker drawing would look better at the larger size. It's something that bugs me. Whenever I see nice, professional art in a mini, I'm always confused why I'm looking at this as a mini. I think it's because something simple and gestural can be at any size... If something is drawn a little rougher, it looks okay as a mini-comics, but something really slick... it looks strange to me why I'm looking at it as a mini. So just that larger size helped me to think of it as the size it would if it were published by an actual publisher. It would be that larger sized. The art looks better that way.

With the vikings, there are so many panels on the page it almost wouldn't read as a mini. There are sixteen or more panels. So I thought that would benefit from being a larger size, too.

SPURGEON: I think it's interesting you spoke of the comics at the larger size as the aberrations, whereas I was more confused why they all weren't that size. It sounds like cost, straight-up, then, that Yearling and Dry County are that size.

TOMMASO: Yeah, it's cost. I think those other books benefit from being that larger size but it is more costly. It's larger paper that has to be cut to size. It's also more work because I have to put those together by hand. Stapling can't be done the machine, so it would be triple the cost to pay to have those folded and stapled. So I do that myself to save myself a little bit. I couldn't afford to publish an oversized-format book every couple of months. I'd like to, but it'd cost just a little too much.

SPURGEON: Are these out there to the point you feel like you're benefiting from a feedback cycle yet? I know some of them have been out for a little while. What is the timetable on these? Can you be really explicit? Is it all available right now?

TOMMASO: All the books are out. Yeah. All the books are out. I put out Don't Look Back! and Dry County kind of close to each other. I think July and September I put both of those out. And then October I put out the vikings and then Yearling came out a couple of weeks ago. So at this point they should all be available in stores.

SPURGEON: Let me just run some basic questions at you like that, then. How many stores are you in? What's your penetration?

TOMMASO: I have about 30 stores, around the country.

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SPURGEON: Are you doing it all yourself or are you sub-distributing, either through or another catalog? Or even another store?

TOMMASO: Right now I'm doing it all myself. I have a listing of all the shops and I update that information. It's in my gmail. I keep a chart. The whole thing of making the books and shipping them out and keeping in contact, keeping up with the shops and making sure I'm getting paid -- most of the shops do a 50/50 pay out as opposed to consignment -- right now I'm doing that all myself. The busier I am the more I'm going to work on my comics, I've found out. Whereas when I was just coloring Donald Duck comics in the morning, when I had the whole day free to do whatever I want, it seems like I wasn't doing much work. Now that I've given myself so much more to do, it seems like five days a week I'm getting a page done of these comics. Before I wasn't working at all. I was really lazy.

SPURGEON: And I'll mention this up top, but you're also selling these individually on-line to people. You have a shop.

TOMMASO: On my web site there's a link called "comic shop" that goes to a big cartel account that I have where all the comics are available. I do maybe five percent of my sales of these comics through that.

SPURGEON: Not all of these are continuing features. You mention that Don't Look Back! was a one-off. But the other three will continue. Do you think that will be the general model?

TOMMASO: For the most part, yes. The vikings, I think, have one more issue. There's plenty of things I have that can take its place. I'm working on six different comics but I'm trying not to work on eight or ten. When that one is done with its second issue something new will replace that. Most likely it will be a continuing series.

SPURGEON: Last question in this series of short ones: are you actively looking for publishing partners? Are you hoping that someone might pick up these comics, beyond the fact that I'm sure you hope more shops and more people pick them up? Are you looking for homes for the graphic novel versions. Are these a business card for you? Do you hope to attract attention to yourself and these books that way? Or do you eventually plan on doing the books yourself as well?

TOMMASO: Right now the thing that's exciting is that books are getting into people's hands and I'm getting a lot of feedback. They're peppered around the country enough to have them in major cities. They're visible. I'm just going to give it a few years and see what happens. It's unlikely but I think it would be great if I could keep Recoil its own thing. Or that maybe I could partner with someone if the situation arises if the publisher was able to take on certain financial responsibilities, take on certain work responsibilities leaving me to work even more of my time on the pages themselves. But right now I'm going to do this grassroots thing to see where it goes.

Because of the feedback and the excitement the shops have over it -- it's great how many of the shops have really been into this, and that I've had a lot of re-orders, which years ago would have been unheard-of for mini-comics. It's kind of strange. Because so many people have stopped doing 24-page comics, maybe there's just that much less to order.

SPURGEON: Do you feel like you have fellow travelers? Did you feel an affinity for Michel Fiffe's self-published Copra when that got started? Are there other books you feel live in the same publishing area as the books you're making?

TOMMASO: It's interesting to see what's happening. I hope to keep seeing books like Copra out there. What's interesting to me now is that there are some comic shops printing comics now -- like with Box Brown and Big Planet. They've joined together and Big Planet is taking on more of the financial responsibilities of the Retrofit material. Things like that are really interesting to me. I don't know why that hadn't happened earlier in the history of comics -- why more stores haven't published comics that they'd like to see sold in their stores. It seems like to one way to move forward. At that point you're not even as worried as distribution -- if you're thinking of a chain of stores. With Retrofit and Oily, these are guys that are paying for the books, and working to have them distributed, and working on a lot of the comics for the line. It's a tremendous amount of work.

SPURGEON: I want to ask you about the comics themselves. Viking's End was the one that jumped out at me as something really different than the kind of work we've seen from you before. I wanted to ask you up front -- I'm not sure I've seen you work in such a sustained, stylized approach, and it certainly seems an interesting match for fantasy-adventure comics. Where the hell did this come from, Rich?

TOMMASO: [laughs] It came from me wanting to do something historical after Satchel Paige. I was reading a lot about the Roman Empire, and there's so much there. I thought it'd be interesting to do something there, and I've never done something historical on my own. I thought I should maybe start with something smaller. I was reading a book called The Last Apocalypse about the turn of the first millennium. There were a lot of stories about Scandinavia and what was going on. That led me to the work of Gwyne Jones, one of the foremost historians of Scandinavia. I was reading books on the folklore, Scandinavian folklore. It sounded so interesting to me. The visual idea came from the buying of books about vikings and their art and sculpture. Their sculpture for the most part was very simple and iconic. That seemed an interesting way to do a comic. Instead of doing representational art, I could do art as simple and direct as their own artifacts -- their ceramics and sculptures. It's such an old tale, their creation theory. That's how it came about.

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SPURGEON: And the very involved page structures? They're all over the place -- four, five, even six tiers, larger panels jutting out of all sorts of more complex grid work. The overall effect is very dense, very involved narrative-making. There's a lot of story per page as a result. Can you talk about that basic choice, to make these very dense pages?

TOMMASO: I guess what my thinking was that because the drawings were so simple more of them on a page would be interesting as a result. If I had done the book as a six-panels per page, not the reader so much but thinking of myself, I think my interest may have started to wane. The art is already simple; why not put more on the page, spend more time with the layouts, think of more interesting ways to make a page. Layouts could be filled with panels because the art was so simple.

SPURGEON: How did you go about figuring out each page, then? Because they're almost baroque, what with the number of panel and the variety of transitions on hand. How do you write each page? Are you breaking this down into beats and finding solutions that work? Does every certain kind of moment get a bigger panel?

TOMMASO: I think working on the sequential part of this one is as intuitive as my other comics. I basically start in the corner of the page and if it's something that feels like it needs a wider space or a taller, bigger panel, then it gets that. But if it's a conversation between two people walking along or riding on horseback, I would just use their heads -- it's as intuitive as any other comic I've made. This is just someone saying something, so I'll just use a head there, but if they're riding up on something that's dramatic, the panel will be larger.

SPURGEON: What interests you about the overlaps of religion? That's definitely a through-line here, Rich. You have the symbols transformed from one religion to another directly as well as via the historical outcome.

TOMMASO: The interesting thing about the Last Apocalypse book is that a lot of these cultures saw the end of the world because of Christianity's spread. They were taking over. I never thought of apocalypse being described in terms of Christianity being spread far and wide [laughs], and it's interesting that they thought of this as the end of the world. The cultures' original beliefs were being taken over by the spread of Christianity. In some places this was forced upon other cultures. That was the one thing I thought the most interesting, which jumpstarted my wanting to do a comic about it. The natural history, their folklore... I thought it would be fun to start in a realistic mode but when the character is killed have fun playing with the folklore. I thought it would be great to do something where I can use the history of it but use the folklore to enter into the fantasy it, and have it all be one story.

imageSPURGEON: Your approach to violence is similarly stylized but it's also consistently brutal. Did that have a similar genesis.

TOMMASO: A lot of that came from the reading, like the Blood Eagle -- I read about that and that seemed like it should be part of the story. It's such a lurid image. A lot of the war scenes in the story are swipes of Breughel's paintings of the coming apocalypse in battle and war. So I used that as well.

SPURGEON: Can you give a specific example of a swiped image. Are you talking about the bigger images of fighting, like the double-page spread with the skeleton on horseback?

TOMMASO: Yeah, that's directly taken from a Breughel thing. There's another large panel where it's a sea of bodies, people on top of each other fighting. It's a large drawing also taken from one of his paintings of the apocalypse.

SPURGEON: The superhero book in contrast... [Tommaso laughs] Do you even have a background with superheroes? I don't recall you have any kind of relationship with that genre.

TOMMASO: No, not really. It's very new. I actually didn't read superheroes growing up. I'm not a big [Jack] Kirby fan, either. I know people are just going to crucify me for that, but I don't really respond to his work the way others do. I've read the [Steve] Ditko Spider-Mans, but again this was an adult reading those things, just to do it. I don't know anything about it. I have a little bit of knowledge about the old superhero comics depending on what it is not much, but I think that mostly the excitement is over what's been done recently with superheroes. I think maybe about five years ago I finally read those Ed Brubaker Catwomans and really enjoyed those, and really liked another thing that Marvel fans hated, the X-Force comic that Peter Milligan and Mike Allred did. I thought that was wonderful, a really great take on the whole thing.

SPURGEON: Now pick one of those, and tell me what you responded to. Beyond it being something you enjoyed.

TOMMASO: It's a great marriage of talking about something real and doing it in a superhero comic. It's an approach that a lot of people use, and it's not always something that works. It doesn't always blend beautifully. But with a few of those comics, I just loved how they would talk about something real and it really works in the realm of the superhero drama. Even the Chuck Dixon/Marcos Martin Batgirl, I thought that was a wonderful coming-of-age-story, in this comic book. So yeah, it's very recent, very recent superhero takes have left me wanting to take a stab at it. Now it's up to me to see if I can blend in any kind of personal information into that genre.

SPURGEON: How overtly do you pursue that? Do you find a story that you think will lend itself to that kind of personalized take, or do you start in with a narrative and let the subconscious take care of the personal material coming through? How crafted is your story here, Rich?

TOMMASO: My first stab at it -- the first issue of Yearling is kind of a hodgepodge because my first stab at it was to do a teen comic and do something in the same spirit that Jaime Hernandez did his superhero comics. Let's go back to the original thing, and have it fueled by imagination, and have fun with it. And it just wasn't enough. After a few pages of that, I was like, "I don't think I can do something like this." [Spurgeon laughs]

Whether I jump into anything, whether it's crime or horror, if there isn't something I can put in there, something personal or something a little more three-dimension to the characters, I really can't get into it. So I scrapped that teen idea, but it returned in the way of police report that Yearling reads. This is like her parents. I thought it would be much more interesting to focus on one or two more characters and make them three-dimensional and see how much of myself I can put in there. So again, it started out very much as a kind of '60s Fantastic Four kind of comic, but it didn't hold my interest.

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SPURGEON: Something I don't think I've ever seen in your work before this one is a recurring visual motif. You repeat the image of a set of eyes looking directly at the reader maybe eight, ten times in this issue. Maybe it's a dim reading on my part, but I don't recall you ever doing that before. Was that intentional?

TOMMASO: I haven't really picked up on that. [laughter] I don't know where that came from. That's interesting. But I'm picture it: her eyes looking over the folder...

SPURGEON: ... the man looks back at her, there are skull eyes in the cloud...

TOMMASO: I didn't pick up on that. [laughs]

SPURGEON: Is that something you ever do? Do you ever think that way?

TOMMASO: I think about it in the way that I worry that I do the same things too often. So I try to get out of it. But there are certain things where you really can't get around people that are having a conversation in a room. There are only so many way to cut away from those two people simply looking at each other. In Mysterious Case I thought about what I could put in that panel beside the first thing that comes to mind... so I guess for the most part I'm trying to draw things -- this happens to me every day. I don't have to be looking at a comic, I can be looking at a movie and I'll go, "Hey, I've never thought about drawing something from that angle before." Or "I've never thought about doing a scene that way." An action sequence. Or talking. Anything like that. I'm always trying to do things I haven't done, but if the story doesn't call for it it's hard to break out of the panels that normally, usually come to mind.

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SPURGEON: It seems like Dry County is the most assured of the comics you're doing, the most confident in terms of the multiple visual shifts and differences in presentation. It could just be the nature of first-person narrative, but it does seem like there's a comfort level for you in this comic that feels a bit looser and even more dissonant at times in the other comics. Was that an easy comic for you to do, relative to the others?

TOMMASO: It is easier. I'm smiling while you're saying that because that's the one comic that has a complete script from beginning to end. I don't usually write my stories that way. The idea there was a couple of years ago when I wrote the script was "I'll just write a straight crime novel. Won't think too much about the personal stuff, or getting too crazy... a straight, simple crime narrative." And I did that. I did that for a few weeks. When I first did it, I did the Agatha Christie thing where I solved the crime and wrote backwards. That worked really well for that story. It was going to be just a straight-ahead mystery. Then I sat down and wrote a full script for it, and rewrote it a couple of times. So for that one I do have a solid script, and it is a pretty straight-forward comic book. A straight-forward story to tell.

What's fun about it is I'm able to rewrite what I have when I'm at the drawing table. There are a lot of times when I do read something and because it is a little too simple and a little too straight-forward as a crime yarn I'll change things while I'm at the drawing table. Again, it works well because I already have a perspective on the story. I can make those changes and know that they'll work, that they'll enrich the story -- a little more than if I just did a straight transcription on the script. That would be very boring, and it would be missing... it would just be the crime angle. It turns out to be that the character Janet goes missing and he has to look for her -- it's an amateur detective thing. But if I went straight from the script it'd be boring for me and thus the reader. But because the script is there, I can play with it and change things. I have that foundation. It's probably why it seems more assured.

SPURGEON: That one seems a bit talkier at points than you usually let yourself get, Rich. Is that a function of having a script?

TOMMASO: It might be, because I did the one thing I usually don't do, which is typing it up. It probably did get wordy. I kind of saw that one as being close to 100 pages, but I'm already on page 65 and I'm not halfway through the story. I don't know that I took that into consideration. I might have gone long on the writing. I was only dealing with the writing.

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SPURGEON: I'm not sure that I have a Don't Look Back! question, Rich. The horror one. It does seem like in contrast to Dry County that Don't Look Back! is super-loose. It careens a bit -- although that's interesting too, in a way, because a recurring narrative trick you use are these cinematic moments in the course of a page -- like three panels that tell a moment in sequential form in the midst of all these big panels and key moments.

TOMMASO: It's the best-selling one so far. It's had the best reaction. There was even a good review of it on-line. I was shocked because I was kind of putting it out as a tester. I didn't know if things like turning the color into a half-tone screen and just doing this self-publishing mini-comic approach, I didn't know if I would like this. So it was really a test book, but it ended up being the most popular one. [laughs] I was surprised by that. I was making that one up as I went along every day, as I put it up on-line.

SPURGEON: Those little cinematic moments -- like this mini-scene where a man pulls out a gun and shoots a skeleton's head off -- these progressive visual moments... is that something you did when you wanted something to specifically clear, or was there a rhythm to that you liked...?

TOMMASO: There's so much action in that comic, I have to remind myself to slow it down a little bit. That can mean instead of doing something in one panel I can do it in two or three -- the skeleton getting his head blown off, that slows things down a little bit. Again, that was something where I was doing it on-line it hit me that every page seemed like a different scene. So that is me speeding up and slowing down.

imageSPURGEON: How much of your work is still in print, Rich? This came up in conversation the other day, and I had to admit I didn't know. Is the majority of what you've done out there for people to see? If not, are there positive aspects to that?

TOMMASO: I do prefer it that way. [laughs] I kind of feel like even just a starting point for people to read my work, the only thing would be 8 1/2 Ghosts. The structure of my first graphic novel, Clover Honey, I wouldn't change one page of it. The actual writing -- I had no idea what I was doing, I had read very few novels or books at that time in my life, I was making up as I went along and had no clue what I was doing writing-wise -- is really bad. I've been thinking about reprinting that as a graphic novel or a comic series, but re-writing it. And I really wouldn't touch the story. Scene by scene, as far as the story goes, it seems my instincts were perfect.

I think it's because I'm just really good at crime drama. It's something I've stayed away from for many years. I've spent about 15 years saying, "No, I want to be this serious cartoonist who does things about real life." After so many years of working in that way I think I'm better with genre. These comics: crime, horror superhero -- there's still a lot of me going in there. I'm still researching. Those elements won't be as visible because of the genre, but I think with that limitation I get more interesting results. I don't know, maybe that's because I haven't had an interesting life. [laughter] I may just not be very good with what I would call straight fiction; I'm just not very good working there. I think I'm better off working with something that's been created before, an established genre. Working within that limitation I seem to strive even harder to write a decent book.

SPURGEON: Is is still pleasurable for you to make comics, Rich? What is the most fun part for you? What are the best days?

TOMMASO: The most exciting thing still is penciling a page. A lot of people say they love the inking stage, but for me it's you're going over what you already did in pencil. To me, penciling is it. Every time I pencil something I enjoy, that's the most exciting part. I may have only a fuzzy idea of what I want to do, but to realize it on the page, that's the most fun. For a while, I wasn't enjoying that, because I felt I was working in the wrong area of comics. I don't know how to put it. It seemed like I wanted to do something important and serious, taking my life and find a story that would related to other people. But because my heart wasn't fully into it, it wasn't fun for me to produce the pages, to do the work. When I started doing things like The Cavalier Mr. Thompson and even the Vikings book, I was immediately enjoying what I was doing a lot more. Like any crime writer I've been inspired by over the years, like Jim Thompson, I continue to read everything I can to continue to enrich what it is what I'm doing. I continue to read things like Hemingway. Writers like Thompson got their inspiration from literature even though they were doing these dime-store crime novels. There is still a lot to get out of all sides of comics and all sides of literature.

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* Recoil Graphic Novels
* Recoil Graphic Novels Big Cartel Shop

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* image from Yearling
* cover to Don't Look Back!
* an early duck page featuring Tommaso's coloring
* the design and limited color work on the Yearling cover
* one of the nicer images flattered by the larger size on Don't Look Back!
* a stand-alone image from Dry County
* one of the fairly elaborate page structures used in Vikings' End
* the Blood Eagle image
* eyes in Yearling
* one of the dialogue-heavy Dry County pages
* the cinematic mini-sequence discussed
* image from Clover Honey
* another image from Yearling (below)

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