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An Interview With Ted Slampyak
posted June 5, 2005
 

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I discovered Ted Slampyak's Jazz Age Chronicles in the early 1990s while visiting my hometown. After the black and white bust, Muncie's remaining comic shop bought the stock from my long-time store and a few others in the area. This meant a lot of stuff for a modest amount of shelving, and for the next few years in order to thin their selection they had a lot of individual comics available for $.50 to $1.

In a few trips I bought all of Slampyak's solo-series published output, attracted by their easy-going, unpretentious cinematic quality. Jazz Age Chronicles was even more a creature of the late 1980s/early 1990s in that it had grown out of experiences Slampyak enjoyed in a HP Lovecraft-based role-playing game. Its charm comes from roughly the same place, I think -- very structured adventure narratives with lots of light-hearted character goofiness in-between. It felt like Slampyak was having fun, and there was enough in terms of research to ground the material in something more interesting than adventure-story cliche.

What really made Jazz Age Chronicles stick out in my memory, though, is that my Dad enjoyed the comic. My father liked comics, but mostly out of respect for certain kinds of art: Hal Foster, Bill Mauldin, Jaime Herandez. He actually read the various issues of JAC, and commented later that unlike most comics that I brough into his house it had reminded him of the kind of stories he read and enjoyed in mystery magazines and anthologies. That was one of the first realizations I had there was a fundamental disconnect between anything genre-related other than superdupers and their natural readership. For all of those reasons, Slampyak's comics stayed with me.

Slampyak went on to pencil one of the Tekno books, and has since returned to the Jazz Age feature, this time on-line, where its virtues stand out in even bolder relief, I think. He also currently draws the Annie newspaper strip, which has recently garnered some attention for some of the more outlandish plotlines Slampyak has put into comic form.

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TOM SPURGEON: Am I right in calling Jazz Age Chronicles a book born of the black and white boom? As I recall, you only did two issues originally -- what were your initial publishing experiences like?

TED SLAMPYAK: Yes, JAC came out at the end of the black and white boom. We did nine issues in total -- three under the tiny publisher of EF Graphics, and six from Caliber.

Both publishers were honest and fair. I wish they could've done more with PR and advertising, but that's the nature of comics publishing -- there's just no money for that stuff.

SPURGEON: Do you think the fact that JAChas its roots in role-playing games has had any lasting effect on your approach to narrative or characterization? Do your narratives favor vignettes and escalating dangers, say, or do your characters reflect broad strokes wrapped in a variety of established, functional skills?

SLAMPYAK: Good question! I really don't think the fact that JAC was inspired by a role-playing game has had any real impact on how I tell the stories. Well, some of the early stories were loosely based on some of the game sessions, but I think I've done a pretty good job of taking the characters and other elements I took form the game and making them separate from it. Certainly, when I'm writing or coming up with story ideas, I'm never thinking of the old game, or the people whose characters inspired the characters in JAC or anything.

SPURGEON: How did you end up at Caliber?

imageSLAMPYAK: I honestly don't remember how I ended up at Caliber. I probably just sent copies of the EF Graphics issues to every publisher I thought might be interested in picking up the series, and Caliber said yes.

SPURGEON: Why did you eventually decide to suspend your print comic? Did you do so with an eye on returning someday?

SLAMPYAK: Yeah, I never intended to stop the series altogether. The numbers from Caliber were getting smaller with each issue -- it wasn't plateauing, and it was getting ridiculous. About that time I'd gotten some interest from Malibu, which I thought had the potential to get the book out to a wider audience. So I canceled the series with Caliber with the intention of resuming it at Malibu. Caliber, by the way, were very supportive of this. They were great.

However, just as I was about to sign the contract with Malibu, they announced their partnership with this brand-new company called Image, and they sent me a letter telling me the deal was off. Oops! So I had no publisher. But by this time I was a little burned out -- working on the series took some very long hours -- and I decided to take a break for a few months. Which became a few years...

Every so often I'd have an idea to bring the series back, but it was always so much work... Then Chris Mills contacted me, from AdventureStrips.com. He said he was starting this online comics site, and would I like to be a part of it? I saw this as my chance to finally get back to Jazz Age -- and this time I could do it in color!

SPURGEON: Your print comics were a favorite of my dad's, I think because it was recognizable as mystery-adventures of the type he read in prose. Why do you think the comics market has been unable to develop a market for work like yours?

imageSLAMPYAK: Because the comics market is pretty much unable to develop any market. The whole industry is so small-time, and so in-bred. Comics publishers didn't create the super-heroes market -- they just sort of found themselves in it. At one time comics were published in all sorts of genres -- including mystery-adventure -- but they were always the bastard children of the major publishing houses. They were looked at as stuff for kids, who were gonna grow out of it soon, so why waste a huge budget promoting them? Over the years they did grow out of it, and went on to TV, movies, books, video games... Superheroes, for whatever reason, was the only genre still standing. Maybe it's because comics are the only place people were able to tell a proper superhero story -- it's so hard to pull off well on TV or movies. So the comics industry became the superhero industry.

Now, of course, there are comics out there in all genres, to varying degrees of success -- but you gotta hunt for them. Comics are in the major bookstores, but in the comics section -- the mystery graphic novels aren't in the mystery section, for example. If that were to happen, maybe then you'd see comics of differing genres finding their natural audience. That would be nice!

SPURGEON: I was interested to find out doing research that you were one of those who worked on the Tekno Comics line. How were you recruited for that gig? Was there a lot of close supervision? How did you find out your title was coming to an end?

imageSLAMPYAK: The editor for Mr. Hero, Ed Polgardy, originally contacted me to provide some design ideas for the lead character, who was supposed to be a steam-powered robot from the Victorian era. He was familiar with JAC, since we'd both done comics for Caliber, and knew I could design with an old-fashioned sensibility. While we were working on the design they were also looking for a penciler. The publishers wanted to find someone more well-known in comics, but Ed was pushing for me to get the job. Eventually -- perhaps because they were running out of time and couldn't get anyone else -- they gave the gig to me.

It was a terrific job, because we were starting it all form scratch. There was no previous artist or house style for me to emulate. Everyone at Tekno was terrific to work with, and we had a blast. It's a shame the series didn't catch on, too -- at the time, comics were really grave and humorless, and ours had quite a sense of humor to it. I think if it came out a couple of years later, when more comics were showing some humor, it would have found an audience.

I found out the series was canceled one Wednesday when Julie Riddle, my editor then, called me and asked me to send her all the pages I'd done so far. They'd pay for them, but that was it. No more work. I could tell she'd been crying. It was really sad.

SPURGEON: How is your mini-comic character Suzi Romaine a libertarian hero? I'm thinking it's probably more exciting than a certain voting record?

SLAMPYAK: Suzi was created after reading a lot of Ayn Rand, who I was really into at the time. One of the things Rand talked about in her essays was how so many conventions of storytelling were based on some preconceived notions -- the successful businessman turns out to be the bad guy, and the ones who try to pull him down are the good guys, and always have the best of motives. I tried to turn that on its head, and create a character who's a fun-loving, free-wheeling businesswoman, who runs a chain of restaurants her way, and who thwarts the attempts of others to make her do things their way, or who just want her to stop being so brazenly successful. A sort of individual-versus-collective kind of story.

I still have an outline for a whole graphic novel telling her full story, but it was so imposing, I never got it started. I did do three eight-page mini-comics of her, telling little stories, and they were pretty successful. But I never did the novel. I may, someday, but it's looking less and less likely.

SPURGEON: When I told my brother you were doing JAC on-line, he said that if he had done as much research as you had, he'd return to the strip, too. Do you use historical research differently now than you might have ten years ago? Do you still do research? Does it bother you when writers and cartoonists don't do their research?

SLAMPYAK: I used to be much more into research than I am now -- probably because back then, I just had more free time than now. And of course, now I don't need to do nearly so much, because of how much I did then. I have a file cabinet full or old photocopies and notes, etc., with all that.

But my view on it has also changed, in that before I was really concerned with recreating Boston of the 1920s exactly as it was. It was almost as if I was trying to literally bring it back to life. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but sometimes, when you've done so much research, there's too much temptation to add it into the story when it's not needed, doesn't advance the story, and just gets in the way. I think the original series did that a little.

So now I still try my hardest to get all the details that I show correctly, but I don't feel the need to show every possible detail. I let the story be the star of the show, and let the background details be a supporting player.

SPURGEON: Like many entertaining works, in JAC you get a lot of mileage out of certain dichotomies within the stories -- obvious differences in class, or your very strong female characters straining against the expectations of the time, and the competing ideas of mental strength as exhibited by Jennings and Mifflin. Where do your sympathies lie, and how are these expressed through these portrayals?

SLAMPYAK: I think what makes the series so much fun for me is that my sympathies are everywhere! Jennings and Ace really represent two aspects of myself, and I feel at times that I possess the characteristics of them both. Jennings is sort of a version of who I want to be, and Mifflin is who I am, or am on my bad days. Something like that.

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I used to be amazed when people would tell me how much they hate how pompous Jennings was. I like his pomposity! I think it's hysterical! But I see what they mean -- you wouldn't want your next-door neighbor to be that way.

And actually, the 1920s and early 30s were a haven for strong women. A lot of the stereotypes of the subservient woman come, I think, from the '40s and '50s, during a very conservative backlash to the freedoms women had gained between the wars. And of course, even in the most oppressive times, people have a way of asserting their strengths, though sometimes they have to be subtle about it. None of the women in Jazz Age are too out-there for the times, but they're definitely asserting themselves.

SPURGEON: You've had a longtime relationship with Joey Manley's group of sites. What is it about the way those are set up that works for you personally, and your comics?

SLAMPYAK: Joey's really great to work with. He devotes a lot of time and effort to his sites, and he goes out of his way to accommodate you. I really like that. With http://www.JazzAgeComics.com , Joey and I came up with the business model together, and he's been very generous with the revenue split. Now that Jazz Age is with http://www.GraphicSmash.com , hopefully it'll find a wider audience. The revenue split is still generous, and he and Graphic Smash editor T Campbell, treat the creators with respect and consideration. You can't beat that!

SPURGEON: You've been working on-line for a while now; how has this had an effect on your art? Has it changed your approach to color, for instance?

.imageSLAMPYAK: I don't think it's had too much effect. I've definitely seen how too much tight detail can get lost online, so I try to avoid that. My sense of color was already pretty well-defined, from years of freelance storyboard work, but certainly seeing it online every week does influence you. I have a tendency to get too complicated with the color, so that it all leans toward gray. I'm trying to overcome that, to let more pure color shine through, and not worry so much about exact color match. Every week I think, my approach is just a little bit different, and impacts how I'll approach the following week.

SPURGEON: Do you enjoy the Annie work? How do you work with you co-creator on the strip?

SLAMPYAK: I love doing Annie. I'm just the artist. I do sometimes have some say in the storyline -- like when we had a story take place here in New Mexico -- but for the most part the writer Jay Maeder just sends me the scripts, and I draw 'em up. It's a delightful change of pace from Jazz Age, where I have to come up with everything. And it's great drawing in a simpler style -- that's also helped mw with Jazz Age, I think, and what I was saying before about keeping the colors purer and simpler.

SPURGEON: Is there still a sizeable audience for the strip?

SLAMPYAK: It's a fairly small, but devoted, following. Annie's not in too many papers across the country anymore. It may have more readers online than in newspapers -- but they're still reading, and they post their comments on message boards. I always enjoy reading them.

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SPURGEON: I don't think of you as necessarily the same kind of cartoonist as Harold Gray, who worked with a lot of really stark spaces in his strip -- what has it been like to draw in his footsteps, so to speak?

SLAMPYAK: My style runs toward a simplified realism, but I like to exercise it a bit. With Annie I get to push the more simple, cartoony aspect of my style, and use a lot of Gray's stylistic elements. But it's still my style, really, which is really nice. There is a middle ground between what he did and what I do, and it's not that hard to get there.

What's also nice is that the syndicate doesn't dictate to us how the strip should look or anything. They trust us to do it our way. I've never been told to redraw a panel because it looked too different from Harold's work. Or, for that matter, for any reason. In fact, I've never even been told that I must always leave Annie's eyeballs blank -- but then again, I didn't need to be told that!

SPURGEON: With such a major amount of your time seemingly invested in comics, what kind of desires do you have for your future in that field?

SLAMPYAK: I just want the work to really take off. I love doing Jazz Age, and Annie. I also enjoy doing freelance work, but frankly I have to do that because the comics doesn't pay the bills. I'd love to see the audiences for both build up. In time, I have to believe they will. Not that I don't enjoy doing them now, for the audiences that I have. It's a lot of fun.

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Art, in order:
example of black and white artwork
from the Caliber series
protagonist Ace Mifflin
the Tekno series Mr. Hero
snooty Professor Jennings and his hilariously precious choice of weapon
a panel I rather like
a sample of Annie