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A Short Interview With Zack Soto
posted November 6, 2005


If I were given the proper funding and resources with the understanding that I had to use them to publish comics, I would skip the graphic novel altogether and concentrate on the pamphlet serial, slightly modified versions of the one-man-show comic books of ten and fifteen years ago, somewhere between a Black Eye comic and the way Drawn and Quarterly packaged Chester Brown's Louis Riel. In other words, I would publish things like Zack Soto's The Secret Voice. Untethered by the requirements of my daydream, AdHouse Books beat me to it and the first issue should almost certainly be out later this month.

A mix of approaches and styles, with a letters section that recommends other comics, Soto's Secret Voice straddles the divide between the recurring serials of art-comics in the early to mid-1990s with the wild genre mixing and unabashed embrace of neglected genres one sees in the Fort Thunder school and its spiritual satellites. Soto is not the most accomplished cartoonist to launch a solo series, but you know, the room to develop one's art is a lot what those kinds of comics used to be about, too. I spoke to him via electronic mail.

TOM SPURGEON: In your letters section you talk about a pretty standard comics-reading past, but I don't get a sense of your development as a cartoonist. What events would you emphasize in your path from reader to cartoonist?

ZACK SOTO: I'm not sure at what point I decided I wanted to be a cartoonist, but it was really early in life. From a very young age, I was aware of the difference between artists on books, and even when books would change artists. I remember showing drawings of the Hulk pounding on some giant war machine or whatever to relatives and telling them I wanted to do this when I grew up. While I kind of always wanted to do comics, and loved comics, I'm not sure if I would have continued to actually be a cartoonist if I hadn't discovered alt-comics as a young teenager. Up until that point I'd mainly tried my hand at creating super-heroes or "epic adventure series" and never really finishing what I'd started. When I first saw RAW, Robert Crumb's work, Neat Stuff, Yummy Fur, etc., these things really spoke to me and showed me a different type of comics than I'd ever really imagined. It was much more vibrant and alive and plain old weird than the Superman vs. Booster Gold comics I'd been reading.

So I went from making up epic sci-fi worlds to ripping off Chester Brown's Ed The Happy Clown and doing dream comics, auto-bio -- which is really funny because the only life experience I had was being a miserable teenager -- etc. The period where I was most productive was when I lived in a small town in the heart of Cajun country, had no friends, and just made comics all the time. I got some encouraging postcards from Peter Bagge, and a trip to California exposed me to mini-comics at the great store Comic Relief, as well as meeting cartoonist Phil Yeh, who was really nice to me and gave me positive feedback even though I was doing really shitty stuff. I made a few minis that I never really sent to anyone, and I'm glad because they're incredibly awful.

After a while I finally started having some luck with girls and also started doing recreational drugs, basically having a really good time in order to make up for the years I'd spent feeling like a loser. During this period I did less and less creative work, till I stopped doing comics for several years. This lasted for a while, and though I spent a decent amount of time thinking up ideas, I never implemented them or really put my nose to the grindstone in any way. About eight, nine years ago, I decided I needed to get back on track and start cartooning again or else I'd never end up doing anything with my life. From that point it took me a while to get back to the skill level I'd left off at, but it eventually happened and I decided to start making mini-comics again, this time for real. That was when I started getting stuff in anthologies, and started my own, Studygroup12, in 2001. I did three of them, one a year more or less, each one getting more and more elaborate, and each one getting better and better. I won an Ignatz for the last one, but it just ended up feeling like the energy expended in making these hand-made art books would be better spent in actually making my own comics better and more visible. This is around the same time as I was doing stories for Chris Pitzer's Project books, Telstar and Superior, and while I was working on the Smog Emperor story for Superior, I pitched The Secret Voice to Chris and he gave it the thumbs up!


SPURGEON: Your first issue reminded me of not just alternative comics books but specifically the one-man omnibus that you used to find with comics like Pickle. What attracts you to that one-man anthology approach?

SOTO: Well, I have so many ideas that I want to tackle, different storytelling methods, genres to plunder, and characters to develop, it just makes sense to me. No other format would allow me this much freedom. In each issue I have a small amount of continuing features, like the Dr. Galapagos serial that will be running through each issue. After that, it's my desire to make the experience of reading one issue to the next an act of discovery, with new things in every one. I think, too, that my growth as an artist will be apparent, if not issue-to-issue, then at least over the course of the whole series. That's kind of a side effect of doing a continuing series, but as a reader it excites me when I see it in other peoples' work.

SPURGEON: You also note that the graphic novel seems to be drawing everyone's attention. Do you worry about finding an audience?

SOTO: I think I'd be kind of dumb if I didn't worry about finding an audience at least a little bit, considering the market these days. Pamphlet comics are not doing the booming business that graphic novels are, but I think there's room for good serialized comics to find an audience. Not only that, but I know several excellent cartoonists who are working on their own comics that will be coming out soon or have already started coming out, so I feel like the next year or two will be a good time for fans of alt-comics that are actually comics and not books. Hopefully people respond to this approach at least well enough to support continued publishing, if not making everyone rich and drunk on their own power. I'd like to be able to keep doing this book for several years and see where it takes me.

SPURGEON: Do you think that many younger cartoonists are missing out on certain avenues of expression by focusing solely on that graphic novel format?

SOTO: I can't speak for everyone, but the format you work towards affects both your process and the work itself -- I've tried working with a book in mind, and it doesn't suit me, at least not at this point. Maybe there are some cartoonists who seem to be focusing on that brass ring of bookstore distribution and square spines with their names on them to the exclusion of all else. I can't say they're wrong for doing so, but to my mind not everyone is spending their energy as wisely as they could be. Having a near unlimited -- or at least expansive -- page count can be liberating but it can also drive some people to self-indulgently waste their time as well as the readers'. The flip side is that if you're writing for a certain page count, it could cause you to truncate a work when it would be best served by, say 300 pages instead of 120. With the Dr. Galapagos story, I'm going chapter by chapter, and seeing how long each one needs to be. I know the ending, but I'm not sure of the page count, and serializing it allows me to follow my muse, as it were. Also, for a relatively unknown cartoonist such as myself, a continuing series is the best way to make people aware of your work and build a fan base of some sort. If I were to come out with a new graphic novel, the price is higher and people are less likely to take a chance on me. Either format is a gamble these days, really, so each cartoonist should follow whatever path works best for them creatively. There's no one right answer.


SPURGEON: The thing that dominated my first impression of your book is your approach to layout, which is very dense, and very idiosyncratic when it comes to breaking down portions of the page. Can you tell me how you break down a page and make the decision of how to structure them as units, your general approach to storytelling in that way?

SOTO: My approach stems from trying to be as economical as possible while still conveying as much possible information as I can. Aside from my artistic influences, structuring my stories for the page constraints of anthologies has probably been one of the biggest influences on the way I'm telling stories now. Fit all those good moments plus a narrative into eight pages! I am a big fan of well-done manga and some of the American-style "decompressed" storytelling, and I do try to get a lot of those moments in there that are more about capturing mood and space than anything else, but I don't want to sacrifice getting the real meat of the story across. I'll end up doing little moments as inset panels, so it bolsters the bigger moments, the important plot points, etc. I like trying to give space and the passage of time real specific weight. Also, there's simply things that must be emphasized in service of the plot and whatnot. I guess I'm sort of trying to walk the line between the "decompressed" storytelling style and the "super-compressed" storytelling of golden and silver age comics or someone like Grant Morrison.

imageSPURGEON: Two of the stories in SV #1 involve initial descents into secret spaces, both bounded by water. It made me think of my own childhood screwing around in sewers and creek tunnels underneath highways and whatnot. Does this general set of symbols have a specific or even symbolic meaning to you, do you think?

SOTO: I don't really want to talk about specific symbolism too much -- I find that the more I bring things like that to the surface and dissect them, make them more blatant, the less effective it becomes. I definitely think about it but I like to keep it on an almost subconscious level and discover connections after the fact. But yeah, I'd say there's a lot you could read into some of the re-occurring themes and visuals within each of the three main stories. Both Day 34's descent and the Smog Emperor story are based on childhood explorations, one more explicitly than the other. There's stone structures breaking in all three stories, waterways that lead from point to point, etc. I spent many hours wandering around in sewers, tunnels, woods filled with rusty debris, and strange unfinished buildings, and try to capture that same feeling in different ways.

SPURGEON: I like the way a lot of your characters look.

SOTO: Thanks, it's something I definitely work at.

SPURGEON: How much time do you spend doing design work before moving into the comics themselves, and how do you approach design generally? What makes a good-looking character according to your tastes?

SOTO: I have two notebooks -- one for plotting and designs, and one for breakdowns. The design stage is pretty important, so I spend a decent amount of time working on the main characters, most often two to ten different drawings for each one, with notes and "thinking out loud" kind of marginalia helping me decide where I'm heading and what needs to be refined. This can take a while, as I find it's an important part of my general process of both writing and designing to leave things and mull them over for later. I've included a couple examples of these sketchbook pages in the first issue.

Smog Emperor went through a few different stages -- at first he had trunks and his arms had nerve endings extending from his arm stumps into the crystal gauntlets that are his hands. Sammy Harkham actually pointed out how lame and cliched the trunks were, and the nerve ending things were a cool idea but kind of hard to get across what they were, so I got rid of the trunks and simplified the deign, for the better I think. I didn't really get a handle on drawing him until I was partially into drawing the story for Project: Superior that he debuted in. Occasionally I'll draw a character for the first time and just nail it and know it, and that'll be that. The characters in "Ghost Attack" were designed on the fly as I drew the strip. I'm not sure how to put into words what makes a good-looking character, but I know it when I see it!


SPURGEON: You use a few really elegant lettering tricks, for example embedding lettering into the background and making Dr. Galapagos breathe around your letters in his adventure story -- can you talk about your approach to lettering and what you're trying to do in general?

SOTO: Well, I'm kind of self-conscious about my lettering in general, but I think that all cartoonists should letter by hand if they can. My thoughts on lettering and balloon placement are basically that it should aid or improve panel and page flow, and not distract the reader too much. I try to do things like you mention, that use the letterforms and balloons graphically, but only when it serves the storytelling and not just showing off. I think most people won't even notice a lot of the stuff like balloons sitting on top of other balloons, or one balloon having a different tone/shape/etc. than another, if I've done my work right. I need to work on my sound effects.

imageSPURGEON: Can you talk about the fantasy elements in your work, particularly as filtered through the superheroes stuff? Are you drawing on specific influences?

SOTO: It's funny, because I show this stuff to different people and they have different reactions. I showed a few pages of Dr. Galapagos to Brian Chippendale and he said "Cool, so you're just going full on into fantasy, huh?" and showed it to someone else and they thought it was a super-hero comic, and I think of it as an "adventure comic" but I guess everyone's right on some level, because he's fighting TROLLS in the first issue, for chrissakes, and he can do some pretty amazing stuff. I tend to not think of my own stuff as being distinctly categorized in one genre or another, it all just kind of melds together into "other" at some point. That said, I did create the Smog Emperor for a superhero anthology, so I guess that character is tied closest to that genre, but I try to twist and shape things in all my stories so that the influences are less and less obvious. Who knows, though, maybe someone would automatically boil it down to it's component parts like this: "'The Smog Emperor' is so obviously a mixture of The Spectre, Captain Marvel, and Hikaru No Go! Totally derivative, bah humbug." but I like to think it's not so cut-and-dry. There's a lot of myself in there that hopefully obscures the influences a bit.

I'm kind of omnivorous in my reading habits. I read a lot of old stuff, golden and silver age comics, art comics, euro-comics and new super-comics. I'm really attracted to the old pulp adventures, and manga that travels similar areas. There are plenty of influences to be listed, not all maybe directly fantasy or adventure related: Hayao Miyazaki, Takashi Miike, The Hernandez Bros., David Lynch, Chester Brown, Paul Pope, Gary Panter, Dylan Horrocks, Robert Crumb, Floyd Gottfredson, Guy Davis, EC Segar, Aya Takano, Grant Morrison, Mat Brinkman, Harold Gray, Brian Chippendale, Naoki Urasawa, David Mazzuchelli, Mike Mignola, Billy DeBeck, Blutch, Roy Crane, Tim Truman, Lyonel Feininger, Bernie Mierault, Christophe Blain, Jack Kirby, Taiyo Matsumoto, Jim Thompson, Joann Sfar, Junji Ito, Gene Wolfe, Julie Doucet, etc etc. Probably my favorite modern fantasy comic approach is the way the L'Asso dudes do it with stuff like Donjon and their other adventure comics. That seems like the best way to go. It's funny, dramatic, epic, and earthy all at once.

SPURGEON: I like the fact that your stories are so narrative-driven. Do you think that young cartoonists are more worried about a specific effect or meeting certain literary expectations than simply getting right down to telling a story?

SOTO: I think that different cartoonists just have different goals and objectives. I've tried to do stuff that's more, for lack of a better word, experimental, but my comics-creating mind just doesn't work like that. I like lots of less narrative, abstract work, but I have a hard time getting into the creation of it. I'm never really satisfied with my own comics if there's not a good story there, or at least something to string the less obvious stuff on. I tend to thread these types of moments into a more narrative story instead of just focusing on the abstract or stylistic to the exclusion of all else.

For a long time, I struggled with the desire to create, you know, something more literary, "the Great American Graphic Novel", or more of a conceptual thing or whatever, but at some point I realized I was just making myself miserable and on top of that, making shitty, half-hearted comics. Not to say I'm not going to deal with philosophical issues or real life stuff, but I'm not forcing it, I'm having fun making comics and telling stories and building the world of The Secret Voice. That's really important to me right now, so I'm running with it.


SPURGEON: Can you talk about your color choices on the cover?

SOTO: I studied printmaking in college, and ended up focusing on silk-screening. I've done a lot of posters, and the process definitely changed the way I think about and break down colors. I tend to use vibrant colors, and will often use really contrast-y colors to draw people's eyes to an image... Basically, I just played around with a couple different combinations and liked the way the red of Dr. Galapagos' cloak interacted with the blues of the background and the yellows in the logo and his gauntlet. Something that's definitely a result of the printmaking influence is using very few colors to achieve a fairly sophisticated look: it's mainly just one specific red, blue and yellow, but at different intensities, and with black transparency layers overlaid on the colors, which changes them slightly. It's got depth despite itself.

SPURGEON: I know this is horribly broad, but what ambitions do you have for your cartooning, both through The Secret Voice and in projects past that?

SOTO: I just want to keep getting better, and I want to keep evolving, and for right now I'd like to do this Secret Voice thing for a good while. There's something really exciting about the idea of having ten or more issues of this one series out in the world, all my work, one big patchwork quilt of quality comics. After that, I'm not sure. Format-wise, I'd like the opportunity to do an extended work in four colors, but other than that I'm not sure. I don't want to be one of those guys who burn out, stop doing comics, you know? No one can see the future, but I'd just like to be doing comics, even better comics, for a long time to come.