Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 01/21/2004
He's a Rebel
Thom Zahler on creating Raider and life as a cartoonist
If you've attended any number of conventions in the past few years, whether it was the "big one" out in San Diego or one of the smaller Midwestern regional shows, it's quite likely that you've seen or even met Thom Zahler. He's the easy-going, smiling artist who's typically sitting behind his easel and creating an amazing caricature of some lucky fan for a mere pittance while entertaining a small crowd with his remarks and witticisms.
Yeah, he's that kind of guy. Funny, talkative and thoughtfully friendly, ready to employ his considerable cartooning and storytelling talents to entertain people at the drop of a hat.
But there's a darker side to this seemingly-normal fellow, one he's tried to exorcise since his teens. It's a secret that he's held close to his heart, one which has haunted him despite his best efforts to get it out of his system. Well, last year he finally decided to just give in to those dark urges and indulge them fully. Even more importantly, he also decided to share the results of that indulgence with the world in a very fine graphic novel, called Raider: Out of the Shadows.
Now we can all share in the secret life he's so successfully hidden from the world for so long. But remember, you enter the world of Thom Zahler at considerable risk ... of pure enjoyment.
Bill Baker: So who is the titular character of the book, who are some of the important people in his life, and what kind of world do they live in?
Thom Zahler: Raider is the main character and he's ... well, who he is is the main thrust of the book. Maybe I should just talk (or type) around that.
The story is set present day. Shortly after World War II, the newly-formed United Nations finds out about this international conspiracy trying to take over the world. They form a group called the Benefactor Agency to take down what they call Dominator. (They call it that. A secret cabal doesn't necessarily have to have a locked-down name, logo and letterhead.)
Flash forward fifty years and these two organizations have been fighting this secret war seem to be pretty even. We meet Jesse Colt, a new dad and a field operative for Benefactor who's got to go on one more mission before he can be promoted to the office job he's coveting. Things, predictably, go wrong but in the process he meets Raider.
All Jesse really knows about Raider is that he's a younger guy, a great fighter, knows an awful lot about the bad guys but seems to be on the side of the good guys ... and that he's saved Jesse's life, which goes a long way in his book.
Other characters include Jesse's semi-retired fellow spy wife, Kati and their newborn daughter, Juliet, who doesn't really have a speaking part, but is still pretty important.
We also meet "Benefactor," the mysterious director of the Agency, who goes around wearing this cool holographic mask (explaining why the mask is expressive). We don't know a lot about him, either. I kind of treat him like Clayton Moore in The Lone Ranger. He's either in mask or you don't see his face, period.
The other major character is Dr. Matthias Doctor, who's the second-in-command of the Benefactor Agency. He doesn't wear a mask. There's a whole reason why the leader is kept in secret and the deputy director is public, but one of the things I try not to do is bore people with long passages of expository dialogue. "Well, Matt, as you know, your position is a seven-year rotating appointment, chosen by the UN Security Council..."
The book takes place in New York, Western Pennsylvania and a good chunk of it takes place in my hometown Cleveland. Why Cleveland? I needed to set it outside of NYC, just to give it a more expansive feel. You can't really have a global conspiracy that only operates in the Big Apple. But I needed somewhere close by for a bunch of reasons. Plus, it was really easy to reference.
BB: You mention in the book's intro that this idea has been around for a long time. How long, exactly, and what kind of changes has it gone through -- and why -- between that original conception to its present form?
TZ: I created Raider when I was 12 or so. The story of this secretive loner working with Benefactor to stop Dominator is relatively the same. But storytelling and specifics have changed greatly.
Rai was originally 16, and now he's mid-twenties. He had telekinesis and telepathy, as well as a Spidey Sense of sorts. At the time I really only knew about DC and Marvel and their main universes, so I kept writing stories where he interacted with existing characters. I made him a mutant and had him hang with the X-Men. I had him involved with the Shadow War of the Hawkman. His power levels went up and down, heck, at one point I cut off his arms and legs so I could replace them with bionics.
He was one of the two main characters I created at that age and as such I threw everything I had on them. Eventually I decided to pare down the concept and just do a action-adventure-spy story.
The other big change is when the book occurs in the arc. I'm a big fan of en medias rex storytelling. Have stuff happen right away and then reveal the past as you need. So when it started out Rai was working for Benefactor and the narrative just choked on its own backstory.
At the time I was imagining it as a monthly series, and Frank Miller's [Batman:] Year One had just come out. So I started thinking, "Eventually, I do this mini-series-within-a-series (or, one might say, a multi-part story) of Raider Year One." Then, I realized I was having so much fun and that the Year One stuff was so interesting to start there.
"Year One" is a misnomer, by the by. It's more "Year Minus One." The point the series begins is actually a year before when I planned to start it. But it's still not told linearly. There's still fifty years of backstory and Raider's mysterious past that have to be filled in.
BB: Why self-publish the book? Why not take Raider and his friends and foes to an established universe and let them interact with another company's characters, as you had originally planned?
TZ: That's two big questions. Let me break them up.
The decision to self-publish was a combination of economics, reality, and arrogance.
I've written stuff before, but didn't have enough work to seriously get work at a major company. The chances of getting a series greenlit anywhere, even with my winning smile and enthusiasm, was pretty low. Plus, with no track record, I wouldn't have any credit to do something daring. In the pre-Death of Superman days, I had the idea of killing Raider off and doing a years with of stories without him. I figured that'd be a hard sell for a first time writer. (That may or may not be part of the current storyline, by the way.)
So I didn't think anyone else would really publish it, and I wanted to do it my way, including marketing.
Let me pause for a minute. I think comics are a great medium with a bright future. But I also think that a lot of times they're marketed badly. I do the Slider comic strip for the Cleveland Indians, and that's seen by 40,000+ people (depending on attendance). But if you sold it at a comic shop it'd die. No blame there, just the wrong venue.
So I'm doing this non-super-hero political/spy/action story, and know that this is a square peg that a comic company would most likely force into a round hole. I felt that, especially with my advertising and marketing background, I could make this thing work when other people couldn't.
That's why I did it as a trade paperback, straight up. It'd let me sell it in bookstores and not make it part of the disposable monthly format that comics are, where I'd only have one month to make my sales. It also speaks to the readers' fears a little more. So many new series fail ... it's like getting attached to a genre show on Fox. Sure, John Doe seemed cool, but you knew Fox would just wind up canceling it. By doing it as a trade I could say "Here's a complete story. It's a all done. You don't have to worry about trying to find issue two or that I'll run out of money with issue four." There's a part two, of course, but the book is continuing, not continued.
I could also schedule book signings, do all the promotion I wanted at conventions, stuff like that. I wouldn't get lost with the rest of another companies' books.
Being able to make those kind of decisions the way I thought they should be made was the main reason I self published. I may screw this up, but it'll be me and not some executive doing it.
As far as existing universes, I could conceivably have shoehorned it into someone else's sandbox. But keeping it my sandbox lets me do a lot of things. The American President is a major player in my book, and I don't have to have to deal with the fact that in a shared universe, Lex Luthor is president. Plus, most shared universes are superhero-based, and I wanted a more "realistic" universe.
It just gives me the freedom to do whatever I need to tell the story without stepping on other people's toes.
BB: Well, having chosen to forego publishing this and future tales of Raider as individual comics, and choosing instead to go straight to trade paperback is a major step. What particular factors lead to that decision, and what were some of the pros and cons that you had to consider inherent to this approach to self-publishing?
TZ: The ability to sell in bookstores as a book, and not as a magazine was the big one. I knew comic shops might not be the best venue to sell a spy book, and I certainly don't think it should be the only one. So being a trade lets me go everywhere.
Plus, most comics fans I know say "Hey, I'll just wait for the trade." Well hah! I made the trade, now you have to buy it.
I think, too, that for a small publisher, it solves a lot of problems. I think it's easier sell at cons. I really think people go to shows looking for a new story to read, and the graphic novel format is so much more conducive to the one-time sale. No trying to find issue six, no big cliffhanger to wait months for a resolution. Here's a complete story ... I've done my part.
There were two big cons to doing it, one financial and one creative.
Financially, you need more seed money to start with a 150-page book than a 24-page comic. So it's a lot more of a financial investment.
Creatively, though, was probably the hardest. Working on that long a story, and one that introduces a whole world, I felt I couldn't show it to anyone until it was done. The book took eight months to produce, and that's a long time to work without getting any sort of reaction from anyone. It was like screaming into a vacuum for almost a year.
It was such a joy when the book came out and I could finally talk about the darn thing with people. I could ask, "Hey, did you like what happened on page eight?" and get a response.
It did lead to a big fear, though. I was worried there was some huge plot hole that someone would point out after reading it and say, "Hey, if he'd have just shot the guy on page seven, the rest of the story wouldn't be needed."
I did show the finished piece to a trusted friend, and had him review the story and double check spelling and grammar. I built in time for that review and was able to make a couple changes before it went to press.
BB: How do you create the books? Do you work up a script or tight plot line before you start drawing, or do you sit down with just a general idea of what you're going to do and start drawing?
TZ: I work out the high points of the plot. One of the advantages of being a comic book reader for the last thirty years is that I think in 24-page chunks. So I've got a pretty good feel for what takes up 150 pages. I've got the plot at that point, but not the dialogue.
I then work out the pages as chunks as I go. If I have a scene in Benefactor headquarters I'll block out the four pages of that scene and draw those. Then I'll block out the next scene and those pages and draw that.
I do work from start to finish, though. No real hopping around. I think it makes the story easier to tell for me.
Dialogue is always last, because it's so much easier to run themes, recurring jokes and the like when you're doing it all at once.
I guess I know where the story starts and stops and all the major places along the way. How I get from point A to B, though, that's a gametime decision.
BB: What plans do you have for Rai and company in the near and far terms, and when might we see the next book being released?
TZ: Book Two, A Cold Day in Heaven, should be out for the 2004 San Diego Comic Con, barring anything wonky. I'd like to do a new one every year and debut it at San Diego ... er, Comic-Con International. I still can't get used to calling it that.
The second book is a lot more fun for me because now the universe is established. So I can include a "For Those Who Came in Late" (to borrow a line from Lee Falk) section and then just jump right in.
The second book features a Dominator plot involving diseases and genetic engineering that Raider and friends get involved in. I'm going to reveal a lot more about Raider's past in the next one, and really throw a wrench into his life.
BB: Is this a project that could easily occupy you for the rest of your life -- can you say Cerebus? I knew you could! -- or are there only a certain number of stories featuring Rai that you've got to tell?
TZ: I met John Ostrander at a con when I was in high school. We were talking about his run on Firestorm, and he had just shaken things up again. He said, "I figure, when I start to get bored, the reader got bored three issues back and I need to move stuff around."
That's kind of how I'm approaching Raider, albeit backwards. I have, for lack of a better term, all the Sweeps Weeks moments planned out. But that doesn't mean that the status quo has to be boring. You just have to know when to change things.
For example, Babylon 5. The show starts out as an Earth space station and then halfway through the show everything changes. Doesn't mean the space station stories were boring just that it was time to change things around.
I'm planning for about fifteen Raider graphic novels. That could change, up or down, but that's about how long I think the story will take. Maybe I'll find the way things are set up in Book Four is pretty ripe with ideas and do three more books with that set-up, maybe I'll do only one.
But, the story does have a beginning, middle, and end. And a reunion book or two, God willing.
And the Etch-a-Sketch does get shaken regularly. I was telling someone in Texas about the book, and he said, "I think you'll run out of ideas after a couple years." I tried to convince him that that wouldn't happen. "The book it starts out as," I told him, "is not the book that ends."
BB: What else do you have going on that you can talk about now, and how does that fit in with your work on Raider? Is it something that just feeds your creative process, or is it a necessary distraction that supports your work on Raider?
TZ: I do a lot of web sites, graphic design, logo design and caricature work. If you've seen that Prilosec commercial with the wacky couple going around in the purple winneabgo, the artwork on the side of the bus is mine.
I'm lettering Crimson Dynamo for Marvel, Deadbeats and Elvira for Claypool and Ex Parte for Lone Star.
To me, doing design or caricature is working different muscles than cartooning. I work pretty long days, and I think the only reason I can is that I can rotate between all these spinning plates.
Plus, and this is going to sound odd coming from a guy who's doing 150-page graphic novels, but I get bored with any one thing for too long. I like being an artistic dilettante.
Moreover, I think it makes everything stronger. My cartooning stuff is very design influenced, my graphic design has a comic book energy, and drawing caricatures certainly helps drawing faces. I think everything I do contributes to the next project. At least I hope it does.
BB: Well, what do you get from doing Raider that you don't get from the other work, personally and/or professionally? How about from creating art and comics, generally?
TZ: I love being a storyteller. I don't have to divide writing or art when working on Raider, it's all about the finished product. And nothing else I do gives me the thrill I do spinning a story.
I find myself pushing myself as a writer and artist when I work on Raider. The writer-me wrote a scene "Rai runs down a crowded New York street" and then the artist-me had to draw it. But the crowd scene made the story better, so I did it.
Raider is, hands-down, the hardest thing I do on any given day. It's my baby, so I'm always pushing to make it better. And trying to write such a rich palette of characters is always difficult. You have to make everyone sound different, act different, and true to themselves.
In fact, a lot of my friends tease me about my "dark side" ... or rather lack thereof. I keep trying to convince them I have one. It's probably pretty buried, but it's there. There are times in Raider where someone has to do something really evil. I've really got to dig deep to find it, but it's satisfying when you step back from a page and say, "Wow, that was cold."
So the challenge of comics in general is probably the biggest unique charge I get out of Raider over everything else. But whenever I do any comics work, I get this charge in the middle of it, like I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing.
BB: What do you hope readers get from your work, generally, and from Raider, specifically?
TZ: I hope they have fun reading Raider. I'm not saying there aren't larger themes of self-reliance and friendship and all that which I hope they find in the story, but really I just want people to enjoy it. I think a story like this should be able to stand solely on it's own entertainment value, everything else should just be gravy.
It's the same with all my work. I just want people to enjoy it, to like it.
Now, you kind of pitched into my wheelhouse here, though. I hope people take something from my career as much as my art. I make no bones about it, I have a great job. I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing, and there's a thrill that goes with that like no other.
But when I was growing up, tons of people, including my art teacher, told me that there was no real future in comics. I think my Mom was worried that I'd be living in a refrigerator box. Having said that, she and my Dad were very supportive. But still, a lot of people urged me to play it safe and aim for something lower.
I didn't listen to them and I'm glad. So, if people look at me and say, "Hey, there's a guy who worked really, really hard and got exactly where he wanted to be ... I can do that!" I'll be very happy. I do a lot of career days and always tell kids it's better to know you failed rather than not know if you could have succeeded. It's not easy, but few things worthwhile are.
BB: Any last thoughts?
TZ: Obviously, I want to remind people that Raider: From the Shadows is available from several fine retailers, including Khepri.com, Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com, as well as several local comics shops and my own website, www.raidercomic.com, which has a downloadable preview of Book One and sells a bunch of merchandise including some way-cool Raider t-shirts.
And, if you're looking for my cartooning or my wacky convention adventures, check out my site at www.thomz.com.
My graphic design stuff is up at www.tzasonline.com.
I'm probably going to do MegaCon this year, as well as San Diego, Chicago and (as always) Mid-Ohio-Con. Probably a few others, too. Come up and see me if you're there.
And, if you're a northeast Ohioan, I'll probably be teaching a class on cartooning at the Mentor Barnes and Noble or somewhere else sometime soon, and I'll be a guest on the Fox 8 Morning Show again this Friday, January 23rd.
That's me, Thom Zahler, less a man than a self-promotional hurricane. Hope to see y'all soon.
For more information on Claypool's Deadbeats and Elvira, or their other good comics and collections, go to www.claypoolcomics.com. For more information on the Crimson Dynamo series published by Marvel, or to let them know how disappointed you are that they've canceled this title, check out www.marvel.com.
OK. Now you've got all the info and links you need to check out Thom Zahler's Raider and his other artistic efforts. What are you waiting for? Go, people, go!
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