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Baker's Dozen
Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

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BAKER'S DOZEN for 09/01/2004
Revealed at Last -- The Secret and Terribly Interesting History of Tabloia!
Chris Wisnia on Tabloia, Ojo and more

As I was wandering the overstuffed aisles of this year's Comic Con International--San Diego [gee, that's so much easier to type, or say, that the much simpler "San Diego con", isn't it?], occasionally some particular project or art sample or person would jump out at me and simply demand my attention. Case in point: Chris Wisnia's Tabloia, a crafty humor anthology whose first issue bears a rather sarcastic "parental warning" and personal guarantee which promises readers that Tabloia #1 contains mutilated and dismembered corpses, a handful of cuss words and various instances of sexism, graphic discussion of piercing a variety of body parts, modern slang and a feminist critique of society's Beautifying Operations. All of which it does, indeed, contain and juggle very, very well, among other topics.

But, really, Chris had me with the cover of that first issue. Probably had something to do with the urge to know not only how that arm got detached from its point of origin, but also how it ended up on that road.

And starting today when it hits the shelves of comic shops worldwide, it's a pretty fair bet he's gonna snag a whole lot more people with Tabloia #2.

Tabloia 573

Bill Baker: For those who haven't encountered it before, how would you describe Tabloia?

Chris Wisnia: It's a pseudo-anthology of pseudo-tabloid stories.

The feature story, "The Lump," is a mad scientist story about a corpse found on the freeway that's been run over by half a dozen cars. As homicide investigates the case, they find one too many severed limbs at the scene. Then the coroner realizes the head attached to the body was sewn on. And it just goes from there.

The back-up stories are "Dick Hammer: Conservative Republican Private Investigator," "Dr. DeBunko, Debunker of the Supernatural," and "Doris Danger Seeks...Where Giant Monsters Creep and Stomp!" the latter drawn in a Kirbyesque style and inked by Dick Ayers.

And then I've got a couple other minor text features, like "Fun Sanitation Tips from the Sultan of Sanitation, Dr. 'Cleanie' Santini" and and "Surprising Sex Science Facts from Professor Pardi."

The Lump

BB: So where'd this weird and wonderful stew come from, anyway, and what was the development process like? I get the impression from a couple of comments that this might have been in comic book development hell, so to speak, for awhile.

CW: I wrote "The Lump" over six years ago and shopped it around to editors for years. I decided to start drawing it, because I have a degree in art from U.C. Davis, and because no one would read it. I figured maybe it would help if they could look at it instead. One editor suggested, rather than a three-issue 75 page project, I try doing four-page stories, as exercises, to practice story-telling. And I had a few characters in the back of my head that I felt would work well in this format, so the back-up stories began that way.

As for self-publishing, a lot of editors and artists kept saying that the best way to get a job in comics is to get published first. Which is meaningless and utterly unhelpful on the one hand, but makes sense if you can afford to self-publish your own comic, because then you have a finished product.

I realized by then that all my stories were headed in a particular direction. I knew the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. Working for larger companies wouldn't necessarily allow me the freedoms to do what I enjoyed most. So as long as I can afford to pay for printing and advertising, I can self-publish it and do it any way I want.

Which may not last much longer, incidentally. My savings is long depleted, and the credit cards are getting way up there, and only two issues are released of Tabloia's initial six issue run. Also, it takes as much time to take care of the business as to get the books written and drawn, even with the help of my business manager Wayne Jones. But on the other hand, now I'm a professional with a body of work that I can be proud of. I can truly say, "I put everything I have and am in this book, and it speaks for all my values and everything that is important to me, and entertaining for me." So I can be proud of that.

Doris Danger

BB: I liked the concept of an implied long publishing history for the mag before your first issue; why go in that direction, and with the whole "retro" feel to the series? Does this allow you to make some comments or go into certain social or political areas that you might not otherwise feel free to explore? Or did you do it just 'cause it sounded fun?

CW: No, it was all a very conscious decision. When I started conceptualizing all my stories as a "book," I knew I needed an umbrella term to sum up everything inside. I realized all the stories could take place in a fictional "Crude Bay, Southern California," and I felt Tabloia would give a larger theme and context to all the stories, and encompase any story I can presently imagine wanting to tell. "Tabloia" sounds like "Tabloid", as in the kinds of shocking and weird stories you read in line at the supermarket, but I wanted it to sound kind of creepy as well, like "Paranoia" or "Fangoria".

The idea to imply a long history probably stemmed from the issue numbering. Tabloia's first issue is # 572. This was partly a rebellious joke, since comic books are notorious for having strongest sales on their first issues. Price guides prove that value decreases as numbers increase, unless you have a first appearance of a new character, or guest appearance, or anniversary issue, or something. But in the old days, readers believed a book's higher issue numbers proved the book's quality could withstand the test of time. Many people wouldn't buy a book unless it ran at least ten, or twenty, or one hundred issues. If a book got cancelled, a new series would actually start with the number following the failing book's last issue, as an attempt to try to bolster its prestige. So "number 572" is historically referencing "classic" styles of comic-telling.

Tabloia 572

Now combine this with the "classic Stan Lee" way of praising your own work gratuitously, refering to classic stories and characters and events you've created in your new stories as if they're the greatest things ever written, and having heated discussions in letters pages by fans who agree with how great these stories are and were. That's a stylistic decision to do those things. And I think it's fun! It adds a richness to the world of the stories, and further (falsely?) bolsters their greatness. I think George Bush must have read Marvel comics and learned from Stan Lee, because he tells America what to think. He tells America what a good job he's doing. We're safer than ever from evil terrorists now that he's taken us to war. He's created this metaphorical world we live in, waging cosmic battles between good and evil. And a lot of people believe what they're told.

Bush's politics and comics are mediums without a beginning or ending, like soap operas or professional wrestling, or the X-Files. You see, read, or hear it for the first time, and a lot of characters are doing a lot of things, but you can make sense of it all pretty quickly, get a general idea of who's supposed to be good and who's bad, and who's doing what. The story may begin by getting out of a cliff-hanger, and end by getting into a new one, but it's a safe bet that good will triumph over evil, and the good characters will get out of their tough spot and wind up in a different tough spot or new potential dangers, and that will make everyone want to tune in next time. And when you tune in next time, it will be all the same characters, so familiarity will build a bond with you and the medium in question.

Dick Hammer

So as I examined this formula, I realized, half the time the cliff-hanger is considerably more exciting than getting out of it. And we all know the characters will get out of it anyways, so it doesn't really matter if we see it happen or not. What's important, is the enjoyment of the ride along the way. And that's a very freeing thought. Because as a writer, it means I can play with cliff-hangers, pasts, histories, and all that. I can throw out a phrase like, "This [homicide] case is more gory than the Rock-Paper-Scissors Bludgeonings," and it doesn't really matter that no one's ever heard of it until then. It just suggests that things have happened, and that will hopefully add to the fun, and the richness of the world of Tabloia. And when and if I feel like it, I can always go back and "republish at the demand of all you readers out there" that ground-breaking case. I've got a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of characters to tell them through, so I can slip hints of anything on the way. Then when they come out, I can fool you into thinking, "Ah ha...He planned this all along."

As far as the "retro" feel, I just enjoy different eras. I think it's important to look at the past, and reference it. Give credit where credit is due, to those who paved the way. I can't get enough film noir and 1930s-40s horror, so the imagery of rich blacks and moody shadows and simple sets come straight out of that. I like people driving in old cars, and using old telephones, or old computers for that matter. It all contributes to the atmosphere of the story. It would be a very different story without it. On the other hand, I think the stories have a very post-modern feel to them as well. If nothing else, with the attitudes and reflections of the characters.

BB: So how's a typical issue put together? Do you write it all out in detail and then start drawing, or is your creative process a little more organic than that? Oh, and what kind of research do you end up doing on a project like this, and where do you find your materials?

CW: As a writer I'm not too organic, except for minor dialogue changes here and there as I go. And for some reason, with writing and drawing, I always try to start at the beginning and work straight through, rather than doing all my favorites or least favorites first. I absolutely, exclusively write everything out before anything else. For me, the stories drive my work, and the art is just a means to tell each particular story its best.

However, with the Doris Danger stories, I tried to keep them "authentic" in every way, including how I chose to write them. I employed the Mighty Marvel Manner of comic-producing, which I've heard Stan Lee say he created. I plotted these stories first, then pencilled, and didn't script dialogue until after the art was complete. Then it's a matter of jamming all that text into corners and on top of my artwork wherever it fits, before sending them to Dick to ink. This process is very uncomfortable for me, but many comics creators work this way. Sam Kieth only sent me plots to draw from for his Ojo book, and that was sometimes difficult for me, because I didn't know what characters were saying, so I often didn't know what kinds of expressions to give them.

Different stories require different kinds of research. Most of my research is through books and film. The initial idea for the Lump came from TV news covering the hand transplant around eight years ago, as well as a terrible car accident I witnessed, which was reported in the newspapers. I also read a biography of Ed Gein, who was later fictionalized as Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. I also interviewed police Sargeant David Stevenson, medical doctor Brooks Martin, and lawyer Spencer Benai. Fictional works played a part as well, such as the film Angel Heart and more generally, film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, and crime fiction of the 1920s-1950s. Also William S. Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night, the X-Files, and Quentin Tarantino.

For Dick Hammer, I read a lot of pulp fiction detective novels, especially Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane. For Dr. DeBunko, I continue to read as much skeptic literature as I can get my hands on. With Doris Danger, I went through all my Kirby monster stories, and studied and studied the art in attempts to approximate that great, uncopiable Kirby style.

Doris Danger

BB: I was curious if, when you're building a story that will be finished by someone else, as in the case of Dick Ayers with the first issue, if it affects your choices or approach to telling the story, visually or narratively?

CW: It was basically the same, except I finished my pencils very completely and specifically, so that he had no doubts what I'm going for. I even told him, "I'm picturing those nice fat brush lines you used in the late fifties," and I pencilled my lines real thick. But the stories were "complete" before I sent them to him, visually and narratively. When I'm inking my own pages, on the other hand, I tend to keep areas a little more vague. For example, I might pencil a thin line, knowing I'm doing to make it thick when I ink. Also, I don't necessarily establish where the blacks will go, and I blacken on the way, sometimes whole areas and backgrounds. I see how heavy the black is in this area, or if I add some here, and if need be, I work whites back over the blacks until there's a good balance.

BB: So how did you get Dick and all the pin-up artists involved? Also, how'd you decide who to ask to help out with the different issues, and how difficult has it been to find folks willing to do it?

Dr. Debunko

CW: I spent a number of years showing my work to editors and comics companies. I felt like a lot of them are at conventions as a courtesy, but not particularly to find the next potential "hot, budding artist". Hot, budding artists still need training and experience, because they may not to be able to work on a deadline, or to consistently put out quality work. So they're a risk. I don't blame editors, because they have their own full-time editorial work to do, and access to plenty of talented, tried-and-true professionals who need work, plenty of whom they've worked with before, and whose work they know. So when I realized this, I decided to get to know artists instead of editors. I tended to get better feedback, more understanding and insight, since these people have been through it, and they actually create art, instead of only critiqueing it.

As I got to know more artists, seeing them at conventions, I realized it might be a nice marketing gimmick if I could convince any of them to do pin-ups for my book.

So all the artists I've approached are artists I admire very much. And the comics medium is great, because "celebrities" in comics can still go to the supermarket or whatever and not worry about getting mobbed. They can still have a normal life, but they have fans too, so they can go to conventions, and their fans can tell them how much they love their work. As a result, almost all of the comics professionals I've met are really down to earth, "normal" people. They're all very approachable, and friendly, and happy to be making a living in a profession they love.

Dick was one of the first artists I approached, and he said he would be happy to do a pin-up. I hadn't thought to do monster stories yet. But as I mentally compiled a "dream list" of pin-up artists, I realized, the legendary Dick Ayers just gave me his contact information, and some of my favorite comics of all time are the Kirby Monster stories that Dick inked in the late '50s. So I wrote him and asked if he would consider inking retro-monster stories, and he agreed. And when we finished the first story, he said he enjoyed inking my pencils, and would be happy to do as many more as I can get out. And he's been helping me ever since.

I began showing the monster stories to all my favorite artists, and now all of a sudden, I have a name attached to my product. No one knows who I am, but it's amazing how many artists enjoy the old monster stories, and when they see Dick Ayers' name signed to the pages, they've been considerably more interested in contributing a pin-up of their own. Also, I think a theme like "giant monster of your choice in a setting of your choice" is open-ended enough that artists can have a lot of fun with it, and really do whatever they want.

I've approached anyone I can find whose work I admire and inspires me. I've hunted them down at conventions, at websites, by mail or email; however I can get to them. I'd say about half of everyone I've approached has agreed so far. So far I've gotten pin-ups from Mike Allred, Thomas Yeates, Gene Colan, Sam Kieth, Irwin Hasen, Bill Sienkiewicz, Gilbert Hernandez, Mario Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Tony Millionaire, Ryan Sook, John Severin, Steve Rude, Ramona Fradon, J.H. Williams III, Russ Heath, and Dick Ayers. There are still a ton of artists I'd love to get involved, whom I'm working on all the time. On the other hand, I can't believe how fortunate I am to have convinced so many of my favorites to contribute their great work.

Dr. Debunko

BB: Well, what's coming up in the near and far terms regarding Tabloia? Is this a book you'd like to do for a while and then move on, or could you easily see yourself celebrating 25 years of publishing the title?

CW: "The Lump" will run six issues, and I'll continue the same back-up stories for that run. I'm committing to that much. Right now, money is dwindling quickly, and I don't honestly know if I'll be able to put out more than six issues. I would like to keep the title going, but we'll have to see. Because it's so open-ended, I have in mind full-length stories of Dick Hammer and Dr. DeBunko. I've got other stories in mind to slip in here and there, with old and new characters. I may play with the format a little, and have one full story per book rather than four. Or I could release a "Leaping from the pages of Tabloia! Dick Hammer in his own book!" I've got a lot of possibilites. It's just a matter of seeing what speaks to readers and what doesn't. I look at this first six issue run as a testing ground.

BB: As you mentioned earlier, Tabloia isn't all that you've got going on these days? So what, exactly, is this little side project with Sam Keith called Ojo about, and how'd you get involved with it?

CW: Ojo is a five-issue story for Oni Press, by Sam Kieth, with Alex Pardee and I. Alex was helping Sam with the art, but got locked into other commitments halfway through the second issue, so Sam asked me to help him get the project finished. Sam does about a third of the artwork for each book, and I do a third for issue #2, and two thirds for #3,4 and 5.

It's about a little girl named Annie whose mother has died, and whose sister is torturously mean to her. She finds a baby creature and tries to raise it. All the while its mother, a giant monster, is trying to get her baby back.

Doris Danger

BB: Did you hesistate before accepting the offer for the series, or perhaps have some worries or reservations, or was it a clear call and a no-brainer?

CW: Sam has unquestionably been the most instrumental artist I've met in helping me get my start in comics. His style in art and the stories he chooses to tell are very different from my own, and I wouldn't say he's been a strong artistic influence, but he's gone out of his way to help me try and succeed at what I'm doing, and for that I'm grateful. For a year or so he'd been saying he wanted to work with me, when he found a project that would compliment my style. I was honored and flattered that he wanted me to help him. It turns out he needed art turned out in a pinch, and it was nice to be able to give something back to him.

It's definitely different working on something I didn't write. When I finished the pages, I was anxious to jump back into my own stories.

The only reservation I had with Ojo was knowing I would be a third artist in a five-issue run. As a reader, it's hard to stay focused in a story when the style of art keeps changing, unless it has some reason to change, or contributes to the story somehow. My number one objective with this project was to try and keep it consistent with what Sam and Alex began. Oni said that it looks good. When the first issue came out, reviews were positive. I just hope the good reviews continue as a third artist (me) gets involved.

Actually, Sam has said he's very pleased, and that when things settle down, he'd like to work with me again, but on something I can draw in my own style.

Dr. Debunko

BB: So how did you and Sam work on the book? And do you have any input, script or plot-point-wise, or are you concentrating solely on your assigned art chores?

CW: Sam plotted the stories, and drew about a third of the pages. I won't know what anyone is saying until I see the pages in print.

At first he sent me small layouts of some of the pages to do on my own, but they were so detailed and took him so much time, he finally quit and told me to go off his descriptions. So he sent me plots, and I did what I was told. "Panel one: draw her doing this. She's by the pool. Panel two. Draw him standing there. He looks sad." I tried to make things look "Sam-like". Kind of rubber-bandy slouched anatomy. Cute, sweet faces. A few simplistic, cartoony images followed up by a slamming realism. Thin long fingers with big round fingertips. He said he will go into my pages and add textures and alter things here and there, and I'm fine with that, if it makes the story a more cohesive whole. I assume he will add his usual speckles and "chicken-scratch"-looking hatch-marks.

BB: What's the biggest surprise or revelation you've had as a result of working with Sam?

CW: I gained a whole respect for his art. When you study something so closely and try to emulate it, you really begin to appreciate what they're about. It humbled me. He would just draw a gesture, and I'd realize, I can't capture that emotion. Or he'd add a detail, and if I tried to use the same detail, it would look sloppy or clumsy or illegible. Comics are full of visual symbols, and the trick is to make them clear and simple enough that readers understand what your pictures are attempting to show. So my biggest revelation was that I better work harder at this medium.

The Lump

BB: What do you get from doing work like Ojo, as compared to Tabloia? Does each outlet feed a different expressive need, or do they both fulfill the same urge?

CW: I did Ojo for my resume, for a learning experience, for a paycheck, and for exposure. Yes, I am a greedy capitalist. My hope is that if people enjoy it they might give me a chance and flip through an issue of Tabloia. But most of all, I wanted to help my friend Sam, who has helped me and who needed my help.

I do Tabloia because they are stories I need to tell.

BB: What would you like your readers to get from your work?

CW: I hope they would have fun reading my stories. I write about things I enjoy, and I'm hoping there are a few people out there who enjoy the same things. I hope they might see things differently, or think about things with new perspectives, or be provoked to read other stories and books I've read that have stimulated me.

BB: Anything else you'd like to add?

CW: Tabloia # 572 (First Issue) -- order number: MAY042886 -- featuring pin-ups by Mike Allred, Thomas Yeates, and Gene Colan, and Tabloia # 573 (Second Issue) -- order number: JUL043109 -- with pin-ups by Sam Kieth, Irwin Hasen, and Bill Sienkiewicz, are still available through Diamond. Tabloia # 574 featuring Los Bros Hernandez pin-ups, will be in October's Previews, and will hit stores in December. All the books are listed under "Salt Peter Press."

Ojo #1 shipped in August from Oni Press, and will be released monthly through December.


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