May 19, 2010

The Summer Blog Blast Tour Presents: Tom Siddell

Story 2.0: Interactivity. Breaking down barriers between creator and audience. Whatever you want to call it, we're celebrating it here at FW during this year's Summer Blog Blast Tour.

We started on Monday with the Hazardous Players, and we're continuing today with Tom Siddell, author and illustrator of the webcomic-turned-graphic novel Gunnerkrigg Court: Vol. 1, Orientation, which won a 2009 Cybils Award in the teen graphic novels category. (The equally fabulous Vol. 2: Research is also available now!)

Rather like Gunnerkrigg's protagonist Antimony, Mr. Siddell is rather elusive, but we've coaxed some information out of him and thus elaborated a bit on the man behind the storytelling...and the artist behind the boyish (and ever-so-slightly unnerving) self-portrait.

Also, in tribute to our absolute adoration of Mr. Siddell and his fantastical, funny and mysterious work, we'd like to present a little artwork of our own--more precisely, a.fortis's friend Jay's artwork. Jay created this plushy creature as a sort of three-dimensional Coyote after we lent her a copy of the first volume of GK: Orientation. And Plushy Coyote now sits above a.fortis's desk as an inspirational mascot. (Tanita remains bitterly jealous.) Thank you, Tom Siddell, for inspiring us and for being a part of our Story 2.0 edition of the SBBT, which we present forthwith.

Finding Wonderland: When you first started Gunnerkrigg Court, did you set out to create something that would appeal to younger/teen readers? If you had a particular audience in mind, did that affect how you chose to approach the story or its content? What do you think are the greatest rewards and challenges of writing for a young adult age group?

Tom Siddell: Originally the story was going to be more adult, but I soon realised that it would be unnecessary to make it so. I decided instead to try and write a story that didn't fall back on any particular crutch to hook an audience. Loads of webcomics (or comics in general, I suppose) use sex or violence to draw in the readers but I didn't see how that would add to the story I wanted to write. I'll definitely avoid certain things now that I have a young adult/all ages audience in mind, but I don't want to pull too many punches or treat the audience like babies. Having a broader appeal simply means the comic is accessible to a larger amount of people, and I've heard from people of all ages who have enjoyed it.

FW: You mentioned in an earlier interview that Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is one of your all-time favorite graphic novel series. (We love Miyazaki, too!) What are some recent favorites? What three graphic novels do you think every young adult should read?

TS: Aside from the Nausicaa books themselves, which I think everyone should read, I'd also recommend Hellboy and Bone. I don't read too many physical comics these days, mainly because it's hard to find something I'm interested in. It's a lot easier to read comics on-line, and there is a much wider range of stuff you'd never see in the shops.

FW: Readers of Gunnerkrigg Court can easily find a number of mythological and literary influences in your work--the trickster Reynardine, faerie creatures, etc. Did you have any particular mythology in mind when you created the story? What are some of your favorite stories or characters from myth and legend?

TS: I knew I wanted to include a wide range of mythologies in the story because I didn't want to focus on just one or two legends. I find the idea of all the world's mythologies living in the same realm and interacting with each other a very interesting concept. I don't think I can think of any myths or legends that I didn't find interesting, I like hearing about them all. Those old stories tell us a lot about ourselves as human beings.

FW: That's really true, and I think that's a lot of the reason why such a wide variety of people read your webcomic as well.

In other interviews, you have referred to yourself as an "amateur" graphic novelist. Does this mean you’ve not had any art courses or drawing classes? How do you draw Gunnerkrigg – with traditional pen-and-paper media, or directly on the computer? What programs or media do you use?

TS: No, outside of doing art classes in school (in which I was absolutely the worst, literally) I've not had any drawing or art classes. In fact, I was so bad at it, I went on to do Computer Science at university instead, much to the relief of my parents and everyone else. A lot of the time I wish I'd learned properly, but other times I know I might have ended up hating art if I did it at university (in the same way I hate computers now), and it would have been harder to find a job at the end of it. Some people seem to have a natural aptitude for art, but I certainly don't, and it's been difficult trying to teach myself. I try as best as I can but I still can't get things to look just right, and I have a long way to go towards becoming a decent artist.

As for technical details, I drew the first 17 chapters with ink and paper, but after that I switched to all digital. I just use Photoshop and sometimes Painter.

FW: Well, we really, really like your work, and can't wait to see what your stuff will look like when you're what you consider a "decent artist!"

What does a typical drawing weekend look like for you? What’s the most difficult part of telling Antimony, Kat, and Reynardine's story – the artwork, or the story arc? Unlike many other anime tales, each of the particular threads of the story arc which you begin to explore, you actually come back to – allowing the reader to be confident that all mysteries will eventually be revealed. How do you deal with continuity, with such an extensive story arc and so many episodes? Do you already know the story you will tell? Have you taken writing courses or, like Reynardine, do you simply read a lot?

TS: The weekend is the only time I get to work on my comic, really, so it's devoted entirely to that. I try to start as early as I can on Saturday which is around mid-day after I have done all my usual errands. I try to get a page done by 8:00. Then on Sunday I get up at 6:00 in the morning and work until 7:00 in the evening getting two more pages done. I have to do at least three pages in one weekend or I will start to slip behind. The physical drawing is the hardest part for me, and it is the part that takes the longest, but it is easy to find yourself unable to continue if something hasn't been written properly. I've not taken writing classes (something else I wish I could do), but I do try to make sure I'm not throwing stuff into the story without reason. Readers can rest assured that I'll get around to answering all the questions I've asked in the story at some point, even if I don't get to it right away. It's difficult to edit the story since I have to put it online a page at a time and can't really go back and change stuff, but I do know where the plot is going and try to make sure I'm not writing myself into any corners.

FW: So, by day you’re a video game graphic artist, and by nights – and weekends – a cape-and tights wearing graphic novelist superhero. Were you encouraged in your love of art and imagination as a young adult? What does your family think of your success?

TS: I got in trouble a lot for getting wrapped up in comics when I was younger, and my drawings were so bad it became uncomfortable for anyone to look at them, so I learned to keep all that kind of stuff to myself. I don't currently know anyone in real life who draws, or reads comics, so it is a solitary gig! My family knows I have a comic and that it is available in books somewhere, but they don't read it and since I don't actually make any money off the comic, the "success" is pretty intangible to anyone not already into webcomics. I think this is common for anyone who works on comics, really. I'm no Jason Beeber or Beyonce Stephens, I still got to get a bus to work every day and sit in an office in order to stay alive!

FW: If only those people on the bus knew...

Gunnerkrigg Court itself is such a place of awesome – side-by-side rooms of magic and science; ghosts with robots, weird fairies in the wood and mythical totem gods. However, we see in more ways than one that the world is divided, at the same time that it is diverse. Antimony herself is a bit of an outcast, different from the other students because of her backstory as well as her unique interests and abilities. Is this theme of identity and alienation a theme that you deliberately set out to include, or did it arise organically as your ideas developed? What attracted you to writing a story with such drastic—but intriguing—juxtapositions?

TS: I wanted it to be a sort of lonely comic. At least the setting and backdrop is fairly lonely. Antimony is a girl who doesn't really know her place in life, or even how to get along with people her own age. In fact, she is more used to dealing with the psychopomps or mythical creatures than she is just mingling with her classmates. She learns things as the story rolls on, stuff about her parents or the Court, through the strange situations she gets into and the odd creatures she meets, but her personality really develops when she's just doing normal things other people would take for granted. Kat was definitely her lifeline to being a normal girl. Kat, also, finds in Annie things she wouldn't normally come across if they weren't friends. I wanted to show that kind of relationship, and duality is a theme I've used throughout the comic.

FW: You have such a vibrant community of fans online with the Gunnerkrigg Wiki. What's your favorite (and least favorite) part of being able to interact directly with your readers this way? How has it shaped or changed the storyline, to have others read it and comment back – or has it?

TS: I've learned to keep my mouth shut! People always say that you should never meet your heroes because you will always be disappointed. Well I know what it's like to be the guy people are always disappointed in meeting, so I think it is better if I keep out of things as much as possible. My favourite part is hearing about people from all walks of life who enjoy the comic. I can't think of anything better. My least favourite thing is that it is easy to feel down about the things some people say on the Internet!

My storyline hasn't changed based on reader feedback, however. I knew that would be a risky road to travel, so I only write what I want to write.

FW: Write what you want: that's really the only smart thing to do, and it's really worked out well so far!

Bonus Round

* Do you consider yourself a writer or an illustrator? Neither!
* Do you prefer Ink or Computer? Computer!
* Are you an early bird or a night owl? I go to bed early to get up at 6 every day but I hate mornings!
* Will we ever get the scoop on what’s up with Zimmy? Yes!

FW: THANK YOU so much, Mr. Siddell, for dropping by - we really are honored!

Thank you so much to Tom Siddell for spending time on our questions and making us fangirls extremely happy. You can buy the Gunnerkrigg Court graphic novel in physical hardbound form, or start right here with Chapter 1. BUT, READER BEWARE: Gunnerkrigg Court may be habit forming. Ask your physician if Gunnerkrigg Court is right for you. Gunnerkrigg Court readers are at risk of developing a major update dependence on this webcomic. Read only as directed.

Meanwhile, the Summer Blog Blast Tour continues with:


Colleen said...

Holy Crap! Nausicca is a comic??!! I had no idea! My son ADORES that movie. He will completely freak out over a comic. You have no idea. This is totally birthday shopping right here.

Who knew the SBBT could be so helpful? ha!

As for Gunnerkrigg Court and Mr. Siddell - well, now I love the series even more so thank you very much!

Anonymous said...

Really interesting stuff here. I'm glad all that getting in trouble for being too wrapped up in comics as a kid didn't dissuade Tom Siddell from writing and drawing them!

Anonymous said...

"Well I know what it's like to be the guy people are always disappointed in meeting, so I think it is better if I keep out of things as much as possible."

But this interview was fun!

Jenn Hubbard
(posting as Anon due to OpenID error)

tanita✿davis said...

I think Mr. Siddell would be surprised at how many people would be happy to meet him - and maybe get a signed book!

Jackie said...

I can't even tell you how much I'm in love with Gunnerkrigg. It's in solid booktalk rotation, and Kyle (!!!) has even fallen in love with it. We were reading the first book together at night, but then neither of us could wait for the other and we ended up finishing separately.

Love it.

Thanks for the interview!

tanita✿davis said...

Jac - I KNOW! The minute D. was snagged, I did a little happy dance. And now he's cranky because there's not another book yet.

Mr. Siddell is modest and thinks he's not yet very successful, but we know better!