Ben Towle is an incredibly talented comic artist and writer as well as a freelance illustrator. Some of Ben’s work includes Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, Midnight Sun, and his ongoing web comic Oyster War.
I first found out about Ben after Oyster War was recommended to me. Being a fiend for indie titles and web comics I immediately was captivated by Ben’s work. After catching up on Oyster War I sent Ben an email to set up an interview. Ben’s an extremely busy guy so I was honored that he took some time out of his day to answer a few questions.
In the interview below I was able to ask him about who inspired him to develop his unique style as well as as his advice for aspiring comic creators. I hope you enjoy it
How did you first get into the comic and graphic novel industry?
Well, I’m not sure I’m fully “into” the industry at this point. I’m doing a mix of original work, freelance work, teaching, and a few other odds and ends work-wise. But, as far as my first published work goes, that’d be Farewell, Georgia that SLG put out in 2003. It’s a book of four Georgia folk tales done as comics. I’d submitted the first two stories to SLG and gotten an email back saying basically, “we don’t want to publish this, but keep sending us stuff”—which is exactly what I did. Eventually, after I sent in basically the complete book mocked up with a color cover, they decided they wanted to do it. A few years later they published my next book as well: Midnight Sun.
Your work has a unique look in both style and tone, what comic artists have inspired you as an illustrator?
Well, I have a few different styles that I use depending on what the story calls for. The big inspirations for my current project, Oyster War (which you can see at http://www.oysterwar.com), are Thimble Theater/Popeye cartoonist E.C. Segar and the French cartoonist Christophe Blain.
With a lot of my previous work, though, I’ve used a somewhat less “cartoony” style. The look of books like Midnight Sun and Amelia—with the black line art and one other toning color—I think began back with Farewell, Georgia, with me trying to ape the duotone effect seen in Roy Crane’s work on the Wash Tubbs/Captain Easy daily strips. Also, right about that time I was really getting into the work of Jacques Tardi who does some pretty amazing work with gray-tone, like the recently-translated It Was The War Of The Trenches.
What process did you go through in getting Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean published by Disney and Hyperion?
It was actually the other way around. The Amelia book is part of a series of graphic novels for young adults that Disney/Hyperion began with the Jason Lutes Houdini book. Amelia is the fourth in the series. They had the story written and Jason Lutes signed-on to do breakdowns, but needed an artist. I’d guess I was considered for the job based on Midnight Sun, which is a similar period piece and is also aviation-themed. James Sturm was in charge of the whole series and he’s someone I’ve known for a while—he was one of my teachers at SCAD—so I guess I was a “known quantity” from that angle as well. It was a really great project to work on.
You chose to release Oyster War as a web comic, what lead you to do this after publishing with major houses?
I don’t really see Oyster War as the kind of thing a big trade publisher would be interested in. With very few exceptions, really the only thing flying with big publishers graphic novel-wise these days is all-ages stuff and memoir—and obviously Oyster War is neither of those. I was really excited about the project and had it all written and had all of my character designs done, though, so I figured I’d just start throwing it out there page-by-page. I obviously have to temper my work time on it so that I’m able to still generate income from other things, but I’ve been pretty successful so far at putting out a page every other week (with occasional thumbnailing breaks between each chapter, as I’m doing right now for Chapter 5).
Post-Amelia, I’ve had a few proposals out to trade publishers, one of which is still out there being looked at, so you never know; something may become of that.
For many writers it is difficult to obtain an artist to draw their story, as an artist and writer what do you think is the best way for writers to approach an artist to do illustrations?
That’s not something I know a whole ton about since most of my work I write myself. I have collaborated with writers before, though, and in those cases they’ve been for situations where either (1) I was getting paid to do the work, or (b) I knew the writer personally. And, honestly, the people who’ve approached me out of the blue wanting me to work on their stories don’t seem to be able to answer some of the basic questions I’ve shot back at them. If you’re going to approach an artist and you’re not willing to put cold, hard cash on the table, at the very least you should be able to present evidence of successfully completing past projects that have generated compensation on the back end. Honestly, if writers want someone to illustrate a story, they should pay a decent page rate. If you as a writer are unwilling to risk your money on your own project, then why should I be willing to risk my time on it?
For writers, the bottom line is this: If an artist is going to do unpaid spec work, he/she is usually going to want to do their own project.
You seem to work mainly within the all ages genre, what interest you about that style of story telling?
I guess at this point, I’m probably identified with Amelia more than any of my other books—and it’s an all-ages story. My other books, though, are not. If anything, Amelia is the exception to the rule, and it was of course not written by me. Honestly, I just get involved in projects that I’m interested in. In the past some of them have been all ages; many have not. I don’t see any fundamental difference in between all-ages and adult-only comics as far as the mechanics of storytelling goes. The difference has to do more with tone and content.
Do you set a goal for yourself every week/day/month as an artist? or do you create within a looser set of deadlines?
A lot of that depends on what else I have going on. With Amelia, I had a decent advance from the publisher and so I was able to spend a lot of my work time on it. As a result, I finished the book relatively quickly—maybe in a year or so. With something like Midnight Sun or Oyster War, I’m having to juggle my current book with other things, so it goes more slowly. Oyster War is the most time-intensive project I’ve undertaken. It’s made of big, four row Tintin-style pages, and it’s full color. As I said, I’ve been pretty regularly producing a finished page every other week. It’s around 125 pages and I’m guessing that it will have taken me about five years start-to-finish by the time I’m done.
Any last minute advice for aspiring comic creators?
Sure: Make comics.
I run into a lot of people who have ideas for this and ideas for that, but look: ideas are a dime a dozen. “A school for wizards.” That’s a great idea. Lots of people have had that idea. Only one, though, had the perseverance to write Harry Potter while her mother died and her marriage collapsed—and then stick with it after seeing it rejected by twelve publishers.
The publishing business is a pretty uncertain place right now and unless you’re one of a select few, you’re probably going to have to get your start by putting something together on your own time. I hear people talk about wanting to do a comic “when I get time.” Here’s the thing, though: you have time; you’re just choosing to do something else with it. It’s not easy. I don’t have cable. I haven’t been in a movie theater in years. I don’t have an X-Box. I’m not on Facebook. I’ve never seen an episode of American Idol or CSI. I’ve got nothing against any of those things. But for me, right now, what’s important is having my book done.
I want to thank Ben for taking the time to talk with us at Panel Bound. If you want to pick up some Ben’s books or ready Oyster War there is links below.