Making of an Independent Comic: An Interview with Tyler Chin-TannerBy Uche Ogbuji
June 06, 2010
I first encountered Wendy Chin-Tanner when she submitted a choice little poem for TNB. In corresponding with her I came across A Wave Blue World, the Indie Comics company she founded with her husband, Tyler. I was immediately intrigued by their approach to the practicalities—the difficult process of producing a high-quality graphic novel. I was especially intrigued by the approach the company is taking to fund their latest project, American Terrorist. Yet another area where it seems to me that independent media must be the future. Recently, of course, TNB has announced its own foray into the indie publishing business. I know that the world of comics has always been a parallel universe to that of book publishing, so I was curious about the parallel evolution of the independent branch in graphic narrative. Tyler was kind enough to offer a peek behind the scenes of a venture at the vanguard of small publishing of indie comics.
Uche Ogbuji: Let’s start in the thick of things. What is “American Terrorist,” and what are the steps you’re taking to make its creation possible?
Tyler Chin-Tanner: American Terrorist is a new graphic novel currently in production about the fear and fascination of terrorism in this country and how it can be used to manipulate and control people.
Four regular people come together by accident and get caught up in an avalanche of extraordinary events that force them to abandon their lives and go on the run. The main love story centers around Owen and Hannah, a journalist and elementary school teacher, who begin a passionate romance as they become vigilante political activists and get labeled “American Terrorists.”
What led you to kickstarter.com to help organize funding?
The implications that something like Kickstarter have on the world of independent publishing are astounding. The biggest factor in this is that they’ve come up with a safe way for people to support creative projects by having the checkout be through Amazon.com and that people will only be charged if and when the project is successful. This system legitimizes a creator’s ability to offer incentives and rewards for support.
With American Terrorist, I wanted the funding to go to something specific rather than to just support me through the creative process. This might be seen as a drawback because the graphic novel will be completed whether we reach our Kickstarter goal or not; the result of the Kickstarter project will determine whether we print a hardcover book or only do digital.
What was the approximate time-line from hatching the concept of “American Terrorist,” to deciding on the funding model, to setting up needed infrastructure, and to the actual process of production?
I actually first came up with the idea in 2006 before our daughter Maddy was born. Wendy and I hashed out the idea while walking our newborn in a stroller through the park in Putney in early 2007 (Maddy was born Feb 14, 2007). I wrote out the framework of the full story and first chapter by the end of that year and hired Andy to start drawing it at the beginning of 2008. I finished writing the script in 2008, but then rewrote the second half of it again in 2009, really just finishing it a couple of months ago. All during that time Andy’s been working away at getting the art done. He should be finished by the end of August this year. We’ll wrap up production in September and hopefully that will mean a book in December of January.
Have you found social media to offer a role in accelerating the funding? Perhaps by engaging the friends-of-friends network? Or even through the possibility of going “viral” more broadly?
I’ve found that our Kickstarter page itself is great for promotional purposes. It’s an easy site to direct people to, so that they can read more about the project, watch our video, and pledge for items they’re interested in.
As far as reaching out to people to send to the site, I’m afraid that my wife Wendy and I aren’t great at using social media. Besides having a company Facebook page on which we do occasional but regular updates, I’m not that into the social networking sites. I’m happy to provide information for people who are interested, but I’m not very good at forcing my way into their consciousness with abundant messaging.
Have the politics or presumed politics of the work affected progress in such a public funding model, as far as you’ve noticed?
I haven’t really noticed. I have no real way on knowing if the politics of the book have kept people away from supporting it or not, but I haven’t heard anything that has led me to believe people have reacted negatively to it. I’ve had the comic at a number of comic book conventions and have never had a problem. The topic may be sensitive, but it’s not partisan and the comic doesn’t have an agenda. I don’t see how anyone could really rally against it, unless of course they feel that terrorism and fear of terrorism haven’t had an effect on this country.
What are some of the incentives you’ve offered backers of the project?
While my primary goal is to get people to read the story. I’ve done my best to make the pre-order of the hardcover graphic novel as appealing as possible, offering it fully signed by the creative team and shipping it anywhere in the world for free. I also offer the digital files of each chapter as soon as they’re available to anyone who’s pledged.
And then there are the more creative incentives like allowing backers to become a character in the story or write their own lines.
Have you found yourself surprised by any motivations expressed by particular backers?
No, mostly what I’ve heard from backers is that they feel the book looks really good and they’re excited to read more. That’s really what it’s about for us: creating a story that resonates with people.
Does the need to be creative in order to fund the project affect the creativity needed for the project itself? Does it have an energizing or sapping effect on authorship?
The requirements of funding and distribution absolutely affect the creative process. It’s really two very different jobs and two different mind-sets. I can see why a lot of creators don’t like to handle their own promotion. I find that I have to be doing one thing or the other. Luckily, we’ve already written the script, so my creative contribution at this point is limited to overseeing the art and production as it’s coming in and can split my time between that and promotion.
Tell us about A Wave Blue World Comics
A Wave Blue World is a comic book and graphic novel publishing company that I formed with my wife Wendy in 2005. The name came from a twist on the title to Aldous Huxley’s book, Brave New World, the twist embodying the idea of water, rebirth, and regeneration. Our goal for the company is to publish our graphic novels ourselves, retaining rights and control of our work, and to keep the door open for independent publishing.
What is the overall history of those involved in the company, and in particular those involved on the latest project?
After working as a teacher and humanitarian aid worker for a number of years, I went back to my first love, comics, and retrained as a comic book artist and writer at the Joe Kubert School for Cartoon and Comic Arts. After graduation, my wife Wendy and I formed our own publishing company, A Wave Blue World, through which I wrote and published my first graphic novel, an adventure story called Adrenaline. That was a steep learning curve. Based in large part on that experience and what I am continuing to learn with American Terrorist, I write a column, Delusions of Grandeur: A Small Press Survival Guide, at BrokenFrontier.com.
Wendy has a background in creative writing, photography, performance, and social sciences. When we met, she developed an immediate interest in the relationship between text and image in comics and graphic novels, and in their potential as a fine arts genre. Wendy is currently focusing on her first love, poetry, while continuing to supervise undergraduate sociology at Cambridge University and editing and co-writing my comic scripts.
Andy MacDonald, the artist for American Terrorist, first broke into comics working on his co-created title, NYC Mech. He’s since worked for Marvel on Spider-man and The Punisher. He’s also worked on a new Terminator series based on the movie property for Dark Horse Comics. It was his work on these titles that made me realize he’d be the perfect artist for American Terrorist, and he has been a pleasure to work with.
What aspects of this personal history have driven you towards indie publishing?
Well, what’s driven me to indie publishing isn’t so much my personal history, but the history of the comics industry itself, and that of the art world in general. I think that an artist’s work suffers, and in turn, the overall quality of the work in the industry suffers when only the big houses have control. Independent publishers have the freedom to stretch the boundaries of what is possible and to keep the larger companies from becoming complacent.
The difficulties of indie music and book publishing are fairly well chronicled. Are there particular dynamics in the graphic books market that set apart the world of indie comics?
As you’ve said, any kind of indie publishing is tough, and with graphic novels, it’s no different. It’s tough to get orders and placement in most shops, or to get any kind of promotion going. The one advantage is that since it’s such a visual medium, if you do manage to get your work in front of people, be it a few pages online or a book in someone’s hands, it won’t take long for them to be able to evaluate a basic level of quality. A consumer’s feeling about a graphic novel is almost immediate, as opposed to a novel or a movie, or even music, which would require the right device and time to sit and listen to it.
With so much media blending these days, whether at the über-commercial level with every Marvel character ever conceived showing up in Hollywood, or with artists collaborating on-line across media, do you see such cross-media, and even cross-cultural engagements as key to the future of indie comics?
No, the future of indie comics depends on the quality of the work itself. People will gravitate to compelling and innovative work. If they want bigger media characters, they’ll go for the Marvel characters or whatnot. But who says anyone’s actually reading the comics? They could very well just like the movie and buy the comic as a souvenir.
Indie comics are for those people who like to read comics for their own sake, and the only way we can ensure our future as independent creators is to continue giving those people something worth reading.
Do you see in these forces, and in social media, and more, the seeds for possibly revolutionizing the commercial model of the comics industry?
Well, I do see it changing the commercial model of the comics industry and very much helping the indie scene. As I mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of social networking and I want people to read my work because of how they feel about the material, not because I’m one of their friends or followers or whatever. But the positive side of social media is that it opens up the ability to disseminate information to new readers, allowing smaller creators to reach larger audiences, which is something we’re not able to do with retailers and distributors who pick and choose what they stock and promote. I’m all for putting the material out there and letting the people decide. The more they have to choose from, the more discerning they’ll be, and I think that ‘s a good thing for those of us who are truly doing our best to create great new comics.
This is great, Uche!
Thanks, Megan. Certainly had me fascinated.
Great interview. I almost missed it – it fell off the top page so quickly.
But it is eye-opening for me. I’ve never read a comic or graphic novel in my life. It makes sense that they’d face the same troubles as indie book publishers. It’s a tough gig.
This actually sounds like something I’d like to read. And perhaps to review… I’ve just hired a reviewer at Beatdom, so tell them to get in touch when the book’s out. Talk to Marty at reviews [at] beatdom [dot] com.
Yeah, we garrulous TNBers! I was amazed at the rapidity of the piece’s descent as the new posts were tripping along. At least we now have the “second chance” area so things can survive a little longer.
Wow, David – thank you so much for your interest and the great opportunity! We’re not sure at this point if the book will come out in printed form as our pledge numbers are quite poor, which indicates that we might not make our Kickstarter goal in 18 days. There might be other options for printing; we’ll consider them when we cross that bridge. Or the book might remain in digital form, which wouldn’t be the end of the world either. Would you still be interested in reviewing the book as a digital graphic novel?
If the book sounds good to you, you can pre-order it or find out more at our Kickstarter page:
Well done. The discussion of funding was quite illuminating and seems to apply to the new literary landscape as a whole, rather than just the graphic genre. Also was happy you explored current publishing trends as they affect the creative process, and of course, the challenges and inspiration in bringing this project to light.
It’s inspiring to see Wendy’s passion for the material, and her ultimate conclusion, that the quality of the work and not the process for distributing it, is what ultimately promotes it.
I’m off to check out the kickstarter page right now.
Yeah, I think the question of creativity in artistic expression versus creativity in funding was the crux of my overall interest. I think of Leonardo da Vinci, some of whose most enduring work was the specs and drawings he prepared in the process of applying to condottieri to serve as a military advisor as well as in the artistic aggrandizement of their courts.
BTW, Wendy was my “in”, but the actual interview was with Tyler 🙂
A hah! That explains it then. When I read the part about the creative team’s bio, I thought it was odd that Wendy would refer to herself in the third person. I think seeing her comments above faked me out. Thanks for the clarification. 🙂
I suppose that the higher the craft, the greater the demand and therefore the less an artist needs to compromise the integrity of his/her vision for the benefactor. I’m reminded of Turlough O’Carolan, the famous blind Irish harpist, who spent almost 50 years riding around the Irish countryside composing for patrons. The demand for his work was so high that he could create for art’s sake (ars gratia artis 😉 ) without the commercial process impacting his creative flow.
K, I added names to the first exchange, so that should ensure clarity.
The tension between ars gratia artis and art that seeks its commercial proof (ars pro utilitate?) is the topic that most fascinates me in the humanities.
Wonderfully thought-provoking interview, Uche. Your questions and Tyler Chin-Tanner’s answers were seamless and informing. I love illustrations, i.e., drawings accompanying text, whether in poetry chapbooks, comic books, graphic novels, or traditional books for kids. I wish all books were illustrated! One of my recent faves is a very non-traditional book on USAmerican history that’s a total graphic “novel”.
Thanks Judy. I’d love to produce a graphic poetry chapbook. Each stanza could be marshalled into character speech bubbles. I’m completely serious. That would be a wicked sweet collaboration.
I totally agree, Uche—-a graphic poetry chapbook would be awesome!
I read a biography writ totally in brief poems and w lotsa fotoz—-and I quite loved it. It’s about 2 textile artists; the poems are inspired. Templar Press.
Keep us informed on your graphic poetry chapbook, then!
Rodent sez hullo; I’m in England now, up in Darlington, soon briefly at Oxford for Rodent’s paper. Plus we have great news.
“Great news”?! And off you go just like that? Suspense crackling in the air like cooking bacon smells from the other side of a stout but permeable barrier? No flipping fair! No fair! No fair! No fair! Waaaaaaaaaaaah!
Anyway yes, onto the graphic poetry chapbook. First I have to inspire an artist/artists to join me in such an unprofitable venture. Think I have an idea, tho.
I adore your bacon analogy!
This was an insightful interview, we often don’t hear much about graphic novel publishing. And I think that ‘American Terrorist’ is a compelling choice for topic; I feel that many Americans should be more aware of world politic and view—and this seems a great way to appeal to a broad audience.
Thank you, Brandy! We really appreciate your sentiments and hope that others feel the same way, too. Now, it’s just a matter of reaching that audience and inspiring them to support the book. It would be wonderful if you and others who like our work could spread the word!
Thank you, Judy! And thanks again to Uche for an amazing interview and opportunity to give a glimpse of our work to the TNB audience. One of the next projects that Tyler and I are thinking of doing is a graphic novel that involves poetry, so stay tuned!
While your pursuing your good idea, Uche, check out Zach Hazard Vaupen’s drawings: http://www.bakerartistawards.org/nomination/view/zachhazardvaupen
Re the Great News: I’ve decided to make an honest man of dear Rodent; we will soon be marrying (one another).
Oh how marvelous, magical and rightly momentous! Congratulations! And a summer betrothal, which can only fair invoke:
There, in a meadow, by the river’s side,
A flock of nymphs I chanced to espy,
All lovely daughters of the flood thereby,
With goodly greenish locks, all loose untied,
As each had been a bride;
And each one had a little wicker basket,
Made of fine twigs, entrailed curiously,
In which they gathered flowers to fill their flasket,
And with fine fingers cropt full feateously
The tender stalks on high.
Of every sort, which in that meadow grew,
They gathered some; the violet, pallid blue,
The little daisy, that at evening closes,
The virgin lily, and the primrose true,
With store of vermeil roses,
To deck their bridegrooms’ posies
Against the bridal day, which was not long:
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.
Oh, big hugs and treacly wishes, Judy, and warm R-ward greetings from me.
Uche, you’ve made me tear up with your enthusiastic, joyous response to The Occasion, my tears a waterfall at Spenser’s refrain: “Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song”.
I’ve sent your message to dear Rodent who accepts the treacle most heartily (in the form of pudding) and joins me in happy gratitude for your launching our celebration.
BTW, the Scottish fave, cloutie dumpling, is a shoo-in alongside treacle pudding for our little wedding reception!!!
And let me not forget to add a few words in Igbo.
Mgbe unu gbaa akwukwo, ka ihe nile di kwa mma.
Approximately: best wishes for the wedding.
Hey, I’ll expect an epithalamion of your own in due course!!!
Absolutely! I’ve already submitted my entreaty for Muse-boon.
Uche, Rodent says to you, “Now that we’re married, how about that bloody epithalamion you promised us!”
Congratulations! Felicitations! Just plain old Yay! You should be enjoying your honeymoon, not issuing demands for poems 😛 Hmm. I guess that’s not a bad way to enjoy honeymoon, eh?
OK OK, I had hoped my TNB announcement piece would discharge my duty, but I see R thinks me capable of producing something for occasion poetic that won’t poison the ear, so I shall essay my best. You’d mentioned forthcoming video. That might help stir my creative juices.
BTW, I wanted to mention that the announcement piece disappeared from the front page. I suspect someone didn’t like the fact that I’d published two pieces so close together, though I’d hoped the special occasion might be treated as a special case. Ah well. I’m sure it will reappear within a day or two.
I was going to read the story you wrote about Judy and Rodent’s marriage and now I can’t find it when some of my kids left.
So some of my kids left and now I can’t find the story!
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