Monday, January 12, 2009

Interview: Tony Piro (Calamities of Nature), 1/2

Calamities of Nature began its life as a web presence about a year and a half ago, but in a way it's been in the making for much longer than that. Before there was even an internet to put comics on, Tony Piro was drawing the adventures of his central cast of four. The talking-animal characters have grown with him over the years, and in their current incarnation, they alternately have bizarre escapades and deliver thoughtful social criticism--sometimes both at once. The comic is updated Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

In a series of emails, Tony Piro and I had an extended conversation about the art and craft of his comic and the experience of sharing his creation on the web. What follows is the first part of that conversation; the second will be posted tomorrow.

JF: First off, you recently switched formats for Calamities of Nature, from long-form pages to shorter strips. How’s the change working out for you?

TP: I'm really enjoying it. Being able to communicate with my readers on a more regular basis has been invigorating. I did get a few complaints via e-mail and there were a couple of discouraging blog posts I've seen. But since the change, both my traffic levels and the interaction with my readers have increased so markedly that it's pretty clear it was the right thing to do.

When I first started the comic I had no idea that there was a webcomic community out there. I had recently found out about print-on-demand and Ka-Blam, and I wanted to do a comic book. This is what prompted the full-page format. In the meantime, I figured I would just post the comics online to see if I could get any feedback. My site was basically a static html page with a list of jpegs. Although Calamities of Nature has been up for well over a year, during the first 6 months I didn't even have my own url--I just posted on my work server. Around January 2008 I realized that I could share my work with more people by cultivating an online audience (than via print), and I started converting my site to be more reader friendly (if you're a history buff, you can see my first attempt at a reader friendly site here:

Over time, I read more webcomics and I became aware of what I was enjoying (or not) about the various comics and their sites. Things like the importance of not scrolling to read the full comic, or of having a satisfying end to each update (some of the pages from my early story lines didn't even have a gag at the end). At the same time, I was getting increasingly frustrated with the format I had chosen. It was great when I had a longer joke to tell (like the Michael Jackson comic), but for every one of those, I'd have two or three comics that could basically fit as a newspaper strip. It just wasn't an efficient use of time to spend 3-4 nights working on a comic that would be read in 10 second.

By last summer I had reached the tipping point. I was tired of doing these huge pages, and I knew I could update more often with less time with the new format. Plus I had a huge backlog of material written, which I didn't have time to draw. So I made the change in September and haven't looked back. Now that I've worked up a little bit of a buffer, I'm excited to do a few larger Sunday-style comics when I have an appropriate gag.

JF: How have your ventures into webcartooning suprised you? What's been the most surprising thing about the whole experience?

TP: Webcartooning has surprised me on all sorts of different levels. Maybe the first thing that surprised (and intimidated) me was how much good stuff there is. I used to draw at home in my own little insular world, and never realized all the great artists that exist. I guess all these people going to art school must be doing something, huh? Friends and family tell you how great your work is, and you tend to believe them because you haven't been exposed to the broader selection of work out there. Once I started becoming more integrated into the webcomic community I was overwhelmed by the breadth of artistic styles and writing voices. There's also some crappy webcomics (like anything else), but a lot of it just makes me want to give up.

The other thing that has impressed me is the kindness of (most) everyone in the community. When I have a legitimate question about something (like the tools people are using, or ad service providers, or whatever) I've e-mailed all sorts of people, from the biggest to the smallest names. And almost everyone is forthcoming and helpful. What other community can boast that?

JF: Sort of the bedrock of your comic's humor is the juxtaposition of funny animals and social commentary. You've been drawing these characters for awhile...did the social-commentary angle emerge for you, or has it been there pretty much since you came up with these guys?

TP: When I was growing up, three of my favorite comic creators were Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, and Dave Sim. Now those are three guys with very strong personalities and opinions, and they made no apologies when that commentary guided their work. So when I was ten, I was already trying to include these sorts of social themes. It just wasn't as sophisticated as what I do now (things like comparing George Bush's name to shrubbery or making fun of Dan Quayle's foibles--see how far I've come, now I make fun of Sarah Palin instead).

The funny animal thing has always been natural for me as well. You throw in the above creators with Jeff Smith's Bone, and most of the stuff I was reading was funny animals in human worlds. If I'm going to be creating 3 of these comics each week, I need to be excited every time I'm at the drawing table. Having characters that I'm familiar with and enjoy drawing really helps to keep me going.

In addition, I've always felt that Scott McCloud's discussion of how a reader can relate better to a simpler face (see Understanding Comics) had a lot of truth to it. I hope this helps the readers connect better with the characters and their situations. Some people have e-mailed me to say they look forward to reading Calamities because they're curious what the characters will be doing or talking about. So this is working at least a little.

JF: In a Comic Fencing review from a couple months ago, one reviewer remarked on the “anti-Christian sentiment“ in your comic. However, I’m pretty sure you yourself wouldn’t consider strips like the "Mike Huckabee" or "Christian Rock" comics to be malicious or mean-spirited. What's the motive behind the commentary on religion in your comic?

TP: Jeez, you want to open this can of worms, huh? Where to start? The crux of my commentary on religion stems from my frustration with faith. That people make decisions because of belief instead of reasoning. And I realize that to expect people to be completely logical is a fallacy in itself. On the philosophical side, we know logic has its shortcomings (Godel's incompleteness theorem and all that). On a practical side, we don't always have enough information to make a completely informed decision. This is especially true in this day and age where everyone is a specialist in some field. More and more we have to trust the advice of experts, and in a sense this is a form of faith.

But what I find unforgivable is when people continually deny logical facts, even when faced with a mountain of clear evidence. The obvious example is evolution. Evolution is a basic fact about biology. You can argue the details of how it occurs, but it *does* happen. We see that gravity exists. We see that the earth goes around the sun. We see that the earth is round. We see that evolution occurs. Why would someone deny the last point? It's just not logical. People go to the doctor and take the medications that are prescribed to them. Some of those medications are developed expressly using the fact that evolution occurs, and that it is altering the biology of the disease-causing organisms. These medications often fight diseases that are passed genetically, and guess what, evolution affects how those genes are passed down. So to benefit from these advances in medicine, but deny one of the basic tenets that create these benefits, is illogical.

Now I know I'm fighting an uphill battle in some sense. If someone willingly chooses to be illogical, how to do you argue with them? Through logic? Clearly you cannot, because they don't subscribe to this. If someone maintains that the world is 6,000 years old and that any evidence otherwise is just a trick by God to make us think the world is older, how do I argue against this? They've already nullified the axioms of any argument I could make.

But that doesn't mean the fight isn't worth the battle. It's all well and fine if people want to have these illogical beliefs, but if it starts affecting the human condition negatively (and this is where people are going to get angry, because my feeling is that it has done more harm than good over the last 2000 or so years), then you have to push back. And this is my other big criticism of religion, which is the institutionalization of all these ideas. This is when it gets dangerous because you have an institution whose very existence relies on providing the currency of "certainty" to get people mobilized. Such an institution can build a lot of momentum, and it can be hard to steer back on course when its headed in the wrong direction. (And just so you don't think I'm just picking on religion, universities and governments have many of the same problems. People just become a little more fervent with religion.) This was one of the points I was trying to make with the Agnostic comic. Institutionalizing "certainty" is so much more powerful than uncertainty. This is the uphill fight that we're faced with. Scientific history is full of wrong theories, and uncertainty, and changing view points. That's just how scientific progress works. But who's going to want to pray to the altar of "I don't know"?

All that said, those couple comics that your mentioned are actually some of my least favorite ones. Instead of presenting these ideas in a well thought out manner, they make gags that are basically no more subtle than a pie in the face. And what does that really accomplish? Readers who subscribe to these opinions will feel validated. Readers who don't agree will feel marginalized. And in neither case have I actually made someone do any thinking. This is a disservice to both my readers and myself. After all the hours I spend on this comic every week, I'd like to think I'm providing entertainment with a little more value than political talk radio. Hopefully, my writing chops are to the point now where I can accomplish this a little better (like with the recent Agnostic strip).

So the short answer is, no, I wasn't trying to be anti-Christian. But the fact that it was construed as such by the comic fencing guys (and many other people I've gotten feedback from) indicates that I'm clearly not doing my job well enough.

JF: Well, I sympathize with your difficulties. Comics often rely on an economy of language, and it can be incredibly hard to give a balanced treatment of such a complex issue in so few words. I actually think the Agnostic strip was well-crafted in this regard.

I may not agree with you on every last point, but this interview is to learn more about you and your views, not a vehicle for me to express mine! I still do think you make some good points, and I don't think any institution should be exempt from critical analysis from without and within. And I can appreciate that you're critical of yourself as well.

It reminds me of what Chris Hallbeck's parting advice from my interview with him: "If you look back on what you did every 6 months and you hate it then you are going in the right direction." How do you maintain a healthy level of self-criticism and growth without getting too hard on yourself?

TP: That's a tough question. I'm constantly distraught and depressed over my work. When I start with an idea, it seems so fresh and exciting. But by the time I've drawn the strip to completion I almost always hate it. This usually isn't too bad of a thing as long as I finish the comic. Lately though, I'm building up a small archive of finished strips that I can't even get myself to post on the website. At least this will give me some bonus strips to help sell the next book.

Something that's helped keep me from becoming completely paralyzed by this self-loathing is that I read the Charles Schulz biography, "Schulz and Peanuts" by David Michaelis. A key point I took away was how Schulz channeled these insecurities to inspire his work. At least this way you get something constructive out of all this internal turmoil. This may also explain why Harold keeps showing up more and more as a central character.

Another thing that helps is to actively try to keep getting better. I'm always trying new tools and new tricks to keep things from falling into a rut. Sometimes the thing you try doesn't quite work. That's okay, it's just a comic or two. Other times it will allow you to make huge strides quickly, and that's really exiting. For example, for my January 9th comic I'm starting to use a brush to ink. This is completely changing my use of blacks and the backgrounds. For January 12th, I'm trying a more complex panel composition. Anything to keep me on my toes.

(Continue to the second half of the interview)

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