Tuesday, January 13, 2009

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

Continued from the first half of the interview

JF: How do you view the relationship between art and writing in your comic? Do you think your approach to cartooning favors one or the other? Do you view one or the other as the "backbone" of a strip?

TP: I don't know. I find both to be a constant struggle. When I look back at my old stuff, I absolutely hate it on both levels. But I do see improvement over time. I guess that's what happens if you're in this game long enough. I would be interested in hearing what my readers have to say about this. As far as first impressions go, what attracted them to the strip initially, the art or the writing?

Ideally, I would hope that the art and writing work hand in hand in any given comic. Take either away, and the gag doesn't work the same. This seems like a reasonable goal, otherwise why choose comics as the medium of presentation? Nevertheless, many of my strips probably rely a little heavily of the dialogue to tell the gag. I'll have two characters discussing something as they walk through the forest. In a sense, they could be doing a lot of different things and still get the gag across. I have a visual medium at my disposal, I should sometimes try to "show" instead of "tell." I would say this a shortcoming of my strip right now. It's something I need to work on.

As for the "backbone" of the strip, I'm going go on a limb and say maybe color is the one constant that has been with Calamities since the beginning. When I changed formats I experimented with the idea of going black and white and updating 5 days a week. When I showed a few example strips to my friends they basically told me that my art wouldn't fly without color. I'd need to rethink my whole use of blacks. The use of color actually helps the reader process the information in the strip faster, so that the joke comes across clearer and is (hopefully) more funny.

JF: Your characters' personalities are pretty archetypal. What are the advantages and disadvantages of relying on character tropes? How do you put a fresh spin on them?

TP: If you look at comics in general, these character types show up all the time. Especially when you consider the classic group of three: the nice guy, the funny guy, and the angry guy. You see this everywhere, from Disney (Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck) to Bone (Fone, Smiley, and Phoney). There's a reason why this works. If you have a limited cast of characters and you want to get a wide range of interactions, these are sort of the natural character types you want to cover your bases. In that sense, over time I've felt like my characters have morphed into these archetypes, even when I didn't initially intend this to happen. For example, when I first started both Aaron and Harold were kind of the "nice guys." But as I wrote more and more gags, I would often find myself not needing them both (that's why Harold didn't appear in a lot of the early strips). At the same time, I kept finding I needed a character who was a little more angry and cynical to make some jokes work. So Aaron evolved into this role. So in that the sense, these archetypes are around for a very clear reason--it allows a lot of flexibility when telling gags.

The main disadvantage of having these archetypes is that it can feel pretty stale if you don't add enough depth to the characters. This is something I need to work on. Trying to tell a gag and make some sort of point in the space constraints of a comic strip, I sometimes feel I have little room for character development. What would help is if each of my characters had more of a back story, like a job, specific interests, and so on. I did this by making Alp an inventor, but I need to do this for the other characters. One of my goals for 2009 is to try to naturally work some of this into the comic. Hopefully this will make the characters that much more engaging.

JF: I'm curious--is Aaron listening to his headphones pretty much 24/7? Does he wear those things to bed? What's he listening to all the time, anyway?

TP: Hmmm...see this is one of those logical things you don't ever think of when you're working on a strip, but when someone confronts you with the question you ask, "what *was* I thinking?"

The history of the headphones was that the very first strip I drew with Aaron and Ferd was when I was 10 years old. It was at the time of the Bay Bridge World Series, and Aaron and Ferd were fighting over who would win. Ferd was for the Giants (giving him the Giants hat he still has to this day), and Aaron the A's (thus the green shirt). To portray him as a sports nut, I added the headphones, which I kept ever since without too much rhyme or reason other than I liked the way they looked (and the red helped to further distinguish Aaron from the other characters and the background elements). I actually still have this original comic, but I'm saving sharing it with the world until the time is right.

So what does he listen to? NPR? I'm not sure. I suspect a lot of the time, the headphones aren't even on, but Aaron uses them as a device to selectively interact with the world on his own terms (as I suggested in the strip you linked to). I guess you'll just have to ask Aaron yourself.

JF: Heh--I suppose so. Is there anything else you'd like to say before we wrap this interview up--maybe a parting tip for aspiring cartoonists, or a webcomic or two that you'd particularly recommend?

TP: I think the most important message for cartoonists is to remember what a unique opportunity it is to speak directly to an audience with a singular, unedited voice. So many other forms of media require a team of people to create something. It's just not practical for one person to do it all alone. Comics (and webcomics in particular) allow an artist to basically be the writer, director, actors, publicist, and everything else, all at the same time. This is special chance to share real ideas and feelings with other people, and this shouldn't be taken lightly. I've heard complaints from people who have told me that my work is too derivative, that the punch lines too obvious, and so on. But I hope at the end of the day, my readers appreciate that I'm sincerely trying to share real things with them, and I urge other cartoonists to do the same.

Concerning webcomics I'd recommend, that's a tough question because there's quite a few I read regularly. But here are a couple that often just make me want to throw my hands in the air and give up: Bellen!, Circle Versus Square, We the Robots, Savage Chickens, Octopus Pie, Wondermark, and One Swoop Fell. Oops, sorry, I guess that's more than one or two!

JF: Thanks for your time, Tony. It's been a pleasure interviewing you.

TP: Hey, thanks for offering! Keep up the great work on this site.

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