Paul Tobin on writing, diversity in comics, and making your own path

Paul Tobin’s novel from Night Shade Books.

Paul Tobin is a writer whose work has included comics for Dark Horse, DC and Marvel, in addition to a recent novel from Night Shade Books.  If there’s a common thread I’ve seen in his work, it’s an energy that innately comes from the characters as much as the plot.  My interview with Paul below:         

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What drew you to comics as a medium for storytelling?

I’ve always been a big fan of the medium. I suppose it’s the wealth of tales that can be told, and the energy of the art. I grew up reading comics that my grandmother would bring home from garage sales (she bought everything at whim, and her house was that of a hoarder), so I was comfortable with how to tell stories using the combination of art and words.

It’s a dangerous art form, in a way, because when it works, it really works, but when it doesn’t, it falls apart completely. It’s like an art form and a puzzle at the same time. That’s often really enjoyable, although some time I also like to step back and take more control, which is why I recently released Prepare To Die!… my debut novel.

You’ve gotten to write some characters with amazing histories.  What particular highlights have there been for you in adding to them?

Oddly, I actively tried to AVOID highlights. Going in to writing all these iconic characters, I noticed how other writers felt they had to put a big fat stamp on Spider-Man, or Batman, or whoever… saying, “REMEMBER ME! I’M THE ONE WHO KILLED SPIDER-MAN’S BEST FRIEND / LOVER / AUNT / PET DOG! MY STORY WAS IMPORTANT.” I really wanted to avoid that. I just wanted to do good, solid stories. I think I achieved that. I’m particularly happy with my run on Spider-Man in Marvel Adventures.

Regarding Prepare to Die!, in retrospect what were the challenges and benefits you found in novelizing a story that might traditionally be told in comics?

The challenges were that I needed to be richer in my writing … needed to delve farther into the life and character, because no artist would be fleshing out the details. But that’s actually what drew me to writing it as a novel … the fact that I COULD go more in depth, that characterization didn’t need to be a couple hurried pages between fight scenes, that readers could grow to understand and care for a character as more than just the iconic white hat in a fight scene. I wanted to write a story about a character’s life, rather than just an ongoing fight scene, which is what far too many comics have become.

I wanted to write a story about a character’s life, rather than just an ongoing fight scene, which is what far too many comics have become.   

On your blog you recently had an interesting list of favorite female characters in literature.  It’s a list that has characters that most people who regularly pick up a book or comic book would be fond of, but, that said, there’s not much ethnic variety (which is certainly not atypical and not intentional, I’m sure).

The problem is certainly there, but I think it’s loosening. Looking back through literature / media, the cast of characters is largely male, and almost entirely white, which means when compiling a list of favorite characters, it’s naturally going to skew in that direction, which is too bad. It’s one of the reasons I chose to do a “favorite females” list, incidentally… because these characters don’t normally get same billing as male characters. But … I do think that ethnic characters are becoming more common. My own writing on Spider-Girl was a step forward, and I always tried to work in various ethnicities in everything I’ve ever written. My scripts are FULL of saying, for instance, “We’re in NEW YORK! Don’t make everybody white.” Spider-Girl’s roommate was black, Annah’s girlfriend (in my Gingerbread Girl graphic novel) was black, and I’ve an upcoming graphic novel (unannounced at this time) where the main character, Allison, is a black woman. So, strides are being taken … it’s just that, looking into characters of the past in order to compile a “favorites” list … there’s sadly not much diversity.

Understood. So, while people of all walks of life are heavily invested in comic heroes, from historically to now there hasn’t been a diverse pool of creators behind those universes, either.  This is common in most forms of media: that it’s exceedingly more likely to have a minority character written by someone who is not.  I genuinely think that stepping out of one’s self is one of the challenges, privileges of writing, but is such an imbalance of people who can write heroes/characters whom happen to be minorities an issue?

I think it can be an issue, yes. And it’s MUCH more an issue in mainstream superhero books. Lots of great indy / alt. creators aren’t the typical white male comic creator… ESPECIALLY in the field of online comics, and I think the diversity of entertainment that can be had in that area is much wider than the narrow mainstream. So, yeah … it’s pretty inevitable that diversity leads to diversity. I do think it’s widening in all areas, though. Just that fact that digital comics are reaching areas where traditional comic sales never reached is important, because comics are reaching whole new demographics that weren’t reached in the past. And that in turn is inspiring those demographics to create comics in turn, comics that might be more focused on those demographics. It’s a win / win. I’m old enough to remember when it was extremely rare for a comic creator to be anything other than a white male. Now, it’s merely uncommon. So… while “uncommon” doesn’t sound that great… the direction we’re moving is toward progress.

Of course, a creator doesn’t have to be the gender / nationality of the character he or she is writing (I’m proud of my work on Spider-Girl, for instance, but haven’t ever been a sixteen-year-old Hispanic girl) but it’s nice to open the possibility of those voices.

I’m old enough to remember when it was extremely rare for a comic creator to be anything other than a white male. Now, it’s merely uncommon. So… while “uncommon” doesn’t sound that great… the direction we’re moving is toward progress

Your comic with illustrator Colleen Coover, Bandette, seems like it has elements of both alternative comics and ‘mainstream’ comics — two worlds that I’ve rarely seen cross over into each other.  Was being able to craft it for a newer venue part of the reason that it came together the way it did?  Also, tell me that something with artwork that great is also available in print.

Colleen and I always like to experiment, so it was more that than the way we’re releasing it digitally. And the fact that the work is inspired by many French and Italian creations just meant that it made sense to shake it up artistically as well, with a soft emulation of some of those art styles. And … we’re in talks for releasing it in print form. We wouldn’t want to do it as a monthly comic: I just don’t think it lends itself to that, and also we wouldn’t want to have that strict a monetary template, or monthly deadline … but releasing it in collected volumes makes a lot of sense.

Finally, what do you feel like helped most firmly plant your foot in the door of the comic world? 

Not stopping. That’s it. That’s all there really is to it. Keep producing work, and eventually you’ll begin to get paid for it. And it’s important to remember that work ANYWHERE should be done in a professional manner, and the internet not only counts, but it’s beginning to count MORE than print comics. Choose what you want to create… find or create an avenue for it, and then don’t stop.

Much thanks to Paul for his time.  Check out more about him and his work at the informative and aptly named http://www.paultobin.net/.

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