It's Only Skin...
This morning's interview is with Center for Cartoon Studies senior Sean Ford, whose background sets him apart from his classmates: he's already worked professionally in the comics industry (at DC Comics, no less). But let's let Sean tell us his own story.
Note, please, that
A talent to watch, and today's interview should provide ample introduction to the man and his comics.
Per usual, many of the comics you’ll be seeing previewed and discussed in this series of blog interviews are
As I hope this interview series amply demonstrates, there's some excellent comics coming out of the CCS community, and some extraordinary individuals working there. You'll be meeting four more of them this week, starting now.
SB: Give us the scoop, Sean, on your personal basics -- where you are from, schooling, and so on, and when did you first get into reading comics?
SEAN FORD: My first comic actually had Steve Bissette pages in it! It was the First Publishing collection of the Eastman/Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics and I found it at this big book warehouse near my grandmother's home in Bucks County, PA. The first story was a nearly wordless story about Leonardo fighting off Foot Soldiers while the rest of the Turtles family got ready for Christmas -– I was hooked instantly. Before that, I'd read stuff like my mom's old Mad digests and collections of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes, but TMNT was what got me hooked and looking for more comics. Over the next five or six years I was an avid comics fan, reading X-Men and realizing the Turtles kind of "borrowed" from Frank Miller's Daredevil stuff, etc, and then of course, high school, girls and all that fun stuff happened and I went away from comics for a while. That period also coincided pretty closely with the mid-90's comics crash and the fact that my local store closed up probably had a lot to do with my interest drifting.
Somehow, despite rarely-to-never doing homework in high school, I got a scholarship to attend NYU and pursue a degree in studio art. I actually went into the program intending to draw a lot, but it was a really conceptual (read, "snooty") program and I came out making little models of imaginary movie sets and not drawing much at all. But, more importantly, New York exposed to me to all the stuff I had always wanted to know about but couldn't really find out about. My family didn't have internet until my senior year of high school, so I had been sort of sheltered from any really good art and comics and movies and I was able to see it all in NY. I worked at St Mark's Comics during my sophomore year at NYU and discovered Dan Clowes, the Hernandez Brothers, Chris Ware, Jeff Smith's Bone, Vertigo books and the idea that comics could tell mature, beautiful, funny, sad stories. I was heavy heavy heavy into Dan Clowes and Jaime Hernandez. My renewed interest in comics led me to pursue an internship at DC Comics, which led to a job at DC after college, where I met some amazing people who opened my eyes up to even more comics I'd never heard of.
SB: What got you into creating your own comics?
SEAN: Well, I drew comics a lot from the time I discovered the Ninja Turtles at age 8 or 9 up until high school and have many, many embarrassing Frank Miller and Jim Lee rip-offs stashed away in an undisclosed location. The first comic I ever did would probably be a comic I did about a family of mutant Raccoons who lived under Central Park, had extensive martial arts training and drank a lot of pepsi, in like 1989 or 90, or so. It was breath-takingly original, as the concept alone
makes abudantly clear.
Sean pontificates: CCS graduation night, May 2007, Sean with Joe Lambert, Caitlin Plovnick, Rich Tommaso (Photo: Joe Lambert)
SB: What brought you to White River Junction and CCS?
SEAN: After trying to continue my college sculpture stuff post-grad for a little while, I decided that it took up way too much space, that I didn't particularly care about it and that I wanted to draw comics again. I also went to my first MoCCA show during this time, probably 2004, and it made it clear that there was this huge, thriving non-superhero comics community that I really knew nothing about, outside of the superstars like Ware and Clowes and Los Bros. So I started finding out a lot more about comics and trying to write my own and failing miserably –- I never even made it to the drawing stage, just constant re-writes. I was also still working for DC Comics. I worked there for four years out of school, and while there were some great, life-changing friends there, it wasn't scratching my comics itch at all and was kind of destroying my soul (despite those great people I worked with -- most of whom I still talk to). Anyway, the person who hired me to intern at DC was Peggy Burns, who had since left for Drawn and Quarterly. I'd heard her husband, Highwater Books founder Tom Devlin, was involved with this crazy new school, The Center for Cartoon Studies, so I decided to check it out.
I visited CCS in November 05 and liked it, but it was actually a work-related visit to Jim Lee's WildStorm Studios in La Jolla, CA the next spring that made me decide to apply. I didn't really want any part of WS and certainly less of the creepy, cookie-cutter town of La Jolla, but seeing those offices I just couldn't help thinking that Lee had been able to do that by pursuing what he really wanted to do in life and I was just kind of wasting away at a job I didn't particularly care about. It was a really weird setting for a sort of life-altering decision like that, but somehow I was able to look past the Hollywood cheesiness of the moment and I got home from that trip and started drawing my first real comics I'd drawn since I was 14 or 15. And after a month or so of drawing, despite the general shittiness of the results, I applied to CCS and magically got in.
SB: You've already completed a body of work at CCS already that is pretty cohesive -- any personal faves you'd like to get into?
SEAN: My earlier work at CCS really felt like I was learning to draw again and figure out how I would tell stories -- something I'm still doing, but hopefully there's less figuring it out as I go now. The early stuff was extremely valuable to me, it was like comics boot camp and I'm better for it, but I'm not sure how valuable it'd be for anyone else to see. Ever. However, there is one story that I do like that was kind of where I started to pull things together a little. That story was included in the Chimaera anthology, which has a ton of other great stories, including Morgan Pielli's "NO," which is one of my favorite stories from all of the first year of our class. (available at www.iknowjoekimpel.com and at the Quechee Gorge Antique Mall booth!)
Left: interior page from Only Skin (2007)
SB: One thematic element that was consistent in your first-year work at CCS was cannibalism; it was pervasive, almost a fairy-tale like touchstone --
SEAN: Yeah, it's funny, it actually took me a while to realize that I kept doing that. At first it just seemed to be a funny way to end certain stories, but then I realized it was definitely a theme. I've tried to figure out why I'm drawn to that sort of story and beyond an interest in horror elements and the fact that I think being eaten alive would be one of the worst ways to die, I think there's probably some sort of Sean's Daddy Issues/Joseph Campbell circle of life thing going on. One of my stories was based on the myth of Cronos, who tried to pervert the natural order of life by eating his children and stealing their youth to prevent his own aging. Zeus eventually kills him and saves his siblings, returning things to their natural order. But humans eating humans is always this perversion of the natural order. The Wendigo myth that exists in some form in almost every Native American culture supposedly comes out of the tribes dealing with cannibals that they would cast out, too. Basically, every culture has these myths of monsters that at their root seem to have started with cannibalism, and it's always treated as this completely unnatural rejection of the natural flow of life. So, it's really a pretty big theme in the stories the entire world shares and where most religious stories are metaphors for the circle of life working correctly, the cannibal stories seem to be the warning stories about when things get fucked up. There's some personal history I have that makes the latter more appealing to me, there's an illness in my family that's made these stories kind of appealing as a metaphor to me. But I'm kind of learning more about that right now and wondering if I'm looking at it the right way. But the whole idea that the aging process gets perverted and there are parents eating their children has a bizarre hold on me.
SB: Let’s hear about your new comic, the one folks can pick up at MoCCA in a couple weeks --
SEAN: My new comic is called Only Skin: New Tales of the Slow Apocalypse. The issue I'm going to have at MoCCA is the first part of a story that's going to take probably six issues to finish. After that, I'm hoping I can keep the title going as a sort of umbrella title for further stories. I'm really interested in the idea of telling stories with the same cast of characters that allow for lots of character growth and smaller moments mixed in with big plot-y stuff, like Love and Rockets and X-Files-type things do. I think it's an advantage comics have for telling unique stories that isn't used nearly enough, outside of super-hero stuff. Of course, the new Graphic Novel Explosion has led to even less of this stuff, but I think there's probably a way to marry the two formats -- they're able to collect Love and Rockets well enough. Also, I've talked a lot about this with people here and the talented, super awesome Rich Tommaso always mentions the fact that some of the best "graphic novels" ever are really just collections of serialized stories that took their creators years to write and draw: I Never Liked You, Jimmy Corrigan, David Boring, Clyde Fans, Hicksville, etc. So anyway, that's my plan for now: to work with these characters for a while and add new stuff along the way.
SB: What’s Only Skin about?
SEAN: The story in the first issue introduces four primary characters: Cassie and Clay, a brother and sister, and Paul and Albert, a pair of journalists/writers. The story will also focus on their relationship to a mystery involving several disappearances, one of which was Cassie and Clay's father, who owns a gas station which Cassie shows up to take over while she looks for her father. Clay arrives with her and encounters a ghost who claims to be his father. Paul and Albert kind of witness the effect the disappearances are having on the town, while stumbling upon a fifth primary character who sets up a cliff-hanger ending which won't be resolved until issue #2 (available at SPX 07!).
SB: There's a strong sense of place in Only Skin from its first page, and a very deliberate pacing. How do you approach the writing and narrative element of your comics creations?
SEAN: I think place has a very big impact on any story and it's usually one of the first things I think of when I'm writing. There is usually a pretty visual idea of a place and several other visual themes I try to work in before I start writing out plot lines, narrative arcs and scenes and dialogue and all that fun stuff. The setting for Only Skin, primarily a gas station in a remote location, probably came directly from a summer trip I took last year, where I spent a lot of time driving through some pretty empty spaces. After that, I started developing characters and started fitting them into this story that I kind of had on the back burner for a while. I should mention that an invaluable part of the writing process is the CCS community. The ability to just constantly bounce ideas off people, from writing instructor Sarah Stewart-Taylor to a bunch of my classmates, is something I've never had before that's just completely awesome.
SB: Only Skin also involves a strong spiritual component, an essentially Eastern fusion of naturalism and spirits: ghosts figure prominently, and are essentially presented not as threats from some parallel plane, but as beings co-habitating with our day-to-day lives. Where did this come from?
SEAN: Oh, man. Well, first, and possibly the most stupid reason is that I used to go into Jim Hanley's Universe and flip through comics and get mad when I didn't see any ghosts in them. I always want to read about ghosts and horror and stuff like that, so I decided to just make the closest thing I could to the comic I was looking for.
As far as the actual reason for putting a ghost in this story: I love when ghosts and the supernatural are used to talk about family trauma, stuff like Kubrick's The Shining and The Brood and Solaris and Ringu and, of course, like, Hamlet. I like the idea that the past is this thick thing that surrounds us and that sometimes we can't escape from. Also, anything that's supernatural in a story always serves as a good way of talking about or representing really powerful moments in "real life" that we can't always fully make sense of. There's a power to these iconographic horror elements that I've always responded to and I think a lot of people do. I don't know that I believe in the actual existence of a ghost in a sheet, but I do think people are haunted by all sorts of ghosts in other ways, and I think that's absolutely an inextricable part of our day-to-day lives. And since it's a comic, I get to represent it visually as a ghost in a sheet and have fun drawing it.
SB: Ya, that’s pretty amusing -- but you keep it unsettling, too.
SEAN: As far as my use of ghosts being more Eastern in origin, I don't know, it probably comes from watching a lot of Japanese and Korean horror movies and -- uh -- The X-Files? Though, I don't know, is the idea Eastern? Hamlet had a ghost that seemed to have a very similar axe to grind as the ghost in Ju-on. I'd have to think about it.
SB: Well, the notion of ghosts inhabiting a parallel reality, one we co-exist with, is more Eastern in nature. Western ghost stories tend to present spirits as aberrations, intrusions, something to be cast out or ‘back.’
SEAN: I don't mean to imply that this story is going to be one of those "find out what the ghost wants and make it go away" deals. I think that plot is sort of silly and not really too interesting and it ends up seeming too tidy. As I said, the powerful thing about these things for me is that they represent things we can't make sense of -- there should be a sort of mystery to it. Having a moment in a story where you find what the ghost wants and it immediately dissipates kind of pisses me off. That's why I love the Ringu stories, where the protagonists think they've "released" the ghost's spirit because they've found her body at the end of the first movie and she just keeps going because she's an angry bitch.
SB: Cool. You mentioned your time at DC -- you're the initial bridge between DC and CCS, Sean. The graduates have already build upon that link: one has worked at DC throughout his senior year, another graduate just started her internship at DC. What was your internship like at that venerable company, and when was that?
SEAN: My internship was in the summer of 2001, working for Peggy Burns in publicity. It was a great experience and Peggy is pretty much a life-long friend who has helped me constantly -- she actually wrote my recommendation letter for CCS. DC is a weird company and I lost a lot of romantic illusions about comics, but I also learned that there are people there who truly truly love comics and will bend over backwards to get stuff done. So, in some ways it was kind of depressing, but in other ways it was totally inspiring. It was a weird experience. But I actually spoke with both of the CCS students who went on to work there this year and I recommended the experience highly to each of them. Whether or not they end up loving it and deciding to stay there, I'm sure it'll be worthwhile and I'm sure they will meet some of the great people I did who will only help them along the way. I don't mean to wave the DC flag or anything, I have a lot of issues with some of the things they've done, but I do think the company as a whole has gotten a lot better at treating their freelancers and creators better and I know I'd be a different person if I'd never set foot in that place.
SB: Once you were actively employed at DC, what were you doing? Any anecdotes you can share here?
SEAN: I started working for DC about a year after my internship and I was working in Editorial Administration, first doing contracts and other random administrative type-things and then managing the Editorial Scheduling group. The first experience was pretty close to probably any office job, except the paperwork I was filing had comics names sprinkled in with the other mumbo-jumbo and I had to field some strange phone calls from childhood idols like Chris Claremont and stuff. The second experience, my last two years at DC, was kind of crazy. I was really in the thick of inner workings of both the DCU and Vertigo and, oh man, yes there are anecdotes. You'd have to get me a few drinks to hear any of the Editorial or freelancer-related ones, so for now I'll just say that publishing on a weekly schedule can lead to some tense moments and the occassional tantrum. But again, most people at DC are doing the work because they truly love it, so I feel weird telling tales out of school.
SB: I won’t press the point, but there’s a reason I ask. You’ve worked at DC, you’ve worked at St Mark's Comics, you’re now at CCS and creating and marketing your own work. How has that prior real-world experience in the comics industry impacted your own orientation to comics, graphic novels and your own work?
SEAN: I think the nice part of working at DC is that I went into the CCS experience with my eyes wide open. I don't feel like I have any illusions about a golden sack of comics money landing in my lap ever and I think that's far healthier. Being at DC made me want to make comics that I actually wanted to read and that's what I'm trying to do.
SB: You and your classmates and peers are entering the field amid a major generational shift in the medium and the industry. Again, due in part to your real-world publishing employment, I'm curious how you see and feel that change is happening -- what is it, where might it be going?
SEAN: I don't think anyone knows what's going to happen. Personally, I'm curious to see what happens with the bookstore market, if it's a fad that all these big publishers have graphic novel imprints or if it will stick. As long as there are hits like Fun Home and American Born Chinese and Persepolis, I think it'll continue to grow. I'm also curious to see what becomes of all these teenagers who stalk the manga aisle in Borders. Will they keep reading comics? Or are they manga for life? Or is it a phase?
SB: Ya, this is a different equation than we’ve ever seen before. They’re getting work of far more sustance than my generation grew up with; they’re not being fleeced by publishers and price guides the way the young readers of the ‘90s were. It’s a whole different generational experience right now.
SEAN: If those are new readers, there are a lot of them and if they ever get jobs there could finally be a substantial influx of mature comics readers. I don't know though. I think there's lots of reason to have hope and lots of reason to be terrified. Vertigo started developing an American manga-style line that was aimed at teenage girls called Minx during my last couple of years at DC and they're banking heavily on that and it will be interesting to see if manga fans buy it or don't care. We're seeing manga's influence in some ways here -- Scott Pilgrim, basically a manga/anime style book about a hipster who plays video games and has video game-style fights, is a pretty big hit for Oni that just got licensed for a movie adaptation.
SB: Where would you prefer to see publishers going?
SEAN: One thing that I wish more publishers would look at more is not necessarily the content of manga (which I like a great deal) but the format of how the books are sold. There are manga magazines that sell millions of copies. They collect the books in cheap, pocket-size digests that tell long, continous, serialized stories. Why not try something like that with Batman, or -- gasp! -- an "alternative" comic? Scott Pilgrim has kind of come the closest to that and it's a hit. One thing I learned at DC is that the Direct Market is a weird model that probably needs to change or go away, but no one wants to admit this or address this.
SB: Well, the so-called mainstream comics publishers have always been resistent to change, whatever the new paradigm.
SEAN: Comics stores are great, but they're hard to find and as more and more titles come out, it's harder for these small stores to stock material for super-hero fans and "alternative" fans alike. I certainly hope that the comics store doesn't die, I would be sad, but it seems like they or the big two superhero companies might have to change their approach to these monthly chap books. I have no idea why DC hasn't made some sort of DCU magazine that collects several of it's monthly titles or gone to the idea of a 100-page quarterly Batman digest that goes right into bookstores -- probably this history of collecting the single issue, but that's changing as the titles get collected into trade paperback form a year or less after the single issues hit the stands. It seems like DC and Marvel are creeping toward this idea of getting new material into bookstores as quickly as possible, but we'll see I guess. I hope I don't piss off comics store owners who read this, I love comics stores. I wonder how they feel about all this market shift?
SB: We’ll ask ‘em at some point -- that’s another interview stream worth pursuing.
SEAN: Anyway, obviously, the rise of the graphic novel has allowed every comics publisher to infiltrate bookstores, so hopefully that will continue and the books will sell and everyone will be happy. But I don't think any of us at CCS think that any of this means that there's some sort of golden deal waiting for us that will allow us to work on nothing but comics. What it means for us is more opportunities. Comics are officially not gutter trash anymore. There are comics artists illustrating the covers of major new novels and reissues of classic novels. Almost every magazine on the stands has some sort of comic illustration in it. Almost every major publisher will look at a comic book without sneering or sighing or laughing. So, we have opportunities, despite the fact that publishing in general is going through scary times and all this weird electronic book stuff that might happen. So, basically, the shorter answer to your question would have been: I have no fucking idea.
SB: [laughs] OK -- How do you see your role in this paradigm shift? If there were no material-world obstacles, what would you aspire to, creatively and in terms of getting your work into the marketplace?
SEAN: I think the nice thing about comics continues to be the fact that there is a small core community that you can reach out to at the comics cons like MoCCA, APE, SPX and even San Diego. I think that my plan for now is to just continue taking my minis to cons and get them in the hands of people who I know love comics and will at least attempt to make sense of my stuff. I don't foresee anyone ever actually paying me money for this stuff and I think most people making comics feel the same way. These comics are works of love and devotion and that's what makes them special. I feel like if I make minis for the next ten years and I get out the stories I want to get out that I will be happy. Having worked an office job for four years, I pray for the "no material-world obstacles" dream scenario you mentioned on a daily basis, but I know that some day very soon I will have to go back to work and try to keep making time for comics. Honestly, if I had zero financial limitations, I would probably try to keep doing what I'm doing and put out individual issues of Only Skin, I guess the only difference would be that I would try to collect it at some point and get that collection in book stores so it could find a wider audience. If there were no weird distribution limitations, I would love to try to get my individual issues of Only Skin in comic stores, but I'm not sure that's possible. Creatively, there are a bunch of stories I want to do with the Only Skin characters that I plan to keep working on until it seems really boring to either me or the handful of people who read it right now.
SB: What cartoonists in particular have influenced your work, your orientation to the medium?
SEAN: There've been so many different comics that have felt like touchstones at various points. The two major ones that I always go back to would definitely be Dan Clowes and Jaime Hernandez. Their ability to not only write great characters and stories but add that next level with utterly beautiful drawings is something I aspire to. I know I won't ever get to their level, but they're the beacons that I constantly look to and re-read. I think it's safe to say that I wouldn't be at CCS if it wasn't for their work. That giant Locas book saved my life and gave me so much hope for the medium in general. Other stuff, I mean, there's just so much that's blown my mind and made me re-evaluate everything, which I love.
To just rattle some off: Byrne and Claremont's run on Uncanny X-Men, pretty much everything Alan Moore has ever worked on, especially Swamp Thing and V for Vendetta, Jeff Smith's Bone, Garth Ennis' Preacher, all of Frank Miller's stuff but especially The Dark Knight Returns, I already mentioned TMNT, Sammy Harkham, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilsen, Chester Brown's I Never Liked You, Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes is a constant reminder of how fun this stuff should be, the recent D+Q reprints of Tatsumi's short stories were hugely exciting because it got me out of this mindset that I had to be working on a graphic novel and mind me look at the 8 or 10pp short story again, Lynda Barry is a genius, David B's Epileptic, I could probably literally type names and books for a few hours.
SB: There’s a lot out there now, it’s amazing. What comics, graphic novels and/or cartoonists who haven't received a lot of attention would you recommend others out there track down and read?
SEAN: A couple of big ones for me that probably don't get mentioned as much as the other stuff: well, honestly, I don't feel like Jaime Hernandez gets enough credit, or isn't read enough anymore or something. He's a genius. I think Maggie and Hopey are two of the most interesting and well-crafted characters in almost any medium and the way he ages them and develops them is just so so cool. I think he's probably the best comics artist ever, or one of them. Also, I think Dylan Horrock's Hicksville doesn't get enough props. I think it's one of the best graphic novels ever written and every time I'm down on comics I read it and I'm inspired all over again. Another huge touchstone has been David Mazzucchelli's work -- obviously there's Batman Year One and the Daredevil stuff, but also his adaptation with Paul Karasik of Paul Auster's City of Glass is brilliant cartooning and his hard to find Rubber Blanket series from the early 90s is just essential comics and someone needs to reprint that stuff. Another recent find who I'm in love with is Al Columbia.
SB: Al’s a fucking genius.
SEAN: His Biologic Show is amazing and he's got some stories in Zero Zero and Blab that are utterly brilliant and scary and beautiful -- like Chris Ware or Max Fleischer filtered through Clive Barker. Supposedly there's a gigantic 300-page Al Columbia book that Fantagraphics is doing next spring that I think will probably be one of my favorite things ever. Also, not to sound like a little weeny-tot or something, but working around artists here at CCS is the main thing that keeps me going and teaching me new stuff. Seeing the stuff that guys I work around are doing just makes me work harder, but also lets me steal tricks and learn things that I'm not even thinking about. Most of those people are in the Sundays Anthology we're doing together and it's going to be awesome --
SB: Let out that inner William Castle, Sean! There was a cartoonist whose work you covered in your presentation in 'Survey of the Drawn Story' class, too -- who was that?
SEAN: OOOHH!! I completely forgot about Thomas Herpich despite my long-winded answer to your previous question!
SB: Well, that’s why I asked --
SEAN: Yeah, his books Cusp and Gongwanadon from Alternative Comics are awesome. They're these hilarious little vignettes about life and death and hairy monsters. I wish he'd do more! Do more comics, Tom Herpich! I should also mention the other guy I did a presentation on for CCS this year: Jamie Tanner, who has a great series of surreal minis that Adhouse is collecting into a cool looking book called The Aviary, which I believe is coming out at MoCCA. I mean, there are so many mini comics artists who are awesome who I wish I could see more stuff by because that stuff is so inspirational... hopefully I'll get a boat load of it at MoCCA in a few weeks.
SB: Thanks for your time, Sean, and appreciate the chat.
Have a great Tuesday...