Checking In with FAUB’s John Fortman

Lovers of beautiful black-and-white art and urban fantasy should know of the unique treasure nestled away at FALLEN ANGELS USED BOOKS gorgeous pencil artwork with a sure sense of proportion and the human shape, used to tell a story of a waif with wings and a Used Book Store owner, among many other fascinating characters. FAUB started in June 2003 and has already gathered a large following. John Fortman, the author, gave us a very thorough and revealing interview.

The first thing that strikes anyone about Fallen Angels Used Books is the beautiful black-and-white penciled art. Who are your artistic influences?
I wouldn’t say there is any particular style I have tried to emulate. I have taken bits and pieces of style from here and there. At one time I tried to draw characters from Elfquest (Richard and Wendy Pini). The first four bound volumes were passed around quite a bit during junior high. The very first prototypes for Sandy and others were Elfquest elves.

By my first month of college I had discovered manga. The stories were better. The artwork was different and you could actually see how they drew it. This is much less evident when a comic is in color. My first manga was Appleseed by Masamune Shirow. More recently I have been impressed by the pencil/ink artwork in the earlier issues of Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura. But for sheer ability in putting ink to paper (not to mention the excellent story), Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise.

When I started FAUB, the “comic book style” escaped me completely. It still does. I started drawing the characters the way I drew them in my sketchbook. Hair is a shape to be shaded. It doesn’t matter how the shading is done. That kind of thing. I just didn’t know of any other way to do it.

The second thing is the urban fantasy aspect, the mixture of Reagan-era reality and detail รขโ‚ฌโ€œ and beings out of fantasy. Who are your literary influences?
I would like to say that I read a lot, but that’s not the case. When I do read, I read comic books. During highschool, I spent quite a bit of time reading X-men and the spinoffs from that (X-Force, X-Factor, New Mutants, eXcalibur). Then I stopped and never looked back. Of course, I can still carry on a reasonably intelligent superhero conversation when prompted.

I do read novels on occasion. Robert Asprin (Myth Adventures), David Eddings (the Belgariad), Piers Anthony (the Adept series, the Xanth series), C. J. Cherryh (The World Gate series), Fritz Leiber (Lankhmar series), Harry Harrison (Stainless Steel Rat), Christopher Stasheff (the Warlock series), and bits and pieces from many others. I’ve touched on novels by Orson Scott Card, Tanith Lee, and Roger Zelazny. I’ve read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series from beginning to end (and seen all the movies except the first in theaters). I would recommend Alice in Wonderland to anyone who hasn’t read it as well as War of the Worlds.

The term, Urban Fantasy, came from Charles DeLint. I have read about a half dozen DeLint novels, including a collection of short stories (I’m looking at a list of his published works and I can’t remember the name of the book!) that summarized everything I wanted to do with my writing. In the same story, DeLint can convey both a sense of wonder and a seriousness that keeps the story from running away with itself, that keeps it grounded and real.

What made you want to create, to tell stories? We know you graduated Northeast Missouri State University in 1996 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting, and from Truman State University in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. But when did the bug bite you to tell your story or stories? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do, or did it first occur to you when you were being taught by the author of if-then-else, or what in your background spurred you to tell stories?
“When did the bug bite me?” The story that would give birth to FAUB started in seventh grade back in 1985 or 86 as a pastoral fantasy adventure with elves, dragons and magic. Throughout high school and college, the story grew, pulling in elements from many different sources and passing through many stages. Robotech (highschool). Dungeons & Dragons (early college). Bladerunner and Babylon 5 (late college). And finally, Charles DeLint (the real world).

I actually amassed too much information to effectively write anything. I didn’t know where to start. I have a few hundred pages of manuscript for various parts of the story. I never finished anything I wrote because I could not make the words convey my vision of this world. Each new idea brought out another hint of detail that would derail my train of thought and I had to start over.

FAUB did two things for me. First, I told myself that I would not second-guess myself. Once a page was written, that would be the end of it. I would continue to the next page. This would end the constant rewrites. Rewrites are for scripting, not production. Second, I decided to take the smallest, simplest piece of the story I could and develop that. There would be no detailed, fantasy world to contend with that would require as much explaining as the actual story. I would only touch upon one or two important characters, leaving the rest for a later date. To my surprise, I discovered that FAUB would make a better introduction to my world than I could have hoped for otherwise.

Why make it a period piece, during the mid-eighties, rather than contemporary? Wouldn’t making it contemporary aid in reader identification? Is this based on a period in your own life, perhaps?
Sandy and her daughter are part of a larger storyline with a very specific schedule. Swift needed to finish highschool in the year 1998, which meant she had to start Kindergarten in 1985. Part of the storyline was supposed to be a post-apocalyptic, millenium meltdown (which of course never happened). Add to this the fact that I not only grew up in the 80s but the origins of the story started then. It had to be done. There was no other point in history when FAUB would have made sense, at least to me.

There are also some steampunk qualities that would not have worked in a wired world. I will need to read Tom Clancy and do quite a bit of research into surveillance once this story reaches the 90s.

Who’s your favorite character? Which character do you identify most with? (Not necessarily the same thing.) Sandy, Racheal, Sylvester, Martian Girl…? Are any of them based on people you’ve known in real life?
Without a doubt, the character whom I have spent the most time on is Sandy. The rest were added originally as filler, to provide an environment for Sandy to explore. Each character had a role to play. Racheal was the motherly character who would give Sandy a safe haven from the outside world. Paula was the crone, meant to represent little more than unthinking bigotry. The girl who became Velma-Shelly-Rebecca was actually just one of a number of decorations. I had a Veitnam veteren whose right arm had been amputated just below the shoulder. A small troup of goths, ala Neil Gaiman, until I realized this was the 80s and they should be punk anarchists. Sylvester was the wizard and was originally meant to summarize what was happening for the clueless characters.

The character who has surprised me the most and who has done her best to completely mangle the storyline for me is Shelly. She first appeared because the story had gone about as far as it could on its own and someone needed to walk in the door. She started out as Velma, the smart girl from Scooby Doo who nobody really liked. Sandy’s reaction to this shy creature? Sandy kissed her. This wasn’t an event I had planned. It just happened by the nature of the characters involved. And the dominos started to fall.

Shelly brought out the goblins who would be interested in her for more than just her puppy dog cuteness. The goblins’ belief in their own anonymity brought a reaction from the police. Suddenly, Sandy was swept up in elements of a story that no longer directly involved her. She became a passenger when she was meant to be the driver. But Shelly wouldn’t stop. When she ran away from home she prompted a long series of events that will shape storylines to come. Sara entrusting Sam with Shelly’s safety was only the first link in this chain.

The only character based on a real person is Racheal and even then the basis is superficial. I believe I met this person (who I will not name because I have not asked her permission to use her likeness in any way) a total of four times when I was in college. She worked in a small bookstore called Used Books and Unicorns in Kirksville, MO about a mile or so north of the college. The store was packed with paperback books. Stacks of books lay on the floor. There was hardly room to walk between the aisles. The moment I saw it, I thought, “wouldn’t this be a great place for a story?” The store became Fallen Angels Used Books and a part-time cashier became the owner and sole proprietor.

You’ve described this as “an exploration of the holds religion has on society and how it shapes people’s views”–albeit with girls with large, leathery wings, among other fantastic happenings. Have your own religious views (or lack of same, perhaps?), then, shaped this story…and if so, would you mind sharing your religious views?
Galileo wrote a book once defending the views of a mathematician named Copernicus and his belief that the earth moved around the sun. In his day, this was heresy. The church declared that this view was wrong but could be discussed only if it was described as hypothetical, one theory among many. The book was titled “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World.” It was written in popular Italian as a dialogue between Simplicio, who spoke for the church, and a mathematician who spoke for Copernicus.

For Galileo to get his book published required the church to win the argument but for anyone reading the book, the evidence was sorely in Copernicus’ favor. The Bible was considered infallible at the time and the idea that the earth moved and not the sun was thought to contradict a passage from Joshua where God halted the motion of the sun (Joshua 10:13) For this grievous sin, Galileo was forced to officially renounce his beliefs and was placed under house arrest. It wasn’t until 1992 – almost 400 years later – that Rome finally pardoned Galileo and admitted they were wrong. (The text of the book can be found:

I bring up Galileo because his story reflects the modern treatment of another scientist’s work, a man by the name of Darwin. There are laws on the books or being voted upon in more than a few states that require the theory of evolution to be taught as hypothetical, one of many theories. (The text of “Origin of the Species” can be found: and the continuing argument can be found: and in many other places on the Internet.)

The parallels are troubling. For some reason, even in the light of four-hundred years of accumulated evidence to the contrary, some views have not changed (don’t start that argument!). The only real difference is the people who have them are no longer in charge (don’t start that argument, either). What troubles me is not the headbutting between religion and science. I don’t understand fanaticism. I don’t understand how anyone can firmly and truly believe they are right no matter what. Unshakeable, unwavering belief. I don’t get it.

Paula was meant to be the believer so I could understand her. The setting and the fact that Sandy’s character had large leathery wings well before I had considered the religious complications made Paula a fundamentalist Christian. Given the amount of source material available (see, the debate could have been epic, but the story had a mind of its own.

Since Paula couldn’t be with us for this part of the story, there will be others to fill her role. Religion doesn’t come from a book. It takes believers, those willing to go to extraordinary lengths to maintain their views. Religion is also political in nature. Belief is used to unite and, at the same time, to turn people against each other. The details aren’t particularly important. All it takes is something made larger than life.
I’m working on incorporating this idea into the story. It amounts to commentary but that’s all I have to work with at the moment.

Most of the major characters in the story are female. So far, the only memorable male is Sylvester. Is there any reason for that? Have there been a lot of strong female characters in your own life?
The biggest reason I have for the lack of male presence in the comic is Sandy’s androphobia. She can’t function as a character in the story with guys around. Sylvester was the only male character who I made a point of introducing because he was there to show that Sandy was afraid of men. Unfortunately, he is also the only male character whose background I have spent some time to develop before he was introduced.

The police officers weren’t intended to be characters when I started FAUB. They just sort of happened. Characters that “just sort of happen” don’t start with much personality

I do prefer strong female characters. One of the things I don’t like about Shoujo manga (girl comics) is that sometimes you get strong, interesting female characters who wimp out halfway through the story so the weak male character can take the dominant role. Why isn’t the poor girl allowed to think for herself?

Most of the characters who will continue through the story were introduced in the first two issues. That doesn’t leave much room for male characters. So, the lack of a male presence in the comic is purely circumstantial. And I like drawing girls.

If you had the webcomic to do over again, to start again, would you have changed anything? What advice would you give aspiring webcartoonists?
Three days per page is too long for anyone on a schedule. If you want to have a social life and a web comic, pick an easier style. A professional comic artist will work on three pages at a time partly to keep from getting burned out on any one drawing and partly because it’s a job with a deadline and twenty-five pages are due at the end of the month. They use shortcuts to make their deadlines. In Japan the artists often use screen tones in place of backgrounds. In the US, flat black is used to create the illusion
of depth and detail.

The results of my experiments with flat black are mixed. It is possible to create some truly interesting effects with this non-color. It is also possible to ruin an otherwise nice drawing with it. I have a lot of respect for Mike Mignola (Hellboy) and those talented others who can use it effectively.

If you get a chance to meet a comic artist in person, take it. Talk to this person. Listen to what is being said. You may just become a better artist because of it. If you ever get the chance, take a close look at the artist’s originals, not just the artwork but how it was edited and corrected. I thought it was funny when an artist once showed me his comic and said, “look at this. The guy (forgot his name, sorry) did this in
Photoshop.” like it was a strange, unnatural thing. Professionals do things differently. Webcomicking may just be a hobby but these are the people we try to emulate. You will learn more from them than I could ever hope to tell you.

You seem to have a definite storyline and ending in mind. Yet all the action seems so far to have taken place in the space or two or three days. How long do you foresee this taking?

I actually expected quite a bit of the major storyline to be finished by the end of issue 5. There’s just so much groundwork… It’s right about now that I want to jump into a long speil about the characters, the story and where I want everything to go. I have to stop myself so I don’t give anything away.

I never saw the quote, but I believe it was Dave Sim who said a graphic novel should be at least 500 pages to really allow the story to be developed to its fullest. These 200 page graphic novels you see in comic shops are little more than short stories in comparison. The first trade paperback of Fables is a good example of a comic short story. The entire storyline was completed in four issues. By comparison, four issues of Cerebus might move the characters from point A to point B, setting them up for the next major event in the story. I want FAUB to be that 500 page graphic novel. That’s why the story is progressing so slowly. No episodes, just interconnecting threads of story starting and the beginning and progressing to the end.

I can’t say how long FAUB will be when it’s completed. I do know that it won’t cover more than a month or two in story time. Sandy isn’t holding up well after 24 hours. Just think of the wreck she’ll be after a week. I just know that there are events I want to include and threads of story that need to be resolved. When there’s nothing left to tell, I’ll call it an end. Then I’ll go on to the next one.

Do you have any plans, or projects, after the ending of Fallen Angels Used Books?
As I mentioned before, FAUB was just the smallest, simplest part of the story. Once it’s finished I’ll just go on to the next part. Sandy’s life is just getting started in FAUB. She has a long way to go and a child to put through school. There are a number of issues that I refuse to touch on in FAUB as well that will need to be covered at a later date. Why does she have wings? Who is her daughter’s father? Including these things would add unnecessary complexity without driving the plot.

I do not want the sequel to FAUB to be the same story, same characters, different villain. Those aren’t any fun.

Al Schroeder is the Acting Editor for Interviews for the Comixpedia. More Details.


  1. Hello, I’m the cartoonist of if then else. I feel that it’s worth noting that I did not teach John as indicated by one of the interview questions. I provided advice concerning hosting with Keenspace. He knew that I had a comic there and requested information about my experience to that point.

    Besides, if I had taught him, the quality of my comic would be much better. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Mystery contributor? Getting interesting, this is.

    But great interview!

  3. Ooopsie! Forgot to change that before putting it up last night! O_o

    That’ll teach me to spend the day celebrating my wife’s birthday!

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