An interview with the Art Director Bill Duncan by Kelly J. Cooper

Bill Duncan is ComixPedia’s Art Director and Staff Doodler as well as the creator of Monster Hollow, Japanimation Fist, and other work. He is a Canadian, and an avid reader of comics on the web and otherwise. He has been a dishwasher, tree-trimmer, projectionist, translator, reporter, editor, and teacher, and thought he might like to be an art director for awhile.

Bill likes to write and draw and spend time with the Interviews Editor who says she will marry him someday (if he’ll just stop doodling long enough). Much of what he doodles ends up in the dunktank.

How long have you been making comics?
I’ve been producing comics for a little less than two years now. I drew and doodled ’til my fingers were sore in elementary school, and drew lots of silly Garfield-inspired comics when I was in Grade Six, but high school came along and squashed my drawings. I somehow came to the conclusion that life was about suffering, and that there simply wasn’t time for things like drawing. I later realized that high school was about suffering, and life was about something else entirely. Apart from the occasional doodle in my notebooks I didn’t draw much of anything until about three years ago when I bought my first sketchbook in years.

Can you give me a rough time-line of your work?
What got me going again was reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. I’d been a huge comic fan until the big direct market boom went bust. I’d even stopped reading comics altogether until I read that. That was also around the time that my good friend Matt Shepherd, who writes Man-Man, Deadies, The License, and Dead Funny, suggested we sign up for Altbrand’s Solitary Confinement event. The comic I produced in those 24 hours is really the first thing I’ve produced.

After that, I went to my brother James and offered to draw a fill-in on Man-Man while his wife was having a baby. I did a two-week story called Saga of the Slim Thing, which I drew entirely with my mouse. It was pretty clunky, but it got me enthusiastic about the possibility of drawing digitally, and after that I saved my pennies and bought a tablet.

From there I started Japanimation Fist on Keenspace, and I managed to produce one hundred single-panel episodes. I experimented a lot during that time because I didn’t really think anyone was reading, and somewhere along the way I wound up writing the first of the Zombilly Picture Stories. I’m not sure where that came from, but it was dark and cute, and sort of funny (which is something I am not very good at), so I did more whenever I had the chance.

I wrapped up Japanimation Fist to take on some new projects, including the first in a series of collaborations with Alexander Danner, who was editing an online magazine called Shades of December at the time. Together we produced a wordless story called Amy Plays A Game of Chance, which ran last year on Modern Tales Longplay. There’s actually a second story sitting on my hard-drive right now, but we haven’t found a home for it yet.

Monster Hollow came as a result of an email conversation I had with Chad Welch who was assembling a subscription-site based on the Modern Tales model for horror and sci-fi comics. I pitched the idea of a series of short rhyming stories about freaks and monsters, and he loved it. I got to work right away, and produced nearly three months of strips before the floor fell out. Once I got over the initial let-down I went out and purchased the domain name, begged for hosting, and I’ve been at it since early last Fall.

It was Understanding Comics that inspired you to pick up that sketchbook three years ago? What about it goosed you into drawing again?
I think that I had been reaching for something. I had gone from film to fiction. Film school hadn’t happened, and fiction didn’t have everything I wanted. When I read the book I saw an opportunity to put both things together. McCloud treated comics like film, and I saw a lot of connections I had never appreciated before. The weird thing is that I had abandoned reading them at that point. I sort of felt as though they had become a joke. McCloud reminded me of Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian director. He had some ideas about juxtaposition which were very similar – putting images against one another to create meaning. It worked for me. Of course, I didn’t pick up the sketchpad and think of doing comics right away. I knew I hadn’t really drawn in years, and suspected that I would never be better than a bad mediocre. That’s when I developed an interest in indy comics. Some of them were pretty mediocre too, and it gave me hope. 🙂

Has Kitty City been a part of your writing for a long time?
Not really. For some reason my first 24-hour comic wound up being entirely populated with talking cats, and when I started Japanimation Fist I stayed in that vein. I suppose they were easy to draw, which was definitely a plus when I was starting out. It was initially supposed to be the backdrop for the adventures of Japanimation Fist, but somewhere along the way I got real, and realized that the story was about something else entirely. A good chunk of the story from that point on is really a misshapen nod to
Alan Moore’s run on the Swamp Thing, back when I was young and impressionable.

Your cats from the 24-hour comic and Japanimation Fist are cute as hell. Even your monsters are cute. You are the King of Cute! Care to comment?
I’m not really sure why that happens. I think that it has something to do with innocence. I associated my drawings with another part of me. Even Zombilly is kinda cute… and he’s undead. I think that when you put that in juxtaposition with their situations, something happens. Nothing brilliant, but interesting. I think that the sort of absurd spin is about as close to funny as I get.

What first inspired your love of comics (any comics – physical, web, tv)?
Well, I’ve mentioned Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing already. They’ve both contributed to my love of comics over the years. J.M. DeMatteis’ Moon Shadow was also a pretty important piece of the puzzle for me. Of course I didn’t discover those guys until I was in my early teens. Before that I was a Batman fan, pure and simple. I watched the campy Adam West series after-school when I was young, and drew pictures of Batman all over the place. I even had a home-made Batman outfit with a working utility belt.

Monster Hollow and your more horror-based comics have a lot of rhyming. And you appear to be a big Dr. Seuss fan. Any other inspiration or motivation for the rhyming?
I do love Dr. Seuss. There’s also a fair bit of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton in there. I dearly love the “Gashly Crumb Tinies” poem, and I recently managed to track down a copy of Tim Burton’s twisted book of illustrated poems, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.

The original idea of rhyming all the stories was to play on the associations people have between rhyme and children’s literature. The MH stories were supposed to be mock-children’s books about grotesque and misunderstood children, and I suppose that’s why I produce a cover for each one. I think it may also be my attempt at humor. I’m not very good at telling jokes, so I try to work around that by simply making the stories ridiculous. Sometimes I make myself laugh, but I have a rather twisted sense of humor.

Do you write the rhyming script first or create the images first?
Well, ideally I write the rhyme first, but sometimes I draw a character in my sketchbook who requires a story.

What do you wanna be when you grow up?
That’s the million-dollar question these days. To be honest, if all things were right with the world, I would be writing and illustrating twisted children’s books for twisted children for a living. Of course, until that happens I will settle for being Batman – though the utility belt no longer fits.

What do you do for work in real life for money?
I’m a teacher, or was until recently. I’m in administration now. I’ve done a bunch of other things along the way, including brief stints as a television and newspaper journalist.

Did you dig teaching? How old were the kids?
I’ve taught Kindergarten through Grade Eleven at different points. I love working with kids… but there are a lot of other things about the school system that I love less. Sometimes I find the system of squeezing square pegs through round holes is pretty depressing.

Are Johnny Mullet Is A Man and Billy Stitch Mouth still on the net somewhere? (I found references to them while googling for you!)
Billy Stitch Mouth was one of a series of one-hour comics I did last year. It wasn’t very good. I still have the hard copy somewhere, but it would take a lot of convincing for me to scan it again. Johnny, on the other-hand was mis-placed during one of the site shuffles. I still have it on my computer. I actually made print copies of that one and gave them away at my favorite comic shop. I may even still have a few copies hanging around.

Let’s sing about a few of your favorite things… favorite ice cream?
Hmmmmm, there’s a chain up here called Laura Secord, and they used to carry this chocolate ice cream with roasted coconut in it. It was amazing. Now I settle for Breyer’s Sponge Bob ice cream, which is much better than it sounds. I have no idea why Sponge Bob is on the container.

Favorite color?
I’ve always liked the colour purple… though my university colours were purple and grey, so I am kind of sick of it.

Favorite art tool?
I love my tablet, but I’m fond of sharpie markers.

And the killer final question… why do Comixpedia? Talk about the good and the bad and what keeps you with us…
I remember when Joey Manley was batting the idea around on the TAC boards, and it sounded important. It sounded as though it were one of the steps that needed to happen in order for people to take webcomics seriously, though to be honest that was probably happening anyway.

From early on Xerexes seemed like he was going to be the one to lead it, and I emailed him and told him that I would like to be onboard in any way I could. When he offered me the art thing I was kind of shocked because I had only been doing webcomics for about six months, and I had just graduated to my tablet

I’ve been learning, and hopefully improving as I go. I did the Art and Narrative column for the first while because I wanted to keep thinking and discussing some of the stuff that McCloud had left us with at the end of Reinventing Comics… But eventually I ran out of time and started to repeat myself. I decided I like to discuss more than I care to preach, so I passed it on.

Now I’m hoping to write the odd feature, but really I want to take the art up a notch, and maybe tweak the look a little more so it looks less box-y. A lot of that is still up to X, because he is the man who knows the code, but he’s told me that if I can come up with it he will find a way to program it, so it’s just a matter of coordination. I’m also building a little bullpen of people I have met along the way. People I respect who aren’t getting a lot of notice. I want to give them the same chance I’ve had. I didn’t feel right about doing […] all [the art] myself last year… that was a bit of a hassle. We were always meeting deadlines by the skin of our teeth, and there was never any time for me to throw art jobs to someone else. So it wound up being me on Sunday afternoons. Lately I have been able to pick stories and assign them… almost like a real art director/editor.

Kelly J. Cooper is the Executive Editor for Features.

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