A Little Necromancy Never Hurt Anybody: Al Schroeder Talks to Tom Stackpole

Tom Stackpole does the experimental and innovative Invisible Forces for PV Comics and at his own site, bonedancer.com has published such innovative works as Talking Drunk Driver Blues, and the The Diptheria Plague. His newest work at his own site is Jake Dyson’s Big Move.

Stackpole took a few minutes out a hectic schedule for an interview with Comixpedia’s Al Schroeder.

Tell me a little of your background…where you’re from, what you do, and what originally "hooked" you on comics?

I’m not sure I am hooked on comics. I did read some comics when I was a kid, but at some point lost interest. Eventually I really got excited about film and 3D animation in a much stronger, “I want to make this!” kind of way. I spent years thinking about animation, honing my skills, trying to get a job, and also nurturing some ideas for longer stories. After a disappointing internship at an animation studio, I declared to some friends that I was just going to make the sort of short animated film that I wanted to make even if it took me years. I said that I’d like to do something longer with the characters (from The Diptera Plague), but with animation it was just unrealistic. One of them asked me if I had ever considered making the story as a comic, and I couldn’t believe I had never thought of it myself. A month later I was working on The Diptera Plague and I actually worked on it for a few months with the plan of putting it on the web before learning that a lot of other people were already doing it. That was late 2002; I thought I was doing something groundbreaking.


Hmmm. An aspiring necromancer and his zombie? Obviously autobiographical. *Grin* So what inspired that particular theme for a story?

No, not exactly autobiographical, but there probably are some elements of wish fulfillment in it. Who wouldn’t want a zombie minion to do their laundry?

I think I came up with the idea after some discussions with friends where we were arguing about the general perceptions of good and evil. I started to think about how I might tell a story from the perspective of a stereotypical villain and whether or not I could find something in his selfish, megalomaniacal and misanthropic mindset that would be admirable, or at least understandable, or at the very least amusing. Pretty quickly I realized that the concept appealed to me at a really deep level (let’s not think too much about why), and that I had stumbled across an idea with which I would be happy to spend a lot of time. I think that was about 5 years ago, but I’m still really excited about it. My biggest obstacle now is the feeling that the execution isn’t fully delivering on the concept. I’m working on it though – thinking about it a lot, trying a lot of different things.


I like your use of rollover images, so fitting for a story called Invisible Forces, where only parts of the image are revealed at a time. It’s an interesting moving dynamic, and used very carefully to reveal more about the character in a way that adds, rather than distracting from, the story. Is it difficult to make the reader see it not as a novelty or a trick, but an enriching of the story? What sort of effects would you like to be able to give your stories that you haven’t used yet?

Yeah, after I put the first chapter on the web I came across some comments from people who saw the technique as a gimmick used to add interest to an underdeveloped story. In a way, that’s exactly what it is, but I guess I don’t necessarily see it as a negative thing. Coming up with a different solution to the problem created with each new page and then also finding ways whereever I could to use the technique to create an interesting or surprising moment was the most creative and interesting part of working on the comic, and experiencing that I think is probably the most entertaining part for a reader too. I really don’t believe that a comic (or whatever) needs a plot, characters or a conflict to be a beautiful experience. Does music? Actually, I think that the first chapter of Invisible Forces, without context or explanation, stands pretty well on its own as a stylistic exercise. I’m happy with it.


It seems like, after an intial flush of experimental webcomics, most comics are now going the safe and sedate route—just to have them ready to make them into print trade paperbacks. That very few take advantage of the wide range of possibilities of the medium. Do you sometimes feel frustrated…that most readers and creators are going for the tried and true, the "safe" route? Is there any way to shake them out of their lethargy?

I can’t say I feel frustrated since, to be honest, I’m so wrapped up in my own stuff that I’m not too aware of what others are doing. As far as getting people to experiment or read things that are experimental, taking my own work out of the equation, I’m not sure why I’d care. There are an endless number of ways to make something great. I think that innovation does have an inherent value in art, but it’s certainly not required to make something great and it’s also certainly not enough alone to make something great. Some young artist might make an innovative sculpture that automatically pokes out the eye of the viewer, but I’m not sure that that would be something in which I’d be all that interested.


I assume you storyboard your comics before you do it—is it an especial challenge, given the sort of comics you make? Ever run out of room on the paper you’re using, just to plan it out?

Planning Invisible Forces was pretty challenging. I would start on paper, but it would only be a very basic guide, and probably indecipherable to anyone but me. A lot of time was spent with a rough version on my computer trying to find solutions that would work technically (it was important to try and guide the reader’s pointer away from nodes they weren’t supposed to hit yet) and would also read well. I really dicovered how important it is to spend time with something in an early stage and how ruthless you need to be about what works and what doesn’t. A good learning experience.


How has your experience with PV Comics been? What are the advantages and disadvantages you’ve encountered to being part of a group?

It’s been like a walk through a funhouse with crazy funhouse mirrors. Everyone seems to have similar goals and different ways to get there, or similar ways to get to different goals. It’s been the source of a lot of great creative motivation and a much-needed feeling of community. I’m certain that Invisible Forces would not exist if I hadn’t been part of a group where I knew that everyone else was at the same time working hard on their own stuff. The only disadvantage was not with the group, but with the old business plan, which everyone eventually decided was not using the Internet in the best way. I signed on to the plan when I was unemployed. With a steady paycheck I’m willing to lose a little money to make sure everyone who wants to see my work can, and also so I don’t have to feel like I’m financially dependent on being inspired or productive.


Who are your artistic influences? (Am I the first to mention that your necromancer reminds me of Curious George‘s Man in the Yellow Hat? Or maybe his extremely strange brother….on Thorazine.)

No, actually you aren’t the first person who’s made that comparison. It wasn’t a conscious influence, but with Curious George’s huge cultural presence how can I claim that that man in the yellow hat isn’t in there somewhere?

Visually, it’s hard for me to say what I’m influenced by. Without an idea for a story, I never really had a reason to sit down and copy someone else’s style or develop my own, and with an idea for a story I never had the patience. I did draw a lot from life in the past, and when I decided to start making The Diptera Plague, having barely ever having drawn from my imagination, I made the mistake of thinking that the life-drawing skill would be worth more than it was. The results were pretty uneven. I have a stack of unused paintings that are amazingly ugly (though I really enjoy looking at them now).

Actually, I think having used computer graphics so much in the past has had a big impact on the way I draw and paint. I tend to think about characters in a three-dimensional, blocky way ­ especially when it comes to noses.


Who are your storytelling influences?

I think the first movie I saw that got me really excited about the art of storytelling was Fargo, and it’s still one of my favorites. I also fell in love with a couple of X-Files episodes written by a fellow named Darin Morgan around the same time. The Wallace and Gromit short The Wrong Trousers seems to achieve a certain level of perfection that I wouldn’t mind being influenced by. For the past few years I’ve dreamt of duplicating the understated storytelling found in the documentary Don’t Look Back, but I think now that trying to do in fiction what was done in non-fiction may be foolish. I’ve been thinking a bit more recently about novels I’ve read in the past and The Once and Future King seems to be one that’s stuck itself firmly in my memory.

So these are all things I like, and there are many others, but I’d just like to say that I think finding stuff that you don’t like can often be just as big an influence as finding stuff that you do: it just seems improper to mention those by name.


I see you’re interested in turning some of your stuff to animation. What other future projects and directions are you planning to move in?

One of the things I’ve been working on is an animation technique that uses flat cut-outs of all the elements in a scene arranged in a 3D space on my computer. I animate it by fading between different poses and expressions and it seems to work pretty well. Compared to the animation you see in the movies it’s really simple, but it’s still too time-consuming for me to do anything more than short tests. I’ve considered trying to recruit a few willing minions, but for now, I think that’s just a fantasy. Intead, I’m thinking at this moment about an even more simplified approach which would make heavy use of narration. That would really be something completely new to me and I’m pretty excited to see if it’ll work.

Oh yeah, I’m also trying to do more animation in a typical 3D fashion because I would still like to work at an animation studio somewhere. Even though I know it won’t fully satisfy my desire to make things that are interesting, and despite the occupational obsession with minutae, which kinda creeps me out, I really do still enjoy it.


What are you expecting for the future of webcomics? What direction would you like webcomics to go in?

I’m afraid that the future of webcomics will probably be like an elephant being led in a circle before a cheering audience. I do, however, hope that the elephant, if spooked, is given a chance to rush the crowd, trampling and maiming all it can before being put down.