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An Interview with Steven Withrow by Alexander Danner

Steven Withrow is the author of Toon Art: The Graphic Art of Digital Cartooning, published in July through Watston Guptil Publications. Toon Art presents a comprehensive introduction to digital comics and animation, including a brief history of cartooning, a primer on digital art and production methods, and a broad survey of top talent working in the medium today. Toon Art has been favorably reviewed in both Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal, the latter calling it "a definitive popular guide to…digital art."

Steven's webcomics series, Crackles of Speech and Critical Thinking, have appeared on Komikwerks.com and NextComics.com, with various artists. "Manuwahi," a short story he scripted for Roberto Corona, was recently chosen by Dark Horse Comics for their online Strip Search contest. When not earning his living as a writer and editor, Steven is working on several comics and animation projects for print and the Web. He has also published poetry, short fiction, and plays, and written lyrics and libretto for a musical composition. In addition, Steven expresses an intense interest in children's literature and its crossover with comics.

What motivated you to write a book about webcomics?

The basic concept for Toon Art was created by a book packager in the UK called Ilex Press, and I was chosen to write the book. Early on I helped to develop and steer the book's content to a great extent. As for motivation, I've been fascinated with cartoons since I was a toddler, and I credit Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics for directing me toward the Web, the very existence of which still astounds me after years of being online. I honestly feel that I'd been preparing to write this book – through research, networking, and comics writing – five years before I was given the project. And the preparation has certainly paid off.

With so many artists to choose from, how did you decide which ones to include in the book?

For the showcased artists, I started with my favorites, of course. This list amounted to about 350 cartoonists, far too many for one book. So I took a quick trek through webcomics history, looking closely at the work of Charley Parker, Steve Conley, and Scott McCloud, among many others. McCloud's list of links was especially useful, as were several anthology sites, including Modern Tales (and its sister sites), Komikwerks.com, and Toonarama.com. I narrowed the list to about 150 cartoonists and began sending e-mails. In addition to webcomics, Toon Art includes digital-oriented print cartoonists as well as 2D and 3D animators, and for these I also started with my favorites and then used a "chronological" approach to search for others. The finished book features the work of 75 cartoonists. My two biggest factors for judgment were: (1) quality of storytelling and design and (2) innovation in digital production or presentation.

I think it may surprise some readers to see the topics of webcomics and digital animation combined in one book. Do you see close connections between these two mediums – either as an art form or as a community? Should we be thinking in terms of a more encompassing community of "digital cartoonists?"

I take an expansive view of the word cartooning, and I don't see it as necessarily limited to comics and animations. The use of cartooning – which McCloud calls the process of "amplification through simplification" – can be found in all art forms: prose, poetry, film, painting, sculpture, stage drama, music, video games, etc. Comics and animations are simply two of the most readily recognized products of the cartooning process. I would also argue that "cartooning" is only one of the processes involved in the creation of comics and animations. There is also "rendering" – the replication of sensory experience – and a sort of hybrid of the two called "masking." So, in this sense, comics and animations are closely linked, though still formally distinct, forms. As far as the notion of "community" goes, I think there is – and has always been – an enormous amount of interchange between comics artists and animators; any divisions that may exist are there by personal choice, not by external necessity.

The potential that digital creation and delivery offer for blurring the line between comics and animation has sparked a lot of debate. Do you see any threat to the medium of comics as a result of this potential?

The greater threat – or at least the one that concerns me more – is the possibility that the next generation of kids won't take up reading comics as a lifelong hobby as I did. And here the more pressing competitor for both comics and animations is video/computer games. That's not to say I don't support gaming. Far from it. But the "interactivity" or "play" factor is a huge lure away from reading or viewing. And I believe digital production and delivery tools can bring the "play" factor to cartoons in a way never seen before. By empowering young people to become cartoonists or by creating cartoons that engage their desire to interact with the material, we can help cartoons to compete with games and not only endure but also thrive.

Toon Art serves, in many ways, as an introductory "how-to" for digital artistry and encourages prospective artists to attempt some pretty sophisticated production techniques. Do you feel the "play" factor is enough of a lure to outweigh the challenge of actually learning these techniques?

Yes, I think that the opportunity that the Web offers to participate in comics is a strong lure for young people. And the fact that you can now take part in the game with even a basic level of technical skill, building on your skills as you go, is a huge part of what is driving teenagers and young adults to create webcomics. It's my belief that the average age of beginning webcartoonist will get younger and younger over the next decade, as computer-based education becomes more prevalent and with the current group of webcartoonists as role models. I think for many cartoonists just starting out, participating in a community of artists is even more important than the promise of earning money.


Since you see the beginning cartoonist as getting younger, do you feel there's a need or demand for more digital comics aimed at kids?

You mean should we start up Modern Tales Jr. or Komikwerks for Kids? Yes, absolutely. In fact, this is an area of real focus for me, having studied children's literature through graduate school and written stories, poems, plays, and comics for an all-ages audience for years. I have definitely considered launching a site that showcases this sort of work, and I might take that route in 2004. It actually surprises me that with all the aspiring children's book writers and artists out there – certainly a larger group than aspiring comic-book creators, with even heavier competition – there is not more genuine children's literature being created for the Web. Perhaps the children's book community just needs a Reinventing Picture Books? But I see definite, though isolated, signs of improvement, the work of Metaphrog on Serializer.net being an excellent example. And, as for marketing, we could start with parents and soon-to-be parents who already read webcomics and print comics and picture books, giving them a new place to introduce their kids to sequential narrative art. I'm excited about the prospects.

With Toon Art behind you, what's next?

Continuing my two webcomics series on Komikwerks.com is a main priority, and as I mentioned above, I'm weighing the possibility of launching a "webcomics for kids" site in late 2004 (if someone doesn't beat me to it). Also, webcartoonist John Barber and I have proposed a follow-up book to Toon Art that is now being considered by my publisher, Ilex Press. I couldn't be happier to be a part of all this. Though I don't have a personal site online just yet, readers can reach me at stevenwithrow@yahoo.com if they'd like to know more about my work.

Toon Art: The Graphic Art of Digital Cartooning
Author:
Steven Withrow
Publisher: Watson-Guptill Publications (US & Canada); also soon to be available in English and in translation internationally from various publishers
Publication Date: July 1, 2003