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My Life in Webcomics: An Interview with Grant Thomas

Grant Thomas is the creator of several comics including the more personal My Life in Records and the more adventuresome Graphic Poems.  I think Grant has been creating some of the more interesting and challenging comics I've seen in webcomics and his stuff is well worth checking out.

Grant's also been a contributor to ComixTALK, creating the cover art for ComixTALK for December of 2008 and writing several features for the magazine, including a three part series on creating mini-comics.  I got a chance to chat with Grant recently about his plans for 2009, including the next chapter of My Life in Records and the inclusion of his work in an upcoming book from Fantagraphics.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?  Where are you located these days?

I am a songwriter, cartoonist and art teacher in Champaign, Illinois.  Champaign is a Big Ten College town, so it's small, but there's a lot going on because of the University of Illinois.  It also has great bike routes and my wife and I like to ride out bikes all over town.

 

How long have you been making comics and how long have you been putting them online?

I've probably been making comics since third grade.  I just found a box in my house that had my first mini comic I made back in fifth grade.  My teacher was really cool and let me enter it the annual district writing contest (while everyone else wrote prose).  I started putting up My Life in Records in December 2005 and began posting stuff on Graphic Poems in August of 2006.  I helped Gilead Peleaon with the art on Birdsworth about that time, too.  Finally, I did a short story about 9/11 that I put up in 2007.

 

Tell us what comics you're working on right now and anything you have planned for 2009.

My Life in Records will return on March 1st.  Until then, I'm working on getting my buffer back.  I've also been working on a little mini-comic printed from discarded pieces of Styrofoam about the legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio.

I've started putting video podcasts up on my website and they've mostly featured some short animations and songs I've written, but I plan on having some podcasts about my comics and tutorials about how to make them.  Every June I put up a free album of B-sides and alternate takes, so that will continue as scheduled, but I'd like to put out an EP this Fall.  (By the way if you haven't downloaded the one I put up in June 2008, you can download it here.)

Finally, the biggest news for me in 2009 will be that one of my Color Sonnets will be included in Fantagraphics' Abstract Comics: the Anthology this June.  I'm really excited about it and feel very honored to have my work next to some of my friends and heroes in comics.  I really should be thanking Derik Badman, Gilead Pelleaon, Andrei Molotui and Neil Cohn for putting all their crazy ideas in my head that ended up coming out in the Graphic Poems stuff I did a few years ago.

 

Do you have another job besides working on comics?

I teach art at an elementary school and I am proud to say that we have a thriving comics club that meets on Tuesday afternoons.  They make little 'zines and mini comics.  I wrote a Donor's Choose grant and got them a silk screen kit that they're really excited about.  Shawn Hoke, over at Size Matters: The Mini Comics Blog wrote up a little post about the grant and helped bring in some of the funds and you can see some scans of some of the kid's comics over there.

Webcomics has helped me stay sane as an art teacher.  It's hard to watch people enjoy making art day in and day out and not make it yourself.  Webcomics fits in with the busy schedule of teaching quite nicely.

Do you read other comics?  What are you reading online or in print? 

In webcomics, I read Things Change, Kukuburi, American Elf, Carnivale: a Kit Kaleidoscope story, Cat and Girl, Nothing Better, What Birds Know, Body World and SubCulture.  In print I've been reading Jason Overbye's Jessica, Snake Oil, Wormdye, Apollo's Song, Bottomless Belly Button, Adriene Tomine's stuff, The Arrival, Lynda Barry's What It Is and anything by Paul Hornschemeier.

 

When you create a comic, how do you appproach it? Do you start with the words and then think about the scene that should go with it or do you start with more of purely visual approach or none of the above?

It depends on what kind of comic I'm making.  A Week in September started as a short story I wrote shartly after 9/11.  I added the last scene in a few years later and then it was just a matter of breaking the prose down into comic pages.  The Graphic Poems comics where very much like playing in the sandbox.  I'd read about some idea or devise a little contraint for myself and goof around with it until it made sense to me.

For My Life in Records, I have an idea of what the beginning, middle and end of the story will look like.  I have certain albums I want to do stories about and I've made a list of those of albums in the order I want to tell the story.  I have a stack of drawing paper that's cut down to 5.5" x 5.5" and when I think of a scene that I want to have in the comic, I thumbnail it on those pages.  I can shuffle scenes around when I'm done, and its about the size that I print the book in, so it gives me a good idea of what the spreads will look like before I even make the official pages.

 

What tools do you use to make comics?  Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?

Once I'm done thumbnailing, I work twice as large as the print version on a sheet of bristol board.  Since the pages are sqaure, I like to think that I'm drawing at "LP" size and the print version is "CD" or "45" size.  I lay eveything out- including the lettering- in blue Col-Erase pencil and do some of the fine details with a HB drawing pencil.  Then I hand letter a second time with a Micron pen.  I ink the rest of the page with brush and ink.  Finally, I scan it and color it in Photoshop.

 

What is it about comics that leads you to pour your creative impulses into that form as opposed to writing or some other art form?

I like to tell stories, but I'm more of a visual person than a writer (as you may be able to tell from this interview).  For me, comics is a more natural way to tell my story than writing. 

I like making films and animations, but that takes organization so you can colaborate with actors and what not.  I also really am drawn to the symbolic language of comics.  I have a little thing for nested speech balloons.  On this page from My Life in Records, you can see all the different songs mixing with each other and the main character lip syncing with some of them.  It would be hard to convey this in film and be as interesting.  In a film, they would just show the character playing air guitar and have a montage of all the songs playing, which would be pretty cliche.  Sometimes music in films these days isn't really used to add atmosphere to a scene as it is to make viewer aware of a song enough to the point that they google the lyrics and buy the song.  To me, this page brings the "soundtrack" back to creating an atmosphere for the story even though you can't hear it.  It supports the plot by showing how much certain songs affected the character.