Interviewing Bryant Paul Johnson
Bryant Paul Johnson is the creator of the long-running "semi-historical micro fiction" webcomic title, Teaching Baby Paranoia. I met Johnson at an SPX several years ago and I've always enjoyed reading his wonderfully smart, intellectually wacky comic. It's a bit like reading the history of a much more interesting world than our own. He also created a limited comic series for ComixTalk titled The Antecedent that might be described as semi-historical micro nonfiction and often illuminated many interesting parallels between American history and our recent era under that Texas yankee who used to be President.
I was really happy he was able to do a cover for us last month and than an interview now. Especially interesting is an update on the graphic novel titled The Lower Kingdom that Johnson is working on along with a preview of its first chapter.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you located these days?
I live in Northampton Massachusetts with my partner/lady-friend/special-lady Maria. It's a city a couple of hours west of Boston in what is called the Pioneer Valley. For whatever reason, it's become a mecca of sorts for cartoonists (it's the home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and has been home in the past to Kitchen Sink Press and Tundra). Walk into most cafes, and chances are the coffee you spill will be on another cartoonist! (Sorry about that.)
How long have you been making comics and how long have you been putting them online?
I've been making comics since high-school, but it wasn't until college that I started to take it seriously. In college, I got involved with various newspapers and magazines, at which point making them became something of an obsession. When I moved to Northampton in 1997, I started doing comics fairly regularly; mostly as minicomics, though eventually for a couple of local publications. After a New Year's resolution in 2000, I started putting them online.
I've found at least one previous interview with you - Alexander Danner interviewed you for the Webcomics Examiner in 2005 and then most recently a short one conducted by Dale Lazerov in December of last year. Perhaps this question has more to do with my need to show that I actually do some research for these interviews than any practical purpose of asking a question to you. Actually though given how long you've been making comics I'm surprised there's not more coverage of you out there - are you protecting your privacy?
Ha! No, I'm not protecting my privacy. I guess I'm a fairly shy person. I don't really attend conventions too often (and usually if I do, it's as a visitor, rather than an exhibitor), so I don't really meet too many people outside of my circle of friends. I also think that the somewhat limited appeal of the strip has kept it's profile pretty low!
How would you "pitch" Teaching Baby Paranoia to someone who hadn't read any of the comics?
Semi-historical micro fiction. Actually I just made that up; I kinda like how it sounds! Usually I tell people it's a comic of historical fiction and then ramble on for a while trying to explain it. It's difficult to explain the premise, even after nine years of doing the comic!
I'm amazed at the body of work you've built up in Teaching Baby Paranoia -- is this a project you anticipate working on for the rest of your life or does it have some natural ending point you can envision?
I'm not really sure at this point. I plan on making comics indefinitely, but I'm not sure if it'll always be under this rubric and this format. I've toyed with the idea of ending it on its 10th anniversary (next January), but again, no certain plans. I imagine that future comics -- even if they aren't Teaching Baby Paranoia -- will always share a common aesthetic denominator.
Do you have any favorites from TBP or maybe another question is which one do you direct new readers to try first?
I don't really know if I have a favorite. Usually, it takes me a couple of years to distance myself from a particular strip to see it objectively (though, of course, I prefer the most recent stuff, art-wise). That said, I think the newest strip is always a good launching point. Since each one is more or less divorced from the previous (with a few exceptions) it's a pretty reader-friendly comic.
Am I correct that there are no print collections of Teaching Baby Paranoia? If so why is that?
I've done a couple of minicomic collections of the strip, but not in a few years. I just find the process of gathering, editing and assembling comics too time consuming. To be honest, I'd rather just spend the same amount of time just making more of them! It's not that I'm opposed to collecting the strip (especially if someone else wanted to do it!), it's just that the combination of editorial pickiness and lack of time makes it slightly more difficult! I do aim to try to collect materials more frequently, but right now with two projects (the strip and a graphic novel) I just don't have the time.
You also don't seem to do much in the way of selling stuff associated with teaching Baby Paranoia - t-shirts, prints, etc. Why is that?
I've actually just started selling prints of various illustrations and will probably start selling originals in the near future. I had delayed doing any sort of merchandising for a long time for pretty much the same reason as the lack of print collections. The nature of the strip makes it a difficult one to merchandise in the traditional sense: there aren't any recurring characters, nor a particular hook that you can equate with "Teaching Baby Paranoia." I'll be the first to admit that I'm really not much of a business person, something that I hope to remedy over the coming year; the most recent hullabaloo regarding merchandising (cf. Fleen) has given me some fodder for thought!
At one point you were working on a graphic novel project -- what is that status of that and what can you tell us about what you're working on?
It's in progress! The whole thing is plotted, and roughly 20-25% has been completed (I think 65 pages or so). It's a YA-ish fantasy called The Lower Kingdom, based upon Egyptian mythology. It's one of those projects that I wish I could devote all of my time to, if only so that I wouldn't look at a calendar and realize I've been working on it for nearly two years! Actually it's coming along well, and probably marks the greatest period of artistic improvement in my life (who knew that actually having to carefully think about every panel would do that?)! Though it's a comic book in the traditional sense of scale and format, it still shares a certain stylistic similarity with my comic strip (there are footnotes, for example). And of course, the surplus of research ultimately trickles down to my other work! And since you asked nicely, here's a link to the first two chapters.
You've also been rep'd by Kitchen Lind and Associates for a bit now. What do they do for you? Can you offer any advice to other comic creators considering whether they need representation?
Kitchen and Lind are selling the aforementioned graphic novel for me. They have far greater number of contacts than I could ever hope to have, and can get people to look at my work, who might otherwise not.
As for whether people should seek representation, I'd say for print, increasingly yes. That's not to say that the day you decide you want to start making comics, you should scour the internet for an agent. Like any author (of novels graphical or prosaic) honing one's craft is a time consuming process (one that is well covered by the variety of webcomics services out there). But, if ultimately you want to do work in print, an agent can be beneficial.
Do you have another job besides working on comics?
I do miscellaneous graphic arts work, ranging from illustrating games (I worked for a long time making video games), to coloring and lettering comics. The hope is that eventually the comic-related work will be the bulk of my income!
Do you read other comics? What are you reading online or in print?
Probably not as many as I'd like to! Online, I read Scary Go Round (which I think might be the best online comic), Cat and Girl, comics by Kate Beaton, Planet Karen, Questionable Content, Overcompensating. I was a big fan of Narbonic, but I'm many months behind on Skin Horse. I usually read webcomics in huge chunks, so I tend to be many months behind on the "latest thing."
For print, I just read two books by Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle (Burma Chronicles and Pyonyang) which I thought were excellent! I'll
always check out new work by Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, Seth and Chris Ware. Unfortunately, I have very picky tastes when it comes to comics. One of the reasons that I think I persist, is that I'm trying to fill the void of comics that I want to read!
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?
I usually start with the germ of an idea based upon something I've read, or heard. 90% of the time, I think of the words first and come up with visuals to fit the words (which, I fear at times, has made me somewhat complacent in my art). Usually I "write" the comic in my head while walking, or showering or lying in bed; at this stage I don't put anything to paper. The most memorable turn of phrase, or concept will stick in my head long enough to finally write it down, generally over a cup of coffee. At this stage I start breaking things down into the narrative haiku that the format of the strip requires and start thinking of visuals. My visuals tend to be pretty minimalist, driving the concept in the simplest way possible. Once the art is complete, I write the footnotes.
For the graphic novel, I'm a bit more formal. I plot everything, break it down into chapters (or scenes) and thumbnail it. I then write out the dialogue (and narration) and start pencilling. Since my pencils tend to be very minimalist, I ink immediately (by far the best part of making comics) before I forget what my poor shorthand is supposed to represent. Once the chapter is done, I color and letter it. And two weeks later, redraw half of it again.
What tools do you use to make comics? Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?
My process has changed fairly radically over the years. When I first started, the entire strip was drawn with a single #2 sable brush and a Micron pen for the lettering. Eventually, I started scanning my pencils and printing them on bristol (or card stock) for inking. For the last six months, I've been doing the strip almost entirely digitally (I say "almost entirely," because from time to time, I'll still do the pencilling with an actual pencil) using Manga Studio. (Which is also what I use to do the graphic novel). Even the lettering is done (by hand) in Manga Studio.
I still adhere pretty closely to the methodology that I used on paper: I sketch and pencil in blue line, ink over it with black; letter and add panel borders, and export to Photoshop for coloring, it's just that it's now mostly paperless.
And finally, 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?
Comics seems to be the medium that best suits my talents, I suppose. While I enjoy writing prose, and I enjoy illustration, my brain has been wired by years of consumption (of comics, not tuberculosis) to think in terms of panels and pages. It's what I tend to gravitate towards. My one frustration is that I think faster than I can draw; I have mountains of ideas that I'd like to tackle, but my hands just can't catch up!