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Stephen Crowley: Anything but Conventional

Stephen Crowley chronicles the doings in a group of nudists in Loxie and Zoot as well as the doings of super-powered, gaudily-costumed superheroes at the academy where they train in Magellan on Graphic Smash. He manages to cover an equally wide variety of subjects in this interview.

Tell us a little about yourself. I know you're Australian but past that, I don't know very much.

Born and raised in Australia but yet to wrestle a crocodile! I live in Sydney which, for any geography buffs out there, is Australia's largest city with several million people. It's a great city but a bit physically isolated from the rest of the world - a real bummer in terms of getting to US or UK comic cons and the like. I'm pushing the deep end of 30-something and if it wasn't for the enjoyment I get out of cartooning I'd probably be gearing up for my mid-life crisis.

My day job involves a bit of editing, a bit of graphic designing, a bit of web mastering, a bit of cursing at uncooperative network PCs and even a bit of cartooning, usually to enliven dry newsletter articles written about government welfare policies. At the start of the year I cut back my hours at work to give myself more time to focus on freelancing and my web cartooning - it's meant less money but I'm happier than when I was full-time. I also teach cartooning at evening community college - it involves a lot of how-to-draw instruction but the students have a blast and they turn out some very funny and often deeply twisted cartoons.

 

When did you get bitten by the bug to create comics? Was it a particular comic that inspired you, or did you come from an artistic/creative background, or...?

From about the age of 8, I was always concocting some sci-fi, fantasy, super-hero, and espionage or sit-com scenario that I'd turn into a comic - mostly formatted like a newspaper strip. There was no one else in my family who could draw and I’ve never been to art school so I’m mostly self-taught. Tin Tin and Asterix were big favorites of mine when I was a kid and I no doubt absorbed a lot of my understanding about comics from the hours I used to spend poring over them. Since I love to both write and draw, comics have always been my preferred ideal storytelling medium. The cartooning bug bit me big time at age 16 when a friend introduced me a whole heap of Marvel comics. He was a big fan but I wasn’t that interested until he shoved some John Byrne Fantastic Four at me and I got hooked with the second one I read – FF #249! The serialised superhero stories really appealed to me back then and fired up my desire to draw my own stuff.

Who are your artistic influences?

John Byrne definitely inspired me when I first became enamoured with comics in the mid-80s. He was doing the Fantastic Four then, but I chased up as many of his X-Men issues as I could. I find many things to admire in most cartoonist’s work so I’m like a sponge when it comes to influences and there were many Marvel artists of that time that I attempted to imitate. Animation, specifically the Simpsons and Rocco’s Modern Life, started to turn me away from attempts at realistic comics and towards a more cartoony style. Jeff Smith’s Bone was also very inspirational in that regard. By far my greatest influence though was Ross Carnsew - an Australian cartoonist who I worked with for six years in the 90s. That Ross isn’t more widely known and recognised for his talent is a huge shame. Ross was (and still is) the Art Director at Streetwize Comics (now Streetwize Communications) a not-for-profit publisher that produces educational comics for disadvantaged youth on subjects ranging from health, housing, law, employment and so forth. Ross has the ability to turn out the most dynamic, funny and natural looking cartoon-style comics I’ve ever seen and I learnt a huge deal working with him.

You have a real talent of handling a large cast in a single storyline. Who are your storytelling/writing influences?

There have been many times these last few years when I’ve wished I could write stories with just one or two characters, not a cast of hundreds! I think the tendency to write stories with a large cast comes from my fascination with how our lives are influenced by the lives of others – directly or indirectly, purposefully or accidentally. My tendency then is to try and weave seemingly non-related moments together into some larger tale. Because I do focus on so many characters I have a tendency towards some simplistic characterizations, I try to make sure they all have a discernible appearance and unique personality but think this is an area in my writing that could do with some real improving. I’m not a fan of overly wordy comics, nor do I like comics that rely on big splashy art instead of sequential images. So, knowing what it is I like and don’t like about comics, I write my own stories accordingly. As such, I couldn’t say who my particular writing influences have been. I’m more inspired by the writing in television shows like Buffy and Seinfeld or in good comedy and action movies than actual comic or prose writers. I’ve always felt that the less you notice the writing in comics, the more successful the writer is at telling the story.

You first came to my attention with LOXIE & ZOOT, the comic about nudists.... easily one of the most inoffensive strips on the 'Net, if you aren't offended by nudity. It was like a Disney movie, except with more interesting storylines... and genitalia. Why did you decide to do such a strip? Do you have personal experience with the naturist lifestyle, and if so, for how long?

Loxie & Zoot is an unusual beast of a comic to be sure. I drew my first Loxie & Zoot strip in 1997 for an Australian nudist magazine – so originally I was aiming for that specific audience, much in the way gamer comics aim for gamers. Certainly the desire to do a comic about nudists stemmed from my own experiences with the lifestyle which dated back to my years at university. Personally, I find getting nekkid – in the right place, with the right people – to be a wonderful and liberating experience! Our society some weird attitudes, fears and fetishes about the human body and I thought I could bring some of that to comics in a format that played against preconceived notions about nudity. My main tactic was to use humour but to avoid innuendo and also treat the characters with a degree of decency – the opposite approach to most jokes about nudity!

In 1998, I experimented with Loxie & Zoot as a web comic but only managed nine pages before my first extended hiatus! The biggest problem I had back then was getting focused on my work - I was making the story up as I went along, not plotting it out before I started, so it was no wonder it crashed and burned. It wasn’t until 2000 that I was able to get my next attempt online. With the first story being some 120 pages long it was a marathon compared to my earlier efforts, but well worth it and it cured my inability to focus on cartooning!

The comic gained a small degree of popularity – it was enough to blow out my bandwidth costs and another hiatus was the result. At the prompting of Reinder Dijkhuis I transferred the comic to Keenspace. At first I wasn’t that sure it would sit that well within a comics community and I was quite surprised that not only did its readership grow but that many fellow Keenspace cartoonists were supportive of it. Despite the growth in web comics during 2000-02, I was hugely unaware of other online comics and broader communities. My intention with Loxie & Zoot had always been to write for naturists, so the story was pitched accordingly. People have used words like ‘preachy’ and ‘soap box’ to describe the earlier material and that’s a fair call. Placing Loxie & Zoot on Keenspace made me think more broadly about the readership. I’ve been at pains ever since to avoid preaching my own beliefs about naturist philosophy and instead just focus on telling a fun story wherein, coincidently, most of the characters are naked!

What about Magellan? How did the idea for that come about?

Despite the scorn that is frequently dumped on superhero comics, I have a real love for the genre and have wanted to do my own for many years. Magellan germinated from an idea about how wannabe superheroes might learn their skills in a world where superheroes were widely accepted. When I started reading Marvel comics in 1982 I found the expansiveness of that universe, the interaction between its multitude of characters and the continuity and history that existed was quite amazing. By contrast, something that I came to hate was the fact that the comic book characters remained perpetually the same age, give or take a few years. Even worse, the resurrection of dead characters, to me, trivialised anything about their initial demise. There was no real sense of legacy and any meaningful characterisations were generally diluted over time by a succession of writers wanting to leave their mark. With Magellan I wanted to take all that into consideration, so I developed a pre-existing superhero universe with a sense of legacy - there are honoured, dead superheroes, ageing and retired superheroes, active, current and mentor superheroes, and aspirant superheroes. Also, my focus is less on the top ranking heroes and more on those who play second, third and fourth string within the universe.

The development process was quite lengthy, there was over a year between the initial concept and the first page going online. Originally there were very few students and teachers but as the idea for the story developed it became clear I needed a larger supporting cast. Some of the supporting cast then became the lead cast, changing and expanding the concept further. The academy setting has almost become a secondary consideration now but I still intend to have a lot of fun with that.

Magellan has attracted a lot of attention in a relatively short amount of time. It's gone from a Keenspace comic to Graphic Smash and is now nominated for a WCCA award. Did you expect it to get as much attention as it has, especially so quickly?

It’s amazing how well Magellan has been received and I’m extremely grateful to all the people who have pimped its merits over the last twelve months or so. The offer to join Graphic Smash took me by surprise, mainly because there hadn’t been much action in the comic to that point and there was only about 30 pages in the archives! Moving to Graphic Smash has been a wonderful opportunity though and a learning experience to be sure. Getting the WCCA nomination for Outstanding Superhero/Action comic was likewise a thrill. I’m not sure of my chances of winning it but the fact that people put it up for nomination at all was rather humbling. A lot of people pooh-pooh the WCCAs as irrelevant and, of course, there are many other outstanding comics that didn’t get nominated but I think the overall field this year shows a lot of talent and breadth and maturity in material and it’s great to be a part of that. I try not to let the attention Magellan receives distract me too much – any webcomic is only as good as its last update, so my focus is on continuing to make it a fun and exciting comic.

Who's your favorite character of those you've created? Kaycee of MAGELLAN? GoAnna? Loxie? Zoot? Tex Tyler? (Well, I doubt that LAST one...)

There’s a soft spot in my heart for pretty much all my characters, even Tex! Characters such as Willow, Tash, Mungo and both Herbs are my favourites from Loxie & Zoot. I really enjoyed working with Jenny Everywhere in Ghost Story even though she’s an open source character. To some extent Jenny is tabla rasa, so my characterisation of her was arbitrarily based on previous stories by other writers in other comics, but I really enjoyed having someone who had a bit of the supernatural about them who didn’t mind saying and doing what she wanted to. That my treatment of her in Ghost Story got the thumbs up from Steven Wintle, her original creator, was an added bonus.

Likewise, Magellan has many characters that I am fond of and there are many I have yet to get an opportunity to really delve into. Although I do like Kaycee, Fatima and a number of other cadets, Go!Anna would have to be my favourite. She was originally created to be a sidekick to Wombatman who was originally a joke character I’d concocted several years earlier. When I designed her and then started to write her into the story I became excited by how much potential I felt she had and promptly bumped her into a more significant role. She even gets her only alternative chapter cover every time her scenes are featured in the larger main story. In terms of the overall universe she’s a minor player with a lot of personal crap to sort out – something I can relate to!

Are any of your characters based on real people? (Charisma reminds me of a cross between Britney Spears and Supergirl.)

Nope, all my characters are pretty much straight out of my own brain. Many of them started out from a need to fill ‘a concept’. Usually the process is concept first, design second followed by background and/or motive. For example, I needed a family for Loxie & Zoot, which gave light to Geena, Pete, Nick and Chrystel, the need for a pregnant character gave birth (hahah) to Kim, and so forth. Not all characters start out this way however. Mungo had featured in every comic I’d ever drawn prior to Loxie & Zoot as a random whacky wizard/guru type and made the transition to the naturist setting quite easily. I want Mungo to continue appearing all my other projects too – so there’s every chance he will pop up in Magellan at some point. Likewise, many Magellan characters were developed to fill a requirement. The original concept for the Magellan Academy was of a very small school more in line with the original Professor X set-up in the early X-Men days. There were only a few main characters at that stage (Rochelle, Montana-Rose, Brelvis and Fabian), but as the concept grew they lost their status as leads. For some reason I wanted a non-super powered character to be in the mix, so I created Kaycee and then became increasingly interested in why she was there at all. As a result the story shifted its primary focus to her. Judging by positive reader reaction to Kaycee, this was a good decision! Characters like Fatima and Charisma sprang out of a third round of character creation. In early drafts they developed strong and distinct personalities that I’ve enjoyed writing for. Charisma was certainly intended to be a bully with a super ego, although I hope to take her beyond that with time.

What are your future plans, both for Magellan - and Loxie & Zoot? Do you have another project on the horizon?

There are four set stories I want to tell in Magellan beyond the current chapter. One involves the stolen artefact Go!Anna has been chasing after. Another takes a look at what is really going on with Councillor Karma Joffe. A third thread has Brelvis dealing with his conjoined personality and hideous hound-man body. The final thread explores the legacy of Magellan’s golden and silver-age heroes. There’s going to be plenty of pain, personal growth, laughs, things going boom and even some death along the way. Should be a fun ride (except for those that die)! Beyond that, my plans for Magellan are hazy but there are many directions it could take. I want to do some extra Magellan stories focusing on other characters in settings outside the Academy. Whether I can write and draw these, on top of everything else, without spontaneously combusting remains to be seen! It is very likely I will use other artists.

Loxie & Zoot has a major shake-up coming down the line. After the current story line concludes my intention is to take a one to three month hiatus followed by a relaunch of name, format, design and delivery. It’ll still be a comic about nudists with the same (and some new) characters but with a different focus and style. In particular I’m keen to do shorter stories delivered as daily strips rather than weekly pages. I also want to broaden the scope to include different scenarios involving the nudist lifestyle. Possibly some readers won’t be too happy with it but I’m excited by the possibilities. There are many aspects about the current concept that I’m not happy with and this will give me the opportunity rejig it. You heard it first here folks! Should be interesting to see how it works out.

I have a new toy, in the form of a Web Comics Nation account courtesy of Joey Manly. There are a number of projects I have in mind for it. One is to finally fully realise a sci-fi comic that I originally serialised in my university newspaper back in 1988. To talk too much about it at this stage might jinx it – but I’m planning on a B&W alien caper set in 1985 to kick off in August of this year. I am very, very excited about it!

Al Schroeder is a man of action! Mindmistress is a woman of action webcomics!