Spotlight on Legends of the Guard contributors: Nick Tapalansky & Alex Eckman-Lawn
David Petersen: How did you both get in to working in comics? (Nick writing and Alex drawing)
Alex Eckman-Lawn: We actually got into comics together. Nick found a few pinups and art samples of mine on the internet and approached me with a script. We did some preliminary art and a test page or two and the rest is beautiful romantic history.
Nick Tapalansky: That's not how I remember it at all. I'm pretty sure your mom put you in my cab and I drove you to your uncle's place out west after you got in one little fight while playing basketball outside your school in Philadelphia. Your mom tends to be panicky. You were singing the most annoying song on the way, but somehow we came up with a few good ideas and kept in touch.
David: For folks unaware, you two are the creative team behind Awakening. Tell the readers a bit about that book.
Alex: AWAKENING is a zombie noir story, set in the small town of Park Falls. I tried to use my experiences growing up on the playgrounds of west Philly to inform my portrayal of the streets.
Nick: Yes, little-known fact: AWAKENING is a philosophical exploration of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, set against a heady science v. religion debate.
In all seriousness though, AWAKENING is, like Alex said, a zombie noir. We tossed almost all of your basic zombie tropes out the window and started fresh, giving the story room to breathe with a slower pace. We wanted time to explore questions and ramifications without the constant pressure of SURVIVAL placed on the characters from the beginning, so we began at the start of a year when the first zombies appear. They don't infect with their bites and they don't multiply dramatically by their own doing. It's an inexplicable trickle that slowly builds up as people begin to drop dead and "awaken" in this new, undefined state. That's where the story starts, following a retired cop as he tries to put the pieces together, both for the town and his own life.
Alex: It’s probably worth mentioning that AWAKENING was both mine and Nick’s first comic book ever (or since childhood anyway). To backtrack a bit, AWAKENING is pretty much how we got into working in comics.
David: A horror book about a potential outbreak of zombies, I would think, is very different from writing and drawing a mouse folktale. Did the process feel different to you guys? Did you approach it differently?
Nick: It didn't feel too different for me, to be honest. Is that weird? I try to think of stories as stories, writing as writing. I'm just putting down what I see, but the process stays pretty static. So when I sat down to work on "Leviathan" I just tried to convey what I saw as best I was able, applying what I'd learned from other shorts, and even AWAKENING. It was the first time I told a story like this though, and it really was a lot of fun.
I think, in terms of process, things change a bit more for Alex, since so much of the atmosphere and tone in a comic relies on the instant visual connection a reader makes with material.
Alex: I definitely did have to approach this story differently, but that’s always exciting for me. Part of the fun of making pictures, for me at least, is getting to try out different visual approaches for different projects.
"Leviathan" was a breath of fresh air for me, especially after all the bleak and spooky stuff I usually tend to do.
David: Nick, describe the Legends of the Guard story and its origins.
Nick: "Leviathan" was the product of me being a sarcastic pain in the ass! Back at some old con or another, may have been New York, right when MOUSE GUARD was really just going insane, I joked that I was going to do my own animal guard to ride your coattails to stardom. Somehow we settled on a Whale Guard, and I distinctly remember your sweet, sweet whale impressions. Then you ripped off a piece of cardboard and drew the quick sketch (pictured) signed with your blessing. Pretty sure you also bit it to sign off with your slobber-DNA. I still have that cardboard and fully expect it to buy me a sweet house one day, not to mention produce my own stay-at-home-Petersen clone.
Then at another con, San Diego I think, you asked me to moderate your spotlight panel. During the talk I had another opportunity to chat about my great idea, Whale Guard, and sow the seeds for usurping your fanbase. It's been a slow process, but it finally paid off. When LEGENDS OF THE GUARD's second volume was getting underway, we got the call: "Nick, we want it. We want “Whale Guard.”
David: Did you ever think that joke would have paid off into this short story?
Nick: Never! Haha! I'm almost sure my first reaction was abject terror, followed immediately by excitement. Not only is it such a robust and well-loved world, but we're in ridiculously great company. I'm gonna have to start joking about more things I want to do.
Alex: I have to admit, I thought Nick was joking when he told me we'd be doing “Whale Guard” for realsies.
David: I remember thinking when I getting ready to ask you guys for a story: "With Legends, I think Nick could play up his whale guard joke and it not seem silly, but grounded and honest for Mouse Guard. Without spoiling anything, what themes or intent did you want to pursue when you started actually writing ‘Leviathan’?
Nick: I think, for me, it was a matter of scope. The Mouse Guard tend to be brave, selfless mice who stare danger in the eye to protect their fellow mice. They'll fight down other mice, snakes, owls and bats but at some point there are certain dangers even the bravest, most headstrong mouse can't face on their own. Things just get too big, sometimes literally. I wanted to explore that a bit.
I also wanted to bring just a touch of magic to the world, since this was a "tall tale" and it wouldn't impact the main narrative or the realism of your story in the main books. So that was fun, getting to see our little guy, not a guard mouse but an adventurer, in situations you might not typically get to see in MOUSE GUARD thanks to a sprinkle of some fantasy elements.
David: Did you guys work on the story ideas together or is the workload separated strictly into writing and art?
Alex: I wouldn't say it's STRICTLY separated, but Nick had a clear idea of what he wanted to do with the story so in this case it was pretty much all him.
Nick: Yeah, it does vary from story to story for us. We both try to get our hands pretty dirty in everything.
Alex: Yup, we do a fair amount of back and forth about actual layouts and visual stuff, but I think this story was 100% Tapalansky.
David: Nick do you write scripts with page breakdowns (each page’s panel count described with what goes in them) or do you leave a lot of the pacing and layouts to Alex?
Nick: This script wound up being the last one I wrote with panel counts, actually. I wrote all of AWAKENING that way, and the handful of shorts we followed that book with. Alex knew that my scripts were just the best way I saw to do it, not necessarily the actual best way, and played with formats and pacing if he saw better ways to approach what I was trying to pull off. That's the best part of working in comics - the collaboration.
Alex: This is why I like working with this guy. Not everyone feels that way.
Nick: Nowadays I tend to take an approach between screenwriting and full-script comics. I won't label panels with numbers, sizing, or total count on a page (except in specific instances). If an artist wants to take a "panel" and make it into two, there's no problem there. Want to combine actions? Go for it! I couldn't work in the old Marvel Style - I'd feel as claustrophobic and passive as an artist given a super-strict script - but I think this is a middle ground that works. It gives freedom to everyone, and permission to be as involved as possible in every aspect of bringing a story together.
Alex: I think the real challenge with this story was just fitting everything into the six pages.
Nick: Oh, totally! Working within a defined page count like that definitely pushed us to trim every bit of fat wherever we could. I like to think we packed each page with possibilities though, in case Tiernan ever gets a chance to pop back up.
David: Alex, how do you approach starting work on a page?
Alex: Well for this story I had Nick's script to work from, so I start by laying out panel shapes in photoshop and doing some ultra rough drawings with my tablet-- just to get placement and shapes down. When I'm happy with everything in this super-rough stage I start actually putting pencil to paper.
David: Your artwork is ultimately a blend of drawing and textures and photo-collage and digital painting. How do your ideas develop and what is the process for getting to a finished page?
Alex: This is always a hard one to answer. I tend to work a little differently on every project, depending on the subject matter, tone, setting, etc. For "Leviathan" I tried to let the pencils speak the loudest.
There is a bit of photo collage and scanned texture in there as well, especially when we start getting close up to the whales, but this is primarily just pencil and photoshop "painting!"
I suppose the more technical answer is that I start with a scanned pencil drawing, then paint under and over it, introducing photo elements as I go. It's a kind of push and pull process, until I find a balance I think works.
David: Awakening is a closed ending story that wrapped into a collected softcover back in 2011, so what have you two been working on since and currently?
Nick: We've been quietly busy, but comics take FOREVER sometimes! I just finished writing a new book, just a bit shorter than AWAKENING, that First Second will be publishing in the next year or two. Comics are tons of fun but, like I said, sometimes take a while to make it from our collective brains, through the publishing machine, and into a reader's hands. My editor and I are looking for just the right illustrator for that book, so when that comes together we'll really be off and running.
It's a pretty big departure for me, this book, but it took on a life of its own when I was writing it. It's more of a kids/all-ages title, with a very animated, or even a manga style to the writing. A brave new world from the desk of Tapalansky, and I can't wait until it's finally out!
In the meantime, I'm working on another exciting graphic novel, which I hope to start pitching this month, and Alex and I are always brainstorming what comes next.
Alex: Yeah, I've got a few bigger projects in the works as well but most of whats actually seen print has been shorts.
I had a piece in The Graphic Canon Part 1- a collection of comic artists and illustrators taking on classic literature and poetry. There's some pretty awesome stuff in there, and I'm proud to have been a part of it!
Nick and I also did a short story for the Perhapanauts gang, which is finally up on their website *LINK*. It's a bit older at this point but it'll be new to all of you!
Nick: And it’s free! Who doesn’t like free comics?
Alex: I also just finished working on a short for Moon Lake Volume 2, coming out through Archaia. I did a whole mess of pinups for that book as well. As always, big stuff is on the way.
David: Thank guys for a fun story for Legends of the Guard. Where can readers find out more about each of you and your work?
Alex: Thank YOU, Dave! This was a blast to work on and I think both Nick and I are pretty honored to be a part of the MOUSE GUARD story, if even just tangentially.
Nick: It was definitely a great experience! We rarely get to play in other people's sandboxes, but when we do it's always a treat. Especially when the sandbox is as vast and inviting as MOUSE GUARD.
I tend to hang around on Twitter mostly (under the creative handle, @NickTapalansky) and have a secret narcissistic internet fort at nicktapalansky.com/blog, resplendent with info about yours truly and free comics. A Tumblr is imminent, once production gets going on the new book, so feel free to bookmark/follow nicktapalansky.tumblr.com. I do not yet have an Instagram, though I take enough pictures of my food that I should seriously consider it.
Alex: You can find me work on Tumblr: http://dudenukem.tumblr.com, read my innermost thoughts on Twitter, @alexeckmanlawn, and Check out my website here: www.alexeckmanlawn.com
Nick & Alex's Story Leviathan will appear in Legends of the Guard
volume 2 # 1 along with stories by Stan Sakai & Ben Caldwell
Here's another look at last week's Watercolor Wednesday paintings: As I said in last week's blogpost, I was influenced by being at Spectrum Live and seeing all the folklore creatures. This week's pieces continue in that tradition. First up we have "Nod Longcap" When I grabbed the scrap piece of bristol he would occupy, I thought "It would be fun to do a vertical painting where most of it is the character's hat." The fun facial hair and nervous expression and body language developed on its own.
The other little fay from last week's Watercolor Wednesday offerings is this minstrel wearing a thimble for a hat. In Mouse Guard I love playing with having them use objects they have hand crafted to their scale so they look no different than human-scale items: swords, mugs, tools, etc....while still having them use items that are raw natural materials that remind us of the mouse-scale: acorn cap snowshoes, pinecone shingles, turtle shell boats. The tiny lute and the thimble gave me that same scale juxtaposition in this piece.