Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Breakfast at Kimimura's: an Interview with Kevin Church & T.J. Kirsch

Wasting no time in the name of comics journalism, we totally shoehorned She Died in Terrebonne creators Kevin Church and TJ Kirsch into starting our transatlantic interview whilst they were still eating their breakfasts. Their comic, She Died in Terrebonne, is far more glamorous though. Developing a cult following on Church’s own Agreeable Comics website, it’s a classic crime mystery which sees Sam Kimimura, a private eye, get caught up in a small town plot when the girl he’s tasked with bringing home ends up murdered. Not so much a page-turner, as a carpel tunnel-inducing webpage-clicker, it’s one of the best handled episodic mysteries on or off the internet.

Just coming to the end of its year-spanning story now, it’s the perfect time to devour the incredibly well-paced story whole if you haven’t already succumbed to its charms. We already have, and seized the opportunity to talk to its creators before it officially concludes. What resulted was a great interview that references everything from Kurosawa to Clowes, and gives a great insight into their relationship as a team, as well as what readers can expect to see from them when Terrebonne concludes. And, just in case you’re interested, Kevin was eating Cornflakes, and T.J. was chowing down on Cinnamon Chex.

A simple question to begin with: how did the two of you meet?

Church: TJ was stalking me. He actually walked up and said "Hi, I stalk you." Or something. That's all I remember before the chloroform.

Kirsch: Uh, no. I was doing a signing at New York Comic Con in early '09 I believe, at the Oni Press booth, and he came by. I recognized his name because I had read his blog sometimes, and I told him that. I think he bought a copy of Uncle Slam Fights Back, and somewhere in the conversation he was trying to get me to work on this pitch he had going at the time. I refused because of the superhero content, which I was trying to get away from.

Church: Oh, right. Yes, this. Actually, that superhero pitch is still lying fallow somewhere. But we got on immediately, and I really liked the art in the Uncle Slam book and we kept chatting. 

Kirsch: Right. Somehow I ended up drawing a superhero book, but I swore not to ever again, unless DC wants me to draw Superman or Batman. Unlikely unless I win a contest or go through Make-A-Wish.

Sam Kimimura stoically stares out the reader on the cover of the first collection of "Terrebonne" (second printing).

What led to the creation of She Died in Terrebonne? Was it a similar pitch by Kevin, or a result of a conversation between the two of you?

Church: TJ and I kept chatting about different ideas we had. He had a teen horror thing that I liked the idea of and I folded it and mutated it to where it was no longer recognizable and while the germ was there, we really didn't want to screw up his story. I'd just seen Altman's adaptation of The Long Goodbye and it really stuck with me. I'm a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa, too, so the lone man story, like we see in Yojimbo, has always appealed to me. Add in the fact that I wanted to do something with an Asian-American lead who was not a martial artist or gun-fu expert and it all kind of came together pretty quickly.

Kirsch: The first thing that happened was he asked if I wanted to do a pinup for his The Rack book that was coming out. I'd read the comic intermittently but I read the entire run of the strip to get a better sense of the characters, before drawing the pinup. I think I decided shortly after that that I wanted to work with him. The characters in that comic are so fully formed and specific, and it really ends up being more than just "a comic strip about a comic shop."

I'd wanted to get a webcomic going for awhile, and here was a great opportunity.

Church: I always, always, forget about that pinup. I have no idea why. It's such a great piece of work.

Kirsch: I got the best compliment on that on twitter, which was "Dude draws like he's in Mad Magazine!"

Which is the best thing to hear.

It's interesting to note The Long Goodbye and Yojimbo influences, as Terrebonne seems to marry those settings: the classic characterisations of the Philip Marlowe stories and the small-town gang criminality of Yojimbo. Were you interested in experimenting with genre like Altman and Kurosawa when you planned the comic, or was it more organic than that?

Church: I wanted to make a comic strip that I'd enjoy reading. I'm not Tarantino, so I can't imagine sitting down and going "Well, in this, I'm going to take the semiotics of Kurosawa and apply them to Chandler's worldview," but it was pretty conscious, building something out of bits of mental flotsam and jetsam. I keep referencing film, but comics are different. I didn't have a straight 90 minutes to tell the story, so I looked back at adventure strips like Steve Canyon and took some lessons from there, sculpting the story to work well in individual doses and especially how to take advantage of TJ's art as it went on. He's a fantastic cartoonist and there are moments that are specifically tailored to let him sing a bit on the page.

It seems like the perfect time to ask you, TJ, about your own influences, in Terrebonne and in general. You’ll be happy to know that I definitely got an Angelo Torres vibe the first time I saw your work, but it's very apparent that you like to mix up your style and technique...

Kirsch: I'm happy to hear that! I've always admired many of the Mad artists. I grew up reading a mix of Mad, DC Comics my older brother had around, Calvin and Hobbes, Life in Hell, and Garfield. Probably many other comic strips too. I also spent many hours in front of the TV as a kid watching early Disney shorts on the brand-new-at-the-time Disney Channel. So, a lot of those influences might still be there, but most likely unconsciously.

I was away from drawing and comics for a long time while I played drums in a band in my teenage years, but I rediscovered my love for comics and art in my first year of art school in Savannah, Georgia. They had this great library of graphic novels and it was basically a revelation to me, particularly Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Seth, and Dan Clowes' work. I got completely obsessed with comics again, and I probably borrowed every graphic novel they had at some point. They also had a copy of The Staros Report, which was very much a modern index of every important comic work you needed to read. So that was pretty helpful in guiding me as well. I really wanted to draw comics at that level and have my work published by Top Shelf, Fantagraphics or D&Q.

I took some time off school but then ended up at the Kubert School, which I knew was going to be tough, and it was. However, I remember knowing about the school as a kid and knowing a lot of my old favorites had attended. I knew it would really test me and I'd end up a better artist, and I think that's what ultimately happened.

As far as direct artistic influences on my work on Terrebonne, there isn't any one artist that I'm trying to emulate. Some people see Clowes in some of the strips, but I'm just drawing how I naturally draw. Although there might be a little Joe Kubert and Bernet in there.

The opening of Act 2, where Church and Kirsch act like any good mystery scribe would, clarifying and mystifying all at once.

Neither of you are strangers to collaborative work, both working with a great deal of writers and artists in print and online. How would you describe the process behind planning and creating Terrebonne?

Church: She Died In Terrebonne has been very organic in how it's developed, and I've pared it down quite a lot since the original outline because I've come to really rely on TJ. I don't need to pack this with a lot of twists and turns because I'm working with an artist who can really give every moment its emotional "oomph." The scripts have become stripped down, too, as a result. I can really trust him to put everyone exactly where it works best on the page and it's very rare that I have to give him any changes outside of the occasional bit of dialogue that "sounds" weird once it's on the page, which is all on me.

Kirsch: In the beginning planning stages it was very collaborative as Kevin said. We went back and forth for awhile on the basic story and characters. That was as far as it went for me in the writing department, though, as Kevin took it and ran. I still look forward to reading scripts he sends every week!

The only further input I have is sometimes the pacing of the strips. There are times when I think the dialogue needs to be broken up a bit into a few different panels, and he trusts me with that, I think. Sometimes a silent panel needs to be inserted somewhere as well. I also realize that it ends up that I'm doing more work than I would've otherwise, but it's worth it to tell the story the right way.

Church: I look at our relationship like this: I'm the screenwriter, he's the director, the cast and crew. He's probably also craft services, but let me tell you, he's doing a pretty crappy job of it because I still have to get my own coffee.

Kirsch: That's true to some extent. I consider the writer to be director as well. When reading a script, I have a pretty clear picture in my head of the shots he's describing.

I feel more like the actor I guess.

It's fun at times to be the Woody Allen, and write-direct-star in your own creation, but it's also a great creative exercise to give up a little control and create something you wouldn't normally otherwise.

In Kevin’s interview with Johanna Draper Carlson, he mentioned his hatred of spoilers and phobic avoidance of film discussion on the internet (something I completely identify with). That said, it must have been difficult for you guys to keep the ending of Terrebonne secret for a whole year. Did either of you crack? Spill the beans, hotshots!

Kirsch: I don't think I even know the ending. He's changed it since the first outline, so I don't even have the opportunity to spoil the ending for anyone.

I think that's part of what's kept it fresh for me, working on it.

Church: Yeah, I've kept it pretty close to the vest. I actually asked TJ if he wanted the new outline and he refused — he wants to keep the energy going, which I can appreciate, as the guy with the script. Frankly, if you've paid attention, there's no real "spoiler" to the ending, but it is going to be a very character-focused sort of thing, which was kind of the point. The plot's simple, the story isn't, if that makes sense.

Private-eye chutzpah in full effect.

You’ve both worked under publishers, as well as doing creator-owned work online and self-published print comics. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of each? Do you have preferences?

Church: For TJ, I'd rather we had a publisher. For me, I'd rather own what we do 100%. It's tough. Economics in webcomics — particularly those that don't lend themselves to merchandising like Penny Arcade — is well and truly fucked, for lack of a better phrase. Self-publishing is the same way. I spend an hour writing a strip's script, TJ can spend a day drawing it, and neither of us makes any real money off of doing it. It's a nice calling card and I've had conversations with publishers because of it. On the other hand — and I am not disrespecting BOOM! studios at all with this, I knew what I was signing — I wrote a well-reviewed five-issue miniseries a couple of years ago called Cover Girl based on a one-page, single-issue synopsis by Andrew Cosby. It's has been bounced around to a few development companies that were interested, but nothing's really taken off. I was paid a flat page rate for the work and there's no royalties, and if it gets developed into a full screenplay and is made into a motion picture, I'll be very lucky to see my name listed anywhere in the credits.

However, if someone wanted to do a collection for She Died In Terrebonne, I could ensure that we still owned the rights to the work and that we'd get our fair share for the work performed. Honestly, and I'm not just saying this because he's here, but if someone wanted to offer X dollars to publish it, I'd make sure that TJ got 3/4 of X because of the hours he's put into it. As it is, we split the (meager, to be honest) profits on the single issues we're putting out and I'm trying to get him more money by offering sketch cards with the floppies and so on.

It's a lot of work performed on spec, and it's not fair, but it's still a much better hobby to pursue actively than, say, golf. Have you seen the outfits those people have to wear?

Kirsch: There are of course advantages and disadvantages to both.

Of course it's nice to get paid. That's an advantage to working with a publisher. I've really had fun doing both, though. Having that control over your work is great for self-published and webcomic work, especially when someone's writing for themselves. It's great to have a clear vision of what you want to do and put it right down on the page.

I've worked with indie publishers but I've also worked with someone else's property when I worked with Archie. I had read those as a kid so that was fun as well. I would've been happy to've been an exclusively Archie artist if they'd have me. The work dried up after awhile though, for reasons beyond my control.

I really like the immediacy of webcomics, though. You can draw a strip or story one day and have it online within minutes, and people respond right away, whereas with a print comic, you may have to wait months before it sees print, and there's a chance you might never, ever get a response from the readers. Or, they might not even buy it.

Having said all that, though, I've gotten more response and recognition through drawing Terrebonne than anything else I've ever done.

Church: The immediacy is a key thing I like about webcomics too. Also, we can be spry and change things up on the fly if, say, a movie comes out and there's a similar beat or two that we wanted to avoid.

Kirsch: I think the main thing for me is whether I like what I'm drawing, script-wise. I would've never drawn something like Uncle Slam Fights Back for Oni if the script was bad. I laughed my ass off reading the old Uncle Slam comics Ande Parks wrote - it was completely hilarious and over the top. So I knew I'd have fun drawing the new incarnation of that character.

Some of Kirsch and Church's respective work for Oni and Boom!

With She Died in Terrebonne about to end, we're wondering what’s in the future for you both. Obviously, Kevin, you launched FIGHT! with Tracie Mauk a couple of months ago, and TJ’s excellent Slim Johnson’s Fever Dream is premiering at SPX. What can readers expect to see in these projects and beyond?

Church: Well, there's going to be another Sam Kimimura story. At least, TJ seemed up for it when I asked him during the Boston Comic Con, but I imagine we'll take some time off when this is wrapped up, just to refocus our energies. The way we formatted the first two floppies, it looks like we're going to have a bonus story in the third and fourth issues, something a bit more traditionally comic book, I imagine.

Plus, I've got FIGHT!, like you said, and we've had a bit of a wobbly beginning, mostly due to uncontrollable factors, but we really really want to get that back on track. It's a lot of fun, doing a straight-up goofy superhero thing with cliffhangers at the end of each strip. Tracie's been really great to work with and I think the amount of craft she puts into work is visible on every page. The Loneliest Astronauts is going to keep going. I bother Ming Doyle, my artist, every once in a while and try to sound out whether she feels like it's too much in addition to her paying gigs, but she seems to be up for it as long as I buy her a beer on occasion. I'm pretty sure The Rack is still going to be running even after the Earth has been devastated by armageddon. I've been working with Benjamin Birdie on that thing for three years, which is eons in internet time.

Also, I talk to people. There's things. It's vague, and I don't rely on it, but there's people and they're nice and we chat.

Kirsch: The Fever Dream comic was something I'd wanted to do for awhile. With this comic, I'd taken several dreams I had years ago and put them in a sort of a hopefully semi-interesting short. Lately I'd been reading David Heatley's dream comics and it really got me into the subject. Jesse Reklaw, Rick Smith and Rick Veitch also have some great dream-based comics online.That weird dream logic is so interesting to me and visually it's fun to look at that stuff. That story will actually be appearing on Top Shelf 2.0 before SPX.

I'll have that comic at SPX, both issues of Terrebonne, and I also have work in the new issue of So Buttons, the autobio comic written by my friend Jonathan Baylis. Last but not least, Sam Costello and I put together a print version of our online story Straw Gods for release at the show as well!

After She Died In Terrebonne is done, I'll be busy putting together the collection of course, and I'll hopefully start work on an exciting project I can't talk about quite yet, if all the stars align.

I hope to come back to Sam Kimimura at some point with Kevin as well, and we might do some short stories with him in the interim.

I'll also continue to work on short stories of my own, as they seem to be a form of therapy for me. 
Kirsch's excellent mind-bending dream-sequence, "Slim Johnson's Fever Dream". Coming soon to Top Shelf 2.0

Finally, what do you think your choice of breakfast cereal says about you?

Kirsch: I think it says a great deal about who we really are as individuals. But really, I have no idea. 

Church: I'm a bit Seinfeld in that I like a variety of breakfast cereals, given the chance.  Today it was corn flakes, tomorrow it's likely to be that weird Kashi Hippie Twigs Oh Look Here's Some Bullshit Feel Good Advice We Stick On The Back stuff.  Gotta change it up!

Also it says I'm deeply insecure and have a long-term resentment against my father.

We’d like to extend a very sincere thanks to TJ and Kevin for giving up their mornings for this interview. An extra special extra thank you goes to TJ for drawing this awesome Felix the Cat pastiche for us, which we've gratefully displayed in all its glory over on our Facebook page (linked in the sidebar).

Be sure to head over to Agreeable Comics to see more of Kevin’s witty, well-crafted dialogue in action and buy the print-versions of She Died in Terrebonne. If you're lucky enough to be attending SPX, we absolutely recommend heading TJ’s table to bug him for a copy of Slim Johnson’s Fever Dream, as well as the other cool swag he'll have for sale. In the mean time, you should really be following the multitude of links below for all your Church & Kirsch cravings. 

For the record, Team ATF eat Special K and/ or Chocapic for breakfast. Word to your mother.


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