I might as well say now that I really like interviewing Benjamin because he's got loads to say!
TFQ: I loved the little conversation at the back of the issue where the story is being pitched to you. You say you're in as soon as you hear that you get to drawn anthropomorphic animals. Is that how it really all went down?
Benjamin: It was pretty close to that! I have been a fan of Kurt’s work for a long time. His Conan run with Cary Nord was a big deal for me so when he first called me and suggested we work on a project together I was preemptively amped. When he said it would be like Kamandi meets Lord Of The Rings, I almost fell out of my chair because I love drawing animals and enjoy epic fantasy when it’s done well; I knew Kurt could deliver! This book would be a chance for him to cut loose and tell a story that was untethered to expectations that exist with licensed characters who have long histories and established fandoms.
I met Jordie while she was visiting Periscope and she said she wanted to color the project after I
The fourth part of the team was suggested enthusiastically by Kurt: John Roshell. Once I got to start working with him, it was clear that he was a fantastic fit for the book. He is really hard-working, innovative and thoughtful.
So that’s how I remember it, Kurt, Jordie and John might have different insights.
TFQ: What's it like drawing the actual characters? How do you choose what kind of owl, dog,
Benjamin: That part is alternately great and daunting. It’s tough sometimes to strike the right balance between realistic and abstractly/symbolically expressive, which is the tension in comics illustration generally. People know what animals look like and they know expressions intrinsically but combining those is not always a clear one plus one equation. Sometimes I have to use light or angle to convey a human emotion on an animal face that isn’t constructed in a way that’s conducive to put it across.
Occasionally Kurt puts a note in the script that is specific but if not, I think about how frequently they repeat, if their silhouette is helpful, what their character is like and build from there. I really love elephant seals, cats, bats, bears and herons. Turtles might be the most fun to draw. For this part of the story, the majority are from the Americas for reasons that will become clear later. Gharta and her partner Affa (the Giraffe wizards) are rare visitors!
We are saving certain animals/regions for later based on their story function
TFQ: Having read I Was the Cat before release, I found this to be a departure from that artwork. There appears to be so much more passion behind this project. How does this book differ from projects of the past for you?
Benjamin: For IWTC I had to illustrate a wide variety of time periods, settings and types under less than enjoyable circumstances. It was made during a tough period of time in my life and without a page rate so I had to take what other work I could to support my wife and me; that delayed and altered the process of working on it. That context is not the best one in which to produce a book that you have to pencil, ink and color. Thanks to the folks at Oni, My mentor Steve Lieber, my wife Lindsey and my brother Zach, I was able to push through to the end and emerge from it with a book Paul Tobin and I could be proud of.
With Tooth and Claw, I got to essentially start fresh, get a regular paycheck and work with a team of amazing people. It feels more like a sweet rock band than anything else; there’s great energy and reciprocity. When I work on this current book, I know I’ll have a chance to discuss choices in color, lettering and writing and likewise for the art with my collaborators. When you’re part of a team that all care about bringing their A-game to whatever their part is, it takes the pressure off in some ways but also makes you want to elevate your game because of how hard the others are working. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to feeling what it’s like to be in the Beatles or GNR. I aim to be the Slash to Kurt’s Axl. That makes Jordie Duff, I guess!
It’s also my first ongoing monthly title so that is a different experience from mostly doing little bits and pieces of comics on an irregular schedule.
I’m also excited about my own tragedy series book, that’s coming out in March from Macmillan (St. Martins/Thomas Dunne), but that is a whole other type of work because I write it and draw it so there is no real outside input or editorial other than the response of readers and that can be a rabbit hole that is dangerous to go down. I have to develop an internal editor and coach to get me through rough patches of self doubt that happen when you’re the sole creator on a project
TFQ: Some of my favorite comics center around talking animals. I was a huge fan of Beasts of Burden realizing though that Tooth and Claw is very different from that book. What are your favorite comics with talking animals?
I love Blacksad for the art, Kamandi and Planet of the Apes. Anthropomorphic comics aren’t necessarily a genre that I seek out but I like to see it done well because it has a lot of potential to say things that might be harder to take from a human character. I think Oscar Wilde phrased it well when he said “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. I think a reader can absorb more emotion from the exaggerated form because their is removal that softens resistance and defies familiar patterns. This is doubly true of animals, robots, superheroes etc. David Simon made a 5 season long editorial about the tragic problems and untapped potential of American urban centers, that would have fallen flat on the printed page in prose, but people who watched it loved ‘The Wire’ and learned things because it was dramatized by people who cared enough to weave complicated social issues into stories with heart. Kurt and I are going to shoot for that!
TFQ: What kind of books are you most excited to do in the future? What's on the artistic bucket list?
Benjamin: Oh, boy. Well, Tooth and Claw is kind of a dream project to work on so I look forward to what will happen as it plays out. Kurt told me what the ending is and that is a good 50 or so issues away. It looks like the next few years are booked!
I do want to work with writer Jeremy Barlow on a rock n roll comic (we’ve been developing) where we get to write and record a soundtrack. I’m going to try and make time for that and draw in a more open style like my great cartoonist friends/heroes Natalie Nourigat, Chris Samnee and Wook Jin (Hunter) Clark. I want to experiment with style.
I’d love to work with Jeff Parker again because he writes such fun stuff and I think we like the same sorts of stuff. He and I have talked about working on another animal-heavy story. I am in danger of becoming the animal guy!
If Jim Ottaviani ever did a Carl Sagan Biography project I’d lobby as hard as possible to draw that. Carl Sagan is my ultimate hero and favorite human other than my wife.
If I got a chance to draw licensed/popular properties I’d jump at an opportunity to work on Silver Surfer, Pacific Rim, Mignolaverse stuff like Hellboy or BPRD, Ron Randall’s Trekker, Green Lantern, Aquaman, The Hulk, Conan, The Inhumans, Agents of Atlas (I wish Marvel would bring it back with Jeff Parker writing), pre-1900 League of Extraordinary Gentleman stories, adaptations of Jane Austen novels, Sherlock Holmes, John Carter and all ages Avengers stories.
Of course, I have my own little seeds of ideas just rattling around in my head waiting for a chance to grow in the right conditions. I guess I’ll just try to fit in what I can over the next five years!
TOOTH AND CLAW #2 will be available on 12/3 and can be pre-ordered with Diamond Code OCT140609. A variant by Alex Ross will also be available to pre-order with Diamond Code OCT140610.