Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A little more on MODOK

On Sunday I mentioned a piece I had in the Erie Daily Times about Ryan Dunlavey and his MODOK:Reign Delay one-shot, the print version of the story that had previously run on Marvel.com.

As is so often the case with such articles, I asked Dunlavey a whole bunch of questions, and he gave me a whole bunch of answers, and only a relatively few fit into the allotted space. So I thought I'd post the whole Q-and-A here, particularly since I thought Dunlavey had some interesting things to say about topics that are relevant to your interests (since you're reading this on a comics blog).

My questions are in italics, Dunlavey's answers are in the normal font....

On your website, it says you freelance work in animation, graphic design and illustration…are comics your main, pay-the-bills gig, or do you do a little of everything?

I worked a series of full-time graphic design jobs for many years before going full-time freelance in 2003. I do a little of everything—I usually get 4 or 5 big jobs a year and lots of little illustration jobs on top of that. So far this year my big projects have been two flash animation jobs, this MODOK comic and re-designing a huge website. I like jumping around between different stuff, it keeps me from getting burnt out and having a wide range of skills comes in handy in this rough job market. Comics is the one thing I could do full time though.

Can you tell me a little about how MODOK: Reign Delay came about? Did you pitch the idea to Marvel, or did Marvel ask you to do something with the character? Did your Action Philosophers partner Fred Van Lente play any role?

About a year ago Marvel invited Fred and I to pitch for their original online comics line that they had just started. We didn’t know what format the comics were going to be in, but we figured we’d better do something funny, and MODOK was the obvious choice for a humorous lead. I wrote up a pitch that structured it like a sit-com, Fred revised it so it fit into the current continuity, we sent it in and it got greenlit pretty much immediately. Fred was supposed to co-plot it with me while I handled the script and the art, but then when it finally came up on the schedule Fred simply didn’t have time so I just did the whole shebang myself. I even did the coloring and the lettering—I’m greedy like that.

Can you tell me a little about the plot for the story? MODOK returns to his hometown of Erie and lives with his parents, but is there another reason why he’s in Erie, PA? Like, the proximity to Canada?

In the current Marvel Comics, The Green Goblin, Doctor Doom and some other super villains have been slowly taking over the world behind the scenes. In my story MODOK finds out about it and wants in on the action, but since he’s such a creepy, annoying loser the other bad guys don’t want anything to do with him, so they send him on the fool’s errand of conquering Erie where he can’t screw up any of their big plans.

MODOK’s such an egomaniac he actually believes his home town of Erie is an important piece in the world domination puzzle. I could have easily had it set in any other small US city like Ann Arbor or South Bend or whatever, but Erie is just a weird, funny place and from living there I knew it well enough that I thought I could get a lot of jokes out of it, and I didn’t have to do much research either.

Also, Erie’s proximity to Canada does indeed play into the plot. Even though it’s a comedy it’s still a superhero comic and I couldn’t just do 20 pages of jokes about MODOK’s giant head, at some point he was going to need a hero to fight. In the Marvel Universe heroes tend to gather in really large, metropolitain areas, and the closest big city to Erie is Toronto, which gave me the perfect excuse to use one of my favorite Marvel characters as the “villain”. (Canadian super hero “Box”, aka Maddison Jeffries, an obscure member of the X-Men) Plus the whole superhero trying to cross international borders to fight crime provided for some more gags.

Do you visit Erie very often now? Did your own experiences there, either in the past or more currently, impact the story at all? (This may be the only opportunity I have to seriously ask someone how much of themselves they put into a story about MODOK).

I have some aunts and uncles and a few cousins that still live in Erie but my immediate family doesn’t live there anymore so I don’t visit very often, maybe once every year or two. Erie’s a fine place but when I became an adult I decided it just wasn’t where I wanted to live my life. MODOK, by contrast, is thrilled about being back in Erie, where he gets free rent and his mom makes him pancakes on demand.

Marvel Comics are kind of notorious for being set either in New York City, or in made-up exotic places like Wakanda or Wundagore or Latveria or wherever, which is another neat thing about a MODOK-in-Erie story. Was the small world aspect of the Marvel Universe something you wanted to address through the setting at all?

Nope, I just thought it would be hilarious to get MODOK out of the standard sci-fi underground lairs we usually see him in—the classic fish-out-of-water situation never fails to generate the funny stuff.

This will be kind of an obvious, general question, but what’s the difference for you between writing and drawing your own story versus drawing someone else’s script?

Each has its own challenges. When I draw a story that I’m also writing there’s also a lot less words, because I know what storytelling I’m going to be able to get across with the visuals—the challenge comes from making sure I’m making writing choices that serve the story rather than just doing the easiest thing to draw. When I’m drawing someone else’s script there’s no cutting corners—I’ve got to stick with what I’ve got, and often I have to draw things I would never choose to draw on my own—this happens most often when I’m drawing non-fiction comics that I do with Fred.

You play MODOK for laughs in this story, which has been the default mode for the character for a few years now. Obviously, he’s a pretty goofy character in general, but do you have any thoughts on why MODOK has come to be viewed as such a comedic figure recently, where as other, similarly goofy characters still get played straight a lot of the time?

I have to disagree with you, I think there’s more humor in superhero comics these days then there ever has been, across the board, even with the traditionally serious characters. Spider-Man has always been funny. Batman’s various and sundry villains and teammates are always making fun of him one way or another. Deadpool is Bugs Bunny with guns. Bizarro—who do they think they’re fooling? And you have great series like Incredible Hercules and Guardians of the Galaxy and Secret Six that dole out the funny and serious moments equally.

On the flip side, even the so-called goofy characters have their serious moments—MODOK was played as a deadly, calculating, manipulative evil S.O.B. in Fred’s Super-Villain Team-Up mini and more recently in Hulk. I think that’s one of the cool things about super hero characters and comics—the writer can choose to play things straight or satirical or somewhere in between and it still works. I think because MODOK’s design is so distinctively bizarre that it makes his humorous appearances especially memorable.

When you were originally doing the story, was the thought that it would eventually be something that saw print, or was the initial thought that it would just be for online consumption? Did creating a comic for that particular format/venue affect the way you wrote and drew it, as opposed to the way you might have worked on it if it were going to be a print-only book?

No one knew what the format was going to be once the story got the go ahead—ongoing, mini-comic, one-shot, weekly web comic or whatever—so I just wrote it like a standard 22-page comic with a cliffhanger ending, like a regular first issue of a series. Just before I turned the script in Marvel decided they wanted it to be a self-contained four-part story, five pages per part—so I just edited my original 22 pages down to 17 and wrote a new ending. It made the story a lot tighter, and the jokes are pretty much non-stop throughout, so I’m really happy how it worked out. I don’t know when or why Marvel decided to also do a print edition at a later date, but that was just a nice bonus for me.

Are online comics like this the future of comics, even Marvel Comics, or do you see both electronic and paper comics existing simultaneously as they are now?

Digital is just another format, another way for people to get the comics, just as trade paperbacks were introduced as a new format for reading comic books. Comic books themselves were invented as a new way of reading comic strips, and last time I checked those were still around. The greatest thing about digital comics is that it now puts publishing as a viable option for anyone who’s willing to just put in the time to actually write and draw—the cost barriers of traditional print publishing are virtually eliminated.

But still, there sure is a lot of angst about digital comics isn’t there? Anytime I hear someone bitch about how digital comics suck because they personally don’t like to read comics on a computer screen I just roll my eyes. It’s like saying you don’t like reading in bed, you can only read in a chair—I mean, who cares about your personal reading preferences really? Those kinds of reactions to digital comics really stem from the fear that companies might decide to only do digital comics instead of print altogether, so the reader would be forced to either read their new comics in a format they don’t enjoy or not at all.

There might come a time when you’ll only be able to get new issues of lower-selling series as digital only at first but in a paperback collection at a later date, but I think that's still a ways off, and the total elimination of print is still a long, long, long way off, at least not in our lifetimes. Really, it’s just another method of getting the same stuff—comics. One of the things Fred and I have done with our self-published stuff is to offer it in as many formats as possible—single issues, trade paperbacks, PDF, iphone. We don’t see a lot of cross-over with the audiences for each format—but more formats opens us up to more potential readers. I’d really like to see publishers start releasing digital and print editions simultaneously like how you can now get movies as a DVD or a download or on-demand on the same release day. More formats, more delivery methods equals more readers and that can only help comics.

Can you tell me a little about what you have coming up or in the works? There’s a more-than-complete Action Philosophers collection coming up, I understand…is Comic Book Comics still an ongoing project as well?

Comic Book Comics is still going strong—it’s a six-issue series. My scheduling got screwed up and I fell way behind (our last issue came out in February 2009) but we’re back in October with issue #4. Issue #5 is our All-Lawsuit issue—that comes out in March 2010, and #6 is scheduled for June. The Complete Action Philosophers comes out in November 2009—it’s all nine issues of the original series with the stories re-arranged in chronological order so it’s a complete history of philosophy starting with the Pre-Socratics and going the way through to the 21st century with Jaques Derridah. We’re also doing four new stories that will only be in the big collection—I’m in the middle of drawing the Auguste Comte story right now and it’s a beaut. I’ve got a three-page Diarrhea Dog story in the next issue of Royal Flush in October, I’m doing a page for David HopkinsOne Night Stand anthology out in December and I’ve got some more work for Marvel in the pipeline. MODOK has gotten me excited about writing comics again so I’m trying desperately to schedule some time to return to Tommy Atomic, my long-neglected web comic.

Van Lente’s writing for Marvel. You did this story for Marvel. Are Action Philosophers fans going to get to see you guys reunite on a Marvel property any time soon? Any chance of a Plato vs. Hercules story?

I’d love to work on a story with Fred. Ultimately it’ll be up to Marvel, but I would say Spider-Man vs Ayn Rand is pretty much inevitable.


LurkerWithout said...

"We’re also doing four new stories that will only be in the big collection—I’m in the middle of drawing the Auguste Comte story right now and it’s a beaut."

I'm glad I didn't buy the original floppy issues now. The only thing worse than buying things twice is buying them three times...

Mart said...

Nice one Caleb - I loved this book so much!