Brian Fies interview

For a long time, I haven’t really been much of an avid reader of webcomics (that is, comics that have their own dedicated websites and are more-or-less self published). Most of what I had been reading runs on either Comics Kingdom or GoComics, and I’m in Japan so I don’t have access to most books as they come out. Brian Fies started serializing Mom’s Cancer in 2003, but it wasn’t until it began running on GoComics in 2015 that I started reading it. It was an amazing story, and I read it up to the last page. Then, just a little over one year ago, GoComics announced they were going to run The Last Mechanical Monster. I deliberately held off on reading this one because I really did want the “all-at-one-go” feeling of reading everything front to back in one sitting. Then, in about April, I went through the archives like a little kid in a candy store. Finally, LMM concluded at the beginning of June this year, and Brian included a link to a papercraft PDF for the monster. I just had to build that, then I asked Brian if he’d be willing to do an interview, and here we are.

BC: Who are you?
BF: I’m Brian Fies. I’m a husband and dad. I’ve been a bus driver, newspaper reporter, chemist, science writer, and cartoonist. I’ve done three webcomics: Mom’s Cancer, which won the first Eisner Award given to digital comics in 2005; The Last Mechanical Monster, an ode to the 1940s’ Fleischer “Superman” cartoons, which is currently running on GoComics.com; and A Fire Story, which I’ll have a lot to say about later. I’ve also had two graphic novels published by Abrams: Mom’s Cancer, and Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? A few years ago I self-published a little limited-edition (50-copy) zine called The Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian, and I’ve done short comics for some anthologies.

BC: Is there a link to The Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian?
BF: I did post most of them to my blog. Read them from the bottom up. But I really just wanted it to be a one-off lark. Fifty copies, that’s it.

That comic was a lot more important to me than its obscurity would indicate. I did it when I was bogged down on another project that made me dread sitting down to draw. So I drew The Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian instead. I could think of an idea, draw it up, and post it on my blog all in one day, no muss or fuss or angst. It was a crucial reminder to me that comics could be spontaneous and FUN! I also enjoyed the hands-on aspect of printing, stapling, selling and mailing a zine myself. Not that I need to do it again, but I think every cartoonist should self-publish something at least once.

BC: What personal details do you think are relevant to readers to know about you?
BF: I spent an idyllic boyhood in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and have been a northern Californian since my family moved there when I was 11. I love science, writing, and art, and have always tried to find ways to combine them in whatever I do. I’m a physics major and an English minor (accidentally; I happened to take enough English classes to get a minor because I thought they were fun). My wife and I have twin daughters whom I love more than life itself.


(The Last Mechanical Monster)

BC: The Last Mechanical Monster has a bit of Newtonian physics, and a few electronics diagrams. How much of the physics did you remember off the top of your head, and did you draw up the circuit diagrams for the monster’s logic yourself or were those schematics for old TV sets?
BF: I remembered the fundamentals of how ballistic arc variables work but had to look up the equation. The circuit diagrams are actually the same ones I used in the first chapter of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. They’re from the RCA TRK-12, which was one of the very first mass-market televisions featured at the 1939 World’s Fair, which my characters visited. I figured a circuit diagram from 1939 would be perfect for a mad scientist to use in 1941. A couple of readers who know their stuff actually pegged it as being from a TV, but at least it’s a really old one with period-appropriate vacuum tubes!

A decision I had to make very early in The Last Mechanical Monster was whether it was fantasy or science fiction. Superman himself could go either way, I think, but I needed to understand my ground rules. I puzzled over the Robot at ridiculous length, and finally decided there was absolutely no way it could ever really work. Where’s its power source? Where’s the motor that turns the propeller? How do those arms and wings move and unfold, especially while its chest is completely hollow? The idea of it flying was preposterous. Once I decided the Robot was fantasy, not science fiction, it gave me a bit of license to not take physics as seriously as I otherwise might have. But, within the story, Sparky the mad scientist would take it VERY seriously!

BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
BF: I call myself a writer. Sometimes I write with words alone, sometimes I write with words plus drawings. It’s all writing. Cartooning is telling stories or conveying information with images. If you don’t understand how stories work, or how newspaper and magazine articles work, or how visual narratives like TV and movies work, I don’t think you can make good comics. Great storytellers can make you weep or cheer for stick figures.

I think the most important quality a cartoonist needs is being a curious person who’s interested in a lot of things. Most people think being able to draw is important, and it helps, but no matter who you are, there will always be a million people who are better artists. What matters in comics are IDEAS, and you don’t get good ideas unless you absorb information from as many sources as you can. Tell the stories only you can tell.

BC: How did you get your start as a cartoonist?
BF: I’ve made comics as long as I can remember, since I was a toddler. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I tried very hard to be a professional comics creator. I submitted comic strips to newspaper syndicates, sent samples to DC and Marvel. I got some interest but no solid bites. Like a lot of people in a lot of creative fields, I failed. So I did other things. I got married and had kids. But I always kept drawing and sending out work, and picked up occasional freelance gigs. I illustrated a lightbulb catalog once. They come in a surprising number of shapes.

BC: What do you think your biggest breaks were?
BF: My “big break” was a tragedy. My mother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. I knew I wanted to tell our family’s story somehow but didn’t know how. I had a lot of experience writing articles for newspapers and magazines, and thought maybe that was it. Then one day I took Mom to chemotherapy and sketched her getting an IV in the chair. I realized that one drawing said more about what the experience was like than I could have said in 5,000 words. I started drawing Mom’s Cancer. Since I had no idea what to do with it, I put it online, where it went viral. After that: the Eisner Award, other nice recognition, book deals. Now, with A Fire Story, I’ve stumbled into an Emmy Award! My entire semi-career in comics came from my mother’s great gift of letting me tell her story.


(A Fire Story)

BC: What led up to your starting Fire Story, and do you have any other pokers in the fire right now?
BF: “Pokers in the fire?” That’s cold, man.

BC: My bad. I should have worded that differently.

BF: My house burned down in last October’s California firestorm. Even before I was sure my house was gone, I was taking photos and making mental notes because I knew this was a story I had to tell. As with Mom’s Cancer, I was going to tell it the best way I knew how: by making a comic.

The day after the fire, I went to a Target store and bought shoes, clothes, food, and crummy art supplies. I started drawing that day. Four days after the fire I posted the first installment on my blog. It exploded. Something like 700,000 people read it on my blog, and it was picked up by CNN, The Washington Post, major newspapers and TV outlets. My wife, Karen, and I were living like refugees, huddled in our daughters’ apartment with everything we owned packed into the back half of a compact car, and I was talking to camera crews. It was surreal.

Shortly afterward, San Francisco PBS station KQED asked if they could try animating it. Sure, why not? The short film they produced was seen by around 3 million viewers online and just won an Emmy Award for Best Public/Current/Community Affairs Feature Segment. So that’s pretty cool!

(Direct youtube link)

A Fire Story got two reactions I especially appreciated. People who hadn’t been through it said I helped them feel what it was like. And people who had been through it said I got it right.

My poker in the fire (ouch!) is expanding my original 18-page Fire Story into a full-length graphic novel. That should keep me busy the rest of the year. After that, I have other projects in mind, mostly graphic novels of one sort or another.


(A Fire Story)

I’m certainly always open to doing more webcomics if the right story and opportunity arises. The wonderful thing about the web as a medium is its immediacy – instant feedback. You can draw something in the morning and have people commenting on it in the afternoon. I love webcomics’ freedom, spontaneity, and personality. There are no gatekeepers, no barriers, no rules. I don’t think you can get a purer expression of a cartoonist’s vision than in a webcomic.

BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
BF: As I’m sure everyone says, that’s like being asked to pick your favorite child. Which I totally could, but would be rude to say aloud! No no no …

Until a few months ago, I would have said that Mom’s Cancer would be the lede in my obit and the carving on my tombstone, and I would be very satisfied with that. Mom’s Cancer is still in print after 12 years, which is remarkable. It’s running on GoComics.com. It’s being taught in colleges and medical schools, and brought me into a world of lectures and conferences in the field of Graphic Medicine, which is a whole interesting, vibrant, important discipline in itself.

But now I think it might be A Fire Story, which has already been read by way more people. I think the expanded version I’m working on has the potential to be quite good.


(World of Tomorrow)

I also love Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, which is a look at Space Age America and the arc we traveled from optimistic utopianism in the 1930s to pessimistic dystopianism in the 1970s through a Pop Culture lens. How’d we get from Flash Gordon to Blade Runner? There’s a lot of me in that book.

And I also love The Last Mechanical Monster, which, as I said, is a love letter to some of the best animation ever done, and is also running on GoComics.com. It’s just good pulpy fun that was kind of a challenge I set myself to see if I could tell a straight-up fictional story, which I hadn’t really done before. It got a couple of Eisner nominations and some other nice nods, and I’ve been really touched by readers who say they love the story.

Honestly, when you make comics about cancer or disaster, you kind of know going in that, if you do it right, you have the potential to affect readers. But I was surprised how many people were moved by a story about an old man and his giant robot. It’s very gratifying.


(A Fire Story)

BC: Do you have any paper or e-book collections on the market yet? Where can readers find them?
BF: My original Fire Story is still online. If all goes well, a longer version might be in print sometime next year. Mom’s Cancer and Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? are available in print and digital versions and can be found in the usual places, including your heroic local independent bookseller. The Last Mechanical Monster is only at GoComics.com, although you could still Google up a first-draft black-and-white version I posted online.

BC: Any plans to run A Fire Story on GoComics?
BF: No. The GoComics folks and I talked about it for a moment, but I have other plans for it. Stay tuned.


(World of Tomorrow)

BC: Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? has a blurb from Neil deGrasse Tyson. Were you expecting that, and did he say anything further about the book beyond the cover blurb? Have you met him?
BF: It turns out, and I didn’t always know this, that blurbs – getting someone well-known to say something nice about your book so you can put it on the cover – are important. As we were getting ready to publish WHTTWOT, my editor Charlie Kochman and I put together a short list of dream blurbers, including Tyson. It turned out to be easier than you’d think. Tyson works at the Hayden Planetarium, which is a few miles from the Abrams offices in Manhattan. As I recall, Charlie made a call to Tyson’s assistant, messengered up a book that afternoon, and we had our blurb shortly afterward. I never met or spoke to Dr. Tyson, but I did sign and send a book to him.

There’s a twist, in that Tyson’s first blurb was swell but not exactly on point. We revised a few words, sent it back to him, and very timidly asked, “Would it be all right to change it to this instead?” It took him a long time to get back to us, and the whole while I’m thinking, “Crap, you don’t edit a guy like that, now he hates us!” But he sent back a nice email saying “Fine, no problem,” and we got our blurb.

BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper when you decide to start your next strip or panel?
BF: My process is pretty standard: script, thumbnail, pencil, ink. Since I’m writing and thumbnailing for myself, and I don’t have to explain every detail to someone else, it’s pretty rough and sketchy. Sometimes just a doodle on a Post-It note. A huge part of the job is done in thumbnailing – that’s where the pacing, layout, and storytelling happen. By the time I actually get around to drawing, most of the hard decision-making and problem-solving has been done.

One of the bravest leaps of faith in the creative world has got to be sitting down to draw Line One on Page One of a long-form webcomic or graphic novel, knowing you’ve got 150 or 250 pages to go. Just take them one at a time. Break the job into manageable chunks. If you think about writing and drawing hundreds of pages, you could be too intimidated to start! So don’t do hundreds of pages. Do eight. Anybody can do eight. Or if eight’s too many, do four. If you only do one, that’s one more than you had yesterday.

On shorter projects, heck, just dive in. I think a lot of “writer’s block” stems from fear of imperfection. People don’t want to begin because they’re afraid it won’t turn out as good as the story in their head. They’ll disappoint someone. They’ll embarrass themselves. I’d urge that person to give themselves permission to suck. Understand that you might create something bad but try it anyway. If it’s terrible, tear it up and nobody will ever know about it but you.

I don’t get writer’s block. Charles Schulz said, “Writer’s block is for amateurs,” and while I think that’s not very compassionate, it’s kind of true. I worked as a newspaper reporter for a few years and quickly learned that inspiration had nothing to do with the job. If you didn’t write three stories that day, you’d get fired. Then you had to write the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. Nobody cared how creative I felt. Survival concentrates the mind wonderfully.

That said, I do get stuck sometimes. That’s not a block; it’s just a problem I haven’t solved yet. One thing that comes with experience is the confidence to know I will solve it somehow, someday, and not to worry about it. Just go on to other things and circle back, and nine times out of ten the solution looks so easy you can’t believe you didn’t have it all along.

BC: And that final tenth out of ten times…? Do you have an example for #10 when the solution wasn’t as easy to find?
BF: Not off hand. I guess that one time out of ten you ought to just throw it all away and start over.

BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
BF: No idea! The only work I’ve done that clearly had a soundtrack running through my head while I did it was The Last Mechanical Monster, whose soundtrack combined the original Fleischer cartoon score with the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movie. For A Fire Story, I don’t know. Maybe some of that mournful music Ken Burns lays into his documentaries. Or something rousing by James Horner! Lots of brass.

BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers? Have you met any of them? Got any dirt on them?
BF: I’ve met a few of my heroes and never had anything interesting or insightful to say to them. My editor at Abrams, Charlie Kochman, knows everybody in comics, and seems to make a point of introducing me to people just to watch me stutter and melt. “Batman” co-creator and comics historian Jerry Robinson, Golden Age artist Irwin Hasen, MAD’s Nick Meglin. All passed away now, and I’m grateful I had a chance to stutter at them.

One of the best qualities that the most confident, accomplished people seem to share is that they’ll pay you the respect of treating you like a peer, even if you’re utterly inexperienced and they’ve never heard of you. Comic book artist Gene Colan and MAD’s Al Jaffee were like that with me. Like sitting down and talking comics with an old friend. The great ones make it easy.

BC: I understand what you mean. I got that vibe from Bob Asprin (Myth Adventures) whenever I met him at SF cons late at night.
BF: Beyond that, I’d say that I have a lot of friends who are professional writers, artists, and cartoonists, a few of them stratospherically successful. It was hugely satisfying to look at my bookshelf (before the fire) and realize that I knew so many of the people who created those books. I don’t have any juicy horror stories because I don’t hang out with jerks. As a group, on average, comics creators are some of the nicest, most generous people you could meet.
BC: Everyone says that…

BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now? What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
BF: I still read a lot of traditional comic strips, both in the newspaper and online. Because I’m old. Cul de Sac by the late Richard Thompson was the best comic strip of the post-Watterson era, and I’d recommend it to anyone. Check it out. There are a lot I really like but I’m hesitant to start naming them because I know I’d leave out the best ones.

Webcomics are tough. It’s such a big universe that it’s hard to sort out the good ones. I gravitate toward webcomics that are complete stories with a beginning, middle and end, rather than serialized ones that run forever. Again, if I start listing them, I’d forget my favorites.

I haven’t read mainstream superhero comics in a couple of decades, although I do keep up with the comics press so I know what’s going on with publishers and characters. I always say that I didn’t leave Marvel and DC, they left me. I just lost interest in the types of stories they were telling.


(Mom’s Cancer)

I enjoy graphic novels, including those in my niche of Graphic Medicine, which focus on illness narratives and healthcare. I like the books most people like: Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. March. One of the best graphic novels I’ve read in years was Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart, but don’t pick it up unless you’re ready to be gutted.

I also read other books that have nothing to do with comics, leaning toward nonfiction. Science, history, biography. Like I said, good ideas are fueled by input from as many varied sources as you can take in. If all you read are comics, your own comics are just going to be regurgitations of other people’s comics, with the same tired tropes and twists. Develop passions for subjects that have nothing to do with comics and bring that into your work. That’s how you’ll stand out.

BC: You’re another fan of Cul de Sac. Richard Thompson seems to be very polarizing as a cartoonist, either people love him or they hate him. What do you like about his work, and why do you think he’s so polarizing?
BF: I’ve never actually heard anyone say they hate him. Indifference I’d understand, though I’d disagree, but I didn’t realize he was polarizing. In any event, I loved him and his work so much I wrote a very long blog post about it in 2012. Richard saw that and we corresponded a bit, which I’ll always be grateful for.

In short, as I tried to explain in that post, Richard was a cartooning master who completed the Picasso-like circle of being so good he made it look simple. Almost childlike. The difference between him and someone who actually draws as badly as a child is that everything in a Thompson comic worked. His stage was large, not limited to one room and couch and TV, like some comic strips. His perspective could be wonky, but always with purpose. Like a good magician, he knew exactly how to guide the reader’s eye. His scritchy pen line was full of nervous energy that brought his characters to life. As I also wrote in my blog post, some of the things he did looked simple, until you realize you never would have thought of them in a hundred years. I think Richard was working at a level most cartoonists don’t even understand, let alone try to attain.

One nice legacy of his life and career has been Team Cul de Sac, which among other things auctions original comic art to raise money to fight Parkinson’s disease, which killed Richard. They do great work, check ‘em out.

BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
BF: A unique, authentic voice. The visible hand of the author. I think readers crave connection and honesty, and they can tell when a creator is faking it or phoning it in. They want to have a conversation with an interesting person, and when a comic is really working right, it can feel like a direct tap from the creator’s brain to the reader’s.

I want to read stories nobody on Earth but YOU could tell. I have no interest in another “Lord of the Rings” pastiche where snarky characters bumble through quests, or giant laser-mounted dragons vaporize fleets of spaceships. Thousands of people could do those stories. If you’re the world’s foremost authority on soda bottle caps, and can write and draw a story that makes soda bottle caps as interesting to me as they are to you, that is a comic I want to read.
BC: Or, about lightbulbs?

BC:Can you talk a bit about graphic medicine? What’s it like as a field? How does the medical field view artists that do these kinds of graphic medicine works? What kinds of things are important for readers to know about this kind of genre? What kinds of presentations do you give on this at medical gatherings?
BF: In 2010, after the print version of Mom’s Cancer had been out a few years, I got a note from a British M.D. asking if I wanted to visit London to talk at a medical conference. He’d cover the flight and lodging. The only answer to that question is “Of course!” so my wife and I headed over with no idea what to expect. It turned out to be the first ever international graphic medicine conference, dedicated to the idea that comics and healthcare have a lot to teach and contribute to each other.

I know it best from my perspective. Very early in Mom’s Cancer’s webcomic days, I got an email from a nursing instructor in Australia who asked permission to copy several pages of my story to include with materials she was giving to her students. She said they’d be working independently in the Outback and encountering the types of family dynamics and issues I portrayed. The idea that my comic had something to teach new nurses on literally the other side of the world was stunning.

One of the neatest, unexpected outcomes of doing Mom’s Cancer has been talking to doctors and nurses who’ve read it and tell me, “I never understood the patients’ perspective like that, your book changed how I’m going to do my job.” What’s better than that? So imagine that you give books like mine to students in medical school and nursing school. Or you teach medical personnel and caregivers to make comics to express their experiences. Or have patients make comics journaling their own treatment. Comics can teach public health, capture oral histories, or explain medical procedures to children. It’s a big tent.

So when I go to these conferences, very often I’ll do a workshop to teach some fundamentals of making comics. It’s great. We’ll do a jam comic, and I’ll have them design characters and put together a little four-panel story. I’ve been a panel moderator, and I’ll sit on any panel that wants me. They keep me busy, and I love hanging out with some very smart people who’ve become good friends. In general, I find graphic medicine conferences a lot more interesting and inspiring than a typical comics convention; participants are there to really understand and stretch the medium, not gripe about the latest Wolverine movie. There aren’t many places where doctors, nurses, university professors, and cartoonists can get together and talk as equals.


(Mom’s Cancer)

BC: You and your siblings went through a lot while your mother was receiving treatments for cancer. Did the experience pull you together more as a family afterward, and how did your sisters respond to your telling their stories in graphic novel form?
BF: I think we got closer in the end, though not always during. When I told Mom about the comic, she was thrilled. I was glad, because if she didn’t like it, I would have killed it immediately. But Mom was always something of a ham, and she thought that letting me tell her story was one good thing she could get out of this terrible situation. She called me up and said, “I can’t wait to find out what happens next!”

My sisters were less enthusiastic but understood what I was doing and why I was doing it. “Nurse Sis” said something like, “Well, that’s not exactly the way I remember it, but do what you’ve gotta do.” “Kid Sis” told me she was working on a film script doing the same thing! So in the end, Mom’s Cancer became a kind of family project that I think we were mostly OK with. It has been a very nice legacy for our mother.

BC: Anyone else in your family planning to follow your footsteps as a physics major, writer, or cartoonist?
BF: God no. My daughters are actually both very good writers and artists. They’ve won prizes for their comics. But they see it as more a complement to their lives and careers than the focus of them. Which I think is very nice and well-balanced.

BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter? How do you think they are changing the face of webcartooning? Do you want to plug your site?
BF: I don’t use Patreon or Kickstarter, but cast no judgment on those who do, many of whom are friends of mine. It’s just not for me. That’s not how I want to expend my limited time and energy.

In general, I think they’ve been good for webcartooning, and have especially opened the door for projects that could never draw a broad audience but attract a small, very passionate one. The world is getting a lot of excellent work that traditional publishing would never support. That said, I wonder if backers are burning out. Anecdotally, I hear that campaigns just don’t draw the intensity and loyalty they used to.

I have a blog that I don’t post to as much as I should, but with a decade’s worth of good posts to check out. That’s pretty much my HQ.

BC: Do you have any projects coming up? Appearances scheduled for conventions?
BF: I’m working on expanding A Fire Story. This is a tough year for me because my main focus is recovering from the fire and rebuilding my house, so I don’t have much time for “luxuries” like conventions. I am very excited and honored to be a special guest at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July, which will include a Spotlight Panel on Friday, July 20, 2 p.m. in Room 4. I’m sure I’ll also be spending time at the Abrams booth.

BC: Thank you Brian, and best regards.
BF: Best regards back atcha. Thanks for asking!
Brian

(“All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Brian Fies (c) 2018.”)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2018. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)

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