We recently had the opportunity to talk to writer and cartoonist Thomas F. Zahler about his current projects, his thoughts on his craft, and Pop Culture topics.
If you are not familiar with his work, Thom, a graduate of The Kubert School, has had a successful career in comics as a writer, artist, letterer and cartoonist. He has also written for television, including the Ultimate Spider-Man show on Disney XD. He has published a lot of his creator owned comics through IDW Enterprises, including Love and Capes, Long Distance, and Time and Vine. Thom has also worked on comics for other licensed properties, notably My Little Pony from IDW. You can find some links to Thom’s work at the end of this interview.
Beginning in 2017, Thom published a weekly episodic comic strip on Line Webtoons, called Warning Label. He then collected that story in a printed edition that was funded through Kickstarter last year.
We wanted to catch up with him about his latest project, Cupid’s Arrows, which is set to premiere on Line Webtoons next week.
About Cupid’s Arrows:
Pop Culture Squad: Can you tell us what Cupid’s Arrows is about?
Thom Zahler: It re-imagines Cupids as two-person hitman teams. The idea is that both Cupids on the team have to shoot their targets to get a couple to fall in love, and the story follows a particular team of Cupids named Rick and Lora, who we see go on a number of missions. We also see that they may have a budding relationship with each other, which is not permitted among Cupids.
PCS: What is the inspiration behind this project?
TZ: A couple of things. One is the Thin Man movies. I really wanted a couple who could banter and had a charming relationship. One of the things, that I did with this series as opposed to Warning Label, is that this is much more open ended. Warning Label always had a very definite end, and once it ended, I couldn’t extend it. With this, there are a lot of adventures that I can tell with Rick and Lora.
Another inspiration was a show called Cupid, which was around twice. Once starring Jeremy Piven and again in 2009 starring Bobby Cannavale, who is in the Ant-Man movies. I always liked the idea of doing an anthology comic about different characters, and using main characters as almost a framing sequence. So, this setup lets me tell a lot of different kinds of stories.
PCS: When is it scheduled to start, and how long will it run?
TZ: It will launch on Wednesday February 13, 2019. It is set up to run at least six months. I’ve designed it so at that point there will be a satisfying conclusion, but not necessarily the end of the story. I really don’t like ending on a cliffhanger when you don’t know if you are going to get the opportunity to do more. I have every reason to think that there will be more, especially with the success that we had on Warning Label and with how great Webtoons has been to work with, but I just like leaving the readers satisfied.
PCS: What is the technical schedule like with doing a weekly digital strip?
TZ: The simple answer is that it can be whatever I want it to be as long as I get my strip in on time. I’ve noticed that this one is taking me longer to do than Warning Label. Some of the reason for that is because it is in full-color. This is also a much more “free flowing” story in terms of location and costume design and in terms of grid of the strip. Warning Label was set to have a consistent panel size and page grid. With this, I am very much taking advantage of the format of Webtoons. There will be some artwork that is designed to scroll and have different panel sizes. After having done Warning Label, I want to take advantage of the medium that I am working in.
PCS: How do you decide how long a weekly episode is?
TZ: The paradigm, that I was taught when I started working with Webtoons, is that each episode should be roughly five comic book pages, and then split down the middle. So, instead of 5 (11″ x 17″) pages, you will end up with 10 (5.5″ x 17″) pages. That seems to be a satisfying chunk of content. I have done strips that have gone over that already, but that is the baseline that I am trying to hold to.
PCS: Do you have any plans to collect Cupid’s Arrows the way that you did with Warning Label?
TZ: I don’t have plans to at this time, but I am not averse to it.
PCS: I suppose that the point of the question is that I am wondering if you are thinking about it being printed as you produce it.
TZ: I am not thinking about it printed. If it becomes a collection, I am going to need to do a lot of work to it, and it will probably mean redrawing some things. I have experimented with some of that already. I don’t want to limit myself by a potential print version.
Being conscious of the Webtoons audience, I am trying to do things that work for them. If I were writing a movie, I wouldn’t write it as three thirty-minute episodes and try to stitch them together. I would write it as a movie. If it causes more work for me to turn it into a print edition, I will deal with it then.
PCS: I know that you are not opposed to putting Easter Eggs from your other work in other things. Can we expect to see things like that in Cupid’s Arrows?
TZ: Yes. There are direct references to Warning Label in the first couple of chapters. I don’t necessarily have a shared universe as much as I have a shared “set dresser”. A lot of times you will see that movies that characters in my work are watching are actually other properties that I have done, or they will go to the same coffee shops, or they will reference the same companies. Some of that is because I have already designed the assets. Some of that is because I have already figured out the names, but I don’t feel that I have a shared universe, as fun as that would be. Part of the reason that I don’t is because I don’t think that my Long Distance characters play well in world where there are superheroes.
On the Craft of Making Comics:
PCS: Over the past few years, you have done creator-owned work in both print-first and digital-first publishing. Do you have a preference? Is there a difference in how you approach the projects based on the publishing medium?
TZ: I don’t have a preference. I just like telling stories. I have written for television as well as comics, and I am rewarded by the same thing.
I approach it differently based on the format, and the format is not necessarily the medium. Recently, I wrote a Star Trek story for the Star Trek Waypoint Special. That is a ten-page story, and the particulars of a ten-page story are different from the particulars of a twenty-six-chapter story, which is also different from six issues of Love and Capes. Digital or print is not what matters. It is more what the length and what the format of the pages are that influence what the story is.
The only thing that is different is that, on Webtoons, we make the lettering a little bit bigger than we would in a comic book to keep it readable for phones.
PCS: How do you define the differences in experience with doing creator owned work versus work-for-hire or licensed work?
TZ: One are my toys, and the other is somebody else’s toys. They are still fun to play with, but I still have to put somebody else’s toys back where I found them. I have more freedom to do things with my characters. I can be more experimental. There is no one to tell me “No”, but I love the things that I love. So, in getting to write Star Trek, I wouldn’t want to break anything anyway. Therefore, I don’t feel like that is limiting. From when I was reading comics as a kid and the way that most TV shows were written, there was always the appearance of change rather than actual change. And I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that. It’s fun to do both.
PCS: I have seen some talk recently about young or newer artists developing a style and how NOT to do that. Do you feel that you have developed a style to your art, and how do you feel that happened?
TZ: I do think that I have a style. I think that I have a few actually. It came about very organically. When I was in school at Kubert, I was trying to draw somewhere between George Perez and Curt Swan, and that was very hard for me to do. Once the Bruce Timm and Darwyn Cooke Batman: The Animated Series style started being popular, that was much closer to my wheelhouse than I realized, and that helped define my style. I stopped trying to hit the outside curveball and started to figure out what I could hit. It is not that I can’t draw in a different style, but it is much harder for me to do that. It is not as hard for me to do a cover in a different style, but it would be really hard for me to do that for twenty-four pages. I did that when I did Raider, and I was fighting against my nature. When I did Love and Capes, everything felt natural.
As far as younger artists coming up, the thing that I tell people that I teach is “You need to learn how to draw first, and then you can learn style.” If you learn how to play guitar, you learn how to play guitar. You don’t learn how to play country music. You need to learn how do draw hands or eyes or anything, and then you can decide to stylize them as you go, but you need to figure out how to draw things just to draw things.
PCS: To follow up on that. I think that you have a style. If I look at something you have done, I can tell that either you drew it or someone was trying to look like you. I would argue that there are people who don’t draw in a style similar to yours would have a harder go at it drawing in your style than however they normally draw.
TZ: Yeah. There is a complexity to drawing simply, because you can’t hide anything in ornate line work. It’s harder to cheat. You have to commit to each line that you draw, and that seems to work for my brain, but I know that it doesn’t work for everybody’s.
PCS: Can you separate the writing and visual parts of your storytelling enough to have a favorite part? If so, what is it?
TZ: When it’s my story, the process is very blurred, because I think visually. However, I have written for other people on My Little Pony, Star Trek, and Disney Tsum Tsums. What I do then is have a rough idea of how I would block the story out, but unless I have a very specific reason or vision of why a scene needs to look a way that it does, I don’t put that in the descriptions. The hard part for me as a writer is figuring how much art fits on a page. When I am drawing it, it is easier, but when I am writing a script for somebody else, I don’t want to give them one of those “Half page splash, all this stuff goes on, and then in the OTHER 17 panels on the page…” You have to be cognizant of what you can fit on a page, and what scenes need to breathe, and what scenes don’t. I want to give the artist I am working with enough to start with, but I also want to give them room to do the thing that they were hired for. I also feel the same way when I draw someone else’s script.
On the Future and Star Trek:
PCS: Do you have plans to revisit any of your previous stories for additional chapters?
TZ: [Laughter]… How do I put this? On the record. I am putting a lot of thought to coming back to something I have worked on before in a way that I haven’t before, and that is all I will say about that.
PCS: What else can we expect to see from you in the future?
TZ: I have some more My Little Pony comics coming out this year. Also, sometime in 2019, Netflix is going to start running Knights of the Zodiac, and I wrote and episode of that.
As I mentioned, I will be doing a Star Trek story in the Waypoint Special. It will come out in March. I am working with Andy Price. I don’t know that I can say what flavor of Star Trek it is but it is one of my favorites. That is fantastic, and I love working with Andy. I don’t know if it will lead to more, but I hope it does because, Man, do I love Star Trek.
PCS: Ok, now you are getting ahead of me. I had a “Pop Culturey” question, and the question is “Star Trek or Star Wars?” (I already knew the answer)
TZ: Ha ha. Yes. Star Trek for sure.
PCS: Which is your favorite Star Trek?
TZ: So. I am going to say that I have two, because I think it is the only fair way to do the question. The storytelling and style are so different between the classic and the modern Star Treks that I put “Classic” in its own box. Captain Kirk doesn’t work the same as other characters, because he had twenty years to become the icon that he was, and everybody else is playing in that sandbox. I love, love, love Classic Star Trek, and I think it has updated well with the Shatner movies. Not that I don’t like the J.J. Abrams work from time to time, but I feel that the Classic Star Trek got better and more complex as it went on. It does not feel dated. There are things that make you know it was show that was made in 1967, but it holds up pretty well.
Past that, Deep Space Nine is my favorite Star Trek. I think it was some of the best storytelling, some of the most complicated stories, some of the best characters, most of the best acting. Not that there aren’t brilliant people acting on the other Star Trek shows, but the ensemble of Deep Space Nine was just magnetic. I also think that it benefited from being the show that no one was paying attention to, and that allowed them to do things that the other Star Treks weren’t allowed to do. It is the only Star Trek that has humans as bad guys in the 24th Century. Apparently, that was a Roddenberry thing that he felt that humans would evolve to a point where they were beyond petty differences. As I understand it, the writers would have to figure out way to write around those problems, and that is why you have the Maquis joining Starfleet, because that is where the irritation is supposed to come from. Deep Space Nine had the most robust universe.
I enjoy Star Wars, but Star Trek is ABOUT something, and that is one of the things that I love about it. It is just so layered and complicated and you can tell so many stories.
PCS: Well. Thanks very much for doing this.
TZ: Thank you.
Don’t forget to look for Cupid’s Arrows next Wednesday on Line Webtoon.
You can follow Thom at @thomzahler on Twitter and Instagram.
You can find his printed collections in your Local Comic Shop or on Amazon. (Click on the Pics below)
Warning Label is still found on Webtoons.com