With Further Ado #137: Catching Up with Thom Zahler

One of the many nice things about attending conventions was seeing familiar faces. For fans and industry professionals alike, it’s a great way to catch up with, and be inspired by, the many creative entrepreneurs of Geek Culture.

One guy that was always working hard, and doing it with his natural, movie-star smile, was Thom Zahler. Since I can’t walk up to his cool booth at San Diego Comic-Con this summer, I just had to catch up with him ..via this column!

Ed Catto: How have you been managing during the pandemic?

Thom Zahler: I’m not gonna lie. It’s been rough and interesting and everything in between.

When the lockdown first happened, I was kind of designed to be fine through the summer. I was working on season two of Cupid’s Arrows for WEBTOON and that wasn’t affected by anything. I converted the last convention-exclusive issues of Love and Capes: The Family Way into a shop-exclusive version that I was able to put out when Diamond shut down. And, when it comes to how I work at home, quarantine isn’t a lot different than normal times. I couldn’t go to the gym anymore, and everything had an extra layer of complexity, but it wasn’t a big change. I was fortunate to be close enough to my parents that I could take care of them, do their shopping, things like that. And I live in a small town where you could still go out and take walks and not run into anyone.

Losing conventions certainly hurt, as much from the emotional hit as anything else. Conventions kind of recharge me. I can see the people who read my comics and that helps fuel me to make more. The loss of the revenue stream wasn’t great. But it was manageable.

Then the summer rolled on and nothing changed, and it got a lot tighter. I’m glad I bore down and prepared for the worst, squirreling money away and preparing for the long game. It still wasn’t awesome, but it was better than the alternative.

What I’ve likened being a freelancer during “these difficult times” to is being Tom Cruise in the last Mission: Impossible movie, running for the helicopter. Simon Pegg asks, “Can you fly a helicopter?” And he shouts back “I’ll figure it out!” This whole thing has been helicopters all the way down. Or up. And I’m making it work, but it’s just exhausting.

That said, I’m still very fortunate. I’ve carved out work. I have a great support system in my family and friends. And I’ve stayed healthy… not counting learning how to really cook and losing my gym for the time being.

EC: You are someone who’s really seemed to learn how to leverage conventions and to support your creativity and business. What do you miss about conventions? What don’t you miss?

TZ: Thank you. Back when I still had a day job, I worked in an ad agency that had one client that was 70% of its business. And one day, the owner of that car dealership sold his company, and we lost a lot of revenue. That was always a life lesson for me. So I’ve tried to make sure all my eggs aren’t in anyone else’s one basket. Conventions were a source of income, but thankfully they were never my only or major source of income.

Losing them hurt a lot, but it didn’t wipe me out.

Like I mentioned above, I really miss the people. I miss seeing fans and getting reactions to my books, and I miss seeing friends and fellow pros and just being able to talk about things. Doing the convention circuit, a lot of my friends live in email and text most of my year. So we were used to virtual friendships, but it still makes me sad that I’m not able to have those times through the year where we could see each other, hug, and have an overpriced hotel beer.

It’s easy to say that I don’t miss the travel, but I’ve always liked travel. I like long car rides with podcasts or actually getting to read a book on a plane. I think what I don’t miss more than anything is the logistics. Figuring out how to get the right number of books shipped or crammed in luggage to get where you’re going, making sure you didn’t forget your Square or your Copics, filling out registration and tax forms. That I don’t miss.

EC: When conventions come back, do you think they will be the same or will they be changed?

TZ: I have been uniformly wrong at predicting everything about the last year. I’m the wrong person to ask. But, if you’re going to ask…

I think the small shows will come back first. I actually did an outdoor con in October, the Pensacon Halloweenfest, and it was amazing. One day, all distanced, people wearing masks, and it was great. And I sold out of everything I brought. And yes, money is important, especially to my mortgage company, but what it showed me is that there is a pent up demand. I was worried that people would stay away, that habits were broken and that people’s concern would outweigh their desire for interaction. It didn’t. And that’s good news that the chain isn’t broken.

Smaller shows are going to be more flexible and have more manageable crowds. They’re speedboats, as opposed to the giant shows being aircraft carriers, and they can react faster. They can try new things, like the outdoor con, in a way that bigger conventions can’t. I think they’re going to lead the way.

As I type this, Comic-Con International in San Diego just announced they were going to go virtual this year, too. That one I did predict right, but mostly because I know exactly where I am and how stressed I am every December when I need to make my exhibitor hotel reservations. That didn’t happen this year. As we passed the point that the general hotel blocks opened it, it was clear to me that even if the world might be back to normal in July, there was no way they could do everything they needed to make it happen in time. And it’s not like they can just widen the aisles if they need to either.

But I think they will come back. People need people. And that contact with friends and professionals and stars can’t be replicated virtually. But I do think that there will be a virtual component that wasn’t there before. Using San Diego as an example, if you’re going to sell out every year at the end of the previous year’s show, why not have a virtual ticket that people can buy who can’t make it to the show? So, ultimately, it’ll be additive, I hope.

Oh, and lots more hand sanitizer. That’s for sure.

EC: CW recently debuted their new Superman & Lois series. I couldn’t help but think of your Love & Capes comic. Am I overthinking it?

TZ: I appreciate that. And when I heard the series pitch, I did think there was a commonality there. I think I tweeted about it once or twice. Not in a “you’re stealing my idea” kind of way. We’ve had married superheroes with kids since Reed and Sue. But the idea of doing heroes in a happy relationship, well, there’s not a lot of that. And I’d be glad to offer my writing services to the show in exchange for the previously mentioned money thing. Hey, writer’s rooms are virtual now anyway, right?

I watched the pilot the other day and while I enjoyed it, and I think they get Superman… at least my vision of Superman… right, I think they may have sprinkled it with a little too much angst. I straight up loved Tyler Hoechlin from his first appearance on Supergirl, and part of that was the fun he brought to the role. Not that he couldn’t be serious or stern, but he wasn’t overburdened with what he was.

The opening scene with him and a big smile catching the Action Comics #1 car and handing that kid his hat, that was awesome. And then I think we didn’t really see him smile again. I get that they were putting him through the ringer intentionally, but he also seemed a little more tired than happy warrior, and that was disappointing.

But hey, it’s one episode. I think he and Bitsie Tulloch (Lois Lane) have a ton of chemistry and I like seeing real, strong relationships portrayed in stories. The kids are interesting and, while it’s probably not exactly the Superman story I’d do, it’s one I’m going to check out again.

EC: You offered a free Love & Capes Covid Comic. That was a cool idea. How’d it all come about:

TZ: I’d been toying around with starting a Patreon for a while. I just wasn’t sure what I would offer, or what I felt I could reliably commit to. I did use the slowdown in the beginning of the year to finally finish the Love and Capes: The Family Way, which was my return to the characters. I’d been doing individual issues as convention exclusives to subsidize making the new trade for IDW. When lockdown hit, I was able to work with a local printer and turn them into shop exclusive comics that I was able to get out to shops across the country when no one else was shipping. Love and Capes won’t ever replace Batman, but it was something, right?

Anyway, I was in the zone of doing Love and Capes, and I found I really missed working on those characters. I started thinking of how they’d handle the pandemic and decided to write down some ideas. Not long after I knew I had enough to make a book. Then the question was, would I want to?

So, initially I decided the story would be out of continuity if I needed it to be. It was set six months in the past, so it was easier to write knowing what was had already happened in the real world, and it was just me working through a lot of what I was going through. Taking care of your parents, changing guidelines, the way businesses get affected. And hopefully, I’m spotlighting the humor that comes from the shared experience. It’s not mopey or dour, it’s people making the best of a bad situation.

I’ve been doing that as a Patreon-exclusive since October. One new page every week, plus a lot of extras. Then, once I had a few months in the queue, I launched it as a free comic. So, if you read the free side, you’re getting the previously released material, and anytime you want, you can hop over to Patreon and pay a buck a month (or more, hint hint) and get access to the full library of material including three months of new material.

EC: What’s next for Love & Capes

TZ: Right now, I’m going to keep doing the Covid comic. I initially planned for it to be twenty-four pages, and as I type this I’m working on page twenty-one and haven’t run out of material. I’m guessing that this “issue” will clock in around thirty-six pages or so, and I’ll be able to get it collected and printed for whenever conventions come back. It’ll let me have a new thing to sell at the table.

After that, I have to really decide what to do with them next. I know I want to tell more stories. Everything I’ve done up until this point has been a six-issue “season” that ends on a note that’s strong enough that I’m okay walking away on. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to do more, but if fate and the market decide that’s all I get, it’s a complete piece.

When I came back with The Family Way, I had the ending of issue six before I started. That last scene, which I won’t spoil for anyone, is why I came back. I felt the last issue of volume four was so strong and was the ending I’d always planned on, that I told myself I’d only come back if I could match or top that. And I think I came up with one for volume five.

All of which to say is that I don’t have that volume six ending yet. So, for now, Love and Capes: In the Time of Covid will be the bonus-sized first issue of whatever the new arc will be. Then I just need to figure out the season finale for season six, for lack of a better term. Once I have that, I’ll probably release everything in the Patreon/small print run con exclusive/IDW trade format. IDW willing, of course.

EC: I like wine and always enjoyed the book/movie Sideways. That might have been the quintessential wine story – until Time and Vine. What can you tell me about this wonderful effort of yours?

TZ: Thank you! I’m really proud of that story.

That’s one of those stories that came to me almost completely formed. I’d finished up Long Distance and was trying to figure out what my next self-driven project would be. I had some ideas for a thing that would ultimately become part of Warning Label, but I remember taking a walk in October here in my town and saw all the leaves changing and it just hit me how to tell a story across time and use the winery. I always have to have the ending before I start, and Jack’s history and love of his wife and the winery all just hit.

And things came together amazingly quickly. I knew the winery would be on the east coast, not the west, and I wasn’t sure there was anything with that history, and then one internet search later, I learned about Brotherhood, the oldest continuously operating winery in the United States which was in New York, exactly where I wanted it to be. It was perfect.

So the book, for those who haven’t read it, is about a magical winery that when you drink a wine from, say 1899, you travel back to 1899. I think it’s just a romantic idea. And yeah, I do love wine. I even took a couple of research trips up to Brotherhood to work on it. And I’ve got a friend out here in Ohio who was the sommelier of a winery here. He was kind enough to give me a tour show me what I needed to know and let me do the research to feel comfortable about writing it. (Ohio has the Grand River Valley, which is a distinct, officially recognized wine region, and the wineries out there are just fantastic. It’s a great way to spend a weekend.)

It was a stretch for me, too. I wrote about different, more mature, and sadder loves, that are still beautiful in their own right. It pushed me to places I wasn’t sure I could go and I think I stuck most of the landings. And it’s a thing I’d very much like to revisit soon.

EC: I can’t let you go without getting a Kubert School story or two from you. Did you enjoy your time there? What do you remember the most?

TZ: Okay, so, that’s a big question. I had some great times at Kubert and met some of my truest friends there. I’d never give up that experience for anything. Joe was teaching us to be Will Eisner, and I appreciate that more and more every day. It’s because of that training that I can produce a comic completely on my own, which gives me a ton of flexibility. That’s invaluable.

But it was also boot camp for artists. It wasn’t always pleasant. It was a lot of work, a lot of pushing and a lot of growing. And, when I graduated, I had a little bit of resentment towards the school. But I think that’s natural. The world a school trains you for is never the world you enter into. It’s just moving too fast, and I think that happens at any place of higher learning. Maybe if Dick Giordano had looked at my portfolio that last week of the last year and put me on Justice League things would be different.  But that’s not how it went. And probably a smart move on Dick’s part.

Flash forward ten or fifteen years and I’m at a Baltimore Comic-Con, and I see Joe Kubert walk by. Now, I had Joe for one class in my final year and he teaches a ton of kids. I didn’t expect him to remember me. But I went up and talked to him for a moment, introduced myself and told him I was a graduate.

And I’ll never forget the look of concern that he had when he asked me “Are you still doing it?” I smiled and said “Joe, I quit my day job five years ago and have never looked back. I do it every day.” Then he smiled that gigantic Joe Kubert smile and I felt his relief at knowing that his school did what it was supposed to do. At that moment, suddenly, any of those bad feelings and resentment, they just went away. I’m so thankful I had that moment and I hope and think that he was, too.

There’s a lot I remember, from working so late in the night on a Bart Sears inking project that I started having a conversation with my brush, struggling so hard to impress Mike Chen, and using the same project for multiple classes. That last one I only did once.

But the other one I remember is having Brian Regal teach Methods and Materials. So he was the person who taught us how to use our airbrush. Which, pre-computer, was a big thing. He was a former tank commander, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him then, and he’d talked about his military service. So that was the year of the first Gulf War. And we’re all of drafting age. My Dad went to art school himself and then got called up to Vietnam, so I was worried about history repeating. And the ground war started the night before Brian’s class, which would be our first airbrush class ever.

Classes were two and a half hours long, and we took bets as to how long would it take him to make some joke about the war. We all could see it coming. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Whatever. I can’t remember what I bet. I just remember that he went almost an hour and a half. We’d gone over the previous assignments, talked shop and then finally he had us get out our airbrushes and said “This is your Badger 150 airbrush. You will learn to eat with it. You will learn to sleep with it. You will take it apart in the light. In the dark. With a gas mask on.” And it was brilliant!

EC: Someone recently said we’re in month 14 of 2020 still. Does it seem that way to you? What have you planned for 2021?

TZ: Time is a flat circle. I don’t know what anything is anymore.

So, I just wrapped up a month long promotion of drawing a different pop culture couple every day. So I did Spider-Man and MJ, Phantom and Diana, Indiana and Marion and so many more. The first volume of Cupid’s Arrows is going to the printer this week, I think, so I’ll have that soon. The card game from Warning Label is finally coming out, too. Those arrive in the next couple of weeks.

I’m going to keep doing Love and Capes until I run out of ideas, and then I’ll probably start something new. Another original graphic novel probably, that maybe I’ll serialize on Patreon first. I’ve got another issue of My Little Pony coming out. And I’ve tentatively booked a couple of shows. Here’s hoping they happen.

Past that, it’s just running for that helicopter and figuring it out.

EC: Just wonderful, Thom. Thanks so much.


Check out more of Thom Zahler’s work at :

Free Comic – Love and Capes: In the Time of Covid: https://thomzahler.squarespace.com/love-and-capes-in-the-time

Patreon:   https://www.patreon.com/thomzahler

Website: www.thomz.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/thomzahler

Webtoon:   https://www.webtoons.com/en/search?keyword=zahler