Comic Culture

FULL EPISODE

Eric Powell

Host Terence Dollard talks to Eric Powell the creator of Goon. Powell talks about his art process and writing comedy and tragedy.

AIRED: December 07, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

[exciting upbeat music]

- Hello, and welcome to "Comic Culture."

I'm Terence Dollard, a professor

in the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

My guest today is artist and writer, Eric Powell.

Eric, welcome to "Comic Culture."

- Thank you so much for having me.

I really appreciate it. Good to be here.

- I've gotta say, I've been hoping to have you

on the show for years because I'm a big fan of "The Goon,"

although I don't get to read every single issue,

I've loved the ones that I have.

And what I really like about the series,

beyond the fact that you have some of the best

and most expressive artwork in the business,

but you have a real sense of humor about what you're doing.

And then top of that, you're able to

put in some real heartbreak.

So I'm wondering, as a writer, when you approach a story

where maybe it's a "Richard Nixon: Frankenstein"

[Eric laughs]

or it's "Chinatown," how are you looking at these stories

and sort of finding the right story

for you to tell that particular arc?

- It's really...

One of the things that I set out with

when I was creating "The Goon" is I wanted to make something

that I could do absolutely anything I wanted to,

any type of story I wanted to tell,

I could do it in "The Goon."

And I kind of...

I don't know, I may just be lucky

that it kinda works in that format.

But I really just don't restrict myself at all

when it comes to "The Goon".

If this is a idea for a story I have,

I find out a way to make it work.

So I think naturally,

I'm attracted to humor and tragedy,

so those tend to be the two elements

that are constantly juxtaposed in my work.

I don't think there's any formula,

or roadmap I'm following.

It's pretty random, and just going on instinct.

- Is it something where you have the idea,

and you sit down at the drawing table,

and you just get started?

Or is it something where you're sitting

and you're writing out the major beats,

and maybe you're gonna do a couple page descriptions

or something like that?

So how do you do your book when you do sit down?

- Well, the ideas usually come from

a small acorn of a concept,

and then that can bounce around in my head for six months,

and I'll take a few notes and things like that.

And then it will eventually...

Usually, I get a concept that I'm ready to put on paper

when two different ideas that I didn't connect

in the beginning come together

and I think of some linking element, and I'm like,

"Oh, okay, that's the story. That's the arc."

So it's usually a lot of random thoughts and notes

and everything for about six months

and then I frantically try to write something

because we're working on a deadline. [laughs]

So I frantically try to write something

and give myself enough time to draw it.

I write out all the dialogue first because,

I mean, I have the scenes in my head already.

So I'll give myself...

I don't really write out a full script for myself.

I write out a few vague descriptions

when I wanna put a reminder in there.

But then it's usually, I just write out all the dialogue,

and then break down my pages using that.

- Do you feel like you're married to the dialogue,

or maybe when you're sitting down and you're finally

putting that page together, you realize maybe the expression

is enough that you don't need that line,

or maybe the expression leads you

in a completely different direction?

- Yeah, I rely pretty heavily on the dialogue

in the beginning, and then as I draw it, I'll edit as I go.

Because sometimes when you're drawing something,

it's like, well, I had this idea, but that doesn't really...

Once you put it on paper, you kinda see

it might not flow exactly the way you had planned,

so I'll do a lot of editing as I'm drawing.

But I've tried working a lot of different ways.

I've tried drawing, just drawing the story out

and then dialoguing it the old Marvel way.

That doesn't really work for me,

because I feel like "The Goon" is so driven by the dialogue,

the snappy relationship between Goon and Frankie,

and Frankie's comments to other characters,

and things like that I think are such a big part of the book

that it would be really difficult

to get that same kind of feeling

without knowing what the characters were going to say,

just putting something down on paper

and then trying to come back after the fact and fill it in.

It didn't quite work out as well.

- Your art is really interesting because it's not

a traditional Marvel-style artwork

where it's all pen and ink.

You combine, it looks like, a little bit

of everything in there.

There might be some pen and ink.

There might be some pencils.

There might be some color.

And I'm just wondering what is it that you're doing?

You've got this great Depression-era aesthetic

that you work into "The Goon."

It looks like you've kind of captured some of this classic,

Mad Magazine style in some of the figures.

So when you're look at that blank page,

how do you decide what approach you're gonna take?

- It's kinda the same as I was talking

about with the writing, how I kinda created this

so I could do anything I wanted to do.

And I don't know why, I just don't get comfortable

nestling into one style.

I like to experiment.

I like to try out different techniques and things like that.

So again, with "The Goon", especially if you look

at the series from beginning to end,

the art style changes so much

through the course of all that.

And it's just because I want to experiment,

and I want the art to fit the story too,

so I can adapt the art to fit the tone

and style of the story.

So yeah, the whole series, to me, is experimental.

- It's fascinating when you...

I met you at Heroes Con a few times,

and you've had some of your pages there and what not.

It's just really amazing to look at the work

when it's on the page.

And we were talking a little bit before we started.

You had donated a piece for their annual art auction.

And it was something that I looked at,

and I thought to myself,

"Clearly, this is something that it took Eric

hours, months, weeks to work on,

and you looked at me and you said, "I did it last night."

So just wondering, as a professional artist,

what kind of schedule are you putting yourself on to create?

And at what point do you have to separate

from somebody who wants to make the best page possible

to somebody who says, "Well, I've got a deadline to hit"?

- Yeah, that's the difficult part about comics.

I don't think there's a single book I've worked on

that I look at and am completely happy with.

Because everything that sticks out to me

are the areas where I had to let it go,

or something was a little rushed.

So in working in comics, you're always under that deadline.

Like I said, it takes a while for me to develop the stories.

I'm a slow writer, but I'm a fast artist,

which has helped me [laughs] maintain a living.

But it doesn't help my schedule with the art

because it takes so long to develop the script

that where I should have had four weeks to work on a book,

it gets collapsed to three weeks.

There's definitely a little bit of frustration there.

I'm constantly wishing that I could just

take my time on one.

And I'll get there at some point.

There'll be some time when I can work on a project

and just take my time with it.

I think that's a life goal at this point. [laughs]

But yeah,

it's difficult working in comics

and knowing you just gotta let it go at some point.

- It seems like in many professions

you are your own worst critic.

Because you might look at something on the page

that you're saying, "Man, I just missed it,"

but somebody else will be looking at it

and saying, "Wow, you really, you hit that so beautifully."

So when you interact with fans and they tell you something

meant something to them that maybe you were

just a little underwhelmed by,

how is that validation working for you

as somebody looking back later on?

- Misty Lee, who is a magician

and she does a lot of stuff around comics and things,

she told me a story about learning

how to accept a compliment,

and that you are always gonna judge yourself,

but when someone comes up and tells you,

like, "Man, that thing was really great,"

if you say, "No, that was garbage,

how could you like that?"

you're insulting their taste.

But at the same time, I look at other people's artwork

and I'm not as judgemental of their stuff as I am of my own.

I'm a pretty harsh critic,

but definitely not half as hard as I am on myself.

But I think you have to be.

The people I've come across who are...

think a lot of themselves,

usually don't do very well. [laughs]

One, you're not gonna push yourself to grow.

And another thing, you end up rubbing people the wrong way.

So you're probably not, you know,

do that well for yourself in the end.

Yeah, I think having a good sense of self-criticism

is healthy to an extent. [laughs]

And I think it'll serve you well

in any kind of creative capacity.

- You've been working on "The Goon"

for a little over 20 years now,

and somehow you keep finding new stories to tell.

And I'm wondering if it's something about the character

that makes you wanna do it or if it's something about you

where you just get inspired

and this is the perfect venue for you to tell that story?

So can you give us a little bit of an idea

of what goes through your mind

as you approach a character who's getting a life of his own?

- I think the great thing for me about "The Goon"

is that it's never been a concept book.

It's a character book.

The characters never really go through an arc

like you would with a traditional type of story

where the character has to develop

and go through a change and everything.

The characters in "The Goon" are stagnant.

They are who they are and I can just pick them up

and plop them in any kind of story,

and that's what makes the story.

So I think the reason it's been fairly easy for me

to keep the series going after all these years

is that, as I said, any kind of story idea I come up with,

it's just very easy for me to insert the characters

into it and go, "Okay, there's the story."

It's more about how these characters react to a situation

versus how the situation is changing them,

if that makes any sense.

- Yeah, I guess in a lot of ways,

it becomes the ancillary characters too

that we get to see change a little bit more

than the standard characters.

It's always about the villain

or some other character involved in the story,

how they're going through their change

or situations affecting them, rather than Goon and Frankie.

They're pretty set. [laughs]

- I've gotta say, Frankie is one of my favorite characters

in comics of all time.

And behind me on the set, - Oh, thanks.

there is a sticker of Frankie,

and features my favorite line of dialogue,

I think from any comic,

where it's just, "A knife to the eye." [Eric laughs]

When you're writing a book like that, it's geared toward...

"The Goon" is geared toward...

I don't wanna say "mature" in beaded curtain

at the video store audience,

but it's geared for more grownups.

But you've also worked on some books

that were geared more towards an all-ages crowd.

So when you're working on those sort of books,

obviously you're the same person,

and your art is the same hand that's creating it.

So how do you sort of shift gears from

that grownup sense of humor to something

that all ages can enjoy?

- I think the only thing I change up

when I'm working on something like "The Goon"

and then I switch over to "Chimichanga" or "Spook house,"

I don't put any overt violence,

like there's not going to be someone

getting stabbed in the eye. [laughs]

And I limit the gore a little bit.

That's about it.

I think "The Goon" has a reputation

of being this kind of racy comic,

and there are some pretty outlandish jokes in it,

but for the most part, I mean,

there's no nudity, there's no real profanity.

I think I've used profanity two or three times

in the whole 20-year run of "The Goon,"

and I did it for an emphasis.

I don't personally have any problem with profanity at all.

I never wanted "The Goon" to get...

I never wanted to rely on that for "The Goon."

Because it's so easy to just, like,

"I'm gonna get a cheap joke here

by throwing out an F-bomb," or something.

And I wanted to challenge myself a little bit more

and work a little bit harder for the laughs.

But yeah, I think that's the only thing.

I tone it down just a little bit,

but I think the humor kinda translates from each.

I think I could take a lot of the humor

out of my kid-oriented books and put it in "The Goon"

and it would work just fine.

- Another thing with "The Goon" is that you have

gone many different routes to get "The Goon" published,

whether it's been yourself handling the publishing

or whether it's been making deals

with someone like a Dark Horse.

So as this sort of business side of comics,

how are you making sure that you're able to,

if it is self-publishing, get the books into comic shops,

or if it's dealing with someone like a Dark Horse,

how do you work out those deals where you're able to

get them to deliver the product to the stores?

- The comic book industry is a pretty simple

business chain, I guess you would say.

You find your printer.

We have Diamond distribution, which is,

up until very recently, was the only distribution

company you could go through.

I think the book market is more of a challenge

because it's a harder egg to crack.

You actually have to have...

Diamond has their own book distribution division,

but there are also other, Simon & Schuster,

and companies like that.

But as far as getting something in comic shops,

it's not too terribly difficult.

I'm lucky enough to have some name recognition.

So after leaving Dark Horse

and getting back into self-publishing

and starting my own company,

I was lucky enough to be able to carry

that name recognition over,

and it doesn't seem like we've missed a beat.

I think all of my readers followed me over,

so pretty happy about that.

- Now, I think I read that you are

a four-time Eisner Award winner,

and that, I guess, will go along with that name recognition.

But I recall in one issue of "The Goon,"

and I know you've done many books,

and I'm sorry if I keep going back to "The Goon,"

but that's the one I think most fondly of,

you were sort of poking fun

at the endless reboots at Marvel or DC.

And I'm wondering when you do something like that

are you ever concerned that, gosh, maybe someday

I'm gonna need those folks and they might be angry

with me for doing this poke at them?

- Yeah, I think I was a bit braver in my younger days.

I was like, "I gotta be punk rock.

I gotta stick it to the man."

But I also know I'm not...

That's not the focus of my career

is to work for Marvel or DC.

If a fun project comes along that I think

I can execute well, I'd be more than happy

to work with either of those companies.

And I've done several covers and small, little spot projects

for Marvel within the last couple years.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the comic book industry.

You should have a sense of humor.

And if you can't take a little joke,

then you're just gonna have to deal with it.

And just to let you know,

Marvel, more of a sense of humor than DC. [laughing]

I don't know, DC just got reshuffled,

so hopefully, the people in charge

have a little bit more of a sense of humor.

But DC did not have a sense of humor about those jokes.

[laughing]

- The comics industry is more than just...

It's not just comics in a comic shop.

It's trade paperback in book stores or on Amazon.

It's also other merchandise.

And I'm thinking back to a time I was going out of town,

and I went to the Charlotte airport

and stopped in one of the restaurants there.

And all the wall, they had a Goon lunchbox.

So when it comes to some of this other side of the business,

how are you approaching the other merchandise

and maybe getting those trades into

the bigger bookstore chains?

- Well, it's hard.

Unless you're one of the, a Marvel or DC title,

or you have a film or a TV show,

it's hard to get your books out there to a wider audience.

At the end of the day, "The Goon" is still an indie comic.

We've been able to get it out there a little bit.

There are definitely book stores out there

carrying "The Goon,"

but it's a little few and far between.

So it is a challenge, but you just have to

work with what you can get.

- Well, speaking of working, I'm wondering

when you're sitting down at the drawing board,

are you doing... some of the backgrounds,

they look like their ink wash.

Is this something where you are literally doing an ink wash?

You doing water color?

Sort of how are you doing a typical page

of one of your books?

- Well,

lately, I've gone to penciling all of my stuff digitally.

It's so fast.

And I've really kind of...

I fought for a long time to not go into digital.

I've always thought, "Oh, you should have

physical artwork at the end of the day."

But the technology is getting so good, it's hard.

And you're staring at those deadlines,

it's hard not to dip into the digital well.

And with the new iPads, iPad Pro, when that came out,

it really changed everything for me

because you could sit there, hold it like it's a tablet,

it is a tablet, but I mean like an art tablet,

and draw pretty naturally.

So I've started penciling all of my stuff digitally,

although I take it and make a blue line

and print it out on board, so there is an actual piece

of artwork at the end of the day.

But yeah, again, it's like I said with the writing,

a lot of it is just instinct.

I don't go in with a preconceived notion of like,

"Okay, well, I have to do this much ink, pen and ink,

this much ink wash, this much pencil."

It's more of how does this panel feel?

What kind of energy should it have?

And if it should be a little frantic,

maybe there's a little bit more wash in there.

Or if I want something to have a real sense of depth,

I'll do ink outlines on everything in the foreground

and then do pencil and washes in the background

just to make it give that kind of camera feel to it.

The approaches I take to the artwork

is just pretty much by instinct.

- It's quite an instinct because I look at your work

and it's amazing because you're able to capture

a real cartoony feel to a lot of your characters,

and yet, at the same time,

there's a sense of a live model in the room

and you're doing an art class-style portrait

of some of the anatomy.

It's a wild juxtaposition of these two.

So I'm wondering at this point in your career,

obviously, you don't need references,

but do you ever just think to yourself,

maybe now it's time for me to break out

that little wooden model and kinda work that way,

or just kinda going with the flow?

- I still, I use reference quite a bit,

especially with things that I'm not as comfortable drawing,

or I need something to look at to make sure it's correct.

But yeah,

with that kind of style change,

I also notice that when the story is more serious,

I tend to draw the characters,

I tend to draw Goon, especially the Goon,

if you go back and look at some of the stories,

the ones that are more serious in tone,

he's a little bit more photorealistic.

And then in the humor-based stories,

he's a little more Jack Davis,

he's a little bit cartoony-er.

And I've noticed that the style kind of

instinctually changes to fit that, the emotion of the story.

Again, that's just an instinctual thing

I've noticed I've been doing.

- It's really, to me it's interesting to talk to somebody

who's been practicing their craft for a while.

It's kinda like a musician on stage.

At some point, they forget the chords

and they just start listening to the song, and it

sort of comes out. - Yeah.

- That's a good comparison. I would agree with that.

That's kinda the approach with "The Goon."

I've gotten to the point where I can

kind of not think about it too much

and kinda just let it flow and be what it's gonna be.

- So Eric, I see we have about a minute left.

If the people at home wanted to find out

more about "The Goon" or your art or your comics,

where can they find you on the web?

- They can go to albatrossfunnybooks.com,

and that's my publishing company.

It's got "The Goon" and all of my other books

and several other titles that we're publishing.

But that would be the place to start.

- Eric, thank you so much for taking time

out of your day to talk with me.

I'd like to thank you at home for watching "Comic Culture."

We will see you again soon.

[exciting upbeat music]

- [Narrator] "Comic Culture" is a production

of the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

[exciting upbeat music]

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