Eric “Von Allan” Julien on Creating His Upcoming Graphic Novel

Von Allan was born red-headed and freckled in Arnprior, Ontario, just in time for Star Wars: A New Hope. The single child of two loving but troubled parents, Von split most of his childhood between their two homes, and consequently spent a lot of time in the worlds of comics and wrestling. What comics and piledrivers didn’t teach him, science fiction did. He worked at a small independent bookstore in Ottawa for many years, all the while working on story ideas in his spare time. Eventually, he decided to make the leap to a creative life, and the road to god knows… was the result.

Sequart’s Lisa Lopacinski had a chance to sit down with this hard-working creator to find out what it takes to put together a graphic novel.

LISA LOPACINSKI: Tell me a little bit about yourself — where did you grow up and where are you from today? How did you get started in comic books?

VON ALLAN: Home for me is Ottawa, Ontario, and ironically enough, it’s been home for some 30 odd years. Ironic mainly because both of my parents were military brats and did a great deal of travelling. While I’ve traveled to some extent, I’ve certainly not managed to get as much “miles under my wheels” as they did. The one advantage (at least I think so!) in calling Ottawa home is that it’s a fairly cosmopolitan city, mainly because it’s the nation’s capital. We have a decent sized population (around one million) and, culturally, it’s a fairly open and creative place. So not too shabby.

I’ve taken a very circuitous path in getting involved in the comics medium. My background is actually retail; I managed an independent bookstore for a number of years and, strangely enough, there’s still a part of me that’s more comfortable on the retail side of things then on the creative! That said, I always had aspirations of writing (I mean, what bookstore employee doesn’t?!) and I always loved comics. But there was one little problem with all of that: I couldn’t draw to save my life.

See, I was never one of “those” kids who hid at the back of classrooms and sketched all day. I was a pretty crappy artist and didn’t bother taking art classes or anything like that. I honestly thought (and it’s such a horrible admission!) that artists, visual artists in particular, were these naturally gifted people that could do things that the rest of us couldn’t. It seems extraordinarily naïve now, but I seriously felt that way as a teenager. Of course, reading interviews by other creators didn’t help – I so often heard of “Joe Bob Artist” that had always drawn. His/her Mom or Dad thrust a crayon into their chubby fingers when they could barely toddle and bam! the kid was a natural artist! Doesn’t excuse my naivety, of course, but I really did think that artists were a breed apart.

So, what happened? Well, in running the bookstore (www.perfectbooks.ca – I suppose I should give it a plug!) I began meeting a number of different creative types. Many writers, of course, but also a fair amount of visual artists. And I started to realize how much work was involved in producing it. At around the same time, the writing I was doing just seemed to work better visually – without (hopefully!) sounding like a complete snot, my stuff just seemed to flow better in script form. I’m not a great prose writer, in other words. As things began to crystallize in my noggin’ I realized that I had a realistic shot at learning to draw. It was work – not some abstract creative gift that you either had or didn’t have at birth. See how naïve I was?! I discussed it with my wife quite a bit (fortunately, her father is an artist so she had a good idea of how it all worked!) and I started to get cracking on learning to draw.

It didn’t come quickly and it certainly wasn’t easy. Actually, it probably was the hardest thing I ever attempted to do. I’m a big believer in the concept of “suck less” – you start off being horrible, truly crappy but you persevere and you get better. So, everyday the goal is to suck a little less. A step at a time. That’s it. The trick with comics is that there’s actually a great deal to learn. You need to know figure drawing, body language, expression and foreshortening. You need to know perspective and how to cheat it. You need to know value – all of your lights and darks. Composition to make your pages and panels work together. Sequential art – since comics are a medium unto themselves. And you really need to know colour (temperature and mood). Putting them together probably took the longest. You get to know bits, but making those bits all work together to a point where you aren’t constantly thinking about them – at least not consciously, takes the longest. The best comparison I can make is walking. Learning to walk is a magical thing that most of us don’t even remember. And after we learn it, we don’t think about putting one foot in front of the other, shifting our hips and weight to compensate for our changing balance, and all the rest of it. But when we were very young, this seemed like almost an impossible thing – and it’s so easy now! That’s drawing in a nutshell. Doing it without thinking about it, so you have room in your mind to make other creative/artistic choices as you go along.

LOPACINSKI: What projects are you working on now? When can we expect to see them?

VON ALLAN: I’m only working on one project now (well, I’m starting to plot out the second story, but hush! It’s too early to talk about!). It’s called “the road to god knows…” and should be about 150 pages in length when it’s all wrapped up. Definitely an original graphic novel and it falls into the “slice of life” category, for lack of a better term. The story deals with a young girl’s struggle to cope with her Mom’s schizophrenia. That’s about the easiest way to say it! While it’s a reasonably “heavy” story, there’s also a fair amount of humour in it, as well. Oh, and wrestling! So there you go – not just a downer book with heaps and heaps of misery. There is fun and humour sprinkled through it all.

It’s probably closest in tone to Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat and Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise. I certainly don’t believe I’m being didactic, drumming readers over the head with some point, which is something I think can happen when you tackle this kind of story. If I’ve done my job right, I will have told an interesting and entertaining story that’s also a bit thought provoking. But any conclusions I’ll leave up to the reader. My goal is to ask questions – not answer ‘em!

Why a graphic novel? When I came up with the original story idea, it was very clear that it had a definite ending. And that ending wouldn’t come 15, 25 or 50 issues down the road; it would be a lot sooner. So I had to make a decision of whether to structure the story as a mini series or just jump in and go with one bigger book instead. A part of the decision did come from studying the comic book market (mini series generally don’t do that well) but most of it came from the creative side. When I sat down to actually write the full script, it just didn’t seem to work breaking it up every 22 pages or so. It flowed better as one long story. Oddly enough, there are chapter breaks through the entire book, but I didn’t have to worry about pacing them in such a way that they’d fit that monthly comic format. So call it art and commerce working together! This was the way to go!

I’m hoping to have the book out sometime in 2007. I was originally hoping for the fall of 2006 but that got pushed back a bit. My wife and I are still chewing over publishing options, too. So we may go ahead and self-publish it or we may go with a publisher instead. Stay tuned!

the road to god knows, by Von AllenLOPACINSKI: What inspired the road to god knows…? How can people find out more about it?

VON ALLAN: The short answer is my life. It’s fairly autobiographical and while that format is popular right now, I actually wanted to steer clear of it as much as I could. So coming up with a fictional alter ego seemed to be the best way to go. I think, with pure autobiography, there’s a need to be accurate. You can’t fudge facts or cheat in terms of chronology; not if you’re being honest. It takes a certain discipline and a certain accuracy to details to tell autobiographical stories. I really wanted to stay away from that. Going fictional allowed me a number of creative choices that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And it also freed me up creatively; I didn’t have to stick to “my” story to the letter. I could have some fun, challenge myself, and still tell what I hope is an interesting tale. What’s funny is that it’s probably closer to Matt Wagner’s Mage series then it is to the works of Chester Brown or Seth.

While the story won’t be out for some time, you can certainly find page samples and loads more about the story on my website (www.vonallan.com). And certainly feel free to fire off any questions you have for me, too! There’s an e-mail address on the site for exactly that kinda thing. My wife and I will be touring throughout 2006, so check our website for tour dates and maybe we’ll be able to say “hi” in person!

LOPACINSKI: Describe what process you go through to get these stories from your head to paper to a comic book people can pick up at their local comic book retailer.

VON ALLAN: Well, I’m a full script kind of guy! So I initially started out with the idea of taking my life and telling a story about it. I certainly don’t think I’m that exciting, but it really started off as the old “write what you know.” I also thought that mental illness is one of those things that as a society we’re only starting to come to grips with. Mental illness can be very difficult to cope with, no matter what shape or form it takes. They tend to be abstract and difficult to quantify. This doesn’t mean they’re more devastating then coping with a physical ailment, but it does mean they’re different. I also knew I didn’t want to tell a story that had any major conclusions in it – I’m not a fan of stories that wrap up too neatly. I really wanted to present some ideas to the reader and let him/her (with their own unique view of the world) come up with their own conclusions about it.

So, that was the idea. I had something to say so I needed to figure out how to tell it and I needed to have some lighter moments mixed in, too. I was really worried that any reader would feel overwhelmed if the story was unrelentingly sad. Wrestling, for a variety of reasons, seemed like a natural way to balance that. It just seemed like a good dichotomy: schizophrenia on the one hand and wrestling on the other.

With the germ of the idea in place, I started to come up with both the plot and the characters. The one fed the other; I took a lot of the plot from my own experiences and just arranged events and emotions to get an interesting narrative. As that grew, so did the characters. All of this pulling and pushing eventually led to a rough outline of the entire story, with my main “beats” clearly structured. Then a crisper outline was finished that gave me my page by page structure. Actually, if I had stopped right then I probably would have been fairly close to the old “Marvel Method” of telling a story. Especially since my outlines tend to have a fair amount of dialogue thrown into them.

I took some time at this point and started spreading the outline around to a few people I trusted, mainly to make sure that the pacing was working. Once I got comments back, I turned the outline into the full script. There was a fair amount of editing through all of this; I’m actually on the 4th draft of the script now and I’m still making changes as I draw the pages. Despite the fact that I do have a full script to work with, I don’t feel like I’m a slave to it; I’m not afraid to make changes. If I want to change things up, I do it. Hell, I’m the writer!

When I finished the first draft of the script, I began doing all of my concept sketches and character designs. I could have started that a bit earlier if I had wanted to, but it seemed “right” to have the first draft of the script done before I began this bit. This took a while, since I really wanted to make sure I had every design down pat. I probably could have even spent more time doing this, but I was fairly pleased with the result.

Then, the artwork starts! So, I sat down with the script and thumbnailed out (very, very small and very, very sketchy) the page layouts and word balloons. Then I made a second thumbnail, bigger and more complete. These I do up in pen and ink and then letter in order to get a very good sense of where everything is going. They’re still pretty rough (they ain’t art!) but it gives me all the info I need to start developing the final page. Then I pull out a sheet of 11 by 17 Bristol board and I start pencilling the page. I do almost everything freehand – I use a ruler for the panel borders, lettering guides and sometimes for horizon lines, but everything else (perspective lines, for example) are all done free hand.

Once that’s all reached a stage I’m happy with, I grab my brush and I start inking. I certainly don’t do nice tight, pencilled pages. Since I’m inking it, as well, a lot of the art decisions are made at this stage. This is done for a couple of reasons. It keeps the page interesting (though I have a very good sense at this point of what’s happening overall) but mostly it speeds up the process quite a bit. If you’re inking your own pencils, it takes too long to do this tight pencilled piece and then just turn around and re-draw it (heh – trace!) with a brush. So it’s more efficient (and more fun) to ink it when the pencils aren’t complete. I letter at the same time I ink; I use the same brush to both letter and ink the page.

At this point, I have an inked art board that’s black and white. But since I’m working in greyscale, the next job is to do all the grey washes. And since I want texture, I had to get tricky. So I pick up 90 lb. cold press watercolour paper and photocopy the final art board on to it. Same size, so still 11 by 17. I then do all my grey tones on the watercolour paper. Then I just scan ‘em both into my computer, match them up, and unify them all digitally. It’s a little trickier than it sounds, actually, since distortions happen do to the watercolour paper warping from the water. But when it’s all done, the images are crisp and strong and I like ‘em a bunch.

What’s really weird is that in many ways this is a very traditional way of approaching producing a comic. It’s not very different from the “blue line” method you hear about that produced comics into the 80s. I’m certainly no luddite, but it’s a very comfortable way of working and I really like the results. I get a lot of texture this way. And it’s very organic – which fits the story I’m doing!

LOPACINSKI: Is there one story/project/character that you’d just love to do if you could? (who/what and why)

VON ALLAN: It’s weird. I don’t have a character that I can hang my hat on as a dream come true. I love comics and have been reading them for almost 25 years now. I have soft spots – the Flash would be fun. Same for Iron Man and Green Lantern. And I have a major weakness for Alpha Flight (John Byrne made this Canadian kid very happy!) and the same goes for the X-Men (Chris Claremont/Byrne and Claremont/Paul Smith in particular) and Walt Simonson’s Thor. It would be fun to do a story with “punk” Storm, too!

There’s really no main reason for this except that these are the stories that made me happy as a kid. I really wasn’t a happy teen overall back then and it would be nice to say thanks to a lot of people who made growing up bearable. Those stories I read and re-read quite a bit and it would be nice to give a little back some day!

I do have a Batman/Superman story I’d like to tell. A kind of rebuttal to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. But if it happens at all, it’ll be some time down the road.

LOPACINSKI: What does the future hold for Eric “Von Allan” Julien?

VON ALLAN: Ah, the big question! Who knows? I can only tell you what I hope! The dream is to be able to make a living doing the stories I want to tell and finding an audience for them. Working with retailers (because I have a soft spot for ‘em!) so that carrying my work isn’t ever a chore – it’s something that’s both enjoyable and profitable for them to do. The problem with publishing is that you hope the first book does well enough to ensure the second one. And then the same for the third. And so on! Comics are such a wonderfully diverse medium and I still believe (passionately!) that there’s loads of room out there for good books by creators of all stripes. I hope that applies to me!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

One year after our first wedding anniversary, to the day, my husband and I picked up the keys to a 1000 square foot store front in a strip mall in suburban Waukesha, WI. Two weeks later that spot would become Neptune Comics, our very own comic book store. I grew up in Slinger, WI, the child of entrepreneurial parents who owned their own dog breading and boarding kennel. The first in my family to graduate from college, I earned a BA from St. Norbert College. Prior to becoming a comic book retailer I was a stock broker, and then gave up that stress to own my own house cleaning business. Comic books were a small blip on my radar before I considered opening a store -- I did not have a collection stashed somewhere. But jumping into comic book retailing has been a great crash course in the ups and downs of the comic book industry. Being a woman and a comic fan, rather than a collector, I have no doubt that my opinions won’t always be that of the majority.

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