Tim Gibson on Moth City

I first encountered Tim Gibson’s Moth City in a Facebook group where he’d share illustrations during its gestation. Occasionally, much to our jealousy, Tim would mention going on writing retreats to work on Moth City in scenic parts of New Zealand. Launched as a webcomic in early 2013, Moth City has quickly garnered a worldwide audience through Comixology and from serialization on Mark Waid’s digital comics initiative, Thrillbent Comics. Formerly a Weta designer, Tim has created a fresh take on the murder mystery, drawing from the early days of comics and combining pulp detective fiction with modern storytelling. I asked Tim a few questions about the development of Moth City and the reality of working, from New Zealand, on comics for an international audience.

EMERY: Had you created comics prior to Moth City, and how long was the developmental process for it?

GIBSON: Moth City is my first comic. I had been planning it for a long time, and it’s an idea that has been pestering my brain for many years. Originally I was planning it to be a children’s animated TV show, which is miles away from the tone it has now. Then I figured out the best, fastest, cheapest way for me to tell the story was for me to do the illustrations and writing and do it in comic book form.

EMERY: I recall seeing bits and pieces when Moth City was in development. Did you have Creative New Zealand (New Zealand Government’s funding body) involved during this process?

GIBSON: I’d been working on it for quite a while before then and had done a lot of test pages – I had about five pages of finished art and thirty pages of finished script. I heard Ant Sang on National Radio being interviewed by Kim Hill, and he mentioned he’d got Creative NZ funding, and I thought, “Ah, that’s interesting ‘cause I’ve read his comic (Shaolin Burning), and that’s set in an exotic location, and it doesn’t have any New Zealand characters and doesn’t have any of the things I associate with New Zealand funding requirements.” That kind of inspired me to give it a go. First time ‘round, I got rejected, called them up and got some advice, submitted it again and got lucky. Just hard case work from then on out. It was great ‘cause I could do it full time, and without that funding, I would have been trying to fit it in around film and TV stuff, and it never would have got any momentum to it.

EMERY: What inspired you to write a noir-y murder mystery? Is there anything you could cite that’s been an inspiration in that genre? It’s not typical of comics produced down this part of the world.

GIBSON: It might be because, although I’ve always read comics and I’ve always enjoyed comics, I’ve never just gone in and bought super-hero comics because they are comics. So I think my inspirations are comics but are also film and television, and they publish wider genres than traditionally published comics. Which is interesting if you look at some of the stuff Image are doing now with Saga, Fatale, The Walking Dead, Skull Kickers; four of, I think, their best comics, and they’re quite well-performing comics, and not one of them have a super-hero. I think there’s like a good batch of genre stuff coming through that’s a little bit to the side of what is normally produced. I know that a lot of the work that’s produced in New Zealand is more literary comics, and I don’t feel comfortable in that kind of area either. I guess I just went there because I didn’t feel like I fit into literary and I didn’t fit into super-heroes, and that leaves fifty other genres open, none of which get used much.

EMERY: Moth City has a very specific color palette, and with the story set in one locale, I wondered how you went about establishing the look of Moth City?

GIBSON: I really spent a lot of time on the color palette, and I’m happy with how it turned out. For the inking and illustration, I stuck closer to the period that it’s set in, which is mid ‘30s, so I looked at a lot of early crime comics and early adventure comics. When it came to the colors, either they’re black and white or they had very restrictive color palettes – the inspirations for the colors was more from weird ‘70s and ‘80s comics. I was able to thumb through my favorite combinations and test their palettes, pull colors out and move things around. For instance there’s no black, there’s only a deep shade of purple, and there’s no white it’s always a tan color, almost an old newsprint color is as light as it gets. Once I set up some rules for myself, everything fell into place. I also did one of those cheesy Pixar color scripts where you go through the entire story, once you’ve plotted it out, which is what I’ve done with Moth City, I know the end of the arc, and I’ve known it for a really long time. You can pick tonal colors for different parts of the story, like that section of act two will be more greens and yellows, and that might be followed by a red section. That’s something that people who are reading it now might not have noticed but will hopefully be coming through on later issues.

EMERY: Moth City has an interactive pacing, with the way panels can be revealed and changed as you move through the story. How did you develop that?

GIBSON: I described it to someone today as “the world’s most time-intensive slideshow”. That’s actually all it is. One of the challenges I always find with comics as a reader is that I cannot help but see the entire page as a whole. I’m always glancing out of the corner of my eye at the bottom right hand corner just out of curiosity just to see what’s going to happen. So it’s really hard to pull suspense off in normal comics, and that’s something my story and my genre really needed. Working back from that, I was trying to find a way to create more timing, create more suspense within the story, and the slideshow technique is the easiest way to do it.

EMERY: Were you always planning to distribute Moth City through a digital comics platform like Comixology?

GIBSON: I guess it had always been an ambition. So much of this project has been just really lucky timing for me. I know, as a creator from New Zealand, if I’d been doing this four years ago there’s no way I’d be able to get it in front the people I’ve got it in front of, like Mark Waid, without flying around the world. I’ve spoken to Ben Stenbeck about it, and he invested a lot of time and a lot of money going to American cons just to show people his stuff. So much of that stuff, the release of Comixology, Amazon opening its doors to people, then Comixology doing a submit platform and opening it up to independent creators like me. I’d been working on Moth City for a long time, but stuff’s just happening now for people on our side of the world that we can take advantage of.

EMERY: Did you have any idea of what the commercial prospects would be for Moth City? Was there a plan to earn some kind of remuneration from Moth City as a free webcomic?

GIBSON: I had theories, and I had plans, but I certainly had no idea whether they would work. A lot of them, I still don’t know whether they’re going to work or whether they have worked as much as they ever will. Webcomics work really well. I love webcomics. But there seems to be a weird separation between webcomics and comics, and it’s nice that Moth City is for two audiences now. Webcomics work really well as strip-based, gag-a-day stuff; that’s because they’re really instant, and you can share them instantly, and you can forward them and put them on Reddit. So it’s always about quite fast growth in webcomics, but when it comes to long form comics, they tend to struggle online. I kind of figured that income streams for traditional webcomics wouldn’t work for me. I was never going to get one hundred thousand views a day and make a living on advertising, but I might be able to do this weird hybrid thing where I have an audience and I can leverage them and they can help me and spread the word into other areas where I can maybe get some money back for the work I’m doing, like Comixology, or future stuff on Amazon, or even a print run one day. Again, so much of it’s just been the technology catching up with creators, and distribution is a massive part of this. Four years ago this, would have been really tough.

EMERY: I think you’re right in the thick of it with these models and forms of distribution developing as your comic is coming out.

GIBSON: I think it’s quite tough for a debut creator to go to a comic publisher or a traditional publisher with a work that no-one has ever seen before, with no name, with no reputation, with no fan base. Digital is the perfect easy way. It’s not easy to start a website, but it’s not impossible. You can do it for free or you can spend lots of money, that’s your choice. Now with Comixology, you can get a little bit of traction, get some reviews. I’m hoping, at the end of my run, I’ll have more of a case for a print version of Moth City than I would have had if I’d just handed it to someone six months ago.

EMERY: Are you involved with any comics / illustration communities in New Zealand?

GIBSON: Yes, I’m involved with many unofficial ones. A lot of my friends are animators or illustrators. I studied animation, with a little bit of illustration, at Massey University. The New Zealand Comics Collective have been really great; they’re small and really close-knit. I think the advantages of smaller communities like New Zealand and Australia are that those groups are so small that everyone is very approachable; you can get in touch with people like Dylan Horrocks and ask for advice, you can get in touch with Ant Sang, you can get in touch with these people and they can give you feedback and they can give you help. If you were based in the States, I imagine, there’s just so many people, who would you choose and why would they help you? But when you’re from a smaller community I think people are more aware of helping people up. Which is great.

EMERY: How far ahead is Moth City written? Do you have an end point in mind?

GIBSON: My website is into season three, and Comixology has just released the first part of that season in a nice issue-sized chunk. I have four seasons planned, which confusingly is eight Comixology issues. That’s all been scripted for a very long time. My art is far in advance of what has been released. It gives me enough space to let a bit of momentum build, get some press, and talk to people like you and pull things out of the hat like the Thrillbent stuff. After that, it’s not a totally open-ended finish; it has places to go if there’s an audience for it, but I think It’s quite a satisfying finish after eight issues. I’d love to take it further one day, but there has to be some sort of sustainability with comics for me.

EMERY: Are you still involved in freelance or commercial work outside of Moth City?

GIBSON: No. I’ve been working on Moth City full time for more than a year and a half. That’s what the funding has allowed me to do. I’ll be stepping back into it at some point which will be welcome, ’cause I miss it. Comics are great. I think comics – working in a team is very different experience to what I have, which is working as a solo creator. People always talk about comics as a collaborative medium, but I haven’t experienced it yet. I actually quite like dealing with clients and other people’s deadlines. And I like getting paid.

EMERY: If the remuneration was there would you consider working on comics full time?

GIBSON: I’d love to. I really enjoy the writing process. I’m enjoying the illustration thing, but that’s something I’ve done before in film. Writing for me is a lot of fun. That’s where you can really throw ideas and characters around. Once I get to the illustration project, it’s the polish, it’s the tone, all that kind of stuff, but the real guts of it has already been done. So I’d love to have the opportunity to do the writing and have someone work with me on the art. I think, until I have some sort of structure around how all that stuff would work, I’ll just have to keep illustrating my own things. Which certainly isn’t the worst-case scenario – at least I can open up Word and I can open up Photoshop and something will come out the other end.

(Check out Moth City on Comixology: http://www.comixology.com/Moth-City/comics-series/10390)

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Matt Emery is a cartoonist and comics historian specialising in New Zealand and Australian comics. In recent years, he has maintained an Australasian cartooning blog at pikitiapress.com. Matt also manages Pikitia Press in its capacity as a micro-publisher. Current and forthcoming artists published by Pikitia Press include Peter Foster, James Davidson, Toby Morris, Sarah Laing, MVH, Bob McMahon, Barry Linton and Tim Bollinger, as well as distribution of works by Steve Ditko, Maude Farrugia and Brent Willis.

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