As noted on Tuesday, telling your own stories in comics is an increasingly viable option for creators of all varieties. It shows in what we’re seeing at comic shops and on the even more sprawling digital side of the industry. The breadth of what is being released today is greater than what it has ever been before. That’s exciting, and means there really is something for nearly everyone in 2015’s comic industry.
Things like Comics Experience’s partnership with IDW Publishing helps a lot, as that gives newer creators more options on getting their stories told. A pair of creators who have seen those benefits are Paul Allor and Paul Tucker, the creators behind Tet at IDW, a “war-torn romance” set in Vietnam that debuts today in your local comic book shops. Their book is the third book to be released through that partnership, and having read the first issue already, it treads on rare ground – a story of star-crossed lovers in a war zone with a mysterious murder in the middle – while bringing high-quality storytelling to the equation. But because of its unique nature, it could be perceived as a tough sell for retailers, the customers at the center of things for Allor and Tucker.
It’s an interesting book for all of those reasons, and naturally, I was intrigued. Today, you can read my chat with the two of them about the book, how it came together, the Comics Experience partnership, launching a book in such a crowded marketplace, breaking into comics, and much more. Like the way it sounds? Make sure to pick up issue #1 at your shop today, and thanks to the Pauls for the conversation about their book.
From a ten thousand foot view, what is Tet all about, and beyond that, what made it a story you wanted to tell?
Paul Allor: Tet is a war-torn romance, set in Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968 and 1984. It’s about a young Marine and a Vietnamese woman, who have big plans to marry and move stateside, after the war. But fate intervenes, first with a murder investigation and then with the Tet Offensive that gives the story its title.
As for why it’s a story I wanted to tell — the seed of Tet was simply this notion of exploring one murder, in the middle of a war zone. And as I developed the book with artist Paul Tucker, the murder became just one element in a larger story about love and regret, and about pain — not in a grim and gritty way, but in a more elegaic way. It’s a story about how we deal with pain, with regret, with unhealed wounds — whether they push us forward, or hold us down. That was a story I could relate to a great deal (as can most people, I would imagine), and so it’s a story I very much wanted to tell.
That all sounds high-minded as fuck, and kind of pretentious, and you know — it probably is. But we also aimed to make Tet an entertaining story, about a murder investigation, urban warfare, colorful characters, dark humor and drunken brawls.
This type of story is one that’s more common in novels or movies, as it’s much more built on personal relationships and doesn’t really have a twist to it. It’s a romance set during a time of war that examines the pain that can come from that and the aftermath. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it in a way is an outlier in comics. What appeals to you about the more personal angles you approach in this story? Are small stories in big settings something that appeals to you more as both a reader and a storyteller?
Paul Allor: I’m not sure I would call this a small story in a big setting, but it is a very character-focused story in a big setting (which is what I tend to do in my work-for-hire stuff, as well). Maybe this is a good way to put it: if you took these characters out of Vietnam, it wouldn’t change a single thing about the war. But the war absolutely changed these characters, in a very real, very personal way. And that’s what this story explores.
And you’re right: Tet definitely isn’t a high-concept story, which is most of what you see in mainstream comics these days. The truth is, the vast majority of comic books (including my own) fall pretty neatly into the fantasy and science-fiction genres. There’s nearly always some element of the supernatural, of heightened reality. And when there isn’t, the book tends, instead, to fall extremely heavily into a certain genre, deeply relying on the tropes associated with it. After fantasy and sci-fi, crime (and particularly noir) is probably the next most prevalent genre in comics.
And none of this is a criticism. I love all that stuff. I read it, and I write it. But yeah, Tet is different. I’ve been saying that the biggest influences on Tet are Garth Ennis’ war comics, Graham Greene, and Kazuo Ishiguro. It follows certain tropes of the war, crime and romance genres, but pretty glancingly. I guess I would say its more “literary” than “genre,” even though I feel like that’s a false distinction, and a modern construct that’s been forced onto the fiction world by publishers and bookstores and marketing folk. And whenever I hear people talk about genre work vs. literary work, I kind of want to respond by making loud farting noises with my hands until they stop.
But yeah, I guess Tet is more along the lines of what people call (siiiigh) “literary.” And while that isn’t unheard of in comics, by any stretch of the imagination, it is a bit of an outlier at mainstream publishers. And I kind of wish it wasn’t. Because the comics medium is so good at showcasing character, at building empathy, at getting to the beating heart of a situation. So, to answer your question, that’s what appeals to me about these types of stories: the fact that comics can do them so damn well. Comics can and should do anything, so to see them largely limited to a very narrow range of genres is super disappointing, as both a reader and a creator.
But on the other hand… those market realities do exist, and they’re there for a reason. Our publishers — Comics Experience and IDW — are taking a pretty big chance on putting out a book like this, from two fairly unknown creators. And maybe it’ll pay off, but maybe it won’t. We’re two weeks out from Tet’s release, as I write this, and I’m pretty terrified of how it’s going to go. There’s a loud voice in my head that keeps questioning why I spent the last year of my life working on this book, when I could have done something a lot more marketable, a lot more likely to get attention and open up more opportunities for me down the road. But that voice is kind of an asshole, so I’m doing my best to ignore it.
Artist Paul Tucker’s a great fit for this book, and not someone I had ever experienced before. What was it about his art that made him the right fit to tell this story?
Paul Allor: Paul was the first person I thought of for this book, and I’m so glad he agreed. We’d been talking very casually for a couple of years about doing something together at some point, and this just felt right. Paul is so fantastic at small emotional moments, at making you feel exactly what the character is feeling. And he’s also just a first-rate sequential storyteller, which is pretty important for a story that skips around in time a bit, and plays some other games with time and with the sequence of events.
Paul came on very early in the process, and we were able to design the look of the book at the same time that the story was being written. So a lot of the art techniques that he uses — the silhouettes, the text-only panels (which have been used in a lot of places, but were inspired, here, by Gipi’s They Found the Car), his extraordinary use of color to set the mood — were baked in from the beginning.
I just looked at the initial plot outline I sent Paul — in May of 2014 (which is really not very long ago at all — this book came together incredibly fast) and in it I mention Ha’s line in issue one — “I’ll wear a white wedding dress, like an American girl.” Paul really latched on to that line, and the first things he sent me was a piece of concept art that we eventually used as the issue #1 variant cover. That piece, and that line, kind of set the visual tone for the series.
One thing I really liked about the first issue was how lived in the world felt. The location didn’t just feel like a setting. It felt like a real world, which was especially interesting during the heightened time it was taking place in. How much research did you put in to get this world right, and how important to you was it to get the details around the central romance right?
Paul Allor: Thank you, man. I think most of that is due to Paul Tucker’s incredible artwork, which lends the entire book a real sense of verisimilitude and, like you said a very lived-in feel. Which makes me feel a bit unqualified to answer this question alone. So I’m gonna send this to Paul, and pull him into this interview. Paul?
Paul Tucker: I spent a healthy amount of time gathering image reference. I found a few great flickr pools which had pretty exhaustive documentation of the Vietnam War. That being said, there were also some specific details that I couldn’t find any reference for. So I did my best to approximate – also my art style for Tet certainly allowed for some abstraction. Ironically, I think having some elements in a scene abstracted can make things feel less ‘set decorated’ and more believable.
Paul Allor: So, there you go. On the writing side of things, anytime you’re writing historical fiction, you know you’re going to fuck it up — and you’re probably going to fuck it up a lot. So I did as much as I could to minimize that, both for the storytelling, and out of respect for the men and women who lived through this, both American and Vietnamese. I also tried to make my research as wide-ranging as possible, to make sure I was getting a variety of perspectives. So I read and watched contemporaneous journalism from the war, and more recent non-fiction work. I read a lot of pretty dry government reports, including as many (translated) documents from the Vietnamese government as I could get my hands on. I also listened to a lot of oral histories, which was pretty invaluable. For a while, I would basically load up some oral histories every evening, then go for a long walk while listening to them (with a notepad in hand). Walking really helps engage my storytelling brain, and so combining that with research was really, really fruitful.
At the same time, there was kind of a learning curve when it came to realizing that, you know… maybe not everything needs to be researched? I spent the better part of an evening tracking down the earliest instances of the word “eye fucking,” to see if I could use it in dialogue. It was used before 1968, but only very rarely. I left it in, since I figured Marines in Vietnam could reasonably be on the cutting edge of profanity. But anyway, there were a lot of research black holes like that, and they maybe weren’t all so fruitful.
But to answer the question you actually asked — the central romance was actually one of the easier parts, because the emotions it dealt with were pretty universal, even if these exact circumstances were not. It was basically the old saw about making the universal specific and the specific universal. There is one line in issue one, though, where Eugene mentions to Ha that they can get married right away, in Vietnam, instead of waiting. And one of the Marines who read the scripts was like, “yeah, no. There’s a LOT of paperwork involved in that. But maybe your intent was that Eugene was just joking.” And I was like, “Uhm, yeeeeah. He was… joking. That was my intent all along.”
You talked about how you see this more as a “character-focused” book, and it’s hard to disagree with that. It mostly centers around the star-crossed lovers at the center of the story – Eugene and Ha (which is amusingly close to a famous artist’s name) – and my personal favorite, Bao. Not that it’s exactly similar, but I really enjoyed the recent HBO mini-series Show Me a Hero from David Simon. It was brilliant, but it was, for the most part, about the rigors of city planning. Not exactly sexy stuff. Yet it worked because of the character work. How important to the story was it to create characters we could empathize with at the center of this story, and how did they develop as the book did?
Paul Allor: Oh, man, Show Me a Hero was so amazing. If you’d like, we can stop talking about Tet and just talk about Show Me a Hero for the next couple of hours. And I think it was so successful both because of the characters, like you said, and because of the structure of the storytelling. The shape and form of the story went a long way towards making it as compelling as it was. And structure is also something we focused on a lot in Tet. The story unfolds in some (hopefully) pretty cool ways over the course of its four issues, and is (again, hopefully) more powerful for it. Not that I’m in any way comparing the quality of my work to David Simon’s. He’s one of the greatest writers of our age, and I’m, you know…Paul Allor.
Eugene was pretty solid from the start, but Ha and Bao definitely developed quite a bit while writing the story. It was very important to me that they not come off as just plot devices for Eugene’s story, that they had their own conflicts, their own arc, their own rich inner life. Which was tougher to show than Eugene, since he’s, you know… the narrator. With Ha, the key was realizing that she’s actually an extremely tough, hardened individual beneath the naive and innocent way she presents herself. And with Bao, it was all about his sense of control. Bao is completely self-assured. He doesn’t care what you think of him, he feels no need to impress you, and he never says or does anything that he doesn’t mean to. One thing that definitely developed with him was his very dry, supremely understated sense of humor. That wasn’t an aspect of his character when I started writing, but as I got a better grasp on him, it definitely became one.
I also, again, need to give a massive amount of credit to Paul Tucker. Seeing his amazing character work was a huge help in getting a firmer grasp on these guys. And yeah, Bao is Paul and my favorite, too.
Paul Tucker: I loved the dynamic Paul had set up between the three lead characters. For me, they really take shape and reveal themselves as the characters interact with each other. Throughout the book we get to see Eugene with Bao, Eugene with Ha, and Eugene with Bao and Ha and I think with each of those scenes we learn a bit more about each of them.
You mentioned them, but this is one of the books set to be released by the partnership of IDW and Comics Experience. It’s an interesting experiment by the pair, and it really focuses on highlighting work by lesser known creators. Has the experience of publishing through the pair been any different than previous experiences you’ve had? Also, as someone looking to make a name for yourself in comics, how important is it to have options like the one that partnership offers?
Paul Allor: It’s been fantastic. Comics Experience really helped me kickstart my career. I’d spent a few years practicing writing comics, trying to get the craft down, and it was after I took the Comics Experience writing course that I kind of kicked into gear, and worked hard to start self-publishing, and then pitching. So doing this book with them just feels like being home. Plus, Comics Experience scripts are required to be workshopped by the community, and the feedback I got there, from friends like Rob Anderson, Rich Douek, Lela Gwenn, Joey Groah, Chris Lewis, Devon Wong and a ton of other people, was just invaluable to developing this story. I think the big thing that sets Comics Experience aside from a lot of publishers (though certainly not all) is that they’re just interested in putting out damned good comics, without thinking about whether it’s in a genre that’s hot and easily marketable, or whether it can be developed into a multimedia property. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I do have a lot of comics and pitches that lend themselves to that. But Tet doesn’t really work as a property; just a story.
On the IDW side of things, I already had a great relationship with them, and Bobby Curnow, my editor on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is the in-house editor and contact point for the Comics Experience books. Andy and Bobby have both been incredibly supportive throughout the process.
And yeah, those kinds of partnerships are extremely important. Tet is not a slam-dunk pitch on paper, for a lot of the reasons we’ve discussed. But Comics Experience had faith in us, and saw the potential from the very beginning. I think it’s incredibly important to have those kinds of relationships with editors and publishers, when you’re first starting out. Of course, the flipside of that is, we have to validate their trust by giving them a damned good comic. Which I hope we did.
You talked about this a bit already, but as a creator looking to get a book that’s – as you said – more “literary” out to audiences and retailers, what difficulties did you run into while promoting it? Obviously it’s different than something like your TMNT work, but how much of a hill did it feel like you needed to climb in getting buy-in when you were promoting this book versus others you’ve done in the past?
Paul Allor: The retailer response has been overwhelmingly positive, which is so gratifying. I think the biggest part of that is because of Paul Tucker’s absolutely stunning covers, and the fact that I was able to tell retailers that all four issues were done before it launched. And on the media side of things, obviously sites have to consider issues like limited resources, and the number of hits a story on Tet is likely to get, versus a story on The Amazing Ladybug Man (again, not a knock – Amazing Ladybug Man is a quality title, and I never miss it). But I’ve been very pleased with how receptive people have been to at least taking a look at it, even if they didn’t necessarily see a way to cover it.
Of course, the third leg of that stool is the readers. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing you can have in comics. We’ll see how it goes when issue #1 comes out. But I’m cautiously optimistic.
You mentioned the covers as a selling point, and I agree. They’re really well done and, more importantly, they stand out compared to their peers. They have a unique look especially when you’re thinking of other covers they’ll be next to. For Tet, was that something you were actively looking for? How did the concept come together as you were developing the book?
Paul Tucker: I determined early on that the covers for Tet would tilt towards design and mood. The cover for the first issue spun out of some early concept art. I was playing around with the fireworks imagery and the white silhouette juxtaposition and it ended up being an abstract portrait of our lead american character, Eugene. I remember being a bit stuck as to what to do with the following issues when the image of the burning house in issue 2 popped into my head. I realized I could create three more ‘portraits’ based on each issues events. I think that given the level of the abstraction, the reader, or potential reader has to participate in creating these faces and hopefully this will pull them into the book on a visceral level.
Paul Allor: Yeah, Paul’s covers have been amazing. And the variant covers use a similar silhouetted approach, but without the faces, and with the addition of a quote from inside the book. They look pretty fantastic.
And design-wise, the approach that Paul took on the covers continues on the inside of the book. I mentioned this a bit earlier, but we worked very hard from the start to make sure this book felt very unified, that the line art, the coloring, the writing and the lettering were all very integrated. We basically discussed the story and mapped out the look of the book before I started scripting, so it was all pretty planned out from the very beginning.
One thing I’m really curious about is in 2015, creators have more options than ever to get their work out. But it also seems like there are more creators than ever trying to break in. As someone starting his career in comics, what are your thoughts on the landscape and opportunities for those looking to start out in comics in today’s era?
Paul Tucker: I’m not sure I’m the best one to ask as I have been making comics for a long time now and have managed to avoid ‘breaking in’ – ha!
I think it depends on what kind of person you are. A lot of people are good at living online and sharing work and making connections. I feel much more comfortable meeting people in real life. Living on an island (Newfoundland) in Canada has maybe limited my opportunities that way. I’ve certainly felt my share of hopelessness over the years. At one point I decided that I had already ‘made it’. I was creating comics every day and enjoying the process. That was my break I guess. Funny enough, it was not long after that this opportunity with Paul and IDW/Comics Experience came along. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned in there somewhere.
Paul Allor: Yeah, this is a tough one to answer. I don’t live in Newfoundland, but living in Indiana certainly makes networking tough, as well. And I can’t speak for artists, but I think that for writers, breaking into comics – if you define that as getting to the point where you’re receiving steady job offers and can make a full-time living at this – has a pretty healthy component of luck to it. There are a lot of setbacks in this business, and it can be very frustrating, and like Paul said, it can feel pretty hopeless, at times. But I can’t control luck, or a lot of other external factors. All I can control is the work. So I’ll just keep making the best comics I can make, and doing my best to get the word out about them, and go from there.
For those still on the fence about Tet, here’s your chance to pitch: when they’re at their local comic book shop, why should they pick this book up, and what type of comic fans would you say it’s for?
Paul Tucker: I’d say pick up Tet if you’re looking for a story that’s grounded in real people. Paul has crafted a great story with some unexpected turns and I really think readers will care about these characters by the time issue 4 rolls around. If that doesn’t grab you there are plenty of genre elements mixed in for fans of crime, romance, and war comics!
Paul Allor: That works for me! I would also add this: I sent an advance pdf of all four issues of Tet out to as many retailers as I could (and if you’re a retailer whom I missed and would like to take a look, please do reach out). And the owner of The Comic Book Shop in Wilmington, Delaware, showed it to his Vietnam Veteran father-in-law. Apparently his father-in-law, who was not a comic-book reader, loved it, and called it an “astonishingly accurate” look at what it was like to serve in Vietnam, and life for servicemen and women after the war. That’s incredibly humbling, and the highest endorsement this book could ever possibly receive.