I reviewed Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean (written by Sarah Stewart Taylor and published by Disney/Hyperion as part of its collaboration with The Center for Cartoon Studies) here at GCFK this past spring. On Saturday June 5, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amelia artist Ben Towle at Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC. Ben is also artist and writer for Midnight Sun (from SLG). This interview (transcribed from the recording) is part of a series of interviews with creators of comics for children and teens.
GCFK: How did you get into comics and how did you start working in comics?
Ben: This is an answer you’ll probably get from almost anyone you ask, but I’ve always drawn comics, even since I was a little kid. I drew a strip for my elementary school paper. My mother is an art therapist, so she’s really into art; we’ve always had a lot of art stuff floating around the house. As far as comics specifically, I remember as a kid reading a lot of newspaper comic collections either at our house or at neighbors’ houses: Betty Boop, Little Orphan Annie. I was really into E.C. Segar’s Popeye, because somebody had one of those Smithsonian collections of newspaper comics that I used to borrow all the time. A little bit later, the first comic book I really got into was this Star Wars series that came out around the time the movie did, because I was a Star Wars fanatic.
I read comics pretty steadily up until high school when I got interested in other things. I came back to them later in life, in my late 20s. I’d been playing in bands for a while and then was looking to find out what I was going to do with myself. I’d been drawing some weekly strips for my local paper and decided that I would go back to school at age 28, 29. I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design. My thesis project was a book called Farewell, Georgia that was comic retellings of folk stories. I submitted that to SLG and eventually got it published with them and it’s just kind of taken off from there.
GCFK: You mentioned some of your comic influences from when you were a child. Do you have anyone who is influencing your work right now?
Ben: Like everybody, I go through phases of who I like. Right now I’m really in a huge Christophe Blain phase. He’s a French cartoonist who hasn’t had a ton of stuff published in the United States. He has one series called Isaac the Pirate and another called Gus and His Gang. I’ve really been into his work lately. I’ve got some proposals floating around—they haven’t been turned into books yet—and they kind of wear their influences on their sleeves. They look very Franco-Belgian in nature. That’s who I’m kind of into right now. But if you’d asked me six months ago, I would probably have said someone else. There’s so much exciting stuff going on in comics right now, it’s easy to get on a thread and begin discovering new stuff.
GCFK: How did you come to work on Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean?
Ben: I got a call from the folks at The Center for Cartoon Studies who are in charge of putting together the team for each book. I’d known James Sturm, founder of the school, for a while. He was a professor at SCAD while I was a student there and Jason Lutes, the series editor, I’d spoken to him a few time. More to the point, my previous book [Midnight Sun] was also a twenties period piece that dealt with aviation. So I guess in that sense, I was kind of a known quantity.
GCFK: Did you need to do a lot of extra research for Amelia or did you draw off of what you’d learned for Midnight Sun?
Ben: I was able to recycle a lot of research, which was great. I have a lot of Sears’ catalogs for clothing. Those are great resources for looks. I have lots of books of cars and things like that. I had to do a fair amount of research on Amelia herself, even though there’s a writer for the series who does all the factual research. I had to do a lot of photographic research just to get her expressions and gestures down correctly. And also for the town itself. There are not a lot of photographs that I could find of Trepassey from the 1920s. It was really frustrating. I actually wound up, via Craigslist, finding a college student up near there—in Canada “near there” is several hours’ drive—and I paid her $100 to go up there and shoot as many digital pictures as she could and post them online for me. That helped a lot with things you probably wouldn’t notice, like vegetation and the way the rocks are and the beach, that kind of stuff.
GCFK: You said that you have some proposals out there, but do you have any new projects that you can talk about?
Ben: I have a book called Oyster War, that’s kind of my personal thing I’d really like to be doing. It’s definitely not a real commercial project, so I’m doing it on my own time, in between freelance stuff and in between trying to put together another book project. I’ve also got a proposal together that I hopefully will be shopping around in the next few months for a graphic novel adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. I’m hoping that goes, because that’s one of my favorite books. I’ve already done all the chapter breakdowns and I’ve got some characters designed and I’ve done five test pages, so I’m hoping I can get a publisher to sign on for that.
GCFK: Do you have any advice for young comic creators?
Ben: Make comics, that’s my advice. A lot of times I have people come up and ask me about pitching material, publishers, and agents and all this kind of stuff and you don’t need any of that. Just make comics and that stuff will happen. Particularly if you’re young. A lot of kids start drawing and then it seems like they just atrophy off and stop. If you stick with it, you’re going to get better.