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Interview: David Gallaher and Steve Ellis on The Only Living Boy

David Gallaher and Steve Ellis’s The Only Living Boy, which debuts as a webcomic today, is the story of a 12-year-old who suddenly finds himself, literally, the only living boy left in the world. Some sort of calamity (we’re not sure what yet) has wiped out the rest of humanity. But Erik is not alone: The world is filled with other species, and they have already been divided into predators and prey. Somehow, he must survive in this new and hostile environment, in which danger lurks everywhere and friends can turn on him in a heartbeat.

Gallaher and Ellis are digital comics veterans: They burst onto the scene in 2007 with High Moon, which was one of the launch comics for DC’s webcomic service Zuda. High Moon won the first month’s competition, and later the completed comic won a Harvey Award. It’s a supernatural western that’s a good read (but not for kids). Since then the two have collaborated on several other comics, including Box 13, which was the first original comic produced for comiXology. They took a different tack with The Only Living Boy, funding a print edition with a Kickstarter campaign; it’s available in comics shops and also digitally via comiXology.

We talked to Gallaher and Ellis about The Only Living Boy, why they are writing a YA comic, and why they are taking it to the web. They shared some of the art with us, and there’s a brief preview at the end of this story; you can follow on from there at their website.

The Only Living Boy follows the adventures of Erik, a 12-year-old boy, who finds the world has change literally overnight. Can you fill our readers in about what is happening?

David: Erik is a runaway, who finds himself hiding out from the rain, under a rock. Under said rock, he finds a teddy bear backpack, which he cuddles up to. The next morning, the environment and everything he knows and remembers is essentially gone. From there he finds himself in a patchwork world trying to piece together an identity for himself. Of course—there are monsters, mad scientists, and all sorts of assorted dangers along the way.

Steve: It’s really a tale of discovery, friendship and grand adventure—and the process of growing up.

When the story opens, Erik has just run away, but we’re not sure why or from what. Why is it important that he is already running away—rather than simply waking up into this strange new world?

David: From a storytelling perspective, we feel that we have to care about characters before we care about their conflicts. Who hasn’t felt the desire—at one point in the life—to run away and get away from the life they were leading? Either to join the circus, escape abuse, or just to find themselves? What causes a 12 year old to run away from home? How does being a runaway affect him in this new world? What happens when he is forced to stop running? How do those behaviors affect the type of boy … and the man he will become in this world? Children’s literature is filled with stories of runaways—Tom Sawyer, Dorothy Gale, and even Harry Potter, after a fashion. Running created a sense of urgency to bring readers into the story. We fill in the most essential details, but wanted to leave questions in the readers mind about what Erik could be running from or running to. We know from Erik’s narration that the life he had wasn’t the life he wanted, but what does that mean? We’ve made some very deliberate choices—and we’ll start to see them play out very soon.

The story starts in the middle of the action, and even after two issues there are a lot of unanswered questions. What appeals to you about this sort of storytelling, as opposed to starting with the beginning and explaining everything?

Steve: Erik … and it sounds weird to say this … is a bit of a cypher as the story opened up. A mirror where we can sorta see themselves.

David: At first, Erik exists as a “walking query” unblemished by cynicism. He’s not comparing everything he sees in this new world to something he already knows; we leave that to the readers can bring their own experiences to the characters and his adventure.

Steve: What will be fun is watching him build himself from the ground up. We’ll get to see him build himself from his new experiences.

David: Erik is the most mysterious creature in the book. We’ve hinted at other fun mysteries with Thea, Doctor Once, and the Baalikar …. but working with Erik, blank slate and all, give us the opportunity to see him going through a range of different experiences and phases. Growing up, I know I certainly went though my own Hippie phase, Goth phase …

Steve: Punk phase…

David: Exactly. It gives us room to work and tell the story that we want to tell. How do you become the person you want to become? How do you even know what that is?

Erik faces an amazing array of monsters in this story, and he also meets some cool characters who are on his side, at least for now. How did you come up with so many different types?

Steve: Hahahahahaha. Great question. I generally go to nature. Nature has an incredible variety of different animals, creatures, and there are just so many things out there is you look deeper. It just comes from looking around. I just went down to Florida and I spent half of my time taking pictures, so I could have more inspiration to draw from for the story.

Who is your favorite character (aside, presumably, from Erik)?

Steve: I think Doctor Once. Even though he hasn’t gotten a lot of play in the book yet. I think he’s got a fun, creepy visual, but his backstory, which we’ve outlined, really is captivating.

David: Oh yeah, Doctor Once is a lot of fun. For me, though … I think Thea and Morgan, the female leads are really interesting. Right now, Erik is a very reactive force in the story, but Thea and Morgan (especially Morgan) are proactive forces. They are also both runaways, but have a sense of drive and purpose that Erik hasn’t discovered yet. Morgan and Thea also sorta hate each other, which also creates a lot of fun situations to play around with as a creator. We’ll see more from both of them soon enough.

Steve, I love the way you divide up the action into panels. How do you approach drawing the action sequences? Erik spends a lot of time running from things—how do you keep that from getting visually monotonous?

Steve: I once had a long conversation with the amazing Jim Steranko. He once told me how he did the action in Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. He told me that one of the tricks was to always change the angle of the camera from panel to panel. And he also said that if you focus on the action inside the panel, changing the angle of the panel only takes away from the action. What I’m looking for is the flow of movement of up-and-down, side-to-side. I never show a static moment. As readers, we notice movement by contrast. When things are quiet in a scene, we keep the camera calm. It’s all about creating tempo in the story. A rhythm of movement.

In your e-mail to me introducing the comic, you said “the series draws a lot on my experiences as an educator and Steve’s experiences as a father.” What does that mean? How did those experiences come into play?

Steve: Hrrrmmmm. I think on some level the initial thought of doing a project like this. I was able to get into comics around the age of eleven or twelve, because there was a lot of material for kids. And now looking around the landscape there isn’t a lot of material for an eleven year old or a twelve year old. And a lot of the material focussed on younger readers tends to go too young. And my experience as a parent and as a professor has taught me that range of young adult material can cover incredible themes—presented in a way that younger people can absorb. In the same way that Harry Potter addresses younger issues, it also addresses deeper and darker themes. We want to address these themes, in an intelligent and exciting way, cloaked in a world of action and adventure.

David: Before I was in the comics industry, I spent six years as a teacher. It was an incredible experience filled with wonder, innocence, and magic. Watching children grow up, I was startled by how the rules we set for children “don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal” are so frequently broken by the grown ups who set the rules. Couple that with anxiety, responsibilities and expectations and it’s easy to see why children struggle so often in their tween years. We don’t give them enough credit for what they go through.

You started out with a Kickstarter and published this in print first, and digtially. Why are you putting it online as a webcomic? Was this part of your plan from the beginning?

Steve: We want to broadcast the series to as many readers as possible. We’re in an app, we’re at cons and select comic shops—but we wanted to go further. The comic store audience is limited to people who can make it to a comic store. We wanted to go beyond that and reach the widest group of people.

David: I liken it to radio or television. If you want to catch up on our series, all you have to do is “tune in” with your web browser. Want a digital copy? We’ve got a great partner with Comixology Submit. Want a hard copy? Find us at a convention or call your local comic shop. We have really great partners who have made those available. As a webcomic though, we’re not locked inside of an app or a comic shop—we’re literally everywhere that there is internet.

Steve: We’re trying to open things up a little more—to all age groups, all types of readers. We’re trying to give back to the world. Our hope is that enough people will love it and buy the print, digital, and hardcover editions. It’s really an experiment in breaking barriers for us.

How long will your story be? Will you publish the whole story online? And are you collecting it into a single graphic novel?

David: We’re looking at just shy of 300 pages to tell the first story. The whole thing will be published online—and collected into a single graphic novel, when we’re finished. When that’s done, we’ll still have more stories to tell with these characters though … and we’re looking forward to a long future with these characters. In the meantime, I hope everyone will tune in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to read more.

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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