Graphic Lit: An interview with Mark Tatulli
As you may know, a number of newspapers are using Doonesbury's ongoing hiatus to sample new strips on their comics pages. The Patriot-News is no different, and last Friday we began giving four up and coming strips a two-week run in our paper, starting off with Mark Tatulli's Lio (the other four are Get Fuzzy, Cul de Sac and Candorville). To coincide with the feature, I interviewed Tatulli for my column, the unexpurgated version of which you can read below:
Mark Tatulli already had one successful strip in newspapers (Heart of the City) when, after losing his day job, he decided to start a second one.
This time around, though, he decided to go for something a little edgier, a little more macabre and — just to make things tougher — devoid of dialogue.
The net result was Lio, a delightful strip about a little boy who is surrounded and constantly bemused by the monstrous and otherwise supernatural elements that encompass his universe.
I recently talked with Tatulli about the strip:
Q: Give me a little bit of your background. Have you always wanted to be a cartoonist? How did you get your start?
A: I always did want to be a cartoonist. Actually I always wanted to be Walt Disney. Disney was frowned upon by kids when it came to a certain age. When you got to about nine or ten it was “Oh, that’s for babies.” So ended up going to Disney movies by myself. But that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to do Disney-type animation. That segued into film making. Always in the background though I was doing comic strips for my school paper. I always toyed around with the idea of doing a comic strip but I had no idea what it meant.
I first got syndicated in '93. I actually had a comic strip in a local newspaper for awhile. Then I got syndicated in a newspaper out of Arizona in about '93 or '94. I did that for awhile and I got syndicated with Universal Press in '97 and I launched my other strip, Heart of the City, in '98.
Q: So Heart of the City was your first strip?
A: It was my first strip with a major syndicate.
Q: So what led to the creation of Lio?
A: I always worked a full-time job while I was doing Heart of the City because Heart never got to the level where I could support a family on it. It’s good money, but it’s not enough.
So I was working in the TV industry as a creative director at a production company. The business slowed down and I got laid off with a bunch of other people in 2005. I had some savings so I had some time before I had to start finding other work and I thought, "Well, this might be a good chance to start another strip." So I sat down and created Lio.
I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do a pantomime strip, a strip with no words. I pitched the concept to my syndicate in May of 2005 and then they said "Yeah, we like it," and I sent them some more stuff and we signed a contract in September. We launched the strip in January of 2006. By the time it launched in May of 2006 I had over 100 clients. It was a really good launch. I’m up to about 330 clients now and it’ll be two years in May.
Q: Why do a pantomime strip?
A: There were two thought processes in it. Number one I always liked strips when I was kid that had no words because they were pretty much the only ones I could understand. Like Ferdinand and Henry. I think that I wanted to bring something back for kids in the newspaper. Kids don’t read the newspaper anymore. It’s all old people. I thought “Let me do something where you don’t even have to get the joke. If they like the illustrations, they’ll like the strip." I know I liked that when I was a kid. I loved to look at certain strips. There’s nothing like it in the newspaper right now.
The other thing is it translates. It crosses the barriers of language. Knowing that the business is very tough right now; it’s very hard for any new comic strip to get a foothold. I wanted to make this as accessible as possible to foreign markets. A lot of comic strips today are drawn with the American culture in mind. They don’t translate so well when they go overseas. If you notice Garfield, it doesn’t make reference to the holidays or anything like that. It’s really fairly generic so it will translate well overseas. Knowing the market is slow, I wanted to maximize the potential for sales.
Q: What are some of your influences for the strip? I sense a bit of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey in there.
A: Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, Gahan Wilson. All of the dark stuff. I remember when I was a kid I loved the dark illustrations. My father would buy National Lampoon and hide it, but I would always find it. I always felt so guilty for reading these comics that were drawn in a kid style but were clearly meant for adults. I kind of liked that feel of it.
Today’s kids are exposed to so much on television. You may say Lio’s dark. Well, yeah, Lio’s dark when you compare it to Beetle Bailey and Hagar the Horrible, but you put it out in the real world and it’s pretty soft. Kids are more sophisticated, they see a lot more. I don’t think there’s anything in Lio that’s disturbing. There are ongoing themes in the strip and that is love and tolerance. Even though it’s in a dark world, it’s not in the way we usually see it. But they are there.
Q: It is a pretty macabre strip. Do you have any rules as far as known when to say when? Are there any limitations or guidelines you set for yourself?
A: There are always limitations. As a cartoonist you become a built-in editor. You know instinctively what you can and cannot get away with. My job I think with this strip is to go right up to the edge of that and stand right on the edge of the building if I can. You can always push it a little bit further.
When I started Lio I had three editors looking for that stuff. And we still got in trouble. Because people are always looking for something to complain about. I guess you know better than anyone else. The most innocuous thing that you put in the paper, that’s what they’ll complain about. I get more complaints about Heart of the City now than I do with Lio because I think people are like “Well we know that’s a dark strip so what are we going to do, write a letter every day?”
But when Heart of the City crosses the line all hell breaks loose. I always get this letter: “I’ve always been a fan of your strip. Up till today.” You did something today that steps over the line. I always write back "It’s interesting. You’ve always been a fan of my strip yet you right to me only when you get pissed off."
You’re going to get complaints no matter what you do. Lio goes a little farther than most. You know certain things you can’t do just by having done them. I know that I can’t do anything with puppies or babies. That’s just a big no-no.
Q: One of the things that I think is unique and charming about the strip is that Lio is never upset by anything he encounters.
A: Kids don’t know to be afraid of things until adults tell them to. When I was a kid I had this fear of cops. Why do I fear cops so much? Because your parents are always telling you “Oh my god, put your seat belt on. You see that cop over there? He’s going to come over and give you a ticket. He’s going to put you in jail.” I think fear is a learned thing. It’s taught by our parents and other guardians. It was a lot worse in the '70s. We’re much more educated now as parents.
Kids generally feel sorry for things. Even inanimate objects. They feel sorry for them. There’s a little popped balloon laying in the street. I know as I kid I felt sorry for that balloon because I knew at one time it was jumping around in the sky on some kid’s string and now it was popped, forgotten and laying in the gutter. It’s kind of sad. That’s kind of like the feeling I was reaching for from my own memories of childhood and putting them into Lio. He’s completely at home with all the weirdness.
Q: We’ve been talking about the negative reaction but the strip’s in 330 papers. Do you get a sense that kids are following or responding to the strip?
A: Yes. I get hand-drawn cartoons from kids. Five, six, seven years old. It’s something I didn’t expect. I thought these kids are really going to have to work hard on this because it’s not really a strip in the sense that you get a set up and a punchline. The strip is almost like a puzzle when you think about it. It’s a series of images and you have to put together what happens and that’s how you get the joke.
I thought “Kids are just going to like the drawings and this is really for adults.” But you know what? I found the older you are the less likely you will have the patience to try to figure it out just from the letters I’ve gotten. And kids get it right away. I don’t know what it is about the thought process.
I’m actually very excited about that because I want younger readers. I want younger readers coming back to the paper. Not to say that Lio is going to pull them all back in because we know that’s just impossible. But it’s something else there. Maybe comics can become kitschy so kids will come back. I think that’s doable. I really do. More and more editors are starting to get wise, “Yeah, we need younger readers, let’s get rid of the dead wood.” I won’t qualify what the dead wood is, but you know what I’m talking about. You sound like a young guy. How old are you?
Q: I’ll be 38 this year.
A: Jeez, you’re 10 years younger than me almost. And that’s great to hear a young person coming into the newspaper business and I think there’s going to be a turnover now. I’m starting to see it happen. I’m excited about that. I think newspapers will never die, they’ll always be with us. But we’ve gotta get smart about how to get younger readers back.
Q: What is it about the macabre — that dark sense of humor — that appeals to you?
A: I don’t think there’s much like it in the comics. There may be dark humor. I don’t know if you’ve seen Pearls Before Swine. Is that in the Patriot-News?
A: I’d say his is the next darkest strip.
Q: When I say dark humor I’m talking more about the genre, like the cartoonists we were talking about before.
A: What’s at the center of that is death and fear of death. Lio doesn’t fear death. He really doesn’t. I did strip where Lio is riding his tricycle down the road. The grim reaper gets a ride from Lio on his bike. And then he drops him off at the old age home. That’s the joke.
I got all kinds of negative responses from that, “How sick is this? Lio’s taking the Grim Reaper over to the old people’s house to kill old people.” But that’s not the thing. He comes no matter what. Death comes. Death is part of nature. Lio’s just giving him a ride. He’s totally at peace with it. Death would have gotten there somehow. That’s his job.
I don’t know why I find that appealing. It’s kind of like when I was in school and I’d draw a picture of the teacher. I found out the later the teacher saw the joke and I remember that feeling of real fear. But it was also excitement. I got caught doing something I thought was really funny. Same thing. I get that feeling every now and then when I step over the line. “Oh man, this is really going to piss people off. Isn’t this great?” it’s kind of bizarre. They talk about artists that draw for themselves. I really do with this strip. And there are a lot of people like me.
Q: I read online you do the strip using pen and ink. Why?
A: I use a brush for Heart of the City. And what you get a more of a dynamic line with that and it’s got a real flow and energy to it. And that’s good for Heart of the City.
When I started Lio I wanted it to have a complete separation from Heart of the City. Because I didn’t want to piss off my other fans. One thing that always bothered me was a cartoonist that was doing two strips and he was doing them in the same style except that they were just different characters. I think that’s kind of like weird. Which is which now? I don’t want to have any connection from one to the other. One style is good for it. And the real thin line I do for Lio, the spidery line detail is a way I love to draw and it’s a way I used to draw back in the '80s, but it wasn’t appropriate for Heart. Now I think there’s no visual connection between the two, there’s no writing connection between the two. It separates it for fans and for me too.
Q: Whatever happened to Lio’s mom?
A: Would you stay in that house? Seriously.
Q: I heard where there’s the possibility of a Lio movie?
A: Yes, we’re in the process of doing that now. But you know, Hollywood wheels turn real slow. The guy that’s going to be the executive producer of this is the guy that made the Child’s Play movies. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them ...
Q: I know of them.
A: If you’ve ever watched them they’re really kind of cheeky movies. They’re not horror movies in the sense you might think. They’re very cheeky. That’s a good mix. The guy is great and we have a real good connection creatively.
Now we’re starting to look at writers. The writers’ strike really shut down the whole thing so we couldn’t even talk for months. We just started talking about it again and we’re working on the story. We’re talking to the guy that wrote the Lemony Snicket series. We’re talking to him about writing it. What we’re doing now is attaching people to the project. That’s Hollywood-speak.
Q: In the past the strip has followed the classic gag-a-day pantomime format. But I was reading some recent strips and it looks like you’re trying your hand at an extended storyline now.
A: Yes. It’s very tricky doing that, but it’s something I really want to do. It’s possible, I just don’t know how to do it. But I’m working on it. In fact I’ve told about three or four stories so far. They can’t last more than a week or two cause it’s just too hard, the stories become too complex and it’s too hard to maintain that without dialogue. They have to be very simplistic. Generally based on a theme. They’re gag a days but they’re based on a theme.
This particular one where Lio looks under his bed and sees the monsters under his bed are having a convention. So he goes under the bed and he’s in their midst in a monster mask and one of the little monsters thinks he’s his mom. And so he ends up with this little monster and so the story goes. I can’t tell you what happens next.
A: The whole thing for me is just to bring something to the comics pages. Something that people haven’t seen before. That’s real exciting to me. I get a great response.
The flip side to that is there’s a huge number of comics readers that don’t want any kind of change. They switch off. They don’t want to look at it. They don’t want to hear about it. Give me Beetle Bailey, give me Hagar, give me Blondie and I don’t even know what this news crap is. This is a complaint I get: “I don’t understand it at all, so I guess it’s bad.”
Q: I did, just for fun, a thing where I graded some of the comics on the page. It was pretty snarky, especially towards some of the older strips and I must have gotten 100 ...
A: Was that on a blog?
Q: It was on my blog. It originally ran in the newspaper though.
A: I think I saw that.
Q: I did that story and most people were nice, but there were a few whose perspective was obviously they wanted the comics to be the same old, same old and didn’t want to be challenged. they didn’t want anything different. Those people tended to be of a certain age and generation.
A: Absolutely. And here’s the thing. The irony of that is comics stay static because god forbid you should change anything. Yet these same people will not buy any of the book collections. You go on Amazon and you look at my sales rank versus Beetle Bailey and Hagar the Horrible. They don’t even get books anymore because nobody’s buying them. They just want them in the paper.
These are strips that are in 1,800 newspapers to my 300. They’re reaching more people. How come those people aren’t buying the books? And the licensing material? It’s completely up to editors to make that decision and you just have to be willing to take the flack. That’s what it comes down to. I think in the process you will save your paper.
Q: A lot of editors are terrified of negative press.
A: It’s terrible. I don’t know how you get past that.
Q: On a lighter note, you’re doing two comic strips. I have this image of you being chained to your table and never getting up to even look out the window.
A: That’s true. I do other things to try to stay interested the real world. I do like to cook, so I cook for my family. But that’s pretty much it. I draw and I sleep. And I do get drunk too. But only after I’m done drawing. You never drink and draw.
Q: That’s a good philosophy.
Labels: comic strips