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Doug TenNapel By Keith Giles
What do you call a black and white graphic novel that features ten-foot tall red-neck grasshoppers, the Shroud of Turin, a swarm of demon cats, giant space eels that go “wooo” and a small town scientist with a symbiotic bug on his chest?
If you’re one of the lucky few who’ve discovered Doug TenNapel’s Creature Tech you already know the answer to that question. The only thing you’d be asking yourself would be, "When is the next Creature Tech coming out?"
CREATURE TECH, by Eisner Award-winner Doug TenNapel, is Top Shelf's fastest selling book ever. The book sold 5,000 copies in just 90 days, and it’s now in its second printing. After a healthy bidding war, 20th Century Fox and Regency Enterprises have picked up the feature film rights to Doug TenNapel's Creature Tech and production should begin on the film early next year.
TenNapel is also the creator of such off-the-wall properties as Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood, and GEAR.
Keith Giles talked to TenNapel about his new Top Shelf book and found out that there’s more weirdness to come from this eclectic visionary. Plus, find out what's coming up next for the creator (can you say Nicholas Cage?).
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Giles: Explain what Creature Tech is about? How do you describe this book to people?
TenNapel: It's primarily about an atheist with a creature attached to his chest who is running from God.
Giles: Where did the idea for this book come from?
TenNapel: That's a really difficult question to answer. It's just like all of my stuff that just kind of comes along out of personal taste. I do feel this deficit in the world of entertainment where I think, "I wish there was a story like this out there." For instance, I really liked the idea of giant flying space eels, so that became the centerpiece in Creature Tech. Space Eels serve as my "Death Star." I loved Alien and HR Geiger's artwork for the face-hugger so I thought, "What if an alien used a human for a host, but the human also needed the alien? What if the alien offered something good for the human? Not just overt power...but a kind of spiritual guidance?"
G: Will there be a second Creature Tech adventure down the road?
T: I doubt it but you never know. The second and third stories are in my head (yeah, I know... another trilogy) but I have other stories I'd rather tell about other characters. I can do a second Creature Tech or I can come up something completely different.
G: Do you have any future plans or aspirations of entering the world of comics as a creator on a more ongoing basis or are you content at the moment to explore multiple streams of media?
T: I'm really into all of the sequential story telling mediums. I'd hate to give any of them up because each one has a unique strength. I will make more comics. It may take a while... but it's a priority of mine. I may live to be 75 and if I do, I won't be making movies, I'll be making comics.
G: The characters who populate Creature Tech are an odd combination of the strange and the "Everyday Joe." Were there any characters, other than the main guy, that you found especially intriguing to explore?
T: I love all of my characters because they feel real to me. Even Blue. He exists in the fictional world of Creature Tech. Even the town of Turlock that exists in the book has little to do with the real Turlock where I was raised. The Creature Tech Turlock is romanticized as are all of the characters. But it's the "Everyday Joes" that are a lot more fun to explore in comics because they have interesting responses to the creatures.
G: You blend several concepts in this book that, on the surface, don't seem to work naturally together, and yet you manage to juggle them quite well. Why did you decide to bring together such a dichotomy of subject matter?
T: Creature Tech’s theme is Dr. Ong with a creature stuck on his chest. It's awkward, like a rusty nail sticking out of a wedding cake. Following this theme, every element added into Creature Tech was just another odd thing on top of another odd thing.
It's a sci-fi thriller...so I added conservative Christian philosophy...so I added irreverent humor...so I added heart-wrenching drama...so I added gore and monsters. It's actually very thematically consistent.
G: Do you find that intelligence in modern media is a lost art? Don't people tend to embrace the safer concepts and genres rather than those that challenge them or ask something more than a casual glance?
T: I think intelligence in modern media is dangerous. Remember that modern media doesn't have to do anything but entertain you. It can be intelligent, but even the intelligence had better be entertaining. It's hard to second-guess the audience when considering risk because the wider audience will often surprise you with what they will accept or reject. That goes for everything from the last election to the wide acceptance of Spongebob, to everybody hating my last TV show Push, Nevada. The audience keeps all of us content creators honest!
G: I didn’t hate your show, I just never watched it. But, still, don’t you think Hollywood tends to favor the television re-make over the original concept lately? People I talk to tend to be confused by films like Memento, Fight Club, Mulholland Drive, etc. and seem totally unwilling (or unable) to engage their brains when it comes to being entertained. Hopefully this is something you can comment on.
T: Hmm, I think it's an old wive's tale that Hollywood is so interested in TV remakes out of safety. If there was a well done Gilligan's Island movie I would love to see it. I'm not looking forward to the Dynasty movie. Perhaps Hollywood makes TV based movies because the premise has stood the test of time.
My favorite films are pretty small films like Akira, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Magnolia. It's hard for Hollywood to survive on the low ceiling box office of those great films.
G: What sort of response have you received from fans regarding the themes explored in Creature Tech? What sort of responses have you been surprised about?
T: I get all good news from fans. Even the fans that disagree with the material are not offended by my approach. It usually sparks up an interesting conversation! My biggest surprise was that nobody hated this book. I mean not one complaint. I'm always suspect of that.
G: But, you have received criticism though. Steven Grant, on CBR, has made comments to suggest that the spiritual and religious imagery found in Creature Tech is unnecessary. How would you respond to that?
T: Anyone who says that Creature Tech's religious elements are "unnecessary" and "seemed tacked onto the story" doesn't get Creature Tech. Which religious element is tacked on and should be edited out? The Shroud of Turin? The small town church? The demons? The resurrection of the dead? The atheist son? The pastor father? Mantis heaven? How about the alien crucifix?
I don't want to overstep my boundaries because critics can write whatever about Creature Tech but the claim that religious elements are tacked on or unnecessary are wholly unsupported by his examples. When a claim is unsupported by specific examples it should be taken as just personal opinion animated by an agenda.
Here's the justification for the religious elements in C-Tech and your readers can decide if they sound tacked on:
Dr. Ong the Atheist vs. his father the Pastor - Every "Hero's tale" starts with a father son that are in some sort of conflict. The father could be dead, mean or missing. Dr. Ong and his father have opposite points of view about religion. Dr. Ong is a scientist so it is well within the framework of storytelling to have a scientist to be an atheist. That's no stretch. To create a proper foil for Dr. Ong's atheism his father would naturally be a Christian. The more religious the better for the father/son conflict. This brings me to another point that most stories about "man vs. God" are interchangeable with "son vs. father". The rage of Ahab against Moby Dick is like man against God or boy against father. The same goes for other movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Exorcist, Signs, 2001...where a parent-type God is in conflict with a man-child.
The Shroud of Turin - While it's just a prop in the comic it serves as a device to resurrect characters across a large time span. There aren't many other plot devices that I could have used that haven't already been used a thousand times before like time machines etc. Further, if Dr. Ong's spiritual regeneration is at stake isn't it appropriate to have said prop be a religious artifact? So much of what Creature Tech is about involves Science discrediting superstition so The Shroud of Turin made sense as a real life discredited superstitious artifact. It's hardly tacked on...it is woven throughout the spine of Creature Tech.
The Small Town Church - Small town America is full of evangelicals and so is the small town in Creature Tech. Some are good, some are ass-holes just like real life. They serve to make Dr. Ong feel alienated having come back from the big city where he achieved fame as a Nobel prize winner. Urban centers are not known for their fundamentalism as evidenced when Robin Williams does his impression of an evangelist he always adds the big Southern drawl. City folk are supposed to be smarter...which is why most of them voted for Al Gore I suppose.
The Symbiotic Crucifix - This image is the climax of the entire story. Remember that Dr. Ong is physically rescued by the Symbiote at the start of the story when it provides respiratory function after his own heart fails. C. S. Lewis believed that if there was alien life and it had fallen that Jesus would provide a sacrifice for them as well (so much for Sagan PRAYING to find alien life to disprove God as sole creator of life). Here we find a planet of fallen Symbiotes and Jesus came as one of them and died on a kind of cross. Dr. Ong gives up when he sees to what length God will hunt him...now the Symbiote is not just a physical savior, but a spiritual one as well. It's a rich beautiful symbol that only a tin-eared biggot would call "unnecessary."
I don't mind if Creature Tech gets a negative review (though it is empirically good) but when people knee-jerk at the religious elements it says more about the reviewer than it does about my book. Atheists and agnostics alike love this book and it's not because they're convinced that Christianity is legit. I do hope that everyone who reads Creature Tech looks into alternatives to Evolution which I believe is about to go the way of the Flat Earth belief...it is far closer to phlogiston than Intelligent Design Theory. Read "Darwin's Black Box" by Behe THEN bitch about Intelligent Design. At least you'll be better equipped to make a logical argument against Intelligent Design.
If he can't come up with specific examples that the religious elements of Creature Tech were tacked on then FUCK HIM! This comic wasn't meant for him and he can choose from a billion other comics that are hostile to the Christian world view.
So much for diversity in comics.
G: You're one of a very few number of comics creators who write, pencil and ink their own projects. Like yourself, guys like Paul Pope, David Mack, and others have taken this "do it all yourself" approach. Do you find this is the best way for you to work?
T: This is the only way for me. I only want to illustrate my own stories. Oh sure, I wouldn't mind doing a Batman, but for the most part I like writing with my drawings and drawing with my writings! Besides, the reason why I do comics is because TV and movies are so collaborative. Comics are the best way to tell a story all by yourself.
G: Would you ever consider just writing a project and turning it over to an artist? Or would you ever illustrate something written by another creator for a different project?
G: If you could only do one or the other, would you write or would you rather illustrate?
T: I would write. Illustrating someone else's story means it's not my story. I'm here to tell my stories. But as for fun on my own projects I have a lot more fun drawing than writing.
G: Do you ink with a brush or a pen? Which do you prefer?
T: I use both but I prefer brush. The line that comes out of a brush is so seductive! There are times when I'm inking where I'm having so much fun I just have this big smile on my face.
G: Do you finish the art at the inking level only or do you tend to turn in tighter pencils and then ink them?
T: I do tighter pencils when I don't feel confident in what I'm drawing. For human figures, I usually have to make sure the pencils are dead on before I ink, but if I'm doing some monster I can just pencil a stickman and ink a gorgeous monster.
G: What takes you more time, writing, pencilling or inking?
T: Probably pencils. If you include thumbnails then definitely pencils. I solve all of the problems at that stage so it requires the most work. Sometimes with pencilling I realize I have to go back into the script to fix stuff.
G: What kind of ink do you prefer to use?
T: Sumi ink. But I use Higgins “Black Magic” also. I like super opaque blacks so that if I nail something one stroke I know it stays and I won't have to go back over it.
G: How many pages can you pencil in a day? And how many can you ink per day?
T: On Creature Tech I tried to pencil and ink two pages a day, six days a week for 4 months. I stuck to that and it meant that some days I worked 9am to 1pm and some days I had to work 9am to 11pm!
G: Why the decision to keep Creature Tech in black and white? Wouldn't you have sold more if it had been in full color?
T: I hate color.
G: Fair enough. Any hope of Creature Tech getting turned into that animated film or television property in the near future?
T: It will be a movie. The studio (New Regency/Fox) approved my outline and I'm almost done with the rough draft!
G: What are you working on next?
T: I have an animated series at Nickelodeon based on my comic Gear. I'm also working on a prime-time animated series at Fox and a movie with Nick Cage.
Doug TenNapel began his career as an animator on “Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes” and has been successful in creating video game properties like Earthworm Jim, Skull Monkeys and Boombots as well as graphic novels such as Gear and Creature Tech, not to mention acting as a consulting producer on shows like Push, Nevada with Ben Affleck. Visit him online at www.tennapel.com.
Keith Giles is one of the world's greatest enigmas. Ruggedly handsome, and yet surprisingly gentle and compassionate with small animals, Keith actually has a very weak grasp of reality and often talks to himself in the bathroom mirror. He’s currently writing his own original sci-fi novels and putting together a few comic books of his own in his spare time. Take a sneak peek here: www.plasticanimal.com.