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The 'Mouse' That Roared: The Paul Sizer Q&A By Rich Watson
Paul Sizer is one of comics' best-kept secrets. His long-running science fiction series Little White Mouse has quietly built up a strong following due to its sharp attention to character. Drawing on Asian culture and themes as well as traditional genre-related action, the book follows the exploits of a teen girl struggling to return home after being stuck lightyears away in outer space. Here, the creator talks about what goes into the making of the book, manga and how its rise in popularity has benefited him, and how he's giving back to the industry.
Rich Watson: What would you say are the major themes of Little White Mouse?
Paul Sizer: I've always told people that LWM is a character study wrapped in science fiction gift wrap, meaning that my personal interest in the book is moving the characters through their lives, whether it's on a space ship or an abandoned satellite. My favorite series have always made me care about the characters first, and then asked me to follow them to weird and interesting places. That's why I've made one of the central themes of LWM family and the way that families can be a tremendous source of inspiration and power to someone. Loo, whether she always admits it or not, derives a great deal of her power to survive her new life from gifts her family has given her.
I think the other major theme of LWM is learning to define yourself outside of the things in your life waiting to define you. Loo came from a huge family, huge high school, and a huge city. I always find it interesting to see what happens to people when you take them out of their comfortable, familiar settings and see how they define themselves without their standard "tools." Many people, especially teens, are handed identities through media, consumer goods and peers to make them fit into a very specific peg hole. I wanted to put Loo through her paces and make her figure out who she was when all she had to worry about was surviving from day to day instead of which shoes to wear and which malls to shop at.
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RW: How much of this universe do you have mapped out? You work in short arcs, yet there's quite a bit of history to these characters.
PS: I have been very lucky to not have people discover how much I ride by the seat of my pants with LWM. Part of that is just the intrusion of "everyday life" on the creative process, but to be really honest, I keep a certain level of chaos in my creative process to keep things interesting, and to keep my ideas fresh. I don't believe in having an iron clad "bible" for a story, because then it's just translation, rather than evolving naturally from an artist or writer's life. Of course, there's a certain amount of pre-planning and groundwork laid beforehand, but I don't want my process so rigid that a great new idea or inspiration can't wiggle its way into a storyline.
As far as mapping out the LWM universe, I've always had a basic roadmap that told me that Loo would eventually get off the satellite and return home. How she would do that and what she would have to go through to accomplish that, now there's the interesting part. I'm more than happy to tell new readers that Loo eventually gets off the satellite, because that's the payoff for all the emotional investment that readers put into the series. I always knew that's where I wanted to go as a storyteller, but I let new ideas come into play as they presented themselves. I also liked the idea of the reader walking in ten minutes into the movie, and liking it enough to try and play "catch-up," so I always try to make the history of the characters worth knowing when you finally do find out about it. Filthy Jake's relationship with Loo, for instance, was actually a rather late development in my mind, but I tried to retroactively make it fit into the current arcs so it seemed like a natural progression.
RW: How often does that sort of thing happen?
PS: Not very often, but I do try to not close myself off from new ideas as they come. My overall plans for LWM haven't changed significantly, but I have talked with fans and other creators who have given me suggestions and input that influences how I deal with specifics of stories, little tweaks here and there. I don't believe in working in a vacuum, because #1, it's lonely, and #2, you are cutting yourself off from inspiration. If I'm writing about human beings and trying to make them someone worth caring about, I need to have input as to how people other than myself deal with things…
The short arcs of stories came more as a necessity of independent/small press publishing. With the gaps between series, I couldn't afford to leave cliffhangers. I've always tried to make each chapter of LWM as complete and self sufficient as possible, and also as friendly to new readers as possible.
RW: Which came first, the concept for the book or the character Loo?
PS: Loo is actually based loosely on a real person, an exchange student from Malaysia, who was a student at Western Michigan University. The way she lived her life, so far away from her friends and family, with such spirit and humor, motivated me to create a character that mirrored her. The real "Loo" was very nearly a comic book character already, so the translation wasn't really all that difficult. The concept of Loo being stranded on a satellite 3 light years away was just an extrapolation of real "Loo's" situation taken to sci-fi lengths… One of the big challenges with LWM is that obviously, I'm not a 101-pound Malaysian teen girl, so it forced me to write from experiences very different from my own. I researched a lot and got help from "real Loo" on topics like family structures in Asian culture, names for characters, that kind of stuff.
RW: Has she seen the book?
PS: Oh yeah, for sure. She lives in Singapore currently, and I send her all the issues.
RW: Your tech drawings are extremely impressive - the spaceships, robots, cityscapes, etc. What's your secret to getting them to look the way you want?
PS: Long, long nights at the drawing board, and lots of techno music in the background… When I was growing up, reading comics, my favorite artists were people like George Perez and John Byrne. Perez definitely got me hooked on the hyper-detailed tech stuff, with his amazingly detailed "machine-scapes" and city downshots. Later it was artists like Geof Darrow who took that even further, to insane levels some might say. I'm also influenced pretty heavily by lots of different kinds of manga. Japanese comics always have lots of attention to detail, and I really connected with that aesthetic. And since I still have problems always drawing humans to look like I want, at least I can make the machines and tech look decent.
RW: What is it about humans that trips you up? And how far do you think you've improved in this area?
PS: Maybe I shouldn't say humans (despite some rumors circulating, I am a human being, so it's not like I have no point of reference), but just getting the subtleties of human form to express what I'd like. I think any artist would say they're not quite satisfied with their level of rendering the human form in some area. It's just that sometimes I'm dealing with very subtle greytones of emotions between characters, and I'd don't want everybody to have the "Lakefield" range of facial expressions (i.e. teeth-gritting mad or stone-faced indifference). As far as improving my art, getting the right tools and learning to use them has been the biggest step for me. Learning to ink with a brush, and later with good Japanese pen nibs, has made my organics and human forms more smooth and expressive. And if I'm doing a book with a young female lead character, it would be a good idea to make her not look like a guy in a dress…
RW: You've gotten contributions from people like Mike Oeming, Jose Ladronn, and Dave Johnson. Is LWM very popular with other pros?
PS: Let's just say that I've been very lucky to have the contributors that I've had. Truthfully, all of the pros that I've approached for work are people I'm huge fans of, and they've liked the look and design of LWM. I've worked really hard to make LWM look like a well designed, professional book, and lots of comic pros have responded to this.
Every pro that's done stuff for my book has been someone that I've walked up to at a con and said "Hey, would you be interested in doing a pin-up?" I always offer to pay for the work, but nearly all of the work has been done for free, or for an artwork trade. Jose Ladronn said to me, "Listen, we are all brothers and sisters in this trade; we should help each other out and give support to our fellow artists." I think that was a pretty cool sentiment, because it is true. The comic community is exactly that, a community, and it should foster an environment of helping the next generation of young artists. I work with mentoring programs for young comic artists, and I think it's really important to foster the next wave of people who are going to be doing comics and try to pass along the good stuff we know to them. After all, they'll probably be the people hiring me to ink their backgrounds for them when they get stinking famous and wealthy…
RW: LWM obviously has a very strong Asian influence, yet it doesn't look like a manga clone. Have you always been interested in Asian culture?
PS: My exposure to Asian comic/cartoon culture as a kid was probably the same as any kid growing up when I did: Speed Racer, some Battle of the Planets, and a whole lot of Star Blazers. It wasn't until I became a professional comic artist that I really started looking at manga and anime from a technical standpoint, seeing what it did better than the house American style I grew up reading with Marvel and DC books. I've had a bunch of people and fans ask me why I don't just go to a completely manga style, but truth to tell, my style has always been a hybrid of many different influences. American style, manga, typography, Swiss and German design, Art Deco, Constructivist design, all these thing are crammed into the kind of drawing I do. I don't consider my comic style manga by a long shot, but rather "manga influenced." If I work at it, I can do the "chibi/big eyes/speed lines" stuff, but that's just me aping a style. Someone like Adam Warren has taken his utter love of manga influence and over the years made it his own unique style. That's more of the direction I see myself going, although hitting Warren's level is a pretty high goal to set for myself.
RW: How much of manga's success in America would you say is business related - i.e., format, distribution, advertising, etc.?
PS: I'd say a ton, only because it's so easy to get manga nowadays! I would have killed to get my hands on all the Japanese manga and anime that's available today when I was a kid. Giving your potential audience a wide range of choice never hurts, as companies like TokyoPop have found out in the past two years. They've been very smart, getting their books to places other than comic shops, and yet they haven't excluded the local comic retailers from benefiting from when all these rabid new fans come busting down their doors wanting more stuff because they've drained the local Barnes and Noble of its manga books! I've elected to start making my trade paperbacks of Little White Mouse in the standard 5" x 8" manga format for just that reason…
RW: Will they include extras, like the sketchbook pages you've been putting in the single issues?
PS: As much as possible. Each trade will be 144 pages, so I'll try to cram as many extras as I can to make them worth picking up. The third collection, due out in late August, will include the entire "Entropy Dreaming" series along with the "Retro-Mix" one-shot that followed it… I think many people in the industry are seeing the future of publishing comics going towards the book/graphic novel format, and as a reader, I love having little compact "all-in-one-sitting" stories.
RW: Has the rise of manga's popularity benefited you in terms of readership?
PS: The best answer I can give to that is manga being so popular with girls and getting a whole new section of potential readers into the pool is what benefits my book and many other's work. My book has benefited from manga being less of a freak of nature and more mainstream, but again, I don't sell or promote my book as a "manga" title. I sell it as a book that male and female readers can enjoy, and if they like manga, my book has some of the same themes and situations in it. Manga is doing so well in America right now because you can find ANY AREA OF INTEREST that you want. Romance, fantasy, ninja, space opera, teen drama, whatever! That (surprise, surprise!) hooks in new readers who maybe would never pick up a comic, because they have no interest in super-heroes. My readership is nearly a 50/50 split male/female, and all over the place age-wise. I'm glad to see such a high number of girls and women who like my book, because I set out to create a title that did not fall into the two polar ends of either being a "helpless female waiting to be saved" scenario or the "over-sexed bimbo running around in a thong with a sword" end of comics.
RW: Tell me more about the mentoring program you mentioned earlier. How did you get involved with that?
PS: A local school in Kalamazoo contacted me about a year ago asking if I'd be interested in working with one of their eighth graders named Maggie who was interested in making comics. The program was intended to pair these kids with professionals in the careers they were interested in, and culminate in an end of the year report to their class. Although I was only really asked to meet 2 times with my student, Maggie turned out to be a very hard working and dedicated student. We ended up working together for eight weeks, every Saturday, at the end of which Maggie had produced a full 8-page story that she had created, written, illustrated and colored the cover. She gave out the comic book to her class, and also gave it out at the following Motor City Comicon. It was a total blast to work with her, and it really cemented a need to pass along the knowledge we have as creators to that next generation. Maggie has since contributed artwork to LWM, as part of stories and as fan pin-ups.
Since then I've worked with college-age students in independent study classes, and I'm currently private tutoring a junior high schooler. I've done tons of school and library workshops and seminars over the last 6 years about comics and cartooning, and it really keeps me excited about what I do. Kids are very eager to tell you how much they love or hate what you're teaching them, so it's always been a challenge to keep my teaching fresh and interesting, for both them and me!
RW: How do you approach each different age group you teach? Junior high to college covers quite a wide range.
PS: The common theme is creative process and techniques, and how to be aware of what's being done in the field. My workshops and teaching sessions are not, "Hey kids, look how great I draw; let's learn to draw like me!" In each case, I try and make the students learn the process of being creative, and learning to have a way of editing ideas and checking yourself along the way, so they don't get too precious about their work. Too often young artists (myself included) plow through a drawing, and then at the end notice that a hand is wrong, or a face is screwed up. Artists of all ages have to watch this, so I like to try and instill this process early on. For the college-age students, I make them have more responsibility for taking their work further on their own, and the younger students have more side-by-side guidance from me. In all these cases, I've tried to expose the students to as many different options for comics as I can, and let them find what works for them, be it traditional comics, small press, mini-comics, or web comics.
RW: Have the other teachers learned from you as well?
PS: I think they have been interested in how I incorporate more traditional art techniques and theories to the teaching of comics theory. There's still a huge stigma of comics not really being a legit art form, so [they say] "Why bother teaching them like you would teach painting or graphic design?" I rely heavily on my art and graphic design/typography training as it influences my comic work.
RW: Final question: What's your best music to work to? If your music lists each issue are any indication, your tastes are all over the place.
PS: That is an understatement! I'd say I work best to mostly instrumental music (too much vocal stuff, or spoken word stuff distracts me), and a lot of what I listen to would fall under the description of "electronic music." However, in the past year I've totally gotten hooked on all the Cowboy Bebop soundtracks (full of bebop, jazz, techno stuff), so whatever's good is what's in my player. As a general suggestion of a really good recent compilation that mirrors my general musical tastes, check out the soundtrack to The Animatrix. It's really fantastic!
Unrelated post-script: Newsarama reported last week that the Supreme Court denied hearing Texas retailer Jesus Castillo's obscenity case. As ignorant, close-minded, arrogant, and just plain stupid as the Texas ruling was (he sold an adult comic to another adult - where's the crime?), it would have been a hell of a lot worse were it not for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Now, more than ever, the CBLDF needs your support. Become a member today. Yearly membership costs $25 and it's worth every penny. This ruling is a huge setback, but it is only a setback, and with the help of folks like you and me, the CBLDF will continue to fight the good fight. The best weapon against ignorance and lies is truth.