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A Conversation With Sean Wang By Derek Handley
Sean Wang is currently best known for his work on THE TICK AND ARTHUR, a gentle and offbeat comic series with a lot of heart, yet a lot of bite too. Here at Slush Factory, we reckon he's going to become better known for his current work writing and drawing his own series, RUNNERS, a science-fiction adventure which has a "comedic-epic" but accessible style all its own.
We caught up with Sean to grill him on RUNNERS and his plans for it, and a few more things besides.
Slush Factory: Sean, it's a pleasure to meet you. Let's leap straight in with the $1000 question: where did RUNNERS come from? Was it an older idea that you'd mulled over for a long time, or something more spur of the moment?
Sean Wang: It's definitely an older idea that I'd been kicking around, off and on, since the early 90's. Oddly enough, before I started working on it, I had no real interest in writing. I just wanted to be a penciler. But at some point, I realized that I had very little interest in drawing most of the comics that were being produced, since the bulk of them didn't appeal to me, story-wise. So I decided to start working on a book that, at the very least, I would want to read myself. I was always a big fan of the original STAR WARS trilogy so, not surprisingly, my story took the form of a space adventure series.
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SF: There was really nothing that you thought you'd enjoy working on?
Sean: Very little. The books I'd enjoy reading and would enjoy penciling are mostly creator-owned, maybe a little offbeat, not the regular super-hero books.
SF: I suppose it's type-cast-style thinking, but because the books I associate you with are generally light and humourous in tone, with outright comedy vying with the action, I imagine that's what you read as well. Is that what you tend to go for when you're reading?
Sean: I wouldn't say I gravitate specifically towards the humorous books, but I am more apt to enjoy a comic if it at least has some degree of humor to it. For the most part, I just read whatever I think will entertain me. But in all honesty, I don't really read a whole lot these days. I am trying to check out more books though, and to broaden my horizons.
I'd say the books I consistently enjoy reading include BONE, ACME Novelty Library, HELLBOY, POWERS and THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. I'm also a big fan of Lewis Trondheim's book DUNGEON (published by NMB), which does an amazing job of balancing a great story with bits of inspired comedy. I just wish it would be published in English in full color, since the B&W versions don't really do the books justice. Not to leave manga off the list, I also love GUNSMITH CATS and BATTLE ANGEL ALITA. And then there's Frezzato's THE KEEPERS OF THE MASER books (published by Heavy Metal), which contain some of the most gorgeous artwork I've ever seen in comics.
SF: Getting back to RUNNERS, seeing as it was an older idea, why was this the right moment for it?
Sean: For the bulk of the mid- to late 90's, I was working on various Tick comics, most notably THE TICK AND ARTHUR. But as much fun as they were, I found it hard to fully immerse myself in the work, knowing that ultimately, it was someone else's property. I found it pretty limiting as to what I could do with the characters and with the book as a whole. Basically, I felt the series had to be funny, first and foremost, and I had a hard time working real character development and drama into the series. So I wanted to get back to RUNNERS, where I would have complete creative control and the freedom to do stories that didn't necessarily have to be entirely comedic. Plus I still had that sci-fi itch that needed to be scratched. What's funny is I really wanted to start working on it in the late 90's. At that point, it had been announced that the new STAR WARS prequels were going into production. My original plan was to get my comic going by the time the first movie came out since I figured the new trilogy would kick off a huge wave of renewed interest in sci-fi and I would be able to ride that wave. Unfortunately, I think the movies fell short of expectations so that sci-fi wave never seemed to happen. And PLUTO NASH didn't help either.
SF: Indeed. Good point. Where do you want to go with RUNNERS? Is it a book you see in your long-term plans?
Sean: As far as the overall direction goes, RUNNERS revolves around a group of alien smugglers who operate in an area of space outside the regulated systems. This space is home to all sorts of shady characters who are basically outcasts from "civilized" space. But the pockets of regulated space are not as unified as they appear to be and it won't take much to plunge the systems into war. The series will chronicle how the runners (and several other outsider factions) inadvertently set certain cosmic events in motion and how their resulting actions will ultimately change the course of history. I can easily see myself doing the series for a long, long time, and when I say that, I mean CEREBUS long.
SF: That's a life-long commitment!
Sean: Oh, yeah. I mean, as it stands I have several major story arcs planned, enough to keep me busy for quite a while. The current group of runners is really just the tip of the iceberg. I plan to populate the world with a lot more characters, ranging from bounty hunters to mobsters to police officers, with everyone fitting into the grand scheme in one way or another. As far as stories go, my (lofty, but sincere) goal is to tell an epic story in the same vein as THE LORD OF THE RINGS, BABYLON 5 and STAR TREK: DS9. I want a fair amount of action and drama but I'd also like to keep a good amount of humor in the book. And that's going to be the big challenge for me in the long run: trying to keep some elements of the story light and fun even though the overall story will be epic and serious.
SF: The British comic online press has latched onto that comedy and drama mix, and I've seen RUNNERS variously refered to as a sci-fi romp, a cross between STAR WARS and Terry Pratchet, and a sit-com with sci-fi dressing. What do you think of those descriptions, and how would you pitch it to the audience?
Sean: I actually haven't read any Terry Pratchet although now I feel like I should! I've been describing the series (or more accurately, the first story arc) as STAR WARS meets SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, since it's got the whole smuggling and pursuit angle in there. I'm intentionally keeping the first story arc on the light side to make it more accessible early on, but ultimately, I don't want the entire series to be a straight comedy. As the story progresses, it will get more serious, but as I mentioned earlier, I plan to keep a fair amount of humor in the book. Romp therefore suits the first arc, but sit-com…I think that is misleading. It's not straight-out comedy
SF: It seems an ensemble piece rather than a book focused on a main character. Fair assessment?
Sean: It is most definitely an ensemble book. I was always a big fan of team books growing up since I found team dynamics to be more interesting than solo characters. You'll notice when I started THE TICK AND ARTHUR the first thing I did was throw them into a super-team so they'd have more different personalities to play off of. With RUNNERS I'm trying to develop all of the main characters (and even most of the supporting cast) equally so that each one has an interesting origin, personality and direction. My goal is to make each character equally unique and compelling so that every reader will have his or her own personal favorite character.
SF: I've seen some of the technology in the book - blasters, starships and so on. What else can readers expect to see, in terms of technology, and how important is the tech side of things for you in the plot?
Sean: Even though I went to MIT for undergrad, I am embarrassingly stupid when it comes to all things technological. I certainly don't have the science background to pull off any kind of serious sci-fi concept without someone much more knowledgeable calling my bluff. I guess that's why I categorize RUNNERS as "space adventure" rather than "sci-fi." To me, sci-fi applies more to things like 2001, BLADE RUNNER and to a lesser extent, STAR TREK. In those cases, there is a fairly prominent emphasis on the actual scientific concepts driving the stories. STAR WARS, on the other hand, I would classify as space adventure, since it's more about the characters and story than it is about the science behind it. I'll hopefully have some pretty cool technology in the series, but I probably won't go too far in depth in trying to explain how it all works. Let's just chalk it all up to inverse tachyon beams and temporal anomalies. Anyway, all that being said, I'm sure I'll make some errors along the way, but I'll try to keep any really glaring ones (like referring to parsecs as a unit of time…ha ha) to a minimum.
SF: I'm sure you'll be forgiven. Now, I'd like to ask you about the style of your work. RUNNERS and THE TICK AND ARTHUR are in a very clear, open style with lots of expression-work, which lends itself so well to the lighter tone of the books. I saw some of your concept art online, and it was a much darker, 'grimier' style. Is the clear style you use on RUNNERS the one you feel most comfortable with, or is it just the one that suits the story best?
Sean: I assume the "darker" images you're referring to from my website (www.seanwang.com) are the computer game concept sketches I did. I guess my style is a bit flexible and is generally a product of the medium I work in and the context of the piece itself. For a lot of the game art, I was concepting undead warriors, goblins and various fantasy beasties, which lend themselves more towards a darker, grittier style. That plus I was working in pencil, and I tend to work more loosely when I know it won't be something I'm going to ink.
In general, I like playing around with different styles, but with my comic work, I've recently been skewing towards the cleaner look. I just found that I was never really comfortable doing the hatching and cross-hatching thing, especially at the inking stage. Some people can do that really well, but in a lot of cases, all those extra lines just end up looking like clutter. I guess aesthetically, I just like the pure, clean look of a cartoony style more than a busy, over-rendered style. I found the clean, slightly cartoony look worked well with the Tick books, given the comedic tone of the series. And the style just sort of stuck when I started RUNNERS. Also, the cleaner style makes the pages go a little quicker on the production side, and when you're penciling, inking, lettering and shading an entire book and trying to get it out as frequently as possible, every little bit helps.
SF: Speaking of frequncy, how often will we see a new issue of RUNNERS?
Sean: Probably a few times a year. Unfortunately, I'm working a full-time job right now and doing the comic nights and weekends. So time, rather than commitment, is the real limiting factor. It's a little frustrating since I have such a huge story planned. There's a lot of story that I want to tell and I feel like I'm moving at a snail's pace right now. Hopefully at some point I'll be able to go full-time and maybe even take on help in the inking and shading so I can get it out much more often. I really hate the idea of making people wait several months for the each issue.
SF: Is there any other book you're working on now? I know you're a pretty busy guy - what else have you got on the go?
Sean: As far as books go, just RUNNERS. There was another project I was toying with, but my time is so limited right now, that I really can only focus on one series right now. And RUNNERS is it. The second issue is due out in July (available through Diamond and Cold Cut), and as soon as I get back from San Diego I'll be starting on issue #3.
SF: Speaking of San Diego, when and where can people catch you on the convention circuit?
Sean: I will be at the San Diego show (July 17-20) in Artist Alley. The following month (August 8-10), I'll be in Artist Alley at WizardWorld Chicago. After that I'll be at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD (September 5-7). I'm also looking into getting a table at the Las Vegas Comic-Con (October 31-November 2).
SF: How about the Tick? Did you enjoy working on him, and would you ever revisit that universe?
Sean: I really had a blast working on the Tick and I really appreciate New England Comics giving me the opportunity to both write AND draw the series and specials that I worked on. As for revisiting that universe, I have thought about it. I introduced a lot of new superheroes that were part of the super-team (Caped Cod, Bumbling Bee, Crazy Blue Rocket, etc.), but unfortunately, not much has been done with them.
I thought it would be cool to do a miniseries called "The Tick and …" and for each issue have the Tick team up with one of the other characters. That way, each character would have the spotlight for a single issue and I could develop them a bit more. What's funny is that I originally came up with that concept because I still have a lot of original Tick pages, but most of them don't have the Tick prominently featured on them. Instead they show a lot of those other heroes, and who wants to buy those pages? So I thought if I developed those characters more, people might actually want the pages. So the idea originally came to me as an unabashedly transparent ploy to make those pages sellable. [laughs] But now I actually like the idea quite a bit and would like to do it…if I had the time. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, my time is so limited these days, I can only commit to one project, and RUNNERS is my top priority. So the Tick thing probably won't happen.
SF: What did you think of the cartoon and live-action versions of the Tick that have been made?
Sean: I loved the cartoon even though I only saw probably half of the episodes. I'm still waiting for the day they announce that they're going to release it on DVD. As for the live-action show, I thought it was funny but it missed a great opportunity. Although I like that the characters in the Tick universe are real people with real issues, I thought the show dealt with too many mundane plots too early on. The majority of the stories could have been told on almost any other sitcom (with just some minor tweaking), so it really didn't set itself apart from all the other shows that were available. It didn't really capitalize on the main source of uniqueness it had going for it: superheroes and super-villains. Combine that with FOX's tendency to cancel or under-promote the shows with the most promise (THE TICK, FUTURAMA, FIREFLY, ANDY RICHTER) and the show never really had a chance.
SF: Okay, so, let's say RUNNERS was to get made into something, what would you like to see - a movie, a TV show? Or is that something that doesn't attract you?
Sean: I have thought about that and I'd have to say I can only really see it as an animated TV show. Given the scope, I can't really picture it as a movie. I think a weekly show would be the best format since it could then develop gradually in regular installments where each episode would add to a bigger and bigger story. I thought that worked quite well with the Dominion War story on DS9. To a lesser extent, I thought it worked on BABYLON 5 (and by that I mean it would have been phenomenal except for the threat of cancellation every season that unfortunately forced them to resolve storylines too quickly).
I think animation is the way to go, given the predominantly alien cast, but not that really horrible mishmash of 2D and 3D animation that you see everywhere now. I think FUTURAMA is one of the few examples where the 2D and 3D blended perfectly. Oh and of course, I'd eventually love to see action figures of RUNNERS characters, especially since I'm a pretty avid toy collector myself. But all that's a ways off. I'm not really seriously thinking about any other media right now since I'm very happy doing RUNNERS as a comic book. I plan to be doing the comic for a good long time.