Hunting, Gathering, and the Apocalypse: Speaking with the Creators of TRIBES: The Dog Years
About a month ago at New York Comic Con, I was walking around the independent publishers section of the convention after strolling through the artist alley and found myself at the table for Soulcraft Comics. They were selling their graphic novel called TRIBES: The Dog Years it caught my eye, and the premise sounded interesting so I got myself a copy. An hour of absorbed reading later I had finished the comic.
The first 30 pages of Tribes are currently available via online preview.
The first volume Tribes takes place in a future where a nano-tech virus (referred to as “the dog years”) has shortened the human lifespan to twenty-one years. Society has reverted to tribes of children clothed in the ruins of the past. The story starts out with a look at a tribe called the Sky-Shadows, and on a member called Sundog. After a quick look at their society Sundog sees a helicopter crash into the nearby woods and finds that the lone survivor of the crash is a man in his fifties. He then runs away from his people and goes on a quest to reverse the dog years. Along the way he meets other tribes, and explores the world while finding out more about the events that shaped it.
The story isn’t anything new, or revolutionary, but is still told extraordinarily well. The characters are rich and the relationships between them are intriguing to watch unfold. Most of all though this story works because it is told in the beautiful artwork which is allowed to really shine in its unique horizontal format. The colors are vivid, the lines and ink impeccable, and the style looks like a blend of eastern manga style with western sensibilities which creates an extremely realistic cartoonish appearance.
The following is The Faster Times’s interview with author Michael Geszel and artist Inaki Miranda, conducted via telephone and email respectively.
The Faster Times: One of the cool things about the book is the layout. You have a horizontal format.
Michael Geszel: This is my first book. And it was Inaki who said let’s do a horizontal book. I wanted to push the envelope. I wanted to push the frickin’ page. So the production company, Soulcraft, said to do that and worry later about the production problems.
Inaki Miranda: It was really Mike’s fault. We had a lot of conversations and exchange of ideas before the first page you find in the book ever got penciled. Mike pushed my art and thinking a lot from the start, he wanted Tribes to be a very immersive experience. I did a good number of breakdowns for the first pages, but we wouldn’t find that point where he’d go “yes, this is it”. Art is another language all by itself, so it’s hard to describe what we were looking for, it’s easier to know what doesn’t work, that’s the process of experimentation. It involved playing differently with time and how the information was presented on the page.
One day I was in a bookstore looking at art books and I stumbled upon a book that featured a compilation of works of designer Chip Kidd. It had this cool horizontal format and something clicked in my head. The way the interior pages were designed, and how the information was presented I thought it was quite innovative. So I bought it and went back home with this new inspiration and sketched a breakdown for the first page in this new format and that was it. Mike finally said “yes, that’s it”. Ultimately it was really Mike’s decision and risk to take, and I’m very happy he rejected so many first pages so we could arrive to this final format.
TFT: How did it affect the storytelling process? Is it different to tell a story in that format?
MG: The discipline is to try to tell the story in pictures. I don’t write a lot of text. That’s frustrating: a lot of comics have a lot of text. If you can write as much text as you want on the page, it doesn’t force you to have the discipline to tell the story in pictures. And we all know pictures are a very powerful of communicating ideas. Working in the horizontal format reinforced that. Comics are a visual medium; it’s not a prose novel. So going horizontal just reaffirmed that I needed to tell as much of this in pictures.
IM: As for what it added…first it allowed me to do very cinematic widescreen shots when needed. I’m a big fan of the widescreen format, the composition of a good widescreen shot brings energy to my inspiration, it’s like enjoying a painting for me. And Mike had it very clear from the beginning that he wanted cinematic visuals…page two with oil rig, that shot is a perfect example of what Mike wanted Tribes to be. So the horizontal format was the perfect playground for both of us to have fun.
It also brought an opportunity to play with time and rhythm; sometimes it felt like I was doing two pages inside one, because I could make the eye cover the page going down twice. Or in some cases you could also get the sensation of two things happening at the same time because of how they coexist in the page, you can change the order of the read and it works just as well. This unconsciously speeds up the rhythm.
As for what was lost…uhmmm, I guess only that you have to be more careful with the book when reading it.
TFT: The art is gorgeous. I remember reading it at the con waiting for the Walking Dead, and I got a lot of comments about it.
MG: Oh yeah that’s right! You were reading it in a line and someone else came back and told us about it! I remember that—I appreciate that. The thing about this is (publicity) is really important because people don’t know about it. But once you show them the book and they feel it and they’re like “Wow, what’s that? I want it!” To IDW’s credit, they never said I can’t do a horizontal. I delivered a full, complete, soup-to-nuts cover-to-cover full book to them. And Inaki and I both supervised the design. Inaki works with the colorist from Madrid—they’ve known each other for a long time, since art school.
TFT: Can you tell us more about Soulcraft comics? What’s its relationship with IDW?
MG: Soulcraft is an independent self-financed production company. I make publishing details on a project-by-project basis. I was able to show the editor-in-chief of IDW a trailer I made for Tribes. And he wanted to go from there. That’s how it happened, but that doesn’t mean I’m an imprint. It’s a matter of managing book-by-book, project-by-project, finding a publisher. It’s a lot of pressure on you. But it allows for a degree of flexibility. Not easy, but it’s what I’m doing.
So yeah, in some ways it’s the perfect era to be an independent. Distribution is obviously very important. And with comics, it’s about getting into Previews and so forth. It helps to have a company like IDW because retailers know they’ll get the book and get it on time. I’ve heard that from a few of them and there are a lot of mistakes with them, in terms of printing errors and not getting books out on time. But IDW is known for quality and getting books out on time. I know they’ll be responsible to retailers.
I’m hopeful they’ll increase their market and marketing efforts over all. That’s something I’m looking forward to. They just brought in a great guy from Dark Horse to do their marketing.
TFT: How did you come to collaborate with Inaki on Tribes?
MG: I saw one image. One image. I saw a cover of the second trade paperback of something called The Lexian Chronicles. And I knew that’s what I was looking for. Inaki has a great balance between detail and design. That’s what I was looking for. And I love his lines. There’s a European sense of design and elegance to it.
I find a lot of American comics, the detail is overdone and there’s not enough design, or it’s all scratchy and crosshatchy, the angles are sharp and the lines aren’t elegant.
TFT: Inaki, what did you draw on for inspiration in your work on Tribes?
IM: My first focus was getting inside Mike’s head and understanding what he wanted Tribes to look like, once I had that, then it was about having fun with my own visual ideas. So there is a big part of the art that comes from what Mike envisioned and there’s another big part that comes from what I envisioned.
I’m a big classic Star Wars fan, I love how that trilogy managed to find the perfect balance of bold ideas and classic feel, design wise I mean. And that’s what I look for in my artwork, so in that sense I have to say that Star Wars is a constant inspiration in everything I do. One fun example of this is Skunktail…my inspiration for that character was totally R2-D2.
My visual goal was to bring a sense of pop art culture to the designs while making them look primitive, and then find a balance between the beauty of wild nature with the decay of a technological civilization. I was also a big fan of Logan’s Run when being a kid… one of the aspects that I love about Tribes is that it has these road movie elements, maybe more like a classic sci-fi and adventure story, like Planet of the Apes or Alan Quatermain, or Flash Gordon, or those pulp sci-fi novels from past decades where you had this feeling of discovering new worlds. The world Tribes moves through is full of undiscovered cultures and places, to me that’s just thrilling.
TFT: What is like working on a comic in a foreign language? What are the story telling challenges involved?
IM: Truth is I don’t know any other way. I never worked over a script in Spanish, I started working on Judge Dredd for 2000AD in UK, and now I’m working for the US comic scene, so I’m totally used to it. I spent a part of my childhood in California, so though my English is far from perfect, I make do well enough to read the scripts and discuss breakdowns with my editors. So there’re really no big challenges that can affect the storytelling because of that.
TFT: How do the plot and story themes of the series translate visually?
IM: Most of what I’ve said above answers this question I guess. There’s one more aspect though that’s also important. Everything I drew in Tribes needed to transmit a feeling of history, of a past life. The backgrounds had to show that they belonged to a different reality, with a different purpose. The characters had to be stepping a world they didn’t create or understand. I think there’s a magic to it that I tried to capture in the visuals. Everything had to be worn out, but it was very important to me that even if they were stained, I had to make them look cool and colorful. The characters for example, I wanted them not to be wearing clothes, but costumes, without the reader feeling that it was costumes, but instead practical clothes made from pieces of a past civilization (ours).
Also, in terms of the plot I found that the book can be divided in two visual stages, the first one is more primitive and wild, this one ends with them escaping the head hunter’s camp, From there on we start seeing more of the past technological society in the settings. As they start to relearn and claim what was once theirs.
TFT: Mike, what drew you to being interested in these tribal concepts? What drew you to the idea of making up a new ethnography?
MG: I’m interested in anthropology and how these societies develop. How we forge identities in our relationships with other people and our surroundings. You can see in the Middle East how clans are so prevalent and important, really. I’m fascinated with units and how things organize themselves and how to keep that cohesion with organization. And that’s the history of civilization. We have our nation-states which is how we organize things. The idea is that society collapses, but how do you rebuild it? There are a certain number of generations, but maybe there’s something beyond this tribal unit? In this case, it’s the quest. The virus and the nanounit.
TFT: One of my favorite parts of the book: we see a flashback to the early days of the plague and we see this war between factions starting up in the children of the world. Will we see more of the stages between the outbreak and where we are in the book?
MG: There are flashback to the civil wars, which is the immediate aftermath of the virus, in Los Angeles—where it’s centered. And there’s the scientist who talks about how it happened. But yes, we’ll explore more of that (backstory). The folk tales and folk songs that have emerged from some of the different events. But I wanted to jump ahead because it’s more interesting to show things once the tribal civilization has been established and how that would work.
TFT: That scene where they’re storming Dodger Stadium. It’s like the Illiad.
MG: Absolutely, it’s epic. I wanted to think big. That’s the culminating battle of the Kid Wars, when the killers swarm Dodger Stadium. And that settled the battle for Los Angeles for ten or fifteen years. From 2038 to 2050. We’ve come up with some stories about the Hollywood Kid Wars, which is the immediate aftermath, which shows what happens after the virus.
TFT (phone buzzes, fumbling): Ah fuck! You were saying about the Hollywood Kid Wars?
MG: To come up with a whole storyline about the rise of Jonathan X, this character who decides he won’t flee Los Angeles, won’t flee the chaos, but will stick around Dodger Stadium and turn on the lights because he’s inspired by this girl, to stick around and fight for something that means something. He won’t flee north where there’s water—he decides to stay. We came up with this story around Fort Italy and we came up with the character: how does he become Jonathan X. How does he become this leader? He puts the lights back on at Dodger Stadium. We definitely have some cool ideas, but we just needed to know how to do that: is it a series? Is it a one-shot? We’re not sure. We want to do Tribes II, so should I focus on the Kid Wars or get to Tribes II?
TFT: Inaki, was it challenging, or uncomfortable to draw scenes of terrible violence being acted out by children?
IM: It was fun and challenging! I think it makes the characters so much powerful and multidimensional; the scene where Sundog and Adams meet the headhunters for the first time was fantastic to draw, because suddenly you find that this kid doesn’t even blink when it comes to killing another human being for survival. But the way I drew them, with a cartoon touch, made the images of violence powerful as an art form and at the same time less disturbing. Eva’s beautiful colors played a huge part in this, she was able to keep everything like if it was a Pixar movie. Paul Pope said that Tribes was like Mad Max by the way of Disney, I think that’s a very smart way to put it.
The idea of kids having to kill for survival opens the door to a rich conglomeration of feelings that you have to show in their acting. I loved making them act, because in one moment Sundog was this thirteen years old kid with all his innocence and inner world to discover and at the next second he would totally transform into a wild animal, a perfect killing machine. I found that really cool, and it makes absolute sense in their world. This clash of age, morals and laws of nature leads the reader to a complex discussion about the human nature. That’s the magic Mike Geszel and Peter Spinetta brought to the table with Tribes, they created this highly entertaining adventure world, but at the same time rooted to a disturbing and raw social reality.
TFT: We’ve seen a wide variety of landscapes in Volume 1 of Tribes, and seen a fair amount of the world. What can we expect from upcoming volumes of the series visually and how will the styles be different from volume to volume?
IM: I haven’t read the script for Volume 2 yet, so I don’t know what we can expect in terms of settings. Mike and I have talked many times about the world of Tribes and we always end up excited about how infinite it is in terms of stories and visuals. I’m all about jumping to different settings and visuals every time to keep the eye curious and excited… that’s why I designed new costumes for them at the end of the book. I’m totally dying to draw them moving around in their new designs. And I just can’t wait to find out what they’ll do with the new vehicle and those new guns…I mean Sundog with a rifle? That I have to see!
In terms of style, I hope my art gets better from book to book and this ends up translating into showing an evolution in the characters, as the experiences they live make them grow up internally.
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