I’ve loved comic strips for a long time, going back to the early days of Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side. These days it’s Pearls Before Swine, Zits, Over The Hedge, Dilbert, and Frazz (which is brilliant, but not that well-known). Absurd and insightful, my favorite comics are always that perfect blend of what is true and what is truly ridiculous.
I’d wanted to write one for a long time, but the tragic reality is that I possess slightly less than zero artistic talent. Okay, okay… significantly less than zero artistic talent. Lacking any way around that stumbling block, I set the dream aside and moved on to pursue others. One thing I’ve never lacked for is pipe dreams to chase after.
Then several years ago, I read an early draft of a YA novel written by Tom Barker. He lives in the same city in North Carolina that I do, and we ended up in a writing group together for a couple of years. The thing that impressed me most about Tom’s novel was the artwork. Tom had illustrated his own novel, and done an amazing job of it. Not that the story wasn’t good (it was), but the art was fantastic.
But, as with so many other things in life, that moment came and went. I loved Tom’s art, but didn’t think any further about it.
Flash forward to the beginning of 2010 — maybe January, maybe February; I don’t recall. What I do recall was sitting on a heating pad, trying to assuage an ailing back, all the while reading a book about ghost hunting. With all due respect to legitimate ghost hunters everywhere, this book struck me as particularly funny. I think I reacted that way because the author was trying sooo hard to be serious about the subject. Every page I turned just felt like more fodder for comedy.
I’m not sure why, but suddenly a lot of previously unrelated pieces began clicking into place. This wasn’t just fodder for comedy, this was ideal material for a comic strip. And Tom Barker would be the perfect person to do the artwork. And because the strip would be about paranormal investigators, the science fiction magazine I edit, InterGalactic Medicine Show would be the perfect place to showcase it. And because IGMS was about to relaunch with a new look and new features, this was the perfect time for it. Bang, bang, bang — it was all there: a comic strip following the adventures, misadventures, and self-inflicted mayhem of a pair of paranormal investigators. Their names would be Mike Dedd and Julia Gohn, so I could call the strip Dedd & Gohn. These characters are in their late twenties and have been ghost hunting for several years. They met in college, are in love, and plan to be married someday.
See? Never a shortage of pipe dreams.
And to make things challenging, this dream depended on my getting other people on board the pipedream express with me
But what fun is a pipe dream if it’s not challenging? All I had to do was talk Tom Barker and Orson Scott Card (the publisher of IGMS) into it.
Piece of cake. This was an idea whose time had arrived. And even if it wasn’t, I was going to make it arrive.
Tom was on board pretty quickly. The minute I pitched him the idea, he was excited (always a good sign). It turned out that just as I had always been interested in writing a strip, but knew I needed help with the illustrations, Tom had always been interested in drawing one, but wasn’t sure he could sustain the comedy on the writing side. It was like peanut butter meeting jelly for the first time: two parts that were meant to be together.
Orson was another matter. Not that he was negative on the idea; I just knew I needed solid samples to show him before I even brought the idea up. He wasn’t going to let me put something new in his magazine just because I was editing it; I was going to have to prove to him that I could do this, and do it well.
So I started writing, and Tom started doodling. We’d meet for lunch; I would show him sample scripts, and he would show me character designs. I suggested tweaks for his art, he suggested tweaks for my dialogue (I was too wordy at first, and Tom struggled to make the characters look like the same person when he changed views from head-on to profile). We got better. We created rough drafts. Tom further tightened my dialogue, and I told him to “draw better” (really, I wasn’t much help there; I’m not kidding when I say I have no artistic ability).
For a time, I made a concerted study of what made comics funny. True, I had wanted to do this for a long time, but wanting to do something and knowing how to do it are not the same. So I studied strips I thought were funny, trying to find patterns. I read creator’s websites, trying to glean tips and tricks. I wrote bad scripts and tried to turn them into something serviceable. It was an enjoyable time. I enjoy the process of learning new things, and this fit that bill nicely. And of course you never mind putting a lot of hours into a project when you’re it’s a project of your own choosing.
One of the key points I learned from studying successful comics is that the humor usually came more out of the character’s personalities than it did out of situations. It was the character’s reaction to the wacky situation that was the true source of the humor. And most of the characters (whether they were the main characters or just characters who were passing through) were archetypes; we knew and recognized them right away. That’s where the truth of those characters became vital.
The characters in Dedd & Gohn are still growing and developing (as is the artwork), which is to be expected in the early stages. But if asked right now, I’d say this is what I know about my characters:
- Mike is a twenty-eight year old who hasn’t grown up yet. He still lives at home, which drives his dad crazy, but makes his mom very happy. He is business-minded, always looking for the angle that will lead to the perfect get-rich quick scheme, and he’s also more than willing to eat anything that might even remotely be considered food.
- Julia is analytical, always pushing the boundaries with her myriad of inventions, not one of which has ever worked as planned. She loves to go shopping and is equally at home at the mall looking at shoes or in a hardware store looking at power tools. She is much more grounded than Mike, but recognizes that she needs him to keep her from being so serious as to never enjoy life.
Basically, Mike is a slacker, and Julia is a classic over-achiever. They are the perfect Yin and Yang for each other.
Aside from developing the characters, the part of the process that I found – and still find, to this day – to be the most challenging about writing this strip is getting the language just right. In one respect, writing a comic strip can be compared to writing poetry, because you have very few words to convey exactly what you’re trying to convey. Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that writing comics is like writing poetry, except to say that with both forms, the nuances become incredibly important and there’s no margin for error. Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bugs.” That’s good advice for any writer, but it becomes like a mantra when writing comics.
After several weeks of going back and forth, Tom and I finally felt like we had samples that were ready to show people. We started with friends and family, and worked our way up from there. Feedback was positive. I was happy to receive Orson’s blessing on the project, but I knew I had something good when my fourteen year old daughter asked for copies of the samples to show her friends at school. She’s a tough critic, at a tough age to impress; if it was good enough for a troop of fourteen year olds, it was good enough.
So that’s how it all began. Today, three comics strips per week in InterGalactic Medicine Show; tomorrow, the world.