Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Fireside Chat with Colin Bell

It's time for another Fireside Chat, as we sit down with writer Colin Bell co-creator of fan favourite web comics series 'Jonbot VS Martha' & 'Detective Space Cat'. Colin was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to me, and his fellow creator Matthew Meylikhov jumped in to field some questions too. So sit down and get comfortable as we continue after the jump. *WARNING this interview contains high levels of hilarity and puns*

Colin Bell is a Glasgow-based writer who contributes to various comic news websites. He is the Co-Creator of 'Jonbot VS Martha' and Co-Writer of 'Detective Space Cat'. His favourite foodstuffs are Chicken Chargrills and condensed milk. Not together though, that would be rank.

William Tournas: First off. Jonbot VS Martha, who came up with the idea? Was it always going to be a webcomic?

Colin Bell: Jonbot Vs Martha only ever happened because I wanted to do something with my pal Neil Slorance, as I'd been a fan of his art forever and selfishly wanted to see what a regular comic by him would look like. Once he'd tentatively agreed to do something with me, I then tailored the idea of Jonbot Vs Martha for him because he loves drawing robots and has a real knack for getting across really poignant stuff in a deceptively simplistic manner. So, I came up with the idea, but it was heavily informed by and built around Neil's strengths as an artist.

WT: How long did it take you guys to come up with that catchy Title Sequence?

Colin: About as long as you'd probably think? Certainly not as long as the two put-upon friends that recorded actual musical versions of the theme spent on it. True story: the inspiration for the Title Sequence came from a Benito Cereno/Nate Bellgarde back-up in a really early issue of Invincible, when they did a kind of theme tune/rhyming verse about their character Deep Fried Monkey. I thought, "I want to do that some day." And now here we are, I'm being interviewed. Thanks, Robert Kirkman!

WT: How far in advance did you have strips plotted out?

Colin: It varied heavily - when the strip first started, it was only ever meant to be a gag-of-the-week-who'll-come-out-on-top-this-time affair, and so the first few were short, one-off, pithy punchy things - I wanted to emulate the adverserial nature of The Lonliest Astronauts or the lo-fi nihilistic laughs of Kreepy Kat, but then we introduced Jon and Martha's kid... and then my wife and I had a kid... and it softened, and it opened up, and there was scope to go deeper, and so we did.

We started planning longer, sometimes strips would be two-parters, three-parters, unecessarily overlong six-part Christmas specials because we thought it would be funny if our Christmas special started in November and ended in January (it wasn't really). But we kept it loose - one week Neil wanted to write a story ("Building Kick") and that ended up with me running with the idea and spinning it into an art-jam with five different artists two weeks later ( And can we talk about how Michael Walsh, who contributed the last panel of that strip, now draws the freaking X-Files comic? Come on!

I'm digressing.

I think my answer is: it was loose. We knew the tentpoles, the plot points or gags we wanted to hit, but we just freewheeled the bits inbetween - the now infamous "Beard Saga" came about because I wanted Jonbot to have an arch-nemesis that looked like him but with a beard, and Neil wanted Jonbot to transform into the power-loader from Aliens. Put the two together, and you ended up with a five-monthish webcomic epic of frequently ridiculous proportions.

WT: Did storylines ever change from what they were originally going to be?

Colin: Frequently! Like I said, the art-jam came about at the last minute, and I think if you read the "second season" you can definitely tell that it's a wee bit truncated - we rattle through ideas week after week like nobody's business. This was mainly due to us both getting a bit run down by the weekly grind and deciding to bring things to as natural a conclusion as a comic strip about a divorcing robot would allow.

WT: The April Fools Strips. They had me in Hysterics. I think each one has out done the other. Who thought them up?

Colin: That's on me, I'm afraid. Neil was always busy enough without me begging him for a second strip in a week, so it made sense just to work a quick bit of photoshop magic and stick a sombrero/Jon Bon Jovi's head on Jonbot... WITH HILARIOUS RESULTS.

Actually, if memory serves I think this year's one (Jon Bon Vs Martha) came about because my cousin emailed me once saying "is Jonbot going to fight Jon Bon Jovi" and I thought "I'm having that." Inspiration can come from anywhere, kids! Even outright plagiarism!

WT: Favourite Strips?

Colin: Top five, no order:

1. Do Jonbots Dream of Electric Sheep? A: No - An all-star line-up of guest artists (Dave Stokes, George Marston, Ramon Villalobos, Iain Laurie and Michael Walsh) gave Neil the week off and me the logistical challenge of a career when I had to assemble five random panels into some kind of story. I just remember sitting on my birthday putting it together and thinking how lucky I was to be working on a comic not only with a great friend, but also being able to get other artists whose work I loved to buy into it as well.

2. Interlude - Out of the blue Neil decides to throw some greytones over the strip and the audience eat it up. At the same time, they're also saying "where's Jonbot and Martha? What the hell is happening?" My favourite kind of reaction.

3. Meme a Little Meme of Me - I saw this Meme-Meme challenge: and dared Neil to do it. Instead he drew it into a strip and basically single-handedly wrote one of our funniest strips.

4. Gill Hatcher's Guest Strip: MARTHA! - When Neil and I took a month off we left the strip in good hands - none better than Team Girl Comic founder Gill Hatcher, who gave Martha some much-deserved love in her own solo spin-off strip. As a rule, people who read the strip generally hated Martha, which was never our intention, so it was nice to see someone cared.

5. It's Nothing Personal -  This is kind of like "Interlude" because it just throws the reader in the mix with no context, but I think the ending is probably the best and most dramatic thing we did in all Jonbot Vs Martha history.

Though if you were to ask the fans, they'd probably say Night Moves. You wouldn't believe how many people have came up to Neil and I and said "I love that one where Jonbot f*cks a blender!"

WT: Book 2 of the series ended on a major cliffhanger. I know you mentioned that you wanted to bring the series to as natural a conclusion as you could, but will there ever be a Book 3?

Colin: I suppose there must be some part of me that wants to return to it, otherwise I would've put "The End" on the last strip instead of "End of Book Two". That said, and SPOILER ALERT our main cast were blown up causing our protagonist to go back in time and prevent himself from ever existing, thus negating the whole strip END SPOILERS. So in that sense, there's not much to go back to.

There's at least one lingering mystery that we set up early on that we never properly addressed, and Neil and I have had the occasional nostalgic conversation about rebooting the whole thing, but at present there are No Plans. Ever looking forward, we're concentrating on the New Thing.

WT: Will the series ever be collected in a trade format? I know I want one!

Colin: I genuinely feel a bit weird about selling people stuff that's online for nothing. I know that the market's ever-changing and there's plenty of books that do this, but I just think if someone wants to read it, they can pick up their phones, computers, tablets, whatever and look at it.

Maybe if we become super famous and we need some fast cash.
WT: Well I certainly was longing for new JBVSM (that sounds dirty for some reason), but am glad that it came to a natural close!

Given that JBVSM has been out on the internet for awhile, how does it feel when someone mentions it out of the blue to you? I know for me, it's kinda cool when someone says they read something I wrote.

Colin: It doesn't happen too often, but when it does it's undoubtedly mega-nice, once I get past the self-effacing, kneejerk "really?" voice in my head.

As it happens, this week Neil and I were contacted by a chap from Russia who wanted to translate it to his native tongue. That's uberflattering. How can you refuse a request like that? So please, go check out Джонбот против Марты here: Don't go in the forums though, it doesn't seem to be going down too well.

WT: I believe that Neil and you have something in the works. Can you tell me more about that?

Colin: Yes! Like a phoenix, Team Jonbot have risen from the ashes and shed our skin like a snake to become... Team Dungeon Fun!

Dungeon Fun is the story of a girl and her sword, an ode to dungeon-crawling videogames, and the best thing Neil and I have done to date. If you like any of the following, we guarantee you'll like it: swordplay, humour, monsters, fun, dungeons, cuteness, epic adventure, wizards, comics, Batman.

We're busy at work putting it together, but we hope to be selling it at this year's Thought Bubble. Here's some preview art!

WT: Alright, let's get straight to the cat biscuits. Detective Space Cat. How did this amazingly sexy noir feline come about? I read it was originally a joke?

Colin: Some would say it continues to be a joke... I'm going to bring my partner-in-Spacecat Matt Meylikhov in to field this!

Matt Meylikhov: It still is a joke. What are we talking about here?

Detective Space Cat was birthed out of the necessity for an April Fool's Day gag on Multiversity Comics (dot com!) during the 11th hour back on May 31st, 2011. Despite sometimes thinking of myself as a funny chap, I generally forget April Fool's Day despite wanting to have something clever on the website every year. So in 2011, after once again forgetting about it, I called up Super Awesome Friend Man Joe Eisma and said, "Hey, can you draw something for me real quick?" And when he inquired as to what, I just said the first three words that came to my mind: Detective. Space. Cat. The rest, as they say, is history.

Or, well, I guess that was the history, wasn't it?

Colin: It's the history up to the point where a year later you emailed me and asked if I wanted to write a webcomic based on the guy and got the hyper-talented Nina Cadman in to draw it, sure.

WT: No theme song this time round?

Matt: I think the theme song to Detective Space Cat is the sounds of a lone saxophone playing out a slow and tender tune over some Vangelis-esque synth, played on the fire exit of some decrepit and worn-down building whilst Space walks along the street with a terrible hangover and an urge to kill the saxophone player.

Hopefully someone can make that real someday.

Colin: I recorded a Detective Space Cat theme tune once, but then my tapes went missing. Next thing I know, Kanye's dropped Yeezus. Coincidence? You be the jury.

WT: How is it writing the comic alongside someone else? Easier to plot ideas out?

Matt: I think so. The original solo pitch for what DSC was supposed to be was rather ... awful, in retrospect. Having someone to toss ideas back and forth with makes it easier to have good ideas, and we agree on just about everything. That which we do not agree upon usually gets saved for later use.

Right now, though, we have our first endgame in sight curated between some nicely written documents that lay out generally what we want to do, and all of the individual scripts are kicked back and forth between us for thumbs up and thumbs down. Mostly thumbs up.

Colin: It certainly eliminates the neurotic "I don't know if this is any good" that I can stumble upon when writing solo, because we're just bouncing stuff off each other and it makes the process - dare I say it - fun?

And if we don't both thumbs up an idea, we take it in turns to letter the strip so there's always the opportunity to just sneak stuff that's been shot down by the other person in when they're not looking. What? I said it.

WT: Each new strip seems to outdo the other in outrageousness. How do you keep this going?

Matt: Alcohol. Lots and lots and lots of alcohol. The magic thing about writing a character who is an alcoholic detective is that to get into his mindset you only need to drink. You don't even have to do any actual detective work! He certainly doesn't...

I don't think there's a real trick to it or anything. We just sort of run with it. Not to get too into craft and process in a comic about a cat in space but we write each page individually as if that may be the only thing anyone ever reads whilst using whatever momentum came from the strip before against a specific amount of pages we want to dedicate to a given scene in order to actually do ... whatever it is we do. So that may be the real answer to the question. That and alcohol.

Then of course we throw it all away and just make it up as we go.

Colin: There tends to be one lead writer at a time - Matt'll take a first draft at five pages, I'll take the first draft of the next five, or we'll split it scene by scene; and there's definitely a sense of one-upmanship that comes into play, at least on my part anyway. "Matt's done these pages and they're hilarious, how am I going to better him?", that kind of thing. He makes a hilarious joke about Space's drink problem, I make a riotous gag about his drug problem. He gives Space a knife, I give Space a gun. That's the Chicago way. And so on until we reach TERMINAL HILARITY.

WT: Haha! Okay no Theme Song, but I do like the fact that you've added a voice cast. Any reasoning in you choices?

Colin: This was all Matt...

Matt: The voice cast thing is two-fold, I guess. The first is in a chat I had with Ryan Browne when he talked about giving his comic GOD HATES ASTRONAUTS a voice cast (after Rob Schrab and SCUD). The second is that I read this strip: after writing it/lettering it and thought, "Oh my god, Space is voiced by H. Jon Benjamin!" It just kind of happened.

Everyone else sort of filmed themselves in.

WT: I noticed this week you were asked to provide a mixtape based around the comic. Does Music play a lot into how you work?

Colin: The playlist was more for funsies than anything else. Do I listen to music while I work? Sure, with a headphone in one ear so as to not wake Mrs Bell, and the other ear on the baby monitor. Does the music inform what I write? Not particularly. Matt?

Matt: Not for me, no. Maybe at first; when I originally wrote the first five pages of Detective Space Cat I had the Vangelis Blade Runner soundtrack on repeat to put me in the mood, but since then I either write to silence or something instrumental. But this may be a better question for Colin since he put the mix together. Colin?

Colin: I just answered this Matthew! It's like we're not even in the same room!

WT: Alcohol of choice? For yourself and the good Feline Detective?

Colin: I think Space would drink a White Russian. Because: milk. Personally I'll take a couple of Innis and Gunns and then get on the vodka tonics, thanks very much.

Matt: Mmmm... I used to love this disgusting thing called AFTER SHOCK , which is this crazy cinnamon syrupy monstrosity that had rock candy at the bottom and has led to all sorts of events in my life that are probably more bad then good. Some good. Now I'll usually enjoy a Jack and coke or something, or whatever has a cool name.

Space will drink whatever he can get his paws on. He's an alcoholic.

WT: I do love the Noir feel of the book. It feels slightly Batman: The Animated Series but lighter, and in space. Is that the look you were going for?

Matt: Interesting comparison, although no. I can see that comparison now that you mention it, though. We should probably steal it and use it as a marketing tool.

For me, DSC is about riffing on my favorite films -- Le Samourai, Sweet Smell of Success (Jeisma is a not-so-blatant J. J. Hunsecker riff), Pickup on South Street, Chinatown that sort of thing. Lotsa Chinatown, actually, if Chinatown had a cat in space. Just taking tropes and then flipping them on their head, though I try not to do too much that's reliant on parody if possible (just the Jeisma sequence -- that's 50% parody).

Colin: I don't think we specified a "look" or "feel" when we started, we were just incredible fortunate to have the super-talented Nina Cadman take our strips of cat-pooping-in-litter-box jokes and weave them into something more than we could have possibly hope for. Because as funny as we think we are, without Nina's art to sell it we'd be dead in the water. The INTERNET water, the worst water to be in.

WT: Do you have a list of cat puns on hand ready to use?

Matt: Yes, and we've used all but one because I'm not allowed to use the one because Colin hates it.

Colin: ... I feel like everyone's waiting on me to drop a cat pun as some kind of punchline here. I'd be lion if I said I'd prepared one.

WT: Oh Colin, that was hissterical. You amewse me.

Colin: Thanks! Sometimes I feel I should try a litter harder with the puns.

WT: Any plans for future guest strips or another jam piece? The last one was Pawesome.

Matt: I think we'd both like to do it, it's just a matter of working it into the story. We lucked out the first time that so many awesome artists wanted to jam with us and we had an opportunity to drug space. We both have this road map-esque thing for the end game of Book One that I don't know if we can fit it in... But we definitely have a certain idea that has been kicked around.

Spoiler alert: it's be pretty cool if we can pull it off.

Colin: Did you actually just say "it's be pretty cool"? That first one would be pretty hard to beat, but I think we're up to the challenge. Talented artists please apply within!

WT: What can you reveal about the future of Detective Space Cat? More Puns? More sexy Noir Action? More Thrills? Tell me meow!

Colin & Matt: More space jammin'.

Colin: Jinx! But seriously: all of the above. Stay tuned, cat-fans!

WT: It's been a great pleasure talking to you gents. Thanks for taking the time out for the interview.

Jonbot VS Martha can be read in it's entirety here:
Detective Space Cat can be read here and is updated Wednesday's:

Colin will be attending the Thought Bubble festival in Leeds with Neil and showcasing their new series Dungeon Fun. Be sure to check it out. It's running from the 17th - 24th of November.

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