Self-published by an artist who had never moved far beyond the world of minis, no one really expected too much from Tom Neely’s The Blot. When the book finally made its way to critics’ mailboxes, we were greeted with a wonderfully surrealist story highlighted by Neely’s unique blend of pre-war cartooning and mid-century fine art.
The book ended up on several year-end lists, while its compellingly perplexing storyline has been subject to a broad range of creative interpretations. Fitting, given that, as Neely readily admitted in the first part of our interview, not even he was quite sure what it all meant.
In the second of our three part interview, we get down to business and discuss the process of self-publishing, why he turned down a deal from Top Shelf, and how Neely’s cartooning skills pay the cardstock bills.
How closely did you plot out The Blot before you sat down to draw it?
I had these little ideas of vignettes for different stories, and originally I thought that it might actually be a collection of short stories. I intended the first chapter to be sort of an opening that could be continued, but would stand on its own. At that point I thought it would be a series of short stories, based on different paintings that I had been doing. But then I had the idea of tying them altogether, so I sat down and wrote a plot. I ended up writing the whole thing out, before I actually started drawing it.
Did it evolve as you were drawing it, or did it remain pretty true to that original plotting?
It stayed pretty true, but I like to keeping the plotting process a bit open so I can make changes as I go and let it evolve, a bit, but the overall process stayed pretty much the same.
There’s a pretty big jump from doing minis to something that’s 180 pages. At what point was it clear that this was going to be your first graphic novel?
I was always planning on doing a longer work, but wasn’ sure if it was going to be several short stories combined, or what it became. I had been writing them, and then at APE 2005, I gave the mini-comic of the first chapter to Brett Warnock [of Top Shelf], and he loved it. He came by and wanted to talk about them doing it, and wanted to see if there was more. I started talking to them, and they wanted to publish it, either as the standalone first chapter, or as a full book. I had already pretty much plotted it out, but then I sat down and thumbnailed the whole thing in my sketchbook, as a manuscript. I took that to them.
For a while Top Shelf was going to publish it, but at some point during those discussions, I decided that, because of the personal nature of the book, I really wanted to self-publish it. So I pulled out of that deal and ended up doing it myself. It was a big leap to go from self-publishing mini-comics to self-publishing a real book, but at the same time, I never really liked doing the whole self-published Xerox mini thing anyway. I wanted to eventually be doing books. The interest from Top Shelf gave me the encouragement to make the leap.
What does the process entail? What are the logistics, once the creative process is done and you have to get down to the business of things like picking paperstock?
I have friends who have been doing it for a while. Dylan Williams, who does Sparkplug Comics is a good friend of mine, so he helped a lot. Jordan Crane helped me a bit with doing the layout and the color imaging. I got a few quotes from a few different printers, and once I decided on one, I talked to them about different paperstocks. Because I had so many different graphic novels, I’d say, “I like the paperstock on this Dan Clowes comic. We’ll use that.”
That stuff really went a lot smoother than I expected. I was really a bit intimidated by the process, but I ended up being really happy with the way that it printed out. I had specific ideas about things like the coverstock. I wanted it to feel like the watercolor paper that I paint and draw on.
Doing the belly band was really my last idea, because I was designing the cover, and I really didn’t like the idea of putting the title and the barcode over the cover paintings, so I did the belly band. I think it looks great, but it’s kind of a pain in the ass for stores. It’s annoying when I walk into a store and see that a copy of the book is missing a belly band, or it’s all ripped or something. I don’t know if I’ll be doing belly bands again. I like the look of them, but they’re just kind of a pain.
But you’ll definitely be self-publishing again?
I’m not sure. I’ve enjoyed it. I like the way it came out and liked having control over my project, but I’m also open to doing it with someone else. I’ve actually been talking to a book agent who’s really interested in getting me a book deal. But we’ll see.
I imagine that, in terms of your demands for things like the cardstock or the barcode, the first book is the most difficult one to try to convince people to do things your way.
Yeah. It was at first, but I had specific ideas of what I wanted, so it ended up coming out pretty smoothly. It was nerve-wracking hoping that it would come out right, because I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories from people whose books didn’t come out right.
And you’re certainly not in a place to negotiate with the publisher on your first book.
Oh yeah, no. But it just came down to money on some of those things. Originally I just wanted to have the French flap things on the cover, but that ended up costing too much, so I cut that out. There were certain things that I had to cut out for budgetary reasons. But that was part of the reason that I wanted to self-publish, so that I would have that kind of control, so I wouldn’t have anyone telling me what I could and couldn’t do, like using color on ten pages of the book. Some publishers might not have wanted to take that chance on an unknown like me. That’s an extra expense, but that’s something that I could do in the end.
Where’s your own funding coming from? Do you have a job that you go to every day?
I work at home. I do freelance work in animation. I used to work at Disney. Something that came out of grad school was disillusionment with the art world. I decided that I wanted to get a commercial art job, so I taught myself animation and luckily had a friend who was working at Disney Online, so I got a job there doing Flash animation and Web cartoons for their sites. After working there for two years, I decided to leave and do freelance. I still do most of my freelance stuff for Disney, but I’ve also done some stuff for Nickelodeon and done a little bit of stuff for TV.
So it’s not too far removed from your cartooning?
Not too, too much, except that it’s mostly all computer animation, and when I do the comics, I try to keep computers out of it, as much as possibly, so I can keep that seperation, which is nice.
You’ve got a very clearly defined style in The Blot. Would someone watching one of the cartoons that you worked on recognize it as being a product of yours?
No, no, not at all. It has to be strictly style guide. Every character that Disney has there’s a book of rules about how they have to be drawn. They don’t allow for any deviation. I did do a couple of independent cartoons on my own, a couple of years back, which have a similar style to The Blot, but are a little more refined because they’re computer images. I did an anti-Bush cartoon, back in 2004, and then did a music video. They’re both Max Fleischer/Betty Boop-style cartoons.
[Concluded in Part Three].