Released in 2007, The Blot easily made my year-end top 10. The largely silent book was steeped in certain comics traditions, owing a lot to the works of pioneers like EC Segar, while managing to be something entirely its own. And as far as most of us were concerned at the time, its author, Tom Neely came seeming out of nowhere.
It’s taken a few years for the cartoonist to issue a proper follow up, finally releasing the self-published The Wolf this summer. Of course Neely has kept plenty busy, through a slew of minis, design work, and collaborations—perhaps most notably the Igloo Tornado Rollins/Danzig tribute, Henry & Glenn Forever.
We sat down with Neely to discuss the genesis of his latest book, the importance of imagery, and taking long walks in the forest.
I tend to pace around during interviews, so if I start to sound bad, let me know and I’ll go back indoors.
Is that how you think?
I guess so. My studio is in my garage in my backyard, and I’ve also got an office inside my house, so when I’m talking to somebody, I tend to walk around in the backyard in circles, or back and forth between the office and the studio.
Do you do a lot of pacing when you’re working on things? Do you tend to get up and move around a lot?
It seems like it, yeah. I do some of my best thinking when I go running or hiking. When I’m working on a story, I’ll usually go to Griffith Park nearby and then go back and get to work. Maybe I do think better when I’m moving.
LA isn’t really urban in the way a lot of other cities are. You can find nature not too far away.
Yeah, that’s the best part of it. We’re about a mile or half a mile from Griffith Park, which is like out Central Park. It’s nice and hilly and there’s a lot of good hiking there. And then, a couple of miles in the other direction, you’ve got the Angeles National Forest. It’s got tons of hiking. Theoretically the beach is nearby. It’s technically only ten miles from where I’m at, but with our highways, it takes about an hour and a half to get there. I rarely make it out to the beach, but I should.
You don’t seem like a beachgoer—maybe it’s just that I don’t expect that most cartoonists are beachgoers…
Yeah [laughs]. I like Northern California beaches better because they’re rocky and cold. I’m not really a sunbathing beach person.
There are elements of nature in the [The Wolf]. Are you drawing inspiration from the natural world when you go on these hikes?
Yeah. I definitely get a lot of that. It’s only been more in my adult life that I do a lot of hiking. We do that a lot now, going hiking and camping. I grew up in a small country town in Texas, so I was around a lot of nature then, but when I was a kid, I had a lot of allergies, and really didn’t get to enjoy it as much. Now that I’m out here and live in a big city, I start crave being out where there are no buildings a lot more, so we try to get away for the weekend. We’re always more likely to go camping than to go to another big city, which is the opposite of what it was when I was growing up in a small town. All I wanted to do was go to big cities. It’s reversed now.
When you’re traveling for work, you’re usually going to big cities.
That too, yeah. And that takes up a lot of my travel time. So it’s nice to be not too far from nature here.
Has that relatively new interest in nature had an affect on your work?
Yeah, definitely. It creeps its way in there. Plus drawing trees is a lot more fun than drawing buildings. Trees are abstract. Buildings are too technical and less fun to draw.
The Blot and The Wolf both feel as though they grew from a single image. Is that how these books tend to develop?
Yeah. Both started as a series of paintings or drawings that I was working on. The Wolf started at an art show about a month after The Blot came out. It was my first solo show, and it had all of these sexual, pornographic werewolf paintings. That’s kind of where the book started. As I began to feel a story come out of it, it changed a lot from those original paintings. It kept evolving into something else.
I’ll have an idea of a certain character or these images. With The Blot, I had an idea of an ink blot and it just kind of grew into a story. And then about the time that I finished The Blot, I kept drawing this wolf-headed creature in my sketchbook and then made these paintings. I didn’t really know where it was coming from, but I just kind of went with it, and it evolved into something more.
I’m not sure where all of the ideas come from, but they often start with an image that I then try to figure out what’s going on in, and then the story will go from there.
Are you ever taken aback by your own images? Like a drawing of a pornographic wolf?
No, not really, I usually have an idea of where it’s going, but I just evolve it as I go along. When I started on that series of paintings, I was exploring some ideas about sex, but also looking a lot of figurative painting by people like Lucian Freud and Egon Schiele. It’s stuff that I’ve always admitted. I was working with those ideas and sometimes working with a formalist structure of the canvas, working with these body parts and figures. The original idea was exploring sexuality and masculinity and symbolism of werewolf lore.
I was playing with those ideas, but then it started evolving into something more. I started to figure out that this character could stand for something, and then I pushed it in that direction. I let the story unfold itself as I went along. That’s part of why this book took me three years—almost four years—to complete. The process was very abstract. I probably threw out at least 100 pages of finished art that didn’t make it into the book because the whole process was in-flux.
The Blot was different. I plotted, thumbnailed it, and inked it. It was a much more standard process. And it went faster. That one took me a year to do, and this one took three years. Now I’m wondering if I can find something in between for the next one. I’m thinking I might try a little more structure. Sometimes the fluctuation can get stressful. But I think it worked out well. I don’t know if this book could have evolved in another way.
[Continued in Part Two.]