Interview with Jonathon Dalton, creator of A Mad Tea-Party and Lords of Death and Life

While my writing focus has mostly been in prose, it’s important to remember that there are a lot of different media by which to tell a story beyond the novel and short story formats – movies, TV serials, plays, radioplays, and comics. Today I’m interviewing a webcomic creator Jonathon Dalton about his latest project, writing for the comic format and running a Kickstarter campaign.

a mad tea partyHailing from the vicinity of Vancouver, Canada, Jonathon splits his time between making comics and teaching primary school. He has been posting comics on the internet since 2002. His first graphic novel, Lords of Death and Life (which I loved and highly recommend), was printed in 2010 with the help of a Xeric grant. He is the vice president of Cloudscape Comics, the British Columbia comics society, and has been working on his recently completed project, A Mad Tea-Party, for over nine years.

So what does Jonathon have to say?

How do you think writing for webcomics is different than writing novels and short stories? What unique challenges are there?

At one level, writing is writing and stories are stories. Writing for comics has a lot in common with prose. Comics  need a clear beginning, middle, and end, strong characters, themes, setting, and the rest. Obviously the method of telling the story is different. A picture is worth a thousand words, so your total word count will be less, and sometimes it will be zero. At least for long-form webcomics, I think the ideal approach to writing a comic would be very little different from writing a novel. Everything ought to be planned out in advance well before any of the drawing happens. The drawing is the “final draft.”

I didn’t necessarily stick to this with A Mad Tea-Party though. Being such a long project, when I started I didn’t have the confidence in my writing to write every page in advance. Instead I wrote an outline, and the first chapter, and then started drawing. I don’t think this was a bad approach. My writing is far better now than when I started A Mad Tea-Party, and the later chapters show this. But it has made it difficult to write the later chapters. The existing chapters are locked in. Not only are they all drawn already, but they’re online in the public eye. I’ve had to be very creative sometimes to write myself out of corners that I didn’t see coming in earlier chapters.

What made you decide to tell these stories as comics instead of by another medium?

I’ve tried writing prose in the past. I once wrote an entire chapter book for children that never actually got printed. I always come back to comics, though. When I write prose I usually end up trying to describe every single visual detail when really, it would be better just to draw it. Comics are my natural medium. There is something magical about telling stories with pictures. I can’t get enough of it.

What was the inspiration for writing A Mad Tea-Party?

A Mad Tea-Party came about as a combination of things. I wanted to write a story that felt like the politics of the 1920s and 30s. There was a fatalism and a sense of worse things to come at that time that I thought would be a good setting for a story about metaphorical racism. I was reading a lot of East Asian history at the time, and also a lot of sci-fi manga. I felt like there were some connecting threads through all of that that I wanted to pull at and see where they led.

When it came time to come up with a name for the story, I realized that both of my protagonists were young girls, and most of the villains had ridiculous hats and deeply flawed logic. Stealing the name of one of the chapters of Alice in Wonderland seemed like the best idea. This was long before the housing crisis, the Great Recession, and the subsequent resurgence in tea-themed political parties, which I am now going to claim I totally saw coming.

Your comic worlds are rich and interesting. What is your approach to revealing the worlds of your comics?

I like to throw readers into the setting as quickly as possible. Like traveling to another country, visitors should expect to have to figure out a lot of things as they go. And be rewarded when they do. Comics are exceptionally good for creating worlds that are different from the one the reader is familiar with, but not at all unusual to the characters in the story. In prose, details need to be explained to the reader who will be unfamiliar with them, even if the character that leads them through the story doesn’t find these things odd at all. That’s a difficult trick to pull off. In comics, you can just draw those differences without so much as mentioning them in the text. The reader will notice their strangeness, but the characters can safely ignore them.

My personal favourite page of Jonathan Dalton's Lords of Death and Life - check out the little drama down the right side of the page for some worldbuilding.
My personal favourite page of Jonathon Dalton’s Lords of Death and Life – check out the little drama down the right side of the page for some worldbuilding, not to mention dialogue-free storytelling.

You’ve created a kickstarter to print your latest comic, A Mad Tea Party. What led to the decision to do a kickstarter?

Kickstarter only recently became available for use by Canadians. I’ve seen so many great projects succeed via Kickstarter, I practically jumped at the chance to use it myself. It seemed like the best way to raise the funds to print A Mad Tea-Party.

What other options did you have?

The Xeric grants are finished, and government arts grants are hard to come by. I considered submitting A Mad Tea-Party to publishers. To be honest, the idea of being rejected by publishers bothered me far less than the idea of waiting six months to a year to hear back from them. I wanted my book in time for the next con season. And I don’t have $7000 sitting around somewhere.

What challenges did you come across that you didn’t expect?

I’ve run comics fundraisers for Cloudscape in the past, but this has been my first fundraiser for a solo project. It’s a lot of work. Nearly all of my spare time this month has been spent on promotion. I’ve also discovered the importance of going into a Kickstarter with as big a pre-existing audience for your work as possible. You could do all the promotion in the world, but there is no substitute for a pre-existing audience. My pre-existing audience has turned out to not be quite as big as I thought it was. Oh well!

What advice would you give to someone interesting in starting a webcomic?

Do it! Don’t wait around. Don’t even wait until you have a website. That can come later. You will only get better at comics if you are making them and sharing them.

I also suggest starting with smaller stories first – even just a page or two – before starting in on your 500-page epic. You need to learn to write endings as much as beginnings. Plan a story that you know for sure you’re going to get to the end of. Then plan something slightly longer after that. And so on.

Thanks JD, and good luck with the kickstarter.

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