Saturday, January 1, 2011

Talking With Teller of Tales Bret Herholz

Extraordinary gentleman Bret M. Herholz is the writer and/or illustrator of roughly half a dozen excellent graphic novels from Alterna Comics. With influences as refreshingly diverse as Agatha Christie, Oscar Wilde, Charles Addams, and Edward Gorey, Bret's work is stunningly intelligent. And great fun to read.
Here he speaks with Richard Caldwell about Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, and ruining the minds of today's youth from the land of Wormtown.

Bret, are you a New Englander by fate, or by design?

By fate I suppose. Yes! Definitely by fate. Every Winter I seem to go through the same cycle. Why do I stay here? And then Spring and Summer roll around and I am reminded why. You don't get a Spring and Summer the way you do in New England.

Were you an avid comics reader in your youth, or did that come later, with your art training? What books and names first drew you into the medium?

I really got into comics around Jr. High School. I was enthralled by a friend's collection of comics. That really got me into it. I think the first comic I owned was a collected edition of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. That was probably my first proper comic I owned. I got that one and my brother got THE KILLING JOKE. I still own his copy of that. From there I really got into Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men. It was shortly after High School I started to get into Cerebus and then Strangers in Paradise. That was really my first introduction into indie comics.

And when did you first feel the need to embark on your thus far prolific career as a graphic novelist? Did that evolve from your teaching?

High School actually. I think I tried to create a graphic novel in High School. I was more enthralled with the format over the standard comic book. Especially since you could tell more of a story via a graphic novel. But I really didn't have the discipline to create one until I started teaching a friend Andy Fish invited me to do short stories for his anthology. Accomplishing a five to eight page story made me want to go from there which eventually lead to me doing DIARY OF THE BLACK WIDOW.

I know one of your stories began life as a playscript. Was it ever performed? I actually recall reading an interview with legendary comic book letterer Tom Orzechowski, where he suggested that new comic scribes should study stageplays in order to properly craft scenes. Do you find similarities in the structure, by your process?

Diary of the Black Widow was originally written as a performance piece. I had written to submit to First Night Worcester's Arty Gras. The idea was the actors would be made up to look like my characters (black and white attire with white face paint and black circles around the eyes) and the set designs would be my illustrations. At the end of the performance people would be allowed to get up and interact with the play as though they had stepped into my drawings.

The idea was rejected.

But both Diary of the Black Widow and Spaghetti Strand Murder borrowed quite a bit from unperformed plays I had written. I suppose I had all this dialogue and lines going to waste. Why not give it a rebirth in the printed form.
Writing a script for comics and a play are slightly similar with the way you describe the scenes and which characters are talking. But the structure of writing a graphic novel is somewhat different where you have to break your scenes down from page to page and panel to panel.

On which project did you feel like you had really found your voice, and were hitting your stride?

As far as things I have written I would say The Spaghetti Strand Murder. I suppose if I am to choose a favorite, that one might be it. Even though I don't like re-reading my own work because I'm bound to find what I could have done better.
I've always wanted to write sketch comedy and this is the closest I've come to that. It celebrates my love for the Goon Show, Monty Python and the Marx Brothers. I think I like the fact that some people misunderstood my intentions in writing the story and thought I was writing a proper murder mystery.
And if certain reviewers want to compare it to the movie Clue or criticize it because the story is all setup with no punch line then they are right. I wasn't writing a proper murder mystery. I was writing in the tradition of Monty Python. Which, by the way, is all set up and no punchline.

And I like the movie Clue.

And another movie I like which is all setup and no punchline is Murder By Death. By a very respected playwright by the name of Neil Simon for that matter.
I used a great deal of the characters and the jokes from a play I had written called Romance with a Croquet Mallet for that story. Most of the dialogue I think was some of the best stuff I have written thus far. I think what I enjoy about the graphic novel is the fact that some reviewers got it. And others just blew right over their heads. But I suppose whenever you put your work out there, you always risk the possibility of being IN THE LINE OF FIRE as far as REVIEWS are concerned.

Has it been easier for you to win over the naysayers face to face? You swing many a store signing, but I know you are also highly active in that wonderful local Arts scene up there in Worcester. Is it possible that cult followings generally tend to build around word of mouth publicity?

I think so. I think it helps people to meet the artist or writer and not only put a face behind the work. But it's more than that. It's building a good rapport and showing the people who read your work that you appreciate the fact that they are buying your work and that they show an enthusiasm towards your work. If you don't show an appreciation towards their kindness then why should they show an appreciation in return?

Talk a little about your teaching work, because I know that's a huge part of your life. You're getting the next generation hooked on comics, right?

That's pretty much my fiendish plot to corrupt the youth of America. Ha ha!! A lot of what I do with my classes is to bring back many of the art classes I enjoyed as a youth in my own fashion. When I started out, I was doing primarily illustration classes but it was inevitable that I started doing cartooning and comic art classes. Cartooning is like riding a bicycle. You never really forget how to do it. It keeps me from getting stale with my own work to be able to do those cartooning classes. And having had books published being able to impart what I know about promoting your work to my students. Not just the technical part. But telling them not to give up and it's worth a little bit of frustration that may come along with it.

My own favorite of your books is the Adventures of Polly and Handgraves. Is there really a sequel in the works? And where did those characters come from?

I actually have a second script written. I ended up putting it on hold because I had a couple projects in the works that have taken my time. But I'm hoping to have the second Polly and Handgraves story realized at some point.
I think with Polly it came from the fact I didn't feel like there were enough female sleuths in classic literature. Apart from Miss Marple and Nancy Drew. That and it felt like the women always ended up on the other side of the "and" as far as billing went with stories like Nick and Nora or Tommy and Tuppy. With Polly I wanted her to be on the top billing. Somebody, plucky. Seemingly flighty only to prove that she is not stupid. Handgraves was very much inspired by characters like Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves and Magersfontein Lugg from the Campion series. More of the man of action than Jeeves with a past that possibly consisted of either military time or the British Secret Service before she came into the employ of Polly's family.

Well I'm sure you've heard the theories that Wodehouse secretly intended Wooster to be the illegitimate son of Holmes, and Jeeves as the bastard offspring of Moriarty, with poor efficient Jeeves there only to make up for the sins of his father. But we don't need to get into that here. You did mention a couple of other projects demanding your time now, though. Would one of those happen to be the Black Dandy collaboration with Andy Fish?

I think I remember reading something about that. It very well might have been something you mentioned to me. But I think the idea is intriguing.

Unfortunately, the Black Dandy was something both Andy and I had to put on hold for the moment because of commitments to other projects we're working on independently. At the moment I am working with Doctor Who and Brenda and Effie author Paul Magrs on illustrating a book he had written. The story is very much in the same vein as the Phantom Tollbooth Roald Dahl and John Bellair's work. Written for young adults but something an adult can read and still enjoy. Which I think are the best types of story. It's scary but scary in a fun way. I can't reveal too much about the project just yet. But I am really enjoying myself.

I've done some illustrative work for Paul in the past. One of which was a comic strip based on the world he created for the Fourth Doctor audio play series "The Hornets Nest"
I'm also in the works on doing a second Sherlock Holmes graphic novel. This time based on a play titled Holmes and Watson by Lee Shackleford. I have expressed to Lee that I feel his play is the ideal companion piece to William Gillette's play. I'm hoping to get that one started sometime after the New Year.

If you could continue shooting off graphic novels for another twenty of thirty years, what would you like for your magnum opus to be?

Hmm? I'm really not sure! I suppose when I think of Magnum Opus I think of an album like Sgt. Pepper, Tubular Bells, Homogenic or OK Computer. And even though those artists made great music following, those albums were a hard act to follow. I don't really feel like I've reached that level yet. Or at least I hope I haven't. I do like the idea of shooting off graphic novels for the next twenty or thirty years.

I do too. Bret, on behalf of the A.N.A gang, thank you so much for talking shoppe for our readers. You know I'm a longtime fan especially, and cannot wait to see what you do next. Any last words or plugs you'd care to share before the defense rests?

I have a few shows coming up in the next couple of months. I'm doing Stitches Needles N' Guns Alternative Craft Fair at the Printers Building in February, Boston Comic Con on May 1st and I am in the works of doing a new show out in Northampton called Paint & Pixals Festival on April 11th!! I'm also hoping to take part in Free Comic Book Day again this year at That's Entertainment as I do every year. And Sherlock Holmes: The Painful Predicament of Alice Faulkner is going to be distributed nationally through Diamond this year for it's third printing. Be sure to ask your comic shop to order copies!

See more of Bret's work through facebook, myspace, twitter, and especially at his very active and interesting blog.