COMICS WITH CONSEQUENCES
Scottish comic artist Connor Tierney is the creator of the indie comic Kid Eastwood. Now into volume 3, the comic chronicles the travails of a young hero navigating the ups and downs of superheroics, young adulthood, and having a secret identity in Yew Nork city.
While that may sound like a pretty common formula in mainstream and indie comics, Connor’s slight of hand with the genre actually makes for a pretty fantastic magic trick. In Kid Eastwood small interpersonal stories get woven in amidst the massive scale, epic-level threats we expect from major publisher comic crossover events… but with actual consequences for the participants and actual plot payouts for the readers.
Under Connor Tierney’s pen, characters evolve and change, Kid Eastwood truly suffers the consequences and, in the midst of some very gruesome encounters, characters can actually die without a magical, editorial undo button anywhere to be found. With issue #18 out now, I caught up with Tierney to talk about inspirations, tools of the trade, and the process of getting your butt in gear and making some comics!
BRADLEY LITTLEJOHN: Connor, I have heard you speak of your own frustration and ambition in your early comics, and you hinted that with Kid Eastwood you threw expectation out and just went for it. Was KE the idea that got you to start making comics in earnest, or was it just the right time for you developmentally as an artist?
CONNOR TIERNEY: I feel like growing up I was someone who really wanted to make comics but struggled to remain realistic in scope and also struggled to finish things. Kid Eastwood was a real breakthrough for me. One thing I often talk about when pitching the book to people is this symbiotic relationship I have with it. The first issue is all about a young guy at a transitional point in his life who’s so sure of what he wants to achieve but feels like he just can’t get over the line. I gave myself an ultimatum going into that issue, I’d either finish it or dip out of comics and strive towards commercial illustration, because I was comparatively better at finishing that kind of work. I think writing a character who, in essence, was in the same boat as me, made me want to see us both succeed.
BRADLEY: You bet on the core truths of yourself!
CONNOR: I could let myself down, but I couldn’t let the little make-believe guy living in my head down after letting him get beaten up so many times in that book.
BRADLEY: Kid Eastwood does get beaten up a lot! A rather reliable aspect of KE’s experience is that he will have to pick himself up off the floor at some point or another in your story arcs.
CONNOR: Underdogs have always appealed to me. Something Conner [Conner McGowan, close colleague and creator of the indie comic Honey Hair] and I often joke about in calls while we work on pages is that villains in KE are always about ten feet taller than Clint, but I think that’s endearing, it makes you want to root for him. His experiences acting as a mirror for my own also give me faith that I’ll work through whatever thing is going on at the time. If I can’t hit my problems, at least I can draw a comic where someone does. In terms of development, my attitude towards it has really changed since then. I used to hate starting a book and then by the end, having it look nothing like the first half did. But as I went on and became faster, the gap between issues and changes in style became less abrupt. I convinced myself ages ago I’d never hit the kind of pace that would allow me to live with sloppier older art, but now I love that stuff. One of my favourite things about the book now is going back and seeing when certain changes happened, like I began using tone less, anatomy became less awkward. that sort of thing. It became something of a time capsule- now whenever I think back to something, I’m usually thinking more about what issue number I was on than the date.
BRADLEY: In that way, your development as an artist becomes almost a part of the story. That is a good trait to have. It helps you to look to the horizon in the story and keep going.
CONNOR: Absolutely- That’s the real thesis statement of the book for me, trying your best, changing as time goes on, seeing where you end up and really truly embracing that experience, because that’s one of the things I find most exciting about life.
BRADLEY: To that end of trying your best, there’s a rhythm in your storytelling that I’d like to ask about. Kid Eastwood’s experiences have this cadence that repeats itself of small to BIG. With each story arc’s conclusion, KE ends up in a humble moment, or a moment of new insight. But the way you ramp up to big moments and new perils has a really steep incline to it. I think of it as characteristic or footprint of how you make comics. The buildup is fast and intense. Where does that approach come from?
CONNOR: There’s always a sense of urgency when I’m working on the book. A lot of that comes back to my high school days where I would drag my feet and spend way too long on any one thing- I think there’s a part of me deep down that worries I’ll one day fizzle out and be completely devoid of steam, another is this burning desire to get my characters to where they’re going so they and I can get on with our lives haha. Also, as someone whose teenage years were consumed by shonen manga, I feel that narrative formula has definitely rubbed off on me and become my go-to mode of delivery. I love bombast and giving people way more than they asked for, or maybe in some cases wanted at the end of an arc. That’s the biggest joy of doing comics for me, being able to surprise people.
BRADLEY: You bring up shonen manga. Let me ask about two other influences that we have spoken of previously in regards to your work. Let’s start early because it is fun to go right back to the roots of things. Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants). Somehow his work stuck with you and sorta got into your comics DNA a little?
CONNOR: Sure. I was really attracted to this sort of matter-of-fact nature Dav’s work has, at the time I first read his work, it felt like a rare occasion where as a kid faith is put into you to get the jokes and get what’s really being talked about. That sounds like a bizarre thing to say about Captain Underpants, but upon re-reading it, You feel it as an extension of this real guy and his real experiences. There’s a section in one of the later books that reveals that the two lead characters have ADHD and the plot of that book deals with adults trying to stifle and effectively medicate that out of them. I didn’t read that one as a kid but as an adult I think it’s the coolest thing ever that a Captain Underpants book was more profound and respectful to the intelligence of the kids reading it than a lot of kids books that were coming out at the time. I find connecting writing about real experiences with something as crass as toilet humour to be a really fascinating thing. That’s definitely something I’ve carried with me over the years. One of my major goals with Kid Eastwood is to make stupid things have real consequences. The big example I often turn to is Hellslice having his dominant arm cut off by a drunk cartoon lizard in issue 10. It’s incredibly dumb at the time and was fully intended to be, but that’s a permanent disability that character has to live with now. It’s also something that frustrates me to no end with corporate comics–the likes of which you’d find at Marvel and DC. Everything can be undone with the push of a button, and often is. That feels antithetical to the idea of time progressing and things changing. I like being able to put a final word to something, keeping characters dead and having continuity matter. I want it all to count for something.
“I could let myself down, but I couldn’t let the little make-believe guy living in my head down”-CONNOR TIERNEY on following through with Kid Eastwood
BRADLEY: One of the things lowbrow comics (supposing that Captain Underpants reads as lowbrow comics for kids) does really well is take on cerebral subjects and shock you into considering another point of view.
CONNOR: It completely catches you off guard and in doing so, sort of exposes this societal blind-spot where kids media or things that aren’t even that but are just inherently playful need to be substanceless slop.
BRADLEY: …and the examples from your own work above show you reacting to the dominant superhero comics in a similar fashion.
CONNOR: Definitely. There’s a strange tendency to write off the silliness and absurdity of the superhero comics of old, and to act embarrassed by them, like whenever an MCU character wears a comic accurate costume, nine times out of ten, it’s the butt of a joke. If I ever, by some divine miracle, get to make a live action Kid Eastwood movie, I guarantee you every costume will be one to one and they’ll all look like the characters made them.
BRADLEY: I can recall sitting in a theater at the turn of the century watching X-men play on the screen and they make a joke about yellow tights with regard to Wolverine. It has never relented!
CONNOR: That mask they tease at the end of one of those movies would’ve been so cool, but alas, if you pay for Hugh Jackman, you’re paying in part for his face. I wish it wasn’t the way, but that’s Hollywood.
There’s an aspect of me that wants Kid Eastwood to sort of become a modern day equivalent of those old strange comic covers you see brought up online every now and again, where Superman is being hit with a “this gun can kill superman” ray, or Captain Marvel exclaiming that he doesn’t need life insurance and shooting himself in the head (the bullet of course bounces off)- just really wild stuff that revels in the fact that it’s absurd. More books need to be utterly shameless about how stupid they are. There’s a meme online somewhere that goes “I may be cringe, but at least I’m free”. That’s how I feel.
BRADLEY: …and that plays into the unique qualities that indie comics have which mainstream products have lost: the free creative license for one person to make comic pages exactly how their urges and abilities allow. That is the freedom (and the exhaustion of comics), and I see it in your work!
Now, I teased bringing up two comic influences, the other one I had in mind was Erik Larsen. If you need me to craft a question I can, but I almost feel like I can just say, “Erik Larsen… and GO!” and you could contextualize…
CONNOR: Haha no prob, I’ll do that. Erik Larsen is the creator who’s probably helped me out the most, as both an inspiration (one of the key inspirations behind Kid Eastwood and what I aim to do with it) and also as a publisher, having run two stories I wrote and drew in official Image titles, first a short story in the Savage Dragon fan anthology Super Freaks, and then again in Savage Dragon 265 where I drew a crossover between the titular Dragon and Kid Eastwood. What I love about Erik’s long running series Savage Dragon, is that in my eyes he perfectly represents the freedom of independent comics. In 30 years and over 260 issues, Dragon has been just about every genre a comic can be, and that’s because, first and foremost, he lets things change. At this point in the book, the original protagonist is long dead. His son, who was born fairly early in the run, has aged into the role in real time and has a family of his own. Real time storytelling necessitates change. Characters will get old, have kids and die. Plot points can go unaddressed for years only to suddenly be reintroduced. Things can be done that you simply can’t do with an eternally 29 year old Peter Parker who can’t be married because he’ll look too old, and can’t have kids because apparently that’ll make him look even older, and so on. It’s an entirely unique experience in comics, and I’ve been enthralled with it for years
BRADLEY: Haha! -and just like that, a rather clear through-line sort of reveals itself in your comic inspirations and the backbone of your work. I can see how your comics strive to be authentic and true to your characters. Allowing them real lives with real consequences that don’t hide away the embarrassing bits or edit out the off-brand messages and warts over time.
CONNOR: Absolutely, it feels real in ways a lot of stories about characters cast in amber to preserve their popularity simply can’t measure up to. Obviously, Larsen has had a considerable head start and I don’t see myself lasting more than 50 issues let alone 260, but I see my goal with Kid Eastwood’s narrative as a similar one to his with Dragon. I really respect the confidence it takes to actively start pushing the envelope to see how long it takes for fans to bail.
BRADLEY: You got to hop on the Erik Larsen stage yourself recently in the form of a backup story in Savage Dragon. How did that come about?
CONNOR: I’d joined a Facebook fan community for the book moderated by Larsen and began posting bits and pieces of fan art- at the time, the Savage Fincast (a podcast that discusses all things Dragon) reached out about doing a short for their upcoming 10th anniversary event, which was going to be a Fanzine celebrating Dragon. It ended up that Larsen really liked the book and decided to run it through Image, which we were all over the moon about. For fun while I was working on issue 11 of Kid Eastwood, I carved like 6 hours out to do this silly fanfic crossover that saw Clint and Dragon’s son Malcolm team-up. I posted it to the group and got some promising reactions from members who had previously drawn backups for the book, with quite a few encouraging me to send it Erik’s way. I did and never heard anything back, which was fair enough given it had been this sort of rushed thing I drew for my own amusement and the group’s. Cut to about a year later, I decided to colour the story and put it online officially, where it did catch Erik’s attention and he offered to run it as a backup story. To me, the ability to pick something like that up and go “sure, why not?” Is one of the greatest things about independent/ creator owned comics. That was all it took to get my tiny indie character into a book by one of Image’s founders, my favourite western comic and be read by thousands of people. It’s just really neat. And even going beyond that, he gave me permission to run the black and white version in the third volume of Kid Eastwood which came out a little before the issue. You seriously couldn’t find a cooler guy in the industry right now, I owe so much to him creatively and professionally.
BRADLEY: Before we wrap things up, I feel like it just wouldn’t be right to end our conversation without talking about the craft of making comics, since that is something I especially enjoy when we converse. We live in a divergent time where there are many paths to making comics. In the digital realm, Photoshop doesn’t hold the monopoly that it once did, as apps like Procreate and Clip win over the hearts of more comic makers. How did you end up in camp Clip Studio?
CONNOR: I’ve always found Photoshop to be awkward as a drawing program (because it’s not one) and Adobe to be even more so as a company. I bought the disc version of what had been Manga Studio 5 at the time, and eventually upgraded to Clip. That would’ve been about 7 years ago now, so it’s become my habitual go-to for art, comics and even graphic design on a few occasions. While I find company practices as of late to be less than admirable, it’s a program I use pretty much every day and it’s completely invaluable to me as a comic artist. I seriously don’t think I could work any other way. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but my stuff wouldn’t look half as good if I didn’t have Clip.
BRADLEY: Clip does have a way of bringing out the better side of an artist’s inking.
CONNOR: I can say for certain that it gave me a stronger understanding of perspective drawing that’s absolutely been transferable to paper, so it’s a good learning tool, as well.
BRADLEY: You also make use of the toning engine and specialty tools. Many approach their work in a software agnostic sort of way- I think their comics would read similarly whether they used Photoshop or whatever, but I watch you question and engage the tools that Clip puts in front of you. I have to think your work would read differently outside of the way you push back on Clip.
CONNOR: There are certain hallmarks of clip and its tools I admittedly shy away from, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t found a combination I feel like I’d struggle to break away from. I like the versatility of it, much like comics, the way you work with it and set things up becomes unique to you.
BRADLEY: So what is up next for you and Kid Eastwood, and are there any other upcoming creative projects that you can talk about for the future?
CONNOR: I’m always working away on Kid Eastwood, I’m over halfway through the second series and expect to be finished drawing it by the start of next year. I have plans for the book past that, but I’ll keep those in the back pocket for now. I’m also in the middle of art duties on a 5 pager for the upcoming CoCo comics survival guide which just got funded on Kickstarter. I’m keeping myself as open to new opportunities as possible while keeping the ball rolling, so we’ll see where things end up.