Monday, March 2, 2009

Interview: Paul Maybury

Paul Maybury came to my attention with Aqua Leung, but those more plugged into the world of webcomics probably first encountered him through Party Bear, his contribution to the ACT-I-VATE collective. After putting the strip on hiatus to finish Aqua Leung, Paul is now returning to Party Bear. We discussed the difficulties of writing a comic with an African American-majority cast, Paul's creative process, and his plans beyond Party Bear.

I've got a new theory that there are two types of people: those who find primates (gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, etc.) funny, and those who find bears funny. I know I'm definitely in the latter camp. Do you consider yourself a bear person?


I think bears have a certain charm to them. It's an animal who's identified with terror, as well as a term of endearment by many couples. Which works well as a character in a story I must say. I also think that monkeys are in the same category as pirates, ninjas robots and zombies. I need a break.

I think a lot of people agree with you about that.

That's interesting that you bring up the cute/scary dichotomy with bears, since it seems like those are the two qualities a child might want from a father: a tough exterior, but cuddly and loving to the family. It's the "Party" in Party Bear that adds an extra degree of weirdness. Is that mostly a joke, or will you be explaining it later on?


The whole idea stems from a drawing I did in 2004 titled "Dealing with Esteban". I just liked the way it looked, and it sort of had a fairy tale element to it. I won't really explain why he's a Party Bear in the story, as I feel it's more fun just guessing what he's all about, and adds to his magical mystique.

What led you to the story, characters, and settings of Party Bear? Do they reflect your own experiences, people you knew, etc?

Well, a few years ago I was approached by ACT-I-VATE early on to do a webcomic under the group name. So I just sort of dug up this image that I really liked, and I started to craft a story that was a tribute to a lot of early 90's urban drama movies, like Colors and Fresh. It's also set somewhere in my memories of Boston and my own personal middle and high school years. I grew up in Jamaica Plain, but because of busing I was sent to The Lewis Middle School, which is in Roxbury. This had quite a profound impact on my life. All of the characters in the book are loosely based on friends with the exception of Officer MacMurphy and Esteban, who are inspired by the movies I mentioned. The story itself has evolved as I've worked on it, and I've gone so far as to rewrite and redraw various scenes throughout the book if early readers were paying attention.

Many characters in Party Bear seem to be in somewhat difficult circumstances (I'm thinking about the Doritos that Seal's mother forces on him for breakfast), but it's a funny comic. Do you think there's some special opportunity for humor to be wrung out of the gritty, urban milieu? Does your experience as an outsider thrust into that world give you some extra insight into what makes the inner city an interesting venue for a comic like Party Bear?

I think that it lets me dance around the culture in my writing without feeling like I'm faking it. I'm also a few steps back enough to find humor in those kinds of small moments. I think humor is something that I really wanted to stress, especially with the back and forth between the characters and the constant ragging on each other that I remember. I also feel fortunate enough to be mixed racially, as I don't feel committed to strengthening any culture's point of view, but rather just observe and display it as honestly as I can.

It seems somewhat underrepresented in long-form comics. Comic strips like The Boondocks or Curtis have a predominately African-American cast and take place in cities, but there aren't many graphic novels like that. Do you hope to have Party Bear published in a collected form once you've finished it?

It's true, there just aren't many that aren't leaning towards an overly positive or negative representation of the culture. And when I say culture, I'm not necessarily just talking about African-Americans. I'm speaking of the smaller melting pot cities like Boston, that are overpopulated with poor people that are sort of just stuck in neighborhoods that are full of dead ends. I feel it's also difficult to present these issues in comics because there's tension that comes from fear of exploiting characters who happen to be black. I would love to publish the book with the right publisher, but because of the subject matter it's been an uphill battle for sure. This sort of saddens me.
Have you received any interesting and/or useful feedback from readers or colleagues regarding these issues?

Yeah, some have been very useful. I've definitely tweaked the story to be less abrasive, and as I answer these questions, I'm rewriting and redrawing the first 3 pages to make it an easier pill to swallow. I'm actually pretty grateful that I started this project as a web-comic. I've had a lot of time to grow up with the project and rethink my directions. It's definitely going in a more serious and deeper direction in the end from what I had originally written in the beginning. I think I figured if it was going to be this hard to publish already, I'll take it as an opportunity to throw in some subjects that I wanted to talk about anyways. Such as the failure of the Boston public schools, contrast in parenting directions and reverse racism, all which weren't present in the original story line. I guess I'm only concerning myself with doing the story the way I want to see, and trying to present it in a way that's easily accessible. Maybe those two things don't mix well, and could be the reason it's taken this long to find a middle ground that I'm happy with.

When was it that you started Party Bear? What do you think are the most important ways you've changed your approach to cartooning since then?

September 2006. Which is interesting because I was just really getting underway with Aqua Leung at the time. I took a long break from it to finish Aqua and get some personal life things taken care of. I didn't really do new pages until around page 23, including a bunch of redrawn stuff from early on. A strange thing sort of took place in that long gap. I have progressive palmoplantar hyperhidrosis, which basically means the nerves in my hands are all screwed up. It causes sort of an electric painful tingly feeling through my hands and feet, and makes them shake and sweat randomly, but is brought out more when I'm around people or stressed out. The problem is the progressive part, as I started having the problem when I was around 12, but it didn't make my hands shake much until my mid twenties. That being said, I could no longer control my brush in a finer manner, even though technique wise I was getting there in skill. This has drastically changed my approach and style. And looking at that particular page when I got back really defines that moment for me. I would like to add, this should serve as an explanation as to why I hardly shake hands at conventions.

On another note, I've grown as an artist, and strive to focus on being a story teller over being some sort of master inker, or writer, or penciller etc. Another reason why I'm handling pretty much every task myself with this book with the exception of Olli, who came on recently to do flats.

How about coloring? You were obviously trying to establish a different atmosphere in Aqua Leung; how is your approach different for Party Bear? Is there any change in technique?

I want Party Bear to feel cold, in a way. Since I moved to Texas, it's something I've missed color wise in my surroundings. It's always sunny, and vibrant. I kind of miss the gray mute colors of a cold rainy day up north. There are a lot more flat colors at work this time around too. I make use of gradients and a "cuts" style like in Aqua Leung here and there still, but it just depends on the scene. Either way I'm trying to be very reserved in my approach. I think coloring is one of my favorite parts of working on my own comics. It's so easy to wreck a scene with crazy colors, or bad lighting, and I think it's one of the most underrated aspects of comics aside from lettering, which is something I'm having a bit of fun doing myself as well.

That's actually something I noticed looking over Party Bear again: there's a lot of variety in the lettering, and it's all generally pretty expressive.

Could you talk us through your process for creating a page of art for Party Bear?

I write/draw everything first in piccadilly notebooks in coffee shops. I like to sort of draw my way through a scene emotionally, then refine the dialog later after writing some brief stand in dialog. It helps me work the page around in a composition that I like as I write too, and I can tell what's too much and too little from page to page as I go.



After that's all set I usually use Eon boards, or Canson (they donated a bunch to me).
I take a look at my notebook, and play Tetris with the panels and find good positions for them on the page if I haven't already in my notes. I'll then lay down the borders in a clumsy fashion with my ruler in blue mechanical pencil.

Then I clench my black mechanical pencil like some kind of an ape and try to lightly pencil the page. I've yet to master the art of erasing, so I try to make it as painless as possible for me later.

After that I do all the lettering, which is a weird mixture of my own handwriting fused with Wholefoods Market sign maker font. I worked there while drawing Aqua Leung, and had to change my handwriting to their house style, and I've never been able to really get back to my own fully. The lettering is done with a Micron 08 and sometimes a faber Castell cheapo brush pen for larger lettering. After the lettering is dry, I lay down the word balloons with the same brush pen. After those dry (I'm afraid of smudging) I free hand the panel borders.

I'm usually doing this to 5 pages at a time in a factory method. That way I'm not just staring at the wall while everything dries. I've recently been inking with a Scharff 3000 size 2, although I jump back to my Winsor Newton sable brush from time to time. Working on 5 pages at the same time helps me make expressive lines while the brush is working for me without having to stop. I usually wrap them all up by the end of the week, then repeat.

I then scan them, clean them up, format them for print then send them off to my flatter Olli, who is a life saver. Once I get them back I work my magic and you have a finished Party Bear page!

How long do you expect Party Bear to end up being?

I would like to shoot for 120 pages (half way there),but might fill out to 150. I'm working off a loose evolving script, so you never know. I've been joking with my girlfriend that 27 seems to be a popular year to die as an artist, so I better hurry up in case that's how I'm going out.

Any update on The Adventures of Maxy J. Millionaire?

Maxy J. is trucking along. I've got maybe 30 pages of the script left to write and it's ready to venture out into the world and make some deals. It's an all ages book that I've put a tremendous amount of thought and care into, and I guarantee it's not going to be another cheap kids book cash in, and should be something that I hope will be something everyone can get into and have fun with, and will be a great learning tool.

I assume, then, that you've reworked the original concept quite a bit, since the original 8-page Zuda strip had some adult elements. And there's going to be an educational component, too?

Yeah, the entire thing from Zuda is pretty much scrapped. Other than the boyfriend moving in on his girl Roxanne and them "breaking up". It's going to teach kids about cooking, trying new foods, diversity, manners etc. There's a lot in there, but I've gone to great lengths to not come off as preachy or obvious. I'm extremely excited to start it as soon as I put Party Bear to bed. I need to do something my Grandma can read and then I can look her in the eye afterwords.

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just read all 43 pages that currently exist of Party Bear. it's pretty awesome. i would love to pick up a collected print version of this and pass it around to people.

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It actually gets funnier in the upcoming pages Paul graciously allowed me to see for this interview. I hope Paul does manage to get it published, because there's really nothing like it out there.

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