Monday, May 10, 2010

FYC Replay: The Architect with Mike Baron & Andie Tong

Mike Baron is one of the creators with whom I was most excited to "talk" with. He's written some of my all-time favorite comics - Nexus, Badger, the launch of the Wally West Flash series - and is still creating thought-provoking adventures. In this FYC replay, learn about one of his lesser known books, The Architect, a graphic novella from Big Head Press that was a fun read.

For Your Consideration: The Architect by Mike Baron (writer) and Andie Tong (artist) By Chris Beckett FRONT PAGE:
Nexus. The Badger. Flash. The Punisher. Deadman. Mike Baron’s list of writing credits is impressive. A unique writer whose singular vision has afforded him not only critical success but also a faithful fan base, his latest book, The Architect, from Big Head Press is a welcome addition to the Baron library. Hitting shops August 15, this is a book people should be on the lookout for.

The 411:
The Architect
Written by Mike Baron
Art by Andie Tong
80 pp. Full Color
Big Head Press

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Roark Dexter Smith was the greatest architect of his generation. Espousing his philosophy of organic architecture, Smith felt it necessary to be involved with every aspect of a building “from sublime inspiration to the lowliest muck-raking chore.” A maverick who enjoyed the finer things in life – exotic foods, beautiful women, his Guarneri violin, and dabbling in the occult – Smith was, like many men of his stature, engorged with the power that came from the notoriety heaped upon him and his radical architectural advances. Although a celebrity, this did not stop the man from overreaching, and when he began work on Bluff House in 1969, he soon found himself in debt. Despite this setback he persevered, using the force of his personality to lure more investors into his dream. Work on the house continued until spring of the following year when Bluff House mysteriously burned with only Smith’s newborn surviving the blaze. Roark Dexter Smith’s body and those of his wife and assistant were never found.

Years later the Smith Preservation Society, which purchased the house after the disaster, approach Gil Topper who runs his own construction company. They want to give over Bluff House to Gil with the understanding he will renovate it to Smith’s original specifications. Not only is the society impressed with Topper’s architectural background, but he also happens to be the long-lost son of Roark Dexter Smith. Initially stunned, Gil quickly warms to the idea as the reality of his heritage sets in.

The prospect of finishing Roark Dexter Smith’s – his father’s – greatest architectural enterprise fills Topper with excitement. He enlists Mark, his best friend and business partner, and his girlfriend Thea in this venture, and the three of them, along with Mark’s girlfriend Selena Gillman and a fellow carpenter and Smith buff Norm Grundy, move into the house and begin to put things aright.

But all is not as it appears. Strange noises emanate from the basement at odd hours (the sounds of a violin being played) and petty jealousies are accentuated out in the wilds of Wisconsin. It could be the isolation from society, the nearest city is two and a half hours away, or the disparate personalities involved, Thea is a scientist who studies fungi while Selena is a self-proclaimed high priestess in the church of Wicca, but whatever it may be, there is a foul mood hanging over the house that threatens to crush them if they aren’t watchful.

There’s a lot going on in The Architect, which allows the story to breathe in a way most graphic novels are unable. Throw-away details, such as Gil’s girlfriend being a mycologist, that seem included only to flesh out the characters end up bearing fruit later in the story. No detail is insignificant, and the foundation upon which Baron constructs his tale is solid and entertaining, moving the story forward while dropping these incidental details along the way like bread crumbs in a forest. Readers may absorb the many pieces of the puzzle, but their importance will not be understood until the climax rushes upon them.

Baron moves the first half of the book along at a deliberate pace, easing readers into a reality that looks just like our own. It isn’t until the story moves into the present and things start to go badly that all thought of that shared reality is forgotten. Selena is in tune with the spiritual forces at work around Bluff House and becomes a catalyst for the horror that has been lying dormant all these years. And once things start to go bad, they go very bad, very quick.

With the final act of the story, Baron opens the pages up with larger and fewer panels, allowing the action rather than the dialogue to thrust the audience through the climax. This utilization of the comic page manages to instill a frantic tension into the reading experience that heightens the suspense and horror permeating this story. It is a masterful use of what makes comics unique, enhancing an already engaging tale.

Andie Tong is currently the regular artist for Marvel/Panini UK’s Spectacular Spiderman and is an artist American readers may be unfamiliar with. Tong’s storytelling is clear, and he handles the evolution of this story well. His style is a contemporary melding of manga and action comics, one that matches up well with Baron’s narrative. His clean art evokes a simple sensibility that acts as a tonal contrast to the horror story that Baron is setting up early in the tale. When one of the members of Gil’s group is eaten – in a bloody mass – by the toilet, it resonates with the reader. And despite the fact that this is an action/horror comic, Tong is still able to draw honest emotions on the characters’ faces, bringing a humanity to the story that is necessary to make it work.

The Architect is an exciting read that any fan of Mike Baron’s work should seek out. Originally serialized on the Big Head Press website, this print collection also contains a short prose story by Baron as an added bonus. Written as a faux article for Vanity Fair magazine, this short piece adds more depth to the graphic narrative and is a welcome addition to an already enjoyable book. Available August 15, I would recommend you pester your LCS for a copy if they have not already ordered one. It will be well worth it.

An Interview with Mike Baron and Andie Tong:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that initially attracted you to the medium, and to what do you attribute your longevity within comics?

Mike Baron: My interest in comics began when I was growing up in South Dakota and first read Uncle Scrooge. My interest expanded exponentially in college where some friends of mine began to point out some of the work being done, in particular stories drawn by Neal Adams. I've always been interested in writing fiction and comics is just another medium, one in which I have a peculiar facility. I say peculiar because nothing else ever came easy for me.

Andie Tong: I grew up with comics. I fell in love with the medium when I picked up my first comic book. I think I was like 5 years of old or something. Of course, I couldn't read that well at that stage so I was ultimately captivated by the pictures. Picking up a comic that young though, of course, I did not realize the pictures were telling a story. They were just pictures at that stage. Dynamic cartoons on paper. heh.

As soon as I could pick up a pencil, I tried to draw, to trace, and at a later age mimic other artist’s work. So in the end, I fell in love with drawing and art more than I did with comics. Personally, I never really thought about comics as a storytelling medium. I just really loved drawing. So to be able to make a living off it is more than I could ask for. I'm doing my hobby, essentially everyday, and getting paid for it

Beckett: The Architect was produced as a web comic first before going to this print edition. Did you approach the writing any differently for publication to the web?

Baron: No, but The Architect was originally a novel. Which I tried to write. And tried and tried. Novels are a tough nut to crack. So I took an alternative route. It was entirely Big Head's decision to present it first on the web. I don't pretend to understand how that works financially, but they now have a wealth of material up.

Beckett: You have done some notable work for both Marvel and DC, but the bulk of your comic writing – and the work for which you are best known – has been within the small press. Why might you recommend – or not recommend – the small press as an avenue for publication to aspiring creators?

Baron: We all want to get published and if small press comes forward with a viable offer, good for them. The benefits of small press might better be viewed as the benefits of creator control. You own it--every facet of it. So if you sell it to the movies you get all the money. I don't know the deal DC and Marvel have--DC certainly has been turning lots of Vertigo titles into film and some of those are creator owned. The disadvantages of course are that small press has to fight for any kind of publicity. Marvel and DC are going to completely dominate Diamond and Wizard so you have to get your message out some other way. The successes have been numerous: Cerebus, Elfquest, Nexus to cite three.

Beckett: What kind of instruction, if any, did you have in preparation for your work in comics?

Tong: I got a lot of help from professionals in the comic industry when I was starting out. Originally I didn't think I could work in the realm of comics logistically. Being born in Malaysia then later moving to Australia and with the industry mainly in America and Japan, I thought I had to move to those countries to work in comics. I chose to be a designer instead but drew for leisure in my own time.

When a design company I was working for back then sent me to my first ever comic convention over in the US, I found that with the world wide web and emails nowadays, you can work from anywhere around the globe. I was encouraged by numerous working professionals to apply and submit to comic companies as they thought my work was actually good enough. I also made several contacts which I still network with today. Those contacts have actually led me to several comic breaks like He-man and Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and also a recommendation to Mr. Baron himself which got me working on The Architect.

These guys have groomed me from the basic principals of creating comics: the kind of paper to use, dimensions to work on, how much to charge, to the finer points of style, techniques to consider, and everything in between. I've now been working seven years since breaking into comics, and I continue to bounce ideas and ask advice from these guys. So whenever I hit the conventions or if someone has a question via email, I try to return the favour that I've been given by these professionals. If it wasn't for them, their tutoring and their patience, I might still be struggling to hit my first published comic right now.

Beckett: What piece of advice would you give to aspiring artists looking to break into comics?

Tong: Get on the art forums and show your work off. It's the best self promotion an artist can do for himself. It's essentially how I got my first published gig. Someone liked my work enough to offer me a small story to work on and it started rolling from there. Work on anthologies when you're starting out and trying to establish yourself. Get yourself in print first and foremost. You might have to do a lot of freebies when you're first starting out but of course, assess each potential project as it comes. Obviously it's easier to work on a short 8-page anthology comic than if you were to take on, say, a self published 4-issue mini series title. A lot of the self published comic books tend to be back-end pay which may not suit a lot of people, especially if you've still got to eat and pay the bills.

Get to the conventions and start networking. As brilliant as your work may be on paper, I truly believe that networking with the publishers and editors gets you that extra advantage. I've heard so many stories from other professionals and experienced it on several occasions myself. Sometimes editors and publishers want to see what kind of person you are. That gives you a dynamic advantage if you can prove that you're a sincere, genuine, reliable guy that wants to work in the industry and can and will meet deadlines time after time.

Of course this advice is based on my own personal experience. I'm not saying everyone has to follow this tact. There are always the few lucky ones that get into the big leagues right off the bat. But a vast majority of creators have to usually work the hard slog at the start. And what I mentioned before was what I found to be the most helpful through my numerous trial and error experiences of the comic industry.

Beckett: You’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of great artists over the years. What was it that Andie Tong brought to this project that makes it work for you?

Baron: First he was available, second he was interested, and third he brings an exciting new style to story-telling. Andie and I have never met. He's never been to Wisconsin, but I sent him copious material. Love to work with him again.

Beckett: Were you aware of Mike Baron’s work before you collaborated with him on The Architect? And what was it like for you to work with Baron?

Tong: I was aware of Mike's work but shamefully I have to admit, I was not aware of the man himself. I knew of Nexus published by Dark Horse comics, but I did not know that Mike had created and wrote the book. When a project I had been working on fell through, I was fishing for a new project to work on. I got introduced to Mike via another fellow creator and when I did my research to look into who this Mike fellow was, I was astonished to find that he's practically an industry legend. I was completely honoured that Mike took me on as an artist for one of his projects.

Mike's very cruisy. He left me to my own devices and as a creator, he allowed me to mold his creation into a vision I was happy with and of course, one that he would be happy with too. All he gave me was a script and several pages of his thumbnails just so he could show me what he was imagining, and then he let me take the reins.

When working on The Architect, Mike was very supportive, communicative, and very, very patient. When I started the project, I was in Australia. I had a lot of doubts in my mind about what the background scenery from the story, which is based in Wisconsin, would look like. Next thing I knew, a hardback book of Wisconsin scenery appeared on my door step.

Collaborating with another creator from the other side of the world was a bit disconcerting at the start as well. But as I said before, thank goodness for the World Wide Web and email. If I had a question, I'd get an answer from Mike within a day. Being, I'm sure, a busy man, I thought at first, Mike would be incommunicado for a while as experiences with other creators and projects in the past led me to believe. In the end though, as I said before, Mike pretty much left me to my own devices. So I didn't have a lot of questions. I just let my imagination roam wild and Mike was happy with that.

It took me close to five years with several breaks in between to finally complete this book. I was working on The Architect pages outside of my full time design job. Starting out as a newbie, it was not yet viable for me to give up my full time job to concentrate on comics. So, I ended up working 18 hours a day, almost 7 days a week and it was taking its toll on me. I ended up with like 30 pages out of the original fleshed out 70 pages. Mike was very patient with the whole process. In the end, Mike scouted for publishers that could supplement paying us upfront for the rest of the pages and that's when we landed on the doorstep of Big Head Press. Frank and Scott Bieser, owners of Big Head Press, were very encouraging and supportive. By that time, I was on the verge of giving up design all together to just concentrate on comics. So Big Head Press could not have come at a better time. They ended up paying for all the pages finished previously and worked out a feasible deadline for me to finish the rest without interfering with other regular comic gigs I had going on at the same time. Within two or so months, I completed the rest of the pages.

But by taking such a long time to finish The Architect, my drawing style had evolved so dramatically since I first started the book way back when. So it was a very frustrating task to try and go back to my original style so that the end pages did not look like it was drawn by a different artist. It was especially frustrating when I could see all the imperfections of my old style, but couldn't really do anything about it due to set deadlines. So I hope I did an okay job in the end to blend the gapped drawing styles together.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Baron: Nexus will be out by the time this appears. Nexus is the most exciting, thought-provoking comic out there right now. New Badger begins in December from IDW. First they're reprinting all the old Badgers starting in November. I have a project called Black Ice at Comicmix that's going to blow everybody’s' minds. Nick Runge, the artist, is only 21 years old but already has a fully developed and whiplash exciting style, not dissimilar to a synthesis of Paul Gulacy and Tim Bradstreet.

Tong: I'm currently the regular artist for Spectacular Spiderman UK. So I'm basically concentrating on that at the moment. There's not a lot of room for me to play around on other projects currently as the deadline is fairly tight. As soon as I finish one issue, I'm pretty much on to the next. Thankfully, my editor is very lenient. A few months back, he allowed me a couple of issues break to finish up a project I committed to before I took on my role as regular artist for Spidey UK. It was a self-contained one-issue Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles project for Mirage Studios. It was pretty grand getting to draw a classic from the 80s. Tales of TMNT #39 will be out sometime around the end of this year. Unfortunately however, due to licensing restrictions, the Spiderman UK book I work regularly on is only sold within the UK.

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