May 5, 2014

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Rob Kirby Talks to Tony Breed

Tony Breed and his amazing mustache!
Tony Breed is a forty-something business systems analyst by day, cartoonist at night. Originally from Providence, RI, he now lives in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago with his husband, Eric. Tony’s weekly webcomic, "Finn and Charlie Are Hitched," developed a large and loyal following after its debut in the mid-aughts, and he’s self-published three paperback collections to date: Can We Skip to the Part of the Conversation Where I Get My Way? I Love You, You Big Weirdo, and How Would I Know if You’re Dreaming?  He was nominated for two Ignatz Awards in 2011 for Promising New Talent and Outstanding Online Comic. 

Tony ran a successful Kickstarter campaign early this year to fund a deluxe fourth edition of Finn and Charlie’s adventures, Everyone is Someone’s Fetish, which will debut at the Toronto Comics and Arts
Festival (TCAF), May 10th & 11th. Tony says he based Finn and Charlie loosely on himself and his husband, but that the two characters have become less like them over time. 

Finn and Charlie has an idiosyncratic charm, a gentle, but slightly eccentric rhythm and humor that is all its own. I’ve hung out with Tony before and after tabling at shows like SPX, TCAF, and CAKE and can attest to his smarts and charm, and most especially his dapper fashion sense. Recently Tony halted “Finn and Charlie” to begin a new strip called “Muddlers Beat,” which he considers a sequel. I wanted to ask him about this decision, as well as number of other matters, so ask I did.

Rob Kirby: Let’s start with the basics. Tell me how you got started in comics - were they always an interest or were you a late bloomer?

Tony Breed: Well, I was always into comics. I grew up on Peanuts, Garfield, Doonesbury, and Bloom County. For a long time I read every comic in the funnies every day, including things that shouldn't mean anything to a kid, like Cathy, Mary Worth, and the joyless world of The Lockhorns. And I made comics myself—terrible comics involving fuzzy cats that were either not funny or featured punchlines unintentionally stolen from Doonesbury or Bloom County.

I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up, but decided it was an impractical dream, so I gave it up to pursue something unspecified and white collar. In college I wanted to be a writer, but had all confidence wrung out of me by a particularly awful writing professor, and I hung up all creative endeavors for about 10 years.

It was my friend Justin Hall who suggested I get back into making comics, when we were both turning 30 and beginning to feel life's potential slip away from us. I created Finn & Charlie based on my own life, and posted 3 full-page comics on my blog. At this point I'd become a big fan of web comics, where all the really interesting comic work was being done. I made a few newspaper-style Finn & Charlie strips, sat on them for a long time, and finally decided to launch the webcomic as a weekly thing.

Kirby: When exactly was it that you launched the strip?  How did that go initially?

Breed: The official start date was in April of 2006, though I may have posted the first few comics earlier than that on my blog. It was a "soft launch" - very soft, by which I mean I did nothing whatsoever to promote it for at least a year. Literally every reader I had in the beginning had found the comic by google-searching something like "gay comic". My friends weren't even reading it, because I didn't tell any of them. File under "fear of rejection", file under "possibly the most neurotic thing I've ever done."  So considering all that, I guess it went pretty well.

I finally got a bunch of regular readers when I mentioned it in the comments of Josh Fruhlinger's blog, "The Comics Curmudgeon." I remember when one of them, a guy who posted under the name Dingo, told me to stop posting comments on the Comics Curmudgeon and to go update my comic instead. Knowing that someone cared whether I made my comics made a huge difference for me. I probably should have promoted myself a little earlier.



Kirby: Yeah, whoa, I remember that extreme nervousness at showing people my work when I was just starting out, only with me I would give them the comic, give them the zine, but I couldn’t bear to be in the same room while they read it. How’s this all going for you in the present day? Are you more confident? If so, was there a turning point or was this a gradual evolution?

Breed: I'm a lot more confident now, and it was mostly a gradual change. Certain things helped along the way—in particular, being nominated for an Ignatz award, and having some people whose work I really admired tell me they liked my comic. If people who I respect think I'm good, maybe I should believe them. I also stopped letting myself give voice to the bad feelings, at least out loud. 
And of course, one other thing that's made me more confident is I'm pretty sure I am a lot better now than I used to be. I look back at some of the comics I've drawn in the past year and I can hardly believe it was me who drew them. It starts to feel like magic. I sat down to a blank page and ended up with THIS.

Kirby: I’m curious as to your readership. I think of you as being something of a crossover cartoonist, meaning that you have a lot of straight readers and fans along with your queer/gay audience. Would you say that that is accurate?  

Breed: I'm curious about my readership too! I don't have any real metrics to look at. I can tell you that my most active readers—the ones who comment the most, who look for me at conventions, etc, are gay men (often a little older, often in couples, often rather handsome, though that might just be where my taste runs). I do have a significant number of female readers, who seem to skew a little younger than the men, but it's hard to be sure. As for straight men, I don't know how many there are. Jeffrey Brown and Nick Bertozzi both like my comic, and they are straight men, but they are also friends of mine who knew me as a person before knowing me as a cartoonist. I think there's a barrier for straight men reading gay comics; they aren't used to reading things that aren't targeted toward them, because so much already is. They see something targeted for someone else and they say, oh, this isn't for me, and they keep walking.

I definitely seems that when I table as part of a big gay presence—that is, with Prism Comics or Northwest Press—the men who stop and buy comics are almost exclusively gay. (Again, not the case with women.) Whereas when I table on my own, usually at an indie con like SPX, it's a little more mixed. Straight men seem a little less likely to buy, but they are happy to stop by, look through books, and talk to me. (My t-shirt and print of a big, hairy, naked, running Finn is popular with big hairy men regardless of sexual orientation, though the straight ones almost never actually buy one. People like to see themselves represented in media, and while straight white men are everywhere in the media, big hairy men are not. So that's pretty powerful.)



I try to be something of a crossover strip, on purpose. One of the purposes of creating Finn and Charlie Are Hitched was to portray the utter ordinariness of gay relationships. It's a little bit political. But gay adults typically already know our relationships are ordinary; the lesson is needed more for straight people and for young and uncomfortable gay people. So I added in a bunch of other kinds of topics in hopes of bringing in a wider audience so the message would get to everyone.

Kirby: Do you mind being thought of as a gay or queer cartoonist? Why or why not?

Breed: I definitely have mixed feelings about being a queer cartoonist. On the one hand, you get a kind of built-in audience; there's this group of people starved to see themselves portrayed in media, and you can get a nice loyal following. On the other hand, it's potentially quite limiting, for the reasons I mentioned before. I think that straight cartoonists who do good gay content in their strips—for example David Willis' Dumbing of Age—seem to get much larger readership. They get the gay following, but the straight readers aren't scared off by the notion that the comic isn't for them. (It's worth pointing out though that Dumbing of Age is brilliant, and Willis has been making web comics regularly since he was something like 15; there are a lot of reasons he has a big following, and I shouldn't just say it's because he's straight.)

So I don't know. I don't like being limited. At the same time, I like telling these stories. I have a lot of fun with Corey and Ken's awkward romance; I love bringing Kevin in to cause trouble. I actually had to remind myself to create some straight couples in the strip—in my own life, most of my friends are straight, so an all-gay cast didn't seem realistic.

I've also gotten some feedback from young readers that there stories are important to them to be able to read. People want to be loved, they want romance, and seeing it portrayed this way—stable and deep—gives them hope that they'll find the same thing. It also gives them a model for a life they might want to lead. I got the same very important lesson when I was 17 by reading Tim Barela's Leonard & Larry. If I ever get a chance to meet Tim Barela I want to tell him he changed my life. So I guess I'm just paying that forward to the next generation.

With “Muddlers Beat,” I wanted to bring in a little more indie rock focus, for a number of reasons. It's another community that's important to me; these stories can bring in new readers; and it gives me a vehicle for introducing more diversity, which I think is important. At the same time, I don't want to lose my gay content. People still need to see it, and I still want to write about it. So it'll all still be there.



Kirby: Yeah, I’m really enjoying “Muddlers Beat.” Wondering if Finn and Charlie is on permanent hiatus though? Are all the characters just moving to Muddler’s?

Breed: I think of “Muddlers Beat” as a kind of sequel to “Finn and Charlie Are Hitched.” The characters and stories have all moved over there. But I don't know if it's a permanent hiatus. I might make some Finn & Charlie stories separately from the web comic, or it might come back as a web comic some day. We'll just have to see!

When I originally conceived of “Muddlers Beat,” about two years ago, my plan was for Finn & Charlie to appear only occasionally, as cameos—but I love the characters too much to do that, so they are full cast members in the ensemble that is “Muddlers Beat.”

Kirby: What prompted the switch to Muddlers? Were you concerned at all about at least temporarily halting your known strip for the unknown? 

Breed: With a strip named "Finn and Charlie Are Hitched" I felt an obligation to keep returning to stories about Finn and Charlie as a couple, where I'd come to prefer writing an ensemble story. That was the main reason. The new strip is explicitly an ensemble piece, which gives me more freedom.

I wasn't worried about shifting people over, though perhaps I should have been—traffic on the new site is not yet what it was on the old one. But I'm sure it'll come around.

Kirby: Tony, I have this idea that all webcomic creators draw and color on a tablet and not on paper. Is this true for you? Tell me how you create a typical episode of Finn or Muddlers, what your process is.

Breed: A lot of web cartoonists work digitally—a lot of cartoonists in general—but certainly not all. I spend my day job at a computer, though, so when I go to work on my comic, I long for the feel of paper under my fingers.

My process starts with writing, which I do best while walking. If I'm stuck, I go for a walk and talk through the dialogue and ideas. I try to get it settled in my head, and then I write it down (unless I've basically memorized it by then). Sometimes I thumbnail next, and sometimes I skip that step. I thumbnail when I need to figure out the blocking, expressions, or gestures—or when I can't get to my drawing board and I want to work on the comic.

I work on Bristol board, I pencil in non-photo blue, I ink with PITT pens, and I do my shadows with a wash of yellow dye-based ink. (Dye-based because it doesn't obscure the black lines the way a pigment-based ink will, as I learned the hard way.) Then I scan it into my computer and fix little errors. Then I do color separations—the black layer contains just the black lines; the blue layer is the pencils and I throw that away, along with the magenta layer. The yellow layer is the wash, and I change the color of that to brown or blue, and usually throw a photo filter over it so it's got some nice color variations in it. And finally I color it on the computer.

The color separations thing is an idea I came up with on my own, so I could add shadows by hand over the black without messing the black up. This thing people do where the do the wash on a separate sheet over the inks on a light box—I shudder to thing of trying to make the registration work. They probably get better results, but I like the way my work comes out.

Kirby: Totally random stupid question time: “The Guilty pleasure.” What’s yours?

Breed: I don't really have guilty pleasures… I think you should feel good about the things you enjoy, things like Liza Minelli, Abba, and Doritos.



Kirby: We all want to know your agenda for the rest of 2014 and beyond, expo dates, projects, etc., so spill!

Breed: I'll be at TCAF in Toronto May 10-11, and then at CAKE in Chicago May 31 and June 1. I'll be at the inaugural RIPExpo in my hometown of Providence, RI, on August 2-3 and at SPX September 13-14—and I won't only be tabling there; I'll be DJing the Ignatz after party (in case you feel like dancing). After that, nothing is set, but I'm looking at APE in San Francisco in October and Bent Con in Burbank in November. And after that, who knows?

Indeed, life is uncertain so please visit Tony’s websites as soon as possible for more Finn, more Charlie, more Muddlers and everything else: http://hitchedcomic.com & http://muddlersbeat.com

Until next time, when I talk to Sophie Yanow, keep it real, my friends, and I will attempt the same.