CHIP SKELTON, Webcomics - Interview

Today we welcome Chip Skelton, the creator of the webcomics-turned-print-comics BROKEN and TERRAN SANDZ. In his own words, Chip has “drawn my whole life. Discovered comics in my early teens and found I loved ‘em, but was too chicken to pursue a career in them. Eventually my passion for storytelling overcame my fear and, bam!, I created two graphic novels.”

 Broken, Chip Skelton

Broken, Chip Skelton

BROKEN is a southern gothic, coming-of-age tale about the monumental battles that happen closer to home. It is about the things that live and die within us, that leave us either broken or better for the experience. A teenager in western Kentucky faces family, high school, and a mass murderer. A mystery that is not what it seems.

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TERRAN SANDZ: ONE BAD DAY focuses on one day in the life of Terran Sandz, an alien who has drawn the short straw for most of his long life. Unfortunately, the day in question is a really crappy one. Terran Sandz must fight an entire planet, his own people, the two greatest warriors to ever exist, and his own god. It’s an all-out, nonstop slugfest that still manages to explore ideas of faith and individuality. Or maybe it’s just a brainless, all out slugfest.

Anthony: Chip, thanks for agreeing to the interview.

Chip: It’s cool to be interviewed by you. Hopefully I’ll make more sense than normal.

A: Haha. No worries. You’ve recently released two short graphic novels: BROKEN Book One and TERRAN SANDZ Book One. Both were originally serialized on the Drunk Duck webcomics site. What made you decide now was the right time to go from webcomic to print for each of these projects?

C: Basically, my lovely wife said it was time to crap or get off the pot. She suggested I really commit to seeing if I can make something of this passion of mine by not only printing my books, but attending conventions and promoting myself as well. I raised the money by creating and selling sketch cards, as well as selling a few other odds and ends, on ebay.

A: How long was the process of going from web to print?

C: Really it was pretty easy. It took me a few nights to size the pages to the printing template, make a few edits, and compile the guest art. All in all, it was surprising easy.

A: BROKEN and TERRAN SANDZ are two very different stories, not just in genre and plot but also in tone and execution. You have a great ability to suit style to story without losing what makes you you. How did you decide on the art style for each story?

C: At least for me, EVERYTHING serves the story. Since I seem to be able to alter my style, I make that a slave to the story as well. TERRAN SANDZ is intended to be a big-production action flick, so I chose a more frenetic art style as well as dynamic page layouts (I was aiming for Kirbyesque) to help me achieve the desired effect. I also wanted an 80’s feel to the first mini-series, so I created the zippatone-like effect for the shading.

BROKEN, on the other hand is the exact opposite of TS. BROKEN is my homage to Koike and Kojima’s LONE WOLF AND CUB, perhaps one of the best series of graphic novels EVER. I wanted the storytelling in BROKEN to be as stripped down as I could make it. I sought to focus on the quiet, poignant moments that seem too trivial but are in the truth often the most impactful.

I didn’t always achieve my goals, but overall, I’m happy with the outcome of both books.

A: The one thing both stories have in common (and I think this is true of your unfinished story DEAD as well) is a deep background mystery. Is mystery/crime fiction a genre you particularly enjoy, and if it is, what authors/works have influenced the way you’re developing the background mysteries in each story?

I’m not really a mystery guy. I read horror and fantasy for the most part. From my perspective, a good story always has aspects of the unknown. I love when a story, be it prose or cinematic, intimates that I’m only seeing a small part of a bigger mosaic. I love to be teased that I have much more to learn if I turn the next page or don’t turn away from the screen. So I guess I include that in my storytelling.

A: TERRAN SANDZ is, as I think I once put in a comment to you, “balls-to-the-wall action that still manages to include a plot and characterization and raise questions about faith and loyalty.” The pace of Book One is absolutely brutal. Did you ever look at a sequence and think, “man, I need to cut this guy a break, give him a chance to breathe,” or did you pretty much know from the get-go that he was going to take a non-stop beating? I guess I’m asking for a little insight into the way you put the story together, and used the action to deliver character and plot and hints at the greater mystery of the story.

C: Never thought of giving the poor guy a break. His story will never be an easy one. In fact, should I ever get to tell the story I intend to tell, things get far, FAR worse for him. I’m not a big fan of “happy” characters. I like the complexity of troubled individuals. Plus, I think that’s more realistic.

As far as how I plot a story, there I take a more organic approach. I sorta know where I want a story to go, but I let the characters have varying degrees of control, plus I like to sometimes go in the exact opposite direction of what I intended. If I can catch myself off guard, then I’m likely to do the same with the reader.

Whether its TERRAN SANDZ, BROKEN, or a short graphic story, I tend to plot as I thumbnail a page. I block out a page as though it were a movie. The arrangement of the panels, flow of the images within the panels, and how they relate to the pages before and set up those to follow are all considered with a cinematic sensibility. How would Leone, Wu, Lean, the Coen brothers, Miyazaki, or Tarantino not only direct, but write this scene? Sometimes I don’t even have any dialogue until I’ve finished illustrating the page, but I do have all the emotion I want for the page.

Geez, long answer. Hope I answered the question.

A: Definitely. Speaking of similarity to film: right now, TERRAN SANDZ is printed in black-and-white. Given the opportunity, would you go to a full-color format? Or was the decision to do it in black-and-white for the web and in print a permanent decision? This harks back to the age-old question: to colorize or not to colorize. (Personally, I’m a believer in not colorizing old movies – films shot in black-and-white involve decisions about lighting that don’t translate to a color presentation without losing some sense of reality, in my humble opinion.)

C: Naw, it’ll stay black and white. I’ve always seen TERRAN SANDZ as a black and white movie. Not saying it’ll never be in color, but I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.

A: I don’t think I’m the only person who has described BROKEN as “Southern Gothic.” Compared to TS, the pace is almost languid, and even the fight sequences are a study in pacing. A lot happens in this first book, but it doesn’t feel rushed. Again, is the pacing a conscious decision or something that’s grown organically as you’ve worked on the story?

C: The pacing in BROKEN is 100% intentional. I don’t know if I always succeed, but I consciously aim for an emotional impact for every scene and page. I’m interested in distilling the emotional core of a scene, whether its action, solitude, or drama. I want to go “ooh” and “aah”. I aim for the reader to have the same experience. Again, I don’t know how well I succeed, but that is my goal.

A: I find it hard to ask specific character questions because I don’t want to spoil anything about BROKEN for potential readers, but I have point something out that I didn’t notice reading the story a page at a time on the web but which stands out in the print version – and you can plead the Fifth if you’d like to this one – It almost seems like you’re working in two different time-frames. The graveyard sequences where Dan talks to his mother’s grave feel like they are at a remove from all of the other action (school, home, mall, etc). Are there really two different stories going on here? Or am I just reading way too much into the layout of the story?

What a prescient question.

And feel free to ask any character questions you’d like. I enjoy taking about them.

A: Nice non-answer, haha. I think I’ll save character questions for a follow-up interview. BROKEN is in black-and-white, but rather differently from TERRAN SANDZ. You work in little drops of red throughout the book. Was it always intentional, or did it start out as an artistic device that then became a larger part of the story? And without spoiling anything, can you tell us whether that red will continue to be important after the strong cliff-hanger ending of book one?

The red was intentional from the start. It IS, and will remain an important symbol within the story.

A: Both books have very cinematic art-styles. TS is full-on block-buster; BROKEN is very indie-film, with lingering shots of rain, stars and fireflies in the natural world, and close-ups of broken lockers and nasty bathrooms in the school setting. How hard do you work on that aspect in the plotting stage, and how much of it comes as you’re drawing?

C: I see a scene in my head, and I play it out mentally, moving the camera, editing the pacing, and setting the characters on different marks until I find the blocking that I think achieves the result I imagine for that particular moment. Though it sounds like I work hard, all of what I described happens within seconds. I seldom do more than one set of thumbnails for a page, and hardly ever redraw a panel more than once. Maybe I could create better pages if I spent more time noodling them, but I’ve never believed it would be worth the time.

A: Both titles are “Book One,” and both end with cliff-hangers. Obviously, the intention is to continue both stories. I know as you were working on BROKEN, occasionally scenes grew beyond what you’d originally plotted as characters interacted, so obviously your creative process is not completely static. So how far out are things plotted in both cases? And in what level of detail?

BROKEN will be three books. I know the high beats I really want to hit, but my characters will have a great deal to say about that. Still, I know the whole story. The details will reveal themselves as the characters interact.

TERRAN SANDZ has the same structure as HELLBOY. It’s intended to be a series of tightly-related mini-series. Should I ever get around to the second mini, it will be called “The Good, the Bad, and the Alien”, and will be 100% a Leone western. I know what I want to do for the following ten or so minis, but heaven only know if I’ll ever get the chance. We’ll see.

A: Chip, thanks again for being here. You know I’m looking forward to the continuation of both stories. My final question, as it is with every interview, is this: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to recommend it to someone who hasn’t read it yet?

C: Gee, not really sure. I don’t have one favorite. And my favorites shift depending on my mood and circumstances. I love Steven Boyett’s “Ariel” and “Architect of Sleep” because the characters and bizarre worlds they find themselves in are just around the next corner. Koontz’s “Watcher” is the only book to ever scare me. Tanith Lee’s “Kill the Dead” is a morbid character study of shameful regret. “Planetary”, the graphic novel by Ellis and Cassaday not only breaks down the clichéd superhero genre, but tells you how to write it. I could keep going, but that should do.

Thanks a ton for this opportunity, Anthony. These were fun questions.

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While Chip’s eponymous website is still under construction, you can see more of his work on the Chip Skelton SketchCards Facebook page, as well as finding Broken and Terran Sandz on DrunkDuck. If you’d like to order copies of either (or both!) graphic novels, you can contact Chip at cs.ink@verizon.net