An interview with Tom Manning


1) What got you into drawing graphic novels?

So bear with me on this…I actually make a distinction between comic books and graphic novels – to me, an issue of an ongoing series like X-Men, Batman, whatever is a comic book. What I think differentiates a graphic novel is that it is written with an ending in mind. And graphic novels, like this publication of Runoff, are usually big, single volumes, like a “regular” novel.

So, with that personal definition out there, I started drawing comic books as early as I can remember. Probably around five or so. They were always done in pencil, on blank sheets of paper, front and back, and stapled. The first comic I remember making was called Horror of Horrors (which was sort of a Tales from the Crypt knock off). I wish I still had those because I’d love to read a horror comic from a five year old! I also remember making a comic called Tom the Wolf because, well, I always wanted to be a werewolf. Pretty simple.

When I was nine my Grandma and I were at a gas station (back when gas stations still had comic book racks), and she let me pick an issue. I picked Uncanny X-Men number #221. After that, there was no going back. I was a Marvel fanatic, especially X-Men. Immediately after I finished that issue, I drew the first issue of Omega Forcewhich was really an X-Men knock-off. I continued drawing Omega Force until I was 14 years old…each issue was 32 pages, every tenth issue was double sized, #100 was a hundred pages long…in the end I drew 125 issues. It’s crazy how big the series is…that’s all I wanted to do as I kid. And when I was a Freshman in high school, I decided to start Omega Force all over again, with the idea of selling it around my school and local comic book shops. So I started inking for the first time, and taking the finished pages to Kinkos to make the books.

Anyway, I stopped making Omega Force my senior year in High School, and when I went to college I didn’t make comics for a while. I actually submitted some pencils to Marvel with the hope of becoming a writer/penciler like Frank Miller. It didn’t go anywhere, and by that age my interest in superhero comics was waning. In 1996 I read Cerebus for the first time, which was probably the next big comic “ah ha!” moment for me. Cerebus really expanded my idea of what you could do in the comic book format, and I started to read a lot more independent artists, and became much more interested in complete stories, and creators who pushed the possibilities of the comic book medium.

In 1998 I started what would be my first graphic novel, RACECAR, which I wanted to be a story that only a comic book could deliver. Something that wouldn’t translate to the written word or film. I published RACECAR in 1999, and in a way have kept on that track since: writing, illustrating, and lettering graphic novels that are written to not only be (hopefully) good, complete stories, but also written to explore how the comic book medium can be leveraged or manipulated to tell stories.

2) You have dedicated Runoff to Enumclaw, WA and your work has a distinct sense of place. How do you think about the relationship between setting and story?

When I started writing Runoff in 1999, my hometown of Enumclaw was very much on my mind. I had been living in Los Angeles for about five years at that point, and only got back to Enumclaw for a few weeks every year. And each time I returned I became more and more inspired to create a comic for Enumclaw. In retrospect I think Runoff served as a portal back to my hometown for me. I made Runoff between 2000 and 2007, and during that time as I lived in LA, then NYC, then New Haven, I could always sit down at my drawing table and go back to my old hometown.

But there was also a functional reason I wanted to loosely base the town of Range on Enumclaw: I knew how strange Runoff was going to get, and I needed a setting that could feel real enough, authentic enough, to host the wild events and people that were going to be a part of it. I literally needed solid grounding for the wild and schizophrenic story I wanted to tell.

So, setting is always important to me, but especially important here. And it’s meant a lot to me that readers who also grew up in small towns have remarked that reading Runoff reminded me of their home. I’m relieved the small town feel came across as authentic to others who come from small towns.

3) What are some of your literary influences?

My favorite book is The Stand – I love Stephen King. Though I’m not alone in thinking he can come up with a great premise but not a great ending. The book I’m currently working on, Eric, draws more from literary influences than Runoff – namely Thomas Pynchon. I like reading non-fiction as well, I usually get more ideas from non-fiction books…there is a lot of truth to the saying “truth is stranger than fiction.”

4) Art influences?

Not surprisingly David Lynch is a huge one for me. I love how he can take our cultures, our genres, our expectations and subvert them, redirect them.

I see Lynch as a part of part of a tradition of American art and culture which I would describe as a loose hybrid of odd references from horror fiction, fine art, and Americana…a kind of Gothic American Surrealism. Lynch’s redirection of expectation and genre has an American accent, which isn’t much of a surprise since American culture is often typified as a sampling and appropriation of other cultures. Here, in this art, we still find the pioneer spirit, one that creates with a bold lawlessness, a “anything goes” mentality that really excites me. It’s a spirit that invites us to look at our world, our cultures, as fertile sources for reference and inspiration.

I think Gothic American Surrealism can be found in a variety of art. The writings of Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy. The photographs of Diane Arbus, O. Winston Link, Ralph Eugene Meatyard. The music of Brian Wilson, Warren Zevon, and DJ Shadow. The films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton, and the Coen Brothers. The comics of Winsor McCay, Jack Kirby, Berke Breathed, and Dan Clowes. The art of Edward Hopper, Paul McCarthy, Eric White, and John Currin.

And what I find fascinating is that it not only manifests itself in a variety of media, it has a tradition of inspiring and cross-referencing itself across the media. Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad was the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Bate’s Motel in1960s Psycho. Diane Arbus’ Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ 1967 was twinned itself in 1980 when we saw those twin girls haunting the Halls of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining…which itself is based on another practitioner of Gothic American Surrealism: Stephen King. I love that! You see David Lynch’s Eraserhead influencing Dan Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. And a phrase uttered by The Giant in Lynch’s Twin Peaks is sampled to close DJ Shadow’s album Endtroducing. This sample Shadow chose is fitting for the tradition: “It’s happening again” the Giant says… “It is happening again.”

5) Can you tell us a little about your process?

I think a key thing to my process are some restrictions I decided to put on myself when making RACECAR back in 1999, and have stuck to since. The restrictions are:

- No thought balloons- No third-person narration boxes (like “Two weeks later,” or “Back at the Police station,” etc)- No color - just black, white and gray tones

And I’ve found these restrictions force me to make better comics. When you don’t have thought balloons or third person narration to fall back on, you really have to think how you pace scenes, handle transitions. I found it actually leads to comics that are more cinematic because the reader has to pull a lot more from visual cues.

Beyond those restrictions I start with the general story arc settled, and refine it as I go. When I approach a scene or large chunk of the story, I write the dialogue for it first, then do page thumbnails to place and refine the dialogue. I try to create a pace that will bring a beat at the bottom left of each spread…this beat could be a joke, some plot point, a cliffhanger…it just becomes a call to action to turn the page to the next spread. And I never shift from one scene to the next in the middle of the spread unless it’s for a very good reason.

So after I thumbnail the scene out, I pencil the page on a 14 x 17 bristol board, then letter the page and ink it. I do everything except the gray tone by hand because I am a big believer in hand lettering and hand inking. I think the two are best done together so the words and images aren’t disconnected. Contemporary comics with hand inks with digital type on top drives me crazy. They just don’t seem to be in the same world, the same story to me. So I like to do it all by hand.

Finally I scan the bristol boards and put in gray tones in Photoshop. I used to do the gray tones by hand as well, using those Letratone dot pattern sheets with adhesive backs. You lay them over the bristol board, cut a section out with an X-Acto knife, and stick it to the board. Runoff starts out using only hand-done gray tones, but about a third of the way through making Runoff those Letratone sheets got harder to find and more expensive. So I scanned the different dot patterns I used and created Photoshop fill patters out of them. I didn’t want to start using flat grays - I just love the texture tone dots give to comics.

6) Runoff plays with many tones and genres (comedy, horror, sci fi, etc). Do you have a personal favorite, or by including elements of them all were you trying to escape their limitations?

I can’t say I have a personal favorite, but I believe when genres are paired in the right way, it strengthens what is powerful in each of them. I love the story of how Stanley Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove…Strangelove is actually based on a thriller book called Red Alert, and Kubrick was having a hard time articulating the absurdity and horror of mutually assured nuclear destruction. Then he thought to turn it on it’s head: make the thriller a comedy. A comedy about nuclear annihilation. And that did it - it all fell into place for him. And I’m sure it is far more disturbing and lasting as a comedy than it ever would be as a thriller.

Another thing about playing with genre is that I think comics can do it in a way unlike any other storytelling medium. I loved the idea of juxtaposing something that looks like Bloom County right next to something out of a horror comic and have it be part of the same story. That direct juxtaposition lends itself so well to comic books, when it’s done right it can create such powerful, memorable moments.

7) Any upcoming projects we should keep our eyes out for?

My next book is called Eric – it’s kind of like The Big Lebowski meets Jacob’s Ladder. I’m happy to report I’m past the 200 page mark in what I see as a 300 page story. I’m not so happy to report that my pace isn’t very quick right now. Having a 2 year-old and a 16 month-old means I don’t have the same amount of time to work on my comics as before. But unlike Runoff, which was published in chapters as I finished them, I want to finish Eric and publish it all at once. I like the idea of being able to read it as one book so I could edit, add, refine, whatever, before printing. But I’m really excited about getting this book out.