Interview: Mark Wheatley and Robert Tinnell on ‘EZ Street’
For the last few months, I’ve spotlighted webcomic creators from all around the ‘Net in my weekly interview series here on ComicMix. This time around, I’m staying a bit closer to home and chatting with the creators of EZ Street, the Harvey-nominated webcomic from creators Mark Wheatley and Robert Tinnell, published here at ComicMix, which concluded its 38-issue run last week.
EZ Street first kicked off in October 2007, and promised readers a look inside the lives of two brothers, Scott and Danny Fletcher, who were trying to make a go of it in comics after heading their separate ways earlier in life. One brother had turned his love of the graphic arts into a career in design, while the other decided to try his luck in the film industry. EZ Street chronicled their return into each other’s lives and the ups and downs of collaboration, their personal relationships and the comics scene. Just prior to publication of the final episode of EZ Street, it was announced that Wheatley and Tinnell’s series had been nominated for a Harvey Award in the category of "Best Online Comic" for 2008, joining popular webcomics such as Perry Bible Fellowship, Penny Arcade and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
I spoke with the creative duo about the series’ roots, working in an online medium and Lone Justice, the project that will soon jump from the pages of EZ Street and into a series all its own. Wheatley and Tinnell were also nice enough to provide the cover image for the first issue of Lone Justice. A full-size version of the image is available at the end of the interview.
COMICMIX: In stories like EZ Street, which use the creative process as subject matter and make the comics industry a central part of the plot, readers are often privy to a lot of the creators’ personalities and experiences in the biz. How much of your personalities are in EZ Street? What parts of you and your experiences can readers see in Scott, Danny and their lives?
MARK WHEATLEY: Well, I think we got a lot of the real Mike Oeming, Neil Vokes and Todd Livingston into these pages. But the rest is fiction — fiction that is true in the same way as any story I tell. Everything comes from my own life experience — and in this case, Bob’s life experience. Each of us has either experienced something damn close to what goes on in EZ Street, or we have been close to people who have gone through these moments of glory, loss and redemption. For me, since I’ve been running a comic art studio for over a quarter of a century, I’ve had a lot of close-up views of careers that almost made it, and careers that have self-destructed. There is really no shortage of people who have dreams, and people who lack the resources to follow their dreams, be it the courage, the finances or the support of people who believe in them. So yeah, EZ Street is the result of decades of personal research. That’s why we called it "EZ Street" — it isn’t!
ROBERT TINNELL: I like to think that there’s a lot of all creators present in both of them. As for me personally, I think they represent different elements of my personality as well as some commonalities. There were also instances where I took elements of Mark’s passions and personality and wove those in as well — as did he, of course. At the risk of repeating myself, I do hope we’ve tapped into some universal emotions on the part of creators.
To be more specific, I could — but won’t — name very specific instances of EZ Street that were pretty much word-for-word recreations of real moments.
CMix: Was EZ Street cathartic for either of you in any way? How did it make you feel to produce such a personal project?
MW: Not for me. But it was a real joy to be working with Bob and [ComicMix EiC] Mike Gold. I’ve always had great experiences working with Mike in the past on Mars, Breathtaker, and The Super Image and even when we’ve worked together on PR and development projects. Mike is a super-brain resource who can be as creative as any of the people making comics on ComicMix — but he focuses his creativity on the editing. And that guiding hand is dead accurate. Perhaps his greatest talent is in knowing how to get a result from the most minimal of suggestions. I know he made Breathtaker much better by just asking me one question when I was starting in on writing the first book.
He asked me what would happen if Chase Darrow had a pet dog who she loved and who loved her. And needing to think that through almost instantly painted a complex and conflicted backstory in my mind that informed everything I wrote about her. Mike had those same kind of questions on EZ Street. And Bob and I came up with answers.
For Bob and me, we had to scratch a number of wounds to construct the story and characters in EZ Street. We had to rehash those embarrassing moments of youth where we shot off our mouths at the wrong time to the wrong person, when we were too stupid or blind to see opportunity banging on our doors, when we had success in our hands and watched it dribble away, and when we would talk about these moments to each other we would just know we had to put Scott and Danny in situations that were similar. But of course we are writing a story and we had control over making things just as bad as we needed.
I will say this — the thing that makes my life in comics so different from Scott and Danny’s is that I never could walk away. I lack the ability to forget about it and move on. In the darkest days of the industry in the late-’90s, when comic work was very tight, I started writing for TV shows. And they liked my work and I liked working with the people. And of course it paid much better than any comics work ever had. Then one day I got an opportunity to do some comics work again and I took the gig thinking it would be a nice break from the TV work. And here I am 10 years later and I never got back to writing for TV. I even turned down a gig I was offered because I had already committed to a comic book gig.
RT: It was partially cathartic. To be honest, however, I tend to be very reflective on the creative process and the lifestyle of artists in general — so I guess I’m not navel-gazing.
I’ve tapped into pretty personal territory before, with Feast of the Seven Fishes, and even more painfully in The Chelation Kid. But no matter how many times you do it, you still run into painful moments that make you wish you could just gloss over certain truths.
There’s a moment with Scott that I can really relate to. He’s done all these films and then things just stop. I had a moment like that after my film Frankenstein and Me. I was getting all this attention and praise and comped first-class tickets and all that. And then the natural cycle of promoting the film ended and the attention died out and I was some time getting the next picture and I was… pretty crushed, actually. It was at that moment I realized I’d better do this stuff for the work itself and the joy of creating it — because fame is an illusion. And all that was even before this ridiculous era of celebrity without achievement we’re enduring…
CMix: What was the creative process like for you with EZ Street? Was it any different working in the online environment than it was for print?
MW: No. We were working on this so far in advance of the time when ComicMix was ready to run comics on the site that we really had no conception of what they were planning. Frankly, that early on, all of us, even Mike Gold I suspect, were just thinking of the print model. And really, the ComicMix Reader is very slick and close to the print reading experience.
RT: We just set out to do some truly novelistic. I’ll leave it to others to judge if we succeeded — but that was our approach.
CMix: You were recently nominated for a Harvey Award. What does that mean for you and for EZ Street as a story? Does that change anything about your opinion of the book or plans for the story you developed?
MW: I put a down payment on a posh new house the moment I heard about it. Getting that million dollar Harvey Award money will really change my life. There is money attached to the award, right? Oh.
Well… It does send notice that there are a lot of people out there enjoying EZ Street. I’m not surprised with all the response we’ve been getting. But for the casual reader this will help get the word out to a larger audience. And that will be great for the next part of EZ Street, which is our Lone Justice project. And really, it is an honor to be nominated. When I got my first nomination ages ago, Harvey Kurtzman was still living. So I got to meet him at the awards ceremony and that very much connected him to the awards in my mind. To me, Harvey is the best of the best when it comes to comics creators. More than anyone, he understood the language of comics and their potential. I have an Eisner Award, but I think Harvey is just one notch higher than Will Eisner on my list of great comic creators. Anyway, I hope the nomination will alert more people to the existence of the free, online EZ Street graphic novel here at ComicMix.
And to that end, I think it is great that the Harvey Awards committee decided to include links to online comics in their ballot.
RT: Speaking for myself, I never envisioned EZ Street as anything more than what it is — a comic about making comics and about the creative process in general and the sacrifices that tend to accompany it. Would I go back to these characters? Hell, yes. But only at some point where it would make sense to see them dealing with a different aspect of their pursuit of this stuff. Like, maybe five years after they’ve had mega-success. Or if they end up like, you know, Georges Melies — working menial jobs just to survive. That would interest me. But to pick them right back up would not interest me.
As far as the nomination, it’s very flattering and always a wonderful thing to be recognized in such stellar company. But as I said before, I’ve sort of developed a protective armor about that sort of thing. I’d love to have one — but I have to keep it in perspective.
CMix: Looking back on EZ Street now, is there anything you wish you could tell yourself when you started the project that you’ve learned over the course of producing the series?
MW: Yes! I found these great flexible nib pens just as I was finishing up the final pages of the book — and I would have loved to have had them all through the project! I’m looking forward to using them right from the start on Lone Justice.
RT: Absolutely. I wish I’d planned the thing to run in more succinct chapters that would have had a sense of completeness when they finished each week. But, as Mark has pointed out, once the whole project is up on the web — and it is, now — that point is moot. But I wish I’d been more disciplined in that respect. I’ve mentioned before – I love the structure and discipline of stuff like Strontium Dog — that’s some kick-ass comics writing. But then again, we set out to try and do this thing as a true novel so that precludes getting into the rhythm of precise page count serializations. Did I just totally cover my ass there?
CMix: What was your favorite moment from EZ Street? Was there a particular scene or episode that you’re uniquely fond of?
MW: I do really like to opening scene for the book. Bob and I had talked about that scene for a long time. We had 20 ideas on just how we were going to set up the premise for this book, how we were going to announce to the reader that we were offering them something a little different. And all through the talk I kept thinking that a lot of the ideas were good, but none of them were great. And when Bob described this one to me it sounded just okay. I didn’t get it.
But then he delivered the first draft of the script. And it just sent shivers up my spine, it was so good.
Bob doesn’t really describe anything in his script. Mostly he just writes dialog and leaves it to me to come up with action. So I gave the opening a lot of thought before going with the storybook/Norman Rockwell style. And when we saw the final result we knew we had something. All we had to do then was come up with Scene Two! I also really enjoyed the noir-style of the Crash! sequence near the end of the book.
RT: As a fan of Mark Wheatley, I have several — like the wonderful page from the "David’s Night" sequence where the boy, David, is drawing the dragon. That was just marvelous, visually. I don’t want to cut my own throat and say the opening sequence is my favorite because that implies that it peaks — but I do really love that. I love the characters of Keely and Jen and think they have some really nice moments. When Jen and Danny are at the pizza place — for whatever reason I really love that bit. I think it’s real. And real is good.
CMix: Do you have any future plans for the Arthurian story that was laid out earlier in the series?
MW: If there’s as much demand as there has been for Lone Justice we could certainly revisit "David’s Night." It might be interesting to see how much it would change from the brief outline that we present in the EZ Street book.
What? No requests for more "Dirk the Deadly?"
RT: I don’t know. I think maybe we’ve blown it by giving away the ending! I’ll always go back to the Arthurian thing, however. It’s like a tic or something with me… that and Frankenstein.
CMix: You’re working on Lone Justice next – the project that Scott and Danny agreed to produce at the end of EZ Street. Did you have that in mind from the start – producing a story that was introduced via EZ Street?
MW: We did have it in mind to actually do the story that Scott and Danny come up with. But were quite some distance into the book before we knew which of their ideas was going to be the winner.
RT: Yes. But we didn’t really know completely where it would take us – though we had a sense of it based on a project we kicked around a couple years ago. I don’t think I’ve ever had a story lead me around as much as this Lone Justice thing has…
CMix: Can you give me some details about Lone Justice?
MW: Lone Justice is a period piece, set at the time of the Great Depression. This is hard-hitting pulp action, with big set pieces and larger-than-life characters. And yet, because it is growing out of EZ Street, we are also bringing to it more depth of characterization, motivation and social commentary than usually was found in the pulps of the 1930s. And I think readers of EZ Street will be pleasantly surprised by a number of things we are including. Even though this will be a stand-alone story, anyone who has read EZ Street will see a bit more in Lone Justice: Crash!
CMix: Other than Lone Justice, what’s next for each of you?
MW: I have a daily strip in development for a major cable TV company that is just a little too early to announce. Insight is also just a few weeks away from announcing a new motion picture based on one of our properties – but we want to let the film studio make that announcement. See, we’re in the June doldrums — that time before the San Diego Comic Con when everyone is waiting to make their big announcements. And I’m busy working with Mike Oeming on our second Hammer of the Gods graphic novel. This one is called Back From the Dead. And I’m also working on new Frankenstein Mobster stories.
RT: The feature version of Feast of the Seven Fishes was pushed until this fall, so my fingers are crossed that I’ll actually start shooting that. On the comics front I’m working something up with Shane Oakley (Albion artist) that’s a lot of fun. I’m hoping Neil Vokes will finally decide what he wants to do next. And maybe Mike Gold will let me know about my massive Mexican horror tale, The Voice – not that I’m pressuring him in public or anything. I also have an Arthurian kids comic that the Fraim Brothers are drawing that just might make its way to ComicMix as well. Beyond that, I have three different comic stories plotted that need fleshing out to script — as well as two spec screenplays and — let me put it this way: I made an appointment to have dinner with the wife and kids in September.
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!
For information about the Harvey Awards, visit: http://www.harveyawards.org/