Kleefeld On Webcomics #96: ‘Comic Book Think Tank’ Interview, Part One

By Sean Kleefeld

Ron Perazza and Daniel Govar have been making waves in the comic industry for several years now. Perazza started his career working on Marvel trading cards, and eventually became the editorial director for DC’s Zuda Comics imprint. Govar comes more from an animation background, but caught comics’ attention with Azure, published through Zuda. Last year, they launched a new project called Comic Book Think Tank, largely as an avenue for them to explore the notions of webcomics in a very public space. As part of that exploration, they’ve created their own webcomics viewer, Yanapax, which they’re making freely available to anyone. Both Perazza and Govar sat down to talk about how they came to create CBTT, what they’re doing with it, and where they’re going with it. Govar was even kind enough to provide MTV Geek with an exclusive look at some of his art for one of their next stories.

MTV Geek: We’re definitely going to be talking about Comic Book Think Tank here, but I want to start with some background to help put things in perspective for everyone. You’ve both been in comics for a number of years, and have exhibited a clear love of the medium. Can you both share some of your earliest comic experiences? Were you big fans as kids? What were the comics that first really grabbed your attention?

Daniel Govar: I lived in Canada and was, I think thirteen, when I first learned about comics. No one in my family read comics and like many, the art was what first attracted me. We had just moved to Canada (I was an army brat so we moved a lot), and I had been given an allowance for the first time. I had no idea what to spend it on and made my way down the street to the local mall to see what $10 Canadian could get me. The only thing of real interest at the small strip mall was a small newsstand/convenience store, and the owner was a friendly old guy. I was after candy of course, and just beside it was a small rack of comics. Uncanny X-men caught my eye and he had a couple of issues from the months previous, so I bought three and a few candy bars and got a loon back (Canadian dollar coin). They were Dark Phoenix issues with Byrne and Claremont and I was hooked. I drew all the time, and after reading a few I urged my mother to buy me How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way and brought it with me everywhere for years. I still have those three comics and that book.

Ron Perazza: Nobody in my family was into comics into comics either. My parents weren’t comic fans as kids and I didn’t have any older brothers or sisters that read comics so there weren’t comics around the house. I had some of the MEGO action figured but my first exposure to comic books came when I was about eight years old. A family friend gave me a battered, old, brown paper bag filled with random Marvel issues. They were ragged things with doodles in the margins. Thoroughly trashed hand-me-downs.

I vividly remember one of the first issues; Spectacular Spider-Man #36. In it, Spider-Man fights Swarm. Now, in case you don’t know, Swarm is a dead Nazi scientist whose consciousness has inhabited a colony of mutated bees. The bees would carry around his skeleton and form a sort of human shape and fly about in gloves and a cape…because that makes total and complete sense. On the cover Swarm is stretching out his arm into some sort of killer bee blast and people are freaking out and running everywhere while Spider-Man shoots webs at him. It blew my eight-year old mind! I remember thinking, “There’s no way that is going to work, Spider-Man.” That was all it took. I must’ve read every comic in that bag a hundred times.

Geek: You both went to college for art degrees, so did you have deliberate intentions back then of becoming comic book artists? Or was it simply a desire to work in an artistic field, whether that was an illustrator or animator or whatever?

Perazza: Yeah, my degree is in illustration and it was a pretty traditional program. I thought about being a comic book artist for a while but realized pretty early on that I didn’t have the right combination of skills or necessarily even the right style to become a conventional comic artist. It was really pure luck that Marvel happened to own Fleer (the sports trading card company), that Fleer happened to be based in the Philadelphia area (where I lived), that they happened to be in the process of starting up Marvel trading cards, that they happened to need creative managers who knew comics and that I happened to be in that area, at that show when they were hiring. So I thought, creative manager. Yeah, I can do that. I can figure that out.

Govar: My degree is in Imaging and Digital Art, and at the time I wanted to develop 3D animations or special effects for films. I drew and painted all the time in my free time and in any sort of elective classes. I worked on the boardwalk in Ocean City doing caricatures and portraits, and over a summer learned that really wasn’t for me, though the money was great. I developed education CD-ROMs for a company for a couple of years out of school, and then began feeling that itch to tell stories. On a bet from a co-worker I submitted a animation pitch using Flash (something we used in CD development but was pretty alien to the internet at large), to the SciFi channel’s website. I got a call the next day and they wanted a thirteen episode treatment. I got a contract within a week and quit making CD-ROMs in another 2 weeks. For the most part they were motion comics, and from there I worked on another animated series using claymation for Goth musician/director Voltaire – also for the SciFi Channel, narrated by Bai Ling. Comics were more of something I read at this point in my life and most of the art I made was book covers or animations for various clients like Nike and Simon and Schuster. Zuda was actually my first real comic-making experience.

Geek: One of the things that I find interesting about where you two are coming from is that you were both going to school while there were some major changes going on in all sorts of commercial art. Design and illustration and photography were switching to a digital focus while you were in school, and I think you would’ve been hitting the workplace just as businesses started to recognize that this computer thing wasn’t just a fad or a niche any longer. Can you talk about how you saw that unfold both during your education, and your early days in the real world?

Perazza: Great question. While I was at college, computers were just starting to show up in art classes and, in retrospect, it really was kind of primitive. I mean, c’mon…designing with SuperPaint? Nothing was ever going to come from that. However, the school deserved a lot of credit realizing that computers didn’t just belong to the CompSci kids. The idea that computers were just as valid tools for art and design as pens or brushes and that we as art students should explore that was very much supported. And yet, at the same time, I still had classes where instructors were using air brushes and teaching things like how to cut rubylith. It was kind of schizophrenic but in retrospect I think it gave me a well-rounded foundation that served as a springboard into a lot of different areas.

Govar: In school I really saw the birth and evolution of digital media. The movie The Abyss, considered the pinnacle of digital art at the time, had just been released and two of my professors had worked on the effects. In that time storage media evolved nearly 10 times – floppies, to syquest drives, to zip drives…and the systems were evolving just as fast; each generation at least double as fast as the system before. We used SGI’s, Indigo’s and various early gen Macs, and laptops were not really in production at the time. Mobile didn’t even exist. For animation film and video (actual video tape) was still being used, and I made sure I knew and learned to use old school materials and techniques such as rotoscoping and Bolex’s if the opportunity arose. When I graduated and started work designing CD-ROMs it was a wake up to see how prevalent PCs were in art. Macs were rarely used and because I had a programming background as well, something required of my major, I was one of the few guys at the job who could animated and program Macromedia Director projects. Technology and software in particular developed so quickly back then. I remember in school, by senior year, anyone in the top percentile knew more about the hardware and software than the professors.

Geek: At the same time, of course, the comic industry was being impacted as well. Although using computers to create comics was no longer new, it was becoming less of an outlier experience and more of the norm with the bigger publishers switching to digital lettering and coloring for everything. I expect you were both on board with these types of changes, but were you able to really advocate for them in the early parts of your careers? I’m also curious who else you may have seen pushing these types of things — was this coming more from the artists and writers, or from the younger generation of folks regardless of their role, or was everyone pretty well on board from your perspective?

Perazza: I used to program sprites to look like superheroes in my Commodore 64 when I was like ten years old! So yeah, by the time I was working in the comic industry I was absolutely on board with computers as artistic tools.

Govar: I kind of missed out on how this affected the comics industry. I know in the video game industry – something I was involved with at the time, Digital art had taken over everything from concept art to texture development, and 3D models were already predominantly used.

Perazza: Comics were already headed that way as well. In fact, by the time I was managing Marvel trading card sets at Fleer we were routinely hiring computer colorists to digitally paint on top of pencils. It was pretty much standard procedure at that point. It was still early enough in the development of computer coloring that the results were hit or miss but it was a pretty established workflow even then.

Geek: I think Zuda Comics was something of a watershed moment for both of you and, I think, marked a notable shift in the broader discussion of online comics. Ron, can you provide some of the backstory on how Zuda came about and, Dan, how did you come to submit Azure to them?

Perazza: You know, people gave Paul Levitz (then Publisher of DC Comics) a lot of flak for being an old-school comics luddite – and in a lot of ways he was – but he was also an amazing advocate for comics as an art form and for advancing the medium. He recognized that creative people were using the internet to tell all new types of stories and connect with a completely different audience than traditional print comics. The “macro” idea for ZUDA came from Paul. I was the head of the Online team at the time and, because ZUDA was intended to be 100% online, he pitched it over to my team instead of the Publishing group to figure out how to make it work. He gave us a budget and an amazing amount of freedom. The goal was basically to find new creators and develop new intellectual property.

Govar: AZURE was another one of my co-worker/friend’s “bets” for me. It’s great when you can find people that keep pushing you to do things you might not push yourself to do – urge you to take chances. That friend – Sean, saw a notice on a tech blog about ZUDA, and sent it to me with the note “You should submit something.” The thing that really attracted me was the layout (4:3) and the player which was well thought and designed. It embraced digital and I was drawn to the idea of comics evolving. I hadn’t actually developed a comic before and began penciling pages. I played around on the site – got to know the community and people behind the site and made some life friends. I submitted AZURE and thought it had a pretty good shot – I listened to much of what Ron, Kwanza [Johnson], and others were saying with their #MakeComics advice. I set up a campaign plan and asked a pal of mine to help me promote the comic. AZURE won the competition and went up on my birthday. We did two ZUDA seasons (6 issues) before it closed.

Perazza: That was pretty much the goal in action right there. I think it’s kind of neat that Dan came to ZUDA through a tech blog and not through traditional comics.

Geek: Zuda being closed down came as something of a surprise to many people looking in from the outside; it was certainly a critical success on several levels, but I gather it wasn’t as much of a commercial one? Was that simply a financial decision to shut down the experiment, or were there other factors at play?

Perazza: Yeah, it came as a surprise to us as well! We had multiple Harvey Award nominations, including winning the Harvey for best Online Comic, Eisner nominations, Glyph Awards, recognition by the American Library Association, not to mention a steady stream of new, talented creators. At its height ZUDA was the second most trafficked site for DC Comics routinely beating WildStorm, MAD Magazine, Vertigo and DC Direct. We were achieving our goals.

I think it really just came down to organizational changes and DC Comics preparing to radically alter the way they do business at just about every level. ZUDA was always kind of an odd fit within DC Comics and now it just wasn’t a part of the plan. That’s kind of the way things go sometimes. It’s unfortunate.

Geek: Now a few years later, you’re teaming up for Comic Book Think Tank. Before getting into it too deeply, let’s make sure everyone’s on the same page — what exactly is Comic Book Think Tank?

Perazza: COMIC BOOK THINK TANK is kind of a digital experiment in its own right. Dan and I stayed friends after ZUDA and over the years had talked a lot about digital comics – random ideas about storytelling, concepts, etc. We tended to think about digital comics and digital storytelling in similar ways. ZUDA probably had something to do with that.

Govar: Agreed. ZUDA was doing a lot of things right and was really ahead of its time. Look around now – What do Thrillbent, Marvel’s Infinite line, and a good chunk of the webcomics out there have in common? They all display content in landscape format – designed for computers and screens. The storytelling techniques are being challenged and played with, with each of the aforementioned, but that was what was going on daily at ZUDA.

Perazza: This might be a sidebar but one of the unexpected benefits of being involved with ZUDA was a really strong community of creators who were incredibly passionate – and incredibly smart – about evolving comics. Something the public didn’t really get to see much of was the behind the scenes interaction between the staff and creative teams – sharing ideas, solutions, what worked, what didn’t. It was very supportive and everyone was working toward a common goal – great digital comics.

COMIC BOOK THINK TANK is sort of a continuation of that. It’s a place where we kick around ideas, make comics, share the results and have some fun.

Govar: Well put.

Check in next week for part two of our interview with Perazza and Govar!

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Kleefeld On Webcomics #94: All In The Family

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