Between the Panels: Cartoonist A.L. Kaplan on the Business of Webcomics, Art as Becoming, and Teen Comic Obsessions

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

While at first glance, a psychology degree may not seem like a natural step on the path to making comics, Alan Kaplan is a creator whose interests and background fully inform his art. The X-Men, along with some other familiar names, figure in Alan’s comic-reading history, but the voice he brings today to “queer narratives in psychedelic sci-fi and horror settings” is entirely unique.

 
First, the particulars…
 
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist/writer
 
Your home base: Currently yee-hawing it up in Nevada, USA
 
Website: alkcomics.myportfolio.com
 
Social Media
 
Instagram: @alkcomics
 
Twitter: @alkcomics
 
Any other sites you use regularly: Full-Spectrum Therapy (webcomic): tapas.io/series/fst
 



 
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: First, the big question… Why comics? What attracts you to this specifically?

Alan Kaplan: Accessibility, I think, played a large part in my initial entry into making comics when I was a kid. I had pencils, I had paper — so long as I could imagine something, I could draw it, and I could tell stories about it. The limits in comics are still just my imagination and my technical ability to execute on my imagination. I like those limits. Of course, I mean this in regards to the art form of comics and not the comic book industry, which has its own separate limits and accessibility.
 
KS: If we flipped through teenage Alan’s comic collection, what kinds of titles would we find? What inspired you back then?

AK: CLAMP’s X was probably my biggest teen comic obsession. I was coming off X-Men titles around then, but still hungry for serialized superhero soaps drenched in queer subtext and light bondage aesthetics, apparently. Other notable highlights were A,A’ (Hagio Moto), Angel Sanctuary (Yuki Kaori), Alichino (Shurei Kouyu), The Sandman (Neil Gaiman & Co), and Clover (CLAMP). Basically, if it was dark and gothic I read it and crossed my fingers it would be gay. Got very lucky with Hagio Moto there. I also loved a fantasy/sci-fi epic, like Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (Miyazaki Hayao) and ElfQuest (Wendy & Richard Pini) and Fujishma Kousuke’s Oh! My Goddess was a comedy mainstay.

KS: When you say you were coming off the X-Men, what had been your relationship with the title before then?

AK: My sister and neighbor were a bit older and the ones driving the collection of the various X-Men titles, which were read to me before I could read them myself. But I totally loved them. We hunted down back issues at shops and flea markets and had a pull-box for the current runs. My younger brother and I played with and collected a lot of action figures and made up our own superhero teams with them. We generally connected more with the ‘80s material, but overall Excalibur was a favorite and its cancellation in 1998 was sort of the final straw at the time. Fully back and loving the current runs now, though.

KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative in 2020 to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience.  Was there a particular comic story that had a real impact on you as a reader back then?

AK: CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura has had a lasting impact on me since I first read it in elementary school, in the Mixx floppies and Kodansha bilingual graphic novels. X-Men, Pokemon, and Sailor Moon were the biggest media in my life at the time, so I was basically the prime audience for CCS. I also loved Golden Age and Art Nouveau illustration styles, so I’m sure Mokona’s artwork was what initially attracted me to it, as it had to Takeuchi Naoko’s Sailor Moon. But Sailor Moon hadn’t gotten to the lesbian characters yet, and Claremont’s X-Men, which I was also reading, didn’t articulate its queer context in a way I could understand at the time.



 
KS: Why was that the right story at the time for you? What was it doing in your eyes that those other books weren’t?

AK: One of the main characters is Syaoran Li, a small, obnoxious boy who crushes on the female lead and an older guy character — and the story is totally casual about it all. Imagine that! This is late ‘90s in America: Boys weren’t able to just crush on boys casually, in media or in reality. I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to articulate my own attraction or identity at the time, but that character just really made sense to me. Beyond my gender-nonconformity, I was also teased relentlessly for arguing that kids could have mixed-gender friend groups, which abound in CCS. Looking back, CCS is like this total utopian vision of what I wished my elementary school experience could have been like, cool powers and all.

KS: Moving from you as reader to creator, do you have a specific memory of when you realized “I want to do that” in terms of being an artist?

AK: I’m grateful to have grown up a middle child in an artistic household — in other words, art wasn’t something I had to seek out for myself. I remember flipping through my mom’s college illustration portfolio with a sense of reverence and awe, and copying drawings from it when I was very young. There was a particular profile of a woman I copied over and over. Klaus Voorman’s cover of Revolver — the way he stylized Paul’s eye, cheek and nose — also really enchanted me. I thought a lot about how he and my mom stylized facial features and copied both extensively.
 
KS: Was your mom a professional illustrator?

AK: Both my parents are lifelong, but not professional, artists who raised my siblings and I with their love for classic fantasy and sci-fi, as well as, notably, Charles Addams and M.C. Escher. My dad's a musician, so music was another big part of life that became an important artistic lens for me: thinking about rhythm structure and how that can apply to page layouts, stuff like that. Copying my older sister also defined my interests back then, as it does today. She's a published comic artist and writer under the names Robin Robinson and Robin Kaplan, and earlier this year we wrote and recorded a musical track to promote her :01 graphic novel, No One Returns from the Enchanted Forest!

KS: Is there an art project that stands out in memory as a foundational one for you, at whatever age that might’ve been?

AK: I think for me, art is a process of continual becoming. My relationship to it is the creation of it — once I’ve made it, it takes on this other life in the viewer and is out of my control. So, when I look back at all the webcomics, music, design work, and drawings I’ve done in the past, it’s hard for me to see them objectively. They all just seem like parts of a constant fumbling and learning towards eventual meaning-making.
 
KS: These days, do you have a set daily/nightly work routine, or does it change drastically depending on project?

AK: When I’m on deadline, I begin my days with a strict routine: I run first thing in the morning to wake myself up, take care of hygiene and cats, and then work on comics while my brain is fresh. By the time I run out of steam, it’s time to clock in at the day job and fuel myself with tea to get through the rest of the day. Occasionally, I can pull inks or line boards at the end of the day, but the morning is when I’m able to do anything that requires real thinking. It’s been difficult finding the right new routine since the pandemic reshaped my day, but I’m getting there!
 
KS: How about listening to music, or any other background noise, while you work?

AK: I go super hard building playlists for personal projects. I develop a Pavlovian response to it that helps my work routine. For other work, I still find myself pulled along by background noise and I’ll DJ my whole day. Flipping LPs helps force me off the desk to stretch, too, which my body appreciates.

KS: Talk a little about the origin of your webcomic, Full-Spectrum Therapy. It's obviously easier to treat something like that as a "someday I need to finally start that thing" whereas actually doing it takes real discipline.


AK: This gets back to the idea of accessibility: I've made webcomics since I was 14 because I had pencil, paper, a scanner, a free hosting site, and no one could stop me. By the early ‘00s zine culture was more of an affectation than a viable creative outlet for me; webcomics were the cheapest, easiest, and most accessible way to make whatever stories I wanted and to share them with an audience. Webcomics are a great platform to explore storytelling — aspiring creators: just do it! Maybe no one would read it, but having even just a handful of people go “I get this” to something messy and unfinished I made as a teen about, like, genderqueer elves or whatever, was huge for me. Webcomics can be people’s first — or only — access to LGBTQ+ stories and communities, especially weirder stuff, since the stories don’t have to make money to be told.




KS: Looking back, any lessons you took from that time?

AK: So, F-ST sits on top of all my more exploratory teen webcomics and what I learned from those experiences. It was written to an ending with a set page count and timeline, and planned for print. Posting the first draft online as I drew it gave me a helpful support structure I knew I would need: regular updates meant I had to build time into my routine to work on it, and an audience — at first imagined, then real — to connect with meant I wasn’t spending four years working on a vanity project alone. Because I had two different hosting platforms, tried out slight variations in each serialization — things like altered dialogue or story beats — to see which landed better. None of my webcomics have been “successful” by any financial or industry means, but hearing from LGBTQ+ people around the world that the characters resonated with them is far more important to me than the abstract numbers of a follower count or whatever.

KS: Because many of our readers are aspiring or just-starting-out comics creators, can you give a little more insight about your calculus following F-ST? Specifically your thought process during that time, knowing where you wanted to get, and figuring out how to help yourself get there...

AK: Well, there was a heavy dose of hindsight bias in my answer, since I don’t know the other side of the story. My thoughts were focused on pursuing traditional publishing — so, querying agents. I tried hard to make F-ST my debut! But there’s a lot of waiting involved in querying… a lot that’s out of my control. What I post on social media is something I can control, so I started thinking about it more deliberately than I had in the past. Social media isn’t a portfolio, but it’s not not a portfolio.


I also didn’t have a webcomic to promote anymore, and no longer had to stick to the same drawing style. I focused on doing art studies improving shape language, lighting, etc., and made sure to polish some up and post them on social media to keep my name out there as I developed my next project. And well, as my sister recently said to me, “It’s more fun to do a lighting study of Gambit than of a pear.” She’s being glib obviously — we both love pears — but because it was fun, I used characters from webcomics and print comics I dug as subjects for the studies. Because some of the source material had built-in fanbases, these fan art posts often engaged my work with a wider audience than if I were posting studies of pears — or of my own characters. Whether or not #fanartgotmepaid, there are more direct routes to getting work-for-hire comics jobs than mine, because my focus was on traditional publishing. That being said, while having a direction in mind is important, creative careers are seldom linear: when I was pitched an interesting work-for-hire opportunity that felt related to the work I wanted to make myself, I said yes. And I’m so grateful for that chance to work on some really fun stories for BOOM!/Archaia.



 
KS: What do you think made you good “casting” as the artist for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller?

AK: Well, in her initial approach, one of the wonderful editors on the project said something akin to “I get the impression from your art that you’re a big fan of David Bowie…” They seemed interested in exploring the queer side to the Loki of Norse mythology, and the comics work I was advertising at the time was very gay. I’m grateful for them taking chances on a diversity of often-new voices to the industry for their anthology series. I brought in my sister to write it, since she taught me to love mythology. It was a really fun time. Oh, and she wasn’t wrong about my love of Bowie.



 
KS: Hypothetical time: For one day, you can stand over the shoulder of any artist from the history of comics, watch them work, ask any questions, etc. Who’s your pick?

AK: Tough question! I’d love watch Brett Blevins pencil New Mutants #73. So many of his images in that issue have been burned in my brain for decades now. I always coveted his NM issues and wished his run on the series were longer!
 
KS: Remember, you don’t just have to stand mute and observe. Feel free to speak up!

AK: Oh no, the power to be obnoxious? New Mutants #73 is the huge emotional climax to Illyana’s storyline through the cross-title Inferno event, so a lot is riding on Blevins' ability to sell the stakes to the reader. Obviously, I think he nails it, so I’d love to hear his approach to characterization and narrative visual composition. His characters are full of life — every part of the panel works together to tell the story. Comics artists have to wear many hats, and directing our "actors,” “lighting,” and "photographers" to communicate effectively and beautifully takes a whole lotta learnin'. And I’d love to learn how Blevins thinks about this stuff while he’s drawing under what I can only assume are some pretty tight deadlines!

KS: Tell us about a passion of yours totally unrelated to comics or art. Something you study, collect, practice…

AK: I love bike touring around the country with friends. Disconnected from the Internet, outside all day for weeks on end, problem solving mechanical issues, experiencing the landscape up close and by the power of my own body… it shifts my perspective so totally, and I absolutely love it. Making comics is a stationary and usually solitary activity for me, so biking — and bike touring especially — is where I find my balance.
 
KS: As we wind up, I’ll ask you for a comic or graphic novel from any era that you look at with total admiration.

AK: Two books come to mind that hit me at critical points. First is Citizens of No Place by Jimenez Lai. In it, he uses comics to craft visual essays on urbanism and how architecture shapes experience. I was feeling stuck and pulled in different directions at the time career-wise, and I admired his ability to synthesize his passions into something that could only exist in the medium of comics.

Second is Conqueror Worm, the Hellboy story written and drawn by Mike Mignola, colored by Dave Stewart, and lettered by Pat Brosseau. I’m far from the first to praise its masterful visual storytelling, so I’ll just add that, personally, Conqueror Worm was the first time I saw what colors could really bring to comics.
 
KS: Finally, talk a little about MAW and anything else we should be on the lookout for from you in 2022.

AK: Horror! Cults! Deep sea creatures! Jude wove together so many interesting ideas and emotions in MAW, and I’m grateful for the freedom both they and the editorial team gave me in my execution of the inks. Getting into the heads of the characters and author was a welcome change from my relative isolation in the pandemic. There’s so much pain in MAW, so much anger, so many characters and experiences I got to embody for a time... I hope people have enjoyed reading it! As for 2022, I’m finishing up a graphic novel pitch and hoping to return to tabling at conventions.
 
 


 
 

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