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Between the Panels: Editor Hayden Robel on Learning to Be Wrong, the Business of Web Comics, and a Career Path Via Dinosaurs

“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.

Hayden Robel’s life has consisted of a steady diet of story, whether through early exposure to manga, writing his own prose, or his current job of guiding other authors on the web comics platform, Tapas. But like most stories, his line from reading Dragonball Z to being Tapas’ Head of Originals Production wasn’t a straight one — and with each plot twist came new lessons about the life of narrative and vice versa.

First off, the basics…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Editor

Your home base: Santa Maria, CA


Social Media

Twitter: @onlykatchup

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: My big question upfront is: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically?

Hayden Robel: The immediate thing that captured my attention is the visual medium. I came from a background of prose — short stories, novels — as far as what I pursued in my creative endeavors. Like many aspiring people on Tapas, I was always wanting to be a writer, first and foremost. But something I loved growing up was a lot of manga like Shonen Jump, and some traditional comics like Batman, and those spurred in me a love of how comics tell stories. The serial nature of comic storytelling really attracted me.

I’m never going to cheat on my love of prose, which I’ll love until the day I die, but I think there’s something beautiful about being able to communicate an idea directly through images, whether it’s a silent film or a cave painting. And comics brings that cerebral quality of, say, reading a book, but also the accessibility of pairing it with images and sound effects. That’s really what attracted me to comics.

KS: Let’s talk about that love of manga. What were the titles or characters you gravitated toward?

HR: I was a massive, massive fan of Akira Toriyama and Dragonball Z. One of my earliest memories of distinctly falling in love with comics was [through] those thick, pulpy, black-and-white manga books. Before that, when I was a very young kid, I distinctly remember getting a Batman issue and enjoying superhero fiction. But what really attracted me to manga was its character focus, first and foremost. I’m also a big fan of over-the-top, not afraid to embrace its eccentricities storytelling.

KS: Can you tell us about a particular story that had a real impact on you?

HR: I don’t want to make this all about Dragonball Z [laughter]. I remember coming to tears reading the Dark Tournament arc in Yu Yu Hakusho. In particular, the scene where Yusuke is struggling to have this emergent power come out of him. That paired with his teacher, Genkai, and also the main villain of the story, Toguro. That’s one of the moments when I really saw a character struggle with [SPOILER ALERT for a 20+-year-old story] losing a loved one — in this case his senpai or teacher. Not only that specific story, just Yusuke’s story in general, being an aimless waif of a kid, kind of a delinquent, who doesn’t fit in. That’s something that really appealed to me.

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KS: So, it was the lead character you responded to most?

HR: Look at this character who didn’t have a lot of ambition in life, didn’t have a lot of motivation to do something, which even as a young kid I struggled with. I was in resource classes because of a visual impairment, where the learning styles really didn’t fit with me, so I found myself often with a bad group of kids doing bad things like [fourth grade pranks redacted]. To see a character like Yusuke who also struggled in a classroom environment, who was limited in terms of his options financially — my family was lower middle class, at best — all those elements allowed me to really immerse myself in Yu Yu Hakusho’s story.

It’s weird because I never thought through until this interview that that’s why I’ve always loved Yu Yu Hakusho. One of my top five stories of all time, both the manga and the great, great anime incarnation.

KS: You mentioned earlier that you come from a prose background. What was your creative life like back in your school days? What kinds of things were you writing?

HR: I started in third or fourth grade, writing InuYasha fan fiction. I wrote Kingdom Hearts fan fiction. Dragonball Z, or whatever letter I chose — probably X. Then, I wrote short stories for class; I remember reading one in front of the class and getting a round of applause, which naïve me thought meant I was finally good at something. I basically considered two career options. I was going become a paleontologist — I was a huge Jurassic Park fan — and was really gunning for that until junior year of high school, until I realized my real passion was for the storytelling of Jurassic Park. That led me to pursue a creative writing degree at San Francisco State [University]. What I was really focused on in college was producing short stories, science fiction with an experimental twist. A boy with a black hole for an arm, things like that.

What I really cared about at the end of the day was storytelling, in whatever form it took. Like for a lot of people, writing began for me as something fun that slowly and surely became something I had to do — and still have to do to this day. Even if I wanted to stop writing, I couldn’t.

KS: So, you grew up a comics fan, you’re writing genre fiction in college… When does the penny drop and you get the idea of “I could actually work in comics?”

HR: Even though I was writing prose, I’d never stopped reading the East Asian comic stories. I happened to come across this internship for Viz Media. I’d just finished my internship with a short story magazine called ZYZZVYA in San Francisco. I really wanted to do editorial, I was really passionate about helping other storytellers; editors and writers almost have a sympathetic parasitic relationship, in a positive way. If you’re a good editor, you’re probably a decent writer too.

That led me to applying for the editorial internship at Viz — twice, [because] I didn’t get called back the first time. From there, I fell in love with the editorial process. It was a dream come true. Having read all these formative stories like Naruto and Dragonball Z, to get the chance to work on those and things like My Hero Academia, Pokemon… you can imagine, as a college kid, it was a dream. It wasn’t like a job at all, it was more like going to Disneyland every day.

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KS: Can you pinpoint something specific you got out of that internship, aside from seeing how the sausage is made from the inside? A new item in your “utility belt” that the Hayden who went in the door at Viz didn’t have, but the one who came out did.

HR: Number one: learning when I was wrong. As a college kid, I had a chip on my shoulder having written stories for over a decade at that point. Of course, I didn’t get any of them published, so I don’t know why I had a chip on my shoulder [laughter], but in my mind I was like, “I know this stuff, I can do this stuff, it isn’t that challenging.” So, I learned to be more humble and more modest in both my internships.

On a more technical skill level, I learned about giving art feedback. You know, a word balloon shouldn’t go over someone’s eyes [laughter], or how to sell motion in an action scene. More of the visual vocabulary of how sequential storytelling works.

KS: Which brings us to your next landing spot: Tapas. Before we get into your role there, could you give the Spark Notes version of what their business model is? While many readers have probably at least heard of the brand name, they may not be aware of what it is and how it’s different from something like Webtoons.

HR: It’s essentially a platform for creators where there is no platform, or backing, from a traditional publisher. At the core of Tapas are our creators and the community, who we’re looking to elevate whether it be releasing free stories they can self-publish or — and this is what my particular department focuses on — allowing them to have access to a premium program where they can make money [through] readers purchasing their stories in bite-sized chunks. The best way to think of Tapas is a platform where the readers are able to directly change the life of each creator by supporting them in their art.

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KS: What’s an advantage you see from a creator’s point of view?

HR: Say a creator has a story about a character with a black hole for an arm, or some really cool idea they’ve tried pitching to five different publishers and no one’s accepted it. They can publish it [at Tapas] where there’s already an existing community that really values the artists. It’s a platform where people can build their audience. Again, our ultimate goal is to champion the creators first and figure out as many opportunities where they can make a living while doing what they love.

KS: How do you see that differing from a traditional publisher?

HR: No one can tell you “no” on Tapas. I despise gatekeeping, and I think that’s a huge problem in publishing as a whole. Of course, we have content guidelines, but within reason you can tell your story, uncompromised.

KS: One element in your work is localization, which also isn’t something most publishers are faced with. Were you involved in that aspect?

HR: Localized works [are] an area the company is always championing, just like at Viz. My experience at Viz really came in handy when… they needed someone to make sure these comics were not just faithful to the original works — mainly Korean and Chinese — but were also localized for a young audience who wanted to enjoy the works for what they were rather than being “barriered” by specific cultural elements. Something I championed in my time in localization, which I think has been maintained to this day, is doing our best to always maintain as many cultural elements as possible — whether it even be an asterisk explaining what this Chinese sword is, or what Korean Thanksgiving is, for example.

KS: Your current job is “Head of Originals Production.” Can you give us an idea of the kinds of things that might be on your work calendar on a given day?

HR: I might need to give feedback on the materials of a series, like the cover art. Sometimes, it might be quality control on storyboards, for example. I might even be managing the entire company slate of original stories. What is our release schedule? Is this project on time? Is it on budget? Where I find the most passion is being able to help a creator — that to me is what keeps the “ink blood” flowing at Tapas.

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KS: Would college-age Hayden be surprised at where you ended up?

HR: College-age Hayden would be so shocked and not understand how this happened. He would’ve never possibly imagined getting the opportunity to help people do things I love.

KS: To spread some more love as we get to the end, what’s a comic/graphic novel from any era that you look at with admiration? To make it more challenging, pick one you haven’t mentioned already.

HR: Age of Reptiles by Ricardo Delgado. They say all kids go through a dino phase and while Spielberg’s silver screen lizards* (non-avian dinosaurs—for those who want to excavate my modicum of paleo cred) was all it took for my ’90s-era obsession to erupt to a life-long love, it wasn’t til years later when I found a beat-up issue of Age of Reptiles that I realized the power of comics as a vehicle for visual storytelling. Every claw-scarred crag of scaly skin or blood-soaked bite is rendered in Delgado’s extravagantly detailed inks but what impresses me to this day is not just his timeless artwork but his commitment to the fundamentals of “show.” In Age of Reptiles there’s no spear chucking humans interjecting or time travel schemes to distract, just a vividly imagined vignette of ancient animals doing what they do, two story tall actors whose actions speak much louder than their roars. Literally, there’s no dialogue in Age of Reptiles yet Delgado’s dinos have all the drama, betrayal, and quiet moments of instinctual intimacy that make for some damn good saurian Shakespeare — or better yet, Kurosawa meets Jurassic Park.

KS: As we wrap, tell us what we should look out for from Tapas coming up in 2021.

HR: Some big news should have been announced by this time, but at risk of dating myself for now, I will tease that Tapas is entering a new chapter of our story this year. I can’t go too much into detail but our mission remains the same since day one: to help creators create and tell their stories! And, hopefully, make more dinosaur fiction, though that may just be me…

[Author’s Note: After our conversation came the announcement of Kakao Entertainment’s acquisition of Tapas.]

On the personal project front, there’s a new series debuting on Tapas in summer I helped develop and produce called Love Algorithm that is a love letter to all those hopeless romantics who overthink things (me). It’s about a young, extremely eccentric scientist and her AI cupid pal that can match people to their perfect partners based on, you guessed it, algorithms. Everyone, that is, except for our main heroine. If you like heartwarming, super kooky, and sometimes tear-jerking romance, the team and I hope it will be a 100% match!

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