“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.
Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby are two artists whose talents have afforded them the opportunity to ply their trade in a variety of formats. On the comics front alone, they each have a list of credits that includes such high-profile titles as The Simpsons, Y: The Last Man, Doctor Who, and Futurama. We took a walk through their professional journeys, from early influences to current work habits.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Ian: Writer, occasional cartoonist. Pia: Artist, occasional writer.
Your home base: Vancouver, BC
Any other sites you use: www.sneakydragon.com
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I open with the same question for everyone: Why comics? As someone who’s worked in multiple art disciplines, what attracts you to making comics specifically?
Ian Boothby: A love of comic strips that grew into a love of superhero comic books that grew into a love of alternative comic book and comic strips. No matter where I was in life, comics spoke to me. Could be Peanuts as a young child where I knew that even though the drawings were simple, they weren’t talking down to me. Same when I started reading Marvel Comics; in the middle of a Thor storyline, there’d be a multi-part story of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Then, there was the work of Peter Bagge and Dan Clowes each breaking out of their old habits with Hate and Eightball. And Matt Groening’s Life in Hell really connected with me and made me think that even if I couldn’t draw like a “professional” I could do this, too.
Pia Guerra: I was drawing and telling stories with drawings long before I could read. I loved books with pictures, so many kids’ books — Asterix, anything illustrated — and then when I was 10, my cousin left an X-Men comic at our house and I was instantly hooked. All the melodrama of my favorite adventure shows, amazing drawings, I went through a lot of them. My family life was chaotic; we moved a lot, but comics were a consistent world that I could take a break in, and it wasn’t long before I was making up my own stories. I always felt more at home in that medium than anywhere else, where I could enjoy the story I was drawing as much as reading them.
KS: Tell us about when you first remember comics coming into your life. Where did you used to get your “floppies?” What were the early titles your gravitated to?
PG: After that first X-Men comic, #129, I wanted to read more, so I checked out the rack at the local Mac’s Milk near Jane and Finch. I explained to my mom that I couldn’t find the X-Men, and I didn’t know where to start. She pointed at a cape [on] one of the covers; it was her favorite color (lilac), and it was beautifully blended and she said, “How about that one?” And I was really surprised because it was a pretty violent scene — New Teen Titans #23 — and the cape wearer, Blackfire, was torturing her bound sister, Starfire, while the rest of the Teen Titans floated in space, seemingly dead. My mom supported this, and I bought it and then I was hooked on the Teen Titans. From then on, I would go to the corner store looking for more and pestering the poor clerks for when the new issues would come out. It wasn’t until about five years later that I discovered comic shops and my reading expanded into some very interesting areas: The Shadow, Hellblazer, Sandman, Perez’s Wonder Woman, Luther Arkwright, Daredevil, Sonic Disrupters, movie adaptations, Justice League International, TMNT, Dark Knight Returns… a lot.
IB: I bought my first comics in Quebec at Perette’s corner store. I had no idea at first that the stories continued from issue to issue and when I did, I made sure I was there on the day they arrived. When I moved to British Columbia, I got them from the rack at local Smoke Shops.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative last year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. What’s a particular comic story that really stuck with you from the time you found it?
IB: Avengers #168. It opened with a spacecraft headed for Earth and inside [were] Captain America and Iron Man returning from some adventure. The next page revealed that there were nine other characters including Vision, Beast, Thor, the Scarlet Witch, and the original Guardians of the Galaxy. I had no idea who any of these people were, but they looked amazing. George Perez could draw a crowd like no one else.
Through the issue, Captain America punched Iron Man, a government official tried to shut them down, and a god-like yuppie murdered one of the Guardians — which triggered cameos from Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and more, and then he brought him back to life like nothing had happened. So many wild ideas and it was up to me to catch up on what the hell was going on. It had a sense of scale that nothing on TV or in books did for me.
PG: Uncanny X-Men #205 blew my mind to pieces. Barry Windsor-Smith did this insane one shot, a story called “Wounded Wolf,” where Wolverine is on the run from Reavers and Lady Deathstrike. He’s lost his memory, he’s half naked in a blizzard in Manhattan, and he runs right into – of all people – Katie Power from Power Pack. They fend off a few attacks, and then it’s a final confrontation with Deathstrike and holy shit, I had no idea you could do any of this in comics. It was dynamic, brutal, and just stunning in execution. That made me want to draw comics. I get asked to do long form stories, four and five issue arcs, but my biggest, craziest dream, is to do a single issue like that. Power on every page. Boom.
KS: Aside from BWS’ art, why do you think that story was the right fit for your sensibilities at the right time?
PG: It was the perfect blend of action and emotion. Yes it was violent, but it was also tender. Character-wise, it was dead on, literally stripping Logan down to his basics, he is a killer… but he’s also considering this little girl at his side, and doesn’t want her to see that side of him. He protects her from that violence, and I think there’s something that resonates there; that conflict is in comics itself. Yeah, we want this to be the coolest story ever but remember that kids are seeing this. They’re picking it up off the rack in line at the grocery store. Think about them, too. I love that.
KS: Because an artistic career path can be such a crapshoot. I’m always interested in hearing where the idea originated with each guest.
IB: It was a way to tell stories that I could control. I wrote for TV when I was 13 and often wrote parts for myself on a local live morning show. But it was always hit and miss if I’d sell anything. With comics, I started drawing them myself in my late teens — some autobio and some comedy. I had total control and the mini-comic self-publishing scene was just taking off, so I got to be a small part of that.
PG: I just wanted to make people feel the kinds of things my favorite comics made me feel. I wanted people to turn a page and gasp a bit, maybe make them laugh or cry. Make them squirm until the next issue. It’s a very mwah-ha-ha kind of energy.
KS: Ian, what did your early comic experiments look like?
IB: I would created full comics on construction paper with pen when I was 7-8 years old and then give them to the one fan I had of the work. I had a character named Toro with energy powers who was the third generation of superhero in his family.
Very upset one day when I read an Invaders comic and saw there was already a character with that name. I was also a cartoonist for my junior high school newspaper and everyone hated my work. They were not wrong.
KS: Was there a Plan B professional path for both of you if the arts didn’t pan out?
PG: When I was little, I wanted to be a paramedic or a pilot, but major spinal cord surgery at 13 derailed that. There was the practical notion in high school that I should go to university and get a degree; I played around with the idea of archaeology or anthropology which, granted, was more about my obsession with Raiders of the Lost Ark. I thought about medicine because I grew up around hospitals; my mom worked in them for years and I grew up with a lot of stories from the ER (where the paramedic dreams came from). But then I graduated and after busting my brain to get the grades, I had no money to attend post-secondary and just decided, screw it, comics. There wasn’t a plan B, because there weren’t a lot of other options.
IB: I always wanted to do many things, including comedy, acting, and writing. And I’ve been fortunate enough to. In the rough time[s], I’d be evicted from places and try to figure what my next meal would be, but there was still nothing else I wanted to do but some form of the arts.
KS: Take us back to what you’d pinpoint as your comics breakthrough, the first project where you really felt like you’d “made it” in the sense of getting through the doors of the Pros’ Club.
IB: Winning an Eisner Award with Nina Matsumoto for a Bart Simpson Treehouse of Horror story was probably the closest to that.
PG: It was a weird moment into the second year of Y [The Last Man]. We were in San Diego and I didn’t have any parties to go to. And it’s not like, oh boo hoo, nobody likes me — this was after ten years of attending this con, networking hard at everyone to line up gigs for the year, to make connections, to get my folio in people’s faces… and I didn’t have to do that. I was busy, the book was doing well, and I broke down into a blubbering mess right there on the sidewalk. Ian thought it was cute.
KS: Ian, speaking of The Simpsons… As someone who’s written for both that comic and Futurama, can you tell us how you first got involved in the Groening-Verse?
IB: I was heavily influenced by Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip and did my own in alternative papers in Vancouver. I was a fan of The Simpsons since the first short — it amazed me how popular this odd thing I enjoyed became.
Later, I went with my current Sneaky Dragon podcast co-host David Dedrick to the Alternative Press Expo in San Jose with my mini comics I and Squares at the time Bongo Comics was starting out, and gave them some of my work. I asked if I could submit a short story and many months later they gave me a shot with a four pager. Then a full story. Then, over time, I became the main writer for both Simpsons and Futurama Comics. I knew the sensibilities well, and it was fun writing in that style though hard to come up with unused plots.
KS: To get into the weeds on those titles, how did you and the teams differentiate your stories from the TV versions? Was there pressure to stay faithful to two beloved series while also providing enough of a reason for someone to buy the comic instead of just watching the episodes?
IB: There was some crossover in subject matter, but since Matt Groening was part of both comics and TV, he could stop anything that was too similar.
As for why someone would buy the comics when the TV show was on, they buy Star Trek novels when there are Trek TV shows. People who like something want more of it. Often, we’d get parents telling us they’d let their children read the books but not watch the shows. Like Peanuts, we made them for all ages, and like Peanuts tried never to talk down to anyone.
KS: Pia, many creators look back at old projects as mental “photo albums” of the time they were made, and 2022 will be the 20-year anniversary of Y: The Last Man. When you think back to the time of starting that book, what memories come to mind?
PG: I got the script for the first issue on September 10, 2001. I was so excited; I spent the evening collecting reference material, tracking down pictures of guns, cars, buildings. I had some trouble finding images of firefighter and police uniforms — this was before Google image search — but was sure I could find it by the time I needed it. I went to bed so happy, ready to get started the next day and…
It took a few days to get a hold of Brian, who was working in the NYPD auxiliary directing traffic in and out of the site. Our editor, Heidi MacDonald, said to hold off until they got word from upstairs if the book would even go ahead now. Was anyone going to be in the mood for a story like this after what happened? There was a scene set in Afghanistan that would definitely have to be changed. We didn’t get going again until November, and then it was months of drawing [while] not knowing if this book would sell when it finally came out in July.
KS: What does a typical workday look like in your studio these days, if there is such a thing as “typical?”
IB: Depending on what the deadlines are we’re working on, the hours greatly vary. I’m always putting together new projects, as well as working on current ones like the daily strip, Mannequin on the Moon. There’s never any typical day. You do the work until it’s done. Sometimes, that means very light days and some heavy, but seldom any holidays where nothing is done.
PG: I do everything on an iPad Pro now, so it’s me on the couch, going through mail, checking socials, seeing how friends are doing, getting into a fight, setting up what I’m going to work on that evening, charge the pencil, and draw until dawn.
KS: Where do you stand on music, or any other background noise, while working?
PG: I have the TV on: movies, shows, news, Netflix. Not a lot of music anymore; when I was in the studio we didn’t have a TV so I listened to a lot of BBC radio online because it was the only thing interesting in those overnight hours. Lots of radio dramas/comedies and BBC 2 morning shows. I would usually call it a night by the time Pop Master came on. If I’m writing, I keep the volume low or turn it off completely. Different sides of the brain at work.
KS: Pia, when you look at your art over the spectrum of your career, do you see the influence of any other artists, in comics or otherwise? Or artists who, even if they didn’t directly influence you, whose work you look at like it’s sorcery?
PG: I can’t see the influences on my work like others can. Many say there’s some Steve Dillon there, but I’ve only read his Hellblazer run, years back, so that must be something really deep. Who I think about when I’m drawing, like when I come to a problem I’m trying to solve, the artists who mostly come to mind are Sean Phillips, Duncan Fegredo, Fiona Staples, David Aja, George Perez, John Romita Jr., Barry Windsor-Smith, Travis Charest, Olivier Coipel, Chris Bachalo, Frank Quitely, Kyle Baker, Paul Smith, and Naoki Urasawa. Like, what would they do with this?
Because they’re all sorcerers to me.
KS: Your current project as a team is Mannequin on the Moon at Go Comics. To use that example, what’s the working dynamic between the two of the you? What steps happen on your end before readers see a finished strip?
IB: I go for a long walk with a notepad and write down ideas all day. I then write up between 10 to 20 for Pia to read that night and choose from. She then draws the ones she likes. We do this once a week. This is also our method for New Yorker cartoons and the ones we used to do for MAD Magazine.
PG: Yep, I draw while he sleeps and then in the morning he wakes up to a batch of finished comics, like some cobbler waking up to enchanted shoes.
KS: What’s a hobby of yours totally unrelated to what you do professionally? Something you collect, practice, study, whatever…
IB: I’m an improv comedian and try to make three new recipes a week.
PG: I garden and craft.
KS: Earlier we heard about the Eisner win and the early success of Y. Can you think of another special moment of pride or joy from anywhere on your career path that maybe still makes you smile?
IB: That I get to work with people like Pia Guerra, James Lloyd, Gisele Legace, and Nina Matsumoto, and make things I’m proud of. All are stunningly talented artists and seeing what they do stuns me every time.
PG: There are so many amazing moments and interactions, but the standout has to be when Ray Bradbury kissed my hand.
KS: I both want to ask about that incident, but also to let it remain a mystery. Let’s jump to a single word that sums up a key trait for being successful in comics.
KS: To finish up by spreading some love, what’s a comic or graphic novel from any era that you look at as an example of the comics craft at its highest form?
IB: The complete run of Peanuts shows so much growth and fearlessness to change. Why I Hate Saturn by Kyle Baker is probably the graphic novel I’ve bought the most to hook people into comics. Relentlessly witty and smart.
PG: Oh, there are so many good things out there. The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, 20th Century Boys, Saga, Hawkeye: My Life As a Weapon, and Pluto.
KS: Finally, tell us what you’re working on now and what we should be on the lookout for the rest of this year.
IB: The daily strip, Mannequin on the Moon, by Pia and me is available from GoComics.com. supE.R. a pay-what-you’d-like superpower hospital comic by me, Pia, and our friend Moritat [is] at hellkitty.com/super.
Pia and I still appear regularly in the New Yorker magazine. The third Sparks! book, Sparks! Future Purrfect, comes out February 1, 2022.
PG: I do a weekly podcast just passing its 500th episode, called Sneaky Dragon, and on that site you’ll also find Totally Tintin, a look at the history of the Tintin series of books, as well as podcasts on The Beatles and The Marx Brothers.
And there’s this TV show coming out in September that’s based on a certain last man and his monkey. Look for it on FX/Hulu.