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Fanboy Comics Interviews Jesse Toves (‘Encoding Bushido,’ ‘Battlestar Galactica’)

The following is an interview with Jesse Toves (Trouble, Guts and Noir, Pages of Eight, and Encoding Bushido), who is a creator that has mastered animation, visual effects, creature design, comic book writing and illustration, and more. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Contributor Madeleine Holly-Rosing chats with Toves about his inspiration for getting into comics and creature design, his work on the much-loved Battlestar Galactic and Caprica, his experiences in 3D printing, and more!

Jesse and I first met at a Comics and Coffee meeting at Aroma Café in Studio City a few years ago. In fact, I was still looking for an artist for Boston Metaphysical Society, and my friend and colleague, George Wassil (Oh Hell comic) suggested I might find one there. Well, I didn’t, but I did have the pleasure of meeting Jesse. He was kind enough to allow me to post his rendition of a Steampunk airship as my cover art on Facebook for a while.

Over the years, we’ve talked and I discovered that he is a multifaceted successful creator who has worked in animation, visual effects, creature design, traditional and digital process, and has recently dived into CAD and 3D printing. Jesse also has a few Emmy nominations under his belt, AND he’s written and illustrated his own comic books: Trouble, Guts and Noir; Pages of Eight; and Encoding Bushido.

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Fanboy Comics Contributor Madeleine Holly-Rosing: Gah! Jesse, you have done so much it makes my head spin, so let’s start with your comics. Of your three comics, I personally find Encoding Bushido to be the most intriguing. What was it about the Samurai way of life that intrigued you to write about it? Do you think that we as humans have lost the ability to “encode” their traditional sense of honor within ourselves?

Jesse Toves: Actually, Encoding Bushido began as a part of the Samurai Graphic Novel anthology under Karl Altstaetter’s Hyperwerks imprint. But, the inspiration for Encoding Bushido comes mostly from films – particularly Stephen Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence and Pinocchio (which was also one of the inspirations for A.I.). But, the major theme, unlike many Samurai stories, is not really honor. It is actually jealousy and the damage it can have on even the closest relationships.

And, like a lot of eighties kids, I grew up on a steady diet of pop culture representations of Samurai – being a science fiction nerd, I wanted to blend the two genres.

But, anyone who knows even the most abbreviated history of the Samurai knows how that way of life wasn’t just something that faded or something we grew apart from. It was forcefully eradicated. But, honor wasn’t, and, if anything, I wanted to suggest that it actually could be encoded – preserved.

MHR: Do you plan on writing any more issues of Encoding Bushido? Are there any other comics on the back burner you can talk about?

JT: Encoding Bushido is actually a prelude. The first version I suggested to Karl was epic – far more vast, a true graphic novel. I wrote the current version to set up the world and definitely want to do something closer to the original plot JUST to get to the last page – something I think is still the best thing I’ve ever written.

I had always planned on Trouble, Guts & Noir to be more of a playground – a no-risk play area where I can test out ideas, so I always plan on doing an issue as often as I can.

I also have a six-page story for Jamie Gambell’s Black Wraith character finished which should be close to publication that I am particularly fond of – a nice break from my universe!

MHR: I know you’ve worked on Battlestar Galatica, Caprica, and Defiance, among many others. (Love those shows!) What was the best part of working on those shows, and which creature designs were your favorites?

JT: The best part of those shows is the crew I worked with. I would work on anything with this crew, simply because we have a shorthand with each other that makes it easy to get so much done. Visual Effects Supervisor Gary Hutzel, CGI Supervisor Doug Drexler, Visual Effects Coordinator David Takemura, and Visual Effects Producer Michael Gibson make it work. Watching Battlestar Galactica as a kid, then working on it an adult was tremendous.

But, the best creatures are the ones you never got to see. We go through quite a few iterations in “see what sticks” mode – that part is just wicked fun, where there are no limits. When we settle on a direction, things have to calm down so we can actually get shots done.

MHR: Obviously, your awesomeness knows no bounds, as you were nominated for an Emmy twice, I believe? For Battlestar Galatica and Caprica. What was your role?

JT: Wow. That’s flattering, but it’s a pretty terrific team effort. Even our IT guy, Jeremy Lang, is vital as we chew mountains of data daily. My official role is visual effects generalist, but I was a character animator most specifically. I had done some freelance work very early in the beginning of the series on Battlestar, but I was brought in house for the finale where they would need more cylon animation than they’d ever done before.

On Caprica, a large portion of the storytelling was the birth of the cylons as a race. I animated nearly all the cylons throughout the series, as well as a the odd creature or digital double. Most of the animation featured the U87 early prototype cylon, but Serge, the R2D2-like domestic robot, was one of the series regulars I wish we did more with.

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MHR: I know you love comics, and it seems like it’s a cathartic way of expressing yourself and dealing with some of the issues you’ve faced in the VFX business. What do you see yourself doing in five years? Ten years?

JT: I actually got my feet wet in the consumer products startup sector recently, and I definitely am trying to work towards something I can actually bring to market. But, like everything in that sector, the learning curve is quite substantial. I would definitely “pivot” sooner if I could, as it’s an exciting space, whereas comics, as much as I love them, seem quite flat in terms of innovation, etc. That’s likely a ten-year journey unless I find some creative partners in the meantime.

As for comics, I actually mocked up my own ideas about digital comics years ago – things more atmospheric than the clunky motion comics, experiments with layers, lots of things I thought were more exciting and value added than merely scanning comics and putting them online.

Hopefully, people evolve their ideas about what comics can become, and I can resurrect some of those ideas and techniques.

MHR: On a lighter note, who has influenced your work the most and why?

JT: This might sound odd, but Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix have likely had more influence on me than any comic artist. I have been playing guitar for over 30 years, but I don’t like to listen to music when I draw. But, I will stop and play guitar, and often I will play some Hendrix or Van Halen.

MHR: We see each other at Comic Cons on occasion. Where do you plan to exhibit this year? Do you plan to go to SDCC? Any advice to first-time exhibitors?

JT: Yes, it’s always nice to see you at conventions. You do work really hard, and it’s nice to see people embrace what you do. But, aside from Long Beach later this year, I’m not planning on too many shows, as I want to actually finish Pages of Eight as a series soon.

This isn’t a joke, I never want to go to SDCC unless they comp me a table! I won’t even apply for the pro pass or whatever gets me in free. In other words, and I know it’s sort of passive aggressive, but I want them to call me – not the other way around. A show of that scale is just never going to be cost effective for me unless I’ve actually achieved something on a scale that FORCES someone to say, “We gotta get Toves here.” It sounds funny, but I kind of look at it as a goal-setting exercise.

I honestly think I should NOT be the person to give advice to people who want to do comic shows. I honestly feel I don’t REALLY fit into a typical comic show; my work doesn’t really feel mainstream, I don’t do ANY actual superheroes, I don’t cosplay, and seriously – I am a terrible snob! AWFUL! But, I am acutely aware of how little I fit and how little I CARE to fit in and be popular.

My real advice to anyone doing shows is to be aware of several things – where your work fits or doesn’t and what you are or aren’t willing to do to BE popular in the sea of popular culture. Popularity is a currency now more so as we attach metrics to it with followers and blogs and more. I think that can be a trap for creators at shows if what you have created to showcase there is actually quite shallow. But, I AM RANTING now. I apologize – it’s my only recourse for NOT being more popular. Sour grapes much?

MHR: I see you’ve fallen in love with 3D printing. (My husband is so jealous you have one.) What printers have you worked with, and which ones do you like the best? Why? Do you have any plans to create any original creatures for yourself?

JT: Ha! That’s an understatement. I have worked directly with my Makerbot Mini which I HATE, and the Ultimaker 2 which I WORSHIP. To be clear, the Makerbot would be a fantastic tool if it were more reliable and user serviceable and perhaps built with better materials and craftsmanship. I have made quite a few of my own figures and even printed my own inkwell for Inktober last year. I have plans to develop at least one piece of wearable tech, a large model kit, and something you will appreciate – a Steampunk X-Wing fighter as a demonstration piece for Ultimaker.

MHR: Last question . . . which dinosaur would you ride into battle on and why?

JT: I could blather on with this question if only for the fact that I studied military history in college briefly, and I would actually choose what apparently is one of the misidentified juvenile Triceratops. There are several reasons for this – similar to Hannibal, I would choose an animal with a tough hide which some archaeologists suggest this animal had based on various hypotheses. But, the possibility that the misidentified remains have indicated they were still juveniles suggests they may have achieved sizes greater than previously thought. The combination of size, speed, toughness, and the famously aggressive horns would make a trained Triceratops a devastating, heavy cavalry bearer. That was waaaay too much information.
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