Today’s Guest: Gary Chaloner, comic book artist, Will Eisner’s John Law
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview with comic book artist Gary Chaloner was recorded on August 25, 2006 to supplement my authorized biography of the late Will Eisner, Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. I recently rediscovered the audio file and decided to add it to the Mr. Media podcast archive. — Bob Andelman)
Gary Chaloner is an award-winning artist and writer who is currently creating and publishing the new adventures of Will Eisner’s John Law.
I interviewed Chaloner via email the first time around, for my biography of Will Eisner, A Spirited Life. But that was when John Law had yet to be published. Now that it’s out and building an audience for one of Eisner’s lesser known characters, I thought it would be fun to talk to him again.
He suggested we do it via Skype, the free Internet phone service; being a new technology junkie, I had to say yes. So Gary has the dubious honor of being the first person interviewed in this series via podcast. The audio quality isn’t perfect; the hum/buzz you’ll hear in the background is from my computer. Sorry about that, audiophiles.
This interview combines the stories behind Chaloner’s Eisner-related work as well as a sneak peek (below) at his upcoming work. Eisner fans will also be excited to learn how many more characters from Eisner’s early work are returning to action in Chaloner’s John Law series.
First, let me tell you a little more about Chaloner:
He’s an Australian-born creator who began his career as a publisher of his own work and the work of other Australian creators through his own imprint Cyclone Comics. Cyclone published a range of popular comic books in the 1980s and 1990s with titles as diverse as The Jackaroo, The Southern Squadron, Dark Nebula, GI Joe Australia, Flash Damingo and CCQ (Cyclone Comics Quarterly).
Gary’s overseas work includes US editions of The Jackaroo and The Southern Squadron; a very odd issue of The Badger with Mike Baron; the award-winning Planet of the Apes: Urchak’s Folly; The Olympians, a two-issue prestige series for Marvel/Epic Comics; editorial and creative duties on Dark Horse Down Under for Dark Horse Comics — this series featured the first US appearance of Gary’s creation “Morton Stone, Undertaker.”
His current creator-owned projects include the black comedy of Morton Stone: Undertaker; Red Kelso, a pulp-inspired adventure series; and new adventures of The Jackaroo.
Chaloner worked closely with Will Eisner in the development and relaunch of Will Eisner’s John Law both online and in print through IDW Publishing.
The online series recently left ModernTales.com and set up home at http://johnlaw.us.com. You can browse through the archives for free there and read more about Law and his new adventures. As a bonus, Chaloner is uploading original golden age stories featuring Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic. These stories first ran as backups in The Spirit Section and will be remastered and colored for online viewing. Hopefully, these classic stories will be collected for print at a later stage.
In the 2005 Ledger Awards (Australian Comic Industry Awards), Will Eisner’s John Law received several awards including “International Title of the Year” and “Single Issue or Story of the Year.” Chaloner was also awarded the “Ledger of Honour” (a Hall of Fame award) and received industry awards for “Achievement of the Year,” “Cover Artist of the Year” and “Inker of the Year.”
Chaloner also redesign and modernized the official Will Eisner web site.
BOB ANDELMAN: Gary, let’s jump in here. Tell us a little bit about John Law and how and when Will Eisner created it.
GARY CHALONER: Well, hello to everyone. Hi, Bob.
John Law was devised and created by Will back in the mid to late ‘40s. The Spirit was going very well, and Will wanted to expand his range of publications on the newsstand. He developed several titles, one of them being the John Law character, but the first one that he released I think was Baseball Comics, and it didn’t go as well as he would have liked, so the other ideas that he had were put on the shelf for a while.
Will, being the frugal person that he was, utilized (inaudible) more artwork and converted it into Spirit stories. So all those stories didn’t see print as Spirit stories until about 1950. So the John Law material was a fully formed concept that he had been thinking about quite a while, for several years, and so that whole idea was a bit stillborn, so when the opportunity came along when I talked to Will and Denis Kitchen about developing the series wasn’t just a dead concept, it was a fully developed, ready-to-go set of characters in the universe that Will had already worked on and established, so that was irresistible.
GARY CHALONER podcast excerpt: “If you learn a bit about The Spirit, you also learn about these aborted characters that Will tried to publish back in the ‘40s. The name ‘John Law’ keeps on popping up as this parallel Spirit character, so it was only through reading about Will’s past and the different things that he tried in the ‘40s that this recurring name ‘John Law’ and the characters surround him, like Nubbin, The Shoeshine Boy, and Melba, Girl Detective, and a few other characters, had always stuck in the back of my mind as something that, why doesn’t someone do something with these things.”
ANDELMAN: Was John Law ever published in the ‘50s or not?
CHALONER: No, it was not. All of the work was adapted and absorbed into the Spirit universe. John Law in his own environment wasn’t published until the ‘80s in the Eclipse Comics edition.
ANDELMAN: That was Dean Mullaney and Cat Yronwode.
CHALONER: That’s correct. Yes. What I did there was, they stripped back a lot of the paste overs and art changes that Will had made to the original art to reveal the original John Law art underneath.
ANDELMAN: How did you first hear of John Law?
CHALONER: Well, being an Eisner reader for many years and bumping into a lot of the publications that Kitchen Sink first released and that other publications had written about Will Eisner, if you learn a bit about The Spirit, you also learn about these aborted characters that Will tried to publish back in the ‘40s. The name “John Law” keeps on popping up as this parallel Spirit character, so it was only through reading about Will’s past and the different things that he tried in the ‘40s that this recurring name “John Law” and the characters surround him, like Nubbin, The Shoeshine Boy, and Melba, Girl Detective, and a few other characters, had always stuck in the back of my mind as something that, why doesn’t someone do something with these things.
A future John Law cover featuring Law and Melba, in a situation inspired by an earlier Eisner piece.
ANDELMAN: Whose idea was it that you do this? Was it yours, or was it Denis’? Was it Will?
CHALONER: It was pretty much my idea. I approached Denis about it. This is after The Spirit: The New Adventures was cancelled, and I had to produce a story for that, and this was also at a time when Kitchen Sink Press had gone belly up. Denis was going through a few hard times himself, and I had gotten in touch with him, and the relationship developed from there. Well, if The New Adventures had gone beyond issue No. 8, I had to do something else, and the John Law character was always at the back of my mind for me to develop.
ANDELMAN: When you did work for The Spirit: The New Adventures, you completed a story that didn’t see print.
CHALONER: That’s right. That was going to be in issue nine, and the series ended with issue No. 8.
ANDELMAN: And, of course, one of the great ironies here is that, and you have kind of hinted at it, is that Will had done John Law in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s, I guess late ‘40s, and when that did not take off, he adapted the John Law story into The Spirit, because he never wasted anything, and then you, following that same thing many years later, you did a Spirit story, and you adapted it to John Law.
CHALONER: I thought it was perfect. The planets were in alignment, really.
ANDELMAN: How hard did you have to convince Will to let this happen?
CHALONER: Not hard at all, really, not from the creative side. Interestingly, as a John Law project, it wasn’t always intended to initially be presented on the web, and that side of the project interested Will a lot. He was used to emailing and things like that, but he wasn’t really the full expert on web comics and how to deliver something on the Net, so it was all new technology to him. There was a steep learning curve for him as far as being part and parcel of the present Law stories.
Another future John Law cover, this time featuring another Eisner creation, Lady Luck. Luck and Mystic feature in the new Law adventures.
ANDELMAN: Will was not savvy as far as the Internet went. How did you explain to him the business model behind this?
CHALONER: I did the best I could based on the business models that were around at the time, and at the time, Modern Tales was just starting and had been around for several months. It had the business model of the subscription base, where people paid “X” amount of dollars a month or a year to get access to the comics behind the subscriber wall. That kind of logic Will could understand quite easily, the whole idea of magazines having subscriber lists and things like that. It was quite easy for him to understand the logic behind the business of the Internet. The actual technical side of how to, of scanning artwork, color, you had to upload it to the site, that kind of stuff was initially probably a bit of a struggle for him, but he wasn’t a stupid man, so he caught on real quick.
ANDELMAN: That’s interesting you mention that. So you are drawing by hand on paper as opposed to using, you are not drawing right into the computer?
CHALONER: No. I color or graytone on the computer, but everything else is traditionally done.
ANDELMAN: How interesting. I have wondered about that when I have seen the work.
CHALONER: Yes, yes.
ANDELMAN: Did Will give you any particular input as you were getting started on what he liked, what he didn’t like?
CHALONER: Oh, yes, he did, actually. He was very hands-off as far as allowing me to do what I wanted, how I wanted it, but my ideas very much fitted with what he wanted, anyway, so we were running parallel with our thinking. There were several times where he did suggest storytelling changes as far as the structure of the story, panel layouts, visual storytelling, things like that, but the overall direction of the strip, the way the setting for the series, what the characters were all about, he basically left that up to me. I was always using his guidelines from the original 1940s stories.
ANDELMAN: I remember Alan Moore telling me that when he did the story that he did for The Spirit: The New Adventures, that Will told Alan not to make The Spirit a drug addict, among other things. And Alan, of course, was like, “What, me? I wouldn’t do that!” What rules did he lay down for John Law with you?
CHALONER: The one that stands out above all else was that he said Law is human. That’s about the only thing that he said that was really the spirit of Law, excuse the pun. He didn’t want the stories to go off into any kind of ridiculous directions, and he just said, “Keep the stories human.”
ANDELMAN: For someone who hasn’t seen John Law, first of all, how would you describe the difference between John Law and the Spirit?
CHALONER: Well, I would say that the John Law character as a man is a lot more serious than Denny Colt in the Spirit character, so the stories tend to reflect that. There is still humor in there with characters like Nubbin The Shoeshine Boy and several of the other supporting cast members, but the character of John Law himself is a little more serious and less flippant than Denny Colt in The Spirit. This isn’t something that I necessarily planned, actually, because most of my other work I consider to have a certain amount of likeness about it and a sense of humor about it. It’s just when the stories have been produced with the John Law that the stories are draped with a sense of drama instead of humor, or that’s the way I see it, anyway.
ANDELMAN: Both characters have sidekicks, however.
CHALONER: Yes. A favorite of Will’s.
ANDELMAN: Yes. Now, I gather that Nubbin is less controversial than Ebony?
CHALONER: Well, Nubbin’s a drug addict and male prostitute.
No, he’s not. He’s not! He walks the street at night. Nubbin’s your dyed-in-the-wool sidekick, comedy relief, a very resourceful street kid and orphan who attaches himself to John Law and also being a boy hanging around a large metropolitan police station, there’s plenty of shoes to shine for his business. So he’s very smart and resourceful as well.
ANDELMAN: And how does John Law do with the ladies?
CHALONER: Well, he’s had a rough history with the ladies, which is all reflected in stories that are being told, so he has had several loves of his life, and he is still trying to find “miss right,” which I actually do have planned out. A great love of his life is coming into his life very shortly, actually. So he has had a rough past, but he is going to have a fairly sweet future.
ANDELMAN: The series began on Modern Tales online, but it has kind of evolved since then, has it not?
CHALONER: Yes, it has. Yeah. The core of the delivery system for the stories will always be the web, and a new part of that is going to be that I am redesigning the John Law website together with the new Will Eisner.com website, as well, so it will be a functioning part of the new Will Eisner site. These stories online will always be the basis of any stories I develop in the future.
ANDELMAN: The John Law stories have also appeared in print since then, too.
CHALONER: Yes, that’s right. Yes. There has been a nice beautiful edition by IDW in December 2004, and it was received very well by critics and fans, and there is a new series that is in development now. The first issue has been released. The rest of the series will be coming along shortly.
ANDELMAN: So it will be a regularly scheduled series in print?
CHALONER: These will be a limited series, so they will be like self-contained stories.
ANDELMAN: Will these be collections from the online, or will these be specially done for print?
CHALONER: Originally, I had planned the materials to be in print exclusive, but with my scheduling at the moment with the Will Eisner site and the workload, I decided to run the material online, and then once that is done, collected in print.
ANDELMAN: I have to ask, because this is something I am always curious about, is the John Law character and the online and the print editions, is it profitable for you to work on?
CHALONER: The online material — there has always been a huge question on that stuff: how do you make money from the Internet? This is part and parcel of my challenge in developing the Law project online in the way so it will generate a solid income for myself and for the Will Eisner estate. I haven’t found the answers to it yet, but this next phase of the development of the strip will hopefully provide some answers as far as new merchandising, advertising support, and things like that that will help raise more money via the internet.
ANDELMAN: Have you officially licensed the character from the estate, or do you pay them a royalty, or….
CHALONER: I am basically work-for-hire for all intents and purposes. Any monies that are generated, a percentage goes to the estate, and the rest comes to me. I work very closely with different facets of the license for the project with Denis and with Carl Gropper, who is now running the estate. So if there is any facet of the business side of the Law project, it always goes past him first so that I don’t get myself into trouble. We don’t want that.
ANDELMAN: No, we would not want that. Now, you mentioned in the conversation that you are involved with the WillEisner.com site. Tell us a little bit about that. When did you get involved, and what will you be doing there, what are you doing there?
CHALONER: Well, it’s a total overhaul of the site. The web site had been lying dormant for quite a while, and it was, from what I can assume, the first part of a larger project from the people that had first established the site for Will. Will, of course, is one of the hugest names in comics. Therefore, my approach to his site was something that reflects his stature and also the amount and body of work that he produced over the years. Now, the Will Eisner Studio as a business entity also has work surrounding or evolving Will Eisner projects going off into the future, so the site will also reflect future projects like the new Spirit title coming from DC, trade paperbacks and book collections of Will’s work coming out from other publishers. So not only will the site reflect Will’s past legacy of work but also the things that are happening in the future, like John Law, a set of instructional books that Will produced or will have published since his death, and future editions of his old material. So it is a totally expanded site. It will feature forums, it will feature a very expanded library area, it will feature the John Law area, as well, so it will be a highly expanded and a lot more interactive site to reflect Will’s legacy.
ANDELMAN: Gary, before we kind of wrap up, what else are you working on these days?
CHALONER: Well, on the short term, I am just really concentrating on the John Law project and getting the Will Eisner site finished. They are my two major things at the moment, and just last weekend, I sat down and reviewed my notes for John Law, and I think that will keep me busy for the next five or ten years if things go well for the project. I do have a couple of individual projects, personal projects on the side, but they really do have to take a back seat to the John Law project at the moment. There is a Jackaroo series which might be recollected for the American market. I am waiting just to get some contracts in line for that. The Undertaker character might be seeing some sort of life online over the next months, as well, but that will only happen if my scheduling works out with the Law project.
ANDELMAN: Gary, I am just curious. How different or in what ways is the Australian comics market different from the American market?
CHALONER: Well, it has no backbone structure of a direct market distribution system, for a start, so a lot of the publishers down here, they have to decide whether they are going to self-publish and self-distribute through the internet, whether they hook into the overseas distribution system, like Diamond, or whether they think up some other magazine marketing distribution method for their title, so it has always been a bit of a hard thing down here. I have also noticed over the last 20, 30 years of Australian comics that the creative voice is quite a strong one, and the voice is one of, what’s the word I am looking for? There isn’t a superhero voice down here, there isn’t a crime voice. There are so many different subjects and variety of material being produced down here that you could pick 20 different comics and not two of them be the same. It’s total diversity. I think that is the word I am looking for. The subject matter down here is so diverse, and that is its strength as well as its weakness, because you can’t really get a pool of marketing together with several titles working together to help market themselves.
ANDELMAN: Do you think that there will ever be an Australian title that will break through the American market?
CHALONER: Yeah, I think there will be, actually. There are some amazing comics being produced by Australians down here, and there are a lot of Australian creators working big time over in the States at the moment, so again, there are two ways where Australian creators can go. They can be a creative force, like Platinum Brick, which is absolutely amazing. That is a web-based comic at the moment, Platinumbrick.com, but it also produces trade paperback collections on the web, relying heavily on Internet presence and word of mouth because it’s such a good comic.
ANDELMAN: Well, Gary, you have been very gracious and kind with your time and, of course, your technical know-how, without which we would not have gotten this far, and only you and I will know how difficult this has been.
CHALONER: This is true. I am standing on my roof holding the TV antenna and my left foot out!
ANDELMAN: I think we all have a good picture of that now. Maybe you could get your wife to snap a picture of that, and we could put that up on the web site.
CHALONER: Wait until I get some clothes on.
ANDELMAN: Now you’ve ruined the whole thing. Gary, thank you very, very much for your time.
CHALONER: It’s been a pleasure.