Sunday, 4 January 2015

Strangebeard: An interview with Kelly Tindall

Kelly Tindall is an illustrator, cartoonist and teacher in Montreal. I first met him at the Ottawa ComicCon. He was doing a panel with Richard Starkings on Elephantmen and lettering, which was quite interesting. I’ve been following his work ever since. I’ve come to know Tindall a little bit over the years, by seeing him at shows and interacting online with him. I enjoy his work and style enough that he was amongst the first artists I thought of to create save the date cards for my wedding.  

He has worked for a number of years on Strangebeard, a webcomic about Jenny Brigham, a young girl who becomes a pirate after donning the hat of a pirate master. She absorbs a part of his soul and is possessed by his ghost. He successfully kickstarted a campaign to help print his webcomic and translate it in French.  He was kind enough to take some time for an interview post-kickstarter, post-book launch tour to talk with me. I have edited a few things for flow. 

Kelly Tindall's Blog


Philippe Leblanc: Tell me about your kickstarter experience. What kind of feedback did you get and how did it line up with your expectations going in?

Kelly Tindall: From the people who supported me in this Kickstarter effort, I'm slowly receiving feedback. I've sent the final copies and people are starting to receive them. Its been really gratifying to see people post pictures on social media. People seemed really impressed with the quality of the printing. The cover has a gold foil logo which turned out nicely. I think based on the feedback I got, people were generally happy and impressed by the final look of it. It looks like a trade paperback you'd get from a big comics company. The few minor issues with shipping and .PDF files have been ironed out as well. Overall, feedback has been very positive.

PL: I believe this was your first Kickstarter campaign. How did you feel about this platform going in?

KT: Yes, first campaign. I'm not an early adopter by any stretch of the imagination. I'm the guy that waits for all the updates to be applied before I download a game. The guy that waits for all the kinks to be removed from the iPhone before getting one. I knew some friends had done kickstarters, but at first Kickstarter felt almost like busking. I had done that early in my life and it felt penny anty and small. Over the years, I came to see that you can achieve a high quality level of production through Kickstarter. So I reconsidered and thought that through my experience at Image comics, I felt I had the knowledge to do a book, printing, distributing and all on my own. What I didn't know how to do, I could easily ask my friends and industry contacts, some people who were making comics since before I was even alive. So I parsed through these ideas and felt it was something that I could do. I could make my book, which was always the main goal. And since there were no publishers willing to take a chance on an all-age book starring a girl, I realized I was better off doing it myself. 

The feedback on that alone has been great. People come up to me and thank me for doing a book starring a girl, something they can share with their kids. It was always a no-brainer for me for this story. I wanted to juxtapose the big-bad, magic wielding pirates with someone more innocent and normal, and how better to do that than have a little girl. I don't know, it seems to be working, like I struck a chord with people that was always so obvious to me.

PL: It's interesting you shopped around your book to publishers, but there wasn't enough interest. Why is that you think?

KT: Well, I mean, there's a lot of factors involved with making a book. There's me, how I wanted the book to be for starters. I'm not a known quantity. I have a lot of credit to myself, but mostly it's for lettering, or colouring or fill-in issues. Nothing I can point to specifically to say "Look! I made this book". So that's a strike against "me", it's harder to get a foot in the door without being able to show something concrete. Then there is the story itself, an all-age book, starring a girl, and pirates. It's difficult to market. Publishers like to be able to tap into the young adult, older teenager market, this is too young for them. And as a comic book, how can you market that to the regular "30-40 male" demographic who buys comics, or is seen as it's biggest market. It's a new series, not established anywhere before, not a spin-off of anything so it's a wild card. You never know with kids what they'll float towards. Kids` whims are ever fickle and that's fine. We can't make the market bend to us. That's fine too. 

A few publishers liked the concept, the ideas and style, but weren't willing to take a chance on it. An even smaller number said they could publish, but were certain it wouldn't do the material justice. So I decided that it was better for me to do it on my own. 

PL: And this way, you get to have the book the way you want it.

KT: Exactly, and this way I have final say in everything. You shouldn't trust any artist who is 100% satisfied. I am mostly pleased with how it turned out. I'd change dozens of things, but you know what, all the mistakes are mine, start to finish. I'm not blaming anyone if the colours look weird somewhere or there's a continuity error here. That's all on me. I learned and will do better next time. It's a challenge to set up a campaign, run it and manage your funds once you have them. It was a challenge, but it was worthwhile for the book, but also for me as an artist and a person. It's good to be reminded that challenges exist, it means you're on the right track.

PL: Would you go through a similar exercise again, for a sequel or anything else?

KT: Yes. My tentative plan is to make 6 Strangebeard books. I may do a Kickstarter when I'm ready. I'm working on the second chunk of it (part 6 to 10). My next master plan is to publish The Adventurers which is my other webcomic. It's a diary strip about my daughter and family. It would be a mix of strip and longer narratives. I'd like a small hardcover, we'll see if there is interest from publishers on that end first, but I liked the campaign the first time around, so I might tap into that instead. I've had several requests for this. People like Strangebeard, but they love The Adventurers. It's a lot more personal and resonates with families more. Having a few copies of those handy would please many people, it would be a good mover at shows. 

PL: How long have you been working on Strangebeard?

KT: Officially, it will be 2 years in March, but the ideas and characters originated about two years prior to starting actual work on Strangebeard. I originally conceived it as a 3 to 4 panel webcomic, kind of like a newspaper strip, but that wasn't going to go anywhere and certainly not achieve what I wanted to achieve. I then transformed it into a more regular full page story online with the intention of publishing it at some point down the line. In it's current form, we're close to 2 years now.

PL: What was your initial motivations in creating this? What were you trying to accomplish with Strangebeard, both narratively and career-wise?

KT: Well, narratively, I didn't deviate much from what I had originally envisionned.  I went back and added more things for foreshadowing, but that's about it. I'm not sure I have all the kinks worked out with characterizations yet. I think I'm doing ok, but I'm not sure I'm applying this technique, or that literary technique, I'm doing it more intuitively. Maybe it's a good thing and it's working, 

Career-wise, it allows me to do more comic work both for myself, and for audiences. It allows me to point out to Strangebeard as the thing I created. I can showcase my style. It gave me some exposure too with companies, which led me to do some work this year for Monkeybrain and Blind Ferret, so it's happening. People are also hiring me to do work in my own style, and not force me to make my work look like someone else`s or a "house style" like DC or Marvel would have me do. It makes my work a lot more interesting, fun to do and I can work faster too. 

PL: It's better for morale and quality of life for sure. You mentioned earlier that you always envisioned Strangebeard as a printed book. When you started this webcomic, were you working for the screen, or for the page?

KT: Ultimately, it fits on screen, and reads well on tablet too. But I didn't care much, I wanted to do a comic that looked like a regular page of a typical comic you'd find everywhere. The fact it fits well on tablet and screen is an added bonus. I'm not pushing the limits of the medium. By no means am I someone like Boulet, constantly experimenting with the format. I wanted to create a page and have a way for people to see it.

PL: When you kickstarted your book, you threw yourself at the mercy of your fans and the internet, they may not have been as responsive as you hoped. How would you have seen Strangebeard continuing if it hadn’t worked?

KT: I'm not sure, maybe I'd have run another campaign on a different platform. I was quite confident I would make it. I've seen successful campaigns with smaller fanbases than the one I had. The only thing I didn't anticipate was how quickly it would work. I even managed to reach a couple of stretch goals. I knew it wasn't going to be a runaway success like Sullivan's Sluggers, but I knew I would at least make the minimum funding. I wasn't seriously worried about making it. I realized I had a following and that we could make this work and make everyone involved happy.

PL: I met you at Ottawa Comic-Con a few years ago and you were running a panel with Richard Starkings. Do you do regular panels in cons?

KT: Funny enough, Richard did help me out with this and he's a really great fellow. I just sent him his book last week and he immediately posted pictures to his social media pages of him reading it in the sunshine of Santa Monica.

I have to do more panels. I don't do as much as I should. They take away from your time at the table, but they're worth it. They bring in a different crowd than the people who walk up to you at your table. You're not selling them anything but you're providing knowledge on a bunch of things, these are always fun.

It's easier to reach people during those as well. Comicbook people aren't always charismatic and some have a hard time to strike up a conversation one on one if you're at your table. It's intimidating. So it helps to ease people into opening up once there is a common ground, or topic. I think it helps that I'm a teacher too so I have experience with groups like those.

PL: So you teach when you are not making comics?

KT: I teach night classes at the Montreal Syn Studio. It's an art school on St-Catharine where I teach introductory classes on comics. I get paid to think analytically about comics, and to teach people how to make comics and what makes them unique from a storytelling perspective. I get to flex mental muscle I may not be able to otherwise. It gets me out of the house and studio and it's good to be able to share knowledge on the art form. 

PL: Getting back to StrangebeardI’ve noticed when reading the print version that some of the earlier pages felt a bit disconnected, like you were parsing through ideas as you went. How much of it was plotted when you started and how did that change over time? At what point did you know where you were going?

KT: I didn't script the book, I did plot it though. I can't write a script, it just doesn't feel right for the medium. I need to see it. When I start a chapter of Strangebeard, I sit down with a page and 22 or 24 thumbnails and I lay out everything I want to happen from the beginning until the point where the chapter ends. A lot of the time, I'll know where I want to end up, so I write as I go along so it looks more organic, sometimes, I'm not quite sure what they'll say, so I wait until I finish a page to add text to make it punchier. It has to work visually before it can work with text. It's kind of a disjointed and inelegant way to work, and it's sloppy, but it's what's working for me now. I know what I want to happen and when, but I need to leave myself some wiggle room too. If I script it, it's too rigid. I want characters to evolve organically, not because I force them to. I'm worried my characterization is suffering because of it. I want to make sure the characters feels right, distinctive and unique and memorable. I don't want people to remember characters just by what they're wearing or what type of weapons they use. I have to do what's right for me to make this work.

PL: As I said, at first, it feels more disjointed, but as you go through the book, this aspect seems to be less and less present. It seems like you've learned how to work with this technique efficiently, or at least you made it efficient. 

KT: Yeah, I agree. A big part of it was learning how to use this technique to give more breathing room for the characters. I knew where I wanted to go with the story, but I didn't want to just have "things" happening to the characters, I wanted them to feel fully formed. I was getting feedback from readers that Jenny was a fun character to read, particularly because of the juxtaposition of her mega attitude and her vulnerability. That was what people were responding to. They didn't want to read about a sort of Clint Eastwood type character, but they wanted to read about a little insecure girl trying to be this Clint Eastwood type character. 

So I started devoting more time to that and that's when I think it started flowing more freely. It helped once I realized that the core of the story was Jenny, Lemmy and Sealock as a sort of Tintin-Snowy-Haddock kind of group. This was perhaps clear for the reader, but not for me at first. I had originally envisioned that Sealock would die, he does goes to the plank in the opening and for the longest time, it was going to happen. Once I realized that Sealock had to live, it opened up more narrative opportunities. I'm a big believer in redemption. If you are willing to do the effort, you need to receive consideration for it. So part of the story eventually becomes the story of his redemption. And a clean redemption, not in a pirate, backstabbing, puppet master way, but as a person, a mentor and a friend. This, and how this will fit with the other pieces of the narrative, is really interesting to me. Jenny became the way to do it as I wanted her to save him. And it clicked: she will be bringing along people to their better selves whether they want to or not. It helped me figure out who she is. I want Jenny to have the attitude of the 12 year old, without the jerkiness of it. There's this part where Captain Morder is being all terrifying and evil and Jenny is just sassing her without being too much of a jerk teenager. 

PL: Since you mention the character of Jenny, Strangebeard is the story of this teenage girl learning how to become an adult. As a parent yourself, how do you feel your experience as a father influenced your writing of this character?

KT: I'm not sure how much of this has seeped into my writing yet. I might look at this in 10 years and tell myself "I had no idea what I was talking about". My oldest daugther will turn 4 soon. I get a lot from her, the willpower, the excitement over everything, but I don't get a lot of Jenny from her. There's not a whole lot I use from her now. Jenny is more of an amalgamation of all the strong women I met in my life and how I feel they would behave or react in those situations. She's not anyone really, she's many persons and resides in a compartment in my head. I feel like I know who she is now, better than when I started and it's a good thing and it works. At least I think it works, that's not up to me to decide.

PL: I had anticipated that Jenny would be a character inspired by your daugther, or at least some kind of role model you wanted for her. Your answer is quite interesting.

KT: Yeah, she's not a moral character for sure. One thing that always bothers me about pirate stories in general is that pirates don't do any pirating. Actual piracy is crime, bloodshed and mayhem. I wanted a bit of that in the story, she wants to rebel and be a criminal. I wanted some elements of it in the book, but without the blood and violence. It's really family friendly. She attacks a small fishing boat, she steals a precious heirloom from the governor's house, she's testing out the water to rebel and to see if piracy, being scary and evil is for her. She's in a morally grey zone, and one that all pirate stories must touch. Being an actual pirate is not fun, real life pirates are straight up bad guys. They're not all puns and swash buckling rogues, they attack ships and kill people. Modern pirates are too. I'm thinking of the most recent pirate movie that come to mind and that's Captain Philips. Pirates are criminals. The typical fictional stories involving pirates normally has the "good pirates" like Jack Sparrow and "bad pirates" like Blackbeard. I'm kind of doing this with the pirate masters in Strangebeard, but at this point, they're not so much interested in piracy so much as they are in revenge. 

PL: Since we're on the topic of piracy, how much of Strangebeard is inspired by the "Golden Age of Piracy", Caribbean pirate stories?

KT: Most of it, it's a very interesting period. It took place mostly in one part of the world and it was over in a few years. 

PL: Being established in Montreal yourself, do you feel you can get any inspiration from the province of Quebec naval history? Montreal and Quebec City were both trading cities established along the St Lawrence river and were tied to ships and naval history for centuries.

KT: It would be interesting to use it to get away from the violent connotations of this Golden Age piece. I don't know how much I can use. I researched some Canadian naval history when I started Strangebeard. Stories of privateering were interesting, but I'm not sure it gave me a lot of inspiration for my story. I couldn't get extra juice from it for the story I wanted to tell. My pirates aren't really analog to any real pirates. I don't have a Blackbeard, Black Sam or Henry Morgan or anything. There are references, but not any explicit ones. Even the pirate masters is more a reference to more contemporary media and not actual history. I'm taking bits and pieces. In a pirate story, you want to do the stuff, the naval battles, the treasure maps, the buried trasures, sword fights and adventures. But you also have to make it work with the context of the story. With Strangebeard, I want to hit story beats while mixing and integrating the tropes of the genre as well. I'm working on a buried treasure chapter, but I want to integrate structural elements from the heist movies and novels from the 60's moreso than the traditional "treasure island" thing. I want the story to move and integrate the elements of the sea without the deep focus on the naval history. I don't want my characters to be stuck at sea, with a "William Hope Hodgson survivalist style" story for a long period of time. It's more pop fun adventure. 

PL: So a more kinetic moving story inspired by these historical elements and genre tropes.

KT: Yes, a story that's propulsive. I don't want the story to be bogged down in the reality of it. I think it's important to get inspiration from many places and various media. There are elements of classic literatures, I'll integrate some kind of Sargasso Sea story. There are also elements of movies, comic books, kids cartoons even, like Johnny Quest and Duck Tails. It's integrating your influences and putting it back on the page. You have to see all of those stories, told differently across different platforms and see how it works, why it works and what resonates with you. You need to analyze it and understand it to pass on this energy onto your own work. You know its working when people are enjoying themselves. It transfers onto the work, much like a cook transfers his passion into his meals.

PL: Strangebeard is a family-friendly book in a lot of ways. I can see kids and parents alike reading the book. What type of feedback have you received on the book from parents, and how does that differ from feedback from kids?

KT: I've received feedback from parents concerning how their kid enjoyed it. Some have told me they ran and read it cover to cover and asked for more. Girls between 8 and 14 seem to really enjoy it. I haven't gotten much in the way of official reviews, but I've received positive feedback from those who bought the book either for themselves or for their kids, which was mostly the case. Kids seem to really enjoy it. It's got a different base than I anticipated, a bit older than I thought, but people are reading it and are excited about it and as a creator, I couldn't ask for more. 

I'm really excited for the future of this. I have so many ideas and concepts and things to explore. Grey zones and breaking down cliches and what not.

For more information on Kelly Tindall's work, check out the links below.

Kelly Tindall's Blog
Kelly Tindall's Tumblr
Kelly Tindall's Portfolio

All images from Strangebeard can be found at

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