Telling a Story is Telling a Story – Talking with Corinna Sara Bechko and Gabriel Hardman

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Corinna and Gabriel at a Barnes and Noble signing/Q&A in Huntington Beach, CA Photo by author

Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Sara Bechko are a pair of creators relatively new to the comic scene (Gabriel worked for Marvel in the early nineties as a teen, and left the industry to work in film as a storyboard artist.), but they are certainly making waves where once there were ripples. Over the past couple of years they have been up to some big things, with their creator owned graphic novel Heathentown from Image/Shadowline, their Planet of the Apes series’ for BOOM! Studios, Hardman’s Magnus: Robot Fighter from Valiant, and their recent fan-favorite 18 issue run on Star Wars: Legacy the two of them are definitely creators to watch.

With Hardman’s solo Kinski just out, and their upcoming poli-sci-fi creator owned series Invisible Republic, Hardman and Bechko are not slowing down, giving readers plenty of chances to check out their work. That work is varied in tone, but very character driven, with each book having their unique take on the world around us. Due to Hardman’s background in storyboarding their action sequences pull no punches, and their lighter moments are full of emotional weight and gravitas. These are two accomplished creators writing the stories they want, and the fans seem to want them too.

I recently had the chance to ask them some questions about their early days, influences, creator owned vs. freelance, politics, and a whole lot more, and they were gracious enough to bear with me and my long list of questions.

I like to start out interviews with a creator’s background, their “origin story” if you will. How old were you both when you first got into comics?

GH: I found comics on convenience store spinner racks shortly after my mother and I moved from progressive, post-hippie Northern California the polar opposite of North Florida when I was 9 years old. It was pretty alienating to move away from friends to a strange new environment, and I found that comics were something to latch on to.

CSB: I used to read strips like The Phantom when I was a kid, then in high school I discovered Love and Rockets (Mostly because of the band. Yes, that’s backwards.), but I didn’t seriously start reading comics until I moved to New York with Gabriel and he got a comics-related job. In those days you’d get comps of everything a company put out, not just books you were working on. So I read everything. I was 19 at the time.

What was the first comic that you read, and which was the one that inspired you to make them?

Amazing Spider-Man #33

Amazing Spider-Man #33

GH: I think the first I read was an issue of the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans run. I loved those but the comic that had the biggest impact on me was a Marvel Tales reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #33 where he’s trapped under that huge piece of machinery. I don’t think I realized it was a reprint at the time but it was the huge stakes in the issue that appealed to me. It didn’t feel like a meandering soap opera. It was life or death. I’ve always drawn and always been interested in visual storytelling even when I didn’t know that term. It’s difficult to pin down when I first started wanting to make comics since it’s something I focused on from very early.

CSB: The very first was probably some R. Crumb comic. My family was not mainstream and my godmother had some at her house. I think reading Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor is what really made me want to make them though. Not because of the content, but because of his sheer audacity.

Were your families supportive of your chosen path in the early years?

GH: Sure. My mother is a fine artist so making comics/commercial art is a pretty stable, conservative path in comparison!

CSB: Well, I didn’t start making comics until fairly recently, so my early years were an entirely different career path.

Did either of you go to college for art or writing, and do you feel it is important?

GH: I went to a high school that focused on fine art, and attended School of Visual Arts in New York for a semester until I ran out of money and dropped out. I’ve never had a formal comics or film related training though. Everything I’ve learned was self taught or picked up on the job.

CSB: I have a science degree, which involves quite a lot of writing, but of a rather different kind. Still, any narrative has the same objective (to get your point across and tell a story to your audience) so it was helpful in a lot of ways.

You two make a brilliant team. How did you first meet, and when did you start collaborating on comic projects?

CSB: Thank you! We met through mutual friends and bonded over music, film, and Twin Peaks. We eventually collaborated on a couple of non-comics projects well before our first OGN, HEATHENTOWN, which was released in 2009 from Image/Shadowline.

How does your collaboration work, and how does your personal relationship affect that collaboration?

CSB: We really both work on any script we co-write by talking it through, laying out the story together, and then passing the actual document back and forth. We both have veto power over anything that doesn’t seem to fit, and we spend a lot of time discussing the personality of main characters so that we’re on the same page as far as their actions and reactions. I’m not sure how our personal relationship affects the collaboration, other than the fact that it’s easy to work at any time and anywhere.

GH: I think the biggest impact being married has on our writing process is being able to talk about work at any time. There are good and bad sides to this.

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From left to right: Gabriel Hardman, Kyle Higgins, and Alec Siegel talking comics at Barnes and Noble in Huntington Beach, CA. Photo by author

What or who were your biggest influences starting out, and have they changed over the years?

GH: I’ve certainly been inspired by many comics creators, Noel Sickles, Bruno Premiani, Gene Colan, Harvey Pekar, Jeff Smith, David Lapham, Jorge Zaffino, Attilio Micheluzzi, and many, many more. But I think it’s very important to look outside whatever medium you’re working in. I draw inspiration from prose fiction and non-fiction, filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Hal Ashby, David Lynch, and Roman Polanski, and fine artists like Tiepolo, Degas, Andrew Wyeth, and Richard Diebenkorn as well. I firmly believe that you have to keep looking beyond your comfort zone for new inspiration. If you make comics and all you look at is comics, that’s a pretty small gene pool.

CSB: Get ready, this is something I could go on about for a long time! I already mentioned Harvey Pekar, but he’s always been and continues to be a huge inspiration. We are lucky that we have such a large body of work from him, but it’s tragic that he left us too soon. I tend to read fairly eclectically, both in comics and in prose. Music is a big influence too. I take heart from artists like Aimee Mann, who really go their own way and don’t try to fit a mold. The same goes for authors like Caitlin R. Kiernan, a writer who started out as a paleontologist and now pens unique horror.

It sounds cliché, but reading Camus in high school showed me that fiction can do a lot of things at once and proved to me that a well-written story can actually allow you to experience something you hadn’t even considered before. His novel THE PLAGUE was a real revelation in that regard. Paul Bowels’s work had a similar effect on me, as did H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft.

The wonderful thing about books is that people keep making more of them. And we are fortunate enough to live in a time when we can indulge in reading them. For much of human history this wasn’t the case. Finding something new and amazing is always inspiring. Real standouts amongst comics that have made me want to make comics over the last few years include Jeff Smith’s RASL, BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet, the PLUTO series by Naoki Urasawa, Gerry Alanguilan’s ELMER, and Brahm Revel’s GUERILLAS.

HeathentownWhat was each of your first professionally published works, and how did they come about?

GH: My first published work was War Machine #1 for Marvel in the 90’s when I was 18. I had a career for a couple years then before getting into film work and becoming a full time storyboard artist.

CSB: I had some prose shorts published prior to any comic work, but our OGN HEATHENTOWN was my first comic to see print. We just wanted to do a book together, and I had an idea I’d been kicking around. I’m quite pleased with the result.

GH: Yeah, HEATHENTOWN was really the start of my current career in comics. I was never happy with the work I did when I was younger and hadn’t drawn comics for a full 10 years before that.

You’ve both worked for many comic publishers, big and small, as well as doing creator owned stuff. How were the experiences different for you, and which is more creatively fulfilling?

CSB: The biggest difference is really the fact that there’s a framework already in place for stories set in established universes. Your job is to create something that fits into the mold, but is different enough to seem fresh. But even so, the “voice” of the characters is usually already set. By contrast, when working on something of your own, that’s all new territory. There’s a lot more “creation” going on. That can be scary, but it’s also very freeing. Ultimately though, telling a story is telling a story.

GH: There’s no question that the creator owned work is ultimately more fulfilling. But that said we put everything into our freelance work too. We don’t treat it like a paycheck. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason to do this work if you’re not totally committed.

PotA1Your work on the Planet of the Apes books was phenomenal, nailing the tone of the films in every way. I read that you had actually pitched the idea to BOOM!. Was it daunting knowing what a cult following the franchise has? What were some of the challenges you faced while writing them?

CSB: Thanks! When we set out to write BETRAYAL ON THE PLANET OF THE APES, we really didn’t think about anything other than crafting the best story we could, one that really felt like it could happen in the universe of Planet of the Apes. That was the main challenge, just finding a way to tell a new story in a place that had already had so many stories told about it. Luckily it’s a very rich, tension-filled world so that wasn’t too hard. Afterwards we met some wonderful Apes fans and most of them seemed to dig what we had done, and that was very rewarding. As we wrote more Apes stories we were lucky to have Marc Laming handle the art on EXILE, and Damian Coueiro all the way through CATACLYSM. BOOM! was very supportive of most everything we pitched, even when we said we wanted to do something as crazy as blow up the moon, so all in all it was a terrific experience.

GH: I think we looked at it entirely from the perspective of what we would want to see in a book like this. It’s true that we approached BOOM! about doing an Apes book and I’m glad we were able to catch them in a moment when they were willing to publish the book that we wanted to make.

Star Wars: Legacy has been very well received. How did the job come about, and did you have pretty free reign to write what you wanted?

SWL1CSB: We really did. Randy Stradley, our editor, approached us at the Emerald City Con in Seattle and talked to us a bit about the project a few months before we began. When we started we just knew that our main character should be a female Solo, that the book would take place just after the original LEGACY, and that we should have her go places that we had never seen in the Star Wars universe. Well, okay! That’s exactly how we approached it, and aside from a few minor adjustments, we told exactly the stories we wanted to tell.

GH: The only big thing we had to stay away from was explaining the exact lineage of our main character Ania Solo, much to the chagrin of the fans. But honestly, I was glad we weren’t allowed to deal with that aspect. Geneaology is not storytelling. Characters are defined by their actions, not a bunch of obscure continuity. I’m glad we had the chance to do that book. Randy really let us tell the kind of Star Wars stories we wanted to tell. Loyalty, friendship, pulpy action, we tried to get at the stuff that defined STAR WARS for us.

Dark Horse had an impressive run of Star Wars comics, and Legacy was a great book to end that run. How was it for you knowing you’d be writing the last Star Wars title they’d be publishing? Did that ever even come into your mind?

GH: That’s really not the kind of thing we take into consideration. You have to focus on telling your story and filter out as much external stuff as possible.

CSB: We try not to ever think about things like that. Writing is a hard enough job without putting all that extra pressure on yourself. Of course, when we started the series, none of that had happened yet so there was no way to take it into account anyway. By the time we heard about it we’d already laid out most of our major plot developments.

You’ve worked for Marvel, and they seem like a pretty decent company, with a good track record of respecting their licenses. How do you feel about the Star Wars licensing rights going to them?

CSB: I don’t really feel like I have a right to weigh in on that. Dark Horse did a terrific job with the Star Wars books for a whole lot of years. But much of it comes down to the creative team, so I really want to withhold judgment until those folks have had a chance to produce their books.

GH: I’m very happy we got to do the STAR WARS book we did, when we did it. I really don’t want to write things that have to be signed off on by a committee. I want to tell stories. If the Marvel books are allowed to tell new stories, I’m sure they’ll be great.

You write very strong characters, both male and female. What do you feel makes a strong, relatable character?

CSB: I’m glad you think so! We certainly try. To me, characters need to be multi-faceted or they’re boring. Indiana Jones didn’t always win. He didn’t always make good choices. But he was tenacious and smart, and that combination makes him memorable. When we set out to craft a character we think about what they want, what they’d be willing to do to get it, and how they approach problems. In short, we just try to make them a person (even if they’re a fish or an ape).

GH: As a matter of fact fish people and ape people are some of our favorite people.

Do you write stories from a character standpoint, or is tone more important? To you, what makes a good story?

CSB: I don’t know if those things are exactly separate. The character is going to drive the tone, but the tone also colors the characters.

The three-act structure is a tried and true method of story telling, but one that can be interpreted so broadly as to be no more meaningful than saying that a story has a beginning, middle, and end. When I first learned to write essays about scientific topics I was instructed “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” A long time later I saw someone (wish I could remember who it was) being interviewed about writing screenplays. He proposed that instead of a three-act structure it was useful to think of it as “speculation, interpretation, discovery.” This really rings true for me. Set up the story and characters, see how they deal with the problems, then discover where they end up given the solutions they find. In that way a story, be it fiction or non-fiction, has the same job and that’s to give the audience something new to think about. If the story is a mess, without a satisfying resolution, the audience will have “discovered” nothing at the end.

GH: I’d agree that character ,action and tone are basically all the same thing. If they aren’t organically growing out of each other, something is wrong. Above all the characters are going to tell you where to go and if something feels forced or phony, you’re going the wrong way.

You’ve done many vastly different books. Is your approach to them different, or are stories just stories to you?

CSB: I don’t think there’s any one right way to approach a story, and the way to approach it certainly isn’t defined by genre. Different stories require different things, but that usually has more to do with how you want to tell it. Is the narrator reliable? Is it first person? Is it all an extended flashback? Those things have to be considered before you start, and they all have a bearing on where you end up.

GH: All stories are different so you approach them in the way they want to be told.

Gabriel, does your script writing style change when you’re going to be the artist as opposed to writing for someone else?

GH: To a degree I (or we) tend to write a little more spare when I’m handling the art but I’m not a fan of tedious over explaining in scripts anyway. Often dictating extraneous detail to an artist has a deadening effect on their work. The artist needs the latitude to make inspired choices that bring a new element to the story. For example, there are a million ways to play a character’s expression beyond whatever simplistic description we could give in the script. I think the artist should understand the scene, read the dialogue and make their own choices.

InvisibleRepublicI love that you don’t shy away from political subject matter, yet handle it subtly. Are you political people in your private life?

CSB: Absolutely. I have a very strong commitment to conservation and environmental causes. The fact that there is 52% less wildlife worldwide today than there was just 40 years ago is staggering, and probably means that humans are doomed too. Even so, it’s worth fighting for the other 48%. Even if civilization somehow pulls through, I for one don’t want to live in a world with a monoculture of humans alleviated only by a smattering of rats and crows. That’s why I’m active in a number of conservation charities, notably The Tapir Preservation Fund. We also donate what we can to rhino conservation, and I spend a lot of time working with a local cat rescue, Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats. It is my belief that domestic animal rescue not only alleviates suffering directly, it also cuts down on pet overpopulation, which in turn impacts many species. Starving feral cats eat native songbirds. Happy, spayed or neutered indoor cats don’t kill birds and don’t produce more cats.

GH: So, um…yeah. We’re both passionate about politics. But we are very serious about not writing polemical stories. If a character has a view that we may agree with in real life I think we make an extra effort to challenge that in the work. Fiction that’s just about expressing a narrow ideological point is often ineffective. Smuggling those elements into the story on the other hand can be highly effective.

You have both worked extensively in science fiction, and have Invisible Republic coming very soon. What is it about sci-fi that draws you to it?

CSB: Science fiction allows you to tell a story that otherwise could become bogged down in detail and historical accuracy. As a genre, it does to a story the same thing that a prism does to light. Hold up a prism and you get a rainbow as it splits the colorless “white” light into distinct bands. The different wavelengths of light that create those colors were always there, but now you can see them. In the same way, constructing a world allows you to bring forward the ideas and emotions that are important for your tale and examine them in a milieu that minimizes the distractions inherent in any “real world” story. Planet of the Apes is a perfect example. By making non-human apes the dominant species and simplifying the world via an apocalyptic war, it’s easier to tell exciting and interesting stories about things that quickly become unwieldy or polemical in the real world.

IRPreviewWhat are some of our favorite science fiction authors or stories, and why?

CSB: There’s a LOT of good sci-fi out there, too much for any one person to consume! I loved Shane Carruth’s films PRIMER and UPSTREAM COLOR. His work is always filled with interesting ideas that really impact the characters’ lives instead of floating somewhere above them. Kim Stanley Robinson has written some really notable books that brim with new ways of thinking about things, and I don’t think I’ve ever been let down by a Richard Matheson story. I recently read Peter Watts’ BLINDSIGHT, and was really blown away by the savage implications. I also love time travel stories. Octavia Butler’s KINDRED is probably my favorite, although I don’t know if you could properly call it science fiction. The time travel is never explained, but using it as a plot device has very powerful consequences. And of course A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter Miller is just a masterpiece. I guess I already mentioned my love of Jeff Smith’s RASL, but I also enjoyed Terry Moore’s ECHO. I don’t know if Charles Burns’ BLACK HOLE can exactly be called science fiction either, but it certainly has a few elements and it’s one of the most thought-provoking stories I’ve ever read.

GH: I heartily agree with all those and I certainly have tons of sci-fi influences (though pinning down what actually qualifies as sci-fi is slippery). Star Wars had an enormous influence on me as it did with most everybody my age. Yes, I know full well it’s more space opera than hard sci-fi but it has the trappings of sci-fi. When you’re exposed to something as a young child like I was with Star Wars, those trappings can bore themselves deep into your developing sensibilities. I think I’m more inclined to relate to a sci-fi story just because of that early exposure.

KinskiWhat can you tell us about your upcoming books, Invisible Republic and Kinski?

CSB: INVISIBLE REPUBLIC is the story of one man’s rise from rebel to dictator, as told from the perspective of his female cousin who has since been expunged from history for knowing too much about him. It’s our attempt to tell an epic sci-fi story on an intimate scale. It’s a sort of secret history of an alien world, far from the center of human civilization yet colonized by humans, in an era when faster than light travel is not possible. It’s the type of story that we like to call poli-sci-fi, in the same way that Game of Thrones is poli-fantasy.

GH: And KINSKI is the solo book that I wrote and drew. It’s a quirky, Coen Brothers-esque comedic crime story about a businessman who steals a dog and the unintended consequences that follow. It’s also in black and white so it skirts the edges of noir. My reasoning behind doing a b&w book actually had more to do with the raw, stripped down quality of the story. I drew it in a simpler style than I normally use and on a 6 panel grid. It’s the comics equivalent of guerilla filmmaking. I wanted this book to really be about the content: the suspense, emotion, and characters. That said KINSKI is all about character being defined through action and how far I can push that in comics. I’m allergic to shallow pseudo-psychological “explanations” of a characters motivations. I’m actually kind of allergic to explaining in a story at all. So for a reader to enjoy KINSKI they have to be a little active and meet me half way. That’s what I want out of fiction I read/watch so I figure it’s only fair.

So Kinski started out at Monkeybrain, and is now being collected by Image. How different are these publishing/distribution models as far as your work is concerned?

GH: I think the aims of Image and Monkeybrian are very similar, giving creators the freedom to tell the stories they want and need to tell. It’s a very natural fit for Image to publish the collection.

Gabriel, you tend to work musical references into your work, especially David Bowie, with Station to Station being the most obvious one. How big of a role does music play in your lives? Do you have a genre preference while working?

GH: I listen to a vinyl records when I’m working in my studio. A lot of 50’s Jazz and 60’s psychedelia, a current favorite is The Pretty Thing’s proto rock opera record “S.F. Sorrow”. But music has also had a big impact on the content of our work. Especially old-timey songs and the continuum of folk music. This particular influence is most obvious in INVISIBLE REPUBLIC. There are many influences and connections to the folk storytelling tradition in that book.

CSB: There are few things in the world that are better than seeing live music. I don’t tend to listen to anything when I’m working though, unless I’m really struggling to capture a certain mood. Otherwise I like to work without any distractions.

TTGabriel, you’ve done extensive work in film. How is working in film different for you than comics, and has one influenced the other? What is it about storyboarding that you love, and which medium is more creatively rewarding?

GH: Comics are more rewarding than storyboarding. Directing a film and making a comic are on par because you’re the author in both those instances. You’re in charge of telling a story. As a storyboard artist I’ve had a disproportionate influence on a number of the films I’ve worked on but at the end of the day those are the director’s films. Rightfully so. They made the final call. When it comes to creative satisfaction there’s no question that comes when you get to make the final decisions.

What’s next for you both? Do you have more creator owned books coming down the pipes?

CSB: Indeed! After INVISIBLE REPUBLIC we have another creator owned book slated for release, and I’m working on a couple of licensed projects right now that haven’t been announced yet.

GH: We’re also writing and I’m drawing a three part Wonder Woman story for the digital first SENSATION COMICS series for DC.

Do you have any last words for our readers?

CSB: I’d just like to say thanks for this interview, Carl. And thanks for reading, readers!

GH: Yes, thank you! This was a long, long interview and I just want to thank anyone who came through it with us. I think we’re all a little closer for the experience.

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