Saturday, February 14, 2015

Catching up with comics writer Michael Cowgill

Michael Cowgill (pronounced CO-gull) is one of the mainstays of the DC Conspiracy comics co-op. He's appeared regularly in the Magic Bullet free comics newspaper, including the new issue #10 out now. He also wrote stories in the District Comics and Wild Ocean anthologies that Matt Dembicki edited. While he defines himself as a writer, he draws minicomics too, which you can buy from him at the annual Small Press Expo. Michael tells me he will be appearing next week at Fantom Comics on February 21st for the DC Conspiracy's 10th anniversary bash.

Mike Rhode: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

Michael Cowgill: I mostly consider myself a writer and have a background in prose fiction writing, which I still work on, too.  That said, I've done nonfiction/educational work for books like District Comics and Wild Ocean, and from issue 6 on of Magic Bullet, I've written and drawn my pages, featuring my characters Lil' P.I. and Trina Trubble and have done mini comics featuring them.  There, I'd say I use a style in the Charles Schulz school (but in no way mean to compare myself to him!)

How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?

"Skip Dillon: Son of the B.E.F." from District Comics, art by Rand Arrington
For writing, I might start in a notebook or on scrap paper or the occasional napkin with some notes and sketchy drawings if I need to think out a page.  There, I just outline or maybe write dialogue and very brief descriptions ("Fight!" "Pie in the face," etc.)  Then I'll write a script in Scrivener, a cool and inexpensive word processor that features templates for all kinds of formats, including a comics script template created by Antony Johnston (The Fuse, Wasteland, The Coldest City). It has a lot of automated features that speed things along and allows you to quick rearrange scenes without having to update page numbers and so on.

For art, I create panels in Manga Studio and print them to a board in blue line (so they won't scan later), then draw with a blue pencil and ink with various pens.  I'm still trying figure all that out and should probably teach myself to draw on the computer, but I find the inking stage particularly satisfying and relaxing.  I scan that back in and then letter, color, and fix everything in Manga Studio.

When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

1973 in south Jersey, but we moved to the Atlanta area (a planned community called Peachtree City) when I was 3.

Why are you in Washington now?  What neighborhood or area do you live in?

I moved here in 1997 to attend the MFA fiction program at George Mason University and ended up sticking around.  I live in Falls Church.

What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

In cartooning, reading a lot of comics and books about comics. I don't have any formal art training.  In writing, I have a BFA in creative writing from the University of Evansville (in Indiana) and an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from George Mason.

Who are your influences?

Growing up, Chris Claremont's X-Men and the Star Wars movies and toys were huge influences, as well as Bill Watterson, Berke Breathed, and as a kid from the eighties, I'm sure Garfield's in there somewhere. In late elementary school and junior high, serious young adult fiction like Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia and Virginia Hamilton's books caught my attention, and in high school, less serious fiction like Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels influenced me, especially his dialogue.  From literature, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, William Maxwell, some Hemingway, Colum McCann, Michael Chabon, Ross Macdonald, poets like Seamus Heaney and Stephen Dunn, many of my teachers. Musicians like Bruce Springsteen, The Band, The Beatles, Dylan sometimes, R.E.M., Tom Petty, Scott McCaughey. All sorts of movies and TV have infected my brain from all the dumb crap I watched as a kid to comedies like Seinfeld, NewsRadio, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Community to dramas like Homicide, The Wire, Breaking Bad, etc.

From current mainstream comics, writers Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction have influenced me.  Bendis especially.  In my prose fiction, I like to use a lot of back-and-forth dialogue, something that can get tricky in comics because of visual aspect and space limitations, and seeing Bendis' work showed me that you can accomplish that.  Brubaker has influenced things like tone and pacing, and I admire Fraction's swing-for-the-fences attitude.  Some artists that inspire me include Walt Simonson, Paul Smith, and Chris Samnee. My colleagues in the DC Conspiracy inspire me. I probably wouldn't be doing this without their support.

If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

Maybe start earlier--I didn't know about Eisner's instructional books, and we didn't have things like script books or Understanding Comics when I was finishing high school and first entertaining the mysterious idea of writing comics.  If you look at a novel, you might not be able to see how the writer did it it, but the book you have ultimately represents that work in a way a comic, especially one done by multiple creators, doesn't.  With a comic, you see the house but not the blueprint.  Also, I would have taken some art classes.  I drew a lot as a kid but never had any training, and now I'm playing catch-up.  Especially in terms of my prose writing, I'd be more aggressive about getting my work out there.

The first Lil' P.I. story from Magic Bullet #6
What work are you best-known for?

I suppose Lil' P.I. since it appears in Magic Bullet, which has a nice big print run.

What work are you most proud of?

Lil' P.I. means a lot to me and makes my friends and me laugh at the very least, and I've done it all on my own.  I'd say it's a tie between that and my story in District Comics with Rand Arrington. It comes closest to what I'd like to accomplish.  It has an emotional arc and a voice and uses the comics medium to accomplish its goals rather than just telling a story I could have written in prose.

How long have you been a DC Conspiracy member?

About 4 1/2 years.

Tell us about your Abstract Garage comic book...

"Night of the Jackalope" art by Art Hondros
I put together Tales From the Abstract Garage last year for SPX. I wanted it to serve as a showcase for some different styles of writing. I also wanted to work with artists I picked and write to their strengths. It features a few framing pages of Lil' P.I. and Trina Trubble introducing and closing the book and two stories. I wrote "Duet" in a literary style. It focuses on a moment when two strangers make a potentially romantic connection, and it's probably closer to a poem or song than a full-on narrative. I asked Jacob Warrenfeltz to draw this because he has a fairly realistic and humanistic style, and I decided to put one character on a motorcycle because Jake likes those and likes to draw them. For the second piece "Night of the Jackalope," I wanted to write an action-style piece and chose to avoid narration. It plays as a supernatural western, where a mysterious stranger faces off with a giant jackalope but discovers a secret. For this, a chose Art Hondros, whose great use of black white and crosshatching fits the mood and the old timey feel of the story. I know both artists through the DC Conspiracy, and they brought a lot to their stories. Jake did things with the layout that added a sense of weightlessness an floating to the dancing and motorcycle elements, a sense of what the characters feel physically and emotionally. Art added a lot to the design of the stranger, most notably the snake hatband and rougher look. I'm hoping to do more of these.

What would you like to do  or work on in the future?

Maybe get better at drawing so I can do something long form on my own, even though I like collaborating with other artists I'd really like to do something like This One Summer from last year.  I love quiet grounded fiction that still has a lot of emotion, and if I can do something along those lines that uses the medium to accomplish things I couldn't in prose, then I'd like to do that.
What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

Take a break.  Work on something else, play guitar, watch TV, spend time with friends or family.  From writing novels, I can say it also helps to have a long-term project because you have something to work on each day, as opposed to, say, poetry, where you might just tinker with a few words for weeks at a time.  I believe in the just write it, then fix it method of writing.  It helps you keep momentum.  It sometimes helps to leave yourself problems to solve or a cliffhanger of some kind.  After feeling the sting of rejection in the prose world, delving more into comics reinvigorated me. Having friends and colleagues to commiserate with helps, too, or a good editor.  For Wild Ocean, I couldn't quite get the script down and alive, and Matt Dembicki suggested I just write it as if writing an article first and not worry about the comics part of it, and that helped a great deal.  A good editor can do that, send you in the right direction without doing the work for you or making you feel like you're failing.

What do you think will be the future of your field?

It's hard to tell.  I've more or less embraced digital books, but I still buy and prefer comics in print and like the communal aspect of going to the comics shop.  We're in a period where more people are embracing the medium, and I like that, and I think using the medium more for educational purposes, not just to educate about a topic but to encourage literacy by having fiction and nofiction comics about all sorts of things, has a lot of potential.  I've come to enjoy the DIY aspect of comics, and given that we live in that kind of world with e-books and YouTube and web comics, it makes sense that that could spread even more in comics as the kids that are reading graphic novels now grow up.

Awesome Con comics convention in Washington, DC. District Comics panelists - Art Haupt, Rafer Roberts, Mike Cowgill, Andrew Cohen, Jacob Warrenfeltz, Mike Rhode, Carolyn Belefski and Troy-Jeffrey Allen.
What local cons do you attend? The Small Press Expo, Intervention, or others? Any comments about attending them?

I've attended Baltimore just as a fan and had a good time.  I like its comics-centric nature.  I've spent time on both sides of the table at SPX now, but I missed the early years, which sound a little more fun and unpredictable than the institutional role it plays now. I'll be exhibiting at Smudge this year and have exhibited at Bmore Into Comics in Baltimore a couple times, which is small and a good place to get some con experience.  Awesome Con has potential, but ultimately, I wonder where comics fit into that.

"Duet" art by Jacob Warrenfeltz
What's your favorite thing about DC?

Probably the people or more specifically the people I know and that it does have some kind of scene for literature and comics at least, and even though it takes a while to get places, I like the proximity to the city itself from places like Falls Church.  I also like the reasonable proximity to places like Philadelphia and New York.  The two weeks of spring we get.

Least favorite?

Traffic and what happens to it the day before holidays, when the weather gets a little cranky, etc.  I'd like to like and use Metro more, but I can't say that I do. I probably would if I lived in the city itself.

What monument or museum do you like to take visitors to?

I guess one of the Air and Space museums, mainly because my dad was a pilot and we would visit the main museum when we came through D.C.  FDR and Jefferson memorials work, too.

 How about a favorite local restaurant?

Hmm. I'm enjoying Ted's Bulletin a little too much right now.

Do you have a website or blog?

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