Pterodactyl Fever: An Interview with Brendan Leach

Posted by on June 28th, 2010 at 5:22 PM

Brendan Leach is the creator of one of the year’s most enjoyable comics – The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City. As I noted in an earlier Comics Journal post, Pterodactyl Hunters is a clever mock newspaper from 1904 that features the exploit’s of NYC’s famed flying dinosaur hunters. Brendan has also produced an intriguing mini-comic, Flin Flon, Manitoba, and has contributed to various anthologies and magazines. While he is just starting out, he seems to know what he is doing. His website can be found here.

Earlier this year I invited Brendan to speak to my comics class about his work as a cartoonist and illustrator. The students were impressed by his presentation and thrilled to receive free copies of Pterodactyl Hunters. Two students subsequently wrote short papers on his work. The following interview was conducted via email in mid-June. Thanks to Brendan Leach, of course, and also to our mutual friend Jude Killory for introducing us.

Where were you born and raised?

Hang on, let me Google that. OK, nothing comes up on the Internet. I’ll just have to remember. I was born in Staten Island and before I knew it we moved to Freehold, New Jersey (Home of the Boss). It was the mid-1980s and everyone had “My Hometown” bumper stickers on their cars. I only mention that because it was hard to avoid the saturation of Springsteen as a local hero. Consequently, I have an undeniable affinity for the kind of genre-pastiche that Springsteen does. Stolen titles from b-movies and pulp novels and clichéd Americana imagery.

What sorts of comics did you read as a kid? Were you ever interested in superheroes?

I read newspaper comics almost exclusively. Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes were the early touchstones, of course. I think that’s probably true for everybody. I know plenty of people who claim they never read comics but grew up loving those syndicated strips. And I really, really loved the old New Yorker-style cartooning. mostly Charles Addams. I had a giant book of his one-panel drawings, and barely understood half of the jokes, but I would pour over them. Those black inky washes. Of course, the old New York society references were totally unintelligible to me. It was all very mystifying and engaging. Edward Gorey’s work evoked the same feeling for me.

So those things, combined with old animation – such as Merry Melodies, the Fleischer brothers and old Disney shorts– were the first kind of visual art that I loved. I spent a lot of time copying kinds of images and drawings. My parents were totally supportive and exposed me to “real art,” which to me was no more or less valuable than Charlie Brown.

My interest in superhero comics stopped at knowing all the characters’ names. I never collected the books or really tried to read them. I would look at my friend’s copies, but mostly I liked all the origin stories and the symbols and costumes. I never really got into the story lines. The Superman and (Tim Burton) Batman movies were way more important to me than the comics, which meant that I missed reading a lot of the really good Frank Miller and Alan Moore stuff until later on.

Where did you go to college? How did that contribute to your development as an cartoonist/writer?

I went to Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. I didn’t do any comics or cartooning there. I studied fine arts with a concentration in painting and drawing. It had a pretty wide open curriculum though and by the end I was working on series of drawings with a loose narrative. I didn’t think of them as sequential art or cartoons, even though that’s what they were.

Right before graduation I had a painting professor ask me if I was still working on my “cartoons.” She came just short of making quotation marks in the air and pronouncing “cartoons” in baby talk. And I realized at that moment that I didn’t really do fine arts, and that I didn’t really care about fine arts. So I finished school and didn’t draw much of anything for a while (or paint ever again until grad school, and even then only when I had to) and that’s when ideas for stories and narratives starting kicking around in my head. When I started to think about those ideas seriously I went back to all the cartooning I liked before art school.

By the way, the prof whom I mentioned was seriously a great teacher and I learned a lot from her. I don’t mean to make it sound like she was some kind of jerk. She just took painting more seriously than cartooning.

You recently graduated from the School of the Visual Arts (SVA) with an MFA in Illustration. Do you feel like you received good value for your tuition dollars?

Yes. It was completely worth it. And I don’t want to sound like a commercial for SVA but I think any half-decent grad school is worth it because you take a short time to focus exclusively on whatever it is that you want to do, instead of having to slog through some job and trying to do your own work when you get home. Some people can do that maybe but I couldn’t.

SVA just happens to have a concentration of really amazing comics and cartooning faculty. I had a really positive experience in my specific program, Illustration as Visual Essay. The thesis class is taught by David Sandlin who was really good at exposing each student to the right kind of artists, both who to look at historically and who we should be contacting for work and networking. My thesis advisor was David Mazzucchelli. He was willing to meet with me often and was an unending source of comics knowledge, constructive criticism, brutal honesty and frustrating assignments. I never learned so much in one school year as I did working with him.

Before he became my thesis advisor I had taken a class with Mazzucchelli. For one assignment we were asked to create a comics story using silhouettes. The comic had to focus on the text and sounds. I came up with a story I called “The Greatest Metal Band of All Time.” The in-class discussion ended with a guy in an Iron Maiden shirt asking me if I liked Iron Maiden.

Outside of my program I was able to take classes with Tom Hart, Gary Panter and Keith Meyerson. Tom Hart got me started making comics and taking them seriously. He’s a great teacher and still lets me ask him for advice – which I truly appreciate. The program also put students in a position to meet art directors and publishers. So working directly with artists like that and that kind of networking is really the main thing that is more difficult to do without going to school.

Before working on The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City, you produced a mini-comic called Flin Flon, Manitoba. How did that come about? Do you see yourself as someone who creates historically-minded comics?

Flin Flon came from reading a bunch of sports history. I was probably putting off some other project and was reading about Bobby Clarke. He came from this small town in Manitoba where the only two things happening in the 1960s were a copper mine and junior hockey. The next logical thought was the stories of all guys who played on the junior team with this hockey legend but never made it to the NHL.

The town itself has a lot of odd facts about it. It was named after a character in a science fiction novel. It has a statue of that character done by Al Capp. Flin Flon currently produces something like ninety percent of Canada’s medical marijuana, at least according to Wikipedia. Strange place.

I like to work up stories that are, if not historically minded, at least really embedded in a kind of factual reality. So Flin Flon has a ton of hockey history that is all accurate. The end of the comic sort of hinges on the 1972 Summit series. And Pterodactyl Hunters is 100% historically accurate – except for the pterodactyls, of course. It’s fun to do all the research and I think it makes it easier to add whatever extent of fiction or fantasy into the story.

What did you learn by creating a self-published comic book?

I learned you probably shouldn’t do it if there’s another option. There are tons of unforeseen steps and costs at every turn. The upside is total freedom in terms of the content and scope of the project.

How did the idea for Pterodactyl Hunters come about? How did you decide to settle on the newspaper format?

It was one of those ideas that I had been kicking around for a number of years. I had the premise of pterodactyls in early 1900s New York City and that was it. It was part of a weird and long forgotten dream I had once. That part stuck with me. Every so often I would think about it a little bit. The pieces came together little by little. It occurred to me, for example, that there probably would have been a specific municipal organization, working alongside the Police Department, that would be assigned to deal with the flying dinosaur problem. And I imagined that mostly immigrants would be willing to take jobs on the Pterodactyl Patrol.

It just built up until I had enough to really focus on it. The newspaper format just made sense. I knew I couldn’t Xerox the book as a minicomic because of the ink washes. So in terms of getting a bunch of copies printed affordable, newsprint was the best option. And it resonated with the time period of the story and it worked as a good little object to distribute. There was never any question of another way to do it.

Which comes first, script or drawn pages? Which is harder, coming up with a good idea or crafting the finished product? What are your work methods, in other words?

It happens all at the same time mostly. First is the overall concept. That gets kicked around for a while (usually while I read hockey history on the Internet). Then, when a vague story arc starts to materialize, I start drawing. Just the initial ideas and figures; nothing concrete at that point. Usually something from the drawings will spark better ideas and details for the story. I’ll go back into thinking about the events and actions. and then do drawings from those ideas. At some point I’ll have to write out an outline or a page breakdown or something to organize the events and plot points I need to hit. Then the actual pages get penciled. That’s been the course of events so far. But I haven’t been doing this long enough to know if that’s the best way to go about it. I might change my methods at any point.

Coming up with the strong concept is the hard part. Putting the story together and drawing it the best you can is like a game or a puzzle. You have the pieces of a story and you have to figure out how they fit together best. But if the initial pieces are junk then the whole thing won’t work.

While the hook is the unexpected juxtaposition of pterodactyls and early 20th century Manhattan, your book is really about two brothers, and their somewhat meddlesome father. Were you concerned that the fantasy elements would overwhelm the main story?

Yes, it’s the story of the brothers. I’ve been telling people that for a pterodactyl comic there are only a bare minimum of pterodactyls in it. I think that the human drama is more interesting than the action or the dinosaurs. A story can only go so far on the premise alone. I tried to balance it. That being said, I would like to write a story that happens before this one. Where the city is teeming with pterodactyls and the hunters are just fighting tons and tons of them. And then maybe setting a story after the events of this comic. This story could be the second act of a bigger narrative.

How has Pterodactyl Hunters been received so far? Are you surprised and encouraged by the response of readers?

It’s been received favorably. I’m encouraged and moreover surprised that anyone read it at all. I guess because this is my first real serious effort in comics and the first project that I have been sending for reviews and asking for feedback on. I only hear positive responses. Nobody has gone out of their way to tell me they think it stinks, which I appreciate now that I think about it.

I’ve gotten some constructive criticism (which I pretend to accept), and some encouraging blog mentions. The first was your piece on the Comics Journal blog. Can we mention that? Or am I igniting a small scandal? Anyway, after that there was a write-up on the Daily Cross Hatch. Those reviews led directly to getting the paper in Quimby’s in Chicago. That was helpful. Overall, there has been a lot of positive energy. The word “energy “makes me sound like a hippy. Vibe? No, that’s worse. Atmosphere?

There’s a really positive atmosphere among the people that write for and run comics blogs. I sent my little book to a bunch of blogs that I liked and a lot of really nice people went out of their way to post about it. Places like avoid the future, we are ferocious, meathaus and midnight fiction, to name a few. Let’s face it, it’s a groovy scene.

Have you thought about cashing in on the pterodactyl angle? You could create pterodactyl-themed t-shirts, coffee mugs, shot glasses…

Is there a market? Maybe there can be a corporate tie-in somehow. Like with BP for instance?

I’ve thought about making “Pterodactyl Patrol Loyalty Club” pins, like those old Red Ryder or Dick Tracy radio show fan club things. I probably won’t make any of it but I like that sort of memorabilia. Technically, it doesn’t quite fit the time period. That sort of stuff was bigger a few decades later. But maybe the last story is set in the 1930s and pterodactyls are the subject of radio soaps and kids have toy harpoon guns. Then I can make fake tie-in merch.

Mainly I’ve been focusing on getting the word out about Pterodactyl Hunters, and starting work on new material. “Iron Bound” was done as a one-page self-contained piece for Desert Island’s totally awesome Smoke Signal newspaper. It’s in the fourth issue. After that, I came up with “Hidden Bodies,” which is a one-page comic that continues the story that “Iron Bound” starts. I submitted it for Smoke Signal 5 but it wasn’t included. Regardless, Smoke Signal 5 is awesome and everyone should get a copy and support Desert Island Comics. Gabe, who runs the place, is doing some good stuff over there.

I’d like to use these characters and build a bigger story. I’m not entirely sure where it’s going at this point but I like the setting – an early 1960s rough New Jersey neighborhood and the people who live there. And I want to use all the film noir and crime fiction tropes I can think of. The final idea feels a little ways off. If I can’t think of one, I’ll just steal the plot of The Wild One.

“Iron Bound” (above) and “Hidden Bodies” (below).

Who were some of your favorite cartoonists when you were growing up? Who do you especially admire today?

I mentioned the big ones already. Addams, Schulz, Watterson, Gorey. As for who I admire today, right now the list starts with Gipi, Ben Katchor, Kevin Huizenga, Jordan Crane, James Sturm, Tom Gauld, Lisa Hanault. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but that’s like my direct rip-off list. There are plenty more actually, people whose drawings I look at and immediately I’m consumed with jealousy and wish I drew what they drew.

From Flin Flon, Manitoba.

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One Response to “Pterodactyl Fever: An Interview with Brendan Leach”

  1. Rob Clough says:

    I have a review of this coming up next week. I found Leach’s list of influences to be interesting, because I compared his work to a different set of cartoonists.