In August you’ll be able to sample the most recent work by one of the most talented cartoonists working in comics today, and this time he’s choosing international espionage and intrigue from his seemingly endless store of potential genres. Rich Tommaso has created tense dramas, period detective stories, gangster show-downs, as well as horror stories both whimsical and disturbing, and now he’s plunging with enthusiasm into the world of talking animals in smart suits, exotic locales, and a very British agent in Spy Seal.
The world of Tintin is one of Tommaso’s greatest influences in creating Spy Seal, but it’s not a new influence. Instead, this comic has a long and meaningful genesis as a project Tommaso first drew in the 6th grade at school. Commenting about this childish project (with astonishingly sophisticated artwork seen below) on social media in 2016, Tommaso was overwhelmed by a reaction from friends and fans asking him to pursue the concept. Spy Seal was not just born, but resurrected in abundantly stylish form.
Tommaso’s recent work from Image Comics includes the gang warfare conflicts of Dark Corridor and the surreal, violent, and at times quite sweet, She Wolf, and Spy Seal marks his third Image series. Tommaso joins us here today to talk about his suave adventurer and the fascinating world he moves in while pursuing his secret missions.
[The only surviving ‘British Agents’ strip that Tommaso created in 6th grade]
Hannah Means-Shannon: You could be accused of working with anthropomorphic characters before in short horror comics and in She Wolf. What’s the appeal of creating characters who are “animal-people”?
Rich Tommaso: I just have a natural feel for it—I noticed years ago that there’s almost always a prominently featured pet or animal in my comics. Like the Westie dog in The Horror Of Collier County (1998) or the poor frog that meets a bad end in Rollercoaster #1(1996). But really, it goes back to childhood. I mostly drew anthropomorphic characters from a very young age, around 5-6 years old, up until I entered Art College. I was the typical kid who watched (too many) TV cartoons and read newspaper comics growing up, so characters like Garfield, Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Droopy Dog, Magilla Gorilla, Heathcliff, Danger Mouse, Snoopy, Thundercats, and Pogo were just some of the many influences for me as a little kid.
HMS: You posted recently on social media about tearing up earlier comic work. What was that about? But seriously, you’ve been on this comics road for a while and readers can’t help but notice that you just seem to get better and better. How do you embrace change so much in your work?
RT: I get bored—ha. Really, it’s true. Growing up, I drew a lot of my own comic books. I started drawing and writing full-length stories in 6th grade. Starting with a Sergio Aragonés / Inspector Gadget inspired spy series called, U.A.V. ( The Urban Assault Vehicle). After 10 issues of that—ranging from 14 to 18 pages each—I came up with Spy Seal. That lasted only two issues and then I turned it into a daily comic strip renamed, British Agents, which amounted to about 5-6 weeks of strips in all. But then, in my late teens-early twenties, I must have drawn dozens of comics that never lasted more than 2-4 pages.
I would become bored with either the subject matter or genre—or I’d just realize that it wasn’t any good before really giving it a chance. The ripping up of pages didn’t occur until my professional comics career though. I once drew 75 pages of a crime novel that no one wanted to publish and which was very demanding to draw, so to end the burden of finishing it, I tore it all up one day. I did that to a bunch of other comics in my late 20s early 30s, but I don’t do that anymore. It’s easier these days to give up on a comic and not worry about trying to think and think and think about how I can possibly pick it up again one day and finish it. It’s somehow easier for me to let go of those projects today.
HMS: What, to you, makes for a beautiful or meaningful comic?
RT: No matter what the comic is about—whether it’s autobiographical or super hero, crime or horror, it’s got to have something personal weaved into it. Making She Wolf at Image was a fulfilling experience, not because of the werewolves per se, but more because I had more to say personally in that series than even some of my reality-based comics from the past.
HMS: Tell us about our Spy Seal. What’s he like, personality-wise? Does he attract the same admiration we associate with spies in the spy genre of stories and films?
RT: I’m trying to form him into someone who has his issues with the politics involved in his work, but mostly makes judgement calls by choosing to back the lesser of evils in his political arena. He’s a British Agent mainly for the fact that that is where he was born, rather than out of any strong feeling of patriotism. As an agent, he isn’t all that savvy as a politician. He’s a field agent, a worker—an ex-military man, but one who can see that there really isn’t a big difference between governments when it comes to the violent tactics they’re willing to use in order to come out on top.
HMS: Is this a comic that can take us to exotic locales around the globe? Is that a new freedom for you in comics?
RT: Yes! Definitely. Much like Tintin—and what I love about those comics—is just that; they take you to exotic places all over the the world. In series one, Seal will go from England to Monte Carlo to Belgium…and that’s what I’d like to do with each and every future serial—bring him to exciting places across the globe. And it does free me up from drawing the same old, american, contemporary settings—book after book.
HMS: Is it a relief to work on something that is relatively light-hearted compared to some of your recent work like Dark Corridor and She Wolf?
RT: With every new series, I look at my weaknesses and—if possible—try to strengthen those things that I’ve not been satisfied with in my past works. I believe that one of those weaknesses is my inability to fashion a tough voice—which, for crime, horror, or even reality-based, adult material, can be important, according to what you’re shooting for. So, creating a comic series where—I’m NOT pandering to a younger audience—but rather, making something that wouldn’t benefit or be enhanced by sexual situations, profanity, or violence, is my way of exploring a more natural, honest voice in my comics.
HMS: What kind of color palette are you working with her for Spy Seal and how did you choose it?
RT: It’s very similar to She Wolf, but muted. Again, something very close to what I see in Tintin comics. I’ve always loved the colors in those comics—and others of a similar time period, I mean, that comic ran for decades, so specifically, the comic book work of the 50s-60s time period.
HMS: Have your creative tools changed at all over time in making comics? What are you using to make Spy Seal?
RT: I’ve been using the same tools for the past six years—I mainly use Faber Castell Pitt pens. I used to only ink with sable brushes and dip pen nibs, but I really became comfortable—and worked more prolifically—once I started using Extra Small, Small, Medium, and Brush tip Pitt pens. Occasionally, if I draw at a size larger than 10 X 15, I’ll use sable brushes to ink them, but for Spy Seal, I’m trying to keep these pages to 8-14 panels per page, so the small pens are best for inking at that size.
Spy Seal is soaring into our lives on August 16th, 2017, from Image Comics. Don’t miss out on what promises to be a fascinating new development in comics from Rich Tommaso.
Spy Seal #1 is currently listed in Previews and can be pre-ordered with the following code: JUN170705