The latest in our series of interviews with the nominees for the 2014 Best Digital/Web Comic Eisner Award sees us catch up with the truly unique Dax Tran-Caffee. The brains behind the truly innovative Failing Sky web comic that takes the traditional rules of linear story-telling and throws them out of the window in order to make up a whole new structure and approach to telling a story. With pages that scroll up, down, left, right and even leap to completely different chapters it’s a truly special series that is unlike anything else out there (plus it’s all hand drawn in paper and pencil!) so we were keen to catch up with Dax and discover the secrets to this avant-garde comics adventure.
For those who are new to your comic as a result of the Eisner nomination, what is the ‘elevator pitch’ you would give new readers to describe it and get them excited about wanting to read it?
DC-T: My twitter pitch is something like “witness the fantastic adventure of a failed sailor and a genderqueer nancy drew as they battle giant robots made of garden shears” or something, but none of that is actually in the book (although I say that as I ink a panel where an orca-sized clothes-iron-with-broomsticks-for-wings smashes into a San Francisco MUNI train — but disregard that too because it’s even more misleading). Really, I’m writing a story about the ordinary lives of genderqueer artists, whilst treating “genderqueer” like it’s an elephant in the room, because I think that’s an important story to tell right now. Failing Sky is a story of the crushing disappointment of building a tower to the clouds to find that there’s nothing there.
We love your use of unorthodox page layouts, panoramas and long pages, can you tell us a bit about your method, how do you create your pages, do you plan them ahead or let them evolve with the story and how do you physically produce the pages?
DC-T: It’s great to hear that you like the layouts — it’s so hard for me to tell if they’re confusing or annoying.
My process is to walk through each chapter’s script and thumbnail out the action, looking for shifts in the character’s experience that I’d like to emphasize. I was taught a pretty formulaic approach for use in film/video storyboarding, where a diagonal composition feels tenser than a horizontal, or fast cuts are tenser than steady shots, etc. etc., and I’m just building on that: the ‘infinite canvas’ of the browser can make diagonal scenes that much more diagonal, and changes in page size are like different lengths of camera shots.
We assume you’re working on paper and then scanning them in for the web? If not, how do you produce them?
DC-T: I’m drawing this whole thing on paper in a futile attempt to contrast the otherwise digital experience. I thought it would be good reinforcement of the head-in-the-clouds story theme to keep the reading experience grounded in the physical world. My comfortable working size is about 9″ of paper translating to 900 pixels in a browser, so most pages end up in the range of 14-20 inches across, which just barely fits on standard watercolor sheets of 22×30. I’m scanning them on a flatbed and piecing the drawings back together digitally; the digital processing is minimal, as I’m trying to preserve the scanned texture of the paper, but that comes at the expense of not being able to really clean up the drawing. I do make digital adjustments to lettering and inking errors and whatnot, so it’s not like I’m a purist or anything.
How time consuming is each page? DC-T: Pages take 1-2 days to turn out, though it depends a lot on size. An 11×14 takes about 2 hours for the rough draft, 3 hours to pencil, 2.5 hours to ink or color, and another 30 minutes to get it digitized. And then there’s usually another 6 hours of associated work like reference research, concept sketches, admin, and site development. Including this interview I have logged 1725.25 hours on the project (— which means I’ve got like 8274.75 to go before I’ll be good at it?).
Was the intention behind Failing Sky always to experiment with unorthodox story-telling? (as well as the panorama pages you have chapter points where the reader can leap to an entirely different story)
DC-T: I’ve always been into experimenting with formats; I can’t even get excited about projects if they’re not formally adventurous. Failing Sky’s original concept was to read like a web of linked wikipedia articles: where you hardly ever read anything in its entirety but somehow, hours later, do eventually start to feel that you’ve gotten what you went searching for. I need to publish many more chapters before we’ll know if Failing Sky actually feels anything like that, but I’m still hopeful.
How far do you think you can push the boundaries before things go too far? Where would you like to go with it next?
DC-T: In everything I do — puppetry, painting, music, gender, whatever — I never know how far I can push a format until I’ve screwed it all up, which I am constantly doing. Fortunately there’s always been some way to repair the project, whether it’s a puppet show that’s too opaque or a song that’s getting a bit too punk-rock, as long as someone cares to tip me off — so, yeah, no one be shy about letting me know when I’ve lost you. That said, I’ve hardly started experimenting with the possibilities of the medium — I’m just using static illustrations and hyperlinks, which are 1995-tech as far as I’m concerned — so I’m still years behind E-Merl and Sutu. I did love playing alternate-reality games, though, and have plans to introduce at least a taste of that into Failing Sky, and we’ll see if that loses all my readers.
Failing Sky feel like it’s natural home would be on a tablet or smartphone, any plans to bring it to either of those platforms? Or any other format?
DC-T: I hate this question, because it’s so true that this would have been best read on a tablet, and I’ve totally failed to make that happen! In my defense, I went with computer-browsers because they’re the most accessible, and as an activist I’m not a fan of any art that has a threshold of accessibility, especially one so pricey as a tablet. Still, I intend to get Failing Sky onto tablets some day, but I’m not a developer so I have no idea how to even begin doing that — if anyone reading this wants to give me free tutoring on creating an app, I will give you so many hearts! A real app may have to wait until I get serious funding, though, which ain’t going to happen anytime soon.
I do have plans, though, to print the 9 chapters of Volume IV in standard comic-book format, as they lend themselves to it and I really need something to sell at conventions. I should have the first of those books ready by the end of 2014, but I have doubts as to whether anyone would want to buy any of them as I seem to have set up Volume IV to be unnecessarily confusing.
How important has the Eisner nomination been for you as a recognition of your work and how much more attention have you got as a result of getting the nomination?
DC-T: The only people who read Failing Sky earlier this year were a smattering of close friends and my mother, so if anyone who doesn’t know the color of my underwear is reading it now, it’s entirely because of the Eisner nomination. I am so grateful and lucky to have the confidence of such a reputable jury, and it’s totally saved my life. Given the amazing things that are going on on the internet, though, it really is just lucky that I caught that attention.
Have you had a chance to check out the others on the list? What do you think of them and are there any digital comics/web comics you would have liked to see on the list?