COMIC BOOK YETI: This is Byron O’Neal for Comic Book Yeti sitting down with Ryan Claytor, a professor who teaches comics studio courses at Michigan State University and who is soon to launch a new Kickstarter project called A Hunter's Tale. Welcome and thanks for hanging out with me today.
RYAN CLAYTOR: Byron, thank you so much for having me on today. I super appreciate you having me here.
CBY: Let's just go ahead and jump right in. You have lots of stuff going on, but let's start with A Hunter's Tale. It's set to drop in early 2022, and the basis for the project is a poem written by your late grandfather. Why don't you tell us a little bit about what A Hunter's Tale is about?
RC: Sure. For anyone interested, you can find it at ahunterstale.com. That will take you straight to the Kickstarter campaign, which as you said, is live through January 2022. The book is a comic book adaptation of a poem that my grandfather wrote almost 40 years ago. My grandfather is no longer with us, but his body of work still is, and I really wanted to share this poem with a wider audience because it's always resonated with me throughout my life.
Basically, it's about these two seemingly very different subjects, a hunter and his prey who find this unlikely understanding of one another. The poem's theme is essentially reciprocated empathy, which is something that I feel is so important in our world right now. Over the past couple of years, especially through the pandemic, and insurrection, and George Floyd and everything we've been living through, we have become increasingly isolated from one another, especially in this day and age where you can press a button and de-friend people and surround yourself with people who think like you do and act like you do and look like you do. I think that's really dangerous.
Over the course of this past year, I was finding solace in my grandfather's work by rereading his poetry again. I ran across this poem, A Hunter's Tale, and as always, it stops me dead in my tracks. I have wanted to do something with this poem for a long time, meaning make it visual in some way. I'm a cartoonist. I've been drawing comics for almost 20 years at this point, and I feel like the time was right not only in our society but also in terms of my experience as a cartoonist. Like I said, I wanted to do something with this for a long time, but I feel like my cartooning chops are finally coming into their own and I hope will live up to my grandfather's words that he wrote several decades ago.
CBY: Was Charles a prolific writer? What about this specific poem made it your favorite?
RC: I think it's the theme and the message of it. It's also a very visual and a very narratively driven poem. You know, I don't know what your relationship is to poetry, but mine is pretty minimal.
CBY: I'm a haiku guy.
RC: Ok, nice. I'm not a big connoisseur of poetry, but the poems that I've read, they feel like you will read them and then reread them in an effort to decipher what the poet is trying to tell you. My grandfather's poems were much more straightforward than that. Like I said, it felt like a very story-driven poem. I think between that, and the theme of the poem itself, it really has stuck with me for a long time. So, yeah, I'd probably say that.
CBY: He sounds like quite the outdoorsman, as well as a writer. My grandfather was a farmer, and I spent lots of time as a child making amazing memories with him. Did you spend a lot of time with your grandfather running around in the woods?
RC: My grandfather, when I was growing up, lived on the North Fork of the Gunnison River in Colorado. I lived in California several states away, and I would see him once or twice a year. My family would take a trip and visit this magical little cabin of his. That cabin on the first page of A Hunter's Tale is essentially my artist's interpretation of that cabin. It really did sit right on the river. We would go inner tubing down the river in the summers, and grabbing icicles and turning them into popsicles in the wintertime. I have lots of really fond memories of that. We'd go snowmobiling, and I'd help my grandfather with chores around the property that he had there. So yes, I got to have these really favorable, pleasant magical memories with my grandfather.
CBY: Colorado's a special place. We lived there for three years when my wife was in grad school. We were in Colorado Springs, but that rural Colorado landscape is just amazing.
CBY: Grandpas, or at least mine was anyway, are associated with just a little bit of mischief. So, for me, one thing that stood out was riding around on the tractor with him and sneaking a sip of moonshine. He had this yellow Mayfield milk gallon jug. So, I did that when I was a kid. My mom never knew. Sorry, mom. What was one story about your grandfather and you hanging out that stands out?
RC: This project that I've been working on has sparked some renewed family interest. I got in touch with a long-lost relative who caught wind of this project. She said, hey, I've got a bunch of stuff from your grandpa that's just sitting around in a file, and I want somebody to have it that will appreciate it. I said, you found the right person. So, she sent me this huge file folder of stuff and inside were a few pictures of my grandfather. In one of them, he has this big slop of hair flopped over in front of his face with a silly look on his face. He's just cracking up the old ladies all around him. His wife is there and there's other relatives, and everybody's just staring at him laughing. That's what I remember about my grandfather is just his sense of humor, you know, he was always laughing. Even when he had a joke to tell you, he could barely get through it because he was laughing so much himself.
CBY: That's amazing.
This story is a little bit of a departure from what people traditionally think of comics, right? You're using a poem to tell your story. So, it seems like that would dictate your panel layout pretty dramatically. How did you mentally and physically translate that poem into a comic medium? What's the process look like?
RC: I'm sure it's different for everybody who tackles this sort of thing. For me, I was really trying to think about a mood for the poem to start. You'll see two or three pages of no words whatsoever before the poem starts up. I was really trying to get into the head of the character as well, so you'll see an establishing shot of that cabin in the morning, and then him sort of waking up and puttering around the house and getting his day started before the poem comes in. I really tried to think about what might be going on that day and show things that the poem might not be talking about but sort of alluded to in an effort to get that sense of pacing down. It's a relatively short poem and could be told pretty quickly, but I tried to really think about allowing people some time and space to contemplate some of these words that were being told.
CBY: I really like the format, the size of the book. Basically, you're little bit more than a four-by-five. This makes me think of something you can easily throw into a backpack and take on a hiking trip. I spent a lot of time outdoors myself as a professional landscape photographer, and I loved having something to read for those quiet moments just sitting by my myself at the top of a hill overlooking a valley. Am I on the right track as to why you picked that smaller format?
RC: Yes, there's a number of reasons why I picked that smaller format. One, this is a poem and I chose a smaller format to sort of echo poetry chapbooks. I wanted to sort of lend that cadence to it, and I was also reading a book by a Hmong American artist named Duachaka Her. It's called Tradition and was a companion book to the current Craig Thompson series coming out right now called Ginseng Roots. It's just this tiny, little 16-page comic that is sized for an eight by five and a quarter. When I got done reading it, I just thought I want to make something like this. This feels so intimate and perfect for this type of project, and I literally got out a ruler and measured for an eight by five and a quarter and called my printer right afterward and said, hey, can we make something like this? They said, oh yeah, we can size it like that no problem. So, I credit Dua for the exact dimensions of that book because I am literally making my book the exact same size as hers.
CBY: So where are you in the process? Is the book ready to go basically?
RC: Yes, the pages are done. Everything's done, all I'm waiting for now is for the Kickstarter to wrap up and get the printing money. I've already been chatting with my printer. They've got my files. They're ready to go, just have to press the go button once the funds come in from Kickstarter.
CBY: That's fantastic because I've heard a lot of folks talking lately about printing being a significant issue right now with their projects.
RC: That's another thing I wanted to address is the fact that the printer that I'm using is a 10-minute drive from my house so there's not going to be any shipping delays from here in the states or overseas that a lot of people are encountering right now. I've been in conversation with them for months at this point, and they know what to expect. They know when this is going to happen. I'm just waiting on numbers, both monetarily and quantity to come down the line so I know how much to print.
CBY: This is such a personal project? How are you feeling right now releasing something that is so close to your heart out into the big wide world?
RC: I cannot put into words how proud I am to release this because I want to share my grandfather's work with a wider audience. This project has been in my head for so long, and now it's about to see a wider audience than my grandfather would have ever expected. He basically wrote poetry for personal connections, not just for himself. If there was an anniversary or a friend that had a birthday or something like that, those are the kinds of things that he would write poetry for most typically.
A Hunters Tale is a little bit different where he wrote it for himself, but he was not a widely published poet. I was talking to my dad recently about this and asking him did grandpa have any aspirations to gain a wider audience for his work. He said, no not really. The only recognition that he got was from his small town mainly. Small town people get to know one another, and he sort of became known as the local poet. So whenever there was an occasion, a celebration of some sort, he would be asked, hey, would you write a poem for our anniversary, birthday party, etc. I think that this is going to get into a lot more hands than my grandfather would have ever dreamed of, and like I've been mentioning to you already, the theme of this poem is just so precious right now. I feel like the world needs to hear this. So, in answer to your question, I am so excited that it is finally at the point to get into people's hands.
CBY: Shaking that magic crystal ball, if you could go forward six months and everything's fully funded, which I think you'll get there, I have a lot of confidence in this one, are there other poems that he's done that you would like to adapt as well?
RC: I'm hesitating only because I am a person who is wrapped up in a great many projects. I've got a lineup of other things I want to get to as well, but that notion has certainly crossed my mind. His church published, self-published in a mini-comic chapbook type form, a body of his poetry with two or three dozen pieces in there so there's definitely more than I could pull from. It's just finding the time to do it.
CBY: You've got so much stuff going on. Let's switch gears a bit and talk about some of that other stuff. You teach at Michigan State University, and you're the coordinator for their comic art and graphic novel minor. Did you start that program?
RC: Yes. I arrived here in 2008, with my wife, who got a full-time position at Michigan State University. At the time we were not married, but we moved out here from California together. She tried to get me a partner higher. They asked, well, is he your husband? I was not at the time. We are married now. They said, okay, we'll give him one class for one semester and that's it. So, that was my sweet occupational deal to move out here but I wasn't going to not come. I came out, and I pushed a single piece of paper in front of them. I said, this is the one class I want to teach which was a comic studio course. They said, okay, go do that. They listed it as a Special Topics class, and it over-enrolled. It's been offered every semester since 2008. We've been pushing comic studies at Michigan State University to the point where it is now a minor course of study. People can find out more about if they want to go to tinyurl.com/msucomicsminor, and that'll take you straight there.
We also have an event called the MSU Comics Forum, which is an event that's been running for the past 14 years straight where we bring an award-winning comics creator, keynote speaker, and an award-winning comics scholar, keynote speaker. So, we have a couple of keynote speakers. In addition to that, there's a big, long weekend of events from an artist alley with dozens of creators behind the table of their own work to academic panel discussions with scholars coming from literally all over the world to discuss their research in comics.
We also have comics exhibitions from our Special Collections Library. The MSC Special Collections Library is home to the largest public collection of comic books in the world.
RC: Anywhere ever, and it sits in our main library. So, we just have a ton of resources. I didn't even mention yet the MSU comics podcast, which I have hosted for four years at this point, lots of award-winning creators interviewed there. We're now bringing the Comics Studies Society to campus as well, which is a huge organization and typically moves around the country throughout each year. They will now be making their home at Michigan State University every third year. So, just a ton of stuff going on in terms of comics studies at Michigan State University.
CBY: Comics degree programs are popping up with greater frequency now more then ever before. Is there any chance there'll be a BA program at Michigan State anytime soon?
RC: It's possible. Right now, we've just got the minor that got on the books not too many years ago. So, we're letting this one ride for now and seeing how it works. If there's demand, then we'll push for a BA.
CBY: Do you have any students trying to get crowdfunded projects off the ground at the moment?
RC: I'm glad you asked. As a matter of fact, I do. About a year ago, I had one of my students in my advanced comics class crowdfund their book to the tune of over $2,500. If you took me back 20 years ago when I made my first comic and told me I can make $2,500 bucks off it, I would have thought you were crazy. I was begging stores to take my books on consignment in the hopes that maybe I would one day get a few bucks off of it. This year, in fact right now, between mid-December and mid-January 2022 I have a student who is crowdfunding their book called Worried For Me. If you go to tinyurl.com/worriedcomic, you can find their work. It's a super important and personal book about their sister’s struggles with anxiety and how those symptoms were systematically ignored and the detriment that that can have on people. I'm just so incredibly proud of Angela Rodriguez who is running that campaign right now.
CBY: Where did you get your formal training or were you formally trained?
RC: I was largely self-taught. I went to school for my undergrad at University of California, Santa Barbara which had zero comics courses. At the tail end of my undergrad experience, I had a buddy of mine who said, hey, will you take me to the comic book store? I was lucky enough to have a car my senior year. So, I said, yeah, I used to do that. When I was a kid for about a decade, I was very interested in comics. As the typical story goes when I got to high school, I kind of lost interest. When I took my buddy near the end of my undergrad experience, I got back head over heels into comics. I was just finishing up an art studio degree, so at that point, I was like, why am I not trying to make this stuff?
So, I really started combing a ton of books, asking questions of people at conventions, meeting artists, and just asking a lot of questions. I would show my work around to some of my favorite artists like Sergio Aragonés, some of my first work I showed to him. He mentioned there's no establishing shot here. Oh, of course, that's something that you need when you're telling a story. Or Tom Beland, who did True Story, Swear to God, and Chicacabra and a whole bunch of other great comics. He is just a virtuoso with the brush pen. I was trying to understand this tool at the time. I showed him, how do you make these lines happen. He's like, oh, it's really simple. You just keep pulling with the brush, and you never push into the tip because then it's going to make it all chubby, and it won't get that thin to thick line anymore. You just turn your page and pull with brush, pull and turn, pull and turn. "Oh, that makes so much sense!"
So, just going to conventions and making myself a nuisance by asking a question or two of each person that I went up to and reading every book I could get my hands on. That was my comics training, but I'm trained as a fine artist for my undergrad and also my graduate degree. I have an MFA with an emphasis in multimedia from San Diego State University. I was studying autobiography in comics and wrote my thesis on the subject. That was a largely self-directed program, but I was able to shoehorn comics into that.
CBY: The creative juice seems to be second nature to you. I also hear you're a watchmaker. I admit complete ignorance to that whole realm. How did you get into that and how does that work? Are there machinery drawings that get translated into a physical piece? Tell me about this.
RC: Yeah. So, I'm going to take it back a little bit. I'm a big pinball fanatic, and my last book Coin-Op Carnival that I co-wrote with one of my very best friends, Nick Baldridge, came out and then the pandemic hit. I was not comfortable making deals for pinball machines anymore. I didn't want to be in front of people, and so as we all do, we're trying to figure out how to exist in isolation in the early days of the pandemic. I had a buddy who was getting into watch collecting. He said, oh, you should check this out. I wore a watch one time. I'll never be into it again, famous last words, then I started looking into the hobby. It was just so interesting to see the different mechanics that make up a watch. The artistry of how it was designed, I kind of fell down that rabbit hole and found a London-based company called Mr. Jones Watches who make artist-designed watches. I was just enamored with what they were doing and poring over their webpage for a couple months or so, got a couple other pieces for myself before I finally just decided I'm going to write this company and tell them who I am. If there's a possibility of working with them, I would be interested in that.
So, I did that, and then a day or so later I heard back from the company owner. His name is Crispin Jones, who said, I just took a look at your work. I think it's amazing. We'd love to work with you. Now I've got a couple designs with them that I am extraordinarily proud of. You asked about the mechanics or how do those drawings work. Basically, there are different movements for watches. The word movement is basically the word for how does the watch mechanism work. Is it just a central axle that turns around an hour and a minute hand? Does it also have a second hand? Is it quartz or automatic, meaning is it battery operated? Does it work only mechanically, which some watches do? Some movements will have what they call a jump hour where the hour just sits in one place until 1:59 ticks around and then at two o'clock, that hour jumps to the next digit when you can just see that one digit. So anyway, I worked with Crispin and his team, and they showed me the different movements that they have. They've got a traditional. They've got a jump hour. They've got a 24-hour movement. I submitted some designs for each of those to them, and after showing it to the team, they chose one and then I hit the ground running on the first one. The second was released in August of 2021, and we'll see what the future holds for me and Mr. Jones watches.
CBY: So, neon signs were first and then watchmaking?
RC: Yeah, I'd love to talk about neon signs.
CBY: Please do, clearly you have an interest in old pinball games.
RC: Yeah. I also have more weird friends who also like pinball machines and fill their basements with them. One of these buddies is Pete. His wife contacted me several years back for his 40th birthday party. She knows I'm an artist, and she said, hey, is there any chance you would help me design a custom neon sign for Pete's 40th birthday for our game room? I said, yeah, of course I would do that. Prior to her asking me that, the thought never crossed my mind that custom designing a neon sign was something that could happen in this world. We made that happen, and I saw their signs for the first time when Pete opened it up for his birthday party.
Ever since then when I visited their home I would go into their game room, and I wouldn't start playing games. I'd just sit there and stare at that neon sign. I don't know if you've ever sat in front of a neon sign before, but they are just so captivating. I told my wife, I gotta get one of these. This is just magical. So, when my 40th birthday rolled around, about five years later, I started designing a sign. I over-designed this thing, meaning I didn't just design one thing, I designed dozens of things with dozens of color iterations. When I was doing this, I was posting things online on a pinball message board because there are people really into this. This is my basement rebuild, and this is the thing I'm thinking about doing. Before my sign was even fabricated, I had a guy contact me from another state away that wanted me to do this for him. That was the last thing I ever expected to happen when I was posting these things. That sign led to another which led to another, and at this point we've got well over a dozen designs under our belt.
When I say we, I mean myself and the fabricator. His name is Josh Goodacre. He owns The Neon Shop here in Michigan, and he's about a 40-minute drive away from me. He's just an incredible craftsman. I swear he makes bent glass look like it came out of my pen. I held up my mock-up design next to my actual neon sign after I hung it. I told him, Josh, look at this, this looks like my drawing. I keep looking at it because it's right in front of me, but he really does an incredible job. He's just a master craftsman, and I consider myself lucky to be working with him. When I was designing my own neon sign, I sent him an initial design and said what do you think? He said looks fine, but you've got a bunch of different frames of animation here and every different animation step requires another transformer which is another X amount of money on top of it. So, this is going to be a real expensive sign. Okay, let me re-design that. Came back, and he talked to me about other limitations of neon. Okay, now you have lit animated portions crossing one another. You can't have a lit tube behind an unlit tube because that is going to light up the front tube as well. Okay, new design. So after the third design, I told him I think I kind of get it now. I'm gonna keep designing, and if you're sick of this I don't have to keep sending you these things. He was like, no, no, no, keep sending me these. I've been bending neon for over 30 years, and I'm finally excited about making something. So, we just make a really great team because he loves bending but doesn't love designing. He let me try bending some neon glass, and it was a disaster. It was a total mess. So, I have no delusions that I will ever be a fabricator of any sort. I can draw on design, but I'm not going to be the glass-bender.
CBY: I'm curious. How much has changed over time? Are they all now still noble gases that are used? How does the gas injection in the tube work? Maybe that's getting too technical.
RC: There have been, I hesitate to say, advances because I don't prefer them. Advances in neon signage where they'll use sort of these channel lights that are LED lights that kind of mimic the look of neon. It's not neon and if you get up close to it you can tell it's not. Those are a lot cheaper however, but the process of bending glass and pumping it with gas and lighting it up is the same as it's been for 100 years. It's a sadly diminishing art form. There are just a small fraction of fabricators around then there used to be. So, I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to be working with Josh who's been doing this for a very long time.
CBY: I looked at your website. It seems you have a couple of commercial projects too, right? Is this a hobby or is this a hobby you're trying to turn into more?
RC: I would love it if it was more. One of my friends told me there is nobody that parlays their interests into a business prospect better than you do Ryan. I feel like that's kind of what's going on here where I am just head over heels about neon. I wanted to design my own, and then other people wanted that to happen for them. I don't know that there is enough demand to quit all my jobs and only design neon, but I'm happy to design neon for anybody who comes around. So, if anybody's interested you can take a look at my neon design portfolio at tinyurl.com/clayacre, which is an amalgamation of Josh and my last names.
CBY: Have you ever thought about a reward tier for A Hunter's Tale that is a custom neon sign or a custom watch?
RC: I thought about doing some sort of tier for custom design work of some sort either illustration or neon design or whatever. At the end of the day, this is just such a personal project that I didn't want to overcomplicate it or litter it up with other stuff. I just wanted people to be able to either buy the book or get some original artwork or have an extra print that they might hang up somewhere that has to do directly with the book. So, I tried to keep it very specifically geared to A Hunter's Tale on Kickstarter.
CBY: Is there anything else you'd like to touch on before we go today? We've hit all these different things. I don't know how you have time to fit all this into your life.
RC: I super appreciate you letting me chat about my new projects. If people are interested, I would love it if they could check out ahunterstale.com. That'll take you straight to the Kickstarter. If you have any questions, you can reach me there.
CBY: All right, well, thank you so much for joining me today, Ryan. It was a real pleasure to get a chance to talk to you about all this different stuff you've got going on, including A Hunter's Tale, which is coming out January.
RC: The Kickstarter runs throughout January, and then orders should be fulfilled around late March 2022.
CBY: I wish you best of luck.
RC: Thank you so much, Byron. Really appreciate it.
This is a transcript of an interview conducted on Zoom with Ryan Claytor on Monday, December 13th, 2021. Minor content changes have been made to assist with readability.
The image(s) used in this article are from a comic strip, webcomic or the cover or interior of a comic book. The copyright for this image(s) is likely owned by either the publisher of the comic, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the comic. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner in order to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.
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