TALGARD: A World of Epic Fantasy, Four Pages at a Time – An Interview with GARY PROUDLEY
Comic Book Yeti contributor Andrew Irvin welcomes Gary Proudley into the Yeti Cave for a deep dive into the world of Talgard, an 80-page anthology of sword and sorcery comics. Andrew and Gary discuss the transition from webcomic to print, Gary's inspiration for the character, getting started with short comics, and the importance of cultural awareness in a fantasy setting.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Gary, when Jimmy suggested this interview, I immediately read vol. 1, then fell asleep. As soon as I woke up, I finished vol. 2, all within about ten hours of initially learning about Talgard, which is currently being crowdfunded on Zoop. Let’s just say you’ve won over a new fan, and I hope others are as curious about your creative process as I am!
GARY PROUDLEY: I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the book(s)! And I certainly hope so too.
CBY: To begin with, Talgard is presented both as a webcomic, and now as two collected volumes for sale through Gestalt. How has the webcomic release schedule impacted your publication planning and the establishment of a fanbase? Are you seeing reticence from regular webcomics readers to drop cash on a print volume, and how did you come to an arrangement with Gestalt to make publication of material you’ve made freely available online a winning business proposition?
GP: Thankfully, Gestalt has been wonderful in letting me work to any schedule. It’s a rare but beautiful thing to have an ongoing series (of sorts) where you have no deadline, and can wait until inspiration strikes. Wait for the muses to do their thing…within reason of course. Wolfgang Bylsma (my editor) does remind me that it has to keep ticking along even without mythological personifications of inspiration.
As for selling a print volume where many (but not quite all) of the stories are available online for free…generally, Gestalt has been happy to treat the online comics as a vehicle to drive sales of the physical book. For small publishers and writers like me who are just starting to build a following, the issue has been less about people not wanting to drop cash for the print volume, and more an issue of helping people discover that Talgard even exists at all. And it does help that Gestalt has a local reputation for producing beautiful physical artifacts. It’s not something you can experience online, but the Talgard books are printed on quality paper stock, and have UV spot varnish on the cover. There is so much extra care taken in book production and design that makes them real physical artifacts that you want to have on your shelf. Genuinely, they are Tomes.
"My personal feeling is that as a writer, I should completely get out of the way of the artist when it comes to matters of visual communication. The strength of comics as a collaborative medium is best on display when everyone is allowed to flex their own talent muscles."
CBY: By the time I was halfway through Vol. 1, it was clear you’ve been cultivating an incredibly nuanced world in which Talgard operates. In my interview with Charlie Stickney, he and I explored the line between low and high fantasy, and his interest in character-driven stories without having to tie himself to a deep world of lore. What ideas or elements sparked off Talgard’s world when you began? As you’ve proceeded, what parallels can you draw with real-world references when building fictional characters and settings?
GP: When I was just starting to flesh out Talgard as a concept, the requirements of the format is what pushed me towards the gritty sword and sorcery setting. When you only have four pages to tell a story, you can’t waste time on world-building. I think most people understand sword and sorcery as a generic setting.
Having said that though, any setting will seem more real if the people in it act the way we expect real people to act. Naturally, the world of Talgard is populated with lots of people just trying to live their [lives] and do the right thing, but it’s also overflowing with power-hungry $%#!s. Just like our world.
As for elements taken from our world, one particular story stands out above the others for me. Talgard and the War Pigs (illustrated by the incredible Al Barrionuevo) is taken straight from history. On at least one occasion pigs were covered in pitch/tar, set alight, and pointed towards the enemy’s war elephants. Of course, the pigs panicking and squealing caused the war elephants to stampede. I think that’s how you can make a fantasy world feel real. Lend as much of the real world to it as you can.
CBY: I appreciated the character design and script supplements included at the conclusion of volume one for the insight provided into your creative process, but it raised an additional question - to what degree does each artist aid in this world-building exercise from a visual perspective? The Revani, for instance, you described as “long-nailed, large-eyed, evoking an owl,” but then gave free rein for Craig Phillips to take the concept forward and design the species. I’m sure lots of readers would be curious about your broad experience with realizing your vision. Working with the huge roster of artists you have, what anecdotes can you share about visual worldbuilding as a collaborative process? (i.e. How do you approach revisions and zeroing in on getting what you’ve conceptualized through the work of whichever artist you’re collaborating with?)
GP: My personal feeling is that as a writer, I should completely get out of the way of the artist when it comes to matters of visual communication. The strength of comics as a collaborative medium is best on display when everyone is allowed to flex their own talent muscles. I think the most important thing I can do for an artist is to not tell them what I want, but [to] make sure I convey why I want what I want. An artist will absolutely be better at thinking visually than I and will produce a better design with free rein. I need to remove my ego from the process as much as possible and let the artist be an artist. In the example you used, once I told Craig Phillips that the Revani are nocturnal, he could then best decide how to convey that and make it work in the context of Talgard’s world.
For the initial design of Talgard, I worked quite a bit with Marc Noble. We spent a lot of time talking about the practicalities of being a sellsword. Details like the hard-wearing leather of his clothes, the hip draw of his sword, the kind of boots he would wear. But we also talked about elements of the design that would make Talgard recognizable as the same character no matter who drew him. Things like the dreadlocks and the crossed straps on his chest. As a result, the design came out much better than it would have if I had just told Marc what to draw. When you get to work with incredible artists, you should trust them and use their skill. That way it’s not my vision, it’s a shared vision of everyone involved. Appropriately, one definition says a gestalt is something that is greater than the sum of its parts, which describes comics perfectly.
CBY: The nature of your anthology installments means Talgard has, over the course of two volumes, received varied renditions from a roster of artists deeper than many characters who have been around for decades. To that end, can you shed some light on your solicitation/inquiry process for artists to collaborate with on pencils/inks? Also, how did you end up working with Justin Randall as a colorist to unify the visual tone across the series?
GP: So far all of the artists on Talgard have been part of the Australian comics community. Many of them have been artists that I know from their body of work, or from meeting them at local conventions, or in some cases from having looked up to them and their work in my formative years. I have found that most artists are very excited to work on a four-page story. It feels a little bit like a comedian doing a tight five, where they get to come out of the gate with their best material, and get out before the work becomes a slog. Beyond that though I have to give credit to my editor Wolfgang Bylsma. I don’t know how he manages to find time to scout new talent in amongst all the other work he does, but from time to time he will come to me with a link to the work of someone I’m not familiar with. Almost always I try to write a story with the work of the artist in mind. Craft something that fits in with their strengths, and hopefully have a story they are excited to work on, because I feel that manifests itself on the page.
As for Justin Randall, it has just been incredible having his colour artistry being brought to bear on Talgard. I’m lucky enough to call Justin a friend, and he is doing me a huge favour in colouring these stories. His colouring is very stylised and evocative, and in some respects, it rises up through any line work, which makes him perfect to create a cohesive feel through the book. Justin is a great graphic novelist (check out his Changing Ways series) and he knows what to do in service of a story with the colours. I think he is an integral part of what makes Talgard work.
"That kind of cultural awareness is absolutely central to Talgard. I live in Naarm (Melbourne), traditional lands of the Kulin Nation. Although it’s not something that often comes up, in the original design phase of Talgard with Marc Noble, we wanted to have him present physically as an Aboriginal/First Nations man. If we can have people who physically present as Europeans in fantasy settings, why on Earth shouldn’t we have people who are Aboriginal? Or indeed any other ethnicity? It all ties in with the fact that fantasy fiction is a lens through which we can talk about the world we live in."
CBY: A friend suggested I read the old Conan stories, because the films depict only Conan in his guise as a barbarian, and neglect the multifaceted nature of his character in the broader written fiction (particularly the dozen books by Howard, de Camp, and Carter under the Lance/Ace paperback series, which are titled after his many non-Barbarian roles). It also seems you’re lending Talgard a studied, deductive quality not unlike Arthur Conan Doyle’s treatment of Sherlock Holmes, who is revealed over a series of short, case-by-case vignettes. My mention of these points of reference doesn’t take us beyond the well-muddied shallows, where these anchors aren’t necessary, but as you venture into deeper waters with this title, who do you draw upon when writing Talgard’s escapades? Who informs and inspires your characterizations (from the ubiquitous to the obscure)?
GP: You have very deftly picked up on two of the biggest ones there in the two Conans; Conan the Barbarian and Sherlock via Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I think they’re both great examples of characters that deal with intractable problems in very different ways. Conan is simple as a sword and he deals with problems in an equally straightforward way. He is definitely the kind of character who would simply cut the Gordian knot. Why make things more complicated than they need to be. Sherlock rises above the problem. He is better than the problem. He always has that one piece of information that the others are missing that makes the solution clear to him. I’d like to think in Talgard I’m trying to write a character who knows when to be straightforward and when to be complicated. When to be Conan and when to be Sherlock.
Beyond that I’ve taken some inspiration from Terry Pratchett too. I felt he was the master of writing characters who are moral but not to the exclusion of being pragmatic. Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax spring to mind. Characters who do what they can to help when they can, but do what needs to be done when all else fails. The kind of character who understand that the buck stops here.
CBY: One writing element that became readily apparent after I’d read a few installments was the turnabout you deliver in almost all of your Talgard tales, and I’ve noticed having Tydral as an apprentice to Talgard gives you a targeted justification for any exposition he needs to provide without relying too heavily on narration. Both are deftly used devices, and I was wondering what other story-crafting tools or shortcuts would you’d like to share from your experience that allow you to keep things neatly packaged for your 4-page format?
GP: I would recommend the four page format to absolutely anyone trying to get into comics. Even in a four page story you can work to a three act structure. You don’t need to, but you can.
I would also say that you need to get into the action late and get out early. Start your scene with something already in progress and trust your audience to come along for the ride. That is a principle which is incredibly useful for all writing in comics. If your scene calls for two people to be sitting in a diner and chatting, we don’t need to see them being seated and given menus. Readers can take that as a given, and it will really help with the pacing of your writing. And then once you’ve wrapped up your story, keep your denouement brief and punchy. Let your reader walk away from the story on the high of the exciting conclusion. I don’t think this is the only way to tell a story (looking at you Lord of the Rings) but I think it helps to learn the rules before you start trying to break the rules.
CBY: Given the amount of world-building and character development you’ve been able to deliver four pages at a time, do you have any designs on a longer-format Talgard story or potential stories focusing on other characters/scenarios within the same narrative world? Is there an overarching chronology you’re exploring, or is every installment meant to be of the “monster-of-the-week” variety and neatly tied off?
GP: Absolutely I do! I haven’t actually started writing anything yet, but I do have plans for a Talgard full length graphic novel. In fact I have started laying the groundwork for it within the stories that exist already.
Furthermore I’m toying with the idea of doing twenty two page Tydral stories. All of the current Talgard stories are presented out of chronological order, so I like the idea of jumping forward twenty years and seeing Tydral after her apprenticeship. What I have tried to express in writing her is that she is not quite so cynical as Talgard. I would love to explore that with an older version of Tydral. Someone who has the skills and knowledge of Talgard, but a better person. Someone who is less quick to judge and is willing to go further to help people.
CBY: Talgard, as a character, has an astute understanding of cross-cultural dynamics, geopolitics, and the natural world. I see Gestalt’s acknowledgement on their site of the Whadjuk people as the traditional landholders where the office is located. The recognition of their connection to the land, waters and community, and respect to their culture in consideration of time immemorial. Cultural awareness is clearly a recurring theme - and often a crucial narrative device - in Talgard. As someone living in Fiji, where indigenous culture and rights are a continual topic of discussion and contention, I’m curious about your parallel experiences with Australian Indigenous/Aboriginal issues. How do you feel your experience (and that of your fellow Aussie collaborators) informs the construction of a narrative world where cross-cultural conflict and misunderstanding is frequently a key plot element?
GP: That kind of cultural awareness is absolutely central to Talgard. I live in Naarm (Melbourne), traditional lands of the Kulin Nation. Although it’s not something that often comes up, in the original design phase of Talgard with Marc Noble, we wanted to have him present physically as an Aboriginal/First Nations man. If we can have people who physically present as Europeans in fantasy settings, why on Earth shouldn’t we have people who are Aboriginal? Or indeed any other ethnicity? It all ties in with the fact that fantasy fiction is a lens through which we can talk about the world we live in. It is very important at Gestalt to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we live on, and their connection to the land. In fact some of the principal people involved in Talgard and Gestalt have recently started a not-for-profit called Comics On Country for the purpose of facilitating and supporting First Nations creators to tell their stories through comics. At this stage Comics On Country is Wolfgang, myself and Brenton McKenna, artist on Talgard and the Ephanisk and himself a First Nations graphic novelist (you should all check out his work Ubby and the Underdogs). We have just launched the Indigiverse from Gooniyandi-Miriuwung Gajerrong man Scott Wilson. So yeah, promoting cultural understanding is absolutely central to everything Gestalt does.
CBY: You’ve currently got your Talgard: Tome Two campaign running on Zoop. Can you tell us a bit about why you and the Gestalt team have opted to go with the platform (as opposed to Kickstarter or another option). How does it different in your experience, what do you like about it, and what other features would be good to add, remove, or change as the platform evolves?
GP: The main thing that prompted us to move away from Kickstarter and towards Zoop is Kickstarter’s apparently inexplicable announcement that they are moving towards blockchain technology. As I understand it blockchain is bad for the environment, using far more resources than is necessary to facilitate crowdfunding.
There are so many benefits so far to Zoop. Not least of which is that they are an exclusively comics based crowdfunding site, so they have a real understanding and love of comics. They know what we are doing, and I can’t emphasize how important that has been. The only improvement that I could hope for is an increase in user base. I’m hoping that in the future Zoop will become a destination for people looking for indie comics, much in the same way that Kickstarter is now. And frankly, if the good folks at Zoop keep going as they are now, it’s only a matter of time before that’s the case.
CBY: After all the probing questions about your own work, can you share with our readers any comics or other media that have been providing you with inspiration and enjoyment lately? Beyond Talgard, what would you like to see more people out there tuning into and experiencing for themselves?
GP: I find that inspiration for my own writing comes from the strangest places. In the past few weeks I have been enjoying Sandman of course. It’s like visiting an old friend with a new haircut, seeing Sandman in a new medium. I’ve also been watching The Morning Show (which has been renamed into Morning Wars here in Australia) which has been a very thought provoking look at #MeToo while still being a compelling story in its own right. I’m not sure how that will lead into a Talgard story, but I have no doubt that it will.
As for comics, I’ve been absolutely loving Head Lopper from Andrew MacLean. I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I was worried with it being Sword and Sorcery too it would unduly influence my own work on Talgard. I shouldn’t have worried as it’s a completely different beast. But hooo-boy is it fun. Check it out folks.
CBY: Gary, thank you so much for your time and for bringing these Talgard collections to the public. Before we go, please share any social media and promotional links you’d like us to include for those interested in learning more. It’s been a pleasure!
GP: Thank you so much for the chance to chat about it! For anyone who wants to learn more you can find Talgard Tome Two on Zoop, and you can find me on Twitter.