Trying to Sum Up the Past Few Years on a New Jersey Boardwalk – An Interview with MATT BATTAGLIA
COMIC BOOK YETI: Matt, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave for this interview. Diving right in, your newest project is Ghosts of the Carousel, currently available for pre-order through Dauntless Stories. This is a 48-page one-shot that “watches a man struggle with the demons of failure, regret, and loss over the course of a long New Jersey night.” What inspired you to create, what I’m assuming from the preview pages I read, this very personal story?
MATT BATTAGLIA: I think the easiest way to sum up the inspiration is that over the past two years I’ve had a lot of emotions that I wanted to deal with – and I think this is true for everyone, 2020 (and 2021) have been a hell of a few years and I think we all are considering loss, grief, death, purpose. All these things were on my mind for the bulk of the story. So while there are a lot of personal elements in the book, I hope the emotions in it are universal.
CBY: What’s your comic origin story as a creator?
MB: I’ve always been drawing comics. I grew up right near the Kubert School and was lucky enough to go to the occasional Saturday Morning Sketch Class that they held for kids, which really helped foster my creativity and passion for the comics medium. Comics have been a part of my life for a very long time and reading and drawing them has been one of those things that I’ve run to throughout life when looking for escape.
CBY: Although it isn’t specifically stated in the preview pages I read, I had the sense that Ghosts of the Carousel takes place on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Why was it important that this story take place over a “long New Jersey night”?
MB: So the setting is actually Asbury Park (the conclusion should make this abundantly clear), but I’m from New Jersey, and Asbury Park has played a pivotal role in my life, and the location holds a mythical place in New Jersey history. Additionally, the boardwalk at night in the offseason is one of those places where you can really get lost in yourself – the rhythm of the ocean and the general emptiness of nighttime at the shore on a winter evening is just a great place to reflect, so to me the setting was always going to be there for this sort of exploration.
Also, I really wanted to play with the iconography that my musical heroes (Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Gaslight Anthem/Brian Fallon, Frank Sinatra, Little Steven) always used. They all developed this rich language for expression with music and I really wanted to try to capture some of that in comics.
CBY: Other than a few short comics available on your website, is this your first published comic that is wholly your creation? And did you find that more challenging or freeing than previous comics where you worked with a writer or line artist?
MB: You’re right – this is the first published thing that I’ve done where I’m taking 100% responsibility. Since the book started as just an emotional outlet – there’s a very freeing element to that, I didn’t need it to be anything to anyone except myself. But, as I’ve shown it to more people, I feel like there’s something in it that people are latching onto.
CBY: What’s your process like, including what tools do you use to create your art?
MB: For this, I have a bullet point list in my head of all the beats that I want to hit, from there I do all my layouts and “pencils” on the iPad in Procreate. Once they’re done in Procreate, I’ll print them out and ink over them. The first part of the book (the first 12 pages) were done first with a nib and then I’d go in with a brush and add zip-a-tones to them. The rest of the book was done mostly with a brush with some [occasional] nib work in there. Of course, copious amounts of white-out was used. I like to have all the finished art as analog as possible because I find that to be the fun part, so I started lettering by hand, which brings its own challenge, but it tends to pull the pages together better than digital does. The hardest part is writing the few lines of dialogue in the book since I don’t want to overdo it and get too purple prose-y, so that’s a fine line to walk.
CBY: Ghosts of the Carousel is black and white, but you’re no stranger to coloring, having worked coloring Roche Limit, and your own line art in Indoctrination and Leap M. What considerations were part of your decision-making for the look and design of this story?
MB: Anything I do “for myself,” I always tend to picture in black-and-white, mostly because color tends to take the longest out of all the steps.
Every time I start a new project that I have to color, I have to re-learn how to do it. I’ve yet to come up with a reliable way to color my work that I feel looks “right”. For me, Indoctrination was a huge learning process and I definitely wasn’t ready to do monthly comics at that point – I kept flipping between analog and digital art and I could never find a style that stuck, I blew through lead time (HUGE MISTAKE) and just totally overstretched myself beyond what I could actually accomplish. Mike’s an amazing writer and a great guy, so I do feel like I let him down there, but with Barbaric, The Plot, Wasted Space (you should buy these books if you haven’t, they’re all great), I think he’s recovered from dealing with me pretty well.
With Ghosts of the Carousel, I was able to keep the book contained to what I knew I could accomplish reasonably well and, in that way, it’s been a great exercise for me to get back into the comics saddle.
CBY: There’s a great sense of movement to the panels, especially whenever you use three panels across that I thought captured well the feeling of the subject moving past you, even when not on a carousel. Did the carousel setting come first and you worked your way into the panel layouts based on the setting?
MB: Thanks – the carousel setting I think was pretty locked in when I started it. I do remember having a hard time remembering the name for “carousel” and kept calling it a merry-go-round (which, while applicable, it really lacks the theatricality of “carousel”). I built the whole comic on a 16-panel grid (I may have used a 9-panel grid for the first 12 pages, but I don’t remember anymore) so once I settled on that, the rest fell into place pretty easily. Some pages you can tell what I may have been flipping through at the time (there are a few that are very horizontal which was definitely a Miller Ronin/Daredevil influence) but I was really trying to focus on mood and pacing and, since I wasn’t going to pace it out with words, I needed to do that entirely with the page layouts.
CBY: Dauntless Stories is a relatively new publisher focusing on the graphic novella. How did Ghosts of the Carousel end up at Dauntless? What was that process like? Was it their focus on the graphic novella format that drew you to them, or something else?
MB: Full disclosure, I may have another announcement coming early next year with Dauntless, which actually predated Ghosts of the Carousel getting picked up. I knew that for me to clear the headspace to fully dedicate to the next book, I really had to finish up Ghosts. I had about 30 of the 48 pages done already and I just sent it to Marcus at Dauntless and it worked out. To me, with them being a new publisher, it’s allowing us to build up our working relationship in advance of the next thing, and for me, it’s nice to get this thing out there to a, hopefully, bigger audience than I would have been able to do on my own.
Since you mentioned it, the graphic novella format is a great selling point to me both as a reader and a creator. As a creator, it’s a lot more manageable with a schedule to make something that’s a whole piece and not have to do it all within a month, especially when balancing work/home/etc., it’s just a friendlier format to create for. As a reader, I like having a volume that’s just a satisfying read all on its own and not having to worry about collecting it for a long time in order to reach the conclusion. There are a number of books that I was really into for a while that I just dropped off of because they ended up going on way too long.
CBY: I read an interview you did with David Harper for SKTCHD in April 2016 discussing Indoctrination and how that book was marketed. You said in that interview that the one audience that’s not served for single issues is the online/book market buyer and you were trying to capture that market while still respecting the Direct Market process. In the 5 years since that interview, especially in light of everything that has occurred in the industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have publishers found ways to appeal to that audience?
MB: Oh man, I’m embarrassed that anything I’ve said from before last week is searchable. Because time marches on and you learn and you grow and hopefully you’re not as dumb as you were previously? Or at least you’re not as naive? Or you hopefully stop caring about stupid stuff?
I will say that I’m happy Dauntless is doing direct sales so you can just order straight from their site, as that removes a barrier to entry for readers. I think any indie book is a tough sell for comic shops, especially in the current situation they’re in. It’s hard to ask shops to stock a book that they are taking a complete gamble on, and one that definitely doesn’t fit into the regular “Wednesday warrior” crowd. I obviously hope some shops take a chance on the book, and I think Dauntless is working that angle as well.
MB: I think that the comics medium has definitely evolved over the past 5 years and there’s so much more of a market for new books and interesting original ideas than there was. I’m optimistic about the future of the medium, I just think it’s changing from the Wednesday comic thing into a much looser, more independent freeform thing. I don’t think that you’re going to get rich off of making comics, but there are certainly way more options for you to get your stories out there and at least try to sell them to readers, and a lot of the new options aren’t predatory like some of the older ones. I just don’t think that it looks like the traditional comics model I grew up with – and I think in a lot of ways that’s a good thing if you’re a creator with a story to tell.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
MB: I’ll try to avoid the obvious picks (although I’m sure my picks are still going to be basic) but I would put Paul Pope’s THB in there, it’s an eye-opening reading experience; it's both anthology, sprawling narrative, and the creation and growth of an artist. I can’t wait for the long-time-coming First Second release of it.
I’ll just put Hugo Pratt in there. I know that it’s an obvious pick, but reading Pratt’s books is like the same feeling you get from a Bond movie where you get to go to these fantastic locations with these adventures that vary in narrative importance but you’re there for the ride. Pratt’s art is so incredibly observed and especially a volume like Fable of Venice it practically transports you there. I love just flipping through the pages.
For a wild card pick, I’ll go with Iron Bound by Brendan Leach which is set in Newark in the '60s and is just a wonderful illustrated story, it’s got a real effortlessness to the drawing that feels so alive and kinetic. I find that I’m now really fond of people who do more cartooning or exaggeration rather than the hyper-real hyper-detailed style that I think is the baseline for mainstream comics today.
CBY: Are there any other projects you are currently working on or have coming out soon that CBY readers should check out?
MB: I have another project at Dauntless written by Joni Hagg that will get announced next year. After that’s out I have another comic in the same length range as Ghosts of the Carousel that I’ll be working on for myself.
I also have a dormant Instagram comic called “The Unspeakable” (the elevator pitch is: the Question beats up the military industrial complex) it’s also available in comic format on my site and I think I’ll get back to that sometime soon.
I’m working on a short with Nicholas Poonamallee for the Fugitive Poems anthology, and I have a short with Dillon Gilbertson in the forthcoming Yule anthology that was on Kickstarter earlier this year.
CBY: Where can CBY readers find you online?
MB: My website is www.mattjbatt.com, you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @mattjbatt. I don’t really post very often so if you want to stay up to date on whatever’s going on, sign up for the newsletter on my website which I’ll start sending out updates from once we get closer to the release of Ghosts of the Carousel.
CBY: Matt, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview and best of luck with Ghosts of the Carousel.
MB: Thanks a ton for giving me the opportunity to talk about the book! I hope CBY readers take a chance on it.