Words and Pictures: Graphic Novelists Robert Tinnell and Bo Hampton
Robert Tinnell has been in the film business for years as a director and producer of films, commercials, and music videos. He now works as a screenwriter and hopes to get back into directing soon. He wrote the graphic novel The Faceless: A Terry Sharp Story and coauthored The Black Forest, The Wicked West, and The Living and the Dead. His graphic novel Feast of the Seven Fishes (www.feastofthesevenfishes.com) has been nominated for an Eisner Award.
Bo Hampton attended The School of Visual Arts in New York and was taught by comics legend Will Eisner. He went on to become Eisner’s assistant and worked for DC Comics. Since then he’s worked for every major comics and graphic novel publisher in the United States. Some of his works include Batman: Castle of the Bat, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and the mini-series Book of Shadows.
The three of us spoke together in an Internet chat room and talked about the rewards and challenges of collaboration and why comics aren’t just for kids. The conversation was informative, engaging, and oftentimes very funny.
Raquel Pidal: Okay… here we all are. Welcome to both of you.
Robert Tinnell: Bo, we’re getting the book to Peter Straub.
Raquel Pidal: Hey, congrats on that, that’s really exciting.
Robert Tinnell: He’s a huge influence — one of the guys the book is dedicated to.
Raquel Pidal: The book has a horror/creepy element to it, correct?
Robert Tinnell: It pretty much runs full-steam on horror with no apologies. Although we like to think we’ve worked in some characters of depth, which was a big attraction for me.
Bo Hampton: Peter Straub is one of my favorite authors. His characters are real people, which is a rarity in any medium but especially horror fiction.
Raquel Pidal: That’s actually one of the questions I had…. developing characters not only in graphic novels but also in what is known as “genre” fiction, where sometimes characters get overlooked for plot. Can you guys comment on the challenges/advantages of developing characters in graphic novels?
Robert Tinnell: I think this is in some ways an unfortunate side-effect of our shortened attention-spans (thanks television) and our addiction to plot. Don’t get me wrong — I love good plot. And there’s nothing wrong with high concept — hell, Romeo and Juliet are high concept. But I think something is being sacrificed on that altar — namely, character.
Bo Hampton: Look at Jaws — the book and the movie — for great characters. Bob is masterful at that and one of the best writers of “character” I’ve ever worked with. I guess it helps when you are a character to start with.
Robert Tinnell: You know the other bad thing that happens — and I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone — but writers often have trouble writing in voices other than their own. And characters all start sounding alike.
Raquel Pidal: I agree. Good characters can really enhance any plot, no matter if it’s mundane or high drama. To backtrack a bit… this book is your first collaboration. How did the two of you decide to collaborate on this story?
Robert Tinnell: I begged to Bo to let me work with him. And in a weak moment he relented.
Bo Hampton: Bob said he wanted to work together and after I read some of his work I agreed. I’m very lucky.
Robert Tinnell: I begged.
Raquel Pidal: So it seems that the two of you are both mutually grateful to have collaborated together. Where did the idea for the story evolve from?
Robert Tinnell: Bo hit me with an absolutely brilliant one-liner. A blind scientist who develops technology that enables him to see ghosts — based on his seeing-eye dog. That was it.
Bo Hampton: It was my idea as far as the basic concept is concerned. Bob took the basic bones and fleshed it out into a full-blown spook-a-thon.
Robert Tinnell: I had been working on another ghost angle and was able to bring the elements that were obsessing me into it… Honestly, I can’t remember a time a collaboration involving me has been so balanced in that we each affected the other’s stuff so much.
Bo Hampton: Definitely.
Raquel Pidal: So Sight Unseen is truly a collaboration of both your ideas feeding off of each other. What was your process for writing and illustrating the story like?
Bo Hampton: My wife calls it synergy. Bob and I together are more than the sum of our parts. Bob wrote a plot based on the concept that we fine-tuned together. I wrote and drew the notorious camping sequence, which Bob was kind enough to allow me to do. And that was the first thing that I did on the book.
Robert Tinnell: We discussed stuff pretty extensively on the phone and Bo started drawing — in fact, he’d already started before we started! I think I wrote the story itself in a relatively short time, maybe a month, and then we refined it on and off all the way to the end. What was also fun was working out the geography of the story. It’s another thing we both obsess on, and, to me at least, not properly expressing the geography of the action — in print on film, whatever — is a big mistake. So we actually mapped out the house where the major action takes place as well as its immediate environs. It made a huge difference in the storytelling.
Raquel Pidal: Bo, did you draw the book sequentially or out of order?
Bo Hampton: Out of order in the beginning but once Bob got me the script it was totally linear.
Raquel Pidal: I imagine that having a “map” was especially important since things can sometimes be imagined differently by different people. Did the two of you find your ideas overlapping or is the final project a sort of melding of two very different imaginings? Like did one of you imagine one person looking one way and the other imagined him looking a totally different way?
Robert Tinnell: He does these fabulously sketchy “layouts,” wherein he kind of thumbnails what the finished pages will be — we have some in the back of the book — just wonderful stuff. Anyway, we were able to modify things based on those sketches.
Bo Hampton: Well, Bob can’t erase what I draw since I was uploading the files so I always had the last word and that is literally true since I lettered it as well.
Robert Tinnell: I think I just lost something I wrote about characters. One of the downfalls of internet chats.
Bo Hampton: LOL (laugh out loud)
Raquel Pidal: The mysterious disappearance of one’s words into the ether. Or one of the ghosts from the story snatching them up.
Robert Tinnell: Damn. I did. I was saying we made the decisions beforehand; we’d find visual references for people and places to act as an inspirations… But only inspirations, of course. Bo makes them his own.
Bo Hampton: Yeah, Dennis Quaid is Frank, the main character, but you have to add the hair from Kolchak, the Night Stalker.
Robert Tinnell: There’s the house — it’s called The Birches — in the book and it really is a character. We looked at things — Bo found a direction he liked — and came up with what is a quintessential-looking haunted house, and yet one that you can believe in because it’s not too “Hollywood.” It looks like an honest-to-God Virginia Victorian.
Bo Hampton: I think that house from Pittboro, North Carolina, actually inspired the Munster house.
Robert Tinnell: We both have a Southern Gothic thing, I guess…
Raquel Pidal: And the Munster house was as much a character as the Munsters. Southern gothic automatically adds creepiness, so it makes sense.
Robert Tinnell: That and the notion of some Faulknerian corrupted family life! Seriously, I think we are both very much attracted to the notion of place as character. It certainly enriches the storytelling, and in the instance of a graphic novel, not only informs the art, but makes it more enjoyable for the artist. Am I right, Bo?
Bo Hampton: Yes, you are correct, sir.
Raquel Pidal: Bob, here’s a question related to movies. I’m always interested in how storytelling changes from one medium to the next; do you find the process of creating movies similar or different from the process for creating a book?
Robert Tinnell: At its core, it is similar, in that arriving at the heart of story is pretty much the same for me in any medium — I don’t do anything until I know the ending. I need to know the ending so that I can properly exploit it in advance, if that makes any sense. Beyond that, however, I think that screenwriting does have a nuts-and-bolts aspect to it that other forms do not. Sometimes I guess comics do — like if you’re writing a four panel daily strip — you’ll have a bit more, rigidity, I guess. This weekend I was having lunch with my friend, James Morrow, who is a pretty marvelous novelist, and we had this same discussion. I think novels — and graphic novels — have the ability to be looser. Screenplays are so formatted for one thing.
Raquel Pidal: Right… it makes sense to know the ending so that you know how to work towards it, where to put in certain effects, pauses, lines of dialog, etc. But I can certainly see how a graphic novel has that looseness to it. Can you elaborate more on your thoughts on that? For instance, what can a graphic novel do that a regular novel can’t, other than the obvious fact of telling a story with both pictures and words?
Robert Tinnell: As far as looseness goes, in a screenplay, you really aren’t permitted to “wander off the reservation.” For better or worse that’s the way it is. Partly because of our embrace of the Aristotelian three-act structure (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and partly because the storytelling as become increasingly rigidÑit adheres to formula — somewhat to its detriment, I suppose. Now, as to graphic novels, I don’t think they trump novels in any sense. They are just a different means to an end. A well-written novel can convey the inner character in a way that a graphic novel might not be able to, given the balance one tries to maintain between word and art. Conversely, a graphic novel that deftly maintains that balance can be glorious.
Raquel Pidal: Did you find any restrictions in telling a story that is mostly art — based rather than entirely text-based?
Bo Hampton: Well, on one hand the best thing you can ever do is read a book because you bring so much of your own invention to it. But fortunately there are enough people willing to let me envision a book for them!
Robert Tinnell: Before I started writing comics I was a fan of the form. I used to love reading about the history of comics and about the techniques and artists and writers. So when I went into this I actually had a pretty good idea of the process. I find this mode of storytelling tremendously liberating, because I tend to think in pictures. I’m a filmmaker so it’s only natural. Not to sound like I’m bragging, because it isn’t some “gift” — it’s just an element of craft that I’ve come to understand. There are things that you can do very well in comics if you understand the medium.
Raquel Pidal: Any plans to make Sight Unseen into a movie?
Robert Tinnell: We are in preliminary talks regarding a film, yes.
Bo Hampton: I wonder how visual I really am. When I doodle while conversing the images I wind up with are always plumbing fixtures.
Robert Tinnell: Let’s do a Boston Strangler book.
Bo Hampton: Can you draw it, Raquel?
Raquel Pidal: If you’re into stick figures, then I’m your gal!
Bo Hampton: No, only plumbing fixtures sorry!
Raquel Pidal: I might be able to do some of those too. Or just the scribbles that look like the gunk that gets stuck in the plumbing fixtures
Bo Hampton: Hahaha, I’m not sure how that would play out.
Raquel Pidal: Probably not well, unless we found a big audience that’s really, really into plumbing. So I want to talk to both of you about comics in general. I know there are a lot of misconceptions that people have about comics: that they’re only about superheroes or only for kids. What are your thoughts on that?
Robert Tinnell: I love the thought of the snooty intellectual rhapsodizing about Cronenberg’s A History of Violence never realizing it was a — gasp — comic book!
Bo Hampton: Road to Perdition was based on a graphic novel.
Robert Tinnell: Look, we’ve been telling stories with pictures a long time. Those caves in Lascaux? Marvel put those out in 12,000 B.C. Seriously, comics are a marvelous medium that have been around a long time.
Bo Hampton: Someone once said, “Comics are words and pictures and there’s no limit to how good the words and pictures can be.”
Robert Tinnell: One other problem — and I don’t want to get too “insider fanboy” with this — but there was a fellow named Jim Steranko who did some amazing stuff with layouts, just all over the place in the late sixties, and he inspired a lot of guys who want to do the same. And who don’t do it as well. And it makes it difficult for people who aren’t knee-deep in this stuff. For me, I like simple comic storytelling. Think about this. As I understand it, in many languages letters are actually the outgrowth of the pictures that represented certain ideas or objects.
Raquel Pidal: I guess that goes all the way back to hieroglyphics.
Robert Tinnell: Which in a way makes every novel a graphic novel.
Bo Hampton: You can quote him on that.
Raquel Pidal: Hey, I like that idea. Especially since the only way I can draw is by spelling.
Robert Tinnell: Me too!
Bo Hampton: But you can draw plumbing people!
Raquel Pidal: The next great idea in comics is born: the Plumbing People.
Robert Tinnell: Put out by Kitchen Sink, a real company. I think Bo has worked with them.
Bo Hampton: Not in this house.
Raquel Pidal: So what do you want to tell all the folks out there who are missing out on graphic novels because they think comics are just “kids’ stuff” about the medium?
Robert Tinnell: I think they are missing out on some splendid, thought-provoking storytelling. Take A History of Violence, for example. I loved the movie, but the book is even better. There is some wonderful stuff out there: Maus, V for Vendetta, and — well, hey, there’s Sight Unseen. You like Straub? McCammon? Then give the book a shot, because that’s where our heads were at.
Bo Hampton: Buy Sight Unseen and buy it “sight unseen.” That should do it. Maybe.
Raquel Pidal: Hey, that’s a good tagline, Bo. I dig that.
Bo Hampton: Thanks! My wife loved Persepolis and she doesn’t read comics.
Robert Tinnell: My wife loved The Watchmen.
Raquel Pidal: So people who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a comic book might like graphic novels instead? Do you think that’s because graphic novels are more of a one-shot story instead of an ongoing series of adventures?
Robert Tinnell: In Europe, comics are embraced and accepted.
Raquel Pidal: The Europeans are and always have been decidedly more advanced in their tastes.
Robert Tinnell: Well, they may like the notion of having a complete story in one, particularly as we have utterly lost our ability to wait on anything. We want it now!
Raquel Pidal: Good point. That goes back to the short attention span you mentioned earlier.
Robert Tinnell: And then, by reading a graphic novel they don’t have to be embarrassed by holding a floppy! Sight Unseen at first glance looks like a regular hardback horror novel.
Bo Hampton: Lawyers can safely read it on the subway and housewives at the beach.
Robert Tinnell: I think it’s important to understand that some folks employ the term “graphic novel” as if it is somewhat more legitimate than a “comic.” Graphic novels are long comics. I like the term only in that it implies a complete, long story.
Bo Hampton: My former boss, Will Eisner, actually coined that term.
Robert Tinnell: I love telling people I write — and read — comics. I learned about a lot of things before many of my peers specifically because of the comics I was reading as a kid. Like cloning for instance. In Sight Unseen we actually made an effort to tap into some scientific theories. Not saying this stuff will work but it’s a legitimate research angle, and when one reads about they actually do learn about something and it’s somewhat thought-provoking. Stop me before I type “actually” again.
Bo Hampton: STOP…Hammertime.
Raquel Pidal: Ha! A throwback to the ‘90s. So do you have any other recommendations or specific titles to check out for people who haven’t read comics or who don’t know much about them? Apart from Sight Unseen, of course.
Robert Tinnell: Sure. How about Bo’s own Sleepy Hollow book. Great marriage of word and image. And it will allow one to ease into things.
Bo Hampton: And everyone should read Bob’s Wicked West.
Raquel Pidal: From the titles, I assume that these works deal with darker subject matter?
Robert Tinnell: Personally, I’m a fan of The Watchmen and V for Vendetta. Maus. And while we’re serving up our own stuff, I’d ask folks to try my book Feast of the Seven Fishes — it’s a romantic comedy set during the traditional Italian Christmas Eve celebration. And it has a cookbook of the dishes included. But in general, yeah, I’m into darker stuff…
Bo Hampton: It’s great.
Robert Tinnell: Which is why everyone should try writing something. Even if it’s just a journal. E-mails scare me in a sense because we expend so much energy on them and we don’t do it in an intelligent or thoughtful energy. I had to pull back from forums; I was actually throwing too much out there!
Raquel Pidal: I guess writing darker books a good outlet to exorcise anything lurking inside your brain/soul. Are the two of you planning more collaborations for future books?
Robert Tinnell: We will absolutely continue to collaborate. Now we just have to decide on what. He wants to do a fantasy and I keep throwing out other stuff that is boring to draw.
Bo Hampton: I keep pitching stuff to Bob but he’s being coy.
Raquel Pidal: How about a fantasy involving the plumbing people?
Robert Tinnell: Laugh now, laughing girl, but that’s how these things get started!!
Bo Hampton: You really need a drawing gig , don’t you Raquel?
Robert Tinnell: If someone actually assigned that to us, the parameters (it’s gotta be plumbers) would actually, in a sense, be liberating. I bet we’d do a fun story. Being shoved in a box can be very helpful.
Bo Hampton: With Bob’s character development, the plumber will have a definite sexual orientation.
Raquel Pidal: Look out, I might be the one to “assign” it. I think I need someone to draw my ideas for me! I’ve always wanted to collaborate with an artist friend of mine… what advice do you have for people thinking of collaborating?
Robert Tinnell: Don’t sleep together.
Bo Hampton: Bob, NOW you tell me.
Raquel Pidal: Excellent advice, duly noted.
Bo Hampton: Always be willing to back away on the small stuff.
Robert Tinnell: Seriously, you have to have an open mind. You can’t try and dominate the other. Well, you can — but you’re cheating yourself.
Bo Hampton: Check your ego and think of the good of the story.
Robert Tinnell: It’s when you open your mind that you stop being “precious” — and that’s when things can get interesting.
Bo Hampton: I actually wrote most of Sight Unseen.
Robert Tinnell: And I redrew page after page.
Bo Hampton: LOLOLOL
Robert Tinnell: Bo’s wife always calls me too.
Bo Hampton: Calls you what?
Robert Tinnell: She says sometimes it’s just nice to have someone who listens… I’m laughing so hard I can’t type.
Raquel Pidal: Uh oh, should I step out of the chat room?
Bo Hampton: But we digress… What were we talking about?
Raquel Pidal: Somehow the plumbing people turned into this… We were talking about advice for collaborations.
Robert Tinnell: In the case of a comic or graphic novel, I’d say it’s important to study your artist’s existing work and write to their strengths.
Raquel Pidal: That’s some good advice, actually, that I bet a lot of people wouldn’t really realize.
Bo Hampton: Seriously, Bob is the hottest… I mean, one of the best writers.
Raquel Pidal: LOL!
Bo Hampton: That’s my wife typing, Bob.
Robert Tinnell: At least some woman has something nice to say about me. Certainly not my wife tonight. She’s painting the laundry room.
Bo Hampton: Well, someone in your house has to work…
Robert Tinnell: Exactly.
Raquel Pidal: Any final thoughts from either of you? Recommendations, influences, final words of wisdom?
Bo Hampton: My influences are Will Eisner, Al Williamson, Disney Studios, William Goldman, Peter Straub, and everybody else who is any good at all.
Robert Tinnell: We tried really hard to create something that was a balanced effort of picture and word, using both to maximum effect. Whether or not we succeeded is up to others to decide. But the fact is we really tried to do something that worked well in both mediums.
Bo Hampton: Love your work. That’s my advice.
Click here to purchase Sight Unseen at Amazon.com.
Raquel B. Pidal is Managing Editor for Wild River Publishing, providing copyediting, content editing, and manuscript analysis services. She enjoys using her extensive knowledge of the writing and publishing process to provide guidance and coaching to writers every step of the way from idea to polished draft to printed book.
Raquel has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience in both fiction and nonfiction. Her projects have included ghostwriting two memoirs; content editing numerous manuscripts in the fields of memoir, fiction, and business; copyediting and proofreading manuscripts; and providing in-depth analyses and critiques of fiction and nonfiction manuscripts.
Raquel is currently the Editorial Director for Winans Kuenstler Publishing, a high-end trade nonfiction publisher that offers ghostwriting and publishing services to business and thought leaders who use their books as a platform for their professional and personal brands. She is experienced in project and content management and book distribution.
Previously, Raquel worked in the publicity department at Harvard University Press for two years. She has also worked as an editor for corporations such as ETS (Educational Testing Services) and Aramark. For three years, she served as Program and Youth Services Director at the Writers Room of Bucks County, where she and Joy Stocke worked together on the literary magazine The Bucks County Writer.
Raquel has a BA in English with a minor in Creative Writing from Ursinus College, where she won several awards and honors for her writing, and an MA in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College.
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