A Pelican's Quest: Ben Balistreri on 'Seaweed'

Many comics promise a big adventure, but Seaweed: A Cure for Mildew

Seaweed: A Cure for Mildew

delivers…literally. At 16" by 12", this book is bigger than a DC Absolute Edition and almost as big as such massive tomes as Kramers Ergot.

Created by Ben Balistreri, an Emmy-winning animator who’s worked on such shows as Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and Danny Phantom (also winning three Annie awards in the process), Seaweed tells of a seafaring pelican who’s lost his ability to fly, but finds hope when a hypochondriac bat named Mildew seeks his help finding “The Devil’s Cookbook,” which can cure even death. But Seaweed, Mildew and their fishy friend Poisson are pursued by a motley crew including a murderous chameleon and a one-tentacled octopus, and many more dangers lurk on the horizon. The graphic novel is the first of a two-part story that will conclude in the second volume, The Devil’s Cookbook.

An all-ages adventure with some darker elements designed for fans of books like Bone, Seaweed has already earned rave reviews and a loyal following from many pros. You can buy it yourself at shows such as Brave New World and Meltdown Comics, or order it directly from Balistreri on his website, www.saltysugar.com, or on his blog, http://benbalistreri.blogspot.com/

We recently chatted with Balistreri about what went into making this massive tale…and we’ve even included a page of art at actual size to give you an idea of what it’s like to read it.

Newsarama: Ben, how long have you had the idea for Seaweed floating around, and what made you want to do it as a comic?

Ben Balistreri: It's been about six years since I first thought it up. It took me a long time to finish because I could only work on it after my full-time job in the animation industry and in-between free lance projects.

The decision to create it as a comic book came from the possibility to control every aspect of production, but mainly just because I love the medium and have always had a huge pull to create my own book.

NRAMA: Why did you go with this larger format?

BB: I love oversized comics like the DC Absolute Editions or the old DC vs Marvel comics like Spider-Man vs. Superman. They always felt like real special events and more exciting to read than a typical book. That was the type of experience I wanted people to have when reading Seaweed.

NRAMA: What's your process for plotting out and drawing this story?

BB: My process is just to have a simple outline of the events that have to be in the story, and then to work out the specifics straight ahead as I go. I start with tiny indecipherable thumbnails for each page, and then draw each panel on separate scraps of paper. Lots of times, I'll draw a character and background on separate pieces, scan them into my computer and combine them in Photoshop.

Then I'll print the rough image and transfer it to Bristol board with a light blue col-erase pencil. This helps to keep me loose in drawing the characters and their actions with out feeling the need to settle for a certain pose or expression just because it's already part of the page.

I like simple storytelling, and the four-tier layout always seems like the clearest way to tell the story without getting distracted by wacky page layout. It's also a homage to my favorite Asterix and Lucky Luke comics.

NRAMA: Right, there’s an obvious influence from the European album format. How long have you been a fan of those books?

BB: I was introduced at a pretty young age to Asterix by Uderzo and Goscinny and Lucky Luke by Morris and Goscinny. These are still two of my favorite series of all time. In recent years I've absolutely fallen in love with the work of Andre Franquin. His series of Spirou and Fantasio books are mind blowing!

NRAMA: I enjoy the "rebus" effect some characters do when they're speaking -- what made you ecide to do this?

BB: Total influence by the "European Comic" mentioned earlier. There are lots of great things comic books can do better than film, and cartoon swear words are one great example. I had a great time coming up with horrible images to use as curses and I've got a lot more in mind for the next book.

NRAMA: You also include a fair amount of behind-the-scenes material for the book…

Seaweed, page 26

BB: The rough sketches, development, and rejected ideas were always on the top of the list of things I love in certain special editions of books that I buy. I decided to even print them on a different paper stock than the actual story is printed on, giving that section more of a "sketchbook" feel.

NRAMA: Do you have more stories planned beyond the initial two-part story?

BB: I think I'll be done with Seaweed after book #2, The Devil's Cookbook, is finished. The book is all drawn, and I'm in the heat of inking it. After tha,t I've got the rough bones for a new story involving human characters set during World War II, but that's a ways off.

NRAMA: Why did you go the self-publishing route for Seaweed?

BB: Working for major animation studios is very rewarding, and a goal I worked very hard to attain, but one of the drawbacks is that you are constantly forced to compromise your ideas for the greater good of the film or show.

Seaweed was a way for me to create my own project without any compromise or input from anyone. I thought it would be more fun to keep control of even the smallest details and see what running a business would be like. Turns out it's a lot of work!

NRAMA: (laughs) You’re not the first person in comics to learn that the hard way…

A major theme of the book is the characters' desire to overcome their physical limitations -- a unique variation on the "chasing immortality" plot. Why did you choose this theme for your story.

BB: A while back, my wife was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This story originated with our dealings with coping with this disease and the obsession to finding a cure. I'm happy to say she's doing much better now than when she was first diagnosed.

NRAMA: That’s great to hear – everyone at Newsarama wishes you the best.

Now, I admit, the Dunder Chief and the Dunders kind of freaked me out. You talk about the basic inspiration in the back, but how did you come up with these bizarre characters?

BB: That's awesome that they "freaked you out"! The designs were influenced by Oceanic masks, but the idea for characters came from my love of the series Twin Peaks. I really wanted a moment in the story that had the sort of creepy feeling that I love in that series.

NRAMA: What can you do in comics that you can't do in animation, and what does working in animation teach you about working in comics?

BB: For me, the experience of curling up on the couch in peace and quiet with a comic or stack of comics and a beer or two is one of the great joys in life. Video Games, TV and films are great, but there is a intimacy with a comic book that is its own feeling.

As far as a storytelling tool, the ability to control the impact of a moment by the size of a panel or the placement of a image by turning a page is a lot of fun and something film can't do.

There's also a way of getting inside a character's thoughts in a believable way. Narration in film always comes across to me as a bit weird. In animation, clarity is king! One of the key tasks of a character designer or storyboard artist is being able to convey ideas clearly, and that certainly applies to comics as well.

In the end, though, there are very small differences between the two jobs. Coming up with great characters and fun stories is the goal of both.

NRAMA: Given your background, do you ever see doing Seaweed as an animated movie or series?

BB: Absolutely. I have pipe dreams of certain animators breathing life into these characters. It would have to be done in CG, or even better, in stop motion animation. The world already exists to me in a hand-drawn format, so I'd like a film to represent a different aesthetic.

One thing I can promise is that there will never be a "motion comic" of the story. That format is repulsive to me.

NRAMA: Will perhaps there one day be a stuffed Mildew for readers to enjoy at home?

BB: My wife (who is a costume designer) made one for me which I photographed and printed on the book dedication on the title page. The book would really have to take off to justify the costs of producing a run but I would certainly love to!

NRAMA: What's coming up for you in comics, animation, or other work?

BB: I'm busy trying to get Book #2, The Devil's Cookbook finished hopefully by Summer 2011. It's tough ‘cause I'm hard at work storyboarding on the upcoming DreamWorks film How to Train Your Dragon. Chris Sanders and Dean Debois of Lilo and Stitch fame are directing and it's gonna be awesome!

NRAMA: And now, a personal question: How the heck am I supposed to fit this thing on my bookshelf?! (laughs)

BB: (Laughs) Horizontally on top of other books, I'm afraid.

NRAMA: Anything else you'd like to discuss that we haven't talked about yet?

BB: I sign and do a sketch in every book ordered directly through me at my website: www.saltysugar.com Also you can see development for The Devil's Cookbook on my blog: www.benbalistreri.blogspot.com . If you don't want to use Paypal, the book is being distributed through Diamond and was a staff pick in the March Previews magazine.

Seaweed is available now.

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