Earthworm Jim Co-Creator Tells a Modern Fable in GHOSTOPOLIS

Doug TenNapel on Ghostopolis

Writer and artist Doug TenNapel has taken fans on some surreal adventures, whether it’s with video games such as Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood, cartoons such as Catscratch or such all-ages graphic novels as Creature Tech and Tommysaurus Rex.  

Now, TenNapel has put out his biggest graphic novel adventure yet with Ghostopolis, an all-ages, full-color graphic novel from Scholastic’s Graphix imprint.  

Garth Hale is a young boy without much to look forward to in life…until he’s zapped into Ghostopolis, the realm of the dead.  As inept ghost hunter Frank Gallows tries to rescue Garth with help from his spectral ex-girlfriend Claire Voyant, Garth is drawn into a war that will forever change the land of Ghostopolis…and the way he sees life.

TenNapel, who recently promoted the book at Comic-Con International: San Diego, got up with us to talk about how Ghostopolis came to be at Scholastic, the unique way his fans helped make this a color book, and how this book was inspired by the Big Bad Wolf.  

Newsarama: Doug, what was your initial inspiration for Ghostopolis??

Doug TenNapel: My kids started asking tough questions about when life ends. The more I talked about how we all die some day, I couldn't get the look of horror off of their faces.

I would talk about going to heaven, being together as a family, meeting God face to face, and the terror only grew in their eyes.

Then I thought about Grimm's fairy tales and how they brilliantly talk about things that children should think about without being so on the nose. That's what literature does; it brings up things we all wonder about, but casts it in a different colored light to look at it from a different angle.

So Little Red Riding Hood is about being aware that not all strangers are good without telling kids about being kidnapped and locked in some psycho's basement. The Big Bad Wolf addresses the truth of the matter, but it doesn't damage the person to learn the lesson.

So I set off to tell a story about how the end of things may be just the beginning of other adventures, without making our time spent in this world meaningless.

Nrama: What led to your working at Scholastic on this project, and what was the experience like?

TenNapel: I had developed a relationship with one of their editors, David Saylor, over a few years. We had been looking for projects that would work with Scholastic and Ghostopolis felt like the right kind of story to do with them.

The experience is different, working with such a big publisher. There was room for a lot more input from different people than just my usual editor. Marketing, designers, distributors weigh in on the material, and they have a lot of experience working with the audience I was trying to reach. It's generally slower, but it's thorough and methodical.

Nrama:  How was it different from working on your other books?

TenNapel: It wasn't that different, in that I presented a finished book from the start of our journey together. That means we can begin by looking at an entire story and ask what isn't coming across, what's confusing and what's working.

I also never had to consider having my books sold in schools or broadly distributed to bookstores. It didn't change the content, but I made sure I listened to those voices who came to the table.

Nrama:  Along with working in color this time, I noticed you credited two lead colorists and nine assistant colorists on this.  That's not the typical process for a comic -- how did this work, and why were there so many credited colorists?

TenNapel: That is unique to the way I colored this book. It's a dirty little secret that I'm pretty self-conscious about coloring my own work. I just see so many people who love color more than me that I get freaked out every time I hit Photoshop.

Black and white? I know exactly what to do, but color offers a million solutions to problems I don't even know exist.

So I have this forum at my website where many great artists hang out. I knew a 270-page story would break the back of most mortals, so I just asked for volunteers who wanted to help flat the whole book.

The lead colorists came up with the pallets for the flatters to use, so it would get really close to being colored from the first pass. If 10 artists did 27 or so pages (each), then the book could be flatted within a month, no problem.

Then I went through the pages with the lead colorists and they took a pass, adding shadows and highlights where needed. I also touched every page, but didn't think it was right to dilute their credits by slapping my big fat name on it.

In the end, the book was colored by some beginners and some experts hailing from USA, Canada, England, Germany.  One of our guys went off to serve in Afghanistan, Axe Cop's Ethan Nicolle took a few pages. It's an eclectic group, but the last colorists pulled it all together to make one cohesive statement.

Nrama: What was different about working in color, and in this slightly smaller format?

TenNapel: The color was more of a challenge than the final size. I knew I wanted this to be a unique look at the afterlife, so I wanted to get away from the skater pop iconography that came from Tim Burton and German Expressionism.

So instead of the usual glowing purples, blacks and striped shirts, I wanted a more natural, classic literature feel to the environments. I wanted it to look like a place of wonder without feeling like it was on another planet. We generally kept red out of the pallet so that it wouldn't reference hell.

The format size was more because I wanted it feel more like a book and less like a comic book. It's written in an epic style that harkens more to Narnia and Harry Potter than Spider-Man.

Nrama: Skinny the bone horse is, I suspect, going to be a fan favorite. Where did you come up with this?

TenNapel: I love Skinny, and saw him as a kind of renegade. I needed something that felt wild enough to break the bonds of both the afterlife and our world, so a wild mustang seemed appropriate.

And like I said, I was going for literary imagery, so a horse seemed like a classic old animal. His being untamable tells us that when Garth rides him, something bigger is going on. I wanted to establish that from the beginning.

 I didn't really mention it in the story but skeleton horses or "nightmares" were to be rare sightings among ghost hunters. He wasn't supposed to be on Earth.

Nrama: Also, Frank Gallows and Claire Voyant have an unusually dysfunctional relationship. You see more stories with these characters?

TenNapel: Yes, I hope to tell more stories with these people. They're a pretty modern couple, and they ground the ideas of ghosts and humans in a familiar way.

Their relationship is tragic, but it's not because one is a ghost and one is a human. It's because one won't change, and is willing to injure others to avoid looking in the mirror.

Nrama: What do you think the afterlife is really like? You've touched on elements of faith in your previous works, but this seems to focus more intimately on issues of mortality in terms of people facing death or those left behind.

TenNapel: I have a traditional view of the afterlife... heaven, hell and judgments. But the accounts of those places are scant and I believe it's on purpose. We aren't supposed to try to figure out the architecture of the afterlife, since the big game is here in this life.

But Ghostopolis was never meant to be an apologetic of what I think the afterlife would be like. It's above all else a fairy tale, and that means it's true in bigger ways than the concepts used to communicate those truths.

If you read Lord of the Rings and dismiss it as a lie because it has orcs and elves, you're missing the whole point of the story. If children don't have to be concerned about strangers because there's no such thing as a Big Bad Wolf dressed like Granny, you're missing the point.

I think readers of all ages have been robbed by the rejection of myth as a lie. I saw ghosts as an opportunity to tell a story within a concept we're all familiar with: ghosts, souls, the afterlife, but I can't recall anyone else mapping out a myth of how those concepts work.

Another theme in Ghostopolis is regret. The images we see of ghosts are souls that hang around. They can't forget, or they can't leave, they're tragic and seem to want something. They don't have a physical body, but that's not the end of their story.

So it was natural to bring in these people and ghosts who all want and need something badly, but can't figure out how to get it. Their decisions affect the living and the dead.

Nrama: Any plans for a film version of this?

TenNapel: It's happening. The script writer has been hired, and he's going to work. I've met with him and he really gets the material. Hugh Jackman is in it, and Disney will be putting the whole tamale together in a live-action movie. I hope I live to see it!

Nrama: What's next for you?  Will your next book be through Scholastic?

TenNapel: I'm releasing a fourth printing of Creature Tech through Image Comics that has pin up art from Rob Schrab, Eric Powell, Jim Mahfood, Scott Morse, Ethan Nicolle and Skottie Young.

My next book, called One Bad Island ,just got picked up by Scholastic, so I'll be getting into more trouble with them too.

Take a trip to Ghostopolis by heading to bookstores now.

Groovy!

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