Scott Morse may be the most creative comics figure that you've never heard of.
Working by day in the halls of Pixar, by night, he's creating crazy comics like Strange Science Fantasy, Spaghetti Western, Soulwind, Tiger!Tiger!Tiger! and a whole lot more.
With Strange Science Fantasy having concluded last week, Newsarama decided to do a Writer's Workshop/Artist's Alley crossover, checking in with Morse about how he unleashes his creativity, how he makes it resonate with readers and his inspirations for design.
Newsarama: Scott, just to start us off with, how did you end up getting involved with comics? I know you have a background as an illustrator -- were there big "a-ha" moments you had before you realized you were ready to take your artistic talents on the road, so to speak?
Scott Morse: I’ve read comics my whole life, starting with the Marvel G.I. Joe series back in the 80’s and quickly falling in love with almost everything in the field. I started making comics when I was a student at CalArts in the film school, in animation. I’d been seeing books like Bone and Love and Rockets, and I was realizing I coud do this on my own without a company or a “team” of other collaborators. It could be mine, whereas in animation and film, I knew I’d be working as part of a collective, creatively. So I really wanted an outlet that would be “mine”. So I started making Soulwind, originally planning to self publish, and eventually worked with Image and later Oni to make it happen, to help take the pressure off of marketing and financing the book. I quickly learned that I could still “do it myself” with the right amount of help from good, smart people like Jim Valentino and the Oni guys.
Nrama: I'm curious, especially after seeing your work on Strange Science Fantasy -- what comes first for you: The visual design, or the character arc? Can you walk us through a bit of how you approach building up these done-in-one little stories?
Morse: Haha… Strange Science Fantasy is a very different, unique sort of animal for me. I gave myself VERY specific rules to adhere to on the series, as a sort of challenge in economy. 1) No penciling. I created the art one panel at a time, with disposable brush pens, straight-ahead. 2) Write as I go. Now, this is a deceptive step, as I’d plot ahead IN my head, and draw the story accordingly. Dialogue was in one fell swoop at the end, as I was lettering. 3) Digital color. I wanted to figure out a quick, easy way to color a book and give it a certain aesthetic, so once the art was finished and scanned, I colored it all in one go, to help drive the emotion of the color, like a color script for an animated film.
So the short answer to your question: I’d come up with a character in my head and an outlandish set of circumstances and then plow forward with the rules above. All bets were off during the creation of the stories. Pure comics. But the story would always drive the visuals, even if the story was just one plot point ahead of the visuals in my head.
Nrama: Let's talk a little bit about influences here. For you, have there been any teachers, artists, stories, anything that have really helped inform what you might see as the "Scott Morse" style?
Morse: Man, that’s a huge list. Certainly my animation upbringing, with Maurice Noble and my pals from school. I befriended J Muth, Matt Wagner, Mike Mignola, Mike Allred, and some others early on, and would bug them about how they do things, how they construct stories, etc. I think the one thing I’ve learned best from anyone is to constantly KEEP learning. ALWAYS be a student. NEVER close yourself from an influence, form an opportunity to learn, from a real-life moment. Learn from living. Now, I’d have to say I get the most inspiration from my kids and my wife, from my family and friends. From having conversations, discussions, arguments.
Nrama: Considering your history in animation, how do you feel that that training has affected your comics work?
Morse: My work in animation and film is a HUGE part of how I tell stories, and I’m pretty conscious of having to divorce myself form cinematic tricks with my comics stories. They’re very different mediums. Film language does NOT directly translate to comics, and vice-versa. Sure, both tell stories with visuals, but there are things like timing, acting, and atmosphere that translate very differently. You can’t expect a comics audience to linger on an image at a given rate of speed, whereas in film, an audience is forced into a rate of speed. Timing is very important, and delivery of story and character is very different in comics and animation/film. So, for me, keeping that in mind is paramount. Still, there ARE tricks you can employ from each field, and I do my best to cherry-pick things in design and storytelling where I think they’ll work in a unique way. In general, though, I’d say that page design” in my work is greatly affected by my film background. I don’t tend to waste space with over-designed page layouts. I try to let the page help tell the story, to help lead the reader in the most effective way.
Nrama: As far as design work goes, how do you play up things like physical design or action composition and the like? What do you take into consideration, or what things do you absorb, when you're coming up with evocative characters?
Morse: I fall back on story at all costs, in all things. I let the story itself help dictate what a character or set of characters need to look like to best convey the story. So I VERY rarely do any sketching or exploration outside of what you see in the stories themselves. I move the “camera” around in the storytelling to help sell a story point, not just to get crazy. It’s all about what you’re saying. HOW you’re saying it, visually, is the emphasis. And that goes for everything in the visuals, from character designs to page design to color design. With something like Strange Science Fantasy, the ‘50s aesthetic was very much a part of the storytelling, so design reflected that across the board. The importance of the “message” with each story is really reliant on that ‘50s flavor.
Nrama: Coming off that a bit, maybe you could walk us through how you created the Headlight? Or maybe there's another character you worked with that really represented some inspiration for you?
Morse: Haha, yeah. With Strange Science Fantasy, again, it all fell back on the ‘50s pre-hero aesthetic. So the stories and characters were built off of the “feel” of those old stories. I wanted the lunacy and outlandishness of situations and characters that you’d find from Kirby and Ditko and Stan Lee and Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Cole and the like. You can tear off a gearhead’s face with a skidding tire and reconstruct it as a headlight and that would be OK. That story also came out of a love of old cars. My grandfather and dad were both Ford mechanics by trade, and we build old hot rods. My ’51 truck and ’31 coupe make appearances in almost every issue of Strange Science Fantasy, I think, but prominently in "Dawn of the Gearheads."
The Headlight’s outfit comes out of ‘50s and ‘60s era racecar driver outfits, stuff you’d see pulled from the speed trials on the salt flats. The lens for his head calls back a bit to older headlights you’d see on roadsters and Model Ts, like Guide 682-Cs or E&J’s, set inside a helmet.
Nrama: Since you've been a one-man-band with work like Strange Science Fantasy, I wanted to ask how color plays a role in what you do. What are you taking into consideration as far as color schemes and the like?
Morse: Again, story first, so the mood and emotion of what I’m saying in the story. I’ll go pretty wild and vibrant if there’s some heavy magical elements, something surreal or mind-bending for the characters. And I’ll bring it back for earthy or somber tones if there’s a heavy, somber story point. I try not to go too wild with a color scheme in terms of how many colors are in play. I’ll tend to choose two or three and keep them flowing consistently until there’s a story break or emotional beat that changes things.
Nrama: One thing that really stands out about your work is the sheer spectacle of it all -- there's a very no-holds-barred element to your writing style. How do you approach the writing side of the equation, to keep the energy and the imagination up?
Morse: With Strange Science FantasyI try to set up the audience for a classic story in the vein of the inspirational sources. So you might get a classic set-up with an alien invasion of earth, like in G.I.Gantic, and then I do my best to make things “not as they seem”. I’m a huge fan of the Twilight Zone and old B-grade sci-fi/horror flicks. So I ground these short stories in the “familiarity” of that world (which is already pretty outlandish in most cases), and then push it farther in directions you hopefully won’t see coming. I’ll try to think in terms of the LEAST obvious place for things to go, in juxtaposition to what you might consider the MOST obvious place for a story to go. I try my best to still keep these outlandish characters grounded in emotional turmoil that hopefully rings “true” on some level as classically human. Then you still “get” it, you know? You can accept the insanity because it’s laced with something familiar, deep down.
Nrama: And bouncing off that last question a bit, let's talk a bit about characterization and character arcs. What do you feel that you need to know, as far as really getting to the "heart" of what makes a character resonate with people?
Morse: This is where my film background comes into play, and drawing on “real life” stuff. No matter how insane a character might seem, I always try to make them relatable on some deep level. I try to instill them with humanity, with flaws. This, in turn, gives them stakes in a storyline. If what’s happening is personal to the characters in question, it’s personal to the reader. You’ll end up with a weaker story and weaker, more distant characters if they’re not involved with events, not integrated with their personal stories. I try not to plug random characters into random situations. Stories, for me, work best when characters are integrated in the plot due to what’s at stake. You can’t just take a random alien and have them invade earth for no reason and expect anyone reading to “care”. If they can “see” the point of view of the invaders, they’ll realize what’s at stake if the aliens DON”T invade. So, bottom line, elements of the human condition help inform relatable stakes in the plot.
Nrama: As far as your writing style goes, you've got a very evocative voice to your narration. For you, how do you work with "voice" and personality, in order to make the story as snappy as it can be?
Morse: First off, thanks so much for all of these really amazing compliments. They really mean a lot to me.
With Strange Science Fantasy, the “voice” of the “narrator” will become obvious in the last issue. So there’s been an urgency and almost feverish “beat poet” vibe to the narration for a reason. With any story of mine, I try to give the characters the truest voices I can in their dialogue. And their voices are dictated by who they are as characters. The variations in this are drawn from life, to make them ring as “true” as possible. These character voices are observed in a lot of cases, drawn from people I’ve experienced, and adapted to lend to the storylines. So if something comes across as snappy, it’s because that character in question is snappy due to the plot, which informs their acting. And the narrator in STRANGE SCIENCE FANTASY, you’ll see, might have a dire reason to tell these stories.
Nrama: You've also worked as a letterer, and your particular style really stood out to me. How do you approach your lettering style, and really giving some personality to the type face?
Morse: My old pal Vince Davis, who recently passed away, was my producer at Cartoon Network. He also wrote and drew and published underground comix in the ‘60s, and when he learned I was doing my own comics he was hell-bent on convincing me to NOT use a computer, but to hand-letter my work. He advocated that this would always lend an organic flavor to my visuals, a unique distinction that was indeed PART of the visual experience. Even if it looked “bad” as lettering, he felt that it was still “true” as part of the artist’s work. And I think he was right. The funny part is that my lettering is still digitally executed on a cintiq in Photoshop, but it’s “hand lettered” by me as I write. It’s not a font, but a digital brush, “written” on a monitor with a stylus. I had no idea if audiences would accept it, but I’ve received nothing but kind words about it, and even an Eisner nod for TIGER!TIGER!TIGER! a couple of years ago. I never would have thought my lettering would be considered acceptable to readers, let alone interesting, had Vincent not pushed me.
Nrama: Everyone in the industry talks about "thinking visually," but I feel like those who have a hand in both the writing and illustrating sides of the biz would have the best idea of what that entails. For you, what do you think is the best method of parsing out your story to make it satisfying from both a visual and writing perspective?
Morse: For me, it’s finding moments that breathe, moments that you can drop out all of the dialogue or narration and the art will still tell the story. People, in real life, don’t typically speak to each other conversationally with rants or speeches. Dialogue is generally incredibly overwritten. I try to think about the economy of a typical conversation and use that sort of “voice” in my “writing”. So much of my day, of my adventures as a person, is visually observed and considered. Even when I’m with people I’m not constantly talking or stating the obvious ( I hope). So in storytelling, I try to let the visuals breathe the reality, and the dialogue or narration support that reality.
Nrama: Finally, for those who are trying to break into the industry -- what do you think that they need to know, that they don't?
Morse: Man. Whew. The big one. For me, I’m realizing that I get so much more done, and produce better, more audience-ready work, if I “think twice and draw once”. I let things permeate in my head for YEARS sometimes before I start making them into visual stories, and as a result, the physical production time is INCREDIBLY quick. With this process, I’ve lived with characters and worlds and plots for a while before I try to translate them to an audience, so I “know” them to a certain extent. That helps.
I’d recommend that people produce some work. Do it with the understanding that you’re not in it for the money, but because you have something to say. THEN worry about getting it published, or figure out how to publish it yourself. Think about what you want out of this medium. Don’t get into it for money, or to sell a movie idea. Get into it because you can’t NOT get into it. WANT it. Love it, and have a story to tell. Until then, draw every day and observe everything. It’s all part of the job.What do you think of Morse's Process?