Wide World of Webcomics: Doug TenNapel Has a RATFIST

Wide World of Webcomics: Doug TenNapel

Welcome to the conclusion of this round of Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our look at the best of what’s online. The final installment of our print-to-web series introduces us to one of the odder heroes out there – from the creator of some of the oddest comics, period.

Doug TenNapel is known to video game fans as the creator of Earthworm Jim, and to comic fans for his bevy of action-and-weirdness-filled graphic novels such as Creature Tech and Ghostopolis. This year, he’s taken his talents online with the daily adventures of Ratfist , a rodent-themed vigilante whose life gets more complicated when his name becomes a lot more literal. We talked with TenNapel about his work on Ratfist, why he’s going online (and altering his usual art style), and much more.

Newsarama: Doug, tell us about the premise of Ratfist.

Doug TenNapel: Ratfist is an emotionally unstable guy who dresses like a rat to undermine the company he works for called Simian Icthus. Due to a magic lab accident, he starts turning into a rat, bringing difficulties to his relationship with the woman he loves almost as much as he loves himself. 


Nrama: How long will the story be, ultimately?

TenNapel: 150 pages. I aimed for a contained story, mostly so I knew how to plot it in three acts.

Nrama: Do you have the story completely written out, or are you adjusting it as you go along/based on fan reaction?

TenNapel: I'm adjusting the story as I go, but it's not based on fan reaction. I should say, the fans tell me what I need to clarify by their response. I had finished the first two weeks of script before drawing, and I try to keep at least two weeks to a month ahead of what's being published.

Nrama: Why did you decide to go with the online distribution of the story? 


TenNapel: Mostly, I wanted to see what the big deal was about web comics. I'm a fan of the medium of comics, and I wanted to see if the daily posting would change anything about the medium or genre I was working in.

I'll say this much, I didn't think it would be this interactive! I got to know my audience pretty well and communicate with them on a daily basis. I just don't get that with my usual book publishing.

Nrama: Tell us about your colorist, and why you decided to do this story in color?

TenNapel: I've been working with Katherine Garner for a couple of years now. She did half of the color work on GEAR, Ghostopolis, and my new book Bad Island through Scholastic. She has a feminine touch to her work, there isn't any other way I could really describe her look.

I knew that Ratfist's black and white art would look like something pretty broad and outrageous, so I didn't really want that with the color. I didn't want the color to compete or upstage the black and white. So I told Katherine that whatever she came up with, I'd be approved.

The story needed color. I just didn't think I could keep up with the daily posting schedule if it was black and white because I'd have to draw a lot more backgrounds and put a lot more design work into each panel. With a colorist, Katherine does that kind of stuff. 


Nrama: How did you initially conceive the idea for the story?

TenNapel: Back in the mid ‘90s I was drawing a character called Ratfist who had a severed tail for a left arm. This is back in the Earthworm Jim days, so he's pretty wacky and juvenile. He was so absurd that there was no real world or story where he could life.

About two years ago I put together a pitch of Ratfist mostly hoping Cartoon Network might want him for prime time. I had a pitch document with Ratfist, the ratmobile, Milt, Gina, MonkeyTrout, the Space Tiki and Mr. Black. With all of those characters ready to go, they were just begging to be jammed into a story.

Nrama: Despite going with the online format, you're using a more traditional brush art style to do Ratfist. What do you feel is the major difference in the resulting artwork?

TenNapel: The traditional brush is how I have fun. My first book, GEAR, was done with this monstrosity, it's near impossible to control, but it always drops a line that is full of life.

And that's the key difference, it looks alive. People are so used to seeing super tight, reference heavy, digital line work that Ratfist is made to go back to our roots...and I don't mean back to our comic roots. I mean go back to the Caves of Lascaux! It deals with primitive characters, motivations and ideas. So the traditional brush work with sumi ink was a natural fit.

Nrama: How do you feel about the results of your online experiment so far? 


TenNapel: I like it. I'm a pretty harsh critic of myself, so I can't fully love it, but it's a lot of fun. It's really hard to do tight work on this deadline and with this story format. A page a day means I need to focus on a gag a day, and that's great for laughs but bad for plot, and I'm primarily a plot guy.

I'm definitely learning a lot. It's been humiliating in that way, and I'm always good with humiliating.

 Nrama: What's different about doing this vs. putting out a fully-done graphic novel in print?

TenNapel: Oh, it's completely different! The difference between graphic novels and web comics is even greater than graphic novels and story boarding. Web comics really is a legitimately separate genre.

I don't like having someone show up to read for a day and not have some moment of content happen. It might be a gag, or a moment, or a unit of drama, but graphic novels can have moments and gags build across multiple pages. In fact, I prefer when they do have prolonged ideas that take multiple pages to complete...that's the strength of long form story telling.

But writing for a daily comic means the audience may not show up to read the whole 150 page plot. I might only get them for this one day, so I gotta give them something today.

Nrama: What do you feel are the unique advantages and disadvantages of the online distribution system? 


TenNapel: The advantages are that the audience doesn't have to pay anything to try it out. It's also automatically distributed into every home in the world. I'm not the most famous guy in the world, my work is spread out across different mediums and I never write the same kind of story and rarely even do the same character from one year to the next.

It's really hard for my audience to find me, because I'm always trying to lose them by surprising them with something new. The online distribution of webcomics has made it easier for anyone who does a simple search for my name or other creations of mine, they're going to find Ratfist.

 I haven't found any real disadvantages yet, other than the pacing problems I mentioned above.

Nrama: So...Ratfist's ears just seem to...float over his head. What's up with that?

TenNapel: It's a design thing. There's lots of this kind of thing in the history of comics. It's akin to Pogo's Albert the alligator's ash floating above his cigar or Jeff Smith's Bone characters who have eyebrows that come off the top of the head. It's designer's license. I don't even see it any more, so I'm sorry if it's buggin' you!

Nrama: What can we expect coming up in Ratfist's adventures?

TenNapel: I break the one rule I promised I would never do! The 4th wall is coming down...sort of. It goes completely nuts. I never wanted Ratfist to be a "safe" comic so it has permission to do things I've never done in other comics and will never do again. Keep reading, you'll see. There's parts where the audience is going to ask, "What's wrong with this guy?" because I'm drawing it asking, "What's wrong with me?" 


Nrama: What are some of your favorite webcomics besides Axe Cop, obviously? ( Newsarama Note: TenNapel is close friends with Ethan Nicolle, that strip’s creator)

TenNapel: I like PVP and Penny Arcade, which are pretty famous picks. But I also like Der-Shing Helmer's The Meek, The SWEFS and REMIND as well as Sin Titulo.

There are so many great comics, I think the future looks good for this medium.

Nrama: What role do you feel the online distribution of comics might play in the future of the medium?

TenNapel: It's going to remove any barrier between the story teller and the audience. It's not necessarily good, it depends on the story teller.

Nrama: What's next for you? 


TenNapel: I have a book coming out through Scholastic's Grafix imprint this summer called Bad Island and I've just finished another graphic novel called Cardboard (I haven't shown that one to any publishers yet).

I'm doing some brainstorming on a new web comic I hope to launch some time this summer if everything goes right. Right about when Ratfist wraps, I hope to be well into another.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

TenNapel: I mostly want to remind readers to check out my previous works. So many comic readers didn't know that I've already done ten books! They should check out Creature Tech or Ghostopolis! And read your Ratfist every day!

Take TenNapel’s advice and get your daily dose of Ratfist at www.ratfist.com.

That’s it for this round of Wide World of Webcomics! Coming soon, a week with some of the best creators online, including a two-parter with Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant!) and interviews with John Allison (Bad Machinery), Emma Capps (Chapel Chronicles) and R Stevens (Diesel Sweeties). Stay tuned!

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