Exclusive Interview with ‘Ratfist’ creator Doug TenNapel

Ratfist is back on the Stuff We Like menu with an exclusive chat with the webcomic’s creator, Doug TenNapel.  Famous for his creations Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood, Catsratch, as well as an arm load of graphic novels, TenNapel has now set off to explore a frontier entirely new to him, webcomics.  His first webcomic endeavor being Ratfist, a story about a rat-obsessed super hero and his adventures surrounding a mysterious company’s experiments giving humans animal traits.

Last month we reported the release of Ratfist, now to look deeper into this webcomic gem we interviewed the comic’s creator, Doug TenNapel, who gave us an inside scoop.

SWL: Let me start off with a generic opening question: What inspired Ratfist?

DOUG: It’s weird because whatever inspired Earthworm Jim, was not Earthworm Jim.  Jim doesn’t come from a guy who made Earthworm Jim… Ratfist comes from a guy who made Earthworm Jim.  Earthworm Jim comes from a guy who doesn’t have much experience making video game characters or even TV shows for that matter.

I looked back on the genre of Earthworm Jim, which I always thought was the screwed up superhero genre.  Guys like Freakazoid, the Tick, Bakshi’s Mighty Heroes and The Brack Show fit in that group.  I realized I hadn’t really stepped back into that field since the Jim days, so I dove back in and Ratfist is what I came up with.  He’s been rolling around in my sketches for about ten years without a home.  I didn’t know who are what he was, but I knew his name was Ratfist.

SWL: It must be nice to finally give a roaming character concept a home to rest.  Was the idea of developing Ratfist into a comic a progressive thought or did you suddenly decide one day that this guy needed a story?

DOUG: I have a lot of concepts laying around.  They number in the hundreds now.  Some are so obviously stupid that they should never see the light of day.  Some, keep coming back, for whatever reason.  They hold their ground over time.  So I have a handful of ideas that are on the tip of my tongue.

I was trying to think of a cool animated series to bring to Cartoon Network and maybe pitch to Disney channel, so I developed Ratfist.  It’s really different from what I came up with for the webcomic, in that it was more cartoony, funny, like the Ninja Turtles.  Cartoon Network passed, I sent it to Disney just in case… not interested.  So I knew I was going to make a webcomic, and Ratfist was rolling around in my small pool of ideas that I had recently developed for television, so it seemed like the right idea to develop.  But once I committed to doing a webcomic, I knew that RATFIST could go off!  I had few limitations or boundaries, so I gave myself a long leash.

THEN the story came.  I took elements of the TV pitch but have since completely twisted the thing up, put a lot more layers and subtext into the story and finally made it into what the comic is today.


SWL: You say on the Ratfist about page that Ethan and Malachai Nicolle’s internet sensation AXECOP was what inspired you to start your own webcomic.  Was it AXECOP’s success or its online format that grabbed your interest?

DOUG: It wasn’t AXECOP’s success, because nobody should expect to nail success like that on just another webcomic.  AxeCop is one of those rare right-place-at-the-right-time ideas that can’t be duplicated.  What did inspire me about Axecop was seeing Ethan put out work in small increments.  I would slave away at an entire book, and he’d be getting daily feedback on readership numbers, the press, it’s kind of like milking all of the feelings someone experiences in one long book, but making them experience it over a year.

I know my graphic novel audience pretty well over the last ten years, but I had no idea what would happen with a webcomic audience.  I liked the way that Ethan just blew out this web comic.  He didn’t care if it would make him famous, he had a fun idea and just thought he’d try it out.  That’s the spirit of invention that I love about webcomics.  You don’t have to negotiate with a publisher first.  You don’t have to even be good (which explains some webcomics).  To publish a book you have to at least have something someone would spend money on.  By the way, I don’t think Ethan would have had any interest in Axe Cop as a book had he taken it around.

The internet audience took out the middle man of publishing approval, which is why I think Axe Cop even exists today.  But what I saw happen before my eyes went from, “Ethan, you want to give away a comic?  Fine.  Give away a comic on the internet.” to “Wait a minute.  A lot more people will read your comic if they don’t have to pay to try it out!”  Suddenly it made a lot of sense.  I wanted to launch a fun character in that space just to see what would happen.

SWL:  And how do you enjoy hearing readers’ comments on single pages or segments rather than on a complete story in its entirety?

DOUG: Usually, when we think of a novel, graphic novel or movie, we think about plot first.  Did I like the story?  A graphic novel is a story first and foremost so if they wait to read the whole thing before commenting, the story will be the thing that sticks in their head the most (unless the story isn’t as good as the art).  But they don’t have the whole story with a webcomic, so the top thing that people usually comment about isn’t complete yet!  So suddenly, they comment more on character, art technique and humor.

It’s like reading just one page of a graphic novel to a thousand people, then pausing to get comments and audience reflections.  At the same time, the commenters aren’t the only readers.  They’re just the vocal ones who like to post on my comments section.  I can’t let some opinions run the comic just because they’re vocal.  It’s really just more of a way to get to know my audience better and see how they read my work.

From my perspective,  I hammer out the mechanics of a page and wonder if I’m able to lead the reader’s eye correctly.  Are they feeling what I’m trying to get them to feel?  Are they seeing what I’m pointing them to?  It’s also interesting to watch them guess wrong, because that means I’m not making something predictable.  I want things to be surprising and satisfyingly so.

SWL: I have noticed that Ratfist’s tail and Earthworm Jim’s worm body are basically drawn the same way and both characters even use them to swing from one place to the other.  Is there something about that rat tail/worm body look in your designs you like?

DOUG: It’s not the look as much as the function.  Every hero needs to have a tool or power that makes him “super”.  In the case of the tail whip, I own that! It’s actually a favorite of mine since I saw Frank Miller’s Daredevil use his extendo-cane.  It opened my mind to other ways a character can be a “Spiderman” without webbing.  Rob Schrab has a character called “Black Octopus” that uses tentacles coming off her arms to swing through the city.  It works really well as a power.

On the design side of things, there are only certain ways I draw rat tails and they’re almost identical to how I draw earthworms.  If you look at Evil the Cat’s tail… It’s an earthworm.  And Evil the Cat predated Jim by at least two years.  When I’m putting a character together I draw from a pretty familiar, but divergent list of attributes.  Klayman (Neverhood) has a cylindrical head like Earthworm Jim, Gear etc.

SWL: Unlike Ratfist, most of your past comics have been black-and-white, is this personal preference?  Do you favor black-and-white over color comics?

DOUG: I do prefer black and white over color.  There is a part of the comics medium where if you do black and white right, you don’t need color.  I should say that you can tell a story with just black and white art so color is always just a bonus.  Like some black and white films, comics like Maus actually need to be in black and white.

For most of comics history, black and white was done out of necessity, since it was cheaper to draw and cheaper to print.  The initial greatness of Jeff Smith’s BONE was the power of his black and white art.  Now that they are being released with fine color work, I can see the addition and richness that great color can bring to a work.  But Bone still worked just fine without it.

Many of my comic creating decisions involve a consideration of real life compromise both in terms of my own work load as well as the financial considerations of my publishers.  It’s a dance.  Some work needs color.  I think GHOSTOPOLIS excelled because it was richly colored by Tom Rhodes and Katherine Garner.  I also knew they were going to color it, so I didn’t have to over communicate everything at the black and white level.  I had to resist being lazy and saying, “The colorist will clarify that!”

When I look at Hellboy, I see it in my mind as a black and white comic.  The colors are wonderful, but all of that artwork would hold even if the color was missing.

But I used to be some kind of black and white purist and I’m not any more.  Aside from the art content, there is a huge chunk of audience that won’t read black and white books.  Now I can try to educate 90% of the world or I can just add color to my work and draw in a huge audience.  It’s much easier to just add color and have a larger audience instantly warm up to my stories.  If I could afford it, and my publisher could afford it, why wouldn’t I do that?

Well, Ratfist is one of those situations where it doesn’t cost anything to print, so it’s just a matter of getting enough money to pay my colorist (and friend) Katherine.  Not being able to pay her full rate means she’s also going be given all of the leeway she wants to color the comic her way.  I wanted Ratfist to be fun to color more than anything else, so it rewards her for taking a risk on this story.  And what she came up with is a complete surprise, and I’ve been working with her for 15 years now!  She went nuts on it, but not in a way that would lose one reader.  Everyone follows and everyone feels what she intends for them to feel.  But I didn’t expect to get this kind of huge response to the color.  I’d say that the single most consistent positive comment I get about Ratfist is in regards to the color.  That surprised even Katherine, and I’m very happy when excellence is spontaneously recognized.  That’s a job well done.


SWL: As to story layout, with your previous graphic novels you’ve said you don’t even begin drawing pages until you have a tight story.  How tight story-wise is Ratfist compared to your other books?

DOUG: The outline is identical, but the connective tissue wasn’t developed in Ratfist before I pulled the trigger.  I haven’t done that since Gear.  All of my other books (10 titles now!) were completely written before drawing anything.  So Ratfist is a leap into the wild blue yonder compared to my other works, and Ratfist is still pretty tightly worked out compared to other webcomics.

SWL: With only a completed outline, do you have a rough estimation of how many pages Ratfist will be all together?

DOUG: It will be between 120-150 pages.  I’m pretty sure it will be dead on at 150.

SWL: In closing, besides Ratfist you have two graphic novels, BAD ISLAND and CARDBOARD, up next for publication.  Would you share a bit about them and tell us when we can expect them on store shelves?

DOUG: BAD ISLAND is coming out this summer through Scholastic.  It’s a story about a teen named Reese who is shipwrecked with his family on a mysterious island covered with hostile plants and alien monsters.  They unlock an ancient puzzle involving the island that could save them or spell their doom.  It’s available for pre order now in hardcover or paperback! 

CARDBOARD is finished, but I haven’t shown it to anyone yet.  It’s being beautifully colored by The Meek webcomic’s Der-shing Helmer!  She’s doing an amazing job, and once it’s colored I’ll show it around the industry.  It’s about a boy who gets a cardboard box for his birthday.  He and his impoverished father think it’s a normal box but it’s magic…so that anything they make from it will come to life.

(Read ‘Ratfst’ at Ratfist.com and tell us what you think.)

Author: Robert Barnett

An artist, a film maker, a lover...

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