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Interview: Chris A. Bolton and Kyle Bolton

September 17th, 2013 (07:00 am)
productive

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Current Song: Without a Trace score music

Have you ever collaborated on a project with your sibling? Brothers Chris A. Bolton and Kyle Bolton worked together to create SMASH, an all-ages comic about a little boy whose dreams of becoming a superhero come true. Chris writes; Kyle draws. They recently told me what it was like to work together not only on Smash, but also when they were kids. They also offered advice for young artists and writers and discussed the evolution of their story from webcomic to published book.

Did you two collaborate on projects when you were growing up? If so, did you split the work equally, or did one brother really take charge? (Is one of you *ahem* bossier than the other?)

Kyle: We had a lot of trouble collaborating when we were kids, which is one of the things that is so special about working with Chris on SMASH. It's literally our first completed collaboration.

Chris: Kyle is misremembering just a smidge. When we were very young -- Kyle was probably eight, and I was ten -- we started recording "Laurel & Hardy" stories on audiocassette (remember those?) as Christmas presents for our family. I played Oliver Hardy and Kyle provided the voice for Stan Laurel (most of the time). At some point on every tape, there's a loud CLICK of the stop button being slammed down on the tape recorder -- and when we come back, I'm doing both voices. We had what you might call "creative differences," when one of us (*ahem*) tried telling the other what to do, and the younger one wasn't having any of it. Luckily, by the end we usually reconciled and were back playing our respective roles. Which might indicate just what a miracle it is that we've managed to work together on SMASH.

That's hilarious. Are your other family members artistic?

Kyle: I think all of my brothers have embraced the arts in one form or another in their lives. And I remember them being very good at the arts they practiced, whether it was music, singing, sound engineering, or video editing. Whereas Chris and I wanted to pursue our artistic leanings as a way of life, our two oldest brothers chose different professional paths.

Who came up with the idea for Smash? Was this idea percolating for a while, or was it a sudden flash of we-gotta-write-this?

Chris: The "ah-ha!" moment came when Kyle and I visited a comic book store for old times' sake in the late-1990s. We'd grown up with a monthly trip to the comic store to spend our allowance on stacks of comic books -- it was a ritual we lived for. But, many years after we'd stopped collecting comics, we were shocked to find that a lot of things had changed. We looked at each other and wondered, in this climate of extreme, over-the-top, ultra-violent comics: "If we were ten years old, would we even start reading comics?" That was the impetus for us to create our dream comic, the book we'd have flipped for when we were 10 years old. In the years since then, the comic industry has settled down and embraced fun quite a bit more -- but we still feel like the world could always use a little more SMASH in it.

Kyle: In some form or another, the genesis of SMASH started when we were younger. Maybe not always on paper, but stewing somewhere in the back of both our minds. Each failed comic character or unsuccessful collaboration was just one more piece of the puzzle. Then Chris finally pulled the trigger on the moment to dedicate ourselves to it. When Chris came to me to start really dedicating myself to this, the timing was perfect -- but I didn't know that then.

How did you divvy up the work? Did you work in person?

Chris: Since Kyle lives in Seattle and I live in Portland, email has been our constant companion. Then we'll get on the phone to discuss things, especially in the outlining stage when we may not always agree on where I've taken the story. Since I'm a writer and Kyle is an artist, there wasn't much confusion as to who should do what work.

Kyle: Our roles have been defined for years. As well as our habits, the good and the bad ones. Maturity was the only missing ingredient for me. I needed time away from home to study art and live a bit before I was ready to dedicate myself to drawing comics. So, basically we hit the ground running.

When you were ten years old, who was your favorite superhero and/or what was your favorite comic?

Kyle: BATMAN was my favorite character. But strangely enough, it was never my favorite comic book. I jumped around from title to title. When I was really young, I would just tag along with Chris, and like whatever he liked. He was my older brother and I looked up to him. He had a big part in patiently showing me why something was quality, and why another title was weak. Or why a comic lost him, and he'd cancel his subscription. Like a bully in a fight, I'd immediately take his side, and swear off that comic. Until I got older, and did my own investigating and made up my own mind. But his input has always been my compass for comics.

Chris: My hero was Spider-Man. I bought every issue of The Amazing Spider-Man for at least ten years, not to mention numerous back issues from the previous two decades of comics, along with frequent issues of his other series like Marvel Team-Up or Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. I watched all the cartoons and collected the toys, the Underoos... yeah, I was pretty obsessed for YEARS. As I got older, I transitioned out of collecting monthly comics but kept up with the comic industry. In my twenties I gravitated more toward Neil Gaiman's Sandman, but I still liked "fun" comic series like Jeff Smith's Bone (back when it was a black-and-white monthly series).

Smash began as a webcomic. How did you land your publishing deal? Were you actively pursuing the print route, or were you approached by interested parties?

Chris: Actually, we'd always wanted to publish SMASH in book form. We submitted an early version of it to several publishers, who politely declined because, at the time, kids' comics were dead. So we took to the internet and published our own webcomic series -- but we never stopped wanting to see it as a book. Eventually, Scholastic colored Jeff Smith's Bone comics and published them for younger readers in a rousingly successful series of graphic novels* that, along with Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Amulet, convinced me that kids' comics were ready for a well-deserved comeback.
I found our agent, Bernadette Baker-Baughman, through a simple Google search; she was one of the first three candidates I contacted, and she responded very enthusiastically to the idea. Within a few months of signing Bernadette, she'd brought SMASH to Candlewick Press and they loved it. Presto! Book deal! It all took a while to come together -- but, once it started, the coming-together part actually moved very quickly.

*Shoutout to my pal Tom Sniegoski who worked on the Bone series, including the awesome Quest for the Spark trilogy - Read my reviews! Also, I think folks who like Smash will like Sniegoski's Owlboy series, and vice-versa. Now back to your regularly scheduled interview...

How did you find your colorists?

Kyle: Sarah Barrie Fenton replied to a Craigslist ad that we posted for the webcomic, after it became clear that coloring the comic was slowing down my drawing time. That was a great fit and we worked really well together. But when it came to coloring (and recoloring) the book, Sarah was in graduate school and had very little spare time. Chris already knew Christina Mackin from working together at Powell's. She was a huge fan of SMASH and a talented artist in her own right, who had always expressed interest in always wanting to support the making of SMASH. Christina laid down the flats and Sarah added highlights, shading, and coloring effects.

Awesome job, ladies! Okay, boys, what's next for Smash?

Kyle: Book 2 is well underway, and Chris is already planning #3. Book 2 will pick up right where we left off at the end of "Trial by Fire." The stakes are obviously higher for Andrew (a.k.a. Smash). The Magus is a much more determined villain now, and Smash is about to meet some new bad guys of his own. Chris and I are really trying to bring this world to life.

Chris: The entire second book is scripted and Kyle has started drawing the pages. We're in the early stages of pitching that to Candlewick -- so if Book 1 sells well, we hope that Book 2 will be a done deal! I've mentally outlined several books in the series -- and yes, there's a definite end of the story that we're steadily building toward. I've been working on various drafts of one novel and I've started a new one. Both are Middle Grade books that tell stories I've had percolating for quite a few years now, so those are immensely satisfying for me. But none of them are quite finished yet, so I've got a ways to go before I can talk about them. Meanwhile, Kyle and I keep batting around ideas for a second comic series. We really don't want SMASH to be our one and only published work, and we want to keep the partnership going as long as it yields tasty fruit.

Chris, you've written for the screen and the stage as well. How far do you develop stories before establishing the best forum for it? Have you ever started a story in one format and then switched it to another?

Chris: Usually the medium is clear to me. "This feels like a movie." Or, "This would be a lot better as a novel." Often the scope of the story defines its medium. For my first novel, I had a large-scale fantasy epic in mind, which is tricky to distill into a 100-page screenplay without losing a lot of distinctive touches that I was drawn toward.

Also, the screenplays that I write are generally very different in tone and style from my books and comics, which tend to skew younger and more adventurous. I really love and miss seeing small, character-driven films, which seem to have vanished in our blockbuster-crazed era. My scripts are usually low-budget, quirky, adult-oriented stories that I'd love to self-finance in the near future. Smash's parents wouldn't want him to watch those. (And Smash himself would probably rather see a movie about giant robots fighting.)

That said, I have switched formats a number of times. I've had a few ideas that morphed from a screenplay to a novel, then back to a screenplay -- and, in at least one case, all the way back to a novel again. (That one's still on the shelf while I wait and see what it will finally turn out to be.)

Kyle, having worked in both 2D and 3D animation, what do you like best about both?

Kyle: That's a good question, and hard to sum up in one answer. My relationship with 2D and 3D is a complicated one. My heart is always with 2D, no question. However, 3D got me to Seattle through the Art Institute, and got me wanting to break into the industry. And as the years have gone by working in both, I've found 2D speaks more to who I am as an artist. I can better express my style and vision on paper, using pencil.

What, if any, trends in modern animation and graphic novels are either of you really digging right now?

Kyle: I'm enjoying modern artists acknowledging the ones who came before them, who laid the ground work. And starting to give them their due credit.

Chris: I love the rising popularity of children's books, both graphic novel and prose. When I visit a bookstore or library, I found that the kids' section offers a great deal more possibility and excitement to me than most of what adults are supposed to read. (Which might help explain why so many adults read books written for younger readers these days.)

Name authors and artists who have influenced you.

Kyle: Currently, JC Leyendecker, Gabriel Rodriguez, and I'm enjoying rediscovering Kirby.

Chris: Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Richard Russo, Chris Claremont, Jeff Smith, Tom Perrotta, Ray Bradbury, and countless others. Two of my most prominent heroes were Roger Ebert and Elmore Leonard, who have both passed away this year, leaving artistic voids that can simply never be filled.

What, if any, comics do you (or did you) collect and read regularly?

Chris: These days, I wait for the collected editions. ($4.99 for a floppy comic? Come on!) My absolute, can't-miss favorites are LOCKE AND KEY, CHEW, ATOMIC ROBO, and the OZ books by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young. I've also been revisiting Chris Claremonth's X-MEN run from the 1970s through the '80s in collected editions, and they are incredibly fun -- I appreciate them a lot more as an adult than I did as a child.

Kyle: Locke and Key has had my undivided attention for the last 2 years. No question. I stick mostly with Graphic Novels these days. But I'm always looking through comics.

If you could have any super power, what would you pick and why?

Kyle: Flight. And not just around our air, but all the way out in space. I want to be able to really see the stars out there.

Chris: Sorry to be boring, but also flight. Come on, what else can you want? Hmm, maybe superhuman strength. And speed. We really gave Smash all the powers I've ever dreamed of!

Any advice for kids who are dealing with sibling rivalry?

Kyle: Well, only to the youngest. Always remember to love each other. As corny as that sounds, that is what will ultimately win the argument. One of you will remember that you love the other, then this fight is pointless. That's the idea anyway. If that's not happening, go talk to Mom.

Chris: Are you kidding? I still deal with it. What I wouldn't give to draw like Kyle! One thing I can say from experience is that siblings who are close in age (and might even have to share a bedroom) can get pretty fierce with each other. Sometimes it can feel like a household apocalypse! But later in life, those same siblings might be very surprised to discover they have a lot in common. As adults, they might even enjoy spending time together in ways that used to drive them crazy. So, there can be a light at the end of a long, sometimes very dark tunnel.

Visit the Smash website. Smash: Trial by Fire was published last week by Candlewick Press.

Follow the brothers on their Smash blog tour:
9/9 Random Chalk Talk
9/9 Powell's Book Blog
9/10 Who R U Blog
9/11 Book B
9/12 Cynsations
9/13 Green Bean Teen Queen
9/14 Charlotte's Library
9/16 Hooked on Books
9/17 Bildungsroman