Over the course of David Gallaher’s 15+ year comic career, he’s done just about everything and worked for just about everyone. He started as a digital intern for Marvel, and from there worked with DC (both DC proper and their now-defunct but at the time awesome digital line, Zuda), Comixology, Kodansha Comics, and of late, his own production company, Bottled Lightning Studios, which he founded with his long-time creative partner, Steve Ellis.
Gallaher and Ellis’s new book, The Only Living Boy, out this week from Papercutz, tells the story of Erik, a young boy who stumbles into Central Park one rainy night and wakes up in a patchwork fantasy Manhattan ruled by a giant dragon with only his teddy bear backpack, Bear, to connect him to who he was before he awoke. He sat down with Den of Geek to talk about the new book, his working relationship with Ellis, and how his time as a special education teacher in New York City helped spawn The Only Living Boy.
Den of Geek: Congratulations on the impending print publication of the book.
David Gallaher: Thank you so much! I appreciate that. It’s been really exciting. You know, it’s been a web series for so long, and it’s actually kind of amazing to see it in beautiful hardcover format.
And it was a Kickstarter before that, too, right? This is the first time that it’s coming to print except for Kickstarter backers, correct?
…Sort of. We did, when we did Kickstarter, we did sort of an overrun so we had some to sell at shows, just to keep it, because whenever you go to a show you’d like to have something to sell. So yes, originally it was a Kickstarter, but we printed an overrun so we could sell it at shows so we could keep it in the public eye, so we could get an agent, for instance.
But yeah, it’s the first time it’s been available this broadly…it’s the first time it’s been published by a big publisher. It’s the first time it’s been available in libraries and comic stores and schools and bookstores. So yeah, it’s pretty profound.
It feels like this is aimed at kind of really smart 12 year olds.
Very very classic, kind of high adventure young adult book. Was that your goal in telling the story?
Yeah, so the goal in telling the story was…to tell that kind of story that we wanted to read when we were younger. So what Steve Ellis and I, the artist and co-creator of the book, what we usually talk about when we describe this book is that it’s all that adventure fiction you loved when you were a kid.
So it’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, it’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, it’s The Jungle Book, it’s Flash Gordon. But also with that emotional resonance that you might find in Bridge to Terabithia or The Fault in Our Stars. So it’s got that added level of emotional resonance where we want people to come for the awesome beautiful world that we’re creating, but stay for the compelling character interaction and self-discovery.
Awesome beautiful world, I can’t help but notice…it’s Manhattan right? It’s a patchwork New York.
Yeah, it’s a patchwork.
Are you using that to poke fun at the real New York at all? Because I can’t help but notice that you called the Financial District a “quagmire.”
:Laughs: That was not the original intent, but I can see how some people might see it that way. :laughs: That’s hysterical.
No, unintentional, but one of the things that we were really interested in was…New York in and of itself is this crazy city where anything can happen. So when we were developing The Only Living Boy, we wanted to sort of take what the natural evolution of that would be…New Yorkers are cynical. We’re jaded. We’re not the most optimistic of people. So what we wanted to do is take this 12-year-old kid, remove his memories, remove his skill sets, remove his learning, and remove his cynicism and place him in a world very much like New York, where anything can happen but in a much more mythological sense – so the dangers are more dangerous, the awes are more awesome – and really create that majesty, that sense of wonder and awe that you wouldn’t get if it were everyday normal New York, if it were burnt out zombie apocalypse New York. What we wanted to do is take everything and move it to a much further extreme.
People have been seeing desolated and destroyed buildings a lot, but it does this all over dystopic fiction. What we had an opportunity to do here was to push that, so yeah, there is some dystopia, but there’s also wonder and there’s crazy rat creatures living underground who built this crazy underground City of Lost Children kind of world with their own fusion reactors. And there’s flying insect cities, and there’s…aquatic monsters that are part dinosaurs that are living in underwater naval yards. There’s crashed space shuttles, and there’s weird flora and fauna everywhere, and these rabid bat-like dog creatures, and there’s a lot of asymmetry and a lot of strict physics and creatures with multiple eyes and multiple arms and lots of mouths.
For us, it was a really great opportunity to take these things we loved when we were younger and in a way, take all of these monsters that we may have drawn when we were 5 or 7 that had asymmetry, you know, when we couldn’t draw our arms quite right, or draw legs quite right or get human proportions quite right at all, and bring them to life. That is what we’re really trying to do.
We’re trying to tell a story where anything can happen, and create and magnify that sense of discovery and self-exploration and as we’re showing these worlds, what we’re trying to do is tell a personal story about self-reliance, and really showing our main hero, who doesn’t have a lot of stuff to fall back on, learn skills that he needs to survive in this world.[gallery:0]
From the way that you talk about it, it sounds like you’re drawing a lot on your experience as a former teacher (as much as one can be a former teacher) to tell the story. How has that informed the tale?
I taught special ed for five years, and every day was really different. And during the most chaotic days, the days I was covered in scratches or kids would throw their juice boxes at me, I ended up often feeling like I’d have to address more behavioral issues than I could address the core curriculum, or address like, what we were studying for the day. And often lesson plans that I would create would totally go awry. The lesson that I learned in that was “when in doubt, trust yourself.”
When you’re a teacher, nobody knows your students better than you do. I mean, parents do, but that’s contextualized and that’s at home. As a teacher you spend all these long hours with children so you’re the first to observe all these great milestones and the first to recognize unusual behaviors.
So what we did with this story is sort of take that idea of how we create in children reliance, how we create self-respect, how we create confidence, how [do] we create that ability, that grit that people talk about? How [do] we create grit in a character where he learns eventually not to run from his problems but to confront them? Because…sometimes, the only way to get yourself out of a problem is to push through it. So that’s the kind of story we’re telling. How our main character comes to make that realization and how our character comes to become the character he eventually becomes and the man he will eventually become is learning those skills and that part of his self-discovery is really awesome.
You know, it’s funny, it’s that when we’re kids, we’re blank slates. We absorb almost everything we’re exposed to. But so much of what we’re exposed to can literally change day to day. One day, you don’t know your multiplication tables and the next day you do. And suddenly there’s this crazy milestone that goes up. It’s like “oh my goodness, I know multiplication now.” It’s like “I can do this thing.”
It’s sort of like Neo in The Matrix, who’s like “I know kung fu.” There’s this really intense level of stuff going on in children’s brains where they process things and learn things and say things and do things and to have that sort of blank slate makes a really great opportunity to use Erik as that character to go through all these new worlds without any prejudices or preconceived notions, without any cynicism, we’re able to observe through his eyes what he’s experiencing. Without that kind of like “oh well, this is just like this other thing I saw on my Earth,” or “this is just like THIS thing I saw on my Earth.” There’s a different sense of growth that’s involved. So we’re growing and learning about this world as he’s growing and learning about this world. And that’s why we took the directions we did, and that’s sort of how teaching leans into or informs what we’re doing here.
So you talk a lot about self-reliance and cynicism and developing grit. I feel like Bear is going to play a big role in that. Am I way off?
Oh, you are not incorrect. Bear, I think, is probably the most…one of the two most important characters in the book, with Erik actually being the third…Star Wars is a good metaphor I use. Luke is the main character of Star Wars, but it’s not really his story. So Erik is the main character of The Only Living Boy, but it’s not really his story, and where that…the person whose story it is or the creature whose story it is gets revealed over the course of the next couple of issues. Erik ends up being this main character who ends up being super important, obviously, as a catalyst for change, but what he does and his relationship with Bear, Bear’s influence, they all play a really big part in telling the story we’re telling.
JD: You’ve been working with Steve Ellis for a long time now. How did The Only Living Boy come about and how did having worked with him for such a long time influence how the story originated and then got told?
DG: Steven and I had been working together on…I don’t remember what project specifically we had been working on when I brought The Only Living Boy to him. I want to say it was High Moon. So Steve and I had worked together on High Moon, Box 13, and we had done some projects for Marvel. And we had this really great working relationship. As we were talking about new projects, I really wanted to do this book about this kid…called The Only Living Boy. But the high concept was a kid in a zombie kind of post-apocalyptic world. Sort of like I Am Legend, but younger, without the same…the status quo we have now, but different.
I used to work for the NYPD. When I was leaving work, they were filming I Am Legend there, and what was really interesting about filming I Am Legend is Will Smith’s in that movie and he kills a lot of vampires and stuff, but what was really fascinating to me was that Will Smith’s like, a total badass in I Am Legend, and he’s got 40 years to call upon to be a badass, so he’s like “oh, I used to be a driver. I’ll use my driving skills. I know how to train a dog!” So he teaches this dog how to do stuff.
But that’s not really…if I were a vampire, I’d be scared! I’d be terrified of this guy who’s a total badass. But what I wouldn’t be scared of if I were a crazy undead zombie vampire thing is a 12-year-old boy with no skills and no college education or no anything to fall back on. Or even younger…
As I was thinking about these cool things, The Only Living Boy In New York by Simon and Garfunkel popped on my iPod, and I was like “oh my god, it’s synchronicity!” So take The Only Living Boy in New York and this crazy idea I have about a kid who’s literally the only living boy in New York where everybody else is dead, mix them together and boom! So Steve, we worked out this crazy two-page concept that we showed around like, in 2009. It was super exciting.
It was something we had been incubating for a while. And then we put it aside, and then as we started to talk about it, working on other projects, it started to evolve. It started to evolve into something much broader. So Steve and I would have much broader conversations about creating the kind of stories that our children would want to read and creating the kind of stories that we would have wanted to have read as children.
So we thought about things that we loved like Black Cauldron and Where the Wild Things Are and The Jungle Book and Flash Gordon and John Carter, and we thought about all these cool 70’s era Marvel comics, like Conan the Barbarian and Killraven, and we thought about all these things and we had put together like, “Okay, what’s he going to fight? What if he fights this chimerical dragon that stands everywhere that’s made of all these other creatures? And what if there’s a mad scientist there?” We just got really excited about all the opportunities that would be for us to tell a really great captivating story.
So that’s sort of the genesis of it, and then as we kept working through it, we kept finding ourselves involved in Erik’s powerful, profound emotional arc throughout the series, and Thea’s emotional arc and Morgan’s emotional arc, and Doctor Once’s backstory, and Balikar’s backstory, and it just became this really profound thing. And so as we got to talking about it, you know, we eventually thought to bring it to Kickstarter because it would have really helped mobilize…it was a good time to mobilize all the people who had read our stuff, Box 13…[and] High Moon and all the people who had read our stuff at Marvel. So it’s been really great for us.
That’s a good segue. Your career has been spent kind of on the front lines of comic book innovation. You started as a digital intern at Marvel, you did High Moon at Zuda, Box 13 was Comixology’s first book that they published themselves, and that’s guided view. The Only Living Boy has had a couple of incarnations outside of the traditional publishing model. How do you see The Only Living Boy fitting in with the rest of your career on the bleeding edge of comics?
It’s been really awesome to be involved in a lot of these different steps of creating new opportunities for readers to engage with. What we’ve learned and what our model has really evolved into is our goal is to remove the barriers to entry into our stuff.
One of the ways that we do that is by… when I was working on cybercomics and dot comics at Marvel. All that content was free. Now people come to our site and they get to read it for free. And then when we did it on Zuda, all that was free. And when we released Box 13, all that stuff was free. And that was really great. And we have this active engaged readership. And people willing to invest because the barrier to entry was really low.[gallery:2]
And the quality of the content I think was good. So what we were able to do is create this really engaged, really passionate fanbase by giving people our content and then as we started to do that, we learned that sort of push/pull of like, well we can’t just expect people to come to us. We need to go to them.
So with The Only Living Boy, we brought that content not just to our main web site, but we brought it to Tumblr, Humble Bundle, Comixology, Taptastic. We’ve brought it out there and put it there for people to see and it’s been just this incredibly rabid and loyal and excited fanbase that has really just meant the world to us. The reaction for the book has…the book gained 3 Harvey Award nominations and it’s been talked about and received a lot of press, and all of that’s great. And it’s helped a great deal with Papercutz for publishing The Only Living Boy, and we’re all really excited about that.
So it feels like there’s been a really good innovation between that…you know, working with Papercutz here, especially on this book, feels like a really good innovation between still being able to tell the story we’re telling online, and then shifting gears a little bit and then working more with the library-bookstore wider publishing audience. So that’s been really great for us.
Is that the advantage to Papercutz? They do a lot of licensed work, and they have some original content, but they seem to be not your traditional comic book publisher.
Yeah, because most of where their books go are libraries, schools, Target, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Toys R Us. So they have like, this profound distribution network that I think is invisible to a lot of customers at a weekly comic shop level, but not invisible to parents who are going to buy the newest Eric Carle book for their child, or the newest Maurice Sendak book for their child.
This is a book that’s going to be placed in bookstores that have this really robust children’s section. It’s going to be placed in libraries that have a really robust manga section. This is going to be placed in places that have that larger, broader distribution in a way that like, in a way that Amulet does, or in the way that Bone does.
You printed your own copies through Kickstarter, you printed some overruns for conventions and stuff, but this is the first time it’s being packaged like this. Are there any challenges to arranging the book for packaging like this?
Eeeeeeeh, no, because…I mean yes, there are sometimes challenges, but not in the traditional way you might think that there are challenges. I mean there’s challenges in that sometimes like, I’ll open up a template and I’ll have the wrong version of Photoshop :laughs:.
Like I’ll go into InDesign and I’ll need to upgrade all of a sudden. But there aren’t really challenges in terms of like, we think of The Only Living Boy, we think of publishing as the next evolution of The Only Living Boy. And we prepare our files very much like they were to go to print, so there are not a lot of technological challenges that we have to overcome. And that’s actually been really great for us. There are always software things, hinky little things that go awry sometimes, but no, that hasn’t really been a challenge for us on that end.[gallery:3]
You’re going on tour, right?
Yes! So we’re going on tour starting [March 5th], which is super exciting!
It is! Is this your first book tour?
It’s not our first book tour, but it’s our first book tour like this one. So what makes this different than a traditional signing is that Steve Ellis and I are going to be going to right now I think it’s like, 14 locations. It’s a lot :laughs:. It’s a lot of places, we’re going a lot of places.
Right now we’re going to Chicago, we’re going to Staten Island, we’re going to Virginia, we’re going to Baltimore. We’re going to Massachusetts. There are a lot of places, a lot of awesome places that we’re going. But what’s really awesome is that unlike a traditional signing, we’re doing this as a workshop, so we’re creating these opportunities to not just to sign the books, but we’re also creating these opportunities to teach children how to make their own comics, and a big part of that lesson is teamwork, and how teamwork helps create shared visions and create better comics. A better team means a better comic. And so we’re going to talk about our collaboration and how we make our comics, and then we’re going to empower children attending our workshops to be able to make their own.
Nice. And who knows, maybe you and Steve will make a whole new comic out of your educational lessons.
Yeah, exactly! And I think that’s definitely something…one of the things we often talk about is how we get more…the challenges at an industry level, how can we get more kids reading comics. It’s really important to help create tomorrow’s readers today.
Because if we don’t, then the industry dies. So one of the things we’re trying to do with The Only Living Boy, is it’s a really great book for reluctant readers. It’s a really great book for kids who love action adventure. And we hope that it’s a really great hook to help kids discover more comics like that, because the Amulet reader today could be the Batman reader tomorrow. The Bone reader today could be the Superman reader tomorrow. The Only Living Boy reader today could be the High Moon reader of tomorrow.
So how do we create these bridges? What are those middle books? What books help create and broaden that path to comic literacy? So that’s really what our focus is.
Last question, do you have any ridiculous riders on your tour contract?
No, but we should.
Like, no blue M&Ms or something.
We totally should! But right now we don’t. You know, what do you think? I would love to have like, a throne.
A throne would be awesome. And cosplay! I think kids should come to our tour in cosplay and we should be given thrones.
Yes. And a chalice to drink from.
Yes! A chalice! Maybe for book 2.
The Only Living Boy #1 will be in comic shops and bookstores on Tuesday, March 8. Volume two comes July 12. Gallaher and Ellis will be on tour promoting the book starting at Aw Yeah Comics in Harrison, NY on March 5. For more information on the book or the tour, check out the comic’s web site here.