Interview with Moth City’s Tim Gibson

We sit down with Tim Gibson to discuss The Reservoir, the prequel to Moth City starring Governor McCaw.

Tim Gibson is the writer and artist behind Moth City, a true-indie comic that went from his own site, to ComiXology Submit, to Mark Waid’s Thrillbent.com.

The book has been praised for its use of the digital native technique to provide a truly unique reading experience that makes it that much easier for characters like Governor McCaw to reach out and grab your throat.

In The Reservoir — which came out on February 5th — Gibson steps away from China in the 1930s and the guided view effects of Moth City to tell us about McCaw’s past in an impressive prequel that also works as a stand-alone story. Set in Texas during World War I at the heart of the spanish flu outbreak, The Reservoir eschews dialogue for sparse yet poetic narration, and tremendous landscapes.

We had a chance to chat with Gibson recently and we asked him about the challenge of telling a story without the digital WOW, the future of Moth City, keeping momentum alive in his career, and whether major publishers are in pursuit of the indie aesthetic.

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Den of Geek: What is The Reservoir and what are some influences that you pulled from?

Tim Gibson: It’s a one-shot western comic in black, white & blood. The Reservoir is a violent and moody look at what makes a man in the turbulent Texas of the early nineteen hundreds. It sets a family up against war, influenza and mistrust, and pushes them to breaking point.

Like all my favorite westerns, there’s also a lot of grey morality — there’s no white hatted law man to set things right, and if there was he wouldn’t necessarily win. It pulls from a lot of Kurosawa films, and although it’s the spaghetti western that I’m most uncomfortable with, High Plains Drifter too. I’d like to say Deadwood, which is a series I love, but not only does The Reservoir not have pigeon-Shakespearean dialogue, it has no dialogue at all. There Will Be Blood?

Heh, yes that too. Obsessive men and westerns are a good fit, no?

 When did the notion of doing a prequel one-shot comic occur to you, was it always a planned part of the overall Moth City story, and is this an effort to humanize McCaw a little – specifically after what could be considered some of his most monstrous acts in the most recent Moth City story?

I actually produced a version of The Reservoir before I started the main series, but reworked it and chose to release it now. I felt that readers of the main series would want to know more about McCaw by issue 6, and that it also explores his relationship with his daughter, which in the main series has got about as bad as it gets.

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It’s interesting that you say “humanize”, because I guess that’d be the obvious approach with that kind of character. But the more research I’ve done about people like McCaw, the less sure that I am that they ever had other roads to take. I’m not sure, but I’m intrigued by it, and that’s what this comic explores. Tell me about those other characters — who are some of the comparables, some of the characters that either inspired or remind you of McCaw from comics, literature, reality television?

Not characters so much, but probably the darker parts of myself and men in general. McCaw is a guy who feels unbound from the rules of society and I think his personality is forceful enough that he probably gets away with it a lot of the time. I think a lot of men, though they may not admit it, look at fearless a-holes with a hint of resentment and jealousy. He obviously has taken it to an extreme dark place, though – he’s right out to the side of the bell-curve.

I’ve added a lot historical psychopaths to my dodgy list of Google searches. ‘Iceman’ Richard Kuklinski is a fascinating example of someone who can turn on a dime from charming to terrifying. There’s a video interview with him that sends chills down the spine. I would say Forest Whitaker’s performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland hit a lot of those same nerves for me.

As some reviews of the main series have noted, just because they are bad men, and certainly not the type of men you’d want round for dinner, they might be the kind of cut-throat decision makers you want running thing in the chaos occurring in the main series. You just don’t want to be related to one.

 There’s a bit of a journey from the end of The Reservoir to the beginning of Moth City and a question mark at the end. So, do you want to fill in that space with another book and what does it hinge on?  Yes, avid readers of the main series might wonder how a swaggering American ended up running a munitions plant in the orient, and rightly so. I would stay The Reservoir makes it clear why he left Texas, at least. Faux-Spoilers: bad stuff.

One day I’d like to do more preludes for Moth City if there’s a call for them, I’d be very excited to look at the other character’s pasts via genre studies.

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A War Comic about cold-hearted Major Hong moving up the ranks for the Chinese Nationalist Army, a Kung Fu comic starring Jun and Shuang (our communist freedom fighters), or a Mob story with Muay (the corrupt leader of the rebellion) would all be fun.

[related article: Comics! 101 Talents to Watch in 2014]

 Are the preludes the way that you’ll keep Moth City going if you’re able? Will the fourth season have a sense of finality to it?

The main series has a lot going on, and having multiple characters rather than a straight pro-tag/an-tag relationship means that we can see it from all sides. This means that it takes a bit longer to get to know the people in the story, so prelude comics can allow us to spend time with these folks exclusively.The finale? My lips are sealed, but nice try. A lot of the praise that I’ve seen for Moth City has fixated on the guided view innovation and the way that you’re able to use digital to your benefit. Does that put a chip on your shoulder? Do you commit to doing something more basic like this as a way of showcasing one talent over the others? Does part of the inspiration to do The Reservoir — besides the want to flesh out the back story and tell these prequel stories — spring from a desire to showcase your versatility and avoid being pigeonholed as a digital creator first?

Yes and no. A lot of the early reviews focused on the digital techniques, but I think that early arc reviews of any series have to find something to focus on until the world and story comes into sharper focus. Once a few more issues of Moth City came out people started praising the story, the character studies and the plot twists. I’m just happy for the high-fives, I don’t mind what they’re for. Tell me you like my shoes and I’ll love you forever, I’m not difficult to please.

That said, I know how much thought I put into the writing, the planning and the mornings of spontaneity where the dialogue just flowed. I know that Moth City would work without any bells and whistles, but I think people are so surprised to see them used in service of the story and suspense that they struggle to imagine Moth City without them. But I got good feedback on the scripts before it was even illustrated, so I’m confident that the writing holds up.

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 I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall you previously telling me that you had spent some time in Asia and that that partially inspired your interest in setting this story (Moth City) in the middle of the Chinese Civil War, and so I wonder what inspired your vision of Texas for The Reservoir?  Yeah, I love traveling; it’s a bit of a hobby for New Zealanders. I spent two years in Asia, a lot of the early work in Moth City was done in a small apartment outside of Seoul, Korea and from a small beach shack in Tioman Island, Malaysia.

I’ve only been to the States a few times, and never to Texas, but here at home we’re pretty well drenched in North American culture from books, TV and film, both good and bad. Texas is a fascinating place, and it is a particularly interesting time period with the oil boom, WWI and the flu epidemic. As Moth City nears its stopping point (or pause point), creatively, do you need to re-charge with a different story before you can go back? Also, with regard to the next project: is there a sense that you need to strike while the iron is hot. That you need to rush out another comic project to build on what you’ve accomplished with Moth City?

Creatively, I could keep going with Moth City, there’s a lot more to explore there. The finale has a very exciting turn that I think readers will love. But yes, I also have fifty other ideas in my head that are clamouring for attention. I would love to explore more visceral horror, some more humorous modern crime stuff, and I’d love to take just writing duties for a while on something. I also reckon I’d write the heck out of some of the more mainstream outsider characters like Gambit or Wolverine, etc.

There is some nice momentum going now, comics readers do love that serial format. It would be tempting to keep plunging ahead with indie stuff, but without upfront guarantees it’s hard to jump from such a personally intense project straight into another one.

Who knows?

Have there been any nibbles from the major publishers? Will you go back to your computer animation work until something that is, understandably, more secure than go-it-alone (or almost alone, whatup Thrillbent!) indie comics, and if so, do you worry that your career might lose some momentum if you don’t continuously put out product?

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2013 was phase one: go digital, get attention, get fans. 2014 is phase two: go print, get attention, get fans. So yeah, that’s something I’ll be working towards. But I’m patient, I like to do things right, and building the platform that I have should help towards those goals. There’s still a massive percentage of comic readers who won’t look at anything that doesn’t have a top publisher’s logo on it, or is in print. If you took my digital sales numbers and could multiply that by the print audience I would be pretty happy.

I know you like the dramatic angle, Jason, but I’m not too worried about losing momentum. Creatives create, and while things take a little longer when you have to subsidise your own exploits, that’s not going to stop me.

 Your blog has really impressed me. You’ve written some very impressive, very depthy articles about the business of digital comics and also Wertham and the comics code – any chance that you’d push further in that direction and pursue more work critiquing and commenting on the industry? Also, do you ever worry that you’re going to burn a bridge or scare off future work by being too outspoken?  

Hah, I just do that so I have an excuse when no one offers me that Gambit gig. But no, I only write that stuff when I have something I think is worth hearing, I try not to force those posts lest I get all Buzzfeed up in it. I do think that there’s opportunities for indies in comics now that there weren’t two years ago, which excites me. I think there’s a lot to explore in the digital space with the growth of places like Comixology as well as the unique delivery and format of comics like serialization and subscriptions. For the last few years there’s been this “digital will kill comics” thing, which is looking at something from only one angle. From a creator’s standpoint, something like Diamond is insanely uninviting, let alone when you take global creatives like me into account. The price of printing and shipping for this bizarre ordering process? I know it seems normal to the Wednesday warriors, but the whole thing is not encouraging for any new publishers or new risks.

I’m hoping that the next big comics writer we’ll all love comes from India, Russia or Brazil. It could be the British invasion of comics all over again, but this time with a truly global voice. I interviewed Bob Fingerman for the site recently, and he talked about how Image had changed over the years. I’m paraphrasing, but now it’s a place where something like Minimum Wage fits in. Is Image, in your view, an indication that the bigger companies will — over time — adapt to the indie aesthetic? That they will embrace a bit more risk for the rewarding lifeblood of fresh ideas?

Yeah Image is doing some great stuff, but props should be given to places like Dark Horse for finding and putting out unique works like Polar and Sin Titulo, and Oni for putting some money on the table for Joshua Hale Fialkov’s digital series The Bunker.

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Matthew Meylikhov wrote an interesting piece on Multiversity Comics last year that both praised the renewed interest in fresh stories and characters under the ‘creator-owned’ moniker while also questioning where the new writers were. I think at the moment we have a bunch of experienced old hands with major skills and passion who have been aching to tell their own stories and we’re all benefiting from them being given that chance, whatever publisher they’re coming through.

I don’t know if that’s indie though (a complicated term in comics, I guess), I think previously the only place for an indie writer to go was to be picked up by the bigger companies and get a paycheck. I think we’re entering a transition period.

Maybe in a few years writers and artists will be able to make a living producing works without being picked up. Maybe not.

I think until the mainstream comic stores and media expand to include the massive and diverse readership of indie and webcomic readers, we’re in a holding pattern. So many people read comics that aren’t being serviced by the mainstream, and that’s fine, it is what it is. But it’s weird that some of the big companies are essentially passing up audiences that in many ways, completely dwarf their own.

The Reservoir is available for sale via ComiXology here.

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