Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Conversation with Phil Foglio

One thing that Alex, the Primary Pop Thinker at Pop Thought, tried to encourage me to do with my "Live and Let Dice" column was interviews. I think this is probably because he did a lot of interviews and was pretty good at it. The first interview I did for "Live and Let Dice" was with one of my favorite cartoonists, the legendary Phil Fogilo; and actually it was one of those pieces that got partially eaten by the Great Chinese Siege. Fortunately, some far-sighted benefactor had the sense to archive the lost half of it. So here is my reconstructed conversation with the boy genius behind GIRL GENIUS:

A Conversation With Phil Foglio

January 3, 2005

When I belonged to a science fiction club in college, back in the antediluvian '80s, each month someone would bring the new issue of DRAGON Magazine to the meeting. We'd all take turns pawing through it, and invariably, we'd start by turning to the back where the cartoons were. The first thing I'd always read in DRAGON was Phil Foglio's "What's New" strip. Well, I'd also try to figure out if there was a point to "Wormy", but I gave "What's New" priority. In his strip, Phil and his semi-fictitious partner Dixie Null, would explore the weird world of Fantasy Role-Playing Games.

Since then, Phil Foglio, (the "g" is silent, like in "polygnostic") has had a long and varied career, touching upon just about every aspect of fandom imaginable. Currently, he is drawing a comic book entitled GIRL GENIUS, about a brilliant young inventor in a Victorian-Era world of steam-powered uber-tech, (as seen in our last thrilling episode).

We meet Phil on board his palatial airship fortress, hovering somewhere above the Carpathian Mountains.

You started out doing fan art. What were some of the other things you did before and during your DRAGON days?

Phil: A little bit of this, a little bit of that. During this period I was illustrating the Mythadventure novels for Donning/Starblaze, doing monthly cartoons for Swank Magazine, and various freelance illustrations. Enough to keep my rent paid and my cats fed.

What kind of art background did you have?

Phil: I always liked to draw, and was actively encouraged by my mom, who had wanted to be an artist herself, but didn't get the chance. I didn't really think about becoming a professional artist until high school, when I realized that everything else required too much math. Once that was decided, I went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where I got my BFA in cartooning, with a minor in animation.

How did your association with Robert Asprin come about? And the MYTHADVENTURES comic you did for WARP Graphics?

Phil: During college I was very active in science-fiction fandom. I went to a lot of conventions. Another person who went to a lot of cons was Bob Asprin. You see the same people week after week, you start to hang around with each other. When they needed a new illustrator for the MythAdventure book series after Kelley Freas quit, Bob said, "Hey, I know this guy who'll work cheap." When he sold the comic rights to WARP Graphics, they asked him if he could recommend someone as artist, and again, he thought of me. It's true, kids, it's not what you know, it's who you know.

I'm sure a lot of people associate you with fantasy because of your work in DRAGON, but one of your early, and long-running characters was pure space opera. Tell me about BUCK GODOT, Zap Gun For Hire. How did he come to be?

Phil: I was between projects, and wanted to write and draw SOMETHING, but I didn't really like anything I was producing. Then I read a short underground comic story by Rich Larson featuring the crew of the BUN-E. I had an epiphany. You could write perfectly good stories about about perfectly dreadful people (what can I say, I was young and impressionable) and they could still be good stories. As it happened, I had a friend who was a good person who liked to present himself as a dreadful one. Using him as a role model, I created the first Buck Godot strip. My only requirement for that first story was that there had to be a fight or an explosion on every page. Naturally, no one wanted to publish it, but I liked the character, did a few stories to keep my hand in. I was thrilled when he actually saw print, and even happier when people liked him.

You've always shown, let's say, a healthy appreciation for biology; most notably in your adult anthology series XXXENOPHILE. I've drawn the occasional adult story myself, and I've always tried to follow your example. There seems to be a joy in these stories; a sense that sex and fun go together and if both parties aren't enjoying themselves then they're doing it wrong. Do you have a philosophy behind these kinds of stories, or am I over-thinking this?

Phil: Not at all. XXXenophile started because while I am fond of the IDEA of adult comics, there were very few that I could stomach. Most creators seem unable to keep "taboo" subjects properly compartmentalized, so when they try to do a sexually explicit story, they feel they can throw in some excessive violence, or dismal "real life" consequences or some political satire or whatever, and seem to be unable to understand why this can make it unappetizing. I was bitching about this and said bitching ran along these lines; "Why the hell can't people just write nice happy stories about people having happy sex? That's what I want, and I bet a whole bunch of other people want it too. There's a real market for this. Why doesn't some fool realize this? Hey..wait a minute...I could be that fool!" The rest is history.

You also co-authored a novel with Nick Pollotta: ILLEGAL ALIENS, a science fiction comedy about a First Contact gone wrong. Can you tell me about that? Have you done any other non-illustrated writing?

Phil: I was hanging around with Nick at the time, and one day he said, "I had a weird dream last night, where this street gang was fighting a giant robot armed with a mop." A discussion ensued as to why such a thing might have happened, and the result was 'Illegal Aliens' now available from Wildside Press. Buy two. I've done other prose writing, some articles, a couple of short stories in Amazing Stories, and my wife and I are in the process of novelizing Girl Genius. The big news however, is about a book called 'Dealer's Choice' by James Ernest, Mike Selinker, and myself, that is coming out this spring. It's a book about poker. Not casino style high stakes Texas-Hold-'Em like you see on TV poker, but a book about running a game in your own home, and instructions on how to play the hundreds of stupid, wild card games that people like to play at two in the morning, like Night Baseball, Frankenstein, and Hamlet Meets the Three Stooges. And yes, we have the definitive rules for Strip Poker in there as well.

One of the most unexpected places I've ever seen your work turn up was in DC Comics. You did three limited series for them: ANGEL AND THE APE, STANLEY AND HIS MONSTER and I believe PLASTIC MAN. So, who did you blackmail to get them to let you do this?

Phil: Mike Gold. He had just moved to DC comics from First Comics, and pretty much was allowed to do whatever he wanted. I went in and pitched a few ideas about, and he liked them. I have to say I found working for DC unsatisfying; of course, this was back in the eighties and nineties. I'm assurerd that things have changed. The Plastic Man gig I got through Hilary Barta, who was ramrodding that through DC. He wanted me to help with the writing and scripting, and it was a lot of fun.

The Heterodyne Boys, the legendary heroes from the backstory of GIRL GENIUS, have popped up in your works before; I remember references to them in your STANLEY AND HIS MONSTER miniseries. Were they inspired by any specific literary works?

Phil: The Heterodyne Boys started out as a joke. I was visiting some friends in Kalamazoo and in a used book shop I saw some old 'Boy's Adventure' type stuff, like the original 'Tom Swift' and the 'Radio Boys'. I was reading some of the titles out loud, because they were so delightfully stupid, (Tom Swift and His House on Wheels! [today we call them 'trailers'.]) and when I ran out of real ones, I made up 'The Heterodyne Boys and their Anthracite Burning Earth Orbiter'. One of the characteristics I cherish in my friends is their childlike gullibility, and several excited minutes were spent trying to actually find this book. That night, we played Charades (This party was Rockin') and it was my contribution to the book titles list. Everyone liked it so much that I drew up some pictures of them, basing them on two more friends of mine. They got a radical overhaul when we built Girl Genius, the only part remaining is their names, and the titles of their adventures.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

Phil: I'm very fond of the classical fantasists. Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell. I like mysteries by Dashell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, William Marshall and Robert van Gulik . Nowadays I'm fond of Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Greg Bear, John Barnes and George MacDonald Frasier. As far as comics go, I like Neil Gaiman, Aaron Williams, Stan Sakai and Pete Abrams.

What artists do you most admire?

Phil: Alphonse Mucha, Charles Dana Gibson, Hayao Miyazaki, Sergio Aragones, J.C. Leyndecker.

What are your favorite books, whether novels or comics?

Phil: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and for comics, the series 'Roxanna and the Time Bird' by Letendre and Loisel.

Do you do a lot of research for visual references in GIRL GENIUS, or does it all come out of your own fevered imagination?

Phil: A little of both, as I have tons of reference material for machines, and castles and towns, and folk costumes and eastern European landscapes, which I pour through every now and then, and then I take those elements and draw what I think these things SHOULD be like.

My wife, Lute, and I have collaborated on a few of my own stories. (And on occasion, people just seeing her name on our byline have also mistaken her for my brother). How did you and Kaja meet?

Phil: Very traditionally. We had mutual friends who knew I was looking for a girlfriend, and thought Kaja would fit the bill. These clever girls were the bridesmaids at our wedding.

How do you work together writing GIRL GENIUS?

Phil: Pretty well. We start out talking about the story, trying to figure out who is who and what should happen, taking notes the whole time. Then I do a rough layout of the issue, showing what happens on each page. Then we discuss that some more. When we're happy with it, I rough out the issue, getting a rough idea about page layout and dialog pacing. When we're happy with that, I pencil it. It gets scanned into the computer and those files are sent to the colorist. Meanwhile Kaja adds the dialog. I look it over and we discuss whether we need any changes. She also lays out the cover and interiors, and does all the graphic design. When the colors come back Kaja assembles it all for the printer, and off it goes.

In addition to your comics, you've done a lot of game illustration. In fact, Agatha Heterodyne, the heroine of GIRL GENIUS, originally appeared in GURPS: IOU, an anime-inspired RPG from Steve Jackson. What other games have you worked on?

Phil: Yeah, we'd been working on Girl Genius for a couple of years when the GURPS IOU job came along, so we thought it would be a hoot to stick her in. I've worked on a slew of games. The biggest of course was Magic: the Gathering. Both Kaja and I did a lot of art for that. I put out the XXXenophile Trading Card Game, which lost a pot of money, and with James Ernest, a Girl Genius Game called The Works, which is doing well. I've done a lot of work for Cheapass Games', James' company, and we had two big games from new publishers come out this last year, 'Sucession' and 'Emperion'. I've also been busy doing stuff for Steve Jackson Games. Besides IOU, I did the art for Strange Synergy, Greedquest, I just finished up a card game called S.P.A.N.C.(Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirls) and along with the Girl Genius GURPS, he's also interested in reviving a version of the XXXenophile Card Game.

What can you tell us about the upcoming GURPS: Girl Genius suppliment?

Phil: It'll have a lot of background information we haven't revealed in the book itself.

Okay, time for a Total Geek Question: GIRL GENIUS: THE MOTION PICTURE: Who would you cast?

Phil: Hayao Miyazaki. We would so like this to be animated. If we had to go live action, I'd hold out for Tim Burton to direct. As for actors? Sorry, I don't really follow actors, though a few years from now, when he's been aged a bit by politics, I could see Schwartzenegger playing Klaus Wulfenbach.

Thank you for time. As I said before, I've enjoyed and admired your work for many years, and I appreciate the chance to talk with you.

Phil: Sure. Thanks for the interest.

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