Tony Harris: Turning Japanese by AccidentA comics interview article by: Zack Davisson
At the Emerald City Comic Con, Comics Bulletin’s Zack Davisson sat down with talent extraordinaire Tony Harris to discuss his heartfelt comic book Roundeye: For Love. This is a special and personal project for Harris, who is taking on all aspects of the comic -- writing, drawing and coloring -- for the first time. It is also a special project for Zack Davisson, who is advising Harris on the Japanese aspects of the story.
Tony and Zack talked about the making of Roundeye: For Love, Japanese aesthetics, getting a comic started via Kickstarter and magical testicles.
Zack Davisson for Comics Bulletin: I feel like we should be having this interview at the bar instead of making it some official thing, but here we are. We're talking about Roundeye: For Love, so can you give us a little intro?
Harris: I don't want to tell too much of the story, but I'll give a little snippet. Roundeye is set on a planet where everyone is Japanese; there's no other race.
One day this hulking, massive, fat, white guy comes stumbling out of a bamboo forest on the end of this farmland in a complete daze. He's stinking. He's covered in flies. These farmhands are there working the fields, and they immediately rush right up to him and start pinching his skin and pulling on his beard. They've never seen anything like it.
[In terms of] where the initial idea comes from, I tried to think: what if this thing that we've never seen in our lives comes walking out but we don't feel threatened by it? [In the book], they don't feel threatened. You know how you get a vibe of people? They just got a vibe of this guy. He was in a dazed, very confused state and needed to be helped. That's one of the few times he speaks in the story.
CB: Does he speak Japanese?
Harris: I haven't decided that. There isn't any other language on the whole planet, so I don't know if I should say, "He's white but he speaks Japanese," or if he should try to speak to them in this gnarly crap. What would that sound like to the Japanese?
Basically he's asking them: "Where's your master?" Clearly, to him, they work for somebody. You get the idea that he's not a newborn -- he has a sense of structure in society. They point to the top of the hill [where] there's this huge house -- this long bridge that goes over a little river -- and he goes to the master. There's a scene where he kneels and supplicates himself.
Immediately, the male who ends up becoming our villain, Yoshitstune, grabs Roundeye by his arm and tells him to stand up. That's when you see he's been working on the farm. They take him in and he ends up living on the farm and gets along great with everybody. They all love him. But he kind of keeps to himself. He ends up falling in love with Yoshitsune's wife. He meets her one afternoon and she, out of curiosity, comes down to see the big giant white thing.
CB: And you're not setting the story in any particular era?
Harris: No, I never give an actual date. It's fantasy. I feel like if I nail a specific period, then I have to really adhere to specific types of armor and customs that were used during that period. I don't want to be bound by all that.
CB: Do you have a publication date?
Harris: No, there's no street date. I have a couple of other projects I have to finish first, one -- The Whistling Skull -- is almost done. Then a five-issue thing with Steve Niles called Chin Music. And then I go directly into Roundeye. I did speak with Image last night, and I think we've decided on the format. It's the 300 folio format, which is the wide screen. It's gonna be six square-bound singles that will collect into a deluxe oversized hardcover.
CB: You're going to do individual issues?
Harris: Yes. We really thought about it from different angles. If we put out singles first, we're appealing more to the American market. And once it's collected in the trade, it goes overseas. So it makes sense to do it like that.
Plus, if Roundeye's published monthly, it's on the shelves for six months. That's a lot of attention, and it gives the casual readers more time to find it. They might stumble on issue three and go, "Oh, my God, I got to go back and get..."
And then hopefully that’ll boost the sales and it will do well. After that's all finished, we announce the softcover collection trade paperback and get more attention. I want to get the book as much attention as I possibly can.
CB: What makes Roundeye special for you?
Harris: Roundeye is my first proper venture into writing. I've co-written stuff, but I felt this was too personal to let anybody else be a part of the production. I'm writing, penciling, inking and coloring. I think we're gonna use an in-house letterer. I'm thinking of playing around with the balloons and lettering in a pretty specific way that echoes the whole Japanese theme.
It's a love story -- a love letter to my wife -- and it's just a heart wrenching, sad love story that ends badly. Which is, extraordinarily, traditional Japanese folklore.
CB: It's from your heart. I could tell from when you were talking at the Image 20th Anniversary panel. Your voice changed when you were discussing Roundeye, as opposed to Chin Music.
Harris: Oh, absolutely. That was the first time I've ever spoken in public that I've actually gotten nervous. I wanted to say something very specific, because I knew [my wife] Stacy was going to read about it later, and I wanted to make sure I got it right.
The day I actually made the announcement on the [Image 20th Anniversary] panel, a friend of mine who had spent some time in Japan recently sent me a gift -- a hatchimaki. It's basically a headband that was worn by Samurai to keep the sweat out of their eyes, for when you're going to do something serious and you're dedicated to it. I actually had that on during the panel.
It is a subject matter that I've been interested in for a very long time, and I just sort of waited until I got the right ideas and the right characters together at the right time. It's actually been in development for about twelve years, and part of that time was writing and re-writing and throwing shit away and re-designing things and figuring what would work and what wouldn't and a Kickstarter campaign to raise money.
CB: That was successful, right?
Harris: Yeah, I raised little over 11 grand, but it was on the third try. We did three rounds, and the first two failed because I set the goal too high. We finally hit a goal that people were comfortable with and ended up raising more than the goal.
CB: I never heard of Kickstarter until I saw you doing the campaign for it.
Harris: I hadn't either until I saw a press piece on Jeremy Bastian -- he did Cursed Pirate Girl. -- that said that he did this thing called Kickstarter and raised this obscene amount of money. He set his goal, I think, to be extraordinarily low, but he wasn't looking for worldwide distribution. He was just looking for enough cash to help him get through and pay the bills and then for printing and distribution.
I didn't want to raise cash to actually pay for printing and distribution and do the whole self-publishing thing. I needed enough cash so that I could continue to do the mainstream work that I was doing and find a way to fund production of enough art to put together a presentation package to attract a publisher.
[Kickstarter] enabled me to produce 10 or 12 full-colored pages, several paintings, and a handful of black-and-white illustrations with digital color. I put the package together, and I was talking to a French publisher called Delcourt. They were interested, but the deal they were proposing was getting to be disjointed and complicated because the European system for publishing comics is really weird. Every country does their own thing and makes separate deals.
At that time, the guy asked me if I had representation. I said, "Yeah, I have a lawyer, he handles all that stuff for me." So I introduced them. My attorney called that afternoon and said, "Why haven't you pitched this to Image?"
I had only pitched around there one other time, and it was about six years prior to WildStorm when Scott Dunbier was the editor. Jim Lee respectfully declined the book and said that he loved it but he knew that DC was gonna come back and say it wasn't commercial enough, which I think is bullshit. [Instead] they offered me Ex Machina.
CB: I had no idea that you'd been pitching Roundeye for that long.
Harris: It floundered for long periods where I was just too busy working to give it the attention I needed and make sure that it was right. I think that's why I got a lot of stuff right -- I had the luxury of time. Then I met you, and the whole ballgame changed.
CB: I'll throw in the backstory for everyone. Last year (2011) at the Emerald City Comic Convention in Seattle, I stopped by to see Tony -- just as a fan. And Tony's got a tattoo. If you've read Starman, you know the tattoo because it's Jack Knight’s tattoo. It's part Japanese lettering, and I lived in Japan for several years and speak Japanese.
So we’re talking about the tattoo, and from out of nowhere, Tony reaches under the table and rips out this Roundeye project. I had never seen or heard anything of it before.
Harris: And I had not planned on bringing that stuff. I want you to know that. For some reason, at the last minute, I just picked the stuff up and stuffed it in my bag.
CB: You pulled out Roundeye, and I was blown away by how you had gotten it right. A lot of people use Japan as a decoration. They think "I can get more sales if I've got kanji on the cover or a Japanese schoolgirl thrown in." Then some people see this and think, "Oh, there's some kanji on the cover! I don't know what it means, but it's cool."
Harris: Somebody knows what it means.
CB: Yep. I read that kind of shit all the time. I think, "You just can't do that. This has actual meaning." When I saw Roundeye, I thought, "This is a guy who clearly gets it." I was impressed with your pacing, the way it looked, the way you were talking about the story. But it wasn’t a hundred percent.
Harris: That's why I was glad that we hooked up, because a lot of the shit I was unsure about, you cleared up that day. Like the whole thing with the tanuki.
There's a character in Roundeye called Kondei. He's a little raccoon -- or at least I thought he was a raccoon. He's the spiritual guide for the main character. I knew I wanted Kondei to be an animal, and I like the way raccoons look, so I said, "All right, I'm gonna go with that."
I met Zack, he was looking at the art and said, "Oh, a tanuki." And I was like, "What the hell is a... tanoo, tanu?" Zack very quickly informed me that there are no raccoons in Japan.
CB: Nope. Japan has no native raccoons. They are kept in zoos. In Japan, raccoons are like elephants or giraffes. They’re exotic creatures.
Harris: And in Georgia, I drive my kids to school in the morning and three of them run across the road. I see them out in the neighborhood all the time. When you told me that there were no raccoons in Japan, my heart just sank. I had already drawn all these pages.
CB: But Japan does have tanuki, which are raccoon-like folklore creatures. They’re real animals, but also considered to be magical creatures.
Harris: Two seconds later, you followed it up by telling me about tanuki. I was like, "Oh, thank God I don't have to change anything!"
I immediately went home and delved into finding as much as I could on tanuki. I found tons of photographs. They do look almost exactly like a raccoon except they're slightly larger, and their tails are not as bushy. But they have the mask, with a pointy face.
It was a mind-blowing thing that you thought that I, on purpose, used that animal with all this folklore attached to it -- a magical creature as well as real. I had no fucking clue. You told me that there are little tanuki statues all over Japan that are good luck or something? And they have giant testicles.
CB: Tanuki have magical testicles.
Harris: Right, magical balls. And they wear the little rice hats. And they carry a little jug of sake. And I had a little hat on Kondei. I came up with something real. I came up with something that I thought I invented in design, [but] it was a real damn thing in Japan. I just don't have the giant balls.
The other thing that you cleared up for me was the Kappa. I read in a book I have on Japanese folklore about these water vampires, and I mentioned it and you were like, "Ah, I know it well."
They are mythical creatures that live in the water that are vampires, but they don't suck the blood out of your neck. You were like, "Where do you think they suck it from?" and I was like, "No, not the penis." And you said, "It's the asshole." And I was like, "Yes!" If people don't know that when they read this comic -- that they are real folklore in that country -- they're going to think I am the most twisted son of a bitch.
CB: You've got an asshole sucking scene in there. Which I love.
Harris: I thought about if I should do it or not. But I'm definitely going to do it. Now it's real. Now there's a reason for it. I was going to have the vampire try to attack Kondei, but I didn't know about the asshole. I just thought it was a vampire. But after you told me that, I rewrote the scene so that when attacks Kondei, he's not going for anything but his asshole.
CB: And if somebody does know Japanese folklore, they will pick up Roundeye and think "This man knows his shit."
Harris: That's what I love about comics. If I pick a comic up and there's a character like the kappa, I'm [thinking], "What is that? I've never heard of that before." If a comic book causes me to go to the library or get on the Internet, that is awesome.
I asked Zack, "I would love it if I could use you as a resource to reach out if I have any questions so I don't look like an idiot." And he's gracious enough to give me his time and his knowledge. For those of you who don't know him, he's got a Master's Degree in Japanese folklore. I don't care what anybody else believes; I'm very superstitious. To me, it was serendipity.
And the other thing, too, is Zack is fluent in Japanese. You can write kanji. There are scenes where there are a bunch of lanterns in this little village market, and I always wondered what they were, what's their purpose. In the States, you see people use them just as a decorative thing because they're beautiful, but what I came across [is that] they're nothing more than billboards. It's like, "Ramen noodle soup. Whores."
CB: Hanging out a red lantern in front of your shop means that you're a restaurant, and it advertises what you sell. If you're in a shrine and you see them, that's a business that made an offering to that shrine. It's a beautiful scene, but if you read Japanese the lanterns say, "Microsoft, Bob's Pizza, etc."
Harris: Right. It was so funny to me to think that this thing that is nothing more than advertising is gorgeously beautiful, too. That is one of the main things about Japanese culture that attracts me. Even the simplest of things is turned into a piece of art. There's a beauty and a simplicity to everything that's just so attractive.
I have a friend who spent time over there. He walked past the same street every day, and there was this homeless guy living in this ramble shack, a box of some kind. And every morning this homeless bum would be out with a little broom, cleaning up around, tidying his little dumpsite.
It's a combination of all these little things over the years that I've come across that created this big ball of wax. I was like, "Wow, I've got to do something with this interest and this love of all this beautiful culture."
CB: When I first heard you say, "I got a new comic called Roundeye.” Part of me thought, "That's kind of dorky…"
Harris: [Laughing] But not in this context. I'm using it as a term of shame. The title makes even more sense when you read the book. And also at the beginning of the story, when he comes out of the forest, he doesn't have that tattoo.
That tattoo on his eye -- it's like a circle with these three flames. There's a meaning to that and I'll explain that with the actual story, but it's based loosely on the Book of Five Rings. I can go ahead and tell you, one [flame] represents him, one represents Kondei, and the other represents Tulip [his wife].
I don't have a Japanese name for her; he always calls her Tulip. So I never use her Japanese name in the story, because her husband [Yoshitsune] doesn't call her by her name. There's zero equality. He doesn't respect her, and she's there basically just to provide him with children and heirs.
And to clarify on that tattoo, the meaning of those three flames, that's what I take it to mean. The tattoo was actually given to him by Yoshitsune to mark him.
CB: That's what tattoos are used for in traditional Japan. They were a way to mark people.
Harris: I swear to god I didn't know this crap.
CB: In Japan almost all tattoos have meaning because they were traditionally used as a way to mark outlaws and to mark outsiders.
Harris: And they were illegal. They are still illegal aren't they?
CB: They're not illegal but they're heavily frowned on. Because the people who are tattooed are traditionally members of the Yakuza, a mafia gang.
Harris: The first thing I thought of. And besides the obvious thing, that he's not like everybody else, he actually just wanted to shame him basically, and say, "This is a mark, I don't care how close you get or how much you integrate into our society, you will never ever be one of us."
CB: And with the eye, I thought that was also very insightful. Because it is the eye that marks the foreigner in Japan -- more than skin color. It is the blue eye, the round eye, that they really see as the symbol of difference.
Harris: When he's given the tattoo, Yoshi blinds his eye. So if you look at the color art, it's blue, but it's a really pale blue. Just so that it's clear to people that he can't see out of it. That blinding of Roundeye is extraordinarily significant. And plus, it makes it more difficult for him, later in the story, because he has no depth perception at all. So for him to become any kind of skilled warrior at all is going to be twice as difficult.
CB: When you told me that it was a love letter to your wife, I assumed your wife was Japanese, because you're making this love letter to her with these Japanese characters.
Harris: Actually, she's Italian. I get asked by people "Okay, right at the beginning of the story, you tell us that he's lost Tulip, she's gone. He has no idea where she is. Then you unfold the tale from there into how all that happened in flashback until you come right up to that point at the end and all these people die and it's just this horrible, violent, story." And they're like, "How the hell is that a love letter to your wife?"
To me, it's a no brainer. It's the simplest explanation in the world. The most beautiful thing about the story is one person's devotion to another human being and only to that human being. That person above everybody on the entire planet and the lengths that they will go to maintain that connection. What's more beautiful than that?
No matter what tragedy you come across, you're involved with that person. If it is a real, true connection, it's worth any pain that you go through, right? Relationships are not easy, especially good ones. They're work. A lot of our friends are divorced and going their separate ways, and all my son's friends are two-household kids. It's tragic. And people ask, "How did you and Stacy stay together so many years?" And I'm like, "It's hard fucking work."
Dating and falling in love is easy. That's the fun part, and the honeymoon is awesome. But then you're married. Anything that's worth having is worth busting your ass to make it. I used that line of thinking as the groundwork for everything I do in Roundeye. That literally rules every decision I made as I was putting the story together.
I didn't want him to come across anything easy. It makes him more heroic. The closer you get to a goal, the harder and harder it should be. When you're tired and just want to stop, that's when you have to push the hardest.
CB: Japanese has this specific term mono no aware, which refers to the sadness or the melancholy of the shortness of beauty in everyday life. Stating that right at the front was nice. That means we are not working towards the climax, we're enjoying the journey.
Harris: I’ve had a few people comment on that and say, "Well, it's kind of like having read the book before going to see the movie. You tell me the ending right at the beginning." It's not about the ending, it's about that journey. It's about all that stuff that you don't know yet and how the hell he got there. And that's fascinating to me.
And [regarding] that melancholy you talk about, I wrote these very short little bits of prose to attach to visual memories that he has as he's travelling and trying to find her. I call them ripples because, in his memory, he always remembered how Tulip had such a grace about her that she moved like water. So he refers to his memories of her as ripples in water. And hopefully, they'll continue further and further out -- as far as he goes out -- and just with him.
CB: In Japanese mythology, water is symbolism for death. When you compare someone to water, the assumption is that they’re finished.
Harris: Or [that] they're dead to you. And that's the big question in the book: is Tulip dead or is she just somewhere that he can't get to her? They meet and there's this immediate connection between the two of them and they fall in love, and that's all I'm gonna say.
And it's obviously forbidden, which makes it, I'm sure, twice as exciting to both of them. There's an instant connection between the two of them. And the story just sort of unfolds from there. I'm just gonna leave it at that.
To see more of Tony Harris’s Roundeye: For Love check out Comics Bulletin’s exclusive 12-page preview.