Peter Wartman: Going Over the Wall

A comics interview article by: Keith Silva

When I finished Over The Wall I was overcome with the need to write about it (which I did) and to also call every teacher I know to say: you need to order this book for your classroom, now (!). Sometimes the journey from mild-mannered critic to evangelist is a short distance.

Over The Wall needs to be read by children and adults alike for this simple reason: it's unsettling. Unsettling in the same way the story about an unsuspecting woman who gets tricked by an evil Queen to bite into a 'magic wishing apple' is unsettling; ditto the one about the bookish young girl who agrees to live with a literal beast in exchange for her father's life. The same stuff kids want their parents to watch or read to them before bed, the classics. Over The Wall is like that too.  

What creator Peter Wartman has over those princess-types comes from pluck and originality. Wartman uses familiarity to anchor his story, but where he takes this tale of a young girl on a mission to save her brothers contains … levels, some are blind alleys, some are secret passages and others open on vistas of imagination and all are places and ideas that appeal to any age.

Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: In my review of Over The Wall I write: 'where has this guy been hiding? -- Minnesota, apparently.' Your author bio says you've been ''drawing since you could hold a pencil.'' When did drawing become cartooning and a talent become a career?

Peter Wartman: So "drawing since I could hold a pencil" is a bit of an exaggeration, but I really can't remember a time when I wasn't constantly doodling something. The Minnesota bit is relevant here—I know it's a stereotype, but, yeah. The weather. You grow up In Duluth (in the north of the state) and for over half the year your options are pretty limited, so I basically spent my time drawing things. Not comics though. I wasn't too into comics for a long time, which seems weird to me now, but I wasn't reading the right things. It took going to art school (MCAD( before I was exposed to artists like Moebius ( and Katsuhiro Otomo ( ) and Jeff Smith ( ) and realized that, wow, there's a lot you can do with this medium.

CB: How did the story of Over The Wall develop and what was your creative process?

PW: I'd been playing around with the idea of a huge, abandoned city for a while before I started working on Over the Wall, although none of those ideas worked out. Over the Wall really started with an image of a girl standing on top of a wall—with, of course, a big desolate city in the background—that popped into my head one day. I started asking questions about the scene, like why was she on the wall? What was she looking for? What was going on in the city? Things just evolved from there.

Over the Wall

CB: Over The Wall began as a webcomic on your site, Shipwreck Planet. Why did you choose the digital route for distribution?

PW: There are a lot of really great stories online now, things like Gunnerkrigg Court (a pretty great one, especially if you're into the all-ages thing) or Rice Boy (a fun collection of weird fantasy stories), that are doing long form stories with skill and care. The web feels like a legitimate place to publish yourself now, although I think it has a ways to go before it becomes the final destination for comics. I think everyone who posts stuff online is planning on getting it into print at some point, but it's a good way to start building an audience (plus having to upload a page every week is a great way to stay on task).

CB: How did Over The Wall arrive at Uncivilized Books?

PW: No one wants to have their work stuck online forever. Things just read better on paper, you know? Books are a great technology.

I knew I wanted Over The Wall to be printed once I was done with the story, but that wasn't something I had much experience with. I'm not sure what I would have done on my own. It probably would have involved a lot of laser printers and staplers. Luckily Tom Kaczynski – one of my teachers from MCAD and the man behind Uncivilized Books – approached me about publishing the comic. Obviously, I immediately said ''yes,'' and here we are.

Over the Wall

CB: Did you feel a temptation to redraw or retell a particular sequence and were there changes Tom suggested as Over The Wall made its journey from pixels to print?

PW: Yeah, there was a lot of work between getting the online comic done and getting it into print.  I think the changes are more along the lines of ''the first half of the comic'' then ''a particular sequence.'' Tom was as much my editor as my publisher, and we went over pages and pages with a red pen to make things smoother. He also suggested adding some things—there is, for example, a whole sequence with a skeleton that doesn't show up in the online comic which I now see as a pretty crucial part of the story.

Over the Wall

There is a danger in going back and reworking old pages ad nauseam, but Over The Wall is short enough that I could indulge in changing things. I learned a lot over the course of drawing the comic, and it was a lot of fun to go back and apply my new knowledge to old problems.

CB: There's a great fusion of cultures in the look of Over The Wall. How did this aspect of the story develop and how does it inform the narrative?

PW: I started off developing the look of the city by thinking about the role it would play in the story, which meant lots of twisty streets and archways everywhere. I wanted to give a very labyrinth-like feel to the world and make it a place you could get lost in, swallowed up and forgotten, although the city itself hopefully feels like has a lot of history (if a confused and chaotic one).

I did look at a lot of reference, at least at first, but as I drew the comic I eventually developed a language for the buildings, motifs that I could reuse and keep things consistent.Over the Wall

CB: As a cartoonist, how do you approach storytelling and how does it affect narration and dialogue?

I start out all my stories with a script. I used to write things out panel by panel, but that just got tedious and killed the process. My scripts now look a lot like screenplays. I don't get too detailed with anything beyond the dialogue — mostly I'm just writing notes to myself about how things look.

I don't really feel like I've started writing the comic until I get to the thumbnail stage (and I do mean writing: thumbnails never feel like they belong to the illustration part of the process). That's really the point where things start to take shape and I start to get a feel of how everything is flowing. A lot of the time what I've written doesn't work visually, or I stumble across something while I'm sketching and everything goes off in a completely new direction. I have a tendency to overdo the dialog in my scripts—now is when I realize that I can cut a lot of what my characters are saying and just show them doing things.

The rest is just persistence.

Over the Wall

CB: This comic has a unique color palette. Why did you decide to add a shade of light purple (lavender?) to what is essentially a black & white comic?

Let's just say that being unable to see much red (or green, for that matter) lets you make unconventional color choices. I'm just glad that, whatever I did, people have been liking it!

CB: Colorblind, seriously! C'mon Wartman, there's more there there, don't rob me of riches!

PW: My plan was to make the comic blue. I thought it would be a good color, something that would give the city a cold feel and help with the nighttime setting. If you've read the online comic you've probably noticed that the comic was originally done in grey tones, but Tom made the smart suggestion to add a bit of color for the print run. We used the cover (which I was working on at that time) as a test bed, so I found a nice shade of (what I thought was) blue and sent the file off to Tom. A little latter I got an email back which led to a conversation that was something like:

Tom K: "This purple color is pretty great."

Peter W: "The what color?"

TK: "The purple. I like it a lot. Let's go with it."

So there you have it. I guess this is an instance of my colorblindness working in my favor.

(The comic still looks blue to me.)

Over the Wall

CB: The payoffs in Over The Wall are too wonderful to spoil, but I've got to ask you what's your fascination with names and the power of names and naming?

PW: To name something is to make it knowable, and thereby to gain some level of control over it. It's the way we make the world feel comprehensible, whether or not we actually comprehend it.  I think all the characters in Over the Wall are concerned with creating an identity for themselves, or are struggling against the one they have been given. That's very much a coming of age thing, learning both to forge your own identity and to accept that the rest of the world is beyond your control.

Over the Wall

There is also something I found delightfully creepy about a world where you can simply fade from everyone's memories.  It's so much worse than just dying (and this is an all-ages book, right), and brings up a lot of questions about what makes us who we are (is anyone who the main character thinks they are? Does it matter?). Stuff I definitely want to explore more.

CB: What are the challenges of telling an 'all ages' story?

PW: I just tried to write something I'd like to read, really. I can think of a few points where I had to step back a moment and think about how appropriate a scene was, or where I worried I was going a little too far, but for the most part I just tried to keep the story engaging for myself and hope that others would enjoy it as well.

This is a bit of a tangent, but something I like about the best kid's books is when there is something unsettling in them (I've always found Where the Wild Things Are to be pretty bleak, for example). The world is big and mysterious, especially when you're a kid, and I think the best stories are the ones that embrace that.

Over the Wall

CB: At present, mainstream and even independent comics publishers don't seem to have a lot of interest in cultivating new readers with 'all ages' titles outside of licensed properties. Where do you think Over The Wall fits and is this gap in the marketplace frustrating to you as a creator of original all-ages content?

PW: It seems like a lot of creative industries are feeling this crunch. Why take risks when endless repetition makes money? I mean, nothing that hasn't been said a million times before. I still have hope that the internet is our way out of the creative gulags, maybe through something like Kickstarter (in the short term) or something we haven't even thought of yet. I've seen a lot of online comics have success with Kickstarter, so hopefully that will become a Thing and hopefully we'll see more all ages stuff there.

Honestly, Uncivilized Books picked me up before I had much of a chance to feel too frustrated, so I'm thankful for that.

CB: Over The Wall is a complete stand-alone story; however, you've built such a deep and fascinating world full of possibilities, I wonder if your future plans include more about pink demons, plucky protagonists, and worlds with three moons?

Yes. There are plans.

Over The Wall is available through Uncivilized Books or check with your local retailer and tell 'em to order six!

For all things Peter Wartman visit Shipwreck Planet.

No one has ever mistaken Keith Silva for a plucky female protagonist; however, he has copped to being a pink demon. Follow @keithpmsilva and there is Interested in Sophisticated Fun for the more adventurous soul. 

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