For a guy whose last graphic novel was heavily infused with video game culture, it’s appropriate that the idea for his follow-up came from something that powers many a game: quarters. Back when the state-themed coins were introduced, cartoonist Matthew Loux found himself joking with a buddy about what the Maine quarter might look like, and he was struck by the image of an old fisherman fighting a giant lobster.
Thus were laid the seeds for what became Salt Water Taffy, a new all-ages series from Oni Press, the first volume of which—“The Legend of Old Salty”—will be published in May. It tells the tale of two brothers on a family trip to what appears to be a dull, sleepy little town called Chowder Bay, Maine. The boys quickly discover, however, that the town is actually filled with mystery, excitement, and the aforementioned giant lobster!.
Loux came onto the scene a couple years ago as the artist for Oni’s F-Stopgraphic novel. He quickly made the jump to writer-artist with 2006’s Sidescrollers, a video game-themed romp that was named one of the “10 Best Graphic Novels for Teens” by the Young Adult Library Services Association and the American Library Association in 2007. The young cartoonist, who is currently at work on the second volume of Salt Water Taffy, talked with PW Comics Week about his work and the new book.
PW Comics Week: So who’s your target audience for this series?
Matthew Loux: My target audience is anyone who likes fun adventures. It is definitely intended as an all-ages book for kids, but I also intended it to appeal to anyone in the ways that books like Bone, or Harry Potter or the works of [classic Donald Duck cartoonist] Carl Barks [that] appeal to both young and old.
PWCW: OK, so you had the idea of the old fisherman fighting a giant lobster—how did that evolve into Salt Water Taffy?
ML: I’m not sure what it was, but that image just delighted me to no end and eventually I fabricated a short story around it. It was only going to be about 20 pages and I even started drawing it. Also, at that time the story was going to be about the fisherman and he was going to be telling this story to two young boys. Once I started thinking of this as an all-ages idea the focus quickly shifted to the boys, and once I did that it opened me up to other ideas for adventures that the boys could get into. Then once I finished my last book, Sidescrollers, I pitched it to James [Lucas Jones, Oni editor-in-chief] and Randy [Jarrell, Oni managing editor] as a series and they fell for it!
PWCW: I see that a second volume of Salt Water Taffy is already planned for September—what’s your work schedule like for this? Are you finished with the first book already and working on the second? How far out, and how concretely, do you have the series planned at this point?
ML: Well I finished the first SWT in late November of last year and I’ve been working on the second one—A Climb Up Mt. Barnabas—this whole time in an attempt to get ahead of the game. I’m about a quarter done with the art for it. Our idea for the ongoing series is based on the first three books, all of which are stand-alone stories. I’ve written the first two and have the third very planned out. I do have stories for a fourth book and a fifth and sixth two-parter, but they are not as concrete yet, and their publication may depend on if people like the series or not.
PWCW: Have you made any conscious decision on your part to change your art style for this series, or does it reflect more of just a natural evolution in your art?
ML: The characters are pretty much the same, but I paid much more attention to the backgrounds than I’ve ever done before. I knew that the town of Chowder Bay, in which everything happens, was going to be a character in itself, so I would have to step it up. I went and gathered plenty of reference and did some practice art before starting any pages. I was very concerned in making the location actually look like Maine, or at least New England. The feel of these books is very important to me. It’s got to be specifically northeast. I also think that the design of the book supports that feel I’m looking for, and I tried to blend the look of antique etchings and maps of the early/mid-1800s with the cartoon style and sensibilities in my characters. Hopefully I succeeded in this.
PWCW: What’s your process like for a story like this? Do you write a script and then do the art, or is it more of an organic combination of the two?
ML: My process has gotten pretty specific over the years. Once I have the idea, I flesh out the plot until I have a beat-by-beat plot structure. Basically I know what needs to happen in each scene, but not always specifically how. Once I’ve got that pretty tight, I start writing it like a movie script. At this stage I don’t worry about the panels or page count, just the dialogue and general flow of the story. After a first draft is finished I go through it several times to smooth everything out to how I like it. Then I print out a copy and start thumbnailing the whole book so I have a page count. I have to focus when doing this. It’s basically the book in a nutshell, so it has to pace well. Once that’s done I usually jump into the finished pages, and either work to the end, or break in sections, and edit the script to reflect page and panel numbers.
When doing the art I do light pencils, then tighten them, then ink them and move on to the next. I do them one at a time. No grouping of pencils then inks. That would drive me nuts. Then once I’ve done the art, I scan the pages into the computer and touch up the art (clean up mistakes and smudges) and if I’m not doing any toning, I’m done!
PWCW: How about involvement with Oni during the actual process of creating the book—do you send them parts of it as you’re going, or do you pretty much just turn it all in at the end?
ML: The scripts always get sent ahead, but the rest depends on our deadline. For the first Salt Water Taffy, we had lots of time before it went to print, so I just did the whole thing at once. I did send them updates from time to time, though.
For a book like Sidescrollers, we went to print shortly after I finished the art, so I did it in sections. At the beginning I was more leisurely with it. I think I sent the first 100 pages to them in a chunk. But as the deadline came closer I would have to send shorter chunks of finished pages for them to letter. That book came down to the wire, as I’m sure my next ones will.
PWCW: Did you take family trips like Jack and Benny’s that served as an inspiration for this tale?
ML: Absolutely, yeah—I am the younger of one brother and we were dragged all over the east coast on vacations, including a few to Maine. We went camping a lot and we tended to stay by the ocean. As you can imagine, the brothers in the story are based a little on me and my own brother from this time, and these trips we took have given me plenty of ideas for stuff in these books.
PWCW: What kind of all-ages stories did you enjoy reading when you were younger? Do you read much all-ages work nowadays?
ML: When I was younger I read volumes of old Peanutsbooks, Garfield, and some old Donald Duck books. To be honest, I was probably more influenced by TV and video games than books back then. Linear adventures like Zelda,Mega Man,Crystalisand any number of the old NES [Nintendo Entertainment System] games—they really sparked my imagination. I don’t really read too much all-ages these days, but I know what’s going on because of my mom. She is a lover of young adult books and fills me in on what I should be reading. But I was very into the Harry Potterseries like everyone else.
PWCW: What other cartoonists these days do you follow and enjoy?
ML: I’m so busy I don’t read as much as I would like, but I’ll always follow anything Raina Telgemeier [Babysitters Club] does, as well as Farel Dalrymple. I’ve loved Jeff Smith’s work forever and I just picked up his Shazam hardcover. I’m in awe of Becky Cloonan’s work (I can’t wait till East Cost Rising 2 is out). And I’m eagerly awaiting Craig Thompson’s Habibi. I know I’ll be waiting for a while on that one. Oh, and I absolutely love Ted Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin.
PWCW: You’ve mentioned in interviews the possibility of a sequel to Sidescrollers—any movement on that front?
ML: Yeah, I’ve got a couple good ideas for a follow-up story, but I don’t have specific plans to do it yet. It all depended on whether anyone cared enough to want a second Sidescrollers, but this past year showed me that some people do care, what with the Harvey nomination, and being listed on the YALSA top ten list of graphic novels for teens. If I do a Sidescrollers 2, part of it would deal with the hazards of dating someone whose cat is trying to kill you