Creator Interview: keithmccleary of Killing Tree Quarterly!
skoolmunkee at 4:15AM, Dec. 17, 2007
posts: 7,058
joined: 1-2-2006
Username: keithmccleary
Comic: Killing Tree Quarterly
Age: 28
In what part of the world do you live: Brooklyn, NY
Are you single/boyfriend/girlfriend/married: I have a cat, two turtles and a girlfriend.
Day job: Video editor, graphic designer, jack of all trades

OK, the standard first question: Tell us a little about your comic.

'Killing Tree Quarterly' is a Western that follows a group of multicultural assassins as they cut a swath of terror through California and the lands beyond sometime in 1893. Guest-appearances by circus freaks and outlaws wearing paper bags on their heads frequently occur. The tone is darkly comic, depending on how funny and/or scary I happen to be that day. Chaos ensues.

What's your creative background?

Formally? Well, I went to film school at NYU, which didn't do me a whole lot of good except to get me to New York City. One of my short films won an award from Warner Bros., but otherwise the whole thing was sort of a bust. Informally, I've managed to do a lot of different kinds of creative work for different people since moving here - sometimes I get work from former classmates, who all seem to be making more money than me. I've designed a highschool yearbook for a private school, run lights for the Actors' Conservatory, worked on the Sesame Street set for a season, assisted on a documentary on modern-day gypsies, played in a bunch of bands and written and/or helped develop a plethora of projects that will never see the light of day. It's a typical hodge-podge art student sort of background that sounds really busy written down, but amounts to a lot of confusion and head-scratching when you're living it.

When I originally thought of the next set of interviews I wanted to do, I thought of them in terms of exploring underused genres. When I read KTQ I realize that shelving it as a “Western” is kind of unfair. (I apologize in advance for coming back to this Western thing a few times too…) How does KTQ compare to what most people think of as a “Western”?

First thing is that I want to know why it's unfair to call KTQ a western? What else would you call it? (Seriously, I really want to know.) I feel like it's a pretty standard western, with a bunch of weird elements strewn across the top to amuse me. I'd even go so far as to say it's basically an archetypal western - gunfightin', train robbin' - but the main characters aren't white, and there's a sort of post-modern sensibility lending some humor and irony to everything.

The main characters aren't white because at the time I started it I was feeling like everything I was writing was totally ‘'white-guy-perspective,’' which seemed almost latently racist. But I am, after all, a white guy and if I started to write modern stories with a more colorful cast, I'd probably end up doing something really artificial, like an episode of ‘'Barney and Friends’' that's always populated by one kid from every ethnic background, and a girl in a wheelchair. So then I started thinking about doing something historical - choosing a time and place where cultural mashups were common - so that if I ended up standing on a narrative soapbox (which I ended up not doing), I'd at least be able to do it within an anthropological perspective instead of a political one.

And I guess my own white guilt started getting mixed up with some basic outrage about racism and sexism throughout history, and all that was in turn flipped on its head by a desire to write something sort of dangerous and taboo. A white guy writing multi-cultural characters with an axe to grind seemed pretty freaking dangerous, but I figured if the characters were historically justified then I could get away with it.

Everything else about the book that's unique is purely the result of me thinking that the Western genre is pretty stale and boring. (Not saying that it IS stale and boring, Western fans - just that it's not my cup of tea.) That time period in American history is interesting to me, but the genre that came out of it is pretty dry in my opinion. I figured choosing a genre I didn't particularly like would force me to be more creative in my storytelling in order to keep myself focused. Every time I'd get bored with my own ideas, I'd try to think of something funny or weird to keep me going. So then you get Eagle Eye the Chicken Boy, or a high-security train full of exotic fish.

I'm not sure how many other recent Western comics you've read, but from what I've seen it seems like most creators aren't happy just making a Western. It needs to have killer robots, aliens, a post-apocalyptic setting, etc. What sets KTQ apart from them?

Well, I just dug myself into a hole here because my answer should probably dovetail with what I said above - ‘'westerns on their own are boring.’' But that means that KTQ is just like every other western revival that's come out in the past year or so - and by God, it's different!

Okay, here's what I think: all these other conveniently nameless books are basically doing genre mashups using Westerns. Which is fine, but it's not really my thing and I don't think it ends up saying anything new about the Western genre itself. I'm just trying to use different elements I find interesting in order to write a better Western, and maybe dust off the genre along the way.

For better or worse, mind.

Why did you choose to do a Western? A black-and-white one, no less.

I pretty much covered this earlier, but the basic answer is that it took me out of my comfort zone. Everything I'd been working on since college had been very much me: stories about myself, scripts that weren't grounded in very much other than whatever I was thinking about at the time. Which is what writing is, I guess, but it was starting to feel very masturbatory (can I say that?) and gross and pointless. KTQ had, at the very least, some social context, and it forced me to think and do research. Plus I figured that if the project ended up not being up to par, I was going to be okay with that since it wasn't really personal to me.

I did it in black-and-white because it's cheaper to print black-and-white comics than it is color ones. Then people started to comment on a ‘'look’' I was apparently going for, so I stuck with it. I just wanted to make pages that didn't suck. Badly done black-and-white books are almost as bad as Westerns.

Ha ha.

Your comic has a pretty unique visual style. I've read about how you make it, but why don't you talk about it here?

Okay. I build all the characters and scenes in virtual 3D using a program called Poser. It's basically a hobby tool - not as deep as something professional like Maya, but it's inexpensive, relatively versatile and the learning curve isn't as steep. I've seen a few other webcomics on here that I would guess are made in Poser, but I haven't asked. A recent issue of Batman (#663, for the curious) used it as well. You can get a variety of effects out of it, depending on what kind of 2D textures you wrap the characters in, and I have a set of ‘'art materials’' I use to get the book to look more like pen and ink.

So Poser does a lot of the heavy lifting, and then I take my renders into Photoshop to design the pages, add backgrounds, put in lettering, etc.

Do you have any specific influences when it comes to KTQ?

Dave Sim got me to think about doing my own book. Joe R. Lansdale taught me how to write my made-up Western speak. Clint Eastwood directed two of the only three Westerns I've ever enjoyed. Howard Zinn gave me a starting point for my historical research. Brian Bolland and Mark Schultz taught me how to ‘'draw,’' because whenever I can't figure out how to do something I look at their books and try to figure out how to approximate their work (i.e., rip them off) using 3-D and Photoshop.

Is there anything you want to do in the comic but haven't gotten around to yet?

This is my first book, and I want to work professionally in comics. There's a lot I want to do. Mainly, I want to write Batman. All my other goals are pretty inconsequential by comparison.

Don't think I don't see you laughing over there. I love Batman, so shut up.

By your own measurement, what has made KTQ worthwhile to you?

The fact that I finally found a storytelling medium that felt natural from the first day I started doing it, that I was able to do it on my own, and that I got it done and it turned out just how I wanted. Seriously, in film NOTHING ever gets done unless a small army is involved. The directness of this was amazing.

What goals have you set for yourself when doing KTQ?

Finishing it. That was a big goal. Printing it will be the next one. Trying to sell it, and using it as a calling card to get more work (which is starting to happen, in baby steps) is after that.

What challenges are there to doing a comic in a Western setting?

Well, historical accuracy would have been a challenge, except I fudged all over the place so it's not fair to say that. The biggest challenge was assembling a library of props and clothing I could use to illustrate the book.

With Poser, you have the benefit of a huge internet community of 3D modelers who offer almost everything you might need if you yourself are a terrible modeler (which I am). A great deal of it is free, and the rest of it only costs about as much as what a regular artist might pay for art supplies, or what a costume designer might pay for fabric. I had to do a huge search for western-era pieces I could incorporate into my little story world, and a lot of times the process included tracking down the original modeler's email address to ask permission to use a model I'd found on a old URL that hadn't been updated in years. It took weeks to get started, and I'm still always adding to my library. That's the hardest part with this particular story.

What fun things are there, besides the accents?

The last five minutes of working on a page, after I've been staring at it for days and it's totally embarrassing and horrible, and then suddenly I realize what's going to tie it all together and make the page magically look amazing. That part is fun.

Other people liking it is probably the other fun part, which is why DrunkDuck has been so good for my morale.

Give me one reason why everyone should try doing a Western.

I can't. If everyone did one then I'd probably get really anxious and competitive and have to quit. I'd like for everyone to think it's really hard and/or boring and leave me alone with it.

How does this genre compare with others you have worked with?

I feel like I have more license to be totally ridiculous. Genre stories are usually meant to be fantastic - sci fi, horror, superhero stuff; the basic idea is that it's not real life. So when you sit down to write it, if your sensibility is really goofy or off-the-wall, you can easily end up overdoing things. Those genres almost demand a more ‘'realistic’' approach in order to give them a little weight.

Westerns are actually based on the world we live in, but they're still far away from the world we currently inhabit and thus get called ‘'genre fiction.’' But the stories are usually pretty plausible, and throwing in the kinds of things I like to throw in - semi-mythological gunfighters, mutant circus freaks, etc - actually end up giving the stories a little flavor, instead of oversaturating them.

You've said the current run is ending, but that you'll come back to it. Is there a set script with an ending, or is it more organic than that?

Originally I was going to do a miniseries, but I got talked out of that by people with more experience than me who told me a one-shot would sell better than a multi-issue thing. So I made my first issue longer and more self-contained, and that's what will be wrapping up on DrunkDuck in the next few weeks.

I had some loose ideas for a five issue miniseries, and even looser ideas for a seventy-eight issue maxiseries. These ideas were not necessarily some of my best.

Currently I'm planning to do a full-color book that will take place in the world of KTQ, but with a different set of characters. It's going to be sort of a comic/picture book hybrid. If it's sheer awesomeness doesn't make me immediately famous on its completion, and if the resulting lack of fame doesn't sink me into comatose depression, then after that I'd like to do another KTQ book about the same length as what I'm wrapping now, black-and-white and featuring the Killing Tree Gang again. But I have a feeling that's at least a year away.

Like any genre, there's a pretty well known ‘cast’ of typical players that writers have to keep in mind. How do you write your characters to keep them balanced between stereotype and mystery?

I have no idea. Depending on who you ask, this is something I have yet to master. I do know that I sat on my first KTQ story for weeks, trying to figure out how the main characters were going to speak, terrified of giving them dialogue. Eventually I just got so frustrated I just started writing without thinking. Arguably, I haven't stopped since.

I'd answer this question more completely, but I'm worried that if I try to explain it to you, the small amount of success I've generated in this regard will suddenly evaporate.

Did you ever play Cowboys and Indians as a kid?

What is this, the 50's? I think my dad played Cowboys and Indians. I played He-Man, and then Ninja Turtles, and then Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and then Batman. Then I got focused on guitars and girls.

One last question - I have to ask. What was up with that baby?

About ten pounds of dead.
last edited on July 14, 2011 3:40PM
skoolmunkee at 4:18AM, Dec. 17, 2007
posts: 7,058
joined: 1-2-2006
Follow up!

Keith: I really do want to know what you'd call KTQ if you don't call it a western. You should insert your answer into the interview as a fake ad-lib, and then make me respond with something really witty and charming.

skoolmunkee: Well, your answers made me kind of change my mind. :) I meant calling it a western as ‘unfair’ because it isn't a typical western- what you were calling dry and boring. after all you have things like chicken head boy and whatnot. I mean, Deadwood is a western (although not dry and boring imo). But as you said, it's still a western, just with a focus on different elements. After your responses I realized that KTQ is certainly more western than a sci-fi western or a horror western or whatever mixed-western a lot of people are doing now.

So I'll put that in yeah? and I'll put in your response as “chicken butt”

Keith: Actually, now that you've said that I have a real response. Here:

Everyone says I should watch Deadwood. So of course I never have because either it will be awesome and make me totally insecure about attempting my own western, or I won't like it and then I'll get depressed. I just try to make it a non-issue by saying, “Remember? I hate westerns!”

It's like when all my film school friends find out I'm doing a comic and they say, “Oh, have you read Kavalier & Clay? I loved that book!” And I say, “I read the first fifty pages and it sucked.” Which is a conversation-killer, so I should probably stop doing that.
last edited on July 14, 2011 3:40PM
Exzachly at 7:05PM, Dec. 18, 2007
posts: 565
joined: 4-21-2007
Kavalier and Clay did indeed suck. : )
last edited on July 14, 2011 12:24PM

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