Thursday, July 31, 2008

Heroes & Influences

At some point in nearly every interview I’ve ever done, the interviewer will ask about my influences. It’s happened enough times that I have a little list in my head that I can throw out there whenever the question comes up -- Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, Terry Gilliam, Mike Mignola, and the Danish comic book artist Teddy Kristiansen. It’s short and to the point and usually satisfies the interviewer's expectations, though I keep waiting for someone to ask why there are so many authors on the list.

I can go through the names and explain how each one of these people influenced either the way I draw, or the kind of material I like to draw, or the things I write when I’m not drawing. But it’s not a very complete list. I’ve been influenced by just about everything I’ve ever seen or read. Or at the very least, I’ve learned something about storytelling from every book, piece of art, movie, or play that I’ve seen. It’s just the way I’m wired. I like to take things apart to see how they work, even if they aren’t working all that well.

For me, the really interesting question is “Who are your heroes?”. It’s a fun one to answer, because you get to talk about the artists or writers or directors you really admire, and it’s a little more revealing than the usual list of people who have influenced your work.

You might be asking, “What’s the difference?”. Well, let me use an example. Nothing against Neil Gaiman, but he’s an influence of mine, not a hero. His SANDMAN series got me interested in comic books after a long time away, and there’s no way I would be drawing comics if it hadn’t been for his work. And while I’ve enjoyed his projects outside of the comic book field, I don’t have a framed picture of him or a signed first edition on display in my office. I do, however, have a signed copy of Ray Bradbury’s ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING that is among my most cherished possessions.

And while my heroes have all influenced my work to various degrees, they have taken on a special legendary status in my mind that makes me go a little weak at the knees when I see them at conventions. I do my best to hide it, of course. No one wants to see me faint from fanboy excitement. It's not a pretty sight.


One of the really nice things about my life is that I’ve met most of my heroes* and all but one of my influences at some point or another. I’ve worked with a few of them, gotten to know others, and while I can’t say that we’re friends exactly, I sometimes get to trade emails with a handful of them every once and a while. And yes, I do get weak at the knees when I see their names in my email inbox. Can't help it.

Of course, now that I think about it, I DO have a signed copy of Gaiman’s MR. PUNCH, one of the truly great graphic novels of all time, sitting in my office. And I think I’ve got a signed first edition of CORALINE somewhere, too. So maybe it's time I finally added Mr. Gaiman to the list...

*At least the ones who are still with us, though I did meet Frank Herbert at a signing a year or two before he passed away. There's a photo of me at age 12 or 13 looking like I might pass out as Mr. Herbert signs a copy of HERETICS OF DUNE for me.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On The Nightstand


Peter Straub has written two of my favorite books of all time. The first is probably his best know novel -- GHOST STORY. It was such a huge bestseller that I think Peter Straub is probably tired of signing it by now*. The second is SHADOWLAND, a book that had a profound effect on me when I was a teenager. It’s one of a handful of books that inspired me to write and draw, and whenever I look at one of my very first attempts at writing -- the short graphic novel WALK THROUGH OCTOBER -- I can’t help but notice how strongly SHADOWLAND influenced the imagery in that story.

So it came as a bit of a surprise that I’ve had such a hard time getting into some of Straub’s other novels. I’ve read a number of them and while the level of writing is always undeniably high, I haven’t always gotten sucked into the narrative. But after reading Straub’s introduction to a collection of Stephen King’s non-fiction called SECRET WINDOWS, I felt like digging back into some Straub and settled on FLOATING DRAGON, a book I’d read in college and enjoyed, though not as much as GHOST STORY and SHADOWLAND, both of which he’d written before DRAGON.

Reading it again, I have to admit that I didn’t get it the first time around. The book is far more complex than I’d ever realized. On the surface, it’s the story of a classic haunted town, with a long history of bad things and an ancient evil waking up to wreck havoc. An excellent setup for a horror novel, but Straub added in a whole other level to the story, involving a “thinking cloud” made up of a dangerous chemical that may or may not be driving the town slowly crazy. The first time I read the book, I thought the two threads didn’t come together well, but now I realize that was the whole point. There’s an ambiguity to what’s happening in the town that even the main characters can’t help but notice. Without that ambiguity, FLOATING DRAGON would be a decent enough supernatural thriller, but Straub went for something a lot more complicated and interesting. I just didn’t notice it at the time.

Now I’m tempted to go back and read some of the other Peter Straub books I hadn’t liked as much. I suspect there are a number of interesting things I missed the first time through.

*Random side story: My friend Daniel Waters (an unbelievably talented writer in his own right -- check out his excellent GENERATION DEAD) brought a copy of GHOST STORY up to Mr. Straub at a convention and the author joked that no one ever brought any of his other books to be signed. When I finally worked up the courage to ask Mr. Straub for an autograph, I made sure I brought my battered copy of SHADOWLAND for him to sign. Not sure if I won any points, but it is one of two books I still have from my youth. The other is an extremely battered paperback copy of F. Paul Wilson’s THE KEEP, probably my favorite horror novel of all time. Still haven’t worked up the courage to have FPW sign it for me.

Introductions & Welcomes

I recently did an interview for a French publisher who asked me to introduce myself to the French audience. The only thing I could think to say was “My name is Matthew Dow Smith. I draw comic books for a living. And when I’m not doing that, I’m usually writing.”

It’s the best I could come up with at the time. But in retrospect, about as accurate as I could be without being long-winded.

I could have said, “My name is Matthew Dow Smith and I’ve been drawing comics for almost 15 years. I’ve worked for almost every major American comic book publisher and more than a few of the minor ones. It’s a crazy way to make a living, but it’s the thing I dreamed of doing ever since I was a little kid.”

Also accurate, but a little more long-winded.

If I’d really wanted to bore people, I could have said, “My name is Matthew Dow Smith. I’ve drawn a bunch of comics, but most people know me from some short stories I did with Mike Mignola for HELLBOY, and a NIGHTCRAWLER mini-series I did a while back, and this comic book I drew based on the show SUPERNATURAL on the CW network. And every once in a while, someone knows me from the short stories I do with my own character, Evan Fade, for the NEGATIVE BURN anthology.”

Slightly more long-winded, but also more or less accurate.

I also could have added, “I’ve recently begun experimenting with prose. I’ve written a couple of short stories featuring my Evan Fade character and now I’m working on a full length novel.” But that’s the point where I would expect them to roll their eyes and decide to interview someone far more interesting.

The truth is, I really don’t like talking about myself. I LOVE talking about comics, or novels, or music, or the things I’m working on at the moment, but not about myself. I love the creative process and there’s nothing I like more than talking about it with someone who’s a ‘process junkie’ like myself. I’m the kind of guy who reads the little author’s notes in short story collections. Sometimes, I like the anecdotes about the stories more than the stories themselves. But that’s a whole other issue.

When I decided to start a blog, I thought about how I should introduce myself. So far all I’ve got is, “My name is Matthew Dow Smith. I draw comic books for a living. And when I’m not doing that, I’m usually writing.”

And if you happen to be reading this, it’s nice to meet you. Welcome.