Interview with writer and artist Darrin Bell

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I admit; when I was younger I wanted to be a cartoonist and draw a daily comic strip. I drew comics for my school newspapers and doodled all over my schoolbooks. Even though that idea was dropped as I started college, I still have a huge collection of comic strip books.

What people do not always understand about comics are that the best ones are written. The artist thinks about characterization and plotting just like novelists do, but with huge limitations.

Anyway, today I’m pleased to be interviewing Darrin Bell, who writes one of my favorite current strips, Candorville. (Come on, this is my blog, I can interview whoever I want!) There are four books collecting the daily strips, one of which features an afterword by yours truly. Check out his web page for more information!

Darrin, you approach your strip differently than most comic strip authors do. While you still strive for that punch line every day, you also are working on a long-term plot that evolves over the years. What made you decide to go this route?

DARRIN BELL: Two words: Babylon Five.

I grew up on TV, like most kids of the Eighties. I was used to B.A. Barrachus getting shot at the end of the episode, and then being absolutely fine the next one. I was used to Spock shouting one episode, and then saying Vulcans don’t have any need to raise their voice in the next one. I was used to episodic TV, and in my mind, serialized equalled “soap opera.”

It also equalled bullshit. Because the soaps my mom watched completely ignored their own continuities. Most famously, Dallas. The Bobby Ewing-in-the-shower thing defined serialized storytelling for me. Authors would paint themselves into corners and then have to pull ridiculous stunts to get out of them.

But then Babylon 5 came along.

And Straczynski seemed to paint himself into corners, and I’d wonder how he’d get out of them, but he didn’t. He just knocked down the wall and kept going. Change became a constant.

Suddenly episodic TV seemed stale and formulaic to me. When Star Trek: Voyager came around, and the ship was nearly destroyed one episode, and new and shiny the next… and shuttles that were destroyed seemed to spontaneously reappear the next week, it was false to me.

VENTRELLA: Impressive to me was how he would plant a plot and then leave it alone for two years or more to come back to it and suddenly everything that happened earlier makes sense. (I’m thinking of the episodes where they visit Babylon 4)…

BELL: Definitely, that was my favorite aspect of the series. I’d read that he described it as a “novel for television.”

VENTRELLA: So did you decide to be a comic artist first or a storyteller first?

BELL: Storyteller.

I was lucky enough to grow up at the height of Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men, and Marv Wolfman’s run on Teen Titans, and these guys were epic storytellers. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I also knew that the pictures John Byrne drew were equally responsible for the endless nights I spent huddled under my blanket with a flashlight and the comics I’d stolen from my brother. So to me, graphic storytelling went hand in hand with the written word. I wanted to draw comic books.

VENTRELLA: But you went to school for political science…

BELL: I did.

I actually thought about law school. For a minute or two.

The thing is, I have an older brother who practically raised me. And for the first half of my life I followed in his footsteps. Including his interest in history and politics.

But we’re different creatures. While he paid attention in class, I let my mind wander. I’d draw cartoons about whatever the teachers were talking about, and pass them around the class. I thought I was ignoring them, but oddly enough I did very well because I wasn’t just listening to them, I was letting them inspire mockery.

VENTRELLA: How did that get you into doing comics as a career?

BELL: In a roundabout way…

I was in gifted and talented programs in Jr. High and High School, and I realized my interest in history and civics was outpacing my interest in art (I’d been drawing since the age of three). That’s when the man who sparked my interest in politics (Pat Buchanan) became the same man who sparked my interest in journalism. In 1988, a Pat Buchanan ad where he portrayed a Gay Pride parade as proof we were going to hell, pissed me off. I had barely noticed politics before this, but I sure as hell paid attention to it afterward. It just seemed so monstrously unfair, and the prospect of someone like him leading the country scared the shit out of me.

Anyhow, four years later, I was flipping through channels looking for coverage of the Clinton-Bush campaign, when I saw that same guy on TV. Pat Buchanan. He was so smug and full of his own opinion, but I noticed he looked really, really happy. And it occurred to me, I’d be happy too if millions of people were listening to my bullshit ideas and taking me seriously.

So I asked a guidance counselor, how do I become a talking head on TV? She said I’d have to be a journalist first.

So I joined the school paper, and quickly became the Opinion page editor, then editor in chief.

VENTRELLA: Here’s my headline: “Bell Inspired by Pat Buchanan”

BELL: hahaha

One week, a few of my reporters didn’t turn in their work (must’ve been a party the night before that they didn’t invite me to…) So I had an hour to fill all those holes. I drew a bunch of cartoons and pasted them in (that sounds so prehistoric now). People loved them.

In college, I tried writing for the Daily Californian (at UC Berkeley). Interviewed a senator, a governor, and a congressman. I wrote a couple hard hitting articles that I barely remember now. Nobody paid attention. But at the same time, I started drawing cartoons for the paper, and again… people loved them. That’s when I knew that’s what I should be doing.

VENTRELLA: How did you end up with Matt Richtel?

BELL: While I was still a freshman, I started faxing my editorial cartoons to the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Oakland Tribune. The LA Times was the first paper to pick them up. The editor there told me I was the youngest regular contributor to their opinion page in the paper’s history (I was 20). The Times paid well. The Chronicle and the Tribune, not so much. About $20-$30 per cartoon.

One day, I faxed a cartoon to the Tribune, and got a call. I was hoping it was the opinion editor telling me I’d be getting another $20. But it was some guy named “Matt Richtel,” who said he was the paper’s business reporter. He had started developing a comic strip called “Rudy Park,” and had a development deal with Universal Press. But Universal didn’t like the art. Matt had been walking past the Tribune’s fax machine when my cartoon came in, picked it up, and called me to ask if I thought I could adapt my style to a four panel strip.

The Daily Cal had, for a couple years, been running “Lemont Brown,” the precursor to Candorville. And I’d just built a website. So I sent him to the site. A few minutes later we were working together. The development deal fell through. I’m pretty sure we lost out to The Boondocks, which was also in development.

VENTRELLA: I assume you created Candorville because you wanted to do the writing.

BELL: I created Candorville in 1993 as a class project, and kept doing it through college for the college paper (only back then it was called “Lemont Brown”). Not doing the writing was never even a consideration for me. It was more like I was doing Rudy Park because I wanted the experience of collaborating with another living person; since the rest of the time I was holed up in my apartment writing and drawing three “Lemont Browns” and four editorial cartoons per week. I finally decided to get Candorville syndicated because the editorial cartooning market was drying up.

VENTRELLA: Which one has wider circulation?

BELL: Candorville, Ironically.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing, since that’s the theme of my blog … It’s clear that you’ve planned out a long-term plot for your strip; how detailed has that been?

BELL: It’s not very detailed, it’s more of a skeleton. An outline. I know where I want my characters to be by a certain year, but I don’t exactly know how to get them there.

And I know how it’s going to end.

VENTRELLA: End? You plan on ending the strip?

BELL: That’s where I was going with the Babylon 5 reference. The reason Straczynski never painted himself into a corner, the reason he was able to blast through the wall instead, was because he didn’t have to come back. Characters could change and not have to be redeemed, because people wouldn’t have to still like them enough to keep watching for ten or twenty years.

Candorville has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just like B5. Only the time frame is ten times longer. The story’s gonna take fifty years to tell. Stories without ends aren’t really worth reading.

VENTRELLA: Impressive. I admire it when comic strip writers end their strips instead of carrying them on zombie-like.

BELL: Me too. I’ll never forget 1995.

VENTRELLA: When Calvin and Hobbes ended?

BELL: Not just Calvin and Hobbes. Bloom County and The Far Side too. It was a traumatic year for a comics fan like myself.

VENTRELLA: I didn’t realize those all ended the same year, although I recall it all being close.

One of the major plotlines you established early was Lemont’s fling and subsequent child … that started in the first year if I recall.

BELL: I think it was the first year. That’s something that took on a life of its own. It wasn’t in the outline at all.

VENTRELLA: Well, that’s interesting. It’s been going on strong since then… but I’d like to ask about that, especially given something you said earlier in this interview. Although your characters deal with the supernatural from time to time, they never break the 4th wall … we’re supposed to take it pretty literally. And lately, with that plotline, there are all sorts of questions about reality — is this really happening or is Lemont imagining everything?

So here’s my question…

You’re not going to pull a Dallas on us, are you?

BELL: I always ask myself, at nearly every turn, WWJMSD?

VENTRELLA: Don’t disappoint us.

BELL: What would J. Michael Straczynski do?

VENTRELLA: Yes, I know! We nerds get that stuff.

BELL: Haha! I forgot who I was talking to. I know what happened in the story. But I reserve the right to leave it open to interpretation.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Lemont. First of all, did you give him the last name “Brown” as a tribute to Charlie Brown?

BELL: I did. And I gave him the first name “Lemont” in tribute to Sanford and Son.

VENTRELLA: And I assume it is no coincidence that he wants to be a writer.

BELL: No coincidence at all. Part of the outline, from the outset, has been my main character’s grasp – or lack thereof – on reality. And I had two choices if I wanted to sustain that and still explain how he feeds himself: I could make him a perpetual inmate at a psychiatric hospital, or I could make him a writer. So the time travel and all the supernatural stuff can be easily explained (by readers who just aren’t into that stuff) as being part of this writer’s imagination.

Stephen King touched on that in a Candorville storyline last year. Well…

VENTRELLA: Yes, I remember that — King admired Lemont’s imagination. Did you hear from King after that ran?

BELL: No, I doubt he’s heard of Candorville, much less that he’d take the time to write to me about it. I thought of sending the sequence to him, but never did.

VENTRELLA: Given Lemont’s love of science fiction, it’s not hard to assume he has much in common with you. How much of your family life is in his?

BELL: Bits and pieces here and there. It’s inspired by my personal life, but it’s not autobiographical.

Roxanne becoming a vampire was 100% inspired by my breakup with my ex wife. For two reasons. (1) The obvious, and (2) Where I WAS going to go with the story turned out to be way too close to home for me. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore and I wanted to deal with it more metaphorically.

VENTRELLA: Being funny can be a big limitation for storytelling, especially if you have to be funny every single day and with only a few panels in which to do it…. so how do you do it? I mean, you must have to be very economical with your words…

BELL: I don’t worry about it. When Candorville got syndicated, I sat down and tried to figure out exactly what it was I liked about my favorite comics as a kid. And what they all had in common was, ironically, that they often weren’t funny. I often laughed at them because of some truth they delivered to me, not because of a punchline. Calvin and Hobbes, for instance… I’ve almost never laughed at that, but it’s one of my favorites. So I don’t try to be funny, I just try to speak my truth and hope other people relate to it.

I do have to be very economical. Sometimes I wish Candorville were a TV show, where I’d have dozens of pages to set up and explore a humorous or tense situation. But I only have a couple panels in which to do that, and then a couple in which it has to pay off.

It’s actually relaxing, though, whittling my complex ideas down. It’s like trimming a bonzai tree.

VENTRELLA: Speaking of themes, you have not shied away from politics — which is one of the reasons I enjoy the strip so much. Have you found that to be something that has helped the strip’s popularity or hurt it (at least with editors)?

BELL: I used to wonder about that, but I’ve come to think it’s impossible to know. Some editors have dropped it because of the politics, but others have bought it because of the politics. And still others subscribe to it despite the politics.

VENTRELLA: Well, it wouldn’t be Candorville without the politics.

BELL: It wouldn’t.

I wouldn’t do it without the politics.

Candorville has an underlying structure, an outline. But on its surface it’s pretty stream of consciousness. And if I had to censor myself every time I was concerned with politics, it wouldn’t be fun for me.

VENTRELLA: You recently posted a pretty political 9/11 strip when every other cartoonist was doing a traditional tribute. How was that received?

BELL: A lot better than I’d expected. There was some grumbling online, but it was vastly, vastly outnumbered by people expressing relief that someone was in an introspective mood instead of joining in on the 9/11 somberpalooza and jingoism fest.

VENTRELLA: And it’s not like you hadn’t said the same things before in earlier strips.

BELL: I knew pretty much everyone else was going to focus on who we lost on 9/11, and I thought it was more useful, more productive, for me to do what I’m good at, which is speaking my mind even when others think it’s inappropriate. Especially when others think it’s inappropriate. I said a similar thing a month ago, to foreshadow this one.

VENTRELLA: But you did discuss what we lost on 9/11 — other things we lost.

BELL: Let me rephrase: Others were going to focus on who we lost. I focused on what we lost.

We lost our collective mind. We lost our soul. We lost our identity, which led to us losing our credibility.

We lost our way.

VENTRELLA: You’ve tried to remain topical… most cartoonists have to get their strips done months in advance, but you actually drew all new strips when binLaden was killed and had the syndicate put them out before anyone else.

BELL: I did, I have a one week lead time.

I went out of my way early on to establish devices I could use whenever I have a chance. One reason I made Lemont a journalist – and made it clear he’s got a wild imagination (which may or may not be reality) was so I could have him give famous people their exit interviews when they die.

VENTRELLA: Your strip today discusses Obama as Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN – is this something to be admired, in that it’s a way to accomplish your goals behind the scenes?

BELL: I’m hoping people will read INVISIBLE MAN and that might help answer whether it’s something to be admired.

The same person who says that’s how black men have to behave, was ashamed for having done so. It’s up to readers to decide whether it’s something to be admired, or whether it’s even really necessary in 2011.

VENTRELLA: The worry is that if Obama were to be as aggressive as many of us Democrats would like, he’d be attacked as being the “angry black man”?

BELL: Not only that, but he might get assassinated. When black men in Ellison’s day didn’t act invisible, they were often persecuted, shunned, and sometimes lynched. America hasn’t come far enough that it’s willing to tolerate a black leader who isn’t humble and demure. That’s one reason why Americans respect Colin Powell, and dismiss Jesse Jackson. America may have moved past that. But we won’t know until somebody tests the waters.

VENTRELLA: Someone always has to be the first.

BELL: There’s a school of thought that the first black anything has to be humble and submissive, and quietly excel. He has to be Jesse Owens, or Jackie Robinson, or Nat King Cole. Then the next generation can be brash. The first has to be Nat King Cole. The second can be James Brown.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about publishing. You’ve self published your last few books.

BELL: …and am selling them exclusively online and at conventions.

VENTRELLA: Which conventions do you attend?

BELL: Last year, none. Too much personal drama (which I worked into the strip). The year before, only Wondercon in SF. I sold all the books I brought with me. I want to attend more in 2012, but only in cities where the paper runs my strip.

VENTRELLA: Ever plan on coming here to the East Coast?

BELL: I’m not planning on it, but it’s a possibility. If I ever break into an NYC paper, or if there are any conventions around Virginia or Georgia (where the strip runs in some big papers), sure. Otherwise I’m not sure it makes financial sense.

VENTRELLA: The NY Daily News just stupidly cut an entire page of comics, and I stopped buying it every day.

BELL: Papers everywhere are doing that, and they’re shooting themselves in the foot. Most people cite the comics as the #1 reason they buy the paper.

VENTRELLA: Why isn’t there a convention for comic strip fans? They could have it right before the Reuben Awards when everyone is in town…

BELL: I don’t know. Comic strips are sort of an appendage to comic book conventions.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about character development … what efforts do you make to keep your characters from being one dimensional?

BELL: Motivation and backstory. Every character has a backstory that I’ve never spelled out, but that I can draw on from time to time. For instance, Sasha Mitchell is a Jamaican immigrant. I never mentioned it until recently (when it became germane to the plot) but it’s always informed how she relates to men, and it is a basis for her fears and hopes. And I approach every scene the way a screenwriter would: Each character enters the scene with his/her own goal, a goal that is based on that character’s backstory. And the goals usually conflict, sometimes causing the character to become introspective.

So… motivation, backstory, and goal.

VENTRELLA: Have you taken creative writing courses or otherwise studied writing techniques?

BELL: No, everything I know about writing I learned from reading comic books and watching TV. (Oh, and reading novels)

VENTRELLA: In fact, I have a blog post about that issue, in that the best way to learn is to read others and see how they do it, so I agree with you there. But also it’s making sure your characters do not always act predictably — because people are not always predictable. And that is something I have seen you do in your strip.

BELL: Thanks for noticing.

The problem I have with most comics is, they bore the hell out of me. People never change, they always react the same way, and feel about each other the same way they did last month and last year. In real life, people can change from moment to moment, let alone from year to year.

VENTRELLA: Well, most aren’t interested in telling a story — they are joke-a-day strips.

BELL: True.

VENTRELLA: Which story comics do you like? (Don’t say Funky Winkerbean, Don’t say Funky Winkerbean…)

BELL: I won’t read that strip until I have health insurance and can afford the Prozac.

VENTRELLA: Heh!

BELL: But you may not like my answer any better: the last story strip I liked was For Better or For Worse.

VENTRELLA: No, I agree with you — I have quite a few of those collections. Good characters.

BELL: I loved how she would juggle several different storylines, and how characters would grow apart, and come back into each others lives in unpredictable ways. And the characters weren’t predictable. They made mistakes, learned lessons (sometimes the wrong ones), etc.

VENTRELLA: That is what makes us go back again and again — because we like the characters, they are real to us, and we want to know what happens to them. It’s true with TV shows and movies and all storytelling. The jokes and the special effects don’t matter if we don’t care about the characters

BELL: Neither does the artwork.

VENTRELLA: Exactly.

How about political strips? Any you really like?

BELL: I like Non Sequitur, and I liked Bloom County.

VENTRELLA: Have you been able to meet many of the artists who do strips you like?

BELL: Wiley’s a friend, and I met Berke Breathed. I signed books next to Lynn Johnston, hung out a little with Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott … Lalo Alcaraz and Keith Knight too. It’s all been very surreal.

VENTRELLA: It’s a world I’m not privvy to…

BELL: Oh, and Stephan Pastis almost killed me once.

VENTRELLA: Sounds like him. Care to share that story?

BELL: I’d driven up to Santa Rosa to help judge the comic strip category for the Reubens. Afterward, we all went out to lunch. But Stephan didn’t have any money. So I went with him while he drove to find an ATM. He was in the middle of telling me some sort of story, and talking with both hands (don’t ask me how he was steering) when a big white van pulled out into the street in front of us, to make a left. Stephan seemed to see it, but also seemed not to think anything of it. He didn’t even slow down. I have no idea what would’ve happened if that van hadn’t moved just a second before we got to it. He just continued on with his story while I filed the experience under “things to talk about years from now in interviews.”

VENTRELLA: Perfect.

BELL: Years later, he and I were on a successful panel discussion in Walnut Creek (the video’s on my site somewhere). I turned that discussion into a Candorville storyline the next year (the Stephen King story)

VENTRELLA: What’s your thoughts on the 2012 election? I came out of the 2008 one so enthusiastic for the future of our country, and now…

BELL: I feel like I’m part of the rebel alliance and this is the Battle of Hoth, and I’m just praying a Tonton will amble by so I can gut it and climb inside for warmth…while the republic crumbles.

VENTRELLA: And you thought the tea party smelled bad on the outside!

BELL: Hahaha!

I think we’re witnessing the death of the republic. Republics end when the citizenry loses respect for both their intellectuals and their government. Mitt Romney doesn’t scare me. Michelle Bachmann doesn’t scare me. Perry doesn’t keep me up at night. What scares me is how pervasive the hatred toward specialists, intellectuals, and teachers has become.

It’s hard for me to imagine anything good could come from that, or that we can pull ourselves out of that death spiral. And it is a death spiral.

VENTRELLA: The anti-science crowd and the pro-death crowd scares me. They cheered someone dying because he didn’t have health insurance at the debate recently! They’ve become the Death Panels.

BELL: They have. But I saw this coming. They’re the Orwellian party that was perfectly ok with “free speech zones” and who supported a man who said “to have peace, you have to have war.” Whatever they accuse others of doing, is pretty much what they’re going to do.

VENTRELLA: Do you think Obama will be any different if he wins re-election? Will he be more aggressive?

BELL: I think he’ll be a lame duck, with no successor for Congress to fear (Biden’s not gonna run, Hillary probably won’t run). I think he may believe he’ll be more aggressive – and he’s regularly hinted to his base that he’ll be more attentive to them later – but if he believes that, he isn’t paying attention to history. Presidents rarely exceed the achievements of their first terms. Even Clinton’s excellent second term was entirely based on what happened at the end of his first.

I think Obama’s squandered the biggest opportunity a Democrat has had since FDR’s day to shape the narrative and transform the debate and the country, and it’s too late for him to fix that. The perception of him as a weak leader has taken root among his base, and that is usually the death knell.

VENTRELLA: I’m afraid you’re right.

BELL: I would so love to be proven wrong. But even after his latest big speech, he immediately backtracked and said he’d sign whatever part of it Congress sends him, which we all know is going to be only the tax cuts. That’s not going to create jobs, it’ll just make the problem worse.

VENTRELLA: His low ranking in the polls isn’t from conservatives; they already didn’t like him. It’s from liberals and moderates who are abandoning him. So why he keeps trying to appeal to those who will never support him while ignoring his base is beyond me.

BELL: It’s not beyond me.

I come from a similar background. I’m mixed, so I’ve always felt a little like an outsider. My dad left when I was a kid, and I spent years dealing with abandonment issues. All of that leads me to want approval from people who don’t want to give it to me. It’s a constant battle, and I think creating Candorville and being so forthright with my opinions is my way of conquering that tendency. I see the same trait in Obama that I have in me, the same irrational urge to win the approval of those who will never give it to him. The same urge to reach out an open hand to people who are going to respond with a fist.

VENTRELLA: Wow, that’s a great way to end the interview. Good conclusion, and unexpected.

BELL: That’s what I do!

4 Responses

  1. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this article about Darrin Bell and his fantastic series, Candorville. I’ve learned a lot about the man wielding the pen. Great interview, Michael!

  2. This is the best thing I’ve read online in 2011. Even though I was a huge Bell fan before this, I learned a lot about him and appreciate him even more than before. Kudos, and thanks!

  3. FINALLY, I CAN PUT A FACE TO THE WORK. I LOVE IT! AS A RETIRED NURSE OF FORTY YEARS, I AM ATTEMPTING TO REINVENT WHAT RETIREMENT IS TO BE. AS I SEE IT, THE ARTWORLD IN ALL IT’S FLAVOR IS FOR ME. I’M EXCITED AT THE POSSIBILITIES. BETTER YET, I’M GRATEFUL FOR PEOPLE LIKE YOU. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK.

  4. Excellent interview! I’ve followed Candorville in the Washington Post and decided I needed to learn more about Darrin Bell. I’m a retired 63-year-old hippie and I love Darrin’s drawing and stories! Thanks for a great interview!

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