When it comes to fiction in different media, writer David Gallaher is a font of knowledge. Whether he’s talking about his love of old-time radio such as old Flash Gordon serials or Tarzan’s adventures in old pulp novels, it’s clear that he’s thoughtful about the storytelling process and has a deep joy for what he does. That love and thoughtfulness are on full display in his and illustrator Steve Ellis’ webcomic The Only Living Boy Vol. 1: Prisoner of the Patchwork Planet, which has just been published in paperback for the first time from Papercutz. The tale recounts the adventures of 12-year-old Erik Farrell, who has run away from home and finds himself without his memory on a planet stitched together with lands of aliens and mad scientists and dragons, echoing the many of the fictional loves and influences of Gallaher himself.
I spoke to Mr. Gallaher recently about the themes of The Only Living Boy, how his past as a teacher has informed his work, and how comic books and old-time radio are opposite sides of the same coin.
FreakSugar: Thanks so much for speaking with us. I’ve read that you have a very regimented work schedule. How early were you up this morning?
David Gallaher: I was up at 4:15 this morning. I usually go to bed pretty early. And then I work from about 4:00 to around 9:00 writing. I try to get about four to five pages done a day. From there, I do other business things from about 9:00 until noon. Then I might take a nap or run or do lunch.
FS: I know that seems like an odd question, but I’m always interested in hearing about the work processes of creators. But first of all, congratulations on The Only Living Boy being printed in paperback. Before checking your comic out, I’d never read any webcomics, so it was a portal for me.
DG: Oh wow! Thank you! Do you read Sean Kleefeld’s webcomics column on FreakSugar?
FS: I do! A lot of his suggestions are some I’ve followed up on. For folks who’ve heard of The Only Living Boy but are considering giving it a shot, how would you describe the story to potential readers?
DG: There’s the question about what’s the plot and what it’s about and the question of what it’s about thematically. Thematically, it’s about finding yourself in a world where nothing makes sense. I think that’s akin to everybody growing up. I think we all sort of fit in that time of our live. We all experience that period where nothing ever feels like it should. We want to be some place safe where we can belong and make think about things and make decisions from a very sure and confident place.
As a teenager, that’s manifested in going through various phases. We go through our goth phase or we go through our hippy phase or punk rock phase or country western phase. Metaphorically, that’s a lot of what we see in The Only Living Boy. It’s a 12-year-old boy who runs away from home in the tradition in Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz and finds himself in an alien world where there’s mermaid warriors and mad scientists and dragons. We often compare it to The Island of Dr. Moreau meets The Jungle Book. There’s a lot of sinister, twisted happenings and creepiness. And it’s filled with adventure, which the kids seem to like.
So, basically, it’s a metaphor for where we are in our own lives. A kid runs away from home and tries different cultures and different environments and I think that makes for a very compelling. Who doesn’t feel that way when they’re younger?
FS: That was one thing that resonated with me because I see a lot of myself in Eric when I was that age. I know that you used to teach and I did, too. As a teacher, I came at reading the story from a different viewpoint. How do your past experiences as a teacher inform how you approach the story?
DG: I taught in the early 1990s and I worked with a lot of kids with autism and special needs and that was really challenging. I worked with kids that had brain disorders, ADHD, Asperger’s, schizophrenia. That was really cool and really interesting. One of the things I found is at that age when you have a lot of those challenges, even though you have a personality, it’s difficult for those children to call upon it and manifest who it is they want to be. You and I are older and mature adults. Who we are as people has concretized in a way. But when you’re younger, you still have that malleability and there’s still that ability to become sort of anything.
When we were working on The Only Living Boy, we wanted to have a character that wasn’t tainted with cynicism, so he comes to this new world without a memory. That way, we are better able to implant a sense of wonder and fear and joy in a way we couldn’t if he already had these preconceived notions of his past life. One of the things that I liked about working with kids who were younger is that they had a sense of awe and wonder and joy. Even though they had their own challenges, the kids I taught were still able to find that thing that made them feel good. We tried to bring that innocence and nuance and joy to what we’re doing.
FS: I know that you grew up reading comics and loving comics and that definitely shows in your work. However, the story has been described as being heavily influenced by old pulp novels and radio shows. Are there any that particularly influence your work?
DG: I grew up on an army base. We didn’t have a lot of traditional TV, but I did grow up listening to a lot of old-time radio. I love old-time radio as much if not more than I love comics. I looooove radio. I mean, I love working in comics, obviously. I have a career in it. But what I love about old-time radio is that it’s literally the other side of the spectrum. With radio, you’re providing the pictures in your mind, right? With comics, you’re providing the soundtrack. So the two work almost counterintuitively from each other. When you’re reading a comic, the voice of Batman in your head is different from the voice of Batman in my head.
And vice versa: When we’re listening to old-time radio, how you picture Sherlock Holmes or Johnny Dollar or Flash Gordon is different than the way I picture it. Do you picture him as the actor or someone you know? And when you’re reading a Batman comic, do you hear him in [Batman: The Animated Series actor] Kevin Conroy’s voice or Michael Keaton’s voice or Adam West’s voice or another cool voice? So I love the parallel between those two things. As a creator, I draw a lot of my strengths from that. I listen to a lot of Tarzan and read a lot of Tarzan. I’ve read a lot of the old Edgar Rice Burroughs books. Flash Gordon, Tarzan, and John Carter of Mars are all big influences. Also, children’s books like Bridge to Terabithia and the Wrinkle in Time series influence the work.
FS: When I read the first volume in a digital format, it read in a completely different way for me than it does in a collected volume. Both are enjoyable, but they felt like slightly different animals while still telling the same story.
DG: When we first started, we could have done it in a couple of ways. We thought about doing it panel-by-panel like we did our previous story Box 13. We also considered doing it like our story High Moon and doing it horizontally. Ultimately, we decided to do it as an expansive story. The Only Living Boy does something we like doing a lot, this accordion technique. An accordion expands and contracts, expands and contracts. We’ll put a bunch of panels on a page, seven panels usually. We’ll do that for a while to create a sense of paranoia, a sense of confusion, or a sense of intensity. And then, for whatever reason, we’ll open that scene up in a full-page spread, in which a character is discovering something new or there’s a giant battle or there’s a crazy traffic scene. All of those things help create this really great sense of awe and are really pivotal in how we tell the stories. It’s all about that sense of discovery and wonder and we’re able to create that with this accordion method, opening the story up and opening it up some more. In a way, it’s like a children’s storybook or picture book. The hardcover that’s coming out is a great representation of what we had envisioned for the project since we started.
FS: In March, you’ll be touring several states to get the word out about the book. What can you tell us about the stops you’ll be making? I read you’re doing workshops and I like that because it feels as though some of your teaching experiences are coming through and being applied.
DG: Both Steve and I have backgrounds in teaching. What we really want to do is create tomorrow’s readers today. We’re going to have workshops about comics and storytelling and graphic novels and how kids can make stories themselves and how teamwork makes the best comics possible. We’ll walk kids through things like, “How is a comic made?” I’m super excited about it.
Writer David Gallaher and illustrator Steve Ellis’ The Only Living Boy Vol. 1: Prisoner of the Patchwork Planet is now available in print from Papercutz.