Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Artist Profile: Ben Towle

If Ben Towle could be given an official title, a good one would be Comics Ambassador! Living in Winston-Salem, this Navy-brat with degrees in philosophy and art, and a stint in a rock band, helped form the National Association of Comics Art Educators ( NACEA (pronounced "nay-say"- a very fitting name for the general attitude many educators have had for comics) is a non-profit operation that offers online resources for educators and provides a list of available speakers across the country.
Ben's latest work, "Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean" (written by Sarah Stewart Taylor & James Sturm) has recieved high praise from the NY Times, School Library Journal, Graphic Novel Reporter and many other publications and review sites.
Ben also did the graphic novel "Midnight Sun", a fictional account of an actual expedition by an Italian airship to the North Pole. What seems to be a successful voyage turns into a fight for survival and rescue.
Ben is currently working on his re-telling of "The Count of Monte Cristo"
Featured here is a page from Midnight Sun, two from Amelia Earhart, and one from Monte Cristo. Enjoy!

1) When did you first discover comics and why did you notice them?

I'm not sure I can isolate one particular instance where I first "discovered" comics; they were much more ubiquitous when I was younger then they are now and you'd see comics at drug stores, grocery stores, convenience stores, etc. Probably the first comic books I ever really read were the Marvel Star Wars tie-ins, from the mid 70s. Before then, though, I'd read various collections of newspaper strips--Little Orphan Annie, Rupert and Betty Boop are the ones I recall.

2) How did you come to the decision to become an independent comic artist (in other words, not working for DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Dynamite, etc)? That's just a function of the sort of work I'm naturally drawn to. I think if any of those publishers began publishing work that was the sort of stuff I enjoy doing, I'd certainly approach them about it. Those publishers, though, generally are interested in a fairly narrow scope of genres and art styles at the moment and they just don't happen to be the genres and art styles that I'm personally interested in working in. I certainly read stuff they publish, though--it's just not what I happen to be into creating myself.

3) Which story/book/piece of art are you most proud of doing and how has it been received by others? Despite the accolades my most recent project, Amelia Earhart - This Broad Ocean, has received (a recent New York Times review, for example) my favorite book I've done is, I think, my previous work, Midnight Sun. This is probably just because it's something that was entirely my work, whereas with Amelia I was illustrating only. I think my artwork on Amelia has improved somewhat from the previous book, however.

4) You are also involved in NACEA. Why? How does NACEA work? I got involved with NACAE right after graduate school. It was started by James Sturm and me. We had a really idealistic vision of some sort of group that would advocate for comics teachers, for comics curricula, and would be able to help schools implement comics-based curricula. Like many high-minded ideas, that didn't really come to pass, though. What it's turned into is more of an online clearing house for freely-available teaching materials for comics teachers to use. I occasionally have a volunteer helping me with the site, but often it's just me.

5) Did you have a favorite cartoon character as a child? How about now? Did you have a favorite comic book or strip as a child? Now?
I don't think I ever really had a favorite comics character as a child. When I started getting into comics in my early teenage years, I really liked Thor and Swamp Thing, but as I got older I began reading a broader range of things. I don't really have one these days either, just because of the sort of material I tend to read: mostly I read graphic novels, which are self-contained stories, rather than monthly issues of things with recurring characters.

6) What is a typical workday like for you? What projects are you on right now? That really just depends on what I've got on my plate comics-wise. I'm usually juggling a number of different things at the same time. For example right now, I'm working on a proposal for a graphic novel adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, but I'm also teaching some distance learning classes (basic perspective) and doing some freelance work. I'm home with my 2-year old daughter most days, so I have sort of an "inverse schedule." I work pretty much any time other than the normal 9-5 workday when I'm solo with my daughter, and when I'm sleeping!

7) What has been your best, worst and weirdest convention experience? I've been pretty lucky in that I don't think I've had any really bad convention experiences. I don't regularly do a whole ton of them though. Generally I do the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD and Heroes Con in Charlotte each year for sure. Beyond that, though, I really only go to something if I've got a particular reason some specific year to go. One interesting thing of late is that I'm beginning to get invited to some book festivals, which are a whole different ball of wax; they seem to me to be more of a celebration of books and less an opportunity to sell stuff. The Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta is my favorite of those I've done so far.

8) What kind of comics would you like to be making 5 or 10 years from now? Ideally, I'd like to be in a position where I could put together a proposal for a general fiction graphic novel and get a decent enough advance for it that I'd be able to work on it--and nothing else--for as long as it took to get it done. Right now there are only a small handful of cartoonists who can do this, but other than those few it seems like there are limited genres where this occurs--mainly graphic novel memoir.

9) With the attention given to graphic novels and their movement into video games, movies, toys, etc are comics going through a second Golden Age? I think comics is definitely in a second Golden Age of sorts, but not because of video games and movies and whatnot, but rather because the quality of work being done right in the art form itself now is so high. I don't think there's been anything like this since maybe the heyday of the newspaper comic strip in the 20s and 30s.

10) Will evolving technology eventually squeeze comics out, or will comics continue to adapt to changes?
I don't think comics are going anywhere. Newspaper comics... well, I'm not sure that's a field I'd try to get into right now. But, comics--the general art form--I think will adapt quite nicely to whatever new technology comes along. People often get overly-concerned about what all the new things that technology can do, without thinking about whether people really want those things. It's not as if after the advent of television people began demanding that printed books begin making noise and moving around. There will continue to be comics as books, but also comics on phones, comics on tablets, comics on the web--it's not a zero sum game.

11) If you could be a super hero you would be... Plenty of Available Free Time Man... Able to fill hours and hours of time with things other than work!

You can view Ben's portfolio at and you can read his blog and see more work (including the cover he did for Free Comic Book Day) at Ben's books are available through his site (if you pay via PayPal) or with most book retailers like

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