The story behind Marlin & Percy: A conversation with the creators of the comic series

I’ve talked a lot about the collaborative nature of art over the years. To me, the whole point of art is in working with others, whether it’s in the creative process or in the consumer stage. So much of what art is, especially in a cultural context, is who we experience it with. I’ve been lucky over the past several years to have a consistent collaborator, Tyler Ellis, who I’ve worked with on several comic book projects, going as far back as our days at Baylor University. He is an absolutely phenomenal artist who works in a variety of mediums, and he is also the co-creator of Marlin & Percy, an all-ages comic book series.  

–Caleb Bollenbacher co-creator of Marlin & Percy

tylercaleb

Caleb: Alright, let’s start by hearing a little bit about Marlin & Percy.

Tyler: Marlin & Percy is an ongoing comic series that you and I have been working on for about two years now and are currently developing issue 6. About once every few months a script will come down the pipe and I will work on the art, from story boarding to drawing and inking to colors and text. It’s been fun and exciting, and kind of weird to work on a children’s project because that’s not usually the kind of thing I work on, so that’s made it challenging but in a really fun way.

We’ll get back to what that looks like for you to do all those different elements of the artistic process, because as I so often tell anyone who will listen, you’re essentially doing the work of five people.

[laughs]

Recap for us what you’ve created with this series so far; through the evolution of this project, how it’s changed from what we initially signed on for and how that’s expanded over the years into the various forms it’s in now.

Marlin & Percy started out as a four panel, black and white comic strip. We did several of those and then decided from there that it was a viable project, so we moved from there into doing an ongoing comic book series, which it now is. From there it’s evolved into something a lot bigger than I think we initially thought it would be. We’re now working on a book that I’m going to do a few illustrations for here and there.

It’s been fun to see how you and I have changed and grown as writers working on it. It’s funny, and kind of embarrassing, to look back on how comparatively unrefined it was then to where it is now and thinking that I’m pretty content with it.

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I was actually looking back through the first issue the other day for reference on this new book as I’m writing it, and I think it was a lot better than I remembered in the back of my mind, but it’s definitely sort of leveled up and achieved more of an ‘ideal form’ at this point.

Yeah I think it’s kind of found its voice. When we first started on this it was a matter of – for both of us – trying to figure out what this was, what this project was about, and what we were going to do about it. I think especially with this most recent issue we’re working on, Marlin & Percy has figured out what it’s about and the characters have really taken on a life of their own where they’re kind of living out the story. It feels…less like you’re construing this stuff and a little bit more like the characters are doing these things and you’re is just the medium for which those stories are told, if that makes sense.

Yeah, it’s definitely been interesting taking a look back at all our old stuff lately as I write this book (which is a prequel of sorts), and in some places having to sort of ret-con things and in others finding creative ways to fold the old narrative into this new story…compared to that first issue, which especially on my end was sort of me riffing on stuff…I used to have to sweat over ways to make it seem fresh, but now it breathes on its own, and the scripts are a lot easier to write. Plus, it helps that I have it all outlined in my head twenty issues out at this point.
Talk a little bit about the birth of the characters. Obviously the basic concept is one I presented you with, but from that premise you took it and ran with it to what we have now, which is much more fleshed-out.

The challenge of creating the characters in Marlin & Percy was to do something that was original and didn’t look like a riff off of something like Donkey Kong.  That was a bit of a challenge, but again it’s been interesting to see how my interpretation of those characters has changed over the course of this series. For example, if you look at Percy in his very first appearance, he looks completely different from how he looks now, because initially I hadn’t really found what I wanted him to be. He wasn’t quite as nuanced at that moment, but now as he’s developed as a character and I’ve had more time to draw him (and this applies to the other characters as well), you see other facets of their personalities that you can then take and translate and put into that.

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Yeah, it’s awkward as I look back at some of the stuff I’ve had to sort of flip-flop. Like Percy, in the very beginnings, was the ‘straight man’…and that makes me cringe a bit now since he’s done a complete one-eighty on us.

As to the actual designs of the characters themselves, Percy is basically a chimp and Marlin is basically a gorilla. They’re not really based off of any real-world analogues. I mean, it’s obvious what they are, but their size and their coloring – as far as I know – doesn’t really match any real-world ape. One of the characters, Guinea, is actually a mix. He’s a baboon, but he has the coloring of a Chinese Golden Monkey, just because I like those and wanted to put their coloring into a character. So that was just a creative decision I made.

There is a character, The Mongoose, which just looks like a mongoose…but for the most part I’ve taken a lot of creative license with the characters, which I guess you’re allowed to do in a world where animals can talk and fight as superheroes.

I didn’t know you knew so much about monkeys.

I’m basically a monkey aficionado.

What about the Girl? How’d you go about designing someone who I gave you almost zero information on?

As far as The Girl with the Blue Headband goes, I kind of based her look a little bit off of photos of young Jane Goodall. It just made sense. It wasn’t anything super deep, I just figured she’s a young woman who has a relationship with apes, so who else was a young woman who had a relationship with apes?

Makes sense to me. So as you draw apes, what keeps you driven? Is making comics something you wanted to do initially?

I first started drawing comics when I was ten or eleven.

Same, but yours probably looked better.

Ha, they might have looked better but the stories were completely derivative. I guess ultimately most stories are, but looking back on those is kind of embarrassing. They were total riffs on video games, Star Wars and Dragonball Z.

I took a bit of a break, went through college and studied art, and then picked it up again when we worked on a project for my graduate level thesis, which studied the interaction between film and comics. That was kind of where we got started, and from then we’ve worked on a couple projects, some bigger and some smaller, and most recently Marlin & Percy. From there I kind of got back into comics and I realized it’s something I really like to do.

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Speaking a little bit more broadly in terms of comics, what are your thoughts on the state of the comic book industry in 2016?

It’s funny because I didn’t really get super into reading comics as a hobby until relatively recently. To my understanding, the industry has opened up a lot lately, and there’s a lot more creator-owned content and thus a lot more creativity, both art-wise and story-wise going on right now.

It seems like there’s a lot of interest in new stories, and not just the superhero stuff – which can be very good; I’ve read a lot of it, and some of it’s great. There’s a lot of really talented writers and artists working in that realm – but it feels like dedicated comic book readers are really getting interested in stuff that’s fresh and doesn’t really fit into any traditional comic book mold, and since that’s my interest as well, I like that people seem to be looking outside the box a bit more than maybe they used to.

I think it helps that there’s definitely more of a venue for those creators to explore that stuff.

Absolutely.

Can you talk a bit about the role of technology in what you do?

Technology plays a huge role in every aspect of the creative process for me, to the point where the only thing that I do that’s not working on some sort of current technology is sketching out ideas – character designs or the layout of a room, that sort of thing. Now the entire thing is digital, and the final project you see, there’s no point at which any of that has existed as a concrete object in reality, which is kind of weird because traditionally people have drawn on paper.

I’ll start in Photoshop; I’ll storyboard and get things placed and then draw the actual line work down, which is probably the most time-consuming part because that’s when you have to get everything placed just right. After that is the color and shading and lighting… which is also done in Photoshop. After that is text, which is all done in Illustrator, both the text bubbles and the actual text.

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I remember on our first comic we ever did, I was in charge of lettering (because I wanted so badly to be helpful)…it was pretty terrible. We actually had a publisher show some interest in it but they were like “your letterer has to go!” Guilty.

The technology that I use allows for a lot of versatility so I don’t have to worry about a scenario where if I lay down ink and it looks bad then I’m screwed. Same thing goes with color. I can lay down a bunch of colors and then either discard it completely or hit a few buttons and it changes the whole palette completely. I work on a Wacom tablet which allows me to do the art and color and all of that directly onto the screen, which has cut insufferable amounts of time out of the creative process as well.

I think just by looking at different stuff you’ve been working on more recently, the difference is definitely visible, especially in regards to the color. It just looks so much better.

Yeah, my goal is to make each one better than the last. I like seeing that progression and I think just by doing it I get better. It’s fun to look at stuff side-by-side and use that as a motivator.

So what’s next? What’s your next year look like, both for you personally and for all the Marlin & Percy stuff?

The next year is looking pretty packed, which is great. My deadline for the Marlin & Percy novel was the end of February. Beyond that, I have some projects of my own with similar goals of taking them to a publisher to gauge interest and see if it might be a viable long-term project. I don’t know what will stick and what won’t. Maybe all of it will or all of it won’t, but I feel really good about the projects I’m working on and the projects we’re collaborating on, and I think they’re all worth working really hard for.

What would a dream collaboration be for you?

I don’t feel like I know comic book writers well enough to know who a dream collaboration there would be. Probably Caleb Bollenbacher.

Tyler Ellis, everybody. He’s a scholar and a gentleman, and an absolute pleasure to work with. You’re going to want to keep your eyes out for his work in comic shops near you.
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Interview by Caleb Bollenbacher
Images by Tyler Ellis
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