BALTIMORE COMIC-CON, the two-day fest that kicks off this Saturday, is a case for evolution. Because ever since the beginning, in 2000, so much rose up around a monkey.
Back then, local cartoonist Steve Conley was lending an artful hand to friend and convention organizer Marc Nathan. So when it came time to design the inaugural poster, Conley drafted his own favorite character, an emerald-green space monkey he was honing.
The result? Baltimore got Bloop.
“Bloop was kind of the unoff.icial mascot of the show for a few years ... ,” Conley, who is a guest at this year’s show, tells Comic Riffs about his otherworldly primate. “I designed the show’s first logo and when I was putting the first year’s fliers and posters together, I put Bloop on them.”
Conley, a versatile illustrator whose work has ranged from Star Trek to “Adventure Time,” kept working on “Bloop” over the years like a passion project until, more recently, his cute little monkey began to feel alive in its lines.
“About two years ago, having sketched and drawn the little guy a bazillion times, he finally snapped to life,” Conley, a Harvey- and Eisner Award nominee, tells Comic Riffs. “I had been drawing him for more than a decade, but only a few years ago did I finally see him staring back at me from the page.
“I love the little guy.”
So it seems only fitting that Bloop the Art Book will be unveiled at this year’s Baltimore Con -- with a little help from his crowd-funding friends.
A year ago this month, Conley was watching his Kickstarter project soar far past its goal. Now, the Virginia-based cartoonist/multimedia designer is set to show off the fruits of his labor – and your lucre.
“My main thought after the campaign was that I really wanted to deliver a great book to my backers,” says Conley, who, besides this weekend’s Con, will also bring appear Bloop to the following weekend’s Small Press Expo.
Comic Riffs caught up with Conley to talk about his passion project:
MICHAEL CAVNA: First off, congrats, Steve. From Kickstarter to completion must have been a daunting road at times -- knowing you had the funds and now needed to “make it so.” Can you describe some of your thoughts and feelings after your Kickstarter succeeded and the next step toward publishing began?
STEVE CONLEY: I was stunned by the response and completely caught flat-footed by the immediate success of the campaign. In just two days, the campaign had reached its funding goal. and I hadn’t imagined that as a possibility. I spent the next weeks scrambling to come up with what the crowd-funding community calls “stretch goals” which are bonus rewards to help push the campaign reach even higher levels. I was really surprised how much energy managing the Kickstarter campaign took -- it felt like a full-time job.
My main thought after the campaign was that I really wanted to deliver a great book to my backers. “Bloop” went from becoming a Labor of Love to a Labor of Love AND Overwhelming Gratitude.
MC: Given your extreme attention to visual detail, did you know all along you wanted to create this as a large-format art book? And are you pleased with the results from a production standpoint -- from paper quality to your true colors holding up?
SC: The large size wasn’t the plan from the start. I was simply working in the larger, more detailed size as a way to preserve the quality of the inked linework -- and as a way to hopefully future-proof the story. By that I mean, should we all find ourselves in a few years walking around with tabloid-sized tablets with retina displays, I didn’t want my work to look pixelated.
As for the quality of the printed book, I’ve seen bound proofs -- the books themselves arrive this week -- and they look better than I’d dared hope. There are details which I inked and digitally colored which I thought nobody would ever see, and there they are! I couldn’t be happier. The printer has been a pleasure to work with too, and that doesn’t hurt.
MC: Amid your many cartooning ventures, BLOOP’s been with you for -- what? -- at least a dozen years now. Is BLOOP your favorite character and creation of yours, and why was it special to you for BLOOP to be experienced in this format?
SC: Bloop first appeared in my previous comics series Astounding Space Thrills back in 1998, so he’s 15 years old now. This story is one I’ve wanted to tell for a long time but I didn’t feel I had the skills to tell it properly. Every few months I’d return to it and when I’d draw Bloop, he just didn’t look right -- something was off. About two years ago, having sketched and drawn the little guy a bazillion times, he finally snapped to life. I had been drawing him for more than a decade but only a few years ago did I finally see him staring back at me from the page.
I love the little guy.
Regarding the format, despite future-proofing the book and thinking about digital delivery, I wanted to create an print experience that computers and mobile devices couldn’t compete with The larger size and printed detail blows away the digital experience – the dpi and frame-rate of reality can’t be beat. In the hands of kid, this new Bloop book is like IMAX. Ideally, at this size, the readers will experience the forest and the world the way Bloop does so that when the world is threatened, the threat will carry more weight.
MC: Speaking of true colors, a quick aside: Did you work both on board and digitally? Scanning in sketches? A Cintq?
SC: I draw everything on paper in ink and then I scan it into a computer and color digitally in Photoshop. I don’t use a tablet or Cintiq, just a mouse on my laptop, usually sitting at a coffee shop.
MC: For a while, Bloop was so visible at the Baltimore Con, he was like sort of unofficial mascot. How long and often have you attended the Balto Con -- and have you served with the Con in a professional capacity, too?
SC: Bloop was kind of the unofficial mascot of the show for a few years. Marc Nathan, who runs the Baltimore Comic-Con, is a dear friend and I’ve helped him with the show since the very beginning. I designed the show’s first logo and when I was putting the first year’s flyers and posters together, I put Bloop on them. I’m still a volunteer for the show and love every second of my involvement.
MC: What makes the Baltimore Con special to you?
SC: My favorite thing about the Baltimore Comic-Con is that it’s a true comic-book show. Unlike many other comic-cons, everyone at Baltimore reads comics - no actors or playmates to muddy the waters. The show sometimes branched out for the occasional crossover celebrity -- like Kevin Smith -- but comics is at the heart of the show and you can feel that. The Baltimore Comic-Con also has a dedicated section just for kids comics which is where people will be able to find me (Booth 2405).
And the crew at Baltimore - including Marc, Brad Tree and Chris McClelland and others -- are just some of the finest people I’ve ever had the chance to collaborate with.
MC: Since you’ll be at Small Press Expo this year, too … can you speak to your history as a cartoonist and a director with SPX, because this event seems near and dear to you.
SC: I was one of the original exhibitors at SPX and had set up at the first 15 of them. SPX is one of my favorite shows and I was fortunate to serve as a volunteer for the show for many years and even served as SPX Executive Director. I still help out with their web site as they need me.
MC: You, of course, have worked on ADVENTURE TIME comics. Can you speak to the degree to which Penn Ward and his whole enterprise seem to reach out and embrace and employ talented indie cartoonists like yourself?
SC: BOOM! Studios is the publisher of the Adventure Time comics and they have been fantastic to work with. As an illustration: when I pitched the cover of Adventure Time #12, I sent along a couple of sketches for different designs but told them that I really loved one concept where the cover would repeat horizontally - it “loops” left-to-right as it were. The editor’s response was, “I support that love!” How do you NOT get the best out of your artists with a response like that?
MC: What’s next for BLOOP? There’s a hardcover Book 2, yes? And let me ask: Just how long did each of those 30 pages take -- because the depth of field, the precision, even the mottled flesh colors are jaw-dropping when you really stop to take it in.
SC: That’s very kind. I wanted the figures to feel like something between watercolor and Aardman claymation.
There will be two more books as part of this story.
I would say each page took around 40 hours -- some more, some less. The first page took well more than that because I redrew it a dozen times. All told, book one took over a year to draw, color and letter -- the production and printing added another eight weeks. It’s very, very labor-intensive.
The good news is that the whole next book is already designed. I’m illustrating the individual pages now and am working at a good clip. The first book definitely hit some snags when I was sidelined by a big freelance project. Book Two has more pages than part one but I expect to have a faster computer for coloring it. And while I plan to have another Kickstarter for the next book, I also plan on having the whole book drawn and colored before launching the campaign.
MC: Can you please speak to your history in the D.C. area? … From educational projects to speaking engagements to area cons, you seem to have roots as deep and varied as [Bloop’s] perfect tree.
SC: I’ve been in the Washington, D.C. area since 1990. I moved to the region from Long Island, when I landed an art internship at the Gannett News Service. That internship -- and probably Clark Kent and Peter Parker -- got me interested in working in newspapers full-time. I worked for USA Today for a few years and then helped design and launch the first USA Today web site. With that web project in my portfolio, I launched my own design business in 1996 and have been self-employed ever since. My days are spent sitting in coffee shops creating graphic designs and wordpress web sites for clients and drawing space monkeys.
I’ve also taught Photoshop and web design at Northern Virginia Community College and taught cartooning in many local after-school programs. If there’s a project that sounds like fun, I tend to find a way to get involved.