Smash Pages Q&A: Tyler Chin-Tanner

The co-publisher of A Wave Blue World discusses his latest writing project, “Mezo: Volume One,” and much more.

Tyler Chin-Tanner is the founder and co-publisher of A Wave Blue World, which in the past few years has built a reputation as a dynamic small publisher with an editorial focus and point of view all its own. The company has published a long run of anthologies like Dead Beats, From Hell’s Heart, All We Ever Wanted: Stories of a Better World and This Nightmare Kills Fascists. That’s in addition to books like Dead Legends, Kismet: Man of Fate, The Killing Jar and the recently released Cayrels Ring. In the past year the company has been ramping up production, hired new people including comics veteran Joseph Illidge.

A Kubert School graduate, Chin-Tanner has been making comics of his own for years including Adrenaline with James Boyle. He has written a new project that the company just released, Mezo: Volume One, Rise of the Tzalekuhl. The first volume of a fantasy series, it draws upon Mesoamerican lore and settings for a story that doesn’t look and feel like a typical fantasy story. Chin-Tanner talked to me recently about the book’s origins, the company’s name and plans for the future.

Please note this interview was conducted earlier this year, before the coronavirus made its impact on, among other things, the comics industry.

How did you come to comics?

I started reading comics at a pretty young age, about five years old. I was buying them straight off the spinner racks at a local pharmacy. I remember Batman Annual #8 (by Trevor von Eeden and Lynn Varley)  standing out to me as something different from anything else. That was the first time it really dawned on me that comics were made by artists who were making their own creative choices. G.I. Joe #21 had a similar effect. This was the silent issue by Larry Hama, and it really drove home the point that artists were using panel layouts to tell stories and not just relying on the words.

This all led to me becoming a pretty huge comic fan. I made my parents drive me great distances to find actual comic shops, as well as taking me to some of those “old school” conventions in hotels, so I could track down copies of classic storylines like the Phoenix Saga and indie titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Elfquest.

That being said, I did move away from comics a bit in the mid-90s. This was partly to do with the increased focus on collectibility over storytelling, and partly to do with a shift in my own focus. Going into college, I decided to pursue a career in teaching, and after graduation I became a public school teacher. My first four years were teaching in the U.S., followed by a year abroad in Tanzania, Africa and then in Costa Rica.

Ironically, it was during my time in these foreign countries that I started drawing again. I applied to the Kubert School and had my interview on a payphone next to a soccer field in a village in Costa Rica. And that’s pretty much how I ended up starting my own comic book company, A Wave Blue World, which I co-founded with my wife after three years at The Kubert School. 

Where did Mezo start?

Before it was even Mezo, I had an idea for a fantasy story but wasn’t sure how to go about it. There are a lot of fantasy epics out there that rely on the same basic aesthetics. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. So with that in the back of my mind, I had a lunch meeting with artist Josh Zingerman shortly after he graduated from the Kubert School (he was a few years behind me).

I really liked Josh’s work so I asked him if he’d like to collaborate on a project. He had recently returned from a trip to South America and expressed an interest in drawing a story set in that part of the world. Immediately, I knew that was the key to unlocking my fantasy story. I set out researching the ancient civilizations of the Maya and Aztec while Josh started designing the characters and the world.

It sounds like even though it was fantasy, you were very careful about doing research and having a respect for and understanding of this history and these cultures.

Yes, and that was a big part of the reason we decided to make this a fantasy story set in a fictional world. So much of the history of that era has been lost, their records destroyed during the Cortez conquest. There’s been enough pieced together through archeological discoveries that we can get a pretty good sense of what life was like at that time, but it just seemed to make more sense for us to weave our own story in the same way that Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones draw from Anglo-Saxon history. 

You’ve made Adrenaline and other shorter comics, but what was it like working with Josh and Val and others trying to make this book?

It’s been incredible working with Josh and Val Rodrigues. They’ve both added so much to the story with their designs. I remember in the beginning, Josh was just drawing up characters before we even had a backstory. Then I would try to figure out who they were and how they fit. 

One of the characters, Phegor, I hadn’t initially planned on having him be blind, but Josh drew this amazing helmet on him. It covered his whole face, and I was just like, “how does he see out of that”. Then I realized, as the fantasy side of the story developed further, that it would make perfect sense for him to be blind. He has these other senses that make him more powerful.

The colorists, Doug Garbark and Tomi Varga, added just as much to the development of the world, giving it a texture and color aesthetic that made it come to life. That’s why I love working in this medium. As a writer, when you start seeing images of these characters and settings, it becomes so much easier to write them. Same with lettering. I remember I was having such a difficult time getting into the voice of one of the characters. Then I saw an example of how Thomas Mauer was going to letter this character’s dialogue and all of a sudden, I got it. I knew how that character sounded.  

This isn’t just an assembly line, it’s a true collaboration, a back-and-forth, between all creators.

I hate spoilers, so I don’t want to get into too many plot details, but I will say that the opening scenes are less about fantasy elements and more about the politics of what’s happening. And the fantasy elements get ramped up as we go along.

Yeah, I build into the fantasy. The opening is a clash of civilizations, and there’s a political element that applies. It’s not a direct analogy to anything going on in the world, but this idea of building an empire, using religion to gain reverence from your followers. This idea of what a good soldier and a good religious follower means. How dogma is used to build empires and conquer other civilizations for the good of people seeking power.

At the end of the first part, you introduce a fantasy element and then go from there.

The first chapter ends on a bit of a reveal. We wanted to let readers know what they were in for. There’s more to this world than what’s on the surface. While the heart of it will always remain a human story, there’s a magical element as well that we build into slowly. I look forward to revealing more of it in future volumes.

This is volume one. How big is this story?

I’ve outlined five volumes. That’s the conclusion of the eclipse storyline. We see what happens when it finally comes and how it affects everything. That’s a pretty solid ending right there. Doesn’t mean there couldn’t be more beyond that, but right now I don’t have anything in mind.

To switch tracks to A Wave Blue World, which I always say and then think, “Is that right?” Where did the name come from?

[laughs] It’s a complicated title that I came up with in art school. It’s a pun based off of Brave New World, which is a Shakespearean quote and the title of an Aldous Huxley novel. I knew I wanted something that expressed that these were global stories about the world and where society is headed. But like I said, I really didn’t know what my long-term plans as a publisher were yet. I’m sure if I had sat down with a marketing team they would have said it was a terrible idea; that I should have a name that’s easier to say and remember. [laughs] But it’s too late now!

I don’t mind it at all. It’s not like I’m ever insulted by someone getting the name wrong. There was a part of me that wanted to differentiate this company from all the other publishers. For the most part, they all have short, single word names. We don’t. Love it or hate it.

You’re co-publisher with your wife. How do you two work together?

We work together in a creative sense, and we work together in a business sense. There’s different levels, but we both have time where we work alone in our own offices and then, usually on a day when the kids are at school, we’ll convene for lunch and have a meeting about projects. We’ll make decisions, meet with some of our employees, and then if we have something creative, we get into that. The biggest trick is time management. Especially since we have kids and household chores, one of us can’t say, “You do the dishes while I do my creative work.” We’re constantly doing the same thing.

Last year was a busy year for you and the company. You really ramped up production, you hired more people. You mentioned that 9-10 books a year was the right balance, and I’m wondering about this idea of the company you have going forward.

We’re shooting for 9-10 projects, a group of books varying from original graphic novels, anthologies, art books. We want everything that we publish to be something we’re really passionate about. Not only are we trying to make 9-10 books a year, but we’re trying to make each one its own month for when it gets released. We don’t want to have important books and less important ones. We wouldn’t be publishing it if we didn’t think this was as valuable to us as all the other titles.

Plus once you have employees, they need something to do every month. [laughs] When it was just Wendy and I, we could be like, “Let’s take three months off and just write.” Now everything is all laid out in advance and we know what we need to be doing each month of the year. Books are in different stages and we have a production schedule and editorial schedule. That means we already know what books will be coming out and when (for the most part) all the way through 2022. That’s really essential for success in the book market. Not only do you need time to make sure the project is done right, but the marketing plan needs to be there well in advance.

We’ve really had to get serious about this, put the structure and plan in place. This is a business. It’s fun and creative, but at the end of the day, it’s still a business. [laughs]

We rarely talk in comics about how important distribution is and how hard it is.

Yeah. It took a while to get where we are now. And there’s still plenty more to do. Distribution has always been tricky in comics, but it certainly hasn’t seemed to stop people from wanting to get into it. As creators, we tend to just want to create and then see what happens. That can lead to a lot of trouble. So we’ve taken the time to set up our plan and build our relationship with our distributors (Diamond). There’s a lot of potential for growth in the book market, but they do things a little differently than the direct market. The schedule works much further out from the release date, so you really have to have the material put together in advance. You can’t just put out a first issue and hope the creative team finishes the subsequent issues in time. We’re putting together the full books first and then allowing that to inform our marketing plan and release date.

It sounds like you’re getting a handle on the business side of things. And I’m sure you’re glad to have a book come out that you wrote.

Yeah, it feels great to have Mezo out. This is my first, full-length graphic novel in quite some time. I was getting a bit too caught up in being a publisher and the responsibilities there. My creative work was suffering without as much time to commit to it.

Have you started working on volume two?

I’ve been talking with Val about it. I know he’s excited and ready to go. He’s been doing some great sketches for the returning characters and some new ones. We’ll be revealing more of the world as well with some new settings. 

Is the plan to come out with a volume of Mezo every year or so?

That’s the plan. I would never risk sacrificing the quality of the work, but I think we can do one every year. That should be just enough to make sure people don’t forget about us. [laughs]

Is there anything coming out later this year that you want to mention?

Cayrels Ring, which is a really amazing sci-fi graphic novel, will debut in March. We’ve got a full slate of books for the fall, so look for announcements on those soon!

So to end, what’s elevator pitch for Mezo?

Mezo is a fantasy epic set in a Mesoamerican inspired world. It’s a clash of civilizations. The Tzalekuhl Empire believe it is their destiny to rule over others and begin their conquest over the land. All must kneel to their god or die! Only Kyma, daughter of two rival chiefs, must unite the tribes in order to maintain their freedom. 

It’s a close look at how empires rise and fall. Is there a way to maintain personal freedoms and a diversity of culture, or will a consolidation of power always win out. I think that has a lot of implications for today – and for any time period, really. 

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