Author Garth Stein and artist Matthew Southworth are like two guys who were thinking about starting a band together — only they started a book instead.
It’s a process. The people in a two-person band have to get together and hang out, talk about their musical heroes, decide if they can stand each other’s stink. And after that, they have to pick up their instruments and noodle, exchanging riffs and rhythms, and maybe start putting a few lyrics together.
At some point, they become The Black Tones or The Black Keys or The White Stripes or Bass Drum of Death. Or they break up.
As Stein and Southworth prepare to release their new graphic novel “The Cloven” on July 28 through Seattle publisher Fantagraphics Books, it’s clear things worked out for the duo with their debut.
“As a novelist, I live alone, I train alone, I take the title alone, and that’s kind of my thing,” Stein said. “And so I was definitely nervous about getting into a long-term relationship with the fear: What if it doesn’t work out? Then what do I do?”
Stein, the million-selling author of “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and other books, is one of Seattle’s rock star novelists. And Southworth, an Everett resident who was singer-guitarist in a band called The Capillaries, recently hit the equivalent of a comic book artist’s home run when ABC turned his “Stumptown” collaboration with Portland writer Greg Rucka into an hourlong drama. He can now add executive producer to his eclectic résumé.
So both were plenty busy three years ago when their adventure together started. But Stein had a short story that he wrote as part of a Hugo House Literary Series that he thought had potential as a graphic novel.
“It’s sort of a meme among professional comic artists that they’ll meet someone who will say, ‘Hey, I wrote a novel, but I want to turn it into a comic,’” Southworth said. “And those jobs are almost always a suicide mission, you know?”
Southworth, though, was looking for new challenges beyond the grind of a 20-page monthly comic book, with its stress-inducing deadlines and artistic limitations. And they had a common friend who vouched for each: Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics associate publisher.
Since they live in roughly the same area — a rarity in the collaborative world of comic books — they would occasionally meet in the office of one or the other. They’d talk about the pictures on the wall or the DVDs and books on the shelves, and over time they became a band … that makes books. OK, it’s an imprecise metaphor, but it works.
“The band reference is a good one because you’re always hearing about some guys that got together to play on weekends and they’re having a good time and they start to get bigger and everything,” Southworth said. “And then, three years into it, they’ve got a business going and they realize they can’t stand each other. And that could have happened here. But, in fact, the exact opposite has happened, which is what’s so exciting about it.”
The result is “The Cloven,” a tale about a boy named Tuck, who was born with the cloven feet and athletic ability of a goat. He looks a little like the mythological Ancient Greek god Pan and doesn’t know anything about his past. The result of genetic experiments, his origin story begins at a secret Vashon Island research facility, and we follow along as he ages into his teens and begins to unravel the mystery that is his life.
The graphic novel doesn’t much resemble the story that Stein wrote. It’s more expansive — they plan to publish two more volumes in July 2021 and ’22 — and is the result of the push and pull of their creative process. They shared story bits and drawings back and forth for a year before they got serious about their partnership, and spent the next two years pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules they used to follow.
“It was very collaborative,” Southworth said. “It was like, ‘Ah, this beat doesn’t work. It doesn’t read right, so we need to add a page or we need to cut that chunk,’ or whatever stuff that you don’t normally do in a typical comic book [or] graphic novel creation process. It’s much more ‘stamp it out and get it out on the shelves because we’re right up against the deadline.’ And in this case, for a long time we didn’t have a deadline.”
The process was especially freeing for Southworth. He was able to experiment, tear pages up and throw them away. He got away from the computer-aided, paint-by-numbers process of making modern comics and got some art supplies on his hands.
“The traditional way that comics are colored, it’s a very mechanical process and it’s lots and lots of time where I’m in front of a computer or on a tablet,” Southworth said. “And I just was like, ‘Man, I just don’t want to do that. I’ll go crazy.’ So I decided to do it in a way where I could just photocopy the ink drawings and then paint on the photo copies, or use markers on the photocopies directly so that it was more like coloring in the 6-year-old kid sense, with a box of crayons, instead of filling shapes with swatches of color on a computer.”
They used color to help the reader follow the narrative, which jumps around in time, and to set the mood. Over the course of the book, the use of color acts very much like the light show at a concert.
“It’s like waves are coming in, wave after wave on a beach,” Stein said. “It’s very cool.”
Emboldened by their successes, Southworth pushed to end the book with a real flourish: a double gatefold pullout section that might be akin to a 15-minute psychedelic freakout instrumental track at the end of an album.
As Southworth described his vision to Stein, the writer couldn’t help but get a little nervous. It sounded … ambitious.
“Matt’s like, ‘We’re going to do this thing!’” Stein said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, man. Because, you know as much as I love artistic integrity, man, we’ve got to worry about ancillary markets. We’ve got to worry about printing costs. There are things here.’ And he’s like, ‘No, we’ve got to do this.’”
The foldout section is an explosion of color and motion and — without revealing too much — puts the book in the middle of the moment this spring when protesters took to the streets and the coronavirus cast a pall over our everyday lives.
“It’s so fluid right now,” Southworth said. “To me, all that stuff feels like it kind of exists right at the edges of our story, just out of sight. It’s been interesting as we’ve been working through Volume 2 to know none of this stuff was going on when we finished Volume 1, which was about late December. So I don’t know how it’s going to actually show up, but it’s this humming tone underneath everything that we’re doing now.”
“I think that’s absolutely true and we’re sensitive to it, to the fluidity of what’s going on,” Stein said. “We’re making changes to the second script as Matt is drawing it. It’s fascinating.”