The Aphelion Interview:
Ian McDonald

by Jeff Williams

Since 1998, readers of webcomics have had a truly wonderful reading option, Ian McDonald's Bruno the Bandit.  This terrifically entertaining and original strip features the adventures of the title character along with his sidekick, Fiona the Microdragon.  Other characters include Maladict the Wizard, the dread lord Numth'kul, Archio the Clown, and Bruno's mother Euynce (also known Euynce:  Warrior Hottie).  Long time readers have watched this simple (in the negative sense of the word) thief rise up the ladder from common criminal to common criminal King of Rothland, all the while fighting demons, the law, and his own thickheadedness!

I can't imagine going a week without reading Bruno the Bandit, so I couldn't imagine a better subject for this installment of the "Aphelion Interview."  Therefore, without further adieu, let's meet Bruno's creator, Ian McDonald!

Q.     What led you to start drawing and writing comic strips?
A.      It probably stems from the fact that as a child, I loved comic books and comic strips, and I also loved to draw!  When I was really young, I loved Charles Schulz's Peanuts (still do, of course).  My siblings and I had a huge pile of Peanuts paperbacks, and I must have read each of them a few dozen times, and even tried my hand at tracing the drawings in them.  Comics were (and still are) a form of magic to me: an ideal way of combining words and pictures to  tell a story.

Q.     What led you to create Bruno the Bandit?  What were your initial influences when you first began the strip?
A.      I had always wanted to create my own comic strip, but could never come up with any decent ideas worth pursuing.   But I did pursue a form of cartooning, in that I used to draw my own somewhat twisted version of Jum Davis's Garfield comic strip, for friends of mine.  I liken it to how many rock bands start out by doing cover tunes of their  favorite artists.  Anyway, the last Garfield strips I drew were a series of them under the title "What if Conan the  Barbarian was Garfield's owner?".  (These strips can be seen on my website, by the way).  These strips practically  wrote themselves, and in the process, unearthed a gold-mine of ideas for me; ideas which led to the creation of Bruno the Bandit.  So I guess you could say, two early influences on the strip were (and still are) Conan the Barbarian and  Garfield.  (Many people may not realize this today, but when Garfield started out, it was really quite funny!)

Q.     So you don't think Garfield is funny now? :)
A.     Heh!  Well, I'll be diplomatic here, and say that I used to enjoy Garfield a lot more in the first few years of its existence!

Q.     Initially, what were the types of writing that held the greatest attraction to you? How have your tastes changed (if at all) since you began to write and draw?
A.     When I first started writing Bruno, the idea was to mine gags from the fact that Bruno's world was a combination of a  medieval-type fantasy world with all sorts of modern-day anachronisms (TV's, computers, newspapers, etc.) thrown in.   But as the strip has gone on, the stories have become deeper, as I have really fleshed Bruno's world out, and given it  something of a history.  I also think my stories have become more meaningful over the years, as I've touched on  philosophical and religious themes, and like to try and make the reader think about what I have to say, even if they may  not necessarily agree with me.

Q. Besides adding in religious and philosophical themes, what other avenues have you had to pursue in Bruno to compensate for the readers' familiarity with those anachronisms you mentioned?
A.     Sometimes I like to take current events, fads, political/entertainment figures, and look at them through a fantasy lens, if  you will.  It can be fun to take someone like a Rush Limbaugh or a Madonna, and create supernatural characters  loosely based on them, for instance.  And I like to tackle current events.  One story I'm most proud of is called  "Elfquestion", which is my take on the neverending debate on independence/"sovereignty-association" in the province of  Quebec.  Canadian readers got the full effect of that story, as this is a big issue up here in Canada, but I'm proud to say  that a lot of American and foreign readers enjoyed that story as well, even if they may not have caught on to all the  jokes in it.

 I also like to think that I've fleshed out the characters more, made them more three-dimensional, and hopefully more  interesting.  Thus, readers care more about them, and want to see what happens to them next.

Q.     I think we all are waiting for the answer to this one; where in the world do you get your Bruno ideas from?
A.     Stealing from other comic strips, of course!  Just kidding!  Seriously, I think it's a matter of being open to ideas no  matter where you are, or what you're doing.  No matter what I'm doing, Bruno, Fiona, and the world they live in are  never far from my mind.  I may see, read, or hear about something, and ask myself "What would Bruno and Fiona do in  this situation?"  Most times the question won't amount to much, but often enough, something clicks with me, big time!   Plus, my subconscious is constantly working on ideas, and I never know when inspiration will strike.  But in most cases,  it's not a case of waiting for that to happen.  You have to sit down, and actively pursue good ideas.

Q.     Since you mentioned that you get most of your ideas from real life, then I must ask you this.  What on Earth  did McDonald's and Ronald McDonald in particular do to you to bring about the creation of Archio, the evil  clown/food services entrepenuer? :)
A.     Nothing!  I've nothing in particular against McDonald's, or Ronald himself!  It's just that Archio is such an easy and fun  character to write and draw, and McDonald's is something of an easy target for me, that it's hard to resist!  But again,  it's nothing personal.

Q.     Who would say were and are the greatest influences for you with your writing?
A.     So many to choose from, it's hard to narrow them down.  One of my greatest influences is Monty Python.  To me,  they're the Beatles of comedy!  Their strength is in their material being so off the wall!  I try to keep that in mind when  writing my material, but of course, nobody can touch Python for that!  There are many comic strips that have influenced  me, such as Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and early Garfield, to name a few.  And I've been influenced by a lot of  the fantasy/swords & sorcery I've read: the Conan books, the Shannara series, and of course The Lord of the Rings.   Playing lots of Dungeons & Dragons helped, too.  And I love David Letterman!  He's my Patron Saint! :-)

Q.     Since he is your patron saint, why hasn't Letterman made an appearance yet in one of your strips?  After all,  I have seen Sally Jessy Raphael, Tony Robbins, and Richard Simmons among others used (in exaggerated  forms of course).
A.     I'd love to have Dave in the strip, and have certainly given it a lot of thought, but so far, haven't come up with a good  idea for him.  But it's only a matter of "when", not "if".

Q.     What types of experiences (personal and other) do you draw on when you are searching for ideas for your work?
A.     I guess just living in our modern-day society, and wondering how some aspects of it would mix with a medieval fantasy- type world is the key for me.  But also, as I've gotten older, I've gotten more interested in philosophy, religion, and  spirituality, and my thoughts and ideas on these subjects have found their way into my work as well... but only so long  as I can keep the stories they're in relatively funny (well, to me, at least!).

Q.     Authors have an almost infinite number of methods for writing. How would you say your writing process  works?
A.     When I get a general idea for a story, I try not to worry too much about the details as to how I'm going to get from the  beginning to the end.  Instead, I like to take it one strip at a time, though some long-range planning is necessary.  This  way, I feel I'm more able to surprise myself, and if I can do that, hopefully I'll be able to surprise the readers as well   When it comes to writing individual strips, I like to use a dry-erase marker and board.  At the center of the board, I'll  write down the strip number.  >From that, I'll scribble down key words and phrases that come to mind, and then more  ideas that come into my head from seeing those words and phrases.  I'll also scribble down pieces of dialog I can hear  the characters saying, until finally, I have a working script.  I'll write the script into a notebook, and when the time  comes to draw the strip, I'll usually work from that script.  I say "usually" because I may come up with better ideas  while working on the strip.

Q.     When you begin a new story, do you have any idea about how long the story will run, or does the "Part 30 of  ???" mean you really have no idea?
A.     Yep!  These days I really have no idea how long most of my stories will be, unless they're really short.  I have an idea  as to how I want my stories to end, but how long it will take me to get there is anybody's guess.

Q.     The look of Bruno the Bandit seems to have changed quite a bit from the beginning?  Is this just a product  of experience, or did someone sit you down and say, “Look, you’ve got a good thing, but…”?
A.     Definitely a product of experience, though I've had my work critiqued by artistic friends of mine, and their advice has  been quite valuable at times.  You look at just about any comic strip, and you'll notice how the art style changes over  the years, as the cartoonist becomes more comfortable with drawing his characters.  In my case, I still feel I'm  experimenting with the look of the strip.  I doubt I'll ever get to the point where I've figured out the perfect formula for drawing Bruno the Bandit, and I'm not sure I'd ever want to.  Doing so would discourage any further experimentartion.

Q.     How would you say the characters have evolved since you began the comic?
A.     Well, aside from the art style, I don't know that Bruno has changed a whole lot, but then, he's the type who never  learns from his mistakes.  Or if he does, it's always the wrong lesson!  As for Fiona, she started out as being little more  than a smart-aleck, and while that's still there, I like to think she's gotten somewhat wiser, though she's still very naive in  some ways.  But the change I'm most proud of is transforming Bruno's mother into Eunyce: Warrior Hottie!  As far as I  know, she's the world's first post-menopausal action heroine!

Q.     Outside of creeping me out every time you show that Warrior Hottie costume on Eunyce, what brought about that radical revisioning of her character and of her past? :)
A.     I always liked Eunyce, but felt she was too under-used, and too much of a stereotypical stay-at-home mom.  I wanted  to do more with her character, and had been giving it a lot of thought, but for the longest time, nothing clicked.  The  ideas fell into place one day when I was pondering the problem while watching TV one evening, and an ad for Xena:  Warrior Princess came on!  I envisioned Eunyce in a Xena-like role, and Jackpot!!  Creeping you out is an added  bonus! :-)

Q.     Let me make this question a little challenging:  outside of Bruno, Fiona, and Euynce, who are your favorite  characters in the Bruno world and why?
A.     I love 'em all, but I'd have to say my favorite is Carlin the Hermit!  He's the opposite of Bruno in just about every way  possible, and is my attempt to write a truly moral, but still funny character.  He is essentially a living saint, and I don't  know of too many other comic strips in which a saint is one of the characters.  Carlin allows me to tackle deeper issues  in my strip.  He reflects a lot of what I believe about religion and spirituality, though of course he's a lot more spiritual  than I'll ever be.  Still, with Carlin, I have to be careful that he doesn't take over the strip on me!

Another favorite is Numth'kul. Essentially, he's the Sauron character in Bruno's world, though a lot more hapless.  He's  fallen on hard times.  Of course he wants to enslave the world in a reign of darkness and terror like any good dread  lord, but instead of being vanquished and dying off with some dignity, he's been reduced to the job of bartender in  Bruno's favorite pub.  Still, he continues to plot...

And of course there's Archio, as mentioned above, who's just so easy and fun to write and draw!

Q.     About two years ago, you moved your operations to Plan 9 Publishing.  How has this worked out for you, and  are you finally realizing your dream of making a living from drawing Bruno?
A.     Still haven't reached the goal of earning a living with my comics, but for me, the important thing is that the strip is still fun  to do, and as long as that's the case, I'm satisfied.  Being a published cartoonist with Plan 9 has been a terrific  experience, and my publisher, Dave Allen is a good friend of mine.  His support and encouragement has meant a great  deal to me, and I've made friends with a lot of my fellow Plan 9 cartoonists.  And I also feel I should take this  opportunity to throw a bouquet to Keenspot, the fine folks who host Bruno the Bandit on the web.  I couldn't ask for  a better web host, and am very proud to be a part of both organizations.

Q.     A technical question, if I may.  How do you convert the strip into a form that can be uploaded to the web site?
A.     After I draw the strips, I scan them in to my computer, and save them in TIFF format, at 600 dpi, usually black and  white.  Using Corel PhotoPaint, I'll make any additions or changes to each strip as necessary.  Nowadays, in order to  save time, I use the computer to fill in black areas of the strip, and sometimes I'll add special lettering, such as when a  character's speech is a special font.  When all that's finished, the book-publishable version of the strip is ready.  Then  it's a matter of converting the image to greyscale, reducing it to 72 dpi, and saving it as a web-friendly GIF, which is  what readers end up seeing on my site.

Q.     Are you involved with or planning any other comic strips?
A.     Yes!  Last year, Pete Abrams, a friend of mine, and creator of the wildly popular online comic strip Sluggy Freelance  asked me if I'd like to do a weekly spinoff strip for him, based on some of his demonic characters, and the hellish  netherworld they inhabit, known as the Dimension of Pain.  I jumped at the chance, as these are some of the coolest  characters he (or any other cartoonist) has created. In January, Meanwhile in the Dimension of Pain debuted on the  Sluggy site.  I do most of the writing (though Pete sends me the occasional script) and drawing, while Pete is the editor.   Working on this strip has been a blast, and I can't thank Pete enough for giving me this opportunuty.

Q.     Do you write anything other than the scripts for your comic strips?
A.     Well, aside from working on Meanwhile in the Dimension of Pain, I do keep a personal journal, which, these days,  I'm often too busy to keep updated.

Q.     How did you get involved in the annual April Fool's event where different cartoonists draw editions of other artists' comics?
A.     I was approached a few years ago by Terrence Marks, writer for the webcomic Unlike Minerva, and founder of The  Nice, a comics collective I'm also part of.  He had gotten the idea from when a bunch of syndicated cartoonists did the same sort of thing one April Fool's Day the year before, and thought it might be fun if some of the better known  webcomics switched artists for a day.  I've switched comics with Mark Stanley, who draws Freefall, Dave Kellet,  who draws Sheldon (Dave has since gone on to become a syndicated cartoonist, by the way), and Graveyard Greg,  creator of Gaming Guardians.

Q.     Where do you see yourself going with your writing in the future?
A.     No idea!  I just want the writing, and the strip itself, to remain fun and interesting to me!

Q.     Any hints for the near future of Bruno?
A.     Well, for the past year or so, Bruno has been king of the land he lives in.  He will lose his crown, or else I'd have to  change the name of the strip! :-)  But beyond that, I can't say, mainly becaue I don't yet know what the near future hold  for Bruno!

Q.     How much longer do you think Bruno the Bandit will run?
A.     Hopefully a good long time, because I'm having so much fun with it!  It will run as long as I have the time, the energy,  the ideas, and the desire to keep working on it!  All those things are in place, and I don't see them leaving any time  soon.

Copyright 2003 by Jeff Williams.  Jeff Williams is an avid Bruno the Bandit fan who is still trying to stop laughing about the Ketchup Wraith who once appeared in a Bruno story!