“Making Something Look Really Cool Isn’t My Goal”: The Ryan Cecil Smith Interview

Yeah, I don’t think so, either. That kind of ties back to the “franchise” thing, though. There’s a tension in that you’re making very nice printed objects, but you’re not framing them as fine art sorts of objects—not as much as you could, anyway. That seems to imply a view of art and commerce kind of bound up together—which is, I guess, backed by comics’ history?

Well, that goes back to the stuff I was making with Closed Caption Comics in college. I mean, at that time we were making kind of nice things—like, screenprints and stuff. But we knew that if we charged a lot of money that people wouldn’t buy it, and we preferred that more people buy it. So I learned at that time to keep the prices a little lower. And I liked to, because I wanted people to read the work. And, you know… I don’t put my comics on the internet because I like making it a book experience and I like it. I’m not against it; I just like what I do and I like how I do it. But I do want them to be accessible. So I like to make ‘em kind of cheap. And I guess the whole marketing or branding thing makes it kind of accessible.

How do you mean, exactly?

You know, like “Two Eyes of the Beautiful: A girls’ grotesque horror manga”. You know, I try to present it as something that people can understand. And then I can make it weird if I want to... It’s kind of medium-weird.

Coverr to Ryan's remastered edition of Two Eyes, released earlier this year
Coverr to Ryan's remastered edition of Two Eyes of the Beautiful II, released earlier this year

So you get to kind of play off that initial brand thing.

Yeah, yeah. Having the larger SF “universe,” I get to justify kind of weird things. Like, I made the SF Lapel Pin Badge [recently reissued along with a new comic]. Because I always wanted a really cool lapel-pin badge that wasn’t just an ironic thing. Like, “yeah, this is a thing I’m really into,” and the design is pretty simple, and… you know, I wanted to make one. And because I have SF, I can do a project like that. You know, the idea is that I like SF, and if enough readers who like SF will buy this pin badge, then I can justify the project and end up with something cool.

First edition of SF Lapel Bin Badge and its accompanying comic
First edition of the SF Lapel Bin Badge and its accompanying comic


And SFVPN [released March 2014] is, like… here’s the thing about SFVPN—you mentioned before that you wanted to talk about technical storytelling, right?


Well, I dig getting into technical storytelling, those challenges—or having a concept and then trying to do it a certain way? So I don’t know, I’m never into… hmmm… I don’t know, SFVPN was a cool excuse to do a space battle—so just a space battle comic. I wouldn’t normally do just a cool space battle comic. "Why would I do that?” I’m not sure! But, you know, I can say, “I will do it because I have this really weird idea where I can make every page an acronym for ‘SFVPN’ and that’ll be funny.”


And for some reason, that idea “justifies” it. “Okay, then I can make a space battle comic.” I don’t know why that is, though. But kind of like I said earlier, the SF project lets me, and gives me a context and a reason, to do these other things. And then the process of doing it and figuring stuff out is fun for me.

Weird Experiments


You mentioned earlier the idea of the background creating a stage for the action. It seems like having that franchise set-up for all these books creates a stage for different experiments.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That sounds right. I guess someone who’s doing something similar is—you know, what’s her name, Katie… Skelly?


You know, she just has, like, a pitch—“it’s a bad girl biker comic.” You know? And it’s cool and digestible. And, by the way—I have not read that whole mini-series. So maybe this is totally wrong. But you read that cool pitch and you’re like, “Okay, that’s what it is.” But you can read it and then it can be what she wants it to be. And she can take it in nice turns, the way she wants to turn it. So I’m kind of doing the same thing. But you said it very well. I’m just bouncing off what you said. Creating a franchise… blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. Whatever you said.


Also, when I designed SFVPN, though ... oh, man, I tell you what—let me give mad props to Michael McD!

[laughs] Who is that?

That’s my nickname for Michael DeForge.

[laughing] Ah, okay.

[In a kind of MC voice] “Let me give mad props to McD!” For on some Tumblr answer saying something like “You know, I don’t know how much comic artists respond to real visual design in the world, other than comics.” And I think he does really challenging, weird designs. Even though he does really normally, well-paced comics, he also does really weird design things. And I read that and I think, you know, I always get caught up doing really standard things. Filling in the background and blah-blah-blah. So with SFVPN, I just tried to design it like a scrolling, vertical thing. Just as an exercise. Originally, I wanted to make it look like a website, and a scrolling website bar—but then I realized I really like it, like on Medium.com, when you have full-width images.

Another page from SFVPN
Another page from SFVPN

So then I was like, okay, I’ll do scrolling, plus full-width images. And then I was like, I’ll have a background. And it didn’t turn out that way. But that McD—good point. I wish to think more about that.

Well, you have this border effect that sort of evokes a screen—the red “frame” on the edges of the pages. Does that stem from the same idea?

Yeah… just kind of like a background, the idea of foreground-background. It didn’t come out quite how I wanted, but it’s fun to have excuses to do weird experiments.

Yeah, I know what you mean. Can you talk about some of the plays on—or experiments with—symmetry that you’re doing in this comic? Like, even down to the “SF [Space Fleet] vs. PN [Pirate Nation]”?

Cover to SFVPN
Cover to SFVPN

Yeah. I think we talked a little bit about this before we were recording, but I really love when Frank Santoro talks about composing in spreads. I really think that’s extremely important, and I think I make better comics that way. But maybe I might be kind of inarticulate—I’ll say, “you know, you just feel it.” You can just feel when the page is balanced in a certain way. But basically, I composed SFvPN with a couple ideas in mind. One idea was that I wanted to do only vertical scrolling panels—I didn’t want to do left and right. Just because it seemed like something different, but something that people can still understand. So I wanted to go vertical—but it also had to be different; it’s too boring to just go vertical. So I would add these big, kind of feature panels—which are usually just an illustration. They’re, like, the cool thing—usually it’s just a big space battle going on in those, and then the dialogue is usually in the small boxes. So there’s a difference there. And then I think you always want to have a variety of different page designs. Or really, you could do them all the same. But if I’m gonna do different page designs I want to have a good variety of them. So, literally, I scripted the whole thing out and then I was like, I’m gonna have one of every possible combination and make sure they look nice together. So, you know, there’s one spot where it’s one very long horizontal, big spread. There are a couple of them where they cross, where the big section is on diagonals. And I think—you know, this is something where the only way I know how to relate it to something else is to maybe refer to something Frank Santoro would say. But I can also just try and say it directly, in my own words: I use really basic building blocks. There’s only two forms. There’s a small panel and a big panel, and you can only have so many combinations. And so—they’re gonna look pretty good. You know, it’s not complicated, so when you switch the combos, it’s all gonna look pretty good. It’s like building a wardrobe. If you only have solid-colored shirts in, you know, grey and blue, you can’t really look too crazy-bad!

Yeah. [laughs]

You know? So it’s just basics, and then the combos are kind of cool. And I tried to get every combo in. But I do really think about how they’ll fit together.


Like, the one where it’s one big long horizontal formed by the big panel? You know, those mirror each other. So that’s the thing—when I see that it’s happening, I think, okay, what can I do to make that look kind of cool? So I tried to make those reflect each other. But the point is that it’s just real basic combinations, and I do try to compose all in spreads. But if you use just really basic storytelling elements, that’ll keep it basic in a way that nobody’s confused. And you can make it pleasurable, so that when you do do something weird—like, you know, a big panel or maybe a kind of a horizontal thing, I can just think, “Do they relate well in some way?” And—usually, if it’s really basic ingredients, then I can make it do that. But the more complex it gets the harder it gets.


See if you can pull some gold out of that!

No, I actually think it’s really great. They do kind of “rhyme” in a sense. You sort of have these mirroring spaces… that kind of thing. And as I was re-reading a good bit of your work for this, I was reminded of—there was a Kevin Huizenga sequence I kind of liked, it was in The Wild Kingdom, where all of the diagonals kind of point towards each other. It was just a four-panel square page, and they’re all kind of square panels. But compositionally they’re all pointing inward and then they form this kind of diamond. I just noticed all these compositional elements that had sort of a “rhyming-together” in that way.

He has really weird shapes also in his Fight or Run strips, just because it’s really such a simple thing.

A sample from Kevin Huizenga's Fight or Run strips
A sample from Kevin Huizenga's Fight or Run strips

Pretty simple concept, pretty simple storytelling, a pretty simple grid that he uses… I don’t know, I think it’s just cool when you’re aware of basic, simple, readable storytelling—one. And two—that you’re telling a story that’s actually fun, so it’s fun to read that. And three: if you’re aware of those more complicated potentials, then you can take advantage of them. So I think if you’re not trying to have fun, then the comic’s kind of boring, and then who cares, you know? And then if you’re not—like those Popeye reprints. We were talking [off-tape] about how great they are. And those turn out to have really simple storytelling, but since the artist wasn’t planning it that way, they don’t turn out to have any interesting aesthetic thing, as a combo. But then if you can do it, then it’s cool to try a little bit. But you don’t want to ruin the small parts.

Yeah. This [in Two Eyes  of the Beautiful #2] is one of the spreads that caught me.

The spread we're referring to from Two Eyes of the Beautiful II
The spread we're referring to from Two Eyes of the Beautiful II

That’s my favorite spread in the book.

Oh, really? It’s the one that jumped out at me right away, so that’s really great. I like when people wall off four panels and then make those do a separate thing. Something about it, they just talk to each other. It’s so hard to talk about this stuff…

Hm. Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s really hard to talk about it too. [pauses] It’s really hard to talk about it. I mean, Frank Santoro does a good job of trying to vocalize it and talk about it. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s really hard to do a perfect job talking about that stuff. So it’s really good that somebody’s out there trying to vocalize those kinds of things. ... Kevin Huizenga, on his blog, has really nice compositional notes. Which I really, really like—but really infrequently. On his personal blog. Sometimes he’ll post really good storytelling criticisms, or personal notes.

Yeah, I think I’ve seen some of those. I should give those another look.

You know, like—Frank was posting circular diagrams of, like, um, Prince Valiant stuff. And a lot of other kinds of comics, too. I think those are—what I don’t like about that is that it’s a scientific theory that is kind of just built to confirm itself. It’s like—when you diagram comics by really good artists, of course you’re gonna see symmetry. You know? I don’t think it’s predictive in the sense that—if you were to give that kind of symmetry to a bad artist? And a “bad artist,” it’s so rude to say, but just, fundamental storytelling and aesthetic appeal is reflected in those things. So those diagrams, to me, aren’t as interesting as when he talks about simplifying your approach and using grids, which he advocates. So when he talks about how and why grids work? That’s really good.


Because I really do believe that that is a really understandable thing that someone making comics can grasp onto really well. Ivan Brunnetti I think does the same thing. Ivan Brunetti’s book  [Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice] has this thing where he says—and it’s so funny how well it works—he says: “Draw someone in the same location, and then draw them moving like one thing. And then draw like one weird reaction." And then he has ways to extrapolate on it? And it makes really cool results. The predictive nature of the theory, I think, is what makes it really good. And those are really interesting.

For grids and sequencing, you mean?

Yeah, yeah. Because I think when you talk about diagramming comics—I don’t need to talk about that so much. But with the grids and sequencing, I think that it’s really true—this is really what I think: that if you can tell a really good story in basic panel-by-panel motions, that’s good technical form. And then if you can make a funny story, then it’s really rewarding—and it doesn’t have to be fun or funny, you know, but a good story. If it’s just a technical exercise for you, then it’s maybe not gonna be that interesting for the reader. Maybe it is, if you’re really good. But for me it’s not that interesting. But when there’s a real story, or a purpose to that story, and then there’s really good fundamental storytelling—that can empower an artist much more than an artist thinking that he has to do Marvel-style splashes, or manga-style expression? There’s too much expression built into that that’s not from yourself. Telling someone to go basic is really, really good, and I love that. Like, Kevin had a grid— he posted his sketch layouts

The ones where he prints them out, right?

Yeah, because he’s gonna compose in those strips anyway, so just give yourself a bunch of those, and then you can composed based on that—that’s really smart.

Yeah, I love seeing that stuff.

About Symmetry

A double-;age spread from SFVPN—also highlighting Ryan's printing work
A double-;age spread from SFVPN—also highlighting Ryan's printing work

The thing about SF—earlier you asked about symmetry in SFVPN, even down to the “SFVPN”. I think I wanted to somehow be able to tell a story, but telling the story was the hardest part for me. But the easy part was just setting up the symmetry. The easy part for me was just setting up the grid, setting up a concept and idea. But the hard part was making up a story with a twist, or some kind of character turn. That’s the hard part. But for me, starting with the symmetry is really easy. Like, “it’s gonna have this basic structure. It’s gonna have this in the beginning.” I think my first initial outline is: “We’ll have a couple pages about the pirates. And then a couple pages about the SF [Space Fleet]. And then a mix. And then a resolution.” And then getting that basic structure in place, then it was like, okay, what are they gonna say at this part? The last page was really hard. So I was really proud of the last page. It was a matter of trying to figure out what can they possibly say that’ll kind of wrap up their feelings about it and show how they’re different, show how they’re kind of distinct in their kinds of attitudes. But also to show that they’re both gonna fight for it—neither one of them’s gonna be the good guy.

Yeah. Well, that makes the whole thing kind of about the issue of symmetry, drawing out the thread in a story way as well.

Yeah, it’s cool. I’m glad people can read that—because, like I told you before, I composed the book by myself. So I want to make it accessible—but before I made the story it was about: “There will be two sides. I want to explore them kind of equally—though weighted more toward the pirates, because I never make comics about the pirates. So it was weighted more towards the pirates’ side. But—you know, I want to show this feeling that they both kind of have their differences—they’re kind of two sides of something. And to give a twist to them, but it has to end with the two.

So the story is, like—I have to show that she [Seductress, leader of the story’s Pirate Nation] is convinced she’s gonna win because she has a really clever plan. And I have this idea that SF thinks it’s gonna win—or that Ace thinks he’s gonna win—because he always has the coolest stuff. And you know, in a cartoon or in an imaginary story you can always imagine an ending, you can imagine a resolution to anything.

So here’s why it’s about symmetry. It’s about symmetry becausethe world is where it is between certain ideas. Like if you’ve ever imagined a really cool idea, like what if I had super-powers? What if I could fly? Well, you could inevitably imagine: “Okay, what would make that bad? What would bend it back?” First you would think about how great it would be but then you would have to imagine what’s less good about it. And if I imagine a space battle between two sides, I have to imagine there’s some reason why there are two sides—you know, what makes them equal? And whenever you imagine a certain kind of conflict you have to imagine what is good about each side. You know, like when you’re a kid and you make up some kind of teams. How do they balance each other? But in the real world there’s nothing explicitly saying they must be balanced. And this sounds all libertarian, but maybe if it’s market-based, like with prices? Supply and demand kind of thing?

Yeah—like, assuming that a free market system works out for everyone?

Yeah, or something like that. Like, if you’re gonna have something here [gestures with hands, indicating two sides] then there’ll be something meeting it here. So it’s like, you can’t help but imagine a balance to things. Like, I can have this imaginary space battle—it’s not real. And then I can imagine that one of them has super-weapons. But then I have to imagine that one of them has a new super-weapon, and I can just keep that happening forever, if I want to imagine that. But then when do I quit?

Yeah. I think it ends up feeling kind of existential—there’s an open end implied. They could do this forever.

Yeah, yeah. And in the moment—you’re always in the moment between some conflicts, right? You can imagine that in the future, life will be good. But then you’ll be in the future, and you’ll still have some kind of conflict.

And you’ll still think “in the future, life will be good.”

Yeah, which is kind of what SF is kind of largely about. Where to me, inside—I can imagine a really cool space team or space world. But it’s not interesting if there’s some not some kind of conflict. So you have to imagine that. Or I don’t know, it depends on the story you’re doing.

Well, the series ends up questioning itself as it goes. But it still has to keep going, at least to the last page. Like in SF#3 , there’s this part where Russell Street is talking to Hupa Dupa about the future, and it’s pretty direct. But it’s almost asking outright, “What are the merits of this genre?” Because SF [as in science fiction generally] tends to imply a sort of “future perfect” situation.

Yeah, yeah.

Like, Russell Street is basically questioning Hupa’s dedication for not adopting a kind of total amnesia to the past—about his dead parents, even.

The page of SF#3 Ryan narrates through
From SF#3; Ryan kind of narrates through the scene on this page

Yeah, well, the line he says is: “You’re clever, but being a real scientist fighter takes more than book smarts. It’s not about fighting ability or technical skill, it’s about commitment, heart, guts—a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. Some people have it, some people don’t.” And, um, ah! Then Russell says, “Some people might ask you: why would a truly dedicated member of the Special Forces spend their time dwelling on the past?” And Hupa says, “The future is important to me, in terms of my life. But I have warm feelings for the past, too. I love my family and my home.” [Russell responds by thinking:]“This kid’ll never make it as a Scientist Fighter with an attitude like that.”

Meaning that balance is where you make it. I think Hupa thinks of himself as well-balanced. Or ... he doesn’t think of himself that way. He just presents something that to the reader is a well-balanced idea. But Russell is saying, "That’s not well-balanced for our goals here. You’re not balanced.” You’re thinking about the past, stop thinking about the past, you need to live in the present.”


SF3 Crying Scene
Hupa Dupa contemplating his future, from SF#3

RCS: And, uh… I think it’s funny because Hupa’s obviously like a normal person in this scenario. He gives such an ideal, or such a well-crafted answer. It’s not crafted, it’s just natural—like that’s a very good answer.


RAnd Russell gets very weird. He’s like [sneering], “Why do you want to go visit your dead parents?”

[laughs] It is weird, yeah.

Well that comes from being in Japan, where there are certain values that I have that I think are very natural. And people there are like, “Why would you do that?” It’s a kind of back-and-forth. You know, there’s a good balance where people do things just by habit, or just by tradition. And decide this is where the balance shall be. But when you read a story you don’t know the rules of the world—so the characters are introducing you to the balance in that world.


So it’s kind of showing you that Hupa is kind of viewing SF the way the reader views SF? He’s like, “Oh, that’s what it’s like?” And he gives a very normal answer but he’s not on balance. He doesn’t know what the balance is.

You mean in the broader world [of SF], right?

Yeah, yeah.

I think the way you make a space for those kinds of questions is interesting. Because one could drink these stories down and not think about that stuff. But I still think a reader who doesn’t think about it is still going to feel some of that weight. Like, I don’t know that everyone who’s looking at SFVPN is looking at it and wants to dissect the spreads—they aren’t. But I still think whatever you’re doing there is going to be felt, and has an effect.

Yeah. I feel like maybe that's why my mini-comics are perpetually, uh... I don't know. Like, I want to make my work accessible. But I still feel compelled to value that weird stuff, which I know most people don’t care about. But it's still really important to me. And the stakes are low in mini-comics. I put my energy into weird margins. If I'm going to make a mini-comic, I might as well do something weird, that I feel like most people won't like anyway.

I do feel that though most people don’t know it, that stuff—the weird, personal stuff is what most people end up reacting to. It’s what seems off about a book that’s actually what grabs them…

A panel from Ryan's upcoming 2014 S.F.L.P.B. comic
A panel from Ryan's upcoming 2014 S.F. Lapel Pin Badge comic

I suspect that also, George. I mean, if we think about all kinds of literature… but at the same time, when you’re in the middle of making something? I mean, the inspirational artist way of talking about it is, you know, “Go that extra step. Do that thing that nobody else will notice but that you care about.” But on the whole I think that’s not true. Like, I think with Matsumoto’s comics—a lot of what’s great about his comics are these long space spreads? And I’m pretty sure a lot of that stuff is just there because he didn’t have time to draw anything else. So he said, “I’ll just draw more space stuff.” But he approached that stuff in such a way that it would work.


So I think you have to—I mean, I think it’s very good to compromise those kind of design ideas or whatever. Like, with SFVPN, there’s stuff I wanted to do that I thought was interesting that I didn’t do.

Yeah. Well you mentioned online formats’ influence on it. Did you ever want it to be a webcomic?

No, no. Like, I wanted it to have the kind of scrolling format so it would be like a webcomic. But it was never going to be a web thing, ever. I could put it on there.

Yeah, you probably could.

Definitely. But I think the fun is it as a book. So if I were to do it I would want to somehow reference the fact that it’s a book.


I don’t know. But the thing is, it doesn’t really matter. I think people can enjoy the book without it.

Without knowing the roots or the history of it, you mean?

Yeah. I mean, the stakes are low in comics. So maybe I should just put more of my stuff online. But I’m really happy with how my stories come out in books. I’d hate ruining that thing for other people—I’d hate losing that. ... I don’t mind so much—I mean, I could do that. But I mean, SFVPN, it literally came from… I had a ream of paper that was this size [motioning to indicate “10x7”]. So I just wondered, “What can I make with this ream of paper?” So I always thought of it as a book, you know? I could put it online, I don’t know. But I think, why do that? Because maybe I would make more money? And more people would find the work.

I don’t know, Ryan. I don’t think it’s a right-thing-wrong-thing kind of decision. But your books are conceived as books and you’re into working with books in print. So if that’s the goal and that’s what you feel like doing, the stakes are low anyway… so you might as well do things the way you want to.

Yeah, yeah, but I gotta grow up, I gotta do more of it. It’s, like … inward-looking. I mean, I’m comfortable with what I do—I want to do other things.

From Two Eyes of the Beautiful II
From Two Eyes of the Beautiful II