Dan Bethel, the artist behind this year’s CrockerTron, recently sat down with us to discuss all things comic books. In addition to creating an existential cowboy series, Long John, Dan also serves as an English professor at California State University, Sacramento. You can find his work at CrockerCon or online at longjohncomic.com. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Let’s just dive right in. Each year, we ask a different artist to draw CrockerTron, which is basically a mechanized version of the Museum itself. It’s fascinating to see how each artist puts their own spin on something as seemingly mundane as a building. As is always the case, this year’s CrockerTron looks nothing like last year's. So, how did this year’s version come to be? What was your process like?
I am primarily a comic book storyteller and mostly draw only when making a page for my comic series. I don’t do a lot of posters or pinups because my brain isn’t very good at designing them; I like to have each drawing moving the story forward. I needed to concoct some amount of narrative to bring my version of the CrockerTron to life.
Despite being a big fan of the Transformers as a kid, I never developed a penchant for drawing robots or mechanical things. Given the chance to draw the CrockerTron, however, I felt like I could really put that fandom to work. I have the pleasure of knowing the artists and the art of the previous CrockerTrons, so I already knew the prior posters quite well. But I wanted to make sure I brought something to this poster that was, if not unique to the lineup, emphasized what I value as an artist and storyteller.
I loved the basic design of Sean Sutter’s original poster and the cartoonish grandiosity of Michael Calero’s. Both of those posters presented the CrockerTron as gargantuan forces of nature — representing a kind of full-on artistic assault on the event. In contrast, I liked the magical quality Nate Flamm gave the Tower Bridge and the gentle giant found in Melissa Pagluica’s poster last year.
One thing I really wanted to avoid was giving the CrockerTron a menacing quality — it is a monolithic symbol of the power of art, as is the Crocker itself. I wanted it to be seen more as an artistic protector of Sacramento. Seeing the sort Iron Man-style ports in Calero’s CrockerTron, I asked, “what if those weren’t weapons but givers of power?” That thought really focused the image, one in which the CrockerTron is bestowing the power of art onto a person, giving them the strength to express themselves.
I also wanted to touch on your Long John series. How did that get started?
I started making comics in 2007 because I was a failed animator. Taking a concept I co-created in high school with CrockerCon co-founder Eben Burgoon, I started storyboarding an animated short. However, animation is very time-consuming. Also, I enjoyed storyboarding more than actually animating.
We switched the format to a comic/webcomic. Eben and I developed the premise, stories, and scripts for our webcomic, Eben07 — an action/espionage/humor comic about secret agent janitors. Over the course of six years, we made a lot of mistakes but, as a consequence, we learned a lot and had a lot of fun. Eventually, both of our talents grew to the point that we were confident enough to develop our own comics, Eben with B-Squad and me with Long John.
What was that process like — transitioning from storyboarding to a full-fledged comic book series?
My animation “career” ground to a halt pretty suddenly. I was interning at a startup video game company that, although a lot of fun, really showed me whether I wanted to pursue animation or not. I’m not the most patient artist and animation demands patience, focus, and a look at the larger picture. I learned quickly I didn’t have that, and so did my supervisors.
They moved me to character design and storyboarding for short cinematic sequences — things I was more suited for, in hindsight. However, shortly after my tasks changed. the company had some problems and shut down, which soured me on the whole enterprise. After that experience, I basically stopped drawing entirely. That’s when I became an English major. For all intents and purposes, I didn’t draw with any serious aim for about six years until I had made the aforementioned short with Eben.
Animation was still quite difficult. It something I still didn’t really have the patience for. So, I turned to comics because webcomics at the time (this is about 2005 and 2006) seemed to be a fertile field for creativity, artistic experimentation, and — more than anything — practice with honest feedback. With Eben, we built the characters and the premise and launched Eben07 in September of 2007.
I’m not the most patient artist and animation demands patience, focus, and a look at the larger picture. I learned quickly I didn’t have that, and so did my supervisors.
We started it as a twice-a-week webcomic, with a comic-strip-styled joke strip going up at the beginning of the week and a Sunday-comic-styled “full page” strip on Fridays. We intentionally started with a more gag-a-day approach to build a tone and, with hope, an audience, before branching out into storylines, which we eventually did. Once we started doing storylines, we realized we wanted to do print collections, which forced me to change the format of the pages. I dropped the strip-style format and switched to drawing in traditional comic book proportions once we realized the effort that goes into making a book.
For both of us, that shift into having a book as a final product solidified both of our approaches to our current projects as long-form, story-based comics.
Wow. That’s intense. What advice would you give to aspiring comic book creators?
For anybody that wants to make comics — artist, writer, or writer/artist — start small. Don’t jump in with a big epic story. Prove to yourself that you can get something done rather than promising it will be epic in five years. It is just as rewarding completing a really solid eight-page story. Secondly, publish your comic online. You won’t be professional quality out of the gate, and getting your work out there will at least get people’s eyes on it and you’ll meet people that can help you become better. Third, be patient; getting good takes a long time. Have fun in the meantime and just keep making stuff.
What about you? How did you start drawing? What motivates you?
I started drawing in the 6th grade but didn’t really start trying until the following year. I started drawing because my best friend, Josh Tobey (who has drawn for Long John and helped ink a piece that is hanging in the Crocker right now!), drew cool stuff and his skill got me to give it a shot. At the time he and I met, I was just getting into comics and really wanted to express my fandom in any way possible. Drawing is also in my family. My dad draws for fun and is quite good, but it’s mostly a hobby. He learned from his father who was a commercial illustrator who drew ads for a vitamin company in Los Angeles. My grandfather always wanted to become a freelance artist and even submitted comic strip pitches to the newspaper syndicates, but it didn’t work out immediately. Unfortunately, he passed away rather young and so I never got to meet him).
As for what motivates me, it’s simple: storytelling. I am not much of a sketcher or doodler; most often when I put pencil to paper it’s to draw a page for the comic. Believe it or not, I’m not really that comfortable drawing posters or commissions. (Of course, any sensible artist makes an exception for the Crocker Art Museum.) The art I post, much like with the explanation I gave for my CrockerTron poster, tends to need a narrative aspect associated with it to get me to care, which was why I got really excited about the concept I did land on when it came to the CrockerTron poster. But I’m a storyteller and one of the ways I do that is by drawing them and what motivates me is that I still have stories to tell, one page at a time.
Solid advice for any artist really. Alright, let’s rewind a few minutes back. I’m curious about the comic book series that emerged from all this. Tell me about more about “Long John”.
Long John is a story about “Long” John Walker — called such because he can allegedly hit a target at rifle’s distance with a mere revolver pistol. He had a reputation for being one of the deadliest gun-for-hire/bounty hunters in California with his posse, the “The Johns”. At one point, they decided to head to the Mono Basin — home to Jonny Mono (one of The Johns, the other being Juan John Velasquez) — to get some work. It all comes crashing down one morning when Long John awakens next to Mono Lake to find not only his friends but his guns, his gear, and his clothes gone, and half his face covered in dried blood. Driven forward by this mystery, Long John soon finds that reputation is only skin-deep, you have to live in the world you make, and that who you thought you were may not be who you actually are at all.
Long John is best described — although it sounds incredibly pretentious — as an existential Western comic. Sure, it takes place in the 1880s and is about a gunfighter who is stoic and good at what he does, but for a while I was hesitant to even call it a western. At its heart, it’s a comic book character study, showing what happens when you take that Clint Eastwood, Man With No Name type of character and take away everything that makes him strong — his guns, his friends, his gear, his clothes — and throw him back into the hostile world he helped create.
What happens to a person who tried so hard to keep people out by building his skill with a gun, when he has nothing with which to protect himself? What happens to his reputation? What happens to how he presents himself? It’s an odyssey through the Mono Basin in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, exploring what’s left of a person when everything has been taken away in the middle of the desolate and strange land surrounding Mono Lake. It’s about finding out who you were and, in the wake of that, finding out who you are, hence the tagline, “Losing everything changes everything.”
It’s my chance to bring together both sides of my artistic interests: comics storytelling and literary character study, but done in my stylized, cartoony fashion. It’s also a love letter to the Mono Basin, an area of California I absolutely adore.
Where can people find your work?
Three books are published and the fourth is in production with the hopes that it will be ready by the beginning of November. You can read it at Longjohncomic.com in its entirety right now.
I’ll also be at CrockerCon with the series. I’ll have the first three books of the comic with me as well as a few prints I’ve made over the years. CrockerCon is my favorite show I do because of the wide variety of people that come through — comic fans and fine art fans — and I love talking to them both.
Ah. Yes. I should definitely plug CrockerCon. What’s your favorite part of CrockerCon?
I love — love — how, just by the very nature of the show being held at the Crocker, it forces two audiences of art to mingle: the fine art fans and the pop culture fans. I’m not saying, of course, that they are mutually exclusive from one another — I love comics but almost became an art history major at one point. But the Crocker’s collection is a very respected one by the art world and courts an audience that may not think often about the valid artistic expressiveness of things like comics. (Or as Will Eisner called the medium to make it more accessible to high art fans and academics, “sequential art”.)
Having a show like CrockerCon legitimizes pop culture art simply because it’s held at the Crocker. Plus, the high art fans can see — by getting up close with the art and talking with creators — how much thought and work goes into this form of expression as well. All this works vice versa, too. It’s important to get people to the Crocker who perhaps would not go because they “don’t understand” fine art. But it’s all art made by people who want to share something with anyone willing to spend some time looking at it.
Personally, I love both worlds and enjoy bouncing back and forth between talking to someone about comic books to talking to someone about Tenebrism.
Alright. Let’s wrap this up with some hard-hitting questions. DC or Marvel?
If forced to pick one, Marvel. Growing up, I read the X-Men, and that was it. Anything else — to my underdeveloped brain — was garbage, including other Marvel titles. I was a little zealous with my X-devotion but there is a kernel that persists to this day.
Okay. Fair enough. Each to their own. I think I know the answer to this, but what is your favorite comic book or comic series?
This is a hard question to answer. Just in terms of nostalgia and personal importance, nothing will ever be more important to me than the X-Men. In terms of books that I really respond to and love, I’d have to say I adored Jeff Lemire’s series at Image Comics, Royal City, and the 2012 reboot of the ‘90s Image Comics series, Prophet, created by the core team of Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Giannis Milonogiannis. Both Lemire (his work in general) and that Prophet reboot inspired me more than anything in the last decade to do what I do now with Long John.
Okay. So, you’ve mentioned X-Men twice. What was it about the series that caught your attention?
It was the first comic I bought, for one. But I like team because of their metaphor — a superhero team composed of outcasts, loners, and Others who fight evil to protect not only their own, but those who publicly decry them. It’s a very humanistic premise that has the potential for very compelling superhero stories as well as powerful social commentary.
The first comic I ever bought was in 1991, when the first issue of the X-Men “reboot” hit shelves, with writer Chris Claremont and penciller Jim Lee at the helm. I didn’t really know how comics worked at the time, so it took me awhile to figure out I had to go back and find #2 to see what happened next. In the meantime, I started buying comic collections at bookstores. First Publishing released colorized versions of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics that shocked me because they were much more serious, dark, and personal than the cartoon that I loved. Those books definitely shaped my views on that franchise.
Around that time, I also bought a self-contained graphic novel called X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills. It had the X-Men, so I was excited. However, it was a very sober story about hate, fear, acceptance, and forgiveness that, even until today, shaped the types of stories I not only want to read, but want to tell. God Loves, Man Kills is what made me an X-Men fan because it felt like a story that mattered that could only be told by these characters who, by their very nature, work to save all, not just the few, even if the majority hate and fear them. I’m really glad I found them at a young age because it helped me get through a lot.
More recently, the X-Men have become even more important to me, metaphorically. As a teacher, I find myself “fighting” against a lot of static that keeps my students from succeeding academically.
More recently, the X-Men have become even more important to me, metaphorically. As a teacher, I find myself “fighting” against a lot of static that keeps my students from succeeding academically. Some students think they hate writing — I teach Composition classes — or think they hate the class or college. Or they think they’re not smart enough and don’t deserve to be in college. Or they listen to greater society telling them that general education classes should be eradicated due to not having immediate skill-based relations to the job market. Sometimes, they just have difficulty of getting ideas out of their head and onto the page due to shyness, fear of judgement, or lack of tools to do so. In all those cases, I find myself fighting for everyone in my class to get their voice heard, even if they think what I do is useless.
I do this because — and I tell my students this — their voices matter, even if I disagree with it, even if they go against my personal values. My job as a composition professor is not to tell them they’re wrong with their opinions — life will do that for them. My job is to get them to write, to get their ideas out clearly, logically, thoughtfully, and effectively. If I’m good, my students won’t even know what my personal values or beliefs are because I’m here to encourage them, push them, to consider any holes in their arguments, and to provide feedback and support to make their voices and ideas clear and focused.
The X-Men are the only superhero team (or, at least, the first superhero team) based out of a school. They are not government agents or lone vigilantes. Everyone that wears the X is associated with education and, when they’re out of their costumes, are teachers, students, or working for the school. Thinking about what I do in the context of the X-Men really helped focus my duties — like the X-Men, I don’t just fight for those who agree with me. In fact, a lot of people out there actively denigrate my profession. I fight to protect the ability for every student to say what they are trying to say as clearly as possible so they can use these skills to figure out who they are meant to be long after my class and, with hope, help others along the way.
Well Dan I can’t think of a better way to end this interview. Thanks for chatting with me.