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September 14, 2012

‘Steel Noodles’: Friendship takes root in a post-apocalyptic world

Posted in: Comics

It’s been a big year for Louie Del Carmen, director of Cartoon Network’s new series “Dragons: Riders of Berk” — based on the 2010 DreamWorks animated feature “How to Train Your Dragon.” He is also a story artist on the studio’s upcoming animated feature “Rise of the Guardians,” due in theaters Nov. 21. And he debuted the second installment in his comic series “Steel Noodles” at Comic-Con International this summer. Though Del Carmen began working in animation more than 15 years ago — his credits include “Rugrats,” “Kim Possible” and “Kung Fu Panda” — his entry into the world of comics has been fairly recent. Hero Complex caught up with Del Carmen to talk about “Steel Noodles,” which follows an old man and a mysterious girl who must evade would-be captors and survive on a desolate planet.

HC: How did “Steel Noodles” come about? Where’d you get the idea for such a desolate world and compelling (and lovable) characters?

LDC: “Steel Noodles” is a synergy of several different things. I love intricately plotted, large-scale stories with over-arching characters and conflict. But what I really love are minimally told stories by complex characters. I also love interactivity between the story and the reader. Reading between the lines and the subtext is part of what makes stories so fulfilling. Along with that, I also gravitate to underdog, “one person against the (blank)” stories, where the individual is dwarfed by the oppression of the forces of antagonism. Then one day, I just started drawing these characters — the girl and the old man — and the more I drew them, the story seemed to start writing itself. I’m a big fan of science fiction, so I knew the world was being set in that genre. So I set out to write the entire world of “Steel Noodles.” I had to know from the inside out what made this world work. I had to be able to answer my own questions, because inevitably this would be what other people would ask. Ultimately my goal was not to reinvent the wheel; my story was going to be archetypal but minimal. It just needed to answer the questions it asks philosophically, and emotionally. I want it to be familiar but not banal. Old but fresh.

HC: There’s something very tender about the relationship between the old man and the girl. Where do you find inspiration for that relationship?

A page from “Steel Noodles,” No. 2. (Louie Del Carmen)

LDC: I think in any human being there is the primal need to protect and the need to be secure. Which means in order to feel whole, we seek out the comfort of another person while providing the same comfort to another. It’s symbiotic and basic and, even in the midst of chaos and upheaval, it is what keeps people from losing all hope for humanity. As far as the old man and the girl are concerned, they are just people with diverging paths that somehow cross and we get the benefit of seeing what their true inner characters reveal.

HC: Why do you think stories set in post-apocalyptic worlds enjoy such broad appeal? Why do people like these stories?

LDC: I’ve often theorized about this myself. Personally I think there’s a certain romanticism to the idea of survival. It’s also primal, I think — something left over from when we as a species were bumping around, trying to find our way. Contrast that with our very modern and highly regimented daily lives. I can only surmise that people just want to be lost in high adventure, dealing with the extraordinary and worrying about how to find your next meal rather than sitting in some boring meeting. Perhaps people just want to really reconnect with the feeling of being alive in the basic sense.

HC: What can we expect in Book 3?

LDC: “Steel Noodles No. 3″ will definitely reveal a lot more information than in books 1 and 2 combined. It’s now the right time in the story to tell you more about who these characters are. The turmoil and conflict will definitely shift gears, so there is a lot more tension that builds in the story. I hope to complete Book 3 by the spring if my schedule holds up.

HC: You also have a successful career in animation for film and television. Is there anything you bring from your Hollywood experience to your comics? And vice versa?

Animator and comic book creator Louie Del Carmen. (Louie Del Carmen)

LDC: It’s all related. Storytelling is something that is inherent in the individual, regardless of the medium or platform in which those stories are told through. The training and experience I receive in animation on a daily basis enables me to be able to solve most drawing problems which in turn help me make better choices, especially in comics. As a story artist, I am a lot closer to story concepts and structure, which certainly helps in writing stories for comics.

HC: How did you get into comics?

LDC: So many artists, particularly in animation, are influenced heavily by comics, and I’m certainly no exception. Growing up in the 1970s in the Philippines, I was exposed to a variety of material, from the locally produced pulp novellas to Marvel and DC fare. In between there’s a smattering of European publications, especially Heavy Metal. Comics, television and motion pictures definitely got me interested in being a storyteller, but it was comics that probably got me directed toward drawing. Fast forward some 30-plus years, and the fascination and desire to do your own comics was achievable thanks to a career in animation and gaining the worldly experience to breed real soul into the stories. It wasn’t until I was well into my animation career that I had the confidence to make something that satisfied my own standards. The real commitment to actually doing a story started in the mid-’90s when I got involved contributing to anthologies that we cooked up in the animation studios. “Samurai Slug” was the first short comic I did, and it was crude-looking and clumsy. It wasn’t until 2005 that I felt I was ready to graduate into much more streamlined artwork and stories.

A page from “Steel Noodles,” No. 1. (Louie Del Carmen)

HC: How would you describe your artistic style? Who are some of your artistic influences?

LDC: I’m not sure how to describe my art style. It changes with the story. But I suppose if there were a baseline I’d say it’s loose and free. Part of the skill set I developed over the years in animation is the ability to adapt to the many prevailing styles. It just carries over to everything else I do art-wise. Of course, there is so much amazing work out there that being influenced constantly is inevitable. There’s the osmosis and the digestion of all that great reference, and it all hopefully comes out looking like something completely your own. And speaking of influences, there’s so many it’s hard to really nail it down to a few artists, but I’d say the major ones would be Alex Toth, Moebius and Syd Mead. Later on it was guys like Katsuhiro Otomo who have such a wide range of skills and visual vocabulary.

HC: Can you talk a bit about your process?

LDC: It depends on the idea or story, but for “Steel Noodles,” I wrote the whole thing in beats and outlines. Some parts of the story are scripted because I have definite ideas in terms of what the dialogue will sound like. But for the most part I leave some room in there so I can stretch out and not be tied down. I still want some of the visuals to dictate what and how the characters react. So generally, I write before I draw.

HC: What are some of the challenges you face and benefits you enjoy with self-publishing?

LDC: I love that you’re both the artist and the editor. And it’s all or nothing, really. When you get success, it’s all on you, and when you crash and burn, it’s all your fault as well. As long as you’re deadline-oriented, I guess scheduling is also a benefit. Having the time to create at our own pace is a great thing. … The challenges are always time and money — moreso money, I guess. Printing books is an expensive endeavor, so funding is always a major consideration. But overall it’s great to be a free agent, negotiating your own deals and making inroads with other publishers. I approach it not as a pure money-making venture, but more as a way to connect with people through the material. I won’t get rich doing it anyway. At the end of the day it’s about the handful of people who really get what you’re doing that makes it all worth the effort. When it’s just you and the reader and nothing in between, it’s definitely a beautiful thing.

The cover for “Girl n Robot: Boom Town” (Louie Del Carmen)

HC: What else do you have coming up?

LDC: I’m just busy with work on the DreamWorks’ “Dragons” TV show. In terms of comics, I am always writing. I have three stories I’m working on concurrently that are prime candidates to be what I push forward after I’m done with the fourth and final book for “Steel Noodles.” Then there’s my other creation — “Girl N Robot” — which by its inherent nature is a source of a silly story or two.

– Noelene Clark

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