In this interview series, I speak with other comic creators to learn about their work! Here, I have a conversation with Scott Lincoln of Ralf the Destroyer.
Travis Blair: Scott! Thanks for agreeing to speak with me. So Ralf is a Destroyer by title, and a Xyoan by birth. Where did this interesting word come from? Are Xyoans known for anything other than, well, destroying?
Scott Lincoln: Hi Travis, thank you for having me here. Ralf is indeed a destroyer by title. In the corner of the Universe, where Ralf is from, his people are quite despised. Some serious calamities occurred that they were blamed for and the dread of them spread far and fast. As for Ralf being Xyoan by birth, that may yet turn out to be a bit more complicated than was first implied. The word Xyoan came about from an amalgamation of ideas, but one of them was from the word Xenophobia, which is the fear of strangers, foreigners, or aliens, which I thought was fitting.
The Xyoan culture is also known as a race of very powerful technopaths and as such are believed to have the most advanced technology, including (what we would call) a Dyson Sphere and infinite velocity. Infinite velocity is the means to travel to any point in the Universe at the speed of thought. Although there are many advanced forms of propulsion none compare to infinite velocity, which is why The Trans-Galactic Council calls upon Ralf.
Travis: I like that much thought has gone into creating Ralf the Destroyer. Let’s take it a step back even further. I see a few dynamics at play that work well together. What led to deciding on the character, setting, and conflict types to tell your story?
Scott: All good stories start with a set of rules that the writer follows for the world they create. The first two (and most crucial) rules were 1) The only thing that can really stop Ralf from destroying Earth, is his conscience. and 2) People see what they want to see, so most humans don’t know Ralf is an alien although it’s obvious to the reader. Other than that I’m a big believer in character driven stories. It is at the point at which the reader identifies with a character (at some level) that they decide to invest in the story and mine starts with Ralf.
I generally use a very logical methodology. In the case of Ralf I was told that having an alien protagonist was impossible and I was given a list of all the reasons why he would make a poor lead. So I took the list and made Ralf just the opposite of it. This of course meant that despite Ralf looking like an alien, Ralf did not act like what most would expect. Because of Ralf’s “less than destroyer like” traits, there was great comedic potential. Figuring out how to explain it is what formed the foundation of the world I built for him. I ask a logical question and seek to answer it. During this process I realized that Ralf’s “voice” was sounding very familiar, write what you know. I start with a story point, character or fact that I am familiar with and write around it looking for the humor in it. Peter Ustinov said it best, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”.
The other characters I developed all came from people that I had personal experience with in some way. I remember when my son was three or four, there was a little girl named Alexia (who was a bit older) and she was testing out her big sister skills by attempting to corral him with out using force. It was quite comical to see her trying so hard to act responsibly and guide him and he would just walk right by her… she would zoom ahead of him and try again and again. It was that spark that lead directly to the creation of Lexi and formed the feeling of responsibility and helplessness that Lexi has with Ralf.
Most of the characters I developed were based not on a single person, but on several people that I had similar experiences with. Kaiser is visually based on my godfather but symbolic of the many burly adult males that are becoming ever more rare these days. Growing up, I was small for my age and often looked several years younger than I actually was. I seemed to be a magnet for these giants to come and try to make a man out of me. It was something I didn’t appreciate then but, the years have waxed nostalgic for me.
I don’t remember the order that I invented them all, but any time I create a new character I start with a unique look and always ask my self what they can bring to the story and humor that the other characters don’t bring already. In short, who is going to make Ralf’s life more difficult in a new way. Lexi is trying to stop Ralf from his mission quite directly with guilt, but she only has the resources of an eight year old girl. Kaiser is holding responsibility over Ralf. Mai brings unrequited love. Thane brings the men in black and conspiracy. Erin brings compassion and sincerity… But each one is also a mirror of either who Ralf is or who he may become. A few “wild cards” are thrown in, just to keep things less predictable.
From there I match them to one of the Myers & Briggs personality types and develop a back story so they have a past and motivation. After that it’s just me running a simulation of them, in my head, of possible outcomes and picking the best ones… Well, that and asking my wife for help when I get writer’s block.
Travis: Spouses usually provide quality feedback. You also mentioned feedback from others. Speaking of those in life who tell us the don’ts and can’ts, I’d like to ask you about a quote on your Patreon page, by Robert Heinlein: “Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done and why. Then do it.”
Could you talk about how this type of feedback, which many of us have heard, affects the tempering of one’s pursuit? You’ve obviously made good use of it when creating Ralf the Destroyer.
Scott: Well my pursuit began many decades ago as a teenager. One of my universal truths is “while it’s good to learn from your mistakes, it’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes”… another would be “anything with more legs than you, WILL jump at your face”, which is a truth best learned as the previous truth expressed.
Anyhow, this meant I spent a great deal of time reading “Cartoonist’s PROfiles” and Lee Nordling’s book “Your Career In the Comics” in order to learn from others. The latter was a treasure trove of information because it provided opinions not just from cartoonists but also syndicate editors, newspaper editors and various industry insiders about what was desirable in a syndicated newspaper comic strip (my goal). Some might be inclined to say there were considerable conflicting opinions, but I would rather say, contrasting. I use a lot of contrast in my art and writing because, conflict is about one side winning or losing where as contrast is about balance. Ideas like “Find a character that’s new or exotic, but keep him familiar” or “Write the story you would want to read, but you want to have broad audience appeal” etc. Trying to balance these various ideas would lay the foundation of how I would interpret my future endeavors.
A common question burgeoning cartoonists have is “How do I know when it’s time to quit?”. I would ask, “Quit what? Your love, your hobby, your career, your means of expression?”. How do you see it, what are your goals? You may have already succeeded and didn’t realize it! Every kid who plays little league sees a pro ball player and wants to do what he does. They assume that playing in the majors is the only goal, just like everyone who wants to cartoon wants to be a syndicated newspaper cartoonist… and trust me (numbers-wise) it’s more likely to be a pro ball player. There are a bunch of ways to make money cartooning and even more avenues for expression. I often ask myself “Do I have the talent for this?”, “Is it really good or is it just me?” and “Is it in my heart to do anything else?”. The last one only I can answer (which was, no), but without answering the first two it’s a moot point.
The most difficult part of the process is self editing, because it’s all so personal and at the same time clinical. Fortunately I had an opportunity to apprentice with a pro whose work I genuinely admired and this not only provided me with tools that would rocket my art stylistically but provided some “tough love” critiques. He was the irresistible force and I the immovable. I needed his fire to melt the icy glaze of artistic complacency off of me. I would hang onto an idea and tenaciously work it to death whereas he would bang out an idea, pitch it and move to the next. It was at the point where I was able to let go of ideas, that I created Ralf the Destroyer (thinking it would be something I would pitch and throw away). It was in this specific “story” and metaphor that I found my real “voice”. But I wouldn’t have if I didn’t learn to let go.
What about the first two questions? It was with my Ralf the Destroyer submissions that I had access to numerous pros, industry experts and syndicate heads (whom I would love to name drop, but won’t) and all answered a resounding yes on both counts. Unfortunately I hadn’t accounted for the invisible… timing and bias against the idea of an extraterrestrial lead. Both are nearly as tenacious as I. When I invented Ralf the Destroyer, I knew the impossible would be difficult, but if I knew exactly how long it would take and how hard it would be, I would probably have decided against it for the sake of my family. However, I’ve had both their blessing and encouragement all this time.
Travis: You bring up an interesting point about hanging onto ideas. I’ve done the same, and I’m not sure why. Being able to come up with an idea, create it, and move on seems to be a theme for successful people that I’ve heard elsewhere. At a webcomic workshop, I once heard someone ask a well-known comic creator about how to get into making comics. They replied with something to the effect of “just make comics”.
I think with all you’ve learned, it’s proven successful. So, have any lessons learned from the creation of Ralf the Destroyer helped in other aspects of your life?
Scott: I think in many ways the story I write for Ralf somewhat parallels my own (in a loose metaphorical way). I read a quote that said “writing is very easy… you tap a vein and bleed onto the page” which segues nicely into the idea that “all humor is based in some form of suffering”.
In the story of Ralf, I have the second act climax and a third act finale’ points already written down… but I’m searching for the paths that lead to those events. Though there’s no specific time frame, I’m trying to figure out how Ralf will change as a character. Will he change the world around him and for better or for worse? Will he change internally and how? Will he finally figure out what gives him purpose and meaning? I think that all people, at some point, are confronted by these questions. If creating Ralf the Destroyer has affected me in any way, it’s made me ponder these things much more extensively in my own life.
Travis: When working on these paths leading to events that might change the characters, do you have a means of storyboarding to plot it all? Also, I’d like to point out that your pondering character development reminded me of literary conflict.
Scott: The thing that I love about the medium of comic strips is how they roll along one day at a time, as I’m often an “in the moment” kind of person. I designed the strip as a daily. In newspaper duration, all the strips I’ve done would only amount to about a year and a half of daily strips as of now. I created the comic and concept with newspapers in mind, so I was looking to write at least ten years of material.
I say this because in the planned life span of the story, I’m really just getting started in the first act, so I’m enjoying this stage where the story just rambles along and the adventures kind of write themselves (as long as I’m listening to what the story wants). I really enjoy being surprised by where things go.
At the same time I have very clear plot points I want to meet when the time comes. I do not story board (thumbnail) more than a couple weeks, presently. I will probably do more formal planning once all the main characters are familiar to the readers (some of whom haven’t even been introduced yet). I presently have tiny note books with gags that I use as plot points. In truth I keep a chronological omnibus outline of the history of Xyo to the end of Ralf’s story in my head, only my wife Wendy has heard the “whole” story. Unfortunately, the way I want to tell the story is not in a straight line, chronologically, so I will have to plan it out in the future more.
As far as literary conflict, Ralf is besieged by it. A “hero” is only as good as the obstacles he overcomes”, so I gave Ralf both barrels. It’s also why I spent time telling the story of his travails before he got to Earth. Now, the whole world, 32 galaxies and his past are against him and the precious few allies he has, are limited in their intervention. Just to be thorough, I gave him no place to hide. See, Ralf isn’t only an alien because he is green, he is an alien because where ever he goes he feels alone. The aloneness and his conscience are the true conflicts he wrestles with, the external conflicts just hold up the mirror. As for the other characters, their conflict is in direct proportion to their value to the story… still, there are a few one dimensional souls that are rather crucial to the story.
Travis: With no place to hide, does Ralf have a figurative place to escape or comfort? Alien or not, that’s gotta weigh on one’s shoulders. Though, you say it is still early in the story. I’m curious about what’s in those notebooks – especially now that you mention the history of Xyo.
Scott: When Ralf was still on Xyo he had the “Forest of Knowledge” (which was briefly mentioned very early in the story) where he would often go to find sanctuary, but on Earth (presently) Ralf is still searching for that respite.
As far as the note books, they are palm sized and I write in chicken scratch so small they can be difficult to read, except for the fact that I wrote in them. There are individual gags that help define characters, some conversations and monologs that may require more brevity but contain important conflicts or plot twists. Many times the act of writing things down just makes it easier for me to remember so I don’t have to go back and read it… though I do on occasion.
As for Xyo’s history, well it’s also Ralf’s history. I think we are all affected by the past (and/or our perception of it) more than any of us are consciously aware of or are willing to admit. I really enjoy parallel story telling when it’s done well. So, I’ve been laying the foundation for it, but I’m still working on the over all theme that ties them all together. It’s on the tip of my tongue, but I haven’t punctuated it yet. But I know that Xyo’s history will play a big part of bringing Ralf to where he is and what he must ultimately decide.
Travis: Well I’m anticipating what transpires even more now from Ralf the Destroyer. I’m glad to hear so much is going into this comic, Scott, and thanks so much for speaking with me!
Scott: Thank you from inviting me, Travis, you’re a thoughtful and attentive interviewer.
Check out Ralf the Destroyer here!