Ghost Tree, a four-issue miniseries recently published by IDW, is a comic many others are afraid to be: quiet. When an artist can draw anything, creators tend to go bigger and louder with their genre stories. But, with his comic, writer Bobby Curnow told an intimate story about a man returning to his childhood home and visiting with spirits to reflect on his past. The story was refreshingly character-centric and contemplative, and I hope the comic finds a lot of new readers when Ghost Tree is published as a graphic novel in November. I appreciated the opportunity to interview Curnow about the quiet nature of the story, what inspired it, and the response he’s seen to the book. You can read our discussion below.

ghost tree comic cover

What inspired you to write a story centered around Japanese culture?

When this story was first forming in my head, I kept seeing a character returning to some place he was intimately familiar with as a child. I wanted that place to be a few things: peaceful, beautiful, far from the main character’s normal home and also representative of a way of life that could soon be past. Rural Japan has a lot of natural beauty but is also facing an exodus of young people. It’s a way of life that is passing into history and I thought that would work well for setting a story with the themes I wanted to explore.

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At what point in the process did you bring Takuma Okada in as a consultant?

At the end, after the book was lettered. If I was wiser I should have reached out sooner!

What did her role as a consultant entail?

Takuma read through each issue and pointed out things that were inaccurate either in our depiction of Japan or how the language was written on the page. (For instance, I was unaware that the word for grandparent changed depending on whether you are a child or adult saying the word.)

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What interests you about Juboku and Kodama as storytelling devices?

I never really thought about them as storytelling devices, per se. A beautiful tree, surrounded by both ghosts and forest spirits, was always baked into the DNA of the story since it first started forming. But I think the idea of these supernatural elements existing hand-in-hand with the natural world is greatly appealing: the idea that the world we know has a deeper meaning and level of existence than we can normally see is inherently intriguing. I was interested in how your perspective on life could change if your eyes were suddenly opened to this hidden world.

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Does writing such a personal, character-driven series versus something more action-oriented change your writing process?

Ha, no, not that i’ve noticed. In either case, I’m primarily looking to represent the character’s journey as honestly as possible. One type of character might solve a problem with physical fighting, but they still have emotions that drive their actions. Likewise, a character who only expresses themselves through speech can still be fighting an emotional battle within and going through a struggle that feels just as real as being punched in the face. In either case, I think my job as a writer is to try and capture the truth of a character in any given situation.

Ghost Tree is a very quiet story, focused on characters over high concepts. Did that make it a harder sell, either to IDW or to readers?

I thought that it would, but I can’t say that it has. In terms of selling it to IDW, I didn’t show anyone anything until almost the entire project was done and completed. So I was able to share the complete story. I think being able to actually read the book, and see how the story flows within the course of an issue, addressed a lot of concerns that might arise from just a dry pitch document. In short, I was able to lean on the fantastic art to help sell the story.

As for readers, I didn’t think anyone would be that interested. It’s not a flashy premise and I’m certainly terrible at selling myself or promoting my personal projects. So the fact that people have not only picked up the book, but also respond to it, has been a wonderful surprise. I will reiterate that the art team makes it a very easy book to pick up, and after a second or two of flipping through it, immerse you in the world. Simon, Ian and Becka instantly understood, and beautifully communicated, the feeling of solace and peace that I hoped that reading the book would give.

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A lot of the creator-owned series you edit are from creators who haven’t worked with a large publisher before. What do you enjoy about introducing them to a bigger audience?

I think any editor, or any connoisseur really, will tell you that there’s a very unique and special thrill that comes from finding something that deserves wider recognition than it currently has. And I’ve always, since I was a kid, been drawn to indy comics– there’s an unpredictability that is intoxicating. You never know exactly what you’re going to get. I love seeing things I haven’t seen before and being able to help others see those things for the first time is one of the best parts of the job. Being more and more involved in helping to develop to the creator-owned projects at IDW has been tremendously satisfying.

How does editing licensed comics compare to editing creator-owned series?

Either way, you’re trying to make the story the best it possibly can be. So in a pure storytelling sense, the job is much the same. But a part of the job of editor is to also to make the person behind the story is as happy as they can be. With a creator-owned project, that’s usually just the two or three creators who are creating the work. With a licensed comic, you still have those creators to consider, but also the people who own the property. In each of those situations you have to consider what the primary goal of those people are: do they just want to tell a good story, or are they also trying to keep their intellectual property thriving? Maybe they just want a quick paycheck? Every book, and every set of people behind a book, is different. So i’d say the primary difference is that there’s just more people and their desires to consider on a licensed book. That can make them more difficult to work on, but not necessarily at all. It all depends on the individuals involved.

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How do you get eyes on creator-owned series published by IDW, which is best known for its licensed titles?

This isn’t something I personally ever really think about. Marketing just doesn’t compute well in my brain. I focus on making the book as good as it can be and leave spreading the word to others. Which, in the case of IDW, is an increasingly easy and pleasant experience. Our marketing team has recently grown by leaps and bounds and are exposing our books to a great new audience.

But creator-owned series, from 30 Days of Night to Locke and Key, have always been an extremely important part of IDW Publishing. We’ve got the history there, so it’s just a matter of doing the work and keeping looking out for those new voices and new stories. If the story is good enough, people are bound to notice. So that’s where the majority of my effort goes: identifying those stories that have something to say in an interesting way.

How do you change the perception of IDW so that the publisher itself is more widely recognized for its great original stories?

I think it’s that same old chestnut that you give to new creators on how to get their foot in the door: get so good you can’t be ignored. I think if we’re consistently, month-after-month, putting out great stories that are passionate love letters to the comics medium first and foremost, then people can’t help but notice. I personally go crazy if I try and figure out what is hot right now or what the next storytelling fad is. That stuff is irrelevant. The passion that comes from a creator who just has to tell their story, no matter what, is going to be a constant source of quality. That’s what I’m personally on the lookout for.

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Follow Bobby on Twitter @thedisastrix. Ghost Tree is on sale as a graphic novel on November 20. You can pre-order it with the Order Code JUL190719, and I highly encourage that you do so.

Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and  Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at matt@mattwritesstuff.com.

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