The Long and Winding Career of Arthur Suydam
Cholly & Flytrap have had almost as long and varied a career as creator Arthur Suydam has. Over the past two decades, they’ve appeared in a variety of comics and anthologies, offered from various publishers. The brainchild of Suydam, they represent and interpret some of the more mature themes of comics. Now, the epic Cholly & Flytrap series Center City, which mixes noir and hardcore adventure, has been collected from Radical Publishing. Here, Suydam opens up about the characters and his long and winding career in comics.
What attracts you to Cholly & Flytrap?
I like entities that are unpredictable.
You’ve been with these characters a long time. What’s the connection? What makes them continue to be viable after all this time?
Cholly & Flytrap and the Mudwog series were projects I developed with two purposes in mind: one, to fill what I perceived was a hole in mainstream comics, and two, to provide myself with a schoolroom to practice my writing skills and the drawing program my boss, Joe Orlando, put me on.
Were you surprised at the reaction to the Cholly & Flytrap series when it first came out?
I don’t think so. It was well received in the creative community. Over time, it has become a point of reference for many concept designers and creative independents.
How are these two antiheroes evolving? What is their place now, as opposed to back in the ’80s?
I believe that a well-told story is timeless. Stories, films, music, and clothing that I thought were the bee’s knees back then sound just as good as ever. I listen to acoustic music—anything without the distractions of vocals and drums that seem to command attention. Mostly Chopin, Beethoven, and various world folk music when I’m working and then the American folk music when I get off work—blues, rockabilly, Cajun, salsa, Dylan, and the rest. I try to stay away from trends and to stick with classical entities that will stand the test of time.
How did Center City come about? What was the story behind it?
When writing, I try to draw from the faces and circumstances around me. I write bedtime stories for adults.
In the Cholly & Flytrap trilogy, the plan was to mix and match my personal experiences with the goings-on of pop culture and politics of the day that I felt were notable and worthy of mention—to mix and match them in small chapters that when collected complete a bigger picture.
Old film noir movies of the ’40s and ’50s were my white noise backdrop, in my peripheral vision, out of sight to the right of me on a little black and white TV set. That, and I was working out with welterweight contender Terry Sutherland and studying Meuy Thai fighting, longtime hobbies of mine. These days, I’m with the Phil Nurse school. (Phil is the trainer for George St. Pierre of Canada.) [Marvel and DC at the time] were wetting their feet in the new creative market and DC had their first big hit with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
My pad was downtown on the borderline between two rival gangs. Around me, pawns were kings while the high and mighty fell. Your neighbors were wanted on the make or on the take or hung out to dry on the stake. In comics, there were mostly nine-to-fivers. I was working on this book. They’re all there in the script.
What was it like to work on Marvel Zombies and Army of Darkness and pay homage to classic comics covers?
Great. [It was] a long overdue chance to demonstrate what I can do with mainstream characters and was an essential part of developing a career as a talent in the comic business.
Management in the comic book scene are an interesting lot and are generally fairly adept with scheduling and counting beans. There is, however, a great deal more to the entertainment business. At the end of the day, it is about understanding and working with talent. An intelligent blend of both is what optimizes growth and farms successful results.
Take the music industry, for example. It used to be owned by musicians, producers, and the like—individuals who understand and appreciate the form. Today, the music industry has been bought out by A&P foods and CEOs. Individuals from boring industries who like to party with entertainers.
You’ve worked a lot in the fringe of the comics universe, particularly on books that were more mature at a time when comics were still considered to be just for kids. What was that market like when you started?
I would like to say that comics had become too predictable, but then that wouldn’t exactly be accurate or tell the entire story. Comics had always been predicable; the good guy wins, a little give and take drama and the bad guy loses. There might be some Kryptonite for a bit of drama, but the end is always the same.
Then there was the O. Henry thing—not such a surprise ending, just a role reversal where the damsel in distress turns out to be the protagonist and the vampire. Equally predictable.
It’s like kicking a dead horse. One day, you look around and realize that it’s been the same formula for 100 years. The bigger and more corporate the companies become, the worse it gets.
What do you see when you look back at your previous work?
Ah, that’s a tough one—many things. Mostly what I could and should have done here and there. Then I see my lessons and work assignments.
What are you proudest of in your career?
Pursuing a path of personal development over money. Maintaining an interest in the things that matter in life; the road less traveled.
After years in the comics business, how do you feel your art style has evolved?
As it should. Through playing sports, I was able to learn disciplines for development of skills. Over the years, it has helped me in my quest to seek out the cream of the crop, my predecessors, great writers, and great illustrators, to learn and master their skills; to add them to my own for growth. I’m a student first and foremost.
What is your creation process like? Tell us a little about how you create your comics, both stories and illustrations.
For me, writing is the practice of writing and then rewriting. For scripts, I get a story idea that I’m all hopped up and excited about. Then, I work out a plot outline with brief scene orders.
I have my own invention: a checklist of what I call “The Ten Commandments of a Great Film.” I have worked out this checklist for myself over the years, mostly from observing and analyzing common components in the industry's most creatively and commercially successful films and scripts.
First, I compile the components into a concise “to do” list. My checklist comprises common elements from the Pixar, Spielberg, and Lucasfilms and from successful television entities like Seinfeld. The blueprint is one of creative design. It functions as a guideline through the first stage of the process up to the very last day of work. Then, I translate the screenplay into publishing format and begin sketching.
It’s a reverse process to what most studios do when translating a novel like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter into a screenplay. I start by writing the screenplay first and then translate it to publishing format.
With illustration, I generally do not read scripts and prefer a brief outline of key scenes to work out my own back story for each illustration that is independent from the script.
Who are some of your favorite characters to draw?
Fuzzy little animals. [Laughs]
No, actually, I love the Radical stuff, Aladdin: Legacy of the Lost and Hercules: The Thracian Wars. Also Marvel characters like Ghost Rider and Moon Knight.
I like to think I do a pretty mean Batman. If it occurred to DC to hire me on that book, they might make a great deal of money—especially if I write it. [Laughs]
Which artists and what styles have most influenced your work?
Many of the artists from the age of illustration: Norman Rockwell, Arthur Rackham, and Edmund Dulac. There’s the EC (Entertaining Comics) guys—Al Williamson, “Fritz” Frazetta, Reed Crandall, “Ghastly” Graham Ingels, the underground guys like Vaughn Bodé, Gilbert Shelton, Crumb, and the rest. A blend of skill and talent.
Early on, I really loved Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, but that turned out not to be my thing. I came in as the guy who painted comic pages in oils and watercolors.
Your work has inspired many artists who are now entering the field. Do you see elements of your influence in comics today?
Sure. I think I see more of it in the movies and in TV properties. Those guys are always drawing from the progressives in comics. Comic creators do it all. They’re like little movies on paper. Creatively speaking, comics are where it’s at.
What drew you to the comics field in the first place, and how were you then inspired to bring your unique drawing style to bear in it?
What drew me to comics is what draws everyone to comics—reading them.
I don’t know what it is about a comic book, but nothing is as much fun as laying back and reading a good comic. I love the look, the feel, and the smell of them. It gets in your blood.
What are you working on next?
For Radical, more Cholly & Flytrap along with covers for Aladdin: Legacy of the Lost and Hercules: The Knives of Kush. For Marvel, I’m working on Ghost Rider. I’m supposed to begin work on Punisher, maybe the Hulk and Wolverine. I’m also working on Vampirella. I have two series of my own that I’m working on, doing the writing and interior art. One is a zombie series.