JUST THE FACTS:
Born: In 1969, the son of a Canadian diplomat in Tokyo.
Currently home: Chelsea, Quebec.
Favourite comic as a kid: “I always liked Calvin and Hobbes, which I think were the most heartwarming comics on the comics page. I also loved The Far Side because they had such bizarre scenarios. As for comics, my favourite was Asterix, which seems to make sense as Atticais, in a way, a bit of an homage to that series.”
Beginnings: “I drew comics as a kid, published them myself, sort of stapled them together and gave them out to my friends. They were mostly comics about my friends.”
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JUST THE ANSWERS:
FEATHERTALE: We understand you walked away from a career as an engineer to start up this comic?
JEFF BURNEY: Yes, I was a full-time engineer with Bell Canada. But I have taken time off in the past to try to get projects like Attica off the ground. This time I’ve gotten further than in the past.
FT: So you’ve wanted to have a daily comic strip for a while?
JB: I grew up in Japan, and that’s probably where the shaping of my view on comics came from. Japanese culture is bathed in adult comics. They’re considered normal. You look at a subway there with people going into work in their suits, they’ve all got comic books open and there’s no stigma about that. You don’t see someone in pinstripes on public transit here reading Batman. So I’ve always liked adult comics, and there aren’t very many comics on a comic page that are really geared toward an adult audience. I mean Doonesbury certainly is. AndDilbert obviously assumes you’ve got working experience to a certain degree.
I was first published at the University of Western Ontario in an engineering student newspaper. I had a script called Another Day. It was all about student life. We always felt persecuted as engineers. The school had a strong football team that got all the glory. So I always drew these comics that portrayed the persecuted engineer. The football players were always put up on this platform and portrayed gloriously, and then there would be the poor little engineer.
FT: And so now you’ve got your first comic being published every day in the Ottawa Citizen. How did you pull that off?
JB: The newspapers don’t have submissions per se, but there are syndicates that do. So I targeted them first and I sent the packages off, but I couldn’t get any of them to pick me up. So I started tailoring my packages for individual papers. With the Citizen, I mailed four weeks’ work worth of strip, a cover page, a cover letter, an explanation of who the characters are and who I was. The typical stuff for freelance pitches, really. And I got a nibble from the feature editor there who sent an email saying he’d read a number of comics and none of them had resonated with him like mine. Which was really encouraging, so I just pushed and pushed and had a meeting, then another meeting, then another. Then I got in on trial. Initially they gave me six weeks as a trial run to see if it picked up a fan following. They preload the comics into their system weeks in advance, so when I say they gave me six weeks, I mean they asked for four weeks’ worth of comics right off the bat.
FT: So you’re four weeks ahead, but then in four weeks you have to give them more. So is the idea then that every day you are sort of fighting the clock and your own creativity to come up with a punchline and a comic?
JB: I don’t know what that’s like yet because I’ve got weeks of scripts. I’ve been working on this on and off for eighteen months, so I’ve got time on my side. I went on leave and started this when my child was born. Mind you, the first six months of that leave were spent with diapers and stuff and just keeping up, but for the past year I’ve been dedicated to the project. I wanted to get about twelve weeks’ worth of strips done before anything started. I remember Lynn Johnston (author of the comic For Better or For Worse) once said you have to get about a hundred days’ worth done and then give them your best twenty-four. Because that’s what they want to see for syndication purposes. So I pitched to the Citizen with twenty-four.
FT: What’s the criteria for staying on?
JB: It’s a subjective business. The editors will decide whether to keep it going after a few weeks. The Citizen is linked to a chain of papers, Canwest, and so they also have to look at whether there is a chance for the script to work in other markets. My dream would be to have this thing appear in thirteen papers across the country. Ultimately you can’t survive as an artist selling your work to just one newspaper. The prices are fixed and they are very low. They pay per week and an extra for a Sunday colour. It comes out to less than a hundred dollars a week. You can’t live on that unless you’re selling to several papers. It’s a ton of work. I take twelve hours to do these scripts. I’ve never been able to do six dailies and a Sunday script in a week.
FT: What kind of reader response have you had?
JB: In my first week I got my first fan mail from a University of Ottawa professor who wrote me to say, “I’ve been teaching Greek history to my students, and what a great time to see a script about phalanxes and other aspects of Greek life.” He said he told his students to read it, and he was sending it off to other Greek history profs to let them know that it’s out there. When you’re writing a comic set in ancient Greece and you have a Greek history professor sending you fan mail, that means something.
FT: It seems there are two scenarios here. One, Attica doesn’t get picked up and it dies. Or two, it gets picked up and you’re chained to it every day for the next umpty-ump years. Do both prospects not scare you?
JB: Well, they used to have twenty-year contracts in the syndicates. For Better or For Worse was on a twenty-year contract. That’s a bit scary, but those are gone now. They are seven-year contracts now. That’s not so scary anymore. I think I could keep Attica going for that long. I think the comic’s subject matter of Greek philosophy, war and political drama are all interesting enough to keep me going.
FT: So you don’t worry that you’re going to run out of fodder?
JB: My only worry is my hand. My hand cramps sometimes while I’m working. I’m a bit of a details fool. I spend too much time on polishing a spear when I should be just working on the joke. That’s my only worry right now.
FT: Tell us a bit about Attica.
JB: Attica is set in, well, Attica, which is the province in which Athens was the capital. The script takes place at a time when Athens has just become a democracy and its democracy is under threat from external forces in the form of Sparta. I built the concept around this whole idea that the citizens of Athens are in a crisis. They know that Sparta is readying for war. They are quickly trying to arm themselves, but they are not professional soldiers. They are not a professional army like the Spartans are. So that’s one of the areas of contrast that I am working off of. They are just everyday people also working in the army. So the war is present, I want the war to be there, but it’s not the whole story. It’s kind of like with Asterix. You always knew that the Romans were there, but they weren’t the centre of the story. The backstory is that they are always at war with Sparta and Sparta is threatening. It is the most powerful army in the region, so the Athenians have to use their wits. They have to outwit them, and that’s a constant through the story. They have to use the power of reason to defeat a nearly invincible force.
FT: So this ancient storyline is actually rather contemporary and rooted, at least somewhat, in modern international relations?
JB: That’s right. I mean, democracy is still fragile today.
FT: Have you been to Greece?
JB: No, I’m an armchair archeologist. I go deep into books. It’s surprising how much of what people know is coming from painted artwork on vases and from just pottery that the Greeks used in their everyday lives. The actual eyewitness accounts are few. But the paintings that the artisans did tell us about the lives of the Greeks. The archeologists, they dig these paintings up and they are then able to draw conclusions from them. So there is a sort of graphic history for ancient Greece, and much of this strip is taken from that.
FT: You work from home, correct?
FT: Can you describe your work environment?
JB: I get up with the kids. I get them breakfast, then I do a switch with my wife, who is also at home right now. She takes the kids, and I go downstairs to a basement studio and start working. I’m not one of those people who do one story and then move on — I work in a batch format. So I sit down and I start working on a batch. I work with a pencil. I get the language to where I want it, and then I get balloons in there, and then the artwork follows. The days are long. I start at about 9:00 a.m. and I go until about 8:00 p.m. But the workday is split up. I have breaks with kids and whatnot. I’m not just sitting down there all day.
FT: And what are you hoping to get out of Attica?
JB: A twenty-year contract would be nice. I wish I had a few papers on board to pay my bills and just be doing this non-stop.
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