SCRATCH9 is a limited series, all-ages comic book recently released by Ape Entertainment starring a kitty named Scratch with an unusual talent. Thanks to a mad scientist’s experiment gone wrong, whenever his life is in danger Scratch can summon the spirit of one of his past lives including a saber-toothed tiger, the feline protector of a Pharaoh and a kitty ninja warrior. SCRATCH9 has garnered many enthusiastic reviews and is flying off shelves across the country. Writer Rob Worley and artist Jason Kruse took the time to share a few thoughts on cats, comics and creativity with CWR’s Avril Brown.
Avril Brown: Thanks for taking the time to talk, gentlemen! The infectiously adorable series SCRATCH9 has met with rave reviews and commercial success, selling out at the recent Wizard World Convention here in Chicago. What do you think is the source of the mass appeal of your book?
Rob Worley: That’s really hard to say. People love their pets, their cats and dogs. This book came from the heart and my affection for my own cats. I had ’em for 18 years and just adored those furry little guys. With Scratch9 I wanted to come up with a comic that made me feel as happy as the cats did. Hopefully that comes across to the reader. If it does I think people who have their own pets will dig it.
AB: Clearly you are a cat person, and I mean that in a good way. I read in one of your previous interviews that your kitties’ names were Itchy and Scratchy (which are fantastic names, by the way). What can you tell us about them, and do you see yourself adopting again in the near future?
RW: Itchy and Scratchy were the first cats I’d ever had. I got them as kittens and had only had dogs before them, so it really surprised me how different they were from dogs.
Itchy pretty early on established himself as the Boss Cat. All of one pound of kitten, he scold me with his tiny little voice the minute I entered the house every day. And if he thought I wasn’t listening he would climb up my jeans until I boosted him up on my shoulder. He would ride around there talking in my ear until he said what he had to say.
Scratchy was more relaxed. He was always deferential to Itchy and waited his turn for stuff. With him it always seemed to be about being polite and dignified. When the comic book Scratch calls himself “The Panther King,” that’s something that comes from the real Scratchy. He always looked like a king among cats to me.
If you can find pictures of Itchy and Scratchy online (and there are LOTS of them) you’ll see that the comic book character is modeled quite a bit on their “tuxedo” look. It was important to me that Scratch looked like the guys.
For the book’s initial launch Jason and I are doing a number of store appearances and we’ll have animal shelters at each one. There are tons of cats and dogs in need of good homes and these shelters are working to help find those homes. I still miss my cats terribly. I imagine I’ll adopt a pet from a shelter at some point but the guys were very special to me. I don’t feel like I can replace them. Any new buddy beast will have to come as something new in my life.
AB: Sounds like they were extraordinary little guys, and speaking as an employee of an animal shelter I heartedly applaud your collaboration with local adoption facilities. Have you always wanted to write an all-ages comic? What was your favorite part about writing Scratch9?
RW: It’s an idea that’s come to me gradually. Most of my earliest projects were very much the kind of things I’d want to see as an adult man. On the other hand, because of my cats and because I was volunteering for a local animal shelter, I knew I wanted to do something about pets and that it would clearly be for a younger audience. When I wrote Heir To Fire for Actionopolis I really realized how much fun it is to write for a younger audience.
I think kids love stories that are fast-paced and fun, and that lets me do things that would seem inelegant if I were writing for older readers. For example, when a new character appears in Scratch9, there’s a “Stats” box in the panel with info about his backstory. I’m not sure I could get away with that writing for adults.
For me the great part of writing Scratch9 was reflecting on all the funny, crazy things my cats used to do and trying to get that into the story. And all the goofy stuff I used to say to them — things I’d be totally mortified if anybody actually heard me say them — now Penelope gets to say all that stuff and write it on her lost cat fliers. It was fun to try to capture that.
And then working with Jason to visualize all the characters is the best. Opening an email attachment from Jason is like opening a birthday present. He’s got such a gift for character design and acting.
AB: You have written darker stories in the past such as the graphic novel The Revenant, published by Desperado, where a vengeful spirit returns to claim the lives of his murderers. Do you have a preference of genres or do you enjoy exploring all areas of comic writing?
RW: I’m a huge fan of horror stories. It’s what I started off writing and will continue to write about that stuff. I think I’m generally regarded as a nice guy, and sometimes my characters may read as too nice. So The Revenant was really the first character where my protagonist got to be the opposite of that, all the time, with no apologies and no shades of gray. That’s immensely fun for me.
But you know, there are dark things in the world and without them there’s no drama. So Scratch9 is very light-hearted but we touch on some dark subjects: puppy mills, game fighting and laboratory cruelty. I’m not trying to terrorize kids or anything, but with any story there has to be something at stake. If nothing is at stake the adventures don’t matter. When we get into the homestretch of Scratch9 everything that a little cat and a little girl can hold dear is at stake, so hopefully readers will find some real drama there.
So even with this I tried not to shy away from the dark stuff. It’s a beautiful world but there are terrible things in it. Goodhearted souls like Scratch and Penelope have to stand up to that however small and powerless they might seem.
AB: Hear hear! Do you see Scratch9 becoming an on-going series?
RW: Gosh, I sure hope so! I have lots more stories to tell and am looking to spending more time with the characters. I’m already working on the next mini-series. If Scratch9 doesn’t go as a true on-going series, I’m confident there’ll be a number of minis.
AB: Anything to get more of Scratch! How did you come up with the idea of several different incarnations of Scratch coming to his aid in times of duress? Do you believe in past lives or is this all in good comic-y fun?
RW: I would say I’m open to the belief in past lives. Certainly many people have had experiences that suggest past lives and many systems of belief allow for it.
One fascinating thing about cats is how they present themselves throughout history. They’re wrapped up in lots of mythologies and superstitions, be it ancient Egyptian mythology or early American witchcraft. I’d even seen a documentary which showed how Tibetan monks respected their presence in the temples and allowed them to live undisturbed on the premises. So there were so many wonderful things cats who lived throughout history could be involved in. It’s a very rich vein to explore, with fingers in lots of different eras and cultures.
AB: Sounds like someone is enjoying his homework, and I agree that cats are compelling creatures. You mentioned your recently published non-graphic novel entitled ‘Heir to the Fire.’ What can you tell us about your book? How is writing a novel different than writing a comic book? Is it more or less challenging as a writer?
RW: Heir to Fire was part of a book line called Actionopolis.
The book is kind of a mash-up of horror, creature-feature and hero’s journey stuff. It’s about a teenage boy living in Arizona who discovers he’s part of a lost line of elemental beings whose great city fell to these subterranean spider invaders. Now the invaders are returning to the surface and trying to kill the Heir to Fire before he can complete a prophecy that would send them underground once and for all.
I enjoyed the process tremendously. There’s a certain strange rigidity to comics that you don’t find in prose. The comic has to be 22 pages and there are certain number of panels that can appear on the page. There’s a certain level of craftsmanship to making sure the comic story works in the allotted space, and that the beats fall in the right place on the page, etc.
And it’s collaborative, so whatever story I may envision as a writer, it will then be filtered through the sensibilities of the artist.
Writing prose you have a much higher degree of responsibility. You’re telling the story and painting the visual with words. Whether the story works or doesn’t is entirely up to you as a writer. But at the same time you’re not worried about if the story is a page or two longer than expected, or whether the button on a scene falls at exactly the right place on the page.
I would also like to add that Actionopolis books are back! The original seven available as printed books on Amazon, and there’s over a dozen new books – including Heir to Fire 2 and my urban kung fu story The Legend of Tigerfist – available as eBooks on the Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Android, Blackberry and whatsit! Visit actionopolis.com.
AB: Good to know. Any advice you can dole out to aspiring writers?
RW: Write what you believe in, and believe in what you’re writing. There’s no shortage of people telling you you’re doing it wrong, it won’t work, or it might be better if you changed a bunch of stuff. Ultimately you have to be your own champion so you’d better feel confident about what you’re doing. If you are, it’ll show up on the page.
AB: That is sound advice, thanks so much, Rob! Now let us turn the spotlight over to Jason Kruse, the brilliant pen behind the pussycat. Aesthetically speaking Scratch reminds me a bit of Sylvester from Looney Toons, only lighter on the saliva expectoration and with a cuddlier face and personality. Is your artistic rendition of Scratch based upon any creature in particular?
Jason Kruse: Not really. I actually did a lot of sketches of my cats (there were only 3 at the time–we now have 4) to try to get a feel for the look and movement of Scratch. I also looked more at Hanna Barbera cats like “Top Cat” just to get an idea of how they designed their anthropomorphic cats.
AB: Of all the project you have been involved in, what has been your favorite thus far to illustrate?
JK: That’s a tough call. Scratch9 was a blast to work on but so was my own project, “The World of Quest.” I’d put them neck and neck with each other. I haven’t really done much else, but I’m hoping that changes soon.
AB: Are they any artists in particular who have influenced you and your style?
JK: Oh, so many. Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, Claire Wendling. Too many to name, really.
AB: I do love me some Bill Watterson; ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ will never stop being funny. Any advice you can dole out to aspiring artists?
JK: Keep at it. Practice. Practice. Practice. It takes time and patience to get into this industry. Show your work to everyone you can at cons. Artists and editors in particular. And don’t get defensive. We’re just trying to help.
AB: That makes sense. Practice makes perfect, after all. I have a few questions for the both of you, Rob and Jason. Is this your first project with Ape Entertainment? Are all publishing companies different in how they interact with their creative staff?
RW: This is my first project with them. I would imagine every company is different. This is my first project where I was working with my own creation, so I had a lot of authority in saying how the story was going to go. That’s quite a bit different from when you’re dealing with pre-existing material. And my deal with Ape invested me with most of the responsibilities for seeing the book through to completion. So in most ways, I was the boss on this project.
The Ape guys were very helpful in lending their creative opinions and, especially, guiding me through the non-creative stuff: the printing and distribution which is a whole area of black magic unto itself. Dave Hedgecock and Brent Erwin are nice, honorable guys and good people to work with.
JK: Yes, this is my first with Ape (hopefully not my last). I honestly dealt with Rob (tyrant) more than I did with the Ape guys. They did offer helpful input on my artwork when they felt it was necessary. It was fairly similar to what I encountered at Yen Press. A lot of creative freedom.
AB: Are they any current comic characters/books you are dying to tackle?
RW: I love Devil Dinosaur and have a take on it that I think would be really fun and prosperous for Marvel. Mostly I’d prefer to work on my own characters, I think.
JK: I would absolutely love to do something with Juggernaut and Colossus. I don’t why but they’ve always been my 2 favorite characters to draw.
AB: Two of my favorite powerhouses. Now it is time for the random question of the day – If you woke up a millionaire tomorrow, what would be your first course of action?
RW: Oh god, I’d probably do something completely selfish like a large, hedonistic party. I wouldn’t invite Jason though, but I’d let him know I was having it. Then after he begged for an invitation I would say OK, but only if he shows up in an awesome MODOK costume. Then he would find out it wasn’t a costume party.
JK: See, I’d have an even better party than Rob and not invite him but I’d record it and make him watch on webcam.
RW: If Jason’s party is on the same day as mine, I’ll probably duck out early and go to his. His does sound better.
After all the partying…it’s a tough economy, ya know? I have family members who could benefit from a little financial stability right now, so they’d probably find a large box of money on their doorstep. Or one of those giant checks. That would be sweet. And then I would video tape them bringing the giant check into the bank for deposit. Awesome!
JK: Really, I have simple wants these days like paying off my student loans and buying a house. That’d be great.
AB: Well I hope I get an invite to at least one of your parties, and perhaps I could persuade you, Jason, to turn a generous eye towards my student loans as well? Either way, SCRATCH9 Issues #1-4 are available at your local comic shop, and thank you gentlemen so much for taking the time to give the readers of CWR a chance to learn more about you. We hope to see your talents in print again soon and best of luck in your future endeavors!