• Equestria Daily Interview Series: Interview with IDW MLP Comic Writer and Cover Artist Thom Zahler

    Thom Zahler is someone whose work I first ran into back in 2007. It was the twentieth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Pocket Books—an imprint of Simon & Schuster, the company the holds the license for publishing Star Trek Books—had published a short story anthology called The Sky's the Limit. I've had that book for nine years now, and every so often my mind wanders back to one particular story in that collection.

    The story that I keep going back to—'Til Death—is the same story co-written by Thom Zahler. A man who has become a fairly regular presence on the IDW My Little Pony Comic Line. Considering how large a part of my life the comic line has become, it's ironic that one man who I got to know extremely well for My Little Pony is put together a short story for the biggest franchise in my life.

    Thom, I tip my hat to you.

    Below the break you'll find a transcript of the interview I was honored to conduct with IDW Cover Artist and Writer Thom Zahler. I hope you'll enjoy delving into his history, comic properties, and a very Trekkie analysis of Trixie and Rainbow Dash as much as I did. Strap yourselves in folks, you're in for a wild ride.

    Okay Thom, I've asked this to every single person who I've ever interviewed for Equestria Daily, so it only fits that I should ask you this first. Who was your favorite pony?

    Thom Zahler: Honestly, my favorite pony keeps changing, and this is because I really need to be a fan of the character that I write. Every time I get to write on a different character, that character becomes my favorite. Left to my own devices, just cold, I would probably pick Twilight Sparkle. She's the first one I wrote, and she's the closest to me in temperament, skills, and hobbies. So she is immediately the most relatable, but I very much liked writing Zecora. I liked the few times that I've gotten to write Spike and I loved writing Pinkie Pie in the my latest Friendship is Magic stories.

    Oh, gee, I don't think anyone could tell by how much fun she was having as an apple. I wonder if you managed to translate that same level of insanity to her as a bat?

    T.Z.: When you're doing an ensemble piece like that you want to make sure everybody gets their time to shine. Sometimes you scale that stuff back a little bit. Pinkie Pie got a really big scene here in part one, so I needed to focus on some other ponies.

    What are your thoughts on your work being translated into Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Italian, and hopefully some day Polish?

    T.Z.: Believe it or not, Love and Capes has been translated into Polish! *laughs* They're scanlations, which I look the other way on. However, I know they're penetrating a market, so I'm okay with that in that limited instance. That said, it is a very humbling thing to realize that something that you've done is getting that kind of coverage. You start realizing how lucky you are to work on the property that you're working on and to be part of something that has that kind of reach.

    Yeah, I still can't believe how many languages your Twilight Sparkle comic has been translated into. It just seems like it just keeps growing, and growing, and growing.

    T.Z.: I really wonder what stuff gets lost in translation. I've got a pun in Twilight Sparkle’s comic that's a reference to Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and I don't know if that translates when it goes into a different language.

    I don't know how much of that gets lost. It's why some comics—not pony comics—try to reference stuff either very quietly, try to make sure that their work doesn't involve too many puns, or doesn't involve too many pop culture references. They do that because they want it to, one, be able to age well, and two, be able to translate well without losing any of that part of the humor.

    Especially since language is about conveying ideas. So it would be kind of hard to get the exact word-for-word definition in one language if you're translating an English language pun.

    T.Z.: I would kill to be able to see and to read my work in a different language. The Fluttershy and Zecora story especially. Zecora's stuff all rhymes and that’s hard enough to do in the language that I know. Honestly, I do not know if Zecora rhymes in other languages. I know some romance languages have enough of a base that might actually be a little bit easier because there are so many suffixes that attach, but I can't imagine having to try it.

    There is a particularly difficult scene I had to write for the script. It’s when Zecora is trying to get information out of the animals. I always had it so that she was going to tell really bad jokes, and the animals were going to be compelled to finish the jokes. When plotting the story, that's easy to write from the twenty thousand foot level. However, when you get into it, you realize you not only have to write those jokes, but you also have to make them rhyme.

    That was a huge challenge to be able to do that. Then if you had to translate that into a different language and still make the jokes and the rhyming work, that's an insane challenge.

    Translators definitely have their work cut out for them, moving the stuff into a new language. I think most translators have a little bit of time before they get to tackle that particular challenge, but yeah we'll see.

    So, How did you first get started in comics?

    T.Z.: I was dropped on my head a lot when I was a kid. That's pretty much how it started. *laughs*

    All my life I've known I wanted to be cartoonist. I never wanted to do anything else, so I—with a Batman level of precision—designed my life to make this happen. When I was in high school I worked for the school newspaper and did the comic strip. I worked on the yearbook and anything I could to teach myself how to work under deadlines. Then I went to The Kubert School in New Jersey—because at the time it was one of the very few schools that taught cartooning. I learned about the school from reading comic books. In the backs of comic books—before the letters would go up with actual letters and the responses from letter column writers—you would see the bios of all the artists who worked on the comics. So many of them went to The Kubert School. I said to myself “Well, I think this is the place for me.”

    While I was at Kubert, my first gig was lettering an issue of Hero Alliance Quarterly. I think it was issue number three for Innovation. That came about because a friend of mine, Bob Ingersoll, was working on the book. He needed a letterer and he gave Innovation my name. After that it was just going to convention after convention, sending sample after sample, and doing all the hard, monotonous stuff, trying to get people to notice and hire you.

    There's a level that we miss now. In the '90s, you had second tier publishers who couldn't pay what DC and Marvel did, but gave you the ability to get paid to do sample pages. So working for Comico or Innovation was not the kind of thing that would let you go off completely on your own just from working on comics, but it was giving you the experience you needed and the published material that you wanted to have in your portfolio that you could show to another company.

    These days, it feels like so many comics are either from the big five, or it's self-published work. There's not a lot of middle ground for people to really hone their skills. There's nothing of the equivalent of those really bad syndicated shows in the '90s where you would act on that for a couple years. It wouldn't be great work, but you would learn your craft so that you could go on to something else.

    Nowadays, it's expected that if you're going to be an artist or a writer in the comic book industry it's like, “There's the web, get to it.”

    T.Z.: Yeah, it's so accessible, but it takes something out of it when you're doing it completely on your own. You lose the benefit of the experience of the editor and the other people that you're working with.

    There's a certain amount of challenge to writing something, or drawing something that is not exactly what you want to do.

    In Love and Capes, I was drawing people having relationships—so I didn't have to draw a lot of fight scenes—but if I wanted to draw The Avengers, Marvel would want to see me draw fight scenes. I’m always very careful in all the work that I do—since I'm often both writer and artist—to try not to write a page that's just there because it's going to be easy to draw. I want to make sure that I'm writing the page that needs to be written, and then drawing what the story requires. Not thinking, “If I set the scene in a coffee house instead of a football stadium I'll have to draw less people, so it will be faster.” I don't want that to factor into the decisions that I make.

    So when you were working for the smaller companies, they were giving you stuff, but they were also training you to do the things that you were going to need in the industry. Because you can't just self-select and say, “well, I'm not going to draw anything with backgrounds because I don't like doing that.”

    If you were to say that Marvel or DC, they'd laugh you right out the door.

    T.Z.: Yes, they would.

    The second tier publishers—like Caliber Comics or Lone Star Press—were basically just put by the wayside.

    T.Z.: Yeah. I worked for Lone Star, Caliber, Innovation, Anarchy, Tap, and I think for Triumphant. There wasn't a small-tier publisher that I didn't put out of business. *laughs*

    Dang. I wonder if IDW should be worried.

    T.Z.: Well, they started publishing Love and Capes and they became the number three publisher in comics. So I think my luck has changed. *laughs*

    I know there used to be a difference between second tier publishers and your own imprint when you're self-publishing books. What made you decide to go with the name Maerkle Press for your own comics?

    T.Z.: Yeah, it's actually named after my grandmother.


    T.Z.: She was one of the reasons I am able to do what I do. She was my biggest advocate, and often when my mom was questioning whether or not this what should do, she was the one who said, "No, he will be fine." She was just a great person in my life, so when I had a company, I had to name it after her. The reason I self-publish is that I wasn't getting anywhere getting people to hire me to do the things that I wanted to do. So the first thing I self-published was a book called Raider. It is—as most people's first self-published project—super huge in scope and intent and does not survive contact with the industry. We all have these magnum opuses. We all want to do Cerebus, or Strangers in Paradise, but the market does not necessarily let you do that.

    I made a lot of mistakes on Raider in terms of how many do you print, how many do you ship, doing the marketing for it, and all sorts of things like that. When I eventually did Love and Capes, there were so many things that I learned from working on Raider that made Love and Capes work better. Love and Capes as a concept works better. The art is more in my wheelhouse. The writing is more in my wheelhouse. So many things worked together so well that that is why Love and Capes did as well as it did. But it stands very much on the shoulders of what happened when I was working on Raider too.

    Love and Capes was actually designed as a much smaller series. It was honestly not supposed to go twenty-four issues. I didn't intend for that to happen. It was supposed to be a much smaller, easier, bite-sized piece, for me to try to do something different after Raider became unfeasible to keep doing with the way I was doing it.

    For those of us who haven't read Love and Capes yet, what can you tell us about the series that basically launched your career?

    T.Z.: Love and Capes is a superhero romantic comedy. It's about a superhero who says “I love my girlfriend and I'm going to tell her that, but if I tell her that, I'm going to have to tell her everything.” It explores if the questions of “Is there ever a good time to tell your girlfriend you have x-ray vision? What does she want for Christmas when she knows you can crush coal into diamonds?” And things like that. It started off because in Raider I wrote characters that kind of had that Batman-Catwoman relationship. I found that I really liked writing those two characters. I liked the banter. I liked writing the humor. I didn't think that I could necessarily write like a gag-a-day strip, but I wanted to write relationship comedy.

    After I decided to stop Raider, I wanted to do something that had much more cartoony tone because I was having so much fun drawing that for other clients.

    I came down to two ideas. One was Love and Capes, and the other one was what became Long Distance.

    Could you tell us a little bit about Long Distance?

    T.Z.: Long Distance is a romantic comedy about a couple who meet in an airport during a snowstorm, and they hit it off. They decide that they're going to date even though they both live in different cities, and there's very much a question of how do they make it work and if they can make it work at all. So much of the book takes advantage of technology, because you really see them text, and email, and tweet, and everything we do now.

    Our phones have allowed us to have a constant sub-level telepresence. You don't have to wait to call somebody to make sure they're home and if they've got time to talk. You don’t have to go through the social constructions about how you say hello, and ask how their day was—don't get me wrong, those are not bad things—because if I just want to show you a picture of a book that reminds me of you and say, "Thinking of you," that's so much easier in text than dialing a phone number.

    You begin to just constantly be there, be around that person in a digital way that makes the distance a little easier to handle. Not that they don't have problems with the distance, but I really wanted to tell that aspect of the story. I felt that was really interesting, especially these days because even from the original pitch ten years ago to the book I did, the technology and the reality of things just changed so much that it's a fascinating story to try to dive into.

    Technology is making it easier and easier to see people who you otherwise wouldn't see.

    T.Z.: Oh yeah. You used to have to write a letter, send it through the mail, and wait through a two or three day turnaround time if you were lucky for a response. Or you could decide to call at potentially a confiscatory rate, and then they can't do anything else while they're talking to you on the phone. I suppose they can do some stuff—you can potentially do your laundry—but it's not like I can be at work and constantly trading texts back and forth with somebody. The social construct is such that if I wait five minutes to text you, it's not a big deal. It may have meant I took care of whatever client needed to be taken care of before I responded to you. If we were on the phone, I wouldn't be able to do that.

    And forget even trying to call another person outside of the country.

    T.Z.: Oh yeah.

    With Skype it's like, "Hello, I'm calling you from Germany."

    T.Z.: Between email, text, and Skype there are no barriers as far as geography goes preventing communication.

    Aside from doing Love and Capes, you've done a little bit of lettering work for a couple of other IDW series. I know that IDW has listed on their website that they prefer to hire in-house, so how did you end up lettering for IDW?

    T.Z.: The two projects that I can recall that I've lettered for IDW were Illegitimates, and my Twilight Sparkle issue. The Twilight Sparkle issue was a package-deal. I was already writing and drawing it and I said, "Hey, let me letter it." There's so much lettering that it's part of the art, and knowing where to put things and how to help the reader flow through the page. As someone who generally does an entire book by himself, it's difficult for me to set up the book in such a way that it can be broken down into pieces. The lines blur all over the place because of my process. I know I don't have really pencil that background because I know I'm going to ink it and it's going to be fine. You can't do that when you're giving your work to different people at every stage along the line. So I asked Bobby Curnow [MLP Editor] if I could letter it, and he said yes.

    Illegitimates had life before IDW picked it up, which is why I was attached as letterer. Mark [Andreyko] and Taran [Killam] had me work on some sample pages, had me attached when they were ready to do it, and then when it landed at IDW, they just kept me on as letterer. I am very appreciative for that because they didn't have to. In addition to that, I've lettered for Motown Records Comics—back when they were part of Image—I've lettered for Lone Star Press, I've lettered for Claypool, I've lettered for Starbridge, I've lettered for Action Lab, and I lettered Skyward. When I was at Kubert, hand lettering was starting to crest and be replaced by computer lettering. So I learned the skill of hand lettering, and then was doing well enough that I could, by the computer, start figuring out how to do computer lettering. So I was ready for that change when it happened.

    You've mentioned before that lettering has its own art to it. How much would you say lettering differs between, drawing a comic, inking a comic, and coloring a comic?

    T.Z.: Lettering specifically deals with design. There is definitely an art to the construction of letters, of the sound effects, of the title design—which is probably its own beast. It has a type of aspect to it where it's not so much about the actual construction of every letter, but it's about how those [word balloons] sit on the page, draw the reader’s eye, lead the reader around, and service the story. All of them have their own technical aspect, but lettering has a little more. Especially once the industry moved to computer lettering. You can tell the people who know how to letter from the people who know how to type because with hand lettering there is a physical skill that had to be learn.

    With computers, a lot of that is taken care of. You don't have to paste anything down. You're lettering the comic on layers. You don't have to worry about trying to get something straight because the computer does that for you. As a result, the threshold to enter into a job like that becomes less because the things that would have kept you out—like being unable to key-line something—has been taken by the computer. It's very easy to create really clean looking junk. I see it with design—and I see it with lettering—where you see people who know how to type, but they haven't quite figured out how exactly to make that balloon shape pleasing to the eye. Or when to break this piece of copy off because there's a little too much. Or where to put the word balloons so that the right character's talking at the right time and a joke isn't getting blown because the reader is seeing that balloon before they see the setup.

    It's all about the timing. So much stuff is timing in storytelling.

    To go with a film production analogy, the person who draws the comic is basically the director for the story. The colorist, I end up seeing more as the special effects artist. So, the letter is really the last piece in bringing the writer's story to life?

    T.Z.: Yeah, and the lettering is a very thankless job because if you do it right nobody notices it. There are very few cases of lettering that is so awesome that you notice it. Todd Klein's run on Sandman comes to mind, but ideally you're servicing the story. You're making sure that the reader knows what's going on. If you're doing it right, you're trying not to be intrusive. You almost want to fade into the background so it doesn't get noticed.

    Coloring, there's a lot that you can do for setting mood and tone, just by the colors you pick. Heather Breckel on the Friendship is Magic book—the first time I saw her working was on the Fluttershy Zecora Friends Forever Issue—just raised the level of that book with her colors. There was such a sweetness and a brightness to it that improved the whole experience.

    I have to say I agree. Heather really does bring a life and an energy to these books.

    T.Z.: There are tons of talented people out there, but she is certainly knocking it out of the park. It's the kind of thing that, weirdly, if you watch the CSI shows, you’ll be able to appreciate. All of them are filmed in Los Angeles. At least the last time I checked they were. They do things with changing the color pallet to make New York look different than Miami and different than Las Vegas. I always thought that was really interesting. The colors are so saturated and sun-kissed on CSI Miami, and the pallet is so de-saturated and almost muted in the New York show. You can start seeing how much of an effect color can give you both in terms of place and of tone.

    Yeah, because Miami is bright and sunny, and New York City has a character and identity all it's own.

    T.Z.: Well, it's not like New York can't be bright and sunny, and it's not like Miami can't be overcast. But they did such a good job playing with what people perceive that environment to look like that it makes it feel real. I think we all have our time watching those shows. I don't watch them anymore—there are far too many of them, and you burn out after a certain point—but they actually had me fooled in the Miami show for a couple episodes. I thought they actually were filming in Miami, because it looked so much different than the other shows I saw.

    How did you end up working on My Little Pony?

    T.Z.: IDW announced the My Little Pony Comic at San Diego Comic-Con in 2012. My girlfriend is a huge My Little Pony fan, and I knew that IDW was going to do multiple covers, so I went to talk to them. I met the editor and I said, "Look, you know what stuff I do. Your company publishes me,"—which has that nice imprimatur of saying, “you know I can hit that line, you know I know the process, you know I'm professional, so that stuff is all clear.”—“You're going to do a couple dozen covers, so I would like to draw just one if you've got an opening.”

    I was thinking that it would be cool and would impress her. Bobby said, "Do you want to pitch the book," and—since I’m not an idiot—I'm like, "Yes." Then I started catching up on My Little Pony. That was my exposure to the franchise, learning about the world, the concepts, and the characters who are so well delineated. They're so rich, obvious, and real that it becomes really easy to pitch for them.

    In fact, I think, all of us who work on the book have the experience of pitching a story that winds up being too close to something that the show already has got going. As frustrating as that is, I appreciate it, because it means that I was on the same wavelength as they were. When you know Twilight Sparkle is a book nerd, you start coming up with book nerd stories. But that's in the character. None of the characters are one note, and none of them are cookie-cutter. There's a richness and a complexity to them that makes it really easy to start thinking of stories for those characters. You get them so quickly that it becomes very easy to figure out what kind of stories you want to tell with them.

    Like Fluttershy suddenly waking up one day and realizing that all her animals actually can talk back to her.

    T.Z.: Yes, and speak out loud. I know that was one of the things about that issue. I wanted the idea that these animals were speaking to her, like, directly, there was no translation error, or there was no skills she was using. It was all of a sudden, they were able to talk out loud clearly, and there was just no barriers between them whatsoever.

    Which was, as we'll get to in a minute, a huge shock to her.

    T.Z.: Yes.

    Yeah, so for Twilight Sparkle's Micro-Series issue, you ended up pitching the absolute classic Cornish, New Hampshire story of a student who goes to Cornish in search of the author of The Catcher in the Rye. Did you know that that was actually something that was done in Cornish, with people looking for J.D. Salinger, before you wrote that issue?

    T.Z.: I didn't, I probably would have suspected it, but no, I didn't know that that actually happened.

    How did you end up coming up with the idea for Catcher in the Rye for Twilight Sparkle?

    T.Z.: The original pitch was Twilight Sparkle waiting in line at a bookstore to meet her favorite author, and then the author flakes and never shows up, but she has such a good time waiting in line that that is her adventure. That is, in some ways, based on my experience waiting in line for tickets for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace a month before the movie came out. Although I did get tickets—that part worked out just fine—it was just so cool to be in line with people who shared what you were interested in. It was just this awesome day that I wanted to capture some of that.

    Bobby passed on that initial idea, and then I came up with a second version. The idea of was of Twilight Sparkle finding a book that she adored, and then realizing that it was supposed to the first part of a series. So she goes to the library and takes out this book and is like, "This is fantastic, I'll take the next one," and she finds out there's no next one. It was going to be that she would use clues in the book to figure out where the author lived. That was the pitch Hasbro was worried about it being too much like an episode that was coming out the next year.

    This is one of the things I love about Bobby so much. There are editors who will almost just check off a box in their head, and say, "Okay, well I'll got to the next person on my list who's got an idea." But Bobby flipped me an email and came up one who came up with kind of the finding force or angle to it, which It thought worked well, but it was definitely a challenge to make that work in twenty-two pages.

    It was a very, very well written story, that's for sure.

    T.Z.: The thing that was most important to me was that Twilight Sparkle had to be smart. If I start setting up that Twilight Sparkle has this author she really likes that never writes again, it's going to be obvious just from the law of extraneous characters that Twilight Sparkle is working for the J.D. Salinger type. That's why I was very happy with the idea that Twilight Sparkle figured it out five pages before it's revealed to her, and she is just keeping that secret because she figured that the author wanted it kept a secret.

    It makes Twilight Sparkle smart. If I had done twenty-two pages of Twilight Sparkle not seeing what's right in front of her—even though it's not completely fair because we know from story structure what Twilight Sparkle doesn't know since she's in the story—it would have been a disservice to the character.

    Being able to have her come out and say, "Hey, yeah, I knew it was you all along," respects the character of Twilight Sparkle.

    The issue definitely felt like it was a near-perfect analysis of Twilight Sparkle's character. The one thing that I feel that could've been a lot better—and I also said this to Tony Fleecs as well about his very first issue that he ever drew—was that the art could have been a lot, lot better. Especially with the last couple of covers that you've done for Night of the Living Apples. Have you ever looked back at those pages that you drew and be like, “yeah, yeah, I see what I did wrong here. If I were to draw this now I would do X, Y and Z differently”?

    T.Z.: I'll say I see that in a lot of my work, but I especially see it in the pony work. It was a compressed enough timeline that I was trying to figure out how to draw the ponies while I was drawing the story. So for me—and I don't know about Tony—there are rules to how the ponies are put together. Some of those rules are not necessarily obvious from looking at them and some of those rules are inconsistent in the show on occasion. At that point the only book that was out was Andy [Price’s], so there weren't a lot of great place to look to see how someone solved the same problems that you're having.

    The book is honestly a little painful for me to look at. Because when I see it I'm like, "Oh, why did you do that! You didn't realize you just needed to do this instead!" or, "This is how you draw that leg!" or, "Why are you doing this with this character!" I drew Jade Singer a little bigger because I thought she was older and that was part of how I was trying get that across. Even in mainlining all the My Little Pony stuff, I didn't appreciate how they're all based on a single body type or two.

    It's the kind of stuff that if given an infinite timeline, you can start figuring out. But when you're under the gun, sometimes you miss those things in the service of trying to get the page done.

    Which makes sense because when you start out with anything, you're not going to be the expert at it. There's always a learning curve.

    T.Z.: It is why I have said I will never get a tattoo. If I got a tattoo, it would have to be something that I drew and in six months I would hate it because I've gotten better. But that's the goal. You should be constantly getting better. You don't want to have this point where you go, "Yes, I've got it all down, and I'm at the peak of my game, at the top of the ladder and there’s nothing more for me to learn here." You always want to be pushing and going forward. If you're doing it right, that's what's happening.

    That reminds me of a certain Disney quote featured in a certain movie that's often overlooked.

    From the single, solitary adventure for Twilight Sparkle meeting J.D. Salinger, we go to a team up book in your very next issue. This Friends Forever involved the very unlikely team-up between Zecora and Fluttershy. How did you come up with the idea for that particular pairing?

    T.Z.: I really wanted to do a Zecora story. I had a Zecora pitch for the micro-series. There was something about that character that I just kind of related to. It could be the Z thing. It could have been—as goofy as—how for the first couple years of doing comic shows were after I started on the book. The con organizers would put all the pony people together in one section at the convention, and then I think I wouldn't be with them because of Love and Capes was my own brand. So I felt like I was the one exiled to the forest. *laughs* But really I just thought she was an interesting character. I thought the idea of writing all in rhyme would be interesting, and I kept wanting to tell the story or why she didn't live in Ponyville. There are aspects of the story as it's set up where you kind of go, "But why does she have to live in the woods?"

    My Zecora story was a pitch explaining why she chooses to live in the woods. Some of that actually makes it into my Friends Forever story, because—and this is one of those headcanon kind of things and certainly a better idea from the show could change it—of reason the that the hut blows up. Where Zecora basically says in rhyme, "Look, I'm just away from you guys because I work with a lot of dangerous stuff." I like that idea, and I like explaining a little bit of that.

    I knew I wanted to do Zecora, and honestly when I was getting caught up on the show, I realized that Discord was kind of like Q. For some reason a connection in my head was made that allowed me to realized that Zecora can kind of be like Guinan. If you have a character who has an impish quality like Discord, he can cause something to happen that is going to affect one of the ponies. Then that pony is going to go to Zecora—because she's the next powerful and most successful magic user—to figure it out, assuming it was weird enough that they don't go to Twilight Sparkle first.

    I'm pretty sure animals starting to talk, but only to Fluttershy, would be exactly the sort of thing that Twilight Sparkle would be able to figure out. That's definitely something that's happened in a book before. *laughs*

    T.Z.: One of the things we get the opportunity to do in the comics that doesn't happen in the cartoons is that we can flesh out some of the premises that they have that they might not be able to spend a ton of time on. My Friends Forever Number Five came out about the same time as the season four finale. Discord essentially betrays the Mane Six, but we've known from before that Fluttershy and Discord are friends. So in the final two episodes of that season we see that they've apparently hung out together.

    We just haven't seen that because that is, one, not necessarily an interesting episode, and two, because it would focus so much on those two characters at the expense of the others. The show only gets to do twenty-six some episodes a year and it may not be the episode that a show writer wants to plant their flag in. But in the comics, I can totally do a story that is essentially one of the times that Discord and Fluttershy hung out.

    Which of course was the unexpected, yet expected twist at the end of issue five.

    T.Z.: When I was at Fiesta Equestria two years ago, Brenda Crichlow, Andrea Libman and Vincent Tong, who were the voice actors guests that year, read the entire issue out loud in a video comics kind of format for one of the panels. It was kind of a game-time decision because nobody had put it together. They didn't get those actresses because I was going to be there. I wasn't invited because they were going to be there. It's was just that one, big, happy coincidence. So they all read the issue out loud, kind of like a cold read, and I think there's a YouTube video of it. 

    [Interviewers Note: You can find that video here.]

    It's just amazing, but as a writer, what was really interesting to me is that I could watch people read my story, which doesn't always get to happen, and certainly not in the best way, because you know, an issue of a comic will take me a month to do, and then I'll watch someone read it in fifteen minutes and then I will be sad. But this allowed, because they're reading out loud, you got much more like a real time pacing, and it was so cool to see people start figuring out that it was Discord. Just like the oohs from the crowd as they realized what's happening on the next page, that kind of stuff, it was just such an incredible experience as a writer.

    I bet it was. That, and also giving a voice to Angel Bunny, I'm sure was tons of fun.

    T.Z.: Yes! Vincent Tong essentially gave Angel Bunny Mr. T's voice, which was hilarious! Andrea Libman immediately said at the show that that's how she’s going to picture Angel Bunny talking from now on.

    I pity the fool!

    T.Z.: Exactly! *laughs*

    How did you stumble across the idea of teaming up Rainbow Dash and The Great and Powerful Trixie?

    T.Z.: When I was pitching Friends Forever I was reading character descriptions. It's not that I didn't know the characters, but it's good to have some sort of reference point so that you can start thinking of who to use, who might have been in an episode I didn't watch yet, and things like that. When I got to Trixie's character description, and I forget where I read it, but I looked at it and I said, "She's Harry Mudd from the old Star Trek." That is the construct that allowed me to understand that character.

    Well, I can write a Harry Mudd story—that's really easy—but if you write Harry Mudd, you need Captain Kirk. You need the character who's flashy, a little arrogant, and sometimes too full of themselves. That's Rainbow Dash. That's why these two characters had to team up, because the paradigm that I was establishing required two people with those kind of egos. Someone who is pretty much as good as she says, and someone who really isn't as good as she would like to be.

    I think that sets up a lot of really good conflict between the two of them. There are a lot of places where they can play off each other.

    Yeah, especially when Trixie was busy telling Rainbow Dash her little story where her mouth was saying one thing, but her flashbacks were saying something completely different.

    T.Z.: Oh yeah, because that's the kind of thing, that character is always going to try to put themselves in the best light. I didn't realize at the time how much of a following Trixie had, and sometimes we discuss why she has that kind of following. I think Trixie is just a character who, she wants to take the shortcut. Like, she's not a bad person, but because she wants things, and she wants them without doing all the work that she needs to do, she'll sometimes make a decision that puts her in a poor place, and causes problems for everybody else.

    That's seriously my all time favorite part of that issue. That little two panel sequence right there.

    T.Z.: Thank you!

    You really nailed her character right there. What ultimately led you to the solution of that little problem that Trixie ended up getting herself into?

    T.Z.: Well, when you're writing a story where she's going to be trapped, you have to figure out why she can't just escape on her own. The type of story that I wanted to tell was causing me to come up with solutions that would keep things going. I wanted it to be very much a Rainbow Dash solution, but I also wanted it to be a team-up solution. So it wasn't just Rainbow Dash rescuing Trixie, but it was the two of the coming up with an idea that took advantage of both of their skills. The Sonic Rainboom is just awesome, and that was a great thing for her to do to distract everyone. Then to actually have Trixie do a magician's type trick to get rid of the treasure of Diamond Dogs just seemed kind of natural to me.

    It was pulled off brilliantly. And this issue was part of the Summer of Trixie as the several in the fandom ended up calling it.

    T.Z.: Yeah, there was some odd scheduling stuff. Originally, my two issues were not supposed to be back-to-back. I don't remember exactly why that happened, but all of a sudden my issues started coming out back to back making it the Summer of Thom too. That's above my pay grade to worry about.

    Well, it's Bobby's pay grade, and I don't think he's talking much.

    After your last little stint in Friends Forever, we didn't see you in My Little Pony—at least as far as writing the issues goes—for a good, long while. Busy with other projects?

    T.Z.: Yeah. Other projects, tons of convention appearances, and as the book has gotten more popular it has more regular people working on it. A lot of times, the book is planned out way ahead of time. I wrote my two Friendship is Magic issues over a year before they actually saw print. That's how far out we were scheduling those.

    That far away? Wow, that's crazy. Even though you haven't been writing many My Little Pony comics, you haven't been very far away from the franchise. Especially since you've been designing some of the trade releases of the comics.

    T.Z.: I've been doing design work for IDW for about a year now. It started when I designed the look for the Adventures in Friendship hardcovers, the Adventures in Friendship logo, came up with the dot pattern, and figured out how colors were going to work throughout the series. From there I've done a bunch more, and some of the series trade dresses were already set. I designed one of the Friends Forever collections—that trade dress had already been designed—so there I'm choosing colors and doing some layout stuff. For the most part, I was following the pattern that started out before I got there.

    I also designed the FIENDship is Magic trade. That was really cool because we got to dip into a different design sensibility. It's a design challenge to take something like My Little Pony—which has its logo is consistently colored pink and purple no matter where you go—and try to get colors that work with it. Books like Superman, or X-Men, or any comics like that have the logo change color from issue to issue to suit the cover.

    But the My Little Pony books don’t do that. So to do a book about the bad guys and come up with a trade dress that says bad guys but still works with the My Little Pony sensibility was really interesting.

    How different is it from drawing, writing, coloring, and lettering a comic to actually designing a trade dress to collect those comics?

    T.Z.: There are similarities in that you have to figure out how much work you're creating for yourself, but you also have to be a little bit more realistic in what you can make things do. There's a character in Marvel Comics—Jack of Hearts—who famously has the most complicated costume in comics. As an artist, you don't want to design that character because he's going to be a pain to draw over a twenty-two page book. You want to figure out something that looks cool, but isn't going to slow you down too much. Those are the kind of decisions where you have to think longer term.

    When you're looking at trade dress, you have to figure out a format that's going to work for just about anything. Once you establish that trade, that book has to look consistent across the line so that it looks good on a bookshelf, and so that it’s easier for people to realize it's part of a series so that they can buy it. You have to think through a lot of your design problems.

    When I used to work at a newspaper, I'd have to do car ads all the time. Any time there was a description for what was in the car, the artist previous to me would always just say, "Auto, Air," for automatic and air conditioning. The problem was the artist never left enough room for the inevitable twenty-two words of copy that they were going to get from the client, that said these are all the features in the car we want printed.

    You have to figure out how to stretch past your design. Rather than just designing for Rarity, for example, I design for someone like Princess Cadance because she's going to have a much longer name to try to get to fit. I know that at some point something's going to come and hit the system that I'm designing that isn't going to be the easy one that’s expected. It's going to be complicated. So I think through as many of those problems as I can before I start.

    Makes sense.

    T.Z.: One of the challenges in the Adventures in Friendship trade is just what different colors can I do the next issue in that's going to still work with the color pallet of the artwork that I'm given, and yet not be something I've done before. This is so that when these books are all on the same shelf, you can tell that none of them are duplicating and that they're all different. How I’m using color and what colors I can use are going to depend on whatever cover I get to work with.

    It is a big challenge to overcome.

    Well, you've done it expertly with the four hardcover volumes that have come out for Adventures in Friendship so far and for what you've done for FIENDship is Magic.

    T.Z.: Thank you!

    You’re welcome. Speaking of FIENDship is Magic, how did the assignment come around for the hundred copy, limited edition, San Diego Comic-Con exclusive version of that trade?

    T.Z.: Justin Eisinger said we need an alternate cover and figure out some way to use the existing covers in the artwork. The plan was to not draw a new cover, but to use the existing elements that we had and figure out some way to make it work. When you've got Amy Mebberson's artwork to work with, you're already well ahead of the game. It's like saying, “well, you've got to coach a football team, but we're giving you Tom Brady and The New England Patriots to work with.”

    That part makes your job so much easier. So when I was dealing with her covers, the idea of a broken glass/mirror motif seemed really, really natural to me. Fortunately everybody liked it! That broken motif allowed me to get away from one common box, and one common set of proportions to work with. With every different cover, I could do all sorts of really interesting shapes. I took advantage of what those covers had on them.

    It turned out beautifully.

    T.Z.: Thank you! I'm really proud of that one.

    Yeah, I'm very, very thankful that I was actually managed to snag one of them.

    T.Z.: Even better.

    I just need to figure out a proper way to display it so it gets the prestige that it deserves for being both such a rare trade paperback and also for being such an excellently well put-together.

    T.Z.: It was a cool design piece to work on and it was a really interesting series to—in any way—be a part of.

    Even if it was a small little part, you were still a part of the first event series for My Little Pony. So congrats there.

    T.Z.: Thanks.

    Here's hoping that the next one ends up involving My Little Pony and Transformers! That would be hilarious. *laughs*

    T.Z.: That would be cool. I worked on the Angry Birds: Transformers trade, but ...

    ... but it's not quite the same as being able to say “I wrote this. I drew this.”

    T.Z.: Exactly. I would like to write a piece of the next one, that's for sure.

    Hey, perhaps you can write and draw the next comic that you end up working.

    T.Z.: That would be cool. Especially if I could make that work with my schedule just a little bit better to take advantage of how far in advance things are. At some point, I would like to try to draw another issue of My Little Pony.

    You've been showcasing how much you've improved since the Twilight Sparkle micro-series. The Friends Forever covers that you did and with the covers that you've done for Flutterbat. It's incredible just to see how much you've progressed.

    T.Z.: Well, you draw those characters every day for two or three years, you start getting a little bit better.

    I can imagine, so what gave you the idea to parody the ultimate B Movie?

    T.Z.: There were two ideas in my head.

    One is that when I pitched the main six characters in the micro-series, I think Rarity was off the table by the time I got involved, and then I had a hard time coming up with anything for Applejack.

    Part of the way I approach things is I look for what haven't I done. So I wanted a story that was going to feature Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity, because those are the three characters that I really hadn't worked with. I had this idea for the apples becoming sentient and doing an Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. I was working on iterations of the story in my head before I was getting ready to pitch it. Then at the conventions I was doing, someone came up and asked me to draw Fluttershy as a vampire.

    As an artist I get asked to draw a lot of stuff, so it didn't strike me as being really weird when someone asked me to draw this. But then I got asked to draw that twice more. I'm like, why are people asking me to draw Fluttershy as a vampire? What meme is this that I haven't heard about yet? At that point I was behind on the episodes because I was traveling so much I didn't have access to them. So I did a Google search, and discovered she turns into a vampire in the episode Bats. Well that explained why people are interested!

    Flutterbat is one of my most popular commissions I have next to Twilight Sparkle. I have drawn her more than anything, but Twilight Sparkle gets the top spot just because Flutterbat didn't come into existence until about a year and a half ago. I will say the marketing mind in me said I have to pitch something with Flutterbat since she's phenomenally popular. I wish that I had seen how popular the Power Ponies were going to be so that I would have pitched on them sooner, since doing funny superhero stuff is obviously something I enjoy doing. I decided to get ahead of this one, and realized that Flutterbat worked perfectly for a story in which the apples become monsters and attack everybody.

    It was very much that chocolate and peanut butter moment where it's like these two things will go together perfectly and this will be fantastic!

    And thus, the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup was born.

    T.Z.: Yeah! *laughs*

    What were some of the challenges that came with actually writing Night of the Living Apples?

    T.Z.: Some of it was which part of the story did I want to focus on. I have to come up with a reason why the Apples go bad, but I didn't want that to be the focus of the story. I didn't want to get bogged down to much on how the Apples turned bad, it was important to me that they turned bad, and then I could have my adventure. That's why there's the two-page sequence from the fight between Celestia and Nightmare Moon. That conflict was so powerful that it actually gets embedded in the debris from where they're fighting and comes back to cause problems.

    Writing as an ensemble piece was a challenge. I wanted the book to work from an intellectual level, it is why in the first issue, Spike gets removed. This is enough of a threat where they would contact Celestia, so you need to take that arrow out of their quiver. It's like how in Star Trek they go down to the planet, but in the course of the story the communicators have to be gotten rid of otherwise they can just beam out of whatever problem that they've got. So I’m figuring things on that kind of level.

    Tony did a really good job designing the apples. I like the idea that the apples don't have eyes—that is not something that I would have come up with. I had to figure out how to make them a threat and give them a personality so they're not one-note characters. They're not going to be around for too long, so there's only so much I can do to flesh them out, but I wanted to have a sense of realness to it.

    We see that the main six all become vampires. I can fall back on Twilight Sparkle using that spell that she used to turn them all into Breezies to turn them all into vampires, using Flutterbat as the template. The vampires are machines designed to take care of the apples, so that's why they do that.

    Well, that certainly explains Twilight Sparkle's logic for turning everyone into vampire ponies.

    T.Z.: We see that the apples seem to be resistant to magic. I took “the weapons” out of their hands, and made it so that they just can't blast the apples. They have to come up with a different solution.

    Which brings to mind the obvious solution and my next question. Why don't they just eat them?

    T.Z.: There's a reason why the title of the book. The title of the story is Night of the Living Apples and not The Night of the Killer Apples. I didn't want the ponies participating in some sort of mass-genocide against the apples. I know that they're evil and all, but once they become intelligent I was uncomfortable having the ponies go through and start killing a swatch of apples. I was trying to figure out ways for that not to happen, because I want to be true to your source material. There aren't any pony episodes that I can think of that involve the ponies killing a group of people.

    Well, not yet, but there's still time.

    T.Z.: *laughs* There's also the level of what I can I do that they will let me do? If I had them eating the apples that are talking and then all of a sudden they're dead and not talking, that would probably get the pitch kicked back to me because that seems to be the kind of thing that’s out of character for the series.

    So, when Fluttershy was revealed to be tied up a la Hannibal Lecter in part two of Night of the Living Apples, was that your idea or Tony's idea?

    T.Z.: Oh, I'd have to go back and look at the script. I know she was tied up. I think that was, you know, I'm going to give the credit to Tony on that. I remember seeing she was tied up, but I don't remember if the Hannibal Lecter reference was made, but that's exactly what we were going for.

    It definitely worked out great, because everyone immediately started screaming Silence of the Lambs as soon as they saw it.

    T.Z.: I like doing the pop-culture references that don't slow stuff down. So if you're six years old and you've never seen Silence of the Lambs—because you shouldn't have—and don't know that particular part of pop-culture, it still works on its own. It doesn't slow the plot down and I don't have to explain who Hannibal Lecter is to let the reader understand what's happening in the book. I try to make sure that my pop-culture references don't become speed bumps for anyone else.

    Kind of like The Big Lebowski Ponies in the background at the bowling alley.

    T.Z.: That is all Tony! Tony is really good at finding characters from other stories and putting them in his, so it becomes a more unified universe. Jade Singer—the J.D. Salinger pony—appears. He drew her in a Flim and Flam story—I forget which one it was—but I thought that was awesome.

    Yeah, I think Tony is—Of all the artists… how can I best sum up my feelings about Tony.

    T.Z.: I think Tony's brings a different kind of energy to his work.

    That's it! Thank you Thom. Well, he's really good friends with Christina Rice and her daughter calls Tony “Uncle Pony.” I think he's completely embraced that persona.

    T.Z.: Tony does really well leveraging his relationships and figuring out ways to connect. The Flutterbat art is much better because Tony and I know each other so well. Once we got partnered up, it allowed us to communicate and pull things off in a way that I wouldn't necessarily been able to do with somebody else.

    Tony called me on one of my jokes. When Pinkie Pie becomes an apple, one of the jokes I had was her saying "I need to build a watch" because at that point the Apple Watch was the big talk that everybody was mentioning. It was in my head, I was making Apple jokes, and it seemed good to me.

    Tony emails me or texts me, and he says, "You can do better than that." The thing is, he was right. So I changed the line and figured out a better joke. Because he knows me as opposed to somebody that he may not know, he's comfortable saying "I think I know a way for this to work," or "I think you can do something a little bigger than this, or a little broader than this." I ended up designing the logos for the vampire ponies and sent those to Tony, so he could integrate them into the art!.

    Yeah, so were all the wonderful pony names turned vampire puns your fault?

    T.Z.: They're all my fault! *laughs* Rainbow Bite is probably my favorite, and Drinkie Pie is the one that gets the best reaction from people when I tell them.

    Well, makes sense for Drinkie Pie. And Rainbow Bite actually sounds like something else. Like a certain other 1980's property, of brightly colored female characters...

    T.Z.: Also owned by Hasbro. *laughs*

    What advice do you have to give to someone who's looking to break into the comic book industry, aside from don't?

    T.Z.: Well, yeah, that's the big one! *laughs* One, be persistent. It is a very slow burn. You very much have to keep at it and not be discouraged. You're not going to be an overnight success. It's going to take longer than that.

    Two, figure out what you do that nobody else does. That is what will make your voice unique in terms of art and in terms of writing. Because of how digital publishing and publishing on the web works, you have so many opportunities to do something that wouldn't be done somewhere else. Love and Capes was a superhero, romantic comedy that nobody was demanding. If I had taken that to DC or Marvel, they would have turned it down. But I was able to put it out and show that there was an audience for it. Eventually IDW picked me up and started publishing it because I had proved that that concept was worth doing.

    Find that part of you that's different, the thing you like doing that nobody else does, or the part of the voice of what you're trying to do that is unique compared to everybody else's. Don't try to draw like Neal Adams, or Stan Lee, or Alan Davis, or whoever you want to name because those people already exist, and they can draw like themselves better than you can. You want to do something that people haven't seen before. It doesn't have to be a big thing. It could just be a little thing of being known for writing witty dialogue, heavy relationship books.

    It’s just different levels where you just need to figure out you're not playing anyone else's game. Don't measure your success against how well someone else does. Measure success about how well you’re doing, so figuring out what do you need for it to work.

    This above all, to thine own self be true.

    T.Z.: Yeah. Data said that in Hide and Q in Star Trek.

    Yes, he did. *laughs*

    T.Z.: Also, I think some guy named Shakespeare did.

    I'm so glad that I can actually talk to another Trekkie who will get what I'm referring to. You have no idea how many times I make a reference to Star Trek where I figure I'm being witty, and then someone goes to the very source material that was derived for that Star Trek quote.

    T.Z.: Any time I mention The Undiscovered Country it's because of Star Trek VI, not because of Hamlet.

    Well Thom, it's been an absolute joy. Are there any last words that you want to say to the audience at Equestria Daily?

    T.Z.: Just I hope you enjoy the Flutterbat My Little Pony arc. I would love it if you check out some of my other stuff. Like Long Distance from IDW and the episode of The Ultimate Spider-Man: Web Warriors that I wrote.

    That's right! You did write a television episode! How did that assignment come about?

    T.Z.: I've been pushing to get in animation writing for the last five years. A friend of mine who worked in animation told me I should, and did it so convincingly that I went for it. I had a spec script floating around for a couple years, kept meeting people, and eventually my friend Eugene [Son] became the story editor of Ultimate Spider-Man. The point came where he said, "All right, it's your time. Let's go."

    There you are, writing Spider-Man for Marvel on TV.

    T.Z.: It was a treat. Iron Man appears in the episode, and Iron Man is voiced by Adrian Pasdar. Adrian Pasdar was Jim Profit on the TV show Profit, which is one of my favorite TV shows of all time! It is another one of those canceled Fox classics—I think it lasted about three weeks in America—but just the idea that the guy who played Jim Profit got to say words that I wrote was just amazing.

    It's almost like writing a script for a captain of a boat and then having William Shatner utter those words.

    T.Z.: Exactly! People whose work you've respected for so long are the ones who get to say the words that you wrote. It's just incredible!

    Indeed, well Thom, let's see if we can actually finish this quote and close out the interview. "Second star to the right ..."

    T.Z.: "... and straight on 'till morning." That's the end of Star Trek VI.

    Yes, it is. Thank you, Thom. Have a great day.

    T.Z.: Thank you. All right, you too.

    Thom Zahler can be found:
    Online: http://thomz.com/