Interview: Sally Forth Creative Team Talk Anime, Kaiju in Latest Arc

posted on by Lynzee Loveridge & Zac Bertschy
Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe rundown their favorite anime series, the best kaiju films, and putting pop into newspaper serials

Last month, the long-running newspaper comic serial Sally Forth caught anime fans' attention when Cowboy Bebop character Spike Spiegel appeared in character Hilary Forth's anxiety dream. The appearance wasn't a one-off occasion for artists Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe. The duo was only just starting the references to Japanese pop culture and launched a new mini arc that sent the Forth family on a road trip to Tanaka Kaiju Theme Park on July 3. Like the name implies, the theme park centers on some of TOHO's iconic giant monsters as well as some of its lesser known beasts.

Anime News Network was able to send some questions to Marciuliano and Keefe to discuss their inspiration, fandom status, and what it's like to put niche references into one of America's most mainstream comic works.

First, are you both anime and/or kaiju fans? How did you become fans?

Francesco Marciuliano: When I was a kid growing up outside of New York City, the local channel would occasionally air a "Monster Movie Week" which is another way of saying that for five straight weekdays, not a single kid in my elementary school paid attention to a damn thing their teachers said unless it involved fire-propelled tortoises, the Peanuts singing "Mothra" or someone tripping over above-ground telephone wires. At the same time, I was also a huge fan of Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman without the violence or the fact that all the action actually took place on Earth and not far-off planets that all looked like Boise) and Star Blazers. The love of kaiju has always remained and that of anime has been exponentially increased thanks to my girlfriend, who early on in our dating gave me a complete syllabus of series I must watch, featuring Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist, Soul Eater, Mushi-Shi, Heaven's Memo Pad, Dusk maiden of Amnesia, and my instant favorite, FLCL.

Jim Keefe: I've been a kaiju fan since seeing Godzilla films as a little kid in the 1970s. As far as anime, I was in my 20s when the groundbreaking film Akira was released in the States. It pretty much blew any American-made animation that was being produced at the time out of the water. And to add manga to the mix, I also have done a bunch of lettering and retouching of manga for Viz Media (Daisuke Higuchi's Whistle! was one of my favorites).

A short while ago you included Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop in a panel of Sally Forth – can you tell us a little about that? How did you come to that creative decision?

Marciuliano: Given the strip fell during Hilary getting ready for finals, we wanted to do a variation on the classic "I'm not ready! I don't remember studying any of this! What do you mean I missed six months of school?!" test anxiety dream. But we also wanted to tie it in to her character, and, only a few weeks prior, Hilary had a conversation with a fellow student about anime (which is why that student shows up right before Spike's appearance.) So Spike was a natural choice to appear at the end of the dream because he would be immediately recognizable (thanks to Jim's remarkable ability to draw ANY character), it would be a nice nod to the how his spirit may be in limbo after the finale of Cowboy Bebop and could very well be able to infiltrate dreams, and it allowed me to repeatedly play the series theme song in my head while writing the strip, which is also precisely the song you don't want to be listening to while driving because by the end your car is breaking the sound barrier.

Keefe: That was all Francesco - but I always love throwing in Easter eggs in for readers. It adds another level of enjoyment.

Are you hesitant at all to introduce heavy pop culture elements into a longstanding newspaper comics section staple like Sally Forth? How do your editors feel about it?

Marciuliano: While it's true pop culture references could all too quickly date a comic (this is why there will be no three-week story arc about fidget spinners), they can also help ground a comic strip in the actual, modern world. After all, it's all too easy for any comic to get trapped in amber and seem to exist in a time bubble that either prevents the reader from truly relating to the characters or causes one to think the strip's creators haven't opened their eyes since 1965 except to occasionally play golf while still referring to music as "rock and roll".

The important thing is to make the pop culture reference part of the story but not necessarily crucial to getting the joke, so readers could look at the Spike Spiegel Sunday strip, not know who he is (for shame), and still understand that this is about test anxiety. And at no time has King Features told us to do otherwise, which is immensely helpful because then Jim and I can do a strip that has a connection to reality so long as you don' focus too hard on how someone like Ted could function day-to- day. (By the way, given that I'm very much like Ted, the answer is "Keep rambling until a loved one politely tells you to stop.")

Keefe: With Francesco at the helm, Sally Forth is the perfect playground for pop culture elements to be thrown in. The Forths (like any family) can't help but be shaped a little by the pop culture happening around them. And when a reader sees that in the strip, there's an instant connection - IF it's genuine and done right. Nothing is shoehorned in. It's all stuff Francesco and I have an appreciation for as well. 

And our editors at King (shout out to Evelyn Smith, Ealish Waddell and Jennifer Beck) have been great! It's been said that bad editors get in your way, while good editors watch your back. The editors at King have our back.

Tell us a little about your favorite kaiju films, and the ones you drew the most inspiration from for this upcoming storyline.

Marciuliano: Destroy All Monsters is like the Ocean's 11 of kaiju, a sort of "TOHO's Who's Who" that echoes that moment in baseball when both dugouts flood the field and beat the crap out of each other, which is always a highlight of the genre. (Note: Outside of Quidditch and Calvinball, that may be the only sports reference I'll ever make.) I love the '60s and '70s films, in part because those are the ones I grew up with and in part they were the ones I could come closest to reenacting in my bedroom with Matchbox cars and a thoroughly confused cat. I must add I also love the godawful Godzilla 1985 movie, not only because it echoes the butchered Americanization of the original Godzilla film by splicing in Raymond Burr with all the finesse of a kindergarten class's attempt at neurosurgery but features an interminable scene in front of a Dr. Pepper machine that could not be more blatant product placement if in E.T. Eliot entered a candy story, spit on the M&Ms, and exclaimed "I need all your delicious Reese's Pieces right now!"

As for the comic storyline, we wanted a wide range of characters, both well-known to almost all as well as nods to ones that appeared in kaiju TV series. (To that end, look at the background action in the upcoming July 9th Sunday strip.) Also, if you're going to do a plot like this you have to go all in and not just name-check Godzilla and Rodan. But the real inspiration was that I knew Jim could do all this and more, that he is capable of drawing practically everything and both his immense talent and love of pop culture would shine through in every panel. This is another way of saying I wrote too much scenery description and he has every right to still be cursing me under his breath to this day.

Keefe: On the drawing end, it's the films that came out in the 1960s and '70s under directors Ishiro Honda and Jun Fukuda. The movies I most remember are Monster Zero, Destroy All Monsters, and Godzilla's Revenge. Any time they fill the screen with three or more kaiju at once, the ten-year-old in me is very happy.

Were you concerned at all about the feedback you might get from including animé, manga and Japanese pop culture references in a newspaper comic strip? What sort of feedback did you get? How has your audience reacted?

Marciuliano: The moment your comic runs in the paper it is no longer yours. It belongs to the readers and whatever their reaction to the strip is, it is right and true to them. So we tend to do things we like in the hopes that readers love it but in the knowledge that they have every right to hate it. And yes, there was the thought that once we name-checked an anime character or series someone could respond, "Well, sure they would mention FLCL or Cowboy Bebop because anyone can stay up late and watch Toonami. But if they were REAL fans they would have mentioned..."; Or the fact that the theme park in the comic named after the creator of Godzilla will feature Gamera, who came from a different studio. And again, they're right to say that.

But really, we did this because King Features gives us the freedom to follow our fever-dream ideas and we get to live in a theme park that we really, really, REALLY would want to visit. (Let's face it, the upcoming Star Wars Land and Nintendo theme parks are the very definition of "TAKE MY MONEY!!!"). And the feedback has been great, including the many "WTF is Spike doing in Sally Forth?!?" reactions on Twitter. We like to treat Sally Forth as like a Trojan horse comic strip, because on the surface we of course know that to casual readers it looks like one of the 142% of daily strips about a suburban family, but that very appearance lets us easily slip in story ideas we couldn't get away with so easy in print if we were to outright rename the comic "Monster Mayhem Acid Breath Shogun Warriors" for the two weeks papers would let themselves run it.

What I'm trying to say is that Jim and I want to do a comic about monsters that spit acid, have missile-launching fists, and live in a suburban split-level.

Keefe: Not at all. Readers of our strip share the same love of kaiju, anime and manga as the Forth family has. And, as a side note, I wrote and drew the Flash Gordon comic strip for a number of years, so I've been itching to put some monsters back in the Sunday comics for a while now. Francesco knows he always has that in his back pocket regarding storylines if need be…

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