Interview: Paul Tobin, Banana Sunday, and Nostalgia

Cover to Banana Sunday by Paul Tobin, Colleen Coover, Oni Press, 2018

One of the reasons that I love Rose City Comic Con is that the laid-back nature of the convention creates an atmosphere, where interviews become more like conversations. Since there’s not a rush to fit in as many interviews as possible, creators seem to be more at ease and willing to chat about anything, even the radiation treatment they’ve just been through.

“I had a tumor in my eye, so we needed to do the bizarrest surgery of all time that literally had me walking around with a gold container of radiation inserted in my eye for like a week. So I was spewing radiation walking around,” Tobin shared. “Oregon is one of the few states, maybe as few as two, where I was legally allowed to walk around, because I was spewing so much radiation. I legally—not even just because it’s a good idea, but legally—couldn’t be around pregnant women or kids. And Colleen, my wife, had to stay to one side of me so I didn’t just bombard her with radiation. Which was kind of freakish, to get all these things of like, don’t be around this type of person, don’t be around this type of person, be very wary of this, and I’d be like, because of the radiation that’s literally within my eyeball?”

I had instinctively leaned back, and Tobin quickly rushed to assure me that he was no longer spewing radiation, and I was completely safe. I felt like a bond had been created. 

Our nearly thirty-minute conversation covered a variety of topics, from his move to Portland in the early 2000s, (“I moved to Portland specifically for comics. I grew up in the middle of Iowa, and there were no creators. There was me and Phil Hester, and that was it. We just kind of stared at each other, and I moved.”), to his burning desire to write a Betty and Veronica comic for Archie Comics. (“I’m going to go ahead and use the word ‘bitter,’ that my wife has done work for Archie, she’s done covers for them. Even though I’m friends with all the guys at Archie I’ve never done anything with them.”)

We also spoke about the importance of inclusion, and the conscience effort Tobin and his wife Colleen Coover to add more diversity in all of their work. We discussed the role nostalgia plays in many of his projects, from selection to creation. And, most importantly, we talked about the new edition of Banana Sunday that came out on October 24th.

The original Banana Sunday was a three-issue black and white comic published by Oni Press, a collaboration between Tobin (under the pseudonym Root Nibot—read on for Tobin’s thoughts on what it means to have it finally published under his own name), and his wife, Colleen Cover. For the collection and reissue, Oni Press brought in colorist Rian Syngh to create this beautiful fully-colored edition. In addition to adding color, the new edition also contains bonus materials, and a few other changes that Tobin hints at in the interview.

This interview took place on September 8th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Kate Tanski: You just came from a panel? How did that go?

Paul Tobin: It was all based on trivia, and I have the worst knowledge on Earth, so I was just sitting there going like, I don’t know. Like, the only one I got right was who’s the only creator who has written about cats, apes, and Frankenstein’s monsters, and that’s me. And I literally screamed, “Me!” It felt so good to get on the board.

Tanski: That’s awesome. So, you’ve been with Oni Press a long time. Banana Sunday came out in like, 2006.

Tobin: It was definitely the first thing we did with Banana Sunday. I think it’s the first major thing that I did since moving to Portland. And I moved to Portland specifically for comics. I grew up in the middle of Iowa, and there were no creators. There was me and Phil Hester, and that was it. We just kind of stared at each other, and I moved.

Tanski: So do you like Rose City Comic Con? Is it a nice one compared to other cons?

Tobin: I do, but it confuses me, because I can literally walk here, which is what I did this morning. So it doesn’t feel real. And I don’t get ready for it. Like, I just did a panel, and 20 minutes before the panel, I was still in my house. So it doesn’t feel real.

Tanski: I feel like that’s the kind of vibe of the Portland Comic Con in general, since it is local for so many people. Like I saw Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick just wandering around yesterday, and they’re not getting mobbed. People were just coming up, saying hi.

Tobin: Portland is really jaded when it comes to comics because there’s like—like you can go into a cafe and it feels like a convention because there’s like usually at least two or three creators in there.

Tanski: So, this is the first time I’ve read Banana Sunday. I didn’t know anything about the project until they gave me the review copy, and I loved it. I thought it was delightful, so I just wanted to know the original pitch for it? Did you come with this story or did it evolve?

Tobin: Oh, it super evolved. There were like pages, first stage pages, that Colleen, my wife, the artist, refused to put in, because like, at first it was like almost a Rumiko Takahashi comic. Like, really manga-influenced and things like that. I think we got like, 20 pages into that and then put it aside, and then reworked it a different way, and just kept reworking it until it was like, what we wanted. And then even when we did this re-release, we went back in and changed some things, because it’s amazing the differences of attitudes from like, 2004 and and 2018. There were some like, clever charming lines, and we look at them now and went, that’s not clever or charming; let’s take that out and change things.

Tanski: I was struck by the tone. Like, I grew up reading Archie and Katy Keene, and so it evoked that nostalgia, but it was like, smart, and it didn’t talk down to women, and it had diverse characters.

Tobin: It’s really important for both me and Colleen, and she’s really good at putting in the diverse characters because I always try, but it’s hard for a writer, because I’m literally not drawing it.

I’ll be like, let’s get some diversity in here, let’s get this, let’s get this, and then the pages come in and it’s like, they didn’t do it … and then I feel bad, because I feel like, that I didn’t do my part, for something that’s pretty vital to me.

And when I’ve worked for some companies, not Oni, but some companies, or worked with some artists, I’ll be like, let’s get some diversity in here, let’s get this, let’s get this, and then the pages come in and it’s like, they didn’t do it … and then I feel bad, because I feel like, that I didn’t do my part, for something that’s pretty vital to me.

Because I realized that a lot of my, the ways I look at the world, are really influenced by what TV I was watching as a kid, and things like that. So I have all these ideas in my head, some of which I completely now know are wrong, but they got drilled into me really hard.

Tanski: So you want to have that positive representation for the next generation.

Tobin: I really do. That positive representation is hugely important for me.

Tanski: Because it looks like you do a lot of younger, middle age, and YA comics, and so it was really nice to see Nickels in Banana Sunday, and she’s like, “Yeah, I’m a Japanese immigrant, and people made fun of me.” So it talks about racism and xenophobia, but in a way that’s not making an issue of it. It’s just like, her lived existence.

Tobin: Yeah, I think that’s important too, because well, for one thing, I can’t make it an issue myself because I haven’t lived that, so I want awareness, but I can’t truly fly the flag, because I’m a middle-aged white guy from Iowa, so I don’t have a lot of that perspective and depth, but I have a surface awareness.

Tanski: Yeah, it wasn’t important to the plot, or something like that, but it was dropped there with her lived existence, and that was it. I feel like that’s just as important.

Tobin: I think that’s hugely important because like, when I was growing up, if there was a show or a book or anything with like LGBT+ in it at all, then that person was like, the spokesman for the entire group. But I’ve watched the evolution now, and it’s so wonderful to see a gay character, and he’s a gay character, and that’s it. It doesn’t have to be an issue. And that level of acceptance is so warm for me. And so I want that. Like, you’re this type of person? Okay. Let’s move on.

Tanski: And also, I looked up, it said that you worked for Marvel, and so I looked up, like your Models, Inc. miniseries. I don’t know if you remember that one?

Tobin: I really do, because I grew up, my grandmother, she would go to garage sales constantly, like two or three times a day. And she lived on a farm, and all the outbuilding and most of her house were just filled with garage sale things. So I was constantly just finding comics from all over. All over time period, any genre, and things like that. And I love all the Marvel model comics. Millie the Model and Chili and things like that, so when they asked me to do that, I’m like, “Yes!”

Tanski: That was what I was wondering, if they approached you with the project, because I read that the editor was like, let’s revamp these characters and make them modern, and again it felt like, it evokes nostalgia, but you made them real people. Even though models can easily be objectified and turned into sexist cliches.

Tobin: Oh, easily.

Tanski: But you turned them into real people. It felt like you were almost rescuing them from that sexist ‘70s, you know stereotype of, “Ooh, sexy model.”

Tobin: Well, because of who a model is, there’s all these eyes towards them, and I think that what’s lost is the eyes coming out from them. Their lives, and things like that, and that’s very important for me. I loved that project. I was so happy. The only disappointment on that project for me is the initial mission statement that we had was going to have me actually travel out to a New York fashion show and hanging out with like James Gunn, and things like that, and that never came through and I was like, “Argh!” I really wanted to do that.

Tanski: Yeah, I saw the Tim Gunn cover, from Project Runway, and I was like, that’s so cool!

Tobin: Yeah, I really wanted to be able to like, talk to some of the models and get some viewpoints and things like that. Oh well.

Tanski: So this theme of like, nostalgia a lot in your work, and I wanted to know if that’s something you feel like you’re drawn to? Or something you feel like you’re making modern?

Tobin: That’s a good question. I don’t know that nostalgia is in all of my things, but like, as a theme throughout quite a few of them, yeah.

Tanski: There was that Bionic Woman thing that you did too.

Tobin: Oh, yeah I’ll always work on stuff I watched as a child, and that Bionic Woman was a lot of fun for me. And you mentioned Archie a little earlier, and I’m—I’m going to go ahead and use the word “bitter,” that my wife has done work for Archie, she’s done covers for them. Even though I’m friends with all the guys at Archie, I’ve never done anything with them, and I really want to write a Betty and Veronica comic or something.

Tanski: How does it feel to have the story published under Paul Tobin and not Root Nibot?

Colleen would have copies of the original Banana Sunday on her table, and someone would buy it, and she would sign it, and then hand it to me, and I would sign it. And you could see the person go—wait. No. Why are you signing it? And I’d have to go, I’m Root Nibot, and they’d go, why’d you do that? And I’d have to go [groan].

Tobin: Pretty good. All my friends like, it’s been like 15 years or whatever since that came out, and it’s been 15 years of my friends giving me crap about that name. I just wanted to like—in the real early days when I started to see I was going to do a wide variety of material, I kind of wanted a name that separated from it. But I dropped that immediately, and Root Nibot is the only one that I’ve ever used, just for that project. Mostly because of the sneers my friends gave me. So yeah, I’m happy to have it out. And for so long, Colleen would have copies of the original Banana Sunday on her table, and someone would buy it, and she would sign it, and then hand it to me, and I would sign it. And you could see the person go—wait. No. Why are you signing it? And I’d have to go, I’m Root Nibot, and they’d go, why’d you do that? And I’d have to go [groan]. My actual first name is Edward, but when I started writing I thought it would sound really scholarly to go by E. Paul Tobin. It sounded really good, and then people went, “Oh, he must want his name to be Paul.” So my name kind of changed. But I’ve tried all sorts of them, but my friends, God love them, ridiculed me every step of the way, and trained me out of it.

Tanski: Other things about this project, is that in the bonus materials, which I love, because I love seeing the process, is that Rian Syngh added the colors, and in the bonus materials, you show pencils, inks, colors, and I didn’t know if in the recoloring if she had to modify anything for that process?

Tobin: Not really. Colleen reworked some of the artwork because we wanted to change some sequences and things like that, but as far as coloring she didn’t do any prep for the color. And the colors turned out so beautifully.

Tanski: They’re gorgeous!

Tobin: Yeah. Which was a big thing for Colleen because she wants to control everything. That’s part of the reason why on most projects, like Bandette, she pencils, inks, letters, colors, everything, because she can’t stand other people. But like these colors started coming in, and she nudged a couple of colors to a different area, and then Rian was like, “Oh, more like this,” and it was like, yeah, and it was just fine from there.

Tanski: I loved that they evoked again, that sense of nostalgia and modernity that you have tonally.

Excerpt from the new edition of Banana Sunday. Written by Paul Tobin, art by Colleen Coover, colors by Rian Sygn
Excerpt from the new edition of Banana Sunday. Written by Paul Tobin, art by Colleen Coover, colors by Rian Syngh.

Tobin: That’s Colleen’s colors. She really likes sort of, I don’t want to say flat colors, but simplistic colors. She doesn’t want a lot of blending going on. Because that starts to really actually interfere with things, and it just starts to look like somebody thought they were full of themselves.

Tanski: It’s like overworked, like overdesigned.

Tobin: Yeah, like, oh my god. I went through all the ‘90s when colorists went from like having like, six colors they could use to having like, literally six million, and like every colorist went, if I have six million colors, I’m going to use them. And I’m going to put flare, and I’m going to do this, and glint. And all the comics suddenly looked like somebody spilled six million colors on them, and it just interferes.

Tanski: I thought that they really complemented the art, and they’re bright, and they’re sunny.

Tobin: They really are bright.

Tanski: The whole like, divine monkeys coming down, like I didn’t see that coming. It just seems like such an interesting story, I didn’t know if there was anything in particular that inspired you, or did it kind of spring fully formed from your head like, let’s do this whole high school mystery nostalgia thing with like, mean girls and magical monkeys.

Tobin: That’s tough for me, because it first came out so long ago, and my memory is so terrible. And I can’t really remember like, the specific comic inspirations other than I really like monkeys and apes. I really do.

Tanski: I really want a Go Go Gorilla now.

Tobin: Oh my god. He’s always the favorite!

Tanski: He’s amazing.

Tobin: Like, when people come up, and Colleen will do a sketch of one of the monkeys or apes, and she’ll always ask, which one do you want? And if somebody says Knobby or Chucky, it’s always like a, oh really? Okay. Because it’s Go Go, Go Go, Go Go, Go Go.

Tanski: I mean I love all of them, but Go Go is special.

Tobin: I do too. But Go Go is … from the bottom of my heart. We had one of the fans who’s a professional sculptor sent us a Go Go statue. It’s so well done and one of my prized possessions.

Tanski: So you said you’re busy with other projects, so what kinds of projects have you got going on?

Tobin: Well, Bandette with my wife. And then Messenger, which is a webtoon that I do with Ray Nadine, which I really like. I’ve mentioned I’m old several times, and it’s fun to work on this because it’s such a new to me format, you know a single full comic on a weekly basis. Colleen and I are actually going to be doing some co-writing on a couple projects, which I’m really excited and frightened by, because I don’t co-write very well, because we usually clash. So we’ll see how it works with my wife. And I have a series of novels coming out. Oh, Plants vs. Zombies is one of my main projects. I just signed a contract for the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth volumes of that, which is amazing; it’s like, I’ve written that many? Okay.

Tanski: So how did that happen? How did become such a long running series? Because I’ve played the game.

Tobin: I don’t know. It was weird because when I first got the call to do that, which I will point out was Phillip Simon from Dark Horse calling me to say, “Are you aware of the Plants vs. Zombies game?” And I was literally playing it when he called, so I’m like, “Uh, somewhat familiar.” But it was just that very first game that had come out then, when it was nothing but plants on one side, zombies on the other side, and go at each other. And I’m like, so what do you want me to do for a story? And they went, I don’t know. So I’m like, I’m just going to go there, then, and they’re like, go ahead. It worked out. I built the world, built the cities, built the characters, and things like that. And they’ve been glorious to work with, because they just basically say, that’s funny and that’s what we wanted, so we’ll step back, and it’s like, thanks.

Because often when you work with a licensed game company and things like that it can get—like I’ve had good experiences, like Pop Cap has been the best. CD Projekt Red with The Witcher was good too. The Angry Birds people were very good. But there’s been a couple of other game companies that were like, way too hands on. And the amount of control that can come from a licensed character is nuts. Like I can remember way, way back a friend of mine was the artist back when they were doing comics for Barbie, and there was an actual rule for how many lines she could have in her hair. I can’t remember for sure, I think it was 14, so they would come back like, there’s thirteen lines in her hair, and it’s like … okay. That level of control is there sometimes.

It makes it tough. Because, like at least from a writing aspect, what you need to do is to feel the characters are your own, and if they have that much control, then you never ever feel the characters are your own, and therefore you can’t put love in the comic, and then the comic doesn’t have love.

Tanski: That’s sad! And you can feel it as a reader.

Tobin: You really can. That’s one thing that I try to keep in mind when I write, no matter what medium I’m in or what genre I’m in, is that all throughout my life, like music, comics, books, television, it’s so clear when they love what they’re doing. And those are the projects I always love. And honestly, sometimes it’s not projects that appeal to me. I can just feel the love coming out, and it’s like an energy, and so it’s like, it’s fantastic. Like when manga first starting coming out and it had this like, energy. I can remember reading a book called Paradise Kiss. And I was like, 800 pages into that, and I’m sort of a non-prototypical guy that gets 800 pages into a story about dress design, and the contest for fashions. But I was like on the edge of my seat like, “Are they going to win the contest? Oh my gosh! The seam! The seam ripped! Uh oh!” And it’s like, wait what am I doing?

As long as there’s love coming into the project, then the reader, the viewer, feels that.

Tanski: Thank you so much again for sitting down to chat with me! We had a lovely chat. It was so nice to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Banana Sunday is available from Oni Press on October 24th, 2018. You can find Tobin’s work on Plants vs. Zombies at Dark Horse Comics, and The Marvel Models, Inc. miniseries is available on Marvel Unlimited. You can also check out Tobin and Coover’s Bandette on Comixology, or Tobin’s Webtoon, Messenger.

As of the time of publication, Tobin still has not been announced on any projects for Archie Comics.

Kate Tanski

Kate Tanski

Recovering academic. Fangirl. Geek knitter.