G3 Interview: Rob Kelly of ‘Ace Kilroy’

Back in the Mesozoic era, I spent a lot of time reading newspaper comic strips. They were a natural source of entertainment for a kid who already loved comic books, and the Sunday funnies section in particular was a big, colorful treasure box. While I was partial to the more contemporary stuff like Bloom County and (do not laugh) Funky Winkerbean, the long-running adventure strips — think Dick Tracy and Mark Trail — were undeniable classics.

The new Ace Kilroy webcomic, created by Joe Kubert School alums Rob Kelly and Dan O’Conner, is an homage to those old-fashioned serial comic strips. Set in the 1930s, it stars a square-jawed, hard-drinkin’ soldier of fortune who’s been tapped by FDR to take on a mission involving vampires, werewolves and the Third Reich. I found its retro styling and lack of snark really refreshing, and it’s a fast-moving, fun read that’s easy to dive into. These guys are not playing around, either. It’s a daily strip, Sundays included.

If you’re an Aquaman fan, you probably know of Rob from his popular Aquaman Shrine site, and he’s also behind the “Hey Kids, Comics!” book project that V. and I contributed essays to. G3 interviewed Rob about Ace Kilroy, and what makes it stand out in a crowded field.

Girls Gone Geek: What was the inspiration for Ace Kilroy? Did you both grow up reading Sunday comics adventure strips?

Rob Kelly: Dan and I met when we attended the Joe Kubert School. Dan was already way ahead of me in terms of his influences and synthesizing them into his own work, while I was still, essentially, a “Star Wars and superheroes” kind of guy. But I knew I loved the comic strip form, leaning more towards humor because that was mostly the kind of strips in my local paper. So while I could talk about how much I loved, say, Dick Tracy, Dan was hip to the work of Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff and was clearly influenced by it. When I started discovering that stuff, my mind was blown.

Ironically, I have DC Comics to thank for my love of comic strips. In the ’70s they put together a treasury-sized collection of Dick Tracy Sunday strips, despite the fact they didn’t own the character. I remember getting that book off the stands and simply fell in love with it, reading it over and over. Chester Gould’s world was so much tougher and violent than the DCs of the time, so seeing this stuff was amazing to me. It was also a window into the 1940s, an era both Dan and I find compelling.

G3: How did you work together to create the character and his backstory, to say nothing of that fabulous name?

Rob: We really just went back and forth via email after running into one another at the 2010 New York Comic Con. I pitched him the idea a week or two after, and it just built from there. I told him what the strip would be, reducing it to a movie logline: Indiana Jones fights the Universal Monsters, and Dan said he’d want to be part of that. We threw ideas back and forth, including the name: I think I pitched Ace Corrigan — a good, adventure-y sounding name — and Dan said that Corrigan might be too close to Alex Raymond’s Secret Agent Corrigan. He then offered some alternatives, and when I saw “Kilroy,” I went, “That’s it.”

I told Dan some general concepts I had in mind, what kind of backstory I saw Ace having, and we just kept offering ideas to one another. I would mention specific movies to try and get across the kind of look and feel I was going for, and he then knew exactly what I was talking about. It was Dan’s idea to make Ace a WWI fighter pilot, which will eventually give him the opportunity to draw some cool “Men of the Air” action stuff, which he really loves. Then I took that idea — Okay, he fought in WWI, so how old is this guy? — and crafted a story around that.

We also came up with the strip’s main female character (Ellie West), who hasn’t appeared yet, and it was that shorthand between us that paid off. Visually, I told Dan, “Think a red-headed Gene Tierney,” and a day or two later I get a bunch of sketches of the most amazing, interesting-looking heroines you ever saw. I tweaked stuff a bit, and soon we had our female lead, who we already like so much we want to spin her off into her own strip!

G3: Is Ace based on anyone in particular? For some reason, I keep envisioning a mashup of an Errol Flynn character and Han Solo.

Rob: Dan first suggested the western actor Clint Walker as a visual model, and he definitely had that chiseled, man-of-action aura. When you’re talking 1930s and 1940s, there’s a general look that represented manliness of that time — Clark Gable, Flynn, etc. — so that’s what I was thinking. Dan added the mustache, which at first I didn’t like. But Dan made a case for it, and now I can’t see Ace any other way!

My favorite book of all time is Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge.” I’ve read it dozens of times. And while visually there’s no relation, I drew inspiration from that story since it concerns a man who goes off on a spiritual journey and sees such amazing things that when he returns to his old friends, it’s like he’s on a different planet. I decided Ace has had some of those experiences already when the strip starts, but he hasn’t seen anything yet!

G3: I really like the traditional newspaper style, where you have the short, weekday black-and-white strip and then the splashy, colorful Sunday feature. Was it your intention to stick closely to that model?

Rob: Yes, always. I pitched the project to Dan as an online comic strip, and there was never any discussion to do anything else. Form was definitely overriding Function. We both love those old-timey strips of the mid-20th century, like Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Steve Canyon, and we’re consciously trying to emulate that feel with Ace Kilroy. It also gave us the opportunity to have new content every day, as opposed to waiting a month in between something longer, like a comic book. We liked the idea of having something that is always changing, developing, even if it is only three panels a day (more on Sundays!). When I asked Dan if he wanted to do an extra-long “Color Sunday,” he said yes immediately, even though it’s more work for him.

If we ever get lucky enough and Ace Kilroy is some kind of big success, we’d love to do print editions of AK, so you could actually read them as if it was in a newspaper. Whether that’s before or after Guillermo Del Toro directs the movie version, I can’t say.

G3: How do you split the artistic duties from scripting, to illustrating, to coloring, etc.?

I write the strip, full-script style, and send them in week-long bursts to Dan, Monday to Sunday. He pencils and inks, and then scans in the artwork and sends them to me. Then I add the tonal effects and lettering, and color the Sunday strips.

Dan often will add something or simply draw something in a way that makes me change the script, always for the better — something about a look he gives someone that makes the dialogue I had planned now seem superfluous, so I get rid of it. Or I can add something I didn’t think of that works better with what he’s given me. The strips are so much better than I first imagined thanks to this back-and-forth.

G3: I was struck by something you said on your Kickstarter page: “Dan and I have a crazy dream that two people can create something of quality, put it out there, and enough people will find it and want to support it.” Given how many webcomics there are, it’s a challenge to find an audience, even with the credentials and talent that you both have. How do you get your project to stand out among so much competition? Do you think the strip’s old-fashioned-adventure quality helps to set it apart?

G3: One of the things I learned from doing my blogs over years, most specifically The Aquaman Shrine, is to have a consistent, professional attitude when it comes to the work. I don’t have to tell you how flaky some comic book creators (or creative people in general) can be, where they start a project with the best of intentions, then they miss a day, then two, then suddenly there hasn’t been any new material in a month.

Dan and I are old-school guys, and we have that sense of professionalism that if you make a schedule, you stick to it. I’m hoping that as Ace Kilroy goes on, month after month, people will see we mean business and that we’re in it for the long haul. That if you give us — what, 30 seconds? — of your time a day, then you will be rewarded with a story that you’ll want to follow and enjoy. And that over the years, Ace Kilroy will become a guy you root for and want to follow.

I also think the strip’s subject, or more precisely its tone, will help it stand out. There will be no post-modern ironic asides in Ace Kilroy; this is a very straightforward story we’re telling, which I think (hope) will help it seem a little different.

G3: A daily strip is a lot of pressure. You’re both very busy guys, so what made you want to take on this kind of challenge?

Rob: Lack of any common sense, really, because doing a daily comic strip is a full-time job! We never really even discussed it would be anything other than daily, because that’s what those great old strips were — daily. People live lives on a daily basis, essentially, and we hope we can make Ace Kilroy be part of people’s daily “I don’t want to work so let’s goof off on the web” routine.

We’ve been working on the strip almost a year, so we’re a ways ahead of where the strip is today. I planned it that way so we had time to really make it good and tweak it here and there, which has been great. We’re hoping that via Kickstarter we can raise a small amount of money to help pay for our time and effort for the first few months, at least. That’s been harder than I imagined, just getting the strip mentioned in places where people will see it and turning that into donations. But of course this is a learning process.

G3: What were your favorite comic strips when you were a kid?

Rob: Like I mentioned above, I loved Dick Tracy (which is now undergoing a creative renaissance with Joe Staton drawing it), Spider-Man, Steve Canyon, Tarzan, Flash Gordon…the classics. After I started writing Ace Kilroy I started hunting down other strips I wasn’t as familiar with, like Buz Sawyer (drawn by Roy Crane, who is an absolute artistic genius). Its great so much of this stuff is out there now. When I was a kid, hunting that material down took real effort.

I think with the web, the comic strip can make a major comeback as creative form. Just like in long form comics, you can do adventure, romance, humor, horror … all elements that we plan to work into Ace Kilroy!

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