You’ve heard of Comic-Con International, right? It’s the ultimate fandom convention that occurs every July in San Diego, gathering thousands upon thousands of genre-fiction geeks to be feted by rapacious studios who hope to grease the wheels for their would-be blockbusters. But amid all the high-stakes cosplay drama, there is a gentle ceremony that recognizes true excellence in the comics art field: the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. It is indeed the “Oscars of comics”—and Knoxville’s Matthew Foltz-Gray has scored a nomination for Best Publication for Kids (ages 9-12).
While Foltz-Gray won a Silver Medal for his Spirit of the Staircase comic strip (published in the Mercury!) at last year’s Society of Illustrators: Comic and Cartoon Art Annual in New York, this time he’s being honored another work: an update of Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” adapted by writer Norm Harper. Foltz-Gray started work on the graphic novel in 2013 after responding to a post by Harper looking for collaborators with an illustration style similar to the 1982 Don Bluth animated feature The Secret of NIMH. Foltz-Gray happened to be a big fan of the movie, and the two hit it off—the final result being Rikki, published by Karate Petshop.
Foltz-Gray is competing with The Drawing Lesson by Mark Crilley (Watson-Guptill); Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic); Hilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson (Flying Eye Books); and Science Comics: Dinosaurs by MK Reed and Joe Flood (First Second). The winners will be announced at Comic-Con on Friday, July 21.
We grilled Foltz-Gray on his nomination:
“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is a classic—did you feel daunted at all by previous interpretations?
Yes! There is no doubt that I was daunted. In particular, Chuck Jones’s animated version from the 70’s. Norm and I had some long discussions regarding how to avoid any resemblance to Jones’s look which was tough because I had spent my youth studying his style.
How did you approach it stylistically?
For me, “Rikki” was a big learning experience. What style and design could I come up with that I could not only draw quickly but be able to stick to for an extended period? I started out with some very detailed drawings to explore the look of each character and as the process moved along the character designs became more streamlined and simplified. Character design is an evolutionary process. Usually, the design starts out a little clunky but as you continue to work with a character things start to fit into place. Eventually, you know the shorthand version and more often than not, the shorthand version is better.
How long did the project take you from start to finish? Did you struggle over any particular frames?
I believe the project, at least the artwork, took about three years. There were a number of frames that took more work than others. Sometimes, it was just a matter of me not knowing how to make a particular scene work from a drawing standpoint. Other times it was just a bad drawing day and I eventually learned that I just needed to come back to that frame later.
What does this nomination mean to you personally?
Well, my first reaction to the nomination was that they had made a mistake. It’s always a terrific feeling to know someone has noticed your work and an Eisner nomination, in the comic community, is quite an honor.
Are you going to do any other children’s graphic novels?
Who knows! I would love to and wouldn’t be surprised if I did. Right now though, I’m really putting all my free-time and energy into my comic strip, Spirit of the Staircase. It’s too much fun not to.
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