I Was The Cat: Paul Tobin On Ghostwriting, Audrey Hepburn And The Sinister History Of Despotic Kitties [Interview]
In the pages of Paul Tobin and Benjamin Dewey’s I Was The Cat — a new graphic novel on sale in August but serialized weekly on ComiXology now — a young journalist is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of an eccentric billionaire named Burma. The trouble, as you may have already guessed from the title, is that Burma is a cat — specifically, a talking cat who has spent his last eight lives attempting to conquer the world. It’s a great premise, but what Tobin and Dewey are doing in their story is interesting not just for bizarre feline histories, but for how dark and sinister a fluffy kitty who spends most of his time on-panel being petted by the other lead characters can actually be.
To find out more, we spoke to Tobin about the origins of the story, why you don’t have to like cats to enjoy it, and the amount of research that he thinks a writer should be doing in order to create a proper history.
ComicsAlliance: I think the most I’ve ever been yelled at over the Internet was the time that I said I didn’t like cats.
Paul Tobin: Yeah, that’ll do it. Very interesting start to this interview, too, by the way. Let’s go from anger and move on.
CA: Well, it led me to my first question about I Was The Cat: Why cats?
PT: A long time ago, [comics editor and writer] Nate Cosby was doing an anthology book, and he wanted old mythological tales, fairy tales and fables that hadn’t been used, and I came up with this old 14th century story about a cat that intrigued me, and said “I want to do this story.” Nate said “Well, we already have two stories about cats, so no. No cats for you.”
But it got me thinking about cats. I have to say, I’m not a huge cat lover either. I like cats, but dogs are 150 times superior, maybe 151 times superior. Cats just seem so ubiquitous that they just kept being in my mind, and also, just walking the streets late at night, or even during the day, there’s always just cats watching you from windows. It started to get me thinking about what they’re doing and they became less sleeping than they were spies, keeping track of humanity and things like that. I guess it’s a little bit of that, a little bit of seeing them on the Internet, that story being in my head, although that story’s entirely different, and then just seeing how many evil overlord types have cats in their lap, and what that meant. It just went from there.
CA: Well, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone because only the first two chapters are available right now, but you do end up going full on with evil overlords and cats. You straight up have a Blofeld-esque character show up at one point.
PT: Yeah! That’s the basic premise of I Was The Cat: What if all these cats that you see in the paintings of these evil overlords, in the laps being petted by the evil masterminds, what if all of these cats throughout history were the same cat, using his nine lives, and what if the cat was the actual mastermind? It’s a look back throughout history at what Burma, the main character, the cat, has been doing. That’s where the title comes from, in that he was the cat that did this, he was the cat that did that, and the story’s about his past and his ninth life, his current life, and what he’s doing with it.
CA: The interesting thing to me about that is that it sounds like the premise of a comedy, but I Was The Cat plays it very straight. I know you as a writer who likes to put a lot of comedy in his stories.
PT: Yeah, but I’m also the writer who’s getting Bram Stoker Award nominations and Eisner nominations for Colder, which is dark horror. I don’t think of myself as a humor writer. I think my characters always have a sense of humor, and there’s a lot of humor in I Was The Cat, but mostly I look at myself as a character writer. I just want to get into characters and talk about characters and what they do. In that aspect, I Was The Cat is right in my wheelhouse.
CA: There is a lot of humor in it, but it’s structured like a horror story, of the two viewpoint characters — who are not cats, they’re human women — slowly coming to this realization that Burma is a for real murderer.
PT: That’s kind of the basic premise, and how they deal with that.
CA: Did any of that make it a difficult pitch?
PT: I think it was a pretty easy pitch. Jill Beaton was the original editor at Oni who worked with me on it. She had wanted to work with me, and we sat down with four or five ideas, and she felt I Was The Cat was the strongest. I frankly don’t remember what the other ideas were, it’s long since gone out of my mind, but she was immediately taken with the story of I Was The Cat. Maybe partially because of the cat, because people do like cats, but I think the historical aspect of it, and being able to tell stories from different perspectives, just the general premise. I think it’s a good premise. Most people, when they hear what it’s about, go “oh, that’s very interesting!” Or, if they’re other writers, “I’m jealous that you’re doing that, because I’d like to do that!” That’s one of my big benchmarks for a successful story: If it irritates other writers that I thought of it first, then it’s good.
CA: I mentioned the viewpoint characters earlier, Allison, who’s ghostwriting the cat’s memoirs, and Reggie, who’s her friend. Why did you want to have human viewpoint characters that were being told the story, rather than just laying it out from Burma himself?
PT: I wanted it to take place in a human world. The cat is trying to take over the human world, so if you don’t have the human perspective, then I think you’re losing part of the story. If you do a straight viewpoint from one area, it’s kind of hard to do a power exchange. If it’s from Burma’s viewpoint, then you already know what’s going on, and as you know, there are some surprises near the end. There are switches near the end where they realize what’s going on, and if it had all been from Burma’s point of view, or someone in Burma’s organization, it would be all up front. It’d be more like a war comic, a fighting comic. It would be action-oriented rather than character-oriented, and I wanted that character standpoint.
CA: Was that why you tell it out of chronological order? The structure of the story is going through all of Burma’s nine lives, and you start with World War I, then go back to Ancient Egypt, then forward again…
PT: The Puss in Boots story, then Audrey Hepburn. I did it that way for a couple of reasons. A story should build momentum as it goes, and I didn’t want to have a situation that was like the first part of his life being boring, and he got more interesting as he went. I wanted to be able to pick and choose how to stage the building momentum.
Also, he is dictating his memoirs throughout it, and really, people don’t talk in chronological order. If you told me to tell my memoirs, I’d start out with “Oh, I was born in Iowa, I grew up — oh, you know what? This funny thing happened to me in college,” and then I’d be on college for a bit. Then after that I’d be on some high school memory, or something I saw last week that popped into my mind. I wanted it to be a cat telling his memoirs, and memoirs are usually compiled, not stated outright to be typed down, so I wanted the story to build in a sort of chaotic manner.
CA: You lead off with very interesting stories, starting with World War I, and then moving to how he’s in Egypt manipulating people and arranging all the sightings of gods. It’s a very interesting thing that you get through very quickly. Was there a temptation to stay with those stories for longer than you did?
PT: I wanted to hit some of it pretty hard, especially some of the early stuff. The early stuff is important for establishment of character, but at the same time, I didn’t want to give up all the mystery of Burma the Cat right away. If I’d gone too much into his first life right away, it’d be too much.
In comics that I always hate — and I’m going to dish on one particular character because it’s bugged me for a long time — but Wolverine used to be one of my absolute favorite characters. Systematically, every last bit of his life has been explained, and I’m no longer all that interested in him because he doesn’t have any mystery. It used to be that he’d drop some hint of his past, and you would go “Oh, I wonder what was happening then!” Now, he drops a hint of his past, and you’re like “oh, yeah, that happened, that was when he was doing this, blah blah blah,” and it just diminishes the character to a certain point.
I didn’t want to dwell too much on Egypt and when Burma started to become what he is, because then he’s some other creature rather than a cat with nine lives. I wanted to establish it quickly. Establish and move on is sort of a rule for me.
CA: You say that now, but in 15 years when we’re reading Savage Litterbox of Burma #107, you’ll be singing a different tune.
PT: Well yeah, sure. When I’m in my mansion with the millions that I’ve built from this enterprise.
CA: How did Benjamin Dewey get involved? I know he’s a Periscope Studio guy, did you just walk across the room and throw some pages at him?
PT: Yeah, I just started throwing things around, and the first person who yelled, I just grabbed.
No, I’d worked with Ben once before. I watched his art grow — Ben actually came to Periscope Studio as an intern, and he was an amazing intern because, and I can’t tell you how nice this is, he would ask a question and then listen to the answer. The vast majority of interns, not just at Periscope, but people who ask me questions, I can’t tell you how many times someone will say “I really desperately need your opinion on this,” and then I give it, and they’re just waiting to tell me why I’m wrong. Ben would always listen, whether it was about career advice, art advice, or anything advice. And he grew so fast.
I don’t mean that because of “oh, Tobin’s advice made Benjamin Dewey!” because there’s twenty-something people at Periscope, and when you’re distilling that many people’s knowledge into your own career, you pick, you choose, you see what Steve Lieber has to say, you see what Jeff Parker has to say, what Ron Randall and Karl Kesel, so many people. You take bits of knowledge and skill and professionalism and meld it into your own persona, and Ben was really good about that. He was never trying to ape us, he was always just learning how to be himself. It was great watching Ben mature as an artist.
We worked together on an issue of Spider-Man Adventures, and I was really happy with his work on it. We had Spider-Man fighting the X-Men, it was a lot of fun and I was pretty happy with him on that. But there were editorial changes and I just couldn’t get him on another book, and I kept having “I want to work with Ben again” in my mind, and then this job came up.
Ben has a huge interest in history, mirroring my own, so I was thinking we could work on a book that had different parts of history. That was really a draw for him, because I knew Ben would delve into the history and do it right. He’s not a guy where you say “oh, this takes place in 1724″ and then you get it and they’re wearing bellbottom pants. That was a big thing. I love his artwork, I love his expressions, I love his characters, I love that he actually draws backgrounds. That’s a big huge thing for me, because I think backgrounds are part of the character of the comic. Artists that don’t draw backgrounds, to me, diminish the character and that’s inexcusable for me. Some of my favorite stories have been ruined by artists who draw Times Square, and there’s two people in Times Square at two in the afternoon. It’s not Times Square anymore. I wanted someone who could develop London, develop the various historical aspects and understand what was going on when Napoleon was going around. Ben was the guy.
And, yeah, he was like 20 feet from me. That was nice, too.
CA: You talked a little bit about the historical setting, something that’s obviously in play when you’re talking about the nine lives of this historical feline overlord. How much research went into it, or was it all stuff that you’d had an interest in already?
PT: It was all stuff that I had an interest in previously, but it was still tons of research. It was kind of maddening at times. I’m a big believer that the writer should be doing the lion’s share of the research. I hate writers who just say “oh, this is like 1712, put some broadsides on the wall, have some peasants walking by and also some nobles.” I’ll say that, but also here’s the building types that they’re going to have, here’s what the nobles would be wearing, which is easy research, but much harder is what the peasants would be wearing. All the “Fashions of the Past” books love to show the way important people dress, like here’s Louis XIV, but you don’t know what some guy shoveling the outhouse was wearing. That’s a lot tougher.
That should all be part of the writer’s research, not just to lessen the load for the artist, but also, you learn things as the writer when you’re doing this. If you’re saying “have the broadsides in 1650 talking about thieves” or whatever, you do the research and find out that they’d actually be talking about the plague that’s killing everyone in the city. Then you find out, well, since I’m writing the story in the city, I need to deal with that plague. It brings the setting to life. If you’re going to be writing the setting, then you need to get to know the setting, both visually and research-wise. That’s something I do.
If you’ll notice, there’s a ton of dress changes on Allison and Reggie. All of those dresses and things like that, I said “here, draw this.” If I’m going to say “this is a 1965 scene,” then I should do the research and say “this is what they should be wearing.”
CA: Were there historical stories that you had to cut out, having to limit yourself to eight?
PT: There were. I wanted a Western story, and that really hurt, not being able to do a western. If you remember back when Jeff Parker and I were doing Age of the Sentry, and we’d do all sorts of strange stories for the Sentry. When that series ended, both of us were liek “oh, one more issue! We wanna do a Western story!” It just didn’t happen. Not being able to do a Western story again was pretty sad.
There are so many cats in history, but I had to choose not only the ones that best fit the character, but also not choose ones of the exact same type. You don’t want the character doing the same things, I wanted varied things, like the Audrey Hepburn chapter. Things like that. I can’t remember which dates were cut, but my initial list of cats in different areas was around 20, and I had to get that down to the eight past lives, and one current life.
CA: Do you have anything else to win over any more cat-haters like me?
PT: You don’t have to like cats to like this. I didn’t write it as someone who loves cats. The cat’s kind of a villain here, so if you love cats, you get to watch a cat in action, and if you hate cats, you get to see a cat as a villain. And then, Ben’s art, he has so many little things to find. He’s one of those artists where you can delve into his art and find secrets and additions. Even the paintings on the walls have meaning, because Ben would do things like that. It’s a pretty deep book, but it’s also a lot of fun.