Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Seal

BRITTANY MATTER: How did you feel about the series going viral after posting just one image on social media? Can you talk us through that experience?

RICH TOMMASO: It felt really strange and at the same time very exciting to me...strange, because all of the hoopla was over a character I'd created when I was only 13 years old. Exciting, because it was the most explosive response to anything I'd ever created in the 20-plus years that I've been doing comics professionally.

It happened over the 2016 Halloween weekend—I was bored that Friday afternoon with whatever comic I was working on and just decided to sketch out a picture of my childhood comic character Spy Seal. I posted the sketch on Facebook and Twitter—and for the next four days, I was flooded with emails, texts, and social media comments—all super-positive responses to that one pencil sketch. People were asking me when it was going to be released in stores, advice as to what he could do in the first series, what sidekicks he could have helping him out, a lot of suggestions and questions about the series...a bunch of cartoonists like Brian Level, Derek M. Ballard, Josh Latta, and others drew up really nice pictures of the seal and emailed them to me or posted them on social media too...one guy even cosplayed as Spy Seal—in full costume and posted pictures of that online (something else I'd never seen anyone do, dress up as one of my comic book characters)—and a few cartoonists were even tweeting and texting their proposals for backup stories and pinup drawings. It was crazy. I kept telling everyone, "Look, this is just a sketch of a character I drew in 1984! There is NO comic, no script, nothing in the works. It's just a sketch!"

Although, I was pretty thrilled and flattered that people liked this old character of mine and thought it might be fun to actually go back and make new comics about him again. The following Monday, I asked Image if we could announce SPY SEAL as my next series with them.

MATTER: I imagine fans of Hergé's Tintin and Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo will be attracted to the clear-line style of SPY SEAL. But, why do you think there was such an enthusiastic response to its art and story?

TOMMASO: I think people might be getting a little tired of everything out there—not only in the comics medium, but even in TV shows and movies—having a realistic approach to it. I know I am—especially in superhero movies, all the realistic explaining for why someone puts on a costume, and what led them to that, and how did they make it—who cares? I've been going back and reading stuff like Usagi Yojimbo, Critters, Gnatrat, Cerebus, and Dungeon—and I'm also currently enjoying the series, Animal Noir, too. It's fun to just read stuff that mostly runs on someone's imagination. Maybe it's time for some creators to rely more heavily on that again.

The anthropomorphic animal comic had pretty much lost its popularity in comics for a long time. Maybe it's time those comics made a comeback. It's odd because SPY SEAL is filled with animal characters mainly because of its titular character. But the animals in the series are written just like all of my human characters—in fact, for some reason, I've noticed that they seem to have a little more dimension than my human characters...but, that may be because I had made a specific decision to increase the amount of dialogue and text in this comic series: 1) to make for a fuller read, just like a Tintin novel and 2) because I felt my last series was a bit light on dialogue.

MATTER: Hollywood also showed an immediate interest in SPY SEAL. Do you envision it as a live-action or animated film/series, and is SPY SEAL on its way to Tinseltown?

TOMMASO: Yes, during that Halloween weekend, I was approached by someone who wanted to show it around to some Hollywood studios, but I'd asked them to hold off on that until I had some kind of copyright protection through a publisher. That was one of the reasons I asked Image to jump on board with this series and announce it early. All in all, I would prefer a TV series to a movie, something for a teen audience, I suppose. Not much has happened in that vein yet, mostly because I've been so busy trying to get work on the comic series completed first.

MATTER: Originally, you created this character in the ‘80s. What was the inspiration for SPY SEAL then, and what brought you back to it now?

TOMMASO: That's partly why I would love to see it as a TV series—it would bring the whole experience full circle, since my ‘80s comic book was originally inspired by TV cartoon shows like Mighty Mouse, Inspector Gadget, and Danger Mouse. Comic book/strip inspirations came from reading stuff like Usagi Yojimbo, Groo The Wanderer, Cerebus The Aardvark, Bloom County, and many stories featured in the Critters and Threat anthologies. Besides the ongoing enthusiasm of people wanting to see a SPY SEAL series, I'm really enjoying drawing animal characters again. I like drawing them more than people, actually. It seems to come more natural to me—I can come up with original characters much easier than I could with human character designs. It also feels great to go back and revisit something I did as a kid. I never would have thought I could seriously publish a comic simply called SPY SEAL in the professional world of comics publishing, but there's something personally satisfying about that.

MATTER: What can you tell us about SPY SEAL’s character? Is he more of a James Bond or a John Steed type?

TOMMASO: I think he's more like someone out of a John le Carré novel—somewhat questioning why he does this work. He's not always politically or strategically on the same page as his superiors, either. He does what he has to for his country's secret service but can always see the similarities between the British government's covert actions, its military policies and strategies—and those of its enemies, be it Germany, Russia, or the Middle East. He works for the British government because he's native to that country, so that simply gives him loyalty—but he's aware that it's not much different than if he were born in Russia and working for their secret service. All in all, he probably has a better sense of what's right and wrong than ANY government agency.

MATTER: Without revealing too much, what kind of international espionage will SPY SEAL get into, and what is it about Corten-Steel Phoenix that has SPY SEAL investigating it?

TOMMASO: SPY SEAL will be taken from England to other, more exotic parts of the world, and then in the end, back to England again, to root out just who and what is behind the mass bombings that are being set off all over London. The Corten-Steel Phoenix is tied into a string of art galleries (and art objects of many kinds) set up all across Europe—and, at the beginning of our story, it is a term uttered in the dying words of a Russian double-agent, working for the West.

SPY SEAL #1 debuts 8/16 and is available for preorder now.

Brittany Matter is a firecracker empath with a deep love for storytelling, ramen, and pour-over coffee, ideally all at the same time. You are most likely to find her immersed in a graphic novel, writing over cocktails, or looking after the people she loves. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.