Tim Hensley searches for the sound of money with rich kid ‘Wally Gropius’


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Tim Hensley pokes fun at wealth and celebrityhood in his first graphic novel ‘Wally Gropius,’ recently released by Fantagraphics. The title character is a super-rich teen (he is described as ‘the human Dow Jones, the heir to a vast petrochemical conglomerate’) who will be disinherited unless he finds and marries ‘the saddest girl in the world.’ It’s Hensley’s first book and it’s comprised largely of his 1960s-flavored serial printed in Mome, the acclaimed quarterly cartoon and comics anthology. Giant Robot is hosting a reception and book-signing for Hensley on Sunday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at GR2, the store at 2062 Sawtelle Blvd. in West L.A. Hero Complex contributor Noelene Clark caught up with Hensley for the latest edition of five questions.


NC: Your protagonist is a spoiled rich kid who is constantly mistaken for the famous Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. What inspired that sort of unexpected character?

TH: I felt like I wanted to do something that was in the teenager comic genre, sort of based on these archetypes that you have in comics. A combination of the Richie Rich and Archie comics I had when I was a kid. I didn’t feel like there was some deep-rooted explanation for the character of Wally Gropius. It was more, ‘I need a character, so how about this teenage millionaire?’ I did grow up in sort of a show business family, so I was continually in an environment of going places where a lot of people were famous, and I was sort of tagging along. I had the idea of somebody who is continually mistaken for someone really famous, but actually has nothing to do with that. Previously, I had done something for ‘Talk to Her,’ a book of interviews with illustrations by cartoonists on the facing pages. I was assigned Tom Verlaine, the lead singer and guitarist for the band Television, and drew the interview’s dialogue as a teenager comic strip where Verlaine was caricatured to suggest Jughead. I liked that he was saying these enigmatic expressions and had taken his name from the French poet Paul Verlaine. Working in that genre was fun, so when I was thinking up a main character for a new story, it was along similar lines, though I ended up somewhere a little different. I don’t usually have a ‘eureka’ moment; things just sort of evolve.

NC: You seem to have lot of fun with onomatopoeia, especially money-related words. Wally’s cellphone ‘Ka-chings’ instead of rings. His vault shuts with a loud ‘Trump!’ How did you come up with those?

TH: I don’t think they actually ever did that in Richie Rich, but he sort of personifies richness to such a degree that his physical environment is transformed. So in my book, there are a lot of sight gags of things related to money. I had to rack my brains to come up with all of them. Even to get the sound effects, I had to do a Web search and think about what the different currencies sounded like. ‘Kopek’ was a ticker-tape machine. ‘Peseta’ sounded like a malfunctioning car, a jalopy emitting steam. By the end of it, I was so sick of finding those.

NC: Speaking of Richie Rich and Archie, your drawing style is kind of a throwback to an earlier era of comics. Why did you opt for a retro look for your book?

TH: Because I could actually draw them. I grew up reading comics and learning how to draw comics. Now, there are schools you can go to to learn how to draw comics, and cartoonists now are responding to modern art and more contemporary sources. When I was learning, it was all from library books, and of course those were all traditional. I drew some cartoons for the high school yearbook that were really bad. After that, I went to college and got interested in music for a while, but after that I got back interested in comics again. The first thing I got published was in the early ‘90s. It took me a long time to both get back interested in comics and to develop a level of craft to try to do it seriously. I have a love/hate relationship with those old comics. There are things about them I’m nostalgic about, but there are things about them that infuriate me as well.

NC: Many graphic novels are collaborative -- different people write, draw and ink, but you wrote the story as well as doing your own pencils and ink. Was it challenging to go it alone?

TH: There’s sort of a tradition in mainstream comics where everything is compartmentalized. A lot of the alternative comics you increasingly find them done by one person. A lot of people work by themselves to do some great stuff. That’s one of the things that can be satisfying when you do the whole thing; you take it from script to finished page all by yourself. There are things to be gained by collaborating with somebody and having somebody respond to things in a way you don’t expect, but a lot of times, it’s not a lot collaboration, and it’s more like an assembly line. My book is only 64 pages, but I was trying to do something like the ‘Tintin’ books, which are also that length. When you read the ‘Tintin’ books, you think, ‘This is really simple and clear, and it seems like it’ll be totally easy to do one of these,’ but then you actually start. ... I worked on it for five years. It took me a long time. I worked on it after work. At the time I was doing closed captioning all day. Once I’d written the whole thing, I’d come home and try to draw it. I’d come home, and I’d say, ‘Who cares? Nobody’s going to want to read it.’ I’m sort of amazed I finished the book. You talk yourself out of the idea of the long-term goal of it. If I say, ‘Tonight I’m going to ink a panel border,’ and it’s all I’ve done that day, it’s like, ‘I’m never going to get this done.’ You have to spend five years wondering if it’s really worth the effort.

NC: So after all that worry, you must be proud of the book. Will we see more of Wally Gropius in the future?

TH: I kind of think not. I think I’m going to do something else. Kind of make another story. Some people get into a mode. They create a character, plug that character into different situations. They keep using that character. For me, it’s more like an exercise of trying to put a bunch of different pieces together than this character feels like a part of my life. That’s why it’s good to have a throwaway idea of a character like a millionaire. This isn’t my life’s work; it’s trying to put something coherent together. It’s like coming home and trying to put a ship in a bottle every night after work. I pretty much have days when I just think it’s awful and days when I think it’s good. I’m definitely proud that I was able to finish it and relieved that it’s done. Having finished this and starting to work on another, it’s like, ‘Oh boy. It’s going to be tough.’

--Noelene Clark


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ART: Fantagraphics