Seven Questions About Broken Telephone

Here’s the first installment [out of now five] of the Seven Questions About feature: This time I interviewed Ryan Estrada, the writer of the wonderful webcomic Broken Telephone.

I have not yet talked about Broken Telephone on this blog, but that is entirely my fault, since I really love that comic, and so will you. If you don’t care about my opinion – in which case: Why are you reading this? – please read this review on Panels On Pages.

Now let me explain how the feature  works: I ask seven questions. The first four are stock questions. They are the same for everyone, one about the creator(s), the next three about the comic. This serves as a warm-up, and gives us the lay of the land. In contrast, the last three questions are always quite specific, and based on my own interest in, and infatuation with, the comic in question.

Now, enjoy!

Q1: Who are you?

I’m Ryan Estrada. I travel around the world making comics and telling stories about and inspired by all the weird trouble I get into. I have been thrown from a train, slept on a park bench in a typhoon, been on fire, and been chased by a police helicopter. You can find out more at ryanestrada.com.

Q2: What is Broken Telephone about?

Broken Telephone is a crime story… where no one can agree on what the crime was. Every story follows the villain of the story before it, and everyone thinks they’re the hero of the story. From the Indian call center worker trying to solve a mystery over a customer service call, to the rival killers using art supplies to take one another out in an airport, to the prison escapee who’s hacking sharks.

Q3: Why and how did Broken Telephone get started?

Seven years before the book came out, I was working as a trainer in a Mumbai call center, listening to calls. A customer got disconnected, and I asked the customer service representative if she was going to call them back. She explained that they had no way of doing that and I, in the mindset of a cartoonist instead of a call center trainer asked “what if you overheard a murder?” I creeped her out and then another call immediately began. I spent the rest of the day writing the story.

Q4: What influences made Broken Telephone into what it is?

Originally, that call center woman was all there was to to the story. The idea was, retell a Die Hardesque action movie from the point of view of someone only hearing bits and pieces over the phone. But even though we never saw the villains, it bothered me how cliche they were.

I have been influenced by antagonists you see in Miyazaki films… no one in those movies think they’re the bad guy, they’re just doing what they think is right. Everyone’s the hero of their own story. That’s where I decided to follow the other characters and show their side of the story.

I was also influenced by a movie that few people have ever seen or heard of… an obscure Korean comedy called either Break Out! or Strike The Lighter (depending on which out-of-print dvd you find) It’s basically like Die Hard or Under Siege or any other movie where there’s one man who can stop a runaway train filled with hostages… except in this movie the only reason he’s involved is because the bad guy stole his lighter. The movie did an amazing job of really making sure that every character had so wrapped their entire sense of self-worth into some completely inconsequential detail of the story that you REALLY felt the gravity of what was important to them, despite the fact that this larger major disaster was about to happen because of them that they really weren’t driven by. I wanted to capture that sense of really focusing on what the characters cared about, rather than tying it into one simple good vs evil story.

Q7 (huh?): How did you develop the Rashomon-style structure of Broken Telephone to its full complexity?

After I rewrote the villains of the story to be sympathetic, I realized that I had only created a third villain that they blamed everything on. So I had to think about her motivation, and who she blamed. Then I had to deal with HER enemy. Then I kept going until it all came full circle. I wrote the script for seven dang years until I had it just the way I wanted it. You can tell how obsessive I am about story structure by the fact that I couldn’t even answer your questions in order (hah!) because it messed with my story flow.

Q6: How did you come up with the different characters for the different plot lines?

I didn’t want it to be straight-up Rashomon, where the same story beats are repeated from different perspectives. I wanted to make sure that every character was as different as possible from everyone else, and dealing with a completely different situation in a completely different location. I filled the story with a Burmese grandmother, a tattooed hacker, a pop-punk protester, a gay southern NRA member, a mute pacifist soldier, a shady politician, and gave everyone their own things to care about. Their goals came from the story itself, but I gathered pieces of their personalities from all the awesome people I’ve met in my world travels.

Q5: Did feedback of the different artists influence the writing of Broken Telephone, and if so, how?

The artists were all chosen after the script was finished, having been in production for seven years. [So, technically, the answer is a simple “no”. I’m very happy that you answered to the spirit rather than the phrasing of the question.] Something really interesting happened when I divvied up the art duties. See, I brought people on board because I thought their styles worked with specific stories. I worked really hard to make sure it flowed just right and each look was right for each chapter. But then, at the last minute, I have no idea why, I just asked all the artists which chapter they wanted to draw. And much to my surprise, every single person I asked chose the EXACT OPPOSITE story from what I’d had them in mind for. People who did cutesy art chose horrifyingly violent chapters. People who draw more unsettling art chose the sweet stories. No one was interested in doing something in their wheelhouse, they wanted to try something new. This lead to not only artists having fun and going above and beyond the call of duty, but stories that were oddly unsettling and livened up because nothing is what you’d expect.

Got any comments?

I have to say I’m quite intrigued by Ryan’s answers. Some of them went into very different places than I had expected. I learned a lot about storytelling and creating comics from this Q & A, just as I have learned much from the comic itself.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments!

Stay tuned!

The next Seven Questions About installment – where I’m asking sincerely and Elliwiny about their webcomic Opportunities – will be published in two weeks. So please, to fully understand what the questions and answers are about, take the time to read Opportunities!

And yet another Seven Questions About installment is scheduled two week later (If you have trouble doing the math, that is in four weeks from now) featuring Christopher Mills, the writer of Gravedigger: The Predators. Goes without saying that I encourage you to check it out as well.

Next week I will talk about one of the greatest positive surprises among this year’s movies: Spy.

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