An Interview with Thom, Author of Botanica Drama

Pow Pow’s latest title is Botanica Drama, our third graphic novel from award-winning creator Thom. This wordless, all-ages fantasy tale, which chronicles a small community’s efforts to survive when their world is plunged into everlasting night, is by turns funny, eerie, and deeply emotional, and is Thom’s best work to date.

After rising day after day for billions of years, the Sun — recovering from a bit too much celestial partying the night before — makes a fateful decision to stay in bed. With the Earth plunged into darkness, everyone from Philomène the flower to Death itself face dire consequences, trapped in an everlasting winter and surrounded by mysterious creatures that have emerged from the shadows. Can anything make the sun shine again?

In this short interview, Thom talks about why he creates silent comics, his creative inspirations, and the ways he was able to channel the trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic into an ultimately uplifting tale of the power of friendship. Botanica Drama is now available in bookstores and comic shops throughout Canada, the United States, and beyond.

Pow Pow: One of the first things that people will notice is that your comics are basically wordless. There are some onomatopoeias, or sometimes there will be a label on something, but basically it all happens without dialogue. Why did you decide to work that way and what are some of the challenges that come with that?

Thom: Actually, when I made my first comics, just my own little stories, there was a lot of dialogue. But the dialogue wasn’t adding anything. I felt it was just telling what the characters were already doing, I was just repeating myself, I was repeating the actions with words. So at a certain point I just thought, okay, I’m just gonna stop making them talk! And that was a lot more interesting, and I was having a lot more fun with it. You mentioned the challenges, and the challenges are really what makes me keep wanting to go back to this universe. I want to see how I’m going to tell different kinds of stories.

I always liked silent movies. When I was a teenager my parents gave me a DVD set of the movies of Charlie Chaplin for Christmas. And the next day I just watched all of them. I thought they were really, really funny. Not just the slapstick, but I love when characters have a poker face, and they don’t say anything when something extraordinary happens to them. It really makes me laugh. Chaplin is just full of those things. It’s both extraordinary and very low-key. And sometimes there are very emotional moments. In my DVD set there was the movie The Kid, and it made me cry so much. It was a really wonderful film, and it was a revelation for me how much emotion you can get with just the music and the expressions of the characters.

Pow Pow: So far, you’ve done three of these silent fables, and this is the one that I think is the most emotional. It really centers around connections between friends and members of the community. How did you go about constructing the relationships in this book?

Thom: With this one, as you said, I delve deeper. I wanted to go a bit deeper into the sadness that I was feeling at the time, and I wanted to express it with these characters. It was something that I always wanted to do, but I always was a bit afraid to do in my first comics, which are very funny. There’s still a lot of humour in Botanica Drama but I really wanted to explore other emotions that I was feeling. There was a lot of how we felt during the pandemic that I put into this comic, the loneliness, the desperation, the wanting to be with your friends, to be with your family and your loved ones. Those were all emotions that I poured into this comic and that’s where it all came from.

Pow Pow: You are working with the same characters in the same universe, and yet each of the books really stands on its own. I don’t think anyone would have had to have read VII or Casa Rodeo in order to read Botanica Drama.

Thom: No, I really wanted to have a feeling that they are their own stories. The books do follow chronologically, but it’s not essential at all. It’s another episode in the story of these people’s lives. I really wanted to make it feel like it was a peek into their lives and that in each book we’re just somewhere else with them.

Pow Pow: Can you tell us a little bit about how you came up with your particular visual approach and maybe say what some of your inspirations are?

Thom: Well, my first inspiration is pretty much Looney Tunes. I grew up with those cartoons, I still watch them, and they’re the funniest cartoons for me. I love them so much and they gave me a big template on how to tell a story without words. The humour is very physical, and the characters are also very expressive. They gave me the guidelines on how to make my characters act.

For Botanica Drama, I was very inspired by the work of Frans Masereel, who was a Flemish artist. He worked in wood block prints. One of his books is called Die Stadt, which means “The City.” Black and white pictures of an oppressive city… The way that he shows it, I love it so much. It’s very gripping, he creates an atmosphere, which was very important to me. It’s in the same vein as German Expressionism, especially movies like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Metropolis. The big classics.

Frans Masereel, Die Stadt

And right now, my biggest influence, for style, but maybe even more in the pacing, I have to say Isao Takahata. He founded Studio Ghibli with Miyazaki. Of course, I love Miyazaki’s work, but there’s something about Isao Takahata. He tells very low-key stories, family stories, or stories about Japan, like the Tale of Princess Kaguya, or Pom Poko, which are fantastical, but they’re still very much set in the mythology of Japan. I think he’s pretty much the biggest influence on me right now. I’m not talking about style, but more about storytelling, taking the time to show something, to show an action. It makes you feel like the world is almost as real as the one that you’re living in right now.

Pow Pow: You have a sort of a “special effect” that you deploy late in the book that is quite a surprise when you’re turning the pages. You suddenly see something very different than what came before. Without spoiling it for people, do you think you can talk a little bit about your inspiration for wanting to do kind of a “trick” there, something that changes the emotions of the reader?

Thom: Actually, that idea came from one of my friends! I was telling her the story and she just said, “You should do THIS!” And it really changed everything for me, because again, this is a wordless comic, and for that you need to use all kinds of tools, you need all kinds of ways of “talking” in a way. And this change late in the book was introducing a whole new way of talking in this world. I was very scared to do it, because yeah, it pretty much changes everything. Now you’re seeing the world in another way completely. It was very stressful for me because I was wondering, was I able to do it? Is it going to be well received? I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. But in the end, it was exactly what I wanted.

Pow Pow: It’s fascinating to hear that so much of Botanica Drama was inspired by your feelings during the pandemic, by the isolation and feelings of fear. But ultimately your book is very positive. It’s about what people can do if they come together to work for the greater good.

Thom: Yeah, it did come from a very dark place. I was in a bit of a depression actually. But I was always very much supported, there were a lot of loving people around me. There was a lot of love in my life, and that’s what made me come out of this darkness. So, yeah, there is hope. There needs to be hope. It was such a dark moment, and that’s why it’s a very personal story, and a bit of a reminder for me of what’s important: Community, family, friends. It’s what made me keep going at a certain point. That’s a bit intense, but that’s pretty much what happened, actually. I’m sorry, I deviated a bit!

Pow Pow: No, not at all. In fact, actually, I think that’s a very touching way to think about Botanica Drama. It’s a fantasy story. It’s light, it’s comic, and yet at the same time, you as an author are plumbing very deep things about yourself, about the world in general, and you’re putting it into your art. Sometimes that might not be apparent to people who are coming to your work. They might think, “Oh, it’s like Looney Tunes. It’s fun. It’s funny.” But in fact, there’s something very deep and rich inside of there.

Thom: Some people just see the jokes. Other people really experience it in an emotional way, in terms of their own lives. I’m glad the book finds a new life in each reader.