Local comic artist anticipates novel debut

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by Sayaka Matsuoka

The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards are like the Oscars of the comics world, and Winston-Salem native Ben Towle has been nominated three times.

Towle, who is currently working on his fourth graphic novel, Oyster War, didn’t always know he wanted to be a comic-book artist. His résumé ranges from studying philosophy at Davidson College to playing in an indie-rock band and teaching art classes at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art. But for the past 10 years, Towle’s been working as a freelance artist in Winston-Salem after taking graduate art classes at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“[My wife and I] made a short list of cities we liked and would want to live in,” Towle said, describing the couple’s move to the City of Arts & Innovation after school. “I got a summer job teaching at the Governor’s School and we’ve been here for the past 12 years.”

His first full-length solo comic book, Farewell Georgia, came out around the time he and his wife made the move to the Triad; since then he has created three complete works, including his newest novel Oyster War, scheduled to come out in September.

The Eisner-nominated work is being published by the Portland, Ore.-based Oni Press, the company that printed the Scott Pilgrim series. His inspiration for the novel came years ago when he was visiting his grandfather near the Chesapeake Bay.

“I was reading this book about the oyster wars in the area and made a note about it for later,” Towle said. “And one thing just led to another.”

The wars refer to the disputes between Maryland and Virginia oyster pirates and authorities in the Chesapeake region in the mid-19thth Century just after the Civil War. Towle takes the lesser-known historical event and gives it a colorful spin — one with pirates, a commander and a magical artifact. It’s his first book done in full color and his favorite of his work so far.

“I’m always moving ahead,” Towle said. “I never want to do the same thing twice.”

To promote the release of his new graphic novel, Towle put on an ongoing exhibition at the Theatre Art Galleries in High Point. Tucked away in the upper gallery of the theater, crisp, blown-up images of the cover and inside pages of Oyster War adorn the walls. Other works including local commissions like his Star Trek poster for A/perture Cinemas in Winston-Salem also decorate the space.

Hand-drawn and painted images on vast sheets of paper with speech bubbles and scene boxes prompt viewers to appreciate the craftsmanship of the art. In a form where the final product comes in a processed book rather than on a gallery wall, Towle’s exhibition showcases the detailed handiwork of comic artists and graphic novelists alike.

Light-blue pencil sketches where Towle’s made edits and scribbled notes on the side show his thorough thought process and contrast strongly to final digital prints from Oyster War that also hang on the walls.

The novel will debut at the Small Press Expo in Washington, DC on Sept. 19 and will be out in stores on the Sept. 23. Towle will also be doing a signing that day at Ssalefish Comics and Toys in Winston-Salem and one three days later at Acme Comics in Greensboro.

While Oyster War has a couple of months to make its debut, Towle already has several plans in the works for future novels. He’s working on a short story for the publication “Creepy Comics” and is planning an all-ages science-fiction book. And while he has yet to create a book based in North Carolina, Towle says it’s on his bucket list. He’s already made references to the area in some of his other books; he says that readers may recognize some of the buildings in Midnight Sun, like the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem.

“The community has been really supportive,” Towle said. “There’s strong support for the arts in general.”