A collage of images from The Cloven with the title in distressed type in the middle. Someone with short hair and no clothing is running through trees and red light, a hand is displayed, legs jumping, a face smiling in the dark, all drawn with brushstrokes to indicate action

Hoofing It With The Cloven’s Garth Stein and Matthew Southworth

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As soon as I confirmed the recording was running, Garth’s already delivering snappy one liners: “Ah yes – big brother is watching and taking notes…” with a laugh, while Matthew chimes in, “Always!” This kind of camaraderie shows why the creative team behind Fantagraphic’s The Cloven is the sort of duo you can only dream of. 

Garth Stein is far from a blushing violet of a writer, instead quite eager to delve into the details and bristling with vibrant energy. Opposite him, Matthew Southworth is calm and contemplative, handling not only art but also colorist and lettering duties. Together, they’re the perfect storm, bouncing off of one another as we delve into the origins of their bitingly prescient comic about a young mutant man just trying to live. 

Equal parts political satire and speculative pondering on the future of genetic research, The Cloven first took root in the back of Garth’s mind while contemplating the scientific idea: “We’re cloning this and cloning that. So I pictured this kind of, you know, parallel universe of genetically modified creatures living among us. Like, you can’t prove to me there aren’t clones out there,” Garth says with a laugh. “So I had this idea: how does that work? And how am I gonna tell this story?” His first approach would actually be as a novel, over four years, but “it wasn’t working. And so that’s when I thought, what if it had visuals, you know, but not as a screenplay. What if it’s something in a full length comic book? That would be pretty cool!” 

Fortunately for Garth, he happens to be friends with Eric Reynolds, Associate Publisher of Fantagraphics. As Garth recalls, Reynolds knew precisely who to pair Garth with: “It was not a coincidence that he had introduced me to Matt. We started talking, and it turned into like… I wanna say a 3.5 hour ‘first date’ telephone conversation. And I loved it: ‘clearly we’re all on the same page here!’” Still, this would be Garth’s first time writing a comic script, having to learn on the fly how to use the vocabulary and syntax during the first book. As Garth unfurled the story for Matt to draw, Matt in turn guided Garth in how to tell it like only a graphic novel could.

“In book two, we really hit our stride,” Garth recalls, adding that “book three is going swimmingly!” He hesitates a moment then grins, “Yeah, I guess we can drop the big bomb: it’s been going so great that I think we’re looking at a book three and four. We can keep going – we’re having fun doing it! So if people want it, we’ve got the ideas.”

“Yeah,” Matthew chimes in, “we deliberately left it open. I don’t think there’s any reason to anticipate an ending to a story that could literally go on forever. So, I think that in my mind, here’s the first sort of… season, right? And it’s going to be three books – but it just grew and metastasized.” So, like a well-received season of television, they’re expanding the run with a fourth book. As for after that, “We’d be happy to see it grow. We’d love to keep going. So we’ll see what happens!”

The Coven Book 2 Cover, with the title in the center and illustrations behind it of characters with a gun, reading a note, listening to something mournfully, and the authors names on the bottom, Garth Stein and Matthew Southworth

Across the current two volumes of The Cloven, readers follow a young man, half-goat half-human, struggling to survive a cruel world set to lead to his demise, whether it’s opportunistic rednecks or government agents. Yet when it first began, as Garth puts it, “Well, I was trying to figure out how to do another Twilight and make a ton of money.” He laughs at the irony, though a love story does slowly blossom in the resulting story, “I said to a friend of mine at lunch, I was like, ‘Okay, vampires are done now, so what’s next?’ ‘Oh, it’s going to be like, a werewolf?’ ‘No, no no no. What about… there’s like a goat boy on your track team and he would like, beat everybody. So he’d have to slow down so he didn’t stand out.’ That started the ball rolling.” It certainly evokes the YA supernatural love story vibe of Twilight, and even some aspects of Marc Webb’s first Amazing Spider-Man movie. Yet that’s not what kept Garth working at the idea.

“It had traction because of the sort of the conversations that we are having right now as a society,” Garth explains. “What are we doing? I mean, we are worried about AI, right? We’re worried about genetically modifying people. The first the process has been approved by the FDA to do gene modifications on people for, like, sickle cell anemia. The potential is great, but then, you know, as with AI, the real question is, is anybody actually in charge of this? Or is it just metaphorically rolling down the giant mountain of the universe? Just gathering speed.” The question of how quickly, and how much, we sacrifice but remain human is paramount from the pages depicting the first cloven birth, with their surrogate father figure rocking a hybrid baby, ensuring it lives, rather than expiring in a growth vat. You have to rock the baby, the scientist declares, one of many unflinchingly defiant yet empathetic acts across the series.

Among those empathetic moments, few are as poignant as the devastatingly honest depiction of homeless communities struggling in the shadow of urban society. For Garth, it’s a story that hits close to home, harkening back to his documentary work. “I spent a fair amount of time trying to make a documentary film in the early 90s in New York. I was living in NYC, and it was shortly after they deinstitutionalized the mental institutions around the country,” he explains. “And of course, there are quite a few near New York – Creedmoor being the biggest one that had easily 35,000 mentally ill patients in it. And they… essentially, released 30,000 of them and gave them a check.”

As the patients were situated in single-residence occupancy hotels converted out of apartment buildings, “They learned, of course, that people who have mental illness that can be controlled by medication, when you let them go and put them in an SRO in New York City? They just stopped taking their medication. And then, of course, they become mentally ill again. It was this vicious, tragic thing.” Unfortunately, “It turns out no one wants to make a documentary film about homeless mentally ill people.” He quickly adds, “Which they were in their right, you know, because people said, ‘Well, we just want to give the money to the people, you know, to the organizations that support the people.’ And that makes sense. I just wanted to be building sympathy for these for the larger masses. But it didn’t sell. So it has always been on my mind in that regard.”

Now living in Seattle, the problem is all the more evident, echoing the similar struggles of the homeless in San Francisco and Portland, “And I’m not sure anybody’s really trying to solve the problem, and that makes me very frustrated. The fact that we have more billionaires per square inch in Seattle than any other place in the world, and we have thousands of people living underneath the freeway right over here, and everybody just walks right by them.” Garth considers for a moment, “My son asked me, ‘Hey, what do they do when Taylor Swift comes to town?’ And I said, ‘They take all the homeless people, they drive them a three-day walk away and they let them out. Then by the time they make it back to Lumen Field, Taylor Swift is done and made her hundreds of millions of dollars and has left. But none of the people saw any homeless people, right?’ That’s not solving the problem.”

Matthew nods along, “I mean, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos drive on the same freeway these people live under. They have to – unless they’re taking a helicopter to the airport, which they probably are, so they can fly their private jets.”

When asked if he’d call the story science fiction or not, Garth replies, “Ray Bradbury said that the only science fiction book he ever wrote was Fahrenheit 451. He said that fantasy can’t happen and science fiction can, and that’s the book that could really happen. Which is an interesting idea in and of itself. But you know, that line between how science is catching up to science fiction? Makes it all feel much more like political satire, I think. We comment on who we are as a species, what we’re doing here, how much attention we’re paying, who we’re listening to, who were believing and who we’re not believing – and how easy it is to convince ourselves that we’re right while we demonize the people who we believe are wrong.”

“There’s a line in book three. Or is it book four?” Garth chuckles, “Well, there’s a line where the scientist guy says, ‘You know what? Well, yeah, theoretically, this could happen.’ And the interviewer says, ‘Well, that’s a lot further along than when it was fantasy that this could happen, which it was ten years ago’. That’s where we are. We’re actually getting closer now. Can we get to that moment? I don’t know. And will we do it before the moment of singularity? I don’t know, but I’m looking at this as sort of like: let’s use comics, with a premise that’s almost goofy and have a real serious conversation about this. Granted, Matt may have his own subversive agenda to add,” he grins, glancing at his compatriot. 

“Oh, we’re agreed,” Matthew nods, “The thing that I’m finding is that the parts that are hardest for me to not not necessarily hardest to draw, but hardest to realize, are the more fantasy and science fiction elements of it. I keep relating it to adolescence and post adolescence. That sort of college era for personal problems. So it’s interesting that our comic has this kind of big social aspect and also science fiction slash fantasy framing. I keep sort of coming back to the Elliott Smith of it all. You know, like the sort of lonely guy who is a freak, and is afraid people will think he’s a freak and doesn’t realize that that’s what’s special about him. It’s an interesting clash of perspectives that I think is what makes it fun for me.”

And if there’s anything The Cloven’s protagonist James Tucker is, it’s the opposite of Jeff Bezos. “I kept thinking,” Matthew recalls, “‘How do I want to approach this guy?’” And I kept thinking about Charlie Brown. Like, Charlie Brown is a kid. Everybody recognizes him as a kid. You don’t really know how old he is. Is he seven or is he eleven? I don’t know. He doesn’t look anything like a child. He looks like some weird combo of lines. That little squiggle in the front. If you saw a kid with hair like that, you’d be like ‘Man, you got this weird baldness going on everywhere. Do we need a doctor?’” He laughs.

drawing from The Cloven with a young child crying in green light and liquid with goat-like hoof-feet and text from someone off frame that reads: Get the beer. Let's toast the unlucky bugger.

“So I started thinking about Tuck that way. What I found is – when I first started doing comics professionally, I was doing stuff in a very sort of Michael Lark kind of way. Much more: Photo references, sometimes using 3D models. I was taking lots and lots of photos. And I liked doing that. But what I found was, if you drew something, with 70% of the book using photo reference, that other 30% would look awkward.” Rather than lean away from the more surreal and uncanny potential of drawing from his mental image, Matthew embraced it, and in short time, “What I found is – it’s relaxing to draw him, to draw Tuck. I know how to draw him. The way the linework in my style evolved out of that was, I’ve found that the looser and the more expressive I was? The more it felt emotionally true it felt.” He adds, “And it’s also just less labor intensive to work that way. And there’s so much I mean between the first two books. There’s… what’s it, like 300 pages between the first two books alone.”

Garth nods,”It’s a lot of labor. The hard part is Matt’s work. The way we do it is that I draft a script – very much like a screenplay, but not quite. I don’t know that somebody would want to read the script for book three; but I wrote it for Matt and put in jokes or I’ll put in like, asides about the story. Because I know Matt. So I might have ideas of a location or something. For instance, we’re doing a whole bunch of work in the mountains in, British Columbia in, in book three and four. So I had these, I went and found these photos and all these kinds of things. I’d put them in and give them to Matt. So he has some visual reference or at least some kind of context that he can develop.”

Matthew quickly adds, “Well, I wouldn’t say all the hard work is mine. Comics are hard work. I’m a writer too. I remember… I  was trying to write something a couple years ago, and I would sit down and I would write literally, like maybe a half a sentence, and then I’d get up and I’d wander around and I’d go sit on the couch. And then I get back up and I walk around, and then I go in the kitchen, and at one point I go, ‘Jeez, just sit down and write!’ And then for once in my life, I was kind to myself. I went. ‘You are writing.’” With that mutual understanding of the craft of writing, Garth is able to work in “lots of shorthand”, helping ensure everything stays in scope, each tossing around ideas to ensure the story flows as smoothly and poignantly as possible.

“Because if it’s going to take eight pages to draw something, I’m like, ‘No, no, no, that beat is only worth like a page or a page and a half, let’s cut it,’” Garth explains. “With a graphic novel, it’s very important to worry about the pacing of it. And if you go down too many rabbit holes, as you know, and you can keep drawing more as you go, you could end up in a forever loop of side stories. So, Matt takes that and builds the scope of it in terms of scene wise, and then he starts working in sketches and inks. Then we go back and forth over color, dialog, the whole thing. But you know, the drawing is the creating and the stage directing so I’ll let Matt take the credit.” They both smile at one another.

With a chuckle, Matthew circles back, “Yeah. And then the third book that I’m just about to finish drawing now is going to be… 120-ish pages? 130 pages, let’s say. And so, like anything that could sort of reduce the amount of labor to the point where you could sustain a basic level of energy through it? Not only is it beneficial to me, but it ensures the book remains more emotionally consistent, or so I believe. And for the most part, that’s been true, although it’s been interrupted by illness and a pandemic and an attack on the Capitol and me nearly destroying my arm and going to the emergency room.”

“See, the first two scripts that Garth wrote for the books, he literally wrote them as kind of screenplays in the sense of, you know: Tuck is standing outside a store as a car pulls up in front of him, and so on. It wouldn’t say ‘Panel one: Talks standing outside the store. Panel two: A car pulls up. Panel three: The door opens.’ And so I was able to, in kind, sorta direct. Like, okay, do we really need to see him standing there before the car pulls up? What do we really need to see?” That inherent flexibility has become a crucial part of the pair’s creative method, allowing each to lean into their strengths freely as they experiment with ideas. 

“As Garth mentioned, there could be a scene that seems like a simple thing. And then I’d start working on it and it would keep expanding out like Silly Putty! Then we’d realize, ‘Oh, no, wait a minute! This scene should be big! This is not a small scene! This is a big moment!’ And then there were other times where. ‘No, no, no, no, we can compress this.’ To me, that’s the most fun part. The thinky, planning, plotting part; taking the material that Garth gives me and kind of figuring out how to perform it. You know, how loud is this? How bombastic is this? What colors fit this? How subtle and quiet?” 

A scene from cloven with a young person with short hair bathed in blue and shadow looking concerned while words in large loud type behind him read Rumbling Foot Fall Like Many Thundering Hooves Huddunit Thud

Even just in conversation each spins the other up, bouncing between one another and discussing ideas. Without going into spoilers, an idea for future volumes even arose mid-conversation. Then energy is electric, excited to go as deep as the thought behind the stark color choices. As Garth puts it, “I think you got to use the tools. It’s like when you see a character cough in a movie. Nobody ever just coughs. If they cough, clearly they’re sick. They’re going to die. There’s got to be a reason for it, right? What Matt does so brilliantly in these books is use color to sort of direct the psyche or the subconscious of the reader to put them in a frame of mind that they don’t even know yet.

“When you get to the acid green hues of the laboratory, you don’t really know what’s going on in the laboratory yet, but, you know it’s probably something bad, right? And so there’s an apprehension in that. He can use these colors to sort of create an emotional response that the reader hasn’t even realized he’s instilled. That’s what you do, man. I think that’s why I love you, Matt!” Garth smiles.

“I love you, too!” Matthew grins, taking the wheel to explain further, “So comics don’t have music. They don’t have a score. And a movie is scored with, you know, needle drops? To me, the color is the comic’s score. That’s oversimplifying it a little bit, but not too much. It really does feel like, ‘Well, I want this to feel sort of brassy and poke you in the eye a little bit. And then I want this to feel almost monochrome, you know.’” A particular example Matthew points to is how “A lot of comic coloring is things as just one color. A Coke can is red. Except, realistically, under the right light, a Coke can is purple. It feels like a lot of comics are too literal. You know, Superman especially. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, Superman was a very particular blue and red all the time. It didn’t matter what the lighting was. He was red and blue and had the yellow belt. Whereas I love when you see the color and lighting interweave on those primary colored comic costumes, in expressive ways. So that’s what I try to do.”

Garth nods, adding, “It’s all about using the right tools, you know? Lettering, framing, color – those are all immensely powerful tools in a comic book. You can use each to set a tone. You know, reading a book is all that reading. Telling a story though is all about a dialog between the presenter and the audience, right? The reader and the writer and and the readers trying to figure it out. The reader’s looking at everything and trying to figure it out. And what’s going to happen next. And if it’s too easy to figure out, they’re like, ‘Oh, it was so boring’. Meanwhile, if it’s tricky to figure out and surprising? You go, ‘Whoa, that’s something I haven’t seen before!” You know, there’s an engagement factor there.” 

“Exactly,” Matthew puts his hands together as he adds, “I think it’s interesting that most people, when they listen to music, they don’t catch the lyrics the first ten times unless they’re super obvious. Like, you can understand the song ‘Cherry Pie’ by Warrant pretty much straight away, but you may cry to a song you don’t even know what they’re actually saying. Something primal just makes you feel that way.” He picks up another comic from one of their peers at Fantagraphics, “I like the idea that that can happen with comics. This is a perfect example. This is another Fantagraphics book. Shout out to Fantagraphics! You can see by the cover of this and just a very quick flip to what kind of emotional content there is, in a sense, just from that. I like the idea that somebody can pick up a copy of The Cloven, just flip through it, and it’s almost like a movie trailer. They can just kind of go, ‘Oh, I can relate to this!’”

“And so you drop little clues,” Garth gestures his hands about like he’s sprinkling them on his desk. “It goes back to Checkov, doesn’t it? You put the gun on the wall, right? And you say, look, there’s a gun on the wall. And everyone’s like, I wonder what’s going to happen with that gun. Well, something had better happen with that gun, because you just made all the readers ask the question and you have to answer it!”

Reflecting on the current reception to The Cloven, the pair are enthused to see readers digging Tuck’s harrowing tale. Despite the first volume dropping during the height of Covid-19, limiting them from promoting in person, the book gained traction. “Then last summer was volume two,” Garth recalls, “which got a very good response. And you know, we’re just going to keep going until someone tells us to stop,” they both laugh. “It’s building its momentum.” A particularly interesting development has been their approach to live readings. “As a traditional author, I built a relationship with a lot of independent bookstores and they’re like, ‘Well, jeez, Garth, we’d love to have you out, but how do you do a reading from a graphic novel?!’ And I said, ‘Well, here’s how: it’s called the PowerPoint!’,” he triumphantly grins. “So I kind of do a whole thing with it. I’m basically straight-faced the whole time and say, ‘this is really true,’ and I have some fake photographs and stuff like that I add to the thing and explain to them all this kind of stuff.” Much to the pair’s amusement, during a reading in January of the prior year, they had demonstrators showing up, protesting for the ethical treatment of genetically modified creatures.

“They were holding up signs in front of the store and handing out pamphlets to people to tell them that, you know, ‘Hybrids are people, too’!” another round of laughter between them both. “And so we’re trying stuff. But we’re having fun, so what the heck?”

“So what the heck!” they both declare proudly.

 

You can find our review of The Cloven’s first two volumes here. They are available in both physical and digital formats. 

———

With over ten of writing years in the industry, Elijah’s your guy for all things strange, obscure, and spooky in gaming. When not writing articles here or elsewhere, he’s tinkering away at indie games and fiction of his own.

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