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DF Interview: Thom Zahler serves up wine – and time! – in Time & Vine
By Byron Brewer
A grade school history teacher, looking for a respite from her life's problems, finds the ultimate escape when the owner of a local winery reveals its secret to her: drink the right glass of wine in the right tasting room, and travel back in time to the year it was bottled. Together, they'll journey through the history of the 200-year-old winery... as well as their own.
From writer/artist Thom Zahler and IDW Publishing comes Time & Vine, a new series that puts a different meaning on the old ad slogan, “We’ll serve no wine before it’s time”! To get the full 411, DF spoke with the entire creative team (well, almost): Thom Zahler.
Dynamic Forces: Well, Thom, I have been searching for more reasons in my life to drink wine, lol. Tell our readers about how the libation is uniquely utilized in your new IDW series, Time & Vine.
Thom Zahler: Wine is the engine that drives this story (and often drives me). It’s about a magical winery where, when you go into the right tasting room and you drink the right bottle, you’re taken back in time to the year the wine was made. So drink a bottle from 1912, go back to 1912. Until you sober up.
DF: A portion of our audience knows you best as cartoonist for Love and Capes, and some great work there. How did this return to creator-owned work come about?
Thom Zahler: I like keeping a mix to my work. I’ll work on work for hire stuff, like My Little Pony or writing for animation, and then also keep doing my personal projects. As a creator and a businessperson, that blend is important.
Creator-owned work is fantastic, but it also chews me up in a way that existing franchises don’t. I don’t have to create Equestria or figure out what Kraven the Hunter talks like. Those things come pre-assembled, and it’s nice to play with someone else’s toys. Trying to construct something like Time & Vine, with characters that have never existed before and figure out the rules of time travel in this story is a lot more draining. And, I want to make sure that I’m telling a story worth telling. I’m lucky enough to have an audience for my stories, and I don’t want to disappoint them.
When I finished Long Distance for IDW, my last creator-owned piece about a couple in a long distance relationship, I was tapped out. Especially doing most of the work myself, it’s like climbing a mountain. You have to really want to do it.
Interestingly, Time & Vine wasn’t in my pile of potential ideas when I was figuring out what’s next. The idea came about as a thought exercise in relation to a joke Kurt Busiek made on Twitter. And then I was on a walk and the whole idea hit me. By the end of the walk, I had the story. Or at least I thought I did. It changed… well, a whole new aspect was added, as I wrote it.
DF: What can you tell us about your plucky protagonist, Megan?
Thom Zahler: Megan is a young grade school history teacher. She’s moved back to her home town to take care of her mother, who’s got early onset Alzheimer’s. When we meet her, her other teacher friends have taken her to the winery to take the night off, as it were. And that’s when she meets the owner, tells her story, and Jack decides to take her on her first trip.
She’s a fun character to write. Even in the midst of the hardship, she very much loves her family and is a loyal guardian of it. Her mother’s disease weighs heavily on her, and that became the core of the story in a way that I didn’t expect.
Megan also jumps into things with both feet. Once she decides to do something, she does the heck out of it, and that’s what Jack notices.
DF: … About her eventual companion, the local winery owner, and the winery itself?
Thom Zahler: So Jack is a much older guy, in his seventies. He’s lived a lot of life in that time, and not all of it pleasant. His wife’s family owned the winery and his family owned the bed and breakfast across the road. That’s how they met. When we meet him, his wife has been dead for a few years, and that loss very much defines him. He’s also got almost a Doctor Who-like quality where he has access to this magical winery and can time travel, but it’s always more fun with a friend. So, once he meets Megan, he senses a spirit that would enjoy that adventure, and he takes her back.
The winery itself is almost two hundred years old, having been started shortly before the Civil War in upstate New York. It’s loosely based on Brotherhood Winery in New York state, which is the oldest winery in the United States. I wanted a place that just oozed history. And being in New York from that time means you get the Civil War, Tesla electrifying New York, the creation of baseball, two World Wars… just all of American history. And, since the time travel all happens at the winery itself (you don’t drink and go back to turn of the century Chicago, for instance), being close to the center of so much history was essential.
DF: What type of stories can readers expect from Time & Vine, if you can tell us in a non-spoilery manner?
Thom Zahler: I can better define it by what doesn’t happen. Jack and Megan will go back in time to experience history, but it’s very personal history. So, it’s not going to be like Timeless (no slight there… I enjoy that show a lot) where every trip back is to a place that’s essential to history. We’re not going to meet Einstein or Roosevelt on every trip. It’s more about what’s happening to the people history doesn’t talk about during said history. So, from the families that have owned the winery to people who are drinking at it, it’s their stories that we get to dive into.
DF: Often with period pieces such as the one(s) forthcoming in Time & Vine (I assume, since we’re playing with about two centuries of history), writers and artists will do research – some a little, some massive – to get the feel of the period so much so it becomes a character in the piece, so to speak. Have you/will you be doing such research for these time trips, and can you tell us about anything you have done/plan to do along those lines?
Thom Zahler: Well, the most fun part has been the wine! I read up on Brotherhood and took a research trip there. Took the tour, bought more than a few bottles, that kind of thing. And that’s the part that’s the most fun and also the most essential. Learning things like the champagne was considered medicinal and made during prohibition, as was church wine. That’s the kind of stuff that makes these stories real. Being able to go there and see it in person informed the story so much.
I’ve also troubled them for a fact or two, as well. There’s a scene with champagne in 1916. And just about everyone knows these days that champagne can only be called that if it’s made in a specific region of France. Past that, it’s all “sparkling wine”. But in reality, people don’t call it that in conversation.
So I’ve got this scene where Jack orders some champagne and Megan calls him out on that. But then I thought “When did that rule come into place? And what would a champagne bottle label have said in 1916?” I emailed the winery and they let me know. So when Megan says “You know, you can’t call it ‘champagne’” Jack can fire back “You could here.”
Also, a friend of mine from grade school is the sommelier of a winery here in Ohio, Debonne Vineyards. He was kind enough to give me a tour last winter, show me a lot about how the wine is made and stored. That helped so much! And he’s been available as a resource too.
As far as the history, I’m trying to not get too deep into it, as it’s a story about people and less about the time. So I research the fashions and hairstyles, for which I thank the internet every day, and look up those kinds of visuals. The access we have is amazing these days. One scene takes place during the televised moon landing, and I could find the video on YouTube so I could watch it. So, all those scenes are referenced. The dialogue in that scene is what was broadcast that day.
DF: What are the advantages/disadvantages of working as a one-man-band on this book, in your perception?
Thom Zahler: It’s funny you say that, because this is the first time I’ve brought on a collaborator. The extremely talented Luigi Anderson is coloring the book. It’s the first time I’ve really worked with a colorist aside from one issue of My Little Pony. I’ve colored all my own work previously, and I think I’m good enough for my work. I mean, it’s consistent and I execute it to serve the story. Love and Capes had a very animated style, and Long Distance had its duotone format. I tried coloring Time & Vine and I just kept hitting a wall. My brain couldn’t figure out how to do it.
So I was not at all complaining about this to my friend Tony Fleecs, who suggested Luigi, and he’s been phenomenal!
Past that, being the whole show is very lonely. Love and Capes was at least so bite-sized I could share page by page with my group of readers, who I call the Secret Society of Super-Reviewers. But for longer form stories like this, I’ll tell them about the idea, but until I do it, there’s nothing for them to react to. And I generally don’t write a complete script, just structure out the story enough that I can get going. I always know the beginning and the end, and chunks of the middle, but I like keeping the cookie dough unbaked in the center so I can react to things I discover. That certainly happened here. The Big Reveal in issue #2 was never planned out, and it drives the story after that.
But, I’m very grateful that I can do this, and that Joe Kubert trained us to be Will Eisner. When we need to, we can be a one-man-band, and that gives us a flexibility that other creators don’t have. I don’t have to convince an inker to devote half a year to working on a book that they’re not driven by, or beg a letterer friend to do me a favor and squeeze my book into his schedule. Ultimately, I can execute it on my own. And that means that I can take risks and tell stories that are very personal. I am also very fortunate that IDW believes in me and is willing to publish these projects. I can’t say enough good things about them and their support.
DF: Thom, any other projects ongoing or coming up you can tell us about?
Thom Zahler: So, there are two that I can’t say much about. One thing will drop this summer, and it’s very much a Thom Zahler story. When you see it, it’s exactly the kind of thing you think I would do. But that hasn’t been announced yet and I don’t want to step on it. I’ve also written another animated project. Again, unannounced so I can’t say what, but there it is.
I’ve got another My Little Pony story coming up over the summer, which I jokingly refer to as “Apocalypse Now… with Ponies!”
And I did a few pages and helped out with lettering and production on the forthcoming two-volume Tellos Mike Wieringo tribute book. It’s a singular honor to be part of that. That comes out this summer too.
Wow, that’s a lot of Thom Zahler in a short amount of time. I hope people don’t get sick of me!
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Thom Zahler for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Time & Vine #1 from IDW Publishing hits stores July 5th!
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