In late July I raved about Drop Target Zine, the homebrew pinball magazine, illustrated, written and self-piblished by Jon Chad and Alec Longstreth. To celebrate the release of DTZ #6 earlier this afternoon, available through this link for a mere $5USD plus shipping, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth a series of questions about their publication, their interests, and the hobby in general. I must say that these guys are absolutely sincere and genuine in their appreciation for pinball–it shows in this interview, but also reaches out and grabs you on each and every fantastically illustrated page of Drop Target. Every pinball enthusiast owes it to themselves to read every issue of this part-comic/part-magazine hybrid. The duo took time out to participate in a Credit Dot interview while the ink was drying on Issue #6…hopefully it wasn’t too much of a distraction!
Credit Dot: Did your appreciation for pinball begin when you were younger, or is it more of a recent phenomenon?
Alec Longstreth (ABL): I would have told you it was a recent thing, but a few years ago we were at Funspot in New Hampshire and I was going down their line of games, playing them all, when I had this weird sensation. I was playing Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Gottlieb, 1978) and all of the sounds and the playfield art felt eerily familiar. Suddenly I remembered that my orthodontist’s office had this machine on free play in his waiting room and I spent many an hour as a kid playing that game while I was waiting for my older sisters to get their braces off.
Jon Chad (JON): I didn’t have much of a connection with pinball as a kid. I remember playing an Indiana Jones (Williams, 1993) machine in a hotel when I was young and a Elvis (Stern, 2004) machine in a college student center. Both times I had a blast, but my lack of skill made for short games. I just didn’t play long enough to catch the bug.
CD: How did you guys first meet? What were your first impressions of each other?
JON: We owe our friendship to The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. In 2007, Alec was a summer workshop faculty member and I was an intern. A year later we both moved to White River Junction to work at CCS. Alec was a friendly, high energy guy who was really generous with his time.
ABL: Ha ha, yeah. I get pumped about stuff, and I could tell right off the bat that Jon was the same way. I remember a few months into our stint both living in White River Junction, we had to make a trip to IKEA to buy some new tables for CCS and we both just had a blast. Jon had never been to an IKEA before and it really felt like we were going on an adventure. He got pumped, and I fed off of that energy. And that mutual excitement is what I feel makes Drop Target really special. We try to infuse every article and illustration and comic with our positive enthusiasm for pinball.
CD: That enthusiasm really shines through in DTZ. Under what circumstances did you decide to self-publish a zine about pinball?
ABL: Jon and I were both teaching a summer workshop at CCS in 2010. At the end of the workshop, we had a picnic planned at the park, but it ended up raining that day. Thank goodness it did! On the fly, we decided to go hang out at a new pool hall that had recently opened up and in the back corner they had a Star Wars: Episode One (Pinball 2000) machine. We started playing it together and instantly got hooked. Jon and I have both been creating our own minicomics and zines for years. When we both got into pinball it was a natural impulse to take that enthusiasm and excitement and share it with everyone else through a zine.
CD: With pinball being a physical alternative to console and mobile gaming, and the zine being a tangible alternative to online storytelling and communication, it seems that both subject and medium usurp popular technology to some degree. Was this a consideration in creating DTZ?
JON: I played a lot of video games growing up, but the thing that makes pinball unique to me is the physicality of it. It’s a whole world under that glass! There are things that you can do with pinball that can’t be replicated in any kind of video game experience. Alec and I both share a passion for books in their physical form. When you’re holding an issue of a self-published book you’re touching something that the authors created, and there’s a connection there. Each pinball machine was actually touched by the workers on the factory line. They assembled it. It’s not the same thing with a video game.
CD: How hard is it to work with each other, being on opposite coasts?
ABL: Well, it’s a lot easier than it probably used to be! We take advantage of all that current cloud-based technology has to offer. We have a Google Docs spreadsheet for Drop Target with all seven issues laid out. We can both view and edit that document at the same time while we are on the phone. We also create a Dropbox folder with all of the current issue’s assets. When Jon uploads a new spot illustration or text document with his latest write-up out in Massachusetts, I get a little notification that it has been uploaded and I can check it out on my computer in California. It’s pretty amazing!
JON: That being said, we need to be together, and at the Center for Cartoon Studies to make the zines. The CCS lab has all kinds of screen printing equipment, photocopiers and industrial paper cutters that we use to produce Drop Target. Without access to that equipment Drop Target would not be financially feasible. Luckily, CCS asks us to come out once a year to teach a summer workshop or two, so our production schedule revolves around that. I know the fans wish issues came out faster, like when we were both in White River Junction, but we’d rather have one issue a year and know that it’s the best it could be!
CD: The comic style art is a big part of the zine. Are there any challenges to telling a story about pinball using the comic medium?
ABL: That’s really important to us. Our goal is to never have a two-page spread in any issue of DTZ that does not have some image on it. Jon and I are both image makers so we try to load every issue with as many comics and illustrations as possible. As for challenges…it’s hard drawing pinball machines! Jon is much better at technical drawing than I am – he makes it look easy – but I’m pretty sure it’s challenging for him as well.
JON: Definitely. A lot of the stories about pinball are really about the people playing pinball. We draw comics with people all the time, so that’s no problem. Drawing pinball machines – that’s the real monkey wrench!
ABL: Yeah, I specifically keep my DTZ drawings a little looser than my regular comics work, so that I’m not held fully accountable to the accuracy of something. If you get too tight than a single button out of place looks bad, but if you keep it loose you can be a little more willy-nilly.
CD: So what is the hardest part in illustrating a pinball machine?
JON: The proportions. Something’s always off. The height of the cabinet. The angle that the backbox tilts out, or the angle of the legs. You wouldn’t think it, but there’s almost no right angles in a pinball machine!
ABL: The backbox tilts out??? Wow, I guess you’re right, that never occurred to me! Ha ha, there you can see the difference between my drawings of pinball machines and Jon’s!
CD: You mentioned earlier that you use the comic medium to tell the stories of personal pinball experiences, and in doing so, you end up illustrating yourselves a lot. How accurate is the portrayal of the cartoon “Jon” and “Alec” to the real Jon and Alec?
JON: Well, you do edit a bit in autobiographical comics, but I think our portrayals of ourselves and each other are pretty accurate. We do really get this excited about pinball!
ABL: For me it’s weird because I had this massive beard when we drew the first few issues and now I have a more “normal” beard. Sometimes when I meet DTZ readers in real life they are surprised that my big beard is gone.
JON: I have the opposite problem! I only draw hair on one side of my arms, but actually it goes all the way around. I am 50% harrier than I depict myself in my comics!
CD: Who are some of your artistic influences outside of the pinball world?
ABL: I think all of our artistic influences come from outside the world of pinball, because we only got into pinball later in life, as adults. We are both cartoonists, so mostly we were influenced by the comics we read while growing up. For me it was cartoonists like Carl Barks (Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck), Bill Waterson (Calvin & Hobbes), and Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin).
JON: I agree. While I wouldn’t say that pinball art has influenced my drawings, I will say that the experience of playing pinball itself has definitely influenced some of our design decisions in putting together an issue of Drop Target. If you look at the cover images for Issues #1-6, they slowly take you through a game of pinball. Issue #1 has a plunger, issue #2 is the lanes at the top, issue #3 is the bumper pit, and so forth. I won’t tell you what’s going to be on the cover of our last issue, but let’s just say when you put all seven issues together, a full game of pinball will be represented. Also, each issue has an illustration on the back that is based on the “match” screen from whatever game is in our “Replay Review” article. Instead of the standard “20” score, we invert the numbers so that for issue #2 the match number is “02.” This is the last thing you see of the issue, the same way the match screen is the last thing you see when you play a game of pinball. KNOCK!
CD: In reading DTZ, you seem to capture the wonder, purity and idyllic nature of pinball: the thrill of chasing high scores, a night of playing with friends, the camaraderie of moving machines. How much does the medium you are using play into capturing this spirit of pinball?
ABL: Cartoonists have a term called “emenata” which are those sweat marks that fly off a character’s head when they are excited or stressed out or surprised. More generally, you can use aspects of drawing that don’t exist in the real world to help enhance a moment. So if I play a great game of pinball, in comics there will be little swirly lines coming out of my head. Or if Jon has to solder his first molex connector the background may fill up with a million wires to indicate how stressful that experience felt. Obviously, we feel like comics is the best storytelling medium out there, because we are both cartoonists. I think one of the big challenges of Drop Target for us has been to bring the same level of excitement and clarity to our writing. We both probably write about 10,000 words for each issue (that is a total guess, I don’t know the real number – it’s probably more!). Before we print an issue we have these long proofreading meetings where we argue about punctuation, capitalization and grammar. I think when we look back on DTZ as a project, that might be the area where we both grew the most, as writers.
CD: How good are you at playing the game itself? Who is the better player?
JON: Alec is the better player. 100% When I get to a game, I’m too taken with the spectacle to stop and read the rules. Going through and hitting shots and starting modes is just so exciting. Alec actually studies the rules on the card like a smart player before starting a game.
ABL: Okay, that might be the case, but I think if Jon is on fire, you can’t touch him. There is that zone and when Jon enters it, he’s going to be better than I am. He put up a 239 million score on that Star Wars: Episode One game that I could never touch (also, he was the Ramp Champ!) In DTZ we talk about Jon mastering his rage. He used to get really worked up, but now he has that totally under control and he can keep it cool during a game in a way that I can not. If I start doing well in a game, I get so nervous, I start shaking. I recently played in my first tournament in Oakland. It was double elimination (I think that’s what it was called?) you could only lose twice and then you were out of the tournament. I was a stressed out ball of nerves and I lost my first two games: one, two. I was out of there in fifteen minutes! But then at home, when I am on my lunch break I can play my Medieval Madness for an hour on one credit and get up into the hundreds of millions. That’s something I’ll have to work on if I want to continue to compete (which I don’t think I do!)
CD: Do you have a personal collection of machines? If so, what do you have?
JON: Alec has his Medieval Madness and I used to have a Jurassic Park (Data East, 1993) and a Arena (Premier, 1987). Both machines treated me well, but I had to downsize when I moved from White River Junction to Northhampton, MA. I loved Jurassic Park and I took good care of it, so it was an easy sell. The Arena was well loved, but I hadn’t put as much work into it. I secretly want one of those pinball cocktail tables. I figure it would be a good compromise between me having a pinball machine and my roommates not going ballistic.
CD: I’m no zine expert: how crowded is the pinball zine scene?
ABL: One of the most exciting things, when we started getting into pinball was finding out that there had been a pinball zine during the ’90s zine boom, called Multiball. It was a really successful zine; the print runs were up in the tens of thousands in its heyday. We were able to contact the original authors and interview them for our first issue, which felt like passing the “pinball zine torch” from them to us.
JON: Later, we found out that there are still a couple other pinball zines, like Skillshot in Seattle, which has more than twenty issues! Even more exciting, we sometimes get some new pinball zines that people send us, which they were inspired to create because they read Drop Target. That feels really good.
ABL: Yeah, Drop Target ends with issue seven, so we’re excited to see if some other pinball zines will pop up in our place. It’s cool to think we can pass that torch to someone else.
CD: How many copies are in a first pressing run of Drop Target?
JON: We’re shooting for 400, but because there is screen printing involved, we have to account for spoilage. I actually screen print 500 covers, but usually about 50 don’t make it, because they are off-center or they just don’t print right. So even though the official print run number is 400, it’s more like 450.
CD: Does DTZ have an international following? What are some of the places your zine has shipped?
ABL: All over the place! Australia! France! Germany! Lots of people in Canada! A few in South America. There are pinball fans all over the world. One of the great things about our collaboration, is that Jon is a master screen printer, and I hate screen printing. So Jon does all of that stuff – it’s important to him. To make an equal division of labor, I take on all of the shipping. I usually have a few issues of my minicomic Phase 7 in print at any given time, so I’m always making trips to the post office, and I have the necessary shipping materials on hand at all times (packing tape, envelopes, a Stamps.com account, etc.).
CD: Once a first pressing sell out, a second run is released without the colour gatefold or screen-printed cover. Are these limited in number as well?
ABL: No. I just get those made with a local printer in California in small batches of about fifty copies. When we run out, I print more.
CD: Who assembles the magazine? How many man hours go into the assembly process?
JON: It’s funny you should ask! We’ve been doing that all week! It probably takes about 40 hours of production work to lay out the zine, proofread it, screen-print the covers, print up all the assets, fold the color center spreads, collate all of the assets and then fold and staple 400+ copies of the zines. That number does not include all the time it takes for us to write and draw all of the articles.
ABL: Each issue has a theme, and this time around it’s the Design issue. Jon got to actually go to the Stern factory and interview some of the very talented designers who work there. Our buddy Ryan Claytor also contributed another great interview with a well-known pinball artist. Then we’ve got our usual bevy of articles reviewing various books and movies about pinball, and locations to play pinball. The dream machines for this issue are: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I designed, a Giant-Robo machine that Jon made and our center spread artist this issue is by a cartoonist pal of ours named Gabby Schulz (AKA Ken Dahl). His is Big Mushroom Hunter and it looks amazing in full color.
CD: With Issue #6 available now, how many issues do you foresee in the entire DTZ run? You teased earlier that 7 issues would make the run complete.
ABL: Right from the beginning we envisioned that Drop Target would run for seven issues. It’s great that so many people are into our zine, but for us this is a side project. We see comics as our real work. As the number of issues of DTZ stacks up, it takes more and more of our time (reprinting old issues, sending out orders, etc.) so I think we are both looking forward to wrapping it up.
JON: Yeah, we’ve started talking about the eventual Drop Target Omnibus edition. We won’t be able to have all of the bells and whistles that we can with a handmade zine in the final collection, but we’re going to make sure it’ll be a special book. It’s going to be over 500 pages, and we’ll load it up with a bunch of extra pinball art and comics from various other projects we have worked on over the years, so that hopefully it’ll be its own thing.
CD: What is your favorite issue of Drop Target? To make the question a bit more heavy, if one issue had to go into a time capsule and represent the entire run, which issue would it be?
ABL: I feel like the Moves issue is our strongest issue. The theme really holds together with all the content and that Aaron Renier center spread of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is so killer. It’s our most popular issue, because I think it gives a lot of new players an entry point to learn how to play pinball better.
CD: My favorite feature of DTZ is “Dream Machines”. Can you outline the creative process as to how you come up with these fictional tables and their rules?
JON: For me, it starts with picking a property or a piece of media from my childhood that I really love. Then I superimpose that over a current pinball machine that I really like. By the time it goes from my brain to the paper it’s its own beast. I try to work in lots of details and then flesh out the ruleset. When I was a kid, I was super passionate about action figures and as a result, my playfields tend to have a lot of toys.
ABL: Yeah, sometimes I feel bad because I base all of my designs on other machines. I’ve used Scared Stiff, Fire!, The Tommy’s Who, and this issue I’m using the Williams Indiana Jones. I’m assuming that pinball people pick up on this immediately. I hope people see that mini-playfield in the upper left hand corner and go, “Oh cool – he based it off Indiana Jones!” I don’t mean any disrespect to the designers that created those machines, although I’ve also never specifically noted which game I’m referencing. I’m just not as good at drawing this stuff as Jon. He can pull all that perspective and stuff out of thin air – I have to base my drawing on something else, or I’ll never get anywhere.
CD: Of all the dream machines that have appeared in DTZ, which is the one table which you’d like to see produced by a pinball company?
JON: I feel like Ryan Claytor’s Groo the Wanderer dream machine was the real deal. The theme is tied to every toy and feature, the board is interesting, and the ruleset is great! The playfulness in that machine is so well matched to pinball. Also, I just love Groo!
CD: With Harry Potter making a recurring appearance in the Dream Machine feature each issue, are you as surprised as I am that the theme was never perused for a pinball machine?
ABL: I actually saw a George Gomez panel at the Pacific Pinball Expo and he said that they tried to get the rights for a Harry Potter machine, but J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have it. I guess she didn’t like the idea that she would have no control over where her characters would be seen, like a pinball machine in a bar. I’m kind of glad they never did it. It would have been photoshopped together with the actors from the movies, and the movies are a candle compared to brilliant sunlight of the books. It also means that I get to have a bunch of fun drawing a new one for every issue! I’m going to do Deathly Hallows as a pinball 2000 machine in issue seven. It’s going to be so much fun.
CD: For those not familiar with self-publishing, and drawing on your experiences with DTZ and other projects, what are some of the challenges that exist for the self-publisher?
JON: Distribution. Traditional publishing is tapped into a big system of promotion and and a network of shipping companies, where as we are just two dudes living in our respective apartments!
ABL: Yeah, that’s a huge topic. I think it’s okay though. Part of the fun of DTZ is that it’s a personal connection. It’s something made by two dudes, not some promoted piece of media being handed down by some huge corporation. You make a deeper personal connection with
CD: What other non-pinball related projects do you have on the go?
JON: Alec and I have a plethora of comics projects on the burners. Right now, I started working on this really eclectic book that combines a lot of different pieces of media together to tell a single story. There’s newspaper, audio, magazine, and online components. I’m also working on a sci fi graphic novel that is essentially a love letter to anime and saturday morning cartoons. The story is told in a really amorphous, episodic way.
ABL: I just recently self-published my first graphic novel, Basewood. It’s a 216-page fantasy adventure story. Then, my buddy Andy Hentz and I made a rock opera reinterpretation of the story, called Songs From the Basewood. I’m also always working on the next issue of Phase 7. Right now I’m finishing up a three-issue arc all about my favorite band Weezer.
CD: The two of you have done work for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association and for Stern Pinball. How did these affiliations come about?
ABL: Well, before Jon and I started blogging for Stern Pinball, we were sending them comp copies of every issue. We love what they do, and what they bring to pinball. They got in touch with us, and offered us a place on their website to post images/comics/etc. It was a lot of fun for, but between that, DTZ, teaching, and our other comics, we were burning the candle at ten ends.
JON: Ha ha, the PAPA thing is a funny story. I caught this bug that was going around the school a couple years ago, and was totally out of commission. That night, I was in fever dream mode; totally sick and out of my mind. In the middle of the night, I rolled over and composed this really enthusiastic email to Bowen Kerins telling him how much I love his tutorial videos, and that I would love to help out or participate with PAPA, if I could. The next morning I got up, seen that I had sent the email and freaked! I assumed that Bowen would think I was a huge nerd. Not the case! He got back to me later that day with an enthusiastic reply, and put me in touch with Mark Steinman. The art I’ve gotten to do with them has been some of my favorite.
CD: What pingames are currently holding your attention?
JON: There’s a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! in a bar a block or two from me, and I’ve been clocking a lot of games on that machine! But I’m really excited to see the new Hobbit game, because I love the Hobbit so gosh darn much.
ABL: I currently live about five blocks from the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, CA. My wife and I bought a couples subscription so I can go in there as much as I want for a year. I’ve been playing a bunch of El Dorado (the old one with all the drop targets) and in the lead up to DTZ #6 I was playing a lot of Indiana Jones, to learn that playfield. Also, Free Gold Watch in San Francisco just got a Star Wars: Episode One pinball machine, so I make it over there when I can. That’s still my favorite game.
CD: Being artists yourselves, what are some of the pinball art packages that impress you the most?
JON: One of the other machines that I found in Northampton, MA is a Monster Bash. I’m really impressed at how the different aesthetics and colors associated with each monster are melded together into one design. Also, who doesn’t love that back glass!?
ABL: I have stared at my Medieval Madness playfield for untold countless hours but I am still always finding new things on there. I love it! Really, I feel like every hand-drawn machine is a beautiful work of art. From the side cabinet art, to the backboxes to the playfield – there is so much there to enjoy.
CD: Of the great pinball artists that have worked in the field over the years, who are your favourites?
JON: I would say I know more John Youssi games than any other artist. I’m getting to the point where I can tell if a machine is by him, without looking it up.
ABL: I gotta plead ignorance here. I know there are important pinball artists, like Python Anghelo, but I couldn’t tell you what one of his playfields looked like. I guess I gotta start doing more research on who made all the art on these great games.
CD: In the last fifteen years or so, there was a trend that moved pinball playfield art away from artistic renderings by an artist to a reliance on “photoshopped” artwork. However, the art on both Stern’s Metallica and Skit-B’s Predator appear to be a throwback to the days of “original art”: is this a trend you hope will continue in future pinball releases, or is it a non-issue?
JON: We both absolutely, 100% hope that hand-drawn art will make a comeback! It’s not like the skills and techniques have been lost, and I think that the recent, very positive reception of Metallica proves that the community has an interest in hand-drawn art.
CD: Have you been surprised at the reception of Drop Target Zine in the pinball community?
ABL: I wouldn’t say surprised. Zines often cater to niche interests and Drop Target is no different. I will say that we are both very grateful that the pinball community has gotten behind the project and supported it. For us, the more interesting aspect is that we mostly exhibit at comics shows, so we have actually turned a lot of cartoonists and comics fans on to pinball. It’s fun to be outside the usual audience and to bring more diversity to the pinball community.
CD: I think you are totally correct in saying that the pinball community has wholly embraced Drop Target Zine. Do you have any closing thoughts or comments to your readers?
JON: Thank you so much for these outstanding questions! And thanks to the pinball community for sharing in our love and enthusiasm for pinball. Even though we’re coming up on the seventh and final Drop Target issue, pinball will continue to be a part of our lives for the rest of our lives!
Issue #6 of Drop Target and all other back issues are available through the official DTZ blog. Other projects by Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth can be found by visiting their respective websites below and by following them on twitter at @jon_chad and @AlecLongstreth.