AJ Janavel is the creator of the all ages webcomic Must Be This Tall about three kids who go on huge adventures that just happen to take place in their backyard. He sometimes goes by Alfred James, because he wants to feel fancy.
In this interview with Paper Tape editor, Kristy Harding, Alfred talks about the origins of Must Be This Tall, his process and inspiration, and whether or not cheese whiz is essential in a Philly cheesesteak sandwich.
PT: “Must Be This Tall” is about the daily lives of three kids. What inspired you to do a comic about kids?
AJ: The story is kind of long and one I plan to actually make a comic about, so I’ll give you the short version. Currently I have several completely different ideas in my head for stories. I’m always coming up with them and just logging them away for later. I had plans to start working on a completely different comic, about a bounty hunter, character designs and story lines were already set up in my head. But in 2008, I was in the “most magical place on earth” with my family. I was waiting in line for a ride, in the land for tomorrow, (are you getting these references?) when I noticed something was pulling on my leg. I turned around and standing right behind me were the characters of my comic. I did not know this at the time, of course, but me and my brother got to talking and creating stories for each of the three member of the family behind us (we talk a lot about people). The conversation ended with my brother saying, “you should do a comic about them”. So I did. That’s kind of where the title of the comic comes from as well. Waiting in line for rides…”Must Be This Tall”. Did I say short version?
PT: It seems like you draw quite a bit from personal experience. Is that true?
AJ: Definitely. I would say all the comics come from at least something that I’ve encountered. Whether someone has told me a story that I thought would be a good comic or something happened to me and I had the same thought. Even more so than that, a good portion of the comics are word for word reinterpretations of events that happened to me when I was younger. Tire swings snapping off of play sets, little brother’s unintentionally ratting you at to your parents while you look for gifts. There is quite a bit of source material. I don’t really ever feel like I have too hard of a time thinking about what I am going to draw for the next week.
PT: You’ve been doing this comic regularly for over two years now. What keeps you going?
AJ: The comic originally stared out as a 62 page full length story. The webcomic was going to be a way to get some type of notoriety for the characters and the story line before I released the book. That way there would at least be some type of interest. But two years later, I’m still sitting on this unreleased book and the webcomic has taken a life of it’s own.
What keeps me going week to week if a few things. One thing is I have a little bit of a fan base. People will ask me about the strip or tell me they really enjoy the work that I do. And I would hate to kind of cut that short, or give them a reason to not come back. The worst thing is if you love someones work and expect to see something new regularly and all of a sudden your cut off. But the main reason I keep doing the strip is more selfish. Drawing Must Be This Tall every week gives me an excuse to draw. I have a full time job as well as other “adult” responsibilities and the opportunities for drawing aren’t the same as they were when I was still in school. With the comic, I literally feel obliged to draw every week. Which is great. So many of my friends, who are artist, say they just can’t find the time to create anymore, which is understandable, but also heartbreaking.
PT: One of the things I love about your comic is the way you’re so transparent with your process. I’m curious about the actual production of the comic. Do you draw digitally or by hand?
AJ: The process for the comic usually goes something like this: turn on my music, sit at my computer, open Photoshop and create. The entire Must Be This Tall comic is created digitally. There are occasions where I don’t have access to my computer and will sketch something and upload it through my phone, but for the most part the pencils, inks, colors, effects and words are all done on the computer. I use a wacom tablet and again, put everything together on Photoshop. And I think the final product looks good. But to be honest, there is such a disconnect for me, drawing digitally. I love the way pencil and paper feel and I think I draw a lot better with them. But it is such a process to go back and forth from paper to digital especially for a weekly webcomic.
PT: Since your Twitter profile says you’re from Philly, I have to ask. In your opinion, exactly how important is cheese whiz on a cheesesteak sandwich?
AJ: I’ll aways and forever be from Philadelphia. But since I started my comic, I have actually lived in three different states. Currently I am nine hours away from Philly, and I’m totally missing the sandwich quality that I grew to know and love. That being said, I don’t have any idea about “whiz”. I usually go with an “American-with”. I guess I need to step up my game.