Interview: Thomas Zahler on Warning Label

Warning Label GN

Warning Label GN


Thomas Zahler is known for his comics Love and Capes, Time & Vine, and Long Distance, his work on My Little Pony, and more. His most recent graphic novel is the romantic tale Warning Label, which was originally published on Webtoon and was the subject of a successful Kickstarter. Zahler stops by to give Westfield’s Roger Ash the lowdown on this new collection. SPECIAL OFFER! Order Warning Label from Westfield by 3/20/2019 and it will be signed by Thomas Zahler.

Westfield: Where did the idea for Warning Label come from?

Thomas Zahler: For a while, I was a participant in the 48-Hour Film Festival event in LA, as part of Slushpile Entertainment. (You can see our films at: https://www.slushpileentertainment.com/48-hour-films) You’d have two days to write, film, edit and produce a seven minute short film. And while you couldn’t prepare ahead of time, you certainly knew what you had to work with in terms of actors and locations. So, in one of these brainstorming sessions, I thought of this idea of a guy walking into a bar, asking a lady out and her warning label appears. It was two people and locations that we could find and shoot at. But I didn’t have any more to it than that.

So later, when I had the opportunity to pitch to Webtoon, I had three ideas and noticed I didn’t have a romance story. I thought of the warning label idea and then, because the idea had been percolating for so long, came up with the important part: the list could be changed. Now it wasn’t just a warning, but the opportunity to change. So I wrote that pitch, honestly thinking that they’d pick any of the others. But they chose Warning Label.

Webtoon had some great questions for me, things I hadn’t thought of, or thought through. Like “Does everyone know about curses in this world” and “how did Danielle’s ex curse her?” Those questions helped me expand out the story.

Danielle's warning label appears

Danielle’s warning label appears


Westfield: You’ve done a number of romance series. What about the genre appeals to you?

Zahler: Some of it is the old baseball bromide “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” When I started with Love and Capes, there were LOTS of superhero comics, so it didn’t make sense to try to do yet another one of those. But there were very few relationship comics, and the superhero relationship was the more interesting part to me anyway. Basically, I took all the things that would have been a subplot in another book and made it the plot.

I love writing dialogue and banter and character moments. In doing Love and Capes, I found a genre that played to my strengths and I seemed to have an affinity for. And so few people are doing it, that it allows me to serve an audience that has an appetite for the material. So most of the work I’ve done since then, Long Distance, Time and Vine, and Warning Label all have similar sensibilities.

The details of the warning label emerge

The details of the warning label emerge


Westfield: Who are some of the characters readers will meet in the series?

Zahler: The two main ones are Danielle and Jeff. Danielle is a career-focused powerhouse who works at a game design company. Jeff is kind of treading water at an Alamo Drafthouse inspired theatre. They’ve both had some bad experiences in relationships. So when he asks Danielle out and her warning label appears, he’s willing to stay because he is well aware of his own baggage.

Danielle’s got a best friend, Coral, who works with her at the design company. She’s a sounding board, and doesn’t always give the best advice. And Jeff has a strong family, including his sister Veronica who looks out for him, maybe too much.

I tried to give them a good balance of people and opinions in their world, and no one’s a black hat heavy. The characters start out with a strong personality and then over the series, if I do it right, that character gets richer and more complicated.

Westfield: How much prep work – character design, plotting, etc. – do you do before you start of the comic itself?

Zahler: Not enough! I’m a notorious “I’ll make it up as I go along” kind of guy!

With Warning Label, due to its weekly schedule when it was on Webtoon and the nature of the story, this was the most heavily-plotted series I’ve done. Danielle’s warning label appears in the first seven pages, so everything on there had to be something I was ready to write and something that I had a resolution for. Unlike some of my other work where I’ve got the first three issues done before the first issue goes to press, I couldn’t have any breakthroughs and then go backwards and add or fix things.

That said, the series expanded beyond its original chapter and page count. The structure of the story was always there and remained largely unchanged, but I had the opportunity to give a little more breathing room to some scenes.

Ready for a fun night in

Ready for a fun night in


I did a couple weeks of character designs, and a test strip that remained largely unchanged. I had it in my head that I wanted to handle the backgrounds like the old Chuck Jones’ Warner Brothers cartoons, and I wanted it to be a little more cartoony than some of my work, but hit a kind of Disney-character design. And, like anything else, the character designs evolved over the length of the series. It’s usually twenty pages or so before I get comfortable. Try as I might, I can’t work that out in the sketches, it always happens as I tell the story.

Webtoon also suggested I do a limited color palette. I liked that idea and created a red, yellow and dark brown look that borrowed from the colors of a real warning label. This also changed where the story took place! Originally, the comic was set in Seattle, but I couldn’t make those warm colors look like the lush, rainy Pacific Northwest. So I moved the action to Austin, Texas.

Westfield: Like any relationships, Danielle and Jeff’s has its shares of ups and downs. When they argue, did you find yourself more in agreement with one side?

Zahler: In their fights, I try very hard to make everyone just a little bit wrong. They’re not always equally wrong in the moment, but there’s got to be some culpability for everyone involved… for the big ones at least. They both have to learn something.

When the comic ran on Webtoon, I’d read the comments and there were lots of times where the readers were fighting over who was right in their fight. That’s when I knew I was doing it right.

Also, none of their fights are done just to have a fight. There’s always a motivation for why people act the way they do and very few people do things just to be a problem or for no reason at all. So when Danielle or Jeff do something that starts a conflict, neither of them wanted to start a fight. They thought they have to be true to themselves and then learn something along the way.

Danielle shares her concept for a game

Danielle shares her concept for a game


Westfield: How much of Jeff’s love of movies and Danielle’s love of games echo your own?

Zahler: They’re both very much me. It helps a lot to have some sort of personal bit in those characters as a crutch to fall back on for story and dialogue.

I love, love, love movies, from the movies themselves to how they’re made and how they’re shown. I’ve been lucky enough to go to a few Alamo Drafthouses and they are some of my favorite places to see a movie. So, when I needed to give Jeff a job, having him work there seemed like a natural. One of the movies he watches is a horrible ‘80s film called Discottack which is very much based on Gymkata.

And as for games, well, I wish I had the chance to play them more. I have fun going to gaming bars and playing with friends, but it’s sometimes challenging to get enough people together to play. I don’t have a regular game night or anything.

But, I’ve had an idea for a card game for years. Not one I knew how to design, but the concept for it. And man did I want to draw and design it. That game was The Long Con, a game of comic book conventions, and when Danielle had to have a game project to pitch, I gave it to her. And now, thanks to the generosity of my Kickstarter backers, we’re making it!

And an idea emerges for Jeff

And an idea emerges for Jeff


Westfield: Are there any special features in the book?

Zahler: Yes! Mistakes are fixed!

There were a couple minor errors that made it into the book, including getting the math wrong on a burrito discount (and holy smokes did I hear about that one!) and calling a character by the wrong name in the best Stan Lee/Robert Bruce Banner tradition. So those things have been corrected.

The book also has a “director’s commentary” in the back that goes chapter by chapter, explaining where ideas came from, special jokes you may have missed, original design sketches, the cover process, and original sketches. And an introduction written by Dr. Christy Blanch!

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Zahler: First, a huge thank you to my Webtoon readers! Without their support, this little strip wouldn’t have become as big as it did. I always like to think that my most recent project is my best, because hopefully I keep improving, and this one really challenged me and became much bigger than I expected.

I’ve got a new comic debuting on Webtoon around Valentine’s Day. It’s called Cupid’s Arrows, where two-person hit teams of Cupids have to get people together. It’s gonna be fun.

I’ve also got some other projects coming out. In March, IDW’s Star Trek Waypoint special comes out, along with a story from me. I’m still writing My Little Pony as well. And, Knights of the Zodiac, a new cartoon series based on the Saint Seyia manga will be coming on Netflix later this year, and I wrote an episode of that.

I’m at a ton of conventions over the year, so if you’re so inclined to meet me, you probably can. My website, http://thomz.com, has all those updates, and I’m @thomzahler on Twitter and Instagram.

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