StarWarp Concepts is a publisher of graphic novels and dark fiction for readers ranging from middle-grade through adult. Founded in 1993 by Steven Roman, StarWarp’s focus is on horror and urban fantasy. It has given us such memorable characters as Lorelei, Sebastienne Mazarin, and, more recently, Pandora Zwieback. This month, Steven talks to Indyfest about his experiences in publishing, and about StarWarp Concepts: where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going.
IM: How long have you been involved in publishing?
SR: As a full-term publisher, since 1993, when I registered StarWarp Concepts as a business so I could publish comics, but I’d actually created the company in 1989 for my small-press comics. And by that, I mean the first StarWarp Concepts comics were digest-sized, hand-stapled photocopies that I sold through the mail. In terms of mainstream publishing, I broke in as an editor for a New York–based book packaging company called Byron Preiss Visual Publications in 1994—they hired me because I was a self-publisher; they figured I was already familiar with the stages of production—and eventually became editor-in-chief of its ibooks, inc. publishing division. I left that job in 2005, and now I make a living as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader.
IM: How did you get into publishing? Was it always your goal to start your own press?
SR: No, back when I was a teenager dreaming of becoming a professional comic writer, I’d never even heard of self-publishing, and when I finally did, my first thought was, Why would I want to do that? I’m gonna write Spider-Man someday! (laughs) Unfortunately, that never worked out, but I still had that desire to do something in comics. And then, around 1988, I was visiting a comic shop and came across a magazine called Small Press Comics Explosion (published by Tim Corrigan), and that’s when I found out about all these people who made their own comics and, after I ordered some, I thought, Hey, why not me, too? Your publisher, Ian Shires, was one of those people I ordered comics from—I think it was a couple issues of his Dungar the Barbarian minicomic series.
The first small-press comic I published was the Lorelei One-Shot Special, and that introduced my succubus character, Lorelei, who was inspired by Vampirella and Marvel’s Satana, the Devil’s Daughter (who was a succubus), with touches of Bill Mantlo’s Cloak and Dagger and the TV show The Equalizer—in other words, she only took the souls of bad guys, and did it while spouting some awkward, ham-fisted dialogue. (laughs) I wrote and drew it, then followed that with another Lorelei one-off, and then expanded a bit by adding a couple other titles by other creators. It was at that point I decided to take the plunge into full-size comics, and did it by launching Lorelei as a series.
IM: Let’s talk about StarWarp Concepts. What’s changed along the way and how have you adjusted/adapted?
SR: I’d say the first big change for the company probably came in the nineties, with the collapse of direct market distribution. One day your comic is being carried by a half dozen or so distributors like Heroes World and Capital City that supported the efforts of small-press publishers, and the next they’re all wiped out and the only one left standing is Diamond Comic Distribution, whose focus is pretty much solely on larger publishers who’ll generate the most income. My sales figures went from 5,000 copies for Lorelei #1 to “God almighty, why’d I even bother printing this thing?” When that happened, I scaled way back on production and StarWarp Concepts made occasional appearances over the next decade-plus. One of them was an attempt to relaunch Lorelei in 2001, but fandom had had a complete changeover in the time I’d been away, and the new Lorelei #1 was met with derision (and extremely low sales figures), because its material was now considered politically incorrect. Geez, you publish one character who never bothers to button her blouse and suddenly you’re a social pariah! (laughs)
The second major change came in 2010, after I made an attempt to shop around this book project I had—called The Saga of Pandora Zwieback—to mainstream publishers, without success (we’ll get into that later) and just decided to relaunch the company as a print-on-demand book publisher to get Pan out there that way. But I felt one book wouldn’t be enough for a launch, so the first three titles released in 2011 were the first Pan novel, Blood Feud; The Bob Larkin Sketchbook, a collection of pencil art by the former Marvel Comics and Doc Savage cover painter who was providing the covers for the Pan books; and Carmilla, a reprint of a nineteenth-century vampire novella by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, with new illustrations—because long-dead authors of material now in the public domain aren’t going to be looking for royalty payments! Since then I’ve published the graphic novel Troubleshooters Incorporated: Night Stalkings, about a team of supernatural superheroes; two more “illustrated classics”: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars and the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White; and the digital pirate-fantasy comic The Chronicles of the Sea Dragon Special. Sea Dragon and Troubleshooters, Inc. are creations of sci-fi and fantasy author Richard C. White.
And then there’s Lorelei: Sects and the City, a graphic novel that’s aimed exclusively at adults, given the amount of violence, nudity, and F-bombs in it. It’s my nod to seventies horror movies and grindhouse films; a couple reviewers even remarked it’s the kind of thing that Hammer Studios might’ve been interested in, back in the day. It was always my intention to bring back Lorelei in some form, especially since she was my first published comics character and it was nice to see all the acclaim the graphic novel got. Her most recent appearance is in Lorelei Presents: House Macabre, which came out this year, where she tries her hand at being a horror comic hostess.
And, unlike the early days of StarWarp Concepts, it’s not just me pulling the load anymore. I’ve got two great freelance book designers in Mike Rivilis and Mat Postawa—I used to work with both of them, back in my ibooks, inc. days—and the StarWarp and Pandora Zwieback websites are handled by David De Mond. I just have to do everything else!
IM: How did you get hooked on the horror genre? Were there any books/films/comics/people that you feel inspired you more than others?
SR: My love of horror started back when I was a kid, growing up in the late sixties and early seventies. There was a channel here in New York, WOR, that used to run the original King Kong every Thanksgiving—to this day I have no idea why they thought that made for a perfect holiday movie—and every year, I’d sit down and watch it. And then, I discovered that WOR ran other monster movies during the week, as did a couple other New York stations, and that’s how I got see the Lugosi Dracula, and the Frankenstein movies, and Ray Harryhausen’s movies, and the like. It was a great time to be a horror fan!
Then, in the seventies, Marvel published a slew of horror comics: Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider, Son of Satan, Haunt of Horror; and you had things like Morbius, the Living Vampire in Amazing Spider-Man. And then I discovered Vampirella, and that character turned out to be the greatest influence in the creation of my succubus character, Lorelei, two decades later. The works of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft also factored into my love of horror, and still have an influence on my writing.
IM: Now, Lorelei was StarWarp’s first title. Could you share a bit more about it?
SR: Lorelei’s back story is that she wasn’t always a succubus; she started out as a regular human woman, a controversial art photographer named Laurel Ashley O’Hara—professional name, Laurel Ash—who, at the height of her career, crossed paths with this mysterious old man named Arioch, who wound up turning her into a succubus. And, once she got her powers, she decided to use them to target the bad people in the world—the serial killers, the pedophiles, creeps like that. It just skims the edge of being a superheroine story, with heavy supernatural overtones. Since so much time had passed between the original Lorelei series in the nineties and the Sects and the City graphic novel, I included a two-page flashback sequence that touched on the origin—just so new readers would have some idea where Lori was coming from. I was actually surprised I was able to confine it to two pages!
IM: And present-day, the character is ‘hosting’ your anthology, Lorelei Presents: House Macabre. We’ll get to that shortly. But first, in the 22 years since her creation, what have the high points been? How has the character grown or changed since her inception?
SR: I’d say the high point is that there are still folks out there who still remember Lorelei and keep asking when I’ll do more projects with her; considering there was a ten-year gap between the failed relaunch of her series and the Sects and the City graphic novel, I was surprised to discover she still had fans! And the reviews for Sects and House Macabre were great—which was really encouraging, because they showed there’s still room for Lori among the tonnage of comics and graphic novels being published every year.
Lori herself hasn’t changed much from her comics days—well, okay, her dialogue has gotten a lot better—but the material has gotten more adult in tone. While House Macabre doesn’t go beyond mainstream comic storytelling—there are no sex scenes or adult language—Sects and the City has both, because I felt that was the direction the story needed to go in, considering she’s a sexual demon. The bedroom scene in the fourth chapter was very popular with readers when Sects was serialized was in a French comic magazine. You can’t say I don’t know my audience! (laughs)
IM: What led you to branch out into prose novels in addition to comics/GNs?
SR: As much as I hate this kind of story, my start in novel writing was one of those “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” situations. From 1994 to 2005, I worked for a book packager and publisher named Byron Preiss, and one of his subsidiaries was Byron Preiss Multimedia Company that, in the late nineties, branched into book publishing by licensing the rights to Marvel Comics’ stable of characters. So, BPMC published original novels and anthologies starring Spider-Man, the X-Men, and a bunch of others. I got to co-write a short story for an Untold Tales of Spider-Man anthology, and another in an Ultimate Hulk anthology, and those led to me becoming the editor on a line of Marvel books called Spider-Man Super Thrillers, aimed at eight- to twelve-year-old readers.
It was on one of those books, a team-up of Spidey and the Hulk, that Marvel rejected the author’s manuscript—after we’d printed the covers for it! So Byron, who’d heard good things about the short stories I’d co-written, turned to me and said, “You want to write this book? But with the covers already printed, you won’t get credit for it. It’ll be a ghostwriting job.” I said sure, and Spider-Man Super Thriller: Warrior’s Revenge, published in 1997, became my first novel. So, even though my dreams of writing the Spider-Man comics never came true, I did wind up writing for him—so I guess it all worked out in the end!
Then in 2001, Byron asked if I’d be interested in writing a trilogy of X-Men novels… because the writers who been scheduled to do it walked off the project. But this time, I’d get my name on the covers. Marvel okayed me, because they liked the work I did on the Spidey novel, and that’s how I wound up writing X-Men: The Chaos Engine Trilogy, which involved Dr. Doom, Magneto, and the Red Skull each getting their hands on the Cosmic Cube (if you follow the Marvel movies, they call it the Tesseract). This writer-left-do-you-want-to-do-it approach with Byron was also how I ended up writing the comic Stan Lee’s Alexa and the graphic novel Sunn for Byron’s ibooks, inc. publishing company—I was there in the office, so he didn’t have to look far for a replacement. On the other hand, I did appreciate that Byron felt comfortable in handing over those projects to me, knowing that I’d do the best job I could. And the X-Men novels sold extremely well, so those established me as a novel writer.
IM: So, let’s talk about the Pandora Zwieback series. This is both a prose (YA) novel and a comic, correct? What’s the elevator pitch?
SR: The “Hollywood high concept”/elevator pitch that I used to use at conventions was “Think Ellen Page and Salma Hayek in a Hellboy movie.” It gives you an immediate mental image, right? Then, once I’d hooked your attention, I’d follow up with a more detailed description: Pan is a sixteen-year-old Goth who’s spent the last decade diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic because she’s been seeing monsters since the age of six. But then in Blood Feud, she meets Sebastienne “Annie” Mazarin, a 400-year-old, shape-shifting monster hunter who shows Pan that Pan’s “monstervision” isn’t a mental illness; it’s a power that allows her to see past the human disguises worn by the monsters that actually exist in the world. But before Pan can make sense of all this new information, she and her parents get caught in this war among rival vampire clans looking for what they think is an ultimate weapon—and it just so happens that it was delivered to the horror museum that Pan’s dad, David, owns. Hijinks ensue, as they say.
IM: Tell us more about Pan. What makes her tick? What’s her appeal?
SR: I think a lot of Pan’s appeal is that, beyond the supernatural setting, she’s fairly grounded in reality: she’s smart and funny and sarcastic and moody and occasionally insecure and pretty responsible (to a degree—she’s not a saint); she loves her parents, and was devastated when they divorced—Blood Feud takes place nine months after the divorce was finalized—and has hopes of finding a way to get them back together; her best friend, Sheena, is like a sister to her; and when it comes to love, she’s had her heart broken a few times and acts all awkward when she meets Javier Maldonado who, by the end of the second novel, Blood Reign, officially becomes her new boyfriend. But even with all the drama she’s been through, and the drama that’s coming up in future adventures, she manages to stay fairly positive.
I think one of the biggest surprises I got was when Blood Feud was getting all this critical acclaim after it came out, and a number of reviewers said that they wished Pan was a real person, because they’d love to hang out with her. I’ve heard the same thing from fans at conventions and book festivals—Pan just really resonates with the readers and, once they’ve “met” her, they absolutely love her.
IM: And you’ve also re-introduced a character from one of your earlier comics, Sebastienne Mazarin. What’s her back story and what prompted you to bring her in?
SR: Annie got her start in the 1990s, during the height of the notorious “bad girl era,” when just about every comic publisher was putting out books with female leads who wore as little clothing as possible, or costumes that looked like they’d been spray-painted on. You had Vampirella, Catwoman, Shi, Lady Death, Dawn, Razor, and a ton of others, and the one thing they had in common was that they sold insanely huge amounts of copies. Annie was my blatant attempt at taking advantage of a trend… and it almost worked! (laughs)
The first appearance Annie made was in NightCry #1, published in ’94 by Joe Monks’s Visual Anarchy company. He and his business partner Joe Linsner—the creator of Dawn—had parted ways, and he was looking to publish other projects. When I pitched Annie’s story to him under the series title Heartstopper, he thought it had potential. So, I got together with Vampirella artist Louis Small Jr., but with his busy schedule, all we managed to turn out was a four-page story for NightCry, so the deal fell through. A few months later, I got together with another artist, Uriel Caton, and we revamped the proposal as a four-issue miniseries, which I pitched to Millennium Publications, and they immediately signed us. At first, things were looking good—the first issue sold around 15,000 copies—but then, the problems started. Uriel got too busy to continue and dropped out during the second issue, and I had to scramble to find a replacement; Millennium didn’t promote the comic, so retailers who knew me from Lorelei were surprised to learn I had a full-color bad-girl project going on at the same time; and worst of all, Millennium informed me that, although the first two issues were big sellers for them, there’d be no royalties whatsoever while they recouped their expenses—and they had a lot of expenses. When I explained that I had artists to pay, especially with the cover and interior pencils for issue 3 already done, they said the situation couldn’t change, but if we kept going the eventual trade paperback collection was sure to generate money. Riiight. (laughs) Well, I couldn’t ask my team to keep working for free, so I pulled the plug, and that was the end of Heartstopper.
But then in ’98, I was asked by the president of Parachute Press—the company owned by R. L. Stein, the author of the Goosebumps books—to pitch ideas for a young adult novel series. So, I dusted off the title Heartstopper, added a teenaged sidekick named Pandora Zwieback to appeal to teen readers, and put together a proposal for six books that kicked off with Blood Feud, about a war among vampire clans. I named Pandora after the Greek myth about the woman who unleashed evil on the world, but still had hope; and Zwieback came about because I’d opened my dictionary to the last page in search of something to use as a last name and liked how “Pandora Zwieback” sounded. Then I sat down with Uriel to redesign Annie and to design Pan.
IM: Were there any changes that needed to be made in order to make the character suitable for a YA audience?
SR: Well, for one thing, Annie needed to wear more clothes than she had on as the star of a bad-girl comic! And my approach on the Parachute Press pitch was along the lines of a female version of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who—an adult fighting monsters with the aid of a younger female companion. Unfortunately, Parachute passed on Heartstopper, so it went back in the drawer until 2005, when I showed it to some of my book-publishing contacts to see if an editor or agent might be interested in picking it up. The one major bit of feedback I got was that, if the series was meant to be young adult, then Pan should be the lead, not Annie. That took a lot of re-jiggering, because I’d never written a teenaged girl before. But, eventually, I figured out how to do it and, based on the responses I’ve gotten from readers, I succeeded in pulling it off.
What worked against me was that by the time the revamped project, now called The Saga of Pandora Zwieback, made the rounds, the world was sick to death of YA vampire stories—thanks, Twilight! (laughs) The rejection slips piled up pretty quick, with it getting turned down for various reasons: because I refused to make it a Twilight knockoff; because Pan was a Goth chick; because Javier was a normal kid and not a vampire or a werewolf for Pan to fall in love with; because it was “too violent” and not romantic enough for a series aimed at girls. Eventually I got tired of all that nonsense and decided I’d just publish it myself.
IM: While we’re on the subject, what distinguishes YA horror from adult? Is it just a question of how graphic you can get or are there certain themes/elements that figure more heavily?
SR: In general, YA horror isn’t as gory as adult horror, although it can stretch the limitations quite a bit. My approach for the Pan series is to avoid gory or ultraviolent scenes, not just because I have to keep the age of my readership in mind—I’ve had girls as young as twelve become “Panatics,” as I call the fans—but because they don’t really appeal to me. Torture porn like Saw and the like just ain’t my thing. I mean, it’s not as though I can’t write that stuff—I wrote an original novel based on the Final Destination movie franchise that had quite a few gory scenes in it, and I wrote a story for a zombie apocalypse anthology that’s disturbed just about everybody who’s read it. But with Pan, my horror scenes are more like throwbacks to the seventies horror comics and movies that inspired the creation of Lorelei and Annie: there’s blood and there are injuries, and maybe some descriptions of gross stuff, but that’s about as far as it’ll go. I leave the more adult material for Lorelei!
What’s been funny, though, is that parents I meet at shows who’re considering buying the Pan books for their tween kids just shrug when I tell them there’s violence in the series—they’re more concerned about whether there are any sex scenes in them! And when I say there aren’t, then they buy the books.
IM: How has Pan’s arc progressed over the two books that have been released thus far? What can readers expect from future installments?
SR: Well, the biggest progression for Pan is that she’s gone from being this troubled girl who’d been convinced she suffered from a mental illness, to this young woman who’s a little more confident about herself and a lot more proactive about the direction her life is going. Not that she doesn’t still have her share of troubles and insecurities, it’s just that there are things that happen to Pan’s mother in the second novel, Blood Reign, that cause her to reach the decision that if the adults aren’t going to do something about the vampire war against humanity that’s starting to take shape, then she has to take the lead. And honestly, she’s not doing it to protect the world so much as to help her mom. As I tell folks, as big as the potential is for the vampire war to have these immense, Lord of the Rings–type battle scenes in the third book, Blood & Iron, this story is really about a girl trying to find her place in the world; the scope is a lot smaller and more personal.
The book after that, Stalkers, will involve a werewolf hunting a bestselling author—no, not based on me—but the subplot will be about Pan’s last boyfriend before Javier showing up, and examining the relationship they had, which was a really bad one. As I like to say, not all the monsters Pan faces have to be vampires and werewolves…
IM: And for more mature readers, you’ve got Lorelei Presents: House Macabre. What can you share with us about the stories in this anthology?
SR: Well, unlike the Sects and the City graphic novel, House Macabre isn’t a mature readers title, it’s a one-shot throwback to things like Tales From the Crypt and Creepy and House of Mystery—it’s just that the hostess has a great deal of cleavage on display. (laughs) House Macabre has four stories in it: an introduction that stars Lorelei, written by me and drawn by Uriel Caton and “Chainsaw” Chuck Majewski; “All in Color for a Crime,” by me and artist Lou Manna (DC’s Young All-Stars), about two comic fans competing for a rare variant issue; a “Lori’s Feary Tale” one-pager by me and artist John Pierard (illustrator of the middle-grade novel My Teacher Fried My Brains), about a mythological creature called the basilisk; and “Requiem for Bravo 6” by writer Dwight Jon Zimmerman (Marvel’s Sensational She-Hulk, Iron Man) and artist Juan Carlos Abraldes Rendo, about a special ops team on their final mission. Dwight’s is the best of them all, in my opinion—a surprisingly touching story at the heart of an eight-page action-adventure. But, y’know, my stuff’s not too bad, either. (laughs)
IM: How are you handling the publicity and promotion end of things?
I send out press releases and review copies, set up interviews (like this one), and attend conventions and book festivals, budget permitting. And for those conventions, I print either brochures spotlighting StarWarp’s newest releases, or catalogs that contain the new titles and our ever-growing backlist. I also hand out two-sided bookmarks: StarWarp on one side, Pan on the other.
My biggest financial plunge was The Saga of Pandora Zwieback #0, a free, full-color comic that I published in time for the 2010 New York Comic Con. It had a seven-page story in which Pan introduced herself, drawn by Eliseu Gouveia (who also drew the cover of this very magazine), followed by a two-chapter sample from Blood Feud. This was to promote the book’s publication almost a year before its release, and to let people know that StarWarp Concepts was back in the publishing game. Once I blew through the onetime print run of 3,000 copies, I added it to the StarWarp and Pan Zwieback sites as a free downloadable PDF—which you can still get by visiting the sites.
IM: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in self-publishing today?
SR: Find someone else to pay your bills! (laughs) Publishing—even using print-on-demand print companies—isn’t cheap. I’m not the kind who goes in for Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaigns, so I finance everything that StarWarp Concepts produces. But if doing campaigns to fundraise is your thing, more power to you.
In all seriousness, though, I’d say create what you want to create, and don’t worry about trying to come up with something that’s just like whatever’s popular. Both Lorelei and Pan Zwieback are the kind of characters I wanted to create, and I really enjoy writing, even though I knew they probably wouldn’t have mass appeal. I mean, I wanted them to have mass appeal, but I didn’t let it bother me when it became clear that I wasn’t going to start appearing on bestseller lists anytime soon. You have to take the Field of Dreams attitude: If you build it, they—in this case, readers—will come. It just may take time to build that audience.
IM: Where do you go from here? What projects are you planning to bring forth over the next little while and what can you tease about them?
SR: Next on the schedule is my novel Blood & Iron: The Saga of Pandora Zwieback, Book 3, which will wrap up Pan’s first adventure, but not the series. There are at least three more novels after that, and I have a bunch of ideas for Pan stories and such. I’m also working on my first middle-grade novel—one aimed at eight- to twelve-year-old readers; apparently middle-grade adventures are what’s hot in book publishing these days.
Also in the works is Eliseu Gouveia’s Silver Sparrow, a graphic novel written and drawn by the artist of the Pandora Zwieback comics and Lorelei: Sects and the City. It’s about a teenaged superheroine who starts her career just in time to be thrown into an alternate dimension (basically, ours), where no one has superpowers, and how she has to come to terms with this strange and frightening world.
IM: Finally, how can folks keep up with you and your work?
SR: There’s the StarWarp Concepts site, www.starwarpconcepts.com, where you can find out more about our titles, as well as purchase them. We also have links to sellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, if you prefer buying them that way. And there’s the Saga of Pandora Zwieback site: www.pandorazwieback.com. We also have StarWarp and Pan Facebook pages, but since those addresses are ridiculously long, I’ll just say if you go to our websites we have links to them both.
Learn more about our interviewer at: Ellen Fleischer