Mark R. Bernal’s experience in fantasy art includes being a lead artist and art director at Bungie Software, Microsoft Games, and Wideload Games. He attended the American Academy of Art and the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, where he had the privilege of being taught by Joe Kubert, Al Williamson, Greg Hildebrandt, Ben Ruiz, Hy Eisman, Irwin Hasen, Tex Blaisdell, and Milt Neil.
IM: When did you start drawing and what made you decide to pursue art as a profession? MRB: I started very young, drawing red boxing gloves on Superman. Soon enough, others seemed to like my drawings and, like many other artists, I became known as the school artist in grade school and high school. I enjoyed reading comics and the variety of comic art I was experiencing from all over the world. I decided to try and make my own comics. I liked that I could transform that blank piece of paper into something I had never seen before and create my own worlds.
IM: You attended the Kubert School and followed that up with the American Academy of Art. How different were their artistic philosophies and teaching styles? MRB: While I attended these schools, the artistic philosophies were quite different. The Kubert School’s main emphasis was on cartooning and narrative art that could branch off to animation, while the Academy’s main curriculum was geared to various types of illustration and could branch off to a fine arts track. Both institutions taught the basics. The teaching styles at both places were pretty casual, giving the student room to define their own style while only really stepping in when the student needed some guidance toward the basics.
IM: Which school was more valuable to you as a professional? MRB: The Kubert School was more valuable to me for various reasons. Being taught by professionals in the field that I wanted to work in— learning about their career paths and career experiences—was very important. I certainly wasn’t going to get Joe Kubert’s and Al Williamson’s professional points-of-view of the comics industry anywhere else. Even getting the opportunity to speak a little with the likes of Bill Sienkiewicz and Brent Blevins due to attending the school helped me believe, “Yeah, this could happen.” One less-well-known instructor was Ben Ruiz, the figure drawing teacher. He was a major influence on me. He taught us the construction method of drawing the human form and how to transform that into a final, classical figure. It was unfortunate that we only had his class once a week for half a day. I ended up attending the American Academy of Art to study figure drawing full time.
IM: Was creating comics your main objective during your time at Kubert’s, or were you looking to branch out into other areas? MRB: During my time at the Kubert School, I wanted to create comic stories like I saw coming from artists in France, Italy, Spain, Heavy Metal magazine, and the independent publishers of that time.
IM: You created art for several video games when you worked for Bungie Software, Microsoft Games, and Wideload Games. How did you get into that line of work? MRB: I was an art director and lead artist at Bungie Software, Microsoft Games, and Wideload Games. Fortunately, my father bought a Commodore 64 in the 90s and that got me very interested in computers. I was able to transition into a digital graphic design/marketing company due to the combination of my technical/computer skills and artistic ability. I saved up my money and bought a Macintosh Centris 650, Photoshop, Starta Studio Pro, Macromedia Director, and a Wacom tablet. Several months later, I was looking through the help wanted section of the Chicago Reader and saw an ad for Bungie Software that said, “Do you want to make kickass games?” I felt the word “Yes” explode out of my brain and called the phone number in the ad. The rest was history. 🙂
IM: Which games did you work on at Microsoft/ Bungie Software? MRB: At Bungie, I worked on Marathon II: Durandul, Myth I: The Fallen Lords, Myth II: Soulblighter, and a little bit of the early Halo game. After Microsoft bought Bungie, I worked a lot on a game that never saw the light of day, codenamed Phoenix.
IM: Wideload Games was started by former Microsoft employees. What did you work on there? MRB: The five of us were all former Bungie employees before we were sucked up into Microsoft. While at Wideload, I worked on Stubbs the Zombie, one or two casual games, marketing materials, and a game never to be named later. 🙂
IM: How helpful was this type of work when you decided to work on your comic series? MRB: Very helpful! Making comics is hard work and so is game development. My game development experience taught me project development, technical and design iteration, how to manage stress, and how to survive sleep deprivation. When spending months creating a book, it helps to have the experience of several long video game development cycles in your history. I was also very fortunate that all the guys I joined up with in the early days of Bungie were all really smart and highly skilled at what they did. This in turn allowed us all to become even better at what we did. One small thing that turned out to be a big thing: before each game went into development, we would come up with a list of “Shit that Rocks!” and “Shit that Sucks,” pertaining to what we were going to create and what we did not want to have in our game. I have one for my comic series Parallaxium and update it regularly.
IM: You’ve recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for your self-published series Parallaxium. Can you give us an overview of the series? MRB: On a character level, the story is a look at the merging of parallel universes and the consequences on both worlds. The broad view is about the struggle between the physical and the spiritual realms of existence.
IM: Who are your influences and inspirations for the art and story? MRB: I had worked on several art projects that weren’t really a true reflection of my abilities and creative interests. I felt frustrated and decided to create something more in tune with the quality I expected from myself. The first book started as a series of art prints that eventually developed into a story. I have a deep interest in multiple universe theory, surreal narrative, and the possibilities of a spiritual dimension. I decided to incorporate those interests, as well as others, into a more genuine representation of my art. At this point in my development as an artist, I have a multitude of influences and inspirations. A list would be too large and would still be incomplete. As I’m drawing, I will notice that an image may remind me of an influence, like Kirby, Manara, Frazetta, or Crumb. When that happens, I will purposely try to avoid looking at that artist’s work, especially if the drawing reminds me of a particular illustration by that artist. There are also several movie directors that I look to for cinematic inspiration, such as Kubrick, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Fellini, and Lynch to name a few.
IM: What’s the plan with Parallaxium? Do you want to continue the series indefinitely or as a six-to-twelve-issue mini-series? MRB: Parallaxium started out as a one-shot poetic art story (issue#0). As I was making issue #0, a larger story started to take shape once I began to wonderer about the main characters’ backgrounds. From that point on, I decided to make Parallaxium into a miniseries that explores what would happen if characters from two universes crossed over into each other’s universe. The series should be about eight issues long.
IM: With your experience in game design have you thought about turning the series into an interactive game or app? MRB: I have made demos of Parallaxium as an interactive app. Most of the new elements would be a lot of “making of” content. It might see the light of day sometime, but there is a lot more content that would have to be made before it could be completed.
IM: What other kind of work have you done besides game development and comics? What are you doing now? MRB: Mostly, just game development and comics. While making games, the majority of the art I created were 3D characters, scenery, and level art. I was a jack-of-all-trades at the time, designing, modeling, texturing, rigging, and animating 3D models. I am now mainly interested in illustration and programming/scripting.
IM: What would you tell someone who wants to get into art as a career (comics, games or otherwise)? What are the pros and cons you can share or wish someone shared with you when you started out? MRB: I would say, develop a strong fundamental understanding of digital production and a solid foundation of drawing. I would also encourage learning basic animation skills and programming. I believe that most forms of art and illustration will be animated and interactive in the future.
IM: Do you promote your work at conventions or other live venues? MRB: I do plan on promoting and selling my books and artwork at several conventions during the 2016 season. The last time I was an exhibitor was at C2E2 2010.
IM: What’s the one thing you would have liked to see get more attention at the art schools (e.g. business of art, taxes, life as a freelancer vs. corporate, etc.)? MRB: All the above! 🙂 I imagine that computers are a lot more integrated into the curriculum nowadays. When I attended the Kubert School, the only computer I saw was in Milt Neil’s animation class for second and third year students. I’m sure it would be no more than a very large paper weight today!
Thirty years is a long time, no matter how you slice it. I had no idea in March 1986, when I published Dungar #1, what I would be doing in 2016 or how profoundly the act of becoming a publisher would affect the course of my life. It continues to be the driving force—the thing that makes me happy to get out of bed and try to do something good. I have many times saved special things to launch in March, including the magazine itself, which originally saw print as a mid-magazine-sized eight-page collection of snippets in March 1989. So, that’s happy birthday to Dimestore. Now, let’s dig into the issue! I’m launching the new system for displaying new releases this issue. It’s taken some time to get things set up to the point where I can do this flexibly and scalably, so that, as more and more books and publishers take advantage of the listings, we don’t load them, bury them, or otherwise not give everyone an equal chance to be seen. As soon as I can, I’ll be layering a new review system into the mix as well… still need some software work for that to happen. But we’re getting there and I am happy with the start we’re able to make here. It’s tied into the work I did over the magazine’s “Christmas Break” in setting up the info for the Hall of Fame. It also gets us started in showing publications by other publishers on the website. Our system is going to grow and evolve as we go. The listings have the ability to link forward to wherever a publisher has them available, their own website, at Drive-Thru, Indyplanet, Amazon, or anywhere else. We also have the ability to load the books up for sale directly through us, and to allow publishers to set up their own shop and collect their own orders. So, how we start to mix in those options and make it work so that it’s completely flexible, yet still PRESENTS them all in one place… that’s the part that makes this cool and useful to the readers/fans of indy stuff. It also links directly in with the archive listings, so the second we put a book up and tag it with a name, it appears in their catalog. And that works whether we do it, or a person set up with an indyfest site/store puts up a book and tags the creators involved. The one thing I have not settled on is how to best handle the presentation of publishers. The tag system is one way to go, but I also forsee more people taking charge of their listings, and I will need a way to take those books they listed with us one way, and transfer them to their site under their control, when they want that. Because I plan to list 1000s of books as out of stock, so that they appear in a creator’s listing, but as info. If they then are made available, we don’t want duplicates. This is one of those logistics things where I wish I had a few more people involved in building this place. We actually have a need for lots of more people, more interviewers, more article writers, just more active involvement all around. I am hoping that the massive funding project that Doug Owen has been organizing for us will get us over the hump of organizational limbo. We have some great goals, I won’t list them all here, but assuming we get some prize support from our past interview subjects, there should be a good chance to reach our goals, and enable us to move forward with important improvements to our systems and reach. It’s a good feeling to be getting some traction and direction. Happy birthday to us all!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was an American poet and educator who produced many literary works. He is also famous for originating the popular quote, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” The truth of this statement resonates with many, including my guest this issue, Ms. Cristie Hine. She is the owner of NightShine Productions, LLC; a music production and recording studio based in Perry, Ohio. We had the pleasure of interviewing Cristie to find out more about her and the great work she’s doing at the studio.
IM: Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and how you got started in music. CH: I am a lover of music and my family! Music is my passion and has served as a marker for wonderful memories, as an escape during rough times, and it’s given me strength when I needed it. I graduated from Full Sail University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in music production. I was the salutatorian, received the advanced achiever award, and also received three Course Director’s Awards. I’ve played a musical instrument since I was ten, and was always involved with musical productions during my younger years. Before I learned how to play an instrument, I was recording songs off the radio and listening to quite an eclectic collection of music.
IM: Who are the people that most influenced you, both in music and in your personal life? CH: When I was little, I loved to rock out with my dad and his best friend. They always connected music to usually happy, memorable times. I was hooked after that. Through listening to music with family and friends, I created an opinion of artists that I liked, as well as of genres—which expanded throughout the years. Other influences would have to be music teachers and fellow musicians that I played with during the formative years. Trent Reznor was a pretty big influence also.
IM: What drives you to create music? CH: What drives me to create music would have to be my thoughts and emotions, and a need to express a certain way of thinking in different situations in my life. It kind of feels like an overwhelming amount of energy that gets bottled up until you sit down and create a piece, then it all comes flowing out. Sometimes it’s hard for me to find a way verbally to express how I’m feeling or how I’m dealing with the situation, so I use music to speak for me and deliver the meaning.
IM: Tell us about how NightShine Productions got started? CH: I created NightShine Productions after I graduated college in order to work with local talent and start to sell my own music, at my own pace. I understand what it’s like to start out in the music industry, so I felt that creating my own music production company/recording studio would be the best way to fulfill my dreams and also give artists a professional place to record at a reasonable rate, to help them fulfill their dreams, too.
IM: Have you written any songs? Tell us about your first song and what that experience was like? CH: Yes, I have written multiple songs. The first song that I wrote was an EDM song and it was extremely long! I remember getting lost in writing it, and just focusing on the technicalities of it and how each line played with the other, and how they kind of danced along and tickled your ears and then remained in my brain long after. I fell in love with composition during that process.
IM: How many musical projects have you worked on to date, and which is your favorite? CH: I don’t think I can count the number of musical projects that I have worked on to date, because there are so many different kinds of projects in my portfolio. I have worked on commercial pieces, video game pieces, independent pieces, classical, rock, blues, rap and techno pieces, jingles, Foley, and movie scores—to name a few. Picking out a favorite is definitely a hard task to do, since a certain part of me is in love with all of them.
IM: What is your assessment of today’s independent music industry, and what do you think the industry needs? CH: I think the independent music market today has a lot more freedom for the artist to control which path they would like to go down and also get a little closer to their audience. It seems that musicians are able to really hone in on a certain genre that they love, rather than being pushed by large labels and companies to produce something that is expected of them. One thing I do think the industry needs is more of the good guys that are going to help the musician/artist achieve their goals in an honest manner, instead of trying to take advantage of them. I like to think of myself as a mentor to musicians that do not have the music business knowledge that I have. If I can help steer them in the right direction, and help them to not be taken advantage of, then I feel that one part of my job is done.
IM: In your opinion, how difficult is it for an independent musician to make a living today? CH: It depends on the route you take. In the beginning, you have to have an alternate source of income in order to take care of basic needs. I would say that it’s a tough row to hoe. However, if you love what you do and keep pursuing your passion with professionalism, then I think achieving your monetary goals via music is feasible. It will take time, persistance, patience, dedication, and a lot of work.
IM: Do you use social media and, if so, how has it helped in getting the word out about your work? CH: I have a Facebook account for my company in order to help people get an idea of what NightShine is about. I tend to be a little private about my work and what I actually put on social media. I think social media is a nice step to introduce people to me and my company. As far as getting the word out about my work, that is something that I have to do by myself, via my efforts and actual product. In my mind, my work should do the talking, which in turn, hopefully, gets the word out.
IM: What is the most important thing you hope to accomplish with your music? CH: What I’d like to accomplish with my music is to get to a level of writing/producing/recording to where it’s a recognizable style in the industry.
IM: What are your future plans and where do you see your career in the next five years? CH: That’s a hard question to answer. There are so many different avenues to take in this industry. One thing is for sure, though: in the next five years, I hope to have a thriving business that inspires and provides a place where artists can come in and record andwrite, because they know that they are in good hands at NightShine.
IM: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about having a go as an independent musician? CH: Don’t give up—ever. Sometimes the road is long. Take care of your basic needs with a regular job, but don’t lose or give up your passion. It’s in you for a reason. Also, use a professional when recording an album. You and your music are worth it! A professional producer/engineer will give you the best advice and sound for your music and money. They are an invaluable friend and knowledge base in this crazy, wonderful industry! Lastly, enjoy the ride!
Anyone can tell that Cristie’s love and passion for music are the genuine articles. With talented individuals like her at work, the indy music industry is in safe hands. We need to support her and the work she’s doing at NightShine, and we look forward to working with her to bring our readers new indy music.
Let’s talk a bit about what’s next on the Hall of Fame front. So, last month, we released the 2016 Starting Point book. It is a listing of all publishers we have information about, including all the publications that we know they have published. It was a massive undertaking to bring this into a presentable state, and now that it is, the question really is, what do we do with such an incomplete and instantly out-of-date set of listings? It is really intended to be a call to arms, to bring the publishing multiverse of people who are “Indy”—small press, self published, no corporate backing… to preserve our history by providing a place to actually focus on getting information to. I can emphatically say that, despite what I have out out here, I have only shown a fraction of the information that I actually have locked away in boxes of old publications. I have thousands more publishers and all of their books that were sent, traded, or given to me, as I grew up with the pre-internet small press. It is my intention to unlock and add in all of that info, as I get to it. The Self Publisher Hall of Fame was first being talked about in the SPA over ten years ago. We were never able to lock down a set of things that would qualitfy a publisher to become an honoree of the HOF, and other things the SPA was doing tended to keep pushing the development onto the back burner. Today, I find that the HOF has become a much more important idea to explore and get into operational light. We have begun to see a steady string of reports of the deaths of once-important network personalities, and the number of people around who actually remember what was going on in the small press network of the 60s–90s, even into the 00s… continues to decline, as inevitable publisher fall-off and the influx of new people and fans, focus more on what is going on now. But to have a real now, one that means something, we all should have a solid base of knowledge of what came before. To be an active member of a community, no matter how loose-knit it is, requires an inclusive, and thorough view of what it means to be “Underground”, “Indy”, or “Small Press”. My greatest ASK, the one thing I’d like, is for anyone reading this magazine who wants to see the hobby/industry that we cover thrive in even better and greater ways than it ever has before, to simply make sure you are using what we’ve put together, and encourage creators you are follow to make sure they send us info on their material. Go to https://indyfestusa.com/archives and we’ll keep making that better.
Trisha Sugarek has been writing for four decades. Her works include plays, mysteries, children’s books, general fiction, and poetry. She has thirty years of experience in the theater, both as an actor and a director. These days, she is a fulltime writer, blogger, and frequent contributor to Indyfest Magazine. This month, Trisha moves to the other side of the interview process and talks with us about her experience, her writing process, and her latest ten-minute play for the classroom, The Trans-G Kid.
IM: How long have you been writing professionally? TS: Since 1996.
IM: Is this something that you’d always planned on doing, or did you have different goals when you were starting out? TS: I never planned on being a playwright or writer. After thirty years in theatre as an actor/director, I was then drawn to try my hand at writing a stage play. It seemed a natural transition.
IM: To what degree would you say that the techniques you picked up as an actor have helped you in your writing? TS: Writing a stage play, solely with dialogue, was so easy. Must have been those thousands of scripts I had read over three decades. My experience as an actor taught me that, when writing, you have to ‘see’ the stage. For example, if the actor exits on the right side, needs a costume change and enters on the left a few moments later, have you written that window of time into the play with the other actors?
IM: Have you found that it’s easier to get under a character’s skin, for example? TS: Absolutely. A competent actor studies their character not only in the timeframe of the play but explores what experiences they have before, and even after the play ends.
IM: You’ve also sat in the director’s chair on more than one occasion. How has that experience informed your writing? TS: Directing is all about ‘control’. When and why the actors should move: is the ‘picture’ on stage pleasing or discordant with regard to the dialogue? Is the actor giving the director the emotion (whatever it is) that the director needs? Does the lighting enhance what is going on and not distract? I’ve often joked that directing actors is like herding a bunch of chickens. It takes a strong, steady hand. Writing, for me, is the opposite. You will have a better story in the end, if you give up control. I am a writer whose characters almost always take control of their own stories leaving me to become the typist. In interviewing other bestselling authors, I am not unique. It happens to others as well.
IM: Could you describe your writing process to us? How do you go from inspiration to publication? TS: I marinate, speculate and hibernate. I will write for days in my head. And not just when I am quietly sitting at home. Sometimes, while driving, I will quickly call my voicemail to make a note about an idea, a piece of dialogue, or a plot twist. I go from inspiration to publication by, what I call, ‘slamming out the first draft’. Then it’s re-write, re-write, re-write, and then, re-write some more. I go through the manuscript over and over. I try to have a couple of trusted friends read it and give me honest feedback. In recent years, I have hired a professional editor to go over the last draft. It has resulted in much-needed editing and always given me two or more new chapters. Sometimes, I have more than one manuscript going. Don’t be afraid to let your work ‘rest’. Write something else. I find writing my blog re-energizes me.
IM: You’re a blogger, an interviewer, an author and a playwright, and you’ve written in a variety of genres, which include fiction, poetry, mystery, juvenile, and theatre. Can you describe some of the elements/incidents/events that have inspired you? (Feel free to discuss some of your earlier works in detail). TS: Most of my stories have come to me; picked me. I like to tell the story of sitting in a prison waiting room (yep! I said prison) one Sunday morning, in the countryside of Illinois. Waiting to visit a convicted murderer whom I had written a play about (Cook County Justice). The room was filled with women and children of all ages. Sisters, wives, and mothers, they sat, docile as sheep from years of this routine, come to visit their men. They all had their shoes untied. Their eyes pleaded with me, figuratively, to write their stories. These were not women who were wacky enough to have a jail house romance and/or marry a convicted felon. No, these were women you meet every day, who had children and families and normal lives, until one day, their husband made a stupid mistake. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and begin my research and write a play about these brave women. (Women Outside the Walls).
Years later, fans of the stage play begged me to write the rest of their story. (Remember the time restrictions of a play mentioned above.) So, one day, I sat down and stared at a blank screen which represented page one of a 350-page novel. I was terrified! Next came a biographical novel (Wild Violets) of my mother’s days as a flapper and entrepreneur during the roaring twenties, in San Francisco.
A similar experience gave birth to my mystery series, The World of Murder. I had written a ten-minute play (for the classroom) which was a murder mystery. Again, fans and friends told me, ‘we love your detectives; please write a story.’ The Art of Murder became book one, and I am currently writing book six of the series. Funny how these things happen!
IM: Do you have any tips or tricks for getting through periods when the creative juices aren’t flowing as easily? TS: Writers, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t add pressure to an already scary place. Creative juices tend to ebb and flow. I am revitalized and energized by reading another author. Other good writers tend to inspire me. I interview bestselling authors on my blog and the stories about their writing processes always stimulate me. I’ll write a ten-minute play or a piece of poetry to ‘re-boot’ myself.
IM: Recently, you’ve written The Trans-G Kid, a one-act play about a transgendered teen. What can you share with us about this work? TS: Celebrity transgendered people have been in the news and I was struck by the staggering statistics about transgender teens’ suicide rates. It is horrifying. The Trans-G Kid was a perfect addition to my collection of ten-minute plays for the classroom. Perhaps the play will save just one kid. I can only hope.
IM: How did you go about researching the issues before you started the writing process? TS: As an example, I’ll tell you about a saga I am still writing (it is currently resting). Song of the Yukon is about my auntie, a musician who, at age 17, ran away from home and, disguised as a boy, hired onto a steamer bound for Alaska, eventually homesteading outside of Tanana. The only problem I had was that it was 1920. Fairbanks was a single-building trading post. Transportation was by sled and dogs, riverboat, or foot. Thank the stars for Google! My research was extensive as I wanted, of course, to be as accurate as I could be. Who knew that surface gold is only found in the bend of a creek or stream that has black sand as part of its riverbed? What was a barn raising? How was meat preserved in those days? What were the riverboats like that transported people and supplies? How could you chink a log cabin using sphagnum moss? I was about half way through my manuscript when all the ‘Alaska reality’ shows hit the airways. Great stuff and really helpful with my research!
IM: Were there any surprises along the way? (Research causing you to revise plot points, characters running with the story and taking it in a different direction from what you’d originally envisioned, encountering support where you’d expected to meet resistance or vice-versa, etc.) TS: Surprise is a good day! I know I’m really doing a good job if my characters tell me, in no uncertain terms, that it’s time for them to take over. I love my role as the typist! I won’t tell you much about Charlie (the protagonist in Women Outside the Walls) taking my story and turning it upside down. I wouldn’t want it to be a spoiler! But suffice it to say, Charlie took charge and caused me a four-month delay, while I researched the situation he threw at me. And Arnold Miller, a quirky actor, (The Act of Murder) who sauntered off the elevator, at the Food Network Building, in The Taste of Murder and nearly mowed down my two detectives. Where’d he come from?
Wild Violets is about my mother raising two kids during the roaring twenties. She was a force: played on a semi-professional women’s basketball team, owned her own bar and grill, worked all day and danced all night. This novel started out based on the stories my mother told me while growing up but eventually the fictional Violet took over, telling me she could tell her own story.
IM: How are you handling the marketing and promotion angle? TS: After three years my blog has finally gotten traction. I have grown my readership on social media to seven million plus. I faithfully post twice a week and that’s a tough thing to maintain. Thinking up subjects, (always about writing) that maybe my readers will enjoy. I interview bestselling authors and that gets people to my web site where, hopefully, they will look at my books. I have give-aways, free audio book promotions, and ask people to review my books on Amazon.
IM: Was it always your intention to self-publish your work? TS: Funny you should ask. No. I tried for years to get a publishing house to represent me. All the writers out there will confirm this when I tell you that it’s a hamster wheel! Publisher: Do you have a literary agent? Agent: Do you have a publisher? Publisher: Do you have an agent? When I started self-publishing, it was a dirty word. You were accused of writing a ‘vanity book’. You had to warehouse 20,000 books and schlep them everywhere. Then print on-demand was born and self-publishing platforms/programs were offered and that was a turning point for me. I am both actually; four of my plays are published by Samuel French, Inc., the biggest and best script publisher in the world, and I am so grateful to them. But they rejected forty of my other plays… and I was tired of waiting. It wasn’t that my work was no good; it was that it was not commercial enough. So I self-published and never looked back. My bestsellers are The Bullies, a ten-minute play for the classroom (one of 27), my journal/handbook, The Creative Writer’s Journal, and Ten Minutes to Curtain (a collection of ten-minute plays).
IM: What’s next on the horizon for you? TS: Working on unfinished manuscripts. Book 6, (Beneath) The Bridge of Murder in my World of Murder series is about finished. It is about the serial killings of the homeless of NYC. This series has been a real joy to write. Contemporary true crime. Featuring my two murder cops, who are great partners, but couldn’t be more different from each other.
Higher Universe Comics was founded in 2011 by writer Brandon Rhiness and artist Adam Storoschuk. They have produced several comic book series (featuring a variety of artists) and have branched into film-making. Brandon directs and writes most of their short films and their web TV series Mental Case.
Films and Web TV
Mental Case (Upcoming web series)
I’m in Love with a Dead Girl (Upcoming)
My New Wife is Defective (pre-production)
Brandon also has written feature-length screenplays in the very early stages of pre-production with two different producers.
The Boy with a Balloon for a Head
Chainsaw Reindeer (Upcoming)
Elvis The Zombie (Upcoming Ghoul Squad Spin off)
Brandon Rhiness spoke to Indyfest about Higher Universes’ current and future projects.
IM: What is Mental Case about? BR: Mental Case is about a young woman named Elya Virk. She’s strange, socially awkward and doesn’t hesitate to resort to violence when provoked. Elya has great difficulty dealing with daily life. Relationships, jobs and paying the rent are all foreign concepts to Elya. She’s more at home when she’s involved in some horrifically violent incident. Although it’s not clear if her constant over-the-top fights are real, or just part of her delusion.
IM: When is its release date? BR: The first two episodes of Mental Case will premiere at an event we’re holding on April 28th at the Garneau Theatre, here in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. After that, it will be released on YouTube and other digital platforms.
IM: Is it an ongoing or finite series? BR: It’s an ongoing series. It all depends on how much money we can keep raising to shoot more.
IM: How is it being funded? BR: The first two episodes were done on a micro budget, paid for by my co-producer Afton Rentz and myself. For the next episode, we’ll be doing crowdfunding. Also, the ticket sales for our April event will be going towards funding it.
IM: There are a lot of fight choreography videos on your YouTube Channel. Do you have professional trainers for the cast? BR: Yes. Afton Rentz, the star and co-producer of Mental Case is one of the founders. Afton, Morgan Yamada and Kristian Stec are all professional movie fighters and they all appear in the series, as well as do the fight choreography.
IM: What is I’m in Love with a Dead Girl about? BR: I’m in Love with a Dead girl is about a strange, lonely man, who can’t find a girlfriend, so he digs up a dead woman and falls in love with her.
IM: Will I’m in Love with a Dead Girl be released on YouTube? BR: “Dead Girl” will be premiered along with Mental Case on April 28th. Afterwards, it will be released on YouTube and submitted to film festivals.
IM: What is “My New Wife is Defective” about? BR: My New Wife is Defective is about a man who orders a Russian mail-order-bride and she ruins his life. But the story is played like she’s a manufactured product. She comes in a crate with an instruction manual and there’s a Russian technical support department to call when she gives the “owner” trouble.
IM: How is it being funded? BR: We’re in the very early stages of pre-production at the moment. It was only about a week before I did this interview that my script caught the attention of producer Janie Fontaine in Calgary, Alberta. So, we’re still working on how we’ll fund it. It will most likely involve crowdfunding.
IM: Who is directing it? BR: Janie had a director in mind, but now it’s looking like she may not be available. So, it’s likely I’ll direct it myself.
IM: Plem Plem Productions recently picked up Ghoul Squad as its German publisher. How did this come about? BR: Christopher Kloiber, the editor-in-chief at Plem Plem read the first two issues of Ghoul Squad and loved them. So, he emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in having in published in German and released in Germany. My answer, of course, was “yes!”
IM: Are you seeking publishers in other countries? BR: Yes, I’ve been contacting publishers all over the world. It’s very difficult, though, because of the fierce competition and huge volume of content out there.
IM: Do you find working with a publisher very different to self-publishing? BR: It’s difficult to say, because at this moment, Plem Plem is the only publisher I’ve worked with and they’ve been great. They haven’t demanded any changes or anything, so I’m happy.
IM: How do you find directing, as opposed to writing? BR: It’s a completely different experience. Directing can be fun, but it’s also quite difficult. A lot of people think, “I can direct a movie,” but when it comes down to it, you realize how hard it is. Writing a script is challenging, but it’s really just you sitting at a laptop. When you’re directing, you’re out dealing with people and locations and technical problems and weather, and you have to think on your feet.
Directing your own scripts really helps you learn about your writing, too. You can learn what does or does not work in a script. I really think it has improved my writing.
I want to direct more, but I still consider myself a writer and producer first, and a director second.
IM: Would you like to direct other people’s scripts? BR: I’m not interested in directing other people’s scripts. My primary motivation for directing is to bring my stories to life. I just wouldn’t be as passionate about directing someone else’s story.
IM: Do you use the comic book artists for storyboarding? BR: I haven’t done storyboarding for anything I’ve directed. I just do a shot list and work from that. Hiring an artist to do a storyboard would be an added expense, and I’d rather just put that money into the production.
However, I do use our comic artists to do the movie posters and other promotional material.
IM: You ran a successfully (102%) funded Indiegogo campaign for I’m in Love with a Dead Girl. What made you decide to try crowdfunding? BR: With the comics, my Higher Universe partner Adam Storoschuk and I began by paying for everything out of our own pockets and with money made from comic sales. But with movies, it’s much more expensive, so self-funding wasn’t an option.
And with short films, I don’t think there’s much hope of making a lot of money on them, so traditional investors would not be interested.
We heard about a lot of people doing crowdfunding, but I was a little skeptical, because a lot of people I know who tried it, failed. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I knew anyone personally who did a successful campaign.
But we decided to go for it, worked really hard at it, and it worked!
IM: Do you have any tips running a Kickstarter: perks, promotion, etc…? BR: I did learn a lot. And I found a lot of what I learned was the opposite of the advice I’d read from other sources. So, what works for one person may not work for another.
I found that people didn’t care so much about the perks. More than half of the people that donated chose not to receive the perk that their donation level would have gotten them. And we had good perks, too, like printed copies of our comics.
I found that most people just wanted to help out and be involved.
That being said, the most popular perks were the ones where people received physical goods, like printed comics.
Also, social media doesn’t help as much as you’d think. It’s okay for getting the word out there, but just posting your campaign on Facebook doesn’t do much. Most of our donations came from contacting people directly and asking them if they could donate.
I had old friends from my school days—who I hadn’t spoken to in years—donate. So you never know who will be generous.
I also contacted every magazine, newspaper and news station in my city. I got a little press coverage, but it didn’t lead to as many donations as I wanted. Although, it led to one person donating a thousand dollars, which was great! But the press coverage drew a lot of attention to the project. We had more people wanting to volunteer their services on set. And people took us way more seriously after that.
What got us the most donations was sending a private message to everyone on Facebook, Twitter, etc. and asking them to donate, or asking if they could share the post, if not.
IM: Tell us more about Higher Universe’s upcoming comics, Chainsaw Reindeer and Elvis the Zombie? BR: Chainsaw Reindeer is really fun. It started out because I wanted to write a comic that, basically, had no story. It’s just a reindeer traveling the world, killing people with a chainsaw. After an “incident” with Santa Claus, a reindeer snaps and basically kills the entire population of earth with a chainsaw. It’s completely ridiculous, but completely awesome.
The artwork is by Carlos Trigo, who does the art on Ghoul Squad. Chainsaw Reindeer will be out later this year.
Elvis the Zombie is a character from our comic book series, Misfits. Elvis is Demonman’s annoying neighbour. He was funny enough that Adam and I felt he should get his own series. The comic is called “Elvis the Zombie goes to prison.”
In a nutshell, Elvis goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and wreaks his unique brand of havoc.
When people first hear the title, they think it’s about Elvis Presley, but it’s not. He’s just a zombie named Elvis. He’s not really a zombie either. He’s just a living corpse.
IM: Higher Universe features bands in their comics, so are you planning similar crossovers with your films (i.e. sound track or product placement)? BR: Yeah, we’re considering that, for sure. I’m still new to the “film score” thing, so I haven’t decided what I’m doing yet. I’m almost finished the edit on Dead Girl, so I’ll be dealing with the music soon.
Afton was in charge of the music for Mental Case. She hired a local composer to do it.
IM: Who is Higher Universe’s target audience? BR: I don’t really spend too much time thinking about who our audience is. I know I’m supposed to, lol, but it takes time away from the fun of actually making comics and movies. I guess, basically, I just write stuff for people like me, who are tired of the same old Hollywood movies and Marvel and DC comics and who want something different. We’ve noticed those people come from all walks of life, so I guess that’s who our audience is.
IM: What is your background? BR: I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. In high school I tried, making some (really bad) films with friends. I went to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and took Radio & Television production. I worked for some community TV stations around Alberta, and I’d use their equipment on my days off to shoot short films.
After a while, I put the movie thing on the backburner and started making comics. But last year, I decided I wanted to make movies again. Now I’m taking it way more seriously and investing much more time (and money) in it. And I’m definitely starting to see the great results that come from doing that!
IM: When you first started Higher Universe, you and co-founder Adam Storoschuk were paying the artists out of your own pockets. Have the comics (and films) started to support themselves to some extent now? BR: No, we’re not at that point, yet. Lol. But we’re getting closer to it every day!
IM: Are there many resources for ultra-low budget film-makers? BR: There are. I find that just googling any question or problem you have will lead to a huge number of resources and people willing to help. You can also turn to Facebook groups for help.
In Edmonton, there’s an organization called FAVA (Film and Video Arts) that rents equipment to indy filmmakers at a very reasonable price. There are likely places like that in every city.
IM: Is it challenging to retain the cast and crew on an ultra-low budget series? BR: I haven’t had that problem. If you’re smart about it and pick the right people, you can get a very solid team. It helps if you pay people, too. A lot of indy producers cheap out and don’t want to pay their cast and crew. What kind of success do you think you’ll have doing that?
People deserve to be paid for their work, including actors. We raised the money necessary to pay everyone and it was well worth it.
IM: How do you market your work? BR: Social media, email campaigns, advertising in our comics, cross-promoting with other filmmakers, bands, and creative people. Holding events like the big Garneau event happening April.
IM: How do you distribute your work? BR: We haven’t gotten to that point yet with the films, so it will be a whole new process for me to learn.
IM: Will you be going to any shows/conventions? BR: It’s a little harder up here in Canada, because the travel distances between cities is so great. We’re planning on setting up a booth at the Edmonton Comic Book Expo this year, though.
IM: Are you planning to make (book or comic) tie-ins? And merchandise? BR: We’re making a Mental Case comic book that will be finished in time for the premiere. We’ll be selling a limited edition version there. We sell posters and fridge magnets and stuff like that, but they’re not as popular as the comics themselves.
IM: I noticed there were lots of women’s body building and veterinary videos on your YouTube. Do you also make corporate videos/promo videos? BR: The veterinary videos were unused video I shot when I worked at a small town TV station. The bodybuilding videos are of a friend of mine, Carmen Tocheniuk. She’s a championship-winning bodybuilder from Edmonton. We made a whole bunch of videos for use on her website and I posted some of them on YouTube.
I used to do wedding and corporate videos as a side gig, but I don’t anymore. But the odd time, I’ll just post something of interest on there. I find bringing in any kind of viewers is likely to get more eyeballs on my comics and films.
IM: Does Higher Universe accept unsolicited manuscripts? BR: No we don’t. At this time everything we do is created in-house.
IM: What are your hobbies? BR: Movies, music and playing bass!
ALSO IN THE ISSUE: 3 great Sneak Peek features you can only see in the actual PDF, Sepulchre #1, Bang Bang Lucita #1, and Shaman’s Destiny #1…ALSO – a listing of most recent additions to our Marketplace.
What makes a story have instant reader appeal? Is it the author’s name? Could there be some secret message buried in the artwork that might cause a normal person to pick it up? Is there some secret formula used to put the correct words together to form that special message somewhere?
Instant reader appeal is one of the greatest literary secrets out there.
Never mind the first line in your story. Hell, it could be something that rages off the page, leaving an “I gotta read this!” feeling in the person browsing the bookshelf. What more could there be?
When you wander through a book store, check out what people actually take off the shelf. Most pull out a book that only has the binding showing. So it has to be either the title or the author that gets them. It couldn’t be the publisher; no, people don’t even recognize half of the logos out there. What caused them to pick that book over the even better one below it?
Look at the cover design. Yes, I know everyone has grown up with the adage not to judge a book by its cover (cliché, by the way). Everyone does. One of my first books garnered a spot in “Terrible Book Covers” because of that. When I saw it, the cover was instantly changed. Another couple of hundred down the tubes.
So, what is it that grabs the reader? Good artwork? Original designs? Maybe the font told them?
Oh, what’s that you said? You’re not in it for the money? Sure. I bet you don’t need to eat. Everyone is in it to make a splash, get their name out and put a few shekels in their pocket. If not, why write? Unless you’re independently wealthy and can afford to just sit back and watch interest do its work.
And imagine the effect an author’s name has on how it sells. The name splashed across the top ¼ of the cover while the title is just a little splash underneath. Does that tell us how recognition drives sales?
But most of us don’t have that godhood draped about our shoulders. We belong to the real world, where the mention of our name usually gets, “Who?” We are not a mainstay on the list of literary giants. Does that mean a catchy title and cover design is our only way to salvation, if not publication?
Consider the amount of time you spent on your manuscript. The tears, cried into your pillow because the words would not come out. About the endless trips to the bottle just to get the courage to write that first line. How you hid in the closet so your better half would not see you. Imagine if you composed the cover as well. All the images would come directly from you, not some haphazard artist halfway around the world. No stock photos for you!
Oh ye of little faith.
There is help. It is a simple template that can make your book stand out. And we have the romance sector that pumps out novel after novel to thank for that simple formula.
Stand back now. We are about to reveal the simple, yet effective, way to make sure your novel sells (or, at least, gets picked up to look at. We are not, of course, fixing the writing, just helping get it picked up).
The torso of an impossibly toned man and the overflowing bosoms of a beautiful woman are coupled with some generic title tilled with care through a title generating machine kept out back. Titles like Summer’s Found Passion or Love’s Destiny. Just look in the airport lounges and you’ll see what I mean. And the two people on the cover don’t even have to look the same!
Flip this to my favorite genre, Sci-Fi, and see what is on the cover. Robert Heinlein gave into the publisher when he wrote the amazing novel, Friday, and let them put a large-breasted woman front and center with the zipper on the front of her suit pulled down to her navel. Spider Robinson’s Stardance, with a woman in a skin-tight space suit, is another one.
Want to get the women involved in buying your books? Take a walk through GoodReads and see the covers of the books they rate the best. I just did this for giggles while writing the article and 90 per cent of the books that have models showing some type of skin on the cover are rated at five stars, only 10 per cent at four stars or fewer. But that same person rates a book with no model on the cover at three stars. Maybe it was the writing, but when you see the pattern, what you need to do to generate interest becomes very straightforward.
But what about titles?
Just for giggles, here are some very… interesting titles:
Castration: The Advantages and the Disadvantages by Victor T. Cheney Games You Can Play with Your Pussy and Lots of Other Stuff Cat Owners Should Know by Ira Alterman Still Stripping After 25 Years by Eleanor Burns Eating People is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury The Missionary Position—Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens Reusing Old Graves by Douglas Davies How to Succeed in Business Without a Penis by Karen Salmansohn The Pocketbook of Boners by Dr. Seuss Images You Should Not Masturbate To by Graham Jonson A Passion for Donkeys by Dr. Elisabeth D. Svendsen Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi Pooh Gets Stuck by Isabel Gaines The Best Dad is a Good Lover by Dr. Charlie Shedd Scouts in Bondage by Geoffrey Prout
Some of these… Well, you’ll have to see the covers to understand. But they are just a few of the titles that do not come over well.
Most of the time, you want your title to reflect what the story is about. So when you come across Jaws you can sort of understand what the novel is about just by the title. All Quiet on the Western Front tells you something about the content of the novel, and so does War and Peace. You don’t have to turn a page to understand what the main content of those books will be.
But there are some that are not really that revealing, like Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, or John Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or Alex Revell’s A Fall of Eagles (But the cover art explains it all).
Your reader is a visual creature. They look at the cover, they read the title and back page, glance through a few pages and, if you are lucky, they read it. And while an established author can get away with a black cover with lettering (The Road by Cormac McCarthy—over 472,000 ratings on GoodReads and counting), you cannot afford to be so standoffish to your audience. Put a lot of thought behind your cover. Shelf Appeal is everything, because most people DO judge a book by its cover.
When I was young (yes, they had printed books back then, as well), I would pick up a book and look at the cover, deciding if I wanted to even think about glancing at the back. The look of a cover can appeal to a reader or dissuade one from even picking up your book.
Image and typography have a lot to say. They need to capture the heart of the reader, intrigue them, and captivate their imagination. Once the prospective reader picks up the book, the writing must do the rest. But getting the book picked up is the one thing you have to work on, and that is where these things come into play.
It takes me a while to decide what type of cover I want for my book. My YA series almost died because of a bad cover choice, but the new one (the design of which I follow throughout the series) has been a hit. Now, as a publisher, I hear authors describe covers to me and just nod. Having read their books and knowing the industry it is very important that not only that the author’s vision gets laid out, but that the marketing guys and artists take the time to tell me what it really needs. Heck, one author hated the cover so much that he almost decided to take the work to another publisher until I showed him some test market research.
We all try to have our novel outshine the novel next to it. So, here is how you do it:
The title you thought of first, after writing your novel, is probably the best
Make the title relevant to the story, or at least intriguing
KISS—Keep It Short and Simple, so people remember it
Shelf Appeal is GOD—how does it stand out?
Who will read the book? The cover should be targeting them
Make the title easy to read (font choices). That does not mean boring
So, think of this after you have written your masterpiece and remember: they judge a book by it’s cover.