I love music. I really do. I get it from my mother. There’s this thing she and I can do and it sometimes drives my wife crazy. We have the ability to hear every instrument individually in a song. That is, we can separate it with our hearing, and hear what each instrument is doing. My wife chides me, because she can only hear the song as a whole. Hearing each instrument separately really increases the enjoyment of listening to music as a whole. I also love comics. I love seeing the artwork and following the stories and the journeys of the characters. Hence the reason I was really intrigued to interview Phil Buck, a musical protégé who has found a fantastic way of merging his two loves: music and comics. He was born and raised in Memphis, TN, where the musical culture is prominent, and he fell in love with music and comics at an early age. We recently had a conversation with him about his work and his latest projects.
IM: Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and what it is you do that relates to comics and music.
PB: I was first into comics when I was very young. I believe I was between the ages of nine and twelve when I was a rabid fan of Marvel. I used to collect the Topps trading cards for all the Marvel heroes and villains with my brother. I had binders full of these cards. But as I grew from a pre-teen to a teenager, I lost my comics obsession and music took the main focus in my life. I grew up in Memphis, TN, where music is a part of the cultural DNA. I first learned to play piano at a very young age, but I really cut my teeth as a musician in my early teen years, playing bass in numerous bands ranging in genre from blues, funk, and rock ‘n’ roll to jazz and later “jam bands”. Music was my main creative outlet for many years. I focused on playing bass, but I also became proficient on guitar, keys/piano, beat production and electronic music programming and arranging. From the age of 15 until the present day (I’m nearly 31 at the time of writing), I worked very hard at learning music. While I learned music theory, I also began to focus on learning how to promote and market music. I also spent some short time in college in a music industry program. Throughout numerous different musical projects, it proved to be a very difficult task to get my music heard and recognized, as the market is very, very saturated, these days. Long story short, as a result of my exercises in trying to promote and market music products, I came upon the idea of combining music with a comic book.
It seemed like music got lost in the mix of all the activity on the internet and social media, but any visual art could connect with audiences online far more directly than music. When you share your music on the Internet, you have to compel the viewer to push ‘play’. And many times, they simply don’t hit ‘play’ and just keep scrolling. But with any imagery, when they see it, the job has been done. You can connect with your audience immediately. This was a profound idea to me.
This all seemed like a simple idea at first, but I learned very quickly that creating comic books and doing it well is no easy task. I began to delve deeply into the discipline of creating comics. It was roughly about five years ago that I began my journey to create comics, and it has all been solely focused on the comic book series Those Shadow People. Much of my practicing has led me to find opportunities with other comic book creators, who have allowed me to expand my writing and lettering portfolio, as well. Now in 2015, I am not sure if I am more compelled to create comics or music, but both of these creative outlets have a deep passion within my heart.
IM: Who are the people that most influenced you as an artist?
PB: As this question relates to Those Shadow People, I was highly influenced by the Gorillaz. I can clearly remember the first time I saw the music video for “Clint Eastwood” late at night on MTV. It was a profound moment, because I was immediately drawn in by the animation. At first, I’m not even sure I really paid attention to the music, but I was hooked by the ideas and the character renderings and how it all came together as one cohesive idea on the screen. This is clearly, for me, a huge turning point in my life, where I began to focus on making visual elements to be combined with my music. In time, I came to discover more of the musical side of the Gorillaz and I was immensely inspired by Damon Albern as well as the way he used the Gorillaz as a project for world-wide collaboration over many genres. This idea also affected me deeply and that is much of the reason that the musical element of Those Shadow People consists of a very large group of people spread out all over the world. While Gorillaz is clearly the catalyst for my current endeavors with Those Shadow People, my musical influences are much more diverse.
At the earliest point of my musical journey, I was mostly influenced by the alternative rock bands that were so popular during my formative years. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sound Garden, Rage Against the Machine, and plenty more were the types of bands I grew up listening to and who compelled me to want to be in a band. My friend Michael Johnson, who lived in my neighborhood, just a few blocks away, was the first person I knew who was in a band. I used to go over every night that I could watch the guys and gals practicing. I was so inspired and I knew just watching them that I had to be in a band. Jeremy Sykes, the bass player in the band (12 Walruses) was kind enough to gift me a bass guitar. From the day I received that bass, I would spent countless hours in my bedroom, learning scales and just trying to get up to a point I could join a band.
My good friend Chris Nicotera was an accomplished guitar player and he took me under his wing and began teaching me about “good” music. Looking back, I laugh at little bit at this idea—because nowadays, I love almost all music—but at that point, I took the opinion of my new band-mate very seriously and thus, began a long period of musical snobbery. That being said, I was turned on to lots of really great musical influences. Thanks to Chris, I began to listen to older rock ‘n’ roll artists, like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, CREAM, and Frank Zappa. The influence of this bluesy and funky music began to dominate my style and taste. Funk and soul music also became a central influence on me at that time, as I learned about music from The Meters, Parliament/Funkadelic, Tower of Power, The Neville Brothers, and more. That funky type of music led to me discover fusion and, more importantly, the wide range of sounds that Herbie Hancock has produced throughout his long and prolific career. From his days with Miles Davis to the fusion sounds of the Headhunters, I have always found Herbie Hancock to be one the artists I am constantly inspired by and drawn back to. Growing older and continuing to develop my musical taste and, thanks to my band-mates John Daniel and Dave Benedict, I began to learn about the sounds of jazz, and artists like Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, Freddy Hubbard, John Coltrane, and so, so many more. I also fell in love with the bass player Jaco Pastorius, and his sound and style of playing bass changed the way I approached playing bass myself. After my time at college, my musical style began to change and my time in bands came to a short hiatus. I became highly focused on the newer styles: hip hop and, subsequently, electronic and beat music from artists like RJD2, Sound Tribe Sector 9, and Pretty Lights. This type of music really helped me shift my musical focus from performance and “working on my chops” to composition and vision. I spent much more time on my computer, creating beats and recording numerous takes on each different instrument by myself. My goals shifted toward creating an entire musical experience on my own and trying to take the pure idea in my mind and lay it out as perfectly as possible for the listener. This is still a big part of my creative process, but luckily, the pendulum has swung back toward more collaborative efforts, as well.
While I have talked very much about my musical influences, many readers of Indyfest might have more interest or find more insight in my writing background. I must first say that I also spent a good portion of my education in high school and college in a theater and film/video curriculum. Most of my influence toward storytelling and writing is based off my experience with film and TV shows. Some of the biggest influences on my writing are not primarily comic books, but movies and, more recently, TV shows. I love David Lynch, and especially, what he did with Twin Peaks. I feel that show had a great influence on Lost and thus, I found much inspiration in that show and from Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindeloff. The dramatic writing of Vince Gilligan and crew on Breaking Bad, and now Better Call Saul, are huge to me. I have always been wildly inspired by sci-fi movies and TV shows. I am a big fan of Star Wars, and more so Star Trek. I also LOVE fantasy books, like The Lord of the Rings, the Wheel of Time, and yes, even Harry Potter.
It’s very difficult to choose any one among these influences as the chief source of inspiration, but it’s quite clear that all these influences have come together in the creation of Those Shadow People. Ideas from sci-fi, fantasy, drama and superhero comics are all at the forefront of the creative ideas that drive me to keep writing and developing the characters and the world of Those Shadow People.
As for comic book influences specifically, I’d have to speak of that in two phases. In my earliest years, I really didn’t even know whose writing I was reading or whose art I was looking at, but I loved the superhero comics of Marvel and DC. Those superhero stories definitely left an impression on me from an early age and compelled me back toward that type of work later in life. When I decided to try to make a comic book myself, the first thing I did was go to a comic book store and just buy up a bunch of random books. I was totally out of touch with what was happening in the industry, so I just took a shotgun scatter approach and grabbed whatever looked good when I flipped through the pages. Initially, I was buying comic books as reference material. I felt the need to read and absorb if I was going to create this type of art. Over time, I became hooked on many of the stories and my comic book obsession was renewed. Shortly after simply reading for inspiration, I found myself purchasing five to ten books weekly, to keep up with the characters I had missed so much. My strongest comic book influences are probably the folks who have made a name working at the Big Two, but also, with their own books. I love the work of Matt Fraction, Jonathan Hickman, and Rick Remender. Fear Agents and Black Science are both books that inspired me toward world building and epic, mindf*ck types of stories. Jonathan Hickman and his latest run on Avengers and, more so, New Avengers is a really fun and inspiring read. I also love what Fraction has done with Hawkeye and his own series, Sex Criminals. More recently, I have been turned on to The Dying and the Dead and I really enjoy the epic nature of the storytelling that’s grounded in this kind of more gritty and grounded “American hero” type of narrative.
IM: What is your motivation to create and keep on creating?
PB: That is such a deep question, but I will do my best to answer it. I do feel that my creative motivations are the things that I get up for in the morning. I work a job as an optician and I have done this type of work for nearly ten years. I’d like to think I’m very good at it, but I don’t jump out of bed in the morning pining to make and sell glasses. Every night, when I go to sleep, I am pondering new and different ideas for music and storytelling and every morning, when I wake up, I look forward to the next moment I can put these ideas into practice. I think, more than anything, creative endeavors are like my connection to God, or whatever you believe that to be. I find that I am compelled to take on creative work without any real reason why. It’s more about the how, the process, for me. The act of creating simply puts my mind at peace and I feel most whole when I work toward a creative goal. I know that might sound cheesy to some, or just plain crazy to others, but I really feel like I have an underlying purpose on this planet to create something. I think I am still searching for that one thing that is my real contribution to life, but I don’t know that I would ever know it if I found it, or if I would stop working if I did.
To speak to a more practical angle, I think that art, in its many forms, is sometimes the only thing that keeps a person going in the worst of times. I would like to believe that just one of my creations was profound enough that someone in their darkest hour found inspiration to keep going. I hope that just one piece of my art was enough for someone to shake off their funk, jump up, and get back into life. And then, hopefully, they in turn do the same for someone else. In the end, I think that’s all we can really hope for, in our art and in life in general.
IM: Tell us about your first project. What was the experience like?
PB: My first project as related to indy comics was Those Shadow People. That was quite a learning experience. Originally, when I thought to combine music and visuals as one, I imagined doing animation. But animation felt like too lofty a goal and, for some reason, in my ignorance, I thought comic books would be ‘easier’. LOL. Boy, was I wrong. I learned very quickly that making comics is a giant process and, if you have a serious goal of doing it well, it’s even harder. Luckily, my first book, Those Shadow People #1, was executed by just myself as the writer and one artist, Erik Turner. While the size of the team helped to keep the logistics more manageable than, say, having a larger team with a writer, a penciler, an inker, a colorist, a letterer, and an editor, it didn’t necessarily help us have perspective on how to make the project the best it could be. In the end, I think the project turned out to be a bit more work than I could truly handle and my relationship with the artist, who was also a friend, suffered at times, due to the stress that the project created. The upside of the first issue was that I really began to learn how much time and work it should take to create a comic book. And those lessons have carried through to the next issues. Issue #0 still suffered from some of the same logistics problems, but I think that I’ve finally gotten a handle on the process with Issue #2.
PB: I’ve spoken a little bit about this in some of the earlier questions, but I’ll rehash just a bit here. The idea for Those Shadow People emerged from two different catalysts. One, the first time I saw the Gorillaz music video on TV, and Two, when I realized that, in order to break through all the noise on the internet with your music, bands could really benefit from a strong visual element. To explain a rough timeline, I was in a band called The Biz for a few years and our music was very upbeat, electronic dance music, for the most part. But in our downtime, my band mate Tim Santos and I would write and record music that didn’t quite fit with the sound of The Biz. It was more chill and emotional and we found that we couldn’t quite work it into the sets we played with The Biz. Over time, we built up a large stockpile of music on our hard drives that we just didn’t know what to do with. One of the songs, which later became “Open Your Eyes” on our first vinyl for Those Shadow People, used a lot of imagery in the lyrics that really inspired me to write. I felt like the lyrics were like these little Easter eggs into a bigger story. And so, we started talking about what would later become Those Shadow People. I think I probably spent two years just creating outlines for the story while we kept recording more music and, finally, it was time to make a comic book. It took a few months before I could find an artist interested in taking on the project. I happened to have lots of friends who were illustrators and/or graphic designers, so I started reaching out to them, but no one took an interest in the project. Finally, it dawned on me that I had met an artist at one of The Biz’s local shows. It was Erik Turner. He basically makes his money as an artist by creating art and then setting up shop at local shows selling his work. At the end of our show, he brought me a small art card with his info on the back and I held on to it. Then one day, I remembered the card and I found his info on the back and we began meeting regularly at a local bar to drink and talk about character ideas. After many more months, we had created some great character renderings based on my rough sketches and the ideas we hashed out together. Finally, it was time to make a comic book. The rest is, well, history.
IM: How many books have you worked on to date and which is your favorite?
PB: This count will be somewhat unofficial, but I have worked on a total of seventeen books as a writer and five books as a letterer. (I say ‘unofficial’ because, so far, many of the scripts I have written for creators have yet to see the light of day). I must say, I have had the most fun working on books as a writer. This may seem like a cop-out, but my favorite is easily my own book, Those Shadow People. I have worked on some other great projects with other creators and my next favorite would be the webcomic The Not So Golden Age, created by Joseph Freistuhler. I was lucky enough to be brought on to this project to write the first issue, and it’s just a joy to write comedically for Joseph’s project. As for Those Shadow People, this project is my baby. The characters are, for the most part, based on myself and my friends. The story is a massive epic in my mind, and the time spent bringing it to life is unmatched, so far, by my work on any other project. To be more specific, I think that Those Shadow People Issue #2 is my most favorite book to work on in my career. Issue Two is the first issue where the pacing of the story is just right, the art team is a finely-oiled machine, and the timeline has been much more viable in supporting an ongoing comic series. It will probably be many more months before it is released, but I feel that this is the best showing in the series so far, and it will come out far sooner than the gap we had between Issues #1 and #0.
IM: What is your assessment of today’s independent creator industry, and what do you think the industry needs?
PB: I am so glad that you asked this question. I am excited about answering, because much of my learning curve in creating Those Shadow People has been in getting to know the ins and outs of the indy comic industry, and in meeting and getting to know so many of my fellow creators. I think the biggest detriment to the independent creator industry is simply the blanket term that gets applied to so many creators of all calibers. There are some really amazing creators out there, who have a tireless work ethic and a commitment to quality that rivals Marvel, DC, Image, Valiant, etc. But there are also some really terrible creators who have spent little to zero time learning their craft or the ins and outs of the industry. I think the fact that so many of these inexperienced creators try way too soon to get their voice heard reflects poorly on the state of the indy comic industry. This type of behavior is a major detriment to the people who are working so hard to learn and to do it right. I’ve seen this same scenario in the indy music scene. People feel like they learn to play a guitar or make a beat and they should suddenly be a rock star. Ego takes over and commitment to the craft is not even a concern to the artist. With all that being said, I don’t want to discourage newcomers from trying to learn and get into the industry. I just want to advise and caution these newcomers to take the time to learn, listen to criticism with an open mind, take it to heart, but then don’t stop working and trying to learn. Being a humble artist goes a long way, and I think that if more new creators would try to remain humble and spend more time with their heads down working, the whole indy comics industry would benefit to a great degree.
IM: In your opinion, how difficult is it for an independent creator to make a living today?
PB: Well, this may be one that I am not truly qualified to speak on, as I have yet to make a profit off of selling my own comics. On the flip side, I have had some great success marketing my writing and lettering skills to other folks for a fair wage. All that being said, as is similar with any creative vocation, it’s going to be pretty difficult for a while. I think that if any independent creators plan to make a living off selling their own original book, they may find this to be a very long uphill battle. Comic book fans don’t like new things. It’s just a fact, and if you plan to try to make it big off your own original idea, then I would tell you to expect to spend YEARS sinking your own money into paying printing costs, professionals, convention fees, shipping, etc., etc. If you have the gumption to complete a book, or even a few books in a series, then you might find some success in pitching your project to some of the smaller publishers, but this will still not be enough to make a living. More than anything, if you want to make it as a comic book creator, you have to diversify your portfolio and take every opportunity you can get. Build your portfolio, get out on the scene, go to cons, join every social media group, and then, after all that, expect to spend many years keeping up these activities before you make any good money. If the creator is willing to learn their craft and then offer that as a service to other creators, they may find that making a living off comics will be more viable. For instance, most of the funding for Those Shadow People has come from doing graphic design, writing, and lettering for other people, not always comic-related. Also, keep in mind that as an indy creator, you are basically a freelance worker and that has many of its own hurdles to deal with outside of comic-related obstacles. Taxes, health insurance, advertising, etc. are all concerns of a freelancer in any industry and you will need to prepare to deal with those, as well. I think that, for anyone trying to make it as an indy creator, you would be very wise to have a full-time job that can pay your rent and then plan on getting very little sleep, as you spend your early mornings and/or late nights and weekends to fulfill your comic book-related goals.
IM: Do you use social media? And if so, how has it helped in getting the word out about your work?
PB: Yes, I use social media religiously. And I have found it to be a major help in, not just getting the word out, but also helping me to develop my career in the comic book industry as a whole. If you come to social media with the goal of advertising your creation, you may not get much traction. Shameless self-promotion is so prevalent online that you’re going to have a really hard time getting anyone to really care about your project by just spamming the masses. In my experience, the best thing you can get out of social media is networking. I have met all of the artists I work with for Those Shadow People through Facebook and the comic book industry groups on Facebook. Also, I have met so many fellow creators who are doing fantastic work. These people inspire me to work harder and learn more every day. When I see what they are doing, I learn. And, in turn, I try very hard to spread the word about other creators’ projects. And, trust me, that goodwill comes back to you. I think that, if you approach social media the same way you approach most things in life, (and by that, I mean be polite, be humble, treat others the way you want to be treated), you will find success. But if you go on Facebook simply to spam your Kickstarter, well, then you may be disappointed by the results.
IM: What is the most important thing you hope to accomplish as a creator?
PB: At this point, the most important thing I hope to accomplish is that I get to tell my story, the whole story. Those Shadow People has a sprawling narrative that will take at least 12 issues to really unfold, and my big goal is to keep grinding until the “meat and potatoes” of that story has come to light. There are many tangents to be explored and next episodes that could take the helm after the main story, so I hope to take it even further, but more than anything, I just want to get the ideas out of my brain and on to the page. I have a few more ethereal goals, which are mainly to keep meeting and supporting the comic book creators and musicians out there. I think every day that I learn and grow, I have accomplished a major goal in my life. So more than anything, I just want to keep that going until the day I die.
IM: What are your future plans and where do you see your career in the next five years?
PB: In the future, I would like to work on another comic book project of my own creation that is not attached to a musical project. I never would have expected this when I first set out to make comics, but I really love the work. Adding the musical element to the equation makes the production exponentially more work and more expensive. It can be very tasking to complete just one release of this nature. So I think, for me, working on a comic alone would be liberating. In the next five years, I hope that I am doing much of the same activities, but just doing them better with more people and, ideally, spending a little less time at a day job and more time working on creative projects that truly inspire me to wake up in the morning. Also, I hope that within the next five years I could achieve a great dream of mine, which is to combine the music of Those Shadow People with animation based on the comics. This would bring my journey full circle back to the original inspiration I gleaned from Gorillaz, and I think that this execution of the project would really resonate with people and help to take the project to another level.
IM: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about becoming an independent creator?
PB: I covered much of my opinion about this in a couple of the earlier questions, but hopefully, I can sum up that advice more succinctly here. My advice is this: Spend as much time consuming art as you spend creating it. If you want to make comics, read lots and lots of comics. Work harder than anyone you know to learn and practice your craft. If you want to be a writer, then write. If you want to be an illustrator, then draw. And do this as much as possible. I mean, every day. Don’t stop. Never take a break. If you can’t draw anymore, go to a museum, read a comic, watch a YouTube video that teaches you a new technique. More than anything else, stay humble. No matter how good you get, you can always get better. Your relationships are the key to your success, so never, ever treat someone in a way that your mother wouldn’t be proud of. Be kind, be honest, be true and just treat others like you would want to be treated. Being a decent person goes a long, long way in this industry (and all walks of life, for that matter). And remember, at the end of the day, no matter how bad someone treats you, take the higher road. Don’t take a bad experience as an excuse to become an asshole. If you get some harsh criticism about your work, just remember there is no such thing as bad publicity. At least someone took the time to look at your work, and that’s saying a lot these days. Also, one other thing: be prepared to spend some money. If you really want to make it, you can’t expect to get everything for free. Spend money on advertising and you build a relationship with that press outlet. Spend money on an inker who is better than you and your project will look better, but also, you have another person spreading the word about your work. I think the Beatles put it best when they sing in “The End,” the last song of their career together on Abbey Road, “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”
There are some comic book coffee houses popping up across America, where folks can relax to some music and read their favorite comic book. I think Those Shadow People would fit nicely into such a setting. I see only big things in the future for what I think is a great idea and a unique approach to merging two creative forms. I urge you to support this great creator.
More about the Interviewer: Everard J. McBain Jr.