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!
Higher Universe Comics was previously interviewed for Indyfest Magazine’s March 2015 issue (#82). That interview can be viewed here: https://mag.indyfestusa.com/universal-appeal/.
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An Interview with Brandon Rhiness
By Steven Pennella
Brandon Rhiness, a citizen of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is a Master of the Higher Universe. Brandon—along with his friend Adam Storoschuk—self-publishes a comic book line under the Higher Universe Comics label. They have several titles available, including Misfits, Stargirl, and Ghoul Squad. Brandon writes the comics and has hired artists from all over the world to work on his titles and projects. His universe is self-financed. Brandon pays to create the Higher Universe out of his own pocket: no crowd funding, no investors, and no Kickstarters. We recently interviewed Brandon and asked his thoughts on self-publishing, comics, and his creative influences and process.
IM: Tell us how you first got into comics. What were your favorite titles?
BR: I first got into comics in Grade 5 science class. It was the early 90s when the first series of Marvel trading cards came out. I knew all the major superheroes, but I was never into comics. Some kids in class had the trading cards and when I looked at them and saw all these superheroes I thought, “This is so cool!”
I began buying the trading cards myself and soon began using my paper route money to buy comics. An issue of The Punisher was the first comic I ever bought and it was always my favorite comic. I still collect them today.
IM: Which writers from the comics had the most influence on your storytelling?
BR: Mike Baron and Chuck Dixon were always my favorite Punisher writers, so as far as comic book writers go, those guys are at the top of my list.
IM: Do you keep up with comics now, if so, which titles are you reading?
BR: Yes, I still read comics. I grew tired of Marvel and DC last year, so I stopped reading anything put out by them, except for a couple titles (including Punisher). So, I’ve mainly been reading IDW. and Dark Horse titles. Plus any cool indy stuff I come across.
IM: What made you decide to begin self-publishing your own titles?
BR: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had lots of ideas for comic book stories and characters. When Higher Universe Comics co-founder Adam Storoschuk and I met, we began putting together what would eventually become our Misfits title. I wrote about fifteen scripts for that series and about another five for my Stargirl series. They existed in script form for several years, before we decided that we couldn’t wait any longer. Up to that point, we’d been working on the stories and talking about it a lot, but never actually producing anything. We decided to jump in and start making the comics, while figuring out how to do it along the way.
IM: Tell us about how you find your artists.
BR: It’s easier these days, because we get artist submissions all the time and we have enough of a body of work out that people take us seriously. So now, we have no problem getting artists.
But in the early days, we’d post a “Comic Book Artist Needed” ad on Craigslist and Kijiji in every major city we could. All over North America and the rest of the world. We’d get a few hundred responses and we’d filter them down until we found someone whose work we liked that fit into our budget.
As we met other people in the indy comics business, we’d ask them to recommend artists. That made it easier to find people who were reliable.
IM: There are a lot of talented people in the US who would love to do their own comics, but are reluctant because of financial reasons and the fact that you have to make enough to pay your bills and get your own healthcare. Are the socio-economic conditions friendlier to creative people and self-publishers?
BR: I can only speak from my own experience, but I think it comes down to how badly you want it. Adam and I put a lot of money into Higher Universe Comics. It’s by far my biggest expense. I don’t have a family to take care of, so I understand that not everybody is in the same boat as I am. But, at the same time, we didn’t start off by putting a ton of money into it.
The first comic we ever produced was the original version of Stargirl #1. We found artist Brittni Bromley through an ad we posted and we had her do one page every two weeks. Every second Friday, she’d turn in the new page and I’d pay her page rate out of my paycheck. It took an entire year to finish it, but it got finished.
I think so many aspiring comic book publishers think they need a lot of money up front, but they really don’t. They can just do it the way we did. We’ve never had a Kickstarter or had investors or anything, but we still manage to produce four ongoing series and other projects.
I know what it’s like to be scared of putting money into it in the early days. But you have to make some sort of sacrifice. I know people who say they want to make comics, but they say they’re broke. They’ll try a Kickstarter campaign and it will fail. So they just give up. Meanwhile, they’re spending money on all sorts of other stuff. They don’t understand that if they just set aside a small amount every month to pay an artist, by the end of the year they could have a whole comic done.
IM: Is this your only gig, or is there a day job helping finance this?
BR: Adam and I still both have day jobs. Hopefully, that will change in the near future.
IM: Give us your elevator speech on how to set up a self-publishing comic-book empire.
BR: The main thing is just diving in and figuring it out for yourself. The way we do it may not be the best way and it might not work for you. But you can’t just sit around dreaming about it or waiting to get noticed by a big comic book publisher. You need to take massive action.
Write a script. Find an artist you can afford and get them to start drawing your comic, one page at a time. Set a schedule. One page every week or every two weeks. Or four pages every two weeks. Whatever you can afford. Hire a colorist to start coloring the pages. Hire a letterer to letter the pages.
When all the pages are done, try to publish it on every digital comics platform you can find. Then order print copies. We order ours through Ka-Blam Digital Printing. There’s no minimum amount. You can order one at a time if you want, so there’s no excuse not to.
Start selling your comics to anyone you can. We sell our print comics for ten dollars each. Some of that money goes into making more comics and some goes into ordering more print copies that we sell, and so forth.
Then begin making your second comic. Contact podcasts, reviewers, and anyone else you can that can help publicize your comic.
That’s how we did it. It takes a lot of work and you have to put time and energy into refining your process and making it easier and more efficient for yourself. If I can write several comics a month, while supervising every aspect of the business, and work a day job, so can you!
IM: How many unsolicited submissions do you get on average?
BR: I’d say between one and ten a week.
IM: What’s the best advice you can give to a newcomer looking to either get work or start their own line of self-published comics?
BR: If you’re looking to get hired as an artist or writer, make sure you really work at your craft. When the original Stargirl came out, I thought I was a pretty good writer. I contacted my favorite writer Mike Baron and asked if he’d read my comic and give me feedback. He was nice enough to do it. So I mailed him a copy and he wrote me back, basically saying, “You need to work on your writing.”
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but he recommended I read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. I bought it and read it and realized how much work I needed to do. I began making a real effort to improve my writing. And I’m surprised at how much I’ve improved over the last few years.
Same thing with art. Make sure you’re improving all the time. Make sure you have a good portfolio that contains panel-to-panel sequential art. So many artists who submit stuff to me don’t have any sequential art. They just have a bunch of pictures of Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Deadpool. That’s not what any publisher or editor wants to see.
Make sure you have a strong portfolio and make sure you’re professional. Be someone people want to work with.
IM: Who are some of your favorite comic artists, and is there a particular style or look you prefer to see from artists submitting work to you?
BR: I like many different comic book artists and I appreciate various styles. I would have to say David Finch is one of my favorites. I don’t have a particular style I’m looking for. When hiring an artist for a particular series, I look for someone who has a style similar to how I envision the artwork in my head. Sometimes I’ll come across an artist’s work and think, “That would be perfect for…” whatever series I’m considering putting into production.
For example, with Alley Cats, I had the idea in my head, but had no intention of beginning production on it. But then Ember Cescon submitted her artwork to me and I thought it would be perfect for Alley Cats. So I started writing it and, next thing you know, Alley Cats is finished!
Some artists’ styles won’t work for certain series. There has to be a match between the artist’s style and the way the series looks in my head.
IM: You have eight titles featured on the Higher Universe website. Do you have a favorite?
BR: Oh, wow. That’s like asking which of your children your favorite is! I like them all for different reasons. My favorite to write at the moment would have to be Ghoul Squad, just because Varney the Vampire is so hilarious and fun to write.
I’m also really into our Boy with a Balloon for a Head limited series, just because it’s so different from what I normally write and it’s such a great story.
IM: Can you give us a little back-story about what inspired you to create some of your titles? What are the differences/similarities when creating Stargirl vs. Balloon boy, for example?
BR: The stories—and the inspiration behind them—vary from series to series. That’s what I love about making comics—you never know where an idea will come from.
Misfits is an idea originally created by Higher Universe Comics co-founder Adam Storoschuk. He had drawn all these characters, but didn’t know what to do with them. When I met him and we became friends, I eventually put the characters into a story and began writing scripts about them. That became the Misfits series.
Stargirl came to me one day, when I was working in a store. Music was playing and there was this song that had the line “Space Cadillac”. People might even know the song, but I don’t, lol. After hearing that, an image came to me of a teenage girl flying around in a pink space Cadillac with a talking dog. That eventually turned into Stargirl.
Ghoul Squad and Boy with a Balloon for a Head both came from drawings Adam did that gave me an idea for a story.
Alley Cats just came from an idea I had of anthropomorphic cats hanging out in a back alley.
IM: Every writer goes through writer’s block. What do you do to get out of it and can you describe the “aha” moment when your story comes together.
BR: When I was younger, I got writer’s block all the time, but I rarely do anymore. I think it’s because trying to write several comic book series and keep turning in page scripts to the artists while working a day job didn’t give me the luxury of writers block. I had to do the work, so I just blasted through it and continued writing.
I’m writing so many things now that, if I get stuck on one, I just move onto another, then come back to it later.
The “aha” moment is a great moment! I love brainstorming about stories and ideas. If I get stuck on a certain plot point or other issue, I’ll usually just keep brainstorming and thinking of different ideas until one fits. It’s like thinking about it without thinking about it. If you focus too much on the problem, you’ll get stuck.
I find, if you just work and think fast, your brain won’t stop long enough to let you get stuck on something. So you’ll have a lot of those “aha” moments. I also spend a lot of time tossing ideas around in my head before I begin writing. So I’ll have most plot and character issues figured out before my fingers hit the keyboard.
IM: Your titles include interviews with independent musicians and bands. It’s an interesting concept. What inspired you to do this? Do the bands cross-market your comics when they are performing?
BR: The main motivation, at first, was just to have more interesting content in our comics. It works as a cross-promotion too. In exchange for us promoting them in the comics, they’ll promote our comics to their fans.
I just like networking with other creative people and sharing cool stuff. We started off interviewing and profiling bands, but have also done pieces on artists and independent movies. I’ve since become friends with many of the people we’ve profiled in our comics. It’s always cool to meet new people doing cool stuff, and helping them share it with an audience they might otherwise not be able to reach.
IM: Any chance we’ll see titles based on any of these bands?
BR: Not at the moment, lol.
IM: Besides the website, where can we find your titles?
BR: They’re on all the major digital comics platforms. And print copies can be ordered through the website. You can even shoot us an email at [email protected], and we might be able to give you a deal.
You can also sign up for our email list on the website. You’ll find out when our new comics are out before everyone else and you’ll have a chance to buy them.
We really believe we’re putting out some cool, original stories and can’t wait to share them with everybody!