Some say that civilization as we know it was constructed upon the foundation of storytelling. In ancient times, many different people groups communicated their culture and history down through each generation by telling stories. Steve Masseroni believes in the power of storytelling and hopes that he will be able to move people by telling his stories.
If there was such a thing as a resume-measuring contest, and the thought ever entered your mind to take part in such a contest, the last person you would want to go up against would be Steve Masseroni. The gentleman’s resume reads like a copy of Wired Magazine or The Wall Street Journal. He’s worked for some of the biggest names in the entertainment and technology industries. Some of his employers have included EA, Lucasfilm, and Disney. He is currently the creative executive producer for social media over at NVIDIA, a company that is the largest maker of graphic cards for high-end computers and film. Most of the Oscar-nominated movies you have seen were developed using the technology produced by NVIDIA. He hails from Silicon Valley, a place he affectionately refers to as the Center of The World, and has Google, Facebook, and Apple as his neighbors. Despite all of this, Steve still finds the time to pursue one of his major passions, graphic novels. I had the pleasure of chatting with Steve about his life, his current graphic novel project called The Silver Cord, and the independent comic book industry as a whole.
IM: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and when you first realized you wanted to create comics?
SM: When I was six or seven years old, I used to go up to Sierra Nevada in a little town called Strawberry to visit my older cousin Dave for summer vacation. Dave had a cardboard box filled with Marvel and DC comics. Looking through those on summer days got me hooked. I started collecting my own comics pretty early. Being a child of the sixties, I saw a lot of the end of the comics that came out of the end of the silver age. My collection grew into just about 4000 comics, which I still own up to this day. Many unbroken series, including Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. They’re all plastic-bagged and everything. Initially, I was into superheroes, but then, in the early seventies I came across Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing and that blew my mind. I started getting into darker themes as I got older, like the Warren Magazine’s Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. So I got really enthused about comics.
Then I realized that I had artistic capabilities and I realized I wanted to become a comic book artist. So, at a very early age, I started visiting comic book conventions. At fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, I would set up my table in the artist section with all my crude drawings and whatnot. I started making friends with a few people who went on to become some of the biggest names in the business. Some of those were Arthur Adams, Mike Mignola, and Sam Keith. We all used to hang out. Sam Keith and I used to carpool to get to San Diego Comic-Con in the early days. I had a close encounter with Marvel at one of those conventions. I was only about sixteen years old when Al Milgrom, who was one of the editors of Marvel along with Jim Shooter, came to my table and was just gazing at my art. He liked what he saw and wanted to hire me. So we get to talking and he asked me “How old are you?” I say, “I’m sixteen”. He says, “Well, as a general policy, we don’t hire till you’re out of high school. So come back to us in a couple years.” So, at the time, it was flattering that I got noticed.
So what happened was, as I was still hanging around with these artists, I decided I was going to publish my own fanzine. So we got together and published our own fanzine called High Energy. It had a full-color cover and was about one hundred pages. We printed about two thousand copies. We billed it as some of fandom’s best young talent. Arthur Adams contributed a ten-page story. So my claim to fame there, if anyone wants to know who published some of Arthur Adams’ earliest work, it would be me. Every time I talk to him about that, we have a good laugh. Eventually, that fanzine got noticed by the Comic Book Journal and got a write-up in issue 77. We eventually got into some comic book stores. In those days, we didn’t have internet, so we used to snail mail the fanzine in manila envelopes to comic book shops and ask if they wanted to order. A lot of them ordered boxes. We even got a write-up in a comic book journal in Finland.
When I was about seventeen and eighteen, my fascination with superheroes started to wane and I started getting into more mature themes and independent comics. That was around the time when Pacific Comics and Image came out. Some of the independent comics houses who were trying to challenge the big boys. They were attracting professional artists. I wanted to work for Pacific Comics (aka PC). I had an interview with PC down at San Diego Comic-Con and they loved my work, but still passed on it. I then decided to retreat within my art studio and take a year to perfect my skill, so at the next Comic-Con, I would blow them away and they would have to hire me. What happened though, along the way, was I got into Cerebus the Aardvark by Dave Sim. They were really hot, and they were publishing fan submissions in the back of their issues. So I and a few other writers decided to submit to that. While working on that submission, I attended a comic con at Berkeley and showed some of that work to Dean Mullaney and Catherine Yronwode, who at the time were the chief editors of Eclipse Comics. They said they wanted to hire me. Everything happened really fast. We met with them and it turned out they wanted me to do the cover of their premier magazine, Eclipse Monthly. I also did a ten-page story called Steel, Stealth, and Magic. It was a really big deal. By the time the 1984 Comic-Con came around, the issue had come out with my story. Arthur Adams got picked up by Marvel. Sam Keith got picked up by Image. We all broke in at the same time. It was a great summer.
After all of that, after everything I had finally worked for had happened, I walked away from it all. The walk-away came because, at that time, you know that big question about the meaning of life, came upon me really strong. I went through some serious soul-searching. I had to know, what was the meaning of life? So I walked away from it all. I had just broken in, I had great promise, but I walked away. So for the next 20 years, I just did various odd jobs. I was a construction worker, I worked at a restaurant. I even became a home nurse. It was all part of a spiritual journey of soul-searching. I had no desire for comic books or art. For 20 years, there was nothing. Except for one thing. Every three or four years, I would stop into a comic book shop to trace the careers of my contemporaries, Arthur Adams, Sam Keith and Mike Mignola. Those guys have become huge over the years. The only one I was able to get in touch with was Arthur Adams.
IM: Ok, so how did you get back into comics after all that time?
SM: Fast forward to 2003. I got introduced to Kevin Kelly, who is the co-founder of Wired Magazine, among other things. He found out that I had a history in comics. So one day while having lunch, he asked me if I had ever thought about doing graphic novels. He’s a futurist and he said that all his data suggested that the genre would really explode in popular culture. My short answer was, “No. I’m done with comic books, let’s move on.” So, I went to the graphic novel section of a bookstore with my three-year old son and I saw Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. I thought to myself, “I can do this again.” It wasn’t a comparison of me and Mike, but me thinking that I could, once again, get into comics. So, I went home that day and I said to my wife, “I can’t say to my son with full confidence to live out your dreams, if I haven’t really lived out mine”. I told her I wanted to go back and give it a try one more time. Another thing that happened was I got a letter from a fan who came across my High Energy fanzine that I published twenty years ago, and who followed my brief career with the work I did at Eclipse. They wanted to know what happened to me. I read that, I looked at my son’s eyes, and thought about Kevin Kelly saying his research pointed to a graphic novel explosion.” So I went back to Kevin Kelly, and I said, “I want to do a graphic novel.” He said, “Ok. Let’s do it.”
We started doing our research. We looked at the big guys, Marvel and DC. We even looked at Image and a few others. We always got hooked up on the creative rights. We wanted to control our own intellectual property. So Kevin said, “Let’s skip the conventional means and go straight to the New York publishers and sell it to them.” Kevin’s literary agent is John Brockman. He had a great deal of connections. He’s the literary agent for Richard Dawkins. At the time, their particular clientele had everything to do with science. They had nothing to do with fiction or graphic novels. He was fascinated by the idea of trying it. The short story is that he got us a huge deal with Simon & Schuster for a multi-graphic novel series. It was called The Silver Cord. John is also a futurist. At the time, e-books were only just beginning to emerge. He negotiated with the publishers for us to own all the digital rights. They had no problem with that, because at the time, digital was nothing. So that was a wise move. The other benefit of going the New York route was we would get their distribution muscle and we would also be in the mainstream. At the time, you could only get comics in comic book stores. At the time, Diamond controlled all of that. They still do. We wanted to go around that, and we did with the New York deal.
I got together a team of concept artists and writers from Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic who were friends of mine, and we spent an entire year working on concepts. We had everything when we presented the concept of The Silver Cord to Simon & Shuster. They bought it. So, once we had the deal, and they gave us a huge advance, I quit my job and, for the next couple years, we worked on getting this 200-page book finished. At the same time, my friends from Pixar were just finishing up their work on The Incredibles and writing the first Cars movie. They were a husband-and-wife couple and they were also having their first baby. So, the project was delayed for two years. Within those two years, the editors who bought our project at Simon & Shuster moved on to another company. So we lost our in-house champion. No one told us. Our project was passed on to another editor who did not know or care about it. Also at that time, Oprah’s book of the month club was pretty popular, and all the publishing houses were jonesing to get their authors on Oprah’s show. All the publishers were re-organizing their inventory to suit Oprah’s taste. So the next time I checked in with them, I found out that they had no more graphic novels, and they had dropped us. Not only that, they wanted their advance back.
SM: Yeah! We were like, “Are you insane? It’s two years into it.” So, to make a long story short, we settled. They basically said, if we sold it to another publisher, that publisher would have to pay back the advance. Remember, though, when the contract was negotiated, we got the rights to our intellectual property for all digital. That meant we could self-publish. What also happened is that, over the years, the entire industry got turned on its head and in favor of independents. Publishers were now approaching independents and asking them, “Can we publish you?”
So, with them dropping us, I had to go back to work and put the book on hold, so I could stabilize my financial situation. That was a blessing in disguise. I got into the entertainment industry and I got to work at EA, Lucasfilm, and Disney. So, my art career was fast-tracked. Not in comics, but in other areas. So in 2010, Kevin Kelly says we should try to finish the first book. So we did it different this time. We went to DeviantArt, and solicited an artist. So we finished Book One. So it’s finished, now what do we do with it? We passed it around to a few publishers, but remember, we still had the old contract hanging over our heads. So, we decided to bypass the publisher and go straight to the fans. We started a Kickstarter campaign in June of 2012. We did something different than what others were doing at the time. We actually did not ask for money. We said, we are going to give you something we’ve already made, which was Book One as a downloadable PDF. If you like what you’ve read and you want to help us finish the story, fund us. We did it and we got a great result. We got forty-five thousand dollars to finish the second book. We got another writer from Hollywood and expanded our art team. So, along the way, you know how we talked about publishers now going to success stories? Well, PGW book distributors, one of the largest independent book distributors in the world, got wind of Silver Cord and they decided to pick us up. Their sales agents were able to get us advance sales of 2500 copies. For an independent publisher with someone unknown, that was a risk. But bookstores bought it. The advance sales helped us scale up our product. We got world-class printing and a major distribution, all because of that Kickstarter. The best thing is, we still own everything top to bottom. So that’s the story of how it all got started.
IM: That’s a fascinating and inspirational story. So, who are the people that most influenced you as an artist?
SM: Bernie Wrightson of Swamp Thing. Barry Windsor-Smith from Marvel’s Conan. Michael Kaluta from the Shadow, and Jeffrey Jones, who was a great artist. All four of these guys, for one brief moment in history, all worked together in a studio in New York called The Studio. Frank Frazetta was another one. Also Neil Adams and Al Williamson.
IM: What is your motivation to draw/create and keep on creating?
SM: Storytelling. There are stories in me that I need to express. There is so much in me that I want to unfold and unpack before I die. I also want to move people through stories. I think that’s a noble expression: to move people emotionally. If you have the power to do that with a story, I think that’s a special interaction between the storyteller and the audience. Our whole civilization, I believe, is based on storytelling and fantastic storytellers. It goes all the way back to the story weavers of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
IM: Tell us about your first book. What was the experience like?
SM: Well there were two. My fanzine High Energy was great, because I was in high school and had no responsibilities. So I was free to work on that and it was great. Working for Eclipse was special in the sense that it was my first professional debut and all that’s attached to that. That was a magical time. Then working on Silver Cord. It’s worked out fine, but initially, it was a very agonizing experience. I tell people that it wasn’t the hardest thing to do, but it was the hardest thing to get to do. There were so many obstacles. The financial strain, the things that we went through as a young family was not nice. But it worked out.
SM: Very simply it was this. Going back to Kevin Kelly, he once showed me some bonus features of the first Matrix movie. They were doing an interview with Keanu Reeves. Keanu was talking about some things Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and he had to do to prepare for the movie. He said, even before they could read the script, there were some books they had to read. One of those books was called Out of Control by Kevin Kelly. I saw the movie and read his book. Whole chapters on concepts were used by the Wachowski brothers. He also conceptualized some of the stuff from Minority Report. So, I thought, if we’re going to do a graphic novel, we have to use it as a vehicle to get some of Kevin’s ideas into popular culture. So, at the time he was fascinated with this whole concept of parallel universes. Quantum physics. Particles and how they interact with each other. So his idea was a mashup of parallel universes, quantum physics, robotics, human consciousness and artificial intelligence. It hovered around fact/fiction. There’s a rule we all follow when it comes to high concepts of science fiction. That is the willing suspension of disbelief. We all do it. If we didn’t, we would immediately dismiss this as impossible. So, what we wanted to do was add a second rule. A post-experience rule. That is after they finish reading the book, they walk away going, “Could this be true?”
So our story elements all create entry points for certain people. If you’re a new-ager, or religious, or a quantum physicist, or a futurist, or into robotics, or a teen who feels no one understands them, or a mystic, there’s a point of entry for you in The Silver Cord. Peter Schwartz is a well-known futurist and atheist. He read the book, loved it, gave us a great write-up. He said the book had him thinking.
IM: What is your assessment of today’s independent comic book industry, and what do you think the industry needs?
SM: I think it’s very healthy. There is so much inventory. Comixology is helping a lot with independents. Crowdfunding is also helping. The industry needs more, attention I think. Social media can play a big role in that. That type of viral awareness that’s possible with Social Media.
IM: Let me get your perspective on this. Some have suggested the independent comic book industry has gone beyond the independents. Take Image, for example. With huge titles such as The Walking Dead and Spawn, Image is so big, they’ve become out of reach for the common independent man who has a book he wants to pitch to them. How do you feel about that?
SM: Yes, I would agree with that. I think what’s happening is a redefinition of what an independent is. It’s almost as though once an independent gets big enough, it almost becomes mainstream and ceases to be independent. The industry is so fluid and dynamic, and it is still being defined. There’s a lot of room for new methods and processes. So you have a lot of Kickstarter millionaires. Not the ones who are already famous and come to Kickstarter, but the ones who were relatively unknown before they came to Kickstarter. The middlemen are being stripped out of the equation. So, there is room for new models of distribution and new ideas. Now you can go directly to your fans. Now creators can own their own properties like never before.
SM: That’s a quick answer. It’s way easier. There are far more options available now for independent comic book artists than there were before. It’s a lot easier now. If you’re still trying to get hired by the big guys, well that’s a different story. But I believe if you’re talented, people will find their way to you. Talent makes a way for itself. Kevin Kelly came up with a concept a few years ago, even before crowd sourcing came about, called One Thousand True Fans. The basic idea is, “What is a true fan?” A true fan is someone who will follow your career, drive a hundred miles to your small concert venue, and buy all your CDs. Let’s put a number on it. Let’s say a true fan is someone who will spend one hundred dollars a year on you. Let’s say you have one thousand of them. Ok, you now have one hundred thousand dollars a year. You are self-sufficient. You don’t need anyone in the middle. So what I’m saying is. If you can find a thousand true fans, you can make a living. The task is finding those true fans. Awareness through avenues like Indyfest is part of that.
Look at Silver Cord, for example. For our second book we took it to DeviantArt to build our team. We recruited people from all over the world. Our colorist is in Argentina. We have another artist from France. We had another from New Jersey. Their work is world-class. It would have been very difficult for them to have been discovered by conventional means. Technology is so much better than it was up to five years ago. I worked on Silver Cord on my laptop for the last two years while traveling for my real job all over the world.
IM: Do you use social media, and how has it helped in getting the word out about your work?
SM: Yes, yes and yes. Social media is the driving force behind building awareness. We’re having this conversation right now because of social media. In fact in recent months I’ve shifted my career. I was a video producer and now I’m an executive producer for social media at a tech company in Silicon Valley. Social media is going to be the big thing for the next five to ten years. There are going to be things that emerge that we can’t even imagine. It’s all about reaching your fans in media channels.
SM: Again, it’s moving people with stories. The story is the most important. The art is secondary. You can move people with stick figure art if your story is powerful. The real art is the art of the story. The most important thing I can do as a creator is tell a damn good story. If I fail there, it doesn’t matter how great the art is, how great the special effects are, it has to have a soul. If it has no soul, it’s dead. It’s hollow.
IM: What are your future plans and where do you see your career as a comic book creator in the next five years?
SM: Well, I don’t have a career plan, but I do have a wish. We have something in social media circles called “User Generated Content” or UGC. Others call it fan-fiction. I would love for fans to take Silver Cord and create their own stories. That will happen if Silver Cord becomes part of the lexicon of popular culture. Once it does, the next step will be fan-created content. That’s our ultimate goal. No controlling art team, but fans. I would love fans to take and re-invent the story. Take these characters and create your own worlds. We want to hatch this universe, let it become recognized by a core fan base and, once that happens, critical mass will occur on its own. Some might call that a plan, but it’s not really a plan; it’s more like a wish.
SM: One thing I tell my kids is it’s never too late. I’m in my fifties. It’s never too late to have success with your dreams. It’s only been in the last seven years that I’ve emerged as a mark in the entertainment industry as a comic book creator. So it’s never too late to have success late in life.
Speaking with Steve was a very inspirational experience. To see someone who was so passionate about comics walk away from that and then, twenty years later, return to it and regain the success he once sought is indeed a great motivation to me personally, and I’m sure to everyone who would read his story. Check out Silver Cord and support this independent project.
You can connect with Steve at the following links.
More from our Interviewer, Everard J. McBain Jr.