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!
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.
IM: According to your Amazon.com bio, you attended The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Arts for two years and decided to concentrate on writing versus illustrating. What was that experience like? CW: It was very eye-opening. I always loved to draw, for as long as I can remember, and when it came time for me to pick colleges, I figured some kind of art school would be the way to go. My love of comics is almost as long-lived as my love of drawing, so when I saw an ad for the Kubert School, I thought, “Well, this is just the perfect school for me, and drawing comics is the perfect job! I’m such a good artist; this is going to be easy!” If I had a time machine, one of the things I would do with it would be to go back and laugh at my younger self in that moment. And by ‘laugh at’, I mean, ‘slap across the back of the head while laughing derisively’. Two things I learned almost immediately at the Kubert School were just how little I knew about art, being an artist, drawing comics, and how easy it all isn’t. That being said, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I responded to that initial realization with a strong desire to learn what I didn’t know, and I got quite an education. I also made great friends who I’m still close with to this day—one of whom I collaborated with on Ironstar. And, while I did not end up going into art as a career, there were a number of non-comics commercial art classes that focused on principles of design and layout that have benefited me significantly in my actual career as a web developer.
IM: Did you have any formal art training before you went to Kubert’s? CW: I didn’t. Aside from the usual art classes in school, and the odd kids’ workshop, I was entirely self-taught. I learned how a lot of people learned, I’m sure: by reading comics and copying what I saw there.
IM: Why the change of heart from illustrating to writing? CW: As I mentioned above, one of the first things I learned at Kubert was just how hard it is to be an artist, particularly a comic book artist. Drawing comic book pages is a laborious process that requires a great deal of patience and a strong attention to detail, and I realized very quickly that I HATED drawing comic book pages. I just didn’t have the patience required to sit at an art table for several hours, drawing the same motorcycle in the correct perspective from different angles, panel after panel across multiple pages. I know a lot of incredibly talented artists who love drawing comics, and it dawned on me that, not only was it possible to love this thing I hated, but that love was essential to ever doing it as a career.
During that same stretch of time, some classmates and I collaborated on a comic for a class project. Since I didn’t want to draw, I was one of the writers. I’d always enjoyed creating characters and concepts and making up stories, but that was my first real attempt at things like plotting, character development, and dialog. It turned out I loved writing comics as much as I’d come to hate drawing comics. I was able to take a lot of what I was learning in my narrative art classes and apply it to writing, so school wasn’t a complete loss. That said, I didn’t see the point in continuing at an art school when I didn’t want to be an artist, and decided not to waste any more of my parents’ money.
IM: Did you have any formal training in writing and editing? Are you self-taught? CW: Aside from what I was able to adapt from my narrative art classes at Kubert’s, I’m self-taught. I also worked for a few years with a fantastic editor named Lee Nordling, who taught me a great deal about the writing and editing process, but that’s the closest I ever got to formal training.
IM: What was your first self-published work? CW: A comic book called Mystic for Hire, which was drawn by a brilliant artist named Jeff Zugale. We published two issues in print in the late 90s, then did a third issue as a web comic in the early 00s, and made it halfway through a fourth online issue, before various bits of life (work, families, etc.) got in the way. We’re coming up on 20 years since that first print issue (jeez, I’m old), and we’ve talked about finishing issue 4 and putting the whole thing out in one big twentieth anniversary extravaganza. We probably won’t, but it’s fun to talk about.
IM: Give us an overview of your writing process? Do you keep a notebook or jot things down that happen in real life, similar to how some artists keep a sketchbook at their side? CW: I do carry a notebook with me, but I don’t really use it that often. On those occasions when I do make notes, I usually use Google Docs on my phone or laptop. I tend to jot down concepts and characters more than anything else, but I also do a fair bit of world-building at the note stage. I use a whiteboard quite a bit as well, which is great for brainstorming new projects.
IM: How do you approach writing a graphic novel or web comic versus a prose piece? CW: Generally speaking, both start the same way: concept, characters, basic plot, a bit of world-building. At some point in the initial process, I’ll figure out what kind of story it should be. It usually becomes a comic/graphic novel if I feel that the story has to have a visual narrative.
Initially, I approached everything from the comics’ perspective. About 12 years ago, I was submitting a lot of pitches to a publisher, only one or two of which were accepted (neither ended up being published, for reasons beyond my control). As I looked over the other pitches I’d submitted, it occurred to me that some of them wouldn’t necessarily support a comic series or other long-form narrative, and might actually work better as short stories. So, I started up the Spontaneous Fiction blog (spontaneousfiction.blogspot.com) as a place to put all these stories that really didn’t need to be much longer than a few pages. After writing short stories for a year or so, I started working on longer prose pieces, which led to me writing novels. These days, I like to switch back and forth between prose and comics, and have a much better instinct for what belongs in which medium. I have a few stories I’m dying to develop and get past the notes/pitch stage, but I know that not only do they have to be comics, they also need a specific style of art, so I have to sit on them until I find the right collaborator.
IM: Did attending Kubert’s art school make it easier to understand the artist’s challenges when working with a writer? CW: Most definitely. It’s one thing for me to describe a fight scene between the hero and a never-ending horde of undead monsters in front of a dilapidated gothic cathedral; it’s something else altogether for someone to draw it. I actually try not to get too descriptive with those kinds of scenes. I figure the artist has to do all the work of drawing it; they should get to do it how they want. In fact, unless I have a specific idea regarding how I want a scene laid out visually, I tend to be very sparse with my panel descriptions in general. If an artist wants more detail and specificity, then I’ll obviously give it to them, but I like to give the artists I collaborate with the freedom to tell the story the way they feel is best.
IM: Currently you work as a web developer and a freelance writer. How do you balance real life, a day job, and your writing? Do you set a certain amount of time to write each week? CW: It’s a bit of an ongoing process, which varies depending on how busy I am at work, what my current writing project is, and what the rest of my life is doing. I’m married with two teenaged kids (which can overwhelm your life at a moment’s notice), and I’m also a musician playing in two different bands. My novels have all started out as blog serials (I usually post a chapter a week), and that gives me a steady deadline to write to. I try to keep a buffer of chapters going, so if the rest of my life eats my week, I can still get the latest chapter up on time. When I’m working on comics, I’m making sure my collaborator has everything they need and isn’t waiting on me to finish things. As for finding time, I try to write one to two pages a day (at least) of whatever my current project is, and I can usually find time throughout the day to make that happen. I do a lot of my writing in Google Docs, which lets me access what I’m working on from any computer at hand, so that opens up lunchtime and downtime at work for writing. When I finish a project, I usually take a little time off to recharge my writing batteries, and focus on other things for a while.
IM: Do you think juggling real life and your writing life makes you a better writer, if so how? CW: I don’t think it makes me a better writer. I hope it doesn’t make me a worse one, but I don’t think it makes me better. Sometimes I think all the juggling makes me rush things, so that maybe I don’t take as much time to polish something, or to really immerse myself in the process, as I could if writing were my main gig.
Every now and then, I try to give myself a “writing weekend,” where I shut myself off from everyone and everything and just focus on writing. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I notice that my work definitely benefits from that level of focus.
IM: How do you find your artists and collaborators? What qualities help you decide which artist to work with? CW: Jeff Zugale from Mystic for Hire and Sean Tiffany from Ironstar were already friends of mine. Ozzie Rodriguez, who collaborated on two of my completed web comics (and one we didn’t get to finish) was a customer at my local comic shop. I met Kim Scoulios (who illustrated Doris Daring) and Ariel Iacci (the artist on Among the Silver Stars) online. I’ve never even spoken to either of them on the phone, let alone in real life and all our collaboration was done through email. I found Kim via her online gallery. Ariel actually reached out to me.
I tend to choose artists based on whether or not I think they’ll be good fits for the project, though sometimes it’s as simple as an artist and I wanting to work together and then building a project around that.
IM: You self-publish through your own website http://www.hemispherestudios.com, and you have material available through Amazon and LuLu.com. Are there any significant differences between the two outlets? CW: Both Lulu and CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing division for print) distribute my books through Amazon. However, I use KDP (which stands for Kindle Direct Publishing) exclusively for e-books, since they’re so closely tied to the Kindle format. Since CreateSpace (www.createspace.com) and KDP (kdp.amazon.com) are both part of Amazon, they can overlap in certain ways. I signed all of my e-books up for the Matchbook program, which offers the Kindle editions of my book for free to people who have bought the paperback edition.
At this point, I think the only book I’m using Lulu for is Ironstar, and that’s because I like Lulu’s comic book format better than the one offered through CreateSpace. I also have a short story collection via Lulu, but that’s only available directly through their site. I’m planning a new edition of that one which will be done through CreateSpace.
IM: You set up http://www.hemispherestudios.com as a publishing and fiction portal. How do you promote the site? Do you use any of Google’s services? Would you recommend using a paid service such as Facebook ads? CW: I’m terrible at marketing and promoting myself, though I’m trying to get better at it. I haven’t used any of Google’s services yet, but I have used Project Wonderful to serve ads and I’ve used Facebook ads once or twice. I do see a significant click-through rate from both, especially to my web comic pages, but that doesn’t translate into book sales very often. However, I’ve used Facebook ads when I’ve done free e-book promotions and have seen decent results from that.
IM: A lot of your books are available on Audible.com. Can you tell us how you find voice actors and actresses to use for audible books? CW: I use Audible’s ACX website (www.acx.com), which is a creative marketplace focused on self-published and indy-published audiobooks.
I should also mention that I work for Audible as a web developer, and my main project is the ACX website. That’s actually how I ended up with my first audio production. I was one of our early beta users.
IM: What would you like to see from Amazon or other online outlets, as far as helping creative people get noticed? CW: This is a bit of a tough question. The problem independent and self-published creators have these days is that, since web-based technologies have made it possible for anyone to publish a book, everyone is now publishing books. Amazon is glutted with self-published books, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy genres. It would be very difficult for Amazon or some other online store to offer any kind of built-in promotion for every single book on their site, so they tend to spotlight books that sell well and/or are very popular. It’s one of those Catch-22 situations where you have to be somewhat successful before the online stores will actively help you succeed. And that means doing your own marketing and promotion.
As I said before, I’m not very good at marketing and promoting myself. Most online outlets are great at sharing information on what you should do to promote yourself, but I’m sure there are others out there who, like me, for whatever reason, are just absolutely terrible at all those things. I would love some kind of service where, similar to an artistic collaborator, you could pay for marketing services from someone who actually knows what they’re doing and is good at what they do. I’m not saying Amazon et al should be the ones supplying these services, but they could point creators toward any legitimate ones that exist.
IM: Tell us where we can find your work. CW: You can read and/or buy just about everything I’ve done online. The Hemisphere Studios website (www.hemispherestudios.com) either hosts the content itself (in the case of my web comics) or links to it (in the case of my books and web stories). I would recommend liking the Hemisphere Studios Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pages/Hemisphere-Studios/64546852504) to stay up to date on new projects and events, as well as the various sales and free book giveaways that I offer. You can follow me on Twitter (@cmwich), not so much for any promotional reasons, but because my tweets are both delightful and hilarious. Well, not really, but I don’t have a lot of Twitter followers and I’m feeling kind of left out.
Neil A. Cohen is the first-time author who created the novel Exit Zero—available on Amazon and Permuted Press. Exit Zero is a story about the zombie apocalypse, which began in New Jersey. The reviews have been nothing short of spectacular and William Morris Endeavor (WME) has entered into an agreement with Permuted Press to represent the film rights of the novel Exit Zero. I met Neil at a comic-con in Morristown, New Jersey (sans zombies) and we discussed doing an interview for Indyfest. Here we are a few months later.
IM: How did you get into writing? Is it part of your background, day job, or a hobby that paid off for you? NAC: I never wanted to write a book. I never wanted to read a book. But I am a zombie genre fanatic, and also a purist. I had an idea for what I thought was a truly original story set in the very beginning of the Zombie Apocalypse (ZA), and I wanted to share it. My day job is providing technology to first responders and the military, so I had lots of subject matter experts to bounce ideas off of to make the story as realistic as possible, yet still with a touch of sci-fi.
IM: Who are your biggest influences as a writer? NAC: I love zombie anthologies, but Max Brooks’ WWZ (the book, not the movie) was what inspired me the most. I also like the style of Bret Easton Ellis when he wrote Less than Zero.
IM:You must be living the dream. Your first novel is a critical hit and its film rights are with WME. How does it feel to be an “overnight success”? NAC: Depends on the definitions of “overnight” and “success”. I began writing the book in 2011 with a short story. I kept adding to the story and pestering people to read it. I finally decided I wanted to try and write a book in 2013, so it took a couple years. As for success, I have not achieved that financially for sure; self-promoting a book, any book, is an expensive proposition. I am just so thankful and grateful to anyone that took a chance and bought it, either on line or from me at a con. I am so happy when people like the story. I can chat about ZA all day long.
IM: Give us a snapshot of your life as a writer. The beginnings, the challenges, the successes and how you overcame any roadblocks. NAC: I don’t consider myself a writer yet, as I only have one published book, one yet-to-be-published short story, and I am working on a second book. If that one comes out, and is published and well-received, I will reconsider if I am truly a “writer”. The biggest challenge of writing is having people read and review your work. No one wants to read your drafts. Not your friends, family, or loved ones. If you are lucky enough to find someone nice enough to read it, they probably will not give you honest feedback, as they are nice. You need to hear brutal, unfiltered commentary. You need to take it and not push back or argue. And best way to get that is to pay an unbiased person. But when you get that feedback, the most important feedback is technical. Sentence structure, tensing, misspellings, or incorrectly-used words are killers. As for content, you have to go with your gut. If someone says a word is misspelled, fix it. If someone says your story sucks, screw them? that is just an opinion.
IM: On a lighter note, how did you get Jersey Shore’s Nicole “Snookie” Polizzi to endorse your novel? NAC: My publisher had asked me to get celebrity blurbs for my book. A blurb is a word or a sentence expressing something positive about your book. I was watching one of the entertainment shows, either Access Hollywood or TMZ (as I am obviously an intellectual), and I saw Nicole being interviewed about her gig on Dancing with the Stars. She mentioned that she loves The Walking Dead. I reached out to her via fan mail and sent her a pre-release version of the book with a request for a blurb. She tweeted out her response a couple months later, then emailed me to ask if I saw it. I had just set up my Twitter account, but had no idea how to use it. So I went searching, found it, thanked her, and we struck up an email friendship. She is very sweet.
IM: How will she be involved in any potential film of the book? NAC: That is up to her. She is bringing the sizzle. I am fine with anything she wants to do.
IM: Zombies are a big deal in media and entertainment. What do you bring to the table that sets you apart from other zombie stories? NAC: I approached from several different angles. There were so many elements that were never addressed in zombie books and movies and I wanted to focus on those. That is why mine is set at the very beginning (please note, this was way before Fear the Walking Dead). I wanted to explain exactly how the zombie infection comes to be, why those infected must do what they do, and what the purpose of the pandemic was. Also, in ZA genre, it jumps from everyday citizens to zombie-killing ninjas and psycho cannibals. What happens in between? Society does not collapse that fast and people are who they are. I wanted normal people in abnormal circumstances.
IM: Your job allows you to interact with many agencies within the federal government and the military. Can you tell us a little about your work? NAC: I sell specialized software that is focused on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear preparedness and response. Nothing too sexy; basically a software salesman. But I get to meet a lot of very cool and interesting people, and spend a lot of time on military installations and in foreign countries. So it can be fun.
IM: What challenges did you face when trying to research all the possible scenarios involving a zombie plague? Did you get any weird looks from the NSA or any government officials? No, because I have been with the same company, selling the same product for fourteen years. Everyone in the community knows me and knows about my zombie fascination. Military and first responders love the zombie genre, and are really into pre- and post-apocalyptic concepts.
IM: You obviously go above and beyond to add layers of authenticity and plausibility to your zombie world. How do you balance the explanations of why something is happening with the actual narrative you are writing? NAC: It is tough, as I am not that great a writer. I write exactly how I would explain it if I was talking to someone. I did not want to get too ‘sciency’ and be boring, so I obviously made some leaps that require suspension of disbelief, as I wanted the book to be a quick and fun read.
IM: Are your characters based on your friends or any other people you’ve met in your professional or personal lives? NAC: Of course, everyone in there is a mishmash of people I have met or have known for years. My friends all ask me why “their” character did this or said that. I try to explain that, while they may feel that the character is “them,” it is not, and is a mixture of a lot of people.
IM: Your book is published by Permuted Press. How did you solicit the book to them? What made you look to them, as opposed to other publishers? NAC: I have been reading their books for years, as it was impossible to find ZA literature years ago; it was not popular and they were one of only a few that produced it. I contacted one of their existing authors, James Crawford—who lived in VA. We met, and he made the introduction. They blew me off at first, but I won them over eventually.
IM: What advantages does Permuted Press offer to new writers? NAC: They take risks. My concept was bizarre, to say the least, as is not a traditional zombie book. I had zero background in this area and no prior published works. But they took a chance.
IM: Did you consider going through Kindle Direct or other self-publishing sites? NAC: I strongly support it for beginning authors. I self-published first, then was picked up. But you have to be a strong, vocal, aggressive, and persistent person to get the message out about your work, whether you are published or self-published.
IM: We met at a comic-con a few months ago. What other venues have you tried (e.g. book shows, small publisher cons, etc.? NAC: All of the above. I have done book fairs, comic and horror cons, sci-fi cons (did not do well there) and zombie cons. Have had a great time at all, but you have to be a people person and want to talk shop.
IM: Since you’ve done the comic-con scene have you thought of, or ever been approached about, creating a comic book or graphic novel based on Exit Zero? NAC: That would be a dream come true!
IM: How did you get your book reviewed by different websites? Did you submit to them or did they find you some other way? NAC: As I said above, persistence and aggressive outreach!
IM: Where do you see this book going? Have you considered doing a sequel? NAC: Working on the sequel right now actually, thank you for asking.
IM: Besides zombies, what other stories would you like to tell and are there other books in the works? NAC: I have been working on this idea for a book that would show the flip side of Wolf of Wall Street, about a bunch of young Wall Street types who are not as successful, and don’t have the money, but are still degenerates and fools.
IM: Are there any established characters in film, comics, TV, or otherwise, you’d like to take a crack at writing? NAC: I was actually a stand-up comic for about eight years, working mostly up and down the East Coast. Several of the comics I worked with are now starting to make it big. My dream would be writing for Fear the Walking Dead, as I think I could add some unusual characters to that storyline. I would like to re-launch some of the classic 1970s movies that were a mixture of horror, sci-fi, and political conspiracy. Soylent Green, Rollerball, and Boys from Brazil are all touched on in Exit Zero. I would like to reboot those types of movies.
IM: What’s the best piece of advice you, Neil A. Cohen today, would give to the Neil A. Cohen that just graduated high school? NAC: Invest in Apple, go to a better college, don’t sweat the hundreds of girls that are going to reject you over the next couple years, and relax.
Jeff Marsick and Scott Barnett invite you to attend a Dead Man’s Party! An assassin puts a contract out on his own head and a select group of peers have thirty days to fulfill it. For the world-renowned hit man known only as Ghost, ordering a Party is a last resort, a way to go out on his terms, at the top of his game. The invitations are sent, the killers are coming… and that’s when things go horribly wrong…
A former military officer, Jeff Marsick writes novels, screenplays, and comic books. He’s also a regular contributor to the comic book and pop-culture website, Newsarama, as well as the writer and co-creator of the self-published comic series Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers. He recently won Darby Pop Publishing’s “Breaking Into Comics” script writing contest, and from that will come Indestructible: Stingray #1, to be published by IDW/Darby Pop in May.
Scott Barnett is an illustrator, designer, storyboard artist and 3D modeler/animator. His comic book work can be found on painted covers, trading cards, and pin-ups for the comic book and card industry. He’s had work published by Image, Malibu, Chaos, Avatar, London Night Studios, Topps, and several others.
IM:Tell us about how you first met and decided to collaborate on a comic book series?
SB: Jeff and I had actually known each other for years before we collaborated on Dead Man’s Party.
JM: We frequented the same comic book shop, Heroes Cards and Comics in Norwalk, Connecticut, and we’d always talk about storylines and ideas that we had of our own. I knew that Scott was an artist, but I was kind of new to writing comics, so it didn’t immediately dawn on me to collaborate on something.
SB: Yeah, it wasn’t until about five years ago that we finally started throwing ideas around and getting serious about doing something. I emailed Jeff with this idea of a hitman putting a hit out on himself, and he came back with this concept of a competition he called a ‘Dead Man’s Party.’
JM: It was crazy. Hand to God, I’ve had this idea for decades, all the way back to when I was in college. And yes, Oingo Boingo is involved. For some reason, this concept of a bastardized Viking funeral/Irish wake has always been the movie that plays in my head when I hear their ‘Dead Man’s Party’. But I’ve never known what to do with it. So when Scott emails me, my response is “Ooh! I’ve got it!”
SB: And our ideas meshed together perfectly into what you’re reading now.
IM:Who are some of your creative idols and influences and how important are they to the creation of this series?
SB: For me, it’s John Byrne, Joe Jusko, and Alex Ross. How important are they to the creation of THIS series? Well, I used to describe my art style on DMP as ‘Alex Ross meets Sin City’. By no means am I suggesting I’m as good as Alex Ross, by the way. Byrne’s influence shows up in my panel layouts—at least I hope it does—because I think Byrne is a master at laying out a page. And Jusko? I just simply wanted to BE him when I was younger. His Marvel Masterpieces card set is still a dream job of mine…
JM: As a comic writer, there are a couple altars that I pray at: Peter David, Brian Michael Bendis, and Ed Brubaker in particular. But I’m also influenced by a wide variety of novelists and screenwriters: Dennis Lehane, Duane Swierczynski, Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Elmore Leonard, David Benioff… this list can go on and on.
SB: It usually does. You’re showing surprising restraint.
JM: Haven’t had my coffee yet. As for how important these influences have been to the series’ creation, I wouldn’t say they’ve been instrumental in its CREATION, but they have been important to me as a writer and helping me find my voice and how I envision a story to unfold.
IM: This story was set up as a four-issue series. Are there any plans for a sequel or prequel?
SB: First of all, we’d found we couldn’t reach the conclusion we wanted in four issues, so there will, in fact, be—
JM: Wait for it, wait for it…
SB: A fifth issue.
SB: But to answer your question, we have a lot of plans for this series. Not only do we have ideas for sequels, I’d be interested in exploring some of the supporting characters we’ve introduced here. Jeff has done an amazing job creating characters that have had very small roles but had so much depth from a character development standpoint that I want to revisit them. For instance, there’s a character that shows up in issue four that I hadn’t expected to appear at all in the series. Jeff mentioned him briefly in the first issue, but I thought it was a throwaway line, just something that Ghost mentioned simply to prove a point. I had no idea he would show up later in the series. Now that I’ve ‘met’ him, I want to learn more.
Also, we’re currently talking with another creator about a crossover between our titles. We can’t say anything about it yet, but it’d be very cool if we can make it happen. And I think we will.
JM: The thing about this world we’ve created is that there are so many characters and plots that we can explore. I wrote a couple pieces of flash fiction for the noir and pulp website, Out Of The Gutter Online, and there are some new characters that we can bring out into the light.
IM: Scott, you draw the series at the actual print size. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s ever done that. How did you get so comfortable drawing realistic people and actions on such a small canvas? Is this a standard procedure for your other comics and professional work?
SB: Does that mean I’m a trailblazer?! Awesome! For those not familiar with the process, comic art pages are generally drawn at 11″x17″, which helps tighten up the artwork when it’s reduced for printing. The reason I chose to work as small as I do is to try and reduce the time it takes to create a page, given that I work on the series in my spare time. So far, I’ve only employed this approach on Dead Man’s Party, but then again, this is also the first time I’ve done sequential interiors. I used to work much larger, but I started painting sketch cards several years ago, and after—literally!—a few thousand of them, I became pretty comfortable at working smaller.
IM: Is it a coincidence the main character looks like the artist? Who would you cast if series was optioned as a live action feature or mini-series?
JM: Man, you should see the eyes light up when people come to our booth at conventions, get hooked by the pitch, then do a double-take between the cover and Scott standing behind the table. “Hey, is that YOU?” Never gets old.
SB: And it’s not a coincidence that Ghost resembles me. As you can probably imagine from my art style, I tend to use a fair amount of photo reference. In order to get the shots I wanted, I started having others photograph me ‘acting’ out the scenes. In another attempt to save time, I suggested to Jeff that we use our likenesses for the major characters, but before I’d gotten to start using Jeff’s likeness, he wrote out of the series the character who we had planned to ‘be’ him.
JM: Ah, writer’s prerogative.
SB: Well, I hope we bring that character back at some point, since we’ve developed a rich backstory for him.
JM: I keep wondering if I’ve offended Scott in the past because he’s awfully eager to either put me in a comic in a compromising position or have me killed at some point.
SB: You don’t remember what happened in Jersey back in ’09?
SB: Well, there you go.
JM: Wait. What?
SB: As for casting: have you seen Hugh Jackman in Prisoners? I dare you to tell me that guy isn’t a dead ringer for Ghost! In fact, because I share a passing resemblance to him, many people assume that’s who I patterned Ghost after. Until they meet me, and then they ask why I’m a shorter version of him!
JM: Someone at a convention thought you were patterning after Pacino, remember?
SB: Oh, yeah. And I appreciate you resisting the urge to quote that line from Scarface, “Say hello to my little friend!” while we were talking to that guy!
JM: It’s funny because I’ve written Dead Man’s Party as a TV pilot for a mini-series and I’m writing it as a feature film, too. I actually think that, given how recent action movie roles are going to an older generation of veteran—Kevin Costner, Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, and Sean Penn—that this could be a good role for someone like Kurt Russell to relight their career.
IM: Jeff, you used to work in the financial industry. Do you find that background helps when it comes to creating assassins and other unsavory characters for the book, or are financial types too evil to be hit men?
JM: Oh no, there’s plenty of depravity and immorality in finance to fuel a couple hundred issues of a comic book series. It’s an industry that prides itself on hiring testosterone-fueled alpha-male types who consider themselves, on some level, assassins of a sort. Drugs, gambling, prostitution, rigging financial markets, money-laundering, scheming clients out of their hard-earned nest eggs…yeah, there’s an underbelly that’s a gold mine to plumb.
SB: Wow. That was pretty impressive, the way you burnt that bridge down. Flame on!
IM: Tell us how, if at all, your military background helps you develop your characters.
JM: The biggest benefit is that my familiarity helps me write characters with a military background in a way that feels genuine. Real. I’m familiar with tactics and jargon and operating procedures, and, especially, with dialogue. I think I’m good at having a veteran sound like he was once in uniform, and not like someone playing at it.
SB: You’re a geek about that stuff: weapons and tactics and lingo.
JM: I am. It’s got to sound legit.
IM: Give us an overview of your comic book career before you started Dead Man’s Party. What other titles have you worked on?
SB: Before Dead Man’s Party, I was mainly a cover and pin-up artist. My biggest claims to fame were doing a Spawn/Angela pin-up for Spawn, a pin-up and some cards of Lady Death for Chaos! Comics, and a cover for the old Mortal Kombat book for Malibu/Marvel. Recently, I’ve done a pin-up for Red Anvil’s The Mighty Titan and a cover for the assassin book, M3, from Vice Press.
Jeff: My comic book career started by taking an introduction to comic writing course with Comics Experience, led by former Marvel editor Andy Schmidt. It was an eye-opener that, hey, I don’t need to land at Marvel or DC to get published; I can go out and self-publish my own stuff, on my own terms. I actually had Nick Spencer in my class, before he went on to become big with Marvel and Image.
But right before we started Dead Man’s Party, I had started Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, another self-published title I co-created with Kirk Manley, who is also the artist.
IM: You’ve both worked for other editors and companies. What are the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing versus working for another company and fitting into their editorial/artistic guidelines?
SB: I’ve had pretty decent experiences working for other companies, particularly for Spawn, The Mighty Titan and M3; I’d say the advantage to working for other companies is the exposure.
JM: The only experience I have with an actual company is with Darby Pop Publishing after I won their Breaking Into Comics script contest. That script is becoming a one-shot in their Indestructible universe, called Indestructible: Stingray #1, and I cannot rave about the editors—Jeff Kline and Renae Geerlings—enough. Working with them has been terrific and I highly recommend that everyone get a chance to.
SB: The major difference between mainstream and self-publishing is the obvious creator control that Jeff and I have on Dead Man’s Party, since it’s our property. It’s very exciting, being able to do anything we want. Nothing is off-limits, so long as it’s in service of the story. You can’t always do that with someone else’s characters, especially if they have an established history.
JM: The other thing is that since we’re both the co-creators, this is our baby. That means we can’t phone it in, quality-wise. We tried to rush issue four in order to get it to the printer on time to make the New York Comicon, but it would have meant a sacrifice in quality.
SB: Which neither of us is willing to compromise on.
JM: And I’ve always said that this experience is going to spoil me for projects with publishers in the future, because Scott and I have such a great working relationship. We can toss ideas back and forth and tell the other person if something doesn’t quite work or if the story is missing the mark somewhere.
SB: Plus, he’s ex-military; I’m afraid to disagree with him.
IM: What other titles do you currently work on besides Dead Man’s Party?
SB: Currently, Dead Man’s Party is the only book I’m working on, as it’s pretty time consuming penciling, painting, and lettering the series. Once we’ve wrapped this first miniseries, Jeff and I would like to explore some of the other concepts we’ve discussed over the years.
JM: I am working on the first issue of the next arc of Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, writing the Dead Man’s Party screenplay, and working on another feature film screenplay. I’ve also started a thriller novel, and am plotting a children’s book.
SB: Jeff doesn’t sleep.
JM: Nope. Too busy over-achieving.
IM: Did you get a lot of positive reinforcement from friends and family when you first started out in comics, or did you get comments like “get a real job,” and the like?
SB: I’m happy to say I’ve always gotten a ton of support from my friends and family. It was the industry itself that dictated I move on to other areas back in the 90s. It wasn’t until Jeff and I started discussing projects that we said, ‘Screw it. We’ve got some great ideas. If no one else wants to publish them, let’s do it ourselves!’
JM: We actually HAVE real jobs. I think everyone knows that this is a labor of love and that we’re carving it out of the margins—what little there are—of our personal lives and careers. I have never gotten anything but respect for what I’m doing and admiration that I’m able to do it while working and attending to my family’s needs.
IM: How hard is it to find the time to dedicate time to the series when you have your day jobs and family life?
SB: Honestly, it can be very difficult. It’s no secret to readers of Dead Man’s Party that we’ve had some major delays, most of which are due to me. Between a full time job as a 3D artist and raising a son, the book has been tough to give time to, especially this past year, but as I adjust to life as a dad, I’m learning how to make time.
JM: Here’s what I’ve learned as a writer, and this is what I tell everyone who comes to me and asks me how I do it: Unless your sole means of income is as a writer and you can spend eight hours a day writing…do NOT live in a fantasy world where you believe you can’t get it done unless you have a daily one, two, or three-hour block of time to write. It’ll never happen. If you’ve got a movie in your head or a song in your heart that HAS to get down on paper, you’ll have to guerrilla-write.
SB: Is that your phrase?
JM: It is. I should trademark it, right? So, what I mean is, write during your breaks at work. If you sit at a desk all day, have your company spreadsheets and whatnot on the screen, but ALSO have a document open that is your novel/comic/screenplay/memoir. Do a little work for the company, take a five-minute “me” break and hammer out a couple sentences or even a paragraph. Five minutes every hour, and at the end of the day you’ve only got 40-45 minutes of writing time in, sure, but maybe you’ve also gotten eight or nine paragraphs written, or you’ve worked out a complete scene of dialogue. That’s not nothing. Do that every day and you’d be surprised what you’ve gotten accomplished in a month.
Aspiring comic book writers: take the issue you’re working on, break it down into scenes. How many do you have in your 22-page issue? Eight? Ten? Okay, do one scene a day. That’s your whole purpose from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, that one scene. The next day, it’s another scene. In two weeks you’ll have a rough draft that you’ve had time to edit and refine. Boom. It’s great to be able to say, “My goal for the day is ten pages or 2,000 words, whichever comes first.” But if you’re working, raising a family, and have other commitments, it’s impractical and daunting. Breaking the larger task down into smaller ones makes it more likely that you’ll find success.
IM: What are some of the compromises you have to make to balance out real life and comic book life and how do your families react? Do they have your back or wish it would go away?
SB: My son is a toddler, so I can’t tell him, ‘Hey, Daddy has to draw now,’ nor would I want to. I don’t want to miss out on watching him grow. And I don’t want to be an absentee husband, either. I married my wife for a reason—I kinda dig her. Of course, the day job is what ensures the lights stay on. So the comic work has to come after that. There’s just no way around it. But I still have as much passion for creating comics—and Dead Man’s Party, specifically—as ever. My wife’s a musician, so she values creativity as much as I do and fully supports it. She’s one of Dead Man’s Party’s biggest fans. My son? Well, we’ll see when he’s old enough to tell me.
JM: “Son, no pressure now, but if you don’t like Daddy’s most favoritest project ever…you’re outta the family.”
SB: It actually might go something like that.
JM: For me, in order to have balance, I just have to make it happen. It’s like working out or spending quality family time, finding time to write just has to happen. And I have to accept that hey, today I could only write for five minutes. Yesterday I got an hour, but today, just five minutes. Well, it’s forward progress, like a round of golf. I have to keep moving the project forward. And there’s no better way to “steal” time from yourself than chiseling away at your sleep. Figure out how little you can operate on for a short period, like a week or two, and go all out. When the project’s done, THEN you can sleep in.
IM: How do your co-workers at the day job react to your comic book work? Do you keep it quiet? Do your employers ever worry you’ll jump ship if the comics take off?
SB: I’m lucky in this regard, as well. Many of my coworkers—and one of my bosses—are fans of the book and are patiently waiting for the next installment. My bosses know how committed I am to their company and I doubt I’d ever leave for the comic work, unless someone in Hollywood writes Jeff and me a big, fat check for Dead Man’s Party: The Movie! Truth is, we’re doing this because we’ve got stories to tell. I doubt I’m ever getting rich off it.
JM: My co-workers have always been fascinated with the fact that I write comics. It’s like they’ve always heard about this comic book world, but have never known anyone who does it. So there’s always this “Wow, that’s so cool!” aspect about it. I don’t keep it quiet and, while I don’t think my employers are ever worried that I’ll jump ship if it gets big—I don’t think they can conceptualize that being a possible reality—I think the only concern they might have is that being so involved might take away my commitment to the company.
SB: My boss has, on more than one occasion, told me if DMP takes off, I’d better pursue it, even if he has to fire me. At first, I was flattered, but now I think he may be trying to tell me something.
IM: You’ve been a mainstay at Connecticut ComiCONN and managed to grab a sweet spot near the Marvel Exhibits at NYCC the past few years. How do fans react when they see your work for the first time, as opposed to mainstream superheroes?
SB: Comic fans have known for a while that the industry is more than just superheroes. Some people are looking for something new, regardless of the genre. When people stop by our booth, they generally react one of two ways: they either look at us like we’re crazy when we tell them our hitman is forced to put a contract out on himself, or they exclaim, ‘Dude, that would make a SICK action movie!’
JM: I think the spectacle of the superheroes and cosplay brings people in to the cons, but then once they walk the aisles and peruse what’s out there, they’re looking for something different and unique, not just another “Guy/girl puts on a cape and fights bad guys in bold colors” story. I think, with TV shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad giving us morally questionable protagonists, or shows like Lost turning the traditional storytelling paradigm on its head, fans at cons are sort of pre-loaded to seek out the same in their comic books.
IM: How are the fans different between the two conventions? Does one cater more to comic fans than the other?
SB: New York Comicon is a show about all media, not just comics, and it’s so large, it’s like the Super Bowl for us. Scoring a spot near the Marvel Comics booth doesn’t hurt, either! It’s a great place for a ton of people to see us in a single weekend and a great place to make contacts.
Connecticut ComiCONN, on the other hand, is a little more intimate. It’s a smaller show, but getting bigger every year. The promoters do a great job, making a growing show still all about the medium of comic books. And I noticed it feeling more family-oriented than ever last year.
JM: Yeah, I’d say that ComiCONN is definitely for fans who want to come and meet creators and artists and have a little more interaction without having to deal with the crush of over 100,000 people clotting up the aisles. We definitely chat up fans much longer at ComiCONN.
IM: Does the convention scene pay for itself, or is it part of the cost of building the brand?
SB: The big shows are the most expensive and, pretty much, the cost of building the brand, but it’s necessary to get out there, meet people, and pitch to them face-to-face.
JM: I don’t think we have done a convention yet where we made back the cost of our table in sales. But, like Scott said, that’s the price of building the brand. We’ve met publishers, distributors, journalists, TV reporters, studio scouts… none of that would be possible if we were merely selling to a store. And they’re a lot of fun, the conventions, so while it would be nice to one day be profitable at a convention, we’ll continue to do it because we love it.
IM: What else do you do to promote the series?
SB: Run a website, offer our books from many different outlets in print and digital formats, do as much social media as we can, run e-mail campaigns through our mailing list, have related websites review the issues for us, do interviews on websites and radio, visit new comic shops, and I think we see Kickstarter in our future, too. Not just as an avenue for funding, but as another place to market our product.
JM: ABM. Always Be Marketing. It’s all about getting in and staying in the public eye. At cons, I’ll grab everyone walking by who has a camera or a microphone and see if they’ll do an interview or talk with us. I don’t care if they’ve got a podcast that only three people listen to; that’s three people who didn’t know about us before.
IM: Tell our readers where they can find your work.
SB: The easiest way is to visit us at www.DeadMansParty.org. From there, you can order either print versions or digital versions and the links will take you directly to the outlets that carry us, like Comixology and the Amazon Kindle store. There’s also a page that shows which retailers carry us, so you can go to a local shop and service a small business. And there’s always Connecticut ComiCONN and New York Comicon, too!
If your local comic shop doesn’t carry us, tell them about us and have them visit the site. Until we get carried by Diamond Distributors, the grassroots approach is how we reach them!
JM: If you’re looking for an adventure story with a strong female lead character, check out my Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, about a unique special ops team led by a centuries-old female zombie and her teammates, who are human hosts of ancient Chinese warrior spirits. Together they take on all manner of monster and demon that are trying to wipe out humanity. You can find out more information on www.ZGirl.org. And this May will come Indestructible: Stingray #1 from IDW/Darby Pop Publishing, and that can be ordered right now at your local comic shop.
Mike Wolfer started his comic book career after attending the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. In 1987, he self-published a series about a giant monster named Daikazu under his own Ground Zero Comics banner. He survived the Indy Comics bust of the 1990s and continues to create comics to this day. Mike’s been at it for almost 30 years, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. Mike recently enjoyed tremendous success with launching new projects through Kickstarter.com and is returning to his self-publishing roots after many years of writing and drawing for Avatar Press. Mike was kind enough to take some time from his schedule to answer a few questions. And… here… we… go!
IM: You attended the Kubert School back in the 80s. Tell us a little bit about that time and the people you knew.J
MW: That was an awesome experience. Not only did I receive instruction from some of my artistic heroes, but it was the first time that I mingled with fellow artists who had such similar interests. Keep in mind that collecting and reading comics at that time was still kept secret by a lot of us. It wasn’t as widely accepted as it is today. We (or, at least, I) kept it to ourselves for fear of being teased, so to be thrust into that environment with a bunch of other kids who loved comics, and who were artistically inclined like me, it was incredibly liberating and empowering. It was like a super-secret club for which you didn’t just attend meetings; you lived it 24/7. That environment helped me to break out of my shell of introversion and was a great learning experience for me, both as an artist and an individual. As for the people I knew, the entire class size was probably only around 45 students, and within that group, we had our own smaller rings of friends. After attending the Kubert School, many (probably most) of the people in my class never entered the comic field, or even the art field, but a few of my friends did, like Bart Sears, Lee Weeks, Graham Nolan, Mark McNabb, Mark Pennington, and some character named Steven Pennella. (Interviewer’s note: Mike was one of my roommates during year one.)
IM: You left after the second year instead of attending the full three years. What was the motivation behind that? Was it financial or something else?
MW: Well, it was basically a financial decision. I had to weigh whether or not I wanted to incur another year’s worth of student loans, and if it would be worth it to attended the school for a third year. What I had heard from upperclassmen and instructors was that the third year at the school was considered “Portfolio Year,” where there was much less instruction and students created works for inclusion in their portfolios. Maybe I was wrong, but I thought, “Why pay to do that, when I can move back to Delaware, get a job, make money, work on my portfolio, and not get further into debt while I do it?”
IM: Which teacher at The Kubert School helped you the most and which one could you have done without?
MW: I felt that some of the classes were outside the focus of the direction I wanted to go with my art, but I still learned little tidbits from every instructor, regardless of their field of endeavor. I’ve been asked, “What is the most important piece of knowledge you took away from the Kubert School?” I think it can be boiled down to these four things: (1) Joe Kubert taught me not to be afraid to exaggerate poses. (2) Milt Neil taught me that the best way to begin with the layout of a body pose is to think of the torso as a bean bag; get that gesture down first, then add appendages. (3) Jose Delbo made me keenly aware that your horses must never look like “Lassie”. (4) The best piece of advice, which I use almost every day, comes from Tex Blaisdell: “When in doubt, black it out.”
IM: You’ve been an indy comic book artist and writer since the late 80s. To what do you attribute your longevity in the field?
MW: That’s a tough one. It might be due to my continued growth and evolution as a writer and artist, or my prolific output of work. I always have more than one project in the works at any given time, so the sheer volume of stuff that comes out with my name on it probably helps. My passion for creating, and the devotion I put into trying to create complex, continuing stories probably plays a part, along with how I communicate with followers of my work and show them my gratitude whenever possible. But that’s if the word “longevity” translates to, “people continuing to buy my work.” If the question is, “How do I keep coming up with new ideas?” then the answer is, “I have no idea.” They just come to me, and I’m always plotting, even when I’m not aware of it. I’m a storyteller at heart and you can never turn that off, so needless to say, I have more ideas than I can possibly put into print.
IM: You started self-publishing under your Ground Zero brand in the late 80s. The first comic you created was about a giant monster named Daikazu. Will we ever see him again? Please????
MW: Ha ha! Daikazu’s return is always possible. Anything is possible when you’re self-publishing. Daikazu was the first thing I published, and such an interesting learning experience. Not only was I working on shaping my rather amateur artistic skills into something a little more polished, but I was learning every aspect of the business, from production (writing, drawing, lettering), to publishing, to printing, to marketing, to distribution. The list goes on and on. I wish that every comics writer and artist could enter the field the way that I did, as a self-publisher, so that they could have a firm grasp on just what it takes to get a book on the racks and all of the steps involved. Quite a few comic pros only know, “I do my thing and get a paycheck, then the book is in stores.” I feel richer for knowing all of the aspects of taking that “thing” and getting it to press and into stores and I have a great appreciation of the process and respect for budgets, which other creators might not have.
IM: You started Widow a few years later, and she’s made the rounds in Boundless Comics. She was published under Everette Hartsoe’s London Night Comics brand. What was it like working with him?
MW: I self-published Widow for two miniseries, then London Night made an offer to publish the third series. Sales were awesome, with Widow: Metal Gypsies #1 making it into Diamond Comic Distributors’ Top 100 for the month of its release. They published two of the three issues of that miniseries, as well as four issues of the black and white reprint Fangs of the Widow, before unceremoniously and unexpectedly pulling the plug. To this day, I still don’t understand why. I was called on the phone and told, and I quote, “Hey, Wolfer. Cancel Christmas. We’re gonna have to cut you loose.” So I finished Metal Gypsies at Ground Zero Comics, published the follow-up Widow: Bound by Blood mini, and continued Fangs of the Widow up to issue #14.
IM: At one point, Ground Zero started publishing titles from other artists, like Dan Parsons’ Harpy. What was it like being a big time indy publisher and why did you stop?
MW: You asked, so here it is, straight up. I was facing the prospect of bankruptcy in the mid/late 90s, but not because of low sales. I was in incredible financial debt because I was screwed by a slew of creators whose books I was soliciting as new Ground Zero titles. I was paying people out of my own pocket for drawing pages. They’d do a few, get paid, and then disappear without ever getting close to finishing their books. I was printing posters and promo cards, soliciting comics and paying for full page ads in Diamond Comic Distributors’ PREVIEWS catalog. I was spending all kinds of time doing promotional work and building and running ads in my own books, and every last one of those series came to a dead stop without the creators delivering what they had promised, so I had no completed books to print and sell to recover my advance expenditures. The only person who I worked with who was a pro from start to finish was Dan Parsons, and to this day, I admire him for his professionalism and moral compass. Because of all the money I was putting out on those projects with nothing coming in from them, I subsequently couldn’t pay my own Widow printing bills. To top it off, this all happened during the comic market “crash,” when speculators left in droves, sales plummeted, and publishers, comic shops, and distributors around the world were driven out of business. It was a mess. I was around $24,000 in debt, but spent the next ten years paying it all off, because I was not about to declare bankruptcy.
IM: After Ground Zero, you were approached by Avatar Press and started writing and illustrating for them. What were some of the advantages they offered versus being your own publisher?
MW: While I was going through all of my financial hardships, they made the offer to take on Widow and, as you can imagine, the benefit was that it allowed me to recover from the horrible beating I took as a self-publisher. I was able to focus on creating, rather than running a company, to catch my breath and use my page rate from my Avatar work to pay off those debts I incurred as a publisher.
IM: You’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best writers in the biz, like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis. How has that helped you with your own writing?
MW: I’m sure that there’s some osmosis that goes on, whether it’s from illustrating stories from their scripts, or succeeding them as writer on books they began. Every writer has his or her own style and, naturally, I have my own, but when I take over writing on a book like Warren Ellis’ Gravel or Garth Ennis’ Stitched, I look at what they did, get a feel for the ambiance, and do more of “that.” It might not necessarily be what I would do on a series I’m creating from scratch, but it’s not my job to take over and switch things up. I want to keep readers comfortable, and to try to seamlessly mesh with the feel that’s been established by the previous writers. There’s much talk about a writer’s “voice” being evident in their work. That’s what I try to replicate, but I try to do it unconsciously. No one wants to read a book that’s trying too hard to sound like someone else wrote it.
IM: You’ve written and illustrated licensed properties while at Avatar, such as Jason from Friday the 13th, and created stories based on Night of the Living Dead. How is that different from creating stories with a Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis? What are some of the politics involved with a studio character?
MW: Each series or character that’s licensed has its own unique requirements that must be fulfilled, but really, they’re all basically the same when it comes down to the approval process. The final word lies with the license holder, which is how it should be. Truthfully, sometimes requested changes make for a better product, and sometimes they seem arbitrary and pointless. Working with Warren and Garth are both examples of “making a better product.” Working with George (Romero) and John (Russo) on Night and on Escape of the Living Dead was wonderful. Working on Friday the 13TH for New Line Cinema was different. They had an approval panel that would go over every script, page, and cover, and sometimes I couldn’t understand why changes were being requested. I did a cover where Jason has split a guy’s head down the middle with his machete. I was requested to make an art correction to remove the gold chain from around the victim’s neck. Why? Not a clue and does anyone care? I did a cover with a couple making out in a hot tub, with Jason hovering menacingly in the shadows behind them, with basically only his mask barely visible. I was asked to add a machete. I was going for moody, and relaying the idea that Jason doesn’t need to be flashing a machete in every picture, that he can kill you with his bare hands. Okay, fine. Whatever. I’ll add the machete. Another cover had Jason looking badass in the woods, and the suggestion was to add a suburban house in the background, because “when we see houses, we think security, and we should feel that there’s no security from Jason.” Right. In the middle of friggin’ woods surrounding Camp Crystal Lake, there’s going to be a suburban house. Luckily, we got past that one without making the change. I think I flat-out refused to do it, if I remember correctly.
IM: It’s my understanding that some of the artists you work with at Avatar are from other countries. What are some of the challenges with working with people from different cultures?
MW: Right, I’ve worked with creators from all over the world and, as long as there’s a good translator for the script, it doesn’t matter where we all live. When I’m writing panel descriptions in scripts for foreign artists, I have to be careful not to use anything in the way of American/English slang and use as few contractions as possible. Those tend to be confusing for translators. But yeah, if I were to say, “The hero is totally kicking the zombie’s ass,” or “the hero is beating the hell out of the zombie,” the images we get from the artist might be quite literal, or they’ll be utterly confused. It’s specifically what the script asked for, but not the intent of the writer. So for those examples, the proper description would be, “The hero is fighting with the zombie and profusely punching it. The zombie is being injured and is losing the fight against the hero.”
IM: What gave you the bug to return to self-publishing?
MW: It was mainly a financial decision. At one point, I was writing Gravel, War Goddess, Lady Death, and Night of the Living Dead, and drawing Gravel, all for Avatar Press. But low sales and other factors forced the cancellation of many of those books and there were no new projects to fill that void in my income. I had to do something to pay the bills. I had quite a few series proposals that Avatar wasn’t interested in, so I pitched those to several mid-size publishers, but nothing ever transpired. I’d also been yearning to try self-publishing again, because I did enjoy controlling the output of my creative work, setting my own schedule, etc., so I figured, “Why not do those dream projects for myself, rather than shop them around to other publishers?” And Mike Wolfer Entertainment was born.
IM: You returned to your self-publishing roots with Ragdoll and Countess Bathory. You’ve had a few successful Kickstarter campaigns. What have you learned about crowdfunding after the first campaign that made it easier to succeed in other campaigns?
MW: I haven’t the slightest clue. I really don’t. All I can say is that I’m so grateful that I have a solid core of fans who are aware of and who are tapped in to Kickstarter, who are very loyal and who are helping to make these dream projects come to life. For me, the Kickstarter for The Curse of Ragdoll was an absolute experiment, just to see what would happen. I set my goal low, crossed my fingers, and promoted the hell out of it all over social media, to the best of my ability. And it paid off, with the final total exceeding my goal by 136 percent.
IM: When it comes to Kickstarter, what was the biggest mistake? Biggest surprise?
MW: The biggest mistake was underestimating domestic and international shipping costs, and not taking into account that those rates can change at any time. The biggest surprise was how giving my fans are, and how willing they are to drop half a week’s pay on unique, collectible items to add their collections. I thought that some of the higher ticket tiers might be unreasonable, but I think that many supporters know that their money isn’t going just to “pay for stuff,” it’s going toward directly supporting ME, so that I can create more stuff for THEM. And that is what it’s all about.
IM: You recently announced your intention to distribute Ragdoll as a monthly title vs. Kickstarter campaigns for graphic novels. What’s the motivation behind this?
MW: Initially, I was going to publish a string of graphic novels, maybe twice a year, and fund each one through Kickstarter. But the critical and fan response to The Curse of Ragdoll was extremely positive, and it won a few awards, even tying for first place as Best Original Graphic Novel of 2014 in comicattack.net’s yearly Readers Poll. I also looked at the numbers. The Curse of Ragdoll was not distributed to stores, and is only in the hands of just under two hundred people, those who backed the Kickstarter. There are a lot more than two hundred people out there who follow my work, but if they’re not connected to me via Facebook or Twitter, they have no idea the book even exists. Also, I didn’t want current Ragdoll readers to have to wait six months between each new installment of the story, so I decided to form Mike Wolfer Entertainment, put out the Ragdoll story in regular, monthly installments, and distribute it through Diamond Comic Distributors. In that way, I’m reaching more readers who would enjoy my work, and I’m giving my current Ragdoll fans regular monthly doses of scary, sexy goodness. The story itself has also grown, as has the cast of characters, so I’ve changed the title to Daughters of the Dark Oracle, to better reflect the wide range of characters we’ll see. Ragdoll herself will be a recurring player throughout, but she’s not necessarily the focus of each series. I’ll be doing a string of miniseries, by the way, so that it will be easier for readers to collect. The first will reprint the first, four-issue Ragdoll adventure, titled Daughters of the Dark Oracle: The Curse of Ragdoll, followed by Daughters of the Dark Oracle: Orgy of the Vampires, which will be five issues, and include the Countess Bathory one-shot I funded on Kickstarter. I’ll be running Kickstarters for each “Daughters” miniseries, too, to make sure that I can cover all of the upfront production, printing, and creative expenses for each.
IM: Your books will be distributed to comic shops via Diamond. Is your relationship any different with them now, compared to the Ground Zero days of the 80s and 90s?
MW: Surprisingly, the relationship, the contracts, and the publisher requirements are virtually identical to what I knew back in the 90s.
IM: Where do you see Mike Wolfer Entertainment in five years? Will you publish or distribute works from other creators?
MW: I’ve been down that road before and I’m not going there again, unless it’s with someone who I know well and trust. And if I entertain the notion of publishing the works of others, I’m going to have a much different contract with creators, to ensure that what happened to me in the 90s never happens again.
IM: Would you ever consider letting other artists work on your characters? I know someone that would love a crack at Daikazu.
MW: Ha! I’m not opposed to the idea, but it’s not on my agenda at the moment. Pow Rodrix and Andres Ponce did a great job portraying Emma/Widow when she was a supporting character in War Goddess, but we’ll see what the future holds. Right now, Daughters of the Dark Oracle is priority, and if that’s successful and I branch out into other titles, I’m going to need some help!
IM: Would you be interested in licensing the rights to a horror movie character or franchise, such as Jason or Freddy, and publishing work under your own banner?
MW: Nope, not at all interested. I’m an all-around creator (conceptualizer/writer/artist/publisher), so there’s no need to use someone else’s creations in my self-published works. Mike Wolfer Entertainment is all me.
IM: You also announced more Kickstarter campaigns. What are your plans and what will you offer?
MW: From March 9 to April 8 was the Kickstarter to fund Widow Archives, which is a four-volume set of trade paperbacks, reprinting all of the Ground Zero Comics’ series. Then on April 20, I launched the Daughters of the Dark Oracle Kickstarter, to fund the first miniseries that hits stores beginning in July of this year. Sometime in early May, I’ll also be doing a peripheral crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for Maximum Rissk, a one-shot comic that features the adults-only origin of the Widow villainess. My rewards tiers have a slew of cool collectibles, like trading cards, autographed sets of some of my more popular past works, Oracle (Tarot) Cards, art prints, original art, variant covers, action figures, you name it.
IM: Your Widow character was licensed to a toy company and was an action figure. Could you tell us about how that came about? Any possibilities we’ll see Ragdoll action figures, or other characters from the Wolferverse?
MW: The deal for the Widow action figure was all a part of signing on with Avatar Press. They set up their own merchandise company called Bolt (later Rendition), and Widow was just one of a number of action figures they produced. As for action figures of Ragdoll or my other characters, it will all depend on whether or not there is a demand for them. From what I’ve heard, creating the sculpture, prototype, and die for a figure is ridiculously expensive, so there would have to be a very high demand for something like that.
IM: Here’s a hypothetical situation: You’re talking to a guy with a full-time job, wife, kids and real-life responsibilities who wants to self-publish and get his own graphic novel or comic book out there. What advice would you give them?
MW: That’s pretty simple. Concentrate on the real world first. If you have any spare time, work on your project on the side. Get a couple of issues completed before even considering publishing. Show that work to others in the field and hope for honest critiques. If people in the industry, or real comic book readers, aren’t telling you that it’s killer, keep working on your skills. Only after you’re being told by people who know what real comics look like should you even think about taking on the labor-intensive tasks of marketing, promoting, and self-publishing a comic. Do not quit your day job, even after you’ve published that first issue. You have to be realistic and you need to do your research of the field to know what to expect from sales. It’s a terribly competitive market, and although there are ways to carve out your particular niche and attract your own readership, this often takes many, many years. And no matter how much your close family and friends tell you that your comic book is so amazing, don’t listen to them. They’re just amazed that you can do what you do. But they don’t know what a professionally written and illustrated comic book looks like. Trust me on that.
IM: How did you handle a real job and self-publishing in your younger days?
MW: I continued to work my full-time job for the first eight years of my self-publishing career, so as you can see, I took my own advice that I just gave in your last question. I got very little sleep for those eight years, that’s for sure.
IM: Besides being a writer and artist, you’ve also dabbled in the music and ghost hunting industries. Can you tell us a little about those worlds?
MW: Just for fun, I’ve been in several bands over the years, first as a bass player, and later, as lead singer. It was all rock/metal/disco stuff, if that makes any sense. I’m also (believe it or not) a paranormal investigator with Haunt Squad, a Delaware-based group. I’ve been a member of several other area teams, and have seen and experienced things which are absolutely mind-blowing. I first pursued paranormal investigating as a hobby, just something fun to do on weekends, but after experiencing what I have, it’s become a permanent side-project of mine. Haunt Squad is composed of me, Ragdoll letterer Natalie Jane, and our friend Vinny Gomez. We were all investigators in Diamond State Ghost Investigators, before we decided to branch out and form our own, close-knit team. We’re having a blast doing it, particularly our bi-weekly podcast in which we talk about not only our paranormal experiences, but creepy comics, movies, games, or whatever geek culture stuff we want to discuss. You can find Facebook pages for those at www.facebook.com/hauntsquad and www.facebook.com/hauntsquadpodcast.
Jason Mansfield is the creator and writer of Polar Bear Zombie and owner of Polar Bear Comics. Jason has written comic books and dabbled in comic book art for years and has now decided that it is time to get them out to the public.
IM: Can you tell about your love of Polar Bears and Zombies, which came first?
JM: First off, let me tell you that this is my first official interview with a comic book magazine. So, thank you for taking the time to interview me.
Now let’s start with my love of zombies. I grew up on horror movies from the 80s and zombies were always one of my favorite types of horror characters. I remember seeing Dawn of The Dead for the first time on VHS when I was six. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Now as far as polar bears go… you can thank my wife for that. That is her nickname for me. That is where the name Polar Bear Comics came from. Once I started watching documentaries about them, I realized what magnificent creatures they really are. I decided one day to combine a polar bear and a zombie and the rest is history.
IM: Tell us how your love of comic books got started. What titles did you follow? Who were/are some of your favorite characters, writers, and artists?
JM: I grew up on 80s Marvel comic books. I was really into Byrne’s X-Men stuff, as well as Amazing Spider-Man. I just gravitated toward Marvel at that time. I didn’t really follow writers and artists. I was more interested in the characters. Comics were an escape from some of the things going on in my life at the time.
It was a fun time in my life growing up. There were about six of us in my neighborhood who would always collect and trade comic books. Anytime I had a few dollars, I would go to the nearby 7-11 and buy a few comic books. I actually remember buying an Amazing Spider-Man #300 from a 7-11. I remember trading it for some Doctor Strange and Alpha Flight books. The other guy made out on that trade.
IM: How did you learn to write and draw comics? Did you have any formal training, or was it the school of hard knocks?
JM: I am self-taught in both areas and feel that I am still learning every time I put pen or pencil to a piece of paper.
When I was about 11, I started creating characters and writing background stories for each one. It was like an Official Handbook of The Marvel Universe-type layout. Of course, a lot of my characters seemed similar to already existing characters. I still have the binder with all of them in there. I can always reference them when I need a character to plug into a book.
I went through a period where I gave up drawing and am now just getting back into it. I have been writing off and on for years and just recently started putting full stories together. My wife finally talked me into really putting some more time into writing and that’s when the idea of Polar Bear Comics began to take shape. I have so many ideas floating around that it’s hard to get it all down on paper.
IM: You work with freelancers to complete your creator-owned characters. Are freelancers strictly work-for-hire or would they receive something on the back end if one of your books ended up being optioned for film, television, or other media outlets?
JM: When it comes to working with a freelance artist, myself and the artist come up with the terms of the book, such as pricing and time frame for the book. I usually type up a short contract that we both feel comfortable with. I don’t include back-end deals in the contract. But if a project were to blow up or get , I would definitely take care of them. Although the freelance artists I work with don’t own the rights to the characters I create, they are still a part of the project and have devoted their time to make my vision for a book take shape. It is a great bonding experience when you work with someone to create concepts and characters from scratch. I’ve been pretty lucky with the freelance artists I have worked with. I met Frank, of course, as well as Ken Leinaar, who is working on A Superhero’s Life; I choose to work with freelance artists because I feel that most of them are just your normal everyday people who have a love for creating comics. All of the freelance artists I have worked with have day jobs and do freelance work on the side. That is why I relate to them. I am writing during my free time, in between working a 9 to 5 and raising a family. Most of us do it for the love of comics. If it was for the money, most of us wouldn’t be doing it.
IM: How did you meet Frank Castro, the artist of Polar Bear Zombie?
JM: I actually met Frank through freelanced.com about a year and a half ago. He responded to a posting I had for “The Dead Among Us,” in which I was looking for an artist. Unfortunately, he responded after I had already picked an artist to do the book. I really liked his work, and told him that I had some other ideas and projects I wanted to do in the future, and that I would let him know when I was ready to start those projects. After “The Dead Among Us” fell apart, I contacted him to do “Polar Bear Zombie.” Frank has been my go-to guy ever since. He is currently finishing The Dead Among Us #1. He just contacted me the other day and told me that after this issue, he would be giving up his freelance work for a while to pursue other career opportunities, so future issues are up in the air right now.
IM: What are the qualities you look for in a freelance artist or collaborator?
JM: It all depends what kind of book I am doing. I always have a picture in my head of what I want the feel of the book to be. Picking an artist is the hardest thing, because there are so many talented artists out there and I am trying to work with as many as possible. When I am looking for an artist even if I don’t think will work for the current project I am doing, I start looking ahead at some other projects and keep them in mind when I start. I also want to see how hungry they are. Everyone will tell you how interesting your story is and how they would love to work on it. I always like to see how fast they work as well. I don’t want to wait a year to get a book done. Communication is key. If we are communicating through email and it takes you more than two days to get back to me, it’s probably not going to work out.
IM: What do you do to promote your comics? Are you active on the comic convention scene?
JM: I promote a lot through social media, as does everyone else. I have been trying to make my convention debut and have had to cancel two shows in last six months due to my non-comic book career and not having the time to get done what I needed to. I think conventions are a great way to promote and get to talk with the comic book reading public. Hopefully, I will be making my convention debut shortly. For now, I am relying on social media, as well as independent magazines like Indyfest Magazine to do interviews or book reviews. Promoting a comic book and trying to get it into comic book shops without a proven track record is very hard work.
IM: Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have opened a lot of doors for the independent comic book creator. Polar Bear Zombie was financed by Kickstarter. You’ve run other campaigns that fell short of the funding goal. Can you tell us a little about those projects?
JM: These days, the cost to self-publish books is pretty huge. You either try and save and pay out-of-pocket, or crowdfund your project. Polar Bear Zombie would not have happened so quickly if it wasn’t for our Kickstarter campaign. I paid a lot of money up front to get promo work done for the campaign. I would have eventually finished the project, but it would have taken twice as long. Of course, when you run a campaign, your friends and family usually kick in a majority of the pledges—or at least, that was the case with Polar Bear Zombie. Now for the two other projects that failed… the first project was The Dead Among Us. I think the campaign failed because I went too big with the book and ideas. I was doing variants and original artwork and the amount I needed was pretty huge. I reached a little over half the amount I needed. I am self-funding these two books now. A Superhero’s Life, I am a little more stumped on. I think that maybe people just saw another superhero book without really looking more into it. Also, the amount of people running campaigns has grown as well. Sites like Kickstarter are great for independent creators who wouldn’t be able to make comic books otherwise. As someone that supports crowdfunding campaigns, it can be hard to decide what book you want to back. I am now self-funding my next two projects, thanks to 401 k from my previous employer. I will be self-funding all future projects on my own, as long as I am able to sustain enough money to continue.
IM: Was it the fans’ lack of awareness of the campaigns, getting lost in the crowd?
JM: Both. Some of it was my lack of time to really promote the campaigns the way I should have. Running a crowdfunding campaign is tougher than most people think. It is almost a full time job on its own. The only advice I would give to someone getting ready to start a campaign is to know what you are getting into and make sure you have the time to put into promoting the campaign.
IM: If you could redo one of the unsuccessful Kickstarter campaigns, what would you do differently?
JM: I would try to put more time into it and possibly explain the plot of the comic book project in a little more detail and try to provide more artwork to showcase the project. I would also wait a few months in-between campaigns. I got a little too confident with Polar Bear Zombie reaching its goal and I jumped right into my next campaign. That might have turned some people off. They were probably thinking, “This guy again? We just gave him money.”
IM: On a more positive note, Polar Bear Zombie was a success. Can you tell us about the campaign and what that was involved?
JM: A lot of work went into that one. I can’t really say exactly why this campaign was successful while the other two weren’t. My family and friends were a big part at helping it reach its goal. I think people just wanted to see what a polar bear zombie was all about. I had Frank do some promo pieces, along with a few kick-ass prints that he did. I think people just gravitated toward the whole concept. It was a great experience, especially once the goal was met. And then, the real work began.
IM: What about after the campaign? Were there any issues with delivering the product to your backers?
JM: We were actually able to get everything out a few weeks before our original shipping schedule. Thanks to Frank working so fast to get the book done and the printers getting everything done in a timely matter. It was a lot of work, but we were able to do it. In the end I was pleased with the results and I’m sure the backers were.
IM: What are your future plans for Polar Bear zombie? Is there a sequel in the works? Will this be a continuing series?
JM: Originally, Polar Bear Zombie was just going to be a one-shot. I wanted to do something fun for my first book and not really do something on a larger scale, like a miniseries or ongoing. Once the first issue was done, I started brainstorming ideas and have decided to do a few more issues and see where it goes from there. I have the script for issue #2 done. Which, once my next two projects are done, I will start looking for a new artist to replace Frank with.
IM: Tell our readers where they can find you online and where they can purchase a copy of Polar Bear Zombie.
JM: I have the website www.pbcomics.com, as well as a Facebook page under my name. If anyone would like to purchase a digital copy of the book, you can purchase it for 99 cents at www.drivethrucomics.com. For a printed copy, you can purchase it at www.comicfleamarket.com. Or you can order directly from me. Just send $4 through Paypal to [email protected] and I will send you a signed copy, shipping included. If you really want to help me out, tell your local comic book shop to take a chance on the book.
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!
We Love Monsters A chat with Jim Ordolis and Joe Kilmartin By Steven Pennella
In November of 2011, Jim Ordolis and Joe Kilmartin were talking about how much they missed the classic old monster magazines they loved as kids. Yes, there still were plenty of monster magazines around – and some of them were highly regarded (magazines like RUE MORGUE, FANGORIA, and FREAKY MONSTERS to name only three of a great many) by these Masters of the Monstrous. These professional magazines all had their own niches and fans. They served their own markets very well. Still, however, there was something missing. Jim and Joe missed the hands-on, fan-directed, community that people like Forrest J. Ackerman created for monster buffs and wanted to see something like that again. Jim quickly set up plans to create an original monster fan magazine. In the spring of 2012 they began recruiting contributors.
IM: Give me the We Love Monsters elevator pitch and convince me to buy this magazine. WLM: We Love Monsters is a modern day, full-blown professional, print/digital magazine. As well, we deliver high-quality nostalgia-related merchandise and web content on a theme that many people have a personal investment and love for: Monsters. Our content providers are lifelong experts in this aspect of popular culture, who hold old content to a fresh set of standards, and hold new content to an old-school application of values and standards. The common belief is that “things used to be better”. We agree with this standard, but we show people how new things can be just as good, if they’re looked at a certain way.
IM: Forrest J. Ackerman is obviously an inspiration to you. Can you tell us what you learned from reading his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines and how that helps you to produce We Love Monsters? WLM: The sense of fun that Forrest infused and that feeling of knowing that you are among your people when you’re reading the magazine. Unlike other mainstream magazines that are bound by corporate limitations, we can highlight the high-end and the low-end of a corner of popular culture that is often ignored by a culture that is obsessed with what is new and ignores what already exists and is still fresh in people’s minds. We link that which is familiar to product and content that are new, and do it in an innovative way, allowing it to blossom into its own sub-culture, while still making it accessible to everyone. This is what I learned from Forrest.
IM: Plainly, this publication is for monster lovers. If someone were to data mine your audience, what kind of demographics would we find? What are the commonalities of your readers? WLM: We try to cultivate an audience who is interested in all aspects of the monster subculture and, because of this, we are anti-exclusive in our material, in who reads it and in who we are interested in working with.
IM: You started this in 2011. Your first blog post appeared on June 19, 2014 and the first came out in later that year. The Creator’s Spotlight located at http://www.we-love-monsters.com/creators-spotlight is pretty impressive. Everyone is pretty established in their profession and the magazine is obviously going to benefit from that in both the short and long term. How did you gather everyone together? Where did you meet? WLM: A lot of the creators are people that we know and fellow peers who have a mutual interest in monsters. They come from both the online community and people I know personally.
IM: There are almost as many contributors as pages in the first issue; it must have been a herculean effort to coordinate all of this. Can you tell us a bit about how this all got put together and how long it took? WLM: A lot of the communicating back and forth was done via email and on Facebook. Once all the material was in place, it was not that difficult to put it all together. I have 20 years’ experience in layout and design, so designing a magazine was pretty simple, but time consuming. When you have such great material to work with, it becomes a joy.
IM: The first issue has a variety of stories and art for all audiences. How do you reconcile an article about Cookie Monster appearing in the same issue as a more adult-themed Monster Art Gallery? WLM: We Love Monsters is really not geared toward a young audience in the first place, so I did not have a problem. We wanted to explore people’s experiences with monsters in pop culture and examine why they love monsters. The article in question is called “Monsters in Fur” and it talks about growing up exposed to kids’ monsters from a young age. The artist was given free rein to pick any example to illustrate they wanted and they chose Sesame Street characters.
IM: Are you worried it might rub some kid’s parents the wrong way? WLM: No, not at all. We have not gotten any negative feedback on that whatsoever.
IM: What are some of the plans for the future of We Love Monsters? What can we expect to see in future issues? WLM: We are planning on featuring some more comics in the second issue—quite bit more, in fact. In the future, we would like to feature more variety in every issue with an even selection of articles, fiction, art, etc.
IM: Many of our readers are talented artists and writers in their own right. What do you look for in an artist or writer? WLM: We look mostly for interesting and/or unique styles that are not necessarily mainstream, but we’re open to all possibilities. Most importantly, a love for monster art in general is keen.
IM: Do you want narrative samples or finished comic-book stories? WLM: We are all full now for comics in the second issue, but normally, we prefer finished comic-book stories, as we don’t have the resources to put teams together and project manage.
IM: Do you have writers with completed scripts in need of artists, letterers, colorists, etc.? WLM: Actually I do have someone who is in need of an artist right now. If someone wants to submit, I can pass on their samples to the writer. Again, we’re not able to supervise the process; that is up to the creators. We are always in need of letterers and colorists for various things. If anyone is interested, they can send me their samples at [email protected]
IM: What can you offer to artists and writers who submit material to you? Is there a possibility of accepting submissions for the website as well? WLM: Yes, absolutely, we are always looking for good submissions to our website. Again, if anyone is interested, please contact me directly and we can discuss any terms at [email protected]
IM: Are there plans to interview people involved in making monster movies for film and television? WLM: We would love to do that and we are very open to it, but there is no plan to do so in the immediate future.
IM: How will you get the word out for We Love Monsters? Could you describe the challenges involved in getting a self-published, independent magazine noticed? WLM: Distribution is the biggest challenge in getting your magazine noticed. We rely a lot on word of mouth, our website, and social media to get people to notice us.
IM: Can you list all of the places we can find you on social media? WLM: Sure! Best place is our website. You can order the magazine there and check out our Blog which is updated twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with new articles, reviews, and comics. Really good value from some very talented writers.
IM: We thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us, and wish you all the success you deserve.
SPECIAL OFFER! Readers of Indyfest can order We Love Monsters directly from us the publisher for $9.99 (plus shipping). Just send an inquiry to [email protected]. Mention this article and you will receive an additional 20 percent off the cover price.
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