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