Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Zombie Clowns and Stranger Things

This week the subject of our Web-comic interview is Allan Turner, half of the clown duo Miller and Mullet, with Ed Miller and half of the web-comic creative team with Kameron Gates. He tells us tales of intense clown training, creative collaboration, and zombie clowns. View the strip at: http://www.millerandmullet.com/comic

The Miller and Mullet web comic is based on two traditional clown characters created by you and Ed Miller. How did you guys meet and how were the characters born?

We met in Clown College. Okay maybe not college but there’s this course called Baby Clown. Very intense. 3 hours per night, 3 nights per week for 3 months. Or the alternative is something like all day everyday for two weeks up in the backwoods. It’s an introduction to a style of clown that was developed by the late Richard Pochinko. He drew on several different clown traditions and mixed it up. There are few people who continue to teach the Pochinko method and there’s a big clown community here in Canada. Anyway, that’s where we met.

During the course, Ed and I rarely worked together—we weren’t trying to avoid each other or anything like that, we just didn’t find ourselves in the same part of the room all that often. Baby Clown’s pretty effed up and we were battling our own demons. But after finishing the course, we began writing together. Mostly comedy sketches. At the same time we were starting to independently develop our own characters. Ed had this idea for an immoral lecher full of machismo, a real and not necessarily lovable loser. I should mention here that the real Ed Miller isn’t anything like that. Meanwhile I was on a mission to create the dumbest character I could. It’s something I’d started experimenting with back in my Theatresports days. I really wanted to breathe life into this guy who was barely alive. I don’t remember why I had the idea to create a zombie clown, but I’m guessing that’s it—after all, what’s dumber than a zombie? The original Mullet wasn’t much different than the zombies in Romero’s first Dead trilogy and Day of the Dead’s Bub was a huge influence. Ed and I debuted our new characters independently at a now long defunct clown show. It was after that show we had the idea to put them together. Despite their differences—a hobo and a zombie—they were a perfect Joey and Auguste pairing… er, that’s clown jargon—means basically conniving leader and innocent follower.

The first thing we did was get a busker’s license. We took to the streets every Tuesday night at 8:13 for a couple hours or so. We figured that was the cheapest way to get regular audiences and honest feedback. Man, were we right. If people aren’t interested in what you’re doing, they don’t stop, they don’t even look at you. So we developed the characters over the course of a summer. Mullet learned to talk. Then we wrote and shot a no-budget feature-length movie. That’s the next logical step, right?
Click to enlarge image.

You've made a bit of a grapefruit business out of appearances as the duo, including a few on television, how's that going?

Very well! Though there was a big shake up last year. After 10 years of Miller & Mullet™, Miller made the choice to hang up the bowler and retire from performing. He’s chosen to focus on his writing. It was an amicable split, we’re still pals, and he graciously gave me the character to do what I want with in comic book form. So Ed Miller lives on in 2D!

What that means is Mullet’s gone solo. I’m in the process of re-branding—new logo, new website: www.meMullet.com. Mullet’s been doing a ton of live gigs, including one a couple weeks back at Second City, which was loads of fun. There was an appearance on Ed the Sock’s most recent show, This Movie Sucks, and a cameo in a music video for the Victoria-based band Hank & Lily. Coming up, Mullet will be hosting Lunacy Cabaret on April 2 and on April 16 he’s producing his own variety show with lots of guests. The details are all on www.meMullet.com (1 paragraph, 2 plugs—I’m shameless). There’s also a Naked News appearance in the works and I’m editing a new short for YouTube. So lots of live, some TV, and some other stuff I can’t talk about yet.

I didn't know Miller was no longer in the picture, but I'm glad it was a friendly split. (You never want to see your friends go all Martin and Lewis on each other.) However, it seems to me that Miller was a perfect foil for Mullet. From a creative standpoint, has it been difficult to adapt to solo work?

Miller was a perfect foil for sure. It was always pretty much guaranteed the audience would side with the sweet-natured zombie and rally against the callous hobo. Not having a Miller to play off has meant Mullet has had to become more confident. Granted, that wasn’t too difficult or even much of a change—Mullet’s always been a bit of Prima Donna. Even when we were still a duo, Mullet did a number of solo gigs and often wandered off on his own at comic cons. What is new is the type of material he’s doing now—standup and musical numbers. That never happened before. So far it’s going great.

Who works on the Miller and Mullet strip?

Right now there are two of us. I’m the writer and Kameron Gates is the artist. I’ve known Kam pretty much his whole life. Both our families had cottages up north and we grew up together. Now he’s a full time animator. He’s worked on Star Wars, King Kong, Hellboy, Sky Captain… a lot of movies, commercials, and video games. He’s based in Portland so we do all our comic work via phone calls, email, and the magical internet.

Here’s our usual process:
·     I write a script.
·     Kam sends notes.
·     I revise.
·     Kam draws up a rough layout.
·     I send notes.
·     Kam revises.
·     Kam draws final art.
·     I letter, prep for web, post the final strip, and blitz Facebook and Twitter.

Sometimes there’s more back and forth, sometimes less. Often we talk plot, especially lately now that we’re getting away from gags and into bigger story stuff. Oops, spoiler alert. Anyway that’s how it’s worked so far but we are about to bring someone new into the mix to take over the flatting and shading.

While preparing for this interview, I re-read the whole run of the strips, and I definitely noticed you guys were developing something more narrative based in the most recent entries. There is even a bit of a change in tone to more emotional content, and a more sophisticated style. Was this just a reaction to working on the strip for a long time and getting sick of the gag format, or was there always a plan to broaden it's scope at some point?

That was planned right from the start. I like establishing a pattern then breaking it! And I knew I wanted gag, gag, gag, surprise now you’re scared, now you’re crying. We’ll be going back to gaggy strips over the next couple months, then things are going to get epic. I like comedy and I like horror, but what I really love is good storytelling. So sometimes this strip will be funny, sometimes scary, sometimes sad. The most important part of my job is to make sure it’s going somewhere, taking the right route, and always engaging.

You guys seem very committed to your web comic. How long have you been working on it, and how often do you update (or try to update) the strip?

We’re very committed. Kam and I both think of this as a professional venture. We did some test strips in 2009, then started the regular run in March 2010. It updates every Wednesday.

For those who aren't familiar with the strip, give us the basic rundown on what it's all about.

Miller & Mullet™ are two clowns—one an immoral hobo, one an innocent zombie. They’re desperate to make it big in showbiz but they’re each other’s worst enemy and not very talented to boot. There’s also some weirdness going on and Mullet has an evil temper.

The past year has been about introducing characters and throwing out the threads of a larger story. This next year will be tying all those loose ends up into one helluva monkey’s fist.

Are you guys comics fans too, or was the cartoon more a promotional device for the live gigs?

Comic fans for sure! Kam and I both want to do other projects as well. But I have to say, it’s been great for promotion. Appearing as Miller & Mullet™ at comic cons really helped draw attention to the comic. And having a comic really helped push the live act. That’s how we met Ed the Sock and ended up being regular guests on his show.

You've published a few floppy comics as well, are they different from the web comic, or are you just repackaging the material?

We self-published one 22-pager: Miller & Mullet™ in Space. That was back in 2006. We have another one, a follow up, in the can, but I’m holding off on printing. It’s part of a pitch for a 4 issue mini-series and it’s totally separate from the webcomic. It’s still Miller & Mullet™ and they’re still losers trying to break into show business, but it’s in SPACE. See, totally different.
Miller and Mullet in Space

Have you managed to monetize the site at all, and if so, how successfully?

Short answer is no. But I haven’t really tried so far. Now that there’s a year’s worth of strips up, it’s something to start thinking about. My plan is to first finish the re-branding I talked about before, so it’ll become “Mullet presents the Miller & Mullet™ Webcomic” then I’ll do a PR blitz in earnest and buy some ads.

How long do you plan to continue with the strip?

Kam and I are in the middle of telling a big story—Miller & Mullet’s secret origins. This is something the real Ed Miller and I started developing 10 years ago to help us get into character. Since then, I’ve expanded on it a lot and I’m really excited to finally be able to tell it. For one reason, I think it’s a great story, though I recognize that sounds like me tooting my own horn. It’s also something I get asked about a lot—who is Mullet? What’s wrong with Mullet? Well this’ll answer that. And the webcomic is the perfect medium for it.

This particular story is finite with a beginning, middle, and end. But after it ends, it keeps going. I could keep doing this indefinitely. Cue the Limahl.

Do you think the future of the comics medium lies on the web?

I’m probably not the right guy to answer that. I mean, I still buy CDs. Hell, I still buy records! But webcomics are great. I follow several. Will I stop buying printed books? I doubt it, I sure love my Hellboy hardcovers!

Give us the top three web comics you like, and where we can find them.

Just three? Okay, but Kam’s going to pick three too.

           Allan’s picks:
·     Dinosaur Comics

Kam’s picks:
·     Axe Cop
·     Hark, a vagrant

We have links to plenty more great comics on our site. Plus, you know, our comic’s there too. Did I mention it updates EVERY Wednesday? Come say hello.

Thanks, Allan, best of luck with the strip and the clown career. 

That's it for interviews for a while. Next week, I reminisce about a long lost creative friend.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Salgood Vibrations

Our interview victim this week is Salgood Sam, aka Max Douglas. Max is an extremely talented artist and writer, and a local torch carrier for indie comics, and Canadian comics in general, as the publisher of Sequential. While working as a freelance illustrator, he is also producing a unique web comic entitled Dream Life. Sam opens up about his career, his goals and motivations, and the state of comics, both traditional and web-based.

Dream Life

Sam Agro: You made a brief foray into mainstream comics earlier in your career. Can you give us a short run down on which companies you worked for, and the properties you worked on?

Salgood Sam: Oh do I have to? Okay, seems like I've told this story so many times. Yeah, my first paying published gig was with Marvel. I was doing some paid test pages for Karen Burger at the time, that was a missed opportunity. Got a call from an Editor, Marc McLaurin, about filling in on a issue of Night Breed that had been abandoned by the regular artist half done. Did that in record time [for me] which made a good impression and got me a second full issue, #23. And then I was brought in to do the penciling and inking on Saint Sinner, a new book created for Marvel by Clive Barker. It was part of the short lived Razor line. Over the next three years I worked mostly at Marvel - Did a showcase story at DC for Neal Pozner - but mostly I banged around in Marvel’s Sci Fi and Horror titles. Had work on Doctor Strange, Morbius the living vampire, and some of the 2099 tittles - Ravage, Spider Man, Ghostrider.
An early mainstream image.

SA: What led you to leave mainstream stuff for more independent work?

SS: It was a few things. It’s probably fair to say it was a little too soon for me. I found the work load on monthlies crushing, and I was still finding my own pace and voice so I didn’t come to the table with a clear idea what I wanted.

Marvel in particular, is a real boys club. If you don’t know what you want you’ll get pushed into what they want out of you. Now if I were to work for them, I'd at least know what I wanted and how to ask for it. And I’d know when to walk away. Stayed too long the first time.

That first time I was constantly being rubbed wrong by the stories, the editorial style, and the general culture there. Found a lot of the stuff I was asked to do kind of disgustingly low brow. Horror and Sci Fi need not be pandering junk, and at times it’s was down right offensive, when it was not just being stupid. One of my last gigs I ended up rejecting before washing my hands of them for four or five years was a Morbius script where I found the subtext kind of racist, and just overtly dumb [Looked it up, this was Morbius The Living Vampire #31]. I could not bring myself to draw a Vampire Doctor claiming he could render someone safely unconscious by poking them in the corner of the eye, thus stopping the heart. So many things wrong with that, and this was the funny stuff. I had just choked back my own bile too long.

Really it took me a year of thinking on it before I even got back to drawing comics a lot, and started doing my own stuff again. When I left the mainstream the first time, going indie was not even on the radar. I was just burnt out for a bit. I spend a good chunk of the late 90s in animation doing mindless design work to pay the bills instead.
The book that broke
the camel's back.

SA: Your most successful independent book was probably "Therefore Repent" with Jim Munroe. How did you and Jim get together, and how did the book come about?

SS: Almost didn’t, I turned him down at first. Jim and I have known each other via the zine world a long time, I was a big fan of his early work, and had bugged him for some time about doing something together. When I did get back into doing comics one of the first things I worked out is that I needed to work with writers who’s work I liked. “Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask”  is one of my all time favorites, and the first novella of Jim’s I read made a big impression.

Eventually he came to me about doing a short prologue story to use in a grant pitch, but the timing was wrong for me, I had to pass. He had Michel Lacombe draw it. Later he got the grant, but Michel backed out so he asked me again. I was writing Dream Life, not ready to draw it yet, and the deal was pretty good - he paid me an upfront rate on it. So off we went. Was pretty fast going by design, I had a clear window of opportunity of about eight months, took me eleven in the end. I’m really happy I did it, one of the best things I've had my name on. Only down side was not living in the same city as Jim. Think he would have liked to have been more involved as I was going along. But for my part it was nice to have as much control over it as I did.
Therefore Repent

SA: I know the reviews for the "Therefore Repent" were mostly very positive. How were the sales?

SS: Good. We got dinged at a key stage just as things might have taken off maybe, by the recession - book stores suddenly started returning floating stock - had a lot of people tell me they could not find it in shops for a little while there. But initial orders were great, we got enough sales in Canada to register on Byran’s BookManager driven best sellers list for a couple of weeks. A few nice little checks have come in for the IDW edition and I get a check every year now for library lendings that suggests it’s popular there too. Last numbers I saw it’s picking up a little again now with the economy recovering. I’m pretty happy with it and Jim told me it’s been one of his best selling books to date. Not making us rich but hopefully it will prove to be the kind of long term, steady earner you want in your back catalogue.

SA: Tell us about Transmission X. Were you one of the founders, or did they approach you to do a strip?

SS: Oh not a founder. I’ve known the guys since about 2004? Something like that. Before that I had run into some of them in passing before, here and there. But I didn’t join the site ‘till this past year. I had talked to them about it a few times over a couple years running up to it, was looking at them or act-i-vate as homes for Dream Life. Both were open to it. Wanted to have the advantage of a collective site in terms of not being solely responsible for drawing traffic/readers. Went with the home team in the end. :)

SA: For the record, who are the guys that created Transmission X?

SS: Um, well I don't know the intimate details of the founding, who first started it, or whatever. It was seeded out of the Royal Academy of Illustration & Design studio in Toronto. I recall the first line up was Ramón Pérez, Cameron Stewart, Karl Kerschl, Michael Cho, Scott Hepburn, Brian McLachlan, and Andy Belanger. I think that was it. The guys made a great series of clips to promote it when they launched, they talk about their motivations there.

(The video series is pretty interesting, worth cheching out, along with the comics site itself at: http://www.txcomics.com/ )

SA: How long have you been working on "Dream Life", and how often do you update the strip?

SS: The story started years ago as a collaboration with a good friend, right around the time I was working at Marvel. I was never someone who thought I'd just work in the mainstream business. That was a way to pay the bills and I knew the stuff I most wanted to do was seldom the kind of work the big two publish. I had a whole lot of uncompleted, partly developed ideas kicking around even before I started at Marvel.

Dream Life was called Nuts at the time. (I give part of it’s origin story on the site in the about section so I won’t repeat myself here.) There was an initial spasm of writing with my buddy Jonathan at the time, then it got shelved for years. Much later around the late 90s I pulled it out again, and started working on it a little here and there. It was on and off like that till about 2002, when I took what I had, shuffled it around and merged a whole bunch of characters cutting the cast in half, and started in on the version that is being done now. I’ve been a late comer to writing and for a long time there was pretty tentative about it. I’m mildly dyslexic and that got in the way of my being confident about it.

It would be pretty hard to nail down any kind of specific time frame for how long I worked on it, safe to simply say a long time.

I try to keep to a weekly posting schedule. Doing full colour pages whilst I have paying gigs and other commitments that seems to be the easiest pace. When I can I’ve backed up a few months worth and then gone to twice a week, which I think for the pace of the story is probably better. But it’s not something I can maintain when I’m up against the deadline.
Dream Life

SA: When you say you are up against deadlines, what sort of work are we talking about?

SS: These days? I'm a hired gun, so just about anything. I get pretty regular inquiries about drawing other peoples graphic novels. That’s almost the one thing I'll say no to, because it's such a huge commitment and I have my own I’m trying to do. If it was something mind blowing maybe but most of the time I get letters that go "I'm a writer, I know I'm good, if could just get my ideas published..." - Pass. But I love fast illustration jobs, covers, advertising and editorial. Also have worked in TV and the music business a lot. I just did some historical art of 1933 Germany for a Cable TV short, a Bravo Factor grant project. Some mock fashion drawings for a PR campaign by Jones New York, and a CD packaging design for a swing album. Generally, that stuff all pays better than comics. Do comics for the love kids, do something else for a living!

SA: I'm amazed you cut the number of Dream Life characters in half! It's still a pretty big cast. Was the decision to cut and merge characters motivated by commercial concerns, or simply to whittle the concept down to a more manageable size?

SS: Um, neither, though it impacted on both positively. It's got five main characters now, and one major antagonist. It had five more players before, and I folded them into the surviving cast. It’s just better writing that way, I hope....

Working on it in fits like I had, it was a proving ground for a lot of ideas, there was lots of good raw material but it lacked focus. It had grown and grown like Japanese tentacle porn. It has a lot of elements of my own life in it, and at one point there were characters that were cartoons of me and some of my friends in it as funny villains. That was messy and I realized much of what they did, the main cast could be doing, the rest was superfluous. There were a lot of other things that changed at that stage, I cut huge chunks of stuff, changed the fates of a few of the cast radically - like from dead to alive or how they die. It was all story-driven. Now it has a clear subtext, and while it's a long wind up, the story goes somewhere clear, I think, with a solid payoff at the end. And, it has a few interesting loose splinters, to keep it not too overly tightly wrapped and pat.
Dream Life

SA: What are you trying to accomplish with "Dream Life"? Do you have a specific creative goal, or are you just playing it by ear?

SS: Bit of both. It’s really liberating to have no one else to answer to, so yes, I totally make changes as I go, and play things out by how they feel on the page. But I have a full manuscript for the story, a mix of plot, scene descriptions and in some cases full dialogue. So there is a blueprint I follow. All malleable, but it’s a complex narrative that takes its time playing out, so it needs at least that much of a guideline.

More generally speaking my creative goals are kind of intuitive, but yes, I am trying to hit a particular, note. It’s a feeling I have, or one I want the story to have. Something I found missing in a lot of that earlywork for hire’ stuff, and in a lot of comics in general.

Generically I’d call it a depth, but that sounds derogatory and a bit pretentious. But, I find a lot of comics do not take the time to crawl under their character’s skins the way books do sometimes. I don’t think it’s a thing comics are incapable of, but there are conventions about pacing that get in the way a lot of the time.

SA: You seem to be taking a deliberately measured approach to the story. It takes a while to get all the characters introduced and for anything you'd call dramatic to happen. Is this just how the story feels right to you, or is this consciously in opposition to what a reader would find in a mainstream superhero comic?

SS: Yes, exactly. Obviously you can’t do everything in slow motion. There’s been an idea going around, often called decompression. Superficially, it’s reaction to the condensed, manic pace of action comics. But while I feel some scenes do need to move along faster, plot and character development needs more variability and room than it’s often given. And at times, yes, to slow down.

In Dream Life so far, we had one very drawn out introduction sequence with the main character, Charlie. First in a dream and then his morning rituals followed by a day at work. The rest of the first act introduces the remaining protagonist cast, and right now at the start of the second act we’re meeting our antagonist, establishing him for the first time. Some of those scenes were really clipped, some more lingering. The dream and day at work with Charlie was exceptionally lingering because it was really important to establish his mental state, and I wanted to show it rather than tell through prose. For this story I'm not using written inner dialogue in general, I want people to visually absorb his environment and state of mind.

Part of that comes from, I guess, the way I tend to experience the world. One aspect of being dyslexic is I don’t think in words as much as I do, in my case, with nonverbal feelings, and conceptual, semi-visual thoughts. Writing was something that was, at first, harder to do because organizing my thoughts into text takes a conscious and often unnatural feeling of strange translation. I’ve learned to take some care with it but it always feels like a lot is lost in the conversion. I’ve come to really like words mind you, but with this story there are other narrative strengths native to the comics form I want to lean on more. I risk losing impatient readers, but it’s worth it to me to try. I just try to make it visually engaging enough to keep them coming back to it.

SA: Tell us a bit about your technique. It's a mix of traditional and digital techniques, isn't it?

SS: Yep. I tend to work initially on paper, thumbnails plotting out pacing and page breaks from the script. From there I jump back and forth, often as the mood strikes. I like the tactile nature of working on paper. And, I like the edibility and ease of revision and composition working digitally, even more so since I got a Tablet PC. So, from thumbnails to final pencils I go back and forth depending on what I'm doing more. If the page is coming to me easy, and it’s just drawing, then paper is best. If it’s taking more working and revision, then I spend a good amount of time with a stylus on a screen. To transition I use the printing on Bristol in light blue trick mostly. Though sometimes I like to use light orange, or green. Just ‘cus you can.

Once I have my pencils down, I print them a last time, (for Dream Life on 11”X14” sheets) and ink them with pens and brushes, and do wash work and pencil shading for tones and texture.

That’s scanned, and I typically have at least three layers over the B&W art. The first is set to ‘color’ and used to tint the tones. The second is set to multiply and I do colour fills on that.
The next one or more are used to do additional shadows, lighting and other effects. There can be several of those on the page sometimes.

I get into more exotic stuff sometimes but that’s the basic approach.
A working progression
of Sam's approach, from Dream Life.

SA: Do you see any financial remuneration from the Transmission X site?

SS: Nope, it’s a pure labour of love. I have sold books of the work off site, and there’s a donation button if someone feels generous, and we have a store on the site I've yet to make use of - I could be selling some prints or the books there, maybe original art. Just have not gotten around to it.

But, in a desire to keep the look of the place clean and on topic, we have a no banner ad rule at TX. Just a bit of space for our own self promotions.

SA: Do you think the future of comics lies in digital media?

SS: I don’t think it’s the whole future, but I do think it’s a big part of it. The internet proper is a great entry point for new talent to stretch their legs, get feed back, and learn if they care to. And for more experienced creators it’s a good place to prove something publishers are normally wary of taking a risk on, like unconventional and maybe demanding approaches to pacing and plot. And building an initial interest in a project.

Also, I've solely promoted my work online as a comic artist and illustrator, since 1998 or so. And I'd say about 80% of my income has come from inquiries via that.

Then with the new incoming ‘App’ market we have something that may well offer a viable alternative to periodicals, and the problems of overhead and distribution the direct market is struggling with. It’s got a built in monetary stream so that solves that issue, and the new tablets, e-readers and net-books offer an increasingly comfortable reading form factor. Too early to say anything definitive about it but it’s looking pretty viable. Any problems with it I see are more questions of execution and problem solving, than innate obstacles.

I think there will always be room for Books and an appetite for their tactile allure, and there will increasingly be a segment of the market who will be happy not owning the physical book, but a data version of it.

That all works for me. So long as a decent chunk of people are buying something from me I'm good.

 To read Dream Life follow this link: http://www.dl.txcomics.com/ and to visit Salgood Sam's web site, go here:  http://www.salgoodsam.com/ You can also read some of Max's other comics at his compilation site Revolver, right here:  http://www.revolver.salgoodsam.com/

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I Am The LAW!

Marvin Law is a talented Toronto artist and writer, whose outgoing personality and bombastic drawing style have made him a fan favorite in artist’s alley on the convention circuit. Marvin tells us about his Webcomic, SLAM, and offers his views on the future of comics.

You've been very committed to SLAM, Marvin. How long have you been working on it, and how often do you update (or try to update) the strip?

I try my best to update it once a week, usually on a Tuesday, so it will be available for readers on a Wednesday. 

I'd say I was working SLAM on and off for about 2 years.  Some would say, that's a long time to be working on a project, but for me SLAM was a labour of love that I couldn't resist, since I'm a big fan of professional wrestling, and action filled comic books.  So, I got the chance to write and draw a story that I created, and that was really satisfying.

How long do you expect to continue creating new pages for SLAM?

For this arc, there is a definite ending to the current SLAM storyline, once issue#3 wraps itself up by page 26.  However, with that said, I do have 2 very different ideas for possible sequels to SLAM, if reader demand is there, but we'll see how it goes. 

I've got lots of projects on my plate at the moment, that I want readers to be able to enjoy, which are quite different and unique from the concept of SLAM.

Have you tracked the traffic on the SLAM site? How are you doing?

I do keep track of the traffic coming to the SLAM Webcomic, and last week after the update, we had about 50 unique visitors come to the page and we had about 300+ page views. 

For those who aren't familiar with SLAM, give us the basic rundown on what it's all about.

SLAM takes place in a world, where professional wrestling is as real a sport, as MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is to us.  The story opens up with an incident at the NFW Arena, where one of the wrestlers is injured critically during a match, however the wrestler is later on found to be perfectly fine.  This sets off the chain of events to find out what's been happening to the wrestlers.

Obviously, you're a wrestling fan. I find the choice of genre interesting though, because it has a lot in common with superhero comics. Was that just a by-product of wanting to do a wrestling strip, or did you make the choice more deliberately?

It's actually, a little bit of column A and a bit of column B.  Like you said, I'm a big wrestling fan, and here was a chance to combine the wrestling moves and clichés with over the top fight scenes from superhero comics. 

Plus, for some odd reason, a lot of comic book fans have a tendency to look down their nose at wrestling and think it's beneath them, and I don't understand that. The story is basically the same, good vs. evil and in terms of special moves, a Stone Cold Stunner is no different from an optic blast in my mind, but that's just me.

I love the running commentary you have at the bottom of each page. You really prod the reader with questions and foreshadowing. Was that always part of the plan, or did that just happen when you started posting the strip?

To be honest, it just happened after I set up the webcomic, due to the fact that I felt the bottom of the page was empty and I wanted to keep the fans thinking about the next installment, of the SLAM Webcomic. 

As for the foreshadowing part, I'd usually offer up one phony possible outcome, as an attempt to swerve the readers, so when the real event actually happened, it would be so shocking to them, based on the statement I made previously.

It’s an effective technique, almost like an announcer on a wrestling show trying to drum up interest. I really enjoy reading them. Tell us about the other people who work on the strip. I see that Kristopher Feric has an "editor" credit, what does he do by way of editing the strip?

Kristopher Feric's role as an editor corresponds with his lettering credit.  When he's lettering the SLAM Webcomic, he has the authority to alter/change the dialogue from my script, if he feels he can make it read smoother and express my ideas, in a simpler fashion, so that the captions and word balloons don't cover up the artwork and he helps to help smooth over my grammar and spelling.

Click for larger image!

Tell us a bit about the colorist, David McConnehey.

Awwww, where to start on David McConnehey.  He's a nice young man that I discovered on DeviantArt, when I put an open call out for a colourist for SLAM.  And, sadly for David, he sent his work in, and I thoroughly enjoyed his beautiful work and determination.  So, since that time, poor David has been stuck listening to my crazy instructions for the last 2 years, and getting pages coloured up beautifully, in spite of my instructions.

Have you managed to monetize the site at all, and how successfully?

To be honest, I haven't monetized the SLAM Webcomic, at this point.  It's been mainly used as a marketing tool, to help build a fan/readership base, in case I ever wanted to turn the SLAM Webcomic, into a hard copy form, whether it be through actual individual floppy issues or as a collected graphic novel. 

Other than that, I've been able to use the website, as a means of communicating and expressing my own personal views on professional wrestling.

Do you think the future of the comics medium lies on the web?

Personally, as a comic book traditionalist/purist, I like to think that there can be a balance, between comic books on the web, and in the printed format.  However, with the advent of the digital readers and tablets, I'm sure it will allow more readers to discover and enjoy comics in a whole new digital form. 

But for me, to this very day, there's nothing like holding a hardcopy of a comic book or a graphic novel, turning the page physically and being able to look over the art, as closely as possible. 

I understand you are about to publish a graphic novel collection of the strip. When will that be available, and where?

If all things go according to plan, I'm expecting the SLAM Graphic Novel to be available for August, in time for the FanExpo show in Toronto.  I'll be selling the SLAM Graphic Novel at my table, and for any retailers, you should be able to order the SLAM Graphic Novel from the ComicsMonkey Distribution system/catalogue.

I see you're using Kickstarter to raise money for the GN. Tell us a bit about that, and the Kickstarter site. Also, are you relying just on that for funding, or is there a plan "B"?

Guess the first place to start off, is to explain what Kickstarter is.  Kickstarter is an all or nothing project funding by the community, whereby project creators offer up unique and special rewards to potential backers.  They pitch a variety of projects ranging from comics, films, games, music and many more.

As for the SLAM Graphic Novel being on Kickstarter, which you can see here:  http://kck.st/evOU2z 

It was an attempt on my part to offset the cost of printing up a 100 page full-colour graphic novel, and to offer fans the opportunity to pre-order their own copy of the SLAM Graphic Novel.  There are some very cool rewards available, (if you don't want a copy of the SLAM Graphic Novel), in the form of original artwork that you can purchase, as well.

It would nice to get full funding for the SLAM Graphic Novel from Kickstarter, but there is a plan B, in place in case we're not able to gather our funding.  The printer that I have in mind has their own independent distribution system and offers up print on demand for potential publishers.

Good luck with everything, Marvin, and thanks for the interview.

You can check out all the bone-crushing wrestling mayhem of SLAM right here:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Michael Netzer: Leading the Way

A striking panel from Netzer's
1994 Huntress mini-series.

This entry we interview Mike Netzer, standard bearer for creator's rights and the campaign to rescue comics from oblivion. 

Let’s start with the basics, Mike. Where and when were you born, and where did you grow up?

Born in Detroit, Michigan, 1955. Moved to Lebanon in the Middle East at age of about 1 year and raised there until age 11. After that, back to Detroit until I moved to NY and started drawing comics at age 19.

How did you get interested in art and comics?

I don't really know where that began. Like most children I started drawing early, but at about age 3 my mother brought me a few comics and they seemed to grab all my attention, especially an early Batman. Something about that Bob Kane square-jawed man in a bat costume had a strong allure for me and I started drawing every image of the character in the comics I had. By the time I was in first grade, the drawing skills were developing notably for that age. I'm honestly not sure I would have stuck with drawing were it not for the comics.

When did your drawing begin to take the form of continuity storytelling? Was that right at the beginning with the Bob Kane Batman?

No, it happened much later, around the first year in college when I began thinking about having storytelling samples for the eventuality of trying to get work as a comics artist. Drawing from Bob Kane's Batman drove me to discover drawing, but I didn't have enough comics at that age for a lasting inspiration. So, I'd also draw from photos in magazines and books, mostly a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I especially liked copying photos of fine art, paintings and statues and such. When I came back to America at age 11, that attention shifted to the enormous amount of comics now at my disposal. But it was mostly working with singular images until a time drew near that I anticipated I'd make an effort to draw comics. I produced a couple of short story samples in college and that was basically the only sequential storytelling work I'd attempted before starting to work in the medium a year later.

Did you have any formal art training?

I was very immersed in the art curriculum in high school, which was quite professionally intensive due to a couple of excellent teachers there. My two years in college were more like a rigorous program at an art institute. Wayne State University in Detroit was located near a major arts and crafts academy and competed with them. Instead of following an academic path at WSU, I'd decided I wasn't interested in a degree but rather in the actual art studies. So I filled my curriculum with advanced art studies across the range of design, painting, life drawing, art history and English literature. A couple of years within such a framework allowed me to finish masters courses in these subjects, with pretty good grades, but no degree. I thought I'd get more from the experience this way and in looking back I can't say I regret it at all. It helped me where I really needed it for the professional work that followed.

Give us an overview of your time working in American mainstream comics.

I think like most things in life, the stronger the good we experience in anything we do, then the bad will also be stronger. I've had a few cycles of working in mainstream comics and they've all been very intensely charged. Maybe the most charged of anything else I've done. There is a natural thrill for me in drawing comics and particularly superheroes. It's been such an intensive discipline that it pretty much consumes me while I'm doing it. And that apparently comes with a price. Notably, sort of neglecting most everything else in life. Not necessarily being oblivious to it but rather absorbing and dealing with everything else as if it's on a back burner, so to speak,

But there's also the added value of the outreach to and from the readers that adds an element of trying to keep me connected to the rest of the world somehow. My nature is sometimes quite extreme in that I thirst for a totality in most everything I'm engaged in. While working in comics, that's translated to a somewhat colorful journey in and out of the medium, several times already. 35 years later, it doesn't look like that intensity is letting up at all. Rather growing actually.

Can you also tell us, briefly, which companies you worked for, and which characters you worked on? I believe you had an association with Neal Adams and Continuity, perhaps you could touch on that.

There weren't that many comics publishers back in the mid-70's. The bulk of my work was for DC Comics. But I always did a job here and there for Marvel as well. There was Western and Charlton that I did a lone job or two for and the rest was more in the advertising area, mainly for Continuity Studios, where I was based. Working with Neal Adams was the pivoting point around which everything revolved for those first few years. The studio environment and everything about it being the hub of the comics community, pretty much shaped not only the career development, but also the community spirit or common ideology of the world of comics creators at that time. It was a vibrant and near magical time where most everyone working in comics had to be in NY and pretty much knew and socialized with everyone else in the business. Being such a tight community also meant that we spent our leisure time together just as much as the work time we shared.

Enumerate the pros and cons of your tenure in mainstream comics. What was positive and what was negative about the experience?

10 or 15 years ago I would likely have answered that differently, such as focusing more on the actual comics I've worked on and the craft of drawing. But today, in retrospect, I'd say the most positive thing has been the push that I've inadvertently become known for outside of the mainstream comics, namely searching for and trying to advance an integration of the medium into the bigger picture of our world, history and aspirations as a civilization. This somewhat well known aspect of my career pretty much overshadows the actual comics work I've done. So much so that it reveals a sort of failing as a career artist. Which is likely the closest thing to a negative side to this picture. I'm pretty certain that my actual career as an artist would have been much more developed had I kept up the momentum of the first couple of years of drawing comics. But I've become seasoned enough through the years to understand the ups and downs of life a little better and to look at the negative aspects of it as a necessary component for enhancing or magnifying the good. In that sense, I'm mostly resolved to a space where I don't really believe there can ultimately be any real mistakes or shortcomings in our human experience. There's something about the nature of most people that drives us to strive for the better, even at the peak of the most difficult falls. When our lives are seen as an integral homogeny that cannot be ultimately compromised by an artificial desire for a more perfect existence, then it seems easier to perceive a sort of perfection in our every-day state, each step along the way.

What are your major issues with the comics industry as it is today?

Well, first and foremost, as Mike Dubisch said in response to Steven Niles' first article on supporting creator owned properties, comics have to get huge and right now. It was actually his passion on this that drew me into the present round of what's been dubbed as the creator revolution. It is quite unfathomable to look at the comics industry today and to believe that an entire cultural artifact has been committing virtual suicide for more than 30 years now. There is no other business or medium in the world, at least of this magnitude, that's been managed and driven as irresponsibly and negligibly as the comics industry. Most every business decision taken by industry leaders since the late 1970's has been more like a nail in the coffin of a slowly dying comics medium, trying to snuff out the life of a once thriving industry.

From the content of most mainstream titles catering to an ever shrinking base of readers, to the bizarre Direct Market infrastructure that guarantees comics sales will continue to decline... just about everything, and I mean everything, about the business of publishing comics looks more like a doomsday curse, rather than a sound business strategy backed by the most powerful media conglomerates in the world such as Warner’s and Disney. The overhaul that the industry needs right now touches on most every aspect of the comics culture. This is not to take away from some of the fabulous and incredibly prolific comics being produced across the entire gamut of mainstream and Indie publications. It's actually expected that in this dire time for the business, the creative adrenalin will flow stronger amongst the creators. But the comics are more than an art form. They're also a business that operates within larger economic wheels, and must be driven by the same love for the medium that the creators and fans have. This passion, drive and wisdom in managing a business are exactly the ingredients missing from the major publishers, and are keeping comics market down today. This is the part of the industry that needs the greatest overhaul.

There are a lot of excuses being given for the state of affairs ranging from the shift to web-culture all the way to a naïve acceptance of market forces and buyer choices actually being behind the decline. And they might be more acceptable if we didn't have this blatant variable of negligent irresponsibility on the part of leading publishers. All this indicates in the end is that the comics industry will become much healthier when a sincere effort is made by the corporate entities towards healing it. None of these excuses warrant the self-destructive behavior we're seeing today. Just the opposite, if the general business environment is having a difficult time, then that's all the reason for an extra concerted effort to make up for it with more sound and creative policies. 

What changes do you think should be made to improve the industry?

First of all we have to remember that we're not talking about Dan Didio or Alex Alonzo being behind the mess we're in. We're talking about Warner Bros. and The Disney Company who are two of the most powerful media conglomerates in the world. To accept the excuse that solutions for improving the state of comics publishing are beyond their control is simply naïve and ludicrous. It seems to me that a freshman economist could look at this picture and immediately devise a basic plan for improving things.

Steps must be taken to dismantle the bizarre Direct Market distribution and return to spreading comics all over the country again the way they were before the DM took over. Comics stores will remain the main outlet for a comprehensive buyer demand. Making some comics available and visible everywhere consumers shop will increase the overall buying market and reflect itself in the LCS audience. This will open a door again for other distributors to compete and not a moment too soon. This is the first and foremost bottleneck problem that comics sales face.

DC and Marvel don't have to add more non-superhero comics to their line if they don't want to. Thank God there are enough such publications from smaller publishers and Indies to fill at least half of the expanding shelf space in a growing number of stores, when the buying market and comics sales begin to grow. We really don't have much of a problem with content, we only need to give smaller publishers a little room to breathe and an opportunity for their products to be seen by a public that begins to embrace the art form, as it's embraced in Europe and the Far East.

Comics creators, and I think this includes everyone, must put aside the genre-competitive attitude and realize that we are all in this boat together and need to present a unified front in order to have a voice and leverage for better working conditions and a greater share of intellectual property rights on everything we produce. This isn't only about creator owned projects. It applies to every comic book that's being published regardless of who created it. The reason for this is that current comic books are being used as a base and inspiration for outside ventures from film, television, games and toys to countless consumer products on the market. Every bit of work contributing to these profits, including a run on an established series, gives the creators who contributed to it a right to profit sharing from any outside venture their work influences. We have to pull our heads out of the sand and begin articulating our basic rights in a way that brings a little more fairness back to the creator/publisher relationship. This is a necessary ingredient not only for the creators but also for publishers and corporate owners. It's what's needed for a contemporary renaissance of the art form and it will ultimately benefit everyone all the way to the top. Trickle-up economics, if you will.

I think we can go on for a while and get into a lot more detail but these issues outlined above perhaps cover the most important issues needing to be addressed right now. I'm sure a lot more specific and creative ideas will burst from the comics community when we begin seeing a move in these directions.

Tell us about the petition.

Let me first give a little background on what drove me to write that petition. When I joined the recent discussions on the creator revolution, I noticed a strange thing happening there. It's perhaps best condensed in the difference between Eric Powell and Steven Niles' approaches. Eric slammed head on into the DC and Marvel dominance of the LCS, while Steven was saying “we can basically dodge them and advance creator owned projects through other venues”. I could understand if these two sides of a healthy debate were contending side by side on the issues, but the strange thing was that most Indie voices chiming in were on the dodging side only. The same was true for most industry news sites covering the debate, perhaps with the exception of Tom Spurgeon's Comics reporter. To me this seemed like another nail being driven into the coffin of the comics business. There is no way to ultimately dodge DC and Marvel's dominance of the comics market. It must be addressed forthrightly in order to have some hope for growth of the industry. And it seemed to me that this was a very divisive stance. Indie creators are so disgruntled with the big 2 that they've come to see them as beneath their contempt to even acknowledge their existence and the problem they pose. In that most industry news sites were also taking this strange position, it seemed to me that the only way around the issue, when a healthy debate is being suppressed in this way, is to take the case directly to the people. In this case, comics fandom.

With this in mind, I wrote the petition in order to be able to say things that most creators and journalists don't seem to be willing to say openly, even though they might really want to. The petition is perhaps the first direct statement made publicly at this level in order to help us place all our cards on the table and understand what we're really up against. The interesting thing about it is that most of the comments left there are basically calling for more fairness towards the Indie market by the major players dominating comics publishing. This is the result of a petition which has the name of DC and Marvel in its title. And though I hadn't anticipated it, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to bring the two sides together if I'd tried.

As the number of signatories on the petition grows, we need to look ahead towards the ramifications it might hold down the line. Public pressure has always been one of the most powerful tools for influencing corporate policy towards a little more consideration for the welfare of their socio-economic environment. The goal of the petition is to raise a public outcry over the situation. And, to eventually burst through its present cocoon and spread into the mainstream media. This is not such a farfetched idea at all. Movements like this are known to snowball and grow exponentially once they break a certain threshold.

The petition is very carefully worded in order not to make unverifiable accusations. I suggest everyone read it and take a look at the signatories and comments they're leaving behind in order to gauge the pulse of what comics creators, professionals and fandom are saying. In the end it is quite harmless, regardless of natural trepidations some have about signing petitions. The hope it has for setting needed wheels into motion is very tangible, so I ask everyone to pitch in and sign on if they're inclined.

You have also filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. (As a Canadian, I’m not too familiar with the agency.) Do you feel this is a viable complaint, or is it more of a symbolic method of bringing attention to the problems of the comics industry?

Perhaps both at once. The complaint was lodged through the FTC web site. Anyone can lodge any complaint they like through it. The body of the complaint is basically the petition. I understand this is not a legal document and doesn’t rely on a specific abuse of the laws of fair trade. But I do understand the FTC made this option available on their site just for this type of situation. So the common people could have access to state a grievance. Considering the situation that DC and Marvel dominate a market they don't seem to have a vested interest in, because their profits come from outside of comics, and because their negligence of it is injurious to the entire industry, then I believe there is a basis in the complaint for further investigation. The FTC is, after all, about insuring fairness in competitive business practices.

On the other hand, lodging the complaint gave the petition a little well needed push that brought the industry's attention to it. I think in that sense it served both purposes well so far. But I expect we'll soon find out what the response from the FTC is and can move ahead with the complaint as needed when the time comes.

You suggest that Marvel and DC, and the big entertainment entities behind them, need to give smaller companies breathing room. Isn't that anathema to current corporate thinking? While I understand the ways in which this would make the industry healthier overall, I don't see many big corporations doing anything other than crushing, smothering and destroying all competition.

This is sadly the picture and I understand that it seems like quite the formidable type of power to hope for any change in the thinking there. But things weren't always that way in big business. Back in the 50's and 60's, as an example, business policy was more oriented towards nurturing an overall market for everyone with a little more collective goodwill applied to general policies. This was the general spirit promoted in the high-school economics classes of the early 70's that I studied. By the late 70's things started changing and I remember what big news the Time-Warner’s merger was back then because it signaled a beginning of a deluge of such corporate acquisitions that began shifting the emphasis from collective responsibility to an "everyone-for-themselves-at-everyone's-expense" type of attitude.

But I believe that when understanding the root as being a prevailing attitude that overcame the general goodwill within which business was being conducted, and not something necessarily etched in a stone heart of human psyche, then it's easier to see that trying to change things back towards collective responsibility is basically inherent in influencing the human nature of policy makers. Which is not so far out of reach as it seems when looking at the strength of corporate giants. People remain people and we are all ultimately products of our environment. If we can change the environment at the lowest popular level, then we have a much better chance of changing the attitude of policy makers all the way at the top.

That's why this campaign starts with a petition that's very carefully worded to elicit a response to this basic issue of the attitude in which the comics business is being conducted...which is also the prevailing business attitude all around. Things being as they are, the greatest hope for change can only come when the buying public rejects the notion that things can continue this way and says so loudly and clearly. It seems to me that in our time today, more than ever, people are generally beginning to see the self-destructive nature of corporate business policy and the hopeless path that it's leading everyone on. While the lucky and strong few at the top of the pyramid will remain content with things as they are, their number continues to decrease while the segment of struggling populace increases.

This tells me that it's as fertile a time as any to call on the perception and goodwill of the common people in order to raise a clear and unmistakable voice in rejecting the path we're all heading in. The road is long and hard but all indications so far show that we are moving in the right direction with the petition and campaign. There was very little hope a couple of decades ago that it would get the general support its gotten today. But this is really only a beginning of a much wider and far-reaching movement that aims to spread like a mushroom cloud covering everything around it. And it has much more to do with human nature than with a technical view of business strategy or a mechanical approach to social government. It is all about raising the voice of the people into its rightful place as primary influence over the world that we want for ourselves and for our children. It overcomes all types of oppression exercised on society under the umbrella of democracy and free economy.

It is the biggest hope we have for changing the seemingly hopeless tides taking the world down a path of near slavery of mind, body and soul, that the powerful few are leading us into.

Your suggestion to give creators a bigger piece of the pie from sales and licensing also seems to go against the grain of typical corporate operating procedure. What's to stop companies from outsourcing the work to countries where the work it be done more cheaply and without giving up any of the marketing profits?

Well, paradoxically, I'm counting on this greedy nature of corporate policy and looking to leverage it to our advantage. When the general attitude of the buying market begins to react adversely to such short-term policies that produce inferior products, then corporate strategy will begin exploring the options that the people are suggesting. It becomes a growing movement that overcomes the forced perception of economic feasibility they're trying to shove down our throats.

Let's look, as an example, at the environmental issues that were first being voiced in the late 1960's. Back then, this movement was considered rather hopeless and had to contend with environmental abuse by formidable industry giants that the general economic welfare depended upon. The movement grew in time during the 1970s by working diligently in informing the public through sympathetic media and communications outlets. By the 1980's, we began hearing about global warming and everyone was scurrying to either prove or disprove its veracity. It became a public issue that began to take hold in business decisions all the way at the top of the pyramid. And while we still have a public controversy over it, the hold that this issue has taken in the business world is quite phenomenal when considering the extra burden it puts on the economy. So the question is what benefit does the business world gain from supporting energy efficient platforms? The answer is simple, public perception has changed to the point that a large enough segment of the buying market understands the need to support them. This has basically twisted the arm of a once belligerent business world and we can see the largest conglomerates standing behind what they once fought against tooth and nail.

I think that since that the pace of social evolution is increasing exponentially in time, that we really don't need a few decades to achieve a similar thing in the comic book industry for the near future. We've been supporting creator owned projects since the mid-70's though it seems like a more recent development. The undercurrents of the industry are full of a public outcry for a more attentive approach to a higher quality comics narrative. We only need to encourage these voices so they rise to the surface of public debate. We need to work diligently in order to turn this subject of the soul of the comics medium into the most talked about issue on the front lines of the industry. We have an amazing array of tools that the environmental movement didn't have at its disposal decades ago and we need to use these tools to the advantage of the future of the medium.

There is a great imbalance in this area seen at major comics news sites today. They are more obsessed with the fluffy fun of populist iconography than with fulfilling their historical role as the watchdogs of the industry. Perhaps the only major players lending ear to the issues are Tom Spurgeon and Rik Offenberger. Other major reporters such as Heidi MacDonald and Rich Johnston appear to be ignoring it altogether for the sake of a superficial "lets-weed-out-the-negativity-and-just-have fun" type of reporting. When faced with such a blatant imbalance in comics journalism, we find ourselves with no choice but to ignore the major players altogether and take the case directly to the people in the forums and blogs where the core of fandom traditionally gathers.

But just as it was for the environmental movement in its early stages, major news sites eventually took the gauntlet and ran with it when it became a strong enough public concern, due to the grass-roots promotional efforts of the movement. I think we can expect to begin seeing a shift to more coverage of these sensitive issues by major comics news sites within the next year ahead, because I can see much more talk about it in the public arena of comics fandom today.

This is really what grass-roots is all about. We're only at the beginning.

Thanks, Mike, for your time, energy and love of the medium.

Find out more about Mike by reading this revealing interview by Rik Offenberger at Comics Bulletin:

And by checking out Mike's own web site:

Things have been a bit comic-centric on the blogs of late, so this will be the last entry on comics shared by both blogs. FIGHTING WORDS will be moving on to other topics. 

However, I'm going to continue talking about comics for a few more entries on my companion blog, MOVING PICTURES, for those who might be interested in some interviews with a few terrific web-comic creators and some personal thoughts on the writing of Scott McCloud.