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/

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