Monday, February 28, 2011

FYC replay: One Last Song

More from the archives.

For Your Consideration: One Last Song
By Chris Beckett

The 411:
One Last Song #1 (of 6)
Written by CJ Hurtt
Art by Shawn Richter
32 pages, b/w
$2.95 each
Brainscan Comics

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

It is 2046, and the intervening years have seen Americans’ civil liberties whittled away bit by bit. The Department of Homeland Security, having expanded its reach, is now firmly established as the foremost power in the land. Controlling all the major media outlets, no message gets out without Department of Homeland Security approval. Their use of fear to control the masses is so common that few people give it any thought in this near future, accepting the status quo as a necessary evil to retain one’s security.

This is a sterile world where the “reality” is created by those in power. Gentri-Mart “sells U.S. for less,” while The New American Times prints stories of the latest terrorist threats, two subtle ways of keeping the populace in line. It is also required that any performer, journalist, publisher, et al. must obtain a performance card or face internment in one of the terror aversion camps. And if someone gets out of line, the authorities deal with the issue in a manner most physical. Welcome to this brave new world.

Of course, pirate radio stations and underground newspapers fill the niche formerly occupied by independent new agencies while individuals across the land feel inclined to perform their own minor acts of rebellion. Amanda Casey is just such a person. A singer/songwriter, she performs love songs accompanied only by her guitar. On the surface, they seem like harmless tripe, but hidden within the stanzas are the harsh truths of this police state.

As the issue opens, Amanda is playing in a tiny coffee house, eliciting little more than marked indifference from the few patrons scattered about the café. Once finished, she takes a seat with coffee in hand and is approached by someone who was obviously listening very closely. He comments on the lyrics as he also sits down at the table. She is immediately suspicious and inquires as to who he is. Flatly ignoring her question, the man continues to interrogate Amanda about the song and asks where he might be able to acquire a copy. On her guard, Amanda nimbly exits as her “fan” is distracted by an argument at the register. As she races through the back alleys, the mystery man calls his superiors, requesting clarification as to whether he should pursue the subject or not. Having done his job, alerting Amanda to the fact that DHS is watching her, the agent is told to return to base. Thus begins the cat and mouse game between a lone songwriter and the Department of Homeland Security. And although Amanda may believe they want her dead, that is actually the furthest thing from their minds.

One Last Song is from newcomers CJ Hurtt and Shawn Richter – though Richter has two graphic novels available from Frequency Press, this is Hurtt’s first comic credit. Dropping readers squarely in the middle of a not-too-distant future where the realities of today’s political turmoil have been extended to a drastic outcome, this is a topical book that extrapolates what could happen if the fear-mongering and lack of conviction prevalent in our governing bodies today is not dealt with.

Hurtt exhibits an understanding of the comics medium sometimes lost on new creators that makes this an exciting first issue. Holding to the “show, don’t tell” axiom, he introduces his audience to a number of different characters, giving little away while teasing readers with the bits of information he does toss them. This tactic – which could have easily backfired - not only gets readers interested and asking questions, but it also works to flesh out this future America for readers. Some people might argue that not enough was explained in this first issue, but I was pleased to find a creator confident enough that he would allow multiple layers of mystery to surround his story, and do it in a way that is entertaining and thoughtful enough that I want to pick up the next issue, which is the first duty of any storyteller.

The art from Richter is a fine complement to Hurtt’s narrative. Having to construct the future, Richter creates fully realized backgrounds for this tale, and with so many characters introduced, it’s important to have a capable artist who is able not only to create unique faces but also keep them consistent throughout the book. Richter is just such an artist, and his clean artwork and clear storytelling is a welcome addition to comic shelves.

One Last Song is a promising new series from Hurtt and Richter. They have created an interesting first chapter that sets up a plausible near-future society where American freedoms have been bartered away for security and complacency, while also posing more questions than it answers. They also smartly intersperse the narrative with pieces of DHS propaganda, a clever way to inject some of the history of this mid-twenty-first century society. Published by Brainscan comics, if you’re still unsure about the book, you can check out the first issue as a free download from Wowio here, or read it free over at Web Comics Nation. And once you’ve done that, go to your local comic shop and tell them you want to order the rest of the series.

An Interview with Shawn Richter and CJ Hurtt

BECKETT: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Shawn Richter:
Well, the easy answer is, I'm an artist, but I also love telling stories (at parties, you can't get me to shut up!!) so comics was a natural fit. Add to that the fact that my dad thought giving me comics as a kid would get me into reading (and he was right) led to me being influenced by some of the greats early on. I remember reading Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge as a kid, as well as Curt Swan's Superman, John Buscema on Conan and Mike Zeck drawing Spider-Man.

CJ Hurtt: I enjoy the kind of freedom that comics give. You can do just about anything in comics. There is also a sort of addictive immediacy to the scripting process. You can make a lot happen story wise in a very short amount of time.

BECKETT: I know you and CJ came together on Warren Ellis’s Engine. What was it about his pitch that attracted you to this series?

I think it was the originality of it. I'd done political satire, but the politics in this are a bit more broad. Sort of like the politics in Star Wars, for example. It's mostly about freedom fighters and hidden messages and secret police states, and it's set in the future about 40 years, so that's fun too. You kind of get to come up with your own world - you try to extrapolate what life will be like in 2046. So, I'd done horror and crime and historical fantasy a little and I wanted something new and different. This idea really blew me away. We did up the pitch and showed it around and a few months later Brainscan said they'd take a shot on it. And here we are, about a third of the way done.

BECKETT: I was really impressed with the storytelling in this first issue. You were able to condense a lot of information into these pages, jumping in and out of scenes, while allowing the images to relay as much information as the words. Was this series developed jointly, or is there a distinct separation of powers?

I'll admit that CJ pretty much scripted the book as you see it, but he's a cool enough writer that he let me run with ideas if I got them - in fact I'll often even submit dialogue changes if I think it'll benefit the end result. And he's always very cool with it. For example, there was a bit of profanity in the script initially. Now, I'm not a prude or anything, but I'd just finished working on a number of adult projects and when I go to a convention, I'll dread having my books out there for kids to see, not because the stories aren't good, but because I'm concerned about the parents looking at it and getting upset at the language. So I mentioned it to CJ and he came back with - "Well let's put [censored] over it when we letter it" and I think it worked. It adds a whole new layer to the book and works within the context of the story.

Hurtt: Thank you! I was worried that I was going to take flak for not delving into each character's backstory before launching into the action. Personally, I hate info dumps in stories. I'd rather hit the ground running and introduce character developing events in a more natural way. I like stories where the audience is a fly on the wall rather than being someone who has more information than the protagonist.

The questions of "who are these people and why are they doing this?" definitely need to be addressed in any story, but I don't think they need to be answered right away. What I mean is that you can move quickly in a story and have it be interesting without front loading your first issue with biography.

Shawn did bring a lot to the writing end of this book. I tend to focus on plot, character, and dialog. He tends to focus on the strange little details. There's a sign out front of the store that one of the main characters manages that reads "We Sell U.S. For Less!” That's all Shawn. He also came up with the hover microphones for the book. Shawn's already mentioned the use of the censor bars, but that's a really good example of how this is really a co-created book.

BECKETT: How much input into the story have you had, and what are your thoughts – in general – on how best to approach this collaborative process?

Hmmm. I think it's different for everyone. The best approach for me is to follow the writer's lead, unless it doesn't make sense. The writer is the person who initiates the story. I get to do the rest – casting, wardrobe, set design, lighting, even staging to a great degree. If there's a call for a particular shot, I try to do it. If I can't make it look good, well, it's up to me to come up with some substitute that does look good... but I want the writer on board.

Yeah, sometimes wires get crossed, but I've been very fortunate to have worked with some great writers in my short career. Let's hope the trend continues!

BECKETT: I saw your art in a small press anthology a couple of years back and can really see how you have developed from then to now with this new book. What are some things that have helped you grow as an artist over these intervening years, and what advice would you give to prospective comic artists?

Oh man, just draw. Draw and draw and draw some more. Buy anatomy books and study those. Learn perspective. Go to life drawing classes. Go to cons and get reviewed. Get editors to do it too, I know they tell you not to do that until you think you're ready, but it's the best way to develop a thick skin. Just be polite as your work is being torn to pieces - you don't want to offend them - but they'll give you a good idea of what to fix in your pages. Hook up with starting out writers and finish the stories they write for you. The more writers you work with, the more you'll be able to tell who is good and who isn't - and you'll be able to start looking at scripts and seeing what's worth your time.

Self publish. These days it's easier than ever. Get your work printed at one of those “Print On Demand” printers and mail it out to every editor you can get an address for, and to reviewers as well. You'll eventually get feedback that'll tell you what needs work.

It's a long process. It's hard and you probably won't have a lot of time for friends or going out all the time, but if you really want to draw comics, it's the only way to do it. Just keep drawing them and don't quit.

BECKETT: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

I've got another couple pitches kicking around but nothing that's definite just yet. My main focus is going to be finishing One Last Song (#2 is being lettered as I type this) and promoting it, as well as the latest OGN I've drawn, called Against The Wall. We'll be approaching libraries with that this fall, so check it out there, or go to for more info on it.

Hurtt: I'm an editor for Dark Recesses Press and we're getting ready to launch our first print issue. We've been a paying fiction market for two years and are finally ready to cross over from the web to wood pulp. Check it out at .

I'm also working on a few other comics projects. Nothing really to announce now though.

Richter & Hurtt: One Last Song is available in your local comic store and issue #2 should be on the stands soon. We also just got onto wowio, so check out for info on how to get it there!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

FYC replay: Superior Showcase from AdHouse


For Your Consideration: Superior Showcase #2 from AdHouse Books
By Chris Beckett
The 411:
Superior Showcase #2
Written & Drawn by Maris Wicks,
Farel Dalrymple & Joey Weiser
Cover by James Jean
32 pages, black & white

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Superheroes are a tough nut to crack. On the one hand, they work best within the comics medium thanks in large part to the fact that the special effects budget of a comic consists of imagination, talent, pencil, paper, and ink. On the other hand, due to the ancillary economic benefits for licensing, the status quo of the majority of superheroes needs to remain constant, negating any real opportunity for growth within a given series. It is difficult to create something genuinely new within the realm of superheroes, but thankfully, Chris Pitzer, head honcho of AdHouse books, has found a solution with Superior Showcase.

Spinning out of AdHouse’s Project: Superior anthology, which saw independent cartoonists such as Paul Pope, Scott Morse, Dean Haspiel, and Brian Wood taking on the superhero genre, Superior Showcase is a standard 32-page comic showcasing other independent cartoonists’ take on superheroes. In this year’s issue, #2, Pitzer has gathered Maris Wicks, Farel Dalrymple, and Joey Weiser to play a new tune on an old stand-by, and the result is an incredibly fun book.

First up, Maris Wicks demonstrates the heroism of antibodies, neutrophils, and T-cells when they quickly come to the aid of a girl who scraped her knee while playing outside. A fun tale that imaginatively explores the battle between good (the antibodies) and evil (bacteria and other organisms foreign to the human body) that goes on every day within our bodies. She injects the story with action and drama as the bacteria attack, while also relating – in a very believable manner – the difficult task endured by the mother while trying to clean her daughter’s cut. Wicks’s simple art style meshes well with her amusing take on one of life’s universal experiences, making for an enjoyable read to which anyone can relate.

Second in line is Farel Dalrymple’s The Awesomest Super Guy, Hollis in: “Shadowsmen.” Dalrymple is well-known for his Pop Gun War graphic novel as well as short pieces in the Meathaus anthologies, and with “Shadowsmen,” he does not disappoint. A brooding tale that does not take itself too seriously, Hollis is an analogue of the famed caped crusader, Batman. Instilling fear into his enemies with a mask and a shadowy existence, Hollis comes to the aid of those in need. But, unlike Bruce Wayne, Hollis is a bit on the plump side. Despite being out of shape, his agility and speed are unmatched by the Shadowsmen and Hollis is able to save their latest victim with little difficulty.

Dalrymple’s style reminds me a bit of Joe Kubert’s, especially the manner in which he shades his figures to give them depth and form. The ease with which Hollis dispatches the villains and the victim’s subsequent skepticism regarding his savior all play to the heroic ideal set forth by the titular character, while Dalrymple’s evocation of the Batman myth also adds another layer to an already entertaining story.

Finally, in Joey Weiser’s The Unremarkable Tree Frog, readers are entertained by “everyday” superheroes working their corporate jobs. Tree Frog works in the mail room of a local “Business Co.” and whiles away his time daydreaming about Thievery Girl and how he might approach her for a date. On this particular day, he also discovers a fellow superhero in the art department named Jack Hammer. Always looking for like-minded individuals with whom he might discuss his affinity for superheroing, Tree Frog approaches him. But instead of the kindred spirit he’d anticipated, Tree Frog finds that Jack Hammer is an anti-hero. Disappointed, Tree Frog heads home at the end of another work day and runs into Thievery Girl, a scenario he has gone over in his mind a dozen times. But the question is, will he be suave, or will he be stupefied?

This tale by Weiser drops superheroes into the mundane world of the everyman, and his clean crisp art, which has a slight animation feel to it, really works to sell this story. The audience can relate to the common ups and downs Tree Frog experiences in his day job, and the hopes and fears of this “mail room hero” are ones everyone has experienced.

Superior Showcase #2 is an incredibly entertaining – and fun – comic book. For the same price of any mainstream book, one can get three inventive and enjoyable tales that look at superheroes from a new, and much appreciated, angle. AdHouse is doing some great stuff, and if you’ve never tried anything from this publisher before, I would recommend seeking out this book for a sample of the quality and diversity others have come to expect from them.

An Interview with CHRIS PITZER:

CHRIS BECKETT: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

The pretty pictures. Well, when I was a kid. That and the superhero fantasy. Again, when I was a kid. Nowadays, it’s more of the excitement of finding something new that I enjoy. If I publish it, hopefully that excitement will be shared with others.

BECKETT: How did the idea for Superior Showcase come together?

It was originally our Free Comic Book Day Comic oh so many years ago. To have some fun, we numbered that issue #0. After Project: Superior was done and in the can, and in stores, Nick Bertozzi told me that he had finally finished his Superior story. Well, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with Nick, so I came up with the idea of turning Superior into a floppy and just publishing them whenever the time was right. Which seems about once a year. We’ve got the third issue almost locked and loaded, and I’m pretty excited about the details of that one.

BECKETT: For these short pieces in Superior Showcase, do you solicit material from creators or do they come to you with proposals in hand?

Both. It all depends on whether or not what people submit works, and if it makes sense in a big picture sort of way. The second issue is rather interesting, because it seems that people either dig it or they don’t.

BECKETT: When aspiring creators approach you at conventions, what do you look for in their proposals?

Well, conventions aren’t really the place to give me a proposal. I mean, sure, I can take it, but I don’t have the time, or the mind-energy to actually look at it and give it a thoughtful critique or decision right then and there. I talked about this a bit on my SDCC countdown blog series, and basically, before a convention is over, I’ll sit down and divide the proposals into two piles... The ones I’ll take back and give some thought to and the ones that get left behind. I’m honest in that regard at a show, though. I’ll tell people if they only have a handful of proposals, they might be best served by taking it elsewhere (unless I’m floored by what I see.)

BECKETT: What do these aspiring creators forget or overlook when approaching you that could help them if they’d only remembered or considered it beforehand?

Know me (AdHouse) and know you. Sure, I’m going to branch out and do an oddball publishing thing here and there, but really, each publisher has their own vibe/vision.

BECKETT: What other projects are coming from AdHouse that you would like to tell readers about?

Let’s see.... The Ride Home by Joey Weiser just came out a bit ago. It’s a pretty cool all-ages romp of an adventure story about a gnome who gets kicked out of his van and has to survive in the biggish city. Skyscrapers of the Midwest #4 by Josh Cotter will be out in a few months. It’s the last issue of this series. Pretty neat in that if you look at all the covers, each one is a season. And, it’s pretty nice in that Josh has brought back a few characters from the previous issues, so it feels like one big story arc. And, Johnny Hiro #2 by Fred Chao should be hitting shelves soon. It’s at the printer as we type.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Movies: Amores Perros

Last week, I finally watched Amores Perros, the debut feature film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. I had seen 21 Grams when it first came out on video and was amazed by it – taking Quentin Tarantino’s non-linear approach (not that Tarantino created this, nor am I saying Iñárritu stole this from Tarantino, just tracing my own personal viewing history) to a new extreme. I also remember catching a re-run of a Charlie Rose interview with Naomi Watts, and possibly Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro, discussing 21 Grams. Watts mentioned Amores Perros as a film she had been so impressed with that she wanted to work with Iñárritu , which was why she signed on to 21 Grams. So, I knew I had to see this movie someday.

And Amores Perros did not disappoint. This was Crash before Crash, and, for me, it was a far more emotional film. It’s been a while since I saw Crash, but I think the fact that that movie had so many actors with whom I was familiar didn’t allow me to get as into the film emotionally as I might have.

But with Amores Perros, that was not the case. Certainly, I recognized Gael García Bernal from his turn in the Motorcycle Diaries, but other than that all of these actors were brand new for me. And that, coupled with the exotic locale (coming from a boy whose lived all his life in the wilds of Maine), made this a far more resonant film for me. The stories were heart-wrenching and distinct – no Hollywood clichés here – and when I realized a third of the way in how they were all going to be connected, I was completely engrossed.

The characters were engaging and they made you feel the pain they all went through. This is a harsh film, and the sets accentuate that fact. The movie feels “lived in” and the settings accentuate, and are an extension, of the emotional realities of the characters – whether it’s the ramshackle hovel of El Chivo, lost for so many years without his family, whom he left to be a revolutionary, or the pristine yet superficial apartment Daniel and Valeria have, signifying the fragile existence of their relationship and the tenuous foundation of Valeria’s “model” good looks upon which it appears to be built, the locales are extended metaphors for these broken characters.

This is a brilliant film that I highly recommend.


Friday, February 18, 2011

FYC replay: Parade (with Fireworks)

The 411:
Parade (with Fireworks)
Story & Art by Michael Cavallaro
72 pages,
full color, $12.99

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

The setting: Maropati, Italy. January 6, 1923. The occasion: the Feast of the Epiphany, a day of celebration and prayer. Revelers parade down the main street in their costumes while others attend services at the local chapel. It is a good day, one in which people can shrug off their cares for a time and enjoy the festive atmosphere floating over the land.

Of course, there will always be those few who are determined to blight any celebration. Gato and his minions – though goons might be a better description – disregard the celebration and glare at the masses from one street corner. Promoting fascism, they are a vocal minority in this tiny hamlet, which, despite the rise of this new ideology in Rome, is made up more of socialists than fascists. As the parade ends and worshippers exit the chapel, the band makes its way from the town square. Gato and his crew fall in beside them.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the street – both literally and philosophically – Vincenzo, Francone, and Cordiano also fall in behind the band. Heading in the same direction to meet with Vincenzo’s brother Paolo, and having been the ones to hire the band in the first place, they’d rather not see them harassed by Gato’s group of fascists. Despite rising tensions, the walk back to where Paolo and his friend the Professor await them elicits little more than raised voices and verbal barbs. It isn’t until they reach this destination that things go terribly wrong, with guns brandished, bullets flying, and Cordiano and Vincenzo in the dirt, blood spreading across their clothes.

This bloody turn of events sends Paolo into a rage. Pulling out the gun he brought back from Chicago, he fires wildly in the direction of Gato and his goons. For a long minute, all is chaos and very few people escape unharmed. As Gato flees and things calm down, the doctor is called. But before the Captain can arrive, Paolo too must flee. The Professor suggests he lay low while things blow over. Paolo runs down a side alley, his brother miraculously still breathing, though that reality may change by the time night descends on the small town.

Parade (with Fireworks) is a beautiful piece of historical fiction. After a short prologue delving into Paolo’s childhood and subsequent maturity, Cavallaro drops his readers right into the middle of this tale. With fully realized backgrounds and precise prose, he immerses his audience in small town Italy, 1923. Gazing back at the early 1920s from our position here in the infancy of the twenty-first century, it is easy for one to wax sentimental about a more innocent time, and Cavallaro evokes that beauty and simplicity masterfully. But Cavallaro is also cognizant of this “rose-tinged” view of bygone eras and refuses to sugarcoat anything because, despite the romanticizing of this time, this is as painful and harsh a place as one might encounter today. It is this balance that helps make Parade such an interesting read.

Although some might consider the storytelling in a 2-issue series to be rushed, those doubters would be sorely mistaken as Cavallaro’s pacing of Parade is superb. He allows the story to tell itself, raising the tension by small degrees through the pages of the book. With sharp dialogue, he manages to fill in the histories of these characters and their feud, which is not only ideological but also personal, in a manner that does not come across as overbearing. It would be easy to fall into the trap of forcing dialogue into a character’s mouth to relate this back story, but Cavallaro’s words all flow effortlessly, allowing his characters to breathe in a manner not often seen in comics.

Cavallaro also provides the art for this series, and his pared down style works well with the serious tone of his narrative. By simplifying his art, he is not only able to draw readers in more easily, but he also allows the characters to live this story in a way that makes it feel more genuine. And when I talk of his style being simplified, that should not be construed to mean that it is a simple achievement. The biggest hurdle cartoonists have in utilizing a style such as Cavallaro does on Parade is that if they falter in their execution, they are unable to hide behind the myriad crosshatchings that can mask poor anatomy or perspective. And luckily for readers, Cavallaro has nothing to hide. His work in Parade reminds me very much of the best of Gilbert Hernandez’s work on Love & Rockets.

Cavallaro is another alumnus of the Act-i-Vate web collective. His work is of a quality and individuality that demands readers of great stories to take notice. Cavallaro has spoken of this initial two-issue series being only the first of many tales he would like to create based upon his family history. One can only hope that Cavallaro will have the opportunity to continue his stories of 1920s Italy with Act-i-Vate as well as with Image, because as nice as it is to be able to view this great story online, I still enjoy having an actual physical copy in my hands that I can leaf through at my leisure.

An Interview with Michael Cavallaro

THE PULSE: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

That's a great question. I'm not really sure what the answer is. Once I discovered comics, I couldn't get enough of them. They really captured my imagination. As a kid, I spent hours lying around on the floor drawing. I think if you're like that, comics are a natural, obvious thing to latch on to. Comics seemed, at the time, to combine some of my favorite things; imaginative, fantastic stories and rich, dynamic artwork. For 35 cents, I could get lost for hours in a single book. There's nothing else like them. The prices have gone up since then, but there doesn't seem to be an end to the steady stream of great books from all over the world.

THE PULSE: Your art style is very clean and almost cartoony, which is meant as a compliment. How do you feel your art style meshes with a serious narrative such as Parade (with Fireworks)?

It's funny you should ask that, because the Parade "style" was something I worked at developing specifically to tell this story. I redrew some of the first pages 5 or 6 times each, struggling to simplify my line work and exclude everything that was not essential. That's what the story itself does. I could have gone off for another hundred pages on the surrounding politics or family relations, but I wanted it to retain that oral-tradition feel. When telling a story like this, it's easy to let your research take over and run away with the narrative. But I wanted to stick to just what you needed to know to make the story work in a form as close to how it was first told to me as possible. The artwork had to reflect that. What I was working towards was something that was more of a visual handwriting, so that it's not "part story, part drawing.” It's all one cohesive thing. More realistic artwork may have worked just as well, but I kind of feel that it would have drawn attention to itself. I didn't want the readers to be conscious of the drawing. I wanted them to just absorb the whole thing, unified.

THE PULSE: Being the writer and artist, how do you break down an issue? Do you think in terms of the visuals and tailor the dialogue to the story at that point, do you work from a script, or is it some combination of these processes?

I guess I think very visually. I don't write scripts. For Parade, I sat down with my dad and just took notes as he retold the story. I worked the notes into an outline. It was maybe two typed pages long. From that outline, I did little, two-inch high roughs of each page, with stick figures and simple shapes inside the actual panel layouts. I worked out and wrote the dialogue right on these. They're a mess. Only I can read them. From those, I went straight to the board and drew the final pages.

THE PULSE: When I spoke with you at the MoCCA Arts Festival in June, you talked about how Parade is actually a story from your own family’s history. Have you found the need to rework the actual facts in order to better dramatize this tale, and how do you reconcile your role as a creator with that as a family historian (for lack of a better term)?

I'll answer the last part first. I saw my role as that of a storyteller, and my goal was to tell a good story that would be interesting and entertaining.

As far as working or reworking the story, you have to recognize that even a good story needs to be composed in a way that dramatizes the events to their fullest effect. Think of a joke as kind of an extremely short story. Two people can tell the same joke, but only one makes it funny. Why? One teller understands composition and timing, and the other doesn't. Although the story was dropped in my lap, it was up to me to compose it in a compelling way. It was necessary to create scenes and dialogue that are essentially fictional in order to better convey the factual story in this format. That's just the nature of storytelling.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Well, always on my drawing board is my self-published series, 66 Thousand Miles Per Hour. 66kmph takes place in a fictional New Jersey town called Squareville, and chronicles the story of Evie Pryce, a hapless teenager who becomes stranded in her home town when the entire area is scooped-up and abducted by an alien on a secret mission. It was my way of taking a town like the one I grew up in, putting it under a microscope, and looking at what made it tick. I've published 4 individual issues that are available for mail order from, and I've sketched-out a 200-page graphic novel continuation.

I'm also well into a 154-page graphic novel for a major publisher, on which I'm working with another writer, but I can't say anything more about that right now. Hopefully, we can do another interview about that when the time is right!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

FYC replay: 13 Steps

Another one from the archives:


The 411:
Thirteen Steps
created by Phil Hester
Written by Phil Hester & Chuck Satterlee
Art by Kevin Mellon
136 pages
b/w with gray tones, $15.99
Desperado Publishing

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

What if you were a werewolf in a reality where that wasn’t all that out of the ordinary? And what if you didn’t like what you were? How would you handle that? You could benefit from attending a support group for supernatural beings. That’s exactly what Justin Ullrich does in the new series from Desperado Publishing, Thirteen Steps.

For generations, Justin’s family has been cursed with the blood of the werewolf. Every month, when the cycle of the moon burns toward its apex, Justin needs to be locked behind a reinforced steel door so that he won’t get out and harm anyone. But the best laid plans often go awry and this door doesn’t always hold. When the Wolf is upon him, Justin can’t help what he does, can’t help who he is. It’s not that he loses all sense of humanity when he turns. It’s that within the wolf state he no longer cares about the morality thrust upon him by society.

When the wolf isn’t in control though, Justin’s life is relatively normal. He runs the family’s roller skating rink. Every Sunday he goes to church with his mother. Father Frank, the minister, is not only a good friend of the family, but he also coached Justin in little league. Watching Justin grow and continue to improve as a baseball player has been a personal joy for Father Frank, and he gets as excited about Justin’s achievements on the local semi-pro team as Justin’s mother does. It’s such a passion for Father Frank that he always neglects Justin’s time in the Confessional, preferring to talk hardball.

It is this life that Justin longs to have. He doesn’t wish to be a werewolf or to have a succubus as a girlfriend, which is why he recently broke up with Erin. Justin wants what everyone wants, to be accepted and to live his life with as little fanfare as possible. It’s a small dream but one that seems to reside on the far side of some invisible chasm.

Surprisingly, it is Erin, dropping back into Justin’s life in the hope of rekindling the lust they once felt, that directs him to the support group. Unlike Justin, Erin embraces who she is, relishing the fact that she isn’t some mundane human. It is difficult for her to understand why Justin finds his “animal nature” to be such a burden. But despite her disdain for Justin’s feelings on this subject, she implores him to go to the meeting. Maybe there he can find the solace he craves so much. But things won’t be easy.

Personally, I feel that Phil Hester is one of the most underrated writers in comics. His work always manages to entertain, and more often than not makes one think. Thirteen Steps, co-written with Chuck Satterlee, is no exception. The creative team smartly chooses not to sensationalize the existence of supernatural beings within this world. By treating it so matter-of-factly, they are able to draw in readers who might get turned off by something more fantastical. Grounding the story in this way also makes the characters more believable. They aren’t the over-the-top creatures found in pulp magazines but real people with genuine fears and dreams. The fact that Justin wants to find a way to break this curse, or at least deal with it in a manner resulting in less bloodshed, illustrates that perfectly. It’s a brilliant move on the part of the creators, and one that pays dividends with the emotional heart of this story.

A book about supernatural creatures seeking help through an analogue of AA could have been played for jokes quite easily, but thankfully Hester and Satterlee chose not to go that route. A lot of thought has been put into this story, as evidenced by the opening scene where Justin, in wolf form, chases down an overnight delivery man. Within his internal monologue, the audience learns about the nature of the werewolf – that it isn’t so much the fact that the beast sublimates the host’s humanity but that, with the beast in ascendance, the human side no longer cares about its ethical obligations. Little bits like this and the conversation Justin has with his ex-girlfriend Erin, who happens to be a succubus, help to elevate this book above the traditional supernatural tale.

On art for this series is Kevin Mellon, with whom I was previously unacquainted, and he turns in a superb job. Mellon’s storytelling is clear and precise and his ability to express emotion through the characters’ faces is skillfully subtle. Utilizing a standard grid layout – though one he manipulates to great effect – Mellon only deviates from this when the story calls for it. Whether it is a scene where Justin is attacked by a militant werewolf group, or one where he chases down a couple of hunters in his guise as a werewolf, Mellon has a powerful storytelling sense that allows him to design a comic page for the most effective impact. Also, by showcasing this aspect of his artistry sparingly, it allows those pages to stand out and accentuate the storytelling in a manner often lacking in a lot of mainstream comics.

Thirteen Steps was the first offering from Desperado Publishing after amicably parting ways with Image comics. It is a fine introduction to the quality and entertainment provided by Joe Pruett’s company, and I would heartily recommend you check it out.

An Interview with Kevin Mellon

THE PULSE: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

um, control. That’s the easy answer. I get too bored writing prose fiction, I don't have the patience to work on a single image for an illustration or painting for months on end, and I’m way too into myself to make movies where you have to rely heavily on other people to bring your vision about. So comics it is.

Plus, I grew up reading them, and they were the perfect bridge between the novels I was reading and the movies I was watching. Growing up, everything is about imagination. You need just enough information to spark it, but not too much that you can't add your own spin to it in your head. Comics fits into that so neatly, because of its reliance on the reader to fill in the gaps between the panels and to read between the lines of what a character is thinking/saying/doing. Plus, it's a medium that plays on the mind’s ability to see a page as a whole thing, but consciously choose to ignore it. The reader forces themselves not to spoil the story and I think that's something that is fun and unique to comics alone.

Plus, the standard answer of "big budget action and drama made with no budget.” As much as we've advanced with movie making, it's still infinitely cheaper for me to draw a werewolf than it is to cgi one, or dress a live human up as one.

That and it's fun. A whole lot of fun.

THE PULSE: Much of the story in 13 Steps is told with a traditional comic grid, but there are a few pages where you open up the design of the page, such as Issue 1 page 24, or page 22 of the second issue. Was this in the script or were you able to design the page yourself?

that page element was not in the script (I believe it just asked for a skating montage), and that's actually one of my favourite pages from issue 1. Phil usually does all the page design and layouts on the books that he writes that he doesn't draw, and that's good for a lot of people, and it works very well. I asked to do my own layouts because unlike a lot of artists I’ve met, that's where all the creativity and fun and joy of making a comic book page lies. Determining the look, pace, camera placement on a page is the thing that I get to have the most fun and really show who I am and what I think on the page.

I don't always work on a specific panel grid, but for the kind of book that 13 Steps is, I figured out pretty early on that I could work from a 4, 5, or 6 panel widescreen (across the page) panel grid and then split those in half as needed. So that's what I’ve been working from on 13 Steps. The page that you mention was me consciously trying to break that monotony to show a moment of someone letting go for a minute. Hope it worked.

I tend to do more "widescreen" style layouts, because those are the kind of shots that I see in my head. I’d love to chalk it up to being influenced by people like Bryan Hitch, but I started doing it before I was into his work (i.e. before he did Authority). Seeing him do it well is what made me continue to do it and to work on developing my visual vocabulary for doing such a thing.

THE PULSE: Along those same lines, how much input with the story did you have?

other than changing a few panels worth of pacing here and there, none. (I have a tendency to draw more panels than less, and often in the script they'll ask for a splash or a panel that takes up most of the page and my sensibilities don't really lay in splashes or huge panels so I’ll break them up into more panels/actions. a good example is issue 1 page 14 where the succubus Erin is talking to Justin in his bedroom. I believe the script only asked for 4 panels, one of which being a really big one for her to deliver her monologue to Justin. I like character moments where you can really play with the beat of how people speak and I like to take the time to figure out the different facial moments I can take a character through while they are speaking. So I broke it up into the extra panels, which I think conveys her frustration with him much better than just one static shot with a lot of words in it).

THE PULSE: The gray-wash look adds a lot to the feel of the story. Are you responsible for this aspect of the artwork as well, and how is that achieved?

I am, and thank you. It’s just Photoshop. For consistency and mostly time, I set up a rule of working only from 3 grey tones (25%, 50% and 75%) plus the white and black that are on the page already. Most of the issues are one or two tones, and then a third will be dropped in here and there when further clarification or depth is needed in a panel/page.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

my book with Dennis Hopeless, Gearhead, just wrapped up with issue 4. We’re working on putting the trade together for that. I assume that will be out later this year/early next year. That also has been optioned for film by a company called Darius Films.

Also, with Dennis Hopeless, we're working on a book called Cupid. It’s about love as a corporation. It follows kali, a new recruit into cupid's "army" of corporate saboteurs. I’m awful at selling concepts, but trust me, it's good. Think Dead Like Me crossed with Veronica Mars, only with love. We’re talking to a publisher about it now, and we should be announcing it soon.

I believe I’m also supposed to do a couple issues on Phil’s book 'Golly!'.

Friday, February 11, 2011

FYC replay: Borrowed Time from Oni Press

Here's a look at a book that I profiled in my Pulse column that, to my knowledge, has yet to be finished. Borrowed Time by Neal Shaffer and Joe Infurnari has a great "what if" premise, and I hope that it finally gets finished some day.

For Your Consideration: Borrowed Time
By Chris Beckett
The 411:
Borrowed Time
Written by Neal Shaffer
Art by Joe Infurnari
Black & White
Vol. I, 80 pages, $6.95
Vol. II, 64 pages, $5.95

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Life could not get much better for Taylor Devlin. His career as a journalist affords him the luxury of traveling the globe in search of a story. It also allows him to live in a very nice apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend. With her, he has come to understand true love and plans on asking her to marry him. Things are about as perfect as they can get.

His latest assignment takes him to the Bermuda Triangle. Hitching a ride on a cargo liner, Taylor intends to get some first-hand experience, per his client’s request, in order to “liven up” the piece he is writing for them. As he boards the ship and meets the Captain, Taylor is reassured that things should generally be uneventful.

But that night, Mother Nature takes umbrage with all the forecasters predicting calm skies and attacks the cargo liner, buffeting the ship and its crew with high winds and rough seas. Devlin is warned off by one of the crewmembers but rushes up top to witness the fury of the storm. Admonished by the Captain, he is told to return to his cabin. The crew needs to fight the storm and Devlin would only be in the way. But as Taylor turns, he is confronted by a huge wave barreling over the side of the ship. It crashes into the dazed man, knocks him to the deck, and leaves Devlin unconscious until morning.

When he awakes, Devlin finds he is now alone on the ship, nothing to console him but the few remaining bottles of whiskey. The liner aimlessly wanders the Atlantic for six days before a chopper finds Devlin and brings him back to Norfolk. Happy to be back on land and only a phone call away from his girlfriend, Devlin wonders at the destruction surrounding him at the airfield. The chopper pilot hints at some explanation, but goes no further than some cryptic statements. He does, however, send Devlin to a man who can help, though the explanation awaiting him is one he is ill prepared to hear.

As astounding as it may be, Taylor Devlin is now one of the Lost. Caught in some quantum conundrum, he may still reside in the same geographic area, but temporally he now rests ten seconds out of sync with the world he has left. As it is explained to him, there are rifts, or seams, in the fabric of time. It is through one of these rifts that Taylor Devlin has passed. From this, the obvious question to ask is: what if somebody wants to go back to what they left behind? Devlin is told that’s not possible.

But is it?

The Bermuda Triangle has provoked speculation for over a century. The site of multiple unexplained disappearances by marine and air vessels, the aura surrounding this area of the Atlantic has spurred explorers and investigators to create elaborate hypotheses in order to explain these vanishings. Though most of these anomalies have been found to be exaggerated or, in some cases, inaccurately reported, many of the disappearances still remain unexplained, and this patch of water off the southern United States coast continues to provide fodder for authors and talkers around the world.

Most of the tales surrounding the Triangle involve extraterrestrials, a suspension of the laws of physics, or some other supernatural circumstance. Though these might make for good yarns around a campfire, they are forgettable studies in over-the-top storytelling for the most part. Luckily, Neal Shaffer and Joe Infurnari choose not to go the sensationalistic route and ground Borrowed Time squarely in this world of ours. The interests of these creators lay more with the relationships between people and what happens when they are overcome by unbelievable circumstances.

It’s the humanity found within Borrowed Time that makes this such an enjoyable book. Shaffer isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions. What would someone do if they lost all they had and loved? How would they react if the person for whom they cared the most was only seconds away, but those seconds were multiplied across time and space so that being able to touch them, to be with them, to love them would be an impossibility? Through Taylor Devlin, readers’ reactions to these questions are mirrored in his actions. He has trouble accepting this fanciful tale, and refuses to believe he will never return home. And yet, on the other side, Devlin discovers new friends – though acquaintances may be a better description – and works to survive as best he can in a world that is as similar, and as foreign, as anything he’s ever encountered.

Shaffer taps into that basic human fear of being uprooted and set down into an alien existence. It is one to which any reader will be able to relate, and Shaffer’s humanization of this fantastic premise more readily allows his audience to empathize with Taylor Devlin than if he had been stolen to some otherworldly planet. By eschewing the easy route, Shaffer imbues his narrative with a richness that can often be lacking in a science fiction milieu and keeps readers anxious for what will happen next. Couple this with the mysteries that Shaffer has set up – how did these people end up here and how is it that “Butch” is able to traverse the divide when everyone believes it impossible – and one has an exciting tale in their hands.

The artwork from Joe Infurnari, a winner of Oni’s 2005 talent search, perfectly complements the story set forth by Shaffer. His style hearkens back to masters of the medium like John Romita Sr. and Curt Swan – clean, delicate lines without the overworked cross-hatching that was such a staple in the late eighties and early nineties. His figures are very real and the settings in which they live resemble the world outside our windows – at least when we find ourselves on this side of the divide.

Infurnari also contrasts the two worlds very well, portraying the “other world” as a run-down cluttered place where there is very little in the way of social services or public works. The setting mirrors the fractured emotional state of all those people now residing there. But thankfully, Infurnari does not overdo it, preferring to subtly incorporate the clutter and disrepair into this strange place. This tactful impression of an alien existence by Infurnari allows readers to more easily relate to this predicament, complementing Shaffer’s script beautifully and pulling readers into this story with Devlin. It is a wonderful merging of creative minds that should hopefully prove to be another success for Oni.

An Interview with SHAFFER:

THE PULSE: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

It wasn’t something that I originally set out to do. Rather, it grew out of my collaborations with Daniel Krall, who I worked with on our Oni Press series One Plus One. The more he and I worked together and talked, the more excited I got about comics. I just love the freedom of the medium. I love the fact that you can use quiet moments and give people a chance to linger on an emotion or a word and the story doesn’t keep marching like it would in a film. Nor does it leave everything up to the imagination like a novel. Comics are really a wonderfully unique way to tell a lot of different stories.

Kind of a rambling answer, I know, but it’s a good question. There’s not just one way to answer it.

THE PULSE: How many books will comprise Borrowed Time?

There will be a total of six parts, but they might not come out as six separate books. We’re talking about the release schedule with Oni right now.

THE PULSE: Do you have the entire series mapped out already or are you allowing some of it to write itself as you move through the script process?

I have much of the story mapped out, but I do leave a lot of room for discovery. Things constantly reveal themselves to me as I go. It’d be kind of silly to just ignore them, so I try to stay as loose as possible without completely losing my anchor.

THE PULSE: Pacing is an important talent when writing for comics and yet it’s something that really can’t be taught. That said, the pacing in these first two volumes of Borrowed Time has been masterfully handled. How are you approaching the pacing for these books, or are you even conscious of it?

Well, thanks first for the compliment. I really appreciate it.

To answer your question, I’m not really conscious of it. I mean I’m conscious of it in a very innate, visceral way, but I’m not precisely working on it. It’s one of those things, like a pitcher’s windup and delivery, that will start to fail if you get too conscious of it.

THE PULSE: What does Joe Infurnari bring to this series with his art and has he surprised you with anything – a panel, a page – that might have spurred you to take the story in a direction you may not have originally intended?

What doesn’t he bring? Joe’s an absolute monster and I’m terribly lucky to have him on the book. I don’t know that there’s been a specific instance where his art has pushed the story in one direction or another, but he does have all the leeway he wants to interpret the script as he sees it best. I couldn’t be happier with the results.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Right now all of my other projects exist outside of comics. I’m working on a screenplay, some sports writing, a cookbook, and trying to get into advertising and copywriting. But I do have some comics stuff hopefully coming down the pike, and I’ll make sure to let you know if/when they become official.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

FYC replay: Some New Kind of Slaughter

For Your Consideration: Some New Kind of Slaughter ~or~ Lost in the Flood (and How We Found Home Again): Diluvian Myths from Around the World from mpMann and A. David Lewis
By Chris Beckett

The 411:
Some New Kind of Slaughter ~or~ Lost in the Flood (and How We Found Home Again):
Diluvian Myths from Around the World
Written by mpMann and A. David Lewis
Art by mpMann
136-page HC, full color, $19.95
Archaia Comics

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Ziusudra, the Sumerian predecessor to Noah, is restless. Having convinced friends and family to join him, they now sail across their flooded world in a great wooden ship, and he finds himself alone with the darkness, questioning the wisdom of that choice. Ziusudra erected the vessel at the behest of the god Enki, who spoke to him through a crack in the wall of the city Shuruppak. Is that the action of a sane man? He has no answer, and none is forthcoming in the damp night. Haunted by visions, Ziusudra wonders at how calm the beasts are and wishes that same solace could blanket the rest of the crew.

These visions come unbidden to Ziusudra, heightening his anxiety. A woman in his far future – our present – worries for her daughter as a hurricane rapidly approaches. In Arnhem Land, the rainbow serpent Yurlanggur raises a flood, taking the lives of two boys he’d orphaned when their mothers attracted his notice. In Africa, a magical pot that never runs out of water is carelessly shattered. Flowing endlessly for a year, the torrent it releases not only creates the great river Nile and the Mediterranean Sea into which it flows, but also drowns the family to which the pot had been entrusted. And all the while, the tale of Noah moves across Ziusudra’s visions, passing in and out among these multiple tales while the fate of the mother and daughter from his future is also revealed to Ziusudra.

One thing that makes humankind unique is our need to tell stories. Across millennia, and around the globe, bards have shared their tales of wonder and despair with all willing to listen. There were no twenty-four hour news channels centuries ago, and the spreading of news relied upon the memories and the tongues of travelers. Over time, many of these stories were lost to the ages, but just as many – if we are allowed a hint of optimism – survived in one form or another. And today the tradition continues with new stories, as well as old, being written and rewritten for a newer generation.

A close reading of these fictions, particularly the ancient texts that have survived, can more readily illuminate a culture than any direct observations. These stories open up our collective souls, and lay bare the deepest fears and greatest hopes of generations. It is interesting to note that, despite the wide expanse of geography and time, many of the same stories – or at least similar ones – can be found in almost every society. This is the motivation for Some New Kind of Slaughter by Lewis and Mann. Within this four-issue series from Archaia Studios Press, these two creators have brought together multiple flood myths from across the world – China, India, Australia, Africa, and the Americas – in order to create a compelling and emotional narrative that touches upon the most basic of human instincts – survival and acceptance. It is a creative use of ancient stories that sheds light upon the fears and desires of modern society through comics.

When I first learned of this series from artist mpMann, I made the assumption that Slaughter would be an anthology, but that would have been the easy way out and not as entertaining. Instead of taking that route, Lewis and Mann chose to create one single narrative that ties in all of these myths. For a medium that seems to thrive upon the perpetuation of the status quo, this was certainly a gutsy decision to make, and readers should thank them for taking that risk.

What Lewis and Mann offer with Slaughter is an incredibly complex story that effortlessly moves in and out of these various tales. Although the first narrative jump could be jarring for readers, once they are aware of the intricate fashion in which this series has been crafted, they can settle in for an enjoyable and thought-provoking ride. The authors utilize both written and visual cues to help transition from one period to the next, and subsequent readings will offer readers a better understanding of the multiple depths hidden within this tale.

Some New Kind of Slaughter is another step forward for the comic medium, showcasing a complexity sorely lacking in most of the comics found on racks today. Co-written by Mann and Lewis, who live on opposite coasts, it is a testament to these two creators that the text reads seamlessly, and Mann’s artwork is again a wonder to behold. His pared down style evokes more emotion than a more “photo-realistic” artist might be able to. Not only is this a well-written book, but it is also a “pretty” book that fans of great storytelling will enjoy.

The only way for comics to continue to evolve is if challenging books such as Some New Kind of Slaughter find an audience. The first issue is in the October edition of Previews, and if you enjoy great comics that are challenging and will make you think, then you should inform your local comic shop. That’s the only way to guarantee you won’t miss out. And if you want to check out a behind the scenes look at the creation of this book, head over to A. David Lewis’s website and read the production blog he is posting there. It is a rare and interesting look at the creative process.

An Interview with A. David Lewis and mpMann:

THE PULSE: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

A. David Lewis:
Some people have argued that we're wired for comics. That is, our brains enjoy processing images and words together, combining them together for even more potent messaging. To some degree, I agree, and that makes comics rather rare. On the other hand, I'm just a fan of good storytelling, whether it's through film, song, prose, or what-have-you. As it stands, I've simply found that I have greater success -- whether that's skill or luck -- performing storytelling through comics than through, say, short stories or poems. (Trust me on this.) It fits for me, in short.

THE PULSE: When you first mentioned Some New Kind of Slaughter as a collection of flood myths, I expected the book to be an anthology. I was very impressed at how you interwove all of the stories in order to tell one long tale. How did the idea for this book, and its narrative form, come about?

Marvin Mann:
Dave is the one who first broached the idea of doing something with *all* of the world's flood myths. It was quickly obvious that we couldn't do ALL of them, but would have to give a representative sampling, with an emphasis on several, based on the similarities and differences, plus the amount of story available for each.

We settled on four.

The story of Ziusudra comes from Sumeria by way of Babylonia through the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is thus the most ancient known to us, and it became the throughline for the entire book, with the other stories occurring as his "visions.”

You can't do a flood book without Noah, and Dave went to town culling variants and developing a vision of the story that shifts the usual focus. This is the crown jewel of the book.

I was able to collapse two distinct flood myths from China into one coherent narrative, and I'm proud of the synthesis. It comes together like one story.

And the fourth story, the modern one about a woman who enters a flood zone to find her lost family highlights the theme of mankind's responsibility to the world, which runs in a minor key through most of the myths.

There are around a dozen other myths and stories that pepper the book in quick hits, and we tried to pick up themes and ideas as we run from one story to the next and back again.

THE PULSE: The storytelling in Some New Kind of Slaughter is very complex. How did you and Marv come to the decision to write it in this manner, and did you have any reservations about presenting the story this way?

A. David Lewis:
No reservations here. It'll challenge the reader, but I'm not one who likes playing to the lowest common denominator, generally.

The choice of narrator is largely Marv's, I feel, but I entirely stand by the decision. When I brought the idea of World Floods to him, he was already playing with the whole Ziusudra myth in his head. And, rather than foregrounding Noah any more than we had to -- audiences already being knowledgeable with the biblical story, perhaps to a fault -- I think we opted to go with a less familiar "proto-Noah.” It kinda decenters things from the get-go and signals the reader that this won't be the traditional story she might expect.

THE PULSE: With Some New Kind of Slaughter and Lone and Level Sands, you two seem to have carved out an ancient myths niche for yourselves in the comic publishing world. What is it about these ancient stories that speaks to you and convinced you that writing them would be a sound creative and business decision? And Marv, What is it about these ancient times that appeals to you as an artist?

A. David Lewis:
For my part, I sort of backed into it. I mean, I didn't say, "You know, I should really focus all of my comics writing on adapting myths and biblical stories for comics!” So, at first, it really wasn't any sort of business decision. But, back when I was self-publishing my Mortal Coils comic, I found that's where many of my stories kept going: While set in the modern day, they all started naturally developing ties to various myths, classic stories, or pantheons. I found that I was writing pieces that were more satisfying (for myself, at least) if they had these nuggets lying in their cores.

After a while, though, I was inclined to go straight after those "cores" themselves -- thus, The Lone and Level Sands. There were aspects of the Exodus story that never sat right with me and, frankly, no adaptation had ever addressed in a way that worked any better. (Most often, these hiccups and obstacles were swept under the rug by, say The Ten Commandments or Prince of Egypt rather than confronted.) In collaborating with Marv on the project, I didn't know if it would be profitable or a quiet financial failure; I just knew that I wanted to do it and had a great artist (and storyteller in his own right) to do it with.

The Lone and Level Sands, ultimately, worked. And so, we were a little more inclined and a little less shy, I guess, about going after a whole world of sacred or mythic traditions for Some New Kind of Slaughter than only sticking with the Judeo-Christian-Muslim source. In a way, the full title of the series somewhat reflects how wide we're aimed with this one: Some New Kind of Slaughter, or Lost in the Flood (And How We Found Home Again): Diluvian Myths from Around the World. That's a lot to deliver, but we're eager to do it.

Marvin Mann: I wanted to do sword and sorcery.

Well, that's a flippant answer, but there's a kernel of truth. I like ancient history, and myth and origins. I also like to read books on evolution and cosmology (for laymen, mind) and stories about the gods. And these stories are the foundation of Conan and other sword and sorcery tales.

Still, I didn't set out to do this; it just developed, and my next project will be a comedy/horror western, so there's a change of pace. But I've some projects for next year that will bring me back to the ancient world.

THE PULSE: Since you were writing and drawing Slaughter, how did the creative process go for you on this book? Did you work from a full script or prefer to thumbnail and dialogue from that?

Marvin Mann:
I work from a full script, mostly to develop the dialogue and narrative captions. My panel descriptions tend to be lean, and focused on the emotional nuance to be projected. Sometimes I'll indicate close ups or full shots, and key elements that must be included. For talking head scenes, it's not much more than the dialogue and emotional intent.

Dave and I went back and forth quite a bit on the first chapter, both during outlining and in the first draft. As we figured out what we were doing, the mutual edits became lighter. Dave had done huge research on Noah, and that was his chief focus. I tended to take the lead in pushing things forward, with Dave's consent, but the initial idea was his and this book would never have happened without him.

THE PULSE: What did you learn from your experience writing Some New Kind of Slaughter, and how will you be able to apply that to your artwork, and your writing, going forward?

Marvin Mann:
I've had difficulty in drawing things I've written in the past. It becomes too precious, I think. Doing this gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to partner with myself in the future.

THE PULSE: For aspiring writers reading this, what is the most important piece of advice you can share that is often overlooked by untested talent?

A. David Lewis:
It's important to remember that you're not just creating comics; you're creating stories. Therefore, it's important to be versed in storytelling both within the comics medium but also from traditions well outside of it. How stories are told are as important to me as what stories are told -- or why. Therefore, knowing your motivation, knowing your message, and knowing your medium is as important as your plot (or, heaven forbid, your style). Sometimes I manage to figure out all four!

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

A. David Lewis:
I had the opportunity recently to be part of Jason Rodriguez's Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened with art by Danielle Corsetto (Girls with Slingshots). And, I've done a little bit of changing gears for a bit by writing a series of upcoming role-playing adventures for Archaia Studios Press's Artesia: Adventures in the Known World system. Meanwhile, I'm co-planning a big academic conference at Boston University called "Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels" taking place in April. (Our patron, the Luce Foundation for Scripture and Literary Arts, has it listed on their site at .) Lastly, I'm developing a new series that still requires a lot of research, tentatively titled Stitches, but that won't surface for at least a year, if not more...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

FYC Replay: the work of Alex Wilson

For Your Consideration: Inconsequential Art and The First Noel from Alex Wilson, et al.
By Chris Beckett

The 411:
Inconsequential Art #1 & 2
Written by Alex Wilson
Art by Dennis Culver (issue1), Jenna Huisken (issue 2)
12pp. 3.5”x2”, b/w
$1 each or 8 for $5

The First Noel
Written by Alex Wilson
Shot by Jack Lucido
28pp. photo-comic
Available online

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Alex Wilson has many hats in his closet. He writes prose – a short story of his ran in the WHAT issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction – creates poetry, has experience as a short film and stage actor, and has contributed gaming features to periodicals such as Dragon Magazine, along with a number of multimedia creations that can be found on his site. But comics is in his blood, and his love for the medium helped birth his recent mini comics, which are about as mini as one can get.

Inconsequential Artissues 1 and 2 are the size of a business card, and they have something often missing in today’s comics, an abundance of fun. Playing off the title, Wilson slides tongue firmly into cheek and plays with the possibilities of the medium. The first issue includes a silent comic titled “The Amateur” drawn by Dennis Culver whose artwork matches nicely with the farcical nature of this story. In these seven pages, readers are treated to a young man doing what all young men do best, making an ass of himself while trying to impress an attractive young woman, who he has just met outside his favorite coffee house. The problem is, this girl smokes, but the guy does not. He quickly hatches a plan to facilitate becoming more tolerant of the cigarette smoke in order to get closer to this woman. The thought process behind his strategy should be familiar to many, as well as the warped logic behind it all. The results are humorous, and the final page brings a climax filled with humor and irony that emerges directly out of the previous events. In the end, it is the only ending that fits, and yet readers will not see it coming.

The second issue of Inconsequential Artdoesn’t actually have any comics, though it does contain a gag cartoon drawn by Jenna Huisken as its centerfold. The meat of this tiny comic is an interactive story in the “choose your own adventures” mode, with Wilson’s sarcasm firmly ensconced within the options and consequences. This one took me back to when I was younger and picked up a number of Choose Your Own Adventure “novels” based upon Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle. I loved those books and would pore over them daily, trying to work my way through to the end without being devoured by a dragon or sliced up by orcs. Having grown up – a bit – in the intervening years, the caustic irony Wilson laces the story with is a welcome relief for this mid-30s cynic. Like the first issue, this one will bring a smile to readers’ faces and transport many back to the wonder of their youth. And with the many choices available, readers are rewarded with a different tale each time they open it up.

The final mini, The First Noel, was actually produced as a short film – utilizing still images as with the short film La Jetée – a few years ago, but Wilson was not happy with the results and translated it to comics where the static images could play to the strengths of the narrative. Like the first issue of Inconsequential Art, this is a silent comic, but unlike his other minis, The First Noel is more serious in tone.

Living alone in a cramped apartment, the protagonist of the piece is experiencing – it certainly could not be described as celebrating – Christmas Eve. In the middle of his living room, if one can call it a proper room, he is eating a microwave dinner as he watches television on his small TV. He is alone, not well off, and yet, throughout the story, he is playing with his wedding band. This facet of the narrative compels readers to ask why is he alone and what happened to drop him into this sad state.

Each panel of this comic is a window into the story, into this man’s life. The audience is able to experience his anger, his frustration, and his sadness through these windows, and it is as palpable as the emotions evoked by any good film or novel. The First Noel is a touching and heartbreaking tale that is related brilliantly through the choice of images and use of long shots that not only expose the meager surroundings in which he lives, but also shares the isolation he must be suffering on what should be the happiest night of the year. This is really an amazingly effective short comic, and one I would heartily recommend to your attention.

An Interview with Alex Wilson

THE PULSE: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

I'm a visual thinker, and comics are about as dynamic a mass medium as you can get without utensils. And by that I mean a chunk of audio (music or spoken word) requires at minimum an audio player, film requires a media player, video games require a console. But to have a self-contained pile of story that doesn't require any tool to enjoy, you've got prose and comics printed on dead tree.

I've written and created in a number of media but almost every story for me starts as a comic. In a perfect world, the story would dictate the medium, but at this early point in my career, given a choice between (a) selling a prose story to an existing publisher and collecting $400+ or (b) creating a comic, from hiring an artist to setting up distribution channels, and paying $2000+ for the privilege... it's easy to choose prose in most cases. Hell, I'm hoping the former can pay for the latter eventually.

A lot of the prose stories I've written, I had to re-imagine for a non-comics medium during the creation process, simply because the prose world has slush piles where I have a one-in-a-thousand shot, and my queries don't earn replies from even the smaller comics publishers. But I'll keep at it. Comics are my first love and no publishing realities can take that away from me.

THE PULSE: The First Noel and Inconsequential Art #1 and #2 are mini comics in the most literal sense. What went into the decision making process for the format of each book?

I remember giving someone a self-printed business card with my URL on it and a month later he Googles me to find my site. I was lucky he bothered. He didn't hang on to the card. And why should he? It was an ad for my benefit more than his.

An artist might add value to that card with a slice of her work. A pretty man might put his photo on it. But how can a storyteller add value when the narrative canvas is no bigger than a credit card? Foldable business cards gave me four pages. Three foldable business cards stapled together like a booklet gave me twelve pages, including cover. I met artist Dennis Culver at Warren Ellis's The Engine forum, and he "got" what I wanted to do. He illustrated the main 7-page story and cover of the first issue, which is garnished with a 12-line science fiction story-poem about NASCAR and Einstein's special theory of relativity. The bulk of the second issue is a text choose-your-own-adventure piece I first published in the humor e-zine called Planet Relish. I'm a literary guest at Trinoc-Con in August. I'll put my panel schedule on the back cover of IA#2 and see how it flies.

THE PULSE: The First Noel is a heartfelt story that comes across as biographical. What was the inspiration for this mini comic?

Thanks! I'd worked as an actor with a director named Jack Lucido. He wanted to collaborate on a piece for a local holiday film festival. Our limitations included no cast/crew but us two, just a few hours to shoot, and little/no sound equipment other than the on-camera mike. I wrote shot lists for two stories, one humorous and one serious. I kept those limitations in mind and wrote to their strengths, which allowed us to film both. The humorous one ended up working quite well as a ten-second film grenade (available on my site and YouTube as "The Three Rs") and won probably the most audible reaction from the audience at the festival, but I won't spoil it by describing the sound. The serious one isn't biographical, but that type of personal resonance sans dialogue was what I was going for. It was a series of still images. We imagined La Jetée, but the result was a slide show. But again it's about letting the story dictate the medium. I just wanted to let the story exist and what I had with those images was sequential art. I turned it into a standalone webcomic story (available on my site as "The First Noel") last year.

The minicomic version I showed you was little more than a proof of concept, to see what the challenges would be to produce a story in the printed form with the least amount of cost. I probably created a dozen copies total, and I ultimately decided that the images breathed more freely as the webcomic than they did in the black-and-white mini. But it got me past the technical challenges that allowed me to create Inconsequential Art.

THE PULSE: Why Inconsequential Art as a title for your minis?

I don't know, but for novels and other thick, grand projects, I like small titles, like "Zounds!" or "Percussing Billy.” For short stories and other morsels I like big titles, like "Stabbing Ain't Nothing But the Eskimo Word for Nookie" or "You Know More Things to Do with Wet Shorts Than Anyone I Know.” The more prepositions the better, because it gives you these beautiful capitalization minefields.

The most obvious play on the word "Sequential Art" is "Consequential Art." Not only would that title feel pretentious, but it's also incorrect if you're describing these little business card-sized comics. So "Inconsequential Art" it is. And you know it's long enough when it barely fits on the cover of an issue. And neither Culver nor the artist I'm talking to for issue #3 have felt that it was a slam on them (calling their particular work inconsequential) so it looks like I got away with the title.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Head on over to Click on "Find My Work" or for the latest and greatest.

In a few weeks, a story illustrated by Mario Boon will appear in the upcoming fund-raiser anthology Hope: New Orleans, from Ronin Studios. I've got a five page Future Shock-style story currently being illustrated for the British comic anthology series FutureQuake, but I'm not sure about the timeline for that.

Steve Milligan, easily the best cinematographer I know, has directed a few films I've worked on, including a comedy-ish short, "Fin de Siecle," (co-written by Jeremy Pinkham) which goes out to its first festival slush pile this month, and the action-short "Intermission" (working title), which we start editing this summer. Steve was also DP on Brian McGinn's "Otherwise Pandemonium," a Nick Hornby short story I helped adapt for film, which just needs to get cut to original music before it can hit the festival circuit as well.

But of particular interest to comics readers might be the Captain-America-in-Vietnam parody I wrote, animated, and voice-acted a few years back, "All's Fair in Love and Police Actions.” It was an iFilm "Pick of the Day.” Brian K Vaughan called it "F--kin' tops," and Cory Doctorow (science fiction author and blogger for Boing Boing) called it "amazingly funny and well executed."

Lessee, I release free and cheap spoken word audio files regularly at an online project called Telltale Weekly. One of my favorite narrations is my (free) recording of Kelly Link's "Most of My Friends Are Two Thirds Water." The New York Times called it "worth downloading," and they tend to do research and stuff.

And I've always got a few dozen stories in slush piles. I just hit the 400 total submissions milestone after almost nine years, and I'm finally starting to break out of the slush piles and into the magazines I grew up with.