Thursday, April 17, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #6 - Neil Kleid

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Neil Kleid was awarded a Xeric grant in 2003 for his self-published comic Ninety Candles.  His recent graphic novel, Brownsville, was published by NBM in hardcover earlier this year and recently hit shelves in an affordable softcover edition.  With artist Jake Allen, Kleid told a complex tale of what it must have been like to be involved with the Jewish mafia in 1920s New York.  Full of conflicted characters trying to get by the best they know how and the pull of family – by blood or not – this is an important work pushing the boundaries of what can be done on the comic page through into this twenty-first century. 

Neil was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions for Independent Propaganda via email.  What he had to say follows, and it’s interesting to note that he’s not that far removed from the fanboy still residing in all of us, despite now sitting across the table from us.  I hope you all enjoy.

Can you tell us briefly how you broke into comics?

Hard work, persistence, hard work, knowing the right people, hard work, a modicum of talent, hard work and oh, hard work.

I'm one of those weird cats who broke in the long way - working up from the ground floor.  I wasn't "discovered" or had a breakthrough project that ended up getting editors to lay jobs at my feet... I got in by creating my own opportunities.

Back in '01 I set up a forum discussion between Mike Carlin, Joe Quesada and Axel Alonso covering the topic of comics and adapting comics to other media here in NYC.  This helped me on two fronts: a) it got my name and face in front of these editors, allowing me the opportunity to talk to them about pitching projects and b) one of the places I went to hand out flyers for the forum was a BIZARRO COMICS signing involving tons of indy/alt creators like Dean Haspiel, Jessica Abel, Kyle Baker and more.  Talking with these cartoonists - and eventually becoming friendly with them- made me realize that there were other ways to get into comics than through the mainstream publishers.

Over the next few years I slowly worked my way up the ladder...making minicomics, working on short anthology stories.  Eventually my hard work paid off - I won the Xeric Grant in '03 for NINETY CANDLES and parlayed that into work for some alternative and graphic novel publishers - BROWNSVILLE for NBM and URSA MINORS!  for Slave Labor Graphics.  Nowadays I just keep moving forward - this year I wrote a short X-MEN UNLIMITED story and am currently developing projects for two companies while getting involved with book publishers.
What do you feel is the most important factor from your personal history (education, family) that has allowed you to be successful in the comic industry?

Work ethic?  Treating everyone the way I want to be treated?  I don’t know... traits ingrained into me by my family, sure, but man... it's all just common sense.

I definitely think being taught to rely on myself rather than others was a huge thing to learn early on.  Make my own way.

Many creators, especially when starting out, hold down a day job while creating their comics.  What jobs, if any, did you have and did they provide anything for you with regards to your writing?

While I've been writing comics, I've had a variety of graphic design jobs, jockeyed a counter at Bloomingdales and been at my current art director position for almost four years now.  Each job gives you a sense of perspective as to where you are and where you’re going.  My writing tends to be influenced more about the subjects I'm interested in writing about.  If it's an autobio story then it’ll be about whatever slice of my life I'm writing about...and if it's a specific job then so be it.

When they are first trying to break into comics, many writers have difficulty finding artists able to realize their story samples.  What can they do to overcome this?

Keep looking.  There are thousands of places to find an artist - the web, a comic store, local cartoonist jams, and conventions.  If you're determined enough and realize that you might not get the perfect fit for each story, then you'll find an artist.  I'm lucky - I've found artists on the web or through friends that I've clicked with but it takes time... and as a writer, you need to be patient - whether it’s working with an editor or finding/working with an artist, it's all about realizing that you’re creating collaborations... and that takes time, nurturing and patience.

What is the most important thing for aspiring writers to remember when pitching a series to a publisher?

Editors have fifty people pitching them a day if not more.  Don't waste their time - short, sweet, to the point.
And wear pants.

On the flip side, what cardinal sin should these same writers stay away from when preparing their proposals?

The pants thing?
Same thing - really know your pitch and get the whole thing across - beginning, middle and end - as efficiently as you can.

What creators, possibly more obscure ones and not necessarily within comics, would you recommend aspiring writers read and study?   

Comics wise, there's nothing wrong with exploring the ways guys like Eisner, Wally Wood and Jack Kirby laid a page out but I wouldn't necessarily "study" them.  Same thing with writing - sure, I dig the way Alan Moore writes a comic or graphic novel and the like and I'm definitely influenced by certain writers and artists... but I believe storytellers need to discover their own way of telling their stories.

Look - immersing yourself in a genre or a period that your book takes place in is key.  If you're writing about a train heist in the Old West, go read a bunch of books about trains or robbery.  Rent THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY.  Read authors who placed their stories in that time, that place and that life.  Study your story - but study AROUND your story.  The genre.  The time.  The place.  The slang.

The story itself should be crafted in your voice - not Alan Moore's.

That being said, I'm pretty influenced by everyone from Eisner to Warren Ellis to Mickey Spillane to Evan Dorkin to John Landis to Scorsese to James Ellroy.

Marvel and DC seem to be pushing sales through a series of crossover "events" and relaunches meant to feed off that hive mentality of needing the next new thing.  Admittedly, they have to answer to shareholders, but what could they be doing differently in order to promote sales?

Um... hiring me?

I don’t known, man.  I think their sales are doing just fine.  If you're asking what I think Marvel/DC could be doing as far as TRYING NEW THINGS then I think there's always mining stories from good, solid creators who don't have one foot in Hollywood and are focused on their comics.  Creators excited about the medium, toiling in the salt mines putting out critically acclaimed books like ELK'S RUN and FINDER and RUNNERS and NYC MECH.  Or even guys with a fanbase like Tom (TRUE STORY, SWEAR TO GOD) Beland... Marvel had him write some SPIDERMAN stories and his fanbase followed.  That always helps a little, right?

Beyond that, capitalizing more on their movie releases.  How come Toys R Us doesn't have a rack of X-MEN comics next to its X-MEN: THE LAST STAND section?  When I go to Loew's Lincoln Square to check out SUPERMAN RETURNS why isn't there something in there - anything - that drives me to the comic book store after to check out Kal-El's continuing adventures?  The whole world is flocking to see comic book movies... why not figure out a solid way to get them to flock into shops afterwards?

This apparent need to utilize gimmicks in order to artificially inflate sales in the short-term almost begs the question, what is missing from mainstream comics today that has caused this sales drop-off?  In your opinion, what do you feel is lacking in today's mainstream comics?

I'm not sure what you mean by gimmicks.  Like foil stamping covers or crossovers with other titles/events?  Because a) I don’t see much of the former these days (except your occasional variant cover) and b) events and crossovers are actually smart for a company like DC - it gets the fans to buy all the titles (and they will) and it draws attention to books that might not be performing so well because they will.  Events done right, like CIVIL WAR, garner "real world" attention and drive sales.  Sure, it might suck because it takes attention from a guy like me but that’s not Marvel's business now, is it?

What do I feel is missing in today's mainstream comics?  Surprise.

Remember back in the day when no one knew who the Hobgoblin was?  Marvel fans went for 50 or so issues without knowing who the guy was and there was widespread (and remember that this was pre-message boards) discussion throughout the industry as to his identity.  You can't do that these days... in fact, when Marvel revealed Spider-Man's identity to the world last month I was actually surprised.  It was something I did not see coming and was genuinely happy that they got me.  The thing is, will it last?  Mainstream fans are jaded what with the ease that "events" like this get fixed down the road.  Superman's dead.  Superman's alive.  Batman's broken.  Batman's whole.  Green Lantern's a bad guy.  Green Lantern's the Spectre.  Green Lantern's a good guy.

Who cares?  In a few months, Marvel will figure out a way to make Spidey's ID a secret again, right?

So what's missing from mainstream storytelling?  Surprise... and the balls to stick to its guns.

Do you feel the recent push toward graphic novels – both collections and original works – and bookstore distribution has been good for the industry?  Why, or why not?

Good.  These days Graphic Novel=Novel and not Graphic Novel=Comic.  My non-comic book reading friends are more apt to buy something in Barnes and Nobles than Midtown Comics if it catches their eye, and if it comes in a nice dust jacket so much the better.

It's all about spreading the word, right?  Don't get me wrong - I love the retailer community and will bend over backwards for good shops like Comic Relief, Green Brain, Isotope, Rocketship, Hanley's, Atomic and Midtown until the day the Earth cools (and beyond), but I can only reach so many readers through the specialty shops.  I can't tell you how many folks have emailed me after finding a copy of BROWNSVILLE at their local library or Borders.  And these are people who would NEVER step foot into a comic shop if their lives depended on it.  Walk into a B&N and stand in the Manga aisle for a bit and eventually five or six kids will come along, park their asses on the floor and read.  Bookstores don't always equal sales but to me they equal the POSSIBILITY of sales via wider distribution.

So yeah.  I dig the bookstores.

From your position as an independent creator, what are some things you would like to see change with the current distribution system?

Find a way to get rid of Diamond's "You Have to Make This Much" rule and figure out a way to break the monopoly.

I have a cartoon book coming out from a niche Judaic publisher in 07-08 and they use a specific distributor for bookstores, etc.  I don't know if I'm going to be able to get a lot of retailers who are Diamond-minded to take on a new niche distributor BEYOND Cold Cut, Last Gasp, etc.  Hopefully my guy will be able to partner somehow with Diamond but who knows?

Part of the writing process is the developmental stage – either hard research as with Brownsville or the development of characters, locales, plotlines, etc. as with a wholly original story.  On average what percentage is given over to the developmental process?

Depends on the project.  I try to do as much research as I can when it comes to stories based on historical facts, for sure, but if I'm also writing about something contemporary based in a world or locale I know little about, the research/development process could equal or eclipse my historical developmental process.

I would say I devote almost as much time studying my story as I do creating it.  I spent roughly 9-10 months researching BROWNSVILLE and only about 6 months writing it.

Along those same lines, during this development process do you ever feel like you are not getting enough actual writing done and how do you reconcile yourself to that?  

Well, I tend to have more than one project going on at any given time, so odds are that while I'm reading books/articles and watching films to research one project I'm usually writing a script or plot for one I've already done the grunt work on.

I'm a big believer in having concurrent projects so that if Project X tires me or if I need to walk away from it for a bit, I can jump ship and tinker with Project Y.

How did your book Brownsville end up with NBM?

Believe it or not, because of Larry Young.

Larry had just sent me a copy of 'True Facts,' his guide to Making Comics and one story that struck me was of a creative team that walked into a con with pre-sealed, pre-designated envelopes with the words 'Top Secret' on them
I walked into SPX 2003 with seven pre-sealed, pre-designated manila envelopes containing a pocket folder with two pitches, my business card, samples of past work and what I refer to as 'The Brownsville Sampler' - information about the book, the pitch, sample pages and contact information.  The only things on the front of the envelope were the name of the publisher and a small label that read 'Limited Distribution.’  On Friday, I walked up to each of the targeted publishers, handed them the packet, explained who I was and told them which table they could find me at.  I thanked them for listening and walked away.
Later that day, a friend informed me that Terry Nantier, NBM's publisher, had been leafing through the sampler.  One week after SPX, I followed up with him and he said he wanted to talk terms.  One month later, Jake and I had signed contracts.

     What do you believe was the most important thing in helping you secure this agreement with NBM, arguably one of the more critically acclaimed comic publishers?

Good sample art and a unique story to tell.

What was the biggest challenge in the writing process for Brownsville and how did it compare to other things you have written?

BROWNSVILLE was arguably the largest project I'd attempted to date, weighing in at 196 pages of script.  Until then I'd mostly focused on shorter pieces - anthology stories, 22 page issues and the like.  So actually sitting down and getting through it was an accomplishment in itself... every day I parked my ass for an hour or two and did not answer my phone while disseminating my research, analyzing my story and getting it all down on the page.  It took discipline - something the six year old boy living in my head had a lot of trouble with.  But Discipline + Talent = Comics, right?

I know the Brownsville softcover is coming out soon, what other projects do you have on the horizon that people should be on the lookout for?  

This is true - the BROWNSVILLE softcover hits shops in August along with the second issue of URSA MINORS!, the four issue comedic-popculture-pisstake series I'm co-creating with Paul Cote and artist Fernando (TALES OF THE TMNT) Pinto for the fine people at Slave Labor Graphics.  It's the touching tale of three men - Tom, Rich and Harry AKA Bears One, Two and Three - and their robotic bear suits.  There's action, comedy, ninjas and comic books and it's packed with more "homages" than a page of Liefeld artwork.

The first issue hit comic shops in June and Issue #2 takes our boys to the Far East where I get to make jokes about Nintendo, Voltron, Godzilla and pit our heroes against a clan of ninja delicatessen owners!  Also, issue #2 features a back up story that fans of Slave Labor comics cannot pass up... "My Grandmother, the Goth!”  It hits finer stores this August and can still be pre-ordered in bulk using the Diamond Item Number (JUN062818) so you can buy a copy for all the cool and attractive folk in your family.

Next year Jake and I will have a short story in POSTCARDS, an anthology by ELK'S RUN editor Jason Rodriguez, and in the meantime we're working on our next book, DEAD RONIN (samurais in early 1900's San Francisco).  Scott(SCANDALOUS, NORTHWEST PASSAGE) Chantler and I will begin work on THE BIG KAHN for NBM Publishing this Fall as I continue drawing MIGDAL DAVID, my next cartoon book about developmental disability in an Orthodox Jewish community, to be released in '07 from niche Judaic publisher, Seraphic Press.  Sample pages can be seen at:

Other than that?  I'm developing projects with two major publishing houses and in talks with a few people.  You'll see more and more from me in the coming years.

And finally, what topic that wasn't covered would you like to speak to?

Besides "everyone buy my stuff"?

What was with all the talking car porn in the eighties?  Seems like everywhere you turned, you stubbed yer toe on some TV show that had a car or truck or boat or scooter or whatever that could talk.
The most obvious was KNIGHT RIDER starring Germany's top porn star, David Hasselhoff.  I don't remember much about it, but I do recall they refueled in a big black tractor trailer.  Oh, wait... maybe that was SPYHUNTER?  That was a great video game.  With the smokescreens?  And the oil slicks?  And no fucking talking cars.
Man, I'm gonna go play SPYHUNTER right NOW.

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