Seven Questions

Seven Questions About Drive

Here’s the seventh installment of Seven Questions About: This time I interviewed Dave Kellett, the writer of the outstanding webcomic Drive, which I wrote about a couple of times on this blog, especially in the spoilerific post Drive: Pushing The Limits Of Space Opera.

Note that this time, the answers are mostly spoiler-free, but as always I strongly encourage you to start an archive binge of Drive immediately.

Here we go:

Q1: Who are you?

I’m Dave Kellett, the cartoonist behind DRIVE and SHELDON, and one of the directors of the documentary, STRIPPED.

Q2: What is Drive about?

DRIVE is a sci-fi comic opera, that takes place in humanity’s space age at the beginning of the 25th Century.

It tells the story of a second Spanish empire, a galactic empire, and its looming war with a race called “The Continuum of Makers”. Humanity has built their empire using technology stolen from the Makers — and these creatures want it back with an almost religious fervor.

In the brewing war, it’s clear that humanity will lose, and lose badly, unless they can find some advantage in battle. That hope arrives in the form of a tiny, mysterious creature who can drive a starship like no one’s ever seen. Now all humanity needs to do…is find 10,000 more pilots just like him. But no one knows where he’s from.

Q3: Why and how did Drive get started?

The story rumbled around in my head for a number of years before I started it. And at first, it was a tentative start. Not knowing how or where to bring the story into the world, it started as a “Saturday Sci-fi” feature on my other webcomic site, Sheldon.

Q4: What influences made Drive into what it is?

The two biggest influences are Frank Herbert and Douglas Adams. Herbert’s DUNE series and Adams HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE series are the mother and father of DRIVE. Serious story, fun characters.

Q5: To what degree did you plan out the entire outline beforehand, and how did your plan evolve either before or after you started publishing Drive?

The story arc is all planned out, although I intentionally leave myself wiggle room to insert fun side-adventures as I go. Originally, it was slated to be about a 7-year arc….but it might take me closer to a decade to finish.

Q6: What is the interaction between the peculiar features of your great alien races and the plot: Did you invent the aliens and look for stories to tell about them, or did you come up with plot ideas first and invented aliens to act them out?

Some were plot-driven, and some were feature-driven. The main bad-guys of the story, though — The Continuum of Makers and The Vinn — both of those existed almost before the story.

Q7: How much did you actually study historical events and structures as precedents for the Drive timeline (foundations and fate of global empires, dictators and their oppression mechanisms, military science and technology, initial contact with technologically superior societies and subsequent adaption, e.g. post-1853 Japan), and how did you develop these themes for Drive?

The Empire of DRIVE is absolutely based on the precedents of human history, and the empires and power structures that have come before. For example, the closest parallel to the Spanish “familia” who runs the human empire is probably the House of Saud, and it’s relation to global oil supplies. The Jinyiwei, who are the secret police of the story, are a direct descendant of the Ming Dynasty’s secret police. IndustriaGlobo, which is the massive manufacturer which owns/operates a huge chunk of humanity’s output, can trace its lineage to any one of a dozen huge corporations in human history.

Got any comments?

In my opinion, Dave‘s answers are short and poignant.

And if you think they are very short, I’d have to agree, but on the other hand, he send them to me in record time, so I’m inclined to grant him some slack. (David, if you are reading this, be assured that I spoke in jest; your answers were great.)

What do you think? Tell us in the comments!

Seven Questions About Validation

Here’s the fifth installment of the Seven Questions About feature: This time I interviewed Christian Beranek and Kelci D Crawford, the writer resp. the artist of the wonderful webcomic Validation, which I have talked about a couple of times on this blog.

Q1: Who are you?

K: I’m a comic artist who makes lots of comics and does my best to make the work speak for me.

C: I’m a writer, musician, photographer, and filmmaker.

Q2: What is Validation about?

C: A girl and her stuffed dinosaur.

K: A nerd girl, her life, and comics.

Q3: Why and how did Validation get started?

K: Deviantart and Tumblr.

C: I met Kelci through those sites after posting some adverts.The idea had been floating around in my head for a few years until one day something clicked and I wrote the first fifteen strips. After sending Kelci those pages, along with some descriptions, she drew up a sketch of Ally straight away and I immediately knew she was the right person to collaborate with.

K: We’ve been working off each other ever since.

Q4: What influences made Validation into what it is?

C: The comic is not autobiographical, but it does draw from real life experiences. Growing up I read loads of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Mark Twain, John Updike, and other humanist authors. I devoured my share of comics, as well. I knew with Validation what I didn’t want, and that was something sensationalistic. I wanted the story to resonate with readers, not titillate then. So drew I inspiration from those writers who were able to tackle challenging issues and scenarios in a genuine way.

K: For artistic influences, I’d say Validation is, at least partially, inspired by the palette of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – an anime that shows the beauty and hideousness of life with vibrant, gorgeous colors. Validation is also inspired by the full-color editions of Jeff Smith’s Bone in that way, as well. The look of the characters is part inspiration from the likes of Svetlana Chmakova (Dramacon), part the Flight comics anthologies, part gestures and emotions from Jen Wang (Koko Be Good) and Vera Brosgol (Anya’s Ghost), and part intensive training from my time as a caricature artist. To make Validation REALLY come to life, I pulled a lot from my own daily life – Coffee Time is based on a coffee shop I used to frequent, the convention comics are directly from my own experiences.

Q5: Do you see people who are trans (or are immediately affected by trans issues) versus people with limited knowledge (and maybe even only mild curiosity) as two different audiences you want to reach? Do you target these audiences separately, and if so, how?

K: I think the intent was to meet in the middle between the two audiences – have things that anyone can relate to, but talk about how certain situations affect trans people. We’re trying to tell the story of a life – not an exaggerated or simplified caricature.

C: I consider our audience to be one group: Readers. I am aware there are different backgrounds, viewpoints and levels of interest/curiosity following the comic. The key is to not pander to any one group and just tell the story. That being said, I do read all of the comments. Feedback is valued. Our readers are incredibly smart, passionate and invested. We are honored by that. To say I am not influenced by some reactions and insight would be arrogant. We would never change the story due to a complaint, however. We do our best to stick to our own code.

Q6: How did you decide on the tone – amount of humour, intensity of teaching, focus on problems vs. focus on solutions – for Validation, and how did that decision affect storytelling and visual choices?

K: I definitely wanted more vibrant colors and a generally pleasant look for the comic. One thing I did notice in other comics of a slice-of-life nature (especially for LGBT+ stories) is that the art is very…dim. There are very few webcomics about trans characters that have large color palettes. I wanted to change that and show the life-like variety of colors available. That’s what life is to me – colorful. And I wanted the art to reflect that. Even if there are negative events or people around, there is still color, and the colors define it.

C: Validation is written in three panel segments. It took me awhile to figure out the best way to execute the pacing. Manga, for example, is almost written in 3/4 time, like a waltz. I mixed in that sensibility (we skip a beat to get to the next idea) with that of a comedian. Although the comic is not jokey, the set-ups and payoffs you find in comedy are similar.

We considering writing in 2/4 polka time but discovered that might be a little jarring 😉

Q7: One remarkable feature of Validation is its insightful description of both the differences and the commonalities of different forms of communication and social interactions (casual talk, online talk, blogging, conversations in public, formal interactions). Is it by design, or rather serendipitous, and what thoughts about this went into the writing process?

K: I think it’s a little serendipitous, but these are subjects I like to explore and I think are worth exploring. People mold themselves in different ways depending on what the basis of interaction is – blog, tweet, party chat, etc. I think it’s something that non-binary gender folks notice a lot because they can see from a new outside view how people talk to each other. You realize certain truths, like the idea that “men and women communicate differently” is something I hear a lot from older people, but really they don’t. (Also, the idea that men and women just can’t communicate with each other, like they’re two different alien species, Men are from Mars, Women from Venus, is bullshit.) But conversations can have a lot of politics to them. It’s interesting to note the different politics with different modes of communication, and ultimately what makes them similar. It seems like the ultimate rule, no matter what form of communication you use, is ‘don’t be a dick.’ I think with the comics we’re just trying to reinforce the idea that no matter how you choose to express yourself, just don’t be a dick.

C: Day-to-day interactions are way more interesting to me than crazy action scenes. For example, I enjoy superhero movies, but I usually tend to tune out during the third act. Many of these films do a great job developing the characters early on in the story, and that’s the stuff I always remember. For my own writing, I am massively invested in how the characters react to something that happens and what they can learn from it. The action, per se, is actually in the wrestling with the ideas. Day-to-day all of us are adapting to how this is done. It is changing and evolving thanks to technology. That being said, one-on-one is really where differences can be made and resolved. It takes time to get there. I find we have these amazing ways to communicate but many of us are afraid to reach out. It’s sad, but also fascinating. The cruz of the dilemma always comes down to the human condition. It’s up to us how we tend to it.

Got any comments?

I found Christian‘s and Kelci‘s answers interesting, informative, illustrating and intriguing.

In my opinion, they provide great insight into the creative process behind validation, especially the “strategic level” thinking.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments!

Seven Questions About Trekker

Here’s the newest installment of the Seven Questions About feature: This time I asked Ron Randall, the creator of the cool webcomic Trekker.

[You may notice that Ron skipped Question 3, but I think part of the answer is implied in the other answers. Also, the last questions is kind of redundant, given the answers to Question 5 and Question 6. In an interactive interview, I certainly would have switched to a better question. Nevertheless, I find Ron’s answers to be interesting and insightful.]

Now, enjoy!

Q1: Who are you?

I’m Ron Randall. I’ve been a professional cartoonist and commercial artist for over thirty years. I went to the Joe Kubert School back in the late ’70’s and was lucky enough to study directly under Joe. I learned a lot about the art of storytelling right from the hand of a true master. Joe was passionate about comics, about drawing as a tool for storytelling. And he was incredibly generous in sharing both his love and his knowledge with us.

Q2: What is Trekker about?

Trekker is the story of Mercy St. Clair, a young, complicated and gifted bounty hunter in the 23rd century. (“Trekker” being the slang term for a sanctioned bounty hunter in my version of the 23rd century.)

Mercy’s stories start on the streets of a gritty, beaten-down, crime-and-violence choked city as she tracks down one bounty after another to eek out a living for herself (and her pet dox, “Skuf”.) Over time, her journeys take her farther and farther afield, and eventually off-planet, where she gradually is forced to recognize that her world is a much more complicated and subtle place that she thought. And she begins to suspect that she may have a larger role to play in things than simply shooting the occasional thug.

While this “outward” journey is going on through the course of the stories, Mercy is also on an “inward” journey. Whether she likes it or not, she will also be finding out more and more about herself– who she is and where she comes from. She’ll be forced to face some uncomfortable realizations and make some profound, fateful choices that will affect her, her friends and just possibly the course of mankind’s journey into the future.

I chose the title “Trekker” with all of those meanings in mind.

Q4: What influences made Trekker into what it is?

That’s a long list! Let e pick a few things. First, the cartoonists who really lit a fire under me. Some of those were:

Joe Kubert himself, of course. I particularly loved his adaptations for the Tarzan books for DC Comics. They just felt so “real”, so gritty and rich with texture.

Al Williamson and from him back to Alex Raymond for their work on Flash Gordon. The trappings of those high-fantasy/scifi stories were so full of imagination, beauty and grace. Romantic with a capital ‘R’. Williamson’s Flash Gordon comics at Gold Key in the late ’60’s was the work that really made me say,”I want to do THAT!”

So, I loved science fiction as a kid. And seeing Star Wars and later BladeRunner and Alien really influenced some of the setting and approach I’ve taken with Trekker. Novels like Dune and The Foundation Trilogy helped inspire the sense of an over-all very large scale to the stakes at hand.

Q5: How did your ideas about Trekker change over the long time you’ve been working on it?

Not much has changed from my original concept for the series as a whole– and I’ll get into that with the remaining questions. Probably the only changes in my thinking have been in my own understanding about Mercy– who she is, her emotional inner life and some of the dynamics that will be playing out with some of the characters in her world. Those things have evolved some. But largely, I originally built a series by trusting my instincts on creating a character, a world and a concept that would be solid from the start, and remain rewarding and engaging to work on and continue to explore. I’ve remained pretty satisfied that this world still “works” as originally intended.

Q6: How did your ideas about Trekker change when you switched from very short to substantially longer story arcs?

It’s interesting that in really essential ways not much has changed for me in my approach to Trekker. From the beginning, I knew I wanted a story that would start with a very closed-in and “pinched” perspective: Mercy on the “mean streets”. And that gradually over time, as I got more experience as a writer and had more time to gradually construct the world, the scale of things would expand. I also knew I wanted it to be something of an exploration of violence– it’s role in a community, what it brings, what it costs. I hope those themes bubble under the surface of the stories. If anything has changed, I hope it’s just that I’ve become more accomplished as a storyteller so that I can do the job more effectively.

Q7: Which of your ideas about Trekker didn’t change, and are not likely to change?

[TGC: I can now that I really should have asked a better Q 7! Just so you know, the questions I asked Ron were among the first set I send out. That they are posted only now is simply a matter of our respective schedules, and certainly not a measure of our mutual respect. We would all love to do this things instantaneously, but … ]

Ha ha, well as you might be able to tell from my above answers, I remain sort of insufferably content with concepts in Trekker. I built a world and a character that I still have great affection for, and a story that I have great passion to tell. All of the trappings– from her basic costume to the gadgets and settings, are all part of the piece, and to alter them would be to change something that for me is essential to summoning up this particular world every time I sit down to the drawing board to work on Mercy’s stories. I’d feel like I was breaking a contract with myself, with Mercy, and with the readers.

If you want to learn more about Ron Randall and Trekker:

Of course, if you haven’t done it already, you should start by reading Trekker. On the website, Ron also publishes occasional blog posts containing interesting back matter.

A good resource about the Trekker comic is the fabulous Trekker Talk Podcast, created by two avid fans, Darrin and Ruth Sutherland. Of particular interest to everyone who enjoyed the Seven Questions will be their
Interview With Ron Randall. They conducted it in person, so it is far more interactive than asking and answering questions per email.

Got any comments?

What do you find most interesting? Tell us in the comments!

Seven Questions About Gravedigger

Here’s the newest installment of the Seven Questions About feature: This time I asked Christopher Mills, the writer of the wonderful webcomic Gravedigger: The Predators. I have talked about it a couple of times on this blog, and I really love that comic.

[In case you are new or need a reminder, this is how the feature  works: I ask seven questions. The first four are the same for everyone. This serves as a warm-up, and gives us the lay of the land. The last three questions are always quite specific, and based on my own interests.]

Now, enjoy!

Q1: Who are you?

My name is Christopher Mills. I’m a freelance writer and editor, who also does a bit of graphic design when the need or opportunity arises. Since 1990, I’ve been writing comics for a variety of independent publishers, in a variety of genres. Some of my comics projects have included Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals for Big Entertainment, Kolchak: The Night Stalker for Moonstone Books, and Femme Noir for Ape Entertainment. My current project is a three-issue miniseries called Gravedigger, which reprints a couple of crime stories originally published online as webcomics.

Q2: What is Gravedigger: The Predators about?

“The Predators” is the second chronicled adventure of professional criminal “Digger” McCrae. It opens with him being framed for the murder of a mob boss’ daughter, and subsequently hunted by the mobster’s men as he tries to escape the South Florida resort town where all this occurs. The idea was to write a comic book version of a “chase movie” like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, but on a smaller, more intimate – and more violent – scale. (The specific inspiration for this particular storyline was a little-known Patrick Dempsey thriller from 1991, called Run.)

Q3: Why and how did Gravedigger: The Predators get started?

Back in 2003-04, artist Rick Burchett and I collaborated on the first Gravedigger webcomic, called “The Scavengers.” After its run online, it was collected and printed as a one-shot comic book by an outfit called Rorshach Entertainment. Surprisingly, it got a fair amount of attention and critical acclaim. Almost immediately, Rick and I started receiving feedback from readers asking for a follow-up. Due to a variety of circumstances, it took us almost ten years to get it done, but “The Predators” debuted online in 2013, and was picked up for publication by Action Lab: Danger Zone earlier this year. The first issue went on sale in mid-July, and issue #2 should hit shelves any Wednesday now. [Timothy’s Note: It already has. Christopher wrote this a month ago.]

Q4: What influences made Gravedigger: The Predators into what it is?

The Gravedigger series is inspired primarily by my love of hardboiled paperback crime fiction, specifically the work of authors like Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake), Dan J. Marlowe, John Trinian, Mickey Spillane, Lawrence Block and Max Allan Collins. It’s my take on the “criminal protagonist” sub-genre, of which, Richard Stark’s “Parker” novels are probably the best known.

The Gravedigger comics are also influenced by my passion for cinema, and 60s-70s crime films in particular. I grew up watching lots of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin thrillers, and they’ve undeniably been a big inspiration.

I try to avoid flat-out pastiche (although I’ve been accused of it [Timothy’s Note:Honi soit qui mal y pense!]), and instead try to simply tell the best, most earnest genre stories I can. I’m not much interested in satirizing, deconstructing, re-inventing or “elevating the genre.” I like crook books, and when I write one, I’m writing the best one I can.

Q5: How much does the writing itself owe to the artist’s contribution?

In comics, the right artist is essential. Fortunately, Rick Burchett and I seem to be perfectly in synch on Gravedigger. He understands the character and his world as well – or better, sometimes – as I do, and often contributes ideas and bits of narrative that improve the stories we’re telling. That’s one reason the Gravedigger credits always read: “by Mills and Burchett.” It’s not a simple “Me write, you draw” collaboration. Some of the stuff people credit me for are actually Rick’s contributions, and vice versa.

Q6: How did you create and manage the breakneck pacing of Gravedigger: The Predators?

Honestly, I don’t do much in the way of pre-planning or outlining. In fact, what I usually plan goes out the window once I get going. I saw the story as a fast-paced “chase,” and it basically wrote itself. I always try to start my stories with a strong page one hook, which often ends up as a sort of cold open, but otherwise, I establish a situation and see how Digger deals with it. I’m sort of along for the ride, myself.

[Timothy’s Note: I’m quite surprised by this answer. Positively surprised, that is, because the result of this process is so great.]

Q7: Was Gravedigger: The Predators written as a period piece, or rather a timeless story?

Yes. The 1999 Brian Helgeland “Parker” film adaptation with Mel Gibson, Payback, created this sort of stylized, late 20th Century urban setting, with no mobile phones, personal computers, etc. I liked that idea a lot, and I write the Digger stories with that same sort of thing in mind. You won’t find smart phones or laptops in a Gravedigger story (although Rick did draw in some flatscreen TVs in “The Predators”). So, yeah – it’s both a timeless story (in that there’s no specific dates involved) and a period piece, although its period is a vague, late 20th Century America.

[Timothy’s Note: I think it’s pretty cool to understand the setting as a stylized environment that is only vaguely timed. This makes a lot of sense for that kind of story.]

If you want to read more:

You may want to read Five Questions For Christopher Mills on Trouble With Comics. By the way, that interview was what inspired me to add the Seven Questions About feature on my own blog.

Got any comments?

I hope you will find the answers as intriguing as I do, and you will agree with me that Christopher, just like his creation Digger McCrae, has got the details, and has got the style.

What do you find most interesting? Tell us in the comments!

Stay tuned!

In two weeks, on Oct. 14th. I’ll post another Seven Questions About, with Ron Randall, creator of the Trekker webcomic. As always, I encourage you to check it out in advance.

Seven Questions About Opportunities

Here’s the second installment of the Seven Questions About feature: This time I interviewed sincerely and Elliwiny, the creators of the wonderful webcomic Opportunities.

I have talked about Opportunities a couple of times on this blog, and I really love that comic. I also occasionally converse with the two creators over Twitter, and they are awesome folks.

[In case you are new to this or need a reminder, this is how the feature  works: I ask seven questions. The first four are the same for everyone, starting with the rather unimaginative Who are you? This is serves as a warm-up, and gives us the lay of the land. In contrast, the last three questions are always quite specific, and based on my own interest in, and infatuation with, the comic in question.]

Now, enjoy!

Q1: Who are you?

We’re ML Snook and Katie DeGelder but we go by sincerely and Elliwiny online and also that’s what we call each other in real life.  Our LGBTQ+ status is “complicated” but the short answer is that we’re partners in both senses of the word and Opportunities is our baby.

Sincerely writes in her freetime, so far just Opportunities, but she’s working on other stories and has an artist lined up for a fantasy graphic novel that she’s currently working on.  By day she’s a bookkeeper at a harbor restaurant in Southern California where your server will only bring you water if you request it, but hopefully that will change when El Niño hits in a few months.

Elliwiny moved to SoCal from Michigan half a year ago and has to constantly protect her alabaster skin from the almighty day star. She’s really excited about not having to shovel snow ever again, though.  Elliwiny has a day job too, but by night she is the heart and soul of Opportunities.

Q2: What is Opportunities about?

Opportunities is about an alien named Vigi who’s got a lot of problems.

She’s trying to bring the evil galaxy-spanning mega-corporation she used to work for to justice. But before she even had a chance, these human assassins showed up, killed her star informant, and stole his identity for their own crazy schemes. She’s gotten herself neck-deep in their plot to murder their way from the Grand Intercontinental duPré to outer space… And now her old boss is onto her, too.

[But I think the comic is about an intelligent, mindstrong, beautiful, and incredibly sexy woman named Sara Emmet? No? That’s just my impression because I’m a straight male reader? And telling you what your comic is about is mansplaining? Uh-oh! My bad.]

Q3: Why and how did Opportunities get started?

As we got to know each other, we knew that we wanted to collaborate on a webcomic. We had these characters that we wanted to see interact but they were so different from each other we realized we needed to invent a whole universe where they could co-exist.  We basically created an AU for our characters.

We spent a good long time brainstorming a modern-day world where theatrical assassins for hire could set their sights higher than doing every day crimes and murders.  They could be doing crimes and murders in space.

We basically just put all of our favorite things in a pot and stirred.

Q4: What influences made Opportunities into what it is?

Sincerely: I want to say all the obvious answers like Die Hard, which of course is a huge influence on Opportunities; we even quoted it in chapter one. It’s Jack’s favorite Christmas movie, and ours.

In truth, though, would it surprise you to hear The West Wing?  Maybe, maybe not.  The decompressed nature of my writing style probably owes a lot to Aaron Sorkin.  I have a lot of love for how he manages to make exposition into an artform and he tells you one thing while showing you something more subtle and deeper.  Opportunities is like The West Wing if it was about assassins in a fancy hotel instead of politicians in the White House, and congress is aliens.

I’m a student of capers, as well.  I like the middle part where they study the target, maneuver, and plan and then after all of the studying, maneuvering, and planning is done they drop everything they’ve got in interesting and unexpected ways, maybe even ways the plotters didn’t expect.  I think I could write everything like it’s a caper for the rest of my life, even if it’s not (especially if it’s not).

I wish I had more comic influences.  Growing up the only comic I consistently read was Elfquest, and I can definitely see how that’s got an impact on my writing.  Certainly not in the modern sci-fi genre, but maybe very loosely Mixed MythGunnerkrigg Court, or Rice Boy, which are all varying degrees of fantasy.  I found String Theory after I was pretty far along on Opportunities, but I definitely feel a kinship with it.

Elli: I love action movies! Comedies, too! I’m a sucker for thrillers and heists, especially. I pull a lot from action tropes and get a lot of satisfaction from playing with people’s expectations. Especially when it comes to character. “The Incredibles” inspired me a lot in that regard. Pixar movies have a way of tapping into humanity that I really strive for.

One of my favorite movies is “Grosse Pointe Blank”, which is about John Cussack as a hitman going to his high school reunion, and that says a LOT about the kind of stories I like to tell.

Q5: How do you decide on the balance of being subtle versus spelling it out?

It’s hard!  We have a lot of faith in our readers, but we’re playing a long game and there’s always the worry that we’ll lose people when it comes to subtext that doesn’t immediately pay off.  We can’t know for sure if we’ve succeeded until we’re done with the book.  Even though we’re publishing as a webcomic, we ultimately intend for the story to be read in book form.

It’s all about prioritization of information.  There are things we need the reader to know and there are things we want the reader to know and it became about figuring out which is which.  Things that pay off in the climax or even as far off as in the next book don’t need to be spelled out right away, but they shouldn’t come out of nowhere either.  At the same time, though, we figure we can get away with being coy with crucial information as long as we reinforce it a few times.

One of our biggest worries early on was how to present all of the dry political information we needed people to know about the bankers and Tath Seti’s company, which we dubiously solved with the news, Sara’s monologue at the beginning, and then reinforced with the meeting between Tath Seti and Pursuit.  The question of “what do the assassins have to gain by killing these people” gets really muddy if you don’t know the basic facts about who they are and what their relationship is to each other. 

There’s a lot more going on with Tath Seti and Pursuit, of course, but it won’t be important until later, so for now we’re just hinting at the bigger picture.

Q6: How do you make Sara a formidable femme fatale without reinforcing negative gender stereotypes and base misogynistic instincts?

The thing about gender stereotypes is that they ignore the fact that women are people.  Elliwiny has this joke she does when she’s penciling scenes with Sara where she gives her thought bubbles that say “murder” in every panel, but there’s actually something you can take away from that: You often see writers who never seem to consider the possibility that their characters can have an inner life which is different from what they’re presenting on the surface. Your typical femme fatale may be a double agent or have an ulterior motive but when she’s flirting with the handsome male lead there’s nothing complicated about that.  She likes flirting, she’s good at it.  The most depth you ever get in these scenarios is when he turns his back and maybe she rolls her eyes.

What makes Sara an interesting character is that she’s obviously got a lot going on in her head.  We’ve laid her ulterior motives bare so you can see that her friendship with the “lobsters” and Cortez are ultimately fake, but she’s still a person and like Jack says, she’s just as crazy as the rest of us.

We didn’t like Sara very much in the early drafts. She filled an important role in the story and had all the same screen time that she has now, but when we started to actually write scenes for her we realized that she was super boring.  She’s mean, and she’s Jack’s ex, which are both important to the story, but that’s all she had.  We wanted her to have a weakness that we could exploit and after a lot of back and forth we decided to make her a very mechanical liar and extrapolated everything else about her from there.  Suddenly, every scene where things didn’t go exactly according to her expectations–pretty much all of them–became fascinating to write because of the war going on between how she presented herself and what was going on in her head.  It also has the added benefit of making her a great contrast to Jack, whose greatest strength is in improvisation [I’d rather call that unpredictability!], as we’ll see a lot of now that things are starting to go wrong.

[See! Who’s the main character now? See how much you talk and talk and talk about Sara? — Ok, wait, that was my question … never mind …]

Q7: Do you ever regret that you started out, and stayed for so long, in a hotel?

We’ve got bad news for you, we’re going to be spending a lot more time at the DuPré before this is all over. [Just what I expected; I was just teasing you here!]

This is sincerely’s thing — I like compressed timelines and compressed locations so this whole book is kind of a love letter to that.  People who know me, know that I love objects and vehicles that you can really imprint on in a story because they’re important to the characters and they’re important to the plot.  That goes for locations, too.  I like the idea of spending a lot of time in a place and getting to know it’s layout the same way you get to know a character.  If I’m the only one, then I still don’t regret doing it.

Also, do you think John McTiernan regretted having almost all of Die Hard take place inside Nakatomi Plaza? [For the record: I do not!]

Got any comments?

I’m very happy about how the sincerely’s and Elliwiny’s answers gave me a far more complete understanding of the comic and the process that’s involved in its creation. Once again, I learned a lot by asking questions. (I’m starting to see a pattern here; also, I probably should have been more attentive when watching Sesame Street, back in the days?)

What do you think? Tell us in the comments!

Stay tuned!

The next Seven Questions About installment – where I ask Christopher Mills about Gravedigger: The Predators – will be published in two weeks. As always, to fully understand what the questions and answers are about, I encourage you to take the time to read Gravedigger: The Predators!

On Oct. 14th. I’ll post another Seven Questions About, with Ron Randall, creator of the Trekker webcomic.

And on Thursday, in only two days, I will talk about the Trouble With Comics.

Seven Questions About Broken Telephone

Here’s the first installment [out of now five] of the Seven Questions About feature: This time I interviewed Ryan Estrada, the writer of the wonderful webcomic Broken Telephone.

I have not yet talked about Broken Telephone on this blog, but that is entirely my fault, since I really love that comic, and so will you. If you don’t care about my opinion – in which case: Why are you reading this? – please read this review on Panels On Pages.

Now let me explain how the feature  works: I ask seven questions. The first four are stock questions. They are the same for everyone, one about the creator(s), the next three about the comic. This serves as a warm-up, and gives us the lay of the land. In contrast, the last three questions are always quite specific, and based on my own interest in, and infatuation with, the comic in question.

Now, enjoy!

Q1: Who are you?

I’m Ryan Estrada. I travel around the world making comics and telling stories about and inspired by all the weird trouble I get into. I have been thrown from a train, slept on a park bench in a typhoon, been on fire, and been chased by a police helicopter. You can find out more at ryanestrada.com.

Q2: What is Broken Telephone about?

Broken Telephone is a crime story… where no one can agree on what the crime was. Every story follows the villain of the story before it, and everyone thinks they’re the hero of the story. From the Indian call center worker trying to solve a mystery over a customer service call, to the rival killers using art supplies to take one another out in an airport, to the prison escapee who’s hacking sharks.

Q3: Why and how did Broken Telephone get started?

Seven years before the book came out, I was working as a trainer in a Mumbai call center, listening to calls. A customer got disconnected, and I asked the customer service representative if she was going to call them back. She explained that they had no way of doing that and I, in the mindset of a cartoonist instead of a call center trainer asked “what if you overheard a murder?” I creeped her out and then another call immediately began. I spent the rest of the day writing the story.

Q4: What influences made Broken Telephone into what it is?

Originally, that call center woman was all there was to to the story. The idea was, retell a Die Hardesque action movie from the point of view of someone only hearing bits and pieces over the phone. But even though we never saw the villains, it bothered me how cliche they were.

I have been influenced by antagonists you see in Miyazaki films… no one in those movies think they’re the bad guy, they’re just doing what they think is right. Everyone’s the hero of their own story. That’s where I decided to follow the other characters and show their side of the story.

I was also influenced by a movie that few people have ever seen or heard of… an obscure Korean comedy called either Break Out! or Strike The Lighter (depending on which out-of-print dvd you find) It’s basically like Die Hard or Under Siege or any other movie where there’s one man who can stop a runaway train filled with hostages… except in this movie the only reason he’s involved is because the bad guy stole his lighter. The movie did an amazing job of really making sure that every character had so wrapped their entire sense of self-worth into some completely inconsequential detail of the story that you REALLY felt the gravity of what was important to them, despite the fact that this larger major disaster was about to happen because of them that they really weren’t driven by. I wanted to capture that sense of really focusing on what the characters cared about, rather than tying it into one simple good vs evil story.

Q7 (huh?): How did you develop the Rashomon-style structure of Broken Telephone to its full complexity?

After I rewrote the villains of the story to be sympathetic, I realized that I had only created a third villain that they blamed everything on. So I had to think about her motivation, and who she blamed. Then I had to deal with HER enemy. Then I kept going until it all came full circle. I wrote the script for seven dang years until I had it just the way I wanted it. You can tell how obsessive I am about story structure by the fact that I couldn’t even answer your questions in order (hah!) because it messed with my story flow.

Q6: How did you come up with the different characters for the different plot lines?

I didn’t want it to be straight-up Rashomon, where the same story beats are repeated from different perspectives. I wanted to make sure that every character was as different as possible from everyone else, and dealing with a completely different situation in a completely different location. I filled the story with a Burmese grandmother, a tattooed hacker, a pop-punk protester, a gay southern NRA member, a mute pacifist soldier, a shady politician, and gave everyone their own things to care about. Their goals came from the story itself, but I gathered pieces of their personalities from all the awesome people I’ve met in my world travels.

Q5: Did feedback of the different artists influence the writing of Broken Telephone, and if so, how?

The artists were all chosen after the script was finished, having been in production for seven years. [So, technically, the answer is a simple “no”. I’m very happy that you answered to the spirit rather than the phrasing of the question.] Something really interesting happened when I divvied up the art duties. See, I brought people on board because I thought their styles worked with specific stories. I worked really hard to make sure it flowed just right and each look was right for each chapter. But then, at the last minute, I have no idea why, I just asked all the artists which chapter they wanted to draw. And much to my surprise, every single person I asked chose the EXACT OPPOSITE story from what I’d had them in mind for. People who did cutesy art chose horrifyingly violent chapters. People who draw more unsettling art chose the sweet stories. No one was interested in doing something in their wheelhouse, they wanted to try something new. This lead to not only artists having fun and going above and beyond the call of duty, but stories that were oddly unsettling and livened up because nothing is what you’d expect.

Got any comments?

I have to say I’m quite intrigued by Ryan’s answers. Some of them went into very different places than I had expected. I learned a lot about storytelling and creating comics from this Q & A, just as I have learned much from the comic itself.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments!

Stay tuned!

The next Seven Questions About installment – where I’m asking sincerely and Elliwiny about their webcomic Opportunities – will be published in two weeks. So please, to fully understand what the questions and answers are about, take the time to read Opportunities!

And yet another Seven Questions About installment is scheduled two week later (If you have trouble doing the math, that is in four weeks from now) featuring Christopher Mills, the writer of Gravedigger: The Predators. Goes without saying that I encourage you to check it out as well.

Next week I will talk about one of the greatest positive surprises among this year’s movies: Spy.