It‘s happened to anyone with an interest in the medium; standing in line or sitting in traffic, an idea snakes its way into your head and you think, ‘This would make a great comic book!’
In days past, this is where most stories would end, quickly squelched by the realization that even armed with a great concept, an individual had no easy path to produce, distribute, or fund such an undertaking without ‘breaking in’ to the field of established publishers. Recently though, with the rise of initiatives across the industry to assist creators in getting their story into the hands of interested readers, we find ourselves in an unprecedented era where anyone with enough drive and determination has the tools readily available to create and distribute their own self-published comics. But with one problem solved, the newly independent writer/artist finds themselves adrift in a sea of other questions, both in and outside of the creative process. Shawn French, a comic fan for years who is producing his first entry with the upcoming graphic novel, Escape From Jesus Island; has already encountered some of these challenges, and sat down with us to share his experience about the journey thus far in the realm of self-publishing.
Talking Comics: Why don’t we start off with a brief overview of your upcoming project, Escape From Jesus Island?
Shawn French: It’s a story about an attempt to clone Jesus to create an island resort for the ultra-rich to be healed by the son of God. They eventually succeed, but end up with hundreds of these mutated freaks before they get one right; as well as a twin brother [to Jesus], Damien. The Vatican sends in a team to extract Jesus, and all hell breaks loose.
Talking Comics: That certainly sounds like a setup for some interesting conflict. So how did this project get started?
Shawn French: I’ve been carrying this story around in my head for 20 years. Dolly, the first sheep ever cloned, was attempt number 276; and that was off of a pristine DNA sample. To clone Jesus from a degraded DNA sample would first require that you create hundreds of near-Jesus mutated freaks. That idea fascinated me. I’ve always envisioned it as a graphic novel, but I’m not an artist, so it just didn’t seem like a medium I’d ever have a chance to work in. I was trying to cram this enormous epic story into a small enough format for me to film for under $100,000.
Talking Comics: So what changed to spur you into creating the graphic novel you originally intended?
Shawn French: [Artist] Mortimer Glum was the missing piece of the puzzle to move forward. The opportunity to have an artist of his caliber bring my story to life was just too good to pass up.
Talking Comics: One of the biggest initial challenges for a writer in the medium is finding an artist to work alongside. How did you meet Mortimer and get him interested in the project?
Shawn French: I’ve been an admirer of his work for years, so I already knew his style was a perfect fit. Fortunately, he also loves the story, so when I mentioned to him that I wanted to do Escape From Jesus Island as a graphic novel, he interrupted me with “I’m in!” before I could even finish pitching it to him. It was really great; the story did all of the work for me.
Talking Comics: Sounds like that worked out very easily! Did you initially cross paths at a convention scene, online, or in person?
Shawn French: We’ve known each other through mutual friends for a few years, and over the last year we’ve become really good friends. He knew I was writing Jesus Island as a film script, and it was something we had talked about, so he knew of the story for awhile; but he had not known that I wanted to do it as a graphic novel originally.
Talking Comics: Being more entrenched in the field, was Mortimer able to assist in assembling the rest of the artistic team?
Shawn French: Peeter Parkker, who is our colorist and art editor, is a longtime friend of Mortimer’s; and he [Mortimer] needed someone whose critical eye he trusted. Peeter has a really good eye with catching the little details, and he also the ability to cut to the heart of why an image isn’t working; which is a valuable skill that I did not have. Mortimer knew he needed someone who could call him on everything and that he trusted to really be critical. Our letterist, Rachelle Leon, I’ve known her for several years; and she has a great artistic mind and an incredible attention to detail. She’s also a research hound who obsesses in the way all great artists do. You need that for a letterist, someone who can just dive into the details and have fun doing it.
Talking Comics: It seems you all really focused on rounding out the strengths each team member can offer. So is your art team all relatively local to you then?
Shawn French: We are, and that’s a huge advantage. With technology, it may not be as vital as it used to be, but there is no substitution for being able to sit around a room with your team passing comics back and forth talking about styles, lettering styles, and that sort of thing.
Talking Comics: Do you all have a hard-set schedule weekly to partake in those sessions, or do each of you just grab every scrap of time available?
Shawn French: Most of us have day-jobs, and Mortimer does a lot of freelance graphic design to augment his income, so he’s working more hours on the graphic novel currently than the rest of us. I work a full 40-hour a week job, but aside from the hours I have to be there to pay the bills, we are working on the graphic novel.
Talking Comics: Has there been any standout tech to assist when you all cannot be in the same place?
Shawn French: We have a closed Facebook group where the team all talks constantly all day every day. We bounce around ideas for art design, story ideas, feedback we are getting from fans, character design, location design; basically working through every aspect of the story. In addition, Mortimer and I teleconference frequently, which is great. With screen-sharing, I can actually watch him as he is working and talk as he is drawing. [This] makes it very easy to be on the same page and not have him spending a lot of time on an image that just does not fit.
Talking Comics: Time is always the most precious resource, especially with an ever-looming deadline. So was the target release date of summer 2013 set at the start of the project to keep drive high, or have you made that determination based on how far along the project is?
Shawn French: While this is our first time through the process, I think it’s a mistake to commit yourself to a date that may end up hurting the quality. If you end up needing an extra month to get something right, you don’t want to deny yourself that. Mortimer really takes care of the scheduling from an art standpoint and how much time he is going to need for certain things. I’m relying on him to set those timelines, and he’s done enough with graphic design and artwork that he knows how long it takes him to knock out certain parts.
Talking Comics: You’ve touched on an important part of the medium in its collaborative nature and necessity for team trust. Have you found any difficulty in releasing some of the control of your story to meet the needs and suggestions of the artists?
Shawn French: *Chuckle* The older I get, the less important control really is to me. I’ve come to realize that all I care about is telling the best possible story. Every person on this team, as well as each of our fans, has contributed ideas, feedback, or criticism to help improve the story. So I think it’s less about protecting my vision than it is about creating something great; and to do that you have to let go of the reins a little bit and be open to ideas that aren’t your own.
Talking Comics: *Laughs* That is a difficult task for many.
Shawn French: It really is. But I also think if you get too protective of your story, it can really cause conflict within the team. You have to be fluid. You can protect the overall story structure, but the elements within it; the fluidity is better for everyone. You have to give the team room to breathe and experiment, because that’s where a lot of the best stuff comes from.
Talking Comics: It’s common knowledge that whenever you get more than one person in a room though, there is going to be conflicting ideas. Has there been any aspect of the creation process that has bred more conflict than others?
Shawn French: We debate back and forth on stuff constantly, but we’re all very much on the same page. We all want the same things, so even when we are working through a disagreement it is never contentious. We each respect each others opinions enough. You need that feedback; and you need partners who are not only willing to tell you if something is not working, but you have to be willing to hear them.
Talking Comics: So if the creative process has been relatively smooth, what has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far?
Shawn French: I think the biggest challenge, like with any new project, is getting that initial base under you. For us, it was getting the first 500 Facebook fans as quickly as humanly possible; which is tough to do when you have no advertising budget and establishing a product that nobody knows. I don’t think you can really ask to be taken seriously, or treated as a serious project, until you can show that you have at the very least hundreds and soon to be thousands of fans who are interested in the project.
Talking Comics: With the recent surge of technology to assist with self-owned projects, have you found that to be easier?
Shawn French: Really, in the history of humankind, there has never been a better time to be a storyteller. Between self-distribution sources, social networking, and crowd sourcing; there is just this tremendous opportunity today to get your story out into the marketplace. It’s incredible what’s happened over the course of the past few years. If you have a great story, and have good artwork to back it; there’s no longer any reason to stop you from succeeding. Most of the traditional gatekeepers, publishers and distributors, aren’t really a hurdle anymore. You don’t need permission to get your story out there.
Talking Comics: Speaking of stories in the marketplace; you stop by your local comic store, or hear over a podcast a few months back, that ‘Punk Rock Jesus’ #1 [a miniseries from Vertigo about Jesus being cloned to take part in a near-future reality show] has just been released. What was your initial reaction?
Shawn French: That’s actually where I heard about Punk Rock Jesus, on the podcast. My initial thought was, ‘oh %#&$‘. *Laughs* That initial moment of hearing that there was another Jesus-cloning comic book out there was horrifying. I literally dove to Google to look it up, and was like oh, ok. It’s such a wildly different take. As I looked into it, it seems like a great title and they are doing good work with it, but it is in such a different direction from Escape From Jesus Island, so I was less concerned.
Talking Comics: Before we go, do you have any single piece of advice from your experience so far that you could give anyone thinking of self-publishing today?
Shawn French: I think you have to have a marketing plan with clear goals and a path to reach them. I broke ours down into phases; and each phase has a clear time limit and a goal we have to hit at the end of it. You have to have a clear marketing plan because it is every bit important as story or art. It doesn’t matter how great your product is if nobody knows it exists.
Talking Comics: Well Shawn, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk about some of the things you have seen so far in your first venture into the creative and business end of self-published comics.
Shawn French: And thank you for the opportunity to do so!
Shawn French is the writer for the upcoming 128-page full color graphic novel, Escape From Jesus Island; set for release in summer of 2013. There will be a Kickstarter to help cover physical publishing costs in January, and it will be distributed digitally through Graphic.ly’s creator-owned submissions model. If interested, you can find more information on the project at www.jesusisland.com and view the trailer here.