10 Questions for R.A. Jones

R. A. Jones is a Tulsa-based writer and editor who got his start in the comics business in the 1980’s. During that time he served as Executive Editor of Elite Comics, wrote for a wide variety of comics news magazines, including Amazing Heroes and Comics Buyer’s Guide.

He wrote a tremendous amount of comics for Malibu Comics, including Dark Wolf, Fist of God, Scimidar, Merlin, Sinbad, White Devil, Protectors, The Ferret, Pistolero, Prototype, Night Man, Air Man, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

He also wrote for other publishers: Dark Horse (Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor), Image (Bulletproof Monk, Automaton), Innovation (Straw Men), Humanoid (Metal Hurlant), DC (Showcase ’95), Marvel (Weapon X, Wolverine & Captain America).

R. A. is also a long time friend of ComicsCareer.Com. He was interviewed with Rob Davis in Comics Career Newsletter #21 way back in the Jurassic era. We’re delighted to have him back with us here in the 21st century.

Question 1: When did you first decide that you wanted to create your own comics for a living?

I knew I wanted to create my own comics shortly after I first began collecting them – at age twelve. By age 14, I was writing and drawing my own comic book stories, and had written an ongoing comic strip for my school newspaper.

Question 2: Who has had the biggest influence on you outside the comics industry, and how did they affect your life?

On a personal level, my greatest influence would have to be my father, James Francis Jones. Mostly by example, from him I learned what it was to have a dream; the importance of honoring obligations; how to age without growing old; and how to try your best to do what’s right.

Professionally speaking, but from outside of comics, my biggest influence probably came from the action-adventure authors I was drawn to as a boy: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Robert Louis Stephenson, Jack London and the like. My life-long love of movies also influenced my approach to storytelling.

Question 3: Who has had the biggest influence on your comics career, and how has that person changed your work?

As far as my influences within the comics industry, first and foremost would have to be Stan Lee. It was his work – and his contagious, boyish enthusiasm – which inspired me to want to tell stories of my own. The very first comic book I ever purchased for myself – Avengers #17 – was written by Stan and immediately hooked me on comics for life. I still possess that worn, tattered, well-read and well-loved comic.

After Stan, Roy Thomas had a deep impact on my approach to writing comics. He brought a literate slant to his stories such as I had never seen in comics before – and his evident love of all things mythological matched or exceeded my own.

It could be said that Stan and those who followed him changed the entire course of my life. Before them, I had not yet developed any particular yearning for a specific career path – and without them, there is no telling what other path I may have followed instead.

Question 4: What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

I am extremely lucky in that — knock on wood — I have never, ever experienced a serious case of writer’s block.

As for “recharging my creative batteries”, it has always been my experience that virtually everything I encounter – a comic, a book, a song, a movie, a woman glimpsed in my rearview mirror – can be the catalyst that sets my mind spinning in a new direction that will usually lead me to my next prospective story. And nothing recharges the batteries like the prospect of taking on a new project.

That having been said, it is also undeniable that both mental and physical fatigue can set in when you have been going at a fast pace for long periods of time. When that happens, you just have to do what any other sort of worker would do: try to find some time to just relax, unwind and get your mind off work for a few days. Then you’re usually ready to get back in the saddle.

Question 5: Describe your typical work routine.

One of the things I like about being a writer is the fact that you don’t really have to have a “routine” – unless that it what you find works best for you.

For myself, if I produce six pages of usable work, I would usually consider that to be a good day’s work – regardless of how much or how little time it took me to do so. At the moment, like many writers at many times in their careers, I have a “day job” outside of writing, so I have to fit the writing around that; I often write on my lunch hour, for example, and in the evenings at home.

But the bottom line for me is: what is the deadline on this particular project? Knowing that, I do whatever I need to do, for as long as I need to do it, to meet that deadline.

Question 6: What writing, drawing, or other tools do you use?

Being a writer, the main “tool” I use is my mind, my imagination.

In terms of physical tools, like pretty much every writer today I use a computer. I don’t, however, compose on the computer. Maybe it’s just because of my age – my first scripts were produced on a manual typewriter – but I still insist on writing my first draft longhand; I like the feel of a pen in my hand, and the feel of that pen sliding across paper.

Research materials are a must. Again, nowadays much of that can also be done on the computer, via the Web, but I also make frequent use of books, magazines, newspapers – and even videos and television.

Question 7: What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?

Mark Waid once told me that he loved developing the idea for a story, and he loved having written a story – but he hated actually writing the story! Any writer could empathize with that, and probably agree with the sentiment.

Given that, it probably won’t be surprising if I say the satisfaction tends to come after the work is not just finished but actually published. Seeing your name in print is great validation of your efforts. And the knowledge that thousands, or even millions, of people are going to read what you have written and be touched by it in one way or another, produces a high that never grows stale and that no drug could ever hope to match.

Question 8: What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career – in or out of comics – and why?

The most rewarding aspect of my career has not come from any professional project alone, but rather from the opportunities that this career has afforded me to use my talents and contacts as tools to aid in various fundraising efforts.

In the years since I turned pro, I have been able to help raise thousands of dollars for everything from the Shriners’ hospitals to college scholarships for deserving young men and women.

I’ve always felt that if your life and/or career puts you in a position to give a little something back to the world – you should feel obligated to do so.

On a purely professional note, it gave me tremendous pleasure to write the Wolverine and Captain America series – both because it was for Marvel, whose books are what sparked my desire to be a writer, and because Cap was one of the characters in that very first comic I ever bought!

Outside of comics, an especially rewarding project, was a book entitled 2001 Memories: An Actor’s Odyssey. This was actor Gary Lockwood’s [Star Trek; 2001: a Space Odyssey] memoir, which I helped him write.

Question 9: We’ve all met very talented newcomers who are trying to get their first professional projects. What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard given to a promising new creator?

The first, and possibly best, advice you should give to anyone who aspires to a career in comics is: Run away! Don’t do it!

If they follow that advice, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have made it anyway. If they ignore you, there’s hope.

The best advice I’ve ever heard, because it holds true for every discipline, is simply: Do the work. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be an artist, draw. Repeat as needed. And network as much as possible; it’s as important in comics as it is in any other business.

Question 10: Time to get philosophical: What’s the most important “big idea” that you’ve learned in life – in or out of comics – and why is it important?

Like most native Oklahomans, I’m part Indian, and have read a fair amount about them and their historical way of life. One philosophy, which was certainly widespread among the tribes of the Plains, is one that I have tried to embrace in my own life. Simply phrased, it is this:

A man should be measured not by how much he possesses – but by how much he gives away.

I believe it is an idea that if striven for, in all cultures at all times in history, can’t help but lead to a better life for all.

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Interview: Alex Grecian

Alex Grecian

Behind the smile and friendly demeanor of Alex Grecian, there must lie some deeper, darker demons. After all, this is a writer whose Image Comics’ series Proof is steeped in conspiracy theories, ancient monsters, and characters who die before their times.Proof

We caught up with Alex at the MO-KAN Comics Conspiracy show in Kansas City in the fall of 2008. During our interview, Alex didn’t really hint at any sinister past, though. Instead, he talks about his background in advertising, design, typography, comics art, and his eventual transistion into full-time comics writer and novelist. Not a hint of a demon.

You can read the first issue of online for free at the Image Comics site.

Kansas City Comics: Tell us about Proof.

Alex Grecian: Proof is an ongoing series about The Lodge, a top-secret government organization jointly funded by the US and Canada. The Lodge is headed by a mysterious man named Leander Wight whose goal is to ensure that humans and cryptids live in harmony.

Cryptids are monsters that might actually exist, creatures that have been witnessed, but never caught: The Loch Ness Monster, El Chupacabra, The Mothman, Bigfoot,… all cryptids.

Speaking of Bigfoot, The Lodge’s star agent is a sasquatch. He’s the only non-human agent and he goes by the name John Prufrock. His friends call him Proof for short. He’s a stylish guy who cares deeply about his appearance and manners, but for obvious reasons he can’t interact with the public.

Proof’s partner is Ginger Brown. She was a rookie FBI agent and was recruited by The Lodge after she met a golem while on a case in New York.
Proof #1Other agents include Elvis Chestnut, who came to The Lodge after his mother was killed and inhabited by El Chupacabra; Wayne Russet, Proof’s best friend and lead cryptozoologist; and Noel Russet, Wayne’s estranged son.

The first story arc [issues 1-5] was collected in the Goatsucker trade. In it, we’re introduced to all these characters, plus an agent named Autumn Song, who isn’t terribly nice, but is good at her job. The second arc [issues 6-9] is called The Company Of Men, and will be collected this December. That book takes the Lodge agents to Africa in search of a baby dinosaur, then to Seattle to find Elvis a new suit.

Currently, Proof is in the American Midwest, dealing with giant thunderbirds, in the arc Thunderbirds Are Go, which also follows Ginger back to New York to wrap up loose ends in her life there.

Kansas City Comics: How did the idea for the series come about?

Alex Grecian: A friend of mine made a joke about the reason why nobody’s found Bigfoot: The CIA already found him and he’s working undercover. It didn’t sound like a joke to me. It sounded like a great idea for a story. As I began to explore what Bigfoot would want and why and how he’d work for the government, the idea took shape, layering over itself like a pearl.

Kansas City Comics: How did you connect with artist Riley Rossmo? What added elements has Riley brought to the series?

Alex Grecian: Riley and I did a graphic novel called Seven Sons for AiT and enjoyed working together. When we finished Seven Sons, we started casting about for something else to collaborate on. As soon as I started thinking about Proof – and long before I had a title for the series – he was the first and only artist who came to mind. Fortunately, he immediately saw as much potential in the idea as I did.
Proof: I Believe in Monsters.
To make a series like Proof remotely believable, as opposed to cartoony and silly, the characters need to seem like real people. Or as real as a comic book about Bigfoot can get. Riley’s work stands out in many ways, but the thing I like most is his ability to convey facial expressions and body language in a way that allows the characters to communicate without dialogue. That makes my job much easier. He really breathes life into Proof and the supporting cast.

Plus he’s impossibly fast!

Kansas City Comics: Over the first dozen or so issues of Proof, have you found that the series has diverged from your original plans?

Alex Grecian: In some ways. We started out with a rough blueprint for the entire series and that’s still intact. The ending for the series will still be what it’s always been. But we went in with a lot of wiggle room to explore things along the way and that’s allowed us to have fun and discover aspects of the characters and situations we didn’t anticipate.

Kansas City Comics: What surprises have come up along the way?

Alex Grecian: There’ve been a couple of characters who were supposed to die or disappear and they’ve come back. Elvis Chestnut in particular took on a life of his own and has become integral to the resolution of the entire series. Originally, he was going to be eaten by the chupacabra in issue two. The final issue of Proof, though, would be much less satisfying without him, so I’m glad he’ll be around to contribute to it.

Kansas City Comics: What other projects do you have in the works?

Alex Grecian: I have a series of all-ages graphic novels coming out, with Kelly Tindall on art. They’re called Squeak! The bizarre adventures of a pet mouse. They’re a lot of fun.

I’m also hard at work on a mind-blowing miniseries called The Colony, a children’s book, and a couple of other things that I probably shouldn’t talk about yet.

Kansas City Comics: How does your screenwriting and prose work affect your comics work?

Alex Grecian: They’re night and day, really. Writing for comic books is much more difficult and restrictive than, say, writing novels or short stories. At least for me. My tendency is to want to explore every avenue that presents itself with a character and you have that freedom when you’re writing a novel. As long as the structure is sound, you really don’t have to worry about how many pages are in a chapter. But in comics, you’re constantly watching the pace, making sure you can fit everything you need in those 22 pages for an issue. Plus, each page is like a chapter, where you’ve got to be aware of your beats and have a mini-beat fall at the end of the page, prompting the reader to turn to the next page. It’s much more challenging for me and a reason I think a lot of novelists don’t do well when they make the transition to comics. Of course, many do, but some are probably turned away by the demands of the medium.

The upside, though, is the collaboration. If I’m working with a really good artist, someone like Riley, I get to see the story filtered through him and that gives everything a new dimension it wouldn’t otherwise have. I love it.

I’ve only written one movie treatment and hated every minute of it. That was an adaptation I was asked to write by a production studio and the source material was a terrible comic book series. I agreed to do it before I read the comic and then my heart sank once I actually got the thing and started taking notes. I’d like to take another stab at a screenplay one of these days, writing an original story or adapting something of my own. But the challenges there are tenfold what they are in comics. If you’re not careful, I think the story can take a backseat to the demands of the medium and you get kind of lost.

For now, I’m really happy writing comics and crime novels.

Kansas City Comics: Do they cross pollinate in some fashion?

Alex Grecian: Each kind of rejuvenates my creative batteries because I’m exercising different muscles. But writing novels taught me to sit down and write at the same time every day and set a goal for myself. That’s become my routine and without it I wouldn’t be able to get much done.

Kansas City Comics: I think it’s interesting that you’re also the book’s letterer. As a writer, what are the benefits of having that level of control on the placement of your words?

Alex Grecian: Oh, it’s enormous, really. It’s helped us to remain on-schedule, for starters. I don’t have to sweat the dialogue too much, so Riley never ends up waiting on me for scripts. The script I send Riley is pretty detailed, but I don’t take the time to go back and choose the words in the dialogue, write another draft of it. Once I get the art back from Riley, I can make my tweaks and reposition things to match the art well and help the flow and pacing. That’s also the point at which I realize Proof wouldn’t have phrased a certain sentence the way I first wrote it, etc. I love being able to have that one last swipe at things before it all goes off to the printer, a final draft on the page.

I do hate doing the sound effects, though. I cheat on those quite a bit.

Kansas City Comics: I understand that you also create fonts. That’s an unusual sideline for a writer. How did your typography work come about?

Alex Grecian: I became fascinated with fonts when I worked as a pager – that’s someone who lays out publications – for a printer-publisher. They had hundreds, maybe thousands, of fonts on their servers because each magazine they published used a different set of typefaces. But there was no organization to any of it, so in my spare time I put together a font library for them, consolidating everything and learning a lot about fonts as I went along. They used a program called Fontographer to fix damaged fonts and I gradually taught myself how to use that software to make all-new fonts. That eventually turned into a sideline for me.

Kansas City Comics: How has your background in advertising affected your comics career?

Alex Grecian: I started as an illustrator and idea guy. I was headhunted after doing freelance work while I still worked for that publisher I mentioned. I was a busy guy. From there, I was able to move into just about every aspect of ad work, except sales and media buying. I wrote copy, gave presentations, and managed to work my way into directing TV spots. My primary function, though, was to brainstorm new campaigns for clients.

Learning to storyboard for TV and hit deadlines definitely helped me think visually and put a book out on time every month. It was incredibly useful training.

Kansas City Comics: What made you decide to leave advertising and write full time?

Alex Grecian: Well, I started to hate my job. The country was going through a recession and about half of my co-workers at the agency were laid off. The atmosphere became extremely political and onerous. I was also stupid enough to sign a non-compete contract when I started there that specifically kept me from doing comic book work. At first that wasn’t so bad because I was so busy I didn’t have time to even think about comics. But the less happy I was at my day job, the more I wanted to write my own stories as a creative outlet.

When my wife got pregnant, we both wanted our son to have a stay-at-home parent. My wife had a better-paying job, I hated my job, and it seemed logical that I could freelance from home.

The original plan was for me to be a freelance advertising illustrator. But I started writing comic book pitches and scripts and before we knew it I was working full-time to break into comics as a writer. I guess I just finally decided I wasn’t going to have any more opportunities to follow my dream. And I was awfully lucky to have such a supportive spouse.

Kansas City Comics: How did your early work in The Factor, 24 Hour Comics, and Seven Sons come about? What did you learn from those projects?

Alex Grecian: I was introduced to Nat Gertler at a convention when he was looking for artists. I had a portfolio because I was drawing my own stories and he invited me to draw a couple of projects for him, including The Factor and Licensable Bear. I also wrote and drew a 24-Hour comic, somewhere in there, and turned it into a mini-comic, which I sent around to creators and publications. CBG gave it a glowing review and for a while it looked like I had a shot at breaking into comics. But, then I went to work for the agency that wouldn’t let me do comics work.

When Nat put together the first 24 Hour Comics book – which was edited by Scott McCloud and included stories by Neil Gaiman and Stephen Bissette – I was fortunate to have Scott choose my story for inclusion. That encouraged me to go after comics work again.
Proof promo art
Mostly what I learned from those projects was that I shouldn’t draw. And if you’re trying to carve out a career, you shouldn’t lose your forward momentum. By disappearing entirely for a five year period, I ended up having to start all over again.

Seven Sons was a different deal altogether and came much later, after I quit the agency. I decided I really didn’t have the chops to draw comics and should just stick to writing. I’d met Riley Rossmo and sent him a list of, I think, 16 story ideas. He picked Seven Sons and we put together the graphic novel together, which we sold to the first publisher we approached: AiT. We kept our momentum and used Seven Sons to help us sell Proof to Image.

Kansas City Comics: Nat Gertler seems to have had a major impact on your early career. Tell me about his influence, and others who have had an important role in your development.

Alex Grecian: Nat’s a great guy and was very good to me. It was useful to draw from someone else’s script because I learned some of the fundamentals of formatting. But I chafed at having to draw someone else’s stories and basically figured out the hard way that drawing wasn’t the part of the process that I liked. Poor Nat didn’t get my best work. I really wanted to be doing what he was doing, not what I was doing.

I was lucky, early on, to have a number of people who encouraged me and gave me confidence. Batton Lash, who writes and draws Supernatural Law, and his wife, Jackie Estrada, who runs the Eisner awards, were terrific. They saw some potential in me, I guess, and introduced me to lots of other comics folks. My wife and I even stayed in their home on our honeymoon! Ande Parks and Phil Hester gave me tons of advice and some early opportunities. My first published work was as an uncredited inking assistant on a Caliber book Ande inked. Paul Fricke, who co-created Trollords and inked a ton of DC stuff, was also a great source of advice and became a good friend. Dave Sim and Eddie Campbell also took time to talk and write to me and help me figure things out when I was just starting out. And Brian Wood actually gave Riley and me the introduction to Image that led to us pitching Proof.

This industry’s full of generous people. Networking’s important in just about any field, but it’s probably easier in comics because there are so many gifted people who are willing to share their time and knowledge.

Kansas City Comics: When did you first begin creating comics?

Alex Grecian: I can’t remember. My son’s been drawing his own comics since he was two, so I imagine I started at about the same time.

Kansas City Comics: What was your family situation at the time, and did that affect your interests in comics?

Alex Grecian: My dad’s always read comic books. One of my earliest comic book memories was sitting at the dining room table, reading my dad’s copies of the Warren Spirit reprints. So, yeah, having comics around and having a parent who’s a professional writer, I guess it’s not hard to put two and two together.

Kansas City Comics: What were your biggest early influences?

Alex Grecian: The first comic I can remember picking apart and examining to see how the creator did what he did was The Spirit. Eisner was, and is, a huge influence. Peanuts was a big deal for me too.

Probably the most influential early comic for me, though, was an issue of DC’s Showcase that heralded the “new” Doom Patrol. I’d never heard of The Doom Patrol before, but it was clear that it was a team that’d been around since long before I was born. And the whole team (with the sole exception of Robotman) got killed in that issue. Here I’d just found out about these weird characters and they were suddenly gone. That was huge for me. The idea not just that comic book characters were mortal, but that continuity could move forward and things could change. That’s an exciting idea.

And it may be why I still have a tendency to kill off characters as soon as I start to get attached to them. Riley’s saved several Proof characters from certain death.

Kansas City Comics: From where do you currently draw your inspiration? What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

Alex Grecian: Personally, I like to write in more than one medium to keep things fresh. I’m desperately trying to carve out some time to finish my third crime novel, which I think is the most ambitious project I’ve ever written.

Kansas City Comics: Ambitious in what way?

Alex Grecian: When comic book writers try their hand at writing prose, they tend, at least in my opinion, to overcompensate for the lack of pictures and end up writing horrible, flowery stuff. Neil Gaiman’s an exception, of course, and I’m sure there are others. But the two media exercise completely different creative muscles and that takes some adjustment.
Proof: Goatsucker trade cover
Anyway, my first prose novel was kind of a mess and I put it away. It’ll never see the light of day. The next two I wrote were much better, I think, leaner and more focused. I’m really proud of them. This third (or fourth, depending on how we count them), is written in the first person, which is trickier than third person perspective, and it’s much darker and more serious. I’m trying to tackle some big issues, within the context of a detective novel. Hopefully I’m able to pull it off, but working on it is honestly exhilarating.
Kansas City Comics: What is it about comics that appeals to you as a creator?

Alex Grecian: Writing a book is a solitary experience. So is writing a comic book script, but then someone else takes that script and turns it into something else. I guess I love the collaboration more than anything. And that really doesn’t apply to writing. I have no interest in collaborating with another writer. I like seeing my work taken to another level, though, that process of transforming it into another art form.

Kansas City Comics: Describe your typical writing routine.

Alex Grecian: I get up between five and five-thirty every morning, seven days a week. I drink a pot of coffee while I read and respond to email, check the Proof message board and catch up on the day’s news. Then I get to my desk before the sun’s up and start writing. I usually leave off between scenes so that I can think over the next day’s scenes later in the day when I’m not writing.

My wife comes down a little after seven and I send her off to work then get my son up and ready for school. After I take him and get back home, I eat breakfast and then get back to work. In the afternoon, I do production work, color-correcting Proof pages, writing letters and pitches, lettering and putting together back-matter. Then I pick my son up from school and I’m just dad, taking care of him and making dinner. It’s a nice routine.

I try to pattern my life after the main character, a writer, in The World According to Garp. That was my favorite novel for a long time and another big influence on me.

Kansas City Comics: What is the typical starting point of a story for you?

Alex Grecian: The vast majority of my writing time is spent trying to figure out where to begin and end scenes and massaging the transitions between scenes. Every scene starts for me with the characters, thinking about what they want and what they’re trying to get accomplished in that scene. The characters are always the starting point. In fact, I began my third novel with no plot and no idea where I was going, just the relationship between two brothers, one of whom is learning disabled, and the detective agency they inherited from their father. I love exploring what makes people tick.

Kansas City Comics: How do you judge when a story is “done” and you can stop revising it?

Alex Grecian: When Riley calls and says he needs more script pages. [Laughter]

Kansas City Comics: What’s the most common advice you give to others who want to work in the comics industry?

Alex Grecian: It might be presumptuous for me to give advice at this point in my career, but since you asked…

I’ve got a long two-part answer, but it really all boils down to a single word: write!

I think too many aspiring writers give too much weight to ideas. They treat ideas with reverence. An idea is just the first step in a story. And the easiest step. It’s a tool to get you into the process. If you want to write, you’ve got to get your hands dirty and actually write.

An aspiring writer came up to my table at a recent con and asked for some advice. He’d spent years working out his epic comic book series and he was stuck. It sounded like he’d been stuck for a while and he wanted to know how to break past whatever roadblock he’d run into so he could keep going with his masterpiece. My advice to him, which he clearly didn’t appreciate, was that he should abandon it and move on to another story.

Since Proof started up, I’ve had a fair number of people email me with this same problem and I always say the same thing. Being a writer is about writing. Yes, absolutely, you’ve got to work through story problems. But if your story is growing barnacles instead of actually moving forward, then you’re not writing, you’re just mulling something over.

It’s much easier to build an epic in your head than it is to sit down and build individual scenes and characters. But without those things, you don’t have a story.

And if you’ve only got one story to pitch to companies, your chances of breaking in aren’t swell. I spent three years writing at least one new pitch a week before a single one of them was picked up by a publisher. Some of those were pretty good, but they didn’t meet the editorial needs of the publishers I sent them to and they were rejected. If I’d put all my eggs in one epic basket, I’d still be spinning my wheels now.

The second part of my answer ties into the first, really. You’ve got to sit down at a specific time every day and write something. If you’re stuck at some point in your masterpiece, you’re not gonna get much actual writing done. After a few days of that, you’re probably not gonna bother to sit down at your computer or your typewriter or your yellow legal pad. And if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer, are you?

When I write a novel, I set a daily goal of 2,000 words. When I write a comic book script, I aim for two complete scenes a day, however long those may be. I don’t always reach those goals, but there have been days in which I’ve exceeded them, so I know it’s possible. There’ve also been days in which everything I’ve written has been worthless, but it’s important to sit down and do the work. You can revise or trash your day’s work later.

Writing’s a job and I think you have to treat it like one. If you sit around and wait for your muse, she may not show up. You’ve got to force her to show up by sitting and typing or writing longhand, if that’s your preference.

Kansas City Comics: What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen other creators or aspiring professionals make that hurt their chances to advance their careers?

Alex Grecian: I’m really going to come across as arrogant when I attempt to answer this. Hopefully I don’t completely disappear after I shell out advice about other folks’ careers.

Again, I think it’s a big mistake to bank on a single idea or story or series. Or medium. Brian Bendis has pointed out that, no matter how popular a creator is, he or she usually has a shelf-life. I could point to several creators who were huge at one time, but who’ve virtually disappeared from comics now. I think we should all keep as many oars in the water as possible. If you’re doing a company-owned book, you should also be doing a creator-owned book. Besides, I’m a big proponent of creator-owned books; that’s where this industry gets fresh ideas, new talent and passion. If you’re writing comics, you should also be writing novels or short stories or plays or films. Or all of those.

But I don’t think you should abandon one medium for another. If you’re trying to break into comics, you should be doing it because you love comics, not because you think it’ll be easy. It’s not. Comics shouldn’t be a stepping stone to another medium.

If you are lucky enough to break into comics and make a name for yourself, it’s important to remember that somebody’s reading what you’ve written. You owe that readership your best work, every single time.

When it comes to aspiring professionals, the biggest mistake I think you can make is to give up. You’re going to be rejected again and again. Even after you break in, you’re going to get some rejection. Develop a thick skin and keep moving. Writers are like sharks. You have to keep swimming or you’ll die. So send that rejected pitch somewhere else and write a brand new pitch for the contact who just rejected you. Stay on the radar. If you have talent, the only reason you won’t break in is if you give up.

Kansas City Comics: Okay, here we are near the end, so it’s time to get philosophical: How would you sum up the most important “big idea” that you’ve learned in life, in or out of comics?

Alex Grecian: This is a tough one. Maybe it’s this: empathize. If you can put yourself in other people’s shoes, you’ll obviously be a better writer, but I think you’ll be better at everything else, too. If you can get inside your boss’s head, you’ll have a better idea of what he wants and how to give it to him. If you can see things from your wife’s perspective, you’ll be a better husband to her. If you somehow grasp what your toddler needs, you’ll be able to communicate with him and head off tantrums before they happen. By empathizing with others, you can become a better person yourself.

And you can create more well-rounded characters too!


You can read the first issue of online for free at the Image Comics site.Proof
Check out the official Proof message board.
And there’s a ton of Proof content and inside scoop on the Proof fan blog.

Order Alex Grecian’s books from Amazon.Com using these links:
Proof Volume 1: Goatsucker
Proof Volume 2: The Company Of Men
Seven Sons
The Licensable BearTM Big Book of Officially Licensed Fun!
The Factor
24 Hour Comics

(c) 2008 Comics Career LLC and Alex Grecian. All rights reserved.

Interview: Kerry Callen

Kerry CallenIn a crowd, you might be more likely to peg Kerry Callen as a middle school history teacher than as a comic book creator. He is a casual, soft-spoken guy with a folksy manner. By day, Callen works in the licensing department at Hallmark Cards, adapting the drawings of America’s most popular cartoonists into greeting cards. By night – or at least during rush hour – he creates Halo and Sprocket, one of the most charming and funny comic books you’ll find.

Halo and Sprocket is nominally about a young woman (Katie) who lives with an angel (Halo) and a robot (Sprocket). In reality, Halo and Sprocket is an outlet for Callen’s hilarious fascination with things that simply don’t make sense when you think about them for too long. No topic is too trivial to be turned into a mind bending farce: burping, why there’s no cursive version of numbers, and the fact that the proverbial glass is neither half full nor half empty no matter what Katie says.

Halo and Sprocket Volume 2SLG published four issues of Halo and Sprocket as a comic book in 2002. Those comics were collected as Halo and Sprocket: Welcome to Humanity (Order it from Amazon) in 2004. After too long of a wait, the next installment has arrived this year from SLG’s Amaze Ink imprint as Halo and Sprocket (Volume 2): Natural Creatures (Order it from Amazon).

As part of his work at Hallmark, Callen occasionally ghosts the work of other cartoonists; sometimes the original creator has simply never drawn the pose or costume needed for a card. As a result, Callen has learned to mimic Charles Schulz’ evolving style – complete with the wobbly ink lines of Schulz’ final years. He has also formed close relationships with current and former Hallmark staff artists who moonlight in the comic book business including Chris Grine of Dark Horse’s Chickenhare and Anna-Maria Cool of Claypool’s Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

ComicsCareer.Com publisher Kirk Chritton caught up with Kerry Callen at Kansas City’s MO-KAN convention on September 20, 2008.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: Which of the Halo and Sprocket stories is your favorite?

KERRY CALLEN: Probably, let’s look at the name of it… it’s just a short 4-page story… You know what? Let me change my answer to “Suckers” where they’re talking about spitting saliva. [laughter] I like it the most writing-wise, but art-wise I wish I could go back and redraw it. I think it was the second story I drew even though it was printed in a later issue. But, it has the kind of dialogue I try to get in every story.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: Is that what’s most important to you then, the dialogue?

KERRY CALLEN: Yeah, because all the Halo and Sprocket stuff is about the content more than the art. It’s all about the writing because I’m an artist at my day job.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: How does the writing process work for you?

KERRY CALLEN: The writing part is easy because I have a 45 minute commute to work, so I have all that time to think about stories. They usually get pretty refined during the drive. It’s the art that I usually have to rush through. Maybe that’s why I feel better about the writing than the art.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: If you have the story pretty well worked out in your mind, do you skip straight to thumbnails then?

KERRY CALLEN: Since the dialogue is such an important part, I type it out and break it into sections: “that’s worth about a page; that’s worth about a page.” Then I do little thumbnails. I have it pretty much broken down before I draw it.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: You mentioned your day job. Tell us more about that.

KERRY CALLEN: I work in licensing at Hallmark, which has been a good thing because over the years I’ve had the chance to meet Charles Schulz, Jim Davis, and people like that. Part of what makes it great is just meeting those people and seeing that it’s basically just real people – very talented people – but still just real people doing that stuff. At some point it occured to me that maybe I’ll try doing that, too. That’s part of the reason I started doing Halo and Sprocket in the first place.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: I found the same thing when I got into comics professionally. The writers and artists are just people. They aren’t demi-gods or anything. They’re good at what they do. They have talent and the dedication to stick with it, but it’s not that they’re – I don’t know – fictional or something.

KERRY CALLEN: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: What are the tools you can’t work without – your essential creative tools?

HaloKERRY CALLEN: Right now I work with pencil and brush and ink. One of my favorite parts of the process is inking with the brush. I’d like to train myself though to work on a Cintiq tablet or something where I work directly on the computer because it will cut my time in half. I enjoy the pencil and brush, but I don’t want to say they’re the tools I can’t work without since I would like to work without them.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: What reference sources do you use frequently?

KERRY CALLEN: Well, most of this stuff is just based on my thinking time, driving to and from work. Occasionally, like in this latest volume, they go into a pet store and deal with a skink, which is a kind of lizard. So I had to look up lizards to find out what type I wanted to use. Then I had to do some research on skinks to find their bone structure and latin name.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: So is Google where you go for something like that?

KERRY CALLEN: Absolutely. Oh, the internet is like magic. When I started I had to go to the library for research. If I had to draw a bunch of cats, like I did on “Big Cat Puns”, I would have to go to the library and check out a big stack of books just to get a few images. But now with the internet I spend five or ten minutes and find all the reference I need.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: What is it about the comics medium that appeals to you as a creator?

The Halo and Sprocket gangKERRY CALLEN: I think just the fact that you get to use words and pictures together. That’s a pretty powerful combination. I guess the only thing more powerful would be film where you’ve got moving pictures and sound. But as far as what a single person can create, I think comics is more powerful than just pictures or just words.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: Who has had the biggest influence on your career and how have they had that influence?

KERRY CALLEN: Well, it kind of goes back to what I was saying before about being influenced by seeing that real people do this kind of thing. My first story I just drew for the fun of it just to see if I liked it, and I did. That’s actually the first story in the first collection. So I drew a couple of more and sent them out to some publishers. That was just a shot in the dark to a few different places.

When I first started doing this, I wanted to do a single issue, like a 48-page special. I submitted that idea to places like Dark Horse, and they said, “Well, no we don’t do just little short specials of stuff like that.”

When I sent it to SLG, Dan Vado actually called me and asked if I would do a series. I told him I didn’t have time to do a series and he said, “Well, you can get a couple of issues done before we publish it.” I said I still didn’t know how much time it would take me and he just said, “We’re very patient.” Just him saying that to me helped a lot. It actually gave me permission to go ahead and do a series.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: Obviously you’re involved in artwork during your day job as well. What are the things you do to continue to stretch and learn as a creator?

KERRY CALLEN: The great thing about working at Hallmark is that I’m around a lot of talented people. Just going there every day is a good experience for me. And everybody dabbles in different types of things, not just comics.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: Who are your closest confidants in the comics industry?

KERRY CALLEN: Well, Anna-Maria Cool I still talk to quite a bit. And Chris Grine who does Chickenhare for Dark Horse. Mike Huddleston who actually used to live here in Kansas City. He’s drawing Gen 13 now. We stay in touch pretty regularly. And also Rich Marcej who’s dabbled in comics. Those are the people who, if I have an idea, I’ll send it to them. It’s like, “Here’s my latest story.”

KANSAS CITY COMICS: What’s the biggest reward of creating comics?

KERRY CALLEN: It’s always great when you finish a project and you like the product. But, sitting at a convention can be a lot of fun because if you boil it down, it’s people coming by and telling you how great you are and giving you money. (Laughs)

KANSAS CITY COMICS: Yeah, that’s pretty nice. Money and compliments.

KERRY CALLEN: It doesn’t always happen, but…

KANSAS CITY COMICS: You said that the first time that you sat down to give comics a try, out came Halo and Sprocket. Was it fully-formed from the beginning?

KERRY CALLEN: That’s the short version. The long version is that I knew that I liked comics and wanted to do something in comics. Well, aside from the few dabblings I’d done in the past. I wanted to do something where I could just throw out quirky ideas, and I was trying to decide how to do that. I considered an anthology book with different random stories, but working at Hallmark – and particularly working in licensing – I understand the power behind characters. If you read a Peanuts strip and it’s not funny that day it’s okay because you still like seeing Snoopy again. So, I think if you can create characters people like, it carries you through your weaker material.

So, I knew I needed characters. Then I started thinking, “What character could have quirky views of the world?” I just kept thinking of individual characters. Maybe a robot? But you’ve seen that a thousand times. Or an alien? But you’ve seen that a thousand times, too. Finally it occured to me that I could have two different characters with quirky points-of-view. An angel and a robot gives me two opposite points-of-view on things: purely logical and purely metaphysical. Then, of course, I had to add a human just to have a real life point-of-view. Once that occured to me that’s when I went, well I’ll just draw one of these up now. But I actually thought about it a while before I drew my first story.

KANSAS CITY COMICS: To me, the dynamic between these characters, logical and metaphysical, is really sharp. There seems to be magic in there. What are your thoughts about how that dynamic works.

KERRY CALLEN: Someone asked me the other day which character was me. I said, well, they’re all me. That’s the way people write. The only reason that Katie’s a girl is just because I’d rather draw a girl over and over than a guy.

So – thank you by the way – but I don’t see any magic in it. To me it’s just getting thoughts that I’ve had on paper. To me everything’s obvious. I think that’s what creators do. They put what’s obvious to them on paper.

Not that there’s not a lot of work involved in that sometimes.

There’s more in the ComicsCareer.Com forum including a full Halo and Sprocket story and links to more previews.