I grew up in a Catholic household, that typical Italian-American family from Brooklyn that you see on TV. Sauce was called gravy, you needed to talk louder than everyone else just to be heard, you didn’t eat meat on Friday, and every child had to be given a Saint’s name. That tie to growing up Catholic, contrasted against my own beliefs, as I grew older, has defined me as a writer. Most, if not all, of my stories have some sort of religious undertone that stems from the fracture between what I was raised to believe as true, versus what I now know to be reality. Catholic Guilt is a very real thing. No matter if you are a devoted believer or an atheist, if you were raised Catholic, the shadow of that guilt is always there in some form or another, and from that lingering guilt, comes a fascination with religious stories.
I call them stories because that’s what they are. We know that it is nearly impossible for everything that is written in the scripture to have actually occurred, and yet we have prominent political figures, who believe that dinosaurs never existed, and men and woman willing to strap explosives to their bodies and kill their fellow human beings. These stories can be a dangerous thing, and as creative minds and rational people, the goal is to take these stories and make them less dangerous by molding them into something unique and entertaining.
Take SAINTS for example. The new series from IMAGE COMICS, created by SEAN LEWIS and BENJAMIN MACKEY, SAINTS brings the ideology of Sainthood into modern times. We start by following Blaise, a somewhat obnoxious asshole that hangs around with a Death Metal band, functioning as a mascot for them due to his ability to heal people. The band believes it to be the dark touch, a gift from Satan, enabling them to continue to perform their satanic music. However, it isn’t the devil that has supplied Blaise with these powers, rather we come to find out, Blaise is the reincarnation of Saint Blaise, the healer of throats, and he is not alone. Reincarnated saints have begun to pop up all along the country, each with a unique power that ties into their patronage or martyrdom. The bible says the saints will rise at the end of the world, and there are those that will do anything to see that does not happen, even if it means that all these newly risen saints must be destroyed.
The thing I LOVE about SAINTS is that it takes such a heavy concept, and has a ton of FUN with it. The idea of super powered beings on the run from those that hate and fear them, gives the book a sort of X-Men vibe, yet the characters have a certain vulnerability to them that keeps the story grounded in reality. These aren’t heroes that charge head first into danger to protect the world. These are people with real life insecurities, somewhat social outcasts that are thrust into a situation they can’t control and very much making it up as they go along. The story is clever and paced to perfection with dialogue that is smart and funny. The art complements the tone of the series in a beautiful way, and Ben’s style reminds me of Michael Oeming’s work on POWERS, using an animated series style of art to contrast the dark and adult story contained within, making it that much more interesting.
So check out this series and get in at the ground floor of what looks to be wild ride or fun and adventure. Issues 1 through 3 are available on COMIXOLOGY and back issues can still be found online, at or around cover price. As always, the best way to support an Independent Comic such as SAINTS is to ask your local comic book shop to add it to your pull list.
Comic Crusaders recently had the chance to sit down with BENJAMIN MACKAY and SEAN LEWIS to talk about comics, theater, and cat t-shirts.
So without further ado…
FM: LETS START AT THE BEGINNING, WHEN DID YOU DECIDE THAT YOU WANTED TO MAKE COMICS AND HOW DID YOU BREAK IN TO THE INDUSTRY?
SL: I’ve been reading comics since I was in middle school and I always fantasized about doing it but had no real way of figuring out how to do it, how to meet artists and so on. I actually had given up on the idea for years. However, I met Ben by chance, working on a play and we got to talking and SAINTS came out of that.
Our “Break In” is probably the story no one wants to hear, in that it’s not helpful. We sent a cold email submission to Image. We finished the entire first issue of the book and then emailed a PDF to the company. It is BEYOND RARE that this works. But it did for us.
BM: I got one of those “How to Draw Marvel Comic Books” things as a sixth grader, and things kind of spiraled out from there. For a long time, I was more obsessed with creating characters than creating pages. I would transform my friends and I into various super-heroic identities. In high school, I won a local “24 hour comic book drawing” competition that served as maybe my first external validation as a creator? Though, going back and seeing it makes me want to throw up a bit in my mouth. Things kept on that same course when I entered college. I enrolled at a major university and kind of custom fitted my courses to make a “comic book” major (i.e. creative writing, art history, painting, drawing). I met Sean while working on a stage production that he was directing. I was creating some illustrations for the play, and we got to talking about comics and our mutual love of them. After maybe six months of work we had our first issue completed and began cold calling Comic companies with the PDF of our first issue. Image was the first to respond back with a green light!
FM: CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS? HOW DO YOU BREAK AN ISSUE AND HOW DO YOU WRITE THE SCRIPT? DO YOU WRITE A FULL SCRIPT OR DO YOU WRITE MARVEL STYLE?
SL: Usually, Ben and I will have a few conversations about the book, where we think it’s going, what threads are still loose, what things we think will be cool and true to the story. Then I’ll go off and write an outline for the issue and I’ll send that to Ben. The outline usually has the beats of the book. (i.e. “In the first 5 pages, I think this will happen, then in the next 4 pages this, let’s move to the villains for the following 8 pages”). Ben and I will talk through that and then I write a pretty big, short story of the issue. This allows Ben to get a sense of the interior emotional states of the characters. We’ve had some reviews mention how alive and expressive the faces are and I think the short stories help with this. They give a much fuller detail than simply, “Close up on Blaise,” if we know he is confused or anguished. That can convey a lot.
These shorts stories are usually 1,500 to 2,000 words. Though as we work together, more and more, the stories are now becoming way more interspersed with dialogue and suggestion. I guess my feeling is, Ben is an excellent artist and has a great visual composition sense, if I can give him all the language and world building he needs to develop the book once we’re there, I can stay out of his way.
FM: BEN, WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS. HOW DO YOU CREATE? DO YOU DRAW DIGITALLY OR ON PAPER? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED BRINGING SAINTS TO LIFE?
BM: Everything starts off with a basic story outline that Sean and I create together. The big plot points. Sean then takes that big story, and refines it into a short story. I take that short story and adapt that into paneled page form. I do this with good old’ fashioned pencil and paper. My hand still works best in that mode of creation. I then send that back to Sean, who sends me a more refined script based on my panel breakdown. Taking that more refined script, I bring my rough pages onto the computer and do a round of more refined digital inks. Then, when those are all done, I get to work on the finalized digital inks. From there, I go on to the flat colors, and then finishing off the flats with shadows, highlights, and all manner of gradients. I think the biggest challenge is not losing a sense of spontaneity with the work throughout all these various steps. I try to maintain that same energy found in manually created roughs, because there is something very pure and authentic about them.
FM: SAINTS HAS AN AWESOME LOOK TO IT! YOUR UNIQUE ARTISTIC STYLE CONTRASTED AGAINST THE HEAVY SUBJECT MATTER IS REMINISCENT OF WHAT MIKE OEMING BROUGHT TO THE TABLE WITH POWERS. IS THERE ANY ARTISTS IN PARTICULAR THAT HAVE INFLUENCED YOUR ART STYLE OVER THE YEARS?
BM: Thanks, Frank! Oh man, when it comes to artistic inspiration, there are a lot of them out there. My earliest inspiration, that really got me interested in comic books, was Ryan Ottley’s bombastic work on INVINCIBLE. Some of the other heavy hitters include Mike Mignola for his simplistic monumentality and reduction of content in the frame, Paul Grist for his down to earth pacing and visual storytelling, Daniel Clowes for his gorgeously reduced/muted color palettes and expressions and GIPI, the Italian artist, for how bodies hang and faces emote. Outside of the comic world, I’m avid Lynch fan. There are definitely some Lynchian nods scattered throughout the book.
Going further back, one of my biggest compositional inspirations is the late Rococo artist Giambattista Tiepolo. For me, having this connection with the world of art history is immensely important for SAINTS. SAINTS is all about the past slamming into the present, and I want the book to reflect that visually. On top of that, each cover of the book takes visual cues from Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine iconography.
Ultimately though, I don’t want this connection to the past to be necessary to the reading of the book. I hope to have it act as this underlying substratum that hums beneath the surface and suggests a deeper internal life connected to the past and other forms of art that I love and respect.
FM: DRAWING AN ONGOING SERIES CAN BE A HERCULEAN TASK. HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR ART DUTIES WITH YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE?
BM: What is this everyday life that you speak of? I seem to have dim recollections of such a thing…but now…the memories…so faded. The balance is definitely tricky. Seeing as this is my first ongoing series, there has been a lot of growing pains and growing…successes? I have been trying to refine my daily work process, so I can have (basically) a 9-6 workday with time on the weekend to be a real human and enjoy life outside the computer screen. It’s been fairly successful, but just last weekend, I pulled a couple of 12-hour days. What’s helped the most is getting a sense of how long each step takes. Now that I am working on Issue five, I have a good idea of how long everything will take. Once this is figured out, it’s much easier to allocate time and plan weeks accordingly.
FM: WHAT KIND OF RESEARCH GOES INTO A STORY LIKE SAINTS THAT DRAWS REFERENCE FROM A BIBLICAL SOURCE MATERIAL?
SL: Well, luckily I went to Catholic school for 8 years and have a grandmother who lives very closely to the Bible. A lot of these stories I grew up with. I’ve been going back and reading it a lot. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Revelations have been the big reference points.
I am very interested in parallels to our world today. If Saints came back, what would be their incarnation point? What is martyrdom today? The metal influence was a direct connection with the shared iconography and pull toward ritual. Also, both the church and heavy metal have these great points of irreverence, which is fun to play with.
FM: I LOVE THAT, THE PROPHETS OF SAINT MICHAEL, WHILE CLEARLY THE ANTAGONISTS OF THE STORY, ARE MOTIVATED BY ALTRUISTIC MEANS. THEY ARE TRYING TO PREVENT THE APOCALYPSE. HOW DID YOU COME TO CREATE THEM AND WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES WITH WRITING CHARACTERS THAT ARE MORALLY GRAY?
SL: Oh they’re the best… the characters on the margins. I like villains, because in real life no one thinks that they are a villain. Look at politicians, no matter how corrupt or destructive, they always believe that they are doing it for the right reasons. So it’s mainly giving them something to believe in wholly and committing to that. Commitment and devotion, in the best and worst ways, make you BLIND. We usually denote BLINDNESS as bad but I’d argue that there is something beautiful in submission, in giving yourself over to a thing that it creates blinders to the rest of the world, I am often that way with art. I am so blinded by the process of making things that I can let everything else slip. It’s great and I enjoy it but it’s also destructive and I have to regulate it. So I look for that. What is this character’s passion? What makes them their ideal self? A self they like so much, that they would sacrifice everything. If it were being a hero, a shepherd to a flock, then you just put the flock in danger and see what level of destructiveness they would be willing to go.
FM: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A COMIC CREATOR? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU HAVE LEARNED OR PERHAPS A MISTAKE YOU MADE THAT YOU WOULD SUGGEST ANOTHER CREATOR ENTERING INTO INDEPENDENT COMICS DO DIFFERENTLY?
SL: I love doing it. Creator owned is a lot of hustle. The thing I wish I had known then is the amount of groundwork you need to do with retailers. I’ve worked in a lot of media forms and comics are so different from everything else, in that the retailers purchasing directly relates to your income. Even more than trying to motivate independent readers to go and buy your book you need to work with retailers on how to sell your book, and the difference between those two things was not clear to me when we started.
Individual readers you can tweet at and use Facebook and everything you can to get them aware of your book. However, the BEST thing you can do is having those readers add you to their pull list. Each month the retailers are making educated guesses on how many books they are going to sell, the pull/subscriptions allows them to hedge that guess a little. You have to help cultivate that.
BM: I am so green in the world of comic making. I have been drawing and illustrating for the good majority of my life, but making comics (on a monthly basis) is an entirely different thing. Sometimes I feel like a little fan boy who snuck in the back door, but ultimately, know that’s not the best mentality to have going forward. The book seems to be resonating with people, and that has been truly inspiring and powerful in terms as serving as a driving force to keep moving forward. As for suggestions, man, I guess just push and promote the crap out of your book! Pull lists and store relations are a creator’s best friend. Also, work far in advance! Don’t push deadlines and get everything in on time. The true death of a book comes when there are breaks and gaps in normal production schedule.
FM: SAINTS WAS AN INTERESTING STORY, MIXING THEOLOGICAL CONCEPTS WITH TRADITIONAL SUPERHERO STORYTELLING. WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR THE COMIC ORIGINATE AND HOW DID THE TWO OF YOU GET TOGETHER TO MAKE IT A REALITY?
SL: Ben had the idea to begin with. I run a theater company in my non comic book life and I had hired Ben to do drawings for a theatrical production I was directing. He told me about this idea he had and then we met a few times and fleshed it out, revamped it, and then dove forward issue by issue. It was a great accident that we met when we did, my life is weird like that. A puppeteer I know recommended Ben to me, so if you’re looking for an artist, meet more puppeteers.
BM: The idea for superhero saints started a number of years ago when I was studying abroad in Italy. When you visit, you are inundated with visual depictions of Saints. They are everywhere and quite iconic unto themselves. They were truly the superheroes of old. I was raised Lutheran (perhaps one of the visually milquetoast religions) and was totally enamored by this strange and glamorous world of Catholic history. This got me started on doing some sketches and doodles of “Super Saints” who used their martyrdoms and or visual symbols as their superpowers. Saint Lawrence who was burned alive was pyro kinetic and Saint-Denis who famously traveled a great distance with a severed head in hand, could throw his head around like The Bowler in Mystery Men. Over the next few years I made a few pages here and there of superhero saints, but nothing really large and overarching. BUT my obsession with Catholic history and philosophy continued to grow. SAINTS really came to life when Sean and I started working together, and he came up with the idea to ground our story in the present and make it about our titular hero, Blaise.
FM: BLAISE, SEBASTIAN, LUCY, AND NOW STEPHEN, WHICH OF THE PROTAGONISTS OF SAINTS ARE YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE AND DRAW?
SL: Oh, choose your children! I love Blaise. He’s difficult man and unlikable and he’s aware of it. I’m always drawn to that and get that, the guy who is insecure enough that he acts out, but deep down is lost. It always resonates for me.
BM: For me, Sebastian is my overall favorite to draw. He has an off-kilter fashion sense and rocking bod. His long flowing locks are also fun to play with. That being said, I really like drawing Blaise’s face (especially when he is stress smoking) and getting to draw Stephen’s terra-kinetic abilities is always a blast.
FM: I LOVE SEBASTIAN’S CAT SHIRT! WAS THAT IN THE SCRIPT OR WAS IT SOMETHING YOU TOSSED IN?
BM: HaHa, cat shirt was not in the script, just a fun visual thing to toss in! Who doesn’t love cats? I’ve been kind of obsessed with the clothing in SAINTS. Since they are on a road trip of sorts, they have a limited arsenal of clothing. But that being said, they are humans and don’t want to wear the same ratty clothes day in and day out. Sebastian changes a lot, whereas Blaise tends to keep wearing the same pair of ratty torn jeans. Blaise also wears his sunglasses… because, you know, he is cool as fuck. On top of clothing, I like doing little things for each book. For example, in Issue two, everyone is eating for probably a good two-thirds of the book (i.e. snacking at Lucy’s parents, burgers on the road, breakfast at the diner). I’m really into the idea of mixing mundane human chores with this apocalyptic story line. This angel may be out slaying saints, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see a lot of Blaise sitting on couches, riding in cars, and sleeping.
FM: IS SAINTS PLANNED AS A LIMITED SERIES OR AN ONGOING? HOW MANY ISSUES DO YOU HAVE PLANNED?
SL: Limited series, 10 issues! Then a large graphic novel.
FM: YOU ARE STRANDED ON A DESERTED ISLAND. YOU CAN HAVE ONE MUSIC ALBUM, ONE MOVIE/TV SHOW/ AND ONE BOOK TO READ. WHAT WILL IT BE?
SL: I’d read the BRIEF WONDEROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by JUNOT DIAZ. I’d listen to “I’LL SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD” by EL-P. I’d watch TRUE ROMANCE.
BM: Music Album: Dark Bird is Home, by The Tallest Man on Earth.
TV Show would be Twin Peaks and if it is one book, I would say, Jurassic Park.
FM: WHAT IS ON YOUR CURRENT “MUST READ” LIST?
SL: What comics are killing me right now… BLOODSHOT REBORN. Lemire. I mean, Lemire. There’s Fraction’s HAWKEYE run in trade, SOUTHERN BASTARDS, NAILBITER, BITCH PLANET.
BM: Right now I am reading the new Archie and Jughead series (#Juggie4Lyfe), Plutona, The Paybacks, and Paper Girls…just to name a few!
FM: ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING CONVENTIONS OR EVENTS YOU WILL BE ATTENDING YOU WOULD LIKE OUR READERSHIP TO BE AWARE OF?
SL: None right now. But we go almost anywhere we are invited so be on the lookout!