Interview with M3 Team Erica Schultz and Vicente Alcazar

It took a while for me to get into independent comics. Long ago, before I joined the ranks of comic creators, I refused to give the independents much more than a passing glance. I was a Marvel and DC guy. There just wasn’t much room in the budget for anything else, and at least with Marvel and DC, I knew what I was getting. The independents were a gamble and too expensive to collect back issues that were often low print runs and either out of stock at my local comic book shop, or over priced on the secondary market by speculators. So week-to-week, I consumed my “Big Two” books that quenched my hunger, but never left me completely full. I felt like I was treading water. Reading the same stories over and over, and in many cases, buying books out of habit, long past the point where the story had lost my interest, simply to complete my run.

Then something happened that forced me to break my habits. I ran out of space for all my comics. I had been living in a one-bedroom apartment that was the size of most people’s living rooms. It was small; I mean really small. Between my wife’s stuff, my stuff, and the limited space, I couldn’t find a home for anything past a short box. I started bringing comics to my parent’s house and storing them in their basement, something my mother was not to keen on, as she was looking to use that space for her own things. Soon, it became clear, my parent’s basement wasn’t going to be the free self-storage facility I had hoped it to be.

One Christmas, my wife gave me an iPad. She knew that I was an avid, if not fanatical reader, and she figured this would be a great way for me to continue reading all the comics, novels, and magazines that I love, without having them stacked all over the apartment. Even then, with such an awesome and expensive gift, I thought there is no way I will use this thing. I liked having the book in my hand. Reluctantly, I decided to give it a try and from my very first download on Comixology, I was hooked.

On an iPad, there really isn’t much difference in reading a comic digitally versus paper form. In many ways, the colors are even more vibrant on the tablet, and I learned to fall in love with the guided view, which prevented my wandering eye from peeking at the turn page and spoiling the upcoming reveal. But the thing I loved most about Comixology was the back issue catalogue.

I started by going back and filling in issues of Uncanny X-Men that I had missed, and from there I branched into Image and their catalogue of issues from some of the great creators in comics. Then I jumped to Dark Horse, then IDW, then BOOM, then Action Lab. With each step further from The Big Two, I found amazing self-contained stories that were not only available and affordable, but also immensely engaging and entertaining.

By the time I made it to the Comixology Submit line, the independents had begun to dominate my pull list and I was almost one hundred percent digital in terms of my purchasing habits. I didn’t miss the floppies. I didn’t miss the bags and boards. I didn’t miss the look of annoyance on my mother’s face as I tried to sneak yet another short box into my parent’s basement. Everything I needed was on my tablet. Anything I wanted to read was only a download away. It was amazing.

The Comixology Submit line has since become one of my favorite publishers of comics. Unfiltered by a large publisher, the stories are true reflections of the creator’s vision. No summer event crossover to muddle up a story, no licensed property studio directing from behind the scenes. It is inspiring to see creators achieve their dream and bring their stories to life. Not to say that everything is great. All publishers have some books that just don’t hit their mark. Stories that just don’t resonate with readers. It happens in all forms of entertainment, no matter how big or small a publisher or creator might be.

That is why I decided to create this Indie Spotlight. To help show people on the fence about jumping into the independents, some of the great works available on Comixology Submit. Granted everyone’s taste is different. Some people might not love the things I love. However, these books all share a common theme. They are projects that feature writing and art quality that I feel is on par with the stuff being produced by the bigger publishers, and in many cases exceed those standards.

So without further ado…

Our second spotlight is on ERICA SCHULTZ and VICENTE ALCAZAR’s comic M3.

I am a fan of espionage thrillers. From James Bond and Jason Bourne, to the works of Tom Clancy and Nelson DeMille, it is a genre that is a staple of Hollywood, but often has trouble being adapted to the still frame media that is comics. To pull it off, and to do it well, the writer must have impeccable pacing to correctly weave the drama throughout the issue, while the artist needs to juggle not only action sequences but also silent and still panels that focus on building suspense. It is a difficult task but one that Schultz and Alcazar manage perfectly in M3.

The story revolves around an assassin named Machiavella Maria Marcona, nicknamed M3, by overzealous federal agent Christopher Morris, who is chasing her. The daughter of corrupt Italian nationals, Machiavella, is orphaned as a child when her parents are murdered by I.R.A. hitman, David McGrath. Feeling sympathy for Vella, David takes her in and raises her as his own, teaching her the skills needed to follow in his footsteps as a killer for the cause. As Agent Morris continues to close in on M3, the strands of a larger conspiracy begin to unravel, pulling the two of them into an unlikely alliance.

There are many things to love about this story, but what stands out most of all is the character of Machiavella. Called Vella for short, she is a strikingly beautiful, trained assassin, cunning and capable in any situation. However, beneath the tough exterior is a vulnerability to the character that makes her sympathetic and relatable, even when her actions are not in line with what we would expect from a hero. Her tragic upbringing and the feelings of isolation her profession demands of her. The conflicted emotions she has on her actions and her place in the world. Her hesitancy to trust someone in a world where she has been used and discarded. All layers that build a unique personality that transcends the “strong female lead” label so freely tossed around in modern day entertainment. This isn’t a strong female lead. This is a strong lead, period.

The art of Vicente Alcazar is a wonder to behold. Drawn in a photorealistic style that perfectly captures the emotion of facial expressions and cinematic mood of each scene, the art pulls you into the story and gives it a cinematic feel. The style also produces some of the most amazingly detailed backgrounds I have ever seen in a comic book. I spend most of my day in New York City, a home to about ninety percent of comic book heroes, and never before have I seen it presented in such a way where I actually felt I was standing on the corner in the background.

For those of you that are interested in creating your own comic book or writing for comics, Issue #1 of the series is a fine blueprint on how to do a first issue of a comic book series. It tells the perfect amount of backstory to develop the main characters while revealing just enough of the main plot that the reader feels like they know what is happening, and is anxious to see what happens in the next issue. First issues are always a daunting task, but M3 shows us how effective storytelling in the first issue can set the perfect tone for the series.

The first two volumes of M3 are currently available on Comixology, each story arch runs six issues and tells a complete story. Both are fantastic reads and volume one is available in a collected edition for the very modest price of $9.99.

So what are you waiting for? Go out and pick up this series and dive in!

ERICA SCHULTZ, writer, letterer, and co-creator of M3, was kind enough to agree to an interview, not just on M3, but her experiences creating independent comics, her process as a writer, and her favorite X-Man.

WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR M3 COME FROM AND WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO GO AHEAD AND MAKE YOUR OWN INDEPENDENT COMIC?

I had been recovering from a car accident in late 2008 and had nothing to do but heal and think. I was ruminating on stories I had written for a while and wondering if there was something marketable in all those notebooks I had in the closet. Then I started working at Continuity Studios in New York, and we began work on the Astonishing X-Men motion comic “Gifted.” I hadn’t thought about writing for comics until then. I had always thought that perhaps I would release these stories as novels, films, or teleplays. Comics were an alternate visual medium, so why not start there?

Vicente and I had originally pitched M3 to indie publishers in August 2010. We got a great deal of positive feedback, but publishers were citing the economy and schedules, or that M3 didn’t fit with their type of book. So we thought, “We’ll just do it ourselves.” Honestly, at the time, I don’t know if I had really understood the responsibility and workload I was taking on at the time. Live and learn, I guess. But, hey, now I know how to publish a book from start to finish, so I can cross that off my bucket list.

CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS? HOW DO YOU BREAK AN ISSUE AND HOW DO YOU WRITE THE SCRIPT? IS IT MARVEL STYLE OR FULL SCRIPT?

I usually write full script with Vicente. My book with Claire Connelly (also on Comixology, titled The Unauthorized Biography of Winston Churchill: A Documentary) was a mix up of Marvel style and full script. Whoever I work with, though, I want it to be a collaborative process. I told Vicente from day one, “If I write 5 panels and you can do everything in 4, go for it. If you need 6, go ahead!” And that’s how he and I got through 12 books together.

As far as my process goes, it varies. I usually start off with the seed of an idea, and maybe a scene or two written or some dialogue jotted down. From there I find the story arc. I branch that out into a summary, then an outline. Then I do page breakdowns (depending on how many pages I have to work with). Lastly, I start writing the script with panel breakdowns.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AS AN INDEPENDENT COMIC BOOK 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?

Let me caveat this by saying this is my experience. Some people have had similar ones; others have had vastly different ones. Some things I say, as “advice” will be useful to some people, others, not so much. There’s always the “who you know” and the “luck factor” to consider. Okay, on with the dog and pony show…

Since I was a fan of comics, but never a writer of them prior to M3, this entire experience was eye opening. I don’t think I could have ever predicted the people I would meet or the opportunities that would present themselves. I’m not going to say being an indie creator is all peaches and cream, either.

I’m very lucky to have a husband and friends (outside of comics) who are incredibly supportive of my dream. My husband comes with me to virtually all the conventions I attend, and that’s a huge lifesaver.

Strictly from a practical standpoint, going to cons to sell books is a feat. You have boxes and boxes of heavy books you have to cart here, there, and everywhere. It’s just nice to have an extra set of hands.

My husband is also creative himself, so it’s good to have someone to bounce ideas off. He also acts as editor on a lot of my scripts, making sure my comma placement is correct.

Making a book is hard. Selling it at conventions is an experience nothing can prepare you for. I think it must be said that I’ve encountered the “girls don’t make comics” vitriolic garbage at conventions. I’ve gotten looks, both creepy and disdainful. I’ve been quizzed on how many Green Lanterns I can name in 30 seconds, or who are the original X-Men. People approach the table and ask my husband what it’s like to be a comic creator and he says, “I wouldn’t know, I’m just the booth babe. Maybe you should ask my wife.” At one convention in Pittsburgh a few years back, someone felt it was necessary to grab my ass while I was setting up my table.

That all out, even without the misogyny, conventions are difficult. If you’re a newcomer, picture it like being in a fishbowl at the pet store: Every fish is begging to be taken home in a plastic bag, and some people just want to step up and tap on the glass.

I’ve said this about comics a lot, especially indie comics: You have to want it more than air. I work a full time job and do M3 and other indie books. To say it’s hard work is a gross understatement. You have to want it more than life, oxygen, friends, love, sex, everything. This has to be your singular focus if you’re ever going to get any traction. If you just want to do comics as a fun thing on the side, go for it. If you’re looking for a career, say goodbye to your social life for a while.

As I said at the top, this is just what I’ve been through. You could be “discovered” sitting on a park bench by Steven Spielberg and go on to make a bajillion dollars and movies and such. Congrats! But, it’s not that easy or likely.

I HAVE READ THAT YOU ARE A BIG FAN OF CLAREMONT’S UNCANNY X-MEN RUN (ME TOO BTW).  WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE X-MAN AND WHY?

Rogue has always been and always will be my favorite X-Man. I love her not only for her brashness, but her vulnerability and her self-awareness. She puts on a strong front (especially in the 90s when she still had Ms. Marvel’s abilities), but deep down, she just wanted to hug someone without killing them. Now that she has control of her powers, she can do that.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR GOALS IN COMICS?

Well, I’ve already written for Marvel (Revenge: The Secret Origin of Emily Thorne), but I’d like to write a superhero book for them. I’d also like to get the chance to write for DC. I have a story in DC/Vertigo’s Quarterly anthology, Pop!, out in stores late April, but that doesn’t sate the DC itch. I have some other creator owned properties I’m working on. There’s also a project with a publisher that hasn’t been announced yet, so I have to be mum about it. Just know it’s with amazing ladies and that I’m incredibly excited to be a part of it. I guess my overall goal is to be a full time writer, so that usually means being put on an ongoing series. As of right now, I’m still working full time.

WHAT IS ON YOUR CURRENT “MUST READ” LIST?

Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Batman, Detective Comics, Captain America, Ms. Marvel, Velvet, Bitch Planet, C.O.W.L., Daredevil, All New X-Men, and then I wait for a lot of things in trades.

M3 FEATURES A STRONG FEMALE LEAD IN VELLA.  WHAT STORIES THAT ALSO HAVE HAD STRONG FEMALE LEADS HAVE YOU ENJOYED, BE THEM TV/BOOKS/MOVIE OR COMICS?

I really enjoyed the 90’s La Femme Nikita TV series, with Peta Wilson. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my love for Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. I think Susan Eisenberg did a phenomenal job voicing Wonder Woman in the Justice League cartoon series and several of the animated films after that. Every time I read Wonder Woman, I hear Susan’s voice. I currently enjoy the Agent Carter series on TV. I was never a huge gamer, so I never got into Lara Croft, but she’s cool from what I’ve seen.

HOW DID YOU MEET VICENTE ALCAZAR AND HOW DID HE COME TO BE THE ARTIST ON THE PROJECT?

I was working at Continuity Studios and Vicente, a former Continuity employee, was in town visiting. At that point, I had already written the first few scripts for M3. Vicente was working on a Jonah Hex one shot called, “The Brief Life of Billy Dynamite.” I was in awe of his work. I had given him the script for M3 #1, to see if he’d be interested in working with me on it. He took the script, read it, told me he loved it, and the rest is history.

SOME OF THE CHARACTERS IN M3 ARE INSPIRED BY CELEBRITIES (TOM SELLECK FOR VELLA’S FATHER AND GARY BUSEY FOR FLOYD).  IS THERE A CELEBRITY THAT INSPIRED VELLA’S LOOK?

We looked at a few people at the beginning: Monica Vitti, Kate Beckinsale, Angelina Jolie. She sort of morphed into a mix between Beckinsale, Michelle Rodriguez, Erica Cerra, and Sarah Shahi.

NOW THAT M3 HAS ENDED, WHAT PROJECTS DO YOU HAVE PLANNED FOR THE FUTURE?

I’m working on another book with Churchill artist Claire Connelly. Vertigo Quarterly Pop! comes out late April. I have a few things coming out from a publisher that I can’t talk about right now. There are pitches floating around here, there, and everywhere. So I’m still working a lot.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT THAT HAS RESULTED FROM M3?

Vella and her adventures have occupied so much of my time for so long, and I don’t know if I could pick one favorite moment. All my success in comics and the other books I’ve done all result from the hard work and success of M3.

Well, meeting and working with Vicente has been a great moment. When he told me he loved my script, I was over the moon. Working with Bill Sienkiewicz (M3 #2 cover artist) has been a joy, and Bill has remained a friend ever since.

M3 has allowed me to meet a good deal of creators that I don’t know I would have had the chance to meet otherwise. Having the support of some of my favorite creators like Gail Simone, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Enrica Jang, Jennie Wood, and others is a great thing.

Wait, okay, I think I have it. Last summer, I did a small show in NJ. A young girl in high school came up to me with her parents and she asked me how she could get into comics. She said that Marvel and DC don’t take submissions (which is true), so how did I get to write for Marvel? I told her that she has to make her own comics, her own stories. Go to editors at shows, and get her work out there. Talk to creators at shows, and take their advice. It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but it was a really beautiful experience. It ended with her hugging her mom, tearing up, telling me thank you, and me taking her hand and telling her she could do it. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. It really was a beautiful moment.

ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING CONVENTIONS OR EVENTS YOU WILL BE ATTENDING YOU WOULD LIKE OUR READERSHIP TO BE AWARE OF?

I’m still making my con list for now, but I’ll be at San Diego Comic Con floating around. I don’t know if I’ll be on any panels as of yet, but we’ll see.

I also had the privilege to interview M3 artist, co-creator, and all around comic’s legend, VICENTE ALCAZAR.

YOU HAVE WORKED ON SOME OF THE MOST ICONIC CHARACTERS IN COMICS IN THE COURSE OF SUCH AN AMAZING CAREER.  BESIDES M3, WHICH CHARACTER HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE?

If I am to mention just one, I would say Jonah Hex.

YOUR ART ON M3 HAS THIS WONDERFUL PHOTOREALISM TO IT.  CAN YOU WALK US THROUGH YOUR PROCESS AND WHAT TECHNIQUES YOU USE TO CAPTURE SUCH AMAZING DETAILS?

First step is hand pencils while reading the script. Then rough page constructions. I scan these and organize them storytelling wise. While on this process, there may be changes (see some samples of it in M3 first issue). Then I look for references and adapt them to my pencil choices. Then I print the results and use them as base for finished pencils and inks before I scan and apply color by computer.

HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO COMICS?

Through an ad in the papers soliciting illustrators for an UK publisher.

IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER TO AN ARTIST LOOKING TO BREAK INTO COMICS IN TODAY’S MARKET?

Enjoy what you do the most. It´ll pay up.

NOW THAT M3 HAS ENDED, WHAT PROJECTS DO YOU HAVE PLANNED FOR THE FUTURE?

I am at present illustrating WW2 stories for DC Thompson UK.

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