The convention scene can be intimidating, especially for creators on the other side of the table. For the most part, comic creation is something creators do alone. Writers and artists slave away at their craft, holed up in their fortress of solitude, often during off hours, stolen from their busy lives of work and family. Then there comes a day when you hold a finished product in your hand, birthed from your imagination like a child. You love this project with the same unconditional love as any parent would his or her own children, and when you send it off into the world, to be seen and read and judged, you pray that everyone out there loves it as much as you do.
I recently tabled at my first convention as a creator, the Garden State Comic Fest in my home state of New Jersey. I had attended dozens of conventions as a consumer and have fallen in love with the culture of comic cons. The cosplay, the long-box diving, and the independent comic creators showcasing their work, awesome projects you don’t typically find on the shelves of your local comic shop, all the things that make being a so-called “geek” a way of life for so many of us. But being there as a creator, behind the table, shamelessly selling my wares to Chewbacca as he walks by, that was an experience I was ill prepared for.
The thing that no one tells you (or maybe someone does tell you and you just don’t listen) is how hard it is for writers to recoup cost at conventions. It is just simple economics. Print costs on Indie comics are high because of small print runs and profit margins small. Typical profit on a book with a print run in the hundreds is maybe two dollars, so a table that cost one fifty means you need to sell seventy-five copies just to break even for the day. That doesn’t even cover gas/tolls/ lodging if you travel/food/and the inevitable money you will spend on all the cool things around you. Tough going for everyone, but writers, who can’t draw to sell sketches, it is almost certainly a loss for the day. How big a loss, well that varies from show to show.
Day one at the con, I didn’t make a sale until almost three in the afternoon. Doors opened at ten in the morning, so for those five hours, it was pretty rough. Sure we had some people walk on by and check things out. Lots of window shoppers but no one wanted to take the plunge. I felt like that dog at the local mall pet shop. Everyone stopping by and playing with you, but no one wanted to take me home with them.
Afterwards, it picked up as the convention neared to a close; money seemed to burn a hole in some people pockets. We made a few sales. Not enough to feel great about, but just enough so we didn’t walk out of the place with our heads hung low, that sad Charlie Brown music playing in the background. Day two was much better, I guess some of the window shoppers decided to give us a try to some of the other indie creators that were tabling there, ventured out to check the floor. All in, the weekend wasn’t a financial disaster. Not in the black, but enough money in our pockets to reinvest in some more merchandise for the next show. Money is important (hey we all need money) but the experience was worth the investment, if for no other reason than the exposure it generated for the project and also to meet up with my fellow indie creators, not just as a fan on the floor, but as a peer and a vendor.
One of those creators I met at that con was Stephen Coughlin, a writer/artist on the book SANCTUARY from SLG. Chatting with Steve about life and comics, it was clear that Steve really got what it meant to be a creator. He was honest, open, and talked from a place of truth. “Good People” as one of my friends would often say. Steve was just good people. We parted ways and swapped our books.
The next day as I head off for my morning commute, I grabbed SANCTUARY and stuffed it in my bag. I have a routine. I take a bus into NYC, a trip that is anywhere between an hour and fifteen minutes to two hours depending on traffic. I read a comic, usually about twenty pages and then I shut my eyes and try to catch up on my sleep. I cracked open SANCTUARY and started to read.
The art was fantastic, with a personalized style that is unique to Stephen, a great sense on how to use panel space and convey emotions through facial expressions (something that isn’t easy to do with anamorphic characters) and even though the book is in black and white, it is colored in Grayscale in a way that fits the tone of the book perfectly.
What impressed me the most, as I continued to read, well past my normal twenty pages on my bus speeding towards NYC, was just how well written this book is. The story, a murder mystery centered on a rather obnoxious Panda Bear found dead under mysterious circumstances his first day at the Sanctuary, sucked me in from the start. The characters each had their own unique flavor, their own set of mysteries, and as the story progresses, more and more subplot is revealed with each panel. What had started out as a murder mystery has grown into its own crazy world, a mixture of The Island of Doctor Moreau meets Melrose Place. It is a Disney movie made for adult and produced with the feel of a HBO prime time show.
Before I knew it, my bus had pulled into The Port Authority and I had skipped my morning nap, and for me, there can be no higher praise for a story. So give SANCTUARY a chance! The series is available now on Comixology, Issue one is FREE and each additional issue available for the low price of 99 cents. For the price of a standard Secret Wars tie in book, you can have the entire first arch and see for yourself, just how awesome SANCTUARY is!
STEPHEN COUGHLIN, writer, artist, and creator of SANCTUARY, sits down and chats about life as a creator on the Indie Comics scene, hidden Back To the Future Easter Eggs and his love of the hard travelling DC duo of Hal and Oliver.
LETS START AT THE BEGINNING, WHEN DID YOU DECIDE THAT YOU WANTED TO MAKE COMICS AND HOW DID YOU BREAK IN TO THE INDUSTRY?
I attended Ringling School of Art in Florida and Paier College of Art in Connecticut. Most of my cartooning training came from those two places. I always loved cartooning and comics. I started drawing in 2nd grade. I worked as a pencil layout artist for Highlights for Children right out of college. I did two years and then they wouldn’t renew my contract. I stopped drawing after that for 9 years and worked in the mental health field as a case manager in Boston. I met my wife there but she was accepted to Stanford in California and I moved with her. I saw an ad in the San Jose paper for a creative writer’s workshop put on by SLG Publishing. There I met Dan Vado, who was teaching the class. Though the class was a lot of fun, the portfolio review terrified me. I was afraid that he would laugh in my face, but he was friendly and supportive. He loved the idea and gave me some tips to make my pages look better and to produce it faster (mainly finding a letterer and a colorist to help me). That’s when my work on the book really took off.
CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS? HOW DO YOU BREAK AN ISSUE AND HOW DO YOU WRITE THE SCRIPT? BEING THE ARTIST AND WRITER DO YOU START DRAWING FIRST OR DO YOU WRITE THE ENTIRE ISSUE DOWN AND THEN GO FROM THERE?
I had Volume 1 of Sanctuary planned out pretty early. Of course, it was all written on cocktail napkins and stuff. I bought a lot of Will Eisner books on scripts, layouts, sequential pages, etc. It helped a lot. I sat with a notebook and storyboarded all 7 issues first. I did that with Volume 2, too. I do edits now and then, but only if I think of a funnier joke to insert. Script then storyboard then blue line pencils then inking.
WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU FACE AS A WRITER/ARTIST ON A CREATOR OWNED BOOK?
The same challenges as most creators. Trying to get the right person to look at your stuff. And then buy it. I know some writers in the business are tethered to characters and are afraid to upset fans with change. There’s a lot of freedom in not having a large fan base. I can kill off a character and only 2 or 3 people might throw a brick through my window instead of hundreds.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A COMIC BOOK WRITER AND ARTIST? 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?
I don’t have too much advice because I see a lot of people in the industry become millionaires with very little talent and many talented people quit. It’s really about breaking in and getting the right people to look at you. The only regret is not being grateful enough to be published. I think I expected to be given a team of people to help me accomplish this dream when I should’ve been working on learning it all myself. I was published after pitching my very first idea and some go for a lifetime and never do.
IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER TO A CREATOR/ARTIST LOOKING TO BREAK INTO COMICS IN TODAY’S MARKET?
Start a blog, make business cards and leave them everywhere. I leave copies of my book in Doctors/Dentists offices. Everyone reads while they wait.
SANCTUARY IS AWESOME! WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE THIS STORY?
I had just moved out to California, from Boston, to follow my wife and was out of work for about 3 months. There were some ideas floating around and plenty of spare time. This seems to be a formula for creativity. I had an idea about a group of zoo animals that rebel against their zookeeper’s, but nothing solid. I had done some pages in watercolors without any real story ideas. I was trying to develop a look. After reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and then seeing the 1961 version of 101 Dalmatians in the same week, I became really interested in the idea of a murder mystery/Disney movie. That’s when things started moving along. Animals being able to talk to each other and with humans, an outdoors setting (jungle or forest), some humor, and then an animal as the murder victim. Twin Peaks was the biggest influence. Not the weird actors, but the idea of a murder happening and the murder isn’t what the story is about. It’s about how the murder affects the people of the town.
WHICH OF THE ANIMALS IN SANCTUARY IS YOUR FAVORITE TO WRITE OR DRAW? WHICH ONE BEST REFLECTS YOUR PERSONALITY?
I love drawing the gorillas. I just enjoy the facial expressions and the body movements. They shift the weight on their hips a lot so it keeps me learning body movement. Writing? In Volume 2, Uncle Joe, the tiger in the wheelchair plays a big role. He’s very crass and I like acting out his dialogue.
NOW THAT THE FIRST STORY ARCH IS COMPLETE AND COLLECTED IN A GRAPHIC NOVEL AND THE SECOND ARCH HAS BEGUN WITH THE RECENT ISSUE, HOW MANY ISSUES TOTAL DO YOU HAVE PLANNED FOR THE SERIES?
I have 3 volumes planned out. Volume 2 will focus on Ezra escaping the Sanctuary and Dr. Odette’s back story. Volume 3 is the fallout of a virus that makes all of the humans become vicious beasts and the animals must cure them. I guess 19 issues.
IS THERE ANY NEW ANIMALS WE CAN EXPECT TO SEE IN THE SANCTUARY?
Uncle Joe in the wheelchair plays a big role. There are eagles that perform a kidnapping in issue 8 and cause havoc in issue 9. Issue 11 has an elderly Cheetah couple that has been hiding from the humans.
BIFF IS MY FAVORITE OF THE ANIMALS. IS THERE A PERSON OR CHARACTER THAT INSPIRED HIS PERSONALITY?
I was a fan of Lost and maybe there’s a little bit of Sawyer in there. And of course his namesake Biff Tannen from Back to the Future. Not a lot of people have made the Back to the Future connection. Biff is the bully. Lorraine is the female. George is the weakling.
GROWING UP WERE YOU A MARVEL OR DC KID OR DID YOU LIKE TO READ SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY?
I was strictly DC. Green Lantern/Green Arrow by O’Neil/Adams made me a comic lover. I loved Batman by Grant/Breyfogle in high school. I read everything but I stuck with DC titles.
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?
I hate reading big books but if I had a lot of time on my hands, I’d take a big one. Maybe MOBY DICK. Or something fun like IT by Stephen King.
WHAT IS ON YOUR CURRENT “MUST READ” LIST?
I buy a lot of collections on Comixology. I just read the first 25 issues of Stan Lee/Spider-Man, which was fantastic, then, the first 15 issues of Fantastic Four from Lee/Kirby. I also read Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. I never read Marvel, as a kid, so it’s all-new to me. Current comic? Ms. Marvel is the only one.
ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING CONVENTIONS OR EVENTS YOU WILL BE ATTENDING YOU WOULD LIKE OUR READERSHIP TO BE AWARE OF?
None! My wife and I are welcoming our second child next week! I fear I’ll be stuck indoors for a while. Plenty of time to write and draw!