Thursday, May 12, 2011

PING! Jamie Gambell PING!

Jamie Gambell is a writer working in television and comics. He currently toils on the set of CSI while working on various sequential projects. Last year saw the completion of his first self-published work, the horror comic Omnitarium. Jamie sat down with PING! to talk about that book, his new project The Hero Code, and how the experience of working in Hollywood has influenced his work in comics.

PING: Hey Jamie. Welcome, finally, to PING! Mother Box PING! We’re glad to finally be getting this interview out there.

Thank you, sir - happy to be here!

First off, let’s give the readers who aren’t familiar with your work some reference. What is your background in the entertainment industry and how did you first come to work on comics?

I've been working in film and television for a few years over a decade now. It started with helping out a friend who was a Second Assistant Director. Myself and a bunch of friends would do small roles and background work for him, to make up numbers. It was fun, I once saw myself dubbed into Italian while staying in a hotel, but acting was never my interest.

I pretty soon moved into the Sound Department - working on the production side of things. I was very lucky to become the assistant to a relatively young sound mixer making the move from commercials to features. He was a great mentor, and was extremely busy - partly because he was driven, but mostly because he was incredibly talented. I learned a lot about professional behaviour and work ethic from spending time with him. I moved up and on, but stayed on call with him, helping out on films as his projects became bigger and bigger.

At the same time, the Second A.D. friend was moving into production, and I helped him out with some script doctoring. Again, it was a great lesson in getting the work done - we wrote an entire feature script from inception to completion in just over a day because we had too! It wasn't a terrible mess of a script, either, and at one point had a director attached and ready to go. But, as is the way with films, things changed, things moved on, things didn't work out as planned - again, another great lesson!

I moved from the UK to the USA about three years ago, and have, since then, been working on CSI. It's very different from features work - working 9-10 months of the year solid, and then having some down time. It does eat into my day in a big way, and for a while I was foregoing sleep to get scripts and comic projects finished.

For comics - like pretty much everyone in comics, I grew up loving the form, dreaming of working in comics. I'd submitted a few Future Shocks to 2000ad in the UK, and had some very complimentary rejection letters! I'd always been into indie books, though, so self-publishing was always in my mind. A big moment for me came when I met Paul Grist, who was just starting work on his Kane book at that stage, self-publishing and seemingly doing very well with it. That was a real moment for me.

It took a long time to get to my first published work. In 2009 I started work on Omnitarium, with J.C. Grande and Bernie Lee. The first issue went out as part of the Indy Comic Book Week in December 2009, and I put out the remaining three issues in less than a year. It was something I think I needed to do and wanted to do. As a new writer, to have a book published of a certain quality seemed to be the main first hurdle. I spent time and money to get the book together - a very important thing! We are lucky enough to be in a time when print on demand removes a lot of risk, but I believe that a lot of creators (especially writers looking to work with artists) don't think of money saved in print runs as being money freed up for the project.

Since then, I've been working on a new series, The Hero Code, as well as a few pitch ideas and assisting on Samurai the Graphic Novel, an anthology series.

Do you remember the first comic that seriously had an impact on you as a child and made you stop to think, “Hey, wow...people really do this...FOR MONEY!” ?

Growing up in the UK, I felt very fortunate to be exposed to so many different types of comic book work. There were the very British humour weeklies, as well as the more series sci-fi and war books. Marvel were putting out great black and white reprints - oversized magazines featuring stories from the 70's, which were just beautiful. 2000ad was a big book for me, too - which led into the more 'adult' books like Crisis and Escape as well as Warrior, and these fantastic European graphic novels and Japanese Manga seemed available everywhere. There were also so many places to get comics that weren't just comic book stores - where young comic fans were free to flick through and pour over books - newsagents, flea-market's, second hand book stores. It felt much more open and inviting, even though there was still this stigma attached to reading comic books back then.

Swamp Thing - in particular the Alan Moore run, an issue featuring underwater vampires - really sticks with me as an important find. That book just made me realise so much about horror writing and how powerful background detail could be in story telling. Any of the Claremont and Byrne X-Men books really hit with me too, as did Frank Miller's Daredevil books. It was Miller's Daredevil which took me from newsagents to comic book shops - which opened a whole other world of back-issues and the whole bigger universe of comic book retail!

When Grant Morrison started his Zenith series in 2000ad, I remember distinctly thinking "I want to do this!". That story more than any other probably had the biggest impact on me as a writer.

However - to actually answer your question - it took two things to make me realise that people did this kind of thing for money. First, I went to a Marvel UK event in Wandsworth Town Hall - it was like the smallest comic convention in the world. A room, a guy dressed as Spider-Man and the artist Dougie Braithwaite were there. He tried to teach me how to draw realistic metal (I was trying to draw Romita Jr's version of Colossus). He must have been quite young back then, but for some reason I just realised that this was his job - that he was making a living from this. Here was a creator, who was not much older than I was at that time, and he was working in comics!

No too long after this Image Comics took off in a big way. That really opened the door for a lot of people. Suddenly, it felt like you didn't have to be living in New York and trying to crack Marvel and DC. Image really revealed that there was a way to actually submit and try to get published. For someone living in London and not very world-wise - there were no real conventions that I was aware of back then - it suddenly felt like the door was opening.

Your background is in television and film production. How do you feel that experience compares to comics and in what ways is it completely different?

There are similarities. Learning how to write in a way that conveys a very visual message is a great skill to have. To be able to get an idea from imagination to paper and then across to another person who brings their take to it.

Working in film really has taught me a lot about story telling techniques. Especially the Western World model - the 3 act structure, and the fact that you can really play around with techniques and tools, but still keep within the basic pattern.

Television also really teaches a lot about the illusion of story-telling. To be able to maintain the status quo but still appear to be moving is a great trick which relates to both television and ongoing comic book serials.

The differences are that there are so many more fingers in the pie in film and television. Seemingly everyone has an opinion about where the story goes. There are a lot of egos in both fields, but so many more palpable egos are present in film and television, so many opinions and feelings are open to being hurt!

Plus, the hours. Both are long, hard days, but writing comics for me is a pleasure, and I am able to stand up and walk away if it gets too much. In film and television the sheer cost of each minute of each day means that every second counts, and they make sure they get every second they can out of you!

As an addition to that question, how do you feel your work in that industry helped prepare you for the task of writing and pitching your first comics work?

The writing came relatively easily to me. Not to sound like a braggard, but a certain degree of work ethic, coupled with a genuine love of doing it made it such a departure from work. It means that I can use the process as part of my "switching off" time from the day job - rather than it seeming like more work on top of the day, it is relaxing. The work day is so long, and we have to remain in a state of readiness, that something which quiets the mind and lets me feel removed from that state... well, I really needed it, to be honest.

As to pitching - I'm a terrible pitcher. I suffer from shyness, in person at least. It takes me a while to warm up and relax around new people, and I feel like I'm wasting someone's time or being selfish with their time if I try to tell them about my little plans. It's really something I'm working on. Conventions help in a big way - you are really pitching a book several times a day. Every person who comes to your table and asks "so what is this about" is a chance to practice, a chance to engage and test a pitch. I hope that doesn't sound mercenary - it doesn't always lead to a sale!

Omnitarium, a tale of classic Victorian horror, was your first attempt at self-publishing comics. Tell us a bit about the process of publishing your own comic and what you’ve learned from the experience that you will apply to future projects.

It was a steep learning curve! Luckily I had a great team around me. J.C. Grande and Bernie Lee pretty much made it my job to just provide the script and pay the bills. I tried to learn as much as I could about the process as I went, but luckily a combination of them doing all the work in front of and behind the scenes, and because I put the book out as a Print on Demand book through Ka-Blam, I really didn't need to learn everything.

I picked up as many tips and guides as I could, and tried to learn as much as I could, but really ended up learning just about as much as I needed - from the production side of things.

There were some work processes which I learned from the project, which have proved invaluable. Simple mistakes that a lot of first-time writers probably make in describing scenes, too many actions on the panel, asking too much of an artist - those sorts of things. Also, I think I was afraid of letting the art breath. On the one hand it may work within the story structure of Omnitarium, adding a sense of claustrophobia, but I think a lot of creators who self publish feel like they need to cram every little detail and moment onto as few pages as possible.

You really quickly learn that the art is what matters most on a book - at least on first impressions. Bad art will stop a reader trying a book, 99 times out of 100, and it doesn't matter how good the writing is, you have to get them in the door!

A lot of writers, in my opinion, have lost the skills needed to write a 22 page story - to get all that information across without relying on exposition, or drowning out the art-work, or trusting the artist and the reader - letting the art do the work, and the reader fill in the blanks between boarders. Too many books are written as chapters in a trade, so the beats are slower, the pacing can afford a flabby moment, or even an issue. I think it's a real shame.

For future projects, I really want to not be afraid of using full page images, of letting the art do most of the work.

From a publishing side, it's tough to be the editor on your own book. One lesson I really learned during Omnitarium was to let a page sink in... I forced deadlines on myself that I didn't need to - no-one was expecting Omnitarium to be a monthly book! I'd receive a page of art, and then reply almost instantly - often at 5 o'clock in the morning as I was rushing out to work! It was a really poor way to do work, and I really do need to learn to let the page sink in - let me look over it and decide if there are any changes needed. It's best for all involved to take ones time and make sure that any changes that need doing are done in one batch.

The marketing side of things - well, I'm still learning. Aside from actually finishing the book, it is the most demanding, difficult and important part of self-publishing.

With the first volume of Omnitarium in the books, what are your plans for continuing the series and do you still intend to publish it both on the web and in floppy form?

Omnitarium was such an open book. One or two reviews stated that they felt that there was more story needing to be told. For me, however, it was a fairly clear story - a beginning, middle and end. Yes, the characters had open histories, untold moments, but that was through choice. I wasn't trying to be too clever or smart with it!

However, saying that, I did have fun playing around in that world, and have reworked another idea I had for a story to fit into that world. It's not a square peg in a round hole, it does actually have a point and move things forward. It will be a lot lighter and more fun, but with the same level of horror and character I hope was present in the first volume. I have a sequel planned, and the very early stages of a prequel planned. The sequel is all but ready, the prequel requires a lot more research at present.

The plan at the moment is to continue the format as volume one. I'll work on getting issue one finished, and then start to put it onto the web. I think Drew Carey of Red Handed Studios has a great model in place for his series, Dyna-Girl - have a print book out, and then drip it onto the web - that way you are always at least one issue ahead.

I'm really focussing on Hero Code at the moment, but Omnitarium Volume two is plotted, and I should get to writing the scripts in July and hopefully have the first issue ready by the end of the year.

It seems a good deal of your focus these days has shifted to The Hero Code, a superhero concept that you’re publishing simultaneously through print and the web. What made you want to tackle something as broad as the capes and tights genre?

First and foremost, I am a comic book fan. I'm a huge fan of creator-owned work, especially, as I feel that these are the freest stories being told at the moment. I really wanted to see if a) I could bring that creator owned mind-set to a traditional American comic book and b) sustain what would be a long form story/seemingly ongoing book.

Web-comics have really helped this model to thrive in the last few decades and years. Readers expectations have shifted in terms of when a book comes out, and the ability to get the book out to as wide an audience as possible for the lowest cost to a creator (a domain name and webhost) really does mean that the budget can be put into the most important part of the book - the production side, the art, the design, the book itself!

Hero Code is part love story to comics, part the kind of stories I love - conspiracy laden, time hoping, reality bending adventures. Capes and tights just so happen to be the backdrop to what is ultimately a classical story of a hero's journey, though.

I know a lot of writers in this field love superheroes, but many feel like trying to put a fresh spin on them is far too daunting a task. How difficult has it been for you to find fresh angles through which to explore this genre?

I think too much is put into the gimmick of the new spin - same with the Vampire story. Some people, I think, feel that over saturation means that they feel that they need to stand out by coming up with a twist or new spin - something which can actually bog one down as a writer, and often times take a reader out of the moment. Think about when you've gone to the cinema to watch a movie you know has a twist in it - how much time is spent with you looking for clues or trying to crack the twist, rather than just immersing yourself into the movie as a viewer?

First and foremost the story and character's must ring true. If I write a book which I think is my best work, and I'm lucky enough to work with an artist who I think brings some power to the partnership - and I have been lucky enough to find myself working with the incredibly talented Jonathan Rector on interiors and the wonderful Drew Johnson on covers - then the book should speak for itself.

I have come up across two very tough obstacles, though. The story extends over such a large time-frame that knowing how and when to start the book has been tough. I had a completed issue one which has all but been scrapped for now for the sake of simplicity. Another obstacle, which I'm sure almost every indie creator has to deal with - making the book colour. From a cost point of view, it's really tough to justify. However, if you are doing a capes and tights book, it's hard not to feel like one has to keep up with the Jonse's - it's hard not to feel that the book has to maintain a certain established style and production value.

Tell us a bit about The Hero Code. From advanced press, it would seem that you’re attempting to create a world similar to that of Bendis’s Powers or Busiek’s Astro City, two stories that focus as much on the world around capes as the capes themselves. Are you a fan of those titles and what other books/creators had an influence on this project?

Definitely. It's really important to make the world believable. I don't think it needs to go so far as to try to justify the idea of super heroes in a real world setting. I think too much emphasis has been put on this in the past. Just making the characters, the world around them, the people in that world believable can be enough of a canvas.

I think that you ask readers to accept some certain givens when they pick up a comic book. Yes, Giant Man wouldn't be able to breath when he grows in size, yes the Invisible Girl would be blind - good writers work around these facts and still let the reader accept the world, or address them in smart and new ways, but it doesn't mean every book need be that way. The laws of physics can be angled a certain way to let in some magic.

For Hero Code the high concept idea is that every human has a dormant genetic coding within them which, when activated, grants them great power. The catch is that the code is only activated by near-extinction level threats to the race as a whole.

A lot of the story deals with what it actually means to be a hero - why do some people throughout history have it within them to act selflessly and with great strength in the aid of others? Where does this come from?

I love Bendis, and think he is unparalleled as a dialogue writer in comics at the moment - I love his Daredevil books. Busiek's Astro City was a late find for me - I think tonally there are some similarities. I get the impression that Busiek is unapologetic in his love for the form. Some writers seem almost embarrassed to have been found to be working in what they consider to be a lesser art form.

Big influences for me in this series, though, are probably more along the lines of Giffen and DeMatteis, and Maguire's Justice League run in the late 80's. That series contains some of the best character writing every printed in comic form! Grant Morrison is also a big influence - Zenith and Final Crisis leap to mind. Love him or hate him, the man can write! His great stuff presents a hundred new and interesting ideas on every page! As you can probably tell, I love him! I think, though, by the token of listing Morrison as an influence, I have to really point out that Jack Kirby is a hugh influence on me. I came late to his party, but, man, what a party! He was telling stories in the 60's and 70's that writers are only just touching upon now - but with style and flair missing from many modern books.

You’re a writer who prefers to work with a collaborator as opposed to pencilling your own stuff. How large a role do you take in the overall design of your characters? Do you do rough sketches, storyboards, etc when communicating your vision to your artist?

I do a lot of thumb-nailing, more for myself than for the artists. If I'm having trouble conveying a specific idea, or wanting to get across a particular layout, I will send a rough sketch - but for the most part comics are a strange mixture of collaboration and opinion. I like the idea of telling a story, and then seeing how someone else tells it. Artists have a much better design sense than I do, and more often than not they bring something new to an idea which elevates it beyond what I was thinking.

With character designs, I tend to suggest ideas - sometimes I mention actors who I think convey a mood well in a certain role. For Omnitarium the characters are pretty much all J.C.'s work - his take on my suggestions.

Hero Code, I worked with an artist, Dan Smith, to develop a lot of the cast. I had clear ideas for some of them, and even did some very rough sketches for them (The Occultist and The Black Wraith in particular). Also, Drew Johnson was kind enough to help design Myth when he undertook his work on the issue one cover.

Story boards and thumbs really are there to let me see if I'm trying to put too much on the page - if I can trim a panel here or there, or compress a page in the script. Once I'm done, though, it's up to the artist, and I always say that if they have a better idea, then they should feel free to run with it - anything which helps the book is a good thing.

I know a lot of my readers are creators without collaborators. How have you found the illustrators with whom you collaborate and what methods did you employ to strengthen the communication and interaction between them and yourself?

Pay them! It may sound glib, but I really do mean it. I'm by no means wealthy, but I do have some disposable income for the projects, and make sure to set a workable budget for them - another film skill being employed!

If I approach an artist I ask them what their rates are - if I can afford them, great. If not, then I ask another artist. I really do want them to feel appreciated in what they bring to the project - and the best way to do that, in my opinion, is to pay them what they think they are worth.

I've been so very lucky that the artists that I have worked with have been incredibly professional and talented. It can be very rare to find that combination!

I also try to encourage openness between us. I don't want them to feel just like pencils for hire - they are as much a part of the creative force of the book as anyone, more so in many ways.

I hope it comes across like that!

You mentioned in an e-mail that you were working on a couple of other pitches right now. How much light can you shed on these upcoming projects?

A great thing about being an indie creator, is that I can be as open about future projects as I like - the downside is that I have to be honest with myself about what I can undertake and not. I have so many ideas that I'd like to put into print, but a limited amount of time and money with which to make them workable.

Hero Code is taking up a lot of that time and money at the moment, followed by the Omnitarium sequel (and possible prequel). I've also been working as an assistant editor on an anthology book, Samurai The Graphic Novel. I have an 8 page story appearing in the book, with art by the insanely talented Andrew Ross MacLean. Seriously, this guy can draw! I actually met him because I collect sketches and pin-ups of the Fourth World character, Darkseid. I commissioned a piece by him when I realised that I was favouriting a lot of his work on Deviant Art. One thing led to another, and we have a fun little story in the book.

Away from these, and probably in order of completion, such as it is, I have a super-natural murder mystery which sees a recently killed cop pulled out of his decent into hell and into limbo to solve one last case, a murder in the after-life. He has 48 hours in which to find his killer, with his soul in the balance.

Following that is a project with the working title "Capers" which sees the worlds worst super-crooks teaming up to perform a heist under the noses of a bunch of corrupt cops and super-heroes. I love heist movies, and have wanted to try a book with a little more humour in it than my current titles. This should be it!

Finally, for now, I have a biographical graphic novel about my father's early life. He grew up in a incredibly tough environment. I was always captivated by his stories when I was a kid, so many of them were about his adventures in the merchant navy, but then, several years later, he presented a manuscript to me telling about his early life. It was really tough to read it, but explained a lot about my dad - who has always been a good friend rather than a good father. I really want to work on this. Originally I was going to re-write it as a prose novel, but I think it works as a graphic novel.

What advice can you give to new pitch writers? Having been in an industry other than comics that also relies on the solid pitch, what have you found in your career that seems to work best and what have you noticed seems to fail most often?

Getting the idea across as simply as possible is key.

That doesn't mean to say that the idea need be simple, it just means that you must learn to communicate the idea as quickly and simply as possible.

It's really good exercise to try to shrink the core idea of a story down to one paragraph, one sentence, then three or four words. When it comes to pitching, you will be working backwards on this - sell the idea in short hand, get the listener engaged, then fill in the details.

And know which details are important! Names, places, these aren't key - ideas are key. Think about a good joke - we don't know the names of the Priest, Rabbi and Nun that walked into a bar, because we don't need to know!

It is such a cliche to play the elevator pitch game, likening your story to two successful stories combined, but it really can be effective to grab attention. People are busy, people want uncomplicated at first. Yes, they may want to get lost in the story later, but you need to get them to pick up the story first.

Things which I think fail are being over reliant on a cute twist or trying to show the reader/viewer/listener how smart you are as a creator. The best creators know when to step back and let the work take the spotlight.

We are obviously in the midst of a paradigm shift in comics publishing, as the big two publishers operate more and more often as farms for film and television products and smaller publishers look to the internet and more creator-owned content to remain viable. Are we seeing the death of the direct market, and if so, how do you think that affects those creators like yourself?

Comics and readers have a strange relationship, and the direct market really doesn't help. The bigger companies do almost treat their properties as IP farms, numbers are falling, but at the same time effective marketing has pretty much gone out the window. Most big companies rely on the fans to do their marketing for them.

The direct market can be frustrating. It's really a reverse of supply and demand - stores demand books which, in their opinion, they think will be hot, then supply those in spades and push those hardest because they have ordered high on those titles, and, because of incentives, probably make the biggest profit on those books. Readers get served up these titles, creating a demand for them because that is all that is being supplied.

For the most part I do recognise that these titles are going to have more demand though. They are the summer block-buster titles, the big, bombastic books getting the news headlines and re-tweets and blog postings, but the market is shrinking.

The shrinking market is really down to this narrow supply chain. The average book put out by the big two is aimed at the same person that the book has been aimed at for twenty years! There is no way in, you either are a 35-40 year old comic book reader who has been doing this for some time, or you're the kid of a reader, and the books aren't aimed at you anyway. It really is a shame that companies want to create such a vast divide between young readers and other readers - there's no blurring or leading on from one book to the next, it's just one lump or the other.

For indie creators, the big pluses are that now the means of getting a book produced and finished and printed or out to as large an audience as possible have grown over the years. It's harder and harder to get stores interested in indie books for a number of reasons - new creators are considered higher risk, irregularity of product, people just aren't interested in buying new books, production values are lower, shelf space, etc etc. But stores are not the only route now.

I don't think we are seeing a death toll for the DM or comics in general, but we are seeing a very pronounced change. It's similar to television and music, and we should learn the lessons from those. People don't necessarily watch television shows on the day of broadcast, or through their television sets exclusively. Musicians have found new ways of making money by giving away their music for free.

Indie creators really need to look at the mistakes these bigger industries made, and learn by them. I really do think that more people are reading comic books now than ever before - they may be buying less and less comics put out by the big companies from their local stores every Wednesday though.

Given your location (Southern California) it’s not been easy for you to make a lot of conventions. How have you dealt with the issue of not being able to network as actively as those creators who can hit a lot of shows and how much value do you put on the “face to face” in the current publishing climate?

Well, at the moment there seems to be a big push to create a Los Angeles Convention which works, so I'm hoping this changes for me.

I'm trying to get to more conventions, and have been to four in the last year - the furthest being Arizona. I'd love to get to more, it's just knowing where and when I can. I have a family, a pretty much full time job - big responsibilities which restrict my chances to attend too many conventions in any given year.

However, creators should be looking to conventions as a means of getting exposure to ones work, and should not under-estimate how important they are for this. You may not sell out at every show, but getting exposure can be invaluable at this level. Face to face, actually putting your book in the hands of a new reader, is simply fantastic - you can work on your pitching, you can gage reaction, often times you can get feedback on the spot - all invaluable.

Unless you are direct selling, and have total access to the information of regions which seem particularly interested in your work, it's hard to know where might work for you. Knowing this can help you decide which conventions seem like a good idea, and which might not work for you - but it's good to get started some where.

Tempering expectations and getting advice really does help. A lot of convention goers are looking for a) a chance to meet creators, b) a chance to find new books and c) a chance to get original art work - any combination of these too. It's very rare to actually be put into a room with thousands of people who are there specifically to buy comics - your target audience (in the broadest sense) are actually paying to come and see what you have to offer them, but stay realistic.

My advice is to start small and local. Start by working out which convention will see you putting out the smallest outlay to attend, consider all costs. Then limit the amount of product you are bringing. If you are a new-ish creator, it's best to sell one completed project at a time. Don't overload your table, and don't over-order items. Think small, and build from there.

Once you have found your feet, start to look wider. One big out-of-town convention a year might be a good way to go, so that you aren't outlaying big amounts of money for a small return. Try to attend in groups, splitting costs.

With all these things, patience really is a big virtue. Don't be fooled into thinking overnight success stories really did happen overnight - no one wants to see all the hard work and years of grind that go into this, but you really do need to be ready for it.

I'm going to be attending Wizard World Austin later this year, so it will be interesting to see how going out of the SoCal region works for me.

Finally, now that you’ve made a conscious effort to seriously pursue comics, regardless of the damage it may do to your pocket or your mental health, do you still love comics? Would you have it any other way?

Comics have been a part of my life since I was three, and there are no signs of that changing any time soon. I'm enjoying the challenge of finding new indie work, and trying to help get the word out about those smaller projects I'm enjoying. I'm enjoying working on my own stuff too, regardless of the damage! Those mornings when I get a new page of art in my in-box, wow! Those really are good times!

I may not be enjoying the bigger publisher's work at the moment, but comics don't stop and start with Batman or Spider-Man or whatever big movie property is coming. Discovering a new title and falling in love with the characters and artwork is such a great feeling. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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