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As host of Fanboy Radio’s Indie Show, David Hopkins interviews a lot of comic creators. Now he’s going to have to find someone to interview him. Hopkins, along with artist Tom Kurzanski, are launching Karma Incorporated, a three-issue miniseries by Viper Comics. Both David and Tom talked with Comic Foundry about how the series came to be, how you can start your own series and provided EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW IMAGES along the way.
David, you’ve done a mini-comic and have contributed stories before, but Karma Incorporated is your first sole comic series. How is it different than the rest of what you’ve written previously?
DAVID: Even before I wrote the mini-comic, I had already written two different series, which never got published. Over 300 pages of script that may never see the printed page. And honestly? I’m glad. It was during that time I learned how to write comics. I became comfortable with the medium. It’s good to move past your first attempts to see what’s next. The mini-comic was my way of saying, “I’m finally ready for others to see what I’m doing.” And it went over well. Karma Incorporated is different, because after writing issue 1, I knew it was getting published. I knew it’d be in comic-book shops. No pressure, huh? At times, it was difficult to stick to the plan. I wanted to put everything in the story, to try and prove something. But it’s not about that, you’ve got to trust the story. Fortunately, Tom’s art is so damn good that cleared a lot of the stress. I knew whatever I sent to him, however outlandish or absurd — he could do it, and it ended up looking better than how I first imagined.
Also, for those who have a copy of my mini-comic, I’m happy to say one of the characters makes a brief appearance in issue No. 2 of Karma Incorporated.
Tom, this is your first real foray into comics too. What weren’t you prepared for?
TOM: How time-consuming it can be. I got a taste of that when I worked on the Comic Book Project for the Columbia University Teachers College. I had to time-manage my regular and evening work schedules just to squeeze in a few hours sleep. I didn’t anticipate that it would continue in a similar vein. Now I’ve got to balance freelance work with comics and down time so that I can be sure the project doesn’t suffer from exhaustion.
Actually, I just tell that to David so he won’t know I spend all of my time watching ‘Gilmore Girls.’
How did the learning curve work?
TOM: It really all came down to my being able to accept that I’m allowed to do my own style. My earliest freelance clients had fairly strict guidelines, which meant I was mimicking and being somewhat derivative of other artists. As they got increasingly more comfortable with my work, I got increasingly more comfortable interjecting my own style and ended up finding a stylistic identity that I felt wasn’t too familiar as to be boring.
I was lucky early on that I got to talk with some industry pros to get an idea of what I was lacking, what needed improvement. The routine I developed as an artist is drawn from the sources they recommended to me. But I’m still learning, honestly.
You have a film background, right? How has that specifically helped you as an artist?
TOM: My background in film is limited to film school. During my time there, I quickly learned that writing, cinematography, editing, and the elements that went into pre-production for a film were my passion. I think that comics and film are parallel entities. Seeing as I wasn’t one to participate in the politics that made other students excel, devoid (of) any Hollywood connections, and lacking any overwhelming desire to move to Los Angeles, I’ve found that comic books encompass all of the elements of film that I enjoy. As an artist, you’re interpreting the script in such a way that you have to get the story across without words. You compose the shots as panels. You’re the cinematographer, the editor. You create the storyboards that sell the pitch to the audience.
David, you’re an English teacher — how does that help with your comic writing?
DAVID: Schedule-wise. It’s great. I work from 7:30 to 3, which leaves the rest of the afternoon and evening to write. I have a winter break, a spring break, and a two-month summer break. During these times, I write. I get a monthly paycheck, which keeps food on the table so I’m not in a continual panic about finances. All of that is a blessing when you’re writing professionally. In the classroom, I spend several hours a day talking about literature — plot, theme, structure, symbols, characters, all that stuff. Needless to say, the storytelling craft is always on my mind.
What basic lessons learned in high school English are applicable to comic writing?
DAVID: I try not to bore my students too much with, “Oh, Mr. Hopkins writes comic books, so let’s all read Ultimate Spider-Man for homework.” However, in high school, learning how to communicate clearly in your writing and how to identify and enjoy good literature — it’s essential to being a writer in any medium. Everybody has ideas, but you need to translate those ideas into something others understand — and that’s what I spend a lot of time teaching in class.
Art-wise, Tom, how does your process work? What do you do first?
TOM: David sends me the script and I (being obsessive-compulsive) divide it into manageable sections, which basically fall on the scene changes. If a character is introduced that we haven’t seen before, I do some sketching to get a good idea of what he or she will look like. If there’s a location that will play a crucial role, I lay out some rough blueprints. David’s great about providing reference photos, so I work from those.
After all of the preliminary work, I sketch out some quick thumbs, which I use to get an idea of how the story is best served. From there it’s extremely rough sketches on 11-by-17 art boards, which I clean up with a harder pencil. Because I ink my own work, I don’t sketch every last detail. For inking, I use Staedtler and Sakura technical and brush pens for different line weights. I’ve tried using regular brushes and quill pens, but find the technical pens give me the kind of control I’m really looking for. I clean it all up digitally.
You’re also a freelance illustrator. Any tips for someone looking to jump into that arena?
TOM: My best advice would be to look for even the smallest opportunities to get your artwork out there. Enter art competitions, paint a sign for the local vet, draw the poster for your school play — anything. As people start to notice your work, the jobs will get increasingly better, and your art will, too.
Freelancing is really something I was lucky to fall into. The projects I’ve worked on have all come from word of mouth. My friends and family have been incredible at selling me to potential clients, some of which have given me steady work. Right now I’m working with a friend on getting a Web site up, so I won’t have to rely as heavily on their ability to drop jobs into my lap.
David, you’ve written a lot in different genres. Are there any themes that remain solid through them all?
DAVID: Definitely. Family has been a huge theme. Both Dead@17:Rough Cut stories, Karma Incorporated, and another upcoming Viper project of mine all have strong family themes. Maybe because I got married, became a dad, and moved into our first house during the course of the past three years. My wife, Melissa, is my audience and my editor. She’s been with me on every trip to San Diego, and she’s the one who told me to do Karma Incorporated when I had my doubts. And she’s super hot. So yeah, family is important to me. It creeps into those stories.
How did the whole process work for you, Tom, given you live in New York and David lives in Texas?
TOM: E-mail. David would send the scripts to me and I sent back pages periodically, through an FTP, and got reports from him and Marlena Hall on things I may have missed continuity-wise, or changes that needed to be made. I’ve never actually met David, though I’ve spoken to him on the phone a few times. He likes to yell at me when I make mistakes. If we lived in the same city he’d probably just constantly kick my shins as I worked – his idea of motivation.
David, how does being around high school students affect the way you craft dialogue?
DAVID: Teenagers are all different. But one thing is for sure, adult-speak and teen-speak are very different. Completely different set of words and patterns of speech. Karma Incorporated consists of mostly adults. Maybe I should do a story with teenagers in it? Since I spend so much time around my students, I like to stay far away from that world when I’m in front of my computer.
For me, dialogue is the hardest part. I agonize over it. I can take 500 different plot lines and subplots and happily merge them into a single coherent story, but give me four pages of a conversation between two people? I turn into a mess. What’s my problem? Dialogue is distinct from how we actually talk, and it’s distinct from standardized formal writing. It’s somewhere in between. Dialogue should come out naturally from the character. If the dialogue suffers, it means you either (a) don’t know your character, or (b) you’re trying too hard to make the character say something they wouldn’t normally say. My problem is typically B. Thankfully, Tom is a big help here. He’s a better writer than I am. I’ve read a few scripts he’s written. Great stuff. And so whenever I’m stuck, Tom saves my ass.
You guys both did comics for your college papers. David, you were an editorial cartoonist and Tom, you worked on a strip — how did that experience prepare you for Karma Incorporated?
DAVID: Working on editorial cartoons gives you a taste for irony and satire. I can’t write without inserting my own statements about society here and there. In Karma Incorporated, we spend a lot of time looking at the politics of relationships— specifically, marriage, fidelity and divorce. Everyone is stuck in their own hopeless drama. When things get difficult, no one is equipped to deal with the situation in healthy ways. I don’t know if I intended Karma Incorporated to be a satire, but the themes emerged naturally as I was writing.
TOM: That was a collaborative gag that my roommates and I dubbed ‘Tuscany 304,’ after our apartment. We saw that the paper was printing uninspired inside jokes decorated with stick figures, so we decided to do an experiment. We came up with the most insipid, indecipherable nonsense we could put to paper, and they printed every last one, save the one we thought was legitimately funny.
I walked away from it knowing more about how to work with collaborators, and more confidence in my abilities as an artist. It was a start to developing my own style. It also seemed like we were grifting the paper, as we got paid for basically doing nothing but making fun of their total lack of a sense of humor. I think the guys in Karma Incorporated would’ve been proud of that.
How has working for Fanboy Radio helped your work in the comic industry? Is networking important?
DAVID: Scott Hinze, the host of Fanboy Radio, has introduced me to some great people. He’s shown me how to be a professional in this quirky little industry. At the conventions, most people who know me usually know me from the show: David from Fanboy Radio. It’s cool.
Scott and I are best friends, and we met long before he invited me to do Fanboy Radio. Scott is the best. I mean, he’s done over 200 episodes, twice a week for over three years— building an amazing community of listeners. Who else can boast that?
Because of Fanboy Radio, I get to chat with these cool comic book creators! Craig Thompson, James Kochalka, Jim Mahfood, Brian Bendis, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo, Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Paul Hornschemeier. I’m a geek for these guys and their work.
Networking is extremely important, and tricky. If you overdo it, you screw yourself. You become needy and rather pathetic – always throwing yourself at people who you think can help you out. The key is to help out others, without expecting anything in return. Don’t even think in terms of networking. Friendships will develop naturally. You may not see direct results, but that’s not the point. Over time, you gain a reputation for being the kind of individual people want to work with.
What have you learned from working on FBR that’s made you a better creator?
DAVID: So much. Primarily, there’s no single way to “break into comics.” Let your work and your work ethic speak for you. There’s no single way to be successful.
Tom, tell us about The Comic Book Project. What were you able to take away from that?
TOM: The Comic Book Project is a yearly publication, with educational themes, hosted by the Teachers Colleges at Columbia University and published by Dark Horse in a small run. It’s for kids, by kids and helps them to develop reading and writing skills in a fun, alternative way. Different schools participate, and the better stories end up printed in the books.
The first time out I had to adapt the kids’ artwork in varying styles, but now I just put the comics together with their own artwork, which I think is much more exciting for them. That was my first experience doing comic-book artwork and, as I progressed, I got a better understanding of the process.
Why is it important for indie comics to exist?
TOM: The same reason legitimately indie films should exist – they’re a forum for unusual creative voices to reach an audience without having to compromise. Without independent comics, a lot of the most iconic figures in the industry would never have gotten the chance to be seen.
That, and it gives me something to read.
DAVID: I hate it when people view indie comics as a stepping stone to doing “real” comics in the mainstream. Within indie comics, you have a large artistic community creating stories completely unfettered by all the fears that come with a large audience and a large publisher. Take Antony Johnston for example. One of the best darn writers out there, and to my knowledge, he’s never worked for any of the larger companies. We need a place for Antony Johnston to tell his stories!
Why do you think most small-press books run for a specific amount of issues, as opposed to many of the ongoing titles in the mainstream? Do you either way is more advantageous than the other?
DAVID: Lack of time and money seem to be the major reasons. Tom, Marlena and I all work other jobs. I’d love for Tom and Marlena to do this full time. We’d crank out the series monthly. I’d be cool with it. Already, I have at least 30 issues of Karma Incorporated loosely plotted in my head. I’d love people to see where it’s all leading. You wouldn’t believe me, even if I told you.
However, the advantage of a limited series is clear. You tell a story only when you have a story to tell. Think about Sin City, Hellboy, or Concrete, for example. These creators are under no obligation to spit something out every month. As a result, you get their best work and it shows. They were doing story arcs before they became cool.
Visit www.vipercomics.com for more information on Karma Incorporated.
—Interview by Tim Leong