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Ivan Brandon and Andy MacDonald seem to fit right in here. The scene: a bar on New York City’s Lower East Side — a watering hole much like one you would find robots from their Image-published creation, NYC Mech. The pair sat down with Comic Foundry to talk about their new book, NYC Mech: Beta Love, New York grit and how they overcame the obstacles of starting their own series.
Let’s start with NYC Mech. How is this one in the series, Beta Love, different from the first?
Ivan Brandon: It’s different in that, all the Mech stories so far have been different little operas within different neighborhoods, different characters. This one has some crossover with one of the earlier stories; the plot line is a progression, but it sits pretty much on its own. It’s different in that, thematically, it doesn’t deal with similar situations; this one is more of a romance, as usual I guess the crime is similar.
All new characters?
IB: Pretty much all different characters, but with two crossover characters.
Who came up with the concept of NYC Mech?
IB: I think the first sentence came from Miles (Gunter, co-writer) and basically ended up as a conversation between the three of us. We had a lot of things that we wanted to accomplish. Andy is a pretty new artist to the scene, who I’ve been working with for a while, and I thought he deserved more attention than maybe he had been getting. A lot of it was just trying to find a book that would showcase him the best. And when you’re doing an independent book, it’s a lot of work. The first arc is something like 140-something pages; that’s the first six issues. The second is at least that long. When it takes a day to do a page, you’re looking at a year’s worth of work.
Andy MacDonald: Yeah, that’s the thing. If I had just been drawing regular humans, it would have been easier, or I could do it on the fly. But I had to keep remembering where the joints are, stuff like that. But with every book, I’ve been more excited each time. Visually, this story arc is better. We have Nick Filardi, who does the color on this book. He’s a smart guy, really knows what he’s doing with the color.
IB: The obvious thing in a New York City book with robots is the robot design. But a lot of what we try do is the little minute things, like a bus or something. I think there’s an inherent marvel in anything, and especially in a city like this. In any mood or any situation, you can look at just about anything and be enthralled by it. And that’s Nicks’ greatest strength, to do something like color a bus and make it look great. I’ve had people say that’s their favorite thing about the book. That’s the thing, is when people saw the previews, they really noticed things like the bus, and people love it.
AM: You don’t want to do it to a fault where you’re making a series like this, about New York, but there are certain New York experiences, like the bus, that you couldn’t see somewhere else. And you may forget it the next day, but that’s real New York. It may sound cliché, but it’s true.
IB: If you look just around this bar, and obviously people reading this aren’t here, they can’t see it. But if you notice things like the tile on this floor, or there’s a green light shining behind that couch. Nick’s really good at picking up on those little tiny elements that other people would miss. He really adds a lot to the book. He’ll notice things that I didn’t see, that Andy didn’t even see, and really bring those things out.
NYC Mech stories take place in a gritty New York, sort of Lower East Side. Why did you choose that?
IB: In the second story, I think we delve a little more into the different parts of the city. I think for my point of reference, it’s my experiences. A lot of what I do, socially, oddly enough, a lot of what I find interesting sort of work in that world. But to a degree, in the second story, there was some socialite/Upper East Side aspect of things. I do deal with the grittier world because in my dealings with people, everyone sort of has that story in them, whatever they do. Everyone’s got some sort of stories and a past, and those stories seem to overlap.
You’ve got your Martin Scorsese New York and your Woody Allen New York, and they are very different. So you’re more of a Scorsese New York?
IB: I deal more with Scorsese’s New York, but I think also that I skirt the line. There’s a certain softness and comedy to the Woody Allen New York. It’s its own creation, and a lot of people faulted him for that, but I think it’s his own interpretation of his environment. But for us, I think there is a certain randomness that he captured, the humor in mundane, everyday situations. And I think we do that, not with comedy per se, but I do try to bring out just the absurdity of the everyday. My personal taste, though, I guess I do end up doing more along the lines of Scorsese. The main character so far has had sort of a nasty streak to her, but in this one there’s a little more love story, and a little more New York City.
When you’re drawing New York, what’s your reference point? You’ve said that the New York in NYC Mech is more realistic than other books.
IB: Andy would never say that! I said that.
AM: A lot of times we’ll actually map a route of where the story is going to be. For the last story, we were up on the East side, in the 70s somewhere…
IB: We’ll go out and scout the locations, figure out what the shots are, take as aerial as we can get, depending on the location, take shots of just about everything. We’ll get pictures of phone booths, and just the minutiae of everything.
Doing that together, do you think that makes the visual story easier/better?
AM: It’s easier, when he’s just like, we’re gonna need this shot, I may not know for what, or if there’s something interesting visually.
Are you ever somewhere and you say, “I want to draw that; write a scene here”?
IB: I try to throw it in, yeah. The interesting thing about working with real sets is that I think sometimes the set will dictate to Andy, as he’s doing something, that maybe not even be in the script. It affects the character such that it adds a little twist to the script. It’s interesting how after we’ve scripted it and after we’ve laid it all out, how the environment sort of just molds the story.
It’s almost as if the city itself is a character.
IB: Oh, absolutely. I mean, a lot of people say that about the city, that it lives and breathes, but I really strive for it to be a main character, if not the main character. I mean, doing a comic here versus doing a comic anywhere else in the world, is that we get to use real sets. And that shouldn’t be wasted. I mean, not that I didn’t like Spider-Man, but all those books just sort of use [New York] as a backdrop, and there’s a lot of creators, and a lot of writers and a lot of artists who have either never been here, or are just not very familiar with it. And that was a super concentrated effort on our part, not to do that at all. But rather, to get in there and really learn what we were talking about. There are environments that we scouted out that we had never been to, or really weren’t that familiar with. And we’ve got to learn that environment so that we can express it properly.
AM: That’s kind of part of keeping it fresh. Finding a little corner of New York, like this place we scouted out a couple of days ago, someplace we never would have really thought of, total right angle.
IB: In a really grungy, gritty way, this was a place that even a set designer really couldn’t have thought of. It was this old school ground, directly across the street from a bridge. Part of it was underneath the bridge. And you get the idea it was just all shadowy and you have this schoolyard, so there’s all these kids playing basketball. It’s just this whole world there.
Yeah, you couldn’t really have that happening in say, Sheboygan. Sheboygan Mech.
IB: No, not really.
How did you pitch the book to Image?
AM: I’ll be honest, I went for a walk. I was in San Diego, and I just went away. I find that’s the best way for us to communicate the book, is for me to shut up and leave.
IB: We were all sort of nervous and giddy at the time, and we were trying to work out a way to give the book to Image, and Andy went to get some food or something. He literally left for 10 minutes, and then the opening appeared and we (Ivan and Miles) walked over. I’d like to say that it was a very intense and profound meeting, but we literally walked over and showed them Andy’s art, and they said, “Okay.” And then we re-pitched it to Eric Stephenson. It’s a funny story, I guess, because we presented it to Eric Stephenson and left it at that. And he showed it to Jim Valentino, the publisher at the time, and he got very excited about it.
Was it a mini-book?
IB: We did the whole first issue.
What do you think of mini-comics and using that to get your foot in the door?
IB: Andy’s done some of that. I personally haven’t, but I’ve read a lot of mini-comics that I love. I’m a very impatient person, and I just like to just run in and do the whole finished thing, so I’ve never done that. Since I’ve been in comics I’ve just been obnoxious that way. But for a lot of people, it’s great because they’re able to work their craft, and in the process learn more in an on-the-job sort of way. One of my favorite comics, Street Angels, started out as a mini-comic, about three years ago. And then Slave Labor loved it, so obviously that worked out for them. It’s incredible. I can’t think of any book out there right now that’s more respected.
AM: Yeah, for something that started out as a mini-comic, it’s really got a lot of creator respect.
IB: Yeah, it gets a lot of press respect. To call it a comedy would be selling it short, but for a book that’s pretty well-founded in comedy, I can’t think of any book that does as well.
Have you found differences now that Erik Larsen has taken over as publisher?
IB: It’s been pretty smooth sailing for us. I guess there are stories out there about Jim Valentino and others about Erik Larsen. But Jim is the one who brought us in, and it’s been really cool working with him. He has had some really good advice to give on the book. He sort of brought us in the door. As a fan, the lineup right now under Larsen is about as strong as I can ever remember at Image.
But I’ve been happy to work with both Jim and Larsen. They’ve both been very, very cool. They have slightly different approaches, but they both have a real love for the game.
Do you interact with other editors at Image?
IB: Not much, really. I’ll ask for advice every once in a while, especially from a marketing aspect, but I really don’t get much else. We pretty much present our book finished.
AM: They’re pretty big picture about the whole thing. When Erik came to New York for the last show, some kid came up to him and asked about some detail on like, page 16 of a book he didn’t work on, and he just said, it’s not like that.
IB: I mean, with Savage Dragon, he’s there every day, but overall at Image, he’s the big picture guy. He’s not poring over every issue. He’s there for us if we ever need him, of course. But we haven’t really needed it.
So if NYC Mech were being published by DC, would it be a totally different book?
IB: I don’t think we would ever bring NYC Mech to DC. No offense to DC, but the way we consider the book to be, the way it exists, it needs to stay the way it is. We need the freedom to do that.
AM: Image gives us a lot of creative freedom.
IB: DC puts out a lot of great books, don’t get me wrong, but I just know that there’s a lot more of an editorial control. Image was our first choice for NYC Mech, and luckily it was our last choice.
You only pitched NYC Mech to Image?
A lot of people are going to read that and say, ‘Those bastards!’
IB: I know they’ll say that. I know it sounds misleading.
What did you say during the pitch? It must have been great.
IB: It was all Andy’s drawings.
AM: I wish I’d have been there! He might have been sweet talking, you say that it was all Andy’s drawings, but I can’t believe that.
IB: It was!
AM: Well, it turned out. I feel like if I had been there, something would have gone haywire.
IB: I hate answering this question because I know it’s misleading. I know it’s not that easy.
IB: Not at all. The project just came together in such a way that Image appreciated it, and they ran with it. It might be a once in a lifetime thing, but luckily it happened to us.
AM: When you said people will say, ‘Those bastards,’ it’s probably legitimate because if I was reading this, I would probably say the same thing if someone told me that story.
IB: And there’s a certain symbiosis, I think, with what Image is trying to do on a bigger scale, and what our personal goals are as creators. It’s just working out that way. Other people’s mileage may vary.
Where do you get the references for the robots you draw?
AM: A lot of it comes from different stuff I’ll see; a little while ago it was mopeds, the back of scooters and Vespas. If you ever look at the back of a scooter, you’ll notice there’s a lot of little stuff going on. The other half of it is, my grandfather is kind of a packrat of a lot of World War II technology. He just has a lot of crazy things in his shed. There’s like a thing with glass and metal things sticking out of it, and I have no idea what they do, but they’re definitely inspiration for the robots.
How do you draw faces and put emotions on a robot?
AM: I try to find out what kind of people they are, and it comes from that. The rest of it is just trying to give them a natural smile, and how they talk, not make them all look like marionette puppets. That’s probably the hardest thing.
The characters are all robots, but they have a lot of human qualities. Why did you make them susceptible to drugs and alcohol, and even love?
IB: I have to be a bit elusive here. There’s some stuff I’d have to divulge that I’m not quite ready to divulge. But I will say that I think that when reading about these characters, the reader has to be able to identify with them in some way. The readers have experienced what the robots experience. If you can anchor the robots’ experiences to things that the reader has experienced, in terms of emotion, or in terms of drinking a beer, I think it just makes it easier to relay the story.
One of the concerns we had early on in terms of the violence was that if you shoot a robot, will anybody care? It became my job, and mostly Andy’s job, to relay it in a way that was actually moving. To relay drama and emotions in such a way that it wasn’t just fun, flashy sci-fi.
On the top Robots of All Time
So what about the top 5 robots of all time. There’s C3PO…
IB: You caught me on a good day. I’ve been very anti-Star Wars lately, but I just saw the Clone Wars thing, the animation, it’s just so great. Genndy Tartakovsky, the guy who started Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory, he really went in and found the old school charm of Star Wars, and the core of what excites us. And it’s just so much better than the film. I feel better about it now because it’s exciting again.
AM: So in the top five, is it R2 and C3PO?
They’re not really worth more than one spot, no.
AM: Small Wonder?
IB: I would definitely say Small Wonder.
IB: You know, there’s Alien vs. Predator. I would like to see Alien vs. Predator vs. Small Wonder. If nothing else, we’re available for that, by the way. It would at least be nice to see Small Wonder spin off into its own miniseries.
AM: There are personally a lot of things that they didn’t explore on the show that I would like to see. There are questions that I have that I want answered.
Maybe a mini-comic?
IB: Maybe. And then there’s Marvin …
AM: And the one from Buck Rogers.
AM: Yeah, Twiki.
IB: Twiki was awful and not well put together, but I have a soft spot in my heart for him.
I liked Rosie the maid from The Jetsons.
IB: Rosie, I like. But she’s kind of like the Alice from the Brady Bunch,
People are scared of robots. They don’t want them in their houses. And what’s up with Robocop?
IB: I didn’t really get Robocop. It’s just like a cop, except more metallic.
So what else are you guys working on?
AM: I’m working on … well, I’m supposed to be working on a book with Rick Spears, the guy who did Teenagers from Mars, called Full Fathom Five. It’s basically like Aliens, but with giant squid. It’s like an old school giant squid, running for our lives kind of thing.
And what about you, Ivan?
IB: I’m trying to think of what I can really talk about. I have a book coming out with Mike Oeming. It’s very cool in that it’s something that we co-wrote. My script, his plot. And he’s actually drawing it; he’s halfway through the first issue right now. It’s very, very gritty, and we’re trying a lot of new things. We’ve been working on it for about three years, so I’ve had to wait for it.
AM: I’ve only seen like five or six pages, but from what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are really wanting more after Issue 4.
IB: It’s similar to Powers, but it’s really much more gritty, and more in the vein, visually, of NYC Mech. The environment is very specific.
Powers really isn’t very gritty.
IB: We had intended very early on to get very gritty with it. It’s called The Cross-Bronx, and it’s set in the Bronx and the Bronx is a very big part of the story. We spent a lot of time observing, and taking photos. And Mike gets very specific with it, like having plastic bags in the trees, things like that. He’s really good at getting into the environment.
When you were creating the look of NYC Mech, was that all Andy or a collaboration?
AM: I like a good amount of collaboration. I know what I’m bringing to the table, but I really want to know what Ivan and Miles have in their mind because it really helps to realize the book more and make it more of an experience. Nobody really said, “I want it to look like this.” We all want out parts shown, and hopefully I can do that.
IB: Depending on the characters, sometimes we’ll go in and say, I want something that looks like this, and you’ll want something very specific, and give very specific input. I’ll want a character to have this type of hat, or this mannerism.
Or a character who looks like your mom.
IB: Yeah, like background people, definitely. Issue 5 has Brian Azzarello, Jim Lee, Dave Johnson. They’re all in Issue 5, most of them at the same table. All the people who’ve influenced us. Part of the fun is going through the book and looking in the background and finding all the little stuff Andy hides in there. He’s constantly hiding little jokes, little phrases, slogans. There are messages all over the book.
How very Disney.
AM: I do my best. There’s a naked little mermaid in every issue.
What have you learned since the first book?
IB: A lot of things we do now, we did then. But on a progression level, there are some things. …
A better or faster process?
AM: There are production things, yeah. Like now, I understand how long it’s going to take to do XYZ, and better figure out timing, and that’s pretty valuable in a deadline-oriented world.
Do you have any time-saving tips for someone who’s doing a comic?
IB: Andy has a lot of black on the page, and when he started out he would have to fill in a lot of stuff by hand. And I think he’s learned to fill a lot of that in using Photoshop. And when we’re under deadline, that’s important. Time he would spend just coloring in a wall, that’s just a waste of his time.
AM: Ironically, I’m really not that friendly with computers. I’m not a big computer person at all. So it took me a lot of convincing, them saying, “Oh, just do it in Photoshop; don’t worry about it.” It really took me about two or three issues before I started doing that.
IB: And a bat.
What’s your work dynamic like?
IB: Andy and I work as close as we could possibly work without actually working in the same space. A lot of it I’ll just send scripts over e-mail, and we’ll go back and forth like that. It’s sort of weird, like, wedding thing …
AM: Uh …
IB: No, you know, like when you have a girlfriend, you can say two words and they know what you mean. My scripts for Andy are sparser than almost any other artist that I work with. And he knows immediately what I mean. And when I’m putting a script together, I can pretty much visualize what Andy will do with it, and how he’ll interpret it, and that really helps.
Do you give him angles?
IB: Sometimes. Once in a blue moon, like if I’m really dead set on an aerial shot or something. But usually, Andy obviously has a better set of eyes.
And what about Miles?
IB: Miles’ interaction is mostly with me.
Were you guys friends before NYC Mech?
IB: Yeah, I’ve known Andy probably four or five years. I’ve known Miles a little longer. Miles and I are very, very different writers, and our personalities in general are very different. I’m a cigarette smoker; he does yoga. We’re the odd couple of comics. But we’re very sympathetic on certain things. But in terms of the day-to-day, I interact a lot more with Andy. We see Miles about once a year at the convention. But we’ll all still be friends, if and when NYC Mech ends.
Terry Moore told Comic Foundry it’s harder to stay in the business than to get in the business. What do you think of that?
IB: I would have to say yes and no. The business can be very frustrating and I understand that, but I think it can be avoided. And I’ve never met Terry Moore, so I’m not saying this applies to him, but I think a lot of creators have the same experiences in comics that they have in life otherwise. I’m a very easygoing guy. I get along very well with pretty much everyone, and I’ve found that to be true in comics. It can be very frustrating, but the passion helps you get through it, I’ve never had anything happen bad enough that would make me want to walk away.
There are things that I want to do, and things that I am doing outside of comics, writing-wise. But being able to sit down and write down an idea from scratch, and Andy a week later draw that idea, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that. There’s something overwhelming about that. And when you have a good collaboration, I think it’s a really amazing thing, and it’s very, very hard to get it right. But if you can find an artist who gets what you’re trying to say, and you can understand what the artist is trying to say, that’s the essence of all this. And I personally don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that.
AM: In a lot of other media, it’s either one person or a team of tens or hundreds of people. But in comics, you can get two or three guys together and put out a product.
And it’s immediate.
AM: Yeah, you have it in your hand a week later.
When we talked to Geoff Johns, he said he likes the immediacy of comics.
IB: I can write a screenplay, and it will never see the light of day, even if it were to get bought and optioned. A lot of people complain about comics, but I’ve worked a lot of jobs, and to complain about getting to sit down and write out stories for a living? I don’t think that will ever be something to cry about.
AM: The thing is, it’s an attractive prospect, when you do some comics, and all of a sudden people are calling you for writing screenplays or doing background art for some movie. I mean, who doesn’t want to be in Hollywood? It could be that you either get shit on so much that you have to leave, or you just start thinking, why comics when I could get paid thousands of dollars more for less work?
IB: But when you look at someone like Mike Mignola, he’s got a No. 1 movie, but he’s still drawing comic books. A lot of it for us, working in New York and having a book based in New York, is about turning people onto comics who wouldn’t be into them otherwise. A lot of the people that we know who read the book aren’t really comic book people.
AM: Yeah, a fair amount of non-comic book people have really been down with the book, and that’s always rewarding.
A lot of advice we get for aspiring artists is to treat comics like it’s a business.
IB: I agree to a point, but I think the most important thing is to have the passion for it. Yeah, act like a professional, but I’ve worked with people who didn’t act professional who were geniuses. I think that’s part of the problem, with Marvel and DC, so much of it is worrying about what people are going to buy. For me, as a creator, don’t worry about the market. If you have a story that you want to see on paper, see it on paper. Let them worry about the rest of it. Have the passion, and you have to be ready to fall on your face. If its not going to work, it’s not going to work. I hate to contradict everyone, but I almost think we could use a little less business. It’s art.
AM: You have to do thousands of pages to get where you want to be. But even after that you have to be ready to take that blow to the chin, where someone is going to hate what you did. You have to have the passion to create it, but once you create it you have to back off a little bit to the point that you say, it’s yours now, do what you want with it. If you want to take a shit on me, go ahead.
IB: You just have to practice constantly and work constantly to get better. I think a lot of people don’t do that. If you want to draw pages, draw pages! A lot of people come up to you and go, look at this page that I did, and we’ll say, yeah you’re on the right track. And they go, well, but I already did this page. What can I do with this page?
AM: You can draw another page, I mean, that’s your job. If you want to be an artist.
IB: If you want to be a writer, write scripts, it you want be an artist, draw some pages.
AM: This is all assuming we know what we’re talking about.
IB: Yeah. Anyone’s mileage may vary. There are people in the business who are very stagnant and very stubborn who think they’ve gotten to the point where they think they’ve achieved their goal of where they are in the business. For me, that’s just such an absurd idea. The idea of progress that I have is so contrary to that. I need to constantly keep progressing. A project that I do with another artist will be completely different than what I do with Andy. Every day as an artist should always be different than what I did the day before.
AM: There’s always more to learn.
IB: Nobody’s “there.” I don’t care how great they are, nobody is “there.” One of the few people you can look and say he is “there” is Alan Moore. But he evolves, too.
AM: Can I say the moped? I would say my grandfather, which is true, but also very cheesy. I grew up reading comics in the ’90s, and they’ve all had their effect. Nolan, Adams, the dude who did City of Lost Children (Jean-Pierre Jeunet). That changed my life. If you can use that many rivets in a movie and make it work, I’m down for it.
IB: I try to make most of my influences just some schmuck I met in a bar. Comics-wise, I would say Frank Miller. There’s no one writing in an urban vein who comes even close to that. For NYC Mech, it could be something like a video by Michel Gondry, or some DVD. But the guy in the bar more so than anybody else. The people I run into just being in New York are so much more surprising than anything I could think of. For example, my apartment has a fireplace, and the landlord hired a chimney sweep, but the guy never made it because he died of a heart attack on the day he was supposed to come. I couldn’t write that! It would be almost too convenient. Something like the blackout. Something you would never expect. You never know what you’re going to get.
NYC Mech: Beta Love hits stands May 4.
—Interview by Amber Mitchell and Tim Leong