Untold Tales of the Comic Industry: Documentary in the Works!
It all started with a tweet from comic artist and writer Ben Templesmith announcing to followers that he’s getting involved with a new project that needed some support. Being a fan of his work, I followed the link, expecting some new book or maybe a convention appearance, something like that. The link led to a Kickstarter page for Untold Tales of the Comic Industry, the pet project of Brandon Jerwa and Tom Nord; a collection of interviews conducted behind the scenes at the conventions, in bars and restaurants, anywhere that comic book creators, publishers and supporters are talking and sharing experiences.
I couldn’t wait to hear more about the project and Brandon and Tom were happy to take the time to tell me more.
Melissa: Let’s start with credentials. Where do you fit in to the comic industry?
BRANDON JERWA: I wish I knew! I occupy a fairly unique place in the industry. I’ve written a ton of books over the last 8 years, most of them related to some kind of licensed property (G.I. Joe, Highlander, Battlestar Galactica), but I’ve also managed to break into DC and Vertigo recently. People know my name, I continue to work regularly, and I have some very loyal fans…but I don’t think I’ve even come close to reaching the peak. Most days, I feel like I’m still at the bottom of the mountain in terms of becoming a “big name”.
On the other hand, I’ve had some pretty amazing things happen in my life because of comic books: I’ve been made into a G.I. Joe figure (“Dragonsky”), an honor that led to me becoming a guest on the Game Show Network’s “I’ve Got A Secret” in 2006. In 2010, I represented the U.S. at the FIBDA festival in Algiers, Algeria (http://www.bdalger.net/) , which was an incredible, overwhelming honor – and I’m returning to the festival this year as well.
And then, of course, there’s this film. Nobody saw that one coming, but I’ve been shocked by the warmth and willingness that my peers have shown to myself and my crew. It makes me think that I might have a firmer footing on the mountain than I thought.
Melissa: Where did your own love for comics begin?
TOM NORD: Like so many others, my love began at a local grocery store. For obvious reasons, the toy aisle at the grocery store was the most interesting part of the store and as it happens, the comics were right next to the toys. Since it was easier to convince my mother to buy me a comic than a new toy, I quickly picked up the habit. It started with single issues of The Amazing Spider-Man but quickly grew to incorporate any Spider-Man title I could get my hands on. As a kid, I used to be glued to the television whenever the old Spider-Man cartoon was on, so it was just like reacquainting myself with an old friend.
BRANDON: I’m pretty sure my first book was a Marvel Star Wars comic when I was 4 years old, which is a serious bit of foreshadowing for my career. My parents had no problem with me reading comics; I was an excellent reader at a very young age, and there’s no question in anyone’s mind that comics played a big part in that. There were superhero books in those early days as well, Batman and Spider-Man for sure. I was hooked from the get-go.
Melissa: How did the idea for the documentary start?
TOM: With an excited email from Brandon.
BRANDON: The first pass at this came in the form of an event I was trying to organize here in Seattle before the 2010 Emerald City Comic-Con. I wanted an evening for the fans and creators alike, featuring an open panel discussion with no agenda or promotional imperative attached to it. There are so many incredible conversations that happen when you get a group of comic folks together, but they’re usually restricted to a dinner table or the bar after a convention.
The event didn’t end up happening, but I was left with this sort of crazed desire to keep the concept alive. I had been working on various projects with Thomas Nord for a year or so since he had first approached me to work on a 48 Hour Film project in 2010, so I brought this to him.
Tom deserves ALL of the credit for me being involved with film; the medium had always been of great interest to me, but I certainly didn’t have any means of actually making a movie. After that first 48 Hour Film and a couple of projects with other collaborators that just didn’t come together as we’d hoped, Tom and I (and our partners-in-crime Tim Kurkoski and Jess Neher) started to search for a film to call our own. I was thrilled when the documentary suddenly jumped to the top of the to-do list, because it felt like I could do right by the team. I have nothing but immense love and respect for those three and our extended film family, and I felt confident that we could pull this off. There was still one missing element, however.
Enter Ali Mohsenian and his company, Arc Media. We had worked with Ali very briefly once before, under some fairly tough circumstances for all involved, and it’s fair to say that we all ran away in opposite directions to regroup. Soon enough, we found ourselves talking, and we decided that we’d definitely work together again if the right project came along. When I called Ali for this film, he didn’t even hesitate to say yes. Ali is a consummate professional, and it’s pretty clear to me that fate wanted to put us through the paces before allowing us to come together to make something great. He and his team do this for a living, and I’m reminded of that fact every time I get an email or phone call advising me of some new development.
Melissa: You touch on the subject of comic book characters being discovered through film and other media sources rather than through comics. How do you think this changes the face of the average comic book reader?
TOM: I think the popularity of the movies and games serves as a sort of validation for the industry. More people are picking up a comic book and regarding it as a respectable medium for telling stories instead of just something the nerdy kids read in their parents’ basement.
BRANDON: At the same time, though, I find myself wondering why there’s such a disparity in the size of the audience for a Batman movie or video game versus a Batman comic. I want the people who are shelling out their hard-earned cash on the ancillary media to bring a little something over to the source material. Is that just overprotective thinking on my part? I don’t know, but the fact that two of the people working on this film have different viewpoints on the question is exactly why we’re asking the question in many of our interviews.
Melissa: Do you feel there is an obvious separation between the old school store shoppers and the new fans brought in from TV and film?
TOM: To some degree I suppose that is true. There has been so much talk lately about “this group of readers” and “that group of readers”, but at the end of the day we all love comics. I think it’s important to understand where readers are coming from, but once you’re a part of the world of comics that doesn’t really matter as much.
David Gallaher (video clip)
Melissa: Digital readers have had a big impact on the print industry as far as novels, magazines and newspapers go. Do you think the same impact is being felt in comic books?
TOM: Absolutely. It’s been coming for a while now, and I think to some degree the comics industry has done a better job of embracing it than a lot of other parts of the print industry. The comic industry’s approach has certainly been slower than a lot of their counterparts, but that has mostly served to help as it allowed them to learn from other’s mistakes. For example, DC probably took the longest to jump in to the digital game, but I think the general view of the average reader is that their approach has been largely successful.
The bottom line of going digital is that the industry will be able to reach a much larger audience and that audience will have a lot more to choose from. A lot of small towns simply don’t have local comic shops where kids can go get the latest issue of Superman or The Avengers; the best they can hope is that their local book store or grocery store will carry them. Now, those same kids can get easy access to a much wider selection of comics through their computer instead of a non-comic store rack that is filled by someone who has probably never read a comic themselves. In cases like this it’s a win/win.
Melissa: I feel like women are much more prominent in comic fan culture now then, say, 5 years ago, but you seem to feel comics is not reaching a wide enough audience. Why is that and how do you think comic writers and publishers could change that?
TOM: Women are absolutely more prominent in comics readership than they were 5 years ago, but I think there’s more market potential there that simply isn’t being tapped in to. Some of the most avid readers I know are women, but how many women have ever picked up a comic book? I’m willing to bet that number is a relatively low one. Well, why is that? Hopefully that is something we’ll be exploring a bit more in our documentary. If someone likes to read, why not read comics?
BRANDON: That’s certainly the million-dollar question du jour amongst the fans and within the industry, but nobody has the answer. For every opinion expressed, there’s a hair to be split or a subjective qualifier to be examined.
Right or wrong – and please note that I’m saying I could very well be wrong here – I’m not sure if “making more comics that appeal to women, or people of varied ethnicity, or INSERT CATEGORY HERE” is any kind of catch-all solution, either.
I know women who like Hack/Slash, some who like Spider-Girl, and more than a few who like both, and Incredible Hulk to boot. There are hundreds of comics available every month; if a comic reader – regardless of sex, race or any other specialized designation – can’t find something they like, isn’t there the tiniest chance that they just don’t like comics? Or have they just not been exposed to the right book?
The bottom line for me is simple: We need more readers, period. We need to increase awareness in general, but I’ll be damned if I know the one perfect way to do that.
Melissa: You plan to hit several US cities to interview industry personalities. How do you intend to gather everyone together and nail them down for camera time?
TOM: With donuts. I hear writers and artists alike love donuts, so I figure we’ll leave a few boxes out on a table somewhere and see who bites.
BRANDON: That’s actually not a bad idea, but to give you a serious answer: when we filmed our first set of interviews during Comic-Con, we spent two very long days tracking down the people who had agreed in advance to film their pieces. We ended up with 20 interviews over those two days, but we missed about 15 others due to the chaos of the convention and the limited time-frame we had for shooting.
Our plan for New York and Los Angeles is to book as many people as we can in advance – we’ve already started getting emails from creators on both coasts who heard about this and want to participate – and spend a week in each city working our asses off to get everything. I’m crazy with the charts and checklists when we’re doing this, so it’s an organized strategy. At the same time, you have to be prepared for the random email or sudden opportunity that comes your way due to word of mouth or just dumb luck.
Plus, we’re going to do everything within our power to convince the publishers themselves to open their doors and let us in for a day. This isn’t an intentionally controversial or confrontational documentary, so I’m hoping they’ll realize that we’re doing this out of love for the industry we’re all working in together.
We have an amazing roster of interview subjects here in Seattle and down the road in Portland. What you’re seeing so far is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the talent lineup. And that’s not even factoring in New York and L.A.!
Melissa: I realize this project is still in very early stages of development, but can you share a few of your favorite moments so far?
BRANDON: Lucas Siegel of www.newsarama.com shared an amazing story with us about his time in the military and how comics related to that experience. Ali and I are both grown men, and we’re standing in the midst of literally thousands of people, getting misty-eyed and sniffly. Sterling Gates left me choked up; I love that guy to begin with, but some of the things he said just reached in and held onto my breath for a minute. The list of examples could go on for a while.
The entire experience has been pretty amazing, and I want to stress again how moved we’ve been by the goodwill and honesty that we’ve seen from our interview subjects.
Melissa: What have been the toughest challenges at this point?
BRANDON: This project requires a lot of work, period. At the end of the day, we’re a very small team that has to perform the functions of a very LARGE team, and all while juggling families and jobs and comic deadlines. I love the work and we’re doing a pretty good job of it so far, but I’d give my right arm for two extra right arms.
Melissa: How has the Kickstarter program been working for you as far as helping to get the film exposure and support?
TOM: I think it’s been great. I’m a big fan of sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. I think it’s great that someone can donate to a project and actually feel like a part of the community built around that project instead of just handing someone a check and wishing them luck. Our documentary stems from our shared love of comics; once we decided to go out and raise money for it, tapping in to that love we all share for comics through crowdsourcing seemed like a no-brainer.
Melissa: What sort of big things would you love to see happen in the making of this? Are you just looking to share a unique, inside view of the comic industry or do you hope to make more of an impact?
BRANDON: I want the fans and our peers to see this film and be able to say, “This speaks for us.” But I also want this film to reach beyond the comic fan audience and speak to the world at large on behalf of our industry. If people who don’t understand comics at all can see what we’re made of, and see how much heart, soul and intelligence we have lurking behind the superheroes, robots and monsters, maybe they’ll start thinking differently about comics in general.
TOM: I’d certainly like to see it make some kind of impact. There are so many great discussions going on right now about gender, race, digital distribution, and creator rights that I think it would be fantastic if we were able to contribute to those discussions and bring them to an even larger audience.
Melissa: Any idea at this early stage how long it could take to get the documentary finished and on the market?
TOM: That’s a tough one. Our goal is to certainly be finished by Summer 2012, but a documentary isn’t like your traditional narrative where you can set a schedule with a solid deadline. Part of the fun of a documentary is watching it take twists and turns you never imagined. However, those twists and turns can also affect the schedule in a big way. I’d certainly like to see us meet our goal of Summer 2012, but I also want to make sure we’re accomplishing what we set out to do and if that takes a little longer, so be it.
BRANDON: We have a plan. Of course, plans always change whether you want them to or not, but we’re doing our best to be prepared for those shifts as they come. I hope I don’t sound like a cheeseball when I say that it’s a labor of love, but there’s no better way to describe it. That’s the unifying concept here, and there’s no better motivation that I can think of.
As a comic book lover, I’m super excited about this film and everything it represents. I mean, who doesn’t love to hear their favorite writers and artists talk about how they create, why they create and what inspires them to create? Please check out the links below for more details and help support the documentary by donating to the Kickstarter.
See the trailer here: trailer
And to help make this happen: Kickstarter
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