There have been a handful of great comic book-based independent movies funded recently on Kickstarter, but that does not mean all of the ground surrounding modern comic book culture has been covered.  The Independents is a thesis documentary film currently under production that endeavors to explore the indie comic book world with a specific focus on three individual indie comic creators.  The film aims to portray “a vibrant indie scene that is pushing the medium forward and exploring the boundaries of an art form like no other.”  It will explore multiple facets of the indie world, everything from a young, ‘up-and-coming’ female artist to a comic book writer/editor that currently teaches a class on creating indie comics at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles. The director, Michael La Breche, was kind enough to answer some questions regarding his film and his own relationship with comics (both mainstream and indie).  Additionally, the film has an IndieGoGo site for anyone interested in supporting the production and distribution of this documentary.

Doug TenNapel Sketching

1) What is your relationship to comics and the comic book world?

I guess you could say my relationship to comics is that of a fan and also a longtime wannabe comic book creator. My mom got me hooked into comics when I was a kid and they’ve always kind of been my first love. I spent a lot of years taking art classes, coming up with characters and stories of my own with the thinking that one day I’d working for Marvel or DC drawing some books. I got a little sidetracked and never quite got to that point. But comics did open the door that lead me to writing, animation and eventually film making.

2) You mention that your first comic was an Iron-Man comic. What drew you to independent comics?

The comic book medium is at an interesting and exciting place these days. Thanks to characters like Iron Man who have blown up mainstream, there is probably far more public awareness of comic books than there has been in ages. Every studio in town is cranking out superhero flicks and everyone is looking for the next big comic book adaptation. But with that awareness I think there’s still a tendency in the general public to view comic books as a lesser form of entertainment, something that mostly just provides the movie studios with fodder for tent pole films. I wanted to do a doc that underscores comic books as a powerful and vibrant artistic medium. One that is completely different from any other form of storytelling.

So we’re heading to the opposite end of the spectrum, away from all the superheroes and mainstream stuff because in my opinion there’s no better way to illustrate that point than to explore the indies. We’re putting a focus on finding creators who are a little more off the beaten path or who are just dipping their toes into the comic book scene.

This doc is lot of fun for me because that indie comic book scene is so much broader than I ever imagined. I’ve read independent books over the years, and I love the Vertigo stuff and ‘Walking Dead’ of course. But over the last decade or so, there’s been such an explosion of work; it’s really an incredibly deep world to explore. I also think that, just as independent cinema often bleeds over and influences mainstream cinema, independent comics often set the tone for where the mainstream books go and gives birth to the creators that will drive the industry for years to come. There are just so many amazing opportunities that come with a focus on independent comics.

3) How did you connect with your three subjects?

Eliza came to us through the Comic Book Sunday group which is a local community of fans and creators organized by Benjamin Jackendoff and Jim Krueger. Comic Book Sunday has been a great resource for the doc, especially in the early stages when we were looking for creators to follow. Eliza, like many members of the group, was excited at the prospect of a film that would explore both indie comic culture and celebrate the comic book medium as the vibrant art form it is.

Doug TenNapel also came through the CBS group, albeit in a roundabout way. One of the many amazing creators I was speaking with early on was Ethan Nicolle, co-creator of ‘Axe-Cop’ and good friend of Doug. Ethan introduced us and Doug invited us over to shoot the segment which bookends the trailer. Doug told me he was going to be starting a new book at the same the time the doc would be getting underway and very enthusiastically said we could follow along.

Jim is also a CBS guy although I didn’t know that until after we had already connected. When I started to explore the possibilities of the film, one of the first thing I did was start snooping around some of LA’s more well known comics shops. Meltdown is known for doing a lot of community kind of things like shows, signings, and classes so it was high up on my list of possibilities. Once I read up on the Meltdown University program, I knew there that I wanted Jim and his class in the film. The idea of following a group of fledgling creators through a “how to create comics course” was too great an opportunity to pass up. Also Jim is a blast, his comic book I.Q. is off the charts. He’s the guy even the hard core comic book readers go too when they need suggestions for new books to get into to.

4) Comic books get a lot of press nowadays with superhero adaptations dominating the blockbuster scene. On the other hand, in your promo, Jim Higgins talks about A History of Violence and Road to Perdition being adapted to the big screen and bringing additional press to those books. There seems to be a growing discontent with the over-saturation of superhero movies. How do you think this will or could impact future adaptations of independent comics?

I would love think that as the superhero bubble bursts Hollywood will start branching out and taking a look at a broader range of comic book material. And we’ve seen some of that to an extent. Both ‘Scott Pilgrim’ and ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ were indie books that got the big Hollywood treatment. Unfortunately neither of those films did big time numbers, so I can’t say for sure that the studios will keep mining the more offbeat indie books. I think that a lot of the independent books are harder for Hollywood to grasp, they aren’t always as easy to define and market as a guy in bat suit beating up bad guys. ‘Scott Pilgrim’ is a great example of that actually. A wonderful independent comic book, very faithfully adapted into a great movie by an incredible director. And yet the studio didn’t really seem to know what to do with the movie once it was done. They couldn’t figure out a way to sell it to the public at large.

‘The Walking Dead’ being a huge hit certainly helps and there are other success stories. People crave good stories. The studios crave material that already has proven it can hold an audience. And there is certainly a wealth of amazing untapped material out there in the world of independent comics that is very good and has proven to have a dedicated, if small, audience. So I do think we’ll see more independent comics on the big screen, I’m just not sure it will ever be a flood like we’ve seen with the superhero flicks.

And to be honest I think that’s probably a good thing.

Eliza

5) One of your subjects is a female comic artist. Can you share with us your thoughts on the opportunities available to women and other underrepresented demographics in the independent comic book scene?

One of the themes we keep touching on in the doc is the idea of comics as a great democratic art form, a medium that anyone can dive into and use to tell their stories. I think the independent scene is fantastically diverse and it’s constantly expanding. It’s a medium that is eager for fresh voices and new views. So the opportunity is definitely there for anyone eager and motivated to get their story out there.

Two of the very first creators I spoke to early on where Eliza and another female comic book artist named Megan Levens, who does the web comic ‘Somewhere In Between’. I think both of them would agree that the industry can feel like a bit of a boys club still, especially when you get closer in on the mainstream stuff. But I also think they would point out that that never stopped either of them from getting their work out there, nor did it ever stop them from finding and building an audience.

6) This is currently a thesis project. If given the resources, where would you ideally take this project?

I really love this film, the themes it supports and the characters it is following. For the thesis we are delivering a 30 minute version, but I would absolutely love to take it beyond that as I feel 30 minutes will only give an audience the tip of the iceberg. I believe there is an opportunity to expand this film, open it up and really get inside the art, the process, and the lives of these creators. As I talk and work with the creators we’re following, I’m constantly learning new things about them and seeing new opportunities for storyline that I never imagined. Eliza has some big life changes in store next year that we’d barely get to touch on if we only do a thirty minute film. The same is true with Doug, who has has multiple new projects in the works. And we haven’t even gotten into the Meltdown class yet, which I believe will expand our cast of subjects and our story lines in many exciting and also unpredictable ways.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in thirty minutes. So our hope is that we can pull together the resources needed to expand this film into a feature length project and then really get it out the world.

7) Can you tell us some of your favorite independent comics or graphic novels?

Fables, Y:The Last Man, 100 Bullets, Sandman. Oh and ‘Pride of Bachdad’, another Vertigo book. Vertigo in general is pretty awesome. The ‘Walking Dead’ of course. Also, for any ‘Walking Dead’ fans that want some early work by Kirkman, check out ‘Battle Pope’. It’s great fun and a real guilty pleasure for a Catholic raised guy like myself. ‘The Tick’ and ‘Johnny the Homicidal Maniac’ are old favorites. Also recently rediscovered ‘Scud: The Disposable Assassin’ after doing some exploring at the local comic ship ‘Acme Novelty Library’ is one I got into after picking up the latest volume of ‘The Best American Comics’, which a great yearly anthology that collects excerpts from various comics books.

In addition to the books above, I’ve also gotten really into some web comics recently. Ethan Nicolles ‘Axe-Cop’ is incredible, as is Mike Norton’s ‘Battle Pug’ (I’m a sucker for anything with a cute dog!). Also keeping up with Megan Levens ‘Somewhere In Between’, which is a wonderful touching slice of life comic. We did an interview with Megan that should be up on our site soon. She’s amazing, such a great artist.

Jim & class at Meltdown Comics

8 ) When I lived in Los Angeles, I frequented Meltdown Comics as well. With comic books increasingly becoming available digitally, what are your thoughts about the future of smaller, local comic shops? How do you think this future could impact independent comics?

Digital distribution is certainly going to have a negative impact on some stores, which is a shame to be sure. Personally I think that there’s always going to be a segment of the audience that craves having that tangible comic in hand and will always make the weekly Wednesday trip to get those new books. Most comic book stores now are already relying on a core group of dedicated customers to stay afloat and I don’t see that loyal customer base disappearing overnight.

It’s the same way I look at movie theaters in the film industry. Yes smaller theater chains are struggling as it becomes easier to stream movies to big HD t.v.s. But there is always going to be a segment of people that crave the more tangible, community experience of sitting in a theater with a group of people who are all captivated by the same film. The comic book stores that will thrive are the ones that can cultivate that kind of experience for their customers. Ultimately digital comics are something the industry needs, and the stores will have to find ways to adapt.

9) Finally, what are your thoughts on webcomics? Where do you think webcomics fit into all of this?

Webcomics are a huge part of the indie comic scenes these days and are certainly something we’ll be touching on a lot in the film. All the creators I know or have talked to for the doc have at one point in time worked on a web comic. Doug just finished his first web comic, ‘Ratfist’ and is now starting a new one. Eliza got started by doing a web comic, which then led her into doing comics books full time. Again, we talk a lot about comics as the most democratic art form and web comics is a great extension of that.

The first interview I did when I was exploring the possibilities of the documentary was with Eric Canete, who currently works for DC and has done art for the mainstream books, video games, and has done a bit of independent work as well. When describing what makes comics a unique form of visual storytelling, different from film or television, he constantly brought up the idea that independent comics can be a “one to one” medium. The creator and the reader.

Web comics takes that “one to one” mentality to a whole new level. Now anyone with a way to draw and scanner, can get their stories out to the world and have an instant connection with their audience. I think that can be incredibly liberating for creators. Doug told us how he loved doing ‘Ratfist’ because he said he could put a page up online and a few hours later already have comments and responses waiting for him from his audience. He loved having that connection as the work was being created, something he said he doesn’t get when he’s locked away in his studios for months working on a new graphic novel.