Welcome to Independent Comics In Focus, a new feature here at Word of the Nerd where we talk to independent comics creators about their work, their process, and independent publishing. Today’s guest is Stephan Franck, author of the independently published vampire/noir adventure book Silver. He is also a professional animator, and he is best known for his work on the Brad Bird animated film The Iron Giant.
Can you start by telling us a little about yourself as a comics creator? Have you always wanted to make comics?
I was very lucky that when I was a kid my parents were retailers. They had this little store on the outskirts of Paris that sold everything from books, comics, magazines, toys, you know there was a photo studio and art supplies and all that stuff. It was in the late 70s, and that’s when all the American comics were coming into France. Because of censorship, they hadn’t been coming before that. So when I was maybe ten years old, all the American comics were coming all at once. All the stuff from like the 30s to the 70s, so it was this whole universe of story and art that I really got into. I also had the European comics of course, and they had the art supply drawer just next to it, so I would go from one to the other, and I kinda never stopped.
You have a long career in animation. How does that translate to making comics? Has your experience in animation changed the way you see comics as a medium?
That’s very interesting because I started doing animation very early on, like maybe seven years old or whatever, you know I was trying to do the Tintin animation and stuff. When it really took a turn for me is when I saw Heavy Metal. I was 13 at the time, and I was just like, “That’s what I want to do.” That was exactly the perfect combination of my two passions: comics and animation. The thing with animation is there’s such magic to the art form. I really fell in love with the art form, and though I did comics and animation throughout high school and college and stuff, once the animation career took over, it really completely took over everything. I had this passion for the art form of animation, but I was always a little bit frustrated by what the industry was doing with it. The animated movies that had the best artistic qualities, where the execution was the best or the artistry was the best, were not telling the kind of stories I was necessarily interested in. In my own career, I really had to wait until The Iron Giant. For the first time there was a movie that combined my love for the art form and the kind of story and universe that I was really interested in. Now of course it has opened up a lot, but it was not always open.
In terms of art, animation really teaches you not to be precious. For instance, when I do the conventions, I look at people’s portfolios and stuff, and very often there’s a lot of talent, but there’s also a certain preciousness about the work. When you do animation, especially if you’re coming from the old school style of animation, do you thousands and thousands of drawings that have to be convincing from the draftsmanship, the motion analysis, and the acting choices. Ultimately you learn to fill trash cans and trash cans and trash cans with perfectly good drawings that are just not the right drawing you’re looking for. Animation really taught me not to be precious about it, and as much as you may like one particular drawing, it is just a means to an end. If it’s not the right drawing you just move on and try it again, or try something different.
You are currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Silver vol. 2. What can you tell us about the comic?
Silver is a continuation of the original Bram Stoker Dracula universe. It takes place 40 years later into the noir, pulp era of the 1930s. These group of conmen and women are trying to steal a treasure made of silver from Dracula’s castle. The concept for the series is that I took the original universe, and instead of reinventing it, I left it untouched. But what if the original novel was just lifting the veil on a little bit of the world? What was the past and mythology of it, going back to the Bronze Age? What happens 40 years later, and what is the rest of that world of vampires that Dracula is a part of? The first volume was getting the story in motion and getting to meet your characters and lifting the veil on the larger world of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And now Vol. 2 is us going into that world. We are revealing one thing after the other, and we are meeting more vampires, and we are discovering more about their lives and their rules and their society, and more about the mythology, and then we get to Dracula’s castle. So there’s a world-building aspect there that is really fun. You have characters that have been around for a long long time and they have acquired certain cultural traits, and certain emotional traits. Vol. 2 is really where I get to do that world-building and really take you to that new landscape.
Tell us about your experience with Kickstarter and crowdfunding.
All of my animation career has been for the big studios. So, what I wanted to do with my comics endeavors is to do them completely independently. The reason being, just for creative independence. When you’re dealing with the big studios or the big publishers, if you take a risk and the audience doesn’t respond, you have this whole line and millions of dollars going in – it’s a disaster, right? So there’s always going to be an aversion to taking creative risks. The problem is the risks and the weirdness are what make things interesting.
The example I always give is Captain America’s shield. If you were in a parallel universe where it’s just like here except comic books don’t exist, superheroes don’t exist, and you walk into a movie studio and pitch Captain America, you’d have a hard time from the get go. You’d get to like “He has a shield.” They would be like “What?” And you’d say “Yeah, yeah, it’s cool, he has a shield and he throws it like a frisbee, and there’s the American flag on it!” People would be like “Ok, you’re insane.” It’s just too weird – they would never go for it. Meanwhile, in our world, I go to conventions and see people with like a $300 aluminum shield that they bought from the Marvel booth. We’re in a weird business, or rather we’re in the business of being weird, of letting your imagination and consciousness run, and coming up with weird metaphors for stories that are deeply human but are told in a very weird way. The aversion to that weirdness is what I was trying to get away from. So for my books, I wanted to do them completely independently, in a space where if I wanted someone to have a shield with the American flag on it, then that’s what they have.
Of course, the price to pay – and it’s literally a price – is that for artistic independence you need financial independence. Our books are sold in stores and everything, so we need to print fairly big runs, and then we need marketing campaigns to market to the retailers and the readership at large. So the Kickstarter does two things. It lets us talk about the project so more people hear about it, and it helps us raise money. You’re not backing a project you’re going to see two years from now. You’re backing a book that is going to print in two weeks. By backing now, you’re helping us to make this happen and make it continue, while getting your book up front. It lets people be in on the process of making this happen.
What advice do you have for new creators looking to self-publish? Do you think self-publishing is the way to go?
If you can, self-publishing is the way to go, but it’s not for everybody. A lot of people come to me and tell me they have a series they want to do. They say they are going to get a pitch together and a few pages, then go straight around and pitch it to the publishers. That’s nice, but it’s still a project that may happen or not happen. You take it to a publisher, and you’re not going to get an advance, unless you’re like Matt Fraction or something, so it’s still going to be you having a day job and moonlighting on it. You still have to make a book on your own dime and your own time, and then you still have to do your own marketing and your own appearances. Publishing is a very horizontal business; it’s low margin, and lots of titles. If you’re starting out in this business, even if a publisher takes your book, unless you have the winning lottery ticket, for most people they are just gonna print maybe a couple thousand copies, and you still have to do all your own marketing. So at the end of the day, what you’re getting in bed with somebody else – it’s questionable. For us (the Silver team) we do conventions and stuff, and we’ve already sold thousands and thousands of copies. We’ve sold way more books than friends of mine who are going through a bigger publisher. But again, self-publishing is not for everyone, because it does mean you have to take care of more of the business side that some people are really not interested in.
If you’re an artist and all you want is to be able to go to Barnes & Noble and if you’re lucky see one copy of your book, and it has a known logo on it and you’re happy because that makes you a published author, I think that’s great. Do a pitch and seek out bigger publishers. The other thing is that if you go through a larger publisher they are on a publishing schedule. If they accept your book it might be two years or something before it is published. Meanwhile, as a self-publisher, you can submit it to ComiXology, and if your book is accepted, then you know six weeks later your book is online and the world can fall in love with it. Or you know, you can print your book and book a convention, and next month you’re at a table and you’re selling your actual book to actual people. That’s sort of the pros and cons of trying to do it yourself versus the fantasy validation of having a big publisher put their logo on your stuff. There’s a real value to that, but there’s also a price.
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