If you haven't heard of Alex de Campi, then this is your chance to catch up with the Eisner nominated writer and talented music video director. Alex is the British-American talent behind the wonderful Smoke, and is currently whipping up a storm on Kickstarter with her latest project: Ashes.
The fundraising drive finishes tomorrow, Sunday December 18th at 5:02PM EST. The project has already achieved its target goal of $27,000 but every extra bit of funding helps to publish Valentine, Alex's hugely popular digital comic which has so far had over 200,000 downloads! So if you want to get your hands on a copy of Ashes or help Valentine, get pledging!
I chatted with the talented writer about bringing Ashes into publication, the challenges of the comics industry, and of course what comics she likes reading herself!
"I like that, toiling away in secret then bringing forth the script fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus' migraine."
A lot of comic fans are familiar with you as a comics writer thanks to Smoke, your IDW miniseries, which was a big hit; how did you first get into comic writing?
Alex: I had grown up reading comics – X-men and bad DC fantasy comics – from drugstore spinner racks. Then I discovered boys and rock & roll and put all that aside for a while. Around the time I hit 30, someone gave me a whole pile of really good comics: 2000AD, some of the better Vertigo series from back in the day (Preacher, early Hellblazer, etc) and I got hooked again. I was quitting my job, which was mainly research/nonfiction writing, and comics just seemed so much more fun than doing anything else. Plus, this was London, where there is a very welcoming and supportive "family" of comics creators.
Ashes is a sequel to Smoke but it's also standalone title – tell me all about it!
Alex: It's a book of many layers. The top layer is its shiniest: a cliffhanger-packed thriller with some of the most exciting action sequences you'll see next year. But its roots go deep into literary, formalist and philosophical territory. Basically, a soldier and a journalist did something amazing five years ago. Over time, they've regretted it, and the impact it had on their now borderline, barely-ekeing-out-an-existence lives. Well, they're about to regret it even more as an accident at a US military base means that the entire internet, in the form of a very bitter 15 year old boy, wants to track them down... and kill them.
Ashes secured funding via Kickstarter with a couple of weeks to spare; clearly you worked really hard on fundraising, and there is a lot of love for comics on show from those who pledged. I understand that the writing is already completed, and this fundraising is for the art and publishing; you wrote the whole of Ashes in your own time, unpaid?
Alex: Yes, I did. There are so many steps to creating a comic, it felt like too much to ask of people to fund my time to write the book and then fund Jimmy's time to draw it and then again to print it. It was crazy enough to look to raise $27k just for Jimmy's subsistence and printing. Also, I'm very private about my projects. On my own books, which do tend to have a strong literary element, I am a very slow writer. I'm also a mom, and a fairly successful music video director. These also make me slow. So I don't even want to mention a project until it is completely written to my satisfaction. I suppose the music video thing contributes to that as a director never talks about/shows parts of a project until it is OK'd by the band/label. Ashes took a lot of people by surprise; it's not the done thing in comics to just shut up about something until it's finished... especially something that's over 250 pages long. But I like that, toiling away in secret then bringing forth the script fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus' migraine.
Jimmy Broxton is the artist for Ashes who is described as one of the hottest up and coming artists around – how did you come to work with him on this project?
Alex: Blind luck. I really wanted a British artist because so much of the first half of the book turns on subtle elements of British culture and class, and also the history of British war comics like Battle and Warlord. So I asked around friends and posted on a private creator forum, initially thinking I'd have a different artist for each of the book's 8 chapters as it is a very long book. But Jimmy stepped right up and said he'd do it on the condition he'd do it all. And I couldn't be happier with his art. He's crazy, though. Ashes is an extremely tough book to draw (and paint, and collage, and illustrate...)
Has your experience using Kickstarter been good? The pledge system seems to have really flourished in the last year and there was a fair bit of controversy too...
Alex: Yes, Kickstarter has been great as a system. Sadly we aren't hip or cute enough to be featured by them but the platform overall is wonderful. It's also taken a heck of a lot of my money. I've pledged for three other comics projects, a cloth book for my toddler, and a cool Danish-modern lamp kit since posting Ashes. I would have pledged for more, but I have very, very little money (I've been on benefits most of this year). There really is a Kickstarter community developing, where people ONLY buy comics on Kickstarter, and literally skate around the site every so often looking for cool things to give money to.
2011 has been the year of women in comics, or at least the year where some conversation started to happen across some wider media. You are the writer of an Eisner award nominated comic, you've written manga, you've written for children, you've even written French language comics; why are publishers not beating a path to your door?!
Alex: I.... have no idea. I'd love to do some work for hire, as I'm seven shades of broke. And I'm great at action/cliffhangers, you know, the mainstream stuff. But the wheels move so slowly. There's actually an editor at one of the big two very interested in working with me but it's taken six months and still nothing, mainly because she is deluged with books and the constant last-minute firefighting that editing like fifteen books a month causes.
I also don't schmooze any more. I sit up in my secret supervillain hideaway in the forests of New England and tap away at my stories. So I'm not going to get employed nearly as quick as the kids that go to all the cons and are in the editors' faces. I figure sooner or later they'll come to me, once they can't NOT come to me due to my books hopefully becoming runaway successes.
Due to my day job I'm more familiar with the workings of book publishers, and I admit I assumed that (other than the big two) comic book publishers were similar. But comic publishing deals don't include an advance right? So all the work has to be done around a regular job, with your own funds being sunk into it. I think you've said before that it's easy to get published, provided all the work is already done; for any kind of large project like Ashes, that's pretty impossible. Do you think the current publishing set up stifles creativity in comics?
Alex: I go back and forth on this subject. On the one hand, wah wah wah, why doesn't anyone hold my hand and give me money so I can write while paying rent and affording groceries. On the other hand, the people that have to write, that have an unquenchable, burning need to get their stories out there, will still do it. But there is a reason we aren't seeing as many books these days to the quality levels of Watchmen and some of the other great creator-owned stories of yesteryear.
A lot of the people in the industry I spoke to about the lack of women creators in superhero comics said that there were better opportunities in independent comics so that's where the women were; but it seems like independent comics are really cost prohibitive to make. Do you think indie publishers are any better for backing women creators?
Alex: The only reason the majors don't have more women creators is they expect the creators to be in their face begging for jobs. Most women creators just don't care that much (and also the female way of working socially is different), so they're all sitting on their piles Eisner nominations and critically-acclaimed indie books waiting to be asked to dance by DC and Marvel... but DC and Marvel are too busy doing keg stands with the freshmen boys.
Are indie publishers better? Not really. Very few give women advances that will enable them to support themselves (I am still shocked and saddened by how few women ask for money, we still act like this is some sort of hobby we can do for free... this also was what made me sad about Womanthology). And most rip half the rights away from female creators, many of whom are so overjoyed to be published by a recognised publisher, they believe the toxic bullshit that is "this is our standard contract".
As a bookseller, I love that you were offering retailer packages via Kickstarter so that Ashes will also be available via local comic book shops. Is that a global venture?
Alex: Absolutely. We have retailers in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Germany.
I'm perhaps naively surprised that Valentine, your hugely popular digital comic, hadn't been picked up for a published collection but I hear that due to your fundraiser being so successful it may be appearing soon?
Alex: Yeah, I'm pretty surprised too. Reaching over 200,000 downloads and still not getting a publisher of some sort to back creation of future episodes was like getting a pint of ice water down my back. That informed a lot how we structured Ashes, and how I will structure future projects. We'll raise the money in advance to do what we want with the book, and if a publisher approaches us later about a trade edition or whatever, that's fine. But no more, I support a project out of my own pocket, then have to suspend it when I lose my job (and also don't have any savings because I was supporting the creation of my comic). That was nine kinds of suck.
But yes, we have raised far more than expected with Ashes (we're at $31k with about 24 hours to go) and so $3k of that will go to Valentine. It'll pay for the gorgeous painted cover by Steven Belledin and a 40-page exclusive bonus story drawn by Kev Hopgood for the printed edition of Episodes 1-10. Then we'll do a mini Kickstarter around March next year for more episodes. We've done 10, there are 14 to go.
I think I remember one comics writer saying that you do the superhero titles to fund your own independent projects... of course that's taking for granted you can get the superhero work! Is that something you'd be interested in getting in to, if only to fund your own work?
Alex: Oh, yes. I have nothing against superhero titles or work for hire. I'd happily do Big Two stuff, providing I had an editor I felt was on my level.
Do you have any advice for aspiring comic writers, on both the creative process and navigating the murky waters of publication?
Alex: Don't write the book you think will sell. You can't out-game the audience. Write the book you most in your heart want to write and don't compromise out of some misguided need to make it more popular. Then find a way to publish it where you retain all your rights in it.
I've been speaking to a few writers and artists and there seems to be a split between them when it comes to who still actually reads comics! Some say by the end of the day they've had enough of comics, and some still have that same passion for them. Do you still read comics, and if so, what are your favourites?
Alex: Yes, I still read comics. Mostly manga. I would read a whole lot more but, like I said, I've been cripplingly broke for the past year. I love all the Brubaker/Phillips noir stuff and next time I get a big freelancer cheque all of CRIMINAL and FATALE will be mine. I still have the rest of Urasawa/Tezuka's PLUTO to read. I need to go read the classic French OBSCURE CITIES after reading a review of it on SeqArts. Basically, I wish I had about a grand to blow on books. I've missed reading so much, but I just couldn't afford new books and with a 12 month old baby, library books aren't an option (baby is tiny engine of destruction). I do have some great books coming soon from Kickstarter, though! SNOWBIRD and Digital Manga's reprint of Tezuka's SWALLOWING THE EARTH...
There's a lot of talk about potential big changes in the industry in 2012, partly down to digital, partly down to alternative funding methods like Kickstarter. Do you think the industry is generally moving in a positive direction?
Alex: Yes, in that exciting books are coming out now that there are fewer gatekeepers. More poop, too, but there's always lots of poop out there.
What other current and future projects are you working on right now?
Alex: My two biggest priorities are re-starting Valentine, and finishing the script for a very dark, very literary book called Margaret the Damned. I'm 75 pages in, but due to the massive timesuck that is an ambitious Kickstarter campaign (we're on track to be 5th or 6th most funded comics project evar) I have not written a single page in two months. That book isn't so much a book as it is a parasite, and I need to write it out of my brain. NOBODY is going to want to publish it; it's female body horror and it will creep all the boys out too much.
I'd love to do a fun action/explosions short series, maybe something in space, though. Is it terrible to say I can't wait until my Kickstarter is over so I have my life back? It's been a wonderful experience and incredibly uplifting, especially for me as a niche creator that I thought nobody remembered. But I need to get back to writing. Thank you and I love you all, but I hope you understand. I am in actual physical pain from not writing. I can't even stand still.