Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I’m here with Jason McNamara, who has two series coming out through STELA. Why don’t you start out by telling us about The Crossing?
Jason McNamara: The Crossing is an alternate history of the Earth where the Neanderthals and the humans develop as separate civilizations and cultures. I’m fascinated with the idea that if a tectonic plate moved a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right, the history of humanity would be completely different.
The discovery of metallurgy is something the Native Americans didn’t have. I thought, “If the Neanderthals had had that, they would not have been easily conquered.” I imagine that in the history of this world, you have these two — humans and Neanderthals –and they have to coexist. Of course there will be wars and skirmishes. I love the idea that you would have these humans wondering what life is like over there.
You have these two geographically separated cultures who grow and prosper. At a certain point, they have to come into conflict. One is going to want what the other one has. And this is a hundred years after that. This is after both civilizations have been decimated by war. They’re building each other up again. You have all of these kids living with the history of other people’s decisions.
They’re living in the story that takes place that sort of what would be the equivalent of the Bering Straight, where the closest point to these two countries where they almost meet. They have built this gigantic wall to separate the two. Neither side has seen the other in a hundred years. They tell stories about the other. They have this preconceived notion that the Neanderthals are savages and beasts and the Neanderthals think humans are in love with technology and know more about people and are greedy. Just this unchecked sort of propaganda that we have.
You have kids growing up in that thing thinking, “Is that true? Is that real?” Our main character, Skylar, has a twist. Skylar is very curious and open. She’s a hippie child. She believes in the Neon (what they call the Neanderthals for short). She wants to give them credit. She thinks they’re maligned.
Of course she has a twin brother who is going to disagree with everything she says because that’s what siblings do. He takes the more sort of right-wing extreme view that “The Neanderthals are responsible for all the ill in the world and we should knock the wall down and conquer them. They’re weak.” It’s almost like there are so many parallels to our world that we edited down to a really finite and concise conflict.
CB: This is one of these stories where you really only have four chapters to begin to explore it, but you could go on for a long time telling us about this world.
McNamara: Oh, sure. The hardest part is to distill it down to its broad strokes. I think John Carpenter is a master at this. If you look at something like Escape from New York, you get just enough idea of that world to start filling it in for yourself. I love that we give you this place that exists only in this world and then we play a family drama over it, with very relatable people, a coming of age story that involves cross cultures, geography, and it has many, many allegories to stuff that’s happening today. I love it. I could be writing this book for years. But I also think it’s very, very important to not fall into that trap of planning a sequel right away.
We worked very, very hard to make a beginning, middle, and end story that leaves the world in a very different place than when it started. And if there is interest, I’ll gladly come back and expand that world. But I feel like if you read this story, you’ll get a really good idea of the world-building. Hopefully people can be drawn into that and want to see more of it.
CB: Your artist created a very lush, complex world, too.
McNamara: Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s rare that I get to see my work in color. I look at it and I think, “Wow, this story is great.” I’m like, “Wait, I wrote this!” I keep forgetting I wrote it because it’s in color and it’s painted. It’s so beautiful that I’m a fan of it. It’s incredible.
It really pulls you in. He did a lot of great problem solving.
The format of STELA (we should talk about the format of STELA) is a scrolling format, sort of like a Tumblr, which is such a great way to go back and forward at the time. Like the ancient scrolls of Mesopotamia, right? Before people were literate, they told stories in scrolls and pictures. We’re sort of marrying that with the phone. Everyone has a scroll in their pocket. I love this leapfrogging from the beginning of the written word to where it’s going next. It’s really neat. I’m really excited about it.
The STELA guys are great. They’ve been a lot of fun to work with. They are very enthusiastic about comics. I can feel on guard and protective of comics. When I see new venues pop up, I raise an eyebrow and think what is the motivation there?
When STELA started, I was still on the East Bay and I got to go to the offices and hang out and go to their pitch meetings. I thought, “This is so innocent. These guys love comic books.” They love it. These guys are not dwelling on the business side of things, so it’s not like developing an IP farm. These guys love storytelling. I got to brainstorm with their editors. They had this idea for The Crossing. I got to look at some of their early ideas and concepts. I thought, “There is something here.” It’s really big. John said, “Oh, bring it down to a manageable story. What is the story?” The moral is not the story; the story is the story and the environment a character in the story
CB: As you’re reading, you need a character, yeah. You need an anchor.
McNamara: Yeah. It was really fun to kind of problem solve that. It was an embarrassment of riches. There is so much you can go from in here. I love it.
CB: You have to tell us about Abandon as well.
McNamara: Abandon was awesome. That was a lot of fun. It was in a pitch meeting I was in. These guys would go pitch projects, “Maybe we’ll work on this. Maybe we’ll work on that.” Sam Lu had this idea. It was just like a paragraph.
He had this great idea of people going to space to colonize Mars but someone on the trip is going to sabotage the mission. Sort of like a Ten Little Indians meets 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was like, “Oh, my god! I need to write that tomorrow. Like I’m going to write it anyway. Just pay me to do it. Let me do it.!”
Ten Little Indians meets 2001: A Space Odyssey has these people in this program to be the first recognizance of Mars. It’s a one way trip. This private company is funding it and they take volunteers. Maybe they’re not a scientific person.
Many of the people want to canonize their names, become legends. I did a lot of research on the early Jamestown. I had written a book before about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. I love this idea of going into the unknown. What does that do to communities and people and families?
John Smith in Jamestown, it’s insane if you read about Jamestown. People were resorting to cannibalism. All of these mistakes that they made. Some people are motivated by money and fame. The most knowledgeable person is often not in charge.
I got to create this really diverse group of people who are completely not like one another who are trying to advance humanity to this new echelon, this new sort of civilization. How ego driven is that? Would you like to start a new civilization?
Playing with a lot of ego and survival. Then on the way to Mars, someone dies. And then another person dies. And then you have to figure out who is doing this and why. And the motivations of these people and these relationships between people. It’s a drama, but it’s a lot of fun. If you’ve read anything I’ve done before, I have a very dark sense of humor.
CB: You don’t take on these narrow topics either, do you? You have these complicated, very unique stories.
McNamara: I try. My wife introduces me to people. We have to come up with the cocktail party answer for why do you write. I give a very serious answer: I’m trying to understand the world. You’re asking questions about the world and your life. You’re trying to understand why we are here. You have kids. You must ask abstract questions about everything all the time.
How do you put that in story form? How do you boil that down? To me, writing is problem solving. My world is problem solving and how get through this thing that we call life and make the most of it and understand it. It can drive you crazy.
CB: Yeah. I write both fiction and nonfiction. I also find that writing is the most meditative thing I do because it forces me to focus my view of the world in a very specific way.
McNamara: Nonfiction is immensely hard because you still have to make a lot of decisions about what the story of that nonfiction is. I read mostly nonfiction because true stories are fascinating. They’re crazy. And I love horror. Who is that killer in Venice? The monster of Venice.
If you wrote that story, I would tell you it’s too fantastical, you’ve got to trim it down, and it’s too unbelievable. It’s too over the top. And then it’s not; it’s true.
Or there’s another book I read recently; I can’t remember the name of it. But it’s a small town. They all get together and murder this bully. There is like a hundred witnesses to this guy’s murder and no one will talk. It’s a true story. I love that. I love mostly horror. My wife can’t stand that stuff, so I have no one to talk to about my love of horror. She’s a very sensitive person.
I like to think of these broad topics of why does everything work the way it does. It’s really interesting to me. I also think the human ego of going to Mars is so tantalizing. You get these different sorts of people. And my favorite character, I created a gambler who bought his way on the trip. It’s the ultimate gamble, really, to start this colony and this civilization.
I try not to get hung up on the sci-fi elements of it because someone is always going to write a better sci-fi book. I knew that Martian was coming out last year and I had heard of Packing for Mars. I read a lot of stuff and I thought, “You know, it would be really easy to get lost in the scientific details how people survive on Mars and all of that stuff.”
I pushed all those details towards the background. I did the research. I try not to contradict reality, but I don’t drill down until it feels like you’re reading a like VCR instruction manual. I feel like that stuff can get lost.
CB: That’s the genius of something like the Martian. The main characters were at the center of everything. You care about Matt Damon and all the stuff he does is kind of reinforcing the character.
McNamara: Or getting lost in jargon or just proving that this can happen, that kind of stuff. That’s not the type of writing I want to do. I want to focus on this character thing, why they make the decisions they do.
Why would you want to leave Earth and never see it again? Some people are very ego driven; they want their name on a school. Some people just aren’t very good people in the first place. You have a programmer who kind of sees things as ones and zeroes. It was a lot of fun. I liked it a lot. The book is in color. Mirko Colak drew it beautifully. He did great work on Conan.
My hope is that people discover these graphic novels on the app because they’re a really good group of people. They really care about comics. They gave me a lot of free range to do what I like to do the most.
CB: Did you approach creating the stories in a different way for STELA versus print? Maybe in terms of how the reader gets to the reveals and stuff?
McNamara: Absolutely. In print, obviously you’re looking at an even-odd spread. When you’re writing something, you always put the reveal on an even-numbered page. You don’t put it on an odd-numbered page because your eye is always working and adapting all the information from left to right.
But with STELA, it’s all going down. I wanted to control the beats; I didn’t want to get too lethargic. All of my chapters are eight page chapters. I write them as page scripts then I break them down into long panels. You can have a really beautiful panoramic that’s the length of three screen shots and it’s all one illustration. You’re going down this experience.
I feel it’s almost hypnotic. The longer you can make a panel, the more it pulls you in. It’s the same thing with a book. If you open up a double page spread, you’re no longer in your room looking at that book. You’re pulled into the artwork, which is why I believe most comic books have either a splash page on page one or page two and three are a splash page. You need that wide open establishing shot.
The same with a film or TV; it would start outside with this big image and then you narrow the focus down to the personal. And the facial grammar. I brought this same sort of tools to the STELA experience. You open on these long external shot and then you move in and you move in. And after that, you can make the panels smaller.
I never put more than two panels on a screen. I feel like I don’t want it to look like microfilm. There is always a danger of making too many panels. Even in mainstream books, you never really want to have more than seven panels on a page. When you do these little, tiny inset panels, you’re working too hard to understand what you’re looking at.
CB: Yeah, I’ve been playing with that a bit myself. I’m playing with whether having too much on the page confuses the eye and therefore forces you to pay more attention versus it confuses the eye and is off-putting. It definitely feels like a more old-fashioned way of doing things, which is maybe why something like Watchman still stands out. In some ways, it was the last of the nine panel grids.
McNamara: It trains you, too, to expect it. It creates like a hypnotic reading experience. We’re going to give you this over and over. You’re no longer thinking about the experience of reading a book; you’re invested in the story.
CB: The other day The New Frontier because of course we just lost Darwyn Cooke. I didn’t realize until my third reread that everything is three long panels. All of his pages are three oblong panels, which oddly fits perfectly on an iPad.
I had never noticed it because you fall into the rhythm and you don’t pay any attention to it.
McNamara: No, and that’s good cartooning, right? If you have to turn a book around…
I don’t want to name names, but some artists are very, very good, but they try a little too hard at panel layout. They do things a little too ornate. You’re not truly sure what you’re looking at. I think the new Wonder Woman graphic novel is one of those. This is a design heavy experience that sort of chased me out of it.
I’m just marveling at what someone did in Photoshop and I’m not looking at the art as a story. I’m not experiencing it as a story. I’m experiencing it as a coffee table book that has a bit of narration in it. That’s sad because I want to be taken away. I think story is king. I don’t think dialogue is king or design is king. I think story is king.
With a writer and a collaborator (and that’s my experience because I always work with collaborators), I try to make it feel like one person created the work.
If you didn’t look at the credits if you read Abandon or The Crossing or The Rattler for Image, hopefully it feels like one creator. Because we’ve all read stuff where the artist and the writer are fighting with each other or the writer doesn’t trust the artist and he brings too much. It looks like microfilm.
If you look at those old Chris Claremont X-Men things, we loved them in the ‘80s. But I look at them now and I’m like, “This is so laborious. This looks like so much work! It seems like they’re out of sync.” I feel like a lot of writers who write too much, a lot of that information is redundant. I want to pull it back. STELA has been really good about letting me go over the work and tweaking and strip it down a bit so the experience is more open and there’s more air in the comic.
I think it’s easier to invest yourself in something or if you get into the story experience, when there’s more room on the page. You’re not crowded out with words.
CB: It’s an interesting philosophy for someone who works with a number of artists.
I assume there’s a lot of feeling out early in the project to fit your beat or rhythm of creating the books. You don’t want to overwrite them either and tell them, “Okay, this page is a four panel grid. Here’s what is happening.” You want them to have some amount of freedom, I’m sure.
McNamara: I almost think of it like a baseline. Like I’m writing a full script and I say to whoever is doing it, “This is how I see it. If you can’t solve the problem better, here is the answer. But if you have a better answer, go for it.”
Some artists really do want you to tell them what to do specifically because they don’t want to have to figure it out. Especially if it’s not a creator-owned book, they just want to be told what to do and they want to get it done. With creator-owned stuff, like with Paige Braddock (I work with Paige Braddock. We are doing another book together), it’s, “Let’s look at page descriptions. This is what happens with this page.” Or “This is a three page scene. This is what I’m seeing.” Because she’s a really good writer and she loves to figure that stuff out. If I give her a tight script, she’s going to ignore it and do what she wants because she has a better answer.
That’s what you want; you want to inspire people to do their best work. Some people you need to approach differently. Generally I work in a Google Doc and I write a lot of dialogue usually in the beginning and then I take it out. That’s where I get the artwork. I usually letter my stuff. I want it to feel more organic.
You’ve read comic books where someone might be saying, “I’m going to open this door now,” with an illustration of them opening the door. Well, how redundant is that? You want it to feel like it’s a perfect marriage of pictures and words.
Being the writer, I’m like, I’m playing a game of telephone between the artist and in the world.” She tells the story. Then I go in and I tweak it a bit with the dialogue. Often I’m just removing dialogue because a good artist will put so much facial grammar in and expression and storytelling in the body language that the words probably are redundant. We’ll just get them out of the way and let the artist tell the story.
At the end of the day, I understand that it’s a visual language. That is the key component. I think the writer is really there to get the story going and then come in at the end and give it a bit of a polish.
As a writer, I’m telling you that the writer is the problem.
CB: Yeah, I’m sitting here kind of putting my mind around that. The writer is the problem. But the writer is not the problem either. The writer is solving problems often times. The writer is someone who is very conscious of how everything works together to create this kind of synergy that makes everything better.
McNamara: A good writer, yeah.
CB: Yeah, a good writer or a writer who’s engaged with their artist.
As you said, there are plenty of times where either for commercial reasons or because of a lack of agreement on both sides or because one side isn’t paying attention to the other, it’s out of balance. But an ideal combination, we’ve all seen that. It transcends both.
McNamara: You know when people are invested in the work and they care, and they care about storytelling.
It really is about caring about the reader, right? Like comics aren’t cheap. I’m not a household name. I don’t have a huge following. It’s very important that everyone has a very, very positive experience when they read my book or interact with my stuff. I want them to walk away going, “Wow, I don’t get that story from anybody else.”
CB: I was reading about your Kickstarter, too. That was important to you in your Kickstarter project, to make everyone feel engaged. That’s a great way to build your audience, right?
McNamara: Yeah, it’s a great way to get your name out there. The thing about Kickstarter is you can fail very, very publicly. When Kickstarters fail, essentially what it’s telling people is there’s no market for this book. There is an element of risk, right? You want to exceed people’s expectations.
Unfortunately, some people have squandered the potential of Kickstarter and not treated their backers with the respect they deserve– or even themselves. Those people also make it harder for other creators. If you do a Kickstarter and you don’t do your homework, yeah you’re screwing over your backers, but you’re destroying this platform that’s nothing but great for indie creators. But you’re also hurting other indie creator.
That is the first thing I tell people when they do a Kickstarter. It’s like a campsite. You have to leave it in as good or better shape than what you found it. We sort of almost rigged the game with our Kickstarter because I was looking at these other Kickstarters and they’re always, “This is the idea of the book and this is the team. It will take us a year, year and a half.”
That’s what Kickstarter wants it to work like, but that’s not how people buy comic books. People buy comic books out of the Diamond catalogue and then two months later, it’s in their hands. That’s what we’ve trained them to do all the long.
Greg and I completely finished The Rattler before we even announced it as a Kickstarter. We worked so hard on this book. We were both really, really invested in it. You never want the conversation to be, “Where is it?”
This is our work we are talking about. We spent so much time working on this book and no one was expecting it. No one was waiting for it. We took of this risk. We care about the book and we care about the effort we put into it. And we care about each other. I didn’t want to let Greg down. When people support it, we also want them to feel like, “Hey, we care about you, too. This is important to us.” Some creators treat it like an ATM. It drives me crazy.
CB: It’s rare for people to have that attitude. I’m big Kickstarter supporter. I just pulled up my page. I’ve backed 182 projects.
McNamara: Whoa! You are a big supporter. How many of them let you down?
CB: About a quarter or so.
McNamara: And you’ll never support their work again. They’ve publically said, “I can’t manage a career. I can’t manage a project.”
Look, if you want to get people into the book, if you want to go anywhere, these companies are not overstaffed. When I tell people I have a deal with this publisher or that publisher, they think everything is taken care of for you. That is not the case. You still have to be able to manage your project top to bottom. Image is not going to do that for me. I have to do that for myself.
The best way to show people you can do something is just to do it. Don’t tell people you have any idea of a book or a picture of a book. Hand them a book. If you can get that set up, with all of lettering and all of that stuff, who can say no to that? What publisher will say, “No, I don’t want this completed project that needs no managing or handholding.”
Creative people are not good managers. They’re not good organizers. I knew that if we were going to do this, we had to do it right and we had to show that we gave a shit about people and that we were going to treat them really well. I think we said it would take four months to ship the book to people and we shipped it in two. All I had to do is to send an email. I had sourced everything, all the printers. I had done this before. I had self-published before.
But we isolated our backers from any sort of hiccups. There were hiccups when we were producing the book, but no one knew about it because it was a private affair between Greg and I. There were plenty of delays. But I never had to send out an email saying, “Guys, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing” or “Hey, guys, I’m so sorry. I don’t understand how to work the international shipping.”
All of these tools are online. I hate getting backer emails from people saying, “Oh, international shipping was more than I thought it was.” How is that possible? It ranges a bit, but the United States Postal Service has an international calculator on their site. Every single thing that you ship, their website breaks down the per unit weight of it. If you have a book on your shelf, you can weigh it. Maybe you don’t have a scale. They cost twenty dollars.
Do you know what it’s like getting rejection letters? I can’t tell you how many rejection letters I’ve gotten with typos in them. You want to eat a rifle! But Kickstarter takes everybody. It’s a level playing field. It encompasses so much more than just the comic book market itself, which is small. But it sort of appeals internationally. There are so many people who wouldn’t normally go to a comic book shop on Wednesdays. These are people who support the entrepreneurial spirit. They want to support people doing it for themselves. They want to see something different. That’s why you do it.
In the comic book industry, for better or worse, the gatekeepers aren’t changing. As a middle-aged white guy, I’ll tell you they’re predominately middle-aged white guys.
The books they’re going to approve are all going to be kind of the same. They’re all going to be kind of similar. When I talk to kids and they’re like, “Do I try to get something picked up and published?” I’m like, “No! No, no, no! Do the book you want to do.” Think of all the voices of the creators out there who are not going to get past these gatekeepers. I’m a middle-aged white guy and I have a hard time getting past these gatekeepers.
Sometimes you see books get published and you’re like, “How did this happen?” It can drive me crazy. There are a handful of gatekeepers who are going to keep doing the same stuff. That’s why Kickstarter is such a valuable, valuable tool.
Whatever happens next and whatever platform pops up next, things like STELA… STELA does creator-owned works too. They’re very supportive of creator-owned works. Abandon and The Crossing are not creator-owned works. They were internal projects that they had created and pitched. I was happy to develop for them. But the mechanics of that… And they’re clear about that. Most of the stuff that they do is creator-owned.
I like working with them. I liked working with their editorial staff. They treated me really, really well. Ryan Yount was my editor on Abandon. He’s an old friend. We had books at AIT back in the early aughts. It was great to see him and work with him. He’s someone I really trust. Jim Gibbons was my editor on The Crossing. He had a long career at Dark Horse. It was very, very, fun to work with him.
To go back to Kickstarter before the thought leaves my head. I think it’s very, very critical that creators recognize how great Kickstarter is. The perception shouldn’t be that the book’s not going to come in.
25% of your books didn’t come. I mean, yeah, sure it’s a gamble, but that’s a high percentage of money that disappeared. I’ll tell you, I donated really big to a campaign. I’m sure if you looked at my donor page you will see what it is. It was like, ‘That was $300 I threw out the window that I’ll never get anything from.” It’s infuriating. I could have supported 30 smaller campaigns.
It’s how you look at the platform. I don’t know that I’ll do another Kickstarter, but I’ll always, always tell people that it’s such an important platform for indie creators. I have nothing but real anger for people who abuse that privilege. Because it is a privilege. You tell people you do a Kickstarter and the idea is that, “oh, it wasn’t good enough to be published” or no one is ever going to get it.
Jimmy Palmiotti is the king of Kickstarter. That guy does one great book after another. They come out on time. And the comments on like Newsarama are always like, “Well, he could have one of his friends print the book for him.” Having a career in comics is hard. It really is. And it’s more than having someone create your book for you. Because he could go with a mid-tier publisher. They may give you a small advance if you have your media right and you will never get a royalty. Comics just don’t sell. And that’s a larger conversation about the distribution of comics and everything.