One of my favorite webcomics is Madeleine Holly-Rosing and Emily Hu's Boston Metaphisical Society. It's a fun and unpredictable series. And "fun" and "unpredictable" are words you could use to apply to Holly-Rosing, which you'll find in our conversation below.
Madeleine Holly-Rosing: Boston Metaphysical was originally a TV pilot that I wrote while I was in the graduate film school at UCLA. A lot of people liked it but thought it would be very expensive to make, so it was suggested that I turn it into a comic book so that I would have previously existing material to shop around. In the process of learning how to do that, I discovered that I really like writing comic books.
Now I'm doomed. But it's great, and I actually have more ideas for the Boston Metaphysical universe as well as other series.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: what's it like using a different set of muscles than what you're used to using from school?
Rosing: Well structurally the writing is very different, particularly how you lay out the plot. Unlike writing a TV pilot – where obviously you don't want to give everything away and everything leaks out very slowly over a series of episodes – in a comic, particularly the first issue, you have to put certain things front and center to keep your audience happy and to keep them involved.
A good example is B.E.T.H., Bell, Edison, Tesla, and Harry Houdini. When writing it as episodic TV I would introduce them gradually. I would hint about them, then they would be a big reveal at the end of a season or midway through a season just because you want to build up to that, unlike a comic book where people want to see certain things up front. In approaching the storyline, you put all the same elements in there, but you lay it out differently.
CB: So we comic book readers are used to that punch at the very beginning, the grand moment happening upfront.
Rosing: Yes and no. Like TV, you want to have a hook in the beginning. But it’s the choice of what that hook will be that is different. I do have to say that learning how to write comic books, I believe, has made me a better overall writer because it really forces me to focus on what's important and get rid of anything else that's not.
CB: I've heard that especially with dialog, you have to be a lot crisper.
Rosing: Absolutely, I'm writing the third novella now, to add to the website. It's fun because in a novella I can just write dialog; I don't have to condense it so much. It's kind of freeing. Yet when you sit down to write a comic book, it really forces you to focus on the essence of the story and the dialog, and I really like that challenge. I think it's great.
I have to laugh here…I’ve written in many other formats, but this is my first comic book. So it seems odd to be giving advice at this juncture in time. I have no doubt that I have more to learn about the art and craft of comic book writing.
CB: So do the elevator pitch. What's Boston Metaphysical about?
Rosing: It is about an ex-Pinkerton detective and his female medium, spirit photographer partner who battle supernatural entities in turn-of-the-century Boston.
CB: So what are some of the enemies that they end up fighting?
Rosing: The big overall enemy in this arc, this six-issue arc, is an entity called “The Shifter.” In the early pages, Bell, Edison, Tesla, briefly refer to it; it is a trans-dimensional entity that has crossed over into our world and is wreaking havoc. That's the overall arc of the thing that Samuel and Caitlin will have to kill by the end of the sixth issue. But in the meantime there's conflict within B.E.T.H., there is conflict with Tesla and Granville and Caitlin and they all approach their jobs very differently and have different points of view of how it should be accomplished.
CB: I thought B.E.T.H. was an interesting construct, with these famous people from history. What brought these people together?
Rosing: Primarily, scientific innovation. I know Houdini is kind of the odd man out but I saw him as the person who brought humanity to the group, who brought a more personal touch. Where the other three guys are much more focused on the hard science, he takes a step back and looks at the people. He provides a certain amount of balance.
CB: What was the rationale for B.E.T.H. as an organization?
Rosing: They all realize that this trans-dimensional entity has arrived and they join forces to try to kill it.
CB: So talk about Samuel and Caitlin, they're really the people who we follow through these adventures? Or this adventure; I assume there will be more than one?
Rosing: Oh, yes. And Granville will become more involved in later issues; he's just briefly introduced in the first issue. He's very much involved in a case in the second issue. Samuel is pretty much a broken man who, after the death of his wife – well I don't want to give away too much of how she died and what's driving him. He's a man who is obsessed with finding the thing that killed his wife.
He pretty much is on the fence between good and evil, of how far you go to achieve your goal. How far you are willing to slip morally. And Caitlin is the balance there; at some point in the series she will challenge that and possibly leave because he goes over the edge.
CB: I like how there's an interesting sort of conflict between them, not just in terms of personality but in their backgrounds and even in the way they always seem to approach things. They seem to be a good contrast for each other.
Rosing: Caitlin grew up with Duncan the ghost, which you meet early in the issue, and so a lot of her reference is that ghosts can be friendly. From her viewpoint, not all ghosts are evil. As far as Samuel is concerned, they're all evil, so they should be eliminated. And sometimes he's absolutely right; they should be.
One of the things that also intrigued me about the story is looking at the social structure and how that affects these people's lives. Samuel and Caitlin both come from opposite ends of the world, socially, and those dynamics are something that challenges their relationship and how they do their job.
The same thing with Granville. I don't know if you know this, but Granville Woods actually did exist. He was a scientist/engineer who existed in the same time period as all these other guys. In fact, he sued Thomas Edison for stealing some of his patents and won which was rather extraordinary for the time, considering he was an African-American man. He held many, many patents that had to do with the railroad. I really loved his character and though in real life he lived in Ohio, I decided, "Hey, I'm the writer, I can bring him to Boston," so I did.
CB: You can make all the changes you want, including the Steampunk setting of the story too.
Rosing: Yes, it's a sub-genre of science fiction; it's a Steampunk alternate history, so as far as I'm concerned I can have fun with characters whet
her they lived or not.
CB: Right, they are, to some extent, your construct as soon as you touch them. So, because it's kind of a fictional reality, how do you manage accuracy versus your wish to tell the story and have a lot of fun and freedom with it?
Rosing: Well, the kind of path that I follow when dealing with real life characters is… I try to stay maybe not perfectly accurate to what they did, when they did it, and who they were, but I try to stay thematically accurate as to who and what they were.
Obviously I can't personally interview any of these people. All I can do is read what other people have written about them, and those histories are tainted by the writer’s point of view. So you go with what works and try to stay as true as you can, but you've got a story to tell, which always takes precedence.
CB: So, without revealing too much, is this the first arc that's going to lead to a great confrontation with the entity?
Rosin: The six-issue arc will come to the closure of the entity. We'll come face to face with the entity in later issues. Actually you’ve seen the entity you just don't know it yet.
CB: So how often are you posting pages?
Rosing: I post once a week, every Thursday.
CB: So this is a long-term project?
Rosing: Yes it is. It's basically to buy me time so I can get the other issues done. I have Emi working; she's actually almost done with the art for the second issue. It needs to be colored and lettered of course, but then I'll probably have to resort to a Kickstarter campaign or something like that to finish out the rest of the four issues.
CB: Yeah, which is an interesting area to work in these days. It's definitely a hot area; I've heard very mixed things about it, depending on the creators and their works and stuff, by using Kickstarter.
Rosing: Well I think using Kickstarter is a separate job unto itself. You need to prepare your site, you need to prepare your proposal, you need to get all your marketing planned out ahead of time, and then it's a full time job. You can't just post it and hope people are going to give you money.
CB: No, I've heard that from other friends as well. One in particular went through the whole process and really just became her life for about six weeks.
Rosing: I know a gentleman who just earned over $200,000 for a series of films called Space Command. They prepared for months ahead of time before they even launched a kick-starter and then just worked it. I mean every single day, they worked it. It did, it took over their lives, he didn't get any writing done, nothing could get done until it was over.
Rosing: I know because we need one more job, don't we?
CB: Yeah, is it worth the stress and strain to get it to happen?
Rosing: That's obviously a personal decision, but from what I've seen with what he did and with successful campaigns, you know you've got to do your homework ahead of time and you have to build up your following. I think you already know all this, so…
Yeah. Yeah, but there's a lot to a Kickstarter campaign, and both my husband and I have debated about it, because I will probably have to take a month or two off from writing to be successful at it. That's essentially what I did when I first launched the webcomic. I took a month off and just strictly worked on social media to market it and then looked at ways to differentiate it from other webcomics and that was to add other content, which are the novellas. Which I don't believe anybody else has done before.
CB: Yeah, I noticed that. That's definitely a different touch.
Rosing: I'm an avid reader myself, if I really like something and I like the characters, I want to know more about them. So this was an opportunity for me to stretch my legs in another way creatively, and also give the reader a fun insight into these other characters.
Like the first novella focuses on Caitlin's father, when he was younger and she was a little girl. We get an inside view on what his life was like before she grew up and he died, which we saw in the first three pages of the issue. In the second one we meet Elisabeth Weldsmore, who becomes Elisabeth Hunter, Samuel's wife. So we get to see her and how she and Samuel meet. It's kind of a supernatural romance story.
The third one I'm working on now is about her father, Jonathan Weldsmore, as a young boy and what his dreams were and how he eventually became the unlikely candidate for running his family shipping company. So it's a great way for me to develop the world and have fun with it.
CB: Play in some different genres and do things that you couldn't do, maybe a little more introspective than you would with artists.
Rosing: Yes, get to delve deeper into the society and the culture and the personalities that a comic, just because of the nature of the structure of it, doesn't allow us to do.
CB: Having now worked in comics for a while, do you still love film? Do you still love comics? Do you love both?
Rosing: I love both. I love writing and I think one of the reasons why I love comics so much is that it's essentially a visual medium just like film. Being able to put on the page, which hopefully my audience will see or the reader will see, is a thrill for me. It's great working with Emily, my artist.
I love how she's taken my script and made it come alive. There it is on the page, and it's is just like, "Wow, that's just how I imagined it. This is great." I love working with her; she's terrific. So yes, I love both and there's simply not enough hours in the day to do both, unfortunately.
CB: So tell people where to find your comic and any other information that you want to share about it.
The first print edition of the comic has gone to press and will be available at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in October (Table 942). And it will be on sale online along with a poster of the cover. The issue will include the full comic, plus extras like early sketches of the characters, script pages, notes, and an excerpt of one of the novellettes. I will also be at the Long Beach Expo in November.
We were recently nominated for an Airship Award, which is a Steampunk award given at SteamCon up in Washington at the end of October, so we're pretty excited about that.
And also to have people check out the novellas; they're all of a whopping $0.99 on Nook and Kindle. Us poor, starving artists have got to make a living somehow…