Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best of the web! Today, we’ll take you into a fantastic world of magic…and the chain-smoking, hard-drinking graduate student who really, really, really doesn’t want to be there.Kevin Church is pretty much the King of Webcomics right now – he might not have the same name recognition you’d get from someone like Kate Beaton or the Penny Arcade guys, but for the last few years he’s produced a wide variety of series in different genres with radically-different artists, including the comic shop satire The Rack and the darkly hilarious The Loneliest Astronauts with Ming Doyle. You can check out his different works at www.agreeablecomics.com.
Recently, Church has launched a series with artist/colorist Grace Allison through Monkeybrain Comics, a comedic fantasy called Wander: Olive Hopkins and the Ninth Kingdom, the story of a perpetual graduate student whose messy life gets even messier when a massive pity party/bender ends with her waking up in a magical land with a hell of a hangover and a ton of people wanting her dead.
We talked with Church about his new series, his many works online, and more.
Newsarama: Kevin, how did the idea for Wander come about?
Kevin Church: I have no idea. I literally just wrote down “Liz Lemon/Lord of the Rings” in a notebook a while back and just kept picking at that idea until it developed. What we're looking at right now is the first part of –hopefully – a much larger series of six-to-eight part stories where we look at the nature of fiction – tropes, clichés, etc. – and why formula seems to work so well.
I went with fantasy because it's the most fun and, honestly, I have a low tolerance for most of it and it's always good to flex muscles like that.Nrama: How did you get Grace on board, and what made you want to work with Monkeybrain?
Church: I had brunch with Chris Roberson and his wife Allison Baker at NYCC 2011 and we were talking about various ideas and things we were kicking around. I brought up the core, big-picture idea for Wander and he seemed to like it — so much that he asked me to be part of Monkeybrain's launch.
I'd been idly considering launching it as a webcomic, but it's the sort of thing where the time investment for everyone involved (including the readers) meant that an actual product was the only way it'd succeed.
As far as getting Grace on board, I'd actually put out a call asking for a woman artist to work with and was hitting a wall. With a project with a female lead, I wanted to have someone that would keep me in check and besides, I want more women in comics, period.
Allison emailed me out of the blue and said "Hey, the colorist on Chris's Memorial draws, and here's her contact information and by the way I've already told her she should work with you."
One day, everyone's going to realize that Allison Baker is the bullet in the gun of comics. Everything else is just a target.
Nrama: How'd you develop the character of Olive, and how much of her psyche comes from you? Be honest now!Church: I wanted Olive to be relatable without being exactly aspirational and intelligent but not academic, if that makes sense. I live in an area with a lot of very smart people who may or may not have graduated college but are happy working at the local coffee shop because it gives them time to follow their other pursuits. As the series goes on, you'll see the effect that her parents being academics had on her and how she self-sabotages.
As far as her psyche goes, I don't know how to answer that. I don't think of her as being directly inspired by me in any way and I think the way that she approaches or reacts to a situation would be at odds with my own. She's sarcastic and – hopefully – funny because that's how she copes. I guess I do that, too.
Nrama: What are some of the unique challenges in doing a fantasy story, particularly a humorous one?
Church: As I said, with this one we're taking some of the tropes and clichés head-on and that's fun. I'm embracing a lot of the goofiness that people seem to enjoy in their mass-market fantasy. Challenges are basically at the brick-and-mortar level: making sure things make sense and are cohesive unless they're not, for some specific story-oriented reason.
Nrama: What's different about doing a comic in issue-long bursts, as opposed to shorter strips?
Church: I've found that doing strips helps you make sure that every page counts in one way or another. I actually plot an issue of Wander a lot like I'll plot a story in The Line or what have you: write down a rough outline, then break down to page numbers and what will happen on each page, whether it's a character beat, plot point, or what have you.
Complaining about decompression in comics is so very 2004, but it's something I'm reacting against in my own way. Plot-wise, only three things may happen in an issue: Olive escapes the city, flees into the woods, discovers why she's so hotly pursued, but I want the readers to feel like they've gotten to know the characters and the world a bit better along the way.Nrama: What are some of your favorite fantasy stories/RPGs/etc.? Again, be honest! We are all about interrogating in this here interview.
Church: Kurosawa's Throne Of Blood. Suikoden for the original Playstation. Scott Pilgrim.
I got stuck midway through the fourth book in A Song Of Ice and Fire, but plan on going back to it in the near future. Maybe. I liked the first season of the TV show quite a lot, though, even if it'd behoove the writers to actually have a lot of the secondary characters mention their names at some point.
Nrama: Tell us about some of your other projects -- there's a heap of 'em.
Church: I've got three webcomics underway right now, all set in a shared universe with distinctly different tones. The Rack (http://therackcomic.com) is the longest running, about the staff at a comic shop and their misadventures. It started off as me and Benjamin Birdie wanting to do Penny Arcade for comics, but after a while, we realized that we were pretty crap at that and we started to do longer-form humor.
We're in the middle of an epic storyline set during one weekend at a comic-con that's getting a good response. It also gives me an excuse to work with Joe Hunter, who's been coloring that strip since the beginning of the current arc. He's a wonder, that guy.
There's also The Line (http://thelinecomic.com) about the people working in a restaurant on Los Angeles. It's gotten pretty popular as these things go, as Paul Salvi is a terrific cartoonist.
The third is Signs and Meanings (http://signsandmeanings.com) and it's about what happens when you try to go home again after screwing up your career but find Abraham Lincoln sitting on your bed saying that you've inherited a power from angels. My Lydia co-creator Max Riffner and colorist Rick Hiltbrunner have been doing gangbusters on that.Nrama: What are some of the biggest challenges in doing all these strips at the same time? What are some of the advantages?
Church: I've got very talented, very fast collaborators who tolerate my late scripts and last-minute edits. Any challenges are strictly due to my own laziness. I'll say that I am fairly organized, having plotted out things to some extent, but it's actually sitting down to type the scripts that I find most annoying.
I've found that this is fairly common among people who write. Taking notes, shuffling things around, etc? That's fun. That first draft is murder. Revisions are fun because you've done most of the heavy lifting already.
Nrama: How would you fare in a fantasy land? Be honest now, boy!
Nrama: What's coming up in Wander?
Church: I don't want to give away any big plot elements, but I'll say that you get a look at each of our supporting cast and a traitor may or may not be revealed! Thinking more big-picture, I want to look at a few themes that have nothing to do with the plot: addiction and withdrawal, for example.
Nrama: Something I've been asking everyone in this series -- what are some of the new opportunities affording to individual creators and larger companies as a result of new delivery systems such as iPads and smartphones, and what can creators and companies do to better take advantage of these opportunities?Church: Well, Comixology just announced their self-publishing deal, which totally blows any other system for delivering product into people's hands out of the water. Even if they take a significant chunk of the up-front revenue, it's monetization that wasn't available even six months ago.
Creators need to think about how people are reading the comics and format their stories around them. The double-page spread, for example, simply doesn't work on a portable screen. One of the first things I did with Wander was format it specifically for the iPad's dimensions and make sure that it was easy to follow either through guided view or viewed as a whole. Strict grids were good enough for Herge and Toth, they're good enough for my silly metafictional comic.
Nrama: What are some other comics and creators you're currently enjoying?
Church: I've been catching up with Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon's Double Barrel and, boy, I wish I had a tenth of their drive or talent. Jeff Parker and Erika Moen's Bucko just got collected in trade, and it reads very well in a big chunk.
I'm a big Planet of the Apes fan and I love what Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko are doing with the property. The last few issues of IDW's Star Trek comic have been good examples of how you work with a franchise.
Apparently, DC's canceled Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, which is a darn shame, as I thought that was a nice extrapolation from what Morrison was doing in Seven Soldiers way back when. I very much enjoy the Azzarello/Chiang/Akin Wonder Woman comic. Matt Kindt's Mind MGMT makes me jealous, which is the highest praise I can give a comic.
The new Black Kiss series from Howard Chaykin is terrible but undeniable; he's drawing the hell out of it and it gives me nasty giggles.
There are a lot of Marvel comics with very talented people that I wish I could read, but their mistreatment – and strange disowning – of Jack Kirby made it so I felt guilty every time I picked up their books. I guess I value creators over creations.
Nrama: Even with the many, many, many strips you're already working on, is there anything else you've got coming up?
Church: There's a neon-noir sequel to She Died in Terrebonne coming up in early 2013 called Hard Drive To Hell. T.J. Kirsch has gotten the character descriptions and a rough plot outline and if everything works out, we're going to get Sloane Leong to color it. That will probably be coming out through Monkeybrain and, like Wander, be formatted for a tablet explicitly.
I've got another project called Integral that I've talked to an artist about and we'd like to do the same thing: tablet-oriented comics. It's sci-fi satire, a bit more personal than some other things I've done even if it's got some Judge Dredd and Blade Runner in its DNA.
Next: It’s an ice-cold noir with Victor Santos’ Polar! Then, Der-shing Helmer takes us into the fantastic (and frequently unclad) world of The Meek!