Scott Sava - Taking a Dreamland Chronicles Tour

Scott Sava on The Dreamland Chronicles

Scott Sava is living his comics dream…literally. His daily webcomic, The Dreamland Chronicles, has been an enormous online success, with an estimated 6,000,000 readers worldwide and 100,000 hits on the daily site. Now, it’s getting a major direct market and bookstore push with IDW Publishing doing both monthly 22-page comics and trade paperback collections of the strip.

Dreamland chronicles the adventures of Alex Carter, a college student who finds himself returning to the dreamworld where he had adventures as a little boy. Along with such allies as Nastajia, the queen of the elves, Kiwi the fairy, Felicity the cat girl and the giant Paddington Rockbottom, Alex seeks to save Dreamland from the evil dragon Nicodemus.

The all-ages series has been a pet project of Sava’s for years – and his hard work has paid off. Not only has Dreamland proved an award-winning series (even beating out the likes of Lost Girls and Pride of Baghdad in the Comic Buyers Guide Fan Awards), but he’s also doing a series of all-ages books for IDW. With the new monthly reprints and collections about to launch, Sava talked with us about all the work it took to get this series together – and provided a ton of behind-the-scenes art.

Newsarama: Scott, what’s the process of putting Dreamland together been like?

Scott Sava: Rather than just writing a comic book or illustrating a comic book, I’ve been setting things up to build a brand. It started back in 2000 or 2001 when I merged my animation studio with Mike Kunkle’s comic book company to start the Astonish Factory.

And he did Herobear and at that time I had a comic called The Lab and I did Spider-Man: Quality of Life. It was really a lot of fun. And we did that for a couple of years, during which time I put out the first issue of Dreamland Chronicles through Astonish.

That was a great time. Meeting Mike was just a life-changing experience. Here’s this guy who’s just sitting at home, drawing his own comic book – but he goes to a convention and he’s got this great set-up for Astonish Comics, like it’s this real, giant company! And I wanted to be like that – I wanted people to think we were Marvel Comics, Jr. (laughs).

I’ve been doing that the last year – I want to put out the image of being a publisher with a whole line of books, with The Dreamland Chronicles as the flagship book. I’ve got Pet Robots and Ed’s Terrestrials and all these books, six new books I’ve been writing for this all-ages line. But then I realized I didn’t like being a publisher because it was a lot of work! (laughs)

And I wound up getting a call from Jana Morishima from Diamond Kids, and she suggested I should talk to IDW. I had known Alan Payne, who’s their VP of sales, from back in the day when we worked at Malibu Comics.

I talked to Ted Adams, who’s the publisher, and they made me a sweet deal – they said, “We’ll handle sales, we’ll handle the publishing, you just keep creating the books you want to create.”

So they basically made me an imprint at IDW! I get to create a brand, I get to create an imprint, I get to tell a lot of stories…but I don’t have to deal with the day-to-day business of sales and dealing with Diamond and shipping and all that other stuff. So it’s a great business deal, but I get to focus on the creativity.

NRAMA: How did you start putting the comic together?

SS: Originally, I was an illustrator, doing comic book covers and some interiors using painting and multimedia. Then Alex Ross came around and screwed it up for every other comic book painter! (laughs)

Everyone wanted him, and I can’t blame them. But painting was my thing, and I couldn’t get any editors to go for my work. Marv Wolfman, who’s a very good friend, suggested I used the computer, which I was using in animation at my day job, for the comic. I did that, and that’s what resulted in Spider-Man: Quality of Life and The Lab.

Through those two books, I was able to work out what I did and didn’t like about that technique – and figured out that I wanted to do something big. So The Dreamland Chronicles was a way of telling a story I really wanted to tell, but also a way of really pushing the medium.

At the time, I was doing very well with TV and video game animation, so I had some money in the bank. So I started spending money on character designers, environmental designers, models, props…basically everything that you see on a page had to be designed, modeled and textured.

The same with the characters – facial expressions had to be applied, sculpted…it had to be lighted, I had to place all the characters into these environments, move the camera around…it’s a virtual set, with a virtual cast and virtual props. You have atmosphere, camera angles, everything!

It was a huge undertaking, and I’m not a very good modeler, so I hired artists from all over the world who’d worked with me in animation, and they put in their time and effort at a fraction of their usual price. But here I am, six years later, and $150,000 out of my pocket, and I’m halfway through! (laughs) I just finished the 12th of about 24 chapters.

It’s definitely come a long way in the past six years, and that’s because every day I learn more and more about better ways to tell a story through CGI. I look at it as an animated movie done as a comic book, and I apply everything I learned in animation, from scripting to storyboards to design to modeling, everything that you would do in a film – even the panels are laid out the way you would beats of time in animation.

And I couldn’t do that without the help of 30 to 40 people from all over the world, from Germany to Taiwan to Australia, who offered their services – and it shows! A lot of them went off to work at ILM and WETA and UbiSoft after on this – one of them worked on King Kong! So it was really flattering that some of them were able to use it as a stepping stone to something bigger.

NRAMA: And how did you come up with the idea for Dreamland’s storyline?

SS: As a kid, I’d always have dreams – I think my mom gave me too much sugar before bed! (laughs) But that was always a running thing for me as a kid, and as I got into high school, I started reading things like The Hobbit and A Princess of Mars and The Chronicles of Narnia. And in college, I found out about Little Nemo in Slumberland by Windsor McKay. I loved the format of the Sundays – he starts off in the dream, and in the last panel, he wakes up.

I read everything I could about it – there’s a lot now, but there wasn’t much back then. What obsessed me was what happened when Nemo grew up – and what happened with his friends.

And that, with the other books I was reading, formulated the premise for Dreamland – what happens when the dreamer stops dreaming, and he grows up, and then he goes back to the dreamland and all his friends are grown up. You have political intrigue, and a quest, and all these great elements for a story.

And I also wanted to explore the idea of the dreamer in the real world – you never really got to see Nemo in the real world except for one panel in every strip. I really wanted to explore the more real-life aspects of it as well. It’s a blend of all kinds of things I loved growing up – all those fun things that you enjoy throughout childhood. That’s what I’m trying to capture.

NRAMA: How’s the story evolved since you first conceived it?

SS: It’s evolved tremendously, in the fact that as I’ve written new chapters – I’ve been working off the scripts for the first five chapters for years now! – I’ve had the opportunity to see where things are going and go back and add moments with the characters earlier on.

Since we went online as a daily webcomic two years ago, I’ve had the chance to see it through other people’s eyes. You know, with a novel or a comic, you get reviews – but I get reviews on a panel-to-panel basis daily! (laughs) I get reactions on everything.

Just today, I got a review on a forum and my blog and in e-mail, saying, “I really like Nicole’s expression in the fourth panel, it really conveys…” and so on. Or people keep a running commentary – “I think these two characters are going to get together! I think this character is really another character in disguise!”

It helps you see how people are reacting to the story, and can inspire you in a lot of ways. I actually went back and rewrote a couple of chapters to have the main characters kiss! I wasn’t going to have them kiss until the end of the book, the grand finale, but people were absolutely hating Nastajia and thought she was…not a nice person, let’s say, because she was so angsty.

And I realized they weren’t getting the character and what she’d went through, and they weren’t going to follow her through 24 chapters until she was able to let go of some of that angst and they saw the lighter side of her. But had I been working in a bubble, I would have probably gone with my initial progression.

So the fans have started to mold the way the story goes – and for the better, I think. In every way, from the artistic to the writing, it’s become a collaborative process, rather than a singular thing.

NRAMA: Speaking of the characters, who have really proven to be the breakouts in the series, or who have people reacted to in a way that might have been different than what you initially anticipated?

SS: You know, the oddest one is Arvamas, the elder of the elves. I get a lot of requests for him! He’s a B-level character, just there to unravel some mysteries or provide some exposition, but a lot of people on the forum have avatars of him, or request sketches of him.

And of course, Felicity, the cat girl, is one of the most popular characters.

NRAMA: Hey, everyone loves a cat girl!

SS: Yeah, they do! I remember, Scott Kurtz posted about Dreamland Chronicles last year on his blog, and he has a running thing where he makes fun of furries. And he said something like, “Hey, you better check out Dreamland Chronicles…” And of course it crashed my site. But it was nice nonetheless.

I really don’t think of her as a furry! I think she’s popular more because of her personality than because she’s a cat girl. She’s flirty, she’s fun, and even in real life, if you have an angsty cute girl and a funny, flirty, cute girl, guys are going to go for the fun, flirty girl! Of course, 80 percent of my readers are teenage girls, so I don’t know how it breaks down, actually. (laughs)

Daniel’s another popular character, which surprises me. A lot of people relate to him, they find him cute and adorable in a nerdy sort of way. A lot of the other characters are popular as well, but those are definitely some of the ones that stand out.

NRAMA: I confess my favorite’s Paddington – that visual just stands out.

SS: (laughs) Yeah, I know! When I was doing character designs, I wanted to play with scale. So I wanted a fairy who was five inches tall, and a rock giant who was 25 feet tall. The problem I have is getting him into rooms! We have to keep building these sets that are big enough to house Paddington.

It’s funny – my five-year-old figured that out the other day. We have a scene in the dwarven kingdom, and we have these three-and-a-half feet tall dwarves, and they’re in this huge underground columned area – you know, kind of like the first Lord of the Rings movie.

And in one scene, they’re in this tunnel, and they finally get to this larger area and go, “Oh, I can stand up now.” And my five-year-old said, “Why do the dwarves need the roof to be so high? It’s like a hundred times they’re size!” And I didn’t want to tell him it was so Paddington could fit in there! They built it so high just in case one day he might visit! (laughs)

He’s such a fun character, but you have to sometimes adjust the story to accommodate him – how many times have there been where all you can see is his bellybutton? It’s a trick to get him in there, because he’s so large, but he’s great to have, because he’s a fun, happy character. Paddington, Kiwi and Felicity – those are people you’d want to go on a quest with. Nastajia is a little more realistic, and you need that for storytelling, but she’d be a pain to hang out with for a long time. I think fans have noticed that, and that’s why she’s lightened up.

But yeah, sometimes you have like a deus ex machinia to fit Paddington into the story, and you just have to deal with those things as they come up. Here’s the thing – I’m learning this as I go along. I’m an artist. I never studied to be a writer. I told this story for my kids, and if other people like it, great – and as it turned out, they do! But I’m not smart enough to write something with some deeper meaning to it. If I wrote a movie, it’d be a popcorn movie, it’d be Independence Day, you know? That’s about it, you know.

NRAMA: How many pages do you see the series running by its conclusion?

SS: I’m probably going to reach…750 pages by the midway point (Newsarama Note: The daily site recently hit Page 700). So I guess…1,500 pages. It could be longer – it could wind up being 2,000 pages by the time it’s done. I’d love to see it in one volume like the Bone collection…hey, if Jeff Smith can do it, I can do it! I would love to see it in one book one day.

I got some flack for printing the first two books at 300 pages, but I like printing stuff in volumes, in bulk!

NRAMA: Now, you have a lot of different parts of Dreamland on your computer…have you ever been tempted to just link them all up in a Second Life kind of environment?

SS: (laughs) You know, each environment pretty much kills my machine. They’re so detailed…I’ve got like seven rendering machines. I have to sometime break up a single panel into 15, 16 sections to get it rendered. Once you get characters inside, it’s too much for the computer.

I’ve had people suggest the same thing, but really, you’re lucky to see even one of these scenes get done! And you can never really see them as full real-time graphics with the amount of polygons…I seriously need to upgrade my computer again!

NRAMA: As technology has advanced, has putting the pages together become a faster process?

SS: No, because every time the computers get better, and I go, “Yeah! I got a new computer and now I can do all this new stuff!”… I start rendering all this new stuff for the strip. (laughs)

NRAMA: You won’t give yourself a break!

SS: No, I won’t! (laughs) Like I was saying, I was doing this scene with the dwarves, and I just said to myself, “Well, okay, we need hundreds of dwarves, this has to look really populated…” And I keep trying to find ways to include more, and there are 45 points of light in there…but artistically, it keeps getting better, so it doesn’t bother me. As long as I don’t become obsessive about it, I think it’s okay. My thing is to make sure I stay ahead of the one-page-a-day curve, but it wouldn’t be fun if I didn’t try to challenge myself with every new environment and scenes.

The teddy bear village was the first real scene where I played around with Dreamland, and then you actually go to the fairy village, and the giant tree city…and that was just big and fun. And then you go to Astoria, with the huge castle in the middle of the waterfall, and the mermaid village under the sea…and then the dwarf village, and a place full of centaurs.

I want each place to be unique and spectacular. That said, if I could go back and redo the first few pages, I’d redo the teddy bear village, I’d show them in a different way. Maybe I’d add fur to the teddy bears…that’s the other downside, you have to let pages go. You have to say, “That’s what we could do artistically at the time, and technologically at that time.” But it feels good to know you’ve done that much story – that you’ve made that much progress.

NRAMA: How often do you plan to do collections through IDW?

SS: It’s kind of weird, because they’re publishing the monthly book and the graphic novel – so you can pick up 22 pages or you can pick up 300 pages! The books are aimed at a different audience; I think – for bookstores, the teenage section, not the graphic novel section. They’re aiming for a good portion of my audience, which, as I’ve said, is mostly teenage girls. And the comics are aimed at a monthly audience – it should give retailers a nice all-ages book.

NRAMA: Any final thoughts about Dreamland Chronicles or the new collections?

SS: IDW’s been great, and they’ve just outdone themselves with their treatment of the book. And to be honest, my personal hope is to expose this book to an audience outside the retail market – let’s face it, you don’t see a lot of kids wandering into a comic shop. As much as I would love the retail market to change, I want to get this into bookstores, into libraries, into classrooms – and hopefully, draw some teenagers into comic shops as well!

The Dreamland Chronicles #1 is currently in stores.

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