Have you ever become a fan of a comic book character only to have your heart broken that they didn't grow the way you think they would? Comfort Love and Adam Withers did, and instead of trying to change the system from within, they created their own characters -- and found success doing so.
Love and Withers are in the midst of preparing to do a "Director's Cut" edition of The Uniques after nearly a dozen issues released, going back and fine-tuning things as they prepare for the future. The wife and husband duo have been on the self-publishing scene for almost ten years and during that time, they’ve built a successful career in the face of conventional wisdom that often holds to the notion that success in comic books is best found through the traditional publishing model.
With that in mind, Newsarama spent some time with both Comfort and Adam to discuss their self-directed careers, their re-release of The Uniques and the complete first volume due out in August, as well as their recent publication on how to become a successful independent comic book creator.
Newsarama: Comfort and Adam, both of you work exclusively in the creator-owned and self-published realm, but given how often your work has been nominated for various industry awards – including six Harvey nominations – you clearly have the ability to work in more mainstream venues.
What’s the appeal to working completely in the field of self-publishing?
Comfort Love: We’ve found that self-publishing takes three important issues and props them together in a nice little balance. First is that we can tell the stories we want in the way we want to tell them, and can see them through to completion without worrying about getting cancelled or having a run cut from 12 to 6 issues or something.
Adam Withers: Which is because of the second issue – we get to keep 100% of the profit we make. So, while you definitely sell much less as a self-publisher, we don’t have to hit anything near the numbers a mainstream book needs to make the same amount of money. That’s allowed us to live comfortably (though certainly far from extravagantly) and focus on the work.
Love: And that leads us to the third issue, that we get to have a relationship with our fanbase that mainstream publishing makes difficult. Most indie creators with publishers like Image, Boom, or IDW aren’t necessarily doing better than us financially (and we’re certainly better off than many), but because there is a publisher “stamp” on their books, the perception of the audience is that they are a success. They’ve “made it.” But with us, there’s this feeling of being a scrappy underdog, and people want to be a part of that. Our fans recognize that, in a very real way, we can’t do this without them. Our success becomes their success, and our story becomes part of their personal stories. If we went with a publisher, it would kind of be the end of the story, right? The part where the Thomas Newman score swells and things fade to black and credits roll, and the audience can leave and go home. We don’t want them to do that.
Withers: This relationship with our fans has allowed us to sell pretty well, and since we keep all our profits we don’t have to constantly worry about paying bills and feeding ourselves, which means we can focus on telling our stories like we want. Three major benefits in perfect equilibrium.
Nrama: So, what got your started on this path of creator-owned comics publishing? Your origin story, if you will!
Love: Well, we were freelance illustrators/designers for a lot of years starting in college. But around 2005, we started doing a lot of pitch books. You know, a writer has an idea and needs an artist to do the first issue or half-issue or whatever so it can get pitched to publishers.
Withers: None of those ever went anywhere. And we couldn’t get any traction bringing our portfolios to publishers, either. We were “too cartoony,” or our characters looked “too much like normal people.” Our teen characters looked like teenagers, which was is apparently bad. And our women weren’t all drawn like super models. That sort of thing.
Love: It became clear to us that people weren’t going to believe there was an audience for our style until we proved it to them. So we decided to just go ahead and start making our own comic and shop it around to the indie publishers. Surely if they saw the quality of the work in print and saw that we were doing well with readers, they’d want to pick us up! Well... they didn’t. But the more important thing we learned was that we didn’t need a publisher. We just kept doing better and better on our own, and started realizing how little publishers actually do for you, and it just looked more and more like doing this on our own was the better way to go for us.
Withers: We self-published the first issue of The Uniques in May of 2008. By the Fall of 2009, self-publishing was our full-time job. We haven’t looked back since.
Nrama: And recently, you published a textbook of sorts on that very topic: The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing Comics. What prompted you to make this book?
Love: All the things we went through in figuring out how to make comics. We went to art school, but pretty much everything we know about making comics we had to teach ourselves, or learned by talking to other professionals at conventions. We didn’t want people to have to fumble around in the dark like that, making the same mistakes we and a lot of other people did on our way to figuring it all out.
Withers: We were teachers for a lot of years, part-time. We still teach one class each at the college we both graduated from (Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, MI). Mentorship has always been very important to us. We like helping people, watching them grow and succeed. So compiling all the things we know and creating something that would be like “Comics 101” – how to write, draw, color, letter, publish, and market your work – that was something we’d always planned on. It was serendipitous that Random House approached us in 2012 about doing a how to book – and the rest his history.
Nrama: What are you reading now on newsstands that you think is getting it “right?”
Love: Saga is kind of the easy answer, isn’t it? There’s a comic that is fun and accessible without being dumb or simple. It’s written in a way that excludes nobody and welcomes all kinds of readers. It’s playing with its genres in interesting and unusual ways. It’s a book that takes a lot of risks and has confidence both in the story they’re telling and in the audience to follow along.
Withers: We’ve also been really impressed with Low by Rick Remender Greg Tocchini, Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark, and Empowered by Adam Warren. They’re all books that aren’t afraid to take risks and go to very interesting places in their genres, creating the kinds of comics we don’t get to see that often.
Nrama: So, how do you think The Uniques fits into this discussion about comic books that are “getting it right?”
Love: To be frank, like a lot of other people, we got bored with reading superhero status quo where characters are stuck in a perpetual second act. Everything that’s done is undone at some point through giant crossovers, making sure characters resemble this year’s movie release, or just the general malaise of corporate comics and valuing trademarks over stories. For us, the story is the onlything that matters, period.
Withers: And the way we do that in The Uniques can be summed up in three words: Honesty, Growth, and Change. The general elevator pitch is that The Uniques is kinda like if Teen Titans were an HBO series. But what that really means is that we are telling stories about normal people who happen to be superheroes, and this story is about them growing up and becoming the people they’re going to be, and how the world, and your expectations change around you.
Love: At some point, superhero comics began equating darkness and misery with realism. Reality means you have good days, too. It doesn’t mean every person with powers is automatically a horrible person. Not all of us are broken, empty, sad monsters deep down. The Uniques has hard stuff; really bad things that happen and put our characters in the worst kinds of situations. But it also has fun. We let them be friends, have board game nights, go bowling, sing karaoke - the kinds of stuff we all do that make life worth living.
Withers: One of our primary goals with The Uniques was to make characters that won’t be the same when this story ends as they are now. They’ll go from being teenagers to being in their 50’s. Currently, they’re dealing with both deciding who they want to be, and the struggle of actually becoming that thing. Eventually, it’ll be about taking charge and being the people others look to and rely on. Then about watching younger generations come up and make the same mistakes they made. It’s a book that will never stop growing even to the last issue, and that kind of growth, change, and honesty are sorely lacking in modern superheroes where everything pretty much stays the same forever and we just keep telling the same stories over and over again.
Nrama: One aspect of your work – whether on The Uniques or, Rainbow in the Dark, is the diverse nature in terms of the cast of characters, which range across a variety of races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and even body types. What sort of responses have you received from readers resulting from this approach?
Love: Universally positive. The feedback we’ve gotten has been so uplifting that it’s hard to describe. We’ve received letters telling us that characters we’ve written have had powerful meaning for people. It’s hard to even know how to respond to that kind of thing – they’re thankful to us for writing these characters, but we’re so thankful to them for just being who they are and for caring so much.
Withers: There’s almost no way to respond to it that isn’t going to feel clichéd. Everybody says “it’s humbling,” but it really is. The more people have responded to the work we’ve done trying to make our characters as much like real people as we can, the more we feel a real responsibility to push harder to do even better. It’s become obvious what an impact it can have, and we don’t take that lightly.
Nrama: Now, The Uniques actually debuted in single-issue format back in 2008 and came out bi-monthly up to #9 in 2010. What are your plans for the series now that you are relaunching it in 2016?
Love: We’re starting with the Extended Director’s Cut of the first “season” of the book.
Withers: Yeah, we think of The Uniques a lot like a television show in the way it’s structured over the long-term. We’ve frequently described it as being like Teen Titans if it was an HBO series. So once the expanded season 1 is finished, we’re moving right on into the brand-new season 2, where the story goes in a whole other direction, focusing inward and telling some very personal stories about a kind of conflict superhero comics almost never delve into.
Nrama: Since you’re kicking off the relaunch with “Director’s Cut” edition, what can readers expect in this edition that they might not have seen before?
Love: One of the biggest things is that we’re adding more context to the story. So, while the story itself isn’t changing, you’ll understand a lot more about who these characters are as it begins and what is driving them as it moves forward.
Withers: We took the original first issue and broke it into two issues, the second of which is almost entirely new material focusing on this team of characters before they come together and looking at where they are in their lives and what each of them is missing that can only be resolved by finding each other.
Love: That’s the kind of stuff we’re most excited about, really. Getting deeper with our characters and their interactions. There will be more time spent with side characters like Countryman, Speed, Virtue, and the Teen Force 3, a little more on the relationship between Telepath and her sister, a disastrous attempt at a teenaged superhero trying to live a “normal” life, and a lot more.
Nrama: Given how difficult it is for superhero stories to exist outside of DC and Marvel, what would you say were some of the challenges facing you both as The Uniques came together?
Love: Making sure that our world was its own thing and not too derivative.
Withers: While at the same time finding ways to use the old archetypes to our advantage. We never wanted The Uniques to go off and be some bizarre new take on the concept of what it means to be a superhero. We just wanted to look more at how people with these kinds of powers would change our world, and how our world would change them. But there is a lot of value to the work other publishers have done with superheroes over the years, and to ignore the ways the concept has been defined by characters like Superman would be silly.
Love: Not just that, but it would be needlessly restrictive. Sometimes the harder you try to make sure your work stands totally on its own, reflective of nothing and totally original, the more shallow your story starts to feel. So that’s been the trick for us, to find the balance of recognizing that we’re now part of a storytelling tradition that’s almost a century old, while making sure that we’re adding something new and interesting to that tradition and not just hitting the same beats over and over.
Nrama: Looking at the series itself, one of thing that really stands out are the various nods to already established comic book superheroes. Any favorite heroes who informed your telling of this story?
Love: Sure, well, part of the reason we made The Uniques in the first place was because we got tired of waiting for somebody else to tell the kind of superhero story we wanted to read. We’ve always been fans of heroes. A lot of those long, long conversations we would have at 19 about those stories, those characters, why they worked, why they didn’t, what we’d want to do with them if we could.
Withers: In the beginning, the story touches a lot on the sidekicks. Three of our seven main characters were (or are) partnered with adult heroes. Telepath and Kid Quick, who are daughters of heroic parents, and Scout, who is the sidekick of Ghost. Now, I’ve always been a bigger fan of the younger characters, preferring Teen Titans to Justice League, Robin to Batman, so this is like my chance to really dig into that kind of relationship and how it works.
Love: Also, we deal a lot with how society works with superheroes, so finding a legal basis for teen superheroes and the kinds of friction that creates socially and culturally is fun for us to work with.
Nrama: There are other influences working their way into this story as well, from the common – and often awkward - experience of moving into adulthood to grander issues about government conspiracies. What would you say were the greatest influences on The Uniques for you both?
Love: As we said, we think of this comic like a TV show. Our Top 5 all-time favorite TV shows are The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Avatar (Airbender and Korra taken as one long piece), Game of Thrones, and Parks and Recreation.
Withers: You can see from that list where some of those things you mentioned are coming from. BSG was a show about normal people who happened to be in space; Avatar was a lot about coming of age and struggling with big responsibilities; The Wire dealt heavily with how the biggest problems in our society are cultural and institutional to the extent that no one piece can be solved without addressing all those pieces together.
Love: And those have always been themes that have interested us, those shows just put it all together in really inspiring and instructional ways. Now we’re trying to pick up those same threads in a superhero world and see what happens.
Nrama: Ultimately, what are your plans for The Uniques as 2016 gets underway? Is this going to be an on-going series, and if so, where and when can people pick it up?
Love: This is a contained story, it has an ending, but it’s very long. We’re planning around 100 issues, or 10 “seasons,” with plans for at least one connected OGN and the potential for a long-form anthology series on the side that we’d really love to see happen so we could explore more of the tertiary characters and see more about how their world works.
Nrama: Where can readers find you and The Uniques along with the rest of your creator-owned work?
Withers: The Uniques Vol. 1 is up for pre-order at your local comic shop. Otherwise, The Uniques release single issues digitally for .99 cents through our website on a bi-monthly basis. Trade paperbacks release to stores and Amazon as they’re finished (about twice a year). Later this year we hope to start releasing online directly to our website on a page-per-week basis in the traditional webcomic format, but more on that will be coming when we’re ready to make it happen.
Love: In the meantime, if you follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, DeviantArt or Facebook, you’ll be kept abreast of all the comings and goings and any big updates when we announce them.