How do you break into comic books? Well, for Emmett Helen it's about hard work, long hours, and not forgetting to socialize.
After doing variants for Oni Press' Rick & Morty title, Helen will make their formal comics debut in 2018 with the Oni OGN My Riot. The riot grrrl story is an ambitious start for the recent Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) graduate, but they've done it while also maintaining a unique Patreon geared as a sticker club.
Helen spoke with Newsarama about their upcoming OGN, their sticker club, and what they learned at SCAD.
Newsarama: Emmett, let's start off slow - what's on your drawing board now? Is it work? Is it personal? Be as detailed as you want.
Emmett Helen: Totally, I'm stoked. I'm having a hard time figuring out all the exact things that I'm working on. But what I'm most excited about is the OGN My Riot I'm working on with Oni Press and Rick Spears, Rick & Morty variant covers, and a couple minis with independent writers. The minis are fun and informal and have allowed me to play with new ideas and working styles on a smaller scale.
Nrama: My Riot hasn't been formally announced by Oni outside some mentions from you and Rick. What can you tell us about it?
Helen: Rick wrote this beautiful story on the fringes of the 1990's Riot Grrrl movement. I'm tackling all the artwork on it, which is really intimidating, but it's been an awesome platform for all of us to experiment. On paper, it's about this girl named Val Simmons who struggles with her conservative upbringing and is connected with punk music through her new friend Kat. To me, the story's just this love letter to friendship, music, teen nostalgia, and third-wave feminism. It is so warm and romantic.
Nrama: How'd you get connected to Rick and Oni to do this?
Helen: It was totally one of those things where random stuff lined up at the right time. Shawn Crystal roped me into an independent study course at SCAD just before he left, and invested a lot in my work. Over the summer he asked if I was coming to HeroesCon because Oni Press was giving portfolio reviews. I wasn't, and I couldn't afford it, but drove from Atlanta the day of, had the review, drank a lot, and passed out in a friend's hotel room before driving back the next day.
Oni editor Ari Yarwood emailed me a couple months later with a script for samples.
Nrama: So you signed up for this while you were at SCAD?
Helen: Yup. I signed the contract my senior year and worked on it through most of my sequential courses until I graduated.
Nrama: Let's back-up, and tell us about your art school background. When did you do it, who were your main teachers, and how was the experience?
Helen: I graduated from SCAD Atlanta in 2015. There was a lot of turnover while I was there, but the professors I bonded the most with were Chris Schweizer, Shawn Crystal, Doug Dabbs, Jackie Lewis, and Chris Staros. Those first two years were the golden years. Schweizer is insanely charismatic and had so much energy for us. It was devastating when he left. Doug Dabbs took over from there and was an incredible mentor and friend, and kept me grounded. There was a lot of love and support from everyone in the program.
Nrama: What tips would you give yourself if you could go back in time before you started college, in terms of your drawing skills?
Helen: God, like a million things! I'd say the number one thing though is not to worry about style. I got so caught up trying to make stuff that had a certain finish or consistency, but it always looked amateurish. When I stopped thinking of a drawing as an image, and started thinking about it just as a way to express an idea, everything clicked into place.
Nrama: While you're balancing work on this OGN and a day job, you also have a successful Patreon. You've been doing it for a couple months now - what would you say about the experience?
Helen: It's been really, like, surprising? I did not expect to pull in this much with how little of an online following I have. Right now I mostly use it as a sticker club subscription thing. I hand address and mail out the envelopes with notes inside, usually, because I think it's important to have material things in an increasingly digital age. Folks have told me they like the stickers, but really they just love getting love notes from me in the mail.
Nrama: Any tips you'd give for other artists thinking about doing a Patreon?
Helen: Yes! Read the guides! Patreon sends you an email with tips and tricks for every step of the way. I was so intimidated by the process that I pored over them, terrified I was going to screw it up, but it's been steadily increasing each month. The one thing I've learned on my own though is to make sure the promotion of your Patreon is always genuine and engaging. People have a filter for ad speak, and they'll straight up ignore your post if it sounds like you're trying to sell something.
Nrama: While doing this book, you're also active in conventions and do some commissions and variant covers. How important is it for you in getting out from behind the drawing board and engaging with the public even though your first big book isn't out yet?
Helen: Being in the community is essential to my mental health. This is such lonely work, and it's easy to get discouraged when you have anxiety and are working in a vacuum. I tabled at HeroesCon this year and broke even the first day, and just burst into tears that night in the hotel l because I realized my hard work was paying off. You need that validation. Or sometimes, it's a reality check, and you loop back around and figure out where improvements need to be made.
A fortunate byproduct of all that is great industry connections, but it was never my goal. I think folks remember me because I look different and I am generous with my social energy when I have it.
Nrama: What are your goals for comics - where do you want Emmett Helen to be in, say, five years?
Helen: While I'm super goal-oriented, I haven't laid out like any formal stuff to achieve in a certain time. Instead there are these specific things I want to do and I just kind of pull them out of the air when they seem plausible. I love drawing, I love writing, teaching, doing charity, traveling, gathering data, editing, so I think I'd be happiest doing a lot of different things. After My Riot comes out, I want to do a book store signing tour so it'll get in the hands of teens who really need something like it. And I'd really love to regularly write stories for someone else to draw. But even the most random-seeming stuff all comes back to comics, so I think I'm in it for the long haul.