Wide World of Webcomics: FREE MARS Through Punk Music


Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our ongoing look at the best of the web. Today, we feature a comic that offers up an ass-kicking girl band and a revolution on Mars.

In Free Mars, it’s the 24th century and man has finally colonized the Red Planet. Life on Mars is a repressive game run by an evil mega-corporation, but three ladies calling themselves the Sisters Grimm have stepped up with a hardcore punk band that’s caught the ear of the Martian Liberation Front. Now the girls are caught up in the midst of a revolution, and their world is about to get rocked in more ways than one.

With its detailed SF setting and explosive artwork, Free Mars has become a fan-favorite webcomic and has been picked up by Ape Entertainment, who sponsors the web version and is printing a new hard-copy collection. We spoke with creators Dave Pauwels and Nic R. Giacondino about the strip, their influences, their deal with Ape, and more.

Nrama: Guys, how did you initially come up with the concept for Free Mars? 


Dave Pauwels:
I think the original inspiration derived from some combination of the Beatles’ HELP! , The Who’s Quadrophenia, and maybe some Jem and the Holograms. I loved the concept of the rock opera and I loved stories that featured bands, so a rock opera about a band sounded like a good idea.

Of course, in this rock opera, said band would live on a Mars in the year 2339 and have slightly more (and better armed) people trying to kill them than Ringo did in HELP! It was, as someone suggested early on, Josie and the Pussycats meets William Gibson.

Nic R. Giacondino: Well, as far as designs and artwork are concerned, I drew inspiration from my experiences as a musician, back in the day. There was a time when music was going to be the art career for me; I was always interested in comics and I drew all the time, but I didn't think of it as a viable career choice. Music seemed to be more feasible at the time.

I played drums in various bands of different styles – punk, metal, symphonic rock, hard rock – and worked as a stage producer and manager for some indie bands as well as art director and illustrator for CD sleeves and whatnot. Music was always a huge source of inspiration for me, and there's always something playing in the background while I illustrate. 


How did you come together as collaborators, and what did each of you feel the other brought to the project?

Giacondino: Dave and I first met through our shared fandom of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe. Dave mentioned he had a story shelved that he'd really like to see fleshed out and he thought my style would be a perfect for it. Once he pitched me the concept I was completely hooked and the rest, as they say, is history.

As for what we each bring to the project, well, I think our tastes in music/films/pop culture are so similar that Free Mars has been a very collaborative effort. Maybe Dave will come up with a concept and I'll flesh it out, adding visual details. Maybe I'll design a certain technology, and Dave will find an explanation for its place in the story or background. It all works very symbiotically.

Pauwels: I did think Nic’s art was the perfect match for my dystopian vision of Mars. It’s stylized, yet still packed with detail – and very gritty.

Nrama: You just completed the first unit of the story to be compiled in hard-copy form. How did you come to be involved with Ape Entertainment, and how do you feel the story plays differently in this format, as opposed to on the web? 


I met Brent Erwin from Ape at Chicago’s Wizard World (or is it Chicago Comic Con now- I can never remember) just a few weeks after we had launched the webcomic. I had a couple of Nic’s original pieces with me to show some friends and I happened to get them into Brent’s hands. He loved the art and the concept.

Maybe a year later I heard back from Ape. I suspect they were watching to make sure Nic and I could hit our weekly deadlines. They asked if we were still interested in publishing the comic. I told them in no uncertain terms that we were.

And I have to say, Ape has been amazing. They have been very supportive of some of the more controversial choices we’ve made with this book.

I do think the comic works well in the graphic novel format and it was always intended to be broken into these 90-100 page “books”. There are certainly a few things I would’ve done differently had I known that Free Mars would ultimately end up as a print graphic novel.

Pacing is very tricky thing when you’re only offering one page a week, especially with an action-dependant story. In the end, I think the comic strip will benefit greatly from the compiled print format. 


For me, I always sort of drew the story thinking of it as publishable material down the road. And growing up on classic comics, I really wanted to keep to that format and style. So when the time came to publish the OGN through Ape, there was little to do besides formatting a bit here and there.

Nrama: Tell us a little about your process of creating the comic, scripting, and illustrating it.

Pauwels: I generally go back through my notes and plot out the script one scene at a time, getting the finished sequences to Nic as I go. These were typically 5-6 page blocks. I tried to stay ahead of my Argentinean friend by at least five weeks.

Giacondino: The process for me usually starts when I get the script from Dave. Most likely we’ve already talked about what certain concepts would be all about, so I already have an idea of where to go.

Once I read the script, I'll do small thumbnails of the pages to see how everything will fit and if the composition and storytelling are correct. Since I'm also lettering, I'll give a bit of thought as to where I'll place dialogue and send these for approval.

Once Dave green-lights it, I'll move onto the pencils of the page, which I'll once again run by Dave. These are very tight illustrations and contain everything you'll see in the final colored page. Even though I ink and color my own work, I try to be as thorough as possible when fleshing out the pages, so I don't have to second-guess myself at later stages.

If the pencils are approved, I'll then spend two days inking and coloring, then I scan the finished artwork, add in the text, and the finished product is sent to Dave for posting. 


What were some of your biggest inspirations for the story?

Pauwels: I don’t think there’d be a Free Mars comic book without bands like Elastica, Hole, and Garbage. I think these groups demonstrated to the ‘90s that girls could rock just as hard as their male counterparts.

 I think the beauty of the Sisters Grimm is that they’re sort of an audio tabula rasa. They sound exactly the way you think they sound. That being said, I would be lying if I told you I didn’t hear Shirley Manson every time I see Vikki Grimm at a mic.

 Then there were a whole series of science fiction films in the 80’s that featured soulless mega-corporations and I’ve drawn heavily from these. Movies like Alien, Blade Runner, Outland, RoboCop - these were incredibly influential. Not that you have to look to sci-fi movies to find examples of soulless mega-corporations.

Giacondino: Definitely the ‘80s. I think it was a decade in which things like fashion were, for some reason, very creative and fun. And then there's, of course, a heavy musical element, also deriving from the ‘80s.

David Bowie and the glam movement of the 70’s/80’s being a particular inspiration. The clothing and overall designs are very retro flavored, except for a few bits here and there which I’ve kept purposely drab and industrial.

I've also always been a huge fan of European comics, so there's a lot I've drawn from there. Moebius, Juan Gimenez, Jodorowsky, and the stylistic themes of Luc Besson's The Fifth Element.

Nrama: Have you ever considered recording some of the music for the band in the strip? 


Yes! In fact, I’ve even heard some demos; but I would love to hear more if there are any musicians out there. You know who you are. You never know…if we heard the right sound…

Nrama: What have been some of the biggest challenges in developing the world of Mars and its history for the strip?

Pauwels: I think it’s been a challenge to keep our Mars unique, but recognizable enough to science fiction fans that it seems at least slightly familiar. Making our evil mega-corp a little different from all the other evil mega-corps has been fun.

When you only get to show your readers and fans a one-page glimpse of your world every week, you try and pack in as much as possible. And we’ve tried to add supplemental material as often as we can to our website.

We collected a ‘B-Sides’ page for concept drawings and promotional illustrations, along with a ‘MarsBeat’ “netcast” page for some additional background on the different bands that appear in the strip. I think this extra material has helped our comic stand out a little in an ever-increasing collection of great online stories. 


Basic question -- why do you feel Mars is such a compelling source of storytelling? What do you think is the fundamentally appealing aspect of the planet that makes it either a setting for or a source of so many SF concepts?

Pauwels: This is a great question. Some of the benchmark works of science fiction have dealt with the Red Planet, from Wells’ The War of the Worlds, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to the classic Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I think that because Mars is so close to us, relatively speaking, it has always been thought of as mankind’s obvious stepping-off point to real space exploration.

 It seems the most logical and likely place to move us from the category of a single-world species. And yet, it is still a very mysterious place that we don’t really know much about.

I think science fiction writers love considering what Mars might be to future generations and how they might bring, unfortunately, Earth’s geo-political and social conflicts there with them. Will nations even be part of the eventual colonization or will the heavy-lifting be left to commercial interests?

What I wanted to add to the conversation about Mars was what role popular culture could play in its distant future politics. But I wanted to do it in a way that included a lot of explosions.

Nrama: Who's your favorite of the Sisters Grimm, and why? 


I have to go with Vikki. She’s the glue that holds the band together. Samantha and Vexx have your typical Mod versus Rocker love/hate relationship, but Vikki is the stabilizing influence that keeps them moving forward through some rough patches (like attempted assassinations). She’s also the reluctant heroine, who just wanted the simple life of a galactic rock star.

Giacondino: My favorite character isn't actually a Sister - it's revolutionary leader Damien Kessler. Within the band, I'd have to go with Sam. She's straightforward, funny, and easy going. And she's the drummer. She knows who she is and that's something I've always liked in a character. She's over the top and she’s cool with that.

Nrama: Any hints you can provide for us on what's coming up?

Giacondino: I'd like to try and explore other places and designs, such as the Jovian culture seen briefly in this first installment. I'd also like to keep exploring more of the diversity on Mars, incorporating and blending more ethnicities and cultures into what a futuristic human society might look like.

Pauwels: I think I’d like everyone to see just what a shizz hole Earth has become, so we’ll probably visit that planet in more detail soon.

Nrama: How long do you see this series running ultimately? 


As a fan of grand epics, such as Frank Herbert's Dune/ Tolkien's Middle-Earth, even Lovecraft's Old Ones tales, I'd love to see our universe grow and expand indefinitely. I think what we're trying to accomplish with our Free Mars background is to make it as detailed as possible, but also leaving space for others to chime in and add to it, whether it be writers, illustrators, sculptors, or musicians - you name it.

Pauwels: I think this depends on the fans, really. I have notebooks full of material. I think this first book is our “origin story” and I’m excited about the possibility of taking our band to some new and exotic venues, so to speak.

It sounds contrived, but as long as there are people excited to read Free Mars, there will be two people excited about writing and drawing it. Or at least as long as people keep getting my esoteric sci-fi and Beatles references.

Nrama: Something I'm asking everyone in this series -- what new opportunities do you feel are inherent in the producing comics online -- both creative and in terms of distribution -- and in new delivery systems such as iPads, Smartphones, etc.? What do you feel larger companies and individual creators can do to take better advantage of these opportunities?

Giacondino: I think the digital medium has given creators complete freedom over what they do and what they want to say with their work. There is literally no limit to what you can do with any given story as opposed to the days when big publishers ruled the market. They still do, in certain ways as they're the go-to people when it comes to actual printed comics, but as more and more people turn to digital, the big publishers are seeing their pseudo-monopoly jeopardized.

To me, this has given the big companies something to ponder in terms of how creative they want to be in order to keep the audience interested, as well as how much attention and care they put into how they treat their creators.

 The big players have to realize that people today have so many more options than they used to have. They have to respect the next generation of creators. If they don’t, they'll just do it on their own somewhere online- some to greater success and acclaim than they would’ve achieved otherwise!

 So, I think digital opens up a lot of opportunities for the artists and writers, pushing them to do bold new things in order to stand out from the crowd. And, at the same time, it pushes the big companies to do the same.

Nrama: What are some of your favorite comics and creators, both online and off?

Giacondino: WHEW! That'd take me a lot of time and I'd still wouldn't cover all of the people that have inspired me, both renowned and not, inside and outside of comics, film and whatnot.

I'll always follow Alan Moore’s work as well as some of the European creators, like Juan Gimenez and Luis Royo. 


It’s funny, I’ve always loved comic books, but I’ve never been a huge superhero fan. To me the villains were always more interesting than the “heroes.” I’m a DC/Vertigo guy from way back.

As far as online goes, there is some genuinely amazing work being done out there, but finding it is the real trick. I like Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary a lot. And Rosenberg’s Scenes From A Multiverse. And there’s a brand-new comic called Surreality from Caleb King and Carla Wyzgala that looks promising.

Nrama: What's next for both of you?

Pauwels: Besides a Free Mars follow-up (fingers-crossed), Nic and I are working on a little something we call Devin Hunter and the City of the Slaver Queen. Retro-pulp-sci-fi. If Free Mars is Bowie, Devin Hunter is Queen.

Giacondino: As for me solo, I'll be working on several projects that I can't yet disclose, but one thing's for sure, you'll see a lot of my artwork in 2012!

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Giacondino: Well, I'd like to thank all the fans that have supported us since we started this project. It's sometimes easy to forget there's an actual audience out there that deserves our appreciation and deepest respect.

Digital has opened up so many venues for creators to stay in touch with their followers instantly; it's humbling to hear from fans as often as we do.

Pauwels: I’d echo Nic’s sentiment that it is amazing to me how much feedback the fans can (and do) provide. The positive feedback helps fuel our enthusiasm and the “less-positive” feedback is a chance to double-check that we’re conveying what we’d hoped to convey.

The Sisters Grimm battle to Free Mars at www.freemarscomic.com.

Next: It’s time to Feel Afraid with Christopher Reineman! Then, Ryan Andrews talks about his Eisner-nominated Sarah and the Seed, and get ready to battle evil with Lilith Dark! All this and more as Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics continues!

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