Thomas Hall and Daniel Bradford are the masterminds behind Blacklist Studios, the upstart comic book company responsible for bad ass, monster bashing comics KING! and Robot 13. Robot 13 was debuting at this past week's MoCCA fest in NYC so I asked the guys to take a minute out of their busy schedules to answer some questions about their current projects, the future of Blacklist Studios, and the difficulties of making it in the comics industry. Enjoy!
Me: Hey guys. Welcome to Surfing the Bleed!
Me: First off, could you both just give the readers a little back-story on how you guys met and the projects you've worked on together?
Thomas: We met back in 2003. I saw a comic online that Daniel did, and just loved it. I wrote him an email and told him how much I liked it, and we struck up a friendship and decided to try working together. We both have done a few things apart since then, but basically we've been a team since 2003.
Daniel: What Tom said. We've worked on a wide variety of things together, from horror to the comical.
Me: Do you remember what your first comic book was? Can you remember how it affected you the first time you laid eyes on it?
Thomas: My first, first comic book was a copy of Werewolf By Night. Mom took it away from me because there was some stuff she didn't like. Dad let me buy it, but it didn't go over well. The first comic I was really obsessed with was a Hulk comic, though. I just stared at that thing endlessly. My father explained the whole mystery of word balloons to me from that book, and told me that people actually got paid to write comics, and doing that became my dream from that point I guess.
Daniel: I think it was a Superman book. It had something like giant green globby things with tentacles that invaded the planet and Superman had to fight them. I remember thinking, no matter how many times I read it, that Superman wasn't going to make it. No way. Not possible. And then he does it. I also remember how scared I was for the victims in the book. It just totally sucked me in.
Me: The two of you have formed your own publishing company, Blacklist Studios. Can you talk a bit about the decision to self-publish your work and the difficulties and benefits you've dealt with because of it?
Thomas: Well, everything is on us. We have to do all the creative stuff, arranging for the printer, picking up the books, doing publicity... we have help, mind you. Don't get me wrong- we have help. But everything is on us to make sure it happens. And we have to fund it. That's the reality of it- it's hard work all around. I guess the best part is getting our books out there into people's hands. People still want comics. Yes, the economy is bad, and people have less money. WE have less money too, which is why we try to keep the cover prices low... But we know that a good comic has a shot. Doing it ourselves means we don't have to wait for someone to "discover" us. We can make comics NOW.
Daniel: When Tom and I started working together in '03 or '04 we came up with the Blacklist thing just as a sort of identity. I don't even remember what it meant or why we went with it, but it sounded cool. Back then we were looking for a publisher to house our project so it wasn't like we planned on turning Blacklist into a publisher, it's just ending up that way. I'm not even comfortable calling ourselves a new publishing company...technically I guess that's what we are but we're really only publishing our own books. I hope someday we can start publishing other creator owned books, but that's too far down the road to consider. Right now there is a lot more pressure to put something out that is worth those precious few dollars that our readers are holding closer to their chests. And instead of focusing on promoting ourselves as a publisher (like I've seen in the past) we're focusing on promoting the books. The book is what's going to speak on our behalf as creators, not publishers. Be that good or bad.
Me: You guys both live in different cities so the collaboration takes place at a distance. Can you talk about the process of collaboration by distance and how the advent of technology has really opened up the creative process as a whole?
Thomas: Technology keeps it all rolling for us. Email is like an every day thing between us, especially when we have deadlines. And Daniel puts alot of the art on our server for me, so between what we email and stuff I can download, I can see everything he's working on. In the writing process it helps too. I grab a ton of stuff from online, and I order books from the library and find out all kinds of sick information that I use in our books. I have always loved doing research for projects, and the internet makes it SUCH a more efficient process.
Daniel: And it's not like we have a team of artists and editors that we have to maintain a network for or keep track of...everything visual in the book is on my shoulders. The pencils, the inks, the colors, the letters, the logo design, the book design, and especially the mistakes (something goes wrong my wife has to calm me down from the ledge). The only real essential technical need between Tom and I is making sure I get the scripts and he gets the mocks. Email is awesome at making that happen in seconds, as opposed to waiting days for a package in the mail.
Me: Could the two of you talk a bit about your other series, King? Growing up in Middle Tennessee and being a big rockabilly fan, I can tell you that two things I know a lot about are Elvis and wrestling. What was the inspiration for the book?
Thomas: Daniel can tell you about that more in terms of what the book is about, because he bugged me to do KING! for years. I wrote the story, and I brought in some extra elements to it, but so much of it was Daniel. I can say the reason it came about, was we were doing another book for Markosia that was delayed and we didn't know what was going to happen with it. We didn't want to sit around and do nothing, so we decided to do something totally unrelated- Daniel pulled out his designs for KING! and told me, "He's going to kill monsters." Elvis killing monsters. I was sold.
Daniel: Yeah, about him...ha. I've been wanting to do something about a massively ripped Elvis looking guy for the longest time...I think the idea had been floating in my head since middle school. The book is really as simple as it sounds...a former professional wrestler in the Southwest who now fights monsters for a living. He even has these huge blue suede colt .45s. The idea isn't even really about Elvis or his persona, rather it's about a guy who is so badass, so hardcore, so not in his own right mind that he submits to his own inflated ego, to what he is the king of: beating the snot out of anything that threatens his status in the food chain, be that a 7 foot luchador or a 9 foot, horse eating man-goat. He even abandons the name his mother gave him and simply calls himself King.
Me: Now onto the other book, Robot 13. This book is generating a ton of buzz around the net lately. I dare say you guys were one of the most anticipated parts of the MoCCA fest in New York. What's it been like getting this much positive press in advance of the book's release?
Thomas: Oh, it sucks... Seriously, it's a bit humbling to hear such nice things about a book you have worked so hard on. We are glad that people like it, and we hope each issue is that much better than the last.
Daniel: I've been feeling like I'm going to throw up non-stop. I've gotten emails from authors that I've read, artists that I've admired, fans... Honestly, I've been waiting for the other foot to fall but so far so good. I guess you can say I've been in constant flinch mode.
Me: Thomas, there seems to be a great deal of mythological influence on your work. You've spoken in other places about the influence of Mary Shelley and Ray Harryhausen on Robot 13. Can you talk for a moment about the importance of research and of other writers that you draw some inspiration from? Personally, I see a lot of Robert E. Howard wanting to come through here.
Thomas: Robert E Howard is fantastic! I hope that some day I can be a tenth as good as he was. I got stacks of his books at a library sale when I was in High School and just loved them. So anything that might of rubbed off, I take as a complement... As for research- I think the big mistake that writers sometimes make is they think they have done enough. In my experience, it's always good to have way more information on your subject than you'll ever need. Sure, alot of it never makes it to the page, but it gives you such a big box of crayons to color with. With Robot 13, I actually wrote an entire series of scripts that Daniel & I ended up scrapping. We scrapped the whole concept, in fact. All we kept was the title and the fact that I wanted him to fight giant monsters. But I had all my research, and some of it that never made those scripts is being used now. it's great when you find some odd fact and can use it in a story. Maybe 1 out of 100 people will find it or figure out where you got it from, but those little details will make it that much better.
Me: Daniel, similar question to you. Your work on this book is being favorably compared to Mignola. Were the Hellboy books a big influence on your style? What other artists can you point to over the years that have really had an impact on the way you wanted to draw comic books?
Daniel: All through college I studied graphic design and just lost interest in comic books all together but right after I graduated I found myself with a copy of Gotham by Gaslight and I got sucked right back in. I didn't even really know about any Hellboy at the time. But I wanted to know as much about Mignola as my wallet would allow and that led to an interest in many other artists such as Alex Maleev (particularly his earlier work on The Crow), Chris Bachalo, Sean Murphy...but ever since I picked up my first copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark when I as in 6th grade I developed a love for Stephen Gammell that no other artist has ever been able to rival. To me, Gammell is the ultimate horror artist. His art literally rots and goops on the page so beautifully. Can't really tell you how many copies of the Scary Stories series I've torn through, hung on my walls, and cuddled at night.
Me: You've employed a very DIY approach to marketing for Robot 13. Can you talk a bit about the different promotional items you were offering and about the process of generating publicity for your book?
Thomas: We have buttons that glow in the dark, Daniel is doing prints... We are doing some contests with our website too. We try to do things that fans like to draw some interest... alot of our promotion was just hard work, though. Us contacting every website and blog and podcast that we thought might enjoy the book. It's been just tons of contacting people. Leading up to MoCCA, I have been running on 4 hours of sleep a night. It's hard, but you need to put in the hard work to make things happen.
Daniel: I run on about 4 hours as well, but that's because I have 3 kids. Promotion is a terror for me and I try to leave as much of it to Tom as I can. I can't tell you how many people have asked me "what's your book about?" and I'm all "uhh...erm...duuhh...durrrr...
Me: Breaking into the comics industry is one of the more difficult things a writer or an artist can attempt to do. Can the two of you offer any advice to up and coming creators who are trying to break in?
Thomas: I would say the best thing is to do finished work. If you are writing, find an artist to work with and strive to complete something. And make that "something" a comic that stands alone. Do some 8 page stories, do some one shot books, do whatever you can where a reader can have a beginning, middle and end of the story you are telling. Don't look to do 300 issues or some mega-story. For an independent person, that's just crazy talk. And when you have done your story, get it out there and get feedback. Let people kick your ass a little bit, and tell you everything that's wrong with what you did at first. And they will-everybody sucks early on. It's part of growing. Once you have that feedback, start again. Improve your work by doing a lot of it, and as you get better you will get recognition if you have talent. And don't be a jerk, either. Make some friends who do comics. It's so helpful to have friends in this business. We would be nowhere if our friends didn't give us support and help and the occasional kick in the rump.
Daniel: Yeah. It's rough. The important thing, above talent, is completion. You've got to finish a book. I've met creators that have a list of completed books and even though their art was crap and their writing sucked they had completed books and that will garner far more respect in this industry than a talent that rivals Alex Ross. Talent and skill will grow with experience, so just get those books done.
Me: Finally, what can we expect from Blacklist Studios in the future? Do you have any plans to try and branch out and publish the work of other creators?
Thomas: More Robot 13. More KING!. We have plans for both series. We have some stand alone ideas too, but that is something we will use to fill in if we ever get a break. You can expect each story to be better in some way than the issues before. We love comics, so we want to give people something we'd buy if we were walking down the racks. Something worth the money that you can't wait for the next issue.
Daniel: There is a pretty heavy book called Enlightenment on the back burner right now. The first chapter of that book was drawn several years ago, then re-drawn along with three more chapters, and then it was shelved for the time being. We will be pulling that one back out to finish it hopefully next year. Aside from R13 and KING! we have a number of other titles (all Graphic Novels) that we have been talking about and will get to pretty soon. But first things first. As for other creators...man I would love to bring more creators onto Blacklist. We've already been receiving emails with sample art and it just breaks my heart that we can't work with them just yet. God willing in a couple of years we will be able to start accepting submissions, but just not yet.
Me: Well thanks a lot for doing this guys. It's been really great. Keep up the good work!
Daniel: Thank you.
You can find Thomas on Twitter here and Daniel here. Robot 13 is available for purchase now at the Blacklist Studios website so go grab a copy today! And don't forget to tell the guys how awesome you think it is once you're done.