Part One of an Interview with Thomas Hall and Daniel Bradford
Thomas Hall and Daniel Bradford are co-creators of a new comic series, Robot-13, about a robot with an identity problem and a penchant for tussling with giant mythological creatures. The first issue has just appeared and it looks beautiful. The Backbrain’s review/discussion of it can be read here.
Hall and Bradford have kindly agreed to talk to the Backbrain about their projects.
Undead Backbrain: First off, Thomas, I notice that the cover of the comic sports the title “R13” rather than “Robot 13”. So what should we call it?
Thomas Hall: It’s Robot 13. Daniel went through a few iterations of design for a logo, and the R13 with the skull was the most striking. It grabs you, I think, more than writing out “Robot 13” would. From a marketing standpoint, that is a little bit of a risk, I guess. That’s one of the beautiful things about doing everything yourself — if we like it, we can give it a try. We don’t have “Dave in Marketing” calling us up and telling us to spell the name out on the cover.
Daniel Bradford: I also wanted a title that can be used as a simple logo. I knew I didn’t “Robot 13” spelled out on t-shirts, stickers, and what have you. I wanted a title that can be easily recognized. Originally I designed a mark for the book a couple of years ago that Tom and I both loved. It was a simple round gear with the skull placed inside it. The skull had the 13 in the middle of it’s forehead and the word “Robot” was spelled out between the teeth of the gear. It was great. It was a logo that had the title spelled out within it in a very attractive way and we could easily drop the word “Robot” and just stick with the logo when we felt the book had gained strong enough of a following. Then my wife spotted an advert for “Gears of War”. [lol]
Not only was theirs so incredibly similar to ours but it was better! It was all dripping and stuff. We had to drop our logo and come up with something else. Fortunately I had already designed the current title and was using it as a secondary logo for pins, so I gave it a promotion.
UB: Sounds like a reasonable approach to me. I can’t imagine it being a problem. After all, no one had any problem with “AvP” or “T3”. The design-friendly brevity of it gives a sort of cult flavour to the series. Do you think Robot 13 has cult potential? Are there particular elements you see as giving it an unique appeal to its target audience?
TH: I think Robot 13 has a mix of elements in it that draw people in who want something different, sure. I think that’s what you mean — “cult” in the sense of something that people have a strong attachment to. The design of the robot, for one, is something that has been getting attention. People look at the retro look of it, like something from the 1800s, and they see the book fitting into the whole Steampunk movement of comics. And in a sense, they are right. In the speculative fiction sense, where there is a high level of technology in a somewhat archaic wrapper, Robot 13 has that element. But it’s not ordinary for that Genre, because of some of the other elements that we have brought to the table.
The Greek monsters, for example, are not something you would usually see in a steampunk book, but it’s another thing that appeals to that same sense of wonder. And there is something timeless about those creatures. Personally, I love giant monsters in film, and there is something about the mythological creatures that have even more appeal to me. Maybe it’s because we know that people really believed in them. Sailors really did think Poseidon might send a storm or that a Kraken might pull their ship into the deep. Everywhere there was supposed to be something that could eat you or crush you or lead you to your doom … It’s something that I know many people share — a love for those stories and especially the creatures in them.
Also, I think as the story unfolds, there will be elements which give Robot 13 some depth. I hope people have sympathy for the robot, and want to follow his story because of how his past is revealed and the self-reflective “person” I am trying to write him as. But if they just love the robots and giant monster fights, that will be cool as well.
DB: Y’know, it wasn’t until well after I began work on the book, after I designed the cover even, that I learned what this thing called “steampunk” was. So I honestly wasn’t targeting any steampunk fans to begin with. I don’t really know of any comics that deal with the old Greek myths today, so I wasn’t really looking to attract those current readers either. Everything right now seems to be about zombies. Don’t get me wrong, I love zombies, our next title, KING!, deals with a lot of zombies. But there is an amazing number of books out there where zombies seem to be the running theme yet I can’t recall the last book I saw where a robot had to take down an actual Phoenix, or wrestle a Kraken, or make-out with a Siren. The robot hero versus the Greek monster is what I wanted to draw and I’m just hoping that we’re able to snag a few readers along for the ride.
UB: You’re right about the uniqueness of human-sized robot vs giant mythological monster, Daniel. We’ve had giant robots fighting giant monsters in many Japanese films, but in Robot 13 we’re definitely looking at something different. So, tell me, how did you two guys get together? What previous work (if any) have you done as a team, and by the same token, what have each of you done apart from the other?
DB: About 5 or 6 years ago Tom saw a small online comic I did and sent me an email about it. He expressed an interest in working with me and I tossed him some ideas that were floating around in my head at the time. One of them fleshed pretty well with an idea that he had going for a bit so we settled on that one, a horror graphic novel called Enlightenment. [See page samples in image Gallery at the end of this article.] Currently that book is sitting on four completed chapters and will be finished at some point. We also self-published a book called KING! back in 2006 at only 250 copies. Once we sold out we decided to go forward with an actual series which will be launched either in August or September. We have discussed plans for a couple of other graphic novels we hope to start in 2010. I’ve also done colors and letters for a book called Mecha Manga Bible Heroes, which Tom co-wrote and published by JMG Studios.
Aside from working with Tom I have worked on two online comics called “Gustav Hayes” and “Bat and Wolf” for Zeroes 2 Heroes, a publisher based in Canada. Those two books and many others are totally free to read on their website. I also worked on two issues in a series called Smoke and Mirror (my first professional gig) written by Chuck Satterlee and published by Markosia.
TH: Like Daniel said — we met through a comic he had done online. I saw it and just went crazy about his work, so I wanted to work with him. It turned out that he was free to do a project, and I think he even approached a couple of people to write for him but nothing panned out. So I was fortunate being in the right place at the right time. Daniel sent me an email with a list of ideas he had in various stages of being thought out. I had my own list, and one of his items meshed with mine to the point where I saw we could have a real 50/50 mix of everything and come up with something cool. That was a story called Enlightenment: The Devil You Know, and it was about a young female homicide detective who can see the spiritual world, and who is searching for a serial killer that is possessed by a legion of demons. Kind of Seven meets The Exorcist, I guess. That’s a book that we had to shelve for the time being, but I really want to see it out there some day.
When Enlightenment got put on hold, we had a comic convention that we were already booked for and we needed something to promote, so we came up with KING!, which is the story of a former Mexican wrestler who lives 24/7 as his old in-the-ring persona. He’s basically a buff looking version of 1977-era Elvis in terms of his look, and he makes his money killing monsters for people. We did a one shot, where he’s contacted by an extra-dimensional creature who is basically a sentient human heart with mechanical appendages who asks him to rescue the Spear of Destiny from Mayan zombies and their god of death at the local Blubber Tubber Burger. It was basically us being surreal and trying to have some fun and really use the comics medium to do something that was completely over the edge. Somewhat of a darker humor, but still something to have fun with. After spending years doing Enlightenment and having little to show for it, we wanted something that was 180 degrees from that. People at the show just loved it. As Daniel said, we are bringing KING! back for a mini series pretty soon.
As for things I have done away from Daniel — I have always been into comics because I had made good friends doing it. I started out doing mini-comics with my brother, and then a friend from college asked me to get involved with his anthology comic called Cross Press. I did something that was to be in issue 2, which never came out, but it got me thinking about doing comics a little more seriously. Some of the same group of guys started another book, this time as a very low-budget, low-tech photocopied zine called Megazeen. I got involved with that — I did an ongoing thing called The Life of Fred, which I wrote and did the art for. I also did some online comics for them, and I was behind the scenes alot. Being on the production and promotional side of something like Megazeen was big for me; I got to do everything from physically copying and assembling books to sending out promo copies to contacting websites about the book. Not that I did it all myself, but working with other people made it all fun. I met a ton of people that I am still friends with to this day, and I learned a lot of the stuff that has helped Daniel and I self-publish Robot 13. I also wrote a ton of scripts for people over the years — all kinds of things. The last thing I wrote for an artist other than Daniel was Mecha Manga Bible Heroes, which was a futuristic re-telling of the life of David. That was fun — we had a 100-foot-tall Mecha Goliath versus David with a rock. But I have tried to do as many different things in terms of writing comics as I can. Hopefully it has made me better as a writer. Time will tell, I guess.
UB: So why (and when) did you guys decide to set up your own company, Blacklist Studios? What are the positives and negatives of that decision, do you think? In small-press book publishing I know one of the biggest issues is distribution. Does that apply in the comic industry as well?
TH: Insanity? That could be it … Aside from that, we figured we had to take some action to get things going for us. We knew that we were doing good work — over the years, we have made a nice bunch of friends who are in the Comics industry, and we have put some things out to gauge fan reaction, and on all fronts, the feedback was positive. We have had interest from publishers, but most of that was people trying to take our rights for movies and such. One offered us a contract where we basically gave them not only the rights for film, but they could even fire us from our own projects. And this was an established company, and they had people who took that very same deal … Another basically told us they didn’t care how the book did as long as the rights could be bought by someone in Hollywood. It’s just mind blowing to us that anyone would think that way, and we didn’t want to fail at this … And to be fair, some publishers passed on us too, which is fine. But we were finding that without a following, we couldn’t get a deal, and without a deal, we couldn’t get a following. We actually signed a contract with Markosia, a UK publisher, for Enlightenment, but that book hasn’t seen the light of day. That’s not all their fault either — it’s a complicated thing. But we could write a book telling about everything we went through.
But all in all, we decided that we had to do something, so we took it upon ourselves to self-publish and to keep our costs low and not overprint and those sorts of things that a good business plan will say you should do. My feeling is, if the work is good enough, then you can find your audience. We are putting all our eggs in that basket — doing the best work we are capable of and trying to improve with every outing.
As for distribution — it is difficult, but there are ways to get books out there to people. Being small, we don’t have the resources that a large company does, but we also aren’t printing 100,000 books either.
DB: There is no way in hell that we would have been able to do this alone, either. We have a Godsend that has been a great help in getting the books in the right hands. He’s actually recently become our third partner in this venture and a critical one at that. He’s practically guided our careers single-handedly and has saved our butts when it came to reading all the legal mumbo jumbo known as a contract. He’s awesome. We’re gonna make t-shirts with his face on them.
UB: Can you name this Godsend? I personally think it’s very important to have an expert critical eye (one that doesn’t belong to the creator) to act as an objective assessor in self-publishing projects — or mainstream professional ones, for that matter. I’ve always greatly valued my editors — or at least the good ones — in terms of my own writing.
DB: Paul Castiglia. The man has been in the comic business for 20 years working behind the scenes as an editor, writer, and in marketing. He’s the kind of guy that always surprises us with the amount of tricks he’s got hidden up his sleeve. Paul has been a believer in our current and future projects and has literally worked for us pro bono. He’s officially become a member of team Blacklist but for the past four years or so the guy has been helping us out on his free time.
TH: Paul has been a great friend, and he’s very generous. Actors use that term — a “generous” actor — meaning that it’s someone who gives you whatever you need within the moment to do your best work. Paul is like that. If I need advice or if I have some kind of story problem or when there is some experience doing comics that I lack, I know I can come to him. Paul has an amazing editorial mind, and I always learn when we talk and finds a way to show me the options. I never feel he is trying to make something into the way it would be if he wrote it himself. He’s bringing out the elements that work. Some people edit like they wish they could write everything themselves. Paul does it out of the right motives, and Daniel and I are very loyal to that. I guess Blacklist has kind of become a gang in a sense. We have each other’s back, and once you are in, you are in.
UB: It seems to me that there is a growing movement among artists and creators of taking personal control of their work right through from conception to product. In fiction, music, art … the independents are doing some of the best work. Even in Hollywood and on TV much of the most interesting, most successful and innovative filmmaking is creator-driven, bypassing the corporate gatekeepers who have had a tendency to drain movies of any genuine artistic interest by basing their artistic decisions on “safe” market assumptions. At the very least, leaving the artistic input to the artists seems like a good idea. The rise of the internet — the internationalisation and relatively cheap “publishing” methods that it allows — has opened a range of new markets and new economic models for artists of all kinds. Do you see Blacklist as part of their tendency?
TH: I think it’s safe to say we are. I love collaboration, but at a certain point someone has to have vision. Someone has to put their foot down and say “this is how it should be.” Daniel and I have sort of a mantra — I can write whatever I want and he can draw whatever he wants. That’s not to say that we don’t add to each other or interject or make suggestions, but at the end of the day, I trust Daniel 100% to do what is right by the Art and he trusts me the same with the Writing. I know that if it’s crap, Daniel isn’t going to let it see the light of day, and I wouldn’t do that to him either. It’s freeing in a sense to have that level of respect, but there is also pressure to perform at a high level. I don’t want to let Daniel down- if he gives me some killer pages, I want to kill right back and give him something that takes it to another level yet. I think that is the reason that this type of independent movement works. A committee can’t do that. A bunch of suits in a room with clipboards can’t do that. Creativity needs to come from a definite point of view to be any good.
DB: Man, I hope so. You’re right when you mention this movement. And it should be creator-driven in much of the project, but often times it really does take a village. There are creators like Sam Hiti, Doug TenNapel, Mike Mignola, Ben Templesmith, creators that are able to take charge of their creation from start to finish in the comic industry. It’s very difficult for me to do that. I come up with an idea, I approach Tom, and we go forward if it works. If not, we let it die on the side of the road. There are other projects I would love to do but I know I would need a village. And funds. Hopefully Blacklist will grow to become that village.
Del Toro made the right decision to keep Mignola involved when doing a Hellboy movie. I can’t imagine a Wormwood film without Templesmith’s heavy involvement. The creator’s involvement should never stop at the back cover. It should be carried over to the moving picture box, the stage (though I don’t know if Stan Lee is involved in the Spiderman musical or not), and anywhere else off the comic rack the creator is willing to take. Sometimes that’s not always the case. Fortunately, though, it seems to be a growing reality.
- Next up: Dan’s artistic influences, Tom and the art of storytelling in comics, the monsters of Robot 13 — all in Part Two of “Creating Robot 13”