Brandon Easton building a Better Comic Book Industry for the 21st Century

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Credits: Brandon Easton

Credits: Brandon Easton

Brandon Easton building a Better Comic Book Industry for the 21st Century

With a persistent vision, a gift for crafting tales that spark the farthest reaches of readers imaginations and a love of the comic industry that burns with a fierceness that allows him to speak truth to his peers and fans alike, Brandon Easton represents a growing new wave of comic industry talent poised to truly bring the industry into the 21st century. Winner of the 2013 Glyph award for best writer (due in part to his phenomenal work on the graphic novel Shadowlaw), Brandon is a creator much in demand with little time to slow down when racing towards such a bright future. Nevertheless, his immense talent is matched by his generosity of spirit and wanting to enlighten industry newcomers on knowing their craft and most importantly, knowing the business. Mr. Easton took time out of a very busy schedule to share some thoughts on Mechs vs. Kaiju, how fans can influence true diversity in an industry that is sometimes slow to adopt change, and lessons that comic creators can take from the 2013 summer movie season.

MT: As a writer, does medium matter to you or is there a specific reason for your strong affiliation with comics? How did you get into comics?

BE: The story is what matters most but the medium dictates the structure of the script and the narrative flow. Comics stories are usually arranged within the twenty-two to forty-eight to ninety-six page script format and that is considerably different than writing the one-hour TV drama or feature-length motion picture screenplay. Modern television is written with five or six act breaks to allow for more commercial time and that’s not something you need to be concerned with when building graphic novel or radio drama or webseries scripts.

The manner in which you capture and maintain an audience’s interest in the story changes depending on the medium. I’ve always believed you get a very short window before the readers and/or viewers decide to abandon your work for some other entertainment option. In a novel you get the first page, in a comic book, you get the first five pages, in television and film you get about five minutes to grab the audience before they mentally and emotionally check out of the experience. Learning to grab people at the beginning of your story is an extremely challenging skill but masters like Stephen King, Walter Mosely, Richard Wright, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson and a few others have this down to a science.

I broke into the industry back in 2002 on a series called ARKANIUM from Dreamwave Productions. That happened through a lot of hustling, networking, hard work and serendipity. The guys on the art team – LeSean Thomas and Chris Walker – put in a good word for me in the last minute and that put my pitch over the top. It was the beginning of my “official” career but there was five years of trial and error behind the scenes that taught me valuable lessons about collaboration and mutual respect with other creators.

MT: What genres do you find yourself most drawn to? Which would you most like to explore?

BE: I love science-fiction. Period. I do enjoy political thrillers, historical epics and some horror, but my soul is deeply tied to an appreciation of science-fiction. Not to get too personal, but when I was younger, my family had some incredible difficulties and one of the ways I was able to deal with the disruption in my life was through my love of science-fiction novels, comics and movies. I was able to escape to a world where the issues in my life had no weight.

Beyond that, my imagination was inspired more by science-fiction than anything else. I watched all kinds of movies and TV shows in the 1980s during my adolescence and I love the classic comedies, dramas and romantic stories – but none of them had a greater impact on my development as a person than sci-fi. There’s still a part of me that can approach new material with a youthful exuberance and a kind of innocence free of the cynicism that plagues the geek community in the 21st century.

The one thing I wish to explore now is creating a prose novel. I’ve written comics, TV scripts, movie screenplays and animation, but I would love to develop the right idea and the discipline to start and finish a novel in the next year. Preferably sci-fi space opera, but I do have a hell of a horror novel in me.

MT: You, Brandon Thomas, and Joseph Illidge are among some of the most high profile and vocal advocates for diversity both on the page and behind the scenes. Do you feel the discourse and dialog that you have encouraged has had any effect? Have other “well known” industry names reached out and actually discussed what can be done to expand the scope and influence of titles that reflect these tenets. What can fans do to help encourage a more inclusive culture in our favorite reading materials?

BE: I’m not sure if the discourse has had any effect because the numbers of Black writers at the Big Two (Marvel/DC) has not increased one bit. Lord knows we’ve been talking about this subject for years, and before us, Dwayne McDuffie, Christopher Priest, Michael Davis, Reginald Hudlin and a bunch of other folks had been discussing this subject for years, and I’m certain before them there were Black creators, other people of color and women of all backgrounds discussing these issues for years.

One of my friends said that the “American comic book industry is like the Deep South of pop culture.” Meaning that it holds on tight to old, conservative traditions and actively resists the inevitable social change that comes from the passage of time; all societies experience a social-political metamorphosis as newer generations learn how to accept a more progressive, inclusive reality. A lot of this has to do with a very, very tiny but extremely vocal racist, fanboy, geek community that prefers a comic book industry frozen in amber from 1955. I know of some really cool editors at Marvel and DC who realize what the problems are but are somewhat beholden to the whims of that vocal minority of regressive geeks.

The other issue – and I’ve spoken of this repeatedly on a variety of online forums – is the phenomenon I call “Black Geek Stockholm Syndrome” (BGGS). You have another vocal group of geeks who are Black that won’t stop begging Marvel and DC to create comics based on Black characters and/or deals with Black/African subject matter. It hasn’t really happened and it won’t happen on the level these geeks want. What is particularly frustrating is that these same Black geeks refuse to support independent Black comic book creators who are ALREADY telling meaningful and fun stories with Black characters using elements of African/African-American culture.

They have a Stockholm-like obsession with the Big Two and won’t go outside of that tent to explore other options. Whenever you attempt to expose them to indie Black creators, they immediately adopt a negative attitude and wind up defending Marvel and DC’s lack of diversity. They assume all independent Black-created comics are inherently inferior to anything mainstream and therefore create a self-fulfilling prophecy of market conditions. They won’t support the books; the creators don’t get the attention and then don’t get hired by Marvel or DC. These geeks complain again. Rinse, cycle, repeat.

The fanbase has all the power in this industry. If they say what they want and then don’t buy any mainstream titles until they get their demands met you would see one hell of a shift in the business. As long as folks continue to accept the nonsense, things won’t change and quality won’t improve.

With all that said, I want to vehemently stress that I am not suggesting a person has to buy Black-created indie comics just because they’re Black. That’s a common counter-argument from the BGSS crowd. I personally believe people should buy the titles they enjoy from the creators they respect and admire. Hell, I still buy Marvel and DC books but my consumer awareness is much greater than just the Big Two. I’m also keenly aware of what I’m purchasing whenever I decide to spend money on a mainstream superhero comic book series. I don’t go into a Green Lantern or an Avengers book with the expectation it will reflect the cultural depth and sensibility of Alex Haley’s Roots. If I want to watch a science-fiction film, I won’t go see a movie adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel.

There are some Black geeks that want their cultural experience validated by White-centered superhero power fantasies. That’s like going to Korean BBQ and ordering a burrito. It doesn’t compute.

MT: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges faced by writers hoping to enter the scene in today’s market? What advice would you give to anyone who is coming into the industry purely as a writer to get started?

BE: There are many… I’d say the core challenge is to find a creative team that will finish what they start. If you’re an independent writer without significant start-up capital you have to find ways to entice an art team to stick with your book through the long haul. Obviously, the solution to most problems in the creative process is money. If you pay artists a decent page-rate, that usually gets them to finish the project. Many of us don’t have the money and need to offer an artist partial ownership of the IP. However, partial ownership of an IP does not pay the bills in the short-term and this quickly leads to frustration that then leads to a lack of enthusiasm. From that point, things usually fall apart quickly.

All writers need to find ways to accumulate a production budget. This budget goes beyond the penciler and inker – there’s also the letterer and colorist (if you decide to do the book in color) as well as the cost of printing the book for distribution. A creator also has the option of releasing their work as a digital comic but I’d always suggest having a physical copy of the book for the sake of reviews, networking with other professionals, convention sales and mail orders.

Writers need to see themselves as a small business. I’ve met many aspiring writers that feel that once their book is done, their job is done, and somehow an audience will magically appear to support them. A writer in the 21st century has to learn the importance of social networking and interpersonal business communication. It means learning the art of the deal and compromise. It means carrying oneself as a business professional; learning how to shake hands firmly, make eye contact and not geeking out when you meet a creator or celebrity you’ve admired for years. The old adage about first impressions is 100% true in this industry and you don’t want to be branded with the label of being a wackjob when you’re just getting started. That reputation can easily destroy your career without you being aware of what’s happening.

The life of a writer is mainly a solitary one. Writers usually spend large amounts of time alone, spinning worlds and ideas in their heads constantly without input from others. The end result is social anxiety and awkwardness around strangers and/or large groups. Many would be surprised to know that I’m not a big fan of going to large events where I won’t know anyone. It takes a huge personal investment of confidence and self-determination for me to get over my own issues with social anxiety in order to do business and connect with other professionals. I actually like making new friends, but that’s not easy when you’re accustomed to spending 75% of your time hunched over a keyboard writing scripts or doing research for a story.

It should go without saying that any serious writer interested in building a career needs to have a finished product to show (either a 22-page comic fully lettered and colored, or a finished 96-page graphic novel), business cards, good hygiene and a lack of expectation from your peer group. No one is required to do anything for you. If you make a connection with someone and they agree to share information, treat them as you would expect to be treated in a business situation. Send emails, follow up and be respectful. If you don’t hear from them again, don’t take it personal, they probably have a life and are busy as hell. I know a lot of really cool folks in the business and I only get to see them once every four or five months and it’s not because they don’t like me, it’s because they have spouses, children, deadlines, vacations, car payments, mortgages, etc.

Things eventually come together if you stay the course. I know it sounds cliché, but the career of the writer is extremely unpredictable except for the fact that it takes a while to get established. The average time between the start of your career and gaining significant market visibility is between five to ten years. If you can’t handle that, then walk away, because it does not happen overnight.

MT: As the winner of the 2013 Glyph Award for best writer, this elevates the game to another level for you? What does this mean to you both personally and professionally?

BE: There’s nothing on Earth like being recognized by your peers, in this case, other Black independent comic book creators. The funny thing is that I attended the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (http://ecbacc.com/wordpress3/) a few times before I moved to Los Angeles, years before I had anything substantial to show for my career. Even then it was an incredibly supportive environment with massively talented people in attendance. To win an award from the very people who helped to inspire me to follow through on my dreams is an indescribable feeling.

That Glyph Award was also the first award I’ve won so far in my writing career and it will forever hold a special place in my heart. No matter what I achieve later in life, that recognition will stick with me until my dying day. All writers want to be noticed for their hard work and sacrifice because – as I’ve said before – the life of a writer can be an intensely lonely experience. When you get an award like the Glyph, it reminds you that you’re not alone in the world and a lot of people are paying attention.

I wholeheartedly support their mission and sense of communal responsibility. My only regret is that I am not able to attend as much as I would like because of my work schedule and the huge distance between L.A. and Philadelphia.

MT: Do you think the idea of an “Image Comics” style company embracing the tenets of diversity in a shared company universe could work in today’s climate? What and who would it take to pull something like this off?

BE: Absolutely. There’s a massive population of comic book readers out there who have grown weary of adolescent power fantasies and want new concepts from diverse creators. By “diverse” I don’t just mean Black – I mean Black, Latino, Asian, Native, gay, lesbian, transgendered and working class people from all ethnic backgrounds. The one story we rarely get in comics is that of poor, rural Whites. That experience is closely tied to the African-American struggle because of the legacy of our antebellum past and yet, that narrative is missing from the national conversation.

The issues are money and marketing. If we got an influx of cash and the right creators in the mix, there’s no reason why an ethnically-diverse comics collective in the style of Image Comics couldn’t flourish. Again, we need start-up capital. If we had the infrastructure in place and had the money to properly promote the formation of the collective, a lot of folks would take notice and we would be much more than a blip on the radar.

I coined another phrase this year called “The $100,000 Solution.” I believe if every indie creator of color had access to one-hundred-thousand dollars, they could take one-half of that to hire the best artists available to produce one or two ninety-six page graphic novels and use the remaining half for wide-scale marketing and promotion across the board. High-quality artwork from a well-known illustrator coupled with increased market awareness of a new intellectual property is usually a recipe for success. Finding investors and raising money on our own is the ultimate challenge.

I have a very short list of creators I’d like to work with in terms of starting a company. Without revealing too much, I will say that there’s been intense discussion of building a company made up of diverse creators for the sake of correcting the enormous imbalance that exists. That’s as much as I can say for now.

MT: What current projects are you working on? Where can fans find you and your work?

BE: I’m working on quite a few projects right now. First, I’m doing some awesome projects for Lion Forge Comics (http://lionforge.com/) like the all-ages series ROBOY (http://lionforge.com/title/roboy) which is a throwback to the classic CapCom video games, especially the Mega Man stuff. Then there’s the techno-thriller THE JOSHUA RUN (http://lionforge.com/title/joshua-run), created by actor/comedian Flex Alexander (http://www.flexiam.com/) about a computer hacker who stumbles upon a secret database and uncovers a plot within the U.S. defense establishment to trigger World War III. I loved writing that one because Flex and I have similar views about the military-industrial complex and the story is very prophetic if you follow global politics.

The Joshua Run is very unique as it has a “video log” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-_iX39H46M) that fans can watch alongside the action of the comic book series. It provides a much deeper perspective of events and David Joshua’s character motivations. Flex himself stars in these excellent little video clips.

There are other projects with Lion Forge on the way like an Andre the Giant graphic novel biography that I’ve been working on for several months and some really amazing new series that I can’t talk about right now.

Another great gig I had was working with STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE star Anthony Montgomery (http://www.anthonymontgomery.com/creative.html) and co-scripting his original graphic novel Miles Away (http://www.antarctic-press.com/html/version_01/viewgallery.php?id=1122). I met Anthony at Comic Con 2011 and we built a great friendship from there. He was in the process of putting together the story of a teen superhero caught up between his personal life and an impending alien invasion of Earth. I loved what he came up with and he brought me on to further develop the graphic novel script and the final result has been amazing.

There’s an awesome new company on the international scene called Mecha Workshop (http://www.mechaworkshop.com/armarauders/minisite/) and they’ve developed a toy line and comic book series called Armarauders (https://www.facebook.com/Armarauders) that is ridiculously awesome. Imagine if PACIFIC RIM took place on an alien world filled with hostile life forms? That’s Armarauders! If you’re a fan of Gundam, Macross or any intense mecha-based series, you will adore Armarauders. The artwork is by Don Figueroa who used to do the TRANSFORMERS titles for Dreamwave Productions as well as IDW Comics. As a life-long fan of mecha and giant robot series, working on something like this is a match made in heaven. Mecha Workshop CEO Valent Wang has been impressed with my enthusiasm for the project and has slowly realized that I’m probably one of the biggest fans of the concept and it’s just icing on the cake to be the new writer!

Last – but certainly not least – is the new indie smash comic WATSON &HOLMES from New Paradigm Studios (http://www.newparadigmstudios.com/about/watson-and-holmes/). This title is a re-imagining of the Sherlock Holmes mythology set in modern Harlem, NY with an African-American cast. Watson & Holmes is unprecedented and has a fantastic creative crew behind the scenes with Karl Bollers, Brandon Perlow, Justin Gabrie, Rick Leonardi, N. Steven Harris and even Walt Simonson doing some variant covers. I was contacted by New Paradigm last year and invited to pitch an idea for a future issue and when I delivered my concept, they loved it. I came up with a story that is tied to dark situations regarding human trafficking. I believe my issue is #6 and will be released in either December 2013 or January 2014.

MT: Any favorite reads right now? Anyone you feel that fans should be keeping any eye out for?

BE: Sadly, I’m about 20 weeks behind on my comics selections. I live in Los Angeles, CA and haven’t found a retailer I like. Too many of them are unfriendly to new customers and I refuse to spend money at comic book stores that remain stuck in the cliquey “clubhouse” atmosphere of 10-year-olds. Unfortunately I have to wait until I return to NYC to pick up my books.

I do enjoy the newer IDW Transformers books and DARK HORSE PRESENTS. I like MOLLY DANGER from Jamal Igle, PRODIGAL from Geoffrey Thorne and Todd Harris, LUTHER STRODE by Justin Jordan and a few other indie titles on the market.

From Marvel I’m really enjoying ALL-NEW X-MEN, SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN, DEADPOOL and the all-female X-men book headlined by Storm, Rogue and Psylocke.

The DC books I read are the SUPERMAN titles, BATWING, JLA and a few GREEN LANTERN stories here and there.

MT: Having, on occasion, listened to the podcast hosted by both you and Brandon Thomas, it seems that you both feel we are coming out of a summer of disappointing movies. What lessons can the comic industry learn about the practice of spectacle over storytelling from Hollywood’s 2013 summer experience? What lessons can comic book creators take from this?

BE: Man, this has been the “Summer of Meh!” I was so excited for the summer movies of 2013 and about 95% totally let me down. With the exception of PACIFIC RIM and OBLIVION (which wasn’t even a summer movie) I was underwhelmed by all the “big” movies. I’ve grown beyond the desire to “turn off” my brain in order to enjoy tentpole movies. Special effects should not replace complexity of character, emotional growth or basic storytelling logic.

I feel that the comic book industry went through their “meh” period back when the mainstream companies went overboard with the variant covers, splashy but nonsensical artwork and complete reliance upon speculators. Although some folks don’t like the NEW 52 from DC or the MARVEL NOW! realignment, it doesn’t seem as ridiculous as the mid-1990s in terms of horrible content.

The lesson creators can take from this is to concentrate on creating characters that have an accessible emotional core. There’s nothing greater than watching a flawed protagonist go through the Hero’s Journey in an exciting new adventure. While there aren’t any new ideas under the sun, there are certainly new ways to execute unique concepts in order to thrill the audience. All the flashy art in the world can’t replace a great story with characters that grow while overcoming insane obstacles.

MT: Could you share a bit about your recent involvement with AnimeKon Expo in Barbados? What does this experience tell you about your work and its international reach?

BE: I was contacted several months ago by AnimeKon Expo (http://animekonexpo.com/) co-organizer Omar Kennedy about me being a guest. You have to understand that I get a lot of emails from people inviting me to do conventions and sometimes those folks are absolute loons. So when I get an email from someone saying that they will fly me to another country – all expenses paid – to be a part of a convention, I had a very hard time believing it was true. To my surprise, not only was this true, but Omar and his organizing partner Melissa Young were two of the most amazing people I’ve met in recent years.

On a personal level, going to Barbados was something I needed to do not only because I’d never been to the Caribbean, but on a deeper level I wanted to be in a place where I was not a minority. Being in a predominantly Black country is an amazing feeling, especially when you’ve grown up in the U.S. where the perception of Black people is horrible. I never felt like I was “out of place” or I was making someone uncomfortable with my presence. Being a six-foot-two Black male in modern America is constantly watching people’s body language reveal fear and loathing. Not once did I have that experience in Barbados. It reminds me of what Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor have said about going to Black countries overseas – you just want to be seen as a person and not a symbol of your ethnicity.

One of the many things I took from the trip was that there is a passionate and hungry audience for pop culture in the Caribbean. Not only that, but there is an audience for Black-created material that reflects the immense cultural diversity of the African Diaspora. I hope to work with Omar and Melissa in creating a two-way bridge between aspiring creators in Barbados and established talent in the U.S.

I learned the U.S. Embassy in Barbados is interested in fostering talent there while building a cultural exchange between our nations. This is an amazing opportunity to create an international community of cooperation and mentorship and I will do everything I can to make sure this continues to happen.

MT: Kaiju or Mechs?

BE: Mechs. Nuff said.

Thank you Mr. Easton… and fans, do your part to help create the new face for the comic book industry of the 21st century by making your voices heard through your actions.

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