You are not on drugs watching a Ray Harryhausen creature film; you are staring at your computer screen, looking at writer Damon Gentry and artist Aaron Conley’s “Sabertooth Swordsman,” a digital-first six-issue mini comic available weekly for a mere 99 cents. To the point, you’re looking at a comic about a weakling who’s been turned him into a fez-wearing feline that’ll slice, dice, and manhandle any monster you throw his way.
This brand of bizarre has found a home at
A book like this is a hell of a gamble, but it’s a fun one, and it’s clear as day that Gentry and Conley have effusively built a grotesque, charming world that is scarily approachable. The duo behind the creatures and the mayhem spoke with CBR about what makes them and their fanged swordfighter tick.
CBR News: Let’s just get right into the insanity of “Sabertooth Swordsman.” Where did it come from?
Aaron Conley: I think Damon and I just grew up loving the same kinds of movies and comics. Most of those were insane, so I think a lot of that just poured out into “Sabertooth.” Neither one of us has ever been big superhero guys and I think that helped in trying to create something a little different as well.
Damon Gentry: The original kernel came from a dream Aaron had that inspired him to draw the Sabertooth Swordsman and the Cloud God. Then I came in and we started gradually workshopping more ideas into it. We kept the story simple, so we didn’t bite off more than we could chew for our debut book, having never done one before, but inside that simple story we shoehorned every fat pound of fun we were capable of.
In reading the comic, it’s abundantly clear that you guys are on the same page; you both share the same sense of humor, the same eccentricities — how long have you known each other, and what are your collaborations like?
Gentry: We went to high school together and kept in touch on and off over the years, until about 6 or 7 years ago when we decided to forge an alliance and fully commit to breaking into comics. The collaboration involves a lot of back and forth and throwing ideas around and keeping what makes us laugh or gives us an action-boner. There was constant revision up to the last minute, Aaron is always improving the layouts and art and asking for tweaks on my gray tones, and I rewrote most of the dialogue that was in the original script, because a year later I already hated all of it. We’re always pushing ourselves to make the best book possible, and I think it is the best book we could make given our levels of experience at that time in our lives. Which is to say we made plenty of mistakes, and look forward to bigger and better books ahead — fingers crossed, don’t jinx me.
The story has some obvious video game homage sprinkled throughout, but what else am I missing? What other bits of influence make up “Sabertooth Swordsman?”
Conley: While drawing the book, I just kept thinking how great Sabertooth would be if it was made into a movie by Ray Harryhausen, so that was a big influence for me. That, and just trying to gross people out. I hope we are the first people to ever have a sabertooth tiger man vomiting in print!
Gentry: The sparse dialogue (the better to show off Aaron’s art) and hero without a name I borrowed from spaghetti westerns. I wanted an offbeat tone like a lot of the nutball ’80s movies that blew my mind as a kid, like “Night of the Comet” or “The Stuff,” and the pulp cool of the ’90s Dark Horse Legends line. There’s lots more, but I think those and video games are my prominent influences.
The earliest incarnation of “Sabertooth Swordsman” I was able to find was on your site, InvadeMyPrivacy, dating back to 2009. It’s definitely a passion project, so how does such an incredibly strange comic go from that to being published at Dark Horse?
Gentry: Our first published comic work was a two-page strip called “The Horror Robber” that ran on Myspace Dark Horse Presents in 2010, which our benevolent editor Brendan had offered us after seeing a cold turkey submission we sent to Dark Horse through the snail mail. Once we had Brendan’s ear, we started working on a “Sabertooth” pitch with him. After a long, slow turning of the gears, we miraculously got a book deal, and then spent over a year and a half bleeding, drinking, working day jobs, yelling, crying and making “Sabertooth Swordsman.”
Aaron, your panel layout calls to mind J.H. Williams III’s boundary-pushing style, while your art is in the vein of Geof Darrow, Rafael GrampÃ¡ and James Stokoe. It’s visceral, it’s nasty, and I can’t take my eyes off it. What’s your background and who are your influences?
Conley: Damon and I went to an arts high school, and that’s pretty much the only kind of formal training I received. I was telling someone the other day that my biggest inspiration are those close-up paintings from “Ren & Stimpy.” They would do these super-realistic paintings of a crazy cartoon head or mouth. If you look at the Spumco comics John K. did for Dark Horse, they did basically the same thing with pen and ink. That is something I’m always trying to achieve in my own work. Now that my work is getting out there, I have heard the comparison to those three a lot. I couldn’t be compared to more talented dudes, but I think that all four of us are pulling a lot from Moebius, who was also huge influence for this book.
And what about your background, Damon?
Gentry: Well, I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I can pick up anything if I set my mind to it, but I get creatively restless and never really commit to being great at any one thing. I started life as an artist, but I’ve since made short, tasteless comedy films, written and recorded albums, and with my collaborations with Aaron, focused on learning to be a writer, letterer, business manager, cheerleader, whatever gaps needed filling in to keep the ship afloat. I constantly seek new, diverse challenges, and I think the crucial thing is that I slather my unique personality on everything I do. I hope that’s the correct answer.
The book has certainly earned a cult following, with people posting about it on industry blogs and social media and pros like Brandon Graham supporting it. What’s it like to have a passion project be so well received?
Conley: It’s really amazing! Brandon has been so supportive and mentioned us several times in interviews, which blows my mind. Not just his comics, but his comic views are so fantastic, he is truly my comics idol.
Gentry: Having our own idols acknowledge us definitely makes all the hard work and self-flagellation extra worth it. Really great industry folks have been very kind to a couple of nobodies in support of our book. Mike & Laura Allred have been exceedingly wonderful, as well as Jamie S. Rich, Ross Campbell, Johnny Ryan, Jim Gibbons, Simon Roy and more.
What do you both think of the digital format your story’s presented in? Will it work better in print, when it comes out in hardcover in the fall?
Conley: It’s hard to say. I don’t personally own an iPad, but a lot of my friends who do have been telling me the book looks fantastic on it, and phones are just too small to be reading comics on, man. I personally love holding comics and reading them, and I drew the book to be looked at that way, so in the end, the hardcover is what I am most excited for.
Gentry: I think digital is still finding its footing, but the potential of the format is exciting. Aaron played with panel borders in a way that makes SS more suitable for print, but we intentionally priced the digital-first releases at an endorphin-releasing 99 cents per issue, with exclusive color covers, so for 6 bucks you can get the whole book digital, assuming you haven’t pirated it already, yarrr. The print hardcover will have exclusive, badass pinups and few other extras!
Are there plans to continue the series, or is there another property you two are working on, together or separately?
Conley: We have an 8-page short that is going to be in the September issue of “Dark Horse Presents” which will actually be the first time we see “Sabertooth” in print. As far as doing more with Sabertooth, I think that will all depend on how well the hardcover is received, I could draw SS for the rest of my life and be completely happy, and I think the short will show that we could really take the character in all kinds of different directions.
Gentry: We’ve got some opportunities, but no solid plans at this exact moment. I am simply dedicated to doing as much new, fresh, original crap as I possibly can before I shuffle off this stupid, incredibly dumb mortal coil. I have an unbearable compulsion to make bizarro fun things, and it’s a horrible curse.
“Sabertooth Swordsman” is available now via Dark Horse Digital.