It took more than three years for writer Brian Winkeler and artist Robert Wilson IV, the creators of “Knuckleheads”, to move from hustling copies of their self-published comic at conventions to re-publishing the book through digital publisher Monkeybrain Comics on their way to critical acclaim.
“Knuckleheads” follows slackers Trev and Lance, ordinary roommates until an alien with a hangover leaves The Crystal Fist — a cosmic weapon of extraordinary power — in their posession. Trev can only harness its power using video game controllers, and rather than using it for good he’s content to steal cable and cheat on video games. When a monster attacks their city, Trev must decide if he’s up to the challenge of using his newfound power for the greater good.
Along the way they learned to get better and kept the faith that their tale about a crystal fisted slacker would be worth all of their time and effort. Comic Book Resources spoke to Winkeler and Wilson about that effort, the lack of randomness in “Knuckleheads,” and how they are just getting started with the first volume, “Fist Contact.”
CBR News: “Knuckleheads” #1 doesn’t waste much time getting to the action. What made you gravitate toward shorthanding the origin story? Also, will we learn more about why the Crystal Fist chose Trev in future issues and is there a connection between the Fist and the “Cloverfield” monster?
Brian Winkeler: I really wanted to introduce the characters in this state so that readers could immediately see Trev as a guy so lazy and self-involved that not even superpowers will get him off the couch. Originally Pizza Guy was just, you know, a guy delivering pizza but then I realized he would be a great proxy to ask questions and find out that Trev and Lance don’t know much more than he does about what’s going on.
We’ll eventually flash back to the day Trev was given The Crystal Fist and it’s a bit more complicated than he (vaguely) remembers. The short answer to the last question is that nothing happens randomly in “Knuckleheads.”
What are some of the comics and films that inspired this story?
Robert Wilson IV: For me the biggest comic influence on “Knuckleheads” is Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s work on “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” — “Nextwave” had such a perfect balance of action with conversational and visual humor. Also, Stuart Immonen is one of the best actors in comics, which is so important for a comedy book. You can have the funniest joke in the world but if the characters don’t sell the emotions behind the joke, it will fall flat.
Winkeler: I’ll be writing about this in the back of issue #3, but the UK comedy series “Peep Show” is a huge influence on me. Those guys are maybe a more extreme version of “The Odd Couple” than Lance and Trev, but there’s a love underneath the bastardy things that they do to one another. My strongest funny comic influences are definitely “Why I Hate Saturn,” “Stig’s Inferno,” Chris Giarrusso’s “G-Man” and anything Jeffrey Brown does. Jeff is actually a big “Knuckleheads” fan.
Tell me a little bit about the journey to get this book made.
Wilson IV: It’s an epic tale that started at the comic shop we both shopped at, New World Comics in Oklahoma City. The owner of the store told Brian that the two of us should work together. We ended up meeting for lunch and pretty much created the whole concept right there. After self publishing and going to a few cons, we met [Monkeybrain publishers] Chris Roberson and Allison Baker at the Baltimore Comic Con and have been in touch since then.
Winkeler: I brought the first eight pages with me to San Diego Comic-Con in 2009 and got really positive feedback. “Jersey Gods” writer Glen Brunswick suggested that we produce an entire issue, so we did and had it printed for FCBD 2010. I was chatting with Chris and Allison at San Diego last year and when I told them we were still looking for a home for Knuckleheads, they immediately invited us to Monkeybrain.
How many conventions — and how much time and money — have you both spent on this labor of love? Were there times that you wavered, or maybe even thought about trying something else?
Wilson IV: I’ve had the original “Knuckleheads” with me at a ton of cons and after three years, I think I broke even from my original investment in the print run. Paying for a self published book is a pretty insane hustle, which is really the main reason why we didn’t self publish issue #2, we just couldn’t afford it.
Winkeler: Hoo boy, I don’t even want to think about the time and money. Between the first “Knuckleheads #1” and the new series… We did collaborate on a year-long ad campaign for a medspa in OKC that consisted of 20 half-page comic strip ads. It was called “Housewives of the 405” and it was a wacky, over-the-top soap opera. That helped us keep in contact and pay the bills a bit, but we never honestly discussed creating any new pitch concepts. We always felt we had something really special with “Knuckleheads.”
After working together that long, I imagine you two have your own language. What was it like bringing Jordan Boyd into the dynamic and what did his color work bring to the book?
Wilson IV: Jordan has been pretty amazing to work with. He’s got a slightly quirky color palette that I love. It took a few rounds of revisions on the first issue, but after we “got” each other, it has been incredibly easy and natural. If I recall correctly, more than half of the pages for issue #2 didn’t have any notes at all, he just gets me and my tastes. He is great.
Robert, why did you decide to re-draw the interiors of the book? Was it a feeling that you had grown since the first version of “Knuckleheads,” and if so, tell me a little about how the book has changed from that initial effort to this finished product?
Wilson IV: The main reason is that I am a much better comic artist than I was three years ago and I didn’t want the first impression most readers will have of my work to be less than I’m capable of. I feel that the new “Knuckleheads” is superior in the mostly (kind of boring) technical things like anatomy, panel transitions, and page design. Stuff that most readers might not notice when it’s done right, but can definitely tell when it’s done wrong. The new version is just much easier to read and is paced a little quicker, which I think is kind of necessary in comedy.
Winkeler: I love the original issue, but fully admit that I didn’t really know how to write fight scenes. I received some wonderfully constructive feedback from other writers and my goal with this new series is for Robert to have the opportunity to work with bigger compositions and to structure pages that better balance comedy and action. There’s some amazing stuff in issue #2 and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.
Brian, you mentioned receiving some feedback. Can you and Robert both elaborate on who had a hand in helping you refine your style?
Winkeler: I’d say I hate to name-drop but I’d totally be lying. John Layman pointed out — to my immediate disbelief — that in the original issue we never said Trev’s name — an editing mistake that we’ve most definitely rectified in the new series. Chris Roberson mentioned one small, unnecessary, slightly confusing adjective that I revised. And fellow Okie Sterling Gates gave me some seminal advice on limiting panel counts when writing action sequences.
Also, as a 20-plus year soldier on the front lines of advertising creative, I long ago learned to listen well to constructive criticism. I love praise but also want to put out the best book possible and that means letting others who I respect help me see where I can improve.
Wilson IV: I think the most valuable feedback I got on “Knuckleheads” was from [DC Comics art director] Mark Chiarello during a pretty standard portfolio review. Mostly advice on framing shots and inking with a brush.
Finally, tell me about the creative process: are you working side by side, is the art following the script or vice versa, and have there been any major disagreements about the content of the book or the direction you guys took in getting it to market?
Winkeler: We created the characters together while Robert was living in OKC. It’s not as convenient now that he’s in Dallas, but we email constantly and talk more and more often. We really strike gold when we just brainstorm over the phone. We actually had a big discussion about what happens in #3 and the final issue will be substantially different from my first script draft in very good ways that are much truer to the characters’ journey. I also shared some wild thoughts that I’d had and those really excited Robert about the direction we’re heading, so I’m pumped to start working our way there.
Wilson IV: Like Brian said, things are easier when we are working off of each other. I think that we really get to the best stuff when we’re just talking about “Knuckleheads” and brainstorming. After that, Brian writes full scripts and I tend to stick pretty close to them. It’s a really flexible relationship though, if either one of us is struck by inspiration we just talk about it and generally go with the new idea.
Tell me a little bit about how Monkeybrain has supported you guys and will we see more “Knuckleheads” beyond this volume?
Winkeler: Monkeybrain has done an amazing job getting the word out about the book and landing some high profile reviews. I’m a huge fan of The [Onion] AV Club, so it was mind-blowing that they both reviewed us and really dug the book. I see “Fist Contact” as the first of many “Knuckleheads” volumes, so I’m really hoping we can keep this team going for a while.
“Knuckleheads” #1 is on sale now.