Paul Roman Martinez has been posting his comic book “The Adventures of the 19XX” online since late 2009, and though he admits at times it’s been a struggle to get attention and make money off the elaborate, time-consuming project, it’s clear he doesn’t regret it for a moment. With the third book in the series currently being serialized, and the first two (plus two “Secret Files” books) have been released in print, Martinez makes it clear that he knows where the series is heading and what comes next.
“The Adventures of the 19XX” tells the story of a crew of adventurers, explorers, inventors and tinkerers in the 1930s who are struggling to prevent a second world war in a tale that bounces from San Francisco to New Orleans to Mexico to Tibet. There are Nazis and secret societies, magicians and steampunk technology, dinosaurs and Lovecraftian creatures. There are also dirigibles, cameos by Nikola Tesla and Howard Hughes, the ghosts of Harry Houdini and Isambard Kingdom Brunnel, dogfights between airplanes and dinosaurs and the world’s smartest rabbit. For people interested in the period and the technology, the comic is a visual delight, and it’s also just a ton of fun.
Martinez, currently nominated for the Russ Manning Award for Best Newcomer — for the second time — took the time out to talk to CBR about his life and career thus far, as well as what the future holds for “19XX.”
CBR News: Paul, to begin, can you tell us a little about your background for people who may not be familiar with you or your work?
Paul Roman Martinez: I didn’t come from a fine arts background like most comic book illustrators I’ve met. I went to college to become a history teacher and, along the way, I changed my major a couple times. The result was a few extra years of odd jobs and trying new hobbies searching for something I was passionate about. I always secretly wanted to make comic books but never thought I could make a living at it. I studied graphic design, started a small T-shirt company in my garage, made posters for local musicians, learned how to edit video, and taught myself to code websites. In the back of my mind, I thought if I learned as many creative skills as possible, then DC Comics or Marvel would hire me as some kind of graphic designer or art director. So I applied a few times, submitted portfolios and waited for calls!
You began posting the comic online in late 2009, but where did “The Adventures of the 19XX” start?
I quickly realized that no one from Marvel or DC was going to call. There are rare talents in the comic book world that shine so bright they are plucked from obscurity and placed on the most high profile books or given sweetheart deals at the indie publishers. But for the most part, the industry is protected like a fortress with a wall around it, filled with people climbing over each other trying to get in. There are countless people around the world who grow up dreaming of working on whichever superhero book they collected every issue of. I knew the only way I was going to get noticed in the comic book world was to make one. And the barrier of entry to making a webcomic is almost zero. Anyone can set up a website for under $10 a month and start uploading pages. I began posting pages in September of 2009. At first it was just an experiment and a way to practice working on sequential art.
Were there any comics you were looking to for inspiration in the beginning, if not as far as the subject, in tone or style? And are you a pulp fan?
Before I started working on my comic, I read any book I could get my hands on. I read superhero stuff, “Optic Nerve,” Chris Ware, Crumb, and I was playing through the first “Bioshock” game. I even endured strange looks at the supermarket for picking up copies of “Archie Digest.” I’m kind of a sponge in that I just absorb everything I read or watch. When I started drawing my comic, I cancelled all my subscriptions and sort of went dark for a while. I wanted to try and develop my own style without actually copying someone else. Before I dropped out of the comic scene, I was discovering Steve McNiven through his work on Marvel’s “Civil War.” I was blown away by the detail in his line art. There are probably dozens of artists who inspired my line art style. The next step was to develop a color method that allowed for detail but didn’t pull you out of the era the way the slick modern digital coloring might do. In the beginning, it could take me almost a full week to draw a page and color it. Now I can draw and color between 4 to 6 pages a week and still keep up with my home life and the dozen or so other “19XX” projects I’m constantly working on.
I was never into pulp comics, but I enjoyed the Indiana Jones series when I first watched it, and I loved “The Rocketeer” movie. I was also heavily influenced by “Ducktales” as a kid and then later by Carl Barks and Don Rosa. The old movie serials seemed like they’d transition perfectly to a serialized web format. My goal was to create a story that was not ashamed to have fun with adventure. There are real ramifications in “The Adventures of the 19XX” series, but there is also a lot of fun and humor. I wanted to make a 1930s adventure story that didn’t lean on Nazis to instantly create terror, that could be appreciated by readers of all ages, and that had something tangible to say about history. Part of why I chose the 1930s was because I knew very little about the era and I had a feeling others knew very little as well. It’s an amazing decade that has a lot of depth beyond the Great Depression.
Talk a little about plotting. In April you started posting Book Three, and the books for the most part stand on their own. Do you have a larger plot in mind, and do you know how many books it will take to tell?
“The Adventures of the 19XX” series is about a group trying to prevent the next WorldÂ War. As the series starts, they are full of hope and see a chance at actually preventing this war. We are introduced to the group at the same time a 14 year-old joins their ranks. He is known simply as the Kid. The next two books talk about why this coming war is fated to happen and how the group deals with that. The last two books will find the group reconnecting with actual history and will show how their actions affected the fate of humanity. Each book will stand on its own but move the larger story forward. A big part of the story will be exploring how the seven years spent being raised by a paramilitary group affected the Kid and what happens to him next.
As part of that, Book Two was different in a few ways but one of them was introducing a few new characters, introducing some real individuals and a different setting. How much is that your plan for each book?
Every book will take us somewhere different and introduce new characters and machines and real historical figures from the time period. Some characters will get full back stories and have a lot of development, some will just show up and start throwing punches. The core group of eight or so 19XX agents will always be there with the growth of the Kid serving as a focal point. Each book takes place in a different year with the first in 1933 and the last in 1939. The Kid and Jorie, the Captain’s daughter, will actually age as the series progresses. They start the series pretty young, so you’ll see them grow into adults. I think that’s something pretty unique in the comic book world where most characters haven’t aged in over 75 years of publication. I’m skipping 1935 to emphasize the aging of the Kid and Jorie. Book Three sees the 19XX organization going to Tibet in 1936 in a time after the death of the 13th Dalai Llama but before the reign of the 14th Dalai Llama.
How far ahead do you typically work?
In some ways I’m working four years ahead on book Six. I’m also working on projects that won’t come out until later next year. Book Three is completely written, and I have detailed outlines for the three following books. As for comic pages, I have a schedule I need to keep that will see Book Three released [in print] around the middle of 2014. I start posting pages as I finish them, but when I get further into the book, I end up with a few months of un-posted pages just waiting to go online. Right now it takes me about a year to produce each 140+ page graphic novel.
Walk us through your process if you would. How do you write, how do you draw and what’s the way you like to work — as opposed to stressing over deadlines.
I start each book with a very detailed outline and write my script from there. Then I go through a chapter and draw all my rough thumbnails for panels. Then it’s line art, flats for color, color fills, text and any other effects a page might need. I stress very much over deadlines because if I don’t keep up with my schedule, a year from now I’ll end up trying to draw 8 pages a week to finish my book. I’ve had a few people help me with flats, and hopefully in the future I can find someone who can emulate my coloring style at a page rate I can afford. But for now, I do everything and have to keep a pretty detailed calendar to keep it all straight. Stress is actually an important part of the job. If I didn’t stress then I might end up playing video games all day and reading comic books instead of making them. Stress pushes me forward and provides a sense of urgency.
In every webcomics conversation, there’s the inevitable question of form and structure. Talk a little about the dimensions of the “page” — and I know you’ve made some changes between the first and second book — but talk about your thinking.
I’ve learned a lot since I first set up my page template for page one of Book One. At the time, I set up my book according to some commonly available print-on-demand sizes. After doing conventions with my first printing of Book One, I realized pretty quickly that I wanted my book to be in hardcover and in standard comic book size going forward. The pages started in a horizontal format for web viewing, but I’ve come to love the landscape view. A two page spread looks so cinematic and epic. I even toyed with the idea of doing a larger, European style format but decided on the standard comic book size. Since distribution and stores are not a big part of my sales strategy, I didn’t have to worry about how the book would look on a shelf next to a bunch of other standard-sized, vertical oriented books, but I wanted something that would fit in a comic long box when printed. I have a few thousand comic books, and I love the large, beautifully formatted books, but it’s a pain trying to store those.
Besides the books, which you’re serializing online and offering as physical books, you also have two “Secret Files.” What are they and what was your thinking behind them?
The “Secret Files” have really evolved from small books of extra content to a dieselpunk themed series in its own right. Each “Secret Files” contains some kind of article related to historic elements in the “19XX” series, biographies of new characters, schematics, illustrated short stories, and lots of other content. The illustrated short stories in the “Secret Files” will discuss how some of the older members of the 19XX spent their time before the group. The last few “Secret Files” volumes will end with the formation of the 19XX organization just as the fate of group is being revealed in the graphic novels. Other short stories along the way will flesh out the origins for some of the more unique characters.
You’ve had two successful Kickstarter campaigns and in each case the main intent was to essentially get people to pre-order copies of the books. I know many web cartoonists have had good fortune with that method, but what was your experience?
Pre-ordering copies of the books through Kickstarter helps pay for printing. I’m completely self-published, and I use my credit cards and any other cash I can scrape together. The fact that a place like Kickstarter exists opens up my options for getting books out faster and producing other products. My next Kickstarter project will be for a card game based on the comic called “Assault: 19XX.” The game has been pretty much done for over a year; I’ve just been waiting for a good time on the calendar to launch it. It will be my first non-comic Kickstarter campaign, so it will be a new experience for me. Using the knowledge I’ve gained from getting a resin model produced based on a vehicle from my comic and from getting the books printed, I think I’m ready for that challenge. My experience with Kickstarter has been great, but no matter how much I prepare, I am always surprised by shipping costs. I’ve never been so thankful for media mail in my life!
You had a tiny role in the comic convention episode of “Castle” that aired last fall. You wrote up a long report on your blog, but I’m curious if there was any response to your appearance or the print you made?
My role was so tiny, you’d have to freeze frame the episode to see me. But I had an awesome time! I received a great response from Jonathan Frakes, who directed that episode, and from Nathan Fillion. I gave them each a print on set and had them sign one for me. Other than that, it’s just a cool story I get to tell people at conventions.
When you were first nominated for Russ Manning Award in 2011, what did it mean to you? And what does it mean that you’ve been nominated for that same award again this year?
That’s actually a great question because so much has changed. In 2011, I was nominated for the first printing of Book One in “The Adventures of the 19XX” series. The book had just come out, and about three months later I received the nomination. I had no idea what to make of it. I had no idea if I was even going to do a second book. Up until that point, everything I had created was available free online; I hadn’t made a single dollar off the comic. And to be honest, I knew I wasn’t going to win. Nate Simpson was also nominated, and he was just too insanely talented not to win. So really I couldn’t process what it meant at that time — I never got a chance to enjoy being nominated.
This year’s nomination, though, seems like one more thing telling me that I’m doing things right. I don’t get a lot of media coverage, but I often get a large crowd of people at my booth at comic conventions and sell out of the books and merchandise I bring. About a year ago, I was able to quit my job and work on the “19XX” full time. As of right now, May 2013, I’ve already grossed twice as much as I did in all of 2012. In 2013, I was also one of 50 young business owners chosen to participate in the SCION Motivate business conference. They flew in creative business owners from all over the United States and provided several days of seminars headed by people like Eric Nakamura of “Giant Robot” fame, Doug Pray, the director of “Scratch,” Daniel Weinand, the founder of Shopify. I was the only comic creator among the group of 50. I am proud because I did it all by sheer will. I don’t have a publisher, and I don’t have a distributor. I don’t even have a collaborator. Most of the thousands of books I’ve sold in the last two years have been face-to-face transactions that conclude with me handing my book directly to readers. I have about 60 seconds with each person to make an impression and convince people to take a chance on me.
In the first year, I talked to every major independent publisher, and they looked at me like I was crazy. No one believed in me enough to take a chance on the series. And now it’s 2013, and I can say both of my books have been nominated. And both times I believe I’m the only nominee who was self-published. The Russ Manning Award is given out by San Diego Comic-Con and the West Coast Comics Club, and I really have them to thank for giving me this evidence that I made the right choice when I decided to commit everything I had to self publishing. Between the growing popularity of comic book conventions, Facebook, Kickstarter, and all the other technology that is available, there really is a new direct market that has nothing to do with the old comic industry infrastructure. Without publishers, distributors, or stores taking their cuts, creators can keep readers informed year round on the web, sell directly to readers, and even handle their own option rights for other media. This is the golden age of self-publishing.
Read “The Adventures of the 19xx” Book 3 on The19XX.com