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Robot 6 Q&A | Nonplayer’s Nate Simpson on the art (and business) of comics

by  in Comic News Comment

Editor’s note: With Tim O’Shea being out this week, Chris Arrant was kind enough to step in and provide an interview for us this Monday. Tim will be back next week.

One of the most exciting new talents to come into comics last year was cartoonist Nate Simpson with the debut of Nonplayer #1 last April. It was made official when, only three months later, he received the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Since then he’s gotten a movie deal and been approached with a variety of comic opportunities, but also had his share of bad luck with a broken collarbone in September. 2011 was a year to remember for Nate Simpson.

Now Simpson is back at the drawing board working on Nonplayer #2, but his whirlwind success (and spill) forced the cartoonist to take a more earnest look at this business he left his full-time career in video games for back in 2009. On his workblog he says it best, describing it as place where he “learns to draw comics by drawing a comic.” And what he’s learned is that there’s a lot more to comics than just drawing them. I talked with Simpson this past weekend about the status of Nonplayer #2, his outlook on comics, and the struggle between seeing comics as an art form and seeing them as a business.


Chris Arrant: Nonplayer #1 burst onto the scene with a lot of fever last year, but a nasty bike accident in September left you on the sidelines before you could finish #2. First off, how are you feeling these days?

Nate Simpson: My shoulder’s ship-shape now. I had enough mobility to resume drawing back in November, and I’ve been doing a lot of physical therapy since then. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to execute a perfect jumping-jack again, but life’s full of tragedies. So long, dream of being a professional jumping-jacker.

Arrant: Have you been able to do any drawing board work on Nonplayer or anything else since the accident?

Simpson: Yes, I resumed work on the book as soon as my arm came out of the sling last November.


Arrant: How far are you into completing Nonplayer #2?

Simpson: I am drawing page 17 right now. That sounds more encouraging than it really is, though, because Nonplayer #2 will be five pages longer than Nonplayer #1. I’m filling the entire 32-page length, including the insides of the front and back covers. Some of the more generous Nonplayer commentators have suggested that the slowness of this comic has been attributable to my accident, but the crash doesn’t come anywhere near accounting for the entire delay.

I have learned a few hard lessons this year. I tripped myself up by rushing into the second issue without making sure I was satisfied with the rough layouts, and it took me six finished pages before I realized I was going in the wrong direction. So that false start alone cost me many weeks. I also think I let myself get distracted by the totally unexpected hype that surrounded Nonplayer‘s release. For a good few months there, it seemed like something new popped up every week, whether it was the Russ Manning Award, or the movie stuff, or weird job offers. If I had it to do over again, I’d shove a soldering iron into my internet jack and continue working in a state of blissful ignorance.

My current goal is to release #2 at New York Comic Con [In October] this year. That may seem like a long way off, but considering how much work goes into each page, it’s actually very aggressive. I will not be sleeping much this summer.

Arrant: You recently posted on your blog how you were looking to return to video game work to help you get Nonplayer back on track. People may not realize this, but you took a sabbatical in 2009 from a thriving video game career to try this crazy thing called comics. Can you tell us about your decision to look for a return to the video game workforce?

Simpson: Well, I think what I learned over the last couple of years was that though I enjoy the medium of comics, I am not all that great at the business of comics. The more I felt the burden of turning Nonplayer into an income generator, the worse the quality seemed to get. The metaphor that pops into my mind right now is of trying to turn the apple tree in your garden into a load-bearing column for your house. It doesn’t really make for a well-built house, and it’s not all that good for the tree, either. So I’ll be separating the two functions once more: the day job will pay the bills, and the comic will get to grow at its own pace, in a worry-free environment.

That said, the schedule I have laid out for the coming months involves putting in five hours a day on the comic, outside of normal office hours. Two in the morning before work and three in the evening after I get home. It’ll definitely be the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything. I really do want this comic to continue moving forward at a reasonable pace.


Arrant: In the middle of all this, it was announced Nonplayer was picked up by a company for a potential big screen movie adaptation. Can you update us on how that’s going, and what it’s like to be in the position to sell your first major comic as a movie?

Simpson: From the beginning, I’ve fantasized about seeing Nonplayer on the big screen — the original reason I left my last game job was to storyboard a sci-fi film of my own. That ended up morphing into a comic, but I’d love to see Nonplayer at a theater someday. I think there’s some stuff there that hasn’t been put to film before, and if it’s done right, I think it could be a lot of fun.

So far, I think it is being done right. Jane Goldman (Kick Ass, X-Men First Class, The Woman in Black) just announced that she’ll be writing the screenplay, and so far every interaction I’ve had with her has given me confidence that she has the sensitivity, originality, and talent to put together something really special. I can’t wait to finally read what she comes up with. And Heyday and Vertigo, the production companies that are shepherding this process, both feel like uncommonly patient, perceptive groups of people who want to make good work. I think Nonplayer is in the best possible hands at the moment.

Arrant: Did the forced break from working on the next issue of Nonplayer change the way you looked at the comic, and about being a comic creator?

Simpson: I think what’s changed is that I’ve had to become a more patient, centered person. At first, I wanted so badly to be an internet hero — look at this guy who made a comic all by himself and marketed it by himself and hit the big time! And I think I let that fantasy sort of eclipse the work itself. My ego became so big that it didn’t leave much room for whatever part of my mind handles the actual work. The whole thing reminds me of No Face, that big black blob from Spirited Away that ate everything in sight.

Right now I’m trying to learn how to calm my mind, to filter out everything that’s going on out in the world, and to regain the spirit of fun and experimentation that I felt when I started the first issue. If Nonplayer ever feels like I chore, it’ll become a waste of everybody’s time, including mine. Right now, it’s still fun. I want to keep it that way.