Before being printed, purchased by fans and read, comics and graphic novels start off as ideas that eventually become pitches that creators try and sell to publishers. Or, as Vito Delsante, writer of FCHS, puts it, “That’s the hard part.”
Delsante and artist Andrés Vera Martínez are currently collaborating on one such pitch, for a book called Fist of Dracula that shows us what the famed vampire was up to in the 1930s. Although the book doesn’t have a home yet, they agreed to talk to me about the creative and pitching processes, as well as share some pages from the books.
JK: How did the two of you meet?
Vito: Purely by chance. I had written a kids graphic novel for Simon and Schuster (Before They Were Famous: Babe Ruth) and the artist couldn’t come through, so they (S&S) hunted down a new artist, and that artist was Andrés.
Andrés: That’s about right.
Vito: Even after that, we didn’t actually meet until Andrés was done with the book. I like to work with people I know, if only so I can see the art process, but I had to let this one go until the end. I think we kept missing each other, too…like, we’d try to meet each other at Jim Hanley’s or elsewhere, and we’d be off by a few minutes.
JK: Where did the initial idea for Fist of Dracula come from?
Vito: I was looking to write something with a public domain character, and I kept hitting Dracula. Then I saw this and thought, “Dracula as a super hero” and threw that idea out for a better one; Dracula as a pulp hero. That’s what I originally pitched to Andres.
Andrés: Vito and I had been wanting to collaborate on something again. He had a few ideas, but when he told me about what he had in mind for Dracula, it was something I wanted to be on board for.
Vito: After getting some of the initial ideas out of the way, the idea started to morph, especially after seeing Andrés’ character sketches. I knew it would be more pulp, and Dracula would be a little closer to what we’re familiar with, character-wise. After that, I found an old Marvel/Epic pitch and took a few ideas from that and threw it in.
JK: Looking through the art on your website and at your contribution to pood, Andrés, and thinking about your FCHS book, Vito, this looks very different from what you guys have done in the past. Was that your goal?
Vito: The goal, for me at least, is to always do something unexpected. I’m not sure who paints folks into corners, or how you get pigeonholed, but I did a lot of kids oriented projects. I’m happy for the work, and I’m proud of all of it, but it’s not the only thing I can write. All I want to do is exceed expectations, and exceed my own expectations for what I can create.
Andrés: I’m working on a YLA graphic novel now and we did the Babe Ruth book together. I also enjoy writing and drawing for a young audience, but I’m capable of drawing in a wide range of styles, from cartoony to more realistic. I look forward to the challenge of a new project where the story dictates my approach, stylistically. For example, I recently finished a job for Showtime’s Dexter TV show, which is about a serial killer in Miami. I was hired to make over 100 drawings that were later animated for a short prequel to the show. I approached these drawings differently than what I am currently working on, which is a story of a young girl growing up in China during the late ’70s. I’m also working on a comic about Brooklyn in the 1600’s. Our book (Fist of Dracula) will have a different look all together from any of these projects.
JK: Since this is a period piece, set in the 1930s, how much research did each of you put into the clothing, dialogue, etc.?
Vito: We both seem to have a healthy love for the period, and as such we both have plenty of reference material (books, movies, etc), but one of our first excursions was going to the NYPD Police Museum. Of all the costumes we wanted to get right, the NYPD seemed to be the most crucial. I remember Officer Vogel was supposed to be just a regular old beat cop, but Andres found a really cool picture of a motorcycle cop from the 30’s, and changed the whole design of the character…which changed the character wholly.
Andrés: We decided on specific, researched details, like some of the characters’ clothing and certain locales, but even though it’s set in the ’30s, we wanted a fresh take on things, so it’s not necessarily a period piece. I chose a color pallet and a style that is in between cartoon and realistic in order to get the feel of historical fiction — real but with elements of the supernatural.
Vito: That’s a good point. We set the story in New York City, but I don’t think our version of the city can be found on a map or in history books, even if it might be accurate to some degree. I think we both knew that it was more important to get a feel, rather than have, say, the right corner lead to the right alley.
JK: I know you guys don’t have a publisher yet, but do you have a specific format you’re thinking this would be — monthly comic, graphic novel, etc.?
Vito: I think we’re open to format, but our “pitch” is to do a graphic novel. While it’s written in chapters and could be put out monthly, I think the story is much more cohesive if presented as a whole.
Andrés: Yeah, I’d have to agree.
Vito: Now that I think about it, I think we also volleyed the idea of serializing it online, too.
JK: Now that you have the general idea and some sample pages, what comes next? How do you go about pitching something to publishers? And how do you decide who to approach?
Vito: That’s the hard part. I think we’re both fully aware of how much vampire material is out there and coming out on an almost weekly basis. True Blood, Twilight, and now, even the X-Men have vampires and/or Dracula in them. In an ideal world, someone would approach us and say, “We like your take on Dracula and vampires. We want you with us.” But we’re both also fully aware that it doesn’t work like that.
Andrés: I’ve had success walking around conventions and showing editors, that I know, sample pages of projects. Either they make a connection or they recommend a publisher or another editor and I go from there. My agent has also gotten me work through his connections. So hopefully, one way or another Fist of Dracula will find a home.
Vito: I’m confident that this is a great project, one with lots of potential. I think that in the end, we want someone to tell us, “This is great! Run with it!”
JK: How much of the book do you have done?
Vito: We’re really in the opening stages since we’re both either coming off of some projects or just starting, but the story is there and waiting to be done. Like I said, I think we’re both excited enough that as soon as someone says, “Go,” we’ll be ready.
JK: Vito, you mentioned you pulled some elements from an old Marvel/Epic pitch. I got this image in my head of your hard drive, filled with various pitches in various stages, some about ready to go out to publishers, others “dead’ and archived from years past. How many pitches do you have in the works at any given time? And do you frequently return to old ones to pull out elements that would work in something new?
Vito: At any given time, I might have two pitches at the ready, but I’m always coming up with new ideas. I don’t always necessarily try to retool pitches because sometimes a piece is written specifically for a character, or an artist, and there can be no change. For example, I’ve talked ad nauseum about a Wildcat story that I’ve written for DC that is currently sitting in a drawer. I can’t see any other character inhabiting that “role” because it’s a Wildcat story, through and through. Or the JSA Sand story that Jeremy Haun and I plotted; that is specifically for Sand (and Jeremy). But the Major Disaster story? That might have a new life somewhere else since it never really got further than the editor saying he liked it; it wasn’t commissioned or paid for, so I feel like since its only been seen by two of us, I can go ahead and retool it.
Things will come up in the planning stages, or, in the case of The Fist of Dracula, I’ll need a character for a story, and one will already be there. The Black Mantis (or just the Mantis, back then) was supposed to be a member of the last Invaders team that freed POWs from the Philippines at the close of WW2. I got pretty far in the plotting/pitching stage with Marvel, but Epic closed down, and the character got put away. Years later, looking for any pulp-style characters I had in my arsenal, I pulled Black Mantis out from my figurative Pokeball, changed his name, and sent him to Andres for his interpretation. In any case, I have a universe’s worth of characters and ideas that are still looking to be heard and realized. My hard drive is only half of the battle; I have two external hard drives and a file cabinet drawer full of notebooks. I don’t necessarily look over old pitches and try to mine them for new pitches or ideas, but I never throw out an idea. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I could tell anyone coming up in writing. All your ideas are “almost there” in the beginning, but as you become a better writer, those ideas become better, or you find better ways to write them. It takes time, but it’ll happen.