Alex De Campi Celebrates "Valentine"

In 2005, Alex De Campi made a splash in the comics world with her debut project "Smoke," a three issue miniseries illustrated by Igor Kordy ("Cable," "New X-Men") and published by IDW. The book was nominated for an Eisner Award, and de Campi went onto write books for Tokyopop ("Kat and Mouse," "Agent Boo") and Humanoids ("Messiah Complex," "Adam in Chromaland"). Simultaneously, de Campi has built up a reputation as a music video director for artists including Flipron, the Puppini Sisters, the Real Tuesday Weld and Amanda Palmer.

De Campi's newest comics project is "Valentine." Illustrated by Christine Larsen (Zuda's "Le Morte Sisters"), this is neither a sweet nor romantic tale, but rather a pulpy adventure set during the Napoleonic wars, as two French soldiers, retreating from their army's failed invasion of Russia, become caught up in a complicated supernatural plot.

The comic is available today as a creative commons project in thirteen languages on multiple platforms including the iPhone, Android, Kindle, and other e-readers, with more formats and languages available starting next month. CBR News spoke with the writer about her latest endeavor.

CBR News: You've been working primarily in film for the past few years, doing music videos for Amanda Palmer, the Real Tuesday Weld and others. What pulled you back into comics?

Alex De Campi: A bunch of reasons. Well, no, that's a lie. Here's the real reason. Due to a junior agent at CAA totally cocking up a week of meetings I was supposed to have in LA, I was marooned for four days at the Econolodge opposite Guitar Centre on Sunset.  I had almost no money, and nothing to do. So I went to Starbucks with my trusty pink netbook, Hello Kitty, parceled out enough pennies to keep me in extra-shot black Americanos, and I just wrote. I realised how much I'd missed writing. And I saw Quentin Tarantino (venti caramel latte, baaaad orange Hawaiian shirt, Trans Am in the Kill Bill jumpsuit colours), but was too shy to say hello.

Also, the first iPhone comic apps were coming out, and I've always been a big proponent of comics on mobile devices. I even pitched one to Vertigo about five years ago. They totally didn't get it, unsurprisingly. But it seemed like finally the technology had caught up with what I wanted to do (well, almost - more on that later). And I had the script: "Valentine," a story I had originally written as an experiment, to see if I could do the Hollywood action-movie, twist or fight scene every five pages, style. I pulled the old script up in that Starbucks, fell in love with it again, rewrote it mercilessly during the rest of the week there, and when I came back I had a tale that was perfectly suited to episodic storytelling.

But it's really due to this idiot in LA and my total inability to deal with four whole days of boredom. Besides, I feel I didn't leave comics deliberately, so much as got caught up with the music video thing and then my annus horribilis of my father's final battle with cancer. (Short version: Cancer 1, Dad 0.) I always meant to do more comics; it's just taken a little longer than I expected to get around to it.

So, without spoiling anything too much, what is "Valentine?"

Hah, it's really hard to say without spoilering it! It's a fantasy action/thriller about two soldiers, "Valentine" and Oscar, who get lost in the snow during Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812, and as a result, they find something that fucks up their lives big time. There is a lot of fighting. And a lot of cliffhangers. And it goes places you would never imagine. If you think you know where this story is going, you are wrong. Trust me.

Think of it as an old-style pulp serial, or indeed akin to manga as it is released episodically in weekly magazines in Japan, not as we tend to consume it in the US.  Content level per episode is probably about the same as a manga episode... but we're monthly, not weekly, as Christine would need many minions to draw 60 panels a week.

When you were working out the story, you specifically wrote it for phones and e-readers. Why not just create a webcomic in this size and format?

Why not a webcomic? I can offer a better reader experience via iPhone and e-Reader than I can on the web. Also, I'm really attracted to the idea of people being able to read "Valentine" on the subway, or while they're traveling. When I grew up reading "X-Men" off the drugstore spinner racks (and even occasionally buying issues), the joy of comics was that you could carry them with you easily. Read 'em on the school bus. Same thing with manga. Reading stuff on the laptop is somehow... not so much fun, especially when you spend your whole day staring at a computer, as I often do.

The iPhone app folks, both the comics apps such as Comixology and Robot comics, and the book-reading app people such as Stanza (3 million installed users!) are really keen on "Valentine" and have been incredibly supportive. The CEO of Stanza got in touch and became one of my beta testers for the Stanza edition! It's wild. And some people who have invented a 3D lens for iPhones are currently trying to put "Valentine" in 3D. Crazy stuff happens every day with this book. It really does feel like the Wild West, but with better coffee.

Also, I can charge 99 cents per episode for downloads on iPhone and e-Reader, while webcomics are pretty universally free. The margins on iPhone and e-Reader stuff are fantastic; we get 50% or more of net sales. Compare that to the 4-10% against advance of what you get with paper comics, and the 0% for webcomics. I think I worked out that for every download of "Valentine" I sell, I'd have to sell 10 copies of a normal comic to earn the same amount - plus have a far greater capital outlay, if I were to self-publish. Hey, I write for love, but I publish for money.

A side note: "Valentine" is Creative Commons, so if someone whacks it up on the old Bittorent, feel free to steal it. If you like it, do consider tipping us - we can barely afford groceries -  or recommending the comic on.

You've never told a story serialized in quite this way before over such a period of time. What do you love about it and what's intimidating about it?

The twists are so much fun to write. Picking out where to end the episode... it's like, "how shall I kill my readers with suspense this time?" Plus the little things we can do with transitions - not motion comics, because they're, well, lame - but just working with simple panoramas and flow from screen to screen. Then there's the fact that the default transition is a fade, so we can give senses of depth in the gap between frames, and access certain parts of the cinematographer's emotional arsenal. A little push in - one panel being a slightly closer close-up than the previous - to show the impact of a reaction, and so forth.

What's intimidating has been the sheer number of things I've had to learn to do this. Lettering in 13 different languages; coding e-Pubs; finding a version of Photoshop that would support Hebrew; formatting for Kindle, building a Wordpress website... I started this project because I missed writing. Now I spend all my time with the project doing non-writing tasks. Sigh. I also need minions.

We wanted to launch day-and-date in all formats and all languages, but that just hasn't happened. Partly due to my also having several other projects on the go, and partly because the technology is changing to accommodate us.  We will be available on laptops via Comixology's reader, but not until January. We will be available on Stanza, but not until some issues with the way Stanza treats images have been ironed out. We are available on Kindle, iPhone and Android now. We will be available for the other black and white e-readers such as the Nook, the Sony e-Reader and iRex right after Christmas, as I just haven't had time to do the image formatting necessary (and I work, like, 18 hours a day. I'm not slacking, people). The ePub thing will continue to roll out as we put the series on Smashwords and gain access to things like the B&N and Fictionwise e-Book stores. So, rather than springing fully-formed like Athena from Zeus' splitting migrane, we're going to peg along a little more slowly. But we will get there.

In the opening panels of the first episode, it's obvious that you're exploring the possibilities of working in this format. Was this an early part of your idea, this panoramic image, and to really play around with what you can with that single panel?

Ssh, I'm going to tell you a secret. You know that film thing I two-time my faithful comics career with? Well, it involves storyboards. This single-panel-per-screen thing, it's an awful lot like a storyboard. Landscape format and everything. I've gotten good at storyboards. The panoramas, the pans up and down you'll see later, the transition stuff, it's all Filmmaking 101.

Some people may know Christine Larsen from "Le Morte Sisters," which was on Zuda. How did the two of you connect and up working together?

A friend of mine from university knew the cartoonist Amy Ignatow, who put me in touch with Christine. Ironically, Christine and I grew up about 40 minutes away from each other.

I've never read any Zuda comics. For ages, the captcha wouldn't play nice (and by "play nice" I mean "work at all") with Macs running Firefox. After about the 10th time one of my friends bugged me to vote on their comic and I tried to sign up for a Zuda account, I just gave it up. Heard it's a great way for Marvel to find promising new artists, though.  (And yes, I know Zuda is DC, but Zuda artists seem to get hired onto Marvel projects.)

The original artist for "Valentine" was going to be an Italian girl, but she blew her deadlines so horrifically I gave up and went elsewhere. I think it was fate, though, as Christine could not be more perfect for the book. I really enjoy working with her, and she is very technically sound in all the hard stuff: lighting, perspective, backgrounds, drawing horses... she's also incredibly patient with my more film-based frame size and shot description shorthand. "Reverse to slightly L.Ang OTS, MCU" and other such rubbish.

Every month, you're going to release a new episode. How long is the project, and how many panels are there per episode?

Dunno how long the project is. It ends when we're done telling the story. Each episode is 60-70 panels, which probably equates to 10-15 pages of paper comics. The first (free) episode is a bit on the short side. Overall... 21 to 25 episodes? Then it's over. If it's successful, I have two more series that I want to do after this which, like "Valentine," are already completely written. Just sitting there waiting to be born, like crocodile eggs.

What prompted the scale of "Valentine?" I mean, you're debuting on as many formats as possible, in thirteen different languages. Was the plan to be as big as you could manage?

I have a lot of friends in a lot of places around the world. Most of them like comics. Some of them have very little access to comic stores. All of them, not unreasonably, enjoy reading comics in their own language. So because of the nature of "Valentine," with us not having to do a separate print run or sort out distribution for "foreign language" editions, it became super easy for me to just whack something up on Twitter and Facebook and say, "anyone want to translate my comic?". Before I knew it, we had 13 languages, and translators who range from one of Rolling Stone's writers in Brazil, through a British pop starlet, to a Serbian artist. Each translator gets half the earnings of the book in their language.

One of the wonderful things about comics has always been its participatory nature, the interaction between readers and authors (something which the book publishing world has only cottoned on to recently), and "Valentine" uses that participatory element to create something that, well... that big publishers could never do. Immediate, multilingual editions.

And the format thing? Well, frankly, that's just showing off. (No, seriously, as I was talking to people about "Valentine," everyone was like, "Oh, I read on Stanza, can you have it for Stanza?" and "Could I get it on my Kindle?" and "But, I have a Sony e-Reader"... and the joy of doing one panel per screen is that it makes the format very adaptable, both for different size screens and for right to left languages. One panel per screen may not be the way of the future, as technology evolves on an almost moment by moment basis, but it has worked very well so far for "Valentine."

If you're reading this and thinking, "Oh, that sucks, I'm totally not down with reading comics on a screen," fret not. Once the series is completed, we'll be publishing it in a big, fat, full-colour digest edition where we'll tweak and lay out the screens as 1-6 panel pages.

I know that you were struggling to prove to Amazon that you own "Valentine" and the rights to be able to sell it on their Kindle store. Any luck so far?

Yep, sorted. Sent them a link to the "Valentine" website and that seemed to clear things up. My current Amazon drama is that they don't pay associate/referral fees on Kindle books, so they've decided in their ultimate wisdom not to allow people to link to Kindle books via Wordpress store widgets or even to display them in an Amazon Store. So, essentially, I as an author cannot promote the Amazon e-Book edition of  "Valentine," or offer it for sale, nearly as elegantly as I can the editions for other e-Readers. There is also a serious disincentive to offer only a Kindle edition, as one can link to paper books in Amazon Stores, but not Kindle editions. Duh, Amazon (part 3,014 in a series)!

So, Alex, besides revolutionizing comics publishing, getting launched into a new tax bracket and being able to afford an iPhone to watch these comics on, what are your hopes for "Valentine?"

Oh, hell. I don't care about any of that. I just want to see someone reading "Valentine" on the subway one day. That would be awesome - like hearing someone sing your song as they walk down the street.

For more information check out www.valentinethecomic.com.

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