Set in the snow-torn wilderness of Eastern Europe, "Valentine" follows the eponymous soldier as he attempts to survive the French retreat from Moscow, following Napoleon's failed campaign into Russia. Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen's webcomic came to Thrillbent in 2013 before going on hiatus. Having now returned, the series has also revealed a surprising new direction for the story going forward -- and a rather fantastical one at that.
From nowhere, "Valentine" has a surprising twist early on in the story which catches the reader off guard and throws everything else into new, completely unexpected territory. As it heads into a continuation of the run, CBR caught up with de Campi to find out exactly what readers can expect from her and Larsen's bloody, stark and altogether fantastical webseries.
CBR News: What's "Valentine" all about? What's the concept of the story?
Alex de Campi: What if all the fairy tales were true? Not in a "Fables" kind of way, not that literal, but more in a "Golden Bough" way -- that our cross-cultural, common stories of good and bad supernatural creatures were based on fact. Fact that has changed over time, as the world has aged and become less magical. What if all those creatures, visitors from other worlds, now want to go home, away from this banal and unfabulous earth?
Obviously, "Golden Bough" was later mostly discredited as a work of wishful anthropological thinking mixed with Victorian colonialist hoo-ha. But you get my drift.
Most people would have gone straight for the fairy tale and compressed the real world 'origin' part of "Valentine," but you spend a lot of time in frozen Europe. Was this a period of history which interested you?
I love history. And I especially love military history. Napoleon's retreat from Moscow is one of the greatest military disasters of all time. He lost 90% of his army. Ninety percent. They got sick, or they froze (they didn't have winter coats or boots!). I can't think of a more dramatic, evocative, and visually striking place to open a story -- the white of the snow. The red of the blood. The blue of the frozen bodies. And two soldiers, their horses long dead, stumbling through the blizzard, lost from the army -- it isn't whether they'll die, it's when.
Who is Valentine, as a character? What defines him right at the start, and how does he deal with the 'stuff' that happens to him as the story goes on?
Valentine is a nice, moral, obedient young man, who believes in God and country, accepts a package from a dying general and has his world completely destroyed. Then he sees some other worlds. They get destroyed, too.
How did you first come to put Valentine out as a webcomic -- and how did it then later come to Thrillbent?
We started developing it in early 2009 and launched in October or November of that year on comiXology, and on Kindle and ePub. (Oh, god, the formatting -- so much formatting.) I had been wanting to do a digital comic since 2005, for phones, and had spoken to a couple publishers, but there was zero interest. Nobody believed that people would want to read stuff on their phones.
Then came comiXology, and suddenly I could use their Guided View technology in a way they never intended, to make single-panel, pageless comics a reality. I remember wrestling with their competitors -- Panelfly, Graphic.ly (who couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery. When they got another, what was it, $7M from their investors, I wanted to call up their VCs and be like, duuuuudes, don't do it, you'll lose the lot. And I think they did.) What were the other ones? All of them worked only from the page, and couldn't cope with a system that didn't deliver comics as anything other than scans of printed pages.
Anyway. comiXology. Hallefuckinglujah. And they were lovely. They were like, "Whoa, we never thought of doing that with Guided View, but it's cool," and they held my hand and were incredibly supportive and kind and marketed us and always invited us to conventions.
Christine and I put out 10 long episodes -- we create the comic in 80-100 panel episodes, which are then broken up on Thrillbent into 15-20 panel mini-episodes. But generally when I refer to the comic, it's in the long episode form that's on comiXology. So over 18 months, we put out 10 episodes, day and date releases in 12 languages, and then I lost my job and couldn't fund the book any more.
We were giving it away for free, and I had always assumed because we had racked up something insane like 350,000 downloads by then, someone would come in and fund us or buy ad space or something, so it wouldn't be my meagre lower middle class income supporting the whole damn enterprise. But, alas, no. So we went into suspension.
But we inspired a fuckton of people to get involved in digital comics, and one of them was Mark Waid. I adore Mark, both as a writer and as a human. He came to us last year and asked us if we would continue -- and finish -- "Valentine" on Thrillbent. I think I nearly fractured something, I said yes so hard.
Now we're on Thrillbent, with weekly mini episodes, and comiXology, where we're rolling out our longer full episodes also every week, until we catch up. We're still midway through the original "Valentine." We have three new full episodes completed (#11-13), I've written up through Ep 16, and the whole "Valentine" story should be 22 episodes in all. (It's all outlined. It's all been outlined since about 2008.)
The series went on a hiatus earlier this year, only to now return -- what held the story up for those few months?
The return of Mark Waid and Barry Kitson's "Empire!" They bogarted our slot. We actually had about 30 more weeks of mini-episodes waiting on the Thrillbent server at that point. But we'd had a few production delays (due to generally Christine and I becoming almost successful) and it was nice to have the extra break time to catch up.
What've you been enjoying about this particular story? Have you always had an interest in clashing up mythology with reality?
Oh, god, just -- just the whole Fantasy genre. As a kid, I read every SF/F book published in the 80s, most of the ones in the 70s, and of course every Michael Moorcock book ever. Rolling up my sleeves and properly engaging with Fantasy was just like coming home to a childhood paradise. And there are surprisingly few fantasy comics! Yet fantasy and comics are such a natural crossover.
I also love that "Valentine" is ultimately quite an uplifting and hopeful story. We put Valentine through so much, but it never veers into grimdark territory. I'm done with grimdark. Miserable stories just strike me as quite juvenile these days. Life is hard enough. Fiction should be an exciting, fun escape.
When did you first meet Christine Larsen? What was it about her style which made you want to tell this comic with her?
We met through Philadelphia cartoonist Amy Ignatow ("Popularity Papers") and Christine and I just hit it off immediately. She was doing a Zuda book (remember Zuda? Bless.) so she was interested in digital, and she just had a very lively line, a wicked sense of humor, and an ability to draw all the annoying hard stuff in "Valentine" (Horses! Architecture! Swordfights! Beasties!).
How has your collaborative process changed over the years?
It's become like telepathy at this point. She doesn't need to show me pencils. She knows what she is doing. There's a whole bunch of trust involved, and it's very freeing and fun to work that way. It's not like she draws exactly what is in my head (that would be freaky, and no fun), but the ways she interprets the script are always fantastic.
Did you always have the big surprise 'shift' moment -- readers will know what I mean -- in mind right from the start? Did Christine come onboard knowing that it was going to happen?
Ha! Which shift moment? There are several. And yes, when I started "Valentine," the whole story had already been written, in a lot of detail. I've changed bits of it, and will change more on the fly as I go, but there is a backbone I return to. I do this a lot -- before I pitch or launch a book, often all of it is already written. Maybe it's just an insecurity thing.
I'm doing a thing now with Carla Speed McNeil where it's much more loosely outlined, and aside from moments of sheer fucking terror as I sit down to each new script (Will I pull it out of the bag? Will the muse desert me? Will I paint myself into a corner?) it's been okay so far.
How've you found Thrillbent as a way to tell stories? Throughout the series so far, you've been experimenting quite a bit with format -- different transitional styles, page layouts, and so on.
It's funny you should ask. As our way of telling stories in Valentine directly inspired the creation of Thrillbent. It was almost like it was tailor-made for us! Of course, I still want my own pet coder to do crazy and innovative effects on a weekly basis, but until I win the lottery, Thrillbent is the next best thing.
How does having chapters rather than a page count change the way you serialize the story?
It doesn't, really. I find my story beats are mostly the same length whether on a page or as a collection of panels without pages. I like the freedom of not having a specific page length, though we do aim for 75 panels per full-length Valentine chapter. I also like the discipline of telling stories in 8- or 22-page chunks. Hell, for fun, I play around with three-panel strips. I just like telling stories with pictures.
"Valentine" has been around for a while now -- can you start to see its influence on digital comics now we're seeing ideas like Thrillbent and Comic Book Think Tank grow and develop?
Oh, of course. A ton of creators and indeed some of the founders of those companies have reached out to me to say how influential Valentine was in selling the concept of long-form digital graphic fiction to them. Any jerk can do a 10-panel experiment. We've made an epic story work. It's different.
Do you think that digital comics have seized their moment as much as they could? ComiXology has been rising in profile, as have several webcomics, but do you feel like they're really grabbing and shifting the comics readership as a whole?
No. I feel we're still in the kiddie end of the pool, where digital is concerned. Publishers want to hedge their bets -- even many Thrillbent comics are made with one eye towards print, so layouts are all set up to be half of the printed page. We're still missing the third team member: writer, artist, coder. One day, Amazon, or a games company, is going to come in and school everybody on what long-form digital comics can really be.
Seriously, we have not progressed one iota since "Valentine." We've been fussing around with new frosting designs on the same old cake, when we should really be making a whole new cake. And it bums me out! Because me and the other people who have been really thinking about this (Dan Goldman, Ron Perazza, Pablo Defendini, to name but a few) have solid, clear visions for what digital can really be. We just don't have the budget, and the daring, innovative backer who wants to make it happen.
Is there still a reluctance, would you say, in addressing digital comics as a medium? From readers, from reviewers, and just in general?
From readers, there is no reluctance at all. Readers love digital comics. I remember we couldn't get any reviewers to review "Valentine" back when we were on comiXology, and at that point we had like 35,000 downloads per episode. Vaughan's thing, "Panel Syndicate," is rejoicing over 15,000 downloads an episode and I'm like, 'Darling, come see me when you've hit 50K.' as that's about where we topped out per the 10 episodes we had when we left comiXology to relaunch on Thrillbent.
Reviewers are still pants about digital and webcomics, because it's haaaard. There's no PR flack helpfully providing synopses. It's not on Diamond. They might have to (gasp!) discover the book themselves. And in general? Publishers are interested but will never leave their wife, Print.
Do you have any further plans of your own for more digital projects?
I want to finish "Valentine" first! But yes, of course, I have ideas for a really cutting-edge digital story that makes use of so much that others are not yet making use of. Just have to find a bankroll for it.