An Unknown Takes the "road to god knows…"

The road to publication is not an easy one for an unknown creator. Your work is largely thankless, the hours are long and the chances of you getting any recognition, much less money, are pretty slim.

And despite all that, the competition is fierce. There's probably no other medium in the world that can beat comics for the percentage of people enjoying them who want to make them. Getting someone to listen to you and give you a chance is the difficult part, though.

It sounds grim - it is - but it can also be a a very rewarding experience, too. Case in point - we here at CBR News sat down with Von Allan, an aspiring comic creator from Canada, who recently completed his first graphic novel, "the road to god knows… ," as yet without a publisher.

Von Allan has been hitting the convention circuit hard for the last two years, peddling a book that didn't quite exist yet, and he's learned a lot about what it takes to break through in comics. So if you're aiming to put out your own book someday, pull up a chair.

Page from "the road to god knows..."

What is "the road to god knows..." about?

"the road to god knows…" is the story of a young teenager named Marie and her struggle to cope with her Mom's schizophrenia. Marie, an only child, comes from a broken home and while she does see her dad from time to time, he isn't someone she can really talk with. Her Mom's illness makes her fairly unapproachable when it comes right down to it and Marie is really left to her own devices, muddling through life as best she can. Toss in poverty on top of it and she's got it fairly tough. Learning to process and place what she's dealing with isn't easy. She doesn't have a handbook to help her out and she basically has very little control over her own destiny, at least at this point in her life. Managing to take some control of her own life forms a core part of what the book is about. The question that she's really facing is simple: does she allow herself to be defined by events outside of her control or does she try and rise above it? How she answers this is forms the plot of the story.

One of the tricks in all this, though, is to tell the story in a way that isn't didactic or otherwise preachy. I'm also not a believer that one can "solve" mental illness simply and easily. For most people, mental illness is something that is with them for their entire lives and each individual handles it as best they can. There's no way for Marie to be either responsible for her mom or even try and deal with schizophrenia on her terms. The realization of this, however, is a different kettle of fish entirely.

All this probably implies that the story is really heavy, but it's actually not. There's quite a bit of humour that runs through the course of the book. I also could answer this question in an entirely different way and say that "road" is about friendship. Marie is not alone while she goes through some of this stuff and her friendship with Kelly, another teen, helps get her through some trying times. The bond the two have is really critical to how Marie winds up dealing with her circumstances.

Was putting "the road to god knows…" a different experience than you expected?

Oh, God, yeah. But perhaps in a different way than what you may mean here. Drawing the pages has gone pretty much as I expected and pretty much to plan. How I've learned to approach the page has changed quite a bit, however, both from a practical point of view but also from a "stylistic approach" point of view. Practically, I've learned a number of short-cuts that have helped speed up each page. As an example: for almost the entire book I worked in graphite and then inked on top of that. The problem with graphite, of course, is that you have to erase the bloody stuff after you've inked the page. What was just killing me was that I'd also be erasing my ink lines at the same time. So I then would have to spend a good chunk of time just tightening up the page after I erased it. Extremely frustrating to see little ink lines (faces, background details, you name it) get all ragged as the eraser hit it. The solution was to work entirely in blue pencil instead. This way, I don't actually have to erase a page when I'm done inking it. I just scan the page in black and white and the scanner disregards the blue from the page. The last number of pages were done this way and I've used it on a few other short stories since and I absolutely love it. I just wish I realized this when I first put pencil to paper for page one. Such is life. So these type of small discoveries here and there changed how I'd approach a page and how I'd execute it.

It's a more abstract thing when it comes to stylistic approaches. I've become bolder in how I ink my own work and the choices I make when it comes to my brushwork. By this I mean line-weight primarily. I'm just a lot more confident that I can push this further than I thought I could. Of course, the Catch-22 with this is that I wound up having to basically re-ink the first 50 pages of the book when I realized that I had changed my inking style enough that the final pages didn't have quite the same look as the initial pages did. The drawings were still there – I was just executing the inks differently. If I hadn't changed the inking, though, there'd have been almost a disconnect between those initial pages and the feel by the end. That was too much for me, so the only choice was to dive back in (muttering and cursing all the way) and make it look the way I wanted it to. It was interesting, though, since it was somewhat like inking another artist. I hadn't touched those pages in quite some time so going back in and looking at what I originally had done was pretty eye-opening. So making things bolder was cool; I just wish I hadn't had to do it.

I think the other style thing I really noticed is that I'm more confident inking a rougher page then what a penciller typically produces. A traditional penciller will typically (though not always) produce a pretty tight final page for the inker to ink, mainly because the inker can only ink what's on the page and not what's in the penciller's head. If it's not on the page, it doesn't get inked for the most part (one of things that makes a great inker, though, is being able to be so in synch with a penciller that the inker knows what the inker meant to do even if it's not there. That's where inking finally separates itself from tracing and penciller and inker truly collaborate). I'm really doing a lot more layout-type pencilled pages and getting to ink a lot quicker than I used to do. Then, if need be, I'll switch back to my blue pencil to tighten something up and then back to ink. And really back and forth until the page is done. I've found that I really enjoy working this way.

Who is Von Allan - tell us a little about you?

Uh, let's see. I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario and I used to run a bookstore before embarking on this crazy little dream of mine to write and draw comics. My mom and dad were both fairly distant people for a variety of reasons and I wound up not being as close to either one of them as I would have liked to have been. My mom actually died when I was 20 and her death is one of those bittersweet type things. Her life wasn't easy by any stretch and, while I'm not a religious man, I do know that she probably has more peace in death than she ever had in life. The tough bit is that I never had a chance to talk with her as an adult. Just share coffee or some such and shoot the shit. It leaves me feeling a bit wistful when I think about it – but it's hard to avoid with "what might have beens."

Creativity is something I enjoy and writing and art have certainly given that to me. The interesting thing is that I still miss being a retailer at the same time. Retailing, at least when one can make ordering and stocking decisions, is a remarkably imaginative way of spending one's time. Figuring out what sells and why is fascinating to me; while the fascination is different than finding out what marks to put down on a blank page, it tickles me in a similar way.

My personal belief about life is pretty much this: life isn't malevolent. But it isn't benevolent, either. It just is. How we live life is the important thing.

You've been out promoting the book at cons even before it was finished, which is a little unusual. Why go that road, no pun intended?

This is the bookstore guy in me. That and the pragmatist. Most books fail. By fail I mean that they sell less than 1000 copies in a typical year. By most I mean around 90%+ of what's published in a given year, at least in English. First books by unknown authors will generally fair extremely poorly in both the book trade and the Direct Market. So, one of the things I've struggled with in putting the book together was trying to avoid having it fall completely on it's face when it finally hits store shelves. Going out and trying to build some awareness for it before it was available was (and is) a good thing to do. How will people know to order a book if they don't know it exists until it ships? And for an unknown author it's even trickier. This ain't "Frank Miller's road to god knows…," after all.

Conventions, particularly arts-oriented conventions like the Small Press Expo and the Alternative Press Expo, were one way to connect with a possible audience. Both SPX and APE in particular tend to have the audience that would read a book like mine so exhibiting at these was part of the plan fairly early on. Being able to talk with attendees and give out samples of my work was something I was pretty keen on – primarily to try and build some word of mouth interest in "road."

Now, that said, it isn't like I'm under any illusions that I'll be able to move the needle much. First-time book by an unknown author? It's going to take a lot of word of mouth, positive reviews and time before it sells at all. No matter what I do, initial orders are going to be small and the book will have to build momentum from there. Or it'll just disappear if that momentum never comes. No one, not even large publishers, really know how to market a book in an effective fashion (as Gregory Huffstutter recently pointed out, "Add 5 interviews with college newspapers to 100 ARCs sent to major market booksellers… mix with a kind word from Janet Maslin and interview on Good Morning America… simmer for two months, and voila, word-of-mouth buzz! Now sit back, collect your royalties, and start working on your sophomore slump." It just doesn't happen). 

Much book marketing is a crapshoot at the best of times and you really are throwing things at dartboard and hoping something will stick. Book upon book has been written on effective book marketing and it really comes down to no one knows why something clicks. It just does.

What is clear, though, is that there are a number of things one can do to try and make the chance of clicking that much better. Not much better, but a bit. So exhibiting at conventions and also getting samples, mock-ups and galleys out there as best I could from very early on was definitely part of the business plan.

How has it gone?

Not good. But "good" becomes an incredibly abstract term when it comes to this kind of thing. It's possible that the exhibiting and the like has gone extremely well. However, if it has I don't know about it. As I mentioned, I'm a pragmatic guy and I like data. And one of the things I was looking for coming out of the cons was getting some concrete data back. Something to hang my hat on and to be able to track.

The problem is that it's been quite clear that there really isn't any coming out of each con. A simple example is the ashcan samples that I've distributed. I've produced and distributed about 1200 ashcans. All have come with website url's and email addresses and even snail mail address for people to use. All in a hopefully well-laid out format.

On top of it, at least with people who picked them up directly from my table, attendees were asked specifically if they wouldn't mind giving me some feedback. Unfortunately, I've never noticed any email traffic coming from these ashcans, too (I can actually measure the amount of emails I've gotten as a direct result of the ashcans on two hands). Percentage-wise, this is a pretty poor showing. I've certainly never noticed a spike of web traffic after a con.

I'm certainly not alone in this, of course. Most creative people put work "out there" and never hear back in any measurable way what people think of their work. Fundamentally, the only true metric becomes sales. But because I'm really giving things out for free to promote a book that isn't available for sale, I don't have a firm way of knowing how this marketing has done. For all I know the book will come out and will be met by huge orders! I think that's extremely unlikely, of course. My concern is that despite the convention appearances and other promotional efforts, I'll see no difference in sales compared to a book that has had little promotional effort given to it. If so, that's frustrating.

Part of that frustration is the nature of cons, even the arts-oriented ones, themselves. It's become quite clear to me that while they may very well be a legitimate place to sell (though, for a variety of reasons, I'm not so sure about that) they are almost certainly not a great place to promote. At least based on what I know right now.

Cons are also not attracting much media attention at all. Comics specific media are covering them to some extent, but it's not like local media are there. NPR certainly doesn't drop in, either. I'm sure that a Hollywood exec may have a different feeling about promoting a movie at, say, San Diego. But this is getting into economies of scale that are almost irrelevant to my experiences.

What would you do differently if you were do it all over?

A couple of things. The first is broadening out my exhibiting to non comics-specific conventions. So the American Library Association's annual event, Book Expo (both Canada and the US) and the like are future events that I certainly would like to set up at. There's more of a media interest at events like this.

And, of course, with more dedicated graphic novel pavilions and the like there are more comics-friendly book retailers and librarians visiting these shows, too. I'm chiefly interested in developing an audience for my work so the more I can do on this front (and, again, the more measurable data I can get back) is something I'm very interested in. As a matter of survival, it's pretty critical. At least until "Von Allan's road to god knows…" gets the same type of orders that "Frank Miller's road to god knows…" would.

In terms of the actual conventions I've already exhibited at, there are a few things I would change. The one simple one would be to require each recipient of a freebie (be it ashcan, galley, print or whatnot) to give me their contact information. It sounds very simple when I re-read that line but it is trickier in practice.

The problem is really this: when no one has heard of you, they don't have nearly the same vested interest in giving you anything in exchange for your work. Money is tricky enough, but people are remarkably proprietary when it comes to their names and email addresses (no surprise there due to spam and junk mail, of course).

Giving someone an ashcan for free actually takes a remarkable amount of work. Asking that same someone to hand over some personal information so that I could contact them down the road is harder still. Even if that contact is just feedback, people are reticent to hand it over.

Without that information, though, coming home from a con is a deflating experience. I haven't sold anything since, y'know, I'm not selling anything. There's no website spike or even post-con emails from attendees. And I have very little contact information from the attendees who were there. I got nothing, in other words. Not good.

The other change is pretty simple. Cons are expensive and I'm not getting what I'd like out of them. I'd rather use those dollars in other marketing efforts instead and see if I can get more of an impact that way. In the short term, that means no cons for the rest of 2007. I was planning on exhibiting at this fall's Small Press Expo but I decided to hold off on doing that for all of the reasons outlined above. I can use some of the dollars I would have invested on that trip (probably around $2000-$2500) for other promotional efforts instead.

Now that "road..." is done, what's next?

The big thing will be a push to find a publisher starting in August. I'll spend a few months playing the publisher game and hopefully know where I stand by late fall. If there isn't any interest, then I'll self-publish "road" sometime in 2008. This part is an adventure in and of itself so we'll see how it all plays out.

In the meantime, I'll be working on a few short stories and hopefully finishing the script for the next graphic novel I'd like to do. Two of these short stories tie-in to "road" thematically (featuring the main characters as children) and have been fun to do. I'd like to do another story or two in this vein before really closing the book on that story once and for all. The next book will be quite a bit different than "road" and that's both exciting and unsettling all at the same time.

2008, in one way, shape or form, is going to be a very interesting year.

You can read the short story "Brawl," featuring one of the main characters of "the road to god knows…" here, and you can keep up on the progress of the book at Von Allan's website.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Indie Comics forum.

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