Conversing on Comics with Marcos Martin

Marcos Martin grew up reading American superhero comics imported to his native Spain, and for the first 13 years of his career, he lived, breathed and drew those heroes in titles like Batgirl: Year One, Doctor Strange: The Oath, The Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil. But now he's moved on, devoting himself primarily to creator-owned comics with a reach beyond the direct market. The first sign of that is The Private Eye, the digital comic he created with celebrated writer Brian K. Vaughan about the price of privacy in a futuristic world.

Both Martin and Vaughan have talked with CBR about their project, so for this installment of "Conversing on Comics" I reached deeper into the artist's work, looking for his influences and his choices. The interview, conducted in late April via Skype, pulls back the curtain on Martin, an ambitious but private professional who's looking to entertain not just the ardent comic book fan but also more mainstream readers interested in fiction and fables.

Chris Arrant: Marcos, what are you working on today?

Marcos Martin: Well, I'm working on The Private Eye, the digital-only comic book I do with Brian K. Vaughan and colorist Muntsa Vicente available at www.panelsyndicate.com. Right now I’'m working on Issue 7 of our planned 10.

So you're seven issues into this dramatically new and different project. It’s creator-owned, but you’re also doing it digitally in a landscape format.

The fact that The Private Eye is in landscape format definitely changes the way I think about the series and look at it, because the way to arrange the information is certainly different. Now that I've been working on The Private Eye for a while now, I think the print format is a little bit more natural in reading; landscape format is a little more tricky since your eye is moving left to right across the page and then moves back and down in a very strong diagonal. You have to adjust the way you look at the page, and decide the way you want to design it in order for the information to flow as naturally as possible.

Still, even if there are some things you cannot achieve here in the way you would with the normal format, there are also some advantages.

What are the tricks you’ve learned in doing landscape comics for six issues, going on seven?

Landscape orientation enhances the wide-screen perception of the images, for example. Depending on the information you're presenting to the reader or the tone you want, it works better that the landscape offers “widescreen” moments. This works well with very cinematic scripts like the type Brian does. I'm favoring those kind of images, almost like John Ford's landscape shots much more now than I did before. I also feel this story needs a more sober approach so I'm holding back on doing the kind of visual tricks or gimmicks I've used in the past because I feel they would only be distracting for the reader and actually work against us.

How do you feel now, being so far in, compared to when you just started?

Obviously, I feel more confident now because I’ve been working in this way for a while now; things I wasn’t so sure about in the beginning or didn’t know about are kind of left behind at this point. And some of the insecurities you have to deal with when starting a project have faded as well, and are in the past. But in some way, every time you start a new script you'’re facing new challenges and have to start over again. But as far as the big picture is concerned, it feels like Brian and I are approaching the end of the project –

- The Private Eye was announced as 10 issues, so you’re past the halfway point.

Yes. I've been working on The Private Eye for almost two and a half years now, so it's kind of exhilarating to know you’re approaching the end of this journey. I'm still a long way from the end, but I'm excited to have gone this far and to see the end in sight. And I'd say, in this case coming close to the ending gives me a different kind of excitement than my previous work on print comics.

Being that it’s the end of your first creator-owned comic? Your first digital series?

Both. But especially, because it'll mark the culmination of an idea that started years ago and that we've been able to successfully put into effect in the form of Panel Syndicate.

You’re not quite at the end yet, but do you have anything penciled in for what you do next?

Brian and I have talked about doing a new series once The Private Eye is complete, but we're still in the very early stages of that. It's really nothing we can talk about here now … but we'd like to do something else as soon as we finish The Private Eye ... that is if we don’t strangle each other first. [laughs]

The Private Eye is unique in many ways, but for you personally I'd assume the most obvious one is that it’s creator-owned and not working for someone else. One of the overlooked parts of that is the business side of it, as you’re essentially running your own business here with Brian. What's that like, being not only the artist, but the editor, publisher, promoter, etc.?

Well, it's a little scary in some ways. One of the advantages in working for Marvel, DC or another publisher that hires you, is all you have to care about is drawing – everything else is taken care of. But with The Private Eye, and with self-publishing in general, you need to take care of all those different aspects not directly related to your job or your craft and that you don't necessarily like or are good at. For example, I hate promoting the book and I'm awful at doing it. I've always felt the work should speak for itself, and I despise having to go on and talk about our it and try to convince people to give the book a try.

But I like the fact that I'm my own boss and I’m making all of the important decisions. I don’t like being too dependent on someone else's decisions, so I enjoy the freedom. It is a little daunting at times, and a little too much sometimes ... sometimes you just want to shoot yourself. [laughs]

All in all I think there's more upsides than downsides. Would I recommend it to everyone? I wouldn't say it's wonderful all of the time, but it's definitely worth trying.

You're doing comics for a living – with creator-owned you don’t get a guaranteed page rate, but you do get the promise of something more. Can you say if doing The Private Eye is as financially rewarding as your previous work for Marvel and DC?

I don't want to talk too much about money, although it is important for me, definitely, because it's my only income. In terms of comparing it to Marvel or DC, right now Brian and I are both making the same we would if we were working for them; at least as much. The question then would be, “Would we have made more if we had published it through Image?” We'’ll never know. We might have, yes, but at least compared to any other work-for-hire projects we're making the same.

And you own it, leading to the possibility of more down the line.

Yes. The biggest upside is that we own everything, and we don'’t have to be accountable to anyone or anything. We're not giving out any numbers, yet, but we will at some point. I think it’'s important for readers to get a sense of the figures we'’re talking about in terms of visitors, downloads, payment ratio and such.

In some cases of creator-owned work I see artists take, or be put, in the backseat when it comes to business matters. But it seems you and Brian are equal partners, both in the creative and in the business side of things. Can you tell us about this business side of creator-owned comics, especially doing it online in a pay-as-you-go method?

Well, what's happened is that writers have generally become the face of the comic book they work on. They are the idea people, and I think we've come to the point where people don't realize the responsibility and weight artists have on creating a comic book – both for good and bad. Artists are the ones who put it together; who take what's written and transform it into visuals, which is what the comics medium is.

Brian has always been extremely respectful with the work of the artists in all of his projects, and The Private Eye is no exception. The original idea is certainly his but we’'re equally responsible in the way the final concept has taken shape and been presented. Both in the creative process as much as the business side or all the overall project related decisions. When we made the decision to have The Private Eye only available digitally, it was a joint decision; we decided to roll the dice because it was an idea interesting enough to be worth exploring. We were both willing to take the risks.

I’ve been fascinated with how it’s played out of writers, as you said earlier, being considered the face of comics. In movies, for instance, it’s more so the director over the screenwriter, but in television it’s more to the writer with the directors being essentially interchangeable.

I always found cinema to be very unfair with regards to screenwriters, because so many movies depend on the screenplay, and it seems that the importance of the director is too much sometimes. I think it should be more balanced, both in cinema and in comic books since they're both visual mediums; with movies the director is that end person turning the screenplay into a visual thing, and in comics it's the artist.

I've always had great admiration for writers; we artists work from what they imagine first. Artists and directors aren't working from a blank slate, but from something writers have imagined. It's a big responsibility for me to work with a script; my job is to make it as good as possible in a visual way. Artists in comics have a big responsibility, as they are the ones creating the final perception of the writer’s' material in the finished product. People tend to judge a comic in terms of the story being great and the art horrible, or vice-versa, as if they were separate entities. But what they don't realize is what they perceive as the story being “bad” might be a consequence of the artist not making the proper decisions when presenting the information to the reader.

In the end, getting back to your point and asking “Why are writers perceived as front and center compared to artists in the comics world?” I don’t know, but generally writers have a much more public profile and in today's world that's very important. I feel they are more active in terms of interviews, promotion and online social media, because it's a written world mainly and they're wordsmiths. Perhaps artists tend to be more shy or just less capable of conveying their intentions through words when it's art they use as a means of expression? I know I'm a perfect example of that!

I think that might be true in some respects, but also there seems to be a general dearth in terms of talking about comics as art among journalists, reviewers and commentators. Comparable to, say, a music reviewer who has no handle on criticism of lyrics but can talk eloquently about the instrumental aspect of it. I’ve been continually working on expanding my vocabulary and knowledge of comics art past those cliché terms of “cartoony” versus “realistic,” for example.

If you talk about the style of an artist, inevitably it's going to end up something as a matter of taste. And when it comes down to taste, there's no right or wrong. The terms “cartoony” and “realistic” which you mentioned are, for the most part, not properly used in the case of comic book artists; they're both incredibly vague. If you'’re reviewing a comic, you have to look at the experience as a whole; not just the story, not just the art, but the synthesis of all of the parts into one single form.

As an exercise for all reviewers, I'd propose they start by dropping the habit of structuring their reviews in two parts, where they discuss the story, plot and dialogue in the first half and leave a second half to go over the art (pencils, inks, colors and lettering) in its most superficial aspects (again, style). Instead, I would recommend to analyze the story as a whole and try to determine how the decisions made at every stage affect the way the reader perceives the information.

I wanted to switch gears and talk a little bit about the story of the series and its possible reflection about you. The Private Eye concerns with the disclosure of identity and the sharing of people’s lives going down a dark road with the interconnectedness of the internet. Could you foresee something like this happening to a degree, or do you see shades of it even now?

Well, it’s definitely possible something like the CloudBurst could happen, and we're seeing hints of that nowadays with the security breaches in our privacy. These days, more companies have vast information about us through online activity than we could ever imagine. That's real, and that's something I think people should be more aware of, and act accordingly. Most people don't realize how much information about them is out there, but with these security breaches they're slowly becoming aware of the danger it entails. Obviously, although a future like The Private Eye is possible, it's more than doubtful it would ever happen in the manner Brian has imagined.

Brian and I approach The Private Eye as a fable more than a logical outcome of what might happen. It's not intended to be a realistic look into the future; it's a fable about the future. While I think it's possible the cloud might burst, I don't think the Internet would cease to exist at this point. I think we're too far inside the Internet culture for it just to disappear. Anything could happen, but I think there will be changes to the way we use the internet or behave online that we can't even imagine now.

Did becoming so entrenched in this idea of privacy with working on the Private Eye change how you carry yourself in terms of the Internet and technology?

The thing about Brian and myself is that we’re not very active in terms of online social media. We have no Twitter accounts, Facebook accounts, message boards or even websites; personally, I enjoy them but don'’t like them for myself. I don't like being a part of that. I don'’t like sharing my life details because I don'’t find them to be interesting to anyone; they'’re not even too interesting for myself! So working on The Private Eye hasn't changed my outlook on the web, because our interaction online is scarce.

Actually, I don'’t even have a cellphone. I do go online, obviously, but with The Private Eye I've had to stop and think about the search histories that are shared with companies. You can learn many things about somebody just through their search history, and I never really thought about that until I began working with Brian on this. I realize that there'’s someone out there who probably knows a lot about my live by the things I search for on the Internet. I'm pretty sure the FBI has a big file on me because of all of the searches for bombs, gun, and various stuff that comic book artists research to draw on a daily basis. [laughs]

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You’re doing that here with The Private Eye, and also in your past work with Marvel and DC. And I wanted to touch briefly on that period in your life. You made your name at the Big Two working on their biggest heroes, and from time to time I notice you pop back up at Marvel on covers and a rare couple pages like in Superior Spider-Man #26. With all that doing The Private Eye encompasses, what’s the allure of work-for-hire and Spider-Man now that you’re not doing it full-time?

Yes, those three pages I did for Superior Spider-Man #26 were a special treat, and it's difficult to say it'll happen again anytime soon. It’s always fun to work on Spider-Man; I love superheroes. I grew up reading Marvel comic books, and I always have a great time working on any characters I grew up reading. For instance, I sometimes fantasize about doing a Fantastic Four book at some point, but I'd like to do it in a way that's not really possible. I loved working on Spider-Man, but I always felt like a gear in a clock, where I wasn’t really responsible for anything going to happen in the book on a large scale. I'm a slow artist, and when you work with the Big Two you have to be fast in order to have any real input into a character's history. I can't do that, and I think it's better not to fool myself. That being said, I love coming back every once in a while, and I think it's very important for Marvel and DC to exist because they are the ones that hold up the industry; and there has to be an industry for other things to exist.

There’s a special allure for Spider-Man; again, he's my favorite character going back to childhood. I just love drawing him, and I have no problem going back and drawing him every once in a while. Again, I could fantasize about a world where I could be in charge of drawing the Spider-Man series and be responsible for the character for a couple of years, but that's not a realistic goal. So right now, I'd say my time at the Big Two in any relevant manner is probably over.

We’re jumping around a bit, but here’s my last question: Brian’s said that the idea to do The Private Eye exclusively for digital was yours. You’re not the first to think of it or do it, but it was very bold in terms of risks for you. Are there other things out there that aren’t “tried and true,” so to speak, that you’re interested in pushing the envelope and attempting to innovate?

The digital aspect of The Private Eye is what interested me most about the project. I think the possibilities we have now with the Internet are huge in terms of reaching new audiences all over the world; the potential readership right now is huge, and I think we need to explore that. In some ways, I think with The Private Eye we've succeeded in that and we've been able to reach a lot more of the mainstream audience than we ever would have as a physical book distributed the traditional way through comic shops.

For example, here in Spain The Private Eye has been featured in many newspapers, including our country's top newspaper. When that article came out, we got over 10,000 downloads in just a few hours. There were people who woke up that morning with no intent to buy a comic or go to a comic shop, but when they read the newspaper article online they could download it in just two clicks. Even if they got it for free they still read the comic. So through our model we were able to reach an audience who aren’t the typical comic book audience and perhaps contribute to get more people interested in our medium.

This isn’t a conversation about the merits of digital comics versus print comics, because it doesn’t work like that. I think it's something that has to go hand-in-hand with one another. The Private Eye is probably something special and needs to be done just digitally, but you could do any other project either at Panel Syndicate or elsewhere and distribute it digitally first and then in print, or even simultaneously. There's different options available now, and we might explore some new options in the future. The only thing I'm adamant about is the DRM-free and pay-what-you-want model.

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