Conversing on Comics with Salgood Sam

When I first discovered Salgood Sam's work, he wasn't Salgood Sam. Back in the 1990s, he went by his real name, Max Douglas. I found his work in the pages of Clive Barker's Marvel series Saint Sinner in 1993, when Douglas was one of a select few rising art stars at the publisher in the post-Image exodus. Douglas drew Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme, Midnight Sons Unlimited, Morbius: The Living Vampire and a few 2099 issues before disappearing off the face of the earth. It was only years later that I discovered he had taken a self-imposed sabbatical from comics, unhappy with the situations presented.

After a couple years away, Douglas returned under the new moniker of Salgood Sam and began his second life in comics on the independent scene, doing a mixture of more racy books like Sea of Red and Terminator 3 while creating personal projects like the one-man anthology RevolveЯ. Salgood Sam went on to push his craft with the excellent graphic novel Therefore Repent! and his own long-running webcomic Dream Life. From time to time he steps back to do work-for-hire like an issue of Ghostbusters for IDW Publishing, but the Canadian artist is doing it on his own terms while continuing to established a career with his own work.

Salgood Sam is one of the most fascinating creators working in comics today -- at times too mainstream to be indie, and yet too indie to be mainstream. He carries an independent streak that would make most Big Two creators blush, and through grants, government funding and the occasional work-for-hire gig he's been able to do some mentally explorative comics like Dream Lifeand his RevolveЯ series that gives me a renewed enthusiasm for comics. Enough gushing. Salgood Sam and I have been conducting this interview by email for the past two months, and I'm glad to be able to bring it to you today.

Chris Arrant: Let’s start with an easy one. What are you working on today?

Salgood Sam: May 25th: A page in my comic Dream Life, where Leslie fails to distract herself from memories of a failed relationship by imagining Alan Watts and Carl Jung debating the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Is it real? Or a metaphor meant to free you?

July 6th: Procrastinating by editing this interview, should be inking, Dream Life or a freelance job that just came in that has me drawing trolls!

From what you tell me and what I gather online, you’ve balancing multiple projects all a the same time – Dream Life, your anthology RevolveЯ, a graphic novel with Mark Sable called Dracula: Son of the Dragon, and blogging about the Canadian comics scene. How do you keep it all straight – or do you?

Hah! No, not always. It can be a problem. And you left out facbooktwittertumblerg+!

I do normally have a few things on the go, some paying gigs, others are things I'm doing for personal reasons. Need both. Ideally they are one and the same, but not always. Even without the personal stuff, freelancing demands you know how to juggle a little to survive.

Creatively things help fertilize each other too. Keep me interested and engaged. I'm a big fan of constructive procrastination. But it does not always work out hunky-dory. I had a really crazy 2011, complicated by health issues and a bit too many distractions splitting my attention.

Started out amazing: I received a grant to complete Dream Life from the Canada Council for the Arts in early ‘11. Planned to be around 250 pages in by now. But then was diagnosed with a type 1 seminoma and had it cut out. That was intense. Been over a year now and all clear. Took a few months recovering from the operation, and then just as I was starting to feel 100 percent, got nailed by a crazy con bug after FanExpo in Toronto that made me drop 15 lb in two weeks and nuked my energy levels! Was worse than the tumor! Add in life’s usual dramas, and unsurprisingly I did not get as much of Dream Life done as I set out to.

Still it was a good run and I’ll make the best of it. Plan to publish the first half out soon as a 150-plus page book one of two I think. Self-publishing I guess is an option; looking at routes for that. May try crowd funding via Indiegogo to finance a line of Spiltink Books (my personal imprint), get a few hundred copies at least of Dream Life one and all three issues of RevolveЯ printed up. But I’d be happy if Image or someone was interested in helping me publish Dream Life. Recently submitted it to a few publishers, a few more to go once I make up the dummies and pay postage. We'll see once every one gets settled down after con season is done.

Had cut a few side projects out of my workload, too, and with the grant coming to an end started the push to bring in new freelance work. Back to the old grindstone! Don’t want to jinx anything but things are looking up as of this. Pardon the sales pitch but I should mention I've got a deal on for the rest of the year people should check out. Offering a commission to anyone playing matchmaker for me and new freelance clients!

Now in your third act, Dream Life has become your longest work to date. What’s that been like for you, doing such a long work online, on your own, with no boss or outside collaborator?

Challenging but fantastic. Doing it all myself has been the most fun I've had crafting a story in ages. Enjoying a very liberating on-the-fly editing process. Staying focused this far in, keeping a sense of the overall arc, has been tough. Feel blind sometimes and counting on my sense of touch. And all the stuff that’s been happening, it’s made for some stress for sure. But then I get some more pages done and it’s the best high.

Although it might be a bit premature asking this, given what you learned in doing Dream Life as a webcomic, could you see yourself doing more webcomics in the future?

Yes. Maybe, not sure? While digital is an obvious part of the mix, what format and free or not are big questions in my future. I Like what Eric Orchard did with his book Marrowbones for digital.

I’ve gotten some great responses to what I have put up, both on RevolveЯ and Dream Life. But not sure yet if it's finding a buying audience this way? I’ll keep publishing my work online in some form or another, but I’m leaning back towards limiting what I publish for free lately. We'll see, my thoughts change daily on this.

On your other big project, you recently released RevolveЯ Two, your collection of comic stories. I read the original, which was quite different than the other work you’re known for. How do you describe it for people at a convention in-person with people?

My personal anthology project! I dreamed of having a comic like this from the start. Conceptually sort of like Acme Novelty Library, Rubber Blanket or Eightball? Short stories, more fiction and memoir than genre fiction. Some ongoing longer stories but most short. When I started RevolveЯ back in 2002, I wanted to do it as my main ongoing book–help give my work a bit of focus, a place to live. Get my own stories out three or four times a year I thought. Has not worked out as planned. I’ve shopped it around a few publishers but most have backed away from the format, felt the market wasn’t supporting them. But the last time was a couple of years ago now. There’s a few places I have not asked yet. Waiting to see how the economy evolved, try my luck in better times. In the meantime, to keep the idea alive I set up a webcomic version for a while.

That was fun but recently decided to roll back the free portion a bit. Pulled down some of the work, left enough to entice and few full short stories. But now it’s moving into a more concrete form again I hope. Used MagCloud, HP's print-on-demand service for periodicals, to make it available as a nice glossy "print ready" comic you can order online from almost anywhere. Soft launched that a few months ago. They also make it available for tablet users via the MagCloud App and site, you can get it for 99 cents digitally that way. Seems to have gotten a little attention there, sales are starting to pick up now. And this would be part of the Spiltink line I want to crowd fund. I want to print some locally for events and comic shops. As you mentioned There are two now, and the third is on it’s way soon.

What is it like trying to get a publisher to do a solo anthology like this these days?

Lot like trying to get them to publish anything but harder. You sent me that article on TCJ about the history of the personal anthology that addressed some of the issues for publishers? Seems fairly accurate to me as a history of their seeming demise as a format.

One thing I got reading the TCJ story is the idea of the format is stuck a bit in pamphlets, which in general is a problem as those are getting harder and harder to sell. I don’t see why they can’t be packaged in slightly larger perfect-bound magazines as I did with the new RevolveЯ, or Euro-style albums? And how about digital? There are some great art comics anthologies right now in that vein. But then everyone thinks about the work being collected and sold as trades later and why buy the anthology then. Why bother? As a creator i can think of a few reasons but buyers so far don’t generally put their money there it seems. Least this is what publishers tell me.

I’d really like to do mine. I think it would make building an audience possible in a way that’s been frustrated so far for me and I'd welcome the routine of it. When i tell people what I do, first question is always “do you have a regular book i could read”. I can at least now point to the web and POD incarnations of RevolveЯ but that’s not as good as if it were routinely in stores. Been eyeing CreateSpace:Amazon and Graphicly. But if someone like Image were to pick it up it would be ideal. Time is a big problem. I only have so much. Working with a mid range independent friendly publisher gets me on comiXology and way better shot at getting in more comic shops and bookstores. At the very least I could use the help with distro.

In addition to doing comics yourself, you also serve as editor for an online and print-ready literary journal, Carte Blanche. Can you tell us about that?

Gladly. I'm on hiatus right now. I’m trying to decide if I still have room for it. It’s been fun. As the name suggests, a very open-format literary journal. We have themes sometimes but the idea is to let storytellers do mostly what they want. The tag line is "there is more than one way to tell a story." We’re international, and publish multiple genre and formats. Everything from poetry to journalism, photo essays to spoken word. And of course comics, under the heading of graphic fiction. For my part my job involved bringing in sequential art from all over, so it was an excuse to get to know a big group of creators better. Especially happy I was able to get James Romberger to submit, his story Raymond in Issue 13 is probably my favourite of the ones we published in my run so far. I’ve admired his work for some time, so that was excellent. That issue we got one of Shannon Wheeler’s new cartoons about the gulf oil disaster, too. Oil Spill. That was cool -- I came of age reading Too Much Coffee Man. I discovered Nina Bunjevac’s stunning pointillist realism via her submission of Waitin’ for Chip on 12, that was a lovely surprise to find in the inbox.

Also I got to know some really great newer talents. Matt Forsyth had published one of Dustin Harbin’s auto-bio stories in 10, totally what sold me on joining the magazine when he left! My first issue as an editor was 11, where we showcased Hush by Mara Sternberg, and in 14 we had A Sunset by Daniel Ha and Pieces by Ainsley Olsen, all excellent emerging storytellers.

Think my working on both Carte Blanche and Sequential has been a good offset from my otherwise increasing hermitage tendencies! The work does it to us. But I’ve always liked working with other artists, as a student or partner. I don’t go to them often at all since I stopped hosting them, but I miss the time I used to spend at comic jams. Jumped in recently with some local cartoonists to create Manif Bonnhome, and last November I joined the amazing En Masse crew to lend a small hand in covering the walls of one of the grand salons, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for their reopening event Big Bang. That was a little awesome. Second time I've had work up in a major museum. Kind of a rush. It was hard to enjoy at the time, was just recovering for the gut bug and really week, probably a bit of a grouch. But I had an amazing time just the same. Anyway, all to say, I've always loved working collaboratively.

When they approached me to work at Carte Blanche, I was intrigued by the idea of working as an editor. There's still not much of an editorial culture in comics. Not a slight but most the editors with some notable exceptions work as project managers, managing editors, more than story editors? At least in my experience. I have always wished I had an editor who would work with me on story. Be a creative foil. Someone who got what I wanted to do and was there to help me shape the work. I started thinking I'd like to be that kind of ideal Editor, or at least try. But it’s been hard to make that happen; it was really more of a content managing editor job so far. Cool in some ways but not quite what I had in mind.

Think I’d like to put more of my energy into commissioning new stories rather than just general open call solicitations. Means working farther in advance though, less energy doing any web posting or management, and being more hands on with emerging and established creators. Less PR stuff and more just one-on-one crafting. That's what I’d like to be doing. But then this assumes I’ll have the time? And that anyone enough people would want to work with me in that capacity either. Just started developing a course outline to try my hand at teaching, might ultimately be a better place for that energy to go.

I’ve always been fascinated by your work. I remember you working as Max Douglas in the ‘90s, doing work at Marvel for their Clive Barker line and some great overlooked work in the final years of the 2099 line – Bleeding Cool recently dug up an unpublished issue of Ghost Rider 2099 you did with a script by Warren Ellis. Then you kind of dropped out and re-emerged as a completely different guy under the name Salgood Sam. Can you talk about that time in your career?

Oh, thanks, that's nice to hear.

I had some good experiences, but as you know it was a problematic start. I think I'm really the same guy, the pen name was just a way to re-brand my work. Re-establish authorship and put some distance between that early stuff and what I was doing when I started using it. Found too many people looking at my first post-Marvel zines were responding to me as a “Marvel” artist, and not just taking me as an artist. Meant that I'd get funny looks from my fellow independents, and from “mainstream” comic fans. It was a less enlightened time.

I’d hoped to do more creator-controlled work in the first place, was under the misconception things were shifting that way at Marvel and DC. That I might be able to pull a page rate and also have more input and influence over the direction and content of the books I worked on. I was embryonic in the days of waiting till April for book two of Dark Knight Returns and scanning the racks for Watchmen and The One. Started working just as the Vertigo imprint was created, there was a lot of optimism about this kind of idea so I felt like it was not so crazy.

I didn't expect to rule or anything right off. But I also didn't expect to be treated a bit like a blind widget. It was a little like a passive aggressive version of “yeah, yeah, shut up and draw, kid.” One of my first editors didn't even like me to talk with the writers and was a bad broken telephone. It was not fun and I knew it made for crappy books. Made me feel sick about making them. I was also starting to see the difference between good and bad writing more and kind of shocked by the state of some scripts I was sent without any indication they might be problematic or that my editor was there to work with me on them. I tried to with a few, but it always felt really one sided? Top down. Didn’t help it was always via fax and phone.

It was hard to walk from the money. Growing up a bit broke I'd never seen that kind of money before first hand. I felt rich! But in the end I found the experience personally and ethically unpalatable, grinding. Not sure if it was wise but burned my bridges a bit when I left to make sure I would not go back -- not "until things changed," I told myself. Explored the possibility it had when I did Muties, under the new management of Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada. I also had a more or less, neutral to positive experience working with DC in the late ‘90s. But neither experience was quite what I’m looking for. I'd still consider working with them I think, but only under my terms.

I’ve seen you do work-for-hire work recently like the recent Ghostbusters comic for IDW, so you’re not completely against work-for-hire. Has the system changed for you, or was that project more on your terms?

Yes. It was a bad time economically so was happy to have paying work of any kind too. But it was Ghostbusters! I loved the original films. I was looking for work, the Great Recession hit me pretty hard. Called them and they suggested I might fit with Dara Naraghi on it and luckily I liked the script a lot. Light stuff, a Valentine's special. But solid, and Zeddemore gets the girl! Drew the Ecto-1 and designed a new type of proton pack! That was a kick.

All highlights, but I’d say my input also feels more respected at IDW than it was back in the day at Marvel. Ted Adams at IDW has always been a pleasure to work with, they published the American edition of Therefore Repent!. Chris Ryall edited that book. I came away having a lot of respect for him. We had one or two communication hiccups, and I recall him being very professional and handling it all well. That’s a big deal. I find them responsive and, accommodating? They may do a lot of license work but I still think they believe making good comics is the best revenge.

Work-for-hire is not the ideal arrangement for artists in the long run in a lot of ways. Seems better for the bulk of your body of work to be IP you own. But we all have to do things sometimes with short term gains in mind. Earn a living one way or another. “On my terms” is as much about ease of interactions while working and a non exploitative attitude towards “the talent" or the stories! Lot of ways it boils down to feeling respected? Paying proper dues for things like new media applications of intellectual property, and honoring the spirit of contracts and not just the letter of them. Those are big deals. But really they are just extensions of not treating creators like disposable hacks.

As an artist I suspect any WFH, including Ghostbusters, is not MY best artistically. Never enough time/money for that to be possible? My best work takes way longer than generally WFH will allow. It's not economic and I make no apologies for that. Larger contract jobs sometimes have enough time to do something decent. But classic WFH comics don't. But it’s not an excuse to do something crappy is it? Or treat either the talent or the product like trash. It’s more about the logic of that and the experience of it all for me. Respecting my rights is important but I don’t need to own everything I work on. Property rights are often the least of my worries.

In addition to all we've talked about so far, you've also got another creator-owned project gestating with writer Mark Sable called Dracula: Son of the Dragon. Mark described it to me as a prequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so what’s that like for you?

Ah, not really so far. I don’t feel beholden to it. I've enjoyed the book and many of the reincarnations. Stoker’s mythology is so pervasive you can’t really get away from it, but that’s not exactly the story we’re telling so I’m avoiding it to some degree too. Partly I feel if the work knows where it’s going too much it will seem like it’s on rails? Don’t want to end up LOST. But also I hate seeing the last thing coming from the first? From our conversations I’m under the impression it’s a bit more like we’re imagining a historical tale that might have inspired Stoker. But it’s also a fantasy, with vampires and dragons.

Doing a lot of period research on the Byzantine era & warfare, refreshing my knowledge of occult and religious imagery. Have a huge reference morgue I enjoyed creating. And did I mention I get to draw dragons? That’s fantastic.

Mark deserves lots of credit for being patient while I did other things, we’ve had Son of the Dragon on simmer for a long while now. I should mention we’re planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign, see if we can raise enough for me to spend the fall getting the first issue in the bag. Will be offering prints and original art, first dibs on the book, amongst other things. One I was thinking of the other day was doing vampire portraits of contributors.

For my part, I’m hoping it's going to be what I wanted of Sea of Red. Deep and wild and fun, but also structured and well focused. We’re still finding our stride as collaborators but so far it feels good. Not one sided–I get to play with the script too–and I think we are looking for the same kind of qualities in a book/story. Me likes.

Fingers crossed.

Come back next Friday as we delve into the photogenic comics and portraiture of photographer and writer Seth Kushner. Kushner's recent book Leaping Tall Buildings (with Christopher Irving) went one-on-one with personal interviews and photography of some of today's seminal comics figures, and Kushner is also doing a prodigious number of webcomics using photography.

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