Conversing on Comics with Sam Humphries

Think of the shelves of your local comics store as a crowded room where everybody is shouting for your attention. It's difficult to rise above that din, and that's why being unique -- in tone and in presentation -- makes you stand out quickly in the market. Writer Sam Humphries got his start in comics in summer 2010 with shorts for anthologies like CBGB: The Comic Book, and then self-published his first book Our Love Is Real the following year. Fast forward 14 months, and he's writing two of Marvel's top titles in Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates and Uncanny X-Force. How does that happen?

As I learned in my interview with Humphries, a lot of it has to do with his background but also his drive and know-how to tell stories. Humphries initially crossed paths with the industry when he oversaw marketing for MySpace's comic book portal, which lasted for several years. From that, he began participating in the comics community on podcasts and through contributions to anthologies. After being turned down by more than a dozen publishers, Humphries decided to self-publish Our Love Is Real with artist Steve Sanders and found a way to cut through the noise to become a prominent new voice in comics. He followed that with the first issue of Sacrifice, and then was quickly pulled into other publishers like Marvel and BOOM! Studios to tell stories on a larger platform.

The newly announced writer of Uncanny X-Force, Humphries is also at the center of the buzz surrounding the development in Ultimate Comics: The Ultimate's making Captain America president of the United States (Comic Book Resources has a preview of Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates #17). CBR spoke with him in-depth about those issues, allowing us to talk about Humphries' career and his whirlwind of success.

Chris Arrant: Your entry into comics is one of the most unconventional in recent memory. You went from marketing for MySpace to being a podcast commentator on comics to doing comics. Was that the plan all along?

Sam Humphries: Ha -- no. Can you plan something like that? MySpace was a really exciting place to be, I worked with amazing people, and I learned a lot. That didn't last forever, nothing does, but MySpace was a special opportunity in its own right -- it was hardly a stepping stone to anything else.

I see a lot of marketing savvy factored into the preparation and presentation of your early work. How much time do you think about the presentation of your work like this as opposed to actually writing it?

I think about it all the time. Partially because I accept it as part of being a creator. No one else is going to care more about your book than you do. You must take the bull by the horns.

I feel like there's a huge opportunity for innovation in this area. There's a lot of good work being done right now, but the field is constantly changing. Enterprising creators, publishers, and distributors are differentiating themselves in the marketplace through innovative marketing.

You worked for MySpace during its heyday, and at the same time comics were a big part of that – the comic presence there was so big that Joe Quesada moved his weekly Q&A session from Newsarama over to there for a while. I know you were involved with that, so can you tell us about that period for you and for comics?

It was a blast. MySpace Comic Books was one of the five or so programs I juggled at any given time, but one that was very close to my heart, for obvious reasons. Comics themselves were enjoying a "rising tide" in popular culture, thanks to the manga boom, successful big-media adaptations, and a solidification of a “comics canon” in lit circles. We were able to ride that wave and capture a significant audience for comics on (what was at the time) the largest web site in the world. We built MySpace Comic Books from scratch, and the program grew so big it placed in the top five programs on the site. Numbers one and two were always "music" and "video," so that was no small accomplishment.

I wanted to ask you about Our Love Is Real. Although I don’t have any hard numbers to support it, I’d imagine the racy nature of it being about man/animal love was part of its popularity. Can you talk about writing a story like that and then have the marketing side of yourself commenting on how, intentionally or unintentionally, provocative it would be?

Our Love Is Real looks like a success story now, but before it came out, it looked like a big gamble. Lots of smart people in the industry tried to gently talk me out of it. Every publisher passed on it. The provocative nature ended up stirring up a lot of interest and prolonged buzz, but it was not a sure thing by any means.

You really broke out in the open with Our Love Is Real as a real home-grown success story. What were your goals for that book, and do you think you achieved it?

My goals were the same with Our Love Is Real and Sacrifice. The first one was to make comics that I could be proud of, something that I could point to and say, this is me, this is the kind of writer I am (or think I am).

My second goal was ... well, I was about to have a dead year. I was not gonna have any books come out in 2011. My pitches fell flat and I had nothing in the works. The tiny amount of momentum I had built up was about to roll over and die. It looked like my career was about to stall out on the launch pad. So, I figured, if I was gonna go out, I should at least go out with a bang. I decided to turn to self-publishing in an effort to do everything in my power to make a name for myself and keep this fragile little career moving forward. The other option was to continue sitting around, reloading my inbox, waiting for someone else to give me permission to make a comic book, which wasn't much fun. If I failed, well at least it would be spectacular. But if it worked ...

My third goal was to not lose my shirt. I didn't care about getting rich, but I didn't want to leave my finances a smoking crater in the process.

I think I did all right with all three.

Is it possible for you to say how many printings, self- and through Image, and how many copies of that you’ve sold thus far of Our Love Is Real?

Sure. We had four self-published printings, for a total of a thousand copies. We had one printing through Image, of about 7,000 copies.

Given the success you’ve had with it, have you had any real thoughts on doing a sequel or some sort?

Oh, absolutely. I have commented elsewhere that I know what the "next" story would be. I've got the first page written. Steve Sanders and I have both been busy lately, so it's not something we'll be doing anytime soon. But if we do, we probably won't be giving anyone any warning. We'll just do it. You won’t see it coming.

After the success of Our Love Is Real, you launched your second self-published effort, Sacrifice, back in December 2011. Now that you’re working at Marvel, BOOM! and Image, will self-publishing still remain a part of you?

We've got three issues left of Sacrifice, so in a very literal sense, self-publishing is a part of my career right now. Dalton and I are working on it as we speak. Once we get more pages finished, we'll announce ship dates for the remaining three issues.

Beyond that, self-publishing is always on the table for me, when the time is right. This marketplace can be very unforgiving. It requires a hacker's mentality to figure out ways to route around the damage and bend the system to your will. I'm open to any and all tools that might help me achieve that. So I'm interested in self-publishing as a tool. But I’m not very interested self-publishing as an identity or as ideology.

To most you might seem like an overnight success, but I know this is something you’ve been working at for awhile; I read once that your first draft of Our Love Is Real was written back in the early 2000s. How long would you say you’ve been chipping away at a chance to write comics professionally?

Yeah, Our Love Is Real is the first "full" comic script I wrote, and that happened back in 2002 or 2003. That said, it's not like I've been writing every single day since then. I've had other jobs and careers and side roads. I went camping in Mexico a lot. That sort of thing. But I worked on comics pitches on and off for a number of years -- most notably on another Aztec comic book, a precursor to Sacrifice called El Camino. It was really too elaborate and ambitious for what I was able to accomplish at the time, and I shelved it. Years later, when I got laid off from MySpace in 2009, that's when I dedicated myself fully to becoming a comic book writer. I knew the time would never be more right for me to take a flying leap and hope for a net to appear.

Between then and now, I've had well over 15 rejected pitches, some multiple times, all for very good reasons. Our Love Is Real and Sacrifice were among those rejects. No one wanted to publish those books until I did it first. Rejection isn't fun, but I learned a lot about what opportunities are afforded to up and coming writers, and how to more efficiently use those opportunities to break in. For example, if you have no credits to your name, no one is going to publish your 60 issue comic book epic right off the bat. It's just not going to happen. So instead. I focused on opportunities for short stories. It's a lot easier to take a gamble on new talent for six pages than it is for a thousand pages.

But still, the frustrations can mount. In 2011 I cut bait and abandoned almost all the pitches I had written up to that point. I had put a lot of work into them, but they weren't good enough. They all sucked, really. They weren't as good as I wanted to be and they weren't as good as they needed to be. It was difficult to come to terms with that, but I forced myself to purge everything and start over again. I only kept two stores -- Our Love Is Real and Sacrifice.

I wanted to talk about another facet of Our Love Is Real and Sacrifice that seemed to make it a success: your distribution plan. You went outside Diamond initially and straight to retailers – not all of them, but a targeted bunch. Can you outline your plan and how it came about?

I identified the parts of the traditional distribution system that didn't work for me, and figured out ways to circumvent them.

My books would go unordered, and unnoticed, by the lion's share of Diamond clients. The vast majority of non-Marvel and DC books are sold through a very small minority of stores. I didn’t need to trade flexibility to appeal to a large pool of unreceptive stores. Instead, I identified a core group of progressive retailers in urban areas who would be receptive to unique books, and worked with them directly.

I knew this would leave huge swaths of readers without access to my books. Establishing strong, one-on-one partnerships with TFAW and comiXology allowed me to offer methods to purchase my books that could work for readers anywhere in the world.

I would have to be prepared to take advantage of a very small window of limited buzz. Working outside of a traditional distribution schedule, I didn't have to burn that limited buzz during a three month period where my books were not available.

My marketing would have to be grassroots, online and viral. This kind of marketing succeeds when you are able to make it easy for a curious reader to buy your book. The traditional distribution system does the opposite -- it makes them perform an intricate series of arcane tricks and rituals unfamiliar to all but the most hardcore Wednesday buyer. The system takes that curiosity, and instead of turning it into dollars for everyone, it kills it dead. By going my own way, I was able to eliminate some of those hurdles and capture a segment of curiosity-driven readership that might have otherwise been lost.

This marketplace can be very unforgiving. The system favors the distributor, the retailers and the large publishers, not the readers, creators, or the small and self-publishers. If you are in the latter group, the deck is not stacked in your favor, and you need to take matters into your own hands. In order to succeed, you have to use innovation to route around the damage in the system. When David plays by Goliath's rules, Goliath always wins. But when David changes the game, the impossible become possible.

All this time you spent figuring out how to make it as a self-publisher; what lessons in that do you think translate to you now working under the auspices of publishers?

I feel like my background as a self-publisher (and my time at MySpace) gives me a greater understanding of business concerns. It's important to have a realistic grasp of what the industry can and can not support, and why. Otherwise you're getting angry at shadows and wasting your time.

Before you made your comics debut as a writer, you made your comics debut as a character --- the Casanova character of Kubark Benday is modeled, visually at least, after you. How’d that come about?

Matt Fraction and Fabio Moon just went ahead and did it, God bless them. I created a photo series called Los Angeles Champions, and on the last day of the shoot my dear friend Megan Harris hazed me into stepping in front of the camera (karma for all the punishment I put my models through). Fraction and Moon took one of her shots and used it as the basis for Kubark. It's my most promising bid for immortality.

In the back matter to an issue, Fabio explained that he wanted the character to be a “bad-ass sexy guy” but later says he looks like a “Dragonball Wolverine.” How do you feel about that?

Who wouldn't want to be immortalized as a bad-ass sexy Dragonball Wolverine? Didn't Brian K. Vaughan pay a shitload of money to be in Acme Novelty Library? I got immortalized for free! Suck it, Vaughan!!

Jumping from your initial creator-owned phase to doing projects for others, you seemed to quickly ingratiate yourself with Marvel being put on the John Carter: Gods of Mars limited series and then quickly taking over Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates from Jonathan Hickman. Is doing work-for-hire superhero work something you planned on doing, career-wise?

If you want to make a living writing comic books, I think you have to plan on doing work-for-hire. Some creators win the direct market lottery and can pass it by, and some eventually get to a point where they can leave work-for-hire behind, but certainly not immediately. The market has a difficult time supporting full-time writers without work-for-hire. That said, I dig superheroes, and I enjoy writing them, so it’s not like it’s a burden for me. I love what I do. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be a full time writer – that, in itself, is winning the lottery.

Can you tell us how you and Marvel got in touch, and what you were looking to do with them and what they seem to be looking for in you?

When Marvel calls, you don't talk, you listen. You don't chew their ear off with your idea for a reboot of Devil Dinosaur. You listen to what their needs are, and look for an opportunity where you can really excel and show what you can do. I pitched a half-dozen Marvel opportunities, but none were as right-book/right-time as John Carter: Gods of Mars. Marvel does a great job with new talent. I'm not telling you anything you can't figure out from watching them. They're very patient about finding the right project to introduce a new creator to their editorial staff and their fan base. You start small, build long-term, and learn a lot as you go. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

That first issue of Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, which you co-wrote with Hickman before taking over the book on your own -- the beginning features a scene with the secretary of energy being roped into becoming president after the commander-in-chief, the VP and most of the cabinet are presumed dead. Not to discount your work, but seeing you on this book so early into your career seems almost akin to that in the story. What’s it like for you being dropped into such a big scenario?

[laughs] I never thought of that. But you're right! I mean, I didn't write it that way. As the character of President Howard progresses, I think you'll see how I never intended for him to be a Mary Sue for me, but in the context of that issue ... now I can't un-see it!

President Howard is suddenly dropped into the presidency in the middle of a shit storm with very little support. I can say my experience at Marvel has been the opposite. Everyone has been incredibly supportive of "me doing me." They've explicitly told me not to try to write like anyone else, and to focus on bringing my unique voice into the mix. If I was made to feel like I had to write a Jonathan Hickman comic, the pressure would have been crippling. But a Sam Humphries comic is something I know I can deliver ... for better or for worse. That kind of support allows you to relax, have fun, and do your best work.

In an interview with Brian Wood, he said one of the reasons he jumped to Marvel is to be able to work with higher-profile and more versatile artists that the higher page rates of working on mainstream superhero comics afforded. Did that play at all into your decision? I ask, because seeing you and Ramon Perez on John Carter: Gods of Mars was pretty mind-blowing and perfect a pairing.

I love that you ask about "my decision" as if I was LeBron James, and I had all these options! [laughs]  Brian Wood is a big-time baller, that sounds like a big-time baller's problem! (Just kidding, Bri.)

Listen, one year ago, I didn't have shit. Our Love Is Real came out July 5, 2011. Sacrifice didn't come out until December. You were not interviewing me one year ago. I did not have publishers calling me up one year ago. I was not overly concerned about evaluating publishers by their page rate. My concern was, I wanted to work, and work a lot. I was hungry like the wolf. And I was incredibly lucky to have great opportunities come my way.

On the other hand, in my short career, I've worked with artists like Jeremy Love, Rob G., Ramon Perez, Jordie Bellaire, Jerry Gaylord, Francesco Biagini, Luke Ross, Billy Tan and Joe Eisma. I've got Ron Garney, Dale Eaglesham and Scot Eaton on deck. And that's just with publishers! On the self-publishing side I've got Steve Sanders and Dalton Rose. I did a short story on Study Group with Pete Toms, the David Lee Roth of comics. I'm working on another short with Sloane Leong. I am a very, VERY lucky writer.

At the same time you’re becoming a part of Marvel’s writing team, you’re also becoming a regular at Boom!. Fanboys vs. Zombies seemed like a surprise choice for you given Sacrifice and Our Love Is Real, so what about it pulled you in to do it?

The book sells itself! It's called Fanboys vs. Zombies! First of all, I am a bit of an expert. I've been to Comic-Con for 10 years in a row. I'm such a zombie fanatic that once I even built a life-sized zombie for a photo project (I still have the head). Second of all, it was completely unlike the other projects I had on my plate at the time. It's a horror/comedy, and I wanted to step outside my comfort zone a bit, enjoy a little variety.

And as someone who has covered comics culture, what’s it like writing that on the “Fanboys” side of Fanboys Vs. Zombies?

You need balance. Certainly, fanboy culture is ripe for lampooning, and not just for the silly costumes, but for real issues, like sexual harassment. Satire is a great way to puncture those balloons. But you have to do it with love. You have to kid because you care, not because it's an easy target.

Your other BOOM!work so far, Higher Earth, is creator-owned but done at a major publisher. How’d you come to hook up with BOOM! To do this?

They showed some interest in Our Love Is Real but ended up having to pass on it. They were interested in another sci-fi book from me, with the idea to make it an ongoing.

And this concept of Higher Earth – it’s like DC’s multiverse but with it being a hierarchy of worlds with the low Earths on the totem pole being used as garbage dumps for the higher ones. How’d you land on this idea and develop it?

I really wasn't thinking much about DC's multiverse. My inspiration came from quantum physics, or what little I can understand of it. The idea that one scientific breakthrough separates us from an infinite number of earths is fascinating to me. Two questions occurred to me: what would happen to human civilization with immediate access to unlimited earth-like real estate? And, what would happen to each of us with immediate access to unlimited versions of ourselves?

And for something completely different, Virginia for Study Group. How did this collaboration between you and Pete Toms come about?

I've been a Pete Toms acolyte for awhile. His self-published PAWS is fantastic. I asked him to color Sacrifice because I love the way he colors his own work, it feels warm and weird and otherworldly. After talking mad shit to each other in Sacrifice-related emails I felt ready to open up a Pandora's box and propose a collaboration.

From the work I’ve read of Pete Toms, he seems like a real collaborator and not just the artist who draws your script. Am I making this up, or how did your pairing work?

Yeah, you're dead on. I'm not really sure to what extent Pete has worked with other writers. My idea for the collaboration from square one was to appropriate the Frank Miller/Bill Sienkiewicz scheme from Elektra: Assassin. Briefly, Miller basically wrote each issue three times. Once, in a messy outline. Then after discussing the ideas with Sienkiewicz, he'd rewrite it as a script. Then after Sienkiewicz drew it on the page and went crazy, Miller would rewrite it again to fit the artist's insane interpretation. We molded that method for our own purposes, but I was really excited to do a book that could go off the rails at any moment. Wizard Magazine named Pete "Comic's #1 Wildman" so he was a good partner for it.

This seems to spin out a very different tangent than your other work people know you for. Can you tell us what inspired you for this?

The story of Virginia was inspired by the way comics and creation can be a transformative force in people's lives. It certainly has been for me. I'm also really compelled by the idea of a comic -- I'm not sure how to explain it, but one that uses comics as an in-story device to examine the world. I have an idea for a graphic novel that's a bit between Kavalier & Clay and Inglourious Basterds in that way -- without all the World War II -- but I dunno if it would have any appeal outside of the comics world.

The nature of Virginia came from a drive to do something more adventurous and esoteric than I can usually get away with. I'm a child of the X-Men, but also a child of RAW Magazine -- I mean, talk about transformative, that shit changed my life. I don't get a chance to explore those influences with my publishers, and even not so much with my genre-based self-published work. I wanna do more in this vein. Thankfully, Study Group has been a good platform for me.

Over all your creator-owned work, I see you really paying special attention to getting unique artists - -Steve Sanders on Our Love Is Real, Dalton Rose on Sacrifice, and Francsco Bangini on Higher Earth, Pete Toms on Virginia. Can you tell us your thoughts on getting the right artist for the right story?

It's absolutely essential. A comic book should be a total package. You need attention to detail to deliver a special, memorable experience. And the artist -- I mean, right off the bat, they are the face of the book. You can't slouch on that.

Sanders was a natural choice because he loves sci-fi and absolutely kills it on future-tech designs. But he was an ideal fit because I know that he likes to engage in a lot of complex sociological themes that make most other people tune out. And Our Love Is Real had (or attempted to have) plenty of that. So I knew that he was going to be fully engaged in the work.

Dalton was a brand new artist but he dazzled me with his fantastic work. He synthesizes so many influences that I love -- French comics and Charles Burns, to name two. But I knew he was the right choice for the book because he thoroughly and immediately embraced all the research into the Aztec culture. He wasn't looking to show off his style, he was looking to fortify his work with authenticity. I knew he was going to be able to go the distance.

How do you go about finding who that “right” artist is – how do you critically look at your material and figure out what’s best for it?

That's a good question. I wish I was sufficiently wizard-like enough to be able to explain it. I like to think I have a discerning eye, but truthfully, I don't know all that much what I'm doing -- I just get lucky and I listen to my gut. I probably rely more than I should on personal connection. But if I get a good vibe from someone personally, I know they'll be fun to work with, and I know they genuinely love drawing comics. Those are two good things to have in an artist. I guess if it feels right, I just go for it.

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