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Kieron Dwyer Discusses His Return to Comics with "West Portal"

Kieron Dwyer spent years working in comics, jumping between his own personal projects like "LCD" and mainstream titles like "Avengers" and "Captain America." He worked on a string of creator-owned projects like "The Last of the Independents" with Matt Fraction, "Remains" with Steve Niles, and a series of projects with his friend and former studio mate Rick Remender including "Black Heart Billy," "Sea of Red" and "Night Mary."

In recent years, the long time comics vet has been busy in the advertising world, working for Portland-based ad agency Widen+Kennedy, but he hasn't been able to leave comics behind. He's currently kickstarting "West Portal," a new ongoing series along with co-writer Todd Rinker about Dexter Allen, a struggling artist with a failed marriage and a young daughter. After a doctor diagnoses him with a brain condition, Dexter's life gets... weird. He finds himself moviing between strange worlds ranging from fantastic to sci-fi and beyond. In other words, a perfect opportunity for Dwyer to flex his considerable comic book muscle.

With a few days of the Kickstarter left, CBR News spoke with Dwyer about the project that brought him back to the world of monthly comics, why he chose the Kickstarter route and more.

CBR News: Beyond what we know from the Kickstarter, what is "West Portal?"

Kieron Dwyer: "West Portal" is going to be an ongoing monthly comic book series, chronicling the adventures of Dexter Allen, a man whose travels into fictional realms feel as if they're real -- because they are!

Imagine if Calvin from "Calvin & Hobbes" grew up to be a middle-aged man, yet still occasionally became Spaceman Spiff. Imagine that he had no idea when or where it was going to happen, nor any way to control it. Now consider that these sudden episodes weren't just his imagination at work, they were actually happening. Welcome to the bizarre world of Dex, a modern day Walter Mitty battling to keep his sanity as the boundaries between reality and fiction get blurrier by the day.

Is this an idea you've been itching to do for a while or did it just hit you recently and you put everything in motion?

The basic genesis was an idea I had been thinking about for a while, meant to be a way for me to draw different kinds of stories in different art styles, all within a larger story construct. I knew I wanted to set the story in San Francisco, and I knew I wanted the main guy to be a struggling artist in his 40's who might just be losing his mind.  

I discussed it with my fellow San Francisco-to-Portland transplant Todd [Rinker] to see if he was interested in developing it with me, which he was. He had done some indy comics years before when he exhibited at the Alternative Press Expo, yet another near miss for Todd and I to connect earlier than we ultimately did, since I was also at the same APE show with my "LCD" mini-comics.

So how did you and Todd finally end up connecting?

Well, it's quite interesting to me, given the way people's lives intersect in unexpected ways, which is yet another of the themes we explore in "West Portal." Todd grew up in the Bay Area and lived in San Francisco itself for many years. He went to SF State around the same time my not-yet-wife Birch did. They were both in the theater department, she on the scenic design side and Todd on the dramatic arts side. So they had a lot of friends in common but didn't know each other. We learned later that we lived a few blocks from each other the last few years he was in SF, but again, we never crossed paths down there. We ultimately met here in Portland when our two children were in the same kindergarten class. Given Todd's work as a freelance UI/UX graphic designer, we had similar work schedules and we started hanging out together at our local Peet's Coffee after dropping the kids off at school. Todd is also a musician, a really good drummer and more, and I was finally getting back into playing guitar after a long hiatus, so we started jamming with some other dads from the school.

Once we started working in earnest on "West Portal," we spent a good while just hashing out details of the characters and the storylines, and the intersections of our characters in the real world as well as in the dimensional "spheres" of our fictional characters. Once we had the basics down and some ground rules worked out, Todd jumped in and spent many months writing a very detailed master plot for our first sixteen issues as well as a full scripts for the first issue. I jumped on to the layouts for issue #1 once that script was finished and after I finished that, we discussed things some more and then Todd went and wrote out the next three full scripts. So we've got a lot of the foundation laid for this pretty convoluted tale. It's kind of a mind bender even for us, and so I think readers will be sufficiently invested in the mystery we're weaving. We're not pretending to have the complex superstructure minds of Alan Moore, here, but it does feel like the kind of twisted, multiple-leveled M.C. Escher thing he'd be working on. I think I'll start calling it Escher-vescent.

What's the significance of the title, "West Portal?"

Well, firstly, West Portal is an actual place, a neighborhood in San Francisco on the western edge of the city. The West Portal tunnel connects the western side of town with the downtown side. As it happens, Todd and I both spent formative times of our separate lives in San Francisco living and/or working in the West Portal area. My last studio space in SF (shared with my buddy Rick Remender) was actually on West Portal street. I always liked the name, and because our guy Dex is traveling through these doorways (or portals) between dimensions, I like the fact that the word portal is in the title. I didn't want to call it Portal, though, because I didn't want it confused with the cool video game, thought perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad thing!

What's the fun -- or challenge -- of drawing the comic in so many different styles?

Anybody familiar with enough of my work from the last 30 years(!) probably has a pretty good idea of how I like to change up my style to suit the particular projects I work on. From "Black Heart Billy" to "Remains," "Last of the Independents," and "Night Mary," I've sought to switch things up to keep my own interest up. Even the work in "LCD" ran the gamut of influences from other underground comix and "MAD Magazine"-type funnybooks. So, it seems to just be in my DNA to try new things, art-wise.

"West Portal," like "Night Mary" with Rick Remender, was built around the premise of a book where I could do a bunch of styles all within the scope of a larger real world story. What's fun about "West Portal" is knowing that eventually these other dimensions will begin to overlap and form a crazy patchwork, and not just for its own sake. There are real world stakes in the story, because it turns out that when you interfere with the boundaries between reality and fiction, bad shit starts to happen.

What can you tell us about some of the different comics that appear within the book, because you really do play with a lot of styles and genres?

Well, just in issue #1, we have the Glint Granger world, which is a mashup of Flash Gordon and other old school, sci-fi action heroes, but like many of those old strips, it's a place rife with racist stereotypes and misogynistic messaging. We have a sort of Hello Kitty world which is kind of an empty vessel thing that is altered depending on who is seeing it and what they're bringing to it. We have a world featuring a chubby cat named Fillmore with a dry wit and a wry smile, whose backup cast of characters are reminiscent of typical newspaper comics strip characters. That world is a particularly challenging one for Dex, because his day job is doing advertising boards for Fillmore related products, and he has a specific connection to the arrogant ass who created FIllmore. For Dex, there's a lot of angst and discomfort associated with being in the Fillmore world, which is a closed loop of a place. Just the same jokes and pratfalls on an endless, maddening loop.

In subsequent arcs, we move beyond just the comic book realms and learn about many more spheres that are based in other kinds of fiction. Because of Dex's personal bent toward comics, that just happens to be the first set of spheres we visit, but there are nearly infinite other possible places for him to visit moving forward.

I'm curious about the style of the majority of the story in the first issue, which is Dexter in the "real world." It feels different than a lot of your previous work.

It's not very dissimilar from "Night Mary," actually, both in execution and intention. In "Night Mary," I wanted here reality grounded in a kind of subdued, cold, wet, monochromatic world, with small doses of pinpointed color, to highlight specific important aspects. Really, in Night Mary's reality pages, there were just three colors used: blue, for the overall wash; red, for Mary's signature scarf (which she always wore in the dreamscapes as well) and for blood; and yellow, which was the color signature for the villain, David. In "West Portal," at least as it stands now, I'm sticking with a similar monochromatic feel, but more of an amber wash without any targeted color. Like "Night Mary," I'm drawing on a toned paper using ballpoint pens, which I really enjoy drawing with. It's not as forgiving as pencil, of course, but it allows me to do a lot of tonal work and forces me to keep things on the loose and sketchy side. In part by necessity and in part by design, I have tried over the years to get my finished work to feel loose and dynamic in the way that my sketches do. It used to frustrate me to have my sketches feel exciting and then to stiffen up when doing my "finished" work. Once I was doing a lot of creator owned books for little or no money, I needed to be able to get more work done in a shorter amount of time, and the result was the kind of immediacy I had been seeking in the first place, so it felt like a win-win.

The other benefit of doing the simpler style for the reality stuff in "West Portal" is that the art styles of the various spheres (or dreamworlds, in "Night Mary") really stand out, in stark contrast to the "real" world.

You've worked on a number of ongoing series in the past, which a lot of people no doubt remember, and a lot of those series had a end point in mind when they began. Are you approaching "West Portal" in a similar way?

Well, we are truly looking at the book as an open ended series, with no set end point. It really depends on the sales and the support of readers, once the book is in stores. We already have the first issue basically completed, the first 4 issues scripted and the first 16 issues mapped out in pretty detailed form. But we also have lots of other stuff sketched in for the story beyond issue #16, so we're in no danger of running dry on ideas. In large part because as the story goes on, Dex learns that he's not alone in his ability to traverse the boundaries between our world and these other spheres of existence. And a much larger threat exists, which will ultimately require huge sacrifices from Dex and his compatriots or the outcome will be catastrophic to everyone.

You've been away from comics for a little while. What have you been doing in recent years?

Why, I've been making some of the world's funniest, most beloved TV ads! I've been very fortunate for a long number of years to be hired much of the time by Portland based ad agency Wieden Kennedy to draw storyboards and comp illustrations for lots of cool ads. I've worked on some famous TV and print ads for Nike, Old Spice, Coke, Target, Powerade, and many more. Some of the more notable ads were the sensational Old Spice "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" ads with Isaiah Mustafa ("I'm on a horse!"), the Coke polar bear ads for the Super Bowl a few years back, the Nike MVPuppets spots with Kobe and LeBron, and the Oreo cookie "Whisper Fight" Super Bowl ad. In fact, I think I've had at least one ad I worked on in every Super Bowl for the last bunch of years, or nearly so.

Working for W+K has truly been a great work experience for me, honestly; to a single one, everybody I've worked with at that place has been gracious, and friendly, and super supportive and appreciative of anything that I've done for them, regardless of how stressful the deadlines, etc. It's been rewarding work in a lot of senses, but also very hard work. I have pulled many more late nights, long weekends, and all-nighters over the last seven years than I ever did during my previous time doing just comics. In fact, I don't know that I ever lost a night of sleep doing comics, except the ones Rick and I were making ourselves, like "LCD" and "Black Heart Billy."

So what was it that brought you back to comics?

As usual, I blame Rick Remender. Rick has been talking up the creator-owned market to me for the last few years, so I've been contemplating it a while now. I've been watching all of the very cool creator owned comics hitting stores recently, a lot of them at Image, and just a general explosion of amazing artists and a wide variety of stories, beyond the mainstream superhero stuff. It's exciting, and it feels like a good time to jump back in with something that isn't the standard kind of story.

"West Portal" feels like a very personal story in a lot of ways. Is there something you're really hoping will connect with readers and offer them something different?

Well, in the most obvious way, this is definitely a story about a middle aged guy, which both Todd and I are. Dex has a young daughter, and both Todd and I have young kids (they're featured in our Kickstarter campaign video, BTW). We struggle with some of the same things Dex does, related to his artistic expression, his place in the world, his creative spirit, and his relationship to the people around him, particularly his young daughter. Todd and I are both much more engaged parents than Dex seems to be, but neither of us had the same traumatic upbringing that Dex had in our story. He's still a kind of walking wounded type person, struggling to make his mark on the world, wanting to be seen and known and approved of. Having had my share of notoriety and public recognition of my work, I don't really grapple with those sort of existential quandaries anymore. Especially as a parent, I feel like my only real important work in this world is raising my son to be a decent humanoid, to put positivity into the world as much as possible. One thing that is good about this project is that it's the first time my son (who is 11) is really seeing me fully invested in the creative process of bringing something out of the realm of the imagination and into the realm of the tangible, which is also one of the central themes of "West Portal."

The "West Portal" Kickstarter campaign runs through Friday, July 17.

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