Since first hitting the sequential scene with his debut graphic novel "Subatomic", currently being developed for television, Patrick Neighly has been a rising star in comics. Not only in his own creative endeavours, but also in educating the masses, enlightening others in promoting their works and setting an example by ensuring the highest quality in his own projects. Having garnered praise from many of comics heavy hitters, Patrick shows how even a small press publisher can be successful.
Currently on stands are the two most recent graphic novels to come out of Mad Yak; "Texarkana" about a group of Adjudicators who patrol the streets in a futuristic post civil war America and "The Supernaturalists", a super natural murder mystery set against the roaring 20's, both of which have spawned into their own series. We recently spoke with Patrick about these new projects, his column, creating stories for comics, promoting the small press and more.
Jonathan Ellis: Has the increase in the amount of your comics work lessened your globe trotting journalism adventures?
Patrick Neighly: It's more accurate to say that easing up on the international travel has freed up time for the comic work. As Asia Editor of a regional technology news bureau, I spent a good deal of time overseas - eventually renting an apartment in Bangkok and calling it home for a while. The expat experience is like a drug, in a way. It's easy to get burnt out and become numb to the culture shock after a while, and I didn't want to become one of those people who gets addicted to the lifestyle. I wanted to get back to the States while it was still viable for me, personality-wise.
I also did most of the work for "The Invisibles" companion book "Anarchy for the Masses" while overseas, and that experience made me realize that I could focus much more on comics if I ratcheted down some of the more flamboyant aspects of my career. The Internet makes global telecommuting possible, and while the travel is still there, it's much more manageable now.
The travel has definitely influenced the comic work, though. "Texarkana" is loaded with detail from my time in Asia that casual readers might miss. But if you've ever been in a Thai go-go bar, you'll see the body language of the dancers and know we did our homework. I sacrifice all for my art! There's a lot of background in the New Asian sequences in "Texarkana" that's pulled from real experiences overseas, from details of a night market or the unique way you pay for your beer in Southeast Asia. It provides a verité that otherwise wouldn't be there, another layer to the story and artwork.
Ellis: Did working on a book about a comic series help you gain insight into making your own comics?
Neighly: Not really. "Anarchy for the Masses" was obliquely influential in that it proved that making books was a feasible option. The initial edition of the book was self-published, after all. But more importantly it demonstrated that the large comic publishers are either clueless or inept when it comes to serving their audience. Possibly both. "The Invisibles" was the flagship book of arguably the industry's top writer, and it was only after we published the initial edition that another publisher swooped in to acquire the title. And that was a publisher from outside of comics, one that recognized Morrison's place in the wider subculture! So that was quite an important lesson - that the major companies don't necessarily know what they're doing any better than I do.
Ellis: How does it feel moving from one medium to the other?
Neighly: I move between media pretty fluidly, as I imagine most of my generation does. But I've also begun to pay more attention to the fact that each medium has different strengths and weaknesses. There are things that comics do very well, and there are things the medium just isn't suited for. The more I jump around various media, the more I realize how few creators are taking advantage of their chosen outlet. It drives me up the wall when you hear people describe comics as "movies on paper" or some similar nonsense. The best comics make the worst movies, and vice versa.
You could never make a comic version of "Lost in Translation." Sure, you could have Adrian Tomine draw the characters and put the same dialog on paper, but you would lose everything the movie is really about, all the things that make it a great film. In the same way, you can't film "Watchmen" without missing the point of key sequences. I wish more creators had an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the different media instead of basically writing storyboards for film. That's like a playwright trying to mimic television. Yeah, you can do it, but the play is never going to be great that way.
Having said that, I think a lot of these early projects of mine are movies on paper, though I'm trying to push further into the formal aspects of the medium with the upcoming series of "The Supernaturalists."
Ellis: Do you see your work in journalism partly influencing your work in fiction? For instance, many writers prefer the fantastical and tend to veer away from political stimulus.
Neighly: I don't know that politics affects my work in a party sense. Something like "Subatomic" is seen as political by some readers, but to me it's not very political at all, because I don't address whether things like Homeland Security are good or bad. Subatomic is really about whether the individual or the culture is paramount. But I suppose even asking that question is a political act, in a way.
I think I'm writing escapist fiction.
Ellis: "Subatomic" tended to open the doors for you in Hollywood, how is that current adaptation progressing and in what ways has your involvement furthered since then?
Neighly: There are some surprising names in the running for "Subatomic," but to be honest I don't pay much attention to that side of things. The industry doesn't need any more failed screenwriters, which is essentially what the option chasers are. I've got people to handle media exploitation and ancillary rights, and I just leave them to it.
Ellis: So well that you've moved closer to the studios and even more potential projects you can't talk about are working their way through the proverbial Hollywood machine?
Neighly: Yes, but again it's something that I don't pay much attention to on a day-to-day level. It's more unusual to not have something burbling away in Hollywood. It's a snowball effect; the first signing puts you on more radars and so on. Every book we do is getting calls now, but there's not much to talk about until cameras start rolling on something. The vast majority of options never go anywhere, so let the Hollywood people worry about Hollywood and just focus on the comics.
Ellis: There was a pending deal with Asia, has that development improved?
Neighly: I've leveraged the Asian connections from my other work to ensure distribution for the appropriate projects for those markets, such as "Black-Eyed Susan" and Texarkana, both of which are drawn by an Asian manga artist. It's tricky, because a lot of American books are just not of interest overseas outside of a small subset of hardcore fans. You have to have the right material - and more importantly, the right presentation of it.
There is a global market for comics if you have quality material and a degree of international business savvy. Not every project works in every market, but with North American retailers understandably shy about ordering heavily on independent books, overseas sales can significantly impact your bottom line. I've sold "Subatomic" to every French-speaking market, for example, because the art is very European and a perceived anti-US undercurrent in the book plays very well to those readers at the moment.
We've actually parlayed the comic work into a number of innovative revenue streams that reach beyond the traditional animation and videogame markets. I don't want to get into that too much because we're doing some stuff I've genuinely never seen done before; unique small scale opportunities that don't necessarily have the financial or PR windfall of a videogame or toy line, but which can make a big difference for a small publisher's bottom line. There's no point in giving away a competitive edge that underwrites the publishing! But the upshot is that some of my books have already made a small profit before their Previews solicitation. The Asian experience is a big part of that, growing out of the connections I made living overseas.
Ellis: Your comic works are primarily done in graphic novels, they tend to take longer, but as a writer is it easier to produce without a monthly or bi-monthly schedule?
Neighly: No! I'm a writer of the Douglas Adams school, which means that the only way you're ever going to get me in front of a computer is at gunpoint. I have to impose deadlines for myself or things just won't get done. I would never get a graphic novel finished unless I've got an artist on hand waiting for pages. The first half of "Texarkana" was written two years before the artist came on board. I deliberately stalled on the second half so that the story would flow organically from the art style and to take advantage of the artist's strengths.
I'm starting to branch into more regular work, and that's really affecting the way I write. The early books were stand-alone stories, but "Texarkana" is a series of annual graphic novels, which means blocking off a third of the year to commit to colouring and production. "Black-Eyed Susan" is my first experiment with serialization, and quite frankly it's something of a creative disappointment. I've learned a lot of writing tricks from that experience that will be useful when I launch my first proper ongoing series, spinning out of my new graphic novel "The Supernaturalists."
Ellis: I see a definite film influence in your characters. When constructing your protagonists and so forth, do you shape them with an ideal performer or character in mind?
Neighly: No. That would be really limiting. I really mean it when I say that the best examples of a medium can't work as well in other media. Look at "Flex Mentallo." The characters in "Texarkana" were selected because they each represent something relevant to the larger story. If I've mentally cast someone as Simon, I'm no longer a writer. I'm a hack doing a pastiche; somebody else wrote my character before I did.
Ellis: That's actually a really smart way of looking at it, I've seen people work in that way as a sort of wish fulfillment when it comes to shaping their characters but seeing as how readers could accept a character as an actor playing a character it really can deter the growth of the individual within the context of the story. Good insight.
Neighly: I think it just comes down to bad writing. Unfortunately, the standard of writing in this industry is appallingly low. You can see that with something like "Black-Eyed Susan," which is my worst work by far and yet paradoxically the most popular.
Ellis: What is "Texarkana" and how did the states turn into an amalgam of east and west?
Neighly: "Texarkana" is the name of the North American superpower at some point in the future. Dallas replaces Washington as the seat of power for a conservative country spanning from the Yucatan to the US plains states and eastward to the Mississippi. The northern and eastern states have reverted to untamed wilderness, while the three Pacific states have become a loose confederation of provinces called New Asia.
"Texarkana" is policed by four-person squads of Adjudicators, which roam the nation conducting on-the-spot trials at crime scenes. The book starts with a rookie named Simon Hills joining one of these squads, which soon finds itself sent to New Asia to unravel a conspiracy that threatens to destabilize the continent. There's a lot more political back-story sprinkled through the book, but piecing things together is part of the fun.
Ellis: The adjudicators are a very "Judge Dredd" sort of task force, but without the humorist bad-ass weight that character tends to carry. What inspired this form of law? Even asking "Is this where we're headed" can also be considered political.
Neighly: I don't think "Texarkana" is where we're headed! The Adjudicator thing is purely a genre device that gives the characters greater autonomy to move into position for the story I want to tell. I also deliberately wanted to spend my first year self-publishing doing New Mainstream work, to keep the three graphic novels and various comics accessible to DC/Marvel readers. If "Subatomic" and "The Supernaturalists" are the Vertigo/Oni books, "Texarkana" is the Image/Top Cow book.
I don't know if the Judge Dredd comparisons will pan out; I've never read any Dredd strips and only know the ghastly Stallone film. I'm having difficulty putting some of this into words, because I don't want to undermine broader story of "Texarkana" for readers who want to be surprised. I think you'll see when the whole thing plays out that this isn't a political book, at least not in the sense you're probably driving toward.
It's a sticky problem, in a way. I'm experimenting with serialized graphic novels here, and I don't know whether it will work. Readers claim to want better value for money; they want fatter books, more story, more time to sample a premise before cancellation. So something like "Texarkana" is an attempt to meet that demand. Readers will get the equivalent of four issues in one pop; straight to the trade, essentially. And they'll know they're getting future instalments on a regular - if slower - basis. But it makes it difficult to answer certain questions, because you don't want to give away the game in advance. And maybe it seems like cheating. Saying, "Wait for Volume 2, it puts everything into context" doesn't necessarily work. But on the other hand, who saw the big picture in "Preacher" or "The Invisibles" based solely on the first four issues? Would readers have followed those books in a slow drip feed of original graphic novels?
Ellis: I make the Judge Dredd comparison simply because the premise of the character was that, although he was essentially a brutish street cop he also held the power to be judge, jury and executioner. As for it being political, you are doing the book at a time when citizens rights have radically differed from a few years ago, and with Texas, even a mock-Texas, you're dealing with a setting that tends to represent an extreme end of the spectrum.
Neighly: I can see why you would say that, but I really don't see the book as a political vehicle. I'm much more interested in how the cultural framework I've set up ultimately impacts on my characters, which again will become much more apparent down the line.
Ellis: From first glance of "Texarkana" I get the impression of a mix of Pop Tokyo and steampunk, is that the sort of atmosphere you were going for?
Neighly: This gets us back to the media discussion. "Texarkana" is the kind of story that will only really work as a comic book, or possibly an animated serial. The strength of both of these formats is that there is no limit to atmosphere or setting - you can be as crazy as you want to be and not have to worry about budget or explaining your set-up in ninety minutes.
The idea is that "Texarkana" is essentially Texas the day after tomorrow, while New Asia is an amalgamation of Asian influences from manga to anime to personal experience. New Asia isn't very organized, but it's technologically superior to "Texarkana." And Dallas of course isn't going to want to lose a technological arms race...
But I also wanted to tell a larger story against a backdrop that would allow for both drama and comedy, and enable the sort of larger-than-life action sequences comics do so well. "Texarkana" is really the story of Simon Hills, and how he changes after becoming an Adjudicator.
Ellis: So you plan to make Tex a series of graphic novels? Do you have a set number of volumes in mind?
Neighly: "Texarkana" is formatted as a series of six graphic novels. Like the "Star Wars" films, each volume stands alone, but also tells part of a larger story. There's a natural break point with the third book, and depending on reader response or creator fatigue we might stop there. But there will definitely be at least three annual volumes by the same creative team. Donny and I are currently plugging away at Volume 2.
Ellis: How did you hook up with artist Donny Hadiwidjaja for the project?
Neighly: I put an ad on Digital Webbing. After tossing out 99% of the responses, I talked with a few of the remaining guys and eventually just clicked with Donny. His art will appeal to the mainstream while being idiosyncratic enough for my personal taste, and more to the point he's a great guy and fiercely dedicated. We're working on several projects right now, but most of the next two years will be concentrating on "Texarkana" and "The Supernaturalists" series. Donny and I just fit together really well, and I have no doubt we'll be carrying these books to their conclusion despite the uncertainties of the independent scene.
Ellis: I knew a writer once who used to point out how certain modern figures, when their label was uttered, motivated a sense of duty and valour. One was Mountie, another was Texas Ranger. Mountie I can understand but was never at all fond of Chuck Norris and big belt buckles, so why Texas? What's the appeal? Last bastion of the West?
Neighly: It's a variety of factors. I've always found Westerns to be dull, but cowboy iconography works even when divorced from the setting. Here it serves to root the setting into a familiar visual space, which means the reader will bring a lot of baggage to the book that I can allude to without having to take time to spell out.
Texas just seemed like a logical replacement capital for Washington, especially if you consider the state's current influence. Again, there's a lot of shorthand there, which frees me up to tell the story with a minimum of world building. As soon as you write "Location: Dallas," the reader will understand the subtext whether you're 100 years in the past or 100 years in the future.
It also sets the characters up to be traditional heroes, and they're not. They're silly. They're not exceptionally bright. They barely piece this first case together. Playing against expectations is fun. I've noticed that some readers don't seem to pick up on this, and it skews their entire reading of the book. "Texarkana" doesn't make sense played straight, and I think those readers have perhaps been done a disservice by reading too many superhero comics.
Ellis: Let's focus on the main set of characters here, Simon Hills: Executer. Barry Masters: Prosecutor. Maria Lopez: Barrister, and Helen Fairbrass: Adjudicator. Simon is our viewpoint character whom you describe as a bit of optimist but seems to come off as someone oblivious to some of the things occurring around him, and just how true to the definition of 'executor' does his role really play?
Neighly: Again, this is the sort of question I can't really answer without spoiling the ultimate story of "Texarkana." Simon does come off a little oblivious at first, but it's in keeping with the character's emotional journey. None of these four will end the series where they started it. His role as executor is symbolically important to the overall multi-volume story, and that's all I can really say at this point. Masters and Lopez are both placed in ironic roles, and again, you won't really begin to see how that pans out until the second volume, although there are hints in the first instalment.
But I can address one part of the "oblivious" observation, and that's that I hate perfect characters. If your characters can't make mistakes, they're not human. I think that's ultimately the difference between mindless escapism and intelligent genre entertainment - why "The Empire Strikes Back" is vastly better than "The Phantom Menace." Although it wasn't conscious at the time, if we go back over my small back catalogue - essentially Year One of my self-publishing experience - we'll find that most of the characters don't actually play a proactive role in the plot. They're reactive, and if anything their heroism comes from being good people despite their personal situations. I know some people hate passive protagonists, but that's life. That's "Mrs. Dalloway" over "Superman," I guess.
Ellis: Many self-publishers don't have a head for marketing whereas you have placed an emphasis on it, smart move. While some do no promotion at all, what drove you to get so involved?
Neighly: If you don't market, you die. Few people are going to pre-order a book they've never heard of, and few retailers are going to bother stocking it. But the mechanics of marketing are difficult, especially if there's little budgeting for advertising. There's no point in pursuing banner ads without a stocked website to support it, and even then you're only ever reaching a minute segment of the potential audience. Print advertising in Previews and Wizard simply does not offer ROI [Return On Investment] on a specific basis, so they're black holes for your cash unless you're publishing monthly or maintaining a large back catalogue and need to create brand awareness.
The key is intelligent marketing. Let me give you an example. Let's say you want to target retailers directly with your limited advertising dollar. That's an admirable first step; retailers are the true customers for any publisher in a non-returnable environment. They're the gateway between you and your readers - retailers who stock you more deeply are more likely to widen your readership; retailers who decline to stock you effectively eliminate your chances for readership in their market.
But there are an estimated 2,500 retailers out there, and you don't have enough money to target them all. Well, that's fine, because the sad truth is that the vast majority of them aren't going to order your book anyway. Any marketing effort on their behalf is a pointless waste of money. Something like "Subatomic" is not going to sell in a superhero shop, but it might sell in a comic shop. To market effectively, you've got to learn which shops are which, and focus your efforts accordingly.
So now we're down to around 500 stores at most. These are the guys who order the larger small press books with any degree of regularity. Now, you can have Diamond forward them your sales materials, but I've heard far too many anecdotal stories of retailers simply throwing away the promo pack without even bothering to screen it for interesting items. So you'll probably want to communicate with those 500 retailers directly.
One of the things I did for "Subatomic" was print postcards with the book's cover on the front, and some interior art, sales blurbs and ordering information on the back. I mailed one of these to each of those 500 stores, to help distinguish the book from the zillion others they would be considering that month. I also compiled small blocks of postcards to ship to what I determined were the 50 most influential retailers for a project like "Subatomic." These shops put the postcards on the counter for their customers to take, and I made some sales that way.
For "Texarkana," I stepped that up a notch to include full-colour posters to support the book. I sent them to select accounts myself, and had Diamond ship them to about 1,000 retailers in those risky promo packs. We'll see how that does. Will retailers re-stock the book to take advantage of the posters? We'll see.
These are very no-frills marketing approaches that can pay off in the long run. Even something as simple as postcard notification can be the difference between a retailer ordering a single unit versus no units, and that can have a lot of impact across the total market if you're a small publisher. And even then, we're talking about the bare minimum effort for survival. Most of the people reading this interview probably haven't heard of my books.
The "pimp it" method doesn't work for me, I'm afraid. I simply don't have the personality to track message boards on a daily basis or establish a cult of personality like some creators and publishers do. I don't know that there's anything wrong with that necessarily, but it's just something I don't have the time or energy to do.
The simplest marketing you can do is to attend conventions, especially if you're smart about which ones you go to and how you present your material. Convention sales for all of my books contribute significantly to my overall sales. Readers at conventions are starved for original material, and far more likely to take a chance on a new book at a show than they are at their local retailer. This is especially true at the larger conventions, which attract thousands of readers whose local retailers simply don't stock independent books beyond the occasional copy of "Queen & Country."
Ellis: "Supernaturalists," we'll start with the graphic novel, which has a very unique flavour as it were. Though it's a vampire story there's no Goth poetry or silly rituals, it's really more... straightforward I suppose. Could you tell the readers a little about the book and what led you to mix the roaring twenties and vampires into a murder mystery?
Neighly: I've read a few reviews of "The Supernaturalists" that criticized it for straying too far from the vampire mythos, but frankly Garth Ennis skewered the Anne Rice camp magnificently in "Preacher" and there's not a lot of point going back. "Straightforward" is a good description of the book - this is my attempt at straightforward and it turns out that plays really well with new readers.
"The Supernaturalists" is basically a movie on paper, if I can hypocritically backtrack for a moment. It's basically a period detective piece set in the 1920s, partly because I love the period but largely because it represents a cultural turning point between the past and the modern era that opens up new avenues for looking at these people with incredible longevity. The culture was fairly static until around the turn of the century, and the '20s saw the first modern generation come into full swing. Look at how difficult it is for our grandparents to adapt to the present and consider the problems vampires would face adapting to change after decades or centuries of homogeneity. Most of them would not be able to adapt to the sudden burst of cultural change.
The setting has caused some less knowledgeable reviewers to call it a noir mystery, which is going to create some strange reading experiences! It's not noir by about a decade in setting, and specifically not noir in construction!
Ellis: Then there's the series, which, stylistically is quite a divergence from the graphic novel. Not just art wise but concept as well, a sexier package I could say. Had you always intended to make such a change in course when planning out the continuation of the story into a series?
Neighly: I had originally planned for the book to be followed up by two sequels, which would have mapped out a completely different story to the one I'm going to tell now. But when I conceived of the new story, I knew it was going to require a radically different approach. The tone and atmosphere of the series is radically different to the graphic novel, to the point that we're launching with a new pilot. The events of the graphic novel still happened, but in the same way that "Buffy" the series linked to Buffy the movie.
The series' core concept is much sexier than the graphic novel, and it basically demanded a supercharged art style that would convey the tone immediately. It's had an immediate effect, because our plans were derailed somewhat when a major publisher expressed a strong interest in picking the series up. We'll see what happens. I have an embarrassing track record of turning publishers down for these projects, but frankly there's an energy to what we're doing with "The Supernaturalists" that demands a bigger platform than I can provide through Mad Yak Press. We were going to launch in December, but that's been sidelined by the publishing question.
Ellis: For those interested, how might you describe Edgar and Esme?
Neighly: They're a supernatural version of "The Thin Man," more or less. He's a human detective; she's a vampire socialite. The series explores this dynamic as life and death writ large. The graphic novel is fairly straightforward, but the series undermines our expectations of the characters as types and even our understanding of what it is to be alive. Edgar and Esme anchor "The Supernaturalists," and I'm having a lot of fun with their verbal sparring.
Ellis: Earlier you mentioned "trying to push further into the formal aspects of the medium" with the upcoming ongoing series. Do you mean "formal" as in "traditional" or something else?
Neighly: I'm talking about the language of comics, which is rarely explored in the mainstream. Adventure comics essentially work within a single dialect, if you will, playing out in a traditional narrative borrowed from film. Very few creators tinker with the basic language of superhero books, which have become increasingly constrained as fashion tosses out tools such as thought balloons and omniscient narration. I'm interested in exploring what the medium can do while remaining in service to the narrative; playing with compression and layout and panel sequencing. I imagine I'll be deep into "The Supernaturalists" series before this really comes to the fore. This is a good project for exploring the formal aspects of comics because I've found a way to integrate experimentation thematically.
Ellis: Let's talk about your column Paper Curtain for Newsarama for a minute. Firstly I admire your tenacity for taking it upon yourself, for both of us, who have hectic schedules outside of what people see on the web, committing yourself to any sort of regular deadline is a feat. I also look upon promoting quality work as one of my main purposes with interviews such as this and other features, I have pages upon pages of stuff written for books no one has heard of that I'm still working on, so seeing others work toward that specific goal is great. What initially drove you to starting this campaign and how has it helped your own work?
Neighly: The moment I realized I wanted to do the column was coming across Stephen Buell's "Video" at the Alternative Press Expo earlier this year. I was annoyed that I hadn't heard of it, and that fed into my frustration with the coverage of independent work in the online community. There's a lemming mentality to fandom that extends to media coverage; about twice a year the community seems to select a random book that will do the rounds, and that's that. If I ask you to name a colour self-published graphic novel, you're going to pick "The Interman." Which is fine, it's a good book. But whenever the community wants to look in on that scene, even now, they'll cluster around that book instead of trying to see what other people are doing with colour. And good for Jeff Parker; it's a nice book. It's not his fault that the online community is lazy. We see this constantly - heaven help you if you've got a slice of life book coming out when the online community have already decided "Blankets" gets the indie slot for the season. Meanwhile, there's always time for covering the latest issue of "Green Lantern."
So finding "Video" was frustrating, because it's a great book and Buell has a unique voice. It deserved coverage, and I'm proud that it's beginning to get a degree of recognition now that I've introduced it to the online dialog. I try to select books that I think mainstream readers might enjoy, which does leave out a large chunk of the independent scene that I personally enjoy. At it's best, the column is introducing books like "Club Zero-G" or "Tiempos Finales" and letting the creators explain why they'll appeal to "JLA" fans who might want to try something new. Baby steps.
I don't know that the column has helped my own work, because I focus the interviews on other creators. One or two instalments aside, I'm working under the radar. It's not about me - it's about strengthening the industry. Maybe that helps me indirectly.
Ellis: Before we go how about a word on upcoming projects such as "First Lady" and "Zoe?"
Neighly: "Zoe" is a children's book that subverts some fairy tale archetypes. Zoe is an orphan who is sent to live with a long-lost uncle on a mysterious island inhabited by famous monsters. She befriends some of their children at school, and together they solve mysteries. The first volume will be out next year.
"First Lady" is also due next year, a graphic novel about sixteen-year-old Julia Platt waking up one morning to discover that she is the president of the United States. I'm working on this one with Stephen Buell; you can tell how impressed I was with "Video!"
Thanks Patrick. For more information on Mad Yak titles, including ordering information and previews, be sure to visit Mad Yak Press.com.