A recipient of a 2009 Xeric Foundation grant, cartoonist Joshua Smeaton wasted little time in moving his comic Haunted from the Web, where the story has unfolded for the past two years, and into print.
Beautifully illustrated and colored, Haunted centers on a group of middle-school friends who want nothing more than to sneak into a high-school Halloween party being thrown at an abandoned mansion. But once they get there, they soon discover that they’re not the only uninvited guests. (Smeaton has described it as “like Goonies in a haunted house.”)
Smeaton, who lives outside of Tampa, Florida, took some time over the weekend to talk about the graphic novel, which is listed in November’s Previews (order code: NOV090896).
I believe I only became aware of Haunted back in July, when you received a Xeric Foundation grant. When did you begin working on it, and how long has it appeared online?
I originally wrote Haunted as a screenplay with the idea in the back of my head that I would eventually draw it as a comic. That was around 2003/2004. I started putting Haunted online in July 2007.
The orientation of the pages and the division into issues suggest that Haunted was destined for print from the start. Was the move online a matter of economics? Had you shopped the comic to publishers?
I had always planned for Haunted to be printed. But I knew that was going to be a ways off. So the idea of putting it online and having it immediately available to people was appealing. It would also enable Haunted to find an audience while I was working on it as opposed to just releasing it cold as a book.
When I initially sat down to draw Haunted I got about 30 pages in to it. I had sent some of those pages along with a synopsis to a handful of publishers. I didn’t get anyone that was interested though Brett Warnock at Top Shelf was encouraging. At some point I realized I was unhappy with the way it looked and I could do better. So even though I had done a lot of work I decided to scrap it and start completely over.
Haunted‘s prologue clearly establishes a supernatural backdrop, but much of the first four issues is a funny and charming slice-of-life tale about a group of middle-schoolers. How did the story evolve? Were these two separate stories, and genres, that came together, or did you know from the beginning that they’d be intertwined?
It was always one idea. It evolved from me wanting to write a kid’s haunted-house story. I also wanted you to know the characters a bit before just throwing them in to a fantastic situation. And I wanted choices and motivations to be believable. Not just “I dare you to go in to that spooky house.”
You’ve mentioned on your Livejournal that you’ve redrawn some characters and other elements — and even hinted that you might redo a whole page — for the print edition. Are those things that have bothered you all along, or that you only really noticed as you were preparing the collection?
A few jumped out when I was putting the collection together but most were things that bugged me all along. Typically it’s just a panel here and there but there was one page I completely redrew. Had it been just a random page I probably wouldn’t have redone the whole thing but it was a pretty significant page and I wanted it to have the right impact.
Did you find it difficult to let go — to say, “All right, it’s done” and send it to the printer? Are you one of those artists who can fuss endlessly over a page?
I’m getting better at letting go. I find it best to keep moving forward even if that means coming back later to fix something. If I worked on a page until I thought it was perfect I’d still be on the first page.
I doubt that I’ll ever draw something that I won’t come back to later and see where it could be improved. Which isn’t to say I’m unhappy with my work. I do occasionally feel like I’ve knocked one out of the park. I think that’s the nature of most artists: the desire to hopefully continue to improve and grow. I bet even someone as amazing as J.H. Williams sees things in his own work that he wants to make better.
You’ve left more than four issues worth of Haunted online, even as you’re soliciting the print collection. Did you ever worry that people may not buy what they can read online for free, or do you think we’re safely past that perceived web-to-print hurdle?
There will always be the folks that read online and that’s the end of their involvement. And that’s fine. I do the same with a lot of stuff. But there are those that I seek out and want a print version of the work. When people buy my or whoever else’s book it’s their way of being a part of it and saying, “I support what you do.” Music is a bit like that, too. I can listen to a song on the radio. Sometimes it’s available for free download or maybe I’ll even buy it. But if I’m a fan I want to go see their live show. Perhaps I’ll buy a t-shirt because that band and their music is something that I identify with. In a way it’s kind of an extension of my personality.
Likewise, I’m offering something the reader isn’t getting on line or the radio. Not everyone feels the need to own a book but there are plenty that do and prefer that experience to reading online. I’m also in the process of putting together a digital version of Haunted that will be available through Clickwheel.net. I’m pretty excited about it. I think it offers a satisfying digital reading experience that really hasn’t been tapped into yet.
Aside from some redrawn elements and more colored pages, what’s new or different in the print edition?
There’s a bonus section that offers behind-the-scenes stuff as well as some rare or unseen bits.
The Xeric grant provides you with money to help publish your comic, but you still have to assemble it, deal with the printer and distributor, and market it to stores and readers. How has that experience been? Is it as daunting as you imagined? What have you learned from the experience?
It’s definitely more involved than I anticipated. I had a lot of it planned out pretty well but there are always things you don’t anticipate or don’t go according to plan. It’s been fascinating being involved with a book on pretty much every level. From just a vague idea to a finished book anyone can buy off the shelf at their local comic shop.
I love the idea that anyone can make comics. It takes a lot of work to make something worthwhile but if you put in enough time and effort it pays off.
What’s next for you after Haunted‘s release? A second volume, or another project?
There will be another volume of Haunted. I’ll be working on it for a bit. After that I’ve got some ideas for other books but one thing at a time.
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