Talking with Archaia Studios Press' Mark Smylie

Most people don't just up and start their own comic book publishing company simply because they'd like their work to be a little bit more colorful-but then again most people don't have the talent, energy, smarts and unabashed creative enthusiasm for the field as "Artesia" Creator/Writer/Artist and Archaia Studios Press' Founder and Publisher Mark Smylie.

Smylie, already regarded as a substantive comics talent - he was nominated for a Russ Manning Award for Best Newcomer in 1999 (which he didn't win), as well as scoring a 2001 Eisner Award nod for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition (which, again, Smylie lost out on, this time to Alex Robison's work on "Box Office Poison") - by both fans and industry pros alike, reasoned that he was in possession of enough business savvy and god-given common sense to launch his own imprint. Archaia Studios Press (ASP) launched in 2002 to function as the new creative home for his continuing epic fantasy saga, "Artesia," when the title's then publisher, Sirius Entertainment, informed him that, in an attempt to keep costs down, they intended to publish the third volume in the series, "Artesia Afire," in black and white rather than color.

But the chore of "self-publishing," as Smylie would soon discover, proved itself to be a slippery slope, because it wasn't long - out of equal parts necessity and entrepreneurialism - before the New Jersey based painter realized that simply putting out his own work, regardless of how critically acclaimed it was, simply wouldn't be enough, and, along with business partner Aki Liao, began actively searching for both new and existing material to publish under the ASP banner.

It didn't take Smylie and Liao very much time at all to find a few offerings that were exactly like what they were looking for, adding three new titles - David Petersen's "Mouse Guard," Alex Sheikman's "Robotika," and A. David Lewis and mpMann's "The Lone And Level Sands," - to further broaden and bolster the burgeoning ASP brand in 2005.

With a new Artesia series on tap for 2006, "Artesia Besieged," as well as a slew of additional titles slated to appear under the Archaia Studios Press banner in 2006 and early 2007, CBR News caught up with the busy Creator/Publisher to get the skinny on just exactly what types of comics Archaia Studios Press aims to produce.

CBR News: First, Mark, let's get something straight here: the first two "Artesia" series, "Artesia" and "Artesia Afield," were originally published by Sirius Entertainment, and only the third, "Artesia Afire," through your own Archaia Studios Press, correct?

Mark Smylie: Yup, I was originally published by Sirius (at the time they were also publishing "Dawn," "Poison Elves," "Scary Godmother," "Akiko," and a bunch of other great titles). I approached them back in 1998 with the first and then second issues of the original "Artesia" series, and felt I was really lucky to be joining a nice line-up of creator-owned properties.

CBR: So then what led you to finally branch out on your own? Did you have any seconds thoughts or reservations before taking the plunge into the World of Self-Publishing?

MS: Well, when I left Sirius, I think I had self-publishing as a distant second choice to finding another publisher. My relationship with Sirius was a good one, but at the time I think their financial situation was getting a little tight and they wanted to do the third series in black & white, rather than in color. That didn't seem a desirable alternative to me, so despite my fondness for Sirius as a company and for Robb Horan and Larry Salamone personally, finding a new publisher became a necessity. But I also had a self-imposed timeline of when I wanted the next series to start coming out, and nothing fell into place before the deadline came, and I wanted the third series to be in stores by the 2004 convention season. Once I started self-publishing, I knew that expanding to include other books by other authors should be part of the game plan, if I lasted that long.

CBR: About how long does each "Artesia" series usual take you to complete?

MS: At least a solid year of work. Painting each issue takes at least two months, barring major interruptions (so convention season is always a bit hectic and tends to throw me off the pace). I usually take a few months after finishing a series to put the annual together and do things that have piled up in the meantime.

CBR: Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself personally, Mark. Where do you hail from, your background - both in and out of the field of comics - your artistic influences, etc.?

MS: I was born in Florida, but grew up in New Jersey, where I still set up shop. "Artesia" was actually my first published work. Since the comic came out I've done freelance work for gaming companies such as White Wolf and Wizards of the Coast, but never for other comics (it takes too long to paint a comic for me to be able to really consider outside comics projects).

I tend to pull my art influences from all over the place - European comic artists like Marini, Bilal, Frezzato, and Serpieri, manga artists like Shirow Masamune or Miyazaki, 19th century painters like Rossetti, Lord Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Mucha, or the Symbolists, American pin-up artists like Gil Elvgren. I mean, I don't think my work looks like theirs, but I suppose that's the point, to look at art and be inspired by it but not copy it.

CBR: If I had to sum your "Artesia" series up in a single sentence, I suppose calling it a "grand fantasy saga in the epic tradition" would probably serve the purpose. So, were you a big fantasy fan as a kid? Favorites in that particular genre?

MS: Oh, sure, I was a huge fantasy fan as a kid. J.R.R, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, Robert Asprin - I read a bunch of fantasy and SF books during my impressionable formative years, and topped it off by playing roleplaying games. I think my future aspirations were pretty much preordained at that point.

CBR: On the ASP website your bio bills you as a "self-taught" artist. I'm curious, how exactly did you go about doing that? At what age did you start actively learning/researching your craft?

MS: I was an English major in college and a college dropout to boot (I went to Columbia in New York for four years, but never graduated)…

CBR: You're parents must have loved that?

MS: [laughing] Yeah, needless to say that didn't make a lot of sense to them. By my thinking I had gotten what I needed from Columbia, which was not simply what they were teaching in class, but essentially a method of learning, a method of critical thinking, and you don't need a piece of paper to use it. Besides, I'd pretty much figured by that point that I wanted to go into comics, or writing, or some other creative field, and those tend to be portfolio-based, not resume-based fields. In other words, you can have a degree from a great school, but if your portfolio sucks, no one's going to hire you. And for a would-be writer/artist with a liberal arts degree is, in my mind, of limited value; it would've made far more sense, from an artist's perspective, to go to an art school. I had taken enough art classes in high school and college to have some of the basics down. My high school in particular had a pretty good arts program - printmaking, oil painting, sculpture, etc. - but our art teachers always tried to get us not to draw comics when my buddies and I used to turn our hands in that direction, it was much more of "fine arts" curriculum.

When I decided to try my hand at a comic, I wound up experimenting with different ways of working in color in a comics format. I did the first issue or so of "Artesia" using mostly colored pencil and the occasional watercolor wash, and as I got more comfortable with watercolor I dropped the use of colored pencil until nowadays I only use it for a few specific effects and color tones. I read some books on watercolor painting and color theory, but it was mostly trial-and-error, nothing particularly amusing about it.

CBR: Sid the 2001 Eisner nomination you received for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition lead to any actual wider recognition for your work?

MS: [laughing] Actually it didn't help at all, not that I can tell. I think it adds a little stamp of approval in some people's eyes, but I don't think it helped much in terms of sales.

CBR: Okay, Mark, what are the goals you've set out for ASP? And what types of comics are you looking/hoping to publish?

MS: Well, first off I think we consider ourselves a genre publisher, in that we're looking mostly for books in the fantasy and science fiction genres. There are enough companies putting out superhero books, and the true indie/alternative market already has some great companies like Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, Slave Labor, and Oni, so there didn't seem to be much reason to try duplicating their work. Fantasy and Science Fiction remain, in my mind, underserved genres in the comics medium, as a lot of the books that are in that genre are really just superhero books in disguise. We're looking for noir and mystery stories as well, as that's a genre that Aki Liao, my business partner, and I both enjoy…

CBR: Noir, eh. See, I never would've guessed that about you simply from reading your work, Mark…since it's all fantasy based/influence. What are some of your favorite Film Noir movies? Books?

MS: Well, I read Chandler and Hammett when I was younger, and nowadays it's James Ellroy and Walter Mosley. And some British mystery writers like Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith. I don't think Aki reads too many of the British school of mysteries, he tends to be a bit more hardboiled. I think my favorite film noir would be Welles' "Touch of Evil." So with those as cultural touchstones, we're looking for something up those lines to add to the fantasy and SF we're currently putting out. Historical or religious fiction like "The Lone and Level Sands" also has some appeal to us. We're drawn to books with idiosyncratic, personal art and stories - works that really reflect the artist and writer, works that can be described as "labors of love." Books that seem too formulaic, or that have more commonplace looks and themes, will be less interesting to us than works that take risks and chances with storyline, art, even presentation (such as David Petersen's square format for "Mouse Guard").

CBR: Okay, free press time here, Mark: Talk a little (or a lot, if you like) about everything that ASP has put out thus far; is currently putting out; will be putting out in the not-too-distant future?

MS: Sure. We just started putting out our first non-"Artesia" titles, including "Mouse Guard," an all-ages fantasy story about a small corps of mice that undertake hazardous missions to protect their mice brethren from predators and other forest dangers, written and illustrated by David Petersen, and "Robotika," a Steampunk samurai western written and illustrated by Alex Sheikman (with colors by Joel Chua). We've also put out a color edition of "The Lone and Level Sands," a graphic novel retelling the Book of Exodus from the Pharaoh's point of view. A. David Lewis wrote and self-published the black and white edition, with Marv Mann doing the illustrations, and we brought on board a talented colorist named Jennifer Rodgers to color our edition. The original edition is on the shortlist of nominees for the Howard E. Day Memorial Prize, and the color edition has been nominated for a Glyph Award for Best Reprint Publication and for Best Graphic Novel of 2005 in the annual ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards. We've got a few series in the works for later in 2006 and 2007, including a new "Iron Empires" series written by Chris Moeller and drawn by Peter Bergting, and are in negotiations to bring over translations of several European titles, including a feudal samurai fantasy book called "Okko" by a French writer/artist named Hub, and what we hope will be our first actual noir/crime book, a series called "The Killer" by Luc Jacamon and Matz ("Le Tueur" in the original French).

CBR: Let's talk a little about pitching then, because on your website it more or less says that ASP is actively encouraging pitches. So, what exactly would you like to see from any creators who might be thinking of approaching Archaia with their series? Does the pitch have to be more or less a "finished product," i.e. both a writer and an artist firmly attached, most of the series already in the can, maybe even letterer, colored, etc.?

MS: Yeah, ideally for us - or that matter any publisher dealing with creator-owned projects - the more complete the project is, the better. You can read a script and kind of imagine how it might work out, but in the end a great script doesn't guarantee a great comic, it's all in the final execution. So the more finished a project is, the better you can gauge whether there might be an audience for it. We still get proposals all the time for ideas and scripts that don't yet have artists attached to them or a single page finished, and we can try to be encouraging to projects that seem interesting, but we're not really set up to go out and put together writing and drawing teams, nor will we be able to commit to publishing a book until we've seen a finished first issue (at least in most cases; there are occasional exceptions to that). We're going to try putting out only color books, so most black and white books we'll have to turn down unless we think the art will take a colorist well, and if the financial outlook for the book seems to justify the added expense.

MS: Do you actively attempt to search out new talent/material to publish?

CBR: Yeah, we do. In addition to official submissions, I also usually try to look around at every convention I attend to see if there's anything interesting that we might be able to publish, and as I mentioned Aki and I are also now actively looking overseas to license the US publishing rights to some interesting foreign titles that haven't been published in the States yet.

CBR: With all that's on your plate at the moment, Mark, do you still have time to read many comics? If so, what books are you currently enjoying reading at the moment?

MS: Actually, I'm terribly behind in my current comics reading, or even purchasing. I used to be pretty good about getting a batch of new comics every month, but the last nine months or so have been so hectic I've barely been able to find the time to order books. Normally I tend to gravitate more towards fantasy and science fiction - books like "Finder," "Age of Bronze," "Thieves & Kings," "Rex Mundi," with "Hellboy" and "100 Bullets" (there's that noir/crime thing again) being the closest to mainstream comics that I'll read. I'll miss the individual issues of "Finder" now that Carla [Speed McNeil]'s only printing them in graphic novel collections; I think that was the most unfortunate example of the (unintended?) consequences of a distributor's policy decisions. If the art's really intriguing I'll also pick up a book as reference material, so painted European books like "Raptors" from NBM or "Keepers of the Mazer" from Heavy Metal, or Japanese manga by Shirow or Miyazaki, will usually make my list as well. But like I said, I'm really behind in my current reading.

CBR: In the most ideal of possible futures, let's say that it's five years from today, where do you hope to see ASP as a publisher?

MS: Well, still around, I hope, given the life expectancy of most comic ventures. We're hoping to build ASP slowly, adding a new title once or twice a quarter, so five years from now it'd be wonderful to have a fairly deep catalogue of comics and graphic novels under our belts and have a slate of titles coming out every month. [laughing] And it'd be nice to have a real office with an actual staff. In the south of France. But we have to keep reminding ourselves "small steps, small steps," and to not get ahead of ourselves either. Call it the pragmatic approach.

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