THE KICKSTAND: Horror in Black and White

One of the great things about Kickstarter is it can provide a platform for really interesting stories that are so far out of the mainstream that they might never find an audience through the traditional channels. "Flesh of White," by Erica Heflin and Amanda Rachels, is just that type of project; it's a horror story about an albino child born in Tanzania, where people with albinism are regarded as ghost -- and are sometimes killed so their bodies can be used for magical purposes. They use this real-world situation as the setting for their story, which is a conflict among individuals.

I talked to Heflin and Rachels about why they chose this particular subject, how they researched it and how they are using Kickstarter as a platform to publish it.

CBR News: My first question is how you got the idea for the story. This is not something I had ever heard of before --

Erica Helfin: I've been loosely planning to visit Tanzania for over a decade. Every few months I'd hop online, search for places to go, companies that offer tours, and travelers' feedback. I believe it was during one of these searches where I first stumbled across a small article about the death of a young girl with albinism in Tanzania. The article made it clear that this wasn't an irregular occurrence, so I followed the trail of stories as best I could. At the time, there was little to find -- at least in English -- but there are some stories that you can't shake from your memory.

Amanda Rachels: I took a bit of teasing as a kid because I was so pale; I suppose that's what sparked my curiosity about albinism to begin with. I found it in all its forms to be a thing of unique beauty and I read about it a great deal. I didn't realize that the condition was so stigmatized until 5 or 6 years ago when I learned of the persecution of those afflicted in Tanzania and several other African countries. It became something that I really felt the need to tell a story about -- as a way of processing it myself -- but it had to be the right story and that's what Erica gave me.

This is a very dramatic topic, but were you concerned about playing into stereotypes about witch doctors and African life? How did you avoid that?
Helfin: In media we often see witch doctors presented as caricatured versions of themselves, but they are real people who are living in and playing a role in the development of Africa. As I learned more about the relationship between superstition and psychology and how it the two come together in rural Tanzania, I also had to learn about the men who become witch doctors. These men are an amalgam of businessman and spiritual leader, which gives them terrifying power, but also allows you insight into the motivations that can drive them. For "Flesh of White," I needed to unlock the components that drive our Witch Doctor's decisions and by doing that he became an organic character -- flawed, powerful and driven.

Rachels: The last few books I have drawn have been pretty straightforward horror stories, but they were also wildly based in fantasy so I could go a little crazy with them. This one is very different in that I don't want the extreme situation to overpower the characters and their humanity. I just want to portray them all, as an artist, in the most truthful way that I can. I tried to familiarize myself with real information on African life -- no vague ideas or stereotypes went into crafting it so I hope none are inferred when reading it. I suppose it's hard to say "witch doctor" without making an automatic negative association, but one must consider the fact that European witchcraft and African witchcraft are entirely different things. There are different types of magic -- good and bad -- however, the first witch doctor we meet in the story is quite clearly in the bad camp.

What sort of research did you do to prepare for this comic?

Helfin: I was particularly interested in the psychology of witchcraft in Africa, so I needed to hunt out books on the subject. They're not at your fingertips like many books are nowadays. I went digging through print books that were first hand accounts from travelers through Africa, studied the few news reports that were available and spoke to a couple of associates who've done mission work in the region. Understanding working life, education and the relationship between men and women played an important role in building the story.

Rachels: I studied the Tanzanian environment, culture, dress, rituals, etc., online and at my beloved local library to prepare for the visual side. Honestly, this is an intense story, so for my own mental health I invested in some good cheery music and a few boxes of tissues, because I wept buckets over a couple of pages. That wasn't so much research but an important prep element for me.

Will there be a supernatural aspect to this, or does the horror come simply from human nature?

Helfin: There is a strong supernatural element to the story. The magic of those moments, for good and ill, plants us firmly in a fictionalized world where our relationships with other living beings defines us. But the horror of the comic doesn't come in the form of the supernatural. It comes definitively from the heart of men. It comes in the form of devaluing human life. It comes from overwhelming loss. The supernatural is a part of the story, but the horror is most certainly from within ourselves.

Why did you choose the single-issue comics format, rather than releasing the whole story at once as a graphic novel?

Helfin: Actually, when I first considered the story, I was planning to create an over-sized one-shot. As I researched and outlined, I quickly discovered that there was no way to trim it down without losing important moments in the story. After getting Amanda's okay to expand the scope, I outlined the story and looked at the specific beats. What I discovered was that there were mini-stories within the overarching plot. We decided then that the single issue format would make best use of the story structure.

Rachels: In addition to the format really working for the story, there was a practical benefit for me. I'm working on more than one project at once and recently finished a graphic novel that was done as a single release.  I'm enjoying the chance to work in a single-issue format on this book; it makes it much more manageable for me while pulling double duty on art and color. 
Another contributing factor is that periodical offerings on Kickstarter are rare, if they are available at all. We intend to release each issue at least quarterly, giving backers more of a sense of the traditional comic schedule. Given the time required to create a long-form comic, releasing it in single issues allows for a "pay-as-you-go" model that actually makes it financially feasible to produce the book on an ongoing basis without interrupting work on it for other, for-pay projects. This method also ensures our backers will get a finished comic and their chosen rewards in their hands (or on their computers) within the relatively short time frames stated in our campaign. Most of the work on "Flesh of White" #1 is completed already, nearly 3 weeks before the campaign itself ends, so it will go to print as soon as we know exactly how many of each version are necessary to print (once all pledges are in), and fulfillment will begin immediately once we have the books in-hand. In fact, my task immediately following the answers to these questions is to draw the final page. I'm so very excited!

Inverse Press has backed 29 Kickstarter projects. Were you involved in that, and if so, why did you do this, and what have you learned about Kickstarter from being on the other side?

Helfin: I've supported many Kickstarters independent of my comic work. I'm a huge advocate of the growing independent comic market and feel that as a comic community we can only grow and improve by supporting these smaller scale projects. I've read many stories that may not have the broad audience appeal demanded by major publishers, but that are still incredible works of passion. Helping people in a small way to bring these projects to life brings me great joy.

Rachels: Yes, I was involved in that, chipping in on backing a number of those projects that interested me or that involved fellow creators whose work I admired and wanted to support. In some cases, the project spoke to me ("Snowbird: A Graphic Novel"; "The Outliers"; "The Astronomer"). Others involved independent publishers with whom I'd worked at some point (and still do, in some cases), such as Reading With Pictures and Grayhaven Comics. Of course, I was naturally curious to see what established pros like Gail Simone, Amy Reeder, David Gallaher/Steve Ellis and Jimmy Palmiotti/Justin Gray would produce for Kickstarter campaigns, as well. It's been hugely educational -- and just downright rewarding -- participating as a backer on Kickstarter in addition to as a creator.

Foremost, I've learned how it feels to receive that package in the mail and the Christmas-morning-excitement of ripping it open to get to all the good DIY stuff within! It's a different feeling than cracking open a bag of comics from the LCS -- not to take anything away from that! I also know how it feels when a project is not produced as promised in the Kickstarter campaign, whether it is different than described or just never arrives, and that sort of letdown is not something I will repeat for our backers. Our goal is to have each issue completely produced by the end of the Kickstarter campaign, avoiding delays and adhering tightly to our descriptions of products and rewards. We do extensive research and planning on our offerings well in advance of launch to ensure we know what we're creating, how we'll go about it, and where it will be manufactured and for what cost.

What have you learned about Kickstarter since this campaign began?

Helfin: Running a Kickstarter campaign is definitely like tackling another job. If you plan to succeed, you're going to spend hours each day promoting and talking about your project. Given that, it's important to make sure you'll run a campaign when you have the time to put into it.
Rachels: Primarily, that it is the proverbial marathon, as opposed to the sprint. Our campaign started fast, better than we could have ever hoped, but then funding plateaued after the first week. It's been a trickle since then, but we appreciate every single dollar pledged. And we have diligently, doggedly stuck to our schedule of updates, media contacts and networking in order to keep the project in the awareness of potential backers. To succeed on Kickstarter, you have to brainstorm and adapt on a daily basis before and during your campaign in order to keep it going and avoid stagnation. That's what we're doing, and it seems to be working.


What's the big idea? It's a dark-superhero story with an animal-rights twist: The superhero rescues abused animals and wreaks havoc on their abusers. The story will be told across four single-issue comics, all funded by this Kickstarter.

Moving force: Writer Matt Miner, who does animal rescue work in New York City and has backed 29 Kickstarter projects so far.

Selling point: For those who are concerned about animal rights, there is a visceral satisfaction in seeing animals rescued and brought to justice. Beyond that, Liberator is a superhero story with a twist that is original, but doesn't take it too far from the original content. What really makes it shine, though, is the art (sample here), which is truly professional quality -- not as common as one would like on Kickstarter.

Premiums: Miner has tapped into the huge community of advocates for animal rights for a ton of premiums that go way beyond copies of the comic and trading cards. A digital copy of issue 1 of the comic is $10, a signed and numbered print copy of issue 1 is $25, and the full four issues will set you back $40. At the $50 level, Miner offers a digital bundle of the first four issues plus a print edition of the trade. At this point the premiums explode, with sketches, variant covers, and at the upper levels, special packages of music and merch from the bands Bad Religion and Propagandhi, Descendents hoodies,and T-shirts, DVDs and other materials from a number of animal-rights organizations.

This caught my eye: Two things -- the Kickstarter funds are going to pay the artists and print the comics (which will then be published by an unnamed publisher), but Miner is donating his share to his animal-rescue work. And the comic has blurbs from a number of well-known creators, including Scott Snyder, Steve Niles and Jimmy Palmiotti.

Goal: $18,000.

Deadline: February 1.

The Less Than Historical Adventures of Li'l Lincoln, vol. 1

What's the big idea? A goofy comic about a ten-year-old Abraham Lincoln going on adventures with Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan and other anachronistic pals. This was published as three single-issue comics; the Kickstarter is to publish the trade.

Moving force: Benjamin Kreger, who has been drawing the comic since 2010.

Selling point: The idea has a lot of charm, and the art is super cute.

Premiums: For a buck, you get a thank you. For $5 you get a digital copy of issue #1 from the DriveThruComics store -- but if you buy it directly from the store, you can get it for 99 cents. The $15 premium is a mystery prize, which is great if you are the gambling type. A copy of the book is $25. For $35 Kreger throws in a sketchbook with work by series artist Paul Johnson, as well as Scott Shaw! And Fred Hembeck. At higher levels there is a lithograph, original art and the chance to be drawn into the comic.

This caught my eye: Kreger does an unusually thorough job of breaking down where the money will go, and in the "Risks and Challenges" section he links to a fascinating local-paper profile about his struggle with PTSD (he's an Iraq War vet) and how another creator, with challenges of his own, encouraged him to get into comics.

Goal: $6,732.

Deadline: February 13.

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